Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #General Fiction
Women and Children First
For Sara Bershtel
OST OF THE BUDDHISTS
were therapists from the Upper West Side. Milling awkwardly in the small lobby outside the temple, the ones who seemed to know each other were being especially friendly to the ones whose nametags they had to check. The women were rather quiet and smiled pleasantly while the men discussed how long some Tibetan lamas live. A young man with a ponytail said, “There’s lots of monks in Lhasa who claim to be over a hundred. Hey, it’s Lost Horizon city up there.”
A gray-haired man in a blue parka, one of the few not wearing a nametag, said, “Well…in
time. Who knows how those guys keep track. They’re not exactly punching in the forty-hour week.”
“Or the fifty-minute hour,” another man said, and quite a few people chuckled.
Ceci was acutely aware of how strongly she smelled of perfume. Yesterday, on her way home from work, she had stopped at a bookstore on Eighth Street, leafed through a fashion magazine till she was the only one at the rack, then surreptitiously unfolded a perfume ad, rubbed the scented strip on both wrists, and put the magazine back. She’d thought: How peculiar. She was spending the evening alone. But wasn’t that same magazine always telling you to do little things just for you? It was a designer scent, florid, with a musky edge of the dry cleaner’s. She’d washed her hands at home this morning, and again in the bathroom after the two-hour bus trip here. Why hadn’t it come off? She was sure others smelled it, too, and were dismissing her because of it as a completely unserious Buddhist.
One by one, the newcomers were being drawn out on the subject of what they did for a living and why they’d come down, mostly from Manhattan, for the all-day meditation retreat. When Ceci said she taught kindergarten at a private school in the Village, the slackening of attention was palpable. That was how she knew that few of the Buddhists had kids. Luckily she was the last to be asked; as to her reasons for being there, she could say what the others said. They’d said interest, curiosity. A few said that certain questions kept coming up in their practices. One man said, “So many of my clients seem terrified of some
, and I know that for Buddhists emptiness is what you’re shooting for. Plus, I’ve heard the Lama is pretty therapeutically sound.”
An elderly German woman said she used to travel a lot; now she was homesick for the incense and bells. “It has been years since I heard a good old Katmandu
,” she said, and made a temple bell gong in her mouth.
Not one person said: I needed to get out of the apartment, I needed a day in the country with other people. Yet many looked pale and chapped, with red noses and brittle, brownish-gray hair; they looked like they’d been indoors too long. For all Ceci knew, every one of them might be like her, crying at night, weeping into the pillow like a sixteen-year-old. She wondered how many of them had picked this retreat as she had, from a newspaper ad. Under the Dharma Center ad was an ad for a travel bureau. If Ceci had had the time and the money she would have taken the charter flight to Negril.
And yet she was glad that she’d come, and that she had paid the extra fifty dollars for a private interview with Lama Sakuro, the Tibetan master visiting the U.S. When she sent in her money, she had imagined telling the Lama that her husband had left her and taken a job at an observatory in Arizona. She would ask: How could she be so surprised that he meant what he’d said all along? He really was an astronomer first. He really didn’t want kids. She would ask what you did when you realized that your life will never turn out like you planned. Obviously she was going to the Lama the way other people visited storefront fortunetellers, only the Lama was safer—unlikely to offer to remove the curse from her money, or anything like that. What did she know about Buddhism? Prayer wheels, rock gardens, the Dalai Lama—she knew what everyone knew.
These Buddhists seemed very keyed up about their upcoming interviews with the Lama. The oldtimers swaggered a bit. They’d seen the Lama many times, always when they had reached some stage in their spiritual progress and wanted permission to take on a new practice. Each managed to mention how long it had been since they’d taken refuge in the dharma. They all agreed that the Lama kind of pooh-poohed the theoretical. He was better at giving out meditations. One woman said that this had been the hardest thing to understand—that the words themselves had power. But what the Lama told her was, they’d worked for three thousand years. Several people nodded at this. The man in the parka said, “The people who get into trouble are the ones who think the Lama’s going to be some kind of fortune cookie.”
Ceci wondered: How does he know about me? But of course there must be lots like her. And what was so bad about that? It occurred to her that for many people, the moment before they crack into a fortune cookie is probably the closest they ever come to a moment of genuine spiritual awe, of facing destiny straight on. Once, in a Chinese restaurant, she’d reached for a fortune cookie and her husband had grabbed her hand and asked if, sight unseen, she would trade fortunes with him. It made her a little anxious not knowing exactly whose fortune was whose, but finally she was just flattered that he wanted anything of hers. Last month she read in a magazine about a Chinatown luncheonette where one of the cooks was a pharmacist—sea horses, reindeer tusks, that sort of thing. Now the place had a new crowd of regulars: the dying, alone or with friends.
From the temple came the velvety sound of a gong, less a sound than a feeling, like an enormous Q-tip stroking the length of your spine. No one spoke till the sound died out, a fading away that lasted so long that by the end, everyone had sheepish smiles, which brightened considerably when someone said, “Lunch!”
There were two factions: the Buddhists who only talked about Buddhism and the ones who made small talk. The more worldly ones seemed embarrassed, as if the serious ones were their slightly out-of-it siblings who might alarm the new visitors. Every time one of the first type said something like, “Well, basically, it’s all illusion,” the others would let that remark pass and then compliment the food, an excellent curried ratatouille with crusty baguettes and butter. The German woman said, “This is some dining room”—which it was: handsome, wainscotted, grand enough for twenty people to fit around a long oak table, but also attractively rough; dust motes streamed in the gold, vintage-photograph light. The worldly Buddhists took turns explaining how the rambling building was originally a boardinghouse for workers who’d come to dig the reservoir nearby. A soft-spoken woman named Beth said, “And the Indians. This place was apparently a healing spot for the Indians.”
“You know what the Lama eats?” the ponytailed kid said. “Barley gruel. Even when there’s food like this already made, he has his cook stew him up a plain bowl of barley gruel.”
“It’s what works for him,” said the man in the blue parka. “What makes him run. You don’t put diesel fuel in a Cadillac.”
Everyone passed around condiment jars. It struck Ceci as a good sign that the Buddhists ate with such gusto. She did what they did, smeared Thai basil and chili paste with butter on the French bread. Down the table, they were discussing the Tibetan diet: leaden dumpling soup, sausages stuffed with sheep fat and red pepper. Though Ceci ate greedily, she felt she was growing smaller, becoming that invisible person whom no one expected to interact with the group. Out in the world, every one of these people was someone’s slightly out-of-it brother or sister; but here they had found each other, and Ceci was on her own. The first to finish lunch, she stood up and excused herself with the lamest of lame, self-erasing smiles.
She drifted into the small lobby and perched on the edge of an antique rattan couch. On the coffee table were three books. She picked up the smallest one first.
, by Lama Suravindo, in paperback with thin pages and blurry print, from the Samskara Press, New Delhi. She soon exchanged this for a large glossy picture book of Tibet and turned past the photogenic yurts, the prayer flags with the blue sky and white Himalayas behind them, past the masked demon dancers in the temple courtyard, straight to the wedding party. At first glance the bride looked so pretty, pink-cheeked, in her embroidery, striped blankets, tons of silver and turquoise and coral jewelry. Then you saw that she was terrified, and about twelve.
The third book was an offset-printed local history of the reservoir. In one of its few photos, reservoir workers, dressed up in shirtsleeves and derbies, posed on a lawn. It gave Ceci a funny chill when she recognized the monastery behind them. The men were young, and all seemed eager to appear jaunty, but many looked wild in the face, frightened, their eyes as black and buttonlike as the Tibetan bride’s.
As the Buddhists came in from lunch, the German woman who was homesick for temple bells was talking about her travels. The man in the parka trotted beside her, asking questions, while soft-spoken Beth—who was, Ceci gathered, the parka man’s wife—trailed miserably behind. The man told the German woman, “You know, you remind me of Alexandra David-Neel.” A long look passed between them, and the German woman said, “What a compliment. John Lennon may be your hero, but Alexandra is mine.
Magic and Mystery in Tibet
is my bible.”
John Lennon? The parka man hardly seemed the type, but still he nodded agreeably. His wife sulked. Naturally Ceci was on her side. How could Beth meditate and still keep an eye on that? Ceci thought of her husband’s last letter. He described stopping at a Denny’s on the way to Phoenix and seeing a young woman by the door, pacing, looking for someone, a little frantic. The woman was beautiful and glanced at him, but they didn’t speak. When Ceci’s husband left the restaurant—he wrote this in the letter—he felt a devastating sense of loss, that he had lost his entire life by passing that woman by. Two hundred miles down the road he still longed to turn and drive back. How was Ceci supposed to answer that?
She’d wanted to write back: Listen. That woman was me. For wasn’t that how they’d met, in the lobby at the Museum of Natural History, where she’d gone with her class and was chasing after a stray child? Her husband, who was there to consult with someone on the staff, had looked at her and kept looking. Maybe that was a technique he’d learned for searching out new galaxies: you just focused on a spot and waited. But she didn’t write that, didn’t write anything, because it was so obvious: the woman in Denny’s wasn’t her. It was someone else entirely.
Another gong sent everyone straight to the den; probably they had their own name for this pine-paneled room, with its brown linoleum floor and colonial maple couches. They sat on the sofas and, when the chairs were full, on the floor. Ceci was the only one wearing shoes. What had the others done with theirs, and when? The man in the parka said, “I’d like to start by welcoming those of you who are new to the Dharma Center. My name is Walter. We will begin with ten minutes of meditation.” He took off his Swatch and set it on the floor in front of him, a gesture Ceci found comforting. The Buddhists took this opportunity to straighten their backs and cross their legs—the serious ones in full lotus—and upturn their hands on their knees. Ceci took off the black leather sneakers she’d bought on Fourteenth Street and tucked them uncomfortably under one thigh.
Ceci closed her eyes and opened them. No one else’s eyes were open, except for the kid in the ponytail, but at least his gazed blindly ahead, not scanning the room like hers. She shut her eyes again and thought: All right. Ten minutes to think. But what were the others thinking? She couldn’t ignore the breathing, its measured intake and fall. After a while she heard someone’s stomach growl.