Chapter One; Part One
“I know Thanksgiving is this Thursday, Jasmine,” I say, pacing my living room floor. “I can read a calendar as well as you can.” Onyx and Jet, my two black cats, sister and brother, pace alongside me. Onyx is mewing at me, and Jet is watching her back, as always. Onyx is five pounds of fluffy attitude, whereas Jet is close to four times her size and pure muscle. He’s content to take a backseat to his more vocal sister, however, which has been their pattern since I got them eight years ago when they were six months old. I fan my waist-length black hair away from my neck as I’m suddenly hot. Perimenopause is no joke, yo.
“You’re delegated to make the pies—whatever kind you like.” My older sister has been in charge of family functions since we were kids, and she’s not above bossing me around.
“I’ll make one pumpkin and one sweet potato. How many people are going to be there?” I make a note to myself because I’ll forget if I don’t. It’s my passive-aggressive way of getting back at Jasmine for being such a control freak.
“Me, Bob, Coral, Jamal, the twins, Jordan, Joanna, and their three kids as well. Vivian said she’d try to make it, but she hasn’t booked her tickets, yet.” Vivian is our younger sister who lives in Boston and is an artist. She has no concept of time or responsibility to others. It’s not that she’s thoughtless, but that she’s focused on her art most of the time. Bob’s sister and her family lives out of state, and I’ve never met any of them. Jordan and Joanna live in NYC, so they must be flying out for the holiday. Jasmine’s other two kids, Robert Jr. and Michael, live in California and Florida, respectively, and won’t be able to make it this year. “Oh! Bring that guy you’re dating. It’s about time I met him. I want to make sure he’s a good match for you.”
“I’m not sure about that,” I demur. “We’ve only been dating a little over a month, so I don’t want to spook him.”
“You’re not getting any younger, Megan. It’s time for you to settle down.” Jasmine’s eight years older than I am, and she was a second mother to me after our father left when I was three, and my mother started quietly drinking herself to death. That’s why I put up with Jasmine talking to me as if I’m an idiot, but only for a limited amount of time.
“It’s been a month,” I reiterate, keeping my voice even. “He probably wants to go to his mother’s, anyway.”
“Invite her, too!” Jasmine says. I snort in response, but I don’t say anything. I decide to change the subject so she’ll get off my back.
“How’s Bob doing?” I ask, my tone cautious. Bob is Jasmine’s husband and was kidnapped right before the election by a woman from their church who was deluded into thinking she and Bob belonged together. I managed to rescue him in one piece, but his mental state has been fragile ever since.
“He’s having a good day today. He made it through work without having a panic attack, and he’s now watching the news while digesting his dinner. Which he was able to keep down.” Jasmine’s tone is concerned, as it has been since Bob came home. “Oh! Geoff says Bob is still on probation for all the work he missed before he got taken. Bob’s worried about that.” Geoff is Bob’s boss, and he’s been extraordinarily patient in my opinion. Bob started cutting out of work early about three months before he was kidnapped in order to help the woman who consequently kidnapped him. She had spun him a story about being in an abusive relationship, and he, being the good man he is, was eager to help her.
“That’s unfortunate, but understandable. How are you doing?” I found out some unsavory secrets about Jasmine and Bob during my search for him, and it’s something she and he have had to work out. They’re not there yet, but they’re doing better than they were in the days leading up to his disappearance.
“I’m letting go and letting God,” Jasmine replies. “Speaking of God, Reverend Yang has resigned his post.” Also not surprising. He’s a charming man who seems to have slept with half his female parishioners. He and his wife had an agreement that they could fool around as long as it didn’t get serious, but that fell apart during Bob’s kidnapping. The woman who kidnapped Bob also attacked Reverend Yang when he got too close to the truth. Yes, he had slept with her, and, yes, that’s partly why he suspected her. She attacked him in his office and left him in a coma. Fortunately for him, he woke up in a day and has suffer few physical effects. Mentally, that’s another story. In addition, his wife has been cooking the books. I found evidence of it, but that’s yet another story. “He wants to talk to you.”
“I know.” I had gotten close to Reverend Yang under false pretenses while trying to find Bob, and he had revealed a major secret to me that he’d never told anyone else. He’s emailed me a few times since he’s gotten out of the hospital, but I haven’t responded. I’m not sure I want to, especially as we made out a few times. I only did it to find out what he knew about Bob, but I still feel guilty about it. I haven’t told Rembrandt, the man I’m dating, because I’m sure he’d consider it a betrayal, even though we’re not officially exclusive. At the very least, I should have talked to him about it before macking on the good reverend. I wouldn’t mind being friends with Reverend Yang, but I’m not sure we could keep it strictly platonic.
“I’m going to see him on Thanksgiving before dinner. You should come.”
“We’ll see.” I pause and add, “How’s his wife doing?”
“Not well, as you can imagine. She liked being Mrs. Reverend Yang.” Jasmine’s tone is acerbic, and it’s the first hint I’ve gotten that she doesn’t care for Mrs. Yang.
“I gotta go.” I don’t really, but I’m done talking for the time being. After I hang up, I go into the kitchen to give the cats some Temptations. They gobble them down, and I check the fridge for something to eat myself. It’s seven at night, and I’m hungry as I skimped on lunch at work this afternoon. It’s Monday, which means I have three days until Thanksgiving. I should ask Rembrandt if he wants to go to my sister’s for the holiday, otherwise, I’ll never hear the end of it.
Rembrandt DiCampo. I think about him and smile. He’s well over six feet, thin, with sandy brown curls, and engaging smile, and one green eye. He had a brown eye, too, but right after we met, a crazy stalker lady of mine attacked him and gouged out the brown one. I still feel enormously guilty about it, even though he’s slowly adjusting. He looks dashing in his eye patch to boot, and he rarely mentions it. He’s a photographer, however, and his depth perception is still wonky. It’s getting better, but I know it’s frustrating to him. He’s also a fantastic cook, and he’s seriously contemplating starting a restaurant if his photography skills don’t fully return.
We’ve only been dating a month or so, but he’s already made noises about us moving in together. It took me a few times of us fucking and a serious talk before I would even spend the night. I prefer sleeping in my own bed with only my cats as company, and I had a hard time making him understand that. I grudgingly agreed to stay the night if I could bring my cats with me. As he has a very spoiled orange (girl!) cat of his own named Ginger, he completely understood. Ginger and Onyx and Jet immediately hit it off, so it’s been no problem merging our households on the occasions when one of us spends the night. However, I’m content with it being two to three times a week, whereas he would prefer it to be more often. Don’t get me wrong. I could have sex every night; I just don’t want to spend that much time with one person.
I shoot Rembrandt a text asking him about his plans for Thanksgiving. He texts me back saying he’s going to his mother’s for lunch, and I’m welcome to come, too. His brothers, Monet and Gaugin, will be there, along with Monet’s husband and Gaugin’s wife and two kids. I tell him I’ll think about it, then invite him to my sister’s for dinner at six-thirty. I include everyone who’s going to be there, and Rembrandt immediately accepts. He asks what he can bring, and I text Jasmine. She says he can be on dessert patrol with me, so I relay that to Rembrandt. I say I’m making a pumpkin pie and a sweet potato pie, and he suggests coming over Wednesday night or me going over there, and we can make a slew of pies for both the meals. I decide it’s better to go to his place because he has a proper stove and all the right cooking gear. He’s dying to make an apple cobbler, and who am I to deny him that? He might even make vanilla bean ice cream from scratch, which would be a treat. We decide to make real whipped cream as well, and I’m feeling good about the holidays. I’m not a holiday person in general, and normally, I just ignore them. It’ll be interesting to see how I deal with two family gatherings in one day, especially as one of the families isn’t even mine.
The doorbell rings, startling me. I’m tempted to ignore it as I’m not expecting anyone, but the person keeps jabbing at the bell and doesn’t seem to have any intention of stopping. I march down the hallway with Onyx and Jet hot on my heels. I peek out the peephole, and I see a slight, old Taiwanese man with snowy white hair and faded brown eyes. He’s wearing a black jogging suit, which is the prerogative of an old man. I don’t recognize him, but I suppose he’s a friend of the family or something. He looks harmless enough, so I open the door a crack, but keep the chain latch on.
“Hello?” I ask, staring at him suspiciously through the crack. “May I help you?”
“Megan? Megan Liang?” The man’s eyes light up at the sight of me, and a wide grin spreads across his face.
“Yes. Who might you be?” I ask, keeping my eyes on him. It’s not often a strange old Taiwanese man shows up on my doorstep, and I’m put off-balance by it.
“Henry. Henry Liang.” I’m blank. Who the hell is Henry Liang? The man sees the confusion in my face and adds, “Your father.”
“My what?” I gape at him, certain that I’d misheard him. “You’re wrong. My father is dead.” At least, I assume he is. Otherwise, why haven’t I heard from him in four decades?
“I’m not dead, Megan. I’m very much alive.” He pauses, as if he’s waiting for me to answer. He’s going to be waiting a long time because I’m fresh out of words. “May I come in? We have a lot to talk about.” I still don’t say anything as I’m in shock. How the hell can this man standing in front of me be my father? And, why the hell is he back after all this time if it’s really him? In addition, why is he coming to see me and not Jasmine? I was three when he left, and my only memories of him are when he would yell at my mother for some perceived infraction of his arbitrary rules. Jasmine was the daddy’s girl, and he clearly favored her over me and baby Vivian, who was not even one when my father left us. Belatedly, I realize he’s asked me a question. I silently undo the chain latch and step back. I still can’t talk, but he doesn’t seem to take offense. Onyx and Jet meow loudly as he steps into the house. He stops, kneels, and allows them to sniff his fist. Onyx is the first to give in, rubbing her face against his fist. Jet hangs back, watching the man warily. I can’t call him my father yet, and I don’t know if I ever will. He stands up and takes off his shoes, neatly lining them up against the wall before turning to look at me again.
“Would you like some tea?” I ask, finally finding my voice again. “Or some water?”
“No, thank you. I’m good.” He smiles pleasantly, but I’m still staring at him in bemusement. I lead him to the living room, the cats trotting alongside me. They’re flanking me, and it’s as if they’re protecting me from the stranger.
“Have a seat.” I gesture to the couch, and he sits in the middle of it. Onyx and Jet hop up on either side of him. Onyx snuggles against his thigh, whereas Jet leaves plenty of space between him and the man. I sit on the recliner opposite the couch, my body tense.
“I know this must be a shock, Megan,” the man says, his tone gentle.
“You could say that,” I reply. My hands are shaking, and I place them in my lap to hide them from sight.
“You’re probably wondering where I’ve been all this time.” The man is staring at me with an intensity that makes me uncomfortable.
“To be honest, no,” I say. I’m not trying to be mean, but I haven’t thought of him, not seriously, in about twenty years. Back then, when I was in my early twenties, I tried to find him, but the internet was in its nascent stages, and I found very little. I didn’t even know what state he was living in or if he had changed his name. After I gave it my best shot, I put him out of my mind. I had been driving myself—and Jasmine—crazy in trying to find him, and I had to force myself to quit for the sake of my mental health.
“Well, I’ve thought about you and your sisters often. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up the phone to call one of you.” His eyes tear up, but I’m unmoved. He might have picked up the phone, but he never made that call. Talk is cheap if it’s not followed up by actions. In the old days, people also used to send letters to each other. He could have done that if he’d been serious about reaching out to me and my sisters. “I did write to you and your sisters, though.”
“Bullshit,” I say bluntly. “I never saw a letter. I’m sure my sisters never did, either.”
“That’s because they were returned to me unread,” he says with sadness. “I knew your mother was bitter, but I never thought she’d be that vindictive as well.”
“Don’t talk about my mother,” I say with anger. “You don’t have that right.”
“I’m not saying she didn’t have a reason,” the man says, making sure to keep his voice soft. “I just wish she would have let you read my letters.” He puts his hand into the messenger bag he has with him and withdraws a faded envelope from it. It’s been opened, but now it’s taped shut. My guess is he probably read it often after it was returned to him. He hands the letter over to me, and I examine the front of it. It’s addressed to Jasmine, Megan, and Vivian Liang, and it was sent to our childhood address. His address is in the upper left corner; apparently, he lived or lives in San Francisco. Right above my name is, “Return to Sender” written in my mom’s handwriting. I blink twice because it’s like being confronted by a ghost. Do I dare open it? I’m not sure I want to, but something compels me to get up, find a letter opener in a kitchen drawer, and slit open the envelope across the tape. I take a deep breath and start reading. The letter is dated November 8th, 1974, two weeks after our father left us.
Dear Jasmine, Megan, and Baby Vivian,
I am so sorry I left you so abruptly, but I hope by sending you this letter, I can help you understand the reason why. It’s not that I don’t love you; I never want you to think that. I love you girls with all my heart. It’s just that I couldn’t go on living a lie. I needed to be the real me, and I couldn’t do that being married to your mother.
I know this won’t make sense right now, but maybe when you grow up, you’ll understand what I’m saying. Remember that Baba loves you very much and always will.
With all my love,
Tears prick my eyes as I finish the letter. Given where he sent the letter from and the careful wording in the letter itself, I can guess why my father left my mother. He was gay, and he didn’t want to live in the closet any longer.
“That’s one of maybe fifty letters I sent you girls,” the man says, startling me because I hadn’t heard him enter the kitchen. “I sent one a week for roughly a year before I gave up.”
“May I keep this?” I ask, holding out the letter.
“Of course!” He smiles, and I can tell he’s pleased that I asked. I don’t tell him why I want to keep the letter, however; it’s not for sentimental reasons at all. I want to see if I can find any clues in the letter that will tell me more about my father.
“Let’s go back into the living room,” I suggest. I don’t feel comfortable having him in my kitchen as I consider it to be too intimate of a room to allow strangers in it. He follows me back and sits on the couch again. The cats begrudgingly allow it, but they’re not pleased to be disturbed. I reclaim my seat on the recliner, and the man looks at me expectantly. I stare back at him, waiting for him to say something.
“I’m a woodworker,” is what he says. “At least, I was. I had to retire because of arthritis in my hands.” He holds out his hands, and I can see they’re twisted with pain. “You can check out my work, though, at www.henryliangwoodworks.com. “ I pull out my phone and type in the URL. The website is simple, but the products are exquisite. They’re mostly furniture like tables and chairs, and the work is clearly expert, even to my untrained eye.
“You did great work,” I say, nodding at the man. I still don’t know what to call him, so I don’t call him anything.
“Thank you.” He smiles at me, and I smile in return. “I took pride in my work, and I never sold a subpar piece of wood.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you here?” I’ve had enough of chitchat, and I don’t want to dilly-dally any longer. “Why now, and why me?”
“I’m dying,” he says with no preface. He pauses, but I don’t know how to respond. I’m sorry? I’m not, really. It’s a sad thing for him, of course, but I can’t feel more than cursorily sorrowful. He doesn’t mean anything to me, even if he’s supposedly my father. I’d feel worse if Barack Obama died, to be honest. Not Donald Trump, our new President-Elect, but that’s something I don’t want to think about until I absolutely have to. “I’ve thought of you and your sisters a lot over the past forty years, but especially in the past few weeks since I got my diagnosis. I didn’t want to die without reconnecting with you.”
“I see.” Jet hops off the couch and jumps into my lap. I pet him methodically as he curls into a ball.
“I had some other people I need to see here in Minnesota, so that’s why I’m visiting you and not Vivian. I’m going to Jasmine’s house next.”
“Why didn’t you call or email first?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to give you a chance to say no,” he says simply. “It’s harder to turn someone down in person.”
“What are you hoping to achieve?” I’m uncomfortable with asking a direct question to an elder, but I have so many questions that need answering.
“I don’t expect you to immediately accept me as your father,” he says. He shifts in his seat, and for the first time, he doesn’t seem confident of himself. “I have six months at the most left to live. I wanted to get to know you and your sisters before I died.” I remain silent because that seems pretty selfish to me. He doesn’t say a peep in forty years, and now, when he’s about to die, he decides he wants to make amends? It’s not even that, really. He doesn’t care how painful it is for me or my sisters to have him suddenly appear in our lives or how much upheaval it will cause. He wants it, so he did it. That reminds me of my father from the little I can remember of him. He was a selfish man who expected my mother to do everything for him. I’m sure part of that is colored by the fact that when my mother was drunk, she would weep about how my father had mistreated her.
“This is too much for me to take in,” I say, standing up abruptly. “I need you to leave now.” I set Jet on the recliner, and he mews sleepily in protest.
“Can I see you again?” He asks, his voice hopeful.
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”
“I understand.” He pulls out a piece of paper from his bag and a pen, and he scribbles something on it before handing it to me. “I’m staying at the Radisson downtown. Here’s my cellphone number and my email address.”
“Nice,” I comment and tuck the piece of paper in the pocket of my sweats.
“Call or email me any time.”
“OK.” I start walking towards the front hallway, and he follows, with Jet and Onyx right behind him. When we reach the door, he puts on his shoes, then looks me right in the eyes.
“I’m very sorry I left so long ago. I really hope we can get to know each other in the time I have left.” He holds out his hand, and I reluctantly shake it. “I’m going to your sister’s now. Please don’t tell her I’m coming.” He nods once, then leaves. The minute I shut the door behind him, I pull out my phone and call Jasmine. Yes, I know he asked me not to call her, but fuck him.