Note: Every Monday until July 31, I’ll be posting chapters of Room for Two on my blog. Read Chapter 8 below.
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It wasn’t until the end of April that I swallowed my pride and posted a profile on an online dating site. It was frustrating being able to post only a few paragraphs and a photo. I had no idea how to show I was just a normal twenty-seven-year-old who happened to be a widower. Each time I looked at the profile, the only thing I could see was the line that said "widower." Everything else seemed irrelevant.
Despite my trepidation, I began e-mailing women who seemed to have a lot in common with myself. One of them was a twenty-nine-year-old teacher named Michelle. She had short black hair, liked to read, watch movies, and run. After two weeks of exchanging e-mails, we agreed to a date the next Saturday.
I mentioned my upcoming date to Jennifer that evening. She was the only person I felt comfortable telling about it. My family wasn’t an option to talk with, and I was too excited about the upcoming date to ruin it with an argument. Jennifer was safe. Of all my friends, she would be the most receptive to the news. Jennifer was excited, though it took her a minute to find something to say. The news seemed to have caught her by surprise.
"That’s wonderful," she finally said. "When are you going out?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Is that all?"
"I hadn’t thought about that yet."
"Be sure you have a plan, Abel. There’s nothing worse than going out with someone who doesn’t know what they want to do."
"I’ll come up with something," I said. I wasn’t worried. I had three days to think of another activity.
"Are you sure you’re ready to take this step?" There was an anxious sound to her voice, as if she was worried I would be heartbroken by Saturday night.
"I am," I said. "I’m looking forward to it."
I spent Friday evening with my sister, Clare, and her husband, Dan. They had invited me for dinner and to spend the night at their place. My sister was a resident hall adviser for a dorm at Brigham Young University. She had graduated the previous year and was using this job to put her husband through his last year of school. The apartment was small: one bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room all crammed into about six hundred square feet. She was two months away from expecting their first child, a girl.
It had been several months since I had seen my sister, so when she opened the door, I couldn’t believe how big her belly had become. It was about as big as Krista’s the day she died.
Clare led me in to their small living room. There was a computer and desk in one corner my sister used to for her resident adviser job. On the far wall was an eight foot sofa covered with a quilt. There was a small television and a stereo that faced the couch. Between all this, there was just enough room to walk to the kitchen. My sister’s apartment always reminded me of the first place Krista and I shared — small and cramped. But that small apartment was full of some of my happiest memories of her.
I laid my jacket and overnight bag on the couch and followed my sister to the kitchen. I pulled the table out to the middle of the dining room to make room for a third plate. As we set the table Clare talked about their upcoming plans for the baby and was a little concerned they still hadn’t settled on a name. "We don’t even have three or four we can agree on," she said.
Listening to her talk about the baby was bittersweet. Her excitement reminded me of my own enthusiasm when Hope was on the way. As she talked, I closed my eyes and imagined Krista was talking to me, telling me about plans for the baby. It was difficult, but I managed to keep my emotions under control. In situations like these, I tried not to let my feelings dampen the anticipation of others. Just because my daughter was dead was no reason to stop others from having joy about their future child.
"So what are your plans for tomorrow?" Clare asked. Her voice cut through my memories. I opened my eyes. She pulled three glass cups form the cupboard and handed them to me.
"Did you have something in mind?" I said. I arranged the cups on the table, hoping I wouldn’t have to tell Clare about my date with Michelle.
"Dan and I were thinking about going to see a movie tomorrow," Clare said. She patted her belly. "After the baby comes. we won’t be going out as much. We thought it would be fun if you joined us."
"I already have plans."
"What are you doing?"
I debated what to tell her. Of all my family members, Clare seemed to be coping with Krista’s death the best and was the one I thought would be the most open to me dating again. I told her the truth.
"I have a date."
Clare stopped. She held the plate she was about to set down a few inches above the table.
"You asked someone out?"
"Yeah," I said.
"How did you meet her?"
I decided not to say I met the woman online. I didn’t want Clare thinking desperation had driven me to dating. "It’s kind of a blind date," I said. "I haven’t met her yet." I hoped Clare would assume someone had set me up.
Clare seemed to get over her initial shock. "That’s great you have a date. You’ll have to call me tomorrow night and tell me about it."
I looked at Clare’s face. She seemed to be sincere in her interest. If she was upset or thinking it was too early, she hid it well.
"Does anyone in the family know?" she asked.
"No. And please don’t tell anyone. I don’t think they’re quite ready for me to take this step."
Clare finished setting the table, then checked the casserole in the oven. She sat next to me in one of the old wooden chairs in the dining room.
"Are you excited?"
"Just nervous. Really nervous, actually. I feel like I’m back in high school dating for the first time. I don’t know what to say or how to act."
"What are you going to do?"
"Lunch. If that goes well, maybe we’ll do something else."
"You don’t have a plan?" she said. She seemed a little surprised.
"When I think of something to do, the only things that come to mind are what Krista enjoyed," I said. "I knew Krista’s favorite restaurants and activities. I know nothing about this woman. I’m just hoping I can get to know her better over lunch and think of something to do after. Right now my goal is to just make it through the date without throwing up."
Clare laughed. "I think you’ll do fine."
"I hope so," I said. But the image of me puking at the lunch table made my stomach flip.
It was raining steadily when I left my sister’s apartment the next afternoon. By the time I reached I-15 ten minutes later, the steady rain had turned into a downpour. Traffic crawled along the freeway, and I was glad I had given myself a twenty-minute cushion to reach Michelle’s apartment. Long, hard rains like this were very rare in Utah, and I kept thinking it would stop any minute.
When I drove over the point of the mountain into the Salt Lake Valley, the rain was falling so hard that even with my wipers set to the fastest speed, I had difficulty seeing past the taillights of car in front of me. I looked in the rearview mirror. Water poured from the roof down the rear window making it impossible to see anything behind me. I tapped the steering wheel impatiently and turned to a news station on the radio hoping to hear some more positive news about the weather.
I stroked my chin and was surprised to feel two days of stubble. I adjusted the rearview mirror and took a quick look at my face. Somehow in the midst of getting ready that morning I had forgotten to shave. Shaving was something I was not fond of, not because I looked good with whiskers, but because my skin was sensitive to a razors. Shaving daily was something I had stopped doing soon after Krista died. On a good week, I shaved every other morning. Taking another quick look in the mirror, I realized two days of growth didn’t make me very presentable. A clean-shaven look would definitely go over better with Michelle.
The green numbers of the dashboard clock showed I was still running ahead of schedule. I took the next exit and pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store. I opened the trunk and sorted through my overnight bag. After a thorough search, I realized I had forgotten to pack my shaving equipment. I slammed the trunk shut and cursed under my breath. The rain was falling hard and steady, and I could feel water running from my head and down my face. Through the gray clouds and rain I noticed a ShopKo sign about a quarter mile down the road. The store gave me an idea. I drove to the store and ran inside. I found the shaving section and purchased a cheap bottle of shaving cream and pack of five disposable razors. I paid cash at the express checkout, then hurried into the bathroom.
I placed the shaving cream on the side of the chipped sink and turned on the water. I held my fingers under the facet as I waited it to warm up. The water didn’t warm up; it was still as cold as ice. I turned on the hot water on another sink and waited. Nothing. I looked at my watch. I was running out of time. I splashed cold water on my face, then lathered up. I gave the shaving cream a good thirty seconds to soften up my whiskers, then started to shave as fast as I possibly dared. The new razor pulled at the stubble on my face. I winced and thought about how pleasant it was to shave with an electric razor.
An employee wearing a blue vest and a white name tag entered the bathroom. He gave me a funny look before entering one of the stalls. I ignored him. I had take things very slow around my chin. If there was one place I risked cutting myself, this was the most dangerous. I finished a minute later, then rinsed my face in the still-cold water. I looked myself over. I only had one small nick on my neck. I pulled one of the rough, brown paper towels from the dispenser and dried my face and applied a small corner of the paper towel to my cut. In a moment a small red dot appeared and slowly spread. I made a mental note to remove it before I met up with Michelle. I threw the shaving cream and the rest of the disposable razors into the trash on my way out.
It was still raining when I left the store, but instead of a downpour, it was sprinkling. Traffic on the freeway was back to normal. Ten minutes later I drove into a large apartment complex. Each of the buildings looked identical — gray siding and white trim around the windows and doors. The grounds were green and well maintained.
I navigated my way through the complex to her building. I was in luck and found an empty visitor parking stall nearby. I checked my watch on the way to her door. 1:05 p.m. Five minutes late. Not bad considering the weather and my unexpected stop. I felt my face and realized the bit of brown paper towel was still attached to my neck. I removed it and took the stairs one at a time to Michelle’s apartment.
I paused and took a deep breath to calm my nerves before I rang her doorbell. I heard the faint sound of the ding-dong echo through the apartment. A moment later the yellow light from the peephole went dark. There was the sound of a deadbolt sliding back, and the door opened.
A woman with large green eyes opened the door. She looked similar to the picture I had seen of Michelle, but there was something different about her that I couldn’t put my finger on. My eyes traveled from her face to the rest of her body. She was wearing a dark green sweater that was a little big for her. She wore black jeans that fit her trim figure and long legs quite well. Her feet were bare. Her toenails were painted the same dark red as her hair. Then it hit me. Her hair. That’s what was different. The photograph on the Internet was a blonde.
"Are you Abel?"
"I’m Michelle," she said.
We stood staring at each other for several awkward seconds.
"Sorry," I said. "The color of your hair threw me off."
"Oh, what color was I online?"
"I like dying it different colors. I just changed it last week." She gave me a halting look. "Would you rather be dating a raven-haired woman?"
"I’d go out with you no matter what color your hair was," I said.
"Really? Well, I suppose if we have a second date I’ll dye it green and then see how you feel." Michelle let out a short laugh. "I should invite you in instead of making you stand in the cold," Michelle said. She stood to the side of the door. "Come in for a minute. Let me put my shoes on, and we can go."
I found myself inside a nicely furnished and immaculately clean apartment. It had a warm, homey feeling to it — something I was finding hard to do with my house. Michelle walked down the hall into a bedroom. I heard a door open and close. On a lamp table next to the entryway was a photograph. Michelle and another woman were standing on what appeared to be the top of a mountain. Behind them blue sky and in the valley below, pine trees. Both Michelle and the other girl had big smiles that beamed pride of a big accomplishment.
Michelle returned a moment later wearing black low-heeled shoes. "That’s me and my roommate at the top of King’s Peak," she said. "Ever hiked it?"
"No," I said. "Always wanted to."
"Life’s short," Michelle said. She grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter. "You should do it while you have the chance." She reached inside her purse, and I heard the tinkling of keys. "Mind if I drive?"
"That’s fine," I said. I was a little relieved at her offer. I was unfamiliar with this part of town and trying to drive in the rain and trying to carry on a conversation was more than I thought I could handle.
As we descended the metal stairs toward the parking lot, I found myself wanting to reach out and hold her hand. This desire wasn’t from the physical attraction I had for her, but because holding hands was something I had always done when Krista and I walked down stairs together. It was protective and instinctual. I found myself reaching out toward her anyway but pulled back at the last minute. I balled my fist up and shoved it in my jacket pocket.
Michelle’s car was a dark blue Subaru with a ski rack on the top. Like her apartment, her car was spotless. A rainbow-colored air freshener that smelled like vanilla hung from the rearview mirror.
"So where would you like to eat?" she asked as she started the car.
"I’m not familiar with the restaurants in this area. Why don’t you pick something, and I’ll pay for it?"
"There’s a good Mexican and Italian restaurant nearby. Either of those sound appealing?"
"They both sound good."
"Let’s see how crowded the Italian place is. It’s mid-afternoon. It’s shouldn’t be too busy."
As Michelle navigated her way out of the apartment complex, I tried to think of something to say. Conversation had come so naturally with Krista. Had my first date with her been this difficult for me to talk? I couldn’t remember.
"Can you believe this rain? I’ve lived here ten years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainstorm like this one," Michelle said as she pulled out of the apartment complex. We were already talking about the weather. Not a good sign.
"It doesn’t rain like this where you’re from?"
"In Boise? No, it never rains like this."
"What brought you to Utah?"
Michelle shrugged her shoulders. "For some reason I keep thinking I’ll find my soul mate."
The rain was falling harder. When it hit the roof of the car, it sounded like a room full of people clapping. I looked over at Michelle and noticed that she had the beginning of crow’s feet under her eyes — a reminder that I was dating a woman who was almost thirty. I tried not to think about Michelle’s age because it made me feel old. I touched my own face and wonder what signs of age were there.
Much to our surprise the Italian restaurant was crowded, and the hostess informed us there’d be a ten minute wait. We sat on a hard, plastic bench in the lobby. I felt uncomfortable sitting and waiting where everyone could see us. I kept looking at people as they walked in and out of the restaurant. Even though I was fifty miles from home, I worried someone would see me with Michelle and tell Krista what I was up to. I wondered if this is what men who cheated on their wives felt like. Or if by the time they had reached the stage where they were comfortable going out with someone other than their wife, they were past feelings of guilt.
Michelle leaned closer to me, and I caught the faint sent of her perfume. It smelled like roses. I found it subtly attractive. "You look a little nervous," she said.
"First date jitters," I said.
She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "I’ve had a tendency to make men nervous, you know."
I didn’t want to ask why, but since I was struggling for conversation, I decided to play along. "Why’s that?"
"I don’t know," she said. "They find me intimidating for some reason." She sighed and leaned back on the bench. "So, how’s dating the second time around?"
"Different. There are some adjustments I have to make." I looked at couple that had come in from the rain to see if I recognized them. I didn’t. Smiling and laughing, the man gave a name to the hostess and sat on the bench next to us. Drops of water fell from their jackets to the tile floor, creating a narrow trail of water.
"Like what?" Her green eyes were piercing.
I wasn’t sure how to answer since I had only been dating again for twenty minutes. Before I could say anything, the hostess called out my name. We were seated at a table in the far corner of the restaurant. The waitress told us about the soups and specials of the day, then handed us our menus. I hoped Michelle had forgotten what we were talking about. She hadn’t
"You still haven’t answered my question," she said as she opened her menu.
My eyes scanned the list of entrees, but I wasn’t reading anything. I was too preoccupied with the question. I could only think of one answer. "I think the biggest adjustment about dating again is learning to be comfortable in the presence of another woman."
Michelle’s set the menu down next to her plate. "Are you comfortable with me?" she said. She gave me the same intense look she had given me in the lobby.
This time I met her stare. "Like I said, it’s an adjustment."
Michelle rapped her long, well-manicured fingernails on the menu, then picked it back up. "I think I’ll have the lasagna," she said.
An older couple was seated at the table next to us. I glanced at them as they ate to see if I knew them. I still felt like I was cheating on Krista.
You’re not doing anything wrong, I told myself. It’s okay to date again.
The waitress came and took our orders. While we waited for the food to arrive, Michelle continued to probe.
"So what about my profile intrigued you enough to contact me?"
I took a sip of water. The truth was I couldn’t think of a reason I had picked her out of several hundred profiles. Her photograph had simply stood out.
"You looked like an interesting person," I said. "Someone I thought would be fun to know more."
"And am I everything you thought I would be?"
I smiled. "I’ll let you know."
The old man at the table next to us said something, and the woman laughed. They seemed comfortable with each other. I was envious. I wished Michelle and I could talk to each other that easily.
"What made you respond to my initial e-mail?" I said.
"To be honest with you, I usually don’t date people who’ve been married before," she said. "Too many issues."
I nodded slowly, trying to understand why she decided to go out with me.
"But you were a widower," Michelle continued, "and that changed things a little. I figured there wasn’t much you could do about that. So I threw caution to the wind, and here we are."
"And, how is it?"
"It’s more difficult than I thought it would be. There are a lot of questions running through my head. I want to know about your wife. I want to know why you’re dating again five months after she died. I don’t expect you to answer these questions or anything. I’m just telling you what I’m thinking."
The waitress arrived with plates of steaming food. I took a bite of my lasagna, and the hot sauce warmed my tongue. It was spiced well with several kinds of cheese on it. Better than standard restaurant fare.
"This place is good," I say.
Michelle smiled. "I come here as often as I can," she said.
Michelle did most of the talking during lunch. She seemed to sense, or at least I thought she did, that this date was difficult for me. She kept the rest of the conversation light and regaled me with funny stories from her childhood. The rain had almost stopped when we left the restaurant. It was still drizzling, falling like a fine mist. The clouds were slowly moving their way down the mountains, a sign that more rain was on its way.
"What do you think of dreadlocks?" Michelle asked.
"What do I think of them?"
"Yes. Do you think they look good?"
"It depends on who’s wearing them."
"How do you think they’d look on me?"
I looked at Michelle and tried to picture her with auburn dreadlocks. I didn’t think they’d look very flattering.
"Are you thinking about them?"
"Haven’t decided yet."
Michelle drove back in the general direction of her apartment. I was unsure whether to ask if she wanted to do anything else. I decided to let her drive and see if she gave any hint of how she was feeling. She drove back to the apartment and parked in her assigned parking spot.
"Thanks for lunch. It was nice getting to know you better," Michelle said.
If I was going to ask her to do something else, this would be the time to do it. We stared at each other for a long moment. Even though I wanted to spend more time with her, I lacked the courage to say anything.
"E-mail me next week. Maybe we can do something again soon," Michelle finally said.
"I’ll be in touch."
Michelle took the stairs to her apartment. As she shut the door, my gut told me there wouldn’t be a second date.
Back on freeway, heading home, I replayed the afternoon in my mind. It had been very awkward and difficult, but it wasn’t a disaster either. I felt it was something I needed to keep doing. Going out with someone, enjoying the company of a woman gave me a feeling of normality — something I hadn’t felt in months. Lunch with Michelle made me feel that I was part of the real world again, if only for a couple hours.
The rain fell harder. Traffic slowed. I turned the wipers on high. It was going to be a long drive back to Ogden, but for once I didn’t mind. I had a lot to think about.