Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 15 below. If you want to start from the beginning, here's Chapter 1.
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Two weeks before the St. George Marathon, I ran with Julianna on her last, long training run. It was the first time she had let me join her on a run over ten miles. To me it was proof that our relationship was growing stronger and that Julianna didn’t view me as a hindrance to her training.
I mapped out a twelve-mile course that snaked through the business depot. The route took us past warehouses, abandoned trains, and old ammunition bunkers. The latter was leftover from when the facility was owned and utilized by the US Army. I thought the route would be a nice change from the busy, main roads we usually ran. Being Saturday, the streets of the depot would be empty.
The run started like any other. We maintained a constant seven minute and thirty second pace through the first six miles. Between breaths we talked about the upcoming marathon, how fast Julianna wanted to run it, and traveling with her family to see it. I was looking forward to the trip, as it would be a good way to know Julianna’s family better.
As we started the seventh mile of the run, I noticed Julianna’s pace had slowed, and she seemed to have a slight limp in her right leg. With each step she grimaced ever so slightly as if she was trying to hide how much pain she was in.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
Julianna nodded. "My right leg."
"Is it a cramp?" I tried to say it like it was no big deal to mask my worry. For the last week Julianna had been experiencing discomfort in her right leg during our regular morning runs and would down several ibuprofens and a glass of milk when we were done. I had asked her what was wrong, but she had dismissed my questions by saying it wasn’t anything to worry about.
"I’m fine. Keep running," she said.
We ran for another mile. Up ahead was a major cross street. Turning right would cut the run short about four miles. Running straight would take us along the perimeter of the depot, down a long straight road with warehouses as big as football fields on our right and a chain link fence with barbed wire looping around the top to our left.
"Maybe we should head home," I said, as we approached the intersection. "No point risking further injury."
"I can do this," Julianna said. "The pain isn’t too bad."
As we ran through the intersection, I looked right. I could see up Second Street, all the way to my house. I longed to turn right and get Julianna off her leg as soon as possible. Julianna didn’t look to the right or the left. She kept herself focused on the course.
By the time we started the eighth mile, Julianna’s pace slowed to about eight and a half minutes per mile. Her limp became more noticeable. Her face was flush, as if running was pushing herself to the limits.
"I really think we should call it," I said. We were running slow enough that I could talk in complete sentences.
"I can finish," Julianna said.
"Don’t you want to run the marathon?"
Julianna didn’t say anything.
"Then why not take it easy? Cutting this run short by a few miles short isn’t going to slow you down come race day. If we keep running, you risk further injury. You might not be able to run the marathon at all."
"I’ll rest tomorrow," Julianna said. "Next week is short runs. I’ll be fine."
I grabbed her hand and tried to slow her down. "You can rest while I run home. I can be back with the car in less than ten minutes."
Julianna shook my hand from her arm and continued running. She didn’t stop until she reached my house. By that time she could barely walk and was doing her best to fight back the tears. She leaned on me, and I helped her slowly walk to the house. She sat down on the porch and leaned against the side of the house.
I went to the kitchen to retrieve a glass of water and ibuprofen. When I returned Julianna was lying on her back, staring at the sky. She had a faraway look in her eyes as if she was remembering something.
"You know what’s wrong with your leg, don’t you?" I said.
Julianna nodded. She sat up and swallowed the two pills and half the glass of water. Then she lay down on her side so she was facing the street. I sat by her head and ran my fingers through her hair.
"My second year at the University of Puget Sound, I fractured my right femur," she said. "The pain feels exactly the same."
"How long did it take to heal?"
"About nine months. The doctors wouldn’t let me run during that time."
"Is a doctor going to look at your leg before the race?"
"I have an appointment next week," Julianna said.
"And if you leg’s broken?"
"I’ve trained too hard not to run," she said.
We sat on the porch, watching the nimbus clouds blow in from the west and head over the mountains. I started massaging Julianna’s shoulders and back. Slowly the tension in her muscles dissipated. She relaxed and leaned against me chest. We waited until Julianna said the pain in her leg had subsided enough that she could stand. Then I helped her to the car and drove her home.
Julianna saw the doctor Tuesday afternoon. She didn’t ask me to go with her. I was a little hurt by her actions. I tried not to let it bother me even though I wanted nothing more than to be with her.
That evening I fixed dinner for myself. It was the first time in over a month I hadn’t spent the evening with Julianna. It felt strange to eat alone. It was a sober reminder what my life was like before Julianna became a regular part of it — when the loneliness of the house seemed to be my constant companion.
While dinner was warming in the microwave, I walked out to the mailbox. Mixed in with the junk mail and bills was a large manila envelope that had Primary Children’s Hospital as its return address. It had been months since I received any mail from them and wondered what it contained. Back inside I tore open the envelope and dumped the contents out on the kitchen counter. Two photographs of Hope floated to the counter and landed face up.
They were the last things I expected to see, and I was unprepared for the memories they unleashed — her lying in her incubator, trying to curl her hand around my finger, holding her in my arms as she died.
The tears came quickly. I leaned against the metal stove and slid to the floor. The microwave beeped, and there was a faint smell of warmed up tuna casserole. My body shook as I recalled Hope resting in my arms, gasping her final breaths.
When I finally composed myself, I picked up the photographs, trying to decide what to do with them. There was something strange about them. I looked closer. Hope’s face had a yellow tint to it. The only time she had looked like that was when she died. I couldn’t recall anyone with a camera in the room when Hope died and I wondered when the photographs had been taken. I thought back to Hope’s final moments — the doctor declaring her dead and me holding her briefly before handing her to the nurse and walking out the door. There seemed to be something I was missing, something I must have forgotten. I thought again, longer and harder, replaying the scene over and over again in my mind.
Then I remembered.
As I left the room, the nurse asked something about having photographs taken of my daughter. I must have said yes because as my dad and I were walking down the hall, I recall a nurse walking toward the room pushing a cart with a camera attached to it. I put the photographs back in the envelope. I was grateful to have them. I only wished they hadn’t caught me by surprise.
I took the envelope to the room where Krista’s things were stored. In the spring, my mom had created a scrapbook full of photographs of Hope’s brief life. I had only looked at the book once. The grief rose to the surface too quickly when I opened the scrapbook, so I had stored the book along with Krista’s things.
The scrapbook was buried deep under three-ring binders filled with Krista’s papers and journals. I put the envelope in the back of the scrapbook. I decided not to look through the rest of it. I had experienced enough memories for one day. As I was placing a notebook of Krista’s writings back in the box, a group of loose papers slid from their bindings and fell to the floor. I briefly looked through the papers — most of them assignments she had written for her college English classes.
I read the first page of one essay, and with it came a memory of Krista writing it on our computer late at night. I read a second, then a third. Each personal essay or story critique came with its own special moment, a reminder of how wonderful and creative Krista had been. Lost in good memories, I sat on the floor, amid the boxes, and read the first few pages of every paper. By the time I finished reading, I felt happy. It was nice to think of Krista and remember what she was like before the darkness had overtaken her.
Behind the last paper, stuffed in the back of the notebook in a mishmash fashion were a few of Krista’s poems. I always considered them the most personal of her writings and I hadn’t read any of them since she died. But I started sifting through the poetry. I read her poems out loud, one by one. I had always been envious of the way Krista was able to string words and images together. And as I sat there reading, I wondered how someone who was capable of writing such beauty could take her own life.
Then I read the last poem in the notebook. And everything stopped.
Ten-Toed Children of Eve
My parents were married
under the constellation of the aardvark
in the year of the swan.
I was conceived on Strawberry Hill —
which isn’t a hill — but a two dollar wine.
Don’t, however, make the mistake
of thinking maniacs cannot love deeply,
or underestimate the children of
their kind of frenzy.
It is true that Susan has since seen visions
and has mistaken the garage for
Eden on quite a few occasions (only
you can’t smoke near the gasoline).
It rains rhinestones on the lawn for her;
Just put up your lithium umbrella
and dance along.
Todd can fix anything . . . broken.
He repairs trees in the garden
for Susan who has woven
spark plugs into her hair.
She sings "the tree of life is a tobacco plant,"
but don’t make the mistake of thinking
that life isn’t found in strange paradises.
"I have born only good sons," she says.
And that is one up on the original Eve.
I read the poem again and again. Each time I pictured Krista’s parents in my mind. I could see Susan raving about hidden cameras placed all over her house by the FBI or claiming the garage was indeed Eden. I remembered Todd chain-smoking as he fixed their lawnmower for the umpteenth time that summer.
Then I thought of Krista and wondered what it was like for her growing up with Susan and Todd as parents. I could see why she was so hesitant to talk about them when we were first dating and even more cautious about having me meet them. As I read the poem a final time, I realized "Ten-toed Children of Eve" was about more than her parents’ insanity. Krista was part of the poem too, a warning not to underestimate what she was capable of based on the genes she had received from her parents.
Since Krista had told me about her parents, openly and honestly, I had always thought that Krista was immune to the mental illnesses that afflicted them. In reality, I had misjudged how powerful genetics could be. Krista had been suffering from something, I didn’t know what. But at that moment I knew taking her own life wasn’t something Krista would have chosen if she had been in her right mind. Accompanying that thought, I was filled with a feeling of peace. I held onto that serenity as long as I could.
Julianna stopped by as I was getting ready for bed. The unhappy look in her eyes told me the news she received from the doctor wasn’t good. It turned out the diagnosis was just what Julianna had feared. An X-ray had revealed a hairline fracture in her femur.
"What did he say about running the marathon?" I said.
"He said it would be better if I didn’t run it," she said. The tone of her voice indicated that the doctor’s words had devastated her. "If I decide to run, he suggested I not do any more training runs between now and race day." She put her arms around me and rested her head on my shoulder. "I was looking forward to this marathon. I’ve been running so fast. I thought it would be a great opportunity to improve my time."
"Maybe your leg will feel better if you stay off it until race day," I said.
Julianna shook her head. "Injuries like this don’t heal overnight. I know that after a few miles my leg will be in pain again come race day."
"Are you still going to run?"
Julianna nodded. "I have to run, no matter how hard it hurts. I’ve trained too hard to simply give up."
Instead of running every morning we went to the fitness center at her apartment complex and worked out. While I ran on the treadmill, Julianna rode the stationary bike — the only workout that wouldn’t further injure her leg. Each morning she pedaled fast and furious for an hour. In the afternoons after work before I returned home, she rode the bike for another hour. It became part of the routine for me to come home and find her preparing dinner, dressed in her workout clothes, sweat still lingering on her brow.
I had never seen anyone work so hard at something before. If it was me with the broken leg, there was no doubt I would have stopped working out or even thought about running the marathon. But Julianna was determined to race, and there was nothing that she would use for an excuse to stop.
Julianna insisted on running at least one good run a week before the marathon. We ran it in Salt Lake near her parents’ house. Her leg still hurt from the run, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been weeks ago. As we drove back to Ogden, I was going to tease Julianna about making up the whole broken leg thing just so she wouldn’t have to run anymore. But Julianna had a faraway look in her eyes, and I could tell she hadn’t been listening to me recap the run and the mental obstacles I had thrown up during the race.
"What you are thinking about?" I said.
The words seemed to bring her out of her trance.
"You," she said.
"What about me?"
"How you’re doing," she said.
I thought she meant how I was feeling after the run.
"I feel a little winded," I said, "but otherwise I feel great."
"That’s not what I meant," Julianna said. "How are you doing as far as moving on? You know, with Krista."
I thought I was slowly coming to an inner peace with Krista’s suicide even though there were still many unanswered questions surrounding her death. I wasn’t actively grieving anymore and talked about her openly with Julianna.
"All things considered, I think I’m doing rather well," I said. I briefly took my eyes off the road and looked at Julianna. "Why do you ask?"
"I think there’s some work you need to do," Julianna said.
Her words stung. I tried to think of anything I might have done to give her the impression I was having a difficult time moving on. I thought about my house. I had moved photos of Krista and me from the living room and hallways back to my bedroom. The rooms that Julianna spent most of her time at my place — the living room and kitchen — were now Krista free. I tried to treat Julianna like the number one woman in my life.
"What am I doing wrong?" I asked.
"I just don’t think you’re ready, that’s all."
"Ready? Ready for what?"
Julianna shrugged her shoulders and looked back out the passenger window.
"You can’t say I’m not ready and not tell me what it is," I said.
"All I’m saying is that I don’t think you’ve moved on enough."
I gripped the steering wheel tightly and gritted my teeth.
"You’re being unfair," I said.
"Please, Abel," Julianna said. "Trust me on this one."
I spent the next ten minutes trying to coax the information out of Julianna. After it became apparent Julianna wasn’t going to give in, we drove the rest of way home in silence. I dropped Julianna off at her apartment instead of taking her back to my place. I was frustrated enough that I didn’t want to spend any more time with her that day.
Once home I walked through the house, double-checking everything to make sure there were no signs of Krista in the rooms Julianna frequented. Not finding anything that said I wasn’t moving on, I pondered over the last few days and weeks in my mind. What hadn’t I done right?
Frustrated and still sticky with sweat from my run, I decided to take a shower. I turned on the water and let it run while I undressed. Before stepping in the shower, I looked in the mirror. Around my neck was the necklace from which hung my wedding ring. The ring had been around my neck since January. It had become a part of me, and I often forgot it was there. I set the necklace on the sink while I showered, the whole time wondering if this was what Julianna was referring to. I didn’t see how it could be. Though she knew about it, Julianna rarely if ever saw it. I never wore it running as I was afraid of losing it. The more I thought about it, however, I remembered how Julianna would occasionally rest her hand on my breastbone. Those times when she rested her hand there, I thought nothing of it, but now I seemed to remember her hand slowly moving over my chest as if to see if the ring was still there.
After the shower, I sat on my bed, holding the ring. If it was indeed what she had been referring to, I could understand why it would make her think I wasn’t moving on. But why hadn’t Julianna told me about the ring and how it made her feel? I removed the ring from the necklace and put it on my finger. It felt heavy and foreign, like it didn’t belong there. The gold sparkled in the sun that was now peeking through the clouds.
Part of starting a new life with Julianna was being able to put certain things from my first marriage away. My wedding ring was one of these objects. It was a symbol of the love and devotion Krista and I had for each other. If I was to be serious about starting a new life with Julianna, I couldn’t let the symbol of my first marriage come between us.
In the back of my T-shirt drawer was Krista’s jewelry box. It contained her wedding ring, a few necklaces, and other jewelry Krista wore. I placed my wedding ring next to Krista’s. Wherever life took me, I knew the jewelry box would always be with me. But it would remain closed, packed away. My ring wasn’t something I needed to remind me of Krista’s sweet influence and love. She would always be part of me wherever I went.
I took one last look at the ring and closed the lid. I placed the box back in the drawer and covered it with socks. I never opened the jewelry box again.
I didn’t see Julianna until I picked her up for church the next morning. Neither of us mentioned the conversation from the day before. For the most part our relationship seemed back to normal. She held my hand during the services and occasionally ran her fingers up and down my back.
After church we ended up at my house lying on the couch side by side, talking. The couch was narrow and to stay on it we had to press our bodies close together. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for Julianna to touch my chest. She never did. Occasionally she would touch my face or arm or grab my hand. but her hand never came close to my breastbone. I began to wonder if I had been right about the ring. Maybe Julianna had been referring to something else. My curiosity was driving me crazy. I couldn’t live without knowing if the ring what she had been referring to. If that wasn’t what she had been talking about, I planned on pressing her for an answer.
"Last night I spent a lot of time thinking about what you said on the way back from Salt Lake," I said.
Those words brought a serious air to the conversation, which to that point had been light flirtatious banter. Julianna sat up partway on the couch so she could look down on my face.
"I couldn’t figure out what you were talking about. I walked around the house seeing if I had left some pictures or other things of Krista up. It wasn’t until I decided to take a shower that I saw the wedding ring around my neck."
Julianna made a move toward my chest. I grabbed her hand before she could reach it and moved it slowly back down to her side. I didn’t need any other proof. It was the ring Julianna was talking about. Julianna’s eyes darted from my neck to my chest, trying to see if it was still around my neck.
"I took it off," I said. "So you know, I didn’t do it just so you’d think I was moving on. I did it because it was something I wanted to do." I brought Julianna’s hand to my chest and pressed her palm to my breastbone where the ring usually lay.
Julianna’s hand slowly moved over my chest. Then she started to cry. I kissed her forehead as the tears fell.
"Why didn’t you tell me it was the ring?" I said after her tears had stopped falling.
"I didn’t want you to take it off for me. It needed to be something you were ready to and wanted to do," Julianna said.
"I was ready to take that step," I said. "I don’t want anything to come between the two of us."
We drove to St. George on a Friday, following Julianna’s parents’ white minivan. They and Julianna’s four sisters who were still living at home were all coming to cheer her on. Though I hadn’t spent much time with Julianna’s family, I liked what I had seen. They were supportive of Julianna’s running and attended all of her races. Even from those brief interactions with them, they were everything I had always wanted in in-laws, everything I had always wanted Krista’s family to be. They weren’t perfect, but they were good people who had worked hard to raise a family of seven girls. I hoped this trip would serve as a good chance to get to know them better.
It was late when we arrived in St. George. We checked in to our hotel and ate dinner. Soon after, Julianna went to bed, though there was little chance she would sleep anytime soon. Instead she would spend the next few hours relaxing her body and mentally preparing for the race. I spent the rest of that night with her family. I enjoyed our time together as we talked and joked. And when everyone finally retired for the evening, I knew that if things worked out with Julianna, I would have no problem spending time with her family.
At five in the morning her father, Steve, and I drove Julianna to the bus that would take them to starting line approximately twenty-five miles out in the desert. Julianna was quiet, her mind focused on the run ahead. I gave her a kiss as she exited the van and told her I would see her soon.
We went back to the hotel and waited. The plan was to wait a few hours, then I would start walking the marathon course until I found Julianna and run the final three or four miles of the race with her, giving her whatever support she needed to make it to the end.
I tried to stay awake, thinking of Julianna as she ran, but I fell asleep. The next thing I knew, Steve woke me up, telling me it was time to go. We parked the van near the course as it came into St. George. There were people lined up and down the street, sitting in lawn chairs or on the curb, waiting to watch the runners. The lead runner with a police escort in tow ran past the finish line and a cheer went up from the crowd. Another cheer went up thirty seconds later as the second-place runner followed.
I started up the course. Every thirty seconds or so runner ran by on his way to the finish line. By the time I had walked a mile up, the lead female runner came into view. She was followed by a pack of six other women, all vying for the lead. I scanned their faces to see if one of them was Julianna. She wasn’t among them.
The number of runners heading toward the finish line gradually increased. I kept my eyes open for Julianna and her turquoise running shorts and singlet with no success. Finally at mile marker twenty-two, I spotted her approaching the aid station. She grabbed two cups of water from a volunteer’s outstretched hands. She drank one quickly and poured the second one over her head. She looked tired and worn-out. The grimace on her face told me she was running through a lot of pain.
"How’s the leg?" I said.
"Not good," Julianna said.
We didn’t talk much until the next aid station. I offered occasional words of encouragement hoping they would help somewhat. After a mile and a half, the road crested and the city of St. George and the next aid station were visible.
"It’s all downhill from here," I said.
Julianna stopped at the aid station. She drank some water and rested her hands on her knees. Her breathing was hard and labored.
"I hurt," she said.
I rested my hand on her back. Her body was trembling. I thought back to the ten-mile run that had pushed my body to the limit. I thought of the words of encouragement she had given me and how much they had helped me finish.
"You are running an amazing race," I said. "Let’s keep going."
Julianna continued resting, her hands on her knees.
"Come on," I said. "Less than two miles to the finish line. You’re almost done."
Julianna crumpled the paper cup in her hands and tossed it to the side of the road. She started running, slowly at first but then picked up speed. After a quarter mile she began passing other runners.
The faster she ran, the more words of encouragement I offered. We ran into town, down the broad streets that made up St. George. Finally we turned a corner, and the finish line was in sight. The sight of the finish line gave Julianna some hope. She put on an extra burst of speed and crossed the finish line.
Behind the finish line was a fenced off area where runners could eat, cool down, and relax. I waited with Julianna’s family near the exit. Julianna made her way out of this area ten minutes later with a banana in her hand. Her face was flushed, and she walked with a noticeable limp.
We returned to the hotel. Julianna showered, then sat in the hotel’s hot tub. The hot water seemed to put her in better spirits, and soon she joined the rest of us in the pool. As the day wore on, her attitude improved. She seemed glad to have finished, even though her official time of three hours and thirty-eight minutes was a much slower time than her goal.
Julianna seemed anxious to put St. George behind her. We left early the next morning before her family was ready to go.
"Thanks for coming and supporting me," Julianna said. "It meant a lot to have you run those last miles with me."
"It was an honor to run them with you," I said. "You and your broken leg."
For the first time since the race Julianna smiled. "I like running with you," she said.
The freeway rose up through the mountains. Occasionally bits of the desert were tinged with the reds and yellows of fall. It added some color to what was, for the most part, a brown and bleak drive. When the road finally crested, the town of Cedar City came into view.
"If Krista hadn’t killed herself, do you think we’d be together?" Julianna said.
"If Krista wasn’t dead, I’d still be married to her," I said. I flashed a smile in Julianna’s direction, so she’d know I was being facetious.
"You know what I mean," Julianna said. "If you had never married Krista, do you think we would have ended up together?"
A hawk circled a field by the side of the road, floating on the wind. I put the car on cruise control and stretched out in the seat.
"I doubt it," I said.
I waited for Julianna to say something, but she just stared at the road ahead.
"Krista’s death sobered me up," I said, when it became apparent Julianna wasn’t going to say anything. "I feel like I’ve emotionally aged twenty years since she died. I’m nowhere near the person I was before she killed herself. I was so different back then. I had a temper and was quick to anger. I doubt things would have worked out between us. I don’t think I would have been mature enough for you."
Julianna looked out the passenger window. She seemed far away and distant, lost in thought. "I’ve seen flashes of the old Abel," Julianna said. "I’ve seen you become very frustrated once or twice, and the old you comes out for a second or two. But it’s gone a moment later, and the Abel I know and love is back."
"There’s always a chance the old Abel will rear his head again."
"Do you think you’re capable of being the person you were before Krista died?" Julianna said.
"I don’t know," I said. "I would hope all I’ve experienced the last year would serve as a constant reminder of why I don’t want to be that person again."
I took the car off cruise control and merged into the fast lane to pass a semitruck with the word Wal-Mart emblazoned in big, blue letters on the side.
"Do you think Krista’s death happened for a reason?" Julianna asked.
"The one thing I’ve come to believe is everything happens for a reason." I pushed down on the gas pedal, and we sped up a bit.
Julianna’s next question came out quietly, like a whisper. "Why do you think you had to experience what you did?"
I looked out past the sagebrush and scrub oak that seemed so prominent in this part of the state. In seconds I relived that entire day Krista killed herself. I could smell the bitter stench of spent gunpowder.
"Just because everything happens for a reason doesn’t mean we’ll always know why it happened."
Julianna looked back out the window. "I ask because I have mixed feelings when I think about what you went though. If Krista hadn’t died, we never would have met or fallen in love. That sounds awful and selfish, but it’s something I think about occasionally."
I held Julianna’s hand. "If someone told me eleven months ago that I’d be in love and happy less than a year after Krista died, I wouldn’t have believed them. Just because I don’t fully comprehend why things happened the way they did doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to have you in my life."
Julianna moved slowly in her seat, as if she were uncomfortable.
"Is your leg giving you problems?"
"My whole body hurts. Every muscle aches."
The town of Cedar City became a distant speck in the rearview mirror.
I looked down and found myself rubbing my chest where the ring had rested for months. It still felt odd to not have it there.
Julianna leaned her seat back to a reclining position. She took my hand and held it to her stomach.
"I love you," she said as she closed her eyes. In a few minutes she was asleep, and I felt relief and a quiet happiness that she had a smile on her face.
As I drove though the empty stretches of central Utah, I thought of how much I’d been blessed in the last few months. Life had always been worth living, though I hadn’t recognized how much sweeter it was when I had someone I loved to enjoy it with.
I gave Julianna’s hand a squeeze as we barreled down the highway. I was not only looking forward to taking the journey with someone, I was glad it was Julianna, a woman so brave that she ran a marathon on a broken leg.