Rea Bochner / The Cape House
“Instant enlightenment,” Jake says, disgusted, on the bus home from Nijmegen.
“Instant coffee, instant breakfast, instant gratification...”
“You’re just upset because you didn’t feel anything, either.” I unwrap a Bounty bar and hold out half to him. “Want?”
He waves it away (to my relief), hands full of coffee and the inevitable cigarette. I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of smoking on this continent, in restaurants, bakeries, on public transportation. The minute you light up in America, a chorus of stage coughs insist you keep your cancer to yourself. Here, someone could blow smoke rings on your dinner and you thank them for sharing.
“Whatever,” Jake says, “I can’t even blame her. Americans are idiots. We need to have everything yesterday. I would cash in on us, too.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
He smiles at that. “It was weird, though, right? Cultish?”
“A little, but not because of her. I think it was everyone else wanting something from her.”
“Idiots,” Jake grumbles.
The bus winds through one of the dozen tiny towns between Nijmegen, one of Holland’s larger cities, and Well, home of our castle. The tight-packed houses sit so close to the street, I can see into living rooms as we drive by.
“I don’t know,” I say as we pass a family at dinner. “Maybe I wasn’t open enough. ‘Be open and receive’, right?”
“Nah, it wasn’t you. The whole thing was bogus.”
“But what if I’d convinced myself it was real and it had an effect?” “So what do you need an Avatar for, then, if you can do the job yourself?”
Energized by the debate, I turn toward him, my knee angling against his. “Maybe that’s the point. Maybe meeting her was just to find out that I have to do the job myself.”
“Okay,” he says, smiling lazily from one corner of his mouth. “So how do you do it?”
“Hell if I know.”
The setting sun leaps across a field and angles in through the window. Jake pulls down the mesh shade to block it.
“What would you have wanted to happen?” I ask.
Jake takes a minute to think. “I would have liked to know how to stop taking everything so seriously.”
“Is that possible? Life is pretty serious.”
“Yeah, but I make it more serious than it needs to be. What about you?”
For once, I tell the truth: “I would have wanted not to be so scared all the time.”
“You’re not scared of anything,” he scoffs. “You say exactly what you think. You bang on strangers’ doors and talk to them in crappy French so we don’t have to stand in the rain. You don’t try to be like everyone else. You’re just...you.”
I ache inside. If only you knew.
As if hearing my thoughts, Jake looks me full in the face. “You are the bravest person I know. It’s one of the things I love most about you.”
For a split second, I consider forming my feelings into words and releasing them to the world, where they could be twisted and trampled and mocked.
You don’t even give yourself a chance, Mom said.
“Do you ever...?” I begin.
Just then, a brunette with a backpack approaches, holding the seat tops to balance herself. She looks like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, chicly unwashed and disheveled. She sways gently with the bus, like a willow.
“May I…cigarette?” she says with an unplaceable accent. “Sure,” he says, handing one to her. “You have a lighter?”
The girl titters and shakes her head. He offers his cigarette, which she uses to light her own, sucking deeply from his burnt end. She hands it back to him, smiling shyly. He smiles back.
“Sank you,” she says, and slinks away.
Jake’s eyes follow her until she disappears.
We ride a few minutes in silence, then he turns to me. “You were saying something. Before.”
“Was I?” I reply. “I don’t remember.”
Jake and I arrive in Well with the first stars, and find all our friends at The Vink. Everyone shouts stories of their weekend travels over the clink of glass and a Dutch cover of Fleetwood Mac. I beeline for the bar, where I drink nine glasses of wine over the next twenty minutes. The room begins to swim, the music a pleasurable buzz on my skin. Feeling falls away, thought hazes over. I am languid. Surrendered.
Who needs an Avatar?
An inner door clicks open and my thoughts start flowing from me like a pressure release. I start with the pretty boys at the pool table.
“You never look at my face,” I say, planting myself in their lines of vision. “You look past me, like I’m not there. Well, I’m right here. Hello? I EXIST. ”
I urge their girlfriends to read books, leaning in and pointing at them like a football coach: “You are more than a pincushion!”
I admit to my friend Gavin that he has always reminded me of Pauly Shore. I declare to my friend Martin that she’s so pretty I wish we were both gay. Then I order grilled cheeses for everyone, laughing so loudly it pierces the room like a foghorn.
As I set down my wine glass, I feel someone stagger up behind me.
“Lookie who it is,” I say, giving one of Fast Eddie’s flushed cheeks a squeeze. “Our resident alcoholic.”
He smiles like the joke is on me. “I know you.”
“Yeah, Eddie. I know you, too.”
“No,” he says, locking his glassy, vacant eyes into mine. “I know you.”
A chill shoots through me as I realize what he means. It’s the same chill I felt when 400-pound Fern told me the only difference between the two of us was time.
Jake appears at my side. “Hey, hey, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Blurgle!” I shout. Then I start laughing, on the verge of hysteria.
“Time to go home,” Jake says, grabbing my jean jacket from the back of the barstool.
I snatch it from him. “No! I don’t go home with strangers.” Jake pulls his head back in question.
“You don’t know me,” I say.
He laughs warily, unsure if I’m joking or not. “What are you talking about?”
I point at him. “You think you know me, but you don’t.”
Just like that, I’m crying harder than I ever have in my life. Martin swallows down the last of her Stella Artois and shifts off the barstool next to mine. “I got this,” she says, taking my arm. “Come on, Honey. Walk me home.”
The town of Well tips back and forth like a seesaw with every step, making my stomach churn. Gulping cold air, I close my eyes and let Martin lead me back to the castle, travelling in my mind back to the to the Buddha room, craving the calm and stillness. But my imagined self walks past the Buddha, past the painted shoji screens and statues, and into the gallery of impressionists. I know exactly where I’m headed: the Paul Gauguin mural. There’s the yellow baby, the brown crone, the blue idol. There are Gauguin’s blasted questions, framed in gold, in his childlike French hand.
Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?
The answers are beyond the scope of the painting, yet Gauguin, like a dog worrying a bone, can’t leave them be. He watches the life cycle turn and turn, waiting for a clue that might reveal the infinite. It seems almost crazy, searching for answers one knows they’ll never find. But maybe it’s the search itself that comforts, the lesser madness to never asking at all.
The museum guidebook said that Gauguin was an alcoholic who left Paris for Tahiti to live simply among the native people. I think he was on the run. He thought he could abandon his old life and begin again, change the scenery and thus, the story. But when he got to Tahiti, he discovered that he’d brought himself, the nagging questions, and the alcoholism with him.
Gauguin is just like me.
The divide between the painting and the world vanishes, and I step into the canvas like a doorway to another room. Blue trees coil around me like snakes, dropping a gloomy shade. Every figure in the painting turns to watch me as I pass. I keep my eyes down, trying not to trip over hills of sand. The deity, glistening with cobwebs, steps down from her pedestal and walks into the shadows behind her. Instinctively, I know to follow. She leads me through a dark tangle of bushes, so thick they block out the sun. Thorns and brambles scratch at me, and I raise my hands to protect my eyes.
Abruptly, the bushes vanish and we are drenched in sunlight, facing a wide, green field. The sky above us is a perfect blue. Grass reaches my hip, waving slowly and whispering in the breeze. Beyond, there’s a verdant mountain, a volcano perhaps, surrounded by a glimmering sea. I must cross this field, traverse that water, climb that mountain, and see the world from its peak. I look to the deity for encouragement, but she is gone, and the dark tableau I just passed through has disappeared. I am to go on by myself.
I start forward, but the grass winds around my legs, pulling me down like an anchor. I try to extract them, uprooting the grass, but more and more of it grabs at me the farther I go. Halfway through the field, I am covered to the waist, immobile. I stretch my torso, summoning a strength I don’t have. Must get to the water…Must reach that mountain…But the more I struggle, the more tired I become. The pull of the grass calms me like a compression vest, as does the hiss of the breeze. My muscles go slack, no fight left; all I can do is surrender. I let my body sink down as the grass mummifies me in its sweet, chlorophyllic embrace. It bracelets my wrists, sleeves my arms, blankets my shoulders, twines into my hair. It dips into my ears, fills my nostrils. Then it covers my eyes, and all goes black.
I awaken on the floor of my room in the castle, smelling of vomit and cigarettes, my head resting on a pile of dirty laundry. The room is silent, my roommates already gone off to class. But I am not alone.
From the moment of consciousness, the fear is right there next to me, breathing an amused greeting into my ear: