Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Calculus of Happiness

by Yeefoon Choon

(This short story has not been edited, or critiqued. Please be kind.)

I suffered from arithmophobia as a child.

Of all the subjects taught in school, mathematics always made me lose all sphincters control. Numbers were peculiar to me when I was growing up. Sometimes they were odd. Sometimes they were even. And like us, they became complex as we moved from one age bracket to the next; eight was lucky; thirteen -- bad luck and four was invariably tied up with death, for the Chinese. Zero was versatile depending on the angle from which you viewed it. To some of us, certain number like thirty four, as I discovered one day over MSN, could indicate that time was running out.

My friend, Kong, turned thirty four last year. He was a successful producer for a local television station and single. His colleagues were ever fond of addressing him as the Big Producer -- a badge he modestly declined to put on, whenever they left comments in his Facebook. Nonetheless, it made him feel invincible and happy. Several weeks after his birthday, Kong’s mother, like a cat on hot bricks, grew more alarmingly concerned of the massive amount of “Single” boxes Kong had crossed, and, in cahoots with his sister, a beautician, organized two consecutive weekend Avon-themed parties to introduce girls they deemed were the right ones for Kong, in an attempt to save him from the eternal curse of childlessness and dying alone before “it’s too late”, his father warned severely.

After two unsuccessful matchmakings and embarrassing moments that felt like several lifetimes, Kong absconded from the third one on the day of our chat. It was on a Sunday and he peeled himself off, the way you would on the gum that got stuck on the sole of your shoes, from his bed and left home so early in the morning before the rooster had a chance to crow. For the next few hours, Kong roamed about aimlessly in the empty streets of KL until he found himself some safe distance away from the mind-numbing party and a kopitiam, the fancy sort that had mushroomed all over the city in recent years, parked his Toyota Vios and spent almost the entire day like a refugee inside that over-priced coffee haven.

When I came online later that morning, Kong was already determined to kvetch. He was getting fed up and tired of the incessant question of “When are you getting married?” from relatives whom he couldn’t decide if they were being genuinely concerned or just plain busybodies. It was a phase every single people of all ages was going through or had gone through. Some bachelors, and bachelorettes, buckled under the tremendous pressure of these unwavering interrogations, surrendered and grabbed the next girl/guy who happened to mosey by to walk down the aisle with. Even then, that would not stop them from extending the well-intended “When are you having children?” right after the wedding ceremony. 

And in the middle of his raves, on the little chat window, Kong wrote:

I felt like Harrison Ford today.

I typed: Really? Which one? Hans Solo or Indiana Jones?

He replied: The Fugitive!

He was a man on the run and being single was his crime.

I like children. But I am not ready for one of my own yet.

Besides who can guarantee that we won’t die alone eventually?

While Kong contemplated the prospect of growing old as a contented single man, a message arrived in my Facebook’s mailbox a couple of days later.

It was from Lina, a colleague I’d not seen since she had her mole the size of a chickpea removed from her cheek in 1998, a move she firmly believed would greatly enhance her chance of meeting the right one. But a decade had passed and Linda was now thirty four and still single. Lina was a doctor turned a Master’s in International Public Health turned a secretary for UNICEF who turned out to be “the smelliest Asian pig I’d ever dated,” her Aussie boyfriend shouted one day. And I believed it was not simply made up to evoke even a modicum of sympathy from me. Lina and I had dated briefly prior to 1998 and while out shopping together one weekend, she tried on a beige-colored tube and paraded in front of me barefooted asking for my input. In that moment, I caught a distinctive pong and it was then I knew in my heart that Lina would forever be condemned to an ineffable celibacy she didn’t desire.

But it wouldn’t have mattered, I thought, since she now had a promising career, traveled extensively for work and leisure and stayed in an expensive apartment near KLCC. It was not until I received one of her rapid fire replies that I realized she was not happy. In my following reply, I walked her through all her accomplishments and after which, she wrote,

Yeah, it is not bad, except there’s no husband or kid to call my own, hahaha.

You could almost taste the bitterness in her laughter, virtually notwithstanding. Without a wedding ring to restrict the void expanding in her soul, all her achievements had equated to zero. So, that was what was dividing Lina from the happiness that she should be celebrating from the kind of happiness that only appeared relentlessly in fairytales.  And I began to wonder if Lina had an innate fear for mathematics like me. In this complex calculus of life, some of us were born with a steep learning curve that enabled us to quickly master the art of counting our blessings. Unfortunately, some of us were not; like Lina: why should the minus of one, or two in her case, feel like it almost added up to nothing at all? And really, must we multiple in order to live happily ever-after?