Every other day, I head out for my run.
It’s not far, just an easy peasy 5K. No hills, no hurdles. The biggest obstacles on this route are people streaming out of coffee shops and restaurants after Sunday brunch, hitting the street full of breakfast and brand new memories, apologizing for blocking my path as I veer around them.
This is urban city running.
I’ve been running this route for 12 years, longer than I’ve been a parent or held any one job. It became My Route when I moved to this part of Toronto. After more than a decade, every major building, storefront and corner has been burned into my subconscious. Separately, they are physical landmarks. Collectively, they form a comfortingly familiar psychic landscape that soothes my mind when I am running.
We run for fitness and the physical challenge of it. There’s that for me, too. But I need it for other reasons. When I’m stressed out about work, fleeing a ridiculous spat with my better half, or frustrated with the immovable will of our nine-year-old son – I run. Sometimes it’s better to escape, however briefly, than to engage.
So I run.
For that half hour, my mind brushes lightly against tension points (when will I get my taxes done, did I register him for that summer camp, were those jowls in the mirror?), but for the most part, I’m lost in a zone. Bluetooth headphones. A playlist of songs on a smartphone. This is freedom.
I start out from my house and run a big rectangle, the longest stretch of it along Danforth Avenue. Yes, that Danforth.
Last week, my running route became a crime scene, a hashtag, a global headline.
When Twitter lit up with the first reports, my immediate thought was: friends. Are they safe? Were they out on Danforth when it happened?
And then the texting started, a flurry of reassurances between family and friends that Yes, we’re fine … we were at home … OMG a 10-year-old child? … I can’t believe this happened here … it’s such a safe neighbourhood.
The next day, I overheard my husband tell someone on the phone: “Christine runs past there almost every day.”
Or night. From June to September, when the heat in Toronto regularly tops 30 degrees Celsius by 8 a.m., I often wait until after sunset to run in the cooler nighttime air. As any female runner knows, finding a route where you feel safe enough to run after dark is no trifling matter. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t run.
For 12 years, Danforth – with its constant bustle of people eating, drinking, strolling, living – has been my safe place to run after dark.
Now, my running route is a makeshift memorial, a site marked by terror and sorrow.
Now, how will I run past Caffe Demetre, where 10-year-old Julianna Kozis was shot before she died? Or The Second Cup coffee shop where the front window was shattered by bullets? Or 7 Numbers restaurant where patrons, perhaps toasting an anniversary or flirting on a first date, were wounded by gunfire?
All of this runs through my head. Still, I get ready to run.
As I near Greektown’s iconic fountain, where people normally gather to eat ice cream, listen to buskers and chat in whatever language speaks to their heart, a lump forms in my throat. I take a deep breath, then glance over from across the street. There’s a crowd of people looking at photos of Kozis and Reese Fallon, the 18-year-old girl who also died. And flowers, so many flowers placed gently around the fountain.
I thought I would feel sad. Or scared. Or cry.
But I don’t. What I actually think as I run past the memorial site is …
I mutter it silently in my head, not metaphorically to the guy who fired the gun (another sad casualty from that night). Instead, I say ‘F*** you’ to fear itself.
“I feel sad,” I realize. “But I don’t feel scared.”
Because this is the place where, one achingly beautiful evening (I had just finished pointing up at our skylight to tell my husband, Look how bright that star is), a terrible thing happened. It changed lives forever. Three dead. Thirteen injured. A city wounded. I know if I had been on that street, at that moment, I would be scarred for life, emotionally if not physically.
But for me, Danforth is so many other memories.
It’s that same Second Cup, where I’ve sat writing hundreds of stories and blogs. It’s Melonheads salon, where I took my son for his very first haircut. It’s St. Louis Bar & Grill, where he and I ate wings and watched the World Series last year. It’s Casa Sushi (its very name a quirky triumph of Canadian multiculturalism) where my sister and I have lunch whenever she visits me from Halifax. It’s even Caffe Demetre, where I ate dessert with my nephew one evening last summer, just as Julianna and her mother were doing at 10 p.m. on July 22.
7 Numbers will always be the first restaurant my husband and I went to after our son was born. I sat on the patio, eating a giant meatball (mozzarella was baked right into the centre like some Italian snowball of insane, beefy decadence), trying not to drip tomato sauce on the head of our tiny brand new dude, cuddled up against me in a baby carrier. Our first dinner out as a family of three.
I’ve been running past all of these landmarks for 12 years, but never really saw them for what they are until now. This is where I live. This is where I’ve celebrated birthdays and occasionally drank a bit too much and shared secrets with friends and chatted with my son while the world, our own little corner of it, unfolds in front of us.
One terrible night can’t change any of that.
I run on The Danforth. That’s my route, and fear isn’t going to chase me away from it.