In your teenage years it’s a societal norm to give your romantic interest a mixtape, and when your track coach gives you a mixtape as a preteen it’s to pump you up for the Junior Olympics. Or is it? I guess you could say getting “mixed” signals from women in positions of authority have been a persistent theme in my life. While the famous jazz trumpeter Chet Baker was born to be blue, I was born to run.
My first memory of being a child is my mother timing me to go get the milk from the cellar. My three favorite words were not “I love you,” but “I’ll time you.” If someone had to run up the 400-meter gravel driveway to get the mail, “I’ll do It,” I’d proudly offer. Doing it in bare feet somehow made it feel more rustic. Not in an unsophisticated way but more In a tomboy shabby chic kind of way. If Pele was doing it in Brazil, why couldn’t I? I suppose bare feet was my first attempt at dipping my tootsies toes into feminism. Overachieving, excited, capable, and fast was how I came into this world. It was karmic. My mother just coached it.
Later in my teenage years, my running to the driveway had different motives. It was for the Victoria’s Secret catalog. When my mom discovered the catalog underneath my bed she banned it from the house saying, “They are selling sex, Mollie.” To which my reply was “And, what’s wrong with that?” Can you tell I was trying to express myself? And she was trying to repress me? Let’s just say she didn’t win, but she tamed me. I learned to dress modestly which I’ve found is actually more alluring in the end. Proving my mother was not just a great coach but a Diane Keaton type of classy. Recently my friend Alex told me her sister’s dog, Biscuit, doesn’t love you right away. That you have to earn her love. In which I replied, “she sounds like my mother.” We both laughed unexpectedly realizing the spirit of animal and human had collided.
Naturally, people started to notice my speed because at this point… Well, let’s face it, my reading skills were never going to catch anyone’s attention. My mom decided to sign me up for the track team. It was affordable babysitting, and I was desperately longing for someone who would race with me. A kindred spirit so to speak.
I found my best friend early on. It was love at first Umbro. Umbros are an athletic short, popular in the late 80’s and early 90’s, made of nylon, had a drawstring waistband, and often came in bright colors. My drug of choice at the time was a deep purple. A color Stevie Nicks might have laced around her tambourine. Where were we? Sorry, one can be so distracted when thinking of Stevie’s tambourine. Oh.. my Kindred Spirit! Emily.
Emily Kennedy had tan legs, brown hair, and a charisma about her. She had two of my favorite qualities in a person. She was mysterious and free-spirited. She wore Umbros, and that was our conversation starter. We couldn’t seem to stop talking after that. Our teammates marveled at how Emily and I could run and talk at the same time. They acted like we were sewing the stitches of a brain back together.
If more people trusted themselves, they would realize that it is so easy to talk and run at the same time. Unless you are completely out of shape. In which case, I’d suggest holding your breath under water in a pool to build up endurance in your lungs. You will be running and talking in no time. But I’ll be candid and say, it’s like a language. If you’re speaking French at a young age it’s much easier to learn than to start at 30. Same goes for running and talking. But you know what…I also don’t believe in hard rules entirely as Estelle Getty got her break in show business on The Golden Girls at age 45. Everyone achieves and learns at different rates.
Anywho, Emily and I really hit it off. We had two things in common; we were fast and we both had troubled families. Why else does anyone start running? I always looked forward to track practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights after school, because those were the days I’d get to see my best friend. We would meet on the track at 6 pm and start doing the warm-up of jumping jacks and grapevines and chatting. She was so much fun. I felt happy and free. Nothing seemed too serious at track practice. Life was fun when I was running and had a friend I could be myself around – something I hadn’t come across yet in my life.
The girls and guys on the team really loved us too. They got a kick out of our dynamic at track meets when we would just hang out and eat pixie sticks talking about Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Soon Emily would invite me over for sleepovers. When I wasn’t sleeping over at Carolyn’s house I was doing my own guided meditations every night. I’d envision myself doing a victory lap at the race to get me to the Junior Olympics. I never lost a race that year. To me it was a science. Bust out of the starting blocks and get ahead of the pack. And then stay there. And at the very last minute sprint like hell through the finish line to seal the deal.
The track coaches were a couple, Pam and Len. Pam was in her 30’s. She was petite with very short dark hair, dark olive complexion, and had the spirit of a young teen. Len was also in his 30s. He was a muscle man that was a man of few words and wore a sunglass with gold frames and tinted brown lenses at all times. Who knew what were behind those eyes. Pam coached the sprinters and Dave coached the long distance runners. Which also seemed like a metaphor for their relationship. Pam handpicked Emily and I to be with her as the sprinters. Pam fussed over us and seemed to genuinely get such a kick out us. Next thing you know I was talking to Pam on my parents’ landline in their bedroom. Was I sneaking it? Yeah. Did I know why? No. Pam and I mostly talked sports stuff. Like how to beat my time from last weekend. She would say I had it in me to make it to the Junior Olympics. Duh, I knew that. She would ask about my boyfriends in which I was totally reactive about. “Yeah right I’d say…I never want one”. I don’t remember her talking about Len at all.
For my 11th birthday party I invited Emily, my sister Marta, and Shannon, the 3rd leg of our 4 × 100 meter relay team, to sleep in a pup tent in the backyard of our farm. Pam must have overheard us talking at practice, as she decided to show up in the middle of the night. We saw her as looking to connect. She loved being around us and quite frankly we loved the attention, as we weren’t getting much from our parentals. We invited her into the tent, and the five of us were giggling like school girls. A week or so later, I saw my mom talking to Pam out on our front porch. She looked serious. Pam was crying. I was upset that my mom was interfering with my life and fun. It was none of her business, I thought. I just assumed my mom was jealous that I was hanging out with someone close to her age who wasn’t her. Maybe it would even encourage her to be more present as a mom. But, apparently, my mom was telling her she was being inappropriate with us.
Things became more intimate when Pam nicknamed us her “JJK Team.” JJK stands for Jackie Joyner Kersee, our favorite female track runner, and coincidentally the names of three kitties on our farm. That was my doing. So, when Pam gave us a JJK Pump It Up mixtape, we were happy to be receiving music, but things were starting to get “too involved.” The tape was to help us get pumped up for our Regional Meet, or so she said when she handed us each a copy. There were for sure some songs that were meant for pumping up. There was M.C. Hammer on there, 2 Legit 2 Quit. But, the first song on the tape was very mature. It was the song by Elton John, Your Song. Now if you can’t quite remember the song, let me refresh your memory. It goes like this…
“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside
I’m not one of those who can easily hide, I
Don’t have much money but boy, if I did
I’d buy a big house where we both could live”
To be clear about 2 things.
1. This is totally a piano ballad.
2. I was 11.
We all drove to Regionals together which took place in Newport News, Virginia. Pam and Len rented a minivan, and Emily, Shannon, Marta, and I sat in the back listening to her pump up mix. We were having a good time. Once we got checked into the Super 8 hotel for the night we walked to Long John Silvers and I had popcorn shrimp for the first time. My mind was blown. I was traveling and enjoying a food I’d never had before. At the time, it was the greatest dining experience of my life. When we got back from dinner we were still rowdy as this was our first taste of freedom. Emily asked Pam and Len to throw us on the bed and they did. After throwing us for a couple minutes they threw Emily so hard she cut her shin on the bed and we had to rush her to the Emergency Room to get stitches. I don’t know why but I remember feeling so much guilt. Like it was somehow my fault.
Emily got stitches and wasn’t able to compete the next day. Our relay team didn’t qualify for Nationals like we all hoped, but I did myself in the 80 meter hurdles. So I was headed to the Junior Olympics all by myself. It had been our dream…Emily and I. And somehow it didn’t feel as fun or exciting without her.
While Emily’s leg healed, I got on my first plane and headed to Iowa for the Junior Olympics. At that point I was grieving Emily. Pam and I were sharing a hotel and I remember she yelled at me for not sticking the shower curtain to the wall and water got on the floor. That’s fair, she was trying to protect the environment. But it wasn’t intentional. My mind wasn’t quite there. She tried to make up for the fact that she casually was acting like we were a couple that was bickering by offering to take me to the movies. Sure I thought. I didn’t care at this point. So we went to see Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone. I knew we were “breaking up” after this. I longed for my fun days with Emily eating pixie sticks and reenacting Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding fights in the middle of the track field as I looked out the window as the cornfields passed.
The next day at the finals of the Olympics I remember not trying. I didn’t care anymore. If it wasn’t fun, it didn’t matter to me.
Track was glamorous to me. There were the Colosseums and the night lights. The starter gun was pretty hot I must say. The cheering in the bleachers. The diverse families and potential to travel around the world. There was a beginning, middle, and end to every race. But what I loved the most was the connection with Emily. That relationship was very influential in my life and I’m forever trying to emulate that. Looking for someone I can not only chase my dreams with, but someone who runs beside me and can make me laugh along the way.
Mollie Merkel is a lesbian comic, writer, actor and director. Read more of her work and check out her film projects HERE.