I’ve posted three excerpts from this work before: An Excerpt from Letters, or “After Her”; A Second Excerpt from “Letters”; and “Letters,” A Third Excerpt. I’ve also posted two entries that are related to, but not currently part of, that work: Dinner and An Entry from Birch’s Journal.
“Do you want me to stay again tonight?” Birch asked. “I have to teach yoga again tomorrow morning, but I brought a change of clothes and my toothbrush.”
Tomás kept his eyes on the bowl he was rinsing. He’d been anticipating this question. “No, that’s alright. I think I’ll be okay tonight.”
It wasn’t that he had disliked Birch’s presence. In fact, the night before would have been a lot worse if fleeing into Birch’s arms had not been a possibility. It was the fact that he had taken that option that was bothering him now. He should have been mourning Rin in solitude, not in the arms of his secret lover.
“Oh,” Birch said. He had been putting leftover pasta into tupperware, but he stopped. In the window, Tomás watched Birch’s reflection turn to face him. “Are you sure? I really thought…”
“I’m sure,” Tomás said. He didn’t to look at Birch. He was afraid Birch’s eyes would tempt him into changing his position, leading to more guilt. He knew, however, that if he continued to behave this way, Birch would think Tomás was upset with him. He wasn’t. Tomás turned off the water. “It’s not about…” Tomás sighed. He turned so that he could meet Birch’s eyes. “I’m not mad at you, or anything.”
“You’re not doing much to convince me,” Birch said.
“It’s not a problem between us,” Tomás said. “I promise. It’s a problem inside me. I’m just not, you know. Ready.”
“You don’t have to be ready for anything,” Birch said. “Really. I just want to help you through this.”
“I appreciate that, Birch,” Tomás said. “I want to help you, too. I think we need to help each other in order to get through this.” Tomás took a deep breath. “I also think the help I need right now is to be alone tonight.”
“What about last night, Tomás?” Birch asked. “What would you have done if I hadn’t been there?”
“I don’t know, Birch,” Tomás said. He began to put away clean dishes. It gave him an excuse to turn away.
“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Birch said. A glance told Tomás that Birch was on the verge of tears. “Please. I want to be with you.”
“I know!” Tomás’s words came out harder than he intended. “I know. I want to be with you, too. Just not tonight. I already feel guilty over last night. Just think about what people would say, Birch. I bet Nancy is already gossiping up a storm.”
“Why should we care?” Birch said. “Nobody can tell you the right way to mourn, Tomás. Nobody has a right to tell you how or what you should be feeling.”
“Society has some opinions,” Tomás said. “It matters.”
“It shouldn’t,” Birch argued. He had given up all pretense of helping to clean. He stood with his arms crossed. There was heat in his pale cheeks.
“Oh well,” Tomás said. “It does anyway. To me.”
“Society has opinions on being gay, too,” Birch said. “Are you telling me that I should be paying attention to those opinions, too?”
“No,” Tomás said. “I’m not. Society has become a lot more accepting of that, anyway.”
“Would you hold my hand in public?” Birch asked.
“What? No,” Tomás said. “But that’s — that’s because of other reasons. You know that.”
“But in other circumstances. In a year, or two. Would you hold me hand in public then?” Birch leaned forward
“No, but that’s still so soon,” Tomás said. “A year? My wife just died. What would Rin’s parents think?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Birch threw up his hands in exasperation.
“I know,” Tomás said. “I get that your point is different from mine, but mine is valid, too. No, I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable holding your hand in public. It’s a gay thing, yes, but it’s also because of Rin. I can’t separate myself from that right now.” He gestured, pointing his finger at both of them in turn. “This is new for me. I’ve never felt like this about another guy. You know that. We’ll figure it out, together. In time. I just need to figure out other things first.”
Birch shook his head. “I know. I get that. You’re still missing my point, but I get yours.”
“I don’t mean to miss it,” Tomás said. “Really. What point did you want to make?”
“No, it’s — the moment has passed,” Birch said. He waved his hand and turned toward the living room.
“I want to understand,” Tomás said. He stopped Birch with a hand on his shoulder. “I want us to understand each other. Please.”
With his body still turned away, Birch answered. “You’re not gay. Or maybe you are, or maybe you’re bi. It doesn’t matter. My point is that you haven’t spent years knowing that there are people out there, a lot of people, who think less of you just because of the way you were born, because you’ve been living your life as straight. Overall, yes. American society has become more accepting. It still has a long way to go. I still couldn’t walk down the street, holding the hand of someone I love, without feeling afraid.” Birch took Tomás’s hand. “Does that make sense?”
It did, so Tomás nodded. He didn’t see how Birch had led the conversation to that topic, but he did understand Birch’s point. “Someday I will hold your hand in public, okay? Someday soon you can stay here again. I want that. It’s just not the right thing for me tonight.”
Birch studied Tomás’s face. Tomás couldn’t read his expression. He didn’t know if he’d said the right thing or not. “Okay,” Tomás said, in a neutral tone. He didn’t seem upset, or at least, he didn’t seem angry. “Can I see you tomorrow, though?”
“Yes,” Tomás promised. “Please.”
Birch left. He didn’t help Tomás finish cleaning up after dinner. He didn’t draw out their goodbyes, as he usually did. Tomás was normally guilty of that as well; he wanted to elongate their time together as much as possible. Instead, they hugged, and Birch left. That hug held many things beyond two men hugging. Tomás felt it in the tightness of the embrace, in the way Birch pressed his entire body up against Tomás; in the way Birch turned his head into Tomás’s neck, resting his lips against Tomás’s skin without truly kissing him. Neither of them wanted to part.
With Birch’s departure the house returned to a desolate emptiness. Tomás’s presence alone didn’t succeed in filling that space meant for two people. He was too small. Insufficient. Empty and hollow, without someone there to fill the holes that riddled his body. Had they always been there, or had Rin made them with her departure? Had her presence over the years opened them up as she insinuated herself so intricately into his life, or had he just never noticed them before she filled them?
With Birch there, Tomás’s wounds ached less. They weren’t patched. They still hurt. Tomás still felt the stumbling weakness they inflicted upon him. Birch’s presence wasn’t the same shape as Rin’s, either. They would never fit together in the same way Rin and Tomás had found. That was okay. Tomás had never expected that. It meant that Birch would never replace Rin, Tomás realized. He would always feel her loss. He supposed he had known that already, but he was only just now realizing it: to know something wasn’t always the same as to make it real.
Tomás pulled out his phone to turn on some music. He didn’t listen to music often, but he felt a need to fill the silent house with something. He put on a classical music station, Rin’s favorite, and went back to the dishes. They needed to be done, or their dirty presence would just drag Tomás down even further. Standing in his kitchen pondering might help him in some ways to organize his thoughts. However, the condition of the house, he had learned over time, reflected on his internal condition. If the house was disorganized and messy, his mind tended toward the same.
When he finished, he turned the music off on his phone. He made the mistake of allowing himself look past the music app and glance at his notifications. He had Facebook notifications, text messages, and unread emails. He dreaded finding out how many of those related to Rin’s passing. Tomás didn’t want to have to confront dozens of little reminders about what had happened, especially with the details so fresh in his mind. He didn’t want to read through all the insincere apologies of people he barely knew. If they really cared, they would have called or sought him out in person. Besides, he hated the cultural practice of apologizing for events that were completely out of one’s control. He wished there were another vessel in common parlance for adequately conveying one’s condolences.
The only phone calls he’d given or received regarding Rin were with her parents and with Birch. He had other friends, he thought. There were people he saw on a regular basis, and not just coworkers or customers, either. These were people he liked and, on occasion, endeavored purposefully to bring into his company. His mother’s sister invited him to Thanksgiving every year. Yet none of them had called, and he hadn’t called any of them. He knew that if he combed through the texts and Facebook posts, he would find their names attached to small, insignificant apologies.
If Tomás’s mother were still alive he would have looked to her for comfort. She had never known Rin; she had died before Tomás and Rin had even met. It still hurt to think about Camila’s passing, but it was the ache of an old broken bone: distant, low, and pulsing. Not the fresh, stripped-bare pain of a new wound. Tomás blamed himself, sometimes, for not being able to get Camila to stop drinking. That thought was the most painful part of the bone, like a little splinter that, he felt, would never heal.
Birch was one to blame himself for all the things that went wrong around him. Tomás, under most circumstances, was not. If he felt something wasn’t his fault, well, that was how he felt, and changing his mind about it was difficult. That fact had occasionally been a source of tension between him and Rin. He’d thought of his mother’s death as the exception to that rule. He knew, logically, that he hadn’t caused it, yet he still felt guilt. Now he began to realize that the exception might apply to death in general.
Tomás began to prepare himself for bed. He found himself unwilling to set down his phone. Whenever his hand was free, he discovered that he was holding it once more. He didn’t turn on the screen. He just left it black and soulless in his hand. A part of him wanted to read through each and every one of those messages and posts and emails. A part of him wanted to charge Rin’s phone, so that he could check hers as well. It would only cause pain. He knew it would. Sometimes, though, people are more drawn to the things that cause pain than to more sensible actions.
He got stuck outside of the bathroom door. Desire pulled him in three directions: the couch, the guest bed, and the bed he had shared with Rin. The couch was safest, free from most of the strong emotions that nested in the other two. Most, though, did not mean “all.” It also had a tendency to leave Tomás with a sore back and neck if he slept on it all night.
The master bed, of course, felt dark and empty without Rin’s presence. Lying there would be like resting his body on the edge of a cliff, in constant fear of falling off. Like his desire to dive into his messages, though, he wanted to embrace that feeling of discomfort. Through it he could feel closer to Rin, by wrapping himself around the hole in space she once occupied.
The guest bed held his memory of a night spent in Birch’s arms. That memory was both positive and negative, tied into each other in such a way that they became indistinguishable. Tomás’s guilt laced through the feelings of love and comfort that he had felt radiating from Birch into him. The echoes of the sadness he’d felt that night rebounded off of the sadness he still held within his chest. Both wove together into with aching joy he’d felt at finally getting the chance to fall asleep with Birch beside him, becoming one emotion.
The pull from the guest bed won out. In the end, it emanated the least discomfort. With the covers pulled up to his ears, Tomás stroked the sheets where Birch had lain last night. Tomás pulled the pillow from that side of the bed close to his face and breathed in. The scent of Birch’s sweet shampoo and his spicy cologne flooded into Tomás’s nostrils. He regretted sending Birch home. It wasn’t what he had wanted. It was what he thought he was supposed to want.
Tomás brought his phone out from under the pillow, where he’d held it clasped in his hand. It was late. Birch was surely sleeping by now. Tomás fought down the urge to text him and urge him to come back over. Instead, Tomás opened Facebook.
He had a few messages, fewer than he had anticipated. In a way, he was disappointed, though he felt he should have been relieved. He read them, but he didn’t have the strength to reply. They were from people who didn’t know him well enough to have his phone number: old acquaintances from high school; old co-workers, and current ones who didn’t know him well at all.
There were a few condolences posted directly to his Facebook wall. They were mostly meaningless words. Tomás found himself feeling vaguely disgusted by them. There was one from Linda, for example:
Tomás, I was so sorry to hear about your loss. I’ll be keeping you in my thoughts and in my prayers. I know that God has a plan for all of us. I know He’ll see you through this difficult time. Much love.
What compelled her to post that on his wall? True, she didn’t know him well enough to realize he was areligious. She only knew him from work. It annoyed him when he felt like people were pushing their religion on him, but he knew that wasn’t her intent. Some people just needed it as a crutch to fall back on. What bothered him about the post was that it could clearly have been sent to him directly. Linda posted it on his wall, what, so that other people could see that she was expressing sympathy for him? The showboating nature of it left a bad taste in his mouth.
Tomás grunted. He was letting himself get bitter, which would just start a spiral downward into a sort of pointless, sourceless anger. He would end up angry at Linda, and probably everyone else who had posted on his wall. Anger would get him nowhere. It wouldn’t solve the issue he had with their posts — which, if he was honest with himself: Was it even really an issue? Surely not a single one of those people had posted or messaged him with a harmful thought in their hearts about it. He wasn’t going to solve a society-wide issue by stewing angrily over some Facebook posts.
Tomás plugged his phone in and set it aside. He was done with it for tonight. He turned over and, without thinking, pulled Birch’s pillow close once more. The scent reminded him of last night, but also of other days, when Rin had still been alive. Birch had spent the night here before, in this very bed. One of the reasons Tomás and Rin had kept a guest bed was because Birch so often ended up spending the night. Tomás had snuck in here in the mornings, when Birch and Rin had left, and smelled that same scent on the pillow. He had begun doing that even before anything beyond friendship had started with Birch. Looking back, it was almost as though that was what had started it all.
It felt odd to reflect on the beginning of his feelings for Birch. He had liked Birch, when Rin first introduced him, but in a friendly sort of way. Even just a year and a half ago, Tomás wouldn’t have imagined he could feel the sort of feelings he felt toward Birch toward any man. He wouldn’t have known Birch was gay, had Rin not told him. It wasn’t the sort of thing he was accustomed to thinking about at the time, or now, even. He had always thought of himself as straight. He still did, mostly. He just had romantic feelings for this one man.
He tried not to think much about what that meant for how he should be defining his sexuality. It was easiest just to keep defining himself as a straight man. He couldn’t say that to Birch, though, because Birch would never be satisfied by it. He would insist that Tomás find another label for himself, one that more closely fit his interests. Birch couldn’t know what Tomás was interested in, though, because Tomás wasn’t sure himself. Tomás tried to avoid talking about it, because it was an awkward topic, but he wasn’t sure that he was sexually attracted to men.
In the early days of realizing the feelings he had for Birch, Tomás had, with great torrents of embarrassment and trepidation washing over him, tried looking at gay porn. He had never told Birch about his experiments, because they were, so to say, unsuccessful. He hadn’t found the pictures of naked men arousing in any way. Tomás had tried thinking about Birch in a sexual way, several times, and sometimes Birch came up in his mind when he was already thinking sexual thoughts. The thought of having sex with Birch didn’t disgust Tomás — not like the thought of having sex with any other man — but he wasn’t particularly drawn to the idea, either.
When he thought about sex with Birch, it felt wrong. Not morally wrong; at least not in the sense that Tomás found homosexual intercouse to be “wrong.” He didn’t. It reminded him more of when he’d had a crush on a girl in middle school, back when he was first discovering his sexual urges. He couldn’t remember her name now, but he remembered her face, and how beautiful he had thought she was, and how kind she was. He wanted to hug her, and kiss her, but when he was masturbating he couldn’t bring himself to think about her, because he cared about her too much.
He imagined it would probably happen one day. Sex with Birch, and hopefully the desire for it. After all, he did dream of holding Birch in his arms. He felt pleasure when Birch touched him. The thought of kissing Birch stirred up butterflies in his stomach. It had done so for months. He still worried that Birch wouldn’t understand that Tomás wasn’t ready to have sex with him, and not just because of Rin. If Birch didn’t understand, where would Tomás be? He had already lost one person he loved. He would do a lot so that he didn’t have to lose another.
I can’t keep sleeping. I barely managed to fall asleep at all last night, and now that I’ve woken back up I don’t think I can make myself lay down again. I’ve been thinking about him.
I so desperately wanted to spend another night in his arms. Tomás… He means a lot to me. In some ways it feels like he’s all that I have left, now that Rin is gone. That’s a lot of pressure to put on him, I know. I get that. He just lost his wife. That’s why I can’t say it to him out loud. “You’re all I have.” That wouldn’t be fair. So I’ll just write it here.
I wish I hadn’t said some of the things I said last night. He shouldn’t have to worry about gay stuff right now. I’m supposed to be a good thing in his life. He’s a good part of my life. Maybe the best. It’s not right for me to put more on him when he’s so fragile. He needs time to try and put himself back together. I have to try not to break him further.
I have to try not to break myself further. I keep thinking about Rin as Tomás’s loss, because that helps me remove it one step from myself. She was his wife, so it’s easy to take that step. I loved her, too, though. Maybe just as much as he did. Maybe more. I knew her longer, though we drifted apart a bit when I lived in California. Van didn’t even let me go to her wedding. I still feel guilty about that. I’m just glad I realized how bad Van was for me. I’m glad I got away from him, so that I could come home to Rin. And meet Tomás.
Listen to me. I’m saying all of this stuff like I didn’t betray the hell out of Rin. And she knew about it! Her letter was cruel, and it hurt, and it made me mad. I wish she hadn’t sent it. I wish I had never read it. She knew about us. She knew I wanted Tomás for myself.
She deserved to say everything she wrote in that letter, and I deserved to read it.
I deserved it like I deserve a knife to the gut. I loved Rin. I still love her, yet I’m longing after her husband anyway. I’m pursuing him. It hurts, and I feel like shit for it, but I’m going to do it anyway. I know myself that well, at least.
Besides, what’s even the point of pulling away now? It would only cause Tomás and I more pain. I need him right now, and he needs me. I wish I could have stayed with him last night, even though I understand why he told me to leave. I think. At the very least, I understand that I need to try to understand him, and how and why he does things, if I’ve ever going to make things work between us. It will be hard for him, on two fronts. He has to come to terms with Rin’s loss, and he has to figure out how to be in a relationship with another man.
He didn’t text me to say goodnight last night. I wonder if I’m reading into that more than I should. He has texted me every night for months, though. I don’t know. I’ll try not to worry about it.
I’m sorry for rambling. My thoughts are all over the place. It’s hard to organize your writing when you’re up before the sun and you’ve hardly had any sleep at all. Maybe my next entry will make more sense.