That cut me to the core, and nothing Jasmine could say mitigated the pain. That’s when I mentally checked out of my relationship with my mother, and after that, I had as little to do with her as possible. She never mentioned her remark again, and I bet she didn’t even remember saying it. I stayed out of her way for the next two years, and once I moved out to attend college, I never looked back. I attended Carleton College, which was only twenty minutes away, but I rarely went home while I was at college. I felt bad for leaving Vivian on her own, but I rationalized it by telling myself that she was my mother’s favorite, so she wouldn’t suffer as much as I did. Even then, I knew it was bullshit, but I had to do whatever it took to survive. I talked about it with Vivian many years later, and she understood why I had made that decision. She said she would have done the same thing, but it still hurt her, I could tell. Jasmine went back as often as she could, but she was a mother with kids of her own—they had to come first.
My mother’s health deteriorated rapidly after that. Every few years, Jasmine would say that we needed to have another intervention. Vivian went to Boston U when she turned eighteen, and she loved Boston so much, she made her home there. She’s only been back a few times in the twenty-five years since, and once was for Mom’s funeral. Whenever Jasmine would call her, upset about Mom’s behavior, Vivian would sympathize, but refused to come home. She didn’t see the point, and, quite frankly, I didn’t blame her. My mom was a lost cause, and each of us sisters had to find a way to cope with her alcoholism without letting it ruin our lives. I did a few more interventions with Jasmine, but none of them amounted to anything. If anything, they just made Mom worse. When I was twenty-eight, Jasmine wanted to do another one. I refused because I was done with that. I hated how I’d get my hopes up, even though I knew better, only to have them crushed once again as my mother spiraled downwards for the next few days. That was the pattern after each intervention—my mother would drink twice as much as if to say, “You’re not the boss of me.” Jasmine did it on her own, and it went about as well to be expected.
Three weeks later, Jasmine went over to our old house where my mother still lived after not hearing from our mom in several days. Jasmine was the dutiful daughter, calling or texting Mom every three days like clockwork. No matter how drunk Mom was, she’d call or text back within a day, two at the most. When Jasmine didn’t hear from her in nearly a week, she went over to the house and let herself in. She found Mom face down on her bed, congealed blood crusted at the temple of her head. She had been drunk, of course, tripped, and hit her head on the headboard on the way down. That’s not what killed her, though. She had a heart attack, and that’s what actually did her in. As complicated as my feelings were about her, I did find solace in the fact that she probably didn’t suffer much as she died. Jasmine was devastated, of course, and for decades, she blamed herself for our mother’s death.
“I should have checked on her!” Jasmine wept, burying her face in my chest back at her house after the funeral. She’d had two glasses of wine, and as she normally didn’t drink, she was pretty tipsy. “It’s my fault she’s dead!”
“How could you have known, Jasmine?” I asked, patting her back in sympathy. “You couldn’t watch her twenty-four/seven.”
“I knew something was wrong when she didn’t call back. Selfishly, I just couldn’t deal with it. Robbie was sick, and I had my hands full dealing with that.” Jasmine continued to sob, and I handed her a box of tissues. She took several and blew her nose loudly as she still sniffled.
“She’s the only one who’s responsible for her death,” I say, my ire rising. Not at Jasmine, but at our mother for doing such damage to her daughters. “She hasn’t been to a doctor in at least a decade, and she knew she was drinking herself to death.”
“Megan, where did you go?” Jasmine asks, waving her hand in front of my face. I snap back to the present, momentarily confused as to where I am.
“Sorry. I was thinking about Mom,” I say, sighing deeply. “Let’s get this coffee to the dining room.” We finish serving the coffee, and I sip mine, still pensive. I ignore the conversation around me because I’m in a dour mood, but I can’t help but smile when Michelle sneaks a sip of coffee from her mom’s cup. She starts choking, and Coral turns to her in a second.
“Michelle! What’s wrong?” Coral asks, peering at Michelle in concern.
“Nuffink,” Michelle says, dropping her eyes to the floor.
“She drank your coffee!” Jason says, pointing at Coral’s cup. “I saw her!”
“Michelle, is that true?” Coral asks, lifting her daughter’s chin with a finger. At first, Michelle doesn’t respond, but then she reluctantly nods. “You know you’re not supposed to drink from Mama’s cup without asking. You won’t get to watch your story when you get home tonight.”
“Not fair!” Michelle protests, her nose flaring in anger. “You mean.”
“Michelle,” Jamal says, his voice stern. “Don’t sass back to your mama. Go to the living room without the TV on for five minutes.” Michelle’s lips tremble, and Jason looks sorry that he tattled. Michelle gets up from her seat and trudges into the living room, her head drooping. My heart aches for her, and I want to go with her, but I know better than to interfere with a punishment. Besides, I know that Coral and Jamal adore their girls, and any correction they give is with love. I’m sure once Michelle’s timeout is up, Coral and Jamal with shower her with affection again.
“You’ve been a wonderful hostess, Jasmine,” that man says, raising his coffee cup up in Jasmine’s direction. “You have an amazing wife, Bob. I hope you appreciate her.” An awkward silence follows Henry’s words because most people at the table know about Bob’s kidnapping and all the ugliness it uncovered. I know that Jasmine and Bob are working on their relationship, but things are still rocky between them.
“She is quite something,” Bob finally says, his voice stiff. “You don’t have to tell me that.” Another silence falls over the group, and everyone but that man looks uncomfortable. He is just drinking his coffee and smiling. I resent him once again, but I try to tamp it down.
“Anyone want more coffee?” Jasmine asks brightly. A few people say yes, including me. I follow her into the kitchen again, and I lean against the counter as she turns on the coffeemaker. Jasmine’s cat, Smoochie, a thirteen-year old calico girl appears out of nowhere. She’s fluffy and shy, and rarely seen by anyone outside of Jasmine’s immediate family members. She also has a touch of arthritis that shows up in her gait, but she can skedaddle when she puts her mind to it.
“Hey, Smooch,” I say, keeping my voice low. I don’t want to spook her as it’s a rare day I actually get to see her. “Treats?” I open her treats cabinet and grab the bag of Greenies from it. I open it up and put three Greenies on the floor a foot away from my feet. Then, I stand completely still and wait. She stares at the treats on the floor for several seconds before slowly inching her way towards me. She stops every two steps to make sure I’m not moving before continuing. I do my best impression of a statue, and when she’s reassured I’m not going to move, she summons all her courage and gobbles the Greenies down. Then, she races from the room, waving her tail behind her.
“Bob called out that woman’s name in his sleep last night,” Jasmine says, her eyes glued to the coffeemaker. “He was yelling at her to let him go.” Her voice is angry, and I don’t blame her. “He kicked me in his sleep. I hate what she’s done to him.”
“I hate what it’s doing to you,” I reply. I don’t mean to be cruel, but her mental health is more important to me than Bob’s. The only reason I tried to find him—and succeeded—was because it was hurting her so much. I’ve never liked him, and he certainly doesn’t like me.
“I keep having nightmares that you found him dead,” Jasmine says, her eyes haunted. “That you brought his dead body back to me, and I wake up in a sweat.”
“That’s horrible,” I say sympathetically. “It’s going to take some time to recover.”
“I know. I just can’t take having this dream almost every night. It’s one reason I’m not sleeping.” Once the coffee is ready, we bring them to the dining room and pass them around. Michelle is back at the table, and she looks subdued, but not unduly upset. Ing-wen is patting her on the shoulder, which warms me. They may fight once in a while, but they really are the best of friends.
The festivities wind down around nine p.m. Michelle and Ing-wen are asleep on the couch, as are Jenny and Jonathon. Jason is the only kid who’s still awake, and he’s drooping. That man is snoozing on a chair in the living room, and everyone else has a contented smile on their faces. It’s almost time to leave, and I ask Viv if she wants to go outside for one more smoke. She agrees, and we slip outside. I take a deep breath, enjoying the chill on my face. Jasmine keeps her house at a high temperature because Bob likes it that way, and I find it stultifying, especially coupled with copious amounts of food. Viv lights up an American Spirit for me, then does the same for herself. We smoke for several seconds without saying anything, and I relish the silence.
“It’s good to see you, Meg,” Viv says, giving me a quick hug. “We need to have some us time before I go back to Boston.”
“Definitely. I’m pretty free on the weekend, except for Sunday afternoon.” I have taijji, and I can’t skip it because I’ve missed too many classes in the past month.
“How about Saturday night? Grumpy’s?” Viv suggests.
“Sounds good. You need a ride?” I check my phone just to make sure I have nothing planned; I don’t.
“Yeah. Let’s do it around eight.” Viv hesitates, then adds, “Should we invite Jasmine?” I’m torn. I love Jasmine, of course, but we don’t see eye to eye on many things. Viv and I are more simpatico, and I know the evening will be more chill if it’s just the two of us. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to hurt Jasmine’s feelings by not inviting her.
“Yes, let’s. It’ll be like old times with just the three of us again.” I frown because I can’t remember the last time it was actually the three of us. Jasmine left the house when I was ten and Viv was eight. Viv left state when she was eighteen. Has it really been thirty-five years since we all lived under one roof? Apparently, it has. It makes me ineffably sad because as sisters, we should be close. We are in a fashion, but not in the typical sense of the word.
“She may not be able to go. She doesn’t like to leave Bob home alone at night.” We exchange glances, but don’t say anything. Neither of us are big fans of his, and we both think Jasmine could have done much better.
“We shouldn’t have grown so far apart,” Viv says, her voice pensive. “I miss you like hell, Meg.”
“Same here,” I say, hugging Viv again. “We can try to make up for it, though. We’re still young at heart.”
“Let’s have a weekly phone call when I get back home,” Viv says, pulling hard on her cigarette. “Something like Sunday nights. I can remember that.”
“Sounds good to me.” I smile at Viv, knowing full well that she’ll probably forget by the time she gets home, if not sooner. It’s the thought that counts, though, and I can certainly make an effort to call her more often. Viv leans against me, and we smoke in compatible silence. After we’re done, I gather up the butts as usual and return to the kitchen to throw them away. I find Rembrandt in there, packing away some leftovers. I peer into the bag to make sure he’s included a few pieces of sweet potato pie, and he has. There’s also plenty of all the other food, and it looks like we’re going to be eating like kings for days to come. I’m counting on the fact that he’ll give me half when I go home.
“Ready to go?” Rembrandt asks me, kissing me on the cheek.
“Yup.” I smile and kiss him back. Hand in hand, we go to find Jasmine. She’s in the living room, and Rembrandt goes straight to her.
“Jasmine, you’ve been a terrific hostess. Thank you so much for opening your home to me.” He holds out his hand.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Rembrandt.” Jasmine ignores Rembrandt’s hand and pulls him into a hug. After she releases him, she adds, “I hope to see you again. Soon.” I make the rounds and say goodbye to everyone. I’m actually somewhat sad that we’re leaving, much to my surprise. Normally, I can’t wait to get away from my family, even though I love them very much. Maybe I’m growing up. Maybe.
“I had a good time,” Rembrandt says on our way back to his house. “Your family is great.”
“So is yours,” I say, partially to pay him back for his compliment, but mostly because it’s true. I liked his family, even if his mother is a bit of a drama queen and Gaugin sucks up the air in the room.
“Your brother-in-law seems to be doing OK,” Rembrandt adds, glancing at me. I have my eyes on the road, of course, but I can sense him gauging me.
“Better than I expected, honestly,” I reply, my grip tightening reflexively on the steering wheel. I’m exhausted, even though I had a good time today. “He won’t talk to me, though. I guess that’s to be expected.”
“I wouldn’t talk it too personally,” Rembrandt counsels me. “From what you’ve told me, he’s an old-fashioned man who would be embarrassed by being rescued by a woman.”
“You’re definitely right about that.” I say, nodding my head. “He wasn’t in the best shape when I found him, either. He was grateful to be rescued, but once he got over that, he wouldn’t talk to me the rest of the night.”
“Your supposed father is really interesting. I had a long talk with him,” Rembrandt says, glancing at me again—this time, I see him, but I keep focused on driving.
“Oh, really?” My tone is bitter, but I can’t do anything about it. “He’s won you over, has he?”
“Megan, I’m on your side.” Rembrandt covers my hand with his and squeezes. “That doesn’t mean I have to hate him, though, does it?”
“Yes, it does”! I say, glaring at him before turning back to the road. I take a few smooth, slow breaths before adding, “That was silly of me. No, you don’t have to hate him, but I don’t want you to try to convince me to be bosom buddies with him.”
“Just give him a chance,” Rembrandt persists, not backing down at all. “It was shitty of him to walk out on your family, but he wants nothing more than to be a part of your life.” I fold my lips so I won’t say the words trembling on them. Like, I don’t give a fuck what he wants. And, it’s none of Rembrandt’s goddamn business. Furthermore, he can kiss my flat yellow ass with his ‘give him a chance’ bullshit. After several seconds of silence, I am calm enough to give him a tempered response.
“I’m meeting him tomorrow, so I’m giving him that much of a chance. I can’t promise anything more because we’ll have to see what he actually says.” I grip the steering wheel tightly, feeling my knuckles crack as I do.
“My father was the biggest influence in my life,” Rembrandt says, his voice wistful. “When I was a kid, he’d tell us tales from the hospital of the kids he’s saved. I remember one in particular, Brenda Shales. I was twelve at the time, and I was bitching about something. I can’t remember what, probably cleaning my room. My father listened to me for two minutes, then sat me down and told me about Brenda. She was five at the time and battling some kind of leukemia. She was spending most of her days at the hospital, which was her third visit there.” Rembrandt pauses, and I don’t say anything because I sense this is important to him. I don’t want to start an argument with my usual snarky response, so for once, I hold my tongue. “My father showed me a picture of Brenda. She was hooked up to several machines and her head was shaved bald, but she had the biggest smile on her face. She had just gotten the news that she had gone into remission, and she was ecstatic. My father told me that if Brenda could go through all that at five, I could damn well clean my room.”
“He sounds like a great guy,” I say, my tone sincere. “You were lucky to have him in your life.”
“He got his medical degree from Johns Hopkins U, then worked there for several years. When he was offered a job at the U of M, he jumped at the chance to do research with them. He also worked at Abbott Northwestern as a pediatrician, which is where he got all his stories from. He was working a shift for one of the other pediatricians who had a sick kid when he had a heart attack. They did their best to save him, but he died on the operating table.” Rembrandt’s voice is thick with tears, and I squeeze his hand in sympathy.
“I’m so sorry, Rembrandt. It doesn’t seem fair that he died so young.” I kiss his hand and rub the knuckles on it.
“Same with your mom,” Rembrandt says, trying to smile. He can’t quite pull it off, but I don’t blame him.
“Well, that wasn’t such a surprise,” I say tightly. “My sisters and I knew she was going to drink herself to death; we just didn’t know when.”
“Still. It must be hard to not have her in your life.” I’m silent, debating whether I should tell him the truth or not. Of course we’ve talked about our parents before, but I glossed over the worst parts because let’s face it, it’s not first, second, or third date material. I don’t want to lie to him, however, because that’s not a good basis for a relationship. Taking a deep breath, I speak again.
“Let me be real with you. My father left when I was three. My mother started drinking when she realized he wasn’t coming home, and she didn’t stop until death made her. In the meantime, she missed most of my piano recitals, school plays, and any other activities I was involved in. When I won my fifth grade spelling bee? She wasn’t there. When I won an award for my seventh grade science fair for most novel concept? She wasn’t there. When I went to the prom my junior year, my first dance ever? She was passed out in her bedroom. She didn’t even say goodbye when I left for college. She hasn’t been in my life, well, ever. Her dying was more of a relief than anything else.” The guilt over feeling that way nearly killed me, but I don’t mention it to him. Julianna helped me through it, staying at my house for a week because I was suicidal.
“That’s really sad to hear,” Rembrandt says, the corners of his mouth tugging downwards. “My mom can be overbearing at times, but she was always there for me when I was a kid.”
“Jasmine was a second mother to me,” I say, wanting to put him at ease. “She went to all my shit while she was still at home and when she could make it home from college. When I won that science award in seventh grade, she was in the front row, giving me a standing ovation.” I remember that night because I had been sad that I would have no one in the audience. I didn’t ask my mother to go, and while I had told Jasmine about it, she was in her second year at Macalester, and I didn’t want to make her feel as if she had to come home just for me. When I won my award and looked out into the audience, I almost cried when I saw Jasmine front and center. She was beaming at me, looking so proud of me. I had tears in my eyes when I accepted the award, and I made sure to mention Jasmine in the two seconds I had to address the audience. She burst into tears when I said her name, and she took me out to McDonald’s for a hot fudge sundae once the ceremony was over.
“That’s why you went all out to find Bob,” Rembrandt notes.
“Yes. I would do anything for Jasmine,” I say, my voice fierce. “And if anyone hurt her, there would be hell to pay.” We don’t say anything for the rest of the ride home, and we make it in decent time.