by Amanda Kabak
Charlie Williamson is a life-long jock who’s butch enough to cause plenty of raised eyebrows in gym locker rooms. Since flaming out of college on a wave of drugs, alcohol, and depression, she’s worked the same easy, low-stress job at RRiotWear—a women’s fitness clothing startup in Chicago. Then with a promotion on the horizon, Charlie’s boss ropes her into leading a beginner’s marathon group in the RRiotWear facilities.
Elizabeth McIntyre runs a boutique tech company. Since graduating from MIT, she’s made herself into the face of women in technology. She has a beautiful apartment she never sees, a string of ex-girlfriends, and a propensity for panic attacks. When her doctor confirms what her best friend has been saying for years—that Elizabeth needs to slow down and make some radical life changes—she signs up for RRiotWear’s marathon program.
Despite everything that points to a not-so-perfect fit, the attraction between Charlie and Elizabeth grows week after week, and mile after mile. But with secrets lingering between them, they might find their relationship stumbles before it can even get to the starting line.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Though I draw the line at 13.1 miles (hey, we all have our limits), my years of running along Lake Michigan in Chicago means I've shared that path with all sorts of different marathon training groups during summer weekends--but get it nearly to myself during the freezing winter. What better backdrop for the ups and downs of falling in love than the ups and downs of long-distance running in one of my favorite places? Training for Love hits close to my heart, and I hope it will do the same for future readers."
D Booker - I’m a big fan of authors who take the time to really develop their characters and both Charlie and Elizabeth were really well written. Both these characters have issues, some based on past experiences, lifestyle, others that are foisted on them. In this story Kabak tackles the sensitive topic of mental health with Charlie being bipolar. The helplessness and the struggle to lead and participate in life is captured extremely well. I also liked the pacing of the book, the titles depicting the training milestones were a nice touch. Charlie’s coaching of Elizabeth through her 8-mile run was a particularly good exchange and I really enjoyed it. I do like slow burns and this definitely fell into that category.
Abbott F. - If you’re looking for a book with characters you can’t help but like with conflicts that are “real,” then this is the book for you. If you want a well-paced book that is also well-written, do not pass on this book.
Bonnie S. - Ms Kabak has given us a story about a bi-polar woman and an overworked business owner. Strong characters along with a moving plot kept me from putting this book down. Very nice read.
Kicking and Screaming
Charlie Williamson walked through the door of her apartment and leaned back against it to latch it closed. She dropped her bag to the scuffed wood floor and sighed. Her couch crooned to her, whispering sweet nothings about the softness of microfiber and fleece, of the quietly numbing effect of back-to-back-to-back episodes of Law & Order. Her sweatpants were just down the hall in the dark bedroom, the shades having been drawn for several days.
Her phone rang in the back pocket of her slacks, and she knew without looking at it that it was her mother. She let the call go to voice mail, but she could hear her mom’s voice in her head, saying, “Charlene Josephine, I’m worried about you.” Her use of Charlie’s ridiculously full given name would be a joke, but the worry would be dead serious, and Charlie felt it too. This routine of couch and Law & Order had been going on for two straight weeks, which was not a good sign.
Melancholic was what a girlfriend in college had deemed her. “But I like it,” Terri had said, pinning Charlie to her extra-long twin and trying to caress the darkness out of her. When she failed, she decided melancholy wasn’t her thing, and Charlie had seen lovers come and go for similar reasons over the last decade. Her melancholia had deepened into a diagnosis of Bipolar Type 2, a fragility of mood that spun her into quiet despair and sometimes full-blown depression several times a year. She’d been on eight different medications, ending up with the old standby—sounded-scarier-than-it-was Lithium—but she’d been doing well for months before this latest backslide and had cut her dosage down to nothing.
Still, the Law & Order reruns were an advanced symptom of decline. Weeks ago, her workouts started to slip, and her refrigerator had grown empty while her freezer sprouted frozen lasagnas, potpies, and half gallons of store-brand ice cream. She hadn’t been out with anyone from work for drinks or pub quizzes in at least a month, and she’d missed the last three rec-league games where her colleague Trevor had brought her on as a ringer. She was always a better runner than soccer player, but in a field of middle-aged middle managers, her right wing was an asset.
She was shutting everyone out and herself down, and if she didn’t turn things around one way or another, her mom would show up at her door, and her concern and can-do attitude would make things worse before they got better. Charlene Josephine. What was funny about her mom using that name now was that she’d been the first one to call her Charlie and had embraced everything different and occasionally shocking about her daughter—except for those couple years before her diagnosis when she’d self-medicated with alcohol and drugs and had gotten kicked off her college soccer and track teams.
Charlie let the strength of her mother’s worry—and the echo it raised in her—carry her to her bedroom, where she bypassed her pajamas in favor of a gym bag that had gotten kicked into a corner of her closet. She slung it over a shoulder and left her apartment before she could second-guess herself, trundling down a flight of stairs to the chilly April evening outside and starting in on the five blocks to the gym. Ironically, given how active she’d always been, the best defense against the offense of her depression was plenty of exercise, fresh air, and clean eating. Of course, those things were easier said than done when darkness seeped up from nowhere and bogged down her ankles, seized up her knees.
The strangest thing about depression was how physical it could be. Yes, it often paralyzed her with indecision or self-doubt, but even if she fought through toward decisiveness, her body remained dense as lead. The strong capableness she felt at other times was strangled in fifty pounds of the absolutely wrong brain chemicals, and she craved the cradling softness of bed and couch, the deep bliss of sleep.
The gym was buzzing with fluorescence even outside its double doors, and Charlie hesitated and thought that maybe this walk was enough, especially given that she was just going to have to turn around and cover the same blocks in reverse. Fresh air would pull into and out of her lungs, and wasn’t that better than the conditioned atmosphere of the gym? Why was she going to the gym, anyway, when the sidewalks and paths of her neighborhood were worn familiar from miles of running?
Everything seemed to require so much volition, every decision fraught and impossible. She heard her mom’s voice in her head: “You’re here. Just go inside, already.” She obeyed.
In the dressing room, she sat on the blond wood bench in front of an open locker and bent to untie the double-knots on her work shoes: chunky brown oxfords. She kept her eyes down while she pulled them off, seeing, in her peripheral vision, two women crossing the open aisle in front of her, one from the outside and one from the showers, wrapped in a towel, her hair turbaned in white terry cloth, and her feet bare. Charlie knew the kind of attention she garnered in locker rooms and public toilets; it ran the gamut from curiosity at its mildest, through suspicion, all the way to downright hostility.
“Charlie” wasn’t just less of a mouthful than Charlene Josephine. It suited everything about her. She’d grown up a tomboy—overalls and a whining desire for short hair—matured into a serious jock, and now, well past adolescence and knee-deep into full adulthood, she was, no mistake about it, a dyke. She was tall and just this side of flat-chested. She’d won the short hair battle with her mom at an early age and had never looked back. Now she wore it buzzed short except for a blond shock at the top that she shoved over to one side or the other, depending on the day. People either thought she was in the wrong place (as if a man wouldn’t notice the distinct lack of urinals in a women’s bathroom) or was contagious or recruiting for the cause. Ridiculous, but true.
Regardless, when her head emerged from the old college T-shirt she kept in this gym bag, the towel woman was staring at her. Charlie looked away, pulled out shoes and socks, and busied herself putting them on. The whole time, she felt a heaviness to the air, as if the woman’s gaze turned the electrons between them into something weighty and slow. Since Charlie assumed the intent behind this attention was negative, she hurried to tie her shoes, shove her work clothes and bag into the locker, and close it with a spin of the combination dial. That little burst of adrenaline propelled her onto the treadmill and into a brisk jog, her long shorts swishing around her legs.
The pounding of her stride was the opposite of calming, and the sluggish thump of her heart felt as uncomfortable as trying to come up with pithy conversation over a beer at 3 Greens by work. It was too much, too hard, too aggressively alive in the here and now given her current state. It made her a little queasy, and she felt suddenly like crying. This was a terrible idea. She would come out of this funk without such violent intervention eventually, right? A few more days or weeks on the couch, and she’d be fine.
While she cataloged the horribleness of this activity, her legs started to work through the kinks of her recent lassitude. Her stride lengthened and footfalls softened. Her mind still churned at this continued slap in the face, but her breathing settled into a strong rhythm. The word “indignity” kept floating through her mind, a mantra of revolt against this movement when all she wanted to do was be still and quiet.
Just twenty minutes, she told herself. Exercise wasn’t a miracle cure for her depressive episodes, and it would only help if she did it long enough to break a sweat. Twenty minutes and she could take a long hot shower and still have time to catch a couple episodes of Law & Order. Twenty minutes and she could try again tomorrow, when maybe it wouldn’t be quite as hard.
She made it twenty-five before slapping the stop button, letting the belt slide her to the back of the treadmill, and hopping off. The neck and lower back of her shirt were damp enough to prove her effort. She wound her way past the ellipticals and weight stations, keeping her gaze on her feet so aggressively that when she got to the locker room, she bumped into a woman exiting when she went to enter.
It was the one who’d been staring at Charlie earlier—dressed and long hair dried but still recognizable. “Sorry,” Charlie mumbled and slid by her. The woman watched her pass, and Charlie was sure she was going to say something, but she just pursed her lips and turned away.
Five years before, in this very locker room, a woman just as pretty, just as primped, had caught Charlie during a lull in traffic at the lockers and dressing tables. Against the background of a lone shower running, she’d pinned Charlie with a hazel-eyed stare and said, “I’ve seen you not looking at me before.”
Charlie had frowned. “I don’t look at a lot of people.”
She shifted uncomfortably on the hard bench. “It tends to make them uncomfortable.”
“Well, it shouldn’t.”
Charlie shrugged and pulled off her sweaty shirt, half in challenge, half because she was starving and wanted to get home and have dinner.
“Being looked at is flattering.”
So Charlie looked. With long, straight brown hair and those light eyes, the woman had expertly applied makeup and was dressed in what Charlie thought of as a corporate uniform: slim gray skirt and a sheer, pinstriped blouse open in a deep V. Charlie raised her eyebrow, the woman smiled, and six months later, they broke up when Charlie had a bad run of moods that no medication could quite tame.
Tonight, she shoved her work clothes in her bag and walked home, the chill outside making her sweaty shirt grow clammy and cold. At the only convenience store between the gym and her apartment, she stopped and browsed freezer cases and the snack aisle, wanting something indulgent but not knowing what. Sadness collected behind her forehead, and she ended up at the counter with three candy bars, a bag of chips, and two ice cream sandwiches. The clerk who rang her up was cheerful, saying, “Beautiful night tonight. Finally. Spring’s the worst until, well, suddenly it’s not, right? Are you having a good day?”
The man (Pakistani? Indian?) looked at her with a smile and palpable expectation, but Charlie couldn’t find the volition to unstick her lips and answer. She grimaced, her inability to make simple conversation filling her mouth with the foul taste of regret. He shoved her treats into a plastic bag, saying, “I was just being friendly, you know.”
She took the bag and escaped, angry at herself for upsetting him and angry at him for not being able to see how painful that short non-interaction had been. She devoured one of the sandwiches on the way home, fantasizing about a long, hot shower that would leave her skin red and blood boiling. She’d swaddle herself in sweatpants, crawl on the couch, and turn on the TV. But, first, a text to her mom to short-circuit any misguided heroics. I’m…okay. Working on it. Talk soon.
* * *
Elizabeth McIntyre’s office was on the twenty-first floor of a glass-sheathed building on Dearborn Street in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. From her window, she could see downtown’s bustle and the lights littering nearby skyscrapers. Some evenings, she would take calls while pacing back and forth in front of the view, letting her eyes rest from her array of oversized monitors and her soul soak up the energy of the city.
Tonight, however, she stood planted behind her desk, leaned forward against her hands, glanced at her assistant, and said, “Hell, no.”
Justin folded his arms, trapping a pretty red tie against his white shirt. “Hell, yes.”
This attitude was exactly why he’d lasted in his position for over two years when she’d gone through previous assistants like tissue paper—and girlfriends, her best friend, Carmen, would say. “There’s no way I can do another conference. It’s only April, and I’m booked solid for the rest of the year.”
“I have it right here, in my meticulous notes: ‘11:38 a.m. May 7 last year, Elizabeth makes me give a blood oath to get her on a panel at DDD Europe next year.’ So that’s what I did. I’ve already identified one conference you can skip out on, but, and I quote, ‘DDD Europe will do more for our business than any other three conferences combined.’”
Elizabeth hung her head before rolling it back and forth to stretch out her neck, which was always tight. Her long, brunette hair lay heavy down her back, and when she hit an old, probably permanent kink, a shower of stars shuttled back and forth against the darkness of the inside of her eyelids. “Okay.” She lifted her head. “Fine. Sign me up and book the flights.”
“Maybe you can send Dennis,” Justin said.
Dennis was her VP. Smart guy, capable, decent presenter. But decent wasn’t good enough for DDD Europe. “Not to that.”
“You say that about all the conferences.”
“He’s not ready.”
“You reminded me to tell you to get Dennis out there more this year.”
“Justin, contrary to popular belief, I don’t forget everything immediately after telling it to you. I ran this firm before you came on board, and I’m perfectly capable of running it after you leave.”
“I have no doubt,” he said with a smile and bowed out of her office, closing the door behind him.
Elizabeth realized she was still poised vulture-like over her desk and flopped back into her expensive ergonomic chair. It wasn’t just her neck that bothered her; her back was tight, and her heart had taken to revving into overdrive at random moments, like Justin adding one more thing to her already overloaded calendar. How was she supposed to run this company when she was always off promoting it? Or at least sharing knowledge at industry events, hoping that the exposure would turn into dollars. Technical consulting was a dog-eat-dog world, and her boutique firm competed with ones ten times its size. And helmed by men, who, by the nature of having a dick, had their words taken as gospel without any effort at all—forget about needing to rack up the kind of experience and success Elizabeth had managed in her fifteen years in the business.
Her heart would not knock it off, and its beating set off a headache, the third one this week. She didn’t have to wrap her arm in a cuff to know her blood pressure was through the roof. Her doctor had warned her about it a few years ago, which was a major reason she hadn’t been back since. Slow down were two words Carmen had put on repeat since they’d been roommates at MIT, finally finding each other after barely making it through their first year without drowning in the sea of guys in their respective majors: computer science and biology.
Carmen claimed her own lack of looks was integral to her success in research—that and the goggles and smocks she wore at her slate lab benches. Carmen wasn’t bad-looking by any stretch of the imagination, with a wide face, dark eyes, and a mop of curly hair, but Elizabeth was cursed with well-composed petite features that made guys either act like patronizing assholes or dismiss her intellect in favor of ogling her breasts. She could have given herself a bad haircut or worn baggy clothes or let her own natural tendencies result in raggedly bitten fingernails, but she refused to bow to the tech industry’s flagrant misogyny.
The sky still had an inviting brightness despite how late it had somehow gotten. She stood at her floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out over the cityscape of the Loop, her favorite place in the world. Instead of going to Silicon Valley or landing at one of Boston’s many startups like most people in her class, she’d followed an opportunity (not to mention a girl) out here after graduation, one where she could be a big fish in a small pond and put herself truly on the line with totally new technology—not just a new way to package searching, buying, or advertising. The girl hadn’t lasted, but the job had catapulted her to the bleeding edge and kept her there.
And now she was a face in the industry, representing women’s ultimate capability in this male-dominated field. She bore responsibility for more than herself and her firm but also for the women that came up to her at events or networking groups or at companies she consulted for, asking advice, confiding about discrimination, expressing admiration. As a result, Elizabeth always had to have her best foot forward, be put together both physically and mentally, get everything right.
This conference would be a boon, but it was also one that required all-new material and days of prep. After so many years of long hours and draconian effort, Elizabeth watched lights wink on in the skyscrapers around her and admitted she was getting tired. This moment of weakness crashed up against the thought of her still-crammed schedule and made her chest seize up. Her vision faded, then sharpened, then faded again, and she sagged against the window, her breath squeezing out of her in a shout for Justin.
The hospital gown was a seafoam green that looked sickly against her pale, freckled skin. By the time she’d made it into this bed in Northwestern Memorial’s emergency room, her symptoms had passed, and all she wanted to do was go home. She’d been rolled out of her office on a stretcher, put into an ambulance, and wailed the couple miles over here just to end up feeling almost normal and spending hours in the waiting room once they’d ruled out a heart attack and had determined she had no risk of dying while sitting in the first-come-first-served queue. Carmen had arrived a half hour in, and they had watched a movie on the wall-mounted TV before Elizabeth had been called back, put into a gown, and had her vitals taken by a pleasant enough nurse with cheekbones so sharp he could have been a model.
Carmen said, “You need to—”
“I’m just saying.”
“You’re always just saying.”
“Because you’re never listening.”
Elizabeth rolled her head on her pillow until she was facing her best friend. Carmen had cut her dark hair in a skull-hugging style a few weeks before, and Elizabeth wondered again if it was to capture the attention of a particular guy or if she’d done it just because she’d wanted a change. She wore jeans and a pretty blue knit top that brought out her eyes. Honestly, Elizabeth wasn’t sure why Carmen was still single. Her divorce had been finalized almost two years before, but she hadn’t talked about anyone new since.
To divert Carmen’s attention from whatever had or hadn’t happened to her, Elizabeth said, “You need to start dating again.”
Carmen laughed. “Do you really want to go there right now?”
“What do you mean?”
“One word: Sharon.”
That name felt like a slap, but Elizabeth tried to hide it. “What about her?”
“Nothing, except you’ve spent the last decade undermining your happiness and health, doing your weird combination of pining for and competing with her at the same time.”
Sharon Stackhouse was the girl she’d followed to Chicago. Their breakup had been admittedly disastrous, but Carmen was off the mark on her analysis of Elizabeth’s behavior since then. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Believe me, I’ve compiled ample evidence.”
“Give me a break.” Sharon was brilliant to the nines, one of those cross-functional people with stellar retention who either become the president or a billionaire. Or both. It was true that in moments of weakness, she’d looked up Sharon over the years and knew she was a serial entrepreneur and twice married (and divorced) to incredibly beautiful, incredibly femme women who, Carmen would insist, didn’t have two brain cells to rub together.
Because Elizabeth knew straight denial would never get Carmen off her back, she went on. “I can’t help that most people are boring compared to her. If someone doesn’t stimulate me mentally, you know it’s a lost cause.” If a relationship bored her, she got neglectful, focusing her attention on the things that lit up her neurons. She was a thought junkie, but was that so bad?
“All I’m saying is that—”
A doctor walked into her curtained area, cutting Carmen off. The woman struck Elizabeth as more than a little Nurse Ratched-esque, though that may have been the aborted conversation talking. “Ms. McIntyre, I’m Dr. Hendricks.”
“Elizabeth’s fine. This is my friend, Carmen, who claims I need to slow down.”
“Carmen’s right on the mark there. Your blood pressure is too high, and from your reported symptoms, it sounds like you had a panic attack.”
Elizabeth laughed and turned to gaze at the ceiling. “Unlikely.”
“Elizabeth,” Carmen said.
Dr. Hendricks asked, “Have you felt that shortness of breath before? The chest pain? Problems with your vision?”
Elizabeth rolled her lips together and stayed quiet.
“Oh, Lizzie,” Carmen whispered. Elizabeth hated and loved that nickname in equal measure. Lizzie the Lezzie. They’d turned it into a joke together.
“Your heart is fine. No audible murmurs or arrythmia. I’m going to order an EKG and stress test to be sure, but I suspect you mostly need to work less and exercise a little more. I can put you on medication to lower your blood pressure, but with someone so young, I’m hesitant to start you on something if we can avoid it.”
“I thought there was a pill for everything.”
Dr. Hendricks gave her a smile that somehow made her seem even more sinister. “Ms. McIntyre, saying you need to change your daily routine is not my way of minimizing what you’ve experienced. I’d say that your body is giving you a very serious warning sign, and if you don’t heed it, you could easily land back here with something much, much worse. Your friend, here, is absolutely right. You need to slow down and take care of yourself.”
From behind the doctor, Elizabeth could see Carmen mouthing the words, “I told you so.” The thought of how insufferable Carmen was going to be was just as bad as the changes she was supposed to make once she left this hospital.