Miranda awoke to an empty house—blankets flat beside her, air cold and breathless. Downstairs, the sheets Lucas had used were piled neatly on the couch, a note at their center: Next time, come to the city! She found another from Jeffrey on the counter; he did not sign it Love, or x. He didn’t even write his name. Miranda held the notes while she waited for the water to boil and the foggy insulation of her hangover to recede. Last night had been bad, the emptiness told her, measures worse than she had thought.
A half hour later Miranda was out the door in her running shoes. The decision had been made—she had made it but didn’t experience it that way, as a decision—not to go to work today. Out the driveway, past the second car which she drove only to the grocery store and the train station, past the gas station that sold thirty racks and lighter fluid, past the restaurant with the enormous roast beef sandwiches and year-round Christmas decorations, past the barbershop she’d never seen open. Nothing was different except the fact that a few miles away, the late train had left without her.
Had Jeffrey kissed her goodbye before absconding with her best friend, the only friend that had come to visit since they moved out of the city? It was one of their rules, to kiss goodbye and goodnight, even when they didn’t want to. It was a good rule; his lips and the smell of his face always made her feel better. If he had kissed her, woken her up to say goodbye, it would have been so easy to tell him—I’m sorry, I think I’ll call out today, we’ll talk tonight—but he didn’t give her the chance.
Unlike fights with boyfriends, which used to incapacitate her until they were resolved, she was able to put fights with her husband if not out of mind then at least in the back of it. Marriage, which at only three years in was thankfully not up for debate, dulled the sharpest threat. Worst-case scenario wasn’t that they’d break up; it was that he’d disappoint her in the exact same way, at intervals, forever.
A run then, to sweat out her lingering hangover and recall her autonomy. A solitary body in motion, moving through space but sealed off from the world.
Not going in today, she texted Jeffrey from the trailhead, while she waited for the GPS on her watch to connect. Going for my long run. It was important he knew that last part. If she could run ten miles today, how bad could she have been last night? As soon as she sent the message she was desperate for him to call, for their fight to be over. But when the little response bubble didn’t appear right away, she stuffed the phone into her armband and strapped it away from view.
Miranda set out down the grassy path, checking her pace against her habit of starting slow. She had never been down this path before, but she’d read about its planned restoration in the local paper. Since moving here, she ran only the three-mile loop around town, over and over. Today, she’d had enough of that. She longed to run along the Hudson River but instead would have to settle for the shovel-dug canal, which, if it hadn’t closed over a century ago, could have carried her by boat from the exact place she stood to the city she used to call home.
It had taken months to get Lucas up for a visit, and when he arrived he acted like he’d never seen a suburb in his life. Everything was either “cute” or “huge.” The town was cute, the train station was cute, their car was huge, their house was huger. Miranda could tell his resentment wasn’t because they had more; they didn’t really. Their life was pared down now, their expenses practically cut in half. No, Lucas was resentful because she had wanted, and worse—chosen—something other than what he wanted and chose.
The night was chilly but Miranda insisted they sit outside. She lit a fire in the brand new steel pit and brought out extra sweaters and throw blankets for their laps and shoulders. Miranda had, subtlety she hoped, guided Lucas toward coming up on an evening when his girlfriend wouldn’t be available, but now that it was just the three of them she wished she hadn’t. Hosting Lucas as a couple was uncomfortable. The way they kept offering him things, more water, another beer, another layer, it was like he was either their adult child or some itinerant they’d taken in for a meal.
They started, as usual, by talking about college and the people they had known there. Who had gotten sober, who cheated on their partner, who already had three babies, who had sold their start-up to Google for 4.5 million. Miranda knew these conversations excluded Jeffrey, but he was a good sport. He’d never met any of these people; still, some of the gossip was objectively interesting. And Jeffrey genuinely liked Lucas, or at least he seemed to. They were more similar than Miranda had initially assumed. Her awareness of what they had in common—a certain tendency toward cheesy punch lines and neoliberal political opinions—grew every year.
“So things are going well with Amy?” Miranda asked, thinking of the night, before Jeffrey but not Amy, when things had almost crossed the line between her and Lucas. She’d stopped it, content enough to know they were attracted to each other, to puncture the plausible deniability that must be scrupulously maintained in all hetero male-female friendships.
Lucas’s cheeks were pink from the fire, making him look younger than he was. He and Amy had been together almost six years and he knew what the question behind the question was. “We’ll probably get married if we decide to have kids,” he said. “Then we’ll move out here. We can be neighbors.”
“We loved our real estate agent,” Jeffrey said. “I’ll get you his contact info.”
“He’s joking,” Miranda said. “Lucas would never move to the country.” She loaded the back half of the sentence with the contempt she imagined Lucas felt for her, for her new life.
“Probably not,” Lucas said. “But I love having a place to visit.”
It was the kind of comment that sounded like a goodbye.
Miranda stood up and announced she’d be right back. She rushed inside, but not fast enough to miss the worry on Lucas’s face about being left alone with Jeffrey. Still, she didn’t hesitate. They were adult men who could find something else in common to discuss, though she knew instinctively that it wouldn’t be her.
Miranda took her time in the kitchen and returned a full twenty minutes later, she knew because she checked the clock, with a loaded tray in one hand and a pitcher in the other. Outside, Jeffrey had the steaks going and Lucas was standing next to him, beer in hand, laughing at something Jeffrey had said.
“Margaritas and maduros!” she announced. Lucas looked confused.
It was something they had done in college, these alliteration parties. Only then it was Tecate and tortilla chips, whiskey and Wing Dings. “The great Genesee and jellybean fight of 2004? Ring any bells? There is no such thing as ‘sonic alliteration’.”
He got it now, and grinned. “I stand by my position.”
“I’m with Lucas,” Jeffrey said, reaching for a maduro. “Sonic alliteration should be permitted.”
The margaritas did the trick. By the second round no one could shut up. They were talking over one another, Jeffrey too, about bands they had seen and the television they used to love. At the bottom of the pitcher, Lucas accepted their couch.
Miranda felt the night open up, as it always does when no one has to leave, when everyone is already home. Jeffrey went inside and returned with the bottle of tequila. There was still light in the sky but the woods that circled their property were dense with blackness, the ravaged dinner table at the center evidence all the good cheer and friendship that existed in her life.
She turned to Lucas. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she said. “For years actually. Do you remember that thing that happened… that night after winter break?” Through the projection of the firelight, she caught a tightening in Jeffrey’s jaw, a snap in Lucas’s expression. Their faces being called to attention, one after the other, as soon as they realized which night she meant.
There had been a party in her suite. She made herself say it. “Rape and rum punch?” She laughed. She was the only one.
And then she was crying, but she got the questions out anyway. Jeffrey knew the story, too, though he could barely stand to hear it. What Miranda wanted to know was the parts of it she couldn’t see—the dark circle where her vision stopped. How many other people knew what had happened; did they gossip behind her back; what did Lucas remember and how often did he think about it?
Lucas said he’d never heard anyone talk about it. He didn’t know anything she didn’t know.
In fact, he knew far less. He didn’t know how her roommate’s brother had said “I dare you” when he’d wanted her to stay with him on the couch. He didn’t know how she’d left her bedroom door open just a sliver, in case she changed her mind, and how if she hadn’t done that, he might not have known which of the three bedroom doors was hers. He didn’t know the mundane details which there was no reason even to remember, like which sheets she had on her bed and which underwear she was wearing and that aerial image of herself in her bright orange bathrobe, inching down the dorm’s hallway to Lucas’s room. When she woke him and told him what happened, he didn’t know the look on his own face.
Miranda wiped her cheeks and thanked Lucas for answering her questions. It had been a long time coming, she said. Though already she wasn’t sure what his answers had been, exactly. By then it was after midnight; the night was over. She made up the couch and hugged Lucas goodnight, gave him instructions for the morning and thanked him for coming, but when she closed the door to their bedroom she was not satisfied.
“That was intense,” she said into Jeffrey’s shoulder, when they were alone.
His body was stiff. “I can’t believe you blindsided him like that,” he said.
She pulled away but he didn’t leave it. That word—blindsided. What did he know about what it was to be blindsided. She’d come out of nowhere, he said. She’d ruined a perfectly nice evening.
At two and a half miles Miranda hit a road crossing and there were no more signs marking the path. The route was out and back, she reminded herself, all she had to do was go straight. But there wasn’t a straight-ahead option, exactly. There was only a dirt road that doglegged to the left and another that went the right. She chose the left-hand route, the one that was more likely to follow the canal, and pressed on across the intersection.
The road she had chosen turned from dirt to grass as it proceeded past a house with three pick up trucks in varying stages of degradation in the front yard. Two dogs strained against their ropes, guarding the disabled fleet and barking murderously. Miranda ran past them, staring straight ahead. Beyond the house, the canal widened and her path was no longer raised. Miranda could hear the dogs behind her. Their barks reached the back of her neck and it occurred to her with a shudder that she had not seen a single person since leaving the car.
The water, churning and muddy, was level with the path and then it was over it. Miranda paused her watch a second time and stopped to evaluate the crossing. All she had to do was run straight ahead for another two miles and then turn around. If she went back now she’d be stuck running circles around the town or else bracing her body on the shoulders of winding, country roads as passing trucks imperiled her life.
No. She would cross these flooded banks and then who knew what was on the other side. That was the point of doing this new route, of running in the first place. The point was to go further than she had gone before.
Miranda took a step into the swollen water, placing her foot on what looked like a bit of high ground that sunk into the mud as soon as she put her weight on it. “Fuck it,” she said aloud. One foot was already wet; there was no use taking dainty steps to preserve socks that could be washed or running shoes that could be stuffed with newspaper. She stepped forward and right away the water was into her sneakers. “Fuck,” she said again, but laughed. The water was so cold it was funny, and next she knew she was puddle-stomping, full speed ahead.
Around the bend she could see that it went on like this, totally flooded, and in fact her being on a trail was a matter of perspective. Looked at another way, she was not on a jogging path at all; she was standing in a river up to her shins.
Miranda turned to her right and bailed out into the woods, without a plan except to be on higher, drier ground. A thorn hooked her shirt and when she twisted away from it another caught her forearm. Droplets of blood appeared in a line, as if sown there by needle and thread. Three more paces through thorn bushes and in exchange for a little more blood she was standing on a gravel road, which had been running parallel to the flooded canal all along.
“Okay, then,” Miranda said. She was just full on talking to herself now. “You fucking idiot.” The fucks were encouraging.
Though it was late April in the middle of a long, protracted spring, the season had not yet reached the trees. Away from the young grass that lined the canal, it might as well have been winter: grey, dead, and brown.
Seven miles to go and still Miranda had not seen another human, though there was evidence of them. On her left was a marsh filled with stink cabbage and to her right was a hill littered with beer cans and ripped-open bags of trash. A New York State Forrest medallion nailed to a tree was tarnished and bent.
This was not like the state forests Miranda had been in, the ones closest to the city, highly trafficked and well-maintained. This was more like a patch of woods behind a strip mall, long since colonized and abandoned by teenagers with nowhere better to go.
Ahead the road made a sharp right and Miranda reassured herself: it wasn’t possible to get lost. She made the turn and the road climbed a hill to some kind of quarry, an open area of gravel piles and braided dirt roads, the places where the rocks had been dug out, exposed like wounds. All around there were small metal cylinders, which Miranda assumed were rifle casings. She’d never seen a rifle casing before but felt she knew one when she saw it the same way she felt that if she had to, she could use a gun.
In the woods: more trash. This time a smashed TV, the old kind set in a fake wood box, and a baby-blue toilet. At the sight of the TV, shot through with bullets, the fear that had been quarantined in the recesses of her mind was acknowledged and released.
It was, of course, the fear of men. Fear of the man that owned the dogs, the men that had shot the guns, the men that had drank the beer and smashed the TV. Men that were not themselves physically present but who at any moment could be, who had left evidence at every mile to mark and guard their territory.
Miranda was still running, faster now. She told herself that if she could just make it to the turn-around point where the dirt road met the paved one, she would be safe. Fear of men, whether here or back in the city, running around the park at night, was good for speed. Not long before they moved, there had been an early morning attack of a jogger in Prospect Park, another who went missing in Queens. Women runners were envoys into neighborhoods’ unknowns, bait sent to draw out whatever waited in the darkness.
In the distance, she heard a motor—the sound of an ATV. Now, she was afraid of the man astride that vehicle. Four miles from her car, in the middle of the woods, on a different route than the one she had planned. Who knew she was here? Had she told Jeffrey where she planned to run, or just that she was going? Had he even seen her text?
The ATV was now in sight, and the man driving it looked young from what she could see through the open visor of his helmet. Miranda ran on the edge of the road and waved as he passed. Another young guy on a second ATV followed close behind. Miranda waved to him too. Neither waved back. Even in exercise clothes, sweaty, and without makeup, she knew she stood out as being “from the city.” It went beyond her clothes and her hair, beyond the car she drove or the way she spoke, to something foundational. A dispensation that couldn’t be disguised or revoked.
If they looped back around and came after her she would run into the woods, she decided, where they wouldn’t get far through the rocks and trees. Miranda was fit. She was halfway into a ten-mile run and her legs were just getting started. If they wanted to attack her they’d have to ditch their motors and pursue her on foot.
Miranda’s watch beeped five miles just as she saw where the dirt road dead-ended at a local highway. She went around the front of the road barrier to read the sign. Maybe it would give some information about where the hell she was.
“No motorized vehicles beyond this point,” it said, with a picture of an ATV, a motorcycle, and a car, each crossed out by a red line. Miranda was relieved. If the men seemed suspicious it was only because they didn’t want to be caught.
Miranda turned around to head back to town, back the way she came, toward whatever danger that route contained: rapists with guns on ATVs, murderous dogs, and flooded banks.
She reached the quarry littered with bullet casings and heard the ATVs approaching a second time. She waved at them again, first one and then the other, this time with the knowledge that their behavior was prohibited. The knowledge gave her confidence—she had the power to tell on them, to get them in trouble—and this time they waved back.
At the sight of the road—walking distance from her home—Miranda felt relieved and ridiculous. The end of a long run was always a triumph muted by exhaustion. She was soaking wet, she was paranoid, and she stunk. Actually, it felt great. The thought of a Gatorade and an ice cream came into her head and everything else went out. This beautiful blankness, that was why she ran so far in the first place.
A man held the door for her at Stewart’s, the entry bell jingling as he pulled it open. She could tell by his boots and camo shirt that he was local. In Pennsylvania, where she grew up, they had a name for it—Pennsyltucky—but New York had no equivalent. People from the east coast who acted like hicks, that was what it meant; people in blue and purple states who hunted, who called themselves libertarians and voted republican. But this man was handsome, at least six foot with a square jaw and close-cropped hair. Miranda smiled and held his eyes as she said thank you.
He approached her at the ice cream counter where she stood studying the flavors.
“How far d’you run?” he asked.
Miranda liked this question; she knew her answer would impress him. “Ten miles,” she said.
He gave her the reaction she wanted: a slow shake of the head, exaggerated astonishment. “All on the canal path?” And when Miranda looked confused, he added, “You saw my buddy and me, on the ATVs.”
“Oh!” Miranda exclaimed, like they were old friends. “I didn’t recognize you without the helmet. Is that path weird, or is it just me? You were the only people I saw.” Miranda observed her own body language encouraging him, almost despite herself, the way her hip cocked, the way her chest oriented in his direction.
The man nodded. “There’s an old lead mine out there, right around where we saw you. It’s filled in now. The road goes right through it. People use it for target practice, mostly. The whole area is contaminated.” He looked down at her ankles, which were splattered with mud. “In fact, you should probably throw away those shoes.”
Sitting on the deck, swatting flies with one hand and Googling with the other, Miranda pulled up the EPA report from 2014. The mine had closed over a hundred years ago but nothing had been done to remediate it. The lead levels were still off the charts. Apparently she could wash her sneakers with a special solution available at Walmart, but there was no way she was going there.
She sent Jeffrey the link—I ran through a lead mine!—to let him know she was back, and safe, but not completely. It was possible she’d really fucked up, confronting Lucas like she had. But if she’d ruined a nice evening, if she really had made such a fool of herself, then there was no use pretending otherwise.
Miranda’s wine glass was empty; she’d left the bottle inside on purpose. She texted Lucas on her way to the kitchen. I’m sorry if that was a lot last night, she wrote. In response, her phone rang, like she knew it would. Lucas was always calling in response to text messages. The habit anchored him in the time when they’d met, before either of them had smartphones.
“I know, I know. You’re still at work,” he said when she answered.
“Actually, I’m not.” Lucas didn’t ask but she told him anyway. “Jeffrey and I had a fight. He thought I’d blindsided you.”
She refilled her glass and tucked the bottle under her arm.
“Oh, you’re fine,” Lucas said. “I was a bit surprised but—”
“No…” he said, but his voice did not convey a strong distinction between the two.
Except for a lone bobwhite, calling its own name, the woods were quiet. The trees and the sky collapsed and grew more uniform in color as the sun sank, like a veil had descended between her and the world.
“Are you still there?” Lucas asked.
“I’m here,” she said, feeling elsewhere. “Why didn’t you ever ask me how I was doing, back then? You never asked me once.” It was the question she should have asked last night.
There was a pause, but no sound from his end of the phone. She remembered how she used to be able to hear him through her old landline, smoking out the window of his dorm room just down the hall, that pucker, crackle, and puff. “I don’t know. I was mostly impressed by how well you handled it. You seemed so tough.”
“Right,” she said. “I guess.” There was no use in trying to explain how it had really been. How it still was. An early mosquito landed on her calf, and she slapped it, smearing her palm with her neighbors’ blood. “Anyway, I was just calling to make sure you got in okay. I felt bad about not waking up to say goodbye.”
“I called you, technically,” Lucas said. “But no worries. I wouldn’t have woken up either.” The tone of their conversation had changed and she had changed it on purpose; from here on it would be only pleasantries.
“Give my love to Amy,” Miranda said. “Tell her to come next time.”
“You’re coming here next time, remember?”
When they hung up, Miranda couldn’t help but feel she’d wasted an indulgence by texting him; like flirting with the hot ATV guy who only wanted to tell her that her feet were poisoned, or the freezer-burned ice cream she ordered right after that hadn’t been worth the calories. Lucas had made his first and final visit, she knew, and next time they made plans in the city, he would reschedule or she would, and before long they’d both decide, without discussion, to let the whole thing go.
As evening chill set in, Miranda resolved to stay outside until her second glass was finished, wondering whether or not she’d polish off the bottle. Jeffrey wasn’t here to see her do it; he should have been home by now but hadn’t even checked in, which at this point was actually alarming. It was possible her marriage, like her feet, was also poisoned.
She drank a third glass, shivering, and then carried the bottle inside. There wasn’t much left; she might as well empty it. Its remaining contents filled her glass nearly to the rim. Oh well, she shrugged, like she’d had nothing to do with it.
Miranda moved through the house, smiling to herself despite her sour mood, feeling that this was another kind of freedom—indulging a vice in private. Her defenses were disabled enough for her to admit what the call with Lucas had made obvious: he had been blindsided.
She had been too hard on Jeffrey, then. Or maybe she had been too easy on both of them, on everyone except herself.
The bottle was done and she allowed herself to drift off on the couch, a book she had barely tried to read resting as an alibi on her stomach. Her body exhausted, her mind erased—sleep, or something like it, came quickly. Sometime after she’d fallen into that liminal space beneath waking, where the minutes slipped into one another, Miranda heard footsteps in the driveway.
Not asleep, not awake—it was her favorite state to be in. Even better than in the morning hours when she snoozed, each of those eight minutes was like a hit of a drug, the only time besides running when she felt truly content in her body, her limbs heavy yet floating, immune to gravity. If Jeffrey wasn’t around and she had nowhere to be she could prolong this state indefinitely, hitting snooze over and over again. But at night she might glimpse it for only a moment, when her thoughts went haywire she retained the consciousness necessary to recognize that they had betrayed her: my thoughts are breaking all the rules; I must be asleep.
Miranda was in that state when she heard the footsteps—outside her wine-stained mind, outside the darkened living room, outside her still house, outside her cocoon of sleep, which she had been so naïve to enter, and in the real, waking world where bad things happened.
She sat up halfway, propped on her elbow, heart racing and chest sweating cold. To get up, to leave the couch and confront the noise, would only make it real.
The man from Stewart’s, she thought. He had followed her somehow, waiting just past the yard until the neighbors had gone to bed. Could Lucas have felt guilty about their phone call and come here to comfort her? No, Lucas was miles away. None of it was possible. She willed herself up and inched forward until the front door was in sight. She saw a shadow on the other side, backlit by a bright moon, a murky silhouette. Miranda reached out for something that might be a weapon, but there was nothing. A blanket, a pillow, a tissue box. Everything around her was soft and useless.
Then a key in the lock—Jeffrey. Miranda laughed once. Of course it was him. But she wasn’t amused. She was embattled.
“Jesus, you scared me,” Jeffrey said when he saw her standing there in the dark.
“I’ve been trying to reach you,” Miranda said, though she’d only sent two bullshit text messages.
“I went for drinks after work.” He’d taken off his tie; his collar was undone and his face looked years older than it had by the firelight. “I only had a couple beers,” he said, “but took a cab from the station anyway.”
I’m sorry, she thought to say, but didn’t, as he came across to kiss her.
Miranda kissed him back, whatever that meant. Her lips moved in the appropriate way of kissing and made a small sound at the end. The kissing sound didn’t always happen naturally, she thought, often it was a sound she actually had to make, or else the kiss would be silent and wouldn’t feel like a kiss at all.
“I’m so sorry about last night,” he said, still holding on to her. “I was an idiot. I just got so uncomfortable. I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know why I get that way…”
Miranda let him talk, but she wasn’t listening. She still had gooseflesh on the back of her neck from his profile in the doorway, that split second when he could have been an attacker, an intruder in the night, a specter from her past, anyone at all.
Halimah Marcus’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, One Story, BOMB, and The Southampton Review. She is the executive director of Electric Literature, an innovative digital publisher based in Brooklyn, and the editor of its weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading. She is also the editor of Horse Girls, an anthology that reclaims and recasts the horse girl stereotype, forthcoming in 2021. Halimah lives in New York.