It can be said that the stone benches outside the Yale University Art Gallery offer the best view of the New Haven celebrity parade: The scrappy shopping cart-pusher in the baseball cap who hikes his pants up to his nipples; the clean-cut blond kid who solemnly helms a Segue; the busker whose gravelly voice and blistering harmonica often render one melody indiscernible from the next. All these characters strut their stuff near the intersection of Chapel and High Streets, especially during lunch, when you can get a sandwich from across the street and eat it on one of the aforementioned benches, shamelessly staring at the strangers who are so much more interesting than Yale students. There is one stranger, however, who invites more speculation than all others combined, and it was he who I sought to see on my own Art Gallery days. That stranger is The Runner.
The Runner never walks. Whenever there is an opportunity for transportation, running is The Runner's only option. Apparently there are many such opportunities: I saw him sprinting from building to building most times I ventured out of doors. At one point he was even spotted in the same overpriced café at which I occasionally lunched, dashing from his table to the counter and back—in order to retrieve a napkin. You might conclude that The Runner is a man with places to go; that his haste is a product of necessity; that I should lay off someone who's just trying to incorporate extreme cardiovascular exercise into the minutiae of his existence. Yet as a longtime observer, I can confidently counter this theory: The Runner's routes don't make navigational sense. For all his apparent education in a Yale Graduate School (so the rumors go), The Runner seems to have missed the idea that the shortest distance from point A to B is a straight line. Indeed, something else entirely is going on: Though occasionally endowed with a destination, The Runner primarily runs to pass the time; he runs to stave off the eternal nothingness; he runs to run.
The Forrest Gump comparisons are obvious. Eternally clad in a brightly colored t-shirt, mismatching elastic shorts, white tube socks, sneakers, and a backpack, The Runner would invite speculations of mental retardation even without that little blockbuster of a flick.
I "ran into" The Runner often—we patronized a similar group of off-campus wining and dining establishments (which speaks to his taste, naturally). Upon such sightings, I would send a text message or two to my “team” of underclassmen males—an unofficial spy network, of whom I, the older sister figure, the most enthusiastic member, was the unofficial head. Our mission? To ridicule, affectionately. The catch? To compose something worthy of The Runner in fewer than 160 characters. A favorite:
Call: “Sighting at library. Which do you think The Runner eats for breakfast? a. Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions b. 3 Red Bulls c. His own flesh”
Response: “He photosynthesizes.”
Monitoring The Runner’s movements got to the point that it diverted us from our work—a welcome development given that term papers and exams were looming and other, more legitimate, excuses to procrastinate ran few and far between. At one point, an agent found himself sitting next to The Runner at a coffee shop and proceeded to eavesdrop on his conversation for the next two hours. I learned from the copious notes he took that the Runner’s name was Chris, that he came from a wealthy family in Maryland, that he was a Yale graduate student (gossip triumphs again!) but now worked for the Disabilities Office. My agent described him as excruciatingly awkward, his inability to make eye contact distracting, his tendency to pontificate obnoxious but comical.
For all these encounters, for all my real or feigned interest in the man, I could never garner the courage to introduce myself to him. Alone with my observed, my team an entire text message away, I could not escape my better judgment and my shame. How did The Runner refer to me to his friends, I would wonder. Am I The Gawker? The Serial Texter? The walking, trudging, slouching undergrad who clearly only got into Yale by selling her tact and agreeing to major in snark?
At this point I should mention that after four years of college and the complete celibacy that, for me, came with it, pitching woo, by the time The Runner ran into my life, was not my forte. Whatever hormones or urges poked and prodded at my repressed little soul tended to surface in odd ways: unnecessarily poetic and copious emails to large groups of peers, professions of love recited from a post-it note, a bicycle trip across the country embarked upon with little to no training.
I decided to tell my spy team I was in love with The Runner. I told them how nervous The Runner made me feel, how his sculpted loins stirred up feelings in my own that I did not understand. I told them how jealous I felt when I saw him with other girls. My team maintained this level of rapport, keeping up the obvious joke, or occasionally even understanding that my affections were deliberately misplaced—in the form of a reciprocal shrouded flirtation:
Call: “Sighted in Commons with a cute brunette! Curses. I even broke out my own tie-dye today, in preparation for our life together. Now all is lost.”
Response: “But clearly you’re his type.”
I was encouraged—So encouraged as to bring my campers in on the loop. That summer, I was counseling a group of middle schoolers at a theater camp, and each day for lunch the administration subjected us to an outdoor open-mike concert. Conveniently, our property was situated next to one of The Runner’s favorite coffee shops, so I caught a sighting most days of the week. I told my little ones about him, either just to make conversation or because I actually thought it would be a good idea to do so. Their response, of course, was to begin to chase him, screaming, “OUR COUNSELOR LOVES YOU, RUNNER!” Luckily, The Runner ain’t so-called for nothin, and he could easily escape a few middle school girls.
If I did love him, and for all I knew I did, it was time to state my intentions clearly. I waited for my next day off.
I didn't anticipate that the tube socks and short elastic shorts would highlight the chunkiness of my thighs so well, but there I stood in the heart of the New Haven celebrity parade, in my own version of an all-too-familiar uniform. I felt childish in the backpack, itchy with the lines of perspiration sliding down my back in the humid afternoon, but mostly ashamed with the scheme I had concocted, or confused as to what it was.
Waiting or dreading, I sat down on one of the stone benches, listening to the busker play a Beatles song—or was it Dylan? To my left was a pair of teenage lovers, the girl crunching the ice in a plastic cup with her straw. Then I realized I'd never tipped, or donated to, my favorite gritty troubadour. I looked in my backpack for my wallet, but of course I'd left it in the bag I use when I'm not on a mission to nowhere, for nothing. I supposed I wasn't really the kind of person to give money away anyway. I went home.
Then I stopped seeing The Runner. I wondered if he'd finally taken up long distances, making it out of New Haven when I had failed to do so, long after I too had graduated.
I finally saw him a few months later in the fall. It was raining. I had an umbrella and appropriate attire for the inclement weather. The Runner had neither, the glorious uniform unaltered. He was on the other side of the street. I decided to follow him. Crossing, I completely submerged my loafer in a lake-sized puddle. I speed-walked along, trying to keep up without conspicuously running after him. The drenched foot squelched with each successive step I took. As soon as The Runner darted behind a building, I picked up speed, trying to catch up just enough to glimpse his next turn. Rounding a corner, I was primed to watch for the telltale tie-dye and caught it moving toward Cross Campus. He was heading toward one of the libraries, and I sprinted ahead. He looked behind him; I swerved out of view, behind trees and pedestrians. The thrill of the chase unleashed a surge of adrenaline and something else: I had the urge to capture him somehow, and then to talk to him, to finally introduce myself, confess things, make him understand, be friends. I sent him a mental wave of good will; I wanted him to feel an appreciation from me that was not tinged with mockery. I imagined him slowing, turning, ready to wait for me to catch up, and then to listen. But he only accelerated, rounding a final corner and bounding down a flight of stairs to the underground library, disappearing out of my sight. I couldn't follow, no longer having a valid student ID. And suddenly I didn't want to. It seemed like he was running away from me, and, anyway, I had rain in my shoe.