The first time K and I became friends, I was 12 years old. He was thirteen, which made him the boss of me, because in that age, age is everything. I was also shorter, and a little skinnier, so even if I ever had decided to go against K’s ideas, he surely would have got me back in line, fast.
But there was never any need for that because we were the best of friends.
We were friends and we were runners, and we were friends because we were runners. We ran together. We had to because we were possibly the only runners in the God forsaken place. I used to tell people that it wasn’t even in the middle of nowhere, it was on the outskirts of nowhere. Well, I only said it once, at school, but nobody heard me because I said it so quietly, almost as whisper. The only person who heard it was K who always came down to the corner in the library were my classmates and I hung out during recess.
I was sitting on one of the big pillows in the corner, under the window that overlooked the parking lot of the school. Sometimes I could see bigger kids get in their cars and drive off somewhere during recess, and I always wondered what might be so interesting that they’d want to leave the school for just 15 minutes.
Anyway, that one day when I whispered that our home town wasn’t even in the middle of nowhere but in the outskirts of nowhere, K was sitting next to me, slouched on the floor, with his back against the wall, and he heard me say it when a girl in my class said that her mother was trying to get her tickets to a Madonna show.
“I hate living here,” she said. “If I lived in a bigger city, I could see Madonna and Billy Idol and Def-fricking-Leppard every day. I’ll get out of this place the day I turn 18. Living in the middle of nowhere sucks!”
This is where I said that we were living on the outskirts of nowhere.
“Huh,” said the girl.
“We’re not even in the middle of nowhere. We’re on the outskirts of nowhere,” said K.
Everybody laughed. I think I laughed, too. The next recess, I saw K leaning on the wall in the hallway, surrounded by a group of girls in his class. A little older than me. Seventeen-year-olds.
“… the outskirts of nowhere,” I heard K say, as he delivered his one-liner to the girls.
They all laughed. K saw me, and winked. I interpreted is a thank-you, although I couldn’t be sure. He may have already forgot that he had heard his biggest line somewhere else.
And I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t angry. What was I going to do with it anyway, and as far as K using it, that was just K being K.
But when we became friends the first time, he was the new kid in town. Our running club had only a dozen or so athletes, spread over long jump and javelin and sprinting, and what not, and up until the day that K showed up, I had been the only distance runner. At 12, the distances were mostly two or three kilometers, or “3000 meters” in competitions, but I had only run that once.
Anyway, I considered myself something of a reigning club champion, which was a huge step for me, in more than one way. Mostly because I had never considered myself best in anything, but also because running hadn’t started out as a passion for me. I had only started to run because a doctor had told my parents that I should pick up a sport, any sport, to strengthen my legs and lungs.
“He’s lucky my office wasn’t in the fourth floor,” the Doc had said, looking at me standing there, out of breath and feet shaking.
Nobody had told him that my father had carried me from the second to the third floor.
“He’s never going to make the Olympics, but he needs to pick up a sport to make it to thirty,” he had said.
My parents let me walk back down on my own, and the day after that, I went for my first run. It was a clear May day, and I ran around the block. Once clockwise, once counter-clockwise. That fall, I joined the athletics club, and the next spring, on another May day, when I walked into the red-brick small house that was our clubhouse and dressing room, there was a red-haired boy in his shorts in my place.
I didn’t say anything about his being in my place, I just took a hat that I had forgotten there the day before, and moved to a spot closer to the window.
“Howdy, guy,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t take your spot. I was going to get as close to the window as possible but then I thought it was something you had to earn, and being the new kid here…” he said. He never finished the sentence, but instead, extended his hand towards me.
“My name is K,” he said.
I never knew where he had moved from, but in his stories, it always sounded like a big city. Now that I think about it, I never saw his father, either, even though K told me it was his father’s job that had brought them to our little town.
I got changed into my running gear, and as I put on my hat, K shook his head slightly, but said nothing. Then he adjusted his head band. It was white, with red and blue stripes running around it. It was a vintage Björn Borg head band. Apparently nobody used hats anymore.
Since K was the new kid in town, I got to run a half a step ahead of him, and guided him through the trails and paths that zigzagged in our tiny forest. One lap was 3.3 kilometers. I usually ran three laps and I ran it in about an hour. I did one lap clockwise, one counter-clockwise and then the third whatever felt the best.
You can really learn to know a person by running with him. Not only because it gives you a chance to talk, a lot, but also because you see the little things. Would he consider taking a shortcut? Did he shave seconds and minutes off his time in the time it took him to walk back to the club house? Did he always want to win your practice runs? Did he move the finish line if he didn’t win?
In K’s case, the answer was yes.
But he was also a great running partner. That summer I was 12, and K was 13, and we talked about the World Cup, and K told me about FBI, after he’d make me promise that I’d never tell anyone because that might put his Dad in danger, and I told him about the teachers in our school. Somehow K had managed to stay out of school those weeks in May and June, and nobody seemed to miss him.
So I told him which teachers I liked, and which I didn’t like, and why. And we ran. We ran those trails and paths, and we ran on track, and we ran around our town from the tennis courts to the beach and from the Dairy Queen to the library.
Since I was a year younger than K, we didn’t normally race against each in real competitions. We regularly did race against each other in the forest, first running two laps together, and then taking off into opposite directions for the third lap. Whoever came first to the finish line, won, and got to shower first. It may not sound like much, but since our coach had a strict everybody-must-shower policy, and since there never seemed to be enough hot water in the tank, it was worth something.
What was I going to do with it anyway, and as far as K using it, that was just K being K.
We knew exactly where the one-mile point was, so we knew who was winning at the halfway mark. And because we knew we’d meet each other somewhere there, K couldn’t cheat all too much. In fact, there was only one place where he could take a short cut and win a few hundred meters, but then he’d have to wait there, and there was always the risk that I – or somebody else – would see him just standing there.
For some reason that I never really learned, K was in the same grade as I, despite being a year older. He was in a parallel class, though, so we only hung out on our way to and from school, and during recess.
Even though I always suspected K of taking a few shortcuts – literally and metaphorically speaking – in his training, he was a good runner. Running with him and against him also made me a good runner, and at one point, we were both county champions in the three-kilometer distance.
By the time I turned 16, though, the age classes were changed, and for the first time since we had become friends, we’d be racing against each other, on the track. There was only place for one county champion and the big race was during the county country fall fair where the entire town gathered to barbecue, watch some tractor pull, see the high school marching band – and watch track and field. The spring fair was all about the football team, but I never went.
K was one of the favorites to win the race. He was faster than me, I knew that, but it wasn’t hard for me to admit. He had also grown to be a full head taller than me. He liked to wear his red hair long, and it was all the way down to his shoulders. During races, he always wore that same headband he had had that first day I met him. For luck, he said.
We warmed up together in the forest path before the race, talking about this and that, and a few other things, but not about the race. It was the first time we’d race against each other, so we weren’t sure how to take it. What if the loser – and we both agreed it was going to be me – got mad and wouldn’t want to be buddies anymore?
“Hey,” K said suddenly, touching the leaves with his hand as he ran.
“We should run as a team. That way we can beat everybody else, and then at the last stretch, we’ll just go all out and let the best man win,” he said.
“If you keep up a good pace, and I’ll stay between you and the rest, we can probably drop the others early. And then, with me right behind you, you won’t have to worry about somebody pushing you or anything,” he said.
“OK, sounds good,” I said, and we had a plan.
Turned out K’s plan was really good. I got to the front of the group at the sound of the starting pistol, and I could see K sprinting out to get his spot. After the first curve when the entire group – there were ten of us – were running in one line, I heard K behind me.
“You’re doing great, we have a two-meter lead, so keep going,” he said.
The 3000-meter race is eight and a half laps round the regular track, so K’s first words came just as we were crossing the finish line for the first time. I could hear the crowd cheering, and I saw some of our teachers and neighbors in the stands right in front of me. The announcer – our high school principal – sounded ecstatic, which was a little silly.
But I felt good. My feet were light, my lungs were big, and my vision clearer than ever before. My feet were tapping to the beat of a song. “Born to Run.” I smiled when I realized that, and I kept on running. With 400 meters to go, the crowd cheered us on. Just a minute left, I can do this, I thought, and I made my stride a little longer. Around the bend, 300 meters to go, my arms were pumping, my head still.
With 200 meters left, I heard K yell, “Good job, we shook the rest, now wait up.”
“The plan was to decide the race in the last 100 meters, remember?” he shouted, and by the sound of his voice I realized that he must have been twenty meters behind me.
I let up a little bit, and just a few seconds later, just as I turned to the final stretch, I felt K right behind me. I moved to lane number 2, and let K take the inside track.
“As soon as we hit the starting line for 100 meters, it’s each man for himself, OK?” said K, out of breath.
A few meters before the blue line that went across all eight tracks, I closed my eyes for a split second to focus and to make sure my remaining strength went into the final sprint.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the back of K’s white shirt already in front of me. He was going all out, and he wasn’t looking back. I ran as fast as I could, and I seemed to be closing in on K, but I also realized I only had another 30 meters to the finish line. K looked back, and when he saw me about a half a step behind him, he lifted his arms, and made big moves with his elbows to keep me from running past him.
Two seconds later, K crossed the finish line, and raised his arms towards the sky. I was right behind him, almost by him side.
I stopped a few meters after the finish line stopped, out of breath. I was leaning on my knees, when K tapped me on my back. I looked up, and saw his smiling face, and his extended hand. I took his hand, and shook it.
“Exactly according to the plan,” K said, and patted me on the back.
After the race, K’s mother invited me to their house, a rare event that made me both uncomfortable and curious at the same time. For all the time that K and I spent together, I had only been at his place once or twice. We always hung out at my place, and ate lunches that my mother made, and listened to records on my parents’ turntable. Sure, K always went back home at the end of the day, or he might zip back to get some records, but I bet I only spent a total of 30 minutes inside their house, and even then, all of it in K’s little room with the door closed.
That one time, though, I sat in their kitchen, and ate cake his mother had made. I wore my silver medal around my neck. She told me she had heard so much about me that she was curious to know what kind of a wonder boy I was, which surprised me. I couldn’t imagine K talking about me at all, let alone paint me up as a superhero.
“I hear you’re quite the runner,” she said. “K thinks you might one day run in the Olympics.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe K will, he’s really good, you know?”
“Oh no, he doesn’t have the discipline.”
I looked at K, surprised. He looked out the window, and started to laugh.
“Look at that car. Ridiculous,” he said, and pointed to a sky-blue VW Beetle.
My time up, I thanked K’s mom for the cake and told her that it was time for me to go because my mother was also going to have some friends over, and I’d probably have to eat more cake. I asked K if he wanted to come along, and he said yes. As I was putting my shoes on, I noticed that I didn’t see any men’s shoes on the shelf.
“Doesn’t your Dad have any shoes?” I asked K, and laughed, thinking it was a great joke. A grown man always walking around barefooted.
“Is your last name Greystoke?” I added, and laughed even harder.
“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but…,” K said and looked around.
“… But my Dad’s in the witness protection program, and he’s deep, deep, deep undercover, so we always keep his stuff hidden. Promise me you won’t tell anyone, not anyone, ever. If you do, we might have to move again … and I’d really hate that,” he said.
“Let’s go,” he then said, and yelled bye to his mom.
The next time I was at their house, I saw a pair of old, brown men’s shoes neatly tucked in line, next to the sneakers and women’s shoes. “Come on, Dad,” K said, looked at me, rolled his eyes, shook his head, and stuffed the shoes into a closet.
The night of the day of his high school graduation, K fell in love with a waitress at the bar we were at. That’s what he told me the next day, anyway. She was 21, she was from out of town, originally, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world, he told me.
“Who’s your favorite actress?” he asked me.
“I don’t know … maybe Olivia Newton-John.”
K bursted out laughing.
“Oh, J is so much hotter than she,” he said.
“I also like Rebecca De Mornay.”
“Hmmm.. She is pretty hot,” K said, nodding. “But J’s hotter.”
A few weeks later, K got on a bus with J, and as far as I know, never came back to our town. At least I never saw him there during my last year of high school, and even after I left the town to go to college, my mother sometimes mentioned seeing K’s mother at the store, or the fair, but never K.
I did get a couple of postcards from him, from different places, but always oozing the same energy, and take-no-prisoners attitude that K had. They always ended with, “keep running, K”.
I quit running when K moved, and told my parents that I wanted to focus on my last year of school and then college, and they didn’t mind. My lungs and legs were strong enough, and like the Doc had said, I was never going to make the Olympics anyway.
The second time I became friends with K, I was 26. I had recently graduated from the law school, and in my first job at a small law firm in a big city. I was single, again, after a long relationship with a girl from K’s class in high school. Olivia Newton-John was no longer my idea of the perfect woman, and having tried the singles market in the past year, I was starting to think that there was no such a thing as the perfect woman.
On afternoon, working on a divorce case – and I can say that didn’t help me with my women troubles – I realized that just as easily as I could track down these women and their husbands’ information, I could find K. Wherever he might be.
The next day, I did find his new address, and shock waves went through me, when I saw that we were living in the same city. Sure, it was a big city, but everything is relative. It wasn’t Calcutta. I knew where he lived, and not only that, I knew exactly where he lived, down to the house.
I sent him a postcard. I picked one during lunch, one with a picture of a statue of a runner on it. “Still running? Call me!” I wrote on it, added my phone number, and dropped it in a mailbox on my way back to the office. The sound of my phone ringing startled me every time it rang that afternoon, even though I knew K hadn’t even seen the card yet.
He didn’t call the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that, so the day after that I took my car and I drove past his house, slowing down right outside it, trying to figure out which one was his window. There were lights on in the one I decided was K’s apartment, but I didn’t see anybody inside so I drove home.
Two weeks after I had sent the card, K called.
“How are you?” he screamed. He screamed so loud I had to pull the receiver off my ear, and keep it an arm’s length. I could still hear him loud and clear.
“It’s so good to hear from you, I’ve been wondering about you, and…” he said, and then asked me how I’d been, and what I was up to before saying:
“Dude, we have to meet. Right now. Right this second. I’ll meet you at Sneaky Dee’s for a beer in 15 minutes. OK? Drop everything!,” he said, and hung up.
I did. I took my jacket, told my assistant – I did have one – that I’d be out of the office for the rest of the day, and wished her a good night. Then I took a taxi to Sneaky Dee’s.
I recognized K right away. The red hair was a giveaway, but he also looked pretty much the same as – I had to use my fingers to do the math – ten years earlier. He was standing at the bar, with his back towards the bartender, and his eyes focused on one of the TVs on the walls. I glanced at the TV, to see what was so interesting. It was a snooker match.
Then he saw me.
“Hey, hey, hey, look who’s here. So good to see you,” he said, and extended his hand. As I took it shake it, he pulled me closer and gave me a big hug.
“You’ve put on some weight, I see, so I guess you’re not running,” he added, and slapped my stomach.
Yes, I had. I was more than a little overweight, I was fat. I weighed almost 90 kilos, and that was about twenty too much for my 170 centimeter frame.
“Yeah, I quit running a long time ago. And you?” I asked him.
“I’m always running,” he said. “From the law, from my past, from angry husbands,” he added, and laughed.
We ordered our first beers, and sat down at a table. It was still afternoon, so the bar was almost empty. We sat there, and talked about the old times, and brought each other up to speed on where we were, where life had taken us. By each turn of events, we got drunker and drunker, and by the end of the night, we were wasted. Had I been there alone, I would have had to be carried out, but now that there were two of us, we were fine.
I leaned on K, he leaned on me.
“I’ll never let a woman get between us, man. Promise me you won’t, either,” K said before he passed out on a sofa in my apartment.
I promised. That was the end of the night, but it was just one of many we spent together in bars like that.
After a few weeks, when we were out again, K looked at me and told me to get back into shape. Just like that.
“Man, you’re fat,” he said, like that.
I didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve actually lost a couple of kilos in the last few weeks,” I said and stroked my belly.
“Maybe, but you’re still fat. We need to et you into shape, no doubt.”
The next day, when I was leaving the office, K was waiting for downstairs, on the street, wearing a track suit, and a red, white and blue headband. Somehow he had talked me into going for a run, so I was also wearing a track suit. Mine was brand new, I had bought it during my lunch break just hours earlier. That, and my new shoes.
“Ready?” K asked me.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Good enough, let’s go then,” K said, and started to jog away from me. I hadn’t run in years, and in the last year probably not even after a bus so the first steps felt a little awkward. Heavy, too, but that was to be expected. That time we ran just fifteen minutes, on the city streets, and made it to the edge of the park, and back.
From that day on, K waited for me outside the office every day, and every day, we went for a run. First to the park and back, then into the park, then a lap around the park, and then two laps. By then, the seasons had changed, and I had lost a good 20 kilos, and had regained my step.
We also partied together, we saw movies together, we (once) cooked together, and we traveled together. And then we fell in love.
Not with each other.
I found my future wife – or, K found me my future wife at a bar one night – and K found his. We double dated a few times, and the young women seemed to gel well with each other. Our little unit was becoming a four-person team. We also still ran together, every day, rain or shine.
On the last Sunday of each month, we had lunch together, all four of us. About a year into this tradition, which I absolutely adored, I felt like a character in a black-and-white James Stewart movie, when it was our turn to fix lunch, K told me that they couldn’t make it.
“Wife’s sick,” he said when he called me Saturday night.
Next month they got visitors from out of town. The one after that the car didn’t start. I offered to drive to their place and get them, but K said he had to get it towed to the garage so it was best I didn’t. I ate a lot of chicken that afternoon.
Something always stopped K and his wife from coming, but I never asked K about it. Each Monday after the last Sunday of the month we went for our run as nothing had happened.
Then one Thursday, K told me that they wouldn’t be able to fix the Sunday lunch, because his father had died and he’d have to go to the funeral. He told me this while running, and I stopped in my tracks.
“Your father’s … dead?” I said.
“Yessir,” said K.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Thanks, man. Flying out on Saturday.”
“Where’s the funeral?”
“Can’t tell you. You know, my father was in the witness protection program so everything’s top secret all the way to the end, I’m afraid,” K said, while still running.
I just stood there.
“What’s the problem,” K said, looking back. “Come on, move it, move it.”
“What is your problem?” I said.
“What do you mean? No problem here, buddy,” he said.
“Why have you been ducking the Sunday lunches lately? What’s up? What’s the problem?”
K just looked at me.
“What. Is. The. Problem?” I said.
K’s head dropped, and he started to walk towards me. He put his arm around me and led me to a close-by bench. He took off his headband, and looked at me.
“The wife doesn’t like you,” he said.
“OK, why? What does that mean?”
“She just doesn’t like you. She says you’re a lawyer,” K said.
“She’s right. I am,” I said.
“She also doesn’t like the fact that you remind her of my past. She doesn’t like my past. She doesn’t like having a husband who’s from a small town. She doesn’t like your accent. I don’t know how to put this nicely, man,” K said, and looked away.
“She hates your guts.”
I stood up, and grabbed K’s headband. I stretched it between by left thumb and my right hand as far as it went and I sent it flying like an arrow.
“That’s mature,” K said, as he got up to pick it up from the ground. Meanwhile, I turned around and ran the other way. I ran for a few minutes as hard as I could, then slowed down to see if K was following me, but when I couldn’t see him, I ran back to my office, got changed without showering and walked to the train station.
I didn’t hear from K that night, or the next day. I had vowed not to call him, but by the afternoon I had talked myself into being the more mature person of us two, so I did call him.
“Hi, it’s K. Please, please, please, don’t leave a message, just text me, bye.”
I hung up, and sent him a text, but he never replied. At 5, I changed into my running gear and skipped down the stairs from our third floor office. I opened the front door, and expected to see K there, leaning against a water hydrant, as usual.
He wasn’t there. Not that day, not next Monday, not next week, not the week after that. Not ever.
I’m thinking about all this while staring at my laptop. My Facebook page is open, because it’s always open. Earlier today there was a notification about a new friend request. I clicked on it, and I saw it was from K. His profile picture was an old one, it was him running that race at the country fair. He had cropped it, so that the only runner in the photo was him crossing the finish line, but I thought I saw my hand in the bottom left corner.
I didn’t accept the friend request right away, and I’ve looked at K’s profile page three, four times during the day, taking note of his number of friends (96), and number of mutual friends (0), and that as his hometown he listed, “From the outskirts of nowhere”.
I’m going to accept his request, of course. That’s what I do. That’s what friends do.
I stare at the screen, and I click a button.