We look at the world once, in childhood;
The rest is memory.
– Louise Glück
We sat across from each other in a dim sum restaurant in downtown Palo Alto with warm plates of shrimp and scallop dumplings between us. It was a perfect, typical California day: sunny, warm, and oh-so-nice. Lunchtime on a Wednesday, because we’re in-between of everything – time, youth, life. Neither here nor there. Not yet.
As usual these days – it must be the age – topics on relationships and marriage dominate the bulk of our conversations, without my even meaning or intending to. We were discussing our mutual friend, a Taiwanese girl who is in a serious relationship with her Turkish boyfriend. “Do you think she’ll ever go back to Taiwan?” I asked. “It’s going to be hard… I have lunch with her on Mondays this quarter, did you know that? The other day I asked if she’d ever thought she’d date a Turkish guy. Did she see this coming? I don’t think I could do that, dating someone from a totally different place. Not that I am against this, it’s just that it’s more like… it’s a complication I try to avoid.”
This friend of mine, being who she is, still pushed for a definite answer. “Do you believe that there is a person for each person in this world?” She asked. “Yes,” I answered without a second thought. I almost spilled out what I knew, what’s stated in the Qur’an about this, as my basis for believing at least this much. “So, do you believe that in this one-to-one ratio, all couples are from the same, exact place in this world?” I laughed. “I know where you’re going with this,” I responded good-naturedly, “especially given the world is so global and open now. If this happens to me, I’ll accept it as it comes, but for me something like this is as complicated as dating someone from a different religion. I can’t see it through to the end.”
Then I shared with her about the grand news I woke up to this morning – Facebook wedding invite from an old high school friend. She was one of those six girls. “It’s in late March,” I said, “so obviously I can’t make it. But… wow. You know? I think she’s one of the first from my batch. I guess it must be the age. Sometimes I feel so out of this like here I am, still talking and doing the same things – school – while everyone else is in a different phase. Friends who used to whine about not seeing anyone, now they’ve steady boyfriends, and girls I used to… pride myself for maybe being ahead of them, now they’re ahead of me. I’m still here.” I almost added the word stuck, but I didn’t. Some things you grieve in private.
“But you know,” I continued, “when I look back at the past few years, truthfully I couldn’t possibly have [been in a relationship]. I spent nineteen to twenty-one being in love – with everything. I was in love with everyone I met, places I traveled … life itself. I was drunk on this love – I was seeing so much of the world! There was no space for a person in my life, physically, because my heart was so full of everything else. I think I spent a lot of time being – staying – angry, too. I hated the idea of relationships and the institution of marriage. I hated it. I think it was only when I turned twenty-two that I finally stopped feeling that way.”
Then I broke the intensity with a small laugh; my usual method. “But you know, I think part of the reason I never engaged in anything with anyone is because my eldest sister, all through my growing up years, used to say this to me: become your own person first before being with someone. She’d say it all the time, all the friggin’ time, and I hated her for saying that. You know why? Because the whole time – she had someone! They were together for ten years and it’s during those years – we’re seven years apart – that she’d say this to me, drilling it in me. I hated her for telling me that. I didn’t believe her. I can’t say I fully understood either, because I was what, twelve? Then fourteen, seventeen… year after year.”
“But then it happened. At twenty-one. Remember that summer I told you about? The oil and gas industry in itself is male-dominated, so the other interns were mostly guys. I went to an all-girls high school, so up until then, I don’t think I hung out with boys as often – I attract girls really well. I have the best girls as friends, even now.” I laughed at that; it’s true. “I hated that my girlfriends often changed how they acted in the company of guys. I used to believe I needed to do that too, to be liked. But that summer, the whole time – the whole time! – I was myself. I was chatty, opinionated, stupid and ignorant in my city-snob ways, but they… seemed to like me? We hung out often and even now, they’re my good friends. It’s then that I realized, you know? Years of my sister telling me that, it paid off. I finally understood. When your self-worth is secure, you value yourself first. I didn’t bend and change for anyone.”
I shared with her my old tales of being the wedding grinch, too. How I hated everything about weddings – honestly, I still don’t like it – and how I’d be that sour-faced kid in photos. “In my culture, wedding receptions usually mean everyone can attend, unless it is explicitly stated that it’s couples-only. A high attendance means a lot of people are wishing you well, huge blessings for wedded bliss. And my parents, ugh, they believe so strongly in this. So if we’re invited and can make it, it’s top friggin’ priority. Of course they’d drag us along. I hated it. I hated it all: dressing up, sitting through the ceremonial stuff, people with happy faces just because it’s a wedding… ugh, I hated everything.”
“Why? Why were you so against it?”
“Because my parents’ marriage wasn’t the best,” I replied honestly.
“What I do know about it, how could I believe?”
“I can’t say I like weddings even now – I don’t – but now I know how to behave, when I go to one. Now I think slightly – slightly – more kindly about the concept, too.” I laughed, breaking any tension that might have built up because of my truth-telling. Because my friend is African, we somehow got to discussing about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s quote about teaching women, how much we relate to her words. How culturally frustrating it is and what it was like when we, ourselves, were growing up. She said that in African culture, it’s pretty much expected that the women are responsible for everything related to the household; kids, cooking and whatever else. “Even if the dad’s at home, it’s not expected of him to be there, to spend time with the kids. When I see fathers with their kids here,” She admitted, “I’m reminded again how different it is here. When I think of my childhood, I remember my mum. All there, always there. She raised all of us.”
I nodded in understanding. Total, perfect, and crystal-clear understanding. “My father was mostly absent. Not… he’s not a terrible father, not by any means, but…” I paused, uncertain where I was going with this; how far I could, ought to, go. I wasn’t even sure how to explain and to do so justifiably. “Absent,” I repeated. I left it at that.
“But times are changing now,” I said, as usual deflating the heady air that kept building up between us, “the lines are now blurred. When I see my brothers and my brother-in-law with my nieces and nephews, they’re so hands-on. They’re like the dads we see here.” I paused, taking this opportunity to wrestle with lifting a dumpling using the slippery chopsticks from the plate and into my mouth. It was delicious.
“Times are changing, you know?”
Sometimes I think to myself, how far you’ve come. How far I’ve waded through the ins and outs of my mental spots, endless recollection of memories, possibly distorted, which I should’ve put to rest long ago. The countless moments of frustrations that I’d battled with and continue to, even today, to overcome. My limited perspectives; now I keep wishing to unwound the tight and tangled knots in both my mind and heart. I write and re-write the past so often, retelling the same incidences and moments a dozen times mostly because I am trying to make sense of not necessarily what happened, but myself. Why I held on to these events and incidents for many years, blotting out moments – many more moments – where we were, I was, happy. Because I have always been dearly loved, surely that says everything.
For a few days this week my phone buzzed many times with unpleasant texts from – where else? I would wake up to long stream of conversations because time zone is a bitch. I went through the motion like I always do, functioning as usual as I read through them and sometimes replying. Nothing I can’t handle. But I convey more frankness now, the same one that my younger self always tried but could never unleash. In the shower one morning though, it hit me that this was how it used to be. Tension, lots of tension. Just the other day I wrote about how good things are these days and here comes reality, adamant to burst my bubble. It will never allow me to win, party pooper that it is. But I smiled at the thought of those texts – so many words, no more bite.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this in my other (drama)blog,
When I was younger, I craved for normalcy. All I wanted, more than anything, was to live up to the term normal. As a child, for the longest time, I wished that we would stop being so different. My schoolmates and friends would go home to families that are warm and inviting, but the air in our house was different. It was heavy, convoluted; suffocating.
Naturally, Tolstoy‘s opener in his famous literary work, Anna Karenina, came to mind:
Happy families are alike;
every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Is it only the wounded that recognizes each other? I had asked to no one in particular. It’s hard for people in general to talk about these things and to be completely honest, I am not entirely open to elaborate more than whatever I’ve shared thus far either – I will do this on my own terms, just how I like it – so I’m not surprised that my question made friends with silence. Most people just want television dramas to stay as dramas anyway, and that’s perfectly understandable. It’s an open secret, that we bleed over similar triggers even as we sit across from each other and yet oddly enough, still find it painfully difficult to paint the details. I don’t fault anyone; not myself, my friend, my readers and blogger-friends. Some things we grieve in private.
But I love what I wrote as closure for that entry, because that’s exactly it. It is this specific realization that has changed everything; it’s why I can write this, not quite openly but still more so than before. It’s why I can let the word absent linger in the air and know that it paints an image of him, maybe, and of my childhood, maybe – but not him, the person. Not myself, the adult. I revisit these words often; my battle scars.
When I look back at my childhood from lenses of a wandering twenty-something adult that I am now, I wish I was less angry. I wish I had viewed the chaos less unkindly. I wish I was gentler as I waded through the rumbles. I wish I had told myself, this isn’t disorder and mayhem. This isn’t destruction. Flawed, troubled, ugly, incapacitating – still love.
I wish I understood earlier that for some of us, we simply love differently.
A poet who I dearly love once wrote,
Raise your words, not voice.
It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.
I wish I understood earlier that for some of us, we simply love differently. I write this with tears in my eyes, but a clear conscience. I write this with feelings of melancholy and sentimentalism, but a heart that is now at ease. I am no longer that confused child; angry teenager; wandering semi-adult. I stand on the other side now, this side of forgiveness. There was no way I could have known this back then, I know this, but still;
I wish I understood earlier, the heart of forgiveness.