The cats greet us with enthusiasm when we arrive at Rembrandt’s house. Ginger walks in a circle around Rembrandt’s legs, whereas Onyx and Jet paw at my legs with their front paws while standing on their hind legs. Rembrandt scoops Ginger up with one hand while cradling the shopping bag to his chest. We troop our way into the kitchen, and I give each of the cats a sliver of turkey. That’s enough to keep them occupied while we put the leftovers away. It’s almost four in the afternoon, and I’m still full. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to eat much tonight, but I know I have to put away my fair share or risk hurting Jasmine’s feelings.
“I need a quick nap,” I say to Rembrandt once we’ve put everything away. “Hopefully, I’ll burn off some calories while I sleep.”
“I think I’ll join you,” Rembrandt replies, shutting the fridge door. “I feel as if I could sleep for days.”
“We have to be at Jasmine’s by five-thirty,” I remind him. “Six at the latest. We run on Asian time.” I hate being late, but it’s part of my heritage. “We should probably get up by five at the latest.”
“An hour should do it.” Rembrandt and I link arms and go upstairs. The cats trail behind us, wanting to be part of the action. I contemplate changing into sweats before taking a nap, but I decide against it. I’m just going to have to get dressed again when I wake up, so I might as well save myself five minutes. Then again, I’ve already stained this blouse with strawberry juice, so it would probably be best to change my clothes before going to my sister’s, anyway. I strip off my clothes, which causes Rembrandt to eye me lasciviously.
“Down, boy,” I laugh, making the ‘stay’ motion with my hand. “We don’t have time right now.” I’m all for a quickie now and then, but I’m too old to fuck, take a shower, and grab a nap in an hour or less. I put on a pair of sweats and an Obama sweatshirt before lying on the bed. Rembrandt changes as well, and I ogle his ass before he pulls on a pair of sweats. He lies beside me and promptly falls asleep. Ginger jumps on his head, but I put her next to Rembrandt’s head so she doesn’t bother him in his sleep. Onyx snuggles next to Ginger, and Jet wraps himself around both of them. He is a true gentleman in that he looks out for the girl cats. They have adapted to the two household thing fairly easily, and for that, I’m grateful. I’m drowsy, but I can’t fall asleep. I glance at my phone, and I have several comments on my post about sleep. Normally, there is a variety of responses on my posts, but this time, the comments are exclusively lamenting how difficult it is to sleep.
BreadNotBed writes, “As you can tell by my username, I don’t like sleep very much. When I was a kid, I would sleep up to fifteen hours at a time. My mom got concerned and talked to her doctor about it. He told her not to let me sleep more than eight hours a night, but for whatever reason, my mom decided six hours was enough. I think it’s because she didn’t slept for more than four hours at a time and never wanted to be alone, but as a result, I automatically wake up after six hours of sleep, regardless if it’s enough sleep or not.” CountingSheep adds, “First time commenter. I can’t remember a time when I slept for more than two or three hours. There’s nothing physically wrong with me, and I’ve given up trying to change it. It’s great for productivity, but hell on my ability to hold down a job. Right now, I live on disability and sell crafts on Etsy. I sleep two hours every four hours or so, and I have no social life.” CaliforniaReaming contributes this thought. “I have major insomnia that keeps me up for days. It’s great because I can get projects done in a short amount of time, but when I crash, I crash hard. And I have terrible dreams. And I can’t sleep next to someone because I roll from side to side as I sleep. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.” I hate that other people have to deal with sleep as much as I do, but it’s also comforting to know that I’m not alone. I place my phone on the nightstand and close my eyes. I’m certain I won’t fall asleep, but I must have because what seems like minutes later, Rembrandt is shaking me awake.
“Megan, it’s five.” He’s up and dressed, and he looks disgustingly chipper. “I have the pies, ice cream, and whipped cream ready to go.”
“Bleah,” I say inelegantly as I get out of bed. I stagger into the bathroom and take a quick shower. When I get out, Onyx and Jet are on the counter staring at me, per usual. I pet them on the head before going into the bedroom and getting dressed. I put on a emerald green blouse and the black slacks again. I’m still pretty full, but at least I’ll be able to eat something without throwing up. Once I’m done, I go downstairs with Onyx and Jet trailing behind me. I find Rembrandt in the kitchen, and he’s placing the pies into a grocery bag. The ice cream and the whipped cream are already in a plastic bag, and sitting on the counter.
“You clean up nicely,” he says, smiling at me approvingly.
“You, too,” I say, eying him up and down. I was half-asleep before when he woke me up, but now I can appreciate his sapphire blue button down and black khakis. I give the cats three Temptations each so they’re distracted as we slip out the door. As I drive us to my sister’s house, I tense up. Not only is the first time he’ll be meeting my family, but that man is going to be there, making it an even more awkward situation.
“It’s going to be OK,” Rembrandt says, glancing over at me. He can tell I’m tense because I haven’t said a word since we’ve left. It’s not that I’m verbose, but normally, I would make some kind of small talk to fill the air. “We can leave at any time.” I’m struck by how considerate he is, and how I take it for granted most of the time. He’s not an overly emotive guy, but he’s sensitive to my feelings. I appreciate that because my last girlfriend was self-absorbed, manipulative, and rarely showed an interest in my feelings or activities. She never read my blog or any of my other writings, not even when I asked her to. She loved me, but she just didn’t know how to show it in a healthy way. She thought love was grilling me when I went out with my friends, male or female, and she really didn’t like Julianna. The feeling was mutual, and Julianna warned me about Tessa right after we started dating. I had just chalked it up to that weird thing that happens sometimes between your best friend and your girlfriend, but Julianna was right about Tessa being a prima donna.
“Thanks for coming, Rembrandt,” I say, squeezing his thigh. “I’m glad I’ll have you to lean on.”
“I have your back.” Rembrandt squeezes my thigh in return. “I always will.” Neither of us say anything more until we get to Jasmine’s house. I park the car, but then just sit without moving. Rembrandt undoes his seat belt, turns to me, and asks, “Are you ready for this?”
“Yes,” I say, tilting my chin up. I don’t feel ready, but if I wait until then, we’ll never go in.
“Let’s do this.” Rembrandt grabs the shopping bag while I take the plastic bag, and we go up to the door. I ring the bell, my heart fluttering as we wait for Jasmine.
“Megan!” Jasmine smiles at me before pulling me into a hug. Her curls are pulled up in a topknot, and she’s wearing a figure-hugging red dress. She’s a curvy woman, and I can see Rembrandt trying not to stare at her tits. I don’t blame him, however, as she has a magnificent rack. “You must be Rembrandt!” Jasmine hugs Rembrandt as well, and I’m proud that he manages to keep his hands above the waist. They’re nearly the same height as Jasmine is much taller than I am. “I’ve heard so much about you!” Jasmine’s eyes sparkle, and I can tell that Rembrandt is charmed by her. She’s eight years my senior, but she looks roughly my age. I swallow my jealousy as it’s an old wound that I do not want to reopen.
“We come bearing pies,” Rembrandt says as soon as Jasmine steps back. He holds out the bag to Jasmine; she grabs it and opens it.
“Pumpkin, blueberry, and….?” She looks up with a question on her face.
“Sweet potato,” I say. “That one’s for me.”
“Ing-wen likes sweet potato pie,” Jasmine informs me. “She’ll want a piece.”
“I can spare one piece, I suppose,” I laugh.
“Everyone’s in the living room,” Jasmine informs me. “You’re late, by the way.”
“Only ten minutes,” I protest.
“Henry isn’t here yet, but at least he called. He should be here any minute,” Jasmine says pointedly. I ignore her implied command because I do not want to get into it with her again.
Rembrandt and I go into the living room, and I’m overwhelmed by the cacophony. There are five kids under six in the room, which means the noise is at a dull roar. They are playing a version of charades to which I can’t figure out the rules. Michelle and Ing-wen look adorable in their matching polka dot dresses, black-on-red for Michelle and white-on-blue for Ing-wen. Jordan’s kids, Jason, Jenny, and Jonathon, are five, four, and two, respectively, but look enough alike to be triplets. They’re small and slight with short black hair and serious eyes. Jason and Jonathon are wearing white button downs with black slacks, whereas Jenny is wearing a pink dress with white lace at the neck and wrists. Coral is a practically a clone of her mother, Jasmine, while her husband, Jamal, is a tall, muscular black man with dreads that fall halfway down his back. He’s wearing a black button down shirt that is a few shades darker than his skin and brown slacks, and he’s fine as hell. Coral is wearing a maroon dress with a plunging neckline and looks like a goddamn model. Jordan is about my height of five-seven, and is pretty nondescript, but when he smiles, his whole being lights up the room. His wife, Joanna, is not even five-feet tall, and her black hair falls to her waist, much as mine does. She’s wearing a pink dress as well, but it’s more tailored than her daughter’s, obviously.
“Meg!” Viv leaps up from the couch and grabs me in a fierce hug. She’s tall and slim, but she’s powerful. Her shoulder-length black hair is liberally streaked with gray, and it suits her. She’s wearing an electric blue dress that is skimpy on the top and falls well short of her knees; it shows off her bronzed skin. She has on huge gold hoops that nearly bonk me in the head as she hugs me. “It’s been too long, Sis!”
“Damn, girl. You’re looking great!” I hold Viv at an arm’s length and look her up and down.
“I’m in a creative streak, and I’m having the best di—love of my life,” Viv says, cutting the problematic word off mid-syllable. I know what it is, and I snicker.
“I aim to please,” Pablo says, looping an arm around her waist. He’s wearing a matching electric blue shirt and black slacks. “Nice to see you again, Megan.” Pablo sticks out his hand, and I shake it. This is the third time I’ve met him, and I’m pretty sure he’s in it for the long haul. They’ve been together for seven years, the longest relationship of Viv’s life.
“This is Rembrandt,” I say, nodding at Rembrandt who’s standing by my side.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Rembrandt says, shaking first Viv’s hand and then Pablo’s.
“You’re cute,” Viv says, eying Rembrandt up and down. He blushes bright red and stammers his thanks. I should have warned him that Viv is very frank, but he seems to be taking it in stride. I turn to my nephew, Jordan, who is waiting with a smile on his face.t\
“Jordan. It’s good to see you again.” I hold my hand out to him. “You and your family are looking good. How’s NYC treating you these days?”
“It’s great! We love it and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, Aunt Meg.” Jordan smiles, and Joanna nods her head in agreement. “You can find anything you want there!”
“No doubt about that,” I agree. “It’s one of my favorite cities for that reason.”
I greet the rest of my family and introduce Rembrandt to everyone, and then they go back to what they’re doing. Bob is in his favorite recliner, and he is studiously ignoring me. His black hair is slicked back from his face as usual, and he looks as if he’s lost twenty pounds in the past two weeks. He’s been avoiding me since I rescued him, and I think it’s because he’s embarrassed at the state in which I had found him. He’d been missing for a week, and his captor kept him tied to a bed. She changed his pants on a regular basis, but she kept him shirtless. He had wept on the car ride back, and I think that horrified him as well. I walk over to him, making sure to walk slowly and to stay in his line of sight.
“Hi, Bob. How are you doing?” I keep my voice low and even so I won’t startle him.
“I’m fine,” Bob says, clipping off each word. He raises the Strib in front of his face, making it clear that he doesn’t want to talk. I ignore the sign and continue.
“How’s your sleep been? I know that can be difficult after a traumatic experience.” I can feel Bob freezing me out, even from behind the newspaper, but I ignore that as well.
“God and Jasmine are seeing me through.” Bob peers over the top of the newspaper at me before ducking down again. I want to tell him that sometimes, God and family aren’t enough. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a therapist, but I know it would fall on hostile ears. Bob doesn’t believe in therapy, even though he’s never been in it. I know there is no point in continuing this conversation as it were, so I give him a little wave and go see what the kids are doing. They’re still playing their made-up version of charades, and it charms me. It’s boys against girls, and the rule seems to be that a kid on one team whispers a TV show, movie, or video game title to one person on the other team. I think this is because none of them can read, so writing down the titles wouldn’t work. I’m laughing along with them when Viv taps me on the shoulder. She indicates she wants to talk to me in the hallway. I follow her, and there’s a sinking feeling in my heart that I know what she wants to talk about.
“That man called me,” she says, the minute we’re out of earshot. “Jasmine gave him my number, which pissed me the fuck off, as you can probably guess.”
“I don’t blame you,” I say sympathetically. “I think she gave him my email, which pisses me off. She’s been awfully heavy-handed about this, to be honest. I’ve ignored several texts from her telling me I have to accept him as our father.”
“It’s even worse in person,” Viv says. “Look. Do you mind if we go out and smoke?” I shake my head, and we put on our shoes and go out back. I bum an American Spirit off her because I don’t take my cigarettes with me when I go out, and we smoke in compatible silence for a minute. “I don’t think he’s coming, do you?”
“I don’t know, but, honestly, I hope he doesn’t.” I glance over my shoulder to make sure Jasmine isn’t behind me.
“Your Rembrandt is a cutie,” Viv says, switching subjects abruptly. “The eye patch is a dashing touch.”
“I like it, but I feel guilty every time I look at it,” I reply. Viv knows the whole sordid story behind the eye patch, so she understands what I’m saying.
“It’s not your fault some psycho woman attacked him,” Viv retorts, her voice tart. “Yes, I know she was obsessed with you, but you didn’t give her any reason to be. It was her sickness that caused this, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could have done about it.” I know she’s right, but I still feel residual guilt. If I had figured out that I had a stalker before she killed Julianna and attacked Rembrandt, well, there’s no point in going down that road again.
“I know. I just—” I stop. How can I explain to Viv that I still wake up in the middle of the night, crying out for Julianna? I used to joke that she was my worse half, but I meant it in a positive way. I tend to be too uptight and rigid—she had the ability to loosen me up and make me more spontaneous. She was my best friend for twenty years. I have her initials tattooed on my left ankle, as she had mine tattooed on her left ankle. We saw each other through many dark times as well as celebrated several joyous occasions together. My past is undeniably entwined with hers, and I don’t know how to make my present matter without her. I can hear her in my head telling me to get over it, but I just can’t. She would be happy that I’m getting laid on a regular bias as she believed sex was the foundation of life.
“I understand,” Viv says softly. She hesitates and adds, “I felt the same way as a kid about Dad. I was convinced I’d done something to make him leave.”
“You weren’t even one yet,” I protest, my heart hurting for her.
“Didn’t matter.” Viv’s smile is brittle, and she shifts her eyes away from mine. “It’s why I never stayed with anyone for very long before Pablo. My goal was to leave them before they left me—and I was always sure they’d leave.”
“My problem with relationships was that I stayed in them too long,” I confess. “Like with Tessa. I knew it was over two or three years into the relationship, but I held on to the bitter end.”
“Childhood can really fuck you up.” Viv crushes her cigarette and tosses it on the ground. I stamp mine out as well, then pick up the two butts. Once we go back into the house, I toss them into the garbage in the kitchen as Jasmine glares at me. She doesn’t approve of Vivian and me smoking, and it’s something she’s lectured us about since Viv and I were teenagers.
“Those things are going to kill you,” Jasmine says crossly as she peeks into the oven. Everything smells heavenly, and despite my feast earlier in the day, my mouth waters. Before I can say anything, the doorbell rings. “Go answer that. It’s Henry. Be nice.”
“Yes, ma’am!” I say, snapping off a salute. Jasmine ignores me, and I leave the kitchen before I can get myself in trouble. I trudge down the hallway, not wanting to let that man in. I know there will be hell to pay, however if I make him stay outside. I open the door, and it’s Henry, of course. He’s wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a red tie.