Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 11 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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On the flight back to Utah, I sat next to a chatty, raven-haired college student who was flying to Salt Lake to spend a week with her fiancé. While she talked about her impending nuptials and plans for the future, I thought about my relationship with Jennifer. I had hoped my visit to Arizona would either solidify my feelings for her or prove that there was nothing between us. But the trip had done neither.
Physically our relationship had taken off. The kissing, hand holding, and feeling of her warm body pressed against mine when we hugged was wonderful. Emotionally something was missing. With Krista there had been an invisible, almost magnetic, attraction to her — something that made me want to spend all of my time with her. Even after the initial euphoria of dating and marriage had worn off, long periods of time away from her were difficult. It wasn’t like that with Jennifer. After spending several days with her, I felt drained. I was looking forward to the two-week break before she was coming to Utah.
The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I was pursuing a relationship with Jennifer as a way to stick it to Krista. After a lot of soul searching, I realized that even though I was still mad at Krista, the anger wasn’t the catalyst for pursuing Jennifer. That came from my growing desire to move on with my life and have it return to some semblance of normality.
And there was one last problem I couldn’t resolve: I couldn’t stop thinking about Julianna. Since we lived only a mile from each other, every time I went grocery shopping or ran other errands at the nearby shopping center, I hoped to accidentally run into her. Every Sunday I looked forward to seeing and talking with her at church. I thought that part of the reason I was having a hard time connecting to Jennifer emotionally was that my relationship with Julianna was in some kind of indeterminate state. Maybe my emotional attachment to Jennifer would become stronger if I could remove Julianna from the picture. So I did what I thought would be the best way to clear things up: I asked Julianna out.
I envisioned the date going something like this: We’d spend a few hours together and, like most of our other dates, it would be average at best. At that point, I would realize how much fun it was to be around Jennifer and could tell Julianna I had enjoyed dating her but I didn’t see the relationship progressing any further.
The moment Julianna opened the door to her apartment I realized getting her out of my mind wasn’t going to be that easy. She wore jeans that accentuated the length of her legs and a tight orange shirt that emphasized the curves of her upper body. Just looking at her made me weak in the knees — a reaction that until then only Krista had been able to elicit. As we drove to the ballpark, I kept sneaking glances at her body. I knew physical attraction wasn’t something to solely build a relationship on, but I was almost willing to make an exception with Julianna.
I took Julianna to an Ogden Raptors baseball game, mostly because it would give us two and a half hours of uninterrupted time together — more than enough time, I thought, to prove that we were completely incompatible. There were only about 1,500 people at the game. This turned out to be a good thing. The closest person to us was two rows away. This gave us some privacy we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
I told Julianna about my trip to Arizona, the baseball games, catching the baseball in the right field bleachers, and seeing the Grand Canyon. I omitted any reference to Jennifer and only mentioned that I had done all these things with friends who lived in the Phoenix area. Julianna told me about the training she was doing for the marathon she was going to run next month. She said it was one of the more difficult marathons in the country as it snaked its way over the mountains to the east of Salt Lake City before ending in a park near downtown. Tomorrow she was waking up early and running twenty miles.
"Why do you run marathons?" I said. "There are lots of other races. Shorter ones. Why marathons?"
"There’s something about running long distances that I love," Julianna said. "There’s a feeling of accomplishment and a physical high I can’t achieve any other way."
A Raptors batter took a called third strike and walked dejectedly back to the dugout. There was a smattering of boos from the crowd directed at the umpire.
"You seem happy with life," I said.
"Has it turned out the way you expected?"
"Then why are you so happy?"
"I don’t let circumstances dictate my happiness," Julianna said. "Just because life isn’t going the way I imagined it, doesn’t mean I can’t find joy with what I’ve been blessed with."
"So how has life not turned out how you planned?"
Julianna took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. I had the feeling she was unsure how much she wanted to tell me. I wished we were close enough that she could feel comfortable telling me what she was really thinking. On the field a batter hit a lazy fly ball into right field. The right fielder caught the ball and jogged toward the dugout. The inning was over.
"I kind of hoped to have found someone by now that I wanted to spend my life with," Julianna finally said.
"You’re what, twenty-three? You’re still young," I said.
"That’s easy advice for you to give," Julianna said. "You’ve already found someone to marry." Her words cut deep and served as a reminder that there was a part of my life we still hadn’t discussed.
"There are advantages to being single," I said. "A lot more freedom." I said those words even though I hadn’t minded giving up certain "freedoms" to marry Krista.
"Let’s say I never fall in love," Julianna said. "That’s not going to stop me from being happy. I want to keep run marathons. I can train as much as I want now. I’m considering applying to medical school. I’d love to be a doctor. There are a lot of things I can do because I’m not attached. But that doesn’t mean I want to be single forever."
Julianna had articulated something I had been feeling for a long time. Krista’s death had been devastating, but I was doing my best to take advantage of what life had given me even though at times it was difficult. And I felt a little heartened that Julianna was discussing commitment. Perhaps she saw some potential in our relationship
We sat in silence through the next two innings. During that time I thought of different ways to bring up Krista, but each time I rationalized away the need to talk about it. After all, this was meant to be the date where I was going end things with Julianna, not talk about the past. By the time our conversation resumed, the openness Julianna had exhibited was gone, and our conversation fell back to generalities. Though I tried to revisit our previous conversation, Julianna would always direct the conversation back to the baseball game. It was as if she was didn’t want to risk coming any closer to me emotionally.
When I walked Julianna to her door that night, I felt more confused about her than ever. Even though the date wasn’t spectacular, it was the best one we had so far. Instead of lessening my feelings for Julianna, the date had only strengthened them.
On the drive home I checked my cell phone messages. There were four messages from Jennifer. The first was pleasant, asking where I was and that she wanted to talk with me and see how my day at work had gone. Each successive message was a little more anxious, wondering where I was and why I hadn’t called. I parked in my driveway and was about to dial her number when the cell phone rang. It was Jennifer.
"I’ve been trying to call you all night," she said. "Where have you been?"
"I went out with a friend," I said. I didn’t feel good about telling her a half-truth. Though we hadn’t left with a commitment we couldn’t date anyone else, our actions in Phoenix had suggested we were a serious couple, and I knew that Jennifer wasn’t even thinking about asking anyone else out.
"What? You didn’t want to talk with me all evening?" Jennifer sounded like she was joking, so I laughed. In the back of my mind, I wondered how serious that comment had been.
"How come you’re not out with friends on a Friday night?" I said.
"My friends? They just sit around and complain about their husbands. I don’t need to hang around them now that I have you."
"You should still do things with them. We can’t be together every day," I said.
"In ten days we’ll be together." Jennifer said. "I can’t wait to see you again."
Jennifer was scheduled to fly to Utah on the third of July and spend the next five days with me. After my date with Julianna, I was less eager for Jennifer to arrive. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with Jennifer. I knew the two of us would have a good time together no matter what we did but felt we were moving too fast. I wished we had taken things slower back in Arizona.
Before Jennifer arrived, there was one order of business I had to take care of: I had to tell my mom about Jennifer’s visit. It wasn’t going to be easy because I had no idea how she’d react. I wished my dad was in town because his reaction would be easier to read. But since he was in Wyoming, I broke the news of Jennifer’s trip three days before she arrived. Mom was washing the dishes after dinner. I sat at the table and watched the air conditioner in the window blow wisps of her salt-and-pepper hair behind her ears. We made small talk while I built up the courage to tell her. When I finally mentioned it, I tried to be as casual about it as I could, hoping it would make the news easier to take.
"I have a friend flying up from Phoenix over the Fourth of July holiday," I said.
"Is it your friend, Brent?" my mom said. "I’d like to meet him."
"This is a different friend," I said. "Her name is Jennifer."
My mom stopped washing the dishes and turned off the air conditioner. The silence that filled the kitchen made me want to hide.
"Who’s coming?" she said.
"The girl you went to the Grand Canyon with?"
My mom grew quiet as if she was pondering the significance of what I had just told her. "Does she have family in the area she’s visiting?" she said.
With that question I knew my mom was hoping that Jennifer’s arrival in Utah was a coincidence. In her mind it was impossible for people to become so serious that quickly.
"She’s coming to see me," I said.
My mom let the dish she was holding slip from her hand. It disappeared in the soapy water and clucked against the plates in the bottom of the sink.
"To see you?" She said the words slowly, as if what I was telling her wasn’t quite sinking in.
"Yes, Mom. To see me."
My mom leaned against the counter and thought for a moment. "How serious are the two of you?"
"Serious enough for her to fly down and spend five days in Utah," I said.
"Oh," Mom said. They way she said "oh" reminded me of the way someone might say it upon learning that a neighbor or distant relative had died. There was no further need to discuss the trip. I started making plans to keep Jennifer as far away from the family as possible.
It was a tradition for my family to have a large Fourth of July barbeque. The annual event attracted upwards of thirty to forty people — extended family, neighbors, and friends. There was lots of good food and conversation to be had. And after dark, everyone would take their chairs out to the side of the road and watch as the teenage boys would light illegal fireworks, smuggled in from Wyoming. For hours after dark the middle of the street would be filled with contraband light. The barbeque was something I usually looked forward to. This year, however, I didn’t want to attend. The barbeque meant Jennifer would be introduced to everyone — not just my family.
I thought about skipping the barbeque entirely but knew that wouldn’t be the best way to have my family open up to Jennifer. Instead I decided it would be better to arrive at the barbeque late, hoping it would be easier to blend in. By the time Jennifer and I arrived, the party was in full swing. My parents’ backyard was filled with family and friends. The younger children had already finished eating and were lighting sparklers or throwing snaps at the ground or each other. Most of the adults were seated in lawn chairs around the fire pit, talking to one another and waving the smoke from the fire out of their faces when the wind shifted.
It didn’t matter that we were late. The fact I was bringing a girl, one who was staying at my house no less, to the barbeque was a showstopper. It seemed, in my mind anyway, when Jennifer and I walked into the backyard, all the conversations abruptly stopped. Maybe it was because I was already worried what people would think about Jennifer and me that I read something into their actions that wasn’t there. But it seemed everyone’s eyes went from me to Jennifer, then back to me, as if they were trying to picture me with someone other than Krista.
I introduced Jennifer to those seated around the fire pit. Everyone was friendly, shook Jennifer’s hand, and did their best to make her feel welcome. But I didn’t care if the guests liked her. I was more concerned with my family’s reaction.
It didn’t take long to realize that my family didn’t care much for her. The first clue came from my dad. After Jennifer had talked with him for several minutes, my dad joined me at the picnic table where I was loading my plate with baked beans, potato chips, and orange Jell-O. My dad helped himself to a second hamburger and a large serving of three-bean salad.
"Mom said you caught a baseball at one of those games you attended in Arizona," he said. "You need to tell me that story."
My heart fell. The fact that he didn’t say anything about Jennifer meant he didn’t like her. If my dad liked someone, he always made it a point to saying something nice about them to me. With Krista for example, my dad had told me over and over again what a sweet person she was. This was his way of telling me he approved of our relationship.
It soon became apparent my dad wasn’t the only one who wasn’t fond of Jennifer. Other family members were polite but standoffish toward her. When I was able to pull them aside and ask what they thought about Jennifer, their answers were diplomatic and noncommittal. "She’s an interesting person" or "I need to spend more time with her before I can answer that" were the most common responses. And though it hurt that they didn’t like her, it was the fact they wouldn’t ever tell me this that hurt the most.
As the barbeque progressed, I became more frustrated at my family. I hadn’t expected them to embrace Jennifer with open arms, but the level of resentment I felt was surprising. I knew they needed time to adjust to seeing me with someone besides Krista. But at the same time I thought that Jennifer was being unfairly compared to my wife. It was like they expected Jennifer to be Krista — have the same personalities and mannerisms. They seemed unwilling to give Jennifer a chance.
Jennifer seemed oblivious to my family’s feelings. She enjoyed being the center of attention, and this was her moment to show them that she was the new woman in my life. As the evening progressed and I watched Jennifer interact with my family, it seemed like she was trying too hard to impress them. When my dad told a joke, Jennifer laughed a little too loud. When my mom talked to her about the history project she was working on, Jennifer came across as a little too interested. It bordered on obnoxious, and my family could see right through it.
When it was dark everyone brought their lawn chairs to the sidewalk to watch fireworks. My seventeen-year-old brother, Liam, and his friends took charge and lit up the night sky with bottle rockets and other fireworks they had purchased in Evanston the week before. Halfway through the show Liam snuck up behind Jennifer and lit a smoke bomb under her chair. Jennifer jumped out of her chair as the smoke billowed around her. She walked over to Liam and began to reprimand him.
"That’s not funny," she said. "Fireworks are not toys. You’re setting a bad example for the younger kids." She said it in a tone of voice someone might use when scolding a young child.
Her reaction surprised my brother. He was expecting a more playful reaction. In the past years when he had done something similar to Krista, she had jumped out of her chair and good-naturedly chased him up and down the street. Jennifer was simply annoyed. For the rest of the night, Liam made sure he stayed twenty feet from her at all times.
Jennifer’s reaction also dampened the festive mood that had been strong until that moment. By the orange streetlight I could see everyone uncomfortably staring at her.
"Liam was only teasing you," I said after the smoke had cleared.
"That doesn’t make it right."
"It was just a smoke bomb."
"Someone could have been hurt," she said, then held my hand as Liam and his friends launched more fireworks into the sky.
As we walked back to my house, Jennifer seemed oblivious that no one in my family seemed to like her.
"You’re family’s wonderful," she said. "And your dad cracked me up with his jokes."
That’s because he didn’t have anything else to say to you, I thought. I decided not to tell Jennifer the truth. There was still four more days for her to spend in Utah. Perhaps there was still enough time for my family to warm up to her.
I avoided my family as much as possible for the remainder of Jennifer’s visit. We spent a day at Antelope Island walking along the salty shores of the Great Salt Lake. Another day was spent touring the canyons and valleys east of Ogden. And just like our trip to the Grand Canyon, any doubts about our relationship that crept into my mind were pushed aside. We were having a good time together and immensely enjoying each other’s company. There was no reason to think we wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives together.
Then Sunday came. I awoke that morning with a mix of excitement and trepidation. We were expected to attend church with my family. But that wasn’t the part that had me worried. Going to church meant Julianna might see me with Jennifer. One glimpse of Jennifer would be all the excuse Julianna would need not to date me again.
I showered and dressed at my parents’ house and walked up to my home. Jennifer was running late. She had bags under her eyes and said she hadn’t slept well. I sat at the kitchen table and flipped through the Sunday paper while Jennifer finished readying herself. I tried to immerse myself in the baseball news, but I couldn’t focus on the game recaps and the box scores. My thoughts were on the upcoming service and a way I could avoid Julianna for three hours.
Jennifer walked into the kitchen. "Can you zip up the back of my dress?" she asked. She turned around to show the last six inches of her dress needed to be zipped. It was the sweep of her hand to pull back her hair that abruptly drew me back to Krista's same gentle motion, her simple act of trusting intimacy between husband and wife that for me never grew routine. It was something I always enjoyed. She would hold her hair with one hand so it wouldn't be in the way. Instead of immediately zipping up her dress, I would kiss Krista’s back and work my way up to her neck. I closed my eyes and smiled, remembering what it felt like to press my lips against Krista’s skin.
"Is that runner girl going to be at church?" Jennifer’s voice shattered my memory. I opened my eyes and with one quick motion zipped up her dress.
"That’s her. Do you think she’ll be at church today?"
"I assume so."
"I can’t wait to see her."
I didn’t understand why Jennifer was so anxious to see Julianna. The last time I had even mentioned Julianna to Jennifer was two weeks before my trip to Phoenix.
"Why do you want to see Julianna?" I said.
"I want to drop the J-bomb on her," Jennifer said.
"The Jennifer bomb." Jennifer’s cackling laugh filled the house. "I can’t wait to see the look on her face when she sees you with me."
Suddenly I wasn’t interested in going to church. There was a vindictive tone to Jennifer’s words that I didn’t understand. I didn’t see why she viewed Julianna as a threat. "What makes you think Julianna’s going to care?" I said.
Jennifer stood close to me. She put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. "I know you like her, Abel," she said. "When you talked about your dates, I sensed your frustration that things weren’t going better with her."
I tried to remember what I had said to Jennifer about my dates with Julianna. I didn’t remember telling her I was frustrated about the dates or that I even liked Julianna. I was about to protest, but Jennifer put her finger to my lips and said, "You wouldn’t have asked her out three times if you didn’t have feelings for her. All I want to do is let her know that you’re taken." Jennifer gave me a kiss on the lips. "Now let’s go."
I did my best to make sure we were late to church. As we walked out the door, I told Jennifer I had left something at my parents’ house and spent several minutes in the basement sitting on the floor while Jennifer waited in the car. By the time we arrived, the service was underway. The only empty seats were the two on the back row my parents had saved for Jennifer and myself.
The first thing I did after we were seated was look for Julianna. It took a few minutes, but I spotted her long, curly hair a few rows from the front of the chapel. For the next hour I kept glancing at her, hoping that by some miracle after the service, she wouldn’t notice Jennifer.
After the closing prayer, I stayed in my seat, waiting for the inevitable. Jennifer leaned close and whispered in my ear, "Is Julianna here?" I nodded and pointed her out to Jennifer. Julianna was slowly making her way up the far aisle. She seemed to be lost in thought and wasn’t looking around the congregation. I thought I was in the clear until Julianna reached the back of the chapel and looked in my general direction. For a second, I thought I saw her eyes rest on me, then Jennifer, and back to me. But I wasn’t sure. Julianna looked away and walked into the foyer.
Jennifer seemed to think that Julianna had seen us. She squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek. "Now you’re mine," she said. Her words should have made me happy. I had found someone who loved me and wanted to be with me forever. Why wasn’t I excited at this? I managed a smile and took Jennifer’s hand and escorted her to the Sunday school portion of the meeting.
There were two Sunday school classes, and I purposely chose the one I knew Julianna wouldn’t attend. For the next hour I tried to think of a way to leave Jennifer’s side for a few minutes and talk to Julianna after church even though I had no idea what I would say to her.
After Sunday school I excused myself and went searching for Julianna. I saw her tall, slender body right before she turned the corner. I ran to catch up with her but as I approached the corner, I nearly ran into Bekah.
Bekah grabbed my arm. "I saw you with someone in Sacrament meeting." she said.
"Her name’s Jennifer," I said. "She’s from Arizona." I looked over Bekah’s shoulder, down the hall, hoping to see Julianna. The hallway was filled with people, but Julianna wasn’t in sight.
Bekah had a confused look on her face. "I thought you were interested in Julianna?"
"It’s a long story."
"I have plenty of time," Bekah said.
"Let’s talk later," I said.
Bekah looked hurt. It wasn’t like me to brush her off like this.
"I’ll explain everything to you in a few days," I said. I squeezed through the crowded hallway as fast as I could. I made it to parking lot just in time to see Julianna drive away.
After church I found myself lying on the couch, resting my head in Jennifer’s lap while she ran her fingers through my hair. It was the first time since Jennifer arrived that we had taken to time to relax. My mind was preoccupied with Julianna and wondered what she thought of seeing me with Jennifer. There were so many things I wanted to explain to her. I closed my eyes and pretended it was Julianna tousling my hair long, slender fingers. Slowly I began to relax, and sleep overtook me.
The next moment I was running up the cement stairs to the apartment, taking the key out of my pocket, and opening the door. I tried to stop the dream, tried to tell myself to wake up, but there was nothing I could do. I heard my voice calling out for Krista, then a moment later hearing the report of the gun. It wasn’t until I ran back to our bedroom and saw Krista’s body that I was able to wake up.
I sat up straight and cried out. Jennifer was startled and I could feel her body jump with mine. In a moment her arms were around me, pulling me close to her. I pushed myself away and sat on the far end of the couch trembling.
"What’s wrong?" Jennifer said.
"Nothing," I said. "It was a bad memory. A nightmare."
Jennifer moved closer and again put her arm around me. This time I let her hold me. My heart rate slowed, and I wiped away a few beads of sweat from my forehead.
"Was it about Krista?" Jennifer said.
I nodded and forced the images of Krista’s bloody head out of my mind. In the ensuing months, the flashbacks to Krista’s death had become less frequent. I now only had to battle them once or sometimes twice a week. Usually I was prepared to deal with them, but this one had caught me by surprise. It was also the first time I experienced them in the presence of another person.
"Relax," Jennifer said. "Everything will be fine."
After a few minutes I again rested my head on her lap. This time I didn’t dare close my eyes. I turned my head so I was staring at the coffee table and the front window where the hot, July sunlight formed a square puddle of light on the carpet. I was embarrassed about the whole situation. I wanted to talk about what I had dreamed with Jennifer but didn’t know how to broach the subject. Instead we sat quietly.
Then it dawned on me that Jennifer had never asked about Krista or brought up concerns about becoming involved with a widower. I thought through all of our conversations and the only time I could remember us talking about the widower issue was when we talked about the concerns I had about dating again several months ago. We hadn’t discussed it at all since then. Something about that didn’t seem right. If the situation was reversed, I’d have lots of questions and issues that needed to be resolved before I becoming part of a serious relationship. Jennifer seemed fine with everything. I took partial responsibility for the lack of communication about Krista. When I was on a date, I usually waited until the other person started asking questions. I didn’t want my dates thinking my dead wife was the only thing I could talk about. But now that Jennifer and I were becoming more serious, I felt there were issues that needed to be discussed.
"I don’t have moments like those very often," I said. I thought this would be a good way to bring up Krista.
"It’s okay, Abel," Jennifer said. "Relax." She rubbed my back. "Talking about it will just make it worse."
I lay there, my eyes wide open, my mind churning over the doubts about Jennifer that were again slowly rising to the surface.