The air was as warm and wet as the mouth of a wild animal. The clouds roiled. But it was the wind—old, primordial, as if stirred up from previous centuries—that set the evening apart.
You don’t have to go.
I want to go. Claire looked at the sky dubiously, and then down to her feet, bare, slipped into sandals with soft faded leather soles.
The lights suddenly went off and their house and the neighboring houses were thrown into a greater darkness.
You could wait until tomorrow. As Jake spoke, Lev’s car pulled into their driveway, briefly illuminating the trees, and they both heard the slam of the door. Or not, Jake said and smiled. He’s here.
It’s just ten days, Claire said. She lifted on her toes and kissed Jake’s neck. Just ten days. She felt the warmth of his neck with her nose, the dense air there. Sometimes I think it’s her, she whispered, the storm is her.
Jake stepped back, Please don’t.
Lev was a careful driver. They navigated their way out of the city without streetlights.
I think it’s passed, the worst of it, Lev said. His watch was loose on his wrist where his arm rested on the steering wheel, the sleeves of his suit jacket pushed up, his neatly manicured index finger tapping lightly. They waited for the cars to proceed into the intersection, inching out, and then moving through when it was safe. Even with the window-wipers the rain made it hard to see.
We’ll get there, he said, It’s just slow, as if reading her thoughts.
A new citywide alert system had been introduced that sent warnings to phones and they both talked about how it had worked, how they had been startled by the loud ping—Lev’s on his watch as he talked to a colleague in front of one of those plate glass windows looking over the city, he had still been at work, he said, trying to tie up all the loose ends, but it had taken longer than he expected because there had been a minor emergency right after lunch: a new report on the mercury levels in fish in one of the Northern communities, that wasn’t news of course, but the government had known about it, apparently, many years earlier, and the report didn’t say, but implied, a cover-up. He had realized he couldn’t just leave for a week without bringing the others up to speed with who had been involved, when and how, and the more he had researched it, the more strange and puzzling it had become, and the more complicit they all seemed. For a while, in the late afternoon, he had thought he wouldn’t be able to go at all, but then the winds had picked up, and his building—he was on the twentieth floor, she’d been there hadn’t she?—seemed to sway, and he’d had that feeling he used to get when he first started working there, of being in a bubble, in the world but removed from it, and shortly after that, when he and his colleague Lauren were standing at the window, his watch pinged—a tornado warning—and it was this warning, ironically, that made him realize it was, in fact, possible, to go, even in the midst of the minor crisis of the new report and the threat of the tornado. The ping and the delay it had enforced had been a blessing, really; it had given him two extra hours he might not otherwise have taken. He hated arriving late, as he had told her before—and why the delay, authorized in another government office, had made it possible for him to leave the twentieth floor and also for him to arrive late, when he could not on his own have made that call, did not feel entitled, that is, but felt it was okay to be late when the city was pitched indefinitely into an idling mode, he didn’t know. He smiled a little in the glassy darkness of the car. Well, he supposed that it had also forced his co-workers to stay later with him which meant that things were in better order than it had seemed possible in the hours before the ping alert had sounded.
Claire herself had been in the kitchen trying to decide if she should take food, but she didn’t tell Lev, still uneasy about whether taking food was breaking the rules or if it was something that everyone did, a secret stash, when the ping sounded simultaneously from her son’s phone, Jake’s phone, and her phone, amplified by the granite of the counter where she’d placed it. She’d been rushing but after the alert, knowing they would now be delayed, that they might not even go, the tension she’d felt had relaxed. But somehow, she told Lev now, she didn’t know what to do with the relaxation, the unexpected time. She had gone to the porch with Jake and their son and watched the sky, the branches whipping violently back and forth, like something angry shaking its head no, no, no, but their son had got bored after a while and returned to his phone and even Jake, who would get up occasionally and watch with her, seemed almost eager (or so it had felt to her in those extra hours) for her to leave, even though neither Jake nor her son—she had asked them—had any plans in particular. But that feeling had only emerged, she realized, after the immediate threat of the tornado had subsided and it appeared they would not have to retreat to the “lowest floors” as the radio had urged.
And so both Claire and Lev had been startled by the ping but also impressed that the entire city could be brought into knowledge of states of emergency at exactly the same time. They were now climbing up the ramp entrance to the highway as Lev talked animatedly about the potential of these collective systems. It was tied somehow to what he did at work, not only writing the fisheries reports but also collecting data, collating it, making it available, using computers to shape patterns for living better lives. It was the sort of thing, the technical matters, the potential of these new systems, that interested him.
Lev checked over his shoulder, checked again, and pulled into the stream of cars with a small jerk. The lights of the other cars, moving slowly, marbled in the rain, giving their own car the protected and precarious feeling of being zippered into a tent on a wet and stormy night.
Lev wanted to know if she was nervous, if she was looking forward to the meditation retreat or apprehensive, if she’d told her work and friends or if she was, like one of his freelance friends, sneaking away and hoping that her absence wouldn’t be noticed. His friend, he said, planned to check his phone once a day. Claire wondered what the point of that was, what the point of going at all was, if he was going to do that, but instead she said, that makes sense. Of course he had to do that if he was hoping not to be missed. Claire had put her out of office notifications on her two email accounts. She would be away without internet for ten days. She wondered if people would believe her, or if they would think, as she often thought herself when she received similar messages, that she would be checking from time to time. And as Lev’s own comments in the dark buffered space of the car indicated, even at a meditation retreat one could indeed check from time to time. Lev’s friend had been practicing for many years, and could imagine breaking the rules, Claire supposed, in ways that she hadn’t even considered.
They were stopped again. Red taillights stretched like a child’s shaky line drawing into the distance. The rain was loud.
Lev’s suit was neat and elegant, even when rumpled. In another life he might have been a priest rather than a civil servant and teaching meditation classes once a month at the community center. He had turned forty that year and often talked about retirement when he could dedicate himself to his practice full-time. They had met two years ago, after one of his classes, when Claire had asked him if he believed in reincarnation. She was interested, she said.
The window-wipers made a steady heart-beat sound.
It was only when the traffic finally began to move and the rain let up and the darkness of the country highway spread out before them that they settled into a longer conversation. The evergreens were dark walls on either side of the highway and the clouds were still a smoky violet that looked, on the horizon, like mountains. Did she know, he asked, that Ajahn R didn’t have a Wikipedia page? She didn’t. Lev explained that there were several Wikipedia pages for monks in the Theravada forest tradition as well as one page in which several monks were considered together. But nothing, he continued, on Ajahn R. Which didn’t make sense since he was at least as well known, if not better known, than the others. And so Lev had thought, he knew him, he knew about technology, he could address this problem. It had seemed like a good project, worthwhile, he said.
His partner, Robin, had left him recently and he’d been at loose ends in the evenings. If he could be at his computer, he said, and focused on a project that had nothing to do with his job but still used his skills and was absorbing, it helped. He began slowly at first, spending an hour or so after dinner, reading the pages on the other monks and gathering information into little itemized tables, the sort of thing that Robin used to laugh at when they were together, the way he’d made elaborate tables to decide which hotels they would stay at when they traveled or what tourist sites to visits.
Researching the monks started slowly, as he had said, but soon he’d found himself thinking about it at work, too, planning ways of organizing his page, although of course his job was too pressing to be able to squeeze in any of the writing or research there. Ever since he began working for the government, now over ten years ago, his one promise to himself was that he would not take work home. It was okay when you loved your job—he looked at Claire—but not when you’re working for someone else. But despite this secret rule, a kind of ascetic vow that seemed of a piece with the priestly manner he imparted, it was impossible not to take one’s work home in one’s head. And this was perhaps not a bad thing. Thinking about it in the evenings, at night as he fell asleep, even in his dreams, allowed him to come to decisions more quickly and more effectively during the day than he might have otherwise. He had a reputation, indeed, as a steady but also inspired decision maker, he felt that people trusted him and it struck him that had he dedicated his evening hours to those work files on his computer, had he truly brought the work home from the office, he might have been not faster with his work but slower, as if his evenings away from work were like soaking his brain in some sort of varnish, perhaps that was not the right word, that brightened things.
Still, since Robin had left it had been much more difficult—they had enjoyed watching TV serials in the evenings and in their almost seven years together they had seen all the popular ones and Lev found it not only relaxing but also felt that it prompted good conversations between the two of them and added a surprising component to the ease of conversations at the parties they attended insofar as it seemed that everyone else had also watched these same shows—he hadn’t known that before meeting Robin, not having kept current with TV culture, as it were—and when conversation flagged, raising one of these shows always sparked interest and, more than that, drew out interesting angles from his friends and colleagues as they weighed the choices of the characters on the shows and responded with conjecture about what they would have done and thought, had they been in the characters’ place, much as he and Robin did when they debriefed at the end, and in doing so illuminated whole dimensions of their personalities hitherto unknown to Lev. It was like gossiping about friends they all had in common, without the drawbacks. But now that Robin was gone he was finding these same shows depressing; in fact, Robin had left just as they were beginning the fourth season of a show that’d lasted six seasons overall, and Lev had tried to watch again a few weeks after he left but it was all so flat and banal that he wondered how he had borne it before. He did still watch the news but even there he was frustrated not to have someone by his side, especially in recent weeks. It was for these reasons that the Wikipedia page—his monk project as he had been calling it to himself—was such a welcome relief. An absorbing diversion so that even on some of the evenings lately when the political scandals had been most marked he had found himself so immersed in it that he had not even noticed.
He spent his time lately in chat rooms and it was interesting, he said, that he imagined actual rooms, a honeycomb of rooms, in fact, when he knew how chat rooms worked and that there were not a bunch of people sitting around together in a darkened, sterile space with artificial lighting and no windows and a coffee pot in the middle of the room to which they frequently went for refills since, in his imagination, these people never slept and, indeed, in his limited experience it really did seem as if the same people were always there available for consultation. He knew that the reality was quite different but couldn’t shake this feeling of a space at once cozy and cold, with a background buzz of machines, in which people sat, lined up against the perimeter, facing their consoles, and waiting for his questions. Perhaps he had given such dimensions and color to the chat room since he spent so much time there these days. Although it was funny, Robin had gone through a porn stage, all of his friends did, for many it wasn’t even a stage, and during this brief period Robin had visited porn chat rooms—he called them cat rooms. Here Lev paused in the conversation for the first time and turned to Claire as if only suddenly remembering he was talking to her and not a more intimate confidant. But he had always been like that, once he began talking he let go as if his life were, in fact, exactly as he was describing it now, quite solitary, even when he had been living with Robin—he looked at her, and she must have given some indication of interest because then he carried on.
It was funny, he said, that he had imagined the porn rooms in exactly the same way, the dark blunted light, but with a lurid glow, and the perimeter of consoles in which the main action took place, in combination with a series of interconnected rooms where people with greater authority sat and those in the main chat room walked—he imagined them in stocking feet—along polished floors and where, in the hallways, the light became bright white and florescent. He found it strange the way the mind created these images, the way people populate what they don’t know with items that are sometimes familiar, sometimes strange, and then inhabit those spaces as if they have been there themselves. Even as he talked to her about them now, he said, knowing that it wasn’t so, he imagined quite vividly these chat rooms as a reality.
Since starting the monk project he had become more deeply acquainted with the phenomenon of the Wikipedia chat room. And while he didn’t know much of anything about the people with whom he’d been working, one guy in particular—he wasn’t sure that it was a guy of course but most of these workers were and the guy’s handle was Randy, Randy—his voice had the sound of lifted eyebrows in the muted light of the car—contributed to his impression that these people were not quite human. It was, he thought, the lack of a full name and the fact that Randy was almost always available as if, indeed, he never slept.
Perhaps, Claire suggested, Randy was not a person but the computer console itself and so it was the hardware, let’s call it Randy, that was always there and its users, the not-Randys, that came and went.
Lev laughed. She was now imagining the room as he did, as a place, he said. But there was no place. Still, she was probably right, there probably wasn’t a Randy either, at least not in the form of an identifiable person out in the world who answered to “Randy.” Except. Except that he was very consistent and even as they helped, these participants in the Wikipedia chat rooms, these guys also betrayed little quirks, misspellings of some words, sometimes even tiny ironic senses of humor.
That could have been programmed in too, no? Claire asked. Lev was quiet and in the pause Claire could hear the rush of the car wheels against the wet highway. What has been programmed and what has not, she thought but didn’t ask. How did Jake deprogram Ruby—bolt by precious bolt, she imagined, although the bolts were blood and bone—when she could not, when her efforts to do so tamped nothing down, were like tarps flying fast across a plane, gathering force as they went, collecting debris, gathering the storm into their center, its turbulence spinning a diamond that it spat out and spat out again.
And so Randy had helped him with his page? she asked. Lev responded as if there had been no pause at all, at first he had gone to him with questions about how to write a page, what was required, when one wrote a page on a person, to qualify as notable, as they said. She had probably noticed that they don’t have pages on just anyone.
On the contrary, Claire said. She was often surprised by how flimsy some of the pages were and, now that he had raised the issue, she realized she had wondered, without actually putting it into words herself, how those pages had got up there.
Well, that’s not typical, and Lev sounded disapproving as if, through his recent work on Ajahn R’s Wikipedia page, he had internalized their values. There are all sorts of cri-teria—said like a soft kick—that Randy laid out for him, a kind of formula. If you’re related to a celebrity in some way that helps, it’s like an instant ticket. Even though each page can feel different, ad hoc, they’re all adhering to these rules and restrictions and one needs to know that, to have the rules explained, outlined, and then to proceed with that knowledge. Otherwise all the work would be for nothing.
Claire looked at her watch. They were not yet halfway to the retreat center; the highway, less busy now, felt like a shining river bending through the trees that, banked and shadowed, rose up on either side. And so, Lev continued, he had researched Ajahn R, reread his books, read new books on him, and that itself, he found, was a kind of meditation. It filled the evenings and gave him something to do. It had been interesting, too, rereading those books since they could be, as he had said, something like meditation but they could also be, and maybe this was just him, maybe it was because he had read them before, extremely boring. He wasn’t sure if she had found that? Claire did not mention that she hadn’t read any of the books. It’s not that they don’t convey information or useful ideas but there was something, for him anyway, about all the numbers (the four noble truths, the eight precepts) and the repetition (sit, breathe, be still, be kind) that was deadening. Although perhaps that was the point. He smiled. At any rate, he spent many evenings without Robin, sitting in that old armchair in their kitchen, with the cats curled close by, rereading Ajahn R’s books and reading books about him and it was strange to Lev how it was both deadening—he would be almost falling asleep—and one of the most enlivening things he’d ever done. Perhaps because even at the most boring points he was filled with a sense of doing something important, something worth doing.
He spent a few weeks writing everything up, he said, and finally, after adhering very closely to the rules, he submitted his page. Randy replied that he should expect a response within a few days, and during that period, those few days between submission and approval, Lev could think about almost nothing else. Even when he was meditating. It was as if it were the page itself that would make Ajahn R real. As if everyone had been following him, and moved by him in the very core of their beings but he hadn’t existed, not really—and Lev knew this was ridiculous—without the Wikipedia page to confirm it. Without the page, Ajahn R was just like everyone else. Lev felt he had somehow been selected—okay, he had selected himself, he knew—to invest Ajahn R with life, and it was an honor in one way but it was also, in another, a responsibility and, as he thought about it in that interim period of waiting, he felt it had been a great oversight on his part. Because he had not attended to this page earlier, years ago, when he should have. He hadn’t even noticed.
And so those days of waiting were a kind of muted agony. All of the research, even when he drifted off, had been like an extension of his practice, a concrete way to show his devotion—although Ajahn R would never know, no one would, that he wrote the page (and she mustn’t tell anyone this story)—and also, as he had said, meditative in its way, absorbing. Of course it hadn’t escaped his attention that it was also probably a way of transferring his focus from one object of devotion—Robin—to another—Ajahn R—despite the very real differences between the two men and his relationships with them. But when he was in the midst of it, when he was spending every evening alone with Ajahn R as it were, there was an intimacy, even if it was one-sided (and no doubt he shouldn’t be talking to her this way), to the pursuit.
Lev paused and sighed.
It had been a period, he continued, these last three months, of intense concentration. Even with the conflation of Robin and Ajahn R that he didn’t quite know how to understand, it felt as if desire, his desire, had been erased. Did she know what he meant? But. But this period of waiting for Wikipedia’s approval was something else again. He was distracted at work. He couldn’t pay attention to anything. He kept checking his computer to see if there had been a response from Randy and, after three days, he sent a reminder notification to which Randy responded politely but briefly, repeating that they would contact him when the moderators had made their decision. It did not help that it was a particularly slow time at work. And so Lev thought about his page all the time and even in the meetings that he was running there was the background buzz of the monk project that felt both like anxiety and, here Lev paused, again the word enlivening comes to mind. And it’s true that anxiety can be enlivening, he thought. In that way it was the opposite of depression. He was depressed, in fact, for months after Robin left and he hadn’t felt like doing anything. There were places where Robin’s furniture had been that, after he moved out, Lev did not fill in or rearrange. He had wanted to see that emptiness and have it mirror his own inner state. He had always felt that emptiness was the wrong word for what people sought when they meditated. But in another sense, he understood emptiness, felt the stillness that comes when the walls fall away, as it were, so that indeed there are no empty spaces but only emptiness. Did she know what he meant?
At any rate, at that point in his life, the emptiness of his house was something he had felt every time he walked in and it made him realize that he had always known when Robin was there even when Robin had not said a word. Bodies in space make a sort of impression, he thought, that can travel through rooms, a kind of silent soft vibration that meets one’s own body and communicates. And so those absent blocks of space once occupied by material things reminded him that Robin’s absence was real. When Robin left, of course, Lev no longer knew where he was or what he was doing and when he thought about it, tried to imagine it, it had always given him the greatest pain. As if Robin’s life, now unknown to him in its intimate and even its general movements, somehow diminished his own life, eroded it. When they were together, he had made Lev’s life bigger. But when Robin left it was not just that Lev was left alone but that he was also smaller than the man he had been before. Smaller and getting still smaller with each passing day. He thought that was why the monk project was such a relief. A sense of living returned. But as he talked now, he couldn’t deny that just talking about Robin made him wonder what Robin was doing, this minute, and the old anguish returned.
The period of waiting, he continued, wasn’t the same as that sense of emptiness, that lethargy and depression, that came with Robin’s absence. It was, rather, as if the world had been bleached somehow, as if he, Lev, were in a holding pattern, going through the motions, but the motions—eating, attending meetings, getting his muffler repaired—had no heft even though, and this was the curious thing, there was the vibration of life in everything he did. He had an acute awareness of waiting the entire time. A tautness. It was an anxious distraction that he carried around with him and, as uncomfortable as it was, it was better than the hollowed out emptiness he’d felt after Robin left, when nothing mattered, when the world was not bleached but rather seemed to have a darkness without shadows, an erasing of definition and difference. In that period of waiting he did indeed feel like he was living, but living with a razor going through him, a kind of frenzy of static, an alertness that was too intense, as if he were living his life both balanced on a high wire made taut between two buildings and walking on the ground below. He was suspended between two things in that period, between writing the page and awaiting the decision, and he had sensed then, in a way he did not in his ordinary life, in a way that he no longer did now that he had the decision, how very close he always was to falling. And in some ways the most interesting thing was that he doubted anyone would have noticed. He had become adept at hiding his depression after Robin left and the anxiety, too, was something one could mask by relying on all the formulas of engagement one had learned when they had come naturally. As indeed they did now as he talked to her. Was he talking too much? He was grateful to Claire for listening. Had she noticed, he asked, how depressed he had been?
There was again a short silence in the car that was filled by the slick slur of tires on the wet road. She had known he had been unhappy, of course. But she didn’t think she knew how extreme it had been. Claire paused. As he had been talking, she said, she had been thinking, and this probably wasn’t surprising, of Ruby.
Claire continued. And she had been thinking about how depression shapes itself to an absence and can indeed be like those empty spaces left behind by furniture—standing in for the absent person—but also how it can have weight. How it can be the heaviest thing.
He was so sorry, he said. He hadn’t been thinking about that connection at all.
Claire’s voice closed that door. It was so long ago. She shouldn’t have brought it up. Please continue, she said. She wanted to know what happened. He had been waiting and anxious to hear back about his page? He was making her anxious.
Lev began, in a series of subtle starts and stops that Claire registered as short intakes and releases of breath. The warmth of the car as they drove and the last purple light in the upper reaches of the sky reminded Claire of those summer nights of her childhood when she and her sister had pulled sleeping bags into their yard to watch the stars. Well, it was not good, Lev said. When he had opened his computer—it was the eighth day since he’d submitted his page—and saw the notification from Randy—a small turquoise flag indicating that a message was waiting—his heart had skipped and he had told himself to turn on the lights—he had gone straight to his computer after work—to sit down, to prepare himself—but instead he clicked—just standing there bending over his desk in the dark—and right away he saw that it was not good news. He had to admit, he was shocked. Because even though he had been so anxious in that waiting period he had always, in fact—and he only realized this when he clicked on the flag and read the first line of the message—he had always expected the outcome to be positive. It was obvious to him that Ajahn R merited a page. Indeed, as he had told Claire, the great fault was only that he had not created the page earlier. He contacted Randy right away. Randy repeated what he had said in the message: that based on the page Lev had written, Ajahn R was not notable enough. Not notable enough! Could Claire imagine? Ajahn R! Lev’s voice rose for the first time. Randy explained again that Wikipedia only endorsed pages of those who deserved to be publicly recognized in this way—he repeated things he had said earlier as if he thought Lev might not have listened.
While they continued to chat, he said, Randy’s words started to feel thin and lifeless, as if they were coming from a cartoon character, an impression no doubt enhanced by the fact that Lev read them on the screen and so there was something mechanical and unreal to it all, or there could be, because the other startling thing was that sometimes chat rooms provided a sense of real connection and that sense of words moving in lines across the screen fell away, and a bond was created as if there were no distance at all.
It took Lev a few days to recover. It happened that at exactly this time he had also seen Robin on Sparks Street with another guy. Robin hadn’t seen him and Lev hadn’t said hello. It could have been a work colleague or anyone, Lev said, but all his old desire rushed back and, after the exchange with Randy, so too did his jealousy. He began to spin in his mind all sorts of stories of adventure and escapade for Robin, the very things that were in some ways missing in their life together which was, as it happened, very quiet and, for Lev, satisfying, and he felt as if Robin had left him because Lev was content with such things and Robin was not. And so it was a double failure; Lev could not maintain a relationship with someone like Robin and he could not write a successful Wikipedia page for someone as deserving as Ajahn R. Lev paused. It made him reevaluate who he thought he was, he said.
But slowly Lev began to re-immerse himself in the research and he also consulted the pages of other monks again, many of whom were not as notable, not as venerable, really, as Ajahn R. He rewrote the page and this time he did it in a great rush, it took him only two days, and it was, he thought, much better. He even began, in his mind, to credit Randy with having a good critical eye. But Lev’s real leverage, the real cap to his argument and to this new submission, was that most of the other monks’ pages did not, in fact, make cases that were as strong as the case for Ajahn R. It wasn’t a case of the writing; it was there in the facts. And so he submitted two of those pages to Randy as well, for comparison. He wanted Randy to see that his bar was too high. It was also true, and he had explained this to Randy, that monks’ pages should follow different criteria and Lev suspected now that Randy didn’t have a familiarity with the other monks’ pages and had been basing his conclusions on comparisons to the pages of movie stars like Madonna or politicians or various intellectuals and writers with more obvious public profiles. Whoever had approved the other pages had followed different criteria, more appropriate to the profile of a monk, and Lev wanted, gently!, to demonstrate that to Randy. That seemed reasonable, didn’t Claire think?
She was remembering, she said, of an account Ajahn R once gave of the icons on the Buddhist altar. It had been in the early days, when she had first started meditating and she had found the icons strange and unsettling, as Ajahn R acknowledged North Americans often did—the incense, the candle, the flowers, and especially the Buddha itself. He had explained these things and it was a little mesmerizing. Claire recalled, although she did not note to Lev, that she had begun to light incense at home herself, the way she had once as a teenager but with a difference, a new sensory shift, an invitation. She hadn’t told Jake anything about it, the invitation, although perhaps he had suspected.
And? Lev said.
What Claire remembered was not only Ajahn R’s ardor for the Buddha which she had found weird at the time but also, and this is what she was thinking about in relation to Lev’s page, his description of how they made those Buddhas in Thailand. Did Lev remember? It was called the lost wax process. The mold was made with wax after which molten bronze or, very occasionally, molten gold, was poured in and the wax melted away. It was an ancient art: you made one thing with the greatest of skill and exquisite effort. It was an act of devotion and when it was finished, that first thing melted away, it disappeared, to be replaced by a better version. But you could not have the bronze or gold version without first working with such energy and attention, and skill and art, really, on the first version. Lev might say that this was perhaps not the same as his pages because they were different from each other but it struck her as similar insofar as she wondered if he could not have one without the other, he could not have the improved version without first working so carefully on the imperfect version. Not that she was comparing his page to a Buddha, she said and smiled.
Hah. Well, she was right, he didn’t think it worked. For the parallel to work, wouldn’t he have had to write his page in one medium, say Wikipedia, and then have it taken up in another? But that would only work if the first version were melted away. Whereas with the written word one would always have both; he meant even if his page were made into a movie—unimaginable he knew—it wouldn’t require the page to disappear to be performed. On the contrary. The problem with Claire’s example, as she had noted herself, is that his second version built on his first version.
But in building on it, he erased it, she said. His old words were wax and his new words, perhaps, were bronze or gold, only made possible because he had made the first frame with such care.
Yes, but in the case of the Buddha, it was an exact replica, he said. In the case of his page, there had been many changes. He put his flicker on to exit the highway and as the car slowed and the flicker clicked, the mood in the car also shifted.
But, he continued, the parallel also doesn’t work for another, more bitter, reason. He had submitted the new page to Randy only yesterday with, as he said, the two pages of other monks for comparison purposes. His point was that Ajahn R clearly deserved a page if they did too. Randy had thanked him for the new materials and, once again, told him that he would get back to him when the moderators had made their decision. This time Lev had known to expect a long wait. He felt pleased that it would coincide with the retreat which would, he hoped, make that period less agitating than the previous one. And so he was surprised when he saw the notification flag from Randy that very morning before he had left for work. Once again he had clicked immediately even though he was running late. In the first line Randy confirmed Lev’s sense that Ajahn R was more notable than the other monks. Lev had felt pleased with his strategy. Here Lev paused. But. Randy had had to consult with his superiors and they had determined, after a lengthy discussion, Randy said, to delete those pages too.
Delete them? Claire’s voice rose.
He had been shocked! He hadn’t even realized that was a possibility.
They were in the country now and the roads were darker. In the far distance were the red taillights of another car.
He turned slightly to her: he was going to come back as an ant!
And so now he had to scrap Ajahn R’s page and dedicate himself to rehabilitating those other two monks. And the irony was, once the Wikipedia moderators marked a page for deletion, they gave writers only a week to stage a case for their preservation. And so he had had to bring his computer on the retreat—that colleague of his who was going to check his phone every day? Lev hadn’t mentioned then that he himself was even worse. But he didn’t want to come back as an ant. His voice was distressed and self-mocking at the same time.
Apparently, Lev continued, there was a name for these people. People like Randy and those he consulted: deletionists. They were fighting the dilution of Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information and in their spare time they surfed the web looking for pages to delete. Lev pictured them, he said, in army fatigues charging on unsuspecting pages. And he, Lev, had made their job easier! He had handed them the bodies on a silver platter. Apparently, they were maintaining standards. Apparently, this was a thing, this deletioning, and he had known nothing about it. He had never even imagined.
When the tornado warnings came in, he continued, it had felt as if the whole world were objecting to the outrage of those deleted pages. The winds had felt like the embodiment of his fury, a fury he had not quite registered. He had thanked Randy and closed the chat and sat there for a few minutes before heading to work. And then he had been confronted by so many problems, almost as soon as he had got to his desk, that the monk project, while distressing, felt more like a background disturbance than an immediate issue. But as he had stood in front of the plate glass window with Lauren and watched the storm move in, the bruised clouds unstitched, he felt the fury and frustration and of course it was not a fury just for the monk project but for all the grievances in his life. The smallness of his life. And yet the storm was also a relief, that angry beating rain, the wind unleashed, was acting out everything he felt but could not express as he stared out from behind that window, dry and protected, like so many other government workers, in his building and across the city, their smallness indefinitely repeated, as they watched the storm and did nothing.
The car slowed as, for just a moment, the wheels slipped rounding a curve, and the headlights swept up to illuminate the dark pines, and then steadied again.
It was like that for her, too, Claire said. She was quiet and turned her head to the window beaded with drops of rain. She thought of the funnel of wind, its ability to draw a distinct line of destruction through towns, lifting roofs and moving houses, while those adjacent remained entirely intact and untouched. Only two days earlier an unprecedented hurricane had made landfall in the south and it too had cut a swath across the country but its edges were wider and less controlled. The elegance of the tornado, its contained force, its fine line and its precision, had clarified Claire’s thoughts. It was the ten-year anniversary. Of course the world would speak up, mark the week, make it memorable, write loss upon the land, rip trees from the earth and toss them carelessly to the side, shatter windows, destroy homes. Destroy homes. Destroy homes. It had taken her and Jake years to rebuild and even now, ten years later, it often felt as if they were living in a shack that could be leveled with a single wrong word. But Claire liked the draftiness, she welcomed the discomfort. She would not have wanted things to continue on as they had before, as if nothing had happened. After, Jake just wanted to have sex. No, it was not like that. But it was true that until they had another child, they had not been living in a house at all, not even a shack, but on the open plane with the wind rushing past them, a wind that swallowed words, the high grass pressed flat to the cracked earth. It was all they could do to remain steady and balanced and not to be swept away. Sometimes they had held each other to withstand its force but more often they had stood alone, the wind all around them, deafening, bringing tears to their eyes, the grit it stirred up got lodged in their lashes, stinging, making it difficult even to keep one’s eyes open and to look around. Claire found it better to fall to her knees, to hug her body into a human rock, to make herself small and hard and immovable. It was not until she was pregnant that she really stood again, gingerly, on legs that felt wobbly and uncertain and weak from lack of use. It was not until their son was born that she looked at Jake without squinting, without feeling the grit and the wind.
It was like that for her too, Claire repeated. Not perhaps the feeling of smallness, but—. She gripped the handle of the car door, felt its textured material against her skin. It was something that Ajahn R had said in one of his meditation sessions, early on. Hold something. Something close. It will bring you away from your thoughts and into the present moment. Feel it in your body. The speeding car, the secure handle around which she wrapped her fingers, a low but distinct vibration that steadied her.
Was she all right? Lev asked.
They would be there soon. They were almost at the dirt road.
She hadn’t felt small, she said. She had felt powerful, as if she were the tornado. And she had felt she had to hide that, her power, from Jake and her son. She hadn’t wanted them to know she was capable of such things. It had been a relief when the lights went out. It had extended her powers but also hid them. In the dimmer light, although it had not yet been dark, she had hoped they would be less likely to know that she was capable of such destruction. She needn’t have worried. Her son had been on his phone, anxious that he would lose service, and Jake, who had never liked goodbyes, had felt restless with the waiting.
It was the silence that drew her to meditation, she continued after a pause. They were driving more slowly now, could feel the irregularities of the road and the press of the dark night. That stillness at the heart of the storm, she said.
She was sorry about his Wikipedia page. It was unfair but wasn’t it also a fundamental fear? That there was someone out there judging them? Judging them as unworthy. For reasons one could not determine. And it was not just that the judges were out there but also that these judges, without outline or substance, were making their judgments based on criteria that one could not know or understand or, worse, they were making judgements they were not qualified to make. She paused. Who could say, she asked, that this person counted, or that this other person did not count? Claire paused again and felt the darkness rushing past and, inside the car, a different darkness, soft and confiding, like the warm material of robes worn close to the skin, inhabiting that space between the robe and the body, an animal warmth.
Lev began to speak and then stopped, his finger again tapping the steering wheel as he drove, the sleeves of his jacket loose, his fine wrists with their dark hairs exposed.
Claire turned her head to the passenger window, saw the blur of her movement, mingled with the rain and the trees still swaying. The sounds of the storm were more vivid now as the car’s engine eased lower. She had told Lev, years ago—when she had only been to secular meditation sessions like those that he led at the community center, before she knew what a practice meant—that she could not take Buddhist chanting seriously. He had said, don’t then. Take what works for you. But come. They had walked into the meditation hall and it was unfamiliar: the low lights, the incense, the candles, the icons, the cushions on the floor. Claire had been startled, as the chanting began, by how it had stirred something within her, the Pali words, their cadence, everyone reciting them in unison, and it was like joining a wave and letting its rhythms and vibrations carry her.
The chanting had been a salve. The chanting was nothing like the hippyness she imagined. She remembered an old boyfriend whose father fixed up old cars after he was laid off from his job. He ordered parts, bought cars that others had written off, and brought the old things back to life. He had rubbed oil into the leather upholstery, polished the metal, cleaned the windows with old newspapers. But the point was not to drive them. It was more to know that they could last. A kind of victory over decay. A kind of victory, she sometimes thought, over time. The chanting was like oil rubbed into the leather seat of a car that no longer ran, those Pali words chanted, their hum like a motor or a heart, building to something powerful in that room.
Here they were. This was the dirt road, Lev said. As he turned, the car lights illuminated the dark evergreens that were typical of this area and for one short instant Claire saw every needle as distinct before the lights swung back to the road. It was darker now.
For many years, Claire said, her voice soft in the quiet of the car, she had expected her to call. She would be thirteen. Sometimes she looked at her phone . . .
But instead she had got the storm.
The car came to a stop in front of a large log building in which the windows defined small squares of golden light. The car hummed in the process of shutting off. And then they heard a distant sound, indistinct at first, but coming closer. A honking high in the sky, Canadian geese migrating south for the winter, gathering pitch and intensity as they approached. They both stepped out without speaking, the wind gusting. When they looked at the sky they could see, gray against the gray, the outline of several v-formations, the flapping of wings, the deafening roar of geese calls puncturing the darkness of the night. Claire thought that the storm must have disturbed their regular patterns, prompting them to take flight under the cover of night, when usually they reserved this synchronized display for the day. Claire and Lev stood silently, with the misting rain around them, until the geese calls receded.