Jeremy, a high school English teacher coming to grips with a shattered marriage and haunted by the brother he lost, unexpectedly falls in love with his best friend, Zak. Attractive, wildly unconventional, and happy in an open relationship with his partner Annie, Zak seems to embody everything missing from Jeremy's life, but when the arrest and death of a marginalized student at the Brooklyn high school where they both teach trigger Zak's mental breakdown and slow descent, Jeremy and Annie are compelled to cross boundaries, both external and internal, in a desperate attempt to save him.
About the author
Su J Sokol is a social rights advocate and a writer of speculative and interstitial fiction. A former legal services lawyer from New York City, xe now makes Montréal xyr home. Sokol is the author of three novels: Cycling to Asylum, which was long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic and has been optioned for development into a feature-length film, Run J Run (Renaissance Press 2019!) and Zee (2020). Sokol's short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. When xe is not writing, battling slumlords, bringing evil bureaucracies to their knees, and smashing borders, Sokol curates and participates in readings and literary events in Canada and abroad.
Excerpt: Run J Run (by (author) Su Sokol)
The next day was Sunday and I spent it cleaning. I emptied the trash, carried out the recycling, stripped my bed, did the laundry--everything I could think of to remove all traces of yesterday from my apartment. If only it were as simple to remove the day from my life. At least it seemed I'd gotten through to Zak about how bad an idea it would be to tell Annie. I was now more worried about what would happen at school. Would Zak know to act normal in front of our colleagues, the principal, our students? Did Zak even know how to act normal?
On Monday, I got to school early, hoping to have a quick word with him. He wasn't in yet, so I settled down on the sagging couch in the teachers' lounge, my students' compositions spread out on the low table in front of me. The air was redolent with the smell of old refrigerator and fresh, strong coffee. I took a second cup, hoping the caffeine would help me focus, but my mind kept wandering from my students' musings on Ellison's Invisible Man to a critical reexamination of my thirteen years of friendship with Zak. I was wondering if there was something I'd missed, something that should have alerted me to the danger that one day we'd end up in bed together. Then Zak arrived and plopped himself practically on top of me.
I put my hand on his shoulder and shoved him over a foot, then glanced over to see if my shove had pissed him off. He laughed at me. I felt relieved but annoyed. Did he have to be so cocksure of himself?
I wondered if anyone noticed anything. Our friend Robyn was bent over her laptop preparing a worksheet for Spanish class, her dark, straight hair curtaining her face. She glanced up and smiled indulgently, the kind of smile I imagined she gave her four and six-year-old sons when they were horsing around. With a flash of insight, I realized that this type of physical interplay between Zak and me was nothing new, that Zak was acting as he always did while I was the one in danger of blowing it.
The rest of the morning was uneventful, except every so often I'd fantasize about going into the male teachers' bathroom, finding Zak there, making him drop his pants, and drilling him against the wall. I told myself to get a grip, that there were more than enough hormones raging around the building without adding to the mix.
At lunch time, I went into the concrete yard beside the school to monitor the kids. This time of the year especially, an extra adult presence wasn't a bad idea, and the fresh air would do me some good. There was a nice crispness to the weather, and the sky, instead of looking like the usual low-hanging bruise, was a striking dark blue against bright white clouds. A beautiful sky like this appeared rarely in New York City, almost always in September or October, and usually presaged some kind of disaster, like 9/11.
I leaned against the red brick of the building, my eyes automatically noting potential trouble spots. Zak came and stood next to me, too close again, but this time I ignored it. Not far from us, two 10th grade girls--one tall and skinny, the other shorter and curvier--were speaking in raised voices. Another girl came over and the argument seemed to ebb. Some boys joined them and one of the girls laughed. I turned to say something to Zak when I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. Before I could react, Zak was there, pulling two boys apart who were swinging at each other. The smaller of the two, a wild kid named Dez, managed to land a glancing blow across Zak's chin. The whole thing was over as quickly as it had begun. I moved to haul Dez into Malika's office.
"Leave it," Zak said. "It was nothing."
Ignoring him, I reached for Dez's arm. He shrunk from me, a terrified look on his face that stopped me cold. I dropped my hands quickly and walked off in the other direction, making a complete circuit around the school building. By the time I got back, the group had dispersed. I approached Zak, my eyes sweeping him for signs of injury.
"I'm fine," he said. "What's the matter with you?"
"I don't know," I said, but maybe I did. "Do you have time to talk after school?"
"Sure. You wanna grab a beer?"
"Maybe the coffee shop would be better."
"OK. Catch you later."
Zak left to mingle with the students. He blended right in, like he was one of them.
We were meeting at The Muffin Café. I was thinking through what I would say when I saw Zak biking down the street while texting. I thought about chewing him out, but we had more important transgressions to discuss.
"Annie says hi," he said.
"Um, hi back," I answered, uncomfortable. "Do you want a coffee?" He shook his head as I remembered his recent insomnia. "Or an herbal tea, maybe?"
"No thanks," he answered.
"Something to eat? They have bagels."
"If you need to spend your money on me, how about a muffin? Apple cinnamon."
Zak chose a table by the window and picked up a local paper. The small seating area was about half full, people sitting in ones or twos, sipping lattes and tapping on laptops or phones. I came back with my coffee and a muffin for each of us. Steeling myself with a bite of muffin and a sip of black coffee, my fourth today, I jumped right into my planned speech.
"Thanks for being such a good friend the other night. But I want to make sure you know that ... that what we did, we're not going to do it again. It was a one-off, alright?"
"I've thought about it a lot and have several good reasons for this decision."
"You don't need reasons," Zak said, digging into his own muffin.
"Reasons are important," I answered, frustrated he was so easy to convince.
"No one's going to force you to have sex with me again, so stop worrying," Zak said.
"I'm not worried, but could you keep your voice down?"
"I'm not speaking loudly," Zak said.
"One of my reasons is about protecting our friendship. And it's clear I'm right because it's already affecting our friendship. We're arguing."
"We're not arguing. I'm saying it's cool, with or without good reasons."
"Normally you'd be interested in my reasons."
"OK, fine," he said, putting his muffin down. "Tell me your reasons."
"Reason number one is that I don't want anything to negatively affect our friendship."
Zak was absorbed in surgically cutting his muffin into bite-sized pieces.
"Reason number two is I'm not gay. I'm not homophobic, it's just that I'm straight."
The corner of Zak's mouth quirked as though he were struggling not to smile.
"Reason number three is Annie. Maybe that should have been reason number one. I know you say you have an open relationship. And it's not that I don't believe that you believe it's fine. It's only that I don't know how it could really be fine. With Annie, I mean."
I let out my breath and waited, but Zak kept eating.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" I finally asked.
"Thanks for the muffin. It's good. But your homemade ones are better."
"Zak, now you're supposed to tell me if you agree with my reasons or not."
"I told you already. You don't need reasons. You should do what feels right to you."
"Tell me what you think! Is that so much to ask?" I gripped my mug tightly.
Zak sighed. "OK, fine." He leaned back and began counting off with his fingers. "Number one: I don't see how having a physical relationship is bad for our friendship. As far as I'm concerned, it makes me feel closer to you. Number two," he continued, "I'm not saying you're homophobic, but I think you're a bit too concerned about putting people, including yourself, into some kind of binary box. The question shouldn't be 'am I gay or straight?'--and by the way, there are way more categories than that--but 'does this feel good?' And it sure felt good to me." He popped the last piece of muffin into his mouth and chewed it with relish. "As for reason three, which you think is your best reason, it's really your worst. Annie was totally into it. She said--"
"You told her," I said. "You fucking told her after I'd asked you not to."
"I never said I wouldn't tell her. Only that I'd think about it. And I did."
"For how long, three seconds?" I shot back at him.
"Listen, Jeremy," Zak said, a rare anger tightening his jaw. "I'm sorry you're upset, but no one, not even you, gets to say what I should and shouldn't tell Annie. What's between Annie and me ... You may think you understand it, or us, but you don't."
He shoved his chair back and said, "I gotta go," tossing a ten-dollar bill onto the table. I wasn't sure if he was giving me money for the muffin I'd paid for or if he simply meant to leave a ridiculously large tip at this place that doesn't even offer table service. The latter would certainly be in character, but I feared the first explanation was more likely. But fuck it, if I wanted to buy him a muffin, I'd buy him a muffin. I left his money where he'd tossed it.
"This gripping story, written with a great deal of graphic detail, compassion, drama, and a detailed sense of place, takes us into the deepest recesses of trauma and makes us look at family and therapy in unconventional but convincing ways. It is intricately plotted and unpredictable." H. Nigel Thomas, author of No Safeguards, finalist for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction
"Run J Run is a compelling chronicle of a tumultuous, erotically charged friendship imperilled by madness. Sokol charts these struggles expertly and compassionately, even as her narrative pushes buttons, defies categories and conventions, and breaks rules...." David Demchuk, author of The Bone Mother, nominee for the Giller Prize and winner of the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Fiction of the Fantastic
"Sokol dares to go to that unexplored place where mental illness intersects with the complexities of sexuality and the result is surprisingly hopeful. The book's social critique is not lost in abstract theory but is solidly rooted in character. There are living breathing people here." Barry Webster, author of The Lava in My Bones, finalist for the Lambda Literary Award
"Run J Run is a sophisticated depiction of sexual awakening and mental illness. It seamlessly navigates the deeply personal and political with a scopious understanding of the human psyche. Marvellous, compelling and vital." Arshad Kahn, filmmaker