Shunyata

On the first Monday of last June my girlfriend Carrie’s mom got diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer and was dead the following Tuesday. It was one of those reverse miracles, an absolute mind-fuck. Me and Carrie flew to her parents’ house in Cleveland for the funeral. It was the first time I’d met her dad. I never met her mom. We didn’t really do parents so much.

“Steven,” Mr. Weathers said to me. “It’s good you’ve come.” I towered over him. Carrie said, “Oh, Dad,” and embraced him. I stood there patting the back of her leather jacket like an idiot, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I had known Carrie for what seemed like forever—two years, by then—but, it turned out, wasn’t, because you don’t really know someone until you’ve seen the photos their parents keep of them around the house. There was Carrie, on the piano, on the mantelpiece, in her dad’s study: blonde, blue-eyed, full-lipped, high cheekboned, a little pudgy. There she was in her band uniform. There she was in fake pearls and a pink taffeta dress at junior prom, smiling behind unfamiliar lipstick, like a little girl playing dress-up. There she was in her parents’ bedroom in a crackled photo with Tommy, her brother who died in a car accident when she was a senior in high school. When pressed, Carrie would say his death was probably what made her stop being a good girl, start smoking, start doing drugs, start wearing leather and motorcycle boots to class. The house in Cleveland suggested wealth and togetherness and wholesome family values, not my Carrie: cocktail waitress, smoker, heavy drinker—into taking long drives and suggesting we stop and fuck on the hood of my car.

Which, as far as I could remember, I had never refused.

We stayed in Cleveland a week. A Carrie I scarcely knew cooked casseroles for her Dad, putting them in the freezer in neatly labeled tinfoil packages. “Chicken Pot Pie, 6/15/10, heat 45 mins. in 350 oven Enjoy!!” “Turkey Tetrazzini, 6/16/10, heat 45 mins. in 350 oven Enjoy!!” She oiled the grandfather clock. She went for drives with her dad. One sweltering afternoon we planted some tomatoes in the garden, the heat beating down on us, the air humid and tight. Sweat gathered in every crook of my body: elbows, knees, the place where neck meets back.

Her dad took us to the airport when the week was up.

“Steven,” he said again. Carrie had not corrected him, not told him that I never, ever, got called Steven, just Steve and Stevie and Steve-o and, of course, Dude. “Take care of my little girl.” I assured him I would, and he clapped me on the back as, I guess, men do.

“Bye darling,” he said to her then, his face breaking. “You’re all I have now,” and she held so tightly onto his shoulders I could see her knuckles grow white. She did not cry. She just held on. And then she released him and I picked up her carryon bag and herded her into the security line, which we passed through quickly, arriving at our gate well over an hour before we really needed to be there.

“Might get a soda. You want one? Babe?”

She shook her head and said softly, “no thanks,” and that’s when her face dissolved for the first time.

“Oh, babe, babe—”

Carrie collapsed on me in a total puddle. Girl was losing it, shaking, snuffling, sobbing the sobs of the utterly devastated, unable to speak. “Babe,” I said again. “You’re alright,” and it was like trying to hold a live fish. I couldn’t seem to keep her in my arms for some reason.

“I hated her. For so many years I hated her,” she said finally.

“What are you talking about?”

“It was so horrible when he died. She acted like nothing happened. She had his room all cleaned out in two days. She sent me back to school. Her denial was so fucked up.”

I had never heard her talk about Tommy’s death like this. She might say, “yeah, my brother died, it sucks,” at parties when you tried to shock people. She would shrug, act cool about it, drag on her cigarette, take a swig of booze, look hardened. She was hardened.

“There, there,” I said, because that’s what you were supposed to say, right? “We all grieve in our different ways. Maybe that’s what she needed to do.”

These were somebody else’s words. What did I know about grief?

“I hated her,” she sobbed. “I never got over it and now she’s gone. I’m such a home-wrecker. How often did I call? Like once every two months?”

“You aren’t a home-wrecker, of course you aren’t.”

I had never been through this with someone before. I felt like I was an actor playing a part I was entirely unsuited for. But I held her for another five minutes, umming and awwing and trying to find the words, before she all of a sudden said “I’m alright, I’m okay now,” wiped her eyes, blew her nose on a tissue, squeezed my hand. Relieved, I got up to get myself a Coke and take a leak and wish that there was a smoking lounge in that airport because I really, really needed a cigarette.

She was silent the whole trip back to San Francisco, staring ahead at her little TV screen with no expression on her face, and when the flight attendant offered us a drink and I promptly asked for a double Jack and Coke Carrie ordered nothing at all.

We got in late, elevenish, and I decided I’d spring for a cab even though the week away had of course meant no restaurant work for me. I figured we’d call my friend Todd, see if he was up for a beer. But when I hailed the cab Carrie didn’t get in it.

“What’s up?” I stuck my head out the back door.

“I think I just want to go home.” Her face, peering down on me, looked distorted, far away.

“That’s fine, we can do that. Are you getting in?”

“I meant—by myself. I mean—I want to be alone for a bit.”

“Oh. Oh, okay.”

“Bye,” she told me. “Thanks.”

“Love you too,” I said as she walked away towards BART and I thought, where the hell am I supposed to go? I certainly wasn’t springing for a hotel. But it didn’t seem like Carrie wanted me to get out of the cab and run after her, sit next to her on BART, squeeze her shoulders again, take her home, make love to her, any of it, so I just let the driver drive off, and on the way I called Todd and told him to meet me at the bar, and when I got home at two in the morning, drunk, my wallet empty, Carrie was asleep in our bed with the covers pulled over her head and a whole box of used tissues strewn around the floor next to her.

Carrie was the best thing that ever happened to me, we both knew it. Nothing about her—pretty, aloof, funny, wild—suggested she would arrive in San Francisco one day, show up at a party where I was playing bass, badly, and by the end of the night be sitting on my lap, be going home with me, be halfway to my girlfriend. I’m cute, women say; I have decent hair and these green eyes. For a dude who never works out, I don’t have a beer gut or anything. But I’m certainly not upwardly mobile, and doesn’t every woman just want a guy who’s going to make something of himself?

I failed out of college partway through sophomore year, much to the chagrin of my parents, who had bought me my beige 1987 Volvo station wagon as a high school graduation gift. I had to work a lot of months at Hilton’s Tent City in Boston in order to buy the car from them once they told me they were taking it away unless I got my act together. Unless. But I just avoided their phone calls until the day I went to the ‘burbs in the Volvo and handed them a check, and they couldn’t say a thing about it because I’d looked up the value in the Blue Book and everything, and for once I’d applied myself enough to hold down a job. Then I said see ya and drove out to California alone, listening to Led Zeppelin all the way. I know how it all sounds; that drive, that car, those parents. But life is a cliché, I decided once I arrived in San Francisco. Life sucks and then you die.

I found an apartment in the Mission District with some guys who’d posted a sign on a corkboard at a coffee shop, guys who clearly hadn’t cleaned the shower in a year, probably because the bathroom smelled so shitty of mildew no one could stand to be in there for more than ten minutes. My room had fleas living in the shag carpeting that once I pulled up revealed splintered floorboards that reminded me of kindling.

That first year I’d sit in that room and smoke and wonder why I was such a consummate fuck-up. Life at twenty-one seemed entirely unlike the life I knew at fourteen, living outside of Boston with my parents, who fed and clothed me and acted like I was a superstar, a gem, their special little guy. Or at nineteen, after I’d cajoled my way into UMass, or at twenty, when I failed out. Because at all of those times I still had the sense that things would be fine, that my parents would bail me out, like they did when I broke into that guy’s house, like they did when I got busted for pot, like they did when I got so drunk the night before graduation that I couldn’t even put on my cap and gown the next morning. Until the UMass dean called over Christmas break sophomore year to say I had five Fs and I was done. That’s when my parents had enough.

“We want the car back,” Dad said. “It seems like the only way to get through to you, Steve.” He looked like he’d aged a thousand years. He looked sorry, sorry to disappoint me. It was so fucked up. And somehow that changed everything, because I knew I couldn’t be their burden anymore, couldn’t be their disappointment. So I bought the Volvo off them and left. And then there I was in San Francisco, and no one to bail me out except me.

When I met Carrie things seemed like they’d be fine again, better than fine. Good. I moved in with her six months after the night of that house party, and living with her I think for the first time I understood something about being needed, about being wanted. Me and Carrie’d wake up around noon, hungover from too many beers and maybe a couple lines of coke, and I’d reach for her, and next thing I knew Carrie would be turning over to me, underemployed, unmotivated Steve Chanasyk me, taking my hand and putting it everywhere, kissing my face, climbing on top of me, sliding down on me, the blonde tips of her hair getting all mixed up with the black curls of mine. And afterwards she’d laugh and roll off the bed and go make us a cup of coffee. Her ass when she walked away was shaped like a valentine. My heart, I would think. My heart.

When Carrie got her period every month she had cramps so bad she couldn’t even get out of bed.

“Steve?” she asked me one morning after we’d been living together for a couple of months. “Do you think you could go get me some Tampax? And some Midol?”

“Of course, Baby.” I was trying to hide my surprise. It was an entirely new experience for me, being asked to deal with a woman’s inner workings.

“Oh my God it fucking hurts.”

I rushed out to the store on the corner, where the female shop assistant scanned my items with purposefulness. She looked at me and grimaced. She wore black cat’s eye glasses; her lip was pierced and her eyebrow was pierced and a tattoo ran up her left arm. Her name tag said “Jane.”

“What a good boyfriend you are,” Jane said sarcastically, and I blushed and walked back to the house as quickly as I could and handed Carrie the Tampax. When she got back from the bathroom I brought her a heating pad, a glass of water, two pills.

“Thanks, Love.” Her breath smelled terrible and I didn’t even care, I loved her that much.

We both waited tables, talked about getting better jobs, talked about quitting smoking. We didn’t. We worked Thursday through Sunday nights and after our shifts we were out each of those nights at the bar with Todd and with Carrie’s friend Jennifer, from the restaurant where she worked, playing video poker, playing shuffleboard, playing whatever the hell we wanted, talking about how one day we’d like to open a club. Carrie would be the business manager. I’d do the sound, book bands. Me and Todd would have a regular gig. Etcetera.

One day last spring me and Carrie took mushrooms and then the boat to Alcatraz, listened to the audio tour, giggled. The tour makes you take all these weird turns, like left, right, left left right, and we kept fucking it up, running into people, laughing. The bars of the cells were pulsing light sabers and Carrie’s face was breathing. Then we went outside and sat looking out over the Bay. Angel Island, Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge. We had a cigarette. The California poppies were sprouting up all around us.

“I love these,” Carrie said, fingering the delicate pulsating orange folds of one, and I, I said to her, “and I love you,” and she swiped a bit of yellow pollen across my nose. It felt like butterfly wings.

When her mother died of course I knew things would be different. There was more than one night that Carrie asked to be alone, and I would go sit at the bar with Todd drinking boilermakers or gin and tonics or maybe just a beer or two.

“How’s Carrie?” Todd would ask, and I’d say, “Fine.” She wasn’t really fine; but she was okay. Fair. Hanging in. I guess; I’m not sure I really knew how to assess, let alone help.

But I never, in a hundred years, would have predicted that she would get into Zen meditation.

There was a server at the restaurant where she worked who suggested it, not Jennifer, a quieter girl who went to school and didn’t smoke. She and Carrie had gotten tight after her mom died, and Meg, this chick, told Carrie that after her grandmother passed away she’d started meditating. Said it really helped deal with the feelings that came up. She asked Carrie to go with her to the San Francisco Zen Center one evening, and Carrie had said alright, what the hell.

“Do you want to come?” I was lying on the couch reading Rolling Stone.

“Nah,” I said.

I had no idea that soon she would be there three times a week and out at Green Gulch, in Marin, on the weekends, that she would gradually give up booze and cigarettes and coke almost altogether, that she would start asking me to smoke outside, that she would even decide to go back to school, just a couple classes at first, that by Christmastime she would be all up in the grill of this Zen Center in Santa Fe of all places and making what seemed like weekly pilgrimages there.

“I would like you,” she told me a few months after she’d started meditating with Meg three, four nights a week, after she’d already been to Santa Fe twice, “to try this out with me.” I was on the couch again; I sat up taller, like you do when your mom comes into the room to discuss your report card. Carrie was holding a book called The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“Try what?”

“Meditating with me.”

“Oh.” I wanted a cigarette, took a gulp of air instead. “Well. Okay.”

“Really? You’ll try it?”

“Sure.”

“How about tonight?”

“Tonight I…can’t,” I said, my mind scanning. “I have band practice,” I lied.

“Well,” she said, “soon, then,” and I said sure, of course, soon.

But I always managed not to go.

Carrie started leaving books around, CDs, little statues of guys half-elephant, half man. For Christmas she gave me a small ceramic Buddha for my car and two CDs by some dude named Pema Chödron, a set called “Absolute Meditation.” One afternoon I put one of them in in the Volvo and nearly drove off the road. Pema wasn’t a dude. She had this young, porny kind of voice, but I didn’t get what she was talking about, with her business about mindfulness, about pride, about regard all dharmas as dreams. Huh? And when she started to talk about shunyata, emptiness, I pressed the stop button. I couldn’t bear to think of any more emptiness than I was already feeling.

One day Todd came by the apartment to pick me up for band practice; the Volvo was in the shop.

“Dude.” He whistled though his teeth. Our apartment had been transformed. Carrie’s meditation cushion sat on the floor in the living room. A fountain gurgled water in the bedroom. There were plants, daylight, sunshine. Above the door Carrie had pasted a card that read,

All ten thousand things are one horse. Okay? Not okay. Okay? Okay.

— Chuang Tzu

“Dude,” Todd laughed, “what the fuck does that mean?” and I laughed too. But inside I was thinking, not okay, no, because I wanted to get Chuang Tzu and did not. I wanted to get why Carrie had stopped sticking her nose in my neck and inhaling first thing in the morning, why she spent more time on the meditation cushion than she did with me, why quitting drinking and smoking had all but cured her menstrual cramps, why she bought her own tampons now. The organic kind.

“Let’s blow,” Todd said, and I grabbed my bass and we left.

And then last Tuesday she went to Santa Fe again. With Meg. And before she left she said, “Maybe while I’m gone you could check out the Zen Center.” Her voice did not sound as patient as it once had.

“Yeah, I’ll do that.”

“Steve, what the fuck.” She flounced into the kitchen. I hadn’t heard the word “fuck” come from her lips in weeks. Months.

“What did I say?” My voice was keening, defensive. I hated the sound of it.

“If you don’t want to do it be man enough to say so.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to do it—” I started, but she walked away before I had finished the sentence.

“Fine,” she said. “Fine fine fine fine fine,” and then she walked over to the couch where I was sitting and swooped up her duffel bag and stalked across the floor towards the door, which she threw open. “If you loved me, you would do it,” and she slammed the door behind her and, swinging the duffel up onto her shoulder, knocked it into the dish of cigarette butts that lived on the porch railing.

They scattered like dead insects.

I’m not lying when I say I spent the week trying to get to the Zen Center. I really did. But Monday I had band practice and no one showed up so me and Todd rescheduled it for Tuesday, and then Wednesday I just totally didn’t feel like it and then I worked a double shift Thursday and Friday night, I was so fucking wiped out from the fine dining crowd that I sat at the bar and had three neat Bushmills before going to a party with Todd and smoking a bunch of pot. That left Saturday, yesterday, and first I was hungover and then I had to work again, and that left this morning, community meditation out at Green Gulch Zen Center.

So I went. I went for the meditation instruction at the ungodly hour of 8:45 a.m. in chilly Marin and I learned about the cushion and the Zendo, the breathing and the silence. I did fine when we were practicing meditation for three minutes. But when we began the part of the morning where you sit for forty-five minutes surrounded by strangers, I completely failed. After five minutes on the zafu I needed a cigarette so bad it was like I’d woken from a hundred-year sleep without nicotine. I tried the technique I learned from Pema Chödron. Pema says to make note of diversions from the meditation by saying THINKING every time you find yourself thinking—in my case, thinking, I need a cigarette so bad. But soon my brain was buzzing like a computer motherboard: THINKING! I need a cigarette so bad THINKING! I need a cigarette so bad THINKING! I need a cigarette so bad THINKING THINKING! cigarette so bad oh fuck THINKING! Carrie is going to leave me.

I sucked in my breath and the chick next to me stirred. I got up from the cushion, hastening to bow quickly to the Zendo, because Carrie has spies everywhere, and under the spoiled glance of the shaved-head monk who hit the gong at the beginning of the session, I rushed outside, closing the door behind me as quickly and as quietly as I could.

The air was cold and damp and smelled of eucalyptus. I shivered in my sweatpants and this queer fleece jacket I was wearing. I skulked off on the path between the buildings, rubbing my arms, nearly running once I hit the gravel driveway that led to the parking lot. I stepped in the passenger door of the Volvo and opened the glove box, where among the registration papers and the car manual lived a pack of Winstons. I pulled one out and lighted it up. And then, inexplicably, I began to sob, these huge sputtering horrible wet tears, and my nose was running so much I could barely take in the tobacco and the nicotine. I was filling the car with horrible sounds of snuffling and gasping.

I don’t know how long I sat there. Long enough to stop crying. Long enough to light another Winston. Long enough to rest my head in my hands for a bit. Long enough to pound my fists on the dashboard and stamp my feet. Long enough to get out of the car and prepare to let go a giant gorilla yell all across the land, before I remembered that I was at the Green Gulch Zen Center in bucolic Marin County and screaming would no doubt bring the Buddha down on my head. That Carrie frequented the place, that word would get around.

So instead of yelling I just opened my mouth and flailed around and mugged like I was screaming but no sound came out at all. It was much less satisfying. But then, backlit by a tiny ray of sunlight on the side window, I saw my waving, mad reflection. I had not showered, my hair was tousled and wild, I had five o’clock shadow—five o’clock-three-days-ago shadow—and I was wearing this old horrible fleece jacket with a cigarette burn on it and one of those cheesy Turtlefur neck warmers that I’d picked up in the lost and found at work, and my eyes were bloodshot from crying and being hungover—and then I started to laugh huge, bent-over-at-the-waist belly laughs, because I must have looked quite a sight busting out of the Zendo. I bet those monks were still clucking over my bad behavior, even though they’d moved on now to the phase of the morning where the meditators eat organic muffins and drink tea, and all of a sudden I wanted to be with them, stuffing a muffin into my face and being a part of something.

But I got in the car and drove away instead.

I thought, for a second, about taking a left turn and going down to Stinson Beach for a while. Beachcombing. Something. Throwing myself into the sea and never crawling out again. But because I was anxious to get back and clean the house before Carrie returned from Santa Fe, I weaved through the eucalyptus on Route One and out into Mill Valley and across the Golden Gate Bridge. The bay was clear to my left, Alcatraz standing like a beacon in the middle, and I remembered our day there and, remembering, thought: California Poppies. That’s what she needs, and on the way back to my apartment I stopped to buy a pot of them. I decided I would put them in the front hall of the apartment so when I brought her home that night she would see them and feel happy to be back in California with me.

I turned the key in the lock. The place was dark and stale; I’d had the shades pulled all week. I’d smoked a couple cigarettes on the couch for old times’ sake. There was a bottle of red wine open on the coffee table and the remains of the joint me and Todd shared when he dropped me off from the party on Friday night. I put the California poppies on the hall table. In the din they looked like cartoon flowers pasted onto a real-life photograph.

I spent the day picking up, airing out the place, perking up the plants with an offering of water. I’d taken the night off work so I could be there when Carrie came home. I did the dishes that had piled up in the sink, poured the wine down the drain, put the bottle in the recycling. I even made a pot of beans for Carrie, who had sworn off meat since February, and left them to simmer on the stove as I collapsed, exhausted, on the couch. Earlier I’d stacked up her books neatly on the coffee table; I picked one up, opened it to the chapter on Shunyata, which I knew, from my Pema tapes, was pronounced “Shoon-ya-TAH.”

“Shunyata,” it read.

Contrary to popular belief, “Shunyata” does not mean nihilism. It does not even mean “emptiness,” the word we most often use to describe it. Shunyata is unique to Buddhism, in fact, and states that everything—people, ideas, phenomena—is empty of absolute identity. We are interrelated, mutually dependent. We are in a constant state of flux. Shunyata is believing in ourselves unfilled. We are void of true self-sufficiency and independence.”

I knew that despite what the Buddha had to say about interrelatedness Carrie did not want to be interrelated with me any longer, that despite what he had to say about the impossibility of self-sufficiency and independence Carrie wanted both of those things more than she wanted me.

She took a taxi home from the airport, though I’d insisted I would pick her up. I had cleaned out the Volvo for that very purpose. I took it to the Mexican place at fourteenth and Mission for detailing even, a last-ditch effort. The car was gleaming, perfect. But Carrie did not want to be in it.

The taxi pulled up outside and I was at the door when she opened it. She smiled at me. I was still not used to seeing her with so little makeup, with her hair so conservatively dressed. She was breathtaking. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

“These are pretty.” Her fingers went to the pot of poppies and found the pollen in the center of them. Please, please rub it on my nose, I thought. But she rubbed it between her fingers.

“I think they’re going to die in here. But I wanted to get them for you anyway. Maybe we can plant them outside.”

“They’re pretty,” she said again.

“I know. I picked them up when I came back from Green Gulch.”

“You went to Green Gulch?”

“Yeah.” I did not elaborate.

“Good.”

She did not put her bag down on the floor I had spent all afternoon sweeping clean and mopping. I could still smell the natural orange cleaner I had used. I was full of a thousand things I wanted to say. About shunyata. About independence. About self-reliance. About how sorry I was that I was unable to be what she wanted me to be. That I would try harder. That I needed, simply, some time to grow up. That I hoped she could give me that time. That maybe we should go out to Alcatraz again, take a picnic. That I had made dinner. That I wanted her to explain to me what a dharma is. And why we should regard all dharmas as dreams.

“Carrie—” I started, moving towards her, all of this coming up fast in my throat, and she started shaking her head at me as though she was willing me not to speak. Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Don’t,” she whispered, holding her hand up. “Don’t, please just don’t.”

And I honored her desire. I stood in silence.

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Writer, teacher, mom. www.susiemeserve.com

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