“Auntie!” Coral throws her arms around me and squeezes me hard. She’s still dressed in her black business suit, and I feel a flash of envy at her luxurious curls, which she inherited from my sister. Plus, she has a figure that makes grown men cry. “Come in, come in!”
“Auntie!” Michelle and Ing-wen (named for the First Lady and for the Taiwanese president, respectively. Ing-wen is called Ingrid by Americans), scream as they both tackle my knees. They are adorable, chubby, two-year-old twins with black curls and enormous brown eyes that tilt slightly at the edges. They have cocoa-colored skin that I could just eat up. They’re wearing matching jumpers, both dark blue, and they’re tugging at my hands. “Come play with us!”
“Girls, let Aunt Megan get in the house first.” Coral scolds her daughters, but lovingly. The girls back up and allow me to enter.
“Ms. Liang! Megan! So nice to see you. So sorry it’s for a sad reason.” Jamal Harrington fills the room as he enters. He’s a behemoth of a man, but all muscle. His dreads reach halfway down his back, and he fills his suit nicely. He also loves chess and has trounced me in it a few times.
“Good to see you again, Jamal.” I shake his hand before taking off my shoes. I follow the girls into the living room where they have two jigsaw puzzles for kids strewn across the floor. One is of kittens and one is of puppies. About half the pieces of each puzzle are filled in.
“Ooooh, I love puzzles!” I sit on the floor and study the pieces. Of course, I know where the pieces go, but I pretend to study them intently.
“Look!” Michelle picks up a piece and crams it into a space where it doesn’t belong.
“Not there, silly!” Ing-wen pries the piece out and puts it in the right place. Michelle immediately socks her in the arm, and Ing-wen starts crying.
“Girls.” Jamal folds his arms across his chest and looks sternly at his daughters. “We do not hit in this house.” This is directed at Michelle. “We also don’t make fun of others.” This is aimed at Ing-wen. Both girls mumble a ‘sorry’ before going back to their puzzles.
“Hey, girls. Does this piece go here?” I pick up a kitten piece and point at the puppy puzzle. Both girls burst into giggles, their spat forgotten.
“That’s not a puppy piece!” Michelle covers her mouth with her hand, but she can’t stop laughing.
“It’s a kitty piece!” Ing-wen claps her hand in glee.
“Oh, right! I think it goes here.” I make a great show of putting the piece in its right place before smiling at the girls. They smile back at me before returning to their puzzles. I look at them fondly, then see Jamal looking at me speculatively. Not in the, ‘I’d like to bed her way’, which would be flattering if not awkward, but in a ‘I’m not sure what to make of this woman’ kind of way. I’m pretty sure it has to do with the fact that I’m good with his girls, but I don’t have kids of my own. Maybe I’ll tell him why one day. Maybe. The doorbell rings, so Coral goes to answer it. I’m sure it’s my sister, so I keep playing with the girls.
“My paella!” Jamal rushes to the kitchen, leaving me with the girls. We continue to work on the puzzles as the girls lean against me. I put an arm around each and inhale their strawberry-scented goodness.
“Megan! You look great with the girls. Motherhood suits you.” Jasmine has always urged me to have children, and while she’s given up on it, it doesn’t stop her from prodding me again and again.
“For short periods of time,” I smirk back at her. I know how to push her buttons as well as she knows how to push mine. For the sake of the girls, she contents herself to glaring at me, but doesn’t say anything. I clear my throat. I’m about to ask about Bob, but then I see Michelle and Ing-wen playing patty-cake and keep my mouth shut.
“Dinner’s ready!” Jamal comes into the room and calls to us. We troop into the dining room and sit down. Jamal has made paella, a crusty loaf of bread, a Greek salad, and wine for the adults minus me, apple juice for the girls. I take a bite of the paella and nearly swoon. I’m a big seafood fan, and the added chorizo makes it all that much better. I gobble more than my fair share, but everyone but Jasmine is packing it in, including the girls. Jasmine is picking at her food. I glare at her until she eats a few bites, but I don’t push it in front of the girls. Jamal is beaming at everyone as he eats, happy that his meal is being enjoyed. It strikes me that he’s one of the few men I know who’s completely comfortable around a gaggle of women.
“Jamal, do you have sisters?” I ask suddenly, setting down my fork.
“Four. No brothers. No pops.” Jamal smiles widely, and I know he gets my drift. “My mom and my grams raised me right.”
“I bet they’re the ones who also taught you to cook,” I comment, picking up my fork again.
“Yup, that was my grams. She could throw it down when the mood hit her.” Jamal dishes out more paella for the adults and a splash more juice for the girls. The girls babble about Blues Clues until I want to stuff cotton in my ears. Adorable they may be, but five more minutes of this, and I’ll be ready to stab my eyeballs out with my fork.
“That was delicious!” I say after my third helping of paella. “Jamal, are any of your sisters single?”
“Yes, but they don’t swing your way.” Jamal stands up and starts stacking dishes. “Hold tight, ladies. I have dessert coming up.”
“Chocolate!” The girls say in unison. A few minutes later, Jamal comes back with a big bowl of chocolate trifle in one hand, and a stack of smaller bowls and spoons in the other.
“Here we go!” Jamal sets a bowl in front of each person and dishes up generous servings of trifle in each. The girls wait until we all have portions before they pick up their spoons and eagerly lap up their trifle. I’m impressed that they had the self-control to wait. At their age, I would have dove headfirst into my bowl before anyone else had a chance to say boo. I take a bite of my trifle, and I’m in love. It’s light and frothy and unbearably creamy. I want to smash my face in it and rub it all over my body. I force myself to eat at a human rate so I won’t shame myself in front of my family.
“Jamal. Will you marry me?” I ask after I’ve finished my bowl. I resist the urge to lick the bowl, but just barely.
“That would be bigamy, Aunt Megan!” Coral says, her eyes laughing. I’m glad she doesn’t take offense to me mildly flirting with her husband, but I know I need to keep it chill.
“Big-uh-me,” Ing-wen repeats, her eyes wide. “What does that mean, Mommy?”
“It means marrying two people at the same time, honey,” Coral says. She and Jamal believe in telling the truth to their children, making it age-appropriate, of course. I’ve heard her say more than once that she would rather they learn it from her than from anyone else.
“More chocolate, Daddy!” Michelle holds out her bowl.
“That’s enough, honey,” Coral says, shaking her head once.
“Want more!” Michelle’s lower lip trembles, but one glare from Coral puts a stop to that. Coral gives the girls leeway, but the minute she gives an order, she expects it to be followed. So far, it works for them, and the girls seem very well-adjusted.
After dinner, Jamal scoops up the girls and take them upstairs to get ready for bed. Coral disappears into the kitchen to make us tea, and Jasmine and I go to the living room. Jasmine and I sit down, neither of us saying anything for a few minutes. I don’t know what she’s thinking about, but I’m about to fall asleep from overindulgence. I burp discreetly, covering my mouth. A few minutes later, Coral walks in with a tray laden with a teapot, teacups, shortbread cookies, sugar, and cream on it. She pours us tea, hands out the cookies, and we all settle in.
“Have you heard from Bob, Jasmine?” I ask my sister, turning to face her. She puts down her teacup and drops her eyes, but not before I see tears in them.
“No. I’ve left a dozen messages on his voicemail, but he hasn’t answered. I’ve texted, but he hasn’t read them.” Jasmine starts crying, and Coral wraps her arm around Jasmine’s shoulders to hug her tightly.
“Oh, Mama. Don’t cry. I’m sure Dad is OK!” Coral’s voice is trembling as well, and I ache for both of them. I know the only thing I can do is try to find Bob, however, so I force myself to talk.
“Coral, when we talked earlier, you seemed about to tell me something. What was it?” I look at Coral as she lets go of her mother and turns to face me. Her face is grim, and her eyes shift away from her mother’s.
“I’m not sure you want to hear this, Mama,” Coral says.
“I need to hear it,” Jasmine replies. “If it’ll help bring Bob home, I can take it.”
“Dinner was delicious, as usual, Mama.” Coral said to her mother after they finished sticky rice, barbecued pork, and pork wontons.
“Thanks. I’ll give you the recipes if you want.” Jasmine teased. It’s a family joke that Coral hated cooking and was terrible at it.
“I’ll make sure Jamal follows them to a tee,” Coral laughed. Michelle and Ing-wen laughed, too, then returned to eating as fast as they could manipulate their chopsticks. Bob’s phone rang loudly, and everyone turned to look at Bob. He glanced at his phone before jumping to his feet. He almost knocked over his water glass in his eagerness to get up.
“I have to take this.” He hurried away, his phone glued to his ear. Coral stared hard after he left the room.
“I have to use the bathroom. Be right back.” Coral strode out of the room, her eyes scanning for her father. He was in the living room, facing away from the door. She hesitated, then snuck into the room. Dropping behind the couch, she strained to hear every word.
“You know better than to call me now,” Bob hissed, his voice angry. A long pause, then, “Calm down. I can barely understand. Lee—” Bob stopped. “No. I—. Fine. In ten.” He clicked off and rushed out of the room. Coral waited a minute, then walked out as well. She slowly returned to the dining room and joined the family.
“You still think he’s not having an affair?” I ask Coral and Jasmine. They flinch in unison, but I can’t afford to be delicate.
“It didn’t sound like a lover,” Coral offers, her brow furrowed. “I mean, Dad sounded upset, and he definitely did not want to be talking to the person on the phone.”
“When your dad said, ‘Lee—’, what did you think he meant?” I’ve been chewing the conversation over in my mind, and this is the detail that sticks out in my mind.
“A name?” Coral makes it a question, not a statement. “I don’t know why. That just popped into my mind.”
“Lee. That doesn’t really help us know if it’s a man or a woman.” I sigh and close my eyes.
“I don’t know anybody by that name, man or woman,” Jasmine says, then bursts into tears. “I don’t know anything!” Her shoulders heave, and Coral gathers her mother in her arms.
“Mama, don’t cry. We’re going to find Dad. We are!” Coral rocks her mother back and forth, and I feel helpless to do anything.
“It’s a name, Jasmine. It’s more than we had before. I’ll see if I can find a Lee at Bob’s work and at your church.” A sudden thought hits me. “Would Bob call someone by his last name, Jasmine?”
“No, never. He thought that was crass.” Jasmine says, sniffling.
“OK, so we can rule that out.” I make a note on my phone. “What about anyone at your church? Do they have the first name of Lee?”
“No,” Jasmine says after a minute’s thought.
“Do you know anyone at his work with that name?”
“OK! We’re getting somewhere.” I make another note. “Anything else you can think of? What have the boys said?”
“Nothing. None of them are very close to Bob, and they only talk superficially a couple times a week.” Jasmine mops her face with her handkerchief, then tucks it in her pocket. “Oh! Jordan did say Bob called him a few days ago, asking questions about divorce.” Jordan lives in New York City and is a divorce lawyer for the rich and famous.
“Divorce?” I raise an eyebrow, and Jasmine hastens to explain.
“Jordan said Bob was asking for a friend. Jordan referred one of his colleagues who lives in St. Paul. Matthew…something? Brewer. Bower. Banner. I’m not sure. I’ll ask.” Jasmine leans against the couch and closes her eyes.
“Lee. Divorce. That’s two things we didn’t know before.” I make more notes on my phone before looking up at my sister. She’s staring off into nothing, and Coral is looking at her in concern.
“Mama, are you OK?” Coral places a hand on Jasmine’s arm and shakes her slightly.
“I’m fine, Coral,” Jasmine says automatically, forcing a smile to her face.
“Man, those girls fight sleep like their lives depend on it.” Jamal bursts into the room, then stops. He looks at all our faces, then says, “You’re talking about Coral’s father, right?”
“Yes. Do you know anything?” I don’t miss the pensive stare on Jamal’s face, and a minute later, he begins.
“Jamal. Son. Have you ever cheated on Coral?” Bob asked, looking up from his beer bottle. It’s his sixth or seventh.
“What? No! Of course not, sir.” Jamal sat straight up on the couch, looking nervously both ways. Coral and Jasmine were in the kitchen cleaning up, but who knew how long they’d be gone? “I would never go on the downlow!”
“The downlow?” Bob shook his head, then added, “That’s good, Jamal. Very good.” Bob hesitated. He was about to add something, but Coral and Jasmine walked in, and Bob quickly changed the subject.
“He asked you about cheating?” Jasmine asks, her voice sliding upwards at the end of her question.
“Yes, he did,” Jamal says reluctantly. “This was two or three weeks ago? Three, I think.”
“OK.” I blow out my breath and think about what Jamal has said to me. “He talked to you about cheating. He talked to Jordan about a good divorce lawyer.” I turn to my sister, hating myself for what I’m about to ask. “Jas, are you sure there have been no personal problems between the two of you?”
“None, Megan! I swear!” Jasmine’s voice is getting shrill again, and I hasten to calm her down.
“OK, Jas. Calm down. I had to ask.” I pat Jasmine’s shoulder, but she jerks away from me and stands up.
“I will not listen to this. I won’t! How dare you say my Bob wanted to divorce me?” Jasmine’s eyes are flashing, and I literally recoil from her.
“Mama! Stop!” Coral leaps up and steps in front of her mother. She puts her hands on her hips and glares. They look like mirror images, twenty-plus years apart. “Auntie Megan is trying to help because you asked her to. You can’t get mad at her for doing what you want.”
“She’s trying to say MY Bob would cheat on me? Wants to divorce me?” Jasmine takes a step towards Coral, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to step between them.
“Mother Jas, I think we all need to breathe right now.” Jamal claps his right hand on Jasmine’s shoulder and his left on Coral’s. “I know you’re freaked about your husband’s disappearance, but I don’t think you want to go down this road.”
“Mama, please. Listen to Jamal.” Coral’s voice is pleading, and I wisely remain silent. Jamal, Coral, and I watch as Jasmine deflates before our eyes.
“You’re right. You’re right. I’m so sorry, Coral.” Jasmine hugs her daughter close before turning to me. “I’m sorry, Megan. I know you’re trying to help me.” Jasmine throws her arms around me and squeezes me tightly.
“Don’t worry about it, Jasmine,” I squeeze back and pat her hand reassuringly, but a tiny part of my brain files away the fact that she exploded so quickly. I’ve always known Jasmine has a temper, but she’s usually able to rein it in. I haven’t seen her like this since our mother died, and I don’t like to remember that. I’m going to have to tread lightly with this case. I sigh internally as I continue to hug her. I’m still not recovered from losing my Julianna. I don’t know what this will take out of me, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. Still. She’s my sister. I owe her so much. This is the least I can do. I just hope she’s up to it as well.