Edited version using tips from the Renni Browne and Dave King book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Browne and King suggest differentiating internal dialogue, understanding whose voice is being “heard” and limiting exposure to that voice so as to not confuse the reader. Below, the yellow highlighted text is “internal dialogue” from the point-of-view character, Amy.
When her period started that morning Amy finally cried. She sat on the commode staring at the sticky crimson blotch on the cotton panties stretched between her knees. Her vision blurred and then the tears dripped, slowly, one after the next, over her lashes and down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She just cussed at the evidence of her body’s betrayal, spitting the word out through wet lips.
Amy could count the number of times she had cried in the last three years. The anniversary of her grandmother’s death on Mother’s Day, watching an internet video of a soldier who surprised his daughter at school, and spanking Anna Belle for running away from her in a parking lot.
Now here she was. The fourth time she had cried in three years. Sobbing over a stain in her panties. The toilet shifted a little, tilting slightly under her weight. Damn thing had been wobbly since they bought the house five years ago. She cussed again and sobbed harder, her throat thickening with grief. A tide of tears filled her nostrils and throat and she choked and coughed. Elbows on her knees, face in her hands, she let the sobs come and the strangled gasps shake her frame.
Now she had to keep running. Now she had to keep dieting. Now she had to keep trying to lose weight. She took a deep breath, trying to force the sobs to ease.
Tuesday. A workout, then get Anna Belle ready for daycare and herself ready for work. Then commute to the other side of town, sipping coffee from a leaky travel mug. Get a hug goodbye. Anna Belle would run off to play and Amy would trudge back to the car and ride the quarter mile to her office. A cube, coworkers chatting about reality TV, fluorescent lights that wash out her complexion, Winning, Achievement, and Teamwork posters hanging framed on the walls, a ten-dollar lunch of fast Japanese food, a diet soda in the afternoon, data to be analyzed and reported.
Amy wanted to cry a little while longer.
Yesterday her running partner, Jamie, had announced she and Rick were expecting their second baby. “I’m sorry, Amy,” she’d said, rising up out of a hamstring stretch.
“What for?” Amy had forced a laugh, “babies are good things.”
“I have to quit running,” Jamie said. The reflective edges of her ball cap glinted in the streetlight. She tilted her head, met Amy’s eyes.
“I mean, after today,” Jamie said. “I know we’d planned to run Paris Mountain. I just can’t. The distance.” She knelt and tightened her shoe laces. Stood and adjusted her reflective vest.
“It’s okay,” Amy said, pulling one arm across her chest. “I can still do the half. I’m happy for you, really.” She stretched the other shoulder, waited for Jamie to look her in the eye again. But she didn’t.
Amy pressed “play” on her iPod and they took a quick-paced three mile loop.
Today the conversation came back to her as she grieved under the bathroom light, straddling the wobbly toilet, trying to control her sobs. Amy snorted. Why had Jamie apologized for being pregnant? Oh, right, because I’m not. That had the desired effect: a new stream of tears coursed down her cheeks.
Amy cried until she felt silly and then she stretched some toilet paper across her lap, tore it from the roll, folded it and blew her nose. Every month was like this one: the defeat repeatedly evidenced in her panties. Bad timing. Missed connections. Failure.
Wadding up the tissue, she dropped it into the trashcan at her side. Then she cleaned herself up, stood, and left the bathroom. The mantra was already playing: It wasn’t that they couldn’t get pregnant. She knew that. Anna Belle was proof they could. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t get pregnant. They just hadn’t.
She dressed: sports bra, running shorts, socks, running shoes, and a sweat-wicking top she’d purchased with a race entry. It read, “Dare to Commit.”
Michael slept heavily, snuggled deep in the blankets of their bed. The shape of his body beneath the blankets had grown bigger in the last year.
Amy pulled her reflective vest off the doorknob and slipped out of the bedroom. In the kitchen, she removed and trashed the old coffee filter, replaced it, poured a pot of water into the tank, and set the timer to begin brewing about the same time Michael would get out of the shower.
Darkness held on a little longer in the mornings this time of year and when she extinguished the kitchen light the entire house was black.
Her running shoes emitted prickled squeaks, leather shifting against itself and straining against the laces. Amy tip-toed down the hall, flipped the bright light on, and crept into Anna Belle’s room.
The little girl’s face turned from the light and relaxed in a deep state of unconsciousness. Her cheeks shone, oily from sleep and sweat. Some of her hair kinked and stuck, glued to her forehead where she’d pushed it from her eyes. Long, soft curls streamed out around her head. Tiny lips hung open, puffy and dry.
Amy leaned over the toddler bed to get a better look, replaced a stuffed bear Anna Belle had tossed aside, gently tucked the blankets a little closer to Anna Belle’s chin. Amy let her breath out slowly, pursing her lips to blow gently at Anna Belle. The girl’s face twitched in response, she turned her head away, squeezed her eyes tighter and licked her lips. Then she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Amy smiled and snuck out of the room. She flipped the hallway light off as she left.
When Anna Belle was born, Amy had entertained fantasies of staying home. They could go to the zoo and have mommy and me play dates with homeschool moms. They could snuggle and read books and listen to classical music. They could take walks in the neighborhood and swim in the community pool while everyone else attended school and work.
“It just couldn’t happen,” Michael told her. They had agreed to certain financial goals and they were on pace to meet them. Their family required her income.
“Think of the things Anna Belle will have,” he said, “because you work.”
Amy remembered the phrases she’d used to describe daycare, “someone else raising my kid,” and “missing out on so much of her life,” as she begged Michael to help her find a way to make it work. He didn’t know what a powerful drug mommyhood could be. How that tiny person’s adoration could make you feel whole. And he’d refused her.
Amy gave up the fight and went back to work after maternity leave.
Their home matched the others on the street, a carefully planned subdivision of single story patio homes mostly suited for the very old or the very young. She would normally wait for Jamie, or find Jamie standing at the end of her driveway. But not today.
Amy pressed go on her GPS watch. She set out at a light jog toward the top of the neighborhood where she would follow a long route toward town. Before the McDonald’s she would double back, winding her way past the car dealerships and grocery store, before re-entering her small subdivision, running past her home, deep into the neighborhood, and finally back into her own driveway. Seven miles total. A good hour-and-a-quarter run before the sun really stretched its light over the sky.
Week two of official half marathon training. Solo.
Amy had earned her personal record, or PR, in the half marathon at Phoenix. She had mapped out routes, added mileage, soaked herself in ice baths and rubbed her thighs with E-Z glide. She had counted the days, hours, minutes to race day. She had run tempo runs, hill sprints, and easy jogs to condition herself. She had devoured every issue of Runner’s World magazine.
Two summers earlier she’d barely opened What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
The pace felt good and within a few minutes Amy was thinking about earlier with embarrassment. How silly she was to cry over her period. It had been coming for twenty five years without fail. Except for that brief eight months when she’d been pregnant with Anna Belle, she had never missed a month. They weren’t really trying, just not preventing. And anyway, pregnancy right now would mean a summer of being fat and uncomfortable.
The sadness ebbed while she ran, talking herself through the process with each step. Yesterday, day 29, she’d felt her breasts were sore. She’d had trouble concentrating and made herself late to work by taking too long plucking her eyebrows. At lunch she’d re-ordered her key ring so all the barcode tags faced the same direction and snapped at the waitress for failing to refill her water glass.
Not like last month. Last month she had been a week late. Dizzy, nauseous, swollen breasts tender to the touch, sensitive to the smell of the morning coffee. She’d gagged when she set the pot one morning. And then the crimson in her panties.
They’d had trouble getting pregnant with Anna Belle, too. So she had not been worried after two years. But this was stretching into three years and Amy was older now and she was starting to think something might be wrong.
Michael’s responsiveness had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.
Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”
Admittedly, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys.
“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”
Amy would smile and agree. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.
“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.
“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.
The streetlights glowed against the pre-dawn sky and Amy counted them as she ran. In the distance they appeared short, her height maybe, and then as she neared them they grew taller, reaching, arching over her. Evenly distributed through these first few miles into town, they emitted a low hum like a chorus of energy that Amy couldn’t hear because of her ear buds pumping music into her skull.
She reached up and ripped the ear buds out and let them drop and dangle against her chest. They caught the rhythm of her steps, though, and began to bounce. She grabbed the strands and started to tuck them into the strap of her sports bra. She could hear the music like static noise, barely make out the notes and words.
Only two miles in. You’ll need music to make the whole route. She stuck one bud back in, on the side opposite the traffic, and tucked the other strand into the bra. She checked the GPS. Two point four, eighteen minutes thirty three seconds. She was getting to the 20-minute mark, the first energy barrier.
For about 90 seconds the run felt too hard to continue. What are you doing? Just walk. Amy just had to ignore the pain for 90 seconds and the energy barrier would be broken. Who does that? Who suffers on purpose? Soon she would be in aerobic work, and it would feel easier.
It hadn’t occurred to Amy to marry or have a family. Not until Michael shared his vision of their life together after they had courted just a few weeks. When Michael asked her about religion she had laughed a little nervously.
“You won’t expect me to be a Mormon will you?”
He had smiled, “no. I think our family is done with that.”
Amy nodded as if she knew what he meant and said, “then I guess I don’t really have any thoughts on the subject.”
“You don’t mind I’m not Catholic?” Michael asked.
Amy had not been very good at Catholicism. She couldn’t remember the order of mass and hadn’t had her fingers on a rosary in more than a decade. “No, I think I’m done with that,” she said.
Michael had been a very handsome young man, dark hair and eyes, thick lips that Amy had loved to kiss. She typically agreed to just about everything he said in the hope of earning a kiss. When talking about their future, his lips wore a wide, delicious grin. “Then we don’t need religion,” he said.
Amy tried not to think about licking that smile. She closed her eyes, shook her head, looked again. Those lips! Amy smiled back at him. “I guess not,” she said, and leaned in to accept his kiss.
There was a gap, though, she could feel it now. Since Anna Belle, since Nana died, there was a gap. There was life somewhere, she knew. Or is this it?
Fourth mile and the aerobic heart rate had settled down. The mantra Amy used at the eight minute mark, “settle in, you’re going to be here for a while,” came to her again at 20 minutes. She repeated it: “settle in. Settle in. Settle in.” Each foot strike took a syllable, left -right-left, set-tul-in.
Once in aerobic work, her stride felt effortless and the streetlamps came to her instead of her climbing toward them. Traffic had picked up and an eighteen-wheeler roared by her, she sucked her lips in and waited for the wind to pass before picking up the breath rhythm again.
At least it wasn’t wet. When the road was wet the 18-wheeler blew a spray of dirty water at her. This morning it was just air. Amy breathed out, breathed in, left-right-left.
There was a lot to be thankful for. Amy felt proud of being a senior manager, even if she had been senior manager for much longer than many other senior managers who had become directors. Michael’s job seemed less complicated than her own or maybe he just talked about it less.
Amy listed the items she would need to pack before she and Anna Belle left the house. Left-right-left. She had promised a stack of magazines to the training team. Mag-a-zine. One of the trainers had loaned her a book, too, so she reminded herself to take that back even though she hadn’t read it. Get-the-book.
McDonald’s glowed just ahead and Amy ran toward it. Cars lined up through the drive thru and the sign out front rotated messages. “Two-Mc-Muf-fins-two-bucks,” Amy read in pace. “Try-an-i-cy-lem-on-ade- coo-ler.” The messages scrolled as she approached, “Book your birthday party today, Thanks to Troop 6243, Now Accepting Applications.”
Anna Belle had come home in her spare outfit yesterday, hadn’t gotten to the potty on time. So Amy reminded herself to pack a new spare outfit. A-B-Pan-Ties. And it was the first Tuesday of the month so she needed to leave a check at school for the music program. Mu-sic-check.
Amy thought again about her tears this morning and, again, felt a rush of embarrassment. There was nothing and no one to blame, Amy said to herself, again, as she doubled back. McDonald’s lights cast her shadow in front of her but it shrunk and disappeared within a few steps. The darkness persisted though the edges of the eastern sky were paler than the west.
Why should it matter with all that she had if she did not have that much more? She should be more grateful. Someone or something had blessed her.
Amy began counting her blessings as she ran. Michael. Anna Belle. Her job. Her mother. Running. Running shoes. Running music. Her iPod. Her pink earphones that wedged into her ears and stayed put while she pounded the pavement. Her reflection vest that made her visible to cars. Her running pants that protected the delicate skin of her inner thighs from chafing. Her sports bra. The purple one.
Amy had never liked to run. She ran in college because it was a quick way to burn off a hangover and a good excuse to be alone. She found running again after Anna Belle because she needed to lose the baby weight.
She settled into her pace, a slower trot, admittedly, and not a pace serious runners would admit to. But it was comfortable and Amy felt strong. She may have been an excellent cushion embroiderer or furniture refinisher if either of those hobbies burned 600 calories an hour. She may have been an artist or an excellent Scrabble player. She wasn’t an elite athlete. She wasn’t even an age group champion.
A new month meant another round of trying. More warm, pleasant lovemaking and the secret words they shared during. More excitement in the possibility of intimacy each time they went to bed. More giggles and flirtations during dinner, on the couch watching TV, over the phone in the office. Amy warmed at the idea of a few dirty phrases Michael used and the embarrassed feeling returned, but different this time.
Mile six brought her back to the front of the neighborhood and now she needed to make a big loop to get the seventh. Her neighbors stirred with the lights and sounds of morning. The sun had chased the blackness to the far edges of the western sky on Amy’s right and stretched a golden glow across the eastern sky on her left.
Amy waved at a few people who came out in their robes to retrieve the newspapers from their driveways. She didn’t think she would ever do such a thing but she and Michael didn’t take the morning paper.
She could see the light in the bathroom glowing as she passed home and knew Michael was in the shower. She was behind schedule so she thought about cutting short and heading indoors. As soon as the thought entered her head it left, though, and she picked up the pace a bit for the last mile.
Anna Belle had opened Amy’s Runner’s World magazine and told herself stories about the pictures she saw there. Some Disney marathons were advertised with Mickey and the gang wearing running shoes and standing ready at the start/finish line.
Amy hadn’t run any races this year. She wished Michael ran, but knew they would train on opposite schedules since someone had to be in the house with Anna Belle.
So she hadn’t pushed him, just asked, and he had declined, saying, “it’s really your thing, ya know?”
Amy ran on, past the Philadelphia family’s house with the one-car garage and the bicycles in the yard. She ran past the old couple whose grandchildren visited every weekend to do their laundry for free. She ran past the single mom’s house that had been in foreclosure before the woman decided to question the bank’s ownership of the property on the advice of a lawyer she knew.
Amy could feel it had warmed up since she’d set out an hour ago and knew the rising sun had done that. She could see better now, too, and the sun had done that also. Amy remembered Anna Belle asking where daddy was that it was still light out when they chatted online.
“California is three hours behind us,” Amy said.
Looking puzzled, Anna Belle said, “three hours?”
“It is nine o’clock here, but it is only six o’clock there.”
Michael listened and smiled through the webcam image as his wife tried to explain time and distance to their daughter.
“When will it be nine o’clock there?” Anna Belle pointed to the screen.
“When you are sleeping,” Amy said.
Anna Belle looked at her dad and he said, “you’ll miss it.”
She nodded, knowingly. “You should DVR it.”
Amy laughed a little to herself recalling the conversation as she ran. She thought of the funny phrases Anna Belle used and the way her “th” was always “f” resulting in frow and teef. She thought about what it might feel like when Anna Belle could speak clearly, maybe give instructions, or tell coherent stories, maybe speak in front of people, a thousand people, who hung on every word.
Amy thought of her own sphere of influence. Her own small family. Her small company, her small town, her small world.
She ran past the German immigrants whose license plates were always expired and grass always needed cutting. Amy ran past the neighborhood pool and the playground next to it, past the cul-de-sacs and the side streets, past houses and cars and mailboxes and recycle bins. She ran home, into her driveway, and let herself into the house.
Michael stood at the counter, pouring coffee into a travel mug. He glanced at the clock on the stove.
He grunted and stirred his coffee, the spoon clinking against the walls of the mug.
Amy pulled her ear buds out and stopped the music on the iPod. Then she wound the cord around the device and dropped it in her purse on the counter. She poured a glass of water from the tap and drank deeply.
Amy watched Michael over the rim of the glass. He secured the lid to the mug and dropped the spoon in the sink. Then he leaned toward her, caught her gaze, and stopped.
Amy lowered the glass. “Started my period today,” she said.
Michael didn’t blink. He leaned in, kissed her, and walked toward the door.
“Have a great day,” she said to his retreating back.
“Okay,” he said. Then the door closed and she was alone again.
For a moment she thought about going after him. Ripping the garage door open and yelling at him. Be sad or disappointed or angry. Something other than indifferent.
If she hadn’t run she may have needed him to respond, to engage. But she had run.
She put the glass away and stripped her shirt off, wadded it up, and threw it in the clothes basket on her way into the bedroom. In the bathroom she turned on the shower and looked at herself in the mirror. She turned to see her profile. She looked at how the spandex cut through the soft edges of her hips, how the skin bubbled up on either side of it.
She stripped the pants off and reached into the shower’s stream. Warm but not hot.
She looked back at the mirror, the pink cotton panties, shapeless and bunched, the tops of her thighs firm and glowing with the blood of recently-used muscles. She managed a smile for the taut thighs. Turned a little for a better look, noticed the unkept bikini area.
She pulled off the purple sports bra, peeling the sweat-soaked fabric from her skin and rolling it up over her head and arms. She tossed it to the floor on top of the pants. Her breasts were full and round in the mirror. Tender but not sore. The nipples hardened and shriveled from the sweat and chill air in the bathroom.
Amy turned to profile again and noticed how the bottom of her left breast arced up, how the curve of her bottom crested firmly at the top of her thigh. She straightened the panties and examined her reflection for a few more seconds. Strong, fit.
“Okay,” she said.
Then she stepped out of the pink panties, glanced at the stain, and threw them in the trash.
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