Paul was always a little softie. A Mama’s boy: that was how his fraternal grandmother would explain it. On his first day in grade school, he carried an elaborate tantrum just so his lovely mother, Evelyn, would stay by his side. Wailing and whining like any little boy, Paul managed to have his mother stay on his first day. And also on the second day, the third and the fourth, until two weeks on he finally made new friends, enough to chase away his homesickness, enough not to miss Evelyn’s beautiful smile and warm hands on his shoulders.
Growing up was a great challenge for Paul. Effeminate and a little eccentric, he got unwanted attention, and even more unwarranted taunting. First, from grumpy relatives who made fun of Paul’s queer ways, and suggested he be whipped with a belt to be a man. Second, from neighbours, who called him bakla and bading so loudly that everyone else would hear, and Paul’s ears would be flushed red from embarrassment. Third, from other children, who took effeminate as weak and called Paul even nastier names. And lastly, from his father, who uttered not a single harsh word, nor punished Paul with a belt as uncles and aunts would suggest; but who would often call him out, as he walked home with a little hip sway, with a tremulous voice loud enough for a few people to hear, “Walk like a man. Be more macho!”
But it was an event in grade six that changed Paul. He saw his best friend, Daniel – who was also effeminate, with a light voice unaffected by puberty – surrounded by several young boys before Math class. They were harassing Daniel, calling him names, calling him gay. His best friend was nearing tears. So suddenly, something overcame Paul, and he walked towards the group and with a spirited voice commanded the young boys, “Stop calling Daniel gay! You’re the ones who are gay! All of you!” A stunned silence filled the classroom, and the young boys left Daniel. It was a victory, Paul thought. He defeated the Goliaths.
“Are you alright,” he asked Daniel.
“Why did you do that? You don’t have to defend me,” Daniel replied.
“But they were bullying you.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Daniel said worriedly.
Confused, Paul walked away from the scene, wondering how an act of courage was met by his best friend’s disappointment. He would find out the true reason by lunch time. Inside the school canteen, Paul made his way to his favourite seat and table. Daniel was nowhere to be found. He proceeded to eat alone, when tall shadows blocked his view of his lunch tray. The young boys who bullied Daniel had surrounded him.
“So you’re calling us gay, huh?” said Cholo, the so-called leader of the group.
And with that, the young buys started punching Paul’s shoulders and back. Clenched fists hit his young bones, his developing joints, his clavicle, almost paralyzing him, rendering him unable to fight back. And how could he? He was outnumbered. Two others violently shook his table that his drink spilled on his school uniform and his lunch was wasted onto the table and canteen floor. They harassed Paul with such ferocity it was unfathomable. No one seemed to notice, not even the bigger boys in the all-boys school. If anyone did, including Daniel who saw everything happen, they were better off not getting into anyone else’s business.
“That will teach you a lesson not to mess with real boys,” Cholo said after he felt pleased with what they have done to Paul.
The ordeal left Paul bruised, and not just on a physical level. There were bruises skin-deep, and there were bruises on the heart and spirit. On that fateful day, Paul was emotionally bullied too. And the trauma would only manifest when he was older.
Bakla, bading, sirena, mahinhin, mahina, jokla.
The bullying would continue. Although they never escalated to the same physical force similar to that in the school canteen, the verbal tirades along with the intimidation by the bullies were blows to Paul’s self-esteem and crucial boyhood. He wondered if indeed he was gay, as the bullies called him, as the bullies saw him. He wondered if all along, what his relatives, neighbours, and even father saw in him, were the makings of a gay man. Rejected by his peers, Paul found solace in Evelyn. But he could never mention his private disgraces to his mother. To him, it was a failure. And he dared not to be a failure in the eyes of such a woman.
Paul’s search for masculine approval began soon after grade school. He felt unwanted by other boys and by men, and he sought to be liked by them. The surge of hormones in high school came at a time Paul started exploring his sexuality. The desire to be liked turned into an internal desire for men in itself. To like and then to be loved. It was all that mattered to Paul during the often chaotic time called adolescence.
University afforded Paul the opportunity to meet even more people, and the larger environment he found himself in allowed him to gauge who he really was. He no longer wasted time speculating about his desires, he simply followed them. Testing the limits of his own religious and moral inhibitions, he found comfort in things as simply as infatuation. He liked men. He imagined having a boyfriend. He imagined having sex them. His efforts were never met. And a long cycle of unrequited love became the theme of his life. Throughout his years in the university, Paul fell in love with other young men – football players, seminarians, classmates, professors, bystanders, and complete strangers. His stomach fluttered at every shirtless lad; his eyes widened at the sight of a good looking man. But he never dared to be in a relationship with them, no matter how much he wanted to. He never even shared a meaningful friendship with another man.
Graduating brought an influx of new experiences. As Paul started to work, he continued to stay in the safe distance of ambiguous friendships with other men but now he was more comfortable – with a salary, perhaps – to enjoy the company of male colleagues in the form of Friday night drinks, lunch, work projects. Of course heartache was unavoidable. He fell in love with any man who showed him affection. He misconstrued friendly kindness as interest. And time and again, he blamed himself when these friendships fell apart, and when his affections were once again rendered unrequited.
The drought ended when Paul finally met Amir. An unorthodox friendship soon gave birth to a relationship that would span the oceans. Amir brought Paul out of the shadows of religious and societal inhibitions, and invited him to take a risk. Paul, stripped down his defenses and allowed the moment to transform him. Both knew what they were up against. Both knew forever was unlikely. But both knew it must be worth a shot. And for the first time, Paul could gladly exclaim and brag to friends, that yes, his love was requited. He was finally, approved.
But the ecstasy wouldn’t last long.
People say all good things come to an end, and in Paul’s case, they ended sooner than he could have imagined. He never talked why it ended. He never explained to anyone, not even his friends. And Evelyn was certainly never to know. Going through the motions of a relationship that had just ended, the greatest pain for Paul was not that it was over. Nor was it the fact that he was no longer any different than before. Paul suffered. Paul fought. Paul exhausted his means. Paul gave his damn best.
What caused the great pain was that for Paul, the failure of his relationship with Amir was a return to a cycle; old wounds reopened, and memories of that day in the canteen became fresher than the January winds. For Paul, the breakup was a personal failure, and he felt he was back to square one: an adolescent begging for a boy’s approval. It was a pitiful site to watch him drain himself of all that pent-up love that had been denied. He once again became that boy surrounded by other boys violently harassing him, physically hurting him, and verbally taunting him. He once again became that boy who had to endure the worst realization of his life: that he was inadequate for being different, and that he was something out of the ordinary. That he was not worth the risk.
Paul never found love since Amir. His losses were too great; breaking even was not a possibility. The nonchalant attitude of many towards his sorrows, especially those of a private scale, inflicted irreparable damage. But while the scars were forever, Paul did find love. Evelyn, though ignorant of his son’s pains, was there to console him with a warmth and affection that could never be duplicated. Paul remained devoted to his father, who with age, had mellowed and finally appreciated the stability of Paul’s care and often unseen efforts to support the family. And Paul’s friends were there too, to provide the necessary emotional companionship to survive the cold days and colder nights.
The last time I talked to Paul, he said something which struck me. He said with such tone, such posture, such strength, such sacrifice.
The search for love is instinct. It is basic human desire. It is our humanity. It is us. Being. Love allows us to be. It cannot be a convenience. It cannot be with condition. If I were to be loved because it was convenient for a person, it is not love but necessity. If I were to be accepted only because it boosted another person’s ego, then I am not being but an object appreciated only for its usefulness, and not for being an object in itself. I have lost a great deal in the course of my life, and I am sure I will be plagued by the side-effects of a traumatic childhood. While it would be very brave of me to love again, I cannot afford to reopen a wound that could distance me from the only love I know today: that of family and friends.