"Has anyone in this class never heard of the Tibetan Book of the Dead? Okay, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is also known as Bardo Thodol, and this book describes the experiences of the individual who has died, during the forty-nine days which supposedly intervene between death and rebirth.
"Again tying together the elements of purgation and ritual, this text, when read beside the body of the newly deceased, is intended to help the liberated soul understand what has happened to it and what will happen to it, and to help it choose rightly. Apparently the Nyingmapa Buddhists felt that death is not only traumatic to the body, but to the animating spirit of the body as well.
"The reader of the book will inform the dying and then dead person about what he or she is about to see, or is already seeing. The first stage is Chikhai Bardo, at the moment of death: then there is the Bardo of the divine light, the Radiance of the Clear Light of Reality. If at this point, the soul is ready to let go of his individuality and existence, he or she will become one with the light, and never return to earth, having learned all that he or she needs to have learned. And that would be the person who has studied how to attain the completion of his or her religious purpose for existence.
"However, says the Book of the Dead, it is rare that souls can let loose of their individuality and independence and become one with the Light, and must be instructed and encouraged in the Chonyid Bardo, the next stage, in which, since they could not let go of their earthly experiences, they become subject to karma -- the soul is clothed in a karmic body, a shell if you would like to think of it that way, of its own past thoughts and deeds, and proceeds to hallucinate good and evil powers, either peaceful or wrathful entities. The Book of the Dead, being read, could teach the soul to recognize these as projections of his or her own mind. This is like a second chance for the spirit -- to remember the teachings of the religion and let it all go. But unless the soul can listen and understand that this is all illusion, he or she will be in awe or terror, shrink back from release, and will encounter a constructed reality, perhaps wrathful and terrifying, with experiences of unavoidable judgment and punishment in various hells."
"So, what this says is that you don't have to go to hell if you don't want to?"
"I would say, that this, like many other texts, says that you don't have to; you'll choose to go to hell, if there is such a thing, by refusing to give up your earthly preferences."
The students were as quiet today as the forest is just before a thunderstorm. I continued. "If the soul cannot understand, or has not accepted its state, it passes into the next stage, the Sidpa Bardo, or rebirth." It was October already, and the low slant of the sun was perfect for talking about mortality and afterlife.
"Okay, that's better, you get to do it over again," said a student, scratching his crewcut and pierced eyebrow. "That's better."
"Would it be?" I asked. "I knew a secretary once, who had pretty clothes and salon hair and sparkling acrylic nails, and a position that was such a sinecure that she could have retired from it."
"What's a sinecure?" a student asked.
"A position so comfy and so secure one need not worry about being fired or laid off, ever."
"Where do I find one?"
"Anyway, this secretary was talking to me about my job, and she told me that she didn't believe in all the purgation stuff or the heaven and hell stuff -- she planned on being reincarnated. She didn't want to die, she said. She viewed the religions of the world as a kind of smorgasbord, pick and choose and that's what you get.
"But all the things we're studying, if you look at them even moderately closely, indicate that there is some importance attached to leaving behind all preconceptions and desires. I don't know. All I do is teach about the ideas.
"I sometimes wonder if that lovely secretary would have been so eager to be reborn if she thought she might take her next few trips around the Wheel of Life as an orphan in the Sudan, on the veriest edge of starvation for twelve or more years, tormented constantly by thirst, intestinal worms, and biting flies clustered around her face."
"You mentioned karma. Is that why she might have had a bad next life, because she was well off in this one? Isn't karma kind of like, what goes around comes around?" This from a clean cut boy with a nicely cut oxford style shirt and expensive loafers.
"This branch of Buddhism believes that we each know in the essence of self when what we've done is wrong or right. Karma, then, isn't some external deity tallying up points on a cosmic chalkboard, it's more like having the opportunity to incriminate yourself, and be both judge and prisoner ... unless, again, you're willing to give up the memories of failure and wrong and pride and possessions."
"Can we talk about karma some more?" said the kid.
I nodded. "We'll pursue the study of death and the afterlife next week. Time's up, don't forget that all extra credit papers are due before November fifteenth."
A girl with braces on her teeth approached my desk when the bell rang its melodious peal. Anna was from one of the other classes; she was the girl who had read the tale of Pururavas with her boyfriend.
"Was the story of Pururavas and Urvashi another death tale?" she asked, her eyes big and dark. "Was that just a kind of parable, or fable, or myth that was really about Pururavas' death?"
"I don't know, Anna, no one can. It was a romantic-sounding writing, and an individual's quest for his heaven and immortality. That's all we can know. Next class we're going to look at other rites that focus on death. After that, maybe you can write an essay or paper on your thoughts about the similarities and differences between them. This was a good and interesting thought." I patted her shoulder, two non-committal pats. "Be at peace," I said as a parting thought, as I did for many of my classes that talked about death.
I could say that because I had, at least for that time, found some peace.
The night before, in the darkness, I came to know Valentine more intimately than had I screwed him as a 'stiffie', as Kimsky had put it, and he, to his frustration, me. He embraced me as tenderly as he might play a love song on his symphony violin; he lifted my heart like a performance brings an audience to its feet in an applauding, standing ovation, kissing and caressing and speaking words I could hardly admit I heard.
We did not have sex. At a certain point, clothing was becoming a bit undone, and desire had taken the place of reunion. As his curly hair tickled my face, a stray thought blew through my head like a solitary leaf in the wind of autumn: nothing like making up after a big fight with a big screw. A phrase I'd heard from James more than once, more than twice, in fact wasn't it a favorite saying of his?
Of his, not mine! I thought with a flush of panic. Oh, gods, tell me that I'm not the source of sex-after-conflict! Tell me that I'm not seeking another relationship like that! I tried to re-focus on Valentine and his curls, his low, sweet voice. My mind now added, And those just hide -- what?
Valentine straightened to a sitting position. I could tell he was looking at me; I wanted to shrink to nothingness and disappear. He gently pulled my hand from beneath his shirt, and the other from his hip, and pressed them both against his chest. He put both his arms around me, and hugged me, his head against mine, and rocked me slowly in the night.
"Augusta," he said after a few minutes, "I have to ask you a question that you may find painful." He was quiet, waiting for my assent. After I nodded, he sighed, and then asked, "Are you able to enjoy any sexual activity?"
"Yes." What was he getting at? That this was a put-up or shut-up kind of love affair after all?
"Then something I did was wrong for you. You've frozen up into tense knots, and your breathing has changed: you're afraid, and I don't know why. Don't let this fall into misunderstanding again, please, please. Tell me what's going on inside."
I shuddered. There was no way I could tell him all of what I felt in my memories, of the last four months of my cohabitation with James, as I plotted my escape from him. As much as I cared for Valentine, the story of those desperate days was too graphic and intimate. How I felt pressured to become Best Actress for the Oscars so that James would not know what I planned. I knew him: I could not leave even the least trail, not reveal even the least clue lest he head me off and stop me. In the wake of my revelation about his abusiveness, I was able to recount to myself all the signs that should have alerted me in the years before: where are you going today (and he would show up just to see if I was there), who are you going to talk to (oh, you don't want to talk to your husband, is that it?), what are you going to do (that will take you away from your duty to your husband); who did you meet that made you late, where were you when I tried to call (you need to remember who you're married to)? I couldn't sully the sweetness of my romance with Valentine by describing those nerve-wracking days as I planned to leave my marriage, pretending to acquiesce to his picked arguments, watching my submission encourage his painfully dominant behavior. Hickies on the neck became a constant, and I wore high necked shirts to cover the purple wheals, even as summer approached. As the time for my departure grew closer, my fear of being found out translated into timidity in our sex, and that seemed to add fuel to his abusiveness, in the derogatory words he used while pinning my arms, and his decreasing worry about what bruises he left on me. One of the marks on my thigh took two weeks to fade. He tried to pick fights at the least provocation, and even my attempts to defuse those altercations ended in semi-violent sex.
In Valentine's arms, those days were far behind, and yet still peering over my shoulder to see what would transpire. "I'm sorry," I whispered to him. "I wasn't teasing you -- I want to make love with you, but ..."
He held me tightly against him, his mouth by my ear. "Help me, Augusta. What scared you?"
"I don't want argument or strife to be a turn-on for sex," I said in a cramped little voice. "An excuse for sex. A prelude to sex. Any of that." My sudden fear was giving way to a need to escape, to regain some control over my emotion. "I can't tell you about how ugly it got before I could get away from -- from -- "I couldn't bring myself to say his name aloud.
"Jesus," Valentine said. "No, woman, this isn't ever going to be about pressure or pain. No, no, no. I'd never do that to you. Don't you know that by now? Can you try to believe that I really do love you?" His arms had loosened around me to a soothing embrace, and he spoke in whispers, too, his temple touching mine. "Maybe some day we can find the right setting, but not until we both recover from this ... long and miserable day, and not until you have the time you need to think about us," he said. "And not here. We deserve better."
I leaned back against the arm of the sofa, ashamed of my fears. "I'm flawed but I'm not completely broken," I told him. "I promise you I'm not a total nutcase."
"Have you ever been able to talk to someone about what happened to you?" he asked gently.
Thank all gods for the darkness! I wouldn't have wanted him to see the expression on my face, remembering the hours I spent years ago, talking about abuse with a professional -- Moersgard, while we sipped brandy among the rumpled sheets of his huge bed. "Yes."
"Another wrong question, I can tell."
Reaching out to stroke his shoulder, I tried again to overcome the weight of my recollections. "Valentine. If you've never been abused, you can't fully realize the overwhelming shame a person feels -- I feel -- for having fallen into the trap, for not finding a way for the abuse not to happen. The feelings fade, but resurface at the damnedest moments. I'm sorry. Maybe I should leave before I say more stupid things than I have already today."
He found my hand and kissed it. "No, stay a while, Augusta. Let's find some safe subject and end this night with some good feelings."
"Okay." What was a safe subject? What are your goals for the future? Do they include me? "What do you want for dinner tomorrow?"
Food is good.
He fell asleep on his seedy rented couch, arms around me, his head on my chest, listening to my heart. I woke at five in the morning, even more in love with him than I had been. I sniffed and sniffed the curls on his head (it made him snore a little), and then carefully extricated myself. He woke halfway, and I rubbed his lean belly softly, kissed his closed eyes, and went home, filled with joy.
My mother was an ornament, a talking parrot, a status symbol. Fashion and beauty were her tools, her profession. She was known in all the appropriate social circles in her youth, and being entertaining and well dressed, she enjoyed a plentitude of dates and enjoyments that most women would never know. She was a paragon and jewel of what was known as "polite society."
Once having married the idealistic man with the poet's heart, she went to live in the sticks, making it clear always that while she may have resided there, she did not 'belong' there. At the end of her life, she still insisted on full face make-up. When she died in the hospital, she was found, not in her room, but in the hall restroom, where she had gone to put on her make-up and smoke a forbidden cigarette. Apparently, when she felt the nearness of her end, she backed up against a wall, slid into a seated position, and died, her wicked habit accompanying her, a smoking butt elegantly held between forefinger and middle finger. Her hair was perfect, her face composed, her make-up impeccable. She retained her society hauteur until the very end.
She was an anomaly in the small town in which I grew up; women were not expected to maintain fashionable looks all their lives. By the time I went off to college, coloring one's hair to cover the gray wasn't unusual anymore, but I can still remember my father's mother gossiping about some woman in town who (so astonishingly that Grannie had to half-cover her mouth to say the vile words) dyed her hair red. "And she don't even care she looks like a whoor," my Grannie pronounced.
We teen girls had a heyday in the sixties and early seventies with makeup. Blazing sky blue eye shadow from plucked eyebrows to thickly lined eyelashes, shimmery lipstick that made our lips look nearly white -- we thought we looked so dramatically beautiful while the deities and elementals must have roared with laughter at our faces. My mother egged me on to ridiculous heights, showing me how to make my eyes look larger and to use colored eye shadow to complement my costumes, so that by the time I was fifteen, the weird makeup was mostly kid stuff, and I was ready to settle down to some classic looks, makeup high-lighting the face I found under the caked colors, not hiding it.
In my college years, it was still quite common to stop wearing makeup once one had the desired boyfriend or husband, and get comfortable with easy baggy clothes, and also perhaps gain about sixty pounds per baby delivered. Some men encouraged that practice; did they think that if their wife remained attractive, someone might covet her and lure her away? James was like that, and I didn't find his attitude unnatural. I did stop wearing makeup for a while, but having noticed that his gaze was constantly straying to girls who had taken the time to make themselves look spectacular, went back to makeup, to which he reacted in suspicion about my fidelity to him. My insistence upon painting my face, subtle though it may have been, was the source of more than a few of our battles, and the resulting tears washing streaks of mascara down my face probably gave him a sense of justification. (I switched to waterproof mascara, and just wore less. After a while he found other things to pick on.)
Regarding looks, the only two things my mother harped on were daily moisturizing of the face and the hands. "Your face can mean your fortune," she said, and damned if that wasn't true for me to a large extent. I never would have caught Moersgard's eye if I hadn't looked good. "Your hands," Mother also instructed, "are what will tell your age. Take care of them, wear gloves, use lotion, trim your nails properly ... " She was right again, though looking younger than my years was what got me scrambled up with Valentine.
When I had run away from James and my marriage, I began to construct a new and better being. I worked on recapturing my shape by diligently exercising and playing even while I grew an impenetrable shell around my heart and a watchful eye so as never to be caught again. While many of my contemporaries were content to age ungracefully, I was not. The indeterminate browny-red-blonde gave way to blonde, blonde, blonde. I spent money on good clothes that made the most of my figure, good haircuts, good makeup so as to not look 'made up'. I looked good. Not perfect -- but the flaws that I had I made to do double duty by making me unique. I wanted to be a head-turner, not a pretty girl. And once the head was turned, I wanted it to stay turned by virtue of my personality and intellect, not just by looks.
Was I vain? Oh, yes. Arrogant, prideful, conceited, all those. But it never mattered a bit to me that I would one day succumb to age until I met Valentine Teshenko.