Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Same Smile

Ed was overwhelmed and missing a leg. Those were just two of the many reasons that he didn’t belong in a Zen Sitting group. But it was part of his therapy. And not the cheap VA therapy. The real therapy his dad was paying for out his retirement money, spitefully, almost as a punishment for not listening to him and signing up for the Army a week after 9/11. Every week for at least fifty minutes he would be reminded how he didn’t listen to his Dad’s advice the one time it really mattered. But he needed it. He was back from Iraq, and his leg was still over there, along with his sense and his decency. Maybe his sanity. He knew that he was barely able to stop himself from thinking terrible thoughts, from even doing something terrible, a series of terrible things, if he just slipped once. But everyone would blame Iraq and Bush and the War. And he’d just blame himself. That’s maybe why he didn’t do it.

He circled the Sociology building for five minutes, trying to decide which entrance would put him closest to the right classroom. And part of him wanted him to give up. The majority part. It was all so BS-y. Zen? It was just a sham. Why didn’t he just try to become a ninja? But his Economics TA seemed like a nice guy, smart and civilized. You could trust him, if you had to. And when he brought up that he was in the campus’ Zen Sitting group, casually in conversation during his office hours, Ed thought BINGO, cross religion off the list. It was something he was supposed to try; somewhere he could meet people he might like. Whether they might like him was not a concern for his therapist. They weren’t paying him. And that was among thousands of other reasons that Ed knew that his shrink didn’t understand him or what it’s like to be fucked up in the head, really fucked up. But religion was on the list to try before drugs, mind drugs, and he wasn’t going to give into them until he’d failed at everything else, twice.

His TA was cross-legged on the floor when Ed opened the door. Fuck, how did he not even think about that? How was he supposed to do the lotus position. He was anatomically forbidden from being a Buddha. He might as well leave, but his TA’s puppy-tilt smile and eye contact as he jumped up and toward Ed made that impossible. And when when he was as close to Ed as Ed was to the door, the TA said, “Let me get you a chair, man.”

Man. He’d used a friendish word. Something he hadn’t done in five weeks of sections. And something about that made it already worth coming, at least for a few seconds.

“Is that cool?” Ed asked, staying with the friendly tone.

“Totally. Totally,” the TA said twice, sounding ethereal and enlightened. Could totally be a mantra? The TA pulled a chair off a stack of them in the corner and said to someone something like, “Ed needs this.” And the someone nodded so understandingly that it would have confused Ed if he didn’t already think of Zen as being something beyond compassionate. Something both smart and compassionate in a way that other religions had given up on centuries ago.

There were five or six people in the room. All chubby, white and balding except for another kid who could have been Ed if Ed were still Ed and not jaded. That kid had a smirk. Ed remembered his old smirk, something he relied on before he realized what a smirk really meant.

Once the TA set out the chair the rest of the guys formed rows. Some next to Ed’s chair. Some directly across, facing the other row.

The tallest, baldest guy was the leader, probably. He had a bellish, gongish thing. “Are we all here?” he said, looking around smiling. There would have been a cruel joke to that question if that guy had any idea what Ed’s jeans were hiding. But as Ed slightly limped to his chair he could tell the guy was oblivious to all that. “Are we all here?” was just a philosophical question for everyone else. But still no one sat opposite Ed and his chair.

The leader explained how it would go, how to count the breath, how to return to the breath when the mind wandered, how to sit like someone was pulling a string from the tip of their head, how to last twenty minutes of silence and meditation on that silence. So many “how-to”s that Ed instantly felt comfortable. He could just think about all that. All the procedure. All the things he needed to get right. Not about himelf and his infected thoughts and the way that everyone he met eventually became someone else. Like everyone was an imaginary friend who took up space, a zombie playing the role of someone who wasn’t around anymore. A world of half-hearted, damaged replicas.

The leader was ready to hit the bell when the classroom door opened once more. A girl from Ed’s section sort of bowed her way in. He had seen her talking to the TA after class, but he assumed it was about grades or homework, anything else. But she was here. Maybe she had a therapist too.

The TA stood up in one swift motion and guided her directly across from Ed. But to the floor, of course. She could sit.

“Welcome back, Becca,” the leader said. And she nodded politely, her blond short hair lilting against her neck.

He wasn’t a pervert, he told himself. His therapist had agreed, twice. It was just that her image could create a picture of her could give fifty guys hope. Maybe a thousand. Each pretty girl in the United States could just pose for one picture, one picture of them doing something cute that no guy could ever imagine or forget, then send it to a soldier, any soldier, anywhere in the world. Maybe even to the enemy and the enemies too in a covert way, like a propaganda barrage. These beautiful girls had no idea the good they could do. They would save lives. They would stop things they couldn’t imagine.

She settled and streched her neck , as if there were a string pulling it up.

The bell rang and it was time to breathe and count. Time to think about thinking about nothing without thinking that you are thinking of nothing.

A minute takes forever when your brain knows it matters. His drill sergeant said that the longest fight that an average civilian had ever even been, with fists and feet and that clumsy shit, couldn’t have lasted much more than a minute. Two minutes would be some sort of record. And when they say the battle lasted days, they mean it happened in little bits of minutes or seconds over the course of days. The rest is hiding and seeking. The rest is walking down a street or driving in a Jeep waiting for or praying to avoid the right two seconds. The two seconds that last longer than the twenty years before it. Or maybe they're just two seconds that erase every good day of the past. Time was fucked up like that.

He recalled every rule of about meditation that he remembered, returning to his breath, focusing on the numbers even seeing him, the awkward way the bald guy had said it all like he was giving you the location of emergency exits. But all he he could think about was the persistent discomfort he felt where the silicon hit his stub and his fake leg began. He wasn’t even feeling it then. Sitting in a chair was almost normal, at least for a little while. He could think of anything but discomfort. He sucked at this, at meditating. Why wouldn’t he? He had ADD that's what his dad told him. He could even keep his eyes down to the floor; they wandered taking in the faces around him, what it looked like to do it right. They all shared this calm that he’d never had. Never. Maybe it came with losing your hair. But the kid had it too. When he was done examing the guys, he tried to not do it, but his eyes won and he was just staring right at Becca. Her eyelashes fluttering like there was some wind in the room. Like her eyes were little ponds that someone was skipping rocks on. Where the fuck was his mind? Didn’t he have an ounce of self-control. He looked down, at the gray speckled floor, the tiny, shaven pieces of carpet. It hadn't even been a minute. He knew it. He looked straight up and saw Becca’s eyes. They were open and on him. And she smiled, every curve on her face in the shape of a smile. And glanced down before he could react.

Would he have smiled back? Could he have?

He couldn’t stop from staring at her now. Was she just being nice because he was in a chair? Did she know? He’d only told the TA, but maybe they’d talked a lot. “You know Ed? Well, he was in Iraq...” She and the TA could be engaged for all he knew.

Her eyelashes stopped moving, somewhere else in the world that would have been a terrible sign, but here it just meant it was working for her. She was meditating. How did it feel? Could he really forget who he was for a second while awake? Without a drink? Without a dozen?
He was just obvious now, his eyes were studying her, learning her. There had been other girls. He’d touched them, kissed them even. But when could you sit and stare like this and not be pushed away. Never with a sweet girl like this. Never in his life. Well, not in his new life.
She opened her eyes again, but kept them down. Could she feel some sort of heat from him? Was he ruining it for her? She looked up. The same smile.

He looked down and back. She was still looking at him. Was she doing it for revenge? Trying to get the others attention so they would kick him out. Was she bored? Not even five minutes had passed.

Ed didn’t know what to do, but his body did. As her eyes stayed on him, he took it in like heat from a sun. Then for some reason--for no reason at all--he pulled at his pant leg from his knee. Pulled and pulled until he knew the chrome of his fake leg was showing. Almost like he could feel the air on it. Or the light. She reshaped the same smile and nodded. Slowly, her eyes went right back to the floor as her head rose and her back straightened.

He felt his head being pulled up as if by a string, and one-by-one his breaths became easier to count. He could count and still think if he wanted to. He could count and wonder: how am I going to get out of here the moment this is done. Easy, his breath told him. He was in a chair.

He’d just stand. And leave.

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