As the weather grows colder, I finally start to pull myself together. First, I buy myself a super cute winter coat, black and white checks in a retro 1960s cut with oversized buttons, along with faux cashmere gloves and a scarf. At least now I can feel stylish in the damp Taipei winter. Second, I get a space heater so my apartment is livable.
I find a cheap fare and fly to Seoul for a weekend to attend a friend's wedding. I haven't seen any of my friends there in four years, although I have kept in touch. It's so much fun to be with genuine friends again. The weekend away kind of resets my attitude. I come back determined to turn my social life around.
First, I realize that I need to spend less time with Phil. I catch myself imitating the weird facial tics he has, kind of pulling his mouth to the side. On him it's cute, but why the hell am I taking on his mannerisms? This has got to stop.
Second, I have to spend less time with Malison. Aside from my jealousy of her being with Phil, she's just a bitch. If we make plans to have dinner together, she's an hour or two late every time. When I tell her I'd prefer it if she could be on time, she replies carelessly that it's just how she is and if I want to spend time with her, I better get used to it. Ok, less time it is then.
Partly to increase my social circle and partly because I miss performing, I join the Taipei International Chorus. It's an amateur community chorus started by an expat American couple. There are a few Americans and Europeans, but the majority of the members are Taiwanese. I join just in time to start rehearsing for the Christmas concert, where we will sing a mix of carols and of course the Hallelujah Chorus. I hate Christmas music but I figure if I just get through this season, the next concert will be a better selection.
My one reason for joining this chorus is that rehearsals are conducted in English. In terms of quality, I have to admit though that it's a bit of a comedown after the Raser City Lyric Opera. Hardly any of the singers have formal training. The sound is, well, ahem. Standing still on stage and singing in a chorus with only a piano accompaniment is a lot less exciting than wearing a costume and singing with an orchestra in a fully staged opera, but whatever, it's fun to be rushing off to rehearsals again in the evenings after work.
The conductor is, to put it kindly, eccentric in the extreme. This is not unusual among expats who choose to settle in Asia long term; it's often because they are misfits at home. I recently allowed myself to be set up with an American guy, a friend of a friend from back home, and he was so weird that getting through even the requisite forty-five minutes in a coffee shop tested the limits of my endurance.
"I feel so much more at home here," he said, his eyes blinking at separate rates. I smiled and nodded. Yes, of course it's easier to live in a place where your eccentricity is just chalked up to being a foreigner.
Anyway the conductor of the Taipei International Chorus is a big, blustery white guy with a shock of unbrushed white hair and a big belly. Despite having lived here for over twenty years, he doesn't speak one word of Mandarin or Hokkien. Most choral directors I have known are cranky despots with giant egos, and he is a particularly egregious example. When he isn't haranguing and scolding us, he's going off on long, rambling tangents. One evening, when one of the mousier altos discreetly blows her nose in a tissue, he delivers a twenty minute lecture to her on how if you blow too hard you can force the mucus into your ears and need surgery. I get the distinct impression this is a personal anecdote. He gets so worked up at her I think she starts to cry a bit.
His wife, a diminutive white woman, plays Edith to his Archie Bunker, fluttering around in the background and taking care of the practical details. She alternates piano duties with two Taiwanese women. Their adult son sings in the tenor section. He is married to a Taiwanese woman, who is never present as she is caring for their young children, but we hear many patronizing comments about how lovely she is from her father in law.
This tenor son and I seem to be the only ones who really know how to project our voices. Everyone else sings in reedy, hesitant tones. The son likes to show off by blasting away at top volume, drowning out everyone else. Even though I know it's very bad form in a chorus where you are supposed to blend, I can't help matching him from time to time. It's childish but oh so satisfying to really let loose at top blast. The conductor snaps at us to pipe down.
My obnoxious behavior pays off, though, as the conductor notices I've had training and offers me a solo in the Christmas concert. I gleefully accept, and it's not until I start practicing that I realize I'm in way over my head. The piece is "Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion," one of the soprano solos from Handel's Messiah. Baroque music requires a different technique from the bel canto style I have studied, and much more precision. Rather than soaring high notes you can fudge with some emotion, there are endless patterns of melismas you have to hit exactly on pitch, without getting lost in the repetition. Not only is this solo many orders of difficulty higher than anything I have sung before, but it's been twenty years since I had a lesson, and I don't even have a keyboard at home to practice with. Luckily one of the Taiwanese accompanists takes pity on me and very kindly coaches me.
The performance is in a proper concert hall, all blond wood and red velvet seats, with marvelous acoustics. Somehow this very amateur concert feels like it might come together at last. This feeling only lasts a few minutes into rehearsal, when the conductor starts going off on his usual rants and tangents. He decides that the entire chorus should leave the stage when the soloists sing so as not to steal focus. He likes the effect so much that he orders us to leave the stage after each piece and return again, even when we have two choral pieces in a row. This is obviously nonsense but no one stands up to him. At the end of rehearsal his wife distributes what he has been calling "folders," actually just two sheets each of red construction paper. When a brave baritone asks how we are supposed to use this to hold together the fifty plus pages of loose sheet music we are all carrying, the conductor just waves his hand and says something about using tape.
Phil, Malison and Shamela come to the concert and sit waving to me right in the front. When it's time for my solo, I fix my eyes on the back of the hall, take a deep breath and chug away at those melismas like a machine gun: "Rejohohohohohohoice O daughohohoter of Zi-hi-ion!" The image in my mind is of the orgy in Zion in third Matrix movie. I get through it without stopping or losing the accompaniment too badly, which is the best I could hope for.
"Nice solo," Phil says afterward as we all go out for drinks together. I'm not sure if he's just being polite or if this was some Florence Foster Jenkins level of fail.
"Thanks, but the whole concert was kind of a mess. I don't think anyone realized that song is from the Messiah or that Messiah is considered Christmas music in the US." The baroque style really clashed with the rest of the program which was mostly Christmas carols and pop standards like "Winter Wonderland." "I felt like everyone was looking at me like 'Who is this white woman singing this weird song?'"
"Actually my favorite part was watching everyone's folders slowly disintegrate over the course of the concert," Malison says. She's right, papers were falling all over the stage.
"I know! I spent hours taping mine together and it still fell apart."
"And the grim marching on and off stage," Phil adds. This mostly took place in silence as the exits and entrances took approximately an eternity longer than the audience cared to applaud.
"Super awkward," Shamela agrees. I share more stories about the conductor, and we all have a good laugh. I'm enjoying their company again, now that I am letting go of any romantic expectations with Phil.
I've made friends in the chorus too, so as terrible as that concert was, it was somehow worth it. A sixtyish Taiwanese lady takes me under her wing and invites me along to the symphony and out for tea. A guy in his late thirties, Lin Chia-ming, starts chatting me up, as we take the same train home after rehearsal. Pretty soon we're meeting on weekends for coffee, then dinner.
Lin is a quiet, serious kind of guy, scrupulously formal and polite. It's such a change from the techbros of Raser City who want to fuck first, then after say they don't want to be, like, tied down, man because they need space to find themselves. I can tell Lin is interested in being more than just friends with me but he expects to go through a slow courtship first, where we really get to know each other. The problem is his English is ok but not great. Our conversations are slow going, and I'm never one hundred percent sure we're fully understanding each other.
With a pained expression, he tells me he got divorced a few years ago. Divorce is not uncommon here, but there's still more social stigma than in the US. He's a handsome guy, with a square face and thick, glossy black hair, but I can tell he thinks being divorced makes him damaged goods. But that's not the reason I hesitate to get serious with Lin. It's my career. I can't stay here after my contract is up, and I need to go back to the US to finish my degree, then look for a job there. Lin works in publishing, and with less than fully fluent English, there's no way he could get a job in the US. Neither of us is in a position to move overseas, and moving to be with someone after dating only a few months is madness. We'd have to get married to sponsor each other's visa. None of that is going to happen.
When I lay all this out over a dinner of hand-cut noodles, Lin soberly agrees that a relationship would be impossible. Perversely, I'm a little disappointed that he's not moved to make some grand gesture and say, "My love is so strong, no matter what I will find a way!" Realistically, I know that's bullshit and it's better we can be honest about it.
Still, this is exactly what I've been agonizing over in the past few months, and seeing it laid out in such stark terms brings it all bubbling up. I spill out all my frustrations in a rush.
"I'm never going to find someone who can move with me, who will let me put my career first. As long as I'm working I'll never be able to find someone to marry, but I can't quit working for someone I haven't even met! I'm never going to get married." I try not to, but a few tears squeeze out.
"That's not true," Lin says kindly. "Your mother did it." I have told him that my mother worked in a demanding career while raising me and my brother.
"That's not the same! She was ready to give up her career for my dad's. They moved for his work and she just applied for a job on a whim and got it. She had no idea she'd spend thirty years in that job. It wasn't planned at all. She was just lucky."
"You will find something lucky too," he insists. I don't feel much reassured by this, but it's nice of him to try. Despite a low-level attraction, Lin and I put aside any attempt at a romantic relationship and just become friends.
Even though I have more friends now, I still see Phil pretty often. When you're an expat your social circle is small like that. You just keep hanging around with the same few people no matter what. I don't mention anything to him about Lin except that we've become friends. But it's right around this same time that Phil casually mentions that he and Malison have broken up and he's seeing Shamela now.
I just smile and nod, but inside I'm seething. What the hell, Phil? Is he sleeping his way through the entire expat community here? I suppose it's a point in his favor that he's not hung up on Asian girls in a creepy way like his bro Skanthony. But I really wanted it to be my turn next, and I feel gross for even thinking that.
When I was in high school I had a crush on a boy who always had a girlfriend. He and I became super close--he talked to me about everything in his life, things he could never tell his girlfriend. He kept saying if he didn't have a girlfriend, he would go out with me. But that was a lie. He broke up with one girl and went out with another, more than once, but never ever asked me out. I finally confronted him about it at lunch.
"You promised I would be next!" I insisted.
Right then the majorettes and drum corps marched into the cafeteria for a pep rally.
He just shrugged. "It doesn't work that way," he shouted over the drums.
Yeah, high school really sucked.
Now I get it, he liked the idea of me but in practice I was too weird. He was on the football team and worried about his image. All his girlfriends were cheerleaders, not black lipstick wearing indie girls like me. But I nursed that crush until we graduated.
So Phil likes the idea of SM but he's too scared to actually try it. Instead he chooses Shamela, the most conventional and quiet of the group. Whatever. I'm so over Phil. If he wants a boring vanilla relationship so be it.
You might think that after wasting so much time pining after able-bodied guys that my devotee desires have gone away, but no, as usual it all comes roaring back after a lull. I haven't been thinking about anything dev related recently, even my mental porn reel hasn't been interesting me lately. Then out of nowhere I have a dream about a blind guy and suddenly it's all I can think about. I spend every spare waking moment thinking about how I could possibly meet a disabled guy.
There is a café I like to go to on weekends because it has free wifi. I can escape my freezing apartment and fritter away the afternoon writing email or randomly clicking on websites that seem interesting. Also, this café is across the street from the Taipei Library for the Blind. I have this half-hearted idea that maybe I'll meet someone just by hanging around nearby. As plans go it's a particularly ineffectual one, but you never know, it did work that one time back when I first moved to Raser City. But no matter how often I go there, I never meet a hot blind guy. In fact, I never see anyone at all enter or leave the library, hot or otherwise. I consider volunteering there, but as I can't speak or read Chinese, I'm not sure what I could offer. Also I feel more than a little creepy using them as a dating service. In the end, I do nothing.
I notice a lot of people with disabilities around town, but none of them are attractive to me. In particular, whenever I go to this one supermarket, I notice lots of hemiplegics walking around outside. So much so that it seems every single person I pass has a limp. It's a bit alarming, until I realize that the supermarket is right across the street from a rehab center. Anyway it's all old people.
As usual when I strike out meeting anyone in person, my interests turn to fantasy. I develop a minor obsession with the blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli. I've known about him for years but somehow it's only now that everything clicks together and my dev imagination lights on him. I get a DVD of his greatest arias, and listen to it over and over. I also find his autobiography at the library, but it's pretty disappointing to realize one, he's not a very good writer, and two, he's super conservative in his thinking and would probably hate the idea of devotees. But anyway I still enjoy his music. I'm particularly intrigued to find out that he has starred in a few fully staged operas. I scour the internet for days, trying to find video, but all I turn up is a few still photos. How would his blocking be staged? What about everyone else around him? I'm dying to know more details, but can't find anything.
When that route runs a bit dry, I turn back to internet dating. I can't really meet anyone local on dating sites, since there's so little here in English, and it's all overrun with douchebag white dudes looking to meet Asian women to fulfill their sexist, racist fantasies. But I'm going back to Raser City in less than six months. It doesn't seem too weird to keep an eye on the same old sites and see if anyone new pops up. Also I've become a little obsessed with this new site OkCupid. It's free, and the personality tests are addictive. I love the categories of personality types--the False Messiah, the Five-Night Stand, the Mixed Messenger, the Vapor Trail, the Manchild. I feel like I have dated all these losers. There's something so satisfying about categorizing all my random, confusing, contradictory experiences into these neat types. I wish I could make everyone I know take the personality test.
As for myself, when I take the test, my result is the Maid of Honor. This seems discouraging, as in "always a bridesmaid, never a bride." But according to the description, it just means that I tend to be a good, loyal partner but can be too slow to reject someone when it's not working out. It's like they know me. In addition to the basic type, the site also provides charts on how you rank compared to others of your location, age and gender. I'm pretty average for early thirties women in Raser City, except for one thing: my score in aggression is off the charts. Haha, I guess that's also true, but I can't figure out what made me score that way. I retake the test a few times, adjusting my answers, but the results are the same.
I use the OkCupid personality test on a guy one time. After a night out with Phil, Shamela and Malison, I pick up this British expat guy at a bar. He's not really my type--shaved head and goatee, with a round belly and a round face, crooked teeth and a wicked grin. I'm not that interested in him, but he really turns on the charm in pursuing me. I don't know why because he seems like one of those douchebag expats suffering from yellow fever.
For whatever reason, he talks me into inviting him back to my place. I tell him very plainly that I'm not going to have sex with him, but he asks if he can crash there because it's so close. Once we get inside, things feel more awkward. He's still turning on the charm, and I'm wondering if maybe he's not so bad.
Despite being a hard-drinking lad, he has some intellectual pretensions, which I guess is why he enjoys talking to me. He has with him a copy of The Stranger by Camus, checked out from a local library.
I have no idea how we get from discussing Existentialism to OkCupid personality tests, but I convince him to take it. His result is the Hornivore.
I stare at him, horrified. He's even worse than I thought. He shrugs sheepishly and says, "I'm just being honest, right?" Then he tries to kiss me.
"I think you should go," I tell him.
He makes a sour face but leaves without a fuss, thank god. That could have gone a lot worse in any number of ways. I feel like I dodged a round, goateed bullet. I've learned that one, I'm terrible at reading people, and two, those tests really are useful. I wish everyone could display their type written on their foreheads or something, because apparently I'm no good at guessing.
The next morning, I discover the Hornivore left his copy of The Stranger under a cushion. Oh well, I'll just take it back to the library myself. I have no intention of ever contacting him again, since apparently he's the kind of guy who thinks any kind of attention means you are interested, even saying, "I'm not going to have sex with you."
I get in the habit of spending hours on OkCupid, taking tests, reading profiles, and generally wasting time. The site is always changing, too, which keeps me coming back. A new feature pops up where you can just click through hundreds of profile photos and click on whether you like them or not. Supposedly this is to help train the algorithm to improve matching, although I don't notice any difference.
One evening, I'm clicking through dozens of pictures in this way, just photos and a user name, not the full profile. I'm randomly clicking through, then all of a sudden, there is a photo of K.
What the fuck.
The blind guy I spent half my adult life obsessing over. I wept an ocean of tears over him, and even now I'm not fully sure if I'm over him. What the hell is he doing on OkCupid?
In the photo, he's standing in front of what looks like the construction site of a wood-framed house, holding a circular saw and grinning like an idiot. There's no mistaking those blue-white opaque eyes. It's just like him to think it's funny to picture a blind guy wielding power tools.
I click through to his profile, and sure enough, it's him. He doesn't give his name, of course, but the details of his age, where he went to college, his interests, all reveal that it is undoubtedly K. When he dumped me in 1995, I said that I didn't want to hear from him for ten years, but after that we could get in touch again. The only reason I said that was because the idea of never speaking to him again for the rest of my life seemed too breathtakingly, gut-wrenchingly awful. Ten years seemed like forever at the time. Actually it still kind of does, because I feel like I've lived several lifetimes since then but it still hasn't been ten years yet.
The last I heard, K was still living in College Town with his parents, working for his mother in a dead-end job, doing nothing with his life and with no prospects. So why is he on a dating site in the Raser City area?
I can't help myself, I have to know. So I send him nudge. Not a full message, just a little poke to let him know I saw his profile, and get him to look at mine.
The next day I get a message from him. Is this who I think it is?
Of course. Who else? I reply. The time limit is up.
No, it's only been eight years, he replies pedantically, but it was my idea in the first place, so it doesn't much matter to him.
We exchange a few messages, hesitant at first, then longer, friendlier emails. I'm secretly disappointed to discover that even though he's on OkCupid, he is not single or looking, but in a serious relationship of several years. He and his girlfriend just joined for the personality tests. His type is the Slow Dancer, which is not what I would have guessed at all. I had him pegged as the Boy Next Door.
He shows me his girlfriend's profile, and I see she's blandly pretty, with reddish hair. Her personality type is the Peach. Pfft. Boring. Two years ago, he moved from College Town to live with her in East Bessemer. What the hell! He's just a few minutes away from where Rollerboy lives. It all seems so weird. He's been just outside Raser City for two years and I never knew it.
The Peach has two kids, and K describes being a step-parent as wondrous, frustrating, amazing, irritating and exciting, all rolled into one, usually at the same time. My god, he's still just as cheesy as ever.
I try to keep a neutral tone with him, but I'm still angry about how badly he treated me, even after all these years. To make myself feel better, and to try to kill the lingering attraction to him, I had indulged in some unkind fantasies about him, that he had matured into an unattractive middle age, his thinning hair growing to a bald spot, his pot belly getting bigger, and that his unfaithful ways would mean he would be alone forever. But in his photos, he still looks exactly the same--long dark hair, slender and boyishly handsome. I'm the one alone while he has a family. It's so unfair.
I feel like I know why our paths have crossed again so randomly. Right after he dumped me, I took every memento of him and put it all in a shoebox, wrapped up with string, and buried it in a corner of my closet at my parents' house. The last time I visited my parents a few months ago, I cleaned out that closet, and I decided it was time to get rid of the box. For the first time in eight years, I untied the string and opened it. Most of what was in the box was literal trash, and I threw it all away. The only things I kept were some photos, which I mixed in with all my other photos of friends.
Now I feel like this is the result of opening that box--he is back in my life. It hardly seems possible that we could be friends. He looms too large in my imagination still. But maybe I should try. Anyway there's something I've been meaning to get off my chest for a long time.
There's something I have to tell you. I don't know if you've ever heard the term devotee, but it means someone attracted to people with disabilities. I'm a devotee. I'm really sorry I never told you when we were dating, but I didn't know how. I mean I literally didn't know the term, and I had no way to talk about it. I thought I had to keep it a secret from everyone, and I was sure you would hate me if knew I was attracted to you because you're blind. I know I did some crazy things back then, and that's the reason. I'm sorry.
He writes back, I have heard about devotees. I had no idea you were one, but I always felt there was something different about you. Don't worry, I don't hate you for it. Actually I think it's kind of cool. Everything about disability is such a drag, so the idea that someone enjoys some aspect of it, or could help make the world a better place for people with disabilities, seems all to the good to me. By the way, I never properly thanked you for encouraging me to become a licensed massage therapist. I would probably never have gotten certified if it wasn't for you pushing me, but I'm so grateful now that I did it. Massage really is my calling. I also appreciated how much you pushed me to be more independent and do things for myself. I didn't realize at the time how much I was relying on Lydia, which wasn't good for me or for her. I'm a lot more independent now. So thank you.
This message is like a revelation. I feel nearly a decade of guilt and shame lift away, and I feel almost physically lighter. In all my fantasies of reconciling with K, I never imagined I would confess to being a devotee, or that he would be ok with it. But it seems that's just what I needed to hear from him. Not only that he doesn't hate me for my shameful secret, but that I had some positive influence on his life. I always worried that I had pushed him to learn massage because it fit with my fantasy of the ideal career for a blind man, and that my inept attempts to teach him how to write with a pen and how to fill in his own checks were just to fulfill my dev desires. I'm so relieved that he didn't feel used or objectified, but that my dev attention actually made his life better.
I start to think that maybe we could be friends. We make very tentative plans to meet when I return to Raser City.