Blank Spaces by Don Jones

By Don Jones

I’m Brent Morgan. That’s it, my full name. I wasn’t given a middle name. The reason was never explained. Maria ElizabethMorgan is my older sister. Gerald MontgomeryMorgan is my younger brother. I only noticed its absence in second grade. Miss McKenzie, (Deborah Kathleen McKenzie)asked us to tell everyone our full names. When I stated, for the last time with pride, Brent Morgan, she asked me to include my middle name.I don’t have one, I said. Everyone, including Kathleen, laughed. I have tried to avoid the subject most of my life. Sure that the emptiness between my two names revealed something more about me.

I asked my mom about it on the way home. “Do all kids have three names?”

“Most do.”

“Why don’t I?”

My mother has a way of mumbling and talking about a lot of things when she doesn’t want to answer something. I don’t remember the few parts of her answer that I could make out. I knew she didn’t want me to ask again. But I did, a number of times. The only answer that I could piece together was that she was too busy taking care of Maria, who was only two at the time, moving across town to our brand-new house, and trying to hold her marriage together. Which she did, for better and much worse, for another ten years. After all, unlike Maria and Gerry, I was unplanned. A “wonderful surprise” of course, she carefully added each time. When the time came to sign the birth certificate, my father was out of town. She didn’t want to saddle me with some lame name, just because it was last minute. Better to leave a blank.

I do a lot of reflection while I run. I don’t think it’s my intent. I just have a relationship with long distances that propels me forward. I can’t look across an open field, leading across the flat to a far away white-capped mountain, without dreaming of running across it, and up as far as my legs and lungs will carry me. Some people look at the sea, dreaming of sailing off into the horizon. Afield, or path, or road is my open ocean. My friend, Stephanie, says it’s because I’m missing something.

Like a middle name? I don’t say to her.

Stephanie said. “I never knew my father. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that gap determined many of my choices as a young woman. It doesn’t anymore. I don’t believe you know anyone, no matter their accomplishments until you know what they’re missing.”

I nodded.

I wake most mornings around 5:30. I put my sneakers on, have a cup of black coffee, and head out the door. Sometimes I will have two or three bites of a cold bagel. But usually, it’s nothing. I don’t do a lot of thinking when I wake up. I’m on automatic pilot. If I had to decide each and every morning about running, I’m not sure I would do it. So, I don’t decide. I get dressed and run. But once my shoes hit the street, that’s when my mind kicks into gear. Today is an urban run, through empty streets, and neighborhoods. On the way back, the lights from coffee shops are on. People start to appear. The stress of the day hasn’t caught up to them yet.
I’ve been at two parties where the subject of middle names has come up. Two weeks ago, at my neighbors, was the second. I suppose two times is not a lot, given that I turned 42 this year. But still. Statistically, I’m no statistician, I’m a writer, however, I’d bet most people, that is those with middle names, are at zero parties where that question comes up.I have a theory that a blank, like the one sandwiched between my first and last name, draws attention to itself, far beyond the significance of what might fill it. Absences are like black holes, huge gravity-powered vacuums, sucking whatever is around them into their empty spaces, accumulating a weight, not despite the void, but because of it.

I was the immediate subject of fascination at both parties. But unlike my second-grade class, the reaction was tinged with sadness. Absences were no longer easily funny. Each of them had already discovered blank spaces in their own life.

“I think they were just too busy,” I say as if I’m putting on my running shoes in the morning.

“Oh, isn’t that fascinating.” said a mother who clutched her twin boys by their middle names. As if I had surprised her with bionic legs.

Why did Stephanie say that the absence of her father doesn’t affect her any longer? I wondered.

As a reader, I have always been drawn to watercolor stories, to soft storylines and slightly blurred images. The lack of clear edges doesn’t take away from my experience of reality, instead, it allows me to find myself in it. As a writer, I am working hard to do less. A good writer adds character, nuance, color, depth, metaphor; but a master subtracts. Chooses carefully. But it takes a lifetime to understand what not to add.

Stephanie left her job to pursue her art last year. I love her minimalistic paintings. A few simple strokes creating powerful images. Years ago, she introduced me to traditional Japanese painters that had, earlier than most, discovered a spirit, ki, an energy in the blank space. These paintings are defined by restraint, by blank space, by a pause for the eye. I didn’t love them right away. I do now. It took me a while before I understood them. There is room for me to discover not what’s in the artist’s mind about the painting, but what’s in mine. The paintingsI’ve come to treasure have grown richer with time, revealed more of themselves to me as the light and darkness of my life has passed over them. I think the great artists know that my shadow, or lack of it, is an important part of their palette. That inspires me. I want to learn to write so that what you have, and what you lack, changes your experience of my story.

I feel most attuned to the spirit of ki whenI’m running. Running must be the simplest of all sports. A baby walks and then runs before they learn anything else. Unpretentious, repetitive movements, brought down onto the earth a hundred thousand times, plenty of open spaces between them. Running is defined by what has been left out. No racquets, balls, nets or sticks; hardly any rules, as close to nothing as possible, and yet it is the most sublime of all sports. Just one foot after another, thousands of simple strokes on a canvas, creating something strong and beautiful, and at the same time leaving so much out.

Stephanie has been a good friend for over a decade. That’s a long time. Especially when you consider that I have left two jobs, leased three new apartments, and even moved cites. Across all of that, we have maintained our close friendship. Grown closer actually. A lot of the time, those who we think are friends are simply geographic or circumstantial acquaintances. I realized that as soon as I left my first job, again when I moved and also when I broke up with my fiancé, Elizabeth. Each time the relationship orbits didn’t simply change, they disappeared into whatever blank space sucks things, like friendships, into their oblivion. So much gets lost inside the chasms that open up all around you when your life changes. I am sure those deep empty holes become heavier, with whatever it is that we lose into them. I know this because each time I feel lighter. Not the lighter, as in more carefree. The other lighter, the one that happens to me when I lose weight from sickness. I’m lighter, but it’s harder to stand.

Those relationship orbits were populated, for the most part, with good people. It’s just that I thought I would keep more when I left. A bit of support. Someone to lean on, until I found my legs again. But I guess that was never part of the bargain. I didn’t see how much open space there was between us, we were just passing through the hollows and openings of each other.

Stephanie has been my one true exception. It’s not that we see each other all the time. We don’t. But when we do, it’s amazing. It’s immediate. Within seconds we are into a real conversation about our lives, things that matter to each of us. She has said that being with me is like drinking from an oasis.

The last time we were together we each made a special trip to a small town about 200 miles between us. We took separate rooms in the only hotel. We planned to have a barbeque dinner at what was written up as a “charming local favorite.”We ended up sitting behind a red barn, on long communal tables, filled with strangers. Two big black speakers sat on the ground and filled the lawn with country music. Roosters and hens roamed around the yard and under the tables until someone ordered chicken, then a noisy race was on. We talked for seven hours. We are not romantically involved. We’re both gay. My former fiancé, Elizabeth, and I were both surprised to realize this, at close to the same time. The truth is, I was out, long before I admitted it to myself. That’s the mother of all gravity-sucking, black holes; the insatiable, energy-eating appetite of identity. Who am I?

When I run really long distances, at dusk and into the small hours of the night, especially when I am on unlit, country roads, I look at the stars with wonder. It’s amazing really. The scope and beauty of it all. The empty loneliness of space. Our small blue planet floating in a sea of black.

On moonlit nights I turn off the bright-white LED lantern strapped to my forehead, a thousand brilliant stars appear, sparkling and dancing in mysterious darkness. Have you been in hiding, waiting? What do you think of us? Of me? I ask, as if they’re an ancient society, too beautiful and pure for us to comprehend. I am the only sound in a silent forest. The rhythm of my footfalls, the cadence of my breaths, the beat of my heart, fall into sync with one another, lure me into a meditative trance where I hear their voices. They come to me as faint echoes channeled through a narrow canyon between past and future. I stop, plant my feet, slow and quiet my breath, calm my heart. strain but cannot make out their words. They’re laughing, talking, debating. What will you decide? I wonder. Or have you decided already?

With clouds covering the moon, my lantern carves a crescent path ahead of me. One soft footfall after another, just me and a lovely, dark quiet. I have read that the universe is constantly expanding, that those shining stars are blast furnaces of nuclear explosions moving away from me, widening the empty spaces between us. Between each other. On and on, until there will only be endless barren hollows between everything really. I spend long stretches of the road thinking about the questions of time, no beginning and no end, and no gaps in between the two. It’s so hard to understand. I have heard that every cell in my body is replaced every seven years; that I’m constantly undergoing repairs and replacements, influenced perhaps by previous generations or versions of myself. I try to get my head around it all. I usually enjoy the intellectual journey, but sometimes it makes me angry. Answer me, I yell at the stars. I just want to know. Something. Anything. For certain. For the universe to not be expanding. For me to know who I am.

Stephanie and I joke that if being gay was a choice we would have both decided long ago to choose one other instead. There have been a number of nights I wished it was a choice. I just needed her soft voice and a warm hug.

Between the cornbread and the baby back ribs I asked Stephanie, “Why do you think we have stayed close friends despite our distance?”

She said, “It’s because of it.”

I was hurt by that. Didn’t understand how to take it. I nodded.

We talked about everything that night. Her new girlfriend, not a real beauty, true soul, bright, caring, a wonderful lover, the painting she was starting, the hilarious ‘disaster’ of a European vacation that was worth the travel costs in stories. My new job writing for a paper, the watercolor novel I was working on, the fact that I haven’t slept with anyone in over a year, that I didn’t miss the physical part of that, at least not for now, that I’m lonely. We held hands a lot, reaching across the splintered wooden bench, lit by the yellowed paper lanterns, strung across the farmyard. I wanted to sleep with her that night. Not make love with her. Sleep with her, holding her in my arms, wishing that our orbits overlapped, that gravity wasn’t real and that black holes were imaginary. Not sure her girlfriend would have liked that. Not sure if Stephanie would either. I didn’t ask.

We were the last to leave. The farmer’s son and wonderous barbeque master was dimming the lanterns, one string at a time, serving notice. We laughed as we said goodbye to each other. We stood close to the moonlit barn, hugged and held each other a long time. I could taste the salt on her cheek. I didn’t see her in the morning. She had to leave early. When I was home I pulled my barbeque-stained shirt out of my laundry bag.I could smell her lavender perfume, mixed with the onion, mustard, black pepper sauce we both loved. I didn’t wash it. Still, haven’t. Won’t.

At dinner, I asked her why not knowing her father didn’t define her choices any longer. She was surprised I remembered that. Somehow the night went by without her answering.

Today I am about to start my fifth and longest ultra-marathon. It’s 100 miles over rugged terrain. I like the course. It’s five 20-mile loops. That way I can do a loop and change shirts, shorts and socks each time, sometimes shoes if the weather shifts or if I feel like I have a need. Refuel and stock up on supplies for the next push. Breaking it up into finite steps makes a big difference for me. Either way, its 100 miles up and down mountains. But it feels better this way.

I know that the first loop will be easy. I can do 20 miles in my sleep. I’m not trying to win this race. Others have trained for that. I just want to finish on my feet, without the pathetic blithering of someone who has passed his extreme limits 35 miles ago; but refuses to accept that. I can’t imagine finding any honor or satisfaction in finishing like that, leaking from every orifice, falling limp at the feet of the organizers. I would rather drop out, which won’t earn me a cryptic invitation to the Barkley Marathons. So be it. I want to finish with my senses about me or not at all.

Running allows me space to think, but it also reveals gaps. Marathons especially. And ultras shine a cruel spotlight on them. I am far more likely to say I have changed my goals when the going gets super tough than to say, I quit. It’s only looking back at the multiple brutal times that I have changed goals, that I realize that in almost every case I just quit. I really badly wanted these goals, but, in the pain of it all, I convinced myself that they were no longer relevant to me. It was just a way to let myself off the hook. Nothing wrong with quitting when you’ve had enough. I just don’t want to make it easy any more. If I quit on myself, I want to start admitting it.

I called Stephanie a month after our farm dinner. “Would you be my support over the 60hours of my 100-mile ultra?”

“What do I have to do?”

“Be at the supply tent to watch my gear. I’ll organize it in six piles before I go, five for each of the loops and one for the end. Get my nutrition packets and liquids ready, some for easy consumption between each loop, and the rest for filling the pockets on my running belt, help me change, pop blisters, cut off extra skin, bandage me up, and be honest with me if I’m no longer coherent.”

“You’re not normally coherent.”

“I know. But unusually so.”

“Sure. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.” I knew she would unless she absolutely couldn’t make the date.

“Why did you say that the reason that we have remained such good friends was because of the distance?”

“Did I say that? Hmm. Not sure what I meant. Don’t remember it, Brent.” She brushed right by it. “I can’t wait to be there for you at your ultra. How’s your training going?”

It shouldn’t be anything I cared about. It was likely nothing. Just that she did say it. And she meant it. What about the distance did she feel, at least at the time, was required for our closeness?

My first and second 20-mile loops were pretty smooth. As expected. I was a bit tired after 40 miles, but feeling great for this stage of the race. My times were faster than I anticipated. On my third lap, things started to get interesting. I was walking up even small hills. The left side of my shoulder and neck cramped so that I couldn’t turn my head to the left or the right without incredible pain. Two miles from the ten my knees gave out, suddenly. Both at the same time. Taking my legs completely out from under me. I tumbled off the path into the bushes and down a hill. I bounced off a tree trunk and skidded through and was finally slowed to a stop by a hard bramble of tangled branches with razor-sharp thorns. I took a long time to stand up. When I did, blood was running down my legs and pooling in my running shoes. I had to go around the path that I had just fallen down, to find a reasonable way back up to the trail. That cost me a lot of time. Once up, I started to put one foot in front of another. My shoes made a squishing sound. By the time I ran into camp for the third time I looked like shit, but I felt a notch up from that. Even at a distance, I could tell Stephanie was worried about me. As I got closer she looked panicked.

“Don’t worry hun. I’m coherent.”

As I ran toward Stephanie I realized why I asked her to support me. It wasn’t any of the reasons I had said. My stuff was safe in the caches each runner had been given. There were more race organizers than observers. They could ensure everything stayed in its place. The sets of liquids and fuel, the changes of clothes would be still exactly where I left them and needed them to be. I could picture what Stephanie was seeing, a bloody mess, limping down a lonely road at dusk. Perhaps I needed someone to say whether I was still coherent; but even still, that’s not why I asked her. I just knew that I couldn’t bear to come around another tortuous loop with no one waiting for me.

The fourth loop was so hard that I was positive I was going to drop out. I had never done anything past 60 miles before, and that was on mostly flat terrain. I was in a new mental and physical territory now, pushing past 60 miles up and down mountains. I collapsed after walking up a terribly steep hill. My knees didn’t give out. This time it was my will. I just quit. Fell to the cool midnight ground, covered in pine needles and cones. I didn’t plan to get up again. Not sure why or how I did, but I did. Once I was on my feet I began half-walking, half-running down the hill, my eyes searching for the best line, my feet cautiously picking their way through the rocks and roots and branches. Braking on each step was so hard on my thighs that I let myself fall forward. I stopped fighting gravity and let my legs go. I kept that up to finish the fourth lap.

Stephanie threw some water on my face and cleaned me off. I changed in front of her. I normally stepped behind a hanging woolen blanket. Neither of us cared. She asked me to do a math question. I said, “No thanks.” as I walked out the door. I felt terribly weak, but the freshness of dry clothes, fuel and drink fooled me into thinking I could do this final lap. Only one loop, 20-miles, I can usually do that in my sleep, I told myself. A few steps later I broke into a trot. I was going to finish this.

Five miles into the fifth loop, it started to rain, and I began leaking out of all openings. I couldn’t stop it. I was shivering and no matter what I did I couldn’t make myself warm. 15 miles to go. Even if I could finish, I didn’t want to finish like this. I knew that about myself. Still, my feet didn’t stop, even as my piss and excrement rolled down my legs. I looked at the next curve in the road and convinced myself that it was worth at least turning that corner. Then it was the huge tree with the eagle’s nest, then it was to at least crawl, on my hands and knees if I had to, up the hill I knew was coming. Before I got there, and for no reason I can understand,I felt a calm come over me. It was like swimming through a warm pool of water in a deep, frigid lake. The woods around me took on the spirit and energy of ki. Through my blurring eyes, they looked like a watercolor painting with spots of lovely clear patches of nothing, stretching on into infinity. It was surreal, calm and beautiful. The colors and sharp definitions between tree and shrub and plant and sky and cloud disappeared. For a few blessed moments, I sailed, or flew, or floated down the path.

And then it ended. I came crashing back to my body. And it hurt. I needed to get something in my stomach, but I couldn’t hold down an energy gel. I was ten miles from what would be a blithering, pitiful finish. I took a last gulp of liquid and threw my belt away. I wanted to strip off my shirt. Wasn’t I cold, just minutes before? Was I hypothermic? I started to feel large flat stones in the path under my shoes. Five miles from finishing two runners asked if I was OK. They looked like they were broken. I wanted to ask them the same question, but couldn’t get it out. They passed me as if I was standing still. “I’m good,” I whispered to no one. They were gone.

I hoped Stephanie wasn’t worried about me. But I knew she would be; and loved her for it. As I stumbled around the last corner I scanned the horizon and didn’t see her. I panicked. Then she stepped out from the organizer’stent, saw me and came running toward me, her arms out. She met me a couple hundred feet from the finish. She started crying as she got close. She didn’t touch me. I needed to finish without aid. But I was in her orbit and it pulled me forward. But how? What ties bind across an empty space? When I crossed the finish line I fell down, shivering and crying, just the way that I said I would never allow myself to. I would rather quit, I hads aid. I was absolutely sure about that. Turns out I wanted to be exactly where I was, humbled, but not broken, by the mountains and my own limits.

Stephanie helped me to the tent. She lay me on a mat and put a silver blanket over me, cleaned my face with a cool, wet towel and kissed me. She stroked my hair, forced a bit of liquid into me. I spit most of it out. She sat close beside me, pried my mouth open, put a small slice of banana in, and gently closed my jaws with her hands. The slice just sat on my tongue. She reached in and pulled it out. I stayed just like that for about an hour. When I was awake enough I craved a drink. I partially sat up and gulped one down as fast as I could, despite her warnings. I threw most of it up and lay back down. Even the small amount that stayed in was rushing through my system, bringing me back to life.

“I thought you said you didn’t want to finish in a mess, falling down at the end?” Stephanie said.

“I did say that. I didn’t know how much I wanted to finish.”

Stephanie was holding my left hand with both of hers.

“When you were going out on each loop. It hurt me you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“It hurt me to worry about you. To think about how you might be suffering.I wanted to be able to do something about your pain. But there was nothing I could do love. You were so far away.”

I squeezed her hands and she tightened her grip.

“When you went out on your last lap. I wanted to tackle you and keep you with me, safe, right here beside me, love.”

“But you didn’t,” I said.

“No. No, I didn’t. Once you left I was alone and started to cry. It wasn’t that you were in so much pain, or that I was worried about you. Though both of those were real forme.”

She moved sideways, put her strong right hand under my neck, picked up my head like a baby’s, and pulled it onto her lap. She poured some cold water on a washcloth and lay it on my forehead, with each gentle pat, cool rivers of water ran down my face and neck. She left the cloth and stroked my face with her hand.

“This time I was crying with joy, Brent. I didn’t want to be anyplace else, not back in my home, and not out running with you. I so wanted you to finish each loop, and then to go away from me, to face and fight the battles you need to, and no matter what, to come back to me again and again darling.

I looked up from her lap. “What’s your middle name? I asked.

“Annabel. What’s yours?”

“I don’t have one.

About Don Jones

Don E. P. Jones has one published novel, a fable. This is his first published short story. Rumor has it, he’s thrilled. As a child, he chose Saint Paul as a Patron Saint. From that day onward he was Donald Edward ‘Paul’ Jones, believing everyone used their Confirmation names. That misconception persisted. He shared that with a friend only to find out that she didn’t have a middle name. He thought there might be a small story buried inside a gap between a first and last name; and found there’s a universe of identity, mystery, and wonder hidden within all blank spaces. Don lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario and beside the sea in Nova Scotia.

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