Joey did not expect cake.
Much less two cakes: a beautiful one in five colored layers made of mochi—rice flour—and an enormous flat yellow cake iced with chocolate that came from a mix and a can. But the lovely mochi cake tasted of puréed gravel, and everyone but the skinny dude with the unfulfilled beard ate several gooey pieces of the cake from a mix. Their last chance at real grub. Skinny-Boy stuck with the rice-flour cake. Joey thought he ostentatiously forked it slowly, “mindfully,” in a way one could not help but notice.
“I signed up for the whole retreat. I figured otherwise there was no point,” said the young man between bites.
“They said it gets easier as you go on. After three weeks, you don’t even think about it,” said the red-haired one of a pair of striking young women. Joey had already labeled them Pre-Raphaelite #1: Leah, with red curls; and #2: with masses of black hair, who had the tiniest trace of an accenta little concentration on the n’s and the s’s.
Joey poured himself a cup of roasted barley tea. Why, he didnt know, as it tasted of old letters soaked in Moxie.
At a Zen retreat, one didn’t exactly mingle. Most of the retreatants seemed young—either a few years into their twenties, or extending their adolescences years or decades past college. They had been dropped off by friends or girlfriends: a handsome Cuban guy was dropped off by what Joey could only guess was an extremely easygoing boyfriend. Joey had driven himself. His battered Civic was losing its battery power as they gobbled. There was Sean, the skinny cake-eater, and a bunch of other young men, all serious. Two he knew from other, shorter retreats; Matt was thinking of becoming a monk, and Juan was already a Dharma teacher. There was a trim, tough old crow of a man; the young women; a middle-aged woman with a gray pageboy she’d probably had since college who looked a little lost; and a well-dressed, older Korean lady who was fully made up. Everyone called her Mrs. Kim. But mostly it was a gathering of youngish men. Being self-sentenced to silence as they were, there was hardly any purpose in getting to know one another. Mostly they talked about how cold it would be in northeastern Vermont in January. The monastery was heated with wood.
After twenty minutes of rules and regulations—regulations they all knew because they’d signed an agreement and a waiver as they sent in their checks—they had this little party. The Retreat was all Joey’s friends in his practice group could talk about. Going on retreats, for as little as a weekend or as long as three months, was part of their determined Zen practice, as much a part of the faith as going to church on Sundays might be for Christians. And Joey was one of the few from his temple—they all seemed to share semi-crummy office jobs—who could take the time off from work. In the retreat, the men and women would be woken up at 4:30 for bows at 4:45, followed by periods of chanting and meditation, lasting till 9:30 at night, except for the “intensive” week, which went on even later, and which Joey would not be staying for. Meals were scheduled, vegetarian, and silent. There was to be no telephone or internet contact. No talking, no writing, no reading. The “library” of the monastery consisted of several copies of the one permitted book: a translation of the Blue Cliff Record. Of course, the cell phones had been sequestered. If you tried to write a diary, it would be seized. If something went wrong in the outside world—if your mother or spouse were in the hospital, for example—someone from the Buddhist House a quarter mile off would hand you a note. There was just to be the ten of them for now, plus the Master. Some had signed up for the whole ninety days, some for a few weeks, whatever they could work out with their employers. Joey, ever the ambivalent, chose a week: the absolute minimum.
The monastery building was in the Korean style, with a beautiful cobalt-blue tiled roof, in a long building with one big bare Dharma Room on one end. That room embodied silence, with its polished floor, huge windows opening to the forest, and gilded Buddha altar. Then a kitchen, and few rooms off a hall. The sleeping arrangements were bare; the men and women spread their sleeping bags on futons in two separate rooms in the concrete basement. This was where they would be for three months, or however long they signed up for.
Each morning started with one and a half hours of chanting. The chants were familiar enough to Joey. Always the good citizen, he had them memorized. They were in Sino-Korean, an attractive lilt of one- and two-syllable words, accompanied by a bronze bell or a wooden instrument. While some did have a translation, the meaning of most had been lost to time. A translation was hardly the point. The endless tune, like a Korean Rachmaninoff, swung Joey along. He had a strong baritone, too. It was something he could not mess up. The chanting ended with the four great vows:
Sentient beings are numberless. We vow to save them all.
Desires are endless. I vow to conquer them all.
The teachings are infinite. We vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable. We vow to attain it.
Every moment was scheduled: precise hours of chanting and sitting meditation, with breaks for cleaning and other tasks. In this Zen tradition one simply focused on one’s own breath. If one’s thoughts slipped to something else, hope or fear or daydream—and they always did—one was told not to judge, but simply lead one’s mind back, like a well-trained dog, to the breath.
The Master gave his introductory talk. He was a large man, balding. His forehead was so big one could write a sutra on it. Once again, they were reminded not to talk, but also not to look out the windows, not to skip a meditation session, not to oversleep, not to eye one another in the silence of the room, and not to move. If one were absolutely in tremendous pain one could get up, bow, and stand. A mere itch or knee pain would go away.
“This is not,” the Master said, “feel-good meditation.” He spat out the words feel-good like two olive pits.
The Master had nothing to worry about. Meditation never had been “feel-good” for Joey. For a half hour or two, certainly, but for more than that, it got complicated. At its best, a Zen retreat was like attending the Vaudeville of One’s Own Mind: every relationship, accomplishment, failure, and regret came up somehow, to be reexamined, again and again, in an endless show. Up came a childhood memory of an Old-World uncle yelling at Joey for reasons he could not fathom; then, the refrain of a pop song heard yesterday (“I gotta, I gotta gotta”); then, thoughts about a moronic television spectacle he had just seen, ostensibly set among Norse Gods and Heroes, in which the characters talked as if they were granite marionettes. Then his right knee hurt. And his head.
Then, for hours at a time, an endless documentary about the three great relationships of Joey’s life, in entirely random order, played in the home theatre of his cerebellum. There was his first boyfriend from his senior year of college: poetic, a brilliant literary mind; he could not follow a bus schedule. The two of them did not make it a one semester into graduate school. There was the sweet girl he tortured his freshman year—he bought her the flowers she admired, he said nice things about her shoes, and never got close to her. She was a respected forensic psychiatrist now. Was this his fault, or to his credit? Liam, the most recent boyfriend, a pricey white-shoe lawyer, had a share on Fire Island and told Joey what to wear. And what not to wear: Joey would never wear briefs again. They lasted two years. Three months ago, Liam had moved to his dream job in New York, and only six weeks later he dumped Joey by Fed-Ex—Fed-Ex!—evidently Liam had misunderstood what the Ex in Fed-Ex was for. His letter told Joey he was not ambitious enough, not enough of a New York boy, and had no firm goals.
Which was, in fact, the painful truth.
At thirty-one, Joey had blurry plans for his life. He was only an educated, mildly athletic guy. Dropped into a group of decently groomed white guys, he was invisible. His MA in Russian language was unused, perhaps unusable—as pointless as a baronetcy. He worked as an assistant to a dean at a reputable university near Boston. He’d been there for seven years: they’d paid for that master’s. But even the dean was hinting he could do better. He could have a career. A PhD in Russian was out of the question; Russian departments were depopulating faster than Russia was. Meanwhile he was on call at the hospital as a volunteer translator. They liked him because he was the only one who could figure out what non-Russian patients from the former Soviet Union were saying, just from his intuition. Their Russian was far worse than his. That was another thing on his to-do list, once he got out of here: decide about more school, arrange life.
Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them all.
Desires are endless. I vow to conquer them all.
During one of the meditation periods Joey eyed the room, just as the Master had forbidden, stopping at each person. Why were they all here? For a week to three months of pain? There must be something wrong with each of them. His eyes went around the room like a judgmental clock. Matt, the future monk, was genuine. So was Juan, though he was not on the monk track. The Lost Lady was typical of so many Zen students her age. She would probably not last. Sean of the mochi cake he already disliked. Next, an intellectual-looking blond-haired guy in his late thirties with a trimmed beard and glasses. Joey called him “The Professor.” Probably of one of the social sciences, he almost certainly had a young family, and was probably fine. There was a little guy whose name he’d forgotten. Benny? Danny? Possibly another loser. Then the Old Crow, and Mrs. Kim, and finally the two Rossettis: black and red-haired. Even Joey, a self-conscious Kinsey 5.5, felt his pupils widen when they came into view. Why would creatures so beautiful, so youthful, carton themselves here? Then finally himself, Joey: probable loser, we’ll let you know after this week.
In the afternoon they had their first interviews. They were supposed to have daily individual meetings with the Master, with koans—questions that disengaged the thinking mind in order to be answered. During sitting meditation, the Master sat several rooms away. When he was finished with an interview, he rang a sharp bell, which was how the next person knew to bow and walk very quickly for a consultation. Joey was nervous, as the Master had already shown his strictness, and there was something about the choreography that he suspected he would get wrong.
When his turn came, he bowed and walked to the Master’s room, did an elaborate regulation prostration, and sat when he was motioned to. This Zen Master came from somewhere in Europe. That’s how it was: the only actually Korean in the Korean Zen retreat was Mrs. Kim.
The Master sat, impassible, exactly like the Kamakura Buddha.
“What is this?” He pointed to a watch by his side.
Joey hit the ground with the stick, as was the custom.
“It’s a watch,” he said.
“NO! WRONG ANSWER!” shouted the Master. His accent was certainly Slavic—from exactly where who could tell? It sounded like dictatorship.
“You must look at the watch,” said the Master,“and tell me the time. So now, you, YOU, ask ME.”
What is this?” Joey said weakly.
The Master hit the ground with his stick.The sound could have been heard three towns over.
“It’s 2:20,” said the Master, which indeed it was.
The Master immediately rang his bell. Joey was dismissed in more ways than he could assemble.
When he passed her in the hall, Leah, still in his head as Pre-Raphaelite #1, gave him a broad smile.
After a few days, Joey knewand Joey knew everyone knewwho had the long interviews. Juan, who was senior, as well as Matt, the future monk, who together led the meditation and chanting sessions, had long powwows with the Master. After that came Pre-Raphaelite #2, then Sean and Tough Old Crow, then Leah and the Lost Lady, then the remaining men. Joey and Mrs. Kim brought up the end. Joey’s own interviews were little ceremonies of failure. Speak, say wrong answer, and hear the Master ring you away. In an impish way, Joey was proud of it.
Each meal was almost identical. The retreatants cooked and served them themselves. They ladled them to one another in another elaborately devised ritual, four confusing bowls rinsed out with tea at the end; you put your fingers in your bowls a lot. It was shockingly unsanitary. Rice porridge at breakfast; soup and rice and vegetable at lunch; soup and rice and vegetable again at dinner. Joey’s least favorite dish of all time, seaweed soup, showed up at lunch and again reheated in the evening. It was awful—salty, weedy, fishy, froggy—like taking a big ladle of Massachusetts Bay and plopping it in a bowl. Koreans could not get enough of it. (“Very good for mother with baby,” murmured Mrs. Kim.) But Joey loathed it. At dinner he had to lug a huge cauldron from person to person, trying to avert his face from the stink. Peanut butter was served at every meal as a sort of default, and Joey had more than his share.
At times the discomfort did remit. During the short breaks all the men ran to their dorm to crash, even for just a half hour. They were starved for sleep, and were united in their need. On one early break Joey dug in his backpack for his Ben-Gay; the men passed it around and rubbed it into their aching knees, feet, and backs as if it were a sacrament. The work periods, too, gave some respite. Whoever wrote the chore assignments gave Joey most of the outdoor wood-chopping, and he found he preferred it. Even in the deepest cold, he did not mind, as finally he could move his body.
At maybe his third day, Joey was again assigned outdoors. But who was responsible for including Mrs. Kim, who must have been at least sixty? She had been ordered to stack Joey’s wood. She was a tiny woman who had never stacked wood in her life. And evidently, she did not know what she was in for in a Vermont January: she wore a short jacket, a flimsy beret sort of hat, and thin pink gloves. Joey could tolerate the cold and the effort. But Mrs. Kim struggled as if she were trapped under a frozen lake. They weren’t supposed to talk—certainly not to commiserate—but Joey felt only baffled anger. He gave Mrs. Kim his real hat and his work gloves. He ran down to his car, where he kept a plastic box with emergency necessities, and found his chemical heating pad, a scarf, and an extra pair of gloves. Joey stacked as much of her chopped wood as he could. Mrs. Kim, bewildered with cold, could only nod, though Joey found everything he had given her neatly folded on his sleeping bag that night.
During meditation, Liam, the ex of the moment, came up again and again, like a recurrent cough. To his surprise, Joey had memorized the Fed-Ex letter and replayed the whole text several times almost every period, like a mantra of rejection. It had stock phrases like some bad poem: “incompatible,” “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” “You deserve someone better.” For the first days of the retreat, Liam could have been on the cushion right next to Joey, though of course Liam would never have been caught dead in a place like this, with his worked-out body, great ambitions, dark eyes, and even darker truths. But with every meditation period, Liam lost strength. By the afternoon of the second day, he was little more than a vapor. The recurring thought of him—even the phrases of his Fed-Ex—became merely décor.
At one time a stranger used to ring Joey and his roommates with gay prank calls. He would ask, “Are you in your underwear?” when any of them picked up the receiver. After the fourth or fifth time, Joey would yell “you again?” and hang up. Soon underwear-man packed it in. So it was in the mind. One’s feelings of failure (what was Joey going to do with his inoperable MA? — the sins by or against one’s exes, even Liam and his Fed-Ex letter’s phrases); all diminished in power. And Joey’s roommates chimed correctly in his head: “Who dumps a dude by Fed-Ex? Someone you shouldn’t be with.”
Joey’s body had caught the rhythm, unbeknownst to himself. His bladder would wake him four minutes before the 4:30 bell, and he would rush to the bathroom as if on fire, do his thing, and arrive precisely early for bows and chanting.
Maybe he was not the night owl he thought he was.
Maybe he was not the weak person he thought he was.
Maybe he was not the person he thought he was.
There were even times that meditation was funny, when Joey actually laughed at what his mind came up with. Once when the clappers snapped him out of meditation, he found himself in the middle of singing a Gilbert-and-Sullivan tune in his head: “We are dainty little fairies, / Ever singing, ever dancing”—from Iolanthe. Joey could barely keep a giggle down; only his mind, out of all the monkey minds in the world, would have provided this.
After one early afternoon break the retreatants came back to the same bare room, only something was changed. The room seemed bigger, somehow. Had something been moved? Did someone shift the flowers and fruit on the altar? Joey didn’t put his finger on it until the middle of the next meditation. The girl with the long red hair, the Rossetti #1, was missing. Leah. The cushions had been pushed together where she had been sitting. During the next break Joey checked the chore assignments to find her name had been erased, with the tasks reassigned to elide her presence. It was something out of Stalinist photography: close your eyes and whoosh goes the commissar. You would never suspect she had been here, that she had once struggled with the rest of them. Mrs. Kim whispered to Joey later that night that she had seen the girl trek down the dirt path with her sleeping bag during the break, when most were sleeping.
Day five of the retreat was the traditional day for a loosening of the shackles. The men and women separately, in the morning and afternoon, would take a few hours off to use the sauna in the house below. The Buddhist House, bought in a burst of Age-of-Aquarius optimism, was a large, old-fashioned farmstead, now down to half-a-dozen residents. It had tons of space, and it was often rented out for groups of any religious persuasion.
They were still not permitted to talk, but Joey could almost see the pressure leave his fellow men, like human Eeyores, clouds departing as they walked the dirt road from the monastery to the changing room. Like men everywhere, they seemed or pretended not to notice one other. Of course, they had never been naked together before. Skinny Sean was surprisingly hirsute, with a butt like a hairy cantaloupe. Matt had a shocking horizontal scar across his chest—some kind of heart operation? It marked him like a cattle brand. Juan by far had the best body, the body of a slim twenty-six-year-old, tan and smooth. Not exactly manly, though in these sexless circumstances one took in whatever one could. He took no notice of Joey, much like the Tough Old Crow, whose lightly haired, wiry chest and arms telegraphed years of labor as a longshoreman, or in construction, or in the fields. Joey would never know the story. Benny looked barely post-pubescent, virtually hairless, and yet a complete man in miniature, like an anatomically correct doll.
The sauna was a relic of the Buddhist House’s palmy days, in blond wood. At the time, it must have been expensive. But only half the taps in the shower room worked. The tiles had been white once, and now were beige. The wood reeked; it needed replacing.
The men all needed a good roasting. They were so starved for sleep, for smell, for the senses, that a bit of scald, ice, sweat, and stench felt like being spanked, if only for a short time, back to life. There they sat, like a rack of chickens in a deli rotisserie. After that laboratory of mind, mind, mind, with the senses turned off or all the way down to 1, everyone needed reminding he had a body again. The Old Bird and the Professor left after only about ten minutes; Matt and Juan and Benny swept themselves to the showers individually. But Sean and Joey stayed for as long as they could stand, and seemed to decide they had had enough at the same time.
In the showers, Sean looked awful. Clearly the retreat diet was not good for him; he was skinnier than ever, and gray around the edges. There were giant purple circles under his eyes, as if someone had beaten him up. He fumbled about for the taps and was almost in tears. Joey turned his water on for him. It was only Sean and Joey there now, and they took a quick look at each other. They gave each other the recognizing eye of men attracted to men. Sean approached Joey, and Joey embraced him, and held him there for a few minutes. Sean began sobbing, at first quietly, then in big gasps.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said Joey. “There’s nothing wrong.”
Joey held him as he cried. Sean seemed inconsolable. He sobbed for what seemed a long time, his chest and throat throbbing. Joey knew not to ask what he was crying about. They held each other, naked and wet. There was nobody there to see or hear. When Sean had cried his full, they soaped each other off in friendship and silence.
They both knew more about each other than they could ever have put into words.
“Desires are endless,” thought Joey. “I vow to sample them all.”
Back in the meditation hall, Sean was looking better, and even managed a wan smile. At first, Joey could not keep his mind off him, but with some determination, he managed to keep from staring. The afternoon periods always seemed the longest—six in a row—and the women were gone for their own time in the sauna.
There was a point in Joey’s meditation where he had the strangest experience, of being able to detect . . . the fragility of the material: the walls and the floor and even the people seemed to shimmer with atoms. For a whole period of meditation, he could hardly see them, as the temple and the view outside, of snow and clouds and gray woods, all seemed to announce they were of the same substance, in this case a sort of silver lamé. It would figure, Joey would think to himself later, that his visions would be fabulous. And just as soon as the clappers sounded the end of the period, the vision vanished, if it even had been a vision.
When the seaweed soup arrived at dinner Joey almost laughed aloud. He hated seaweed soup more than he hated the Trump brothers and, as he was ladling the foul stuff out, he could almost make out their heads in the bowl, like right-wing dumplings. So, Joey said to himself, it’s not my thing, and I can tolerate passing Trump Family Stew around — and die of an overdose of peanut butter. Sean gave him a sly fist-bump just before they all crashed for the forty-five-minute break after the evening meal.
But at the next sitting, Sean was gone.
He had evaporated. There was no trace of him. It was as if he had never been born. Just like Leah, only worse. His cushion, his place, had vanished. Benny sat there now. There was no sign in anyone’s face that Sean had ever existed. Juan and Matt and the Old Crow—even Lost Lady and Mrs. Kim showed no interest. Their faces were as blank as the grave. Pre-Raphaelite #2 was in one of her long interviews. All of them had turned, for this point at least, into statues of the Buddha. Juan even, gay as Joey, sat impassive, serene; he could have been molded out of terra-cotta.
Joey, with self-conscious quiet, spent the next break searching for any residue of Sean. Sean’s things were gone. No backpack or sleeping bag or dopp kit, — his futon had been rolled-up and stored; he was no longer on the kitchen schedule. He was a non-person. Joey weaseled around the monastery as quietly as he could – through the few extra rooms, the kitchen, and on to the laundry and the storage areas.
It was then he heard the sounds coming from the Master’s chamber. It was unmistakable, however discreet they were trying to be –- presumably the Master and Pre-Raphaelite #2 — the slurp and grunt of male and female.
It was the sound of sex.
Joey began to withdraw, literally walking backward with unconscious, exaggerated steps, as if he were in a cartoon.
He could not back up fast enough.
And where, in all of this, was he to go?