We ran past mile marker 15. Between breaths, I managed to stammer, “I’m in love with you.” Casey ignored me and sprinted ahead.
I’d met Casey in college, three years before that marathon. Back then, he had shoulder-length hair, super short running shorts, and a thigh tattoo. He tried to flirt by bragging about running his fourth marathon in three months. I Googled his times and figured out that he was slower than me.
Casey was a carefree, goofy college boy. I brushed him off.
Just before graduation, he texted me, asking if I wanted to coach high school track. Unenthused by the idea — but bad at telling people no — I stalled and replied, “Hmm. Maybe.”
His response to my implied “Thanks, but no thanks” was “Perfect. I’ll pick you up tomorrow so you can meet the team.” Not exactly what I was going for.
We began working together, and Casey transformed before my eyes, from college goofball to model mentor and leader. (He did cut the way-too-long hair, which was a great start.) As I watched him effortlessly guide and counsel those kids every day at practice, I remember asking myself, “Who is this person?”
It happened almost imperceptibly; soon, days spent with Casey felt more exciting — more alive — than days without him. I found myself thinking about him during the day — texting him funny stories, or picking up breakfast sandwiches for us before early-morning track meets.
I started to notice just how blue Casey’s eyes were. And how good it felt to be looked at by him.
But as Casey and I grew closer, a deep, piercing dread began to claw around my heart.
An hour and a half after that mid-marathon profession of love, we crossed the finish line. In the haze of Gatorade cups and bananas, Casey and I shared a hug that might have been awkward if I weren’t so exhausted. I fought back tears. We parted ways as I scanned the crowd for my husband, waiting with a blanket and a smile.
There’s no good way to say it: I was married. And not to Casey.
My husband and I shared the kind of relationship that’s only possible when you’ve grown into adulthood together. Caleb and I met in sixth grade — even then, I was enamored by his curly red hair and kind face, freckled and framed by glasses. What started as a nerdy middle-school girl’s unrequited crush, eventually turned, much later, into love.
Caleb and I grew into one life — shaping each other’s taste in food and movies, music and friends. (He cut his long hair too, in solidarity with his dad fighting cancer, and the short adult cut stuck.) I hardly remembered who I was without him. Together, we contemplated our political and religious views, our values and vision of the future. We found answers side by side. I won’t say it felt inevitable that we would be together forever, but from the very start it seemed unthinkable that we wouldn’t.
Caleb was part of me, like a limb. Someone who felt so inherent to my identity, I began to take him for granted.
A few months after we’d both graduated with master’s degrees, Caleb and I got married on our college campus. Even as I began coaching with Casey, training for that marathon, and beginning to recognize with mingled desire and dread that I might love him too, I was walking down the aisle, vowing my fidelity to Caleb forever. These feelings for Casey were fleeting, I convinced myself. Typical hysteria that comes with such a big, life-altering commitment.
My deeper friendship with Casey had been treacherous and hard-won. He was easy to talk to and quick to laugh — but quicker to roll his eyes and dismiss any conversation that edged toward emotional depth. If I pressed a topic that was too intrusive, he closed inward, growing angry and instantly defensive.
Casey told me he was proud of being a mystery to people. Never letting anyone entirely in. Never sharing the full story. “Everybody knows a little bit about me, and a lot of it is the truth, but the rest is all distraction to fill in the blanks. I’m funny and crazy most of the time because it’s entertaining and people don’t care to look further,” he told me. “Nobody has all the pieces. That’s how I like it — it’s the key to keeping anyone from getting too close.”
As we began running together, Casey’s defensiveness yielded to vulnerability. Side by side on the track, or out of breath from running hard uphill, he slowly shared his most intimate truths. Casey explained how he had experienced a certain level of depression nearly all his life. The feelings ebbed and flowed, but they never really went away. He had tried medication and therapy. For stretches of time, Casey said, he felt fine — happy, even. But the feelings always came back, sooner or later. In the end, nothing helped, and he was left alone, with the hopelessness. The insecurity. The fear.
As we spent hours coaching and training together, our tricky, fragile friendship took root. I urged Casey to find help; I researched local counselors and mental health treatment and therapy programs. He even let me drive him to the hospital for a few days, once, when things got really bad. But most of all, I spent time just living life with him. We laughed together. We sang really badly and loudly to country music on those daily car rides to practice. We bought each other hot cocoa at freezing cold track meets. I tried every day to show him he was so much more than the depression that continued to haunt him.
But all of that, I suddenly realized, could now come tumbling down, because I had taken things too far.
Casey was distant after the marathon. For days, he left texts unanswered — ignoring requests to run or hang out. We continued coaching together, but he avoided me at practice. White-hot panic blinded me. There were so many things I should have been afraid of — namely, how to tell my husband, whom I still loved, and still deeply wanted to be married to, that I had these feelings for another man. In that moment, though, I had only one singular, pressing, if shortsighted, fear: Had I lost my best friend?
“You didn’t have much to say after the race,” I offered cautiously to Casey, a few tense miles into our first run after the marathon. (After a week of constant badgering, he relented to my pleas to meet.) Like before, he sprinted forward, saying nothing. His eyes were cold.
Enter now through June 27
Win $3,000 and a lot more!
“Don’t ignore me,” I shouted, straining to keep up. My voice sounded alien. Rigid. Loud. Afraid.
He stopped, so suddenly I fell into him. Casey held me, just for a second, and his eyes finally softened. I let myself hope for a moment that not all was lost. He stepped away abruptly, breaking my gaze.
“I’m going to say something, and it is against my better judgment,” he said, beginning to run again. Like so many runs before, I fell in step beside him.
Casey continued, “You are someone I am afraid to think too honestly about, because the truth is, you’re someone I’m never going to find again. You understand me in ways that I never thought anyone would. I would drop everything in my life in an instant for a chance to be with you.
“But you and I both know I don’t have that chance. You made a choice, and I’m making one too. I refuse to wreck your life, and I’m sorry, but you have to understand that. You saying you’re in love with me is infuriating. But mostly it just hurts.”
Casey was trying to rebuild the wall I had spent so much time, over so many miles on the track together, carefully dismantling. But it was too late. We were closely-orbiting planets, moving more and more quickly toward some predestined, inevitable collision.
It seemed exactly that way — inevitable. I realize now, though, that nothing was inevitable. I could have made different choices. I didn’t walk away then. I kept pushing, just like I always had.
Soon after, in the ultimate-chick-flick-cliché move, I showed up at Casey’s front door in the middle of the night. I rushed into his arms (and then his bed). This time, he didn’t run away.
Almost immediately, we tried to end it.
“You make me happier than anyone ever has,” he said a few days later, tears filling his eyes. “But knowing this is wrong hurts too much.”
I left his house and ran the fastest 12 miles of my life. I rejected the limits of my own body, even as my legs ached and my lungs cried out for air. I flew recklessly down back roads in the dark — not hoping a car would hit me, but not necessarily caring if one did. Sprinting over snowy bridges, I contemplated the vastness below.
We swore it would never, it could never happen again. Never lasted three days, and the cycle of shame and forgiveness, of secrets and lies, began anew.
Days stretched into weeks, then almost a year. A year of homesickness and yearning, no matter where I was.
When people talk about affairs, they always seem to fixate on the sex. And while it feels phony to say, “It wasn’t about the sex,” the truth is, I hated the sex. I had been lucky with Caleb; like so many things we had grown into together, navigating our sexual desires and boundaries had been an open, mutual and unhurried process. With Casey, I always felt a little bit like an actor in a role I didn’t quite understand, following a script that wasn’t meant for me.
The moment my relationship with Casey became physical, it started to feel out of my control. He insisted that every choice, every move was “my call,” but it never felt that way. If I tried to slow things down, or backed away, he grew sullen. He already felt second class, he insisted — lied about, kept secret, left behind. I yearned for the closeness, the emotional intimacy. Given everything else I was betraying already, sex felt like an afterthought.
My body was nothing more than the necessary currency for trust.
With Casey, I used my body to prove that I loved him as much as I loved my husband. At home, I used my body to reassure Caleb that nothing was wrong, even as his suspicions grew. I felt wrung-out, trapped, empty and abandoned — even though I was the one doing the abandoning.
A little less than a year after it all began, I confessed the affair to Caleb in a letter. (Call it cowardice to write a letter, but I’ve always explained things best on paper.) I needed to lay it all out. Fully. The right way.
Some philosopher (maybe Sartre?) said that in the moments before death, the world becomes utterly clear. The past and future no longer matter, and only the exquisite details of the present moment remain. The smell of the air. The feeling of the ground. The breath moving in and out of your lungs.
As I sensed the impending death of our innocence, the obliteration of our relationship as we knew it, the details around me were vivid. Caleb’s eyebrows knitted together as I handed him the thick, folded pages — confused at first, then distraught, then defeated. He cried with his whole body, annihilated from within. That sound still echoes in the darkest corners of my memory.
He asked me if I was going to leave him. I said I didn’t know.
I loved two people. We had reached the impasse I dreaded all along — I had no choice but to upend one of their lives. That power sickened and paralyzed me. It doubtlessly hurt both of them so much more.
Eventually, I did tell Caleb I was going to leave him. It never felt like the obvious or wholly right choice, but something about Casey had compelled me to shatter our seemingly perfect marriage after all. My relationship with Casey had never been a fling — there was something about him I couldn’t quite shake. I owed it to all of us, I thought, to give a life with Casey a chance. Caleb moved out of our beautiful fourth-floor apartment, and I helped him carry the suitcases to his car.
Despite already betraying Caleb in every way, I couldn’t bring myself to invite Casey into the bed in that beautiful apartment Caleb and I had shared. That night, I sat alone with Casey, drinking Jim Beam and Sprite in the attic bedroom of a house he shared with college roommates. As Casey slept beside me, I silently cried for my husband. I remembered riding to prom in an antique car he’d borrowed from his aunt. Our first kiss in my parents’ driveway on the Fourth of July. The pirate-themed bed-and-breakfast where we’d stayed on our honeymoon in Quebec, just the summer before.
Those next few weeks with Casey, I felt like I was playing dress-up in someone else’s life — like a ghost of myself, living out some alternate version of reality. When I could no longer bear to live in what felt like a life that wasn’t my own, I booked a ticket to Minnesota, where Caleb was staying with his grandparents. I cried in the shower the morning of the flight, as I admitted my plan to Casey. He said he understood; he even drove me to the airport.
Alone in the airport terminal, I called someone I can only describe as a father. Not my real father, who would learn about all of this eventually too, but a man who was a surrogate father to both me and Casey — the head coach we had continued to work with through all of this — a leader and friend we admired more than almost anyone: Kurtis. His voice was full of disappointment and confusion as I tried to distill a year’s worth of secrets and shame and pain into one phone call, as I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t know when, or if, I would be able to coach again. As I hung up, a new message appeared. It was from Casey, begging me to come back. I turned off my phone and boarded the plane.
In Minnesota with Caleb, I felt calmer and more at home, even in this place where I had never been before. But now, I mourned for Casey. Caleb insisted I cut off all ties with him, and after some hesitation, I agreed. How could I deny Caleb that, after everything I had put him through already? And yet, two days later, I was already sneaking away to text Casey, to check in. I could feel the inescapable cycle of lies and deception, of terror and paranoia, starting over yet again.
Caleb and I returned home. And I returned to Casey. Instead of making a choice, I poured every bit of myself into loving both of them as much as I could. Except now, it wasn’t a secret. For the months that followed, we existed in an impossible kind of purgatory. I split time between Caleb and Casey in a way that was almost scientifically calculated to be “fair.” Of course, it tore all three of us apart.
I kept running. But I had betrayed my body, so it began to return the favor.
When pain stabbed my left foot, I was convinced I had a “lover’s fracture” — a real medical nickname — apparently originating with Casanovas of ancient times, who sometimes broke their heel as they jumped from a lover’s balcony after a tryst. (The irony was not lost on me.)
Though ordered into a cast and six weeks off my feet, I joined Casey on a single lap around the track. A sad, hobbling run. I didn’t know it would be the last time. Maybe he did.
One morning, as we sat in his bed, SportsCenter on mute, the air conditioner trying in vain to cool his stifling third-floor bedroom, Casey turned to me.
“Christine, if anything happens to me. You have to write my eulogy. Because you’re the only one who knows all of me — my whole story. You’re the only one I trust to tell things the right way.”
It might have seemed like a morbid request, but life with Casey had, from the very start, been pervaded by death. He once told me he’d had his first suicidal thought in third grade: “I got a C on a math test,” he said. “And I wondered if I could die if I put pencil lead in my blood.” I’ll never forget that, because it was so innocent, and yet tragic, to think of an 8-year-old wondering that.
Casey’s secrets didn’t scare me away. We talked honestly like we never had before. About life. About love. Our relationship began to tear a deep rift inside of me though. As I tried to sort out his pain and hopelessness, I was forced to come to grips with my own.
When our relationship began, he had told me I had “saved his life” — that being with me had given him new purpose, a new reason to live. While I have no doubt he meant it as the sincerest possible praise, that statement always haunted me. If being with me had saved his life, what would happen if I left?
So when he first urged me to write his eulogy, I said no.
“Why not?” he asked, clearly surprised.
“Lots of reasons. The people who love you won’t take that chance on me. They’ll hardly ever know me as more than ‘the girl you were sleeping with.’ More importantly, because you’re not going to die any time soon. I’ll give your eulogy when your body falls apart at 65 from running thousands of miles a year and living on soda and McDoubles.”
But later, we made some sort of deal, the finer details of which I no longer remember. I made a promise to write the eulogy, and to do it now, not to save it for after he was gone, however far off I believed that would be. And if I went through with his dark request, he would find a counselor, go back to therapy — something like that. But the nagging fear remained: Was he marking a box on a mortality checklist? Was I doing something for him that would give him permission to die?
I didn’t know. But what I did know is I wanted him to hear it. I wanted him to know how much I cared, and, hopefully, make him believe that other people did too. It was one final, desperate attempt to let him see himself the way I saw him. So on another stifling summer day, in that same third-floor bedroom, I read it: The eulogy I never gave, except to him.
I talked about what an amazing coach he was. I shared stories about the many ways he went out of his way for the kids on our team — Casey knew just the right joke to crack to make them smile. He spent time after practice going over math homework with one runner, even though he was basically as confused as she was. After another’s mom died, Casey was at the kid’s door the very next morning to console him.
I explained how one of his favorite things about running big races was giving his medal to some random little kid, tired from getting up early to cheer on their mom or dad at the finish line. I talked about how much he loved professional soccer, and comic books, and Tupac.
And despite months and years of insisting to Casey that I wouldn’t let him die, that he would get better and would live a long, happy life, I ended the eulogy by acknowledging a dread that still wouldn’t go away. I reflected on how, in all likelihood, Casey had been killed by this illness, this depression, that tore him apart invisibly. And how all of us needed to do more to look after each other, to reach out, to talk about hard things. “Because the one thing Casey taught me best,” I read, “is that sometimes loving in the quiet ways — the unnoticed, unrecognized, unappreciated ways, day in and day out — makes the biggest difference.”
“The last bit is a bit preachy,” he said, laughing a little, his eyes full of tears as I finished reading. “But otherwise, I guess it’s pretty good.”
After I read Casey the eulogy, something seemed to shift in him. He promised to find help; he insisted that he wanted to get better. He seemed so much happier, and more hopeful, than he had been in a long time.
Something was shifting in me, too, though. I was beginning to understand a truth that was becoming more undeniable every day: My home was with Caleb, my husband. In some deep place in my heart, I knew that I had to commit to Caleb and end things with Casey for good. Even now, nearly six years later, I don’t have some great, irrefutable, logical reason why. Like so many times I had tried to end things before, Casey said he understood. We cried together. I promised to be there, as long as he needed me, in whatever capacity I could, as a friend. He said he would be fine. This time, I tried my hardest to believe him.
I did not know then if it was the single right choice. But I did know that I was the only person who truly understood how high the stakes were. What could happen.
Not long after, worried by a stretch of unreturned messages, I rushed up the steps to his bedroom for the last time. I found him.
Casey was dead.
In the end, it seemed he kept his darkest torments hidden even from me. I was consumed by unutterable remorse.
In the black fog that followed, accentuated by ambulance sirens and gentle-speaking police officers and medics, hands ushering me down the stairs — I looked at him one last time. I wanted to stay. I didn’t want to leave him there, all alone with strangers, but I had no energy to fight their insistent hands on my back, pushing me out of the bedroom so they could continue their investigation.
After Casey died, people talked, but not to me. I discovered just how detached I was from so many other people who knew and loved Casey. In keeping so much of our relationship a secret, it left little room for support or understanding from those on the outside.
Casey left a series of letters on his laptop, written and rewritten and revised over the span of three months before his death. He wrote to family members, a few friends, and me. He explained the many reasons he had chosen to end his life. He made requests and offered reassurance. He insisted that he wasn’t heartbroken, that this was not about our relationship and was not anyone’s fault, least of all mine. But there was too much of me in those letters to ignore. In many ways, Casey took the complexity and nuance of our love with him. His death shrouded us in mystery and deploring whispers, but in other ways, thrust my darkest personal shame into a more public spotlight than I was equipped to handle.
In the week of blind grief after Casey’s death, I threw myself back into the team, the runners we had both coached and loved. I soon found myself in a meeting with the principal, school counselor, and head coach, Kurtis, my father-figure, all staring tensely across a table. For the next 20 minutes, a blur of words like “emotional liability” and the “close nature of your relationship” and “We’re just not comfortable with you being around our kids” washed over me. Those words. The strangeness of their faces. And the pain of my fingernails digging into my palms, as I willed myself with every nerve in my body not to cry from helplessness and shame.
For Casey’s memorial, his family requested funeral-goers wear worn-out, secondhand and otherwise unconventional clothes to memorialize their son in a fashion he would have approved of. I donned ragged jean cutoffs, a flannel shirt and dirt-caked trail shoes. Nearly everyone else wore a black-tie getup anyway. Mortified, I imagined it a final prank, orchestrated by Casey in some supernatural dimension. True to form, I suppose, he had the last laugh.
The funeral was an informal, open-mic memorial; anyone was welcome to walk up and share a memory about Casey. I listened to classmates, co-workers, friends and teammates share their stories. I tried to let it be a collective, healing moment, even as I felt searing jealousy at the way each one was embraced and supported, not regarded with the whispers and suspicious sidelong glances I felt all around me. I tried to summon the strength to share a piece of his eulogy after all. Just before I could walk up, someone else approached the mic to conclude the memorial. I had hesitated, and the moment was gone. Or maybe they had seen me, and cut off the open-mic early — maybe they were watching me, and didn’t want me to talk. Was that just the paranoia of my shame? I still don’t know.
After the funeral, a few of Casey’s friends reached out to me — some with kindness, others with confusion, a few with anger and blame. All of them, in a sense of duty to the friend they lost. Most, though, understandably unsure of where to even begin, drifted away. I ached for someone — anyone — to ask me what I loved about him. To acknowledge how much I must miss him. On the whole, I grieved alone.
That grief prompted a deep self-reckoning. I took stock of how much pain I had caused. For so long, I believed I was trapped in the middle of a deep, unmatched dilemma. But maybe I was just a girl at the edge of real adulthood, all-too-predictably afraid of commitment and consumed by the weight of innumerable what-ifs and could-have-beens.
In the letter left for me on his laptop after he died, Casey tried to reassure me that his death was not my fault. He told me to remember all of the good times we’d had, to keep coaching, and to “stop surviving, and start living.” I despised the injustice of it. That I had the chance to do those things, and he didn’t. But I knew I owed it to him — I owed it to myself — to try. I took my own advice and went to therapy. I did my best to own my mistakes, instead of letting the shame overwhelm me. I finally began to live out something I had said in my own wedding vows — that love is not a state of being, but an active choice we make every day. I made the choice, one day at a time, to start loving Caleb again, in the way we both deserved.
Six months later, my foot on the mend, I ran another marathon. My training had been fueled by grief, and confusion — and a desire to, like I always had, sort things out on a run. I began to slowly make peace with the body I had forsaken.
As I covered those miles, I ran away from the trauma and regret of the past, toward the hazy uncertainty of what was to come. I didn’t know that just a few months later, I would find a new team, a new running family — one I would build myself. I didn’t know that Caleb, by some grace, would forgive me. Though we would spend countless nights in the next six years sharing tears over the innocence I took away from us, we would also move forward with what would become an extraordinarily happy life together. We chose to keep loving each other, and to do the work necessary to make things right.
This time, I had no running partner to hug at the finish line. I ran every step of that race on my own.
Once again, though, Caleb waited for me. Not with an open heart, but a scarred one. And yet, a heart that was willing to stay. We stepped away from the crowd, into an undefined future — truly together, perhaps for the first time.