As I’m sitting on the carpet stretching out my hamstrings, I’m nose-level with the litter box, and I can smell it needs changing. I just finished chasing my cat around the apartment. His pupils were dilated until they almost completely eclipsed his golden irises. Hiding under the bed now, he’s frightened witless. I often wonder if he sees me as a kind of god-like creature, sometimes loving, giving, providing. Sometimes the bearer of great incomprehensible wrath. Of course I would never do anything to harm him. It’s just that I do strange things now that I live alone, things like chase my cat around the apartment to warm up my muscles before I stretch for my daily run. But no one’s watching. No one knows unless I tell them.
Needing less ammonia and more oxygen, I slide a little farther away from the box so I can concentrate on my breathing. As I inhale deeply through my nose, I stretch my shoulders forward a bit, lengthening my spine. Then I exhale slowly and fully, and with the exhale, I stretch the top of my body a tiny bit closer to my foot. I take ten breaths, and with each, I move a few millimeters farther. I’m getting closer to something, but I don’t know what.
When I’m done all my stretches, I strap on my music player, grab some water, and exit. I let the front door slam behind me, and I hear my cat mourning my exodus. I understand his frustration: he has no way of knowing whether I’ll be gone for half an hour or four days. He doesn’t notice whether I pack a bag, or even if I take my car keys. He just knows he’s going to be alone.
In the lobby of my building, I click on my iPod and select some dark, noisy industrial music. Energized, I bound up the half-flight of steps out into the parking lot, then cross at a quick walking pace to start my warm-up.
I pass the building where I lived for the three previous years with a parade of roommates, including a boyfriend, an ex-heroin addict, his stripper girlfriend, her other boyfriend, a best friend, and a total stranger from the internet. I got along best with the stranger. We used to smoke marijuana and work out together, and we talked about joining a church. We’d even gotten a few other people in on the idea, too. We were the kind of people who, in our late teens, had rebelliously rejected our parents’ religion, stopped going to church on Sundays, but who, as adults on our own, could no longer run from the lifelong conditioning. After years under the pretense of apathy, we were jonesing for spirituality like junkies in withdrawal, and we sought that which was most familiar. But none of us joined any church. We just talked about it, and that sufficed to make us feel better.
After I’d kicked out the last of the roommates, I scraped together the money to have the place to myself for the last few months of the lease. All I could talk about was how much I wanted to move away from the memories of that stained and smoky apartment, with snapped-off blinds and a hole punched in the bathroom wall. But I only got as far the next building over. Six months in the new place, and I’ve only unpacked half my stuff; I’ve been living on the bare minimum. And now all I can talk about is how much I want to move again.
At the edge of the parking lot, there’s about twenty yards of unpaved ground before the sidewalk starts. There’s some grass on the edges, but the center has been pounded down into a dirt path by years of feet all moving in the same direction. With its rocks and grassy nubbins of earth and low-hanging tree branches, this short length of path can be treacherous to negotiate after sunset.
Today, a long sheath of crinkled, black scales lays in the path; a snake has shed its skin. The tire track of a bicycle bisects the skin near the open end where the black rat snake must have slithered out. It looks like a prone exclamation point. In a few days, sneaker treads, scooter tires, and doggie paw pads will have scattered the pieces of skin too far to ever be whole again. Everyone takes a little bit away with them until there’s nothing left.
After a few more strides, I step up onto the concrete sidewalk. The beginning of the sidewalk would probably make a good place to start running—a physical starting line. But the sidewalk goes uphill and the run would get too hard, too fast. I can do the uphill parts of my route once I have some momentum going, but I have to get into a rhythm first. I have to start on an easy part and work up from there. If I’m already running when I get to a hard part, I only have to continue doing what I’ve already been doing. And that’s really what most of life is anyway.
The place where I start running is at the crest of the hill. There’s a Food Lion supermarket on the right, and a flight of stairs going down to the parking lot. When I’m feeling ambitious, I run around the supermarket, then back up the stairs, and continue my normal path. Today, I’m not feeling ambitious. Approaching me is a woman walking her tiny dog on a thick purple rope of a leash. I keep my eyes toward the ground so she doesn’t think I’m staring at her. Then I look up at the last moment to give her a nod and a smile, but no one around here makes eye contact. We can physically be within inches of each other and still imagine that we are alone. Maybe some people like pretending they’re alone, so they don’t make eye contact. I don’t think I ever made eye contact with anyone when I had roommates just for that reason. But now I just want a smile from someone.
I glance over my shoulder to watch out for cars making a right turn, then weave around some cars waiting to make a left turn, and my music cuts out—dead battery. So I guess I’ll be alone with just my mind for the rest of the route. A small hop, and I’m back on the sidewalk. The route has been level for a few dozen yards, and I’m about to start going downhill. Oddly, downhill is not easier than level ground. You come down harder, and your joints jolt. If it’s been a long run, maybe it feels like little cartoon lightning bolts are shooting out from your knees. And you have to be more careful about rocks and uneven crevices in the sidewalk. If you trip and fall while going downhill, who knows when you would stop falling?
The path flows into a stand of trees that block out the sun, and for the first time on my route, I really feel like I am alone. No one else is on the path, and no cars along the road can see me. The trees hide me from the young athletes and their families. For just a moment, all I can hear is my footsteps on the pavement.
At the end of the park path, I emerge out onto a small cul-de-sac that connects a half dozen or so homes. One of the mailboxes reads “Basilik’s” and it reminds me of a snake-like creature that I read about in a book once. It was “basilisk” in the book, though. I remember when I was a child in Sunday school and learning that Satan had taken the form of a snake. That basilisk was the kind of snake I imagined: enormous and terrifying. It was the king of serpents; it could kill you with a single glance.
As I grew older, I realized Satan had appeared as just an ordinary snake, probably no different from the one who had shed its skin on my running path. When I thought of it that way, the story was less dramatic. In fact, many Bible stories I’d been raised on—graduating from my Illustrated Bible to the contemporary translation I received as a first communion gift—became increasingly less dramatic and more laughable. I only had to take half a step back and they began to look as cartoonish as the mythology portrayed in Disney’s Fantasia.
I hang a left turn and cut through the parking lot shared by several small businesses. There’s sort of a dead spot in the middle of the parking lot. I call it that because, for just a few seconds, all that you can see is man-made. The sun and anything green or leafy is blocked out by concrete and billboards. My left foot comes down hard in the dead spot, followed by my right foot, and everything seems to slow down. Right then, in that dead spot, in that absence of nature, it suddenly occurs to me that I no longer believe in God.
At once, the epiphany is terrifying, but irrefutable, and it had come seemingly from nowhere. But abruptly it is a part of my being, an absolute as unassailable as the gravity pulling me toward the earth. My feet continue to hit the pavement, one after the other, sending rippling aftershocks up my body. My belly and my breasts quiver. But I don’t get struck by lightning. I don’t turn into a pillar of salt. I’m not grabbed by the ankle and dragged down into hell. Nothing changes.
I’m running downhill again, but it feels more like I’m floating. My surroundings seem to have melted into nothing; I’m looking without seeing, all vision having turned inward, examining my mind. I had never considered that I was on a path toward abandoning my faith. I certainly didn’t think it was the kind of conclusion that would dawn on me abruptly while I was out running. But now that I had reached the finish line of a run I didn’t know I was taking, I look back and all the mile markers have suddenly appeared behind me.
I suppose, all along, I’ve been adjusting the tenets of what I proclaimed to be my “personal relationship with God.” I’d renounced my faith in the Bible, downgrading it to “stories to live your life by.” I came up with arguments so I could still call myself a Christian, but not actually believe in the Bible. I would say, “I am a Christian—a follower of Christ. 95% of the Bible isn’t Christ’s words.” After that, I gave up on believing in the divinity of Jesus altogether. It just all seemed too melodramatic, too ludicrous. I still thought of Jesus as a strong moral guide, but I could no longer in good conscience call myself a Christian. Then I realized I didn’t need a label; I didn’t have to follow anything or anyone. Maybe that’s why I stopped trying so hard to wake up early on Sunday mornings.
All along the way, I’d come to these little conclusions. I thought they meant I was refining and thus strengthening my relationship with God. Really, I was just falling away from him. Today, within the past sixty seconds, I have fallen so far that I can’t see him anymore.
I pass the entrance to the park and the whole route back home is the same, only it’s in reverse. What was uphill is downhill. Downhill is uphill. But the flat parts are still flat, and the snake skin is still on the ground. An ugly black finish line.
When I pass an old Indian man, I don’t even try to make eye contact with him. I just wonder if he believes in God. What has he taught children about God? It was old men, so many millennia ago, who, lacking science, decided they had to explain everything somehow. So they invented God, and they told other people about God. People believed them, because they were just as desperate for meaning as the old men, and so they started telling other people, too. And on and on and on, till somebody told me, and I believed them, because I was a child. We’re all just children when we find God. And after we lose him, we can never be children again.
I get home, and my cat isn’t there to greet me at the door. He’s somewhere else, and the apartment feels empty. I’m alone. In fact, I’m more alone than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and it scares me. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. There’s no one to talk to about it. I consider that, during all the toughest times in my life when I had prayed to God for support, I was really just talking to myself. And I start to cry.