The Chinese Place in Le Marais
BY ANDREAS TROLF
The runners in the 100-meter event are milling about the starting line doing some last minute stretching along with their various pre-race rituals. An American, two Jamaicans, a South African, two Italians, a Haitian, and a Canadian. One of the Jamaicans is doing some kind of maybe Zen breathing thing, his eyes serenely closed. The Italians and the Haitian wear thin gold chains, barely more than oblongs of light, with small crosses hanging from them, all three concentrating in prayer. The American runner’s wife sits and watches them. She thinks the crosses are pointless decoration but can’t begrudge them their displays of faith when she knows that the difference between winning and not winning might hinge on the idea of God sustaining you, you alone even among other faithful runners. Her husband walks in small circles and shakes out his arms, which begins in his shoulders with a slow roll before flowing down in a jangly tremor through the biceps, triceps, elbows, wrists, and fingers. He looks like one of those inflatable tube-men they have at used car lots. A dancer stricken suddenly graceless.
The runners wear efficient, immodest Lycra one-pieces, their muscle striations evident through the suit’s fabric like miniature arroyos. None of them carries more than 6% body fat. Enviously lithe thinks the American runner’s wife when she considers her own body, which is trim and attractive but not the body of a professional athlete. They take quick, deep breaths in the last pre-race moments to saturate their muscles with oxygen, which is also something the American does just before he orgasms. The same thing taking place before as at the finish.
He’s tried describing high-level running to her, or, more correctly, he has described it and she has tried to understand him. “You don’t think when you run,” he’d said. “There’s no time.” She asked what he did with those roughly ten seconds. He replied that she didn’t understand—there’s no time. “All there is,” he said, “is movement.” This was a need so total and overwhelming that the American runner has sometimes felt it was not him who was moving forward but rather that his legs were compelling the Earth backwards beneath him. “You don’t even hear the starting shot,” he said, “you feel it.” His reaction to it was instant. “Like gravity,” he said. “Like waking up from a dream that you’re dying in.” She’d wanted to mock him for using these breathless terms, but how do you mock someone who once held a world record, someone you love?
Almost everyone, he thinks, has the capacity for a short stretch of flat-out run—instinct like in those nature shows when a gazelle intuits the nearness of a group of hungry lionesses—but so few cultivate the ability, honing it and coming to know it completely washing over them like the richest arterial blood. In one second, if you are a world-class sprinter, your lungs take in approximately 4000 cubic centimeters of air. Each of your feet will touch the track an average of 2.6 times. So many processes must be in harmony for you to do this, but you have to be blind to them and to all the rest, to the pinch from the seams of your socks, the noise of the crowd. To any lingering concern about the stability of your marriage, his wife thinks.
This meet today is small time. A regional qualifier. No one wants to risk an injury, so they’ll run just fast enough to qualify. Although, of course, some will fail to do so. There are a few dozen people peppered around the stadium, which is home to a college track team, and crowd noise is minimal. According to the Rolex clock/thermometer hanging near the officials, it is 72 degrees. The announcer’s voice echoes over the P.A. as he notes that it is a “great day for running.” The American runner’s wife looks at her husband and then from each of the other runners to their wives or girlfriends, or boyfriend in the case of the Canadian, trying to imagine how they talk while lying in bed. Do they talk about running? The training, the constant travel? Do they have their own careers? They must. Although depending on the specifics of endorsement deals and point rankings, most competitive runners earn a very decent living. Her husband endorses New Balance running shoes, for example, which as far as endorsement deals go is a plum. They cover his airfare to meets, hotels, keep him well supplied with shoes and socks and one-piece running outfits, all of which is on top of his fee. Which is adequate. The runners endorsing Nike have it better still, as do those with Adidas and Brooks, her husband’s former sponsor. Further down the endorsement ladder come Saucony, Asics, and Reebok. He’s explained the hierarchy to her and pointed out his place in it.
Excepting the quadrennial viewership peaks of Olympic years, practically no one watches televised running. When it’s broadcast late at night on ESPN2 advertising rates are low, more or less on par with rates for a spot during semi-pro bowling. And although track and field events can offer decent prize purses, they’re nothing like those enjoyed by tennis players or golfers. Still, for the American, things are decent. When he retires he’ll have a nest egg. He’s considered opening a restaurant or a car dealership. Lots of ex-jocks own dealerships, he’s told her. Coaching is the obvious choice but maybe, he thinks, when you’re done with a thing, you’re simply done with it and you shouldn’t take part in some diluted version. The American’s wife is a veterinarian.
The starting pistol fires and the runners explode out of their blocks—she hates using this clichéd term, but nothing else is so succinct; it’s exactly what they do, even the less-gifted runners, the ones who have no chance of winning. Like bullets, their movement is instantaneous. When she watches him, she feels that she can almost understand what he’s tried explaining to her. His flowery terms become almost appropriate. His shoes shine like beautiful new sports cars, like twin blades. He places fifth. Good enough to qualify for Boston. His coach congratulates him, but she can see the disappointment behind his smile. Her husband hasn’t won a race in three years, which was when he briefly held the world record in the 100 meters. Since then his career had been unremarkable. But he was okay with that. He doesn’t think there’s any real glory in winning a race.
“Then why do it?” she asked when he told her this a few weeks after they’d begun dating. “Why devote your life to it?” He shrugged and told her that you had to do something and that he’d had the good fortune to at least be good at what he did. But why should there be anything noble about being infinitesimally faster than another human being?
Yet for eleven weeks he was the fastest human being who’d ever lived. Of course he was a gifted runner, but no one, not even his coach, would have put money on him ever breaking a record. He was 24 years old, they’d been married about a year, and he broke the previous record by almost a tenth of a second, which is practically unheard of in a sport that considers 1/100th of a second a legitimate measurement. The former record-holder called to congratulate him, and there was this thing in the former record-holder’s voice when he spoke that terrified the American. He told her so, confirming what she saw in his face while he took the call. He was on magazine covers. His legs showcased so that every bit of quadriceps and gastrocnemius glinted in the sun like diamonds. He was made the spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service. His smile beamed from a million boxes of Wheaties. Brooks announced an ambitious ad campaign. But then a Jamaican runner in Eugene, Oregon, beat his time by 2/100ths of a second and became the new fastest human being who’d ever lived. The Jamaican held the record for almost a year. The American couldn’t bring himself to make a congratulatory phone call and for months was plagued by worry that the Jamaican thought ill of him for it.
The American and his wife lie in bed after his fifth place finish and, as she does from time to time, she describes increasingly elaborate ways for her to kill herself. It’s not foreplay, not exactly, even though when she first started doing it they’d always fuck like crazy when she came up with an especially creative method. She’d even once gotten pregnant after describing to him how she’d glue three-dozen outward facing 2½” framing nails onto the steering wheel of her 2011 Subaru Outback and then, without wearing a seatbelt, driving into a wall. But the thrill had worn thin, and at this point it’s just about all she can do to get him to take an interest in her. Now it has its usual effect: unenthusiastic sex. Missionary. Perfunctory. Connected to the same circuit breaker as his running.
“New Balance probably won’t renew my contract,” he says when they’re finished. It’s the same thing he tells her after every race. “What kind of dealership do you think I should open? You think I could get away with Mazda? Is Mazda too…ambitious?” She rolls towards him and kisses his forehead, moist with sweat.
“I love you,” she says.
“My beautiful, sensitive wife,” he says. “I can’t open an I Love You dealership.”
“Ford then,” she says. “Good, reliable. American.”
“You know,” he smiles, “sometimes I miss you even when you’re right here.”
His father had died two weeks before he set the world record and because he’d been the one who needed to do all the mundane things that have to be done after a death, he didn’t have the luxury of truly grieving. All day long, for what seemed like an endless string of days, he’d needed to make phone calls, have things notarized, sit in front of people’s desks at banks and brokerage firms, and through it all needing to be stoic. They were staying with his mother, sleeping in his childhood bedroom. She tried to seduce him one night in his old twin bed a few days after his father had finally stopped breathing in the rapid, shallow breaths the hospice nurse told them was a sign that it wouldn’t be long. He told her he couldn’t. He said that even after he’d accomplished everything, gotten a dozen copies of the death certificate, canceled all the credit cards, made arrangements for the funeral, the numbness was still there. Maybe it had settled on top of him even more. He couldn’t grieve and so what was there for her to comfort with sex? The next day he told her that he needed to do something, anything but what he was doing. He’d decided to attend a meet in Chicago. He could still make something of the season, he told her and his mother. “And besides,” he said once his mother had left the kitchen, “what good am I doing anyone sitting around specifically not grieving?”
He described to her later how he’d snapped suddenly awake in the last moments before the 100 meters, surprised to find himself torqueing his feet into the blocks. He had no memory of the flight or of arriving at the stadium. He could hear the squeaking of his tendons and ligaments as he positioned himself. Then the starting shot. He flew, is how he described it. With each step he accelerated and the world around him slowed. It wasn’t true any longer that there was no time during the sprint. Instead of being constrained by those few seconds of running, he told her, time began drawing itself out, dividing and subdividing until he found himself in a place separate from it. This was something new and wonderful. Some dam had broken and he was able to think during the sprint for the first time in his life. He recalled when, as a kid, he’d accidentally slammed the car door on his father’s fingers and how he was filled with instant fear and remorse, seeing his father’s face turn purple with the stifled scream, how he bit his lips until the skin around them turned white, and then how even the whites of his eyes had turned dark for a moment as he held his bleeding hand to his mouth and slowly digested the pain. He told her this, about hurting his father’s hand, as they lay in bed after he’d come home, now a world record-holder, and had flung her down and they made love for the first time in weeks, maybe in months, she couldn’t remember, and as he said it she recalled his face while they were making love and she’d seen something that wasn’t him digesting the pain quite so much as turning it to a new use.
He ran well enough for a while even after his record was broken, but soon the numbness returned. They slept together less frequently and then again not at all. He placed lower, then lower still, and then Brooks didn’t renew his contract. Then, one night in bed, the idea of a car dealership seeming more and more attractive, she put down her paperback and turned to him. “If I was going to kill myself,” she began, “do you know how I’d do it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“If I was going to kill myself—”
“Are you planning on killing yourself?” he asked, a tiny pique of worry evident in his voice.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think so. I was just thinking about how I’d do it.”
“Bullshit,” he said, suddenly wide-eyed. “Are you serious?”
She said that she was, that she had thought about it, and as she described that first plan to him he rolled over on top of her and wormed his arms under her and buried his face in her stomach, pulling himself into the center of her. It was only after a few minutes that she realized he was crying.
Then he looked up at her. “You can’t do that,” he said with a string of snot smeared across his upper lip. “Promise me you won’t do that.”
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t do it.”
“I promise, baby.”
But he was already hard.
From there the imagined scenarios became a more or less regular part of their lovemaking. They never talked about why she did it, or why it worked, why he seemed to need it if not enjoy it. Maybe they didn’t want to know. It was during this period that they were in a hotel room on the morning of a race. There’d been a power outage in the middle of the night, their alarms hadn’t gone off and when they woke in the morning they both assumed there was time enough. She began describing a silk noose, the feeling of it pulling tight around her throat. He was flinging his boxers across the room when the phone rang. It was his coach. He was late. She couldn’t help but see the look on his face, grief interrupted, as he quickly dressed.
“Don’t move,” he said already halfway out the door. “I want you exactly like this when I come back.” No one expected much but when the starting pistol fired, he found himself propelled way out ahead of the other runners. The seconds became elastic again and he won his first race since setting the record.
“How did it go?” she asked when he returned. He told her that he won. His phone rang again and again while they had sex but he ignored it and soon they fell asleep. The next morning he checked his voicemail as they sat in the lobby restaurant. New Balance is excited, his agent said in the message, they want to do a billboard.
“A billboard,” she said, holding a piece of waffle on the end of her fork, syrup flowing off it and rejoining the rest in a warm dark pool. “Wow. It’s been a while. That’s great.”
Before his next three races she described how she’d do it—calmly walking into traffic; her car running in their closed garage, the garden hose going from the exhaust into the window; walking unsteadily in stiletto heels into the kitchen, a butcher knife spinning blade-up in the garbage disposal. Two second-place finishes, one third. After every race, he’d come home and before they made love he made her swear that she’d never really do it. Of course not, she’d say. It’s just a game, right? But you can’t argue with these results.
But like a tide going out again, the effect soon wore off. No suicide was colorful enough anymore. No matter how inventive she was, he ran and made love unremarkably again. The threat of grief was gone. He’d called her bluff.
“This woman and her little daughter,” she says one night while they’re lying in bed, “brought their Yorkie to the office. They had it inside this wicker basket, tucked in there with a blanket he’d already shit on. Whimpering. You should have seen it. Maybe if they’d come to see me a year ago I could have done something, but it was just getting eaten alive by cancer. What did they think those bulges on its stomach were? It was just little—a tiny little Yorkie—but the poor thing had these golf ball-sized tumors. I had to put it down. No choice. The little girl’s crying like you wouldn’t believe and I’m giving the mother this look like, Just go, please. Get her out of here and I’ll handle this. And then it’s just me and the dog. Robin already brought me the pentobarbital, so this is really close to the end. I’ve done this, what, 90, 100 times? But this one was weird. I give it the injection and I’m petting it to soothe it a little, and that’s when it occurs to me it’s not scared. Usually they’re scared, the animals. They can sense something’s going on, but not this one. It’s looking me right in the eye and I’m 100% sure that not only does this animal know what’s going on, that it’s going to die, that I’m the one killing it, but it also knows why it’s happening and it’s okay with it. And I wonder about maybe its life passing before its eyes? Like people say happens. I start to imagine what’s going through its head, like an especially good day when it found some dumb stick at a lake? Tucked into bed with the little girl on a cold morning? Pawing at the back door until someone finally lets him out and he gets to take a stupendous shit?”
“So what happened?” he asks.
“It died,” she says. “Like it was supposed to.”
“You know,” she says, “I think I’ve been going about this all wrong.”
“Going about what all wrong?”
“The suicide. I’ve been thinking too big, too splashy. Being that ostentatious,” she says, “it’s just not me. Keep it simple, stupid, right?”
“Right,” he sighs.
“But I don’t want to suffer,” she says, “not more than necessary. So I can’t drown myself. That’s too scary. But I don’t want to just take pills either. That’s too easy. You want for there to be blood, don’t you?”
“It is more visceral that way,” he says.
She rolls over and nuzzles her mouth into the soft patch of hair behind his ear.
This is what she settles on: drinking a decent bottle of Pinot Noir in their gleaming white bathtub, steam rising from the water through which her skin will show in soft pink peaks. She’ll slit her wrist with a straight razor and bleed out into the water. She describes the whorls of blood lazily diffusing in the bathwater. She tells him how she’d close her eyes and bask in the warmth and the silence and the emptying. Then, slowly, she’d become something different from the naked body lying in the tub.
Early the next morning he flies to Boston. She stays at home and just before his race she draws a bath, lights some candles, and uncorks a bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir. She undresses and lays a straight razor on the counter. She imagines him in the locker room, stepping into his one-piece, pulling it on like a replacement skin. She rearranges everything until the tableau is just right, then takes a picture and texts it to her husband. Her phone rings before she’s even settled into the bath. She doesn’t answer. Eventually it goes to voicemail. It rings again. She sees him in the locker room, frantically dialing. She wonders if he’ll call the police or if he’ll run. She unfolds the straight razor. Her phone rings again. She wonders if she ought to send another picture, but soon time begins to do this strange elastic thing and she wonders if this is what her husband was talking about. She settles further into the water and closes her eyes. She can see him the moment he’s born, purple and screaming. Then as a small child, and on the day they’d met standing in line for a concert when there’d been a car accident in front of the venue and they’d both said “Holy fuck” near simultaneously. She sees him the day they got married, then later that same night. The phone hasn’t rung for a few minutes. She hopes he’s running. She hopes he knows how deliberate this all is, how she timed it perfectly. After a few more minutes she reaches for her phone with her other hand and sees all the missed calls, all his voicemails. She texts—Did you win? She doesn’t think she cut too deeply. Just a little blood. He’ll be home soon. There’s a small red bloom in the water. A beautiful, delicate rose.
She’s excited for him to find her in their home, alive. The wine uncorked and waiting. She’ll rise up to meet him as he walks in. They’ll make love. She smiles to think of him sick with worry over her. What was any of this if not true love?
She sees him at the starting line shaking out his arms in his inflatable tube-man dance, inhaling in those quick, saturating bursts. This makes her think about sex again. But then she goes somewhere else. The two of them are lying in a meadow while camping in the Sierra Nevadas. He rolls on top of her. A rock presses into her back. She looks up and sees a cloud the shape of an old shoe floating directly above them. She looks down from the cloud and sees the race official aiming his pistol at the sky. She pictures her husband winning, cutting through the ribbon like a blade. He is a winner, separated in that one instant from everyone else. From what he was before.
She recalls a trip to Paris. They’d stayed in a tiny garret and acted like bohemians, cooking on a hot plate and drinking cheap wine out of mugs. Mugs! On a friend’s recommendation they’d gone to a Chinese noodle place in Le Marais where, behind a low plum-colored wall, three women made noodles by hand. She could still smell the air in the restaurant, thick with fat and steam. “Look at that,” he’d marveled, pointing at the women holding the rubbery dough in front of them, pulling it longer and longer in their outstretched arms, like those old exercise-spring things, stretching and stretching, gesturing like symphony conductors, folding it, dividing it again and again so that one strand of dough became two, and then four, then eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on until each woman held hundreds of separate strands of noodles in her hands, ready to be cooked.
This was how she felt about their life together, moments on top of moments, all being stretched almost to breaking but not quite, simply made thinner, diluted by the passing of time until they were dropped all together into a steaming cauldron and then sent out to some tourist to take a picture of before they ate it. But in that single moment of watching it happen, before it passed and became something else, some clichéd bit of souvenir memory, it was magical the way these women made more and more out of a single strand of dough, dancing with their arms, dividing and dividing until there was enough to feed them all.