In seventh grade, it was difficult to speak. I wore floral skirts with suspenders and ate in the carpeted vestibule outside the teacher’s lounge, huddled in a small group of girls with whom I felt marginally less terrified than I did with everyone else. “Why are you so quiet?” one of the more popular girls—which is to say, all of the other girls—would sometimes ask. That word, quiet, shadowed my every move. It seemed to describe the limits of my identity. I got good grades in every subject but PE, where my teacher’s reports were brutal, citing my failure to manifest basic coordination. I was picked last, or nearly last, for every team, a ritual humiliation that seemed like little more than confirmation of what I already knew: that I wasn’t despised, but something worse—simply invisible, forgettable.
During the years that followed junior high, two things released me from shyness or helped me glimpse a version of myself that was not entirely censored or gripped by it: running and drinking. Both carried me past the threshold of being in control, past the paralyzed, fearful, silent person I believed I was destined to be. Running carried me to states where I was so exhausted that I had no energy left over for the spinning gears of my own self-consciousness. Drinking loosened those gears till they reached a mercifully suspended state, turned liquid. Running was dust and sweat and sometimes blood, and always tiredness, and the nerves of all our bodies pressed together at the start of a race. Drinking was warm nights shadowed by rustling palm fronds, beer in an RV parked in someone’s driveway just off Sunset Boulevard, Chardonnay from my mother’s fridge—an exhalation across my entire body. Running was difficulty, and drinking was ease, but in their shared capacity to deliver me from myself they felt like a pair of unlikely siblings: an odd couple, strangely aligned.
At first, the cross-country team felt like another stage for my shyness, rather than any kind of release from it. Freshman year I was about five-six, just under 100 pounds, still nearly three years away from my first period: a good runner but not great. I experienced my tall body as a badge of shame: My physical self was imposing in its height and seemed to make promises—of forceful, memorable presence—that my blanched personality could not fulfill.
The other girls on the team were older and generally beautiful. They spent our pre-practice stretching sessions post-gaming weekends that sounded—to me—more like movies: making out with boys at parties, getting busted for coming home past curfew. On a training run one day, another runner on the team got lost—a girl I’ll call Helen, who was outspoken and outrageous—and it wasn’t until we got back to school that the rest of us realized she was gone. Once she turned up at school, our coach lectured us: We needed to keep better track of one another. How had we not noticed Helen had disappeared? She said, “I?mean, I could understand if it had been Leslie. But Helen?” It stung not because it was unfair but because it was true.
Still, I loved that running normalized silence: Seven miles into a ten-mile training run, no one had much to say about anything. My eternal quiet finally had an alibi. From the very beginning, I was drawn to the punishing physicality of running, and the way this shared pain quickly became common ground: endless Saturday-morning practice runs along the packed sand of the beach at low tide; races with brutal hills named for their switchbacks or their water tanks or their reservoirs or simply for their ruthlessness. Running offered ways to feel connected to other people that didn’t depend on conversation: suffering through the icy pool at early-morning swim workouts, then nodding at one another in the hallways later, our wet hair still smelling faintly of chlorine; sharing long bus rides back home from races over the Mulholland hump of the 405: all of our salt-sweated bodies enclosed in zippered warm-up suits. That closeness didn’t demand I say anything at all.
Senior year, I was a team captain, something that would have been incomprehensible to me when I first joined. One of our yearly rituals was a practice we called the “scavenger run,” when we were supposed to run for an hour—in pairs—and bring back the most interesting thing we could find. My partner Katie and I brought back an employee from a Jamba Juice, a guy in his late teens who agreed to use his hour-long break in order to come to school with us, most likely because Katie was stunningly—disconcertingly—beautiful. I didn’t care. We’d win for sure. And we did. I felt part of something, fully.
By the end of high school, drinking started ushering me into some version of the weekends I’d heard other girls describe: watching fireworks under the easy cloak of a vodka buzz; getting high and giggling at the menu at Denny’s at three in the morning. My best friend set me up with her boyfriend’s best friend—who went to another school, which meant he hadn’t spent years thinking of me as the shy girl in the corner—and Jake, as I’ll call him, picked me up one night in his mother’s teal minivan for our first date. As?we got closer, our time together grew edged with recklessness and danger in ways that thrilled me. He ate withered mushroom caps at Disneyland and started to freak out in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as I stroked his forehead, trying to calm him down. I liked courting the far edges of being in control—liked that risk, that sense of something happening.
After Jake’s prom, which happened the night before my graduation, we went back to a suite at a budget hotel with a bunch of his friends—all of us drunk, fooling around in our own dim corners until we passed out. When I woke up the next morning, it was ten minutes past the time I was supposed to have arrived at school, less than an hour before the start of my ceremony, and I couldn’t find my shoes anywhere. I grabbed a pair of glittery silver heels by the door. They belonged to a stranger. I don’t know what she must have thought when she woke up to find them gone, but I know that for me they became a kind of talisman: something strange and glimmering under my somber black robes, these stolen disco shoes, the closing beat of a night I couldn’t fully remember. They were proof that I was living beyond the boundaries of the predictable, the expected, the obedient, and the ordinary.
Near the end of summer, Jake took me to an old wooden lifeguard shack on the beach, both of us buzzed, and we climbed the rickety wooden steps to sit on its splintery floorboards, our legs dangling over the sand, listening to the waves. Drinking blurred my edges and made me feel physically part of the world, entwined with everything around me: his body, the salt air, the rush and hiss of the water. This was the opposite of what I’d felt most of my life, that fervent desire to disappear from whatever moment I’d found myself inhabiting, so that I could fast-forward to another moment in the future, once my real life had begun. That night, sitting on the lifeguard stand, I felt like my real life was beginning.
If running and drinking both offered a sense of release from myself, they offered it in very different—nearly opposite—ways: Drinking felt like transportation out of myself, while running transformed my sense of who I was. If drinking loosened me from the cloister of my body, then running involved inhabiting that body fully: sweat pooling in my collarbone, flattening my hair to my skull, coating my shins in layers of dust and grime. Buried in that early drinking, of course, were the seeds of what it would eventually become: a hunger for release that verged more fully into self-forgetting; nights spent kneeling at toilets and mornings spent piecing together what those nights had held. By the time I finally stopped drinking entirely, at the age of 27, it had come to feel like the opposite of freedom.
But in those early days, running and drinking satisfied the same craving. They both allowed me to forget the rigid contours of the person I’d convinced myself I would always be: silent and fearful, ashamed of my thoughts and my shadow and the smell of my own breath. In those clearings of forgetting, they delivered me to that simple truth that can seem—when you are young—both overwhelmingly real and also impossible to accept: I didn’t exist in any fixed or static way. I was in flux. Running and drinking let me feel that flux as something coursing through my veins and sinews and burning calves. I needed to be released from that defining sense of self in order to meet the other selves that were in there, waiting.