My daughter has been watching a documentary about The Buddha and it reminded me of you. In the documentary Siddhartha begins his quest for enlightenment by denying himself everything. He eats one grain of rice per day. He binds his body and hangs upside down from a tree. The statues of him at this time show him to be emaciated and frail. His bones stand out like a ladder on his chest. His eyes sink deep into his skull. My daughter wonders why he would want to be so skinny. He looks scary, she says. He is weird.
I think of you and how when you began your own quest, you, too started with denial. You began to wear only white. You cooked vegetarian meals. You declared yourself celibate. As your girlfriend at the time (your college girlfriend) this last seemed ridiculous to me. We were in college, for the love of mike, if you're not going to have lots of sex in college then when? I slept with other people then and you were angry and I was angry and we both spent a lot of time crying and being hurt. It seems so strange to me now just how much we cried.
I remember fitting my thumb into a little hollow just below your sternum and laying my fingers over the bones of your ribs. I remember the way your wide, warm mouth felt against my own.
In a letter, my stepmother writes, "Oh to be young and in love in the Spring." She was writing about us. We were young and in love and it was Spring in Chicago, the kind of joyous Spring that can only emerge after the deep, bone cold of a Midwestern winter. Our love was like a crocus. Brilliantly colored but fragile.
We took a long train ride once from Chicago to Albuquerque and we played cards almost the whole way. Hand after hand of Gin Rummy. We sat in the observation car with the sun in our eyes and your laugh was deep and rumbly. On this same trip, we were caught in a freak snowstorm near the Organ Mountains of New Mexico. We wound up spending the night in a public library with dozens of strangers. We played cards there, too.
Once, just after we'd first decided we were in love, we spent the day with friends at the park. I wore a sundress and lounged on the picnic blanket making eyes at you. At one point, I leaned back in a way I thought to be extra-sultry and my head landed in a bucket of bubbly water that we'd mixed to blow soap bubbles. I felt ridiculous.
When we parted for the summer, we exchanged long letters and postcards. Every day, I walked to the post office, hoping to see your tiny, careful printing across the front of an envelope. You sent L.L. Bean catalogs addressed to "ILY Tanya Ward." I swooned at your creativity.
When you finally visited, I took you to the little town where I'd been doing summer theater and you wandered through the dusty streets in your white shorts and blue striped shirt. A fire broke out and the whole town turned into an emergency bucket brigade. We joined in what would soon prove to be an impossible task and eventually stood back to watch while the fire devoured a house. The bright flames against the dark night and the destruction they wrought were so troubling to you that we stopped twice on our long drive home to weep and talk and embrace and weep. I thought then as I do now that you were an ocean person and I was a desert person. Though I am weepy in my own right, there is cholla cactus and red dust and dry arroyos in my DNA.
Later that same summer, I cheated on you.
Do you remember our trip to New York? We missed the first act of "M. Butterfly" because we were having dinner with your Nonna. We were so careful to mind our bags and our coats, so vigilant on this trip, so worried about theft and worse. It wasn't until we were out of New York and back in Chicago that we were mugged.
In our junior year, you drove an ancient VW Bug that you'd re-built yourself. The heater didn't work and so in the winter, we drove everywhere with blankets on our laps and an ice scraper for the inside of the windshield. This car irritated me. You could have had a nicer car, but you opted for this. You found some satisfaction in the cold and the smell of fuel and the rattle of the engine. You were pleased to have grease under the nails of your long fingers.
The last time I saw you, you got into this VW. We'd graduated from college and you were headed away from me. We hugged but I don't think we kissed. I cried, but I don't know if you did. I patted the rounded fender of your car the way you might do to the haunches of a horse. I stood in the street, in the gray early morning until I could no longer hear the high, hollow rattle of the VW engine.
We spoke after this. A few times on the telephone. Once, we made plans to meet for dinner, but you cancelled. You wrote me a letter asking that I never contact you again.
I am writing this letter now because I am thinking of the part when Siddhartha realizes that it doesn't have to be so hard. I am thinking of the part when he realizes that he's looking for joy. He realizes that it's hard to be joyful when you are hungry. I think a part of you was hungry. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to feed that part of you. I'm sorry if I only added to your pain.
In the documentary, Siddhartha finds the middle place. Not too much or too little. He finds that you need a little food, a little love, a little comfort to be happy. I have found those things and my hope is that you have found them, too.