Holding Our Breath

A few years ago, I used to be really into running. I used to be the type who’d balk when a friend would inform a gathered circle of drinking acquaintances that I was “a runner.”

I’d reply, “I’m not a runner; it’s just something I do.”

“I shouldn’t even be able to run! I’m like a little bumble bee,” I’d say fluttering my hands at the wrists and kicking my heel backwards.

Taken as false modesty, the motivation for my playful defensiveness was fairly simple: I wasn’t that good at running.

I mean, yeah, sure, I grew up playing sports, but I was somewhere between an Einstein and a Dunning-Kruger with all my running around on grassy fields or parquet courts. With my stocky, muscular build, I definitely would never consider myself “a natural runner.” Nor believed I’d ever become a runner.

My personal opinion was that no one should ever run more than 10 miles unless they’re running from something. With claws. Or the police. Or their own dark past. If someone wasn’t satisfied with my defensiveness, they’d ask me “How’d you get into that?” The answer to that was also simple: I had nothing better to do.

No job. No money. All the time in the world inside my apartment in an old, decrepit pier-and-beam four-plex in Montrose, the eclectic “Gayborhood” of historic Houston. Imagine having all the time in the world to do whatever you wanted, but there’s nowhere to go and no one to hang out with because you have no money to do anything with and everyone you know is working at their job. But, it turns out that being bored when you’re poor is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Even when you’re a “creative type” like me.

You can keep yourself occupied for the first few weeks. Those are a novelty. An early stage of grief, one might say. You’re still touristing in the uncertainty of solitude, but you don’t live there yet. I mean, there’re only so many times you can only go to a city park and sit on a bench by yourself staring at a body of water, the trees, or the birds, before realizing you’re staring at a muddy bayou and not at Emerson’s pond.

My older brother Mason was really what kept me going. After I drunkenly soliloquized to his daughter about the Battle of the Bulge, he asked if I’d like to try out morning runs together or coffee. Like all human things, it started off with a small lie.

“Of course! I’ve actually been running in the mornings around Memorial Park.”

That’s how our weekly runs began. Shoulder-to-shoulder we’d start on our 3-mile runs. They were awkward for me at first, learning how to run while telling someone what I’d been “up to that week.” I huffed and puffed the entire time. For him, I’m sure he didn’t notice his stride shorten as he told stories of his own youth compared to giving an excited play-by-play of his kids’ travails through school, sports, and spirituality. I didn’t have much to discuss when it was my turn. Mostly just tales told in breathless lies. Truths with the corners either smoothed or scoured off, depending on our running pace. When I felt like dreaming, I’d extrapolate on possibilities.

Like, it would’ve felt weird to tell my successful older brother about how I spent my unsuccessful days between our runs. Bored and anxious in my apartment, feeling like the walls were closing in on me. I felt sick.

There would be moments when I would have anxiety attacks and lay myself on the cool hardwood floor, staring across my apartment while my cat watched on. I discovered that riding out the acute feeling of existential dread while on your back fills you with a sense of self-importance as you gaze at the striations of your ceiling’s drywall. You’d mutter your thoughts to the walls, actually believing that the drywall would “have to be” as concerned with you as you were with it in those eternal moments. Laying on my belly became my position of choice for my attacks as I enjoyed the sensation of the weight of the world slowly crushing me.

So yeah, that’d be a weird thing to tell my older brother in our 30 minutes together.

Since I had more time than he did to focus on running, my short runs with him developed into longer runs along Houston streets, avoiding cars, bikes, or light rail trains. At least as far as I could see them. And given Houston’s flatness, that was never very far. And with no uphill struggles, progress was fairly linear.

It wasn’t that I was “poor.” I just didn’t have any money. Rent was it. Everything else became negotiable. Previously, I had been in a 3–3 townhouse for over 5 years. It was owned by a college acquaintance who had relocated to get his MBA with his long-time girlfriend. You know, White people. Since I was living by myself for the first time, paying rent on time would be a new thing for me.

My friends and family worried about me living by myself since my “career” hadn’t really “gotten off the ground” yet. The loving concern of high-achievers made me feel broken as I floated. But it sorta felt like I was lying to myself that there was only one thing that defined me. A bank account in the double digits for weeks on end also didn’t help.

But lying to yourself becomes second nature when you are not where you want to be. Some may say there’s a well-defined line of self-delusion, but I felt like there was a grey gradient between health and harm. Your obnoxious air of confidence becomes a noxious optimism that courses through veins, filling your lungs with pleural fluid that will soon seep out of you. Each lie weighing you down and making it harder to breathe as you try to not burden others with your hardships.

Days when I didn’t have anything to even pretend to do were the hardest. I would apply to a few jobs, pace around the apartment organizing my Google Drive, shuffle folded shirts from drawer to drawer, and try to futz with my few remaining client accounts.

My apartment had poor air circulation, and it’d get pretty hot in the Houston heat. I would have opened one of the windows, but they were all mostly simple panes of glass. With no money to run the window units, I’d just sit with beads of sweat running down. Suffering in my solitude, I hoped for a breeze to find its way to me.

My step-dad, Holmes, would always spin yarns when I was a teenager about how he’d spent his life bootstrapping his way to success. From his early years on the family farm to Germany when he was on an Air Force bomber crew to his many years at his tractor factory to his fourth career as a hydrogeologist, he always capped off the story where he was the “solver” of the main conflict by reminding me that: “Because you know, Nick, no one’s coming.”

Alone in my misery, that life lesson became readily apparent. Soon enough, I learned to dream less. “Success” wouldn’t be something for me.

The old four-plex was sold off to a bougie couple that lived near the Med Center with their 2 kids. They bought the place sight-unseen, never having been landlords before. The punctuality of the rent loosened a bit for me and my two other neighbors.

But, I had no money (and nothing better to do) and all the time in the world, so I scheduled multiple runs in my weekly calendar since it was the free-est activity that’d disempower my anxieties.

The rest of my calendar, $7/hour at a time, was filled with various Craigslist gigs:

  • Demo crews for construction
  • Ghostwriter
  • Copywriting tasks
  • Furniture mover
  • Yardwork
  • Virtual personal assistant
  • Sales cold caller
  • “Property Finder”
  • AirBnB cleanings
  • Social media “expert”
  • Roofing inspector

The AirBnB cleanings became the simplest way to earn money consistently. It was a lot of hustling and bustling, but it was always simple.

The pain lasted a while. As did the belabored breathing, the cramps in my stomach, the aches in my legs, or the pinch in my lower back. But I kept to the routine, despite not knowing what I was doing. My jaws clenched, my shoulders tights, my arms flopping erratically, my body also didn’t know what I was doing. My heart would beat so fast, I’d feel my blood pulsing in my temples, like I was going to die. My heart felt like it was going to burst through my chest. I just knew that I’d overstretched my limits. That this run by myself would be the one. The one where I’d collapse to the ground, discovered by strangers who would not know anything about me. I would die along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, yet another statistic to someone somewhere.

I learned to control my breathing to slow my pulse. My body would fall into a natural rhythm as I stopped focusing on the discomfort of my feet hitting the pavement and gaze into the distance ahead of me looking at where I was headed.

And I kept running like this, with no hope of ever finishing a long run without stopping.

Then all of a sudden, I did.

On one particular hot, humid Houston morning in early April along the bayou trail, my progress came so suddenly and subtly. I almost missed it.

My arms stopped flailing about. My legs hurt less. No more pinch in my lower back. I felt like I could fly. I realized I had to run my own race.

Soon enough, I finished the Houston Half-Marathon.

Had I become a runner?

Maybe all it took was focusing my time and energy to achieve my goals.

I kept applying to jobs, but staying positive about it proved difficult with all the noes I was getting.

Over drinks with a White O&G engineer friend, I mentioned some of the Craigslist stuff. He was wanting to move away to travel the globe and convert his current property into an AirBnB. He asked me if I’d be willing to manage his 3–3 townhouse. I said yes.

An Asian friend of his called me up a few weeks later. Another home-owning engineer friend asking if I could do the same for them, manage their place as an AirBnB. I said yes to that person too. Then another friend called.

The story was always the same: relocating with their fellow white-collar partners to other parts of the country. I said yes knowing that the set-up would be the same as the last one: managing a 3–3 townhome in places with shared private driveway in areas that were on the right side of gentrification.

I ended up managing 5 properties.

Mason and I ran a half-marathon in Waco, Texas.

That filled my days and kept me afloat, but I wasn’t getting “off the ground” in any way. I figured if I kept focusing my time and energy on it, I’d actually land a job.

I removed two panes of glass in my apartment with windows that actually opened. I didn’t want to wait on the winds anymore. As I made the switch-out, I could smell the springtime jasmine in the air.

Despite having a routine for the AirBnBs, my simple money wasn’t getting any easier.

Hurricane Harvey in August was the coup de grace, though. The storm cleared out all of my digital marketing clients, except for one in California. The AirBnBs were inactive for long enough that my income was down to 30%. I wasn’t going to be able to pay November’s rent to my landlords. As they only had 3 of the 4 units rented out, their investment wasn’t proving as lucrative as they had dreamed of. Their own home had also flooded to the ceiling. They reluctantly agreed to the deferral.

“You’ll be able to make rent in December, right?”

I lied.

I applied to whatever work made sense to me, the urgency building. I couldn’t understand why all my extra effort wasn’t paying off.

Making matters worse, one of the engineers wanted to sell their townhome for a down-payment on a house in Virginia since he wanted to propose to his long-time girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. That’d be one less Airbnb.

I ran 17 miles up and down Imogene Pass in Telluride, Colorado.

Not wanting to become an actual liar to my landlord, I applied for a bike mechanic position at a run-down bike shop in southwest Houston. I’d always shown up for stage-crew in high school, and I loved biking throughout college, so I figured why not. The shop being on the wrong side of gentrification meant I was a shoe-in. No one else was trying to get a foot in the door.

I fit in with all the other bike mechanics, but, you know, not really. A friend joked that I had a difficult time socializing with “the unwashed masses.” I just felt like a little bumble-bee around them. Chazz, the Black kid who biked over 15 miles from South Acres to come to work, always focused on my glasses when calling me the “nerdy rich kid.” Tubbs, the zero-th generation Guatemalan kid working full-time while working on his associate’s degree, called me a “dorky White boy.” I kept my jaw relaxed, the corners of my eyes flat in a focusless gaze as I stood working at my station with my head down.

All of us working in the shop tried avoiding the discerning eye and blunt tongue of Cris, the head mechanic. Cris’d walk up and down row of bike stands, come up beside us, and eyeball our work. Or he’d try ‘n start some shit about one of his many problematic views on the world. Me or Tubbs would jump at the opportunity to come to the front to help the old, willowy bike shop owner whenever a “Mexican” came in.

Since Tubbs was getting his associate’s degree in Cybersecurity to enroll in HPD Training Academy, I was a breath of fresh air for him. Our conversations would wander. A network specialist came to his class one day to talk about his career. Tubbs excitedly gave me the play-by-play.

“Did you know there are people who’ve worked at one company their entire lives, sitting at a desk and, just, working?”

“Yeah, güey, that’s, like, the fucking real world.”

“But you still can get a pension too like cops can?”

“That’s why the sit-down-thinky jobs are so dope. Bein’ a cop’s probably chill ’n all, but, y’know, it’ll probably suck too.”

“Bruh, all jobs suck.”

I nodded, “Not all of ‘em.”

“Do you think I could get a job like that?”

I shrugged, “If you try hard enough.”

“That why you’re still here? ’Cause you love being here so much?”

Being there for 6–8 hours a day was exhausting. With the AirBnB cleanings, my bike shop hours every week, and my last client in California, the idea of running for two hours was too much.

Showing the “initiative” to work at a bike shop is what probably prompted my 2nd stepdad to offer me a small loan after I mentioned four-plex’s 4th unit still being unoccupied.

“Why don’t you rent it out as an AirBnB?”

I shrugged.

“I don’t have the money to put stuff in it.”

“What if I loaned you some money to get that off the ground?”

I nervously considered the option but knew the asking rental price + potential AirBnB income didn’t math favorably.

“Well, why don’t you ask for a cut on the rent?”

I shrugged with more hesitation this time.

“Never done that before.”

“Well… no one’s there now, so it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

My landlords agreed to it. Then, I did the things you do when you have a finite money & time and an empty apartment to get furnished. It was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but it would be worth it since I wouldn’t be managing this one. This would be mine.

The first few weeks were good. Great, even. Money kept staying in my bank account. It felt odd.

My last client in California hired a firm a few towns over, so they cut me loose.

Then came a city-wide freeze in Houston, a southern, coastal city where it never freezes. A few days before a half-month booking was arriving, almost all of the house’s pipes had burst. Call any plumber in town and you’d hear “2 weeks” since all of Houston’s pipes had burst too.

My neighbors were okay waiting since they had an escape. I didn’t. The Airbnb guest would be here the next day. I couldn’t lose out on that money since it felt like nobody’d be coming to fill his spot.

So, I put on some coveralls and a headlamp and got to work in the 30° weather.

Online forums, YouTube, and random hombres huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in the Home Depot plumbing section became my new best friends.

Crawling underneath the house’s old rotting cross-beams, I pulled myself forward past its dusty concrete piers, to pinpoint what needed to be fixed. During the day, the thawed ice in the pipes had turned the dirt and detritus into a frigid sludge. I wore gloves to protect me from the cold and wrapped a bandana around my face to protect me from the dust. There I toiled (after numerous trips back and forth from the hardware store) until 1am, measuring, sawing, and gluing new PVC pipes in these tight crawl-spaces. Some spots were so small that my bumble-bee shoulders wouldn’t fit between the piers. Sometimes I couldn’t flip from belly to back.

Working down there, one of my neighbors was nervously pacing back and forth in their apartment directly above me and a fleck of dust got into my eye. I flinched and my head hit a rotted 4x4, which collapsed onto the back of my neck. The 4x4 was long and heavy, pressing my neck into the cold sludge. The old dust from above swirled about. The flinch jammed my shoulders in between the house’s piers. My face in the mud, I could see each particle float in and out of my headlamp’s beam of light, getting closer to my face. The cloth bandana pumped with each panicked breath.

Shoulders immoveable, throat compressed, the weight of the world felt like it was crushing me. My heart raced. I gasped for breath, inhaling whatever was floating in front of me. I just knew my chest was going to burst as I watched the dust entering my lungs.

I decided to try and control my breathing, each breath requiring more effort than the last. The floating particles stopped dodging in and out of the darkness and the beam of light. The weight lifted off me as I slid one shoulder from the pier. My wits returned. I used my free arm to remove the wood beam from the back of my neck. My breath returned to me. Panic dispersed. I felt like one of the lucky ones.

With the dust settled into my lungs, I got back to work.

Though, having never done this before, I made a strategic miscalculation, leaving me in need of 6 feet of pipe and, oh yeah, a different type of PVC pipe. This step-by-step approach meant I needed to undo the last few hours of work & redo it. But not tonight. Home Depot was closed until 6am the next day.

Absolutely dejected, I crawled out from underneath the house covered in cold mud, lungs filled with dust, and tired & weak from barely eating all day.

I cleaned myself off as best as possible without water and wrapped myself in a blanket. I laid on my back on my apartment’s cold, hardwood floor in front of my only space heater. I fell asleep like this, awakening a few hours later and Googling solutions to my technical problem. I watched the perfect YouTube explainer a few times as I ate some more. Then I slept until Home Depot opened.

That wasn’t the end of it, but the AirBnB guest (and the rest of us) did without water for one more night.

Both of my neighbors moved out within three months.

A Desi engineer proposed to his girlfriend. One less AirBnB.

I ran my first full marathon in Washington, DC.

That balance between the bike shop and AirBnB cleanings buoyed me until an old coworker called me up to ask if I was still freelancing. Their copywriter was going on maternity leave and they needed a part-timer for 3 months.

“You interested?”

“But I’m not really a ‘copywriter,’” I said, pressing the phoning harder into my ear.

“Didn’t you say you’ve done a few copywriting gigs recently?”

“Yeah…”

“And?”

“I’ve just never done that before.”

“Eh, it’s fine. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I tried discerning the truth in his tone.

“Just apply, man. I’ll put in a good word for you.”

Then, I did the things you do when you have to apply for a sit-down-thinky job. I didn’t even break a sweat doing any of it.

I split my time between the ad agency, AirBnB cleanings, and the bike shop.

My AirBnB got busier. I quit the bike shop.

Maternity leave turned into the real copywriter quitting. I’m sure her med school husband didn’t mind.

A first-generation Nigerian-American engineer got proposed to by her fintech boyfriend.

The Houston agency lost a few big accounts and fired non-essential personnel. They kept me since I was cheap. I almost never ran anymore. The self-assigned problem-solver of the agency, I floated wherever I could be helpful.

I was happy that they kept my role.

Another five more months and another old colleague from my first marketing job ever had recommended me for a position at his organization for a full-time position.

“You interested?”

“Yes,” I said without asking any more questions.

It took a tick to explain to my girlfriend.

“So, wait, you’re leaving the agency?”

Shaking my head, I told her, “Well, I might as well work both and make it work as best as I can while I can.”

“Don’t you think all that’s going to be a little difficult to manage with the AirBnBs?”

I confidently shook my head, not having mathed it out.

Within a week, I was totally swamped.

I didn’t “train for my marathon” as much as escalate my long weekend runs. (Which is not how you do it.)

I took “PTO” for the first time since 2014 and traveled to Philadelphia for a full marathon. I’ve completed 3 full-marathons, 8 half-marathons, and many 5Ks & 10Ks by this point.

Movement is what kept me going, but now I’d burdened myself with so much, that there was no way to stop. This is what I’d been wanting for so long: control. And I got there, one step at a time. But after 6 months, the world I’d built for myself almost reached a breaking point. But then the world broke first.

Because this pandemic hit, floating in on the winds from the east and the winds from the west. The world stopped.

Now, we’re in this thing. Have been for a while. Staying at home. No one to talk to. Nothing to do.

Except for me. I get what I’ve been searching for again: all the time in the world. As if I’m happy to rest on a pile of rubble in a post-apocalyptic hellscape and focus my gaze upon all the books I’d always never had time to read.

After the 2nd week, I’m ahead on my work. Videos from Lombardy and Paris and New York City have been and have scared people away from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. The Gayborhood’s been dead since right after St. Patrick’s Day. I decide I should fix a few lingering issues around my four-plex. I ask my landlords if they’d cover the cost of materials.

“Well, feel free to charge us for your time too.”

“Really?!” I respond.

“Sure. It’s an investment for us.”

I stopped asking questions.

April rent was a third of what it normally was.

After the 4th week, I start fixing any rotted cross beams. Unused to uncertainty, most of my social media feeds are anxious since they’d never done anything like this before.

After the 6th week, I start replacing the entire side of the house, rebuilding and replacing windows rotted by years of water seeping into the pores of wood, settling into the grains and permanently stretching and scarring the wood fibers. Wood fibers are not the only things scarring out there. People have run through all the streaming content they can handle, feeling sick of it all, going stir-crazy. And no one is immune to it.

With all the extra construction work I’m cramming in, my landlords pay me for May and June.

People start booking the AirBnB again. I mask up or hold my breath to open the doors and windows before cleaning the space. The cross breeze from the south ventilates the space throughout the unit.

After the 8th week, I decide to go on a run.

I went running on one particular hot, humid Houston morning in early May like and got better at running. And, like, all at once, it came to me.

It’s right before sunset, I feel the breeze from the Gulf of Mexico replace the ones from the north. I put on my running uniform, stiff with inactivity. Tree leaves above me serenely rub their branches against each other. Jasmine swirls about with the shifting winds. I grab the small straps on the backs of my shoes to slide my heel into them. I lift myself up.

Lodging my headphones into place, I take off toward the main bayou trail that’s about a mile-and-a-half away. This will be the first time I leave the house without a mask since March. Along the empty streets, I begin moving my legs and swinging my arms the way I feel like I’m supposed to. My marathon playlist’s lyrics swirl in my head as I try to ease my eyes into a focusless gaze on the road ahead. My feet strike onto the earth with an awkward plod.

I run straight on the Gayborhood’s narrow streets for about a mile before it happens.

Another person. Unmasked. Also running before sunset. But she’s traveling west. I’m going north. We’ve startled each other.

Almost colliding in the same way shipping vessels almost do, we take evasive maneuvers. I stutter-step and stretch out my arms. A slight dip in my shoulder. She breaks her stride and I can see her Black legs jerk-flop to a halt. I quickly speed up to minimize the moment. Doing a twirling backwards-run, I shout an apology. Turning back to my forwards-running, my eyes scan to the road ahead. I approach the next intersection and ask myself, “Is anyone coming?”

It’s a pandemic, though. So, no one’s coming. Not even cars.

I run on, flapping my arms like I know what I’m doing. My legs and my body following along.

The humid air from the Gulf finds its way to me, cooling the beads of sweat forming on my neck and between my shoulder blades. My stride lengthens as the road slightly slopes downward. This jostles the rest of my body into lightening my strikes on the ground. I’m on the balls of my feet as my forward momentum carries me, loosening my hamstrings, calves, and arches in the process. I make sure to kick up my heels.

My shoulders feel like they have wings on ’em. I’ve rediscovered how to run like I used to.

Approaching the major Allen Parkway intersection I need to access the bayou trail, I slow my gait to wait at the crosswalk. The reduced slope in the road helps me decrease my speed. An Asian couple in sporty athleisure wear appear from the left and touch the crosswalk button. My eyes immediately look left and right to scan the 6 lanes of Allen Parkway. Only 1 car coming from the right. Despite the crosswalk signal holding up its hand, I rush past them.

Or at least I try to as the return to a flat terrain means all my forward momentum has to be internally generated. I return to furiously flapping my stiff arms, trudging along with my out-of-sync movements.

As I quickly enter the concrete trail that runs east along Buffalo Bayou and Allen Parkway, I see the rest of Houston had the same idea. Stretching my hamstrings and hip flexors as I pass leisure walkers, I fear COVID sinking its claws into my lungs. I hold my breath as I enter everyone’s wake. I release it and inhale again as I feel I’m out of the danger zone of the unwashed masses smiling and laughing about what they’ve been up to. Focusing on the other people around me allows my body to move the way it was designed to.

I take a deep breath.

It stretches my lungs, my diaphragm, my chest, my heart.

I take another deep breath in perfect stride.

The wind shifts from the southeast to the east, wafting the city’s COVID into my face. Alarmed, I turn off the trail to cross Allen Parkway back from the direction I came from. Again, without waiting on the crosswalk signal, I jayrun in front of a police car heading west on Allen. He slams on his brakes without even a honk.

The short burst of wide sidewalks from new mixed-use developments give way to the narrow ones of Freedman’s Town. Sun at my back, my eyes turn away from the row of shotgun houses to the uneven brick streets. Neighbors nursing bottles in brown bags are sitting on milk crates and sunned patio chairs. They talk to each other about their days.

I stride past houses in need of new siding, worn away by years of our southern coastal city’s harsh, heavy sun. Past houses with unattended indentions in their roofs’ shingles. Houses damaged by water slowly dripping onto certain parts of window frames, cracking the silicon sealant that should protect inhabitants from the elements.

These neighbors smile a nod at me as I flick up my chin and eyebrows at them in passing recognition, listening to them wax poetic about what they’ve been up to.

What used to be “dilapidated row houses” are now simple fixes to my focused gaze. They just need a little time and attention to get these improvements off the ground. This simple notion quickly floats away.

Not knowing where I’m going to run since I’m now off the trail, I look at my watch and kick one foot out in front of the other, knowing I can run until I decide to stop. There’s no time limit I’m bound by. No finish line I’m heading towards. Nothing on the line.

I pass by a wall of jasmine with some White kids playing out front with their masked parents watching from the porch. The jasmine’s sweetness fills my nostrils as I snap a quick photo and keep moving. The parents never wave.

The Gulf sends another prolonged gust my way. I awkwardly struggle against it. Because I’m allowed to. I don’t have to worry about getting to a mountain top. No land I’ve been promised.

My brain thinks of all the work that still needs to get done. What if we just tried harder? I’m curious if it’ll all come slowly or all at once. I think about all the repeated steps it’ll take to get there. Away from our dark past. That it’ll take more than each of us working by ourselves together. That we are not all running our own race.

I remind myself that I need to control my breathing. That I need to keep running.

My chest expands, sending the air we breathe to my lungs, unburdened.

Because it can.

I do things. Huge nerd otherwise. Interested in all types of media & creative-ish forms of expressions. Rawr!!

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