By Lee Yew Leong
Peter had, under the influence of Tom, been trying Zen meditation – the real thing, it had to be said, not the secular yoga version.
"I met some people there," he gushed into the phone. "There was this woman with muscular atrophy. She said the doctor had given her ten years, at most. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I was window-shopping."
His lover, Hervé, was watching meat make rounds in his Philips micro-onde. "That's too bad," he said glumly from his apartment on Boulevard de Rochechouart. He did not have too much sympathy for the woman, however.
"Then, for the one-on-one," Peter continued, "we had a monk come all the way from Bhutan. He kept feeding me questions. What is your name? What is the sound of water? Koans like that. But I think I frustrated him with my replies; he kept saying, 'Pay attention. That's not what I asked. Don't get distracted.' In the end he gave me a small mallet and said, 'Tap the floor every time you don't know'. I noticed that he preferred it when I did that so finally I just kept hitting the floor in the end. He was very pleased. He said, 'very good'."
Hervé imagined Peter sitting cross-legged in front of a saffron-robed monk, mechanically going through the motions of a Pavlovian stunt, plastic implement et al. "What is he doing in New York?" he asked, reaching into the microwave and investigating the meat with a fork. It was done thawing.
"Beats me," Peter said. "I wasn't that taken with the Q&A. What impressed me was the fact that when I told him I was from Singapore he specified the address of a Zen center to look up: he named the street and everything. I was almost shocked to find it verified on the Internet, when I checked later."
"He tells you to look up the place, and you search the Internet?" Hervé made like he was amazed.
"Mais non!" cried Peter, who much preferred it when Hervé commiserated. "That isn't the point. The point is, how do you think he remembered? He didn't even know a Singaporean would show up that day."
"Monks do little," the Frenchman pronounced cryptically, dropping the slab of meat onto an already sizzling pan, "so they can remember much."
"I told Tom about it," Peter forged on. "He wasn't the least surprised. He said one of the goals of Zen-practitioners is to achieve clarity of mind."
"Ah!" said Hervé. "How's Tom's mind?"
"Well, he's definitely intelligent. And serious about life. I beat him at chess though. We meet once a week after yoga, to play."
"Is he good-looking?Ce Tom?"
Peter was about to reply when he caught the double entendre. Had Hervé said "Ce Tom" (this Tom) or "Cet homme" (this man)? Peter could not decide. But it was a delicious conundrum. Homme could be capitalized and rendered generic, whereas Tom could only be Tom, problematic because specific.
"He's not that attractive," Peter said at last. "I'm just happy to make another American friend."
"Ah bon?" said Hervé, trying to flip his steak over. It was a little trying, with only one free hand.
"Si," Peter was defensive. Both of them sighed.
"Putain!" Hervé cursed all of a sudden.
Peter was alarmed. "What's wrong?"
"Je me suis fait brulé. Hold on, the spatula's on the floor." Peter held on, pricking his ears. There was a clatter of utensils followed by an inauspicious "merde". Finally his lover came back on the line. "Chou chou? We'll talk some other time, ok? Je vais manger maintenant."
When Peter was younger he had seen a monk, who, after reading his palm, had said: you need religion. The monk had also added, as if it were afterthought: any religion at all. Peter had been struck by the monk's gravity as well as moved. What strange altruism! And if he turned to Judaism as a result of the advice? Would the monk really not mind? Also, were all religions one and the same? Peter knew people who would challenge this. One was his Christian friend called Ah Huat, who, upon finding out that he was gay, had sent him a book entitled "Amazing Grace". Not used to being condescended to, Peter photocopied for Ah Huat an essay arguing that Christianity was superstition at best. The article boomeranged back a week later, stapled with three pages of hand-written enjoinders chock full of Hallelujah! Praise the Lord's. Reading by the mailbox the tautology that his friend's defense amounted to, Peter was greatly dismayed. Because of Ah Huat's apriorism that the Bible was Truth, any suggestion to the contrary slid off him like water off of a duck's back. If the Zen master were to give Ah Huat a mallet, he would sooner knock both their heads together than the ground with it. He would be offended by the monk's stupidity and ignorance of God's word. He would end up taking nothing from the monk because everything there is to be said is in the Bible, and there is nothing, ergo, that can be learnt outside that book. So it was with sadness that he put aside his friend's handwriting. He felt that day that he had lost a friend.
"You don't buy first-time lucky until it happens to you."
Tom was telling Peter about pinball. They were sitting on Tom's couch, huddled over his laptop, in his house at St. Mark's. "The first time I played pinball, I hit jackpot. I didn't score as highly as now, of course"—he brought up his high scores, to show that they were well into millions of points— "but something happened then that I have never till this day been able to replicate." Tom leaned forward; his eyes dilated. "It was the very image of jouissance. Balls were shooting out of the hyperspace chute all of a sudden, so many that I couldn't even begin to count. I was hitting ten, twenty balls at a go with the flippers. It was almost as if I attained, when I least expected it, a spiritual high. Have you played the game?"
"Yes," said Peter. He played the exact same game on the phone even, sometimes, while conducting his transatlantic conversations with Hervé.
"Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"I don't think I've ever…"
"Even so, you can see why it's a big deal, since you play."
But Peter couldn't say yes.
"Hmm, I guess I should explain," Tom said. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Think about it," he said after a while. "You go into the game with one ball. Just one. You follow this ball through its every movement, you give it all your concentration. Because of how you channel your consciousness, even your body gets implicated during play."
"Have you observed how when you want badly for the ball to move right, you jerk your body in that direction too?"
This was correct: Peter agreed with a nod.
"It's called kinetic identification. But there are other forms of identification too. It happens when you fixate on something so much that it takes over you. Sometimes when you watch a movie or when you read a book, you get so caught up with the protagonists that you identify completely with their joy, or pain. But identification can just as well take place outside art. There was this incident a few years ago, which you may have read about: a homeless woman climbed into a rich man's convertible to see how it felt like, to sit in a Porsche. It was so comfortable that she ended up falling asleep over the wheel. When the rich man found the woman, he was so maddened that he went and got his rifle and shot her. Her trespass wasn't just trespass, you see: it was violation of his car-owning identity. In Buddhism, we are warned about this all the time: not to get attached to material markers. And a material marker may be a car, it may be a body or a race, it may even be a name."
"So imagine: you're concentrating on the ball you started out with. You're identifying completely with it, and then all of a sudden these stupid duplicates come out from nowhere and fill the screen, throwing off the focus you've cultivated for the duration of the game. Where's that ball? Where's that one thing you've hinged everything on: your consciousness and your identity? Instantly, you lose track. There are just too many of them now."
Peter thought about the countless Agents in "The Matrix" swarming Neo.
"But then you realize," Tom said now, "it doesn't matter. Because ultimately you are the one who has invested the identification. So it's not even an inherent fact of the game, you see. That's when the epiphany hits you: the greatest trompe l'oeil isn't in the convincing graphics, or the simulation of physical laws that make the game real, it's in the fact of you. And at that point, you just want to laugh."
Tom fell back on the couch, drained. Peter, nodding, retreated into himself, weighing in his mind this business of trompe l'oeil. Zen was applicable, even in a game. This surprised him. But he was even more astonished by the fact that Tom was confiding like this.
A silence came over the room. Their shyness with each other had not yet fully rubbed off. Peter turned away from Tom to examine the narrow rhombus of light that stretched on the floor by the window. When he turned back all of a sudden—meaning to ask Tom why he kept the apartment so covered up from light—he caught his host trying to read the label off the back of his shirt. It was a ridiculous moment and an even more ridiculous posture for Tom: both of them burst out uncontrollably.
In the midst of his laughter, Tom cried, wiping the corners of his eyes with his hands, "You know, I'm such a horrible host. I haven't even asked if you wanted tea."
While Tom boiled water in the kitchen, Peter looked around the living room. It was a mess. Books spilled all over the floor. The space on Tom's shelf, clearly unfit for his literature, was dedicated to his amateur collection of plants. Some of these, he noted, had yellowed from lack of light. Whether the musky air was indeed attributable to the soil in the pots he could not tell. He scanned the space around him and absorbed the fact that there was no stereo, no television, no posters or photographs of loved ones. On the wooden floor was a yoga mat. Peter looked at the clutter of books that sprawled over the blue of the mat and noticed that the name "Krishnamurti" recurred on quite a few covers. He got up from his seat and picked a book up called "The Mystique of Enlightenment". The author's wizened face filled the entire jacket. Hearing Tom approach, Peter resumed his position on the couch and tossed the book back onto the floor. As he did so, he caught sight of a glossy hardback entitled "A Guide to Getting It On". Tucked under a chess set, the titillating cover showed a man and a woman locked in embrace.
"Here you go." Tom appeared suddenly, bearing two mugs, one white, the other yellow. "It's hot."
Peter took the white one from Tom and peered into the drink. Steam wafted from the dark-colored beverage. Tentatively, he sipped the hot liquid. It was bitter. He grimaced reflexively.
"Sorry," Tom said, seeing the expression on Peter's face. "This is the only tea I have. It's chai, actually."
"Oh no, it's quite invigorating," said Peter. His roving eye returned to the guide. The disappointment was only now registering.
"How long have you been doing yoga?" asked Tom, who had taken a seat opposite Peter. There was a crack lining the yellow mug next to its handle, and he traced the imperfection now with his finger.
"I've only just joined," Peter said, watching Tom move the finger up and down his mug. There was something pointedly child-like about his action. "But you seem to have done it for quite some time."
"I think it was around the time I got into pinball, which means it's been about five years now, yes."
Peter replaced the cup on the table. "I wonder," he said, his eye catching the book again. "Do you think you'll ever get to that jouissance one day?"
"What?" Tom blinked.
"Pinball..." said Peter. "Sorry, I..."
"No no," his classmate laughed. "I thought you meant..." He took another drink from his mug and then lowered it to his lap thoughtfully.
"Well, I don't think it matters," Tom said at last. "If I really wanted to, I suppose I could approach it scientifically, be systematic and serious about it. Conceivably I would find out what had triggered the um... jouissance, within a matter of days. But I think it just wouldn't be as interesting if I came upon it like that." He got up suddenly and walked to the bookshelf. There, much to Peter's surprise, Tom fished out from the pot of one of the healthier ferns, a multi-colored cube. "Did you ever play with this when you were young?"
"I did, as a matter of fact," Peter said, staring at the rubik cube. He felt guilty all of a sudden.
"I was just seven when I played with one," Tom replaced the toy and walked back to join Peter. "I was totally obsessed. I couldn't solve it but I didn't want anyone's help, you see. It's possible that I wanted my obsession to last. The first time I solved the cube, I was overjoyed. I had despaired over it for days, completing a layer, then watching that very layer disintegrate before my eyes as I attempted the opposite side. The more I played with the rubik cube, the further away I got from the actual solution, it seemed."
"So how did you do it then?"
"I think it was knowing that it could be done. And having faith enough that I wasn't tempted to peel off the colors. Later when I got to reading about the strategies that competitive players used, I was shocked to find the solution actually laid out somewhere. All my interest evaporated instantly. It just didn't hold the same spell anymore."
Peter fell silent, thinking about the nature of things elusive. Perhaps everyone was Tantalus in his own way, with one thing or other confiscated from permanent reach. One time he was in a car with Hervé when he heard a song on Nostalgie. He wanted to know the title, to listen again. But Hervé put paid to that when a car cut into Hervé's path at the exact moment of the D.J.'s disclosure: he had cursed loudly over it, censoring forever the information about the song. It had never played again, and none of them could recall the melody well enough to perform it in front of a shop assistant. Later, after a terrible quarrel in Hervé's Renault on the way to the airport (building up to one of Peter's many departures from France), and only the D.J. from Nostalgie intervening in the ensuing silence, Peter made the following promise to himself: if the song plays I will overlook difference and make up. If not, I will leave. Predictably, there was a walkover, no contest. Despite this, Peter hugged Hervé before gathering his bags for a garguantuan 747, the plane that would bear him into New York and certain oblivion—of misgivings. Perhaps he had only resorted to the resolution as a desperate tactic to will the song into airplay. Why else had he given in so easily? How to explain that he could not cut this connection?
It struck Peter all of a sudden that perhaps they didn't know the song anymore, and would not have recognized the melody if it had in fact played under their noses on the way to the airport that day. It would be marvellous irony, he thought, if the D.J. had insiduously slipped the song in, into the background of their bickering. It would be an irony sharp as chai.
"Do you have a religion?"
There was a lingering. Peter thought about the woman afflicted with muscular atrophy, and his own window shopping.
"No," he admitted, looking up from his cup. "But it's a personal mission of mine to find one by the age of 30. A monk once told me I should get one." Reflexively, Peter broke into a smile—recalling the surrealness of that episode. "There was a time I toyed with the idea of Christianity but I had problems erm... reconciling that with my sexual orientation." He bent down now to drink his tea.
"Well I'm gay too, but it wasn't because of that I chose Buddhism over…"
"Wait," Peter jerked up his head. "Did you say…"
Tom smiled and then swung his hand around him to indicate the apartment. "It's the untidiness, isn't it? I really need to work on the signals that I'm giving off. Do you know that for a week already, the girl who lives across from me has been throwing me hints?" He got up from the couch and picked up both the chess set and "A Guide to Getting it On". "Look what I got in the mail, unstamped. It could only be from her," he tossed the book at Peter. "What do you think?"
"I already saw it," said Peter, going red at once.
"Oh, is that why you thought..."
"Well, if you must know" said his classmate, "sex isn't a big part of my life but I know that I don't think of women that way. And I think…" and here the pause seemed quite intentional as Tom walked up to where his guest sat, "neither do you." A smile broke on his face, as he sank down abruptly next to Peter—the force rippling along the sofa like a wave—causing his companion to rise. "Which I could tell, by the way. Now," Tom, still holding the chess set, looked straight into Peter's astonished expression, "care for a game?"
When Peter got home that evening, there was a message on his answering machine.
"Chou chou! Où t'es? Tu trains en dehors? Bon..."
He left the answering machine trailing and walked into the kitchen for a glass of water. The sun was just now setting and he watched the graduated pinks disperse over air. There were crows too in the far sky making 'V' for home. He could hear them cawing to one another. He wondered briefly if they ever communicated anything out of the ordinary, if their speech had content at all. Then, turning away from the window, he saw that it was 6: midnight in France. Hervé was probably brushing his teeth. But on the other hand he could be asleep. Peter could go both ways: call or not.
Downing his water, he noticed from the corner of his eye a rubik cube on the kitchen table, tucked away with other knick-knacks by the wall. He walked over and picked it up, then tossed the object gleefully from hand to hand. This one he had gotten for himself when he had bought the toy to send to Hervé. Now as he played with it in the darkening kitchen, he recalled what Tom had said. It struck him now as curious that a fickle object could come to represent faith.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010