Parental Deception; chapter five

Chapter Five

“Mrrrreow!” Onyx leaps in the air, making me drop the bag I’m holding in order to catch her. Jet and Ginger are hanging back, but just as eager to see us.

“Silly girl,” I say, scruffing Onyx behind the neck. She mewls in pleasure, her eyes turning into slits. I shift her into one arm so I can pick up the bag with my opposite hand. I carry the bag and her into the kitchen, setting her on the floor. She huffs in displeasure, but quickly loses the attitude when I give her, Ginger, and Jet some Greenies. Rembrandt has followed me into the kitchen, and we put away the leftovers. I am not hungry at all, but the cats twitch their noses at the enticing smells that are emanating from the bag. I take a piece of turkey out of the Tupperware and give a morsel to each cat. They gobble the turkey down, then look at me in unison for more. I give them each another bite, but then I stand firm in denying them a third.

“You going home tonight?” Rembrandt asks, his voice casual. There’s an intensity behind the question that makes me uncomfortable. I had been planning on staying, but now, I’m not sure I should. I shake off the doubt as it’s been a good time, and I wouldn’t mind staying another night.

“I thought I’d stay tonight, if that’s OK with you,” I reply, my tone even. I do not want a fight, not after such a lovely day.

“Sounds good to me.” The relief in his voice is evident, and I’m glad he didn’t make a big deal out of it. “I’m going to take a shower,” Rembrandt says before disappearing. Ginger trots out of the room behind him. I go into the living room, as do Onyx and Jet. I check my blog, and there are several more comments on my insomnia post. One common thread throughout them is the inability to put down technology and go to bed at a reasonable hour. It’s a vicious cycle in that when you can’t sleep, it’s easy to pull out your phone and check your social media. What you find there agitates you, making it more difficult to sleep. I know that experts recommend that you turn off all technology at least an hour before you sleep, but I doubt many people do it, including me. I take my phone to bed with me, and I can’t imagine doing without it for any appreciable amount of time. That makes me smile, albeit wryly, because seven years ago, I refused to have a cellphone at all. I didn’t want to be tethered to a piece of technology, and it took Jasmine nagging me for a month solid before I actually bought one. She was concerned about me breaking down on the road and not being able to call someone. It’s reasonable for a Minnesota winter, and I finally gave in. I told her I would keep it on me, but it would be off, and I would only use it for emergencies.

“I was so naïve,” I inform Onyx and Jet, who are flanking me on each side of the couch. I’m tied to my phone as surely as if there is a piece of string on it. Onyx nods her head at me, and I swear she understands what I’m saying. Jet rolls over on his back and wave his paws in the air like he just doesn’t care. I risk my life and limb by scratching him on the belly. He growls and swipes a massive paw at me. I laugh and quickly withdraw my hand to keep it intact.

I quickly check my latest post, and there are several more comments on it. I knew insomnia was a hot topic, but I didn’t know how hot. The sad thing for me is that there isn’t a suggestion in the comments that I haven’t tried before. Well, except for the ‘rub avocado over your face before going to sleep’. I haven’t tried that, but I’m pretty sure it’s a troll. I pull up a new post and begin typing.

This is the first time I’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving in years. I wasn’t looking forward to it, for several reasons, but to my surprise, I was reluctant to leave after several hours. It’s partly because my younger sister was there, and I haven’t seen her in many years. It’s also because my older sister pulled out all the stops and made several of my favorite Taiwanese foods. Radish cakes, Chinese sausage, wonton soup…these are things I haven’t eaten in many months, and I enjoyed every bite.

It’s also because of all the trauma I’ve suffered recently. Losing my best friend has made me realize as nothing else has that I have limited time with the people I love. It’s too easy to think, “I can talk to/hang out with that person tomorrow.” Then tomorrow turns into the day after, and soon, you realize it’s been months since you’ve talked with that person, In the case of Julianna, I was fortunate that I had actually spent time with her the night she was murdered. Murdered. I still flinch when I type that. It’s such an ugly word, but then again, murder is ugly.

It was Julianna’s birthday, and I took her out to sushi. Before we went out, I gave her a painting by one of her favorite Chinese female artists, which she absolutely loved. It was a wonderful evening, and I’m grateful that my last memory of her is such a good one. However, it doesn’t make up for losing her, not by a long shot. Memories of her still make me cry, though I’m hoping that one day, they’ll cause me to smile instead.

I don’t want to take what family I have for granted. My sisters are all I have in this world, and I don’t tell them that often enough. I take my older sister for granted because she checks in on me often and won’t let me fall too far into the abyss. After Julianna was murdered, my older sister came over and babysat me through the day, then insisted I go over to her house for dinner the next night. She knew that the worst thing I could do would be to sit at home, alone with my dark and brooding thoughts.

I write for twenty more minutes before editing, then publishing the post. I feel good about it and the fact that I spent several hours in a social situation without wanting to gouge my eyes out. I am not the most sociable of people, though I can fake it with the best of them. The secret to talking to strangers is to ask them questions about themselves. Very few people can resist the invitation to focus on themselves, and it means I don’t have to talk for most of the conversation. The only time that technique doesn’t work is when I run into someone who is even more introverted than I am. I remember one such woman at a Halloween party I attended. It was at a friend of Julianna’s, and this woman was an ex of that friend. I asked her what she did for a living, and she said she worked at Target. That was it. No explanation of her actual job or how she liked it as most people would have added. I persisted by asking what she did in her spare time. She said, “I knit.” Again, that was it. When I asked what she knitted, I said, “Scarfs.” I gave up after that, resolving to ask Julianna’s friend what she ever saw in such a wet blanket.

I check my new post, and there are already a few comments. PeeCeeVibes notes, “This is the first time in a decade I’ve attended my mother’s Thanksgiving soiree. I use that word because that’s exactly what she calls it. She likes to think she’s a high society lady, but she’s really just a wannabe. She’s married to a gold-digging himbo who is thirty years younger than she is, and seven years younger than me! I only went because she’s been diagnosed with lung cancer—she smokes two packs a day, still—and has been giving two months to live. I’m an only child, so it was her, the himbo, me, and their miniature poodle. It was stilted and stiff, but I’m glad I went.” MNborn has this to say. “I’m estranged from most of my family, but my man is really close to his. Emotionally and geographically. He talks to his mom on the phone every night at nine, and he goes over to her house—which is ten minutes away—one to two times a week. I’m fortunate that she’s a lovely woman for the most part, and his three living siblings, all of whom are reachable in ten minutes, are low-key as well. One thing his mom likes to do every year for Thanksgiving is make a popular dish from a foreign country. This year, it was ceviche, which was damn delicious.” SasquatchPaws writes, “I don’t do Thanksgiving at all because my family is psycho. Five minutes in their presence, and I’m psycho as well. My mom is a raging narcissist who would put Trump to shame. My father is committed to his mistress, whom we all know about, but pretend doesn’t exist. My oldest sister is a crack addict and has three kids. My middle sister is the best of the bunch. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, has two beautiful children, and is working on her Masters of Education. My youngest sister has five kids by five men, and she’s currently the kept woman of another man who’s married, of course. I’m sure you can understand why I’d rather spend Thanksgiving alone.”

“Hey, babe. Hard at work on your blog?” Rembrandt startles me by dropping a kiss on the top of my head. I hadn’t heard him come into the room because I was so engrossed in reading the comments on my blog.

“Yup. Talking shit about you,” I tease. In fact, I had mentioned lunch at his mother’s house, but only in positive terms. I promised him the first time I wrote about him that I wouldn’t air our dirty laundry without letting him read the post first. I am fiercely protective of my privacy, so I wouldn’t want to trounce on someone else’s.

“As long as you say what a stud I am, I’m fine with that.” Rembrandt sits next to me, rubbing his head with a towel. Ginger hops into his lap, and he strokes the fur on her back until she falls asleep. “I feel so much better now!”

“A shower will do that for you,” I agree, shutting down the tab with my blog on it. “What did you talk to that man about?” For a minute, Rembrandt looks blank at the abrupt change in topic, but he recovers admirably.

“We talked about his woodwork and my photography mostly,” Rembrandt says. “He showed me his website. He did exquisite work.”

“Yes, he did.” That’s one thing I can say about that man without reservation. “It’s a shame that he can’t do it any longer because of his arthritis.”

“He talked about that, too. How he was depressed for months after he couldn’t do his woodwork any longer. I told him I understood because I feel that way sometimes when my photos aren’t as good as they used to be.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling guilty again.

“Don’t be! It’s not your fault. You know it’s not.” Rembrandt puts his arm around me and squeezes. “That woman was not right in the head, and there was nothing you could have said or done to stop her from doing what she did.”

“I know,” I say, nestling against Rembrandt’s side. We’ve had this conversation countless times in the past, and I’ve mostly accepted that I’m not to blame, but I can’t stop the residual guilt from time to time.

“Anyway, it was good to talk about it with someone who could understand the loss I feel. That’s all.” Rembrandt hugs me and pets Ginger at the same time.

“I need to Google him,” I say abruptly. I don’t mean to cut short the conversation, but I want to do this before it slips my mind. I pull out my phone and type ‘Henry Liang’ into Google. I come up with several results, but none of them relevant. I add ‘San Francisco’ to the query, and I lose most of my results. I frown. His website is listed, and there are a few mentions of him belonging to the San Francisco’s Gay Men Chorus back it the early aughts, but nothing else. He was born in Taiwan and came to Minnesota to get his PhD in…philosophy? I think that was it, but it’s been a long time, and I’m not sure. I don’t remember if he actually finished his thesis, either. I can’t find anything about it online. Granted, that was way before the internets, but there should still be some history of him somewhere in the Googles. There is one grainy picture from back in the nineties of him and a slim Japanese man, Larry Sato, at San Francisco Pride.

“What’s the matter?” Rembrandt asks. He’s watching episodes of Chopped, but he notices that I’m scowling at my phone.

“I can’t find anything on that man,” I say, showing my phone. He reads it, and he’s frowning as well.

“That’s weird,” he says once he’s done reading. “There should be more about him than that.”

“Right? In this day and age, it’s practically impossible to have no digital footprints.” I pause and add, “Unless he had his history scrubbed.”

“Why would he do that?” Rembrandt asks, his voice bewildered.

“If he has something to hide he might,” I reply. I look at the results again, and I’m certain that I’ve hit on the explanation. There is no way a man in his seventies would be this invisible. OK, maybe if he doesn’t have any social media presence and doesn’t use a cell phone, but I should be able to at least find an address, which I can’t. Suddenly, I wonder if his family had heard anything from him after he left us. They’re all in Taiwan, though, and I don’t know their names or if any of them are still alive. He was born in Taipei, so I add that to my Google search and remove San Francisco. Still nothing. Maybe I can contact my mother’s sister to see if she knows anything, but she’s a last resort. I still owe her one for finding me a Dong Yuan painting that I gave to Julianna for her birthday, and she wouldn’t let me forget it if I ask for another favor.

“You’re meeting him tomorrow, so you can ask him about it then,” Rembrandt says, patting me on the knee. I marvel at how trusting he is. If that man has scrubbed his internet history, it means he’s gone to great lengths to hide something in his past. If that’s true, why on earth would he tell me? What is it like to believe everything you’re told? Or to be kinder to him, to not have been lied to on a regular basis? My mom lied to us girls constantly. In small ways, “I need a little nap. I’m so tired” when she was obviously about to pass out. “I hurt my shin because I walked into a table” without adding, “because I was stinking drunk.” Then there were times she lied in a big way. Like when she said she lost the first edition Edgar Allan Poe her mother sent me from Taiwan on my sixteenth birthday. It was the best present I’ve gotten in my entire life, and I set it on my bookshelf, not touching anything else, and I never even opened it. To this day, I don’t know how my grandmother found it or how she knew I’d love it because I’d never met her. I was devastated when a month after my birthday, my mom announced that she had lost my book. It didn’t occur to me until a few days later how ridiculous her explanation was. Lost my book? How can you lose something that never moves from the spot in which it sits? I asked my mom about it early one Saturday morning because that’s the only time I had a chance of catching her before she started drinking.

 

“Mom. I need to talk to you.” I found Mom in the kitchen, reaching into ‘her’ cupboard.

“What?” She slammed the cupboard shut and whirled around to face me. Her eyes were bright, and her breath was fresh. I was relieved that I caught her before she had started drinking for the day, but I didn’t know how to ask her what I needed to ask her. “You scared me Megan. Don’t sneak up on me like that.” She slid away from the cupboard casually, but it didn’t fool me one bit.

“You didn’t ‘lose’ my book, Mom,” I said, my voice tight. “What really happened to it?”

“Your book?” Mom’s face was blank, and anger washed over me. I had been crying myself to sleep every night for the last three nights over my missing Edgar Allan Poe book, and she didn’t even remember it existed.

“The first edition The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe that your mother sent me for my birthday.” I had my hands clenched in fists, and I had to remind myself that it wouldn’t be a good thing if I punched my mother in the nose. “You said you lost it, but that doesn’t make sense at all. What did you do with it?”

“Why are you so mean to me?” My mother’s eyes filled with tears, but I was unmoved. I was inured to her tricks by now, even when she pulled out the heavy hitter—switching to Taiwanese. For some reason, being scolded in her native tongue was much worse than hearing it in mine. “You ungrateful girl. You don’t know how much I gave up for you and your sisters. One day, you’ll have kids of your own, and you’ll know.” I flinched. No matter how many times I’ve heard it before, it still hurt. “You don’t know how hard it is to make sure you have food on the table.” This was usually when I started screaming about me doing all the cooking, but I refused to be diverted.

“I’m not being mean, Mom. I just need to know the truth. Please.” I didn’t usually beg, but this was so important to me. “I’m not mad. Honest.” I choked on the last word, but I managed to get it out. Yes, I lied, too, when I wanted to get my way.

“I sold it,” my mother said, her voice so soft, I could barely hear it. “I needed money for the electricity bill and a few other things.” She couldn’t look at me, and her face was suffused with shame. “I’ll buy it back for you as soon as I can.” My throat closed, and I knew I had to get out of there before I said something unforgivable. Like how she always had money for booze. Like why didn’t she just hook if she needed the money so badly. Like, I wish she weren’t my mother. I turned around and walked out of the kitchen without saying a word.

 

“What are you thinking so hard about?” Rembrandt asks, startling me out of my reverie.

“Family lies,” I say, trying to smile, but failing. I’ve worked through some of my issues in therapy, but I’m still bitter about my mother. I’ve tried to tell myself that she had a disease and couldn’t help herself, but that doesn’t make it any better. I know once she started drinking, there was little she could do to stop it. My sticking point is that she made the choice over and over again to take that first drink; she wasn’t strong enough say no. Not only that, she refused to get treatment that might have helped her, either. She was content to drink her life away without putting up a fight. “My mom was a master at it, and my sisters and I are adept at it as well.”

“Is that a warning?” Rembrandt asks, laughing at his question. Clearly, he isn’t taking me seriously, but he should. I have no compunction about lying, especially by omission, though I prefer not to hurt someone in the process.

“Yes, it is,” I say, no smile on my face. “I most likely will never lie directly to your face, but that doesn’t mean I won’t evade or deflect when I can.”

“Duly noted.” Rembrandt nods his head. I can tell he’s still not convinced, but he can’t say I didn’t warn him. He pulls me to him, and I snuggle into his side. I close my eyes, and I feel a thud on my lap. It’s Onyx, of course, which I can tell without opening my eyes. I feel another thud on my left thigh, and I cleverly deduce it’s Jet’s paws. I’m sure Ginger is on Rembrandt’s lap, and all is as it should be.

“I should take a shower,” I say drowsily. I’m feeling grimy, and I know I’m going to fall asleep soon. I move Onyx onto the couch, and she pushes up against Jet. He puts an arm around her and tucks her head under his. I kiss Rembrandt on the top of the head before making my way upstairs. I take a luxurious shower, and it’s strange not to have two cats staring at me when I whisk back the curtain. I throw on some sweats and go back downstairs. When I get back to the living room, I stop before entering. Rembrandt has fallen asleep, and the three cats have appropriated different parts of his body. Ginger is snugged to his chest, cradled in his arms. Onyx is on his lap, curled in a tight ball. Jet is stretched across his thighs, his paws out in front of him like Superman. I take a picture of the cats without Rembrandt’s face and tweet it to my TL with the caption, “More cats than lap!” I cut off Rembrandt’s face because I’m uncomfortable tweeting a pic of person’s face without their permission. I get several RTs on my tweet and more than one person tweet back, cooing over how cute the cats are. The more astute among my Twitter followers ask about Ginger as they know I only have two black cats. One person asks if I’ve adopted another cat, and I say no, it’s a friend’s cat. I’m not trying to be coy, but I don’t like talking about my love life on social media. Sex? I have no problem talking about that.

I sit on the couch and carefully slide next to Rembrandt. He doesn’t move a muscle, and it’s one thing I envy about him. When he sleeps, he sleeps hard. Me, I toss and turn, and I’ve kicked him as we’ve slept next to each other before. It doesn’t faze him one bit. I have to admit that one time, I slapped his ass as hard as I could just to see if it’d wake him. It didn’t. He did complain about his ass hurting the next morning, but I didn’t tell him why. I close my eyes, and like clockwork, I feel a thud on my lap. It’s Onyx. Two seconds later, the massive paws of Jet land on my thighs. A minute later, I drift off to sleep. No dreams, thankfully, just blissful sleep.

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