by Cassandra H. Katsiaficas
The most transcendent experience of my life took place in a mountaintop Buddhist temple that I was visiting with my father.
He stood there, the monk, and bowed as we entered the room. I was in awe of his gentle, sincere eyes. Tall with a shaved head, he wore a thin gray robe and pant suit. He was simple, yet simply captivating.
Our translator deciphered the monk’s Korean greetings into English, and we returned them with “Nice to meet you’s” and nervous grins. I was unsure how to compose myself in front of this devout Buddhist. I hoped my actions would not offend him or somehow intrude upon his undistracted way of life. He gestured for us to sit. We sat. He poured us tea. We drank it. He spoke, the translator translated, we replied. This continued for almost an hour, yet time passed so quickly I hadn’t noticed that my foot had fallen asleep from sitting cross-legged on the floor until I moved to brush a fly from my child-sized tea cup.
In the midst of our tea, our translator excused himself, stood, moved across the tiny room and out into the serene mountaintop beauty of that dewy morning. Despite the peacefulness that surrounded me, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable left alone in the room with the monk. Our fast-paced, often materialistic culture was in stark contrast to the simplicity of the monk’s lifestyle. He had no use for the material possessions, gossip, and reality television of my world, and so I felt my “Westerness,” a sense I didn’t belong, very keenly as I sat across from this modest and contemplative man.
At first we sat there nervously, although I must admit the nerves were emanating from the American side of the room. It was as if our cultural differences created a cement wall dividing us from the monk. However, the monk smiled at us, a smile that radiated a comfort shared among old friends. He spoke, as if asking a question, and directed it to me. Not understanding a word of what he said, I nervously looked around to my fellow English-speakers, and quietly stuttered a regretful “I don’t understand.” Just then he reached his arm across the divide that seemed to separate us and took my hand in his. He smiled at me and the language barrier disappeared, the cultural differences all fell to pieces. It was an almost inexplicable sensation. We looked into each other’s eyes and our very different worlds didn’t seem so dissimilar anymore. I then realized that speech was unnecessary, so instead we did something that all human beings understand: we laughed.
Off the Road
by Wayne Scheer
In a universe of Italians and Jews, Dave Randall stood out like a redwood in a pine forest. Well over six feet tall, he towered over most of our Long Island University classmates. He had a good four inches on me, and I was considered tall in my family. I think he was one of the first blond-haired, blue-eyed people I had ever seen in person.
I had been reading Jack Kerouac novels, so when I met Dave and he told me his father was a drunk and in prison, he transformed into a celebrity in my mind. My father belonged to the upholsterer's union. He and my mother didn't even drink on New Year's Eve.
I lived in East Meadow, a New York suburban cocoon; Dave grew up in a small town outside of Tucson.
"Arizona?" I asked, never having traveled west of New Jersey. "You mean with cowboys and Indians?"
He laughed, thinking I was joking.
We became friends. I introduced him to Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus; he introduced me to Hank Williams and Charlie Pride. I told him how stultifying it was growing up in a middle-class family with parents who wanted only the best for their son. "Too much love is almost as bad as none at all," I said.
"No, it's not," he said, looking away.
We spent many Saturday nights of our freshman year under the bleachers with a couple of bottles of Thunderbird talking about women, and throwing up. Mostly throwing up. Sometimes, we'd go to fraternity parties, but neither of us fit in. He couldn't two-step to "Louie Louie," and I'd quote Woody Allen, saying I was uncomfortable in crowds of two or more.
One weekend, we hitchhiked out to Southampton since that's where the action was, we had heard. We arranged to stay at the home of a friend of a friend whose parents were away. When we got there, after getting stranded on Sunrise Highway during a thunderstorm, we found the house dark and locked up tight. We bought some wine and spent the rainy night sleeping under the back porch. The next morning we pooled our money and rode a bus back to campus. While sitting in the back of the bus, my clothes still damp, Dave laughed as I wondered aloud when the adventure would begin.
"This is it," he said.
As time passed, I found a girl impressed with my stories, and he found a number of females impressed with his. His toothy grin and Western innocence gave way to a contrived cool.
We double dated a few times, but my girlfriend was afraid of him. He had added cocaine to his taste for cheap wine and marijuana. His speech quickened to an almost incomprehensible patter. And his eyes, once clear blue, now seemed like the bloodshot and swollen slits of a much older man.
Early in my sophomore year the woman I thought I'd spend my life with broke up with me. I had gotten too serious too soon, I realize now. Dave helped me get through it. "You'll find the one you're looking for," he said in a faraway voice. "The right one's out there for guys like you."
In the meantime, he helped arrange a string of substitutes.
He and I still shared the occasional all night bull session, peppered with alcohol, pills and smoke, but the talk changed. Now he bragged of schemes to make quick money, usually involving drugs. It was my turn to feel afraid. While I talked of grad school and love, he spoke of last night's sex. "Scored a threesome, man. You ever do that?"
I shook my head. He promised to set me up.
He stumbled into my dorm room not long after that. I was working on a paper on Shakespeare's sense of irony in Hamlet. He smelled of weed and wine and said he knew two women who liked to party. I told him the paper was due the next day.
"You read Kerouac, man. Here's a chance for real kicks."
I had written enough of the paper so I probably could have finished it before it was due or at least gotten an extension. My girlfriend at the time, whose name I barely recall, was studying for exams and our relationship was nearing its logical conclusion. There was no reason for me to stay, just as there is no reason for me now, a man of sixty, married to the same woman for the past thirty-seven years, to remember, down to the tone in my voice, such an insignificant event.
"I can't," I heard myself say. "Gotta finish this paper and study for my political science final."
Dave looked at me with an older brother's disappointment. "Ah, pussy," he said. "At least loan me some money."
I had just gotten paid from a part-time job I had in the library. I gave him ten dollars. He never showed up for his final exams.
When I returned to school the next semester word had spread faster than kudzu during a southern summer. Dave had been arrested somewhere out west for selling drugs.
I thought of finding out where he was and visiting him in jail. Hitchhiking out west to visit a buddy in prison. Now that would be an adventure.
Of course, I never did.
Wayne Scheer taught writing and literature in college for twenty-five years before retiring to follow his own advice and write. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Pedestal Magazine, River Walk Journal, Triplopia Review, Slow Trains and Laughter Loaf. His writing awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination. Wayne lives with his wife in Atlanta, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.