Parental Deception; chapter four, part two

“Megan!” Henry moves forward to hug me, but I hold my hand out and force him to shake hands instead. He has a hurt look on his face, but fuck him and his expectations.

“Hello,” I say stiffly. “Come on in.”

“I brought some jiaozi,” Henry says, holding out a bag. “Pork.” He steps the hallway and takes off his shoes before putting on a pair of slippers that are on a rack near the door.

“I love those,” I say, my voice polite and take the bag from his hand. I thaw a bit when I smell the dumplings because they really are a favorite of mine. “Follow me.” I take him into the kitchen because I know Jasmine will want to make sure I let him into the house.

“Henry!” Jasmine throws her arms around Henry and hugs him hard. He hugs her back, and I’m sure he’s grateful at least one of us is happy to see him.

“He brought dumplings,” I say to Jasmine, handing her the bag.

“Perfect! What’s a Taiwanese meal without them?” Jasmine smiles at Henry, and he smiles back at her. I leave the kitchen so I won’t vomit on the two of them. I stomp into the living room, quietly stewing as I sit next to Rembrandt. He’s talking to Jamal about chess, and I’m listening with half an ear. Viv cocks an eyebrow at me, and I shake my head slightly. I turn to watch the kids who are now playing with Duplo blocks on the floor. I close my eyes and doze until it’s time to go into the dining room. Jasmine has name cards on each plate because she’s a control freak. She’s placed me between Henry and Viv because she has the old-fashioned belief that people and their partners shouldn’t be seated next to each other. She’s across the table from Henry, of course, and I hope she’ll keep him occupied. My eyes widen at the sight of the table. I had thought Stephanie had gone all-out, but this is epic. There is a thirty-pound turkey, maple-glazed yams, chunky smashed potatoes dripping with butter, bread stuffing and rice stuffing, Brussel sprouts in butter, a cranberry salad, rustic loaves of bread, sausage gravy, dumplings, sticky rice, wonton noodle soup, Chinese spare ribs, Chinese spinach, glass noodles and carrots, radish cakes, and Chinese sausages. There is also a sizable plate of almond cookies, which makes me smile. One of my best memories of my mother was when she was sober and decided to bake almond cookies. My sisters and I would sit on stools in the kitchen, eager to be the first to eat a cookie. When they were done, my sisters and I would eat dozens of them while our mother beamed at us in happiness. My sisters and I eat almond cookies on the rare occasions when get together, and I’m touched that Jasmine made them. I know everyone contributed to the meal, but I also know Jasmine did most of the cooking. She is a champ.

“Jasmine, this is amazing,” Rembrandt says, his voice filled with wonder. “Everything looks fantastic.”

“Thank you,” Jasmine replies, beaming at him. “It wasn’t just me, you know. Everybody contributed, including you!” She turns to the table and says, “I want to thank you all for coming to our home. Bob and I have so much to be grateful for this year. It’s been rocky at points, but we have God, each other, and we’re healthy. We have our family as well, which is so important to us. Before we eat, I’d like to ask Bob to say grace.” She nods at Bob who is sitting at the head of the table, and he nods at her in return. He clears his voice and starts, and I know it’s time to veg out. Bob doesn’t pray so much as pontificate.

“Our Heavenly Father who has given us so much,” Bob says, and my eyes glaze over—even though they’re shut. I had been hoping that going through a traumatic event would have changed his personality so he wasn’t such a stuffed shirt and an utter bore, but except for the first week he was home in which he was humbled, he’s pretty much back to normal now. “We are nothing without You, dear Lord, and we are so thankful that You have graced us with Your presence.” I used to believe that a traumatic event would change a person, but I’ve seen it too many times when the person just hunkers down and becomes more recalcitrant in his personality after almost dying. It’s sad, but it’s human nature. I can’t say I would become a better person if I were ever in that situation, but I would like to think I’d at least try. “Too many people have no faith these days, Lord, and they are as lost as lambs in the wilderness.” Oh, great. Now he’s mixing his metaphors. That means we’re in the home stretch. The woman who kidnapped him hasn’t stopped trying to contact him, even though she’s in prison awaiting her bail hearing. Whenever she gets a phone call, she calls him. She sends him letters every other day, which he returns unopened. I know he feels somewhat sorry for her, but he’s not helping by not blocking her calls. Jasmine told me that her husband has hired the best defense attorney in Minnesota to defend her, which is sad given that she maligned him to Bob as a way to get Bob’s sympathy. She claimed he was abusing her, and while I witnessed him being rough towards her in church, she confessed that she caused most of the bruising herself.

“Amen,” Jasmine says, snapping me out of my reverie. “Help yourself, everyone. There’s plenty!” As if of one mind, we three sisters simultaneously pop a Lactaid pill because we’re all lactose-intolerant to a certain degree. We all dive into the food as if there’s no tomorrow. Even though I’m still not completely hungry after lunch, I have to try a bit of everything. I may die trying, but what a way to go. I start with the Taiwanese food because I haven’t had any in a long time, and I just ate American food for lunch. The sticky rice is my absolute favorite, and I stuff myself on it. I have three helpings before I force myself to stop. I’m glad that Jasmine has let us make our own plates because then I can take whatever I want and as much of it. I eat several dumplings, and they’re so succulent, I eat a half dozen of them. I’m trying to restrain myself, but everything is delicious. When I finally make it to the turkey and mashed potatoes, I can barely eat another bite. I eat one slice of turkey, and I have to call it a day. I watch in amazement as Jamal eats plate after plate of food. Yes, he’s linebacker size, but still. Not that I’m counting, but he’s eaten at least a dozen dumplings, a rack of ribs, a bowl of wonton noodle soup, a plate of turkey with all the trimmings, and a bowl of sticky rice. He shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, either. I’ve seen him eat before, but I’m still amazed every time. He once explained to me that he has a very high metabolism and that he works out hard every day.

“You’ve outdone yourself, Jasmine,” I say, nibbling at another slice of turkey. We’ve sat long enough for me to cram a little more food into my stomach.

“Remember the last Thanksgiving we spent together?” That man asks, his voice carrying across all conversation. “You threw up, Jasmine, because you ate too much.”

“I remember,” Jasmine says, her eyes lighting up. “You tucked me in and read me a story, and then you snuck me a piece of pumpkin pie after Mom went to sleep.”

“Megan refused to eat anything,” he continues, smiling fondly at me. I stare at my plate, my cheeks burning. I can’t believe he’d pull this at the dinner table, but I don’t have the guts to tell him to shove it. “She was such a picky eater when she was little. I’m glad to see that’s changed.” My blood is boiling. How dare he try to establish a connection with such a flimsy memory? To make matters worse, I can’t remember it at all, whereas Jasmine clearly does. Viv, of course, has no memory of it, either, and she’s scowling as well. Jasmine and that man are trading memories, whereas I’m just picking at the food on my plate. My appetite is completely gone, and I’m not even sure I want pie. Well, yes, I do, specifically the sweet potato pie, but it’ll have to wait until later. I’m too Taiwanese and too Minnesotan to get up and stomp away from the table, which is really what I want to do right now. The sound of that man’s voice is making me ill, and I resent how he’s tapping into cheap emotions by dredging up long-forgotten memories.

I feel someone nudging my foot under the table, and I look up to see Rembrandt staring at me from across the table, sympathy in his eyes. I smile at him, grateful for his support. I notice that Pablo is blinking his eyes at Viv in a syncopated rhythm. I count the blinks, and it’s one, four, three, repeated over and over again. “I love you.” Viv does the same thing back, and it warms my heart. Viv is a loner, much as I am, and she has difficulty maintaining relationships. When she’s lost in one of her artistic projects, everything else ceases to exist. She won’t return calls or texts, not because she’s ignoring them, but because it doesn’t even occur to her to check her messages when she’s hard at work. She’s had more than one friend end up with hurt feelings when she didn’t talk to that friend for over a week. When she first started dating Pablo seven years ago, she had made it clear to him that time was porous for her, and he shouldn’t get upset if he didn’t hear from her on a regular basis. He said he understood, but three months into their relationship, Viv got caught up in a statue of Kali that she was creating and disappeared from the world for two weeks straight. She texted Pablo twice during that time, and when she emerged from her haze, he was furious with her. He read her the riot act, informing her that while he understood her passion—he was an artist, too, after all—he was not willing to tolerate what he called her appalling lack of civility. Then he laid down the law, declaring that she was to text him once a day if they were going to continue dating. I remember Viv phoning me, crying, because while she liked him more than any other guy she dated, she didn’t know if she could follow his dictum—or if she even should. When she was wrapped up in her work, she didn’t eat or sleep on a regular basis, and she’s even gone past the point of comfortableness with her bladder in order to keep on creating. I didn’t have much to offer because I was coming off a messy breakup of my own.

“Think about your life without Pablo in it,” I said to Viv after listening to her cry for half an hour. “How does that make you feel?”

“Shitty,” Viv said bluntly. “We belong together, Megan. I have never felt this way about anyone before.”

“Then you gotta make compromises, Viv,” I replied, not sugarcoating it at all. I knew from experience that the best way to get through to Viv was by giving it to her straight. “I don’t think texting him once a day is too much to ask. It’s a bit on the excessive side, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“You’d resent it, though, if your lover asked that of you,” Viv said, her tone snotty.

“You’re right,” I said, not taking offense at her tone. “The difference is I’m not dating someone who’s asking it of me.”

“I hate feeling like he’s an obligation,” Viv grumbled, inhaling deeply. I knew she was lighting up a joint because that’s what she did when she was stressed. “Shouldn’t communication be spontaneous?”

“I dunno,” I demurred. “You know I’m not big on traditions and rituals, but there’s something nice about, say, starting every day with a sweet message from your lover. It doesn’t have to be anything deep—it can just be, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of you. Miss you.’ Or, to end the day with such a message.”

“I know you’re right, Megan,” Viv sighed. I could hear the frustration and sadness in her voice, and I wished I could say something that would take it all away. I knew that wasn’t possible, however, so all I could do was offer her support. “I feel bad that he was so hurt by my behavior. I don’t mean to hurt anyone. You know that.”

“I do, but I’ve known you for over thirty years. He’s known you for three months.” I didn’t elaborate because she understood what I was saying.

“I’ll try my best,” Viv said. “Thanks for listening and for supporting me.” Her best was obviously good enough because they’re still going strong in their seventh year together. They moved in together a year ago, which has really cemented their relationship.

“Do you remember my birthday the year you left?” I snap back to the current conversation, only to hear Jasmine asking the question wistfully to that man.

“Of course I do,” he says, a big grin spreading across his face. “You were wearing a cute pink dress that made you look like a princess. Pink was your favorite color back then, and you pestered your mom for a chocolate cake with a pink frosting and a ballerina on top. You were taking ballet classes and that was all you talked about. We had your favorites, radish cakes, Chinese spare ribs, and Chinese cabbage for dinner. Your mom and I gave you a ballerina doll as your present.”

“That was the best birthday of my life,” Jasmine says, her eyes filled with tears. “I still have that doll up in my attic.”

“Excuse me. I need a smoke.” I stand up abruptly, nodding at Viv.

“Me, too.” She gets up, and we leave the room together. Neither of us say anything until we’re out back, and then I explode.

“Can you believe how Jasmine is sucking up to that man,” I say, struggling to keep my voice low. I’m furious at my sister for being so needy, but most of my ire is directed at that man.

“Disgusting,” Viv agrees, handing me a cigarette. She lights it for me before lighting one up for herself. I inhale deeply, holding as much smoke in my lungs as I possibly can.

“I know she was a daddy’s girl, and I know she knew him the best, but still.” I breathe slowly and smoothly because I really don’t want to slag on Jasmine too much. She was devastated when our father left us, but she had to put it aside because she had to take care of my mother, my sister, and me. She never really got the chance to grieve over it, which is probably why she’s the one still stuck on having a father back in her life. I’m not convinced that man is our father, and even if he is, I don’t have any interest in forging a relationship with him.

“I feel bad for her,” Viv says, echoing my thoughts. “She had to be an adult at such a young age. She never got to be a kid once our father left.”

“You’re telling me to be more understanding,” I say sighing as I take another puff. “You’re right, of course, but there’s something about that man that makes my skin crawl.”

“What exactly bothers you? I mean, I’m not his biggest fan, obviously, but you really seem to have it out for him.” Viv stares into my eyes, and I’m the first to look away. I think about her question for several seconds before responding by asking her a question in return.

“Do you think he’s our father?” I slide my eyes back to Viv’s face. I don’t miss the flinch that crosses it, though she quickly erases it.

“He seems to be,” she says cautiously. “He knows those stories from our childhood.”

“There just seems to be something off about him,” I say, hesitating before continuing. “I’m not sure he’s legit.”

“Megan, I understand being pissed at him,” Viv says carefully, and I immediately go on the defensive. I know that tone well; it says, ‘Don’t upset the crazy lady,’ and I resent it. “But don’t you think your anger is coloring your perception of him? I don’t like him any more than you do, but I think he is our father.” I can’t argue with her because on the surface of things, she’s right. He has intimate knowledge of our childhood with pretty specific details. He showed no hesitation as he reminisced as he would if he was simply reciting a story he had been told.

“I know he’s probably our father,” I say, instinctively making a face as I say that. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Me, neither.” Viv crushes her cigarette out and leaves it on the ground. I stamp on mine, then pick them both up. “Still. He is a charming man. There’s no denying that.”

“Whatever.” I cross my arms across my chest and stick my chin out in rebellion. I know I’m acting like a child, but I don’t want to give that man credit for anything. I remember we’re going to meet tomorrow afternoon, and I groan to myself. I don’t want to talk to him, but it’s too late to back out without being rude. I need to do some Googling tonight before we meet up to see what I can find out about him.

“I’m on your side,” Viv says, placing a hand on my upper arm.

“I know.” I smile and squeeze her hand. “I’m just being a cranky bitch about it.”

“Just remember you don’t have to have a relationship with him, even if he is our father. He has to earn that, and he’s far from it right now.” Viv hugs me, and I hug her back. We go inside, and she heads for the bathroom. I go into the kitchen to dump our butts, then I go to a different bathroom to use the facilities. I also take the opportunity to splash water on my face to cool myself down. I’m still mad about that man ruining Thanksgiving dinner, but I guess it’s up to me to decide if I want to continue being mad or if I just let it go. I breathe slowly and smoothly, but it doesn’t help. I do the first five postures of the Solo Form, and that does help a little. Then, I do ten Golden Roosters to get my blood flowing, and by the time I’m finished, I’m ready to go back into the dining room. Everyone has slowed down on the eating front, even Jamal, and Jasmine is serving coffee. I accept a cup and sip it. It’s strong and bracing, which is exactly what I need.

“Who wants pie now versus later?” Jasmine asks. We’re all in agreement that we can wait on pie, and we troop into the living room to chat and to doze. I’m tired from the stress of the past few days, so I fall asleep on the couch, leaning against Rembrandt’s shoulder. My sleep is dreamless, which is exactly how I like it.

“Auntie Megan, wake up!” I open one eye to see the twins staring at me. “It’s pie time!” Michelle claps her hand, looking excited about the prospect.

“Sweet taters!” Ing-wen breathes, her eyes wide.

“Pumpkin,” Michelle retorts. They glare at each other, and I know it’s my duty to stop a fight before it even gets off the ground.

“Both are good choices, girls,” I say, pulling myself into an upright position. “In fact, I’m going to have a slice of each. Plus a piece of the blueberry cobbler. There’s also ice cream.”

“Ice cream!” They shout in unison. That’s one thing they can agree on—they both are crazy for ice cream. Unfortunately, they’re also lactose intolerant as I am, so they have to take Lactaid as well, and Coral and Jamal strictly monitor their intake of dairy.

“Don’t forget your pills, girls,” Jamal says, overhearing their exclamation. “Mama has them in her purse.” The twins run over to Coral and tug on her dress.

“Mama, Mama, we need our pills!” Michelle says as Ing-wen nods her head in agreement. “Ice cream pills!” I laugh because of course that’s how they’d think of the pills. They’re not big cheese lovers, but they could eat ice cream all day.

“Here you go, girls.” Coral fishes two pills out of her purse and hands one to each of them. They disappear from the room, presumably to take the pills. I get up and follow them at a leisurely pace. Everyone is in the dining room, waiting for me, apparently. Jasmine has all the pies on the table along with the ice cream and the whipped cream.

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