Wednesday, June 12, 2013

If There Is a Next Time...

Enclosed here is a short story excerpt. Tentatively titled "If There Is a Next Time", what I share here is the first page or so.

My family was three hours away by car, but I was convinced I was going to do it my way this time. Their aid and assistance always came with strings attached. They weren't going to be especially understanding of my choice of partner, a decision I kept away from them deliberately. Inside, I was terrified, seeking support wherever I could manage from whomever I could locate. This included bank tellers, fellow musicians, and members of a support group.

The group of friends and acquaintances I'd been slowly forming over the past year were now keeping their distance. They didn't want to be seen as favoring him over me. He had more clout than me within the church. The minister incorporated his pithy saying and e-mailed slogans into sermons. He'd given lots of money. When the two of us parted ways, I was said to be little more than a gigolo. For him, it was a way to remove the egg on his face.

The one person who kept in touch with me eventually made her own exit. After a month or two of daily chats and weekend hangouts, she'd begun to develop strong feelings for me. Regrettably, this made her unable to continue our friendship, or at least that's what an unexpected three page long e-mail reported. This is why she rarely made friends with men, she said. I struggled to understand. Having the opportunity and ability to feel desire for another person was a good thing, at least that's what I thought.

I felt abandoned, but at least she'd had the courtesy to explain her reasons. She was among the few. Even God seemed to have abandoned me, or at least the God I'd understood for most of my life. Grabbing hold of any life raft I could find, I'd decided to try an obscure incarnation of Buddhism. Maybe I'd become sage and serene eventually, in possession of the kind of inner peace that my overworked, overstimulated mind rarely ever reached.

I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt anything remotely close to true peace of mind.

Entering the room, I took a seat halfway back, towards the left. I sat in a medium-sized room with twenty or twenty-five other people loudly chanting in an Asian language I did not understand. I gathered that the intention was to eventually memorize each character, each sound, entirely by rote. Asiatic languages have always been remote to me. I fundamentally reject every aspect, every ornate brushstroke. My mind slams shut in protest.

A sympathetic Buddhist picked me up for worship weekly, seeking to explain the greater purpose of the practice. He'd once been on the skids himself, and the religion had saved his life. Or at least that was his story. I never really understood what one was supposed to experience. I felt nothing Divine about the practice. Instead, it felt like learning a foreign language. What about the repetition of incoherent sounds and nasal inflections rendered it holy or profound?

The man who had become my mentor opened a small booklet. It had a crimson cover and gold embossed letters on the front and back. I thought at first it must be Mao's little red book. The characters were sometimes rouge in color, sometimes inky black, and at times both shades commingled with each other. The crimson-colored lettering reminded me a little of the way that, in some Bibles, the words of Jesus are printed in red.

His finger followed each sound and letter across the page. Everyone chanted in unison. I feared I'd never memorize anything. After nearly an hour, a musical instrument somewhere between a gong and a singing bowl signified that worship had concluded for today. I'd felt like an overseas tourist listening to a thousand mundane personal conversations in a different tongue, without understanding even a single word.

The person who had directed me here felt pity. She kept her physical distance during the ceremony because I was one of her regular clients. I was complicit in keeping her profession a secret and understood why I needed to respect discretion. When my money ran out, sometimes I cleaned her dark, gloomy apartment from top to bottom. She was a stern taskmaster, demanding extra work and complaining constantly of places I hadn't yet scoured from top to bottom.

Instinct told me to part company as quickly as I could. I tried to be empathetic, but her behavior usually wasn't respectful or especially kind. Granted, she'd had a difficult life and had been beaten up multiple times. The boundaries she threw up to protect herself were built like a fortress, stacked high. I detected in her a kind of selfishness that went beyond caution, though I ignored it. I had no one else left in my life.

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