I’ve previously posted two excerpts from a project I call “Letters.” The first can be found here, and the second, here. Dinner explores some of the characters present, but isn’t currently part of the larger work.
I’m glad that she sent the letter. As painful as it was to read, at least it gave us an explanation for her actions. Before the letter her reasons were unfathomable. I was left wondering, thinking, “Is this my fault?” I didn’t know she was sick. My thoughts just kept looping around and around this twisting nexus of similar thoughts: I didn’t know she was unhappy; I missed something; I wish she would have told me what was wrong; this has to be my fault; she must have found out about Tomás and I…
That last thought latched onto me the strongest. I would swear under threat of perjury that Tomás didn’t cheat on Rin with me, by the strictest definition of the term, but I would be lying if I claimed we weren’t unfaithful. For the past year I’ve pushed the guilt of that down and smothered it as best I could. When Tomás called me that day it came surging up like boiling water put under pressure. I blamed myself. I, honestly, thought about following her. If it weren’t for Tomás I might have. Sometimes it feels like I have little else holding me here.
I have Tomás, though. He’s enough, all by himself.
I spent the night with him. Not sexually. Neither of us want that right now. Not really romantically, either. We were just… together. Open to one another. It felt right and wrong all at the same time, to hold him through the night. He tried to convince himself he was going to sleep on the couch. I think we both knew that wasn’t going to last. I was relieved when he finally gave in. I didn’t want to push him, even if I desperately wanted to. I need him right now.
Tomás and Rin’s house was in a small neighborhood just outside of Eastweald, close enough to town that it was only a drive of a few minutes to go to work or shopping. The Miyazakis, however, lived almost twenty minutes away, in the neighboring village of Corner. They had moved there three years ago, after Rin had left the house, saying that they had grown tired of the noise and closeness of the city. Corner was quieter, surely, but Tomás found that if anything it felt more claustrophobic. The houses on the Miyazaki’s street were barely farther apart than those in his neighborhood, and the villagers were much more likely to try to get involved in the business of those near them.
The letter sat beside Tomás, in the passenger seat. He had considered just bringing the entire box, so that he could procrastinate before he had to open it and actually view its contents once more, but in the end he’d made himself bring just the letter. The quicker he pushed himself through the painful moments, the faster they would be over.
The Miyazakis kept an attractive home. Slate gray siding married with a facade of rounded, natural stones gave the house a pleasant face. Their landscaping was minimal but precisely kept. Flowering bushes pressed up against the house, though their blooms were long gone. A cherry tree shaded the sidewalk and part of the driveway. The grass, a vibrant green, looked as though it had been trimmed recently. The lines from the mower were still visible. The clean diagonals showed exactly how far the Miyazaki’s yard extended.
Tomás slipped the letter into his jacket before leaving his car. A large bay window took up a fair portion of the front wall. The sunlight was harsh, and the interior of the house, dim, but Tomás could just make out Yōji’s presence behind the window, sitting in one of the plush armchairs Chihiro had placed there. Tomás waved and nodded to his father-in-law, but Yōji did not react.
Chihiro was at the door, opening it, before Tomás could knock. “Hello.” She did not hug him, or tell him it was good to see him. Tomás’s heart sank further, which he had not thought possible. Since the first time he’d met her, Chihiro had welcomed him warmly. Now, she turned her back. He followed her into the house.
The warm smells of vanilla and cinnamon filled the rooms. There was a candle burning on the end table on the corner of the entryway, and another visible on the kitchen counter, through the door ahead. Tomás removed his shoes and put on the pair of slippers Chihiro kept here for him. Rin’s were still there, next to his. Tomás turned his eyes purposefully away from them.
Chihiro led Tomás left, into the living room, where another candle burned on the coffee table. Tomás looked Yōji’s way, fearing that his father-and-law to continue to stare listlessly out the window. He did not, to Tomás’s relief. Yōji raised his head to meet Tomás’s eyes and gave him a faint nod.
Chihiro sat on the couch, ankles folded neatly. She smoothed her skirt with a practiced air before gesturing for Tomás to sit next to her. When he had done so, she surprised him by taking his hand in her own. She held it, her bony knuckles hard and smooth against his skin. They sat that way for several minutes. He kept expecting her to talk, kept opening his mouth to say something, but he didn’t have the words to break the silence, and whenever he thought she might be about to speak, she looked away.
With his free hand, he reached into his jacket pocket for the letter. He held it lightly, its edges just meeting his fingers, hesitant lest he somehow damage it with his touch. Chihiro’s eyes tilted toward the proffered paper. She took a deep breath before releasing Tomás’s hand to take Rin’s letter from him.
“I don’t know if I have the strength for this,” she said.
Tomás looked to Yōji’s chair, hoping he would say something to save Tomás from having to answer. Yōji elbow was just visible from Tomás’s angle. His arm supported his head. Tomás met Chihiro’s eyes. They were Rin’s eyes exactly, just a little more weathered around the edges. “You don’t have to read it, if you don’t want to. I think you’ll regret it if you don’t, though.”
She looked at the letter. “You’re probably right.”
“I don’t think anything she said will make you feel better,” Tomás warned.
“I know.” She opened the letter and began to read.
Tomás did not know what to do with himself while she read. He sat next to her, back stiff, and tried not to watch her reaction. He failed. Through discreet, compulsive glances, he saw the tears begin to pool in her eyes. He saw her wipe the first tears away with the edges of her fingertips, delicately, as though denying to herself that she was breaking down. He saw her reach for a tissue as the tears began to flow in earnest. He saw as she pressed her knuckles to her mouth, bit down on them, even, as though trying to stem the flow of her tears. He put her arm around her. There was nothing else he knew to do.
When Yōji sat down on Chihiro’s other side, Tomás jumped. He hadn’t even heard his father-in-law move out of his chair, so intent had his unintentional focus on Chihiro been. Chihiro was done reading now, though her tears continued. Yōji pulled her head toward his chest. She went willingly, out of Tomás’s reach, burying her face in her husband’s shirt. Yōji took Rin’s letter from Chihiro’s open hand and began to read.
Tomás had always pictured Yōji’s face as being made from stone. As Yōji had aged, deep lines had formed around his eyes and mouth, making his visage seem ever more like a weathered edifice. His hair, pitch black mixed with steely grey, was always cut close and perfectly shaped. Tomás had seen Yōji smile. He was not a humorless man. He laughed at movies and television, and at jokes. His laugh was as deep and resonant as his voice. But Tomás had never seen him cry.
That changed today. He did not break down and sob, as Chihiro had. Maybe it was Tomás’s presence. Maybe he would never let himself do that, though Tomás felt that would be unhealthy. Yet Yōji did cry, with silent tears that rolled through the crevasses of his face. He ignored them, refusing to acknowledge them long enough even to wipe them away.
When he folded up Rin’s letter, he handed it to Tomás. “She had cancer,” he said.
“Yes,” Tomás said. “I guess she did.”
“My mother had cancer, too. It killed her.” He met Tomás’s eyes. Tomás could tell Yōji was searching for something there. Whether he found it or not, Tomás couldn’t say. “Perhaps Rin made the right choice.”
Chihiro sat up. “Yōji!” she breathed.
“To live any longer would have only caused all of us suffering,” Yōji said. “I respect Rin for what she has done.”
“We could have had more time with her,” Chihiro said. “Months!”
“Months that would have cost Rin and Tomás thousands of dollars,” Yōji said. “And an unmeasurable amount of pain.”
“Would you have told her to kill herself?” Chihiro demanded, wiping her eyes angrily. “And spare us all the inconvenience of her living?”
“Never,” Yōji said. “I would have treasured every last moment I had with her, pain or no pain. I’m saying only that I understand why she did what she did, and I don’t think that we’re in a place to say she was wrong.” He glanced at Tomás.
“Nobody said anything like that,” Tomás, stiffening at the accusation. “Rin and I had some uncomfortable conversations about suicide in the past. That’s why she thought I would be angry. I’m not.”
“Are you sure?” Yōji asked. “You didn’t hold back your opinions when Anne killed herself.”
“What?” Tomás asked. He shook his head, surprised at the reference for multiple reasons. That had been years ago, for one thing, only a year into his relationship with Rin. And Anne had been someone Rin had known in high school, whom she hadn’t spoken to for ages and to whom she had never even been that close. “How do you even know what I said to her about that?
“Yōji, I can’t believe you,” Chihiro said. “Why would you even bring that up now?”
Yōji ignored her. “Chihiro told me about it, after Rin confided in her. Did you even know you had hurt her?”
“Yōji,” Chihiro said, in a tone that turned her husband’s head. “Stop. There’s no reason for this right now.” A glance his way shut Tomás’s mouth on the matter, too. “We are not here to fight.”
Yōji grunted. “You’re right.” He held out his hand to Tomás. “I’m sorry, son.”
Tomás accepted the handshake. “It’s okay. This is a painful time for all of us.” Yōji had succeeded in adding more pain the situation, but Tomás knew that grief caused people to do things they regretted as surely as alcohol. He would try to forgive Yōji. And, for that matter, Rin. Not so much for confiding in her parents, but for being disingenuous about how their conversation had affected her.
Chihiro took the letter back from Yōji, who finally reached for a tissue to wipe the tears from his face. She folded Rin’s letter neatly. “I wish we could have done something for her. I wish there was something I could have said, or done…”
“We didn’t even know she was suffering,” Yōji said. “I thought she was happy.”
“So did I,” said Tomás. “She didn’t do this because she was unhappy, though, or because she didn’t love her life. She was trying to protect herself. And us.” The contents of her second letter made Tomás doubt the veracity of his claim. Still, it felt like the right thing to say, in this moment.
“I know,” Chihiro said. “Of course I know. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop wishing.”
“Yeah,” Tomás said. “Me too.”
They sat on the couch for at least another half hour. Tomás lost track of the time. They exchanged few words. The wait became uncomfortable, but Tomás felt it would be rude to break away. Chihiro inquired as to whether he would like to join them for dinner, given the hour, but he demurred. He’d felt his phone vibrate several times while he’d been sitting with the Miyazakis, and a feeling of anxiousness had arisen in his chest. He only now remembered the text he’d sent to Birch about the second letter from Rin.
He excused himself to the bathroom, where he pulled his phone out to check his texts.
Tomás Alamilla Middlebrook: She sent a second letter.
Birch Carlisle Alexander: Rin?
Birch Carlisle Alexander: How?
Birch Carlisle Alexander: Tomás you can’t just send me something like that and then not answer me
Birch Carlisle Alexander: Are you okay?
Birch Carlisle Alexander: Why aren’t you answering your phone?
Birch Carlisle Alexander: I’m coming over
Tomás Alamilla Middlebrook: I’ll be there soon
He also had two missed calls from Birch, though neither was accompanied by a voicemail. Birch’s last text was from fourteen minutes ago. Tomás swore. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands, to make it seem like his use of the bathroom had been legitimate.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” he said as he came around the corner into the living room.
Chihiro looked up. She was still holding Rin’s folded letter. “Is everything alright?”
“That’s kind of a loaded question right now, isn’t it?” Tomás replied, in an attempt to bring humor to the situation.
Chihiro almost smiled. “Yes, I guess you’re right. But you know what I meant.”
“Everything’s fine,” Tomás said. He held up his phone. “Birch just texted me to say that he was headed over to my house, and I didn’t realize he was coming.”
“Birch?” Yōji shifted on the couch. “How is he? Is he alright?”
Tomás shrugged. “He’s about the same as the rest of us, honestly. That’s probably why he’s coming over.”
“It must be hard on him, living alone right now,” Chihiro said.
“Yeah,” Tomás said. “He knows he’s always welcome at our place, though.” Our place. Tomás flinched. It was just his place now, wasn’t it? No more plural nouns.
“Well, tell him we send our love,” Chihiro said, rising. She followed Tomás into the entryway. “He’s in our thoughts, too.”
“I will,” Tomás promised. He slipped on his shoes. Chihiro spread her arms, offering him a hug. He accepted her embrace. He felt the letter in her hand, pressed against his back. When they parted, she held it out to him.
“Would you like to keep it for a while?” he asked.
Chihiro frowned. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so. I’ll just get sad looking at it.”
“Alright. So you don’t want a copy of it, or anything?”
“Again, I don’t think so. But I’ll think about it.” She pressed the letter into his hand. “Maybe someday I’ll ask for it.”
“Okay. I’ll see you soon.” Tomás waved as he walked out of the door. He waved once again as he passed the bay window. This time, Yōji, who was seated there once again, waved back.
Once in his vehicle, Tomás discovered that he’d received another text from Birch.
Birch Carlisle Alexander: I’m here. Where are you?
Tomás Alamilla Middlebrook: I’m at the Miyazaki’s. On my way
Tomás drove faster than was advised on the way back to Eastweald, though in the end he only managed to shave a minute or two off of his trip. Rin had always reprimanded him for breaking the speed limit. It was never worth it, she said, to save a few minutes at the risk of your life. Or a ticket, at any rate.
Birch was sitting on the bench by the side door when Tomás arrived. His legs were crossed. His elevated heel bounced impatiently. His eyes rose from his phone as Tomás pulled into the driveway past Birch’s sleek black car. He met Tomás as Tomás exited the garage.
“Why would you do that?” Birch demanded.
“What?” Tomás asked, stepping back in surprise.
“You had me so worried!” Birch said. His face was flushed, and his eyes red. He’d been crying recently. “Don’t you realize where my mind went, when you didn’t answer my texts? You were alone and upset, and your wife just killed herself.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tomás said.
“She didn’t answer my texts, either, you know,” Birch said. His tears were starting up again. “She always texts me back, but that day she didn’t. I should have known something was wrong. I should have come to find her.” He covered his face with his hand.
Tomás put his arm around Birch’s shoulders and led him into the house. There, where Nancy and the other neighbors couldn’t see, Tomás embraced him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I know,” Birch said. “I know you didn’t mean it, but you did. Worry me, that is. Damn. I thought maybe you were dead.”
“I’m not,” Tomás said. “You know I would never kill myself.”
“I knew Rin would never kill herself,” Birch said spitefully. He pulled himself out of Tomás’s arms. “I know you didn’t mean to scare me. Just maybe follow up next time you text me something so dramatic, okay? Be more mindful.”
“Okay,” Tomás said. “I can do that.”
“Good.” Birch wiped his eyes with his hands. He walked into the kitchen, where he got himself and Tomás each a glass of water. He leaned against the counter, sipping at his glass. “Did she really send a second letter?”
“Yes.” Tomás pointed to its resting place, on the island. He pulled the first letter out of his pocket and set it there as well, as though to prove there were two letters. He removed his jacket, tossing it over the back of a chair.
“But how?” Birch asked. Tomás could only shake his head. “Should I read it?”
“Only if you want to,” Tomás said. “She does address you directly. It’s not very pleasant, though, Birch.”
“How so?” Birch asked.
Tomás shook his head once more. “Just… Actually, will you please read it? So that I’m not the only one who has?”
Birch nodded. He set his glass down and began to read. It was like watching Chihiro and Yōji react all over again. Birch’s face and eyes were already reddened by his previous tears, but he still had more to give. He didn’t sob, as Chihiro had. He didn’t stoically ignore his emotions, as Yōji had tried to do. His tears were sparse. Perhaps he had cried too much already today. He wiped them away with the back of his hand. When he finished, he closed his eyes, and his face set into an expression Tomás had not expected to see. Anger.
“Wow,” Birch said. He cracked his knuckles.
“Yeah,” Tomás agreed, tentatively.
“I know that she’s gone, and we’re supposed to be sad, and mourning her,” Birch said.
“But?” Tomás asked.
“But that letter really pissed me off, if I’m being completely honest.” Birch cracked his knuckles. He looked back down at the letters, his eyes cast in what Tomás would label as disdain.
“Are you… Don’t you feel awful?” Tomás asked, disbelieving. “She knew about us! She knew I was cheating on her with you.”
“I feel some guilt, yes,” Birch said. “More than some. Look at what she did, though. She had to know we would be torn up already. She knew this was going to screw us up even more, writing this. But she did it anyway.”
“Well, I mean…” Tomás’s words sputtered and died.
“I can’t believe she had the nerve to say that. ‘My death is to your benefit.’ How can she claim that, and then write go on to write the rest of this?” Birch pointed angrily at the letter. “Unless there was spite in that sentence, too. Unless she thought we would be happy if she died, so that we could be together.”
Tomás thought back to when he’d heard that she’d died, to the first wave of thoughts he’d had in those moments after Lisa had said the words. Had there not been, mixed up in there, a feeling of relief? A brief thought that, maybe, this was his chance to be with Birch? He’d hammered it away and pushed it down deep, but he had thought it. It still managed to surface, from time to time. “Maybe she did think that,” he said.
“That’s awful if she did,” Birch said. “Really, truly awful. But that doesn’t make it okay for her to write something like this.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so mad,” Tomás said. “She had a right to everything she said in this letter.”
“But we can’t fight back,” Birch said. “It’s like she yelled at us and we have no chance to defend ourselves. No chance to resolve the fight.”
“I mean, what would we even say?” Tomás asked. “She’s not yelling at us. She’s just getting out her emotions.”
“She said ‘fuck you,’ Tomás,” Birch said. “What other tone of voice could you read that in? Did you ever know Rin to say those words without yelling? Hell, did you ever know her to say those words at all?”
“No,” Tomás admitted. “I guess not.”
“Look, I get that she was trying to get this out and it was her last chance to do so,” Birch said. “Maybe I would have written the same thing. But if she was telling the truth in her first letter, and she was trying to save you pain by killing herself, she should have written this and never sent it. This letter could only hurt.”
“Maybe,” Tomás said. He sort of understood where Birch was coming from, but Birch’s emotions simply didn’t reflect his own. He still just felt guilty.
“Maybe? Tomás…” Birch trailed off. He looked Tomás in the eyes. Tomás saw his rage break away. “I’m sorry. I keep trying to drag you into my anger, but that’s not productive.”
“It’s okay,” Tomás said. “I mean, I don’t really get it, but I want you to feel like you can express what you need to say.”
Birch sighed. “Thank you.”
“Any time.” Tomás pushed his lips into something akin to a smile.
Birch touched the letter with his fingertips, a light, exploratory touch. He took a deep breath. “Let’s just… let’s change the subject. Why do you think these came a day apart?”
“I’m not sure,” Tomás said. “She had to have sent them both the same day.”
“Yeah,” Birch said. “It’s not like she sent it the next day. And her first letter said that she sent it right, you know, before.”
“Maybe she used two different mailboxes?” Tomás posited. “She might have put one in the mailbox closer to our house, and the other in a box closer to work. Maybe they got picked up different days. Like, one of them got skipped.”
“Or she could have put both of them in the same mailbox,” Birch suggested. “But the mail pickup happened in between.”
Tomás shrugged. “Maybe. Lisa found her in the morning, though. What mailbox pickup happens in the morning?” He found it curiously that he could talk so casually on this subject. He expected his throat to close up at any moment as he talked about the details surrounding Rin’s death, but he felt that same floating detachment he’d felt last night.
“She could have mailed them the day before, with the intent to go through with it that night.” Birch folded the letter up. Tomás could tell he’d been reading it again while they’d been talking. The tense lines of his jaw betrayed Birch’s anger. “Maybe something held her up.”
“Well, we did go out for dinner together that night,” Tomás said. “At Rossi’s. She asked to go there specifically.”
“She loved Rossi’s,” Birch said. “Do you think she wanted to eat there one last time?”
“No,” Tomás said. He furrowed his brow. “She didn’t really seem to be enjoying her food. I asked her if she was okay and she just said she was tired from work. But I did catch her watching me a lot.”
“Watching you?” Birch asked.
“Yeah. Just kind of looking at my face and smiling,” Tomás said. “I mean, she did that a lot. I would just catch her looking at me when she thought I wasn’t looking, or when I was trying to go to sleep at night.” He blushed. “She always just said I was too handsome not to watch. But she was particularly obvious about it that night. And she held my hand at the table. She hasn’t done that in years.”
“Well,” Birch said. “She was probably thinking about what she had planned to do.”
“I just wish I had caught the clues,” Tomás said. “I noticed she was acting differently, but I hardly thought anything of it.” I was thinking about texting you, he thought. I was wondering when I might find a chance to text you back without being rude at the table.
“Would you have stopped her?” Birch asked.
It took Tomás a moment to respond. “I think I would have tried. At least, the Me of Friday would have tried. The Me of Today, maybe not.”
“Why’s that?” Birch asked. He turned away from the counter, leaning his hip against it. He crossed his arms.
“Me of Friday didn’t know Rin had cancer, for one thing,” Tomás said “Me of Tuesday hated suicide and only saw it as selfish. What she said in her first letter made me reconsider that, at least somewhat. So did Yōji’s reaction.”
“What did he do?” Birch asked.
“He said she might have done the right thing, considering,” Tomás answered. “Her grandmother died of cancer. It was a painful fight.”
“I know,” Birch said with a grimace. “I was still living in Michigan then.”
Tomás let a puff of air escape his lips. It wasn’t quite a laugh, but it was something close. There was no humor in it. “Sometimes I forget that you knew her before I did.”
“Oh yeah,” Birch said. “We go way back. If I was straight we would have been married.”
“Well, I’m glad that you’re not,” Tomás said. It wasn’t until Birch raised his eyebrow that Tomás realized how much that had sounded like flirting. “Oh come on. This is not the time for innuendo.”
“I know,” Birch agreed.
“You know that I meant that I’m glad I got to marry Rin because she hadn’t already chosen you,” Tomás pressed.
“I know.” Birch smiled. “But you also mean that you’re glad I’m gay because you think I’m cute.”
“I guess.” Tomás sighed. “I appreciate that you’re trying to lighten the mood, but I’m just not into it. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Birch said. “I already succeeded, at least a bit. Doesn’t it feel a little less heavy in here?”
Tomás looked around, as though the weight he had been feeling was something he could see. “Yeah, I guess. At least a little bit.”
“Good,” Birch said. “Now, are you hungry? Because I’m ravenous.”