Serendipity

Was I born a masochist or did society make me this way?

294

It dawns on me that you would no longer be the boy whom I remember. In the end I’m mourning a soul who no longer exists, perhaps never existed at all. There are days that I forget your name, the sound of your voice. I no longer remember the way you kissed, I suppose it was tender. I don’t remember the way that you smell, but I remember I liked it. I don’t remember the way you fucked, but we left marks to celebrate.

All I really remember is the pain. A pain all consuming that it blurred my sense of reality, a pain so deep that death appeared less frightening. All logic dictated that my heart was still a functional organ, diligently beating, cycling blood through my body. You shouldn’t be able to feel a heart, yet I felt it. A searing, red hot sting, I felt it tear into pieces with every word, crushed by the weight of your apologies.

Sometimes I miss the pain, not in a masochistic way, although perhaps a little. But truthfully I miss the way you broke my heart so completely. One must love completely in order to be broken. But we grow and we learn and we never open up quite so sincerely again. We put up walls or at least some respectable fences. We leave one foot out the door, for safety.

I don’t miss being young but I miss the innocence of our youth. I miss saying I love you without caveats. The days of saying words like forever and meaning it, the way only foolish children could do. The days of never worrying about the future, as it was simply too far out of reach. When the greatest crime was the assault of a stranger’s perfume lingering on your shirt, not a lipstick stain.

I suppose, in a way, you still complete me. I may have been a different person had you not kissed me. Would I have been happier? My heart lighter? My soul unobstructed by the weight of your transgressions? Who would you be? Who would you have broken instead of me? Would she have recovered more elegantly?

Would she still wear her heart on her sleeve?

293

I still underestimate how much people mean to me, even after all this time. You’d think I’d be prepared by now, I should know how to cut my losses, stop hurting myself over people who never think of me at all. Wouldn’t that be the saddest thing, if you never thought about me at all.

Maybe that’s why I pretend we meant more to each other than we really did. It’s been four years since we spoke. Long enough for memory to become unreliable, and I was never a reliable witness. Maybe that’s why I pretend you never loved her. It’s easier to tell others you’re in a loveless marriage than to believe you might be happy in a life without me. The truth is, I know better than anyone that a man as calculating as you would never fail a question as big as marriage. You were always far too clever to sign yourself up to a life of defeat.

Or perhaps the truth is far more wretched. That you carefully considered the possibility of me, the wasted potential of me. You wrote a pro and con list, you reviewed my deficiencies and concluded that I was a disaster waiting to happen. You’d rather be bored than to suffer at my unpredictable hands. I never learned how to put you at ease. I excited you, I terrified you, but I was still only a stranger in your bed, never noticing you could only fall asleep alone.

Now you kiss her good night before retreating to separate rooms. You say “good morning darling” with the same ease as I pour my first coffee. You both promised the counsellor you’d remember to say “I love you” with more empathy, whatever the hell that means. You close your eyes and still you think of me. Your gin soaked breath tracing the curvature of my spine, your hands gliding along my shoulders, your lips on my skin, remembering every groove, every imperfection. Every scar, every near miss. The smell of my hair, the taste of my lips, the bitterness of unspoken goodbyes. Still you miss the shadow of me, yet you never grieve.

292

There are days when it is easier to miss you. Then there are days when my whole body aches for you. Days when tears stream silently as I sleep and dream of you. There are times when I wonder if I actually miss you at all, or simply a memory of you – my own distorted recollections of a man far more impressive than the truth could ever live up to. The kind of man who wouldn’t have abandoned me out of fear, the kind who had conviction and loyalty. That man would have stayed and loved me as a friend, as I have stayed faithful to embellished memories and searched for bearable imitations, chasing feeble flames to feed the flickering wicker you left behind.

There was a time when my smile could brighten up a room for you, when your gaze would always be the first to find me, claim me as your own. There were days when your smallest gestures were enough to hide the shame, mask the pain, make existence tolerable again. Those were the foolish days when we both practised smiles, feigned passion, and mistook our pride for intimacy. Those were the brief moments of honesty, when you weren’t afraid to admit that you were choosing her out of guilt rather than love. But if the guilt is powerful enough, who needs love anyway?

I scrutinised all your wedding photos, searching for a semblance of happiness, the vaguest promise of contentment you sorely deserved, but all I found was a mask on the brink of collapse. Your strained smile, her clasped hands, choking on meaningless vows, promising to love someone forever when you couldn’t love her a moment. Man of her dreams. You couldn’t bear to crush her fantasy, disappoint so many. You at least have the decency to pretend.

Because who are we without our masks? The cloak of civility masquerading as decency, the voice you put on for polite company, the jokes you tell with variations, distinctly catered to different guests. The way you move your body, the urgency of your kiss, the bruises you leave, the people you hurt with names you no longer remember. Do you still remember me?

291

Were you happier before or after you had children? Does correlation imply causation? Are you really happy or do you just think you should be? Am I really happy or just afraid of seeming ungrateful? Do you complete me or will I never know what that feels like?

He’s never had to fight to be heard so he always assumes he should be. If he can’t win the argument he’ll simply deem it is over. He acts like walking away is the rational adult thing to do, and when he’s ready to make amends, I’ve been quietly seething in resentment and chosen my hill to die on.

I didn’t know it was possible to have this many fights about nothing. I’m so tired of existing in this perpetual state of purgatory. Some days it’s not just failing to be on the same page, some days I’m not sure we’re even reading the same book. Some days I want to erase him from my story altogether and start over. Try again. If only it were as simple as hitting refresh.

When I get complacent I start to look for creative ways to self destruct. Happiness is the enemy, then you have something to lose. I’d forgotten how to love without one foot always out the door. Always watching, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When do you intend to fall out of love with me? I’d like a memo please, add an alert to my calendar. Maybe we could have a zoom meeting about it? Schedule the break up like one of your conference calls. Be efficient about it, leave a five star review.

It feels like we’re stuck in a warped simulation set to boring dystopia mode. Some alien child created us for a social studies assignment and forgot about us after handing in his report. Or maybe Earth is the universe’s version of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. We’re the trashiest reality show in the galaxy and aliens have been laughing at us for eons.

Most days it all feels futile. Chasing a lost dream that only ends in heartache. It’s never a question of if your heart will break, merely when. Does he leave you with a splatter of youth left, a chance to recoup your losses? Or do you grow old together until one of you gets to plan the other’s funeral? Write your vows and obituary at the same time, be efficient about it.

He says he loves me but I don’t believe him. The more he repeats it the more I convince myself it’s a conspiracy. Mostly it doesn’t feel like we’re together because we love each other. Most days we’re together because it’s better than being alone. Mostly he says what he must to tick the boxes. Most days I let him think I believe it too.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

290

You’re almost thirty now, and what do you have to show for it?” is a favourite line of hers. It’s a great line, used by many generations of Chinese parents to guilt their children for their lack of accomplishments. How dare you, the descendant of a first generation immigrant, not achieve the same level of greatness as the likes of Elon Musk. Such wasted potential, it surely arose from your lack of discipline, not inherited mediocrity. 

It started when I was 25, and as each year passed it became more desperate, more anxiety inducing. It dawned on me a long time ago that nothing would ever be enough. I turned 30 a few weeks ago. You know you’re the favourite child when both your parents forget your 30th birthday. They remembered the next day, and I received a heartwarming screenshot of a payment receipt with the reference “Happy Birthday” on it. To be honest I hadn’t given it any thought on the day until someone asked me about them. An innocent question, an awkward moment of realisation. I tried to explain why this was normal, when in reality nothing about my relationship with them has ever quite fit the definition of normal.  

I realised in that moment that I wasn’t hurt anymore, which hurt in its own way. I have no expectations of them, and yet that disappoints me too. I wish I could say with confidence that I would never repeat her mistakes but some days I have felt such rage that I feel I understand her better than I ever wanted to. I’ve gone from craving children to fearing the damage I could inflict upon them. It would be so terribly unfair to pass on these burdens. I can never really be sure if I am who I am because of them, or in spite of them. 

 

289

Do you have anyone you miss?

Someone you think about often, when you know you shouldn’t at all. You chastise yourself for wasting time when you don’t ever have enough to begin with, yet the mind still wanders when you let your guard down.

I miss him on Sunday mornings, waking up next to the man of my dreams, in a house full of peace except when I stir it. Still I find myself wondering, where are you, what you’re doing, did you ever learn to be happy? Does she make you feel loved the way you craved, did you ever feel the passion you longed for? I worried when you said you never felt it. You deserved to know what that felt like.

We’re told over and over what it takes to fall in love. What flowers to buy, what chocolates on what holidays. No one warns you how little it takes to fall out of love. How many petty squabbles, how many minor grievances can mould themselves into relentless disappointment. How the smile that used to brighten your day can turn so quickly into a smirk, how swiftly infatuation dissipates to leave only heartache. You can never really turn the page if you’ve stained through the next.

Misery doesn’t knock on your door one morning bright and early to announce itself. It creeps up on you slowly like a parasite, digging itself deep into crevices while you attempt to ignore the warning signs. By the time you notice, you’ve already lost your composure, your compassion, and though he witnessed it all, he’ll claim he has no idea what happened. How did you turn into this monster? What did he do to deserve it? When did you start to bring out the worst in each other? Like an itch you know you shouldn’t scratch but just can’t help it. We start to enjoy making each other bleed. We revel in the precision of our inflictions.

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In the end all that matters is that you chose me once. That you smiled at me across the room and invited me into your life when you were still a recluse. That we enjoyed every moment in each other’s company and you kissed me like a lover who felt like a friend.

That you saw my pain and believed it because you felt it too. We didn’t wallow together but I felt understood.

In the end what matters is this: kindness and faith. Waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel and seeing it shine brighter than you ever imagined possible. That gnawing sense of regret in the pit of my stomach because you’re not here to see it, I so wished you were here to say you’re proud of me.

In the end it doesn’t matter that you chose her.

287

In a lot of ways the past few years have felt like a blur. A mostly happy blur, or at least limited to a level of sadness that I could handle without falling apart. I don’t know whether to attribute that to age or wisdom, or perhaps an uninvited combination of both.

It might be a testament to my own narcissism that I seemed more distraught over losing my university boyfriends than I was about losing my grandmother, or hearing about the death of our family dog. It felt like a different sort of sadness, a dull ache, not a shattering. Or perhaps the defining difference was that I had the chance to say goodbye this time, with a full heart.

I was too young to be concerned about her mutterings when she lived at home with us, but thinking back, it pains me to remember how deeply unhappy she was. She would constantly tell me how she wished she was dead, and was annoyed with her body for not obeying. Even being surrounded by her children and grandchildren couldn’t ground her enough to make up for the loss of her husband. She was from a different era, and the idea of seeking new happiness never even crossed her mind. As far as she was concerned, her life was over when he so selfishly passed away so soon, and she was merely waiting to follow.

As the dementia set in, we became a blur too. But there were a few moments of clarity towards the end, or maybe just my wishful thinking convincing myself that she was happy to see me.

I remember feeling an uncharitable degree of anger towards members of my extended family for being true to themselves. Aunts who refused to let her live with her sons despite it being custom. People who balked at the idea of spending money on someone with one foot in the grave, now trying to alleviate that guilt by contributing to an expensive coffin. Their giant crocodile tears and banshee screeches at the funeral almost making me laugh out loud. Her favourite son who decided he didn’t need to be there in her final moments, but rather stayed in China to guarantee his inheritance and avoid inviting squabbles. A cousin who cited young children being difficult to travel with, and a demanding work schedule as reasons for his absence. I’ll concede that funerals don’t have quite the same appeal as an island getaway.

I know that I am being unfair, yet felt that anger magnify whilst scrolling past cleverly worded social media tributes to a woman who could barely turn on the television without assistance and had never owned a mobile phone. It filled my mouth with a bitter taste I was unaccustomed to. I was never close to them but had always felt a fitting level of camaraderie, which vanished as quickly as their feigned trauma. I grew up being told that family was more important than anything, and blood was thicker than water. It took years to unlearn those little white lies, and let go of the associated disappointments.

I might not ever become one of those people who wake up in the mornings feeling a sense of purpose, but I no longer wake up with dread. It’s taken years to drag myself away from depressive and suicidal thoughts but they no longer take up the majority of my day. Most days they’re not even an afterthought. I still feel anxious and I worry too much despite knowing better, but I’m comfortably optimistic about the future. I want to build a family, the one I’d always wanted, filled with joy and laughter, and bursting with love. For the first time ever, that doesn’t seem impossible.

286

The temptations of unfamiliar flesh. When an attractive stranger desires you, lusts for you, dreams of you, whispers your name with an urgency you don’t recognise. Those little moments feel better than the orgasm itself, and the orgasms aren’t bad at all. The way he pulls your hair, hard, but restrained as he’s trying to learn your limits. The way he bites your neck, digs his fingers into your back, and explores your body with his tongue. The adrenaline rush that came with being exposed, vulnerable. The excitement of tasting someone new.

As unfulfilling as they would be in the morning, I adored those small moments of simple, animalistic pleasures. A few moments to forget who we are, why we’re here, where we’re headed. Just you and me, strangers, lovers, friends, all, and nothing.

285

My happiness came in fleeting bursts. It was superficial, forgettable, insincere. I didn’t know whether it hurt me more that he couldn’t see it, or terrified me that he might.

I was dissatisfied, but mostly with myself. My stubbornness, my imperfections, my undoing. My inexplicable need to sabotage and destroy any semblance of stability. I could never make myself believe that he loved me as much as he said he did, even as he was saying it. I felt alone, even when he held me. Especially when he held me. I felt empty, maybe because they’d left wounds too deep. Or maybe I was always hollow to begin with.

I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I was wasting this life, this precious, exhausting existence. That every minute I spent feeling ungrateful would come back and haunt me with poetic justice. I never deserved any of it, and sooner or later it would be taken away, which would be unbearable, yet inevitable. I was angry with him for not understanding me, even though I didn’t either. I was regressing, and anger was my defence mechanism. I wanted to be heard even when I didn’t like my own voice.

I fell apart at the last wedding I attended because I had been uninvited to another. Not just unceremoniously removed from a list of invitations, but permanently barred from an entire life. She knew better than to leave him with access to relationship poison, they were ready to remove therapy from their budget and progress to the next phase of suburban paradise. I locked myself in the bathroom stall and sent a drunken message that would never be read. Or perhaps read and deleted to avoid incrimination. Or perhaps read and elicited only annoyance. Everyone had moved on while I let myself be haunted by a kind smile more than a decade old. I could never keep enough good people around to make me better. You could never love me enough to stay past the bad weather.

284

After all this time, you were the one who taught me what love ought to look like.

I’d never taken the time to observe the wonders of nature, the beauty of a well kept garden. It had seemed frivolous, wasteful, time that could be spent more constructively. I was taught as a child to remove myself from unnecessary distractions. I didn’t forget how to have fun. I never learned how to.

Love came in many forms and disguises, but yours was the sweetest. You whispered empty promises until I believed them, and I am still falling for your bad intentions.

There was a small part of me, naive and blindly optimistic, that was sure I could mean something to you even after I was gone. That you might think of me as the girl who loved you unconditionally, until she had to leave to recover all that she had lost in loving you.

I never wanted your gratitude, or gentle thoughts, or even nostalgia. But if I held on tight to my memories of you whilst you let go, how much of it remains real? Was it only ever lust imitating passion? Perhaps I’d unwittingly fantasised my own importance, my recollections of how fiercely we fought for our temporary infatuations being a mere extension of my narcissism.

There was a time when you meant the world to me, but I was only ever a small star in your galaxy. She will make you forget my name. She will make sure of it.

I will whisper my silent goodbyes. I will love you to my grave.

283

Let’s be serious, our generation never grew up. We never had to. There were no wars for us to fight, and we tried not to think too hard about the ones in faraway countries we’d never visit. It was irrelevant, it was nothing we had any control over, so why bother with upset? #War would never become trending. Don’t waste your pixels. Our understanding of starvation extends only to a delayed UberEats delivery, and we treat the mildest inconveniences like life ending catastrophe. Our lives revolve around the same first world problems and petty grievances, intermittently interrupted with the latest shiny object within our budget.

Our parents think they had it hard, or at least harder. Some become resentful, bitter that life wasn’t as kind on them as it was on us. They know it isn’t fair or right to feel this way, but that doesn’t stop them from muttering under their breath “…back in my day…”. You wish they had the decency to keep those thoughts to themselves. They don’t care what you think at all, you petulant child. They belong to the generation that believes emotional trauma builds character. They credit themselves for every achievement in your life but your failures are your own to bear. Don’t you dare burden them with disappointment.

Misery loves company only because it’s so damn lonely. I want you to understand my suffering, I have to make sure it’s equally devastating, or you won’t begin to comprehend my pain. But the world’s changing too fast for us to keep up. Round and round we go, we tell the same stories with new faces who distract from familiar, predictable conclusions. We go anyway. The devil’s in the details.

But you can’t escape the nagging feeling that you’ve drifted from the proper path. It’s like pressing the wrong key in a video game and knowing you’ll never get to the ending you wanted, that you worked so hard for. But you’ve come too far to start over, so you settle for second best. Before you know it your entire life becomes a series of second bests. You settle for less, then less, until you’re an empty shell of wasted potential. You spend the rest of your life convincing yourself that this is enough, and if you’re lucky, you’ll believe it.

282

This feels cruel to say. Sometimes I wonder if my mental health would be improved if I were an orphan. Unlikely in a place like China where I was born, but perhaps I would have stood a chance if I wound up here somehow, or if my father had a chance to discover himself without the constant belittling.

The strange thing about growing up with abuse is the inability to recognise it. When it’s the only norm, only truth that you know, how are you to expect anything different? Why would you think it should be any other way?

It wasn’t until late into adulthood, when becoming a parent seemed less of a distant future and more of an inevitable development, that I started to skim through all the “helpful” guides being shared by every new parent around me. Every article about harmful parenting styles read like a full transcript of my childhood.

I am afraid to share good news. It becomes either something she could take credit for, or something not worthy of being celebrated. I could never share the bad news. It becomes something that I must have caused, or deserve, something that could have been avoided if I could just be less lazy and more obedient. My fault, my fault. All the wrongs are mine. I must be grateful for every bit of good in my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for their sacrifices. Oh don’t I know it.

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. My mother is kind, generous, good hearted, caring. But somehow, through some misguided attempt to be a “successful” parent, she couldn’t offer me the same kindness she provided to strangers. Perhaps because on some level she believes I ruined her life. I remember her telling me so. “My life would be so much easier if you and your brother were never born.” I took gratuitous pleasure imagining the satisfaction of fulfilling that wish. I considered the possibility of finally having the last word. I’m still uncertain if it was weakness or strength that led me to stay.

Why do you let her hurt you?

You’re too old to be seeking unattainable approval.

What do you want from her?

I want freedom from her spell.

I want to be loved unconditionally.

I want you to make me believe it.

But not all wounds heal, darling. You don’t know how much I’ve bled.

280

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I think I was always destined to find my way into kink, it just took a lot longer than I would have liked, for various reasons. I remember being 16, exploring sexuality for the first time, losing my virginity to a boy I thought I loved, and wanting so much more than just the traditional vanilla lifestyle he seemed content to thrive in. I wasn’t even sure what I did want, only that it was far from whatever he could offer. What he considered passionate lovemaking bored me to tears. I wanted to be broken, he thought that meant I was.

I understood that monogamy was the norm, yet the idea of only being able to share intimate experiences with one fellow human was far from romantic, it depressed me to the core. I knew I didn’t want to marry him, have boring sex in missionary position twice a week, and live happily ever after in a house in the suburbs, surrounded by a white picket fence.

I didn’t know quite how to explain this in a way that didn’t hurt his feelings. I suggested that he try seeing other people, expand his experiences (secretly hoping that maybe if he fucked enough people he could get better at it), but he wanted only me. It made me wonder if I was selfish, or cruel, or simply incapable of love, at least the sort that everyone else seemingly wanted. 

When I eventually grew tired of pretending, and broke his heart unceremoniously, it felt like I had set myself free. I rushed to seek out new experiences with others, and in my eagerness to do so, inadvertently broke his heart a second time. I wish I could have known better. Years later when a boy finally shattered me, a part of me believed it was redemption. Ah, so this is what it felt like. I’m sorry, please forgive me, I’m sorry. 

It’s hard to explain why I’m utterly enamoured by someone who loves to mark my body with bruises. It was different this time, he wasn’t a boy cautiously testing the waters, weary of hurting me. He wanted to hurt me, and he knew how to do it confidently. I don’t like to submit easily, which makes the power exchange all the more thrilling for the both of us. I was no longer shamed for my deviance, he cherished and actively encouraged my perversions. When I expressed my desire to be tied, he had no qualms with me exploring the wonderful world of shibari with others.

This is what I had always known that I wanted, all along. A trust and connection so deep that didn’t feel threatened by other meaningful experiences. Someone who understood me and my desire to grow beyond the boundaries of our own intimacy. It takes time and faith to build the sort of trust that allows for such a bond, and I’m still always torn between wanting to share this aspect of my life and feeling like I should hide it from the world, as if it could be used against me in some way. But I like the life I’ve built, the friends I’ve kept, and the past no longer haunts me.

I am bound to him, yet I am free.