Stories Behind the Art: FerretBoy and Our Never Ending Love Story

“Some people are meant to fall in love with each other. But not meant to be together.”

– quote from the movie “500 Days of Summer”

It was the fall of 2008, a few weeks into my first semester as a Songwriting major at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I was 25, a second-time undergraduate, and I felt so out of place not only because I was one of the few Asians in a city that was predominantly white, but also because I was at least 4 years older than all the other undergraduates. At the time, Belmont didn’t have its own Catholic students’ community, so one Sunday evening my friend Christy brought me over to the Frassati House at the edge of Vanderbilt’s campus, the home base of Vandy Catholic. We joined in the casual welcome dinner, and amid the awkward introductions with these preppy white (mostly Southern) kids, I met FerretBoy.

He seemed the same color as the other white kids, and yet something about him was different. I only found out a few months later that he was Hispanic, something that didn’t even cross my mind as he looked and seemed as American as the blond-haired blue-eyed humans who were around us. That evening we met, he had really short dark hair, and wore really tiny thick frames, and my first impression was that he was a geek, bookish, and definitely a good student. But when he spoke, he had an air of confidence about him, he was friendly and out-going, and looking past the nerd glasses, he was rather cute with his boyish face. He introduced himself to me, and we started chatting, and I realized he had a sense of humor, and he seemed real and down to earth and chill, quite unlike the other typical Vandy students who surrounded us. I was drawn to him, even attracted, and for a few minutes I forgot that I had a 1.5-year-old boyfriend in Singapore, and that FerretBoy was a sophomore (he was 19 at the time), and way too young for a 25-year-old woman.

It wasn’t till over a year later when I really started to fall for FerretBoy. It was December 2009, I had just broken up with my boyfriend 2 months earlier, and Vandy Catholic was at a nation-wide conference for Catholic students in Orlando, Florida. Over the 5 days at the conference, I saw more of FerretBoy than I had in the 2 years since we had first met. I didn’t have a car in Nashville, and rarely made trips over to Frassati House, and so my interactions with FerretBoy, though generally positive and friendly, had been few and far between.

Things really started to heat up during the final evening of the conference. There was a swing dance party, and while I was excited about it, I was also nervous because I didn’t know anything about swing dancing, and my experiences of dancing with a partner was limited to the unintentional and random grinding sessions on the club dance floor during my early 20’s. Images of prom in American high school movie scenes played through my mind, and I wondered: would I be asked to dance? Or would I end up as a wallflower? And more importantly, would tonight finally be the moment where I meet my one true love? (Yeah, I was quite delusional back then lols…)

Once the live band started, the people around me paired off, and I was left standing at the side with the less social guys and gals from Vandy Catholic. I started to freak out internally, assuming the worse for this evening, when one of the guys asked me to dance. He was nerdy and awkward, and we simply repeated the same basic steps over and over again with no variation. I didn’t want to leave him, fearing I won’t have a partner, but at the same time I didn’t want to be stuck with him all evening and miss my chance at true love. When we paused for a water break, I looked around hopefully and desperately for someone to sweep me off my feet, and that was when FerretBoy appeared, asked me why I wasn’t dancing, and before I could respond, took my hand and brought me to the middle of the dance floor to dance with him.

To my surprise, he was really good at dancing. He wasn’t doing much of the swing moves, but the guy could certainly dance and lead a partner through spins, and twists and I suppose if I knew what I was doing, he probably could have thrown me up into the air and flipped me around and over and all those fancy moves I’ve only seen on TV. I was so nervous and excited, my heart racing as he held me close from time to time, his face just inches from mine, and I tried to focus on not stepping on his feet, to remain calm and just be cute and giggly and girly, so that maybe he would look past my two left feet and not be repulsed by my horrible dancing.

At the same time, I told myself this was all too good to be true, and as song after song ended, I braced myself for the moment that he’d excuse himself and move on to a different partner, a better dancer than me. But he remained with me. And even when everyone ended up in a conga line that snaked around the room and we got separated, the moment we broke off into partner dancing again, he’d show up beside me and continue our dance. Something was definitely happening here, and I wondered if he was feeling it too.

1.5 years later in August 2011, when I was just beginning on my journey as a visual artist in New York City, I immortalized our first dance moment in this drawing below, me in my blue and black dress, complementary to his blue jeans, black tee and silver tie:

Illustration: “First Dance” (2011), Color pencil and ink on paper, 10 x 5 in.

Later that night, we sat and talked until the morning’s activities began. It was the first time I had really gotten to know him, listening to his stories of growing up in Brooklyn as the only child to immigrant parents, having to learn English in school on his own, and how he worked summers at the snack stand in Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park. I forgot that night that he was 6 years younger than me – it felt like we were of the same age, of the same spirit. I wanted that night to last forever, because I knew that when we left Orlando the next morning, he would be away on student exchange for a semester in Sao Paolo, and I would be in Nashville without him.

We kept in touch via Skype messenger, and every 2-3 weeks or so, we’d chat about stuff for hours. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to reminiscence the short time we had together, and conjure up all the ways our romance would blossom and how our relationship would develop. He was the knight I’d been waiting for all my life, the one to take me away on adventures together, and I was so certain that despite our age differences, he would be mature enough because he grew up street smart in New York City.

In July 2010, we met up in New York, and spent an entire night wandering around Manhattan, him showing me the sights of the city at night. Even in the wee hours, there were still folks around us, and quite a few 24-hour places – truly a city that never sleeps! At one point, a homeless man approached asking for change, and after FerretBoy gave him a couple bucks, the man referred to me as FerretBoy’s wife. I was ecstatic to hear that – perhaps this was a sign!

On my last full day in New York, before we were to return to Nashville for the new school year, we spent the entire day together, wandering around his favorite places in Brooklyn. At Coney Island, we rode the Wonder Wheel, and I got to watch him play New York handball, his favorite sport. We had lunch at his favorite diner in Park Slope, and then we roamed around Brooklyn Heights, enjoying the view of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge from a less touristy perspective. It was the most perfect day. Our conversation seemed effortless, and I felt we were truly connecting, opening up to each other.

This is the photo I asked a passer-by to take of FerretBoy and myself, to remember this perfect day together:

Notice FerretBoy’s outfit in this picture. This photo soon became a symbol of the ideal that I imagined our relationship to be, and he has since been immortalized in this outfit in all my works that have featured him (except for the naked people ones).

When we returned to student life in Nashville at the start of another school year, we interacted more frequently, and when his dad and his cousin came to visit, I was invited to join them on several occasions. I started to believe that I was someone special to him, and we started spending more time together. I helped him move into his off-campus residence, and we started hanging out there together with his roommate, watching movies and having pizza and chatting about life and God and such.

Then one night in October, a few days before Halloween, he came over to my place to watch a movie and hang out, and that was when we first kissed, and finally it all started… and it all started to go wrong.

It was nothing like the moment I had envisioned over and over again for the past 10 months. He wasn’t a bad kisser, but he was younger and less experienced in the romance department, and so overall it was just awkward and confusing. On top of that, we were both devout Catholics, and the guilt after was too much for him to bear. So a cycle started: we’d hook up, we’d get guilty about committing a mortal sin, we’d go to confession and vow never to do it again, and then when we were left alone at his place or mine, the entire thing begins again. And a second cycle began: When I tried to be strong for both of us and reject his advances, he’d get angry and upset that I was rejecting him. And when I gave in, he’d be wracked with guilt afterwards and withdraw into himself. No matter how I dealt with the situation, there was just no happy ending (lols pun).

And a third cycle began when he started to tell me being in a relationship is like he has to marry me, and so he didn’t want us to be a couple, and when I started to walk away, he’d apologize for the things he said, and convince me to return to him. I could never say “No” to his requests, and we’d be back together, and then he’ll start feeling stifled again and want to end things. So we became a living example of that Katy Perry song, fighting and breaking up, kissing and making up, and it reached a point where my friend Christy would ask if we were together, and my answer would be, “I don’t know, but it’s definitely not over.” Or sometimes: “Yes, and no.”

So that was our love story, breaking up and getting back together, in a relationship without being a couple, constantly fighting and disagreeing and blaming each other. And yet I just couldn’t walk away, couldn’t say No to him, because I felt like he was the One; I was so certain of it, that one day he would wake up and see that we were meant to be together. Alas, when it was time for me to leave the US, we decided the best way forward was to end the relationship and remain just as friends.

While newly back in Singapore in August 2012, I painted this as an expression of our inability to let go of each other. This was also my first attempt at a diptych (2-panel artwork), in acrylic on canvas:

Painting: Oceans Apart (2012)
Acrylic and ink on canvas, 2 panels each 7 x 9 in.

I’d like to say that the story ended here, but unfortunately it didn’t. The romance continued in its usual on-again-off-again fashion, with the on-phases becoming shorter, and the off-phases becoming longer. The usual cycles in our romance also ran their course, and even being on opposite sides of the globe, I still couldn’t (or wouldn’t) let it go. 

Hope came back again at the end of 2013 when he decided to spend 6 months in Fuzhou, China, to learn Mandarin, and he invited me to join him there. After much convincing, deliberation and drama, I decided to visit him for a month, and sort out this whole mess of a relationship once and for all. I thought that when we finally met again in person after 1.5 years of being physically apart, things would be different, that we would put all that was in the past behind us, and move forward together into our happily-ever-after.

We had a couple of good days in Fuzhou, and he showed me the various places he spent time at. One of his favorites was Mr. Blue Cafe, a little hipster joint, where we spent a few afternoons together. On the first occasion there, we sat in these blue arm chairs beside a blue wall with little crate shelves, and under the light of a yellow and blue retro lamp, I drew these penguins, while he worked on his Chinese homework:

Illustration: “Indie Cafe Dreamers” (2014)
Watercolor and color pencil on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

sometimes in quiet afternoons
i remember me and you
the painter and the book lover
at the cafe Mr. Blue

On another occasion, we spent a cold rainy afternoon at Mr Blue at a different seat, where a pretty retro table lamp caught my eye. We ordered hot chocolate, and while he worked on his Chinese homework, I drew the lamp and added in the two penguins spending quality time together, in love and reading their favorite books.

There are few things in life Iā€™d rather do
Than sipping hot chocolate and reading with you.

Illustration: “Book Lovers” (2014)
Watercolor and color pencil on watercolor paper, 5.8 x 8.3 in.

Alas, all this was just my imagination. Because, while we had maybe 2 or 3 good moments, the bulk of it didn’t happen the way I had expressed them in my paintings.

The reality was really more like this: Our relationship was a dying tree, down to its final green leaf, a final hope. I’m still trying to water it, nurture it, save it; while he stands idly by, ready to chop it down.

Illustration: Final Hope (2014)
Watercolor and ink on paper, 5.7 x 7.6 in.

In fact, he’s always had the axe in his hand. I just refused to see it.

Two short weeks into my time at Fuzhou, our pleasantries and attempts to make things work culminated into a screamfest, quite possibly the worst fight we’ve ever gone through in our 4 on-again-off-again years together. I wondered how it could be that this was the same person with whom I had fallen in love 3 years earlier – the geeky God-fearing boy I met 5 years earlier at the gathering at Frassati House. How did that boy turn into this person I couldn’t recognize?

That was when it hit me, and it hit me hard – that all along I saw only what I had wanted to see. The charming prince who had rescued me from being a wallflower at that swing dance party at the conference in Orlando. The knight in shining armor who stopped teenagers on the subway from harassing a homeless man. The philanthropist who always gave a dollar or two to the homeless and hungry on the streets of New York. I chose to see only these sides of him, the devout Catholic, the boy who loved his family… and I had refused to face the reality of the relationship – that he really just wasn’t into me. And instead of telling me the truth and letting me go once and for all, he had repeatedly given me the false hope that we could finally be happy together, and I had let him deceive me time and again.

And then it also hit me that even if he had been that nice Catholic boy before, who now devolved into someone so far from that, the choice to love a person didn’t depend on who he was then and who he is now, but rather, on my will to make the relationship work. I had a choice. I could choose to stay and accept him as he is now, and whoever he will become in future; or I could choose to leave. And he had a choice as well, and if he wasn’t ever really going to choose me, then leaving was the only option I truly had.

You and me
Were meant to be…
Worlds apart.

Illustration: Worlds Apart (2014)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3in.

When I left Fuzhou, I left knowing that I could choose for both of us. We weren’t good together, we never had been, and I could no longer rely on him to decide if we were together or not. I made my stand. I chose to walk away.

I left him behind and never saw him again, and for a while it felt like he had taken my heart with him, and I wasn’t sure if I could or would ever love again like I loved him.

Illustration: Come Back With My Heart (2015)
Watercolor, ink and color pencil on watercolor paper, 12 x 9 in.

But my heart had always been with me, and I learnt to use it wisely. I fell in love again a few more times, though none as dramatic as it had been with FerretBoy.

Earlier this year, I revisited some of these artworks inspired by my time with FerretBoy, and created new ones as part of my Love Stories series, which were exhibited in a duo exhibition at Utterly Art in August 2017.

Here’s an updated version of “Worlds Apart”:

Worlds Apart 3 (2017)
Watercolor and white gouache on watercolor paper, 16.5 x 11.7 in.

This time, I incorporated the yin yang symbol in the circle made by the trees and the ocean, as a symbol of a cycle that continues to repeat over and over again, like how our love story and the drama in it seemed never ending.

I’ve also made a speed painting video of this work, which you can check out here:

Updated version of “Come Back With My Heart”:

“Come Back With My Heart 2” (2017)
Watercolor and white gouache on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

And as the Love Stories series evolved, I worked on another version of “Worlds Apart”, reducing FerretBoy and myself to basic humanoid forms, thus becoming a more universal symbol of how lovers continue to meet and fall in and out of love throughout all of time, in a cycle that never ends.

“Worlds Apart 4” (2017)
Watercolor and white gouache on watercolor paper, 11.7 x 8.3 in.

Check out my speed painting video showcasing the process of “Worlds Apart 4”, and hear me share my never ending love story with FerretBoy:

Thanks for checking out my FerretBoy love story! See you next time šŸ™‚

About MaryAnn Loo

Visual artist - whimsical paintings and illustrations
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