The emblem is thus a tripartite entity composed of the picture,
the sentencia, and the “thinking,” which was more often verse than prose….
Etymologically, historically, and aesthetically, the picture is an integral part
of the emblem, and its psychological and aesthetic operation is the result
of the interrelationship of these three parts.
–Elizabeth K. Hill. “What Is an Emblem?”
1. The Picture
There is still enough coffee in the mug for me to read another line in the faint light offered by the leg-lamp on my desk before I enter the dark of morning. My hand rests on the line I haven’t read. Sip, and then it comes: the thing that will fill my head for twenty miles: “Female athletes are emblems of our modernity,” he claims, this author who posits various reasons why and how female soccer players are more at risk for injury than male ones.
And then I’ve reached my full-point; no more coffee or my heart will beat out of my chest and hop down the road without me. Down the drain swirls the tan mix and pull the red and white road flats over my socked feet. Not quite ballerina slippers, though in them my stride feels light and airy– like dancing– because they are so light.
Once I’m on the threshold, the wooden door closed behind me, I pause. I always do. Stepping out into the dark morning lit only by streetlamp, it’s hard not to feel you’re alone in the world. The only person, I read once in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, loneliness and cold like you’re the first or last person alive. The only one you see or feel or who can understand.
Beep-beep of the Garmin and I’m off, round and up the driveway to the street. And the distance of twenty miles in front of me.
It’s a sort of street-haunting I do, running the edges of avenues and boulevards, streets and lanes and roads, skirting cul-de-sacs (ass-of-the-sack, a Frenchism that made me titter once back in junior high); street walking like Virginia Woolf in search of a pencil, perhaps. Or not so much, because I’m from Reno and walking the streets has a different meaning there.
Down the infamous Forth Street I’d run sometimes, leaving the Gold and Silver Casino behind, with its 24-hour coffee shop sounding of slots and smelling of cigarette buried there and $1.00 cups of coffee in stained mugs you could get re-filled as long as you could drink them. Keno games on old, illuminated screens and black crayons on the table for playing. The go-to play-by-the-numbers game to lose to over breakfast.
Past the steaming vents I dodge, cement sidewalk to black pavement and back again.
Past the Greyhound station to my left.
Through the dark streets, alone, I ran.
Past the wide loop of McCarran Boulevard with its big four lanes and down into the land of sagebrush, railway and the Truckee River I’d descend. I often wondered if it was here was where I’d find them: the women walking the streets. The mobile ones that signified sex somehow; was it by moving? Or their presence on the streets? The ones faded black Cadillacs stop for, throwing tiny gravel stones into the air with the peel of tires.
I have never been mistaken for a prostitute while running. And I never saw one, either. Perhaps my morning miles were not quite early enough to be close to night; or perhaps I didn’t quite dress the part. Scantily clad, yes, but also sweat-covered and tennis-shoe hooved, wired to my iPod to keep up the metaphor that movement, even if one direction, is musical and lovely.
I run past the site of the old ranch where my stepfather’s family had worked, forty years ago. Basque immigrants from the French side of the Pyrenees, they milked cows, grew the alfalfa in square fields, and of course being Basque, cultivated sheep. Sheep herded to and from; up the mountains to aspen groves where they carved their initials and sometimes nudes into the trees with pocket knives and back down again in winter. A constant vagabondage.
On the shoulder of the road, I trot past upon snippets of words in a language I’ll never understand; a card game called Mus and Aitatia my stepfather’s father, who spoke English with the old language stuck in his mouth like marbles; the skin of his cheeks like the leather they use on saddles and a silence that made me so afraid because of the stories my stepfather told about how violent he could be.
Could be; he wasn’t, ever, with me though I didn’t exactly have any conversations with him that I can recall.
Willows grow around bodies of water– in meadows and along the banks of the Truckee River. Both Aitatia and my stepfather made whistles for the troop of step-cousins and me out of their branches. High or low: you just had to say which tone you wanted. They cut away the bark in one solid circumcision and formed the reed with hands that knew the mechanical truth of an instrument. Then, the bark would slide back on. A whistle. A whistle I blew until the music faded because I slobbered too much, he said.
La Vagabonde, “The Wanderer” by Colette is a book I devoured in the Gold and Silver with a mug filled with coffee in front of me. I drank it black then, back when I had a lining to my stomach, and so I caught my reflection every now and then in the black soup. I sipped as Rénée Neré walked the streets of Paris to and from her job as a performance artist in Paris. The work was published in 1910 and reflects Paris in its height of the Belle Epoque and le bohème and all their épater.
Rénée describes her vocation as mime. Her motions are unspoken, and she’s placed on a stage with bright lights, so bright she cannot return the gaze of her spectators. “The gaze” — a term tossed about like popcorn in a old-fashioned popper the last time I took a graduate seminar on Victorian Lit– seems important, vital, even.
But why am I thinking about that now? Me, not really in a coffeehouse, not really reading: me, instead unaware of my pace or place, but with my legs displayed for all to see as I step and stride, so far from modesty as such and the streets of Paris and men–gentlemen– with hats and canes, skin a cream-colored paleness à la mode. Me, striding past a homeless man just now, without a hat, curled beneath a newspaper and an empty bottle by his head.
The shade and shadow cooler than the patches of early sunlight on the path I’ve found away from the street. I stop for a sip of water from a fountain placed here and as the lukewarm liquid touches my tongue, I marvel at modern inventions like a drinking fountain here, just when I was thirsty.
Modern. Modernity. I taught a class once with a text, Trials of Modernity, and I couldn’t help but think that made affairs sound so hoity-toity. Of course modernity was hard. Antiquity was no picnic, either, if you ever read the Odyssey or Iliad. But then there was my colleague, Aaron, who threw his arms in the air over student papers which claimed the modern was now. The modern moment isn’t now, he’d said, the modern moment is past. We are post-modern. Or, maybe not even that, since post-modern might have been the 1960s. We are always beyond, recording what was.
The modern isn’t now. And yet… Female athletes are the emblems of our modernity. I pass mile four, it’s not the fourth mile anymore I’m headed toward mile five along the banks of the Truckee River and its tall grasses and occasional cottonwood grove. There is never a moment which lingers for the runner; or there is, in memory, but not in the doing. In the doing, it is all the past. And maybe that’s what it means: I’m an emblem for a moment I wasn’t a part of, but that I left behind seconds, hours, years and epochs ago.
Here is the only description of Paris in Colette’s La Vagabonde: “A brief rain—not quite a storm—has started the thaw; the gas lights are reflected, elongated and iridescent in the blackened pavement. The top of the avenue is lost in an hazy mist… Involuntarily, I look behind me and around me, looking for… what? Nothing. Nothing keeps me here.” The Parisian street for Renée Néré is a lonely place where “nothing” holds her. She moves through it, gliding, a shadow beneath the light and rain. Nothing holds her because, perhaps, she doesn’t belong, as one writer, Anke Gleber claims. In The Art of Taking A Walk, he notes “the street has never belonged to women.”
Or, perhaps it’s because she feels more at home in motion. After all, she gives up the advances of a wealthy bourgeois man for a life of a traveling performer. She leaves him with the promise that she’ll return. Letters comprise the latter chapters; letters always ending in je retournerai. Until the last one, when she’s moved so far from Paris, she felt compelled to keep on going. Goodbye, Paris. Goodbye, France until she reaches South America.
In Good Morning Midnight, written nearly thirty years later, Jeanne Rhys offers clarity to the problem of walking in an urban landscape: “Paris… oh what a bitch you can be!“ The street seems to highlight her presence, attracting all the wrong attention. Unescorted, she winds up walking beside a gigolo who clings to her like a cheap coat, expecting her to pay him for sex she isn’t particularly interested in.