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The weather warmed in March, and it seemed everywhere I went, I saw either happy couples walking hand in hand, or single women, alone and wishing for someone to date. Or so I thought. Maybe it was hope. When I was shopping for groceries, for example, my eyes would roam from one woman to another, and with those I found attractive, I imagined myself asking them out. They always said yes, of course, and from there I would conjure up a whole life for me and whoever had caught my eye. From our first date, to falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after, I planned out my life with each woman at a glance.
The guilt that followed was always thick and heavy. After an afternoon of this I’d return home feeling like I had cheated on Krista. Once one met the love of their life, one was supposed to be faithful to that person forever. Checking out other women four months after Krista’s death seemed wrong. Though I wasn’t naive enough to think I would never date again, it was something I thought would happen years, not months, in the future.
But I missed being married. There was something about waking up next to Krista and going through the motions of another day with her that gave life extra richness and meaning. Without anyone to share the both exciting and mundane moments with, life was boring and empty. I longed for the closeness and companionship that had made me happy for many years. Though I desired something serious and beautiful, I would have been happy with one night of dinner and a couple of hours of conversation with an attractive woman.
It had been seven years since I dated someone other than Krista, and the thought of asking another woman out, while not as repulsive at it had been a month before, was still very intimidating. I began browsing online singles sites when I thought no one was looking — during the lunch hour when most of my coworkers were out of the office or when I was at home alone at night. Online single sites were relatively new and hadn’t achieved mainstream acceptance. I thought of them as places for people who were unable to find dates in the real world and was embarrassed to even look at them. I wanted to talk to family and friends about wanting to date again but I thought it would be pointless. I knew what they all would think, even if they didn’t verbalize it: Dating this soon after Krista’s death? Way too fast, Abel.
In the end, I turned to the only person who I thought would be honest about it — Jennifer. During the last month our friendship had blossomed, and we were now talking on the phone twice a week. And our conversations became more than just a recap of our lives. We started to share personal feelings, thoughts, hopes, and desires with each other. So during a pause in one of our conversations I broached the subject.
I’m thinking about dating again," I said.
There was a surprised silence on the other end of the phone. "Just thinking about it?" Jennifer finally said.
"Seriously thinking about it," I said. "Like possibly asking someone out in the next few weeks." I was lying on my bed as we talked, staring at the ceiling and making shapes from the abstract patterns. There was an elephant, a guitar, and the profile of a bald man with his mouth wide open.
"This is something you’re ready to do?" Jennifer asked.
"Do I not seem ready?"
"It’s not that. I’m just a little surprised that you’re taking this step so soon."
I was disappointed. Those were the words I expected to hear from others. I thought Jennifer would at least give a little encouragement.
"I’m not looking for something serious," I said.
"So why do you want to do it?"
I tried to think of a way to word my answer that wouldn’t make me sound desperate. Back on the ceiling, my eyes returned to the patterns. I found one the shape of a pine tree and another of a candle with a burning wick. In the end, I couldn’t think of anything to say but the truth.
"I miss having that special someone in my life," I said.
"I completely understand," Jennifer said. "I haven’t had anyone serious in my life since the engagement. Going out again might be good for you."
"Do you think women our age would go out with a widower?" That was one of by biggest concerns about dating again. I thought that most women would see me as used goods.
"I think you’re making it out to be a bigger issue than it is."
I sat up slowly, not sure I had heard her right.
"Would you go out with a man whose wife passed away four months ago?"
There was another long pause. I was about to tell Jennifer she didn’t have to answer the question when she finally spoke.
"I’ve never thought about it before," she said.
"Most people our age haven’t."
"I don’t think dating a widower would be a big deal for most women. As long as you make them feel loved, I doubt they’d care."
Though Jennifer’s words were comforting, I still lacked the courage to turn my words into actions. So for the next few weeks I stuck to my regular routine of imagining my life with the attractive women I saw and browsing through online single sites.
Then one evening on the drive home from work, I came across a radio talk show that struck a nerve. An automobile accident had clogged the freeway, and my usual hour drive home was looking more like two. Bored of hearing the same songs over and over again, I switched to the AM band, hoping to find something interesting to help pass the time. I scanned through a few stations before one show grabbed my attention.
" — several of the children were upset because she remarried so quickly after her husband’s death," the host’s voice said. "Many of the children were so upset that they refused to attend the wedding. Other family members told her that by marrying so quickly, she wasn’t respecting her late husband or his memory."
I moved my hand away from the radio dial and listened. Though I’d tuned in too late to hear the exact details, the show’s host continued to talk about someone famous — I never caught the woman’s name — who remarried six months after the death of her first husband. I found myself engrossed in the story and angry at the woman’s children for not supporting their mother.
Before the show cut to a commercial, the host gave a number for people to call. I never had the desire to call into a talk radio show before, but this topic was too close to home. I had to at least try. With one hand on the wheel, I dialed the show’s number on my cell phone. Busy. I hit redial. Still busy. Cars slowly inched forward. Up ahead I saw the flashing lights from police cars and an ambulance. I continued to redial the number, pausing only as I passed the accident, but I couldn’t get through. The show returned from commercial and the host took calls from listeners. Most callers were sympathetic to the widow’s decision to remarry and thought the woman’s children were immature in their decision not to attend the wedding. One caller said, "Shouldn't they be glad their mother has found someone that makes her happy?" Another caller told her story about remarrying several years after her husband passed away and what a blessing her second husband was. The show cut to another string of commercials. I worried the host would change subject when the show resumed. He didn’t. He took another call. I dialed the number again. To my surprise, there was a ringing sound on the phone. The call screener answered on the second ring.
"Thank you for calling the Mike Reagan show," a deep, heavy voice said. "What would you like to talk with Mike about?"
I must have never thought I’d actually get through to the show because while I was dialing, I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to tell the call screener. Passion and my own tenacity was what kept me hitting redial. It would take something articulate to get me on the air.
"I’m a twenty-seven-year-old widower, and I’d like to tell Mike what I think about widows and widowers remarrying." It wasn’t my most eloquent moment, but apparently it was enough for the call screener. He asked for my first name and where I was calling from. "Okay, I’m going to put you on hold. Please turn off your radio," he said
I did as he instructed and a moment later the radio show came in through the phone. Mike took a call from a lady from California. Traffic was picking up now. I set the cruise control at seventy and took some deep breaths to relax. I couldn’t believe I’d made it this far. Figuring there were several callers ahead of me, I leaned back in my seat and concentrated on the road. Mike thanked the woman for her call, then said, "Okay, let's go to Abel in Utah. Abel, welcome to the Mike Reagan show."
I sat up straight. I couldn’t believe my call was taken so quickly. My mind was blank. I swallowed hard and said, "Hi Mike."
"Hi, Abel. So do you have an opinion about people who remarry soon after the death of their spouse?"
I told Mike my age and how long I had been a widower. "My perspective on this whole situation has changed since my wife died," I said. "Before her death, if I knew someone who was dating or remarrying within a year after the death of their spouse, I would’ve thought they didn’t love him or her and weren’t grieving properly. Now that I’m a widower, I can understand the loneliness and desire to have someone in your life again."
"That’s interesting that you bring that up," Mike said. "How many of us actually take the time to think about what we would do if our spouse was to suddenly pass on. So tell me, Abel, are you currently dating?"
The question took me by surprise.
"No. Not yet," I said.
"Is dating something you’re looking to do in the near future?"
"It’s something I’m really thinking about right now."
"And if you start dating again and found the right person, do you see yourself remarrying soon?"
"If I felt she was the right person, I could." I regretted saying those words as soon as they left my mouth. Truthfully I didn’t have an answer to that question. I would hope I’d take some time getting to know the person and not rush into such a commitment just because I felt lonely.
"Now, Abel, you said you lost your wife just a few months ago, is that correct?"
"And you’re twenty-seven?"
"How long were you married?"
"Almost three years."
"I’m sorry to hear that happened. How did your wife die?"
For a brief moment everything stopped. My mind flashed back to Krista’s death. I heard the blood gushing from the hole in the back of her head and saw the blue smoke curling from the barrel of the handgun.
"An accident," I lied. "She was killed in an accident."
Long after I hung up the phone, I replayed my last words to Mike over and over in my mind. I still felt a lot of embarrassment and shame about Krista’s suicide. I had lied to Mike because I worried he might ask further questions. This wasn’t a good sign, especially when I was thinking about dating again. At some point Krista’s death was going to come up, and I would have to tell my date what happened. I needed to reach some sort of comfort level about the subject. And for the next three weeks, I dropped the idea of dating altogether and didn’t put much though into actually asking anyone out — until I met April.
I met her at the opening night banquet for National Undergraduate Literature Conference. I had participated in the conference several times as a student and had come back this year because one of my favorite authors, Ethan Canin, was the main author, and my friend James was presenting one of his short stories. The night of the dinner James and I had found seats at one of the tables near the podium. A few minutes before dinner began, the banquet room was packed, and every seat at our table was filled except for the one directly to my left.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up to the face of a college-aged student with long tan arms and sun-bleached blonde hair. Her eyes were the color of the sky just before dusk.
"I was wondering if the seat next to you was taken," she said. Her voice had a soft and gentle quality to it. Her tone was one that could put anyone at ease with just a few words. It sent my head spinning. In a few seconds, I imagined our lives together. We lived happily ever after.
"Have a seat," I said and motioned to the chair. She sat down and looked nervously around the table. She was wearing a dress with large pink flowers. The dress clung to her body in all the right places. Her face and neck had the same dark tan as her arms. There was something about her that sent jolts of excitement through my body. I’d sized up a lot of women over the last month but never had any of them had this effect on me.
She looked at me and smiled. "So, are you reading at the conference?"
I shook my head. "I’m here supporting some friends and to listen to Ethan Canin," I said.
"Oh," she said. There was a tinge of disappointment in her voice. "I was hoping to find someone else who was presenting. I’ve never been to one of these things before, and I’m a little nervous about reading in front of others."
I found myself wishing I was part of the conference. I tried to swing the conversation back to my favor.
"When I presented, I always pretended that I was reading the story with my best friend, not a group of strangers." I said. It was something Krista had taught me and had worked well anytime I had to speak in public.
"That’s a good idea. Still, it’s a little nerve-racking reading in a different language," she said. "What if I pronounce something wrong?"
"What are you reading?"
"A story I wrote in Spanish."
I was impressed. "You must know Spanish pretty well if you’re able to write short stories in it," I said. "Where’d you pick it up?"
"I’m Abel," I said, extending my hand.
"I’m April," she said smiling.
Before I could say anything the else, the dinner began. The servers came out with large trays of steaks and chicken. April and I talked all through the dinner. I learned she was a Spanish major at Weber State University and had lived in Peru for a year and a half as a missionary. She was an avid hiker, climber, and skier. By the time dinner was over, I was infatuated. I tried to listen as Ethan Canin read a short story to the audience, but I had a difficult time concentrating. Instead I pushed my chair back from the table far enough so I could look at April’s soft hair and the way the dress complemented her slender body.
After the dinner ended, April put on her coat and gathered her keys from her purse. "Maybe I’ll see you at the conference tomorrow," she said, smiling as she walked out the door and into the night.
I drove James back to his apartment. I must have been thinking a lot about April because when James finally spoke, I had forgotten he was even in the car with me.
"That was a nice-looking girl you were talking to," James said. "Did you ask for her phone number?"
"Why would I do that?"
James laughed. "It was pretty obvious you liked her."
I felt the blood rush to my face. "Was it really?"
I glanced at James. I wondered what he thought of me flirting with someone. He and his wife, Grace, had been good friends of Krista and mine. He seemed supportive, but I wondered if he was secretly appalled at my actions that evening.
"I think you should ask her out tomorrow if you see her," he said.
"I’m not ready to date again." It was a partial truth. I still hadn’t resolved how comfortable I was talking about Krista with others.
"I don’t think you’d be flirting with someone if you weren’t thinking about asking her out. I was surprised you didn’t ask her to do something after dinner."
I didn’t say anything. I rolled down the widow and let the cool, spring air flow through the car.
"Do you know if she’s going to be at the conference tomorrow?" James asked.
"She’s reading a story she wrote in Spanish."
"She’s multilingual. You can use that to your advantage. Learn how to say ‘Please have dinner with me’ in Spanish. It will sweep her off her feet."
"I’m not interested," I said. But it wasn’t the truth. I couldn’t get April out of my head. That night all I could think about was her long, sun-bleached hair and bright smile. Even though my attraction to April felt normal, I felt guilty for seriously thinking about dating her. The shame was so strong that the only way I could fall asleep was by telling myself that my feelings for April were a one-time thing, and I would never see her again.
But April was there the next morning. She arrived just as the first session of the conference began. James and I had arrived thirty minutes earlier, and I had been watching for her ever since. April sat at on the opposite side of the room. For the next hour as I sat and listened to Matthew Klam read his short story The Royal Palms, I glanced in April’s direction every few minutes, trying to think of something to talk with her about. My mind was blank. I hadn’t had to worry about things like this for a long time. With Krista I always knew what to say.
The reading ended, and April was out the door before I could make it halfway across the room. I looked for her but was unable to see where she had gone. The conference was breaking up into a half dozen smaller sessions. She could be in any one or none of them. Dejected, I decided to attend a short story session at the far end of the building. James opted for a poetry session. We parted and agreed to meet up at the end of the day in the library.
There were five presenters and about twenty-five people in the audience at the first session. I found an empty chair near the back and waited patiently for the readings to begin. To my surprise, April walked in a minute later.
"Hi again," I said. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
April smiled and took a seat next to me. She was wearing a short-sleeve white blouse and a knee-length black dress. Her legs had the same bronze color as the rest of her body. Around her left ankle, she wore a turquoise anklet. There was something about the anklet I found very attractive.
"Enjoying the conference?" I asked."I really am. I enjoy hearing authors read their own work." Her voice was soft, and it soothed me just to hear it.
While the presenters read their stories, I glanced over at April, tracing her legs down to the anklet. Instead of listening, I kept thinking of the best way to ask her out. I thought of different and clever things I could say; all the while my heart was pounding in my chest. By the time the session ended, I hadn’t found the courage to ask her out.
"What session are you going to next?" I asked. My plan was to go with her to whatever session she wanted to attend.
April lifted the green backpack from the floor and placed it on the table. "I’m behind on my homework," she said. "I’m skipping the next session, but I plan on catching a few poetry sessions later this afternoon."
She smiled before she left. I followed her out of the room and watched her walk down the long hall of the student union building in the direction of the library. I thought about walking after her and talking with her some more but decided against it. I still didn’t have the guts to ask her out and didn’t want to come across as liking her too much. I figured I would catch her later in the afternoon, by which time I hoped to have found more courage.
I spent the rest of the day in different fiction and poetry sessions. At each one I hoped I would see April. She wasn’t anywhere to be found. After the final session of the day ended, I headed to the library to meet up with James.
Outside it was warm and sunny. Students had shed their winter coats for jeans and T-shirts. There were strong memories of Krista associated with Weber State’s campus, but I had become better at not letting memories overwhelm me. As I walked, I thought about when Krista and I worked at the university’s writing center together, read on the grass during warm spring afternoons, or ran from class to class in the rain. I also remembered one day when we were first dating, heading off to different classes, and I looked over my shoulder at Krista and thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
In the library, the door to the session James was attending was closed. Through the door I could hear the voice of a student reading a story. The session was running late. I sat on an overstuffed couch against the wall and waited.
The library had been refurnished since I was a student. There used to be old, beat-up blue couches spaced against the wall behind the rows of bookshelves. Even though they were very worn, I found them extremely comfortable and has spent many hours reading or sleeping on them. The library had replaced them with royal purple couches that matched the school colors. They were nicer but not long enough for me to stretch out on, and I didn’t find them as comfy.
As I stared at a row of office doors along the far wall, a memory flashed through my mind. It was finals week. Krista and I had been dating about six months. We had spent the last several hours poring over the books and other study aids for our tests. We took a break and sat on one of the old, blue couches. Krista rested her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes.
"When finals are finished, I’m going to sleep all day," she said.
"If you do that, I won’t be able to spend any time with you," I said.
Krista looked at me, smiled, and said "I love you." We moved toward each other and kissed. A shadow passed in front of us. I opened my eyes just in time to see a librarian walk by. As she looked at the two of us, her face hardened into scowl. Her black hair was pulled tightly back into a ponytail. I had seen this librarian several times before and had never seen her smile. Her constant frowning soured what was otherwise an attractive face. She walked into one of the nearby offices. The door shut with a loud click.
"Did you see the way she looked at us?" Krista said.
I nodded and moved in to kiss Krista again. I decided not to take the librarian’s scowl personally. Krista pushed me away and walked back to the table that was piled with our books.
"She needs to be cheered up," Krista said.
"Come back to the couch," I coaxed. "Don’t worry about the sour-faced librarian."
Krista tore a blank piece of paper out of her notebook. She rummaged through her backpack, found a blue highlighter, and began to draw. Reluctantly I sat next to her at the table and watched as she drew a picture of a bird. I knew Krista well enough to know what she was doing but asked anyway.
"Why are you drawing a bird?"
"It’s the bluebird of happiness," Krista said. She shaded in the head and the body with the highlighter. "I’m going to give it to the librarian to cheer her up."
Under most circumstances I would have laughed along with Krista, but I was tired and just wanted to cuddle with her. "Forget it," I said. "We should be snuggling on the couch."
Krista ignored my comment and continued to draw. With an orange highlighter she added a beak and two skinny legs. Then with a black marker she wrote in big, bold letters: THE BLUEBIRD OF HAPPINESS VISITS YOU! She started toward the librarian’s door, drawing in hand. I grabbed her free arm and looked her right in the eyes.
"Listen to me. Do not give the bluebird of happiness to that woman."
"Why not?" Krista asked in a playful voice. She continued toward the librarian’s office, dragging me behind her.
"She’s might be having a very emotional day. Your bluebird could cause her to fly into a psychotic rage."
Krista stopped. "You’re just embarrassed. You don’t want her to know that her sour look bothered me."
I was running out of ideas to stop Krista. We were twenty feet from the librarian’s door. Then fifteen. Then ten. I grabbed Krista and spun her around so she was facing me.
"Your drawing’s not going to cheer her up," I said.
"You don’t know that," Krista said. She grabbed my arm and gave it a playful squeeze.
Before I could reply, the door to the librarian’s office opened. The librarian emerged with a black purse over her shoulder. Her eyes went from us to the drawing in Krista’s hand. The bluebird was in plain view for her to see. The librarian refocused her icy stare on the two of us. Krista smiled broadly. I looked at the gray carpet and wished I could disappear. The librarian turned and walked up a nearby flight of stairs in a huff. The high heels of her shoes clicked loudly on the concrete.
To my relief, Krista returned to our study table. I thought the era of the bluebird was over. But instead of sitting down, Krista rummaged through her backpack and pulled out a roll of clear tape. She taped the corners of her drawing and before I could protest, ran quickly over to the librarian’s office and taped the bluebird of happiness to the middle of the door. She returned to the table, laughing.
"I can’t wait to see the librarian’s face when she returns," she said.
"We’re not waiting for her to come back." I picked up my books and walked over to a table on the far side of the room. It offered a view of the librarian’s door but was far enough away that we’d be hard to spot. Krista looked at the door, then back at me. She slowly gathered up her books and joined me at the new table.
"We’ll never see her face from here," she said.
In the end it didn’t matter. The librarian never returned.
Sounds of talking and laughing brought me back to the present. People walked by holding conference programs. I took one last look at the brown, sterile-looking door where Krista placed the bluebird of happiness. I wondered if the librarian still worked there. I wondered if she smiled when she saw Krista’s drawing or if she simply threw it in the trash.
My stomach rumbled. I wanted something to eat. Other people walked by. I didn’t see James. As I walked toward the room where the reading had taken place I nearly bumped into April. She looked up at me and smiled.
"Did you enjoy the conference?" I asked. My mind started racing. The few hours since I had last seen her had not increased my confidence in asking her out.
"I did. I’m thinking about participating again next year." She folded the schedule and put it in her pocket. She looked at her watch. "I have to run to work. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime."
"Yeah, that would be nice."
She turned and started to walk toward the exit. I watched her long, tan legs take one step, then another. If I was going to ask her out, it was going to be now or never.
"April," I said. April turned and looked back expectantly. I opened my mouth to ask if she had any plans this weekend. But before the words could come out, memories of Krista flashed through my mind. Our first kiss. Our wedding day. The bluebird of happiness. The desire to ask April out disappeared.
"Maybe I’ll see you next year," I said.
For a brief moment disappointed looked crossed her face but was quickly gone. "Yeah," she said. "Maybe next year."
She walked toward the exit. She opened the door and stepped out into the bright spring sunlight. In the brief moment before the door began to close, the sun caught her hair just right, giving it the appearance of strands of gold. Then the door closed and she was gone.