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by Xu Xi 5 months ago in Love · updated 5 months ago
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short fiction

Rock Rooftops ©2021 Xu Xi

“I’m paying for this.” Duncan took their bill and handed it to the waiter with his credit card.

She waited till the server was out of earshot. “You bloody well know you’re not. It’s my card account, not yours.”

His hurt look made Tomoko immediately regret her remark. His father’s funeral in London, from which they’d just returned, was when the long-running “joke” of his disinheritance finally ended. The whole experience completely unsettled her. This husband she thought she knew and loved might as well be a complete stranger.

The movement in her belly made her wince.

“Darling, you okay?”

She rose and headed for the ladies without a word, leaving him half-standing in his seat.

As she leaned over the sink, waiting for her body to calm, she regretted their going straight out to dinner. They had barely spoken during the flight. She had been too upset, too bewildered. Now, gazing into the mirror at the empty stalls behind her, their faux-antique-wood doors open like a flank of obliging butlers, rage flared.

They walked the block home to their apartment in silence. He cradled her arm to help her up the front steps of the building but she shook it away. She unlocked the door and let it swing back at him.

He pushed it open and grabbed her arm. “Tomo, darling, please, can’t we talk?

“I’m going to bed,” she declared. “Unlike you, I have to work in the morning. Please sleep on the couch tonight.”

He was still out running when she left in the morning. It was Monday, so none of the partners were in yet when she arrived at the boutique investment firm where she’d worked since college. A month earlier, when she announced she was pregnant, Declan Rabinowitz, the senior founding partner, had emerged out of his recent retirement to personally congratulate her and celebrate with champagne and a cake so large that the office ate it for more than a week.

Yiwei stuck her head into her office. “Hey, Tomo, how’s it going? Listen, could you take care of my expense reports? I have all this work for that new listing to finish and won’t have time to do it and I really need to make sure I take care of everything before I head home for the new year. Ni dong, shi ma?”

Tomo did not turn away from her computer screen. Whenever Yiwei wanted something it was all confidential sweetness in Mandarin, as if to say, we’re on the same side. She wanted to tell that Beijing princess to go fuck herself. What was she, her secretary? It would have taken her all of ten minutes to do it. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Ni zhen de tai hao le! Arigato, Madame Tomoko.”

All this pretense at being nice but actually saying, I know your shameful secrets. It had been a mistake confiding in Yiwei about herself, but there were so few Asians in the firm and when Yiwei first joined, she seemed lonely and genuinely interested in being friends. Tomo was mixed race, the offspring of an African-Irish-American military officer who abandoned her Hokkien-Chinese mother in Singapore when she was pregnant, and Yiwei appeared fascinated by her life: How her single mother from a working-class Singaporean family fled in shame to Hong Kong and raised her there, which was why she spoke fluent Cantonese but not Hokkien; how her mother eventually extracted American citizenship from her lover so Tomo could study and also work in the U.S.; how her aunt, her mother’s illegitimate half-sister in Tokyo and mistress to a wealthy industrialist helped support them so she was given a Japanese name to honor her aunt; how she acquired Mandarin during grad school at NYU; how her mother never said how sick she was and passed away before Tomo could go back to see her. As her aunt said she wanted you to have your own life, without all the shame. Take what she left you — because her mother had been extremely frugal and her flat had appreciated in value — she worked hard for it. Make a good life for yourself in the U.S.. Declan, who originally hired her twelve years ago learned about some of her background over time, being the only one interested enough to ask. But Yiwei got to know too much before Tomo realized that all she really wanted was to get close to the partners through Tomo’s position as the firm’s business manager. Now the bitch had the upper hand because she and Jack Tarchen Jr., son of the other founding partner of Tarchen & Rabinowitz, were engaged. Quick work, less than a year to hook him. Way too much had changed recently, at work and at home. Was this really going to be her life from now on?


“It’s the problem of pedigree,” her best friend from college said over lunch. Terri, Therese, like the saint, Tagliatelli was an immigration lawyer. “Still, even without pedigree we did okay. Made it to New York, even own our tiny pieces of the rock. We survive.” She took another bite of her dill pickle. “So forget work, the real question is what you want to do about Duncan. Is this divorce?”

“I don’t know. I mean I don’t even know who he is anymore. His family, his father’s funeral, it was all such a shock. I mean, they’re filthy rich. Seriously, filthily rich with pedigree up the wazoo. Turns out he saw his sister’s post on Facebook and messaged her. No one told him. They didn’t know about me at all, and they absolutely did not either expect or welcome us. And the trip wasn’t cheap.”

Terri polished off the rest of her pickle. Her friend’s satisfied expression recalled the delicious home-made ones Terri’s Polish mother used to send in care packages to college. It had been their favorite midnight dorm feast, and with kielbasa, a match made in heaven. “But my child needs a father.”

“He’d be a good father, Tomo, and he loves you.”

“He needs me. I just didn’t realize how much he actually has to depend on me. He’s literally been cut off without a penny.”

“Yes but he does love you.”

“Does he? How can he if he’s been living this, this . . . lie with me?”

“Is it really a lie?”

“What would you call it?”

Terri picked up her pastrami sandwich and looked around to the table behind. “No mustard when you need it.” She signaled a server, mouthed mustard. “Come on, what are the facts?”

“He lied.”

“He told you he’d been disinherited.”

“He made it sound like a joke! He always spoke about his family as if he were still in touch, like we’d become part of his family whenever we visited. He even suggested we could live in England for a while, I mean, once his citizenship came through. I thought he was just something of a black sheep, not that they never wanted to see him again.”

“But surely you must have known it was odd no one from his family showed up for your wedding? Never mind show up, not even send a congratulatory message? He never said he definitely would have money, did he?”

“Well, no, but . . .”

Terri didn’t pull punches. One by one, she listed the facts of Tomo’s case. Fact: Duncan was a trainer at her gym — it was how they met — and that was the way he made a living, so no real money there. Fact: She invited Duncan to move in with her after they got together to save him rental, but he did contribute to the mortgage and household expenses, so fair enough, right? Fact: Duncan acknowledged up front to being illegal, or rather, overstaying his student visa to live and work in New York. Fact: Duncan had been a student at Juilliard but never finished and abandoned a possible career as a concert pianist.

“He never told me how really talented he was, until that party when he sat down and started playing. You heard him, he wasn’t just good, he was amazing. Yet when I suggested he could teach music or get a gig somewhere, he got mad so I never brought it up again.”

The mustard arrived and Terri began lathering. “I’m listening. Anyone who gets into Juilliard, you know he isn’t just some run-of-the-mill music student. Plus dropping out the way he did, there had to be some major issues there, right? Besides, none of this is a lie.”

Terri wasn’t wrong and Tomo knew it. “Fact: I offered to marry him when I got pregnant. He never asked, never presumed to acquire citizenship through me. Nor did he expect access to any of my money once we married,” she conceded. “He made a point of saying that. He has his principles.”

“And you told me — it was right here, the day before I witnessed your marriage at City Hall — that you were okay being the primary breadwinner, right?”

“I did.” She looked down at her split pea soup, barely touched.

Terri’s tone softened. “He’s a good man Tomo. Not all lives go the way they were meant to. You and I, we were the lucky ones because we’re tough. Come on, eat. For the baby.”

Tomoko picked up her spoon, put it back down and began to cry. She grabbed her napkin and blew her nose, embarrassed.

Terri reached across and squeezed her hand. “Hey, it’s okay. Just talk to him.”

“It’s not about the money. It’s not.”

But back at work that afternoon, she wondered if that were true. Duncan wasn’t exactly extravagant, but the way he lived, anyone would have thought money were no object. In London, once she saw how he’d been raised everything fell into place, the assumption that there would always be money for anything his family wanted. Even the tickets for London and the Air B&B had been more than she really wanted to spend. He had said, it’s my Dad I need to go. His grief pained her, a reminder of her mother’s funeral which she hadn’t be able to attend, so she said, charge it to the card we’ll be okay.

When she got home that evening, Duncan wasn’t there. His cellphone was on the table. She called the gym but they said he hadn’t been in all day. By eleven when he hadn’t returned she texted Terri. Wait till morning, her friend responded. If he’s still not back report him missing.

By Tuesday afternoon, she finally called 911. They took down his details, asked her to think about anyone he might go to and that was that. After the call, Jack Tarcher Sr. asked her if everything was all right, but she shrugged and said something about morning sickness.

By Friday, he still hadn’t returned and the police had nothing to report. He hadn’t been to the gym, although they did tell her he had asked not to be scheduled this week. They didn’t know why. Tomoko barely slept. She tried emailing in case he checked into his account but there was no response. She contacted the few friends he had but no one had seen him. Besides, he tended to stick to himself because for years, he didn’t want to get too close to anyone who might rat him out to the INS. What, Tomoko wondered, made him trust her? Over their three years together, she thought she understood. But now, she realized she knew absolutely nothing about him, not really, despite her belief that they shared a deep, loving intimacy.

Friday evening, Terri came over to be with her and brought a bottle of wine.

“Think Tomo, he must be somewhere. Duncan wouldn’t sleep on the streets. January’s way too cold for that anyway. Someone from his past, maybe, before the rift with his family. Hasn’t he ever mentioned anyone? It has to be someone he trusts.” She uncorked the bottle. “You know more than you think.”

Tomoko held out a wine glass and signaled for Terri to fill it.

“Are you sure?”

“The kid will be fine. We’re tough.”

Terri poured a small amount. “I register my objection.”

“Whatever.” She downed the entire glass. The smooth, velvety red was a relief. She held out her glass again. “A little more, please, and then I promise, no more.”

Her friend obliged.

“Work’s been a bitch as well. Yiwei knows something’s up and she’s trying to edge me out, I’m pretty sure. So that her cousin can take over my job.”

“Just think hard, Tomo. Yiwei’s the least of your worries.”

It came to her then, the friend from New Zealand at Juilliard, the one who did go on to a reasonably successful performing career. “Paul something, there’s a middle initial, I, maybe, last name begins with H.”

Terri was already on her phone. “What instrument?”

“Piano. He’s part Maori. I met him once.”

Terri stopped searching. “It has to be Hemmings, Paul Hemmings. He’s incredible. I’ve been to his concerts.” She scrolled through her phone and held it up. “That’s him. He lives somewhere in Manhattan I’m pretty sure, a friend of friend knows him.” She pulled up his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts and shot off several messages.

“Wait, don’t, what are you telling him?”

“Don’t worry about that. Besides, here, he’s already responded.” She showed her the private message. “Call this number. Duncan’s there.”

That evening, when she arrived at Paul Hemming’s studio, Tomo stood outside the door for several minutes listening to her husband play. “Brahms,” Paul said.

“I know.”

“Forgive me, I didn’t know if you knew music.”

“I don’t but I know my husband.”

“He shouldn’t stop playing, he needs music. It’s not just about performance.” He excused himself and left them alone to talk.

Duncan turned around and remained seated on the piano bench. He motioned for her to sit next to him, but she pulled up a chair and sat facing him instead.

“I’m sorry, I should have let you know where I was. It’s not Paul’s fault, he told me to get in touch.”

She gazed at the father of her child-to-be. His soft eyes, the curve of his shoulder, the crooked smile that she had learned to trust. The dignity he exuded, the poise she admired. His discipline. Despite his modest means, he always turned himself out so elegantly.

“Why did we go to London? You knew, didn’t you, what our reception would be?” It was the only question for which she really wanted an answer after this longest week.

“More or less. I guess I just needed to see it for myself. ”

She waited.

Finally. “It wasn’t my father. My mother was the one who had me disinherited by telling him I wasn’t his child. She didn’t approve of my studying music, wanted me in investment banking like my father, or law or something similar, but Dad supported me. She was furious, and later never forgave me for leaving Juilliard, told me I’d amount to nothing.”

“Are you his child?”

“Probably. But my mother’s ridiculous, she has lovers, you know, several, and she’s never given a shit about my father, just his money. So maybe she wasn’t lying, but of all my siblings, I’m the one who most resembles him.”

He took out the photo from his wallet, the one he always carried, the one she’d seen numerous times, the one that made her believe he was still part of his family. “Dad and I, we did talk from time to time since you and I got together. I told him about us and he was going to change his will. He just died rather too unexpectedly.”

“But why Duncan? Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?”

He looked away. “I was ashamed.”

She stood and reached for his hand. “Come home.”


She called in sick the next morning, the first time in all her years at the firm, and remained in bed with Duncan. They talked, they cried, they fucked and then made love. At eleven, a text pinged. Yiwei, asking why her expense reimbursement hadn’t been paid? Without thinking Tomo texted back, because it hasn’t been, and switched off her cell. Duncan laughed.

At the gym while her husband was at work, Tomo sank into the whirlpool. She closed her eyes. Terri’s voice, you’re okay being the primary breadwinner, right? Terri and she in college, singing along with all their girlfriends at the bar the night before graduation — I am woman, hear me roar. Where were those women now? They all talked about careers, about making it in the city, about using their privileged education. A handful got jobs, but only those no-brainer ones acquired through family connections where their real job was meeting the right husband. The majority surrendered to the first acceptable guy with a ring, had their dream weddings, Instagrammable honeymoons and homes, and disappeared. Only she and Terri stuck to the plan of making it on their own. The two working class scholarship girls, the two who didn’t come from the country club world of their elite private college, the two who had no choice but to be tough and succeed, or die trying.

The water jet subsided. She punched the red button for a second round. It’s not about the money.

Twelve years ago, during her interview at the firm, Declan Rabinowitz had asked, “So what is it you want to do with your life?” Her response, unequivocal. “I want to succeed in a career so that my mother can die happy. She deserves that.” Two years later, Declan reminded her of what she said when he offered to pay for her executive MBA, as long as she continued working at the firm to assist with their growth and profitability. She’d fulfilled her end of the bargain, and the firm had grown steadily, but with Declan retired, how much more did she really owe them? Meanwhile they hired Beijing princesses who only looked out for themselves. Terri also said, you can make a lot more money elsewhere, you know you can. Her first loyalty should be to her family and her own career, and not to martyr herself to a dubious debt of gratitude. Her mother would be proud of her had she lived to see all she’d accomplished. That was all that mattered.

She sank underwater briefly and resurfaced. Fuck pedigree. There was plenty of life without it. And without shame.

After their son Johnathan was born, Tomo left the firm for double her pay and much better career prospects in financial management at a larger investment firm. She and Duncan lived well enough. Her husband continued to work at the gym part time and became a fiscally responsible house husband and parent. He began playing piano again and even taught Jonathan how to play. As Terri said, women can roar; they just need to summon up the guts to do so.


About the author

Xu Xi

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