Forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly

THE PILOT

by

Tamara Adelman

Benny is dead. He died suddenly about a month before Ironman Arizona, and although I am sad, I know Benny would’ve wanted me to do the race anyway. In his absence I get in touch with the golden retriever in me by opening myself up to new experiences and decide to organize my own pre-Ironman Arizona race dinner. I send a group e-mail out to our 1,300-member triathlon club inviting anyone in town to meet me for dinner the night before the race in Tempe. Come be my friend, it’s what Benny would have done. He was a good dog.

There are about thirty-five members racing, I receive some responses, and when five o’clock the day before the race rolls around, I head over to Oregano’s. It’s an informal place with outside seating, and its proximity to Arizona State University means it’s used to large groups. I take a seat on the patio, wearing my LA Tri Club visor so as to be easily identified. A guy who probably races in my age group (35-39) walks up. He’s got brown eyes and fair skin that’s seen a lot of sun. I wonder if there’s hair under that hat. He’s wearing an Ironman Coeur d’Alene finisher’s shirt and introduces himself as Michael. I remember him from the e-mails. He says his buddy Brett can’t make it since he’s sick. I say, that’s okay, let’s just wait and see if any other people show up.

Eventually Michael and I get a small table and order some pasta. I’ve raced all over the world and am used to meeting new people, so I draw on that experience and stay pretty relaxed. The last thing I need to do now is get stressed out over anything: a man, Benny, the race.

This is his second Ironman, and he’s nervous; it’s been a while since the first one. I say, want to split a beer with me? I’ve done three other Ironmans, but avoid talking too much about them because I don’t want to intimidate him. After dinner he takes our picture with his digital camera and e-mails it to me later. I’m surprised at how happy I look—this is the first time I’ve been happy since Benny died—and by how good we look together. We have the same noses, similar coloring, and a light shines around us as if we’re standing in front of a sunset.

He says, you’re cute, on a text message, that it was nice to meet me. In some ways it feels like we’ve been set up, like we were meant to meet, but I try not to make too much of it, see what happens after the race, if I ever see him again. I don’t want to get distracted by this boy I think is cute too, with the race tomorrow. I text, I think you’re flirting with me, goodnight.

At 4 a.m. I see him in the transition pen, where nearly 2,000 racers have racked their bikes. We wish each other good luck and go in separate directions. He’s headed to a line in front of the Porta-Potties, and I’m going to get body-marked by a volunteer who will write my race number on my upper arm.

Maybe I am too tired—the second Ironman this year coupled with the emotional strain of comforting a seizing dog for two nights before I raced a half-Ironman a few weeks ago. Perhaps that race should have concluded my season, but I’d committed to this thing. Still, there is a lingering fatigue, a fatigue that resembles loneliness.

By the time I reach the finish, I am so happy to be done that I just stand there with my arms in the air. A volunteer has to move me out of the way so others can finish. Michael’s here too. He’s dressed in street clothes, jeans, already and looks freshly showered. I ask him, how was your race? It was good, he says, I finished about an hour and a half ago. There’s a lot of camaraderie in Ironman; he’s not saying this to be a jerk, but it is a reminder of how poorly my race went, how much time I lost on the run.

The volunteer points me in the direction of the food. Michael stays with me while I eat a piece of pizza. Were you just watching people finish or were you waiting for me? I was waiting for you. As this information and my race sink in, I feel suddenly very special.

We go back to the transition area, where I put a skirt on over my bike shorts and then pull them off. He doesn’t see anything, and hey, I just raced Ironman, so none of the normal rules apply. He helps me collect my gear, which has somehow multiplied, and I am grateful that I only have to wheel my bike while he carries everything to my car like a Sherpa.

At three in the morning, I am so sore I can hardly move. I have no idea how I’ll get out of bed to pee; the bathroom might as well be in the next city. My phone is close, and I send a text that says, Ouch.

The next day I wake up to a text from Michael saying he’s sorry he didn’t get to say good-bye. He and his buddy—who has a kidney stone that’s prevented him from racing and wants to see his own urologist—have left already to head back to Long Beach and then Los Angeles. He’s twenty miles east of Blythe, headed west, he says with the exactitude of the helicopter pilot he is. I should let him know when I start driving. I do.

He texts, I’m going to be in Santa Monica tomorrow, how about I come to see you? We both have the day off from work. This makes me happy, so I tell him where I live, and we make a time to meet and go get massages and lunch. I look forward to it, and it makes it a lot easier to come back to my empty place. A better use of my day off would probably be to rest, as I had intended, but I can’t fill my time with training anymore. There is nothing to keep me from missing Benny.

I put pressure on myself to get everything done: car unpacked up two flights of stairs on beyond-weary legs, laundry down two flights of stairs on the same beat legs.

After our massages and lunch, we go back to my place and lie on my bed for a few minutes with our clothes on, and I start to think that the best part about the race, besides finishing, was meeting him.

I feel old, he says. I’ve done a lot, like backpack 3,000 miles.

I can relate to the isolation, the inward focus, and the lack of communication with other people that he describes. It can happen after an Ironman, a post-race depression, or a post-dog depression, or just mid-life. I hadn’t put much emphasis on having someone in my life before the race, but now I’m thinking maybe it would be nice if it was him.

A friend of his died in a helicopter crash last year, just off of Catalina Island. There was an engine failure. I have been very concerned about safety since then, he says. There are over 400 moving parts on a helicopter, and it’s really easy for something to break.

Another friend died, too, right next to him in an avalanche. Wow, I only lost my dog, I say, feeling guilty and self-indulgent since everybody knows that dogs don’t live as long as people, and here he’s lost two friends. What have you learned from these experiences, I ask, hoping to glean something that will help me as I grieve.

They taught me how to heal.

The friend who died in the helicopter crash was just about to get engaged. At the time I take it to mean he knows the value of love, but I now realize this was a stretch. We kiss a little, and when I kiss him around his eyes and forehead, on his cheeks, I think of Benny. Of course, I never made out with my dog.

I want to spend more time with Michael; being with him is like being plugged into some kind of relaxation machine. We’re both tired from the race, and we will get together when I get back from Thanksgiving in Connecticut. Be careful out there, he says. It’s not a blessing, it’s just something he’s used to saying.

While I’m away we text the whole time, asking each other questions, getting to know each other, choosing our dream Ironman. His is Austria, mine’s Switzerland or maybe western Australia.

I’m glad I upped my text messaging plan to 1,500 per month, but I’ll never make it past Christmas at this rate. When I get home we make plans to go out for dinner, and I call to get 2,500 text messages per month, which I realize is crazy, but I will be going to Milwaukee for a family party coming up, and I’m into him. He says this is the best way to communicate with him. I’m glad I will get a chance to see him before I go.

He lives in the foothills of the San Bernadinos and works in Long Beach, so there’s distance between us. The post-race glow has faded, some of the endorphins have worn off, but there’s chemistry that might make up for it. He’s going to be on his motorcycle this time, and he’s leaving work early. He doesn’t know how long it will take him with traffic. It is dark early in the winter, and I look down from the second floor and see him get off the bike; his shadow is against the wall. He removes his helmet and checks his BlackBerry. It’s quiet, and I feel electricity in the air. Soon he will be at my door.

When he hugs me I feel like I’m getting a hug from the sky. Do you really think you can date a girl who lives in Santa Monica? I’m doing it, aren’t I? Listen, I used to live in Santa Monica, and I commute for a living, so don’t worry about it, he says, but I think we’ll need to use his helicopter if we’re ever going to see each other again.

After dinner we go back to my place. In the living room we dance a little; well, rock back and forth. It’s getting late. This time he spends the night, since home is so far.

What do you want? Do you think you want a girlfriend?

He says, first, I want to run a fifty-mile trail race on Catalina in a few weeks. I don’t say anything, but it sounds like he doesn’t want a relationship. Then he says, I didn’t say no, we can talk about it. Having a girlfriend is a responsibility, he says. You’re restless, he says, just close your eyes and focus on your breathing. It’s better to wait, he says. He’s in Benny’s spot on the bed, right on the edge, where he wouldn’t stay long.

In the morning he’s acting like he’s changed his mind about the waiting. I end up feeling clingy and tried-on-for-size, we never finish anything, and I wonder if I should have let him in my bed at all.

I change my cell phone to the picture of us from the race to make up for the void I’m feeling. I know it’s juvenile, but maybe it’ll help.

There’s an earthquake forty-five miles east of Los Angeles, near his house, a 5.5. He says he felt it when he was in the shower. Were you scared? Not at all, earthquakes make me feel alive.

Three weeks have passed since Ironman Arizona, and I have unlimited text messaging. I’d set up all these holiday trips with my family before I met him because, with Benny gone and the race over, I didn’t want to be alone.

Michael doesn’t ask me why I’m never at home; he’s never home either. In the version that I know him, he’s portable, and that counts for a lot. I’m able to take him with me wherever I go: an airport Jetway, the bathroom, the bookstore. At one point I have a tight connection, and he tells me he will pee for me. Sometimes he doesn’t respond, but I feel like he’s listening. He’s out there somewhere.

He forgot to charge his phone, he says. How about we do something on Friday? I will check my schedule and get back to you, he texts.

He’s on a business trip to Dallas and will have to stay through the weekend due to weather. He’s flight training with a new pilot. He’s in a boring hotel room, he’s got a cold.

I’m going away to Florida the day after Christmas, so I spend Christmas with him, texting, of course, when I’m not in the theater watching Benjamin Button.

New Year’s comes and goes while I’m in Florida. He texts a little just to keep it going. When I get home I don’t see him again. I have changed my phone’s wallpaper to the preloaded AT&T earth. Sometimes he calls but the reception is so bad from his house, the connection always fades. Of course I think of cutting him off—refusing to text with him at all, but by now I think his presence means more to me than his person.

Michael is a person who is responsible for other people’s lives. He has told me that the safety of others is one of his primary concerns. But I realize that this person is not safe for me, that it makes me miss Benny more. When he texts, how’s your day? I don’t respond.

Three months go by, and I keep myself busy. I do a lot of writing, and not text messages, either. I’ve filled the hours spent waiting into time spent creating. I’ve been to Vancouver, which is outside of my cell phone plan; I’ve read two self-help books, and I’ve dropped my text plan to the minimum. I’ve forgiven him for distancing himself from me, for only wanting a digital relationship.

From the bench at Benny’s favorite beach park, I can see dolphins around the lifeguard buoy, and they arc in semicircles, playing. One of them jumps high enough that his whole body clears the water, showing off like Benny, who had this trick of lying on his back and letting a tennis ball roll down his front legs and into his mouth, a master of gravity. I’m thinking of getting another dog; dogs don’t have commitment issues, and they lack the opposable thumbs required for texting.

THE END