“Marital Relations,” by Joshua Bowman

Jul 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Once, in China, I asked a young friend where would be a good shop or market to pick up a new pair of shoelaces.

He paused, thought about it, and said, “You can’t. You just have to buy new shoes.”

I smiled “Have you ever been shopping on your own?”

He said, “Well no. My mother buys everything for me.”

Later that day, I took him to the street market without his mother for the first time. Together we managed to buy a pair of shoelaces. The market vendor had inflated the price because of my obviously foreign skin, poor language skills and the naiveté of both my friend and myself. Nevertheless, I had bought a new pair of shoestrings. For the price of a new pair of shoes.

It can be difficult to relate when people are from different cultures. There are many misunderstandings. Some are big; some are small. For instance, after amusing my Chinese hosts by trying to shell and eat a hard-boiled egg with chopsticks, I learned in China, they just use their hands to shell and eat a hard-boiled egg. Just like we do. It is best just to ask if you don’t know.

My ex-wife grew up as an only child in China, just like almost every other Chinese child of her generation. As only children, their parents were often overly attentive and protective of their precious gifts. So, those in her generation are often naïve in the ways of the world. This is true in all matters of life. “I don’t understand,” was a familiar saying. As I learned with my ex-wife, whom I will call Pollyanna, this innocence is even more evident with …um… marital relations.

Once, after we married and moved to the US, we were watching a movie with my brother and his girlfriend. I don’t recall much about the movie but there was some joke alluding to how some men have a fetish for hot young ladies in schoolgirl uniforms. And, if the woman in question is of Asian heritage all the better. Did I mention that my ex was Asian? In fact, she still is.

Being somewhat unfamiliar with western culture, which in this case means my personal perversions and confidential fetishes, she said to the general gathering, “I don’t understand.” My brother’s girlfriend said, “Some weirdos find that attractive and so they fantasize about Asian school girls.”

There was a brief moment of silence before my ex looked at me and said, “Oh that’s why you ask me to dress up in those stockings and that plaid skirt!”

I ground my teeth and prayed she would end her revelations there. There was no need for her to mention that I have a matching outfit. Everyone had a hearty laugh at this. Ha ha! Yes, I am a weirdo pervert! Good times for all.

During our engagement, I saw Pollyanna’s curiosity grow. At first, I shocked her when I mentioned that I had actually dated several women in my life (upwards of three). This was not common for a typical young person in China. She asked how many children I had. Puzzled, I said none.

She thought that every time you have sex, it results in pregnancy. Thank goodness, that is not true or else I would have had upwards of three kids out there somewhere. Maybe two. Okay, One and a half.

Later in the engagement, she expressed interest in the blue arts. Erotica. Filth. Smut. You know what I mean. Porn.

With the magic of the Internet, I was happy to enlighten her. She was not impressed with one to three minute clips. I guess this is some basic biological difference between men and women. This was educational to me. She wanted to buy a full DVD of pornography. I said good luck with that. Pornography is illegal in China. I was not real keen on going to prison for a sex crime, let alone in China. Or anywhere in the world for that matter. Not even Canada.

She told me that there were purveyors of porn on the street, hidden in plain sight amongst the purveyors of pirated western movies and software. Great, I still wasn’t interested in going to jail, but great. She said she would buy it but she wanted me to go with her. This went against my better judgment. A big fat white guy tends to draw attention on the streets in China. This was analogous to buying drugs in small town U.S.A. accompanied by Shaquille O’Neal dressed as a clown. But she was demanding and the danger of it all intrigued me.

Soon after, as we walked down a market district, she clutched my arm and mentioned that one of the street hawkers had porn DVDs for sale.

I said, “Be cool, don’t draw attention. Just ask what she has and what it would cost.”

My fiancée approached the woman selling DVDs and started a conversation. Their conversation seemed too loud and too long to be just, “What do you have and what do you want for it.”

Not being fluent in Chinese, I imagined the conversation went something like this…



As I started to sweat, Pollyanna turned to me and said we have to go somewhere else to do the deal. Alarm bells went off in my head. If this had been the US, I would have thought it was a bust or we were about to be shaken down. However, since we were in China, I thought, “What could go wrong?”

I followed Pollyanna and the Peddler of Obscenities. We went down a narrow alley between the housing projects. The tall buildings dwarfed us as we entered their shadows, descending into a dark canyon. These buildings displayed all the craftsmanship and imagination of communist architecture. Big blocks of gray concrete stuffed with generations of people.

After the second turn, I was lost. All I knew was that we took a turn at the gray concrete building with the ping-pong tables in the courtyard. It was the one with laundry hanging in the window. We did that about three times then walked towards a courtyard with public tables for ping-pong or as they call it in China, table tennis. Tall gray buildings surrounded the courtyard with laundry hanging in the windows. Then Pusher of Pornography went and grabbed a bundle of DVDs from under a shrub. Finally! I was pretty sure I was as pale as a sheet and soaked to the bone with fear sweat. I told my fiancée to hurry up so we could split. I imagined all three thousand of the residents around us were staring at us. I could imagine them dialing the pervert police as we stood there. But this was China. No transaction is simple in China. We had to haggle first.

Pollyanna and the Dealer in Iniquities squawked at each other. After a moment, I thought the conversation seemed more contentious than the normal negotiations. I asked my fiancé what was up.

“She won’t come down in the price because you are a rich foreigner.”

At any other time and place, I would have said game on. Pollyanna was a skilled negotiator, an especially unique skill given that she was a sheltered single child. This was a skill I would watch her wield after she arrived in the US. She haggled over rent, car prices, at restaurants and even a couple times at Walmart. However, this endeavor was not one I wanted to prolong.

I told her, “Screw it, pay her what she wants.”

With this, my future ex-wife gave me a stern look that let me know, there was no damn way she would go for that. I came to loathe and fear that look. But, that is another story.

My future ex-wife began dickering over the price as I stood to the side, dumbfounded. Something in the corner of the courtyard caught my eye. It was a bowl of dog food swarming with ants. I could only imagine this was a metaphor for my debauched soul.

I was guilty of corrupting this girl with shameful western indecency. What would my grandmother say? She was already suspecting I was going to hell for eating red meat on Fridays. Surely, God sent this disturbing image to let me know what my own personal hell would look like. For what seemed like the next hour, all I did was stare at that bowl and attempt to apologize to God and my relations for being a dirty, dirty boy.

Finally, Pollyanna broke me out of my trance. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away.

I said, “Is it over?”

I then noticed we were empty handed and the Trafficker of Sin was screaming at us as we walked away.

“What is she saying?”

Pollyanna explained that the woman was disparaging my nationality. The Purveyor of Filth felt that I had come to China to take advantage of the good prices and corner the market on international black-market pornography. At her personal expense, nonetheless! I now pictured our audience of thousands grabbing their pitchforks, crying out to lynch the Laowai, a supposedly neutral term meaning “obvious foreigner” or “alien”. I say supposedly because it never felt friendly or neutral to have the term spat at you by strangers. I would be giving this transaction two stars on Yelp.

But Pollyanna knew what she was doing. This was an old trick. The last bastion of the haggler is to walk away. And it worked. The Brokeress of Immorality gave in and offered us the DVDs at a nicely discounted rate. My fiancée asked for money and I whipped out about 10 times more in cash than what the depraved vendor had asked for in the beginning. Pollyanna gave her a large bill and then asked for change. My future ex-wife had balls.

Following some invisible trail of breadcrumbs, we made our way out of the People’s Domicile 3321(D) of the Northwest quadrant. At every turn, my guilty gave way to paranoia. I kept my head on a swivel. I was sure that the Chinese version of Law and Order SVU was closing in on us. My future ex-wife kept looking at me with greedy eyes and a Cheshire grin.

She seemed to have other things on her mind.

When we got back to the apartment, Pollyanna pushed past me as I locked the door. She had the DVD loaded in the player by the time I turned the corner to the living room. We settled on the couch to debut this salacious wonder. She pressed play.

The screen displayed two adults kissing. The woman was not beautiful in the conventional sense. She wasn’t even beautiful by porn standards.

So we didn’t get Grade A American porn. We weren’t going to be picky. But I would be adding this to my, now one star, Yelp review. The camera panned down. The man seemed to be safe at second base, if you know what I mean. Not having anything to compare it with, my fiancée was still giddy with the forbidden film. I was still not impressed. Finally, the camera slowly swept down more and we got a full view of the woman’s penis.

My fiancée said, “I don’t understand.”
Defenestration-Joshua BowmanJoshua Bowman does not see himself as an author or writer so much as a storyteller. He hopes to justify a brilliant obituary by living a life of misadventure and defying convention.



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