“Right. she’s doing everything she wanted to do when he was around but couldn’t.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But, not really. It’s more like she’s buying everything she wanted but she’s not doing anything.”

“Well, maybe buying is doing. Maybe for her, that’s what’s working. also”—I hesitated to say it and then decided to push it out of my mouth—“maybe it comes from the same place as what you’re going through, you know? about how you aren’t telling her about us?”

Ben looked at me. “Well, that’s because . . .” he started and couldn’t seem to find the words to finish. “Maybe,” he said, resigned. “I’m just going to tell her soon. Because it’s never going to be the right time, and now, I’m just outright lying. Before it was a gray area, but I live with you now. We live together.” His mood took a dive, and I could see the moment when it crashed. He let out a heavy sigh. “I’ve been lying to her.”

Maybe I should have made him call her right then. Maybe I should have told him he was right, he was lying. But I couldn’t let him be sad. I couldn’t watch as he became disappointed in himself.

“You’re not lying,” I said. “you’re doing this your way and now you can see that you really do need to tell her, and you’re gonna do it,” I said, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right.” He nodded with purpose. “I let this go a bit too far obviously, but it’s actually not a big deal. she’ll be happy for me. she’ll love you.” He looked at me with genuine affection. He truly could not understand a world in which people might not like me, or more realistically, a world where people might feel indifferent toward me.

Ben quickly averted his gaze to avoid eye contact with the very thing he wanted to stare at. “are you seeing this?” he asked me through his teeth. “are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“The old guy in the yellow thong skateboarding with a dog?” I asked quietly.

“I promise you, no one is doing that in Malibu,” he said, as he put his arm around my shoulder.

I laughed and let him lead me further down the street. He watched the passersby as I disappeared into my own head. I was suddenly nervous about finally meeting his mom. I started to imagine how it would go.

We’d all meet at a formal dinner. I would have to wear a nice outfit and go to a nice restaurant. I’d probably bring a sweater but forget it in the car. I’d be cold the whole time but never say anything. I’d want to go to the bathroom, but I’d be too nervous to even excuse myself. I’d smile so fake and huge that I’d start to feel a little dizzy from all the oxygen. Ben would sit in between the two of us at a round table. We’d face each other head-on. and then I figured out what was really nagging at me. What if the whole time I was sitting across from her, maintaining perfect posture, worrying if there was something in my teeth, she would be thinking, What does he see in her?


before I go to susan’s, I discuss taking a leave of absence from my job. lyle says that he’s not comfortable with me coming back right away, and I tell him I understand. But he says when I’m ready my job is here for me. I think nancy had a lot to do with that, but I just say thank you.

I meet ana for breakfast and tell her I’m going to stay with susan.

“What?” she asks. “I just wanted her to talk some sense into you, not take you away.” she is clearly unnerved by this. she’s throwing food into her mouth quickly. she’s barely tasting it before getting more.

“I know,” I say. “and thank you for calling her. I think I need to get out of here for a while. I need to find a way to move on. I don’t think I can do that here. at least, I can’t start it here.”

“How long are you leaving for?” she looks like she might cry.

“Not long. a few weeks, tops. I’ll be back soon, and you can drive down all the time.”

“You really think this going to help?” she asks me.

“I know that I want it to help,” I say. “and I think that’s the point.”

“Okay,” she says. “do you want me to get your mail and check on the house?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Okay.” she doesn’t say it, but I get the feeling there is a small part of her that is happy to see me go. I have drained her. If I ever stop feeling sorry for myself, it will be time to start feeling sorry for what I’ve been putting ana through. I’m not there yet, but I know it’s coming. “I like kevin,” I say.

“Okay,” she says, not believing me.

“No, really. I was just thrown for a loop is all. I really like him.”

“Well, thank you,” she says diplomatically. eventually, I leave and get in my car full of clean clothes and toiletries. I put the address into my phone, pull out of my parking space, and head south.

I ring the doorbell with my bag on my shoulder. I feel like I’m here for a sleepover. somehow, the house looks so much more inviting this time. It looks less like it will eat me alive when I step into it.

Susan comes to the door with her arms open wide for a hug. she looks genuinely thrilled to see me, which is nice, because I feel like for the past few weeks I simply have not been someone people would be thrilled to see.

“Hi!” she says.

“Hi,” I say, a bit more timidly.

“I have a whole evening planned for us,” she says before I’ve even crossed the threshold. “Chinese food, in-home massages, Steel Magnolias .”

I look at her when I hear “Steel Magnolias.”

She smiles sheepishly. “I never had a girl to watch it with!” I laugh and put my things down. “that actually sounds great.”

“I’ll show you to your room,” she says.

“Geez, I feel like I’m at a hotel,” I say.

“I decorate when I can’t face the day. Which seems to be most days now.” the heaviness of her admission startles me. It’s always been about me when we talk. I almost don’t know what to say to a woman that has lost both her husband and her son.

“Well, I’m here now,” I say, brightly. “I can . . .” What? What can I possibly do?

She smiles at me but I can tell her smile can become a frown at any minute. somehow, it doesn’t. she u-turns back to happier thoughts. “let me show you the guest room!”

“The guest room?” I ask.

She turns to me. “you didn’t think I was going to let you sleep in Ben’s room, did you?”

“Kind of, I did.”

“I’ve spent far too much time in there, these past couple of weeks, and let me tell you: It only makes it sadder.” she doesn’t let the emotion deter the moment again. she’s dead set on moving through this. she leads me to a gorgeous white room with a white bedspread and white pillows. there are white calla lilies on the desk and Godiva chocolates on the nightstand. I’m not sure if the candles are new, but they haven’t been used before.

It smells like cotton and soap in here. It smells so good. the whole thing is stunning, really.

“Too much white? I’m sorry. I might be overeager to use the guest room finally.”

I laugh. “this is gorgeous, thank you.”there is a robe on the bed. she sees me notice it.

“For you, if you want it. I want you to feel pampered here. Comfortable.”

“It’s great,” I say. she’s thought of everything. I look behind her to the bathroom and can see Ben’s soap message to her. she sees me looking at that as well. “I couldn’t bring myself to wash it away when he was here, I know I won’t ever wash it away now.”

There it is, finally. I remember trying to find it the last time I was here. I remember why I gave up. and yet, it’s right in front of me now. It’s like it finally found a way to get me here. His handwriting is so imperfect. He had no idea what he was doing when he did that. He had no idea what it would mean to us.

Susan breaks the silence. “okay, get settled in, do whatever you wanna do. Masseuse comes in about two hours. I figure we can order Chinese food shortly after that. I’m going to go watch trashy crap television,” she says. “and my only rule is that you forget about the real world while you are here and just cry anytime you want to. Get it out, you know? that’s my only rule.”