“Rainbow!” She greets me warmly, using my given name instead of Rayne which is what I prefer. She and my late father were hippies and named me Rainbow Freedom Liang and my sister who is three years younger—almost to the day—Liberty Moonbeam Liang. Or is that Liberty Justice Liang? I can never remember her middle name, but I think it’s Moonbeam. She goes by Libby. She was also a birthday gift, but not a welcomed one. She is three years and one day younger than I, and I used to think my parents did it on purpose. “How are you?” My mother has given up many of her hippie ways since I was almost killed the first time, but she refuses to compromise on my name. We speak in English most of the time with Taiwanese interspersed in the conversation. When we don’t want people around to know what we’re talking about, we switch to Taiwanese.
We chat in a laidback sort of way because that’s the kind of person my mom is, though she’s been more engaged with me the last few months. She calls almost daily, and I see her once a week. She lives in Berkeley, of course, which makes communication easy. We talk about Libby—Liberty, as my mother calls her—who just emailed my mother asking her to fly out a month early for the wedding. We are both amazed as our Libby loathes to ask for help from anybody. Also, my mother is involved in many committees not to mention still teaching classes. Plus, she’s a painter. It would be difficult for her to take a month off from her various duties. Libby lives in New York City where she’s a big pooh-bah on Wall Street engaged to a stock broker. She’s also a major bitch. I thought she’d be nicer after 9/11, but she’s pushed it out of her mind and refuses to talk about it. Oddly enough, it’s the wedding which is making her act slightly more human.
My mother can’t go a month early, as we both know. She hates to disappoint my sister, however, as she asks for so little. How like Libby. She doesn’t ask for anything for years then when she does, it’s over the top. My mother goes on to inform me that Libby has requested that I get a move on with my itinerary for the wedding. I heave a sigh. Although she’s eased up on the dictums in the last month, she still tends to bark out orders as if she’s the general of an army. Among them—I lose ten pounds, not get a new tattoo or piercing, shave my legs, and get a manicure and pedicure. Not to mention the indignity of having to wear a pink fru-fru dress. Pardon me, mauve. The weight is gone, but not through any effort of my own. I will get another damn tattoo if I feel like it, and as for the other stuff—we’ll see.
The wedding is still months away. Three or four, more or less. I have the damn dress which makes me look like someone threw up Pepto-Bismol all over me, thank you very much, and I’ve lost the weight. She’ll have to be satisfied with that. My mother trots out the tired old line about it being Libby’s wedding so we have to excuse her being such a pain in the ass. I count to three. I try to hold it in. I fail. I go on a rant about weddings and the ridiculous traditions that surround them. Who cares if the mothers clash or, god forbid, wear the same color? Who would dress grown women in prom dresses just so the bride can look better? Why should I have to wear makeup and pastels when I never do so in real life? I know my rant is being aimed at the wrong target as my mother and father got married in field somewhere. My mother’s only decoration was a wreath of flowers around her neck. My father wore Birkenstocks.
My mother rebukes me, reminding me that not all tradition is bad. I say it is when one gets caught up in the trappings. Then the ritual becomes a prison with the meaning lost under all the pettiness. My mother says when it’s my turn for a wedding, I can make it any way I want. This, however, is Libby’s wedding, so she’s in charge. Another phrase which sets me off. I will never understand why being a bride gives a woman the right to run around like Adolph Hitler shouting, ‘Off with their heads’ if the proceedings aren’t exactly to her liking. I pause just as I’m about to unleash my fury, trying to calm down. The last thing I need is to get myself worked up over something that isn’t going to change. My mother eases the tension by reminding me that we’re having dinner together tomorrow along with Paris and Lyle. My mother adores both of them and views them as adopted sons. My cell phone rings just as I’m hanging up with Mom, and I sprint to my room to find it.
“Hello?” I pant into the phone.
“Hello, Rayne. It is me, Vashti.” The sound of her voice brings a smile to my face. I tuck the phone closer to my ear and sit on my bed. “I was wondering if you wanted to get together tonight. I could cook you dinner.” She must have heard me take her name in vain earlier.
“That would be lovely,” I say, throwing caution to the wind. I know The Rules state that a girl should not accept a date for the same day it’s offered, but I’ve never been one to follow the rules. “What can I bring?”
“Just your beautiful self.” After more pleasing chitchat, we hang up. I twirl around my room, a smile on my face. Vashti has that effect on me.
I spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning up the apartment. Neither Paris nor I are particularly neat which means the apartment slides into decline on an incremental basis. We both do our best to ignore it until it reaches critical mass, then we attack with a vigor that is refreshing to see. We usually do this task together about once a month, but I’m suddenly hit with the urge to clean, so I do. There is something soothing about scrubbing the floor or vacuuming or even doing the dishes. It’s tactile; it’s repetitive; it’s brainless. I can put my mind on automatic pilot and just do. It even counts as exercise. I start in the bathroom which is just beginning to gross me out with the ring of dirt in the shower and the stray hairs in the sink, and I end up in the kitchen where I scrub down the entire room. By the time I’m through, the apartment sparkles.
I look around my bedroom—which used to be Paris’s room. He switched with me after the first murder case—the last room I clean. The walls are yellow, which I made Paris paint after the first murder case to match the yellow of the living room walls which I painted when we first moved in. Our landlord had a cow after the living room, but he didn’t say boo about my bedroom. He was too afraid I would sue him, so he gave us three months rent-free. I also installed a bolt, courtesy of him. It makes me feel marginally safer in the apartment which is where the first attack occurred, but not appreciably so. At least we are on the third floor which means no one can climb in the windows. Paris’s artwork take up a goodly portion of my walls. I especially like one he did of the two of us embracing. You can’t see our faces, but you can tell it’s us. It’s my new favorite. I wish we could move, but we can’t afford more than the eight hundred apiece we’re paying for this place. We were lucky to get into the place before the big boon, and luckier still that Dickie, our landlord, really likes Paris.
I take a long time getting ready for my date with Vashti. We are still at a stage where I want to impress her with the way I look. No sweats for me! I select a pair of black raw silk pants and a silver long-sleeved shirt with a plunging neckline. I brush my hair until it shines, but realize that there’s nothing I can do about the bags beneath my eyes. Despite that, I think I look pretty good. Better than I have in months. I am starting to feel more like myself as well, which is a welcomed feeling. I slowly turn and look at myself from different angles. Even though my bones are poking out, and I am fifteen pounds under my ideal weight, I no longer look like death warmed over. I look like a real human being. I am satisfied. Just as I am about to leave, my cell rings again.
“What’d you forget, girl?” I say cheerfully, assuming it’s Vashti again.
“Well, girlfriend, how about a nice kiss?” It’s Paris, and he’s mocking me by talking in a high falsetto. “Someone getting laid tonight?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I ask coyly. After we share a hearty laugh, I ask what he’s calling for.
“I have some big news,” he says excitedly. “I got a call from my birthmother!”
“No kidding! That’s great! Who is she? Where is she?” The words tumble out of my mouth. Paris hasn’t quite come to grips yet with being adopted, but knowing more about his birthmother might help him out.
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
“Paris Frantz! You better tell me now! Don’t be a tease.” Yes, that’s his real name. Before he knew he was adopted, Paris was told that his parents named him Paris after visiting the city for their honeymoon. He was conceived there, they said. For nine months, no one realized how Paris would sound with Frantz. The real story, however, is that his adoptive parents named him after the city they most wanted to see, but never did. I don’t know what Paris is having a harder time dealing with—being adopted or being lied to by his highly-religious mother for twenty-eight years of his life.
“Girl, this is too good to dish over the phone. You’re going to flip when I tell you, and I want to see your face.” No matter how much I plead and cajole, Paris stays mum. I threaten him with all sorts of hideous torture, and he just laughs at me. I finally extract a promise from him to come home early tomorrow morning so I can find out the exciting news. I’m forced to be content with that, and I let him go.
“Rayne, it is so good to see you.” Vashti welcomes me with a smile. We see each other about once a week on average as I want to take it slow. I have brought a bottle of Chianti with me, which she warmly accepts. She is wearing a russet-colored sari which complements her mahogany skin magnificently. I lean forward and kiss her passionately, not wanting to stop. She pulls me to her, pressing her breasts against mine. By the time I pull back, we are both out of breath.
“Let’s skip dinner,” Vashti murmurs. “Head straight to dessert.” She throws me a voluptuous smile that has me fantasizing of what we could do in bed. I stop short, however, when I realize that my brain and my body are telling me two different things. While my body is reaching for her, my brain is pulling away. It’s reminding me that this woman looked me right in the eyes and lied to me. My brain is telling me that it’s not quite ready to become intimate with this woman again, not just yet.
“I think dinner sounds good to me right now,” I say gently, trying to take some of the sting out of my words. Of course, it’s difficult to turn down sex and not have it be taken as a personal rejection. To her credit, Vashti acquiesces gracefully and leads the way to the dining room. She lives in a cute one-bedroom house in Noe Valley, though I’m not sure how she swings the money from her social service job. She’s coy about her parents, saying her father is a diplomat, but refusing to specify more than that. I like to pretend he’s a member of the CIA, and the diplomat story is a cover. I’m sure it’s not true, but it amuses me. Not for the first time, I wonder how her Indian father met her Korean mother, but she has yet to divulge the dirty secrets. She’s reticent about her past.
She has set the stage for seduction with the lights turned off and candles littering the room. There is a hint of jasmine wafting in the air, which I’m sure is incense. She uses basmati rice, so it’s not that. She has Al Green on the stereo, the Al Green he was before he got hit with a panful of hot oil in the face, witnessed his girlfriend kill herself, and decided to turn to God. The table is laid out with her finest silver and china, though there is no one but the two of us. She has a real tablecloth on the table; I haven’t seen one of those in ages. I spy a picture of her family on the wall—it wasn’t there the last time I visited. It’s her and two elderly people I presume to be her parents. Her father is darker than she is with a warm smile and her eyes. Her mother is short—not even five feet with her dyed black hair coiled on top of her head. She isn’t smiling, but she’s not frowning, either. There are two women around Vashti’s age who look enough like her to be relatives.
“Sisters?” I ask casually, not wanting to spook Vashti.
“Yeah,” Vashti says as she sits down. “Anju and Kalpa. Anju is the pretty one.” Since the three of them look similar enough to be triplets, I am confused. Vashti interprets the look on my face and laughs. “That’s what everyone said when we were young. See, we’re each a year apart. Anju then me then Kalpa. Anju was always the pretty one; I was the compassionate one, and Kalpa? Kalpa was the smart one.”
“Where are they now?” I ask, eager to find out more about the Das family.
“Anju is a Bollywood actress,” Vashti says, rolling her eyes. “Kalpa is a defense lawyer in D.C.”
“So you all lived up to your labels,” I note. Vashti is in the social services as am I.
“It was our destiny.” Vashti grins as she starts handing me plates. She’s made samosas and garlic naan and a Tandoori chicken dish as well as a tempting array of other Indian dishes. It is my good fortune to be surrounded by people who not only love to cook, but who are good at it. I am quiet as I eat so I can appreciate the food. I am not someone who likes to be rushed when she’s eating, so I am grateful that Vashti seems content to let me eat forever. Once I am done stuffing myself, I look at Vashti expectantly.
“As I’ve told you, I am not making Indian desserts well so I am afraid it’s a New York cheesecake from the bakery this time.” I am this woman’s slave for life! She cuts us each a generous slice of raspberry cheesecake, and I make short work of mine while she’s still plowing through hers. My capricious appetite allows me to enjoy this dinner without protest for which I am truly grateful.
“I think I might have to come here more often,” I joke as I finish the crumbs on my plate.
“Are you sure you do not want to be eating the plate, too?” Vashti teases me, pretending to snatch away the plate from me.
“I can’t help it,” I protest. “It’s so good!” I reluctantly put down the fork and push myself away from the table.
“Rayne, there is something I have been wanting to say.” Vashti says slowly, dropping her jocular manner. From the expression on her face, I know it has to do with the first murder case we were both embroiled in.
“Don’t, Vash,” I say softly. I don’t want to ruin the mood by rehashing ancient history, even though it only happened a couple months ago.
“I have to.” Vashti leans forward to emphasize her point. “I am all the time feeling so bad for lying to you like that. For the last month, I am not knowing if you’d ever forgive me. I was not sleeping much. It was making me wonder what was wrong with me to mistrust someone so badly.” She pauses, reflects, then continues. “Of course, my affair with Moira was in bad judgment, too.” She stops. “What I am trying to say, Rayne, is that I understand you are hesitant about me. I am, too. I am not wanting you to feel bad about it. That’s all.” She leans back and fiddles with her fork so she doesn’t have to look at me.
“Ok.” I don’t know what else to say so I take a sip of tea. I restrain from making a face. I really prefer Chinese tea to Indian, but I’ll drink any kind of tea except for Lipton.
“So, can we have sex now?” Vashti looks at me mischievously before bursting into laughter. After a moment’s hesitation, I join her. The ice is broken, and we are able to talk freely. After dinner, we migrate to her living room and cuddle on her couch. I am wary of lesbian bed death sinking in before we even have sex again, but the way my body is reacting to her touch, I don’t think that will be a problem. It’s strange to me how lesbians mix up friendship and relationship. As someone once said, if there’s no sex—it’s friendship. Sounds good to me.
We have the television on, but we’re not watching. It’s one of those dastardly reality shows that resemble no reality of which I know. They are as real as Springer, but at least he’s not pretending to be anything more than just smut. Except for his little homily at the end. That is so out of place. I am too busy kissing Vashti to care whom is getting kicked off the island or out of the house or who is the mole or who’s marrying which lying bastard. I used to think they were mildly entertaining—now, they just offend my sensibilities. I don’t know why Vashti even turned it on unless it’s to put her in the mood. Somehow, I don’t think much putting is necessary as we are both right there. I slip my hand inside her sari, somehow getting my hand tangled in the satin. I extricate myself gracefully and find myself with a handful of breast. Her nipple hardens between my fingers as I tweak it. I am getting wet. Her mouth is glued to mine as I continue to play with her. Her hands are moving down my back, approaching my ass. Even as I am kissing her and feeling her up, I am aware that I’m about to have to make a decision. If it goes much further, we will be having sex. Is that what I want? I don’t find out the answer because my cell phone rings, shattering the mood. As no one calls me on my cell unless it’s important, I rush to answer.