While he never was a smooth-talker – his hunched-back alone suggested the level of his confidence – he could talk to most people with relative ease and fluidity. He was even quite conversant, especially in English, where he prided himself on being fluent. If he were not thought of as pretentious whenever he spoke in English, he would have spoken it better than the vernacular. Because he did not want to be thought of as conceited, however, he refrained from suggesting such an idea, even remotely. It was already enough for him to be fluent in reports and certain discussions.
It had always been different with the women he was attracted to, however. The fluidity with which he usually spoke would be transmogrified into slush: his relative ability in social conversation dwindled to gazes and stutters whenever he was faced with an attractive girl. While he had an excuse in the past that he was focusing on his studies (and he was, mind you), the excuse was no longer feasible. He had already completed his basic tertiary education and could freely talk to women fully knowing that he was a university graduate. Nevertheless, his inability persisted. In other words, he was the quintessence of the vernacular torpedo. Shyness and reserve were something quite natural to him and something he could surpass most of the time to do activities of daily existence, but it was a great wall, an obstacle, especially in the face of attractive women.
Des was one of those people. She wasn't the characteristic beauty that is often portrayed in television, but to him she was beautiful. While he had no particular fondness for petites, he was attracted to the ladies that were, to his kind, attractive. These were the ladies with the well-designed cat-like eyes complemented with pacific features, and Des had that combination.
After coming off a self-imposed heartbreak, he was unwilling to sully that image of beauty that she projected to him: he was also unwilling to be hurt so soon after his fiasco. Besides, he adhered so much to Fernando Pessoa's reflection that an image stays pristine and perfect only so long that it is untouched and only observed. As one gets closer, Pessoa argued, the image loses its aura of perfection because flaws come to the fore under the magnifying glass of propinquity.
He had seen her from his first or second day in the wards. But being unwilling to put himself out there, he was content at just glancing askance towards her from time to time, and continuing with the work he was assigned within the wards. Days passed without much incident. Things only changed when one his companions during his duty asked him about Des.
'Have you seen anyone attractive around here, Sy?' Paul asked him. Paul was a remarkable figure because of his generalized roundness. Were he powder-white, he could have approximated a snowman.
'Do you mean within our batch? Because I told you, I never had anything toward Mae. I only confessed that she was the most okay within our batch but there wasn't anything much more. You do know the ladies I prefer.'
'How about Liz, then?'
'I think she's one of my best friends. But that's it. Sometimes I wonder why I couldn't like her, but I think I'd chafe under such pressure of achievement. She admits to that herself. I may be competitive in fields of my liking, and I'll probably do my best were I in physics, but I just want to become a doctor and get it over with. I'd rather be laid-back here. People won't even notice if there was one more madman in medicine.'
'That's fine. Is there anyone else?'
'What do you mean "anyone else"?'
'I mean the nurses here in the hospital, for example. There are some attractive staff around.'
'I think I'm attracted to one of the staff nearest us.'
'You mean here in the Pediatric Ward?'
'Is she around?'
'I'm not sure, Paul. All I do is steal glances at her and admire her from a distance, after all.'
'Why are you afraid? You don't have a girlfriend – and you don't have a wife. Don't tell me you're still hung up on Elle. Hasn't everyone told you to give up yet?'
'I have given up on her. I mean, I know I am that stupid, but I'm not worse than that. I'm no idiot. I'm probably just an imbecile or a moron. It's just that – I don't want to make more mistakes and the heartache is still relatively fresh.'
'Fresh from a wound cut from over a year ago? The blood must have caked already. The pain may only be like a phantom limb – it just isn't fucking there. Get over yourself. She's shown no interest in you whatsoever. It's time to move on, because you can't cut what isn't there. You can't hurt what wasn't around in the first place.'
Both of them suddenly became quiet when Des passed them by.
A year and a half ago was an unremarkable day in June except for the fact that it was scorching hot. The yellow rays of the sun seethed through the cement; its anger seethed so much that the sky temporarily resigned its blue, yielding to orange. Seymour had not yet known that her name was Elle. In fact, he was entering into another grueling year of ambivalence, and couldn't really care less about anything but passing.
It was still Paul and the questions were still the same. What changed was the situation, but it wasn't excessively different anyway.
'So how are you and Mae?' Paul asked.
'She has a boyfriend. We all know who he is. I don't have a girlfriend, and just because I say that she's the most okay-looking in our batch doesn't mean I have romantic intentions toward her. I can say a person looks okay without going beyond that. I don't see why everyone has a huge problem about that. I don't want any beef with him, and I certainly have no plans stealing a person I'm not even intensely interested in from a person I do not even hate or have any anger towards. I'm not an asshole, Paul.'
'Why do you always take things so seriously? It's what makes you the target of our class's practical jokes.'
'I'm trying to loosen up. I take most things seriously because that's how I was raised, but I think I have a sense of humor, at least – and I have no qualms with achievement or meritorious pursuit, especially in this field.'
'You don't have a sense of humor. Hey, did you see anyone attractive from the freshmen?'
'I haven't seen anyone from the bonding party who was particularly attractive. But I guess not all of them went there. Let me get my things, first.'
As he walked back toward the small hallway of their state-run college he saw a lady with a white shirt and jeans – and that was it. She wore glasses with a thin white frame. The frame didn't seem tacky on her because she was white as snow. A pale blush of red formed in both her cheeks. She also had those fox-like eyes that were one of the traits that attracted him to women.
In that very instant, he was besotted with her.
There have been other women he was interested in, but she had reminded him a lot of his favorite Korean actress, Kim Tae-hee.
'Answering that question, Paul,' Seymour said, 'I just saw the cutest girl today.'
'Did she appear during the welcoming party?'
'I don't think so. I think that after two weeks, I've seen the majority of the freshmen around, but I saw her only for the first time today.'
'Maybe she didn't go to the welcoming party.'
'I think she really didn't. There were others who didn't go, too.'
Seymour flashed his characteristic smile, which appeared only rarely when conditions or surprises pleased him immensely. His face was otherwise stoic, and unwelcoming.
'It seems you're really attracted to her. Could you show her to me?'
'I think she just walked past there. Let's rush a bit, then? Ah. She's the one in the white shirt and jeans.'
'She's not beautiful. But she's quite cute.'
'I usually am not as attracted to strikingly beautiful women as to those who exude an air of youthfulness – or cuteness. I guess there's your explanation.'
'So, are you going to go for her?'
'I don't know. I don't know whether I even want to start right now.'
'Christ, you're twenty-three years old – and you've never had a girlfriend. You haven't thought of starting?'
'I'm not sure whether I want to take the risk.'
'There's only one question to that, really. Do you want to get to know her more?'
'Yeah, I suppose.'
'Then ask her out. Ask for her number. Take a chance.'
And with that, he did. He pulled out all the stops and did what he could despite largely lacking in confidence. He finagled her number from a friend, brought her food, and actually tried talking to her despite the obvious awkwardness. He actually tried. When the time came, he also introduced himself to the lady beside a yogurt stall in the city's party place, with hands frozen with fear and incoherence due to his inexperience. It had been difficult, but he finally introduced himself to her and vowed to help her until he finished his four years in medicine.
She was Elle. It may have been his persistence, his lack of confidence, or perhaps his unfocused determination that adumbrated his failure.
He was, ultimately, ignored by her. And like most first-timers who were shunned, he was embittered. He was not angered by his failure but embittered that she could never have given him that simple statement that she did not like him.
He sang a song to the public for the first time just because he dedicated it to her, and sang it the only way he could sing: poorly, but passionately. Yet despite the fact that he even murdered his shamelessness as a final act, she did not say anything. She decided to keep quiet and to leave the idea of rejection to be imbibed and interpreted by him. It could have been so easy to say a word – if not, to even message the word 'stop,' and Seymour would have done that, but he was left to realize that he was being heartbroken.
Even then he persisted, because she was his first love.
'It's been almost three months since she didn't talk to you. Don't you think that's enough of a message?' Liz asked of him one of those days when she had enough free time to talk to him. She was otherwise busy with academic responsibilities, something which Seymour had eschewed for the most part.
'She hasn't told me no, Liz. That's all I really want to know. If she told me 'stop,' or 'no,' I would. I don't want to impose my persistence on a girl who doesn't want it. As I'm not clairvoyant, however, I can't read her mind, and I can't read her silence.'
'Maybe some girls can't say that. It's also a difficult thing to reject someone, you know.'
'I'm not trying to be embittered here, but I think what I did over the past few months has been nothing short of challenging, especially to a guy like me. She was the first girl I had romantic interests towards that I talked to, even though I was stuttering half the time. I tried to sing a song for her to the best of my ability, and ate all my shame to give her those chocolates in her class, only for her to reject it. I just think the least she could do is tell that she's had enough of me. A coup-de-grace, if you will.'
'She won't do that, not with her shyness.'
'I don't think that's an excuse, Liz.'
'I don't think so, too. But I'm just telling you that it's not easy to do.'
'How hard is typing 'stop' and sending it as a text message? I'm no idiot – I think I'm limited to the level of the imbecile or moron. I can understand. Or maybe I just can't admit that I'm a big, fat dunce.'
'Maybe she wants you to hang on. I don't know – she's never been much of a talker and no one's really deciphered her all that well.'
'I want to hang on as long as I can – and if I can't any longer, or if I've found someone, I'll let go. She may think of it as pathetic – and you may think of it as hopeless, but even though I'm a bit angry, she ended up as my first love whether I like it or not, and I want to cherish that.'
The last six months of his year and a half wait had been uneventful. He had tried, in an act designed to shake her from her silence, but it left him ignored all the more. Despite that, he tried to help her with the reviewers he had scoured from his peers.
'Why are you even helping her?' Paul asked. 'After all this time that she can't even stomp on your heart properly?'
'Because I made a promise, Paul. And I intend to keep it, although there may be lapses at times.'
'Why are you living in the nineteenth century?'
'Because it was how I was raised, Paul. And I put weight on my promises, despite the fact that she may have a dour impression on me.'
Six months after that, Des entered the nurses' station as Paul and Seymour kept quiet.
'I'm going to tell on you. I'm going to scream your attraction towards her, just because I want you to be angry and just because I want you to push on.'
'Don't,' Seymour laughed. 'Because I don't even know if I've truly gotten over Elle.'
'You probably have. You just don't want to admit it, because you have this belief in virtue, persistence, and loyalty even though it tires you to no end. You live in the nineteenth century, and yet all you really ask for is for her to tell you that she doesn't want you, but she can't even do that for your sake and it's tearing you apart inside because you've done everything and yet can't move forward.'
'She was my first love.'
'So what? So what if she was your first love? If my first love treated me as badly as you've been treated, she wouldn't have been my last. You project that ancient hope that the first girl you decide to fall in love with will be the girl you'll marry. That isn't true anymore. In this world that's becoming progressively shittier by the millisecond, that would never become true. The thing is, you decide to persist in a world of virtue that's been rendered obsolete for many years now. You know deep inside that she clearly doesn't want you. Her rejections have been quite brutal. Yet you believe, stupidly, in all of those adages full of crap that speak about persistence paying off. That may be so in many things, but you can't force the issue of love. You can't force the existence of love, and you can't falsify its creation – no matter how much virtue you believe you have or you contain, you can't force her to love you. You have to accept that, and for you to accept that, I'll go in the nurses' station. Love cannot be created from mere persistence.'
Without saying anything else, Paul went inside the nurses' station, and asked, with his rotund belly and all, 'Does anyone here know Des?'
'Yes, we have a volunteer with her name here. She's the one with the mole on her right cheek, right?'
'I don't know, but can you please tell her that Seymour finds her cute?'
Seymour immediately went red, even though he had never gone inside because he noticed that the station's level of noise increased gradually. Des had been sitting in one of the corners, preparing medicine for one of the patients. He wanted to run away, and he had already stood up when he was stopped by Cheska, who was one of his dutymates. She was inside when Paul spoke regarding Des and Seymour.
'Come in here, Sy.'
The flush had already spread to much of his face.
She repeated herself. 'Come in here, or else.'
He had been discovered. His aspirations to perceive of her as a mere painting had been deemed impossible. She now became a human being she had to interact with – but what a beautiful specimen she was, at least to him. True disquiet had now set within him: he had to interact her as someone with flesh and blood, and someone not merely observed.
'Sit together,' Cheska continued.
He sat together with Des because deep inside he wished to know her more, and even then, he wanted to be a bit closer. Unlike his fiascoes with Elle, Des actually agreed to Cheska's plans and sat beside him. They had their first picture taken together, Des having a beautiful smile and Seymour evincing his characteristic seriousness. He couldn't smile because it would have destroyed the camera: deep inside he was beside himself with happiness at having been pictured with a girl he was highly attracted to, and yet he wanted to hold everything in. He didn't want Des to think that he was any less normal than his peers, even though he perhaps was.
When Cheska told him to put his arm around her, he also did it. He did it despite being awkward. He then introduced himself afterward to her, in a less awkward way he did to Elle the previous year, and they shook hands. After being prodded some more by his friends, he mustered the courage to ask her, formally, if he could add her on Facebook.
Days later, despite the fact that whenever they were together in the office the station would be abuzz with laugh and giggles, he tried his best to properly greet her and talk to her bit by bit. He could only be laconic around her, and yet he tried, sometimes with a bit of tomfoolery, to get to know her more. His overpowering shyness prevented him from doing any more, but he managed to ask her to assist him in his IV insertions, and steal a bit of chatting from her. He also tried to help here whenever she needed aid, but it didn't help him at all that she was also very quiet.
It was about this time that he decided that Elle was going to be part of his past and no longer of his present. Because Des's birthday was coming, he decided to plan a small surprise for her.
'I'm going all out for Des, Paul.'
'You have me to thank for that.'
'Yeah. You started it all, so thank you for that.'
'I'm thinking of planning a small party for Des.'
'Well, it's almost her birthday, and I wanted to give her something. I think a cake would do, I guess.'
'Ask help from those on duty during that day. Cheska, funnily, is one of those.'
Seymour had asked Cheska and she readily agreed, alongside with his ever helpful senior intern. Despite their well-made plans, however, she didn't time-in on her night shift the eve prior to her birthday, and it all fell apart.
Seymour was aghast. He had that gift of deep, analytical thought that was at times also a bane to him. Perhaps fate simply told me that it wasn't meant to be. Perhaps I should stop now. The torpedo was launched from the submarine of uncertainty and it had sunken deeper and targeted his healing psyche. He had, once again, thought too much: it had destroyed what little chance he had had with Elle, and it had slowly tore him from within.
He already bought the cake, however, so he stored it on his refrigerator and waited for a chance to deliver it to her. He told Des simply that he bought her something edible for her birthday and wanted a chance to give it to her. She replied that she was out of the city, so that was out of the question. He had troubled himself into sleep when Cheska messaged him that Des was having her haircut taken at a nearby parlor.
'I hope you aren't joking, Cheska.' Seymour stated. 'I'm really in no mood for jokes right now. I keep on thinking about my rejection this early on, because I'm that unsure.'
'She's here. But come here quick, I think she's about to finish.'
With that, he took a quick bath and rushed with decent clothes to the parlor. Her haircut was about to finish.
He looked straight into her eyes shortly, and told her, 'someone reported to me that you were here.' He smiled, and then told her, 'happy birthday!'
He then disappeared, and only sent her a text regarding the cake. Seymour knew he could have stayed, and talked some more but he never knew what it was he could still talk about: this was what it always had been. He couldn't even ask her for a date all by himself – his residents and his friends came to his rescue just to salvage his effort. He wasn't proud of his inability, but he was too shy to be any better.
He wasn't able to see her afterward: she had already ended her rotation in Pediatrics, and he was moving toward another. Sadly, Anesthesiology offered little in terms of freedom of motion; in fact, during their duties they were sequestered within the operating room and could only go out whenever there were patients that were due for morphine. He couldn't even bid her goodbye during her last day, and as she was also quite laconic with regard to her text messages just as he was patient in not bombarding her with facile texts, the date that his resident brokered for him seemed to be impossible to realize.
Three days after, however, just when he was out on morphine tour, he was messaged by one of his close friends privy to the fact that he was interested in Des. After administering the morphine that the patients needed, he rushed to the ward where his friend told him Des was hanging around about. It was also the day that the date was supposed to occur, but she messaged him that she was busy.
He went to the Pediatric ward.
Instead of stopping to gather himself, and then shaking with fear he went into the nurses' station directly and looked at Des straight in the eyes as he told her, 'Can you really not go out with me? I only have duty until five in the afternoons and I can go wherever you want us to go after that.'
'I have things to take care of, however.'
'Why don't you let me help you with that? Please?' He felt his palms gradually becoming wetter. It's not going to matter, though – at least, I've already been rejected once, he thought.
'All right. Is there any place you'd want to meet?'
'Just text me. SM City would probably be nice.'
He was never sure of himself, even though she acquiesced to his request. He would not know until he was there. He arrived at the appointed place about three minutes late, and she was not yet there. Seymour had already prepared himself for failure: he was an atavism to the past, and surely not many ladies would want someone as stuck-up as him: his notion of fun would either be to sleep or play computer games. Hobbies of his had included reading classical literature and toying with physics. It was certainly bound for disaster.
And yet ten minutes later, Des had come up with her friend.
She actually came.
While the dinner was a mix of dead air and stolen glances, he was still thankful that she had come. More than his first love, Des was his first date.
'Thank you for giving me this chance. Thank you for having dinner with me, Des. Can I ask you out again sometime soon?'
That was it. That had ended most of his doubts, and all of his worries. Because even if that 'okay' was only a false promise – even if her okay was perhaps forced, he would never forget that one girl gave a torpedo of overthinking and inexperience that one chance. She had dined with him despite everything, and no matter what would happen future it was something to thank her by – because that chance meant a lot. That chance meant that she gave him a way that he could present himself to her without turning him down even from the very beginning. To him, that was important: someone had at least seen him, and gave him an opportunity to present himself. That was a lot more than what Elle had given.
After their date was over, Seymour had decided to bid goodbye to the lady he had loved for more than a year. 'Thank you for everything. And sorry for everything as well,' he wrote to Elle. After he had compiled all the reviewers he could find from hours of individually downloading each file from their secret stash, he sent a compressed archive to her.
'This is, as promised, everything I have to help you surpass medical school. I've never kept anything from you here. I just want you to know that I haven't forgotten the promise I made. Thank you for everything, and sorry for everything.'
As he had closed his laptop he knew that he was going to be in another train to hell. He was, even then, already bound for heartbreak. But just because Elle didn't like Seymour didn't mean that he had the write to be angry toward her: 'It's not her fault she didn't like me, anyway.'
Whenever he checked on Facebook, however, Elle's name would prop up as one of the choices. Yet this time, he merely checked his updates, messaged Des that he wanted to see her for another date, and then logged off. He then cleared his history.