ALISON LOWENSTEIN

 

The Buddhist

     In his Tribecca studio-loft apartment, Doug explains that he is planning to take a vow against materialism. He doesn’t know when he will be ready to take a vow of this magnitude, but he hopes it can happen before the New Year. There are issues involved. Doug will have to make a real sacrifice, stay serious and focused. And he hasn’t “ironed everything out with himself yet.” He lays back in his club chair and says, once he decides to take this vow, he will throw a big party where people will come over and take things from his home.

     “Give your stuff to your friends?” I ask. I am surprised. Doug is a twenty-nine year old man who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His parents sent him to good private schools. Although he didn’t make Ivy, he went to Vassar. I have only known Doug seven months, and based on hearing his stories and seeing the framed pictures in his office, I know that he has no friends who would want used items, except for a few of his female friends who might want a vintage Valentino dress which, of course, he doesn’t own.

     “Yup. I’ll have a big party and they can take anything they want except the TV and the radio.” Doug sips some wine. A wine he had shipped back to his apartment after a trip to Napa.

     I question why he wouldn’t give up the flat screen TV.

     “Although I rarely watch TV, I sometimes like to indulge in an occasional old Sci Fi movie when I come home from work.” He has a weakness for those films, which he wishes he didn’t. But besides the TV, he gets small pleasures from listening to National Public Radio.

     “Would you ever think about donating your stuff to a charity?” I ask. I remember my mother and I sorting through our old clothes to give to rummage. We had to help the Russian Jews, the poor frost bitten New Yorkers during the coat drive, whatever the latest cause.

     I sit on the leather couch as he nods in response to my question and then changes the subject to meditation. My legs are sticking to the upholstery. My skirt is black and falls right below my knee, and when I sit down, my legs are exposed - I’m self-conscious. He keeps talking, getting up only to refill my glass. As I sip my wine, I try to fix my skirt and cross and uncross my legs. As I do this I think about how I would make the most awful Buddhist. My mind is constantly wandering. Besides worrying about how my skirt appears to Doug, I am concerned that a fax I sent for work might not have gone through, in which case, the printer wouldn’t have gotten corrections for some copy I had edited earlier that day. Doug keeps talking and as he goes deeper into his lecture on reflection and serenity, I wonder if he thinks this talk will in some way change me or at least stop my fidgeting. I have no idea how Doug sees me and if I’d any clue, I’m sure it would just chip away at my self-confidence.

     I get up and walk over to his open window. I smell paint. They must be renovating other lofts in Doug’s building. He had just bought the apartment. He would tell me about the renovations, and how they were “such an inconvenience to him.” This is his first apartment alone; before moving here, he was still living with his parents on the Upper East Side. He would always tell people that his parents were never there. That was the truth. His dad had a job in LA. But it was still his parents’ place.

     “I smell paint.” I sip my wine and almost choke as I spit that one sentence out.

     “I know. More freaking renovations with the apartment below.” Doug rolls his eyes back. “I am trying to have things like that not bother me.” He hands me a copy of Awakening The Buddha Within from his bookshelf.

     I get up and leaf through the copy, “Is this where you think someone like me should start?” I ask as I read the book jacket to make it appear that I’m interested in what this book has to say, which I’m not. I am still obsessing on the fax I sent before I left. Was there a confirmation? I don’t recall. I was rushing. Doug was at my desk. I wanted to impress him. Doug is very respected at Book Review; he has an office with a window, an assistant. He never worries about faxes going through. He never worries about being fired. He once threatened to quit and they promoted him. I know if I ever pulled that, they’d wish me well and off I’d go.

     I believe people in the office have noticed Doug and me together. Although we have only had two lunches and this is the first time we have spent an evening together, I know people are watching us. We do talk a lot and a few times we have closed his office door. I haven’t overheard anything yet. But I’m sure they think I’m trying to get in with the higher-ups by socializing with the Associate Publisher. Sadly I’m not. I have no idea why I have accepted two lunches and a dinner with Doug Williams. It isn’t love, interest or even infatuation. Maybe it’s curiosity.

     Even though I was a woman studies minor, Doug’s interest in me reminds me of a classic movie, shot in black and white film. Where an actress like Marilyn Monroe would play the secretary and be whisked off by her boss. These feelings bother me. These images bother me. But they are mine.

     I know I am not the only woman who has these fantasies. Book Review is filled with women who carry tote bags, live in Brooklyn and call themselves, although not out loud, “independent thinkers.” Eighty percent of the Book Review staff is comprised of these sorts of women. And all of these unmarried women nearing thirty eat up Doug’s stories on spirituality. They reiterate conversations he had with them when we take lunch together or they talk about Doug in the little kitchen we have for reheating food and making coffee. Even Melanie Goldstein who is one of the few married women at Book Review, tells me how she just loves talking with Doug. “When you speak to Doug, he really gets you to think,” Melanie had told me just that afternoon. I didn’t tell her I was having dinner at his place. When that piece of information gets around the office, I will be envied. And yes, I will be talked about. In short, I will be Queen.

     Doug invites me into the kitchen. “I tried to make a good stir fry. When I was in Thailand I had the best food. The best pad thai. Oh, there was this one place that I ate at least once a day, sometimes I ate all of my meals there.”

     “I lived above a Thai restaurant once.” I have never been to Thailand. I hated that apartment above Thai Universe on the lower eastside; it was cramped and always smelled like grease.

     “I wish I lived above a Thai place.” Doug says. I know Doug would never live in an apartment that was located above a shop.

     “Really,” I say, “I think the restaurant was the reason my apartment had roaches.”

     Doug looks at me, not sure if what I am saying is a joke or not. In the end he decides to laugh, but only a small chuckle.

     That apartment had mice too, tons of them. I spent a year in that apartment, putting down cups of mice poison and every so often, I would come home to a dead mouse. I don’t tell this to Doug, I edit myself because I already regret telling him I used to have roaches. He will probably call someone in to fumigate after I leave.

     We lean against the counter, over by the rice cooker. Doug smiles, “Rebecca, have you ever used a rice cooker? It’s really easy.”

     He has no idea that I am no novice in the kitchen. Due to years of living on a low income, I have become very familiar with cooking at home. I do own a rice cooker; I live on rice and beans. His kitchen is the size of my studio apartment, but I don’t know how to bring that up in conversation. He takes out some plates from the cupboard. They all match. I make a note that I will never invite him to my place. He places some rice and a mixture of tofu and vegetable stir fry that appears to be doused in a bean sauce on my plate.

     We head to the table and I concentrate on bringing the food up to me and chewing with my mouth closed. Simple habits for most, but something I always try and keep.

     Doug puts on jazz. I can’t make out who is playing, and I do not dare to ask. I think its Miles Davis. We are listening to a record. I hadn’t seen a record player in years. I like the music in the background; it makes me feel less of an urge to speak.

     Doug says, “I don’t know if you ever heard this, but when I first started working at Book Review, I was in editorial like you, Rebecca. I did some reviews, but mostly editing.”

     “Oh.” I do know this. In an office environment people are always tracking others’ careers. It’s an office pastime, especially when it concerns Doug. Besides the mention of the recent vow against materialism, I don’t think there is anything Doug can tell me that I haven’t already heard from his female biographers at Book Review.

     “Yes. I used to review all of the spiritual books and I would just laugh at the authors. I had thought that they were all weak and that the only reason they followed Eastern Religion was because they just couldn’t cut it in the real world, but as I got more advanced in my career, the more removed I felt from the world. Then, I was no longer laughing. It really put my values in place.”

     It is then that I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I believe that going to the bathroom in mid-meal is bad etiquette. When I return, I accidentally move the tablecloth and my red wine, most likely chosen because it goes well with tofu, spills all over the tablecloth. This is even worse etiquette.

     Doug lets out a yell, “Jesus Rebecca. Can’t you be more careful? This is a very good tablecloth. Damn it.” He starts to remove the plates. “Can you help me?”

     I am startled that he yelled. I try to help clean up. I grab what I can and he starts to put damp paper towels on the tablecloth. As he dowses the stain with seltzer, he mumbles and every few seconds he shoots me a dirty look. Finally he says, “You know, I think you should leave.”

     I am waiting for him to say that, and I do.