My friend Lin is the closest a Midwest girl like me gets to “The Old Country” without actually having to live there. Sure, my parents were from China, but that was thirty years ago; they’re frozen in the sepia-toned amber of the ‘80s. Lin is from the realistically-colored China of today. She moved to New York last year from Xi’an, a city that was cosmopolitan before The West even discovered cities. We lunch once a week, and she tells me of this place that — for me — exists only in novels and movies and awkward phone calls on Chinese New Year.
“Marriage is such an antiquated idea,” I said one week, over mediocre xiaolongbao and weak tea. We were at a Chinatown restaurant with a four-star Yelp rating and a glowing New York Times review.
“I’m sure a happy marriage is great for some, but I just can’t understand why people our age would want to rush to the altar anymore.” I prided myself in saying things my church-going suburb back in Illinois would find scandalous.
Lin placed a delicate xiaolongbao onto her spoon and sucked the scalding broth out through her teeth. Her lipstick left a fuchsia kiss on the tender skin. She then ate the whole thing in one bite and lifted her teacup with dainty fingers. I could almost see a wisp of steam escape the corner of her mouth.
“A friend of mine dated a married man for four years,” she said. “You know the type: she’s beautiful, she’s stylish, she’s young. He’s old, bald, and rich. For four years she told us that he was going to leave his wife and teenage son and marry her. No one believed it, of course. He gave her a credit card and showed up at her apartment at night when he was drunk. Other than that he had no interest in her. I once watched her buy the entire Chanel spring makeup collection and a Hermès bag in one afternoon, and he only came afterwards to pay the bill. He didn’t want to actually be with her while she shopped.”
“Poor girl,” I said, sarcastically.
“In a way,” said Lin. “But at least she always had ‘spare tires’ to console her.”
“‘Spare tires’?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. A guy you have on the side who you have no intention of being serious with. Maybe he doesn’t have enough money. Maybe he’s got a dead end job. Maybe you just don’t like him that much. You hope your main ‘tire’ will marry you, and in the meantime, you let your ‘spare’ pay for dinner, hold your purse while you’re shopping, and come over with soup when you’re on your period.”
“That sounds amazing,” I said. “But why would any guy want to do that?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know he’s the ‘spare tire’.”
“Aah,” I nodded, smiling.
“Or maybe you’re a ‘spare tire’ for him as well.”
“One day my friend asks us all to brunch for a surprise announcement. We meet at this fancy restaurant very early in the morning and she tells us…she’s getting married!
“‘What?’ We said, ‘Did that old man actually leave his wife?’ And she says, ‘No, of course not. I accidentally discovered one of my new spares is rich.’
“She was at some professional development seminar and had met this guy who was fresh out of grad school. She let him take her shopping afterwards. He needed to drop something off with his dad first and they parked outside an office building downtown. She, of course, thought he had a girlfriend and was using her as his ‘spare’. So naturally, she followed him. She saw the security guard bow and wave him in. A quick Baidu search showed the building belonged to a large international company and the president had the same last name as her new ‘spare’.
“From then on, she had a plan. She told him she still lived with her parents and needed to be home by 9PM. She told him she had never slept with a guy before–no, she had never even kissed a guy before, never even held hands with a guy before! She was just a good girl looking for true love.
“He proposed two months later.
“She had asked us to brunch because he wanted to meet her friends and she wanted us to back her up. She was a good, shy, traditional girl who has definitely not slept with almost a hundred guys. He was not a ‘spare’ but her first and only. There was no married man she had been seeing for four years, no army of ‘spares’ all over Xi’an. This was true love. And we were to help her clinch the deal.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “This guy came from a rich family, lived in Xi’an, went to grad school, and still wanted a traditional virgin bride?”
“Of course he still would’ve dated her if she wasn’t,” said Lin. “But marriage?”
“And she wanted money.”
“And to be married before 25.”
“Did it work?”
“Their wedding was on a beautiful luxury resort in Thailand. His parents paid for everything, even everyone’s flights and hotel rooms.”
“But…what happened on the wedding night?”
“I wondered about that too. I met her for coffee after their honeymoon in the Alps. I just had to know. Did he realize? I asked. She said, ‘I pricked my finger and rubbed some blood on the sheets. No big deal.’”
I could see this girl sitting in her Swiss hotel suite, silently sinking a pin deep into her flesh until there was enough blood to smear on the sheets and between her thighs. I imagined the mountains outside her window standing cold and silent, like on a postcard or a picture, which is the only way I had ever seen the Alps. Meanwhile, the guy was probably fumbling in the bathroom.
“Men see what they want to see,” I said into my teacup.
“Maybe,” Lin replied. “Or maybe she’s just clever.”
“Would he even know what to look for?”
“He would’ve looked,” Lin said.
A line had formed outside the restaurant, and the waitress hurried over with our check.
“We’re just finishing up our tea,” I said.
“Yes, yes, take your time,” she said, in a voice that clearly meant, “Get out. There are people who want your window table, and they can’t tell the difference between handcrafted xiaolongbao and overpriced chicken nuggets. They’ll probably end up ordering fried rice anyway, which is a much bigger profit margin than what you two wanted.”
“I’ll pack up the leftovers for you,” she said, whipping out plastic containers. “Such beautiful ladies like yourselves should be out enjoying the beautiful weather.” She took the cup out of my hand before it even touched the table.
We soon found ourselves in the cold, clutching our neatly packaged leftovers.
“What happened next?” I asked, as we headed for the J train.
“She’s doing very well. Her in-laws love her. They’re having a baby boy soon.”
“You can’t end the story there!” I protested. “There’s no justice, or moral, or neat cynical observation!”
“I’m just telling you what happened,” said Lin.
“Maybe she ends up really falling in love with him,” I said. “Or maybe he throws her over for a ‘bad girl’ when he gets tired of the virginal act. Maybe her past comes back to haunt her. Maybe she isn’t really happy!”
Lin turned to me with a look in her steady brown eyes that seemed to say, “As usual, the American is making things more complicated than they need to be.”
“Everybody got what they wanted,” she explained. “Isn’t that a happy ending?”