"Dark Sphinx," lithograph by Michael Parkes
I was lately telling Claire, my psychic friend, all about the rogue s gallery of my ex-boyfriends. The clinical narcissist obsessive stalker, the Thai sculpture professor twice my age, the S/M sex addict, the twenty-two-year-old Cambodian adoptee I met on the Internet who flew out from Westerville, Ohio, fully intending to marry me. She laughed and said, I love you, you kill me.
We didn t even get as far as the Buddhist monk. That man is the devil incarnate, she declared, when I showed her a photo of Seth, head shaved, leaning against a rusty airplane propeller and looking mystical. I don t know how she could have told it from the photo--the only thing Satanic-looking about Seth is his hairline, which describes a perfect bracket, with flourishes, that could have been drawn by Charles Addams. But somehow she knew.
I had a three-year, long-distance affair with Seth, after in an America Online chatroom sometime in early 1995. Six months after meeting him I canceled my account; chatrooms can be unhealthy and addictive and dangerous. At the time I thought of it as going fishing for possible friends and lovers. The twenty-two-year-old was a tadpole I had to throw back. Seth was like one of those frightening creatures with dinner-plate eyeballs and two-foot fangs that marine biologists sometimes pull out of the Marianas trench. He had, probably, an IQ approaching genius, a fourth-grade sense of humor, and no emotional intelligence whatsoever. Due to the glamour of the Internet I failed to notice this last fact.
We were initially drawn into crazed, obsessive correspondence by our mutual love, and overuse of, words like sesquipedalian and solipsistic. (I once did a guerrilla installation piece at the San Francisco Art Institute wherein I printed up the dictionary definitions of solipsism, ascetic, egregious and unconscionable, and taped them all over the building in subversive places. It remains my favorite art project that nobody noticed.) Seth described himself as thirty, brownish, 6 , randy, inventive, brilliant. He would get up each morning and vomit into his computer--labyrinthian descriptions of last-night s dream about little girls hanging out in the manzanitas; gobbets of his magnum opus, an indigestible novel about a weird little boy obsessed with little girls in the manzanitas; occasional tidbits about how he lost his virginity at nineteen to a lesbian with a passion for misanthropic geeks. The lesbian s name was Fielding Ohrms-Bradley and I thought he was making it up.
I responded with ironic, circular stories of my career as a starving artist and egotistical nuisance, which he said were like having tea and sherry brought to him by a Chinese girl in a French maid outfit every morning. We mailed each other cassettes of our favorite music. His were all jazz; he included m Gonna Love Ya Like Nobody s Loved Ya and I thought he meant it.
We sent each other photos. I sent a portrait of myself lounging moodily on a pickup, wearing a man s suit and fingerless gloves. He said he couldn t believe I was twenty-seven and a half, I looked much younger, and given his avowed passion for little girls I took this as a compliment. He sent me a bare-chested photo of himself taking his own picture in a hotel-room mirror while stoned, and another of him shooting his mama s gun in the desert. He was an elegant mesomorph with no obvious deformities and I could see why the lesbian jumped him.
The terrible thing about the Internet is that it is a perfect vehicle for projection. I realized later that one can tell more about a person in three minutes of face-to-face communication than in three months of in-depth correspondence, but at the time I had a fantasy of falling-in-love from the inside out. And Seth was my perfect candidate--shy, brilliant, misunderstood, spiritual. Oh yes, spiritual. During our very first meeting he wrote, I recently met a mature Zen master, I am still reeling from the experience.
I typed, wow, cool, did he glow?
He was in an uninterrupted state of unmediated consciousness, he replied, and I thought I knew what he meant.
Seth s writing style was so over-the-top that, ignorant of Zen technical terms, I thought that when he talked about zazen and sesshin he was just being jazzy. Zha Zhen! Sesh-shhhin! Cute. He told me that last time he sat the zen in session he freaked out and had to leave. I thought he must be very sensitive. Later, when I had a fuller understanding of the nineteen-hours-per-day required zazen in a week-long sesshin, I thought he must be very ascetic. Ascetic people are both virtuous and strange.
Seth lived in Los Angeles--no distance from San Francisco, really, when two brilliant misfits are in love. After we d been exchanging daily reams for about a month and a half, I got an invitation to a friend wedding in Tucson. My flight stopped for a couple of hours at LAX, and Seth offered to meet me for a drink.
When I first got off the plane, I thought I d have to let him down easy. He was a geek. He was wearing black pants with a brown jacket and white socks, and his voice sounded like he was gargling through a funnel. But I smiled brightly to put him at ease, and during one Manhattan the smile became a 300-watt glow, and at the gate of the plane to Tucson I jumped up and thrust my tongue down his throat for a good twenty seconds before bounding up the runway without looking back. I daydreamed contentedly during my week in the desert, and wrote him three letters on rose-petal paper, since by then I was unable to conceive of life without my daily correspondence fix.
When I got back home and turned on my computer, I was mildly disappointed to find only one letter, written a couple of days earlier, instead of the pileup I expected. I have received two (2) snail-mail letters, he said. Had an event-full meeting at the airport. He sounded neither fulsome nor particularly excited. Then he stopped writing every day. For a short time it was two letters per week, then one, then none. I had no other correspondents, in those early years, and America Online ceased to greet me with those thrilling syllables, ve got MAIL! I turned on the computer and it just sat there, as in, so, what did you expect?
I became extremely depressed, as in sitting in the bathtub staring at my mesomorphic form and thinking, What s wrong with me? I m in PERFECTLY good shape! and sobbing on buses and street corners, particularly when I saw nubile Asian women, thinking, he wouldn t have blown me off if I looked like HER, and generally being irrational and pathetic.
Finally, after a month or so of silence, I sent him a postcard of a melancholy-looking girl, with the circumspect statement, I respect your decision not to continue our correspondence, but I d appreciate knowing that you haven t jumped off a cliff or anything.
America Online heralded his reply. There has been the deepest depression, just barely emerging, he croaked.
Through the haze of my ego s devastation, my codependent self rallied. I called instantly and got a busy signal. I wrote words of gushing comfort, I sent care packages of books and cookies and dream-catchers, I forgave everything. Seth ratcheted back up to one or two letters a week, full of sesquipedalian angst. Apparently the depression had something to do with consciousness and the Zen master, but I couldn t get a coherent explanation out of him. I was a bit more reserved this time, and snagged the Cambodian adoptee, who was romantic and told me things my bruised ego desperately wanted to hear.
Seth went to another sesshin and completed it. He wrote, after a week of zazen I realized that the essence of Zen practice is spiritual love. I thought this might have been obvious from the outset, but applauded him.
Then one day I got a letter from Seth that outdid itself in style and excitement. My brother s lesbian tart of an ex-girlfriend is moving to San Francisco, and seeing as how last time I saw her, she wanted me to take her to the nightclub where we could get a bird s-eye view of a flapping beaver, and as how you appear to be of a bisexual nature, I figured I d do you the favor of a lifetime and hook the two of you up. Do you sing? I ve always fantasized about having a woman sing to me while wearing a G-string and polishing my tennies.
I burst into floods of tears and wrote back, How dare you, you insensitive bastard. The S/M addict ex-boyfriend was always trying to set me up with women so that he wouldn t feel guilty about cheating, and Seth knew it. He apologized and said it wasn t funny, but I don t think he understood why. I hit it off with the brother s ex-girlfriend, who turned out to be perfectly lovely except for recovering bulimia and suicide-attempt scars on both wrists. We got healthy and went backpacking together, but meanwhile I sustained my projections for Seth.
In mid-1996, Seth announced his intentions to drop out of society and come visit me. He sold his half of his software programming business to his partner, bought and remodeled a 1972 van, and drove up to see me before moving full-time into the Zen monastery. He gave me his office phone, a fancy programmable deal with lots of extra buttons, and a bunch of S/M refrigerator magnets. I made lasagna and jumped him. He was willing but impassive. He sniffed, I despise people. They like those who affirm their ideas of themselves, and dislike those who don t, and they re all pathetic automatons.
I, weakly in need of affirmation from my lover and unable to ask for it, came down with stomach flu. I told Seth, I love you.
He sniggered, What do you want, property?
The stomach flu magically cleared up as soon as Seth was out the door. I wrote to him, Your unbelievably harsh personal philosophy makes me ill. Literally. Then I bashed the phone to bits with a crowbar and threw the magnets into the bay.
But forgiveness is the cornerstone of spiritual practice, and we held nothing against each other. We continued our correspondence, snail-mail to and from the monastery. He said that the Rinzai Zen teachings of his particular master, Sandrum Hamachi Roshi, were the only uncorrupted teachings currently available in the Western world. He waxed incomprehensible about consciousness, and I waxed ironic about my love life. I sent him cassettes of me enacting Oscar Wilde Salome on the radio. I will kiss your mouth, John the Baptist! Never. Daughter of Sodom! Never! The joke escaped him.
The next time Seth came to see me, things went much better. We drank expensive whiskey in the bathtub. We talked consciousness on the beach at midnight. We walked out on a screening of The Pillow Book, which we labeled solipsistic, baroque garbage, not even redeemed by naked Asian women. We went through Chinatown being conscious, and leaving our leftover garlic chicken by a sleeping bum in Washington Square park. We took each other s photographs, looking mystical and silly in obscure locations.
I started thinking maybe I wanted this man s child. Over breakfast he speculated, d like a child. If I wasn t in the monastery. If I got someone pregnant now, assuming I wasn t with the person of course, d either take the child with me into the monastery or abandon it and the mother completely. I couldn t see my child corrupted by society. Unconscionable! Seth claimed to love women, all women. He said he had a fantasy of traveling through the world, leaving a trail of bastards behind him.
Then he went back to the monastery and didn t write for two months, and I sat zazen in my studio and tried to pretend it didn bother me. I thought that with his obvious intellectual and spiritual superiority he knew what he was doing. I figured I could make myself worthy in time.
Seth called on my thirtieth birthday. I asked, did you call today for any reason in particular?
He said, No. I ve got my sabbatical coming up. I was wondering, could I come and stay? For, like, a long time?
I redecorated the house and rearranged the furniture to accommodate him. We went running together on the beach, and grocery-shopping like a domestic couple, and he paid the bills and cooked all the meals. Late at night, tears streaming down my face, I confided, Sometimes I think I exist only to be for you.
He laughed, s the other way around.
Three days after his arrival, midafternoon, he casually declared, well, I ll be off this evening. I burst into hysterical tears. He was shocked.
t you have a clue? I exploded.
he said. You want a relationship? But I a monk. Look at you, you re a mess.
I wept, and packed him into the van. He called six weeks later, from a pay phone, with three minutes left on his phone card.
m going back to the monastery tomorrow. Oops, time he said.
Uh-huh, I replied. He continued writing as though everything were normal, as, indeed, it was. I wrote back.
I am in love with you. Please do not contact me again, I told him, the sanest simple request I have ever made. He complied, except for an email from Harvey Mudd college a year and a half later.
I have a wife, he said. She is nun. Her armpits are delightfully rank. My heart aches, I do not love enough.
No shit, Sherlock. I wrote him back a treatise on the subject of kindness, because after a year and a half, I knew what had gone wrong. He wasn t transcending his ego at all. He was born with intellectual genius and lacking sensitivity; instead of figuring out he was missing something crucial and working to develop it, he used his mind to bludgeon other people for having feelings. Then he took up uncorrupted, sexist, Japanese Zen as a way to exempt himself from the complications of being human. No wonder he was unpopular in elementary, middle, high school and college. No wonder he could alienate anyone within five minutes of entering a room.
Seth, to love more you have to be kind, I told him. Kindness is not imposing your own opinions upon people without listening to them first. Kindness means genuinely, openly trying to understand their perspectives and accepting them as they are. You can tell whether or not you are being kind by the way people respond to you. If most of them avoid you, refuse to look you in the eye, become hostile or defensive, cry, or otherwise show indications of a negative emotional response, you probably need to examine your own actions more closely.
Pretty funny that you re married. Actually, I m happy for you; your chosen way of life struck me as being seriously out of balance. Either this egregious piece of condescension was too much for him, or he acquired some new values with marriage, because he never wrote again. I always wondered what his wife s name was, and how much he paid for her.