Triangular Skirts

One of the most common discussions that queer women have when we first get together is about our past relationships. We talk about our exes, what we’ve learned, what we hated about the dynamics, what we wish had been different. We often talk about the ex-ex-exes too and string each experience together like a series of episodes in a complex television drama—paper dolls with triangular skirts holding hands in a chronological row. These are long and winding discussions that lead, cheerfully, to that pair of eyes patiently listening across the table with her hand in yours. The bonding makes everything that happened—the past—seem absolutely relevant to the moment.

I remember those conversations well. I remember liking them.

Guo Jian has no time for it. He said he wanted to have a relationship with me, not them. He simply didn’t want to know. When I would mention things from the past, he’d listen without comment and then change the subject. What’s worse, he didn’t want to share either. When I pushed him for information, he was vague and non-responsive. He insisted that the past be the past “过去了 guoqu le” (over and done with) and that we talk about the “现在 xianzai” (now).

Why do men not want to talk about it? What is so wrong with sharing what happened? How it affected you? What you learned from the experience of loving another? Is this a Chinese thing or a man thing?

After about six months together (at least, of compiled time that we had spent together forging a new relationship) and absolutely no spontaneous inquiry into my past or no further inquiry into my references to it in conversation, I had had enough. I sat him down and said that if he wasn’t interested in hearing about my life, it “代表 dai biao” (represented, my new Chinese word at that time) that he wanted to believe I never existed before I met him. “I have a past. It’s important to me. It’s real. I want you to know about it. I want to tell you about it. It’s part of me.”*

If my Chinese were better, I would have used the words “legitimacy” and “acknowledgement” but I was, as always, hindered by my limited vocabulary.

He shrugged. He offered to listen if it was so important to me, and then said, “你说 ni shuo” (go ahead, talk) with a wave of his hand.

I launched directly into the timeline of my previous relationships and their general summaries. After the first five minutes, I sensed he was hearing but not listening. I shortened the stories. Like watching a full audience slowly and pointedly leaving the room with each song performed, I heard the awkward words in Chinese clatter from my mouth with the wrong tones and grammar to the point where even I was starting to lose interest in this boring performance. I eventually just wound it up.

“Are you done?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, slightly relieved. “好了 Hao le (Okay, then)” “Okay,” I said in English. And then he left the room. Nothing more. No commentary. No feedback. No reverse sharing. I also felt a certain nameless nothingness. Emptiness, if you will. I gave that a brief moment of my notice and then my day resumed. I wasn’t angry or sad. I didn’t really feel anything.

Is it particularly female or queer of me to expect an exchange?

Later that week, we talked about the notion of the moment. He doesn’t believe the past is relevant. I also believe in the Buddhist notion that past and future are just delusions to take us away from the purity of the moment. Of course, applying these beliefs to real life is the tougher reality. I recalled my own boredom as I told him my relationship timeline—how his disinterest had seemed to suck the power out of my past. I wondered why I was giving it so much power in the first place. Had its importance been inflated by the listening and co-sharing from my previous female partners? Or was this a way of rationalizing away his insensitivity?

I dropped the issue from my head and heart. My past is mine. It’s for me to protect and apply to my present. This approach made it easier to stop the incessant, unhealthy, not to mention unfair comparisons I had been making on a daily basis. How could he compare to women from my cultural background who spoke English and were queer-identified? Perhaps he sensed that, too. Perhaps he was distancing himself because he knew he could not compete in such an unfair competition?

Since then, I’ve learned that what he hates more than sharing the details is the having to share. For him, it’s not a cozy new relationship ritual. Over time, I have learned bits and pieces of his love history, which has been enough to thread a narrative together. He is willing to share, but not on anyone else’s timeline.

He’s also willing to listen as long as he doesn’t have to hold hands with the girls in triangular skirts.

*****

*Peter Hessler in his book Oracle Bones describes a certain “Special English” designed for Chinese language learners. That section above reads in my “Special Chinese,” short and clipped sentences without any complex grammar tricks.

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