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On Valentines and Half-Requited Love
Irfan is a regular Webdiarist. His last contribution was Why Xenophobia is Never Kosher or Halal. As a pre-Valentine's day piece Irfan seems to have picked up where Roger left off with his review of Brokeback Mountain. But this piece moves away a bit from religion and sexuality and hones in for us on the oh-so personal truth of love. To all Webdiarists currently struck by Cupid, regardless of your age, lifestyle, religion, sexuality or (especially!) politics, Happy Valentine's Day. Hamish Alcorn.
by Irfan Yusuf
My contributions to this website have tended to be serious – terrorist attacks, anti-terror laws, cultural clashes and a host of other controversial topics. I try to inject some humour wherever possible.
And with Valentines Day around the corner, I was hoping to write on the lighter side of love. Then recently a friend invited me to join her for a movie. That movie is still haunting me. It’s hard to write about it and be funny at the same time.
Apologies for the unsophisticated Aussie bloke
We arrived at the hip Dendy Cinemas in the trendy suburb of Newtown. We grabbed our tickets and plonked ourselves in the comfy seats. My friend then did something totally unexpected. She apologised.
“Sorry, Irf. I should have told you. This is a movie about homosexual cowboys. I hope that’s OK.”
Kiwi readers shouldn’t be surprised by the apology. We are, after all, talking about Australia, a country that still imports a large proportion of its cultural icons from across the Tasman.
Sydney’s Sun-Herald reported on February 5 2006 that the acclaimed movie Brokeback Mountain “is not being shown at cinemas in Sydney suburbs including Campbelltown and Blacktown, nor in regions including Newcastle, the Hunter and the Central and South coasts.”
It seems that even the presence of Australian (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some Kiwi blood) actor Heath Ledger isn’t enough to convince the film’s distributors that some parts of Australia are just too unsophisticated to appreciate the movie.
Knowing of my Muslim background and Anglican schooling perhaps led my Hindu friend to apologise. But the movie did keep me thinking for the next few days.
The pain of half-requited love
The film tells the story of two male drovers whose single homosexual encounter at Brokeback Mountain changes their lives. Despite entering conventional marriages and having children, the men relive that encounter at various points of their lives. They develop an emotional bond which they both know cannot be shown in public.
Every few months or years, the two men meet for a weekend of passion. They live double-lives, with one hoping against hope that one day their feelings can be given room to move in the real world.
You needn’t be gay to feel the pain of half-requited and forbidden love that these men recognise but whose circumstances make it impossible for them to honour.
Van and Jess
The movie reminded me of the story of Van, a close friend who recently moved to San Francisco to work as a commercial lawyer. His was also the story of half-requited forbidden love. Some years back, he ventured into a high class brothel with friends on a bucks night in Melbourne.
There, he decided to spend some time of his own with a sex worker. She read the name on his credit card and immediately recognised Van was of the same ethno-religious background as her deceased mother. They both had Vietnamese Buddhist heritage, though the girl grew up with her English father who spurned Buddhism and kept his children away from their Vietnamese mother’s family.
The sex worker took a liking to Van and handed him her phone number. Her work name was Carmel, but she told him her real name Jess. (I’ve changed both names to protect her anonymity.)
The lawyer and the scholar
They contacted each other frequently, and spoke on the phone at least twice a week. Jess told Van enough information about herself to enable him to use his lawyering and Google-ing skills to great effect. Van managed to track down her background and discovered she had been a journalist before she joined the profession.
In fact, she wasn’t any ordinary journalist. Before arriving in Australia as a backpacker, Jess lived with her family in England. She was teaching in a prestigious university, and her work had been published across Europe. She also taught journalism in various colleges.
He later expressed how he felt upon discovering all this information.
“I saw all these entries on Google about her and other members of her family. Jess is the sort of girl I’d have pursued even before she joined the industry. She’s had a life before the industry. I know she will leave sex work. Why shouldn’t I take her seriously?”
A matter of trust
After numerous telephone conversations and discrete meetings with her, Van was becoming fond of Jess. It seemed she was also becoming fond of him. However, it seemed that in her mind, he would never be someone Jess could introduce to her family or friends, none of whom were aware of her sex work. Why?
Perhaps Jess felt he had too much power over her. They might have an argument, and he might spill the beans to her loved ones. Perhaps he reminded her too much of her mother’s heritage which was too painful a memory to deal with.
Van persisted, trying to reassure her she could trust him. And trust him she did. On a number of occasions, he contacted her care of friends and family members. He also introduced her to some of his friends. A trust developed between them.
But in the end, the best Jess could bring herself to offer was half-requited love. Van told me her words to him as follows.
“I’m really fond of you. But I’m not fond of this situation. When I leave this industry, I want to leave behind everything associated with it. I’d love to take you with me. I just wish I knew in what way. Maybe as a good friend. I just don’t know.”
The fallout of the forbidden
The last time my friend spoke to Jess, she told him she was feeling suicidal. It was quite likely Jess was suffering from quite severe depression, which might explain her entry into the industry in the first place. Depressed people often find it impossible to make decisions or commit themselves to a work timetable. Those entering the world’s oldest profession find a decent income without having to commit to set hours.
Van never found out what happened to his friend Jess. He spent many months blaming himself for her suicidal behaviour. In the end, Van almost succumbed to his own depression and found living in Melbourne too difficult. Everything in Melbourne reminded him of Jess. He sought employment overseas. Even now, in e-mails, he mentions his feelings toward that woman whom he refers to as “journo-Jess”.
I seriously hope reading Van’s story doesn’t spoil your Valentines Day. Most of us find love in more conventional ways. But as Van’s story and Brokeback Mountain powerfully illustrate, unconventional love can be just as real even if the pressures of society and circumstance don’t allow it to be fully requited.
Anyway, I’d better go for my daily exercise walk. I usually take my ipod with me. I know just the song for the mood I’m in. Anyone hazard to guess? Here’s a selection of lines...
How I wish