Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 13 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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I was sitting in the backyard thinking of Julianna and watching the sprinkler turn in a circle as it watered the grass I had planted in April. The grass was dark green and thick and had somehow survived the blistering Utah summer despite a lack of regular watering. My yard didn’t have a sprinkler system, and any moisture the yard received came only when I had time to hook the sprinkler to the hose.
Since our afternoon on the mountain, Julianna had come over to my house for dinner after church on Sunday, but we parted that evening without making plans when to see each other again. Julianna seemed reserved, and I was unsure how much she had enjoyed that evening with me.
Water from the sprinkler sprayed near my chair. I had a bowl of ten apricots on my lap my mom had given me. "The last ones from our tree," she said as she handed them to me in a brown paper sack. I decided after I had eaten the last of them I would call Julianna and see if she wanted to go out again this week. Since I was worried about whether she’d agree to another date, I ate the apricots slowly, one half at a time, planning out what I would say to her. The apricots were dark orange and slightly overripe, just the way I liked them. Their flesh was juicy and sweet.
As I was biting into the fourth apricot, my cell phone rang. The caller ID showed Julianna’s number. I answered it on the first ring,
"What are you doing Friday?" she asked.
"Friday night? Not a thing," I said. My heart skipped a beat. Julianna was asking me out. She must have been happy with the way things were going.
"Actually I want to know what you were doing Friday morning," Julianna said. "About five a.m."
"I’m usually running at that time."
"I thought, perhaps, you might like to run with me instead."
"I’d love to." I tried to keep excitement out of my voice. This was the moment I had anticipated since I learned she was a runner. Asking me to partake of something she loved to do most likely meant things were going even better than I thought. I told her I’d be at her apartment at five on Friday. After I hung up I pumped my fists in the air ecstatic at the invitation. The bowl of apricots skidded off my lap, but I didn’t care. The apricots rolled onto the lawn, looking like a small round balls against the green grass. As I picked the apricots from the grass, I noticed the evening light was the same color as the fruit. Never again would I describe a sunset as orange. Every sunset from now on would always be the color of apricots.
I woke up every hour Thursday night afraid I had forgot to set the alarm clock. I’d double check the settings and try to clear my mind and go back to sleep. By the time the alarm went off at quarter to five, it felt like I hadn’t slept at all. When I knocked on Julianna’s apartment door fifteen minutes later, I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
Julianna invited me in. She was dressed in a T-shirt adorned with a marathon logo and purple running shorts — the same shorts she wore when she ran the Ogden Marathon. She laced up her running shoes, and we were out the door.
"It’s an easy run today," she said. "Three miles, at just under eight minutes per mile. Can you handle it?"
"I’ll be right next to you," I said. I wasn’t worried. My morning runs averaged seven minutes and thirty seconds per mile. If this was how fast Julianna trained, maybe I could win a marathon, too. If she had only told me the route we were running, I would have been far less confident and all thoughts of even entering a marathon would have been scuttled.
The run started along Harrisville Road for about a third of a mile. At Five Points we turned left and started up Second Street.
"Where do we go after this?" I asked.
"Straight," she said.
This was when I became worried. I made sure my running courses were as flat as possible. The biggest incline I ever faced was running over the railroad tracks on my way into the business depot. Julianna was heading on Second Street where the road sloped steeply to the east benches of Ogden.
"How far up this road are we going to run?" I said. Inside I was screaming, No way! I don’t do inclines!
Julianna looked at me for a second before returning her eyes to the road. "All the way to the top." I must have done something to indicate I was worried because she quickly added, "But we’ll also run all the way down." Her voice sounded so sprightly. I began to really worry.
The first quarter mile of the hill wasn’t bad. I kept up with Julianna without too much difficulty. Then my legs started burning as the muscles started to tighten. I dropped a few steps behind Julianna.
"Am I running too fast?" Julianna asked.
"You’re fine." I said though I had to strain to sound like I wasn’t tired. I had been telling Julianna what a good runner I was and didn’t want her to have the impression that a hill was going to give me problems.
By the time we reached the top of the street, I was four seconds behind Julianna. I caught up with her as we headed downhill. I told myself I could have kept up with her if she hadn’t kept talking on the way up. I was used to running in silence and every breath I took to answer a question was one less I used to help me reach the top of the road.
We finished side by side when we reached the apartment complex. Julianna stopped her watch as we ran across the entrance. "About 7:50 a mile," she said. "Good job."
"Just another morning run," I said. I tried to hide the fact I was breathing harder than usual. I could feel my face burn, so I had to be as red as a strawberry.
"Would you like some water before you head back?"
I looked at my watch. To make it to work on time, I would have to leave her place in ten minutes before driving back home and readying myself for the day.
"Water sounds great," I said. I was thrilled to just spend a few more minutes with her. I noticed she was barely breathing hard, and had only a little sweat on her forehead. I wondered how I could mask the fact that I knew I looked much worse.
The next day Julianna and I sat together at church for the first time. It was on one of the side pews near the front where just about everyone in the chapel could see us. Personally I would have preferred a seat more toward the back — out of the view of everyone — but this was the area Julianna usually sat, and I agreed to sit next to her without any objections, even though I knew the congregation would be abuzz about the two of us.
During the services I kept looking back at my family sitting on the back row to see how they were handling it. From where we were sitting, I couldn’t gauge their reactions and only caught them looking our way a few times.
After church I made a dinner of taco casserole and fresh corn on the cob from my parents’ garden. Then we went for a walk through the surrounding neighborhoods.
"If you want, we can walk one of my three-mile running routes," I said. "They’re flat and not as exciting as yours."
Julianna laughed. "You’ve never really told me why you run," she said.
"To lose weight," I said. "When I started running two years ago, I weighed fifty more pounds than I do now."
I shook my head and patted my stomach. "I topped the scales at two hundred and thirty-five pounds. That’s what sitting in front of a computer and drinking several sodas a day will do to you."
"What made you decide to give running a try?"
"I came home from work one day and looked in the mirror. I didn’t like the way my body looked. Growing up, I had always been very thin. I wanted to be happy with my body again and feel like I was in control of it. I rummaged through the closet and found a pair of running shoes and drove to a nearby high school and started running around the track."
The memory of that first run was still fresh in my mind. I had barely made it around the track once before I felt like my legs were going to fall off and my lungs were going to explode. It was a hot summer evening, and I was sweating profusely but I was determined to stick with it. Every day after that I tried to run a little father. After a month I was up to a mile a day. By the time fall arrived, I was easily running three. Within six months, I had shed fifty pounds.
"And you stuck with it?"
"I liked the way it made me feel. I slept better, felt better emotionally, and felt like I was back in control of my body."
"Did Krista run with you?"
It still surprised me how easily Krista came into our conversations now. Though I always answered Julianna’s questions, I was still hesitant to bring up subjects relating to Krista. I didn’t want Julianna to think Krista was always on my mind.
"Krista ran with me for two months. But when the weather cooled down, she lost interest. I think she was surprised I stuck with it after I reached my target weight."
"Did she encourage you to keep running?"
"She always said she was happy with the way my body looked. That was all the encouragement I needed."
We walked past a home with a freshly cut lawn. There was a strong smell of grass clippings in the air and flecks of grass scattered on the sidewalk.
"What was it like to win the marathon?" I said.
"That was awesome," she said, smiling. There was a happy glint in her eye. "It was one of the best experiences of my life."
"Tell me about it," I said.
"It didn’t seem real. Even as I was approaching the end and they rolled the tape across the finish line, it felt like a dream. It wasn’t until they called my name over the loudspeaker and announced me as the first woman to cross the line that I realized I had indeed won."
"Were you in the lead the whole time?"
Julianna shook her head. "A few miles into the race someone told me I was in third place. A few miles later I passed the woman in second place. It wasn’t until I was running down Ogden Canyon that someone told me the woman in first was struggling. I passed her with about two miles to the finish line."
"When you started the race, did you think you had a chance to win it?"
"Winning a marathon isn’t something you expect to do. It’s not something you think will happen. There are too many things that can happen to slow you down. An injury, for example, or you could be unprepared mentally."
"Is it easy for you to go running in the winter when it’s dark and cold outside?"
"No. That’s the hardest time of year to run."
"What makes you leave the warmth of the bed and do it?"
"I tell myself it’s something I need to do."
"That’s the way it is when you run a marathon. Your mind has to be prepared to handle the distance. If you don’t think you can run it, you won’t. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape you’re in."
We were now walking through a new development of duplexes. Each duplex had a satellite dish attached to the roof pointed in the same south by southeast direction. Behind the structures, fields of wheat and alfalfa lay in colorful patches. Across the fields I could see the back of my parents’ house and their large garden.
"Think you’ll win another?" I said.
"I don’t know," she said. "As long as I feel I ran and trained to my potential, I won’t care if I win or not."
We walked through the subdivision, then headed back up Seventh Street. The sun was to our backs, and our shadows were elongated ahead of us. I looked at Julianna out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to put my arm around her waist and pull her close but decided against it. After my fast-paced relationship with Jennifer, I didn’t want to rush into anything. I wanted to wait until the time was right.
"Do you want to run with me tomorrow morning?" Julianna said.
"I’ll be there at five," I said. I was glad she asked. I was unsure if her running invitation last week was good only for one day.
"It’s a long run," she said. "Nine miles. Pace."
"Six minutes and fifty seconds per mile."
"If it’s too fast for you, I’m okay running it alone."
"I wouldn’t miss running with you for anything," I said.
I had no illusions about matching Julianna stride for stride on her pace run. I did, however, expect to stay close to her. And for the first two miles I stayed right with her until breathing became so difficult, I had to slow down. As the run continued, the distance between us slowly widened. I’d watch as she’d run by a parked car or a street light, then count the number of seconds it took me to reach the same spot. By the end of the third mile, her lead had widened to fifteen seconds.
So far the run had taken us down Washington Boulevard, a wide, four-lane thoroughfare connecting the cities of Ogden and North Ogden. This run was another example of how our running tastes differed. I preferred quiet neighborhood streets where at five in the morning, cars were the exception, not the rule. I was hesitant to run on main streets, even ones like Washington Boulevard that had wide ten-foot shoulders because the last thing I wanted was to be hit by a car. Julianna, however, didn’t seem worried about the traffic. It wasn’t until weeks later I learned part of the reason she liked the busy roads early in the morning was she felt there was less of a chance of being accosted by someone when lots of cars drove past.
Right before mile three and a half, Julianna turned right on 2600 North and disappeared around the corner. I started counting. When I counted to twenty-one, I turned the corner just in time to see her running through the orange circle of a streetlight and disappear into the darkness. I was running as hard as I could. I tried not to think about the pace or how many miles were left; mentally it would have been too difficult for me. I was beginning to understand what Julianna said about longer runs being more mental than physical.
The road sloped gradually uphill. With each step I could feel myself slowing down. Every step was a struggle. Julianna appeared every so often under a streetlight. Her lead was increasing rapidly, and I stopped counting the distance between us. It was too frustrating.
Just when I felt like I couldn’t run any more, I saw Julianna running toward me. She must have reached the four and a half mile mark and was starting the second half of the run. Unsure where the turnaround point was and not wanting to be left too far behind, I turned around, looking over my shoulder occasionally to make sure Julianna was still running behind me. It took her only three minutes to catch up with me.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"Great," I gasped. I could barely force the word out. It took too much energy to speak — energy I couldn’t spare. I hoped I didn’t die before the run ended. It would have been too embarrassing. My thoughts were muddled; I was so exhausted.
Step by step, Julianna pulled ahead. And soon I started counting the seconds between us. I increased my pace, determined to keep up with her, but suddenly found myself coughing. I stopped running and knelt in the gravel by the side of the road. I started dry heaving, and it took several minutes to catch my breath and feel like I could continue running. When I looked up, Julianna was gone.
During the first half of the run Julianna looked over her shoulder every three or four minutes to see where I was. For some reason I expected her to notice I stopped running and turn around to find me. Instead the road was dark and empty. I ran to the corner and headed south on Washington Boulevard. I looked down the shoulder of the road, hoping to spot her in the glare of the oncoming headlights. I saw nothing.
I started to worry. What if during the time I was dry heaving by the side of the road, someone had assaulted her or she was hit by a car? I could see someone jumping from the dark side of the road and dragging her out of sight of the traffic. It would be my fault because I was unable to keep up with her. The fear that something had happened to Julianna gave me added adrenaline to keep up what felt like a very fast pace. I kept hoping to see her somewhere ahead, running under a streetlight or silhouette illuminated by the headlights of oncoming traffic.
It wasn’t until I turned down the street that led to her apartment complex that I saw her. By this time there was a gray glow in the east and I could see all the way to the apartment complex. She was walking slowly up the sidewalk in my direction, hands resting on her hips. When I saw her, the worry dissipated and the anger became stronger. Why hadn’t she waited for me? Would it have killed her to slow down or turn around when she noticed I was no longer behind her? She had turned around and looked for me, right? A seed of doubt crept into my mind as to whether I wanted to continue running every morning with her.
Julianna clapped her hands when she saw me turn the corner. When I was in shouting range, she encouraged me to finish the run with a burst of speed. I couldn’t do it. I ran at the pace I had been maintaining for the last two miles. I stopped when I reached the entrance to the apartment complex. I felt like collapsing. I was exhausted not only from running, but from worry. I had never been so glad a run was over.
"You did great!" Julianna said. She looked at her watch. "You were only four minutes behind."
Four minutes? It seemed like I was much slower than that. I walked to my car. There was no time to stay and talk to Julianna this morning. I had a full day of work ahead of me. And even if I left for home right now, the odds were I’d arrive at work later than usual. But at that moment, I didn’t care. All I wanted was a nice shower and a cold glass of water.
"Time," I said after I had caught my breath and was leaning against the car. "What was your time?"
"A little over fifty-eight minutes," Julianna said. There was a hint of pride in her voice.
I was too tired to do the math. "What’s that per mile?" I said.
"Six minutes and thirty seconds."
I stopped, trying to figure out my pace per mile. "If you ran that fast, then how fast — "
"A little over seven minutes a mile," Julianna said.
"Are you sure?" That couldn’t be right. All summer I had struggled to break the seven-thirty minute per mile mark. This morning I had shattered it. I had Julianna recalculate my pace several times. The anger toward her was replaced with a feeling of pride in what I had managed to accomplish. The fatigue in my arms and legs dimmed, too. Maybe I could keep running with her awhile longer.
The last thing I told Julianna before driving away was that I would run with her the next morning.
Morning runs together become part of our daily routine. Depending on her training schedule, we ran between three and ten miles a day. We averaged about thirty miles a week. It was the most I had ever run. But I loved spending time with Julianna and wouldn’t have given up those mornings together for anything.
Watching Julianna run was something I never tired of. She kept her arms low, hands loose. Her breathing was steady and relaxed. She took long strides. It was more than her technique that made her runs beautiful. She never cut runs short or said she wasn’t up to running that morning. Like an artist at work on a masterpiece, Julianna put her heart and soul into each run. There was never an excuse to do less than what she thought was possible.
One morning after a grueling seven-mile run, I was sitting on the floor of her kitchen drinking some ice-cold Gatorade. My right knee has stiffened up during the last two miles, and I kept resting the glass on it in an attempt to make if feel better. Julianna sat beside me resting her head against the wall.
"After work, would you like to have dinner?" Julianna asked.
The question took me by surprise. "Sure," I said. "Where do you want to go?"
"I was thinking we could have dinner here. I’ll make you something."
"I’d like that," I said as calm as I could. Inside I was bursting with excitement, which was something considering how far we’d run. I’d wanted to spend more evenings with her, but Julianna still seemed cautious about moving the relationship quickly. I had been waiting for her to feel more comfortable with me before I was going to suggest it. Instead Julianna had beat me to the punch.
Julianna made a simple but delicious meal — a green salad and pizza bagels. Between our large appetites from running, we ate everything she had prepared. After we cleaned up the kitchen, we wandered to the living room. I sat on the middle of the couch cushion to see how close Julianna would sit to me. She sat on the next cushion, leaving a good two feet of space between us. I wanted to kiss Julianna for several weeks, but up to this point we hadn’t even held hands. Because of her concerns about dating a widower, I had been content to let her take things at her own pace. But I was growing increasingly impatient. Each day as my love for her grew, so did the desire to kiss her and be close to her.
I shifted my weight and closed the space between us by twelve inches. Julianna turned so she was facing me. She looked into my eyes for split second, then, as if reading my thoughts, looked away. I moved in to kiss her but pulled back before Julianna could see me. That moment of hesitation was all it took for Julianna to start talking and the moment to be gone.
"Was Krista a competitive person?"
I returned to a sitting position, frustrated.
"What was she competitive in?"
"Games mostly. Board games, computer games, word association games, trivia games. It didn’t matter. If you played any sort of game with her, she would never show you any mercy. Kind of like when I run with you. You never slow down."
"Do you wish I would slow down?"
"I did at first, but not any more. My running has improved tremendously over the last few weeks because of you."
"So she wasn’t competitive in physical things like running."
"No. The few times Krista and I ran together, she couldn’t have cared less who won."
"I guess in that way, Krista and I are opposites," Julianna said. "I don’t care if I win board games."
With that comment I realized what Julianna was doing: she was seeing how she stacked up to Krista.
"I don’t compare the two of you," I said.
"Krista was part of your life for years. How can you not notice the things I do differently?"
"You’re a different person," I said. "You have different interests and abilities. If I wanted someone like Krista, I’d date a crazy, blonde English major who writes poetry."
"It’s not that," Julianna said. "I know in some ways I could never measure up to her."
"Why do you want to know so much about her?" I said.
"I’d like to meet her." Julianna looked away, embarrassed. "I wish I could talk with her and know what kind of person she was."
I stood up and walked to the far side of the room in frustration. I leaned against the wall and looked at Julianna.
"Why do you want to know so much about Krista?" I said.
"She’s always going to be part of our relationship. It’s not that I can’t live with that, I want to know more about her so I can understand you better."
I walked back to the couch and sat next to Julianna. She rested her head on my shoulder and put her arms around me.
"I know things are moving slower than you’d like," she said. "Just give me some time. In some ways this relationship is very hard for me."
I tried to kiss Julianna twice the next day, but each time Julianna looked away. When she looked up again, her eyes pleaded for patience. The kiss finally came the next Sunday after a dinner at my house. The meal I made hadn’t turned out as planned. The casserole was burned on the edges and cold in the middle. The soup was watery and weak. The only thing that was edible was the salad, which wasn’t enough to fill us up. In the end we heated up leftover pizza.
When we were done, Julianna brought the last of the dishes from the table and set them in the bubble-filled water. I put my arm around her waist and pulled her close. This time she didn’t look way. She took a step toward me as I embraced her so her body was pressing against mine, and we kissed.
The kiss wasn’t perfect. We were both hesitant and our lips didn’t quite mesh at first. But to me that didn’t matter. That spark I never thought I would feel again was present. It was the same feeling I had felt years ago when I kissed Krista for the first time. A warm feeling spread through my body as if to confirm the woman in my arms was the right one for me. It seemed like forever since I had felt this way toward someone.
When we finally pulled away from each other, Julianna leaned her head on my chest and put her arms around me. I kept one arm around her waist and rested my other hand on her head, holding her close. We stood like that for several minutes, feeling our bodies rise and fall with each breath.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I said.
"Yes," Julianna said. "I want this to work."