Lovers Never Lose
It was only when I took the camera away I could see your face. I saw you my love. The frost had bitten at your nose, you were all tinged pink and the seagulls glided in circles above me cackling at my silliness when I thought; how pretty he is cold. As if a season could determine the prettiness of you.
I always had you down as a hypnotist. Never could I keep my eyes from you and you knew that too, you knew a lot more about me than I did.
You turned to me from all those meters away, cupped your palms round your lips and shouted something that was lost behind the howl of the wind. I stood from my crouched positon, narrowed my eyes, tried to work it out.
You smiled as you told me again, all lit up like a tree. But the gust threw your scarf up over your face. I couldn’t even read your lips.
“I love you!” I yelled back.
You hadn’t a clue what I said but you laughed, you were radiant with it, whatever it was. You turned back to the sea.
“I love you!” I called again, this time my voice wavering into a whisper. “I love you.”
I lowered myself unsteadily to a crouch. My hands pressed together like a prayer. I prayed for nothing, I needed no more in that moment.
In the distance you crouched too, palm splayed on the pebbles as the tide washed your skin clean. Then your eyes closed, you lifted your chin to the sky and bathed yourself in absolution. It was the kind of thing that made you wanna cry.
One of those moments that was so perfect, I knew on the day of my death the last thing I would see would be that beach. You and the sea. A perfect marriage of fear and freedom endlessly laid out in front of me all the way to the horizon.
Or at least, endless was my presumption then.
I lay that camera down on the rocks and I moved toward you, closer, closer. You didn’t turn to acknowledge me, but when I pulled you off the ground into bear hug carry, you never uttered a word.
You knew a lot more about me than even I did.
Do you remember that night? Soft groan of a mattress in a nameless hotel and not a word between us until after. You told me:
“You need a haircut.”
I said. “I know.”
You were sad about it. You always loved my hair a little longer. It was a day of mourning for you whenever I cut it. We held onto that moment, milked it for all its worth. Because it felt like we were slipping. Like that bitter sweetness before the end though neither of us would turn our eyes towards the sunset or god forbid, pay it any attention. There was desperation there. We were so desperately clinging weren’t we? Struggling and for what we didn’t know.
It just all felt too perfect to be true.
It was the sort of thing that made you wanna cry.
“Sam…close your eyes.” You murmured, half asleep. “Rest with me…I’m so tired.”
I kept my gaze on you. Your eyes fluttered open. Too blue to be real.
I shook my head. “I don’t know why I’m crying really…”
You drew me into the crook of your neck and kissed my forehead. “Oi…We’re okay…we’re here. You have me. You’ve got me now.”
“Now…” I repeated. “For now…”
We both closed our eyes against the coming gales and as the sun rose and the tides were pulled back out to sea, you went with them.
It was the sort of thing that made you wanna cry.
But without the steady thrum of your heart beat under my fingertips, this man was shrivelled. I was bone dry.
Thank you Gods for my frontal lobe
It gives me words to say
It dresses my feelings
In these robes
So I can tell you
That though you never slept next to me
I always woke up thinking of you
You'd come to mine
And see it through my eyes
I'd go to yours
There was so much love in that house
I didn't know where to hide
I climbed that hill several times
It was dark in your little town
Your night sky was better than mine
And you were waiting
With warm feelings for me
And food made especially
And I'm sending you messages
On the train back home
But I'm not telling you I love you
Because I don't know
And in that place
With the horrible carpet
And the staircase
That fills you with terror
In a recurring dream
I thought we'd go there someday
And I'd protect you and take you
But it seems that was just another dream
And if lovers never lose
Were we lovers
Or something else?
Or is it impossible to lose
A part of yourself
Cos I've been flicking through thoughts of you
That are pretty useless umbrellas
When melancholy rains on my feelings
Like thoughts of you are wounds
That I don't want to stop bleeding
Cos I'm sending you messages
On the train back home
But I'm not telling you I love you
Because I don't think I do
Until it's too late
It's too late
I am Donny and my beautiful wife is Lily; what can I say? We are modern young Chinese – we like the western names we chose. But my mother insists on calling me Wufeng and my wife Chenli. Or she calls me Turnip Head - my childhood nickname because I resembled a turnip, apparently. She tells that story to my wife three times during our visit, all the while embellishing it to make it funnier. In fact, it is merely tiresome. Lily explains that we can only stay three days because we need to visit her parents too. Then we agree to stay for a fourth – all part of the game of longing that is played out in families. Later, we play it again at Lily’s. My mother frowns, shakes her head, wipes her hands on her apron – but she accepts it. Chinese love dutiful children and my mum is satisfied that she came first: the superiority of boys over the girls. My family is nothing if not traditional.
I can sense Lily’s concealed irritation but she refrains from arguing because she expects the same respect from me with her parents. On top of all those cultural nuances – respect for parents, pecking order in the family, boys over girls, rude table manners – there are our own expectations of each other. We are in the modern age with one foot in the past. Family history. Deference before desire. Saving face before embracing truthfulness.
I fucking hate it! I hate the way my brother slurps loudly during dinner, eating noodles or drinking tea. My father is quieter but not much. It’s … vulgar.
“You’re a snob! And too westernised,” whispers Lily. She puts her hand on mine: “It will soon be over. Then we move on to my parents. Just remember we’re doing this because we love and respect them.”
“My mother last night … give me grandchildren! When are you going to make a baby?”
Lily smiles, sadly. “Mine will be the same. It’s something we must endure. We talked about this …”
“And then avoided it!”
I pick up my cup of tea and walk out into the yard; it is early morning. Lily is still sleeping. The air is crisp, cold – just a hint of dampness. Mum’s scrawny chickens fuss around in the yard, pecking at anything that might be food. My mother follows me. We are not a rich family; neither are we poor. After all, with the help of a scholarship, we managed to send me to university in the UK for a year. We take it for granted that, from the back of the house, we have one of the best views in the village. We have the whole of western China before us, unmarred by any towns or cities or roads, hidden as they are in valleys. It’s as if we can see all the way to Europe. I grew up a wistful child, longing for somewhere else, longing to be someone else.
“My little boy seems quiet this morning,” she says. I smile, my offering into the silent space that holds between the two of us, neither of us daring to enter it to find out what is there. My mother suspects a shadow but has no idea what it is; I know there is a shadow but am afraid of what it might become.
“Your wife is beautiful – maybe a little too vain. Her hair, her clothes. She must cost a lot. Though she works, so I suppose she can help with the cost of being a modern woman. The neighbours admired her …”
That was code for people are talking. You city types make us uncomfortable. This conversation is going to get worse.
“She’s a nice girl, though. Quiet. Polite. I think she could make a good mother - and wife. It’s early days yet.” There is another pause. That ominous space between us is safe again – uneasy but predictable.
“She’s very … quiet. You both are. At night … in bed. No sound at all from you.”
“Mum! This is not a topic that feels comfortable.” I burn with embarrassment.
“Well … a young couple. Recently married. In love. You’d expect some sounds of affection. Especially if you are trying for a baby. There were no signs yesterday morning … I put it down to the fact that you’re both tired after a very long journey.”
“Signs?! What signs?” – I want to run, suddenly.
“Signs in the bed – “
“Mum! Stop.” Has she really inspected where we slept?!
“You know what to do, don’t you? You were always a quiet boy … shy. But I assumed your brother would have told you. Boys at school gossip about such things. Maybe I should have made your father sit you down and talk. Don’t they teach this at school? You’re not ill, are you? There’s nothing wrong with you?”
I can’t remain in this conversation any longer and I hurry back inside, to the bedroom where Lily is waking. I tell her what my mum has said and she stifles her giggles.
“Has she not considered that newly married sons might be too embarrassed to have sex under their parents’ roof? Or even that after six months, we may have grown a little tired of copulating.”
“My mother has no shame. She is just thinking about getting grandchildren. And she is hurt that she didn’t come to the wedding.”
“Nobody came to the wedding – “
“I told her that but it didn’t help that much. Big city life ... everyone so busy … weddings tend to be quick, small affairs. I said everything we discussed. The only consolation she found was that she assumed you must be pregnant and we were ashamed. Behind her displeasure at that thought was the hope of a grandchild. Double disappointment!”
“And now … no semen stains in her son’s bed in the morning. My god! She must have crept in to check.”
“Stop! Please! I don’t want to discuss my semen and my mother in the same conversation. Boys aren’t supposed to have semen – just get babies!”
Lily suppresses her laughter and assures me that things will be easier with her family. The same thoughts may be there but they will remain unspoken. Three days later, in the evening of the day of our arrival, it is her sister who takes her aside and says, “Did he hurt you? Is he big?” Lily’s heart sinks.
In our allotted room that night, we smother our giggles, nervous laughter that provides relief from the ordeal we are going through.
“My god, Lily! What did you say?”
“I said, no – it’s quite tiny. Almost cute!”
“It’s not tiny!”
“How would I know? I’ve never seen it. The most I have seen is your bum cheeks – and your pubic hair. My god! You have a lot of hair.”
From the beginning, we have preserved modesty and dignity. There is no need to see anything more intimate than each other in our underwear. We made a point of exploring my birth marks because I knew my mother would bring them up: one on my left buttock and the other a couple of inches below on my thigh. Like a map of the two main islands of Japan. One of our older neighbours had pronounced it a bad omen: a sign of future betrayal.
“It’s kind of cute … so is your bum!” Lily likes to embarrass me.
Lily’s father says little but exudes a kindness that is touching. He patently adores Lily and Lily herself confides that she was always his special little girl. Her mother clearly has the same driven nature as my mother – maybe all Chinese mothers have it – but is less forthright about it. I can cope with that. Conversations here about our sex life would have had the effect of instant mortification. I am relieved that the only tricky moment is the whispered question about my size. I find it difficult to look her sister in the eye next morning, wondering if she is wondering. It is a labyrinth I don’t want to enter but I find myself sitting with my legs discreetly crossed whenever she is in the room. The only other real puzzlement is the occasional, quiet squeak that emanates from Lily’s aunt that nobody else seems to notice – or else ignores.
“She farts,” whispers Lily.
So … we are on the train back to Shanghai. We discuss the food that we bought from the dining car, the other passengers also returning from family visits, the lengthy journey. We even begin to chat about the funnier moments – like Lily’s aunt’s flatulence and my father’s habit of clearing his throat every thirty seconds as if he is about to speak … and then doesn’t. We wonder if we will become like this: figures of fun for younger family members.
“Why aren’t you fucking your wife every night?” whispers Lily, conspiratorially.
“I can’t … not with something this big! It would destroy her forever!” We both fall into fits of giggles and other passengers glance at us, mystified by our near hysterical hilarity.
Above all else, we have survived the first return home as husband and wife. We have overcome their natural disappointment at not attending the wedding. We have endured the sexual innuendos that accompany conversations about babies and specifically grandchildren. Only Lily’s father showed any true decorum: the defilement of his daughter was a topic he refused to countenance and I liked him for it. Some people have no shame! Like my mother, Lily’s mother and her sister. And every neighbour who called by and gave sly smiles.
Half an hour from Shanghai, I pick up a text message. I reply and then nod at Lily; she smiles back and visibly relaxes.
An hour later we arrive at the flat; Jackson and Mae are already there and they have prepared snacks and tea for our home-coming. We hug. We laugh. We grab food and drink and babble our stories to each other, excited and relieved.
“Well, my beautiful friends,” begins Jackson, “We survived. Our first year with the families and it went OK. It will get better with time. We’ll get better … we can look forward to a successful twenty years of loving family visits. Or thirty. Or forty.” We groan and fall about laughing, as much out of relief as out of any sense of humour in the situation.
“And so, lovely friends … my lover and I shall retire to our apartment.” And Jackson reaches out to take my hand; he pulls me towards him, wraps his arms around me and I am lost in the reverie of his kiss, his presence – my beautiful man. Perhaps even, one day in the far distant future, my husband. We leave the girls to their own homecoming celebration and hurry to our apartment, two blocks away.
(NOTE: It is not uncommon in modern day China for lesbian and gay couples to engage in fake marriages for the sake of their families. There are commercial agencies who advertise this service, rather like a dating agency – but with one crucial difference.)