Fiction / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Abject Men

by Michael X. Wang

I've loved all kinds of unlovable men. Each new boyfriend of mine has been more unlovable than the one before. I've been with men who looked like aardvarks, men who weighed more than couches, homeless men, men who were terminally ill, men with first-degree burns covering their face and body, men with cerebral palsy, men who beat me and men whom I beat. Moreover, most of the men I have dated fell into more than one of these categories. I am constantly on the lookout for the next abject man—the perfect abject man. But this is foolish, I've come to realise. It's foolish to wish for a man who will include all of these traits, though I can't stop myself from hoping that my satisfyingly unlovable man is somewhere out there in the world, waiting, not necessarily for me, but for anyone willing to have him.

Here I should stop and correct some misconceptions that you may already have. Women who love unlovable men are not necessarily unlovable themselves. I am such a woman. I have wavy, red-blond hair, maternal hips, a slim waist, a round butt and a face as delicate and sensual as strawberry cheesecake. One word describes my personality: hypnotic. It only takes one conversation for any man, abject or not, to fall into the vortex of my charisma. If it surprises you that a woman like me is capable of loving the unlovable, then you should be ashamed.

Loving the unlovable, for me, is like an act of charity. Some people donate money to Africans with AIDS, others volunteer at their local homeless centre and still others sacrifice their careers, earning next to nothing, to stand up for the voiceless. None of the stuff these people do rivals what I do. Even though they give a part of what they value—money, time or career—they do not give what is most valuable to them. I give away my love. If only for a week or two, I give away the one thing none of these other altruistic people will ever consider giving away—not to the unlovable.

My most recent project, though he doesn't know it yet, is a man named Ling. He grew up in central China, in a village called Xinchun. His family's house burned down when he was a baby. He has burn marks on the left side of his face, from his temple down to his chin. Because of the fire, his left arm had to be amputated.

Ling works at his uncle's motel in Flushing (I've learned everything about Ling thus far from talking with his uncle). They call the place a motel, but it's really a ten-room house—a hostel—with a fishpond in the back and a gigantic front door painted red with golden lion knockers. Ling's favourite hobby, I notice every time I drive past, is using a dirty cloth and Lysol to polish the knobs. He doesn't seem to understand that all the rubbing and Lysol cause the paint to chip. Around each doorknob, there is a ring of chipped paint, revealing the wood underneath. Some days, I park on the other side of the street and watch his uncle yell at him.

In terms of physical appearance, Ling is five-feet-seven or eight, around my height, and, from his narrow shoulders, I would guestimate that he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He uses a lot of product in his hair, gel or mousse, and he keeps his hair parted to the left, Hitler-style. I don't believe he's ever shaved before, though he's twenty one years old, and I'm sure he is still a virgin.

* * *

Sunday morning, I've worked out just about all the details. My boss at Rick's Hair Salon thinks I'm visiting a dead relative, and I've told my roommate and confidant, Lillian, that I'm hooking up with an out-of-state ex-boyfriend. Most of the time she's the first to know about the slightest development in my life—I've known her since high school; she was the one who told me to come to the city—and I'm still not sure why I'm lying to her about Ling. But somehow this one feels special, fresher. I've been with blacks and Latinos, but they're pretty much just like white guys, with differences I can understand and relate to. I've never been with a guy born on the other side of the world. It may very well be my destiny to marry a man like Ling.

I check myself in the mirror, putting on this pair of seashell earrings I keep for first impressions and touching up my tattoos with a home-colouring kit. When I finish freshening up, I grab my small, red and stickered tote in hand, walk downstairs and scoop a cup of Purina into my cat Bebe's bowl. I wave goodbye to Lillian, who barely looks up from her Vogue.

"Go and make another one of your famous mistakes," she says.

"As a matter of fact," I say, "if you really want to know, I'm going to a motel to seduce a Chinese guy. His name is Ling, and he's missing an arm."

"Not this again." She puts down the magazine. "I thought it was bad enough you were seeing your ex-boyfriend. Why do you keeping doing this to yourself?"

Sometimes, I wonder how I'm still friends with Lillian. Ever since we were in school, we've been complete opposites. Her mother won Ms. New York when Lillian was ten; my mother couldn't tell me who my father was. Lillian graduated from college and came to the city to study contemporary art; I moved in with her because my mother died. Lillian has always been so disapproving, and I've always made it my objective to prove her wrong. "I'm a philanthropist," I say. "It's easy to love the lovable, but where's the humanity in that?"

"You're a novelty seeker, Claire, and as soon as you get bored of Lee or Ling or whatever his name is, you'll drop him. Do you remember Harold, the blind guy you met at the coffee shop, who knocked on our neighbour's door for an entire weekend after you got bored of him? Or how about Danny, the dwarven cross-country runner, who, after you broke up with him, ran by our apartment in a tracksuit several times a day? What about their feelings?"

"They weren't the ones for me."

"Of course they weren't." There's urgency in her voice now, like she's feeling that she's finally getting through to me. "I've heard all your talk about 'philanthropy' before, but I think you're doing more good than bad to these men, not to mention to yourself."

"Oh, please," I say, opening the door. "You've broken way more hearts than me. At least I give them a good time, which is probably something they never had. I doubt any of your past boyfriends ever enjoyed being with you."

Lillian is surprised. She is hurt by the bluntness of my words, but also by their truth. I shut the door before she could say anything back.

* * *

In the station wagon (my mom's old car, the kind with the wood showing), I reach for my aviators stashed in the glove compartment and drive ten blocks past Bayside to Flushing Meadows. The plan is to stay at Super China Inn for however long it takes me to seduce Ling. Parking a block away, I wait for Ling to join his uncle at the counter. Most days, Ling takes a mid-afternoon nap, and I want him to see me when I walk in.

In front of my car, a family of ducks waddles by. They surprise me, because there aren't any ponds nearby. They remind me of the time when I was ten, when my mom bought two kittens and took them out to the backyard. The kittens were three or four weeks old, Scottish-folds, and they were the cutest things you'd ever seen, their eyes big and dark and their ears folding down like a golden retriever's. As it turned out, bringing them outside wasn't the best idea. They chased crickets for a few minutes, and then, out of nowhere, a hawk swooped down, snatched the smaller kitten with its claws and carried it off. As we were scrambling for an idea to get the first one back, another hawk (or it could've been the same one) came by and snatched the other one up.

Ling is mopping the floor when I walk in. The room smells like ammonia. I enter slowly, taking my time to stretch out my arms and close the door. The interior is the same as the exterior, with brass handles and chipped paint. The paint is the colour of my nail polish, and I figure, if I wanted to, I could touch it up in less time than it takes for a manicure. I swing my hips over to the counter, where Ling's uncle sits smoking a cigarette and reading a Chinese newspaper.

"How many days?" he asks, his eyes focused on the paper.

"Let's start with three."

He looks up and suddenly smiles. "Ah, I've seen you before. You're the one with the questions." He offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. "Big spender. I'll give you a discount." He hands me a key for a two-bedroom on the third floor.

I keep my eyes on Ling, who, like the other times I've been here, is focused on his cleaning. "I've been walking with this bag all day," I say. "My arms are so tired. Can you have a man walk me up?"

"Ling! Bags!"

Ling is startled by the sudden shrillness of his uncle's voice. He stands up straight, his thin, scared eyes moving from his uncle to me. I give him a demure smile, extending my arm that holds my red, furry, poodle-sized tote. He reaches for it with the only hand he has.

* * *

My room is in fairly good condition. The mattresses are firm but cushiony, with phoenix and dragon quilts spread on top as comforters. There's a mirror on the wall with a flat-screen TV, drapes with butterfly designs and two vases by the door shaped like cranes. I feel like I'm in some sort of Chinese funhouse, trapped inside the perfumed dungeon of Foo Man Choo.

In the span of two hours, I call up room service three times, and each time Ling comes up. Although that was my intention, his consistency makes me feel sorry for him. I get the feeling nobody else around here does any work. He's like Cinderella. An awkward, Chinese, burned Cinderella with a combover and very little situational awareness. He doesn't seem to notice me at all. Not the first time, when he brings up tea. Not the second time, when he changes the towels. And not the third, when he replaces the miniatures of soap and shampoo I stashed in my purse. He seems to have no idea when the opposite sex is giving him signals, and who would be checking for signals anymore, in their twenty-first year, if they never got signals before?

I need a change of plan. The standard methods of seduction—skimpy dress, eye contact, a brush on the arm—do not seem to work.

I call up room service again, this time about replacing a bed sheet I poured tea on. Setting down the receiver, I take off my clothes and get under the stained sheet, listening for Ling's footsteps.

My toes are warm by the time the door opens. I peek my head above the sheets, and I see him standing there, his hand on the doorknob, his head down like he's ashamed.

He hesitates for a moment, then says, "I can come back later if you want." This is the first time I've heard him speak, and I'm surprised by his lack of accent.

"No, come in." I bring my arms above the sheets. My skin looks so creamy I want to lick myself.

"I'd rather not," Ling says. Behind him is his little cart of bedding and towels. Closing the door, he uses his feet to push the cart away.

"No, don't go! I can't sleep on this dirty sheet for another minute. Come and look."

He takes out a comforter and another blanket from his cart and tucks them under his arm. His walk over is painfully slow, as if he's a soldier trying to avoid landmines. His eyes glance around the room, searching for something. When he's finally next to the bed, he drops the comforter and blanket on a chair and crouches down eye-level with the stain. The bed sheet is partially see-through, and he's giving all his attention to the tea stain: a floral yellow dot, still wet.

I'm resting on my elbow, facing him, my hair falling so close to his face it swings with his every breath. I whisper, "A travesty, isn't it?"

He gives his first real look at me. Up close, the burns on his face make him look like an old man, but behind the scars and loose-hanging fat, his eyes are quite vivid. They are this pair of black marbles, milky and translucent like the eyes of a cat. It could be that they only appear beautiful in contrast to the rest of his face. Maybe in a world where every man had one arm and burn scars, he'd be considered handsome. This is the best part about being with an unlovable man: the less lovable he is, the more you cherish those few lovable qualities he has.

"Well?" I say. "Aren't you going to change it?"

"Usually," he says, clearing his throat. His voice is so soft that it takes on this unintentional—and humorous—tone of seduction. "Usually, the sheets are changed when the bed is empty."

I have this incredible urge to laugh. Instead, I take his face into my hands and kiss him. His mouth, as I expect, remains closed. After the kiss, he tries to say something, but I stifle him with another kiss.

We begin to roll, like a pair of alligators, and I feel the texture of his jeans against my thighs and the shoelaces of his sneakers tickling my toes. Somehow, in a few seconds, his clothes are off. His body looks like the surface of the moon: uneven, blistered and crater-filled. He has no problem getting it up. The entire time, he repeats one word and one word only: "Why?"

* * *

Gratitude, I guess, is part of it. But I've been with men who weren't thankful of having me in the least, and there's some pleasure in that as well. The most abusive relationship I was in (although, I never consider any relationship of mine abusive) was with a taxi driver named Ripley. This happened a long time ago, ten years, when I was eighteen and had first moved to New York. I consider it to be one of the relationships that defined my outlook on men, that made me eventually seek out the unlovable.

Ripley was forty, divorced, alcoholic and aging in a way that made people forget he had ever been young. He drove me from the airport to Lillian's apartment, and he talked for most of the way there, telling me his life story. It was obvious to me, even at the age of eighteen, that he was trying to pick me up. But I went along with it because I didn't know many people in the city and thought I could use a free form of transportation. I gave him my number, and he pursued me aggressively.

My first month in New York, I didn't have a job, so I rode along in his taxi, sometimes in the front and sometimes in the back. When I was up front, we would try to make the other passengers as uncomfortable as possible, kissing while driving, groping at each other, talking about the best treatments for certain types of STDs. When I sat in the back, we would play this game where I would try to seduce the next person that got on, man or woman. That's another thing about these unlovable men: they have the weirdest ideas for a good time, and you end up going along with it, just to see where it's going.

The relationship made a turn for the worse when his ex-wife called him up. He became cocky and unpleasant, knowing that his ex desired him again. He'd often hit me, shove me against the door of his cab. He'd ask, "Besides being hot, why else should I be with you?" And the surprising thing was, I liked this violent, pompous Ripley better than the playful, drunk Ripley. In a way, I think I was responsible for this change in him, for him getting his wife back. I realised then that there was so much I could do for the world, for these unlovable men.

Ling is sleeping on his left side, where his arm is supposed to be. Downstairs, I hear his uncle shouting. "Get up from your nap! Work needs to be done." His voice is barely audible from the third floor, but Ling shoots up in a hurry and starts putting on his clothes. It's hard enough to put on pants with one arm, and, in his hurry, he has put them on the wrong way. He takes them off again, his genitals dangling (Ling doesn't wear underwear), and he gives me an embarrassed side-glance.

I offer him my help.

"No, you don't understand," he says. "I am usually much faster than this."

"What I'm wondering is, how did you manage to take it all off so quickly?"

"I guess it's easier skiing downhill."

I smile, then give him a sceptical look. "You ski?"

"No," he says, and his cheeks grow a little redder. He picks up the unused sheets and heads to the door.

"You want to have dinner later?" I ask.

"Well, I usually have dinner with my aunt and uncle."

"Can't you make an excuse?" I sit up and wrap the see-through sheet tightly around my body. Then I squeeze my breasts together so that the shapes of my nipples are visible.

"Well, I'm usually the one who makes the dinner."

"Oh, good," I say. "I'm starving. Make enough for me, too."

* * *

After taking another nap, I wake up feeling dizzy. For a second or two, looking at myself in the wall mirror, I don't remember where I am or what I've done. It's not an altogether unpleasant feeling, and, when I do remember what I did, I spread out my arms and fall back onto the sheets. I'm thinking about Ling, about how easy it all was, about a nice dinner with him and his family—the jewel to the crown—and I'm thinking that I might be able to cut out early on this one, leave as soon as possible—tonight, if I can—without having to say goodbye.

I hear a knock on my door. It's louder than before, and I'm afraid that it might not be Ling, that it might be his uncle coming up after Ling told him what we did.

"Come in?" I say.

It's Ling. He looks exhausted, like he just sprinted up the stairs. "My uncle and aunt are gone," he says. "I have a surprise for you."

"Why are you still whispering?" Under the sheets, I put on pants.

He stands up straight, as if the new posture will increase the volume of his voice. "We should hurry, before they come home."

He takes me to the back of the motel, to a small artificial pond. It's about the size of a kiddy swimming pool, embedded into the ground and surrounded by a curving ring of bricks. Kelp and moss cover part of the surface, and the entire thing has a quality of man-made dirtiness, a controlled dirtiness. Several goldfish are swimming underneath, and, on top, a family of ducks—a mother and her three ducklings—glides back and fourth like puffs of cloud over an ocean.

I didn't expect this from Ling, for him to ever take me anywhere, even if it just is to the other side of the hostel. I lean down and try to touch the mother duck, but it swims away. "I saw them today," I say, "walking on the street."

Ling nods. "Yeah, they like to do that." He takes out a piece of bread from his pocket, balls it up and kneads it until the crumbs cover the surface of the pond. "I've known the mother duck since she was little. They're the third generation, flying away every winter and flying back every spring." He's on his knees next to me, petting the ducks that are feeding on the bread. "In China, the mandarin duck is the animal of love."

"That's so touching," I say, and I mean it. I'm beginning to think this guy is somehow different than the other men I was with, more surprising. You don't expect a man who looks like Ling to have this idyllic view of romance. They're usually too broken down by rejection, too scavenger-like—getting whatever sex they can get—to have this kind of pride in them.

Ling takes out another slice of bread and places it under his feet. Then he starts tearing at it, throwing the pieces into the pond. The mother duck and her ducklings are out of the water and right in between his legs, snatching up the remaining pieces of bread under his feet. He takes out a leash from his pocket and ties it around the mother duck's neck. She doesn't seem bothered.

"You want to take a walk with us?" he asks.

"You walk your ducks?"

"Well, they aren't my ducks. I walk the mother duck, and her children follow. It's just something we do."

I nod. It doesn't matter who a man is or what he does or what he looks like, you can't say no to him when he offers to walk his ducks with you.

Ling stands up and tugs on the leash. Behind the pond, in between the bushes surrounding the yard, there's a secret path leading to the woods. I follow his lead, a few feet behind the last duckling. Ling walks just fast enough for the mother to follow, which isn't that fast, and I find myself taking nibbles of steps, staring intently at the ground, even when leaves and tree branches brush against my face. I'm afraid if I don't pay enough attention, I might step on one of them. The path turns right, and then right again, and there's a safe quality about the woods. I can barely see the ducks even though they're right under my feet. I wouldn't be able to see them at all from a distance, the twigs and branches covering them like hundreds of thin, web-like arms. Then suddenly the path ends, and we're waiting to cross the road to the other side of the woods. To my right, I see my car forty or fifty yards away, and, beyond that, I see the outskirts of New York City, residential buildings tall and red, the sun setting behind them.

"Should we double-back to the motel?"

Ling shakes his head. He looks to the right and left, waiting for cars to pass. "No," he says. "I've made this path myself, and there's more to it on the other side."

I don't think it's my place to stop him, so we wait. When the cars have passed, we step down from the curb and make our way over. The ducks, with their bodies wobbling on the asphalt, are much too visible. I fear for them in the same way I feared for my mother's kittens. I bet even passengers on a low-flying plane can see them. They are like a stain on a white blouse, like colour in a black-and-white film, and I can't help but look up at the sky—where it's blue and cloudless—in absolute terror.

* * *

I'm not sure when was the last time I was this intrigued by a man, but waiting in the dining room—the small enclosure behind the checkout counter—listening to Ling make dinner—the chopping of vegetables and the sound of steam rising from the rice cooker—I get the feeling I'd like to spend a lot more time with him. Usually, an abject man would have one or two tricks up his sleeve, and then I'd be bored and leave. But it is not like that with Ling anymore. I simply want to be with him, surprises or no surprises. I can't believe I'm saying this, but there is something good about him. Maybe it's because he's been here all his life, trapped in this motel, and he hasn't seen a lot beyond it, and as someone who has seen a lot beyond it, I have this urge to be there with him when he goes through all of it himself—and without a doubt he will go through all of it, as we all do, eventually. I'm not sure what my presence will do for him, whether or not it'll help him stay the way he is, but I'd like to think that with the help of someone who has been through it all—me—he would turn out different than the way I turned out.

"What are you doing in here?" Ling's aunt and uncle walk in from the back door carrying bags of groceries.

"Ling invited me to dinner." I sit up and give them a fake smile.

"He would never," his uncle says.

"OK, I lied. I smelled something good and just thought I'd join in."

His uncle, resigned to the fact that I'm there to say, goes into the kitchen and grabs an extra chair.

About five minutes into dinner, I get the feeling that eating at Super China Inn isn't like eating at a Chinese restaurant. The first course is a soup, but the soup isn't hot-and-sour or egg-drop. It's a simple rice soup, very plain, tasting neither salty nor sweet. I hear Ling stir-frying in the kitchen, and minutes later he brings out three plates of food, the rising steam obscuring their contents. I don't think it'd be appropriate to ask for a fork.

"You know," Ling's uncle says. "this isn't free." His wife says something to him in Chinese, something that sounds like scolding. Ling takes a seat next to me.

"No problem," I say. "Charge it to the room."

The table is quiet for the next few minutes. The uncle and aunt are watching a tiny TV placed atop an ironing board. Ling, seeing that I've only been eating white rice, takes the chance while his uncle's not looking to grab a piece of sautéed eel and place it in my bowl. "This is my favourite," he whispers. "Take as much as you like."

"I would if I could use these chopsticks."

Hearing this, Ling nods and walks to the kitchen. His uncle, hearing the clamour of shuffling utensils, shouts, "Ling, bring me a spoon, too."

Some girls don't like it when a guy changes for them, when a guy becomes a different person to try and please them. I thought I was such a girl, but I have to admit I'm touched by Ling's actions during dinner. It both excites and saddens me that I'm the source of this new energy in him.

Taking advantage of his absence, I decide to take the opportunity to let my feelings be known. I'm well aware that it's going to be embarrassing, mainly for him, but it's something I feel must be done, and I know he's not going to be the one to do it.

"So, does Ling have a girlfriend?" I ask the table, to no one in particular.

His uncle stops watching TV and turns to me. He stares at me for a second to see what I meant by the question, and then laughs. "Yes, we arranged matches for him, but none were perfect match. Some weren't burned enough. Some had two arms." He turns to his wife and says something to her in Chinese, a repetition of the joke, I guess.

Ling returns, drops the spoon into his uncle's soup bowl and hands me the fork. Seeing his aunt and ancle laughing, he laughs, too.

"So, tell me," I say to his uncle. "What would be Ling's perfect match?"

There is no doubt now in his uncle's mind that my questions are meant to poke fun at Ling. He turns to his wife again, barely containing his laughter and asks her my question in Chinese. His wife looks at me, smiles and says something I can't pronounce, but the word sounds like something you'd say if you were in pain, as if you'd just bit your tongue. "Crazy," her husband says. "Someone who's lost stuff up here."

At this point, I'm furious. I turn to Ling, who's intently scooping rice from his bowl as if it were the most important thing in the world. His bowl shakes because he's missing a hand to steady it.

"What do you think?" I ask him. And I know I'm being cruel here. I know he won't have the courage to say what I want him to say, what he should say. "Do you think someone needs to be crazy to love you?"

He looks at his uncle, his aunt and then at me. His silence is making me want to rip out those cat-like eyes of his and mix them into a fine powder. "I don't know about crazy," he says, "but I don't think that person would be very smart for loving me."

"It's only appropriate," his uncle adds. "Nobody should be with anyone who is not appropriate for them. If Ling was with an average girl, he would have no rest because he would always think about how bad he is compared to her. He would not be happy and neither would she. Ling needs a far below average girl."

In a sense, he's right. I stare at him and his wife, at their equally skinny and shrivelled faces, at the equally lazy way they sit in their chairs, and I can't think of two other people more appropriately cruel for each other. "So," I say, "what about someone like me? Do you think I would be appropriate for Ling?"

"You?" He laughs. Then he says something in Chinese to his wife, which causes her to laugh as well. "You're not even Chinese." 

* * *

How dare he? How dare his uncle say that to me? Not being Chinese isn't an abjection; it shouldn't keep me from being with Ling. His uncle's entire idea of appropriateness is deplorable, and what makes me even angrier is the fact that Ling seems to agree with him.

I'm back in my room again, lying under the sheets, listening to Ling explain. He is apologising for his uncle's words, apologising, but what he says doesn't sound like an apology at all.

"The reason my aunt and uncle treat me so poorly is not because they don't love me. It's because they don't have any children. They know I'll be running the motel after they die. It's an even exchange: They are mean to me, I do the work, and, when the time comes, I will have everything they have now. If you'd ask them, they will tell you they should be the ones to be pitied, not me. And I think I agree."

I sit up on the bed. "Why are you telling me all of this? Do you even know why I'm angry?"

"I just thought," he starts to say. "I don't know. I just thought if you knew more about them and why they said the things they did, you won't be so angry at them."

"So you thought if I felt sorry for them, too, I wouldn't be mad at them?"

"I guess."

"Ugh," I say, and fall back onto the sheets.

We don't say anything for a few seconds, and, in the silence, I hear the drone of the air conditioner above my head. "Can I ask you something?" he says timidly. "What were you doing here in the first place?"

His question catches me by surprise. "Just needed a change of pace," I say. "Everybody needs a change once in a while." It isn't the answer I'd liked to have given, though I'm not exactly sure what that answer would have been.

"I don't think any change will come to me," he says. "Not anymore. I'll be here until I die, I just know it. I think the world gives you a certain number of changes, and I'm pretty sure I've used all of mine up."

But what about me, Ling? Do you not consider me a change? Or do you already know that I won't be important in your future, in the way that I wasn't important in the futures of any of the men before you? How do you know? How can you tell? What makes you so certain of your place in the world?

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