At the Forbidden City

At the Forbidden City, Beijing September 8, 2011


“Funny in a way… If you have a dark sense of humor like me.”


Curtis – who had made himself unreachable by phone – was starting up another conversation by email.  Even in person sometimes he wasn’t there.


This time it was about the sign interpreter for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. He was a fake and by mid-morning, America read the news. Curtis was in Idaho where Africa was invisible.  But who could ignore a scandal.


“Heard about this. Awful. Remember: I was lover to a deaf person,” I wrote back.


“Billy, I thought it humorous at first.  But, outrageous at the same time. Unbelievable that someone could do such a thing and at such an event.

BTW, how is your old lover?  The last I heard he was in school in New Jersey studying art.”


I jumbled my iPhone to the counter. Romantic history one character at a time? Worse to let it go. If I didn’t write now, I’d lose him.


“Thanks for asking. Ivan (NJ) was #2, Bin Bin who was deaf was #1. Xiao Gu, #3, married last year and is expecting a child. Ivan returned to China in 2008. Then he fell off the map. Bin Bin’s in love with another deaf guy. Doing well. Of all of us he’s most successful: job and love! Thanksgiving; passable. Yours?”


“When did Xiao Gu get married?  Did he marry a female? Thanksgiving was stressful.  Thursday I got the house in order and shopped. Friday I cooked. Everything was better than I expected. Spent the weekend recovering.”


I sent him a link to my public radio story on China’s gays. Xiao Gu was like thousands in China: he had to get married. It’s the law. The last time we exchanged greetings on his birthday he told me, no, he wasn’t happy. About anything. And could I send him some baby formula.


Growing up is tough.


Young guys are prettier. In China, if you’re older and white, you’re exotic. I flirted with Xiao Gu and didn’t remember. That’s what he told me. I flirted with everybody. Around Lunar year, 2011 I was shopping at the Gap on Nanjing Xi Lu Friday when he approached me out of nowhere, speaking Chinese as if he knew me.  I had no idea who he he was, but I agreed to meet him that following Tuesday.


He was drop dead gorgeous. But, then, they all are. “If you’re in your early 20s and you’re not good looking something is wrong,” I said.


It wasn’t until Tuesday when he actually introduced himself to me by name and phone number. That was after our encounter in the same locker room at the gym where I had flirted with him.


Because he was younger than me so I called him “xiao” or “little”. His actual name is Gu Yuetao, but I never call him that. I always called him Xiao Gu, as if Xiao was his first name.


That’s the appropriate way to relate in China. He tried to call me by my first name in English but when he did it got screwed up.


When he’d refer to me to Donata he’d call me ‘Bear’: the “ll’s” in Bill were too hard.  The tenth month of the year was Octember. I rewrote it that way on the calendar because I thought that was really cute.


Xiao Gu had been in the army. Now he drove a vehicle for the city government. They also sent him around town as a messenger. I’d joke with him that he ought to open up the envelopes and peek inside and let me know what he saw.


He stayed in great shape. Not just for a 28 year-old but for any age. He was compulsive about the ratio of fat to body mass.


“He used to jump out of airplanes,” I’d tell everyone when they met him. They would then ask him in Chinese if he actually had (since no one believed me ever) and  he’d sheepishly reply that he had and done so about 70 times. “Were you ever scared?”


“Every time — they had to push me.”


The thought of being pushed out a moving plane is awful enough. Being forced to jump when you are afraid and your common sense tells you you shouldn’t is nuts. Doing it over and over 70 times…that was China. Whatever you hate or are afraid of or can’t stand, you’ll be forced to do it over and over and over again in the name of your culture or your country. This is the Chinese way.


And, so it went also with marriage. His grandfather’s dying wish was that he take a wife, like, perhaps, this nurse over here. Xiao Gu showed me how the old man put their hands together.  A girl who’d like him without too much trouble was ok. His grandfather’s approval: priceless. And, besides, he could get laid. Xiao Gu didn’t think beyond the immediate.


So he dated her and proposed to her and married her, which, in China, involves, at its most basic, a trip to the registrar’s office and pocket change for a license. In February, just after the Lunar New Year, when all was well and good, he sent me an email:


I have a message to tell you that do not know you are good or bad. I’m married.


I downloaded Adele’s “Someone Like You” to my iPod and I played it back for myself 20 million times. And cried.


A day later I replied to his email: Of course, congratulations! 恭喜 恭喜!!!It is good! Send pictures when you have the banquet!


When I saw him in Shanghai in June he told me that everything was o.k. until something happened at her house and she had to move in with him for a few days. “Then I realized our way of thinking wasn’t the same at all.” But it was too late. They were already hitched.


Things continued to tumble along on their pre-destined cultural path. The night I saw him in Shanghai turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. It was also the night before the wedding banquet.


Donata, my “wingman” who could always be counted on to join me out at the gay bars and chat up a prospect, was inviting me to see her on the other side of campus. We’d get a massage and then dinner.


After I got home to Yao Laoshi’s house, where I was staying, Donata sent me a text.  The time was 12:20am and the day, was now the day of Xiao Gu’s wedding banquet.


“How are you feeling?” said Doni.


“Powerless,” I replied.


China teaches you acceptance.


“Why are people getting married on the 29th? My niece’s friend also has a wedding today?” said Yao. “Nine means forever,” she said, answering her own question.


“Baul got married on the 19th,” I replied. Shifting to Doni’s question, I added, “The two means two of us couples will be forever today.”


“So, this was my kind of a not-wedding day, actually. A reverse; a negative.

Often, in the year that we were together, we talked about how he could come back to the U.S. with me. Gay marriage was almost legal. Then, three days before I saw him the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015 struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. (credit here to Wikipedia).

So three days after he otherwise could have come back with me, as my husband, it was now fate – in China, a place seemingly always just the opposite of the U.S. — where two people of the same gender who love each other – an international and a citizen can now legally join together in matrimony and then be recognized by the government, my lover was going in the other direction, against a force that he said was making his life unmanageable.

If you know the story of Brigadoon this was a 180 reversal. Kind of. Sort of. Perhaps inside out.


Xiao Gu told Doni first, on the phone, then both of us, in person, over dinner, that the event would be the next day.  6,000 miles had enabled me, at least, in private, to remain in denial. Now he was driving me home.


I wasn’t hungry. Neither was Xiao Gu, but I ate anyway. He had a coke. Since Doni paid for the massage I paid for dinner, 60 RMB. She told Xiao Gu I had fallen asleep on the table and snored.


I look fat around the middle but thin otherwise, Doni says. Xiao Gu looks gaunt, sick, I told him. 115 lbs., he shouldn’t be that thin.


He says when his grandfather was dying she was the nurse. His grandfather’s dying wish was that they marry. Regret was his dish. He’s been eating it ever since, Doni said, translating.


This was the first time I’d seen him in over a year and the first time I’d had a chance to talk with an interpreter handy. Donnie had told me my old roommate Yoko had told her that Xiao Gu had gone to Thailand. That was while I was back in the U.S.


“What about Thailand last year?” I asked him.


“I went with a friend, last minute, five days, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the South — Pattaya,” he told Doni who, in English, said to me that Xiao Gu was lying through his teeth. Nobody can cover that much ground in five days, she said.


“What about telling Yoko you went to Thailand?”


His answer was convoluted. He didn’t want to tell her, it just came out.


“I went with a girl, a colleague, last minute, but she was not my girlfriend,” he said in Chinese. Doni translated.


“When did you go?”


“April, 2012.”


“Why didn’t you tell me?”


“He feels very young and wants to be single and play and have fun,” says Doni. Doni was angrier at him than me, it seemed.


“I kept asking you in email when did you get married,” I tell him. “You never answered.”


“I messaged your phone in America,” he replied.


“That doesn’t work on the system I have in America.” I try to speak to him in Chinese but my self-confidence is shaken. “You have to email.”


“I answer you immediately — all the time,” he said.


“Sometimes emails don’t get through,” Doni says, translating.  There’s no way to prove a negative.


He made his decision to get married too fast. He didn’t think it through. There is so much pressure now. He is so unhappy. He is getting interference from his parents about where to live. He wants to come to America, said Donie.


I tell him if he comes I will take him in.


Earlier in the conversation I said I would marry him and adopt his baby. But I said that in English, and, now, I’m not so sure, just as I haven’t been throughout our whole year together.  I don’t think any of what I said was clear anyway. He was too excited to see me.


He drove me back from the restaurant in a very expensive car. It belonged to a friend, he said. This was the first time I’d ever been in a car with him that he is driving and the second time in a day that I’d been in a car driven by Chinese in their 20s.


My Shanghai experience had always been poverty or a ride from someone older or whiter, not someone Chinese who’d stepped up. And in both cases that day it had been the ba-ling-huo (Chinese born in the 1980s) who were stepping up.  Me, in America, I drive a piece of shit.


He took me back to the old neighborhood where in 2002 I came not knowing anyone. In those days no one had a car. Not even Yao Laoshi. She still doesn’t, even though she has a license.


Perhaps it is worth $40,000, Xiao Gu said.


He drove on streets that he and me had walked together. We had come up to Wu Jiao Chang to get my shoes repaired. We ate at Xiaduo, English name: Chartres. All my friends still use my discount number there – yao, ling, yao (0-1-0)- and then they get 9% off.


Xiao Gu wants to leave China. If he had to choose between Thailand, Taiwan or USA, he’d chose the USA, he said.


As he drives, his faith in me increases. I direct him to Yao Laoshi’s home where I am staying:  down Guoding Lu, which, after turning left.


I tell him I love him.


“You do what you have to do,” I say.


He understands.


Twice, before we say goodbye, he kisses me and grabs out to hug me, but we are both strapped in by our safety belts. When it is time to leave I wait for him to say goodbye again. It is that he really wants to go? It’s after 12, his wedding day. He needs to go home.


“How do I get to the Weitan?” he asks in Chinese.


“Straight down to Siping Lu and turn right,” I reply, also, in Chinese.


As I get out of the car and walk around the back three young Chinese guys are walking down the street. They don’t seem to have paid me any attention and if they had seen us embrace they hadn’t cared about that either.


Standing at the gate of Yao Laoshi’s apartment complex I watch as red tail lights disappear, until he can no longer see me.