What’s So Great About First Place?

I once attended an auction while my husband, G, was out of town. I’d never been to an auction and had no idea what to expect. I knew they were the playgrounds of the upwardly mobile and that if I wanted to fit in, I had better look the part. By the time the event rolled around, I was in a full-on body sweat induced by the utter void of pastels and mother-of-pearl accessories in my closet. The closest thing I had to a WASP-y ensemble was a bottle of Lithium and that was all but emptied upon checking my online bank account before rushing out the door. I felt calmer once I was there and camouflaged against a line of people appraising the items on display for bidding. I drew comfort in chortling and saying things like, “Don’t you find chicken such a pedestrian choice?” After an hour of mingling with the other guests and jotting down an offer underneath an item with a determined casual air, I was ready to go home, feeling confident I had handled my first auction with poise.

Then it was announced that the auction was beginning.

Just as G had once learned at a ritzy wedding reception that he needn’t empty the whole of the raw bar into his mouth because a four-course meal was still to come, I discovered that a silent auction is merely the appetizer to the main event. And I couldn’t afford to eat.

I spent the next two hours stress-chewing my cuticles and tearing parsley into pieces while contemplating an escape route that involved setting fire to a section of the building. I called G once I was home to report my winnings from the silent part of the auction. A sailboat cruise for $40. He questioned how I could have procured a two-hour boat ride for only forty dollars. He wasn’t impressed when I told him that my winning strategy involved a placing an hors d’oeuvres plate on top of the entry paper.

He concluded a dogmatic speech about the objective of fundraisers and the importance of educational materials for young minds tersely, “You can’t represent our family at these sort of functions anymore.”

So I let him claim his rightful seat, stoically representing our clan when it came to writing donation checks and telling the Girl Scouts we’ve had enough of their trans-fats. I was permitted only to sully our reputation in a restricted capacity, mostly by tipping poorly and delaying the grocery line while I finish articles about botched liposuction.

Thus I couldn’t have been more shocked when G named me our family’s official representative to compete in a 5K race.  The last race I had attended was a fun run for children that our son wanted to partake in. When we arrived to the starting line of that event, a friend called out, “We’re running, not yachting!” I was wearing boat shoes and white jeans because it had failed to occur to me that one doesn’t just turn a three-year old loose on the trail and await their crossing at the finish line. I traversed the next mile in a hobble, being discourteously passed by toddlers in soggy diapers.

Still I was going to attend this 5K, and, by God, I was going to win it for my family. After all, I had been carbo-loading 32 years for this day.

As I pulled my car into the parking spot, I saw two men jogging toward me, breathless.

“Did I miss the race?” I called to them.

“No, no. We just ran the course to warm up for it,” one of the runners called back.

F*ck you, I muttered, which must have sounded like ‘good luck to you’ because they gestured with one of those waves that are meant to be uplifting between exercisers. It was becoming abundantly clear I wasn’t going to be winning any Sportsmanship trophies – or first place ones, for that matter – this day.

I sidled up to the registration table where a refined older gentleman was posted to gather race fees and information in exchange for an official number to pin to my Lycra. I noticed the other registrants entering into their preparatory modes, hopping and stretching hamstrings. I did a few cursory swivels of my trunk, straining to look athletic and imposing as if I had just climbed Annapurna with no oxygen and with a catheter bag to catch my urine tied to my leg. I was transferring into my visualization phase, in which I imagined myself crossing the finish line and leaping into a vat of cream cheese with a bagel as my inner tube, when the man at registration curtly informed me I was five dollars short in paying my race fee.

I began to explain that I had only brought twenty dollars because that’s what I had been told to bring and that walking back to my car would likely expend any energy I have stored because all I had eaten for breakfast was a spoonful of Gorgonzola and some chocolate sauce.  I was attracting an audience curious to see who was defrauding a charity. A gracious onlooker, moved by pity, paid my balance and escorted me to the starting line. I took my place toward the back of the crowd, acknowledging myself to be more of a slow gazelle that will only exert real energy once a tiger has ripped away part of my haunch. Plus, I’d forgotten to blood dope as I had meant to.

The whistle blew and the racers lurched forward as if there were piles of money and injured babies to be found along the trails. I stopped participating exactly 90 seconds later, opting instead to walk with a friend who had her toddlers with her. As we passed the halfway mark, the two men who had warmed up for the 5K by already running a 5K were on their return leg, each one’s chest heaving as he strained to overtake the other.  I caught the eye of one and shrugged my shoulders and gestured to the kids at my heels as if to say, “Kids! Just won’t let me win this race!”

As we descended the steep grade that would usher us toward the finish line, far behind the others who had dashed up an unforgiving hill, I realized that I was going to have a very unimpressive race story to relay to G and the kids. When my foot hovered over the ending line, where the last volunteer had been abandoned to stand in the cold to wait out my safe return, he said dryly, “Anyone behind you?” I turned and looked up the road by which I had just come. It mocked me with its barrenness.

While I warmed up with a hot chocolate, the caloric content far in excess of what I had burned, I contemplated how to convince G that I had finished the race in an earnest show of competition. A friend tugged my arm, “You just won the best prize in the auction! They called your name!”

Armed with my free paddleboating session and t-shirt, it occurred to me that I could weave a believable yarn about finishing in the top of the heap. My family didn’t need to know that I had come by my loot by a random drawing of my name. Yes, I could tell them that I had won it, honorably and nobly, nobody the wiser. It’s their fault for decreeing me the envoy of cardiovascular activity when I only possess a dexterity at receiving paper cuts and eating off other peoples’ plates.

I entered the house, forcing a slight limp and making my breathing ragged to enhance the authenticity of the fraudulent tale about to escape my lips, and G came to meet me in the hallway.

“They posted the times online already. You really came in last?”