This Is Not A Relationship

My cousin Melody is not dating a guy named Jim.

She’s not dating Jim, so he pretty much follows her around everywhere they, or mostly Melody, wants to go.

She’s not dating Jim, so he drives her to these places in his BMW.

She’s not dating Jim, so when she found an unpaid internship about a 15-minute drive away, she decided that rather than spend money she wasn’t earning on cab fare, Jim would work around his class schedule and find the time to drop her off and pick her up. Sometimes, on the way home, she’ll ask him to get her something to eat. He always does. He complains about this “abuse” she inflicts upon him but really (and everyone knows this) he does it to himself. He’s in love with her. Otherwise, he wouldn’t do it.

They take trips together, to New York, Montreal and Mexico. They eat at nice restaurants, go sightseeing, probably hold hands and kiss.

If there was a drug that made him feel the way Melody does, he would take it. I should tell Jim about Xanax.

But she’s not dating him. According to Melody, they’re just friends.

“Jim knows too,” she tells me, “I told him.”

And I nod, though as the words leave her mouth I am certain I can hear the sound of Jim’s heart tearing.

A few weeks ago Melody called to say she was coming to New York for a career fair. She’s a student in Boston, studying business something-or-other and sometimes the school suggests they go to career fairs in New York, where they’re supposed to network with potential future employers. But the networking events are dull, awkward and futile affairs and most of the students go with the fair as an afterthought. They mostly just end up meeting up with friends or, in Melody’s case, a cousin in the city.

I suggested afternoon tea at Bergdorf Goodman. It’s a girly thing to do. We’re both girls, Melody a considerably more accomplished one than I.

“Sure!” she said, “And I’ll be bringing my friend. You know, the boy.”

I did know, remembering a conversation we had during the summer, when we were both back in Taipei for my brother’s wedding. Melody had just finished her first year of graduate school and had not, as she put it, “met Mr. Right.”

I was doubtful. From her Facebook photos it seemed like she was constantly being swarmed by guys, most of whom I was sure harbored not-so-secret crushes on her. And then there were the photos she posted of her many excursions outside Boston in which she was the only one photographed, smiling sweetly into the camera from across the table at a fancy restaurant or in front of some tourist attraction. In my experience, girls traveling together usually take photos together. Couples traveling together even more so. It’s weird not to. But when you’re traveling with a guy you’re not exactly dating or even considering dating, taking a photo together is weird. So Melody’s photos were snapped by some adoring fanboy who didn’t mind taking multiple shots from multiple angles and who, at least in theory, didn’t mind not being in the photos.

Click. And the heart tears a little more.

“Really?” I pressed, “You’re not dating anyone?”

“Not really,” she said, shrugging.

“Melody. C’mon.”

“Well, there’s a boy,” she said, using the Chinese term for “younger boy” or “little brother.”

“A boy?”

“Yeah, he drives me around. Nice guy, but just a boy. Seriously, it’s not serious. We’re not dating.”

I laughed, unsurprised and already getting the gist of things. The photographer was the boy was Jim. But still, I wanted specifics. Melody is sometimes a treasure trove of feminine mystique.

“He drives you around?”

“Yeah. He has a car. He’s nice, comes from a good family who does real estate like ours, but I’m almost two years older than he is…” she shrugged and twisted her hair, jutting her chin out in the half-pout she has when she’s mildly dissatisfied with some person or situation, “…I just don’t date boys.”

“So you’re not dating.”

“No no. Not at all.”

“So you’re just friends with this ‘boy.'”

“Yeah.”

“Is this the guy you went to Canada with?”

“And a few other places, yeah.”

“Just you two?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s in love with you.”

She shrugged again, “I told him we’re just friends.”

“And still he just drives you around.”

She nodded blandly, “He doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Amazing.”

René Magritte,  La Trahison des Images, 1929  Oil on Canvas    Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Melody, despite her euphonic name and sweet nature, is a hammer head attached to a scalpel. She hits these poor fellows with her long limbs, pretty face, and care-free nature then slices their hearts open with the deft hands of a gifted neurosurgeon. But imagine a neurosurgeon who doesn’t know she’s a neurosurgeon. She’s a particular breed of female who always, wherever they go, leaves behind them a river of tears, like that Justin Timberlake song, except less spiteful. The tears are not Melody’s but rather those of young, ideal-driven men who’ve been dumped and told to stop calling but who still follow her around like crack addicts with empty pipes.

Girls like Melody don’t merely break hearts. Love is never simple, and neither is lust. Melody’s MO, blithe as she is to it, is thus: she fills these hearts with promises she never makes but subconsciously hints at by merely glancing, smiling, chatting benignly with these guys – all these little, meaningless interactions point, in the lust-struck brain, towards more substantial promise: the promise of Melody’s undivided attention, of requited love and adoration and somewhere down the line, of a relationship.

It feels like love, it feels like attention, it feels like affection, but the hitch of course – and isn’t there always a hitch? – is that the feeling is always one sided. It’s a dense, heady mist upon which the love story the guy wants to see is projected. But at some point the film stops rolling, the mist dissipates, and he’s standing alone in the cemetery holding a can of soda she wanted but didn’t drink, amidst the remains of other deflated hearts that crackle like empty Doritos bags.

But being objective, I see, as I’m sure you do, that the guys do it to themselves (as does everyone else who’s dumb in love). Melody is loved and in return, she mildly likes, with no particular ill-intent. It’s always, if you ask these girls, kind of an accident.

It’s like taking a walk after a spring rain and coming across a snail or worm on the sidewalk. They don’t really noticing and step down lightly though not lightly enough. Melody always hears the crunch beneath the soles of her Havianas sandals (her footwear of choice as she’s nearly 5’10) and she’ll look down and say, “Oh shoot.” But like the rain, the moment passes and she shrugs. “Nothing to do about it now.” She wipes her feet in the grass a bit and walks on.

So Jim, whom she is not dating.

They’re not dating, so Jim drove Melody all the way from Boston to New York for a career fair only she signed up for. He told himself he could visit friends while Melody (and the two other people whom Jim also drove from Boston at Melody’s behest) went to the career fair.

They’re not dating, so when Melody told him he was going to afternoon tea with her and her cousin, he nodded sure even though he hates tea, hates sandwiches, and hates sweets. He hates those things doubly when he’s hungover, as Jim is when I meet him.

They’ve arrived at Bergdorf’s a few minutes before me, and are sitting across from each other. Melody has her back to the window that faces Central Park and a full view of the dining room. Jim faces Melody, so that she’s the only thing he sees, her pretty face glowing by the light of the window. Seeing me, Melody calls out, “Hi!” and Jim turns around. He looks as though he’s just woken up.

“I’m Betty,” I say.

“Jim,” he says.

“The boy,” I think, and take a seat next to Melody, but not before raising my eyebrows at her in a knowing way. She smiles at me. She knows what I’m thinking, but mostly I’m feeling sorry for Jim and marveling, as I do, at Melody. Another girl would have thought the situation awkward and avoided inviting Jim altogether – why bother with the explaining? – but Melody, and this is part of her charm, tells it like it is. We are not dating, her eyes tell me, this is just afternoon tea with my friend and my cousin.

So this is Jim. The boy. Dressed like a boy. He’s wearing a striped Abercrombie polo, the polo shirt of choice of guys from Taiwan his age and of a certain mindset, which is, “what everyone else is wearing/doing/dating.” He’s more tan than most Taiwanese boys, though this could have more to do with his heritage than actually spending time out in the sun. His head and all the features on it are round. Round eyes, nose, mouth. I can’t decide if he’s cute in a homely way or homely in a cute way. He’s certainly no Adonis, but there’s something comfortable and non-judgmental about his open face. Still, he’s obviously scored a trophy in not dating Melody. And, a few additional points for Jim: he’s more sturdily built (though far from built) than most Taiwanese guys, who all seem, at least when I visit the island, to be on some culturally induced famine.

Despite being only twenty-four and still a graduate student however, Jim seems to have already sunk one foot into middle age. It’s an affliction of young, wealthy Asian men who have too much money and as a result, too little motivation to do anything but get away from overbearing, nagging mothers and find respite in girls like Melody, who don’t nag, not really, unless you’re late picking her up. In which case, you’re in for it. But for the most part, Jim is never late. Jim’s going soft around the middle and probably, in the brain. I guess his main ambition in life at present is to keep Melody happy.

I look at Melody, who despite her easy, languid smile, seems merely content in the specifics of the moment, still a few steps away from happiness.

We look at the menu, though really there’s nothing to think about since we’re here for the afternoon tea, which comes in a set. We just have to choose the tea.

“I’m not big on sweets,” says Jim, thrusting the menu towards Melody, “My secretary can choose for me.”

A comedic attempt to assert his dominance, which Melody quickly shuts down.

“It’s tea you’re choosing, my dear chauffeur,” the hammer says, “The sweets are set.”

Jim is hungover from karaokeing with friends the night before. Melody and their other friends stopped drinking early on and Jim felt it was his duty to block for Melody the alcohol that seemed to keep on coming. But apparently Jim wasn’t as drunk as one of his friends, who was smoking a cigarette and then when he turned to exchange some slurred words with Jim, stuck the cigarette in Jim’s face. Which explains the odd-looking birthmark right under Jim’s left eye.

“It’ll scar,” I said, showing him a cigar burn on my right forearm which I got from my freshman roommate at NYU. She wasn’t drunk. We were walking and she was smoking a cigar and she put it down rather carelessly right where my hand was swinging. I forgave her.

“I did it for her,” he said, pointing indignantly at Melody.

She shook her head, “You did it to yourself.”

He looks at me in mock-protest, “See how she abuses me?”

I laugh, shrug, then launch into the barrage of questions I ask everyone when I first meet them, especially when they’re not dating my cousin: Childhood, schooling, parents, siblings, professional aspirations, general philosophies.

Jim’s father passed away when he was in the fifth grade and his mother raised him and his older brother, though they have a huge family on either parent’s side, so his mom had a lot of help. She sounds like the typical over-bearing Taiwanese mother-in-law, every other word out of her mouth attached to a nag. The last time Jim went back to Taiwan, he changed his flight and returned to the States earlier than he’d planned. In the States, he’d gotten used to not having to hear his mother’s voice all the time.

Jim has an older brother also in the States. According to Jim, they have very different personalities. His brother is an introvert. Doesn’t like partying or drinking or, I’m guessing, chasing after pretty girls.

“My brother loves to say, ‘Please, not now. Please just do not bother me.'” Jim says puts his hands up and grimaces in an imitation of his brother, “We are very different.”

After high school, he moved to the US for college in Hartford, Connecticut. His English is pretty good, but could be better considering how long he’s been here, but then he’s made friends with pretty much every Asian person in Hartford and now Boston, and through a few key acquaintances, many more friends in Flushing, NY.

“He knows a lot of people,” Melody says almost proudly, then pauses, “Well, actually, he knows like this one really fat guy who knows all the Chinese people.”

Jim nods as a matter of factly, “Yeah. I do. That one fat guy.” Jim points to the cigarette burn, “He gave me this. But he’s a good guy. Good times.”

And grad school? He shrugs, assuming I already know the answer. I do. Kids like Jim (like Melody too and to some extent, myself) go to grad school because it’s a.) what everyone else is doing – like wearing Abercrombie polos, b.) supposed to bolster your job prospects c.) a safe haven or one last hurrah before you’re actually ready to start working in the real world. Jim has never worked before, and this is something Melody has an issue with. Even she has spent two years toiling away at a Taiwanese bank after graduating from college.

“I’m into real estate,” he says, “That’s my family business background, and I’d like to learn more, but honestly, trying to find a job or an internship here is so damn hard, and it’s really easy to lose motivation. That’s when I admit to myself that yeah, I’m just another spoiled kid without too much drive.” He chuckles as he says this, and I find myself nodding along to his honesty.

“But,” he continues, “I do want to learn more. It’s the one thing I’m pretty much consistently interested in.” (Besides Melody, I want to add).

“Why are you so good to her?” I say jokingly, when he’s listed all the things he does for her on a daily basis, most of them involving driving and waiting and driving some more.

“I’m good to him too!” Melody protests, “I do his homework for him!”

I look at Jim, so this guy’s getting something out of it too – if not a girlfriend, then perhaps better grades.

Jim nods like he can’t argue with that.

“I’m no good with numbers,” he says, “She definitely has a better grasp of all the projects and stuff we do.”

I stare at Melody, unable to hide my surprise. She’s not exactly known as the brainy one, but then again, when your older sister placed first in the nation for the grueling college entrance examination and then graduated as the top electrical engineering scholar at the nation’s best university (things like this are a huge deal in Taiwan where test scores pretty much predicate your success as a human being), it’s easy for the rest of the world (and to some extent, the family) to remember that you have a brain at all.

“So you do all his homework?”

“No,” Melody says, “But if we have a project, which is all the time, we divide up the assignments and I’ll just take on more of the work load because – (she waves dismissively at Jim, who shrugs like “What can I do?”) – he just takes forever and the quality of his work is not as good.”

Interesting. I look at Jim and think, “Well, you drive her around and she makes sure you don’t fail out of the program. Sounds like a fair-ish trade.”

He shrugs and rolls his eyes, but smiles, “Haha, I guess.”

Then I ask the cruelest question of all, but I feel like we’ve reached that point where it’s okay. It’s probably not okay, but something tells me Jim can take it.

“So,” I look at Jim, “You drive her around. And you,” I look at Melody, “Do his homework for him. You guys take a bunch of trips together, and spend most of your time together, studying, hanging out, whatever.”

They nod. Yes, yes, yes.

“But you’re not ‘together.'”

They shake their heads, Melody slowly, and Jim more jerkily.

“So you guys have some kind of agreement.”

“That’s right,” Melody says.

Jim is about to say something, then stops. He breaks out into a sheepish grin, having decided, I think, that he can be honest here. He’s in a safe place: the sunlight dining room of the Bergdorf Goodman restaurant, seven floors above the swarm of tourists, half of whom are congregating outside the Apple store, lining up for the new iPhone.

“She doesn’t love me, ah,” he says, “She doesn’t love me so that’s the agreement. What can I do about it?”

I am surprised and not surprised by this honest declaration, and my fondness for the boy grows. I look at Melody, who rolls her eyes but in an endeared way, if that’s possible.

“Oh shut up,” she says.

“She always complains that I’m ruining her game,” he says.

“You are! How am I supposed to meet Mr. Right if I’m sitting in your car all the time.”

“I’m driving you places!”

She laughs, “True, true.”

“Besides,” Jim says, “You’re ruining my game too.”

“But Jim,” I point out, “Melody is your game.”

He thinks about it for a millisecond then concedes, “She is, she is.”

He looks fondly at Melody, who can’t help but smile back.

Jim smiles a lot, a weird confident thing. He’s not afraid of losing her, I realized, at least not outwardly so. There’s nothing careful or uneasy about him. He doesn’t tiptoe around her nor does he shy away from my questions which can come off as prying because they are. But thus far, despite their ambiguous (unstated) relationship status, Jim takes them all in stride. None of them seem too personal for him to answer, and he does as a matter-of-factly, with a wry smile. His father’s death, his mother’s reaction to his father’s death, his odd brother, his vague career plans, the cigarette burn mark on his left cheek, and the fact that Melody doesn’t love him back. These are all facts of life.

But Jim is smarter than he looks and more self-assured than how I first imagined him. He’s playing solitaire for now, hoping she’ll one day see him in the light he wants her to see him in. And Melody too, is far from brainless. She likes Jim, I can tell. Despite her reservations about his age and the fact that they’re roughly the same height, she likes that he’s not a pushover, and that he’s open. She hasn’t met his family but from the sound of it, they’re not too different from ours. This sort of thing matters in the long run. And lodged somewhere in the chords her fine-tuned feminine intuition, she knows he’s a good guy with potential. She’s waiting for Mr. Right, but if she’s lucky and if Jim is smart, he’ll become Mr. Right. They’re both playing the long game, just using different investment techniques.

A server in a white coat comes by to replenish our tea, but they need to be heading back to their hotel soon, to pick up Jim’s car and the two other people they came with. Jim is feeling less hungover – he barely ate any of the sandwiches but already he’s wondering what he wants to eat for dinner. Something more substantial than tea and small sandwiches.

The check comes and Melody pays for Jim’s portion.

“I’ll figure it out with you later,” she says quickly, motioning for Jim to put his card away, though I know she won’t.

As we step out of the restaurant and wait for the elevator, I turn and realize Melody is also wearing a shirt from Abercrombie. And white cutoff shorts. And her Havianas sandals. Jim is wearing shorts and sandals. She’s tall and he’s not-so-tall, so they’re roughly the same height, and there’s something about their expressions, the two of them standing easily side by side that seems picturesque in the most stereotypical, young Taiwanese couple sort of way. But they’re not a couple. They’re not dating. The elevator comes. We step in, go down, step out. I hug Melody and, just for the hell of it, hug Jim. I may never see him again because Melody might decide to pull out of the game. She might meet Mr. Right at a gas station on her way home, or in her next class or at her next real job – a lot can happen. Jim could get tired of driving, though I think the former scenarios are more likely. But we hug and make vague plans for me to visit Boston.

“I’ll see you then,” Jim says, “We’ll go out with my friends.”

“Thanks,” I say and find myself wanting to add, “Hang in there, Jim. Because you never know.”

I wave them out and watch as they walk past racks of expensive handbags towards the revolving door. Watch a boy and a girl wearing Abercrombie shirts and sandals, holding hands and stepping out into the city. You never know. You never know.

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