Emperors of Self Control

On the starting line I have an excellent view of Sean McNulty’s armpit — sandy tufts of hair wedged between upper arm and torso. The top of an intensely freckled shoulder.  Around us, runners pat each other on the back and exchange jokes. The sun over my hometown of West Windsor, New Jersey is dry and white, the sky cloudless. McNulty clears his throat and the casual banter stops. On the starting line is the future, the present and the past of Mercer County cross country. Absurdly lanky boys in high school racing uniforms face the start with the reckless grace of young bullfighters alone in the stadium, each with one hand poised on a hip. Next to them collegiate runners, like myself, yawn luxuriantly and shake out manes of hair grown long over the summer.  The college graduates come at the last minute, straight from work. A man with thinning hair, wearing a shirt with CVS emblazoned above the breast pocket, jogs towards us. He points to his dress shoes, smiles apologetically, and asks if anyone will lend him a pair of sneakers.

McNulty, the founder of the Third Annual Mercer County Alumni 5k Race, walks up and down the line, inspecting us.  We are crouched into a variety of racing poses; our bodies lean forward slightly — weight perched on the balls of our feet, arms cocked in anticipation.  Still facing us, he takes three steps back.  “All right gentlemen. I want a good, clean race…. no watches, rings, or funny things.” He forms a mock gun with his hand, points his index finger to the sky… bang.

McNulty is tall and muscular and when racing, his face glows with a cruel, reptilian intelligence. I’d like to say that he and I are contemporaries — we are the same age and competed for rival high schools. A rare athletic hybrid, McNulty excelled at baseball, basketball and football but fell in love with long distance running. Filled with mischievous bravado, he recounted “raising hell” at late night drinking parties then rousing himself at 7:00 A.M. the next morning to win road races. He even managed to win my mother’s heart and become one of her minor obsessions.  Scouring the local newspaper, she highlighted his name in race results and saved articles about him.

Oftentimes my parents, both raised in Taiwan, are fascinated with people or events that contradict their belief system. During their elementary school education, teachers beat their students’ hands with a ruler — once for every point missed on a test.  “Of course the instructor didn’t hit the students who got 75% because they had no hope,” my mother explained, “ but if you got 95% they would hit you to help you improve.” My mother grew up raising pigs in the countryside — when I was five she regaled me with stories of slaughter in her family’s backyard. My father studied mathematics at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. “ Your father is a city man,” my mother would say. “ He likes to buy expensive and yells when I get the things on sale. But why shouldn’t we save money?” When they were in their early twenties, my mother and father met through a village matchmaker and were married within a year.

My father left Taiwan first to study at NC State before sending for my mother.  Somehow I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada.  When I was young, my father would drink a few beers after dinner and tell stories about watching Michael Jordan play college basketball.

“What did he look like?” I asked, eager for descriptions and exciting stories.

“Like this,” my father replied and stuck out his tongue.

By the time I entered third grade, my parents had still not adjusted fully to America. They had no concept of birthday parties, April Fool’s day or frozen desserts. I remember my mother stacking pints of sherbet in the refrigerator and sipping the dessert as a soup. She, in particular, struggled with English and had once waited outside a “coed” bathroom for someone to give her the password to enter the “coded” room. Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in Chinese and I adopted it as the language of my primal desire. In high school Spanish classes, I inadvertently replaced the Spanish phrases for “I want” or “I am hungry” with their Chinese counterparts.  Now, after years of speaking English, I forget I even know Chinese until I hear someone speak it.  The first crooked syllable tumbles toward me and through some uncontrollable process I relearn the language as I hear it. Every time I experience the Chinese sound for “grape” I remember tottering in the cool shadows of a small kitchen, hands full of fruit, and the first selfish wonderment of sharp teeth cutting through translucent flesh and not finding a seed inside. Whenever I hear the word for “bird” I remember the Taiwanese house of my aunt– the worn sewing mannequins softened by the morning light, red fabric draped across a table. A small green and yellow parrot, released from its cage, hops quickly across the floor like a stone across water.

My parents endured the shame of being strangers living in a new country. Of learning a new set of words so that when they said “grape” there was no residue of the grapes from their childhood but just the bowl of fruit in front of them. They learned to speak this precise English during the day. Then at night they lay in bed and conversed softly in their native language, which was more a set of emotions and memories connected to sound, until the stillness of the house overpowered them.

Another type of shame is forgetting the language of your parents’ home. When I was eight, my parents and I returned to Taiwan. In a marble tiled living room lined with paintings of flowers and carp, I recited from memory a small Chinese folk tale. Looking up, I saw my aunts and uncles collapsed on the sofa, laughing at my garbled American accent. My cousins, peeking in from the kitchen, gleefully performed imitations of my speech throughout the day.  Each time I returned to my father’s hometown I spoke less and less until I could not speak but only listen. My limited Chinese gives me painful glimpses of a world that nurtured me, which I abandoned and can never return to. Whenever I listen to someone speak Chinese, it is from the safe distance of a disinterested observer and not someone capable of answering back.

In middle school, I stopped speaking Chinese and began running. I created a tenacious identity–a boy who won races and then walked through muddy cornfields and darkening skies to reach his house. During spring track, I competed in two events–first the one-mile then, thirty minutes later, the half-mile. In 8th grade I won all but three of these races; at times my name was broadcast on the school’s morning announcements.  I had contempt for runners whose parents watched them run and drove them home afterwards. These people lived a life of ease: homes that were filled with the smell of baked goods and multiple TVs. I ran with a righteous hauteur. The inability to race and tolerate pain became a sign of moral deficiency in the people around me.

During high school and college, I met people who ran twice a day, trained through cold rain, dark nights and an impressive array of other inhospitable conditions.  A teammate of mine ran twenty miles with mononucleosis and strep throat so severe that he had trouble swallowing water. I thought that I would understand these people, their suffering and motivation, but they were incomprehensible. They all knew the words to the same pop songs, which they’d sing, without any predictable inspiration, during long runs. “W-why do you build me up,” the lead runner would burst out spontaneously while guiding us up a hill.

“Build me up,” the rest of the pack echoed in unison.

“Butter cup, baby,” the first runner continued. “Just to let me down and mess me around—”

Once, on a rare day off, my teammates marched over to the woods behind a senior care facility and spent six hours digging a giant hole in the ground. On nights before a big race, they dyed their hair red and attempted meditation, visualization, hypnosis, casual voodoo and other questionable psychological methods to make themselves run faster.  When I examined my teammates I marveled at their frivolity. According to my code, they lacked the moral seriousness and maturity to be successful. Yet, when racing, their bodies sharpened to an intense focus. Foaming at the mouth, pushing people who cut them off, running the first mile of a three-mile race faster than they had ever run a mile before, they competed with a reckless daring I could not match.

After middle school, I never won a race again. In college, I was one of the slower members of the team. Even though we ran on the same cross country courses, my teammates finished minutes before me and had begun talking comfortably by the time I crossed the line. They had become emperors in an obscure world in which I was struggling to remain.

When you become a competitive runner, your life is sliced into four quarters by the seasons. Summer is a constant struggle to wake up earlier than the heat of the day. The training runs are long but slow, designed to progressively increase endurance. You lope through neighborhoods, a seemingly endless fractal of pastel colored houses, and dirt trails winding through forests. Returning home, you take brief, cold showers to wash the sweat and salt off your body; the scale in the bathroom reveals that you have lost five pounds, mostly water. At peak training you run sixty to seventy miles a week. These summer miles are called your “base” because the stamina you’ve built up is the foundation for the rest of the year. These miles are your most treasured possession; they are a lightness you carry within.

The fall, filled with bare, scraggly trees, is when you feel alive again. The baking heat and endless miles of summer are a dull dream and you awaken to a world of crisp air and swirling color. The starter fires his gun and its smoke writhes free into golden sunlight and deep green shadows. Your teammates keep track of which teams race well and which race poorly. The high schools in your district race each other once a week, usually on Thursdays. On Wednesday afternoon, your coach stands at the chalkboard explaining various scenarios. “Justin,” he says pointing at you, “in order to win, we need you to finish before Trenton’s third-fastest runner.” All your teammates have assignments–boys they need to outrun in order to guarantee victory. You all recognize your opponents, despising them desperately as you race and commiserating with them afterwards. “Tough race,” you say, jogging past. “Tough race,” they agree.

Winter is the most beautiful and ugly time of your life. Sometimes the land is perfect — calm and white except for your team running in a line, each stepping in the footsteps left by the person in front. You are all black dots moving across an enormously bleak canvas of white snow and gray sky, like ants crawling across the wing of an airplane. Other times, the roads are covered in slush and dirty snow. The wind howls so that you can’t hear the person beside you and the liquid from your nose congeals into a crusty mask. The land becomes treacherous — a teammate running through waist-deep snow bangs his knee on a hidden fence post and is out for two weeks. You compete at a nearby private school; the indoor track is dry and claustrophobic. At the end of races, your teammates suffer from nosebleeds and hack up mouthfuls of mucous. A stray shot put sails over a barrier and hits a boy in the stomach. He collapses momentarily and keeps running.

When spring begins, you run to the sound of birds, trickling water and baseball games. The first weeks are spent hastily building up your base once again. Without snow, the world is lighter and more flexible — all the trails through the woods are open once again. You glide along farms on the edge of town where high-pressure sprinkler systems launch jets of water twenty feet into the air. Meets take place on 400-meter tracks that circumscribe meticulously groomed football fields. The competitions begin in the afternoon, when the metal bleachers are hot to the touch and too bright to look at, and conclude in the evening when moths and mosquitoes are illuminated in a swirling vortex by stadium lights. Runners cross the finish line and struggle to stand up straight, gasping with their whole bodies like fish out of water. When the track season ends, you are exhausted and sleep until your whole body aches. You have three weeks of rest before it is summer again.

The Mercer County Alumni Race is like no other competition in high school or college.  Half contest and half reunion, it takes place in early August when runners are still accumulating their summer miles. No one is prepared to race and, because of this, I harbor a tiny delusion of winning while also holding the rationale for my inevitable loss. My last cross country season had been a long series of minor failures. I had wondered several times what life without running would be like before quickly dismissing the idea. The Alumni race was the beginning of a new campaign, the first opportunity to show that I was more than a marginally above-average runner.

Sean McNulty leads the race through the beginning stages of the course. Veteran’s Park is moderately large and has all the ornaments that any respectable park contains–green baseball fields, blue tennis courts, paved trails with mile markers and wooden exercise stations. We run past high schoolers playing volleyball in the sand– shirtless boys in sunglasses, girls in bright bikini tops. Middle-aged Latino men with round bellies, smooth and dark enough to be cast from bronze, tend to their barbecues. In the distance, the legs of a small boy retrieving a soccer ball stick out horizontally from a drainage pipe. Because the Alumni race is not a real race, a tacit decorum dictates that no one run seriously to take the lead and risk seeming overzealous. Instead of increasing the pace, runners begin to banter and launch into incredible narratives.

“Hey, I thought there would be girls in this race,” one calls out.

“I’ve been thinking,” his neighbor responds, “that Scarlet Johansson and I are perfect for each other. She has red hair and I have red hair. She likes cheese and I like cheese. She prefers older men and so do I.”

Tiny Tim, a runner with medium length curly hair so fine that it seems like a baby’s and zero muscle mass on his upper body, suggests a game of fart tennis. “I look you in the eye and fart, that’s a serve,” Tim explains, “and then you reciprocate the action and respond volley and so on. Whoever stops first loses.” For the first mile of the Alumni race, it’s not about how fast you run but how easy you make it look.

I believe that part of the reason I became a runner was that I found something soothing and liberating in the repetitive motions of my youth.  In elementary school, my father taught me Chinese by writing lists of characters along the edge of ten-by-ten grid paper. On the weekend I spent hours copying these sentence fragments, one character in each grid box.  The methodical repetition made me lose focus about the meaning of the words and I concentrated instead on the physical sensation of writing–the movement of my hands, the luxurious feel of sharp lead on thick paper. I liked the way the edge of my right hand rubbed across the page and became coated in graphite — a thin metallic layer that brought to mind the lustrous bodies of fish. At the beginning of every week, my father recorded himself reading each new Chinese lesson. Every night, before bed, I played the cassette tape, waiting for the allotted silence after every sentence or two when I was supposed to repeat what was just read to me. I lost the meaning of the words in the sound of his voice. It was deep, deeper than I could imagine my voice getting. My father read with perfect control of inflection and without any emotion. Some days, the taped lessons were the only words he spoke to me. Drifting off to sleep I could hear him downstairs in his office, the rumble of his filing cabinet sliding open and then shut.

As I grew older, the Chinese lessons were replaced by unsolicited math assignments during the summer. My father taught me fractions, algebra and geometry.    His problems were bizarre creations with answers like 1.34592048 or the compound fraction 4 and 31/47. He had a great familiarity with numbers and could no longer distinguish between whole numbers and long trains of decimals. Once on vacation, we drove up to a McDonald’s drive through. He squinted at the bright sign covered in hamburgers and french fries.

“ Hello, hello sir, ” he called to the operator at the drive-through window, “ how much does order 3.89 cost?” I cringed in the back seat of the car while the man explained to my father that he wanted order number two which costs three dollars and eighty-nine cents.

“Yes, order 3.89, that is the one I want,” my father responded nodding his head.

The man has a mysterious, systematic routine that resists simple explanation. It is not unlike the life cycle of the cicada, which spends 17 years underground before surfacing to mate, or the arctic tern, which migrates 24,000 miles each year. My sister and I speculate that his mood fluctuates with the Earth’s magnetic fields or the dampness of the soil.

I find the intricate strands of logic that suture my father’s days together in unexpected places. One day, in high school, Megan Kao waves at me in the hallway.

“Hey, I saw your dad last night.” Megan’s father and my father both attended graduate school together. “He took a shower and left.” I picture my father biking home from work wearing a suit and a small backpack. The afternoon traffic rushes by. Lost in swirling exhaust and the glint of sun off windshields is the triumphant moment when my father realizes that he can take showers in other people’s homes.

Having left the first mile marker far behind, the contest portion of the Alumni Race is just beginning and I am barely keeping pace with the lead pack of runners. My breathing has become ragged and my singlet feels oddly tight. “You’re doing great,” I tell myself pulling up beside Sean. “You can do it. Just make it to the next tree.” We are running along the embankment of a large lake on an asphalt path lined with small, leafless trees. At the bottom of each gray trunk is a weathered bronze plaque in dedication to a soldier. “To the next one,” I reiterate, sealing myself off from the remainder of the race. My only focus is a fifty-foot segment of pavement and the fine hairs coating the top of Sean’s shoulders. In this way I progress from tree to tree, the race broken down into independent five-second universes of compressed agony oblivious to past and future pain. I think that I’m doing okay when a pack of eight runners, including Sean, take off effortlessly, shifting into another movement I cannot hope to copy.

At every point in a serious race, a sense of dread overcomes me. This dread is not a fear of failure but a fear of what success will cost me. There is a delay between the thought of move my leg and the physical movement of the limb. The world becomes very hazy and confused. I am aware that spectators and portions of the girls’ cross country team are screaming at me to run faster but later I will barely remember any of this. There are very few times in your life when people scream in your face from three feet away and ten minutes later you will not remember what they said to you. In every serious race there are moments when I am not sure if my mind or body is in control. My rational mind admires the birds on the lake and wants to slow down, wants to become the lightness of ducks gliding leisurely over water. Meanwhile, an internal instinct pushes me forward. I have no control over my body; it is a surreal experience to approach a large hill and, instead of slowing down, start sprinting towards it.

This type of dread is a fear of being something small in front of something very big. During my childhood, my father had a short temper and punished me for my petulance. “Just see what happens when we get home,” he snarled in Chinese at the car dealership when, at five years old, I had sat on the floor and refused to get up. As he drove out of the parking lot and onto the highway I hoped that we would get lost indefinitely. “You kids are spoiled rotten,” my father yelled. For some reason it was always “you kids.”  He even seemed to say this before my sister was born. Where did my father learn this phrase? He didn’t read enough American stories or watch enough television to pick up the expression “spoiled rotten.” I imagine him on a cramped city bus reciting lessons from an English vocabulary and grammar book. “This kid is spoiled rotten, these kids are spoiled rotten, you kids are spoiled rotten….”

When we arrived home, my father would order me to wait in the living room on a plush, dark green recliner. The house would be silent and the shadow of the ceiling fan stretched across the ceiling and down the walls. I’d squirm uncomfortably, hearing him in the kitchen pulling drawers off their metal tracking rails. For some reason, I imagined our neighbors sitting down to dinner in the house across from us. Satisfied, my father walked back into the living room and crouched over me. “Straighten your legs,” he commanded, using a rice scooper to lash my feet. The white plastic was flat and roughly the size and shape of a small, handheld mirror. I cried uncontrollably in a quasi-hyperventilating fashion and once urinated in fear. My father would scream obscenities at me and yet ten minutes later I would have no recollection of his words.

The next morning, my feet were sore and I had trouble walking downstairs. The sun shone through the windows causing the kitchen to look especially splendid. At my age, the white tiles of the floor seemed similar to expensive jewelry I had seen women wearing. I enjoyed how the kitchen table lit up in the sunlight, the way the fine hairs of a forearm turn from blond to gold. When my father placed a bowl of oatmeal before me, I peered through the steam into his eyes and he looked the same way he looked every morning. As I grew older, I learned to tolerate his sporadic bursts of anger in clenched silence before outgrowing them altogether.

When many people contemplate running they think about pain and boredom. “Why do you do it?” they ask. I pause, finding it difficult to explain the feeling of intoxication that arises from a geographical sensitivity. One day, after arguing with my parents, I ran for twenty minutes, the next day thirty minutes, a month later I run for an hour straight. I noticed that the earth is never completely flat. I am always running on a slight uphill or downhill, or perhaps the road’s shoulder subtly tilts toward the grass so that one of my legs dips lower than the other. The first step indoors after a run is disorienting, the perfect evenness of the kitchen floor is at once exotic and sterile.

Run long enough and I begin to feel lighter, the air becomes more viscous and easier to breathe. Some mornings I roll out of bed and run ten miles without thought. Tug on knots and the friction between unraveling laces causes silt from the trails to rise like a genie into the air. The morning is a strange time. The grass glistens with dew and everything on the ground is vibrant and intensely focused but the fog hasn’t lifted yet and the sky, not yet sharpened by the sun’s light, is still the soft pastel of worn out clothing. The result is a schism of my reality, like a mixing of water and oil.

In the distance cows are asleep in their pastures, small ripples on an otherwise smooth horizon. I have ran on this road almost my whole life — in the summer when the pavement sizzled and shimmered, in the winter along dirty white trenches carved by snowplows. To be a runner is to have an intimacy with the terrain. A road becomes less a means of getting somewhere and more a faithful observer of my repetitive motions, my desires and secret hopes for victory. There is something about growing up, falling in and out of love, learning some things, forgetting others and, after all that, coming back to the same curve in the earth.

Rest until night and run again. The moon is so bright that I can see my shadow and the horizon is aglow with the strange necromantic exhalation of lights from distant cities. The rustle of cornstalks and the croaking of frogs resonate across lawns like soft thunder through the sky. As I run by, the noises of crickets stop so that I become a small bubble of silence drifting through waves of metallic buzzing. In the distance, a car speeds down a road perpendicular to the one I am on. Headlights, a slender cone of yellow, illuminate a quarter mile stretch of the horizon– a seam of light under a heavy door.

I am surprised to see people at one o’clock in the morning. I am suspicious of them before realizing that they must feel the same way about me. There are caravans of people walking their dogs. At the head is a lumbering mastiff whose thick lips drip prodigious amounts of saliva. Hunting beagles walk with their moist snouts dipped low to the ground and tails raised high into the air. Their melancholy ears sweep the sidewalk clear of silt and leaves. As I run the dogs increase in sophistication. Greyhounds with slender heads and narrow torsos flaunt their regal proportions loved by the Egyptians and carved into their burial chambers. Elegant poodles have long pious faces like the women who sit solemnly in the first church pews. The bells on their collars give a dolorous ring that increases my pace. Soon the procession is far behind and all I hear are the scuffs of shoes and the last sighs of bells that are so quiet they might be imagined.

Continue past a small store, clumps of people stand in the parking lot drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. On the right is a large tenement complex. I imagine a hundred fluttering hearts packaged neatly into the apartments, the heat of people in bed, the feeling of someone breathing next to you. In a flash I don’t care about anyone or where I am going. All I want is to keep traveling forward. The endless rotation of shoes on pavement keeps me human, the friction of seconds sliding past each other keeps me warm.

When I was in 8th grade, my father followed the pharmaceutical company he worked for north to Rochester, New York. His occupational exile would last two years before he found a new job close to home. I would no longer hear the creaking of the garage door lurching open in the evening– a noise that sent anxiety scurrying through my chest. I was happy when he left. I thought I could do anything I wanted but instead I discovered how close we were. Like the Chinese lessons imprinted within my being despite my best attempts to neglect them, my life continued to be ruled by his wishes. His directions became another primal force to be obeyed like hunger or drowsiness.

For one month in the summer, I visited his small apartment in Rochester. The living room was empty except for a pair of twenty-pound dumbbells on the floor.  There was the desolate atmosphere of a train station late at night. My father, still in his work clothes, prepared spaghetti on a small stove in the kitchen. While eating, we sat cross-legged on the living room floor so that our knees would fit beneath a plastic Fischer Price table recycled from my childhood. A weak light bulb cast a shallow ring of light on us but most of the room remained in shadow. Outside, the sun was setting and the crepuscular world came to life; the land lost its color and became a uniform dark brown against the fading pearl blue sky. Street lamps flickered on and the glow of lightning bugs shimmered in the grass.

My father’s apartment was a desert of furniture. During the day, when he went to work, I sat on the floor of the apartment reading books and completing SAT practice tests. I had minor hallucinations of furniture, imagined where a table or bookshelf had once stood, the crude weight left by men reclining in couches while watching football, the drowsy motions of a woman opening her bureau on a snowy morning. I stumbled into a mirage of drawers with secret compartments for jewelry, porcelain bathtubs with lion’s feet, a house full of thrones and curtained palanquins. At night my father returned and we slept on thin bamboo mats on the floor. The number of the radio clock glowed beside my head. I listened to the silence that lay between us. It consisted of water trickling through pipes and the creaking footsteps of the man upstairs. The lights throughout the apartment complex switched off as the small self-contained worlds in each room extinguished themselves. Cars drove through puddles on the highway. Amid gentle rain that sounded like wind blowing through leaves was a fragile snore and the ache of an empty room.

There is something about running that makes me feel invincible and extremely delicate at the same time. At the end of races, throngs of people line the course, standing on their toes to cheer racers struggling to conjure forward motion. In those corridors of noise, runners lose control of their bodies–their heads lean backwards or droop over their shoulder, their arms and legs furl into twisted shapes. Collarbones strain against skin, streaks of salt and saliva smear in rough patches over cheeks. I don’t feel anything the last one hundred meters except for a symphony of adrenaline and the air tearing in and out of my chest. Only after I cross the finish line does the pain catch up to me. Then a clean tranquility, perhaps the emptiness a bee feels after it has left its barbed sting behind.

When I trot across the finish line of the Third Annual Mercer County Alumni 5k race, I feel a familiar disappointment. The time is slow, even for the summer, and my place is vaguely average once again. Sean, clapping for the finishers, slaps my back while I take my hands off my knees, waiting for my breath to normalize.

While we lope back towards the starting line to where Sean’s father is grilling hamburgers, the lead pack reminisces over the ending of the race.

“We must have run the last mile in around five minutes,” Sean announces in mock indignation.

“Well big guy, right after we’d all agreed to take it easy you took off,” Tim reminds him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sean jokes, “I was jogging it in.”

I stand and watch them from a distance. In the setting sun, the shadows of the trees and people lengthen, smoke from dying barbecues floats languidly into the sky. The air is infused with a small chill and while the sky is still bright, the land seems a little dimmer. It is the last moments of a summer afternoon’s dream where darkness seems to take forever to come but always catches me by surprise.

When I stopped running competitively in the last year of college I felt older, the world narrows. There was no grand dilemma as I had initially feared because a case of mononucleosis had made the decision for me. And yet, I tried to keep my illness a secret, and told anyone who was curious that I didn’t have the heart for running anymore. There was a shame in quitting which made me dissociate from all my teammates and friends. Walking back from the biology laboratory to my house, I saw them running towards me. In the late evening gloom they appeared exotic and foreign, flashing into existence under lamp light before turning back into shadows and footsteps. I stepped off the sidewalk, making myself invisible, and when they passed, a small part of me turned to dust.

My mother calls me at college and asks how the running is going.

“ Fine,” I lie.

“Your father is so funny,” she says, “he has a whole list of graduate schools for you to apply to.” She talks about the future, “ We’re thinking of selling the house,” she says, “and moving back to Taiwan.”

“Where will Yvette live?” I ask. Where will you live you wonder.

“Yvette will be in college,” my mother answers, “maybe you two can share an apartment. You will have to look after her.”

After my mother hangs up, I think about the time I drove home from the Third Annual Mercer County Alumni 5k Race. Leaving the parking lot I made a wrong turn and driven into Trenton. The houses there are squeezed side by side so that I could run from roof to roof. Each building has a narrow stoop leading to a flimsy screen door, trash is piled up in the dark cramped spaces between houses where smells collect and congeal.  Driving slowly, I watch small children run in and out of the streets unblinded by the sun’s glare off the white sidewalk.

A half hour later I am still bewildered. A baseball stadium passes by. Skeletal arrays of lights crown the lip of the highest bleachers. I twist my head, glimpsing infield dirt and the off-white specter of second base. Leaving the city, I drive past carefully maintained estates, the grass looks thick and lush, under the long shadows of trees it is blue-green. The road becomes spindly and full of gentle, soporific turns. Everything is perfectly quiet and still; I am the only driver in a dormant landscape. A large stone sign on my right with flowers growing from its base reads:

“New Jersey School for the Deaf”

The cell phone rings. “Justin, this is your dad. Is the race over yet?”

“Yes, but I got lost in Trenton and I’m not sure where I am. I just passed a baseball stadium. Can you help?”

A rough exhalation. “What? Do you expect people to drop everything and run to find a map and tell you exactly where you are?”

“I was just wondering.”

“No. I don’t know, okay? Nobody knows where you are.” There is a long pause. “Trenton is too far south. Just drive away from the sun and try to head northeast.”

I race the setting sun, already even with the horizon. As the sky darkens, rocks and puddles acquire a rosy burnish from the last rays of light. For fifty minutes all I hear is the mumble of tires speeding over pavement. There is the sense of a mute world collapsing in on itself. I think of myself alone in this car traveling forever–a grain of pollen sailing under the silent tremor of clouds at night. Neighborhoods glitter savagely as you search for the temporary space where family can be summoned from an abandoned language and a history of repetitive motions.  In the dark, I finally find the exit to Princeton Junction and pass Carnegie Center where my father works as a statistician.  On the edge of familiarity, I’m able to sense when I have gone too far in one direction and steer the car in a narrowing path home.


Justin Chen is a recent graduate of Oberlin college where he studied biology and creative writing. He is currently a first year graduate student in the biology department at MIT. In the future, he would like to become a science writer.


Justin Chen
Justin Chen is a recent graduate of Oberlin College where he studied creative writing and biology. He is currently a first year graduate student in the Department of Biology at MIT. He hopes to be a science writer one day.