Tuesday, February 14, 2006

OPINION: A Valentine for the brokenhearted

My contributions to this paper have tended to be about terrorist attacks, anti-terror laws, cultural clashes and a host of other controversial topics.

But, as it's Valentine's Day, I was hoping to write on the lighter side of love. Then a friend invited me to join her for a movie.

We arrived at the hip Dendy Cinemas in the trendy suburb of Newtown, grabbed our tickets and plonked ourselves in the comfy seats. My friend then apologised.
Sorry, Irf, I should have told you that this is a movie about homosexual cowboys. I hope that's okay.
Kiwi readers shouldn't be surprised by the apology. We are, after all, talking about Australia, a country that still imports most of its cultural icons from across the Tasman.

Sydney's Sun-Herald reported last week that the acclaimed movie Brokeback Mountain is not being shown at cinemas in some Sydney regions.

It seems that even the presence of Australian (although I wouldn't be surprised if he had some Kiwi blood) actor Heath Ledger isn't enough to convince the film's distributors that some parts of Australia are just too unsophisticated to appreciate the movie.

Knowing of my Muslim background and Anglican schooling perhaps led my Hindu friend to apologise. But the movie did keep me thinking for the next few days.

The film tells the story of two male drovers whose single homosexual encounter at Brokeback Mountain changes their lives.

Despite their conventional marriages and having children, the men relive that encounter at various points in their lives. They develop an emotional bond which they both know cannot be shown in public. You needn't be gay to feel the pain of the half-requited and forbidden love that these men recognise, but where circumstances make it impossible for them to honour that love.

The movie reminded me of the story of Van, a close friend who has moved to San Francisco to work as a commercial lawyer. His was also the story of half-requited forbidden love.

Some years back, he ventured into a high-class Melbourne brothel on a stag night [Kiwinglish for bucks night].

When a sex worker read the name on his credit card she recognised that Van was of the same ethno-religious background as her mother. They both had Vietnamese-Buddhist heritage, although the girl grew up with her English father who spurned Buddhism and kept his children away from their Vietnamese mother's family.

The sex worker took a liking to Van and handed him her phone number. They spoke on the phone several times and she told Van enough information about herself to enable him to use his lawyering skills to great effect. He traced her background and discovered she had been a journalist before she became a sex worker.

He later expressed how he felt upon discovering all this information, saying:
She's the sort of girl I'd have pursued even before she joined the industry. She's had a life before the industry. I know she will leave sex work. Why shouldn't I take her seriously?
After many phone conversations and discreet meetings, my friend was becoming fond of this woman. It seemed she was also fond of him.

However, in her mind, he would never be someone she could introduce to her family or friends, none of whom were aware of her sex work. Why?

Perhaps she felt that Van he had too much power over her. They might have an argument and he might spill the beans to her loved ones.

Perhaps he reminded her too much of her mother's heritage, which was too painful a memory to deal with.

Van persisted, trying to reassure her that she could trust him.

And trust him she did. On several occasions he contacted her through friends and family. He also introduced her to some of his friends. A trust seemed to develop between them.

But in the end, the best Van could get out of her was half-requited love.

He told me that she said: "I'm really fond of you, but I'm not fond of this situation. When I leave this industry I want to leave behind everything associated with it. I'd love to take you with me. I just wish I knew in what way. Maybe as a good friend. I just don't know."

The last time Van spoke to the woman, she told him she was feeling suicidal. It was likely she was suffering from severe depression, which may have led her into the industry in the first place. Depressed people often find it impossible to make decisions or commit themselves to a work timetable. Those entering the world's oldest profession get an income without set hours.

Van never found out what happened to his friend. He spent many months blaming himself for her suicidal behaviour.

Eventually, Van almost succumbed to his own depression and found living in Melbourne too difficult. He sought employment overseas. But he still mentions his feelings towards the woman.

I hope that reading about Van doesn't spoil your Valentine's Day.

Most of us find love in more conventional ways. But as Van's story and Brokeback Mountain powerfully illustrate, unconventional love can be just as real, even if the pressures of society and circumstance don't allow it to be fully requited.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on 14 February 2006.