“You ready to go?” I ask Viv, cradling the phone on my shoulder as best I can as I look in the closet. I’m only going out with my sister, but I still want to look my best.
“Almost. Jasmine can’t make it. Bob is having a bad night.” Viv’s tone is so acerbic, I have to ask what her problem is. I know she doesn’t like Bob, and she has a good reason, but this is over the top even for her.
“I know you have a beef with Bob, but what’s up with the attitude?” I pull out a see-through red top over a tank top and black jeans. It’s the perfect combination of sexy and casual, and I struggle into them as I’m talking on the phone. Onyx and Jet are mewing at me, and I shake a finger at them to quiet them down. It doesn’t work, of course, so I give up and let them meow to their hearts’ content.
“I just don’t like the guy,” Viv says, breathing out in a loud exhale. “He’s a self-righteous prick.” She pauses and adds, “Look, I know he’s gone through a difficult time what with being kidnapped and all, but that doesn’t meant I have to like him. He was fine all day until Jasmine said she was going to go out with us. Then, all of a sudden, he had a panic attack, and she decided to stay home.”
“That sucks,” I say, choosing my words carefully. “But, you know, panic attacks come out of the blue. I saw him the night I rescued him. It was a terrible experience, and I think his panic attacks are real. That said, I wish Jasmine could have come out with us.”
“Yeah, I’m probably being too hard on Bob,” Viv agrees. “I’ll be ready when you get here.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.” I hang up and finish dressing. In the back of my mind, I’m hoping to get my flirt on. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m feeling a bit antsy after spending three nights with Rembrandt. I had plan on coming home last night, but I stayed one more night. It was really cozy, and Onyx and Jet love playing with Ginger, but I was worn out by the time I got home this morning. Am I sabotaging my relationship with Rembrandt? Probably. Should I? Most definitely not. Am I going to? That remains to be seen.
“Meow.” Onyx stands in front of my with her ears flattened to the side. She and Jet are not pleased that I’m going out, even though I’ve given them several Temptations each.
“I’ll be back before it’s too late, guys,” I say, kneeling to pet both of them. “I promise.” I boop Onyx on the nose and stroke Jet between the eyes. I grab my purse and slip by them, squashing my feeling of guilt. I make it to Jasmine’s in good time, and I go up to the door ten minutes early.
“Hi, Megan. Come on in.” Jasmine opens the door, a strained smile on her face.
“You ok, Jasmine?” I ask, stepping inside. She’s pale, and there are circles under her eyes.
“I’m ok,” she says automatically. “Bob had a rough night last night, and he had a panic attack today.”
“I know. Viv told me. I’m sorry it’s so hard on you.” I hug Jasmine, and she automatically stiffens in my arms before relaxing.
“I really wish Bob would see a therapist,” Jasmine says softly, glancing over her shoulder. “He needs more than prayers right now.” I look at her as if she’s grown another head. I have never heard her say anything like that in my life, and I’m flummoxed as to what to say back. I agree with her, but I don’t know how she’s going to convince Bob.
“Do you think there’s any way you can get him to do that?” I ask. I know what the answer is before she even shakes her head.
“No. I brought it up this afternoon, and he nearly bit my head off.” Jasmine’s eyes fill with tears, and I wish I could say something to comfort her. “I’m not crazy, Jasmine! How dare you say that I am?” It’s clear she’s repeating what Bob had said to her when she mentioned therapy. “He got so worked up, I had to promise him I’d never mention it again.” I bite my tongue from saying he certainly knows how to manipulate her, but I’m sure it’s written on my face. “Anyway, Viv is in the living room.” We go into the living room, and Viv is snuggling on the couch with Pablo. They’re making out, so I clear my throat elaborately to alert them to our presence. Bob is nowhere to be seen, and my hunch is that he’s upstairs sulking.
“Hey, Sis,” Viv says, smiling wildly at me, her lipstick smeared all over her lips. She whips out her compact and does some touch up. Pablo just wipes his lips with the back of his hand, leaving bright red smudges behind. “Ready to chow down?”
“Yup!” I nod as Viv pecks Pablo on the cheek and gives Jasmine a squeeze. I whisk her away to Gurmpy’s, which is already packed. At least there’s no live music, so we can talk to each other without screaming. She orders a Surly Furious, and I order a Diet Coke. We decide on a plate of tots to share as our appetizer.
“Boy, do I need this,” Viv says, taking a big gulp of her Surly. “Trying to mind my Ps and Qs around Bob is really getting me down.”
“What does Pablo think about Bob?” I ask, sipping at my Diet Coke.
“Thinks he’s a pompous windbag,” Viv laughs. There’s a table of frat boys next to us, and they’re eying her up and down. I restrain a sigh because I’d forgotten how irritating it is to go out with Viv. She has that thing that makes everyone in the room sit up and take notice. She even stole my boyfriend when we were in high school, though it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know he was my boyfriend, and he didn’t make it clear when he met her at a party. He was a senior, and she was a freshman. She ended up going home with him that night, but when she found out he was dating me, she kicked him to the curb and hard. In fact, she literally kicked him in his ass several times after talking to me about her night. Then, I punched him in the gut, and he learned real quick not to mess with the Liang sisters.
“That he is,” I say, nodding my head. “You really aren’t catching him at his best, though.”
“Come on, Meg,” Viv exclaims, thumping down her glass. “Why are you being so nice to that asshole?” I look at her for a minute without saying anything. Do I tell her what I saw that terrible night? I think I have to in order to soften her view of Bob.
“Viv. You know Bob was kidnapped, but I never told you the details.” I clear my throat nervously. I feel as if I’m betraying Jasmine, but I don’t think family secrets are always good to keep. “He was missing a week. When I found him, he was tied to a bed. He didn’t have a shirt, but his pants were clean. Because she changed them on a regular basis.” I pause, noting that there’s a horrified look on Viv’s face. I don’t think Bob’s kidnapping was real to her until this moment. “She had a cabin on the lake, and she visited him every day, sometimes twice. During that time, she would harangue him about how he had to leave Jasmine and be with her. He never knew when she would show up or how long she would stay. He cried when I rescued him.” I finish as the server places our plates of tots before us. I dig in, marveling at the crunchy goodness.
“I didn’t know,” Viv says, her voice somber.
“I’m not saying he’s not an uptight prig,” I say, looking up at her. “He is. I’m just saying, he’s been through something traumatic, so I’m trying to cut him some slack.”
“Duly noted.” Viv shovels in a handful of tater tots, fanning her mouth as she eats them. “Hot!” Once I’ve taken the edge off my hunger, I change the subject.
“I had coffee with that man yesterday,” I say. I notice the blank look on Viv’s face and elaborate, “The man who claims to be our father.”
“Oh, him.” Viv makes a face. “He was at the house this afternoon.”
“Oh yeah? What did he have to say for himself?” I’m curious if he said the same thing to her that he did to me.
“He wants to make amends. Blah, blah, blah. Oh! He mentioned taking care of some old business, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I had the impression that he got ripped off and wanted revenge.” That jibes with what he told me, but it still seems suspicious. “He showed us a letter he said that Mom sent him the week before she died.”
“He showed it to me, too,” I say.
“I don’t think it’s real,” Viv says bluntly. “Rather, I don’t think she wrote it.”
“Why?” I’m shocked because normally I’m the suspicious one, and I had accepted the letter as real without a question.
“It doesn’t sound like her,” Viv says with a frown. “At least, not as she was before I left home. In that last year, she never talked about our father, and she wouldn’t let me even bring him up.”
“That doesn’t mean she didn’t change after you left,” I point out. We both stop talking when our server comes over with our food. Viv got the Jucy Lucy, and I got the Reuben, both of which comes with fries. Once our server leaves, we pick up the topic again.
“She might have changed. She doesn’t write letters, though,” Viv says. “I never received one from her after I left home.”
“That’s true.” I nod my head. I bite into my Reuben which is perfectly done. “You really don’t think she wrote it?”
“I don’t. It just doesn’t sound like her.” Viv bites into her Jucy Lucy and the cheddar cheese squirts out. “She’s not an introspective person, and she’d be horrified to reveal her feelings to anyone, let alone the man who left her.”
“You have a good point,” I say slowly. I try to remember the contents of the letter as best I can. There is a confessional tone to it that is an anathema to my mother. Why was I so quick to believe the letter was authentic? I don’t know, but I’m not happy about it. If it’s true that the letter isn’t real, then it means that man has been lying to me about everything. I feel punched in the gut, and I scold myself for getting my hopes up. I had thought I’d been properly suspicious of his intentions, so it disheartens me that I’m still flattened by the realization of yet another—possible—lie.
“I’m not saying it’s not authentic, but it just didn’t read right to me.” Viv is making short work of her burger. She may be slender, but she can eat like a horse. I’m slowing down, even though I’m only halfway done with my Reuben. “Honestly, Meg? I don’t give a fuck about why he’s here.” She starts her second Surly, and I’m glad I’m the one driving tonight. “By the way, there’s a hottie staring at you from the pool table.” She nods her head in that direction, and I casually take a look. There’s a short guy, about my height, stocky, with black curls and a black goatee. He has light green eyes that are trained on me, and he doesn’t drop them when I turn to look at him. He raises his beer glass in salute, and I turn back to face Viv.
“Don’t tempt me, Viv,” I say, taking another bite out of my Reuben. “I’m a somewhat taken woman.”
“You don’t have an understanding with Rembrandt?” Viv asks, lifting an eyebrow. “Me and Pablo have agreed that one-nighters are fine as long as they don’t become two-nighters.”
“We haven’t talked about it,” I say with a sigh. “I have a hunch he won’t be down with it. He’s already making noises about moving in together.”
“How long have you been dating?” Viv asks, finishing her second Surly. She signals the server to bring her another, and I stifle the impulse to tell her to slow down. She doesn’t take well to commands, and I have a hunch she’ll just order another one if I say anything.
“A little over a month,” I say. “He’s worse than a dyke with this moving in together thing.”
“Damn. Even Pablo waited for three months before throwing his hissy fit. One month is way too early to start fussing about living together.” Viv has finished her burger, and she’s working on the tater tots.
“To be fair to him, I did get up and leave his house in the middle of the night after we had sex. Twice.”
“Wait. You left after having sex?” Viv asks, her voice incredulous.
“I wrote him a note!” I say defensively. “I couldn’t sleep next to him, and I started worrying about Onyx and Jet.”
“I can understand that,” Viv says. “It took me a year before I could sleep through the night next to Pablo.”
“We did reach a compromise in which I promised to stay the night after sex, and I bring Onyx and Jet to his house if I go there, while he brings Ginger, his cat, over to my house if he’s visiting me.” I lower my voice and add, “We just spent three nights together, and I was feeling a bit claustrophobic when I left this morning.”
“You’ve lived on your own for a long time,” Viv says. “Even when you were with Tessa, you rarely spent more than one night with her.”
“Yeah. She took up a lot of space.” I sigh, wondering how long it’ll take me to fully get over my relationship with Tessa.
“I didn’t like her the one or two times I met her.” Viv is slowing down herself and pushes her plate away from her in satisfaction. I have to laugh, albeit bitterly. There is no one in my life who actually liked Tessa, including me. What a waste of five years. “I like Rembrandt a lot better. He’s creative, sensitive, and really easy on the eyes.”
“I like him a lot, too.” I say, brightening up. I can’t help but glance at the pool tables, but the man who was staring at me is gone. I’m both relieved and disappointed, but more the former than the latter.
“I’m going to say something you’re not going to like,” Viv says, watching me swivel in my chair. “You’re your own worst enemy when it comes to relationships. You stay in bad ones, and you sabotage good ones.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I retort.
“This is a good one. Don’t sabotage it.” Viv stares at me, and I stare back.
“Good advice. How am I supposed to follow it?” I’m not being snarky because I really don’t know how to make a relationship work.
“You do what you did with Tessa, except with someone who’s worth it.” Viv says. “You forgave her so much bullshit and really tried to make it work. Do that.” I open my mouth to say something sarcastic, but then I close it again. She’s talking sense, and she’s trying to help me. There’s no reason for me to be a jerk to her in return.
“That’s good advice,” I say, nodding at her. “I’ll try not to fuck it up.”
“I have faith in you, Sis.” Viv reaches over and squeezes my hand. “Oh! One more thing. When that man came over, he got a phone call that made him furious. He yelled at the woman for a minute solid.”
“Oh really?” My ears perk up as her words prod my memory. “He got a similar call when he was with me. How did you know it was a woman?”
“He said her name, Rowena, before switching to Taiwanese and walking out of the room. I followed him.” Viv has no trace of remorse in her voice. She’s never had a problem with eavesdropping, and I caught her at it several times when we were younger. Every time, I would yell at her, and every time, she would just smile at me and say nothing. “He told her she wasn’t supposed to call him, and that was the second time in two days she’s done that. He said he didn’t know when he was coming home to her and that she should quit asking.”
“Wait a minute. Coming home to her?” I have been picking at the tater tots more because they’re there than because I’m actually hungry. I push the plate away and look at Viv. We exchange meaningful glances as he was supposed to be gay and had just lost his partner of twenty-some years. “Are you sure he said her?”
“Yes. My Taiwanese is rusty, but I’m sure. Besides, he said her name.” Viv signals to the server who comes over with alacrity.
“Any room for dessert?” She asks, flashing a brilliant smile. She’s in her late twenties with curves that won’t quit. She has tats up and down both arms, and her curly red hair is piled high on top of her head.
“Not tonight,” I say, smiling back at her. “We could do with a few boxes, though.”
“Coming right up.” She winks at me, and I wink back.
“There’s something about that man that bothers me,” Viv says, finishing her Surly. “Not just that he wants back in our lives, but something else.”
“He’s hiding something,” I respond, draining my Diet Coke. “I’ve caught him in several half-truths, and I can’t find anything about him online.” That reminds me. “Do you know anybody who can un-erase a digital history?”
“I may know a person or two. Let me make a few calls tonight.” Viv doesn’t order another Surly, which relieves me. None of us sisters drink much, and three or four is at the upper limit of Viv’s tolerance. She’s an unpredictable drunk, and I remember one time when we were teenagers, I found her in the bathroom, drunk off her tits. She was clutching the toilet bowl with both hands, throwing up every few seconds. When I offered to hold back her hair, she screamed at me to get the fuck out of the bathroom. A minute later, she burst into tears and begged me not to leave. I ended up holding a glass of water up to her lips and forcing her to take sips every few seconds. It took an hour before I could help her off the ground, and it took another fifteen minutes to drag her back to her bedroom. After I got her tucked in, I stayed with her another hour to make sure she didn’t choke. The next morning, she promised me that she would never get drunk like that again. I don’t know if she actually followed through, but I never had to babysit her drunk ass again.
We box up our food and then fight for the check. I win because I’m older, and it’s tradition in our culture for the elder to pay when going out. Besides, I know Viv’s bank account veers wildly from very flush to almost destitute. She’s not very good at saving her money, in part because she’s so generous to her friends. She also donates to several charities whenever she can, including the SPCA and anything to do with animals. I know she also ‘loaned’ several thousand dollars to Pablo when he was short on his bills. It’s part of the reason they finally moved in together—so he didn’t have to pay rent every month on his studio apartment. He’s supposed to give Viv two to three hundred dollars a month in rent, but I’m sure he’s missed it a time or three. Then again, she can command up to six figures for a painting, so I’m not sure how her financial situation sits. I don’t mind picking up the check, though, as she’s still my baby sister.
“I’m glad we went out,” Viv says as I drive towards Jasmine’s house. “It’s been too long, Sis.”
“Agreed. I’m gonna get my ass to Boston very soon, and you have that show here in the spring.” I say, keeping my eyes on the road.
“I don’t want to take our relationship for granted,” Viv says earnestly. “We’ve only got each other, so let’s be better at keeping in touch.” She places her hand on my shoulder and squeezes.
“You got it, Viv,” I say. I have no idea why she’s being so emotive, but I welcome it. My sisters are my blood, and I have to take more care with the relationships. Especially with Viv. It’s easier with Jasmine because we live in the same state, but with Viv being out east, it’s easy to let it slip. It’s ironic that in the days of email, it’s sometimes harder to keep in touch with loved ones.
“Thanks for the ride, Meg. You want to come in for a minute?” Viv asks as I pull up to Jasmine’s house.
“Sure.” I don’t, really, but it’s not like I can see Viv every day. I don’t have anything other than taiji tomorrow, so I’ll get to spend the rest of the day alone. I can take fifteen more minutes now with my sister.
“I’ll make us some coffee.” Viv leads me to the kitchen and turns on the lights. It’s eleven o’clock, so I’m pretty sure Jasmine and Bob are sleeping.
“I wonder if Jasmine has ice cream.” I open the freezer and see a pint of Butter Brickle. It’s not my favorite, but it’ll do. “Want some, Viv?” I ask, holding up the pint.
“You know it!” Viv gives me the thumbs up as she starts the coffee perking. The pint is nearly full, so I dish up half for her and half for me. I start eating as we wait for the coffee. Viv also attacks her ice cream with gusto. There are icicles on the ice cream, but I ignore them. Bad ice cream is better than no ice cream, which is how I feel about pizza and sex, come to think of it. I finish the ice cream by the time the coffee has perked, so I check the freezer again. Near the back is a pint of chocolate fudge, half full. I taste it, and it’s fine.
“You want chocolate fudge ice cream?” I ask Viv, pointing at the pint.
“Yup!” She gives me the thumbs up again. The coffee is done, so she pours us each a generous mug. I dish out the ice cream, and then we take the ice cream and coffee to the living room. Smoochie is on the couch, but when she sees us, she hops down and limps off into the night.
“Where’s Pablo?” I ask Viv, looking around.
“Probably sleeping. Believe it or not, he’s a morning person.”
“Really?” My eyebrows shoot up in surprise. I know it’s a stereotype, but artists are usually night owls.
“Disgusting, right?” Viv makes a face. She’s a night person, as am I. “He’s up by six, seven if he decides to sleep in. That means he’s in bed by ten, eleven at the very latest.”
“I gotta admit, I never would have thought it.” I shake my head as I sit on the couch. I take a bite of the ice cream, then a sip of the coffee. It’s the perfect combination, and it’s a satisfying end to a hearty meal.
“Honestly, it’s one of the things we fought about the most in the first year we were together.” Viv says, demolishing her ice cream. “He’d get up at six and be all cheerful and noisy and fuck. I’d scream at him to shut up, and he’d get mad at me.” I’m nodding my head in agreement because I dated a woman like that once. Even on weekends, she would get up at five in the morning, making sure to wake me in the process. It might not have been on purpose, but she did it every damn time. She’d roll towards me not away and throw her arm out across my body. She claimed it was so she could steady herself, but I never bought it. Why the hell did she have to steady herself on me? Why not do it on the nightstand? When she started to make noises about moving in together after three months of dating, I dumped her.
“How’d you resolve it?” I know they must have because they’re still together.
“It got so bad, I kicked him out of bed and told him he wasn’t allowed back until he respected my right to sleep undisturbed until I got up naturally.” She pauses to take a sip of her coffee before continuing. “He was so mad at me, until I showed him how he made me feel.”
“How’d you do that?’ I ask, my mouth slightly open. Other people’s relationships are so fascinating. They’re better than television dramas any day.”
“I’d wait until he fell asleep after sex, then I’d wake him up by singing Backstreet Boys songs in his ear.” Viv snickers, and I laugh with her. She has balls, I’ll give her that. I would never have thought of that, and I have to give her credit for creativity. “Believe me. After three nights of that, he finally got what I was saying. He’s been more considerate in the morning ever since.”
“Damn, girl. Remind me never to fuck with you.” I raise my mug of coffee in her direction, and she leans over to clink her mug to mine.
“Well, he wasn’t listening, so I had to show him in a way he’d understand. He’s a man who needs his sleep, so depriving him of his eight hours drove home my point.” Viv smiles, but her eyes are deadly serious.
“Hey, girls. When did you get home?” Jasmine enters the room, yawning. She’s wearing a blue fleece robe with bunny slippers. Her hair is wrapped up in a scarf, and she looks adorably fifties.
“A few minutes ago,” I say. “We killed your ice cream, though. Sorry about that.”
“I’m glad. I bought it for Bob, but he didn’t want it.” Jasmine stops, then laughs. “I bought it a month ago, and it’s been sitting there ever since.
“It was good, even with the ice,” I say, laughing with Jasmine.
“Shouldn’t ice cream be icy?” Viv adds, her laugh low and husky. Suddenly, we’re all laughing our flat yellow asses off, and it feels damn good. Any time one of us would start to peter out, we’d look at each other and giggle anew. Our laugh-fest lasted a good ten minutes, and my side hurts by the time we’re done. Viv is red-faced, and Jasmine is wiping tears from her eyes. I look at them fondly, my heart filling with love for them.
“Next time we go out, you have to come with us,” I say, standing up. “But for now, I gotta go.” I hug my sisters before leaving. It’s been a fun night.