the backstage epiphany

where reality is so subjective it's entirely optional

Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Ghost of Relationships Past

Infinity Stone
(light green serpentine)

Promotes compassion and forgiveness for yourself. Heals imbalances from past lives and clears emotional baggage from past relationships.

– Judy Hall, The Crystal Bible

Someone once told me that some of the easiest faces to read are those of the people who have just entered a new relationship. You can see it in that soft glow, the bright eyes, and that contented little smile that says, I’ve found someone. To many, there is nothing like the feeling of being a newlyinlove (of course, the same can be said for new parents, but then not everyone is that fortunate): the butterflies, the grin that can’t stop spreading over their faces, the heady, seductive closeness of being with someone whom they would like to believe is the one.

But along with all those new (or renewed) feelings, come the fears. The fear of saying or doing something wrong, the fear of somehow not being good enough, and for the unfortunate (and irrational) few, the fear of the Ex. And all these fears end up begging the questions, “What if I’m not as smart as she is?” “What if I’m not as pretty as she is?” “What if I’m not as skinny as she is?” “What if his friends and family don’t like me the way they liked her?” “What if he goes back to her?”

Going by the creed that whatever happened in the past should stay there, I make it an unconditional rule not to talk about previous relationships and boyfriends when I’m in a new relationship. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with the rule that I don’t want to hear about previous girlfriends as well, because essentially, nobody needs to pay for anybody else’s mistakes. But again, not everyone is that fortunate.

Of late, I’ve had to listen to my friends voice their fears and insecurities in their relationships. One cannot look at her new boyfriend without thinking of the girl he was previously with for seven years, resulting in several hundred pictures tagged of them on Facebook. Another feels that her boyfriend’s poor behavior towards and treatment of her is the result of a previous relationship that ended very badly. And the more I listen to them and try to talk them out of such feelings, the less sure of myself I sound, because I know that deep down in my heart (and sometimes on my face) I harbor those same fears.

Six and a half months ago, I had the misfortune of having my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend pointed out to me, at no consent of my own, in The Star newspaper. To be fair, he may have thought I would look at the picture and forget about it shortly after, but he probably didn’t realize that, knowing the nature of and reason behind those appearances in the newspaper, I would remember and be haunted by that face in the months to come.

With all the past failures I’ve encountered in relationships, I’ve learned to apply the divide-and-conquer approach to my feelings: identify the most immediate problem, lay out the circumstances surrounding it, and then admit the real reason behind said problem. And after sifting through my worries about a possible abscondence, failure to meet expectations, my own difficulties in opening up to the other people in his life, and even my nightmares of a presence that may or may not still be here, I’ve realized that my real fear is of not being able to measure up to what was once an immensely significant presence in his life.

They say that we are our harshest critics, but why is it that, despite positive — and sometimes even rave — reviews, there is always that one little aspect we nitpick at? It may be something that nobody notices or regards anymore, but because we know it’s there and etched in history it can technically never go away, leading to our own terror of it one day resurfacing and reminding all that there will never be another quite like it. And through all that, we fail to remember that with a little bit of faith and belief in what we ourselves have built, we can put the ghosts of the past behind us, live in the present, and look forward to the future.

And then, maybe, the hauntings will stop.

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Not for the claustrophobic

Becca: Guess what?
Me: (struggling out of stupor) Oh dear, what?
Becca: Jeremy knows you! And he knows Afham too!
Me: What? How?
Becca: You know last night I told you our plans to go to Rootz were scrapped because we had to go to Phuture? Turns out we were going to Phuture to meet your friend, that Shaun Leong!
Me: (now fully awake) What? How does he know Shaun?
Becca: I don’t know! When I met him I said, “I’ve heard of you, from Sandra and Afham,” and then Jeremy pounces on and goes, “Wait, how do you know Afham?” And I said, “His girlfriend is my best friend!” And then he asked, “What’s his girlfriend’s name?” And I said, “Sandra,” and he goes, “Sandra what?” and I said, “Sandra Foo.” And he said, “Wait, isn’t that a Chinese name? I’ve met her. Afham’s girlfriend doesn’t look Chinese.”
Me: Are you sure he meant me, and not some other girl from Afham’s patchwork quilt of relationships past?
Becca: Well, look, you don’t look Chinese when you have a full face on, so I’m sure he meant you. Either that, or he met some other girl on a night when you weren’t out with Fham, but let’s not be pessimistic.
Me: But when I told him you were coming to Rootz but then switched to Phuture, I mentioned you were going with Jeremy, there appeared to be no ringing of bells.
Becca: To be fair, it’s quite a common name. Plus he said that he’s known Fham for ‘years’, so they must know each other quite well, even if one doesn’t quite remember the other.
Me: Wow. Wow. First Yu Tim, and then Paul Poh, and now Jeremy Chan. Our worlds have collided, which means they’ve become too, too small. This is very bad.
Becca: I know. The world is not safe anymore.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t want to come back to this country. In the U.S. I would have been safely living in obscurity, meeting new people wherever I went without running the risk of bumping into people from the past. But if you live in Kuala Lumpur and have even some semblance of a social life, chances are the circles you run in will contain people that you knew from years ago and are now frantically trying to forget. In the (almost) ten months that I’ve been in this relationship, I’ve reconciled with people I haven’t seen in a good thirteen-odd years and felt somewhat glad that I’ve seen them again, met entirely new people altogether, discovered a few of them are related to some good friends I’ve had, and run into other people who know them whom I had, until then, successfully blocked out of my memory.

Afham thinks he probably knew the man in question from his Sunway College days. I suppose to find out now that someone my best friend sort-of dated back when she was seventeen also happens to know my boyfriend and appears to have met me before, despite my complete failure to recall ever having met him, probably shouldn’t have surprised me; if anything, it only makes me look bad for the measly amount of attention I pay to others around me.

Self-help the brutal way

“Fellas, when you wake up in the mornin’, you should look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘FUCK YOU! Fuck your hopes, fuck your dreams, fuck your plans, fuck everything you thought this life was gonna bring you! Now let’s go out there and try to make this bitch happy!'”

– Chris Rock

That pretty much sums up my life right now.

Protected: Making restitution

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Slow burn

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” – Tom Stoppard

They say you should never burn your bridges, no matter how unhappy you are or how much you hate to cross them, because we never know when you may have to rebuild them. But sometimes, it’s just something that we have to do in order to move on, especially when we know that whatever that was worth learning while crossing them has already been burned (pun intended) into our memories, and we can take them with us into the next chapter of our lives without anything else to lose.

I’ve received my sign that soon it will be time to start burning my own bridges. I may regret it one day, I may not, but after coming one big, full circle, thinking that things could get better, but in the end facing all the disappointments anyway, I know that this is one path I do not intend to go down again.

In Life and in Death, a Secret kept

Oh Yew Cheong, 1928 — 2010

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye –

This past weekend I was back in Penang for my great-uncle’s funeral. As the older brother of my grandfather, widowed and childless, his world revolved around his four siblings, their children and grandchildren, and his wife’s family. And even though I had been hauled against my will to Penang on a weekday so that I would arrive in time for the wake, I later found, for the first time in my life, that I was glad to have been there for it.

Death is a very strange thing. People  spend the wake and funeral talking about the deceased’s life, dredging up any detail of their lives that they can remember, no matter how insignificant they may have seemed, inadvertently revealing secrets that had been kept for years, and sharing as much as they can to keep the person’s memory alive. And amidst mourning the loss of someone they had known and loved and celebrating the life they had led, the question eventually creeps out: How well did we really know this person?

I knew him as my grandfather’s older brother, who had lost his wife at a young age and never remarried. I knew that he treated my mother and the other children of his siblings like his own, and that my brother and I were the closest he had to having grandchildren. I knew that he walked from his house to the town every morning to buy breakfast for his ailing brother-in-law, whom he lived with, and their maid.

But I never knew him. I never knew that he had adopted a daughter, who now lives in the U.K. with her husband. I never knew that the room in his brother-in-law’s house that he lived in had been the center of  his world, with all his worldly possessions, including a very old photo of his wife, in it. I never knew that he had been an accountant, and that he read J.D. Salinger and Lord Tennyson. I never knew that he kept a door in his closet locked at all times, and I never knew that nobody, not even his own family, knew why or where he kept the key. All I knew was that he was a good man, who, even in his last days, made sure that his two younger sisters — the last of his siblings — and brother-in-law were all cared for.

So as I watched and listened in those last hours before he was laid to rest, I saw the pain this loss brought to my great-aunts and my mother, and I wondered if they were mourning not only his passing, but also his life, for all the things that they had known and not known about him. I wondered, but I doubt I’ll ever know.

Be in peace.