Lace Top Stockings, Stiletto Heeled Boots
A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle
Some conversations should never happen. It was an innocent enough statement that started it all. Kurt had been telling Jeff, his best friend, the Chair of the Psych Department, about the new medication they were trying for Lynn, and how it seemed to be working, at least a little. And they were no longer technically on suicide watch. Jeff had listened attentively, making appropriate eye contact and therapeutically intended clucking noises. When Kurt was done, Jeff shook his head sympathetically and said, “Man, I don’t know how you put up with it all.” And that was all it took, really. One line, and Kurt began to think; I don’t know how I put up with it all, either.
Some conversations should never happen.
“So, Kurt,” the Philosophy Department chair had said, leaning back, folded hands across his ponderous belly, “you’re going to be presenting at the American Religious Society Convention.” It was not a question. “Excellent, excellent. What’s your topic?”
“Shin Buddhism among the Nisei in the South Dakota internment camps. Their advocacy of the slaughter of pedantic academic fossils.”
“Excellent, excellent,” he beamed, his attention already back to his computer screen. “Well, let us know how it goes.”
The students weren’t much better. “All right, everyone, while I am gone, the assignment is to finish the section entitled “The Field” from the Bhagavad-Gita and to answer the question on the discussion board online.” General groaning. “There will also be a real time chat session, moderated by the TA, from 2:00 to 4:00 next Monday afternoon. You are expected to participate, and I will receive a printout of the conversation. Yes, question?”
“Yeah, what kind of stuff are you going to ask this time?”
“I’m going to ask how many ungrateful thugs will actually stay sober enough over the weekend to do the assignment.”
“No, this time Krishna, actually, but a lot of people get those mixed up, so all things considered, I suppose you’re on the right track.”
But the last conversation had been the worst. He had taken Kev to the bus stop so he could give him Daddy Bear Hugs before he left for the airport, then came back home to finish packing the car and do his best to say goodbye to Lynn. He was always nervous coming into the house, and he had to pause for a minute on the front step so he could steel himself. He never knew who would be home, Good Lynn or Bad Lynn.
Bad Lynn was home today. She was at the breakfast table, in her robe, with the belt not tied. Her hair hung lank across her shoulders, circles pronounced under her eyes, hands in her lap as she stared at the steam from her coffee.
“Lynn, sweetie? I’m leaving.”
It took her a minute to register and focus. “Leaving? Oh, great. Just can’t wait to get out of here, can you?”
“Well, Lynn, I can stay for a little while if you’d like me to, my plane doesn’t leave until – “
“Oh, that’s nice. Stay for a little while. Give me a little bit of your time. You’re so sweet. That’s what I’ve come to expect of you, little bits of your time.”
“Lynn – ”
“Can hardly wait to get out of here, like you were willing to give me some of your precious time last night for our weekly ten minute ritual in the sack.”
“Look, Lynn, I tried to work it out so you could come with me – “
“That would be just peachy keen, wouldn’t it, hanging around in a hotel room while you’re out with your boring academic geek friends. That’s all we’ve got here is your geek friends, isn’t it, and your students, and your precious career? It’s all about you, isn’t it?”
“Lynn, you know that’s not true – “
“Oh, of course it’s not, I’ve got it all wrong again. Stupid Lynn! I’m so stupid, you’re so great, why don’t you find yourself your bunch of slutty TAs who say “you’re so great, Dr. Lawrence, oh, look, I’m on my knees, Dr. Lawrence, I want to talk about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Thich Nhat Hanh, Dr. Lawrence, I want to meet you in the closed reserve stack in the library, Dr. Lawrence…”
“Lynn, you know – ,” but she was quicker than he was this time, much too quick. He calmed his breathing as best as he could, then picked up the pieces of the coffee cup and mopped up the carpet with a dishtowel. That stain stood on top of the others.
Going back to the bedroom, he changed his shirt and tie, rolling the sodden coffee soaked mess into a ball. Lynn lay in bed, sobbing, her back turned to him. He lay his hand on her hip, as gently as he could.
“Just go,” she sniffled, almost too softly to hear. “Just go. Just go.”
In the car, he drove with one hand and punched in a number in the phone with the thumb of the other. “Hey Jeff? What’s up, dog? Yeah, I’m on the way to the airport. Oh, yeah, yeah. Uh, hey, Jeff – I know Brigid was going to stop in and take a look in at Lynn, but could you, uh, can you make it sometime earlier rather than later? Maybe check on Kev, too? It’s all been sort of – well, you know. Today was a bad day. You will? Thanks, man. You know I love you guys.”
By the time he got to the airport, the welt on his cheek had almost completely faded.
Some conversations should never happen. It had been years since he had seen Washington, and to Kurt, the sights and smells were like cold fresh water. When he had lived here as an undergraduate, the skyline was filled with cranes and skeletal ribs of gutted buildings. He had always assumed that it was just a time of deterioration. Now, the skyline was filled with cranes and skeletal ribs of gutted buildings. Apparently this is the time of creation. They looked the same. There was a perfectly good shuttle which would take him to the convention center, but he decided he would rather walk. Washington gave him its best face. The homeless sleeping on the steps of St. Matthews and the doormen at the Hilton and Renaissance. Swap out their clothes, and they could be each other. The limos outside the strip clubs, the cabs with thin pale girls in the back seat, sore and badly in need of sleep. The men in silk suits and wool overcoats, striding purposefully, barking into wireless phones, words clicking like billiard balls on a table. The women in short skirts, black stockings, and stiletto heeled boots. He had slept in late, for the first time in months, away from home, away from the office. He had slept with the window open, layered in the cool night air and the sounds of the city.
The book sale was one level below the main lobby, at the bottom of a long double row of escalators, crowded full with a double row of humanity, elbow to elbow, talking loudly and gesturing forcibly, one row going up, one going down. More people were going down than up. In the middle, between the escalators, was a set of steps, where those who were more athletic or eager could go up or down at a more leisurely pace. Still, more were going down than up.
Kurt looked around the bookstalls, breathing deeply, taking in the noise of the crowd moving among the exhibits. In a world where hostility is silence, noise is soothing. Here, he could lose himself in the noise. It’s good to be lost sometimes.
But as soon as you think you’re free, no escape is possible.
Admittedly, he came here with a purpose. He wanted to get published, badly, and with a folder full of neatly typed book proposals under his arm, he made the rounds to the likely publishers, most listening attentively, then shaking their heads politely, others listening attentively, then asking sharp questions and handing over business cards with hastily scrawled e-mail addresses on the back. Eventually the sweet sound of the books called him, and he found himself browsing more than promoting. The crowd was growing louder, the crush of body against body was becoming greater, and as he leaned forward to pick up a book of poems by Basho, another hand, smaller, bronze, with long tapered fingers and long tapered nails took hold of it from the other side. The nails were red. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice was like the wind over fields.
He noticed her nametag. On it, he spotted the word “Mongolia.” His eyes traveled up the cord until he saw whose neck it hung around.
She was small and slender, much shorter than he was, barely five foot tall. She had long black hair, so dark the highlights were blue, spilling over her shoulders. Her skin was gold, the color of polished oak, and her face was horizontal planes and cheekbones, surmounted by narrow almond eyes of onyx that gleamed like they had been polished, too.
“So - are you from Mongolia?”
She smiled almost pityingly, her teeth dazzling white, her eyes narrowed into slits. “I forgive you your stupidity.”
“Dang. You speak in koans.”
“There are as many koans as there are people. All conversations are koans.”
“All right. In the noise, subtlety doesn’t seem to be at a premium.” His mouth worked slightly. “So – you like Basho?”
“Obviously, or else I wouldn’t have picked it up. ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise.’”
“’Seek what they sought,’” he responded, thoughtfully.
He noticed then that neither one of them had let go of the book. “Can I have the book now?” she asked patiently.
He still didn’t let go. “What if I want it?”
Her smile widened. “Then we’ll have to compromise. She let go and took his hand in hers. “I’m Ganchimeg Gambojav. Ulaanbaatar. The UB, we call it. Doctoral candidate at the University of Mongolia. You can call me Meg.”
“Kurt Lawrence. Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. I never met anyone from Mongolia before. I wasn’t aware that there was a University of Mongolia.”
“Oh, my, yes. Oh, yes yes yes. A really good one. So good I like to get away from there whenever I can. But oddly enough, I wasn’t aware that there was a University in Fort Wayne. Or that anyone in Indiana knew there was a Mongolia.”
“Oh my, yes. Oh, yes yes yes. Americans are all really smart. That’s how we get to be Americans. That, and all the ‘masters of the universe’ stuff.”
Her hand in his was soft and warm. He didn’t let go. And with an almost unconscious arousal of interest, he noticed she hadn’t let go, either. When the flower blooms, the bees come uninvited. He found his throat vaguely dry.
“So what are you doing here?” he asked, leaning in to be heard over the crowd. “Have you ever been to Washington before?”
“Washington? Never. I’m in America on a dissertation grant through Stanford. I’ve been in California the last three months, but then I head back again.”
“Back to Ulaanbaatar? The UB?”
“Bhutan? What takes a Mongolian girl to Bhutan?”
“I’m studying Tantric Buddhism. Kuan Yin. Vajrayogini. That seemed like the place for it.”
“Vajrayogini? Queen of the dakini paradise, where all people have miraculous powers? Levitation? Flight? Dang, can you do all that?”
“Not yet. Soon.”
“Buddhism is what I’m working on, too. But I’m writing about Jodo Shin. In fact, I’m presenting a paper on it tomorrow. But if you don’t mind me asking, wouldn’t it be better to go to Tibet to study Tantra?”
She smiled wryly. “You think they’re going to let a Mongolian into Tibet?”
“Hmmm. Never thought about that. Have you gone to Tibet anyway?”
She looked scandalized. “Without a visa? Tsk tsk. That would be against the law. A bunch of laws, actually.”
“You’re such a kidder – seriously, how often have you been there?”
“A few times. It’s a long border, and money changes everything.”
Her hand slipped from his, and as he glanced down he noticed that she had the book. Her smile was dazzling. “I told you we’d compromise. I let go of the book first. I get to hold it last. Intelligence is the seeing of what is.”
At that, he laughed, deep and hearty, his head thrown back. “All right, Meg from the UB. Enjoy the Basho.”
She smiled brightly. “I will, Kurt Lawrence from Fort Wayne. Enjoy being master of the universe.”
As she turned to go, Kurt was shocked to feel a sudden sharp stab in his stomach, a dull thrust that reflected the ache of the emptiness of the world. “Meg,” he called, and she turned. Eyes cast down, he asked sheepishly, “I have – well, I have a dinner to go to tonight. Would you – like to come with me?”
She looked at him sharply, her hands on her hips, dark eyes gleaming. She was silent for a few seconds. The noise of the crowd swirled around the two of them.
“I’m married,” she said, simply. “I have a son.”
They looked at each other. Her lips were red, her nails were red, her eyes were black. “The fundamental delusion of humanity,” he said just loud enough to be heard, “is to suppose that I am here and you are out there. Ramakrishna. Good stuff, huh?”
They looked at each other.
She shook her head slightly. “Not Ramakrisna. Yasutani Roshi.”
“All right,” she finally said. “All right.”
What do you think
of a freedom that never happens?
What do you make of a life that won’t go away? -Nagarjuna
He picked her up in the lobby of her hotel, craning his neck to see her through the noisy
crowd. At last he spotted her, sitting patiently, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap, giving him a knowing smile. The transformation was complete, short skirt, black stockings, stiletto heeled boots.
“We better get moving,” he said, out of breath. “The cab is waiting out front. God, you look wonderful,” he added, holding out his arm. She took it, and levitated gently to her feet. “What else would you expect of Kuan Yin herself?” Settling into the taxi, she asked, “And what is this dinner?” “A working group. Midwestern scholars of Asian philosophy.” “Jesus,” she groaned. “You Americans are so pompous. Should I be your show and tell? Your token Asian? You likee I talkee like Charlie Chan? Give you cledibility?” Dinner went well, and if anyone there wondered why Kurt was not accompanied by his wife, at least they had the tact not to mention it. At one point in the speaker’s presentation, Kurt reached under the table and rested his hand lightly on her knee. She covered his hand with hers, her slender fingers laced through his. Afterward, outside, she pulled him against the alley wall, in the cool darkness, her hands holding his lapels, her eyes looking up into his. “I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart,” she breathed, “and I said, ‘Who art Thou?’” Pulling his face to hers, she brushed her lips against his ear. And Kurt whispered, “’Thou.’”
Back at her hotel room, their first kiss was hesitant and awkward, but the second was better, deep and warm. The room was layered in the cool night air and the sounds of the city. She said, “wait just a minute,” then took the time to light two candles while he turned on the radio, low. He found a jazz station. John Coltrane.
She began anointing his skin with oil, dusky and warm, the smells of the earth rising up to meet them, vetivert, pine, labdanum. Her lips were red, her nails were red, her eyes were black.
“I don’t know what to think,” he whispered.
She looked at him, unsmiling, her eyes black stones in a bronze sea. “When one has faith, then he thinks. One who lacks faith does not think. Tell me, Kurt. What is a good idea? What is your idea of a good idea?”
She thought for a minute, her hand stroking the edge of his jaw, lightly brushing over low welts which felt strangely like burn marks. She said simply, “You are the Buddha.” And she lowered her face down to his, her hair spilling over his skin, the smell of the earth lifting them up, toward enlightenment.
“And I am Vajrayogini,” she whispered, straddling him, her hands stroking his chest, “I am emptiness and bliss, I am the transformation of passion into compassion.”
He pulled her face down to his, her lips barely brushing his, her hair spilling over them both.
I am the diamond maiden, the player of games
The yogini is one of my forms
Showing that I am beyond earthly attachment
I am the shining revelation to the ascetic
The women in silk and roses
I am the harlot in black net and leather.
Bronze and white, lace top stockings, oil, incense and Coltrane, Mongolia and Indiana.
East met West.
Searching for nirvana, and for one sweet, sharp moment, they reached it.
Then the phone rang. Shrill, piercing, metallic, and insistent.
She leapt up in bed, throwing the sheets back, and gasped, “Oh, Jesus, that’s my husband’s ring.” Clamping one scented hand over Kurt’s mouth, she picked up the phone and punched a button with her thumb.
“Sain baina uu?” she said, trying to control her breathing. “Hanginy, ta amar sain uu?” She slid into a chair next to the bed, pulling the top sheet with her. Kurt sat up slowly, suddenly cold from the night air hitting his skin. He rose gently, not making any noise. Picking Meg’s robe off the floor, he tenderly draped it over her shoulders, and her hand pressed his. She didn’t look up at him. “Sarangerel? Zaza?” she said into the phone, “zaza. Be oil goj baina.” Kurt pulled a towel from a rack and wrapped it around himself, all the while doing his best to remain quiet. He looked over at her, wrapped in a white sheet, a white robe, and black lace top stockings. Yin and yang. “Tiim,” she said, “tiim. Zugeer.” Their conversation continued, and Kurt lay down on the bed, the bed that still smelled of oil. He noticed she was crying. “Zaza. Bayarlalaa,” she said at last. “Uchlarii. Bi hicheii. Uchlarii.” And finally. “Bayartai. Bi chamd khairtai.” And she hung up. Burying her face in her hands, she continued to cry, soft and contained. Kurt sat before her, pulling her toward him like comforting a child, and leaned her head on his chest. She shook with muffled sobs. “Look at the battle you are involved in. You are caught in it. You are it.” Wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand, she took a deep, shuddery breath, smiled sadly, and said, “That was my husband Hanginy. Our son. Sarangarel. He took the training wheels off his bike this afternoon.” “Sarangerel? A beautiful name.” She sighed. “It means ‘Moonlight.’” They sat a long time, her hands on his knees, his arms around her shoulders. Coltrane had changed to Charlie Parker. The night air, the faraway sounds of the city, and the smell of the earth filled the space between them. “Tell me about Lynn,” she said at last. So he did. He told her about getting married young because she was pregnant, then about losing the baby. He told her about their struggles through grad school, and losing the next baby. He told her about bipolar disorder, and crying jags, and catatonic stares, and adopting Kev, and moving to Indianapolis, and losing the next baby. Then he told her about the suicide attempt. After that came the clinic in the country, and the medication, and the move to Fort Wayne, and the next suicide attempt, and the next medication. He talked until Charlie Parker had turned to Dexter Gordon. Dexter Gordon turned to Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday turned to Nat King Cole. His head sagged forward farther and farther, filled with light, leaning against her skin, skin that smelled of earth, oil, incense and liberation. She said, “Someone asked a Zen master, ‘What is the first principle of Zen?’ And he told her, ‘If I told you, it would be the second principle.’” That’s when the tears came, tapped into a well so deep that it had been forgotten. She held him, her hands stroking his anointed hair. When he had finally cried himself out, he silently levitated to his feet, her arms brushing him as he stood, and dressed, strapping on his watch, stuffing his tie in his pocket, pulling on his jacket. She sat silently, wrapped in white and black, and watched him, her face composed and serene. As he leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, she smiled dazzlingly and stroked his cheek. At the door, he stopped and turned around. “So – tell me about Sarangarel.” She thought for a long minute, head down, hair spilled forward, and when she looked up, her face was still serene, her cheeks wet with shining strands of tears. “He had his training wheels taken off today.” Slowly, a smile spread over his face, answered by one from hers. “Bi chamd khairtai, Meg from the UB, Vajrayogini.” “Bi chamd khairtai, Kurt from Fort Wayne, master of the universe.”
Outside, the cold air whipped across his oil slicked skin and hair, forcing him to pull his jacket tighter around himself. He was filled with light. He walked until the heat in his heart filled him, then finally found a bench in a darkened park. He saw the homeless sleeping on other benches and the doormen at the hotels across the street. Saturday traffic was heavy – the limos outside the strip clubs, the cabs with thin pale girls in the back seat, sore and badly in need of sleep. Older men with younger women – the men in silk suits and wool overcoats, striding purposefully, The women in short skirts, black stockings, and stiletto heeled boots. Kuan Yin has liberated him.
O Yogini, you have a place in my heart,
A love so rich,
You bring tears,
A melting of love into ripples of laughing energy.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed. “Lynn? Hi, sweetie. How was your day today?” And as she talked, he listened, the heat in his heart filling him. “That’s great, honey, that’s great. Lynn, it is so good to hear your voice.”
One must remain in the vastness
alert and lucid,
Letting one’s gaze encompass
the infinity of the sky,
As though seated on the summit
of a mountain open
to all the horizons.
He entered the presentation room and took his place on the podium as the scattered
group of people milled around, filling the room with a low hum of noise. After setting up his notes and adjusting his place, someone showed him how to work the remote for the slide projector. As the convener called the room to order and he sat down, he shielded his eyes from the overhead lights and craned his neck to look for her through the noisy crowd. At last he spotted her, sitting patiently, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. Today she wore a tasteful grey wool suit, very professional.
But she still had on the boots.
Their eyes met, and slowly, she began to smile, turning passion into compassion.
The presentation started. “Lades and Gentlemen,” the convener intoned, “welcome to the second section of the Midwest Scholars of Asian Philosophy. Our first presenter is Dr. Kurt Lawrence, Professor of Asian Thought at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, and his topic is “Jodo Shin among the Nisei in South Dakota, 1941-1943. Dr Lawrence.” Kurt took his place at the podium to polite applause. Adjusting the microphone, he began, “Thank you, everyone, for inviting me to present today. A monk asked Li-shan: ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?’ ‘There is no ‘what’ here,’ said Li-shan. ‘What is the reason?’ the monk asked. ‘Just because things are such as they are,’ replied Li-shan.” The room was filled with appreciative nods and smiles. Meg smiled as well. His presentation began.
She found him afterward, slipping her hand in his arm and saying “Jesus, I’m hungry. Feed me. It’s the least you can do for me after I let you screw me.” “Hush,” he hissed, looking around in panic, then noticed her laughter. “Lighten up,” she laughed. “Don’t be so naïve, Kurt. Half the people at dinner last night assumed you were going to go back to my hotel and sleep with me. Come off it. Everyone could tell I was dressed for seduction. At least you didn’t carve a notch in the bedpost when we were done. So come on. I’m starved.” “Well, I’m obviously not used to women dressing to seduce me.” “Then you’re lucky to know me, aren’t you?” As they walked, she asked, “So how was your talk with Lynn last night?” He stopped and looked at her. “How did you know I called Lynn?” Rolling her eyes, she sighed and said, “Kurt, don’t imagine you’re dealing with someone from the home for the weak-minded. Give a woman credit for knowing when a man is thinking of his wife. It’s happened. When I was a teenager, there was this guy I used to babysit for… well, never mind all that.” Taking his arm again, tightly, they walked on, working their way through the noise of the crowd. Her head dropped to his shoulder. “Who are you?” he asked. She took a long time to answer, her head down, her heels clicking on the floor like billiard balls on a table. “I am who you need me to be,” she said at last, looking up at him. “I am your koan. You fill me with meaning.” “You are my path to liberation.” “No,” she snapped, stopping abruptly and taking both his hands in hers. Her hands were smooth and warm. Her lips were red, her nails were red, her eyes were black. “I am not your liberation. And you are not mine. Your path to liberation lies far away. Your students. Your friends. Kev. And Lynn. Above all, Lynn. These people are your liberation. And my liberation is my husband, a handful of Tibetan smugglers, and a little boy just learning to ride a bicycle. I am not your liberation. I am only…” and she paused expectantly, a smile curling one lip. “I know, I know. You are the Vajrayogini.” “Yes,” she said, nodding gravely. “Now feed me. I’m starved.”
The next day, she called to tell him goodbye, and he stopped by her hotel before she left. As they sat on a bench in the lobby, waiting for her cab, she slipped her arm into his and laid her head on his shoulder. “To be able to hear the divine calling,” she said, “for grace to flow abundantly, it is enough to love something dearly. Music. The sun. A little child.” She raised her face at the sound of the taxi pulling into the turnaround. He placed her suitcases in the trunk, almost reluctantly, and clicked it shut as she waited for him at the open door, taking him by the lapels, her eyes looking up into his. Pulling his face to hers, she brushed her lips against his ear. “Ramakrishna,” she whispered. “Good stuff, huh?”
She got in the car, the door closed. And she was gone.
Subject: Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra
Date: February 16th
I don’t think that’s what Unno means. Enlightenment is not gained by the simple act of Nembutsu, but by the dispositional nature of the one saying it.
By the way, have you read D.T. Suzuki on this?
I’ve attached a few pictures of Sarangarel playing soccer. He says he wants to go to America to study. He wants to go to Fort Wayne! Do you even have a soccer team there?
PS Bi chamd khairtai, Kurt
Subject: Re: Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra
Date: February 17th
Of course I’ve read Suzuki. Christ, do you think I’m an idiot?
And what about the 42d vow under section seven in the Sukhavati-vyuha? Isn’t that what that’s getting at?
Lynn sends her love.
PS Bi chamd khairtai, Meg
Philip Meckley is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. He has studied at Notre Dame and Vanderbilt University. He teaches Philosophy and Religion.