Time in Willow Creek: 1 year, 5 months, 2 weeks, 2 days
The time had come for Kevin to face the truth. A little more than a week had passed since his Freudian slip, and he had done everything he could to pretend it never happened or at least delay thinking about it. He agonized over it and chastised himself for letting those words fall from his lips without making the declaration within himself first. He had been lying to himself for so long his subconscious took over and put a stop to it. The inevitable happened, and he could not do anything except give in.
He always thought of Juliana and Axel as being from two different planets, but he and Juliana were too. If she hadn’t been looking at those paintings, he never would have noticed her in the bar that day. It took a series of random meetings and a common interest to bring them together, and now they couldn’t be without each other. When he awoke in the morning, thoughts of her flooded his mind like the early morning sun rays filling his room. In between meetings, she drifted in and out of his thoughts at work. Before he went to sleep, she was there as the night creatures lulled him to sleep. She lingered with him all day and night, yet he could not bring himself to accept what he knew deep down. Why? His heart was locked, and he needed to find the key to free him from the misery.
Juliana, the beautiful, young angel, entered his life and changed him forever. She infiltrated parts of his heart he thought were secured, restricted areas and made him a person again; he was grateful. He needed a friend like her, but he didn’t expect for her to become more. He didn’t expect to need her. This mystery needed to be solved, and he began the mental excursion by retracing his steps back to when all of it began. How did she become so important? What made him start tip-toeing out of the friend zone? Every brilliant blaze starts with a tiny spark, and theirs began with the first close encounter.
An irresistible force drew them together like two magnets. No one could have stopped it. Her touch, the warmness of her body and affinity she had for him refreshed his parched soul; it had been so long. He spent such a long time mired in guilt and self-deprecation and didn’t feel right for anyone. He stopped dating for many years. He threw himself into work and became even more successful. No one was on his radar, so to find himself taken with this foreigner who could barely speak to him who was 11 years his junior had come as a surprise.
A strong feeling permeated his space whenever Juliana came near. He never felt it before–not even with his wife. It scared him. He didn’t understand it, and at times it made him uncomfortable. Conversely, he enjoyed it and wanted to feel it all the time. The feeling intensified with closeness, and he found himself wanting to be near her as close as possible. He hugged and hovered as often as it was appropriate. Sometimes it felt like a game. How close could he get without getting caught up? Every now and then he attempted to touch her. Nothing serious. Just little touches. Those little touches were always a bad idea because guilt always followed. There were times when he wanted to be brave and let her know things were different for him. But, like a dog on a chain, he would run for the hills of freedom only to be yanked back by something that insisted he stayed bound.
The Windenburg weekend sucked. Standing on the edge of The Bluffs staring at the ocean and inhaling the salty air with her was so magical. Being together in that moment of calm culminated the beautiful weekend perfectly. They never had so much time together before, and he learned even more wonderful things about her. The new information, however, proved counterproductive for his feelings. He had that strong feeling Juliana gave him all day and night for two days straight, and it was glorious. He needed more. He had to hold her hand. Everything inside him commanded him–begged him–to hold her hand. He stood next to her as close as he could. That feeling…that power she had over him, it was intense like the brilliant blaze that yearned to consume him. He wanted to be consumed by it but never went through with it. Why?
Recounting those things spelled it out plainly, and he could no longer deny it. He loved Juliana. Understanding his feelings brought only partial relief, however. The new understanding did not solve the mystery. Why wasn’t he free to love her? How could he move forward while being held back by some invisible force? He spent a few minutes trying to sort it out, but the answer wouldn’t come. It must have been hidden deep inside his brain. He sank into his chair and sighed in defeat as he decided to go back to bed. Perhaps sleeping on it would make everything clearer in the morning. Before he got up, he noticed the painting above his bed.
It caught him by surprise and made him smile. Almost immediately, that guilty feeling rushed in and attempted to yank him back. But, he had to keep pressing toward the hills of freedom. If he could understand why he felt so guilty all the time, perhaps finding the key would be easier. His mind went back to the conversation he had with Caroline when they came home from the hospital after her diagnosis.
“When I die,” she said, “I don’t want you to be holding on. Find someone else. And don’t wait until you’re, like, 30.”
The memory made him chuckle. His 30th birthday fell on the Windenburg weekend. He used to love big celebrations and long parties, but with age and becoming more reclusive, he tended to mute his birthdays. Turning 30, however, was one of those milestones that couldn’t be overlooked. Everyone wanted to know what he was going to do, so he had to do something. It seemed appropriate to spend that special day with someone special. He couldn’t tell her, though. Telling her would only cause her to panic. She’d stress herself out about getting him a present and all that stuff women stress themselves out about. It was his birthday, and birthdays allowed a certain level of selfishness. He wanted to spend his special day with her–just her. No stress. Just uninterrupted togetherness. He wrestled with the Windenburg weekend idea. On one hand, he knew it wasn’t appropriate. But, on the other hand, it’s what he wanted. Despite Juliana being so young, she was a grown woman; she could make the decision for herself.
“What if I don’t want anyone else?”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly! You’re too young and handsome to be a widower. No, you’re going to get out there and charm someone else and marry her.”
“Kevin…please. I’ll be so sad if you stay single for the rest of your life.”
He turned away from her. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
She grabbed his hand. “But, we have to! I could be dead tomorrow.”
He looked at her through the forming tears. How could she be so casual about this? She was so brave.
“My love, listen to me.” She scooted closer to him and caressed his hands. “I want you to be happy. I want you to have kids. I want you to have all the things you’re not going to have with me. Consider it to be my dying wish.”
He always thought he knew better than her. He was the logical, stable one. She was a butterfly, flitting around to everything that tickled her fancy. Pinning her down seemed impossible. He never liked the idea of moving on so quickly, but he wanted to make her happy. Against his better judgment, he got back out there and dated while still in heavy grief. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but he did it. The first time he had sex with another woman, he cried and freaked her out. It felt like such a betrayal. He knew it wasn’t. He had Caroline’s permission not that he needed it. But, it still felt wrong.
Despite what he felt, he yearned to grant Caroline her wish; she deserved it. He never saw that first woman again and moved on to someone else. After a few more women, he found sex to be the ultimate stress reliever. Sadness did not exist while thrusting his body against some stranger. Eventually, he made it his goal to not be sad anymore and slept with whoever approached him. In those days, he had quite the following as his social and financial status skyrocketed. All he had to do was make sure he was visible.
After a while, he felt as though he had lost a part of himself. To be honest, he didn’t even recognize himself anymore. He wasn’t the kind of guy who slept around, and it disgusted him after some time. He was a one-woman man who valued relationships and desired to share his life with that woman and their family. That wild, adventurous period was fun, but it needed to end. He needed a proper time of grief and to take care of himself.
Shame followed him everywhere he went, especially at night with Caroline’s painting in the room. He used to talk to it, apologizing for what he had become and failing to do what she wanted him to do. He was a mess in those days. He felt guilty for everything: betraying her, failing her, believing he knew better than her but doing the opposite. That guilt led to other unhealthy views of himself which made him retreat into a shell and rendered him unavailable. No one would ever want someone so disappointing and broken. Punishing himself and protecting unsuspecting women from his demons seemed like the best course of action.
Getting close to Juliana was new and frightening, and soiling her young, innocent life concerned him. He came up with so many insignificant excuses for why he shouldn’t get close to her along with the lies he told himself. Some of the lies had elements of truth in them, and he was so confused. But, all of his efforts were futile for he ended up loving her anyway.
He stared at the work of art with a heavy heart. The conflict was still there in that chilly room, but also he found himself on the verge of figuring out what the something was holding him back. He inflicted the guilt on himself for all those years. All Caroline wanted was his happiness, and he was happy with Juliana. He wasn’t sure if he believed in an afterlife or not, but he knew–wherever she was–she was pleased. He hadn’t done everything she wanted, but he was finally on the road toward the happiness she wanted for him–the happiness he too wanted. That was the key he needed to unlock his fragile heart. For the first time, he felt like he could love someone without feeling like betraying Caroline. He had a wonderful young woman who had been so patient and deserved more from him. At last, he could move on and let Caroline go.
“Please forgive me,” he said to the painting. “I love you….I’m doing it.”
He wiped his tears and went to bed.
In the morning, he woke up with a brilliant idea and decided to take the day off to clear his head. In the afternoon, he drove to the hospital. If he never had to come back to that place again, he’d be grateful, but the trip was a positive one. He walked into the frigid lobby with hope in his heart for he knew when he left he would not be the same.
A gray-haired man sat at the front desk.
“Excuse me,” he said to him.
“How can I help you?”
He was unsure about how to explain his random visit and hoped the words which fell from his mouth made sense. “I, uhhh…I’ve lost a lot of people in this hospital, heh…”
The receptionist looked sympathetic yet confused.
“I have a painting…I’d like to donate it. I think it will make the patients and their families happy…and cheer up the hallways a little bit.”
He chuckled and hoped he hadn’t offended him.
“Oh! Why that’s awful generous of you,” the man said.
Kevin lifted the painting over the desk and presented it to him. The old man gazed upon it and looked pleased.
“This is beautiful.” His eyes traced every detail. “There’s so much love in this picture. May I ask…”
He didn’t always feel sad when he mentioned Caroline, but for the first time, he talked about her with a smile on his face. He felt alive and was anxious to see what possibilities would come from letting her go.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the man said. He gazed upon the painting once more. “I know just the spot for this. Willow Creek General thanks you for your generosity.” His tender smile squinted his already small eyes. “Would you like a tax receipt?”
“No. Thank you.”
He walked away. It was an awkward end to the conversation, but there wasn’t much more he wanted to say. The man behind the desk had no idea what he had already done for him. No amount of tax deductions would ever match the value of the freedom he felt in his heart.
When he stepped outside, the evening sun blinded him, and he stood in the golden sunlight for just a moment. He inhaled a slow, deep, cleansing breath, filling his lungs to capacity and exhaled from his nostrils. No longer would he walk around in guilt and shame. He was free to love whomever he wanted and was excited to speak with Juliana about the possibility of her loving him.