Monday, December 26, 2005

Searching for Soul

“Do you believe in the soul, Nate?” I asked.

It was an innocuous enough question. But Nate looked at me curiously, wondering where the train of conversation was going. Since we met a day ago, I had surprised him with my habit of delivering casual non sequiturs with a completely straight face. He quickly surmised that dealing with me required not only his full attention, but a considerable amount of guarded guile as well. Needless to say, he was waiting for the penny to drop in this particular conversation.

I pressed on. “You must believe in the soul. Because you have one. And it’s a good one. You should keep it that way. I don’t say that about a lot of people so you might as well take it as a compliment.”

I, like the ancient Greek philosophers, believed very much in the soul – that intelligible, imperishable part of one’s spirit that wages an epic battle with the flesh. The bearer of such virtues as courage, temperance and justice, it is what makes us human. Without which, we would be craven beasts led only by our basic instincts of survival and the indescribable urge to see the world as one big sperm bank.

Nate had never thought too much about his soul before. A former wild child by his own admission, we had met for the first time the day before in Shanghai and clicked immediately. Within an hour or two we were ribbing each other like old friends.

We also had a lot of respect for each other professionally. Me – for his experience and effortless charm with clients. Him – for my talent and youthful accomplishments.

As the day wore on however, it become more and more apparent that there was an undercurrent of sexual tension between the two of us. It being a professional setting, I was keen to ignore it. However ensconced comfortably in the hotel lounge around midnight, sharing a cigar as well as all manner of scandalous corporate gossip, it was growing increasingly difficult.

“Are you seducing me?” He surprised me by asking all of a sudden.

I laughed and countered: “Are you being seduced?”

“Well I am definitely intrigued. You are probably one of the most remarkable females I have met in the past 2 decades,” he took a long sip of his drink. “If I had met you maybe 10 years ago, I would be fucking the shit out of you right now.”

But he hadn’t met me 10 years ago. Instead, 42, married with two precocious children and a wife as his best friend, Nate was most assuredly losing the battle for his soul and having to cool off by making frequent trips to the bathroom.

“Well, it’s only Day One. And it’s late. Maybe it’s time to say goodnight before we both get ourselves into trouble. I’ll see you in the morning.” I said with a gentle smile, preparing to leave.

We took the lift up to our rooms, each chastely occupying separate corners. The doors opened on the 5th floor. And closed again.

We stared at each other. He cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Well, goodnight then,” he said and swooped in for a goodnight peck on the cheek which turned into a goodnight kiss on the lips which turned into a goodnight grope of my ass. I could feel his erection straining through his trousers as he ground his hips into me. And then, with a loudly uttered curse, he pulled away and fled.

I touched my lips instinctively. They were ripe and swollen with forbidden pleasure. I didn’t know whether to find my encounter with Nate delightfully theatrical or terribly dangerous. All I knew was that somehow sometime someone had to pull the brakes. And my engineering skills were rusty. The lift continued up to my room in quiet contemplation.

I took my time dressing (or undressing, rather) for bed before calling Nate’s room. I decided Act 1 Scene 2 would take place from the relative safety of under the covers.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” he answered gruffly.

I laughed at his discomfort. “That was interesting,” I teased. “Did you intend to do that?”

“Yes…I mean…No. Shit…your lips, your body, the way you carry yourself. You’re a walking composite of all the women I’ve fucked in my past life. You make me remember things I thought I’d forgotten about myself,” he paused. “The thing is, I can’t…I shouldn’t…do this. You’re a colleague. I’m married. And I can’t afford to fuck up my life. This is just completely out of control, isn’t it?”

“Well, it’s nothing that can’t be nipped in the bud at this point,” I said, putting on my best voice of reason. “We’ve got 4 more days stuck working together so let’s take our time. We don't have to make things any more difficult than they are. I'm not about to force myself on you. We can just say goodnight and leave tonight at the door, if you want.”

“I’m half-happy you said that,” he said ruefully. “Even if my other half wants to come down to your room and put my cock into you.”

I laughed. “Well you can. But there are 3 floors, 10 rooms and a huge moral crisis in between to ensure that you don't. And we're only on Day 1. I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow. Goodnight.”

So there we were having breakfast the next day, reasonably more sober - the animalistic instincts of the night trussed up and muffled by our dapper business suits – and attempting a metaphysical discussion over some bacon and eggs.

“Do you have a soul, my Asian seductress?” Nate asked in return.

“Yes I do, but it’s a crap one. You know, souls are rare commodities in Asia. They don’t go down too well with hard-headed pragmatism and rampant materialism.”

“Why do you think I have a soul?”

“Because of last night. Because your soul wouldn’t let you do what your cock wanted to do,” I said matter-of-factly. “That is so much more the exception than the rule here. It’s refreshing. So I’m going to respect that by being really really good over the next few days. You might as well start calling me Saint Sash.”

Last night’s encounter with Nate had indeed given me pause - in a good way. It was surprising. (And if you read this blog regularly, you will know that very little surprises me) It is not easy to stare temptation in the face and walk away with just some spit-swapping.

There is a wide chasm between the guilt-based societies of the West and the shame-based societies of the East. In the West, you’re sorry because you’ve done something horribly wrong and you need to seek forgiveness or you won’t be able to live with yourself. And none of the neighbours will speak to you again. In Asia, you’re sorry because you got caught. And the neighbours are laughing because they’re doing it too, they’ve just got thicker curtains.

Most people who grew up in the West but have lived long enough in Asia know and adhere to the precepts of this paradigm shift. In a way, I can understand the lure of this philosophy. It must be liberating for people to do as they like with complete impunity from their soul.

Who needs a soul anyway – courage, temperance, justice? In Asia, qualities like that just get in the way of getting laid with your wife’s friends from Bible study.

I had almost given up on the whole concept of soul altogether. Singapore as a place is not high on the soul-stakes to begin with. And me being me, I have the tendency to bring out the worst in men – the pre-evolutionary ape, as it were – and sometimes it is easy to forget that an alternative exists.

Or has the ability to resist, as in Nate’s case.

To struggle is to be human. Sometimes I think the worth of a man should be counted in terms of how well he fights to preserve his soul; the battle of wills, the grand game of chess, the should-I-shouldn’t-I.

As opposed to how spectacularly he fails. Because we all do, at some point.

Nate had done well so far. And I had gained a significant amount of respect and affection for this stranger of 18 hours ago. I looked over the breakfast table at him, trying to find the right words to say without sounding patronizing.

I wished I could have told him that I admired him for loving his wife and resisting temptation. I wished I could have told him how protective I felt over his soul and how seriously I took this responsibility. And I wished I could have told him that he made me believe that good, faithful men existed.

But I couldn’t find the right words to break through the barrier of pride and do justice to my own much-diminished soul. So I smiled instead and said nothing.