The writing assignment was twenty pages on Kant’s discussion of the sublime in nature. Due in two weeks. I was two semesters away from the dissertation proposal stage. Completion was essential. The stakes were high. So, I signed up for a triathlon and got drunk.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I started taking notes and annotating the German text. I underlined things. Then I found someone who was giving away a wet suit, “barely used,” and joined a training group.
We start meeting every Thursday at a bar to socialize and talk about strategies. Along with weekly rides and runs, there’s a swim. Friday or Saturday mornings at the Ohio Street Beach, 6:15am.
I was getting better. I was learning the bilateral breathing thing. You raise up your right arm and take a breath on that side, and see nothing but the Lake. You come up to breathe under the left-arm and see the architectural madness of this city’s skyline. Everything, nothing. Over and over.
One Thursday afternoon before the meet-up, I’m feeling real jittery. I hadn’t eaten much. I was at the library all day, so I’m real happy to have that first beer. I start holding court, sharing expertise with people who had just moved here. “The Lake is a fifth of this planet’s drinking water.” I hear myself saying “planet” with a Chicago accent. We keep drinking. I keep going.
I don’t recall anyone ordering actual food. Hours go by. Someone celebrates something with shots. I don’t know what happened to the presentation on hydration. We were going to discuss energy chews. We don’t. I feel very, very happy for the people celebrating something. More shots. I may have given a speech.
The next morning my phone goes off at 5:20am. I smell like beer, it’s kind of nice. I turn on music while making toast. Never mind that the toaster seems to be sliding off the counter, which is turning mysteriously to the right. I feel great.
I top a slice of sourdough with cheese. It’s all I’ve got. It’s 5:45. I’ll most likely make it on time. I don’t know how I’m on my bike. The concrete steps between the path and the Lake swirl out towards the water. I’m fine.
I peel into an open spot at the rack. I pull on my wetsuit. I have to pee. You know what happens then; it’s part of triathletes’ unspoken bond. My group is there. I give a knuckle punch to this 55-year-old warrior from Argentina who outpaces every age group on every event. She won’t tell any of us what she eats. I exchange a nod with the chubby swim-expert from Elgin. He’s curiously unstoppable in the water, like a magnificent migrating whale.
I rush in to the water and float for a second. The skyscrapers merge and tilt. I start my lap. We can’t see all the edges of this Lake, of course. One can’t possibly conceive the entire Lake by the powers of their senses. But one wants to. I get an idea for my essay. And I need to throw up.
I can’t touch the bottom. I’m treading, sea sick. There are a few early-bird tourists and runners out. I should try to face Michigan, or at least Gary, Indiana when I puke, but I can’t get my body around soon enough.
All the sourdough, the cheese, floats colorfully on top of the current. It happens again. And again. The vomit pools in my gut then sloshes as the water lifts and falls. When my stomach is finally empty, I hoist myself into a back-float, like a barge cutting through flotsam and floating litter. I lay on the Lake as still as possible. I sort of fall asleep. Not a good idea.
A couple seagulls rush my swim cap before flying off to bully runners on the path. I open my eyes. Those gulls’ll eat gum from your pocket. They’ll drag your phone through the sand and scream in your face. They’ll save your life.
I swim slowly to shore. I rip off my goggles with some of my hair. I know I have indecent balls of cheese trapped on my clavicle where it meets the pee-smelling rubber onesie. But didn’t some writer say, loving Chicago is like loving a woman in a dirty second-hand wetsuit?
This essay will explicate the concept of the sublime in order to examine whether estimations of magnitude in nature expand self-reflective capacity.
I get to page ten, still unsure whether I’ve made the right career choice, whether I’m any good at it, or how I’ll finish this. But I’m convinced of a couple things: the Lake is sublime, success is a toxic notion, and food’s fucking essential.
MK Sturdevant’s work appears or is forthcoming in Orion Magazine, Flyway, Alluvian, Newfound, Kestrel, x-r-a-y Lit Mag, Tiny Molecules and elsewhere. Follow them on Twitter @mksturdevant.