Paige Towers earned her B.A. from the University of Iowa and her MFA from Emerson College, where she also taught Creative Writing and Composition. She currently lives in New York City, teaches in the Writing Center at Monroe College in the Bronx, and is at work on a memoir about ASMR. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Catch & Release, So to Speak, BioStories, Our Iowa Magazine, Honesty for Breakfast and Spry Literary Magazine.
It’s a glorious ritual, the cooldown.
The run is over. I pull my headphones off, grip my hipbones with my hands and reflexively tilt my head back, struggling to get more oxygen. Central Park is swarming with tourists on rented bikes, kids in strollers, dogs on extendable leashes, runners who are finishing or starting, stretching and shaking out their legs. Sweat gets in my eyes and everything goes blurry. My muscles burn. I feel powerful.
As I slowly walk the three blocks home from the park, my endorphins continue to pulse, and I’m not thinking, not worrying, not aware that others are aware of me. My self-consciousness has been transported elsewhere. As a young woman in a city full of gazes, these moments of ownership are so good.
I own this sidewalk. I own my footsteps, my body, this space, the droplets of sweat on my neck that are being soaked up by the ends of my hair dangling from my ponytail—all mine.
But then, I’m walking through a tunnel of men.
They’re standing across from each other on the sidewalk, claiming more than half a block, which leaves me with a narrow runway. There are maybe fifteen of them, speckled in dust and white paint, leaning against scaffolding. I could have crossed the street, I should have crossed the street, but when you start to feel like you own, you start to feel like you can do this. It will be different this time.
Yet, the first inner, tiny fight for freedom is the first prick of awareness. The shift is so natural, so ingrained, like putting your hands out if an object is flying at your face. As soon as they look at me, I am also looking at me.
My arms cross in front of my chest. My gaze tilts down. I’m studying boots, studying cement. Two men to the left look me up and down. A man to the right smirks and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. That guy, the stereotypical man who always leans against something is leaning against the back of the truck with arms spread out behind him, and he signals his friend with a hand gesture. He smiles in a way that suggests he knows something about me, that I have something to offer him, or if I’m not careful, he could just take it. I have to be careful.
The image of myself is back, so I adjust it. Put your head up higher—no—you overcompensated. Lower it, then relax your expression—eyebrows too furrowed and they’ll take it as a challenge. Tug your tank top down. No, this is my stomach, it’s a stomach, don’t cover it and show them that you’re embarrassed. That makes you weak. Pretend like you’re not even aware of it. Walk faster. Not too quick—they’ll laugh and make kissing sounds. Don’t smile, but make it obvious that you’re not thinking, “Don’t smile.”
Sometimes, I think about how fantastic it must be to spend every second owning space, and to not even know that there is another way. Imagine: to stretch your arms out on the backs of chairs, or to splay your legs open wide on a packed subway train, to move freely without being commented on or watched. In fact, you get to be the watcher. You get to be the subject and thus create a verb—an action, whichever you choose, that you can enact on an object, whichever you choose. You would forever feel like that moment when you’ve pushed your body to the point of exhaustion, when you are pulsing red hot and pumping a weird mix of pain and good feelings and that self-awareness is lost, or at least buried deep down, for a short time. You are powerful.
But walking down this block of construction, I’m lowered right back into my reality. The awareness is so heavy, so stifling. At the end of the tunnel, a taxi makes a last second stop at a red light, and the sounds of the brakes jar me at the same time that I turn my head away from a pile of rancid-smelling garbage bags. I am back in the real New York City. Then I’m at the door to my building, first glancing in the large antique mirror that’s hung in the foyer because I’m so conditioned to this action that I swear the frame is magnetized and my head is attracted to it. It’s not vanity; it’s just so I can know what everyone else is seeing.
I climb the stairs to my apartment and cringe at the tightness in my hamstrings, but when I look down, I notice that there’s an expanding space there between my thighs. I’ve lost weight. Good. As I turn the key, I notice that my biceps seem more toned and my abs feel tighter. Good. I don’t feel hungry. Good.
When I undress, I’m aware of my nudity. I’m aware of the body parts being revealed with each thing I take off. In my mind, I watch myself bend over, pick up the soggy clothes I’ve dropped on the floor, open the closet, throw them in the hamper. I simultaneously hobble to the bathroom on tender feet and imagine what me hobbling to the bathroom on tender feet would look like to an observer. It’s here again: me, but me from the perspective of a man’s gaze—a weird, mostly inescapable double image.
But the image of myself won’t be here forever, because tomorrow evening I will run up and down hills, cough for air, make my muscles burn and my shins pound with pain, fight myself mentally not to stop until it becomes animalistic. I will sprint to my self-appointed finish line—the entrance to Central Park—and then stagger through the crowds as my chest heaves.
And with all of this, it’s back: freedom from my reflection. For those sweet, cool moments, I’ve earned my body back as my own. I’m nobody’s object; I’m only subject and verb, subject and verb. I’ll walk forward and will simply only be a person walking forward. I’ll reach down to touch my toes and it won’t occur to me for a second what me touching my toes might look like. I’ll just float amongst the masses, rising up like my evaporating sweat. I’ll just walk and stretch and breathe.
“ The idea for this essay came to me in the shower after a run. (Not surprisingly.) Months before, I'd tried to write a similar essay about how, as a woman, I chronically feel like I'm on display. Manhattan and its real estate are already small enough; it’s frustrating to feel caged in further. Unfortunately, that essay took a strange detour when I spent five pages writing a scene on how a creepy, well-dressed man inside the 86th St. subway once lustfully watched me eat my breakfast—an egg and cheese sandwich—from the first bite to the last. In the end, I spent more time fixating on the egg and cheese sandwich than I did on that creepy man's gaze and the essay failed. (Not surprisingly.) Yet, I also think the essay failed because I was missing an essential element of this essay—the element of running in Central Park, my greatest escape. After I finished that post-run shower, I jotted down a few notes, opened my laptop, and wrote The Cooldown from start to finish in one sitting. Without even stopping for breakfast. ”