Xiu started a fire in the ancient firepit and listened patiently as Rémy explained what had become of him since they last met. He had returned to France and to university, but the professors had gone on strike, and the strike had lasted for a week, then two, then stretched out into a month. More than one person found themselves in jail over the whole fiasco—among them, Rémy’s academic advisor and department chair. The student body became restless in the absence of classes, eventually rioting.
“It was horrible,” he murmured, staring into the flames as he spoke. “It was not safe to be outside, you could be injured or arrested at any time. You could not go to school, you could not go to work. All you could do is sit at home and wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For something, anything … to change. I have never known such desperation.”
He sighed and looked away. “It was nearly six months before anything could be resolved. I could not finish my degree, and I could not transfer to another school. There was no money, no hope, nothing. In the meantime, my mother died. There was only my father left, and he is old. I was afraid to leave him alone.
“I have been working in a supermarket for some time now. One of my former classmates found me there. She could not get a job with her degree, either. She became a detective instead. She saw that a police officer in the United States was trying to reach me, that the officer had been looking for me for nearly a year. At first I did not understand why. Then she told me the officer’s name and I could not believe it. It was your sister.
“I was afraid that it was a set-up, someone from the fertilizer company trying to find me for … heaven knows. It was months before I could bring myself to respond. But it was true. It really was your sister trying to find me. So I finally called her. She told me that if I cared anything about you at all, I would come back. And so I came back. Because I do care.”
He looked at Xiu seriously. “Now it is my turn to ask a favor of you. My father is too old to live alone. If I am to stay with you forever, you must accept him as well. “
Xiu accepted this arrangement without hesitation. Perhaps she should have talked it over with her family first, or at least inquired about Mr. Dutiel’s disposition … but it was such a little thing to stand in the way of her (and more importantly, her son’s) happiness. Of course Mr. Dutiel was welcome.
And with that obstacle overcome, she and Rémy went out on a long-overdue second date that ultimately ended just like the first one had.
The next morning, she left Rémy sleeping in her bed and went out front to talk the whole thing over with her mother and sister. Actually, she didn’t so much “talk” as inform them that the Dutiels would be moving in shortly.
Yes, there were only three bedrooms in the house—it didn’t matter. Yes, no one really had a job besides Mei—they’d make do somehow. But Étienne needed a father, and Xiu wasn’t about to let this second chance go to waste. If that meant transplanting Gaston Dutiel to Riverfront Meadows, so be it.
Layla was fairly enthusiastic about the prospect—she had wanted Xiu to remarry for quite some time. Mei took a slightly dimmer view of the whole thing.
“So, where, exactly, are these guys gonna sleep? In case you hadn’t noticed, there are only two beds and a crib in here.”
“I’ll buy bunk beds.”
“You expect me to sleep in a bunk bed?” Mei smirked.
“No, I expect you to sleep with Mom.”
Gaston Dutiel became a permanent resident of the house just in time for his grandson’s birthday. A good-humored, intelligent man, he quickly won Étienne over.
Layla was a harder sell, but he managed to surprise her by presenting her with a well-worn copy of one of her first novels. He was a big fan, he said—he had read almost everything she’d published. Stunned, Layla could do little besides thank him. As soon as she found out that he was an avid fisherman, any lingering coldness on her part vanished.
For the first time in a while, every seat at the table was filled as Xiu served a full dinner. Layla was listening to Gaston talk about the vineyard he’d owned as a younger man, and Étienne was happily telling Rémy about every toy in his box. Mei, by contrast, looked particularly sullen.
“Everything okay?” Xiu asked.
“Peachy,” Mei snapped. Xiu very carefully set a plate of steak in front of her and gave her a worried look.
The food was delicious, as expected (Layla was especially pleased with her vegetarian version; Étienne tried a bite and decided he liked it), and conversation flowed easily. It seemed as though things might finally be getting back to normal … at least, until Mei threw her napkin down, kicked her chair back, screamed, "I hate you all," and stormed out, leaving untouched food and a shocked silence in the wake of her departure.
“More wine?” Gaston interjected into the awkward silence.
Philip Melvin rarely complained about his job. Being a bartender was easy money and the customers usually kept him amused. Occasionally, though, he’d get an obnoxious drunk that wouldn’t shut up and wouldn’t leave, someone who made such a pest of themselves that they literally drove everyone else out of the door. His current drunk had been rambling non-stop for nearly twenty minutes about god-knew-what, and he was beginning to lose patience. “Look … um … Mei, was it? I gotta get back to work.”
“Like hell you do,” Mei slurred, “there ain’t nobody else in this whole joint.”
“Yeah, now there ain't. You ran ‘em off.”
“Like hell,” Mei growled again. “Gimme another one.”
He sighed irritably and slammed another glass of whisky in front of her, hoping it'd shut her up. But no such luck. She'd drained it completely within five minutes and began pounding the bar with the glass. She wanted more.
Philip finally drew the line. “… no.”
“Whaddya mean ‘no?’ I’m payin’, ain’t I? … gimme another one!”
“Forget it, girl.” Philip walked away and began to clean the bar tables, leaving Mei to rant to herself. He didn’t want to force her to go, and he wouldn’t, as long as she stayed calm.
She stayed calm—so calm, that after a while he began to wonder what she was up to. She wasn’t at the bar anymore, but she hadn’t left. “Oh shit,” he muttered, “I bet she's on the floor.”
Sure enough, she was in a heap on the ground, singing a nursery rhyme. Philip sighed. “Alright, this ain’t cute anymore. Go home, Mei.”
“Home,” Mei mumbled. “Yeah, okay, I’ll go home with you … where’s your place?”
"Yeah, no. Go to your house, okay?"
"What, I'm not good enough to fuck?"
"What, I'm not good enough to fuck?"
“Thanks but no thanks. I'm sure you're fine when you're sober, but you don't even know which way is up. And I don't fuck girls who are gonna puke on me at the end. Shove off, okay?”
“Go to hell, I can’t drive.”
“No, guess you can’t,” he muttered. And he shoved her hands away again.
She wasn’t coherent enough to tell him where she lived. In the end, he called a number on her phone and said tersely, “I’m locking up in 10 minutes. If you don’t come get her by then, she’ll be sitting in the dark.”
Xiu came as quickly as she could, but the caller hadn't lied. By the time she got to the Watering Hole, Mei was slumped against a post, growling obscenities.
Neither woman said a word on the ride home. They rode in silence, Xiu driving carefully, Mei pouting, until they pulled into the grass by the dark house. Xiu waited until it became obvious that Mei wasn't leaving the car without help. Then she slowly pulled Mei to her feet and helped her sister up the stairs.
“Just get me on the couch,” Mei began. “I don’t wanna …”
She reeled backwards into the railing. Xiu turned away to let her vomit in peace. Mei probably hadn’t eaten anything at the bar, the better to get wasted faster. She rushed to the sink and got a glass of water, waited for Mei to stumble inside. “You’re dehydrated.”
“Oh, shut up! Are you a goddamn doctor now? You gonna psychoanalyze me next?”
“Perfect little Xiu,” Mei sniped. “You always get what you want, things always work out for you, you always know everything, you’re just so—“
She collapsed in her sister’s arms, sobbing.
“They … they took Judson off life support today.”