I still remember that Monday I stole Janelle’s new running shoes.
Back in high school, I’d seen her go into her gym locker more times than I could count I knew her combination better than my own. What I didn’t know was exactly what it was about those sneakers. Was it the electric blue of their laces? Or was it the smell of a sweat from dozens of practices breathing through the fabric exterior? She and I had been friends. She had trusted me not to touch her equipment. But I knew that to be as fast as Janelle I would need her shoes.
It all started after she splinted her shins one practice. She was going to be out for a couple of weeks resting. So when the late period bell rang and we were free to disperse to final classes extracurricular practices or our routes home, I went to the locker room same as always. There were probably about a hundred girls in there on any one day so opening any one locker wasn’t a big deal. And everyone knew Janelle and I would share things. It seemed perfectly normal when I pulled out the sneakers.
They were a slightly glistening blue and a size too small. From the moment I slipped them on my toes pressed up against the mesh too tightly. But none of the other girls seemed to notice I was struggling. They were all too concerned with wearing the proper layers of deodorant and getting all of their equipment in place for practices.
Stepping onto the track in Janelle’s Nikes was a dream. As soon as I began toward the tunnel I could feel why these were the shoes she wore. It was as though there was nothing there. Like she was walking around barefooted. Every once in a while, I even looked down to my feet just to make sure they hadn’t fallen off.
I lined up on the track for sprints same as all the other girls. But when I crouched down low, I felt ready to fly.
Later that night I got a call from Janelle. She never used to call me, only text. Back when we were little we would talk for hours until our parents had to drag us away from one another. Most days now we would just look at the few wordlets or emoticons left for one another on our phones. So when my ringer went off for the first time in a year, I shuddered a little.
“Hey. How was practice?”
“Oh, you know..”
“Yeah. The coach had us run some drills I think it was six sets of eight hundred and a distance run. Something about keeping our legs limber and free of lactic acid or whatever.”
“I wasn’t asking about what drills we did Ari.”
“Oh. What did you mean then?
But I knew exactly what Janelle was asking. She wanted to know about the shoes. One of the other girls on the team must have told her I hadn’t exactly made it a secret that I was wearing them. Every runner looks at each other’s feet to try and get an advantage. One of them must have remembered these were the same shoes as Janelle except these ones didn’t fit.
“Nothing Ari. Never mind. Can I get the math homework?
Janelle and I had been running together since we were little girls. The two of us had played on the same soccer softball and basketball teams. The coaches always told every kid they were good, but Janelle and I were different. We knew we were the best and we were joined at the hip. Our parents would coordinate with each other making sure each of us was signed up not days after the other had for whatever sport was in season. After games, we would sleep over at each other’s houses giving whichever parents not tasked with watching us a night of reprieve to sleep and relax. Not that either of us was a particularly grueling child to care for. We mostly just stayed up late watching old Disney movies or playing Mario Kart hardly encountering an adult outside of breakfast and pick up the next morning.
Since we had gotten to high school Janelle and I had stopped staying over at each other’s house quite so often. We began to have commitments outside of sports like Church and school and boys. Janelle got good grades so her parents let her go out whenever she pleased so long as she was home by a reasonable hour and kept her grades up. Meanwhile, mine held me back at home until it was time for Mass, only letting me out for the three hours it took to go to services and come back home to work on homework for the week. The track was my only outlet from their control, but having nothing else didn’t matter. I liked track enough.
Janelle was always a faster runner than me but by high school it was different. She had been on the varsity team since freshman year and for good reason. The way she extended one leg in front of the other pushing the ground down each time with a force that could topple cows from the local dairy farm got to me. My spindly legs lacked the definition and drive hers had. They felt like they could crumple underneath me at the end of any run. The fear never quite left.
That first day on the track with Janelle’s shoes was different. I felt taller and stronger than I usually did. The other girls looked to me in order to get started for some reason. It wasn’t like I was ever the obvious choice as a team leader. Our JV captain was Tristan after all. But something about the Nikes meant I was the top runner to beat. I usually finished in the middle of the pack on any particular run but that day I pushed far beyond what any of the rest of them could.
I got home from school that night wanting nothing more than to collapse into bed. I had stayed out late working on assignments at the library not realizing the sun had gone down by the time. I left I ran home hoping my mom would be in another part of the house leaving me to play it like I had been there all along. But she was waiting for me in the doorway ready to ask me about my day.
“Good? That’s it. One-word answers. I want more Ari. What’s going on with you? Where did you get those shoes? Why are you home so late tonight? I was talking with Janelle’s mom Ari. She said the two of you aren’t speaking. What’s going on between you two girls honey bun? I wouldn’t want you to lose your oldest friend Ari.”
“Mom it’s fine.”
“It is clearly not fine.”
I was mortified she knew about the shoes. But how she danced around the subject made me think. Janelle’s mom hadn’t actually told her, which probably meant Janelle hadn’t said anything. I would have been dead if my mom had found out I had taken the shoes, so I decided if she didn’t know there was no reason to tell her.
“Mom I’m not a kid anymore. I can take care of myself, you don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine. But I have some homework to do. Can you leave my dinner outside my door? I’ll eat it when I get a minute.”
My mom sighed. “Sure, Ari Sure.”
I slammed the door on my way into the bedroom.
At the end of the week, Coach called me into her office to talk. She noted how the other girls had started to gather around me and look to me to lead drills and stretches in practices. She even insinuated a few were slowing down, so I would come out ahead of them in practice. I told her I had nothing to do with that, and I was only trying my best to push myself to the limits of my own abilities. She acknowledged my considerable drop in time, and how I was now in the range where I would be competitive in a varsity-level race. Having been on JV for over a year at this point, I knew I was a good runner even if not the best on the team. I’d wanted to be up on that level ever since finding old pictures of my mom finishing first in her league finals decades ago. But I hadn’t thought I would be up to the task. And now was my chance to earn my letter. Coach asked me if I was up to the challenge, and I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement telling her yes, yes, yes! She told me to show up to the school tomorrow morning at five AM to begin training. I told her I wouldn’t let her down before running the whole way home. I pushed so hard into the heels that when I took Janelle’s shoes off. the logo was gone from the sole.
When I got there, I saw another missed call from Janelle. I swiped it away without looking.
The next day’s practice was intense. The coach had me come out early to the AM workouts to train with the varsity girls. I wasn’t ready and I knew I wasn’t as soon as we started. They pushed themselves to such speeds that they reached the lack of time to rest or drink water or breathe. It was all too much. I tripped over Janelle’s laces and landed flat on my face. The rubberized dirt scraped my cheek and I started to bleed. Coach told me to go see the trainer who wasn’t at the campus yet this early. I told her I was fine, I could keep going. She told me that was a no-go. I was too much of a liability for further injury if I kept running. So I hit the showers.
I went back to the locker room and washed the blood off my face. The scrape was pretty bad. It looked like someone had taken my face and sprinkled little red tattoos all over it. But the bleeding stopped fairly quickly. I went back out to the track only to find they weren’t out there anymore. My mom was sitting in the stands watching. She told me the girls had gone to the weight room for that portion of the workout. Why they would go there was beyond me, but I trusted my mom. She had no reason to lie to me.
When I got to the weight room, I was blinded by the fluorescent lights. It was still early enough that the sun had yet to start rising and the walk from the track to the weight room had been dark. But when my vision was flooded with the sight of real athletes pushing themselves to perform better than they were capable of it, shocked me. I wouldn’t be able to perform squats with that kind of weight. I could scarcely lift the bar. The main reason I had chosen track as my sport was to avoid that kind of upper body workout in the first place. But at that moment I realized to be an athlete you had to devote everything to it. You had to make it everything you are.
After practice, I tried calling Janelle back. It was early but close enough to when school started for Janelle to still be on her way. She didn’t pick up this time but when I checked Facebook after school, I saw she had sent me a message. She had never really been the type to use it, so I took it as a sign she was ready to talk again.
Janelle and I met up at a pizza shop not far from the school the next day. Since it was the weekend neither of us had much to do besides the paltry bit of homework our teachers had assigned. Janelle said her mom would drive, but she wanted to meet me there separately. So, I walked to the pizza parlor grabbing the first pair of shoes I could find.
When I got there, Janelle was sitting at a table out front her lower legs wrapped in athletic gauze. She was wearing a simple pair of flats and was drinking a soda.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me, Ari.”
“What? What’s up?”
“Ari, You cannot be serious right now.”
“I seriously don’t know what you’re talking about?”
“ARI. Are you really wearing my shoes right now?
I looked down to see the first pair of shoes in my vision had been the Nikes. I supposed I had been wearing them so often, the act of putting them on had become a thoughtless one. Something automatic.
“Look Ari, I came here to have a nice normal conversation about this. But I’ll admit I wasn’t ready to see you actually wearing my shoes.”
“I’m sorry Janelle. But how do you know these are your shoes? Other people can buy the same kind of shoes as you, Janelle. It’s not like you own the concept of shoes as a whole.”
“No Ari. But I do know that’s my pair.”
I didn’t care if they were technically Janelle’s shoes. It wasn’t like she needed them with shin splints or whatever. If I admitted they were hers it wouldn’t have done much good either. We were growing up becoming different people and it had been happening for a while now. I wasn’t as smart as her or as cool or as free or as good at running. But what I did have was the shoes I needed to get a little closer to getting there.
“Yeah. Why do you think they’re yours?”
“They don’t fit Ari. I can see the fabric stretching. And look at how the threads are coming out from where the wall meets the sole. And how worn down the heels are. This isn’t some new pair of shoes you picked up last weekend after I went down. Those are my shoes.”
“Well,” I said, “If I’m the one who’s wearing them wouldn’t that make them my shoes?”
“I cannot believe you!”
“Believe it. These are my shoes. I’m wearing them.”
Janelle looked ready to cry. But I knew her well enough to know she didn’t believe in crying in front of people who hurt her. When we were young, and her older siblings would pick on us she would wait until they left the room to bawl into my arms. But I had never cried in front of her as often as she insisted I could. And now I could tell she was holding back in the same way.
“You know what Ari. It’s fine. Keep the shoes. I thought we could try to figure this out and maybe I could let it slide. But you keep the shoes. They’re clearly more important to you than I am.”
But she didn’t listen to me. I watched as she got up from the table and hobbled to her mom’s car on the other side of the lot.
A few weeks later Janelle’s injury had healed. But she still wouldn’t talk to me. It didn’t matter that the two of us had adjacent lockers and the same academic schedule. Something about her had changed and she was no longer interested in talking to me in person. I thought about unfriending her on social media, but I knew how that would look. It wasn’t like I was the one who was mad. No reason to give anyone the thought something may be wrong.
I only lasted a few weeks at the varsity practices. There was a big race coming up the qualifiers for the League Finals. I knew I would have to push myself hard to beat the girls from the other schools. Our league wasn’t particularly competitive in track but some of these other girls had been devoted to it for a lot longer than me. It would take considerable effort to push myself to that speed.
The morning of the meet, all I could stomach was a glass of water and a single egg. I left the shell on the kitchen counter and when I got back that night, I knew my mom would scold me.
The bus ride to the host school for the race was not pleasant. The driver seemed to try to hit every bump at maximum speed as though by not slowing down he could skip the turbulence of the road. But I felt every bump. By the looks on my teammates’ faces they could too.
The varsity four hundred meters was up first. Janelle was in the first heat and I was in the second. As she crouched down ready to launch, I saw her back foot slip on the rear block. She just managed to catch it again as the judge fired the imitation gun in the air to signal the start of the race. Janelle pulled ahead of her competitors quickly and gracefully. As she rounded the first bend, she had an impressive lead. But as she and the other racers grew closer to the finish line Janelle began to tire. She managed to finish the race at little more than a jog having been passed by two other girls in that time.
I watched from the sidelines waiting for my race to begin as well. As soon as the tracks were cleared and I was on the clay, I began to sweat. It was an early morning in April but something about our environment had changed. The noise of where we were finally hit me. I could hear the parents yelling and cheering for their children the star student-athletes. My mom was ashamed and had elected to stay home. I had no one there to cheer for me even as Coach tried to yell some last-minute bit of instruction at me. It was no use. I was going to run as fast as I was going to run at that point. No bit of technique was going to change that. So I leaned forward and pulled the laces of Janelle’s Nikes tighter one last time. My heart beat in my eardrums. It didn’t matter. It was time to win this race to notch a faster time than Janelle to prove I was the runner I knew I was.
I had been so ready to run. I don’t remember hearing the start signal. All I can remember now is the way my thighs contracted as I exploded off of the blocks, the way the wind puffed my eyelids shut, and the way my lungs felt ready to pop like balloons. There was nothing left in me as I ran that race. But none of it mattered. I was far behind the other girls with little to no hope of catching up to them. After the first lap, I slowed to a jog and finished the race perfunctorily. Coach didn’t look as angry on the sidelines as I expected. Rather she looked merely disappointed with herself for believing I could push myself beyond where she expected me to be.
Janelle and I stopped talking completely not long after that race. We finished out our junior years, went to the prom, took the SATs and ACTs, did all of the things you expect teenagers to do. Janelle continued on the team through our senior year. But I quit running in favor of trying to study hard enough to get into college. I didn’t end up having the grades or test scores to make it into I needed to get anywhere out of my hometown I wanted to go, but my priest wrote me a letter of recommendation good enough to convince a private school to take me on the virtue of being a good Catholic. In the interview, they asked if I had ever truly wronged someone and I neglected to mention Janelle in favor of a time I said something rude to my younger brother. It was the kind of story that made me seem like just a kid who had learned her lesson not some monster undeserving of membership at a prestigious university. None of them knew the difference so there was no good reason to dredge up Janelle’s shoes.
On the other hand, Janelle was still on the team. I know she got a big fancy scholarship to one of those Division I schools the kind where they pay your whole ride if you’re a good enough athlete. But I don’t really know for sure. She and I didn’t keep in touch and my mom only occasionally told me she had heard from Janelle’s folks.
“Wow. So do you ever talk to Janelle anymore?”
“No. Not really. We’re still friends online, but I think she goes by Jane now.”
“I don’t know. She just seems really important to you.”
“She was, at one time.”
“Did you ever apologize?”
“No, I never got to. She stopped talking to me after that race.”
“Well. That’s really too bad.”
“I’m sorry, Ari. I don’t know what to say from here.”
“Well, what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever been in a situation like that?”
Bryce shuffles uncomfortably on the barstool. He has a look on his face like he has something he doesn’t want to talk about. We were both supposed to tell each other about a friendship we ruined, that was the deal. I thought opening up, flaws and all, was something couples are supposed to do, something he wanted to do, but he doesn’t seem ready for it right now. I decide not to push it.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, in and out. The bar band has been playing pretty loud, but they just stop for some reason. When I open my eyes, Bryce is taking a bite from the deviled egg appetizer we ordered. The guy at the microphone is starting to talk. He’s saying something about the next song going out to everyone on a date. Which, I suppose, is what’s happening here, even if we’ve gotten to the point where we stopped counting. They start to play sweet and slow, and a few couples get up to start slow dancing between the tables. Bryce’s face looks a tad contorted like he’s trying to hide how the music makes him feel. But the light reflects off his face in a very pretty way, like something out of a painting. I stand up and reach out my hand to ask him to dance. He smiles in a way I can tell means he forgives me, and I smile back to thank him.
The next morning I look up Janelle on Facebook; I was right that she goes by Jane now. I scroll through her page, seeing lots of well wishes from various people I’ve never met, people who she must have known in the years since we graduated. But eventually, I find what I’m looking for. She lives now on the other side of the country from where we grew up. It seems she never came home like I did. On a slip of paper, I scrawl down her new address.
For several hours that night, I scour the Nike Factory website. The exact make and model has been out of production for years, but I manage to find a variant close enough to the original. I input her address for the delivery and mine for the billing. It’ll be a few weeks before the delivery ships, and a few more before it reaches her. I consider writing a note to let her know they’re coming, but instead I just close my phone and go to bed.
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Taco Bell Quarterly, SIAMB!, and others. He is a candidate in Emerson College’s MFA Program in Fiction, and holds BA’s in Philosophy and Creative Writing from ASU. Ben currently lives in Boston.