I'm sure you don't remember the first time we met. I say "met"; it was but a brief moment in which two strangers passed each other by, one barely noticing the other, if at all, but leaving an unmistakably profound impression on him—on me. No, I am certain you do not remember, but I will never forget, for it was the moment that the seed of my love for you was planted.
It was late in May, early in the morning—I could tell you the date, hour and minute, if pressed—and the sun was barely peeking out, bathing the still cold beach in its soft light. Every morning for years I have run along that very stretch of beach, no matter the weather, no matter my mood. A strange habit to have, some might think; "quirky" and "eccentric" I've been called for my stringent adherence to this regime. I try to think little of it, but it plays on my mind occasionally, plaguing me with a peculiar sense of self-doubt.
I wasn't used to seeing anyone there at that time of day; I generally had the beach to myself, as though it were mine. I liked that. Enjoying the salty breeze coming in over the sea as I ran, I had let my mind meander at will. My feet knew what they were doing and needed no assistance from me. So lost did I become in thoughts of the day ahead, and my family, and my cat, that I failed to comprehend that the small figure I had seen in the distance was indeed a person, moving towards me.
As you drew nearer—though, of course, I didn't know it was you at that point—my brain began to function again. My initial surprise at seeing someone there turned to curiosity at not being able to recognise them. I knew everyone who lived within ten miles of this beach, at least to look at, but your face was new and not quite like any I had up to that point seen. It was immensely difficult not to stare as you approached, oblivious to the world around, just as I so often was.
You jogged past me, your blonde ponytail swishing side to side, lost in your iPod universe. I never listened to music when I ran; I rarely listened to music at all. The sound of the tall grass on the dunes rustling in the wind; the caw of a seagull, diving for its breakfast; the gentle crash of a thousand minuscule waves on the shore—these were the music I had run to for almost a decade. I wondered what you were listening to, and if you knew of the beautiful symphony of nature those earphones denied you.
I wondered, all the more so, who you were. Why were you here, on my beach, at six o’clock? You intrigued me terribly to the point that I very nearly tripped over the rock I had passed by more than a hundred times that year. All day, in fact, this mysterious runner occupied my thoughts. I cannot say why you intrigued me so, but a part of me had to know the answers to the dozens of questions you had provoked.
I headed out the next morning, perhaps a little more sharply than usual, wondering if I would see you again. I had lain for what seemed like hours that night, thoughts of you depriving me of sleep. It was ridiculous, indeed, but what was I to do? They were not romantic or sexual thoughts, I hasten to add; they were merely musings, ponderings, curiosities. As I ran along the beach, I could not decide whether I wanted you to be there again. Neither possibility would settle the matter in my mind, I believed.
We did pass again that second morning, at almost the exact same spot. Again you paid me no heed. I managed to discern that your eyes were green, not that it would help me figure out who you were. Your running attire looked fresh and new, in contrast to my greying white t-shirt, tatty shorts and worn out trainers, though you gave no impression of being a "new" runner. The perplexed expression on my face lasted until lunch.
I ventured to the pub that night—not something I often did, but I knew it could be a potential source of answers. The men who drank there daily, or rather their wives, knew every sliver of gossip including all comings and goings of our small community. However, not a soul could tell me aught of the mysterious stranger who went running on the beach; no one knew about whom I was talking. This was not what I had hoped to hear, although perhaps what I had half expected.
Had I but dreamt you there, no more than a conjuring of the depths of my subconscious? Had you run from farther afield than I had at first reckoned? Were you so skilled at privacy as to elude this society of curtain-twitchers? More questions raised by you, but not a one answered. You, whoever or whatever you were, were starting to get to me, and the most frustrating thing about it was that I didn't know why.
You were there the next day, and the one after that. You were there every day, in fact, just as I was. You never so much as glanced in my direction, though you must have been aware of me. Still I could find out nothing of you from the town chatterboxes, and no one else had seen you—I had had to stop asking about you, for some had started to fancy me insane. I began to have doubts myself.
What struck me about you, among many other things, was your unfaltering consistency, unparalleled by anyone I'd met, aside from myself. We passed each other at near enough the same time every day, at pretty much the same spot—06:07; 06:09; 06:06; 06:12. One day it wasn't until 06:21 that I passed you, a little further along. I noticed you weren't wearing any shoes that day; the barefoot experiment must have slowed you down. I smirked knowingly as I passed you. You didn't notice.
Why did I allow you to invade my consciousness so deeply? Was my life so mundane that the most interesting thing in it was a complete stranger who had never acknowledged my existence? I began to think I might be going crazy, but it did not stop me from thinking of you. No matter how I tried to make you, you would not leave, plaguing me day and night. It was an obsession, without a doubt. I was addicted to you, or the thought of you, and it drove me nuts.
I noticed everything about you, each day unconsciously internalising another of your features or habits. I noticed when you got a haircut, and your fringe kept getting in your face. I noticed when you wore jogging bottoms instead of shorts, but only the once. I noticed the bruise on your left leg and how it gradually changed colour and faded over a few days. I noticed when you didn’t wear earphones, but you still never noticed me.
Many times I thought of simply saying hello, or waving as I passed. The possible scenarios played out in my head, none more vividly so than those in which you scream the odds at me, just wishing to run in peace without some creep trying to talk to you. Worse yet, what if you ignored me completely, like I wasn’t even there, like you had been doing for weeks now? I was not so confident in my ability to deal with that. In a way, I wanted, or needed, you to remain a mystery to me, though it tormented me.
Sometimes, defeated by insomnia, I would go walking along the cold beach in the dead of night. I carried with me some vain hope that you might be there, as though seeing you each morning wasn’t enough to fuel my obsession. Why would you be there? I secretly hoped you would not show, and you never disappointed.
The sky was clear the day that we actually did meet, and a warm breeze drifted in from the water. The beach would be busy later with picnicking families and dog-walkers, and teens in jeans and hoodies. Now it was silent but for the waves; empty but for me, and you, I hoped. I ran past our spot, trying with every fibre of my being not to fixate on the fact that you were not there. I kept running; you had never been this late. Ought I to have worried? I did regardless. Silently, facelessly, panic swept over me. I only could not work out to what extent my concern was selfish, though I’d rather believe it was solely for you.
At length, I spotted you in the distance. You were not running, but sitting in the sand near the edge of the beach. I must have sped up for I reached you in no time, and it became clear that you had injured your ankle. You smiled as I slowed and stopped in front of you, our eyes meeting for the very first time. Given your situation, you should not have been so calm, but you had not worried, for you knew I would be along any minute, you told me. You just knew it.
As I helped you up, you put an arm around my shoulder. Your crutch, I walked you back to your house, about three miles from where we were. When we got there you were still smiling, and you made me drink tea and eat biscuits. We talked for an hour or more, your voice sweeter than I imagined, each word more interesting than the last.
You remember, you assure me, the first time you ran past me, and every time after that. You were just as unaware as I was that it would be the beginning of our love story.