Sara had been renting a room in a flat only a couple of months when Vic, who was the master tenant, asked her to leave. Vic's room was right next to hers, and she had caught him peeking at her through his window when she was in bed in her nightgown, reading. He squinted at her disapprovingly as he said, "You're a room-dweller, you act like a zombie, and I have some doubts about the people you bring over here."
"You mean Rob."
So she moved into Rob's apartment, which was something she had been thinking about doing. Rob wanted her there, and they saw each other all the time, so it was the logical next step.
Rob was always talking about things she didn't understand, but she didn't mind. She liked the sound and the vibration of his voice, the movement of his full lips, especially when she had been drinking. Sometimes she would reach out and touch his
mouth while he talked. She wanted to merge into the continuous movement of his mouth,
the steady stream of sound, to look and listen forever. Rob would remove her hand gently and hold it while he went on talking.
Rob's apartment: two mattresses with blankets, a radio, a small TV, and a CD player, all on the bare floor in the living room. They seldom got a good picture on that TV. There was a bathroom and a kitchen alcove in the corner, with a hot plate and a small refrigerator, which never held much food. Sara didn't like the bathroom because there were bugs, and her face in the mirror looked as gray as the peeling paint on the walls. After a while, she rarely bathed or groomed herself, but Rob didn't care.
Rob often talked of marriage, and Sara listened and touched his mouth. She didn't think it was necessary, but it was nice to be reminded that she was that special to him.
They had met on the street, when he asked her for a cigarette. Uninvited, he
accompanied her home, where she drank and he talked. They had been together ever since.
Sara was glad they didn't make love. He talked a lot about wanting to, and he tried for a while, but gave it up. He said it was because of his meds, that it relaxed his muscles too much. But he had to take them, or he got very nervous. They made love in their own way, entwined together on the mattress, listening to music. They liked the Beatles. Sara's favorite was Here, There and Everywhere: "To lead a better life, I need my love to be here..." They would kiss, and Rob would stroke her cheek and talk of marriage.
He was the only person she ever trusted enough to speak of what happened to her when she was ten years old. "I was playing by myself in the park, and it was getting late. Some older guys came up and said they would drive me home, so I went with them. They took me in a van and..."
"They fucked you?"
"Yes. It hurt so bad. I was so scared."
"How many were there?"
"I don't know. Five or six." He moaned a little and held her closer.
"I don't remember how I got home that night," she said. "I tried to tell my mother
what happened, but she only said I ought to stay away from them, and turned over on the couch. She was drinking again."
"Did you tell your father?"
"He left when I was two."
Nightmares visited her for many nights tø come. She would scream, and no one came to help or hold her.
That was one reason Rob was good for her. He would help her whenever she was feeling bad. Sometimes when he was sleeping, she would wake him and ask to be held. Sleepy and disoriented as he was, he always complied.
Both of them lived on welfare, and as part of their assistance program, they were required to see psychiatrists regularly. They didn't really like their psychiatrists. They agreed they liked talking to each other better.
Sara usually spent the day in Rob's apartment, drinking, reading, listening to music, and watching TV, unconcerned about the fuzzy black and white picture. Sometimes she would go out with Rob for a walk in the park, to the corner grocery store, to the Zen Center, or to visit his friend Hal. Often at night they went to a bar. Sara preferred drinking at home, but once she was at the bar, she enjoyed it. Rob would put coins in the jukebox, and she would fade into into numbness amid the voices and music. One night when
Sara got drunker than usual at the bar, a bunch of teenage boys jeered at her on the bus coming home: "What a lush!"
The next day she had a terrible hangover, and staring at herself in the mirror, she
said to Rob, "I'm ugly."
"That's not true. You're pretty." She didn't argue with him. She didn't want him to change his mind.
Rob wasn't always nice to her. Sometimes when he was upset about something, he would pull her hair, though not very hard. In time, she learned it meant he hadn't been taking his medication, and she would bring it to him with a glass of water. He would take the pills and drink the water obediently.
He kept giving her books about Zen Buddhism and meditation. He wanted her to learn these things so she would understand when he talked about them. Once, to please him, she spent a whole evening reading The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po, without understanding any of it. He kept coming up to see what page she was on, and delivering monologues on various points.
Sara often went on crying jags. She thought they would stop when she moved in with Rob, and they did for a while. The first time Rob came home to find her sobbing on the mattress, he asked her what was wrong, but she could only shake her head and go on crying. She didn't know why she cried, but it felt good--like getting drunk. He would hold her until she stopped. Other times, as the crying recurred, he might make a cup of tea for each of them, or turn on the TV.
Disregarding the instructions of her welfare case worker, she stopped going to her
psychiatrist, that strange man who sat there and waited for her to talk. It was just too much effort, getting on the bus to go see him.
Often at night she would wake, and like a child, would think she saw monsters lurking in the corners of the room. She was afraid to get up and turn on the light, so she would move closer to Rob, until the creatures melted away into the darkness.
Did she love Rob? She told him she did. The main thing was she needed him with her, or to know he soon would be, even when she was semi-conscious from drinking.
The other important thing was to try and feel good. Sometimes she got halfway there.
One evening, after they had been living together about a year, there wasn't any money, and there wasn't any alcohol in the apartment.
Rob was visiting his friend Hal. She decided to try his meds--he had so much. They were supposed to help you relax. She took two but didn't feel anything, so she took two more. Restless, she wandered in the kitchen, opened a cupboard at random, and was delighted to find a half-pint of whiskey she'd forgotten about. She took a long swallow straight from the bottle, and put on a Mozart piano concerto.
The room was growing dark. It was 7:00; Rob should be back soon. The whiskey and the drugs surged within her. She swayed a little with the impact, and lay down on the mattress. She drank more from the bottle. How strange she was feeling! If she drank some more, then maybe she would start to feel good. She finished the bottle
and focused on the orange glow of the clock Rob had brought home the other day. She stared at it until the rest of the room was black and all she saw was that comforting orange glow. Her whole world was that warm glow like a hearthside fire, and the transcendent, yearning music, and the surging of the waves within her, growing higher and higher--and then there wasn't any more pain, there would never be any more pain.
When Rob arrived home, the music was still playing. She was huddled on the mattress, with the empty flask of whiskey by her on the floor. He thought she had passed out as usual. Then he got a better look at her face through her hair, and felt her pulse.
He listened as the music ended, and turned off the CD player. It was one of his favorite CD's, but he knew he would never listen to it again. He lay down by her lifeless but still warm body, and held her close for the last and the longest time.
Rob woke up two months after Sara had died with an aching head and a dry mouth. What food was there? He stumbled to the kitchenette. Peanuts, raisins, instant coffee, canned mackerel. He made coffee with very hot tap water, mixing in skim milk powder and sugar.
He took a bath, talking to himself as he splashed and soaped. "I am thin but have a potbelly. The doctor said I was deteriorating rapidly. It's the meds but I have to take them. I'm only 25, a young man. Other people have wives...possibly the world is being taken over indirectly by Russia. It wouldn't be practical."
He dressed and made a list. "When desire wife: radio, TV, cards, meditate, visit contemporaries." He left it open for additions.
He set out to visit Hal, who lived down the street. There was a note on his door that read: "Once again, I will not be able to see my friends before 5 p.m."
"Crazy," Rob muttered, and knocked loudly. No answer. He knocked harder for a long time. "Maybe he's still asleep. What a crazy stupid note. I'll go find some contemporaries."
Hal watched him leave from the window. "Gone," he said to his wife. "Nine-thirty in the morning and he expects me to spend half the day talking. Again."
"It never seems to enter his mind that you might have other things to do," she said.
"Did you tell him about the book you're writing?"
"Oh, yes. Didn't make much impression on him. Just as that note didn't."
"Remind me again why you put up with him," she said.
Hal shrugged. "He's a lonely kid, and I think it hasn't been easy for him since
his girlfriend died. They were very close in their own way. Plus, he has flashes of lucidity, some interesting insights, when he isn't nattering away about Russia."
Rob stopped a girl on the street and asked for a cigarette. She complied. "And a light." She lit it for him while he eyed her hungrily, and when she started to walk away, he called after her, "Do you think Russia is trying to take over the world?" She glanced over her shoulder at him nervously and walked a little faster. "It wouldn't be practical," he informed her retreating back.
He walked on, smoking in quick furtive puffs. Smoking was unhealthy, so he never bought cigarettes. Asking people for cigarettes was a good way to keep from smoking
too much, and it was an excuse to talk, which he craved even more. He averaged ten cigarettes a day.
He threw the butt on the sidewalk and got on a bus that went to the park, hoping to meet some contemporaries. There weren't many people there on that gray cold day, but
he came upon two men by a pond, talking loudly and passing a wine bottle back and forth.
"C'mon, I can stare you down," said one to the other. "When I was a kid, I could stare anyone down. I was the champ."
"Really, James, how childish," said the other, and guzzled from the bottle.
"Ah, you're just scared. Scared of my stare." James caught sight of Rob. "Oh, hello.
Who are you?"
"I don't know," said Rob. "I haven't finished all my Zen books yet."
"Oh, wow," said James. "A weirdo. Hey, I bet I can stare him down."
Rob ignored the eyes boring into his. "Possibly Russia is undermining our freedom and democracy. The Russian system is oversimplified. There isn't much exposure of the mind and the potentials of the mind can't be worked with. Possibly the world is being taken over indirectly by Russia. What do you think?"
"Sit down," said James's friend. "I have something to say on this subject." They all sat on the damp grass. "This is a subject that has occupied my mind for a long time.
Do you know my conclusion?"
"What?" asked James. Rob listened anxiously.
"I don't give a shit!" The two of them roared with laughter, and Rob asked them if
he could have a cigarette.
"We don't smoke." Bored, they turned from him, and finished the bottle between them. "Stephen, I have an idea," said James. "Let's go to the library."
"The library, of course. Improve our minds." They stumbled off. "Byeeeeee!" James
yelled to Rob.
Rob watched them leave. He would have liked to go with them, even though they were stupid. So many people he tried to talk to were stupid. They ignored him or they didn't understand what he was saying. Hal wasn't stupid, but that note on his door was. He decided to go back and see if it was still there.
It was. Rob knocked. Again, no answer, but this time he could hear people moving around inside. He grimaced with disgust and knocked louder.
Finally Hal opened the door. "Hello, Rob." His voice was careful and friendly. "Didn't you see the note?"
"Yeah, what's it for?"
"Well, it's only 11, and I have things to do. I really can't talk with you right now."
"Don't worry," said Rob as he stepped in the door, "there are only a few things I want to talk to you about."
Hal pushed him out again. "When I say I can't talk to you, I mean it."
Rob stared at him. "I'm leaving. Take my advice and meditate more. You're not
enlightened." Turning on his heel, he walked full speed down the street.
Stupid! Hal was stupid, just like everyone else. Everyone pushed him away--no one wanted to talk or listen.
He went to a coffee house and ordered a double mocha. He drank it quickly and ordered another. This was his lunch. At his request, a pleasant-faced, heavyset older man sitting at the next table gave him a cigarette and a light. He was smoking himself, in between sips of his coffee. He eyed Rob with concern. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Rob looked at his hands and saw that the man was right. "Maybe I've had too much
coffee," he said.
The man smiled. "I think this is my sixth cup, I'm not sure," he said. "Sometimes I lose track."
"And I've been thinking a lot about the problem of Russia," said Rob.
"Really?" the man said. "What's the problem with Russia?"
"Well, Russia..." For some reason, Rob lost his train of thought, and suddenly realized it wasn't Russia that was on his mind. He felt something wet on his
cheek, touched it, and realized he was shedding tears, which was something he never
did. "I miss Sara," he blurted out.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said the man. "Your girlfriend? I'm a widower, myself. I know
how it is. Tell me about Sara."
"She would bring me my meds," said Rob. "She would wake me at night when she
wanted to be held. She cried a lot."
The man nodded. "Women can be so emotional," he said.
"We're all both yin and yang, male and female," said Rob. "I'm crying now myself.
For me, this is very rare."
"That's alright," said the man and handed him a napkin to dry his tears. "I cried
a good amount when Sharon passed."
And for the next hour or so Rob spoke to his new friend about Sara, about how he
missed her, how no one could take her place, while the man nodded understandingly.
The problem of Russia was forgotten
for a while, and she appeared to his inner sight as she had in their first meeting--the shy, pretty girl smiling at him as she gave him a cigarette, hanging on his every word as the kind man was doing now, while he talked, and talked, and talked.