A Second Excerpt from “Letters”

I chose to spend this morning working on a project I call “Letters,” from which I’ve previously posted one excerpt. Here’s a second excerpt from it as today’s post.

Birch was gone when Tomás awoke, as Tomás had expected. Tomás was thankful. He was incredibly sweaty, for one, having spent the night wrapped up in far too many coverings and pressed needily against a warm body. He realized that Birch had woken up next to him, but at least with Birch gone he could feign ignorance of the fact that Birch had seen him in such a disheveled state. Tomás was surprised at how hard he’d slept, hard enough that he had no recollection of Birch’s departure.

He was also relieved to wake up alone because it meant he didn’t have to face so directly the fact that he’d spent the night in the arms of someone who wasn’t Rin. It still felt like cheating, despite certain logical parts of him arguing actively against that. Other parts of him, those concerned with the views of society and of people close to him, continued to tell him that he was being unfaithful to Rin by pursuing his relationship with Birch. He didn’t even want to think about what Rin’s mother would say if she knew how he was coping with his grief. He shuddered, imagining her finding out about his year of emotional infidelity.

When he checked the time on his phone — 10:23 — he found that he had a missed call from Chihiro Miyazaki. He tamped down his amusement at the fact that he had just been thinking of her and navigated to where he could listen to her voicemail. Any hint of pleasant thoughts vanished in expectation of what awaited him in that message.

“Tomás, this is Chihiro. I was hoping to speak with you over the phone. I’ve spoken to a funeral home and I’ve made some arrangements, but I told them I wanted to confirm everything with you before we set it in stone. Please call me back when you can.”

It was worse than he’d feared, in a way. He had been prepared to hear the date and time of Rin’s funeral. Now he had to actually call Chihiro and speak to her regarding the details. It wasn’t that he didn’t like talking to Chihiro. She was a pleasant woman. They had always gotten along. Tomás dreaded having to talk to her about Rin. She’d sounded calmer than he might have expected, in her voicemail, but that didn’t meant she’d hold it together well in an actual conversation with him, and that meant he was likely to break back down into tears himself. He was tired of crying.

He decided to get himself some breakfast, shower, and put some clothes on. He would feel stronger and more human with a sated stomach, clean body, and an armor of fabric. It was odd to think of it that way, but he knew it would be easier to face a phone call to Chihiro if he put on an outfit that he liked.

He ate first, a simple meal of toast, yogurt, and orange juice. That was relatively easy. He managed to get through the kitchen without thinking too much of Rin’s presence there. His only hiccup came when he stared too long at the place where he’d read her letter. He managed to pull his eyes away quickly enough and return his focus to his food.

Showering proved to be more difficult. He should have asked Birch to help him go through the house and stow away some of the reminders of the fact that Rin was gone. Her toothbrush was still in the cup next to the sink. A piece of her hair formed an intricate glyph on the white shower wall. Her shampoo and conditioner awaited her on the rack in the shower. She would never retrieve them. Tomás made a very questionable decision by deciding to use them himself. He knew he was only inviting more ache into his heart by doing so, yet he wanted to feel close to her. And he did feel the ache of rising tears in his chest, though they never overflowed. In fact, the ache was almost a kind of pleasure, for now his only way left to bring her close was by missing her.

He chose to wear the shirt she’d always said she liked best on him, a plaid button-down in a bold combination of blues, greens, and white. She had appreciated the way it highlighted the jade green of his eyes. He rubbed product into his hair and combed it off to the side with his fingers. He looked ready for the day, and just about felt that way, too.

Tomás chose to stand in front of the sliding glass of the back door to make the phone call. His garden was no longer in bloom, this late in the year, but it had yet to become cold enough for the greenery to die away. Their yard wasn’t large. The privacy fence they had built made it feel smaller, limiting their view, but it was worth that cost to make it feel like it was truly their own space. It also meant they had been able to let Bunni run free without fear of her going haring off on her own. Not that she would. Rin had trained her well.

He dialed the phone.

“Hello, Tomás.” Chihiro Miyazaki had a beautiful voice. It was an undeniable fact about her. It was low and mature, with the faintest rasp of imperfection that made it even more pleasant to hear. Her inflections were clear and precise, with only the faintest hint of her parents’ language coloring her vowels. She had immigrated to the United States at a very young age. Tomás owned several of the audio books she had recorded, even though he didn’t like the books themselves. He played them sometimes just to hear Chihiro’s voice.

“Good morning,” Tomás said. “I got your message.”

“I figured,” she said. A pause. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m alright,” he said, though of course they both knew he wasn’t. The need to respond with a positive affirmation of his status was too deeply ingrained by society for him to break away from it, even now. “I tried to go to work yesterday.”

“You did?” Chihiro didn’t sound surprised. “Did that help?”

“No, not at all,” Tomás admitted. “I thought it would distract me, but I was just a burden on everyone there.”

“Hmm,” Chihiro said. “This is a hard time, Tomás. I’m sure they’ll understand if you take some time off.”

“I know. Veronica encouraged me to do so.” It was hard listening to her speak. He could hear the pain in her voice, though she was doing an excellent job of hiding it. “How are you?”

“I’m surviving,” Chihiro said. “Yōji is taking it worse than I am. He just sits in his chair and looks out the window.” She sighed. “I hurt, but at least I’m moving. I hope he comes out of this soon.”

“He just needs time,” Tomás said. “We all do.”

“Yes, we do,” Chihiro said. “I’ve never seen him like this, though. Even when his father died, he was so stoic.”
Stoic was the word for Yōji Miyazaki. He had always seemed like an imperturbable force, rolling through life, never letting an obstacle slow him in his pursuit of a goal. “I’m sure he’ll be alright,” Tomás lied. He wasn’t sure, but what else was there to say?”

“Yes, I suppose.” The silence went on a bit too long. Tomás didn’t know how to fill it. “The funeral will be next Thursday at 10:00am, at the Rogers & Son Funeral Home. Is that okay with you?”

Today was Monday. Next Thursday seemed simultaneously ages away and far too soon. “Of course, yeah. That’s fine.” He was glad she had wanted to confirm with him. It was a thoughtful gesture. Mostly, though, he was relieved that she was handling the arrangements.

“Okay.” Chihiro’s voice hitched, but she pushed through it. “I love you, son. Please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.”

Tomás pinched his eyes as tightly as they’d go. “Of course. I will. I’ll see you later.”

“Goodbye for now.” She hung up.

Tomás tilted his gaze toward the ceiling. He had read somewhere that doing so helped stop the onset of tears. Whether it worked, or whether he was just tapped out on that front for now, he managed not to cry. The fact that he kept picturing Chihiro and Yōji in their quiet little home, made even quieter now, did not help.

Tomás’s phone rang. He wondered if there was something Chihiro had forgotten to mention. No, it was a number he didn’t recognize. “Hello. This is Tomás Middlebrook.”

“Hello, Tomás. This is Detective Daniel Beringer.”

“Oh.” Tomás’s heart thudded in his chest. Speaking to police officers made him nervous, even though the worst thing he ever did was break the speed limit. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Well, I just wanted to say that we found nothing suspicious about the letter your wife sent to you,” the detective said. “The information in it all checks out, and the postmark confirms she sent it that day. We weren’t really suspicious of any wrongdoing before, so it just cleared everything up even more. You can confirm that it’s your wife’s handwriting?”

“Yes, I can,” Tomás said. “Definitely.”

“Alright, good,” Detective Beringer said. “Well, if you’d like the letter back, you can stop by the station to collect it. We’ve got no reason to keep it, since there’s no ongoing investigation. Otherwise we’ll destroy it for you.”

“I’d like to keep it, I think,” Tomás said. “Is there any way I could have her cell phone back, too?”

“Of course,” the detective said. “I’ll make sure they’re together.”

“Thank you,” Thomàs said. “And is it alright if I stop by today?”

“Sure,” the detective said. “Just stop by the front desk at the station. I’ll let Marcie know you’ll be stopping in. Make sure you have some photo identification, though. For the cell phone.”

“Can do.”

“I hope your day goes well, Mr. Middlebrook. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Me too.” Tomás winced at his pathetic reply. It had come out unbidden. The detective hung up before Tomás had a chance to try to recover from his social awkwardness, which was probably for the better. Trying to make such things better usually just wound up making it worse.

Well, he was up, dressed, and standing. He had no excuse not to head out the door and down to the police station right now. He decided to go before he sat down and got stuck in a pool of misery. He grabbed his keys from the ring and stepped out of the side door into the sunlit air. He took a deep breath as he locked the door behind him. The air tasted crisp and clean. Tomás loved spring and summer for the life that those seasons brought to the plants in his garden, but he loved fall for the weather.

He tried to keep the feeling of pleasure the air brought to his chest within him. It seemed like such a foreign feeling, after these last two days. He crossed the covered sidewalk and opened the door to the garage. Rin’s car wasn’t there. He had forgotten that it wouldn’t be. It was still in the parking lot at her practice. He closed his eyes, still standing in the doorway. He would ask Birch to help him retrieve it later today, after he had finished with all of his massage clients.

Taking a deep breath, Tomás strode across the empty space between the door and his car.

The trip to the police station was quick and relatively painless. Relatively, because Tomás felt something akin to physical pain as he held the box the receptionist had given him in his hands. It held Rin’s phone, her wallet, her purse, her keys, and the letter. He placed it carefully in his passenger seat as he drove. It was very distracting. That plain, simple box drew his eye more surely than the action of the road. At a stop light, he moved it to his back seat.

While he still felt a hint of determination, he stopped at a store to buy some food. Not at Hubert’s, where he worked. Wanting to avoid people he knew, he stopped at one of the larger chain stores and bought things that would turn into easy meals — frozen pizza and precooked chicken, a roast he could put in a crock pot and forget, oatmeal and bread for breakfasts, bananas and oranges. It was not a very coherent shopping cart, in the end.

Tomás stopped at the end of his driveway to grab the mail to save himself a few steps. His driveway wasn’t very long. He just felt his energy draining away, despite how late he’d slept. On his way to the mailbox the elderly woman who lived across the street, Nancy, waved at him. He pretended he didn’t see her. She was perpetually kind in an almost frustrating way. He didn’t have the energy to deal with her right now.

He slipped the mail into one of his grocery bags to make it easier to carry. As the garage door yawned open, he thought once again of Rin’s car and the fact that it wasn’t there. The vibrant green of its paint had made the entire space seem brighter. Just as her presence had done for his life. Now both were gone, and both were dimmer, even though he’d become used to their light.

With the grocery bags gathered in one arm, Tomás lifted the box of Rin’s personal effects in an almost reverent fashion. The majority of its contents had been on her person when she’d died. There were objects all about the house that held a connection to Rin, but this was something tighter and more painful. He placed the box on the island, in that same place where he’d read Rin’s letter.

Once the groceries were put away, he shuffled through the mail. He dropped all but one letter to the ground, shock coursing through him. His arms and legs felt numb and dizzy. He sat down, hard, on the floor, letting his back come up against the refrigerator. Numbly, he tore that letter open. A second letter, addressed to him in Rin’s favorite pen, in her unmistakable handwriting. Fingers vibrating, he tore it open.

Tomás —

I realized, after I sent my previous letter, that I had left some things unresolved. I left things unsaid that needed to be said, and I realized that I would have no other chance to relay them to you. I was vague, on certain points, in that letter, and it dawned on me that you might struggle with that fact.

I knew. For quite some time, I knew about you and Birch. I know that you didn’t know that I knew, but it is suddenly important to me that you be aware. My death is to your benefit. I told you no lies, before. Still, I think that, given my imminent demise, I should be allowed some leeway to be selfish.

I don’t have an exact date or time to give you for when I came to the realization that you were in love with Birch. I do know that I was suspicious for quite awhile before I became certain. This is going to sound incredibly crazy and paranoid if you read this and it turns out that none of what I’m saying is true, but… I’m okay with that. I know that it’s true. I go into my death with that certainty, and that’s what matters. That this was true to me.

You fell in love with him, and your love for me suffered for it. I felt it and saw it on a daily basis. I saw the brightness in your eyes when you looked at him, a light that seemed to fade when you looked back to me. I heard the music in your voice when you talked about him. I heard how excited you were when you told me you were going to spend some time with him. I noticed how much effort you put into making time to have lunch or dinner with him, or to go to a movie with him. You would rearrange your schedule just to have some extra time for him.

Did you even realize that you stopped making an effort for me? I recognize that we both had busy schedules, but it hurt, Tomás. It hurt me how little we began to see each other. When we did see each other, Birch was there. He was at our anniversary dinner, for heaven’s sake.

I loved you both. You wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t introduced you. He was my oldest, dearest friend, and I feel like you took each other away from me. How could you do that to me, Tomás? And Birch, I know he’s going to show this to you. How could you betray me like that?

I loved you both. I still love you, even writing this. I’m not even sure whether I’m actually mad at you or not. But you know what? Fuck you. Fuck both of you, for what you did to me.

With love,

— Rin

Tomás felt empty. He found himself appreciating the fact that Rin’s handwriting had stayed its elegant, precise self throughout even the most emotional sentences. He knew that he was deflecting by focusing on something other than the letter’s actual contents. Rin’s words had hit him so hard it felt like they’d shut him down.

He pulled his feet under himself and stood. He turned the envelope over in his hands. Once again, there was no return address. She had used the same stamp as before, the one with a painting of poplar trees. It was postmarked the same date as her first letter. Had she sent them from different mailboxes, or at different times? Why had they arrived on different days?

Fingers numb and unfeeling, Tomás put the new letter next to the box he’d gotten from the police department. Those questions didn’t matter right now. This letter was an answer. She had known about his feelings for Birch. She had erased all doubt about whether she knew, and along with that, all doubt about whether or not she approved. “At least you’ll have Birch to help you through this.” That remark was meant to cut into him, as he’d suspected.

At least on the surface, her first letter had been somewhat pleasant. As pleasant as could be, given the subject matter. This letter was all blades. Every word was a knife that worked at his flesh, each one slicing deeper than the one before it, until her last words drove directly into his heart. The wounds were raw and gaping. It felt as though his chest had been opened up and exposed to the world.

Tomás hunched over the table, hands twisted into his hair, pulling at his scalp. His jaw clenched. He did not cry. He was past crying, far gone from sadness and into some other state of mind he didn’t even recognize. There were hints of familiar emotions there — grief, regret, sadness, self-loathing. Guilt. Guilt was the foremost among them. It gnawed at him like a pack of rats, scraping at his bones with its sharp, precise teeth.

Tomás leaned to the side and vomited into the trash can. He heaved until he had nothing left to give but bile, and even then, his nausea was undiminished. He leaned over the trash, hands on his thighs for support. He punched himself on the leg, hard, right above the knee. Hard enough that he was certain it would bruise. He punched himself again, and again, because the physical pain was a relief from the rest of what he was feeling. Because he felt like he deserved to be punished.

When his knuckles couldn’t take any more, when his legs threatened to give out from under him, Tomás stopped. With aching hands he picked up his phone and texted Birch. She sent a second letter.

With that done, he realized something. He hadn’t mentioned Rin’s letter to Chihiro. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him. It felt like a disgusting oversight, to neglect to inform Rin’s mother of her daughter’s final words. She had a right to experience her daughter’s last communication with the world, did she not?

Tomás didn’t know how he could bring it up to her now, though. He would have to explain why he hadn’t mentioned it when they had spoken on the phone this morning. He doubted “I forgot” would be a sufficient excuse. He would probably have to explain this second letter, which he was having trouble comprehending himself. But no, this letter was of a much more personal nature. The information within didn’t concern Chihiro at all.

He decided, then, that Chihiro would know nothing of this second letter. He didn’t feel the need to inform the police, either, not after what Detective Beringer had told him. The letter provided Tomás with new information, but there wasn’t anything within that the police would find relevant, or anything that would cause them to view her death as anything other than a suicide. It was odd that the letters had been staggered, but Tomás didn’t think the matter warranted investigation.

Chihiro would have to be informed of her daughter’s initial suicide note, though. Tomás was still reeling from the second letter. His legs and his knuckles pulsed from the abuse he had just given them. But he felt, suddenly, that this was not something that could wait any longer. It was wrong that he had allowed as much time to pass as he had without informing her.

With his back pressed firmly against the kitchen wall for support, he navigated to Chihiro’s contact info and presses the green icon next to her mobile number.

“Tomás, hello.” She sounded surprised. “Is everything okay?”

“There’s something I forgot to mention to you earlier,” Tomás said. His voice sounded torn and raw. “Something important. I’m so sorry for letting it slip.”

“What is it, Tomás?” Chihiro asked. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I didn’t intend not to tell you,” Tomás continued. “It’s just, there’s so much going on, and I’m just so tired, and it feels like my mind is so full…”

“Slow down,” Chihiro said. “Take a few breaths. Whatever it is, I’m sure you’re building it up more than it’s worth. I understand that you’re going through a lot. It’s okay, son.”

“Okay. I’m sorry.” Tomás did as she advised. He took deep, steady breath, and let it out slowly. “Rin left a note.”

It took a moment for Chihiro to respond. “A note?”

“Yes,” Tomás confirmed. “She put it in the mail. I got it yesterday when I returned home from work.”

“You didn’t mention it this morning, when we spoke,” Chihiro said.

“No, and I am sorry for that,” Tomás said.

Chihiro was silent long enough that Tomás pulled the phone away from his ear to check whether they had lost their connection. “I forgive you,” she said at last. “I would like to see this letter, if I may.”

“Of course,” Tomás said immediately. “Would you like me to bring it by, or…?”

“Yes,” Chihiro said. “Please.”

“I can do that. I do have to say, though, that it’s addressed to me.”
“What do you mean?” Chihiro said, sounding a bit harsher than Tomás would have anticipated. “Do you not want me to read it?”

“No, no. That’s not what I meant.” Tomás worked the fingers of his free hand, attempting to loosen up his knuckles. “I mean, in the letter, she’s addressing me. I didn’t want to give you any sort of false hope, that maybe she had written something for you or… or something. I’m sorry. I’m not articulating very well.”

“Oh. Alright.” Chihiro sighed. He had never heard her sound so defeated. “Would you mind bringing it over? I would like to look at it. And I think Yōji would like to see it as well.”

“Yes. Well, I’ll be there soon.”

“Okay.” Chihiro hung up.

She had reacted better than he’d feared, though clearly she hadn’t been happy. Tomás slipped his shoes on and headed out of the door. What strength he had in him was born purely of determination and a knowledge that this was something that he had to do. He feared that Chihiro would be less amicable in person. He feared seeing Yōji in the state Chihiro had described. And, most of all, he feared that the guilt and pain rolling around in his stomach would stay with him for the rest of his life.

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