My boyfriend tried several times to convince me to learn chess, but I was always too busy. And, besides, it just seemed confusing.
After about ten years of incarceration, however, I found I had plenty of time. A former prostitute taught me the rules. It turned out I was good at chess, and I reveled in my newfound skill and gloated over my wins. Before long, no one wanted to play me.
My boyfriend was in prison, too, on death row. In desperation I drew a chessboard on card stock, added drawings of the pieces and my first move, and mailed it to him. Delighted, he returned it with his best attack and a friendly taunt about a “little woman” playing his game. We went back and forth, redrawing the pieces. He made halfhearted accusations that my moves were computer assisted, and I took comfort in knowing I’d improved his quality of life in some way.
When the court denied his appeal, I hoped we’d at least have time to finish our game, but it was not to be. A few days after his execution I received his final move in the mail. He included a letter teasing that he’d as good as won, since he had my king in check with his queen.
I’m thankful he never found out that he’d parked his queen squarely in the path of mine, setting himself up to lose.
In college I began to study Buddhism, and I came to see all difficulty, sorrow, and loss as past negative karma coming to fruition.
In my quest for enlightenment I deferred my first semester of senior year and flew to India, where I spent hours a day meditating on having compassion for all sentient beings. I fanned away mosquitoes instead of squishing them. I chanted mantras and made offerings of flowers, rice, and candles to statues. I studied ancient texts and cried for the sufferings of others. I felt like the perfect Buddhist.
Several weeks into the trip my best friend, Kari, e-mailed me that her father had prostate cancer. She was feeling sad and lost. I sent her these words of wisdom: “His sickness is the purification of negative karma. You should be happy.”
While I was home for Christmas, Kari came over to visit. I left the room at one point, and when I came back, Kari was crying on my mom’s shoulder. “It feels like I’m losing my sister,” I heard her say.
After I’d returned to India, my mom called and told me my e-mail had hurt Kari’s feelings. Far from seeing the damage I’d done, I justified my words with religious reasoning. In the end, I thought, my friend would see that I was right.
I returned from India with thousands of hours of meditation under my belt, but my relationship with Kari fell apart. I’d mistaken book learning and philosophy for genuine caring.
At fifteen I was living with my divorced dad in the swamps of Florida. I was also a virgin and ready to start wielding this power called sex. I had a crush on the nineteen-year-old boy next door, whose sisters and I spent a lot of time together. This was my plan: I would jump the neighbors’ fence, climb in the window of the sisters’ bedroom (we had snuck out this way once to smoke pot and swim in their pool under a full moon), make my way to the brother’s room, and put this whole virginity business behind me.
I approached the chain-link fence and whistled softly for the family’s pit bull. Seeing no sign of the dog, I sprinted to the back of the house and hoisted myself through the window. The oldest sister awoke, startled. “It’s OK,” I told her. “I just need to talk to your brother.” I could hear his stereo through the wall. His bedroom was across from his parents’, and their door was closed. Good.
I opened the boy’s door, said, “Can you help me out here?” and stripped. He got a condom out of a drawer and put it on. My first sexual experience lasted less than a minute. It hurt, and there was blood, which I didn’t notice right away. Afterward I got dressed and left the house the way I’d come in, except I didn’t run; I walked. The dog appeared beside me, and I petted him, cried some, then climbed over the fence and went home, feeling not powerful but small and stupid.
to subscribers in our print and digital editions.
Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free. Subscribe today.