The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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It’s your anniversary. She’s been losing weight for weeks, carrying on about how to celebrate, and hinting that it might be time for you to buy her some new lingerie. All afternoon you miss her, counting the hours until she’ll be home. You play the CDs you both like and plan things to say to her; you’ll ask about her latest academic success, and what she thinks of your new painting. She has been promising you hot sex all weekend. You look forward to the little rituals you share each night when she comes in: playing with the dog, telling jokes, sipping coffee, recapping the day.
When she still hasn’t arrived at three in the morning, you call the state police, but there are no accident reports. You pace around and around, still playing the CDs and trying to stay interested in your painting, but the minutes drag on. Why hasn’t she called? (You would never do this; you call her daily whenever you’re away and give her your complete itinerary. ) You become angry, then terrified, and the first trickles of grief begin to flow from the crack that is opening in your heart.
She comes in at 4:30 and spends half an hour in the bathroom without speaking to you, and you know why she is washing. She walks upstairs to the bedroom and announces that she has found someone else, she has just spent the night with him, and she is moving out. She blames you.
You howl in anguish, curse, weep, tear your hair, follow her around while she packs. You ask her, Why? Why? and learn only more and more horrible things: that she has not loved you for eighteen months, that she has only pretended, deceived you, mocked you, kept up a front, repeated your love rituals in order to go on taking your money while beginning a new love affair behind your back, using your support and your car — and it was him she lost the weight for, not you. She drives away and leaves you alone with this new knowledge, in a house you shared with her for five years.
It is the worst wound you have ever received, and you’ve had plenty. It is hideous. You feel as if you have been bitten by a cobra and your whole system is filled with poison. The only important question is whether you will survive.
The survivors of wounds like this laugh; you have laughed, and have been a survivor, too. But you’re getting old now — you’re fifty-three — and you had no idea that it gets worse with age. You thought the wounds of your youth had toughened you. Uh-uh. Because on top of the loss, the grief and anger at having been betrayed, and the knowledge that you yourself left someone who loved you in order to be with her, there is the humiliation that you could not see it coming, that you were so gullible, so easily used by a younger woman. You fear that you will despair of ever trusting anyone enough to try again, that you will sink into darkness, alone and unloved, prey for the scavengers that haunt the fringes of the pack, waiting to pick off the old and the sick.
Because you have some meditation skills, you begin to watch the pain. It is not like a nail in the foot — something you can point to and say, “If only I could pull that out, I would get better.” It is nowhere in particular, although gradually it begins to localize in the chest, in the region of the heart, a diffuse sensation of bleeding, bleeding, all the time, your lifeblood draining away into space.
The house you shared with her is like a prison, a torture chamber; you hate the rooms, you hate the views, you hate the dishes, you hate the bathroom, you hate the vanity shelf and the mirror that you hung for her there. And you hate the bed — especially the bed.
Her belongings are still around. You will be finding them for months, maybe years. You will be getting her junk mail, coming across her old love notes in your books. You will be reading your journal entries about rolling on the floor with her and yipping like puppies, about her riding you into explosions of joy, about your longing for her when she went away for a week and how you watched her footprints fill up with snow. It’s your house, and she has managed to take it from you and turn it into hell.
The wound goes deeper; the venom begins to corrupt and weaken your will to live. You don’t want to live through this. You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to have veins, a beating heart, circulating blood, eyes, ears, lungs, limbs — you don’t want any of it. Above all, you don’t want to have a cock, to feel again the desire you once felt for her.
You once thought life was a gift, but not anymore. You committed yourself to the idea of helping others, but, if this pain is life’s bottom line, what kind of help can you give anyone? The best help you can think of is carbon monoxide. It is much better never to have existed. You want to be nothing, nothing at all. You have said many prayers, and now your deepest, most fervent prayer is to be made into nothing, as if you had never been. The best advice you can give anyone is: die; and if you happen to get reborn, kill yourself instantly, and keep doing it.
First you try willing yourself to drop dead, but your heart goes on beating. So you put a plastic bag over your face, but before you lose consciousness your hands fight to tear it off and your lungs defeat you, gulping long drafts of air: your body wants to live. It is like your dog, who licks your face and wags her tail while you roll on the floor weeping and howling and praying for God to strike you dead. Your dog licks the tears off your cheeks. What will she do after you are gone? Who will feed her? Who will take her for walks, play games with her, hug her, groom her, clean her ears? When you were suicidal as a young man, you stayed alive for the sake of your children. Now it has come to this: you are hanging on to the stub end of your existence for the sake of a dog. Yet whenever death finally comes, you will face the same agony: What about my dog? What about my family, my house?
So why not do it now? Why keep creating these false dreams of happiness that always dissolve, always? Make a will, write your last letters, and ask a friend to adopt the dog. You are still young enough to choose the time, the place, the method. If you wait too long, these choices will be taken from you, and there will be nothing left you can control, not even your bowels.
You begin to write suicide notes. In the process, you find yourself meditating on the nature of emotional pain, and the nature of life. Speaking the unspeakable is a kind of pleasure, putting your torment into words something of a challenge. Amiri Baraka titled one of his works Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. What a perfect description of the writer’s dilemma: he wanted to die, but he didn’t want to come to the end of the note. Once we come to suspect that life is not worth living, we bravely walk out over the shark-infested sea on a plank made by our own words, prepared to leap into the abyss. But we keep generating more words to delay reaching the end of the plank.
So you write letters — to your friends, to her friends, to her. You make a fool of yourself by mailing them, because you know that, if you didn’t, the pain would suck you down. You do the things people are supposed to do during crisis: contact your local mental-health agency; reach out for support from your family and friends. But their powers are limited. They cannot sit with you all the time and hold your hand. They cannot bring back the dream world you have lost, or restore your youth, or give you a reason to live. And they cannot save you from the nights.
The nights are the worst. For the first three, you don’t sleep at all; then you sleep in fits, an hour here, two hours there. You are not interested in food. Strangely, the dog stops eating, too. She sleeps beside you, on the floor next to the couch. You pat her as always, massage her body, stroke her muzzle, hold her paws, whisper her name, and this giving of affection nourishes her. And, unaccountably, it nourishes you, too. You begin to eat again, more for her than for yourself, and soon she is begging you for tidbits and eating ravenously.
Your children call regularly and come to your house, not to borrow money or ask for help, as before, but to see how you are doing. Your son describes to you painful episodes in his life that you knew nothing of, and you receive him into the brotherhood of the scarred. You collapse weeping in front of your daughter, whom you rejected because your ex-partner didn’t like her. This is the first time you have ever allowed her to see you weak and wounded, and she holds you and weeps. Your every interaction with these human beings you fathered has changed. Now you need them, instead of their always needing you. Maybe you could live a little longer just to enjoy this new kind of dialogue with them.
Now there are breaks in the wall of grief, occasional moments when you feel you can move around a bit without praying for death — enough to notice that inside you there is a sufferer who remembers your former life and roasts in flames of anger, betrayal, and loss; and there is a watcher, a questioner, who does not judge but merely reflects. The sufferer says, “I want to be nothing. Please make me nothing.” And the watcher responds, “What are you now, other than nothing?” The sufferer says, “Then please stop this pain. If I’m nothing, why is there so much pain?” And the watcher says, “What is it like? Where is it located? What triggers it?”
It is triggered by memory, by nostalgia.
There is a memory of something pleasant, then a sense that it is gone forever, and then anger and a feeling of betrayal, because it was an illusion even at the time it was happening, because I believed the experience was shared, and it wasn’t; I was being exploited.
What has become of that belief?
It’s gone. The illusion is gone.
And the exploitation?
That’s gone, too.
Then where is the pain coming from now?
From the memory of the passion. From clinging to that memory. From wishing I had it back.
From clinging, then.
Yes, precisely: from clinging.
Clinging to an illusion.
Yes, a mirage. A beautiful mirage.
The wound goes on bleeding, and the blood is love: for the dog, for your children, for this strange dialogue with the watcher, a Buddha figure sitting on his rock. During the day you clean the house, rearranging the furniture to make the rooms look different, removing everything of hers, reclaiming the space inch by inch. While you work, you still think about suicide, about methods and the business that must be resolved before you depart, but you also think of ways to depart other than killing your body, which has been your faithful dog and does not deserve your aggression. You could put the house on the market and relocate.
You go up and down the stairs, up and down, removing her things, cleaning out her room, stripping it back down to the room it was before you ever knew her. It is not such a bad room: you built it for meditation, opened it to the sky, and the skylight and windows are still there, and the old barn-board walls that have belonged to you since childhood. It is a good piece of construction. Like your own mind, your heart.
You mow the lawn, remembering how she used to wave at you from the house and walk toward you wearing her wide-brimmed white hat, and the memory hurts; all memories of her hurt. They trigger that hideous rumination, which brings back the desire to die, which reopens the dialogue. You heave the loaded grass carts off the machine and suddenly realize that you have not been this strong for ten years. You have been severely lung-impaired, unable to climb stairs without frequent stops for breath, but now you are running up and down the stairs to remove her belongings, and heaving loaded grass carts around, and you begin to laugh. You lie down in the grass and shout at the sky, “I’m getting stronger! I’m not dying! She didn’t kill me; she made me stronger!” You laugh in triumph, and at the irony of it — you can’t stop laughing. When your laughter changes suddenly to tears, you realize you are having manic fits.
Now you are grieving in a manic cycle. On the upswing, you feel as if you have finally let go and the pain has stopped. But soon another memory pulls you down into a closed catacomb of depression, and you see no point whatsoever in being alive. But the watcher is still there. The watcher is in every twist and turn of your mind, no matter how bizarre, crazy, or painful, no matter how tortured you are by feelings of abandonment and loss. And, always, there is the dialogue.
Can you enjoy the beauty of the mirage without clinging?
No, I can’t, because I’m not a rock like you.
A rock like me? Who do you think weeps and laughs?
But aren’t you an illusion, too? Is there anything that is not illusion? What does it matter that everything is illusion if I suffer anyway?
It doesn’t matter, except to help you wake up.
Wake up to what?
If I let go of everything because it’s all an illusion, then why should I live?
There is no reason why you should live. Why do you?
And you meditate for a long time on that question, as if it were a koan: if you say there is a reason to live, then you are clinging to illusion; if you say there is no reason to live, then you are denying the beauty of the mirage. Why live?
For the time being, you live only for the dialogue, and the koan. They transmute the pain, but you don’t understand how or why. The dialogue and the koan are you. There may be no other time but this time. There may be nothing else.
So you dust off your shrine, carefully cleaning and polishing the water glasses and the crystal that symbolize the clarity of awakened mind, the dharma text, the brass bell, the incense dish, the rice offering bowl, the candleholders. You light the candles, do your Buddhist rituals, recite your mantras and invocations. You had almost forgotten how. You don’t know yet whether this is better than the plastic bag over your face, but at least it leads to more dialogue; the other would simply still your voice — like cutting out your tongue because someone tells you to shut up. You practice, formally, for the time being, for the first time in three years. And, for the first time ever, perhaps, you have heard the dharma, heard and understood.
She owes you back rent.
Stephen T. Butterfield
In “Bleeding Dharma” [May 1996], Stephen T. Butterfield did not write fiction. The abyss of depression is bottomless. It is not the blues or feeling down; it is a great numbness, a loneliness void of meaning. Somehow many of us survive it and rejoin the carnival of life. But our tour of hell serves as a badge of courage for the dharma road. We have glimpsed the grand mystery in which all egos die, and yet a mighty something (or perhaps a mighty nothing) endures.
In addition to learning of Butterfield’s death in the July issue [“Glorious Failure,” Sy Safransky], I discovered that he was a friend of a friend and lived not far away among these hills and streams of Vermont. I now find myself missing someone I never met.