I wouldn’t say I was a lonely guy. I had people in my life, I got out of my house, I stayed relatively fit and healthy. I just didn’t have much luck in love. I know a lot of people want someone to blame in that kind of situation. The women who reject them. The other men who never strike out. Society, feminist movements, what they had for breakfast that morning. Anything other than themselves.
I like to think I wasn’t “that guy”.
Bitterness, while sometimes tempting late at night in an empty bed, never took hold, and I never hated anyone who turned me down. I was well aware that I hovered somewhere between “awkward” and “inept” on the social ladder, not exactly the romantic lead in anyone’s fairytale. I asked a few ladies out over the years, a couple even said yes, but all it led to was lukewarm conversation over equally appetizing dinners.
No one’s fault. They just weren’t love matches.
While I was younger, it didn’t phase me much. I still had time, there was no rush. But age has a way of sneaking up on you, and all those things you were content putting off until tomorrow suddenly snap into focus. Being single and childless at 40 felt a lot more hopeless than it had at 39.
I mentioned it in passing to some friends of mine while out at the bar one night. They were sympathetic, offering the usual round of platitudes and expressions of disbelief that such a great guy hadn’t found someone yet. All things I’d heard before that had become stale and flat after so many choruses. I told them I was thinking it was time to hang up my proverbial hat and accept that I was just meant to be alone.
The response I got to that was pretty much unanimous: it was time to give the internet a try.
Online dating: the final frontier. The last ditch effort for the lost and unlucky. I was told not to view it like that; it was becoming a very normal way to meet partners in the digital age. I just had to be open minded. So I gave it a try.
My first date was with a 38 year old accountant. Her pictures showed a slightly overweight, cute woman with large, round glasses and a bright smile. The person who showed up was about ten years older and a hundred pounds heavier than what I’d seen. It was a first and fast lesson in filters and angles. While the deception was a little off putting, our text conversations had been decent, so I decided to go ahead with it. The bubbly, quick wit I’d been attracted to, however, failed to carry over into real life, and we parted with a handshake and no backward glances.
The next woman I went out with matched her pictures, at least. But again, the only heat felt between us came from the hibachi grill we were seated around. She was pleasant and polite, but we agreed friendship might suit us better than pursuing anything more. Can never have too many friends, right?
By my third date, another dud that ended after dessert, the novelty of it all was wearing thin.
“Keep trying,” my friends encouraged.
Easy for them to say when they weren’t the ones facing failure over and over again.
Their peer pressure did the trick, however, and I continued to make half-hearted attempts at finding The One. I had accounts on three or four of the major sites, but so did everyone else, so it was like swimming in a few seas with all the same fish.
Eventually, after a night spent contemplating my life choices from the bottom of a bottle, I made the decision to branch out. Surely there had to be something other than the crossroads of Ok Court and E Harmony Ave, where all the singles mingled. Something less known with fewer familiar faces.
I didn’t expect to sink so low as mail order bride sites, though.
It was just a joke, at first. Look at all these beautiful foreign women promising to be happy with the first fat schlub that comes along. You know, as long as his wallet seems to match his waistband. It was easy to feel judgemental if you didn’t look at it too deeply: they’re just looking for a quick buck and a green card. Ignore the crippling poverty they most likely faced. Ignore their lack of options. Ignore that they’re trying to find a better life for themselves and their family in the only way that might be available to them.
As long as you could overlook all those minor details, the sites were an amusing window into people pretending not to know they were using each other and being used.
I was too smart to get sucked into the fantasy. Too cynical.
EternalBrides.com was just supposed to be another stop on my voyeuristic tour of the desperate. It was in Chinese, I think, so I had to translate it. Made in dreamlike pinks and hazy whites, it boasted hundreds of successful matches made and catered to an exclusive clientele of single older men. The few images available to unsubscribed visitors showed lovely East Asian women, young, smiling demurely, posing modestly. Their makeup was minimal, their hairstyles simple. The oldest one shown couldn’t have been more than twenty-five.
Their profiles were bare bones, just enough to whet an appetite without revealing too much. Details were for paying customers.
Li Min had a quiet and attentive energy.
Mei possessed a feisty spirit.
Liu Yang offered a calming presence in even the most stressful of times.
I scrolled down the page, amused at the Google translations promising unwavering heart and tranquil house forever. It should have stopped there. I meant it to. But then I saw Ai. Long, black hair pulled into a braid over one shoulder. Big, almond-shaped eyes, dark and warm even through the computer screen. A small smile on pink-stained lips. I stared at her for a long time, entranced by a single image. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
And she was locked behind a paywall.
I don’t know if it was the booze or my own deep-buried loneliness surfacing that had me reaching for my credit card, but before I’d had a chance to think too hard about it, I was punching in numbers.
$50 allowed me access to her full profile.
$75 let me send a message.
I wasn’t so inebriated that I opted for the higher charge right away and settled on just being able to look at more pictures and read about her. Her profile was short, describing her as a twenty-three year old “listener” and “happy house maker”. There were a dozen pictures or so showing her at a beach, dressed up at some kind of formal event, sitting with a group of other women whose faces had been blurred. Even if they hadn’t, she would have stood out to me. She was all I could focus on.
Suddenly sending a message didn’t seem so strange or desperate. I wasn’t some western creeper trying to lure in an impressionable young woman. It was an opportunity to let something grow! Perhaps a chance to finally find what had been eluding me for so long.
I kept it short and sweet, complimenting her beauty and saying I wanted to know more about her. I hit send. After waiting for almost an hour for a response, I finally gave up and went to bed.
By the time I got up the next day, I had a new message waiting for me.
Instead of being from Ai herself, it was from someone who introduced themselves as her broker. They didn’t waste much time with niceties. Ai was one of their premium girls, she garnered a lot of attention. They weren’t interested in speaking to me if I wasn’t serious about winning her hand. It was a ridiculous, pushy approach. I should have walked away.
But as I went to exit the screen, her picture caught my eye, and it was like being intoxicated all over again.
I was serious, I told them.
How serious? They asked.
Apparently the answer was almost $20,000 worth of serious over the course of six months. It surprised even me. I remortgaged my house, sold off some assets, and scrimped and saved. Whenever I’d second guess things, they’d send me a new photo or short video to keep me hooked. I had never thought of myself as irrational or stupid, but Ai brought out both in me. There was just something about her that kept me wanting more.
I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want them trying to dissuade me or talk sense into me. I was happy. Finally happy. And it was all thanks to Ai.
And then, a year after I’d first messaged the agency, I got the email I’d been waiting for.
Ai was coming to America to be my wife.
I just had to pay another $10,000 to get her here. It seemed a small price for my eternal bride. I worked as much overtime as I was allowed and sold more of my belongings, until I had just enough to afford that final fee. They said it would cover her paperwork and travel expenses. By then, I didn’t care. I just wanted her home.
The day finally arrived. I had been given her flight information the night before she was set to arrive and kept checking the airline tracker right up until my arrival at the airport. I’d worn a suit, brought a bouquet of roses, and waited with a sign at international arrivals.
And I waited.
And I waited.
People streamed out from behind the gate, hundreds at a time, but no Ai. The board showed that her flight had arrived on time. She should have been there! Worry turned to dread. My worst fears were starting to come true: I’d been conned. There was no Ai. There never was. It was all some big scam and I’d fallen blindly into it. How could I have been so stupid?
I was beating myself up, sick with anger and guilt, and about to leave, when I heard my name being called over the intercom.
I was being summoned to baggage.
I ran, pushing my way down crowded escalators and dodging people meandering in the middle of the walkway, too slow for me to stay behind. My heart pounded. Tears burned in my eyes. She was just moments away!
Except it wasn’t Ai waiting for me at baggage claim. It was a pair of police officers, grim, hands resting on their heavy belts. I thought perhaps it was a coincidence, they just happened to be there to keep an eye on things, until they said my name.
I was led off the main floor in handcuffs and put into a small, off white room.
“Do you know why you’re here?” they asked.
“No,” I said. “Where’s Ai? Did something happen?”
They traded a look. I didn’t know what it meant.
And then they introduced me to my bride.
They fanned the pictures out in front of me on the table. The first few showed a carefully wrapped, almost adult sized doll laid out among straw in a wooden crate. It had painted on features and had been dressed in a threadbare traditional Chinese dress in red and gold. I looked at it, and then up at the officers, not understanding.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It was checked in on a flight from China under your name.”
“I don’t understand.”
One of the cops tossed another photo down. This one showed the doll’s head split open. From within the cracked wood, a skull bared its teeth at the camera. I yelped and shoved it away.
“Why don’t you tell us why you were importing a skeleton, Mr. Asher.”
I turned over everything. My computer and all of its passwords, my bank statements, phone records. Whatever they asked for, I gave them. While they investigated, I was made to remain in my home city, unable to go any further than my work while they fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.
The skeleton was determined to belong to an Asian female, roughly twenty years old. A single hole in the back of her skull told the story of how she’d died a year or so before.
It took months of digging and research and unwrapping layers before authorities finally understood what had happened.
EternalBrides wasn’t a dating site. It was a modern twist on an ancient tradition. In all of my drunken dumb luck, I had stumbled upon a dark corner of the web meant to unite single older men with young women. Single older men who had lost hope. Who feared spending the afterlife alone. Who were willing to do anything to ensure that didn’t happen.
I hadn’t spent the last year courting a wife. I’d been buying a corpse.
Ghost marriages, intended for young people who had passed away before they’d been able to wed, had been outlawed in China for some time. They were meant to ensure lineage for men and secure women a place among their husbands’ ancestors, in addition to keeping both from an eternity spent alone. Despite being illegal, it was a practice that persisted in some rural reaches, where men worked dangerous jobs. The shortage of women, however, meant that the supply of ghost brides couldn’t keep up with demand.
So they had to be created.
Ai had never been real. She’d never been the person on the other side of the screen. Neither had any of the others. It was assumed she was already dead when I first reached out. It was unclear if the body belonged to the girl in the photos.
EternalBrides went offline during the investigation. There wasn’t much that could be done except forward what had been learned to Chinese authorities. I was told it would probably pop up again under some other name, but it wasn’t their problem.
The girl, it felt wrong to call her Ai, a name that probably wasn’t even hers, was also returned. I don’t know what became of her remains.
I’ve looked and looked, but I’ve never been able to find a site like EternalBrides again. I know it wasn’t my fault. I know I didn’t kill her. But I feel like I owe it to her to try and find whoever killed her. She deserves that much.
And for my blindness. My willingness to overlook all the red flags. My selfishness that led me, however unwittingly, to participate in such a deed. I deserve to be forever tied to her.
My eternal bride.