Three’s a Crowd
There was a café round the corner from the pig place where Charlie would wait for Lara. The pig place had some fancy evangelical name, which Lara had mentioned several times when talking about the booking, but Charlie couldn’t remember it. Something about using all the parts of a pig so that nothing would go to waste. Fancy ways of cooking offal. Like it was something new, offal. But she liked that Lara was into the details like that, thought a lot about everything, always planned things out for maximum enjoyment.
Lara would pick things like that when her parents were in town. The kind of thing that would make her parents see her as part of the mainstream of successful youth that they imagined her to be. It’s not like they ever had pig at home.
Charlie stirred the mint leaves around the bottom of her teacup. It bothered her that it bothered her so much not to be there with Lara and her parents. Like it was somehow part of what made a relationship Real, eating with the parents of your chosen eternal fuckbuddy.
“You know why it has to be this way,” Lara said.
She did know, and she was annoyed that knowing wasn’t enough to stop feeling rubbish about it. But it was 9:15pm. She’d already sat through 135 minutes of a meal where there wasn’t a seat for her.
Charlie smiled up at her girlfriend, pink-tinged by the cold, extracting fingers from her gloves with her teeth. It never failed to amaze her how easily someone could make her feel better by simply entering the room. Lara lent down for a kiss. She smelt of light perfume.
“How was dinner?” Charlie asked.
“I’ll tell you on the way home.”
Outside, Charlie took Lara’s hand. She’d put the gloves away. Charlie wondered if that was for her benefit.
“So how was it?”
“Ach,” Lara started. “It’s… a long story.”
It was always like this, with Lara’s parents. Charlie thought she might have clocked what it was that bothered her so much. It was that without having met them, she couldn’t help Lara to work any of it out.
Lara was 32 now. She was supposed to be married at least, with kids preferably. Sure, any parent would want their kids just to ‘be happy’. But where Lara’s parents came from, 32 was leftover. 32 was so old it was time to worry.
It wasn’t different from any of the debates they’d been having so far. They met when Lara was 25, and Charlie 27. They were work colleagues from different departments. Lara wasn’t cagey about her sexuality, but Charlie could tell she was new to it. Inexperienced at allowing herself the pleasures she wanted. (It was sort of endearing, if she was honest.)
They had two fights in their seven years together. One was about when Lara would tell her parents about Charlie. The other was about the fact that every time they had the first argument and agreed it needed to happen, Lara would back out. They couldn’t take it. They’d disown her. They’d reject Charlie. Lara couldn’t take that. Wasn’t it enough that she loved her? That they shared their lives with one another? And what about children? They both wanted them, but how would they get round Lara’s parents on that one? A child out of wedlock was almost as bad as being a lesbian.
The fight never ended. They broke up once, a year ago, when Charlie couldn’t take it anymore. And that hadn’t worked out for either of them.
“I have an idea,” she said. She put the kettle on. “And I know you’re not going to like it.”
Charlie said nothing.
“We could hire a surrogate. I found this company. I could introduce him to my parents, we could do all the stuff that you can’t come to. The boring stuff. The dinner with family, the occasional seasonal holiday together. My family don’t even live in this country so he wouldn’t be around in our life. He’d just be there for those one-off occasions when they’re in town.”
Charlie didn’t say anything.
“Charlie, what do you think?”
She wanted a cigarette, was what she thought. But they’d quit several years ago. It was just one less thing to hide from Lara’s parents.
“It’s not a solution,” she said.
“But it would be wouldn’t it? Nothing would have to change. I love you. I live with you. My life is with you. I just do this thing, hire this one person to pretend to my parents that their daughter has the life they want. Everybody’s happy. He wouldn’t be a part of our lives, just an employee.”
“I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“Why you would feel you have to go to such extreme lengths to avoid the reality. I really…I really don’t get it.”
“We’ve been through this. I know it’s hard for you to understand. I know that none of this is easy for you and that I just keep saying it’s a cultural thing, but it is. My parents aren’t like yours.”
“But it’s still lying. How could you lie to someone you love?”
“Oh come on, it’s not that simple is it?”
“But it is, Lara, it is. I don’t get it. Everyone knows. Your friends, my friends, our colleagues. Even your brother knows. I mean, what do we even do about him? Does he get in on this secret?”
“Oh Jesus, you’ve been thinking about this for a while haven’t you.”
“You know me.”
She put a mug of tea down in front of Charlie and joined her on the sofa, sipping at her own. She reached out to stroke Charlie’s cheek.
“Lara.” Charlie stopped to take her hand away. “Lara it upsets me when you say your family’s not like mine. It’s like you put this wall down between us and I’m European on one side, and you’re Asian, and suddenly we’re in different worlds.”
There was a rigidity in Charlie’s eyes. The air had become very still.
33 was better late than never. And Max seemed to be a good choice. He was polite, tall, affable, reasonably handsome, and he had a good job (Charlie’s job, or so the story went.) He reached for the bill, and he held open doors.
“How did you meet?” asked Lara’s mum.
“At work. Lara emailed me about a problem she was working on, and when I didn’t reply to her email, she came over to my desk. She was annoyed at my lack of efficiency, but then we laid eyes on each other, and — well — the rest is history right?”
It was Max’s suggestion that they simply use Lara and Charlie’s story, but with him cast in the role of Charlie instead. That way it would be easier for Lara; it was already part of Max’s day job, he’d been an Other for ten years and this was not his first ‘sexuality cover-up’.
“You understand that this engagement looks to be a long term one, right?” he’d asked Lara at their chemistry meeting.
“I mean, sure.”
“But I have to make sure you really understand what that means.” He was very serious. “It says here that the problem you’re addressing is that your parents need you to be settling down at this point, and that this is the picture you want to paint for them. If there’s a wedding, it’s me who awaits you at the end of the aisle. You’ll play a straight woman, and at least on a few occasions you’ll need to kiss me to keep up the part. Do you think you can handle that? You’ve said you want to have children with your partner, so to your parents I would be the father of your children. I want you to think about this carefully. I have no problem playing the surrogate for as long as you want to hire me, but I need you to take at least a week, we usually recommend two, talk about it with your partner, and fill in this plan. And do it together. We find that this doesn’t tend to work as well if the partner isn’t 100% sold on the idea.”
The birthday dinner with the parents would be the test run. Then they’d meet up with Charlie, and Lara would introduce her to Max. Worst case scenario, if Charlie wasn’t ‘100% sold’, they could still plead break-up to Lara’s parents. Max would go away, get paid for his one-off Engagement. That’d be it.
“Charlie,” she kissed her on the cheek, “This is Max.”
Max reached out a hand, which Charlie shook. His hand was so… male.
“So Max… what do I even ask you?”
“Listen, I know this can’t be easy for you. And I’m here to talk about it. We have -” he checked his watch, “An hour more on the clock. Not to be mercantile, but it can be useful to remember this is just a contractual agreement.”
Lara looked peaceful. Charlie found that it was difficult to keep eye contact with Max. A man, she couldn’t help thinking. There was a man in their relationship now.
“Let’s start with the run-down of tonight’s events, we’ll fill you in, and then we can talk about any reservations that you have, and see how we go from there. How does that sound?”
Charlie nodded. Lara took her hand under the table.
It was a stomach-sinking story. Because it was the happy ending Lara had always wanted for her parents. Lara’s parents liked Max. They were able to answer all questions convincingly. Max was great, Lara thought. She thought they’d really found the right person for the task.
All the while that they were talking, Charlie sipped her drink and watched them. And she could feel that Lara was watching her. Reading her, measuring her. Like she’d always imagined Lara’s parents might some day. And with every turn in the story, that day fell further away.
And Max, he was watching Charlie too. Though she said little it appeared she was uncomfortable with the arrangement on some level. He made a note to himself to work out the origin of this discomfort later in the conversation. It could be the make or break to the perpetuation of this Engagement. Long term engagements were always more profitable, and it was nice to get the chance to play a continuous role, rather than simply showing up.
“Don’t you find this strange?” Charlie asked. Max felt Lara watching him.
“It’s not within my remit to divulge my personal opinions, though I can understand why you would be curious. It’s a question I’m accustomed to being asked.”
“But you must have one. A personal view on this. Like — what do you think we’re doing here? Do you think you’re doing us a favour? Do you think this is healthy?”
“I mean seriously Max. Do you think it’s healthy that Lara never comes out to her parents? That she just deceives them for the rest of their lives and ours?”
And there it was, they had unearthed the discomfort.
“No no, it’s fine, allow me.” Max raised a hand gently in the air. “It’s not on me to comment on your relationship. In fact, though you might not believe it, I’m trained not even to formulate an opinion on the matter. My job and my responsibility is solely to play out the role that I’ve been cast in. The two of you draw the lines around where you want that to end. If it happens that some day in the future Lara feels comfortable to talk about her real situation with her parents, even without any mention of your having engaged A.N.Other’s services, it’s perfectly okay to do so. We can terminate this at any point. We have advisors equipped to help you navigate such a situation. For example, it may be that I simply become an ex. That way the façade is never shattered, and no one need get hurt. I understand that it can take some adjusting to, the nature of our service, but again I assure you that we have many successful cases just like yours, and I’d be more than happy to relay some case studies to you. Anonymised, of course. I would, however, counsel you to now take some time, the two of you, to discuss the intricacies of potential scenarios and how you would want to navigate the relationship with me that you will form over the coming engagements. The material is with Lara already.”
It was time for him to make a move. The rest of the conversation needed to be between the girls, but his instincts suggested to him that this was already a dead lead.
“I’ve also left the number of our advisors who would be happy to help talk you through the process.” He stood up. “Charlie, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. Lara, I trust my services have been satisfactory this evening, and I’ll wait to hear from you for further instruction.”
Lara stood to shake his hand. It annoyed Charlie that he addressed them separately. Once he’d left, she braced herself for a fight.
“What the hell was that?” said Lara.
“You were rude, and confrontational.”
“Lara, it’s me. That’s who I am. I call things out as I see them. I don’t sit on my emotions, hiding from reality, hiring some guy to play out somebody else’s fantasy.”
Lara’s face twisted up. She opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and made to leave.
“I’m going to apologise to him. On your behalf.”
Charlie was surprised to find that her first reaction to this was not anger, but sadness. She watched Lara run out of the café, scrabbling to put her hat back over her hair. She watched her call Max’s name, him turning around, retracing a few steps, reassuring her, probably, that it was normal for the partner of the Client to be stressed out and anxious about such an arrangement, that this happened more in the Western markets than the Asian ones, that it was okay to just leave it be for the time being.
Was it that he was a man? Was that what it was? Was it that it was a lie? She found that she could no longer quite think straight. And the sadness was cold, like a drink pouring down her middle. Charlie suddenly felt extremely tired. Watching Max and Lara talking outside, it looked so simple. Just two people interacting. Like it was the easiest thing in the world.