At certain angles you think you already look pregnant, but mostly you look disgusted. You’re tired, swollen like a tick, and barely six weeks along. A complicated tangle of cells about the size of a spring pea has knocked you off your rocker. In no time, spring pea will grow to new potato, then peach, and soon thereafter, The Great Pumpkin. Sparking that bullshit glow isn’t going to be easy. Which is why, despite your legitimate fear of looking like a cowbell, you’ve amassed an arsenal of gauzy, flowy things. The tentative plan is to go “earth mother” on your chubby self and play like it’s all some spectacular metamorphosis. Anyway, the point is, you’ll soon have no points — you’ll have a circumference.
So get off your lazy ass. Go for a run, your body says. It’s begging you. You’ve been a runner your entire life. Funerals, bronchitis, hangovers, wild fires out your back door — nothing has stopped you from logging a couple miles every day of your life. Running is your gravity, your photosynthesis, your pep and candy. You run because you like the way your calves get cut up like a Roman soldier. You like the virile afterglow in your cheeks. You like watching your husband go silent and assume the slack-jaw gawk of a 15-year-old when you shed your sweaty running clothes. You like you a little bit more with a run, than without. The you, all tight and strong on the outside, makes the you all mousy and abysmal on the inside perk up.
Anyway, you’re a pregnant runner and like generations of ballooning women before you, at the mercy of Mother Nature, that relentless cuss with nothing but plans for you to crave crullers and hot dogs at midnight. Now what?
You run. Of course you run. Everyone you know runs while pregnant. In fact, some run all the way through their pregnancies (a five-miler the day they deliver) and then come out on the other side running faster than they did before. You suspect hyperbole, but decide to give it a shot too.
In fact, days after finding out that you’re pregnant, (the plus sign on the stick was so obviously plus) it’s a cool, sun-kissed morning, one perfectly attuned to your overheated, progesterone-riddled body. You put on a hat and gloves because that’s what you always do on a November run, and you wave goodbye to your husband who’s glowing either because he’s knocked you up or because he’s relieved that he won’t be the guy with the pregnant wife who gets so fat her face puffs like meringue. Lucky me, he’s probably thinking, I have a wife who runs.
Per usual, you plan a violent attack of the hill leading out of your neighborhood: slow rhythmic pace halfway up, rapid acceleration to breathlessness, exhilarated crescendo at the summit. It goes nothing like that.
At the halfway mark, you pull over to the sidewalk and steady yourself on the jacaranda tree in the Hoffman’s yard. You pray they don’t come out to question your loitering. You take 30 seconds to collect yourself and then resume a pace so slow, so not-a-run that you might as well walk. Walking isn’t on the training plan, so you continue a bouncy cadence loosely related to a run. Your heart rate must be at 180, your body temperature somewhere in the triple digits. Finally you crest the top and stop to brace yourself on an army-green electrical box, hoping for electrocution or energy return, you’re not sure which. Your heart is hissing through your eardrums and you swear that you can smell salami, cheddar, milk shakes. The prospect of running five miserable miles just about doubles you over. There is throbbing guilt and huffing. Cars pass. The retired neighbors with the twin Schnauzers stop to say hi. They ask if you’re just starting or finishing up your run. You lie, then exhale, pulling off your hat and gloves to simulate the celebratory ritual of a finished run. The jog back down the hill is much quicker and the walk back through your front door more humbling than any in your 15-year running history.
Your husband startles when he sees you back so soon. He looks worried, but you write it off as concern for the sizable amount of padding already making itself comfy in the space between your neck and knees. Actually, he is worried, and not about your ballooning. You tell him that you think it’s over. He panics because he’s always a little concerned about you getting up and leaving one day like his dad did. But you reassure him that you’re staying, the running isn’t. And you slump on the couch and figure you might as well just sit there for the next nine months and let your flesh fuse to the leather like a rotten apple. Why not?
Then he says why don’t we get breakfast like normal couples do on Saturdays, you know, go wait in a line at café up the coast with tables that wobble and order something off the fat-Richter like eggs benedict or Challah French toast. Egg whites not allowed, he says.
He’s speaking your language, but still, you need a shower to wash off the scum of an unfinished run. You’ve never skipped out on a run. This is a first, and not one you’re sure how to reprimand. What’s the due process? No chocolate bark or peanut butter or lime-chili cashews for 48 hours? A double run tomorrow? Hardly.
You stand in the shower until the scalding water turns the backs of your thighs red and splotchy. In the mirror through the hazy shower fog you look decent, almost not bloated. Not quite, but almost. Through fog, you decide, is how you’d prefer seeing yourself for the next nine months; blurry, with your face blotted out so it doesn’t look like your head balanced on that body inching its way out of your zip code. Nonetheless, you’re hungry and the soap is starting to smell like steak. So you scrub and mourn, rinse and mourn, and decide it might be nice to not run every morning. More time to do whatever it is people do when they don’t run every single morning. Do they watch the news? Prep dinner? Mend and organize? Are they the folks who take the 7:00-10:00 a.m. time slots for home deliveries and Sears repairmen? That scares you, that involuntary slip into slothland. Without you knowing, it’ll creep in and overthrow every frenetic, motivated cell in your body.
Anyway, you decide to take an anatomical inventory while things still appear moderately pert. Whatever you want to call it — an homage, a farewell, a salute — you perform a little tribute to mark this rite of passage from runner to non-runner, from just married to mama. Others of course, will poo-poo your distress, calling it a short hiatus in the big picture. But you know, your running group knows, your husband knows, running days are measured in dog years. One missed day equals a week. One week is about a month and half. You do the math, and nine months practically qualifies you as a non-runner, just about requires that you hand over your entire stash of race t-shirts and find yourself another way to get high. It’s serious time away, and you’re starting to wish maybe you hadn’t been so eager to introduce egg to sperm and so forth. It’s too late. Plus, every time you’ve tried returning anything without a receipt, it’s been a bust.
Your reflection is totally fogged over now, so you clear the glass with your hand and begin your goodbyes into the mirror. Goodbye calves. Goodbye tight quads and so forth, up to arms about to spread maternal wings. Despite feeling like a complete idiot for saying it aloud, you continue, realizing most of what you’ll be doing for the next 18 years will be idiotic anyway. You pivot and stare at every mile etched in your body until the glass fogs up again and you’re gone — you the runner, not you the person about to become something else. Mother hen? Queen of all things warm and milky and supple? Stretched and irreparable?
You step out of the shower and rub jojoba into your belly. This, you think, is what they do to the skin of swine about to be boiled for wallets and footballs. You rub it in clockwise, then counterclockwise to enliven the elasticity. You never use moisturizer unless it inadvertently rubs off someone’s arm onto yours, but it was a gift from your mother, the first gift, after the pregnancy announcement last week. She was thrilled, but immediately brought up, with audible concern, “The Running.” What you will do about “The Running?” she asked over the phone after you told her. “The Running” is your mother’s nemesis, a presumptuous being, a forceful and rude entity that for some damn reason you can’t leave at home when you visit her in Arizona. She hates that your hair is unbraidable; always wet from either a shower or sweat, not to mention, she can’t find a trace of her buerre blancs, her reductions, her bouillabaisse on your thighs since they’ve been run off, wasted on pavement. Should she put out a placemat for the “The Running?” she asked one day during a visit. You advised that maybe she should find something to be obsessed about, something that’ll make her nasty if she can’t do it.
“The Running,” you told her, “will continue.” Everyone you know runs through their pregnancies. You will too, you said.
Mother will be so pleased with your body’s recent aversion.
One more squirt of cream for your hips, where you’ve seen, in the gym locker room, stretch marks like termite trails. Your skin feels more supple than usual, as if all of you is already yielding to the idea of less and more in different ways and degrees. Then you have another epiphany: When not running, you’ll condition your skin, employ a four-step process that involves exfoliation, and you forget the rest but you know it ends with moisturizing. You will epitomize the signature “glow” via cream rub-downs and excessive rest.
Your usual post-run trendy velour tracksuit feels like a lie, so you put on a long-sleeved polyester cow bell and pull your hair into a wet bun. That too feels like a lie, so you wear wedgy shoes, (not your normal cushioned post-run, slip-on shoes) and apply lipstick to embrace the new more fussy, tender you and hide the former no-frills, athletic you.
Your husband hugs you in the kitchen and says sweetly that he’ll drive, as if you’re too drunk with quitter pain to concentrate. He’s feeling sorry for you and tilts his head in awkward ways to demonstrate empathy, concern, total responsibility for insisting on skipping the condom, “To just try.” You want to sock him, but know it’s “The Running” talking. Instead, you grab a handful of sunflower seeds for the ride and toss him the keys.
All the way to the restaurant, the one with bamboo glued vertical on its walls, you suck and shuck seeds. The salt staves off nausea and the meaty insides fend off hunger more dangerous than your inclination to ask your husband if maybe he too can cut out running for nine months. Isn’t that what partners of alcoholics do: they shun booze? You think it only fair, since it was a consensual tête-à-tête from the get-go. But with pancakes and bacon on your mind you have little room left for debate — it will be a debate. He’s as much a runner as you were.
On the bike path bordering the highway, you pass a group of runners headed west, toward the briny air, their strides are synchronized. They’re oiled up with sweat and the sun hits them in all the right places, emphasizing striations and perfection: thick quadriceps, ropy calves, and sinewy arms with little bursts of power at their biceps. For a split second you want to leap from the car and join them. And then you don’t. The reconciliation is that quick. It’s never been that easy, which scares you, because how hard is it going to be to go back to you, the you who runs on instinct? The you who runs before the day is fully formed and if there’s time leftover for the rest of life, then so be it.
Your husband palpitates your leg and you’re sure it’s because he’s calibrating the girth, so you grab it and massage his palm. At least your hands are still runner hands, veiny and dehydrated looking. You turn on the radio hoping for a song to get you thinking about how lucky you are to be with child. “Beautiful Day,” “Once in A Lifetime,” “Seasons Change.” Songs can do that; lift a mood in one note. It’s happened before on a run. You change the station to country. George Strait’s “Chair” is playing. At the end, after hassling someone for taking his chair, he relents with, “That wasn’t my chair after all.” You sort of hope maybe you’ve accidentally sat in someone else’s pregnancy chair.
Your husband wants to know what you think it is: a boy or girl. Neither of you are sure what to call it at this point. It works just fine for now. It is a cordial nod to life without assigning it to your reality with a gender specific pronoun. The day it becomes he or she, you’ll be as crippled and misshapen as a brood mare, but probably a bit relieved because you can finally steer the room toward pink or blue. Perhaps wall murals and fabrics printed with hulky zoo animals will distract you from your own physical limitations.
Your cards are on a boy. You hope for a boy. You’re afraid you might wreck a girl; make her think too much about the geometry of being a woman.
The car ride continues with batting names around and thinking aloud about what to order for breakfast. You want copper on your tongue, the bursting red blood cells of too many hill repeats, salt in your eyes, a drink so sugary it burns straight through your fillings. But you say: “A hash brown scramble with sausage cooked in.” More so than ever, you prefer your food tossed into one bite; all the flavors at once. Could be the culinary equivalent to how you’re feeling: a scramble of emotions and possibilities that would all taste like crap if not for a little salt and butter.
There are only a few things that scare you more than giving up “The Running”: waking up to find you never bolted the front door, falling from 38,000 feet, Ann Coulter, roller coasters, power outages, fat pants, losing your parents, cancer, war, infertility, vans, Gene Simmons, Silence of the Lambs, bridges during earthquakes.
Since the hash brown scramble comment, your husband’s been eyeing you. He’s bothered. You’ve never liked hash browns and he’s not sure if the hasty change of heart is a sign of your leaving him or if your taste buds are morphing into that of a fat girl. He prepares for conversational intervention by rolling down the windows. You can smell to the bottom of the ocean; your sense of smell is that ferocious. And because you can also smell animal fat frying on the café griddle, you pray for brevity.
“Are you okay?” he says.
And you say no, not really, that it’s not easy watching all the years and early mornings of hard, sweaty work melt to soft curves — you used to be a crisp Gala apple, now you’re about to become a spoonful of oatmeal. He says you’re not getting fat, you’re giving life, which is especially insightful and should touch you in places you won’t let him touch nowadays. But it doesn’t. Could be that not running will turn you fat and sociopathic. “The Running” you say, you don’t know what to replace it with. He thinks hard, knowing that if he doesn’t insert something wise here, you might shatter into a million flabby pieces.
“Let’s both not run for nine months and we can figure out what else we like to do together,” he says. It comes out slow, he pauses between not and run, perhaps considering replacing either word for something less sacrificial. But he says it anyhow and you hug him tighter and longer than the night you both saw the plus sign, through tears because you two had just finished a bottle of Chianti.
While waiting for chocolate crepes (you changed your mind when the person next to you got hers) you watch the crowd ebb and flow, scattering their belongings around tables and collecting them before washing back out through the doors. Despite your natural inclination to sideline the introspection and concentrate instead on something physical — the fresh squeezed orange juice puckering your lips, your husband’s nose hairs, the Desitin-scented toddler next to you — you continue psychoanalyzing. Anyway, this coming and going, filling and emptying, is you. You will pull back, slow to a walk, and sometime next year, hopefully, you will charge forward again, running with the group you passed on the road who, God love it, just walked in. Their endorphins are palpable, one contiguous stroke of musk and grass, sunblock and oxygen. While grinning, they pull tables and chairs together for toasting smoothies and eating pancakes as one self-possessed, annoyingly exuberant community. The whole restaurant is watching them, how their muscles expose themselves in the simplest of tasks.
“That’ll be us again,” your husband says, “don’t you worry.” The defeat in his voice is disappointing. A cloth napkin is draped over your legs, hiding what, as of today, are dimples on the sides.
The chocolate crepes are nearly gone, but your appetite isn’t. Satiety is incomprehensible — it’s the sort of merciless hunger you thought only possible after a long run, but more primal, more lioness. At least you still have that, a token reminder of you, the former runner. After finishing his Denver omelet and your crepes, the food begins caulking voids, forcing blood to the maternal lobes of your brain when suddenly you’re struck with a sentimental surge. It’s what you imagine a hot flash might feel like, but underpinned in emotional sap. The thought is something about the next finish line, the one you’ll soon cross, about it being more spectacular than any finish line you two have ever crossed. It’ll bring us to our knees like our first marathon did, you want to say. You swallow the shock of sweetness, wash it down with the last of the orange pulp and decide it doesn’t sound quite right anyhow, not now. It’s not something you, the runner, would say. Still feels like a lie, like a ditty you read in a pamphlet at the OB/GYN’s office or on a Motivations poster. You decide to save it, the sentiment, and hope in the meantime you might fast-walk into the miraculous and find yourself there — lounging in a pair of elasticized maternity jeans with a dash of surrender on your face.