The Mandarins

by Massoud Hayoun

Message: To Whom It May Concern: I need to get in touch with Prof. Ayesha Jenkins from your Law School Immigration Clinic regarding an urgent personal matter. I’d appreciate you relaying the message for me soonest, please. I was unable to find her email on her profile page or the curriculum vitae hyperlinked to it. Thank you. Sincerely, Prof. Sam Saoud, Demming University

Sender: Sam Saoud, Professor of Political Theory, Demming University
Location: Monterey, California 
Electronic Address: [email protected]
Date: March 2

March 19


Thanks for reaching out. I know this must be awkward for you because of the nature of our arrangement. 

This is about Joe, of course. If he’s up in Monterey with you, that’s fine by me and certainly isn’t urgent enough for us to contact each other’s workplaces. I’m not mad — but we established ground rules to keep us all from messiness like this. 

Just tell him to let me know what’s up from time to time and that he’s ok. I’ve been worried. 

Thanks, again,

Ayesha Jenkins, she/her/hers/they/them/theirs
Director, Immigration Clinic
Conrad School of Law, San Ysidro College
San Diego, California

March 19


Joe isn’t with me. I assumed he was with you. I was writing to express my frustration with this situation and with our overall arrangement. ‘Arrangement’ — what an elegant word for such an inelegant thing. You must be quite the lawyer. 

If he’s not with you, then can I ask when’s the last time you were in touch? Joe and I haven’t spoken for weeks. I started texting him a few days ago about our plans. He was supposed to come up from LA for spring break. As you may know. 

Did you see him over Presidents’ Day weekend? Maybe he drives down to see you often. I wouldn’t know. I did assume he was dividing his time between us equally, but I’m starting to feel the weight of being in the dark this whole time. 

To say I feel worried would be an understatement. More like breathless and brokenhearted. But I really can’t complain; I’ve brought this on myself.


March 23

Hey Sam,

I was with Joe for the long weekend. And to be totally transparent, he probably does come down more frequently, only because it’s less of a trek. I can say with a whole lot of certainly that it’s not because he feels any greater affection for me than he does for you. I hope that’s a consolation. 

Honestly, I don’t see him that often, even if there’s less of a drive between us. Particularly with my work defending immigrants whose entire lives and family’s lives hang in the balance or are caught up on either side of the border, I don’t have tons of time for a personal life, let alone the kind of petty drama I’m finding is typical in this type of arrangement. 

Between us, I’d also hoped to speak to Joe about this at some point, and my texts and calls have also gone unanswered for a while. I know that when we last texted, he was preparing finals for his Intro Semantics course and that he did mention he’d be heading up to see you. 

Sam, you don’t know a lot about me — and that makes not knowing where Joe is a lot more daunting, I’m sure. For me too. But please know this: I’m also in the dark about a whole lot of things — it’s not Joe and me conspiring against you. I don’t know anything about you, except for fragments of details from Joe. And I am not an unfeeling sort of “other woman” you may imagine me to be. I know we’ve never spoken, but rest assured I have thought about you often over the past year. Those thoughts have been resentful on occasion (since I’m only human) but I’m not without empathy. I do hope you’re well, Sam.

You’re right to say we signed up for this kind of mess. And now that we can’t get a hold of Joe, that’s becoming excruciatingly obvious. Should we contact the police, you think? 


March 24


Forgive me if my previous email was too pointed. I’m on edge, clearly, and I certainly mean you no ill will, but this anxiety seems to pepper everything I do, including these messages. 

I often think of you too. The irony is we’ve avoided each other all this time, by design, and I also find myself thinking of you frequently. I appreciate your candor, and I also feel the same mix of concern and resentment for you. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought to reach out to speak to you from our strange place between the two. I never thought I’d find myself here. Even with the way academia is, this often feels a little rich for my blood — too far-out. I’ll never be cool or modern enough to be in an open relationship. 

When I met Joe, I never anticipated I’d be capable of romantic feelings for anyone. Like a lot of gay men, I’ve had a series of hopeful moments ultimately hammer home that I shouldn’t expect strings attached. Strings weave tangled webs. I thought I’d end up sleeping around and then live and die alone. Not in a sad way, but in a dignified way, with my head held high. Probably because no one ever showed me any interest — that is to say, more than sexual — the way he did. But you know how he is, of course. He’s a charmer. 

Anyway, sorry for the TMI. 

You can feel free to alert the authorities. You’re your own woman, even if we are bound by our concern for Joe. I won’t join you in calling the cops, though. I don’t know about you, but for me, this isn’t the first time he’s disappeared for a few days. I’d probably contact his department before I contact the police, but he’d probably be upset with us for making a fuss and involving his work in our affairs. So I’ll hold off on that, too, as much as I hope he’s well.

Thank you for being empathetic and for deescalating what’s already a mess of a situation. 

Much appreciated,

March 25

Hi Sam,

I agree about the cops. There’s no point calling them. 

I don’t speak to Joe every day either. Who has the time? I guess it’s very possible he’s just not talking to us. 

And that’s not TMI, about how you and Joe met. I will say that it’s exhilarating to hear anything at all about you and your relationship with Joe, since that sort of talk was always off limits. You must’ve intuited that I low-key crave that sort of information. Are you game to trade notes? Now it’s a question of Joe’s safety, so I feel we are in our rights to get on the same page.’ Feel free to tell me what you want.

In the spirit of reciprocity, I’ll say that when Joe and I met, I had just started as director of the Immigration Clinic, a significant career jump from my time as a junior civil rights attorney at the U.S. Human Rights Foundation in D.C. From the beginning, we were doing a lot of high-stakes work at the clinic. It had also been a few years since I got my JD, so I’d mostly forgotten how academics are — as you pretty accurately put it, kind of rich and out-there — and suddenly a lot of newspapers were interviewing me about the clinic’s work. So for a few reasons, I was both at an all-time high, at least career-wise, and feeling extremely insecure and vulnerable. I worried constantly that at any moment, everyone would call my bluff and realize that I’m a clever little charlatan and have no place leading the charge at the clinic. I was stress eating. I’d gained some weight. 

When we met, Joe was at a linguistics conference at San Ysidro College. He reached out over Twitter DM’s to tell me he was interested in something I’d said in an interview about a family separation case. Or rather, he was interested in the way I said it. 

So we met for drinks at a dive bar just off campus. He looked at me with his hawk eyes — you probably know what I mean. Like he’s about to pounce. Or at least that’s my experience of him. Maybe it’s the darkness of the lashes that underline his gaze. And of course he spoke how he speaks. Poetic, but not always overtly romantic or even flattering or kind. He spoke in a way that understood and underlined my insecurities. In a way that embraced and I guess encompassed or hugged or encircled them? I felt beautiful despite myself. I felt like that night, I was seen by his strange eyes in a way that feels so singular, it must be a kind of love. And I recognized, when he left the next morning, back to Los Angeles, that I’d never felt that way before, not with a man or in my work or in the U.S. or in Mexico. 

Sorry if that’s lame. It’s how I felt.

We had our highs and lows. This is, to put it lightly, one of the lowest of the lows — this prolonged and unexplained silence. But no regrets, right? 

Sounds like you guys weren’t in a great place either. Please don’t feel like you have to tell me anything, if it makes you uncomfortable. But I’d appreciate a chance to understand more. 


March 25

Dear Ayesha, 

Joe uses mascara. I’m not sure you’ve realized. Maybe you have. 

I very much appreciate you trying to understand more about me and about me and Joe. But you couldn’t possibly. Not the totality of things, anyway. 

I apologize for responding to your apparent generosity of spirit with this incessant prickliness, but I can’t help myself. I realize that you’’re also a queer person, and that I don’t know you. But we all have to recognize our relationships to certain power structures. And for all the openness and all your pronouns, you present to society a woman and he presents as a man. What you have together is exalted and unquestioned. I can only imagine what it is for you two to walk down the street together and for that to feel and look right to you and everyone around you. 

That’s all to say, it probably wasn’t just the shorter drive that kept you closer. I apologize for being so bitter; it’s unbecoming, I know. But like I said, I can’t help myself — maybe because Joe has whittled me down to nothing. I feel now, in this conversation, as I felt when I first realized I had feelings for him. Like a damn fool. Or a child at point zero. Nothing I’ve worked so hard to create — not my career, not my sense of self, not a single academic paper published — matters. He’s deflated me. That fucking bastard. 

Please know that despite myself and my mean spirit, I am also interested in knowing you better. But how could I possibly do that without having a nervous breakdown? And what’s more, if I magically found the courage to move past the pain of knowing you, there would still be this vast experiential chasm between us. Maybe these letters are like our relationships to/with Joe? (A losing game.) 

Your letter raised some questions for me. Maybe that’s how we get started and get acquainted, despite ourselves? 

1. What was it you said in the newspaper interview — the substance or the semantics — that made Joe reach out? 

2. Why did you not tell me what you’d said in your last email? 

3. Why did you raise the topic of your weight gain? That seemed like a non sequitur and maybe a Freudian slip. 

I ask about the weight, because I met Joe when I was feeling very insecure about my looks. And it sounds like that may have also been the case for you. 


March 29

Dear Sam, 

I respect, of course, that I don’t know your situation. Allow me, though, to observe a few important points. Forgive my list, it’s for clarity’s sake (mine and yours) and not intended to resemble one of my depositions, even if I do find that life resembles law and law resembles art: 

1. You are right to observe that I don’t know what it is for two men to walk down a street in America — even in more-or-less liberal California — and express love for each other in that public way. I absolutely understand that our society would manifestly rather see Joe and me together. And that we can — and may still — have children. I don’t know what your role in that would be in our arrangement if that were the case, though I am so certain that if we didn’t have these ground rules, I would love for someone so bright and manifestly beautiful to be in my child’s life. 

2. It is, of course, impossible for us to quantify the ways in which being a man has harmed your ability to be with Joe in earnest and without the limitations posed by everything other than the geographic distance between you two. 

3. Just because something is prevalent does not indicate that it is just. Take borders, for instance. I would say that we (humans, internationally) almost universally view borders as a scientific expression of where something begins and ends, but they are patently manmade and murderous. And racist. And classist. And eugenicist. 

4. That brings me to my point: There is also no way to quantify how my being a woman impacts my relationship with Joe. Just because patriarchal societies have more universally sanctioned heterosexual partnerships, it doesn’t mean those partnerships are fair or an expression of our biological, natural, or spiritual destiny. That’s to say that, for all the gay men who’ve been tortured and killed since time immemorial, so too have heterosexual relationships tortured and killed women. You’ll never understand, in your situation, how my being a woman has hurt me, with Joe and existentially. 

With respect for the particularities of your situation — or the vast chasm between us that you find it necessary to observe — I discourage you from professing to speak for how my gender affects my relationship to Joe. It certainly hasn’t helped, from my vantage point. Please respect, also, that as we’ve established, I bear many of the same or similar resentments toward him.

To answer your questions: 

1. It was about borders, of course. That’s sort of a running theme for me that bleeds even into this correspondence, it seems. The exact quote was: “Go to the beaches of Tijuana and see the way the border wall that already exists endeavors to split the water in two, and you’ll understand what I mean when I insist to all the Bible-thumpers who don’t love their neighbors that there’s nothing sacred about how we separate parcels of land, life, and lovers.” It was in the San Diego Cryer. About the camps, of course. The article went viral. That’s how Joe saw. It was quoted in a tweet from Glenn Greenwald. 

2. I didn’t include this quote because I’ve done nothing to this point but overshare, and you have offered nothing of yourself. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Sam.

3. Yes, I was full-on fat. Still am. And one of the first things out of his mouth that night was: “I like full-figured women who own it.” Of course, I would have left the table if it were anyone else. Interesting that you picked up on that part of my email. You’re very intuitive. Joe is also very intuitive, as you likely know, but also dense enough to think that calling people brave for being fat and not apologizing for it is a compliment. 

Needless to say, I was on a diet the following Monday, even if it didn’t stick. 

Be well,

April 1

Dear Ayesha,

I apologize, and you’re mostly right. I say that not as a concession . . . I suppose I’m happy to have been wrong? At least this time. 

Of course, I am an egotistical person. We all are. No one stays in academia long enough to impart knowledge without imagining themself to be especially smart or powerful. But I am not accustomed to telling people about myself, as much as I find myself listening to other people. Particularly to women who want to tell me about their men. But also with Joe. I feel predestined as the Greek chorus gay friend to be a barkeep to the straights — and the straight-acting. 

I was raised by a single mother. To some degree, I prided myself on being like her — not needing a man, not buying into monogamy. I wasn’t always that way. I came out to myself and to her, thinking that all the grief of that coming out would at least yield a Hollywood romance, and when it didn’t, I retreated into my birthright and became, in my late 20s, a bitter old girl. 

It’s not intuition or some kind of occult femme-ness that drove me to ask about your weight; it’s experience. Our experiences are not the same, as we’ve established, but they certainly intersect. I had been decidedly celibate for years before I met Joe — also at an academic conference on the politics of colonized/colonizing language in news media. I don’t know how much you’ve Googled about me, but I’m the preeminent scholar in the field of colonial psychologies, mostly because I discovered a more-or-less scientific means of quantifying how post-colonial and decolonial societies view themselves in relationship to the imperialists. It’s called called the Saoudian Index. Joe’s work on semantics has frequently sought to quantify power dynamics in speech, so he took me out for drinks to compare notes. 

He commented that night, after we went back to his hotel room, that I looked a lot nicer on my faculty page headshot than I did in real life. And, of course, that came after all the poetic and flattering things he also says, so I was taken aback by it. I explained that the photo, despite looking like a professional headshot, was just a cleverly angled selfie taken on a trip to Algiers, when I was just about to publish the academic monograph that would result in the popularization of the Index and lead to my current role at Demming. 

I replied that if I looked different, it was because I was happy then. He didn’t react, as I recall. I wanted to see empathy in his face or hear him understand that what had happened since had been a series of personal and professional losses that had hardened and weathered my face. I also sort of wanted him to acknowledge what I feel to be true: that happiness makes you beautiful. I’m only a social science person, but I’ve read that at least anecdotally, sorrow causes acne, fine lines, hair loss, stomach fat accumulation, and a wan complexion. By contrast, I’ve met people whose entire beauty was premised on their ability to be happy. Like Drew Barrymore in middle age, for instance. 

More than realizing my sorrow, I wanted him to embrace me. And then I figured that even with all the overt passes he had made, even realizing this was a gay dalliance, he wanted me to “man up.” So I did. And it worked out. He solidified what I assumed would’ve been a one-off into whatever love triangle this is. 

Sort of like your weight loss, I invested in a lot of skincare the next week. Bought the entire line of Korean gadgets and lab vials of active ingredients to plump up my sallow skin and slowly massage out fine lines, signs of sorrow and life and smoking in my 20s. I erased all those things from my face. But I found that no matter how much product you buy, you can’t learn to be a happy sort of person, in the way that beautiful people are nourished by their happiness. I think that’s also why I’ve never enjoyed pot or liquor; I’ve never had the courage to allow myself to quiet the depression and anxiety — which apparently keeps me looking so unappealing — long enough to just enjoy a buzz.

Anyway, over the course of the past several months, we had our ups and downs. And then a few weeks ago, Joe started picking fights about nothing. And now there’s just silence. This isn’t my first rodeo. 

Sometimes, I fantasize that I never met him and kept my head held high. That I used men for sex, like I felt I’d been used, and continued to pour my entire self into my work, since that’s the only thing I’ve ever really been able to get my hands around, abstract as what I do — what we all do in academia, except for you in your actionable corner — is. 

I’m sorry. This feels like rambling, too indulgent. What’s going on between you and Joe? Has he also been weird with you lately? 


April 3

Dear Sam,

Thank you for showing me your face, so to speak, in this way, for the first time. I feel like we understand each other in a way I’ve never experienced. As I write, I realize this is starting to sound like a sort of love letter, so I’ll try to rein it in a little. But I will say that I am beginning to feel a kind of affection for you. Not sexual, of course — don’t worry. But something real, nonetheless. 

In my years with Joe, or really the days here and there in those years that have added up to no more than a few months, I’ve felt seen in a way that exhausts me. Maybe because he is beautiful — and he certainly considers himself to be beautiful. It’s very much like everything I’ve worked hard to produce in my life leading up to him somehow disintegrates. And like you, learning from your mom, I want my dignity back. 

I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to tell you too much about the nature of our current problem. I think I know why Joe disappeared, but I don’t want to believe it. I really would like to tell you, but I don’t know how we proceed in a way that’s fair to Joe and to us all, mutually. If you would like to know, I suppose we have agreed on finally airing everything hidden — so you decide if I should tell you. I leave it to you to decide where we go from here. 

Yours truly,

April 3

Dear Ayesha,

Our agreement indeed seems to be that we’re no longer hiding anything, since we have no reason to do so anymore. And, of course, for Joe. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s your choice. I will say I do feel a bit exposed, with all my own oversharing, thinking that’s what we were doing. My fault though; that’s on me. 

On the topic of learning from my mother: This is a bit of a tangent, but know that not very many generations ago, but long enough for historians to condescend to them like they’re of the past, an ancestor of mine back in North Africa was the first of three simultaneous wives. I’ve often wondered, thinking of that mother, where we draw the line between the polygamy of the past and this sort of futuristic, hyper-evolved polyamory. What must sharing a husband have meant in her generation? Was it a relief to have a sister-wife shoulder the burden of a matched husband? Or was it a betrayal? Had she cared for him until he decided that he could afford someone younger? And was it as weird as what we have? Polygamy was already quite rare by then — and it had always only ever been people who could at least endeavor to support several simultaneous families. 

No photos or writing exist to answer those questions meaningfully. My only reference point is a Chinese movie, Yimou Zhang’s Raise The Red Lantern. The family in the film was rich enough to sequester the wives in their own little cloistering courtyards. And still, the wives ended up at each other’s throats, until (spoiler alert) the protagonist’s insanity sort of sets her free. 

It’s funny how history repeats itself, right? That feels almost cosmic. 

I texted Joe. Nothing. 



April 10


I haven’t even bothered to try texting for a few days.

I’m pregnant. Due in a few months. I thought maybe you’d have intuited it, with what you said about growing up with a single mother. 

That was the source of our latest rough patch. I told Joe, and he went silent. 


April 20


I haven’t heard from you in a while, so I’m reaching out again — I’m very sorry to be so in your face. I know this is difficult for you, but can you imagine where my head is at? 

Please imagine where my head is at. 

With love and concern for you and for the future, in general,

May 1

Dear Ayesha,

I don’t know that our being in touch will help anything. I’m not sure what to say. Nothing dignified comes to mind. 

I am so sorry that Joe is doing this to you. I wish I could find it in my heart to offer you more empathy than that. I cannot. I’m only human. And I’m not even especially good at being one, evidently. 

I’m almost certain Joe will come back to you at some point. That’s how this stuff works. 

And if he doesn’t, if it’s any consolation to you, you’ll share one thing in common with my single mother: You’ll never have to worry about being alone. 

Best wishes,

May 1


If I drove up to Monterey, would you see me? 

May 1

I wouldn’t turn you away. But I wouldn’t be able to hold back the weird mix of resentment and concern I feel for you. We both risk ending up ashamed. 

May 1

I’d rather be ashamed together. 

May 1


Photo credit: Adi Lica