Marital Duplicity; chapter six, part one

Chapter Six; Part One

“Girl, it’s good to see you!” Darla Quinn, one of my coworkers flashes a smile at me as I walk into the office. I call it an office, but it’s more like a bunch of desks in an open room. Darla’s dishwater blond hair is pulled back into a high ponytail, and she’s wearing makeup for once. Instead of her shapeless shirt and pants, she’s wearing a pair of tailored beige pants and a denim shirt. Her nails are perfectly manicured instead of bitten to the quick. She looks good, which means she’s probably getting some.

“You, too. You seeing anyone new these days?” I ask, sliding into my chair. I’ve noticed that she’s smartened up over the past few weeks, and I know it has to do with a man. I thought she would have told me by now, but she hasn’t. It’s up to me to ask, which I do.

“Mmmmhmmmmmm. Jimmy. He’s six-feet nothing and a long, tall, cool drink of water.” Darla pauses before adding, “And he can go for hours. He’s Italian.”

“Like a stallion!” I chortle, and Darla laughs with me. “I’m happy for you, girl.” I smile at Darla, and she smiles back. I instinctively look around, but my stalker is sitting in jail awaiting trial. I don’t have to worry about her any longer.

I quickly check my blog, and the outpouring of love is tremendous. Many of them tell their own stories about their siblings. SeeNoEvil writes, “I’m the oldest of five boys. Five! Every Saturday morning, we’d get up before our parents, and I’d make them pancake from a box. I’d shape them like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other Disney figures. They’d always eat the heads off first before gobbling up the rest. I made myself regular round pancakes because I thought they tasted better.” PizzaEveryDay adds, “I’m the baby of three kids. My brother and sister are at least a decade older, so I often felt like an only. Until my parents died in a plane crash when I was ten. Then, my brother took me into his family, and he and his wife became my second parents. My brother died this year at the age of fifty. I miss him every day.” GallopingTrot reminisces, “I was an only, but I had a cousin who was my BFF growing up. We would giggle over the cute boys at school, and she’s the one who held my hands while I cried over my first love breaking my heart. She now lives in Paris with her husband, but we still talk to each other every day.”

This is why I write my blog posts. Not only do they help me figure out what I’m thinking, but they connect me with other people who feel the same way. I’ve had people write me, thanking me for putting into words what they’re feeling but cannot express. It’s a big, cold world out there. It helps to know that others know what you’re going through. It makes me feel a little less alone. Nothing will ever take away the sting of losing my best friend, but this helps. I shut down the tab and concentrate on my work. Others have taken up my lists in my absence, but it’s time for me to hit the ground running. I’m one of the best workers—I sell the most Groupon coupons almost every day. I want to keep it that way. I’m willing to give myself a mulligan this month, but I don’t want to make a habit of it.

I check my emails periodically. I get one from Doug in the early afternoon. He says he’s willing to talk about Bob whenever I want and wherever I want. I Google him, and I find out that he’s in his late sixties and a widower. He’s a retired engineer, and he spends most of his time gardening. I ask him if he’s willing to talk to me tonight around eight, and he agrees with alacrity. He knows about Bob’s disappearance, and he’s concerned. He says the last time he talked to Bob was three days ago, and it wasn’t about anything in particular. I have to go, so I tell him I’ll talk to him later tonight. Twenty minutes later, I get an email from Samuel. He’s not as forthcoming, and he tells me he has nothing to say. When I mention Bob’s disappearance, he responds that it’s probably nothing. The tone of his emails is off-putting, and I think he’s hiding something. I manage to convince him to talk to me tonight, but he’s adamant that it’s before six o’clock. I agree because I’ll say anything to get him to talk to me.

The day whizzes by as I attack my lists with relish. Yes, it’s braindead work, and yes, it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I take pride in doing my job well. I like most of my coworkers now that my psycho stalker is gone, and my boss, Cara O’Donnell, is decent to us. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with my job, but there’s nothing much right either. I have money from my mother’s death, and in a few weeks, I’m going to have a whole lot more from Julianna’s death, but I like having a day job. It forces me out of the house, and it gives me a sense of purpose. Then again, my blog is gaining a steady readership. I get a thousand-plus eyeballs a day, and usually thirty-plus comments on each post. If I could do that on a daily basis, I would give up this job in a heartbeat.

I’m so busy, I don’t have time for lunch. I’m starving, so I grab a chicken burrito from Chipotle on my way home. Once I’m there, I feed my cats some treats before diving into my burrito. It’s as big as my head, and I’m forced to use a fork and knife on it. I plow my way through three-fourths of it before finally waving the white flag. I put away the rest of it for a midnight snack, then go upstairs to take a quick shower. It feels so good, I stay in for an extra ten minutes. Afterwards, I go to the living room and put my laptop on my lap. I need to do more research on Bob, but I’m so tired. My phone ring. It’s Jasmine.

“Have you found anything?” Her voice is taut, and I’m afraid it’s going to snap.

“Not much,” I say. “Have you heard anything from him?”

“Nothing. I’ve left ten more voice messages and seven more texts.” Jasmine is sniffling, and I want to reach through the phone and comfort her. “What have you found?” Fuck. I have to tell her about Lee, Bob’s young and attractive coworker who’s in love with Bob. I chicken out and start with what I don’t have first.

“No one in your church is named Lee. I found a Lee on Bob’s team, though.” I hesitate and add, “She’s female. She clearly looks up to Bob.”

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Jasmine asks, her voice small.

“No, not exactly.” I take a deep breath and blurt out, “She’s in love with him, I’m pretty sure. Whether or not he feels the same, I can’t say. She says he’s really taken her under his wing, but I don’t know how far that goes.”

“So he could be treating her as a daughter,” Jasmine says eagerly.

“Yes. It’s quite possible.” I nod, even though she can’t see it. “On the other hand, they might be having an affair.”

“No.” An automatic response without much heat behind it. Somehow, it makes me feel even worse than if she were angry.

“Jasmine, we have to face facts. Bob did not disappear for no reason. If it’s not voluntary—”

“It’s not,” Jasmine interjects.

“It’s usually an affair, money, or running from their past.”

“Not this time.” Jasmine is adamant, and I refrain from sighing. She is going to make this difficult, which, selfishly, makes me irritated.

“Jasmine. There has to be a reason. He did not disappear out of the blue. If it’s not an affair, and he didn’t just walk away, then what?” I keep my voice even, but some of my irritation must have seeped through because she becomes almost hysterical.

“I don’t know! Why are you treating me like this, Megan? After all I’ve done for you. You could be more respectful, you know.” She’s sobbing so hard, I can barely make out her words. I feel terrible, but I’m also wondering if she has something to hide. The best way to get someone off your back is to go on the offensive.

“Jasmine, I love you with all my heart. You know that.” I pause, then add, “You’ve been married to Bob for thirty years. You know him better than anyone else in the world. Yet, you cannot tell me a thing about what he’s been up to in the last three months. Are you hiding something from me?”

“I cannot believe you asked me that!” Jasmine clicks off as angrily as she can, and I resist the impulse to call her back. I think she’s hiding something from me, but I don’t think I’m going to get it from her now. I’ll give her time to cool off and then call her again. I check my phone, and it’s five to six. I have to call Samuel before it’s too late. He answers on the second ring, much to my relief.

“Mr. Wong? This is Megan Liang, Bob’s sister-in-law. You said you’d be willing to talk to me about him.”

“Megan Liang.” There is no recognition in his voice. After a few seconds, he says, “Oh, right. You wanted to talk about Bob’s disappearance. About which I know nothing.” I cock my head at his odd cadence. I Google him as we talk, and he looks like the stereotypical Asian nerd, thick glasses and all. There’s a tightness to his lips that suggests he rarely smiles. He’s roughly five-feet seven inches and looks about a hundred and thirty pounds. His nose is thin and tipped at the end. I bet he’s a barrel of laughs. “I can give you ten minutes maximum. Speak.” I resist the urge to tell him off, and I quickly summarize the problem. I tell him that Bob is missing, and Jasmine is going crazy over it. I ask when’s the last time he talked to Bob.

“Two nights ago. He had a problem lying heavily on his mind, and he needed to unburden himself.” Samuel pauses, and I hear the whoosh of a match. I bet dollars to donuts that he’s smoking a pipe. Probably briar. “He is worried about a friend in an untenable situation.”

“Yes?” I ask eagerly, clutching the phone to my ear. This could be my big break, and I wait to hear what else he has to say.

“That is all he said. He would not tell me the details.” Puff, puff, puff. It takes me a few seconds to understand that he’s done talking.

“That’s it?”

“Yes. I did not press him, and I assumed he would talk to me again if it remained a problem.” Another puff, and then, “I really must go.” Click. I stare at my phone in bemusement. He certainly is not one to waste words. My mind goes back to my conversation with Jasmine. On impulse, I call Viv. She answers on the third ring.

“What?” Viv’s voice is distracted, and I have a hunch I interrupted her in a creative kick. She’s an artist and keeps odd hours, so I never know when I’ll get ahold of her as she won’t answer the phone when she’s working.

“Viv. We need to talk.” I say, leaning back on the couch.

“Why?” The whoosh of the lighter and two puffs follow her word.

“I think Jasmine is hiding something. I want you to try to find out what it is.” I stroke Onyx and Jet rhythmically.

“Me? Why would she tell me?” Viv’s intrigued, which bolsters my spirits. If she’s interested, she’s like a pit bull. She’ll never let go once she has a sniff of the scent.

“You have a gift of being able to get people to talk, including Jasmine. Use your voodoo magic on her.”

“OK. Will do. Later.” Viv hangs up, and I look at my cats. I pick up my phone and call Rembrandt.

“Hey, babe. How’re you feeling?” I ask, snuggling back into the couch.

“Better. My photos still aren’t where they used to be, though.” Rembrandt’s words fill me with guilt again. I still can’t believe my stalker gouged his eye out, and I’ll never forgive myself for it. “I can cook, thankfully. Want me to make you dinner tomorrow night?”

“I’d love that!” I appreciate someone who’ll cook for me as I’m not much of a Suzie Homemaker. It seems dumb to cook when I live alone. All that work for such little result, and a ton of pots and pans to clean up afterwards.

“Great! Come over at six; I should have it done by then. It’s Saturday, so you won’t have work. How does lamb vindaloo sound to you?”

“Delicious!” We make small talk for a few minutes before hanging up. I don’t mention Bob because I’m tired of talking about it, but also because I don’t want to drag Rembrandt into yet another drama. I’m sure I’ll tell him at some point, but not right now. As I’m ruminating, my phone rings. It’s Viv.

“She wouldn’t tell me anything,” Viv says without preamble. “No matter how much I wheedled, cajoled, and prodded. Sorry.”

“No problem, Viv,” I say with a sigh. “Thanks for trying.”

“Wish I had gotten something from her. Let me know when you find him.” With that, she hangs up, and I stare at the phone for a minute.

I turn back to my laptop and place my hands on the keyboard. I don’t know what to look for, though. In desperation, I start looking into Bob’s childhood. He was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to Los Angeles when he was ten. He has three brothers and sisters, all older, and all but one is dead. His sister, Wendy, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two cairn terriers. I make a note and dig for her phone number. I find it in two minutes, which is vaguely disturbing. We’re so used to putting our information on the web, we forget that it leaves a bright trail right back to us. I call Mrs. Hsu, wondering what I’m going to say to her.

“Hello?” Her voice is old, frail, and lightly accented.

“Mrs. Hsu? My name is Megan Liang. I’m the sister-in-law of your brother, Bob.” My voice is tight, which is how it gets when I talk to my Taiwanese elders.

“Bob! How is he? He hasn’t answer my last three calls.”

“That’s why I’m calling, Mrs. Hsu.” I breathe deeply, then blurt out, “Bob has been missing for over a day. Do you have any idea why?”

“Missing? What do you mean missing?” Mrs. Hsu sounds alarmed, and I can’t blame her.

“I’m sorry to tell you this. I really am. But, he hasn’t been home in over a day. Has he mentioned anything to you about any problems he’s been having in the past three months or so?” I hold my breath as I wait for her to answer.

“He’s always having problems,” Mrs. Hsu says with a sigh. “That wife of his is bleeding him dry.” I stiffen. She’s talking about my sister, and I’m not happy about it. Did she not understand who I said I was? Was she purposely trying to rile me up? I don’t think so. That’s not the Taiwanese way.

“What do you mean by that?” I try to keep my temper, but it’s hard. No one disses my family and gets away with it. No one. But, there’s a higher purpose here, so I bite my tongue.

“She thought he was made of money. Always racking up the bills. Clothes, mostly. That woman loved her Neiman Marcus.” Mrs. Hsu’s voice is acerbic, and I blink. I didn’t realize that she had such a problem with Jasmine, but why would I? I’ve never met her, and the only thing Jasmine has ever said to me about her is, “She’s a very devoted, church-going woman.” Wait a minute. She says Jasmine is bleeding Bob dry? Jasmine wears nice clothes, but she’s very careful about money. She’s in charge of the family budget, and I know she has never missed a payment. So, is Bob lying to his sister about the money? If so, why?

“Has Bob said anything specific to you about his problems with his wife?” I ask, keeping my voice casual.

“He doesn’t need to. I know how hard he works. I see the clothes she wears in the pictures she sends. I can put two and two together. Did you know he’s worked overtime in the past few months just to pay the bills?” Mrs. Hsu is indignant, so her voice is rising.

“Actually, he didn’t.” I keep my voice even because one of  us has to remain calm, and I don’t think it’s going to be her. “That’s what he said, but he left early several times a week for the past three months.”

“What?” Nothing but shock in her voice. “That’s not what he told me!”

“When is the last time you talked, Mrs. Hsu?”

“Three days ago. I was scolding him for not returning my calls. He said he’s been clocking in the overtime to get his boss off his back.” Mrs. Hsu starts sniffling, and I’m afraid I’m going to have another crying older Taiwanese woman on my hands.

“Mrs. Hsu, there’s no way to say this gently. He lied to everyone about working overtime. It’s been proven that he wasn’t doing it. So, let’s move on.” My tone is curt because I’m tired of going down this same track. I’m also pissed at Bob. He’s always held himself up as a moral, upstanding citizen, and it seems like it was all a lie.

“I don’t know what you mean. Why are you saying this? Bob doesn’t lie!” Mrs. Hsu is screaming at me, and I’m at the end of my rope.

“Mrs. Hsu! Please. Bob is missing. No one has heard from him in over a day. I need to know if he talked about anything other than overtime with you in the last few days.” I am not shouting, but I’m close to it. Something about my Taiwanese elders drives me crazy, but I’m not sure what it is.

“He did say one thing odd,” Mrs. Hsu says, at normal volume this time.

“What was that, Mrs. Hsu,” I say, breathing smoothly and slowly.

“He was worried about something in his church.”

“His church? What was it?” I hold my breath. This might be what I’m looking for

“He wouldn’t say. I tried to get him to tell me, but all he’d say is that he needed to talk to Reverend Yang about something.” Mrs. Hsu’s voice tapers off, and I have a hunch she’s holding something back. So, of course, I prod.

“What was that something, Mrs. Hsu? I think you know.”

“I don’t! Are you calling me a liar?” Oh, great. Her voice is rising again. I summon all the sympathy I can register before responding.

“Of course not. I’m just saying, it’s natural to want to protect your brother and to keep his confidences. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

“He’s my baby. I’ve looked after him all my life.”

“I know how that is. My sister is a second mom to me.” I deliberately don’t mention Jasmine’s name because I don’t want to piss Mrs. Hsu off.

“Bob is a good man. He was worried there might be some improprieties in the church. That’s all I can tell you.” Mrs. Hsu’s sniffling again, and I’m sorry that I’ve caused her such pain.

“You sure he didn’t mention what kind of improprieties? Do you remember his exact words?”

“He said, um, he said he was worried about his church. When I asked him why, he said he had a good friend who was in trouble because of something in church. Then he said, “I need to talk to Reverend Yang. This has been going on for too long.” Now, I have to go. Goodbye.”

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