They had the funeral a week later, and it was attended by hundreds of people. Several of them spoke up, giving loving eulogies of Henry. Many of them were gay men that he had met through the San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Chorus, and they sang, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men, which was one of Henry’s favorite groups. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they were done. George soaked up all the stories, and after the funeral was over, he was found huddled with a handful of Henry’s closest friends, trading stories. Rowena had a hard time getting him to leave, and he was in deep thought all the way home.
Once he was able to examine Henry’s assets, he spent hours poring over everything he found in Henry’s house. The furniture, all of which Henry made, his computer, though there wasn’t much on it. Henry wasn’t a big email person and preferred to talk on the phone. George found a cache of letters, and that’s when the idea to impersonate Henry sprung into his mind. The letters were the fifty or so that Henry had written to Jasmine, Viv, and me, once a week for a year after he left. Every one of them was returned unopened with the words, “Return to Sender” written on the top of the envelope. George opened them and read each one. Several times. There was also a journal written in Henry’s hand, and it was filled with reminiscing from his time with his family. George read the journal entries several times as well, especially the passages that had memories of Henry’s three daughters.
“George, it’s late,” Rowena said at midnight. George had brought all the paper paraphernalia from Henry’s house home, and he was reading through them once again. “Come to bed.”
“In a minute, Ro,” George said distractedly, his eyes on the journal. He was thumbing through it again, and he had a pencil in his hand. She could tell that he’d been marking the journal with his pencil, but she didn’t know why.
“What’re you doing, George?” Ro asked, peering over his shoulder.
“Nothing!” George snapped, covering the journal with his free hand.
“George!” Rowena said, placing her hands on her hips. “Do not talk to me in that tone.”
“Sorry, sorry,” George said, his voice softening. “I just….” He hesitated. He uncovered the journal and pushed it toward Rowena. She took it, her brow furrowed. Even when she read his notes, she didn’t understand what he was doing.
“What’s going on, George? I don’t understand.” She handed the journal back to George, and he held it almost reverently. He laid it carefully on his desk before responding.
“Ro, what’s the one thing I’ve regretted in my life?” George asked, looking hard at Rowena.
“Not moving back to Taiwan,” Rowena said promptly.
“What? No! I love our life in San Francisco.” George was startled by Rowena’s response. “No, it’s not having children.” Rowena’s face fell, and she instinctively tightened her shoulders.
“You gonna blame me for that again?” Her voice was weary as it’s an argument they’d had a million times before.
“No! I’m not. Really.” George patted Rowena’s hand, and she relaxed her shoulders in response. “But it’s what I’ve missed the most in my life.” He took a deep breath and added, “I’m going to meet Henry’s children. As him.”
“What?” Rowena shrieked, hitting the high registers. “Are you crazy?”
“No, I’m not! Listen to me, Ro.” He spread out all the letters and pointed to them. “Henry talked about his kids all the time, and these are letters he wrote to them after he first left.” Then, he pointed to the journal. “Here, he wrote out all his memories of life with his family.” He looked at Rowena, who had a skeptical look on her face. “Putting it all together, it’s his life with them. I can memorize it and become him.” George beamed at Rowena, but she’s still looking at him as if he had grown a second head.
“Listen to yourself,” Rowena said, her voice tight. “You are actually talking about taking your best friend’s identity for yourself. Your dead best friend.”
“He doesn’t need it any longer!” George retorted, his voice defensive. “It’ll bring comfort to his children.”
“They’ve lived without him for forty years. I’m not sure they would be happy to have you just walk into their lives, even if you do claim to be their father. And, if they discover you aren’t really their father, it’ll just hurt them more.”
“They won’t find out. I’ll erase all of Henry’s online presence, so they’ll never know!” George’s voice was vibrant, and Rowena knew she couldn’t sway him when he got like this.
“I argued with him for days,” Mrs. Tsai says, her voice tearful. “I really did, but I couldn’t talk him out of it. He was dead-set on meeting you and your sisters.”
“That’s….” I trail off because I don’t know a way to say it politely. It’s twisted, egotistical, and, frankly, insulting. He actually thought his charade would be a good thing for me and my sisters? Fuck him and the horse he rode in on.
“I know, I know. It’s very stupid of him. I can only hope you realize he has the best intentions at heart.” Damn. She’s talking about him in the present tense, which means she probably doesn’t know he’s dead. Shit. Is it my place to tell her? I decide to prod a little more.
“Did my father receive a letter from my mother? About a week before she died?” I ask, holding my breath. I don’t know if I want it to be true or not, but I need to know.
“I didn’t see any letter from her,” Rowena answers. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, though. I didn’t want anything to do with George’s wild scheme.” I think about it, and I bet he wrote the letter himself. Why, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter I guess. I think of something else.
“Was he diagnosed with a fatal illness?” I blurt out. It’s not a delicate way of asking the question, but I’m fresh out of finesse.
“What? Of course not! Why would you think that?” Nothing but indignation in Rowena’s voice, and I stop myself from stating the obvious. I decide to push her a bit and see what I get.
“Don’t you want to know how I found you?” I ask, tweaking Onyx’s ear. She flicks said ear and mews crossly at me. I pet her head in a conciliatory manner, and she goes back to sleep.
“I assume George told you because you caught him out,” Mrs. Tsai says, her voice innocent. Damn. She doesn’t know. Do I tell her? I should, but I chicken out.
“I have to go, Mrs. Tsai. Thank you for talking to me.”
“Don’t be too hard on George. He really does mean well.” With that, Mrs. Tsai hangs up, and I click off my phone, too. I stare at it for a second before realizing I have to rush to get to class. I race upstairs to change into my workout clothes, grab my weapon bag and my iced water bottle, and I’m out the door. I’m pensive on the way to class because I can’t stop thinking about that man, George, and his great deceit. I can’t get over his balls in flat-out lying to us. Oh shit. Viv. I wonder how she’s feeling about this? I’m positive Jasmine has told her. Once I reach the studio, I quickly call Viv. She answers on the second ring.
“You’re calling about that man,” Viv says without preamble. “The fraud.” Yup. She knows.
“Yes. I need to be in class in three minutes, but I wanted to see what you thought.” I gather my things and get out of the car, locking it behind me.
“He’s an asshole. He’s not our father. Enough said.” Viv’s voice is firm, but there’s a hint of tremble behind it.
“I wish he had been,” I say softly. I glance around me, but none of my classmates are in sight. “And I’m glad he’s not.”
“Same here.” Viv inhales, and I’m hoping it’s a cigarette and not weed. “I thought I didn’t care, but I guess I do.”
“When are you leaving? I’d like to see you again before you go.”
“It was supposed to be tomorrow, but Jasmine begged us to stay a few more days. We’re here through Friday, leaving Saturday morning.”
“Want to grab dinner tomorrow night?” I ask, glancing at my phone clock. I have one minute to get my ass in class. “I gotta go.”
“Yes. Talk to you later.” Viv hangs up, and I do, too. I go inside, and the rest of my classmates are milling about, talking to each other. Fortunately, Betty is nowhere to be seen, so I’m saved from her inane chattering for one class.
“Hi, Megan!” Donny says, plopping down next to me. He has his sword in his hand, and it’s clear he’s been practicing. He has a light sheen on his forehead, which he mops with the edge of his shirt.
“Hi, Donny! How’s the sword treating you?” I nod at Donny, smiling a genuine smile. He’s one of my favorite classmates because he’s as enamored with the sword as I am.
“Really good. I’ve been practicing after classes every day. I love it!” Donny is an engineer student of some sort at the U, so I’m impressed that he makes it taiji as often as he does. He once told me it was his way of relaxing after the high stress of engineer stuff. He didn’t say stuff, of course, but that’s my summary of it. “I think I’ve gotten the hang of The Wasp Enters the Hive, thanks to you. It’s my favorite posture now!” Donny’s eyes are shining, and I’m warmed that he’s caught the passion for the sword. Most of my classmates are more into the meditative or healing aspects of taiji, so they don’t care for the sword. I’m sure a few of them think I’m a bloodthirsty monster for my unseemly interest in weapons, but I don’t give a fuck. I spent way too many years caring about what others thought about me. Now, my motto is, “If I like it, you can go jump off a bridge.” It’s not the catchiest motto, but it works for me.
“It’s the best, isn’t it?” I say, a sparkle in my eyes as well. I could talk about the Sword Form all day long, but I won’t because I don’t want to bore people.
“Would you do a round with me?” Donny asks, averting his eyes from mine. I know it’s a big deal for him to ask, and I’m happy to comply.
“Of course!” I grab my steel sword and draw it out of the sheathe. Donny looks at my sword with envy, and I have a hunch he’ll be buying himself one soon. Right now, he’s making do with a wooden sword. I have one as well, and I use it when I’m feeling less than tiptop and don’t want to deal with my metal one. I go to the middle of the floor, and Donny positions himself right behind me. I start the Sword Form, but I don’t say the postures or the counts. Donny is advanced enough not to need to be led by the nose, and I trust that he’ll be able to follow along with minimal problems, even though he only knows half the form. As I go through the form, I push out all extraneous thoughts and just focus on the movements. Whenever we turn, I can see Donny following along. He’s struggling here and there, but he manages to keep up. When we finish, he’s beaming.
“Thank you, Megan. That was fantastic.” Donny shakes my hand enthusiastically, his shyness forgotten. I have a hunch his love of the sword will bring him out of his shell if anything can.
“Any time, Donny.” I smile back fondly, feeling much like a proud mother. “I mean that.”
“I’m going to work on a few postures. Talk to you later!” Donny waves at me and goes back to the floor. I am impressed with is dedication and have high hopes that he’ll learn the whole form in a few more months.
“Well, aren’t you chummy with Donny?” Betty says out of the blue, a sour look on her face. She must have shown up while I was practicing with Donny. She’s wearing her trademark hot pink, and she’s applied her makeup with a spatula as usual. “You trying to get into his pants?”
“Hello, Betty,” I say, my voice cool. I don’t want to lose the high doing the sword has given me, which I will if I talk to Betty any longer. I don’t rise to her bait, but I’m doing a slow burn inside. I’m not having this shit because this is a sanctuary for me. Women like Betty prey on civility; she’s counting on Minnesota Nice to prevent me from taking her to task. It has up to this point; it will not any longer. “That, frankly, is none of your business. I do not have to answer to you or anyone else here. I would really appreciate it if you mind your boundaries.”
“What did you just say to me?” Betty says, her mouth falling open. She looks like a fish, which isn’t a pleasant sight. “How dare you—”
“How dare I? How dare you?” I say, interrupting her. I am in no mood to listen to her try to turn it on me when she’s the one who was out of line. “You are way out of line questioning anything I do. You need to step back.” I take a slow smooth breath, put my sword back in the sheath and go outside for a breather. The door opens, and it’s Lydia. She slips outside and studies me for a minute.
“You OK?” She finally asks, her hands behind her back.
“Yep.” I pause and add, “I had to tell Betty off.”
“I know. She complained about it to me.” Lydia’s voice is decidedly neutral, which is understandable, but slightly irritating. “Want to tell me your side?”
“Nothing to tell,” I say with a shrug. “I was doing the Sword Form with Donny. Betty didn’t appreciate it and said something snarky to me. I told her she was out of line, and she did not take it well.” Lydia is still looking at me, so I elaborate. “She made a crack about me and Donny. I was not having any of that. She’s jealous—whether of him or me, I’m not sure. After what happened with my stalker, I wanted to make sure this didn’t get out of hand.”
“Understood. She should not have said that to you. This will not be tolerated.” Lydia nods her head once. “In return, if I can rein her in, will you be civil to her?”
“I will.” I’ll hate it, but I’ll do it. I don’t say that part out loud, but I’m sure she knows I’m thinking it.
“OK. I’ll talk to her.” Lydia goes back inside, and I take a few more seconds to compose myself. I shouldn’t let Betty get to me, but at the same time, she was way out of line with her comment. Even if I were trying to fuck Donny, which I am most emphatically not, it’s none of her damn business. Once I have my temper under control, I go back inside. I notice that Lydia is talking to Betty, and she’s looking sulky as she’s being talked to. Honestly, I would be happy if she quit, but I would feel guilty because Lydia needs all the income she can get. Lydia wraps up her lecture, then turns to the class. It’s time to start.
I take my usual spot in the front left corner. I empty my mind of any thought, but they come creeping back in. I let them in, then release them. I feel my muscles loosen as we go through the warmups. I also feel Betty’s eyes boring in my back, but I ignore that as best as I can. I know she’s pissed at me, and I’m not going to let it interfere with my practice. The masters used to have challengers want to fight to the death; a pissy classmate is nothing in comparison. After the warmups, we do the six postures meditation. I write my next blog post in my head, which is going to be about deception and lies. I don’t know if I’m going to refer to that man’s deception specifically, but it’s forefront in my mind. I still can’t believe he did such a fucked up thing so cavalierly. What’s more, he convinced himself that he was doing it for my sisters and my benefit. I know that’s the basis of delusion, but this is so bizarre, it’s difficult for my brain to grasp. It also proves the truism that if you’re going to lie, lie big.
“Let’s do the first section of the Solo Form,” Lydia says, breaking into my thoughts. I follow her, but my mind isn’t really on what I’m doing. I’m still upset about George Tsai’s deception, and I feel as if I won’t get over it until I really understand it. I’m not sure that’s possible, however, because he’s dead. The only way to truly understand what he was thinking would be to talk to him in-depth about it. Once we’re through, Lydia tells us to take ten minutes. I drink from my iced water bottle. The rest of the class is difficult because Betty won’t stop glaring at me. I tune her out at best I can, and I struggle through the class I flop down in my chair at the end of class.
“You must think you’re so special,” Betty hisses as she sits next to me. She has her eye on Lydia, who is talking to a few of my classmates. “I can’t believe you snitched on me to the teacher.” She is keeping her voice low, which is another intimidation tactic. She’s counting on me being embarrassed enough to just take it, but that’s not how I roll—not now. I’ve had enough bullshit in my life in the past month, and I’m not about to let some two-bit harpy bully me in my taiji class.
“You were the one who complained to her about me rightly telling you to step back.” I speak in a firm and clear voice, and most of my classmates turn to look at me. Lydia turns my way as well, and there’s a slight frown on her face. “You made a rude comment about me and expected me to just take it. I didn’t, so you got mad. Now, you’re trying to bully me into not defending myself, but I’m not putting up with that bullshit.” By now, Betty’s face has turned red, and her eyes widen at my expletive. My classmates are hanging on every word, and Lydia is walking towards us. “Now. I have nothing personal against you, Betty, but if you persist in being a pain in my ass, I will not tolerate it.”
“I can’t believe—”
“Shut up, Betty. You are not the victim here.” My face is flaming, and my temper is rising. I am fucking tired of putting up with her martyr attitude, and I’m about to blow.
“You fucking bitch!” Betty raises her hand to slap me across the face, and I catch it before she can make contact. I press my fingers into the soft spot of her wrist and twist. She drops to her knees, screaming in rage. I know it’s not pain because what I’m doing doesn’t hurt. Well, ok, it does hurt, but it’s temporary. Joint locks don’t do permanent damage—at least not the way I’m doing it.
“OK, break it up,” Lydia says, placing a hand on my shoulder as well as one on Betty’s. I immediately let go, and Lydia helps Betty to her feet.
“Are you going to let her get away with that?” Betty yells, pointing a finger at me. “She hurt me!”
“You were going to slap me,” I say. I notice that more than one of my classmates are openly smirking; Betty is not well-liked in class. I clamp my mouth shut and march outside so I won’t say anything else. I breathe slowly and smoothly, trying to tamp down my anger. Even though I’m in the right, I’m kicking myself for letting it get out of hand. I could have handled it better, but I’ve been on the edge since Julianna died, and Betty pushed me all the way over. My classmates start trickling out, and a few of them give me a pat on the back.
“I don’t like her, either,” Donny whispers to me. “She tried to hit on me when I first started. It creeped me out.”
“I don’t blame you,” I say with a smile. “That shouldn’t happen here.”
“Bye. See you next class.” Donny squeezes my hand, and I squeeze back. After a few minutes, I go back inside. Lydia and Betty are in an intense conversation, and I quietly grab my weapons bag, my iced water bottle, and my purse. I’m about to leave when Lydia calls me over.
“Yes?” I ask, keeping my voice even as if I hadn’t been arguing with Betty five minutes ago.
“Betty has something to say,” Lydia says, placing a hand on Betty’s arm. Betty flinches and purses up her lips. She doesn’t look as if she’s about to say anything, but she finally speaks.
“It seems you don’t understand my sense of humor, so I’ve decided it’s best to keep my jokes to myself.” She stops talking, and I realize she’s done speaking. She’s not going to apologize, but she’s trying to extend the olive branch. It’s a start.
“Thank you, Betty. I appreciate that.” I hold out my hand, and after several seconds, she shakes it. “I want you to know there are no hard feelings.” I nod at her, and she nods in return. I can tell by the look in her eye that she’s still not over her anger, but that’s ok. I don’t need us to be friends; a détente is enough. Once she’s gone, Lydia and I have a heart-to-heart.
“What happened, Megan?” Lydia asks, her eyes serious. “You don’t usually go off the rails like that.” I flush at her words, but I struggle not to take offense.
“She reminded me of Sara, the woman who stalked me at work. Clinging, overly effusive with praise, but then cutting when I wouldn’t acknowledge her affection. She was upset that I was doing the Sword Form with Donny, and she said I was trying to fuck him. I took offense to what she said and called her out on it.” I sigh heavily because I do not like having to defend myself, especially when I feel I’m in the right.
“She said what?” Lydia exclaims, her eyes darkening. “That’s not what she told me at all.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” I say drily. “She has the habit of portraying herself as the victim, which isn’t that uncommon, of course. I’ve been putting up with her snide comments for months, but I’ve had enough. After dealing with the murder of my best friend, the eye gouging of my lover, the kidnapping of my brother-in-law, and the fraudulent claim of an imposter claiming to be my father, I was not putting up with her junior high school bullshit.”
“Wait a minute. That man isn’t your father?” Lydia exclaims, cutting into my recitation.
“Oh, shit. I haven’t told you yet, have I?” I quickly run down what I know about Mr. Tsai’s murder, and she oohs and aahs in all the right places.
“Goddamn it. That’s unbelievable,” Lydia says once I’m done. “Why in the world would he do that?”
“I don’t know. His wife says it’s because he’s always wanted children and she couldn’t have them.” I pause and add, “I think he must have just flipped once my real father died. He saw it as his last chance to have a family, even if it wasn’t his own.”
“I’m sorry, Megan,” Lydia says, hugging me hard. “You’ve had so much shit lately; it’s no wonder you lost it when Betty came at you.”
“I come to taiji to de-stress and to work on my mental health,” I say. “The last thing I need is to deal with a drama queen who makes everything about her.”
“Understood,” Lydia says. She hesitates and adds, “I want you to know I’m validating your feelings—”
“But?” I interject.
“I have to think about the class harmony. It’s not good if two of the classmates are feuding. I’m asking you to walk away if Betty baits you again.” Lydia holds my eyes, but her tone is almost apologetic. I think about her request and decide it’s not unreasonable. I don’t want my classmates to feel uncomfortable, especially not around me.
“Will do. I’ll try my damnedest not to let her get to me again.” We chat for a few more minutes before leaving. I think about the contretemps all the way home. I’m not ashamed for speaking my mind, but I wish I would have pulled Betty out of class before laying into her. I don’t want to set up a situation in which she’s seen as the bad guy, even if she is. We are in this journey together, and I have to tutor my classmates from time to time. As one of the advanced students, I need to set an example of how to behave. Putting the hurt on one of the newer students is not the way to do it. I sigh because I hate when I lose my temper. Yes, I was in the right, and, yes, she shouldn’t have said what she did, but I know she’s a catty woman, and I should have let her comment roll off my back. I’m somber on my drive home; I have a lot to think about.