A couple of months in, I met Jeff, a married man who was exploring his emerging or latent gay side. I don’t know what it was but the majority of men I met then were married men looking for some experimentation on the side. I shared with him stories of people I had “known” in the same situation, and told him it was his decision to stay with his wife and kids; it was neither right nor wrong, it was his. We didn’t do anything, Jeff paid for our meal, but he contacted me again afterwards and offered me a freelance programming job which I gladly took. It was enough money to replenish the immigration fund and pay the bills, I can stop courtesaning. A few years later, Jeff was also kind enough to provide me an employment letter so I could renew my Singapore passport and permits before they expired, while I continued to wait for Canadian Immigration to process my application.
Marcus and I first connected via chat. We met up, fooled around a bit, and spent most of our time bantering over drinks in a bar. He mentioned he was downsizing to a smaller apartment after he and his boyfriend broke up. I volunteered to help, he said it was not necessary as his friends had agreed to help him with the move. Nevertheless I showed up that weekend and found Marcus in a state of panic, none of his friends had turned up. So I spent the entire day helping him pack and move his things to the new apartment, and he thanked me profusely. The next day he called me and begged me to come over to the old apartment. It was a Korean family taking over the lease and the mother was giving him the stink eye because he was not cleaning the apartment to her standards. When I showed up, the mother was pleased, finally someone who knows how to clean the right way and I spent the rest of the weekend cleaning so Marcus could sign over the lease. We had dinner afterwards, Marcus was grateful, would I like to be his boyfriend?
I hesitated. We had a casual bantering chemistry. He said he wanted us to treat each other as equals and support one another, he did not want to return to his pattern of clingy jealous boyfriends. I agreed partly because Erik had maintained radio silence for weeks and being alone in my room was starting to trigger depression episodes. I hoped hanging out with Marcus, getting out more would pull me out of it. The other reason I agreed was Marcus’ effortless personality was the same as that classmate I’d fallen for in Singapore; I still harbored what-if thoughts and figured I would go into it for closure, that it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.
It was casual and breezy at first, we went on outings, we grew closer together, he gave me his apartment key, then he turned mean. Like Erik, he would make a cruel barb and passed it off as a witticism, his brand of humor. He reveled at making fun of me in front of his friends. He would laugh and school me if I did not understand an arbitrary crossword clue and he did. When we were alone together in his apartment, he would ignore me and spend his time chatting up other guys, or he would push my buttons so that we argued and fought – he loved the make up sex. Increasingly he spent more time away at clubs and dance parties while I stayed behind working on my thesis or job applications. It was déjà vu. I have had loads of practice waiting for Eric and Erik.
There is a strange comfort in the familiarity of the pattern of abuse. I was afraid of the terrifying emptiness of being alone in my room. I didn’t know what I would do. I was afraid my bipolar depression would spiral out of control again when retriggered. So I stayed with Marcus and bore it. At least I was somewhat functioning instead of being catatonic.
I gradually found myself pining for Marcus. When are you coming back? I would text. He told me he loved it when I sent him pathetic texts like that. Marcus took me out for a nice dinner and told me I could not satisfy his potent sex drive; and because I was not the clingy jealous type, it should be ok for him to sleep with other people. I acquiesced as long as he came home to me.
Marcus kept pushing the boundaries of our relationship. He started dragging me into threesomes, boasting how understanding I was to whoever he brought home. I would engage in some foreplay to get them going, then I would get up and close the door for them to finish up at their own pace. He did not want me there, I was merely an accessory. I am not made for happy endings.
One night he invited a couple tor dinner he had met at a club the night before. I cooked the meal and was washing up. Sean came to help me while his boyfriend Peter chatted and laughed with Marcus on the couch. Sean and Peter stepped outside to smoke, Marcus came up to me grinning. “Peter and I are glad you and Sean are getting along. We are going to do a couples swap. Sean really likes you.” he leered. My heart sank. Peter and Sean returned from their smoke break, Peter went off laughing with Marcus while Sean approached me “What would you like to do?”
I turned my face away, not trusting its expression “Would … would you mind if we just cuddled?”
Afterwards, we would hang with Peter and Sean fairly regularly. Marcus and Peter would typically steal off at some point and told us to have fun. Each time Sean would ask and I would repeat the same request. We would cuddle and chat on the couch while our boyfriends banged in the bedroom. How queer I got the intimacy I craved refracted through the boyfriend of someone my boyfriend is banging.
When I reconnected with Sean on social media years later, after he and Peter had long broken up, he said it was such a pity the two of us never got together. I told him it was much better that way. “The most perfect love, is one that might have been” I said.
My thesis defense date was set for August. I had to book my own room. It was just me and the new committee members, none of the other faculty members showed, none of the other graduate students showed. I was blackballed after all.
Just as my thesis was unlike anything they had ever seen before, so was my thesis defence which did not use the thesis text at all. Keeping with the central distinction in my thesis between knowledge (which is imposed) vs. wisdom (which comes from within), I showed rather than told my points.
I played Shostakovich’s Fugue no. 4 on the piano, and asked them to listen to how the repetition of the double fugue’s themes always occur in a new context, and how the interplay between the themes enable the listener to draw different relationships between them. When I finished playing, I asked them whether they thought the music was repetitive, and if the music still flowed. They did not find it repetitive and enjoyed discovering new relationships as the music flowed. I pointed out how this pre-classical form parallels my unusual thesis form that had caused so much controversy with its cyclical structure, and the classical/thesis form is not the only valid way to convey meaning. I could see the expression on their faces when it dawned on them what I was actually arguing for in my thesis. The pursuit of truth, and how that truth gets corrupted by formal academic conventions (with its notions of inexorable progress), and the need to think and question beyond the obvious. Having fled a fascist regime, working through that last part had been my life’s work in graduate school.
I then proceeded to show some of my poetry to demonstrate how form constructs its own meaning, and the need to analyze and critique forms of thought, particularly notions of “progress”. To demonstrate how these idealized forms restrict equally valid alternatives, I exhibited some of my photography where there is no central object, but rather capturing space/depth. Finally I sang Delilah’s aria in a full throated mezzo as gender fuck. I noted their uneasiness and asked them to reflect why the exact same words when sung by a woman was acceptable, but not when sung by a man. I argued that without this subversion of gender conventions, it would not have crossed their minds it was a problem, and tied it to why I chose to write a ‘traditional” thesis-length text as a project, in order to critique the limitations of the thesis form.
They deliberated for 45 minutes behind closed doors while I waited outside on tenterhooks. When they emerged, they told me they had a long discussion about my unusual thesis and defence, they had never seen it done before and did not know how to benchmark it against the others. They were impressed by how I handled the ‘difficult’ questions and how my answers not only addressed the questions but also provoked further thoughts. They passed me without revisions.
I thanked them, one of the committee members let slip that I had a “very clean text”. He had gone through it multiple times and could not find even a single punctuation mistake. Good lord, I thought, they were prepared to use any petty excuse to put me through the hoops.
My year-long ordeal was finally over. Now I needed to get a job related to my degree by December in order to stay in Canada. It was August.
Erik knew Marcus by sight as they attended the same dance parties and had mutual acquaintances. Erik and I were having coffee at the cafe across my apartment. I told him the story of when Marcus, one of his friends, and I recently went sailing on a rented catamaran along Second Narrows. I described how when we hit a wave crest at 10 knots, the catamaran flipped and we ended up in the water. Marcus and his friend were thrown clear off but the catamaran fell on me and trapped me under its sail. Marcus had told me afterwards the other guy was freaking out and Marcus was worried he would have to rescue me when I did not turn up. He was impressed when I calmly made my way to the surface and helped him right the catamaran while his friend was hysterical.
“Are you in love with Marcus?” Erik interrupted me.
“No” I said. As soon as I said it, I knew it was a lie. “He has the same personality as an unrequited love I had in university. I’m just seeing how far it goes for closure, just to be sure it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.” I explained.
I felt Erik’s eyes staring at me as I stirred my coffee with my head down. Shit, I had fallen in love with the same personality, the same person who’d fucked me up in Singapore.
I was so perturbed that I took a long train ride to think. I don’t remember where I was going but I remember all the feelings for Robert, Eric, Erik and Marcus got jumbled up, painful and confusing. Then I heard a bassline motif in my head. I’d always carried texts I would like to set to music on long train rides in case the mood strikes, I dug up the chapter from The Little Prince where he meets the Fox and found the section I knew where that baseline motif belonged. “My life is very monotonous” the Fox said.
As I laid down the bassline on manuscript paper, I started shaking and crying uncontrollably. But I could not stop writing. I locked myself in the train’s bathroom where I wept and convulsed as I penned each note, and was emotionally and physically spent when I completed the composition. After I finished writing the Fox’s aria, I realized I had written a love aria. It is the only one I have ever written. All the pain and feelings for others sublimated into an aria about me and my acceptance of having my heart broken. I had been invited to give a music lecture and voice recital at Douglas College at the end of September; I debuted the aria under the set titled “Despairing Triumph”.
Marcus and I were having dinner and I voiced my frustrations with my job search in BC. Even though companies did not have to sponsor my work permit because of the International post-grad program, I kept getting rejected because I lacked “Canadian experience”. It is not just a Catch-22, there is nothing great nor original about Canada where the conceit of “Canadian experience” made any sense, other than to discriminate against newcomers. My visa was running out and I was worried.
“I can always marry you.” Marcus told me
“Do you really want to marry me?” I was taken aback.
Marcus told me he didn’t mind even though preferred smaller Asians; I was sort of cute even if I did not have a body. We liked some of the same things although he did not care for my strange hobbies like poetry. He liked that I could hold my drink. Plus I was the first person that was not clingy and let him fool around, and he liked that
“Thank you, but I cannot marry you” I loved Marcus for reasons I did not quite comprehend, but I knew I would just be trading one prison for another. One unhappiness with another.
I had a fuck buddy, I suppose you could call it that. I didn’t know his name, I don’t recall his chat handle. He was a chef and smoked cigarettes, attractive in a roguish way. Months would elapse before he looked me up again, he would come over and we would do the same things in the same positions. I did not enjoy any of it. I did it because Erik and Marcus had made it clear I was not their type, other men I’d met would dump me after sleeping with me. He was the only person who wanted to do it with me more than once, so I let him. I had sunk that low. My ongoing struggles with university, immigration, and prospective employers had accentuated my bipolar swings. Trying to manage them over those three years had weakened me mentally and physically. I was vulnerable. I had lost sense of self.
It was sometime after Marcus’ marriage offer when chef fuck buddy wanted to come over. I let him and went through the motions. As he held me in his post-coital stupor I had that rare flash of clarity, like that time in Singapore years ago when I decided to give myself two months to find something to live for. The conclusion was the same, this was not living.
“I can’t do this anymore” I intoned as I got up and dressed. It was directed at him, as well as Marcus and Erik, and all the other men.
“Why? Do you want be my boyfriend?” he asked. I smiled wanly and shook my head, he knew nothing about me and he wanted to be boyfriends. I was tired of being a trophy for gay white men. I was tired of how I was treated by these men. I was tired of being jerked around by the university, by immigration, by prospective employers. I was tired by the cycles of bipolar depression they have trapped me in. I was tired of my degraded existence. I was tired of surrendering my power, my talents, my intelligence to have to play along.
For three years I had clung onto the scraps of rope they threw at me thinking it would stop my descent, but now I am tangled and suffocating in limbo. The abyss of the unknown is terrifying, I have no safety net, I have no one to fall back on, I am alone with no money no job no status. I thought of the time I fell down the Hermit shale slope on the Boucher trail in the Grand Canyon and managed to haul myself to safety, and still carry on. I did not know how much further I would fall, or where I would land. But if I did not cut the false hopes that bound me to this city and these men, I would never know. I didn’t have the song for it back then. Antony and the Johnsons would write that song 8 years later that would take me back to where I was at that time.
For so long I’ve obeyed that feminine decree
I’ve always contained your desire to hurt me
But when will I turn and cut the world?
When will I turn and cut the world?
My eyes are coral absorbing your dreamsCut the World (Antony and the Johnsons)
My skin is a surface to push to extremes
My heart is a record of dangerous scenes
But when will I turn and cut the world?
I was waiting up for Marcus in his apartment. I wanted to talk. I wanted him to listen for once. I wanted to know if he thought any part of the relationship was salvageable. I texted him multiple times, each time he replied he would be just a few minutes. He eventually stumbled in around 3am, drunk or stoned or both and collapsed on the bed. I sighed, I was all too familiar with this. When he got like this, he either wanted to be alone or have someone next to him. I leaned over and shook him gently “Marcus, Marcus. Do you want me to stay? Do you want me to stay?” I tried to convey the double import of my words.
“I don’t care” he murmured. Indifference can be crueler than outright rejection.
I gazed at his sleeping form for a while and made my decision. I went around the apartment as Marcus slept; I removed my things, I washed the wine glasses we drank from that were still in the sink. I rearranged the corner of the living room he let me have when I was working on my thesis and resumes from his apartment. I took his key off my keyring, placed it on the bedside table and locked the door behind me.
AssiduouslyLeaving (Dying Prayers)
I remove all my traces
from his apartment
People measure relationships by time, as if they conform to a common shared cycle of tides ebbing, of seasons changing. Mere progression does not indicate progress, I had argued in my thesis. Slow and steady evolution is not enough to change one’s mind and hearts. The eureka of ancient philosophers, or enlightenment of ancient prophets were moments of epiphany. Hence I measure my relationships by intensity, how deeply they have been etched into my heart, however brief. In the 5 years since I started writing poetry as a release, I wrote 91 poems that comprised Psychedelic Dreams. During my time with Marcus and its aftermath in 2014, I wrote 99 poems that formed Dying Prayers.
I wish I could say I was a paragon of strength. But I was so beaten down then that I suffered immensely. Marcus drove a yellow car, each time a yellow car drove past I would think of him and wonder what he was doing, who he was doing. That was not healthy in a city of yellow taxicabs. It got to the point where I was so wretched for weeks that I groveled and asked him to take me back. He adamantly refused. I didn’t expect him to anyway, especially not after I had distilled my anger in a breakup poem (Key Verses) and sent it to him after he asked why I returned his key. It is good to burn one’s bridges every now and then.
Before it takes over your mind, the first pain that first cut brings a clarity through the muddle and slices through the haze. As I pieced together the remains of my ossified heart that Marcus had shattered, I had a revelation; Eric had conformed my heart so intensely that my tears had only cut the same gullies deeper instead of creating new channels to flow. My heart had to be leveled before new channels could form. As I picked through the remnants of the breccia of debt and duty and swept away the accumulated hurt, I realized it was not just Eric that I loved deeply, I had loved Erik all this time as well; and I was overwhelmed with guilt and regret. Most people live their lives without meeting the Great Love of their lives, I had two but was too broken to comprehend. Two men whose names and timelines overlapped, in two cities bisected by fault lines, who saved me in my times of darkest despair, and who brought me so much hope and pain at the tantalizing chance of happiness.
When Erik next visited, he flopped on my mattress and announced he was taking a nap. I crept up next to him and tried to give him a kiss on the lips. An apology and an acknowledgement. He turned his mouth away and pushed me off. I tried again a few more times but only succeeded in grazing his lips. He no longer wanted to kiss the first person he wanted to kiss. I was distraught. I picked up his hand and started sucking on his fingers, his weak spot, my unfair advantage. He retracted them and placed them under his body. I sat beside him as he napped. No words needed to be said. I knew it was over, it was October.
In laconic lipsConnoisseur (Dying Prayers)
I tasted hesitation.
Two months till the end
Weeks later in Seattle, I invited Erik to coffee at Dilettante, his favorite place. I asked him to be brutally honest. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to somehow be part of his life. I wanted to know what he thought went wrong with us. “You intimidate people.” Erik said. I was startled. “I do?”
“Yes, you are intelligent and have many talents, people don’t know how to react” he continued. I began to realize why Erik and Marcus were always belittling me – they were trying to cut me down to size. “You should put that in one of your poems” he snickered, stabbing my heart. Then he twisted it when he added “I hate that you made me hate sex.” We finished our coffee in silence.
I stirred my coffee and stared at its inky depths. I did not tell him how much I always missed him, how I was sorry I was not always fully present due to my struggles. But I was glad I did not share my condition with Erik and Marcus, it would have been ammunition for them. I thought how all the things I thought I could have done differently were moot. I had not realized until then we were doomed from the start.
There was no big blow out like what happened with Marcus, we just left it at that and went our separate ways. The pain from leaving Marcus, gave me the clarity and strength to leave Erik and Vancouver. Even though my heart was broken again, I didn’t just want someone to love. I wanted someone to accept me and love me as I am, not what I represent, not as a trophy to show off. Not someone who constantly puts down my face, my body, my mind, my talents, my music, my art. With everything the world has thrown against me, I wanted and needed to break the cycle of gaslit abuse that caused my bipolar depression to spiral, and made me less than I am. The world had flipped on me. I am trapped underwater, under that catamaran sail on the boundary between two cities; an impermeable boundary between air and water, a choice of breathing or sinking. I am neither important nor blessed. No one is coming to save me, nor am I waiting. I have to untangle myself from the ropes. I have to feel my way against this disorienting surface, ears pounding with my heartbeat, lungs constricting against my diminishing breath, until I finally break through and can finally breathe.
Erik always wanted an architect or doctor for a boyfriend, and he found one in Palm Springs when he attended a dance party. In November I was offered a job in Toronto after a phone interview, my work permit arrived in December and I had to move cross-country to start work in January. I went to Erik’s apartment one last time to bring him his things and to collect my things. He had a long day so he went to bed early. I stayed up all night packing, memorizing his face as he slept, and embraced him one last time. I slipped out the next morning before he woke, I left his key on the counter, I left no trace.
As the plane took off and banked over the Coast Mountains pushed up from the fault movement of the Pacific plate against the Juan de Fuca plate, I pondered about the faults in our relationship. How something that began so beautifully, as if destined, could end like this.
we rift farther apart
at the fault
inexorablyContinental Drift (Ascetic Fugitive)