Monday, January 30, 2006

Sayonara Punanni

October 31 – November 6 2005

Xinlei’s parents have come to visit him for a few weeks. Both of his parents are retired, so it’s kind of an open-ended ticket and no one knows how long they’ll stay, Xinlei estimates 4-6 weeks. If my parents came to stay with me for that long, there would be a death, an arrest, and a Court-TV movie in the family.

Last year, his mother got very sick and he had to take a loan out from our company to help pay for surgery and doctor’s bills. When you combine the averages salaries of Chinese people with the average salaries of our company, he’s getting monetarily undercut twice. Needless to say, he’s been struggling to get the money paid back. Luckily, this project has helped both of us out financially. Living in another city, with the company and the client picking up a good chunk of the tab, has allowed both of us to make little stockpiles of money in our accounts (or in the buried coffee cans behind the hotel).

Tuesday, I went to dinner with Xinlei and his parents. Of course, neither of his parents speak any English, so it was just like every other meal I’ve eaten since I’ve been here. His father is a very quiet type; he smiles like my grandfather and says very little. His mother smiled and laughed at me a lot. After she found out that I was 31 years old, she started giving me the business about not being married and starting a family. It is a curious feeling getting chewed out through a translator.

Of course, Xinlei was quick to point out that he had introduced me to Mattie and the hopes that we will get married in the next 18 months. That’s an interesting perspective, I thought. I’ve noticed that people put timelines on some strange things in this country, but ignore other timelines (such as the ones associated with food expiration dates.)

The hotel life has become more and more stressing over these past weeks. The place is a huge gossip factory and up until now they really haven’t had much to gossip about me. But that hasn't stopped them from creating topics from nothing such as keeping track of my meals and what time I eat or asking me where I’m going every time I get on my bicycle or what I was planning doing with a bucket of bolts and a case of pudding pops.

But now it’s different. The first day they saw me with Mattie, the hotel regular scheduled programming was interrupted. The people here have accepted me into their circle and I think they’re kind of disappointed that I’m dating outside the circle. There’s probably a housekeeper on the 4th floor that won the ‘Marry the Honkey’ raffle. She’s already got her dress and has our 8x9 apartment picked out.

Being noticed and talked about can be quite annoying, but I have begun to get used to it (kind of), unfortunately, Mattie does not share my attitude about the gossip train and is quite embarrassed and bothered by it. I had to go around to key friends on the hotel staff and make sure that they understood that she wasn't a hooker. Plus she wanted us to ride the elevator down separately from time to time.

Until this past week, Mattie has still wanted to keep my brother, Xinlei, out of the loop about our relationship. As I mentioned earlier, there is almost no way that he doesn't know about us. He’s taken me to Beijing to visit her, he’s organized taxi rides for me, she’s come to stay at his apartment for the weekend and never once set foot inside his door. I have respected her wishes and not told him anything about us, but he knows. He’s not stupid, in fact, her naivety about the whole situation makes me thing she may be a little dense on the subject.

Last week, he asked me, “So, how’s it going with Mattie dude?”.

“Pretty good man, but she doesn't really want me to talk about it with anyone.” I replied, getting slightly embarrassed.

“Ahhh, I see, that’s cool. It’s really not that abnormal for Chinese relationships. Consider the topic dropped man. But congratulations.”

“Thanks and thanks man.”

Last week the cat was let out of the bag, much to her disliking, but none the less. If there’s a proverbial cat and a proverbial bag, there’s someone that wants to keep it in there (proverbially). Mattie was this person in this situation. Up until now, her visits had been visits where she stayed at his house. ‘Staying at Xinlei’s house’ meant that she stayed with me until around 2:00 am and I walked her over to his apartment where she slept for about four hours and returned to my room. Like I said, how in the hell could he not know what was going on?

Mattie called me up to tell me that she was going to come and stay with me for a couple days, which was good. Her stipulation was that we kept the visit a secret from Xinlei which was bad. I refuse to lie to Xinlei, I just wont do that (I will, however, lie to about anyone else).

My task for the day was to ‘clear my schedule’ for the evening. This meant to make sure Xinlei was to leave me undisturbed from the end of our work day until the next day. By this time, Xinlei have settled down into a nice little routine where we work together and call it a day, not seeing each other until the next day. About once a week, we get together for dinner, a handful of beers and a couple games of pool, but other than that, we’re pretty much on our own. There has been times when we haven’t seen each other for several days at a time. We talk on the phone and email and stuff, but it’s nice and relaxed. This is a good sign for me, which means that I’m feeling at home and comfortable and he knows that I don't need to be entertained every night. We still get along great and are wonderful friends, which I attribute to the simple fact that we are not around each other all the time. This meant that I knew that there was only about a 20% chance that he’d want to do something that night, so the odds were in my favor. This is why I’m not a gambler.

We were on our way home from the office (after our charity forty five minutes of work for the day) and he said, “Hey man, you wanna drink some beers and shoot some pool tonight?”

“Aww man, I’m sorry. I’ve got some stuff going on tonight, we can do it tomorrow if you want.” I said, hoping that he’d let it drop at that.

“Plans huh? Ok man, that’s cool.” He replied. I realized that my choice of words was horrible. I haven’t had ‘plans’ that didn't involve Xinlei in four months now. But he let it drop and I jumped out of the taxi feeling like shit. That damn hot woman.

Later that night, Mattie and I were hanging out in the sack, when her phone started ringing. It was a text message from Xinlei saying, “What are you doing?”

“Mattie, he knows.” I replied simply.

“What?! Did you tell him?”

“No, I can just tell.”

“Ok, I’m going to send him a text message that says that I just came to Langfang and seeing if he wants to eat dinner, I’ll tell him that it was a surprise.” She said with a slight teetering to her confidence.

“Ok, but I’m just telling you. It wont work. He’s probably known about ‘us’ longer than we have.”

“Well, aren’t you bothered by it?”

“Honestly, it’s killing me to sneak around behind my only friend in this country. You’re wonderful and I’ve done it for this long, but you don't know what that guy has done for me and it’s very hard to keep such a stupid secret from him. When this whole thing comes out, it’s going to be a huge relief. Don't worry, he’s not going to be angry, as long as we just come clean. Trust me.”

“Well, I still think I should try the ‘surprise dinner’ tactic.” She said, obviously trying to hang on to the lie a bit longer. As soon as she said this, she got another text message from him that said “I know your secret.”

“Oh my god Luke!!” she exclaimed, “He knows! How did this happen?!”

“Did I ever tell you about ‘Housekeeper Games’?”

“No, but what does that have to do with this?”

“Well,” I began, “when I first got settled into my room, I was bored and spent some time playing jokes on the staff here, nothing serious. But the next day Xinlei knew about it.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I kind of built a stage and throne out of the desk and….”

“No,” she said, cutting me off “what do you mean that he knew about it the next day?”

“Don't you get it?” I said, “He’s got an inside man. The inside man is my housekeeper. They’re pretty good friends.”

“He’s friends with your housekeeper?” she practically shouted, “Why didn't you tell me this?”

“Well, I knew that if I told you, you probably wouldn't come over.” I said, knowing that I had screwed up.

“You’re right. I can't believe this! Now what can we do?”

“Well, I know he’s hungry and I’m kind of hungry. Let’s have him over and we’ll come clean.”

“Ok, but how do we do it?”

“You’re asking me how to tell the truth? Jesus, just follow my lead, the only thing you have to say is that you weren’t sure that you wanted everyone to know.”

I have never seen such a large smile on that man’s face when he met us for dinner. He was grinning from ear to ear. All he could say to me was “Congratulations dude.” He was truly happy and not at all upset. Mattie, on the other hand, was a different story.

She was having trouble making eye-contact with him. She was silent nearly the whole meal and felt like total shit. She was convinced that Xinlei was mad at her and just couldn't see why he wasn't mad. In her eyes, his smile was a smile of contempt or disdain. She even started crying once and told him to quit making fun of her. He was just sitting there smiling.

Eventually her phone rang and she stepped out to answer it. While she was gone, I had a quick talk with Xinlei.

“Hey man, I’m really sorry about this whole thing. I was not trying to lie or mislead you, Mattie just wasn't comfortable with everyone knowing about this.”

“Dude, don't even worry about it. I’m so happy for you, don't even mention it. We’re cool brother.”

And that was it. I knew we were cool and happy and that was the end of it. Xinlei was happy, I was happy, but Mattie was still embarrassed. Either way, Lucas and Mattieco went public that day and stocks have been on the steady decline ever since then.

So now, Mattie and I have been together for about three weeks and it’s been a crazy up and down ride. She’s really smart and fun to be around when she’s in a good mood, but when she’s not; it’s a real chore. There are so many differences between us that I have begun to wonder if there are enough similarities to keep us strong together. It takes a lot of energy for any relationship to succeed and this is magnified even more.

Most of the issues are based firmly in the realm of cultural differences (or at least the excuses for our differences are in the cultural realm). Some of the things I say or do often make her cringe. She is extremely shy and timid. Many of her sentences start with “I’m a Chinese girl…”. This is her way of saying that I’m doing something she doesn't like or is not accustomed to.

I live anywhere from one to three hours away (depending on traffic) and every time we see each other, it’s going to cost one of us about 260 RMB ($30 USD) for cab fares. That gets expensive quick. My communication skills are so bad that I can't get a taxi to take me to visit her on my own, I have to get in a car and hand the phone over to the driver so he can hear directions from Mattie on the other side.

We both work quite a bit, but she is significantly busier than I am. Plus, her work schedule is about as normal as a ten legged dog and our plans often change drastically in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to make any plans. She doesn't realize it, but she’s getting rolled over by her company and if I try to explain it to her, she just says “It’s different here, you wouldn't understand.” That may be true, but you’re still getting taken advantage of in a horrible way. If we were in the states, the roles would be switched and I would be the one with the crazy schedule, but that doesn't make it any easier. I feel guilty for keeping her from her work, usually because she’s so quick to point out that she should be working instead of spending time with me.

Xinlei and Mattie fight like brother and sister. They both call me crazy when I say it, but it’s true. Neither of them have any siblings, so they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s the constant bickering and fucking with each other sorts of fighting. My sisters and I fought like that for years and years, slowly growing out of it by the time I was in my mid-twenties. These two haven’t had the sibling rivalry before and are making up for lost time. I refuse to get involved and it pisses Mattie off to no end. In her mind, it is my responsibility as her boyfriend to take her side. I tell her that I’m not in the business of taking sides on stupid arguments and that they’re going to have to figure it out. The only times my parents got involved was when it begun to affect their activities, and even there it was complete reluctant involvement. Penalties were handed our quickly and harshly with no chance of appeal. “You’re sister gets the hacksaw and you get the machete. That’s the end of it, now let me get back to my damn record collection.”

I cannot be more clear on my ‘no sides’ stance. Mattie cannot be more clear how much this angers her. She is even more upset when I refer to the situation as childlike bickering with me in the father role. We argue about this every time we leave his house, but that is the consequence I must pay for riding the fence.

Another issue has been that she has had only two boyfriends in her life. She has had sex with only two people in her life, and she was with both of them for at least three years each. She also said that she loved them completely, which is why it was so difficult her to be with me after only two short weeks.

Which brings me to my biggest and stupidest mistake. It was after she gave my wonderful birthday present.

“Lucas, you didn't say you loved me.”

“Umm, excuse me? I was couldn't hear you because I’m deflating the blow-up goat. Can you rethink your words and repeat the question?”

“Well, you just didn't tell me that you loved me and I was wondering why.”

She knew I was lying and I knew I shouldn't have said it. I still don't know how it came out, but one thing is for sure - I’m a total dumbass. I made the mistake for telling her what I knew she wanted to hear instead of being honest. Being able to read people's minds is useless if you don't do the appropriate evil with the knowledge gained. I had no idea how much the guilt was bearing down on her. I never intended to make her feel so bad and guilty and I need to set things right. I mistook loneliness for love and it has caused white-hot pain in the eyes of someone that didn't deserve to be hurt.

I will be leaving China in about six weeks. I’ll be going home for a much needed rest and I still don't know when I will be coming back and for how long (or if I will come back at all). This is another source of stress. I want to have the answers. But these subjects are answered by my employer usually a day or two before I have to depart (see Chapter 1).

Even more than wanting to know and understand answers to difficult questions, just once, I want to have the strength to say them aloud to another pair of ears. My heart is filled with an unpleasant mixture of dread and anxiety for how I’m hurting someone I care about. I’m homesick, the edges of my eyesight are always blurry and my head is in a continuous daze, this has made it a very difficult time to be around me.

All of these things came to both of our attention Saturday. We were going to spend the weekend together shopping, playing with puppies, eating cotton candy, all that cool lovey shit. Xinlei and his parents were going to do some sightseeing, so we all left Langfang in the morning, the highway was closed again because of fog, so it took us three hours to get to her apartment. When we got to her apartment, Mattie’s eyes got huge when she saw me taking my bag out of the trunk of the car.

“Why did you bring that?” She asked with an obvious nervous laugh.

“What?” I replied innocently. “It’s the smallest bag I have, there’s really not that much stuff in it.”

“No, why did you bring it? What’s in it?”

“Just a change of clothes for tomorrow silly.”

“Ohh, you cant stay here tonight, I’ve got too much to do tomorrow.”

“Ohh, ok, that’s fine, I’m sick could probably use a good nights rest, I’ll go home tonight. No big deal.” Honestly, I really did feel like shit and just want to go home and sleep, but the misunderstanding really pissed me off.

I could also see that the whole situation bothered her as well. I could see it in her eyes and her quiet mannerisms as we ate lunch with Xinlei and his parents. She barely spoke and wouldn't even look at me very much. Eventually, she loosened up and we were all smiling again, but I could see that one of the little ‘cultural’ barriers had been roughed up a bit.

Later the two of us went shopping at a market so I could buy a few Christmas presents (from me to me). She was still somewhat distant and it was really making it hard to be around, if she didn't want to be around me, fine, we can cancel the day. She’s told me several times that when she’s upset or stressed, she doesn't like to talk about it, she just likes to go the gym and sweat it out (in other words, bottle it up, that sounds familiar). We weren’t doing anything that I couldn't do anytime on my own. Plus, I like shopping alone at my own pace anyway.

Eventually, we decided to go to a movie. This was a nice little break and chance to sit down for a while and sleep (which is what I planned on doing as soon as the lights went out). There were a couple English movies playing in a mall downtown, so we went in and chilled. By this time, she had cheered up considerably and we were having a nice time. I actually stayed awake during the movie and enjoyed it (so much that I will take the title of the movie to the grave with me). It didn't help that the seats were about the size of kids potty training chairs (or Chinese horse saddles).

After the movie (it was almost 10 pm by this time), we called the driver to pick us up and take Mattie home and me back to Langfang. He said he’d be there in an hour, so we went into a coffee shop and grabbed a couple drinks and relaxed while we waited for the driver.

This is when all of the problems began to surface (or ‘more’ problems, or surface ‘again’). It was torture for her to talk about them; it was forcing her to be more honest and up front than she had ever been in her life (at least that’s what I assumed). She was showing me how to be strong and wished I could mimic half of it.

She just cant take being with me; being with anyone, especially a foreigner, at this point. Her heart is still hurting from her last relationship and wants my help and advice as to where to go from here. She puts all of her energy into a relationship and wants to know if she should put it all into this relationship. No games, no ‘easy come, easy go’, just straight relationship. She doesn't love me; she knows she really likes me (which makes me feel slightly better, because the guilt I would have if she said she loved me would be crushing).

I can see that I’m killing her and my seven deadly sins are fighting for control of me. I am too proud to admit that I’m wrong, I am too greedy to let her go, I am too envious of happy people to admit that I’m in a bad place, I am angry at myself for being weak, my mind is gluttonous and my soul is slothful and slow to react. My lust has gotten me in this predicament and now stands over my battered soul, laughing at me.

By the time I left, she posed an ultimatum to me. Do you or don't you? The fact is I simply cannot handle this insane long distance relationship. Mattie is one of the moodiest people I’ve ever met and it drives me insane. When she’s up, it’s spectacular, but when she’s down it’s like being with an angry warthog. The writing is on the wall, and this relationship is over. Whether it ‘officially’ ended that night outside the movie theater or not, once I’m back home we will not be together any longer. Of all the phrases I wish weren’t true, ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is my least favorite. I had a drop dead beautiful Chinese girlfriend and haven’t been this sad and guilt ridden in years.

Why do I make such strong statements about love and feelings and trust in the beginning of a relationship? I say these things when I don't even know the person. It’s like an job interview where the employer asks all these questions in a twenty-minute phone call to determine if I’m worth the risk, hoping that you’re telling the truth, all in an attempt to see if worthy enough of getting the opportunity to prove my nobility as a man and lover at a later date. Then after I’ve had the time to get to know her, it’s always such a painful process of admitting that I was simply wrong. It’s not like I’m lying, I’m just saying things that I don't know for sure.

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