CROSS COUNTRY by Tom Toro
I LEARNED TO LOVE by watching Clara Dahl run. She first appeared to me in accidental glimpses, caught here or there around our suburban California neighborhood after school had ended and the bells quit ringing. I would be ambling toward home, somehow nervous about the empty, sun-drenched hours until supper, sitcoms, and easy math assignments, wondering if maybe this restless energy in my gangly limbs couldn’t be put to better use, when all at once Clara Dahl’s blond ponytail would go flopping past, its plastic bobbin looking back at me cockeyed. A dry cough, labored breathing, the rapid sashay of nylon shorts, and around the next bend she’d vanish. I had no idea that I loved her then. But something about her hunched shoulders and knock-kneed gait, how her elbows tossed up little droplets of sweat, made me anxious. Had I missed the starter’s pistol? For what event? Clara seemed to know with absolute conviction as she blew by me in a millisecond, and my heart would race until she passed from view.
She was forever in motion. My earliest memories play catch-up with each other to try and form a complete image of Clara Dahl. Then one day I caught her idling. It happened like this:
The Tuesday after freshman orientation I was taking a new route home through campus, cutting between the science portables and slinking across the baseball diamond, all to evade a gang of upperclassmen whose highest ambition was to chuck me into the dumpsters. As I skirted the batting cages and thrashed through a berm of ivy out to the street, I witnessed, like a scene from myth, the girls’ cross-country team stretching on the tennis courts. I say that because it did seem supernatural, or somehow occult, as if I’d stumbled upon a host of scantily clad naiads performing ritual ablutions. (In Honors English we’d just cracked open the Greeks.) But it also seemed mythic because of fate: this master plan that I suddenly felt excluded from. Kids were getting organized. Teams were forming. It was just two weeks into high school – when and how had this happened? I sank lower in the brush and marveled.
There were a dozen girls total. Each wore a brand new sports bra, regardless of utility. They stood in a sloppy circle chatting. I tried to eavesdrop but their discussion immediately ceased (I could tell because a few sets of braces stopped twinkling), and then the girls lifted their arms, interlaced their fingers, and in perfect unison bent over to touch their toes. Just as suddenly the squad shuffled off in what appeared to be more like a continual forward lean than anything resembling a jog, much less a training run. All except Clara Dahl. She filed last from the courts. Closing the gate behind her, she spotted me hiding in the hedgerow. Then for some reason I will never understand, she waved. I would’ve waved back – I desperately wanted to – but my hands were stuffed into my pockets. So instead I gave a crooked smile. Clara appeared happy with that. I watched as she spirited away and overtook the front of the pack, then effortlessly extended her lead.
I joined the boys’ cross-country team the following day.
For the better part of a semester I chased Clara Dahl. I hunted her, is perhaps the better word for it. With so many endorphins flooding my system I really couldn’t be held responsible for my thoughts. They got primal. My heart pumped gigantic volumes of blood, along with whatever haphazard hormones it carried, every drop inspired by Clara’s slumped shoulders and knock-knees, their pale hollows showing bluish veins.
She hailed from Scandinavia. I thought Norway, or possibly Denmark. When her father would meet her after practice I’d overhear snippets of their conversation before the Volkswagen van slammed shut. His accent sounded thick, familiar, very much like the one I’d grown up with at home. Apparently Finnish is a close relative of Hungarian, since neither derives from the romance languages – or so my dad informed me, rolling his Rs and W’ing his Vs, never asking why I’d asked. Finland, then. We were both first-generation, both only-children.
As late summer hurried into late autumn, I pursued Clara through the low, rolling hills around the San Francisco Bay. Fog beset us and eucalyptus trees dropped seedpods along our path. I enjoyed the cooler weather. I observed how it brought a ruddy hue to Clara’s skin. Did I know that I loved her then? I wanted Clara to be naked and very impressed with me, whatever that meant. But love?
A certain Wednesday we did Indian Sprints. Clara led the first lap and I brought up the rear. When our coach blew a whistle I broke out of line, launching into a mad dash, for some reason holding my breath until I’d passed the dozen or so kids separating me from my mate. I stole a rare glimpse of Clara’s profile (cherubic, slight pug nose) before slipping into place ahead of her. But I’d lifted the pace too much. My legs wobbled. I fought for oxygen, lungs on fire. Somewhere behind me a boy’s voice hissed, “Slow the fuck down!” and I agreed one hundred percent, although I could also sense Clara Dahl drafting, gaining, hot on my heels.
Hard days, then easy days. We did rapid intervals called suicides preceded by leisurely trail runs through the Berkeley moors. There is something deeply gratifying about jogging through your neighborhood with a full-blown erection tucked into the waistband of short shorts, and earning school credit for it. Clara always started near enough for me to smell her antiperspirant before she vanished over some distant knoll, sinking into obscurity, leaving behind the vague awareness that poison oak had brushed my ankles.
I wanted more. My dad agreed to buy the second-cheapest pair of sneakers from a mail-order catalogue, and I quickly wore down their rubber soles. My lungs expanded and so did the surrounding world. At dawn before class I’d venture out into the damp, lifting fog to scale previously unthinkable heights, attaining breathtaking, panoramic views of the awakening cities along the Pacific coast, running in place to keep my heart rate elevated.
Almost by accident I’d gotten faster than Clara – much faster. I found myself having to employ various stratagems in order to keep her positioned ahead of me, where her hunched figure could work its magic. One ploy was the classic side cramp. I’d gulp down irresponsible quantities of Gatorade right before practice (sometimes in plain view of the coaching staff), then launch into a furious gallop, racing ahead of everyone only to seize up after the first quarter mile, which gave Clara plenty of time to catch me, go in front, and stay there. For an entire week I feigned shin splints. Next it was an Achilles pull. It just felt wrong to surpass Clara Dahl; my desire to pursue her clashed with my desire to impress her. I’d enjoyed the chase. But what was I supposed to do now?
One afternoon, adjusting the Velcro strap on my unnecessary knee brace, I noticed something odd about Clara’s stretching. It was lackluster. Or not lackluster, exactly, but its luster had gravitated from her ankles, calves, thighs, up to her eyes. She’d entered a sort of lustrous daze. I was the only teammate who noticed her phenomenological change – probably because I would’ve noticed if the pulse in her neck fluctuated by a few beats per minute. So, summoning all my courage, I asked Clara Dahl what was up.
“Have you seen the new movie Romeo and Juliet?” she said.
No, I hadn’t.
My dad dropped me off at the half-price Sunday matinee, and I bought a single ticket.
Two things struck me immediately about the film. First, the uncanny resemblance Clara Dahl bore to the actress Claire Danes. Second, how little I resembled her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio. I confirmed this latter observation in the theater bathroom, superimposing my own limpid reflection in the mirror with the Technicolor still-frame in my mind, seeing how badly my ears mismatched, my nose protruded, how blemished my cheeks and forehead were in comparison to the leading man’s – and this chin! Whatever to do about this unheroic chin?
I gave the film a rave review during warm-ups the next day. Clara regarded me for a moment while stretching her groin in a butterfly, and as if registering my presence for the first time, her eyes – their faraway, self-contained expression – grew a little less distant. We trained side-by-side for the remainder of the season, which ended with mixed results at Regionals. Clara got fourth. She somehow always came in fourth. I twisted my ankle – really and truly – and had to sit it out. After Christmas break the gang of upperclassmen finally caught me and chucked me into a dumpster. But I didn’t mind. I brushed the garbage off my head and met Clara for frozen yogurt at the mall. On weekends we’d watch Romeo + Juliet until its theatrical run ended. I can remember the numbness of our first tongue kiss: how in the semi-darkness of the cinema Clara and I swapped fluids, stealing peeks at our favorite scenes while trying not to be noisy. Then we’d sneak back into the next screening and watch Romeo + Juliet uninterrupted, noshing popcorn.
Her likeness to Claire Danes deepened and I borrowed new mannerisms from Leo. I rummaged thrift stores for tropical shirts and practiced brooding on park benches. But most importantly, I tried to create a constant balcony between us. I’d linger behind Clara on the stairwell, or slouch nonchalantly into my adjacent desk chair, or re-tie my shoelaces too often during the walk to her house. When she perched on the futon watching TV, there I was on the throw rug at her feet. If Clara lay on her bed listening to CDs, I’d stretch myself out on the plush cream-colored carpet. Under the hypnotic spell of Radiohead guitar riffs and cinnamon incense, I’d reach up to pinch Clara’s wrist, she mine, and together we would respire meditatively, stilling our hearts to see whose could beat the slowest, counting each other’s pulses as the time between them lengthened. “Wherefore art thou?”
Neither of us read the play. The movie was the thing. We bought a bootleg DVD on Telegraph Avenue, and by our four month anniversary there were so many scratches that it was basically unwatchable. The ruined disc hung from her ceiling fan scattering rainbow halos.
Clara continued running by herself after cross-country season ended, while I took time off to heal my sprained ankle and somehow got corralled into writing for the school newspaper. She proofread my articles now and then. I admired her training log and vowed to start running again. The Dahl family usually traveled at summertime and this year they’d be backpacking through Argentina followed by a stay at a spa in Panama. Next thing I knew, luggage was covering Clara’s bed. Columns of folded clothes leaned precariously nearby. As we tried different combinations of how to get everything to fit, she sat down amid the suitcases, gave a sigh, and asked if I wouldn’t like a handjob now.
What was I supposed to say? Her parents were packing downstairs and so we moved into the bathroom and locked the door. I grew aware of an extraordinary amount of detail. Silvery light poured through her frosted glass window. The sill needed dusting, creating a suspicion of dust elsewhere. The floor mat was still damp from Clara’s post-workout rinse. Bright orange pill bottles lined her medicine cabinet, along with acne cream and various cosmetics. Clara sort of half-perched on the sink and pulled down my jeans.
No further coaxing was needed. We both looked at this naked appendage struggling so eagerly, almost gullibly, to span the gap between us. Clara spat on her palm. I braced gingerly against her shoulders and with a pathetic tremble filled up the little pouch of tissue that she’d prepared. She kissed my forehead. The periphery of things grew a bit less fuzzy; I watched Clara twist the tissue closed like a candy wrapper and then plunk it into the toilet, upon which she sat, peed, and flushed. After washing our hands with soap we returned to packing.
Postcards began arriving from Argentina, postcards crammed with grandiose stamps and untranslated descriptions of tourist sites. Only a few lines of Clara’s squiggly handwriting were woven among the nonsense, offering tantalizing preludes to stories that stopped abruptly, lost themselves in a forest of exclamation points, promising more later. I wrote back copious letters, agonizing for days over what to say until I realized that I had nowhere to mail them. Clara’s family must have forged ahead to the next ciudad. By July her postcards had thinned, ending precipitously with the month. To pass the time I gave running another shot but grew discouraged with how slow I’d gotten, quitting midway up Moeser Lane one afternoon and skulking home, faint, disgusted at myself, chucking the worn sneakers into my closet and slamming the door.
When sophomore year began I somehow felt no surprise at learning that Clara Dahl had been home for three weeks already. Her nose was studded. Her ankle tattooed. Instead of running cross-country she joined the girls’ varsity soccer team and immediately became their star goalie. I attended night games. Beneath stadium lights webbed in fog, huddled back by the announcer’s booth, my chin tucked into layered polar fleeces but trembling against the chill autumn wind, a plate of congealed nachos on my lap, I watched the team’s pre-game drills, their last-minute stretches, watched Clara Dahl tug at the goal net just to release some tension and then spit on the palms of her outsize gloves. She paced the penalty box like a lioness and shouted constantly at her defenders, the orders rendered mute by cheering parents. Nothing got past Clara Dahl. She blocked every shot with flare, splaying all-out, plucking the ball from thin air and then flopping somehow gracefully into big puddles of mud, which by the end of the match had clotted her loose blond hair.
TOM TORO is a cartoonist for The New Yorker and a writer of fiction, children’s picture books and screenplays. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife, kid and cat.