By Lee Yew Leong
The last conversation Peter had with a stranger transiting an airport was with a man bound for Bhutan. It was the summer of '03, they were both wanting out of Japan, like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in "Lost in Translation." Similar to the film, there was a good amount of sexual innuendo under their conversation. Most of it came from the good-looking Hawaiian. Peter, a Singaporean, was due to catch a flight to meet his lover, Hervé, in France. He was intrigued, but not intrigued enough to commit an indiscretion.
Halfway into the conversation, it transpired that the stranger had just come out of a five-year relationship. The stranger and his ex lived together in a big house. One day, the stranger cut short his jog to find the ex in the arms of another. In Hawaii, people out jogging carry weapons to fend off boars. When he came upon the writhing pair, he had still in his hand a knife. He could have plunged it through the bastard's heart. Fortunately, he was still in possession of his senses. What he did was throw a chair in the general direction. After the trespasser left, hint taken, the ex prostrated himself, even wept from guilt. But he could not look the adulterer in the eye, let alone forgive the adultery. A few weeks of therapy ensued, but alas, the relationship could not be salvaged. The wound was too deep to heal. So five years went poof! just like that. The Hawaiian almost said it with relish. But Peter could see that it was just storyteller exhilaration. The stranger was not yet over his relationship. He still needed to talk about it.
The stranger had recently passed an exam for a second career in real estate. He passed it on his first attempt; others had taken as many as five or six tries. When he reported this to his father, the latter had said, "You must be very smart." He was thirty-five and his father was still discovering about his intelligence. As a result he felt extremely alienated. You are thirty-five years old, your father says that you must be very smart. Can you imagine?
But Peter had long ago imagined. He understood that everyone sincerely believes himself to be the most maligned creature on Earth. The secret of the success of "Lost in Translation" is that everyone identifies with the protagonists: rich — insofar as full of love to give — but stranded, and not just in Japan. The film confirms everything we already know: the world not only disappoints, it deeply bewilders and estranges. Authenticity is a lost cause since we have no control over our fates. The presence of another human being is more often hostile than comforting. If the movie deconstructs romance, the experience of watching the film is nonetheless feel-good, since everyone achieves vindication on seeing himself projected on screen. But — and the trompe l'oeil only struck Peter much later — if the movie made believe that we were all Bill Murray, shouldn't the world be homogenous rather than estranging? Yet the opposite was true. Outside: a jumbled mess far from art's tidying up, a long ago abandoned because impossible enigma.
As the stranger talked, Peter felt a growing impulse to reach out and make everything alright. For he had often this feeling of bonhomie. It one time resulted in his saying to an operator, "I love you," which was most regrettable however true, because the operator hung up. But the man was bound for Bhutan, and he to France, it didn't feel right. But since the nature of bonhomie is its very ambiguity, Peter felt momentarily confused. Did it mean that you could love anybody? The more he looked into the stranger's green eyes, the more he felt it to be troubling because true.
Perhaps it was like that when he talked with Hervé. One time he had been angry with their conversation, and was himself about to hang up, when Hervé cried, "Chou chou! Je t'aime." He stopped what he was doing, astonished by the force of Hervé's non sequitur. Of course he ended up not hanging up, but holding on. Love was Hervé's trump card. It won out over reason, and lately, since Peter moved back to Singapore, over long-distance.
The stranger took out a pack of cards and proposed a game of memory, a petit jeu where both players' goal is to pick out as many matching pairs as possible from a table of covered cards. Peter needed no introduction to it: he often played it with Hervé, in fact, during their picnics in André-Citroen.
A little into the game, the stranger asked if Peter was in a relationship. When Peter came clean about Hervé, the Hawaiian asked if he loved the Frenchman. But Peter didn't want to answer. "My guess then, is you don't," hazarded the stranger. This was half-correct: in point of fact, Peter suspected that "romantic love" didn't exist, or didn't exist outside the exigencies of carnal desire anyway: what we call romantic love is simply general bonhomie, concentrated on one person.
Peter led the game. He remembered what and where. Usually, when incompatible numbers came up, you dismissed them as unrelated. But once you did that, you easily forgot. The secret to memory, thought Peter, apart from simple concentration, is making narratives. Add or subtract, divide if necessary.
If you were good you could do it with a book; you could open to different pages and isolate sections to read, continue ad infinitum until you had gone from cover to cover. Even if the pieces did not belong next to one another, they fit within a larger continuum. You had to remember about the larger continuum. You had to trust it all made sense.
And if you were really good, you could do it with people. One time, as he was exiting a cinema, the man he opened the door for took a liking to him. The inconnu requested permission to walk beside. Peter didn't say yes because he found the man louche and unattractive, but loathe to be unkind, he did not object. The stranger took silence for consent and started a conversation. Where did you grow up? Parisians don't hold doors. By the time they reached the end of the street, Peter had agreed to coffee, thinking, if anything, I can practice French. It's not usual to agree to conversation with strangers on the basis of language practice and yet — Peter later thought — how wonderful if you could always see it that way. Halfway through their conversation, Peter made a remark about the gaucheness of Canadian French. It was exactly the kind of thing that one says to another to establish solidarity against an alienating other. But the stranger surprised him by leaping to a sharp defense of the foreign accent. His tirade was correct: Peter was humbled. I have much to learn. Yet I thought to cut him off. Later, after they parted amicably outside the café, he thought how glad he was to have accepted the offer of conversation. So long as personal preference didn't stand in the way, love could be possible and the world less alienating.
But the stranger, the attractive one with the green eyes, didn't think so. When you love someone, you think he's the only one for you. If you have reason to believe otherwise, you move on. Peter was reminded of the way some people approached religion as if they were the ones with bargaining power: they subtracted and subtracted from the tenets until it dawned that they too could contrive a God that suited Them. But if his conviction that religion should be theocentric practice brought him to the uncomfortable position of irreligious fundamentalism, he nonetheless did not cease waiting, not for a whom or a what, just an unadulterated, an unexpectant, if you will, waiting. One day, having dropped his wallet in a bus and filed the perfunctory report, he related the incident to Hervé in a way that conveyed his presumption of the wallet's return. When Hervé then asked why the faith in strangers, Peter had said, rather out of the blue, into the phone, that people were the only God they had. And sure enough, the wallet had come back two weeks later in the mail, with the money intact and an anonymous note that said, "I found this. Cheers." And if the person had not returned it? asked Hervé. Then he must have needed it more than I, answered Peter.
We are an undivided matter, he thought at last, helping the stranger gather up cards. Even if we don't agree, even if we are one unattractive and louche and another green-eyed and suave, our difference is at most disparity between crest and trough on a Hokusai wave. And as the stranger got up, because it was time after all to leave, because Japan was transit and Bhutan beckoned, he handed Peter a namecard (he would later guiltily discard it) and said, Hey if you ever come to Hawaii. And as Peter got up to gamely shake the stranger's hand, he said, likewise, if you pass through Singapore. We will have stellar conversation.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009