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 4. That you thought chili con carne meant chili with corn.

 5. That you’re smarter, and funnier, and prettier, and greater than any girl I know.

A few weeks after I got the letter, he noticed that I had kept it. He found it in my desk in my dorm room. And when I wasn’t looking, he crossed out Like and replaced it with Love. Things I Love About You.

He added a sixth reason underneath in a different-colored pen.

 6. That you believe in me. And that you feel so good. And that you see the world as a beautiful place.

It was the reason I started a shoebox. But . . . I can’t put the letter he left for me tonight in this shoebox. I just can’t. It has to stay in the trash.

I put everything back in the box. I put the box away. I brush my teeth. I put on pajamas. I get into bed.

I call for Thumper. He comes running and lies right down next to me. I turn off the light and lie there in the darkness with my eyes wide open. I’m awake so long my eyes adjust to the night. The darkness seems to fade; what was opaque blackness turns to a translucent gray, and I can see that while I have a warm body next to me, I am alone in this house.

I’m not sad. I’m not even melancholy. I’m actually scared. For the first time in my life, I am alone. I am the single woman home alone in the middle of the night. If someone tries to break in, it’s up to a friendly Labrador and me. If I hear a strange noise, I’m the one who has to investigate. I feel the same way I felt as a kid at campfires hearing ghost stories.

I know I’m OK. But it sure doesn’t feel like it.

I go back to work on Monday morning, and I’m surprised at how much I don’t have to talk about all of this. People know I’m married, but really, it rarely comes up. Questions like “How was your weekend?” or “Do anything fun?” are easily answered honestly while keeping the important facts to myself. “It was good. How about yours?” and “Oh, I got to spend a lot of time with my sister. What about you?” seem to get the job done. By noon, I’ve already learned that you can stop almost all questions about your personal life by being the person who asks the most questions.

But Mila knows me. Actually knows me. She’s been my sounding board for months. She knows it all. So as we get into the car to go get lunch, her voice drops low, and she gets real.

“So,” she says as she puts the car into drive, “how are you doing?”

“I am . . . fine,” I say. “I really am. This weekend sucked, and I cried a lot. I spent all of Saturday night in my sister’s bed, crying, while she watched some show about zombies. But then I got home last night, and . . . I’m OK.”

“Uh-huh,” Mila says. “Did you stretch out in bed? Pour some wine and take a bath without anyone bothering you?”

Mila’s been with her partner, Christina, for five years. They have three-year-old twin boys. Something tells me these are her fantasies.

“Not exactly,” I say. “I just . . . got home and went to bed, mostly.”

She pulls into a spot close to the entrance, and we head in.

“If it was me,” she says, “I would be relishing this. A year seems like a long time, but it’s going to go so fast. You have your freedom now! You have a life to live. You can make everything smell good. You can have a floral bedspread.”

“Christina won’t let you have a floral bedspread?”

“She hates floral anything. Loves flowers. Hates florals.”

It seems silly, but the floral bedspread feels, suddenly, like something I have to have. I have never lived alone as an adult. I have always shared a bedroom with this man. But now I can buy a blanket with huge flowers across it. Or a bow. Or, I don’t know, what’s girlie that men don’t like? I want it. I want to relish my girliness. I want to buy something pale pink just because I can. I don’t have to justify the expense to anyone. I don’t have to advocate for why I need a new duvet. I can just go buy one.

“What the hell have I been doing?” I say to Mila, as we stand in line to order. “Why on earth didn’t I redecorate the minute he left?”

“I know!” Mila says. “You have to go shopping straight after work. Buy all the crap you always wanted that he thought was stupid.”

“I’m gonna do it!” I say.

Mila high-fives me. We eat our sandwiches, and we manage to talk about other things. We don’t bring Ryan up again until Mila is parking the car back on campus.

“I am so jealous,” she says. “If Christina was gone, I would light a vanilla candle in every room in the house. I would walk into each room and go”—she sniffs and releases—“ahhhh.” And then, as if it had just occurred to her, “You don’t have to wear sexy uncomfortable panties anymore. You can live in big, comfy underwear.”

I laugh. “You don’t wear comfortable underwear?”

“I wear a lace bra and panty set every day,” Mila says. “I keep my woman happy.” She then backpedals. “I didn’t mean that you didn’t keep . . . Sorry. I was just making a joke.”

I laugh again. “It’s fine. I’m still reeling from the surprise that you wear sexy underwear every day.”

Mila shrugs. “She likes it. I like that she likes it. But man, I am so jealous that you can wear granny panties now.”

“I don’t even know if I own granny panties,” I tell her. “I mean, I just wear normal-people underwear every day. Oh, wait,” I say, remembering. “I do have this one pair that I never wear anymore because Ryan used to always make fun of them. He used to call them my parachute panties.”

“Super huge? Full coverage? Feels like wearing a cloud?”

“I loved them!”

“Well, go home and put them on, girl! This is your time.”

My time. Yeah, this is my time.

After work, I go shopping and buy a big, fluffy white pillow, two striped throws, and a rose-colored bedspread with the outline of an oversized poppy flower on it. I look at the bed, and I think it looks as if it’s straight out of a magazine. It looks so pretty.

I take a shower, using all the hot water, singing my heart out because no one can hear me. After I get out, I dry myself off with a towel and head into the bedroom. I dig into the back of my top drawer, past the bikini briefs and the occasionally necessary thongs, and I find them. My parachute panties.

I put them on and stand there in the middle of my bedroom. They aren’t quite as magical as I remember them. They feel like normal underwear. Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I can see what Ryan was talking about. They sag in the butt and the crotch. Between that and the thick waistband just below my navel, I might as well be wearing a diaper.

I look at the bed with fresh eyes. I don’t even like floral patterns. What am I doing? I like blue. I like yellow. I like green. I don’t like pink. I have never, in my life, liked pink. This “freedom” quickly starts to feel like such a small thing. This is what I was excited about? Buying a floral blanket? Wearing saggy underwear?

Mila can’t light a candle in the house because Christina doesn’t like candles and keeping Christina happy is more important than lighting the goddamn candles. That’s the truth of it. She’s not handcuffed to her. She wants to be with her. She’d rather be with her than light the candles. She’d be heartbroken without her, and the candles would be nothing more than a silver lining. That’s all this is. It’s a silver lining.

It’s just a small, good thing in a situation that totally f**king sucks.

Charlie calls late one night. It’s just late enough that it seems unusual for someone to call. I jump for the phone, my heart racing. My mind is convinced that it’s Ryan. I am in a T-shirt and my underwear. There’s a coffee stain on my shirt. It’s been there for days. When you don’t have anyone to witness how dirty you are, you find out how truly dirty you are willing to be.

When I look at the phone and realize it’s Charlie and not Ryan, I am surprised at how sad it makes me. It makes me really sad. And then I instantly get worried. Because Charlie never calls. He’s not even in our time zone.

Charlie left L.A. the minute he had a chance. He went north to Washington for school. He went east to Colorado after that. Somehow in the past year, he’s found himself in Chicago. I’m sure soon he’ll tell us he’s moving to the farthest tip of Maine.