“Megan! Bob never came home! Please come over now.” Jasmine’s voice is trembling, and I can tell she’s crying.
“Give me ten minutes, Jasmine.” I hang up and get up. I go to the kitchen to feed the beasties before going to take a quick shower. I dress in sweats, give the cats some love, then take off for Jasmine’s place, my mind whirling. I can think of a million reasons why he didn’t come home, and none of them good. The least worst possibility is that he went on a bender and had to sleep it off on his friend’s couch. That seems highly unlikely, but I’m clinging to it so I won’t have to think about worse possibilities.
“Megan!” Jasmine throws her arms around my neck and squeezes. It’s clear she’s been crying for hours, and she doesn’t have any makeup on for once. She’s wearing gray sweats, but they’re not meant to be exercised in. She probably paid more for the sweat suit than I pay in mortgage every month. I brush that aside because now is not the time nor the place. This is all about her.
“Jasmine!” I hug her tightly, stroking her back as I do.
“I’ve called him thirteen times between when you left last night and when I called you this morning.” Jasmine is blubbering, so it’s difficult to understand what she’s saying.
“Let’s go inside and talk.” I go into her house and close the door behind me. I take off my shoes and line them up on the welcome mat. I lead her into the kitchen and put a kettle on the stove. Once the water is boiling, I make us ginger tea. “When’s the last time you ate?” I ask, trying out my best mom glare.
“I can’t, Megan. I really can’t.” Jasmine sags to the floor, and I’m disconcerted at how much of a wreck she is.
“You can, and you will.” I stare into the fridge to see what she has in there. There are dumplings, noodles, radish cakes, and rice. Not exactly breakfast fare, but I’m beyond caring at this point. I heat up two bowlfuls of noodles, grab the necessary accoutrements, and go into the dining room. Once I have everything laid out, I go back to haul Jasmine’s ass in there as well. Once we’re seated, I start eating. Jasmine pushes the noodles around inside her bowl, but doesn’t eat. “Jasmine.” I put some steel into my voice, and she obediently lifts a noodle to her mouth. I glare at her until she starts masticating and swallows. I don’t let her talk until she’s finished half of her noodles. Then, I nod at her. Clearing her throat, she begins.
“As I told you, Bob has been acting strangely for the past three months.” Jasmine takes a deep breath and continues. “I asked him about it, but he said it was just work. His boss was pushing him to put in more time, despite his seniority.” Jasmine reaches for her glass and drains half her water in one gulp. “Two months ago, I caught him sneaking into the house at one in the morning. It was really bad.”
“Bob! Where in hell have you been?” Jasmine flipped on the lights and glared at her husband. She normally didn’t swear in front of him, but she couldn’t help herself this time.
“Jasmine!” Bob jumped, then turned to his wife, a sheepish look on his face. “I, um. Had to work late. Every time I tried to leave, Geoff would pull me back in again.”
“You’re lying!” Jasmine shrieked. She struggled to keep her voice even because she loathed the stereotype of the shrewish fishwife. “Geoff would never keep you until one in the morning. Never.”
“I’m not lying, Jasmine! I swear.” Bob implored. He gave Jasmine the puppy dog eyes, but his left eye was twitching. That was a sure tell that he was lying. Jasmine noticed it months after they were married, and Bob had said he took out the trash when he hadn’t. Jasmine never told Bob she made him because she liked being able to tell when he was lying. As he was now.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, fine. But don’t you lie to me.” Jasmine’s voice trembled, and she started crying despite herself.
“I’m not lying.” Bob’s answer seemed perfunctory, but Jasmine didn’t have the energy to argue any longer.
“Fine. Whatever. You’re sleeping in the guest room tonight.” Jasmine turned on her heels and marched out. Bob was in the doghouse for four nights after that.
“You made him sleep in the guest room?” I ask, my mouth dropping. That isn’t like my sister at all. She’s the soul of understanding, even if she loves to boss people around.
“I had to, Megan! I cannot abide lying. Bob and I made a vow to each other before we got married that no matter how hard things got, we’d never, ever lie to each other. We made the promise before God. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve kept my promise. How dare he break his vow to me?” By now, Jasmine is screaming at the top of her lungs. Her face is red; the vein in her neck is throbbing, and; there’s a feral look in her eyes. It’s gone in a blink, but it’s seared on my brain because I have never seen her look like that before.
“How many more times have you kicked him out of your bedroom since then?” I feel gross questioning my sister, but someone has to do it.
“Three. I would have last night if he actually made it home.” Jasmine’s face is still flushed, but at least she’s talking at human ears level again.
“Did you ask him each time what happened?”
“No. The last time, I just banished him when he came home after midnight three nights in a row. Jasmine folds her lips and narrows her eyes into slits. I think of an idea, but I’m not sure she’s going to like it. Still. She’s in desperate straits, though, so I give it a shot.
“Jasmine,” I begin, but she’s sobbing and not listening to me. “Jasmine!” I make my voice sharper, which causes her to straighten up in her seat. “You need to pull yourself together. I know this is hard, but we need to figure out what happened to Bob.”
“You’re right; you’re right.” Jasmine straightens up even further, wiping her eyes on her sweatshirt. “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to ask you some uncomfortable questions. You’re probably not going to like me for it, but just hear me out, OK?” I reach over and pat her hand.
“OK. Whatever you want.” Jasmine looks at me expectantly, and I swallow before blurting it out.
“Do you know Bob’s passwords?” A blank look from Jasmine. “To his email and other accounts.” A dawning look on Jasmine’s face, then anger.
“You want me to snoop through my husband’s emails?” Jasmine clenches her fists and raises one in my direction. She didn’t do it on purpose, though, so I try not to take offense. I put a hand over her fist and gently lower it. She looks startled, then unclenches her fist. “I can’t do it, Megan. I’m sorry. I still love him despite whatever trouble he’s in now. I cannot break our faith in that way.” I heave a sigh, but I know I can’t push her on this. If it were me, I would be giving her everything I knew about my husband, including his dick size. I’m not going to press her on it now, but if Bob doesn’t come home soon, I may have to.
“OK. How about this? Can you ask your kids to see if they’ve talked to him lately?”
“Yes, I can do that. If anyone knows anything, it’ll be Coral. She was always Daddy’s little girl, and he let her get away with everything.” Jasmine sighs, and there’s a sliver of envy in her voice. I file it away without commenting on it.
“Have you called the police?”
“Yes. They took the information and said they’d investigate, but I could hear it in their voice.”
“Hear what?” I tilt my head and look at my sister.
“Hear their disinterest. I know how it looks. He’s an older man who’s apparently settled into a suburban life with a wife and four children. They think he just walked away.” Jasmine is angry again, which is better than distraught.
“You can’t blame them, Jasmine,” I say gently. “He has been coming home late for the last three months.”
“You don’t think I know that? I know that!” Jasmine yells at me, then immediately swallows her anger. I’ve seen her do it a hundred times, and it never gets less creepy. One minute, she’ll be ranting, and the next, her eyes go flat and her voice is deadly calm. “Bob would not just walk away. He has his flaws, but he’s also a responsible man. He would not walk away from his duties.”
“What do you want me to do?” I ask, drinking my cooling tea.
“I don’t know. Just, be here with me. That’s all I want for now.” Jasmine reaches her hand out and squeezes mine.
“That I can do.” I squeeze back before letting go. I go back to the kitchen to make us more tea before bringing it back to the dining room. I also spot a jar of almond cookies on the counter and grab a handful of those as well. I hand a cookie to her and munch on one myself. It brings back memories of my childhood of when my mother was sober, one of her favorite things to do was bake almond cookies. My sisters and I would sit in the kitchen nook as she baked them, impatient to be the first one to get a cookie fresh out of the oven. We’d demolish at least two dozen in one sitting, complete with large glasses of whole milk. Mom would just sit there, beaming at us, happy to see us enjoying the fruits of her labor. And, we’d have several more dozen cookies for the week to come. It’s one of my most treasured memories, and I know my sisters share it because we always have almond cookies when the three of us get together.
“Look at me being so selfish. How’s Rembrandt?” Jasmine asks, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a napkin.
“He’s doing better, but frustrated.” I pause a minute before adding, “I feel so guilty, Jas! It’s my fault he was attacked. It’s my fault he lost his eye. It’s my fault he’s struggling with his photography. I feel so shitty about it.”
“Listen to me, Megan.” Jasmine grabs my arms and shakes me. It’s awkward as we’re both sitting, but she manages it. “It is not your fault that psycho went after Rembrandt, nor that she killed Julianna. I know it feels that way, but, and I say this with love, it’s indulgent bullcrap. As long as you focus on that, you don’t have to think about the damage done. And, it’s selfish to think that way when Rembrandt needs you.” I open my mouth before shutting it. She’s right. I don’t have the luxury of wallowing. I should be focusing on Rembrandt and his pain, not my feelings of guilt.
“Thanks, Jasmine. I need a reminder of the important things now and again.” I smile at Jasmine, and she smiles back, albeit wanly.
“Thank you for being here. I’m going out of my mind, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Do you want me to call anyone else? Viv? Cecilia? The ladies of your Bible study?” I name our sister, her best friend, and her closest group in order.
“No. Wait. Yes. Call Viv.” Jasmine sniffles, blowing her nose in her already soggy napkin. I pull out my phone and call our younger sister who lives in Boston. I walk into the living room in order to be able to talk honestly with Vivian. I don’t want Jasmine’s presence to hamstring me.
“What?” Ah, the dulcet tones of my younger sister. Straight and to the point, as usual.
“Bob’s missing.” I can come to the point when need be as well.
“Bob?” Nothing but puzzlement in her voice.
“Jasmine’s husband!” I say, biting off each word.
“I never liked that son of a bitch. So fucking holier-than-thou.” Viv is spitting mad, and I’m intrigued to figure out why.
“Always talking about God and shit. A few Christmases ago, when I was visiting you guys, he got drunk. Remember that?” I hear a quick inhale, and I know it’s Vivian smoking her American Spirits.
“Yes. Jasmine read him the riot act for that. I’ve never seen him that drunk.”
“Bob. You need to stop now. You’re embarrassing me.” Jasmine hissed under her breath on the stairways, away from the company.
“What? I drink once a year, and you’re bustin’ my balls over it?” Bob stumbled, then clutched the railing so he wouldn’t pitch head first to the ground.
“You’ve had eight beers! That’s enough. And, once a year? That’s a laugh.” Jasmine rapped her knuckles on Bob’s knuckles. He moved his hand away and almost fell over.
“Um, guys? We’re ready for pie?” I stepped between them, looking left to right.
“Be right there, Megan.” Jasmine bared her teeth at me, and I actually took a step back. She took a deep breath and rearranged her face into a bland smile. It’s not as disturbing as before, but it’s still unsettling.
“OK, OK, no problem.” I waved my hands at her and beat a hasty retreat. I avoided Bob for the rest of the night.
“He was such a dick that night.” Vivian says, her voice hard. She puffs several times on her cigarette before continuing.
“I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” Viv pushed back from the table and stood up with a groan. “Great spread as usual, Sis.”
“Thank you.” Jasmine’s smile stretched across her lips, but her eye were still stormy.
“Be right back.” Viv made her way to the bathroom, stumbling a little as she did. She’d had several glasses of wine, and she was suddenly feeling it. “Goddamn Asian bladder. God, it sucks.” She concentrated on putting one foot in front of another until she reached the bathroom door. She tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Vivian, fancy seeing you here.” It was Bob, right behind Viv, breathing heavily down her neck.
“What the fuck?” Viv whirled around in surprise, and Bob was right there.
“You have such a naughty mouth. A sexy, naughty mouth.” Bob lunged forward and kissed Vivian, jamming his tongue down her throat. Vivian struck him on the chest as she struggled to pull back. “Struggle all you want. I like ‘em feisty.” Bob laughed as he grabbed Vivian by the ass. Taking a deep breath, she drove her knee into his groin. He fell back with a yelp, and Vivian followed it up with an uppercut to Bob’s jaw. As he crumpled to the ground, she kicked him in the ribs.
“Don’t you ever lay a hand on me again.” Viv hissed, struggling to keep her voice low.
“You hurt me!” Bob said, his voice outraged. He’s still lying on the floor, probably because it was too much effort for his addled brain to get up.
“Because I love Jasmine like a second mother, I will overlook this incident. But if you ever touch me again, not only will I cut your nuts off, I’ll tell Jasmine.” Vivian turned on her heel and stomped off.
“He assaulted you?” I narrow my eyes and clutch my phone so tightly, my knuckles turn white.
“I handled it, Meg. That asshole never touched me again. In fact, he made sure we were never alone in a room together after that.” Vivian cackles, and I laugh with her. I have no problem with putting the fear of god into an asshole who can’t keep his hands to himself. “Don’t tell Jasmine. Please. I don’t want to hurt her like that.”
“OK. I’ll keep it to myself.” I agree despite my reservations. I don’t like giving an inch to someone who has assaulted my sister, but unless I find evidence he’s done it again, I will begrudgingly abide by Viv’s wishes. “He didn’t come home last night.” I sit on the couch and stretch out my legs onto Jasmine’s coffee table. She wouldn’t like it, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. “And he’s been coming home late for three months. Work, he says.”
“Bull and shit. That bastard is cheating on Jasmine.” Viv says out loud what I’ve been thinking since Jasmine’s told me her whole sob story.
“It sure looks like it,” I say, my heart twisting inside my chest. I want to protect Jasmine from the pain, but I know it’s not possible. “But why didn’t he come home last night? He’s never done that before.”
“Maybe he decided he wanted a new life and just walked away.”
“I don’t know, Viv. He’s a jerk, but I don’t think he’d do that. He has too much sense of responsibility to just walk.” I lower my voice because I don’t want Jasmine to overhear. Bob may be an asshole, but he’s her husband. “Do you know anything else about him?”
“Nothing Jasmine hasn’t told me. Devout Christian, loving father, doting grandfather. The only other thing I know is that he likes to sing karaoke, like most Asians.” Viv inhales deeply before exhaling. I want to tell her to ease up on the coffin nails, but that would be hypocritical of me. Yes, I only smoke a cigarette or two a day while she smokes up to a pack a day, but still. Nobody likes an earnest do-gooder.
“I don’t know much else, either. He works with a marketing firm, plays golf every Saturday morning, and goes to church three or four times a week.” I throw my hands up in frustration. “He’s practically Ward Cleaver.”
“Well, Jasmine is definitely not June.” We share a laugh before hanging up. Viv has been struck by an inspiration. She’s a painter, and when the muse hits, she has to paint. I don’t know much more about Bob than I did before I called her, but I feel better, anyway. I don’t talk to Viv on a regular basis, so any excuse to call her I’ll take. I breath smoothly and slowly to regain my equilibrium before returning to Jasmine. I have to ask her if she thinks her husband is cheating on her, and it’s going to kill her. I trudge my way back into the dining room. Jasmine is slumped in her chair, and her face is buried in her hands. I sit at the table, wait a few seconds, then talk.
“Jasmine, I need to ask you a few questions. Is that OK?”
“How’s Viv? She doing OK?” Jasmine’s voice is muffled because her face is still in her hands.
“She’s Viv. You know how she is.” I give a half laugh, then add cautiously, “Hey, Jas. Does Bob have any special ladyfriend?” I cringe at how abrupt my question is, but I can’t think of a better way to put it.
“Bob didn’t have women as friends. He didn’t believe that you could have a friend of the opposite gender. He said it only led to temptation.” Jasmine’s lips twitch, and I know she doesn’t feel the same way. I also know one of her best friends in high school was a boy named Johnny O’Connor. I wonder whatever happened to good ol’ Johnny. He had a younger brother, Mikey, who was in my grade (a good Irish Catholic family with eight kids born in a fifteen year span) who was smoking hot. He was short, only my height, but he was muscular, had curly red hair, and sparkling emerald eyes. He also cussed like a sailor, drank like fish, and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. We made out behind the school whenever we could, and then he was shipped out to some kind of military boarding school by his folks when he was seventeen because he knocked up some girl. I was heartbroken at the time, but soon realized how lucky I was to escape from him unscathed.
“Did you agree with him?” I ask, although I already know the answer.
“He’s a good man, Megan. I know his ideas are different than yours, but—”
“This has nothing to do with that. Did you agree that men and women can’t be friends?” My sympathy is drying out a bit as Jasmine evades my question.
“No, I didn’t. You know I didn’t. I don’t.” Jasmine hesitates and adds, “I still have male friends. I’m just careful to keep them away from Bob.” That makes me ineffably sad. They’ve been married thirty years and Jasmine has to hide her friends from him. Still. At least she kept them. Which reminds me.
“Hey, Jasmine. You ever talk to Johnny O’Connor since high school?”
“Yes. We email every couple months. He’s in Los Angeles. Married with six kids. Still a good Catholic. Three grandchildren. He’s an agent, if you can believe it. An agent to the stars.” Jasmine laughs
“Johnny is big Hollywood now? No way!” Johnny was a nerd in high school. He had a brain that wouldn’t quit, but his social skills were distinctly lacking.
“Yes. I went to LA a few years back, and he called me to ‘do lunch’. Which we did. I had a lovely arugula salad with endives and artichokes. It was…healthy.” Jasmine laughs ruefully. “I didn’t tell him that I got a triple decker ice cream cone on my way back to my hotel.”
“You bad girl,” I say, laughing at her story. “Plus, you’re lactose intolerant as I am, so you probably paid for it afterwards.”
“Lactose pills are an ice cream girl’s best friend.” Jasmine and I clink our water glasses before swallowing several gulps each. I decide to come straight to the point.
“Do you think Bob is having an affair?” I brace myself for the storm, but it doesn’t come. I watch as Jasmine deflates, and my heart aches for her.
“I don’t know, Megs. I really don’t. Before all this, I would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested it. Now?” Jasmine tears up again, but she manages to hold it together. “I just want it to go back to the way it was.”
“That’s not going to happen. You know that, Jasmine.” I hesitate before adding, “If you want me to discover what happened to Bob, you might find out some things you don’t want to know. Are you prepared for that?”
“Yes. Just bring him home. Then I’ll kick his ass.”