Maybe I need to start over.

There’s a methodology in writing—I am someone who loves the idea of artifice, of knowing what needs to be filled before actually throwing myself into the void. I believe in scaffolding—perhaps from days of working with my father in building a house; how I was unable to visualize the rooms until the sheetrock was being hung in place, that wooden slats that I could see through were not enough to see where a room was being created, a compartment where I would sleep, where we would eat.

I am a writer who has to know the technique before I dive in—there is a belief of a naturalness to writing; that it is something that comes out due to some semblance of witchcraft or magic when there is none—at one moment, there is nothing on the page, and the next, you have some sentences that are strung together to create something larger than what was swimming inside of your body. However, I need to know the pool in which I am jumping into: is it outside? Is it tiled? Is there concrete at the bottom that cause calluses to scrape the bottom of my feet as I push off of the bottom? What is the shape of the thing?

I have what some might consider confidence in regards to shapes—we ask ourselves when we write “what is this?” A question I often ask my students is how this story is meant to be delivered—why a poem instead of an essay? Why a piece of nonfiction instead of a short story? What I know to be true is that this needs to be true. It needs to be an essay: an attempt. I thought I knew how to do this in the same way that I thought I knew how to run—the answer is, it is an evolving process that shifts in ways that I can’t even comprehend, even as the miles and the words pile up.

The story here is basic: a man, inspired by his grandfather, takes up long distance running. There is an attempt to connect to what was lost, once. There is more to it, sure, but at its core, it is an attempt that is frightening and daunting.

When I am running and my legs begin to give out, I try to break things down into bite-sized pieces. I see a telephone pole and I tell myself that I only need to make it there—that there is something feasible not far away that I can find and pass. Then, I can walk. It is the same mentality that haunted me when I would eat and overeat—one more bite of something; just one. One more. The body can do amazing things when you try to shrink the world around you. The world, too, shrinks when you are large. Again, the story here is that I weighed well over 300 lbs. I took up space in the world. I filled out every shirt that was given to me—I found joy in finding something, anything, that would fit—shirts that would not ride up around my stomach when I lifted my hands in the air (I would try not to lift my hands in the air—there is no room for joy here).

The story here has nothing to do with weight-loss, although it does—the body I inhabit now takes up less space than it once did. These are facts. However, the body still exists—it persists. In the same way that there is the theory of phantom limbs; of how soldiers claim to still feel pain in the gaps where their arms have been amputated, I still have a phantom body—I see a gap between cars in a parking lot and have a dark feeling that I will not be able to slide through; a ghost halo around my stomach and my neck, of how the old spirit of myself can still cause me to wake up in the middle of the night with a pain that is a specter of what was once real.

There’s a methodology in running, too, and perhaps this is what causes me to find my way back to it where other ways of movement have failed me. You run many days in a row so that you are able to run for hours. You increase your mileage slowly, a few extra minutes in the sun or on the treadmill a week until what was once long now seems short. At some points, the thought of distance seems much less daunting.

And yet, you are still very much in it—a three-mile run never gets easier despite the fact that I am running three times that on a weekly basis; it is just the duration that shrinks, and even then, there is nothing that actually grows smaller: the amount of steps taken does not deviate, nor should I ever expect it to.

It is foolish to just talk about these things in the same way I can never be a person who decides to go for a run: there has to be a pre-prescribed distance, a route, a loop that somehow manages to bring me back to where I started with a number ascribed at the end of it: miles covered, duration, minutes per mile. For me to tell you this story, my story, my grandfather’s story, the story of the ghost of my body, there has to be a way in—a way to keep everything chip-timed and logged, to make sure that this was not just a story for the sake of story; a fun anecdote people will tell when I leave the room: can you believe that he used to weigh over 300 pounds? Or whatever is said when someone with this story turns their broad back to the conversation. If I am being honest, I don’t know. There is something to be said for not knowing how gaps are filled. There is no telling what a room looks like without my body filling a part of it. How we displace the air. How it fills in around us until we breathe it in.

Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam, and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. Current projects include a book of essays on professional wrestling, a memoir about translating his grandfather's book on long distance running, and a nonfiction book about the history of the track jacket.
Brian Oliu

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