Ontology by Wayne Tan

Can I ask you a personal question? The crisp retina display of the phone sears the words into your eyeballs. Yikes, you think. Barely a week since you started texting and already thinking about kids? You suppress your fight-or-flight instinct as your fingers scramble tentatively for an answer. I am a real boy, you type back, if anyone’s asking. Winky face? Nope, trying too hard. A pause, then on-screen ellipses in the chat box. Very funny, her reply reads, but have you ever been in love?

The summer is a dreary one, like a runway with no vanishing horizon. You feel trammelled by Singapore’s legendary humidity. Graduate school beckons, and you have a respectable Hogwarts-esque school lined up for you in the fall. Not a bad deal, you tell yourself, for a Muggle who still has the Deathly Hallows cling-wrapped on his shelf, mint condition. But the future is distant, and in the meantime, didn’t Voltaire say, il faut cultiver notre jardin? You’d always liked that quote, from a time when philosophers were the OGs of self-help and badass enough to be buried for an eternity next to their arch-nemeses in the Pantheon.

That was the quarter when you read Candide in your comparative literature class. You remember, when you were trying to get over Maya, whom you swore was the love of your life? Those overflowing curly locks? Of course you do. On your first date, there the two of you are in Starbucks, sitting alfresco-style in sunny Los Angeles. She asks whether you are watching any TV shows, and you are so distracted by the kiss of freckles on her cheeks that you say, yes, I’m watching this thing called Game of Thrones, have you seen it? Maya tilts her head slightly before nodding. You have a good feeling about her, and because deep down you think you are funny despite your friends’ remarks to the contrary, you keep going. It’s got both sex and gore, you say, so what’s a guy not to like? Bravado in short measures had always worked for you. Almost on cue, she hides a smile with a sip from her cappuccino (read: non-basic). I will warn you though, there are scenes this season which shock even seasoned viewers like me. Oh? she raises an eyebrow. Yeah, you rattle on breathlessly, there’s this scene with the half-giant Hodor- so he’s completely naked and running towards the camera, right? Maya watches you closely, waiting for the penny to drop. With that level of bounce, you finally say, I think we got definitive proof of his lineage. Maya laughs again and this time, as she takes a prolonged swig from her cup, you think, she definitely likes you.

How do you get over a girl like that? With some difficulty. You lie awake at night remembering how you walked her home later that day, how you should have kissed her when she started leaning in, but then held back at the last microsecond because you didn’t want to ruin anything. At least that’s what you tell yourself afterwards, since that sounds so much better than that you chickened out. You never were much good at living in the moment.

In this age of post-post-modernity, Clarke’s third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Maybe that’s why your Tinder matches always vanish after a day? You are on Tinder, clearly. You say it’s to meet interesting people and you cringe when you come across the tenth profile that proclaims, not sure why I am even here. No one really knows, you think as you swipe left on the budding existentialist. But the next profile is no better – only here cause my friend made this for me. You imagine Sartre turning in his grave and switch apps so you can like your friends’ humblebrags on Instagram instead.

Eventually, your Pygmalion prophecy comes true – you meet cool people on Tinder, and boy, are they fascinating. As it turns out, Tinder is a great way to meet people while on road trips to nowhere. When English explorers explored the Orient in the 19th century, they thought they were traveling backwards through time – coming from Singapore, you’re obviously no fan of colonialism, but as you drive east on the interstate, you feel just like Marlowe going up the Congo in his little steamer. In the heart of Middle America, you see Reagan-era mom-and-pop stores alongside retro gas stations with energy-monster trucks guzzling at their teats. The horror, the horror! You grab coffee with a girl from Springfield in a diner that still prides itself on all-day breakfast. As she waves to you from her booth, you snake past an aged man who scrutinizes you intensely through huge, gold-rimmed glasses. You sidle over to sit opposite your date and fail to be inconspicuous as the cracked vinyl upholstery squeaks and groans from your weight. After you order an omelette, your date tells you she likes making international friends (you will fail to keep in touch). Two cities later in a Ramada Inn outside New Mexico, you end up sexting a girl who works the rides at Disneyland. She teaches you the word mesa on her lunch break. Language of origin? Spanish. Use it in a sentence? I would love to do it on the mesa sometime. As your education continues, you learn that the mesa enfolds a familiar topography of parchedness, desire, and release.

The swiping continues in Singapore. As it turns out, home field advantage opens up a whole new can of worms. It is a busy summer but on the third date when you two are alone on the last train out of the city, Shreya tells you how boys in school would sit next to her in the lecture theatre to ask her for tips. On what? How to impress the cute Chinese girl in class. I’m always in the bro-zone, she explains. Or more like the brown-zone – one guy said he would never date someone like me. You feel yourself tensing as your liberal education kicks in. Someone as cool as you? you offer, not quite knowing what to say. Your heart sinks slightly as you recall her earlier questions on whether you wanted Hainanese chicken rice or steamed dumplings for dinner – in fact she’d chided you then for not sufficiently adoring these traditional Chinese dishes. The two of you will become good museum buddies.

Eventually, you earn your Tinder stripes and you graduate from guy-who-actually-reads-profiles to fuckboy-who-swipes-right-on-everyone. You learn to effortlessly crank out pithy one-liners with engineered nonchalance. It comes with practice – your road trips every vacation break mean you are rarely stumped for conversation starters. Girl in athletic clothes – well, in Singapore you ran a half-marathon when you were conscripted for the army. Posed reading shots in The Last Bookstore – like fish in a barrel for an English major. In a Japanese restaurant – what did sushi A say to sushi B, you type in the conversation box as your mind drifts to the daily clearance sale in Little Tokyo, around closing time when the staleness of the sushi is redeemed by its price.

According to Alain Badiou, a man who wrote a philosophy book on modern romance and must really have his life together, online dating is problematic because people interact narcissistically, or based on pre-conceived notions of who they want their lover to be or look like. This is an excellent counterfactual except that every millennial knows Tinder is just for hook-ups. Looking for The One on Tinder is like expecting real Asian food at Panda Express – prepare to be disappointed. And as usual you can trust an 80-year-old Frenchman to ruminate on online dating without ever having tried it, even as his teenage granddaughter sits inches away deleting Tinder from her phone for the umpteenth time.

Like most of its relationships, the summer ends. And so you find yourself sprawled on your bed staring at pixels, thinking about what to say to this girl you’ve never met and already wants to know your innermost thoughts on love. Before typing, you sprint through your mental Rolodex filled with the blended faces of your recent Tinder history. You pause fleetingly at the girl who’d confessed that she cut herself, and whom you seriously considered charging by the hour. Wasn’t there also a girl in Minneapolis who’d wanted to Skype you after three messages? Hey. Heyyy. Skype??? But eventually and irrevocably, just as on every other night when the sweat clings to your skin like sun-bleached resin, you arrive full circle at Maya. You recall how she laughed when you floated to her your idea for the next Expendables sequel – The Expendable Baby-Sitters Club (Arnold confronts his toughest challenge yet – a colicky 2-year-old). You think about how she’d react if she saw her name in this story. You change her name to Maya. Then, you think about Alain Badiou again, of all people. He was wrong about Tinder – The One or not, you’ve met so many fascinating Others, and you have absolutely no regrets about them.

Hello? The words linger obdurately on the cracked screen of your iPhone 5. I mean, you don’t have to answer if it’s too personal.

On the last night you saw Maya, she was sitting on top of your still-warm sheets against the edge of your dorm bed, her legs tucked into her chest. It was the final week of winter quarter and mere days away from graduation. I just think we’re moving too fast, she said in the mellow, measured voice that you’d become so accustomed to over the past year. But you didn’t say anything, even as you felt her looking straight through you with her penetrating, brown eyes. Eventually she uncrossed her legs and placed one foot gingerly on the carpeted floor. It’s late, you heard her say as she reached for the Converse sneakers tucked neatly away at the foot of the bed. I should probably go.

Still there? You are jolted from your thoughts by the angry buzzing from your phone. Yes, you type back, without missing a beat. I’m still here.


Wayne Tan
Wayne Tan is a graduate of UCLA and the University of Oxford. His piece, “Henshin,” can be found at Poached Hare. He is currently based in Singapore.

Feature image: “Heart in Lights” by Mark Elliot