The Only Truth That Mattered
We were living in Los Angeles then, in an apartment complex a few blocks from the barrio. My twin brother and I were nine, and hadn’t yet adopted the code of behavior that governed kids’ conduct in the building: Eat a pickle to hide the cigarette stench on your breath, use a Bic lighter instead of matches to set off the fire alarm at school, run like hell after you shoplift. The city government subsidized the stuffy, cramped apartments we all inhabited — we were Section 8 kids, the local lingua franca for poor kids, bad kids, although Erich and I were different from our friends in many respects. We weren’t born here; we’d moved from Virginia. We didn’t steal, or swear, or smoke. We had piles of books in our apartment, a piano, too. And, most exotic — we didn’t go to church. In the eyes of our friends, we were sinners, damned to burn for eternity.
Our father meditated regularly, and on any given morning could be found in the living room performing some acrobatic yoga stance, face beet-red, veins pulsing at his temples, legs stretched high above his head. UCLA had offered him a professorship in their East Asian Studies department, but he’d had a breakdown, and now we were living here, on welfare, our apartment suffused with the pungent smells of sandalwood incense and marijuana, which he smoked in a corncob pipe throughout the day. As a Zen Buddhist, he embraced the principle of the Middle Way, and sought to avoid the extremes of both self-indulgence and asceticism. He told our mother he’d worked out a system to ensure that he only got stoned in moderation: He’d lock his baggie of marijuana in a metal box, enclose the key in a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and drop the envelope in the corner mailbox. This way, he couldn’t have access to his stash for at least three days, which was about as long as it took for the post office to deliver the key back to him.
He was fond of systems, and imposed order on an otherwise chaotic household by assigning each chore a point value ranging from one to five (one if he loved the chore, five if he detested it). Washing the dishes, for example, gave him three points, since he neither enjoyed nor hated performing the task. Each day he was required to earn ten points, and the incentives he’d built into his system encouraged him to complete chores he detested and limit the number of chores he preferred. If he vacuumed the living room (five points) and scrubbed the toilet (five points), for example, he could devote the rest of the day to reading, whereas if he made the coffee (one point) and fed the cats (one point) in the morning, and at night fed the cats again (one point), he’d still have seven more points to earn before going to sleep.
Our mother found a job as a social worker, but the $13,000 base salary was barely enough to cover the bills. Our father spent his days clipping coupons, and devised an elaborate filing system complete with numeric codes designating each coupon’s category and subcategory.
Princeton offered him a teaching position, but he refused. He spoke seven languages and had spent a decade studying Buddhism, but he decided that he was through with academia. From now on, he told us, he was going to be a coupon-clipper.
It was raining, and our father walked out the front door with a pillow and a blanket tucked under his arm. He was spending the night in the Datsun again. Our mother watched him go, shaking her head, still crying a little. They had just had another one of their fights, which had been increasing in volume and frequency over the last few months.
In our bedroom, Erich laid two Hefty trash bags on his mattress. He’d started wetting the bed again, which he hadn’t done since kindergarten.
I closed the door, sat on his bed, and cupped my hand to his ear. “I heard Mom say she wants a divorce,” I whispered.
He peered at me crossly. “Nuh-uh,” he said.
Our vacuum was one of those old kinds with the elongated, accordion hose, which could be disconnected from the machine. The hose stretched four feet or so, just long enough to insert one end over the tailpipe of the Datsun and the other end into the driver’s window.
When we left for school that morning, our father was vacuuming the hallway. There was a PTA meeting scheduled later in the evening, and school let out one hour earlier than usual, which our father hadn’t counted on when he devised his plan.
After school, Erich headed off to the arcade with his milk money, so I walked home alone. When I opened the front door, my father was on his way out, clutching the vacuum hose, a roll of duct tape, and a handful of old rags.
As he describes it, encountering his daughter en route to self-asphyxiation was enough to startle him to his senses. The next day, he moved out of the apartment and into a closet-sized studio at the Zen Center, deciding that Buddhism would be his salvation. He participated in the sesshins held there, extended periods of intense meditation and sutra services headed by the roshi, and by the time our mother filed the divorce papers he had become a monk, changing his name to Chi-Yu.
On weekends, we visited him at the Zen Center, taking a one-and-a-half-hour RTD bus trip to Koreatown, which bordered East L.A. The bus was usually empty, and we’d sit on the long bench in the back, stretching out our legs, and pretend that the bus was our private limousine. To pass the time, we made up new lyrics to the songs featured on Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, which we’d sing to our father when we arrived.
He met us at the bus stop at the bottom of the hill, between the pawn shop and the King Hua restaurant, standing barefoot on the hot asphalt and dressed in a long, black robe. We’d sing our song quickly, before we reached the Zen Center compound, a block of residential buildings flanking a temple, where we’d have to lower our voices to a whisper. Other monks passed by on the sidewalk, arms folded under their robes, their faces placid as they nodded at us, wordlessly.
His studio was sparsely furnished, with a cot and a small chest of drawers at the far corner of the room. He’d make green tea for the three of us, heating up a pan of water on a hotplate. Erich and I sat on his cot with our cups, facing our father, who’d sit on the floor and quiz us on the tenets of Buddhism. Life is suffering, according to the First Noble Truth. There’s a Second, and a Third, and a Fourth, and we learned them all, but the First was the one that resonated for me, back then, when I was nine, staring at the soles of our father’s bare, blistered feet, where the skin hung off in filthy hunks.
Rebecca Donner is the author of a novel, Sunset Terrace, and editor of On the Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology.