Chapter Four, Part Two
“Girl, you are so working that dress,” Ned said, snapping his fingers as he looked me up and down. “I swear I must be gay because even the sight of you looking so luscious isn’t enough to get me hard.”
“Thanks, I think,” I said as I locked the door behind me. “You look pretty hot yourself.” He was wearing a custom-made tux which fit him perfectly. His tie and cummerbund were silver, which I liked better than black. “So, what have you decided?”
It turned out that he hadn’t, so we had to hash out the pros and cons the whole way to his parents’ house. I suggested that we say he jumped the gun a little bit because he’d been thinking of proposing, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Then I could say that I was the one who’d turned him down, therefore saving face for his parents in front of their guests. Ned didn’t want to make me the bad guy, however, as it was his fault we were in this mess. I didn’t mind taking the rap if it would make things easier for him. He was determined to tell his parents the truth, but couldn’t decide if it was better before or after the get-together. It was hard to say because either way, he was fucked. Either way, his parents lost face. We reluctantly agreed that the best thing to do was to go through with the party and tell his parents after. Then they could tell their friends I’d dumped him or some such nonsense.
“You’re the best,” Ned said, squeezing my hand. “That’s for you.” He waved vaguely in the direction of the backseat, and I carefully undid my seatbelt so I could grab the package. I turned back around and buckled up for safety—not that I really needed to—before opening the nicely-wrapped gift. Inside was a Hermes scarf that was a luscious blend of silver and plum.
“Oh, Ned, it’s beautiful,” I sighed, holding it up to my neck and admiring myself in the mirror in my visor. It didn’t match my dress so I didn’t put it on, but I mentally planned my outfit for Monday to include some purple so I could wear the scarf. On second thought, scratch that. It was too high-toned for where I worked. “Why can’t straight men have your sense of fashion?” I mourned, carefully packing the scarf away and stowing it under my seat. “It’s just not fair.”
“We’re here,” Ned said tersely, both hands gripping the wheel. I patted him on the knee to calm him down, but I didn’t think it helped. He parked the car and rooted through his pocket, bringing out a small box. “Put this on.” He opened it, and a diamond ring sparkled within the box. I gasped because I’d never seen a rock that big—except for on his mother’s hand, of course.
“Ned, you didn’t buy that, did you?” I couldn’t even touch it for fear I’d break it or something.
“No, it’s my grandmother’s. My mother gave it to me to give to you.” Ned slipped the ring onto my third finger, and it fit me perfectly. I couldn’t take my eyes off it; it was so shiny. “I guess we have to go in.” He walked around to my side of the car where I was ready and waiting.
“You’ll be fine,” I said softly as Ned helped me out of the car. I normally didn’t go in for that girly shit, but something about wearing a formal dress brought out the genteel in me. Not to mention a rock the size of Gibraltar. “You have God on your side, remember?” Ned smiled wanly as he offered me his arm. The ring on my finger felt heavy, though I knew it was just my imagination. I wouldn’t breathe easily until I gave the ring back to Ned, which would be at the end of the evening, hopefully.
“Darling! You look beautiful!” Mrs. Chang air-kissed me, critically checking out my outfit. She was a tall, languid woman with jet-black hair that came from a bottle these days. It was pulled up in a severe chignon, and she was wearing a black dress that looked like a Vera Wang. Knowing her, it was. Big diamonds glittered from her neck and ears, as well as her wrists and fingers. She was attractive only because she had the money to achieve a certain style. “Edward, you look so handsome as well.” Mrs. Chang fussed with Ned’s bow tie, though he had tied it perfectly.
“Margaret, so good to see you,” Mr. Chang boomed, engulfing me in a warm hug. He was a good-looking man, also over six-feet tall. It was easy to see where Ned had gotten his looks from. Mr. Chang’s hand strayed south of the border for a nanosecond. I still couldn’t get over this highly-religious man copping a feel every time he saw me, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss this time around. There were more important things to think about, namely how to break it to Ned’s parents that he was gay.
“The ring looks perfect on your finger,” Mrs. Chang cooed, holding my hand up to the light. “My mother would have been so happy.” A tear showed up in the corner of her surgically-enhanced eye, but it didn’t dare fall. “You two make such a striking couple.”
“It’s about time you two got married. You’re getting on in years, Margaret. You and Edward will want to start having children right away. You’ll have them baptized at the Taiwanese church, of course.” Mr. Chang still had his hand on my back as he guided me towards the living room. I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t say something inflammatory, such as that I was already pregnant with a child who needed no blessing. Mr. Chang brought out the worst in me, and we’d had quite the rows in the past. However, I kept repeating my mantra that nothing mattered except getting Ned through the night, and I was able to ignore Mr. Chang’s blathering.
“I was thinking of rose and ivory for your colors,” Mrs. Chang said to me, swooping on me from the other side. Mr. Chang dropped back, presumably to exhort Ned to do his manly duty and procreate. “I think you would look lovely in ivory. We Asians have the perfect skin tone for it. I know Vera Wang personally, and I think I could get her to whip up an original for you. Wouldn’t that be grand? What color do you think your mother will be wearing so I don’t clash with her? She would look stunning in a dark blue whereas I look my best in black. Oh, I know it’s considered taboo in some circles to wear black to a wedding, but it’s so slimming.” She was skeletal, but that wasn’t the point, I guess. I didn’t contribute to the conversation because I was having a difficult time not gagging.
“Tell them now,” a voice boomed in my head. “Don’t let this farce go on any longer.”
“Stop that,” I hissed, being careful not to speak out loud. I was outraged that God would involve Himself in my life to this degree. Was I to have no freewill at all? I didn’t want to be a vessel of God, as ungrateful as that may sound.
“I’m telling you—Zeke, can’t it—oh, all right.” Just like that, God was gone. I shrugged off his missive and continued pretending to listen to Mrs. Chang babble. By now, we’d reach the living room where there were other upper-crust Taiwanese couples in the same vein as Mr. and Mrs. Chang. Tall, bluff, hearty men and skinny, preening, empty-headed women. It wasn’t nice of me to make snap judgments, but I was fresh out of nice—which wasn’t my forte in the first place.
“Everybody, this is Margaret Wang, Edward’s betrothed.” To my discomfort, the group broke out in applause. Mrs. Chang introduced me to everyone, but I promptly forgot their names. I had a good memory when I gave a damn, which I didn’t at the present moment.
To my further consternation, the group broke up into factions. Men on one side, women on the other. From what I could overhear, the men were talking about sports. The women were talking about wedding crap—after cooing over the ring, of course—which didn’t interest me in the least. I wished I could be with the men’s group—especially as there was a good-looking man about my age. He looked like he could be mixed, with Taiwanese being the dominant part. He was nearly six-feet tall with a muscular body. I could tell, even under his tux, that he was buff. He had a quick smile that didn’t seem insincere. I could tell he was looking at me as well, but trying to restrain himself. I liked that as it showed class. I was purportedly Ned’s fiancée, so it wouldn’t do for him to ogle me too openly.
“Margaret, dear, how many guests are you inviting to your wedding?” One of the Stepford Wives asked me, smiling just enough not to crease her forehead. It caused wrinkles, you know. A devilish impulse overcame me—take that, God!—and I replied, “Oh, I’m a simple girl. I was thinking under fifty.” The looks on the wives’ faces were priceless; I had to take it a step further. “Really, I would prefer eloping, but Ned talked me into a small ceremony. I told him only if it was under fifty people. And not in a church. What could the poor man do but give in?” You would have thought I’d announced I was pregnant the way these women reacted. Well, all but one older woman. She just nursed her drink, looking somewhere off to the side.
“Why ever wouldn’t you have it in a church?” The youngest of the SWs (who was only a few years older than me) asked, wide-eyed. Well, I assumed she was wide-eyed as she’d had the eye-lid surgery as well, so it was difficult to tell what her real expression was. “It’s a union before the eyes of God.”
“If you believe that, then you can have it anywhere since God is everywhere, right?” I asked innocuously, enjoying myself tremendously.
“Oh, Margaret, I haven’t asked if you wanted something to drink,” Mrs. Chang said, anxious to stem the tide of the conversation.
“Sure. I’d love a rum and Diet Coke.” Absolute silence. These women only drank princess drinks such as Lemon Drops and Cosmos. Mrs. Chang cast a reproving glance at me, but she summoned her maid, regardless, to give her my order. “I’m not a Christian, anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” You would have thought I’d said I ate little children for lunch judging by the silence which greeted my statement. I silently asked Ned’s forgiveness for deviating from our plan. I still thought it’d be best if I was the bad guy so his parents’ friends would be sympathetic, but secretly glad when we ‘broke things off’.
“You’re not a Christian?” One SW asked, looking down her nose at me. Unlike most Asians, she had a rather aquiline nose, which suggested some Caucasian blood. “Don’t tell me your Buddhist or something dreadful like that.” My blood boiled, but I kept my temper. I didn’t want to disgrace Ned too badly—just enough to get him off the hook.
“I don’t think Buddhism is dreadful. In fact, it’s very calming, but no, I’m not Buddhist, either.” I didn’t want to give them too much information at one time. Besides, it was fun to see if they’d keep guessing.
“Not Muslim!” The youngest SW again—I believed her name was Aurora or something equally nonsensical. She looked horrified at the mere thought. “They’re so fanatical!”
“Only a small faction,” I said, unable to resist the challenge. “You know, like the ‘Christians’ who shoot abortion doctors in the name of God.” A chill fell over the women, and I wondered if I’d gone a step too far. “Excuse me. I think I’ll visit the ladies’ room.” I nodded to them and slipped out the hall. I knew they’d be talking about me in horrified tones behind my back, but since I had planned it, it didn’t bother me too much. I heard footsteps behind me and whirled around, not wanting to get caught by one of the lecherous men. Instead, it was the stranger I didn’t know—the one who might be part-white.
“I saw you stepping away and wondered if you’d like to join me outside for a breath of fresh air.” He smiled at me, showing a dimple in one cheek. I nodded once and off we went.
“I’m Margaret Wang,” I said, offering him my hand. “You wouldn’t have any cigarettes on you, by any chance?”
“I’m Ted Lai,” he said, shaking my head. “I do, actually. I’m trying to quit and am down to three a day.” He pulled out a package of Camels and handed one over to me. He flicked his Zippo and held it under my cigarette. After lighting mine, he lit his own. I inhaled greedily, grateful for the nicotine. “You’re the bride-to-be, aren’t you? Ned’s a lucky guy.” His eyes looked into mine, and they were telling me something I couldn’t quite decipher.
“Well, um, I’m the purported bride-to-be, but I won’t be for very long,” I said, throwing caution to the wind. Something about Ted told me that he was trustworthy, and the façade was going to be over tonight, anyway.
“Because Ned’s gay?” Ted asked, causing me to choke on my cigarette.
“What did you just say?” I demanded, trying frantically to think of some way to stall. No one in this circle knew about Ned, no one!
“Look, I’ve know Ned since I was a baby. His parents and mine are best friends. I know about Ned, even if he’s never told me. It doesn’t bother me, but it did make me wonder about you.” He cocked his head and studied me, causing me to blush in confusion. I had to decide how much to tell him, but first I had to suss him out.
“What’s your full name?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t get offended.
“Theodore Bradley Lai III,” he said promptly. “My father is the CEO of Powers, the clothing chain. He sits on a dozen boards but does nothing for any of them. My mother is Annette May Lai, nee Liang. She’s a quarter Dutch, in case you’re wondering. She has a lot of money and spends it on staying thin. She also drinks too much.” She must be the SW who spent most of her time drinking and not saying anything. “I have one younger brother, J. Edgar Lai—guess whom he’s named after—and one younger sister, Bettina Laurel Lai. I am a stockbroker by day, spoken word artist by night, never been married, which causes my parents great anxiety. Anything else?” He smiled down at me as if he was used to reciting his lineage.
“You certainly sound as if you’re one of the in-crowd,” I said dryly, thinking of my own lineage. We were educated and well-off, but nothing like his family.
“Is that enough for you to tell me what’s going on?” Ted asked, carefully stubbing out his cigarette and throwing it in a trash can thoughtfully provided in a discreet corner of the patio. Probably for that very purpose. I took a few more puffs from my own cigarette before answering.
“This goes no further than here,” I said slowly, trying to decide what was safe to tell him. Hell, he already knew Ned was gay, so everything else was gravy, right? OK. Here we go. “You’re right; Ned’s gay. I’m his beard. Cover-up,” I added in response to the confused look on Ted’s face. “I have been for years. He’s my best friend, but he is gay. He inadvertently told his parents we were getting engaged, and they responded by throwing this little soiree. He’s telling them tonight.”
“What about you?” Ted asked, his eyes concerned. “I mean, what’s the story going to be for Auntie and Uncle’s friends?” It was jolting to hear the traditional familial address for your parents’ friends from this thoroughly modernized man, but I liked it.
“I’m the bitch—woman who dumps him. I’m laying the groundwork by acting atrociously. His parents’ friends are going to be so happy for them that I broke up with Ned when I’m done tonight.” I smiled at the remembrance of the unease among the women every time I made a statement.
“That sounds tough on you,” Ted commented, leaning against the patio rail.
“It’s for Ned’s sake,” I shrugged. “I don’t go to the church; he does. It’s no big thing.”
“There you are, darling!” Ned said, swooping out to drape his arm around my shoulders. “Should I be jealous that you’re spending so much time with Teddy? My parents are beginning to wonder where you got off to.” He shot Ted a questioning look who shot him a look in return.
“Why don’t I let you two talk?” I said brightly, giving Ned’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll go in and ruffle the natives’ feathers some more.”
“Be nice,” Ned called out as I strode into the lion’s den. I hoped he didn’t have a heart attack when Ted revealed that he had known about Ned all this time.
“There you are, dear,” Mrs. Chang said, a smile pasted on her face. “We were beginning to think you’d—where’s Edward?”
“Out talking to Ted,” I said, thinking privately on how silly Ned and Ted sounded together. “They’ll be in soon.”
“Now, Margaret,” Mrs. Chang began, her voice grave. “I know you’re probably a bit nervous about meeting all our friends, but you have to be a little more careful as to what you say. The other women don’t know you as I do. They might take what you say in the wrong way.” It was working. They thought I was a bitch. Good. I didn’t bother telling Mrs. Chang that her friends were the ones getting a glimpse of the real me as I didn’t want to upset her more than she was going to be later tonight. “Let’s stick to talking about the wedding, shall we? And no more nonsense about limiting the guest list to fifty. Why, I need that many people for my guests alone.” We were back in the living room in our segregated group, and I couldn’t resist stirring the pot.
“I think it’s wasteful to spend so much money on a wedding, especially when we’ve spent so much on a fictitious war. We need to take care of our returning troops,” I announced, sounding obnoxious even to my own ears.
“How dare you!” One of the SWs gasped. I didn’t think she was Ted’s mother, but I couldn’t say for sure. “President Bush is a leading light in the war against terrorism. He is the best president we’ve ever had. President Bush believes in moral values!”
“Moral values,” I mused, accepting my drink from a long-suffering Mimi—the Filipina maid. “He lied about the WMDs; he lied about the link between bin Laden and Hussein; he lied about it being a quick war; in short, he lied about everything.” I raised my voice to talk over the murmuring. “On top of that, he wants to relax EPA standards as well as OSHA standards. He wants to freeze all spending except for defense and cut taxes only for the rich. How is that moral?” I stared hard at each wife, assured that most of them only knew what their husbands told them. Sure enough, not one of them had a comeback. I slugged half my drink, thankful I wasn’t pregnant the normal way as I wouldn’t survive this night without alcohol.
“Margaret,” Mrs. Chang said, her voice glacial. “Is your mother happy about your engagement? She must be thrilled.” I could tell she was trying to get the conversation under control, poor woman. I hated to disappoint her, but I was going to keep stirring things up.
“She doesn’t know yet,” I said blithely. “I haven’t told her.”
“Why not?” The youngest SW again. This time, however, she didn’t sound as much horrified as she did intrigued. It gave me hope that perhaps I could turn her.
“I’m not sure I really want to get married,” I admitted, just the right amount of doubt in my voice. “I mean, it all happened so quickly. I didn’t even have time to think about it. Marriage is a big deal, you know.” I stifled a laugh as the wives looked at each other, not knowing what the fuck was going on. To them, marriage was a status, a way to climb up that social ladder—and they say gays were a threat to the sanctity of marriage. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Ned and Ted returning. Ned caught my eye and sent me a silent kiss. I was relieved that things were copasetic between the two of them. Then, Ted caught my eye and gave me a little wink. I definitely had to get to know him better.
“Well, let’s eat, shall we?” Mrs. Chang said in relief at the sight of Ned and Ted. She was at her wits’ end with me, and I felt vaguely guilty about it. Not enough to stop, however. By some stroke of luck, I was seated between Ted and one of the SWs who was clearly snubbing me. That meant I had no choice but to pay attention to Ted.
“So, tell me, Ted, what kind of spoken word do you perform?” I laid my hand on Ted’s arm, causing the real adults to look at me with ire. Ted was amused by my performance while Ned choked back his laughter. I glared at the latter to remind him of his role, and he assumed the properly tragic look of a cuckolded man. We were sitting across the table from each other because of that archaic rule that partners can’t be seated next to each other while eating.
“I use a rap beat with old time poetry,” Ted explained, smiling down at me. His eyes were the darkest I’d ever seen—except for Zeke’s, of course—and I had the feeling I could stare endlessly in them and never uncover all his secrets. “It’s politic and poetic at the same time. Needless to say, my parents and I part ways over politics.”
“What about religion?” I batted my eyelashes and put a rapt look on my face. Actually, I wasn’t feigning the emotion as I found him pretty interesting—more so than anybody I’d met in the last month or so—the amount of time I’d been broken up with from my last boyfriend—the lying, cheating scum.
“Oh, I go to the Unitarian church in St. Kenwood. It bothers me that there aren’t more minorities, but it’s better than any other church when it comes to issues.”
“I bet your parents aren’t thrilled by that,” I commented. If his parents were anything like the Changs, they were climbing the walls at the antics of their eldest son.
“Hey, I’m a stockbroker making oodles of money. That’s the most important thing to them. Well, that and getting married. I need to carry on the family name, you know.” We both rolled our eyes. “As my mother so kindly tells me, I’m not getting any younger.” He nodded at a small, spare woman across the table who was steadily depleting her wine glass. She had been the one I’d noticed earlier, and I could see the trace of Dutch blood in her.
“How old are you?” I asked, curious because I couldn’t place his age. I would guess early thirties, but I wasn’t sure.
“I’m twenty-nine,” Ted said, neatly cutting off a piece of filet mignon. “Turning thirty in three months. You can imagine how the consternation my parents have about me passing that big milestone with only an ex-fiancée of whom to speak.”
“You’re twenty-nine?” I exclaimed before I could stop myself.
“Why, how old are you?” It’s not rude in Taiwanese culture to ask someone her age, but I was hesitant to tell him. “Come on. I told you my age. I’ll guess. I bet you’re thirty. Am I right?”
“I’m thirty-two,” I said, watching him closely. It wasn’t that big a deal, but some guys couldn’t handle dating someone older.
“Great,” Ted said with a wicked grin. “I’ve always lusted after Mrs. Robinson.” I choked on the bite of salmon I was eating, earning me a dirty look from Mr. Chang. Actually, Ned’s father had been steadily glaring at me for the duration of dinner, which was understandable considering I was pretty cozy with a man who wasn’t his son, my supposed fiancé.
After dinner, we retired to the living room where the women pulled out the ‘tokens of affection’ they had brought for me. Given that I didn’t know any of them, I surmised that the affection was for Ned’s parents. Indeed, the gifts seemed more suitable for a woman from the fifties than a hip, happening gal like me. There was a food processor and a top-notch vacuum cleaner as well as other gadgets for housework and such. The women ooh’ed and aah’ed while the men guffawed heartily. I struggled to keep the horror off my face as I unwrapped each gift. When I undid the last one, however—the vacuum cleaner—I couldn’t resist.
“Ned, dear, it looks as if all the gifts are for you.” The women fell silent as Ted and Ned burst into laughter. “He’s a better cleaner than I,” I explained sweetly. “He is such a prince when it comes to cleaning the house. I hardly have to lift a finger.” I left it purposely ambiguous so they could interpret it however they liked. “Thank you so much. I’m sure Ned will thoroughly appreciate these presents as I’m a real slob. I can lay about in my underwear watching sports while Ned cleans.” By now, Ned’s face had turned red from trying to stem his laughter whereas Ted was looking at me with something akin to admiration. I was glad the two of them were enjoying themselves as it didn’t seem as if anybody else was.
“Is that the time?” One of the men looked at his watch. “Must be going, Chang. Good to see you.” The couples left at a rapid pace. Ted drew me to the side and slipped a piece of paper in my hand. It was his numbers and his email address, which heartened me to no end. I slid the paper into my purse because I had a feeling things were about to get ugly up in here.