In Chinese culture it is silly to give the girl you love a pair of shoes. It means you are equipping her to leave you.
He gave me a pair of shoes for my birthday the first year we were together. I laughed at him. ‘This is really bad!’ I told him, punching his stomach. I tried to control my laughter. My new boyfriend was not Chinese enough to realise his faux pas.
‘Why?’ he asked me, confused.
I pursed my lips together for a moment, intentionally withholding information he was so curious about before saying, ‘It means you want me to leave you, idiot!’
Shock rippled through his eyes as he too bursted into laughter. He did not say if he knew.
The shoes were an elegant black with a strap to tie behind my ankle. He had put a lot of thought into it, I knew.
‘I remember you tore your old ones, I thought you might like these,’ he told me. That’s the thing about Jack. He was attentive to details.
The shoes – I liked them, but I would never wear them. I was a modern Chinese girl but too superstitious to wear shoes my new boyfriend bought me. The relationship was only four months old then. I did not want it to end.
As the sun set, I felt our love for one another deepen. I looked at Jack, his gentle eyes, his caring self. I could see forever with Jack.
You don’t notice it at first – the differences between the two of you. Jack preferred ending the night early after a quiet dinner together. I preferred talking and enjoying myself into the wee hours of the night.
Though Jack was still Jack, by our second year together, my love for him had cooled. Qualities that I found enduring before now felt annoying. I started going out by myself without inviting him. Why would I? He would have declined anyway.
I started having fun without him, making new friends and enjoying the company of other men. The gap between us widened. For a few months, we did not address it. It was like a quietly bleeding wound each of us saw and felt but refused to acknowledge, as though acknowledging would make it more real than it already was.
One night we went out for dinner at Al Fresco. I had only started to dig into my pasta when he asked, ‘Xin Yi, what’s the problem?’
I stopped chewing, but did not look up. I quietly played with my food, refusing to answer.
Did I really have an answer? Did I really know what was wrong?
Was there really something wrong?
‘I don’t love you anymore,’ I blurted out, finally, eyes still fixated on the table.
I waited for his answer, but there was none.
Even without looking up I could tell that he was analysing the situation. He always did.
A waiter came to refill our glasses. ‘Cold or warm?’ Neither of us replied. He filled them anyway.
Jack took a sip of his drink.
‘I knew what giving you shoes meant.’
T-2 years Ago
It did not feel like love at first, just a comfortable friendship.
We had met each other at a karaoke gathering we reluctantly attended. Jamie was his classmate from high school and the girl who sat in front of me at work. She gathered thirty people in a kbox fit for fifteen.
I found myself sat uncomfortably close next to a man in a black t-shirt and a snapback on his head. Finding even breathing under the air of smoke, alcohol and sweat a challenge, neither of us spoke. The noise from people singing out of tune annoyed me. I looked at Jamie, enjoying herself, then looked at my watch and wondered what the socially acceptable time would be to leave.
‘Want to get out of here?’ a man’s voice shocked me out of my thoughts. It was the guy with the snapback sat next to me, motioning his thumb towards the exit.
I nodded, and escaped outside the room with him.
Away from the crowd, we talked at first about our memories of Jamie; yeah, she was an odd ball, but everyone loved her; then about work; he was an architect, loved his job and was vying for a promotion; and then about family; he had lost his mother at fifteen to leukemia.
Before parting ways, we exchanged numbers. Jack was not my type of guy but he seemed interesting to talk to. I liked making new friends.
Maybe it was during one of the days we spent camping outside, or maybe it was the time when he helped me carry things to my apartment, but I discovered that I had feelings for Jack. I tried to deny the feelings. He’s not my type. But as the days went by, I did not want any other girl near him. I liked his attention on me.
Friendly to everyone, it was hard to tell if he felt the same. Finding him hard to read, I gathered all my courage and sent him a text to ask him.
The first few hours of waiting for his reply was agonising. What if he doesn’t feel the same? What if he already has someone?
Finally, after five hours, he replied.
‘R u serious?’
I later found that he did indeed have feelings for me but thought that we would be incompatible in a relationship.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I told him, ‘as long as we love each other, that would be enough.’
Falling in love is fun, but love is hard work. The stability of our relationship past the sweet honeymoon phase made us comfortable enough to settle ourselves into a routine; a routine that meant that giving one another sweet surprises were no longer a top priority.
I knew Jack cared for me, but sometimes Jack he felt more like a brother than a boyfriend, reliable but unromantic. He would do many things for me, but these were not things that would make my heart flutter. I scrolled through romantic posts on Facebook and shared them, hoping Jack would take notice.
His romantic gestures were almost absent. Scarcely would be surprise me with flowers or prepare an elaborate outing for me.
Is this it? I felt like I was settling for so little. At least my ex boyfriends would do all this for me. Did I make a mistake by choosing Jack?
I looked up and saw him looking at me. What do you mean you knew what giving me shoes meant?
I had already forgotten about the pair of shoes he gave me on my birthday the first year we were together.
‘Giving you shoes meant-‘ he said, pausing halfway.
‘What? What did it mean?’ I said, forcing a reply.
There was none, until finally, he said, ‘It means… I love you, but I don’t own you. The world is yours and you are your own… wherever your two feet will bring you to explore, I will honour that without stopping you… even…’
‘Even it means you do it without me.’
“Love does not claim possession, but gives freedom.” – Rabindranath Tagore