by Jake Tuck
In The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman, the main character, a specifically chauvinistic Brooklynite with a book deal, goes for a run around the Prospect Park loop two blocks from my apartment. It takes him 27:22 to run 3.41 miles. As seems to be the standard reaction to this book, it put me in an unexpected critical mode: I wanted to beat Nate in a footrace.
A tale of the tape:
Height: Nate: under 6’ (I’m guessing); Jake: 6’2” (rounding up)
Weight: Nate: ? but he has a paunch; Jake: 165, paunchless
Reach: Nate: ?; Jake: about 5.5 iPhones (no tape measure/ruler available)
Ontological status: Nate: fictional; Jake: real (rounding up)
Neighborhood: Nate: Prospect Heights; Jake: Park Slope (southern)
Alma Mater: Nate: Harvard (he mentions it a lot); Jake: Cornell (probably Nate’s safety school)
Relevant medical history: Nate: ruptured Achilles; Jake: allergic to most things in air
Shoes: Nate: ?; Jake: New Balance 880 V3 in McDonald’s colors
Music: Nate: none (doesn’t like music); Jake: Spotify playlist on iPhone
The night before Nate’s run (aka our race), his girlfriend, Hannah, who is starting to bore him, cooks the two of them a nice dinner of pasta and clams. Nate notices that some of the clams don’t open. I think this is like how Nate’s heart can’t open. That night, the only thing that appeals to him about Hannah, a woman he supposedly feels great tenderness toward, is how her butt looks when she reaches up to put a bottle of wine on top of the fridge. Even if I don’t win this race, I’m going to cook myself a dinner for two of pasta and clams and drink a bottle of wine. The clams will open.
When Nate wakes up the next morning and puts on his running gear, he’s “conscious of trying to evade, literally to outrun, a feeling of restlessness.” So I guess it’s going to be a three-way race. Or a four-way race: I’m also trying to outrun restlessness in the sense that running helps my restless leg syndrome.
To prepare for the race, I do absolutely nothing. I don’t even stretch. I’ve heard it hurts performance. Also, I forget to.
I walk to the park. It’s a sunny Saturday, so every person in Brooklyn is here. It’s a little crowded for me, but Nate loves the bustle: “unlike the parks Nate had known growing up in the suburbs, frequented almost exclusively by delinquent teens, gay cruisers, and sundry procurers of crack, this one didn’t feel rickety or abandoned.” He’s right — if there are procurers of crack here, they are not sundry. Mostly I see kids’ birthday parties and people on blankets eating cheese.
Without any pomp, I start the running app I downloaded for this occasion, fire up some music, and start the race. I didn’t think to design a specific playlist, so I may have to do some skipping. I start out with “Mouth Breather” by the Jesus Lizard, which not only propels me with its searing guitars, but also represents the slack-jawed respiration style that my environmental allergies demand. I get the sense, reading between the lines, that Nate has unobstructed nasal passages. Advantage: Nate.
“The running path curved through a wooded area,” Waldman writes. “The foliage crowded out all signs of urban life. Nate just listened to the sound of his footfalls on the asphalt.” I question this passage’s realism. Even over my music, I hear someone playing the bagpipes for some reason and a mother threatening to pop her child in the mouth if he doesn’t stop riding his scooter too far ahead.
I’m starting to hit my stride, while Nate’s mind wanders. He doesn’t have his head in the race. He thinks about how his book deal will allow him to give to nonprofits like the one that maintains the park. To him this is a bad thing. He’s lost his street cred and given in to “latte liberalism.” Poor guy. He realizes that his contemplation has slowed him down, so he looks for a good rabbit to chase: “About a hundred feet in front of him, a blonde woman with a long ponytail was moving at a good clip. She had shapely legs and a long narrow waist. She reminded him of Kristen [one of his exes]. He began using her as a pacesetter.”
I need a rabbit as well, but I see nobody ahead of me that I can both equate with an ex and objectify. A guy who looks like a clean-shaven Tim Howard runs past me. I follow him for a bit, but he’s going way too fast. I see a different guy who’s got a more manageable pace going, and also has a neon running outfit, so I won’t lose sight of him. He’s going faster than my usual pace, but not too fast, so I follow him.
A Cam’ron song starts playing in my earbuds, and I’m invigorated. I wonder what Nate might think about rap. It seems perfect for him. He could pretend to have his ear to the streets that he feels guilty about being removed from. Also, to women he doesn’t respect he could say, “the genre’s lapses into unironic misogyny are problematic,” but privately give rappers like Cam’ron a pass because they dress it up in absurdist wordplay. Nate has no soul, however, and doesn’t like music, so the issue is moot.
Nate starts thinking again (I forgot how it’s all you can do while running), about how writing his book was “the greatest pleasure of his life. That a publisher was then willing to pay him for it, pay him generously, was nothing to complain about. He’d do it again for free, in a minute.” I wonder how many people on this path are looking for book deals.
I’m pretty sure I’m winning the race, but I don’t know for sure. Downside of unsanctioned race against fictional character: no official mile splits. I could look at my phone, but I’m worried it’ll slip through my sweaty hands if I try to unlock it.
Shit, my neon rabbit stops at a water fountain! He has to wait for ersatz Tim Howard to finish drinking. I do my best to keep up my pace, but I’m sucking air.
Luckily Nate is in the same boat: “As he emerged from the wooded part of the park, the heat began to wear on him. He started counting out his breaths.” He’s “fighting his body’s yearning toward comfort.” Him and me both. My pace slows. Then “Ante Up” by M.O.P. starts blasting in my ears. Fuck a rabbit. I speed up.
Unfortunately Nate doesn’t need a pacesetter either. He seems to be driven by the very stuff he’s made of, i.e. Waldmen’s lyrical prose: “As the path wound around the pond, the tall yellow grasses that line its shore waved slightly in spite of the air’s stillness. Nate overtook the blonde.” My impression of the pond is a little different: I see a tarp covering some kind of bog, and also some fake swans. No, those are real swans.
As the east side of the loop levels out, “Ante Up” ends and, SHIT, “Werewolf” by Fiona Apple comes on. I love this song, but it makes me want take a take a nap on a decrepit chaise longue. Fiona compares a guy to both a werewolf and shark, but admits that she brought out the wolf and baited the shark. Hannah doesn’t bring out the werewolf/shark in Nate with the some kind agency. For Nate, the full moon is his own male boredom, the blood in the water a woman in a restaurant whose butt looks better than Hannah’s (butts are a leitmotif in the novel). Hannah’s only problem is that she can’t change into an entirely different woman. Also that she met Nate in the first place.
I need to focus on my breathing like Nate. I unlock my phone and think about searching for “Breathe” by Fabolous, but that would take too long and Fiona is singing about volcanoes and electricity and if I don’t stop it I’ll end up joining one of the picnics and confessing regrets to strangers. I skip a couple songs and get to “Militia” by Gang Starr, which features Freddie Foxxx, another all-time great shouty rapper. And here’s neon guy, overtaking me! I will follow you, neon guy, follow you wherever you may go, unless you stop for more water.
Before my phone locks, I finally look at my running app. It’s taken me 12:32 to get about halfway around the loop. I’m happy with that pace, but I’m reminded of a logistical issue that I have to deal with. The loop is 3.35 miles, but Nate makes things difficult by starting to run before he gets to the park, so he ends up covering 3.41 miles. So I’ll have to run the extra fraction of a mile at the end. Nate is a pain in the ass.
I get stuck behind some women who are three-wide on a narrow detour path going around some construction. They’re pushing strollers and walking very slowly. I didn’t know people could walk so slowly. Why walk at all? Why not just park yourself in the middle of the path and watch as angry people, one of whom is in the middle of a high-stakes footrace, gather on either side of you? After I lose ten seconds or so, the path mercifully widens and I run past.
I get back onto the loop and I’m at the foot of the park’s version of Heartbreak Hill. It’s a long steep incline where wills are tested, where men/women are separated from boys/girls, and where a guy riding a recumbent bicycle is checking his email. I feel decent as I start to ascend, but I can’t keep up the pace. I start to feel awful. I’ve been pushing myself harder than usual, which is not at all, and it’s caught up to me. I try to speed up again, but I feel like I’m dying.
I can feel Nate breathing down my neck as he begins to climb the hill: “All he could do was register in short sensory bursts of intake the scene around him: leafy trees on his right, meadow on his left, an Asian chick in a Duke T-shirt running in the opposite direction … .” Here’s another accuracy issue: the novel takes place at least five years ago, and Prospect Park wasn’t overrun with Duke graduates until last year.
I’m about to keel over and vomit. If the Devil appeared beside me and offered me the cardio endurance of Prefontaine in exchange for a hundred negative book deals (I would have to get a hundred book deals just to get back to my current tally of zero book deals), I would take it in a heartbeat. Halfway up the hill, my shoelace comes untied. I simply must stop to tie it, so I do, and I catch my breath. When I start up again, I feel less deathly.
Still, when I make it to the top of this hill and round the northern tip of the park, I’m completely wiped. I need something to propel me to the finish line. I think about the recumbent bike, but that would compromise the integrity of the race. Some metal starts playing. This should help, but I can’t shake Nate. Apparently all he needs to drive him to the finish line is sheer volition:
At the top of the hill, he was breathing hard. He forced himself to run faster. The last eighth of a mile, slightly downhill, was more tunnel-like, lined with trees on both sides. Each time his foot hit the pavement, he silently repeated the word will, as in I will, as in willpower, as in the thing that had made him get off his ass and write, night after night, when he’d been in his twenties, working those interminable temp jobs, long before writing the book had been fun, when all he’d wanted to do was get wasted, or at the very least do something passive, like read.
I’m with him here. Running and writing are similar in that it’s very easy to stop doing them. But for some reason, we carry on, just like Waldman did after she couldn’t sell her first novel. So the lesson is, if you just apply some willpower, you can get a book deal, or else perhaps win a race you don’t know you’re in because you’re an invented person.
I desperately try to find a kick at the end, but I’ve got nothing left. I stumble with rubbery legs back to where I started. I barely know what’s going on but somehow manage to look at my phone. I’m at 27:00! I almost drop to my knees and throw my hands up like Elias in Platoon (different context but same tone of grandeur), but I remember that I have to go the extra .06 of a mile. I drag my ass onward, looking at the stupid app. I finally get to 3.41 miles. My time is 27:21! I beat him by one second! Hmm, I wonder how precise the GPS is. Eh, whatever, I won. Fuck you, Nate.