“It’s desire,” she said. “The Buddha said.”
“What about it?”
“That keeps us chained.”
“What do you mean, desire? What kind?”
“All kinds. What you crave. You know, food, sex, fame, money, ski equipment.”
“But you like sex.”
“I’m not unchained,” she said.
“Who would want to be?” he asked, and smiled.
She didn’t answer. Instead she reached across him for her sweater which she began to crawl into. He watched her maneuver and reached for one of her softly swaying breasts. She slapped his hand and bounced off the high, creaky bed.
“I, for one,” she said.
“You for one, what?”
“Would like to be unchained.”
“The Buddha said?”
“Yes, the Buddha said.”
He faced the back of the bus. He watched the young couple. Since there was no place for them to sit, they were both standing. Not that they minded. She wore a thick down jacket, a Bogner perhaps, or a Kitzbuhel, something like that, zipped all the way up. The boy held her shoulders with his gloved hands, pulling her to him, pushing her away, pulling her to him, pushing her away, making his chest, flat and strong by the looks of it, and hers, round, and softly padded, collide again and again. Bouncing. She smiled at this and didn’t look around to see who on the bus might notice their bouncing. The boy smiled too and kept talking, saying sweet things by the look on his face. Smiling and talking and bouncing and bouncing. He seemed very happy. She seemed very happy, too.
He watched the young couple from where he sat through a small forest of seat-less passengers, suspended by single arms from the overhead rail. He was not watched in turn. He made sure of that. He felt embarrassed. He also felt lonely watching the bouncing warmth between the boy and the girl. He desired.
The Buddha said.
She reached into her paper bag for another handful of crumbs. She scooped them with fine fingers and felt the crusty dust find her nails and lodge beneath them, dry and scratchy. She didn’t mind. She watched the ducks watch her watch them. They watched with beady, black, hungry eyes. They paddled around in the rippled water as if motorized, bopping, but keeping eye on her, especially her hands, like a dog does when you’ve already given him something delectable and now look like you’re about to do it again. She brought out her cargo and scattered it on the water. The ducks saw and startled into a new race for food. She thought about food and ducks and the need to eat.
The Buddha said.
It is a painting of a Yeats poem, a canvas of a dark night where, in a star-lit glade, he wishes for the cloth of Heaven. And yes, this cloth are many stars.
She, watching the painting, can see them spread before her, but she of the picture does not see these stars and she treads on the starry cloth. His cloth. His dreamed cloth. For he dreams this cloth, and she treads on his dreams and she does not tread lightly but tramples these stars with unseeing feet. His stars, his desire. So the Buddha said. She stands in front of this painting and notices no one or nothing else. It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. She sees the pain in the poet’s face. She knows this pain. The pain is as real in his face as in her memory.
No matter what the Buddha said.
Five boats set out. Engines can be heard as they leave the dock almost side by side. The sound of engines and the sound of gulls, even some seals farther out. Now the five boats turn into wind slapping sheets to masts. Human shapes, fast now and strong, bring out and hoist sails. A little talking back and forth, he can tell, but not much. Farther out the engines go silent one by one.
Of the five boats only four will return, but this he does not know. Instead he wishes he were on one of them, leaving the prison of feet for the water, a more slippery gravity. And he watches as the sailors soon to drown tack again and head for open water. He does not wish himself dead at this moment, but he has, and he will again. One day his wish will be granted.
The Buddha said. But he does not listen.
She bites her nails. She mumbles. She stands up and sighs the way tired blood sighs. She leaves her apartment and climbs the stairs and feels the weight of hard years in her calves and wonders yet again at the pain within them. Should she see a doctor? But other days it’s just fine and there is nothing to worry about. It’s only that her new tenants will not let her sleep what with all the creaking at night, and using her landlady’s master key she steals into their apartment, the one directly above her own, for she knows they are both out. And she looks at the unmade bed and sees the stained sheets. Not that she had to see this to know. What is she doing here? she wonders. But not honestly enough. And so there is no answer.
The Buddha said.
There are fifty thousand varieties of rice. Fifty thousand. He is not quite sure why this strikes him as completely absurd; as really un-real. If asked, say in a quiz show, he would perhaps have been able to name four, at most five different kinds. You know: brown short, brown long, white long, white short, that’s four kinds, uh, wild rice, that’s five. Oh, and yes, Basmati. Makes six. Still, that leaves forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-four varieties unkown and unnamed, unaccounted for by him.
His world does not have room for fifty thousand varieties of rice—were he to let them in there would be no room for anything but rice. But it is true. Fifty thousand. That’s how many varieties there are. It is a fact. He’s heard it more than once, and from people who seemed to know such things but who never seem to stop to think about what it is they know. That’s so they won’t explode, he decides. Leaving room for things.
He explodes, however, and cannot find a seventh type of rice to save his life. Still forty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-four short.
What’s the other one? The other weird quantity? Yes. For every cockroach you see there are twenty you don’t see. That’s true, too, apparently. So how many kinds of roaches do we have? He looks it up: There are four thousand species. Four thousand. Each species innumerable, no doubt. So between rice and cockroaches there just isn’t room for anything else. The world is built on this massive foundation of rice and cockroach. Growing and scurrying beneath the surface of All and keeping everything in balance. No doubt. Just rice and cockroaches, except, of course, for butterflies. The word he’s heard about butterflies is innumerable, meaning (according to any decent dictionary): cannot be numbered. So how many is innumerable species of butterflies? He does not go down that road, he does not want to know, does not want to explode further. Still, he knows there are very, very, very, very many. Very, very many.
He gives in, looks it up: There are, apparently, one hundred forty-eight thousand species of butterflies, surpassed only by the beetle in variety. One hundred forty-eight thousand species. And how many of each species? Probably innumerable. And beetles? There are at least (at a conservative guess, it says) two hundred fifty thousand species of beetles. Two Hundred Fifty Thousand. Species. He wonders briefly: Who on earth did the counting, and how long did that take? And then he wonders: Are there perhaps not twenty more species of things you don’t see for every one you do? Scurrying away beneath floorboards or burrowing in moss.
There is no digesting these numbers. There is no even beginning to fathom these quantities. He refuses, refuses to understand the sheer volume of life. At that he feels miserably single but then he thinks of how many cells he comprises: literally trillions. Trillions. Thirty-seven point two trillion by one count. That number is just so much sound to him, not a quantity. Like drops of water in the ocean, like grains of sand on the world’s beaches. Just sound.
And that’s not counting the many trillion microbes that have made themselves a home in each digestive tract of billions of humans.
Thinking about that, he does not feel so single anymore. Lots of tiny friends about.
The Buddha said.
She does not eat meat. There is something fundamentally wrong, she says, in a world where some living creature has to sacrifice its life to be some other living creature’s food. So, she will not eat meat.
But plants are life too, he says. The plants die to feed you. Yes, but without pain, she says.
How do you know? I don’t, she says.
Maybe plant pain is more intense, crueler than ours, since they cannot scream, he says. He smiles at this, at his own cleverness.
She does not answer this but he sees that she worries. He longs for a hamburger, he says. She frowns. They agree to disagree. Do you know what “fresh” in fresh chicken means? she says (he’s heard this one before, many times). It means “recently dead,” she says. That’s what it means. The same is true of apples, he says.
That is true, the Buddha said.
“She’s been in here again,” she said.
“You’re paranoid,” he said. “How do you know that?”
“I can smell it. I know her smell. She’s been here again.” She turned to face him. “Can we change the locks?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said, “I don’t think so. Well, we could I guess, but she would still have a master key. It’s her building.”
“Why does she come in here,” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe the Buddha does.”
“Maybe he does,” she said.
She walks back to the docks and the forest of masts where seagulls dart and dive and the pelicans circle for fish. She longs for space. She longs for a clean horizon. For reflections. For a breeze. She arrives and takes it all in. She feels life is much too short. But, she thinks: Is the gull’s life short from the gull’s point of view? Is an ant’s life short from the ant’s point of view? Is the pelican’s life short, she thinks, spotting again several of her favorite flyers diving for the water. My life does not seem short, but that’s me looking. What would a mountain think? Or a planet. Or a sun?
The Buddha said.
Her eyes cannot leave the pelicans, now skimming the surface as if skating on their wingtips. Next to the pelican all other fliers are amateurs, she thinks. But is the pelican proud?
No, said the Buddha.
She tosses again in the stifling dark. Her blankets are many and warm. She hears that awful noise again in the apartment above her. That creaking and thudding that can only mean copulation and she turns over to confirm that it is twelve thirty and she should have been asleep two hours ago. But the constant lovemaking disgusts her and drives her deeper into her mountain of blanket. But there is no escaping it.
The Buddha said.
“Do you think she hears us?” he asks.
“Of course she does,” she says.
“Don’t you mind?”
“I don’t mind.”
“But she does?”
“I’m sure she does.”
“Don’t you mind that she does?”
“It’s her sin, not mine.”
“The Buddha said?”
“The Buddha said.”
Later he asks the ceiling, but the question is meant for her, “Still want to be unchained?”
“Yes,” she said.
Her answer hurts him. He turns to find her face in the half light. Her eyes are closed and she looks very peaceful. He waits for her to say some more, or to look back at him but she does neither of these things. She says nothing. Then her face grows more peaceful still, she’s asleep.
Would he have disliked the Buddha had he known him? he wonders. He’s pretty sure he would have because even with her here next to him, not five inches away, he is alone. So the Buddha said. We are all basically alone. Skull prisoners. Yes, chained. Said the Buddha.
And he wishes for the cloth of heaven.