Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 14 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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By late August, Julianna and I were spending every free moment with each other. From running early in the morning together to dinner after work, our lives slowly became one. Our conversations grew more comfortable and intimate, and soon we felt more comfortable talking about Krista, though I was still hesitant to voluntarily share information because I didn’t want Julianna to think I was comparing them. One evening I took Julianna to an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant Krista and I had frequented when we in college.
"The food’s really good," she said near the end of our meal. "How did you know about this place?"
My first impulse was to tell a half-truth — that it was a place I learned about in college, leaving out the fact that Krista and I had lived two blocks away. I worried if I told Julianna she wouldn’t want to return because it would be something associated with Krista. But I knew that being open and honest about Krista was important. So I told the truth.
"The first apartment Krista and I shared was just down the street," I said. "We found it walking through the neighborhood one day."
Julianna seemed unfazed by it and twirled a bite of orange chicken with her fork. "So the two of you ate here often?"
"We’ll have to come back," she said. "The orange chicken is fabulous."
I took a spoonful of the hot mustard and mixed it in with my food.
"Does it bother you that Krista and I used to come here?"
"Not really. Does it bother you?"
"Then why do you think it would bother me?"
"Because if the situation were reversed, I’d have a hard time with it."
Julianna put down her fork. "You and Krista spent most of your lives in Ogden," she said. "You’ve told me that there isn’t part of this town that doesn’t remind you of something the two of you did together. It’s not easy for me to know that. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Hopefully we can make some of our own memories."
"I think we already have some good ones," I said. "I seem to recall something that happened in a restaurant on our first date."
We both smiled remembering how badly that date had gone. I was glad we had reached a point where we could smile about it.
"Maybe we should start making some good ones," Julianna said.
We laughed and returned to our food. Julianna finished her chicken a minute later and pushed her plate to the center of the table.
"Are you still angry at her?" Julianna asked.
I looked at the table and herded a snow pea with my fork to the other side of my plate before answering.
"It depends on the day," I said. "And how much I’ve been thinking about her."
Julianna leaned toward me. She did this when she wanted my full attention.
"Do you think about her often?"
"Every day," I said.
Julianna dropped her eyes to her plate.
"Did you think I was going to say something else?" I said.
"No," Julianna said. "It’s the answer I expected. But it hurts to hear you say it. A girl likes to think she’s the only person in a man’s thoughts."
The waitress stopped and cleared Julianna’s plate and refilled our glasses with water.
Julianna watched as the waitress walked back into the kitchen. She picked up the glass of water and sipped it slowly.
"The reason that I ask about the anger is that you seem to be handling everything so well," she said. "But there are times when I see flashes of rage in your eyes. I don’t blame you for feeling that way. I only want to know if there’s anything I can do to help."
"I wish there was something you could do," I said. "But that’s something I have to work through on my own."
I was doing my best to make room for two in my heart. And for the most part I thought I was succeeding. I could honestly say that I loved Julianna and could see myself spending the rest of my life with her. But my anger toward Krista was stopping me from making a permanent place in my heart for Julianna. Before there could be room for both of them, there were some issues I still had to resolve.
After I dropped Julianna off at her apartment, I drove home and sat in my car, thinking about forgiveness. Forgiveness was something my parents and religion had instilled in me from the time I was young. For the most part I never found this difficult to forgive anyone, but only because I had never been seriously hurt or offended before.
It would be so much easier to forgive Krista if I had an explanation for her actions. But the only person who could tell me what was going through her mind when she put the gun in her mouth was dead. I had no doubt that wherever Krista was, she was aware of the consequences of her actions and regretted what she had done. However, she wasn’t in a position to explain why she had done it or to tell me how she was sorry for the pain and anguish she had inflicted upon me and others who loved her. It would be so much easier if she could just apologize.
I also wanted to say how much I regretted ignoring the three promptings that could have saved her life. I still felt guilty about my inaction and wondered how different life would have been had I only listened to those quiet warnings when I had the chance. I needed a way to share my feelings with Krista and know that she had forgiven me. It would be the first step to forgive her and myself. Somehow I would have find a way to do without an apology and knowing that there would always be some things that I would never know the answer to.
The next day I worked through lunch and left work an hour early. Instead of heading home, I drove to the cemetery. I knelt in front of the headstone and cleared away the dried grass that had accumulated in its corners. I traced Krista’s and Hope’s names with my finger. And for a while I was lost in good memories. It was easy to pretend my life with Krista was perfect and that she had never been pregnant or killed herself. Enough time had passed that, aside from her suicide, I had to struggle to think of fights or other bad moments we had together. I could almost understand why Julianna was so hesitant to become involved with a widower. It would indeed be difficult to be second in line to a person who, aside from the way she died, seemed so perfect.
Eventually my thoughts shifted to Hope. Nine months. That’s how old she would be if she had she lived. I tried to think of what babies were like at that age. Is that when they started to crawl? I couldn’t remember. Though usually I could picture my daughter growing up, that afternoon, the only way I saw her was in the hospital, lying motionless in her bed bathed by the bright, warm light.
Thoughts of Hope being so vulnerable and untouchable made me cry, and I let the tears fall. I found myself wishing for other memories of her besides those days in the hospital. I would often tell myself that if it had been possible to take her home and have her live a normal life even for a few days, it would be less painful to think of her. But that was a lie. Hope would always be the daughter I never had a chance to raise, and thoughts of her would always leave a tight feeling in my throat.
I sat next to the headstone with my knees pulled to my chest. Talk to me, Krista, I thought. Tell me why you did it. I thought those words as if I expected her to somehow answer me. I sat like that for an hour, waiting. When it became apparent that no answer was coming, I stood to leave. But before I left, there was one thing I still had to do.
There’s something I need to tell you, I thought. Something about the day you died. You see, I had several chances to save your life that day and I didn’t. I bowed my head and told Krista about the mistakes I had made the day she died.
Labor Day brought with it an invitation to another family barbeque. This one was to be a more intimate gathering than the one on the Fourth of July. Only immediate family and a next-door neighbor had been invited. Though my family had met and spoken to Julianna at church, this was their first chance to really spend some time with her. I thought it best to prepare Julianna for the worst.
"I’m still not sure how open my family is to our dating," I said. I was sitting on the side of the bathtub, watching Julianna use the curling iron. Containers of mascara, blush, eyeliners, and lotion were spread out on the sink. I picked up the mascara and twirled it with my fingers.
"Do you think they might be mean to me?" Julianna asked. She looked at me via the mirror. Her eyebrows were knit in a way that indicated she was a little concerned about fitting in with my family.
"Like you or not, they’ll be polite," I said. "I’m telling you this so that if for some reason there’s a problem, you won’t take it personally. It’s not you they’ll have a problem with you per se. The bigger issue is them adjusting to seeing me with someone else."
"I don’t want them to feel like they’re being rushed to accept me," Julianna said. She unplugged the curling iron and set it on the countertop. She took the bottle of mascara from my fingers, pulled the cap off, and applied the mixture to her eyelashes.
"How do I look?" she said, blinking at me.
"Beautiful," I said. I stood and kissed her on the forehead.
"I can’t be anyone else but myself, Abel. I hope your family doesn’t expect anyone other than me to arrive."
"Cross your fingers that everything works out."
We arrived just as my dad was putting hamburger patties and hot dogs on the grill. The meat sizzled. He greeted Julianna warmly.
For the first hour Julianna didn’t stray from my side. She seemed nervous, and as we talked to the dozen or so people in attendance. Gradually she became more relaxed and opened up to them. By the time we were done eating, she sat next to my dad and told him about working in the crime lab and the different types of evidence she analyzed.
I was pleased and relieved the family seemed to like her. Unlike Jennifer, everyone seemed happy to have her at the party. Still, inside, I remained uptight and watched my family all evening, looking for any sign that something was amiss.
It wasn’t until after the barbeque that my dad said anything about her. We were both watching Julianna talk to Liam. They seemed to be having a good time together.
"She seems like a nice girl," he said.
"You like her, then?" I said.
"She’s very sweet," he said.
In my dad’s language, this meant he approved.
For the first time that evening the anxiety that had built up inside me was gone. Liam said something and Julianna laughed. My family had been more accepting of her than I thought possible. For the first time I thought there was hope that they were slowly moving on, too. I couldn’t wait to tell Julianna the good news.
In the first month that we ran together, Julianna would soundly beat me on any run over five miles. It was discouraging to watch her body melt into the darkness as she widened the gap between us with her long, powerful legs. When I could no longer see her, I worried about her safety until I saw her waiting for me at the end of our run. But I was becoming faster and was slowly closing the time between our finishes. After Labor Day I had cut her margin of victory on a seven-mile run to under a minute. It wasn’t until the last mile that Julianna pulled away from me. According to Julianna all you needed was to convince yourself that you could to push your body a little bit faster every day. Even though I had mastered the mental part of rising early in the morning and running every day, telling myself that I could keep up with Julianna was something I couldn’t do.
I blamed the hills.
Any run over five miles would, at some point, turn east toward the mountains and involve at series of hills. I was convinced it was impossible to run up them at a reasonable pace. Julianna, however, thrived on them and that was where she would usually pull ahead. Often I would tell Julianna I could keep up with her better if only the courses we ran were flat. Julianna would shake her head and tell me that I had the power and the stamina to keep up with her. The only thing that was holding me back was my mind.
The most difficult of all the runs was a ten-mile loop. It started at her apartment complex, then headed up Second Street toward the mountains. Once we reached Harrison Boulevard, we headed north running with the hilly road until we reached 2600 North. That road was, thankfully all downhill until we reached Washington Boulevard. From Washington it was three and a half miles of flat running back to her apartment. On this run Julianna would pull ahead on the hills of Harrison Boulevard. By the time I reached 2600 North Julianna was usually several minutes ahead of me. No matter how hard I ran, I was unable to close the distance between the two of us.
Julianna was planning on running the St. George Marathon at the beginning of October. Each morning she trained hard for it. Our runs had become faster, and I found myself tired most of the day. The week after the Labor Day barbeque another ten mile run came due. When I awoke that morning, it was the first time that I didn’t want to run with her. Physically I knew my body could handle it. Mentally I didn’t like the idea of doing five miles of running up and down hills and having Julianna pull far ahead of me by the second mile. Despite these thoughts I kicked off the covers and prepared myself for another run. It’s the last one until her marathon in October, I told myself. Do this and it will be months before we’ll run it again.
When I arrived at her apartment, Julianna was excited. She relished the longer runs. If her training schedule called for it, I had no doubt she would run ten miles every morning. As we ran up Second Street toward the hills, Julianna kept looking up at the sky. Between breaths I managed to ask what she was looking at.
"The stars," she said. "They’re very vibrant this morning."
I followed her gaze. It was one of those mornings where despite the lights of the city, the stars looked bigger and brighter than normal. To the east, right above the mountain, I could make out the constellations of Orion and Taurus.
Even now I’m not sure exactly what I thought about during that first part of the run. Maybe the heavens served as a distraction because the next thing I knew we turned left on Harrison Boulevard, and I was running right next to Julianna. The usual fatigue that set into my legs at that point was absent. For the first time I thought it might be possible to keep up with her for the entire ten miles. If I could just make it all the way to 2600 North, I felt confident I could stay with her the rest of the way.
Harrison Boulevard rose and fell with the hills. Instead of counting down how many hills remained I took them one at a time, telling myself each hill was the last. I fought back my body’s urge to slow down when I neared the hill’s peak and ignored the burning sensation in my lungs when I made it to the top of each one.
It worked beautifully. By the time we reached 400 East, I was still at Julianna’s side. Even Julianna seemed a little surprised I had kept up with her this long.
"You’re running very well this morning," she said.
I acknowledged her comment with a grunt. I didn’t want to say anything because it would require an extra breath.
I stayed next to her until the last mile when Julianna pulled a few steps ahead. At first I thought I had unconsciously slowed down. But as I increased my speed to catch up with her, I realized Julianna kept increasing her pace about every hundred yards.
"What’s the hurry?" I said. I forced out the words quickly, in one breath.
"You know I usually finish with a sprint," Julianna said. She increased the pace again. "Come on! Catch me!"
The teasing way she said it was just the motivation I needed to stay with her. By the time the end of our run was in sight, I was only two steps behind her. Julianna put on a final burst of speed. Her lead widened to three steps, then four.
"You can do it!" Julianna said over her shoulder. "We’re almost done!’
I tried to keep up, telling myself the end of the run was only one hundred yards away.
"You’re doing great!" Julianna said.
Spurred on by Julianna’s comments I ran the final fifty yards as fast I could. My lungs burned in my chest, and my legs felt like they were going to fall off. Then, suddenly, the entrance to the apartment complex was upon us, and I finished the run two seconds behind Julianna.
Julianna turned to hug me, but I flopped down on the strip of grass between the road and the sidewalk and gasped for breath. I felt like I was going to throw up. Julianna knelt next to me. Several drops of sweat ran down the sides of her face and landed on my neck. "You stayed with me the entire way!" She put her arms around me. She had a big smile on her face and sounded proud.
I was still fighting for breath, unable to respond. I looked past Julianna to the sky. The stars were so big and bright when we started the run were gone. Only a half dozen, the ones that were the biggest in the night sky, remained.
"How fast?" I said between breaths. "Our time. What was it?"
Julianna checked her watch. "We ran it in one hour and eight minutes," she said. "That’s about six-fifty a mile."
It didn’t seem possible I had run that fast for ten miles. I grabbed Julianna’s wrist and pulled it close so I could double-check our time. The digital display read back: 1:08:34
I looked back up at the heavens. One by one the stars twinkled one last time and then were hidden by the rapidly bluing sky. The sick feeling slowly subsided, and I was finally able to sit up and give Julianna a hug.
"Thanks for not slowing down," I said. I knew I would never have a problem keeping up with Julianna again.
That evening after a dinner of spaghetti and garlic bread, we lay on the couch and watched TV. The morning run had left us both too tired to do anything else. Fifteen minutes into the movie we were watching, Julianna fell asleep. Her head rested on my shoulder and her right arm lay across my chest.
I muted the television and put my arms around her. Julianna’s breathing was slow and relaxed. I matched my breaths to hers until our chests rose and fell in unison. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the slow and steady movement of our breathing and enjoyed feeling like one with her.
It was hard to describe how wonderful it felt to have her resting in my arms. I wanted to hold Julianna forever and never let her go. I was learning how precious and fragile love can be. I regretted that I had taken Krista’s love for granted. It was something I thought would always be there, something I never thought would be suddenly taken away. As I held Julianna in my arms, I told myself her love was something I would always treasure.
I rested my head on hers. Her hair had a faint smell of flowers that I found comforting and vaguely familiar. Krista might have had some lotion or perfume that smelled similar. I tried to recall an instance where Krista had smelled like that, but my tired mind was unable to tie the smell into a specific moment.
Soon I fell asleep. It was a light sleep, one where I would wake up every few minutes on my own or when Julianna stirred. But during those few minutes of sleep, I dreamed. The dreams were hard to remember. I’d awake unable to recall the specific details about them. Only small fragments remained — umpiring a minor league baseball game or driving along a dirt road in Wyoming. They left me feeling disoriented and confused.
This went on for about an hour. Then suddenly I dreamed about Krista. She was reading me a paper she had written for an upper-level English class for my feedback. It was something she used to do quite regularly when we were together. We were laughing over a pun she had used in the paper and having a good time.
Julianna stirred, partially walking me from my dream. In my half-awake state I thought it was Krista I held in my arms. Julianna raised herself on the couch and said something about it being late. Her words made it into the dream I was having, but they were Krista’s words, not Julianna’s.
"I don’t want to go home, Krista," I said. "I want to stay here with you."
The dream faded. I opened my eyes expecting to see Krista’s blue eyes looking into mine. Instead Julianna was staring at me. She looked confused. In an instant all traces of sleep left my body. We started at each other for several seconds. I was unable to tell whether or not she had heard what I said.
"You’re right, Julianna," I said making sure to emphasize her name. "It’s late. I need to go home."
I walked to the door, slipped my shoes on, and looked back at Julianna. She still looked confused, almost hurt. Thinking a kiss would help the situation, I returned to the couch kissed her forehead and left. I thought I had dodged a bullet and that my words had been too mumbled to understand or Julianna had been too tired to listen. But the look on Julianna’s face the next morning let me know that my words had been heard.
Instead of heading out the door for a run, Julianna invited me inside. "We need to talk," she said. She motioned to the couch. I sat on the middle cushion. Julianna sat several feet to my left. Her arms were folded across her chest, and her legs were angled away from me.
"Last night you called me Krista," she said.
With those words I felt all the progress we had made the last month was gone. Instead of being boyfriend and girlfriend, it was like we were on a first date, starting from square one. I scooted closer and tried to put my arm around Julianna. She moved her shoulders in such a way to tell me my touch was not wanted. I leaned back on the cushions.
"I wasn’t sure you heard me say that last night. Why didn’t you say anything?" I said.
"I was too stunned and hurt."
"It was an accident. When I realized what I had said, I panicked. I thought it best to leave before I slipped up again."
There was an uncomfortable silence between us. The ceiling creaked as someone walked across the living room upstairs.
"What were you thinking when you called me Krista?" Julianna finally said.
"I was dreaming," I said. "Krista was part of the dream. For some reason when I woke up, I thought it was her and not you I was laying next to."
"Do you ever pretend that I’m Krista?"
"I’ve never once held you in my arms and thought I was holding Krista. What happened last night was a fluke. It’s never happened before. It will never happen again."
"Why do you think you said it?"
"I don’t know. It just came out."
The look on Julianna’s face let me know she was accepting of my response but was still very hurt by what I had done.
"I’ve become extremely comfortable with you," I said.
The only thing I could think of was that I had reached a physical and emotional comfort level with Julianna that I had only felt before with Krista.
"Last night on the couch while you slept in my arms, I was thinking how nice it was to be that comfortable with someone again. I never thought I could feel that way about anyone again, but having you lying there, feeling us breathe together just made me feel how perfect we are for each other."
I moved closer to Julianna and pulled her close.
"I’m sorry it happened," I said. "But you have to believe me when I tell you it was an accident. It wasn’t my intention to call you Krista."
"I know you think about her," Julianna said. "I never expect you to not think about her or Hope. But these last few weeks . . ." Her voice trailed off and she looked lost in thought. "These last few weeks have been wonderful. You’ve made me feel like the center of your universe, like I’m the only woman you’ve ever loved. There have been moments where I’ve almost forgotten you were married before."
I bent my head so my mouth was next to her ear. "Before you came into my life, I wondered if I would ever laugh or smile again. But now I do because I can share it with you. Before I fell in love with you, it was hard to wake up every morning. I had to force myself out of bed. Now you’re my first thought in the morning, and I jump out of bed because I have the honor of running with you. And at night instead of going home and being alone, I want the two of us to spend the night together. You have made me love life again, Julianna. And because of that, I would do anything to make you happy."
Tears ran down my cheeks and landed on Julianna’s shoulder. I could feel her body tremble as she tried to hold back the tears. Julianna put her arms around me. A hot tear fell from her cheek to mine.
"I love you," she said.
We held each other and cried for several minutes. When the tears stopped falling, I looked at Julianna and said. "You really want to go through with this? I can’t promise there won’t be hard moments like this in the future."
Julianna nodded her head and leaned her head on my chest. I ran my fingers through her hair. It felt good to have her head resting on my chest. It felt natural. It felt right.
Finally Julianna looked at me and said, "Do you still want to go running?"
"More than anything," I said.
Julianna laced up her running shoes, and we headed into the cool September morning for a three-mile run.