Read This Amazing Short Story About Interracial Dating And Age Gaps In Relationships

"A Messy Relationship" By Titi Nguyen

This may be a first for PITNB, but I just have to share this short story with y’all. One of my fellow Sarah Lawrence alums shared her friend’s publication on Facebook the other day and I sort of casually clicked the link so I could get my hateration on. What I mean is, I’ve been known to hate on fellow published writers, lol. It’s wrong, I know! And immature. And unnecessary. But sometimes I do it. Mainly because, writer that I am, I’m totally jealous of people who are crazy good at creative writing, and– well– any kind of writing… lol. Yeah, I need help. Sometimes, however, I just cannot even hate because the writing is sooo good and I’m all like, See? You need to write more. You haven’t written a poem in months! This short story, A Messy Relationship, was one of those pieces. Titi Nguyen (who I’m just now finding out also attended Sarah Lawrence… holla!) wrote a brilliant, autobiographical piece of work that I have to share with y’all. It’s great fun filling our heads with images from new GQ photo shoots and Halle Berry‘s familial drama, but every once in a while y’all know I like to celebrate pop culture on another level. Click inside for more! You will love, I promise!


Titi‘s piece was published in The New York Times Townies series, a weekly series about New York life. I’m not even sure if we can share the whole thing here, but I just cannot pick out an excerpt right now! Every paragraph is that good. Hopefully they won’t mind… but you should also check out the piece on The New York Times site– there’s a great painting that went along with this story:

A Messy Relationship
By TITI NGUYEN

One November morning, four years ago, I received a call from my mother. Before I could say hello, she blurted her news: she’d just been at a client’s house. Their son, Douglas, was visiting, and was even more handsome than when she’d seen him last. And she had his e-mail address. Did I have a pen ready?

When I said I had no idea who she was talking about, she huffed and I huffed back. My parents work as housekeepers in the affluent towns neighboring their home in Quincy, Mass., and this wouldn’t be the first time my mother tried to set me up with their clients’ sons. But how could I feel affection for anyone whose T-shirts and socks my mother laundered?

After a moment I remembered that I had met this man, years ago, when I was 19. My parents had cleaned his parents’ home every two weeks for the past eight years. When my parents told them I was having a difficult first year at college in New York, they suggested I meet their son, a 35-year-old artist living in Brooklyn. It wasn’t matchmaking — only a sympathetic gesture to take me out of my school malaise. I don’t remember much about that day, except that I met Douglas at the four-faced clock in the center of Grand Central Terminal and that we visited a rare books store after lunch. I didn’t recall our conversation, the cafe where we ate or even what he looked like.

To appease my mother, but also because I was struck with the thought that it had been kind of him to meet with me years before, I e-mailed Douglas to express my condolences over his grandmother’s death — the reason for his visit home. After a few e-mails we made plans to see a dance performance.

To keep warm that cold night I waited behind the doors of the theater, watching through the glass for Douglas. That I recognized him surprised me, but he hadn’t changed much. He was slender, with deep-set brown eyes and dark hair that curled above his forehead. He wore a black parka with a turquoise knit scarf and held the bright purple book I was to identify him by. For a moment I watched him scan the crowd for me, then I pushed through the doors and walked toward him.

“Hi. I’m not crying,” he said, wiping his eyes. “My eyes water in the winter.”

Inside, a woman handed us programs. Douglas dropped his and the woman and I watched as he knelt to pick it up. “You nervous or something, mister?” she teased, winking at me. I tittered and at the same time, for reasons unclear to me, felt an overwhelming tenderness for this man. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed or simply hadn’t heard her, but he looked for the aisle and led me to our seats in silence. We’d arrived so shortly before the beginning of the show that there was little time to talk.

“I think this will be really good,” he said to me, as the lights dimmed.

He leaned forward in his chair throughout the performance, mesmerized. I wanted to watch his face, to see him react to the movements we saw onstage. I tried to remember what his parents’ house looked like, if the few times I’d tagged along cleaning with my parents were enough to recall where all the trash baskets were — wedged beside a toilet, hidden under a desk or in a walk-in closet. I wondered if he’d ever forgotten that turquoise scarf on a visit home, if my mother or father had picked up and folded the soft wool.

My arm grazed his discarded coat, slung over his seat; I imagined it was his arm. He came from a small, hard place inside me, a jagged land of filial indignation, Clorox and dusting rags, and I was shaken by my attraction to him.

We saw more and more of each other. One night a few months later, in a diner booth in Astoria, Queens, Douglas told me two things: First, he really liked me. Second, he felt bad about liking me: “I won’t say that our age difference doesn’t worry me, and I know the situation with our families is very difficult. If we were to be together, I’d like to work through these issues with you.” Then he sat back, a stunned look on his face.

My mother’s reaction to our relationship was so enthusiastic that it roused my suspicions. I wondered if her excitement was linked to Douglas’s whiteness, his Americanness. Unlike most traditional Asian mothers, she encourages me to date white men. Surely someone who grew up anchored in American culture would be more financially and socially assured; certainly my American boyfriend would be able to navigate the culture that has confounded her for so long. She also believes that a white man will treasure me more than an Asian man, because I’m different from what he comes from.

In bed, my eyes trace the blue veins shooting through the milk of his skin, like eggshell cracks, then the prominent veins that stretch over the tops of his feet like nets. I’m fascinated by the differences between his body and mine — the skin underneath his alert eyes loosening the tiniest bit, the occasional gray strand in his dark hair. We don’t dare to talk about it, but it’s as tangible as the blare of car horns outside our windows: What will happen when he grows old?

I do the math: when I’m 30, Douglas will be 46; when I turn 35, he’ll be 50. More variables: if we have a baby when Douglas is 45, he’ll be 60 when our child is 15. Sometimes I feel cheated by time: if only we’d met sooner, if only he were younger. If X equals this, Y equals that. Y is always greater than X.

Other times, I don’t think of it at all. Our four years together have been happy. Our apartment is comfortably messy, and I don’t often clean — the 1950s red Formica table that belonged to Douglas’s grandmother serves more as dumping ground than a dining surface: unopened mail, pens, receipts, loose change, a lamp with a ceramic dog base, two electric toothbrush chargers, a spool of green twine. Coats and jeans drape the backs of the chairs. We eat our dinners on the living room floor instead. I stretch my legs out in front of me and he scoots over, leaning against me. He carefully trims the fat off the edges of his steak and transports the pieces to my plate, where he knows they’ll be savored. In these times, our differences recede into the background.

My mother and father still strip the sheets off Douglas’s parents’ bed, sponge the dried toothpaste off their mirrors, vacuum their rugs. Every two weeks, they dust the bedroom that was once his.

“Their son is an artist,” my father said to me years ago as we straightened the cushions on the sofa in the living room. “That’s him, over there.”

He pointed. Two dense pupils stared at us from behind the glass of the large framed drawing hanging on the wall. It was Douglas’s self-portrait, rendered in smudged whorls of charcoal. I didn’t care to look closer then. I’ve since studied the drawing, its intensity pulling me away from Thanksgiving dinners to examine the hollows and lines that I now know so well. He was 19 when he drew himself, the age I was when I first met him.

This story is powerful on so many levels. The author has pulled in a plethora of different issues– culture, class, age, corporeal and emotional connections– and still written a complete and beautiful love story. I really hated having to come up with a good headline for this post– A Messy Relationship is, obviously, so much more than just a story about interracial dating or age gaps (even as it is very much that). But I hope y’all enjoyed the piece and that you keep your eye out for more of Titi Nguyen‘s work!

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  1. I was mesmerized by this story…I want more!

  2. cmc

    Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. As a Dominican woman who’s out in the dating world (and just hit it off with a white American man 12 years my senior), this was especially touching.

    Thank you for sharing, Shannon!

    • cmc, so glad you enjoyed the piece. I can definitely see how you would relate, and I also love that we can all kinda relate on some level. I agree– it’s beautiful.

  3. Yasmin

    I just read the story and I really liked it. I don’t even know what to write because I don’t wanna say: “I like that to her the age difference seemed to be an issue, not race. And it’s interesting that her mother encouraged her to date out of her own race.” It’s not about that, of course. Not at all. I think what is most intriguing to me is that she knew him, she even kind of went on a date with him when she was 19. And yet she didn’t even remember what the man she is now in a relationship with looked like. I think it really speaks to how it’s not always about the right person but the right moment. How we change over time and need be ready for each other. And, to come back to the age difference, 19 and 35 doesn’t sound quite as “ok” as 40 and 56.

    • Yasmin, I hadn’t thought about that aspect of the story– ‘the right moment.’ That IS really interesting.

      As far as the imbalance in the relationship, I’m sure it is kinda weird. But here’s hoping it all works out in the end!

  4. Yasmin

    I have to add something: I think it’s really weird that her parents still clean his parents’ house. Imagine all of the things they know about them! That’s a real imbalance.

  5. Samantha

    Love it!

  6. Michelle

    This was awesome! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Matthew

    I just imagine her telling her mom she already has a boyfriend and he’s black….

    But that story is a drama/comedy.

    This one is sweet and touching. Well written.

  8. Diego

    I was expecting something totally different, but I liked Titi’s style very much! I thought she would analyze the tendency of white elderly men to date/marry much younger, foreign women. I noticed it in many places, but last year, when I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, it really struck me. I realized how diffused this trend is when I came across a commercial against domestic violence that emphasized how many of these women are in a disadvantaged position when it comes to ending a relationship. They risk to lose the citizenship, their often unique source of income, and therefore are put under pressure by family and friends, reduced to decisional immobility and remain stuck in the situation. I have mixed feelings regarding the topic, I would be curious to hear what you PITNB ladies think about this topic!

  9. Veronica

    I really enjoyed this piece. I am in a similar relationship as Titi, my husband is 10 years my senior (25 and 35), my parents are immigrants from El Salvador and my husband is Anglo-Canadian. We have never had any racial issues and are looking forward to having children with a rich cultural background! I am interested to hear more of Titi’s stories, as she has the added wrench of her parents working for his parents. I wonder how it works out when both families get together? Thanks for posting this, Shannon!

  10. Samantha

    Definitely a like for this post…I don’t even feel the need to articulate why but it’s just an honest piece. Thanks for the great Sunday read!

  11. JD

    I saw the headline interracial dating and the author’s picture below. I knew this writer Titi Nguyen was gonna share her experience with dating a White man. I clicked on the link to see if maybe this time I was wrong. Nope, same old story.

    A love story like Nguyen’s has been told and examined over & over again in various books, magazine articles (read Marie Claire: The New Trophy Wives), & movies/documentaries (check out Slaying the Dragon). What makes Nguyen’s story any different than the other countless books of the “hero” White man saving the young Asian woman from despair? Is it the fact that Nguyen is able to vividly recall all of the intricacies & nuances of her time w/ this White man and make it sound like a mediocre romance novel?? Are Nguyen’s compiled diary entries really that entertaining to make a novel? I might want to read it just to see how it ends. Spare me the fairytale ending, though. How about Nguyen’s character marries the White man, has his 2 kids, becomes the depressed mommy/wife and channels Virginia Woolfe at the end?

    • JD, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      What I found compelling about Titi’s piece was that she acknowledged every cliche you brought up, even acknowledged her own family’s participation in those things.

      I can appreciate your criticism…. but I keep a diary, and it doesn’t sound like this, lol! I also didn’t get the sense of a fairytale ending; it IS hopeful but most stories that we love express similar sentiments.

      This is a blog, and you’re entitled to your opinion, but I literally cringed when I read that last bit… especially because I know Titi Nguyen is a real person, who actually reached out to me to thank me for sharing her piece. Your Virginia Woolf reference (and I say this as someone who studied her work and her memoirs in college) was vicious and totally uncalled for, IMO.

    • Ella

      I don’t think you read the essay very well. Also, clearly this is a real person and this is a real relationship. Why you would wish the unhappiest of endings for her is beyond me.

  12. Kayla

    As a woman on a different end of the spectrum, who dates a younger man, I really appreciated the honesty of the author in regards to some of the age related thoughts. I thought this was a beautiful piece, thank you for sharing.

  13. What a great read!! Thanks for posting!

  14. Shelbie

    What a wonderful read! I loved it, because as a 20 (almost 21) year old, I’m currently seeing a 33 year old! Sometimes I worry about age, same issues she worried about in the story, but in the end If things are meant to be then I know it will work out. This story has given me a little more faith in it!

  15. Lynne

    My mom was 29 when she married my 44 year old father. They stayed together until his death one year (and one day) ago. Both of different ethnicities and cultures.

    This is a lovely piece. I forward to reading more of her work.

  16. Heather

    Loved it! She conveys so much of the complexity of their situation in such a short piece. Very moving and thought-provoking.

    • Fady

      Customer Video Review Length:: 2:21 MinsLoved this book! So romantic and iniisrpng, and it really surprised me how much I could relate to each of the poems. I was even more surprised that my boyfriend picked out something like this as a gift for me, something he’s not really into, but it was perfect! Very endearing and insightful. There are tons of different poems, ranging from abstract ones about the emotion of love to specific moments in time, like when you first meet someone or your wedding day. I definitely recommend this book, it’s the perfect gift for your sweetheart!

  17. Guest

    Ahhh yes. The overly used and abused, “White Knight in Shining Armor” vs “Domineering, Emasculate Asian Man” stereotypical story promoted by the NY Times. Kind of reminds me of the XO Jane article trash talking Asian males as well. We need more of these!

    Now speaking of Titi, boy did she choose the right mate i.e. not an Asian male. You know those Asian males who are absolutely horrible with women and don’t have a clue on how to treat them. And even though White Male/Asian Female pairings are a dime a dozen, let’s continue to promote this idea that this IR combo is a rare one! White men and Asian females make the perfect couples, because Asian men with their pencil dicks and sexist attitudes have absolutely ZERO idea how to be as progressive and American as an open minded white guy such as myself. Thanks Titi for continually promoting the “white is right” attitude and allowing us to stay privileged.

    Who can resist dating a white guy now that “We eat our dinners on the living room floor instead. I stretch my legs out in front of me and he scoots over, leaning against me. He carefully trims the fat off the edges of his steak and transports the pieces to my plate, where he knows they’ll be savored. In these times, our differences recede into the background.”

    Of course, no Asian guy could ever offer an Asian woman or any woman for that matter this kind of TLC. Eating on the floor? Steak? Fork? Asian guys with their obsession with chopsticks. Thank God white males can now save all of the helpless Asian females out there who won’t have to deal with the villainy of Asian men. Thank you Titi. And most importantly, thank you to Titi’s mother for instilling her those righteous values. The white way is the right way.

    • It’s a work of literature and– like all literary works– it’s clearly open to interpretation. But there are good and bad interpretations of writings and Guest, I completely disagree with yours. Perhaps you missed the paragraph where she addressed the stereotypes that you’re pointing to, where she mentioned being suspicious of her Mother’s approval.

      Of course there are cliches in this story, of course it perpetuates certain ideas that already exist in society. Find me a story that doesn’t do that at all. I’d love to read it.

  18. Billy

    Loved the article. Drop the colloquialisms and write honest. You have a talent, don’t hide it under shallow language skills.

  19. John Doe

    Doing good adds meaning to life.

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