“You, too, Meg.” Viv holds me at arm’s length and studies my dress. As I’m wearing a short red dress that barely hides my tits and ass, I’m confident that I’ll meet her standards. She believes in flaunting what the good lord gave you, and I’m inclined to agree with her. “I’ve made reservations at Haute Dish. Is that OK with you?”
“It’s fine,” I say, a distinct lack of enthusiasm in my voice. I’m not a big fan of deconstructed food, and I don’t want puree in the middle of my tater tots. Still. Viv is the guest, so she gets to choose. “Where are Jasmine and Bob?”
“Bob is taking a nap. Jasmine is getting ready. She’s coming with us.” Viv fusses with her purse before bringing out a warm red lipstick and applying it.
“What?!” My mouth drops open in surprise. I hadn’t even invited Jasmine because I was so sure she wouldn’t come with us.
“She wanted us girls to go out once before I go back home,” Viv says, finishing with her lipstick. She puts it back in her purse and snaps the purse shut.
“I’m glad. It’ll be fun.” I have my reservations because we had such a different reaction to Mr. Tsai, but it’ll be great to have the three of us together again.
“Hi, Megan! You look great.” Jasmine hugs me and kisses me on the cheek. Unlike Viv and me in our monochromatic dresses, she’s wearing a pink floral print that suits her. Her dress reaches her knees, and she’s covered up her own impressive bosom.
“So do you, Jasmine,” I say as I pull back. “Let’s face it. We are three fine-looking ladies!” We link arms and go outside. Since I’m not in the mood to drink tonight, I’m driving. Neither of my sisters drink much, either, but they’re not against a glass of wine every now and again.
We chat about our lives on our way to Haute Dish. I don’t know about them, but I need a break from all the heaviness that has dominated my life in the past few months. We laugh and giggle, and I can feel my spirits lifting. When we reach the restaurant, I look over the menu. The Beet X 5 is calling to me as an appetizer, and I decide on the Quail in a Can for my dinner. Once we’ve ordered, Jasmine brings up the subject we’ve all been avoiding—that man.
“What do you girls think about the news?” She asks, lifting her glass of wine to her lips. “I can’t believe he was lying about being our father.”
“I can,” I say bluntly. “I never really thought he was our father.”
“So you’re glad to be proven right?” Jasmine asks, her voice rising a bit.
“No! I wanted him to be our father, but something about him just didn’t feel right.” I drain my water glass as I feel a headache coming on. I tell my sisters what I learned from the internet and from Mrs. Tsai, save for the sleeping with our father part. I don’t know if that’s relevant or if Jasmine could handle it. I’m not worried about Viv, but I can’t tell one without telling the other. Neither of them say much until I’m done.
“He did all that?” Viv asks, looking distressed. By now, we have our appetizers, but none of us much feel like eating. “What kind of person is that devious? Why would he do that? What did he get out of it?”
“I don’t know, Viv,” I say softly. “His wife told me that his biggest regret is that they didn’t have children. It’s hard for me to understand, but he seemed to think that we were the next best thing.”
“That doesn’t make sense!” Jasmine says indignantly. Her voice is trembling, and I know she’s near tears. She’s taken it the hardest of the three of us, which makes sense because she was the one who was closest to our father. “How can a substitute family make up for not having one of his own?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I’m helpless to explain something I don’t fully understand myself. “But there are stories of women who steal babies when they can’t have them on their own. Maybe this is a similar thing.” We hash it out for several more minutes, but we still can’t come up with a satisfactory reason why he’d done this.
“I still don’t get it,” Jasmine says, finishing her glass of wine. She looks at it wistfully, but sets it back down on the table. “He lived here, but not with his wife, even though they were still married.”
“She said it was because she couldn’t stand Minnesota winters,” I interject, eating my appetizer without pleasure. It looked good on the menu, but it tastes…weird. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. I’m sure it’s done well, but it tastes like ashes in my mouth. “I think there’s more to it, but I didn’t want to push her on it.”
“I think she knows more about his business here,” Viv says suddenly. “You have to ask her about it again.” Irrationally, I’m peeved by her comment. Who died and made me queen of this investigation? Why couldn’t one of them call her instead? I dismiss the thought because I’m the one who made initial contact, and she’d be more apt to talk to me than my sisters whom she’s never talked to before.
“There’s something weird there,” I comment, finishing my appetizer. I may not like it, but I’m not going to let it go to waste. “She read his emails about the business, but she still wouldn’t tell me much. By her account, her husband was the victim of the scheme—well, other than the investors, of course. I have a hunch that’s not exactly the case.”
“Have you looked into the failed business yet?” Jasmine asks, sipping at her water.
“No. I’ll do it when I get home.” I should have last night, of course, but I was exhausted by the time I was done talking to Mrs. Tsai. There’s no hurry, really. It’s not as if I actually care who killed that man. I feel terrible for thinking it, but it’s true. I’m only doing this because of my innate curiosity and because I still can’t believe he deceived us like that. I guess I feel if I can figure out what actually happened to him, I can find some peace with it.
“Taiwanese Architectural Project,” I murmur, typing the name into my browser. The results aren’t very promising, and I sigh because it’s going to take some digging. While I’m ruminating, I get a ping telling me that I have an email. It’s from Liz. “Megan, Frankie knows someone who’s an ace internet guy. Here’s his name. Tell him Frankie sent you. He owes Frankie big, so there’s no charge. Yuri Childress.” She includes his email address and notes that he lives in Seattle. I read the email blankly, not knowing why she sent it to me. Then, I remember I had asked everyone I knew for an internet person who can un-erase a history, and I’m grateful for the response. I send Liz an email thanking her before sending an email to Yuri Childress.
“Dear Yuri. My name is Megan Liang, and I’m really good friends with Liz Stanton. She’s married to Frankie Russo.” I feel stupid writing it out like that, but I know I have to give him my bona fides. Geek boys are usually highly paranoid, and not without good cause. If I don’t give him a reason to trust me, he probably won’t even answer my email. “I need to have someone’s history online un-erased, and she said you’re the person to do it. She said to tell you that Frankie sent me.” Not a minute later, I receive, “Frankie’s a bro. What do you need?” Well, that was easy enough. I reply, “Henry Liang. His online history has been scrubbed. I’d really appreciate if you could un-scrub it.” Yuri: “Why? Who is he?” I hesitate. Do I want to tell him the truth? I don’t think I have a choice. “My father. Someone erased his digital footprints.” Yuri: “Who?” Why can’t he be a typical hacker who’ll do these kinds of things without asking questions? I quickly Google him, and I discover he’s the CEO of his own nonprofit—an organization that helps underprivileged kids learn how to use computers. He was poor himself when he was a kid—which was only ten years ago, by the way—and he had to go for days without eating sometimes. He was saved by a teacher who took pity on him and brought him food to eat every day. Then, Mr. Avery, brought in his old computer and gave it to Yuri. Yuri taught himself to use it, and he was hooked from the first keystroke. Now, he wants to do the same for others. His nonprofit is named Avery House after the teacher who saved his life.
“His name is, was, George Tsai. He was Henry’s best friend and took over his identity when Henry died.” I hesitate, then add, “George Tsai was run over by a car a few nights ago. Here in Minnesota.” A few minutes later, “Right. Is it urgent?” I think about it for a minute. It’s not, really, but I would like to know sooner rather than later so I can—what? Digest the news? I don’t know, but I’m compelled to answer honestly. “It’s not pressing except that my sisters and I really would like to know more about our father. Sooner, rather than later.” I think of something else. “If you can find anything about the Taiwanese Architectural Project including the names of investors, I’d really appreciate it. Since it’s extra, I’m more than happy to pay for the information.” A minute later, Yuri emails back. “I’m on it. No charge. I wouldn’t be here without Frankie. Give me an hour.” I want to know what Frankie did for him, but I respect Yuri’s privacy. If he wants me to know, he’ll tell me.
I turn back to my computer and try to find something about the Taiwanese Architectural Project (TAP), but I’m hitting dead ends. I have a hunch that man scrubbed the history of this as well, which makes me think he’s not as innocent as he claims. Claimed. I give up and wait for the report from Yuri. I’m good with the Google, but he’s an expert, so why not take advantage of that fact? I send another email to Liz, thanking her again. She says she’ll pass the thanks on to Frankie and offers unbidden that Frankie saved Yuri’s life once a few years ago. Frankie was in Seattle for a conference, and as he was walking back to his hotel, he saw a teenager being attacked by a man with a knife. The teenager was Yuri, of course, and Frankie jumped into the fray. He managed to knock the knife away from the mugger, though his hand (Frankie’s) got sliced in the process. The mugger had cut Yuri badly across the abdomen, and Frankie called 911 as soon as he subdued the mugger. “I remember you telling me about that at the time,” I email back. “I’m glad Yuri is OK.”
I check my newest post, and there are several stories about familial deception. SeeSideSaw writes, “I gave up a baby for adoption twenty years ago. It was a difficult decision, but I was a fifteen-year-old girl, and I knew I wasn’t ready to be a mother. A year ago, a young man stood on my doorstep and said he was my son. I had three children of my own by that point, and I didn’t know how to take what he was saying. I had had a closed adoption, and I was upset that he had somehow managed to find me. Well, long story short, I found out he wasn’t my son. He just pretended to be because I married a man with a lot of money. I reported him to the police, and it’s given me nightmares ever since.” SaladontheSide adds, “I found out a few months ago that my mom is not my mom—she’s my grandmother. The woman I thought was my sister is my mother. She had me when she was fourteen, and my grandmother raised me as her own while my sister-who’s-actually-my-mother ran wild. I only found out because my sister-mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer three months ago and decided she had to come clean. I hate her for turning my whole life upside down. I really do.” DownWithTyranny says, “The man I thought was my uncle is my father. His kids whom I called my cousins are my half-siblings. I am still reeling from all this, and I wish I didn’t know.” That spurs me to start a new post.
Family secrets are so potent. The more you unravel them, the more layers there are. The worst part is that when you discover them, they challenge everything you thought you knew about yourself and your past. Our families are supposed to be our safe havens, but, often, they’re our own private hell. As I read the comments on my last post, I feel an overwhelming sense of sadness that so many people are dealing with family deceptions as I am. There’s some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one facing family problems, but I wish none of us were in this club.
This post doesn’t come easy to me, but I manage to write it, anyway. I’m marginally satisfied as I publish it, even if it’s not my best writing by far. Five minutes after I post it, MNborn is right there with the first comment. She must have my feed on her phone with audible notifications because she’s always right on it when I publish a new post. “Families are such an artificial construct. Just because you have the same blood, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get along. My father was a stern, unsmiling, unhappy man who hated being a father. He only did it because that’s what you were supposed to do, and he was a man who took his duties seriously, whatever else I might say about him. I cut off all ties ten years ago when I realized that he just made me miserable every time we got together. He criticized everything from my hair to the way I dressed to my choice of partners to the fact I had hangnails. When he was done with that, he would complain about long-haired dirty hippies who were ruining his life with all their peace and love talk. Just because he’s related to me, it doesn’t mean he’s family.” A few minutes later, PleatedPlaits writes, “I think family is important, but my definition of family is a bit different than the norm. My two dogs, Bessie and Lou, are my family. My bestie’s daughter is family. My family? Not so much family.”
One of the things I find most gratifying about blogging is that no matter what I express, I’m not alone. There is always someone else who is feeling the same thing I am, usually several someones. I don’t feel as alone after writing as I do beforehand. Yes, there are several people who dismiss the way I feel or don’t understand it, but that’s to be expected. I am not a normie, which means I’ll get pushback for whatever I write. I’m fine with that, and I really do like hearing dissenting opinions. However, people who call me names or issue death threats are not welcome on my blog. Free speech is fine and dandy, but not in my house. I wouldn’t let someone who is cursing me or threatening me into my home, so why would I allow them on my blog? I don’t buy that it’s only words and that it’s only online. Words matter, and there’s a thin line between the internet and reality.
I admit it’s hard to maintain a balance between allowing for a robust discussion and not permitting hate speech. It’s not always easy to read tone on the internet, and I tend to err on the side of, “Oh, no, you didn’t!” Basically, if I don’t like it, I don’t publish it. Simple. I’ve had complaints about it, but ultimately, what is someone going to do? Boycott my blog? Works for me! I get emails from lurkers who say they appreciate that I keep a tight rein on the comment section. Some of them have been to several blogs before stumbling on mine, not feeling comfortable to even read the comments. I understand. While I like the rowdy nature of some unmoderated blogs, I find that they too often devolve into dreck and mudslinging. I much prefer moderated comment sections because then you can have an actual discussion.
I hear a ping telling me I have an email, and it’s from Yuri. It says, “It took me a hot minute. He’s good. I’m better.” I shoot him back an email thanking him, and I tell him if he’s ever in Minneapolis to look me up. He’s included reams of information, and I start skimming. TAP was started by George and his two buddies as I already knew, but he’s the one who convinced them to pony up most of the money while he had everything in his name. Even more surprising was that TAP had originally started as a legitimate company, but George quickly turned it into a Ponzi scheme. Apparently, Richard and Scott didn’t know about it, so they were understandably upset when they found out George had been lying to them and salting away their money. Even though George’s name was on the papers, Richard knew the banker and was able to talk him into freezing the account, thus shutting George out of it. That was when he knew the jig was up, folded his tent, and fled back to San Francisco. It’s a much different story than the one I had read, and I wonder who had released that yarn to the press. Probably George.
There’s more about TAP, but I put it aside so I can read about my father first. I’m strangely reluctant to do so, but simultaneously compelled. Yuri has found out that my father lived in the Castro District, surprise, surprise. That’s the queer part of town, which is probably what drew him to it. He was a drag queen when he first arrived in San Francisco, which is what I suspected from the half-lies Mr. Tsai told me, and Yuri has included grainy pictures of my father in drag. I squint as I study the pre-digital photography pictures. My father had an elaborate wig of dark black hair piled high on his head, and it was festooned with chopsticks. He wore chi-paos when he performed, and I bet he did China Girl by David Bowie as part of his act—wait when was that song written? He was in tech before he gave it up for woodworking, and he was renowned around San Francisco for the latter. He was an ardent supporter of the arts, and he traveled frequently. There are pictures of him from the last decade, and it’s easy to see why Mr. Tsai erased them from the internet. My father was a good half a foot taller than Mr. Tsai was, and he was still a virile man right up until the time he was died of a heart attack. He ran four miles a day, five days a week, and he was a vegetarian.
I’m surprised to find my eyes filling with tears as I read. It’s all mundane stuff, but this is my father, and I never knew any of it. It’s as if I’m reading a work of fiction about a man named Henry Liang. I don’t know what I was hoping to find when I asked Yuri to restore my father’s online history, but this isn’t it. I read that a few days before his heart attack, Henry had a falling out with Mr. Tsai. I lift my eyebrows because neither Mr. nor Mrs. Tsai had mentioned anything about that. Even if it’s true, does it really matter? Only in that it imparts a more sinister motive for Mr. Tsai stealing my father’s identity. What if Mr. Tsai had stolen money from my father and—no, that doesn’t fit what happened. What if Mr. Tsai had found out about his wife and my father? That doesn’t work, either. The problem is, my father died a natural death, so there’s nothing nefarious there. Mr. Tsai did not kill my father, so my father’s death is not directly connected to Mr. Tsai’s impersonation. I’m making it too complicated, and perhaps I should take what Mr. Tsai had said to his wife at face value—he wanted a family, and ours was a ready-made one.
I read more of the information that Yuri had unearthed. My father had a will, and in it, he left everything to my sisters and me. I shriek out loud at that tidbit, startling a snoozing Onyx and Jet. I pet them apologetically before reading the details of the will. He had a million dollars including what he inherited from Larry, and it was supposed to be split evenly between my sisters and me. Mr. Tsai was the executor, which means, I think, it was up to him to make sure we got the money. I do a quick Google search, and that is, indeed, what should have happened. I am stunned by Mr. Tsai’s betrayal of my father’s trust, and then I’m angry. I call Mrs. Tsai without thinking about it.