“You’re gonna sleep naked?” Angie asked.
“You’re disgusting!” She slammed the door on the way out.
I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. I actually wasn’t ashamed of running in the nude. I liked it. And, as Rose had said, I was pretty calm about it. I could just go into the lab and have Rose initial my form, like the weekend guy did. What did Angie say his name was? I wasn’t ready to just give up clothes like Wes and Piña and Nate. I did want to run more than once a day. That just about guaranteed being naked where more people would see me. If the weekend guy was gossiping about me, it shouldn’t surprise anybody. As Grandy said, if they saw something they had never seen before, they wouldn’t know what it was, like that cop out on the road my first time. Would the ARC be as deserted when the doors opened at 5:45 as it was late at night? Maybe I should go to the pool and swim with Piña. No, Lily was the swimmer. Besides, I wanted to run!
I climbed out of bed to turn out Angie’s desk lamp and the room lights. Before climbing back into bed, I set my alarm for 7:00. Other people were likely to be running then. Let ’em look.
Before 6:30 on Tuesday morning, I was in the locker room at the ARC. Even though I was there, going through with my plan didn’t seem likely. At least twenty people were on the track already. When I started this research where nobody would see me, it hadn’t worked out as planned. Running late at night when the only people to see me would be verifying the protocol wasn’t exactly working out, either. Jimmy what’s-his-bucket was spreading gossip, and I had been hanging out with Rose a whole lot longer than necessary to make sure I was wearing only running shoes. What was next? Going naked everywhere like Wes and Piña? Or maybe just running to class and getting dressed before I went in, like Nate? Or maybe it was just running on campus twice a day. That really was what I wanted to do.
I found a locker and sat on the bench staring at it. The night before was far from the first time Angie had spent the night somewhere else. It was the first time I caused it when I was sober. And what was the point of going to bed naked? Doing that when she was gone was one thing; doing it to spite her was something else. Of course, we didn’t invite guys into our beds, either. On the other hand, and as Mom preached, blaming someone else wouldn’t excuse my actions. With a sigh, I began undressing. Among my actions was getting involved in the research. I loved running and really liked doing it naked, so what was the problem?
Just outside the locker room, I found a spot to stretch. More people were running. Don’t strain your eyes, people. As pissed off as Angie was about me running alone in the middle of the night, what would she say about this? Poor girl might have heart failure. The kindest thing would probably be to tell her before she heard it through the grapevine. If she ever came back to the room. If she went straight to the Housing Office for a different roommate, would what I had done be enough to justify it? Nearly everything from my party days was a whole lot worse than sleeping in the buff one time… that Angie knew about. What I did while Angie was gone probably didn’t count.
When I had stretched as much as I was going to, I trotted around the end of the track to the HP lab. For this early in the morning, it sure seemed busy. A fast-moving line of people was signing in to use the equipment. I waited beside that line to talk with one of the attendants. Should I just reach behind the counter for my folder and take it to somebody for initials? No, people tended to get grumpy if you tried to get around standard procedures.
“Damn,” a guy in the signing-in line said to no one in particular. “Are we supposed to sign on the back or what?” All the sheets on the clipboard were full.
“Just a minute,” I said and went into the little workroom behind the desk where a copy machine was blinking red. Its screen said it was out of paper. A few sheets in the tray were sign-in forms. I took them out to the counter and went back to look for paper for the copier.
“What are you doing?” a woman demanded just as I got the copier started.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I got… Oh Geez, it’s a long story. I just got your machine going again. Can you sign my form for the running research?”
The woman wasn’t too happy about it, and I had to show her where the folder was. I tried to explain that I just needed initials to verify compliance with the research protocol. She insisted on reading the letter on the other side of the form before filling in the date and time and initialing it. She acted like she had never heard of the running research before, but she looked familiar from when I came in for check-ups. I was surprised to see a naked woman run past as I headed for the track. She was in a middle lane not moving fast. She had light-brown hair about to the middle of her back and was wearing old-style running shoes like mine. I set off in my usual outside lane and soon caught up with her.
“Hi,” I said, moving over beside her and slowing down. “I’m Iris.”
“I’m Cassie,” she said breathing hard. “Oh, you’re… Hi.”
“No, that’s okay.” She had a royal blue protest medallion on her left shoe and the tracking tag on her right.
“You’re in the protest, too?” I asked.
“No. I got it… at a meeting… last night.” She was a couple inches shorter than me and had a much smaller build.
“At the chapel?”
“Yeah. Were you… there?”
“No. I heard about it from some friends. They’re in the protest.”
“Wes and Damien? If we had asked… someone else… the fireworks… would have been… different.”
I frowned. “No, Piña Ball and Nate Solana. What fireworks?”
“The death penalty… and a gay couple… was too much… for some of our… exchange students.”
“A gay couple?”
“Wes and Damien. Oh, don’t you… know ’em? We’re all… from Bayfield.”
Gay? Wes? Shit! “I know Wes.” Gotta get this subject changed before I start screaming. “You always run at this time?”
“Last week… I was running… earlier. Not many people… around. Overslept… this morning.”
“Oh. Yeah. I ran by myself at night my first week and in here about the time they lock the door since then.” Wes was gay? Damn! Damn! Damn!
“You’re a better… runner than I am.”
“I ran in high school.” Gay? Fuck! God must be mad at me!
“I wasn’t ever… a runner. Do you know… how far… we’ve gone?”
I opened the tracking app on my phone. “Almost a mile and a half.”
“I was stopping… at a mile… before.”
“I was gonna go for two miles this morning,” I lied. I had planned on three. “Wanna go for it with me?”
“I’ll try… if you don’t… speed up.”
“You’re doing great.”
I chuckled and kept an eye on my phone so we could stop at two miles. I offered to go into the locker room for warm-down stretching, but Cassie said by the track would be okay. I showed her what stretches to do, and we talked more as she caught her breath. I asked about her medallion.
“I’ve known Damien and Wes a long time. I’d support my friends even if I didn’t agree with their cause, but in this case I do. Killing people just isn’t right. I don’t know if I have the guts to give up my clothes to end the death penalty like Wes, but it seems worth doing.”
“Like giving up your running clothes for this research?”
“I don’t really have running clothes, but yeah. Do you still have your running clothes from high school?”
“No. They wouldn’t fit if I did. I put on a lot of weight when I couldn’t run.”
“You look nice.”
“Thanks, but when I look in a mirror…”
“My mom says,” Cassie interrupted, “saying ‘thanks, but’ is like calling the person who just complimented you a liar.”
“Well, I guess we’re even. You flat-out called me a liar when I said you were doing great while we were running.”
“I know better.”
“That’s how I feel about how I look.”
“Maybe. You seem pretty calm about people looking now.”
“My dad always tells my sister, brother, and me to act confident.”
Cassie needed to get to class, so we went to the showers together. Before we parted, we agreed to run together again and exchanged phone numbers.
Piña was at a table with a guy and a girl when I found her in the snack area. Denny Hedges had been a couple of years ahead of Piña at their high school, but they knew each other from band and the swim team. His girlfriend, Lina Martinyuk, looked like she had just walked out of a fashion magazine, beautiful dark- brown hair, full lips, a complexion that didn’t need make-up, full breasts, fancy clothes, the whole bit. If there was anything at all fair about life, looks like that would mean a rotten personality and no brain, but she was actually interesting and interested in getting to know me. “Are you in the Scholars Program?” Lina asked as we were chatting over breakfast.
“If you saw my grades…” I shook my head.
“Grades are not the only mark of a good person. I was trying to think of where I knew your name and thought it was on a list for the Scholars Program.”
“Well, they do keep sending me stuff, but I don’t know why.”
“That is it! I tried to invite you to help with my project, but you did not respond.”
“You’re in…” How could I ask without being rude?
“Hers is the lead project this year,” Denny said proudly. “They’re working with how exchange students interact with a different culture.”
“The meeting last night at Still Point was part of it,” Piña said.
“Oh. So you must know Cassie Maxon. She told me a little about it.”
“Cassie is helping with my project. Most freshmen don’t do that.”
“I thought World War III was starting last night,” Denny said, “but this beautiful woman got people talking instead.” He squeezed Lina’s hand.
“It was impressive,” Piña affirmed.
“We only continued the conversation that was begun last fall,” Lina responded.
Denny and Lina had to go to class, but I stayed with Piña to study until time for my Psych class. Piña went to practice at the music building at the same time.
Angie was gone from the room in the afternoon when I got back from class, but her things didn’t look like she was getting ready to move out. There was a message from Becki Bradford on my phone, asking me to call. She was always willing to make out with whoever, male or female. Soon after the last party I could remember her being at, she ‘got religion,’ as our other friends put it. We didn’t see her at parties anymore. While I went to supper, I wavered back and forth about calling. If Becki wanted to preach at me, I could just hang up. If she wanted to hook up, I would pass. I knew some lesbian or lesbian-until-graduation women, but I had always been more interested in guys.
It turned out that Becki didn’t want to preach at me or hook up. She wanted to apologize. She offered to buy me a soda if I wanted to come over to the Campus Center. I hesitated but accepted. I already had tea when I found Becki at one of the tables in the common area. Becki was wearing a short, pleated skirt and a pink, zipper-front hoodie with the zipper down far enough to show a bra… if she’d been wearing one. Not exactly what I expected of religious freaks.
After we had caught up a little, Becki said, “I saw you at the ARC this morning. Do you like running like that?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. Why?”
“I’m just… I’m not a runner, but you looked so free and comfortable with how God made you.”
“Well… yeah. I don’t usually put it that way.”
“I wouldn’t have either before last fall. When I quit partying, I started going to a Christian meeting on Sunday evenings, and they really helped me a lot.”
I sat back in my chair. “You don’t have to preach to me. My mom’s a preacher. I’ve heard it all.”
“Oh… well… oh. I didn’t… know.”
“Sorry. That was too harsh. When your mom’s a preacher… I don’t know. That’s probably part of why I partied so much.”
“Yeah. For me it was not wanting to admit I’m lesbian. Bi is more accurate, but it was the lesbian part I was trying to hide or avoid or whatever. They’ve helped me accept that God made me just the way I am.”
“Yeah. Bi-sexual and everything else. Have you ever heard of a Christian group that gets naked for their gatherings? This one does, and they really help me feel okay about just being me.” Becki chewed on her lip. “I hope we can be friends again.”
“Like… make-out friends?”
Becki smiled, but it faded quickly. “No. Once when I was in high school, I was over at a friend’s house when it was just us. We went skinny dipping, and I kissed her. That was the end of our friendship. If we can be friends, I really won’t push you into anything. Promise.”
“Well… if we aren’t friends, how will I ever find out about this naked church?”
“I don’t think it’s really a church.” Becki started telling about the gathering. They met on Sunday evenings at a home out on the edge of town. I was intrigued but didn’t make any promises.
When I went to the ARC that night, Rose showed me a note in the protocol folder. It said I didn’t need to come in for verification if I was running during the day. Angie was asleep when I got back to our room. I didn’t wake her. Maybe she didn’t feel like we needed to talk.
There was a strong, cold wind on Wednesday afternoon. I was cold already when I got to my afternoon class and, despite keeping my coat on, didn’t warm up. How were Wes, Piña, Nate, and the other protesters doing? They shouldn’t have to freeze anything to keep people alive. Before class, I had a plan for afterward. Strange as it might sound to get naked because I was cold, that was what I was going to do. I was going to run in the ARC before going back to the dorm. In high school, I had almost always run twice a day, before school and after, even when I didn’t have a paper route anymore. I had gotten the route when I was in eighth grade just after we moved to Gardner. Cassie was only running twice a week for now, so I had run by myself that morning and had gone three miles. Most days since starting running again, I had only run once, but everything was going well, and no matter where I was on the indoor track, it wouldn’t be far to the locker room if I needed to quit.
It seemed odd, but I already felt warmer when I came out of the locker room. It was the wrong time of day to run for anybody that was bashful. The track was crowded, and the basketball and volleyball courts in the middle were full. I found a spot at the edge of the track to stretch and watch the other runners go past. Matt Garrett was one of ’em. He was a runner? Too bad he didn’t set me off like Wes. Of course, I really didn’t need more of that. Matt went into the men’s locker room without noticing me. I recognized a few other runners but no one I wanted to run with. No one but me was naked. A girl with curly red hair was holding a good pace, and after a couple of laps, I figured out that we had been in the same History section the previous semester, not that I was there much. Her name was McKenzie Gregory. She paused for a drink of water, and I started out with her.
We were pretty evenly matched, and I found out that McKenzie usually ran about the same time five days a week. She didn’t like running in the cold, so she used the indoor track and hoped for summer. When we were almost done with our planned distance, we shifted into an end-of-the-race kick and did two laps or about a quarter of a mile much faster than I’d been pacing myself. We started laughing at the end, and I was breathing extremely hard but felt good. We were in the locker room when I asked if we could run together again.
She hesitated. “Sure.” She didn’t sound sure at all.
“Oh. You don’t…”
“No. Running with you is okay. Running with a guy would really bother me. It’s just… well, this research you guys are doing seems really dumb to me. No offense. And the protest…” She shook her head.
I sighed. “My grandfather always says we should keep it to ourselves if we were gonna hafta say ‘no offense’.”
She shrugged. “He’s probably right. Look. I really didn’t mean to offend you. I’ll be here again tomorrow afternoon if you want a running partner.”
“Okay. I’ll look for you. We’re probably offending more people than ever say anything.”
Usually I didn’t pay much attention to the information tables in the Campus Center, but the Kappas had one for a blood drive. If my cousin Jake and Matt hadn’t been there, I would have gone right on by. Jimmy McManigal was the third guy at the table. When he checked me in at the HP Lab on my first night of running on the indoor track, I didn’t remember he was a Kappa. He wasn’t afraid to talk to me this time – with my clothes on – but Matt and Jake did most of the talking. Why couldn’t I be so calm around Wes?
All day long, I had been noticing people with black smudges on their foreheads, but it had taken a while to realize that it was Ash Wednesday. In high school, most of the kids with ashes on their foreheads were Catholics. Some of the Protestant kids went to services at their own churches in the evening and then had clean faces before coming to school again. I had gone to the service at Mom’s church because there really wasn’t a choice, but I had never felt like I had much to repent for. That had changed. My first year on campus I was probably at a party on Ash Wednesday. The bulletin at Still Point on Sunday had said their service would be at nine in the evening. Would Wes be there? Would his boyfriend? Maybe I should repent for fantasizing about Wes. Mom said repenting meant deciding not to do it again, and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Only about eight or ten kids were in the sanctuary when I got there, and the lights were down low. Evan was playing soft music on the piano, but there wasn’t a sign of anyone else in the praise band. I slipped into a pew by myself and closed my eyes to pray. It really was easy not to drink when I was running, but running didn’t block out things I didn’t want to remember. Of course, most of the things were from when I got to feeling sexy from drinking. Running made me feel sexy, too, but taking care of it after running hadn’t given me any new regrets.
More people were behind me when Barb started the service. Was Wes one of them or my cousin Jake? I didn’t look around. Then, when it came time for ashes on the forehead, Wes was first with Damien and Evan. And then, wouldn’t you know it! Wes was going to do the ashes for the people on my side of the sanctuary! “God,” I whispered too softly for anyone else to hear, “if you want to strike me with lightning for being unrepentant, aim good. Don’t get him, too.”
Damien started singing… a beautiful, slow, haunting song, and the people in front started going forward. Oh shit! Barb and Wes, after they put the ashes on, were putting their arm around people’s shoulders to pray for them. How could I keep from crawling all over him? With God and his boyfriend and everybody else watching, no less! Too many people had watched me at parties. Keep calm! Keep calm! Wait! What are those scum doing? Switching sides and going to Barb? What do they think, a naked guy can’t be holy? I stood and marched to the front, but when he looked in my eyes, everything melted. Why wouldn’t my legs move? I closed my eyes.
Wes stepped close and made a cross on my forehead. “Running,” he said softly, “do you have any special prayer requests?”
Even with my eyes closed, I could feel how close he was, feel his soft breath. His sweet voice was more of a turn-on than all the running I had ever done.
“Okay.” He put his arm on my shoulders, and I shook with the effort not to wrap my whole self around him. He lowered his head and pressed it against the side of mine. “Dear God, bless Running deeply, and spread your blessings richly through her to all those she loves and cares about. Amen.”
Somehow I got back to my pew. When the service ended, I left the chapel without talking to anyone and walked alone on campus for a long time. Women aren’t supposed to walk alone on campus at night.
On Thursday and Friday mornings, I woke before my alarm, so I didn’t disturb Angie as I was leaving. In the ARC, I did my usual pace for about half my distance and then slowed to run and chat with Cassie. I got ready for class before meeting Piña in the snack area. Denny and Lina stopped by on Thursday to have breakfast after their swimming class, and it was nice talking with them, too. Even if Piña was naked – reminding me too damned much of Wes! – it was nice to have intelligent, interesting friends to talk with for a little while. Lina wasn’t just intelligent; she was the lead for the main Scholars project for the year, and Cassie was helping her with it. Intelligent people don’t look all that different, but they’re everywhere. After my last class in the afternoons, I returned to the ARC and, as soon as McKenzie showed up, went for another run. Both my legs and lungs were coming back nicely. Although I wasn’t running at night, I stopped by the HP lab to chat with Rose for a while before going back to the dorm.