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Melissa Duran de Paula       

          She looks as beautiful today as she did all those years ago. As she lays still in her hospital bed, I reminisce about our youth. Our late-night drives, quiet library visits, nightly movies. We used to be so young.

          When I first met Julie, we were kids in the same playground. That first time we played, we were just a boy and a girl from the same neighborhood. As time wore on, little five-year-old us became inseparable, unstoppable. We were opposites, but the same. She was wilder where I was more reserved, she liked coloring while I liked drawing, her golden hair clashed with my black curls. But we both loved stories, and we explored every day we saw each other, looking for forgotten treasures. We could achieve anything if we were together. The playground was our kingdom, she was my queen.

          One sunny day in our playground, Julie delivered the news that she was moving soon. I don’t remember much after that, but she claims we played the same as usual. We were too young to understand the concept that we would be separated. The following week, my mother took me to our playground as usual. The feeling of despair I felt when I couldn’t find Julie I can still feel to this day, nearly 60 years later. I searched for her everyday for weeks, until it became clear that we would not see each other again. I eventually stopped going to our playground, forgot all about my best friend, grew up in a life separate from hers. New friends, relationships, stupid teenage mistakes, we went through it all apart. I didn’t think of her again until my Sophomore year in college.

          The library on campus was a quiet spot, but popular nonetheless, with many students claiming their own spot at the tables. Passing through the rows and rows of books, I stopped to admire the Victorian setting, the high ceilings and vast windows. When I looked up, though, what my eyes focused on was more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen before. At that moment everything stopped as time slowed. On the second floor of the place, practically drowning in all the books, was a blond young woman with thin reading glasses perched on her nose. When our eyes met, it was like everything clicked into place, like I was finally returning home. I learned something then — I could be lost in a sea of a thousand people and I would still find my way to her.

          The next few moments are a blur and hyper-focused at the same time. I remember 19-year-old me rushing to the other side of the library to get to the steps, and the feeling of glee when I saw her at the top of the stairs, knowing she had rushed to see me, too. I remember the awkwardness as we tried to figure out what to do with ourselves, the tense moment of silent stares interrupted only by our heavy breathing. If you ask me anything else, I will come up blank. All I remember is her. 

          She decided to take the first step, as I knew she would.

          “Are you who I think you are?” she questioned, testing the waters. Her leather bag and piled books were near a tipping point, but she didn’t seem to care, her focus being on me. Being the recipient of her undivided attention excited me, bringing out the butterflies in my stomach at full force.

          “It’s me,” I responded, still staring at her with wide eyes and a furious blush on my cheeks. “John Honberry,” I clarified, rather stupidly.

          Something in her let go at that moment. She ran down the stairs and embraced me tightly, no longer caring about her belongings.

          “God, I missed you,” she whispered in my ear, sending shivers down my spine.

          “I missed you too, Julie,” I said softly, clinging to her in full force. 

          We stayed like this for a while, eyes closed, neither believing our luck. It was like we’d been holding our breaths for all this time, and finally learned to breathe normally again. Two people finally finding their home, the place where they belonged.

          “You better not have changed,” she says with a half laugh, letting me go. “If you have become a jerk, consider my hug retracted.”

          “Change is inevitable,” I countered, earning a nod from her in return, “but I don’t know about my overall ‘jerk’ score. Maybe we could get some coffee, then you can assess me first hand,” I suggest, surprising even myself. Since when have I been so forward?

          “I would like that,” She replied after the initial surprise wore off. “I really would.”

          I don’t consider this library encounter followed by a coffee meet up as our first date. It was about two friends catching up after a long time. Lots of questions were asked, recalling old information and cataloging new ones. My “Julie” file extended significantly that day, and I can still recall nearly every word she said to me: her passion for stories only grew in the time we were apart, so now that she started college, she studied English with the goal of becoming an editor; she didn’t actually like coffee, so she ordered a brownie instead; she remembered my love for plants; she called me cute. That last fact isn’t exactly a “Julie” fact, but it is an important piece of information.

          After this encounter, I started seeing her much more often around campus. We talked, we joked, we laughed, and about two months later, one coffee date became two. Then three, just to see how things work out. Our next date was dinner at a fancy restaurant (prompted by yours truly), and we made it for about 20 minutes until we looked at each other and understood that neither of us really wanted to be there. We paid for our sodas drinks and left, laughing all the way to a local burger joint. Neither of us cared about the cheap environment — we were together, and that was enough. That has always been more than enough.

          Our relationship only grew from there. Those first dates became many: ranging from karaoke nights to art galleries to spending nights on the roof of the car watching the stars. Things weren’t always smooth, of course, as we had our share of fights, near break ups, disagreements. What kept us together was our respect for and understanding of one another. Even when we fought, I never once disrespected her or invalidated her opinions, and she returned the favor. Both of us were problem solvers, truly listening to each other to figure out and solve whatever problem we have. I would say it was one of our greatest strengths. 

          Six years after we found each other again, in the home we owned together, I got down on one knee. That day I promised her our happiness, to stand beside her no matter what, to support her, to love her for the rest of her life. She accepted my proposal and she cried, and I cried, and there were so many tears I’m pretty sure even the walls of our apartment were crying. Thank you, it said, for making me into a home once again. That night as we laid in each other’s arms, she admitted to having been looking for rings herself — I had just beat her to the proposal.

          The wedding ceremony was beautiful,  in the park where our playground used to be. 20 years later, I felt like a child once again. Giddy, hopeful, an unwavering mountain of happiness. And when I saw her walking down the aisle, with our family members supporting her on both sides of her runway, I truly knew she was the only woman for me. By the look on her face, I knew she thought the same of me.

          Three years later came our first child, Liam. A beautiful little boy with my near black eyes and his mother’s dirty blond hair. As soon as we saw him, we knew we wanted more children to bless our home, which meant our beloved two bedroom apartment could no longer meet our needs. So began the house hunt.

          It was a long search, but it was well worth it. We knew the second we stepped through the front door of 226 Lilac Road that this was going to be our forever home. With a vast yard and a tree right up front, I could plant my own vegetable garden, and Julie could finally get the library she always dreamed of. We just finished settling in when our second baby, Mona, came into the picture. On our decided last child, number three, we were blessed with the twins, Eris and Blaise.

          From there on, life was the beautiful chaos that only a family can bring. Handling jobs and marriage and kids and report cards and lunch boxes and bills and vacations and “we’re out of toilet paper!” Through the years we saw our kids grow from playful little kids to awkward teens to slightly adult-ish young people, ready to be sent off to college. When the youngest ones left at the same time we retired, Julie and I felt as sad as any parent, but accomplished as well. We managed to raise four self-sufficient, decent people, while keeping our sanity mostly intact. Julie and I spent our retirement days dancing and reading and road tripping, sharing old memories and creating new ones. We were so happy. I should’ve known it wouldn't last.

          “Go to the supermarket,” she ordered. “And get me some flour. I ran out and I need it for some recipe Mona is trying to teach me. Dang thing is giving me a headache” she said with a sigh.

          “Right now? I’m afraid I’m suffering from an episode of acute laziness. Happens a lot to people our age, you know,” I joked getting up to get my shoes.

          “Old man,” she said, coming to meet me. “I’ll save you the piece that isn’t burned when I finish my master recipe.” She had her arms around me now. She seemed so healthy, so normal. How did I not see?

          “Oh my, what an honor. I love you, Julie, you know that?”

          “I know, John. But can I tell you a secret?” She asked, looking around conspirationaly before whispering in my ear, “I love you too. Now get going or else you’ll find divorce papers in the morning.”

          We laughed, and I left. I left her all alone. Why did I leave? I left. I put on my shoes, turned on the car and left. Her laughter still echoes in my head, the sound haunting me. She laughed so freely.

At the market, I got a call from my daughter, frantic over the phone. She told me she was on the phone with her mother when Julie collapsed. She said she called 911 right away and that Julie was being taken to the hospital. An aneurysm, they say. I left the house some 20 minutes ago. That’s all it took to change my life completely.

          The past 24 hours have been a blur. I can’t remember anything past Mona’s phone call. All I know is that Julie now lies across from me on the bed that she died, her body not yet affected by death. My Julie, my home, gone. All our memories lie only with me now. I don’t know what to do from here. What do you do when the person you call home, the one you call yours, leaves you forever? Desperately looking for the why, for the why is an essential part of how the problem can be solved. There we have it, Julie, I say to myself, a problem even we cannot solve.

          The sound of her voice fills my head as my eyes slowly close. 

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