Xiao showed up to the birthday party with Josiah in tow, carrying an excessively wrapped children’s book on how to draw trains. The man she was hoping to sleep with—a local artist named Peter—had invited her son and her, along with a few others from watercolor class, but none of the others showed up. She took this as a good sign, an indication that she was the only one he cavorted with, because to fondle someone and not show up at their child’s birthday party? That was what those in the cheater’s club called a doubly dick move, not to be confused with a regular dick move, fondling someone else’s husband.
After giving Peter a brief and awkward side hug by the front door, Xiao surveyed the scene and, knowing no one, determined to find herself a new friend, lest she come off as too suspiciously solicitous of Peter’s attention to his wife or worse, too eager to Peter himself—excessive earnestness being the surest of all cock blocks. To this end, she swerved from the finger sandwiches (made scrupulously by hand by the unsuspecting and perky wife, she assumed) to the Prosecco. She then collected prosciutto and Swiss, and shooed Josiah towards the bounce house that hailed like an oasis in the backyard.
What came next surprised Xiao: a woman nearby—another singular Asian face in passing, standing by the wine glasses, acquiring a small collection of meats. Her presence stood out like a jarring appendage on an otherwise forgettable scene. It had been 19 years since a Hispanic boy at school had called Xiao a Chink on her way to tetherball (back in the day when they still called people Hispanic), but she was still in the habit of scouting out all the fellow Asians everywhere she went—class, subways, blind dates, Phoenix, Santa Monica (more in Phoenix than in Santa Monica). Just in case, though for what, she was never sure. It had been 26 years since she’d crawled out of a small plane from Beijing to Puerto Rico by way of New York City, to greet a father who hadn’t known that Puerto Rico was not a state until he got there and couldn’t understand a thing. When she’d met her father at San Juan’s solo airport—he had arrived three years prior, a Ph.D program his exit strategy—she’d asked her mother if she had to call him “Dad.” “Don’t overthink it,” had been her mother’s reply. Xiao had followed her mother’s lead, which had served the matriarch well in a marriage of the most necessary kind, and avoided calling her father anything at all—just, “hey” and “you” and “we.” She talked to him like an acquaintance at a party, one whose name she had forgotten. Whether he noticed? She didn’t know.
Now Xiao found herself following the woman. She looked small, provocative, silent and displaced until she grabbed a seat next to a man at an otherwise empty table and deposited a swarthy orange child in his lap, the child’s jumper the color of pumpkins. When she smiled, she revealed a mouth full of pastel-toned braces within frosted lips the color of foie gras (or was it pâté?). Xiao liked her immediately, though for all the wrong reasons. These included her white-washed jean shorts, which were high-waisted enough to make the crop top she was wearing morally acceptable at a children’s birthday party. This was strategic, surely.
“What’s your name?” Xiao asked in their general direction.
“This is Pom,” the man said, nodding sideways. “And I’m Johnson.” He reminded Xiao vaguely of a boy she’d dated for three weeks in college, only he was darker and more stark in his kelly green polo containing one too many militaristic buttons, and with a mouth that made you wonder what he had seen, or of what he was capable.
“Pam?” Xiao said, Whitefying the name. After all, being a successfully hyphenated American meant trying on different archetypes for size, and seeing if you still retained your former shape after removing the shell you once called home, like a mollusk losing its armor. Xiao’s husband called it being “a person without a country.” When they were not fighting, he liked to accuse her of “hating all things White people-ish.” He was a Scottish-Irish mutt from Santa Barbara who spent the first 30 years of life chasing various shades of tail through Southern California’s beach cities. She was still the only Asian he had ever been with, and the novelty itself was enough to prompt a marriage proposal. When she reminded him of their civil arrangement and used it as evidence that, if anything, she must love White people, he pulled a ninja move, replying, “What’s the saying again? Keep your friends close but your enemies closer?” In this way marriage was like immigration; every time the two parties approached, a gap between them widened.
Johnson’s wife blinked with her wide eyes, unknowable.
“I’m Pom,” she replied.
“Pom?” Like the fruit?
They made the customary inquiries into each other’s children; Xiao complimented theirs on his complexion and they affirmed hers on his ability to leave her alone. “He’s not needy at all for a kid,” Johnson observed. She couldn’t tell if this was a compliment to Josiah or a jab at all children.
“So how’d you two meet?” she asked, after finishing the last of the Prosecco.
“I was traveling through Thailand—“
“Is that where you’re from?” A softball question directed at Pom, who nodded, braces twinkling.
“I went there a lot for fun,” Johnson added. “We were friends for a long time.”
Xiao looked to Pom for confirmation, but the woman was looking at her husband.
“And then we started dating, and we got married over there. Then I brought her over here.”
“Wow,” Xiao said. “International dating?”
“We were friends for a long time,” Johnson repeated, verbatim, like it was something practiced and said often.
Sometimes low-hanging fruit are ripe for picking, but threaten to leave your hands tainted with too much knowledge. Xiao got up and pretended to look for Josiah. A stroll through the kitchen and aggravated search through the bedrooms culminated in finding a diaspora of children squatting in the front yard, peering at a train-shaped piñata dangling from a barren orange tree. No baseball bat was in sight, but only because this was a pacifist party wherein children pulled ribbons from the train’s tissued bottom rather than beating it to smithereens. Xander, the birthday boy, pulled the first ribbon anti-climatically. Josiah, being the largest kid in line, pulled the second. Wifey intercepted and mandated that the next one to pull had to be a girl. No girls came forward, perhaps because they had seen their mothers remove tampons in a similar fashion. Josiah reached for another ribbon; the smaller boys followed; the innards came soon thereafter, except instead of the customary shower of Mexican candies flavored with tamarind and chile, there fell droppings of fruit leathers and gluten-free gummies, falling like clunky hand grenades from the pregnant sky. “Less sugar,” Wifey said proudly to all the parents watching. She came out with Costco packages of the same goodies and dumped them in a pile at the center of the yard.
Josiah made out with seven fruit leathers and enough gummies to last his lunch box the month. Xiao carried his loot back to her table and found Pom sitting there alone, no orange child in hand either. She wanted to ask her something, but as much of an instigator as she was, she still didn’t feel like she could ask Pom what she did, how she managed before Johnson. Was it bad to wonder every time a White man came back from his travels with a wife from the Third World and suspect something transactional in nature? But Pom tossed a gate key in. “So you work?”
“Yep, I teach at the University.” There was only one in town.
Pom nodded, but didn’t ask what. Xiao tried to plug the empty space. “Do you work too?”
“No, I wish.”
“What did you do for work back in Thailand?”
Pom paused, looking down at her fingers. “Nails,” she said finally, showing Xiao her array of gumball pink tips freckled with glittery cinders.
“Wow,” Xiao said. “Nice.” She prided herself on her intimate familiarity with human nature—something that Pom, had she asked about what Xiao taught, would’ve known—but could not figure out what to say about another woman’s finger art. “Do you ever follow those nail artists on Instagram”? she asked eventually. Pom looked at her like she had just inquired about the price of subprime mortgage loans . “No,” she said. But then her face brightened. “You mean, people do their nails and then take picture?”
“Yes, yes, exactly that. I read about it in a girly magazine.”
“No, I don’t know,” Pom said, the light disappearing from her face as quickly as it had arrived.
When Johnson returned to the table, Xiao asked him if he spoke any Thai. “Nah,” he said, then changed his mind. “A little.”
“Your English is quite good,” she told Pom. In class, her students had deemed that a microaggression, but Pom seemed pleased, even if she didn’t say anything.
“Do you ever go back and visit?” Xiao asked her.
“About every year.”
“What do you miss the most?”
Pom considered this briefly before deciding. “The food.”
“Ah, there are no good Thai restaurants in town, no?”
“They are good, but not real food.”
“You cook yourself, then?”
“Everyday. He”—Pom turned, referring to Johnson—“loves it.”
“What, your food? Or the fact that you cook every day?”
Johnson tossed Xiao a funny look. “Where’s that kid of ours?” he asked. Pom didn’t answer.
Later, over cake, with Pom looking for the missing orange child, Johnson asked, “What was that about?”
“What did you mean?” Johnson looked pinched.
“Nothing,” Xiao said, taking a mouthful.
“I married her, and she’s better off now.” He seemed to have cake in his throat when he talked, like he had trouble swallowing his words.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” was her reply.
“And now”—he nodded, surveying the landscape of domestic nirvana —“we get to be part of this.”
“Not bad,” she said. “Why’d you marry her?”
“I couldn’t just let her do the same thing for the rest of her life.”
“You mean, nails?”
Johnson smiled. “Yeah, nails.”
“And by nails you mean—” she tried to paraphrase a decade-old exposé on the sex trade in Thailand, one that she did not see but was widely available on Netflix. To which Johnson replied “Pom has multiple talents, and I didn’t want her to waste her time.”
“So it was altruism then?”
“If you want to call it that.”
In Principles of Psychology, Xiao told her students that nature selected for the least costly error. You could mistake bears for boulders or boulders for bears; take your pick, but these were your only two options. Everyone agreed that it was better to mistake boulders for bears and risk looking like an idiot than mistake bears for boulders and risk being eaten. By a parallel logic, she told them, better to risk being too altruistic than too selfish, because at least altruism gave a little kickback—maybe your next of kin would survive and raise your children; maybe your neighbor would rescue you next time. Bottom line?
“Altruism is never motivated by just altruism,” Xiao told Johnson.
“But now I love her,” he said. “It’s much better this way.”
She looked at him. “Have you ever played, Would you rather?”
Johnson looked relieved. “Yeah, in college once. Give two bad choices, pick the lesser of the two you’d rather endure?”
“Like, would you rather have three nostrils or unabated body hair that refused to succumb to any removal technique?”
“That’s one way to play the game.”
“Would you rather choose who to desire or who desires you?”
Johnson looked at her like it was Christmas morning, only his parents had misspelled his name. When he could not answer, he asked Xiao the same question. She thought of her father; she briefly considered Peter. A most unwelcome camaraderie wormed between them.