I made a list of my lovers and realized I lost count.
Most of my romantic affairs lasted less than a couple of months. I was quick to end things when I sensed it would not work out. In relationships where my partners initiated the break, they were just as decisive. The cuts were painful but quick. The reasons given were varied, but those words could not take away the pain and in time, after the wounds healed, they did not really matter.
For example, there was Bong. Like each infatuation, I thought he was the One.
In an attempt to please him, I spent a night with him at his favorite haunt: Changi beach. He had a tumultuous relationship with his mom, and he found the warm sea breeze tranquil and calming. I was soon reminded why Asians love the air-conditioned indoor. Throughout the night, an endless stream of ravenous mozzies descended upon me like iron filings to a magnet. Whether we were making out like the other couples scattered along the sandy stretches, or trying to catch a snooze, the monotonous high-pitched buzz of the blood sucking drones hovered persistently around my ears. My hands swung throughout the night like hands would at a table tennis championship. By day break, my hopes of a relationship with Bong were crushed like the countless bloodied bodies against my skin.
There was Kok. The physical attraction was strong but we had nothing in common. I was already out to my parents, but he was petrified of his family finding out. We communicated by pager (an old technology before the mobile phone), we never hung out and only met in my home. I was still mesmerized when he broke the spell and walked away.
There was Eddie. He was educated, cute, witty, out and funny. I thought he was perfect, but he quickly filled our days with social events. I survived an isolated childhood and teen, so I preferred the more solitary activities of writing and drawing. Socializing was a tedious chore to me, and I left Eddie with his pack to renew my hunt for the elusive, fabled dream partner.
There were also a Malaysian gigolo, a reliable twin, a loving banker and even a ridiculously-adorable Taoist priest. In the era before the internet and dating apps, gay men cruised Hong Lim Park, Raffles Place MRT station, swimming pools, Sunday discos and a few small pubs in hopes of finding love and sex. Most used aliases and pager numbers, and would not disclose their home addresses or occupations for fear of blackmail. At that level of anonymity and secrecy, what we fished out could be quite rojak.
After a few years of futile search, I started believing that the perfect partner was a unicorn. My head told me I would have to settle for the better of the lots, but my heart was adamant and would accept nothing but the best.
In 1994, I quit my engineering job and went to Beijing to study film. After a few months, I ended another long-distance relationship. I met Qin, a Beijing man 8 years my senior, and began dating him.
Qin was like an elder brother I never had. He was soft-spoken with a deep, confident voice, and lived alone inside a hu-tong. He worked as Head of Security in a prominent organisation, but lived modestly with few luxuries or hobbies.
We met mostly in the evenings on the weekends due to the sheer size of China’s capitol. In better weather, I would cycle from my district for about 45 minutes before reaching his home. While our time together was short, I was happy and contented. Being a foreigner with few connections in town, I felt safe with Qin. In his home, I found a haven away from the wild, wild east of the Beijing streets. It was also the first time I experienced freezing winter in the warm arms and bed of a lover.
When we were alone, Qin told me stories of his work and the mechanics of inter-personal relationships in the Chinese culture. Perhaps I was far removed from work and relatives, so he found someone he could communicate openly with. As much as I was seeing Beijing through his eyes, he was seeing Asia and America through mine.
It was the only time I permitted myself to fall for someone not around my own age. I fell hard.
One day, Qin and I took some photographs of each other. I developed two sets and gave one to him.
That was the beginning of the end of us. Qin abruptly disappeared for two weeks. When I finally cornered him at his work place, he calmly sat me down and explained his predicament.
“I have a boyfriend,” He said calmly as tears streamed down my eyes, “He found the photographs and urged me to stop lying to you. Since I am also past the average marrying age, I may be entering into an arranged marriage or my career will stagnate here.”
Qin’s betrayal was forever etched in my mind by a line from a Faye Wong song called ‘Qizi (chess pieces)’: “Turns out I wasn’t your general but an insignificant speck of a pawn.”
Earlier that year, British pop musician George Michael released a melancholic dark album titled Older. With tracks such as You Have Been Loved, and lyrics piping “give me time and I’ll lead you back to despair”, it became my ear liquor as the romance went up in puffs of Chinese cigarette smoke.
After Qin, there were other significant love affairs. I grew aware of the politics of romance, where love and sex were commodities traded for security, status, connections, money and convenience. In one of the more pronounced and naked examples, I had to rush across town to stop a migrant-worker lover from being beaten by a group of street gangs. Little-by-little, my disillusionment about true love crept in, replaced base bartering, the hunger preceding the exchange and the disinterest after it.
In 1997, despite some success in career (I found a decent job there) and publishing (my first comic book – my first baby – was accepted for publication in Beijing), I felt I have had enough and returned to Singapore.
As Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese by the British, the 2007/8 Economic Storm hit the world. Construction projects halted across South-east Asia, and many cement and brick shells of unfinished buildings stood deathly still. Unattended, the walls filled with mossy graffiti while weed, wild animals and hobos wandered their midst.
During that period, I ran into an old army acquaintance. Since he left National Service, he had built a neat business delivering ice for businesses.
“I had only primary school education,” He said haughtily, “In the army, I drove the trucks for you college types. Now I have 5 ice trucks, and you’re hiding from the storm. What the fuck have you been up to?”
I was never mean to him, but others of my rank and above probably barked orders at him such that he was using this rare opportunity to put me down. But he was talking to a man who seemed as ruined as an abandoned construction project. I was as mute to him as he was to us back in the army days.
I settled back into the cradle of Singapore. There was finally time and distance to reflect on the lessons I learnt from my China lovers. My heart was broken, but how was it different from the hearts I broke before going to China? Did I not make others cry, like how Qin made me cry? Was my love so pure that I did not take others’ love, gifts and conveniences for granted? Did I not make declarations of love while simultaneously deciding to walk away forever?
It was karma. I had reaped what I had sown.
At that point, I began to lose my anger at Qin and the others.
In that particular moment, I was also ready to concede defeat. My string of failures only proved that I knew nothing about love. In fact, I began wondering if it really existed or was simply a beautiful but false construct to cloak the ugly reality of bartering needs.
My head and my heart were finally in agreement: true love did not exist.
I had hit rock bottom in my romantic life. At the same time, I had also fallen from my castles in the sky and landed with both feet back on solid ground.
At that point, my first Singaporean boyfriend Jimmy reappeared in my life. We remained friends after breaking up. Even though he found me opinionated and confronting, Jimmy was also inspired by me to pursue further studies abroad.
Jimmy knew of a guy my age recently singled, and he knew we both admired each other from a distance before I left for Beijing. His name was Han.
When Jimmy introduced Han, I was a changed man. At least, my past lovers had taught me not to take a gem like Han for granted. Han and I started dating, and stayed together till today. But that is another story.
For most of my twenties, I searched high and low for the One. It was a roller coaster ride of 12 years and a series of more than a dozen failed relationships. In the search, I was relentless as a Jack Russell. No sooner had I recovered from a breakup was I back in the game sniffing for the next candidate. I played the game without much guidance or manual, learning, unlearning and getting very confused. At the point when I felt I know nothing, the One came along.
Some of my ex-boyfriends settled down into committed long-term relationships. Some are still playing the field. One or two might not have forgiven me. If they might read this, it might reopen old wounds.
What did I learn from all my lovers?
Does finding Han make all the mistakes I made along the way worthwhile? Definitely! But does it justify the hurt caused to others in our search for true love? I don’t know. Should I care what my previous lovers think of me now? Does it matter if strangers in society judge me by more than a dozen affairs?
I am not saying we be ruthless to get what we want. As long as it was youthful stupidity and ignorance making the mistakes, and there was no malicious intent or acts on others, all is fair in the game of love. Life cared not our looks, physique, wealth, health or any supposed evolutionary advantages. Life favored no one, but one who does not give up gets another chance.
I know this: had I not met and lost Jimmy, I might not have met Han. If Qin had not broken my heart so thoroughly, slaughtered all my sacred cows so expertly, I might not have cherished Han as I did and am still doing.
Call me a slut. Call me a bitch. Call me anything you like. Or be indifferent. These are no longer relevant. Only I know, at the end of the day, what I have given up in order to get to my present. Only I can say if it was worth it, or it was all just a mistake.
I get to define me.
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
Part 3 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-the-grand-canyon/
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