Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 11.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 11

Suicide

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. ~ Thomas Merton

It’s a cold, gray summer afternoon in San Francisco when I find myself standing outside of my body. I watch as my first wife paces back and forth at the end of the hall with a piece of white notebook paper in her hands. I had left it neatly folded on the bedside table for her to find when she came home from work. Now, hovering over her shoulder from above, I read the letter I’ve written and cringe. All those late nights sneaking off to North Beach, looking for men in some peep-show heaven were too much to admit, so instead I told her: I am a porn addict and our relationship is a sham. A few lines to make her hate me just enough to let me go. But that’s not what I meant. It’s not what I meant at all. I just wasn’t ready to come out yet, not to her, not to myself.

So now I look down the hall and see my bag propped next to the front door. Run, run, run, I say to myself. Run from the pain of what is about to happen. Run from the truth. But something, maybe even courage, holds me to the ground under my feet. I have to see this through however cowardly I may feel.

Her hands start to shake like brittle leaves in a gathering gale and the paper falls out of her fingers, spiraling down to the warped hardwood floor.

“What the fuck is this?” she screams. “You bastard! You lying bastard!”

Our white German Shepherd scampers into the bedroom to hide, shaking under the bed. Then my wife tears off her wedding ring and throws it at me. The heavy silver band bounces off my chest with a dull thunk and hits the floor before rolling off under the kitchen table.

“Get out! Just get the fuck out of here! Get out, get out, get out!” comes the murderous crescendo and for a second I wonder why she doesn’t try to stab me or strangle me or claw out my eyes. I back away, towards my bag and towards the door. She beats her fists on the walls, on the table, on her chest. Suddenly I feel nothing but regret for what I’ve done. All I wanted was to free us both from the lie I’d been living but instead I’ve broken her heart. So now I do run, down the steps and into the fog, tripping at the bottom into a full sprint. At the end of the street I hear her scream, full of blood and the end of the world, and that scream echoes inside my head for days.

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done. It’s done,” I chant to myself in between quick panic breaths that tear open my chest leaving my heart exposed to the chill and the wind. I put my head down and my feet flap hard and fast on the sidewalk as I head for nowhere at all. A bus pulls up, brakes screeching like nails on chalkboard and I get on without thinking. I find a seat and the city flies by stop by stop while I try to remember how I got here.

Six years together. Now gone, just like that. Three of them married. Some good years, some dark. But she was bright and sunshine and flowing dresses in Santa Barbara and as she shone on me I grew boundless for a while. I remember that first night in the beer garden as I saw her eyeing me nervously from the other table. Ten Meister Braus later I got up the courage to sweep her off her feet with a sneaky kiss and a smile. We ran all the way home to make love, my first time, and it was just so good to feel ok with another human being, to feel that embrace that I had only longed for and imagined.

And so not a night apart for more than I can count after that. Seven hundred happy sunsets at least, holding hands and laughing with heads tilted back in great guffaws of love.

Then a whisper one night in her ear: I want to be with another man and instead of pushing me out and away forever she pulled me in tighter and we both came, full of light, to the very thought it. So we danced through those hot sticky nights of summer searching until we found the one and he was perfect for the twenty minutes that three bodies needed to wrap themselves into one.

That night melted away through my fingers too fast and we didn’t see him again for almost a year. I had almost forgotten him until there he was, another face in the party, holding hands with his lover, beaming proudly “Hey Chris. Hey, Sherry. I want you to meet my new boyfriend!” The word hung there in italics, sharp and serrated, and it cut my heart into two pieces until jealousy pumped out of them in hot, dark spurts. That could have been me. That should have been me.

There were other lovers after that and I wore my bisexuality like a second hand sweater, taking it off and putting it on when it suited me. But it was never enough and I tore myself apart inside all the time. Depression filled me up, depression I could taste like some thick black oil on my dry and swollen tongue. The days were all dark, one after the other without end, until the memory of sunshine and laughter disappeared into the void.

Then the meth came and everything unraveled: my life, my marriage and even the sweater.

Now, as I ride through San Francisco for hours, the city doesn’t notice my nakedness at all. I am numb and shiver in the damp of dusk. I get off the bus and wander some more. There is nowhere to go. I reach into my wallet and count seventeen dollars in loose bills. She’s frozen the accounts by now, a cold retribution.

Across the street a neon sign glows: Pharmacy with the mortar and pestle flashing hypnotically. The doors slide open and the air, thick with too much perfume of Dial and Pert Plus, tickles my nose. Is this what heaven smells like? I roam up and down the aisles pretending I don’t have a plan, that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I’m outside of my body again and I watch from above as I pick up little bottles one by one looking for that specific combination of letters and words that I will recognize only when I see them.

Then there they are. “In case of accidental overdose please call…”

I shake the bottle like a baby’s rattle next to my ear. I shake it in a little rhythm, shucka-shucka-shucka, and walk it up to the counter in slow, shuffling steps. The clerk smiles at me through braces and acne as he rings me up.

“That’ll be ten-seventy-eight!” he beams.

Outside, I find a payphone in the dark. The cars whiz by on streets slick with new rain and I let the plan simmer in the back of my mind letting the phone ring until he finally picks up.

 

My friend’s place is small, a bedroom addition stuck haphazardly on the side of a rickety mustard yellow house in Potrero Hill. He gives me a big hug and looks me over like a mama bear inspecting her cub before I squeeze into his room. He didn’t see this coming, fooled by the act I’ve put on for all these years. We drink beers and sniff little bumps of crystal as I try to explain what’s going on. The burn and the rush fill me with hope and I forget for a little while the plan I have stuffed in my bag. I jabber on incoherently and we stay up all night until I start to think that my new life is going to be amazing.

“Are you gay?” my friend asks as my head snaps back from a line of meth.

The question stings more than the burning drug in my nostrils and I pretend at first not to hear it.

“Shauna thinks you might be gay,” he says. She should know. Shauna who used to be Sean has a nose for these sorts of things.

“No! No!” I say with a shake and a wag and I look over my shoulder for the door, for the exit, for the great escape. But there’s nowhere to run now. A parade of all my lovers tromps through the room with crashing cymbals and drums and trumpets and I worry that my friend can see them too. All the Chris’s and Jimmies and Aarons and Mikes wave and shout as they walk by, “Hey Chris, don’t you just love a parade?” I put my head down and pretend they’re waving at someone else.

“No, not at all,” I say.

My friend shrugs his shoulders and smiles like he knows something I don’t know. The fanfare dies down as the parade turns down a dark alley. I smile back at him as I pass him the tray lined with rails of speed and he doesn’t bring it up again.

The next day my friend goes to work and I am left alone with my thoughts. The euphoria of speed and beer are gone and I spiral down as the memories of the day before come back sharp and clear. They slash at me and though I put up my hands to fend them off they still cut deep. Phantoms and banshees swirl all around me calling me names. They check off long lists of faults and shortcomings cackling as they watch me squirm at the truth of them all. Liar, they say. Cheater. Betrayer. Pervert. Faggot.

I gasp and claw at the air begging them to stop. I fall over, curl up on the bed and tear at my hair until my scalp starts to bleed.

Then I remember the plan. I remember the pills and the darkness breaks just a little. I sit up and rub my eyes and for the first time in months I think I can see clearly what needs to be done.

I pull out my notebook and begin to write letters to all the people I love. The words drip onto the pages like a sweating fever. I write to my friend, to my brother, to my wife, to my mother, to my father. I apologize for all my failings and for all my broken promises. I tell them how I just can’t bear to live one more day as a failed human being.

I am relentless and I don’t even offer myself one tiny pinch of compassion. I am given over to the mind of suicide, selfish and beyond reason. All I see is my own pain and I don’t care about anyone else or the consequences of my actions.

I fold the letters neatly, printing names in big letters on each one. Then I stack them on the bedside table propping them up so they won’t be overlooked.

I find the bottle of pills and dump a pile of them into my hand. They look like little blue seeds and I begin to lay them out in front of me in neat little rows. I count out forty of them then pour myself a glass of water.

I pick up the first tiny blue pill and look at it between my fingers for a long time. I put it down then pick it back up again. Finally, I call my bluff and put it in my mouth, squeezing my eyes shut tight as I swallow. It is bitter and metallic as it slides down my throat and I resist the impulse to vomit as I take another one, then another. I take them faster and faster counting them out, “Twelve…thirteen…fourteen…” A life that might have been unfolds before my eyes. “Twenty-one…twenty-two…twenty-three…” A thousand possibilities of happiness, laughter and success rise up and fall away but they are nothing but mirages.

I lie down on the bed and fold my hands against my chest. As I close my eyes and wait, the chemicals work their way through my blood stream and I let go of my life. For a moment there is no impulse to fight or flee. I have given up. I am so tired and I let myself drift off to the very edge of sleep. It’s very peaceful here with the cool breeze blowing in from the ocean, through the open window and across my face.

But suddenly my body jerks and heaves into a state of panic. What am I doing? Apparitions and ghosts of all the people I know and love have gathered around my bed. My brother, my mom, my dad, my friends, my wife. They all look so sad and for just a moment I am consumed by an unbearable empathy.

I twist off of the bed crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

I call 911.

“I’ve just taken forty sleeping pills,” I say.

The operator is cool and unfazed. I give her the address and she sends me an ambulance like I’m calling for a Desoto Cab. Thank you and have a nice day, I think as I stumble out into the morning haze and fall down on the curb to wait for my ride.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 10.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 10

California

The sun rises behind me and the Pacific gleams like a hundred thousand sparkling, wish-fulfilling gems. I walk down the steps to the beach and baptize myself in the holy water. I am in California again but not in the proud and purposeful way that I hoped. Two years after high school I spent in the haze of acid and pot until I borrowed enough money from my best childhood friend to force an escape. He is with me now, slashed and bleeding from my betrayals and lies. I coerced the money out of him really, made it a condition of our friendship. Now he stands behind me, silent and seething.

But here I am now, starting a new life from the few dollars I have left from his kindness. It is enough to move into a house with four of his friends from the year before, onto a corner of living room floor and an egg foam mattress.

This little town is wild and on the tiny square mile cliff top overlooking the ocean I will try and fail to break free. But for now the place is beautiful to me and to the ten thousand college kids who call this their first home away from home. For us this is paradise. There are no rules, only youth unleashed. The days are lazy Southern California dreaming but at night the festival begins. Beer flows out of homemade kegerators, house parties go on for days and the air is filled with the endless jam of punk rock, funk and ska.

Drugs are everywhere.

When the weekend finally comes, the already deafening volume is just cranked up another notch. The streets are choked with a mass of drunken, swaying bodies until the chaos rises to a fevered pitch. By Saturday night we are dragging old couches into the street to set them on fire. We cheer and scream in the night as they blaze like sacrifices that light our faces red with the hunger for more and more and more of this new life. They burn to the ground. They burn until they are nothing but piles of the black ash of the pasts that we all want to forget.

My roommates throw dance parties of their own. Every weekend the call of P-Funk, James Brown and Sly is answered and before I have time to roll up my mattress there are two hundred people dancing across the living room floor.

We drink cheap beer, malt liquor and tequila and I think that I need it just to survive. I am still a self conscious and frightened little boy but when I pour the booze down his throat faster and faster he feels warm and free. He loosens up. He lets go. After ten beers he is passed out in the corner but I leap out reborn onto the dance floor in a twirling, whirling, flailing of limbs. The room erupts and everyone cheers and I become even drunker on the sweet fruit of their approval. And so I drink out of need, the need to be accepted, the need to feel right and normal in a world that I don’t fit into. I drink as my sole purpose in life.

I read Bukowski, Kerouac and Burroughs and they become my new heroes. I want to be just like them so I write unintelligible poems and drink all day and night. Then I get up on the coffee table in the middle of the never-ending party and scream my mad verses to anyone who will listen. Sometimes I get a good laugh, sometimes I get punched in the face but mostly I just fall off my pedestal, vomit and black out.

So I slip and slide down this dangerous slope. I quit my job. I am drunk and obnoxious all the time. My roommates can’t take it anymore and they finally kick me out. But I sneak back into the house to sleep when I think no one is home. Then they chase me away like a mangy coyote, wild and snarling. They throw stones at me until I leave the pack for good. I am homeless for weeks and sleep in the open fields or on the couches of strangers I meet at parties.

I get a new job, the only one I can find or even want, as the clerk at the all-night porn store. Every night I watch the parade of desperation march by. I can smell it in the sweat and semen of the slow trickle of men who amble in through the dark, cold mornings. They buy handfuls of quarter tokens from me and I plunk them into their hands like gold doubloons. They sink them into the video machines in the back, lock themselves in their dark closets until the electric-blue light of porn seeps out of the cracks in the doors. Then the air is filled with the soft moaning that becomes our subliminal mantra, calling us all to that which will never truly satisfy.

Sometimes I look at the baseball bat that leans under the cash register.

“Any ‘a these fags tries to sneak into the booths together,” my boss said. “Ya give ‘em some of this.”

But I can never do that. I can never even think of doing that so instead I turn a blind eye to the cameras pointed down peep-show alley and let them all do what they want. After all, I know what they’re looking for back there in the dark, groping blindly and desperately, pressed against the sticky walls and tacky floors. And through the long nights I watch out of the corner of my eye and I’m never sure which is worse: the longing or the disgust.

 

I am spun on a little bump of speed that a regular gave me. He is a male prostitute and a heroine addict. He comes in high, after turning tricks in the parking lot and we kill the silent hours together. Sometimes he makes little passes at me but I always pull away.

“I just can’t read you,” he says and then he strokes my cheek.

But he is gone now and I am biting my nails until my fingers start to bleed when the phone jangles me out of my mind.

“Thank you for calling Downtown Books!”

There is nothing but silence on the other end and I am about to hang up when I hear a soft sobbing.

“Chris,” says the voice I haven’t heard in six months. “It’s your Mom.”

I remember the last time she called:

The government has been infiltrated by a global communist conspiracy that wants to impose a new world order of godlessness on all of humanity and FDR knew this and so does the Pope and everyone is in on it and it’s just that they’ve pulled the wool over our eyes and they put chemicals in our laundry soap that make us weak and compliant so I hope you aren’t using laundry soap to wash your clothes and your step dad is a bible scholar now and we are out here in Colorado because God has brought us here to help save the planet from evil and I saw a movie the other day and there was a scene in it that was approaching Lesbianism and it made me so sick to my stomach that I almost threw up and I had to leave the theater…” she said.

Then I hung up the phone and vowed never to speak to her again.

Now I just want to smash the receiver on the counter top until it is pulverized into a thousand shards of my broken life. I want to scream into the mess of plastic and wire until she goes deaf from all my confusion and rage. I want to cut myself into little pieces and shove them one by one into the mashed little microphone so she can taste the blood of my failure.

But instead I meet her for breakfast in a rundown diner after work. I stare across the table at an apparition from some terrible dream. She is thin and pale and shaking. She is weak and sick and she looks like she is dying but when she looks up at me with dark hollow eyes, they still cut deep into me.

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” she says. “You were in a lot of pain and there were all these people around you. And they were naked and, and…”

I jab my fork into a piece of runny egg and shove it around my plate.

“Then I heard a voice as clear as yours or mine calling out to me: ‘Your son, he needs help. You need to get out there right away!’ So here I am!”

I can’t bear to look at her. I know in my heart that if she knew the truth about me that she wouldn’t be here at all.

But I play along. I pretend that I’m glad that she came. Yes, I need her help. I take her out into the beautiful day where the sun illuminates everything. I show her my life as it is. I show her the porn store and the fields that I sleep in. I take her to an afternoon keg party and get drunk and brag to her, while slouching over on a dirty curbside, about all the acid I’ve taken.

She bites her lip in fear and worry and I flash a devilish smile. Finally, I am winning. So I launch into a hundred thousand other war stories from the front lines of my addiction. I want her to see how far I’ve fallen, how helpless I’ve become. I want her to know that all of this is her fault. And from the curb I scream to her in my mind: Just ask the damn question!

But she still doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t want to. And for an hour, she just sits there next to me wringing her hands and holding back the tears.

I wake up hung over enough to not feel any shame. I poke my head from underneath the hotel blankets and see my mother zipping up her bags. Her bus back to Colorado leaves in an hour. I rub my eyes and groan.

“Ya know,” she says. “You can always come home to live with us.”

I throw off the covers and start to beat out the rhythm of a little tantrum.

“Ok, ok, I’m sorry,” she says. “But will you at least quit that horrible job?”

“Mom, I can’t just stop working.”

Without saying a word she pulls an envelope out of her purse and sets it on the dresser.

“Don’t open that till later and don’t ever tell your stepfather about it.”

We walk to the bus stop. The morning fog is just starting to burn off. We don’t talk about the night before. We don’t talk about anything at all. When the bus comes she reaches for me to give me a kiss and a hug but I pull away. I hand her her suitcase as she climbs up the steps while she looks down at me one more time. There are no more tears hiding in those eyes but I can see she is still sad.

As the bus pulls away I take the envelope out of my pocket. I unfold the slip of paper inside. It’s a cashier’s check for two thousand dollars. I read and reread the number again and again before I quietly fall apart.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 9.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 9

Wandering

My neighbor showed me his hard on through his sweats today but at seventeen years old I still didn’t have the courage to reach for it, even with trembling fingers. He looked at me with a wink and how-do-you-do but I just shied away pretending it wasn’t there. Instead I took another sip of beer, another hit off the joint, another drag off my cigarette. Three little lies that I told myself to help me forget the embarrassment, the longing, and the shame. Then he just shrugged his shoulders and was gone.

So now I am home, drunk and stoned. I wobble a little two-step by the kitchen sink as I help with the dishes after dinner. The little wisps of steam dance in front of me and I laugh as I reach out to grab them.

My mother stands next to me and as I hand her the hot, wet plates I can feel her staring eyes cutting into me. She leans in close, catches the scent of booze on my breath.

“Have you been drinking?” she asks as the tears gather like dark clouds. But it is still the wrong question. Yes your faggot son is drunk is what I really want to say, already so good at calling myself names.

“Yes,” I answer instead with chest stuck out in my newfound, contrived bravado. I tell myself I don’t care what she says or does anymore. I am tired of all the hiding and the lies, tired of sneaking around in the dark, tired of playing this leading role day after day and night after night.

The dismay in her eyes washes me away in great waves of WHAT-IS-WRONG-WITH-YOU? and WE-JUST-DON’T-KNOW-WHAT-TO-DO-WITH-YOU. It sends me head over heels, tumbling down a stony riverbed and I smash and break against the boulders of her disappointment.

Yes, there is something wrong with me. Yes, I need to be fixed.

“We can’t take it anymore,” she finally says and now the weight of this moment is an unstoppable, moving monolith of stone. I plant my feet on the hard, slippery earth, try to heave it back up the hill of time but it pushes me ever forward into the fixed and unchangeable future that opens up like wide and hungry mouth.

“We think it’s time we send you back to live with your father,” she says finally and then the future swallows me whole right then and there.

I go to my room, pretend to pack, but I leap out the side window instead, down the old drainpipe slick with algae and slime. I slip into the street and run light footed and half-free through the shadows and the shade. I run all the way up the coast, five miles in the dark as the violent ocean cheers me on. I run to my only friend’s house and knock on the door.

“Sure, my Dad will let you stay here,” he says on behalf of his Dad who is never there. And then we throw a little party and get drunk to celebrate my long awaited escape.

No more cults! No more paranoia! No more lunatic mission from God!

Two months to graduation. I will make it, I say. I will go on to college. Far from the madness and the noise of home I will find out who I really am. I will make something of myself. And then they’ll see…

When the morning comes I go to school with my head held high. I find my seat in the classroom, pull out my notebook and pen. This is too easy, I think. I should have run away years ago.

I look up from my desk. The police are outside the door now. They have come for me. There is nowhere to run. They take me by each arm and their walkie-talkies crackle and hiss, breaking the silence of our long march down the high school halls. The heads of two thousand classmates I never knew whip around to watch me pass. Then, as the police escort me out into the bright sun, two thousand sets of eyes stare out the windows as they push me, naked and exposed, into my mother’s car.

No one says a word on the way to the airport. There are no explanations or final goodbyes. There are no tears either as we drive through the canyon, out to the highway and all I can do is stare in disbelief as the cactus and the sage and the coyotes fly by.

 

I am back in Connecticut. It is spring. It is 1988. Next week is graduation. Soon I will be out on my own but not in the way I imagined.

The letter rests next to the bowl of fresh fruit on the table. I pick it up and it is heavy with the juice and nectar of possibility. I think it even smells sweet as I bring it to my nose, taking in a great breath of its sweetness. I hold it in my shaking hands for a long while, though gently, like a precious newborn. My Dad makes pass after pass outside the kitchen window and the scent of fresh cut grass and gasoline waft through the fluttering lace curtains. It smells a little like hope as I tear the envelope open.

I have been home for a month now. But the deep old forests I used to play in don’t remind me of home anymore. They surround me now with too much green, too much teeming, squirming and chomping life. The locusts and cicada rattling and buzzing their mad little tune outside my window have forgotten the lullaby that used to send me to sleep on sticky summer nights. Even the faint smell of ocean up there on the high wind doesn’t fill me with nostalgia.

Where is home now? Where do I belong? I spend my nights and days longing for California but even that doesn’t seem like home anymore.

I unfold the letter and read:

Dear Christopher,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for enrollment at California State University…

A wide land opens up in my mind and the rolling plains and sharp peaked mountains stretch all the way back to the Pacific. I spin and twirl on tiptoes, lifting my arms up high in a victory dance. I will go back to California after all! I will return on my own with pride and purpose. I will move into a little dorm room with nothing but a box of books and a reading lamp. I will get a part time job in the bookstore, take more classes than I can handle, drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes as I cram for finals. I will make friends and plans and dreams come true before I finally graduate and head off into my bountiful future.

“Dad! Dad!” I cry. “I got accepted! I got accepted!”

I wave the letter like a million-dollar bill in front of me as I run out into the yard to meet him. I just want him to feel my joy, to give me a hearty slap on the shoulder and say, “Good job, son! You did it!” But instead he just lets the mower sputter and die as he takes the letter in calloused hands. He reads it slowly with a furrowed, sweating brow while he shoos away the mosquitoes and horse flies. It is quiet for a long time and I kick at a clod of wet grass that stains the tips of my sneakers with a black and slimy green.

“Where’s the money going to come from for this?” he finally asks.

I have no idea. I have never even thought about it. All I know is that there has to be a way. So I put up a short and valiant struggle. I throw up my arguments against taking the safe and sure road with plans and solutions and ways out. I will only need enough money to get there, I tell him. Then I will work and apply for loans. I will figure out a way. But all of my answers are just horse flies and mosquitoes and he wrinkles his nose as he swats each one down.

“Why don’t you just stay here?” he says. “Get a good job with good benefits.”

Finally, I break down. I give in too easily. The deep old forest closes in around me now, dark and unfriendly. No, there will be no school, no bountiful future. My Dad hands me back the letter. It is thin like rice paper now and as I crumple up my little dream to stuff it into my pocket, it dissolves and melts away in my sweaty hand.

 

Graduation comes and goes and I take the path well traveled. I follow my father’s advice. I get a job doing man’s work. I lift, I heave, I load, I dig. There are no gay men here in the lumberyard, out, proud and free. To the men who work here we are just fruits, dandies and queers.

“Whadaya queer?” the foreman sneers.

“Not me, sir,” I say. “Did ya ever hear the one about the two fags in the coconut tree?” And so it goes as I learn to hide myself and hate myself ever more and more.

I learn to drink like a real man, too, out there in the hard, frozen field after work. We drink big bottles of schnapps and six packs of beer. We chain smoke cigarettes and long joints of cheap brown pot until we are stumbling and drunk and spinning in the snow and the cold. We all hate our lives and all of us hide out here from wives and mothers, fathers and children. We drink till we can’t see straight, till we forget, till we puke big spots of steaming red and yellow in the field, in the snow. Then we drink a little more.

It goes on for days and weeks and months like this until one day my father calls me down from my room in the attic.

“I found this funny little reefer in your ashtray,” he says.

He spins it around on the kitchen table in lazy revolutions with the half-smoked joint orbiting around in the groove on the side. There is no denying it now.

“I think you have a problem,” he says. “I think it’s time you moved out.”

He is stern. He is unforgiving. He does not understand. I do not understand either. I do not see him twenty years from now, both of us different men, sitting quietly at the table talking deeply long after the lunch rush. I cannot see him reaching out his hand to me to gently squeeze mine. I cannot hear him say I’m sorry and I love you no matter what.

So for today, all I can do is walk up the dark flight of steps to my room, pack my things and go.

 

I am eighteen, a man in the eyes of the world, out on my own now and I am tripping. I forget what we have taken. Synthetic mescaline. Yes, that’s what they said it was. Little green gel caps that melted on our tongues and sing now in our young heads. Now it is cold and we are running fast through the woods and laughing, my roommates and I. Our voices echo through the old Connecticut forest and I think we are good friends and I’m so glad that we’ve found each other. We chase each other through the trees and I am whipped and cut as the branches slash my rosy cheeks. We pretend we are Indians and love this earth, our home.

But where are we? Where is home? Now I am lost. Where are the others? I am panicking on the inside but I don’t show it. No one can ever know. No one can ever know. No one can ever know. So she finds me there in the dirt and the moss holding my knees like that, rocking back and forth. There, there she says and mistaking me for someone else, falls in love.

Soon the pendulum swings back and I am laughing again. We find the others, find my van and pile in. I have made some funny joke and everyone is back on my side, friends again to the end. Are you ok to drive? Sure, I say and I turn the key. I can drive on acid, I can drive on this. The road home is long so I stomp on the gas and try to aim straight, with everyone holding on and rolling like jelly beans in the back.

Stop here! Stop here! Stop here! My friend is shouting from the back seat so I brake hard and park. XXX neon shines from plywood-covered windows painted black. We enter at our own risk, sticking close as the world gets strange. Porn on mescaline is nothing like Dali. Bodies gleam glossy on slick paper and I pretend it’s not sex, pretend I’m not turned on. We laugh and giggle like children holding hands as we sneak into the back to the peepshow booths and men in dark faces look away as we plunk our own quarters into the slots. Click through the channels and see it all for twenty-five cents. Every combination with a click, click, click. The other three laugh and laugh at the freak show called sex and when two men come on the screen, one of them taking the other hard and violent and furious, they squeal and point and cover their eyes. I try to look away too but I spread my fingers open instead, look deep into the screen and wonder how I can get to the other side.

But these friends, good as they are, won’t give me directions. They don’t know the way. I need a different map to a different country. But I can’t find it anywhere so for now I am lost here, and alone. Soon it will be time to leave again, to wander again, without a map or a compass or even a destination.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 8.

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Chapter 8

The Teachings

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. ~ The Buddha

Venerable Jampa Dekyi faces the altar in the gompa at Tushita and there is no doubt, no fear and no shame in her eyes as she bows. Before her is the massive golden statue of the Tibetan saint, Tsongkhapa. He looks down at us with wide eyes that stare out from the illumination we have all come here to taste. He is adorned in saffron silk robes and offerings of snapdragons, apples, incense and chocolates, all the bounties of this life, have been lovingly scattered around him. Other Buddhas hang in the form of thanka paintings on the high walls and I try to pick them out from my studies. My tongue gets twisted in knots as I sound out the strange Sanskrit names to myself: Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrasattva. I watch and wait as the nun prostrates herself to all of these, laying her body out full length and flat on the floor three times before taking her seat.

Oh how the sight fills me with awe and admiration! To believe! I mean truly believe! Twenty years now running away from faith and belief, trapped inside in the Temple of Me, following the rites and insane rituals of the Doctrine and the Church of Me. Where did it ever lead me? To more and more suffering. To hopelessness. To the needless punishment of myself and everyone around me.

But today I stand apart from the rest of the group. Today I am not merely a seeker. I am a Buddhist now. And though I am still uncertain, still kneading the tough heart of disbelief that stands on the edge of the great commitment, I am almost ready.

So when the teacher finally sits I begin my own bows. I bow to her with all the reverence I can muster, as if she were the Buddha himself manifest here before me now. I bow to the words she is about to speak, the Dharma, the teachings that lead to liberation. I bow to the Sangha, the community of those who have followed the words and attained the ultimate freedom from suffering for themselves. I bow with all my faults and shortcomings of the past, present and future, held out as an offering in my open hands. I bow for every unkind word I have ever spoken, for every piece of bread I ever stole, for every time I betrayed myself, abandoned myself, gave up on myself. Yet through all of this I bow without a trace of self-pity or loathing. I am simply me, faults and all, and that is good enough.

When I take my seat again I am filled with gratitude. I am here! I am alive! How many times did I wish for my heart to simply stop beating? How many times did I try to step into that great void? Too many.

But now I look up at the nun and the thankas and all the students sitting around me furiously taking down notes and trying so hard to understand. We are all trying so hard to understand. Suddenly I don’t mind the pain in my knees as much any more. The boredom gives way to a growing joy and I think that this would be a good way to spend a part of my life. To sit and quietly listen for a change. To devote myself to learning as much as I can. To slough off the arrogance and false pride of the addict and finally concede to the possibility that someone else might just have a few of the answers.

“When did your mind begin?” the nun asks. She smiles at us now the smile of an old Australian grandmother as her eyes sparkle through thick rimmed glasses. There is not a trace of arrogance behind them, only certainty. She has asked the question of herself many times before. She has spent long days and nights searching for the beginning of the mind and after shining the bright light of concentration on it has discovered that each moment of mind depends on a similar, previous moment. Tracing back the cause, she has found that our minds stretch far back into inconceivable, beginningless time.

I follow the line of reasoning myself, checking my own experience. I stretch my memories back as far as I can. Then, when I can’t remember anymore, I let my imagination take over. I go all the way back to the darkness and heat of the womb, all the way to the point of conception. But there, I stop. Where was my mind before that? What caused it to be in the first place? Was it the coming together of sperm and egg? Or did it just spring out of nowhere without any cause at all?

“Our minds are beginningless,” she says still smiling. “Our mind streams continue on and on, taking new rebirths again and again. In fact we have been born countless times in countless different forms.”

And so the old nun tells us a story with no beginning or end. She tells us the story of our minds, confused and deluded, grasping at phantoms and ghosts and things that were never even there. She tells us how we cling to a self that we believe is real. We cater to its endless desires; indulge all its petty whims. What’s more, we believe that this self is the body we inhabit. We cherish it and protect it and serve it with every ounce of energy we have. But then, without warning or notice, the body dies leaving the mind untethered and afraid. Desperate, we search for another body to be born into and in our great fear, it doesn’t matter what kind of body it is. It could be an animal, an insect, a fish. All we care about is finding some solid, permanent place where we can feel safe again and rest.

But there is no rest here in samsara, this endless wheel of cyclic existence. Instead we wander eon after eon feeling alone and lost, thinking we are unique and separate, thinking that we are the only ones who suffer, that we are the only ones who truly matter.

“I want you all to imagine something now,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Just assume for a moment that all of this is true, that you have been born countless times before. Let us also assume that there are countless beings in countless universes who have also been born countless times. If all of this is true then it stands to reason that each and every one of those sentient beings has been your mother an infinite number of times.”

This is the vast view of Buddhism and our minds collectively explode.

“Now let us meditate on the kindness of your mother in this life,” she says.

My teeth start to grind until I wonder when they will crack and shatter. My muscles tense. I thought I made peace with my mother before I came here. I thought I forgave her and asked for her forgiveness. I thought I had already sifted through the rubble of the past and found a new foundation to build on. But here, in India, ten thousand miles away, I find that all of that brick and mortar has not yet set.

So cautiously I meditate on the kindness of my mother taking careful, unsure steps into this old house. At first, it’s like poking the hornets’ nest of all my anger and resentment. Kindness? Mother? For years I never put those two words in the same sentence. It was my mother who was to blame for all the tragedy of my life and I had laid that blame squarely at her feet for years. She was not a source of comfort to me, but the cause all my suffering. She was the one who had made me hate myself. She was the one who made me ashamed for being gay. She was the reason I drank and got high and wanted to die. If only she had tried harder to understand. If only she had…

But I stop myself and return to the sound of the nun’s steady voice.

“Try to imagine the sacrifices your mother made for you all the way from the time you were conceived,” she says.

So here, I stop resisting. I stop playing the old loop that’s been droning on for so many years. I go back in my mind, trying to imagine what it would have been like: the sickness, the weight gain, the discomfort. I imagine her, night after night, trying to turn herself over in bed, unable to get comfortable. I imagine the kicking and the turning, the prodding and poking of the life inside of her. Then I try to imagine the pain of childbirth itself and though I come up short, I begin to understand a little. At least I know what pain is and I realize that I have never really endured it willingly for someone else. I imagine all the sleepless nights my mother experienced after my birth, how she got up whenever I cried, without hesitation or thought for herself. Then I remember that there was always food on the table and a warm, dry place to sleep. I remember her defending me against bullies and Irish setters, risking her reputation and even lying for me to protect me. Even when I rebelled against her and tried so hard to hurt her as a way to call attention to my pain, she still loved me and to the best of her ability and wisdom gave me all the care and support that she could. At the very least, no matter what her faults, no matter what mistakes she made, I am here right now mostly because of her.

“Now generate the wish to repay that kindness,” Jampa Dekyi says. “Even if you think it would take your whole life to do so, make that sincere wish.”

It is a tall order but I try anyway.

“Now,” the nun says. “Let go of all the limitations you think you have and apply that feeling to all beings, remembering that every one of them, every human being, every fish in all the oceans, every bird in the sky, every frog and every insect, has shown you infinite kindness throughout your beginningless lives.”

My heart opens and a little bit of light begins to creep in. I imagine the presence of all those limitless sentient beings around me, all my kind mothers of the past, present and future, all of them suffering in their own way. They don’t seem so much like disembodied strangers anymore and just by admitting this to myself, that there are others out there besides me, I feel a huge relief. Here is the purpose I have been seeking in a purposeless life! Here is the potential to be of help to others who are suffering just like me, who want happiness just like me. And what’s more, Buddhism claims to show me how to live this way.

The meditation comes to an end. We untwist our legs, massaging the knotted muscles and joints. As I look around, I see that everyone’s faces are glowing with crescent smiles and faraway looks and with a quiet, little laugh I realize that I am not so unique or alone after all.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 7.

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Chapter 7

True Believers

Listen to me now. You are fifteen years old. You are gay but you don’t want to believe it. You don’t want to believe it so bad that you push it deep, deep down into the dark center of your heart so that even you forget where you put it. Even when it rears its ugly head in fantasies that come unbidden in the night, you just plug your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes tight.

“La, la, la, la, la,” you silently scream. But no one is listening anyway.

Then you can’t sleep at all so you sneak out of the house to drink beers and smoke pot with your other lost friends. You get high and drunk until you are numb, until you forget your name, your life, your dreams. But at least it makes you a little bit happy. Doesn’t it?

Now imagine that you don’t have any gay friends at all, that you have no one to look to and say: Yes, that’s me; that’s got to be me. Instead the only gay boy you know is too pretty, too soft, too feminine and the other kids at school hiss at him through gnashing teeth and foaming lips.

“Faggot!” they say. “Fucking faggot!”

No, that’s not you. Not in a million years. That’s not you…is it?

But even when you sneak into your friend’s mother’s closets, pull out the prettiest silk and lace and dance around free for those few seconds that are like a dream, you are still trapped in the cage of denial. You come and then recoil in terror as you see the broken little bird writhing on the floor there in the tall mirror that never lies. And then a knock on the door and a stifled oh my god

Now on top of that, under that, through that imagine that you come home from school everyday, to the cult of home. You shut the door behind you and there is the Lord, ever ranting and raving, jabbing his finger at the Book, pointing with a growing fever to the proof of the Word. But it is not the word of God alone. It is the word of all gods. A crazy, clamoring confluence of words. Crystals and auras and chakra yoga. Time travel and the end of the world. Fruit fasts and the cleansing of your impure soul. Pyramid power and perpetual motion. Telekinesis, astral projection, mediums and magical thinking. Reincarnation and disembodied ghosts. Human potential and positive thinking. Conspiracies. Conjectures. Paranoia.

“Now I know everything!” cries the Lord again and again. “Now we can truly believe!”

And so you follow the Lord and the Mother, starry eyed now, down this thorny path of disbelief. It is a long, dusty pilgrimage to nowhere and along the way there are New Age carnivals and vision quests, Hare Krishnas and spiritual tests. There are lunatics and visionaries, witches and saints and every one of them beckons you to follow down dark alleys and secret stairs. You follow until your head spins. You follow until you can’t tell right from wrong, up from down, black from white. But always there are signs and portents leading the way. They hide in every number, every shadow, every word and the Mother and the Lord read them like bones.

“It’s ok,” they say in unison. “We know the way. We are on a Mission from God.”

But God works in mysterious ways and one day he comes to the Lord and tells him to read a New Book and it explodes in your lives like a volcano. At first it is all heat and light and wonder. This is what it has all come to. This is, finally and without a doubt, the Truth.

So the Lord baptizes you all in the new faith. He shows you the error of your ways. He teaches you the new mantras and the new prayers. He wakes you in the still of the night, in the dark, shaking you out of sleep to make sure that you’re dreaming the words. He cleanses and purifies, goes away on long retreats. Sometimes you even think (or is it hope?) that he might be gone forever. But always he returns.

Then one day he is standing in the doorway, a half-mad Moses, eyes shining with a terrible light. It is time to follow once more. Time to be brought before the Elders, time to be judged and finally saved. You shudder and shake. Will you be found worthy?

And so he takes you all to the Great Temple and everywhere is the face of the one true Prophet. His cold, blue eyes stare from every wall and they see all of your secrets. Everywhere His words are written in gold and the sound of His voice echoes through time and space. And even though He is dead and gone now for twenty years the true believers wait with open arms for his return.

Here at this great gathering of the faithful you all revel together in your new salvation and clarity. With glassy eyes and plastic smiles you chant and sing the Doctrine, the Method and the Way.

“This is the way to happiness!” you all cry. “This is the way to freedom!”

At first you just mouth the words but then you are forced to learn the melody of freedom and the others correct you with wrinkled scowls when you sing a little out of tune. All day you sing and dance for them as they clap in time. All day you perform with no food or rest.

Finally, when you are delirious with hunger and thirst and half asleep they take you to the High Priestess. She looks you and your brother and the Mother through and through. Yes, you are ready. You will do.

“Well, are you ready to be Free?” she asks.

You look to the Mother for some sign or cue but she is paralyzed by the powerful spell of the High Priestess’ gaze and doesn’t blink or move. You look to your brother as he shivers now, silent and scared. You look to the Lord, who stands behind you with bloodshot eyes, hanging on every word.

“Sure,” you say with a shrug and a voice that’s not your own.

And then the High Priestess claps her hands as she throws back her head and laughs.

“Good, good!” she cackles and cries.

And just like that your fate is decided. You will swell the ranks of the faithful. You will leave the world of confusion behind. You will be purified and set free. There will be no need for schools, or family, or jobs, or friends. You will have new friends now and a bigger family who will teach you and guide you along the True Way.

“Bring the children this way,” the High Priestess says to the Mother. “We will take it from here.”

But the High Priestess, swollen with arrogance, has spoken too eagerly, too greedily and now the spell is suddenly broken. You look over to your right and there is your mother, your real mother who you thought was lost, returned to sanity for just a moment.

“You’re not taking my children,” she cries. And with panic in her eyes she grabs you both and carries you out into the hall. You fly on tiptoe with the High Priestess chasing you down. You fly for your lives. You fly into the golden light of the setting of the sun, to the car, to the highway, to home.

And so your mother has saved you in the end. But it is too late. You sit in silence with your brother still shivering next to you in the back seat. You stare at the back of the head of the Lord that now hangs in shame. You look into the eyes of the Mother in the little mirror that never lies. No one speaks. No one is sure what has just happened. But you know.

You speed along the highway now. The window is open just a crack. The air blows into your eyes so they sting and burn from the smog and the heat. They are dry and red but you do not blink. For the first time in your young life you are seeing things clearly and though they are terrible and merciless, you cannot take your eyes away. This is the end of trust, you think. This is the end of faith. And there in the silence, you promise yourself that you will never believe in anything ever again.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 6.

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Chapter 6

First Love Revisited

Hey lover! It’s me again.

Do you remember the second time I saw you? It was years after we had parted and three thousand miles away from that time and place you let go of my hand and gently nudged me into my long hiding. You had changed your body and your name, but still, that didn’t fool me. I know, I know. This sounds crazy. But I swear to you it’s not. It was you, I’m sure of it.

You had become so beautiful then with long bleach-blonde hair and tight rocker boy jeans, strutting up and down the halls of Laguna High with your retinue of nymphs and dryads surrounding you like some flirtatious, golden Pan. I tried so hard not to stare but I couldn’t take my eyes off of you.

In a way, you were too beautiful, too cool and I thought, no wonder he doesn’t remember me. Day after day I would slink down the hill to the prison of home and languish away in the knowledge that you didn’t recognize me at all, that you didn’t even know I was alive. At best I was just some east coast hick with tangled red hair and pale skin that glowed like some weird lichen in the southern California sun. There was no way you would ever have anything to do with me.

And so, day after day, I stood on the corner with all the other outsiders, all the rockers and punks and left-behinds, and watched you and all the other beautiful people pass by. We’d sneer at you, resentful and jealous, feeling cheated and left out from the rest of the world as we smoked cigarettes and thin joints and tried so hard to look tough and cool.

“Hey, nice shirt,” you said one day as you slowed down in your yellow Porsche 911.

We all stood there in awe, forgetting the rule of cool for a split second, letting our jaws drop down to the sidewalk as I spun around bewildered to see who you were talking to. I looked down, saw my ripped Ronnie James Dio t-shirt, faded and black, and realized you were talking to me. Then you winked as you stepped on the gas and those fat tires left thick chunks of burning rubber sticking to the asphalt like breadcrumbs, all the way up the hill, all the way up to paradise.

I skipped down the hill that day, smiling for the first time in a year, like a whistling rainbow in the dark, down and away from the castles and palaces that sprawled across the hillside above. You had noticed me! I was alive!

Do you remember the next day when you slowed down by Stoner’s Corner and told me to hop in? It was like a waking dream! I slid into those black leather seats, hot and sticky from the sun and off we went to the Taco Bell. You cranked up Ozzie’s Crazy Train and we wailed out the chorus to the clear blue sky and rocked out the solos on our air guitars.

“You should come over sometime,” you said. “We can jam.”

My heart leapt into the air before it dove off the side of the coast highway over the cliff and into the sea. I didn’t even have a guitar.

But that night at home I blurted it out anyway. “A-kid-from-my-class-wants-to-know-if-I-can-come-over-this-Saturday-to-play-guitars-and-just-hang-out.”

I winced as my mom and the Lord looked at each other then back at me through narrowed eyes. They probed me with questions about you, where you came from, what you looked like, what kind of clothes you wore. They frowned and crossed their arms when I told them about your car and I gave up any hope of ever seeing you again. Then I waited in the stifling silence while they transferred thoughts from mind to mind.

“OK,” they said finally and I didn’t question the mystery of it at all as I slipped off to bed.

When Saturday came I couldn’t get away from home fast enough. I went down to the beach to meet you two hours early. The morning fog wrapped around my skin and by the time you pulled up, I was wet and shivering in the chill of Southern California December.

We sped up into the hills and I forgot all about the cold as I watched in awe as the mansions whooshed by. Pretty soon I lost count of all the Mercedes and Jaguars and Bentleys, of the wide patios with tall glass windows overlooking the Pacific, of the hot tubs and swimming pools of azure, of the sculpted jungle gardens of the homes of the gods.

By the time we came to your house my head was spinning. I looked over at you and I knew, plain and simple, that I was in love. We went inside and your mother shouted to us from the kitchen. She was tan and golden just like you, dressed in a flowing silk pool dress of turquoise and paisley. Her fingers were heavy with fat, sparkling gemstones. She called herself a Lady of Leisure and threw her head back in a rolling laugh as she poured us lemonade and sent us off to your room to play guitar.

I sat on the side of your bed, watched you sling on that cherry red Kramer Flying V, switch on your amp with a screech of feedback and tear into the intro of Crazy Train. My mouth dropped open. You were so good!

By the time you handed the guitar over to me I had forgotten the three chords I knew. I held it there in my hands while the amp groaned and hummed impatiently, waiting for me to do something, anything. I fumbled around the neck but my fingers didn’t know what to do on the narrow little fret board. All I could get out of it was a muddled mess of distortion and feedback. Then I handed the instrument back to you, defeated, and shook my head.

I came over again the next weekend. Then the next. The routine was always the same. I would watch you play with my chin in my hands and my eyes filled with love and lust. You’d let me play until neither one of us could stand it anymore then we’d listen to your records for hours. All the while we squirmed in the stew of hormones that boiled around us. Sometimes I’d catch your nervous sidelong glances and I knew what you were thinking. Did you know what I was thinking too? Either way, neither one of us had the guts to do anything about it.

Until that one day when you finally did. You had picked me up from our rendezvous point at the beach, and we drove in silence all the way to your driveway. I looked down at your bronze legs in your short shorts, swooning in a rush of heat and blood.

“So, what do you want to do today?” you said as you shut off the engine.

It was the question of the month, of the year, of my life but I just shrugged my shoulders.

“Well,” you said with a coy yawn and stretch of your arms. “No one’s home so…we could just go inside and beef each other.”

The sky opened up, music poured from the clouds above, my heart leapt into my throat and I burned with the thrill of the promise of sex. I felt your eyes on me, waiting for my answer, waiting for any sign of approval, rejection or even disgust.

“Yes, yes, yes!” I cried in my mind. But I wasn’t quick enough and before I could form the words on my lips and push them out, you started to laugh. I waited, with the yes that would have changed the world ready to leap off the end of my tongue.

“Just kidding,” you said. “Me and my friends at my old school used to joke like that all the time. Pretty funny, huh?”

Then you opened the door to your car and left me sitting there in sad and silent disbelief. We were so close, so ready to put aside all the confusion and doubt, to embrace who we were, who we could have been, to put to rest all the questions of am I or aren’t I or who am I? Then you shut the door and all I could do was watch as you walked away and up the stairs.

One day the Lord came to pick me up from your house. It was the first time he had ever met you. You stood there in the doorway with the sun shining on your long, blond hair and your short shorts. He looked you up and down with a sneer and a fake smile that barely contained his contempt. But you just went on smiling and so I smiled back too wishing that I could just reach out and hold your hand, right there in front of him, proud and defiant. When we got in the car my stepdad didn’t say a word for the whole drive home, he just stared straight ahead and never once looked at me.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend any more time with that boy,” my mom said that night.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, David thinks he’s gay.”

I wanted to laugh and dance and cry all at once. I knew it! You were gay! How could I have ever doubted it? But then I started to tremble and shake as I realized that once again it was me that was being accused of that nameless crime.

I stomped my feet, ran to my room and slammed the door. I cranked up the stereo and screamed. I belted out the lyrics to all my songs of frustration and rage. My fists pumped in the air to the angry rhythm. I dove off my bed and bounced off the walls. I spun and twirled till I fell sweating and panting to the floor.

I laid there for a while till my head rolled off to one side and saw the wall behind my door. It was my secret shrine to my gods of rebellion, but now I saw that the posters of my rock ‘n roll heroes, snarling and sexy in tight leather pants, were all torn down. I remembered the ransacking of my room two years before and thought, oh god, it’s happening again.

Late that night I was ripped out of sleep by a violent shaking and a bright light in my eyes. My blood pumped full of fear. There was the Lord shining a flashlight into my face and gripping me tight by the arm. He was seething and spitting and so close that I could feel his hot breath stinking of cigarettes.

“Who do you think you are?” he hissed.

I was so frozen with fear that I didn’t even understand the question.

“Making your mother see that smut you hang up on your walls. You wanna look at pictures of men with cocks sticking out of their pants, you do it when you’re on your own, you got that?”

He pushed himself off of me like a trampoline, pinning my shoulder hard against the mattress as he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving me to shiver there in the dark, scared and numb.

I didn’t see you for months after that. The best I could do was to hang out at our old spot where you used to pick me up and sit on the splintered old bench. It was there that I saw you finally in the middle of the summer. Even though you were far away, I could see her hanging on your shoulder and you were making her laugh while she playfully punched you in the arm.

I sat on the bench for a long time. There were no tears, no feeling at all, just the crash of the waves and the wind and the seagulls hovering above. As you got closer I shut my eyes tight and prayed. I prayed to become invisible, prayed that I would disappear, prayed that you would never see me again. I chanted those little mantras over and over until I felt myself growing light and translucent. The wind picked up and it seemed like it was lifting me up into the air, inland and over the mountains like the morning fog. When I finally opened my eyes I saw that you had already passed. The magic had worked. I was no one. I had melted into thin air.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 5.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 5

Silence

On a quiet night, mutely sitting in a temple,

Infinite silent solitude reveals myself in itself.

Losing futile thoughts,

Alas, here is the Buddha! ~ Zen Poem

Now I have come to the shore of great silence. The young boy who ran to hide in the woods all those years ago has traveled so far to come here. How much noise there was along the way! I remember screaming out loud to the deaf sea and sky, trying to drown it all out. I remember too, muffling the din with the heavy, wet blanket of drunk and stoned. Finally, desperate and hopeless, I even offered myself to be swallowed up by what I thought would be the final silence of death. But in the end I pulled back from those gapping jaws and now, in the relative quiet of sobriety, I have come here to finally listen to the sound of my true self. No more endless chatter, I say! No more telling myself lies and stories and half-truths. No more chasing the tails of thoughts that loop round and round, thoughts that go on and on without end or purpose.

Here in Tushita, I see there are other travelers who have followed the call of silence. They come up the steps loaded down with heavy packs in ones and twos, and soon there are nearly fifty of us gathered at the entrance to the retreat center. We catch our breath as we dab the sweat from faces and foreheads after the long climb. The clear, high voice of this place has gone far and wide across the earth and now we all gather at the top of the hill under the shade of cool pines, wide eyed and wondering. Why have we come here? What do we hope to find? The air crackles and sizzles with the electricity of our expectations.

As I look around at all these new faces, I realize that I am not alone after all and this makes me smile. It is good to know that there are so many others who want to spend time in retreat, to spend ten whole days of their hard earned leisure time at this course on meditation and Buddhism. I think too that I am glad that we are in a high place. All retreats should be in high places, or maybe by the sea. Either way we need to be close to the source of ourselves, far and away from the noise and confusion that always pulls us in a million directions at once.

“We’re going to begin the registration now,” a young Swiss woman calls out over the tops of our heads. We have been dancing gingerly around each other to the tune of polite introductions but now it is time to get serious and we all snap to attention. “Please be patient as you are a bigger group than usual. We will call your names in the order that you signed up for the course.”

I tense and stiffen, wait and worry. Is my name really on that list? Did I fill out the registration form right? Has there been some terrible mistake? I may be clear-headed and sober now, but the old me, the me that doesn’t believe in himself, is still there, still fighting to run the show.

“Christopher…LEEMEEG?” I laugh out loud. Of course I was the first to sign up, months before any of the others. I marked my calendar long ago, ticked off the days when sign-up would begin, set my alarm clock to India time so I would wake at that exact moment. I had left nothing to chance.

So now I head to the dining hall. It has been set up like an assembly line and we stop at one table after another. We sign waivers and pay fees. We drop cameras and cell phones and MP3 players into big plastic bags that are whisked away to be locked in the center’s safe, shedding the noisemakers like unwanted, dead skin. Then there are rules and regulations to agree to, rooms to be assigned, maps to look over.

“Does that watch have an alarm?” the young man behind the last table asks.

I squint at his nametag. John, it says. I hold up the fancy watch like a game show host.

“John, this thing will scramble eggs if I ask it to…”

He doesn’t laugh; he just blinks at me through his wire frame glasses then looks back down at the list in front of him. “Karma Yoga Jobs” it reads across the top and then I feel a little ashamed at my silly joke, like already I have broken the silence.

“Good, you can be the morning gong ringer then. Meet me outside the front of the gompa in an hour and I’ll show you what to do.”

The Gong Ringer! It sounds so important, so official! The shame I felt only a moment ago is swept away by the pride that swells over its banks, and I polish my knuckles on my chest as I follow the little map up the hill to my room. Only a year ago I was smoking cigarettes and drinking myself half to death, but now I am here in India and I am already The Gong Ringer!

My dorm room is on the very edge of the grounds. I slip the old skeleton key into the keyhole and pry the door open with a resounding creak that echoes up the hillside. The plain, unpainted room is crowded with four squat bed frames that my roommates and I will toss and turn on for the next ten days. Above one of them, on a corner shelf that hangs on the wall, is a tiny stone Buddha. He beckons me serenely from the other end of the room and as I sit down on the edge of the bed I laugh. It is a typical India mattress, a thin cotton futon that long ago had all the comfort squashed out of it. I smack it with a satisfying thwap and lay down. If it is good enough for the Buddha to watch over, it is good enough for me.

My first roommate arrives. He is from the States too, lives only a few miles from me in fact, and it takes a minute for the coincidence to sink in before we burst out laughing at the strangeness and the wonder of it all. Then the silence returns uninvited but welcome and we sit for a long while, both smiling out the door at the trees and the monkeys that squabble and scream out there.

At one o’clock my watch beeps softly. Time to learn how to ring the gong.

John is waiting for me outside the huge black doors of the gompa. He plants his feet firmly on the ground as he grabs a big iron ring and pulls hard. I follow him in, eyes glued to him, not wanting to miss a thing. He shows me where the bronze bell and cotton mallet hang just inside the great hall filled with the yellow light of the sun. Then he takes me outside again and shows me how to hit it just right so the warm, round tone resonates softly through the quiet of the retreat grounds. He shows me the other spots to do this. Three times a day for the next week and a half: for waking up, breakfast and the morning’s teachings. He tells me that this will be a way for me to not only be mindful but also to be of service to everyone else here on retreat. I look around and see all the other seekers learning their tasks. Some will sweep the floors, clean the toilets, wash the dishes, help with meals. I take the bell from him humbly now and try for myself until I get it right.

We all meet again inside the meditation hall. A great circle of well-worn cushions, zafus and zabatons, radiates out from the center. Kunpen, the young German nun who runs this place, is poised on one of them. For some reason she doesn’t look strange at all, this western woman in red robes and a head shaved smooth and white like an egg. She smiles and waits for the gaggle to settle onto the strange bulbous seats and we wiggle and wobble until we find our balance.

She begins with the certainty and confidence of a merchant ship’s captain as she starts to tally off the long list of rules and expectations. We have already read most of them but now, as the nun reads them off of a bulleted list, they sound more daunting than ever before. This is the real thing and there is no turning back.

We are to wake at six every morning and be ready for our first meditation session at six forty-five. Then a short breakfast of fruit, porridge and tea. Buddhist teachings begin at nine and will last late into the morning. There will be yoga and the stretching of tired limbs each day just before lunch. Free time after this should be filled with study and meditation, we are told. More teachings will follow until dinnertime. Then we will meditate until nine or nine thirty at night.

While we are here there will be no talking, no smoking, no drinking, no sex. There will be no lying, no stealing, no killing, not even of insects. We are to live as though we are monks and nuns in training and the thought of this gives me a little thrill. But as I look around at the other faces in the room I see watering eyes and gaping jaws.

Kunpen sees these too and she lets out a peal of laughter that sets us all at ease.

“Don’t look so glum,” she says. “It’s not as bad as all that!”

Then she tells us jokes and stories from past retreats and her eyes tell us to have light hearts, to have faith in ourselves, that we can do this.

“The silence will begin after dinner tonight,” she reminds us at the end. “Please take the vow of silence seriously; you will find that it is more difficult than you imagined.”

But the warning fades away as we file into the dining hall. Soon it is buzzing with conversation. Everything is all so new and exciting. Even the simple vegetarian meal of soup, bread and butter seems a great feast. The dining hall bustles with all of this as we take advantage of one last chance to speak to one another. But then one by one, we get up from the long tables and take our plates to the dishwashers. Our voices fade to a few scattered whispers then to no sound at all.

We meet back in the gompa, the new center of our lives, and find that the cushions have been set up in neat rows facing the great altar occupied by the images of a hundred different Buddhas. A man sits on a cushion just under all of these. He faces us, his cushion slightly higher than the rest. He is not dressed in robes, his head is not shaved, nor does he have a thousand arms or a halo around his head. He looks like he could be any one of us. But then I look more closely at his face. He is smiling and serene like no one I have ever seen before. There is no pretension anywhere to be found. Neither is the smile a mask hiding a half secret fear or contempt. He is completely present and in him I sense no wish to be anywhere else.

“My name is Tim,” he says in a rolling Dutch accent. “I am not a teacher but for the next ten days I will try my best to be your meditation instructor.”

His eyes sparkle and I like him right away.

He wastes no time guiding us slowly, gently through the steps of shamatha meditation. This is the practice of mindfulness that I have been playing with for the past year and I feel the pride swelling again as I recognize the posture and method he describes.

“Sit with back straight and legs crossed,” he begins. “Rest your hands in your lap, palms up, cradling each other with the left hand on bottom, right on top, thumbs barely touching. Relax your jaw and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth so you are breathing through your nose. Keep your eyes slightly open, gazing downwards…”

He speaks slowly. There is no rush to be anywhere or do anything.

“Now simply rest your attention lightly on the natural rhythm of your breath. Thoughts will come up. Sounds will come up. Sensations will come up. Don’t worry. Just notice all of these things and gently bring your awareness back to the breath.”

He rings the little bell in front of him and now forty-eight people sit quietly and unmoving, some for the first time in their lives. But this is not my first time. I sit with confidence, knowing what lies ahead.

So I settle in, wrap my knees in my warm wool shawl. I breathe in and out. My thoughts buzz and flutter. I am in India! I am on retreat! I have made it! But I take another inhale and just like I learned back home, I come back to the breath. Then the whole world takes a long, easy breath with me and is for a moment very, very still.

Five minutes pass and I realize that already my thoughts have drifted, though I don’t know when or how. Just when I am about to remember what I am doing, sitting here amongst a group of strangers, I notice the breath of my neighbor. It is a thin, high-pitched whistle through his right nostril. I smile knowingly to myself. Then I bring my attention back to my own breathing.

Eight minutes pass and the whole group moves like a slow, sloshing wave from one side of the hall to the other. Joints creak and crack as people shift on their cushions. But I do not move. I will not move. I have meditated fifteen minutes a day for the past twelve months and so I continue to sit with ease as I come back to the breath.

Twelve minutes. A cough, a sneeze, a sigh. I notice all of these and gently return once more to the breath.

But then, at sixteen minutes, I notice a burning, searing pain in my knees. Drops of sweat gather on my temples and one by one begin the slow descent down the sides of my face. Heat is poured on top of heat and soon there are no thoughts, no breathing neighbor, no silence, no cushion, no India, no meditation hall. There is even no breath now, only the ringing in my ears and the grinding of my teeth as I imagine someone driving long, sharp spikes into my kneecaps. I grab them, knead them, rub them. I rock and roll and shut my eyes tight.

Finally I let out a little gasp. I give in. I quietly uncross my legs and wait for relief. But there is no relief. The pain continues even worse than before and for the next twenty-three minutes I am Agony and Despair. Visions of nine more days of torturous sitting just like this consume me. I am not going to make it.

Tim finally rings the bell, long after I had given up any hope of ever hearing it again. We all groan together and I think we all want to cry.

Tim has not moved. Not one inch. His legs are still twisted up in the half lotus position, one ankle resting on the opposite thigh. He is comfortable, serene, even refreshed after forty minutes of sitting. He smiles at us now. He has seen all this fear, doubt and frustration before.

“It’s not too easy is it?” he says. “Don’t worry. Be patient. This practice is not to be mastered in a day or a few weeks. After twenty years you may find that your ability to concentrate has improved. That’s all for tonight. Get a good nights rest and remember: cherish the silence.”

We all file out of the gompa now, feet shuffling and scuffling into the dark Indian night. The quiet of the pine jungle around us seems forbidding now. I think I have made a mistake by coming here and as I look into the eyes of those around me, I know they are thinking that too.

We head to our rooms, one by one. We do not say goodnight. We do not say anything at all. We just awkwardly crawl under the covers, each with three people around us we have never met, and turn off the lights.

 

In my dream a figure in robes is walking along a winding stone path through the mists and the trees. It is a still moment, a perfect moment, and I think that the sun has just stretched his arms up over the unseen horizon. Out of this peace and silence I can hear the ringing of a great bell. It fills all of space, and it is pure and high and clear.

“What a wonderful way to wake up,” I think as the figure in robes comes closer.

The bell rings again, louder this time. I roll over out of sleep and pick up my watch.

6:06 it reads.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” I cry as I snap up out of bed, knocking my head on the shelf above. The stone Buddha tumbles down into my lap but I do not see that he is smiling at me all the while. I put him back on the shelf, leap out of my sleeping bag and in one fluid motion I am in my shoes and heading for the door. My roommates stir out of their own dreams and try to focus through sleep-filled eyes. But I am already gone out into the mists and blue light of the real dawn.

I run down the slippery, moss-covered steps, straining my ears for the next ring of the bell. I come around the corner and there is John walking up the path towards me. His hair is tousled and he is still half asleep.

“Sorry, sorry,” I say breaking the silence again. I wince, waiting for some stern word or rebuke. But he doesn’t scold me or shush me or slap my wrist. He just hands me the gong and with a nod and a sleepy smile walks back down the path.

I stand still for a moment and laugh under my breath. It is so quiet up here in these hills. The only noise I can hear is the noise inside my head. But even that fades away as I take the gong and the mallet up to the last spot of the morning’s rounds. I stand there on the top of the hill overlooking the gardens and the gompa. I hold the bell high, swing the mallet. Then I wait and listen as the silence holds the ringing close in her arms like a mother who has called her one and only child home.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way, Chapter 4.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way, now available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 4

Diagnosis

“Christopher-Michael-Lemig-Jr.!”

The serrated voice tears through the air, up the stairs, into the private world I am building there and I know that I am in trouble again.

I put on my mask of rock ’n roll and screaming for vengeance that hides all my fear and trembling. These days, at fourteen years old with a pack of Lucky Strikes hidden close to my skin, I sneak hard liquor from the dining room cabinet. With shaking fingers I pull the bottles from the back, oh so careful not to clink them together in the still night. Then I smuggle them out in the folds of denim and leather, one by one into the woods behind the house, where the little sips of scotch and gin burn just enough to sooth the pain that gets worse every day.

Have I been forgotten as the storm of confusion and hormones and growing up different rages on in me and around me? The only calm is out there in those tangled woods of barbed briars and sumac where I hide from divorce, from remarriage, from the homophobic racist stepfather who has moved in calling himself Lord. Out there, by the cool spring that bubbles up pure and clean, I listen for some faint whisper: that it’s ok to be me, that it’s ok to like boys more than girls.

But the spring never speaks. It just bubbles and babbles and I think: oh well, at least it never runs dry.

I tumble down the stairs now, and when I turn the corner my mother is standing in the kitchen five feet tall and terrible. My mother, once the source of all my comfort, now the source of all my fear.

“What are these for?” she asks.

There, in her open palm, rest the two wrapped condoms I had hidden safe and secret like precious coins: the fare for the ferry boat that would one day take me across the wide river to the shore of the real thing. I had quaked and shivered all over when my best friend, Mike, dropped them onto the bed between us and I gasped in wonder.

“These are for sex!” I thought. And as I picked them up, the revelation was a heavy, holy grail right there in my two little hands.

But now I am silent and the glossy plastic rings shine before me even as I try with all my will to tear my gaze away.

“Is Mike gay?” comes the wrong question that we both know the answer to. Her eyes smolder and I shudder and I know that it is the worst thing a boy can be.
“No, no, no!” I cry. While the yes, yes, yes! echoes inside then fades away, even as the budding new part of me that I’ve been grappling with, alone in the dark, cries to get out. All my daydreams of dressing up in stockings and high heels and rolling around in laughing little games with my boyhood crushes flash in front of me. But I am so afraid and I think: oh my god, she can never know, she will never understand. So I tell myself that these daydreams belong to another boy, some strange boy from far away, and the moment slips by.

And so with a shake of her head she sends me back to my room with her sobs following behind me as I trudge back up the stairs and quietly shut the door.

 

A day goes by, then another and another. They are all dark days filled with a shame that seasons the steely blood that flows in my mouth from biting my tongue. The question has been asked, however obliquely, and I know now that no one really wants to know the answer.

There is no need to say it anyway. You see, my family doesn’t communicate in words but instead, by directly transferring thoughts from mind to mind. My stepfather has this power too, so when I see him and my mom eyeing me darkly across the dinner table, I can hear what they are thinking.

“What is wrong with him?” they say.

“I’m gay,” I tell them. But they never listen.

Then comes the day I come home from school and my mom is crying in the living room. Her new husband, the Lord, is there comforting her with her head buried in her hands while the tears drip, drip, drip through the cracks of her fingers.

“There, there dear, everything will be ok,” he coos.

Then he turns and looks me up and down with hatred and disgust that makes me wish I could disappear into the walls and the wood and never come back out.

“I’ll deal with you later you filthy little pervert,” he tells me with his mind.

I run up the stairs to lock myself in my room, my sanctuary, but when I get to the top and push open the door the blood drains out of me and into the floor. My bed is overturned. All my dresser drawers have been tossed around and emptied. My locked file cabinet, my treasure chest of adolescent mysteries, has been pried open and all the secret, sacred contents looted. Everything has been found: the cigarettes, the liquor, the pornography, the dildos, the stockings.

It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me. But when I open my eyes again the mantra hasn’t worked and nothing has changed.

But then the panic subsides. I take a deep breath. I relax and let go. Now they know. They must know. Now I am transparent and all of my longing is known to the world. There is nothing left to hide.

They are standing behind me now and they take me by the arms, march me down the stairs, out into the light of day where the neighbors wonder and whisper behind closed doors and tightly pulled curtains. For a moment, when the sun hits my face, I think that they are going to set me free, to let me flap my wings and finally fly high and away into the clear sky. But instead I am only being led to another cage.

In the silence of the back seat of the old blue Pinto, the shadows of oak and maple flutter across my face. We twist and turn through the winding country roads until we leave the comfort and shelter of home and enter the big city of New London. There is concrete here and crime and drugs and poverty. There are psychiatrists, too.

My psychiatrist waits for me behind a windowless door in a pre-fab office building that smells of fresh paint and carpet glue. His name is painted on the door in gold letters: Dr. Gary Greenburg, PhD. But in 1984 on the eastern shore of the United States it may as well read “witch doctor”.

I am naked and exposed in the florescent light of the hallway as my mother knocks on the door. I am humiliated and powerless even as rage boils in my belly. I cannot breathe. The pressure has nowhere to go. I am going to implode.

The door opens with a swooshing and sucking of air from the hallway. It draws the air out of me too, and I breathe again with a sudden gasp. Dr. Greenburg is smiling on the other side as he holds the door open and waves us both in. He is skinny, frail, with pale thin arms and a narrow face. His wispy black hair falls into his eyes so he has to brush it away when he turns his head. His eyes are nut brown and warm. He is no witch doctor that I have ever imagined and when I look at him I feel safe.

“Thank you Mrs. Lord,” he says. “I’ve got it from here.”

We leave her, befuddled and dumfounded, in the waiting room and he points me to a comfortable chair. He pulls up a seat right in front of me and kicks off his shoes. Then he crosses his legs and looks at me with those dark brown eyes, wide and friendly and full of care.

“So, what’s going on?” he asks.

With a great exhale I let down my defenses, open the gates and let him in. I divulge. I confess. But it is confession without guilt, without penance or remorse. There are no sins here, only the beginnings of trust and truth. I don’t know where the words come from, didn’t know I had so many words dammed up inside me, but they flow out now like a river and all the confusion of my young mind takes shape right before my eyes. Dr. Greenburg does nothing. He just listens, holding up a mirror so I can see it all, so I can see who I am without the judgment and the fear and the self loathing that have already become reflexes, taut and fine tuned.

When the session is over, I am smiling. There is nothing wrong with me after all. Dr. Greenburg slaps me on the shoulder and I laugh for the first time in a year. But when he opens the door and I see my mother waiting outside with deep lines of worry on her face as she waits for the diagnosis, my heart sinks into darkness again.

 

It is appointment day and I am looking forward to my third session. The resentment and the stigma of going to the doctor are gone. In only two weeks he has become my psychiatrist and I even brag to my friends about where I go every Wednesday after school. Maybe today he will ask me about being gay, I think. Maybe today I will tell him the whole truth. That is what I really want, someone to just come out and ask the question, point blank, like a gunshot or a sucker punch. I would welcome it.

“Well, are you gay?” they will ask. “Yes,” I will say and be embraced again, and loved. No more innuendos and awkward avoidances. No more shushing up the obvious; no more uneasy evasions. No more mind reading. No more silence.

I come down from my room and find my mom pouring over bills and letters at the kitchen table.

“Well, are we going?” I ask pretending that I don’t really want to.

“No,” she says.

I wait for more, some reason or explanation, but there is just the wide gap of silence between us. I can hear the scratch of pen on paper, the cat clawing at the screen door behind me, the mail truck idling outside the open window. The warm air of late spring carries in the scent of honeysuckle and sea that used to fill me with joy, calling me and my little brother out to play boyhood games, simple in their rules and enjoyment. But now I just feel nauseated and recoil as I look over the edge of this new cliff.

“Why?” I whisper.

She slams down her pen, huffs and puffs before blowing my house down.

“Oh c’mon!” she says. “We can see you have Dr. Greenburg bamboozled just like the rest of us!”

I see. I am a liar now.

And that is that. I have tried to tell the truth; was forced to tell the truth. But it was not the truth that anyone wanted to hear. The message is now seared in my mind: To tell the truth is to lie; to lie is to tell the truth. So I give up on the truth and I seal myself away. My little secret self that everyone now knows but denies is even there will be routed back to the forest and the dark. I will be silent again. I will speak to no one. I will forget the passwords that let even friends through the gate and I will be alone.

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Free Read. The Narrow Way, Chapter 3.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way, now available on Amazon.

Don’t forget to check out my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 3

Homecoming

It is mid afternoon in Dharamsala. The hills are shrouded in mist. It is dreamtime and mystery weather in one of the wettest places in India.

I have come here to find clarity, to follow the calling in my heart, to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to spend time in retreat, and to use this place as a stepping off point for my pilgrimage of ten thousand miles. But only two days off the plane from the West, and I am already disoriented and bewildered by the barrage on my senses. Everywhere I turn there is noise, poverty, pollution, disease. Families cram into three walled shacks on the sides of the road. Women make fuel for their fires out of patties of dried dung and straw. Oxen carts loaded high with bales of hay and cloth lumber down the freeways while the trucks and cars barrel by. Lepers with missing fingers, toes and limbs reach out for alms. The gritty air tastes like diesel and smoke while the heat of it burns my lungs.

All of these sights, sounds and smells assault my tiny, sheltered world view, a world view shaped by years of stubbornly shutting all of these things out, of stomping my feet and beating my chest: No one suffers like me! I am the most miserable of them all! But now the reality of the world sweeps that little me away and I have to wonder: who is left?

So I am fresh and new as I take my first steps out of Green Hotel and onto Bagshu Road. I curl my soft, pink toes in close as the wheels and feet and hooves crash by. I could lie down end to end twice and be at the other side but still, on this narrow holy highway, half the world has gathered. It is lined with the marketplace of heaven and earth: a cornucopia of silk and fruit, malas and beads, Buddhas, vajras and bells. Monks and nuns with cell phones and laptops hurry from end to end, speeding up the illumination of the world. The air is filled with a great communication of howling, honking and haggling. The poor, the wealthy, the newly born and the dying all push and tug and grab at my sleeves, and I pull away as I push deeper into the throng. A thousand faces blur across the field of my vision, and in this waking dream they are Indian, Tibetan, German, Israeli, Chinese, American, English and Dutch and I smile at each one with a goofy, toothy grin.

“Well here I am!” I want to say. “I have arrived and now we can meet again for the first time. Now we can become fast friends just like we were meant to be!”

I think we are supposed to rejoice now and sing together because we have all come here, finally, to take our first steps on the spiritual path, to once and for all wake up from this terrible dream. Why else would we be here? But no one seems to remember this but me and so instead, they all look through me like I am some apparition of a stranger, just another foreigner who doesn’t belong.

But I am not afraid. I am hard and fierce in my resolve and I keep going, out of the center of town, leaving the crowded streets behind until the road turns into nothing more than a footpath. It takes me through the Himalayan forest, through groves of arthritic pines knotted, twisted and bent from the winds of a hundred monsoons. I make my way up until I come to a high archway topped with two golden deer facing a brilliant wheel that shines like the sun and I pass under them.

The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. This is the first stop on my long list of things to do, places to see, adventures to have. It seems an easy first step, a primer for things to come. I have been here many times already, watched myself in my dreams come up this forested hillside, find my way to the theater and sit down next to forgotten kin from a dying land. I have sat wrapped in joy and wonder as the lamas danced out the long dream-stories from the past that they will never forget. I have wept at the operas of love and loss that all soar ultimately to climaxes of spiritual triumph. I have been mesmerized by the costumes of turquoise and pluming red and gold. I have watched the human story unfold in a language I have never heard, yet somehow, have understood it all.

But today it is quiet and grey. The open courtyard is almost empty except for a handful of young Tibetans in ripped jeans and Kurt Cobain t-shirts. They practice their instruments, bulbous lutes with fat, sinewy strings that wobble and warble and drone. They sing a few bars of traditional songs and the melodies drift up over the tops of the trees where the wind catches them and carries them north over the mountains and back home.

They do not notice me as I scuttle from building to building, jiggling locked door handles until finally, one of them opens. Inside a draughty, dark room a young Tibetan woman sits behind an old, warped desk stacked high with envelopes and papers. She does not look up.

“Are there any performances scheduled this month?” I ask.

“Nothing for the rest of the year,” she says to the desk. The bright dream of dancing lamas pops like a soapy bubble in my face and the spray and the shock of it wakes me up.

Where am I? How did I get here? I rub the sleep out of my eyes, back my way out of the office on tiptoe, back into the courtyard. It is still and deserted now. The students are gone if they were ever there at all. There is no dream music, no performance, no story unfolding. All is silent and I am alone.

Little waves of panic wash over me. What am I doing here? Who do I think I am? I am no hero on pilgrimage, no Basho, no bodhisattva on holiday; I am just a tourist, naked and naïve in a place far away from home. My knees turn to jelly and as I run for the archway it only seems to get further and further away.

The mist has turned thick and heavy, and now it sheds fat drops of cold rain that soak my hair and stream down my face. I hurry down the hill hoping that I will make it back to my room before my tears outnumber the raindrops.

I trip in a pothole and grab at the air to catch my balance. Up and to my left a group of homeless lepers, unconcerned by the rain, watches the curious westerner, lopping down the path, looking sad and lost. One of them leans on a makeshift crutch. He only has one leg. Before I can turn away our eyes meet. I wonder if he can see into the very heart of me, if he sees all my anxiety and worry. I want him to judge me, to slap me hard across the face and shock me out of this bout of self-pity. But instead, he holds my gaze and offers me a wide smile. Then he brings his hands together in the gesture of blessing and prayer.

“Namaste! Be happy, sir!” he shouts over the thwapping din of raindrops while the light in his eyes flashes like lightening.

I am struck dumb and all I can do is give him an insincere smile of my own. I am not ready to believe that life can be this good and simple, and so I flee back to my hotel to retreat and to hide.

I burst through the door, throw myself on the hard mattress. The walls of my tiny damp room that reek from fifty years of monsoon mildew close in around me. The noise from the street outside my window turns into a deafening symphony of cows and dogs and rickshaws all honking and snarling and mooing in seven different languages.

“I am here! I am here! I am here!” they all say.

I wrap a pillow around my head to block out the noise and close my eyes tight, but the reality of India cannot be held at bay with a stuffed sack of cotton batting. The cacophony is an all-pervasive hum now, and as I force myself to drift off into an uneasy sleep, all I can see in my mind’s eye is the one-legged man smiling at me in the rain.

 

When I wake just after dawn, I am still in India. I have not been miraculously transported home. I do not rub my eyes and see all the familiar shapes of my old room coming into focus. Instead, I see the yellow walls, damp and crumbling. I feel the hard cotton mattress cutting off the circulation in my hips and the cold stone floor under my bare feet. It is the dream that is real and I have no choice but to face this day.

I look for my resolve that was swept away by the torrent of yesterday’s culture shock, find it only a little way downstream on a sandy bank. I pick it up, brush it off, see that it is still shiny and good. I put it in my pocket for safekeeping and remind myself not to let it go so easily next time.

I pull out a slim, brown notebook from my pack. Across the top, in fat, black marker pen, I have written a title. The Golden Thread. It is my handmade book of hours, a collection of quotes from a year of study back home. They are messages in bottles and breadcrumbs to lead me out of the maze of my own fears. The Buddha has sprinkled little gems here and there, some of them no more than a few words. There is pith advice on meditation and staying in the present moment. There are gentle reminders to think of others, especially if all I’m thinking about is myself. Lines of wisdom from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great masters of India, Japan and Tibet are woven in with the poems, prayers and ringing insights of Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Campbell, Walt Whitman and Saint Francis of Assisi. These are my new heroes and as I read a few verses they reach out to me from the thin pages to lift me back to my feet.

“Do not quit!” say all the Buddhas and those who have come before me. So I put on earphones and music and sing to myself. Then I dig out a real needle and thread, sew on an old button that dangles off my pants. The mundane victory is enough and once again I am standing on solid ground.

The sun is shining today and the retreating monsoon is nowhere to be found. Gone are yesterday’s mists and rain, and I prop open the door to my room, taking in a deep breath of the cool morning air. Rich smells from the Green Hotel’s kitchen waft up to my balcony and my stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten in over a day. So I sling on my shoulder bag and skip downstairs to fill my belly with tsampa, a kind of Tibetan barley porridge, honey and milk tea.

Now I dive back into the bustle of McLeod Ganj refreshed and fortified. Lepers still line the sides of Bagshu Road but now I don’t look away. Instead, I drop a few rupees into each of their hands, some of which have been gnawed away by their disease into smooth stumps, and we exchange warm smiles. They are not the other anymore. They are just people. Potential friends.

At the bus stand I take a hard right onto Tushita Road, a winding alley ravaged by years of torrential rains that leads up into the hills. The way narrows and steepens and soon I am sweating and short of breath.

After twenty minutes, I reach the outer gate of Tushita, the Buddhist retreat center that I will soon be living at for ten days. The hill, densely wooded with pine trees, is swarming with monkeys. They leap from tree to tree and sometimes break out into violent skirmishes. A young monk in red robes hovers tentatively at the gate, pacing back and forth. I wave to him but he doesn’t wave back.

“Are you going to Tushita?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Good, good. We should walk up together then. The monkeys will be less likely to attack two of us.” He stoops down and picks up a handful of small stones and hides them under his robes.

As we walk slowly up the steep, winding steps, I try to block out visions of bloody carcasses being ripped to shreds by packs of rabid primates. We keep our eyes down, trying not to make eye contact, especially with the large alpha males who watch us too closely. When one of them makes a sudden rush towards us, crashing through the limbs of the trees above, the monk pulls out a stone and throws it into the forest. It ricochets loudly through the branches and the aggressor backs off. For the rest of the way we are left alone, and we soon leave the tribe behind to forage and preen in the growing warmth of late morning.

We reach the top of the stairs and I am suddenly in a different world. The air is crisp in these high foothills, fresh from the previous day’s rain and scrubbed clean by pine needles. A circle has been cleared on the top of the hill that overlooks the wide, rolling plains to the south. Sturdy dormitories and administration buildings with fresh coats of red and white paint form a crescent around the clearing. In the middle of the complex is a giant gompa, a meditation hall two stories high, surrounded by gardens and flowerbeds and green lawns. Gone are the trash, sewage and debris of the town below. Gone too is the noise and the silence shocks me into the present moment.

Stillness, serenity, solitude. These are what I have come here for and I breathe it all in and close my eyes.

Besides my monk friend, only a few figures move quickly and quietly from one building to the next. But then, with a short wave goodbye even he leaves me, hurrying around a corner and out of sight on his unknown errand.

But I don’t mind being alone, not here. In this place, I feel immediately welcome and at ease. I fold my arms around my back and begin a slow, reverent walk around the gompa. With each step I begin to feel light and free. I have made it. It is a small miracle, but after traveling halfway around the world, I have found my way with nothing but a vague map and a guidebook to this tranquil hillside retreat.

Around the south side of the gompa, the grounds open up into a terraced yard with wide stone steps and flowerbeds. A Tibetan pole flag flaps in the wind, its edges frayed from years of sending out prayers of love and compassion to all beings. Down below and to the left is an ornate stupa sitting serenely and majestically on the green lawn. It is a monument to the Tibetan teacher who founded this place over thirty years ago. I am overcome with emotion at the sight of it and I stumble over to the gompa steps to collapse. I am stunned awake and I can’t believe my eyes. I have been in this place before.

Suddenly, everything makes complete and perfect sense. All the jagged pieces of the puzzle that is my life now slide together with ease. I have been led here, drawn here by some magnetism of the spirit, by some force that I can’t see or touch or feel, but that I know resides right here before me. I am certain, beyond all doubt, that every step since my birth has been on the path to this very place. All the years of addiction and suffering in the closet were necessary side journeys and pit stops along the way. But now, I am exactly where I need to be.

“I am home,” I say. “I am home after being lost for so long.”

Time slows, then stops altogether and I sit here with the warm sun on my face for a little moment of eternity. All the effort that I’ve put into getting here has been worth it and it feels like I’ve set down a heavy load. I let out a long, quaking sigh before taking one last look around.

I find my way back to the path and start the long hike down the hill. The monkeys are gone now and the forest is quiet. I pull out my mala, a string of beads for counting prayers, and start saying the only mantra I know. Om Mani Padme Hum. It seems like such a familiar thing to do, like it’s something I’ve done a million times before. But I haven’t. Not in this life anyway. So I recite that mantra over and over as I walk back into town until the melody resonates deep in my mind. I say it out loud even as I pass travelers coming up the other way. I chant it softly to myself as I come back around the corner into the middle of the lunacy of the bus stand. I say it while smiling at the lepers and the monks and the tourists I pass along the road. I say it all the way back to the Green Hotel. I say it as I climb up the stairs to my damp little room. I say it a hundred times, a thousand times, like I’m making up for too much lost time. I say it like there’s no time to lose.

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Free Read! The Narrow Way Ch. 2.

Here’s the next installment of The Narrow Way. Don’t forget to stop by my new website, monkle at large!

Chapter 2

First Love

Hey Lover!

Is it ok if I call you that even though we never kissed? I hope so because that’s what you were to me. I can finally see that now through the clear lens of time polished by the fine grit of too much anguish and suffering. We should have been together, should have shared so much more than we did, but the circumstances of time and place just wouldn’t allow it. It’s ok though. Time has closed the gap between us. At least in my mind.

Look at me, I’m rambling like a blushing schoolboy, just like I promised myself I wouldn’t. But what am I supposed to say to you after all these years? How can I make you understand how important you were to me, even though nothing ever happened?

Do you remember that day as clearly as I do? Probably not. Maybe it wasn’t the pivotal moment that I’m making it out to be. Maybe all this will only awaken in your mind a flash of light and memory, and maybe you’ll smile and call me silly for making so much of it.

It was the beginning of fourth grade I think, and after four years we were still not used to the itch and scratch of starched, blue Catholic school shirts and ties. We clawed at the collars after kickball at recess and tore off the plaid nooses as soon as the last bell rang.

Billy came bursting into class that day and the commotion snapped all our heads up from the burning concentration of long division. He was panting and laughing and could barely contain himself. You came in after him with red cheeks too, grabbing his shirttail and trying to stop him in vain. I could see your fear, could see that you had been begging him not to tell all the way up from the damp basement lavatory, up the three flights of ancient steps, crying “please don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell…”

But he was bigger than you, a sports jock even then, and faster, so he just laughed and sang as he taunted you up the stairs, “I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell, I’m gonna tell…

And then I saw your shoulders slouch in defeat as you stood there on the stage as he rang out the proclamation that would call me home.

Two years before, in the high noon of East Coast summer when the air wrapped itself around me thick and hot, I had my theater debut. It was acting camp and it was the first time I had been pushed out of the nest on my own. My mother handed me off to a young woman of sixteen years and left me there bewildered and teary eyed.

“There, there,” the young woman said and ushered me into the auditorium filled with the strange offspring of unfamiliar neighbors who wore funny clothes and smelled like Vienna sausages and wet dogs.

The workshop teachers, in bellbottoms and ponytails, divided us into groups that just made me feel more alone and afraid. I couldn’t understand why the other children seemed so happy as they imitated the instructors, making animal noises and burping sounds and funny faces on cue. Every time my turn came, I just sat there silent, covering my face and wishing I would disappear.

But I didn’t disappear and before I could protest one of the instructors stuffed a little white card into my hand and pushed me, along with all the others, into the long line that led up to the stage. On the card was a single word written in thick black letters and it felt heavy in my hands as I waited for my turn.

“You just get up there and act out the word for us,” the young woman said. “And remember: Don’t tell us…SHOW us!”

When she pushed me out from stage right into the glare of unwanted stardom, I froze. I looked down at my word, then back up at the hundred little faces that stared at me with wide, expecting eyes. But nothing came. I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t do it. The image of the pose I should make burned in my mind’s eye, but I was so choked with fear that all I could do was stand there hugging my sides, rocking my self back and forth while I looked down at my dirty sneakers and giggled.

“Shy!” a little girl shouted.

“Laughing!” another voice came.

One of the actors, a tall, deaf, bearded Jesus, came to pull me off the stage and out of sight. He was mute and so signed to me what to do. With a happy, encouraging grin he pushed me back out into the light. But still I stood there frozen, more afraid than before, terrified of being laughed at, of getting it wrong, as if even then I was afraid of being found out, as if even then there was some terrible secret that I was keeping from the world.

I felt the mass and heat of a body behind me. It was Jesus and he firmly grabbed my hands by the wrists and lifted my arms up until they were curved and flexing.

“STRONG!” came the cry in unison and they laughed while I cried as I melted back down into the crowd.

But I didn’t feel strong at all, not that day and not the day when Billy burst into the classroom shouting:

“Jonathan just kissed me in the bathroom!”

A chorus of twenty ten-year old voices pealed with laughter, reveling in your shame as your arms dropped to your sides and your head hung down.

“Quiet, quiet!” shouted the nun, darting in and out of our desks like a one-woman riot police. But there was no controlling us. We all knew what Billy meant; we had whispered the word a hundred times in hushed giggles on the playground and pointed out who was and who wasn’t. Now it was out and the class laughed and pointed their fingers at you and so did I. Better you than me, I thought.

I want to tell you how sorry I am about that. I’d like to say that if I could, I would travel back in time and trade places with you. I would do every thing I could to take away all that humiliation and embarrassment. I would take you into my arms and lead you out of there, away from the catcalls and the firestorm of shame. And then I would squeeze you hard and wipe away your tears and tell you over and over until you finally believed it:

“It will be ok, don’t you worry. I promise. Everything will be ok.”

 

Two years went by and finally we graduated from old Saint Mary’s. Then it was off to public school, junior high and the real world for us. We stayed in touch for that first year, but gone were the sleepovers that you and Billy would come to on hot summer nights. Do you remember those? We camped out in the attic of Dad’s garage, daring one another to show it. But no one ever did. I remember how you smelled, the sweat of your armpits both revolting and enticing. I remember too, watching you breathe in the moonlight after you fell asleep, wanting so bad to pet your soft cheek without knowing why.

But then the day came when I realized what that feeling welling up in my belly had been all about. It tore and clawed at me to get out as I rubbed and rubbed against anything and everything within my reach: shag rugs and blankets, plush animal toys and trees. I tried to hump the world, humped it raw all to the tune of the visions of all the girls I’d come to know, imagining them in all their soft and bumpy glory. But nothing ever happened, and all I ever got was chaffed and sore.

Still I kept at it, diligent to the end until one day the memory came flooding back. There you were in the dark damp basement of St. Mary’s with Billy standing at the urinal, whistling with his fly unzipped. Then, as if possessed by some mischievous spirit and in some fit of uncontrollable glee, you leaned in and kissed him, wet and warm on the cheek.

I saw him in my mind as he pulled back in shock, and as he did I came full of force and pleasure and golden light. The revelation that boys could love boys came in the form of a tidal wave that flooded over my bed sheets, and I didn’t know whether to jump up for joy or run away in terror. When it was over I cleaned up that glistening and mysterious pool of me, head still spinning from the mad delight of it all, knowing that once and for all I was a different creature.

I don’t mean to embarrass you but I thought about you every day after that. As the months went by my crush became an aching and it threatened to squash me like a bug. I had to do something. So one summer day I picked up the phone, palms sweating and body shaking. When you answered I could hardly move my lips and the air leaked out in a thin, squeaking “Wanna come over?”

“Sure!” you said and my heartbeat went rat-tat-tat like a snare drum tapping out the staccato rhythm of lust.

It took you almost two hours to ride your bike all the way from New London, and I spent the whole time staring out the window, waiting for you to roll around that corner. By the time you arrived I must have looked a terrible mess: pale, sweating and trembling with fever. You let your bike fall into the fresh cut grass and walked towards me through the thick air of summer that was filled with the love song of birds and wind and ocean.

“Wanna look at some dirty magazines,” I blurted.

“Sure,” you said again and I thought “This is it; it’s really going to happen.”

So up to my room we climbed with me holding your hand, and I pulled out the stash of Hustlers and Penthouse that I had long ago pilfered from my Dad’s closet. We lay out on my bed and flipped through the glossy pages together. You sneered a little in disbelief that people’s bodies could really do things like that. Your naiveté filled me with a surge of confidence, and I was sure that you would do anything I asked.

“Do you know how to masturbate?” I finally said in an overture of love. It was a great leap into the unknown, and I waited, afraid to move or even breathe, as the birds and the grass and the ocean and the wind all leaned up close to my window and waited too.

“No!” you said with your face twisted into a contortionist act of disgust. “That’s a sin!”

Did my face twist then too? Did you see my watering eyes filling slowly with disappointment and disgrace? We were on stage again, but this time it was me that everyone was laughing at, pointing their fingers and crying, pansy, pansy, he’s a little pansy in that singsong revel that every generation learns anew.

My heart broke right then and there. You weren’t gay at all. You didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And so it was you that stood by me that day as I took my first step into the closet and it would be years before I saw you again.

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