Dirty Little Secret

If you read my last post, you know that I came to my hometown in North Carolina for what was supposed to be a three-day weekend. During that weekend, my job went remote and all my other engagements in Boston were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To top things off, Boston (my second home) was a bit of a petri dish for a while. Six weeks later, therefore, I’m still in North Carolina.

I don’t have gym access and I’ve combined both sides of the “three large meals vs. six small snacks per day” debate by eating large quantities of food approximately six times a day. In order to fit into something other than pajama pants when this is all over, I’m trying to spend a good bit of time exercising outdoors.

I must admit, however, that walking the same route in my childhood neighborhood over and over is getting old. For starters, children who were in kindergarten when I was a senior in high school are out and about, and I don’t think they necessarily see me as a hip young adult (I’m pretty certain they can smell my fear and know exactly how unhip I really am). There’s also my “I haven’t left the house in weeks” aesthetic, which – combined with the fact that I no longer live here – likely has homeowners rushing to the telephone to call the police and report the vagrant stalking their streets.

Today I decided, therefore, to drive out to my middle school and exercise on its campus. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why would anyone ever voluntarily go back to middle school?” Trust me. I get it. I was as awkward as they come in middle school. When everyone is gone, however, the campus is quite pleasant. There’s a lot of open space and natural beauty (it’s literally surrounded on all sides by cow pastures).

Try taking your end of year tests with these guys staring at you through the window.

At first, I had a good time strolling down memory lane. I saw the gym where all the school dances were held (I was much too scared of making a fool of myself to actually attend the dances, but the idea is nice in hindsight). I passed the band room where I learned to persevere despite my very limited skill on the saxophone (it took some doing, but I came along in the end). I peered through the window of the cafetorium and looked upon the stage where I performed in three musicals (ask me sometime about the best performance of Oklahoma! there ever was).

And then I saw the track. Chills ran up my spine. My stomach twisted itself into knots and the sun seemed to dim slightly as one of the darkest memories of my life came flooding back to me.

It all started in the fall semester of seventh grade. This was the first year my classmates and I could play school sports. “But Sully,” you’re thinking, “you hate sports.” I know. But I couldn’t be the only one sitting on the sidelines. I’d also heard a lot about how colleges like extracurricular involvement and I was certain that they would know if I had decided not to go out for a sport when I was thirteen.

I decided I’d join the cross-country team. A lot of my friends were doing it and (most importantly) it was the only team you didn’t have to audition try out for. Once practices began, I realized it didn’t matter that any of my friends were on the team because you can’t hold a conversation while you’re gasping for oxygen. Besides, I never had anyone to talk to while I ran because I was always a good fifty yards behind even the slowest team members. Regular attendees of our meets quickly learned that when I came within sight of the finish line, they could go ahead and call the restaurant to get their name on the list.

Thank goodness these things weren’t involved. Why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to this is beyond me.

Unfortunately for me, my parents are big into integrity. It was always a rule in our house that once you started a commitment, you had to stick with it through the end of the season. That meant I had to get used to torturing myself between 3:00 and 5:00 every afternoon, sometimes with hundreds of people watching.

I slowly plowed my way through the season. I never did graduate from last place, but my times improved marginally from race to race. My family – ever the stalwart bunch – cheered loudly for me every time I crossed the finish line, rather than yelling, “Who’s kid is that? He added an extra ten minutes to this meet!” to the other parents.

As cheesy as it sounds, I felt a tiny spark of pride in myself because I was not giving up. Cross country was hard, but I kept showing up day after day. With each passing meet, the spark of pride turned into a small flame.

If I had been smart, I would have extinguished that flame without remorse.

The final week of the cross-country season, I was out of school for four days with a nasty stomach bug. I’ll spare you the gritty details, but I can assure you it was not pretty. Our cross-country conference meet, which included teams from every school in our county, took place on a Friday. I announced to my family on Thursday night that I would be going to school the next day and that I would be running in the race. After months of suffering, nothing – not even a stomach bug – could keep me from running in this meet.

The day of the conference race finally came. Girded with a courage I had never before experienced, I marched into the school, ready to tackle the day. I promptly vomited in the bathroom outside my first period class, but I convinced myself it was just my body ridding itself of negative energy before the big meet. Throughout the day, the contents of my belly danced an incessant conga. What I dismissed at the time as nerves was very clearly a stomach bug that had not yet stepped onto the stage for its eleven o’clock number.

I’m devastated to tell you that I soldiered on.

I must admit I had my doubts in the moments leading up to the race. But Harry Potter had his doubts before walking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort. George Washington had his doubts before he sailed across the Delaware into battle. Rosa Parks had her doubts before she defended her seat on the bus. They were heroes and, dang it, so was I.

That two-mile race may have been the most miserable half-hour of my life. With every step I took, I could feel the contents of my stomach fighting to escape. Sweat that had nothing to do with heat streamed down my face, and my skin was a shade of green never seen on any Crayola product. When I crossed the finish line, I knew I was in trouble. I had kept everything together through the entire race, but my emotional and physical resolve were weaker than ever.

Of course I was the last one to finish the race, so I could at least take comfort in the fact that I didn’t have to wait around. I could simply find my parents and leave without speaking to anyone.

Then the awards started.

A seventh grader without a lot of street cred, I couldn’t very well take the microphone from the presenter and say, “Everyone knows the scores. They tallied them up while they were waiting for me to finish this dumb race. What you are about to say is not news to us. Meanwhile, my body is a ticking time bomb and I need to get out of here before I humiliate myself, my family, and my team!” So I sat down with my classmates on the grass and tried to stay as still as possible.

My plan worked for a while, and my stomach even seemed to calm down slightly while they were reading the results of the race. Just as I breathed a sigh of relief because I might actually get through this without too much damage to my reputation, the commentator announced that my team had won the entire conference meet (no thanks to me). As my team cheered, our coach (a man who never really took “no” for an answer) leapt up and roared for us all to take one last victory lap around the track.

I have never wished for anything more than I wished to be struck by lightning at that moment.

Needless to say, no lightning came. With teams from seven other schools and hundreds of parents watching, my cross-country team began to run around the track. I did my best to keep up while every cell in my body revolted against me.

Three hundred meters to go.

Two hundred meters to go.

One hundred meters to go.

What happened next is all a blur. Time seemed to slow down, and I felt a sharp pain. Suddenly everything I had been fighting to keep inside all day escaped with a fury one could associate with a hurricane.  

I know what you’re thinking: “Sully, you threw up at the race. It’s no big deal and it’s certainly happened before.”

But the sad, sad truth is that I didn’t throw up at that cross country meet.

I stopped running. My eyes grew wide. My mouth fell open in horror. Every ounce of bravery I had collected throughout the day – throughout the entire season, really – left me as quickly as my school lunch of rectangular pizza.

In the eyes of middle schoolers, something as innocent as having acne is a punishable sin. This scenario, therefore, was worse than anything I could have conjured up in my darkest nightmares. In the time when I needed a toilet most, cruel fate stepped in and made sure the only thing going down the drain would be my dignity.

I had a pretty good middle school education. I learned a lot about math, science, English, history, and art. What I didn’t learn, however, was what to do when you’re surrounded by hundreds of people and the unthinkable happens. That was most certainly off the syllabus.

In a matter of seconds I found my parents in the stands. There is something to be said for parental intuition because I could tell from fifty yards away that they knew exactly what had happened. Even my brother, whose favorite hobbies at the time included making jabs at me, looked ready to set fire to the building as a distraction while I got away.

It was at that moment that I ran faster than I had the entire season. While my teammates plowed ahead toward the finish line with victorious tears of happiness in their eyes, I dashed out the side gate toward the parking lot, my eyes streaming with tears that had nothing to do with happiness. My family met me at the car, and as my mother spread an “in case of emergencies” (this definitely qualified) blanket across the back seat, I mentally composed the epitaph I wanted my dad to read at my funeral when I finally gave in and died of shame.

Fast-forward 12 years in which I grew and matured (sort of).

It was strange to revisit this memory – my dirty little secret – today. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve blessed with this story in over a decade. When I revisited my middle school’s track, however, I did so with a new perspective. How often do we look back on events that seemed earth-shattering when they happened only for them to pale in comparison to more recent scenarios? The boredom that drove me to my middle school today is the result of a quarantine imposed to fight a global pandemic. That’s truly earth-shattering. In this context, reliving my darkest day as a middle school runner didn’t seem quite so bad after all.

At least back then one could rely on stores to be well-stocked with toilet paper.

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