[This is an old piece, written approximately 1 year and 2 months ago to this day.]
On a Monday night – or should I say Tuesday morning at 2.45 am – I stood in my kitchen and searched my husband’s Facebook profile. From there, I clicked on someone I had good reason to think he was in a relationship with.
We have been together for 9 years, married after dating for 8 months. We’d lived together in this flat, with its long grey-and-brown panelled kitchen, for almost that length of time. In our years together, we adopted one kitten, then another, then an abused middle-aged cat, and finally I brought a young new mother (without her kittens) back from Shanghai where I had gone on a work stint for more than 2 years. I went alone, but that jumps the gun a little.
I mention the flat and the kitties because those are our main shared assets. There’s also a joint investment, but whatever. There is also an art collection, which is basically a hodge-podge of affordable artworks we had bought sometimes separately but mostly together over the years. We fancied ourselves aspiring young collectors. I like to think I was the one who turned him on to art, but I can’t deny he has developed a very distinct style of his own. In fact, he had just purchased a piece from an art fair we visited the day before he asked me for a divorce. (I was the one who pointed it out; it’s much more in my preferred genre than his.) The piece is now sitting at a “friend’s” place. I probably will not get to see it. I suppose the good thing is that she likes art as well.
Up to this point I have portrayed myself as a martyred victim, callously abandoned by her husband. That is completely untrue. You might have already picked up on the first clue – the solo Shanghai stint. I left in mid-2010 and returned at the start of 2013. In September 2013 I took off again for a year in London to pursue my post-graduate degree. Enough was enough, I suppose. He waited 2 days after I got back to broach the topic of our split.
Even at this point I am being somewhat disingenuous. I was actually the first to ask for a separation. I cannot remember when but I do recall the seeds of it planted in the tumultuous months of 2010 (our 4th year of marriage), when I had just left the teaching job I was sort of forced to stay in for nearly 5 years, at first because I accepted a state scholarship at the age of 17 and then because my students were sitting for their final exams. I really, really hated teaching. Those were dark, shitty, bitter, and in many ways, wasted years. I crashed several times into periods of despair and depression, interspersed with moments of manic motivation to make enough money to pay off my bond. Some of my money-making schemes involved selling health products and learning how to trade stocks, options and forex. Those turned out to have good consequences – I became much more confident in sales and talking to people, I made respectable profits from trading and I still watch stocks and forex trends with interest. There were other good things too. I made friends – especially one very dear friend – that I keep in close contact with till now, and my students, who were once the bane of my life, turned out to be the only redeeming, joyful, meaningful and lovely part of my job. But mostly I operated in a bleak, smelly fog and my entire life revolved around “once I get out of here I can live again.” Why was it so bad? There were many reasons, all of them too tiresome and, even now after 5 years, too sensitive to talk about. I found it difficult then to satisfactorily articulate my feelings and I still do. Possibly, anyway, with a depressed person it doesn’t quite work to go, “But WHY were you unhappy? Why, just why?”
In December 2009 I finally left, with great, naïve optimism. I applied for jobs, screwed up interviews, won a 6-month writing grant, secured a publishing deal with a regional educational books publisher. I took up yoga. I was active on the forex markets, hoping to make it as a trader. I gave English classes. I freelanced as a researcher for a startup specialising in the Southeast Asian arts and craft industry. It was a bunch of good shit, but it didn’t seem to be adding up. I was enjoying myself in a way, but the realisation that the Big Change, my new start, was not quite happening. People told me ex-teachers are seldom hired because we have no real skills. It seemed to be sort of true. I was busy, I was earning some money, but I was completely, utterly batshit terrified I had no direction in life and was a step away from tipping over into the abyss in the backyard of Loserville. I remember going to a club with a friend of mine who was in between jobs. Unlike me, she had settled on a set career path also at 17. She had just left one awesome company and was waiting for her stint at the next prestigious firm to begin. The bouncer, for some reason, asked what we were doing. She joked that we could both say we were “unemployed”. My smile was a bit strained, though. There wasn’t much irony in my declaration.
Where was my husband in all this? Being absolutely, perfectly, unstintingly supportive. He was totally calm, steady and reassuring. He was also completely understanding when I landed an easy, decently-paid job at an international school in Shanghai, and wanted to go for it. He helped me pack my bags, unpack them at the airport when I grossly exceeded my weight limit, and saw me off with a smile and a wave. He missed me very much, and I missed him too, but only initially. I was soon overcome with the excitement of a new life beginning, and the possibility of this being That Big Change that was supposed to have happened almost a year ago.
I had a teaching visa to work in Shanghai, but I wasn’t planning on staying a teacher. I executed my day job, but mostly I was pursuing a life in the art scene. Unlike in Singapore, where I couldn’t get any jobs in art because I didn’t have the requisite degree or experience, I found places that gave me a chance to get involved. At the art center where I ended up working, I started off as a volunteer, then a paid part-timer, and then became the in-house curator and pretty much go-to person in charge of many aspects of the spaces in Shanghai and Hong Kong. I worked 7 days a week; at first I had the teaching job on weekdays, and I would work at the art center all weekend and sometimes on weekday evenings. After my teaching contract was up I worked full-time at the art center before returning to Singapore. To say I learned tons of shit would be an understatement. Creatively/ technically, I learned how to operate different types of cameras and cranes. How to make videos and photos. How to plan shoots, hire models, prepare the equipment and costumes. Simple animation. Operating a lasercutter. What various gizmos and gadgets were. As a gallerist I learned to conceptualise and organise exhibitions. Write press releases. Hire staff and supervise them. Pitch proposals to big-ass clients. Sell artwork to rich people. There’s probably a bunch of art professionals who would read this and go, pffftt small potatoes. But I was starting from ground zero, and by the time I left, I had regained my confidence in myself and I was really, really happy. Like really happy.
And again, where was my husband in all this? For a good while he was where he always was – quietly supportive, loving and probably waiting for me to get the hell back so we could pick up our life together again. The trouble was, I didn’t want to pick anything up. I wasn’t done. I had only just begun. Before I came home I made this clear to him, and I must have broken his heart multiple times. In the end, I returned to Singapore because my family demanded for me to come back; I bought my airticket when my grandfather called me crying one day to come home. Perhaps they thought I was in Party Central, or something, but I was actually spending almost all my time working. Anyway, I came home seething with resentment.
Once the fog cleared, and I adjusted back to the realities of Singapore life, I started looking for new opportunities again. Truth be told, what I was doing in Shanghai was pretty unusual. Combining creative production with gallerist work was certainly not the norm. That soon became clear; I wasn’t an artist for sure, even though I worked with an art collective. I could have been a gallerist, but doing that without the creative bit would bore me to tears. So I decided to switch tack a bit – I decided to learn design, which at least allowed me to still be creative and yet practical. Once again I plunged into activity. I got an internship at a design firm, I volunteered on a community design project on weekends and I kept up with the art scene by co-curating an exhibition which ended up on a full-page review in the national papers.
By this point, my husband had started spending 3 nights or so a week at a “colleague’s” place. I was pretty clear what was up. (I’m not in a relationship myself, but I have hardly been celibate.) In a way I was relieved that he had found comfort and happiness with someone else; it assuaged my roaring guilt a little. He was still supportive as always – he came to my exhibition, and when I got a place at a design college in London, he helped me pack my bags again. It was a differently-tinged send-off this time, but I believe we loved each other no less. It was just quite clear that we were no longer together.
And that brings me to the main point of this whole reflection. I still love him very dearly. I tell people that he is the smartest, strongest, most responsible, most capable and one of the most confident persons I have ever met. I completely believe that still. I’m a huge fan, and my membership is lifelong. When the few close friends I’ve told hear this, they invariably ask, so why aren’t you together? If you feel this way why don’t you want to be with him? Well that’s the kicker isn’t it? How is it possible to feel like this for someone and not want to be with him? Apparently it is possible. But why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy. There is no answer. But if I had to give one, I would say this – it is probably difficult to truly be with someone, to be committed and devoted and utterly involved, if you are not a complete person yourself. Perhaps “complete” is not the word; how can anyone ever be complete, anyway. A better word might be happy, or fulfilled. For years and years I was unhappy and unfulfilled with myself. I didn’t like myself. I thought I was a loser. I was desperate not to be a loser. My self-doubt left little room for anyone else. “It’s not you, it’s me” never rang truer because it was me.
So now I am back again in Singapore job-searching, and in some ways it is like the month just after I quit teaching, or just after I returned from Shanghai. But mostly it is not. I have done heaps since December 2009, and have many accomplishments of which I can be proud. I have grown a lot and seen a lot. Most importantly I have started to gain faith in myself, a dawning realisation that I haven’t become the useless loser I was terrified of years ago. I’m still not in the place I want to be in yet, but now I have a better idea of how I can get there.
Did my marriage “fail”? I am particularly sensitive to that word. I hate to think of the time we spent together as a failure. Our early years were truly wonderful, and sharing his life has been my privilege. I have been lucky that it lasted this long; that he had the strength of character and decency not to bail on me much earlier. Perhaps I can accept the use of the word “fail”, only if, for both of us, it means that we even tried at all, and its ending will bring a new – more sombre, to be sure, but undoubtedly new beginning.