Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lunch with Avalokiteshvara


Avalokiteshvara, whose name means "The one who hears the cries of the world," is the divine embodiment of compassion, of the willingness to bear the pain of others. Avalokiteshvara can be either male or female and is capable of transforming  from a pale and luminous many-armed deity perched atop a lotus into any form of spiritual teacher that suits the nature of the person in need. The manifestations of Avalokiteshvara are countless. 
For the life of her, Nina can't figure out why, for the last three Saturdays, she has been secretly meeting her ex for lunch. Not her ex-husband--the most recent ex--but her first love, the one she had loved when she was 17.
          At 2 o'clock they meet at a café called Whole Earth and, for no particular reason, they leave at exactly 3:30. There is something significant about this careful allotment of stolen time. James is always there before her but it's easy to pick him out of the crowd, even before she walks inside. Seated by the window, waiting for her like a picture in a frame, is the unmistakable silhouette of a tall, middle-aged man in a Crocodile Dundee hat fiddling with his iPhone.


The first Saturday, Nina had brought her laptop and helped him type something up for work. She worried that she had changed too much; she was older and heavier, and she was afraid her divorce had left her with a kind of toxic aura of damage and insecurity, like anti-pheromones.

          Afterwards, while James was reviewing what she'd typed, Nina was able to study his face. Age hadn't changed him much; maybe he was heavier and his skin looked dry. There was probably very little hair beneath his Australian Akubra hat. Still handsome, still the same, sneering tilt of the head, puffy lips with downturned corners, the high cheekbones and strong jaw (he needed a shave), the same large, sad brown eyes which seemed capable of conveying only a limited range of emotions.

          But there was something wrong with his ear; it was as if it belonged to another person. The ear was small and shriveled, its lobe deeply creased and discolored. It reminded her of a mummy and she thought of how she'd found James last year.

          He had waved Nina over to his parked car from where she stood, across a parking lot, but she hadn't recognized him till she was right up in front of the driver's seat. They hadn't seen each other for twenty years.

          "Come sit down with me for a minute," James had said, patting the empty passenger seat beside him.  James had been sick then, pale and rigid with pain, waiting for a doctor's appointment. Pain seemed to have aged him almost supernaturally. After she sat down beside him, James said, "I need you to distract me."


"Looks great," said James, after reviewing several pages on Nina's laptop. "You can just send the files to me as an email attachment."

          As soon as they stood up and pulled on their coats, James thrust his hand into his pocket. Nina had paid for her own coffee but now he stuffed two bills into her coat pocket. When Nina tried to return the money, he put his hands up and said, "Then I won't ask for your help again."

          Something gruff and unbreachable in his tone made Nina give up right away. She supposed she just resented  that he seemed bent on defining their first official meeting by a financial transaction. She supposed  she should have been relieved that they owed each other nothing. Instead, she was upset that James could so easily withhold himself from her. It was such a small detail, yet it made her sick to her stomach.


The following Saturday she didn't see him in the window. Nina strolled the bulk food aisle and peered into all the plastic bins of grains and beans. She observed that French Lentils were an unappetizing shade of gray and resembled miniature gravel. There was an aisle of homeopathic remedies and vitamins, powders and tinctures, pyramids of stacked root vegetables, organic gardening books and yoga magazines. She couldn't decide if the displays were playful or smugly earnest. There was something childish and depressing about the prevailing logic: the whole earth is doomed, but we, the chosen ones, will fight the good fight with locally grown radishes, overpriced homemade seven-grain bread, and positive thinking.
          Even so, some customers were dishevelled and taciturn, pale as a skinned potato. Nina had also noticed as many BMWs parked alongside the hybrids as jalopies. An older woman with a diamond-studded Cartier wristwatch and skin as taut as a drum plunged her veiny hand into a bin of kombu. But most of the customers were young and hairy and friendly and wore jeans. They ingratiated themselves with a sense of well being and common purpose, like cult members tending the fountain of youth.

          Nina scanned all the tables in the café once more and then drove home, bringing the sexy, sweaty smell of patchouli with her. She thought about frying bacon and eggs, but her fridge was empty.

          She didn't feel like shopping so she opened her laptop and emailed James to ask why he had stood her up. She asked lightly, as if it was a joke.

          "I thought I was early--I've been waiting here since 1:40," he wrote back. "Did we say 1 or 2?"

          When Nina appeared at Whole Earth a few minutes later, James said, simply, "It's my fault."

          An alarming number of food cartons in various sizes were spread out over the table where James sat. He gestured towards an extra fork and spoon he'd placed across from him.

          "You have time to sit down?"

          "I'll just stay a few minutes."

          James ate slowly, as if he was amused, and continued to offer Nina food, pointing at the labels on the containers: nut loaf in mushroom gravy, mixed sea vegetables, curried sweet potato soup, lentil stew, kale salad.

          "Try this," he said. "I have no idea what it is."

          "Thanks, but I can't stay long. You ever notice how weird everyone here looks?"

          "You mean like me, wearing my hat at the table?"

           She stayed with him for over an hour during which they barely spoke. At 3:30, Nina walked James to his car in the parking lot before remembering she had parked in the street.


Now she watches James poke at his seitan stroganoff while he stares at Nina with his big, brown, unblinking eyes and she blushes.

          "I never eat healthy food," he grins. "Do you have any idea what this is?"

          James leans back in his chair as if to assess her critically, but he is smiling. For the first time she is able to place some of her uneasiness.

          Nina is sitting across from someone who knows her well but who is a stranger. A mask has been dropped, but she's not sure which face is gazing at her right now—the lover or the stranger? His leg is too long to fold under the table and grazes hers. She lets it, enjoying the slight pressure of his body for a moment before she shifts her legs.

          She only moves because she doesn't want him to.

         James is talking about moving abroad in a few years, retiring early so he can enjoy the island in Southeast Asia he visits for two months each summer. He talks about the karaoke bars there, and the transvestites, how the sun rises over the ocean, while Nina thinks of all the different prostitutes who keep him company there.

          A while ago, when they had just started emailing each other, Nina had asked James if he had any exotic photos of his island. He sent pictures of six or seven delicate Asian girls with parted lips and lacy thongs, posing provocatively on beds that were still made. They are always carefree and willing, these girls, not always pretty, but always young and eager, and always at a price. It was at their age, she supposes, that James and she were together.

          Today there is no pause in their conversation, no silences or hesitation, and Nina lets her mind wander as James talks. For some reason, she starts thinking of someone else, someone who had left her a long time ago and made her feel broken, but whom she rarely thought of anymore.


Nina found it quite funny to think that at one time she had wanted so hard to believe in Dean—to suspend all of her disbelief about everything. After Nina and Dean had been together for several months, he confided to her that he belonged to a group called Eckankar and that his spiritual leader was Sri Paul Twitchell. Nina giggled, and then quickly agreed to take a workshop on Waking Dreams to demonstrate her open-mindedness.

          The definition of a waking dream turned out to be quite simple. Every day is a miracle and every mundane encounter during the course of a day is an example of God talking to us. Each encounter offers the opportunity for divine guidance to anyone willing to contemplate the signs. For example, if you break your leg on the same day you run out of gas, you might try asking yourself, Why am I afraid to move forward? 
          Astral projection is also an integral part of Eckankar's belief system. When your soul leaves your body, it is thought that you open yourself to God's all-consuming love and truth.

          One rainy evening when they lay in bed, Nina asked Dean to help her soul travel. She was afraid that once she left her body she wouldn't know how to return.

          "It takes a lot of practice," said Dean in his Southern drawl, and yawned. Maybe his treacly accent made him seem less patronizing. "It's not something you can just decide to do."

          "Well, then, help me try. Just talk me through it."

          He rolled over onto his back and took Nina's hand in a way might have suggested that something auspicious was about to occur, or a profound level of annoyance.

          "So, alright. Close your eyes and just picture yourself outside of your body. Keep on picturing that while we chant. HU...HU...HU..."

          Nina stopped chanting when the sound of wind and lashing rain became overwhelming--it sounded like the wind was rushing through a long tunnel, and she was the tunnel.

          Nina found herself outside—it was that simple—rising up into the night like a tiny bubble. No sensation of the bed beneath her or of holding hands. But she was cold and wet, and rather dizzy; Nina hadn't expected exposure to the elements. Out of body, there was nothing to lean against or cling to—the all-consuming truth was that she was alone.

          Nina opened her eyes and lay in bed, blinking. She was still holding hands with Dean, but he was snoring.
Photograph by Ahn Jun
Today James explains why he hasn't spoken with his mother for years. She and her twelve sisters are all charismatic and  inclined to be judgmental about his lifestyle.

          "They're religious and I'm not. All my sisters are married with children. I don't have children and I'm not married, so they can't relate. They have no respect for me. I work very hard, but they don't respect that. I have no patience for being judged. If I feel someone is judging me, I leave and I don't look back."

          He raises a cup of Free Trade black coffee and stares at it before putting it down again. It's gone cold and metallic. James's expression softens, as if he is ready to speak of love.

          "My mother never got over her father's suicide. She's worse since my uncle killed himself a few years back. Jumped off a building. The sweetest guy, used to take me fishing, always had a kind word, but he would get depressed.

          "He was an architect in New Zealand. Can you imagine?"

          For a second--barely a fraction of a second—Nina is poised between holding on and letting go. She wonders if every time James tells this story he, too, is reliving it. We live and die, that's all. For now, incredulity is comforting, like stepping back from a precipice.

          "Did he jump from one of his own buildings?" Nina can't help asking.

          "Nah, it was just a building down the street from where he worked." There's nothing more for them to say about it. They had both peered over the edge as long as they could stand it; it was time to jump or step back.

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