The day of my brother’s wedding, I start driving. Past high rises that smell like day-old mutton, past the gracefully columned entrance of the Zanabazar Museum of Art where we used to go every month, the railway station where I last saw him.
I am forced to roll up my window minutes into my commute, the smog worse than ever today, the sky a hazy gray with the texture of dissolving chalk.
It feels strange to be dressed this way after spending most of my life in slacks, blouses, and western style clothing. My cousin insisted this would look good on me, but the lime deel with silver embroidered sleeves and royal blue skirt feels more like a costume. The strand of pearls is the only thing I feel comfortable with, and I’ve chosen to wear my hair straight despite my cousin’s insistence on braiding it.
I imagine the street sweepers are staring at me, but I quickly realize this is a vain, foolish thought: my own grandmother worked as a sweeper for most of her life, until her arthritis made it impossible to work as fast as was demanded. She only rested at noon for lunch. She wouldn’t have had the leisure to look at women driving cars, and neither do these workers.
Besides, most men and women wear traditional attire to weddings, even funerals. At thirty-two, I’ve managed to avoid both occasions. The only funeral I attended was my father’s as a toddler who cried so long that my mother was forced to give me to my grandmother to take me home.
This will be my first, and maybe last, wedding.
I don’t know what Batbayar was thinking when he chose this site for his wedding. The Wedding Palace (that’s really its name) is a few blocks away from Sukhbaatar Square. It’s one of the most popular, and generic places for a venue in Ulaanbaatar.
As a flattened, white stone building, the entrance is unremarkable: concrete steps leading to a glass door entrance. The only scenery is the skyscrapers behind it, the handful of trees that have survived last year’s brutal winter.
I am forced to park two blocks away in a lot for a discount market. I stay there for five minutes, deliberating.
Batbayaar never would have picked this place, I think. It must have been his fiancée’s idea. I wouldn’t put it past her.
It’s not even that the place is popular: it’s what is stands for, or at least what it would have stood for in my brother’s mind back when we were close. He would have seen anything built by the Russians as something to boycott. Once, he’d lived with our mother for months after landing a comfortable job in the business district because he was trying desperately to find housing that wasn’t built during the Soviet Occupation. When I teased him that he was living in 1990 not 1920, he said I didn’t care about my heritage.
And now he’s getting married to a woman he met online who he’s known for half a year, and until a month ago, she had never stepped foot inside our country.
This is the kind of place tourists flock to: a cheap microcosm of pseudo culture for those who really don’t want to invest any time getting to know how Mongolians really live.
A man nearly knocks me over with his briefcase as I get out of my car. Either he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care because he continues on his way. The deel, which looked strange but beautiful in Gerel’s flat, is too dramatic, too conspicuous. I wish that I’d picked at least a more muted color.
At the stoplight across the street from The Wedding Palace, though, I am comforted by the sight of what appears to be other guests: men and women in traditional garb, some with jeweled sashes and fashionably tapered waists.
“Uuchlaarai. Excuse me,” a man about my age says as he passes me, carrying a rectangular box with a bow on top. Then, seeing my attire, pauses.
“Are you here for Batbayaar Luk’s wedding?”
My throat feels like glue, but I manage to answer.
“Am I headed the right way?”
I point across the street. “Right there.” I force a smile, “You won’t have to carry that much further.”
It’s a bit unusual for anyone to bring a gift to the ceremony like that, but so too is his choice of attire: western style dress pants, paired with a tucked in gray deel. His eyes are stunningly similar to mine: so dark they almost look black, but with a warmth that shows they are not hardened like mine. I notice his dimples, his full cheeks, like a man who will never outgrow his boyish temperament. His hair is untidy, in a charming way, his teeth imperfect, slightly crooked.
When he meets my gaze, I look away. I don’t want him to get the wrong impression.
“Couldn’t decide what to wear,” he said, as if reading my thoughts, “Now I feel underdressed.”
“I feel overdressed.” But that isn’t true, now that I see a family in front of us, decked out in bangled bracelets and headpieces.
I can’t tell if he’s flirting or just being polite, but I’m careful to keep my tone muted. “Meeting someone,” I say. I don’t elaborate.
“Ah,” he says. Does he sound disinterested for disappointed? I tell myself not to worry about that, especially now, a hundred feet away from the building where my brother will become a husband in half an hour.
“I couldn’t stand riding with her,” I say before I can stop myself.
We cross the street just before a gray van runs through a yellow light. “Might be going to a funeral if we aren’t careful,” he says, shaking his head. “Who couldn’t you stand to ride with?”
“Oh. My sister.”
“Your sister?” His curious tone has returned. His eyes look bright again.
I don’t even know why I’m fabricating this lie, but now I’ve started, it’s like I can’t stop myself,
“She gets really grouchy if there’s traffic.”
“Does she live nearby?”
“Erdenet, but she works in Ulaanbaatar. So yes.”
He laughs. I decide I like his laugh: subtle, almost gentle, “She can’t stand traffic, but she works in the city?”
I feel like a fool. I thought that I was getting better at lying, a skill I’ve practiced again and again, lies to cover for my brother or to get people off my back, lies to pretend our family is what it used to be. But maybe I’m as terrible a liar as I always have been.
Does he think I’m lying?
But I must be being paranoid. He’s already moved on, pointing to the entrance of the Wedding Palace, “Wouldn’t kill them to decorate it a bit more.”
He’s right. Plain—almost crass—concrete steps, too steep to be considerable accessible for all, tall pillars, unadorned. That at least fits. I guess. Batbayar never did like frills.
“Costs extra money.”
He grins, showing dimples on both sides, “Spare all expenses.”
“How do you know the groom?” I find myself asking. Talking to him is the only thing keeping me from running away instead of going up the steps.
“Oh, I don’t, really. I mean, I kind of do. He’s a friend of my brother’s. School.”
I strain my memory for any good friends my brother has, or had, at University, but even back then we’d started to drift apart, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning anyone except Gan.
And no one talks about Gan, anymore.
“...do you know the groom?”
“Oh.” I panic, try to keep my face neutral. My heart is hammering more than it should. It was a mistake to come here. I had a whole story prepared, had rehearsed it over and over in case anyone asked who I was or why I was there. At the time, I chided myself, like my cousin Gerel chided me: “Do you really think anyone is going to interrogate you? Who’s going to even notice you?”
Which is one of the reasons I always resent Gerel some, even when we get along. She always has a way of putting things that are offensive without her feeling like they are.
“He’s, a family friend, I guess.”
“You guess? So you don’t know him that well either. Good. Glad I’m not the only one that feels like they weren’t invited.”
He’s right on one front: I no longer know my brother. But he’s wrong on the other, because I wasn’t invited.
“I’m just here for the after party,” I joke, and, together, we reach the front doors, where we’re ushered in before I have a chance to be sensible and run back to my car.
The ceremony is decidedly traditional. Or as traditional as it gets here. Not as traditional as some would have liked, which is clear from the occasional murmurs even as my brother is being married. A willowy woman with skin light enough that I suspect she is Chinese stands near the altar as a witness. I realize she must be my brother’s sister-in-law, a traditional choice as a witness. I curl my hands into fists as the bride enters.
She is like her sister, only sturdier, with wider shoulders and a strong jawline, the same elegant neck and almost delicate dark hair, eyes the color of dark espresso. She is beautiful. Even I admit that. And she links arms with my brother, I force myself to watch. It’s unusual to have a ceremony this size: traditional weddings, I take it, are usually more intimate affairs, so it’s crowded and extremely humid and almost impossible to see over the crowd gathered.
“I didn’t know she was Chinese,” the man from before, beside me whispers. We’ve chosen to sit together, more out of necessity, being almost late, nowhere else to go.
His tone isn’t critical or full of hate, like I am used to. It is almost curious.
I choose not to say anything. I don’t trust myself to speak. Not now. I just nod so he doesn’t think I resent his comment.
I admit, her outfit is stunning, more stunning than even the ones I’ve seen in publications. The deel is a rich gold, layered with a royal blue, low collar, bell-shaped sleeves that perfectly adhere to her slender arms. The black and blue velvet cap is a smaller version of my brother’s, but more delicately stitched.
They look as if they were made for each other, the way their fingers overlap almost perfectly, their stately posture (My brother always used to slouch. I wonder when we started to stand that way, if it has something to do with her.), even the size of their small ears.
They are asked if they will marry one another, and I can barely hear her yes, followed by my brother's, a full fifteen seconds later.
“Imagine if he'd said no,” the man beside me whispers as they place rings on each other's fingers.
I don't answer because I was thinking the same thing.
Batbayaar and his new wife change clothes for the reception and so do most of the guests. Luckily, Gerel warned me about this, so I've slipped into a navy blue sheath. Perfect for blending in among the more beaded or ornamented dresses.
The bride's dress is white, with a natural waist and simple skirt, a small beaded belt. He is wearing a navy blue suit with a slightly softer blue tie, a silver watch over his left sleeve cuff. They look like a professional portrait, smiling, hand in hand, silver rings on both of their hands, glinting in the dimly lit restaurant. It’s a place I’ve never been to before, not that I have the fortune to eat out much, with a pale blue grand room, mauve carpeting, floral embellishments on the wallpaper, a series of tiny zurag, watercolor paintings of nomads setting up their new homes, braving bellicose winds and coarse sand.
I’ve always loved this style of painting: it was these depictions of the gobi that I used to pause so long in front of during my trips to the art museum that Batbayaar would tug me along, impatient, muttering about how I romanticized everything.
Now I romanticize nothing. Not the chandeliers whose crystals appear almost gelatinous, nor the silver haired waiter, dressed in dark black slacks who smiles at all of us as we enter.
“I never got your name,” the man beside me says, as we are ushered to a table across the room from where the bride and groom will sit.
“Gerel,” the lie comes to me automatically.
He introduces himself as Altan, a name I tell myself I will forget before the end of the night, hopefully, and asks if I want to sit together.
What other choice do I have? I keep glancing over my shoulder, waiting for my brother to spot me, to ask what the hell I’m doing here, but the room is so dim, I guess that is supposed to be romantic, and my brother is far too interested in whispering in his new wife’s ear to notice much of anything.
There are toasts. Many toasts. I gag on the first taste.
“Not a drinker?” Altan sounds amused. I feel like a child.
“I drink plenty.” Which is true and not true. I drink spirits occasionally, but more when I’m with Gerel or back before I gave up dating, on a dinner out, maybe a mixed drink . I don’t relish drinking alone.
“But I take it you’ve never tried airag.”
“This will be my first and last time.” I set it down. Now I recognize the sting of vodka, the earthy taste of fermented milk. My grandfather used to drink airag once a week. He loved it, would have had more had my grandmother not always been watching.
I hide a smile as Ganbataar takes a sip of his airag, sputters. He nearly sprays his wife.
“Looks like you aren’t the only one who doesn’t like it,” Altan comments before downing his own glass.
I try to keep my expression neutral, but I must fail at this too because Altan asks if I’m feeling okay.
“One sip did me in,” I joke. I stand up, “Looks like everyone’s getting something to eat.”
I have to hand it to my brother, or this restaurant; the feast is every bit as delicious as the feasts our families used to prepare for Tsaggan Sar, the Lunar New Year. Roasted mutton, pots of clotted cream and seasoned curds, Bansh dumplings braised in goat’s fat, steaming tsuvian noodle stew and hardy gurithai shul. I fill my plate with a little of everything, almost missing the steamed peppers. Altan is more selective, taking a small sample of the noodle stew and a child’s portion of the mutton.
Which is odd: I have never seen anyone be so restrictive at any kind of feast, let alone a wedding. “Rude,” my mother would say, “A sign of a bad man.”
But what my brother is doing at the head table, is a step more rude in my mother’s book: a plate filled to the brim with delicious, expensive food, and he is not touching a bit of it. I try to eat and enjoy the dumplings, but I find myself spending more time watching my brother—not eating.
Dessert is called. While others spring forward to grab boortsog, biscuits bathed in warm honey, and ul boov, shoe cake (and of course, more airag), Altan asks if I’m enjoying myself.
The question takes me so much by surprise: I am used to be told I should enjoy things more: I answer honestly.
“The food is a bit salty,” he bows his head, “I didn’t mean that. The food is delicious. I just meant. It’s all a bit much.”
I nod. I wish I could tell him, this stranger, that my feelings have nothing to do with the food or the decor or the guests. I lower my eyes.
“I’m embarrassing you. You must think I’m rude.”
“You do,” he insists. He’s agitated, the way my father used to get with my mother during their last years of marriage. Full of remorse and a sense of futility.
“Altan,” It feels strange to use his name. Maybe it is Gerel’s makeup that has made me bold, or maybe I was bold this morning when I came here in the first place, “I’m not upset with what you said. It’s too much, truly.”
Relief in his eyes, “Good. Because I like you.”
It is an awkward, direct, statement. People don’t say things like that. Part of the fun, Gerel always told me, was the chase, the wondering, the subtle innuendos. I told her I’d had enough of that nonsense. I was done with men, done with people in general.
I still am, I decide. Maybe if we’d met earlier, under different circumstances. But I’ve seen relationships fall apart too many times. And seen too many that should never have happened in the first place.
“I was wondering if you’d like to leave early. Get some tea somewhere?”
I wonder if he really means tea. I don’t know. I shake my head, “They’d notice us leave.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
And he’s right: the dancing begins with a traditional long song, complete with a horse fiddle and throat singers. It is during this song that everyone gathers to gaze on the new bride and groom, who dance slowly, fusing the western notion of “first dance” with traditional modes of celebrating the new couple. If my mother was here to see this, I honestly don’t know what she would make of it. Maybe for her, it is this fusing that is worse than something altogether modern.
But it is beautiful. It is everything I could have once hoped for. If only this was a wedding I’d been invited to.
“I didn’t mean to sound too forward.”
I start to assure him that that’s not it, that he hasn’t done anything. But maybe it is my mother’s words, finally sinking in me, or maybe it is the smell of rich foods and spirits or the lighting.
This man, the first man I have found myself attracted to for years, is suddenly repulsive to me. He has a need to leave the wedding before the celebration has hardly begun, a need to fill his own needs, regardless of any one else.
I can’t trust him.
“It was nice to meet you,” I say with finality, in a way that makes it clear I don’t plan to see him again.
Hurt registers in his eyes. Maybe I am wrong about him, maybe it is my mother’s paranoia or my own. Maybe it doesn’t even matter.
“Okay,” he says quietly. He hesitates, tears off a corner of the reception program, jots down a number. “Just in case,” he says.
The minute he leaves, I regret it. I regret being alone, really alone, as everyone around me eats or dances or gets rapidly tipsy. A couple narrowly avoids running into me as they sway to the music. Both of them are dressed in neutral colored deels with silver trimming. A woman in a petal pink dress passes by me, holding a slice of shoe cake in one hand and a shot of vodka in the other. At least I think that’s what it is: it’s clear, not the clouded appearance of airag.
It seems as if almost everyone has come with someone. Couples, young and old, siblings. The eating and the music is overwhelming so I retreat back to me seat. It is nice to be in a shadowed corner where I can watch without being watched. Not that anyone—even my own brother—has paid me any attention.
I should leave before my brother does see me. Because how would I explain? I ask myself if my mother would have come.
Even if she had been invited, I don’t think she would have. Not for the same reasons. Because as much as I loved my mother, she was every bit as prejudiced as my brother accused her of being. She said the Chinese were ruining our country, had always been meddling in Mongolia. Greedy. Lazy, even.
When I was fifteen, I became enamored with a boy in my class. Ethnically Chinese, though he’d been adopted by Mongolian parents. I can remember him now: the deep dimples when he smiled, deeper than Altan’s. The shy gaze when a teacher called on him, a surprisingly confident voice the little he did speak. He was a scholar, bound for a University abroad, though he didn’t know where at the time. An uncanny knack for languages: he’d picked up English, some French, and Mandarin Chinese, largely on his own. But those were rumors. He didn’t really talk much about it.
I dreamed his trips to sharpen his pencil were so he could go by my seat, that he noticed when I wore a new dress or seemed more cheerful when we worked on a group project together. But the day my mother found out about my infatuation, she put an end to it. No more school for me, she said, if I so much as continue to think about that boy. When I protested, she took away the book I was reading for history, and she wouldn’t give it back until I promised her.
“I’m only trying to protect you,” she said.
And now look: I’ve been protected. Thirty-two, single, and sitting in the dark at my own brother’s wedding.
I decide to be brave, but if this is being brave, it doesn’t feel like it. I am navigating the main floor, pushing past the dancing couples, past the throat singers who are resting on the sides, nibbling on hand biscuits.
I am getting close. I see the bride’s back, the delicate beading on her dress. It is a far cry from something I would pick, but it looks as stunning on her as the wedding deel did, maybe more. And despite what I know, or think I know, about how she has treated my brother, I feel a rush of shame.
Am I as bad as my mother? Do I hate this woman because of what I’ve been told, because I think she’s truly bad for him? Or because my mother taught me it’s okay to hate? Is that why I push all men away, including Altan: because none of them compares to the boy I am still hopelessly in love with? Is it possible to be in love with a boy your mother hated a decade and a half ago?
I realize I am swaying. Probably everyone will just assume I’m drink.
And I look up. I look up and see my brother staring right back at me. Everything numbs. I imagine my organs have become bone.
I try to smile, I do. But it’s like my mouth has forgotten how to move and it comes off more as a half grimace.
And then he waves, as if we are further away than a hundred feet. I wave back, feeling a rush of elation and of shame, everything flooding me. Five long years. Five damn years, no invite, and now this.
And then I see a man behind me, smiling broadly.
The man my brother was waving too.
Batbayaar, who I grew up with, who I once shared all of my secrets, who I taught how to cook and who taught me archery, wasn’t looking at me at all.
He didn’t notice me. He didn’t recognize his own sister.
I am drinking too much. Milk tea, not airag. It spills over my lips, creating a white foam that makes me appear rabid, as lost as I feel. I can feel the pressure in my bladder growing and the hallway is still too stuffy, even away from the crowd. As the dancing continues inside, I imagine my brother with his new bride, imagine the pained expression in my mother’s eyes, imagine I had been invited as a guest of honor, rather than a crasher no one knows or recognizes.
I start walking. The hallway is long and smells heavily of the dumplings and mutton. There are stains on the carpet, maybe from decades earlier, before my brother or I were even born, when this place once was not ours.
My breath catches. Someone’s following me. I can feel their shadow, pressing on me, and I imagine the warnings even Gerel gave me before I came: never walk alone in the capital, even somewhere you feel you are safe. You just never know.
I turn. It’s a little girl. Her face is painted with some sort of heavy blush, her thick black hair braided so she looks like a glazed china doll.
“Are you lost?” she asks me.
Startled, I was about to ask her the same.
“Maybe,” I admit.
“The party’s back in the other room,” she says.
There is something about her voice that feels familiar. I remember, now, a wedding I have been too. Years and years ago. My brother and I went to some second cousin’s wedding. We were children, maybe six or seven. Full of wonder as we slurped slimy gurilitai shul noodles and snuck glazed gambar cakes. As we chortled and pretended our water was liquor, swayed to music and barely suppressed just how funny we found the throat singers.
“Once upon a time,” I tell the girl, “I thought that too.”
She doesn’t answer, just looks at me in the way that children do. She looks neither Mongolian nor Chinese and it strikes me that it does not change that she is here, that she followed me, that she wants me to enjoy something more than I have ever let myself.
I follow the girl back to the party and let the music beat inside of me. I wing up a prayer, and when the girl has disappeared into the crowd, slip away.
“I didn’t think you would come.”
“That makes two of us.” I grip the glass of kumis, sip its milky broth lightly. I don’t think my bladder can take much more.
Altan’s sleeves are rolled up. We are in a small eatery several blocks away and the lighting is dim, the seating uncomfortable. Only a handful of customers are there, mostly single men or women, reading the paper, pretending to be doing something important with their phones. It’s started to rain, though it’s hard to tell through the filmy windows.
“You weren’t invited,” he says.
He smiles in a sad way, “I mean to the wedding.”
“No,” I say.
He tilts his head, “I’m glad you went. And came here.”
I long to be home, or in Gerel’s apartment, listening to her gripe about her boss. I long to be alone, in a room with no windows, with no light so I cannot see the people we have become. I long for Altan to be someone else, maybe my brother, maybe just not Mongolian. Long to tell myself I am not my mother.
“Invitations are hard to come by,” I finally say.
“I know,” he says, and he drains his own cup, letting the silence settle like morning fog, both of us trying to climb through something, looking for our own light, listening for the bells to ring to announce the new hour, the end of another celebration we did not celebrate.