Good Girls Do Not Marry Men Who Owe Money

by Effie Pow

Murky clouds drew in slowly and a wind stirred the shedding trees on Shaanxi South Road. The vehicles were stuck in their lanes. Lights blinked vigorously and horns wailed impatiently, while drivers tried to edge ahead.

Without any sense of calm under the full canopy, they were like hot, metal bugs that had crawled onto a gummy trail. A glossy BMW kept company with Bus 24 as it crept past narrow store fronts, flower shops, a store filled with Greek canned goods, and an Italian gelato place with shiny counters.

Standing on the crowded No. 24, Xiao Yang scrutinized the fuchsia shirt woman riding in a carbon black BMW750Li. The look was either pulled from Vogue or a retro outfit from the racks of Zara. At the intersection, Xiao Yang watched her reach into a handbag and pull out a white iPhone. The gesture reminded her of a part-time employer Mrs. Laurent.

Xiao Yang sucked on a sour plum candy and watched.

That shirt would match splendidly with a pure white skirt — look how perfect she is, even that loose blouse has meaning.

Xiao Yang was planning to leave their village when Guo came looking for a wife. Her cousin had already promised to help find a job, but marrying Guo was an acceptable solution. After the mandatory exchanges, they moved to Shanghai as a married couple.

Her husband was older and a rather stubby man, who laughed in guffaws and poked a person to make a point in an argument. Their new life was promising and she adapted to the long hours crossing the city to sell dresses in the farthest suburbs. As the seasons passed, however, Guo increased his time spent on cards.

Xiao Yang berated him about the money, his drinking, and complained mostly to her cousin.

He would be a stinking, rotting egg of a father.

Guo had made money distributing mobile phone accessories in Shanghai. She discovered much later that he had a habit of borrowing money. More than three months ago, a soured deal ended with a broken wrist and he fled to a distant relative’s house. And with most of their savings gone, she took on cleaning jobs, although not without a pinching shame. Four times a week, she cleaned and did the grocery shopping for the Laurent family, a French couple with a teenage daughter who lived in renovated terrace row apartment.

She learned early on that Mrs. Laurent liked to hand wash her own lingerie, which hung like damp, delicate shadows on the bathroom railing. The apartment stayed cool in the summer and overlooked a shared courtyard.

One afternoon, she slipped on a pair of Mrs. Laurent’s long stockings and posted on her weibo a blurry photo of an arched foot with a line she had composed.

Curving moon in the night sea, ripple quickly into my hidden heart.

After receiving piqued comments and friendly teasing that she was quite the poet, she set up a new weibo account. As one post led to another, Xiao Yang had joined an anonymous black stocking heisiwa fan group. Viewing this new activity with a practical eye, she also sent prints by request to distant places for modest courier fees.

The photo requests were very specific.

1) small diamond-patterned hosiery
2) four-inch ruby red high heels with open toes
3) pale pink nail polish only

She could not deny it was more pleasurable than cleaning other people’s houses. Today she had about 15 photos with three sets of stockings and high heels. She flipped open her phone and scrolled through the photos, but snapped it shut when a man leaned in closely over her shoulder.

Since Guo had left, she rented a room near the Nanpu Bridge. The sparse furniture was dull and functional. Xiao Yang took a deep breath and lifted her shoulders. She might have a treat and invite her cousin for dinner. She glanced at the road to see if the BMW was still there.

The woman was stretching her hand towards the man as if she was holding a leaf. They held hands on his lap. From her angle, she could see a blue white sleeve and a bracelet of stones. Xiao Yang’s bus jerked forward and somebody’s nectarines knocked hard against her leg.

She looked down and hated her new white shirt with pin-sized hearts in red, pink and yellow. It looked childish and oversized. Her dark eyebrows and the three moles spread between her nostril and the corner of her lip were all gathering into a glare.

Their village’s old brick walls had always been generously plastered with ads and slogans. From the time she was six or seven, her mother had singled out a faded message that Xiao Yang thought was like the Sphinx’s riddle — a rhyme meant just for her.

Good girls do not marry men who owe money, good men do not marry girls who owe money.

He was once a junior-level English teacher, who was endorsed as principal to a new school. His posting only lasted a year, but official visitors had come to praise the buildings even as the paint dried. A chorus of children would sing as buses pulled into the school yard. Then red school kerchiefs would be presented to the guests, who bent low and smiled broadly as if being initiated into a secret club.

Always elated after such visits, Guo liked to boast to his colleagues.

Full marks today for my beautiful banners.

Xiao Yang tapped her ring against the railing and remembered holding his cold hand in their beat-up Chery after a night of spicy hotpot and karaoke last winter. She abruptly thought the fuchsia woman must possess many gold and diamond rings — many more than she might ever dream of having.

This was true.

Mrs. Lan Yue, the woman riding in the black BMW, kept a leather box with drawers that held her daily watches, necklaces and earrings. The rest of her collection was in a bank deposit box. Most of the watches were from her husband, but she purchased gems that she would patiently save to set into rings or pendants of her own design.

The man in the car was employed by her husband’s trading company. They became lovers after an indulgent charade of seduction. While waiting for her husband at the doctor’s office, she stepped outside and asked for a cigarette. He would hold the door open for her and let his gaze linger just a few seconds too long. Time became their game and the prize was hurried sex or a few passionate kisses.

She would hunger for him, which made each encounter both sharply exciting as it was banal.

Nobody else needs to know but me.

She enjoyed his company as they argued over pop icons — who was the best Chinese actor, best American singer, best comic book hero? She thought of her years at the Shanghai Dance Academy middle school, where the youngest dancers became as close as sisters.

This has probably been the longest time — loyalty counts for something.

She cherished their rides together — bound by sentimental songs and the scent of jasmine in her perfume. The car was overdue for a wash, but they were wrapped in a familiar smell of lovers under thick blankets.

She also shopped with pleasure for both men in her life. She dressed her lover in subdued patterns and gave him a tailored jacket for a formal afternoon tea or the rare evening out. This navy jacket was kept neatly folded in the trunk. Sometimes they smoked in a hotel lobby as if they were business travellers waiting for their next appointments.

She would make it home on time to change for the dinner party at Mr. & Mrs. Bund. Last week, she had organized a reunion of close friends who had moved back to Shanghai from Canada and Australia. Certainly they would ask similar questions about the family and then gossip about acquaintances they had not seen in a while.

Mrs. Lan squinted at the bus moving ahead, which was full of blank faces crammed together like junk shop mannequins. A thin woman stared at her intently. The bus turned the corner and their gaze was gradually broken.