Chapter Five; Part Two
Speaking of Tessa, my phone rings her ring. I glance at my phone and remind myself that I need to block her number. I didn’t after I first caught her because I was in shock, and then inertia took its course. Her calls came less and less, and I hadn’t heard from her in the past four days—a record. I wait for her text to come through. It says, “Megan! I heard about Julianna! You poor, poor baby. You must be hurting so much. Call me!” I erase it, then another comes through. “Patricia is gone for the week. Call me.” I snort and erase that one as well. If she thought she could seduce me into a tryst after what she did to me, she didn’t know me at all. I toy with the idea of pretending to go along with her and then rejecting her just as we’re about to fuck, but I decide I’m going to be better than that. A third text, “I am so, so, so sorry I cheated on you, Megs. I miss you.” The use of her pet name for me brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help but remember the times we walked on Stone Arch Bridge, late at night, holding hands and laughing unrestrainedly. Teddy Bear, her black chow, trotted between us, his blue tongue lolling out of his mouth. He adored Tessa, liked me well enough, and tolerated Patricia. It makes me meanly glad that Teddy never truly warmed up to Patricia, despite her being his walker. “Megan, you need someone in your time of need.” I block Tessa’s number, suddenly tired of her pestering. Almost immediately, I get an email from her, so I block her there as well. Next, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Blocked, blocked, blocked. I want her out of my life, and I never want to think about her again.
“Fuck that.” I turn over on the couch, thumping the cushions in anger. I hate thinking about Tessa because it messes up my brain. Any time I resolve to calm down, I get riled up again. I’ve tried slow, smooth breathing; I’ve tried meditation; I’ve tried imagining that I’m stabbing her with a sword. None of it makes me feel better, so I hope that the proverbial time will heal this particular wound. I pull a pillow over my head, and then I feel a cat ass sitting on it. A small one, so it’s Onyx. I reach up and remove her, setting her to the side of the pillow. Two minutes later, I feel the thump again. This time, she burrows her ass down firmly, as if that’ll stop me from removing her. I don’t mind her being so clingy, but not if it means a cat ass on my face. Even if my face is covered with a pillow. “Quit it, Onyx!” I say crossly, my voice muffled by pillow and ass. I move her again, this time turning on my side so she can’t repeat her trick again. She mews crossly at me before hopping up on the side of my ribs. She stiff-legs her way down my hip and settles on the side of my knee. That’s tolerable, so I allow it. Two minutes later, I feel a heavier body bumping against the small of my back. Jet in his usual spot, I presume. His warm, comforting bulk soothes some of my agitation, and I drift off to sleep.
Julianna’s mutilated body weaves in and out of my dream, showing gaps in her skin. A blood-drenched ribbon passes through the gaps, making a grotesque tapestry out of my friend’s body. There is some classical music playing in the background. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. One of the Bs, though I’m not sure which one. It’s as soft and seductive as a siren’s song. Little bits of flesh crumble off her body as she floats, and there’s a rictus smile on her face. I’m in the dream as well, trying in vain to capture her with a large butterfly net. She keeps slipping through it, and I’m crying as I run.
“Goddamn it!” I sit straight up, clutching the pillow to my heart. I have shifted sometime in my sleep, and Onyx and Jet are snuggled in a ball at my feet. I race to the bathroom, dry-heaving into the toilet. I keep gagging, even though nothing comes up. Onyx and Jet join me, meowing anxiously at my feet. Once I’m done, I crawl over to the counter and pull myself up with difficulty. I fill a glass with water and gulp down several mouthfuls of water. It starts roiling in my stomach, and I lean over the toilet again. The water comes back up, and my stomach hurts from all the retching. I flop down on the floor, not wanting to move. I close my eyes, thinking how easy it would be just to go to sleep and never wake up. I don’t want to live in a world without my Julianna, anyway, so why not just let it all go?
“Meow.” Onyx’s mew is soft, tentative. She licks my cheek once, which is enough to make me burst into tears. She continues to lick my right cheek whereas her brother stations himself at my left. Normally, I don’t let them do that because it’s gross, but right now, I’ll take whatever comfort I can get. I let this go on for several minutes before struggling to sit up. I feel weak, but I manage to make myself erect. Onyx promptly climbs into my lap, which causes me to laugh. She’s an opportunist, and she’ll never give up a chance to claim my lap as her own. I cradle her to me for a minute before gently setting her on the ground. I stagger to my feet, almost falling over in the process. I grab the counter to steady myself and finally make it to my feet.
I go back to my laptop, reading all the news about the murder I can stomach. There’s tons there about her career as a slam poet, and most of it is flattering. They call her a pioneer as an Asian American woman in the slam poet world. They rave about the way she spits and how heady the themes of her work are. Having heard her perform several times, I am impressed that they grasped what she was trying to do. Oh my god! Her parents! They live in California, and I had forgotten all about them. I need to call them. I press their speed button dial, and soon, I’m connected to the grief-stricken voice of Dr. Araki.
“Uncle!” I cry, my voice choked with tears. I call him the honorific because he wanted me to call him Thomas or Tom, which I couldn’t, and he wouldn’t let me call him Doctor or Mister Araki. “How are you and auntie doing?”
“Megan, what happened to my Julianna? How could this be happening?” Dr. Araki is making choking sounds, and I know he’s trying not to cry. I want to tell him to go ahead, but an Asian man of his generation isn’t going to break down in front a woman twenty-plus years his junior.
“I don’t know, Uncle,” I say, feeling helpless. I desperately want to comfort him, but how can I when I have none myself? “How’s auntie doing?”
“She’s asleep. Sleeping pill. She broke down when the police told us the news.” Dr. Araki cuts his words off, and a long silence follows. I don’t know what to say, and I feel as if he’s searching for something to say himself. “Megan, I want you to do me a favor.” His voice is stronger, and I can hear the purpose behind his words.
“Anything, Uncle. Name it.” I clutch the phone to my ear, petting Onyx with my free hand. She meows in protest when I’m too aggressive, and I gentle my hand so I won’t hurt her.
“I want you to find out who did it. Who killed my Julianna.”
“What?” I squeak, certain I had heard him incorrectly. “Did you just say you wanted me to go after the murderer?”
“You are terrific with the internet, which I know nothing about. The Google and whatever. I want you to see what you can find. Please.” I open my mouth to protest, then shut it. I can’t deny a grieving elder a request, no matter how much I want to. Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not inclined to deny him because I want the murderer to be found, and I think I can help out with that matter.
“I’ll try my best, Uncle. But I’ll have to give everything I find to the police. Even if it’s not pleasant.” This is my way of trying to be delicate, but Uncle isn’t having any of that.
“I know my Julianna was no angel, Megan. You don’t have to hide it from me. But she did not deserve this.” With that, Dr. Araki bursts into tears, and I give him several seconds of silence to compose himself.
“You’re right about that, Uncle.” I sniffle as the tears well up in my eyes again. “May I ask you a few questions?”
“I know Julianna had some family money. Can you tell me how much?” I hold my breath because that’s really an impertinent question to be asking. Asians aren’t as tight-lipped about money as Americans are, but this is still not something I’d normally ask an elder. Dr. Araki answers without hesitation.
“When my mother died, she settled two hundred and fifty thousand on each of her grandchildren, including Julianna. And her brother, Eric, of course. That was twenty years ago, and Julianna has made some very wise investments since.”
“What about the crash? How did she fair then?”
“She took a hit as we all did, but she has rebounded astonishingly well since then.” Dr. Araki’s voice is gaining strength as he talks, and I think it’s because he has a purpose now. “I think she has close to three quarters of a million dollars now.” I let out a gasp. I knew Julianna was rich, but that rich? I never suspected. You would never know it by looking at her as she liked to shop at the Salvation Army and other thrift stores, and she drove a 2008 Saturn. “She would have had more than twice that when I died,” Dr. Araki added. “Plus another two-hundred and fifty thousand when my wife….well, you know.”
“Damn,” I say softly. I try not to swear in front of my elders, but I can’t help this one.
“She left it all to you, Megan.” I gasp again. I had known I was in her will, but to that extent? No.
“I thought it was only half,” I say, my voice weak. I’m not badly off myself, but that kind of money? It takes my breath away. “Eric was supposed to get half!”
“Julianna changed her will a few years back after Eric got himself into some—trouble.” Dr. Araki pauses, and I remember said trouble. Eric has a gambling problem, and no matter how hard he tries to stay straight, he returns to his cards again and again. Texas Hold ‘Em is his favorite, if I remember correctly. He lives in Los Angeles, which isn’t short on casinos. He’s blown through his inheritance, and he would bother Julianna from time to time for help. Because he’s her baby brother, she’d give it to him more often than not. Until he got involved with some extremely shady people, some would say mafia, and they threatened to kill him if he didn’t pay them back the $50,000 he owed them. He called Julianna that night, crying hysterically that she had to save him. After listening to his story, Julianna wired him the money. Then she told him that was the last time, and he wouldn’t get one more cent from her, so he better shape the fuck up. He didn’t, of course, but he’s managed to keep the death hounds at bay thus far. He’s also had problems with uppers, which is what he used to be able to gamble for twenty-four hours straight. Julianna never told me she’d cut him out of his will, and I have to wonder why.
“She adored you, Megan. She thought of you as her sister. Well, something like a sister. She was sorry the two of you couldn’t make it work out.” Dr. Araki pauses, then adds, “So am I. I always thought you were a grounding influence on my Julianna.” Me. A grounding influence. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I’m about as unstable as they come. Then again, I did stop Julianna from flying to Paris with a woman she’d only met hours before. I also stopped her from quitting her day job (server at Chino Latino) when she wasn’t flush with funds and needed a day job to survive. There were several times I talked her out of drinking her weight in bourbon, so maybe there’s some truth to what Dr. Araki has said.
“I love her, too, Dr. Araki. More than she will ever know.” I choke up because I can’t tell her how much she means to me ever again. “We were never good as a couple, but we were the best at being friends.”
“You’re a good girl, Megan,” Dr. Araki says, his voice thick. “Do this to me, and I will forever be grateful.”
“I will, Uncle. Have a good n—oh! One more thing. Did Julianna tell if anything had been troubling her lately?” I ask my last question just as I’m about to hang up.
“That dreadful ex-husband of hers, but I expect you know that. I heard there was some rivalry in her circle of poet friends, but who would kill over that? And,” Uncle hesitates, his voice dropping. He clears his throat a few times before saying, “Eric’s been bothering her lately. It seems he’s been borrowing money from the wrong people again.” Long pause, then, “I think he flew out to Minnesota to visit her. I’m not sure, though, because I haven’t talked to him in a few days.”
“He’s here?” I am unreasonably hurt that Julianna hasn’t mentioned him to me, but then again, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in my break-up. I haven’t really been able to take in anything else. Remorse washes over me as I think that perhaps Julianna had held off because she didn’t want to burden me further. I pride myself on being there for my friends, and it pains me to think she died thinking she couldn’t come to me.
“I’m not sure. Again, that’s what he said, but he isn’t always a man of his word.” Dr. Araki’s voice is weary, and I wish I could assuage his tiredness. After a few more exchanges, we hang up. I ruminate over what he’s said, and I can’t make heads nor tails of it. I’m also still in shock by the fact that Julianna left me all her money. I knew she had her difficulties with her brother, but this is much more than I had ever expected. I need to call my stock guy and see what—I cut off the thought, appalled at how venal I’m being, even if it’s only in my own mind.
I go into the bedroom to change into sweats before padding down to the living room to write my latest post. It’s going to be about Julianna’s death, of course, but I have to be careful what I say. I don’t have a huge following, but I have enough that it makes me uneasy to talk about the details. Things spread so easily online that I don’t want to add to the misinformation. On the other hand, I have to grieve. I do that through writing, as I do much of everything else. I go to ‘Add post’ and sit with my hands on my keyboard. How do I talk about Julianna being gone when I haven’t accepted it myself? Onyx hops into my lap, fluffing out all her fur. She does her best to try to block the screen, but only succeeds in fuzzing out the edges.
“You’re too little to be effective,” I say gravely as I move her aside. She takes it in good humor and settles down beside me. Jet wraps himself around her, and they both fall asleep. I return to the blank page, my brain empty. Normally, when I write a post, the words flow from my fingers so quickly, I have a hard time keeping up with them. Now, nothing. All my grief is choking my thinking, and I need to unpack it. I decided just to write and see what I came up with.
Julianna is my better half, and now, she’s gone. Just yesterday, I was celebrating her birthday, and today, I’m planning her funeral. For once, I’m at a loss for words. It’s usually my style to rattle off a couple thousand words as easily as I breathe, but now, I sit at my laptop with my hands on the keyboard, desperate to find the words that will bring me solace. There aren’t any, however, because how do you find solace when your best friend is dead? She’s not coming back. It hasn’t sunk in yet, and I dread the day it does. I don’t want her to be dead. In my mind, she is as alive and vital as she’s always been. I do not want that image to fade, only to be replaced by something more cruel, or worse, nothing at all.
It’s a strong start, and I allow my feelings to shape my sentences. I reiterate many of her good points, along with how her being gone is going to impact me. I was lucky to have her for twenty years of my life, and I don’t know how I’m going to live without her. I write some more, then I finish it up and hit publish. I put on an early episode of Xena: Warrior Princess because I just want to veg, and the campiness of the show will help me escape my thoughts for a while. Plus, it’s a show Julianna and I would binge-watch together, and it’s a nice way to honor her without losing my mind in the process.
I get a ping on Google, and it’s Rembrandt. He messages to see if I’m there and if I’m up for a chat. I stare at his message, utterly befuddled as to what it’s saying. Chat? With him? What? I’m at sea as to what he means, and then it clicks. He’s the man I met at the club last weekend, and we’re supposed to go on a date Friday night. Oh lord. A date? I can barely even go to work, let alone a date. Then again, it’s not his fault that this is a spectacularly bad time. And, Julianna would encourage me to get my groove on whenever I can. She would say something like, “Liang! Fucking is the highest high in life. You have to get it while you’re still able to shake that ass.”
“hi, rembrandt. how’re you?” I type into the message box, all lower caps. I can’t be stuffed to use caps in casual chat as I like to talk as fast as possible.
“Doing OK, Megan. Can’t stop thinking about our date Friday night. Dinner at Victory 44 sound good to you?”
“sounds great. haven’t been there in ages. looking forward to it.” We chat for a few more minutes, but I feel disconnected from the conversation. It’s not his fault, but he can’t help but notice.
“You OK? You sound a little down.”
“i’m ok,” I type back. I stop, then add, “that’s a lie. my best friend…died last night. i don’t know how to deal with it.”
“Died! I’m so sorry. What happened?” Here, I hesitate. I’d love to unburden myself, but I don’t know him, not really, and the fact that I want to fuck him doesn’t make that any different. Then again, sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone who’s removed from the situation. I explain to him what happened, being as precise as possible. He replies appropriately, telling me that he’s Googling at the same time. “The cops aren’t saying much, are they?”
“no. they’re being tight-lipped, as usual.”
“Wait a minute. A story in the Strib says her neighbor say a man running from Julianna’s apartment right around the time of the murder.”
“really?” I pull up the Strib’s website, and I find the article. It says that Mrs. Ephrams, an elderly woman who lived in the complex next to Julianna’s. She’s been friendly to me whenever we run into each other, but her eyesight isn’t great. She can’t describe the man she saw, and the fact that he came out of Julianna’s building doesn’t really mean anything.
“i have to go. i’ll see you friday night.” I log off of chat, my mind preoccupied. I make a note to talk to Mrs. Ephrams, even though I doubt she’ll be able to tell me anything. I check my post and am surprised to see that there are already dozens of comments. GoPackerGo: “A love like yours is once in a lifetime. I mourn along with you at the loss of such a shining star.” MNborn: “I met Julianna at a Prince concert once. Every eye was on her as she got her groove on. She was so alive; it’s hard to believe she’s dead.” Starry-eyed: “One day at a time. When that’s too hard, one minute at a time.” Many simply say they’re sorry and offer their condolences. QueenBee: “I am so sorry for your loss, Megan. If you need anything, I am here for you.” It’s nice of her to say that given how she felt about Julianna.
I close my laptop and my eyes as well. I have a few Ambien in my medicine cabinet, but I don’t like to take them unless absolutely necessary. They conk me out for at least fifteen hours, and I feel groggy for the rest of the day after. Onyx and Jet appear out of nowhere and hop up on the couch next to me. They sing me the song of their people, and then head–butt my face from either side. I push them both gently back—they don’t know the meaning of personal space—and they settle down beside me. I open my laptop again, and there are even more comments on my post. I’m gratified to see all the love, even if it won’t bring Julianna back again.
The rest of the night passes in a blur. Time has both speeded up and slowed down, and I feel as if I’m caught in the vortex. I have a ton of photos of Julianna on my Cloud, and I spend the next few hours flipping through them. There’s one of her performing, naked, at a queer Asian cabaret. There’s one of us at a Halloween party dressed as Sara and Tegan. She is so alive in the pictures, I have a hard time believing she’s dead. My beloved Julianna. I cry copious tears as I look at picture after picture. I give up after two hours and just lie on the couch, staring at the ceiling. About an hour in, I have to pee, but I don’t have the energy to get off the couch. After several minutes, I finally drag my body off the couch and stagger to the toilet. I do my business, flush, then go to my bedroom. It’s only ten o’clock, but I’m exhausted. I look at the local news online, and the top story is about Julianna’s murder. There’s no picture of her body—I suspect that picture was published by mistake and someone is in trouble over it—but there is a photo of her from one of her performances. The police say they can’t locate her ex-husband, and his girlfriend isn’t talking. I make a note of it. I’ll have to talk to Pinky X, as distasteful as that is to me. She seems like a spoiled brat, and I’ve had my share of those. Impulsively, I pick up my phone and call the number on Pinky X’s website.
“Pinky X! Are you ready to smash the patriarchy?” Pinky X’s voice is husky and vibrant, but I can barely refrain from rolling my eyes at her trite phrase.
“Pinky. X. Pinky X. I need to talk to Simon Blankenfield. Do you know where he is?” I suddenly have a craving for a cigarette. I grab a stale pack from my bedside table and go outside. I hate smoking inside, so no matter what the weather, I always go outside so I won’t stink up the house. I smoke when I’m under great duress, and I think this certainly qualifies as one of those times.
“Simon? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” There is real fear in Pinky X’s voice, and I wonder why. “I have to go.” Click. She’s hung up on me, and she refuses to answer when I call back again. I go back into the house and return to my bedroom.
“Curious.” I mutter to myself. I Google Simon again, and there’s a lot of information, most of it nonsense. There are rumors that he’s involved in something nefarious, ranging from drugs to underage girls to money laundering. Every trail peters out, however, and I don’t see any hard evidence that he’s anything other than a con man with a taste for coke.
“Enough.” I close the browsers on my phone and set it on my bedside table. I close my eyes, and soon, I feel two fuzzy lumps burrowing into my sides.
Sleep is elusive as I drift in and out of consciousness. Every time I think I’m asleep, I bolt straight up, wide awake once again. Onyx and Jet grumble every time I toss and turn, but they cling to me as best they can. I cuddle with them, taking comfort in their furry presence. I don’t know what I’d do without them, but I’m glad I don’t have to find out. After an hour, I give up and get up. I reach for my robe and fasten the sash securely around my waist. I go down to the kitchen to rummage through the fridge. I’m not hungry, but I should probably eat something, anyway. Nothing sounds good, however, so I shut the door with a sigh. It’s going to be a long night for me.