Ray Ball grew up in a house full of snakes. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where she is a professor of European and World History. In addition to a number of academic books and essays, she is the author of a chapbook of poems Tithe of Salt (Louisiana Literature Press, 2019). She has been nominated for multiple Pushcarts, Best of the Net, and Best New Poets. She has recent fiction publications in The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, and Ray serves as an editor for Alaska Women Speak. When she’s not in the classroom or at her writing desk, she can be found researching in the archives, hiking or running on the trails, or drinking bitter beverages.
A Subtle Red
I’ve nearly fallen four times already, and I’m only six miles into this stupid trail race. The sun beats down, roasting my skin. After almost fifteen years in Seattle, I’m no longer accustomed to the oppressive air of a late midwestern summer. I gulp in long breaths that are somehow still shallow and unsatisfying.
This Minnesota trail race is relatively small, so, since mile three, my only companions in conversation have been mosquitos and the occasional bright acoustics of birds. Sweat and the smeared remains of dead insects stick to my skin. I feel disgusting.
My head’s just not in it today. I remember reading that elite athletes are so successful because they are able to focus on their body mechanics, fine-tuning their movements in a state of flow. Some days I get glimpses of that, but today is most definitely not one of those days. Like a fluffy cottonwood seed, I keep floating outside my body. Then, as my ankle rolls on the unstable rocks or as I hit the stretches of pillowy sand that brutalize my already-sore lower back, I snap back to full alert.
I am on a flat stretch again and desperate to grab hold of anything that takes me away from this godforsaken trail. I spot a red-breasted nuthatch, and, as I play a game of trying to name all the other words I can think of that start with the letter R, I recall an afternoon I haven’t thought about in years. Dee and I had skipped Calculus to fuck and watch Clerks on the small boxy television in her dorm room.
She had rolled over to face me and said, “I want to do your makeup.”
Even back then, I rarely wore foundation. The thick liquid she applied to my face was oddly cold – like cake batter coating my skin. Dee’s soft curls glanced off my shoulder sending residual shockwaves through me. She was all business, though. “Close your eyes,” she ordered and tilted my head toward the lamp on her cluttered bedside table. She pushed powder onto my eyelids with an arsenal of brushes in various sizes. When she finished, she stepped back to take in her handiwork. She went back over to her makeup box, humming as she dug through one of its compartments. Plastic containers rattled off one another. She held up several lipsticks, narrowing her eyes as she decided which to use on me. In the end, she selected a subtle red that tasted faintly of apples and cherries.
I stumble again on the trail and put Dee back into the past, compartmentalizing her like she did her collection of eyeliners and lip glosses and candy colored nail polishes. A steep hill looms in front of me. Sunlight filters through the tree branches, and I thank God for a bit of shade. My calf knots as I ascend the hill. A blister has started to form on the tip of my right pinky toe. I sip disappointingly warm water from my hydration pack. I realize my lips are the polar opposite of delectable right now. They taste of salt and a hint of something chemical – probably bug spray. My eyes latch on the mile 11 marker up ahead. I grit my teeth. I can do this, I tell myself consolingly, as I recall that I have a cherry Chapstick in the bag I left at gear check.