Janet Sheridan: Slow off the mark

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Janet Sheridan

When I was in elementary school, my dad told me I ran like Man o’ War but had a fatal flaw: I didn’t understand the word go.

This confused me; I wasn’t a man or a warrior, had no flaws, and learned the word go in first grade: “See Dick go. Go, Dick, go.”

Then Mom explained that Man o’ War was a famous racehorse. He had a long stride like mine, but he got off to a quick start and won nearly all of his races.

With that, I understood: I was a slow starter and knew the agony of defeat.

When I raced, I toed the line and listened anxiously for the shout of go, which, when it came, shocked me senseless. While I gathered my scattered wits, the competition kicked up dust in front of me until even my Man-O’-War stride couldn’t make up the time I’d lost in a stupor.

My tendency to be slow on the uptake has plagued me in non-athletic endeavors as well.

Is there anything more humiliating than jerking up on your fishing pole after everyone around you saw the insistent tugs that made it dip, only to have an empty hook fly through the air to hoots of laughter?

Is there anything worse than realizing you have five markers in a row on your card 10 seconds after your infirm elderly aunt and daft little sister have shrieked “Bingo” in tandem and snared the candy-bar prize?

Yes, actually, one thing is worse: hearing the same announcement as all the other travelers waiting at a gate and watching as they sprint to the customer-service counter to rebook the just-cancelled flight.

This situation is especially difficult when Joel leads the mad dash through the airport, cleverly calling reservations on his cell phone at the same time, and I’m left chugging along in the stampede’s wake, hoping he’ll remember I’m with him.

Several years ago, I walked Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro just as a moisture-laden twilight made it difficult to distinguish the widespread arms on the statue of Christ that stands guard over the harbor.

Weary from the workshop we’d taught all day, five fellow teachers and I strolled barefoot in water-lapped sand through air smelling of salt, fish and wood smoke.

Suddenly, shadows surrounded us, took form, shoved in among us, grabbed at wrists and backpacks, threatened.

I looked first at the hand on my arm and then the emotionless face of the teenage boy who gripped me. I squawked in disbelief as my friends broke similar holds and dashed away.

I’d probably have stood there in open-mouthed amazement until the gang picked my pockets clean, but a man in our group, many years older and pounds heavier than I, turned, shouted, “Janet, RUN,” then reached for my wrist and dragged me along until my feet came to life and the attackers faded back into shadows.

What is wrong with me?

Why do I stand befuddled at the entrance to a banquet room, watching as others tip chairs or unfurl napkins to reserve seats for themselves and their friends? I dither as tables fill and usually find myself sitting in the suburbs with my back to the speaker.

When Joel and I walk together in busy cities, we do a strange dance, a two-step stutter.

I drift along city streets, mesmerized by the staccato sound of heels striding purposefully, the flow of brake lights blinking like fireflies, and the eternal optimism of street entertainers.

As we approach an intersection, Joel sizes up the situation, sees a window of opportunity, grabs my hand, and strides into the street.

I take a step, hesitate, pull back, stop, and look both ways like a well-taught toddler.

The window closes.

I step back to the curb, and Joel joins me with the head-tossing, feet-stomping impatience of a reined-in quarter horse.

How does he stand it?

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