Green Hills Literary Lantern

Bardo

 

 

 

 

 

         Ellen likes to meditate late at night.  It is only when her senses are a little dulled from a full day’s exhaustion that she is able to drift into herself and the tired drag of her breath, when the blare of canned sitcom laughter from the apartment next door finally dies.  She changes into her yoga pants and parks her wide bottom on her exercise mat on the little terrace she shares with two tenants out back.  From here she can just see the faint garlands of light that are the Boston skyline.  She crosses her eyes and lets them relax in and out of focus like with a magic eye painting, letting calmness lap over her muscle by muscle. 

This time, just when she feels herself sinking into a state that is like sleep, only waking, as her guru calls it, there is a click and a series of dull thuds in the house behind her, then the unmistakable clomp of a boot.  The neighbors had a break-in just last week, were held paralyzed in their beds by a masked man’s gun while another man heaved the TV into a truck.  The hairs on the back of Ellen’s neck stand up, but for a moment she doesn’t turn or get up.  The wild thought comes to her that maybe the intruder will kill her here.  Her teacher has told her that if a soul is lucid, in a meditative state while passing into the bardo, it can choose its next birth.  Then she shakes herself, rises and grabs a tennis racket leaning on the wall, and creeps back into the house.

The sitting room is dark, a small space cluttered with chairs and boxes—Ellen still hasn’t unpacked everything from her move six months ago.  A breeze flutters the colorful Tibetan prayer flags she has tacked over the mantelpiece.  Everything undisturbed, except for a limp figure thrown over the sofa as carelessly as a discarded coat.

Ellen, gripping the tennis racket, can feel herself quivering, but she is always slow to come out of her meditation and everything seems calm and distant.  Surely it is not she who is jabbing the figure with the racket, asking him what he wants.  Then the figure grunts and raises its head, and suddenly sensation comes rushing back.  “Jack!” she squeaks, and drops the racket.

Jack looks up at her for a moment, then rolls onto his back and then up to a sitting position.  “I thought you’d be asleep—hope you don’t mind, I kind of broke in.”

Fumes of alcohol waft around her.  “As long as you didn’t break the lock.  What are you doing here?”

He waves a hand casually, then pushes his hair out of his eyes.  “I was around and I thought I’d visit.  Mind if I crash here?”

With her hair cut short for her yogaerobics class and his grown long, she realizes they must look very similar—both with their father’s aquiline nose and wide watery eyes, their mother’s prim little moue of a mouth.  She sits down next to him, draws in a breath to ask “how long?” but blows it back out again instead.  He’s exhausted and drunk now, and her chance at a good meditation session is lost.  Better for both of them if they sleep and figure out something in the morning.

Ellen stands and touches him on the head once.  “All right.  You know where the towels are.  Just don’t bring random bar buddies back with you again, ok?”

He’s already sinking back horizontal and she wonders if he’s heard her at all, but there’s nothing she can do now.  Her brother is back again, drunk again, creeping in like a thief in the night again, and there’s a class to get ready for tomorrow.

 

*   *   *

 

Westchester is a small town on the fringes of Boston’s suburbs, on the border between the closely huddled people on the coast and the wide wooded expanses of Western Mass.  Ellen sometimes walks to work in the morning, taking her time.  Two hundred years ago this land was leveled and open, all farmland, but the rocky soil and cold winters pushed settlers on into the country, letting the forest grow back.  Now it is more heavily wooded than it was in the seventeenth century, and if Ellen leaves early enough in the morning she can see deer moving through the trees, grazing in people’s backyards. 

Ellen doesn’t stop to watch.  This morning she drank a cup of coffee and left Jack still slumped on the couch.  She is still annoyed by his rude entrance.  Whenever their father kicks him out, he comes here, sleeping on the couch until their father says he’s learned his lesson and can come back, but he never learns anything, bouncing back and forth between the two of them.  In the September morning, little puffs of steam come out of her breath with every stride.  She has unconsciously picked up the pace, is in town now passing the Dunkin’ Donuts.  He’s old enough to get his own place, but he can’t save up any money the way he drinks.  She is tearing through the main square now, past the Minuteman Statue.  Then the fitness center comes into view and she shakes her head, slowing down.  She can’t be furious like this and cheerfully leading an exercise class at the same time.  Inside, early-morning clients are pumping at the stair machines, a long row of legs throbbing.  Ellen takes two deep breaths.  Om mani padme hum.  She can feel calmness and distance returning, lapping at her irritation like the ripples on a beach.  Her guru says she must calm her self and quiet her mind before all else.  Om mani padme hum.  She pushes open the door and goes inside, waving to a few personal trainers crouching over clients in the weight room.

In twenty minutes she is leading a crowded yogaerobics class, which is part yoga, part cardio, and all women.  During the yoga section she is cheerful, mild, cajoling when she needs to be.  She moves from person to person adjusting spandexed limbs, murmuring bits of trivia about the origins of yoga that her clients find interesting.  She tells them she occasionally practices yoga religiously, but anyone can benefit physically from it.  The women nod and smile respectfully, sure that because she knows the spiritual vestiges of yoga, she can teach them better.  Ellen is trim for her twenty-eight years but with wide hips; lucky for her, it’s a fashionable figure to have these days as long as she is firm, and she is often asked by clients what positions she did for her great butt.  During the aerobic section her voice rises to a shout and she vocally pummels her clients, pacing back and forth at the front of the class while they sweat and strain to music.  It’s a relief for all of them, herself included, when she turns the stereo to “sounds of the rainforest” and they can finish the class with five minutes of cool down or meditation.  Then the women file out—some flushed with triumph, some woozy and grim-faced—and after a ten-minute break the next class comes in.

Ellen normally eats lunch in the sandwich shop two blocks down on Walnut Street, but today the crowded restaurant frazzles her, and she takes her sandwich outside to the little park a few streets over.  She sags onto a bench by the pond, tosses out her crusts and watches the ducks get hassled by a gang of Canada geese honking and jabbering, flapping their powerful wings.  It’s migration time, but this flock of geese seems to have gotten lost, or perhaps they like the life at the pond too much.  They’ve been here for a week now, living on bread and the dwindling grass.  She knows they’re the same bunch—there’s one with orange paint on his wing, marked by a scientist maybe. 

There is a high calling in the sky.  Ellen tilts back her head to watch the ragged V of birds winging south, honking as they go.  This time of year she will hear them almost every day, but it always gives her a thrill.  For a New England girl born and raised, it is a magical sign of fall, of change and newness, the season when trees burst into flame and the air becomes unbearably clear and crisp.  During the year she spent in India, making a pilgrimage of sorts to the Buddha’s birthplace and seat of enlightenment, it was the autumn, with these honking geese, that she missed the most.

“You should be up there,” she clucks at the geese waddling by the pond.  “You should get out of here and go.  It’s time to go.”

“These geese get lazier every year,” says a voice.  She turns and sees a man in sweatpants with a damp v on his shirt, standing bent over with his hands on his knees. 

She smiles in absent agreement.  “Guess things are too good here to move on.” 

The man’s chest is still heaving from his run and his face is flushed.  He’s handsome, with very black hair shot through with gray and a wide face that carries his beaked nose well.  “I’m Dan Thompson,” he says quickly.  “You’re the aerobics instructor, aren’t you?  I normally go to the gym but I love running in this fall weather.”

Ellen nods.  She likes that he doesn’t wipe his sweaty hand on his pants before shaking hers, as though they are already more than polite strangers.  “I’m Ellen.  Actually, it’s yoga and aerobics.”  Something makes her avoid using the gimmicky title of  “yogaerobics” she first came up with to promote the class.

“Yoga, eh?” He nods, smiling.  “That’s very big right now.  My sister’s a big supporter of it, always trying to get me to try it.”

He sits down on the bench next to her, as abruptly as if strings have been cut somewhere.  “I’ve seen you leading a few classes, actually,” he says.  “You know, the weight room is right next door and—” he fidgets, looking suddenly young, and Ellen realizes that her heart is fluttering.  “I was wondering if you’d like to have lunch, or coffee or something, sometime.”  He stumbles charmingly over his words.  Ellen gives a silent thanks to Avalokiteshvara for this, the day, the leaves falling, a man blushing to ask her out for lunch.  It’s been a long time.

“That would be lovely,” she says, and then it’s time to get back to work, better to leave quickly with a good exit, not get too attached.  They exchange phone numbers, agree he’ll call in the next couple of days, and he runs on, while she walks back to the gym floating on a gust of air perfumed with lotuses.

 

*   *   *

 

At home, Jack is sitting at the kitchen table in last night’s rumpled clothes, staring blearily at the box of Grape Nuts as he spoons them into his mouth.  “It’s three o’ clock, are you just getting up now?” Ellen says, putting down her bag by the door. 

He shrugs.  “Hung over.  Where have you been?”

“At my job, remember?”  She sweeps to the counter and slams a glass down harder than is necessary, sloshing pre-mixed green tea into it.  “I work.  It’s how I bring in a paycheck, maintain my independence.”

He’s looking at her over the cereal box and his lip curls in a very familiar way.  It’s the look he’s usually giving their father when they’re fighting.  “Oh yeah, the local fitness teacher at the Y, teaching New Age spoon-fed tantric shit to white people.  I wish I had risen so high in the world.”

Ellen is cut by the lash in his voice and hides her unsteadiness by dumping a spoonful of sugar in her tea.  She never could get used to the sugarless green tea, not to mention the god-awful yak butter tea her Tibetan teacher drinks.  “I’m a better Buddhist than you are a Christian,” she snaps.  “When was the last time you went to church?  I’m not some washed-up hippie.”

He waves his hand.  “I’m not pretending to be a good Christian.”

Ellen yanks the box away, feeling a quivering spreading from her stomach up to her shoulders.  Why does she let Jack bother her so much?  She must find calmness before all else.  “I practice what I believe in,” she says. 

Jack watches her, an eyebrow raised, challenging, waiting, but she can’t say anymore.  Damn him!  “My master would say that we all have to follow our own paths, but the least you could do is respect mine.”

He grabs the box back and pours more cereal in his bowl.  “You worship that master of yours.  Go have tantric sex with him if you love him that much.” 

The wild hurtfulness of this statement sends a chill through her, but she also feels calm.  He isn’t hung over, she realizes, but drunk again.  He’s good at hiding it sometimes, but it is only drunk Jack who is this cruel.  “You don’t understand the master-student relationship, and you certainly don’t understand the tantra,” she says with dignity, and is about to walk away, feeling superior, when Jack tosses his last stone, the thing he’s been smugly holding in reserve.  “Your husband called.”

She whirls around.  “How many times do I have to tell you!  Ex!  Ex!”

He shrugs; there’s a smile in the corner of his mouth.  Oh, how he loves finding people’s buttons, their sore tender spot, the place they curl around protectively.  How skilled he is at probing, digging, gouging, finding the spot and pressing hard, then again.  How did he get so cruel?  Is it their mother’s death, the drinking that followed, or were there hints of it already in the straw-blond little boy who liked to pull her hair, who liked getting in fights on the playground and never cried like the others?

Jack gives her the message, still smirking.  Her ex-husband wants to meet for coffee.  He has something he wants to give her.  Ellen goes into the bedroom and calls Jules, leaving a message on his machine to meet her tomorrow at a Starbucks in town.

 

*   *   *

 

Tomorrow is her day to go to temple.  The local monastery has very few monks, but many local lay practitioners.  The temple was built in the seventies, converting an old YWCA, and is ugly as sin as her father might say—nothing more than a cement block.  The monks have built up the outside, though, with flowers and walled hedges.  Ellen arrives just on time—it’s a long walk from her house, but she likes to arrive a little tired, a little flushed and fuzzy from the exercise—and kneels quickly near the back of the room.  It is a former gymnasium, the bright waxy floor hidden by rugs.  Everyone around her is white, dressed in their Sunday clothes.  After a few chanted Sutras in Tibetan, the master takes the stage.  His name is Tenzin Chokyi and he is a bald, beaming man whose sun-creased face shines like amber under the lights. 

Today his sermon is on the bardo, meaning “intermediate state” in Tibetan, the state between one life and the next.  He tells his congregation that there is a bardo of sorts in our daily lives as well, that when we are fully self-aware we will be able to detach ourselves from the ties of previous selves, previous lives, previous ties.  If we have the courage and confidence to break free.

Ellen, kneeling at the back of the room, can feel the blood throbbing in her legs, her whole body taut with attention, her eyes on the smiling beatific face, her mouth slightly open in the awed way someone will tilt back his head to watch fireworks in the night sky.  This is the same way she felt as a teenager reading Siddhartha, a shaggy-haired lonely girl burning for the truth, some truth, any truth.

After the service she jostles her way to the front to be touched.  He is resting his hand on people’s heads, giving them a blessing.  When it is Ellen’s turn, she asks breathlessly, “May I have a private meeting with you?  I have a few questions—”

He nods.  “Only today I have too many meetings already.  Come tomorrow, Ellen.”

She feels a glad rush that he remembers her name from the last time she interrogated him about meditation techniques.

 

*   *   *

 

She sees Jules the moment she steps into the Starbucks.  It has always been that way: he always stood out in a crowd for her, from the first time she saw him in a crowd of poetry grad students.  Maybe the brazen confidence shining in his face, a light-bulb that can’t be dimmed.  He is lounging by the window with a square something wrapped in brown paper on his lap.  An old leather jacket hangs from his shoulders—she knows that jacket, has lain naked on his bed with that jacket over her.

Now he’s seen her.  He’s getting up, package in one hand, pulling back her chair with the other.  Such a gentleman.  “Ellie.  You look great.  What has it been, six months?”

Every time they meet, he asks again how long it has been since the divorce was finalized, as if he’s confirming, ‘Is it still on?’

“Yes Jules, six months,” she says stolidly, and sips from the cup of tea he pushes toward her—he knows what to get.  She is a creature of habit, doesn’t change easily and always orders the same thing.  “You look good too.”  He does.  Black-black hair grown past his ears, same humorous clear eyes, a little weight gained back—he looked too thin and harried toward the end.  To be expected from the night life he was leading.  Old anger flares in Ellen, pushes once, then retreats.  Om mani padme hum.

“I’ve got a new book of poetry out,” he says.  “Or out in the next couple of months.  I’ve got an advance copy here for you.”  He taps the package.

“That’s great!  I’m proud of you, Jules.”  She unwraps the package slowly and admires the cover.  Meditations is the title, in black on a blurred black and white photograph of a garden at dusk.  She flips a few pages.  “This is great, I can’t wait to read it.  Is there a theme—”

Then she stops.  She has reached the dedication page.  There, alone on the page, is her name.  To my wife Ellen.  She looks up at him quickly.

“I can change it if you want,” he says, sounding oddly shy—Jules!  Shy!  “But I wrote all of these poems when we were still married.  That’s why you get the first copy.  I—couldn’t have written them without you.  A lot of them are about you in one way or another.  I knew I wanted to dedicate this book to you.  It just seemed right to say it— that way.”

There is something in Ellen’s throat; she can’t speak.  A hot wetness pushes at the corners of her eyes.  “Keep it the way it is,” she says finally, huskily, and reaches across the table to touch his hand.

They stay that way for a long time.  Ellen, looking into his eyes, can feel a slow awakening of that lumbering beast of attraction she thought she had finally smothered.  It is Jules, her husband, he is here, so close she can smell his aftershave.  He always has a pull on her, might always have that pull.  A tie she can’t seem to break.

“You seeing anyone right now?” he asks.

She thinks about Dan, then answers truthfully, “No.”

He nods, sits back, smiles.  “Now what’s a guy gotta do to hook you?” he says, in his jokey gangster voice.  She laughs, but nervously.  She can hear the danger, feel it.  She’s this close to going home with him.

“I’d better go,” Ellen says finally, pulling out of his hand.

“Call me and tell me what you think of the poems,” Jules says as she goes out the door.

 

*   *   *

 

Jack is gone when she gets home from her afternoon yogaerobics class.  She won’t have to face him then; she knows he won’t be back until late.  She moves his bag to the door, ready to kick him out the minute she gets the chance.  Enough is enough.

Ellen lies on the bed in pajamas, reading Jules’ poems.  They are very fleshy and she occasionally recognizes touches of her own anatomy in the verse.  That mole on her inner thigh, the freckles scattered on the tops of her shoulders.  Even her tendency of flinging her arm across the bed while sleeping and hitting him in the face.  She touches the mole in question, curious.  She never knew he liked it.  The thought of nightly meditation is far away; she puts down the book with an effort, but lies awake in the dark for a long time, her hand pressed to the spot on her thigh.

In the morning Jack is on the sofa again, passed out.  She wants to kick him awake but forces herself to think calm thoughts instead.  Today she is meeting master Chokyi.  He will know what to do.

She walks through town to reach the monastery and passes the duck pond.  The Canada geese are still there, but they seem restless.  A few take off and circle the park only to land again, puzzled why the others won’t follow.  It’s getting colder; the trees are ablaze and the sky is often ringing with the calls of the migrating birds.

Tenzin Chokyi’s private office is a small windowless room past the women’s old locker room.  The walls are hung with rugs and there are more rugs and cushions on the floor.  Ellen is shown in by a novice and she sits across from a brilliant poster of the male Buddha of compassion and the female Buddha of wisdom locked in passionate intercourse.  It is easy to see why people can misunderstand the symbolism and metaphor used in tantra, she thinks.

Then Tenzin Chokyi enters the room and sits on a cushion beside her.  He offers her tea and tsampa, a Tibetan meal of roasted barley flour, but she knows to refuse.  “Master Chokyi, I wanted to ask you about—ties,” she says.  “I want to renounce them, I want to let go, but I can’t seem to.”

He stops her with a raised hand.  “When you say ‘renounce,’ you are misunderstanding what I have said.  The Buddha teaches mindfulness, not repression.  To deny you ever had a bond to someone will not make it go away.  You need to say to yourself, ‘Yes, I am bound.’  Knowing that you are is the first step to freeing yourself from it.”

She feels suddenly breathless with the importance of the new idea even though she isn’t sure what it means.  She wants to think on it, but Tenzin Chokyi is talking about something else now.

“The same is true for desire,” he says, and his eyes crinkle warmly.  The one-shoulder habit reveals the smooth brown skin of his chest, the youthful play of muscles in his arms.  “The way I have always interpreted it, we don’t need to eliminate our desires.  We need to be mindful of what they are.  We need to say, ‘Yes, I have a desire.’”  And he puts a hand on Ellen’s knee.

She is wearing a skirt and her legs are bare to the mid-thigh.  Ellen, frozen, watches the hand as it travels higher up her leg, to the edge of her skirt.  The room is oppressively hot.  She can feel herself sweating, the clamminess of her legs and the dry warmth of the hand.  She is still, fully in a moment of heightened awareness yet utter detachment.  Surely it isn’t her leg being touched right now.  And surely it isn’t her master stroking her breast.

Her master has said that moments of heightened emotion, even negative emotions, can cause brilliant realizations.  Terror, turned to bliss.  Rage, to peace and compassion.  All of these are chakras.  Chakras, meaning “wheels”, that can be turned.  Now, this is betrayal, she is thinking.  Here, now, is crushing disappointment.

She puts her hand on his, stopping it.  “I’m—I’m going now,” she says.  He watches mutely, seeming to understand, as she gets up, straightens her skirt and walks out.

 

*   *   *

 

After the stifling room, the autumn air outside is so clear it burns into her.  Everything seems to have an inner glow—the trees, the little New England houses, the monks in their maroon and saffron robes.  She begins to jog, running in a kind of glory she thought she could not feel again.  The high calls of the geese spur her on.

At home, Jack is sitting up on the couch.  He is blurred with sleep, not like the fierce shining clarity of all else.  He gives her a quick look.  “I—I’m sorry about that stuff I said.  I won’t be here bothering you anymore,” he says. 

They both know he went too far.  When they were young he used to tease her oddness.  Her meditating, her lack of friends.  But never this.  As he gets up and begins stuffing last night’s clothes into his bag she wonders if this is how his fights with their father always end up.  Both of them spitting poison, then one of them goes too far.

“Wait,” she says.  “I don’t want you to go.”

He pauses and Ellen walks over and folds her arms around him.  For a long moment they are still, as if waiting for something.  The honking of the geese.  The phone ringing as Dan calls to ask Ellen to lunch.  An end to old things and the beginning of the new.  They are between everything, but still Ellen won’t let go of him.  Yes, I am bound.

 

 

Blair Hurley has been writing from a young age and has had short stories published or forthcoming in Descant, Quality Women's Fiction, The Allegheny Review, The Armchair Aesthete, and the book The Best Young Artists and Writers in America.  She is a senior at Princeton University, pursuing studies in Creative Writing.  She is currently at work on her first story collection.