The Virgin and the Gypsy

I think it’s time to post this. I wrote it one morning in Berlin this past summer, for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, on the occasion of his birthday.

This morning, bedroom

We were getting high, my friend Janet and I, behind the church by the grocery store. Back then, if you got caught, you’d be taken into the station, put before a judge—who knows what else: Raped? Ruined? We were fourteen, fifteen tops. We were the smart girls in our class, and still some of the junkies in town knew us and called us the Virgin and the Gypsy. Back then, when I got high, the earth would sometimes tip and I would start falling. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it was better than the other one, the one that I still feel sometimes–the overwhelming knowing that I am actually, like a new bird fallen from its nest, too alone.

Anyway, we were behind the church, sitting on the summer grass, and we were high, when suddenly we heard the sound of footsteps. Now, the church and the grocery store were separated only by a chain-link fence and an embankment (on the grocery-store side) crowded with trees and garbage. We were about six feet from the fence, almost close enough to reach over and touch it with our outstretched fingers. We could see the trees on the other side, but we could not see the person approaching us. We could only hear their heavy footsteps in the dry leaves. I said we were stoned—did I say we were falling?
Let me take a quick break to say that for my tenth birthday, my mother gave me twenty dollars, and sent me with our housekeeper to Chinatown. She couldn’t come with me on this birthday journey, because my father was very sick. I didn’t know that my father was dying, right then, at the time—I just knew that I was spending my tenth birthday alone. O.K. What I wanted for my twenty dollars was to find something that would make my father feel better. I scoured Chinatown looking for that remedy. I paced the winding streets, endured the dancing chicken and the fish smothering in their tanks. I bought him a pair of pajamas from some men with comb-overs, but that wasn’t it. It, it turns out, was perfect: Though my father was a Jew, what I found for him was a plaster Buddha, about a foot and a half high, spray-painted gold.
You mentioned the dog eating its own shit and not looking back. I’m happy (and afraid) to report that I eat my own shit less and less, but when I do eat it, I always look back. I always look back. I trust nothing and no one. I am trying my best to trust you.
My father died three days later.
The footsteps were heavy and slow, and were definitely heading up the embankment in our direction, as we fell towards them, stoned out of our minds. I stabbed out my joint in the grass. (Grass to grass, ashes to dirt.) I could hear that Janet had stopped breathing. I stopped breathing, too.
When my mother told me that my father was dead, I had to travel very far into my body to find the meaning of the word: “dead.” My mind went down my throat and into my veins and somewhere in my stomach discovered the truth: that I would never, ever see him again. Not later that day. Not the next. Not when I was a teenaged girl, with dresses and boyfriends, not when I had grownup. My father’s physician was in the room by now—my brother’s room, where my mother had gathered us to tell us the news—and he handed me a Kleenex. What is this for? I remember thinking. I’m not crying. But when I put my hand to my face, it was covered in tears.
It was very, very fat lady, lumbering up the embankment towards the chain-link fence. She had a bag of groceries hanging from each fist, and she was wearing a simple cotton housedress. She was breathing hard. We were right there in front of her. We were right there in front of her. We were right there. We were holding our breaths, stoned, falling off the face of the earth.
It was one long party, or so it seemed to me, in the days after my father died. For the so-called shiva, the big coffee urn chugged and smoked, the rented silver gleamed, the grownups smoked cigarettes and laughed in the living room, ice clinking in their glasses. I had not returned from my journey to find the meaning of the word “dead.” I had gotten trapped in that dark place somehow, and now, as I walked through the house, I was looking out from a low, dark, angry hole.

It was March, and very cold outside, but the house, being modern, was largely made of glass, and so the winter light came in in long, bright, sharp shards that stabbed the floor and broke in pieces. I was walking through the kitchen one morning, nauseated by the smell of coffee, repelled by the gleam of the silver, furious at every grownup who ever lived on this planet, when I turned my head as I passed the dining room, and saw it—the golden Buddha—sitting at the center of the otherwise empty table.
She, the fat lady with the groceries, walked up to the fence not six feet in front of us, put down the bags, and turned so her back was towards us. She took the hem of her dress and lifted it to her waist. (I stopped falling.) Then she pulled down her voluminous cotton underpants. I did not move. Janet did not move. Nothing moved but the wind through the grass. What was she doing? She bent over, then, her huge ass a cracked full moon in a puddle of muddy water.
The Buddha was alone in the room and it was shining. No kidding. The room was alive with winter light, but that wasn’t it: It was… It was… It was… It was not depriving me of perfection. I was ten. I saw it. Call it radiant, a living quality. Just as quickly, I turned my head, and moved on.
Even with the moon of her ass in my face, I was not prepared for what came next. (Just that alone, that lack of preparedness, is such a relief.) She grunted and pressed her ass against the fence and let loose a huge and otherwise indescribable flying shit, like wet brown buckshot out of a cheap and broken rifle. There was no time or space. There was no me and her. Sadness was meaningless. Shit was everywhere. She stood up, pulled up her underpants, pulled down her dress, picked up her groceries, and without looking back—without looking back—walked away.


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