By Jon-Barrett Ingels
I wanted to run that morning. Maybe I needed to run. I was getting soft after the breakup, softer than I had been, which may have contributed to the breakup. The depressive binge-drinking and accessibility to snacks at my buddy’s place, where I crashed, made it easy to let myself go. There was no way I would be able to win my ex back with my muffin top, and no way I would attract another girl to make my ex jealous looking the way I did. I needed to get back to running.
It was an activity I loathed growing up, an activity required for every sport I attempted, and ultimately an activity that led to the demise of my poor attempt at a high school athletic career. I attributed my distaste for running to two things; my severe case of asthma, and my more severe case of laziness. Once, in high school, I attempted to run more than a mile. Only once. It took me four years to try again, running alongside my lean, muscular college roommate. Again, it wasn’t for me. My chest got tight, my face beet-red, my shoes came untied, my legs cramped. It was football practice all over again. I had to stop halfway on our joint exercise and walk back to the dorm to have my own joint exercise. Pot jokes! I know…
I was twenty-five the first time I ran more than one mile. I was living in Redondo Beach, right near the water. My drinking and smoking buddy (funny how asthma stopped me from running but didn’t prevent me from smoking) wanted to get in shape. His thirty-year-old body wasn’t keeping up with his twenty-one-year-old lifestyle. We tried running along the beach. Astonishingly, I out lasted my partner. He made it maybe three quarters of a mile before the hands went to the knees, chest heaving. I kept on running, and kept on running after that. I eventually, and painstakingly got to a regular five-mile run with three years of effort. I was living in West Hollywood and had plotted out a route that I would consistently run at least three times a week.
My practice continued for a couple of years, putting me in the best shape of my life. It was around that time I met my ex. Things were good, or they were ok, for a while. Thirty hit, and then I became a dad, and moved, and lost my job, and things slowed down. It doesn’t matter if you step away from a routine for a couple years or a couple weeks, it is ten-times more difficult to get back into it. I tried. When we moved to Grenada Hills, I struggled up and down hills, having to walk a lot of the route with hands overhead just to get three miles logged. When we moved to Atwater, I’d force myself onto the treadmill after I saw the way she would look at me, or heard her joke about my gut, or watched her close her eyes every time we’d have sex. The struggle was real, as they say, but I finally established a new routine of running at dawn along the LA River, logging about four miles. And then it ended. We ended, dramatically, and I moved out. She wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t satisfied with myself.
My friend on the Westside had a room available. He and I would drink, and eat out, and watch Man Vs Food, and eat more, and drink, and drink. I added twenty pounds to my already heavy frame. I discovered this as I watched the cute nurse move the slider on the scale way past the number I was familiar with. I got a new job that came with really, really great medical insurance, along with cute nurses adding a 2 to the beginning of my weight. This new number associated with my body messed with my head. The squish around my midsection messed with my head. The constant fatigue I experienced trying to keep up with my three-year-old messed with my head. I started running again. I started moving past my comfort zone and pushing through my lungs urging me to quit.
Remember that new insurance I was just talking about? It was great! Acupuncture, massage therapy, cheap prescriptions, cheap doctors visits. I took advantage of it all. Full physical, heart and lung monitoring, blood work, urine, everything for one low price. My doctor asked if there was anything I was concerned about. I talked about my asthma, my fear of skin cancer, and I brought up the old injury to my foot.
Here we go.
I broke my foot four years prior to that visit. I was in a comedy group, a hip-hop comedy group with the dude who just offered me the spare room. He and another dude would rap-sing stupid, hilarious, vulgar songs while girls paraded the stage in lingerie. I was a back-up dancer (we were called Man Slices.) We would perform the most ridiculous choreographed routines, eventually running through the audience, rousing the crowd. We’d tear off our jackets in the most unsexy version of Chip and Dale, Magic Mike, Thunder From Down Under you can imagine. It’s not lost on me that my pale puffiness was all part of the parody, but that pale puffiness procured potential partners (alliteration points.) That show got me laid. Digress, digress. One fateful finale had my sweaty, soft self leaping off the stage into the audience. In mid air, as if in slow motion, I could see that where I was about to land some girl had left a purse while she groped for me and my fellow Slices. I course corrected before landing, rolling my ankle painfully, and continued to hobble through the crowd, trying not to let the pain hinder my performance.
I went home and iced it, and thought nothing of. I eventually got to a doctor who said there was a small fracture in my metatarsal. He said there was nothing I could do except to wear secure shoes while working my waiter job. End of story.
Four years later, my crazy-great insurance plan at my disposal. My doctor sent me to a podiatrist, a fast-talking, self-proclaimed genius who designed his own orthotic shoe insert, which he immediately prescribed for me. He showed me how my foot hung limp, explaining that my epic stage jump may have torn all of the ligaments in my foot and ankle, and ordered an MRI for me all without taking a breath. Insurance is great!
“Can I run?” I enquired.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing until we get the MRI results. Maybe wrap your leg in an Ace bandage to keep it stable.” Great.
I wrapped, I ran, I worked eight-hour shifts on my feet at a restaurant. A week later I went for my MRI; forty-five minutes lying still as magnetic rays bounced off my foot and ankle, or whatever it is that happens during an MRI. That afternoon I picked my daughter up from school and chased her around the park jumping off the equipment, trying to be Superdad. The increase in my running regimen had increased my energy. Still, it was exhausting being with a three-year-old. That night I went to a project meeting with some friends. At one moment of deep thought, I crossed my leg, ankle to the opposite knee, and felt a slight tenderness right above the anklebone. Odd.
Next morning I went for a run. I needed to run. I was almost back to my five miles; it was becoming routine again. My friends ran the LA Marathon a couple years prior and I started to think maybe I could give it a go with a little more practice. My lungs were clear, my legs weren’t tight, I found the perfect music mix to energize my footfall, my kick. My gut hadn’t shrunk yet so I needed to keep the pattern going, keep my momentum, get rid of the softness. I got one mile into my route (I knew it was one mile, I had mapped out the course in my car, finding the landmarks representing my miles. I was concerned about the distance, not the time or the speed, but the distance traveled. It was how my brain made sense of the exercise.) Crack! Pop! The kind of pop you are not supposed to hear from your body. Sharp pain in my ankle radiating through my leg down to my toes and up through my thigh, into my gut, tightening the internal organs about to expel what little water I had drank before leaving the apartment, up through my esophagus. My eyes pushed out tears, my lungs forced out a scream. My body wasn’t my own; it belonged to the pain. I was one mile away from home. I was wet with sweat and tears and saliva and morning dew. I didn’t have my phone. I didn’t have ID. I didn’t know whether to flag down some SUV taking kids to school and ask for a ride, or to knock on some stranger’s door, or just lay down in the middle of the sidewalk, heaving and crying until someone stopped to ask if I needed help. My ego rejected all options save for hobbling back for a mile until I got home. Any amount of pressure on the foot would constrict my spine and tug on all receptors in my brain. It was the longest walk I had ever taken.
I popped two leftover Vicodin I was saving for some sad night of binge watching Adult Swim. I iced the affected area, as per my nurse practitioner mother’s instructions. I wrapped tightly in an Ace bandage and experienced some relief; from a 15 to a 9 on the 10 point pain scale. I had a week until my MRI results came in. I took a couple days off work. I elevated the injury. I visited my acupuncturist twice. I was going to be ok. Right? Hehe.
My motor-mouth podiatrist showed me the MRI results; tears in the calcaneo-fibular ligament and torn anterior talo-fibular ligament, none of which had ever healed properly in the last four years.
“Cool. Ok. And what about what happened last week while running?’’
“More stress on the ligaments trying to heal. You should wear a walking boot for two weeks and see if anything improves.”
“Ok, cool. And what about this tender slightly raised part of my ankle?”
“More than likely related to continued stress on ligament. Wear the boot and we’ll go from there. And here’s a prescription for Vicodin”
I wore my boot fitted with a Reebok Pump device enveloping my leg with a cushion of air like a blood pressure cuff. I had a legit excuse to eat opiates. Things were looking up.
Two weeks passed and I returned to see if there were any improvements. Doc held up my foot and it flopped back down.
“Hm. Ok. Well, we can try physical therapy for a bit. Surgery would be our last option.”
“Cool. What about this tender lump above my ankle bone?”
It was the same spot I had pointed out before. It was raised now. I iced it regularly to keep down swelling and my acupuncturist treated it for pain using needles and electrodes. Doc looked at it as if seeing it for the first time.
“Does this hurt?” He touched it.
Alarms went off in my brain, forcing a strong exhalation, and squeezing out tears.
“Whoa! Let’s get a quick x-ray.”
My fibula was shattered in what he called a “spiral fracture,” where a piece of the small bone was about to puncture my skin from the inside out. That understandably was the pain and discomfort I had been feeling since my fateful run. Apparently, my acrobatics off the stage severed some ligaments. Without being able to heal, I had been walking and running incorrectly, putting weight and pressure on the fibula, the small bone not designed to carry weight, but rather to stabilize the leg muscles. So every time I ran, every time I worked those eight-hour shifts, every time I walked anywhere I was putting weight, all of my extra, depressed, post-breakup weight on that poor little bone.
Emergency surgery was scheduled. I was to have the bone reset with a plate on top and five screws bored into the fibula to hold it in place.
Guess who came to my rescue? Well, my mom, the nurse practitioner came down to be with me before and after the surgery, but also my ex! I was going to be out of commission for six weeks, not able to walk. I was given a scooter to push myself around on. She offered for me to stay with her and my daughter while I recovered. She cared about me and wanted to care for me. She wanted to help me. Clearly she wanted me back, right? I was going to be the injured bird she resuscitated back to health, a twisted sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.
The night before the surgery I imagined the flesh on my ankle being split apart with a scalpel, blood vessels cauterized as they pulled the incision, exposing whatever is underneath the skin; muscle, tendons, my destroyed ligaments. I pictured my surgeon putting the bone pieces back together like you would a broken broom handle, finding the right grooves of bone fragment to match together. I wondered what sound the drill would make, high pitched like a dentist’s, or buzzing like my Mikita? Would that scent of burning come, like when you drill into hard wood, or would the bone splinter around the screw? I felt everything I was imagining in my gut, in my flesh, in the tension I created in my fists. I didn’t sleep.
I was prepped early the next morning at the hospital. My belongings were logged and placed in a bag as if I was going to jail. They gave me something like Xanax to calm down. I watched the pre-op room fill with nervous patients and their family. What were they here for? Something as benign as a fractured leg, or something more serious? Maybe an organ removed. I thought about my step dad’s triple bypass and imagined my own sternum being cracked and split open, allowing my most vitals to be exposed to the air for the first time ever. My surgeon came in, same amphetamined podiatrist who put me there, quickly went over everything that would happen, marked the correct leg, and signed it. I didn’t even think about the possibility of the incorrect leg being incised; something else to add to my trepidation. He had twenty other surgeries scheduled that day, TWENTY. I was an item on the assembly line to be processed in and then out, ready for the next. My mother came in, held my hand, and said she’d be waiting for me. Was this goodbye? It felt like a goodbye. Complications could happen. Anesthesia could cause the brain or heart to stop functioning. Should I say something to her, prepare for the worst? She was gone.
They wheeled me into the operating room. I tried desperately to memorize the path we took to get there for some reason. The Xanax had me calm, but I couldn’t help but think about all the worst possible outcomes. What if I woke up in the operating room and everyone was gone, like 28 Days Later? They laid me on a horizontal cross, needles placed into my hands and arms. I thought about the death penalty, lethal injection, a needle in your arm and then nothing. The masked faces were gentle in their precision, eyes smiling at me. I counted back, 10, 9, 8, 7, oblivion.
“Oooh, I need your love, babe. Guess you know it’s true.” A voice sang out. “Hope you need my love, babe, just like I need you.” I opened my eyes. “Hold me, love me, hold me, love me.” The voice was my own, all cracked and off key, but filled with passion. “I ain’t got nothing but love, babe, eight days a week.” The nurses were laughing in the recovery room. I couldn’t tell if the song was playing on the radio or if it was my head from my anesthesia dream. Time didn’t exist, I barely existed until I looked down and saw my heavily bandaged leg elevated in front of me.
One of the nurses came over. “You’ve been singing for a while. Quite funny. Are you in any pain?” I wasn’t in anything. I just was.
I sang some more because, why not? I loved the pharmaceutical cloud I was engulfed in. As moments passed, the pain increased along with my awareness of my surroundings. It wasn’t even 11 yet. It had only been an hour or so. It could have been a lifetime. The next rotation, the nurse gave me some strong pain pills. I sunk into the bed waiting until I was released.
My mother wheeled me out to the car, allowing me to thank everyone with a handshake. We stopped to pick up my meds, my shower boot, and my scooter. She dropped me off at my ex’s place and left to shop for groceries. I was her baby boy again, needing his mom. I let her dote on me because I needed it, but she kind of did as well. My ex helped me in and onto her couch. She smiled as she gently touched my shoulder and my face. It was the beginning of my six-week stay with her and I planned to win her back before it was done. She smelled the same, her skin glistened the same. She smiled at me as I lay on the couch asking if there was anything she could do to make me more comfortable.
“A hand job?” I thought. You know, to relieve stress. It was too soon, though. There was work I needed to do to insert myself back into the situation. I asked for water to take my pain pill. I didn’t need it yet but I wanted to let her help. That, and it would feel real good!
My well-imagined plan was that she would get used to having me around, that it would spark whatever memory of joy she had of us together, watching shows together, making jokes together, sleeping together. What I ended up being was that clichéd character from 90s sitcoms who was sick, with a bell they kept ringing, doing nothing but annoying all the other characters. I could see the contempt grow as she brought meals to me, did my laundry, sighing aggressively every time I made some sort of flirty joke.
She worked a lot, which was one of the factors of our demise, at least in my head, but she seemed to be working even more while I was there recovering. I got extra quality time with my daughter. We’d watch whatever kid’s show she was into until eventually she would climb on me, or run around the apartment and make me look for her. All my mobility was limited to hopping. Hopping from couch to bathroom, from couch to kitchen, hopping to search for wherever my daughter was hiding. I fell three times and may have thrown out some choice words that might have been inappropriate for her. I fell once hopping onto one of her toys left on the floor, and I fell twice trying to take a shower, hanging the injured leg in a vacuum-sealed boot over the tub.
Most of my time was spent alone in the apartment, foreign in its familiarity. It was my stuff in someone else’s space. Furniture we had bought together, or that I had donated to them, clothes I had bought for my ex, toys for my daughter, my kitchen appliances. Yet none of it was mine. It wasn’t my home and that hurt more than the screws holding my leg together. I was tempted to nose through my ex’s room, find out secrets, or find something to give me some sort of hope for us; a letter I had written her, a picture of us. I thought about going through her underwear drawer just to feel some sort of intimate connection. I know! Creepy! My snooping had gotten me in trouble in the past, finding out thing I didn’t want to know and at the same time breaking her trust, another factor of our demise.
I watched movies, and fixed her door handles, and we all ate dinner as a family fairly regularly for the first time in a long while. We would watch our shows together, her and I, just like we used to. She would even cuddle up with me on occasion, being careful of the leg of course, but we never came back, back to what we were, or what I imagined we were.
Three weeks into my recuperation, I was up late one night. I couldn’t sleep. I saw a light flicker from her bedroom and heard the tapping keys of her computer. I lifted myself off the couch and hopped over to her door. She was propped up in bed writing a message to someone. A broad smile reflected in the computer light.
“Can’t sleep either?” I inquired from the doorway.
“My god! You scared me!” She shut her computer.
“What? No, I was sending a message.” She responded quickly.
“To who?” I meant to ask why so late, or really anything to keep the conversation going, but I didn’t. I knew it was none of my business.
“No one!” So quick, so dismissive.
I should have gone back to the couch. I didn’t. I hobbled over and flopped onto her bed.
“What are you doing? I am going to sleep now.” She said as she rolled over.
“I just wanted to lay here with you, next to you.” It was all I wanted from the moment I came over, post-surgery. I wanted her to want me, to take me back, to forgive me, and let me forgive her. I wanted to lay there, and touch her face, and watch her respond to my touch. I wanted her and I needed her to want me. We had slept together a couple times after the breakup but it had never felt right. It was rushed, a brief moment away from our daughter, or it felt like I had to prove something, like I was being tested. I reached over and touched her and felt her recoil.
“Go back to bed. I am going to sleep and you are not sleeping here.” There was a playfulness to her stern voice, or maybe I created that in my head. I lay next to her, wanting so much more, and out of the nothingness between us I asked, “Who were you messaging?”
I left the next day, opting to finish the last couple of weeks of my recovery at my apartment, my friend’s apartment. It felt more like home to me than my ex’s. I bought her a necklace. A thank you, and an apology. She would wear it every time we saw each other after that.
I just started running again, four years later. I’m at two miles. Every time I run I half-imagine the moment when the screws rip from my fibula, piercing the thin skin around my ankle from the inside, and leaving me in a wet heap in the middle of the track, but I keep doing it. Trying to lose my softness. My leg aches when the rain comes, I guess the drought in California helps limit my aches. My heart aches less and less.
Jon-Barrett Ingels takes a long time to complete things (ask him about his ten plus year old novel, or his plays, or screen plays, or TV shows.) That is why he is excited about this short essay. Accomplishment! Encouraging him to finish the laundry list of other projects. When JB isn’t writing, or thinking about writing, or tasting wine, or playing with his daughter, he hosts and produces The How The Why podcast for 1888. He is also a contributor for Flaunt Magazine. Everything he does is so that his daughter will always think he is cool. Weird, but cool.
He’s also the author of How to Succeed by Failing, a novella.