Honesty, integrity, virtue; what you advocate for on your Youtube channel and Patreon lectures, exposing the meat industry’s lies and its contribution to illness, disease, and destruction in the Western world; activist-inspired videos, like PETA’s, showing maimed animals in factory farms, bred only for their profit in death, which non-vegans who are either stupid or psychotic call meals instead of plated funerals. You call them out, but your viral videos are the ones of you strolling the Thai beaches in neon string bikinis, posing in pastel lingerie, or deep- throating bananas to advertise veganism as glamorous and sexy.
Tell yourself it’s for the fans, because that feels better than the truth; that you hoped success would kill off the anxiety that seductively slithered around your neck like a snake and cut off air supply. That it invites itself on happy occasions.
Like right now, as you walk through Mipa’s apartment with Eli filming behind you. You’re staying with Mipa, another Youtuber dubbed The Buddhist Vegan, scouting her minimalist but peaceful flat for filming locations. A week ago, on your daily vlog with Eli, he surprised you with tickets to Taipei so you could visit Jade and collaborate with Mipa on mukbangs, to combine your large fanbases. He also wanted to visit Mipa, because from all his travels, Taipei was still his favorite place. The gorgeous sunsets, relaxing cat villages, and delicious, unprocessed vegan food, the city’s pagodas and gardens marked the aftermath of the White Terror, haunted by secrets that will never be revealed.
You turn to the camera and smile. This flat is as classy as The Buddhist Vegan, you say.
Eli smiles, gives you the thumbs up.
You take Eli’s free hand and feel calm. Ignore the anxiety that’s befriended you since you were a child, starting with Dad disappearing for drinking binges. An anxiety which translated into arousal at fourteen in Red Lobster when your parents argued in between hard Cheddar Bay biscuits and cold snow crab legs, and you noticed men’s lingering stares.
Men wanted to fuck you. That felt powerful. An escape from boring school and chaotic home, to men who dubbed you a petite, sun-kissed spinner, who stroked your golden hair and stared into your wide blues as they reached underneath your shirt and down your pants to stroke your problems away in drive thrus, movie theaters and the beaches after dark.
As Mipa poses for Eli’s camera, his smile makes you wince. It’s the same argument. Petty jealousy of other girls, the concern that he misses his reckless lifestyle before he converted you, bought your implants, and catapulted you into microfame as the new standard of veganism. Mipa knew Eli when he lived in Taipei, and you suspect they’ve hooked up, despite Eli’s protests that he’d never want a middle-aged woman. But when he lays down his camera, his light blue eyes glance at her toned legs for too long, like they did on your first date with him.
He desires Mipa.
You hate her.
To distract yourself, you hug Mipa, inhale the scent of lemons and freshly cut grass on the curve of her neck.
You smell so good, you say.
Heno de Pravia, she replies. I stock up whenever I go to the Philippines. You’re so passionate.
For the fans and the animals, you say. Eli’s to thank.
Megan’s my best conversion, Eli replies. She’s brought me a female audience and thousands of subscribers since we met. She’s too valuable. I’d never lose her.
She’ll make veganism more mainstream, Mipa adds. It’s almost sunset. Want to go to the night markets?
We need to vlog for today, Eli replies. Want to do a promo for the mukbang before you go?
Sure, she replies.
With his fancy camera, he films you and Mipa on her olive-green couch where she hosts her weekly mukbangs, and you both promote the joining of great vegan forces to bring the most activist inspired, food porniest feast for the fans. Despite your anxiety, you kiss Mipa on the cheek goodbye and Mipa reaches out to kiss Eli goodbye, until she catches your angry stare. She shakes Eli’s hand before leaving.
Alone with Eli and relieved, you reach out to him, smile as he kisses you on the couch, run through the introductions before answering an easy viewer’s question.
How did we meet? You ask the camera.
You love this story, because it mirrors the hopeful energy of the stylish yet natural images on social media, pictures of him picking mangosteens off trees, and you chopping bananas for smoothies, where you kiss, cuddle and coo to each other in that love bubble, where you toast to health with wheat grass shots. In turns, you explain that you were at Sage cafe in Echo Park for one of his lectures, and you walked past his table with printed copies of his e-book. You say that you complimented his writing skills, and when he asked about your favorite part, you admitted you hadn’t read it. Eli says that he saw the beautiful, conscious woman underneath that Ambercrombie outfit, so he gave you one for free.
I traded your number for the book, because I knew you’re the one, he says.
You feel grateful. Smile and wink at the camera, because Eli was a conquest. Before you, he posted rants urging his male fans to join the no fap movement and avoid serious relationships, which drained men of their energy, ambition and creativity. But once you came into his life, his activism and creativity increased, and in return, he invested his resources into you.
You tell the fans about that first date at the James Irvine Japanese Garden at sunset, about holding hands and philosophical conversations, but you omit when Eli invited you back to his hotel, where he blindfolded you and tied you up, took you every way he wanted, and choked you as you came.
Instead, you talk about what happened afterward.
We talked about fears, you say. He talked about being groomed to take over his family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, knowing it was a terrible practice, how he knew in film school he was meant to spread a deep message but didn’t know how. I shared that I never felt like I was good at anything, and he soothed me.
You were my missing answer. For my subscribers and me, he says. Next question. What’s our opinion about contraception? Is it vegan and do we use it?
Not always, but often, you say. Birth control is unvegan. Vegan condoms.
We shouldn’t, he says. We need more vegan babies to sustain the population.
No babies unless we’re married, you say. What vasectomies? They’re cheap in Thailand, and vegan.
He shakes his head and points to the camera. I’ll knock her up.
He laughs. You don’t.
Do you ever want that old life back? you ask.
No, Megan, he says quickly.
Defensive, you cross your arms. You’ve suspected Eli because he jokes that it takes forever to orgasm because he’s so used to you now, anxious from the nebulous allegations from jealous vegan female Youtubers who’ve hugged him too tightly or glanced at him for too long at the Chiang Mai Fruit Festival you’ve hosted. Right after their call out videos to you, you’ve rescinded their Chiang Mai Fruit Festival invitations and sent your army of fans to destroy their social media careers.
Would you choose that life over me? You ask.
I already have, he says.
I’m not sure, you reply.
What about you? Do you ever want that old life back? he asks.
It’s no fun, you say.
It wasn’t. Sex was a dirty distraction of the fear of being exposed as not good enough. You’ve shared those feelings with Eli and instead of rejection, saw the real him entangled in those bed sheets – the only man who’s accepted you and improved your life. During your college days, you shared these coping mechanisms with Jade while slamming back PBR and Two Buck Chuck, but friends change, or in her case move.
He leans over, his breath sweet from hibiscus tea, wraps his strong yet thin arms around your slim waist. Eli is the closest you’ve felt to that nirvana, that bliss. You long for marriage, because it will end this chapter of heartbreak. He’s your favorite place. You smile in anticipation of christening Mipa’s guest room.
What were you doing then? He asks.
I was waiting for you.
The next day you meet Jade at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, using a fan to stave off the May humidity. She’s not the broke college student in hoodies, t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. In the sunny Saturday light, she resembles a Chinese actress with her tan floral dress and heels. You run towards her like you ran to Dad at ten, after he’d returned from a drinking binge. A flock of birds jets through the clear blue sky, taking you back to that moment before his sickness took him. You embrace Jade’s slender frame, take in this new version; inhale her impeccable, strawberry scented hair, the Ralph Lauren cologne at the curve of her soft neck. She kisses you on the cheek. Her face glows like she’s in love.
You sense this because women change for the ones they love. You did, because your attire is now Eli’s aesthetic. You smooth out your royal blue harem pants and violet crop top, an outfit the subscribers love. You turn on your phone for the daily vlog.
Put that away, Jade demands.
Why are you so uptight? You’re their friend too.
I’m not part of the fiber eating club.
You’re no fun.
I want you for myself, she says. We’re adults now! You’re no longer a slut.
Eli and I are reformed sluts, you laugh. Have you found love?
She looks away. Instead, you hold hands and marvel at the giant metal statues of Chiang Kai-shek and the motionless guards standing at both sides. You miss those college days when you smoked hookah and Jade cried about her parents’ divorce and you cried about Dad’s alcoholism, when you focused on other people’s mistakes because you hadn’t made detrimental ones yet. Now, Jade feels distant. She touches her necklace too much.
The tour guide is an unassuming young man in a checkered shirt. You’re both so beautiful, he says. Do you love each other?
Yes, you and Jade reply.
Are you lesbian? He asks.
You drop each other’s hands. No, you both reply.
As you follow the tour guide and listen to his explanation about the flag’s direction and Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy of reunification under any circumstances, including making millions disappear under the White Terror, you catch your reflection in the glass cases. See a woman desired by fans and men for your wide blue eyes, long golden hair, and petite frame. See Mom, whose beauty piqued at adolescence and declined with Dad’s alcoholism. Looks fade, and anxiety reminds you: beauty isn’t profound. Long for Eli’s love, his power, influence and reputation, although the question entraps you like the inescapable Taipei heat – if asked, would Eli choose you over all other options?
The tour guide stops at pictures of a younger Chiang Kai shek with an elegant woman, her thick dark hair in Shirley Temple curls. He talks about Chiang Kai-shek’s wife.
When Mr. Shek proposed, she had three requirements, says the tour guide. First, he had to become Christian. Second, he had to conform to her parents’ ways. Third, he had to divorce all other wives. He was a playboy before he met her. Her love changed him. Made him decent. Revolutionary.
You finish the sentence. She made him monogamous.
Monogamy evaded Mom when you knocked on random women’s doors looking for Dad. It evaded Jade’s mom when she’d shotgunned bottles of wine and stalked the mistress in unmarked cars. On his channel Eli jokes that the human male wasn’t meant to be monogamous, but you believe he’s serious. Why can’t compassionate, ethical Eli chose only you, but a dictator can become monogamous?
Let’s watch the changing of the guards, the tour guide says.
The three of you walk to the front of the hall with the rest of the tourists. The calming chime of the clock gives a peaceful fill to the dramatic ceremony. You lean against Jade’s shoulder and play with her exquisite necklace.
You’re so lucky to have this, you say.
You’re so lucky to have that boyfriend you floss on Instagram, she says. No secrets.
Off camera we’re a mess, you say. Who gave you this?
My married boyfriend, she replies.
Married? You repeat.
Jade flinches. You want to scream and slap her, hurt her because you’ve suspected girls have done this with Eli. Instead of upsetting the peaceful ceremony, you storm out. Jade follows you.
Megan, it’s not like that, she says. It was an arrangement, but we fell in love.
Yes, it is, and you of all people know that, you say.
She struggles, breathes her next words heavily. I’m not like her. I have no intention of ruining his family.
You roll your eyes and cross your arms, righteous in your anger. Of course, she’s not her father’s mistress. Nobody intends to embody what they hate. First, it’s fun, until it’s the 20th man who’s blocked you, saying he only wanted sex. Then, you rely on it, trapped in the escape.
That’s how it starts, you reply. And your intentions don’t matter. Would you say this to her face?
Now Jade crosses her arms. I don’t know, she says.
How would you feel if Eli did this to me? you ask.
You stop, want to retract that question, a chink in your bohemian armor. If you were happy with Eli, why ask?
I’d ruin his life if he hurt you, she says. Since when did you get so sanctimonious and judgmental? You really are that vegan. You should’ve had therapy instead of being a fucking ho. Why do you care so much about his wife?
Why do you care so little about yourself? You deserve better than being bought, you reply. Your phone vibrates. Smile. Gotta go. Eli and I need to film the daily vlog.
You deserve more than lying to yourself, she replies. At least I’m honest, she says.
At least I have a life partner, you reply.
Then don’t ask me for anything else, she says.
The sherbet-colored Taipei sunset casts Mipa’s flat in a soft glow. Eli’s embrace is relaxing until you see gorgeous, middle-aged Mipa, with her wide brown eyes, seductive smile, and toned legs in body conscious yoga pants. She hands you a lavender cupcake.
We went to Vegan Heaven, she says.
We don’t eat cake, you say, annoyed.
We’re not on camera, he says. How’s Jade?
Fucking some married guy, you blurt out.
That’s terrible, Mipa says.
Would you do that? you ask her.
Megan, why are you making a big deal out of this, Eli asks.
Fine, I won’t, you huff. Let’s vlog.
I’d like to join you, Mipa says. Want to try a livestream?
She’d be our guest, Eli says. We’ll pre-record it.
Disappointed, you all sit on the olive couch that was cozy and inviting, but now reminds you of diarrhea. Sit in between Mipa and Eli, and cycle through the usual introductions as you bury your face into his chest and smell freshly cut grass. Like Mipa’s soap.
When Eli says that Taipei is his favorite place for its vegan culture, its Buddhism and cosmopolitan vibe, you curb that anxiety by lifting your head up.
You don’t always smell like this, you say, and look at Mipa.
What’s the topic? Mipa asks, changing the subject.
The girlfriend tag video, you reply.
I’m too old to be anyone’s girlfriend, she says.
Before we get to the topic, let’s answer some viewer’s questions, Eli says, motioning to the camera. What were we like before we became microfamous? Mipa first.
She leans back and crosses her legs like a wise, elegant older woman who doesn’t get entangled in drama.
My fans already know, I was a wife and mother by twenty, she says. And seven years ago, I divorced my playboy husband. I didn’t sleep with every cute boy. She stares straight at you. Were you happy when you were single?
Of course, you reply.
Then why get with Eli? she asks.
You choose the polite answer, for the fans, for yourself. Because I love him, you say.
Ladies! Don’t be catty, Eli says, redirecting you to look at the camera instead of Mipa.
You’re tired of her, because she embodies the part of Eli you hate. Mipa, would you mind stepping out of this video? You quietly ask. We can do a mukbang tomorrow.
This is my house, she replies.
It’s my channel, you reply.
She scoffs, walks to her bedroom and closes the door. Eli assures you that he can edit it out. Relieved, you and Eli pick up, now joyful, cuddling in Instagram-worthy poses. You discuss your favorite high carb meals, favorite travels, and your commitment to veganism. Then Eli stumbles on the next question.
Megan, would you marry me? He asks.
I’ve wanted that forever, you say. Would you marry me?
We have a great life without marriage, he replies.
But you want children, you say. Why should you get everything you want, but I don’t get anything I want?
We’ll compromise, he says.
Not on this, you say. What else do you need?
Time, he replies.
You have until the end of the fruit festival to propose, you say.
He laughs like Dad whenever he denied you or belittled you, a laugh translating that you didn’t matter.
I’m not good with ultimatums and expectations, he says.
You hide your face in your palms, away from the camera. Eli, cut the camera off, you say.
This could be a good episode, he says.
Listen to me!
He turns off the camera. What’s wrong with you? he asks.
Everything, you reply. Work, Mipa, you. Why do you smell like her?
Eli crosses his arms. You’re insecure because I ran out of soap and used hers? Let this go.
No, you say. I’ve let too much go. We’re not normal. It’s not normal to feel insecure all the time, like your heart could fall out at any moment, because you’re traveling, and instagraming. I don’t know if we’re monogamous, and I’m tired of guessing.
Eli stares at you like the subjects he liked studied in film school, a cool deadness in his blue eyes. I’ll let you ask me about this only once, he says.
Have you cheated? You ask.
He shakes his head, but he says, It’s nothing.
You turn away and walk to the front door. You open it, but Eli runs behind you and shuts it closed.
Where are you going? He asks.
Someplace safe, you say. You’re my best friend, my lover, my coach, my mentor. But I can’t keep hurting myself.
He tilts your chin with his hand, his blue eyes now, gentle, watery. What I meant to say is that they were nothing. All those girls before you, they meant nothing to me. I’m nothing without you. You’re my favorite place, and I’d delete all social media for you. We can’t lose each other.
Eli embraces you, and the anxiety returns. Don’t say that you feel insane and unstable; don’t tell him about that endless inner voice, that scared, sacred voice that cries love me love me love me, terrified that Eli liked Mipa when he lived in Taipei and likes her now, that he fucked her before and wants to fuck her now.
Instead of repeating the pattern of sex and deep conversations, you look up at his eyes, rustic beard feels good on your cheek, you tell him, Prove that you’ll commit to me. My heart’s not safe here. Tell Mipa we’re leaving.
Where are we going to stay? he asks.
I’ll take care of that, you reply. Tell her now, or I’m leaving.
He knocks on Mipa’s door and lets himself in. Your heart beats like the base of loud club music as you pace outside her bedroom, slide down against the wall as you listen, expecting him to joke or to abandon you; the anxiety returns, swelling inside your heart, until he looks back at you for reassurance, that this was a worthy sacrifice, and you nod, a telepathic conversation, a confirmation.
Thanks, but we can’t stay, he says.
Mipa offers to help Eli pack while you text Jade with the response she deserves. I’m sorry. You explain that the original hostess didn’t work, and you need to crash for a few days until another hostel room opens. She replies, Please come over. I understand.
Mipa offers the sad cupcake again and promises to post a professional video about the canceled mukbang. Be careful, she says, smiling. Sincere, relieved, and thankful, you hug her goodbye.
On the cab ride to Jade’s apartment, night befalls Taipei and silence befalls you and Eli. You hold hands like you did on that fateful stroll around the Japanese Gardens. Jade’s apartment is a glossy officetel with a wide floor plan and a contemporary gray color scheme. Upon arrival, Eli unpacks as she steps into the bathroom to take a phone call. You knock on the door. She puts the phone down.
I’m sorry for earlier, you say. I shouldn’t have been so judgmental. You stop. Want to have a big soliloquy like your videos, but don’t have another one left. The appealing, sexy self from videos has disappeared, leaving your raw vulnerable, childhood you. You wipe your eyes, confused, concerned, inarticulate.
You were right, I’m fucked up, you say. Jade embraces you, catches you like a bird fallen out of its nest. Is this a nervous breakdown?
I’m not sure, Jade replies. This is what I hate about adulting. Our pain is only ours, and no else will really know that. We’ve been through a lot. She hands you a tissue. Does Eli take good care of you?
He will. He chose me over his lifestyle. After three years, it’s a start, right? Let me make up for earlier. Want to have dinner at Spring Vegetable? I’ve always wanted to go there.
She motions to the phone. I have to ask him, she says. This is the you I miss. Jade embraces you one more time and whispers, I’m glad you’re here.