Thursday, October 3, 2019

In Celebration of Love’s Labors Lost (Part 1)

As I lean back now and look back on the life path I have taken since I first stepped out into the world, two recurring motifs dominate the pattern of events.

The first is a hardwired impulse to be free – free of all external compulsions (which is well nigh impossible when you happen to be part of a family, and all of us are). But as one whose birthdate adds up to a 5, numerologists say I’m “one of those people who is always striving to find answers to the many questions that life poses; [that I] want to be totally unrestrained, as this is the sign of freedom and independence.” So I’m only being true to my core nature in cherishing my freedom.

Freedom from debt, for a start. I don’t have a credit card, no overdraft, and I have never once applied for a bank loan. The house I’m living in is in my wife’s name and it was given to her when her entire village was relocated several hundred yards upstream on account of the Selangor Dam. So, no mortgage either - although the fine print says the land the house stands on is on a 99-year lease. We have until the year 2106 to worry about having to move.

The second motif happens to be my susceptibility to love. Some live to work, some to eat, some to make money – I live for love.

My first love was at the tender age of 4, when I shared a bathtub with a neighbor’s daughter, who arrived on earth 11 days ahead of me, and later found myself sitting beside her at kindergarten. I remember how we shared little secrets in class. She was curious to know if boys and girls had similar genitals, and neither of us had a clue – so I drew a simple diagram to show her what mine looked like, and she reciprocated, very demurely, by handing me a piece of paper on which she had written the letter V. I wasn’t satisfied with her response, suspecting there had to be more to it, that she was holding back. Then we got separated in primary school – there were no co-ed schools when I was a kid – and didn’t meet again until we were in our early teens, and I was smitten by her luminous beauty which I noticed for the first time.

When I learnt she was in the habit of roller-skating along the corridors of a school opposite my house most afternoons, I decided to take up roller-skating too – and soon became quite adept at it. But we were both too shy to go beyond smiling at each other and I felt totally tongue-tied when face-to-face with her.

So nothing at all transpired until fate brought us together again when we reached fourth form. I was appointed to the editorial board of a science magazine jointly published by my all-boys school and a nearby girls’ school. At our first informal meeting to discuss the magazine, I was astounded by how mature the girls were compared to me at 15. She and her best buddy, my co-editor, were smoking real cigarettes (not the chocolate ones I was familiar with as a kid) and even driving around without a license.

That’s how I began smoking, and soon I was borrowing my dad’s car to drive – at first up and down the compound, then increasingly further around the neighborhood. Working together on the science magazine project gave me a good excuse to start visiting her in the afternoons after classes. She lived conveniently around the corner from my house, within a 3-minute walk, even less on my bicycle.

Several times a week, I’d perch my cockatoo on the handle bar and ride over to her place. She was usually home. We would sit around her airy front porch and chat till twilight. Each time I saw her she grew more beautiful in my eyes. But I just didn’t know how to shift gears from being her childhood playmate to being her beau. 

So things drifted along for a while sweetly enough, but neither of us wanted to make the first move into adulthood, although I occasionally detected a flirtatious or teasing tone in her glances. I just wanted everything to be perfect between us. The thought of doing something clumsy or saying something inappropriate paralyzed me. Much later in life I realized that the abstract notion of “perfection” itself could be the #1 Killjoy Factor in the human universe…

Anyway, many other events intruded that weren’t part of the pattern of “perfect love” and I took them all in my stride as part of love’s learning curve. As my mind drifts slowly backwards in time, scanning for precious memory fragments to rescue from analog oblivion, I become acutely aware of the many-layered nature of experience: in so many instances, I can’t draw a linear timeline marking one event without then wondering when some other event occurred.

For instance, during the years I didn’t see my first love, I enjoyed quite a few other romantic fantasies. I vaguely recall an alphabetic crush I had for a pig-tailed cutie who played the letter M in some kiddie concert I witnessed around 10. I remember a couple of stiffy-inducing dreams with me playing the letter K and somehow showing up the loutish low-class L who stood between us. I never found out her name, but I bet it began with the letter M...

Then there was WW, baby sister of one of my best buddies in whose home I used to hang out all day after school. My own siblings were much older than I, so I never felt the same sort of intense kinship with them. In this household there was a great deal of family interaction. It was an ideal atmosphere for innocent fun and puppy love to flourish: the stirrings of juicy adolescence, the brief but intense thrill of her foot brushing against mine during a game of Monopoly. I was present when her first period arrived, her face flushed as she hurried towards the bathroom.

I knew nothing about hormones and pheromones then. But I enjoyed the undercurrent of irrational desires and the heady sensation of erotic impulses. These weren’t exactly romantic – primal, more likely. Electromagnetic and biochemical, at least. No guilt was attached to these prurient fantasies; nor were they focused on any specific person. Non-specific lust is what I call this syndrome.

Girls were lovely to dream about, but my everyday reality was populated with boys. Since girls were sexually unavailable, we resorted to making lewd jokes about them; but among ourselves, we were comfortable showing off our erections and competing to see who could shoot his load the furthest. There was ample opportunity for experimentation. Staying over at male friends’ houses presented no problems with parents and it seemed natural for us to have temporary crushes on each other without their becoming full-blown affairs.

Being single-minded about anything has never been a habit of mine - which may explain why I never became a virtuoso in any specific endeavor. Looking back, if I had kept my focus on winning the heart of my first love, ignoring other distractions and settling for nobody else, perhaps we would have ended up as a couple. I can’t imagine what married life would have been like for us – but I’m fairly certain she would have compelled me to become a high flyer in the upper income bracket, since it’s clear she had set her sights on a comfortable lifestyle, being what people would consider a trophy wife. As it turned out, she subsequently dated and married a fellow who became an accountant – while I drifted in the opposite direction, devoting my energies to the arts, after a short-lived stint in the glossy advertising game.

Clark Kent look @ 1968
But I’m getting ahead of my narrative. While all this was going on, I began to visit a couple of pretty sisters – one shy and demure, the other outgoing and vivacious – both of whom eventually became integral parts of my life.

When you’re a teenager it’s very important to appear cool – and to visit a young lady on a rickety bicycle is fairly uncool (especially with a cockatoo perched on the handlebar). Since I had convinced my father that I could drive competently, he rarely protested whenever I asked to borrow his car. I had a schoolmate named Johnny who was always on the lookout for hot chicks. He didn’t have access to a car, so he would sometimes tell me about some nice girl he knew who happened to have good-looking sisters – and we’d go visit them in my dad’s car.

That’s how I got to meet Annie, my French kiss instructor only a year younger than I but slightly more experienced. It was because of Annie I decided to quit wearing glasses (which, prior to my first kissing lesson, I had believed to be a requisite accessory since they made one look smarter and older). We were both wearing glasses when the serious smooching began one sultry afternoon – and the collision of our spectacles almost turned the experience into an episode out of some Woody Allen movie.  Anyway, thank you, Annie – for your wonderful coaching which has served me well through the decades.

(In 2011 Annie tracked me down on facebook. Imagine the great joy I felt to be reconnected with her after 46 years. She's moved on from kissing coach to tai-chi instructor.)

[To be continued...]

Originally posted 1 April 2012, reposted 6 May 2016