When Sandro and Bash connect at a party before the beginning of their senior year of high school, they’re surprised by an honest, genuine friendship that grows into something deeper. The Long Run is a frank, funny and beautifully written story about two South Jersey boys finding happiness and hope in the unlikeliest of places: each other. In this original essay, author James Acker reflects on the personal experiences that did—and didn’t—inspire his first book.
I’m 10 and I’m freezing. I’m sitting on top of the rotted wooden playhouse in the biggest tree in Gavin’s backyard. He’s already jumped and the rope’s been returned to me and he’s screaming: Jump! Jump! I jumped, you jump! That was the rule! And I know I’ll be fine because Gavin is fine but he’s always been luckier than me. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! But I know I won’t jump because I know other ways down. I’ve got something to prove, but it’s not worth the broken ankle. Jump! Don’t you wanna say you did?
I’m 13 and I’m freezing. I’m wandering around an abandoned house on Main Street with boys I won’t be friends with much longer. The house is old and no one’s lived there for years and it was easy enough to break into. I know we shouldn’t be there, but something keeps me wandering. Jump! Jump! You’ll regret it if you don’t! RJ finds a kid’s growth chart inside the closet of what must’ve been a child’s bedroom. It’s in crayon and faded and she only grew to 4 and a half feet. I decide it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen and RJ puts his foot through it. The boys tear the house apart, and today, I am one of the boys. I want to destroy. Jump! Jump! I want the story. Don’t you wanna say you did?
I’m 16 and I’m freezing. I’m in my driveway at 3 in the morning, throwing out bedsheets because my wrestling diet has gotten away from me again. I remind myself that shame is part of growing up. I remind myself that all of this will be useful to me one day. I remind myself that new bedsheets will cost more than new laxatives, and I remind myself that Steph from bio said I was looking real sexy lately. Jump! And if I keep looking sexy and I keep making weight, maybe I’ll start making better memories. I’ll finally start enjoying myself. My high school experience. My childhood. Jump, James! If I leave with the right memories, I’ll have done my job. You’ll regret it if you don’t! If I leave with the right stories, this will all have been worth it. Don’t you wanna say you did?
It’s hard not to think that I’m only writing coming-of-age stories because I don’t like my own. My childhood felt like “Supermarket Sweep”: Fill your shopping cart with whatever you can find. Experience what you can while you can. You’ll sort through it all after time runs out. Jump. I’ve spent a lot of my 20s sorting out my shopping cart. My debut novel is dropping right before I turn 30, and I’ve begun to wonder if my stories are all that interesting. Did I receive store-brand trauma? Was there anything unique in all that crying? Should I have stopped my sweep and considered what I was grabbing before moving on to the next aisle?
The Long Run began as an attempt at capturing what my life felt like in high school. The desire to get this story out had been a long time coming, and I expected all the right anecdotes to present themselves in a polite single-file line. I’d spent a childhood collecting these memories. Where else were they supposed to go? The sweep was over. The buzzer had rung. Now was the time to prove that it had all been worth it. The stories meant something, so why was I staring at an empty page? Every idea for a chapter stayed a bullet point. None of my anecdotes would fill in their blanks. I had nothing.
So I wrote something else. I couldn’t write a memoir, so I wrote what could have happened. I used everything in my shopping cart, everyone I’d met and everything I did, and I wrote a different story. A familiar story. I filled my little New Jersey suburb with different boys in familiar houses. Different names with familiar struggles. I wrote about kids I wished I’d been friends with. Parties I wish I hadn’t skipped, meals I wish I’d eaten, conversations I wish I’d had. And if I couldn’t put myself on the page, I’d split that angry, crying boy into Sandro and Bash. Two parts of myself that never agreed. A lover and a fighter. An asshole and a crybaby. I wrote the love story I never got between two boys I always knew. If I couldn’t agree on my story, I could at least tell theirs.
As an adult, I can look at my childhood with a warm, detached fondness. But if I could speak to myself at that age again, I would ask him to live in the moment. Not for the moment. That kid did so much just for the story, just to say he’d done it, and today I’m left with shreds. Wonderful shreds, but incomplete stories. Sparks of a feeling, never the full picture.
Writing The Long Run felt like filling in those blanks. Connecting the dots between those snapshots of childhood. A morning on a rooftop. A night in a driveway. Flashbulbs of memories, finally put down to paper. It felt like a lifetime of collection finally coming together. Even if some memories didn’t make the cut, those moments still mattered. They were still useful. Every story mattered. And I’ll spend the rest of my career as a writer trying to put them all together.
Author photo of James Acker courtesy of Bernadette Bridges.