Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read the last chapter below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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The morning of November 10, 2002, I awoke to a pitch-black room. The sound of the wind blowing leaves across the driveway reminded me of running water. I didn’t bother looking at the clock. I instinctively knew it was much earlier than my usual five a.m. wake up.
I pulled the covers to my chin and tried to fall back asleep. It was pointless. The leaves continued to make scratching sounds as they were carried from the driveway to the street. Then the furnace kicked on with its customary clatter. Usually I would have found such noises comforting. But this morning my mind was too active and alert for them to be anything but unwelcome.
After what seemed like an eternity of lying in the dark, my alarm clock buzzed at five a.m. I silenced it and lay there, letting the thoughts of the day weigh heavily on my mind. Throughout the day I would think back to what I was doing one year ago and relive every moment, every mistake, exactly like it happened.
My eyes became accustomed to the dark and I could just make out the lines where the ceiling met the walls. I wanted to sleep the day away or at least as many hours of it as I could. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. My body was already filled with anxious anticipation. For the last year I had counted the days, weeks, and months since Krista died. After today I would start counting years.
When I was ten, my mom told me about a book she had read. The book was about a man who survived a battle with cancer. This was during the early 1980s when surviving cancer was rare. My mom had tried to explain to me to how the man found his battle with cancer to be a spiritual experience. At the time I didn’t understand how going through something so horrible could be a spiritual. The year before, when I was nine, I watched as a great uncle lost his battle with bone cancer. The memories of him lying naked in bed, grimacing from the pain, were still fresh in my mind, and I wondered if my great uncle had found a spiritual aspect in his suffering before his death. What my mom was trying to explain to me was something I didn’t understand until this morning. Personal and spiritual development doesn’t come when life is good and unchallenging. It’s the hard times — the ones where we are forced to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other — when the real growth occurs. I was learning that difficult times helped me appreciate the sweet ones. And if I let them, these trying moments would teach me what was truly important. What the last year had taught me was the incredible value of the people I love. It was my parents, siblings, friends, and loved ones who made my life worth living. And though I always knew this to be true, it took the death of the two most important people in my life to realize how precious the time we shared together really was.
The darkness gave way to a cold, gray dawn. As I watched the shadows recede from the room I realized the light was similar to the morning in which I had seen Krista alive, lying in bed with the covers wrapped tightly around her body, her arms wrapped around her protruding belly that contained our daughter, Hope. The memory floated through my mind for a minute before I dismissed it. I felt dark and empty as I got out of bed.
I took a long shower. The hot water had a cleansing feel as it cascaded from my head to my feet. I fought off memories of Krista’s death. One thing I had learned over the last months was moving on isn’t forgetting about the past, but knowing when to remember it. I needed to do my best to let those who were with me know how much I loved them instead of dwelling on the past. I focused my thoughts on Julianna — the first time I saw her walking up the aisle of church, the first time we held hands, our first kiss.
I dressed for church and made breakfast — eggs and toast. To my surprise I wasn’t hungry. I ate only a few bites before I pushed the plate away and looked outside at some magpies jumping among the branches of a box elder tree. I had hoped the weather today would be different than what it had been a year before. I wanted gray skies and rain. Outside everything seemed exactly the same — blue sky with a touch of haze and the same sickly yellow light that seems to accompany even the brightest winter days.
As I threw away my uneaten breakfast, I glanced at the clock. Eight fifteen. I realized at this time last year I was just starting to run my errands. And for a moment I saw myself back in the car driving toward the intersection deciding whether or not to drive straight or turn left. Usually when I thought about this moment, I would curse myself for not listening to the subtle prompting telling me to drive to the apartment. Today was different. Instead of beating myself up emotionally, I thought about how one seemingly insignificant choice had changed my entire life.
My thoughts drifted over different choices I had made in the last year. For some reason my mind kept coming back to my decision to buy the house. I remembered sitting amid the dead bugs and feeling that I should buy it even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. There were times I still regretted buying the house. I meant living in a city I didn’t want to be part of anymore and a long commute to work, which meant less time with Julianna. Then it hit me. Julianna was the reason I bought the house. Never before had a thought come to my mind with such force and clarity. If I hadn’t bought the house and had moved closer to work, I never would have met Julianna.
I tried to think of what my life would be like without her. I doubted the happiness and contentment I now felt every day would still be there. Julianna was such a wonderful blessing to me. I couldn’t see my life without her.
Smiling through the tears that were running down my face, I got to my knees and thanked God for second chances.
Julianna greeted me with a kiss when I picked her up for church. The kiss, along with the look in her eyes, told me she was willing to help me in whatever way she could today — even if that meant doing nothing more than being with me. She invited me inside and went to the bedroom to put on her shoes and coat. Earlier in the week we discussed that this day might be a particularly difficult one. We had both agreed to be patient with each other and hope the day would turn out better than we thought.
As I waited, I looked over at the textbooks on her bookshelf. Organic Chemistry. Physics. Calculus. These books brought thoughts of one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Shigley, who taught Renaissance literature and courses on Elizabeth Bishop. She was married to an engineer and would sometimes share stories about being with someone who approached problems so differently than herself. I had always thought it odd that two people whose interests were so diverse could be so happily married. This was probably because when it came to our interests, Krista and I were very similar. I remember thinking at the time how fortunate I was to have someone who had the same tastes in literature, poetry, and art.
It never occurred to me that I could love anyone who had such a scientific mind. Julianna had proved my assumptions wrong. Even though she was very different from Krista as far as her interests and how she viewed the world, they weren’t as important as the things I admired about her. Julianna was active in church, had a positive outlook on life, was patient with me, and had a kind heart. She had introduced to me to a new self within because she was not only so different from Krista, but also from me.
There was a melancholy air on the drive to church as if we both wanted this day to be over. Julianna took my hand and held it, as if to let me know she understood this day was a difficult one. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one that felt this way. At church I couldn’t concentrate on the services. Instead I was either replaying parts of that sad day in my mind or counting down the hours and minutes until Krista killed herself, which happened at ten minutes to two. The last prayer of the service was said, and Julianna and I headed home.
My mom was knocking on my door when we pulled in the driveway. There was a sad countenance about her, and for a minute I thought she had bad news. My heart sunk, thinking I didn’t want to hear about anything else that was sad. I should have realized my mother would be depressed for the same reason I was.
"We’re going up to the cemetery to visit Krista," she said. "I wondered if you wanted to go up with us."
"Thanks, but we’re going up later."
My mom seemed a surprised by this but seemed okay with it. "If you change your mind, we’ll be leaving in about fifteen minutes."
The wind had picked up, and we hustled into the house, hoping for warmth. Inside we prepared lunch. Julianna fixed sandwiches while I made a salad.
"It seems like your family wants to spend time with you today," Julianna said. "Yet you seem to feel the opposite."
I put down the tomato I was dicing and stared out the kitchen window at the empty lot next to my house. The chain-link fence had leaves piled against it. They looked brown, wilted, and sad.
"The month after Krista died, I had a lot of support from friends and family," I said. "If it wasn’t for their love, I don’t know what would have become of me. I love my family, but they haven’t made the same progress I have. That makes it hard to be with them today. I feel that being with them would take me back instead of forward.
"The decision to move on with my life, no matter how bleak each day seemed, was something I’ve had to do by myself. Friends and family have been there to support me, but in the end I was the one who had to make these decisions."
"And that’s why you don’t want to go to the cemetery with them?" Julianna asked.
"That’s part of it. It’s really something I want to do alone."
By the silence in the kitchen I could tell that Julianna had stopped making sandwiches. I realized we hadn’t discussed whether or not Julianna would come with me to the cemetery later today. I turned and saw confusion in her eyes.
"If you feel comfortable coming," I said, "I would like you to join me."
"Are you sure? If you want to be alone, I understand."
"You’re the only person I would like to be with me," I said.
Julianna nodded and added thin slices of turkey and Monterey Jack cheese to the bread.
"Thanks," she said. "For wanting me there, letting me be part of this."
I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. "Thanks for wanting to be part of it."
We were spooning on the couch when the time was ten to two. I could just see over Julianna’s head to the clock on the VCR. The light streaming through the window had the same pale, dreary look to it that it had a year ago as I had climbed the stairs to our apartment complex. I closed my eyes and let the memory flow. There was no point trying to stop it. This was something I had to relive one last time.
Everything was just as I remembered it: the matted, miserable-looking grass, the dark windows of our apartment, and the feeling inside that something wasn’t right. I took the stairs to the door and unlocked it. At this point there was a part of me that wanted to stop. I had gone far enough. There was no need to go farther. Proceeding wasn’t going to change anything.
Instead I called out for Krista. And a second later, I heard the crack of a gunshot exploding from the bedroom. I ran back and there was Krista. Every horrible detail from the color draining from her face to the sound of blood gushing from the hole in the back of her head was real and vivid.
Only this time one thing was different. Instead of the panic I felt upon discovering Krista’s body, I felt calm. Where shock and fear had ruled my emotions, I was strangely composed. I knelt next to Krista’s body. The blue in her eyes was fading to gray. She didn’t have long.
"Oh, my love!" I said. And I reached for her and held her in my arms until she died.
Back on the couch, tears were streaming down my cheeks falling into Julianna’s hair.
"Abel, what’s wrong?" Julianna said. She tried to turn and comfort me, but I held her so she couldn’t move.
"I’m fine," I said as the tears fell faster.
"What can I do to help you?" Julianna said.
"There’s nothing you can do," I said
"Then let me comfort you," Julianna said. Her voice has a pleading quality to it. I relaxed my grip, and Julianna turned and wiped the tears as they fell. When the tears finally stopped, I pulled her close and held her in my arms.
As we lay on the couch together, I realized that something was different. It took me a minute to realize what it was. Usually after remembering Krista’s suicide I was filled with anger, grief, or a strange mixture of the two. None of those emotions were present this time. Instead there was serenity and peace. Somehow over the last weeks or months, I had found the ability to forgive Krista for what she had done. No longer when I thought about her death would I feel bitter toward her. There would always be questions, but the rage that had filled a part of my body for so long would never rise inside me again.
I opened my eyes. Julianna was looking up at me. Her eyes looked sad, and her brow was wrinkled in worry.
"I’m fine," I said.
We waited until four o’clock to visit the cemetery. I thought it would be late enough that Julianna and I would be alone. To my surprise, a dark red Ford Taurus was parked on the gravel road near Krista’s grave. There were two occupants sitting in the front seat, who appeared to look back through the rearview window as we parked. For a second I thought that it was Krista’s parents. I hadn’t seen them since Hope’s funeral, and they were the last people I wanted to see at the moment.
"What’s wrong?" Julianna said.
"I was hoping it would just be the two of us," I said.
The wind had picked up a little and buffeted the car. Then the person in the driver’s seat opened the door. I sighed with relief when I recognized the familiar face.
"Do you know who’s in the car?" Julianna said.
"It’s James and Grace," I said.
"Do you want to wait until they’re gone?"
I shook my head, opened the door, and walked toward Krista’s headstone. Julianna followed close behind. James and Grace joined us a minute later. We exchanged hellos and then stood in silence for a few minutes, staring at the tombstone.
The sound of gravel popping under tires made everyone look up. Another car parked next to mine. Maria, the director of the college writing center, emerged. After another round of hellos were exchanged, I introduced Julianna to Maria. Then the silence and the standing in the gray weather returned.
"I can’t believe it’s been a year," Grace said, several minutes later.
James nodded in agreement.
Maria wiped tears from her eyes. "I still can’t believe she’s gone," she said.
I felt that I should be crying or saying something profound. But my mind was blank, my eyes dry. I had already shed my tears and said my good-byes to Krista earlier in the day. Standing by her headstone was a mere formality.
Julianna stood with her arm around me. I moved a strand of hair the wind had blown into her eyes behind her ear. Then I returned my attention the headstone. I realized how happy Krista would be if she knew her friends and old boss had come to pay their respects. James, Grace, and Maria were some of her favorite people. And I felt glad that I was able to share this moment with them.
Soon Maria gave me a hug and returned to her car and left. A few minutes later, James and Grace did the same. Julianna and I watched their car drive down the gravel road. We stood at the headstone a few more minutes. Julianna leaned her head on my shoulder. Our shadows grew longer, and the cold seeped through my jeans.
"Let’s go," I said. "We’ve been here long enough."
Back in the car, I turned the heater so it blew on our faces and feet. I took one last look at the cemetery, unsure if I would ever come back.
As if reading my thoughts Julie said, "You can come back whenever as you like."
"I know," I said. I squeezed her hand, then put the car in drive.
I stopped the car for a moment before exiting the cemetery and took one last look back. One last look at Krista and Hope.
In my mind I started to piece together what I planned on telling Julianna later in the day on why would never return to the cemetery. I wasn’t worried about Julianna being supportive. I knew she would let me visit as often as I wanted. But that wasn’t why I didn’t want to return. Krista and Hope would always be a part of me. Memories of them would forever linger somewhere in the back of my mind. But if I wanted this relationship with Julianna to work, I needed to look forward to the future without regrets or memories of the past holding me back. All of my energy needed to be directed toward making a new life and new memories with Julianna. She needed to feel like she was the center of my universe.
As we drove down the main road, I looked over at Julianna and squeezed her hand.
"I love you," I said.
"I love you, too," she said. Her green eyes shone with unshed tears.
"Thanks for coming. I know that wasn’t easy for you."
"I don’t think it was easy for anyone."
I gave Julianna’s hand another squeeze. She leaned her head on my shoulder. I looked in the rearview mirror. The tops of the trees from the cemetery were all I could see. Then as the road sloped downhill, they disappeared completely.
We held hands all the way home.