UA-19541526-1

creative non fiction

  • Explusion

    by Nick D’Annuzio Jones

    05_Expulsion_istolethetv-pola

    Pre-crack, circa freebase, back when Richard Pryor a la flambe was the news, a professor  asked me, told me, to be honest, to leave Boulder–the university­, not the town, the big university, not the Buddhist joint where Corso and Ginsburg chilled nude and hairy in round redwood hot tubs rented by the hour, a past-time very much in vogue apres-sixties, pre-Reagan. I guess lack of attendance, low grades, late papers, a lackadaisical attitude and lots cocaine, lots of cocaine, continents of cocaine–along with the aforementioned hot tubs, long hours zoned out in early-model sensory deprivation tanks and a soft wet parade of young women, including a six-foot-three volleyball player whose name I forget; a 16-year-old cute-as-a-peyote-button sales girl who often wore her Kmart blue smock (and sometimes nothing underneath) in public and whose name I also forget; an undergraduate from Canada (how exotic, how hip, how Margaret Trudeau, that seemed then) named Heather who liked to sit on my roof in Wonderland (a townhouse development in the foothills), get high and watch the hang gliders; a ski bunny from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, also named Heather, who was miffed when I warned her that I probably gave her the clap because of a dalliance a couple weeks earlier in Barton Springs, in Austin, Texas (I was being responsible, no?)–all played a role in my expulsion after one semester; the executioner-professor, a former scribe from ciudad de los fallen angels, an authority on the Black Spring, the Prague thing not Henry Miller, strongly, compassionately, perhaps, suggested that I find another career path, as writing, at least the kind that required consistent adherence to facts and religious faith in professional ethical codes, didn’t seem to be my métier. Yet another professor, one who had slammed her condo door in my face when I visited her one night to deliver a tardy plea for an extension, seconded the motion–tiempo grande. She was particularly disturbed by my final paper in which I wrote about taking part in a line up at the local police station. Hey, a little first-person, Plimptonesque[1] participatory journalism, no? Granted there was a long prologue-preamble, perhaps not quite appropriate, about perambulating around a porn shop across the street. But, otherwise, the paper was well within the research parameters for a course on Journalism and Public Affairs, I thought. Anyway, I took the plague professor’s advice, left and switched gears for awhile; I spent the next semester slicing warm plastic off the lips of Hanson ski boots, while dating a skinny chick with a chipped front tooth who dug dirt bikers but settled for me. I still did some stringing for the local rags that paid by the inch. Funny, no one thought that paying by “the inch” sounded funny back then. Incidentally, I usually received a less-than-studly buck an inch; in later years, before the end of high-paying print media, I would get about $2 a word or maybe $100 to $200 an inch, I guess, depending on the font and kerning. Coincidentally, if I deigned to do such work today, a buck an inch might be reasonable again. Or, more likely, I’d just get a slug for my slug and a nostalgic laugh. As they say, we’re all poets now.



    [1] Every writer from my era (and the preceding one, in particular) has a Plimpton story. Here’s mine: The only time I ever met George was in 1997, when I was attending the Adult Video Convention in Las Vegas. Plimpton, well-aged and taller than I expected bounded into the ballroom, smiling, happy, eager for something. I introduced myself. “Well, don’t write that I’m here, he said, in his familiar nasally patrician voice, the tone a half-octave higher and somewhat to the left of William F. Buckley’s. He then mumbled something, chased with a charming laugh, about doing a piece for Harper’s. I understood. Often on these sex stories, one spends hours, days observing, sometimes taking part (“Calling Mr. Gay Talese! Calling Mr. Gay Talese!”), but never puts the experience down on paper. Hell, it’s all research, right? I didn’t have that problem that week; I banged out 1,500 words and my expense account in a day. The Living section, however, killed my “Lunch with Ron Jeremy” piece – a crustacean hack named Marty Arnold went apoplectic over the art, I heard. Plimpton’s piece? I never saw it. I don’t even know if he wrote it. I do, however, keep waiting for an adult video featuring George to appear on a celebrity porn web sites one day.

    *

    Nick D’Annunzio Jones, a nom de plume, is a poet and conceptual writer in Seattle and a former reporter for The New York Times. His poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals in the United States and abroad. He is at work on a memoir in prose poems, from which this piece is taken.

    photo by istolethetv

     

    1999

    by Jenelle Hayward

     

     

    We had gone the day before, my mom and me, to the new campus where I would start high school. It was huge and my anxiety built as summer neared its end, making me feel like I would explode.

     

    “Why don’t we walk your route this morning so on Monday you feel confident and know where to go?” she said, with the perfect balance of hesitation and encouragement, unsure whether her fourteen-year-old daughter was going to run into her mothering arms to be coddled or slap the suggestion away to prove her independence. This time I chose to be coddled.

     

    The campus was large, empty and sprawling, each building different from the next; some were obviously old with ornate carvings in stone and others portable, wooden, meant to be temporary but appearing permanent once painted red and white, the school’s colors. I wondered if I would remember the weaving trail we plodded from one end of campus to the other, up hills and down, to the room number in the correct wing. What if I ended up in the wrong room, in the wrong seat, and was late for class? I kept thinking as we walked.

     

    “This is really exciting sweetheart.”

    “You’re going to do just great tomorrow.”

    “Now you know your route for the day.”

     

    She repeated these encouraging phrases over and over while my body temperature rose and my stomach fluttered just thinking about walking the crowded halls without her.

     

    We found my locker, fourth floor of the building I didn’t have any classes in. I was glad I had purchased the florescent orange, L.L. Bean backpack with my initials stitched on it, for the heavy textbooks I would carry for the next four years. I would never be able to use my assigned locker.

     

    “You’ll get back problems if you try to carry them all,” she responded.

     

    But I was right about the locker anyway; the six minutes between bells was never enough time to get to the building from across campus, run up the four flights of stairs, exchange my books, and still report to class on time.

     

    For a teenager full of anxiety, a change this big didn’t feel like an exciting adventure. Difficult material, a greater requirement for time management skills, and more red flags that my brain was not absorbing information in quite the same way as my classmates’, especially when it came to geometry, came with high school. It was suggested I take B or C level courses instead of A level ones, and studying for hours often meant nothing when the exam came and the grade was given.

     

    “I’ve been thinking that you should get tested for a learning disability, sweetheart. Many people have different modes of learning that don’t cater to typical classroom instruction,” Mom said while we drove in the car or while she was making dinner or while I cried on the pages of my math textbook.

     

    Something, another thing, is wrong with you, was all I heard as it permeated my self-conscious mind, to settle and reside there.

     

    School kept my muscles tied in knots, made me red in the face when I had to speak,  made me hear messages like this isn’t for you, you do it wrong, you’re not smart enough. In a school of 3,500 students it was easy to slip through the cracks, and it was easy to ignore red flags because it was likely that you or your mom were the only ones who noticed them.

     

    The back problems from carrying every single textbook I used, every single day for four years, have finally caught up to me, causing a lingering, dull ache; and I’m still months away from obtaining my graduate degree. Walking around campus, I still battle the urge to slip through the cracks. I have to fight the urge to accept self-defeating thoughts caused by fear of poor comprehension recall or inversions of numbers and letters, whenever I read the assigned section aloud for the class or pause too long to let my brain absorb it.

     

    But sometimes I’m able to repeat my mother’s words, replacing the ones that otherwise linger:

     

    “This is really exciting sweetheart.”

    “You’re going to do just great today and tomorrow and the days after that.”

     

    *
    Jenelle Hayward’s work has appeared in FourtyOunceBachelors, The Truth About Fact, Gordon College Global Education Journal, and Idiom. I am an experienced classroom teacher currently enrolled as a full-time graduate student at Mills College, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.

    photo by taberandrew

    Nearly Named Besse

    by Tiffany Chaney

     

     We have three family albums. Two are blue, and one is red. I think I’m mostly in the red one. Mom hated having pictures of the dead in her house, and so those photo albums were like giant, forbidden tombstones. The faded blue one contained pictures of my great-grandmother Besse Clark and her nine daughters, all of whom had children inside of marriage, unlike my mother who quit high school, put herself through community college, and came home pregnant at twenty-seven with me.

    I was supposed to have never been born.

    After I wasn’t aborted and after I wasn’t a boy, my name was supposed to have been “Besse,” according to my grandmother. “Besse” was the name of a heroic cow with a blue ribbon around her neck, one of my mom’s bedtime stories.

    I met Besse when I was three, was placed on her lap and jumped off twice. My favorite gum wasn’t even enough persuasion to keep me there. I remember a concept so void to my comprehension that it scared the living daylights out of me. Old woman. Great-grandmother. Alive. I don’t know this woman. Even if they say she’s a relative. She smells weird. I came from this musty antique of an old woman, whose breathy whisper made her seem even older. She talks, but only a little. Offers me gum.

    Yet I do know that after years of being told what to do, of getting hit, and raising a farm and nine daughters by herself while her husband simply sat, Besse took her soapy cast iron frying pan and walloped her husband on the back of the head. He lived but ended up dying before her; she finally passed after being diagnosed with breast cancer, days before her 102nd birthday.

    I want to be a Besse.

    When my grandfather proposed, my granny turned him down three times. I have her red hair. In primary school, when the kids in my class were given androgynous shapes to create self-portraits with, I colored in the clothes I wore, my pink hair bow, and my hair with a brown crayon. The entire class decided that I was stupid and didn’t know what my colors were because my hair was obviously red.

    Shortly after this, my grandfather got hit by a tractor-trailer after taking me to school. A year later, my grandmother began losing her memory and said I reminded her of her granddaughter. Another year later she died, and I didn’t cry. Most of the family I grew up with were old. Death was common.

    My mother still has pictures of my grandfather’s corpse. Those pages in the blue album gave me nightmares. He was shrunken and so small I knew it wasn’t him. I certainly knew what death was and the concept of the soul, but that wasn’t his body.

    *

     

    My grandparents raised me while my mom worked. We played games. I helped in the garden, and we ate fresh vegetables. It was a good childhood. After their deaths, Mom bought us two grave sites next to them and eventually had time to teach me to ride a bike, make the best biscuits, get me obsessed with orange soda, and tell me that my grandparents never wanted me because I was a sin.

    “It’s a lie. Granny loved me,” I said.

    Mom had never wanted to tell me because even though she and her mama weren’t close, it was different with us. I realize the time period my grandparents grew up in is very different from what society is today, but in many ways the same stigmas continue.

    Like mother, like daughter. Like her mother, my mother eventually disowned me.

    She found me half naked at twenty-one with my college boyfriend during summer vacation and flipped. Things seemed to spiral out of control from there. We both apologized, but I was her only family. I had betrayed her.

    It became hard to tell her that I loved her, because I felt like I didn’t know what love was at all. Now, I realize that I was going through a kind of depression and she was going through a mid-life crisis. Still, I blamed her for not being there for me. I grew up a terminal people-pleaser and tried to make amends by talking about it, by ignoring it, by inviting her to lunch or a movie, my treat.

    I don’t need her. I don’t love her. Her mantra.

    I have lost her love. She has broken a promise. I cannot carry a concept of love inside of me. My mantra.

    Somehow, it all became equivalent to us destroying each other’s lives. Now, that, is a lie. The women in my family have it easy when it comes to holding grudges, and the common saying is, “I forgive, but I will never forget.”

    I never raised my voice, when I was small or when I grew tall, not to sound like Dr. Seuss. I was a polite and quiet, proper southern girl when my father said goodbye and I love you. In that order. I obeyed my mother when she told me not to cry in front of Grandmother, who had forgotten me.

    I said, “Yes Ma’am, I understand,” when she told me to pack my things and never come back.

    But I said, “No,” when asked to choose who to love. I was conceived and born, but I am not a sin. I forgive, but it is so hard to forget.

    Sometimes I want to be Besse, but I can’t conceive of that.

    I can only conceive myself.

    *

    Tiffany Chaney is a writer and artist living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Saints’ Placenta, Ophelia Street, Pedestal Magazine, and Thrush Poetry Journal. Awarded the Lucy Bramlette Patterson Award in 2008, she completed a degree in creative writing at Salem College. She is recently completed poetry chapbook entitled Between Blue and Grey.

    photo by jellywatson

     

    Do you remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Sinchon?

    by Liam Scott

    I’m in Love with modern moonlight
    And the neon when it’s cold outside
    I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll and I’ll be out all night

    by Mizaru

    To Sinchon Rotary from Inchon International Airport. Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. I’m just back from an E-2 visa run to Japan and, yes, it feels like I have been on some sort of public profile tour. I get off the plane bob and weave through immigration and set feet on solid ground. And it’s not just in my head that Korean Immigration is clocking me and to the best of my knowledge it has nothing to do with making 3WM. I am up to about 10 delays, missed trips, rescheduled flights skittered boat crossings and the like which when all combined should add up to about two months of ‘overstayed visa’ time. Of course it’s a melodrama involving officials and a back-packer, “Why have you overstay?” “I didn’t know, Mr Kim at Immigration office told me to get a bigger passport. I need more pages.”

    I’m not trying to laugh at ‘The man’ or belittle his life but the fact is, he started it. I was doing well living at “Yakcheonsa”1., the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island: early wake-ups for chanting, rice and soups really anytime of the day, making headway with the Korean language. I even found my own personal Bodhi Tree (2) to sit under. It was all handy dandy good until the men from the government paid a visit. I told immigration officials at Jeju airport I would be staying at Yakcheonsa and had the invite letter from a monk to clarify it all. Two months later the same two who begrudgingly stamped my passport showed up at the temple dining hall to stand in front of the community kitchen sternly looking for me and when they saw me turned the other way. They dressed identically in some sort of security guards of the twilight zone episode. Two everyday stiffs in cheap nylon navy blue suits and at the bottom white tube stocks fitting into goofy moonwalk black sneakers without any brand name on them.

    Their cold posture and cheap indifference took the head monks away from their lunch, and away from the dining table. The two whispered their own officialdom brand of poison into the monks ears, and two weeks later I was chauffeured back to the airport. Off of the Buddhist temple on Jeju Island and back to Seoul, or first Incheon International Airport. The last two days at the temple were anything but a panic. The place had marked it’s calmness on me and even though the monks would not go to the mat against Korean Immigration and their gossip jibes of me being an unsavory rule breaker, no matter, I had quickly found a cheap place to stay. A Hasuk-jib (3) in the Seoul megapolis: student housing in the student district of Sinchon. It’s gonna be cheap and greasy but that’s ok. The last time I was in Seoul was in Sinchon. I was slithering through wet alleys shot-up with neon then down into a basement bar with temple-food thin bodies grinding out some of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll scenes imaginable.

    Back again it seems sooner than expected; Sinchon Rotary via Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. The digs were not half bad. I was on the top floor of a five floor walk-up. My floor was coed with Japanese nationals studying Korean and the bathroom and kitchen were scrubbed completely into sanitary submission every day. The J. students wandered around the common space slurping Ramen and always talking about, “Police Bar.” Just then that sounded to ominous to me. From the triangle window of the common space I could stretch one way to see the guidepost of Sinchon Rotary, the Hyundai Department Store, the other vantage was angling down to street level and there it was the crustiest bar still standing in East Asia, Woodstock the ’70s Bar. The smells of Sinchon are famous on their own: from the cat-pissed-on-the-floor bar toilets to the baby-loves-love perfume walls opening or blocking everyone to come into the Hyundai Department Store. Besides the smells, the one thing I can’t escape is that early in the morning I had come off temple for keeps and by the time the sun was dropping I had landed into the debauched drinking quarters of Seoul.

    Coming from the tangerine greenhouses of Jeju to an urban hothouse of Japanese students, confused about their own and everyone else’s identity, I wanted to get into a universal space where bird is the word (5). Where some foreign music ( a.k.a. rock ‘n’ roll in Korea) would be played loud. Part two of my desire was also throbbing because my expat monologue was on the tongue.

    ‘I wanted to tell someone that I was just escorted off the Buddhist temple do to two immigration officials, dressed like non-union plumbers, who came to the temple, that I called home, to convince all the monks that I was squatting. I guess I have no other place to be, so now I am here…’

    The little cross walk alleys and four corner intersections of Sinchon are always disorienting or fun depending on the mood, the weather and the amount of vomit-made soju puddles on the pavement. I found the Nori Bar in about twice the time it takes me to find bars, museums or churches that I know pretty well. Then I heard and felt what was happening in Sinchon really for the first time. The place was in-between songs when the door got pushed opens towards me. All the dark mud colored walls were scribbled over by hands that seemed most comfortable when holding a purple crayon. Waves and swerves of graffiti communicated in mass dis-coherent rushes what could have more easily been throw down in one line: “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” I focused and started on maybe what was the 10th beer I had in all of two months and then it began loud and disturbing. Sounded like some theme to a Gustav Mahler symphony played by giant Slavs with wrenches for drum sticks banging on carcasses of rediscovered heroes. The strings were made of steel spaghetti veins taken from the living not the dead. I was transfixed on the word “Wichita”. The bar tender thought I grabbed a piece of scrap paper to make a song request but it was for the lyrics to this song that some anti-hero was singing,

    “Don’t want to hear about it.
    Every single one’s got a story to tell
    Everyone knows about it.
    From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.”

    –The White Stripes, Seven Nation Army (6 Link)

    There were never more than 15 patrons in Nori Bar that night, and I never got round to telling about my temple life, yet this would be the first of many tangled nights of trampolining madness at Nori. This was in 2004, then Sinchon was in full madhouse swing. It was before Hongdae variegated its entertainment zone by plopping down some rock clubs for expats. Meaning someone got dollar-and-cents smart and added the live music market to the house music wasteland of Hongdae clubs. Refreshing maybe, anything to make a buck for sure. It was about making a scene where whitey: the-expat-creator, could shuffle in with guitar and make noise that generally sounds out a self-serving yawp. A yawp you say? Isn’t good rock ‘n’ roll always a yawp? Well I say the most debilitating thing that planet Korea will ever suffer while I am here began when whitey English teacher showed up with guitar. Editor’s note: that issue, images and scene will be explored unyieldingly and at length in future 3WM features.

    Now is now and in the same passer-by-ism look and persona of hey, screw it, I’m just in from an E2 visa run: time to let it fly via Airport Bus Limousine # 6044. I’m alive, free, but now also legal– same shit perhaps but a different stamp in the passport. And the dark half of the year is coming. The veil between the two spheres of the living and the dead is shredding and dissolving. Time to exorcise all demons, exorcise all fear of strangers. I’m a legal alien in Seoul and want some of that Sinchon paganism of the street. I want to give peace a chance. I want to give rock ‘n’ roll a chance.

    Coming out of the packed bowels of the Sinchon subway is some particular Asian urban scent blast. A perfumed wonderland. Sweet sweet sweet desire in the street congealed with fresh coffee and grilling pork chops. Getting through the perfumed phalanxes can be such a pain in the ass that there were times when I lit a cigarette in each hand in order to create the minimal space needed to get passed the glitzy and unblushing mob. But I don’t want to sound like too much of a white-ass myself. This is all really a fire mechanism for camaraderie. Its primary sponsor might be “Bean Pole by Juun.J “accessory”, still, there is an undeniable urge and vibe suggesting that we all have just been shepherded by Hermes from a claustrophobic underworld to a refreshing open place.

    There is a slow down on the corner for both males and females to stop and to get a tall as an oil rig eye full of themselves in the Hyundai Department Store front mirrors. A 40 feet high dapper dressers experience. And yet what a real chance for a real culture jam. To continuously throw bits of rice cake (when no one is looking, of course) around the subway exit and move away to let squalls of pigeons gather in their own deep ranks and reign hell on the trendy. This is what happened in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (8), and don’t bet there won’t be a short sequel made by RoK Moviemakers (7). The Birds-Transgressive (Korean version).

    To save that epiphany for another time as I have made it this far and the side street to the Sinchon boozing troughs is close. It could be a big night ahead and no one can expect to be fed on the shot-put flight between Korea and Japan. Bird is the word is close and that means a pit stop for street grub. It is the last stall before alcohol and was named, “Nice street food in 2009 by SBS media.”
    I could smell it of course before I could read that pitch. Pork Burgers in Mayonnaise. Better to hang back a little and see how this comes out. But if the government keeps handing out awards for good taste I suppose it might be okay. There are two kinds of paste, sweet and sticky and even ketchup. The Burger Lady twirls each one on twice for one burger effectively turning it into a mud pie trying to stay afloat in a swamp. She won’t accept the fact that I want one twirl around the burger with one sauce. I tried to let her choose the sauce on her own but that enhanced hungry street food confusion. She has been looking at me like the immigration officials did on the temple in Jeju and the way airport immigration officials always do, piercing at me again with that here comes the rough hewn beast slouching towards Bethlehem look. I’m communicating with her in Korean, but she can’t break down my motions and stop and turn it over to me. No one is being thick here, it’s all part of the training she needs to keep everything in place. Grill the burger each side for a minute, drop on the white crumbling bun and start twirling the sauces. 2$.

    Her life is bracketed. She has six nights a week out here becoming at one with the noise and smells of the sizzling griddle. She’s probably not up for any other job or much more in the future other than griddled pork on white bread. Regardless of who becomes mayor of Seoul, or, if the sea of Japan renames to the Yellow Sea, or when China pegs it’s currency to the Martian standard. She is in one clean mind’s eye view, the Burger Lady. This is one thing I remembered trying to take with from the time on Yakcheonsa Temple. When you start to emphasize with those around you and dig where they are coming from you have opened yourself up to a heap of suffering and from that comes misjudgment, and from that continuously more suffering. It seems fairly preposterous to me right now. I am legal to be here, Planet Korea, but there was a time when it made sense for me. Away from the Burger Lady. Down the street from the corner of her stall is an old landmark, The POLICE BAR.

    +

    Liam Scott is enjoying the ex-pat life in Seoul, South Korea. He welcomes your comments at slsseoul[at]yahoo.com.

    photo by Monica’s Dad

    Living Record

    by Amelia Whitcomb

    I once heard someone on a radio program say that sound was “touch at a distance.” It made me think of the ritual of listening to a record, a ritual that is as much about touch and feeling as it is about what is heard. It is a sensual process far removed from the antiseptic scrolling of an iPod playlist.

    There is a totemic idolatry involved in vinyl worship. The large, shiny black discs are captivating in their anachronism, possessing an unwieldiness that defies our techie zeal for the minuscule, earning collectors a degree of throwback, hipster cache. Gripping onto the taut cardboard square of the album or feeling the vinyl’s cool sheen gives a sense of ownership that escapes today’s era of ephemeral mp3’s. Sometimes the object itself becomes more valued than the music it contains: I’ve known a few record collectors who have purchased an album for the novelty of owning it rather than out of any love for the artist. The very process of listening to a record reinforces the fetishism, each step taking on the reverence and theatricality of a Japanese tea ceremony.

    This ceremony begins with selection. Hands caress album covers in a musical séance, raising the spirits of memory. In one album, a boy and a girl lie tangled together on a bed of record jackets, clinging to each other to keep out the geographic distance that will soon divide them. Another contains the chill drizzle of a Vancouver morning, its grey melancholy brightened by colorful splashes of oil paint. A naked solo dance party erupts out of one, and ends with a sprained ankle and a lot of embarrassing explanation. A grandfather’s spontaneous off-key aria is lovingly tucked away in the folds of another, a dried flower pressed between liner notes.

    Once the album has been selected, the record needs to be prepared for listening. The disc is pinched out of its crevice in the album jacket and extracted with care. If it’s a new album there is the added pleasure of peeling back its plastic wrap and undressing it with adolescent eagerness. If it’s an old record, the enjoyment comes from a fussy familiarity, eyes doting on vinyl skin in tender scrutiny of new scratches or imperfections, lips blowing dust gently out of grooves.

    The record balances between thumbs and index fingers as it is placed on the turntable as an offering. Hooking the metal arm under a knuckle, the needle is craned over the spinning record and nestled into a groove. It’s important to be gentle but not hesitant. Too heavy or too cautious of a hand will cause it to skip, bump and scrape across the record’s surface, releasing a jarring jolt of discord. When the needle is gripped in revolution, the speakers fill with the crackling white noise anticipation of pre-song. Soon, a voice is scratched out from the shallow depths of the vinyl channel, coaxing out a croon or igniting an explosive fuse of noise depending on the album.

    Records are finicky. Unlike a CD or mp3 playlist, which can be fast-forwarded, rewound, or played on endless repeat at the touch of a button or flip of a remote, the songs on a record have to be physically skipped by moving the turntable’s arm to the next musical groove. For an album to be heard in its entirety, it is necessary to flip it over by hand. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the album and its listener: in exchange for devoted attention and care, the record rewards its servant with music.

    You can hear a record’s history. Time is embedded in its grooves like the rings of a tree. A brand new album has the crisp clarity of youth. As with any voice though, over time this freshness is lost, replaced with the gravelly timbre of age. You can easily tell a well-loved album from another: favored songs become overtaken by static, the pitted and worn surfaces causing them to skip or catch. Like a tattooer’s gun, the needle inscribes every listen onto the record, transforming, and degrading the sound little by little. This is what lies at the heart of the appeal of vinyl, an appeal that goes beyond simple nostalgia or antiquarianism. The appeal of listening to a record is in the recognition that the experience is very much a fleeting moment, and by participating in this moment you are slowly and incrementally destroying what you love simply through the act of loving it.

    ?

    Amelia Whitcomb welcomes your comments at a.luddite[at]gmail.com.

    photo by kalleboo.

    Monica and The Knight of Cups

    by David Mitchell

    Editor’s note: this is the concluding seventh installment of David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here,  part five here and part six here.

    Monica

    I was seated at a high row in a hockey stadium, right next to my sister Monica, gazing in awe at a Tyrannosaurus. It was a hydraulic puppet moving on a wheeled stand that camouflaged to match the color of the floor. The narrator, who walked around on the floor in the ring constantly reminded me that the puppets were nearly all the right size. The scale was nothing short of awesome, but this was a confirmation for me, not a revelation. The narrator had taken us on a tour through the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, telling us a little about the inhabitants of each age. There was a limit to how much he could cover, but I was pleased that I had to lean to my left, whisper to Monica, and correct him only once.

    It can be said on all levels that my awe of dinosaurs is nearly religious. I don’t know what the various parents surrounding me thought. I don’t know if they felt bringing their children to Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience was a guilty pleasure, a reminder of their own childhood, or of a particular early 90’s science fiction thriller with a preachy anthropocentric message and dated paleontology. The world of the Mesozoic was richer, subtler, more terrifying, more elegant, more sublime, and less predictable than anything that could have been imagined by a fantasy or science fiction author. There is a real poignancy in knowing that no work of art could ever hope to do dinosaurs justice; they are real monsters, real aliens, real history, and all we can ever conceive of their world must necessarily be a pale shadow of the world that once was. Though right here, for the moment, we could pretend otherwise.

    More than twenty years ago, Monica shared her Big Sister Insight with me on a hideous oval-shaped red and orange rug that covered our living room floor, telling me fantastic stories about the creatures that once were and, sadly, were no longer around. She would even make crayon drawings of a prehistoric menagerie for me, which we cut out and taped all along the walls of my room to form a parade. But that time was distant to me. Children will believe in anything, even Santa Claus. And it seems that most people will unconsciously bury dinosaurs among the mass graveyard of childhood chimeras of no relevance to their adult lives, where dead angels, unicorns, dragons, robots and even their god may lie. It’s a much more shocking revelation when you find yourself thinking, in your adult life, “Holy shit, is this real?! Did this actually happen? Is our reality really a part of something much greater? And if this is true, then how can anything in this ridiculous, shriveled, materialistic world we’ve created for ourselves seem important ever again?” This is more or less the same reaction I had when I re-evaluated the Christianity my mother had imbibed me with and concluded I might actually have good reasons for believing in it after all.      

    The show concluded with an obligatory meteor impact, as if Tyrannosaurs had nothing better to do than step onstage, roar menacingly, threaten nearby herbivores, and wait for Armageddon. The audience cheered at this technical wizardry, and the cheer was well deserved, I suppose. I clapped out of courtesy as well, except contemplating extinction and the transience of life made me depressed. The birth, growth, decay, and death of a universe, solar system, planet, phylum, species, civilization, culture, lifespan, or a single relationship all seemed like reflexive microcosms of the other to me; tiny flickering flames between two immeasurable nights. Dinosaurs have a lot to tell us about our place in the world, and some of it is existentially terrifying. I wondered how many other people in the audience felt this way.

    Long after the show, we were walking through the Boston Waterfront, passing Long Wharf, the New England Aquarium, and the Quincy Market place.

    “I think I may be outside the realm of most peoples’ comprehension,” I muttered.

    “That’s right,” Monica said, “You are. But you still have to meet them halfway.”

    “And why does it seem like most people have no imagination whatsoever?”

    “They don’t,” Monica nodded, “There’s a terrible shortage of imagination. But we’re lucky to be raised by two parents who are intellectuals. And who are still alive and married.”

    “I’m glad for that, too, I guess. I’m kind of leaning toward ‘nature’ in the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument. I think some things about us are just innate, no matter who raised us. The Oracle once told me I was like a sponge, as far as my sensitivity went. ”

    “Maybe a little,” Monica mused. “Why is it that you and Lydia came out of the womb believing everything people told you about yourselves, and why is it that I came out knowing that was all bullshit?”

    “Dad’s kind of a radical determinist, isn’t he?” I said.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I mean that he thinks whatever shortcomings we have are his fault. He thinks everything we do is a reflection of him. He feels this stupidly misplaced sense of guilt that two of his three kids are wounded, melancholy introverts instead of ambitious go-getters like him. Once I decided I didn’t give a shit what he thought of me, my self-esteem improved.”

    “Good for you!” Monica said, “You tower above him emotionally. But you can still learn a lot from Dad. He isn’t perfect, but just watch the way he takes care of you and mom. Look at the way he organizes everything in his classes. He’s brilliant.”

    “I know, I know . . .”

    “It’s up to you to meet everyone else on their terms, not yours.”

    “I’ve tried. It doesn’t work . . .”

    “Shut up! You haven’t tried anything. This applies to your future students, Dad, Mom, me, everyone else. And please, no more analyzing of personality types or archetypes or anything like that. That’s so bullshit.  If I listened to things like that I wouldn’t be married to Kevin.  He is the exact opposite of what I thought I wanted, what I had been attracted to. We have nothing in common, not our personalities, interests, tastes . . . we agree on nothing. But, I knew he was the one for me.  After that heartbreaking break-up with Shen, I yelled at God.  I told him that I was done with relationships, that I’d had enough.  I told to him to let me know who HE would be.”

    I knew I couldn’t say too much before Monica would start lecturing me again, but I let her talk more. The lesson was not to be negative or something. I heard it as ‘be dishonest’ instead. Or the message was that a relationship should supplement your already perfect, self-sufficient life, and ignore the reality of your hunger for love. I never understood society’s intense obsession with success and competition. It made the world a lonelier place. We were passing a cemetery at this point, a lovely and quiet place atop a hill braced by a stone wall.

    “ . . . so, lo and behold, after that break up in May, I started talking to Kevin at the movie theater where we both worked, out of sheer boredom. I can’t stand being bored.  I learned that Kevin wasn’t boring—I mean predictable.  We talked all week and decided to go see a movie and eat at California Pizza Kitchen—it wasn’t a date. At dinner, I remember being overwhelmed by this really warm feeling—I was so comfortable and peaceful.  And then this voice said, quite literally, ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like.’  And I knew that I was supposed to take a risk with Kevin.  Of course, I told Kevin that I couldn’t be in a relationship, I needed to practice, and after three phone calls, I told him that I wanted to be with him.”

    I wanted to tell Monica that I also knew what that warm feeling felt like, that I felt it with Serissa before she became abusive, that I felt it with Tara even when nothing existed between us except for an email correspondence, and that I felt it the first time I spoke with Losang over the phone. But though she meant well, I knew Monica would have none of that. I didn’t want to hear her tell me again that my feelings were false, since all of them were obviously the wrong choices. She’d already told me that she knew from the start Losang and I wouldn’t end up together, even though I told her next to nothing about the whole affair. Would I have known better had I listened to God’s voice, whatever that sounded like?

    “But when you hear things like ‘this is what it’s supposed to feel like’ how do you know it’s God?” I asked, my voice withering, “How do I know it’s God, and that I’m not just retconning whatever moments of insight I have by saying the Angel told me?”

    “Let me tell you a story!” Monica said, “I was engaged, and recently had learned to drive, like a year or two before.  I thought I was nervous about driving.  I remember one day, I was driving to Millis, to Rossi’s, place where we were having the reception to discuss details with their coordinator.  I was feeling horrible and decided to turn on music to distract myself from feeling unnaturally afraid.  I ended up pulling over to the side of the road. Mom was scared too. Then, later that week maybe, Kevin and I went to Riverside Park in Springfield. That was intense—I remember asking God that day to send four angels, one for each wheel.  I had no idea why I did that.”

    “Mom and Dad took the car in to be fixed—for whatever reason.  The mechanic said that the axles were really messed up and that the car was a tragedy waiting to happen. Apparently it’s especially dangerous on highways.”

    “Oh.”

    Monica turned and smiled at me, but I was mostly staring ahead. I didn’t know where we were exactly, but we’d reached an open-air café flanked by meadows, a fountain, and carefully placed trees. I wondered how many of the people around us were having conversations like this. I wished I could be certain that an angel—a real angel and not the ram-headed being I imagined—was telling me something useful and that I could actually listen. What did Monica mean to tell me, then? Trust my instincts and intuition about God, despite the paucity of affirmations, and believe they only lied to me about love, unless I had no use for it?

    The Knight of Cups

    I sat alone in the downstairs chapel, a good distance away from Father Ted’s confessionals. I don’t think he was present, but I hadn’t checked. The red light burning near the altar of the Blessed Sacrament was enough for me. This place, though stolid, was a sanctuary of peace. I started coming in here around the time I got back in touch with Losang, when I began to pray for her health and well-being. I even made special effort to phrase my petitions in the simple and effective manner that a Buddhist would. My hands were clasped, my eyes were closed, and my forehead was pressed against the wooden pew in front of me, but this time, I was praying just to hear God’s voice.

    I could have listed a hundred reasons why I thought Christianity could be an internally consistent, intellectually viable, historically plausible, and generally beneficial belief system, as well as a vital force for good in this world. I could embarrass some militant atheists into silence by showing that I’d forgotten more about dinosaurs and paleontology than they would ever care to learn, tearing apart their scientific and rational pretensions, and proving that my views were more sophisticated than theirs. But none of that meant I had an actual experience of my faith, the way my mother and sister did, only an intellectual understanding of it. Serissa once said that she envied me for having a good relationship with God. I didn’t even know if I had that relationship.

    I had to accept God’s will, yet for all I knew, God’s will could have been that I live a thwarted life full of regret, and that I die alone. That’s how I read the evidence so far, and it was consistent with what the Angel told me about growing in holiness through suffering and purification. I would have preferred to know now if that were the case. Even at my happiest, each moment of bliss seemed like a prelude to something greater. What meaning was there to be found in a series of isolated promises—aborted orgasms—that could never culminate into anything? I didn’t want to be teased again by a seemingly plausible goal I could never obtain, and then see my hopes dashed like an infant’s brains against a brick wall. It was all a big shaggy dog story. I honestly think Camus failed to make a case against suicide by re-casting Sisyphus as a great existential hero.

    “Wouldn’t that be something?” chuckled a wry, but gentle voice to my left.

    The Angel was standing in the aisle, holding his sword across himself, one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade.

    “And yet you live anyway,” chuckled the Angel, “so you must be living with hope for something. You doubt you have true faith? You could have fooled me.”

    I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but the Angel continued,”What is this desire of yours to know God but an act of faith? What is calling to the Lord but an act of deep trust? Do you truly believe that the people you would normally sit with upstairs, with whom you claim to have nothing in common, all hear God as they would like to? All of them feel the same emptiness you do, the same desire. Do you think even Father Ted is completely satisfied with his relationship with God? They all long for it. Wherefore is their thirst if it is a cup that can never be filled by anything in this world? As for the next, I think you described it to Tara well enough.”

    “So may I suggest, as the Oracle tried to tell you, that although your reach will always exceed your grasp, you still hold that cup in your hands? That you are in the light, and the light is within you? A god who merely watches is cruel and indifferent, like Serissa’s god. Your god, the god she could not recognize, is much closer than that. He is in your heart. Every human tear is a divine tear. Be thankful that all he is asking of you is to let go, to reach your hand out into the darkness, and to let him take care of the rest.”

    I didn’t know what to pray for this time. I had to stop and consider my track record.

    “Let’s see,” said the Angel, “I’ll do my best to translate for you. You asked God to take away your pain, and God said ‘No, it’s not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.’ Then you asked God to grant you patience, to which he said, ‘No. Patience is a byproduct of tribulations; it isn’t granted, it’s earned.’ You asked God to give you happiness. God said ‘No, I give you blessings. Happiness is up to you.’ You asked God to spare you pain, and God said ‘No. Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me’. You asked God to make your spirit grow. Actually, in your words you, hmm, asked that God give you the skin of an Ankylosaurus and the work ethic of a termite. And God said ‘No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.'”

    The Angel then touched the tip of his sword to the floor and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, contemplating the more recent ones.

    “You asked God to give youa woman so you could escape the existential torture of being yourself. I think you might have even phrased it that way, too. Or, on a better day, you might have asked God to give you a woman so that you could receive the love that you are unable to give to yourself, but prepared to give to another anyway. Either way, God said ‘No. Fulfill your own needs first.’ At one point, you asked God to reveal himself to Serissa. God said ‘Show her by example.’ You asked God to help you and Serissa grow in your love for him and each other, in whatever manner he saw fit. You alone grew in your love for God and Serissa; she grew in her ego and scorned both you and God. Then you asked God to help you and Losang grow in your love him and each other, in whatever manner possible and appropriate.”

    The Angel chuckled, then he turned to me and smiled.

    “I suppose you think God answered ‘no’ to that prayer too?”

    I sighed and went back to resting my chin on the hard wood in front of me. I knew I could never hate Losang, but I didn’t want to think about her. She already chose, probably for the best. I suppose if I were more mature, I would have felt happy for her too. Perhaps I could have even pretended that I influenced her for the better to see her new relationship as a viable option in the first place. Even that was wishful thinking. I didn’t know her side of the story, or whether I mattered to her in the end.

    I was feeling shame and disgust at the incompetence of the Attraction Council, and at the inexorable attachment that bound me to Samsara. Losang told me my work there had no end. It was an illusion to make me think I was happy. I wished I heard from the Angel more, so he could steer me away from it. I wanted the Angel to tell me who and what awaited me in my future. I wanted him to tell me how to—

    “Oh, let’s not go there again,” said the Angel. “On second thought . . . hmmm . . . let me put it this way . . .”

    I put my forehead back down on the pew in front of me, staring at my knees on the kneeler, and the hymn booklets stuffed into the wooden compartment in front of me.

    “I may have a better understanding of God’s will, but I don’t know the future quite as clearly, David. But let’s suppose for a moment that I did. Suppose, back in 2005, I had warned you against emailing Serissa.

    “Would you have preferred it if I showed up to you and said: Stay away from Serissa, David. She isn’t worth the effort. Too much of her adoptive-father’s abuse has rubbed off on her. She hates herself, and will most likely hate you eventually. It will take her a little while to let you touch her, and nine months before penetrating her, if even physically possible, after which she will feel no pleasure and eventually resent you for it. She will change her personality eventually as she changes her clothes, and she will discard you when she no longer needs you. She will hurt you more than anyone ever has, and it will take you years to recover, if you ever recover at all, while she’ll find a new boyfriend in about three months.”

    I bit my lip, and my jaw trembled.

    “Serissa herself will eventually approve of this message: Love is impermanent. Very cognitively impairing, in her terms, so enjoy it while it lasts, but know that it won’t be forever. Remember when she tells you that she’ll never look back on her relationship with you and claim that she didn’t love you, because you will find evidence that she will tell herself this anyway. She may not say so the day of the breakup, but she’ll quickly add that she won’t think about it much, either. And remember the prophecy that she’ll make when you take your first photograph together. When you embark on this loving, innocent, new relationship—your first as well as hers—enjoy the next 26 months, by all means, because that’s as long as it will last.

    “Don’t learn that love is a decision and not just a feeling. Don’t love her to the capacity that you can with the heart that God has given you. Don’t delight in the vulnerability that can only come from being close to someone, the clumsy physical intimacy that is a pale foreshadowing of the intimacy you hope for in heaven, because it will cause you pain later. Don’t look for the lovely and caring person within her that could have been—that might still be. Would that have helped you?”

    Tears were streaming down my face, and my whole body was trembling.

    “And Losang?” the Angel said, his voice gentler, “What if I appeared to you that night in the middle of March, after you had your first real conversation with her over the phone and you realized without a doubt that she was someone special, and that in just five days your world would change forever? Should I have said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, even though you are more touched and elevated than you have been in the last year? Don’t experience the intense joy of finding someone so attuned to the needs of your soul that resisting her would be insane—it will just hurt you?’

    “Losang herself would approve of this message: All existence is cyclical suffering. The source of all suffering is attachment to the impermanent. Therefore, she offers temporary relief, nothing more. She’ll happily fuck you, but that doesn’t mean she actually desires a relationship with you—at least not the sort that you would prefer. I should also tell you she forgot to mention that she’s seeing someone else. And yet another will win her heart eventually, so by all means—enjoy the time you spend with her, if you choose to meet her at all, but don’t discover what a wonderful, if flawed, person she is. Don’t allow her to revitalize what is permanent with you: your capacity to love again, and deeply. And don’t—for Christ’s and Buddha’s sake—fall in love with her. Would that have helped you?”

    The Angel shuffled himself into the pew behind me and sat, resting his sword against the seat. He gazed ahead of me, and continued to speak, but his voice lowered.

    “And should I tell you now,” he said, “not to forgive her, because Serissa has already proven that doctrine to be useless?”

    I looked at my folded hands, at the tabernacle, at the huge wooden crucifix some thirty feet in front of me, and back at my hands. It took me that long to realize that answer to all three questions was a firm, resounding, “no”.

    “No?” said the Angel, laughing suddenly, “Well in that case, you’ve accepted your cross to bear, and God has performed the miracle of distilling sweetness from suffering.”

    He looked back and forth in the empty chapel.

    “A pity no one was here to witness it. You actually have something to thank him for. How’s that for a place to start?”

    I rested my head on my folded hands again and closed my eyes, trying to empty my mind of useless and horrid thoughts. I wasn’t sure where to begin. I heard the Angel whisper somewhere in the pew behind me, “Try your own words, if you like. He’ll treasure them the way a father treasures the crude drawings of his child. Or try the words of your Lord. The Paternoster is especially appropriate. Just remember to say them as they were meant to be said and not to recite them.

    Or you could stop, gaze with the eye of faith, and listen. Invoke. Praise. Thank. Petition. Confess. Appeal. Don’t give me, the figment of your imagination, your attention and rob God. Please, give God your attention and rob me. I can still be here when you’re done, if you want.”

    I prayed silently for the next few minutes, on behalf of those dearest to my heart: Losang, Lolly, Tara, the Oracle, and the rest of my friends and family. I still could not bring myself to pray for Serissa, so I prayed that I would eventually.  I used my own words, then the words that I remembered best; the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be. When I stepped out of the pew, closed my eyes, and knelt to make the sign of the cross, The Angel stood in front of me this time, placing the flat of his sword on either of my shoulders, as if knighting me. When I raised my head, opened my eyes, he was gone.

    ?

     

    The temple was beautiful. It was surrounded by various pagodas and arcades, and in the center was a mound-like structure, which, if I remember correctly, is called a Stupa. Many fig trees grew in the forest periphery of this place, but around the temple there was a heavily trafficked plaza, where netizens of every variety came to listen, discuss, and debate. I rode by here every so often. Often times I would see Losang, dressed in a saffron robe and with a prayer wheel in hand, imparting wisdom to whomever happened to be present. This was usually in the form of Dharmic teachings, but her sources were varied. Sometimes she even quoted the New Testament. I think she once quoted Dave Mustaine, too. The readings were worth hearing just for themselves, but I stayed a good distance away from the crowd, usually on a high hill that bordered the place.

    On Father’s Day, I’d walked around the original battlefields of Lexington and Concord with my parents and with Monica. I couldn’t help but remember that Losang’s father had been dead for 17 years, and I felt sad. I sent her a brief a message stating that while earlier I thought I had nothing more to say to her, I thought of her that day and wished her well regardless. She appreciated the sentiment, but her reaction was baffled.

    “You have nothing more to say to me,” said Losang from the entrance of the temple.

    Oh dear. I suppose I did say that after all. Nothing more to say? How stupid was that?

    Regardless, it caught my attention. I turned my head as far as the bevor allowed me to, then settled for turning the horse toward the temple instead. I still didn’t want to travel down toward the plaza for fear that the horse would defecate on the immaculate tiles, so I remained at the top of the hill. Losang was still dressed in her saffron robe, but she wasn’t reciting anything from the Dharma, I could be certain of that. She wasn’t looking at me, either.

    “I’m sorry I can’t be at your beck and call. I’m sorry I can’t keep my phone turned on in a movie. I’m sorry if I can’t wait forever for you to make a decision. I’m sorry if you are too afraid to take a chance. Sorry if you think I do things to hurt you personally. I’m sorry if you missed the boat. I’m sorry if you hurt. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry I am not passive. I’m sorry if you need to close that door. I’m sorry if my procrastination annoys you. I’m sorry if I can’t be your caged bird. I’m sorry I’m a contradiction. I’m sorry I am not trying hard enough. I’m sorry you didn’t take the time to understand me better. I’m sorry I can’t be what you need. I’m sorry I can’t be what you want. I’m sorry if you pin it all on me. I’m sorry she destroyed your trust. I’m sorry if you actually believe no means yes. I’m sorry if, well . . . I’m just sorry.”

    “I wish you love infinite. I don’t know why you want to go back to war. I don’t know why you think I don’t give a shit. I’m here.”

    After a few moments of puzzled silence, someone in the crowd said, “Whoa, who peed in your cheerios today?”

    Losang shook her head sadly.

    “Well, it applies to a lot of people,” she said.

    Then she turned and went back inside the temple, leaving the people outside to discuss what they’d just heard. I stared for a moment, feeling more chagrined than I had in a while. If I was going to speak to her at all, it couldn’t have been here, so I pulled on the reigns of my horse and made my way down the other side of the hill. I wasn’t going to set foot in the temple, but I did have an idea of where to find her.

    I found myself in an open field at the base of the hill. While there were several huge and magnificent fig trees around the perimeter, the field itself was empty save for a single wagon wheel that someone had driven into the ground. The trees beyond that looked gnarled and ancient, strangled in curtains of their own vines and roots. There was a dirt path in this field, and I followed it as it twisted around the base of the hill and toward the back of the temple. Eventually, the clearing gave way to densely packed foliage again, and the path split into three directions. One path had a broader width, the trees on either side distanced at equal intervals. It did not twist, and lead back to the temple. The middle path was wide enough for me to bring the horse into, but I could not clearly see where it led, and I would definitely have to abandon the lance if I went inside. The path to my right was extremely narrow and seemed to lead up another hill, only I would have to leave the horse behind to travel it. I was energized, and I needed to act. I glanced around, looking and listening intensely. I moved my horse in circles, not taking any of the branches. As soon as one looked like a likely bet, I quickly turned my gaze toward another. Eventually, I dropped my lance in the field and took the middle path. I didn’t know why, exactly, but it felt right to me.

    I carefully navigated through the path, occasionally ducking from low branches and brushing foliage out of my way. The path eventually winded leftward, and it was there that I found myself in a grassy meadow where huge fig trees grew at respectable distances from each other. They were even larger than the ones I’d seen before, and their massive branches swept outward and toward the ground. They often branched near the base, resembling gigantic ‘V’s or ram heads with huge curling horns. The largest tree was in the center of this field. Its branches swept graciously outward toward the Earth, as if giving thanks to the thing that gave it life. I saw a tiny figure in a saffron robe hanging upside-down from one of these branches.

    I urged the horse forward with a nudge from my spurs, but the closer I came the more I wanted to slow down, until gallop became canter, canter became trot, and trot a walk. As I neared, I dismounted and continued walking alongside my steed, until I removed my sallet and tossed it in the grass. I then removed my belt, scabbard, and sword, and tossed them onto the ground next to the helmet.

    When I was within speaking distance of Losang, I slowed to a crawl, and my energy more focused than before. I did not take my eyes off her for a second. She was motionless from where she hung, upside down on the lower branch, one leg bent and securely holding her in place, the other folded neatly across her knee to form a “4”. Her hands were clasped in prayer, and her eyes were closed. Though she hung upside-down, her face looked peaceful and not flushed.

    “Losang,” I said softly, “It’s me. I . . . I’m sorry for being an idiot back there on the Net and everything. I . . .”

    Her eyes opened as I spoke, but she said nothing.

    “I know you don’t owe me anything. I know you never promised me anything. But I don’t know if I ever told you how grateful I was that I met you. The Oracle once said to me that the various people we meet in our lives come and go for a reason, and I think I know why you came into mine. I . . . I just wanted you to be in it longer—”

    “I’m sorry. It wasn’t all about you,” she said. “I was addressing some other things too. I’m sorry life is dumb like me. I was regretting my ramble. A friend hurt me; he’s going back to Iraq and he doesn’t understand why I care about him. It’s bad and I’m so concerned for him—”

    “You made me feel safe and understood. You helped heal some of the wounds my ex inflicted on me. You—”

    “Nothing ever turns out the way we plan. Nothing. I’m really grateful for you too even if I’ve done a shitty job of showing it. Life is never easy, and then there is Murphy’s Law. Heh. I didn’t take it personal. I know better. But I don’t want to hurt you. Or anyone. You know? I don’t. I’m sorry if I do or did. I’ll try harder—”

    My voice was breaking, but I still had a point to make.

    “Y-you made me feel like it was alright to be myself. I can even go as far as to say that you brought me closer to God. And like I said before—like I alluded to before—I will always love you . . .in whatever matter possible and appropriate.”

    And then we just stared at each other. Given where I stood and where she hanged herself, it was about even eye level. I was first to break the silence.

    “Oh God,” I sighed. “This probably wasn’t the right time. I’m sorry, I must seem like some sort of emotionally needy wreck to you . . .”

    “I don’t think you’re an emotionally needy wreck,” she chuckled, “I was more needy than anyone I’ve met thus far. And wreck? Shit. I was a Hiroshima a year ago, dear one. Stay away or get close all you want. I’m here. Take all the time to do what you have to.  I’m sorry, I’m just a struggling Buddhist not a Buddha! It’s frustrating. You just know I pray for you and your family at least two times every day.”

    “I know,” I said softly, “I pray for you, too.”

    “I hope you’re well, Dave. I care so much about your well being and I need to express it better through my actions. I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a lackluster friend. You take care and do what you have to do. You are always in my heart. I’m sorry for your pain. I know the feeling. I’m in excruciating pain right now. My tooth got bad again. It’s the one that’s still open.

    “You know, tomorrow is Saka Dawa, the most important Buddhist holiday, akin to Easter. The Buddha Shakyamuni defeated Mara and attained enlightenment of the highest degree beneath the bodhi tree. I will be thinking of you and being grateful for you. May you have happiness and its causes. May you be free from suffering and its causes. May you never be parted from sorrowless bliss. May you abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and hatred. May you have a long life, with sound health, surrounded by virtue.”

    Doing my best to contain my sadness, I smiled, bowed slightly to her, turned around and led my horse out of the field. I picked up my sword and helmet on the way out of the meadow, and my lance outside the clearing. I didn’t even mount the horse again until I was well outside of the periphery of the temple.

    I wandered the forests for months, perhaps, before I found the coast and plunged into the sea again, pressing onward until my steed changed into a hippocamp capable of carrying me across, then back into a normal horse when I reached another shore. This was a place I’d been to before, where lush forests abounded. I tethered my horse to a large tree and left my lance leaning against it as well, and went in search of a small cave under the roots of a huge tree. I found the cave where I’d remembered seeing it last, though the opening was smaller than I remembered. I didn’t see the cougar anywhere.

    Ducking, I entered the cave and found a narrow dirt tunnel that sloped downward. I was able to squeeze through, regardless of my armor, and found that it went on for some distance. There was a dim glow at the end, from behind a heavy gray curtain. I gently lifted it. Behind the curtain was a large circular room with fat black and white candles placed in candelabras in strategic areas, bathing the area in a warm yellow glow. There was a cauldron in the center with smoldering embers underneath it, and, when I looked up, a veritable chimney chute, though I had no idea where it emerged in the woods above. A circle of chalk or salt had been traced on the floor around the cauldron, completely concentric to the room itself. Beyond that I could see a table, upon which there was a ceremonial dagger, a few coin stacks, and a chalice. There were potted lilies and roses on either side of the table. Removing my sallet and carrying it under my arm, I entered and looked to either side.

    Lolly was there sweeping the floor, her gaze lowered. She was wearing a white chemise tightened at her waist by a Celtic leather belt, and a red cloak over her shoulders held in place by a broach in the shape of a lemniscate. Lolly smiled when she saw me, not looking the least bit startled or annoyed.

    “David!” she said. She purposefully walked behind the table, and placed her broom alongside the other items.

    Only a few days ago, my mother and Monica planned on taking a day to visit Lizzie Borden’s house, and it happened to be on a day when Lolly would be there. It was complicated, because while my mother knew she worked there (“Don’t worry, you haven’t even met her, so it doesn’t matter.”), my sister did not, though she knew I had met Lolly. Lolly was a good sport about it.

    “Hi,” I said, “Looks like my family isn’t heading to Lizzie’s after all. Kind of a relief for me, actually. Though it would have been nice seeing you again. It was fun even discussing it.”

    “Like I said,” Lolly chuckled, “I’m irony’s chew toy.”

    “Irony’s chew toy,” I said with a smile, “I like that expression.”

    “I was thinking that there was a grand amount of humor in it. And you know . . . if you ever decided that you’d like to see me again . . . discussing it would have been mighty amusing for us, at least!”

    Lolly stepped around the table and moved closer to me, not breaching the circle on the floor. We were both smiling, but there was a certain amount of sadness behind it.

    “Ah,” I said, “Is that why you wanted me to come by?”

    “Yes and no. I’ve wondered whether you might like to, but barring that, I still have a lovely time talking with you.”

    “That’s good to know, but if we don’t actually meet again, I’d just want you to know that it doesn’t have anything to do with you personally.”

    “I understand,” she said, “And even if it did . . . that would be OK, too.”

    “I think . . . and it’s kind of hard to explain this exactly . . .”

    “You don’t have to explain, if you’d rather not.”

    “I think it was sort of like one of those Biblical lessons where the protagonist fails at what he thinks is his primary objective, but passes a larger, more important test. The time I spent with you only confirmed it.”

    “Hmm . . . not sure I understand.”

    Lolly’s arms were folded, but it was not a confrontational pose. She looked lost in thought. So I tried again.

    “I guess I’m saying I second-guessed myself a second time.”

    “OK,” Lolly said, her voice softer, “Well . . . if the time you spent with me helped you learn more about your own feelings . . . then I’m just as glad . . . even if it means you don’t want to see me again.”

    I watched her gesticulate awkwardly for a moment, but I didn’t move from where I stood. I kept my eyes on her as her gaze met mine again, in this room the candlelight made yellow. She was studying me too.

    “There is one thing I’d like to know, though, if you wouldn’t mind?” she said.

    “Ask.”

    “At the time . . . you didn’t do anything you didn’t want to do, did you?”

    “No,” I said. “No need to worry about that. You were nothing but good to me.”

    “OK. Thank you.”

    “Better than OK,” I chuckled.

    “Then I’m glad to have helped.”

    “You have, but I really hope that doesn’t leave you feeling like you were used. I’m worried that I might have been self-centered and confused.”

    “No, not all.”

    “Glad to know that, too.”

    “I knew that you might learn that you want more than the kinds of things I’m willing to offer right now . . . or that you might just decide that the age thing was too much for you after all. I was prepared for those things.”

    I laughed.

    “Yeah, I said I didn’t care about being seen in public with you, and what’s the first thing I did when we kissed outside? I looked across the water at those people on the other side.”

    “I noticed. It’s OK.”

    “One other thing you and Losang had in common, I think. You both thought more highly of me than I did of myself.”

    “Maybe that should tell you something, David.”

    “I know. The anniversary of my breakup is in two days. I want to believe I’ve cleansed myself of the last vestige of my ex’s lies.”

    “Those days are hard,” she said, “And the truth is, even though it sucked, you still learn stuff from it.”

    “I know that too.” I chuckled, “It’s kind of horrifying to think of what it would be like if I were still with her. I wouldn’t have known that there were women who are genuinely kind, compassionate, low-maintenance, and actually enjoy sex. I wouldn’t have had the capacity to imagine anything better. Ah, I might have mentioned all that before, I don’t remember . . .”

    “Not those particular aspects of it,” Lolly said, “As for the compassionate and low-maintenance women . . . were you meaning me?”

    “Obviously that included you.”

    “Well, one likes to be certain. And thank you.”

    “You’re sane, Lolly,” I smirked. “You aren’t hyper-sensitive to perceived slights and criticisms. You don’t have an abusive sense of logic. You don’t have panic attacks all the time. I could go on, but I won’t.”

    “It’s fine if you want to. I don’t mind. I’m still listening, if you need to talk about this, any part of it, my part or otherwise. I’m just glad that I won’t be a regret for you.”

    “You have nothing in common with my ex except you both know what I look like naked.”

    Lolly laughed heartily, then she gazed back at me, pivoting back and forth from where she stood. Her palms faced up, gesturing both above and below.

    “There are so many things I could say here!”

    “And you’ve avoided all of them?”

    “Well, yes. None of them are negative in any way, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain saying them would be appropriate.”

    I smirked at her again.

    “Why are you doing that?” she asked.

    “To goad you on.”

    “Ah, do you want me to be flirting with you? ‘Cause what I was going to say could be considered flirting . . . sort of.”

    “Go for it,” I said with a shrug. “I flirt with everything female that has Instant Messenger.”

    “Well,” she said laughing, “First I was going to thank you for what you said about me not having anything in common with your ex, and then I was going to say that seeing you naked was . . . well, lovely. You’re quite beautiful.”

    “That’s not inappropriate, but you’re welcome anyway.”

    We just smiled at each other for another moment or two, but there was only silence. I glanced around the cozy interior of the room again. Strange and earthen though it was, it felt comfortable, and not as cold or damp as I thought it would be.

    “Anyway, I actually think I should be going now,” I said.

    “OK,” said Lolly, “Would you feel more comfortable if I wait for you to contact me before we talk again?”

    “Either way’s fine.”

    “OK. I just wanted to make sure.”

    “Good day, Lolly.”

    “Good day, David. And thank you again.”

    I smiled curtly to Lolly again, and left the cave. Back outside, I untethered the horse and found myself walking along the beach, reigns in hand. I had nowhere in particular to go, and nothing to watch except the sand clinging to my winged sabatons. Then I noticed a shiny object half buried in the sand. Tidal foam continued to cover and uncover it, but the metallic sheen remained. I moved as fast I could in the sand, a little awkwardly in my armor, and my horse was no less awkward in keeping up with me.

    It was the cup I’d tossed out here nearly a month ago. I’d almost forgotten about it. I dug it out of the sand as the tidal foam crashed against my greaves and pulled back again, quickly washing it off in the tide. When I raised the cup toward the sun to gaze at it, it glistened and overflowed with seawater. Holding it both my gauntlet and my reverent gaze, I mounted my horse, pulled on the reigns, and continued on my way.

     

    ?

     

    David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “Monica and The Knight of Cups” or any other part of Fulfillment at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.

    photo by mcdlttx.

    Lolly

    by David Mitchell


    Editor’s note: this is the sixth in a series of planned installments from David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here and part five here.

     

    “Who were you just talking to?” my mother asked. She’d seen that I was talking to someone on the phone, and had been for some time, so much so that I’d stepped outside and went on a walk to get away from everyone. It was dark outside, but I didn’t mind a good stroll around Franklin.

    “An online friend of mine,” I said.

    “Is she your age?”

    I laughed incredulously.

    “How old is she?”

    “What? Why does it matter?”

    “I was just curious.” She shrugged innocently, and I went back into my room and shut the door.

    It was typical of my mother to be unreasonably nosy without appearing to be aware of it. If I lived away from her, of course, this conversation wouldn’t need to happen. My parents didn’t mind the fact that they had yet to be empty nesters, given how few options I had, but I didn’t want to stay with them any longer than I needed to. Worse still, I had even briefly mentioned to my mother that I’d chatted with a self-professed “cougar” sometime in March, but that was when I didn’t think I would seriously consider meeting her. As my parents were going on a brief trip to Belgium in the near future, that opportunity might happen now. Lolly was old enough to be my mother, but as my actual mother was old enough to be her mother (the age difference between them was about the same as the age difference between her and me). It mattered little to me. The voice I’d just heard—on the phone for the first time—sounded sweeter and slightly less sure of itself than the one I imagined I heard over the net.

     

    ?

     

    “Well, what do the two of you think of her now?” the Brain asked. He was busy paging through Lolly’s file while the Penis looked on attentively.

    “Can’t wait to meet her!” said the Penis.

    “What about you, then?”

    The Heart was a bit more stable than before, but he sat far away from the table, having apathetically moved his automatic wheelchair back some distance. He was still holding one file in his hands, and gazing lovingly at a certain photograph. His vision still hadn’t faded completely yet, and he wanted to make the most of it.

    “I think this picture doesn’t really do justice to Losang,” the Heart said, his teeth chattering slightly, “Maybe it’s the Hello Kitty thing in the foreground. When I close my eyes, she looks so much more vivid to me there. I miss her . . .”

    “I miss her, too,” said the Penis.

    “We aren’t discussing Losang,” said the Brain, “We’re discussing Lolly.”

    “You don’t need me to talk about her,” the Heart shrugged. “You guys don’t really need me for anything.”

    The Brain walked up to the wheelchair while the Heart put his eyes back on the picture. He began to trace the contours of the figure in it when the Brain snatched both the photograph and the manila folder out from his hands.

    “This file is closed,” he said.

    “So? Why can’t I look at it?”

    Without answering, the Brain returned to the table and placed the file back into the blue crate, centered his tie, and paged through Lolly’s file once more.

    “We need some consensus from you eventually,” said the Brain.

    “You guys do what you want. I don’t want to have a part in this,” said the Heart.

    “We need your approval before we can go ahead,” said the Brain.

    “Didn’t he already give it to us?” said the Penis.

    “No, he didn’t. He dejectedly resigned himself to your—“

    “Lolly’s alright, OK?” said the Heart. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

    “So you’ve changed your mind about her now?” asked the Brain.

    “Well . . . I guess I was wrong about her before. She’s nice enough that I wouldn’t mind meeting her. And maybe this sort of arrangement might actually help me, you know? What’s at stake here, anyway?”

    “Right,” said the Penis. “Enjoy a pit stop. A little May-December action on the side.”

    The Heart did not wheel himself any closer, and still his shoulders sagged, but when he met the gaze of the watchful Brain, even with his own damaged eyes, he smiled quickly. He would be taking a backseat for once. He wiped his runny nose and eyes, then raised his arms and folded them behind his huge head.

     

     

    ?

     

     

    I’d never been to Fall River before, so crossing the Braga Bridge for the first time, I missed the exit I was supposed to take, and found myself in Somerset instead. When I headed back in the right direction, I found myself in a traffic jam somewhere over Taunton River. When I called Lolly to tell her that there was going to be a slight delay, I only got a hold of her son, Logan, who told me I should have had the number of her cell phone, but I did. Of course, I couldn’t write it down once traffic began to move again. And finally in Fall River once again, I stopped at the first Dunkin’ Donuts I found, hoping it was the one we agreed to meet at (Lolly didn’t have a car, so she picked one within spitting distance of her house), but instead I found this was one of ten in the city. None of this was Lolly’s fault, since I came in the wrong direction, but I really hated to be late for anything. Only by intuitively weaving in and out of streets did I find myself on Plymouth Avenue, which I haphazardly crossed once I saw a Dunkin’ Donuts on the left side. I didn’t care that I was parked across more than one space; I just needed directions. By sheer dumb luck, this happened to be right one.

    I knew it was her at first sight. No, I probably wouldn’t have recognized Losang at a glance if she did not wave to me or approach me when I met her in Somerville, but I sure recognized Lolly—not by her broad face, broad shoulders, and wavy hair dyed a mild shade of pink—but simply by the way she carried herself. One frustrated glance at the Dunken’ Donuts some 40 feet in front of me, and there could be no doubt I was looking at the woman I’d been chatting with for the last month. She was leaning patiently against one of those painted metal and concrete cylinders behind the curb. She was dressed in earth tones, a loose flowing skirt with sandals, and she wore sunglasses. I stepped out of my car and approached her intently, waiting until I came within earshot.

    “Lolly?”

    She put her shades back into her purse and put on her normal glasses.

    “David!”

    Then she put one arm around me and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

    “Glad I could make it,” I said. “Sorry if I’m a little late. I took the wrong exit on the way in . . .”

    Lolly didn’t mind. We walked to my car, but before we could get in, she had to step around and view the back, since I told her before that the bumper stickers I displayed would give me away. I have a Jesus fish and a Darwin fish side by side to the left of my license plate, and an Iron Maiden logo on the right.

    “Oh, that’s right,” I said. “I display both of those without a trace of irony. It’s my way of extending my middle finger towards Richard Dawkins and the idiots who built the Creation Museum at the same time.”

    Lolly nodded, though I was quick to add that I wasn’t sure if by having the fish face away from each other, I was implying conflict more than having them face each other.

    “I don’t know,” Lolly said, “to me it would look like they were kissing.”

    When we got into my car, I suddenly became conscious of the fuzzy 20-sided dice hanging from my mirror, but didn’t bother explaining them. When I started the ignition, there was metal blasting through the car, but I quickly turned it down.

    “Uhh . . . that’s Blind Guardian,” I said. “They’re German power metal. Sort of like a cross between Queen and Metallica, but better than both. This is one of their earlier albums.”

    “Oh, not bad. I don’t mind.”

    After a moment, Lolly turned to me with a smile. It was early evening, but the sun was still out and it was perfectly bright.

    “Well, whatever we end up doing, I just want you to be comfortable,” she said. “So . . . what are we going to do?”

    “I dunno . . . I just figured we’d find something worth doing. My parents are gone for the week, so I have the house to myself. And if there’s something to do around here . . .”

    “Not much,” said Lolly, “I mean, I do love Lizzie’s, but I’m pretty sick of this place. It’s too noisy. The people next door to me are always waging war with each other. It’s driving my son nuts.”

    After a beat she said, “Well, there is the mall, but that’s not too great. I just wouldn’t want to bring someone in if the kids are home and I’m meeting him for the first time.”

    “I don’t really care about malls, either,” I said. “I just wish we could be in a quieter, more private place.”

    “Well, I do know of this one area . . .”

     

    ?

     

    The two of us were relaxing in a grassy meadow, underneath the shade of a large tree. Looking to my right, I could see a beautiful brook and a concrete dam. Some people were fishing on that side of the brook, too. There was a school and a cemetery across the street. My car was parked in a gravelly expanse a good distance away, and I’d left my cell phone, CD wallet, and directions inside. I was sitting in the grass not yet feeling comfortable enough to lie down, while Lolly was reclining on her stomach with the comfortable poise only a cat could have. Perhaps she wasn’t the first person to come to mind when I thought of the word “cougar” in this context. I could see she was slightly bulkier underneath than what I guessed at earlier, but she wasn’t unattractive. We’d been talking for some time, and now she was gazing at me with fascination.

    “I don’t think any of the pictures you have on your profile really do you justice,” she said. “Your eyes are so dark and so beautiful . . .”

    “I thought most people liked blue eyes or something.”

    “I’m not most people,” she said with a warm smile.

    “Funny,” I said, “I kind of imagined you’d have the voice of a sorceress or something.”

    “Oh. Well I hope I’m not disappointing you.”

    “No, you’re not. I’m just wondering: Did you imagine my voice would sound any different?”

    “I don’t know . . .” she said. “Maybe a little higher.”

    “I just saw myself as the Knight of Cups, wandering the woods of cyberspace. And as for you, I just have to re-adjust that image of good old Puma concolor I had in my head . . .”

    “Puma what?”

    “The fourth largest cat, native to the Western hemisphere.”

    “Oh. The whole ‘cougar’ thing? Are you comfortable with that? Most guys would have given up on meeting me for fear of running into their friends with me and feeling embarrassed.”

    “I don’t care about that,” I shrugged, “At the time I was talking with Losang, it was just a quick calculation that it probably would have been more worth my while spend time with someone who I was more likely to have a viable long-term relationship with. But now, I guess I shouldn’t pass up any opportunities . . . hmmm, I mean, I shouldn’t limit myself like that.”

    “Limiting yourself does sound like a better way of putting it,” Lolly chuckled. “Otherwise, it just makes you sound like an opportunist.”

    I laughed for a second or two.

    “It was just hard for me to comprehend that Losang may have cared about me, but she didn’t want to have a serious relationship.”

    “Right,” Lolly said. “I went through something similar years ago. It was my fault as much as it was his. Some people view sex as something they should only share with one person—that person you’re sworn to be with forever—“

    I chortled slightly, but it was an expression of despair and not irony.

    “—while other people just view sex as fun and games. I guess I’m somewhere in between. I wouldn’t go to bed with someone if I didn’t at least care about him.”

    I was leaning back, but before I knew it I found myself lying back on the grass instead. The grass was delightfully dry and bristly. I rolled myself onto my stomach and flanked her.

    “I’m just wondering,” I said, “When did you realize you liked guys about my age?”

    “Hmmm . . . well, when my husband left five years, Logan had to stay with him for a while to finish school, but I still had to stay close to my son, involving myself with all the things he was involved in, like video games and what not. Then I realized how cool all of these things were just for their own sake, and how much more fun I was having with younger guys who are more likely to have these interests. I’m total rubbish at video games, but I love watching young men play them.”

    “My parents were too cheap to ever get me a console system of any sort,” I said with a smile, “though looking back, I guess I should be grateful that I got to use my imagination as much as I did. So aside from the old Atari 2600 that Paul LeBlanc lent me when I was 12 and the Sega Saturn Serissa lent me a while back, I’ve really only played some old classics for the PC from about 10 years ago, but nothing works on my computer any more. I wouldn’t have time to play anything now anyway.”

    “Doesn’t matter much,” she smiled. “What about you then? Why did you want to spend time with me?”

    “Well . . . I was in a pretty interesting space when I was talking with you and Losang, because I couldn’t have conceived of a universe where you existed at all—well, either of you.”

    “You couldn’t have conceived of a universe where I existed?” Lolly said, chewing on my words with fascination, “What do you mean?”

    “I guess it goes back to a time in which I first started dating Serissa, and she thought I was perfect or something, and felt this strange fear that she would wake up and find that I was just a figment of her imagination—that is, if she hadn’t seen me interacting with anyone else. I just told her that I was certain she existed, because I never could have dreamt up such an outrageous fictional character, and I was a more realistic writer than that. I meant it affectionately, of course. Real people are so much weirder and more improbable than fictional characters.”

    Lolly stared off at the water for a second as she digested my words.

    “That . . . is one of the sincerest and most interesting compliments anyone’s ever given me,” she said. “Thank you!”

    “Ah, well most women wouldn’t think I’m worth much of anything, anyway.”

    Lolly stopped and stared at me for a moment.

    “If I didn’t think you were worth anything, I never would have bothered to meet you!”

    “God, I’m sorry,” I sighed, “it’s just . . . I don’t know. Too much of Serissa rubbing off on me . . . or the opinions of ‘most people’ I mentioned earlier . . .”

    “It’s alright.”

    After a moment or two, I said, “funny, the Tarot spread I did a while back just told me to be confident, with the Sun and the Emperor. You didn’t really show up in the spread at all.”

    Then I nearly cringed.

    “Oh God, I hope I’m not freaking you out with Tarot cards and such.”

    “No, not at all,” Lolly said, “I read them too.”

    “The symbolism is fascinating, but sometimes it’s really only about as reliable as astrology . . .”

    “Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m of the firm opinion that you already know the answers, but sometimes the spread presents them to you in a way you might understand better. Sometimes it answers the question you should have asked instead of the one you did. That’s interesting that the spread just told you to be confident and didn’t mention me at all.”

    “I’m not even sure which card would signify you,” I said. “There wasn’t even a queen in the spread.”

    “Well that’s because I’ve never been a queen. The card that represents me most is actually the Magician.”

    “Really?” I said, “That’s interesting. He’s supposed to represent masculine power, though. Funny how queens and pages can sometimes represent men, and knights and kings can sometimes represent women. I guess it says a lot about gender stereotypes and all that crap.”

    “Yeah, it does,” Lolly chuckled, “but the Magician is also the most blatantly magical card in the deck. There’s a psychic who works with me at Lizzie Borden’s Bed and Breakfast. She said that in a former life, I was a witch in Ireland and that I was burned at the stake. She said there has never been a time when I haven’t been a witch.”

    “Are you, um, still a witch now?”

    “Yes.”

    There was another beat. Wow, I thought, this just keeps getting better.

    “Cool.”

    After a comfortable silence, Lolly said, “I do love tactile sensations,” Lolly said, “I do miss the touch of other people . . .”

    “I loved to touch my ex, but if I did something she didn’t like she sometimes equated me with her abusive step father. He liked to touch her too, of course, but not for the same reasons.”

    “Well I don’t really relate to that . . .” Lolly said, sounding disturbed.

    “I once bought a book on erotic massage techniques that I left in my ex’s apartment. When she broke up with me she gave me my stuff back, but kept that book. What really pisses me off is the thought that she and her boyfriend are probably making use of it now.”

    “That’s not very nice.”

    “Doesn’t matter,” I said with a grin. “I think I remember most of those techniques anyway.”

    Lolly smiled knowingly. I sat up slightly and put my hands on her back, rubbing her slowly. She smiled shyly as I made circles with my thumbs and travelled down the length of her spine. I caressed her sides as well, pulling upward with both hands.

    “Hmm . . . well, I can’t do everything that was in that book here,” I said.

    “I understand. But I love what you’re doing, regardless.”

    Eventually, I checked my watch.

    “Damn. It’s past 8:00 already and I wouldn’t have guessed. Summer days are so long.”

    “They are.”

    “I guess we should be going soon.”

    When we stood up, I headed back to my car, but Lolly stopped me.

    “Wait,” she said, her arms lightly around me, “May I?”

    “Uh . . . sure.”

    Lolly leaned in and kissed me where we stood, and to my surprise, she did it rather tastefully. Of the women who had kissed me up until this point in my life, she was the only one who didn’t use her tongue, at least not on the first kiss. There was a metallic taste to her. I said nothing, but quickly glanced across the brook, at the people who were busy fishing, then back to the car. No one seemed to be looking our way.

    “So where to now?” she asked.

    “To my house?”

    She only looked at me intently for a moment.

    “So . . . we can do what we couldn’t do under the tree?” I added.

    She smiled, rested her head against my shoulder, and whispered, “the notion appeals to me.”

    All this, and somehow, I was feeling strangely apathetic. But no need to limit myself, now was there? Besides, I was certain we could make Jesus and Hecate dance.

     

    ?

     

    It took us a little longer to get back to my house than I expected, but when we found ourselves nearing the Bridgewater road service station, I knew how to get back. When I pulled up into the driveway, the sky was already darkened. When Lolly stepped out of the car with me, she was staring in awed silence around the neighborhood.

    “This place is so quiet,” she said.

    “My dad doesn’t think so,” I chuckled. “It’s the kids next door and across the street that bother him. He’s sometimes even talked about leaving because of the noise.”

    “Are they just normal kids?”

    “So far as I know.”

    “Ah, well that’s nothing. My neighborhood isn’t peaceful like this.”

    “Yeah, I thought his complaint was idiotic, too.”

    I made my way up the stairs and opened the door to the house, letting Lolly in after me. While in the living room, I gestured around to the baby grand piano, and the huge abstract painting my mother had painted many years ago.

    “Ah, that’s right,” I said, “You read my memoir Half-Born. Recognize anything?”

    “Why yes!”

    We talked a little more, and I microwaved a snack, then we headed downstairs, to where the futon had already been made into a bed. I’d been sleeping here for the last few weeks, since the summer heat made my room upstairs unbearably hot and humid. It was still too humid to think about heading up into my bedroom. I also kept my pets down here.

    “I mentioned the newts before, didn’t I?” I said.

    “You did. I remember having a few of those when I was a kid.”

    “They like humidity, but they hate high temperatures, so I keep them all down in the basement.”

    There was a tiny five gallon tank on an aquarium stand in one corner of the basement, cut in half by a divider. This tank was shared by two newts, a Japanese Fire Belly and a Hong Kong Warty respectively. Were it not for the divider, they would have killed each other long ago. It was filled with a few inches of fresh water, and its inhabitants were watching us from the inside, following our movements and making futile attempts to devour us whole. On a shelf above it was an even smaller glass tank, where there lived a tiny dark-skinned paddle-tail. She was just as aggressive as the two beneath her. Below was a shoebox-sized plastic terrarium.

    I smiled and knelt down gingerly to pull this one out from underneath to let Lolly see him up close. Pulling the grilled lid off, I revealed the pseudo-environment within to be a mossy abode with only a single small pool of water and a tiny cave for hiding. The tenant of this one was quick to step outside and greet us. Unlike his dark-skinned, bright-bellied brethren above, he had bright orange raised crests on his head, down his back, and similarly colored warts along each side of his body. All bright orange against a dark canvas. He was the color of Halloween, but he had a sunny disposition.

    “This one’s Angillas,” I said. “He’s a Mandarin newt, or Chinese Emperor newt, whatever they’re called now.”

    “He’s beautiful,” she said.

    I smiled. Not too many people stopped to look at newts. Most pet stores didn’t carry them anymore. When they did, they usually mislabel them and kept them in horrid conditions.

    “I’ve had so many generations of rats, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs . . . real sweet, but they die in just a few years. Newts live forever, if you ignore them properly enough. They’re pretty resilient. Their defenses are entirely chemical, and they can regenerate, too. I’ve had Molly and Angillas since middle school.”

    “No kidding.”

    I replaced the lid on Angillas’ cage, and gingerly slid him back under the stand. And with one thing or another, we then found ourselves reclining on the futon, where I enthusiastically continued the massage I began back in Fall River. Once Lolly rolled over, I was in the process of helping her undo the large knot that kept her shirt loosely bound, and I noticed her right earring was a tiny silver axe.

    “Something from Lizzie’s?”

    “I never wear both earrings from any set, in case one gets lost . . .”

    Fascinated, I gently took it between my fingers and made chopping motions with it against her neck. She laughed with delight. I continued my ministrations to the rest of her body, with my bare hands. I was engrossed in the rush I was experiencing. The opportunity was too infrequent, too precious for me not to be, here with the release of built-up frustration and inspiration. I ran my fingers and my lips across any exposed area of her flesh, starting with her freckled neck and shoulders. Her bra came off soon after the knot was undone, and while gravity flattened her breasts as she lay back, they were still pleasing. My shirt and shorts same off soon after. When we had only our naked selves to gaze at, she stared quietly at me for some time.

    “You’re beautiful,” she said softly.

    It almost sounded like a gasp. Then she laid down on the futon next to her newfound Adonis. I was looking over her and smiling.

    “What do you want me to do . . . ?”

    “Anything!” she gasped, “Whatever you want!”

     

    ?

     

    The Brain was watching the monitor carefully, his arms behind his back. The Heart sat far away from the table on his wheelchair, fidgeting in his seat. The Penis could obviously not be present at this time, but he would provide a full report later. Through the static, the top of Lolly’s head could be seen bobbing in and out of view.

    “Do we really need to see them have sex?” said the Heart, his teeth still chattering, “Isn’t that . . . I dunno, exploitative?”

    “I’m not watching this for the entertainment value,” said the Brain, “I’m collecting data. Why are you here? I thought you didn’t want a part in this.”

    “That doesn’t mean I can’t watch.”

    “Suit yourself.”

    The Brain turned back toward the monitor. The Heart smiled slightly, but the corners of his mouth twitched again. He continued to squirm in his seat. He glanced at the plastic crate the Brain had set on the table, and wondered how quickly he could steer his wheelchair across the room, find Losang’s file, and snatch it from the crate without being detected. Certainly not quickly enough.

    “What are we doing?” asked the Heart.

    “As I said, I’m gathering data. You’ve decided to watch.”

    “No, I meant as a whole. We’re having sex with a middle-aged woman who’s probably about as lonely as we are, and for no particular reason except that we can. Are we being opportunists?”

    “Do you have a problem with that?”

    “I don’t know. Why do I feel nothing?”

    “When you invest nothing, you get nothing back. It was your safety policy, remember? You thought it might help you a bit.”

    “Oh, that’s right,” the Heart said, “Well I certainly wouldn’t say Lolly means nothing to me. I’m glad to be with her, and I’ve stabilized somewhat, but . . . I still feel empty. Was it just the painkillers I took today?”

    “You aren’t taking any, but the withdraw symptoms from Losang’s drug might still be in effect. Do you want to stop?” said the Brain.

    “Well, no,” said the Heart, “that would be unfair to everyone involved. Let it ride.”

     

    ?

     

    “Oh David!” Lolly gasped. Her hands were gripping my back like a pair of claws. I was smoothly gliding in and out of her, but because of the condom, I couldn’t feel much. I’d never used a condom before. There was absolutely no reason to with Serissa, as we were both virgins and she had no uterus. And Losang, thank the bodhisattvas, was impulsive enough to reach down and stuff me in while I tried optimize my erection by rubbing against her before rolling the condom on.

    “Do you normally last this long?!” Lolly said.

    “Uh . . . that’s a long story.”

    A movie wasn’t playing anywhere in the background, nor was there a clock nearby, so I wasn’t keeping track of the time. Regardless, it should have been clear to me that the answer to that question was yes, much to Serissa’s detriment and the delight of the two women who followed.

    A few minutes later, Lolly said, “Do you want to try another position?”

    “Sure.”

    I drew out of her and sat back on the futon. I felt my vigor rapidly slip away. I was overcome with a dazed indifference. My body was more exhausted than I thought, and despite her efforts, it soon became clear to both of us that there was nothing she could do to revive it. Though she’d climaxed long ago, her face now looked ashen. Lolly turned away from me, sulking in silence.

    “Eh . . . it’s alright,” I said.

    “No, it’s not alright . . .” she said, in a sadder and more deflated voice than I’d ever heard from her. “I really wanted you to enjoy this.”

    “I’m fine. Really.”

    Lolly reclined on her stomach, like a big cat, but she was facing away from me. I laid down next to her. Sometime later, she turned, we stared into each other’s eyes.

    “Honestly, David,” she said, “it’s really not sex . . . it’s being close to another person again, feeling their skin, and the tactile sensations . . .”

    “I know.”

    “You set out knowing what you were looking for,” she said. “You wrote very specific criteria on your profile. I’m none of those things.”

    “Doesn’t matter,” I chuckled.

    “I just don’t want you to look back on this and regret spending time with me when you could have been with someone else . . .”

    Yeah, I thought sarcastically, just look at all the women lined up to be with me. I sighed, then placed my hand on her and stroked her lightly.

    “I didn’t have any illusions,” I said.

    We laid there together for a while, in silence. Eventually, I spoke:

    “Do you want to see that computer game I was talking about on the way here?” I said.

    “Sure.”

     

    ?

     

    Around midnight I’d printed out the directions from MapQuest (I knew how to get to Fall River before, but needed better directions for the trip back), while Lolly went outside for a cigarette. We stopped for gas and snacks, during which Lolly insisted on paying for some of it, even though I didn’t want her to. She’d just left one of her jobs (she said she still had Lizzie’s and Logan to pull her through), and explained when I’d asked her on the way to my home that although she was separated from her husband and hadn’t seen him in five years, filing for divorce was too expensive for her. I almost wondered if I could have helped her out in any way. I needed to pay tuition in a few months, but couldn’t I spare a little every now and then?

    I found the Dunkin’ Donuts easier this time, taking the exit I should have taken on the way in, and with the streets barren of traffic, I was able to correct my most egregious mistakes in ways I couldn’t have four hours ago. I made it back home without difficulty, though I was tired. I slept in the basement. It stayed dark all day long, so I often slept well into the afternoon. Emerging from this place each day after an indefinite period of time having no one to talk to. I felt like the narrator of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider. The next morning I not only slept longer than I’d planned, I had the curious feeling that something within me had died. The days and nights were blending into each other, and any time felt like any other. Time was moving too fast for me.

    “So what is our verdict?” asked the Brain. Lolly’s file was open in his hands, but he was glancing across the table. The Heart was shaking involuntarily in his wheelchair, looking sicker than usual. Even the Penis looked depressed.

    “I feel strange,” said the Heart. “Empty, somehow. Not angry, not sad, not disgusted, not frustrated, not even calm . . . just strange.”

    “OK, so she wasn’t Selena Steele,” the Penis grumbled. “I still would have fared much better if it weren’t for that damned Trojan. How can people use those things?”

    “Well at least we won’t be conflicted in concluding that we shouldn’t try something like this again,” said the Brain.

    “I don’t think it had anything to do with Lolly, though,” said the Heart, “I don’t have any complaints about her. Really. I’m grateful we met her. But it just . . . didn’t feel right. I don’t know why.”

    “I already told you why,” said the Penis, “it was the Trojan.”

    “I should have known better. I just can’t do anything half-assed. I can’t start something I already know can’t come to fruition. Never again. I’m really sorry, guys.”

    “Don’t be,” said the Brain, “At least we’re learning. This was an experiment that failed, but now we know.”

    “So what now?” sighed the Penis, gesturing toward the Heart. “Defer to his every command?”

    “No,” said the Brain, “Reaffirm his place as the central arbiter of this Council.”

    “In other words, defer to his every command.”

    “W-we’ve already given you a say here!” whimpered the Heart, “Y-you ungrateful . . .”

    The Heart wheezed and coughed before he could enunciate any further, engorging the veins in his forehead and swallowing nausea. He rested his huge head against the right arm of the wheelchair, unwilling to sit up again.

    “Dick?” said the Penis.

    “Please, let’s not do this again!” sighed the Brain.

    The Brain tilted his head back slightly, and adjusted his tie accordingly. Then, glancing at the file in his hands, he placed it back into the blue crate. The Penis folded his arms. The Heart whimpered pathetically and closed his eyes. He wept silently.

    “I miss Losang . . .”

    ?

    David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “Lolly” at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.

    Photo by Mar Estrama.

    Oral History: the San Francisco Bayview 1966 Race Riot

    by Alka Joshi

     


    In 1966, a race riot occurred in the Bayview district in San Francisco. It lasted 128 hours and subsequently led to “white flight” from the area.

    In 2011, Alka Joshi interviewed three of her African American neighbors to learn more about the lingering emotional and economic scars that stem from the riot.

    Note: audio begins at 00:30.

     

    ?

    Alka Joshi was born and raised in India till the age of nine, when her family immigrated to America. She graduated from Stanford with a BA in Art History and worked for the next 25 years in the advertising/marketing industry before enrolling in the MFA program at CCA. You can reach her at creativewiz[at]earthlink.net.

    Hope Deferred

    by David Mitchell

     

    Editor’s note: this is the fifth in a series of planned installments from David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here and part four here.

    The Heart twitched nervously from where he sat at the table. Most of his hair had fallen out again, and his pupils were more dilated than before. He’d lost much of the weight he gained back, and his complexion, too, had regressed. His left arm sported a hideous septic discoloration, with spidery trails dissipating from a raised blackened center. His right hand twitched involuntarily, his fingers grasping a syringe he was not holding.

    “In case you’ve forgotten,” said the Brain from the other side of the table, “here’s what you did three days ago. You got up, in a burst of energy neither of us could have foreseen, and ripped my cord out from the CPU along with three others, which blinded me and disabled some of my systems, then you punched him—”

    The Brain indicated the Penis, sitting a far distance away from the table. He was leaning against a plaster section of the wall, his muscular arms crossed, and a sour expression on his face. His one good eye was now black.

    “—in the face when he tried to restrain you, jumped up onto the highest cabinet, somehow activated the intercom, and spoke into it directly. You told Losang about us, which is not exactly a violation of our rules, but not particularly helpful for our cause either . . .”

    “I’m really, really, sorry, guys,” the Heart whimpered. “I didn’t know what I was thinking . . .”

    “We should kick him out,” said the Penis, “I’m sick of his shit.”

    “We don’t have that option,” said the Brain.

    “What do we really need him for, anyway? We’re so much better off without him.”

    The heart hung his head in shame, tears silently trailing down his face. “I have . . . one question, though,” he asked.

    “Go ahead,” said the Brain.

    “When Losang told David that he was ‘always in her heart and prayers’, what did she mean?”

    “That’s your call,” said the Brain.

    “I know, but is that her way of pussy-footing around the three-word incantation, something she says to all of her friends, or something in between? A statement like that sort of straddles the line between Agape and Eros, doesn’t it?”

    “Or bounces merrily astride it,” mumbled the Penis.

    “More like Agape and Karuna,” said the Brain.

    “I’ve just been wondering,” the Heart continued, “could it be that I’ve been looking at this whole thing the wrong way? My feelings for her weren’t invalid or inappropriate, I don’t think, but maybe there was no need to summon the knight. The absence of commitment doesn’t indicate the absence of love, does it?”

    “Not my area, but no, it doesn’t logically follow,” said the Brain.

    “And sex in that case isn’t necessarily meaningless, is it?” said the Heart.

    “Right,” said the Penis. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

    “Why do we want a relationship, anyway?” said the Heart.

    “I don’t really care about sex. I’m just a brain. I’m just here to help you two.”

    “Well you know what I want,” said the Penis.

    “Love?” said the Heart, “Intimacy? Friendship? Sex? What if it’s possible to have all of those things without commitment? If that’s the case, then who needs it, anyway?”

    “Where are you headed with this?” said the Brain.

    “Well, no sooner did we click out of there than I found myself missing her. Should we call her again? Would she be up for it?”

    “Sounds good to me,” said the Penis. “I’m up for whatever, guys.”

    “In the hopes that we can still win her over?” said the Brain, “I think she gave us the answer the last time we saw her. In fact, I think she gave us the answer when we were sitting in the diesel café.”

    “I-I don’t know, alright?” pleaded the Heart, “I just want to be with her again. Any way I can. It doesn’t matter anymore. Even without commitment, even if we just try our best to live in the moment instead of looking to the past or the future . . . might this even help us let go of some of that attachment? Shouldn’t we at least try?”

    His right hand continued to tremble. The Brain looked to the Penis, who merely shrugged. Then he looked at the intercom lights and the control panel and saw that it still seemed in perfect working order.

    “So be it.”

     

    ?

     

    During the weeks that followed, I had difficulty contacting Losang. I was occupied with many other concerns, including constructing a unit plan for Macbeth for teaching class in which I took it upon myself to re-learn the play as closely as possible. I ran into Serissa—the real Serissa and not her ghost—on campus at least once during this time. I’d seen her more often in the computer lab a semester earlier, when I had more coursework to do. Seeing her from a distance wasn’t so bad, but not noticing her until I happened to walk past her was terrifying. I wondered if she still thought I was stalking her.

    The courses were beginning to trouble me, too, as this marked the second time a professor told me that I didn’t seem like a teacher, that there was a distance between me and the craft I was attempting to learn. But learn it or not, Losang was never far from my mind, so I sought the opinions of some of the people I trusted most. I attempted to call the Oracle, but didn’t get a hold of her, so I left a brief message. She didn’t call me back, but I received an email from her a week later:

     

    Hey David,

    Got your message last week.  Haven’t gotten back to you for several reasons.  1st, you didn’t leave your phone # and I can’t always retrieve it from my missed calls log because I sometimes have a fair amount of missed calls.  2nd, my dog is dying (very suddenly) though she is 14.  I know it sounds silly and that I probably should have expected it but she’s been healthy up until about 2 weeks ago — I thought she had a cold.  The vet was surprised she’s still alive.  Anyway, it truly is like losing my best friend so it’s been a rough few weeks. Drop me your phone #.  I hope you’re o.k.

    Hmmmmmm, though you haven’t said anything, I feel it’s always the woman thing with you David.  I went thru that for years with men and just felt that if I didn’t have the love of a man, I had nothing.  Not true but it doesn’t always feel that way when you’re going thru it.  Unfortunately for some of us this suffering becomes part of our growing experience.  Do yourself a favor and look back to where you were a year ago.  Are you any further ahead emotionally? spiritually?  If so, then you are on the right path.  You don’t have to repeat past mistakes over and over in order to learn the lesson (take it from someone who did it the hard way).  Sometimes we just have to let things “be” and unfold on their own thru divine timing. It is difficult at times to trust in ourselves, to trust in spirit (God, Buddha…) it is one in the same you know.

    One of my favorite quotes:

    I am in the Light.
    The Light is in me
    I AM the Light!

    If I can help please let me know.  I just want you to be confident in yourself, know that you have a beautiful, kind, loving spirit and truly, that’s all that counts in life.  That we love ourselves (first) and we radiate love out to others.  You do both of those things (though you need a little work on the 1st half) just by nature of who you are.  Sooooooo, really, trust in yourself AND in your judgment and don’t settle for less than you deserve.

    You may want to check out www.whatsuponplanetearth.com to find out if there’s been a recent shift also.  In any event, be well and we’ll touch base soon.  Please bear with me if I don’t get back to you right away.  I have an appt. to have my dog put to sleep on Monday — soooooo sad.

    Love & Light to you David…

     

    With only her words to contemplate, I visited the Borders in North Attelboro in hopes of finding more insight. It was there that I came across a copy of The Book of Ostensible Truth (The Book of Transcendent Truth has currently fallen into disfavor, though The Book of Postmodern Truth is inexplicably popular, and The Book of Absolute Truth has been out-of-print for far too long). This is a wonderful tome which that you need only ask a single question to, and then open to a random page, and there will be your answer with nothing else.

    The first question I asked the damned thing was the first concern that always on my mind: “What is my place in this world?” On the page to which I opened there were only three words printed: There isn’t one. Next, I asked it: “How will I find love?” to which the book improved upon the power of brevity by supplying only two: You won’t. Lastly, I asked, “What am I supposed to do with myself?” To this, the book supplied its most concise answer yet: Suicide? Dear God, this was Serissa’s book!

    “Don’t look at that,” said the Angel from where he stood next to me. I shelved the book.

    “Why not try something a little more wholesome?” he said, “Here’s The Good Heart by none other than His Holiness, who clearly knows at least some of the truths of your Lord. Or how about Finding God’s Will For You, by Saint Francis of Sales, who was mentioned to you by the people in your parish?”

    I was distracted by other books still. In particular, there were the books on Tarot symbolism, few of which elucidated any of the cards I’d drawn in the spread I made a month ago. One slim tome, entitled Tarot Basics, discussed each card in sophisticated, but less practical means. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by interpretations I didn’t even know existed. The Knight of Cups, subtitled “Wings for the Soul” caught my attention in particular:

    When feelings, spiritual needs, and spiritual desires take on extraordinary powers, it is impossible to confirm or disprove them on the basis of previous experiences.

    “This isn’t love, Dave, it’s joy,” my buddy Eric said to me over the phone. “You hung out with her how many times? Twice? See, this is all over someone you don’t even really know.”

    Powerful feelings are always a matter of belief.

    “It was as if the combined strength of Christ and Buddha banished the ghost of my ex back into hell . . .”

    Who was I talking to now? I think her name was Stephanie. She was probably an undergrad. We had a mutual friend in the writing studio, but one evening she came across me sitting listlessly in one of the lounge seats on the lower level of the campus library.

    “Do you write these things down ahead of time or do you just say them?” she asked.

    “Sometimes. I usually play them over again in my mind and then write them, if I can get any writing done at all, so I’d say usually the reverse.”

    After a beat, Stephanie shrugged.

    “I just think of sex as something that relieves an urge,” she said.

    Sensible or conscious beliefs go hand in hand with knowledge and awareness.

    “Hey, at least she’s honest,” Ben said to me as he pulled his chair out from under the cafeteria table.

    Ben and I ran into each other on campus, but infrequently. This was one of those rare moments where we could actually have lunch together. I put my tray on the table and put my backpack on the empty chair next to me.

    “It is kind of funny how a one-night stand can sometimes mean more than an entire relationship, huh?” he said.

    “But that’s not really what this amounted to . . .”

    “And sometimes you can ruin it by trying to make it something more, too. I know I’ve done that before.”

    “Have you ever been in an open relationship or anything like that? I’m starting to wonder if it’s worth it.”

    Ben shook his head as he liberated a fork from a plastic bag.

    “Would you be OK knowing she’s with other guys?”

    “I don’t know.”

    Beliefs begin where knowledge reaches its absolute limit.

    “David!” Dr. Walker said to me, “How goes it?”

    We were standing in the college’s art building, in the middle of a crowded studio temporarily converted into a hall for an award ceremony. The Bridge volume 5 had just been unveiled, and I was carrying my copy underneath my arm already. Tara was there, too, along with many other editors who were former classmates of mine. I guess they were all pursuing their Masters’ now. I’d served as editor for volumes 1 and 2, but now I was almost completely out of the loop. Every time I saw Walker, I felt ashamed that I didn’t have much in the way of writing to show him.

    “I’m sorry,” I said “I’ve been busy with classes and some other concerns. I have another memoir in the works, and it’s a pretty intense one, but it’d be too long to submit to The Bridge, and well . . . I’m not finished writing it simply because the situation isn’t even resolved yet. I don’t know how it’s going to end. But when I finish it I’ll be sure to send it your way.”

    “Why don’t you work on it when you go for your MFA? Make it your thesis.”

    The task now is to test your beliefs and then to trust them.

    “Honestly Dave . . .” Tommy said to me over the phone, choosing his words carefully, “I would say that her cons are just as pronounced as her pros. It wasn’t an accident that you met her, though.”

    “I really hate to admit it,” I said, “but I think the two years I spent with my ex were the happiest I’ve ever been. I had even less of an idea of what I was going to be doing, but at least I wasn’t going to be doing it alone anymore. I had someone else to build a new world with.”

    “Sounds like you liked the security,” said Tommy. “The only advice I can give you is just this: do your thing.”

    “What is my thing, exactly?”

    “Just find out what it is, Dave. Seriously, I’ve talked to the man upstairs, and I think you’re going to be alright. I honestly think you’ll be saving lives someday.”

    “How do you hear God’s voice?” I asked. “How do you know it’s God?”

    It was a perfectly valid question, and I was asking as a believer and not as a skeptic. That was not to say that the alternate view wasn’t also worth considering, but it was too barren for me, and too alienating from my better nature. When I asked questions like this, what I really wanted to hear were the answers of a believer who was smart and honest enough to understand.

    This is the sort of question a cynical nonbeliever could use to goad you mercilessly by replying something along the lines of, “See? That’s why religion’s bullshit.” I suppose a gentler atheist might ask, “Why not accept what your own experience and analysis is telling you? Why not use your reason, rather than blind faith in an unknowable god? Is the world not telling you something crucially important?” And to this I can think of nothing except Serissa, when her experience, analysis, and indeed, reason told her it was objectively obvious she was a worthless human being who didn’t deserve to live. Trust in the world alone, and it will fail you. So will yourreason. And ultimately, you will fail and betray yourself, in which case “Do what thou wilt” will not ring as true as “Let Thy will be done”.

    “It’s . . . hard to explain, Dave,” said Tommy, “When you hear it, you’ll know. You won’t necessarily hear it in words, though. Just trust me on this when I say that you’re going to be alright.”

    Your present questions require you to have the courage to acknowledge your feelings and to be disciplined when you act on them.

     

    ?

     

    I finally succeeded in contacting Losang about a month later. I’d been busy finishing my class and taking the GRE tests, and she’d been busy job hunting. Talking to her on the phone again was refreshing. It felt as if no time had passed at all. She was happy to hear from me, and missed me. I even explained the decision the Attraction Council arrived at, though not in those terms, and she was looking forward to meeting me again.

    We talked fairly often during that week, and planned to meet, except Losang was on painkillers and needed to have two root canals. A filling of hers had fallen out long ago, and it was now catching up with her. She was in too much pain to talk over the phone so we communicated via Instant Messenger instead.

    I told Losang I would pray for her. She thanked me and reminded me that she was praying for me as well. Though I knew her world didn’t include a creator god in the manner that mine did, she believed in the power of prayer enough to believe that my prayers would be helping her. I had to stop for a moment to consider that if my prayers had any efficacy at all, I might as well do them correctly. To this end I began making frequent trips to the chapel by myself. I prayed for her well being and the rest of the people I cared about.

    I also prayed that I accept whatever the outcome would be. This was the most realistic prayer I could make; not to change God’s mind, but that God would change my mind. Of course I still wanted to be with Losang in earnest, if possible, but maybe it was time to hit up Saint Jude.

    There are very few occasions in my life when I have felt blood draining from my face. The first one occurred when I tripped over my chair in Chemistry class when I was 17, and hit my head against a desk. I was bleeding profusely, and nearly passed out. The scar remains on my forehead to this day. The second time occurred when I checked my email and received a message from the girl I referred to as Maria in Half-Born (at least, in the version that was published in The Bridge). She chose to respond to me as if I were a stalker and I realized the depth to which I’d sunken. The third time occurred when I received Serissa’s email sometime in early September of 2007, which came as a slap in the face. The fourth time occurred when I logged into OKCupid one day and saw that Losang had indeed changed her status to “seeing someone.” Given that I hadn’t received a reply from her for a few days after I told her when I was going to be available the following week, I was certain this someone was not me.

    “You asked God to give you a sign on the matter,” said the Angel from where he stood behind the chair I was seated in, “I don’t know if it could be any clearer than this.”

    Ah, well, good to know that, finally. Good for her. She will always have a special place in my heart. Sarva Mangalam to her and all that. I logged out, turned the computer off, pushed the chair in, went into my room, and wept.

     

    ?

     

    I lay back on the massage table while the Oracle adjusted the position of my head and made sweeping motions with her arms above me, as if clearing something away. I was somewhere in the middle of my story. I had to be quick in the telling, since I’d only booked one hour of her time.

    “She ‘apparently didn’t need to breathe very often’?” the Oracle laughed, “You’re too funny, David . . .”

    Her gentle laugh warmed me. Last week, I attempted to schedule this meeting, since I found myself in a particularly low place. The Oracle was attending her step-daughter’s graduation, I was told, so I had to wait until today. Though I’d known the Oracle was either divorced or separated, I had no idea she had a step-daughter. I would have asked her more about that, but when she sashayed across the lobby and greeted me with her warm and toothy grin, she made me forget to ask anything about her at all.

    “I feel like this is exactly the same story as Half-Born,” I said, “only on a grander scale. I feel like I’m in the same place as before.”

    The Oracle only smiled and shook her head.

    “You are so much further ahead than you think, spiritually. I think what you felt for your ex was love. It feels to me as if you were in love with the idea of being in love here.”

    I nearly bit my tongue. I didn’t want to ask the Oracle what truly qualified the difference; I just decided to trust her insight for now.

    “And yet I was willing to dive in head first anyway . . .”

    ‘That’s a good thing! Sometimes Spirit spares us the pain of being in situations or relationships that wouldn’t be good for us. You were willing to compromise the sort of love you needed. It sounds to me like she just didn’t want to commit.”

    “Not to me. To someone else now, apparently,” I grumbled.

    “You just need to keep building your confidence. Listen to the voices of dissent, if some part of you has reservations . . .”

    I lay there in silence for some time, listening only to the soothing music in the background. As I was wearing my Nile t-shirt that day, it should have been apparent that this sort of music was nothing I would listen to by myself, but here it seemed to work well. As the Oracle placed healing crystals on me and cleared the energy flow in the chakras of my system, I tried to imagine myself sinking into the table. I didn’t feel any unusual sensations this time, but that was not why I came. I felt the Oracle’s warm and invigorating touch on my head, arms, chest, and stomach, but none of the odd sensations I felt the first time I had a Reiki six years ago. Each time, it almost seemed as if the experience became less mystical and more practical. That was just as well. What’s the use of mysticism if it doesn’t prepare you for action elsewhere? So what if this was my excuse to talk to her again?

    I heard the minute ring of the bell and awoke again, prepared to re-create myself. When she’d asked me earlier if I had any special intentions for this Reiki, I only found myself talking about Losang. I regretted that I hadn’t thought to bring up the other issues that had been eating away at me for a while; namely that I didn’t even know if I was pursuing the right path in my life at this time.

    “I wish I knew what to do,” I said. “I’m still thinking about Losang. I just wish I knew what the right course of action would be right now . . .”

    The Oracle smiled when she saw how incredulous I looked. It was as if I saw my own light clearly by standing in hers. I didn’t wish it to be that way, but that’s what it felt like, regardless.

    “It’s whatever you feel like doing,” said the Oracle, “Keep building yourself.”

    “I’m not really sure how.”

    “Feeling like the turd in the punch bowl?” she chuckled.

    I stared.

    “Sorry, you haven’t heard that expression. Involve yourself with something. Doesn’t matter what it is.”

    “Ah, yeah. My mom’s always been egging me to volunteer with activities the church is doing.”

    “Does that appeal to you?”

    “Not really.”

    The people at my church were nice people, and good people too. But they weren’t my crowd. Of course, I didn’t have a crowd. I never did. Not the role-players, metal heads, movie buffs, paleontologists, or even other writers. Conservatives thought I was liberal, and liberals thought I was conservative. I could disappear into their presence, but I was too weird for any of them.

    “You could try joining an interest group. There’s tons of them online. You know, the same place you go to meet women? You can find a group dedicated to anything. That’s how I met the guy I’m seeing. Dirt bike racing for women, knitting for men, you name it, there’s a group for it.”

    “Well, I’ve been having a bit of concern lately,” I said, “about the student teaching practicum I would have to complete next semester . . .”

    The Oracle nodded. She didn’t have a whole lot of time left to listen, so I tried to be quick in explaining my uncertainty.

    “They tell me that teaching is craft, not art, and that anyone can learn to do it. Monica says I should at least give student teaching one semester a try, and then I’ll know.”

    “I think you should go for it, then,” said the Oracle, “Well, I have another client coming in, so I can’t talk much longer, but do keep in touch . . .”

    We headed out into the lobby, where the Oracle could chat and joke with the other employees with as much ease as she could hear me talk about my passions or discuss the secrets of the universe. I would make my payment arrangements at the front desk. Last week, the secretary mentioned that the Oracle only does Reiki two days during the week, and that she had a full-time job. Until that point, I’d almost imagined that she just sat underneath a Bodhi tree somewhere assuming the lotus position. When I asked her what the Oracle did, the secretary blinked for a moment and said she never thought to ask.

    “Always a pleasure, David . . .”

    The Oracle smiled and put her arms around me before I left. She hugged everyone so far as I knew. Ordinarily, I became rather attentive, even aroused, if a woman touched me for any reason. But I liked to think I was beyond that, now. Besides, the Attraction Council was acutely aware, despite what any of them might have personally felt, that the Oracle was a vastly inappropriate subject.

     

    ?

     

    “Can I ask you a question?” said the cougar.

    She’d exited her cave some time ago and the two of us were relaxing in a grassy meadow, underneath the shade of a large tree. Looking the other way, I could see the shoreline quite clearly. My horse was tethered a good distance away, and I’d left my sword, lance, gauntlets, and sallet by his side. I was leaning against the tree, twirling the cup in my hands and staring at it. The cougar was reclining on a low, heavy branch with the comfortable poise only a cat could have.

    “Sure,” I said, “ask.”

    “While I’m extremely pleased and excited that you chose to contact me again, I have to ask . . . why?”

    “Uh . . . maybe I just needed someone to talk to?”

    “Oh well certainly!” said the cougar, licking her lips. Perhaps the next question she asked was inevitable: “Do you still feel the same way about commitment?”

    “I don’t know . . .” I said, “In some circumstances I guess an open relationship is alright, provided the terms are made clear from the start.”

    “Indeed. It’s important to be on the same page from the beginning. You don’t want to break any hearts.”

    “Did something like this ever happen to you?”

    “Yes. Long ago . . . but yes. It helped shape my current beliefs.”

    “How would you describe your beliefs?”

    “I no longer believe you need monogamy to have a meaningful relationship with someone.”

    I stared at the empty cup in my hands, reflecting with disgust that it was no good if it couldn’t quench anyone’s thirst. I began to contemplate the distance from where I stood to the shore. I felt the weight of the goblet in my hands, and felt that although it was solid, it wasn’t too heavy. I stood away from the tree, leaned back, and hurled the cup as far as I could. So far as I could see, it landed beyond the bushes, probably somewhere along the beach.

    “I’m sorry you had to go through that, though,” said the cougar, though she wasn’t looking at me, “But perhaps it was good if you learned something about yourself, yeah?”

    “I guess,” I said, “I might get a good memoir out of it. It’d be a strange one, though. I might have to include a few scenes with the Attraction Council and stuff.”

    “Attraction Council,” chuckled the cougar. “I like that term.”

    ?

    David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “The Attraction Council” at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.

    photo by Studioeddies

    Losang

    by David Mitchell

    Editor’s note: this is the fourth in a series of planned installments from David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

    The Bible only seems to describe Heaven negatively. Paul specifically says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” When asked why he couldn’t bring himself to finish the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas replied, “Compared to what I have seen, all that I have written is straw.” When we think of Dante, we usually just think of his Inferno. Perhaps the reason we forget Dante’s Paradiso is because he makes a similar switch to negative description. His vision of Hell still retains its power to disturb and fascinate us, because, in our feeble imaginations, infinite love and joy can’t compete with finite horror and despair. Much of the language in the Paradiso describes the bittersweet experience of not being able to describe Heaven, only the sweetness that has been distilled in the heart of the pilgrim.

     

    I doubt anything I write here will do justice to the one who calls herself Losang. Never within the dimness of my weak imagination could I have conceived a universe in which she existed at all, let alone one where she would willingly come skipping into my gloomy little world long enough to rub some of her stardust off on me. She made me think my pessimism was silly. She was a little like the Oracle in that respect, except younger, shorter, goofier, and I have no idea how their sex drives would compare. Many to whom I’ve told this story have little sympathy for her. That means that either I’m missing something obvious or I’ve failed to communicate what she meant to me.

    Thursday morning of March 20th, 2008, I was having breakfast in the kitchen. I had to leave soon, because I had a train to catch. I was wearing a Manowar t-shirt. Specifically, it was for the Hell on Earth IV tour of 2005, during which I saw them with Serissa and some of my friends at the Worcestor Palladium. This was easily the cheesiest and most sexist t-shirt I owned. It had the leering, cartoonish image of a scaly devil raising high his pitch fork, and four naked succubi at his feet. My mother always hated it.

    “Are you sure you want to wear that?” she grimaced, “She might not like that.”

    “She’s a metal head, mom. Like me.”

    “Well, I’m just telling you if I saw you wearing that, I’d have a bad impression.”

    “Well good then!”

    As if I were looking to date my mother!

    “From what you told me about her she sounds  . . . immature for her age. And vulgar.”

    I only grinned. Of course, there was a limit as to how much I could tell my mother and sister about Losang. They were both a little protective of me, and sometimes I got the impression that being the youngest member of the family, they subconsciously wanted to keep me mired in some sort of asexual pre-pubescent hinterland. Neither seemed comfortable with the notion that the little brother or youngest child was a ravenous satyr. “Be sure you marry a virtuous woman,” my mother warned me, as if her oblique didacticisms had bearing on anything that happened to me.

    Some part of me would always remain incomprehensible to my father, but at least he left me alone most of the time. He only gave me one vaguely embarrassed warning that a woman in her 30’s was likely to be more experienced and looking for something different. I didn’t know what he thought my tastes in women were. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure if he thought I slept on the floor during the nights I spent at Serissa’s apartment.

    I had little taste for girly girls anyway, and after Serissa, I certainly had no taste for younger and inexperienced girls. I loved sexually aggressive women, if only because they put me at ease by making their desire known. I disliked being the aggressor. And of course I had my prejudices, too. I was certain a church-going ingénue saving herself for marriage would have her feet on the ground, her eyes on the horizon, and be looking for a more conventional man. She would probably have a height requirement too. Or else she would be pleasant, but so naïve that dating her would make me feel guilty. What if she looked around my room and saw the fanciful, semi-erotic, tongue-in-cheek tip-in plates from Heavy Metal magazine above my closet, which both my mother and sister detested, and said, “Eww! What kind of a creepy, nerdy, pervert is he?” Anyone so girlishly shallow obviously wouldn’t be worth the effort. I may have worshipped the same god as the people at my church, but that didn’t mean I had much in common with them.

    My mother and sister Monica warned me to be cautious, because as all sensible people know, the Internet is primarily inhabited by perverts and serial killers. I didn’t really “know” Losang, you see, so I was not to enter her house or bring her into Monica’s apartment while I was cat-sitting for her. She was extremely skeptical that any woman her age could be interested in me given that I still needed to live at home and was struggling to find out what I wanted to do with my life.

    I did tell them a few things, though. I told them Losang was a good person, deeply spiritual, and that she cared about me. I told them that the chemistry between us was powerful and immediate. I told them that each of us admired the faith in the other, and when the two of us spoke about religion, it was as if we were completing each other’s sentences in different languages. I told them that I loved hearing her talk about her religion, even if I didn’t understand or agree with what she was saying, and that I disagreed a lot less than I thought I would. I told them that I would rather date a pious Buddhist than a cynical twice-a-year Christian. All of those things were completely true. I just left out the part about how when I asked Losang what she wanted to do on Thursday, she replied with only one word: “You.”

    Of course, some part of me was nervous. I had to take everything Losang said with a grain of salt since I had yet to meet her, even though she told me that karma can sometimes accelerate the progress of relationships. I’d already had a few sour experiences of meeting unusually forward girls online and then being disappointed in person. The first told me that I was too nice and that she would have felt guilty taking my virginity away from me (as if that were something my 21-year-old self would have valued), the second was unlikely to have been a good match for me anyway, but I was too naïve to have known that.

    The night before, I felt my excitement turn to anxiety. This was a force Losang would later tell me was called attachment. Out of habit, I found myself shuffling the cards of my Tarot deck. I didn’t claim to be a diviner, and I was extremely skeptical about Tarot cards to begin with. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the powerful web of symbolism within them, so before I knew it I found myself poring over the quaint, colored pencil illustrations of the Hansen-Roberts deck on the floor of my bedroom whenever I was concerned about something. The more agitated I was, the more negative the spread. Sometimes the spread laid my thoughts out rather clearly. Other times, it was of no help. Occasionally, the deck itself even seemed to mock me or suggest that I was wasting my time consulting it. But somehow, the more I did it the better I became at understanding the strange dream logic of Tarot symbolism.

    A Tarot spread is the ultimate Rorschach test. I found that I made fairly accurate readings about other people, and infuriatingly vague readings about myself. I successfully predicted, for example, that my ex would find herself in another relationship about a month before I heard the news from a friend. The spreads I made later were unclear and contradictory. One suggested the relationship would be short, another that she would end up marrying him (the most recent spread has strongly suggested the former). I had no idea what sort of person Serissa’s new boyfriend was, but I didn’t want to know, and I pitied the poor fool. Every time I asked a question about Serissa, the Queen of Swords showed up somewhere in the spread. This card denoted an intelligent, witty, and cold woman. If reversed (and she frequently was), it accentuated her worst qualities.

    This time, I asked about my future meeting with Losang, using the Celtic cross spread. The last card I drew, the most important card of the spread, was the Fool. I blinked for a moment. I was hoping for something more obvious, like the Empress or the Lovers. The Fool is the first card in the Major Arcana, and he represents a new beginning. He is infinite potential, fearlessly heading out into the unknown, and having faith in the future. He is innocent, but in the best possible way. He is child-like, but adult. He tells you to take a chance. I closed my eyes and smiled, feeling my anxiety turn back into excitement.

    ?

    I was standing outside of the Red Line station in Somerville, at Davis Square, when I met her. I’d only seen one picture of Losang on the net, and the quality wasn’t very good, so I didn’t know what to expect. She stood barely five feet tall, and the blonde dye in her hair I’d seen from her photo had all but faded to a few streaks in a nest of brown. She peered out at me from under a hoodie. Her face looked vaguely Jewish to me, though she told me later that she was French and Italian, not that any of it made a difference to me in the slightest. Her eyes were dark and hypnotic, her nose and mouth were large, her chin was dimpled, and there was a certain insouciance about her which made me smile almost immediately. In person she also giggled as randomly as she did over the phone. She even stuck her tongue out randomly. And she talked nearly nonstop.

    It was too cold and windy to go anywhere in Somerville, so we headed inside, to her house, where I quickly learned that she happened to live only one street away from my sister, beyond the bike trail that I normally walked on. It was around 1:30 PM and she told me her mother would be coming home at 5:00, but that she also would likely not approve of bringing me into the house for the same reasons my mother and sister didn’t want her to enter theirs.

    The house itself was as cozy and beautiful as the rest of the homes I’d seen in Somerville. Losang had her own room upstairs, which could only be accessed by a single narrow staircase. This place was another realm entirely, completely separate from the sensibilities of the rest of the house. There was something interesting in every corner, and along every inch of the wall, whether it was a drawing of a multi-armed bodhisattva, a cloth Slayer poster, a picture of the Dalai Lama, or smaller posters for Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Iron Maiden, or Dimmu Borgir. There were unlit candles, small statues of Buddha, and in one corner, a beautiful altar. Books of all varieties were stacked about as high as the ceiling in another. I could have stared for hours.  Before I had a chance to do that, Losang showed me the ring her ex gave her from where it was on her dresser. It was a platinum ring with three diamonds in the center. Then I noticed the ring she wore on her finger. It was silver, with three tiny skulls in lieu of diamonds.

    “I got a ring for my ex two Christmases ago,” I said, “but not an engagement ring, just something she asked for.”

    Since I didn’t know or care about jewelry myself, Serissa needed to be very specific about the sort of ring she wanted. In this case, it was silver and onyx. One of the inlays chipped off a few months before the breakup, perhaps an evil omen.

    “You don’t have to worry about anything like that with me,” Losang said, “I’ve got enough rings.”

    “Yeah,” I said, “I don’t like weddings. They’re expensive, stressful, and tedious.”

    “Yeah, no kidding.”

    “Well, there was this one wedding I went to that wasn’t so bad,” I said, “Most of the guests left early, so we had the hall and a single DJ to ourselves. I got them to play Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood.’ It was unconventional anyway; one of my ex’s friends was getting married, and she wore a red wedding dress.”

    “I’d wear jeans.”

    I laughed. Then I reached into my backpack and pulled out a copy of The Bridge volume 4 and handed it Losang.

    “This is the journal I said I was published in. My piece is up front, and I have another somewhere else. Be sure you read Tara’s memoir first, though. Well, everything in here is worth reading, but if you’re pressed for time . . .”

    ‘Great,” she said, placing the journal on her dresser, “So what was it you wanted to do, watch a movie?”

    “Sure, if you want,” I said, “I brought El Topo.”

    “Excellent!”

    El Topo is one of my favorite films, but certainly not a movie for all tastes. It’s a cult acid western; a bizarre, powerful, surrealistic religious allegory of sorts, unique and utterly impossible to classify. It’s like a kaleidoscope of eastern and western religious images and exceedingly brutal violence. Come to think of it, I would say this movie is like Christianity and Buddhism having sex.

    There was nowhere to sit except her bed, so we sat there and watched.  Before the opening credits, we saw the eponymous hero onto the screen. He was a black-clad gunslinger riding out of the desert, a naked child in tow and a black umbrella shielding both of them. Instinctively, I was about to put my right arm around Losang, who by now looked much better without the hoodie, but I stopped myself.

    “Uh . . . is it alright if I touch you?”

    “Sure!”

    Just as I’d mentioned that El Topo’s son in the film was also Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son in real life, Losang leaned her head against my shoulder and nuzzled me slightly.

    “What are you trying to do?” I grinned.

    “Dunno, maybe . . . kiss you?”

    So our lips met, hers more voraciously than mine, and I quickly discovered that Losang had a long and versatile tongue, massive suction power, and apparently didn’t need to breathe very often. After a few minutes, I said:

    “You know that friend of mine I mentioned earlier, Tara? On that day when I hung out with her we eventually started making out—”

    “Nice!”

    “—and at the time, I could have said that of the four women who kissed me, she’d put the previous three to shame. Now I can say that of the five women—”

    She just laughed and kissed me again, reminding me that perhaps she was the person she said she’d be over the net and the phone, and in that case, we had a very specific itinerary we needed to get out of the way as soon as possible. No force in Heaven, on Earth, or in the Pure Lands was going to prevent it from happening, not even El Topo.

    Instinctively, I laid Losang down and kissed her again, nibbling her neck lightly, and every portion of her that was exposed, caressing it with my lips. I slipped my hands into her tight black shirt, trying to find a way under her bra. I was grinding against her the whole time, slowly and rhythmically. Then I backed away.

    “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s been—”

    “Oh, you know what you’re doing, alright!” said Losang, her face flushed, “You’re in the right place.”

    After a beat, she said, “Ugh, I’m so tired. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night.”

    “Well if you’re too tired, I don’t want to—”

    “No no no no no, I’m not too tired!” Losang giggled as she grabbed my shoulders and pulled me closer to her.

    I can scare myself so easily. I knew the number of notches in Losang’s bedpost exceeded her age in years, but a number shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t jealousy or the sexist double standard that troubled me. I just didn’t think 23 years of involuntary celibacy, followed by a two year period of having sex with an anorgasmic Serissa less than 120 times made for a very impressive sexual resume. What I was about to learn was that my number didn’t matter either.

    “Why do I get the impression you’re going to be a natural born fantastic lay?” Losang asked me via IM a few days earlier.

    “I don’t know,” I replied, “Why do you?”

    “I’m very intuitive about these things,” she said.

    ?

    Nine months earlier, I was lying on the bed in Serissa’s old apartment, waiting for her. We’d made it a habit of shutting the door carefully and blocking it with the vacuum cleaner to keep the cat from joining us. It was part of Serissa’s routine. Having me visit her was routine as well. Doing so was “maintenance” for the relationship, she would say, and maintenance was work. Serissa was always eager to get work out of the way first, no matter how indignant it might be.

    Pathologically cynical though she was, Serissa had her two feet grounded firmly in reality and never had any doubt as to what she wanted to do. I was the Mittyesque boyfriend whom she was growing to resent because I was not able to do for her what, at the time, she was still unable to do for herself. Her physiology was so altered by her old medication that with her recent switch, this was the first time she ever felt any sort of sensation or had any awareness of her body’s yearnings at all. Nearly every source I’d read on the subject told me the same thing: For a pre-orgasmic partner, you can certainly help her along the way, but you can’t be expected to do it for her. My attempts to pleasure her were as futile as trying to reboot a defenestrated computer. Nonetheless, I was still willing to try, and confident that she’d get there eventually. But being as goal-oriented as Serissa was, didn’t matter to her. If I truly cared, she reasoned, I would have found a way to make her climax by now, and she could prove this point to herself by providing a hundred examples of me paying intense detail to something I cared passionately about.

    I watched with delight as Serissa stood before me and unceremoniously slipped off her thong while keeping her bra and socks on. I was completely naked, but she never was. That was our relationship. When she lay down next to me, I smiled, turned and began to caress her, but she pushed me away.

    “You don’t want me to massage you first?” I asked, “Or go d—”

    “Look, I just want to fuck, alright?!” she said, her voice flat and tense.

    “Alright.”

    “You look hard enough. Now lube up and get in.”

    I did as instructed. The cat wasn’t whining outside the door, so there was no sound to be heard except the bedsprings. Whilst keeping rhythm I lost myself in staring at her face, neck, and shoulders, noting the beautiful manner in which her hair fell back against the bed and exposed her face. I loved everything I saw, every imperfect square inch of her skin. A minute or two later, I said:

    “Heh. I still have that stupid song st—”

    “Quiet, you’re distracting yourself.”

    “What’s—”

    “Don’t talk.”

    “Are you al—”

    “Don’t talk.”

    I tried to kiss her, but she violently turned her head to the side, not changing her stony expression. I was dismayed. Having had enough, I tried to pull out of her, but her legs were locked around my waist, and she wasn’t letting me go anywhere. I managed to finish much more quickly than usual this time, not breaking a sweat, after which Serissa went off to shower. I didn’t join her as I normally did. Instead, I stayed there in silence, so disturbed I didn’t think to get dressed again. I sat on the floor and wondered what had just happened. When Serissa came back into the room, fully dressed, she folded her arms and said angrily, “How long did it take for you to write that anti-Islam post you made on the Net?”

    “I don’t know,” I said, “I wasn’t keeping track of the time.”

    “By the looks of it, I would say that it took you about two hours.”

    I had no idea what she thought this had to do with anything, but it didn’t matter what I thought anymore. Actions spoke louder than words, and that was Serissa’s motto. William of Ockham could have supplied her with another: “Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity.” It was certainly a principle she knew how to apply to her life.

    ?

    The Ghost of Serissa drifted slowly but steadily through the streets of Somerville, having followed me a few cars away on the train, into the subway, through the bike path, and outside Losang’s house. She did not follow us inside. I paid no particular attention to her, but I knew she was there. Her steely face never changed. In front of her she held her basket-hilted sword, the blade pointed toward the sky. It divided her face if you looked directly at her, but she didn’t appear to be looking at the weapon at all.

    Gabriel’s horn sounded from far above, summoning the dead before God, while the rest of the angels chanted Dies Irae at a thousand decibels. In the sky a bright light could be seen, the holy strength of Christ and Buddha restoring karma and invoking divine justice. This light intensified into a pinpoint, then fell down toward the Earth, toward America, toward Massachusetts, and toward a little house in Somerville. As it neared the narrow street with blinding speed and intensity, its shape began to solidify. It was a winged being, clad in heavy robes with flowing sleeves. He had the head of a ram, and held a huge sword, his left hand on the hilt, his right on the ricasso. He spread his wings as he neared the ground, their span stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk, brushing trees, power lines, and the hoods of cars as he descended. When his feet lightly touched the yellow lines on the asphalt, the Angel lifted his blade into the air. Twirling the sword, he released a terrifying holy light that shamed the sun. Serissa’s ghost staggered backwards as she floated in the air, raising her sword to parry in defense. Her feet touched the ground, and she found herself rigid. Her body became flesh once again.

    Deus vult!” the Angel roared.

    Hesitating no further, he swung his sword overhead, and lopped her head off.

    ?

    “Just like I said!” Losang gasped. “A natural born fantastic lay!”

    Now I’ll spare you most of the details this time, except I am quite pleased to report that I found Losang to be a thousand times more responsive than Serissa, and with at least a hundred times the endurance and flexibility. I enjoyed myself immensely, but not as much as she did. She said things to me that until this point, I’d only heard women say in porn, and watching her changing expressions was fascinating.

    “Are you gonna come for me . . . ?” Losang asked eagerly, knowing that I was at the point of no return. Having been satiated long ago, she was now hanging on for the rest of the ride, and enjoying every second of it. She locked her eyes with mine as I held myself up with my straining arms and worked steadily on her. A few minutes later we were finished. I sat back, though I was still inside her, my legs folded beneath me. She was lying back on the bed, propping herself up with her elbows, grinning, a beautiful kalachakra seed syllable necklace around her neck. The end credits to El Topo rolled behind me. We were busily discussing Jesus, Buddha, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Jon Schaffer, the recent death of E. Gary Gygax, the films of Martin Scorsese, the Catholic church, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Dimmu Borgir, and Slayer.

    “I like how your hair’s messed up now,” she said. “It’s so cute.”

    I was sweating profusely, but she wasn’t.

    “I really ought to shower,” I said. “Are you going to join me? My ex and I used to—ah, never mind.”

    “’Cause you like showering with girls,” she chuckled. “I’m all good. I showered this morning.”

    When I stepped off of the bed, painfully unfolding myself from the position I’d assumed for some time, I wobbled around for a few seconds like a newborn lamb. I wasn’t inhabiting the same body anymore. This newly born incarnation needed to be baptized, so I awkwardly picked up my clothes from the floor, shambled down the stairs, found the bathroom, and showered.  By the time I came up, Losang was reclining back on the bed smoking a joint and drinking from an open can of beer. It was like a parody of one of those post-coital cigarette scenes in the movies.

    “Sorry, if it bothers you I’ll stop,” she said. “I’m just so tired from yesterday. Didn’t get much sleep. I was thirsty too, and too lazy to go downstairs. This was the only thing I had in here.”

    “Eh, I don’t drink too often . . .”

    “Me neither. I mostly just drink with friends. I got this from a friend I was just hanging out with the other day, and he drinks a lot.”

    “What are you watching now?”

    Kundun. I watch it every day, it’s pathetic.”

    As I sat by Losang and caressed her, and we continued our conversation about the things that had influenced us the most. Our conversations had no beginning or end, and we always had something to talk about. While we talked, Losang placed her beer on the nightstand and nonchalantly put her hand on my crotch instead. The world needed more women like this.

    I somehow found myself saying, “And here I was thinking women like you only existed in porn, anime, and Heavy Metal comics.”

    It pains me considerably to think I said this at all. Even expressing my delighted incredulity, I had too few frames of reference. This is exactly the sort of thing Serissa would have remembered and then thrown back in my face later when she was pissed off about something else, long after I’d forgotten it, and even after I would have cried when I realized how awful it sounded. But Losang, thank the bodhisattvas, was able to hear the music of my speech and not just my words.

    “Love that movie!” she said.

    “I have quite a few stacks of the magazine in my closet.”

    “Awesome.”

    “I have some of the tip-in plates hanging on the walls in my room, too. My mom just thinks it’s ugly and juvenile, and it’ll drive women away.”

    Losang rolled her eyes.

    “Well, maybe I could have conceived someone like you existing,” I said again, “but not that you would have actually been interested in me.”

    “Why?” she said laughing, “Don’t be silly! Sorry I’m not looking your way. If I look at you I’ll just want to kiss you, and it’ll taste kinda gross. I really shouldn’t have gone for the beer.”

    “I guess we missed all of El Topo.”

    “It was a good ice breaker. There’ll be plenty of time to watch it again.”

    We talked for about a half hour, and as I started to explain a little about what she’d missed, we both stopped when we heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

    “My mom came home early,” she said. “Just be quiet.”

    I froze. Then I heard a door opening downstairs.

    “Losang? You there?” I heard her mother say from downstairs.

    “Yeah, I’m here,” she called back.

    I whispered anxiously, asking her what we were going to do now. She just shrugged and giggled.  So far as I remembered, my things were in Losang’s room, but I’d left my jacket downstairs on the coat rack. About an hour earlier I could hear my cell phone ringing from where it was in the jacket pocket. Losang, bouncing merrily astride me at the time, shouted, “Sorry, he can’t talk now! He’s being fucked!” Now it was probably time to get my jacket on, and see who called me.

    “I have to pee,” Losang said, “but I’m so tired.”

    “Uh, you are above pissing yourself, I hope.”

    She laughed hysterically.

    “Good one!” she said, “Yep, definitely above that. Alright, wait just a little bit.”

    As she left the room, I began put my shoes on, and made sure everything was back in my bags. When Losang returned, she said to me, “I told her you’re here, and she’s alright with that, but she doesn’t want to meet you right now. She says she looks like shit now.”

    “Who did you tell her I was?”

    “Well, I told her a little about you already. I just said that I’d known you for about a month and we’d hung out before. Anyway, you can step out without a problem. She’s waiting in her room.”

    “Okay,” I said, “I’m probably going to be in Somerville tomorrow most of the day. Do you want to hang out then?”

    “Yeah!” Losang said. “I want to have sex again already. Ugh. I’m such a hornball.”

    I produced some Tic Tacs from my pocket and generously poured them into her hands so she could kiss me before I left. I then walked a block, turned right, crossed the street, and found myself at Monica’s apartment. I found the keys in the mailbox where she told me they’d be, and with plenty of time left in the day for me to tend to her cat. The poor guy didn’t mind being alone for long periods of time, but if left alone overnight, he’d feel abandoned and become physically ill. He was once a stray, but was rather tame now.

    The huge yellow tabby greeted me as soon as I opened the door at the top of the stairs, and just as quickly I needed to shut it before he could attempt to flee. The Angel was sitting on the couch in Monica’s apartment, his bloody sword resting against the wall. He was reading a newspaper.

    “Hmm . . . the Dalai Lama is threatening to resign if the violence in China continues,” he said. “Not good . . .”

    Then he looked up at me.

    “Congratulations, David,” he said, sounding both laudatory and sarcastic at the time, “You got laid for the first time in nine months. And there you were fearing it would be more than a year, or that it would never happen again. So now what?”

    I checked the message I’d received while I was with Losang, and found it was my sister, telling me that she was on her way out then. So I called her back. The first thing she asked me was, “So how did your meeting with Losang go? I want to know everything.”

    “Trust me, Monica, you don’t. But I will say that it went very well.”

    “Well good then! Just be careful. Just because someone is a good person, and is cool, doesn’t necessarily mean that she is for you. There are many attractive interesting people who may not be compatible in the long term. It’s all good.”

    “One piece of very important advice when you are talking to a woman: Don’t talk about your ex very much—say very minimal things, just say that ‘It just didn’t work out.’ When you talk about an ex, it’s usually an indication that you’re not interested in the party that you’re talking to, that you’re still wounded or desperate. I’ve been on both ends of this conversation.”

    “Uh-huh.”

    Of course, I’d told Losang all about my ex, long before I ever met her in person, and she told me all about hers as well. Losang told me that she didn’t hate anyone, not even her ex, who dragged out their breakup for one last miserable year. She was working two jobs then to support him while he claimed unemployment, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

    Monica just reminded me of things I had to do for the cat, thanked me for watching him, and said goodbye.

    ?

    As the Brain reached for Losang’s file, so that he could make note of some important updates, he noticed a few tiny pieces of colored paper scattered on the top of the file cabinet. As he reached his manual extensors to examine them, he noticed they were different colors, and so tiny it would be hard to remove all of them without theaid of a broom or vacuum cleaner. The whole chamber was in need of one, anyway, but this would not do.

    “What is this?” said the Brain, “Confetti?”

    Then he looked up, and noticed longer strips of colored paper draped around the chamber, hung from the various instruments attached to the ceiling. He reached up, and ripped the first down, but quickly noticed another, and another . . . more than what his eyes could focus on without becoming lost. Then he saw something truly strange.

    The Heart and the Penis were waltzing together in the center of the chamber. The Heart was barely recognizable. His skin had actually regenerated several layers, and even more remarkably, it was no longer a ghastly pallor. When the Heart turned to face the Brain, he faced him with open eyes that sparkled. Some of his hair had grown back, too. It was blonde and curly. His limbs looked pudgier than normal, and he stood on his feet. His energy barely contained, he skipped in place and ran around the cabinets, vaulting up onto each one.

    “Look at me!” he said.

    “You ought to get some clothes on,” said the Penis.

    “You’re standing!” said the Brain. “And walking!”

    “And I can see you! I love the tie!”

    “I . . . do my best,” said the Brain.

    Self-consciously, the Brain, brushed his tie, worrying that bits of confetti stuck to it. There were none, but specs of rust from his manual extensors rubbed off instead. The Heart jumped down from the tallest cabinet and skipped around the Brain, giggling randomly. He even stuck his tongue out randomly.

    “What are you two doing?” the Brain asked.

    “We’re celebrating,” said the Penis, “Wanna join us?”

    “Celebrating what, exactly?”

    “What do you think, silly?” said the Heart.

    “We haven’t won yet!” said the Brain, “What transpired was good, but this is not a victory. We need to remain vigilant and—”

    “I sure know a victory when I score it,” said the Penis, “The fuck of a lifetime!”

    “Oh really?” said the Brain, “You look . . . bruised.”

    “I’ve been through worse,” the Penis grinned, “but never better!”

    “I see,” said the Brain. Then, as he looked down as the Heart darted around him, and gripped him by the wrist.

    “Ow!” said the Heart, “What are you–?!”

    “What’s in your hand?”

    It was an empty syringe.

    “Losang gave it to me,” the Heart grinned, “It’s so much better than the ones Serissa used to give me. And it’s so powerful. I can’t believe how—”

    “We haven’t even sterilized this yet.”

    “It’s alright,” said the Heart, “I’m not addicted, I just—”

    “You have the final say, but it’s me who relinquishes it to you, and I have not yet made up my mind.”

    “B-but . . . y-you . . . I’m not addicted! I . . . I . . .”

    “Aw, c’mon,” said the Penis, “He can have some fun every now and then.”

    “Again, spoken like a true altruist,” said the Brain.

    “Who are you to tell him what to do, anyway?”

    “I’m management!”

    “But I’m not addicted!” giggled the Heart, “I can get off it at any time and I’ll be just fine. I healed all by myself. Honest!”

    He slipped his wrist out from the Brain’s grasp, then he vaulted up onto the largest cabinet before the Brain could grab him.

    “Wanna see me back flip off this thing?”

    “Get down. Now.”

    “Come on. Not even once?”

    “You have not healed. Your condition has momentarily improved. That’s all. Now get down from there.”

    The Heart sighed dejectedly, rolled his eyes, and did as ordered. The Brain ripped down the remaining paper strips in front of him, activating a switch which caused the Monitor to spring back to life. There they saw me, reclining on Monica’s bed, my eyes closed. The cat, Gordie, was somewhere near my feet. The Heart was jumping around giddily, but stopped himself when he saw the sight.

    “What’s he doing if he’s not asleep?” asked the Heart.

    “Praying to his god,” answered the Brain, “Giving thanks for this day, which he considers to be a good one. Something like that.”

    “What do you think of God?” asked the Heart.

    “Not my area.”

    “Why not? Should it be mine? Or his?”

    “Never been a fan of that religion,” sighed the Penis, “I’ve got my own goddess, and my own temple. I’m just here with you guys so I can find a way in every once in a while.”

    “Too many people make the mistake of ignoring me when they don’t like what I have to say,” said the Brain, “or only listening to me when my area of expertise is limited. What matters on the intellectual battlefield isn’t so much what position you occupy, but why. I can be re-programmed to defend whatever side you join, but I am not the final arbiter.”

    “When we finally knew of re-packaged versions of the evolutionary software which advertised full compatibility with monotheistic systems, they were user-friendly, redundant, and far less flexible than our own. I had hacked the software from the old versions to approximate them years ago, and in some cases they worked better. Our old systems have worked with it from the start. There are occasional bugs and crashes, but I’m confident I’ll be able to fix them in time.”

    After a few minutes of silence, the Brain asked the Heart, “What about you? What’s your opinion of God?”

    “I don’t know,” said the Heart. “I love him sometimes, and other times I hate him. I wish he made me different. Bigger, stronger, maybe. More complete. Maybe if he put you in charge of everything instead.”

    The Penis snorted.

    “Then I suppose you aren’t a very reliable authority on God, either,” said the Brain.

    “Well who is, then?” said the Heart, “The Soul?”

    “From what I gather.”

    “Why don’t we hear from him more?”

    “We don’t even know if our soul is a ‘him.’ Together we are male and heterosexual, make no mistake, but as for what our soul is, I can’t be certain. All I know is that our Soul is very, very old, much older than the rest of us, and it isn’t going out of its way to help. It did send me one email the other day, telling me it approved if we all agreed about Losang, but that was all. She might have an old soul too.”

    “He must have a lot of things to say about her,” said the Heart, “Why doesn’t he . . . or she . . . show up here and tell us more?”

    “It’s not interested in our concerns,” said the Brain, “It has another agenda to deal with.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Not my area.”

    “Doesn’t that make things harder for us?”

    “Yes. It does.”

    They turned back toward the monitor, watching my progress and gathering data.

    ?

    The next day I’d met up with Losang in mid afternoon. She was waiting to hear from a friend on some important matter for half the day, and this person took forever to respond. This time, we went on a walk through Somerville, though it was so windy going back inside would have been preferable, if her mother wasn’t home. We found ourselves in a cozy tea shop somewhere downtown, where Losang, reading a free local paper, began to complain about the state of the world (or more specifically, the situation in Tibet and China), and ranted slightly about her ex. None of this surprised me in the slightest, though she quickly stated, “Sorry, I’m at my worst today. I’m so judgmental, and I really shouldn’t be. Didn’t get much sleep last night either; just cat napped and smoked.”

    “Heh, you say you’re at your worst, and I’m still enjoying the company. When my ex was at her worst I didn’t even want to be alive, let alone in the same building as her. I guess when I’m at my worst, I just want to be left alone, but I don’t take it out on other people.”

    “Yeah. I don’t either.”

    At some point, and I can’t remember exactly how, Losang brought up OKCupid once more, and I knew I had to ask her a question that troubled me slightly.

    I said, “What are we going to do regarding status now? Do we change it?”

    “What is it on now, anyway?” she said, “Single? Why don’t we just keep it like that, for now at least. I don’t want to get too serious too soon. I don’t want to hurt you. Or anyone.”

    I was confused. Of course I took relationships seriously. I didn’t date casually, and I especially didn’t have casual sex.

    “What do you mean? What’s ‘serious’?”

    “I—I don’t know,” she said. “Well I knew this was coming. I’m hanging out with someone else, nothing too serious, but it’s an open arrangement. It’s not you, it’s me. I have problems with attachment, so I don’t want to rush anything.”

    I’d completely forgotten I was even waiting for the other shoe to drop. I supposed this was it.

    “‘Hanging out’?” I said, “We fucked for two hours yesterday.”

    “Not so loud!” Losang giggled.

    “Oh, uh, sorry. You referred to the time we spent together as ‘hanging out’. You often talk about ‘hanging out’ with your friends, too, most of whom are male. If half of ‘hanging out’ with me consisted of fucking me, then . . .”

    She was laughing before I finished.

    “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. You and him are the only people I hang out with in the fucking sense. He was burned badly by his ex. He really likes me, but doesn’t want a serious relationship, which is fine, because I didn’t either.”

    Perhaps the ghost of this fellow’s ex required more exorcisms to be dispelled.

    “You do seem to be tending to the wounded and dispossessed, my dear,” I said.

    “Yeah,” she said laughing, “I try to be all things to all people.”

    “What do you intend to do?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Well . . .” I said, not knowing where to begin, “you do realize that I’m no longer chatting with the cougar lady because of this, and she was pretty understanding about it. It was an easy calculation to decide that if she wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship with anyone, it would be more worthwhile to spend time with someone with whom I could plausibly have a relationship with.”

    I indicated Losang.

    “Oh, definitely,” she said.

    “And I also remember Tara telling me that she was like a ‘guy’ and that sex didn’t need to have any real emotional connection in order for her to enjoy it. I think I also told you about how I probably couldn’t have a one-night stand without getting attached.”

    “Definitely. I could, but I prefer not to.”

    “She’d told me that she wasn’t looking to be in a relationship, and after that night when we shared a kiss, I was confused and anxious for about a month, since I didn’t know if that meant she’d reconsidered and I had my foot in the door after all. I was fine either way, but that gray area of ambiguity is frustrating as hell.”

    “Well, sure.”

    “But I was the Knight of Cups. I was prepared to dive in head first if she’d given me the word.”

    “Of course. I definitely know what you mean.”

    “I drove forth to meet her on Valentine’s Day, as if I were riding on my hippocamp, offering her a cup, and keeping my lance hidden, though it was still hers to direct if she wanted it.”

    Losang laughed hard, enjoying the innuendo.

    “But ultimately,” I said, “if she isn’t looking to be in a relationship now and doesn’t know when she will be, that means I shouldn’t be waiting for her.”

    “Right.”

    “So . . .” I said, raising my hands, “what should I be doing now?”

    “I don’t know,” Losang said. By now, her smile had faded.

    “You even said before, when I was trying to make sure we were on the same page, that you didn’t want a one-night stand with me . . .”

    She looked alarmed for a second when I said this.

    “It didn’t mean nothing. It wasn’t just a ‘whatever’ thing. I really, really, like you. I love spending time with you. Oh, god. I’m being stupid. I know, I know, I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.”

    “Well, I’m glad you’re admitting to that. I guess I’m not sure what I should do because I don’t want to cross a line by investing too much. I may have done that already . . .”

    “You haven’t. Don’t worry about it.”

    “I meant in my heart, Losang.”

    “I know. Me too.”

    “I mean, I don’t even have to utter that dreaded three-word incantation in order for it to be in effect.”

    “I KNOW. Me too.”

    Losang was still paralyzed no matter how I tried to dissect the issue, but honest about it. I wasn’t hurt, just confused. I didn’t consider myself a jealous type, especially with someone I’d only known for a week and a day, and whose last name I’d heard once and forgotten. What were they saying in the Council chamber?

    “Works for me!” said the Penis.

    “But not for me!” said the Heart.

    “I told you so!” said the Brain.

    And now what? I didn’t want to impose a timeframe for a decision on her. We were intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and now that we had the chance to find out, sexually compatible. Honestly, what else was there? Deciding I wanted to attempt a serious relationship with her was the easiest choice I could have possibly made. But I decided to cast aside the issue and enjoy the time we still had. If it were possible to be with her in earnest, I supposed, this was the way to do it.

    Unfortunately, the weather outside was still windy, so we walked back, and this time, when we passed Monica’s apartment, I let her in. I knew we didn’t have much time (Losang had a class at the Dharma center she wanted to attend), so I thought it would be good to get out from the windy cold for at least a moment.

    I introduced Losang to Gordie the cat, who was comfortably assuming the meatloaf position on the recliner. She stroked him while lovingly reciting a Tibetan prayer, which sounded like baby talk to me given the tone of her delivery, but she told me it was said to animals to help them ascend into the next incarnation. I said little while she fawned over the cat from where he sat, in his high throne. Losang was sitting on the floor, stroking him, and I reclined against her. Neither of us said anything for a while.

    ?

    In the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice remarks that she would rather hear her dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves her. I have not known a single woman for whom this line wouldn’t apply. Women seem to have more important things to consider when selecting a mate, such as height and income. For selfless, unconditional love and affection, there are dogs.

    God knows I’ve uttered the dreaded three-word incantation numerous times. To this day I am not convinced any good ever comes from doing so. I never knew what any of the women were thinking when I did. Did any of them actually love me back? Were they moved? Amused? Uncomfortable? Chagrined? Grateful? Embarrassed for me? Did their hearts just bleed for me? Or did they think I was creepy? I still can’t tell you.

    I’m sure you could tell me that what I felt for Losang was not actual love, whatever ineffable definition should be attached to that word (because deciding whether you love someone is apparently like obtaining gnosis or enlightenment) but joy, hope, infatuation, affection, attachment, and lust instead. I won’t attempt to refute you, but I should at least raise the question as to why this doesn’t also apply to Serissa. She would be the first to argue that it does. She could easily work herself into an endless loop of logical nihilism to deconstruct my love for her as joy, hope, infatuation, affection, attachment, and lust as well. If she actually admitted that the love was genuine, either hers or mine, she would then proceed to vitiate love itself. The end result is the same: If the man means nothing to you, neither does his love or the love you once felt for him.

    To my understanding, there were only four beings in the universe willing to love Serissa unconditionally, in the truest agape sense. They were, in descending order of importance:

    1. God
    2. her mother
    3. myself
    4. the cat

    “Of course the cat loves me,” Serissawould say, “It’s because I feed him kibble.”

    I happen to think that dry kibble and tap water are perfectly valid reasons to love someone, but even if they aren’t, that in no way vitiates the experience of a cat’s love. Serissa seemed to think, probably to this day, that I only ever sought her out of desperation. This insults both of us, which is fine for Serissa, because she will also admit that she is a different person now. Maturation was a process of replacement for her. For me, it was a process of accretion. I was a lot like that cat, I think, except I was bigger, vastly more intelligent, and I hadn’t been entirely neutered.

    In her more mischievous moments, when Serissa wiggled my glasses for purposes of annoying me, I might often move my head back just barely out of the range of her ministrations. Without intending to, this made her laugh.

    “You really are like that cat!” she’d say.

    And of course, I did my little things to annoy her and make her laugh at the same time, like putting two of my fingers into her thong while she reclined on her side, happily announcing that I was a Renaissance crossbowman loading my arbalest, pulling the elastic, and letting loose at the enemy. Rarely could I contain myself long enough to keep my hands off of her.

    “You are so affectionate!” she would say, with something that sounded like astonishment or scorn.

    The cat could seldom keep away either. I admit that a good portion of our relationship consisted of making fun of that cat. He had the personality of a dog. Serissa got him when he was a kitten, but even grown up he was utterly infatuated with her. It didn’t matter if she yelled at him to go away when he annoyed her with his meowing, or if she teased him into chasing a laser pointer dot that led him into a wall. She was pretty good at doing a cat impression, too, so whenever the cat meowed, she would reply in the cat tongue. He would meow back obsequiously, apparently unaware that Serissa was mocking him. It was the tone of her speech he reacted to, not the content. I was a bit like that too. It was a scary sight when the cat actually angered her. I remember one morning in which Serissa burst into the room, waking me up (she got up much earlier than I did), water sprayer in her hand.

    “WHERE IS HE?!”

    I had no idea what was happening. It turned out the cat vomited on the floor of the bathroom the night before, and Serissa stepped in it on her way into the shower, ruining her perfect routine. If there was one thing Serissa hated more than herself or the scale she stood on every day (she could tell you how many calories you would gain from a single Tic Tac or from licking a postage stamp), it was any change to her clockwork universe that she didn’t personally mandate.

    The cat was hiding under the bed, and when Serissa found him, she dragged him out by the nape of the neck and administered three water sprays to his face. When he fled once more, Serissa was choking in panic, screaming that she needed to kill herself. If I tried to physically calm or restrain her, she would push me away. Even greeting her at the door when she came home from grocery shopping was too overwhelming for her, so I had to wait in the living room instead. Seeing me out of bed, out of her way, and on my knees, as it was all I could manage, she asked me what I was doing.

    “Um . . . praying,” I said.

    “Don’t ask God to help me! He hates me!”

    This was a cry of despair and not cynicism. Her adoptive father was a Protestant minister, and quite fond of corporal punishment. Somehow, she’d gotten the idea burned into her head long ago that she was destined for Hell, and absolutely deserved it. But that’s only half of Christian theology.

    The God I believed in died a cruel and lingering death, and on her behalf. My view of religious faith was pragmatic, and I didn’t believe in negative reinforcement. Believe because our beliefs in this life matter. Beliefs precede action, so believe well. Believe because it’s worth believing in, not out of fear of Hell.

    Intellectually, I was closer to agnosticism than she was. I doubted, but believed because I knew that my nature was so suited to my faith that losing it would be pointless. Serissa never doubted the existence of God, but she was effectively an atheist. Her conditioning was as such that any thought of God made her physically sick. She couldn’t sit through a mass with my mother and me without tearing up. When she approached a nun some time before she met me to express her concerns, the nun told her exactly what I would have told her: The only thing likely to send her to Hell was her certainty that she would end up there in the first place. Was Judas’ bigger sin betraying Jesus, or believing that God wouldn’t forgive him? Ultimately, the nun had to tell Serissa that if her experience of God was that negative, it would be best for her to avoid religion altogether until she was able to sort it out.

    I suppose if it were possible to prove that God didn’t exist, most believers would be devastated (and then go back to worshipping in whatever manner suits them best). Serissa told me she would be relieved. It would give her freedom to kill herself and not to fear Hell. This was the only reason she had not killed herself thus far. That, and the knowledge that most methods at her disposal would more than likely fail, and disable her in the process.

    If she couldn’t accept God’s love for her, why should it follow that she could accept mine? She’d already seen her mother, acting more like an older sister than a mother, move from one idiotic and horrible relationship to the next. Serissa’s mother believed in unconditional love, and Serissa could accept that, but she had no desire to emulate her.

    Serissa was the more prudent of the two of us, so she was well aware of the power the three-word incantation held. She usually said it in a hushed and awkward tone, if she said it at all. But she was also the more rational of the two of us, often telling me, not as an insult, but as an observation, that I was sappy, sentimental, and a “chick.” She was a gender abolitionist. Her theory was that masculinity and femininity weren’t opposite ends of a spectrum, but two different continuums. Most people are high at one end and low at the other, independent of sexual orientation. I was apparently high at both ends while she was low at both. Her gender, she once said, was like wearing a sock for a glove: It didn’t feel right, but it worked, and it was better than nothing. She told me on a few occasions that the times she knew she loved me most were when she doubted I should even be with her at all, and worried that she was screwing me over. Once hysterically over the phone, and once sadly as I lay next to her.

    “What are you getting out of this?” she asked in her most fatalistic voice. She was lying on her left side on the bed as she normally did, while I playfully spooned her.

    “I love you, I love being with you, and I love having sex with you,” I chuckled.

    “Why, why, and obviously.”

    “I love you.”

    “Dipshit.”

    ?

    “I’ve never met such a gentle cat!” Losang said.

    “My ex’s cat is even gentler. I’m glad she still has him.”

    “I’m glad she does too.”

    Play with Gordie for too long, and he might swipe at you with one of his paws, but he wasn’t about to subject Losang to such brutal treatment. When he tired of her attention, he got up and left, leaving us on the floor leaning against each other. When Losang and I were in close proximity, things tended to happen. I placed my hands on her back and made small circles with my thumbs, traveling down from her shoulders to her lower back. She tilted her head in my direction and gazed at me intently.

    “You’re too nice, and I mean that in a good way!” Losang giggled. “You can do it harder than that, I can take it.”

    She was echoing words she’d spoken the day before, only in her bedroom and some time after El Topo discovered the massacred village and before he tricked the fourth master into committing suicide. We said little to each other, but rubbed, nuzzled and kissed for the next half hour or so. My hands sometimes went into her shirt, down her back, or into her jeans.

    It soon became time for her to leave, but just as when we said goodbye either on the phone or via IM, it took forever. We were standing somewhere at the bottom of the staircase and near the front door (we had to shut the door to keep the cat from trying to escape), though we’d found ourselves in each other’s arms on the way down. I was in the process of explaining something complicated to her, involving my ex and the memoir I’d published in The Bridge. I only said, “I’d explain more, but it’s in the memoir in that journal I gave you. I shouldn’t reveal anything.”

    “Don’t. I’ll have to read it.”

    “Heh. It’s just kind of odd how I talk about my writing and you haven’t really had the chance to read any.”

    “I know, isn’t that retarded? I just like hearing you talk about your ideas and your writing. I like how you’re so smart and yet you don’t make me feel like an idiot for listening to you.”

    “I wasn’t always this way. I didn’t have too many friends in middle or high school.”

    “I like you even more today than I did yesterday.”

    “Oh. Glad you do.”

    “I’m glad I do too!”

    And what did this all mean, I wondered? Would we end up together? I wanted to know, but I didn’t want the moment to end.

    “And why is that three-word incantation coming back to me all of the sudden . . .” I said, fumbling my lips near her neck and face.

    “No,” she said laughing tenderly, “don’t say that . . .”

    A few kisses later, and she was on her way out. I had only to clean up, and re-arrange some things, and then I’d be on my way back home, through the red line, then boarding the train. I wasn’t at all troubled. I felt good. Even as I came back to my house late that night, past 11:00. My mother was already reclining in bed, but she wanted to talk to me anyway, and ask me how my day was and how things went with Losang (“I love how you have a close relationship with your mom,” Losang said to me, “It’s so sweet.”). She didn’t have me fettered to an iron ball, but it was difficult to keep too many secrets from my mother. As I entered her room, she told me that I seemed to have an aura of peace and calm about me.

    “Well . . .” I said, searching for the right words, “Let’s just say it feels like a whole burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”

    “Because you feel more confident around girls now?”

    “Something like that.”

    That was as far as I wanted to go. It wasn’t a lie, and my mother didn’t wish to intrude in on my privacies. She knew that I didn’t lie very well. Losang instinctively knew this too, though she said it had something to do with how readily I changed my facial expressions, even if she wasn’t sure what every expression meant at this point. I was excited, of course. She’d surprised me by actually being the person she said she’d be. I apparently didn’t disappoint her either, in any aspect.

    But where were we going now? I had no idea, and I knew too well that nothing could sicken a heart like hope deferred, just as in Proverbs 13:12. “Hon, just don’t become attached,” Losang said in an IM less than a week ago. And how would I tell if I was attached or not? For that matter, was it possible to become attached to not being attached?

    ?

    My parents made it an unspoken tradition to watch The Passion of the Christ nearly every Good Friday, but they decided to try for Saturday this year, since I got back late the night before, and Easter came early anyway. Nothing about this movie shocked me so much as the vociferous reactions it garnered. I’d known for many years that what Christ endured on the way to Golgotha was much worse than what I saw in the Bas-reliefs depicting the Stations of the Cross at my church, or in any other movie about Jesus. A year earlier, I’d received Serissa’s ultimatum, and was struggling to find another job and a way out of my parent’s house in order to live up to her expectations of me. Watching it then felt like I was watching my own passion, death, and rebirth.

    I was born Holy Saturday of 1982. To date, my birthday has sometimes fallen on Good Friday, sometimes on Holy Saturday again, and sometimes a day or two after Easter, but it hasn’t fallen on Easter Sunday since 1977, and will not again until 2039. Clearly, I have a long ways to go. I was still talking with Losang, and I’d hoped to see her again that day. We’d agreed in advance for some time, but I had to leave soon that morning, and didn’t check any of my messages. There was one in particular I should have read: hey hey. happy birthday guy!!! i want to see you but i can’t do it today i am sorry i just need to talk and well i don’t know if i can about this today. i want you to be happy…can we get together on another day and talk, seriously??? ok well i will ttyl tashi delek and namaste

     

    I saw her standing on the front porch of her house as I approached, looking uncertainly across the street.

    “There you are,” she said. “I was wondering if you were going to come or not.”

    She held out her arms as I headed toward the front steps.

    “Come here!”

    I was well on my way already.

    “Closer!”

    I threw my arms around her and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

    “Did you get my message?” Losang asked.

    “No, I didn’t have time to check.”

    “Oh. Um . . . I just got up, so I’m going to shower now. Why don’t you, um, play on the computer or something?”

    The computer was a laptop that looked like it was in the process of reformatting something, so I left it alone. I waited patiently in the living room for about an hour as Losang showered while playing the radio loudly. I ate the lunch I’d packed and a few chapters in my copy of Deus Irae. I also made note of some of the pictures hanging in the living room, hallway, and dining room, which seemed to show a younger Losang who wore dresses, styled her hair differently, and didn’t have any tattoos.

    When Losang was out of the shower, I sat with her at the kitchen table.  She prepared her own food while talking to me, talking on the phone, replying to Instant Messages, and consulting her Tibetan-English dictionary, all at the same time. I was amused, but remained patient and continued reading. Eventually, I found myself sitting behind her, gently massaging her back and shoulders, running my hands across the tattoos on her upper arms, down to the bear paw on her right forearm, and finally reaching the blood donor bracelet around her wrist. At no point did she resist, but she did not reciprocate. Losang continued for some time, then led me onto the back porch, and I sat there with my left arm around her. When no one thought to catch her on the phone, she spoke to me.

    “You know,” she said with a dreamy and enamored gaze, “I’ve been spending a lot of time with the other guy I’m seeing, and I’m really starting to like him a lot. He’s almost like a male version of me.”

    Ah yes, the other guy. I didn’t want to even bring him up. My only strategy for dealing with him was to ignore him, but at this point, it was futile.

    “I wasn’t going to bring that up . . .” I sighed.

    “I don’t want you to think you can’t date other girls.”

    The statement rang strangely in my ears. I didn’t know which implication was more bizarre: the notion that I would have been interested in dating anyone else, or that there were actually other girls who would want to date me. All other women bored me at this point, and I was certain there weren’t any I was disappointing. I was nearly speechless, but my arm was still around her. She continued.

    “I don’t really think I believe in monogamy anymore, y’know? I don’t want to be involved in something serious. It’s like what Lama Thubten Yeshe said . . . ‘If people’s relationships start off extreme, how can they last?’”

    “We, ah, we started off pretty extreme, didn’t we?”

    She nodded sadly. I didn’t know which was considered more extreme at this point, in the world we live in: fucking on the first date, or desiring an exclusive relationship? Most people probably sorted this stuff out in high school, and now dated many people at once. Is that how it was done? Losang studied me with a mixture of concern and curiosity. She looked a little awed.

    “Are you alright? I can’t tell. You’re so quiet . . . and so intense.”

    “I . . . I don’t know.”

    I knew this would not work for me. It had nothing to do with jealously or any pretense that I was on the moral high ground, only that I sought depth over breadth, and knew myself well enough to know how I loved. At this moment, there was only person in the world I wanted to love, consequences be damned, and she was sitting on the porch right next to me, telling me about how awesome someone else was. I gripped her tightly for a moment and looked away, feeling a burning sensation in the back of my eyes.

    “I used to get attachment just like this when I was 25,” Losang said. “Oh, that’s right, you’re turning 26 today.”

    She winced.

    “Oh god!” she continued, “Someone did this to me a while back, and now I’m doing it. I really didn’t want to talk about this now. I wanted to talk to you about it in person, but not today. Drewy’s coming over in a while, and I’m going to have to look after Moose soon.”

    Moose was the name of her neighbor’s pit bull puppy, which Losang insisted, she took better care of than his owner. Drewy, or so I will call him, was one of Losang’s friends. I heard a little about him, but we’d never met. So we soon got up off the back porch and headed out to the front hall. I saw a tall young man with glasses approaching us. He must have been in his early twenties. He came up the stairs, through the threshold, and into the hall.

    “There he comes!” Losang said. “Drewy, this is my friend Dave.”

    “Hi!” he said to me, and shook my hand. I said ‘hi’ back, but I was barely able to focus myself long enough to do so. I was taken a little aback by his appearance. My expression must have been grim and detached. Maybe stunned.

    “Drewy, why don’t you give us a minute, OK? Why don’t you, um, play on the computer or something?”

    I think the computer was off at this point, but Drewy took his cue and went into the back somewhere. Losang and I sat on the front porch instead, where she was to my right this time. She was nervously kicking the front steps, and chipping away layers of paint.

    “You said I was what you wanted,” I said sadly.

    “You are,” said Losang. “I mean you were . . . no, you are.”

    Christianity is a religion in a rush. You could be saved or a damned in a moment’s decision, and find yourself in heaven or hell only a few minutes after your death. Serissa and I both preferred the version with Purgatory, but regardless, sin was still conquered in a half-day, and permanently.

    “You’re going to have to choose . . .” I said.

    In the Eastern religions, karma could take thousands of years to run its course and redeem itself, depending on what state you’re at. As an impermanent stage of a massive, ongoing process, what do the desires of your current incarnation truly matter? No need to rage against the inevitable and cause more suffering.

    “I don’t want to choose,” said Losang. “Everything that’s happened is what’s supposed to have happened. I try to be all things to all people . . .”

    “You’re juggling many things at once. Eventually, you’re going to have to drop something and disappoint someone.”

    “Well if I had to choose, I suppose it would be him . . . no, no I don’t want to choose. I know, I’m probably screwing myself over either way. So I guess . . . the question is, what do you want?”

    “I already told you,” I said, “I want you.”

    “I know, but I meant what do you want out of this? Do you just want to be friends? Do you just want to wait and see what happens?”

    Friendship seemed an odd proposal for me. At least now I knew the line I’d written in Half-Born about friendship being the means by which men were castrated without the use of sharp objects didn’t always apply, but I didn’t want a “friend” I also had sex with. That would have been too confusing. I also knew that if I were to spend time with her as a platonic friend, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself from fantasizing about heading upstairs with her and making love to her again, looking to the passenger’s seat in my car and seeing her there, inviting her to my house during the few weeks in July when my parents would be gone, to Bridgewater to see the unveiling of The Bridge volume 5 and perhaps introducing her to Tara, Dr. Walker, and anyone else who was remotely part of my social network. Maybe introduce her to my mom, too. I wondered if she would have had a different impression of Losang if she’d actually met her in person. I would proudly introduce her as if to say, “Look everyone, here’s my new girlfriend and I love her. I couldn’t be happier!” Of course, I wouldn’t say much of anything. And if I didn’t spend any time with her at all, regardless of the status of our relationship, I would miss her terribly. I honestly didn’t know which was worse.

    “I don’t know if I could do either without some indication of where we’re headed. Otherwise, I’m stuck in that agonizing gray area, that limbo . . .”

    “I can’t tell you where we’re headed,” Losang said, “I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing next week. I’m so not thinking that far ahead right now. I don’t want to be tied down to anything. Did you know that the anniversary to my break-up was just a few weeks ago—on the 1st? When I lost both my jobs, he said, ‘You’re not making any money, I don’t love you anymore.'”

    I also knew what it felt like when the most important person in your world says something unspeakably cruel after you’ve lost your job. Come to think of it, we were both going through this at around the same time. Losang blurred in my vision, then her reflection ran down either side of my face.

    “I’m . . . sorry that’s where he was coming from,” I said softly. “I’d never do that.”

    “Wh—I know you wouldn’t,” she said.

    “Remember what I said about cutting open one’s sternum to offer the heart out as if it were the body of Christ and all that? As if to say to the world, ‘Here! This is what I’m made of! See that I have no barriers! See the wounds that I carry and see that I’m still not afraid to love as if I’ve never been hurt!”

    “Good,” she said. “You and all beings should be that way.”

    “It’s yours if you want it, Losang. I said I equated myself with the Knight of Cups, didn’t I? Tara could have had a place at his side if she actually wanted it, and now you have a place there. Hell, Serissa might even still be there if she hadn’t broken up with me . . .”

    “Why?” Losang asked. “She was treating you like shit.”

    “The answer is so obvious I’m surprised you’d ask. Because I loved her.”

    “I understand,” she said, “I still love Andy unconditionally, but I’m glad he’s not with me anymore. I don’t need his abuse.”

    Now I was losing myself in my analogies, speaking of the Knight of Cups, and removing one’s own heart. I even went so far as to mention the Attraction Council, which I don’t think I’d mentioned before. It was the truth as I knew it, but all I succeeded in doing was obfuscating the matter more. I think my Brain blew a fuse. Or the Heart ripped a chord out from the back of his head and took over.

    “ . . . and—and the Penis and the Brain are always yelling at each other, except the Penis keeps telling the Heart to stay out of everything until it’s a sure deal . . .”

    Losang was laughing at first, then she stopped when she saw how serious I actually was.

    “It’s never a sure deal,” she said softly.

    From somewhere across the street, I could hear a dog barking.

    “That’s Moose,” Losang said, “I’ve gotta take care of him today. I’m like that dog’s friggin’ mother, you have no idea.”

    “Well, I’ll let you do what you need to, then.”

    “I’m sorry. We’ll continue this conversation tonight. Are you going to be online?”

    “Yeah, I should be. Did you get to read Half-Born yet?”

    “No. I’ve been busy.”

    “Well, when you get the chance, it might give you a little bit of insight as to where I’ve come from.”

    “I will read it! Tonight!”

    I knew that she intended to. I also knew that she wouldn’t, but it’s the thought that counts. I grabbed my jacket from the hanger. I wondered if Moose was barking at a crow.

    “I’ve come a long way from where I was at the time it took place, but still.”

    “I need to take care of that dog.”

    “Right. I’ll be on my way.”

    Losang glanced worriedly across the street. I glanced back at her as I walked away, but only once. I supposed I was free to be scourged and crucified, and she was free to immolate herself in protest of the situation in China. Whatever it would take for either of us to cope with the cruelties of this world. I continued toward Davis Square, vowing that the next time I came across anyone who said that men are afraid of commitment and just want sex, I would punch that person in the face, hard, and multiple times.

    ?

    David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “The Attraction Council” at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.

    photo by Zyllan


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