Happiness concept: apartment

Dear Seafarer,

This is my happiness concept, a snippet of a vivid future I want to work towards. I think about it a lot, when I feel down. It’s a bit like mental time travel. In your happiness concept, you should be able to envision where you are, the time of the day, what you’re doing, who you’re with, the feelings you have. I feel like the more clearly you can see it, the more likely you are to achieve it. Everyone should have their own “happiness concepts.”

May all these come true in good time.


Where am I?

It is the year 20XX, and I live within a bright and clean apartment. It is a nice place; not too big, but not too small. It has a minimalistic, contemporary design, and pleasing colour schemes. Lots of muted monochrome colours, with a mixture of smooth teakwood and marble floors.

I don’t have much of a green thumb, but somehow, I’ve always envisioned plants within my home. I’d like to believe that I can keep a tiny pot of sage, and perhaps basil, alive. I would place this somewhere in the kitchen, where they get light. A corner of the apartment (perhaps a windowsill), would be designated for terrariums. I especially  like the way succulents look; soothing pops of green within clear geometric vases.

I like the sound of “furin” (Japanese wind bells) too, so I’ve hung one by the window. When I slide open the glass to let air in, I can listen to their sparkling chimes. They greet me cheerfully, every morning.

What time is it within this apartment?

It is late-afternoon on a weekend, and the sky is dipping gently towards dusk. I’ve installed flat Korean blinds in the house, at the advice of my mother (“It’s easy to clean!”). They are the texture of rice-paper and tatami mats. I pull on them to let more light in. The apartment instantly gets flooded with warm, golden light.

My partner is coming by this evening. I decide to make some soup. With my hair tied up in a loose bun, I get to work.

First, I put chicken bones into my soup pot, fill it with water, and set it to boil. Into the simmering mixture, I add a dash of salt and pepper, a cup of shaoxing wine, and some sesame oil. Finally, I add the secret ingredients; garlic cloves, anchovies and peanuts. I’ve prepared a bowl of lotus root, which I’ll add towards the end, so they don’t overcook and lose their crunchy texture, the way my partner likes them.

The apartment begins to fill with the rich, savoury aroma of simmering chicken bone soup. I put on some music from my laptop, and decide to cook some rice. Soup and rice always go well together, I feel. Along the way, I randomly decide to drop some fishballs with the lotus root into the soup.

Should I make dumplings too?

The bell rings just as I contemplate this question.

I quickly freshen up in the mirror and answer the door.

It’s him. He smiles and holds up a packet of “tau fu fah.” 

“It’s chilled. I’ve asked them to serve it with palm sugar syrup.”

I laugh and tell him he’s read my mind.

He comes in, kisses me on the cheek, and sets the dessert on the table.

I bring out the cutlery and a set of blue rice bowls, with peach blossoms painted on them.

“Soup’s done! There’s leftover minced meat and vegetable we can have with the rice.”

He makes his way to the kitchen, and knows exactly where to find them.

We bring the pot of soup, rice, and leftovers out, and sit down for dinner. We talk about work, and our plans for the week. I’m working on an editorial spread for a mental health issue. I can’t decide between washed out greys or baby blue, for a healing colour. He tells me about a difficult case he’s working on, but right now he’s hungry and he doesn’t want to care.

In between, he comments on the soup.

“It’s good.”

I ask him about his thoughts regarding a strange dream I had, about me waking up naked in the middle of the ocean, while shoals of fish fly above me.

He asks if he’s in the dream too, because he should be if I’m naked.

I whack him with a spoon, and he laughs, before telling me that he doesn’t know much about dream analysis, but that leads into a conversation about an article he read on sleep paralysis. We debate on the existence of ghosts, then he brings up a knock knock joke. I whack him again with a spoon.

After dinner, we wash up, have dessert, and make tea. The tea of the night is “barley tea,” because it’s decaffeinated. We drink it in our special mugs. He wants his in a mug that brightens with constellations when filled with hot water. I want mine in a proper Japanese teacup.

We settle into a corner on the floor with our tea, where it’s nearest to the window. From where we are, I see distant city lights twinkling. He wraps his arms around me, and I rest against his chest, feeling it rise and fall.

We breathe, slowly, in sync, and say nothing, for a long, long time. Steam rises from our mugs. It is peaceful.

A quaint apartment, a job that pays the bills, a man I love (who loves me back), and a mug of tea.

At that moment, perhaps, I might not need much more.

This is my happiness concept.


Monsters in men

Dear Seafarer,

This is a story about the monster within me. I have grappled with it for a long time. I do not write this to make myself sound good. I wish to come to terms with it. Here we go.

One: The gentlest cruelty

One of the most difficult concepts for most of us to contemplate, is the notion that we can be cruel. We want to believe that we have the purest of intentions, that we aren’t monsters. Surely we know better. Surely we can’t be that bad.

Human cruelty is terrifying, because it doesn’t always look like cruelty. Sometimes it looks quiet and subtle, the sort any ordinary person can perform. It looks like the passengers of a plane who sat back, and watched, as someone else got brutally dragged off.  It looks like the boy who said nothing, when his friends bullied a gay classmate to death.

Then, there’s the sort of cruelty we do to those who love us. It looks like a son who doesn’t call his mother during Chinese New Year. It looks like a harmless fat joke you make to a friend, using their vulnerability at their expense.

It looks like me, selfishly hanging on to a lover I’m not sure I can love.

The exact moment I peeked into my monster within, my mind went white. I grappled with it. I made up disgusting, flimsy excuses. With every rationalisation, I lost inch after inch of respect for myself. Perhaps, deep down, I recognised it. I couldn’t run away from it.

The darker aspects of my personality has always fascinated me. I’m someone who feels physical pain from knowing I’ve hurt or inconvenienced others. I couldn’t kill an ant, or a spider. I feel deep, penetrating guilt, and shame. I want desperately to believe that I am good.

Despite that, I am shockingly good at cruelty. My cruelty looks tender and warm. It hides its cowardice and selfishness with polished words, good intentions, love, and hope.

The gentlest sort of cruelty. 

I know this, because for the first time in my life, I am currently someone’s girlfriend. Every morning, I wake up, and I question if I can love my boyfriend. My mind recognises a thousand things that could go wrong with our relationship. I’ve noticed myself become impatient, sharp, condescending, selfish, unreasonable.

I tell him that I may leave him, but our hands remain intertwined. I tell him I’m not sure if this is what I want, but my hands stroke his head at the same time. He looks at me with his big eyes, and I know he is wounded. I apologise, and we kiss. He holds me in his arms, and caresses my body to sleep, his heart satiated. My body dissolves into peaceful slumber, but my heart remains empty and confused.

Have I found home within him? Is effort more important than the right guy? Shouldn’t it be enough that he’s so loving and kind? Does it matter if we don’t have the best chemistry? Would things change if we kept at it? 

A thousand questions race through my mind.

When did I get so selfish? When did I fear loneliness so much, that I would ignite love I’m not sure I can return, in another’s heart?

By objective standards, there is nothing wrong with my boyfriend. He is handsome, patient, and caring. Whenever he comes over, he makes sure to bring little things he knows I’d like. Smoked salmon. Tea. Blueberries. When I tell him something important, he listens attentively. He shaved clean because I made a passing joke before on how his stubble feels like sandpaper on my skin. He constantly asks how he can make my day better. He’s curated a long list of notes about me in his phone. so he doesn’t forget any details. It is full of things I’ve said, things he plans to do for me, things he wants to ask me.

He would give the world to me, in a heartbeat.

But, I am still trying my best to give the world, to him.

Two: He loved me too soon

I’ve been here before.

Prior to my current boyfriend, I was dating a loving, established man. He gave me the world too. He lavished me with gifts. He caught on to all the things I liked, and made sure he would treat me to them. He sat with me through my thesis. When I was sick, he drove an hour to see me, with a bag of medicine, then drove back. We dated casually. Enjoyed each other’s warmth. My heart was always light and happy when I was with him. We had an easy, natural chemistry. However, I remained conflicted. The only thing that was missing was physical attraction. I battled with this for ages. I wondered if I truly loved him, but I enjoyed all benefits of a wonderful relationship at the same time.

That was the first time I realised there was an ugly, shallow monster within me.

I never labelled our relationship, and made him feel insecure. We dated casually for too long. Eventually, I rejected him. Almost immediately after, I started a new one with my current boyfriend.

That was the second time I realised how cruel and thoughtless I truly was.

I allowed myself to be swept away by the thrill of having a handsome, new lover. Over time, I realised that our chemistry wasn’t quite natural. Conversations fell flat, we didn’t quite meet intellectually. I found myself mentally checking out with him. I didn’t feel the security I felt with my older, more established ex.

It’s like a demotion, I cruelly thought. Almost immediately after, this was followed with a flood of guilt and shame.

Ironically, I am a better girlfriend now with my current boyfriend, compared to my ex. I try my best to be caring, attentive, and kind. I tell him frequently that I appreciate and value him. I remind myself to be patient daily. I thank him for loving me.

In some strange way, I feel as if I am atoning for my mistakes. I feel like this is karma. I didn’t want to make my current boyfriend feel unappreciated and insecure, the way I might have inevitably made my ex feel.

The only problem was, I realised at this point that my heart belongs to my ex.

However, it was too late.

He loved me too soon, and I loved him too late.

 Three: Moving Forward

I am worried that I won’t recognise love or a good thing, even if it is staring at me in the face.

Perhaps that is why I’m afraid of letting my current boyfriend go. Some part of me hangs on to the promise that it could become love, eventually. I am afraid of making the same mistake I made with my ex, of letting another good man go. I tell myself, perhaps everything takes time. Perhaps I’ve been wrong in thinking that natural chemistry is important, the way I overestimated the importance of physical attraction to me.

Ah, but then it sounds like a justification, does it not? 

Perhaps, the bigger, deeper reason, is that I don’t want to be alone. I have been alone for a quarter of a century. I have had nights where the gaps between my fingers ached to be filled. I miss feeling the warmth of another. I miss being held. The world is big and cold and frightening, and I want to face it with someone by my side.

Ah, but then, it sounds like I’m a coward.

They say that life unfolds in proportion to your courage. The more you do things that frighten you, the more you discover strength within yourself.

Is it courageous to let him go now? Am I inadvertently holding him back from his true happiness? 

Tomorrow, he is coming to see me. I’ve made him some ‘omurice.’ He wants to hold me in his arms, and I will let him.

As I smile warmly at him, I will quietly pray for the courage to do the right thing. If I need to let him go, I hope I can sit with the discomfort of him hating me. Perhaps that is the only place where cruelty can be useful, when it helps with emotional detachment.

Until then, I might dangerously still try my best to love him.

That is my kind of cruelty.