Chapter Seven; Part Two
“Mrs. Ephrams? My name is Megan Liang, and I’m Julianna’s best friend. I would like to talk to you about the man you saw leaving the—”
“When she was murdered. Of course. Come up.” She buzzes me in, and I make sure to note her apartment number before trudging up to the third floor. I like to walk whenever I can, but I’m regretting it by the second floor. No matter how fit I am, I always get tired climbing stairs. I’m panting lightly by the time I reach Mrs. Ephrams door, and I take a second to catch my breath. Before I can knock on her door, however, she opens it. She must have been watching for me.
“Come in, dearie. Would you like some homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk?” Mrs. Ephrams is five-foot nothing with determinedly blue curls. She’s wearing a hot pink housedress and pink mules. She’s smoking an unfiltered Camel, and I love everything about her. Expect for her thick-lensed cat-eye glasses. I’m not happy to see that.
“I’d love that, Mrs. Ephrams.” I smile at her as I enter the apartment. I waffle as to whether I should take off my shoes, but I decide to leave them on.
“Call me Gloria. Mrs. Ephrams reminds me of my mother-in-law, and I hated that witch.” Gloria says, flashing me an impish smile.
“Gloria. I’m Megan.” I grin at her, delighted at her frisky personality. She’s eighty if she’s a day, but she’s not letting it get her down.
“I’m so sorry about your friend. That has to be devastating, especially at such a young age!” Gloria leads me into the kitchen where she takes the top off the cookie jar, puts several cookies in her toaster oven, then pours us each a glass of milk. Once the cookies are nice and gooey, she takes them out and puts them on two plates. She hands one plate and one glass to me before taking me into the living room. She gestures to the couch where a plump tuxedo cat is sitting grandly on the middle cushion. “Bongo, move.” She makes shooing motions with her hands, but Bongo ignores her, of course. He or she is a cat. They don’t take orders from us mere humans.
“It’s OK. I have two cats of my own.” I sit on the cushion to Bongo’s left, careful to respect…his or her space. Bongo immediately jumps into my lap and starts kneading.
“That’s unusual. He doesn’t usually care for strangers.” Gloria sits in the rocking chair across from the couch.
“I have a way with cats,” I say, stroking Bongo’s fluffy fur. He rubs his face against my hand, and I press his ears back before letting them pop up again. He slowly blinks at me, and I do the same back.
“You’re a regular cat whisperer!” Gloria says in astonishment. “I can’t believe how Bongo’s taken to you.”
“He’s a good boy, aren’t you?” I coo at Bongo. He purrs in agreement, and I laugh at the self-satisfied look on his face.
“I don’t sleep much,” Gloria says, abruptly changing the subject. “You’ll see when you get to be my age, god willing, that three or four hours is all you need. That leaves me with a lot of time on my hands, and one thing I like to do is people watch.” There’s no shame in her voice, and I admire the fact that she just owns her shit. “I use these to make it easier.” She pulls out a pair of binoculars from the drawer of the desk that is by her chair. She cradles them in her birdlike hands and peers over her glasses at me. “That night, Bongo was meowing at the window and would not stop. He’s not a big talker, so I knew something was wrong. I grabbed my binocs and looked out my window. I saw a young skinny man running out the front door.”
“Do you remember what time that was?” I ask, feeling a stir of excitement. This could be a real lead, even though a man running out the front door isn’t much. Still, it seems a bit much just to be coincidental, so I’m hopeful.
“I sure do, Megan.” Gloria’s voice is crisp, and I find myself wishing I could be like her when I grow up. “I looked at that clock after I saw that man.” She nods at the clock on the wall to the right of me. It’s an old-fashioned clock with hands, but it’s displaying the right time. “It was 3:41 in the morning.” My heart drops. The last text I got from Julianna was at 3:45 that morning. If both of the times are right, then the man could not be Julianna’s killer. Sure, there’s a little wiggle room because texts have been known to be sent late, and perhaps Gloria didn’t get the time exactly right, but it’s a stretch.
“Thank you, Gloria. You’ve been really helpful.” I finish up the cookie I’m eating, set Bongo gently on the couch, and stand up.
“That’s not what you wanted to hear, is it?” Gloria’s eyes are shrewd as she sets aside her binoculars and stands up as well.
“No, it’s not, but it can’t be helped.” I stick out my hand, which Gloria shakes firmly. “I do thank you for the cookies and milk, though. Have a good nap, Bongo.” I pet Bongo between the ears, and he meeps at me before slowly closing his eyes. He curls up in a ball, carefully placing his tail around his nose, then falls asleep. I give him one last pet before following Gloria into the hallway.
“I really hope you find who killed your friend.” Gloria reaches up on her tiptoes and gives me a hug. I hug her back, careful not to bruise her fragile bones.
“Thank you. I hope I do, too.” I reluctantly step back from Gloria, oddly bereft at having to go. I shake off the gloom and get back in my car. I still have time so I can go back home for a little bit before my taiji class, and that’s what I do. Onyx and Jet are very glad to see me, and I reward their affection with a generous helping of treats. I finish my cream puff, then put the pie and the scone in the fridge before going to the living room. I place my laptop on my lap and tap my fingers against the keys. I need to write my next post, but I’m oddly reluctant to write anything. Why? I’m not sure. Partly because I’m chary of talking about the murder for several reasons. One, it’s still raw. I haven’t worked through it myself, so I don’t want to talk about it with others yet. Two, I don’t want to spread false information. Three, I don’t want to let on that I’m looking into the murder. Another reason I’m reluctant is that I don’t want to write about anything other than Julianna. She is dominating my mind, and it seems disrespectful to focus on anything else. The only other thing I want to talk about is my date with Rembrandt, but I don’t like talking about other people in my posts. I don’t mind dissecting myself in my posts, but I don’t think it’s fair to do the same to others without their permission. Maybe I can talk about it in a general sense.
“The Older I Get, the Less I know About Dating”. That’s my title, and now, I just have to write the post. I suck at titles, so I usually just use the first thing to come to my mind.
When I was a teenager, all I could think about was my first date. I had seen so many movies about it, I was agog to know what it was like first-hand. What would it be like to kiss a boy. To feel his hard cock pressed against my thigh, knowing I was the one who made it that way. Mind you, I didn’t call it back then. I was barely able to call it a penis, let alone a dick, cock, or anything like that. I only had sisters, and I was a shy child, so I had no boys as friends, either. I knew their anatomy was different than mine, but I had no concept of exactly how it was different, despite any sex education I received—officially and unofficially.
I was a fat, awkward, and unhappy child for many reasons. I had no father, and my mother was a quiet, but desperate alcoholic whose one mission in life was to drink herself to death. She dedicated herself to it body and soul, and she managed to accomplish her goal when I was twenty-eight. Because of this, I didn’t know how to interact with boys on anything other than a purely intellectual level. I had helped several with their math homework—yay for Asian stereotypes—but none of them gave me so much as a second glance.
I was seventeen when I decided it was time for me to lose my virginity. By then, I didn’t much care to whom it was, and within a week, I found a boy willing to do the job. I barely remember his name, and I remember the incident even less, except it was uncomfortable and messy as we did it in the back of his pickup truck. It was his first time, too, and he came within seconds of being inside me. I remember thinking, “Is that it? What’s the big fuss?” After he rested for a while, we did it again. This time, he managed to hold off until I got mine, and then, I thought, “Oh, yes. I get it now!”
It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I liked girls as well as boys. My roommate was a buxom redhead, and I spent many nights dreaming about what I’d do to those magnificent tits if I had a chance. She didn’t swing that way, though, so I kept my lewd thoughts to myself. I had plenty of opportunities for dalliances, but they were nearly always short-lived. I didn’t understand girls’ emotions, though I was one myself. I was always fucking up when it came to reading signals, so I gave up on chicks.
Until I met Julianna. She changed things for me in both positive and negative ways. I learned from her, just as I learned from each successive relationship. However, I wonder if it’s too late for me. I’m in my mid-forties, and I’m set in my ways. Stubborn, crotchety, and often just wanting to be left alone. It was one of the sticking points of my last relationship—I lived in a different household than my lover. She didn’t like it and would periodically throw it in my face. I have to admit, I felt a whiff of relief when I caught her cheating on me because I would be justified in dumping her.
I write about how being coupled with Tessa made me chafe more often than not. That’s partly because she was a controlling type and would get pissy if I didn’t check in when she considered it appropriate. Which was roughly once every four hours. That was too much for me, my obsession with Julianna notwithstanding. I preferred being more carefree with my communication, and it took a year of arguments before we reached an uneasy compromise. Come to think of it, we were spectacularly ill-suited as a couple. It’s amazing that we stayed together for five years. If I’m to be honest, it’s the sex and inertia. Once we were a couple, it was easier to leave it that way rather than to break things off. Also, it was nice to be able to call someone to come over and take care of me when I was sick. I know that’s a shitty reason to be with someone, but I have to be honest with myself.
I was always looking for someone new while I was with Tessa. I never would have cheated on her as she did on me, but I wasn’t fully committed to her. I never felt more than a deep affection for her, though I told her I loved her, of course. We should have broken up when she wanted to move in together. We should have broken up when she wanted kids. We should have broken up when I wanted to fuck my coworker. We never should have gotten together, truth to be told. For the millionth time, I wonder why Julianna and I never ended up as a couple. We got along like gangbusters, and the sex between us was electric. I pushed her on it once about a year and a half after we stopped fucking. She was drunk off her tits, and very affectionate. After the third time she tried to stick her tongue in my mouth, I exploded.
“What the fuck is up with you, Araki? You say we’re just friends without benefits, and yet, you’ve been showing your tongue down my throat all night.” I pushed at Julianna to keep her away from me, otherwise, I was going to jump her bones. As much as I wanted her, I knew no good would come from that.
“You know you want it, Liang. You’ve always wanted me.” Julianna smirked as she leaned in for another kiss. I allowed it for a few minutes, but then I pulled back, my breath ragged.
“You have to decide, Araki. If we fuck, then we’re together. A couple. If you don’t want that, then you need to back the fuck off.” I stared into Julianna’s eyes, determined to make her see sense.
“Can’t we just have fun? Why’s it got to be all serious?” Julianna pouted, pushing out her lower lip. She crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at me with all her might.
“I can’t just fuck around with you, Julianna. I love you too much for that.” I glanced down at my hands, hating that I was so vulnerable. Not for the first time, I wondered if we should have taken a break after we stopped dating. It would have been hellish for a few weeks, but it might have been better in the long run.
“I can’t risk losing you, Liang. My life would be shit without you.” Julianna grabbed my hand and squeezed. I didn’t say anything, but I squeezed her hand in return. We were going to be fine. Eventually.
“I lost you, anyway, Araki,” I say, my voice thick with tears. I put my head down and weep.
“Meep.” Onyx presses her wet nose against my cheek and nuzzles. I know she’s trying to comfort me, so I don’t scold her as I normally would because I don’t like moistness on my face. Jet rests his face on my thigh between his gigantic paws. He looks as mournful as only a cat can, and I rub his ears to comfort him and myself.
“I’ll be OK, guys.” I offer them a watery smile, but they aren’t fooled. The know my moods better than I do, and they can sense my despair. I know I should write the rest of my post, so I start typing again. I write about my hesitations at dipping my toe in the dating pool again, gaining confidence as I write. It takes me an hour to finish my post, but I’m satisfied when I’m done. I ended by saying what did I have to lose by trying, which is oddly upbeat for me.
“Mreow!” Onyx stands up and announces it’s time for treats. I go to the kitchen and dole them out liberally. I check my phone, and it’s time to get ready to go to class. I take a quick shower, grab my weapons bag, and leave.
“Megan! So good to see you.” Lydia engulfs me in a warm embrace, which is comforting. “How’re you doing? I’m so sorry about Julianna.”
“Shitty,” I say honestly. “I can’t stop thinking about her, and I can’t sleep.”
“Understandable.” Lydia lets me go and nods her head. “Daily practice should help.”
“It should, but it doesn’t. I’ll keep doing it, and maybe it’ll work in the long run.” I pull off my sweatshirt and pull my hair up in a ponytail. “I took today off from work, so I came to class instead.”
“That’s good,” Lydia says, her tone bright. I’m uncomfortable with so much attention on me, so I change the subject.
“How’re you doing? How’s your new private student doing?”
“Pretty well.” Lydia’s tone is dim, but I don’t pry. “I’m not sure he’s going to stick it out, though.” She fiddles with her phone before adding, “Roger’s worried about his job. Two of his coworkers have been laid off, and he’s thinking he might be next.”
“Oh, man. That sucks.” I look up from tying my shoes to see a worried look on Lydia’s face. She and Roger are living month-to-month as it is; they will really be hurting if Roger loses his job.
“I think he’s overreacting as he usually does, but I’m not sure. Two coworkers laid off in a week isn’t normal.” Lydia shuts her mouth and doesn’t say anything else as my classmates start trickling in.
My mind is all over the place during class. I try to focus, but I can’t. During mediation, I keep thinking about Julianna’s murder and her tongue being cut out. I gag as I move my hands into the third posture, but I manage to keep my composure. Barely. I pray that Lydia won’t ask me to tutor today because I don’t think I can handle it. Thankfully, she doesn’t pay any special attention to me, and I manage to make it through the class without making any obvious mistakes. It’s not my best class, but it keeps me from brooding, which is good enough for now.