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The Secrets of Mistresses

The plates came out as if entering a ball at a palace. Each had a unique design and sparkled. Some dishes were exquisitely carved pieces of ice; others were layered in different pieces of fish and seafood according to color, creating beautiful patterns. None of it seemed fit to eat. But that's exactly what Mr. Zhang encouraged as soon as we sat: “吃吧!吃饭啊!”

He motioned me to sit next to a young, lean woman who was mostly likely the mistress of the man from Guangzhou. She did not look like a wife - I could tell the wives and they were assertive, plump, and held power. The mistresses held power, too, but the kind that was between two lovers. The men had more room to bargain and the mistresses had to wield pressure cautiously lest they be cast away, their blowjobs, comforting affirmations, and sex no longer required. The wives, however, held power at the business level and could stare the husbands down and make the men grovel. At the end of the day, men wanted to go home and play a role of husband, even if it meant continuing to seek romance elsewhere. But this made mistresses more cunning and lethal because they ultimately had less to lose. They were the true pragmatists. 

 

The friend who brought me sat on my other side, but as soon as the two men were next to each other he ignored me except for occasionally dishing food onto my plate. It was clear that even at the round table we had our roles: public security, and mistresses. Ironically, I was a mistress and deeply in love with a married man but not the one who had brought me to this dinner. The man who brought me, Mr. Zhang, had "run into" me at an intersection close to my apartment. I immediately doubted that it was by chance. He had grocery bags and said he was on his way home but the look he gave me made me pause, thinking he had perhaps seen my 档案, or folder of personal details. I played the part of the naive foreigner and let him ask for my number. 

Mr. Zhang wanted to meet and go for walks. I lived across from a military complex and around the corner from the Public Security Bureau (PSB), a notoriously violent agency, in a quiet one-bedroom apartment that my lover, Zhou and I had rented before I found out he was married. Now I was trying to extricate myself from the relationship but in a really weak and pathetic manner because I was in love -- and leaving Zhou was especially hard as we had aborted a child. The abortion wove through the relationship as a traumatic bond. I had decided we should not have the child. It was a one-time slip up without a condom and I was on birth control - it was completely unplanned. But we cried all night before the trip to the clinic. And then at the clinic, after signing the paper and paying, I said, "No. I think I want to have the baby," but the nurses said I had signed and the deal was done. "Keep the money!" I yelled in Chinese. They strong armed me and dragged me down the hallway. The clinic was just off the downtown of Nanjing in an alley behind the fancy malls. I screamed and was shocked by the strength of the nurses - and dismayed Zhou did nothing but look scared. It was the muscle memory, for all of them, of the one-child policy, I realized. And it didn't matter that I was a foreigner. I remember seeing a bloody dentist-like chair, and then going under the anesthesia, and waking up screaming with IVs in my arms and knowing that my life was now a different future than an hour earlier. Zhou nursed me back to health, and we abstained from sex for months. By the time he told me he was married, I was deeply in love, and though I kept saying no, he kept arriving with soup, vegetables, blankets, and taking me on walks and reading in late afternoons with me and I remained a mistress, a lover. 

But Mr. Zhang was different. He had told me a bit about his job. I was a mediator and translator for the local police during disputes with foreigners and locals so I asked them about Mr. Zhang. My police friend, Johnny, looked at me wide-eyed over beer and said I should be careful. "He has a lot of power," Johnny said. "Do you need me to call you at night to make sure you're ok?" 

"No," I said, and left off that Johnny was probably already busy every night texting his wife goodnight while out with his mistress. I hadn't met his wife but his mistress accompanied us whenever we went out, which was a few night a week. Going out involved the entire police precinct drinking obscene amounts of beer while "checking on" local establishments. 

Mr. Zhang had more power than any of the other men I had met in China. He was high up at the PSB. I couldn't figure out how high, but I sensed in a leadership role. The dinner in front of us turned on the rotating table slowly, and I tried to keep up a conversation with the mistress on my left and sip the hard alcohol given to us as slowly as possible. While nodding to the mistress' banal platitudes about the day, I tried to eavesdrop on the men, who were in a much more interesting conversation. 

"There are different thoughts on leadership now though," the man from Guangzhou said. "Now we have leaders like Bo Xilai - he's changing things. It's revolutionary in a way. He had more of a following than you know and there are factions now in the Party and many are following him." 

"Sure, sure," said Mr. Zhang. "But that kind of man is a fad. Xi has more power and will crush him. The question is how deep is the faction splittisism. Xi will win. I am not moving my loyalty." 

"Consider it," said the Guangzhou leader. 

"So, what's your favorite thing about China?" the mistress said to me, clearly as a distraction. I feigned listening but the split in the Party seemed like a big deal. I didn't know who Bo Xilai was though. But Xi needed to consolidate power if he was going to succeed. I knew that much. Hu Jintao, for all his "Harmonious Society" rhetoric, had not kept things within the Communist Party aligned.

I excused myself after a few hours saying I had to do homework - I did have Chinese Constitutional Law to study for, but mostly I wanted to go home to my quiet oasis and think about the revelations I had heard. I nodded my goodbyes and went outside to get my bike, really Zhou's bike that I was borrowing while he fixed mine. There was a rustling in the bushes behind me and my arms felt cold and the hairs on neck went up in alert. 

"Ximei," Zhang said to me, "Where are you going?" 

"Oh! You scared me -- I was going to -- " I hesitated.

 

I did not want Mr. Zhang to walk me home. Even though he probably already had looked up my address, I felt like there was a boundary I had to protect. I had been violently accosted before by other men and knew I had to not only keep permission clear, but also strategically keep myself in the open and around other people and avoid being alone with Mr. Zhang. He gave me predatory vibes, but was clearly smart enough that he would wait until it was a "misunderstanding" if something happened because I had "invited him home."

 

"I was going to the library to study," I finished. I knew I was in fight or flight mode and had to get out. The last near rape I had bitten my attacker, a rich businessman from Beijing, his four-year-old's toys on the living room floor like a sick joke as I fought him off. That night I had known, too, and dumped every shot of baijiu over my shoulder, onto the ground, or into my tea cup to keep from getting drunk. 

"Let me walk you," Mr. Zhang said. He said it without suggesting it. Knowing he was in leadership at the PSB I was not sure if I had much agency or a choice at all, so I agreed. We walked to a main intersection and I pointed to the campus and told him I could bike -- he pushed me to give me a good start, and I pedaled hard. 

I turned around to look at him and wave. After all, I thought, we are neighbors.

I laughed, and grinned, the cool air of Shanghai Road on my face and the freedom of being outsider in marriage and in a totalitarian state tickled me.  

(part of a draft of writing - 10/19/23)

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