“Babe help I fucked up” reads a little box that pops up at the bottom right corner of my desktop screen.
It’s late morning and the office is quiet. I open the Telegram message.
“I fucked up so bad.”
What happened babe???
Are you okay??
“I cheated. He found out.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I can’t breathe.”
If you’ve ever taken a Psych 101 class, you’re familiar with the Fundamental Attribution Error – our tendency to take another person’s behaviour as evidence of their character, forgetting that situational factors also play a contributing role.
We are extremely unkind in our judgement of others, sometimes even our closest friends. Why would a wealthy acquaintance refuse to loan me some money if not because he is a miserly Scrooge? Why would someone yell at his child if not because he is a bad parent?
Why would a girl cheat on somebody who means so much to her?
Like a nervous impulse, this is the first question that jumped to my mind that morning.
The urge to sit astride a high horse in a gleaming suit of holier-than-thou-so-fuck-your-lack-of-morals armour while I think about how to reply is strong. I am ashamed, and appalled, at the audacity of my superego.
Everyone is allowed to make mistakes, I tell her, lamely, reading it back to remind myself of its truth.
Yes, but what drives them to deceive the ones they love?
My thoughts tug at a thread of memory from several years ago.
In an age before Uber, I climb into the back of a taxi.
Glenn calls after me weakly, “Please, don’t go.”
I slam the door shut and mumble Leryee’s address to the driver. Tears are pulling my mascara down in dirty streaks towards my chin. Through blurred vision, I tap her number into my phone before pressing it to my ear so the dial tone can mock me with its soulless crowing.
Glenn looks on from the front gate of his house as the taxi pulls away. His sorry gaze makes me feel sick. The phone keeps ringing. Then,
“The number you have reached is not available-“
I try another time. It rings, and rings. It’s past midnight, I remind myself. And a weeknight. Leryee might be asleep. She’s your best friend, not a 24-hour hotline.
“The number you have reached is not-“
I hang up and call J.
The phone rings twice before he picks up, and the minute I hear his voice, I burst into stupid, heaving sobs. At 18 years old, I am still young enough to feel thoroughly humiliated that I’m weeping in front of the stranger in the driver’s seat (some years down the road, I will publicly break down in front of a room full of my peers that all but obliterates my sense of shame).
“He told me, he wants to be, with, someone else,” I am blubbering incomprehensibly. “Can I, can I go over?”
“Of course,” J says.
I order the hapless driver to change course.
Love is esoteric.
Sex, on the other hand, is corporeal.
While the former is aspirational, the latter is tangible, uncomplicatedly so, a creature comfort. Substance over form. Body heat.
No wonder it so easily lures us into a wide open morally grey ocean where the tides of Dionysian hedonism and enraptured devotion collide.
It was midday. We were sitting at the Rochor Beancurd store in Upper Thomson. J commanded that I met him after my classes for the day.
“Heat stroke,” was his explanation. He’d been sent to the hospital by his commanding officer (the boy was serving his National Service at the time) after appearing faint during their physical training session.
We slurped down bowls of tau huey as he recounted how, in the few hours he was warded – just before meeting me here, he’d invited two girls to visit, one after the other, and hooked up with both in the hospital bed. If anyone else had told me this, I would have recoiled in disgust. First of all, think of the germs. And second, eww. But this was J, how could I expect any less (or more) of him?
“So how did A (the first girl) not find out that B (the second) was coming to the ward too?”
“Oh she knew. I told her,” J shrugged. J’s candour had thrown A, so much so that she trivialised it in her head or simply chose not to believe it, even when J insisted that he was serious. “I get away with it because I say it so casually. Each of the girls just thinks I’m more interested in her than the other.”
This is exactly the moral conundrum that J embodies. On the one hand, he will copulate with just about anything that moves, with little or no regard for the corollary. On the other hand, he makes no attempt to mask this insouciance. To some, the term ‘fuckboy’ may be derogatory; when applied to J, it’s simply a fact.
“That’s gross,” I said to him and narrowed my eyes at J in a display of disapproval. The effect was lost on him – he shoved a spoonful of tau huey into his mouth, ignoring me. His ambivalence should have unsettled me more, considering that (as much as I hate to admit it and he loves to remind me) he’s my ‘type’ – lean with boyish good looks, his dorky Eurasian features configured in an expression of perpetual amusement that resembles something objectively attractive – which meant that it could very well have been me who ended up being duped by the conniving medical patient.
Instead, it gave me (and still does) a twisted sense of pleasure, as if somehow I was special because I was privy to this awful side of him that most others aren’t. As the confidante of a serial booty caller, whose dick was clearly free for all but whose heart had room for few, I was proud to have claimed a little part of the more precious commodity. He was a manslut, but at least he was my manslut.
The taxi pulls into J’s condominium lobby, where he’s waiting for me. I tumble out of the car and into his arms. He pats my hair.
I sink into a cold metal bench and he hands me a cigarette, sitting down next to me. A long drag helps me steady my breathing. On the exhale I expel my congealed melodrama in short bursts. A girl from Glenn’s past has resurfaced, and he’s discovered he has residual feelings for her. He’s been talking to her again behind my back. He’s only come clean now because he thinks it’s getting serious.
“Am I not good enough?” The question oozes into the thick night air between us.
I am a whimpering moron, but J says nothing. We sit for a while as he lets me decompress, recompose.
Then, he gathers my things and stands. “You look like shit. Let’s get you cleaned up and go get a drink.”
Up at his apartment, the entranceway is narrow, cluttered with boxes stacked on top of each other. The floor is littered with clumps of cat fur. I tread cautiously around cats that eye me with suspicion as I enter.
J’s room is on the left. His little brother is asleep inside, but he flicks the light on anyway. The space floods with colour and I see a mountain of clothing appear on his desk. J pulls a rumpled T-shirt and hands it to me. “It’s clean. That’s the clean pile.” He says while looking at his phone; he clearly doesn’t see the need to explain himself. He’s dialling Leryee’s number on his mobile phone, but even before he can get through, my phone comes alive in the mess of my belongings strewn on the floor. His brother doesn’t even stir.
Leryee’s voice on the other end of the line is full of concern. I never call this late. When I repeat the story to her and end off that I’m with J, she says, “I’m coming over right now.”
Followed quickly by, “DO NOT SLEEP WITH J.”
When I put down the phone, I tell J what Leryee said.
“That’s gross,” he says. I smirk at him through puffy eyes. Totally gross.
Are there things you aren’t supposed to say to the person you love?
I posed this question to Gaurav, both because I felt it might interest someone currently reading his Master’s programme in Social Psychology and because G never fails to provide incredible insights and counterpoints.
G cited me a paper by Swann, Ronde and Hixon (1994) (because of course Gaurav would cite an academic paper in a casual conversation), in which the answer was plain and simple: no, just give it to them straight.
When you first get to know someone, you’re trying to project an image of yourself that’s likeable. You want your partner to see you in the best light possible. But somewhere along the way, as you get more comfortable with the person, it becomes more important for you to know what they really think of you, who they think you are and what you’re capable of. The success of your relationship becomes contingent on his or her capability to identify your strengths and weaknesses and work with them. Lie, and you risk undermining the synergistic effects of your partnership.
Yet, we lie and we lie and we lie. We lie about the things we do (like meeting your ex for dinner) and the things we want (like that crazy sex position you’ve been dying to try) and the things we don’t want (like sleeping alone on a Friday night because he wants to have drinks with his friends late). We’re afraid to overreach and be rejected. We’d rather preserve the peace. So, we stay tight-lipped while these ulcers grow infected with bigger lies and erupt into hideous wounds and leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Eventually, we look for acceptance elsewhere. And sometimes, we cheat.
This doesn’t apply just to romantic relationships. Between friends, too, dishonesty devastates. Every time you’ve ever wanted to say “I told you so” to someone you care about but didn’t, because you couldn’t advise against their behaviour for fear of jeopardising the friendship, you’ve in some way misled them and let them down. You’ve cheated them of the full 100% backing that someone you love deserves and is counting on you for. We surround ourselves with other people for genuine social support, and that doesn’t come from fairweather friends or yes men.
Repeatedly dousing your friendship with hollow words of encouragement and affirmation seep in and corrode its foundations, though not because your friend will discover you’ve been lying and stop trusting you. Most people just get sick of smelling their own bullshit after a while.
J likes to warn people never to drink or smoke pot with me when I’m sad. It’s not pretty, he tells them.
But that night, he places a screwdriver in front of me and commands, “Drink.”
Flanked by him and Leryee, I pick the glass off the table and gulp the whole thing down in a matter of seconds. He waves to the server to get me another. I’m crying and laughing and crying some more, and imbibing myself silly. Not pretty. After a decent amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, I’m outside the bar, next to the garbage bins, bent over, throwing up.
The two of them are helping me into Leryee’s car.
We’re driving to my place in silence. Some indeterminate tune is leaking from the radio.
Then I open my eyes. It’s dark and I’m lying in my bed, hair tangled with traces of ash and alcohol. My body feels heavy, and it takes me a reasonable amount of effort to roll it onto the floor and prop it into an upright position. The door is left ajar and there’s murmuring outside, so I creep towards the noise and find J, Leryee and my dad seated around the dining table.
“What time is it?” I address the blurry figures, my eyes struggling to adjust to the white lights, who appear to be eating prata with curry.
“4am. You said you have class at 8.15am,” Leryee says. Yes, it’s prata. I can smell it. I feel slightly sick.
“Go get some sleep,” she coaxes me gently. My dad is chatting to J about something banal, but I can’t make out their exact words – they are background noise, sort of like extras on a television show. Leryee lowers her voice, “I was so worried something would happen between you two” -gesturing to J- “thank goodness you called me.”
“That’s gross,” I reply, smiling sleepily. While J has seen the intoxicated rendition of me on at least a hundred occasions prior, Leryee never had the misfortune until tonight. The girl has known me since we were 13, and I always thought that she’d never be able to reconcile the wholesome teenager she knew back then with the dishevelled, crass slurry I’d become. So I chose to keep this part of my life away from her, the part J was all too familiar with – the nights out, among the throngs of sad and lonely young girls who drink too much and sleep too little who, like me, were desperate for attention, making a complete imbecile out of myself.
Funnily enough, those nights always ended with me getting valiantly rescued by J from opportunistic guys who were “obviously not your type, are you stupid or blind?” (his words, not mine) and transported home safely.
Because that was how it was with J. His sexual transgressions laid bare before me, we never had to tiptoe around hidden desire or agenda. Our friendship was stripped down and ugly. He called me out if I was acting like a slag and took my word when I thought his chosen slag of the night was beneath my standards. He looks out of me because he loves me in that wonderfully odd, benevolent, esoteric sense of the word.
And right then, I realise, so does Leryee. It feels unfair that I have been more transparent with J than her and I am immediately awash with guilt. Have I confused being crude for being ‘authentic’? Did I just feel like I could be more honest with J because I knew he was capable of more terrible things? We can get away with telling people anything if they aren’t in a position to judge us. That’s why it’s so easy with J. There’s no risk.
With those from whose moral vantage point is elevated, we must make ourselves vulnerable. As she leads me back to my room, Leryee tells me that she’s here for me no matter what. I promise that I’ll never keep things from her.
She nods and says, everyone is allowed to make mistakes, as I drift off. In my sleep, my brain lights up with cascades of gratitude and sadness and love commingling. But there’s no fear of rejection, no desire to cover up or pretend any more.