First time I ran home from work at night it was strictly expediency. I left The Post by the 15th Street NW entrance entrance at 2:30 on an early summer morning to find that the car had dropped its transmission into a parking place behind the National Paint and Coating Association building. The only way to limit a taxi ride to one zone would have been to get off at Union Station, two miles from the house. A 3 a.m. Metrobus is not my idea of good theater. I figured I might as well save some money. See the sights. I've never cared for moving faster than a walk, but something about necessity, motherhood and wanting to sleep before first light led to a quick change out of the trunk and my first nocturnal travelogue.
It was different in the dark. Like a foreign movie. You could smell the river and the streets felt humid.
I turned east off 15th onto K and literally ran a light across 14th Street, into a carnival of color. The spectrum was not natural. It was daytime again. Faces blurred to the sides, Twilight Zone mannequins. The heat was not in the air. I felt naked, like discovering you're not wearing clothes in a dream. I picked up the pace and the neon and hard perfume fell back.
It's uphill going east on the north side of Franklin Square on K, but there are deals going on in that park and it behooved me to maintain speed, if not accelerate even more, and look serious about it -- the marathoner's carriage. Don't look to the sides. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Down at 10th Street, back in the quiet and the dark, I downshifted and passed an overgrown lot and a boarded-up house sitting beneath limp trees. The sidewalk was full of puddles from a rain three days back. Dead branches and old boards lay in the lot and a rat may have skittered in front of my feet in a dim streetlamp shadow. The smell was something deep and almost bad, but not quite, just this side of it, a cross between mud and jungle and dead things and heat. When heat lightening suddenly split the sky, I thought of spontaneous generation and I thought of getting scared, like when you were a kid alone in the house and you turned out the downstairs lights and ran up the stairs one step ahead of the darkness and the chill that started right below the base of your neck and ran out in both directions.
I ran right through the scent of Chinatown at 7th and I -- shrimp and curry, oil and anise, ginger and unidentifiable vegetables, a residual aroma, still rich, hanging in alleys in invisible clouds, tangible ghost of a day gone by.
Somewhere near the start of the second mile the endorphines kicked in, runner's opiates, and the world began to glisten at the edges, on the other side of exhaustion. My thoughts began to drift on the surface, like lilies. The distance between me and the world reduced. Night tapestries seemed close enough to touch, rolling to the sides through a filter that regulated something other than light. It was all simple surface impressions, bare traces, but the cumulative effect -- Freud's magic writing pad -- began to leave indelible marks.
The half-mile uphill at the base of Capitol Hill leveled for a minute at Union Station, draped in scaffolding, lit by tunnels of light like the monolith on the moon in "2001." Way out of scale.
My sneakers slid on the subway air grate. The rubber slap echoed into the columns. Last train come and gone. The comfortable waterfall sound and chlorine summer smell of the fountains killed the top-40 song I'd been playing on a tape loop in my inner ear.
On the last half-mile rise someone was holding my chest, then it was level for good, and they let go. I crisscrossed through the Hill south of Stanton Park -- south on Fifth to Constitution, back north on Sixth to Massachusetts, south again on Seventh, back north again on Eighth, a John Cheever white-collar night prowler in Bullet Park, an infiltrator behind enemy lines.
The smack of a manual typewriter came down from a dormer, dogs barked from behind living-room drapes. I saw parlor lamps behind white lace curtains, the gun-metal blue glow of a television in a darkened living room. The air tasted like flowers.
And then, finally, 10th and Constitution NE, Lincoln Park: verdant, dewy, the high-pitched giggles of women being courted on park benches, the one-note click of crickets, the sudden silhouette of a standing man, unmoving, now weaving slightly, an equestrian statue without his horse, rooted in a litter of bottles, the smell of wine. We almost collided. A second, then, of startled fear, then he was behind and I let my legs go.
I was standing still again and the summer night swallowed me whole.