On Running, Language, and Becoming Clean: An Essay by Sylvia Beato

Autumn Spriggs
Feb 24, 2017 · 6 min read
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There should be words. There should be a reaction. It’s eight thirty-eight in the morning on a Saturday in March. I am standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn, staring out the window. My mother is on the phone. She is telling me that she tried calling me three times yesterday, and where was I? Oh, working. Oh, at the gym. Oh, at dinner, it doesn’t matter. Her voice tries to sound like little lullabies as she recalls her Friday afternoon, but underneath I know it is something else.

Sylvia, she finally says, you need to talk to your father.

A long silence as I take quick gulps of coffee. She starts to enumerate ways of confronting a man who hates confrontation, and I could. I could write an e-mail, I could book a flight to see him this very weekend, I could even call him. But I won’t. Instead, I say that I am too busy. Instead, I shove a banana in my mouth and pull on my sneakers. I hang up. I go for a run.

There is something stirring in me, but I let my feet take care of it. Through streets, on trails, over bridges, dodging trash bins and babies on sidewalks. My feet push the ground away from me, until I’m almost flying. Miles and miles for hours, often with no destination in mind, before realizing the return home might be more than my body can handle. But it does, of course, handle it. By the time I’m showered and limping to the couch, I’m too tired to care.

I don’t much like confrontation, either.

When my grandfather died, I had just turned 14. I remember because I had spent that previous summer in Spain taking walks with him through the woods, staring silently at the ocean when we paused to rest. His words to me were usually limited to the trees and the tide, to the way a “bricked sky” meant a “wet floor.” A few months later, at home, my mother answered a condolence call from her ex-husband before we knew we would be receiving condolence calls. Her voice hinged on the question, “what do you mean, feel my pain?” and then, breaking, “who?”

My sister followed me to my room where she pulled my hands away from my face even as I fought her, and then held me against her chest while our mother screamed.

Other animals mourn, too.

Elephants, I’ve read,

stay beside the bodies of the dead

for days.

A few months after that, my father had his first heart attack. We were alone, the three of us, and my mother shook me awake with the whispered plea: we need to go now, you need to talk to the paramedics. In the waiting room, the surgeon explained the chances of survival from a triple bypass. I translated to Spanish for her, who silently held my hands.

“It’s amazing how your hands are exactly like his. Even the shape of your nails. Pero son más pequeñas, claro. Más femeninas.”

I don’t think about my hands, of course, as being “my father’s hands.” When I am tying my laces, dicing an onion, flipping a page, turning a knob. I would think few of us would be so aware of our own hands, despite objectively recognizing their importance. My mother still says this to me when she holds my hands, as if trying to remind herself of who I am.

A former lover once wrote a letter in which she explained all the things she couldn’t stop thinking about, among them smeared lipstick and clasped hands, and then later — just hands, my hands, as if these were separate from the rest of me. In a poignant fight, I recall her accusation: “what about all the things you wrote to me with your own fucking hands?!”

Elephants, too, bury their dead.

The thing about loss

is that nothing feels like it’s missing

right away.

Sometimes the memory

excavated from a burial

takes some digging.

But that’s when it starts

to hurt.

When my feet are hitting pavement in Gowanus, mile 7 or 8, I think about the water there, and wonder, again, at how we wound the things that nourish us. My friend’s studio is in a giant warehouse on Douglass. She works for hours in a cement room with no heat, wrapped in woolly layers, melting metal down to liquid.

“It’s all sewage,” she says, pointing to the canal outside the square window. “I think they’re trying to introduce oysters. To filter the water and clean it.”

Me: Not the kind we would want for happy hour.

Her: No, not that kind.

She is making hollows and depths in her metal shapes, she is keeping them functional, mundane, these objects that hold all her hopes and all her losses.

When I was a little girl and my dad would hold my hand, he never entwined his fingers with mine. I used to think this was the platonic way people held hands. Later, I realized he just didn’t hold hands very often, and when he did, he was so self-conscious about touching that he did it wrong.

Hands that contain, that pull away, that push against. I watch my friend as she sands things, molds things, the way she puts it back together, the new shape an echo of its former, the tension between her touch and her memory, the dreams that haunt us.

My mother has recently learned to text.

It’s like a new way of speaking.

She begs me for pictures, mostly, impressed with how easy the selfie is.

Is your hair longer? For the love of God, what is in your nose?

There are 179 different languages spoken in New York City, and 59 of these are endangered. People just don’t use them, anymore. How to say the word “sorry” in Burmese? In Uzbek? How do you say “time out”?

When we moved from the Dominican Republic, I had just learned to run — arms stretched out and ambling side-to-side. A toy, stuttering. We were six in total, and we ended up in Miami because my father wanted to be close to home.

“A quick flight across the Caribbean,” he had said.

We have always been near bodies of water, close enough to smell the salt eroding away all the things within it. We didn’t, of course, travel to Santo Domingo that often. What’s the difference between eight hundred miles and three feet? What is distance made of?

The Gowanus Canal was originally used to transport fuel, scraps and metal. You’ll occasionally still see barges and small tugs drifting by. But when you stare at the bubbles at the top of the water, just remember it is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

I know I need to talk to my father, to make peace or make up the past. I know he is waiting for this because he is dying. And I owe him that much since we are all dying, of course, one word at a time.

When an elephant is sick or injured,

the rest of the herd

will try to carry it with them,

prop it up with their tusks, put grass

in its weak mouth.

Once it falls to the ground,

the other elephants gently

touch its body

with their trunks,

throw dirt, arrange branches

like flowers.

Sometimes they are silent,


they toss their trumpets in the air

and roar.

I’ve made it to the Hudson now, mile 10 or 11. It is a bright day, despite the cold. The water beyond the Brooklyn Bridge glistens. There is a carousel in the distance spinning round and round. I look down at my gloved hands, and think about what it takes to be clean. In Spanish, lo siento, means I feel your pain.

I wish acknowledging our shortcomings could rid us of our suffering, but I don’t think it does.

Sylvia laughs with her dog in Brooklyn. http://sylviabeato.tumblr.com/about

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