“I’ll take a large latte with skim milk,” I say to the barista at Ye Olde Diamond Shoppe. “And this zucchini pineapple bread.” He sighs and pushes himself away from the counter as if I’m asking him to murder his mother.
“That’ll be six-seventy-five,” he says, a scowl on his face. He’s tall, skinny, with a scraggly blond beard and thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He’s given me attitude every time I’ve been in the café, and if it weren’t so close to my taiji studio, I would never go there. I pay him then go to wait for my latte. That man isn’t here yet, and a part of me is hoping that he won’t show up. We’re supposed to meet at one-thirty, however, and I’m five minutes early. I’ll give him those five minutes and ten minutes more before giving up. I get my latte and put raw sugar in it. As I’m stirring, that man walks in. He spots me and gives me a huge smile. He points at the front counter, and I nod. He orders, pays, then walks over to me.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this weather,” he says, shivering despite wearing a heavy coat, a scarf, and gloves. He looks at me, and his eyes widen because I’m just wearing a sweater over my shirt and no coat. I had been wearing gloves, but they are in my purse now. “Where’s your coat?”
“I don’t need one yet,” I say with a false smile. “I like cold weather.”
“You should wear one! You might get hypothermia.” He’s clucking over me, and resist the impulse to tell him to can it. I wouldn’t take that from him even if he were my father who had been present for my whole life, which he’s not—and hadn’t been.
“It’s not even freezing,” I inform him, keeping my voice even. “I’ll be fine.”
“What did you order?” He asks, peering at my cup. “I got just plain coffee. It’s hard to find these days.”
“A latte with skim milk,” I say. “I order it any time I’m at a coffee shop because I get overwhelmed by too many choices.”
“Plain coffee.” The jerk holds out the cup of coffee, a sneer in his voice. That man goes over, takes it and adds sugar and cream before putting a lid on it. I have an impulse to take him outside, but that would be cruel. I take him to the front room instead, and we sit on the couch and sip at our coffee. It doesn’t appear as if he’s going to say anything, but he’s the one who wanted to meet, so he can start the conversation whenever he’s ready. I’m content to drink my latte and eat my zucchini pineapple bread. After several minutes, he finally talks.
“My husband died two months ago,” he says without preamble. I blink because that’s not what I’m expecting to hear. “Larry. Larry Sato. We’d been together thirty years.”
“I saw a picture of you with him. At Pride!” I pull out my phone and find the image again. “Is this him?” That man glances at the pic and smiles.
“Yes. That’s Larry. Wasn’t he handsome?” His eyes linger on the phone before I put it away.
“You two look happy together,” I say, finishing my latte.
“We were.” He says, a wistful look on his face. “He was the love of my life, and any time I got down, he would cheer me up by singing songs from The Lion King.” That’s such a sweet memory, I can’t help but soften towards him. Which is probably why he told it in the first place. “He had pancreatic cancer, and by the time we got it diagnosed, it was too late to treat it.” He turns his face away, and I drop my eyes to give him some semblance of privacy. After a few seconds, he clears his throat and looks at me again. I see the pain in his eyes, and I don’t say anything snarky as I normally would.
“I’m sorry. It must be hard on you.” I am sincere, if a bit begrudging.
“I think about him every day,” he replies. “In a way, I won’t mind dying if it means I’ll be with him again.” I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I don’t believe in giving false comfort because it just impedes the grieving process, so I say nothing. I hate it when people tell me that Julianna is in a better place or that God wanted her back. I don’t believe in that shit, and it just makes me angry. One person who repeated it several times made me finally snapped. I yelled at him that God was a shitty person if he insisted on taking my best friend from me. That shut that person up, much to my relief. My next comment would have been even more beyond the pale, and therefore, best left unsaid.
“He’d probably want you to enjoy the rest of your time on earth,” I say, glancing at my empty latte cup. “I’ll be back in a minute.” I stand up and go back to the main room so I can buy another latte. I usually try to limit myself to one per visit, but this is a special occasion—and not in a good way.
“You’re right. He wouldn’t want me to just give up and die,” that man says upon my return. I look at him blankly until I remember what we were talking about before “When Larry was diagnosed with cancer, he vowed to fight it for all he’s worth.”
“I thought you said it was too late,” I say, sitting straight up in my seat.
“It was. The doctor gave him three months to live, but he managed to live six months past that. He had a fighting spirit unlike any other I’ve seen before.”
“How long are you staying in Minnesota?” I ask, abruptly changing the subject. It’s been tickling the back of my mind ever since I met that man, and I’m hoping that he’ll disappear back to San Francisco before too long.
“My ticket here was one way,” that man says, causing me to choke on my latte. “I’m retired, and I don’t have anything keeping me in San Francisco. The most important thing to me right now is you and your sisters. I would be able to die a happy man if the three of you accepted me in your life.”
“Never going to happen.” It leaps to my mind, but I don’t say it out loud. One, I’m not sure it won’t, especially when it comes to Jasmine. Two, it’s too cruel, even for me. This man has lost his reason to live and has been diagnosed with a terminal illness to boot. I’m not the kind of woman to take away someone’s last hope, however faint.
“When I used to live here,” the man begins, then stops. His face immediately tightens, and I pounce on his words.
“You lived here? When? Why didn’t you contact us then?” My face flushes, and I’m pissed. Just as I was feeling a modicum of sympathy for him, he drops this on me. My guard is up, and I’m staring at him with an expression that borders on hostile.
“I wasn’t really living here,” he says, hastily backtracking. “Before I was a woodworker, I was a traveling IT tech for Best Buy. They sent me here for months at a time because this is their home base as you probably know.”
“My question still stands—why didn’t you contact us then?” I keep my eyes trained on his face, and I don’t miss the wince he makes at my question. My guess is he was hoping I’d let it go, but he doesn’t know me very well if he thinks I would do that. I don’t think he meant to reveal that information, but I wonder if it’s a Freudian slip.
“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to,” he begins, then stops. “No. No excuses. The truth is, I was a coward. Plain and simple. I was terrified to show you the real me. I drove by our house—your house—several times. I even went to the door once, but I couldn’t make myself ring the bell.”
“When was this?”
“Thirty or so years ago.” I am stunned. I would have been fifteen at the time, and I can’t help but think how my life might have gone differently if he’d actually shown his face back then. I could have gone with him to San Francisco and lived with him and Larry. OK, Larry was after that, but still. I could have gotten away from my drunken mother I could have lived among the freaks and the geeks instead of the jocks and the cheerleaders. I conveniently overlook the fact that I probably would have kicked him in the balls if he had shown up because I was filled with rage at him when I was a teenager. I don’t know what to say, and I’m saved from saying anything by his phone ringing. He answers it without even looking at the phone. “Hello?” His face changes from relaxed to tense, and a scowl creeps over his lips as he switches to Taiwanese. “I told you not to call me. I am busy, and I cannot talk to you right now. I will call you when I call you. Do not call me again.” He clicks off the phone, turns it to vibrate, and shoves it in his pocket.
“Everything OK?” I ask, my voice elaborately casual. I’m not sure he knows I can understand Taiwanese, so I keep it to myself for now.
“Fine, fine. Just a family problem.” He smiles, but it’s patently false. “Where were we?”
“You were explaining why you never contacted my sisters and me in the past forty-plus years.” My hand is shaking as I pick up my latte. I sip from it, grimacing because it’s lukewarm.
“Well, that’s all in the past,” he says, waving his hand in the air. “I’m here now, and I’m hoping to make up for lost time.” His voice is sincere, but there’s just something slightly off about it. I can’t put my finger on it, so I stow it away for later.
“I have to be honest with you,” I say, sipping at me tepid latte. “I’m not sure I want to have a relationship with you, even if you are who you say you are.” His face whitens, but he doesn’t say anything. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, truly, but I also can’t just open my arms and embrace him wholeheartedly. I can’t help feeling he’s after something else, not necessarily something nefarious, but something he’s not telling me. I let it go for now because I don’t know how to get him to tell it to me. Then I remember my internet search last night, and I ask him about it. “I Googled you last night. I couldn’t find anything about you. Why is that?”
“I don’t use social media,” he says, his face carefully blank. “I don’t like to leave a digital path that can lead right to my front door.”
“I get that. I really do.” And I do, even though I use social media myself. “I can understand why you wouldn’t want to have a Twitter or Facebook account. What I don’t understand is how there is nothing about your life online. I know you can use a computer because you were an IT tech.” I take a deep breath and ask, “Did you scrub your online history or have it scrubbed?” I count to five, slowly, before he responds.
“No! I would never do something like that.” He’s looking me right in the eye, but as he says the last two words, his eyes flick to the left for a second before returning to my eyes. He’s lying to me, and it shuts down any inclination I might have had to warm up to him.
“Ok. We’re done here.” I stand up, preparing to leave.
“No, wait.” He grabs my arm, and I glare at his offending hand. I don’t like to be touched without my permission, and he definitely did not ask first. Wisely, he removes it before I have to do it for him. “Look. You’re right. I scrubbed my online history because I’m a very private person. I’m going to die soon, and I didn’t want certain aspects of my life to be available to anyone who looked for it online.” He catches the grimace on my face and quickly adds, “It’s nothing illegal or immoral, but some of the things I did when I first moved to San Francisco are…embarrassing.” Given that he moved there to get in touch with his gay side, I can hazard a guess as to what the embarrassing material might be. I’m thinking drag queen, and if that’s the case, then it’s none of my business. I don’t think it’s something to be embarrassed by, but he’s an older Taiwanese man, so I can see why he might want to scrub that from his history. I slowly sit down and take a few slow breaths before replying.
“I’m not going to ask you what you scrubbed because it’s none of my business, but I will tell you right now—I will not stand for you lying to me. If I think you’re doing it, I’m walking and will never talk to you again. Understand?” My tone is harder than I wanted it to be, but I can’t help myself. He bristles, but when he answers, his voice is mild.
“Understood.” He pauses, then asks, “You’ve been lied to a lot in your life?”
“Yes. Mostly by my mother.” I stop. I’m not sure I want tell tales out of school, especially with him. “That’s neither here nor there.” I gulp half of my remaining latte just to have something to do.
“I heard about her problem,” he says sympathetically. “I still have friends here, and they’ve been keeping track of her.”
“Well, she’s been dead for seventeen years, so there’s not much to keep track of now.” My voice is bitter, and I am resigned to go back to therapy because I need to get past my bitterness.
“I heard about that, too.” He pauses, then carefully chooses his words. “Your mother sent a letter to me before she died.”
“What the fuck?” The swear slips out before I can censor myself. Normally, I don’t swear in front of an elder. I am learning too much in too short a time, however, and I can’t completely control myself.
“I got it about a week before she died. Not that she knew she was going to die,” he hastens to add. I don’t say anything as I’m still shell-shocked by his revelation. “In it, she told me she forgave me for leaving her and that she was going to quit drinking.”
“She what?” I feel like an idiot, but I can’t comprehend what he’s saying. As floored as I was by his appearance on my door, this is hitting me harder. I always thought of my mother as an unrepentant drunkard, so the idea that she actually thought about stopping is breaking my brain.
“A letter.” He opens his briefcase and pulls out a well-worn envelope. He carefully opens it and pulls out a single sheet of yellowed paper. He hands it over to me, and I stare at it without moving. Do I actually want to read this letter? I don’t know if I can take it, but something inside me is saying I have to do it. I gingerly accept the folded sheet of paper and hold it in my hand for several seconds before finally unfolding it. I smooth it out and bring it up to my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I begin to read. It’s in Taiwanese (Chinese characters, but I know she wrote it in Taiwanese), so I have to make some leaps in connectivity because my Taiwanese reading comprehension is nowhere near as good as my aural capability.
My Dearest Husband,
It’s been twenty-five years since you walked out on me and ended my life. I think about you every day, and for the first five years, I wish you would come back to me. The next five years, I wanted you to die. Then, I was just numb. I didn’t care what happened to you, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you. In this last year, I finally was able to let you go. I still think about from time to time, but it doesn’t hurt any longer. I hope you are doing well, and I forgive you for leaving me. I want to start next year anew, which means letting you go and stopping my drinking. It’s time for me to start living my life.
There are tears in my eyes after I’m done reading the letter. I’m crying for more than one reason. First of all, she never mentions my sisters or me in the letter. She only talks about how his leaving affected her, not us. It makes it very clear that he was the sole focus of her life and that we weren’t even an afterthought. Secondly, if she meant it about giving up drinking, then how fucking unlucky she was that she died before she had a chance to do so. Then again, it’s possible that she decided to go on one last binge before giving it up and her poor liver just gave out.
“I wrote back, but I never heard from her again,” he says. “I’m assuming you didn’t find my letter among her belongings after she died.”
“No, we didn’t.” Which means she either threw it away or it never got there in the first place.
“I told her I was so sorry I hurt her so badly. I wish I would have done it in a better way, but I can’t go back and change it.” His eyes are sad, and I want to give him a hug. I don’t, however, because I’m not sure I want to take that step in our relationship yet. “I loved Larry with all my heart, but I realized that the cost might have been too steep. That’s another reason I’m here. Family is everything to me.”
“You said something about having other business here?” I ask, changing the subject. The conversation is getting too heavy for me, and I’m becoming uncomfortable.
“When I…worked here…I put some capital into a venture that didn’t pan out. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I want to straighten it out with the guys I gave the money to.” He can’t quite look into my eyes, which puts my senses on alert. He’s not lying to me, exactly, but he’s carefully dancing around the truth. Or, he’s doing my favorite version of lying—evasion. It’s all in what he’s not telling me, so I decide to push him on it.
“What guys? What was the venture?”
“The names aren’t important, but it was a can’t-miss opportunity that was totally fabricated. Remember, this was in the days before the internet was a common thing, so while I did my due diligence, I was totally snowed.” His voice is tight, which means he doesn’t want to talk about it any longer. Which means I want to push him even harder on it.
“That was a long time ago, so what are you hoping to get out of it now?” I ask, finishing the dregs of my latte. I want another one, but two is definitely my limit.
“Retribution,” he says, his eyes turning black. He’s an affable man, but right now, he’s scaring me with the intensity in his eyes. “I gave them a hundred thousand dollars, which was all of my life’s savings at the time.
“You’re sure they’re still here?” I ask, trying not to gape at the amount of money he gave them. I mean, it’s not crazy money, but it’s a sizeable sum to hand over to someone without thoroughly vetting them—especially thirty years ago.
“One of them is. The other died, but one is still alive and kicking in Richfield.” His voice is grim, and I have a feeling that he’s not above using his muscle to get what he wants. He may be in his seventies, but he’s still in pretty good shape. I wouldn’t bet against him in a geriatric fist fight.
“I have to go,” I say, standing up. I don’t really, but I am ready to leave.
“Can I see you again soon?” He jumps up and looks at me with an eager expression. I don’t have the heart to turn him down, so I nod my head once. He goes in for the hug, and I stick my hand out so he’s forced to shake it instead. I don’t hug people I’m not comfortable with, and while I’m not actively hostile towards him any longer, we are not on hugging terms yet.
“Let’s shoot for Monday night. I’ll email you with a time later.” After I say that, I leave. I’m contemplative on the way back to Rembrandt’s house. The interaction went better than I had thought it would, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being conned. I go over the conversation in my mind, and while nothing jumps out at me for being patently wrong, I have to trust my gut. It has something to do with the other reason he says he’s in Minnesota—the pyramid scheme. I’m sure there was some kind of business deal that went wrong, but I think he’s painting himself too much of the innocent in the picture. In addition, his explanation for why he scrubbed his internet history doesn’t ring completely true. I accepted it at the time, but if he did drag when he first arrived in San Francisco, chances are, the pics aren’t going to be on the internet now. Come to think of it, anything he did back then wouldn’t be on the internet now. That was in the early seventies, way before the idea of a series of connecting tubes even entered Al Gore’s mind. Which means that was a lie. My face flushes as I smack my hand against the steering wheel. I specifically told him if he lied to me, I wouldn’t talk to him again, but that was after he had come up with the bullshit about why he had erased his digital footprints. Which means I have to confront him about it again.
“Goddamn it.” I’m so mad, I could spit. Just when I was thinking we could actually have some kind of relationship, I had to realize that he had lied to me again.