St. Crispian?s Day in Pan Pacific Park
I’m at Pan Pacific Park today for the first time in a year. I can run again, and I much prefer this stretch of patchy green between Beverly and 3rd Street to the treadmill at the gym. No mirrors are available, and no shirts are required. I’m on drugs with labels that say don’t spend too much time exposed to the sun, but it’s a fine day, my dosage is low, and I’m not worried.
The exercise track loops three-quarters of a mile from 3rd Street up to the rear entrance of Park La Brea apartments and back, with timber and steel workout stations set off in sand pits every hundred yards. For push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. For rope jumping and swinging on parallel bars. I’ll hit my hyperventilation high in a quarter lap. After two times around, when I get back in my pickup and start the engine to head home, I’ll try to turn down the radio by switching off the air conditioner, and I won’t understand why the music is so loud and the cab is so hot.
I make my way up the path. I thread my way through a group of Hasidic mothers walking with covered heads and covered strollers. Off to one side an elderly Asian woman does Tai Chi, to the other an old Russian couple sits on a bench, not speaking. Ahead a middle-aged Latino shadow boxer runs backwards, wearing thick cotton sweats and gardening gloves.
I veer into my first station, breathing heavy. Sometimes I find homeless people, their vacant eyes lost in faces blackened by alternating layers of smog and sunburn, sleeping on the wooden bench I use for push-ups. This morning there is only a damp circle of urine beside it. I don’t mind. Up, down, up, down, smell the urine, take a breath. I’m toughening up. I can do push-ups in piss. The pick-up soccer players, Latino, drink beer here before the afternoon games. Once one asked in broken English to borrow my jump rope, then showed off one-legged crossovers and double skips while I panted. They aren’t here yet today, though a pair of cleats, laces tied together, is strung over the phone line above. I’ve read that a pair of shoes hanging from a utility line signals a spot to buy drugs, but there could be other reasons. Maybe the shoes were old and worn and their owner didn’t want them anymore, so he and his friends made a game of trying to catch them on the wire, betting to see who could do it. Or maybe the shoes were fine, but the owner played badly, and a teammate threw them there.
I work my way around the circuit. With great labor I vault timber and hang on rings. Babies in backpacks assess me, skeptical. I pass the jungle gym, the dog run. A voluptuous but plain blonde with long curly hair crosses the path before me on her way to a concrete picnic table, where she kisses a graying man who waits with a thick manuscript. Maybe it is the story of them.
I curve back towards 3rd Street, heaving as I come to the parallel bars. A woman, her back to me, kneels in the grass at the edge of the station. I cannot see her face, but I can see she has a camera. The shadow boxer is at one end of the bars. He raises himself up on his gloved hands, folds his legs behind him, and dips his body up and down. I go to the other end and do the same, but slower. I can feel the scarred skin across my suspended abdomen stretch each time my sagging shoulders drop even with my elbows. I do fifteen repetitions, counting them off to myself in Spanish to make them go faster. It is the only Spanish I know. I drop to the ground to rest; he keeps going. Still raised on his hands, he kicks his legs before him and holds them there, pointed out straight and still. His body is an iron right angle except for the quiver in the muscles of his neck and jaw, noticeable only because of how the sun dances off the deep brown of his skin.
As I get back on the path, I glance at the front of the woman. She is as thin and pale as I am. She wears bright lipstick. Her face is pretty in a wanting sort of way. She appears to be a woman far, but not far enough, from middle age, who has decided, quite earnestly, to learn photography. She catches me looking and asks if she can take my picture. She has a portfolio due for a community college class tonight, she says, and just over-exposed three rolls of film in the darkroom. I say sure.
She tells me we need to be in the shade and leads me under a tree. She says to look away for the first shot. I watch a group of kindergartners play with kites. The kites are small and diaper-sized, as if the children just took them off and now fly them in a declaration of independence. They are rectangular, and with a string tied at each corner they hold the wind well, each making the shape of a bonnet, or one sea gull wing.
This is a good place to take pictures, I say.
Yes, she says.
Next she wants me to stare right into the camera. My hair, uncut since the last time I came to the park, blows in my eyes. What a figure I must be, shaggy, tall and skinny, one thick purple scar curling around my belly button down into my shorts, another thinner gash running horizontally off to the right. I head on and wonder if her photos might create in those scars a tale with the whiff of tragedy or valor, one of twisted wreckage or indomitable faith or pigheaded daring or love. A tale more stirring and less unpleasant, than a physiology too weak for the medication that would have remedied a rotting colon and avoided surgery.
My doctor says that the scars will turn a color close to skin tone and be less visible in time, but that outside I must wear a shirt or paint zinc sun block over them, or they’ll turn dark brown. Purple, brown, or zinc white, I don’t see the difference. I’ve thought of getting them tattooed over with zippers. I look down as I jog. They are not as purple as they once were, but they are a little shiny.
The shadow boxer passes me again as I come around to the starting point, where another woman takes photos of another young man, though she poses him in the sun. Probably the women are friends. They are learning photography together. They have lost their film in a homemade darkroom together. I make my way around the circuit once more. I hit the push-up platform again – smell the urine, take a breath – then jump rope and navigate monkey bars. I forget to look for the plain blonde and graying man, instead thinking of how my photographer might want more pictures of me, this time out of the shade.
When the parallel bars come into view, she is gone. The shadow boxer is there, now doing sit-ups. He sits on the near bar with his ankles anchored under the far one. With each repetition he leans his body as far back as it will go, arms behind his head, so that he looks at me upside down before he pulls himself back up. I think he might be curious about the pictures.
He might ask, Why did she want pictures of you?
I think she liked the scars, I’ll say.
Yes, he’ll nod, where did they come from?
You don’t want to know, I’ll tell him.
I’ll hoist myself up on the bars and silently count repetitions in Spanish.
When I get to the station, he drops from the bars and runs out past me. Maybe he will come across my photographer farther along the path, and she might ask him, Have you seen that young man whose picture I took, the one with the scars?
And he’ll as likely reply, if he remembers me at all, What scars were those?