Chris at Speed

by Joe Casey

I have, on my computer, a digital image made of a photograph that appears to be from the late 1970s, taken at a high school track meet. In it, a young man - handsome, athletic, dressed in a singlet and shorts - races past the lens. In the background are several individuals, but one in particular drew my attention: another young man, dressed in jeans and a jacket, wearing glasses. On his face is an expression that, to me, seems filled with unspoken desire and longing, perhaps for the runner. All of it reminded me of my own high school experience, around that time, when I was just beginning to understand things about myself that scared me.

And, thus, this story.

You don't quite know what you're doing here - well, you do, really, if you'll allow yourself to think about it for more than a second - but it's not really wrong for you to be here. The camera, at your side, is your excuse. The camera that allows you to see things that would otherwise be denied you.

That camera … your grandfather's, a Leica, given to you by your mother upon his death with a guard-this-with-your-life look. It is a marvelous thing, precise and German, intricate as the clockwork binding the planets, capturing your life in a liquid ticking of sound, a thousandth of a second at a time.

This is foreign territory for you; on a good day, you're about as athletic as a stump. You remember having to run around this track back when you had to take physical education classes, a sampler box of horrors both great and small. You thought it would be simple - once around the oval, as fast as you could, any idiot could run this distance, right? - but it was more than that, and you ended up walking past the finish line, dead last, gasping for air, tasting copper in your mouth, thinking that you were going to die, the coach - whistle at his throat, tight white t-shirt, tight polyester shorts bunched around something you didn't dare look at, black-furred legs like tree trunks - making circular gestures with his finger. Hurry it up, faggot, he seemed to suggest. I got places to be. He belonged there, not you, ruled over it like a petty tyrant, a duchy of skill and muscles, of spirit and sweat, of hormones and bravado.

You're more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, lurking in the margins, hiding behind glasses and a windbreaker and baggy clothes and a knitted cap that covers your drab brown mop of hair and shuffling along with your hands in your pockets, face downcast, unable to look anyone in the eyes lest they catch a glimpse of the real you, of the leering and licentious gremlins scrabbling there, in your mind.

You are, in no way, Chris Bowman.

Who is there, on the far side of the track, arms and legs pumping, pulling away from the rest of his teammates, the gold of his singlet and shorts the same color as his skin. He looks, comically, like someone in a movie where the speed has been cranked up so fast that it's obvious what they've done … except that this is not artifice; he really is that fast, the Six Million Dollar Man made real, the best thing to happen to this high school in a long time.

Chris, at speed.

Some girl - well, you know her by name, Patty Faulkner, you have classes together, you think she might like you but she doesn't know what you know (to wit, gremlins) - is there, looks up as she notices you, smiles.

Hi, Eric.

Hi, Patty.

What are you -? but then she sees the camera at your side even as you jostle it to call her attention to it. Stuff for the annual?

You nod. Yeah. Think he'd mind? Blushing as you understand that you don't have to be here only to photograph Chris Bowman, that there are other people on the team who would be elated to see themselves in it.

She rolls her eyes, shakes her head. Nah. He likes seeing himself in photographs.

So would I, you think, if I looked like that.

As he rounds the last bend, you can hear it, the pat-pat-pat of his feet rebounding off the gravel, quieter than you would have thought, his feet barely touching the ground, only enough to propel him onward, as if his normal state is flight and the earth snares him only when he allows it, when he needs it. As he nears you, you respond as if on auto-pilot, reaching for your camera, bringing it up to your face, focus-release-advance-focus-release-advance, over and over, certainly something useful out of all of that. You'll sort it out later, in the darkroom, after school. By yourself.

He passes you in a blur of gold, huffing like a steam engine, and then he slows and slows and stops, bends over, hands on knees, his broad, laboring back seen in forced perspective, the fabric of his shorts stretched taut over the compact but generous curves of his bottom, and you want one more photograph but this one would surely give all of it away.

The rest of his teammates pass him by in a lead-footed parody of his grace, demigods held in thrall to him, their master. He goes over to them, favors you with a sidelong glance as he passes, and you want to see something in that, give it some meaning, some significance, but for all you know he simply has no idea who the hell you are and wonders only why you're here.

You watch as they laugh and talk and joke with each other, can see that he's already forgotten what he's done, as if the run has meant nothing to him, as if it's something he's simply dashed off, without a thought, as if he would be able to do this forever. Even Patty is there, in the scrum, and you can see something in her eyes, in her face, in the way she carries herself that tells you that she, too, wants something from Chris, some morsel of attention, and you understand that she, more than you, has every right to expect that.

You have what you want, you should leave, but you do not. You continue the pretense, shooting his teammates, the aftermath, the brotherhood they seem to share. You are still an outlier, here, and always will be, but your presence is suffered largely for this one thing: that you can do something to help them remember a time that may, in the end, turn out to be the best part of their lives, and there is something unfortunate about that, but there is a truth in it, as well.

You, you hope, are not also stuck in the here and now of this place, that it is something that you have to endure, have to get through as quickly as possible only in order to get to a better place and a different you. You know that at the end of this year you will be gone, somewhere, anywhere but here, even if you don't yet know where that place will be.

Again, Chris glances at you, looks away.

You feign an interest in the rest of it, the theater of their athleticism, the ranked rows of bleachers, the pristine geometry of the track, an architecture as formal and austere as a temple's. You strive for art, but the real art is not here in the prosaic assembly of steel and plastic, of gravel and turf. The art is there, in their bodies, in the corded sinews of their calves, in the jumping muscles of their biceps, in the luxurious swell of pectorals over the flat plain of belly, in the forested hollows under their arms, in the forbidden mysteries coiled there at the very center of them.

You have imagined this for far longer than you want to think; when did it happen? When did you become so conscious of it, of bodies like yours but not yours, of the rough burr of their voices, of the scratch of beard along a jawline, of the musky funk of them, of boys, of men?

Far easier it would be, you think, to abandon yourself to the various charms of Patty Faulkner, she who would will it if you let her, but it would be a pretense, something in name only - a disguise, a mask, a charade, a ruse - and you will not do that to someone who does not deserve that particular kind of misery.

But you cannot tell her the truth of it.

When you come back to the track, they are gone, scattered like golden chaff in the wind. You look at your watch; it's after four, with the sun dropping into the west and a fretwork of cloud, barely a month into school and already the trees have begun to turn, green burning itself into red and orange and gold, the hot fire of autumn soon to yield to the cold, gray indifference of winter.

There is something in that, and you spend the last of your film roll on it, on the fractal abstraction of leaves, so much complexity bound up in nature that it nearly overcomes you, a kind of lavish and wanton expenditure of energy and movement, and for a moment you can understand why some people invest the inscrutable workings of gods into the almost unknowable world just outside their doors.

When you are done, you dutifully crank the exposed film back into the canister, which you will crack open later, like a cocoon, like a walnut, in the red twilight of the school's darkroom, the acrid funk of chemicals tickling your nose, as you once again channel the ancient and arcane alchemies, teasing meaning and substance out of chemistry. You undo the back of the camera, pop out the canister, pocket it.

And, then, Hey!

You turn and he is there, is Chris Bowman, there in the bleachers and why is he there? Why is he not gone with the others?

You wave at him and think that that will be enough, that he will not want more out of you than that, even as you would give him nearly everything you have just in order to be near him. Or to be him.

You turn, start back to the school to retrieve your backpack, but, Come here!

And you go there.

He is wedged in the bleachers, stretched out, arms outflung and resting on one row of seats, legs sprawled over the row below him, and the singlet is gone, his body bared to the sun and the burnished copper coins of his nipples surmount the amber swell of muscle. His torso is smooth save for a scribbling of hair diving south from his navel and under the waistband of his size-too-tight shorts - something deliberate in that, you think - towards those infuriatingly mysterious mysteries that telegraph their presence through the scrim of golden cloth.

He looks up at you, a smile ghosting his lips, those lips that seem to have some kind of slight smile built into them, and the arching bow of Bowman's lips comes to mind and you think to show him your cleverness and say that aloud to him but you aren't sure he'll take it the right way, so you say nothing.

Aren't you hot? he asks.


He gestures at you, under the armor of your windbreaker and denims. How can you stand it?

Oh, it's … well, and you shrug off the windbreaker.

That's better, he observes, and better than what? you think. Eric Owens, man on a mission.

How does he know who you are? Uh, yeah … I guess. Hi, Chris. You are conscious, now, of your gawky thinness, of the bony angles of your face and the beaky prow of your nose, wonder how you appear to him.

Patty says you were taking pictures earlier?

Uh, yeah. For … for the annual. I'm on the staff of the … well, yeah, the … annual. She said you wouldn't, well … Shut up, Eric.

Wouldn't what?

Mind. Me taking pictures.

He thinks about it, shrugs. In the wind, his dirty blond hair shifts and darts, like winter wheat. I don't mind. You'll have to show them to me, when you get them developed.

I will. I'd like that. Shut up, Eric.

His smile crooks up one side of his mouth. Cool. You any good?

At photography? I … I guess. Maybe. Trying to be.

Is that what you want to do? Take pictures?

I don't know. Maybe.

Sit down, Eric. We should … well, we should talk.

I don't want to bother you.

He says nothing for a moment. Then, You're not bothering me, Eric.

You sit. This close to him, you're conscious of the smell of him, something composed of the salt of his sweat and something else, something dark and marine in it, and you think of the park you went to with your mother, right on the Gulf, the same day your grandfather passed and you both felt the need to be somewhere else, anywhere else but in that hospital, with each other, and even though sadness passed between you and your mother like some fey creature trying to find a home, it was not one of the worst days of your life. That same smell was there, was the smell of a life lived underwater, almost an alien world.

A silence falls between you and Chris and you rack your brain, trying to think of something to say, something he'll understand, but Chris doesn't seem to mind the silence, doesn't seem to mind that you're staring at him.

Then, How do you do it, Chris?

He shifts, again, sits upright. His elbow brushes against yours, his thigh brushes against yours, and he does not seem to mind. How do I do what?

Run so fast. I mean, you're like … the wind, a bird, an angel, a god. You think of things you've seen here and there, pictures taken from history, stylized men on bits of pottery, beautiful in their nakedness, at play or at the games, running, and there is the laughable image of all of that business flopping around for everyone to see, but there is also the beauty of it, a beauty that those ancients understood all too well.

He shrugs. I don't know. I just … do. Lucky, I guess.

Is that … is that what you're going to do?

He chuckles. You mean, for a living?

No, I mean … well, you know … Shut up, Eric.

He looks at you. I know what you mean. Maybe. If I can. If I'm good enough, I can get a scholarship, go to college. Maybe go to the Olympics. He grins. Get my name on the front of a cereal box. Sell running shoes to people.

There is something in air between the two of you that you can't understand, or perhaps don't want to understand, because understanding it will put a name to it, because understanding it makes it tangible, decides whether it's to stay or go, to be real or not real.

He looks at you, frowns. What?


Eric …

It's … well … why do you run? If you don't mind my asking.

He smirks. Well, you just put one foot on front of the other, faster and faster, and -

He's misunderstood; you try again. No. Not how. Why?

Why do I run? Is that what you're asking? You nod your head. He frowns again, thinking. I … I … well, why do you take photographs?

Something you've thought of before, over and over again, usually late at night, when frustration and need overtake you and you try to assuage that need and know that you, alone, will never be able to do that. Taking pictures lets me see things that I couldn't see, otherwise. You look at him; does he understand?

Things, he echoes. Like … me?

Wordlessly, you nod. You understand that this is it, that this is the threshold you never dared to cross. What he says next will mean everything, or nothing. He says nothing. You wait. You look at each other.

I see, he says. Cool. Noncommittal. Nonchalant.

Chris, I -

Maybe I run for the same reason. Maybe I run to outrun something. Something that scares me, although I wish that it didn't. His voice is low, just a murmur, hesitant and slow, as if he's only now putting words to something that's been working at him for a while. He looks at you as he says this, eyes wide, voice shaking, trusting you to understand.

It scares me, too, I think. You're on the verge of tears and you're shaking; you understand that this is part, but only part, of what love is and why it can be so terrifying.

He expels a harsh breath, looks away. Maybe being terrified together is better than being terrified apart.


He smiles, chuckles, shakes his head. Well, then …

Something occurs to you, then. You fumble in your pocket, come out with another roll of film. Chris watches you do it. Your hand is shaking; you nearly drop the roll down through the open riser of the bleacher.

Do you mind if I …?

What? But he already knows what you want, perhaps knew it when he glanced at you earlier.

Take some more pictures?

He nods, watches as you go about the business of loading the camera. When you're ready, you stand up. I won't take up much of your time.

Take as much time as you want, Eric. He lays back against the bleacher, and you see it, then, the hard arc of his own desire there, clearly visible under the thin cloth, pushing up against it, demanding its own kind of release. He watches you watching, nods.

You take a deep breath, steadying yourself, start focusing and releasing the shutter. You will your hands into steadiness; you know that no one but you and he will ever see these photographs, but you want them to be good, you want them to mean something.

When you are done, you sit next to him. His desire is no less real, no less apparent than it was when you started.

So … he murmurs.

So … you respond.

He reaches out, then, and takes off your glasses, folds them, hands them to you. You put them into your pocket.

It was your eyes, I think. At first … that made me understand it. I liked your eyes, Eric. He chuckles. I still do, as a matter of fact. He leans over, and over, and over, and is there, and he takes your face into his hands and pulls you to him, and lets his lips brush against yours, trails the tip of a tongue across them and then slips it inside, and you struggle to keep up with him.

When you break apart, he leans back and smiles. That was …

You smile. Yes, it was.

If we do this thing … He looks at you, makes sure that you understand him. If we do this thing …

You look down, then back up at him. What about … what about Patty?

He's confused. Patty? Patty Faulkner? You nod; he goes on. What about her?

I thought that … well, you and her, that …

He laughs. Oh. I see. He shakes his head. You don't have anything to worry about, Eric. There's nothing between me and her. He smiles. I thought I made my intentions pretty clear, just now.

Your nerves sing like high-voltage wires. I think you made your point.

He chuckles. Good. I meant to. He sighs. So, if we do this thing …

Yes …

I don't want to say it, because saying it makes it sound … wrong, and I don't think it's wrong, even if it scares the living fuck out of me.

I understand.

He smiles. Yes. I think that you do. He stands up, bends over to pick up his singlet, slips it over his head, turns to you. Maybe I can stop running, now. Just for a little while, maybe.

You stand up. I'm … my … well, I don't live too far away. That is, if …

He nods. You turn, make your way down the bleachers, hear his footsteps behind you.

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