I walk into the kitchen and find an extra apron. I put it on and splay my hands out. “What can I do?” I ask.

Susan is chopping vegetables so fast I’m sure she’s about to lose a digit, but she doesn’t. Her cutting board is full of various chopped stuff that she slides easily into a big bowl.

“Can you hand me that jar?” she asks. I do. she sprinkles whatever the hell is in it, possibly parmesan cheese, onto the salad and puts the salad on the table.

“Salad’s ready. the roast beef is cooking. Mashed potatoes are mashed. yorkshire pudding is in the oven. I think I’m pretty much done,” she tells me. “I hope ana isn’t on a diet. I cooked all the food in orange County.”

The doorbell rings, and I answer. ana is wearing a white dress and a black cardigan; she’s holding a bottle of wine in one hand and her purse with the other. I’ve spoken to ana on the phone many times since I got here, but it swells my heart to see her face. she is the life I want back.

She hugs me, and I can smell her perfume. It reminds me of our early twenties, when we went to bars and I stood in the corner nursing a fruity drink while she was in the center of the room. It reminds me of sunday morning brunches and hangovers. a single life. a single life I loved before I knew anything better.

It’s been so long since I’ve smelled Ben that I have forgotten the scent. I could recognize it in an instant, but I can’t describe it, I can’t feel it. I knew this would happen. I feared this would happen. now that it has, it’s not so bad. It is. But it isn’t.

“You look great!” she says. It brightens my mood immediately.

“Thank you! so do you!” I don’t like that our conversation has a somewhat formal quality to it. We are best friends, and best friends don’t talk like this.

We walk into the kitchen, and ana hugs susan. “What can I do?” ana asks, and susan waves her off.

“You girls are so polite,” she says. “I’m almost done. Have a seat. do you want a drink?”

“At least let me get those,” ana says and starts looking for glasses.

“Top cupboard above the dishwasher,” susan says without looking. ana grabs three glasses and pours us some wine.

It’s about five minutes before we sound like ourselves again, and I think how odd it is that I’ve only been away from ana for a few weeks, and yet, I already feel estranged. then it occurs to me that I haven’t been away from ana for a few weeks. I’ve been away from her since Ben died. I let myself die when he did. I wonder if it was longer than that. I wonder if when I met Ben, part of me lost ana. If so, I want her back. I want what we had back.

May

ben’s back had gotten so bad he couldn’t move. He had called in sick to work for three days. I tried to go to work on Monday but left halfway through the day because he was stuck and didn’t think he could get out of bed by himself. By Wednesday, I had given up trying to go to work and just stayed with him.

He was pathetic about the pain and acted like a huge baby. He would groan and complain as if he had flesh-eating bacteria every time I asked him how he was doing. But to me, he was adorably ill. I liked being needed by him. I liked making his food for him, running his baths for him, massaging his muscles. I liked caring for him, taking care of him. It made me feel like I had a real purpose. It felt so good to make him feel even the littlest bit better.

It had been a few days since he’d asked me to marry him, but I was having a hard time ignoring it. He was just drugged up. But what if he did mean it? Why was I so affected by it? It was just a silly thing he said when he was on vicodin. But how much does vicodin really mess with you? It doesn’t make you say things you don’t mean.

I think I was just overly excitable about it because I loved him in a way I’d never thought possible. I knew that if I lost him, if I had to live without him, it would crush me. I needed him and I didn’t just need him now, I needed him in the future. I needed him always. I wanted him always. I wanted him to be the father of my children. It’s such a silly statement now; people say it all the time, they throw it around like it’s nothing.and some people treat it like it is nothing, but it wasn’t nothing to me. I wanted to have children with him someday. I wanted to be a parent with him. I wanted to have a child that was half him and half me. I wanted to commit to him and sacrifice for him. I wanted to lose part of myself in order to gain some of him. I wanted to marry him. so I wanted him to have meant it. I wanted it to be real.

As he got better and better, he asked me to take one more day off work to spend with him. He said that I had been so great to him, he wanted one day to return the favor. It wasn’t difficult to oblige him.

I woke to him standing over me with a tray of breakfast foods.

“voilà!” he said, grinning as he watched me. I sat up in bed and let him set the tray in front of me.the tray was full of things I would normally consider mutually exclusive: a bagel and a croissant; French toast and waffles; cream cheese and butter. He’d even toasted a pop-tart.

“I think I went a bit overboard,” he said. “But it was all really easy.you can get all of this at your local grocer’s freezer.”

“Thank you,” I said. I smiled and kissed his lips as he bent down toward me. He didn’t moan or wail in pain.

“Are you taking the pain medication finally?”

“Nope!” he said proudly. “I just feel better.”

“You just feel better?”

“Yes! this is what I mean. you people and your Western medicine,” he said with a smile. “I really feel fine. I swear.”

He walked around the side of the bed and sat down next to me. He stared at my food as I began to attack it.

“Did you want some?” I offered.

“Took you long enough, Jesus,” he said as he grabbed the pop-tart. “Were you going to eat this all yourself?”

I kissed his cheek and took the pop-tart out of his mouth. I offered him a waffle instead. “I was really looking forward to this. Brown sugar and cinnamon is my favorite flavor.” I bit a huge chunk out of it before he could try to wrestle it back from me. He resigned himself to the waffle.

“I think we should get married,” he said. “What do you think of that?”

I laughed, completely unsure of how serious he was. “Why do you keep joking like that?” I said. I sounded more exasperated than I wanted to.

“I’m not joking,” he said.

“Yes, you are.” I finished the pop-tart and wiped my hands. “stop joking about it or you’ll end up married,” I said.

“Oh, is that so?”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“So, if I said, ‘let’s go get married today,’ you’d go get married today?”

“What are you doing? daring me?”

“I’m just asking a question, is all,” he said, but the tone of his voice wasn’t one of a hypothetical question. I suddenly became embarrassed and anxious.

“Well, I just . . .” I said. “You wouldn’t.”

“Would you? that is my question.”

“You can’t do that! you can’t ask me if I would if you wouldn’t!”

He grabbed my hand. “You said I wouldn’t. I didn’t say that.”

“Are you asking me to marry you for real?” I asked, finally unsure of how else to figure out what conversation we were actually having.

“I want to be with you for the rest of my life and I know that it is soon, but I would like to marry you. I don’t want to ask you to marry me if it freaks you out or you think it’s crazy.”

“For real?” I was too excited by this idea to trust my own ears.

“Elsie! Jesus! yes!”

“I don’t think it’s crazy!” I said. I grabbed him as tears started building in my eyes. I looked at him.

“You don’t?” I could see his eyes start to water as well. they were growing red. His face was no longer carefree. It was sincere and moved.

“No!” I could no longer control my voice. I could barely control my limbs.

“You’ll marry me?” He grabbed my head on both sides and focused my face on his. I could feel my hair crinkling between his hands and my ears. I knew we both looked silly on our knees in the middle of our crumpled bed, but I could focus on nothing but him.

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