A dozen dawns after the Boston Marathon bombings, we woke in a hotel in the city’s waterfront district. Although we attended college in the Boston area and lived in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood for several years in the late 1980s, we are tourists now. After pulling on my running gear, I left the lobby and headed east along the pier, intending to make a leisurely circuit of Pleasure Bay.
But five minutes later I had spun west, toward the sunlit glass of the Prudential Building. I crossed the Fort Point Channel into Chinatown, navigating the old streets by memory, skirting the Common and the Public Garden until I could turn down Boylston Street. It was not yet seven but the streets held plenty of people on their way to work, some of them clutching lidded coffee cups, their collars buttoned against the wind.
While I ran I wondered about the beautiful and the ordinary. The beautiful because the weather was brisk and fine, with magnolia and cherry blossoms framing the old brownstones. The ordinary because nothing felt ordinary about what had once seemed so familiar: the ruddy faces of spring, the tulip beds lining the gray cobblestones, the regular pivot of my legs below the knee.
I also wondered if my desire to see the bombing site had something ghoulish in it, if I was drawn to the place by the same instinct that attracts rubberneckers to house fires and car crashes.
As I passed a fast-food outlet near Copley Square, a man sitting on the curb shouted at me. The only word I caught was “five.” Thinking he was trying to cadge enough cash for breakfast, I turned up my empty palms and went on. He shouted again after I’d passed and this time I heard him quite clearly. “Fuck you,” he said.
Because this was Boston, I turned and ran back to him. “What?” I asked. He told me that he’d only been trying to encourage me, that he’d been urging me to go for it, to “go for five.” This was a new phrase in my lexicon but we parted amicably. As we shook hands, it was impossible to ignore the fact that we both wore ragged, fingerless gloves.
Due perhaps to this distraction, I came upon Marathon Sports without warning. The plate-glass window had evidently been replaced, the sidewalk cleaned. With an odd shock, I remembered that the shoes on my feet had been purchased at this very store, precisely two years earlier, a trivial detail that seemed to gather weight through sheer insignificance.
I kept running another block to the Forum restaurant, which was still boarded up, then crossed the street and reversed direction. There were other runners out, too, some jogging, a few moving at race pace, and two unusually tall men carrying on a conversation in German as they loped past the TV trucks and camera crews.
This time I noticed the memorial in Copley Square: the jumbled rows of cut flowers and stuffed animals and scrawled remembrances, the sneakers and ball caps and T-shirts, the peace signs and flags and statuary. What were all these charms and trinkets, I asked myself, if not messages of defiance and tokens of respect? And then I knew why I had come.