BOOK ONE

"Dying is an art, like everything else."
- Sylvia Plath

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Chapter One: Not About Love

HE MUST NOT have tied his shoelaces tight enough as after one lap he had to stop running and tie them again. This time he made sure they would not loosen up even after four or five laps by inserting the bow he tied his shoelaces to into the mouth of his running shoes down to his ankle. Before running again, he shook his hands and blew a lungful of air.

The early cars already are drawing deep breaths past my door, he started playing the song in his head. And last night's phrases, sick with lack of basis, are still writhing on my floor.

Halfway through his second round around the track, he began feeling lightheaded. He had to slow down for a while and compose himself for fear of dropping dead on the ground. It didn't surprise him. He was the least athletic person he knew and today was the first time in a year he had decided to go out for a run at the city's sports complex. He needed to sweat good sweat for once, he had told himself earlier that day.

And it doesn't seem fair that your wicked words should work in holding me down. He started running again and felt a lot better this time. He felt he could survive five more laps around the tracks. No, it doesn't seem right to take information given at close range, for the gag, and the bind, and the ammunition round.

Upon finishing his fifth round, he passed by where he had left his backpack. He thought he was hearing his mobile phone ringing. He ran toward the rail from which his bag was hanging and grabbed his phone.

"That's been making that noise since I got here," a stranger to his right who had been doing warm-ups spoke.

He looked at the stranger blankly then proceeded to answering his phone. "Yes, Sandy..." It was one of his best friends. "Yes, I'm fine," he answered in a rather annoyed tone, and at the same time as inaudible as possible to the stranger. "You really should stop worrying about me. I'm not even close to breaking down or anything." He hung up then dropped his phone back in his backpack.

He began thinking how rude it was to just call someone up and ask them if they were doing fine.

"Fiona Apple?" the stranger asked him.

Caught off-guard, it took a while before he realized the stranger was referring to the song he had been singing. He had begun to sing it out loud midway through his fourth round. "She makes me high," he retorted. He subtly studied the stranger in front of him. The stranger's skin was ruddy, the sun-burnt type, especially on the face, and he could tell the guy was pimply when he was younger. He was tall and lean and had a prominent, high-bridged nose. He thought he could easily be attracted to the stranger.

The stranger was pulling his foot up behind him, emphasizing the muscles on his shoulder. It was almost impossible to take one's eyes off of the sight. "Yeah, she's a genius," the stranger said, smiling.

He nodded to the stranger noncommittally and started running again. He made a mental note that it was going to be his last round. He couldn't wait to get home and eat.

This is not about love, 'cause I'm not in love, he sang. In fact I can't stop falling out.

When he got back to where he had left his backpack the stranger was no longer there. He proceeded to the men's room to change. When he got there he was alone so he didn't have second thoughts about studying himself in front of the mirror. "I really should have been a Michael, not a Carl," he thought. "Michaels are a lot more flawed." He stared with discontent at his reflection. The only thing Carl liked about his face were his eyebrows, because he thought with proper lighting they made his eyes look intelligent. He didn't like the fact that he got the bridge of his nose from his father and the rest of it from his mother. He thought the result was disastrous. He also didn't like the angst that was blatant in his eyes. He felt it repelled people. And he hated most his crooked, phony smile. Carl suddenly felt so depressed he was tempted to smash the mirror in front of him.

After changing to a new shirt he went back to the area where he had left his bag a while ago for a quick cigarette. He felt so relaxed he decided to just skip dinner upon getting home and sleep immediately. As he was about to finish smoking, he caught a glimpse of the ruddy stranger making his way toward the men's room. They made eye contact and Carl suddenly felt he knew what it meant. He dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it with his sole, and then followed the stranger.

He looked straight into the stranger's eyes through the mirror as soon as he got inside the men's room. The stranger was shirtless, toweling off sweat all over his body. Carl felt a lump in his throat. He stood beside the stranger by the sink and tried to make eye contact again through the mirror. This time, the stranger seemed self-conscious and avoided Carl's stare.

Carl had never been one to make the first move. His boldness was limited to sending off signals that he would be up for it and letting the other person initiate a blatant invite. He turned the faucet on in front of him and washed his hands mechanically. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the stranger put a new shirt on.

In a little while he heard a nervous sigh from the stranger. Then the stranger cleared his throat. "Hey, I'm Matthew, by the way." Matthew extended an arm.

Carl smiled slightly. "I'd shake your hand but mine's wet. My name's Michael," Carl said.

Matthew nodded. "Um, well, it's always nice to meet another Fiona Apple fan."

Carl paused for a moment. "Yeah. Always," he retorted, wiping his hands with paper towels.

"Okay, see you around then." Matthew turned around and made his way to the door.

Carl heard a deafening silence after the sound of the door being closed. He spent a few more seconds in the men's room staring blankly at the door before heading straight to the parking lot where he had left his bike.

"Okay, see you around then," Carl chanted to himself. "Yeah right," he thought bitterly.

As he was about to hop into his bike, an old, white Volkswagen stopped in front of him. Matthew was behind the wheel.

"Hey, Mike," Matthew called out. "Your shoelaces are undone." He smiled.

Carl looked down. "Oh, yeah." He smiled back. "Thanks."

"Hey, maybe you could give me a ring some time." Matthew handed out a sheet of paper to him which had his phone number written on it. "Maybe discuss Fiona and stuff." Matthew's voice was earnest.

Carl reached out to get the paper. "Yeah, sure."

Matthew drove away.

Carl paused for a moment before bending down to tie his shoelaces. "I need new shoes," he told himself. He hopped into his bike and made his way toward the main gate.

This is not about love... 'cause I'm not in love, Carl sang, pedaling away. In fact I can't stop falling out....

Carl threw away the sheet of paper that Matthew gave him when he passed by a gutter.

I miss that stupid ache.