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Friendship

“I wish to become really, REALLY good at one thing by the time I’m an adult,” 14 year-old Janice said to herself, blowing out her 14th birthday candle. She was nearsighted and had developed a hundred-yard stare at a young age. Blobs of fuzzy shapes would help to sort thoughts of why her sister, Denise, was gifted at just about everything while she, the older sister, had been left in the shadow of her limelight. 

“What did you wish for?” 7 year-old Denise asked.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Janice replied.

“Do you want to run?” Denise asked again. 

Janice rolled her eyes. I hate running… I hate running with a PASSION, Janice thought. From that day forward, she’d made a secret promise that her birthday wish wouldn’t include running. 

Over the years, the two sisters had grown distant. Denise would pass tests without studying and would also graduate, effortlessly, without ever using the word procrastination in a sentence. Denise had excelled at spelling B’s, had always finished first in cross country exhibitions, been made president of the Key Club and was voted as most likely to become Madame President of the United States of Elsewhere. Janice, on the other hand, had developed an interest in weather systems and had been made chairwoman of the “Facts Machine,” an alternative club that took pride in fact-checking the misinformation of weather patterns (an endeavor that confused her parents). It would be the one interest she could fall back on throughout her years; but even so, she would feel an emptiness no fact could check.

Denise was an avid runner. She would run 3 miles before school and by the time she’d reached college, she and her boyfriend would run half-marathons every other week. At every one of Denise’s functions, mom and dad would be there, cheering Denise on at the finish line. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Janice. It was no wonder Janice had hated running so much. 

While mom and dad would be ever-present at any one of Denise’s functions, they believed Janice had her own support group. They believed she fit the older sibling role so well that they never felt the need to show up at any of one Janice’s events. “She’s so self-sufficient,” her mother would say. Understandably, Janice had tried many pursuits to get her parents’ attention. Aside from her secret love for weather patterns, she’d tried horseback riding, painting, writing, she’d even tried contemporary dancing. But none of that mattered. She would switch pursuits frequently to fill the hole. 

Anytime there was a major event in Janice’s life, Janice would look to see where her parents were but they were nowhere to be found. For her first contemporary solo performance, Janice had asked her parents if they’d attend. To which, her father responded, “We won’t be able to make it, but I’m sure you’ll do great, honey.” Janice often wondered What would happen if I left? Would they care? What if I got married? Would they be happy for me? Would they show up to my wedding? Of course they would, Janice would think. She would shake herself from these toxic thoughts, for she knew her parents loved her; and although it wasn’t her sister’s fault, Denise had always been the favorite. 

As the years passed into adulthood, Janice had become sickened by her own promise, she had not become exceptionally good at anything. Slowly, the idea of running crept into her mind. At age 31, Janice did the one thing she promised she wouldn’t do; she decided to take up running.

At first, it began with a few laps around the building each morning. Janice was an adult now. She was chief meteorologist for KMCO and had her own place in the foggy city. The city’s geography fit perfectly as a runner’s gym and the broadcasting station was only a few miles away making the commute a pleasure to run. The hilly streets strengthened her legs, the flats gave her stamina, and the breeze from the bay opened her lungs. Janice ran Lombard Street 19 times up and 18 times down, a few times per week. On her runs, she’d notice people watching her, sometimes pointing and sometimes whispering saying “Hey, I think that’s KMCO’s chief meteorologist Janice Howard.” She’d secretly smile on the inside, feeling somewhat accomplished in some distant part of her life. Aside from the low-level fame, she was feeling good about running, surprisingly, as good as anyone could feel when doing something once previously hated. Every second week she’d run almost double than the week before, but she wasn’t fast by any means. 

On one of her morning runs, Janice had noticed a flyer for the SF Marathon and she suddenly felt an idea spark; the kind of idea that hugs you and squeezes the air from your lungs. A healthy dose of oxytocin rushed into her brain. Janice had been running for about 6 months now, her body had adapted quite well to the running. If Denise would be running the marathon, mom and dad would be there. And it would be the first time she’d see mom and dad on the sidelines. The thought played on her conscience. 

Back in the valley, Denise still lived with her parents. She had been training, rigorously, on a fixed schedule; all within her limits but dangerously close to her threshold. She’d aggravated an old injury in her left knee and had been trying to run through the pain as she’d learned to do in the past. But her body wasn’t responding to the same techniques she’d used in previous years. Despite her reluctance, her father extended words of encouragement with praises of her accomplishments and how she’d never given up and had always persevered. “You’ve never let anybody pass you. Just ice it off and you’ll be good to go. You got this.” Her father believed in her, but his faith in her ability seemed to eclipse the glaze in her eyes. Just as her body wasn’t responding to the same techniques in years prior, encouragement from her father only made her pain worse. She knew it was 90% mental and hoped she would last at least until she crossed the finish line, her parents had hoped, too; then she could rest as long as she wanted and she could keep her reputation as a top performer. Denise would resort to this mindset, it seemed to have gotten her through her most painful experiences in the past. 

A month later, the marathon came. Janice had signed in, filled out the papers, grabbed her bib number and headed for the starting point. She took a deep breath. It felt like she was opening a new chapter in her life but her nerves weren’t letting her off so easy. 

“Hey, it’s KMCO’s chief meteorologist Janice Howard!” A woman nearby said. She took her daughter’s hand and pulled her toward Janice. The daughter’s father trailed, scouring his fanny pack for a pen and paper.

“Hi,” Janice said, half-smiling. 

“My daughter watches you every morning, and then she watches you again on the repeat.” 

“Oh? That’s great.” Janice had been inattentive, distracted by the spotting of Denise and her parents. 

“Can she get your autograph?” The mother asked.

“What? No,” Janice said, blinking, looking out into the crowd. “Not now.” 

“Oh…” The mother deflated.

“Hey, just give the kid an autograph, will ya?” The father said in a rather short tone. 

“Can’t you see I’m stretching?” Janice shot back but she quickly felt remorse.

The family walked away, defeated. The dad flipped her off.

“Sorry, maybe later!” Janice said, in attempts to salvage the daughter’s broken heart. 

Under a tree, Denise was wearing a chartreuse jersey tank, neon pink shorts, and some pretty sweet kicks. She shuddered each time she stretched her left leg. Mom was dressed up like she was one of the runners. She held fuel gels and a flag that said: Denise is my hero! Dad was wearing the cap that Denise had given him after her last Bay To Breakers run. He had on Adida windbreakers, the black ones with the stripes down the sides and when the wind kicked up, the fabric fell slack over his stubby legs. A loose white undershirt with pit stains draped over his squared off torso like a wet shirt. Mom and dad huddled around Denise just as all the other folks who huddled together in support of each other’s aspirations to complete their first—and for some, their only—marathon. 

How badly Janice wanted to cross the finish line. Half of it was wanting to see the look on her family’s faces, the other half was a genuine desire to see if she was any kind of match for her sister. If she beat her, she imagined she could ride the waves of “Aha! I finally win!” and revel in the celebratory praises of her own ego. Janice cowered at such childish thoughts while she did her stretches; a little limb here, a little limb there. 

“Runners, are you READY?!” Cheers and woots and clapping herded the runners into a colorful mass. “Take your marks!”

Runners took their marks.

Janice fixed her gaze upon the horizon with her trademarked hundred-yard stare. Just before the man in the sun hat fired the starter pistol into the sky, Denise’s voice shook Janice out of her gaze. 

“Janice? What are you doing here?” 

“What’s it look like, I’m gonna run.” 

“I didn’t know you ran.” 

“Ya’ll never asked.” 

The man in the sun hat fired once into the air and the runners propelled their graceful bodies into a collective motion. 

Mom and dad shouted, “Go Denise!” Janice wondered if they’d ever mention her. “And Janice!” Finally, Janice thought.

“Oh, that’s Janice, honey!” 

“I didn’t know she ran.” 

“Me neither.” 

Janice smiled on the inside, and shriveled up; her ego ashamed of her smile, ashamed that her parents’ attention could mean so much to her. And Janice. It was clearly the story of her life. That’s all I ever am… an afterthought, thought Janice. And Janice. She brushed her feelings aside. Now’s not the time. This isn’t about that. Janice tried hard to focus on one thing: to be really, really good at one thing. She focused on her breathing, the rhythmic trance reminded her of the first time she jumped-rope. The sound the imaginary ropes made when slapping the ground was like a metronome that steadied her pace. 

By mile 5, Janice maintained a decent cadence. The once bobbing wave of runners’ heads spread into bobbing clumps like buoys separated by tides. Janice could see Denise’s head, fuzzy in her vision, but she could still see her which was all that mattered. She checked her vitals: pulse strong and at a steady heart-rate. She could afford to pick up the pace for a mile, maybe every other. Aside from Denise now leading the pack, she felt good. Denise had kicked it up a notch. When she entered her zone, it was as if nothing could stand in her way. Her body was swift, fleeting in graceful form, limbs swinging like perfectly timed pendulums. She’d dominated Fort Point and approached the uphill switchbacks to the Golden Gate Bridge. 

By mile 16, Janice had fallen back. The mass trailed further in front of her with only a few stragglers behind. She could no longer see the bobbing bodies in detail, what was left of them had turned into blobs and most of them had already made their way around bends and out of sight. 

By mile 21, Janice hadn’t stopped running. In fact, she couldn’t stop, not with Denise in the lead. Out of all the reasons she hated running, the one she hated most was that she had to pee. It was an unusually new activity—as if her body were a biological machine, exhausting its byproduct without any regard for decency. But she’d found that upon letting go, it would simply just happen, like a lackadaisical horse. It was better to let the idea of embarrassment go than to let it fester in her mind. Meanwhile, Denise was still in the lead, a tour de force.  

By mile 24, Janice had passed quite a few herds but she knew she was nowhere near the ranks of Denise. Janice had now considered her loss. She imagined Denise at the finish line, showered by praises of yet another unanimous victory, mom and dad handing her flowers and driving off into the sunset without looking back. Even though many would consider Janice’s efforts brave and courageous, it wouldn’t mean a thing if Denise reached the finish line before her. 

By mile 25, Janice was close to the finish line. She’d passed the piers by the bay on her right and people from their homes on the tiny hills sang songs of victory. She could feel the energy from the crowd about a mile off. Among the cheers and screams were two familiar voices that beckoned… All Janice could make out were a few fuzzy shapes. They were beckoning for something and another fuzzy shape oncoming their position. Something about a medic or something about knees, or was it—

“Denise!” Her mom cried.

Mom and dad were poking their attention at someone around the corner of the pier building. There was only one person they’d react like that for… Denise. Denise slapped her parents’ hands away and shoved them back. 

“Denise!” Her mother said, taken aback.

“Denise, we’re only trying to help—” said her dad.

“I don’t NEED your HELP!” Denise had fallen. Her leg was on fire. The twinge in her left knee had finally taken its toll. The pain throbbed, like dull blades under her kneecaps, like shrapnel between bones. If it wasn’t superficially visible, the expression on her face made it clear. A mixture of tears and snot streamed down her face. She held her left leg out, kneeling on her good knee and pounding her fist into the wall of the pier building.

Janice had approached. She’d caught wind of Denise’s whimpers and couldn’t speak. Janice’s eyes stretched for the finish line like arms reaching for a trophy, she was so close. She couldn’t help but to stare at the cheering crowd a mile away, sweet victory, but there was Denise. Denise had finally broken down after all of these years—it was bittersweet for Janice. Janice rested her hands on her hips and shifted her head back and forth; between the finish line and Denise. 

“Don’t touch me!” Denise cried.

Janice had leveled out. She stood behind the medic. “Hey, guys, give her a minute, alright?” Everyone backed away. Mom and dad held each other in tears, expecting Janice to clean up the mess once again. 

Janice took a breath and sat with her back against the pier wall, sweat beads glistening in the sun, her skin a rich, golden brown. It was only a few seconds until everyone realized that Janice and Denise needed space together. They backed off further around the building and out of sight. Janice stared at the finish line and chuckled. 

“Remember that time you were really into that doll house you got for Christmas? I mean like really, REALLY into it. Like you had all the dolls dressed up in those ugly outfits you cut out of paper... and you made all their accessories and you furnished the house with expired candy you got from the cupboard… you were OBSESSED with it…” 

Denise stopped whimpering to suck the snot back into her nose. 

Janice continued. “But it made you control everyone and everything in your real life. And it kind of turned you into a bitch.” Snot and tears burst from Denise’s mouth after giving a chortle. Janice smiled along with. “We had to throw that thing out. You wouldn’t come out of your room—” 

“For like two months straight,” Denise interjected as she sat up, easing her shoulders and letting out a long sigh. 

“It was… a terrible time. For you... For us it was a relief,” Janice stated with a cackle. “But then mom and dad bought us that membership at Rockin’ Jump, you know that indoor trampoline madhouse… I thought it was silly, we both did. But we ended up having a blast... Remember that? We didn’t care what anyone else thought or said. No one told us how we should do it, there were no rules… there was no competition… no pressure… It was the only time we could feel like we could be ourselves and lose control… Remember how fun that was?”

Denise looked off into the sun. One last tear, a joyful one, streamed down the side of her cheek. “Fuck ‘em,” Denise said, smiling vulnerably. 

Janice looked at her sister. “Yeah… Fuck ‘em,” Janice answered back, mirroring her sister’s courage. 

“How bout we make this fun?” Janice asked, hoping her sister would come around. She lifted herself from the ground and held out her hand. 

Denise looked around with swollen eyes. The onlookers had staved off. “I’m sorry, Janice,” Denise said, clumsily hoisting herself up and squeezing Janice in a vice-gripped hug.

“I guess… maybe this is my thing,” Janice said under her breath.

“What thing?” Denise asked as she let go.

“My birthday wish.”

“What?”

“Nevermind...” 

Denise threw her arm around Janice for support as they walked. 

“Looks like you scared everyone off. I should bring you around more often,” Janice said.

“You think Rockin’ Jump is still open?”

“Yeah, but you gotta be this tall to enter.”

“I’m gonna grow, you watch.”

“The only thing you’ll grow is a pegleg for that pirate walk you got goin’ on.”

“Shut up.”

So maybe Janice didn’t get what she always wanted, but one thing was for sure: Janice was really, really good at being an older sister. They hobbled off into the sunset toward the finish line; just two broken souls with an unpredictable forecast.

February 01, 2021 16:34

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2 comments

Keira Tay
14:44 Feb 08, 2021

love this!

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Zach Young
00:50 Feb 09, 2021

Hey thanks Keira!

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