“Well, what, then?” I ask.
Rachel looks . . . I don’t know. There is something going on with her face. She seems to be holding something back. “What do you mean?” she asks.
“What are you thinking that you’re not saying?”
“I thought I was supposed to be supportive!” Rachel says, half laughing and completely defensive. “I can’t tell you every little thought in my head and tell you everything you want to hear at the same time.”
I laugh. “Yeah, OK,” I say.
We are quiet for a minute. I have scarfed down all of my food. There is nothing left to do but stare at my white plate. I try to move the crumbs around with my fork.
“But what is it, though?” I say. I want to know. I’m not sure why. Maybe I need the truth more than I need to hear what I want to hear. Maybe there is almost never a time when you don’t need the truth. Or maybe it’s just that you need the truth the most at the times you think you don’t want to hear it. “Just tell me. I can handle it.”
Rachel sighs. “I just . . .” she starts. She looks up at me. “I feel bad for Ryan.”
I’m not sure what I thought she was going to say, but it wasn’t that. I expected something about how I’m taking the Thumper thing too seriously. I expected something about how maybe Ryan and I should give it another try. I expected that maybe she was going to say the one thing that I fear is actually true: that I’m being a whiny-ass baby and that every marriage is hard, and I should just shut up and go home and quit this bullshit, because not being happy is not a real problem.
But she doesn’t say that. She actually tears up and says, “I just . . . he lost his wife, his house, and his dog on the same day.”
I don’t say anything to her. I just kind of look at her. I let it sink in.
She’s right. I used to love that man so much. I used to be the person who made sure he had everything he wanted. When did I become the person who took it all away?
I start to cry. I put my head down on the table, and Rachel rushes to my side.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry! See? I’m not good at this. I suck at it. I’m the shittiest person at this. You are a good person, and you’re doing the right thing.”
“Thumper is just for two months,” I say. “The whole thing is only for a year.”
“I know!” Rachel says, holding me, squeezing my shoulders. “Ryan is fine. I know he’s fine. He’s one of those guys, you know, who’s always fine.”
“You think he’s fine?” I ask her, lifting my head off the table. It is somehow awful to think that he is fine. It is almost as awful as thinking about him being miserable. I cannot stand the thought that he is OK or not OK.
“No,” Rachel says. I can sense her desperation to get out of this conversation. She can’t say the right thing, and she knows it, and maybe she’s a little annoyed at the situation I’ve put her in. “Ryan is fine, as in ‘He will be fine.’ Not like ‘He’s totally fine.’”
“Right,” I say, composing myself. “We will both be fine.”
“Right,” she says, grasping for the calm tone in my voice. “Fine.”
So that’s what I aim for. I aim for fine.
I am fine.
Ryan is fine.
We will be fine.
One day, this will all be fine.
There is a big difference between something that is fine and something that will be fine, but I decide to pretend, for now, that they are the same.
“You know you have to tell Mom soon, right?” Rachel says to me.
“I know,” I say.
“And Charlie,” she says. “But who knows with Charlie? That could go either way.”
I nod, already lost to my imagination. I think about telling them. I think about how Charlie will crack some joke. I think about whether my mom will be disappointed in me. If she’ll feel the same way I do, that I’ve failed. After a minute, I recognize that this line of thinking is going nowhere fast. “You know what?” I say.
“They’ll be fine.”
Rachel smiles at me. “Yes, they will. They will be fine.”
I go home on Sunday night at seven o’clock, the time that Ryan and I agreed on. I knew he would be gone. That was the whole point. But as I open the door to my empty house, the fact that he is gone really hits me. I am alone.
My house looks as if I was robbed. Ryan didn’t take anything that we hadn’t discussed ahead of time, and yet it feels as if he has taken everything we owned. Sure, the major furniture is there, but where are the DVDs? Where is the bookshelf ? Where is the map of Los Angeles that we had mounted and framed? It is all gone.
Thumper runs toward me, his floppy tan ears bouncing on his head, and I fall down when his paws hit me right on my hips, knocking me off balance. I hit the hardwood with a thud, but I barely feel it. All I can feel is this dog loving me, licking my face, jumping all over me. He nudges my ears with his nose. He looks so happy to see me. I am home. It doesn’t look the way it used to. But it is my home.
I walk to the back of the house and feed Thumper. He stands there, looking up at me for a moment, and then chows down.
I turn on the light in the dining room, and I see a note that Ryan has left. I wasn’t anticipating that he would leave anything. But seeing the note there, I want to run to it and tear it open. What is there left to say? I want to know what there is left to say. My hands rip apart the envelope before my brain has even told them to.
His handwriting is so childish. Men’s handwriting is rarely identifiable by any sense of masculinity. It’s only identifiable by the lack of sophistication. They must decide in sixth grade to start worrying about other things.
Make no mistake: I do love you. Just because I don’t feel the love in my heart doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there. I know it’s there. I’m leaving because I’m going to find it. I promise you that.
Please do not call or text me. I need to be alone. So do you. I am serious about this time away. Even if it’s hard, we have to do it. It’s the only way we can get to a better place. If you call me, I will not answer. I don’t want to back down from this. I will not go back to what we had.
In that spirit, I wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday now, even though I’m a few weeks in advance. I know thirty is going to be a hard year, but it will be a good year, and since I won’t be talking to you on the day, I wanted to let you know I’ll be thinking of you.
Be good to my boy, Thumper. I’ll call you in two months to discuss the handoff. Maybe we can meet at a rest stop like a pair of divorced parents—even though we are neither.
P.S. I fed the beast dinner before I left.
I look down at Thumper, who is now standing at my feet, looking up at me.
“You little trickster,” I say to him. “You already ate.”
I read the letter again and again. I break apart the words. They hurt me and fill me with hope. They make me cry, and they make me angry. Eventually, I fold the letter back up and throw it in the trash. I stare at it in there on the top of the pile. It feels wrong to throw it away. As if I should keep it. As if it should be kept in a scrapbook of our relationship.
I go into the bedroom and look for the shoebox I keep on the very top shelf. I can’t reach it on my own. I go into the hallway closet and get the step stool. I go back into the bedroom closet and strain my fingers to reach the edge of the box. It falls down onto the closet floor, busting open. Papers fan across the carpet. Ticket stubs. Old Post-it notes. Faded photos. And then I see what I’m looking for.
The first letter Ryan ever wrote me. It was a few weeks after we met in the college dining hall. He wrote it on notebook paper. The page has been folded over so many times it now strains to stay flat enough to read.
Things I Like About You:
1. When I say something funny, you laugh so loud that you start to cackle.
2. How, the other day, you actually used the phrase “Shiver Me Timbers.”
3. Your butt. (Sorry, these are the facts.)