By Judith Schiess Avila
Heavy footfalls ring out behind me.
My racing reflection slides from shop window to shop window. Is that his labored breathing I hear? Virgin-white Nike’s, purchased just yesterday, slap against the New York City sidewalk as I try to get away.
Dios! He’s getting closer.
Sneakers beating out a desperate rhythm, I push hard, search windows for the image of the armed man as I streak by. Nothing. My breath comes in ragged gasps. Finally I turn. Look over my shoulder. Nada.
Trotting backwards, I scan the sidewalk. Then I crouch, hands gripping knees, sucking air into searing lungs.
I glance at my cell phone. Wow! This really works. I’ve been running for twenty minutes, outdistancing an enemy who exists only in my actress’ imagination. Yesterday, a formidable ninety-eight-pound foe—my mama—chased me, shouting I had to leave New York, return home to Albuquerque. And I ran fast as fish darting from a propeller in the East River.
Pulling the New York Mets baseball cap from my head, I swipe at sweat with one forearm. I can act—I know it—in psychological thrillers, comedies, family drama. I can do Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hitchcock or Tarantino—make a part gritty, touching, honest. What have fifteen pounds got to do with it?
Sweat streams down my back. I massage my right calf, then resume a slower pace. I know casting directors cram me into a box labeled “LATINA” in bold letters. I need to change that.
A worm, victim of last night’s rain, struggles on the cement sidewalk. I bend over, pick it up and transfer it to the dirt collar surrounding a city tree. Air tears through my lungs as I kick the pace back up. Running is so not my style. My five-foot-four, size-ten physique suits me fine. The fashion model ideal—face gaunt with an animal hunger, body desperately thin—insults my soul. I am a whole, real person.
But at my last audition for a TV commercial, one of the casting crew whispered to another, “She’s good.” The other answered, “Chubby, don’you think?”
Chubby? Haven’t they heard the Native American saying, “Everything strives to be round?” My Latina background incorporates the wisdom of both Spain and the Native races.
Well, there’s no way I’m going to let a few pounds stop me. In six weeks I will be fifteen pounds lighter. I’ve promised myself. I take a deep breath and again kick up the pace.
Brakes screech from down the block, an eighteen-wheeler, as I turn north from Christopher Street onto Greenwich. The roar of Manhattan overwhelms the early morning. Later in the day, by some unlikely alchemy, the din recedes to steady backdrop as the sidewalks fill with people. Ever since I began these morning outings—when they were brisk walks, not lung-bursting jogs—I’ve loved to snake my way through the Village, discovering new shops and restaurants, trying not to lock myself into any one route. I love the City.
America the Beautiful plays from the vicinity of my hip. I skid to a stop. A call at this hour? I should have switched the phone to vibrate, and am lucky to have heard my father’s favorite song. Gulping for breath, one arm extended to lean against a tree, I pray silently to the patron saint of desperate causes, Saint Jude, don’t let it be bad news. I pray in English, not Spanish. Latin roots may give me passion, strength and history, but here, in the city of possibilities, I work to fit in.
Slipping my smartphone from the pocket of my shorts, I glance at the caller-ID and resume a slow jog. Yellow leaves shush against sneakers as I slide the icon to answer the call. My roommate Brittany. “Freedom, where are you?” Brit has just arrived home from the overnight shift at Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Running,” I squeeze out between huffs. “Fat-burning project. Day five.”
“You go, girl…Uh, would you bring me—”
The sidewalk vibrates. A subway passes under my feet, the rumble drowning Brittany’s voice. Like always, the sheer power of this city sends a tingle from my toes to the roots of my hair. I gulp the emission-filled air, acrid on my tongue. I couldn’t live anywhere else.
“What?” I say into the phone.
“Bagel,” she shouts. “Cinnamon with cream cheese.”
“Sure.” I turn back, panting, toward the deli a block or so behind me.
“Oh, and you had a call, your—”
Brittany’s high-pitched shout pierces my ear. “Your aunt.”
“Tía Teresa?” The sweat on my brow turns cold. “Any message?”
“Call her back A-SAP.”
Dios! It’s only four-thirty in the morning Albuquerque time. Something must be wrong with Mama.
It's too noisy out here on the street to talk to my aunt. I duck into a recessed entranceway and dial Tía Teresa’s number, leaning my forehead against the wall and cupping my ear to mute the city sounds.
“Bueno,” she answers.
“Tía Teresa, it’s Freedom.”
“Madre de Dios, I forgot how early it is in New York. Only six-thirty. I’m sorry.” My talented aunt, an artist, keeps unconventional hours, sleeping and painting whenever she chooses.
“Is everything all right?”
Silence. I picture Teresa shaking her head, silver earrings swinging. “Your Mama is complaining. She wants you home.”
For several seconds my tongue won’t work. Then, “Is she sick?”
“Mi’ja, it’s so difficult to tell. She says she’s nervous, her legs hurt, and she’s scared to drive. She thinks she needs you here, but I think she is okay. Mostly just cranky.”
I press the phone to my ear as a car, dragging its bumper in a shower of sparks, drives by. “Do you think I should come home?”
Teresa sighs. “No, I wanted you to be prepared. She will probably call to complain.” She clicks her tongue in a scolding way. “Your mama is a good woman, but she always wants things her way.”
I let out a gust of air. I’ve been holding my breath. “You really think she’s okay? I don’t need to come home?” I close my eyes and feel tears of relief, hot against my lids.
“You need to live your life,” my aunt says. “I think it’s best to wait.”
When I hang up, I collapse against the cool bricks of the entrance wall. Dammit! None of this is new. Mama has been a hypochondriac since…well…forever. Over the years she has perfected her complaints so that even I believe them sometimes. But now Tía Teresa is calling. Should I make plans to fly to New Mexico?
I forget all about Brittany’s bagel, abandon my plans to turn west and jog along Hudson River Park, and head for my apartment, jogging again, swerving to miss the few people who are out at this time of morning on Saturday. Relax. Everything will be okay.
But will it?
A lens of moisture distorts my surroundings. I scrub at my eyes with both fists.
Today, as always, familiar sounds and aromas announce the start of day—the blast of horns and squeal of truck brakes, the warm, yeasty smell of baking bread, the muted bleach fumes where the Korean green-grocer has disinfected the pavement. A pungent aroma of simmering marinara wafts out into the October morning.
Secrets unfold before the sun rises. Owners ready their shops for business like stagehands setting up for a play, activities patrons aren’t meant to see. But abruptly, with Teresa’s call, I feel like an outsider temporarily glimpsing this tableau.
Heart beating like a snare drum, a cramp shoots up my side. I slow for a moment, and the pain eases. Suck it up, girl. Just fifteen pounds. I resume my pace.
Ahead, bright blue canvas partially masks repair work on a twenty-story condo. A man jogs from under the scaffolding, dressed only in sneakers, tight shorts, and a sweaty tee.
“Looking good, Freedom,” he says.
Parkway, a rangy Shepherd-cross dog runs close to his leg. When the dog spots me, his tail beats the air in a frantic arc. He glances back at me as he keeps pace with his owner.
I rescued Parkway nearly a year ago. When I went north to visit a friend, he was cowering by the side of the Saw Mill River Parkway, skinny and soaked by a cold rain. For a few weeks he’d stayed in our cramped apartment. Brittany and Rachel were good sports, but I watched the concern on their faces as he wolfed his food, packing on pounds every day. In two long strides he’d cross the living room. Another stride and an easy jump landed him on the kitchen counter. The cramped quarters were unfair to both the fast-growing, energetic dog and to us. So Mark took him in.
Strays find me. Unerringly. Like my father, who raised thirteen dogs and five rabbits, I cannot ignore an animal in need. Chiquita, a Chihuahua-cross I found snacking on a cheeseburger behind a dumpster, now rules the roost at our apartment.
How can I leave all of this? I pull the bill down on my Mets cap and keep running. I pass a vendor setting out baskets of Cortland and Macintosh apples, then jog by a sidewalk coffee cart. I slow to a fast walk. My Greenwich Village neighborhood stands apart from the rest of the world, a community of possibilities I would never find in New Mexico. Here, in this city, I teeter on the cusp, the brink of something wonderful. My entire body tingles with it. And the Manhattan skyscrapers soar like my hopes.
I stop moving and bend over, left hand pressing the cramp in my side. You’re an actress, girl. Act through this. A deep breath. My feet move forward. I tell myself it will all work out. New York is my home now.
Mama insists the move to New York was pure treason. Holding my Columbia diploma up like a crucifix, I attempted to keep the demon of tradition at bay. But each call from home deposits a measure of guilt.
My freedom is sand trickling through an hourglass. I fear it is using itself up.