A long time ago - before I even turned 18 - I fell in love with a girl. She wasn't the first girl I fell in love with, nor the last. Yet at the time I felt very deeply that I was in love with this girl. She came from a well-to-do Hong Kong / Australian family. My own family was a traditional long distant import from Europe that in the last generation had crawled into the middle classes. She was beautiful in the way that symmetrically faced young asian women often are to young white males. More than beautiful, however, she was smart. No, not smart. Many people are smart. I was smart. She was ridiculously intelligent. One of the best of the elite students in the country that year. Great at mathematics, great at English, great at wherever her intelligence was directed. And more than smart, she was kind, modest, with a subtle humour and flawless manners. Entirely dedicated to her family. Everything that a well-to-do family could ever hope for in a daughter. It was hardly surprising I fell in love with her - the only mystery was that so many others hadn't. Or perhaps they had, but she never had a boyfriend, nor seemed to show any interest in getting one. Perhaps like me, suitors were simply too intimidated to actually express their feelings to her.
I dreamt of her last night - and this morning it has brought back a handful of disjointed broken memories. Memories of non-connected events that no more create a picture of her than the reflections of a broken mirror. Indeed, like that broken mirror, it shows nothing more than a collection of miniature reflections of myself rather than any image of her at all.
I cannot exactly remember how we met. I cannot remember the first time we talked. Our meeting was, I do know, through a mutual female friend who I shall call Sally. I remember the only time I ever went to this girl's house was with Sally. It must have been my 2nd year in University. We had all know each other for quite a while then - and we were allowed to sleep over in the room outside the girl's bedroom. We all stayed up late that night, but at some point the girl had to go to bed and retreated to her bedroom and shut the door. Sally and I were outside, perhaps on a fold-out bed or sofa and we started fooling around. Both of us were still virgins back then, and rarely did either of us have this opportunity, this night-time proximity with the opposite sex. I cannot imagine that this fooling around went very far. Kisses and wandering hands under clothes and giggles and arousal. However, we must have been giggling a lot and when we heard the noise from the room we both stopped dead. Behind the closed door the girl was crying - sobbing into her pillow. We both felt bad. And then we both felt even worse, for neither of us could bring ourselves to go comfort the crying girl. Our friend. The girl I was supposed to be in love with. It was the first time I realized that the girl who was everything a well-to-do family could ask for was also extremely lonely.
Another memory - much later - now I must have been in 4th year University. By now I had lost my virginity (by coincidence - and disastrously - with Sally). A year and a half in a private residential college had turned me into a drinker. Third year University in the United States had reinforced my taste for alcohol, introduced me to soft drugs and broadened my knowledge of flirtation, love, obsession and sex. I was now a tutor at a famous University whilst I hammered away on a minor dissertation and attended classes on philosophy and sociology of science. The girl was now clearly a woman, and more than half way through her medical degree. She still had not ever had a boyfriend. I was still in love with her. I had still never told her so. I was a more confident creature now, and after pacing up and down the rooms of my share-house for days on end I thought this was the time! I really had to face rejection and ask her out.
We were the type of friends who did not meet often - but when we did it was usually alone and we would just talk for hours. And those talks were fresh, honest, interesting, frank, and simply some of the best conversations of my life. It was unusual for me to phone her up - but not unheard of. So without really knowing how to ask her, I picked up the phone and dialed her number. She still lived with her parents. I have no memory of how I asked. I imagine that a few seconds after asking I had no memory of how I asked. But ask I did, and the answer I remember clearly. It wasn't an out-right rejection, and certainly it wasn't an acceptance. It was simply that it wasn't possible. Someone had asked her out yesterday - and she had said yes to him. After four years of keeping my mouth shut - the possibility had slipped by less than 24 hours before.
I was devastated. Not on the phone of course, that would have been impolite. But once that receiver went down I was in shock. The irony of the timing. Whilst I was pacing up-and-down someone had beaten me to the question. Not just someone even - but one of my own bloody students. I had a third of a bottle of scotch in my room - I drank it listening but not listening to Nick Cave on repeat. My friend and neighbour came to enquire what was going on - as one does when you hear your neighbour playing Nick Cave on repeat. God bless him, he brought me over another bottle of scotch and left me alone to stare at the wall and continue drinking. This was the first time, but not the last, that I had the experience of drinking to excess without the pleasure of getting drunk.
Jump forward another year. During the early months of a PhD degree that I would never finish. The girlfriends and sexual encounters I had had were starting to pile up - partly helped by my having learnt basic massage a number of years before, but not yet the ethics that should go with that skill. The woman came over to my house to talk - as we always had before - but this time I ended up giving her a back massage. And there she now was underneath me - her naked back under my caressing hands - the curve of her breasts pressed into my mattress - the long black hair swept in a whirlwind over her left shoulder. She was still going out with my now ex-student. I was still insanely jealous of him - though to my credit he did receive the excellent marks he so fully deserved from my class. And here was his girlfriend, the object of my years of desire, all but naked underneath me, on my bed, in my room. And I know my heart beat wildly. And I know my hormones were boiling. And I know there was a deep intimacy between us at that moment that bordered on the sexual. And I, and I, for once, did not take advantage. And once finished I climbed off her, and she half turned to me and said 'she wanted to ask me something...' and then she didn't ask. The question died in her throat and lived forever in my mind as the thing unasked. The question that I wish to this day she had asked. Then she was dressed again, and the day was for us over.
I'm not sure if it was months later, or years, but she got married to the same man who had asked her out a day before I had asked her. I was at the wedding reception. I left the Great Hall of the University where the reception was held, barely saying goodbye to the proud parents standing at the grand entrance and I ran. I ran to the quadrangle a few minutes away, crumpled into one of the sandstone arches and wept uncontrollably. A demented self-pitying wretch - I wept for what could never have been. Ever.
Years later we met for lunch. She was now a doctor in a hospital. We ate Japanese and later walked down to a park near to where she and her husband lived. As always, our talk was frank and wide reaching and I talked of some of the events remembered above. I said how much I had loved her. And she said that it wasn't love. That I hadn't known her well enough to love her. And perhaps, perhaps, she was right.
Compiling the final list of invitations to my own wedding celebration I crossed her off the list of people to invite. She and her husband had moved to the United States. She has already had her first child and is now a medical specialist. I know this last fact because I did some google stalking whilst compiling the invitations. I haven't contacted her for years - I haven't got a contact email, address or phone number. I would have to go through Sally to get one, and since I didn't when I heard she was pregnant, when I heard she had had a child, I didn't now. I would love to meet again, to talk, the engage once more with that clear sharp insightful mind. But to ask her to my wedding celebrations seemed just one-step-too-much-all-about-me.
And then last night I had the dream. She was as beautiful as I had always seen her - with white braiding through her jet black hair. Hair that in the harsh light of Sydney reflected so bright that it almost seemed white itself - a observation I mentioned to her. Her smile was pure, unabashed happiness. She was walking with me, my parents just ahead of us. We were walking away from the wedding rehearsal - our wedding rehearsal. My father had jokingly asked why she was marrying me - and she jokingly said 'because of all the great sex we shall have.' And the strangest thing was that it was all entirely news to me. Somehow I had been transported to a world where this woman - this woman I loved for so long was actually about to marry me. Then she playfully kissed me and I suddenly thought of how I had wanted and desired and prayed for that kiss so long.
I woke up next to my own perfectly real wife. The wife who I love very dearly and I lay dazed, turning the dream over in my mind. What the hell was that about? How could my subconscious be so unendurably cruel as to put this upon me? To use a past love - was it love? - to create a gorgeous perfect moment - to create what could never ever have been - and impale me upon it. Deep down, do I really hate myself this much?
Underneath and Behind show 19th Nov 2016
4 months ago