Gross Domestic Happiness
By Lee Yew Leong
Peter had always wanted to go to Bhutan where they measured the GDH. Hervé had not heard about that country. In France, they only knew about Indochine. Marguerite Duras, whom Hervé read, wrote about Indochine. He had a copy of "The Lover" on his bookshelf.
"Bhutan, "Peter repeated.
"Putain, do you mean?" putain being French for whore.
"What would a whore do with happiness?" he snapped.
"Oh," Hervé said, suddenly afraid. If his lover got angry he would hang up and they would not speak again until after the weekend. So he added, "What would anyone do with happiness?"
Their conversation often ran away from them like this, leaving both parties speechless.
"I dunno..." Peter said at last. "Play with it?"
That night, following the telephone conversation, Peter had a dream. The small boy from the Doisneau photograph was in it. The child, leaning against a doorframe off of Rue de Lappe, was jumbling up the neon colours of a rubik cube. In his mind's eye, the boy was black and white, but the toy, blurring furiously under his bossy hands, shone in glorious technicolour.
To reciprocate Peter's unexpected gift of the rubik cube, Hervé sent a flower in an envelope. Extricating the ziplocked thing, Peter was quite appalled. To Hervé's credit, it had probably looked good fresh, but after the package had been manhandled by numerous postal workers en route from Paris to New York, it resembled roadkill. The yellow flower was coated with plant juice, sticky. The stem was in two, and the crown torn, and pummelled. He could not tell what it was. It was too small to be sunflower, he decided, but it was not geranium either. He thought perversely of "The Little Prince" and his cared-for rose.
Later that day, Hervé called. Before Peter said "allo", Hervé went into a tirade about the thieving wind that had snatched away his only copy of Peter's address.
In response, Peter made hostile reference to the movie "Serendipity". In the film, John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale reunite years after they first meet, fall in love, and separate, convinced that the gust of wind that whisks away her phone number is a sign. (In the more prosaic version, Hervé had extracted the paper from his filofax to make a call, and the wind had swooped in through the doorless booth to pluck it away.)
"Maybe I shouldn't give you my address," he concluded, after the long explanation. "Maybe it's a sign," he summed up darkly. Hervé had not yet seen the movie. But he had seen the movie, "Signs" and tried desperately to steer the conversation in that direction. "I didn't know that Mel Gibson's Australian. Did you know that Mel Gibson's Australian?"
"Yes," Peter said miserably. "His only daughter's going to be a nun", which was true. He had read it in Entertainment Weekly, while waiting for his chiropractor. "MEL GIBSON'S ONLY DAUGHTER OPTS TO BE NUN", the headline exclaimed. "Maybe I should be a monk," he added aggressively. Mel Gibson had played Hamlet, once. Who had been his Ophelia?
"Chou chou?" Hervé called out all of a sudden, his voice brave and forlorn.
"Are you angry with me?"
"I'm not angry with you."
"Why are you angry with me?"
"I said, I'm not angry with you."
Pressing phone to ear, Peter could hear Hervé change the position of the receiver from one ear to the next.
"Tiens," Hervé said hopefully, "were you happy to get the flower?"
"Yes." But Peter said it half-heartedly.
"Did you read the postcard?"
Hervé had slipped a postcard of Robert Doisneau's famous "Kiss by the Hotel de Ville" into the package. The handwriting on the flip side addressed the recipient by "Mon nounours des cocotiers."
"Did you understand nounours des cocotiers?"
"Did you look it up? Do you know what cocotiers are?"
"But aren't you curious?"
"Look, I've returned my English-French dictionary to the bookshop, alright?" Peter erupted. "Soon I won't be able to understand you anymore!"
And then the line was dead.
Beside the phone a photograph of the two of them – from Bali—leaned. Hervé picked up the photo frame to look at it more closely. Peter had one arm around Hervé's waist in the picture, they were standing in front of a coconut tree, their feet digging into sand. They were both tanned from snorkeling. The other hand – the one that wasn't around his waist – Peter had buried in his wet dark hair, as if self conscious of the improvised do. Two rows of straight white teeth flashed for the camera. Shorter than Hervé by one whole head, Peter looked quite mignon next to him; they did look like a couple together, even if an unlikely one, he supposed. Hervé sighed "Ooh la la la la". Outside, because the days were starting to draw longer, it was not yet dark. But the white-washed Sacré Coeur, which invited itself into every apartment this side of Boulevard de Rochechouart, was already lit. He could feel its chartreuse glow penetrate his sixth-floor apartment.
Replacing the photograph, he made his way to the living room. He knelt down by the hi-fi and put the radio on 93.8 Nostalgie. Immediately, husky-voiced Aznavour came on, belting "Mes Emmerdes". Once, driving in his Renault, his Singaporean lover had shushed him because the radio announcer was about to disclose the name of a song that just played. "I want to know who sang this," he said. "Maybe there'll be more where it came from." He had liked it so much that he had even drummed his fingers on the dashboard in sync with the song as it had played. But just as he was paying extra attention to the D.J. from Nostalgie, another car cut into Hervé's path, and Hervé from reflex, honked hard and ejaculated, "C'est quoi ce bordel!" This was the moment the radio announcer had chosen to reveal song title and name of singer, both of which were drowned out by Hervé's one-man brouhaha. This made his lover cross. Feeling guilty, Hervé said he would independently make a trip down to Champs Elysees' Virgin and ask, but at the shop, he blanked out on the melody in front of an assistant and could go no further than "Pah pah pah". When he returned empty-handed from his quest, Peter was watering the plants Hervé reared in pots outside the apartment. "No one knew," Hervé had thrown his hands up into the air, "People are very rude in France." "How did you ask?" his lover grilled, putting down the watering can. "Well, how else does one ask? I hummed the melody," Hervé said. "Hum it for me," Peter pressed. Hervé burst out laughing and said, "What is this, the Gestapo?" "No, come on, just hum it. I want to see if you got it right." Not knowing what to do and even less what to say, Hervé bent down to pick up the watering can and started watering away. His interrogator caught on and burst into a furore. "I knew it! I knew you'd forgotten!" "No," Hervé pleaded, "I got it right. I'm just blanking out now. Tu me bloques! Tu sais? Tu me bloques!" And then Hervé in turn had pretended to be mad.
All of a sudden, the phone rang. Hervé had a hunch it was long-distance.
"I just wanted to tell you not to be upset," Peter began.
"I'm not upset. I can tell that you're in a bad mood. I'm used to being at the receiving ends of your bad moods. I was about to brush my teeth when you called."
"Don't be upset," Peter pressed.
"I'm not," Hervé said.
"It's all good then."
"Yes, all good," Hervé said tiredly.
There was a long moment of silence, and then Peter decided to say it.
"Your flowers came to me crushed." The tone was more matter-of-fact than accusing, but Hervé took it badly.
"Ah!" Hervé cried. "But I put padding in the envelope!"
"Well, it didn't work. It looked like..." Peter groped around for the French that would explain roadkill. "When an animal gets crushed by a car. That's what it looked like: a crushed animal. You basically sent me a crushed animal!" He had told himself that he would not make a big deal out of this, but forced to confront the fact of his inarticulacy he could be prone to hysteria. "And frankly," by this time he could no longer stop himself: "who sends flowers in an envelope anyway?"
"But I couldn't find a box! Anyway I thought it would still be okay."
"When I found it, it was crushed."
"Look, I know you had good intentions. But don't you ever think about what happens after?"
"Ecoute-moi," Hervé pleaded. "I was at André Citroen last week. We always go there Sundays, to try the balloon, do you remember? But it would always be too windy, and they never once let us up. Last Sunday, the weather was calm, so they finally gave the green light. Everyone wanted a ride. Even the old folks joined. But I didn't go, I didn't want to go alone. I spent all afternoon watching the balloon go up and down, thinking how we'll do it together when you come back one day. I wanted to send you something from that afternoon to commemorate the take-off, and I thought of the flower. I plucked it from the bush beside me."
"But how should I get all that from a crushed flower?"
"I'm telling you now aren't I? All I wanted was to make you happy."
"You can't just say that. You have to show it. How do you expect me to be happy about receiving a crushed flower?"
Hervé was quiet for a while. "I thought of getting flowers delivered to you."
"But you didn't. You could have but you didn't. Also, you could have pressed the flower before sending it to me. You didn't. It's just like when you lost my mailing address. You didn't run after the paper, you just stood and watched it run away with the wind."
"But you weren't there, you didn't see the wind! It was so strong. If you had seen it, you would have surely understood."
Peter softened, imagining forces that were larger than the gross expenditure of all combined human effort. Yes, against the oceans and the mountains of the world, one was weak. But surely, one got to have a say sometimes?
"Maybe I will never understand you," he said carelessly and enigmatically.
"That's why there are things like dictionaries," Hervé said, "and you should never try to return them."
Nounours or rather, ours des cocotiers turned out to be a unique cousin of the monkey found in Malaysia and Singapore, according to the dictionary that Peter had not in fact returned. It probably correlated to the species known locally as the orang utan. In Singapore, you could pay to have breakfast with a female orang utan called Ah Meng in the internationally-acclaimed zoo. The orang utan being a smart albeit very hairy animal, capable of dinner table etiquette.
But ours meant bear, and cocotiers, coconut tree. Peter could see cocotiers being a conflated referent of locale, but he didn't get ours. Bears and monkeys were so different, after all.
And Hervé had called him his nounours des cocotiers, when he was surely far from hirsute or monkey-like. He had probably got it wrong then, Peter thought, as he closed the dictionary. More likely Hervé had had in mind the panda or the koala bear.
When Peter returned home from his two-year stint in France, one of the first things he did was adjust his watch, or rather the watch Hervé had given him. In Singapore, time ran 6 hours later than in Paris. When afterwards, he went to study photography in New York, it was the other way around: Eastern time was 6 hours earlier. Because of this, Hervé had to do a 12-hour volte-face. It used to be that Hervé could catch Peter just before bedtime when Hervé called after work; now, Hervé couldn't even call at lunch for fear Peter would be under covers, tucked away from day.
"Tu sais," Hervé was now saying, "I'm dead to the world when you go out drinking with friends. Once I come to see it like that, I hate the fact that we're apart."
The consequences of these words he let simmer. But they had so deliberately stepped around the issue, the whole discussion of Gross Domestic Happiness. At first he thought the avoidance was because Hervé didn't care. But later he realized, no, on the contrary, Hervé had just been scared. Once, in Croatia, Hervé had been waylaid by hooligans needing drug money; they'd extorted his watch. But much as Hervé loved his timepiece, he hadn't gone to the police. Perhaps he feared he wouldn't be understood. He spoke no English, let alone Croatian. When Hervé recounted this, Peter had refused to be moved, decrying at first his inefficacy, then his folly for wandering alone on the streets of Zagreb so late at night. Then, at their last parting, Hervé had presented him with a watch. Peter hadn't liked it that much - it was, after all, just a common Swatch, but as Hervé draped the leather strap over his skin and fitted it around his wrist, Peter was deeply touched. "But you don't even have a watch yourself," he said. "And now you're giving me one." For if Hervé lost something he would not think to replace it. So Peter broke down for the first time in front of Hervé, not because they were parting, but because all of a sudden the significance of the robbery hit home. What struck Peter was how emblematic the loss had been: more than material object, time itself had been taken away. It was not Hervé's doing that Peter could not stay.
"Why?" Peter said finally.
"Because it's strange," Hervé said, stalling.
"Why is it strange?"
Hervé changed the position of the receiver from one ear to the next, Peter could hear.
Peter was about to suggest, "because I'm meeting other people?" when Hervé muttered, "Putain!"
Peter was afraid. "What's wrong?"
"It's my jaw; I think I've got a toothache." There was a pause. Then Hervé swore again, "Putain."
Peter imagined Hervé clutching his jaw. He imagined having a toothache himself. Hervé was not so very good at pain. "When was the last time you saw a dentist?" Peter asked.
"Oh it must have been 15 years ago," Hervé said, "when I still had wisdom teeth. As you can tell, I'm not a fan of dentists."
"If your jaw hurts, you have to see one."
"I wish I didn't have to, though."
"Go," Peter said more urgently.
Then, over their conversation which degenerated into talk of favourite sweet things, he thought about how fear of pain, like love, is tamed. So after hanging up, he pushed his way out into the streets in search of a toothbrush, and toothpaste, to send to him.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009
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