An Excerpt from Letters, or “After Her”


By now you know that I have taken my own life. At least, I hope you know. It would be quite awkward if this letter arrived before I had a chance to carry out my intentions. I don’t foresee that happening, though. When I’m done with everything I want to write, I’m going to head into my office.

I hope you are not upset…

No, who am I kidding with that sentiment? Not myself. As I write this I’m more at peace with my decision that I would ever have expected, but I know your thoughts on suicide. You’re bound to be angry with me. Please don’t be. I don’t know if I can take that. Look at me, talking like I’ll be around to experience your reaction. I’ve never desired more strongly to be able to convince myself to believe in the afterlife than I do now.

I’m trying to put on a brave face, Tomás. I said I was at peace with this, and I’m not lying, but I am upset. There are tears in my eyes. Should I really be telling you that? I think so. I’ve always been honest with you. I know you haven’t always told me the truth, but I am not someone who can live with lying.

What an ironic way to say that. I have lied to you, and now I’m going to take my own life, and it has to do with that lie. Tomás, there are things I have hidden from you. Things I know about you, and about myself. I can no longer permit myself to live, knowing these things. I know you well enough to know you won’t accept my choice, but I hope that someday you will understand.

I have cancer, Tomás. I’m sorry that I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t have the strength. You know I’ve never been good at saying things face-to-face. I guess this is my last chance to apologize for that. For all the times I texted you or wrote you notes about things I should have said in person. Yet here I am, doing it again.

The cancer is terminal. My doctor said I have, at his most hopeful estimate, four more months to live. Four months, if I go through with the chemo and the radiation and the treatments. Less, if I go untreated. I can’t put myself through that. I couldn’t put you through that, Tomás. It’s not worth all of that pain and suffering for there only to be more grief at the end.

Isn’t it funny that we just agreed to put Bunni down, for basically the same reasons? No. No, it’s not funny; certainly not ha-ha funny. I know you hate that turn of phrase. There’s just not another good one to convey what I want to get across. Bunni had cancer, too. What are the odds? So we decided to put her to sleep, because she was an old dog, and the cancer was likely to be terminal no matter how hard we fought. Well, I’ve made the same decision for myself. I’m putting myself to sleep just as I’m doing for Bunni. She died in my arms. I suppose I’ll die alone, but at least I’m dying for you.

I know this is going to be hard for you, but I think in the end you’ll agree that it’s easier this way. It’s quick, if not painless. It’s not long and drawn out this way, right? I die, in part, for you. I’m only trying to foreshorten your pain. I guess I’ll never know if I succeed.

At least you’ll have Birch to help you through this.

With love and sympathy,

— Rin

Tomás stared at the letter where he had placed it on the kitchen island. It was where he and Rin tended to drop the mail when they walked in the door. The rest of the day’s mail lay next to it, unopened, unimportant by comparison; bills, mostly. A letter for Rin with a return address that said it was likely a birthday card from her mother, sent before yesterday’s tragedy had unfolded.

The envelope containing this letter had drawn his eye immediately. It had caught his breath in his chest, trapped it there. He felt like it still hadn’t come out. He forced himself to take a deep breath, in and out. It was not as smooth as he might have wished. It shuddered with choking sobs.

How could she do this? That had been his first thought, yesterday, when Rin’s receptionist, Lisa, had called him. She found Rin in the exam room. He was not proud of that thought, nor of most of the others that had marathoned through his head that day, that night, and today. He was not proud of himself at all. He had always imagined himself as a stronger person than this, but here he was, eyes full of tears, staring down at his kitchen counter and unable to bring himself to even touch that letter again.

He had known, instantly, that the letter was from her. He knew her handwriting, that bold, artful cursive that he loved so much carving out his name on the front in the distinctive, bold pink ink of her favorite pen. There was no return address. He didn’t recognize the stamp, oddly. It wasn’t one they used at home and he didn’t think he had seen it in her office, though he didn’t go there often because he disliked the smell. She used animal stamps for mail she had to send from the office, but this stamp depicted a stand of poplar trees.

The stationery he recognized as belonging to Rin. Off-white, with a taupe border and faint, clean lines. No designs. Her handwriting was artful enough to make the page look beautiful without all that extra stuff companies liked to cram onto stationary. This letter was no exception, though Tomás didn’t know how she could have maintained her steady hand while writing something like this. That was Rin, though. Always calm.

Tomás groped around him, seeking a stool. He was unwilling to take his eyes off of the letter, as much as he was unwilling to touch it. He feared marring its perfect beauty and ruining what he knew would be his last remembrance of Rin. A fleeting temptation passed through his mind to get it laminated or framed. Would he do that? Probably not. He would stow it away somewhere out of sight, somewhere hidden, where he wouldn’t have to think about it each and every day. For now, though, that piece of paper enshrouded his mind. He could think of little else.

He didn’t even know how to react to this letter. His first thought was that he needed to call Birch, a compulsion for which he immediately felt even more guilt and shame, because as he read the letter again, he began to suspect something. She didn’t come right out and say it. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d said she wanted her death to ease his pain. It would be like Rin to hide her anger about something from him if she thought it would make him unhappy. Parts of her letter struck him like slaps to the face, now, as he considered the possibility that Rin had known the truth about his relationship with Birch.

Her last line, of course, jumped out from the page. “At least you’ll have Birch to help you through this.” Had it been that line alone, he would have felt some suspicion, but not a great deal. He and Birch were, as far as Tomás thought Rin knew, very close friends. They had been ever since she had introduced them. He was certainly the person to whom Tomás was closest, other than Rin.

It was another line, though, that came across as bitter and suspicious. “I know you haven’t always told me the truth, but I am not someone who can live with lying.” What else could she mean by that, other than that she knew? That wasn’t their dynamic. He wasn’t the sort of husband who lied to his wife. Not until this past year, with Birch. So there was nothing else she could possibly mean. She knew they’d been having an affair.

Tomás felt sick. He pulled out his phone to text Birch. He stopped. He set it on the counter, closer to him than the letter. What kind of awful person was he, that his first desire was to seek comfort from the very person with whom he’d had the relationship that was suddenly gnawing away at him? Tomás massaged his brow, hard enough that it felt more like a punishment than an attempt at relief, which is what he’d intended. He pressed his knuckles into his face, then his palms. Maybe if he pushed hard enough he could keep the rest of his tears inside.

It wasn’t like he had been cheating on Rin. Not really. He had seen a lot of Birch, yes. They’d been out to lunch and dinner from time to time, while Rin was busy at her veterinary office. Tomás had ensured that they never kissed, though. They’d certainly never had sex. Tomás didn’t even know if he was interested in sex with Birch. They hardly ever showed any physical affection at all, beyond a hug now and then. That was okay. Friends hugged. You couldn’t consider a hug to be cheating. They had held hands once or twice, but friends held hands. Right?

Tomás knew he was lying to himself. He hadn’t had sex with Birch but he had certainly been unfaithful to his wife, emotionally. He had even begun to believe he was in love with Birch. He shook his head, squeezing more tears out of his eyes. He couldn’t hide it from himself. He’d considered leaving her. He was convinced that he was in love with Birch, to the extent that he’d begun to doubt whether he had ever been in love with Rin at all.

Tomás sobbed and tore himself away from the counter. He left the letter and his phone there, perilously close to one another. He forced himself into the kitchen proper and attacked the dishes he had left in the sink that morning, when he had rushed out of the door to make it to work on time.

Veronica had been shocked to see him there. She had insisted that he go home. She could run the grocery store by herself, she said. She had rearranged her day to come in on her day off, so that he could take some time for bereavement. He refused to leave. He hadn’t wanted to stay in that empty house, where every chair and every inch of wall reminded him of Rin. Her brush was still sitting on the counter in the bathroom, her black hair still tangled around the bristles.

He pushed himself through the work day. He shouldn’t have. He should have listened to Veronica. It felt good to be doing something. That’s what he told himself, but it wasn’t the truth. It hadn’t felt good. It had felt awful. He had done poorly, too. He’d been short with customers and employees alike. He’d be in the middle of making his orders or balancing a cashier’s drawer only to find that he’d frozen, mind fled elsewhere, eyes staring off into the distance, searching for some hint of Rin.

He had doubted it when she was still alive, but now that she was dead, he knew he still loved her. Maybe his passion didn’t burn as brightly as it once had. Maybe it had never burned as brightly as his passion for Birch, but that didn’t matter. She was a part of him as much as his hand was a part of him. She’d been in his life for seven years.

Her presence was comfortable. Like his hand, he hardly thought of what life would be like without her. He wasn’t actively thankful for her, like he should have been. He didn’t consider, day to day, all of the things she did for him, whether that be picking his dirty clothes off of the floor or making a lunch for him to take to work or simply being there in bed with him at night, a warm presence that let him know he wasn’t alone.

He had allowed Birch to eclipse her. Tomás would never forgive himself for that. He had betrayed her, and she knew. That was the worst part. He dropped his cereal bowl in the dishwasher and went back to her letter. His hand was still wet. He set it on the counter next to that letter, far enough away that he wouldn’t dampen it, and read her last line again.

“At least you’ll have Birch to help you through this.”

Tomás picked up his phone. He paused, his thumb hovering over the green phone icon next to Birch’s contact photo. It was a picture Birch had sent him just last week, a selfie taken outside. Birch’s pale cheeks were reddened by the cool air, but his hair was a summery blond, and his smile was wide and genuine. Tomás loved that picture, yet in this moment, he found himself wishing there was someone else he could call, someone further removed from the situation.

He had no friends with whom he felt close enough to give an outpouring of such personal detail and emotion. He found himself wishing his mother was still alive, even though he knew he would likely never have shared this struggle with her. He could never have told her he had cheated on Rin. She would have made him feel even worse.

No, Birch was his only real option. He tried to rationalize away some of his guilt. Perhaps Rin’s last line had meant she was comfortable with the idea of him confiding in Birch. Perhaps it was an endorsement of their relationship, rather than a discrete condemnation. After all, she certainly knew of and approved of their friendship. She had to.

Birch had been one of her oldest and closest friends. She had expressed to Tomás her joy at the fact that he and Birch got along so well. Maybe she had been hinting, even then, that she knew there was more to their relationship than friendship. Maybe he was just deluding himself.

He would never know. It was like her, when she was angry about something, to leave him in this sort of purgatory. A sickening pit took shape in his stomach He would never know. He would never hear her opinion again, on anything. He would never hear her voice, or watch the way her straight, glossy hair cascaded when she laughed hard. Or wake up again on a summer morning to see the light pouring in their bedroom window, falling across her face and illuminating her eye so thoroughly it was like looking into the depths of her soul, because she was already awake, taking joy in just watching him sleep.

She meant so much to him. He hadn’t realized it, hadn’t realized how much she still meant, after all these years. He had allowed Birch to outshine her, but now that she was gone, suddenly, she meant it all again.

He left her letter behind and headed up the stairs to their bedroom, phone still in his hand. The screen had long since gone black. The bed, still made from when Rin had left the house yesterday, looked so very inviting. He stripped off his work shirt and his slacks and crawled on top of the sheets. He didn’t want to fall asleep. He just wanted to look at her spot in the bed. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to sleep here last night, so he’d slept on the couch.

One of Rin’s hairs curled across her pillow still, stark black against the creamy fabric. Tomás pulled it free, twirling it between his fingers. Tears filled his eyes anew. He turned his face down into his pillow and sobbed. He would be finding remnants of her like this for weeks to come. For years. How would he ever get through that? The house was full of her, but still so empty.

When Tomás peeled his face away from his pillow, the case was damp with tears. A glance at his clock told him almost thirty minutes had passed. He must have fallen asleep after all. His head ached. That pit of nausea still sat in his stomach, weighing him down like a stone.

He had so much to take care of, with her gone. Her mother was taking care of the funeral arrangements, at least. Tomás knew it should have been his responsibility, but Chihiro had been insistent and he had gladly acquiesced. He would need to get death certificates so that he could close Rin’s bank accounts. He would need to grow accustomed to living on a single income. He would have to figure out how he was going to afford his car payment and mortgage on an assistant manager’s salary, not to mention what he was going to do with Rin’s car. And now, he thought, he had to report Rin’s suicide note to the police.

That was a good excuse to call Birch. Birch would know what to do. Tomás hated that he felt like he needed an excuse. He’d always had one ready while Rin was alive, and his mind still automatically followed those same paths. Texting was one thing. Everyone texted. Rin wouldn’t have questioned him about that. But Tomás loved the sound of Birch’s voice, so when they couldn’t hang out, they tried to find a moment to speak on the phone. Tomás had always worried about Rin finding something odd about that fact. He didn’t have to worry about that now, of course.

That thought struck him painfully. It had felt almost like relief. He pushed it away, as deep down inside himself as he could, and grabbed his phone to call Birch.

It rang several times before he answered. His voice was soft and light, something Tomás had never found attractive in a man before. Well, he’d never been attracted to a man before. “Tomás? Hey, I’m with a client. Is everything alright?”

He should have built up to it, maybe prefaced his words with meaningless talk about his day, but he just blurted it right out. “She sent me a letter. I just got Rin’s suicide note in the mail.” It took all of his strength just to get to the end of his sentence without breaking down into tears once more. He sat up in bed, scrunching his eyes shut in an attempt to keep the sobs down.

“Oh my God,” Birch said. “Okay. Uh. Wow. I’ll be there. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m coming. Okay, Tomás?”


“Just wait right there.”

“I will,” Tomás replied. There was nothing else he felt like he could do.
By the time Birch arrived, Tomás had managed to do one thing, which was to drag himself and a blanket to his favorite chair in the living room. He had been staring blankly at the carpet, his eyes so unfocused that he had begun to see shapes in it like it was one of those old magic eye pictures. He was so dry from crying he’d thought he had no tears left. His tongue and his throat felt like sandpaper. Still, his eyes found enough moisture to begin watering at the sound of Birch opening the door.

“Hey,” Birch said, coming around the corner into the room. He’d come directly to Tomás’s position, without even having to search. He put his hand on Tomás’s shoulder. His fingers pressed automatically into the knots there. Already Tomás felt his tension lessening. Birch ran his thumb under Tomás’s eye, wiping away a tear. Birch’s own eyes were so red they looked like Christmas, with his bright green irises. “I’m going to get us each a glass of water. I’ll be right back.”

Tomás listened intently to the sounds of Birch moving through the kitchen. He was such a quiet man. His footsteps were almost inaudible. Even opening and closing the cabinet made hardly a sound. The only thing he couldn’t dampen was the sound of the water pouring into the cups.

“I keep wanting to ask if you’re okay,” Birch said when he returned. “It’s what my social training wants me to do. But that’s a stupid question.”

Tomás smiled, little more than a faint curling of his lips. Reflex. “I’m not.”

“I know.” Birch handed Tomás his water. “Drink, and then we’ll talk.” Birch moved to sit on the couch, but Tomás stopped him.

“Do you want to read it?” Tomás asked.

Birch paled. He took a long breath before responding. “No, but I know that I have to.”

“It’s on the island.”

“I know,” Birch said, turning his head toward the kitchen. “I saw it. I just didn’t want to look at it.” He sighed, but he did go back to the kitchen. Tomás curled his legs up in his chair and turned so that he could watch him.
Birch took a long gulp of his water on his way to the kitchen. He sat it on the counter when he got there and then, apparently, forgot all about it. Like Tomás, he didn’t touch the letter. It was fascinating to Tomás how similarly they behaved, sometimes. Birch leaned on the counter as he read, hard, as though he needed the support to continue standing. One hand moved up to cover his mouth. Tomás knew when he had finished reading, for he closed his eyes, but Birch remained there for more than a minute, leaning over the counter. He cried as silently as he moved.

When he returned he was still wiping the tears from his face. “Oh, Tomás,” he said. “She knew.”

Another wave of tears welled up from Tomás’s chest. It subsumed him, a palpable pressure that emanated from his heart and pushed all the way up and out of his eyes. He could only nod. He felt Birch’s hand on his shoulder once more, heavier than before, and then Birch’s leg was sliding across and then there he was, sitting in Tomás’s lap, his body curled against Tomás’s torso. He fit there so perfectly, his own body so much lighter than Tomás’s. Though they had never sat like this before it felt familiar and right. Birch wrapped his arms around Tomás’s neck. They pressed their heads together and sat, for a time, in silence.

“I loved her,” Tomás said. “I still love her.”

“Me too,” Birch said.

“I can’t…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Didn’t even know what the last words were meant to be.

“Me either,” Birch said, as though he did know. He probably did. “I hope I wake up tomorrow and realize this was all a dream.”

“A nightmare,” Tomás said. “Yeah. Me too.”

“A nightmare,” Birch agreed. He raised his head to where he could look Tomás in the eyes. “There are some parts of it that feel like a dream, though, too.”

“What?” Tomás said. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Birch said, flushing. “I mean. Oh. I suddenly feel like the worst person.”

“You’re not,” Tomás said automatically. “What do you mean?”

“I just… You know, I thought you’d never hold me like this.” Birch turned his head away, nestling it back into Tomás’s shoulder. Avoiding Tomás’s eyes.

That sentiment made Tomás deeply uncomfortable, but he didn’t have the strength right now to voice that opinion to Birch. He tensed beneath Birch’s weight. “I guess.”

“And Tomás, she sounded almost like she endorsed this.” Birch’s voice shook, though with which emotion, Tomás could not quite discern.

“No,” Tomás said, shaking his head. He found the strength to speak out. “No, I didn’t see that. She was angry at us.”

“I don’t believe that,” Birch said. “She loved us both. She wouldn’t give her last words to us in anger.”

“Believe what you want,” Tomás said bitterly. “I know what I read.”

Birch breathed in, sharply, and Tomás steeled himself for his reply. It didn’t come. Instead, Birch shifted, bringing himself even further into contact with Tomás. He kissed Tomás on the temple. Tomás didn’t push him away, but he didn’t engage him, either.

“You have to eat something,” Birch called from the kitchen.

“I’m not hungry,” Tomás said. It was the truth, sort of. His limbs were weak and it felt like a helium balloon had expanded in his head. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. There was no growl of hunger in his stomach, though, and he had no desire for any of the foods Birch had listed.

“Yes you are.” Birch stepped back into the living room. He crossed his arms. “Are you sure you don’t want macaroni?”


“Chicken?” Birch asked.

Tomàd pulled his blanket over his head. “No chicken.”

Birch sighed and pulled out his phone. “Pizza it is, then.”

Tomás grunted. “I guess I could eat pizza.”

Birch stepped out of the room to order. He disliked talking on the phone in front of other people. Besides, he knew what Tomás liked on his pizza. Tomás had a sudden desire to order Rin’s favorite pizza: thin crust, with chicken, spinach, tomatoes, and goat cheese. They made that at home, though. He doubted the pizza place had goat cheese, if they even had chicken. Not all pizza places offered that as a topping.

Tomás quickly tired of the warmth under the blanket. He slid it off of his head. The sun rested heavily on the horizon, bathing the living room in red-orange light. This was a late dinner, to Tomás. Certainly on the nights neither of them were working, Rin liked to have dinner over with by now.

Tomás had the idea he would have trouble sleeping tonight, despite the fact that he’d slept hard the night before. His mind had been buzzing with pain and regret right up until his face hit the pillow. Still, he was asleep moments later. He’d slept through over a minute of the blaring sound of his alarm. He could sleep as late as he wanted tomorrow. If he could. Veronica had made it very clear that, after today, he was to take some time away from work.

Birch sat in the chair next to the window. “Well, the pizza will be here in about half an hour.”

“Alright,” Tomás said.

Birch turned his phone over in his hands, again and again. “I guess… What do we do about her note?”

“I don’t know,” Tomás said. “Do we have to call the police?”

“Probably,” Birch said. “It’s evidence related to her death, isn’t it?”

“It’s not like she was murdered,” Tomás said. “She killed herself. There was never any question. This just makes that even clearer.”

“I still think we should call,” Birch said. “Otherwise, I feel like we’re hiding something. Besides, don’t you think it’s a bit strange that you got it in the mail?”

Tomás shifted. He hadn’t thought about it. There hadn’t been room for that thought. “No, not really. I figure she didn’t want me to find it before she went through with her plan.”

He felt like he had cried himself out, for now. He felt cold and detached from their discussion, as though he were talking about events that had happened in someone else’s life. “It also gave her a push to go through with it, in a way. You know? Like, ‘okay, this letter is out there. It’s going to be really awkward if he gets it and I haven’t gone through with the plan.’”

Birch looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. “I guess that makes sense. For some reason I was thinking she must have had someone send it for her, but the timeline works, even if she didn’t.”

Tomás nodded. “Yeah.”

A pause. “I still think we should call, just to cover all of our bases.”

“You can call, if you want. I don’t think I can do it.” Cold and detached as he felt, there was no way Tomás could go through with that call.

Birch swallowed. “Alright. Alright, I can do that.” He left the room, pulling his phone from his pocket as he went.

It was several minutes before Birch began speaking to someone on the other line. Tomás didn’t know if he’d waited on the line that long, or if it had merely taken him some time to work up the courage to call.

“Hi, yes. My name is Birch Alexander. I’m calling about a suicide that your department investigated yesterday. I wanted to speak to, um, the person in charge of the case?” A pause. “Oh. Okay. Well, it’s about the suicide of Rin Middlebrook.” A longer pause. “Yes, hello. I wanted to talk about Rin Middlebrook. I had information pertaining to her suicide… No, no. Her husband received her suicide letter in the mail today. I was just, well, it felt like the right thing to call.”

Tomás covered his head with the blanket and pulled out his phone. He didn’t want to listen any more. He felt selfish, but he just wanted to stop thinking about Rin for a few minutes. He felt so fatigued, right down to his bones themselves. His femurs, his radius and ulna, felt like sponge cake. He smiled, almost, at himself, for thinking in those terms. So scientific. Out of habit he clicked on the Facebook app. He had notifications. This was a mistake. Far too many of those notifications were wall posts and messages expressing their condolences for Rin.

He closed Facebook. He knew he would have to come back to it later, maybe in a day or two. He pondered whether it would be wise to make a Facebook event for Rin’s funeral. He wasn’t even sure when the funeral would be or where. Chihiro was supposed to call him with the details. But was it tacky to make an event for a funeral? He knew some of the people who knew Rin might never find out about it otherwise. They didn’t read the newspaper and check the obituaries. Or at least, Tomás didn’t, and he expected that most people in their age group were not dissimilar.

Birch pulled the blanket off of Tomás’s head when he came back into the living room. “They’re going to send someone by to pick up the letter so that they can look over it, but they expect you’ll be able to get it back.” He met Tomás’s eyes. “You know, if you want it.”

“I do,” Tomás said immediately. “I think. I don’t want it destroyed, anyway.”

“Well, we can put it somewhere you can access it without having to look at it every day,” Birch said. “Like a memory box, or something. I thought we might make one of those for her. For us.”

“A memory box?” Tomás asked.

“Yeah, I don’t know. Something.” Birch blushed. “I guess I don’t know if it’s a common thing. My mom keeps mementos of her parents in these nice boxes she got from the craft store. I just like the concept.”

Tomás smiled. “I do like that. It’s just a lot to think about right now. Can we just, like, do nothing and watch a show? I want to be distracted.”

Birch laughed. “You mean Netflix and chill?”

Tomás grimaced. “Well, yes, but I think that phrase has different cultural connotations than what I’m actually asking for.”

“I think you’re right.” Birch grabbed the television remote. “Moving away from those connotations, would you like a massage? You have to be tense.”

Tomás hesitated. “I would.”

“But? I can hear the but in your voice,” Birch said.

“But don’t you feel weird about that? About us, now?” Tomás asked. “Doesn’t it feel like we’re disrespecting Rin?”

“No,” Birch said, though his eyes said he was less certain than his tone indicated. “Not at all.”

“Really?” Tomás said. “Because we’re sitting in her house, about to eat dinner together, and we just cuddled, and you just offered me a massage… She just died yesterday. Aren’t we moving a bit fast, here?”

“Moving into what, exactly, Tomás?” Birch said. He sat down on the couch, where he could be at eye level with Tomás. “How is what we’re doing tonight any different from what we’ve been doing for the past year?”

“I’m not trying to make you mad,” Tomás said. “I’m not mad. I’m just confused. And I feel guilty.”

“I’m not mad either, Tomás. I’m confused, too.” Birch ran his fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp. It was something he did when he was in a tense moment. “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I’m not trying to push you into having something with me.”

“I know,” Tomás said quickly. “You never have.”

“No, I haven’t,” Birch agreed. “I’m just trying to be your friend right now. You need someone. I need someone. We’ve got each other, and I think Rin would be happy to see us supporting each other. Don’t you?”

Tomás shook his head. “Maybe.”

Birch watched Tomás for a time, then settled back onto the couch. He flipped through Netflix until he found Bob’s Burgers. He left it running when the pizza arrived. He paid, for which Tomás felt guilty. As a massage therapist/yoga instructor, he was pretty sure Birch made less money than him, though of course Tomás had never asked. Birch grabbed them both plates and TV tables. They ate in silence. Tomás couldn’t bring himself to laugh at the Belchers’ antics. Nevertheless, it was pleasant to have something mindless playing, to distract him from his own thoughts.

A police officer stopped by as they ate. Birch answered the door, and led the officer in to collect Rin’s letter and the envelope in which it had arrived. Tomás tried to ignore the officer’s presence. After the door shut, he glanced back at the kitchen. He couldn’t see it from here, so he pictured that empty spot on the counter where he’d placed her letter. He’d had an odd fantasy of never moving it again. He was relieved to have that fantasy broken.

Once he had finished eating, Tomás moved his tray out of the way, and Birch’s. Wordlessly, he sat on the floor, his back leaning against Birch’s legs. Birch began to rub his shoulders.

“I should go,” Birch said, pausing Netflix as the end credits played for the fifth time. “It’s late, and I have to teach a class at seven a.m. tomorrow.”

Tomás grabbed his hand. “Could you…” He stopped himself, a lump forming in his throat.

“Could I?” Birch said, meeting Tomás’s eyes.

“Could you please stay?” Tomás said. “Please. I really don’t want to be alone.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” He squeezed Tomás’s hand. “Weren’t you just talking about moving too fast? Besides, I left my toothbrush at home.”

“I don’t mean that we have to sleep together,” Tomás said, blushing. “You would sleep in the guest bed. The house is just so empty.”


“Please? We have a drawer full of spare toothbrushes that we got from the dentist. You can borrow a pair of my shorts to sleep in.” Tomás knew he sounded pathetic. He didn’t care.

“Alright.” Birch shook his head. “I didn’t favor going back to an empty apartment, really.”

Birch had slept over at their place before, so in some ways, this was nothing new. In others it was a completely novel experience. They brushed their teeth at the same time, for one, and while rather mundane, the act inspired a flood of various emotions in Tomás that he did his best to hide from Birch. He’d been brushing his teeth with Rin for the past, what, six years? During four of which they’d been married. Now he was doing it with someone else. It felt wrong. Or rather, it felt like he was doing something immoral. Emotionally, it felt quite nice to be doing something so personal with Birch.

What also felt nice was the fact that Birch was wearing a pair of Tomás’s gym shorts. He’d even gotten a glimpse of Birch changing into them, for Birch had left the door open while he changed, something he’d never have done with Rin present. The view did not disappoint. Neither did the fact that Birch exited the guest room shirtless. Tomás had seen Birch shirtless before, but perhaps not in quite such an intimate context.

“Are you sure you want me to take the guest bed?” Birch asked. Tomás had revealed his plan to sleep on the couch again.

“I’m sure. I never liked sleeping in that room. I can’t fall asleep.” It felt off, to him, to be sleeping in a bed in his own house, but with the orientation askew. He had a very strong sense of direction. He could always point to which way was north. The head of the guest bed pointed east, while the bed he had shared with Rin pointed south. He couldn’t handle the difference, for some reason. It made him feel dizzy when he laid down to sleep.

“Okay.” Birch hugged Tomás. They sank into the hug. It felt amazing to be held by another human right now, especially one that Tomás cared for so deeply. Birch’s warmth infused him and turned the fatigue in Tomás’s sponge-cake-bones into a sort of tired comfort. “I need to sleep. I’m going to be a zombie tomorrow.”

“Good night,” Tomás said. He pulled out of the hug with regret. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night.” Birch waved awkwardly as he retreated into the guest room. He left the door open.

Tomás retreated down the stairs. He cast a glance back toward the guest room door as he walked. Birch’s face was illuminated by his phone, giving it a ghostly blue cast in the darkness. Tomás sighed and forced himself to continue walking.

The couch felt rough and uninviting. His blankets felt insufficient. As he pulled them over his body, his phone buzzed. It was a text from Birch.

Birch Carlisle Alexander: Sleep well

Tomás Alamilla Middlebrook: You too. Thank you.

Birch Carlisle Alexander: I love you.

Tomás’s thumbs froze above the virtual keyboard.

Tomás Alamilla Middlebrook: I love you, too. Good night.

The first minute or so of being alone on the couch, Tomás felt fine. Sort of. His heart was buzzing with the words Birch had just uttered. Birch had said them once before, but Tomás had accidentally talked over him; when he’d asked Birch what he’d said, Birch had demurred and offered an alternate group of words. Tomás pretended he hadn’t heard. He’d felt it was better for both of them, since at the time, he hadn’t been ready to utter those words himself.

He felt uncomfortable that the first time they’d made such an important exchange had been over text. “I love you.” Those were words meant to be spoken, at least the first time. It reminded him of Rin, actually, which just made him more uncomfortable. The first time she’d given him those words had been in a note she’d left him. Rin and Birch were similar in many ways. Tomás suspected that to be why they had gotten along so well and stayed friends for so many years. Perhaps it was also why he had fallen so easily for Birch.

They both preferred interaction to be a space removed from the person with whom they were interacting. It put them more at ease, for example, to exchange texts rather than to speak on the phone. They both loved to read. They both loved to cook, especially for others. They both tended to put others before themselves, which was probably how they’d both wound up in professions involving care.

Each progressive minute on that couch grew harder. His back grew less comfortable. The blanket started to feel like insufficient covering. But really, it was his mind, fizzing like soda, a feeling that dripped down into his chest and made it hard to breath. He felt anxious, and, beyond that, sad. He missed Rin. He thought sleeping on the couch would let him avoid some reminders of her, and true, it was better than the bed that they’d shared. But they’d shared times on this couch, too, cuddling and watching television. Sharing meals, most nights. Tomás like to watch shows or movies while they ate, when they got to eat together. He supposed, now, that he should have simply cherished that time with his wife.

He began to drown in regrets. It was a dangerous path, to begin thinking of the things he regretted; flooded with streams that tugged at his ankles and brought him further and further away from rational thought. He wished they’d taken the time and money to make that trip to Europe together. He wished he had hugged her more. He wished that they’d gotten around to taking those dance classes together. He wished he hadn’t started to take her for granted.

He still loved her. Or maybe he loved her again. He tried to convince himself that he’d never stopped loving her, though he worried that might not be true. Now that she was gone, his love for her had come back fiercely. But was it simply an echo, a reminder of what he’d felt before Birch had entered his heart? Brought about by guilt and regret, rather than any actual passion?

Tomás began to cry. Again. He wanted Rin so badly. He wanted her to hold him and tell him he was going to be okay, that the pain would go away. If she were holding him he would have no reason for pain. Wait. That wasn’t true, because Rin had taken Bunni with her. Tomás sobbed harder at that thought, even though he knew it wasn’t entirely fair. They had agreed, together, to put Bunni to sleep. Tomás had stated explicitly that he didn’t want to be there. If anything, he should feel almost good about the fact that they had died together. It was like Rin had taken a companion with her into death.

He had intended that to be a positive thought. All it accomplished was a new outpouring of tears. He wanted the pain to go away, so dearly, so deeply, but he knew that it wouldn’t. Not tonight. Not if he couldn’t get himself to go to sleep. And how could he, with the tears rising again and again from his chest? He felt a strong need to be held and to hold onto someone.

Rin was gone. He would never hold her again. Birch, though, was upstairs, just a few steps away. He could be an option. Part of Tomás knew that Birch would take him into his arms without question. Another part feared rejection, not only from Birch, but from within Tomás’s own self. Indeed, that part of him was rejecting the notion even now, huddled under the blanket and no closer to action that he had been moments before. That portion of him railed against the idea of going to Birch now, screamed at him that it would be a betrayal of the woman who had died claiming that she did so to ease Tomás’s suffering.

He believed her. Maybe. It would be like her to make this sort of decision thinking of Tomás more than of herself. If that were entirely true, though… Well, Rin had known how much Tomás hated the idea of suicide. They’d had more than one discussion on the matter, each of which had ended with Tomás feeling disgusted at himself once he saw the look in Rin’s eyes as he described his position. Suicide was selfish. It was the most selfish thing a person could do: ending their own suffering only to transfer it to those who loved them most. Rin had turned that notion on its head, by leaving him that note. Her suicide was for him as much as it was for her. She claimed.

Maybe Birch was right. Maybe Rin’s final words were truly meant to encourage them to find comfort in each other. Perhaps she had known, and accepted, and hoped that they would ease each other’s pain. Whatever the truth might be, whatever Tomás ended up deciding on as his personal truth regarding the matter, he tried to force himself to believe that more positive possibility, if only for this night. If he was going to sleep tonight, he had to believe that.

He rose from the couch, wrapping the blanket around himself like a shawl. It would protect him. He covered his head and ears. His face poked out. If it weren’t for a beard he imagined he looked rather childlike, shuffling toward the stairs and up them, into the doorway of the guest bedroom. He grasped the frame of the door. Moonlight poured in through the window, a stark white, illuminating the outline of Birch’s form beneath the sheets. Tomás blinked, willing his eyes to adjust. He realized, after a moment, that Birch’s eyes were watching him.

Tomás stepped forward, toes light on the carpet. Birch lifted the sheets so that Tomás could slide underneath. Tomás didn’t bother to shed the shell he’d made out of his blanket. He took it under the sheets with him. He pressed his back up against Birch, felt Birch’s warmth spread into his skin once more. Birch slipped his arm around Tomás’s chest and held him tight. Tomás cried, silently, until sleep took him.

Monday, 10/17/16
5:43 am

So much has happened. I don’t even know where to begin. Part of me wants to just give up writing here, but I promised I would write every day for a year. I’ve already broken that promise, since I didn’t write for the last few days. Sorry about that, Me. I’ll try to make up for it.

Rin is gone. It hurts to put that into words, though it’s easier when I use euphemisms. That’s what they’re for, after all. To make things easier to say.

It still feels unreal. Like maybe when I pull into her driveway, she’ll open the door for me like she always did. Maybe she’ll text me after work to ask if I want to come over. Maybe…

No. There’s no room for maybe. She left us — NO. She’s dead. Just dead. She’s not coming back.

I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye. I wish I had known what she was going through. Hell, I wish she had at least tried to fight. I never thought she would be the type of person to give up so easily. If what she wrote is true, I guess I almost understand, but still. I wish all sorts of things but none of it does me any good. It’s like praying. It’s inaction that makes you feel better, because it feels like action. It’s just this passive act where you hope that someone comes along to solve all of your problems for you. It’s weak.

I’m a wisher. I’m a dreamer. I’m constantly wishing for one thing or another. I’m weak, and I know it. I’ve spent countless night alone in bed wishing Tomás could be mine. Look what happened. Someone came along and tried to solve that problem. Someone… stronger? Can it really be said that Rin was strong, for what she did? I don’t know. Because of her, I have this… chance, now. With Tomás.

What kind of horrible thought is that? I’ve been dreaming about Tomás for months now, but my dreams were always happy. They glossed over all the sad that would need to happen for them to be true. This is something else.

Rin sent Tomás a letter. She must have sent it right before she died. I don’t have much more time to write; I’ve got to head home and then to the studio. The letter is important, though. She said she killed herself for us. I think she was telling the truth. She was at least telling a truth.


2 thoughts on “An Excerpt from Letters, or “After Her”

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