Alex, “If she was dead, I would be crying.”
You have to be alert when you ride an elephant, you can do a lot of damage if you screw up. Alertness takes energy, it activates a person and it tires one out. Awareness, on the other hand, is something one falls into and it can both relax and rejuvenate the person. Driving during the day, it was easy to hit or rub curbs with the rear tires of the bus. The drivers said that the curbs absorbed heat from the sun and would expand at the same time that the air within the tires heated and expanded, and the result was more rubs and curbs happening in the day than early in the morning or later in the night.
That day, it was foggy out.
“Froggy,” he remembered thinking and imagined a bunch of tiny amphibs in the air. The day was cool and the expansion excuse wouldn’t fly if he rubbed.
It was really a matter of professionalism; the better drivers made clean turns. Walter made a right turn around a sharp corner and came up just short of a car stopped at the signal light on the street he was turning on to. He needed her to back up so he could complete the turn. The buses don’t back unless it’s an emergency and the one time Walter had to, a passenger had hopped off to make sure it was clear behind him. The woman at the wheel of the car looked to be reading a text message on her phone while the few cars behind her had already backed up, making room for the bus, and the signal light turned green before she finally looked up. From his vantage point above her, Walter saw how startled she was, this massive thing sitting just outside her windshield. After her initial shock, she gave him the old Stink Eye, turned to her right and drove on by. Walter kept his poker face on but was laughing inside. He completed his turn and remembered to “beware of the flare” as he did so, not wanting to sideswipe any cars as his rear swung out.
A few blocks later, he pulled to a stop and picked up a pretty, young mother with her kids in tow. She had a wholesome look about her but, obviously, wasn’t wearing a bra and the T-shirt she had on was imprinted with a goofy cat with its eyes positioned over her erect nipples. It took Walter an instant to realize he was staring but the way she smiled suggested her plan was working. She rode the bus for twenty blocks before she and her kids got off but not before she provoked him further.
She looked at him that way, you know, whether you’re male or female you understand; the way that say’s she wants you, and then she called his name, “Bus Driver.”
He got a chuckle out of that.
That day, driving home, Walter’s mind brought up traces of his trip, with Mara, to Big Sir and Monterey and how sweet it was but, also, how it defined what they were to become.
On that trip she was still sexual, still got wet with anticipation. They had entered the personal sanctuary that was Esalen and showered with others in the shower that was perched on the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean and then moved to the stone tubs filled with hot spring water that flowed from the mountains behind. That first evening, there were several other bathers in the tubs but Walter and Mara experimented, moving into a hot stone bath until heated and relaxed and then cooling in the claw foot bathtubs before moving to a new hot bath and so on, repeating the process until they were pleasantly exhausted. Some of the other bathers were silent while others engaged in mild conversation.
“I just don’t understand what women want!” said a man who looked to be in his seventies. He was naked amid five or six naked others, near him in age, both men and women.
As the hot water cooled and flowed out of the tubs, they would pull the large wooden stoppers from the rock channel behind them and refill the tubs with 119-degree water. Looking out towards the horizon of the ocean, they could see the spouts of gray whales as they migrated north, back to their breeding grounds. Below them, sea otters floated on their backs in the waves and cracked open the shells of mollusks they’d retrieved from the ocean floor.
He was remembering how Mara had turned her back to him and leaned her naked body half way up on the stone ledge to get a better view of the otters below. He sat there, blissful, sweating and at ease while her body rose out of the water. He saw her little shoulders, a strong back with a well-defined spine and just below her waistline, two cute dimples that gave emphasis to the perfect heart-shaped ass below.
It was a long winding uphill path from the baths back to their cabin but the walk was peaceful. The green hillside around them was dotted in some spots and completely covered, in others, with yellow flowers. They could see the white surf crashing against the rocks at the shore.
In the cabin, there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t try or do to please him, to please herself. She stripped her clothes off and laid down on the floor, spread her legs and rolled over, showing her pussy and her ass. She did a headstand letting her large milky breasts fall towards her face. She gave him a flirty look, humor in her eyes that made him smile then. Remembering, he was smiling now. They made love. Afterwards, she drank a full bottle of wine taken from the case she’d picked up at Trader Joe’s in Monterey.
“I see a rabbit,” she said, looking up at the patterns in the knots and grain of the wooden ceiling above them.
“There’s a butterfly,” he said, pointing with his finger.
“Don’t live in the past,” he told himself, that day driving the bus.
That afternoon, after his workday was done, he had headed out in her back yard to look for her. Around him, the air had been close as he walked out to find her in her garden, surrounded by flowering plants in various stages of coming and going. She was clipping the flowered heads from the top of the basil plants growing in her raised beds.
It had been another perfect time of year. The purple tulips, pink, fuscia and white peonies, and pink and white bleeding hearts had passed their prime and were fading while the flowers of the lilac bush were completely gone, leaving the healthy green bush behind. Emerging from the lavender and green base of Russian Sage, abundant small red roses were climbing over the white bricks at the back of the garage, leveraging off of the trellis and reaching for the roof gutter.
She sat back, when she saw him, and he moved towards her. As he approached, first one and then a second Black Swallowtail butterfly landed on her shoulder and back. She didn’t seem to notice their arrival but, at seeing this, Walter had smiled inside. Ringo, their big grey Maine Coon, the one he’d given her to keep her from loneliness before he moved in, left her side and ran up to him for some head rubs.
“Hello Ringo Bear!” he had said, “How you doing Dog Hunter?”
“Hello,” said the big cat, with a smile in his eyes. Of the four cats living there, he was the only one who spoke English.
Walter remembered how things seemed almost unreal and how he quickly lost and then regained his balance looking at her, seeing her form framed by a kaleidoscope of colors and natural beauty, the tall yellow sunflowers rising above and behind her, the yellow and orange Nasturtiums spilling over the garden-bed frame at her side, white and purple Clematis dressing the wooden fence, fading clusters of Valerian and Honeysuckle, Foxglove, purple Allium and bright Firecracker Begonia, Hibiscus, and purple and white Iris, chartreuse Kiwi Vine in an array.
Shakti, her white and gray cat, the quiet killer, was resting on a branch at human eyelevel in the corkscrew willow, legs and paws hanging in the air below her, positioned in a spot where she could watch over Mara. Zoë, the nervous Tortie with beautiful camouflaged fir, lay on a cushion in a patio chair, trying to decide whether to move or sleep.
“Hey ZoZo” he had said, “You being good?”
She had a few trust issues that made her mean. Shiva would be inside sleeping, he knew, saving his energy until the darkness of night came. Walter had leaned down and given Mara a kiss.
“How was your day?” she had asked.
“So, so. I had a rolling incident. A fight broke out while I was driving and they stayed at it for about three blocks until we reached the next stop,” he reported.
She had just smiled at that.
“Want some food?” he’d asked.
“You stay here and I’ll make us something to eat and meet you on the patio,” suggested Walter.
He had gone inside, through the breezeway and into the kitchen. He pulled the container out of the refrigerator and poured them each a bowl of gazpacho that she’d recently made from the harvest of her garden: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and cucumbers; olive oil and vinegar from the market. He toasted two pieces of six-grain bread from their favorite bakery, brushed on some olive oil, poured two glasses of cool filtered water, placed everything on a tray and walked back out to the patio and parceled out the food, placing it on the table between the chairs.
“Hey! It’s ready,” he’d yelled.
She’d come over, ducking under the hanging branches of the willow, being followed by Ringo. Zoë jumped off her chair and gave it to Walter. Shakti remained in the tree, unmoved except for the turn of her head so that she could watch the two of them. They sat and talked and watched as the Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrows and Nuthatches came and went from the feeders and sunflowers. Shakti watched the birds with indifference. Zoë made an involuntary chirping sound and speed walked, at a crouch, nearer to the feeders. Their backyard revelry ended as the sky darkened and it began to rain, moving both humans and Gatos inside.
Around her house, Mara had statutes of the Buddha, Angels, The Virgin Mary and Jesus, Ganesha, Sara Swati and Murugan. She worshiped no idols but she liked the looks of those images. She had silk tapestries, paintings and prints hanging from the walls or leaned against them and resting on the floors. Most of these works were amazing to him, having been done by old friends, her sister Jade, or by Mara herself. Among the finest etchings were ones done by her friend, Karen Sharon McNaren, who’d also been abused as a child, and as a young adult had abandoned her home, given away all of her possessions and moved far away where she took up the life of a prostitute. One hall was lined with black and white nude photos of Mara and Lizzy near water, faces turned and obscured. Beyond those prints, there were few photos, other than some small, framed pictures of Papaji, Gangaji, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and Adyashanti. When Walter had first met her, he thought these were pictures of her family and boyfriend and in a certain way they were. She did have one picture taken of her mother at an early age, framed and standing on the mantle of her fireplace right next to the urn that held Mara’s share of her ashes. Mara had a room at the back of her house, across the hall from her bedroom, where she kept things. Walter knew that’s where she kept her stash of booze, some paperwork, her wireless printer, and some clothes but he also figured that’s where she kept some of her secrets. As their relationship had gone along, and as Walter’s spirit had started to come back, she would frequently disappear into that room and come out with a book in hand.
“Here, you should read this,” she’d say.
He never questioned her. He’d take the book and, without a single exception, he’d find the answers to the questions his mind was asking, clearly spelled out in the book. Over the course of the time that he knew her, she had always given him the right book at the right time, never one out of sequence. There was, as the saying goes, a method to her madness. Had she given him too advanced a book too early, he might have given up, confused, frustrated or bored. Walter had devoured each book and followed every pointer she had given him and often he’d go to her in a state of excitement to thank her and tell her what he’d learned.
“Oh, that was just perfect! I feel like such a child. This stuff’s been around for thousands of years and I’m, just now, discovering it,” spewed Walter, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she’d say.
Walter would start talking, babbling about what he thought he’d just learned from the book she’d given him, but she’d stop him with a simple line.
“It’s all bullshit,” she’d say, and she wouldn’t talk any further.
There were times when she’d be sitting in her chair, drunk, working on some jewelry perhaps, and Walter would be across the room, talking about his depression or his latest crisis of faith and she would blurt out a single line of wisdom that would seem so clear that he’d stop and be silent and wonder what had just happened. She was the most messed up person that he’d ever known, in pain, suffering, making poor choices, unable to make decisions, attached, insecure, suicidal, and yet the wisest person he’d ever known. Walter couldn’t tell if she was ill or just messed up from the alcohol and meds. He couldn’t tell if she needed help, or if she was dancing at the edge of the Void and should be left alone to awaken.
He remembers how, the night before, he had awakened to find her gone from the bed, which wasn’t unusual except that she usually returned within a few minutes, taking that time to sit in the dark in her chair outside on her patio, smoking a cigarette with her cats milling around her. She’d usually finish the smoke, come back in locking the doors behind her, pee, gargle some mouthwash, and then come back to bed. That night, when she wasn’t back in twenty minutes, Walter got up to look for her and found her standing in the nude, bent over the broken frame and glass of a picture she had leaned against the wall in the breezeway. Her motions were stiff and abbreviated and her speech was slurred, as if she’d had a stroke. He noticed no cuts or blood on her skin and gently took her arm and talked to her calmly, soothing her until he could get her back into bed. After she’d fallen asleep, he’d returned to the breezeway to clean up the mess. He had made a promise to her, all those years ago, but worried now that in keeping his promise it might cost her life.
Back when they were still lovers, she had pleaded, “Please, don’t ever let them commit me.”
“I won’t,” he solemnly replied after a moment of thought that brought the realization of what his commitment meant.
Those years later, as he was cleaning up the broken glass he realized he hadn’t fully understood what his promise would mean. On the way back in through the kitchen, as he dumped the glass shards in the garbage can, he knew that he needed to make some notes. He found one of her pens; all of her pens were made to look like flowers, she used clothespins with sunflowers attached to seal food packages, and a note pad and wrote down some thoughts that he’d discuss over the phone with Jade as soon as he could.
It was a few weeks later, when he was exhausted and near his breaking point, that they convinced her to check into a rehab facility to try to get her meds regulated and quit the booze. Walter had talked with Jade and they’d agreed on a strategy to persuade her to take this step and it had worked, each of them having encouraging and supportive conversations with her, appealing to the part of her that still saw the sun and still felt joy at being alive and engaged. Mara made it through ten of the fourteen days the program required before checking herself out against medical advice. She tried again in a year or so. Each time Walter was encouraged and hoped for the best. Each time she started back on her path, hiding the bottles and limiting her drinking until the alcohol took control once again.
Jade had screamed at him once after one of Mara’s relapses, “You told me she was doing okay! You lied to me!”
Perhaps he had. Perhaps he had lied to himself also.
On the days when Mara would feel well, when she was sober and not overmedicated, they would talk.
“Are you glad you’re alive?” Walter would ask.
“Yes, when I feel like this,” she’d say.
Time would pass and she would always come back to the point of again thinking of killing herself. She did research on the Internet. She ordered books that gave clear instructions of the best way to do it. She dwelled on it. Sometimes, she’d be sitting in her chair across the room from Walter and she would lift her head and reach her hand up and with one finger representing a knife, she’d draw it across her throat.
Mara’s brother, Sam, couldn’t talk about it. Walter didn’t know if he was too emotional or if he just didn’t care. Sam would come over to Mara’s place to borrow some peat moss, or drop off some panties that didn’t fit his girlfriend, or to see the cats but he’d hardly talk to his sister and would seldom, if ever, ask her how she was doing. Walter talked over the phone with Jade about it until Jade’s marriage fell apart and she felt like he was taking advantage of her in her time of weakness and, again, perhaps he was. He needed someone to talk to, someone to love him since he didn’t know enough to love himself. He walked around, often trembling, waiting for the other shoe to drop.