That’s the easy part. It’s getting back again that I find difficult, for I perpetuate the feminine stereotype of having utterly appalling navigational skills. Absolutely no sense of direction and a complete inability to read maps. It shames my brothers, but if forced to use a map, I flip it to match any turns I make and embraced that navigational masterpiece, the GPS, with more joy than I did my husband on our wedding night. The points on a compass mean nothing to me and unless I waited until the sun set, I would never know where west is. I’m a navigational black hole. Any relevant information enters my brain and if it comes out at all it’s warped. Left seems right, up is down, and as for roundabouts, circling them until you’re dizzy is better than getting on a freeway you can’t escape and traveling for miles suspecting, correctly, that you’re going in the wrong direction.
I think my father thought he could fix the problem by enrolling the four of us in an orienteering course when we were young. We were put in pairs, given a compass and a map, and a series of targets to find somewhere in the bush. The first team back won. I was always put with Ian, a family friend who (if he’d been so inclined) could likely have represented Australia in the middle distance running events. Off he would dash, disappearing amongst the gum trees and buggar following the map, my sole objective was to keep up with him and not spend the day lost in the wilderness.
New York spoiled me; its convenient grid meant that even when I was lost, I was still only one block in the wrong direction. I’d forgotten how much that hid my disability when I was briefly back in Australia and working in Darwin, Northern Territory. On my first night there, I stayed with my new boss and her husband and headed out for a jog. Two and a half hours later, heels bleeding, mouth as dry as a popcorn fart, they found me pounding the pavement clear on the other side of town.
In those days I was a fashion workout puritan; old t-shirts with no labels, my midriff securely covered, shorts from my soccer days and definitely no music device.
I’ve graduated now - audibly anyway - and strap an ipod to my arm.
Actually the ipod was a good move – it’s harder for those I call the predator runners to strike up a conversation with you when Eye Of The Tiger is blasting your ears. It is a device I wish I’d had as a little girl when my father would drag me from bed for an early morning run. I’ve never wanted to disappoint Dad, so unlike my three brothers who seem to assume they can do so on a rotating basis and still stay in good favour, as the only girl I’ve always tried to make him happy. Which meant waking up in the dark, cold morning, Jack Frost still sleeping on the front lawn, to run through the quiet streets of Armidale in the northern tablelands of NSW.
In my entire running career I’ve never met a runner like Phil. He doesn’t seem to find breathing a necessity. It’s like he absorbs oxygen through the too-short-shorts-with-built-in-undies he insists on wearing despite his daughter’s embarrassed protests. The gentle flap, flap, flap of fabric against his trunk size thighs must somehow distribute air into his lungs, allowing him to run and talk at the same time. “So Nome,” he’ll say, half way up a hill, “what do you think is the meaning of life?”
These days I sprint along the edge of the Pacific, the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, dodging seagulls and lifeguards, the theme from Chariots of Fire running through my head. The lifeguards here are extremely vigilant. I’ve never seen more surf rescues than I have on Santa Monica beach. Then again, I’ve never seen more people swimming fully clothed. It’s difficult to swim in jeans and a sweatshirt, people, hence the unfortunate popularity of the budgie smuggler, so gleefully embraced by the Australian male and known in other nations as the banana hammock, the dick sticker, or here in the US, the common speedo. More often than not, I am escorted on my run by a pod of playful dolphins, pace myself to the beat from the Venice drum circle and leap frog the many homeless who make the sun bleached sands their home.
Sometimes I skip the beach, bike ride to a steep set of stairs and run up and down them until my legs shake so badly I can barely ride home again. It may seem like an odd thing to do, but I am never alone. The stairs are always crowded with hundreds of sweating, panting, puffing Santa Monicans all working for the perfect body.
Up and down the steps I pound, head down and eyes on the stairs, which is great for avoiding an embarrassing trip, but gives me no time to prepare for coming face to face – or face to bum as the case may be – with the person in front.
Usually it’s a woman in Lycra pants and matching sports bra because here, a display of midriff is compulsory, regardless of its state. The owner of said midriff may have just given birth to octuplets or placed first in a hamburger eating competition, but still their jiggling abdomens are revealed, shuddering like bacon lard with every stair they climb.
And if it’s not the jigglers I run into, it’s the man with the weights, dressed in a black fleece tracksuit covered in a weight jacket. The pungent odour of man-sweat trapped between metal and a synthetic fibre wafts behind him like a skunk under threat. Though I do occasionally wonder if I’m not much better. My typical morning involves getting dressed into the pajamas I didn’t wear to bed, (I find them restrictive for sleeping, but perfect for writing) writing for a few hours, then getting out in the sunshine for a bit of exercise. Rationalising that there’s no point showering before a workout, or putting deodorant on either since I’ll only sweat it off so I may as well save the money, I head for the stairs as natural as nature intended. The saying ‘ladies don’t sweat, they perspire’ does not apply to me and it has occurred to me that my natural pheromones may, in fact, be offensive to others.
Now, while the stairs are being pounded by those with the extra pounds, they’re more likely to be lightly tapped by rawboned women, their glossy manes bouncing around their doctor-designed faces, their chopstick legs desperately balancing the weight of their surgically enhanced chests so they don’t topple backwards and land at the bottom of the stairs in a tiny bundle of plastic, collagen and spandex.
LA is the kind of town where if you didn’t have an eating disorder when you got here, you’ll quickly acquire one. They’re obligatory. Like a valley accent, or air pollution, or a passive-aggressive attitude. Here, pre-schoolers do yoga and ladies carry their complexes in their designer handbag. I’ve only been here eight months and already I’ve developed the disturbing habit of reaching under my shirt and feeling my belly pooch every time I take a sip of tea with sugar in it or - heaven forbid - eat the bread my sandwich comes with. Sometimes when I’m running the stairs I grab at it, as if I might be able to feel the fat dissolve with every step I climb. Recently I overheard a woman ask her friend how she stayed so thin. “I haven’t eaten anything that tastes good in years,” the friend replied. What’s even scarier is that all these women look the same. If one of the west coast wildfires ever made it to LA, the town would go up in acrid flames made from only two bottled hair dyes – blonde and brunette - one shade of tanning lotion, and the city would be reduced to a pile of identical plastic noses, lips and balls of 14DD breasts.
So here we are, the fatties, the clones and me, all vying for space on the wooden stairs. And just like I can sniff the weight man, I can also sniff the clones’ disdain when they glance at my outfit, my baseball cap hiding my unbrushed hair, the sun cream running milkily down my arms.
“What’s the time?” Clone One asks Clone Two, pointedly ignoring the watch on my wrist. After taking her earphone out of one ear and telling the person on her blackberry to “hang on a minute,” Clone Two looks at Clone One and says; “twelve thirty.” (No self respecting Hollywood-wannabe exercises before noon. Probably because their waitressing shift didn’t finish until three and they also need the morning to blow dry their freshly washed hair).
But it’s not really the time Clone One cares about. What she’s really saying is; “how did you convince your surgeon to do your breasts so big? I tried, but mine refused. I knew I should have spent the extra money for the surgeon on that reality show, all my friends did and he did exactly as they asked.”
One of my greatest runs was back in New York on the night of ‘blackout 2003’ (as the commemorative t-shirts said). At first New Yorkers panicked (it seemed a little too much like that fateful September date) but after it was ascertained – and blamed on Canada – that it was just a huge power failure, it was a very pleasant evening indeed. Spontaneous street parties erupted, stores gave away melting ice creams and candles were shared as people gathered on the brownstone steps.
At dusk, not a single light but the fireflies in the trees and the sun setting over the west side apartments, I strode around the Jackie Onassis Resevoir and thought of Phil.
What was the meaning of life? Was it this? A mad-paced city forced to stop and smell the dog pee evaporating from its sidewalks? To recognise that for all their differences, the inhabitants could still be united by a single blown fuse. Or did the clones have it right? Was the meaning of life competitive uniformity? Should we abandon individuality and strive instead for homogenous perfection?
I decided to ask Clone Number Two…if only I could work out which one she was.