Core Being

Jaclyn Gilbert

At fifteen, I was no longer a child, but I feared the adult I could become. I barely had breast buds, still no period to speak of.  In high school, I ran for the varsity track team and my legs had grown more muscular, enough to fill out my jeans.  One Friday, when my father pulled into the driveway to pick up my sister and me for the weekend, he complimented my legs.  I had been wearing tights and a jean skirt and had felt oddly warmed by his words: my legs proof of my delayed sexuality, my strength. But a few months later, at a Christmas party, my father’s tone shifted. Disapprovingly, he’d said my jeans looked too tight.

I have always had my father’s slim, muscular legs, and as long as I didn’t let them thicken or my hips begin to curve, I believed I could stay boyish and close to him.  My father still resented my mother for the child support he owed her every month, the college funds he would soon be required to provide.  I already had my mother’s facial structure, her laugh and quirky mannerisms, and I knew that if in puberty my body traced the lines of her hips and breasts more fully, I would be that much more deserving of my father’s scorn.

Running allowed me my first flight from that destiny.  With every mile, my legs preserved their childhood musculature. Each time I saw myself in a dressing room mirror, or through a storefront’s reflective glass, I would study my thighs, tracking their thickness, the elusive line between mother and father that my livelihood seemed to depend on. 

They would stay slender, a voice urged, as if it were my father speaking, entering me as chant, restless and pressing me on through the thick summer heat as I climbed up the steepest hills around Amish country in my hometown of Lancaster County: endless loops on my days off from tennis practice in the fall, longer winter loops leading up to the spring track season, my hands and legs throbbing with cold, fearful of eating too many of my grandmother’s Christmas cookies when I returned. I trained myself to long for a hunger that food need not fill.

• • •

The summer before my freshman year of college, shortly after I was accepted to run at Yale, my father and I spent the morning fishing in his best friend’s boat in Ocean City, New Jersey. All day I had been careful not to eat the other half of an egg salad sandwich from the deli we’d gone to that morning. Afterward, his friend had invited us to his beach home to swim in the pool while he prepared the flounder we caught, cleaning and grilling too far away to hear my father tell me, You’re just a dumb jock. He’d laughed, but his tone was snide, berating.  I’d been wearing a Speedo bikini, my pale stomach flat and churning with hunger as I balanced on a tube in his friend’s pool, my father on his back kicking his legs harmlessly like a child.  His words carried the sarcasm I knew too well, a mode he’d always used to hide his true feelings.  To be a good daughter was never to defend myself, but to laugh alongside his taunts: learn to take a joke like he wanted.

Later, as we ate the flounder my father’s friend had cooked us, my fork poking around the meat around the bone, my father’s friend said, “You don’t eat much, do you?”

I didn’t respond when he went on to compare me to his beautiful daughter who was a few years younger than me, a far more popular girl in high school, a poor student with a drinking problem.  When I look back, I can discern the absolutism in his words more clearly than I could have as a teenager: to be beautiful was not to be smart, just as to be athletic was not to be intelligent.  This idea that to become a woman was to be trapped in a world of binaries: to be one kind of girl was not to be another.  I realized that no matter how hard I might try to carve out space for myself as my own person, my father would find something to take back for himself; my physicality as a woman, my mother’s shadow, would always be there to haunt when he looked at me.  No matter how fast or far I ran, how athletic my build, to him, I would always appear weak.

Calling me a dumb jock, I came to realize, was part of another narrative my father had started when I was small. Once I’d overheard him tell my step-mother, still his girlfriend at the time, that I wasn’t any good at math, “just like her mother.”  As I progressed in my schooling, his words seemed to realize themselves more concretely in my struggle to finish basic word problems, my need to stay after school for help.  In middle school I struggled with geometry, abstract shapes that eluded me; I spent weekends studying in the room I shared with my sister, but even when I improved my C’s to A’s by the end of the year, my intrinsic lack of mathematical skill resurfaced. In tenth grade, I nearly failed a unit test on logic postulates and theorems.  I was devastated and afraid. The more abstract the math problem housed under the word “logic,” the greater my terror over attempting to solve it.   In my adolescent mind, things that were logical were supposed to be easy, but nothing mathematically abstract seemed this way to me: how could numbers be rational, logical, when they referred to my father’s emotional relationship to money, his addiction to numbers that had deceived him into thinking he was in control, this obsession with the illusion of order, with twisting truth into a lie that facilitated his own gain at all times?  It was his lying, his denial of my individuality, that had led me believe one thing about myself when the opposite was true. I could only see myself in his eyes: an inverted mirror that sought to keep me small and fearful.

And it didn’t help that my father often compared me to my mother’s “illogical” ways—in fact, it was one of his favorite words to use, much like “idiot,” whenever I made a careless mistake around numbers, especially those mornings my younger sister and I raced to calculate a tip for my father after Saturday breakfast at the diner.  She was always faster, an extension of his mathematical mind; she was “better at accounting,” in tracking the number of miles before we crossed the New Jersey border during car trips to the beach, or at remembering the statistics of the athletes and games my father betted on.  The more my sister beat me in these games, the more eager I became to win back my father’s approval. I began keeping a piggy bank in my bedroom, adding up the amounts obsessively before I went to sleep at night, sometimes bringing the money with me when my father took us out for pizza, even offering to buy it for him on one occasion, but it didn’t matter: I would never be as quick at accounting as he wanted.

• • •

My parents’ divorce, when I was five, came in part because of my father’s gambling addiction.  He needed to control my mother’s grocery allowance, our clothing and enrichment, her personal expenses.   He was never honest about his whereabouts, nights he spent out late at bars, questionable business trips during which my mother was certain he slept with other women.  When she asked him to be around more, to tell the truth about his spending, he’d explode. One night, she told him to get out while my sister and I sat beside in our bedroom while she folded a small pile of laundry.  We watched our father leave and never return, our mother cry over the ten cents in her personal bank account, sure we’d be moving back with her parents in Dayton, Ohio.

After the divorce was final, during our weekend visits with him, my father often made us add up our mother’s expenses.  He’d make us total the cost of groceries and clothes, the cost of private music or sports lessons.  We would give him the final sum, which he’d then subtract from the monthly child support he paid.  Where do you think all of it goes? he’d ask.  When we were silent, he’d say our mother was spending it all on herself.  She went shopping.  She ate out with my step-father.  He said a mother always won the judge’s favor in court.  He said we were ungrateful, we didn’t have any idea what he paid compared to his friends.  He wanted us to get his checks, to see the amounts, so he always paid late, my mother calling him, threatening to sue, and then he’d surprise us with the payments. In high school his favorite place was the track; he’d meet me after my two-mile race, unannounced, and slip me the thin paper, halved and scribbled with numbers, my eyes fearful of his impalpable signature, the vague sense of being part of some impossible human transaction I could never locate in simple words.

• • •

My father’s voice is what has always led me to overachieve, to push myself to the point of breaking.  At some point during my childhood, his voice managed to fuse with my own self-understanding, feeding my compulsions.  In high school, it was the reason I spent every Friday and Saturday night studying and every summer break reading, especially the one before I started my first semester at Yale.  I couldn’t show up to class deemed a mistake by the Admissions Committee, couldn’t let it be known that I was no more than a dumb jock recruit, a pity case from a public school in the suburbs of Amish country.

I wasn’t anything like my teammates, who heralded from Harvard-Westlake, Philips Exeter, Andover Academy, Choate, St. Andrews. I imagined the whispers between my teammates on our runs through New Haven and East Rock: How long before she fails? She’s bringing down the team GPA.  Worse, I was terrified that I would fail as an athlete too, that I might burn out or get injured as quickly as so many female distance runners did.  I had only ever run spring track in high school, and I lacked experience as a cross country athlete, especially in a Division I program. I wasn’t used to high mileage training plans, or racing every weekend in Franklin Park or Van Cortlandt in the Bronx, where the hills were famously long, the competition with other Ivy League distance teams unfathomably steep.

My first semester at Yale, I spent nearly all of my free time in the library reading Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dante, Cervantes, Faust, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Beckett, Camus, Moliere, and Montaigne.  I read as slowly as I could manage, set on burning every line into my memory, so not to be found out if called on in a seminar.  I never spoke about my ideas, but instead pretended to be too busy copying the words of my English professors and peers, desperate to decipher the meaning beneath the text.  Still, my constant reading in the library calmed me: this sense of a predictable routine, an escape from my obsessive fears.

My first year of college, I continued to eat very little around my morning classes and study sessions, subsisting most days on nothing more than a peanut butter sandwich, salad, and Luna bar, sometimes a half cup of yogurt, despite intensive cross-country practices, ten miles of hard training on the Yale golf course or hilly New Haven roads before dinner, which was usually a salad, with a piece of fruit for dessert.

In retrospect, I understand this time as part of some larger preparation for the inevitable, the fact that my relationship with my father would end. Not so much a complete rupture, but as the moment that would yield to the silence that continues to divide us for over a decade.  It happened one December, when I was studying for finals, copying notes for my linguistics anthropology class, on the question of whether thought preceded language, or language thought; I remember believing it was the latter without the words to explain why.  I was trying to memorize quotes by Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky, so not to confuse my own instincts with their proven theories, when my phone flashed with my father’s name.  He rarely ever called.  I rushed to answer in a break room by the vending machines.

My father’s voice was frantic, on some other plane.  He said he needed my help.  He was in trouble, on the verge of losing his house because my college payments had made his life unaffordable.  He was worried my half-sister wouldn’t be able to attend college at all, at least not a private education like I’d been afforded, and was that fair? Did I want her to suffer?

He said, Jack you have to help me.  When I asked him to explain, he said to go back to my dorm room.  He would be emailing a document that would explain everything soon.

An hour later, when I opened the attachment, I found a copy of my parents’ original divorce agreement from the nineties.  I was eighteen by then, of legal age to change the terms my mother had negotiated when I was six.  If I signed, he would no longer have to contribute toward my or my sister’s college tuitions.

The pain and shock I felt in that moment is still hard to explain.  It wasn’t as simple as the question of money, of refinancing my education.  If it were, I would have signed in a heartbeat.

It was the fact of what I represented to him.  Debt, the object of a war he’d lost to my mother and was still searching to recover through me, his eldest daughter.  It was his plotting over the years—as if every time he’d asked me to ignore his absences during visits, his neglect when he wasted afternoons calling his bookies, his insults—he’d been preparing me for this larger acquiescence.  And yet to voice my anger would be to become my mother incarnate, a barrier to his complete financial freedom.  Signing this document not only meant choosing his story over my mother’s, but it meant doing so at my own expense, denying my autonomy.  The conditionality of his love blurred the document on my computer screen. My body seemed to be spinning into tiny pieces, no longer centered, no longer believing in myself as someone individual, separate, or whole.

That day in December, it became clear that my father had wanted to absorb all of me, to make me even more an abstraction of his own self-interest, shatter my inner faith. My struggle to absorb the guilt he asked me to hold for him—all bound up in the idea of my mother that I represented—continued to fuel my own self-loathing.  The months that followed would be the start of the larger delusion that I could live in my body, in perfect control of it through running, when I was in fact always living out of it, unable to absorb my father’s injuries longer than it took to tie my shoes and reach the door every morning, hungry to pound my legs mile after mile, for as long as it took to obliterate any certainty of feeling.

• • •

For the rest of that year, and into my sophomore year, I became obsessed with logging eight to ten miles a day, more than my coach required; I ran in secret before and after practices, before and after races. I tried to subsist on one Powerbar between breakfast and lunch to last me for a workout and race, and then would eat normally at team dinners in the cafeteria, so that my coach and teammates could not point fingers.

I thought I could hide behind my illness, but my frail body, my emaciated arms and chest were telltale. My body implied a secret that was too painful for me to see in the mirror myself.  I looked away in locker rooms and bathrooms hoping no one noticed my X-ray frame, so clear that something was broken and wearing away within, but no one could point to a single fracture or diagnosable disease on the outside.

It was in this way that I watched my body slip from its skin over a matter of weeks, into months.  I didn’t see it slipping each day, felt nothing along this nebulous timeline, but when I looked in the communal bathroom mirror of my dorm one night in March, I cried.  I felt a sudden terror over my shrunken arms, my double-zero jeans falling from my hips, my body moving past me faster than I could stall its leaving.  I did not see an end, a way to stop my own exit.

I could only run, proof I was still alive: to feel myself breathing and moving through space, watching seconds dissolve into minutes, this ghost of air rushing through my weak limbs.  I had to be moving at all times.  To sit still was to hear my father’s hateful voice again.  You are just like your mother.  A “bitch” who was bad with money, bad at math.  I could not turn to my body in the mirror as salvation, comforted by my boyish legs and chest. I learned to despise the image of myself through glass.

At night, I tossed and turned, my mind chasing images of my next run.  I often woke from nightmares, tears roped around my eyes.  To sit still was to see more of the pieces, my most treasured moments with my father slipping away.  No more time at the beach, quoting our favorite songs and movies.  No more sharing stories to break the silence between visits.  No more thinking of my father as my hero, the one who would save me if only I was good enough. No more of my secret desire to be affirmed by the paternalism through which I had negotiated my self-worth since I was small.  Who was I without the myth of my father? Who was I if I wasn’t desirable as the woman, the daughter he expected me to be?

To sit still was to feel this failure intensely in my body, the impossibility of what never was or could ever be.

Running allowed me to dissociate from my emotional pain, detach through a more physical one, the self-inflicted agony I was certain I needed and deserved daily.  I longed for the burn in my muscles and lungs more than any natural pleasure; I longed to run through the hottest or coldest days, when I could lose more of myself in sweat, or else in rain or sleet or ice, violent conditions more tolerable than my father’s silence.

I jogged everywhere, to and from each of my classes, making it look like I was late, I was hurrying, had somewhere to be, but I was on a quest for the concrete, to burn more calories, accumulate more miles.  This spectral shadow consumed me as the physical manifestation of a darkness that had always been there. But in refusing to let it seep into my thoughts, crowd my chest, pierce my eyes, I let that shadow take all of me, my body its ghost.

Those months between my first and second semester of college, there had just been the odd sensation of my plastic spoon dipping in and out of a yogurt never more than one hundred calories, the crusts of sandwich bread I learned to savor over a full day’s time.  My mouth was always dry and I rarely slept. My times slowed at practice but I wouldn’t let myself wonder why—I just needed to get through a workout well enough to qualify for the next.  Just needed to make it home to fill my log before another night spent at the library, drinking water until I had to stand up and relieve myself, again and again, so not to think or feel.   I ran to not know myself, to reduce myself to a casing of bones, yet I also ran to be empty of them.  I ran to forget my body.

• • •

My freshman year of college, I grew thinner still, ninety-eight pounds when I was forced to see nurses for weekly weigh-ins.  But the scale wouldn’t rise.  Was I eating peanut butter crackers before bed? What about juice instead of water—juice had more calories and it was still liquid.  No questions about my home life.  They, like my coaches and other teammates, I guessed, assumed I was trying to control my body, just another emaciated female distance runner they didn’t have time to deal with.  They might have been right, but only because it alleviated the larger unworthiness of my existence I felt palpably everywhere, the weight of the secret I was hiding, that I had no self of my own.  I, like my mother, had robbed my father of his inheritance. I didn’t know how to account properly for the financial injustice of his divorce.

Somewhere, caught in the abstraction of his accounting, I had no language for the doctors and nurses to explain my obsession—not even for my own mother when she grew desperate over the state of my health and wanted me to see a therapist.  There were only ever more numbers to cling to each week as I stepped on and off scales.  Lighter and lighter, more the ghost I’d felt myself become under my father’s faraway gaze.  I wanted to disappear with my pain, dissolve with it, and the more I ran, the closer I came to that dissolution.

But there would be a point through which my hidden desire for obliteration could not be accommodated by my legs.  This moment did not come the way I expected it to.  My senior year of college I was running around the IM fields, keeping pace with the top group, when I felt a sharp pain in my lower back that sent an even sharper shooting sensation around my groin, fascia roping tighter and tighter around my pelvic bones, until I could not stand straight, let alone walk.  Every step sent an electric shock of pain through my body as if sheathes of tissue had caught flame.  I jolted and winced until my coach had to drive me to see a trainer, and on the exam table, the trainer would hand me a tiny paper cup filled with Advil, hook me up to a stim machine and stack my back with a wrapped bag of ice, remind me to breathe while I held back tears and told him how much it hurt.

In the next weeks, I would be sent for a full MRI that said I had a stress reaction in my pelvis.  I had closed my eyes within the dark tunnel of the medical machine, reconfiguring potential sentences in my head for a paper on William Wordsworth due the next day, one I would spend the rest of the night writing in my dorm room, barely able to sit for longer than several minutes, the pain coming in waves around my hip joints and legs: nerve endings alight in a fury, until they rested long enough for a few hours of sleep. I could only hope that this pain cycle was temporary, that the damage wouldn’t be permanent.

I barely ran the rest of that year, any effort to regain the speed I’d lost proved futile. After one repeat on the track, the pain would resurface, and even if it didn’t, my legs felt too heavy to try and overcome that possibility.  I loped leagues behind the slowest of my teammates at practice, as if I’d never run before, but still traveled to all the meets to cheer for my team, struggling to consume bagels lathered in peanut butter, to use my recovery as an ideal time to gain back weight like the nurses wanted.  I continued on like this, slowly making my way back up to one hundred and twelve pounds by the time I graduated.  When I page through the photograph album my mother made of my graduation day, my eyes still strain for a sense of happiness or pride at what I accomplished those four years, a desire to understand where my story started, where it will end.

• • •

In my ten years since Yale, I have pushed through countless injuries in the form of chronic back spasms, painful shockwaves while I walk or shower.  Where I had lost sensation before, in a quest to flee from my hurt, I have watched that denied pain reinstate itself as intermittent needles running through my body, around the fascia lining my ribs, up into my shoulders and neck, as strains, fractures, and tear.  One doctor linked the cycle back to my sacrum, a tiny joint at the base of my pelvis that stabilized the spine and hips.  He said I had lost my core, my center of gravity.

But I never stopped running.  To stop would have meant that I had ceased to try to heal myself.  And the healing had to come alongside my writing, in trying to look closely at those pressurized years of college running, the validity of my grief, my search to recover from what I couldn’t control through miles spent on the road.  I have spent a decade searching for my center this way, each injury showing me that its origin goes no further than myself.

As I run, my father’s words continue to echo through me, in what could have been around the truth of our sustained silence, outside of occasional calls around birthdays and holidays, when we leave each other messages.  I never delete his, his voice always stilted as he wishes me well, a constant reminder of learning to live with the loss of a dream.  My father has taught me that regret is no more than myth, part of the larger story we tell ourselves to survive.  In the end, there is only one choice, which is to acknowledge what had been and what can be no more.  I have learned that acceptance means not resisting the past, not judging or trying to fix or change its chosen course.

There are days when my mind urges me back to that dangerous place where my father’s voice lives, when I am tempted to be close to him again.  Sometimes I still push the miles too far, to that point that lets me slip out of my body, the detachment through which further injury becomes possible.  Running still tempts me as a drug, when I am looking for escape, but rather than yield to that desire without thinking, I try to ask myself what my body feels in the moment.   I try to be compassionate when it is tired or hungry or sore.  I try to let go of my mind’s need to live in a constant state of discomfort, let myself simply be when I can, tell myself I am already good enough, that I am deserving of love.  I am still learning that to forgive myself is never to erase my past, but to watch this life continue on as a series of moments guided by a river’s steady current, my breath at its center, moving silver gray in the sun: flickering time.

Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University.  She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub.  She has led writing workshops at the Valhalla Correctional Facility, the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and Curious-on-Hudson in Dobbs Ferry.  She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their Weimaraner, Phin. Late Air is her first novel.