Welcome back to The Speed of Love, a web novel.
I’ve been playing around with the web novel concept for a while now. My autobiographical series This is Not a Sad Story is hitting its stride, but I also wanted to do something fictional. After watching the 2019 Netflix film Marriage Story, I knew what I wanted to write about. Cross that with the Modern Love column in The New York Times, and I was golden. This is Episode 3 of The Speed of Love.
The Speed of Love follows the lives, personal dramas, and love affairs of six young adults. In Episode 1, you met bumbling librarian Cara and acclaimed photojournalist Darren, who shared a drunken moment long past. In Episode 2, you met beauty queen turned barista Eloise and grad student Alyssa. And in this episode, you’re about to meet wilderness-obsessed Josh and twenty-one year old high school senior Alejandra.
There are no heroes here and no villains. Everyone is human. I expect you to pick favorites among the characters, but that’s only because you’re human too! My hope, though, is that you’ll love and hate each character by turns. Because that’s what humans do. We love and hate.
Josh ran through the woods, accompanied by the pounding of his heart.
Six months. He’d been running for six months. Not six months straight, of course, but six months, every day, at six o’clock in the morning in the woods by the high school. He’d run through the frost of February, the stickiness of April, and now into the dead heat of July. The still heat, the heavy, humid heat, the clouds of bugs. Luckily for him, the mosquitoes didn’t carry malaria… yet, anyway.
He chugged up the hill.
And slowed down as he approached the burn site, because there was someone sitting on one of the stumps. A young woman wearing a backpack. She looked too old to be a high schooler, but here she was, near a high school.
She glanced up at him as he jogged past her, then buried her head again and resumed scrolling through texts.
Kids these days. He let out a little huff of breath, heading down the trail. Always on their phones, never looking at the world around them.
He’d been one of those, not too long ago. He’d been that chubby kid, that fatass, doing the only thing he’d been good at. Playing video games all day and all night because they were what “made him cool.” But he hadn’t been cool at all.
Now — now he was cool. Now he could run a six minute mile and a thirteen minute two mile. He could light a fire. He knew which plants he could eat and which were poisonous. And he had a girlfriend.
Okay, she wasn’t much of a girlfriend. She never wanted to see him. She was always out partying with her friends.
But he had a girlfriend.
And she’d been with him when it had counted, a month ago at the five-year high school reunion. Josh had always been the type to say he was never going to show up at those stupid reunions, but then he’d become successful. And fit. And gotten a pretty girlfriend. Turned out he was good at math as well as video games. Now he was in software. He hated it, but it made big bucks. He worked only five-hour days and retreated to the woods as soon as he could. His girlfriend, meanwhile, lived the high life on his money. He didn’t care. She could use his money. As long as he could pay the mortgage on the house, he had enough.
Screw houses, who needed a house?
He sprinted down towards the end of the trail. Made a loop and headed back around, with the sun slanting through the trees and lighting his head. Yeah, sure, look at fat Josh now. Fat Josh had a six pack and George, the high school bully, was off in the corner nursing on a six pack of Corona, wondering why he’d never made it anywhere in life.
Because he’d peaked. He’d peaked in high school.
Josh snorted to himself. When he had kids, he was going to warn them not to peak in high school. Man, imagine ages 0-18 being the best time of your life? He felt better now. Well, not completely better, but better. And he had plenty of time to figure out what was missing and find it… right?
It would all start with a careful reading of Thoreau.
He rounded the bend. The girl was still sitting there on the stump. This time, she looked up from her phone and smiled at him, her eyes doing the little up and down he’d kind of gotten used to but not really gotten used to.
“Hey,” she said. She patted the vacant stump on her left. “Keep me company for a little while?”
He paused, mid-stride. “I’m running.”
She giggled. “Yeah, I can see that. But you look like a guy who knows about birds. Do you know what that bird up there is?”
She was pointing at the treetops. Josh craned his neck and looked.
“Woodpecker,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. She patted the stump again.
He sat, still breathing hard. Sweat ran down his face in lines. “I probably stink.”
“You’re okay.” She brushed her hair out of her eyes. “My phone died and I’ve still got a couple hours till summer school.”
“Summer school? You’re in summer school?” He glanced sideways at her.
“Long story,” she said. “But I’m going to graduate at the end of the summer. Better late than never.”
He looked up at the sky, vividly blue between the branches slicing it into little squares and triangles and hexagons. Yeah. Better late than never. Better late than never to grow up, to get fit, become one with nature, get laid.
The guy seemed a little too introspective for Alejandra’s taste.
He didn’t talk much. Just sort of stared at the sky. She’d stopped him because she’d seen him running a couple times before, from the outlook where she usually sat. She’d figured out that he ran this trail on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the other trail on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But she didn’t know what he did on the weekends.
Duh. She wasn’t a mind-reader. Just an observant person.
She kicked at the guy’s shoe. She didn’t know his name. He probably thought she was very forward. But he hadn’t said anything about it, so… “What do you do for work?”
“Software,” he said.
He looked kinda bummed. Like she’d brought up the day job he came into the woods to escape. She bet that was exactly what she’d done. Guys with day jobs like that, jobs that sucked the soul out of them, always got this kicked dog look when you asked them what they did.
“Better than me,” she said. “I work at Stop and Shop.”
He shrugged. “Stop and Shop sounds fine to me.”
She almost rolled her eyes. “I kinda thought you were going to be more interesting,” she blurted out, unable to stop herself.
For a moment, he said nothing. Then he swung his head towards her. “What did you say?”
“That I thought you were going to be more interesting. I’ve been watching you. From that big rock outcropping. I sit there most days. I saw you running.”
His cheeks colored. “For how long?”
“About a month, you silly. Since summer school began.”
“Oh,” he said. She watched his jaw swivel. He was working it around. “That’s kind of weird, don’t you think?”
“I mean, I did it, so I don’t think so.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s how it works.” He was looking at the sky again. Finally, he turned back. “What’s your name?”
“Alejandra,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. Finally, a smart question. “People mostly call me Alex. What’s your name?”
“Joshua.” He was chewing on a nail. “Josh.”
“Yeah, maybe you think this is weird, but could I have your number? I think we should get a drink sometime.”
“Oh, no,” he said. His cheeks had flushed again. “I have a girlfriend.”
“No to the number or no to the drink?”
“The drink. I mean, you can’t be twenty-one anyway…”
“I am. And I’m gonna be twenty-two in September. That’s why I gotta rush to finish high school. Get it?”
She reached for his hand. He flinched. Their fingers brushed, melded. She held the pen over his skin, poised. She was being pushy, but that was what she was like. And he hadn’t said anything. Except that he had a girlfriend. But did she really care about this girlfriend she’d never seen? She met his eyes. They were dark and a little bit afraid.
“May I?” she asked.
“Go right ahead,” he mumbled.
She wrote her number. Then she pocketed the pen and got up.
“Bye,” she said to him.
She was going to the outlook. After today she’d stop watching for him. After all, he had her number on his hand. She’d left it up to him.
In the next episode…
We’ll return to Cara and Darren as they sort out their feelings after meeting each other again.
If you’re enjoying The Speed of Love, a web novel…
Check out my other web series, This is Not a Sad Story, if you’re into autobiographical tell-alls with an emphasis on mental health and personal development.
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