My boyfriend, Ken, said he found me attractive because he thought I looked like Bruno Mars. I didn’t see it at first. As his songs got more popular, people started to make comments to me about it. Ken joked that if I wore a fedora, sunglasses and chains, and walked everywhere surrounded by big guys that looked like bodyguards, I could pass as him on the street. On top of that, I had that “extra bit ofpudge, just like Bruno,” he’d say.
Except for that last one, I liked the comments. It was nice to see someone famous who wasn’t conventionally handsome with a square jaw and pointy nose. Bruno is half Filipino, a quarter Puerto Rican, and a quarter Jewish. Although I’m full Filipino, I felt we shared a sense of “otherness”; in a glamorous world of white, blue-eyed, blondhaired Justins (Timberlakes, Biebers…) and Kens (my boyfriend, my very own Ken doll), he stuck out with his round eyes, full cheeks and brown skin, a lot like my own features.
I too stood out in my gay Toronto world. And by stood out, I mean I was invisible. First of all, it was difficult to spot me in a crowd: I’m five feet and three-quarters-of-an-inch tall. In the dimly loften referred to as “yellow”—would get lost in a sea of chests and armpits. Tall, beautifully sculpted, Caucasian “non-yellow” men would elbow my face by accident, and not even know it.
But Bruno Mars gave me the possibility that a yellow Asian could be cute, perhaps attractive. Maybe even, dare I say it… sexy?
Everyone always thought of me as “Tony, that nice guy,” which was fine. To be admired was nice. But to be desired meant more to me than I liked to admit.
“Tony?” a voice said. Fifteen-year-old Abigail caught me day
dreaming at my desk. I looked up to a sea of eyes, all centred on me.
“Should I read out what I have now?”
The assignment was for the kids to write three-to-five sentences answering the question “Who am I?” There were no criteria, guidelines or restrictions. And no judgment. This was a creative writing class, after all.
“My name is Abigail. I am fifteen years old and in grade 10. I like writing. It makes me feel like an artist. My favourite movie is Legally Blonde. I think I want to be a lawyer, just like Elle Woods. Totally my hero.”
She looked up at me, seeking approval.
“Great!” I said. “Thanks, Abigail, good work.”
“That movie sucks!” a boy at the back of the class said. A few of the other kids laughed. Abigail rolled her eyes.
“Hey guys. No judgments in this class, okay?” I said. “We should feel free to share whatever we want without fear of being judged.”
The class grew silent.
I continued. “And just for the record, Legally Blonde is an absolute masterpiece of cinema!” They all laughed. “Put yourself in Elle Woods’ shoes! Empathize! How great would it feel to stick it to your stupid ex-boyfriend by getting in law school and upstaging him?
That’s amazing, right?”
Many of the students giggled and nodded.
“Empathy, guys. I want you to consider all points of view when you write. It’ll make you a better writer, and a better person.”
Abigail smiled. “Tony?”
“What about you? Don’t you have to tell us who you are?”
I didn’t have anything prepared. I scrambled some sentences together in my head:
I’m Tony, I’m 29. I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. Now, I
teach creative writing to teens at this community centre. So, I guess
things didn’t turn out exactly as planned. But I have my health. I have
a boyfriend named Ken—a lawyer—who, when he isn’t pinching my
chubby cheeks calling me his “chunky monkey,” is a good guy. Although
we don’t yet own multiple properties together, we go on vacations and
occasionally eat at restaurants in Yorkville where the portions look like
pebbles on their giant plates. But the photos look good on my Facebook.
I guess that means my life is close to perfect, no?
But I kept my biography to myself. I looked back at Abigail and deflected the question: “This class is all about you guys, not me. I’m just here to help if I can.”
There was a spring in my step when I left class to head home, which was a quaint little house in Little Portugal. Ken and I were celebrating our two-year anniversary. I’d been thinking about what to wear for this night for months. I wanted to look good for him. He deserved it; he worked his butt off and had recently made partner at his firm. I loved him.
I tried to channel Bruno’s current 50s-doo-wop trend: I wore a dark blue suit with black lapel, shiny black shoes, a white shirt and a black tie. To finish the look, I teased my hair to get it as big and fluffy as possible, with a small curl dangling loosely on my forehead, as if I was carefree and cool.
In the last couple of months, I had been trying to lose some weight by cutting down on carbohydrates. I replaced my rice at meals with salad. Ken would comment every now and then about me “getting more doughy, but it’s okay because it’s cute.” I was 130 pounds, with a normal (but on the high side of normal) BMI of 24.9. But I took his comments as a cue to trim myself, and I thought the new diet was working. I stood in front of the mirror, as I waited for him. Okay, not bad.
Ken was one of the most punctual people I knew, so it was odd to get an “I’m running late” text. He was never late.
We were going to the Toronto Symphony to see Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, my favourite, next to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Ken preferred the less melodic, harsher classical music, like Shostakovich and the newer pieces by modern composers, which to me sounded like cats in a dryer. One of my best friends, Nick, said that we were too pretentious for late-twenty-something gay men, with our love of “old people music,” as he put it. But I didn’t like classical music because I liked being fancy; I liked it because it was simply beautiful. And all right, I’ll be honest at the risk of sounding snooty—I thought anything was better than the simple beats and “grab-my-ass” lyrics of basic pop music.
Ken came in, looking as handsome as ever in a grey suit and gelled-back, dirty blonde hair, his blue eyes sparkling. My Ken doll.
He was holding a bouquet of roses. They were yellow.
Why were they yellow?
“Hi babe,” I said, “you look amazing.”
“Thanks. Should we head out?”
“Let me just put the flowers in a vase.”
Ken was uncharacteristically quiet in the car.
“So, how was your day?” I asked as he drove.
“Good,” he answered.
“You okay? You’re a little quiet.”
“I’m fine. Can we just listen to the radio?”
He turned up the volume. Something was wrong. He hadn’t even commented on my suit or how I looked at all.
I had made reservations at Sotto Sotto in Yorkville. According to Toronto Life magazine, it was one of “the places to eat.” I tried to keep initiating conversation over dinner but couldn’t get Ken to seem interested.
“It’s going to be a great term,” I said, trying to sound chipper. “The kids today were awesome. They loved the selection of poems I gave for homework. One of them told me that “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath reminded her of her relationship with her mother, because both her mother and the mother in the poem weren’t even sure they wanted children. She interpreted that on her own.Sometimes the kids just really just amaze me.”
Ken was looking down at the floor. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” he said, as he scurried from the table.
He came back ten minutes later, his eyes watering and cheeks red. His face was puffy.
“Ken, are you okay? You look like you just threw up,” I said, concerned.
“I did,” he replied.
“What, are you sick? Should we leave?”
“No, it’s okay.” He lowered his voice. “I need to talk to you.”
“Okay. What’s bothering you? You haven’t been yourself all night.”
“I need to tell you something.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately. About us.”
It was that line that you hear in movies and automatically know what’s about to happen. But this wasn’t the movies.
Suddenly I realized. The roses. They were yellow.
“Ken, why were the roses yellow?”
He shifted his eyes to the window. “They were bi-coloured. Did you not see they were yellow with specks of red on them?”
“What are you saying?”
His eyes met mine, and he said, “I realized something. I realized… that I love you, but only as a friend. That’s why the roses were yellow, for friendship, but blended with red, for love.”
I had no words. Maybe that was why I never made it as a writer.
I didn’t want to believe it. This shouldn’t be happening to me, I thought. I’m a good person. I’m nice and I care about people. I didn’t deserve this.
But it all made sense. Over time, our conversations had become nothing but cold, dry one-liners. We were both getting busier at work. We hadn’t had sex in months.
Then a question popped into my head. “Is there someone else?” I was afraid of the answer.
The response was worse than a “yes.”
“No, there’s nobody else. It’s you. Don’t get me wrong. You’re an amazing guy, Tony. You work hard. The kids at the centre love you. I just don’t feel that way about you. But someone will snatch you up in no time.”
Was it sadder that he broke up with me, not for someone else, but because of me? That he only loved me as a friend (who also apparently made him vomit?). Is that like quitting your job, not because you found a better one but because you didn’t care for it enough that not having a job was a better option?
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No. You better go.”
He got up and slowly exited the restaurant.
Other diners were stealing looks at me and then looking to their partners to probably discuss why I was suddenly alone at the table. The entrees had come just as Ken got up to leave. I picked up the fork and quickly shoveled my pasta into my face until the plate was clean. I even ate half of Ken’s plate. It was too much for my stomach and I felt sick, but I kept stuffing the food in. Anything to numb what I was feeling. Anything to change the memory of this evening. I paid the bill and went to the symphony alone to try and fill my ears with anything other than his words. “It’s you… I just don’t feel that way about you.”
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 became the soundtrack for all the images in my head, all the dreams I had had of my life with Ken that now would never come to be: a condo on Lakeshore facing south; vacations to Gay Par-ee; grand dinner parties with friends where we would eat rack of lamb and discuss what films we hated at TIFF; running to tell him that I had finally got my writing published, and him picking me off the ground and spinning me in circles until I felt dizzy with hope and happiness and love. The montage of hazy dreams faded away into a single image of yellow roses, which would eventually wilt and die too.