The Longest Mile - Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar
The rain pelts down, a waterfall washing away my confidence, as self-doubt rushes in. Can I really do this? I’m so cold.
I’m only at mile 12, not even halfway to 26.2. There’s so much farther to go.
Almost exactly five years later, it’s the toughest semester of my life and I’m all alone. He’s gone.
This seems too dramatic. Okay, my husband hasn’t left me for good—he’s visiting his elderly father, who is still recovering from the death of my mother-in-law, earlier in the year. Simon had to go and support his dad.
He’s left me before for weeks at a time to visit his family in India, but it’s different now. Before, I wasn’t in a new department with three new classes to prep. And I wasn’t taking grad school classes. These two new additions disintegrate my free time into dust, nonexistent except for mere particles, moments. There’s so much to do and not enough hours in the day. I spend almost all my time on schoolwork in my dual roles as professor and student. Since he’s self-employed, Simon’s schedule is far more flexible than mine. He cooks, cleans, and grocery shops. He balances the checkbook and takes out the trash and recycling. He lets bury myself in work and compliments my dedication. I help out when I can, washing dishes and feeding pets, but he is the machine that keeps this household running.
But he’s gone, and the bills keep piling up. I spread them out with all the checks, labels, and stamps on a Saturday when I already have a mountain of papers to grade plus my own assignments to complete. I tear open envelopes without the letter opener, the jagged edges a testament to my frustration. I take a break and eat a Lean Cuisine for lunch. How long can I last without new groceries? Sure, I could drive to the store, but it’s one more thing to do and I don’t have the time.
So. Much. Work. None of these tasks by themselves overwhelm me, but, together they become debilitating.
It’s day twelve of twenty-four as I cry into my Diet Coke.
This is my third marathon, the Monster Mash in Dover, Delaware, which starts at the race track. I earned my half marathon PR for shortest race time at this very site the previous year. But that course was only half as long, and it wasn’t raining.
When running, cold is okay. Rain is okay. The two together, however, not so much. I keep moving forward, trying not to slip on the wet asphalt, attempting to reach that elusive finish line. Why am I even doing this?
The rain has soaked through my socks, transforming my feet to blocks of ice. A seasoned runner, experience on my side, I’ve prepared for this. Following the Hal Higdon marathon training schedule religiously, I increased my distance week-by-week, enduring longer and more difficult runs, my muscles conditioned for pounding the pavement, mile after mile. Prior to this morning’s race, I armored my mind with positive thoughts to keep me going when I inevitably wanted to quit.
But this weather strips away my very desire to exist. I continue moving forward only because that means I can stop sooner.
I pass the sign for mile 15.
And then there are the pets. I’m now the sole caretaker of five animals: my two cats and a dog, plus my daughter’s two cats, who have been staying with us while she’s off having an adventure in another part of the country.
Cats are normally simple, even with multiple litter boxes to clean. But Serena’s female cat has bladder stones, so I’m medicating Daisy twice a day. This involves catching her, wrapping her in a towel, and administering both a pill and a liquid as she struggles to get away. I’ve medicated all my pets before, but I’ve always had help. Not now. Daisy is normally a lovely girl, but she transforms into one nasty little bitch when cornered. I have the scars to prove it.
Meanwhile, Gus, the dog, needs a long walk every day or he’ll go more bonkers than he already is. With time on my hands, a walk can be a pleasing experience. But when I’m scrambling for every spare minute, it’s one more arduous chore on an endless list. Far from a stroll, a walk with my dog is often more like a rope workout. Gus walks hard. Although only 60 or so pounds, he has the strength of a dog twice his size. He loves his walks and adores me, but a squirrel sauntering out of the bushes ignites his inner predator, causing him to yank and pull. I wear motorcycle gloves to combat the friction as I place both hands on the leash of his harness and lean my weight back, struggling to gain control. There’s so much power in that muscular torso as he nearly wrenches my left arm out of the socket, dragging us both closer to the tree where the squirrel who dared emerge has retreated. Yes, we’ve hired dog trainers; no, they didn’t really work.
A man yells at me, wanting to know what I’m doing by his yard. It’s so cold that I can’t open my little plastic bag. How is it not obvious what I’m doing? I’m standing there with a dog and a plastic bag. Does he think I’m casing the joint for my burglary scheme? It’s 7:00 a.m.
“I’m being a good neighbor and cleaning up after my dog,” I retort, trying to keep the haughty indignation out of my voice.
He screams, “Thank you!” but stays and watches me just the same as I finally get the damn bag open and take care of Gus’s business. As I walk away, angry, unbidden tears slide down my face.
We are sixteen days in.
My right arm goes numb. I literally cannot move it. A limp, dead fish at my side, it feels foreign, no longer a part of my body. I trudge forward as the hot tears trickle out of my eyes, their warmth my only relief. My muscles ache, and I’m so cold that my flesh feels corpselike. Mile 20. Just 6.2 miles to go, but the road ahead feels interminable.
It doesn’t become any easier, but my routine is set. There’s still a lot of crying, and not anywhere near enough sleep. I lie awake at night and think of everything I have to do the next day.
There are no Saturday mornings reading in bed with coffee. There’s no time for relaxing. I rise at 5:00 a.m., handle the pets, work on my work, make myself reasonably presentable so I don’t look like I’m hanging by a thread, go to work all day, come home, handle the pets, work on my work, etc. I try to fit in exercise and eat frozen food so I don’t have to cook. I must sustain myself, for there is no one else to take care of these animals or me. I find myself skipping showers.
I know I need rest, but I must get everything done. I won’t let my work as a professor or as a student suffer. So I suffer. I am that something that has to give. My mental health is the ball that starts to drop while everything else stays afloat.
Friends invite me to social outings. Mostly I say no. I attend a brunch but leave halfway through, unable to sit there and pretend to relax when I have so much work to do at home.
Day 20. Just a few more to go.
My iPod craps out, deadened from use or just waterlogged, and now there’s nothing to distract me from the miserable sounds of my ragged, asthmatic breathing and occasional sobbing mewls. I needed my Red Hot Chili Peppers music to carry me through, but even they have abandoned me.
But I see the 25-mile sign. It takes everything I have to keep running the remaining 1.2 miles, but I manage, my pace now a slow jog. As I cross the finish line, my legs almost give way; they are jelly, no bones or muscles left. I force a smile as the race coordinators snap my picture and hand me a medal with a grimacing Frankenstein monster. My face, I imagine, looks similar.
I am freezing, exhausted, and emotional, but I am DONE. I grab a metallic heat blanket and wrap it around myself. Simon, there to cheer me on as always, rushes to my side with an umbrella and dry sweatshirt.
My goal was to finish my race in four hours and thirty minutes. I finished in 4:04.
Day 24 of 24. Simon calls and lets me know his plane has landed in Philadelphia. I breathe a sigh of relief that he is safe and on his way home. He brings food and love. And starting tomorrow, he’ll help with walking the dog.
That whole semester was brutal, with the time on my own even more so. With the extra responsibilities and without my emotional support system, I crumbled. I survived that marathon stretch of work, just like I managed those 26.2 miles in the cold and rain five years before. I pushed through it all but with quite a bit of wear and tear on my body and mind.
From these experiences, I remind myself that there are times to slow down, breathe, and replenish rather than to keep going. The prize at the finish line isn’t always worth the high cost. Something, or someone, has to give.
Almost a year later, I’m better at saying no and recognizing when I’ve taken on too much. Now, if my plate is full, I won’t volunteer for that search committee or agree to be a peer reviewer for yet another journal, even though the promise of additional accomplishments on my CV beckons. I no longer stay up all night to finish grading my students’ essays; it’s okay if they wait another day or two for my feedback.
Now, I remember to choose myself.
Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is a writer and associate English professor in Pennsylvania. Her creative nonfiction, short stories, flash fiction, microfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in over twenty publications including Impost: A Journal of Creative and Critical Work, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Dillydoun Review, The Pine Cone Review, Little Old Lady Comedy, Quagmire Literary Magazine, The Centifictionist, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Petals Horror/Science Fiction Magazine. She holds a Doctorate of Education with a Literacy Specialization from the University of Delaware and is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. Additionally, she is the current fiction editor of River and South Review.