The catch. A short story

The more is known about a Shandong woman, the more unknowable she becomes

“Well, what happened?”

“Let me tell the whole story from the start. She’s tall with glamorous movie star eyes, tits on the small side but a nice round set of hips. The first time we met she was wearing a tight black shirt, green cargo pants and sunglasses, which she took off as soon as we sat down in the café. That was important. If there’s one thing I can’t deal with, it’s people who don’t take their sunglasses off inside. I need to see someone’s face on first meeting them. Hers turned out to be so attractive I immediately assumed I didn’t stand a chance winging a second date out of her. In fact I wondered what someone of her breeding was doing seeking guys online to begin with.”

“Wow.”

“Well, we had dinner a few days later, and get this, she invited me to visit her mother’s home in Weihai, out on the Shandong coast, that very weekend. At first I was like, how weird, is this a marriage trap or something? Then I thought, what the hell, maybe it will be fun, and it might speed up the process of getting into her pants. It might be the only way of getting into her pants. I spent three days there.”

“What happened?”

“Hold on. One thing at a time.”

“You said she’s divorced?”

“Yeah, 33 years old. With an eight-year old daughter who lives with her mother. Anna works in Beijing and she can’t bring her daughter here due to the hukou thing, you know, China’s internal passport system.”

“Oh, so she goes back home on a regular basis to visit her daughter. Maybe she already had the trip planned. How’s her English?”

“Not that great. We use Chinese.”

“Anna. They always adopt these hackneyed English names that sound like Oriental prostitutes—Rose, Lily, Anna.”

“Actually her Chinese name is the same, An Na.”

“The reason she’s hunting men online—foreigners, any guys at all—is simple. Chinese men won’t have anything to do with a divorced woman with a kid. They won’t have anything to do with a divorced woman, period, let alone one with a kid. They might as well be setting up a family in a dumpster—that’s how attractive the option is to guys here. She’s toxic. All washed up and finished.”

“Not true. Divorced women with her looks and body are still marketable. Yeah, the kid is a liability, but she’s really cute and well behaved and is going to turn into a beauty when she gets older. I’ve always wanted a lovely daughter and wouldn’t mind one like her around the house. Look, Anna is hot. She’d be snatched up in a second back home.”

“So, what’s the problem? She’s lousy in bed?”

“Wait. Okay, so I took the overnight train there and she picked me up at the station in the morning. Took me to one of these chain café establishments, the kind that serve booze but are open early and have dim sum and not bad coffee. We spent the whole day driving around to this place and that to do her errands. It was incredibly boring. She’s trying to get her daughter into a competitive dance school, and we sat in a photo shop for two hours while she haggled with the staff over the price of studio shots to go into the girl’s portfolio. I think it was a test of my patience. The three of us wandered along the seafront for several more hours. We visited their home.”

“What was it like?”

“Surprisingly nice. It was in one of these new residential neighborhoods that are springing up all over Chinese cities, a duplex setup rather than the usual high-rise. Her parents were both professors at a university. Her father kicked the bucket early. Her mother is retired but seems in good health and spirits and is cultured. The house is spacious and tastefully furnished, with lots of books. It’s up on a hill and the living room has a big deck window with a view of the city center and the sea in the distance. I would like to live in such a house. I didn’t stay there, though. Anna dumped me off at a hotel later in the evening, which I was expecting, as that’s the usual routine. I was prepared not to have any sexual opportunities with her the whole time. Again, it’s all a test to see if I can survive the ordeal and still show interest in her. I have to give her credit for throwing me into the thick of things so quickly to expedite these obligations and get them out of the way.”

“Right. I knew a Chinese woman once who proudly told me how she had raked her boyfriend over the coals like that for eight long years until he finally gave up. She simply went off and married someone else. He never got her into the sack. Ha, ha. Poor bastard.”

“That’s unusual and extreme. She probably became perversely fixated on his masochism and they kept up the charade out of mutual stubbornness. I bet she was shagging other guys on the side.”

“What about her ex? Why did they divorce?”

“She wouldn’t go into detail, only said they didn’t suit each other. She’s not intellectual and appears to have no interest in books. Her ex was some kind of professor as well, a math professor. He was probably taken in by her looks and then grew thoroughly bored with her.”

“Isn’t that a problem for you too?”

“Yes, it is. It’s so strange, because she was brought up in a household with books. Usually people who don’t read inherit the hatred of books from their parents. But she was surrounded by books.”

“Sounds like you’ve got an airhead on your hands.”

“She’s sharp in other aspects. Her Mandarin is crisp and clean and educated. She has a slightly grave cast that I like in women, not flighty or frivolous. She’s down to earth and practical, seems basically normal and well adjusted. She wouldn’t strike you as an airhead. The only thing that bothered me was her habit of constantly frowning at her daughter, not because of anything she was doing, it seemed, but because of what she might do.”

“Uh oh, alarm bell. Wait till you marry her, and she will start directing that frown of hers toward you, not for anything you’re doing but for what you might do. What’s her business, again?”

“Selling something, I forget what it is. Has her own business and doesn’t work for anyone. She’s in control of her time. I’m not sure I could last long-term with someone who’s not. You know how they’re worked like dogs here. It’s absolutely inhuman, the working hours of most people. Even many white-collar workers with prestigious university degrees work ten, twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day. It wipes them out and they have nothing left in their life. And they put up with it, like robots, because if everyone around you is doing it, you go along with it too. One former student of mine, a really high-achieving student, told me the bank she found a job at after graduating made her work seven days a week for the first six months, on a probation salary of 50% pay. They all put up with this bullshit. It’s psychological coercion meant to crush them into submission from the beginning and nip any rebellious tendencies in the bud.”

“Is she concerned about money a lot?”

“Well, yeah. She expected me to pay for everything—every meal, every taxi ride, every little thing. I started to get annoyed and asked her, ‘Do I really have to pay for everything?’ ‘Of course,’ she said.”

“It’s not universal but it is typical. And it’s another alarm bell. If you think she’s obsessed with money now, just wait till you get married. On the other hand, once married, she’ll do all the brainwork, all the fuss work, and leave you to enjoy your time as you wish. It’s just a distribution of responsibilities. She’ll make you hand over all your earnings but just make sure you get the contract straight at the start and she gives you enough pocket change back to keep you happy.”

“Anyway, the next day we did more of the same, a lot of running around. Excruciatingly tedious and boring. We spent the whole afternoon at a department store while she helped me search for an appropriate gift to buy her mother. Why I had to buy her mother an elaborate gift I have no idea, but it seemed to have symbolic value for her and she took great care in picking out just the right one. She decided on an expensive linen tablecloth—for a thousand kuai. Then I had to treat her mother to dinner at a fancy restaurant and present her the gift. I’m still not quite sure what that was all about.”

“She’s grooming you—and her mother—for marriage.”

“But I haven’t come close to proposing marriage!”

“I know, that’s what’s odd about it.”

“Our third day together started off the same, and by late afternoon we were once again hanging out at her mother’s place doing nothing. Just sitting there with the TV on. By this point I have to admit I was getting pretty antsy and frustrated. Was I the only person bored? Weren’t they also bored? I mean, why couldn’t we do something fun, say, take her daughter to an amusement park, or a movie, or the ferry out for a seaside tour? I was on the verge of telling Anna I wanted to spend some time with her alone, when her mother seemed to be thinking the same thing and told us to get the hell out and go off to the pavilion park, the two of us, not the kid. In other words, she needed permission from her goddamn mother.”

“That’s also typical.”

“It takes about an hour to walk up the hill in the park. Anna used the entire time to grill me about my expectations for a serious relationship. She didn’t use the word ‘marriage’ but her tone suggested the fate of the earth hinged on whether I understood what marriage involved. I told her quite honestly that commitment and love need time to grow and the sense of commitment grows as the relationship grows. This seemed to satisfy her.

As soon as we made it to the pavilion and sat down in it, she changed. The hardness went away and she relaxed. It was like we were in a play and it was a new scene. I had already resigned myself to making no more progress with her. I mean, at no point over the past three days had the two of us had a modicum of privacy together. Not once did she sidle up to me or brush against me, as women do when they like you. I was reluctant to so much as touch her on the shoulder for fear of imposing on her. And here she was leaning into me! I put my arm around her and she grabbed my hand and laid her head on me. Now that everything seemed so easy I started to panic that I might have to marry her after all, but get her into bed I must, and we went back down and found a nice seafood restaurant.

Over dinner she announced she could come to my hotel. The manager was a family acquaintance. For the sake of form she couldn’t be seen walking in with a laowai, so she arrived separately a few minutes later.”

“They can put two and two together.”

“We had a glass of wine. She took a shower and lay down on the bed in her robe. She told me she was on her period. I said I didn’t mind. We started making out. I got up to take a shower myself. When I was finished she had turned off the lights and was lying naked on the bed with her legs open and her bloody mess glistening in the light from the bathroom. We’re talking peak period flow. It was everywhere, on her thighs, on the sheets. She didn’t seem the least self-conscious about it.”

“That’s strange. Chinese women won’t have sex with you during their period. They think it’s dangerous to the health, even with a condom.”

“I know. I was incredibly turned on, already head-over-heels in lust with her. In love with her, in fact. I went down on her.”

“You what?”

“I’ve never done that before, eat out a woman on the rag. I think I reverted to pre-Homo erectus on the evolutionary tree.”

“That I could never do.”

“And then, I fucked her, and then I fucked her in the ass. I don’t know what got into me. I’m not into anal sex, had never done it before with anyone, but I just had this overpowering and inexplicable urge to fuck her in the ass. It took a bit of effort but I got my cock all shined up with her blood and made it in all the way. She was into it too and was loud. I think it was the best fuck I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Sounds great. So what’s the catch? You look crestfallen.”

“She spent the night and had to take off early in the morning to send her daughter somewhere. I flew back to Beijing that day. I haven’t seen her since.”

“Why not?”

“She disappeared. I’ve tried everything, her cellphone, her email, her dating site ID. I can’t get a hold of her. No response. Right off the face of the earth. I thought of going back to Weihai to hunt her down but don’t have her address and can’t remember how to get to her mother’s place. I don’t know where her office is in Beijing either. I’m at her mercy. It’s been a month now. I can’t understand it. She was so affectionate when we parted.”

“Wow.”

 *     *     *

exact

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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