In Providence: The Night Runner

Note: This story features details about a physical assault that might be difficult for some readers. Please be advised.

“It’s a good way to get to know a place. It’ll be one year here in October, but this is the first chance I’ve had to get out there and do it.”

She arrived here for a job that’s long gone and probably won’t be coming back anytime soon. This Friday she heard from her boss that she should start looking for other means of employment, and midway through the call, she heard him get choked up.

“After the call I went for a run.”

Before she moved to Rhode Island, she used to run all the time. There were a lot of open roads and she knew them by heart. When she got here, the pressures of a new home and a new job had her running on the treadmill before bed every night, but nowhere else.

“I like to run at night, when there are less people out, but I wasn’t sure where I could do that.”

Her house is down the street from Rhode Island College, and she thought that would be a good place for her first time. But once she got her laces tied, she knew she was going to go further.

“After going twice around the campus, I started running down Smith Street towards downtown.”

She didn’t expect anybody to be out, but this weekend was a display of extremes. Every bar or restaurant that she ran past was either overflowing with people or empty. One place had the door open and as she went by, she spotted one lonely man sitting at the end of the bar with his mask on, and she wondered if he needed a drink or just needed to get out like she did.

“When I got by the State House, there were some people standing around the mall talking about the rally that day. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d been around people — new people — so I just stood for a second, catching my breath, and one of them looked over at me. I was a little winded, because I wanted to try running with a mask, and that shit is not fun, but I just bought this mask I really liked and I think I look good in it, so I thought I should try it out. The woman who looked over at me smiled and put her mask on, and that made me laugh. Like I caught her or something. I should have gone over, but I don’t think anybody knows how to do anything anymore as far as meeting people.”

That wasn’t the only reason.

The conversation about the rally got her thinking about the last time she went to a protest. It was four years ago, and on her walk home, a group of men started shouting at her. When she ignored them, they encircled her, taunted her, asked her if she was at the protest, used slurs, and started shoving her. She yelled for help and one of the men grabbed her by the neck. Then she heard someone call out, a group from the rally saw what was happening and came running over, but that caused the men surrounding her to take off. Ever since then, every memory of that day is hot to the touch. Crowds are hard for her now. Walking is difficult. The leisure of it. The way it requires you to let your guard down. She likes being on her own and existing within her own thoughts.

She likes to run.

“I went up to the East Side and then I…I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to stop. If you overdo it, then you’re stranded, and it’s not like I want to get in a Lyft right now. I don’t know anyone here who could come pick me up. I just wanted to keep going until I felt lost, because…It felt safe. I don’t know if it’s because…I was in these places where there were just houses and all the houses were dark and nobody was out, but it was quiet, and I felt like I could go wherever I wanted and nobody would bother me. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. When I used to run back home, I never stopped. I didn’t slow down. I knew where I would feel comfortable going and where I wouldn’t, and there weren’t…It was only a couple of routes I would take. It felt good to go and not think about where I was going.”

When she got too tired to run, she started walking. She stopped paying attention to street signs and businesses, but she kept the Providence skyline in her view, and when she felt a wave of exhaustion kick in, she started walking back toward it.

“At about, shit, three in the morning? That’s when I got home. I walked in the door and I went to bed with my running clothes on. I didn’t even change out of them. I haven’t been as tired as that since I got here.”

She says she’s going back out again that night, and when I call her this morning, she tells me she’s been out every night and has no plans of stopping. Logically, she knows that nowhere is completely safe, and that turning around a wrong corner could take her right back to that day when she stopped finding solace in others, but she can’t seem to refrain herself any longer. She’s not sure if she’s ready to walk up to a stranger on the street and introduce herself, but she’s no longer content to run in circles, pretending as if familiarity will guarantee security. Why not go a little farther?

Over the past few nights, she’s able to get herself lost on her runs, but of course, that’ll get harder the more she learns about the terrain.

“It’s a small state so pretty soon I’ll know all of it.”

I ask her what’ll happen then.

There’s a silence on the other end of the line, and then a laugh.

“Then I can go wherever I want.”

I’m not sure if she believes that, but I’m not sure if it matters either.

What we need to tell ourselves in order to be brave won’t necessarily make us brave, but it’ll move us further away from inaction.

She asks me if I want to go running with her sometime, and I tell her I’d love that. But she does issue me a friendly warning.

“You better not slow me down.”