The Curious Case of the Lady with the Lighter

After a long but uneventful 10-hour flight, Bobby and I land in Shanghai.  Our friend Guoliang (国梁) is getting married, and we’re here to attend his wedding. In California that would be a simple thing, but this is China, and Guoliang is gay. His parents have been pressuring him to marry, Guoliang is a dutiful son. He (like most immigrants to the United States) is also good at solving problems and working his way around barriers.

Guoliang found a Chinese web site for people in his situation, and through the site found a nice gay woman in the same situation.  She has a partner and a son, but her parents are pressuring her to marry. A few months of getting to know one another long-distance, followed by some negotiation on how the marriage would work, and Guoliang traveled to China to meet and propose to his fiancé. She met his parents, and they approved of the union.  He met her parents, and they accepted his proposal of marriage.  And with that, Guoliang was engaged to be married to  Xián (贤).

Xián is a classic Chinese beauty, fair of face and slim of form, with a beautiful smile.  She is also raising a son with her girlfriend. Her parents, wilfully oblivious to their relationship, have been pressuring her to marry, and that lead her to the same web site that Guoliang was using.

After chatting for a while online, they both agreed to have a “cooperative marriage,” or hunzuo hunyin; a marriage that is more about fulfilling societal expectations than about love.  When Guoliang told me that he was going to do this, I initially felt sad that he had to be dishonest about who he was and who he loved.  I also knew that I wanted to go to the wedding, and I’m honored that Guoliang invited Dan, Bobby, and I to attend.  Sadly, Dan was needed in London, but Bobby and I are here.

Note: At Guoliang’s request, I’ve changed all of the names of the Chinese participants in these stories, and I’m also not going to post any identifying photos.

Guoliang meets us at the airport, and within a half hour our friends Sorin & Heather from Maui arrive on a different flight.  We all meet Xián’s girlfriend and their adorable three-year-old son, and then climb into a van for the ride into Shanghai. An hour later we’re pulling into the world’s most ostentatious restaurant, a white-and-gold three story palace of gilded clocks, chandeliers, and comfy overstuffed chairs. There is an entire city-class aquarium in one room, housing doomed abalone and lobsters and flounders and koi and shrimp.

mr. pinchy / shanghai, china

inoperable art / shanghai, china

chandelier / shanghai, china

the comfy chair / shanghai, china

There we meet Guoliang’s parents, sitting at a huge round table already laden with a dozen plates of different Chinese foods (jellyfish, steamed buns, bokchoy).  Introductions are made, tea is poured, and we start to eat. More plates come (dumpling soup, chicken, lobster, steamed fish, turtle), and we try it all.  The little turtle is especially challenging… it’s presented on a ‘pond’ of sticky rice, with only the head and shell protruding above.  The rice is very sticky, and it’s a trial to dig into it.  Guoliang’s mom pries the shell out of the rice and slowly gnaws on the edge of it, something that is a pretty unsettling to see for a westerner.

turtle in sticky rice / shanghai, china

king crab / shanghai, china

Just about the time that the sweet dessert soup is served, a woman saunters up to our table.  She’s a good-looking woman with a Lauren Bacall walk and a wearing a beautiful chocolate pants suit and a red silk scarf.  Her makeup is perfect, as is her hair. She stands by the table for a moment, clearly waiting for a gentleman to realize her predicament.  When none of us does, she sighs a little and holds up a lighter.  “I’m sorry” says Guoliang, “but we don’t smoke.”

She stares at him for a moment, then turns away from the table.  She takes a step, pauses, and then glances back over her shoulder.  “Too bad” she says in perfectly unaccented English.  She shakes her head, looks away again, and says in an even deeper voice “Too bad.” She says it in a way that perfectly communicates the message “You really seemed like nice people. But sometimes bad things happen to nice people. Too bad.”

We continue our conversation and our dinner, but she doesn’t walk away from the table.  Instead she walks around to stand directly behind Guoliang’s mom.  In between spoonfuls of my sweet bean soup, I look up to see her flicking her lighter, inches behind mom’s head.  The flame dances and I wonder how much hair spray Guoliang’s mom had used before going out. As she continues to flick her lighter, the lady’s unblinking eyes burn into mine.  Too bad. <flick>

The wait staff ignore her, as does Guoliang and his parents. Food arrives and is cleared away. The rest of us are confused. Who is this woman? Why is she haunting us? And she just stands there, staring. Too bad.

Finally she wanders away, and all of the guests at the table relax a little. We’re the only party still at the restaurant. We give one another significant looks, and Bobby whispers to me “Who was that woman? She creeps me out.”

I’ve just begun digging into a delicious lemon curd tart when a bottle slams down on the table next to my left hand with a loud bang. I jump a little and look back over my shoulder. The Lady with the Lighter is standing directly behind me. While our hosts continue to eat as if nothing is happening, I slowly rotate the bottle so that the label faces towards me. It says “(hanzi hanzi) Blueberry (more hanzi)”.

Taking a cultural clue from my hosts, I return to eating, acting as though the Lady is simply a bad dream, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. I nibble nervously on my custard tart, crumbs falling on my pants.

I hear a small but very directed sigh from behind me, and a hand appears over my shoulder. With a quick twist and flick, she removes the cap from the bottle and tosses it into our plate of crab legs.  There is a hiss, and I feel a spray of stickiness across the fur on my arm.

I hate being sticky.

I turn around, stare at her, and say “Okay, you need to leave now. We don’t want you here.  Go away.” She stares back. “Seriously.  Go away.” She stares some more, and then eventually turns and walks away. Our hosts continue eating, and the servers continue serving.  An opened bottle of sticky blueberry something sits opened next to me, coming from who knows where. All of the foreigners exchange meaningful looks.  Are we the only people who see this woman?

I cap the bottle and stick it onto the server’s stand near the table. I don’t want our hosts paying for a bottle of Sticky Blueberry Brandy (or whatever it might be.)

We occasionally glimpse her between gilded columns, drifting along at the far edges of the banquet hall. The dinner is winding down, and we’re all pleasantly sated. Small talk is made, insomuch as small talk can be made through a single interpreter.

And then she returns, grabbing the bottle and twisting off the cap. She stands directly across the table from me and brings it to her mouth, quaffing half of the bottle in one draught, her eyes never leaving mine. Then she walks away again, the bottle hanging by her side, a stream of blueberry trickling out and leaving a trail across the ballroom floor. The wait staff works around her, ignoring the spill, ignoring the woman swigging liquor from the bottle in their banquet hall.

She is a ghost, and she haunts us even when she is out of sight.  Bobby goes to the toilet and comes running back, whispering hysterically “Help!  She is following me!” And here she comes, drifting past out table as though on wheels, her head turning to meet our widening eyes while Bobby whimpers. Too bad.

When we leave, she follows us down the grand marble staircase of the restaurant, not saying a word. She follows us into the street, and stands about twenty feet away while we group.  Then she is gone. No one sees her leave.

Who was this Lady with the Lighter? Was she the owner of the restaurant? Did the restaurant staff think that she was with our party? And why didn’t our hosts acknowledge her? Despite our many questions, Guoliang never gives us a satisfactory answer. “Oh, she was just a woman” he says, or sometimes “What woman?”

And that night all of our dreams are tumultuous; bloody and confusing with unseen dreads in the shadows. And when I wake, I hear the echo of a deep smoky voice saying regretfully “Too bad.”

5 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Lady with the Lighter

  1. I loved this story! Why did you send her away before getting to the bottom of it? Now you’ll never know. We’ll never know….Too bad…

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