Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 9 below.
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The first time I saw Julianna Taylor, I was sitting on the back pew of the chapel where the few single people in our church tended to congregate. The Sunday service had ended, and the congregation began to move toward the exits. Through the crowd I noticed a tall woman walking up the aisle in my general direction. She wore a long, yellow dress with small, green flowers that clung to the curves of her body perfectly. Her curly hair was the color of corn silk and fell just past her shoulders. As she drew closer my fingers and toes tingled, and my heart rate quickened. I looked at her hand to see if she was wearing a ring, then scanned the people around her to see if she had come to church with another guy. As far as I could tell she was single and alone. Though I attended church weekly, I had never noticed her before and wondered if she was visiting
Sitting next to me was the church’s clerk. One of his responsibilities was to keep track of the new members in the ward. If anyone would know if she was a regular, he would.
"Do you know who that woman is?" I asked. He was engrossed in paperwork, and it took him a moment to look up. By this time the woman was almost to the exit and would soon be out the door.
"Who?" he said. He squinted his eyes as he looked at the crowed leaving the chapel.
"The tall one with the yellow dress and curly hair," I said.
"Oh, her," he said. "That’s Julianna Taylor." His gaze returned to his paperwork.
"Julianna," I said. "Beautiful name." I watched her until she turned down a nearby hallway. "How long has she been coming to church?"
The clerk stopped writing and looked up at the ceiling. He chewed on the end of his pen. "I’m not sure."
"What do you know about her?" The clerk was only a few years older than I. I thought perhaps being single he would have already gathered enough information about Julianna to see if he’d consider dating her.
The clerk stroked his beard for a moment, lost in thought. "I believe she’s a chemist or scientist or something like that." He returned to the stack of paperwork on his lap.
I thanked the clerk, then worked my way through the crowded hallways, trying to locate Julianna. I found her sitting alone in one of the Sunday school classes. She had her scriptures open on her lap and was reading from them. I sat in an empty seat directly behind her and spent the next hour staring at her long, blonde curls and trying to think of an excuse to talk with her. I found it hard to believe that someone this beautiful didn’t have a boyfriend. By the time Sunday school ended, I had convinced myself that she did have one and asking her out would only lead to an awkward moment for both of us.
Julianna stood to leave. Our eyes met briefly. I smiled. Julianna smiled back.
"Hi," I said.
She nodded hello, then picked up her scriptures and left. The last thing I saw was her yellow dress, flowing around her long legs.
I walked through the halls, looking for Bekah who could usually be found trying to put her one-year-old son, Anderson, to sleep about this time. I found her sitting on a couch in the foyer, rocking Anderson in her arms. I engaged in small talk for a minute, then asked if she knew Julianna.
"I know who you’re talking about," Bekah said.
"What do you know about her?"
"Not much," Bekah said. "I just know who she is."
Anderson raised his head at the sound of his mother’s voice and smiled, then nuzzled his face back into her shoulder. Bekah pulled the blanket from around his body so it covered his head.
"Why do you want to know more about her?" Bekah said. She whispered the words and looked down to make sure she hadn’t disturbed Anderson.
This is where the situation became tricky. Bekah had been Krista’s best friend and seeing if she would find out whether or not Julianna had a boyfriend was a lot to ask.
"I need to know if she’s seeing anyone," I said.
"You know. A boyfriend."
There was a pained look in Bekah’s face. It lasted only a moment, then was gone.
"I didn’t know you were interested in getting back into the dating game," she said.
"I’ve already been on a couple dates," I said.
"You have?" Bekah looked as if she was calculating the time since Krista’s death in her head. "How long have you been doing it?"
Anderson snored softly. Bekah pulled the blanked back far enough so she could see his eyes. She leaned back into the couch and sighed.
"Why not ask her yourself?" Bekah said.
A door down the hall opened, and Julianna emerged. She walked down the hall in our general direction.
"That’s her," I said.
Bekah and I sat silently looking at the floor as Julianna passed. I noticed Julianna was wearing brown Doc Martins shoes and white socks. My eyes didn’t go any higher. Instead they followed her feet out the main entrance of the church.
"It would mean a lot to me," I said after Julianna was gone.
"I’ll talk to her next Sunday," Bekah said.
"Thanks," I said. "I appreciate it."
I headed to the parking lot, hoping to catch a final glimpse of Julianna before she left. I made it just in time to see her drive away in a bronze-colored Saturn. I made a mental note of the car so I would know if she was at church next Sunday.
As it turned out, Julianna wasn’t dating anyone. At least that’s what Bekah told me from the casual conversations she had with Julianna at church over the next few weeks. This good news, however, didn’t give me the necessary courage to ask Julianna out. I still feared rejection. Each Sunday I looked longingly after her, wishing I could find the strength to say a few words to her.
In the meantime, I continued to date women I met online. There was one with an artist who sculpted cowboys and horses, but was so shy, she could barely put two sentences together. There was one with an unemployed administrative assistant who was more interested in knowing if I knew of any job opportunities, and one with an interior designer who had with her silky black hair and large, brown eyes. I found her drop-dead gorgeous. Unfortunately, her looks were all she had going for her. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend and spent the entire date complaining about him.
The feeling that I was somehow cheating on Krista diminished each time I went out. I was learning to relax and being myself more. I enjoyed spending an evening out with someone.
I wanted to tell my family that I was dating again but didn’t know how to explain to them that what I was doing wasn’t a rejection of Krista or our marriage. Since Jennifer was the only person I could talk with, she became the play-by-play recipient of every date and laughed and cringed along with me. It felt good to have someone to talk with. It made the whole dating experience seem more real.
Then came the Sunday that changed everything. It was warm for an early May morning, or at least it felt warmer than usual when I walked outside to retrieve the newspaper from the driveway. All morning I had been thinking of Julianna and wondered if this would be the day I’d have the courage to talk with her.
Sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of scrambled eggs, I pulled out the sports page, eager to look over the latest baseball scores. The main picture above the fold made me stop. It was of a woman in a white running singlet crossing the finish line of the Ogden Marathon. She looked tired, exhausted, and very familiar. I scrutinized the woman’s face. She looked just like Julianna. I flipped to the bottom half of the page to read the caption. It read: Julianna Taylor crosses the finish line in downtown Ogden as the women’s marathon winner.
I was dumbfounded. I read the article about the marathon and checked the results. It really was Julianna. She had won the Ogden Marathon in three hours and six minutes. The baseball scores were forgotten. I kept looking at the photograph and rereading the article. I now had a reason to talk with her and, if things went well, ask her out. I wondered if she would still come to church after running the marathon.
So I didn’t miss her, I arrived at church thirty-five minutes early. I sat in the middle of the back row so would have a clear view of both doors leading into the chapel. Slowly congregation members arrived. Old couples arm and arm, teenagers, families. Everyone but Julianna. Just as the service began, Julianna walked in. She was wearing a white blouse and plaid skirt that went to her knees. She looked stunning. She walked with a slight limp and took a seat near the front.
The only thing I remember about the service that day is that it seemed to drag on forever. The entire time I kept looking at Julianna psyching myself up to talk with her. When the meeting finally ended, I worked my way through the crowded hallways and caught up with her before she entered the Sunday school classroom.
"Congratulations on winning the marathon yesterday," I said.
Julianna’s face turned red, and she looked away. "Thanks," she said.
"It was a quite surprise to see your picture in the sports page," I said. "I didn’t know you ran."
"Now the whole world knows," Julianna said. She looked back at me and met my gaze. Her green eyes were big and beautiful and made my stomach do flips.
The Sunday school class started. We found our seats.
"There’s a social after church," I whispered. "I’d love to hear how you managed to win a marathon."
Our eyes locked for several seconds, then Julianna looked away.
"Do you run?" she whispered back.
"Every morning." I patted my stomach. "It keeps the weight off."
"I usually don’t go to the social. I don’t like big gatherings."
"I don’t like to go either," I said. "But if you show up, at least you’ll have someone to talk to."
Julianna pursed her lips, then said, "All right. I’ll go."
I was late to the social. By the time I arrived, the entire congregation was milling about and having a good time. Everyone, that is, except Julianna. She stood in a far corner by herself. She leaned against a wall and looked at the floor. When someone walked past, she looked up as if she was afraid they would talk to her. Apparently she wasn’t kidding when she said she didn’t like large gatherings. She smiled, however, when she saw me approaching.
"Tell me about the race," I said. My tongue felt dry and thick, and it sounded like I was stammering all over the place. I thought back to when Krista and I were first dating but couldn’t remember if I had been ever been this nervous with her.
Julianna told me how she had run one of the best races of her life and overtook the woman in first place with less than half a mile to go. She seemed almost embarrassed when she talked about her accomplishment. She kept downplaying her achievement and saying there was nothing very impressive about winning the Ogden Marathon, even though it was only the third marathon she had ever run. As we talked I had the feeling that running was something she really loved. I knew a lot of runners, but Julianna had a passion for it that surpassed all of theirs. Then it hit me. If I was going to ask Julianna out, I might as well ask her to go running.
"We should go running together sometime," I said. "I’d like to see if I can keep up with you."
Julianna smiled. I couldn’t tell if it was because she was excited about the date or the prospect of beating me in a run.
"How about Friday evening?" I said. "There’s a nice four-mile course near my place."
"I’d like that."
We agreed to meet at my place after work.
Julianna looked at her watch. "I need to go," she said. "I have dinner with my family tonight."
"See you Friday," I said.
Julianna flashed me a smile as she walked out the door.
"I see you finally found the courage to talk with her."
I turned to see Bekah standing behind me. Anderson squirmed in her arms trying to break free from her grasp. He tugged at Bekah’s hair. "No, Anderson," she said and slowly worked his fingers free. She turned Anderson sideways, which made grabbing her hair impossible and Anderson a little grumpy.
"So, did you ask her out?" Bekah asked.
"We have a running date for Friday," I said. "But keep it to yourself."
"You’d be surprised how many people at church know you like her." Bekah said.
My stomach tightened. Who else knew how I felt about Julianna? Was my family aware of it? I looked nervously around the room. No one seemed to be paying attention to us.
Anderson started crying before I could ask Bekah to elaborate. She tried to comfort him, but his crying turned into a loud, piercing wail. "It’s his lunchtime," she said. "You’ll have to tell me about your date next Sunday."
The rest of the afternoon my mind was occupied with my upcoming date with Julianna. Back at home I kept looking at the picture of her on the sports page crossing the finish line. Running a marathon that fast took a lot of time, training, and dedication. I was impressed. And for the first time I was worried she just might run me into the ground on Friday. My thoughts were interrupted by the chirping of my cell phone. I looked at the caller ID. It was Jennifer.
"Did you forget about our afternoon chat?" she said. "You usually call the moment you get home from church." There was a flirtatious sound to her voice.
"Sorry," I said. "It’s been a busy day."
"You mean a phone call with your favorite Arizona girl wasn’t your top priority?"
"I didn’t forget about you, Jennifer."
"You better not. Who else is going to talk to you after church every Sunday?"
"I’m sure Brent would."
Jennifer laughed. "I think you’d rather spend the day with me."
"Your voice is a little more pleasant than his."
"Really," she said. "Why didn’t you call?"
I told Jennifer about seeing Julianna’s picture in the paper and our impending date. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about Julianna. In previous conversations I had mentioned about how much I wanted to ask her out.
"It looks like fate has given you the chance to see if the two of you click," Jennifer said. Her voice had lost its playful tone. It was now serious and sober — almost jealous.
I tried to ease any concerns she might have about Julianna.
"If this date’s anything like my previous ones, I’ll only go out once with her."
"I hope it’s a little more enjoyable than some of the dates you’ve had recently," Jennifer said.
I smiled. Jennifer seemed to be okay with everything.
"If you want, I’ll give you a call Saturday morning with all the details," I said.
At exactly four o’clock that Friday, Julianna knocked on my door. The knock came as a surprise as I had not heard a car in the driveway. When I opened it, I found Julianna dressed a white sleeveless shirt and purple shorts. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her arms and legs had a nice tan and were covered with a light film of sweat.
"Ready to run?" Julianna said.
I looked past her to the driveway, then to the empty street.
"Did you run to my house?" I asked.
"Of course," she said. "I only live a mile away." She wiped a bead sweat from her forehead and smiled.
I should have been surprised, but I wasn't. Julianna could run twenty-six miles faster than anyone. Why would she balk at running the mile to my house?
I put on my shoes, then the two of us started down the road. Since Julianna was unfamiliar with the course, she followed my lead, which meant I set the pace. The pace was slightly faster than what I was used to, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. I was sure Julianna could handle it too, but then I thought this might not even be close to what she was used to.
"Is the pace too slow?"
"You sure? You’re the one that won a marathon in three hours."
"My body’s still recovering. This pace feels great."
We turned right down a street that wound its way through a new subdivision of townhomes.
"I hear you work in the business park," I said.
"And you’re a chemist?"
"A criminalist, actually."
"What’s a criminalist?"
"I analyze forensic evidence. Drugs mostly."
I had to take several deep breaths before I asked another question. I wasn’t used to talking and running at the same time, and with the faster than usual pace, doing both was difficult. Julianna, however, didn’t even look tired.
"Is it anything like that television show CSI?"
Julianna laughed. "Not really. We mostly do lab work. It’s rare that we spend any time at crime scenes. We don’t wear sexy tank tops to work or carry guns. And we never interview suspects. That’s a detective’s job."
I had to stop talking and concentrate on running. The pace had picked up slightly, and talking zapped a lot of my strength. All the townhomes in this neighborhood had neutral-colored siding and satellite dishes pointing south.
"How far have we run?" she asked.
I pointed down the road. "That stop sign is two miles," I said.
Julianna looked at her watch.
"Are you timing us?" I asked.
Julianna seemed a little surprised at the question. "I usually time my runs, don’t you?"
The truth was I rarely timed them anymore, unless I was trying to achieve a specific goal.
"Seeing how fast I’m going is habit of mine. Always need to know what my pace is."
We only said a few more words the rest of the run. The second half of the course took us into a neighborhood of split-level homes and tall, mature trees. I used the time to think of the best way to ask Julianna out to dinner after the run.
About a hundred yards from my house, Julianna looked at her watch and increased her speed dramatically. I tried to keep up with her but had to slow down with thirty yards to go. As Julianna surged ahead of me, my eyes followed the curves of her body and watched as her ponytail bounced from side to side. It was all very attractive.
Julianna looked back over her shoulder.
"Am I running too fast?" she yelled. There was a big smile on her face. She reached the end of the run a good five seconds before me. We walked slowly in the direction of my house. My lungs and throat burned. Julianna didn’t even seem out of breath. After cooling down I invited her inside for a drink of cold water.
"Does running make you hungry?" I asked as I handed her a cup.
Julianna nodded and took a long drink of her water.
"Would you like to have dinner after we clean up?"
"I’d like that." She looked at her watch. "Pick me up in an hour."
I nodded. "I can do that."
"Great. I’ll see you then."
Julianna make a move for the door.
"Are you going to run home?"
"It’s only a mile away."
"I can drive you."
"I’ll be fine, Abel," She opened the door and stepped outside. "See you in an hour," she said.
I watched her ponytail bounce from side to side as she ran down the driveway and up the street and out of sight.
On the drive to Julianna’s apartment, I was excited and nervous all at once. There was a level of anticipation to having dinner with her that I hadn’t felt since Krista and I had first started dating. There had been similar feelings of eagerness and expectation every time we went out together. The feeling was almost electric. It made everything seem more vibrant and full of energy.
Julianna looked stunning. She wore a form-fitting yellow T-shirt and jeans. Her hair was curled, the same way I remembered it looking the first time I saw her. At the time it all seemed like a dream. I couldn’t believe I was fortunate enough to have the company of this beautiful woman for the evening.
I walked Julianna to my car and got in. Julianna hesitated outside the passenger door for a minute before she opened it. Though I didn’t know it, I had just made my first mistake. Julianna had been raised in a family where her dad had always opened the car door for her mother and had never been on a date where the man didn’t open the car door for her. But I was too caught up in my euphoria of being with her to notice that she was a little put off by this. As far as I was concerned, the date was off to a great start.
Dinner was at a restaurant called The Bluebird. It was located in Logan, a forty-minute drive to the north. I had chosen this restaurant mainly because it would give me a chance to spend the drive time getting to know her better. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the beautiful, quiet woman that ran marathons.
The date was going well, as we entered Cache Valley. Fields of alfalfa and corn were spread out like squares on a green quilt. We were talking about our families — specifically, which of our siblings were still at home and which ones were out on their own. I was telling Julianna about Clare and how she had recently given birth to a girl when Julianna said, "Is that your parents’ first grandchild?"
Her question struck me as odd. No, Fiona wasn’t the first grandchild for my parents. Hope was. Didn’t she know that? Then it hit me. Did Julianna even know I was a widower? Because we had attended the same church for several months, I assumed she knew everything. My mind went over the bits of conversation we had shared. I couldn’t think of any specific comment that indicated she knew I had been married.
I said something about Fiona being spoiled rotten since my parents had no other grandchildren to spoil. The city of Logan was slowly creeping up on us. Amid wooden barns and farm homes, a new subdivision was being built in the middle of a green field on our left.
"How long have you been coming to our church?" I said. I needed to know what she knew about my past.
She hadn’t been attending our church when Krista died. I tried another question.
"And did you talk to anyone at church about me before we went out?"
"No. Why would I do that?"
"You know, to make sure I was a decent guy."
"Most of the time."
Something about the comment struck Julianna as funny, and she laughed softly. Even her laugh I found attractive. Could she be any more perfect?
We came upon a slow-moving trailer loaded with hay bales. The first cut of the season. Bits of hay swirled around the car as we passed. I knew I was going to have to tell Julianna about Krista before the evening was over. I had heard horror stories from friends who had gone on several dates with someone before they discovered their date was still married, had kids, or had some other issue that would have been good to know on the first date. The one advantage about finding dates online is that women knew I was a widower in advance. As far as could tell, Julianna thought I was single. She might not have even agreed to go out with me if she knew I had been married before.
Looking back, I should have told her while we were still in the car on our way to dinner. I didn’t, of course. I was too worried about her reaction. Had it been anyone else, I think I would have been all right with them not being happy at the news. But Julianna was different. I had strong feelings for her that I couldn’t explain. Any hint of rejection from her was going to sting.
When I did finally get the courage to tell Julianna, I picked the most inopportune time. We were halfway through dinner. Julianna was in the middle of a bite of Chicken Parmesan when I said, "There’s something I need to tell you. I’m a widower. My wife passed away six months ago."
"Oh," she said. She swallowed her food and wiped her mouth with her napkin. She looked down at her plate.
There wasn’t much conversation the rest of the evening. I tried restarting it a couple times, but the most the two of us could manage was the occasional string of sentences. Julianna refused to look at me on the drive back to Ogden. Instead, she kept her gaze focused on the mountainsides of Sardine Canyon. I couldn’t tell if it was what I had told her or how I had done it. This wasn’t the way I envisioned our first date going. During the quiet moments, of which there were plenty, I tried to think of ways to apologize to her and set things right. But by the time we arrived at her apartment, I hadn’t thought of anything.
I parked the car but before I could get out to walk her to the door, Julianna opened the door and exited the car. She bent down and said, "Thanks for dinner." Then she was gone. In the rearview mirror I watched her walk to her apartment and close the door.
For the rest of that evening, I thought of ways to apologize. If a date with anyone else had gone this poorly I wouldn’t have cared. But thoughts of Julianna kept gnawing at me. There was something about her that made me feel alive and happy again. I just couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.