It was this same time two years ago. I can conjure that conversation from memory like it was yesterday. There I was in my room in my old Philly apartment, busying myself at my desk as usual, though this time on Skype with Third Sis. I can still recite the words I’d said to her. I had so much conviction then.
“You know this relationship isn’t going anywhere,” I cut no corners, headed straight to the truth. “You saw how it was at his wedding. Even if there’s love, bountiful of it, it’s not enough. Someone ends up sacrificing something and you know what happened with him – it was religion. You know how it works for us, how much this matters.” I was unflinching and unforgiving, selfish even. “You said it yourself, what you’re both not going to give up – the very thing that stands in the way of this relationship, yet means everything to both of you.”
She’s a young Muslim woman and he’s a staunch Buddhist.
I was twenty-one; it was the summer of 2012.
For the past two to three years, all I wanted was to be different – perceived differently, thought differently, looked upon differently. Different, different, fucking different. I wanted to understand and be understood for being that. I wanted to engage in dialogues about racial and religious divides – what they are, what they mean to different people, and what it would take to bridge them. I found a crowd who’d entertain me. A newfound group of friends with nothing but time and company to spare; we were all in the right place at the right time.
That was how we met. He found me different.
I was nothing like the Malay girls he’s accustomed to; I was chatty and unabashed, embarrassingly honest. I wasn’t seeking for romantic companionship then because there was no way, especially then, that I could have had any right idea what love is. Why? Because I was constantly in love with the concept of it. I was in love with people I met, places I ventured, and experiences I lived. There was no space for a person, anyone – not when the world exhilarated me to the point of euphoria.
We were friends. It was a magical summer, partly due to our endless conversations.
I was what I wanted to be: different, always different. He found me different.
Home base again, summer of 2014. I was, still am, twenty-three.
We were in a Japanese restaurant, meeting up again after two years since we last bid goodbye – awkwardly – on a midsummer night in small-town Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia. That space in time, a period I hold so dearly within myself, of the me – us – so full of youthful folly. We squeezed two years’ worth of stories in two hours. We tried. Even with all that was said, there was still so much to share. I asked about his longtime girlfriend; I was sure they were headed for marriage.
“We broke up.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
For a split second, my heart betrayed me. I thought, if I am not what and who I am, would I have had a chance? Could an “us” have been possible?
We parted ways at the train station. I initiated a hug. That’s always been my modus operandi, how would this time and him be any different? It was a mistake. He was unmistakably male; at least a foot taller, so my face was briefly buried just below the crook of his neck. The frisson surprised me; I didn’t see it coming at all.
We stood on opposite platforms, facing each other and yet divided. That moment broke my heart; it took so much from me not to shrivel to the ground and weep over reality check: this gap that I can’t close. My mind and heart have always understood, yet that goddamn train tracks conveniently cemented metaphors.
I wish I wasn’t different. Anything but.
It was inevitable; we decided to meet again.
The air between us was unmistakably charged, something was definitely brewing – if not two-sided, then definitely one-sided. My end. Of course. We set a date exactly a month from our first, also two nights before I were to leave for Stateside again. We kept in touch over the phone, texting occasionally. At the time, I documented my summer break on Facebook, so I had to feature him and our first meet just like I did with the rest of my friends. Except this time I wrote and rewrote, edited like my life depended on this one stupid status. I made sure to sound casual and totally platonic; Third Sis laughed at my apparently poor attempt.
Reuniting with him shifted my perceptions on so many levels. His presence brought back memories of that magical summer – how I’d ridiculously crystalline it in my mind only to find, unsurprisingly, that reality has overtaken me. Us. He was so changed, a different person in his suit and tie and one filled with adulthood worries – suddenly our dialogues were the likes of money, marriage, aging parents and familial ties. We peppered in racial and religious topics like we used to, recognizing how we’re different from each other, but the boundaries were no longer blurred.
This time the lines were clear and precise: gaps I can’t close, bridges I can’t cross.
For a whole month, I moped. I wallowed. I was shaken to the core, afraid of myself. Afraid of what his presence meant, what he’d awakened without realizing it. What I’d awakened by myself, without realizing it. I played scenarios in my mind, extrapolating reality until it met imagination to ridiculous heights. Say we ended up in a relationship, I’d ask myself, what would I… give up? All the things and beliefs I was so certain about all the while, suddenly none of them made sense anymore. What I was willing to give up in just a hypothetical setting scared the daylights out of me.
I was shaken to the core, afraid of myself. I didn’t, couldn’t, trust myself.
He’s a bad idea, I’d tell myself. He was a representation of every bad idea that I’d tell myself, year after year, to stay away from. He was a bad idea and I knew it, yet I couldn’t seem to extricate myself. Whenever he texted, I reciprocated. Despite what I knew and the heavy sighs that accumulated within me, I’d reach for my phone and reply those damn text messages anyway. We’re just friends, I’d tell myself. What else is there? Nothing. And that was the truth, the reality. We are friends.
But my heart, apparently, has a mind of its own. It was nowhere near reality.
In my heart’s heart, I dared myself to dream. I wasn’t even certain if he viewed me as anything more, but I entertained myself. I worried by myself. I knew what I knew and I wasn’t able to reconcile the divide that separated us, yet I repeatedly questioned and scared myself. It was a vicious cycle.
Funny, everything I told Third Sis back then, with so much conviction too, everything – backfired. I was eating up my words. Every single one of them.
September 2014; summer’s end. August had passed by excruciatingly slowly.
As promised, we met again. Near my neighborhood, the eatery place that I usually hang out with old, high school friends. Today he was my company, smack in my most familiar milieu; it was unsettling. This change still surprises me, crazy irony.
“Did you reserve the entire restaurant tonight?”
“Joke. I was joking. No one else is in here.”
I looked around; he was right. What luck, this restaurant that I decided to introduce to him – a certified foodie enthusiast – had only us for customers that night. I swear, for that split second, everything I felt was written on my face.
We conversed, chatted as usual. Eventually, we left the restaurant and took respite in the nearby Starbucks. He’d paid for lunch that first meet, so I insisted on paying for his drink. The least I could do to return your favor, I said. We laughed. We held on to the night for as long as we could, but being home means I have curfews. Ugh, that.
I called Third Sis to pick me up – I’m ashamed to admit that I still can’t drive well – and she gave the okay to drop him off at his rented apartment, ten minutes from the family home. Bizarre that he now lives in my neighborhood. Another awkward goodbye, what else is new. I could feel Third Sis’ knowing stares, so I casually waved goodbye from the car without initiating anything. See you again soon, I chirped breezily, even though both of us knew my flight out was in two days’ time.
We exchanged parting texts later that night. Friendly as usual.
This doesn’t mean anything, I told myself. We’re just friends. We’d promised to keep in touch better this time around, texting more regularly unlike our previous intermittent exchange of Facebook messages. On my first few days back at Stanford, I was as usual, homesick. Once, I was in the bus and suddenly awash with so much yearning for familiarity so I… stupidly texted him. Long texts, because I’m frustratingly verbose.
Over the next few days, I’d obsess over his silence. When a reply came, it was short. Friendly, but his concise sentences were a stark contrast to mine. My cheeks grew hot in embarrassment. Still, I continued to make an effort to keep the conversation going, though over time it grew increasingly unnatural. I cringe even now, at the memory. It was so unnatural, everything I did – constantly writing and rewriting. I was censoring myself so much that I didn’t feel like myself anymore so at last, one fine day, I stopped entirely. Nothing from my end anymore.
I can still recall a snippet of the conversation we had in Starbucks. We’d somehow gotten to talking about marriage and women and he’d voiced out an observation, “The Malay girls I know typically dream of the picket fence package as their end goal while Chinese girls have a different mindset of establishing themselves first – if marriage comes along, they’ll take it as it comes but it’s not an end goal, unlike the former.”
I stared at him for a second, not surprised – maybe disappointed – before correcting him, “I know of a lot of girls,” I began, “of all races and religions, nationalities even, who are either of the two types. Some believe marriage is their end goal, while others believe they need to prove themselves professionally first. I know of a lot of girls and they’re not just Malay, or Chinese. They’re anything and everything.”
Sometimes I think;
When I look at the gap, I want to cross it. I want to cross it so badly, despite knowing I can’t, because what I feel for God should trump anything that I could potentially feel for a person, any person. Before anything, I am a person of faith. Still, when I see that gap, I… want to cross it so badly, despite knowing I’m not supposed to.
Yet, other times;
When I recall that particular snippet of conversation, I am always awash with an indescribable sadness and shame. When I was twenty-one, this dance we had performed about our differences were fun. But at that moment, for the first time, I felt frustrated and disappointed; yet again, it comes back down to this. Different. Irreconcilable differences. This fucking gap I can’t close, boundaries so definitive that they can’t even exist in my imaginations.
It always comes back to this: I’m defined by all these aspects I can’t escape from and simultaneously, can’t deny their significance and influence. In my frustration I thought, why can’t I just be seen as a nice person, a nice girl? Is that asking too much? There’s always all these heavy definitions of being that sole Malay girl or whatever nonsense. Later on in that conversation, he spoke about several girls he met when he traveled for work the week before and I knew, even without him describing them, that they were all Chinese. It always comes down to what we are – what I’m not.
I’ve tried to write about this for the past few months; it’s difficult. I can’t say that clarity has arrived, but at least these words have at last taken form and flight. Now that my feelings have receded too, I’m able to recall and dissect from a distance – physically and emotionally. I can’t say I see more now, everything I didn’t and couldn’t, because the lesson hasn’t fully been imparted. But I think of him these days, because I think of God often lately. I am close to making a literal leap of faith.
When I do, if I do, I will no longer be just a girl riding a bus. I will be a Muslim girl riding a bus. Likewise, the next time I meet him, we wouldn’t just be perceived as a Chinese boy and an ambiguously Chinese/Malay girl meeting up. We would, right from the get-go, categorized into puzzlingly unrelated yet not inaccurate definitions by our frustratingly judgmental society: a Chinese boy and a Muslim girl. Everything that I am, different that I always was, will pale in comparison to what I will outwardly represent.
I’m scared shitless, no kidding, yet I understand signs when I feel them; the absence of ease and my stagnant spirit. I understand what I am trying to do, why I want and need to do this, and ultimately, who I am doing it for. Because I understand the end goal, my end goal, and it is not so simple anymore.
I love him, in the same way that I do my closest friends, but I am learning the heartbreakingly hard way that it is insufficient. I still don’t know many things, but I know with certainty that I am a person of faith and what this means: to me, it’s everything.
Consider this a special edition. I had to.
February 25, 2013:
Distant memories are exactly what they have all become when I think of the first days when you were taking up so much of my space. How creeped out I feel every time I see you approaching, how afraid and nauseated, because you were nine years too old, too big, too forward, and too sure. I didn’t understand what was going on when you kept looking at me with a smile in your eyes, how you looked forward every morning to abuse our office’s internal communication through Skype, talking to me [for] nine hours straight Mondays to Fridays, walked past my cubicle at every chance you get, though I hesitated, took long pauses, looked away and sometimes even run.
Now I miss those days like I missed you.
I can’t remember anyone loving me like you did. You said I was like sunshine to your life, how my sudden smiles brightened up your days, and how I was so funny, you would crack up in your car all alone on the drive back from work, remembering earlier conversations. And then you started playing pranks on me – surprising me on bad days with comical drawings of us, making me laugh and smile and think and wonder all at the same time – what have I done to deserve somebody so amazing?
I just couldn’t love you like I should.
Now here we are, in between the Buddha ornament in your car to the constant reminder of my faith, my hijab – of two people never meant to be. I don’t blame this, that we loved God, but I can’t reconcile this, that we couldn’t reconcile everything because of it.
– Pinknerd | #1106. The Right Thing