Formation Jukebox Boy, You’re a Runner Now
It was the first time I’d ever pointed at myself and claimed “boy,” even jokingly.
This is Formation Jukebox , a column by Lio Min on being in transition and the music that helps them make sense of it all.
About five months ago I started running in earnest, but I’ve been trying to become a regular runner since the spring of 2017. It was then that I first identified “it”: a growing awareness that my body could be changed in ways I hadn’t dared to imagine, if only I could tend and coax it toward the version of myself taking form in my head.
I’ve been an irregular runner before—part of JV tennis team practices; laps around the college track that became my second home during marching band season; breathing in traffic fumes along the drag of Los Feliz Boulevard outside my old Los Angeles apartment—but I’d never been able to keep up the practice. Something would always throw me off my stride, like “getting sick” or “my period” or “the weather was too hot or cold or rainy,” channeling Goldilocks-cum-Newton’s first law.
I kept trying, though, and the reason I took those first steps over and over again is largely because of the song “Runner” by Kevin Abstract, off of his 2016 album American Boyfriend . I looped it while sharing the bus with high-schoolers as we went down Fairfax Ave., where my first therapist had her office. I rode the Gold Line metro in and out of Union Station and tried to time the outro to the moment the train started to move on the outdoor track. And it’s since become the unofficial soundtrack of every breathless sprint, every loping stride past the oaks, gingkos, and manzanitas that line the sidewalks on which I chart my body’s journey.
One of the “perks” of being a “music” “journalist” is getting dozens of unsolicited PR emails every day about artists who are all special for X/Y/Z reasons. I explore most of these missives; I pass on most of them. But I opened the email announcing Kevin Abstract’s self-directed music video for “Runner” with some interest because I’d gleaned, somewhere through the digital static, that he was an openly gay rapper in an industry that mostly has an exploitative, if not downright hostile relationship with queerness. I couldn’t have expected how that song would fill a void in my life, one that I hadn’t even known existed until the moment something entered that space and broke its vacuum seal.
“Runner” is a turning point on American Boyfriend . The album takes the familiar tropes of an intense teenage romance but conducts its actions with one foot in the closet, under bleachers and the cover of night. Abstract begs for a loosening of the grip of a love that’s at best desperately fragile, at worst totally doomed: Cross my heart / Let me be / Tripped in the dark / You found me . Push, pull; the longing for concrete resolution tempted by the fickle twin thrills of desiring and being desired.
A few days after listening to the song and then devouring the album, I posted a selfie on Instagram at a bus stop. In it, I’m wearing my headphones, and I know I was listening to American Boyfriend because of the unsubtle caption: “All-American boyfriend.” It was maybe the first time I’d ever pointed at myself and claimed “boy,” even jokingly. I’ve never been the kind of person to not sing a pronoun because it doesn’t align with my professed identity or sexuality, but there’s a difference between a knowing wink and feeling your pulse speed up as you name something you’ve never named before.
I keep being drawn back to “boy”—or rather, a specific idea of a boy.
I’m wary of fetishizing youth, but “boy” invokes something that “man” never did for me and still doesn’t. It’s a dangerously non-neutral word, yet elastic enough to run the gamut from the softest love to serrated derision . But when I close my eyes and imagine, in my mind-theater-mirror, pouring myself into any number of humanoid descriptors, “boy” is the vessel that feels most comfortable. To hear Kevin Abstract plead, And boy, I’ll be back when you’re lonely / If you want me to is to remember that while I pace around and half-heartedly chase leads about who exactly I could be, I keep being drawn back to “boy”—or rather, a specific idea of a boy.
My boy talks with his mouth full and drinks life to the lees and dresses like the anime heroes he loves. My boy is rowdy and loud and everyone always tells him to shut up, but he is training himself in stillness. My boy is capable of inflicting and receiving intense emotional violence, but he’s learning to convert his defensiveness to empathy and open-hearted growth. My boy always waits for his friends and goes back for them if they’ve fallen behind. My boy is everything I was taught not to be.
And my boy moves: Punching his fist in the air, laughing while doubled over at the waist, scrunching up his face in disgust and widening his eyes in giddy delight. With the privilege of an able-bodied person, I imagine my boy tearing through space any way he can. To borrow from Sally Wen Mao, who quotes the anime director Satoshi Kon in her poem “Yume Miru Kikai [The Dreaming Machine],” he’s “hurting, hurling, hurtling,” training for the marathon that’s any day, that’s every day.
This boy-idea is directly influenced by the media I consumed during my teen years. It’s an admittedly deeply flawed foundation upon which to build a new version of a self. I joke to my current therapist a lot about transition being like updating my OS, but the feelings that have carried me here aren’t actually comparable to bugs in the code because I have just this one life. I know the jokes are a smokescreen; most of what I’ve written here can be construed as smokescreens of varying opacity. What’s clear and true is a desire to see myself sharper and stronger and, all other words failing, more like a boy.
My boy is everything I was taught not to be.
My sister’s a runner. Most of the runners I know in my life are women. There’s nothing that binds running to boyhood or the work I’m doing to change myself. But when I run, I think of “Runner,” the way Abstract’s collaborator Roy Blair sings, When you wanna let go / When you wanna let go / When you wanna move on in the outro before switching to, Why you gotta let go? / Why you gotta let go? / Why you gotta move on? “Why?” Two blocks, and I’m already cramping. “Why?” I push myself to cross the intersection as the light warns yellow. “Why?”, and I finally hit that runner’s high, the moment when your body is nothing but you is nothing but your body, and the arbitrary borders separating the stuff that makes you you from the rest of the world melt away.
Now, on the days I don’t work the closing shift at my “paying the rent” job, I come home, say hi to my partner and my cats and my dog, change, and run. My regular run is a two-, sometimes three-mile box around my neighborhood. My nose always starts to run and I’ll often start tearing up, leaving my face glistening with a luscious combination of bodily fluids. When I cross the threshold of my apartment, I sometimes feel as though my lungs are ripping apart at the seams, and I never feel more honored and lucky to have my body, and I never feel more alive.
My body’s already starting to change. There are planes where there were once parabolas. I can’t tell how many of the changes are because of the medicine I’m taking or the running that predates it. The distinction doesn’t matter when I run, and I hurt in the best way as I hurl myself forward, hurtling toward a waypoint that gets closer with every footfall I take first away from, then toward home.