Paul was caught off-guard by the intimacy of the question. Would anything he said now change the course of his life? Would he wake up tomorrow morning married or sworn to a triad in Taipei? Paul cautioned himself to respond carefully.
“Do you… have a boyfriend?”
How old was he? Fourteen? That had been a momentous year; he had had Mr. Teo for literature and Malcolm Ang had propositioned him in a bathroom stall.
Young Paul pondered the implications. “Have you ever been in love?”
How to answer that question? Is it love if you decide that it isn’t? Is it love if they don’t give it back? Is it love if you have to decide that it is?
When Paul spoke to Jez for the first time in February it was because he had made the choice.
She was packing up after class and he had intentionally stayed behind.
In a performance of spontaneous curiosity he asked, “You mentioned once that you like to rap? When we went around the class the first day introducing ourselves, you said—”
She looked up at him with her Herschel in her lap and smiled.
“Yeah, man, I spit fire every now and then. Ain’t nothin’ but a thang.”
Paul laughed giddily and walked her to her next class. The next time they hung out was to keep each other company in the dining hall during the awkward post-lunch, pre-dinner lull and the time after that was to freestyle in her dorm room although Paul’s freestyles were mostly him intoning, “Yo… Yo… Yo…” and coupling “time” with “rhyme.”
Subsequently they would hang out to talk about institutional sexism and racism and to invariably surprise each other into laughter and then in May he told her that he speculated about the flowers in her lips and she leaned away and told him she was sorry.
Paul didn’t believe that Jez didn’t love him. Or, he believed that she could if she didn’t already have a boyfriend whom she loved. Or, he believed that she was in love with the both of them but couldn’t admit him that. He bet she couldn’t even admit it to herself.
Is it love if you feel it for two people at once? Paul still didn’t know for sure.
Young Paul answered for him. “So what’s wrong with you?”
“Are you unlovable, or just incapable of love?”
“There’s someone, O.K.?” Why was he defending himself to himself? “It’s tremendously complicated. It’s tremendously, monumentally complicated. It’s complicated to an unprecedented degree. The timing’s not right, everything’s not right, the world is unfair and at the wrong angle.”
Young Paul shrugged. “Maybe… sometimes it’s beautiful to not get what we want. Maybe we don’t need someone else for our feeling to mean something or to be good.”
Paul stared at Young Paul. What a patronizing piece of shit. What did he know about disappointment, or beautiful feelings, or anything at all? He hadn’t even seen America yet. He still lived with his parents. Paul had never wanted to punch himself so much. WHERE WAS TEETH?!?