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Running in Circles
by Nikki Barrett

BEFORE THIS HAPPENED, when we were together, I used to go running at the track. Late in the evening. Alone in the dark. I liked the danger, the smell of the night, and the summer haze that blanketed me. I wove dreams of him and me as I spun around the track, blurring thick air with my methodical paces, with my breath. I'd envision our next encounter - what I would wear, what I would say, how he would respond. I was spinning plays in my head, scripts and costumes, dialogue and disguise.

These nights were mine, magical and fired with the energy from sweat and stars. I ran without feeling tired and when I stopped I would dance, the music from my Walkman surrounding me, pouring into my body. Silly theatrical leaps and twirls around the track. I'd jump onto the benches beside the track and weave graceful lines of strength. I was a gymnast, a ballerina. I was 20 and playing in the dark. I was playing make-believe. Going round and round in circles and playing make-believe.

For a while after he left, after he left me, I ran in harsh revealing daylight. It didn't seem worth taking the risk of being attacked, molested, murdered, raped any more. When you do not feel secure in your daytime you lose your desire to challenge the night, the dangerous, haunting, magical night. My body felt sluggish and bruised. It did not want to go around and around in steady even paces. It wanted to move in bursts and stutters. It wanted to explode. It wanted to fall down.

Fall down on campus was a blessing, an autumnal retreat. As I walked to lectures, my feet brushed through leafy explosions and organic sparks drifted past my hair and shoulders. Falling leaves, falling temperatures, falling women - a season of descent. The routine of classes, new books, new professors replaced my emptiness, squeezed the monotony into structured blocks of time. I floated around campus, a leaf myself, unmasked, my true pigments revealed in furious colour. I wanted to return to newness, start again. I looked for his face in the hallways, between shelves in the library, under umbrellas at bus-stops, in the clouds. I could not find it.

In biology labs I tried to mimic the path to discovery, tried to pretend I did not know the answer before my microscope or test-tube spelled it out. I was more excited when my experiments failed. At least this was something new, unexpected.

All over campus I kept seeing posters advertising the march. For women only. Take back the night. A protest against violence towards women, a call to make the night safe, a symbol of women secure in the dark. I made no conscious decision to go, yet 20 minutes before the march I found myself heading towards the square. I went alone and stayed alone in a crowd of hundreds of women. I thought, I am not one of you. I am carrying this candle, this sign, I am chanting these words till my throat is hoarse, yet I am not one of you. I will not let myself feel comfortable here. I am not you. We marched downtown and back to the square by the park. We marched in a circle - from the beginning back to the beginning - like running round the track.

I wormed my way back into his life. He felt it would be better if we were apart. Better in the long run. It is hard to think of the long run when you are only moving in short distances. Endurance was never my strength. I said, I don't want to be apart, I want to be a part of your life. Apart and a part, if you say these words too quickly they sound like the same thing. He let me back in. He was not strong enough to let me suffer. I was not strong enough to do anything as heroic, as noble as wait out the numbness. I had given my ambition, given my self-pride, given my secrets. I had nothing left for me. Take me back.

I found myself at the first meeting for the women's issues group on campus. I am not one of you. A woman is talking about sexual harassment, pornography, date rape, assault, sexist language. She keeps throwing up her hands to put little bunny ears around her terms, "equality," "choice," "feminism," "patriarchy." Lay down your arms, I want to say. Lay down your arms, you will have more power. She talks of goals and targets and aims. Aim at the target to achieve the goal, I think. She keeps saying "change" over and over. Change and change and changes. From where I sit this word sounds disturbingly like "chains." Chain, chain and chains. These are not the same things. She is talking about different women's organizations. I hear "Women's Caucus." I think, This group will never succeed. Listen to its name: Women's Caucus. Sounds like the caw, caw, cawing of crows. Cackling. Crackling. It sounds like Caucasian - white and elite. It sounds like cactus - stiff and prickly. Women's Caucus. Women's carcass - dead body, worthless remains. Many people left the meeting early. I stayed until the end. I helped clean up the coffee cups so that I could eavesdrop on post-meeting conversations.

It was a sharp night, a brisk, biting autumn air hanging in the dark and a liquid, silver moon shivering against the black. It was 10:30 and I felt like running, I felt invincible. I pulled on cut-off track pants, grubby T-shirt, sweat socks, running shoes, old sweatshirt. I thought, he likes it when I dress sloppily, when I look dishevelled, when I sweat. I decided not to run my regular route. I will not run to campus and back. I will not run at the track. I will run to his house. I stretched to loosen my muscles, grabbed my key and whistle and went out onto the street.

The jagged shaft of my key protruded from between two fingers. In the other hand I clenched the whistle, the Fox 40 whistle they called it. Fox whistle, I thought, this is the female response to the wolf-whistle. In this perverse game of predator and prey the wolf-whistle beckons, a lecherous invitation, the Fox whistle screams out its cry for help. Keys and whistles and silver moons. An opening, a calling, a light - a weapon, a plea, a harsh onlooker. I knew I was supposed to be frightened. I was not afraid. I felt at ease slipping across the sidewalks, heart beating, feet pounding. Pounding, beating - these are violent words. I tried to force myself to be afraid, aware, alert. Tried to convince myself of a real threat. Nothing. I ran, passed blind houses, passed the train tracks, counting the blocks to his house.

He was surprised to see me on his doorstep. He smiled a happy, childish grin.

"It's freezing out there," he said.

"Not for me." He reached out for my hand and pulled me inside.

I drank a glass of water and did some stretches to cool down.

He made coffee and pulled me over to the couch when he heard my breathing fall back to its regular rhythm. It did not matter that my body was warm and moist with sweat, he pulled me close to him and we talked of important moments in our days the kind of things that grow trivial with time. He flicked on the television and tried to follow rock videos through our meandering conversation. I hate rock videos. They put pictures I never imagined to music I like to hear. I put myself above the nearness of our bodies, the floating conversation, the hugeness of his warm breath so near my face. How long will this closeness last? How long will we share the same dislike for rainy weather, the same passion for cereal any time of the day? How long will we both look at the stars and see a three-dimensional lattice of time and existence and not a two-dimensional scattering of children's glitter? How long will this closeness, this depth last? Till the end of this rock video? When the coffee pot is empty? No. This closeness will last a year. After final exams he will give back my coffee-maker, give back my plant and he will go and be what he wants to be when he grows up. This is the fate I see swimming in my coffee grounds.

1 felt drowsy and woollen but I got up from the couch and moved to leave. He pulled me back down and with his playful eyes he asked me to stay. I knew I should go home to my single bed. He moved even closer to me and our bodies no longer just rested together. They moved together in practised motions. That motion so different from running. I kept thinking, Take back your night. You have a biology lab to write up. You have to put out the garbage, find that phone number, fold the laundry. You have to brush your teeth with your own toothbrush. You have to write a book. You have to build a career. You have to take back your night. I gave up, gave in. I gave my night to him.

I am sitting in the biology lab surrounded by glass and circles. Microscopes, Petri dishes, beakers, filter papers, safety goggles and eggs. They have titled today's lab, "Embryology: Development of the Individual." The work benches are covered with specimens of frog, fish, and chicken eggs and slides of starfish and mice eggs. Tiny circles, spheres and ovals of life. My eyes are growing tired from staring down the tube of my microscope and a headache is starting to swell. Instead of making kaleidoscope sketches of membranes and cells I close my eyes and imagine the whole biology lab as one big incubator, a giant nesting ground. I see the simultaneous hatching out of all these fertilized eggs, a room swarming with slippery fish, wriggling tadpoles, fuzzy pink mice, prickly starfish, and Easter-yellow chicks.

I am now supposed to be writing a summary of the different types of sperm and ova I have observed. Instead I am wondering why they call these cells germ cells. I picture the linking of various pairs of invisible germs and cooties to produce the infinite disease possibilities we call life. I think this is funny. The lab supervisor is handing out fertilized chicken eggs that have had three days of incubation. We're told to crack the egg open into a saline solution. Now I am imagining that this is just one big home-economics class. First lesson - poached eggs. Aprons instead of lab coats. I laugh out loud.

The supervisor dictates the step-by-step, intricate procedure to remove the minuscule embryo from the mass of yellow yolk. Once we have got the chick embryos under the microscope, the supervisor says, "First note the pulsations of the heart and the quick movements of the blood." The headache behind my eyes thickens and my stomach starts to rum. The pale, milky pink splotch under my microscope has a beating heart. Don't be silly, I rationalize, just finish observing then wash the embryo down the drain. The whole room is suddenly stifling. The warm, pungent odours of ammonia on floors, stale rain in woollen sweaters, and chalk on blackboards cloak me. Glass and circles start to spin. Again I imagine a room filled with tiny chicks, wall to wall, floor to ceiling of yellow - the same colour as the yolks I see floating in saline solutions around the room. I grab my coat and bag and walk quickly out of the lab. Somebody else can wash my embryo down the drain.

I am relieved to be sitting in the bus shelter, cool air clearing my headache, calming my stomach. I am waiting for the bus to take me home. I feel like running, want to feel my body move in sure motions, in clear direction. Sitting here the insides of my head feet muddled, blurred. Even though I'm waiting for my bus I am not sure where I am going. I pick up a copy of the university paper that's lying on the ground. It's an old copy but I read it anyway to take my mind off eggs and bleeding hearts and running and waiting. There I am. Second page. I'm hard to pick out amongst the women and candles but I recognize my baseball cap, my hands-in-pockets stance. There I am, standing just above the caption, "Hundreds of Women Turn Out to Take Back the Night." Anyone looking at the picture would say I was one of them. I don't look any different.

I go running to his house again. Alone. In the dark. I like the danger, the smell of the night and the autumn haze that blankets me. This time I do not think to be afraid. My head is turning over too many pictures, like slides flickering on a screen, slides slipping in and out of focus. I see eggs and candles, starfish and newspaper print, my coffee-maker, a microscope. Where do I think I am going? I see a track - a racetrack, a train track. Circles and lines.

I see ballerinas dancing on benches. I want to play make-believe.

I want to explode. I want to fall down. I see a feminist bunny hopping around, her ears put quotations around all of her words.

I see frogs and mice and a full moon. I want to be magic. The slide show goes on to the rhythm of my feet hitting pavement.

I get to his house and I'm sweating more than usual. I don't want to stop running. I go to ring his doorbell but don't. I don't want to go inside to soft and warm, comfortable and safe. I don't want to go inside to television and a double bed.

He can keep my plant.

I turn and run, faster than usual, fired with energy from sweat and stars and me. I envision our next encounter - what I will wear, what I will say, how he will respond. I am spinning plays in my head, scripts and costumes, dialogues and disguise. As I run towards home I can see the traffic lights up ahead are green. In the little box of glowing pedestrian signals I can see the little white man - telling me it's safe to walk. White man walking. I'm not walking. I'm running. I am not safe. Now a red hand is flashing. Is this a man's hand? Is this a woman's hand? This is my hand flashing red in the night. I say stop.


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