Buddhists Taming Tigers
by Lou Amodeo
Nick, Sarah, Brennan and I are at the pool. It's the end of summer before I turn twenty-three. A Sunday in August. This is how we've been winding down the weekends. Show up hung over, before noon, and spend the day drinking, smoking, and eating. It's always Nick, Sarah, and me, and then whoever else decides to come. There's a grill and a picnic table and a radio, and the in-ground pool, which is long and deep and heated, borders the lake so that we can watch boats pass and the sun shimmering the surface. It sparkles and bleaches great expanses of the lake, and we stare out silent, under the hot sun. If you look too long it'll hurt, but sometimes we do it on purpose, so that when we rub our eyes we see tendrils of color blooming, like octopuses.
Today I've brought chicken thighs and drumsticks, hickory maple chipotle marinade, spicy Portuguese sausage, mustard, squash, zucchini, lemons, tomatoes, grapes, and a heavy watermelon. Also the staples: beer and water in the cooler, pot in my bag. Sarah helps slice and chop the veggies while Nick and Brennan lean against the fence and look at the lake, smoking. Even though I'm hung over from last night I'm opening my third beer. It's cold and crisp and tastes good in the sun. We always prep first, so that when we're hungry all we have to do is light the grill. I finish with the chicken and watch Sarah. She's small and beautiful and I'm deeply in love with her. Nick is too, Brennan probably. I help her cut butter for the squash and zucchini and squeeze lemon juice into the foil packages. The tomatoes we'll cut later and eat raw with salt and pepper. The watermelon rests in the middle of the picnic table and sooner or later it'll get thrown into the pool, where it will float and bob.
We join Nick and Brennan to get high. I take the hitter after Sarah, and her lip-gloss has rubbed off so it tastes like strawberries. The pot is clean and moist and potent. One at a time the guys step onto the diving board. When we're stoned we love it because it's the springiest one we've ever used. We can fly. Brennan goes first and front flips into a dive. He comes up smiling and Sarah claps. Nick's still learning to dive; I taught him how in the beginning of summer and he's still working at it. This time he panics in mid-air, losing form and jerking his limbs, crashing. I step up and take a breath, look at Sarah sitting on the edge, feet dangling, Nick and Brennan treading, and the sunlight dancing on tiny pool waves, flashing crest to crest. I jump and spring, hanging above the water for a long moment, keeping still as long as possible before folding into a dive and slicing through the surface. Underneath I feel like I'm in someone's pocket, or mouth, or womb. Holding my breath I stay below, gliding my arms and legs through the silky warmth. It's rare that I feel this graceful and I don't want to come up, but I have to. When I break the surface the air is light and I open my eyes to the sun and sky and wish that this were everyday.
We swim for an hour or so until we feel empty and hollow. Then we know it's time to eat. Everyone air dries. Those three sit near the shallow end, smoking, while I light the grill and arrange the meat and vegetables. When it's done we sit at the picnic table and take a couple hits so that the food, the aroma and taste, will be even better. It's wonderful: chicken smoky and crispy and sweet, sausage great with mustard, veggies light, lemony. I eat an entire tomato by myself. Sarah sits next to me and I look into her eyes, at their yellow centers, bright and sun-spattered. I tell her that her eyes look pretty and she says that she hasn't even showered today, and we crack up. The grapes are cold and firm and sweet and we throw them into each other's mouths.
When we've finished eating Sarah curls up on the bench swing to nap. Nick, Brennan, and I throw the watermelon into the pool and smoke a lot of pot. We hug the watermelon and jump off the diving board. We heave it over our heads and quickly jump in, so that when it breaks the surface it sounds like an explosion. We see who can spin the most times with it in the air. We float on it. At some point it gets smashed against the wall and the flesh, colored pinkish-red, is startling. Chunks break from the husk and drop to the bottom. Nick tells us to rest our feet and calves up on the edge and float on our backs. We look at the sky and clouds. Our ears are submerged, muting the outside. All we can hear is our own breathing, amplified. We alternate keeping our eyes opened and closed. We talk about how it would be a cool vantage point for a shot in a movie, and Nick says that I should write it. I think that I can. As I float I think about Sarah, wonder if she's dreaming and if so, what about. She's still broken over the end of a long relationship, and sometimes she calls me crying. It amazes me how we were designed in such a beautiful way, that when we are sad we cry and produce tears. Our sadness leaks from us. I feel helpless when Sarah cries, and get angry that my love cannot be used in a practical way; I cannot heal her. Brennan is going through the same, but hasn't really talked. The couple times he did I could tell by his eyes that he hurt a lot more than I thought.
I concentrate on my breathing, the inhalations and exhalations. When I inhale I rise and when I exhale I sink, allowing the water's little lips to kiss the corners of my eyes and mouth. I think about how another Sunday has come and will soon be gone, another week passed and how time is cruel and relentless. I think about how I just graduated from college, how I don't have a job, how I am not afraid to die but afraid that I will fail to accomplish what I most want to while I live. I think about Sarah and what my love for her means. I think about the four of us and wish for us to be loved, and to understand. To be sure and confident. I think how on days like this sometimes the world opens up, exposing itself, and how we only have to open our eyes in the right direction to see through all the clutter. Whether Sarah is the world opening up or the right direction or clarity, I'm not sure.
The light begins to fail and we pack and clean. The sun goes down, the sky washed pink. Brennan has to go home. It's still early in the evening though and we don't want to go home, so the three of us decide to drive to Nick's dad's house, which is empty. I sit in the back and we drive with the windows down. We listen to music and I dream. Sarah says that we'll remember days like this forever, and I think she's right, because right now I don't want to forget. I wonder what I'll remember though, years from now when I'm outside of these moments, if these nights will remain as significant and full of promise as they seem to now. Sarah predicts what we'll be doing after we go separate ways. She's off to another school in the fall, and the three of us won't be seeing each other very often. I can tell Nick is sad when she says separate ways and I am too. We stop to buy Heinekens and call for a pizza delivery. At Nick's dad's Nick and I lower the basketball hoop and throw each other alley-oops while we wait. It feels great to dunk. Sarah tries once but loses the ball and just hangs on the rim. Her legs are bent up underneath her and I'm struck at how small she really is. It's dark when the pizza comes and I dunk one last time, hanging on the rim and then twirling away.
We watch cooking shows while we eat. The beer's almost gone and we are high, but have reached a plateau. One of us makes a joke about a threesome and Sarah lets Nick pull down her sweatpants. She has her bikini bottoms on underneath and her thighs are brown and smooth. I want to run my tongue over them. I'm filled with apprehension for a moment. Nick hooks his finger under the band of her bikini and she slaps it away, laughing. I think about Nick and I being with Sarah and wonder how it would bring us closer, how it would divide us. I think it's something that would be both beautiful and destructive, and I think if it ever happened, I'd be scared and sick to my stomach.
Nothing's on TV Sunday nights that we like to watch past nine, so Nick's flipping the channels. He stops at a program on the nature channel. There are Buddhist monks, dressed in these amazing flowing orange robes, leading massive tigers on leashes. It's hard to grasp that this exists and is allowed, because we're stoned, but we watch them high in the mountains and everything is green and the tigers move powerfully and slowly as the bald-headed monks guide them, their robes catching air, billowing, dancing. Ballet, Sarah says. My chest tightens. The monks believe that the tigers are their old friends reincarnated, and even though I don't think I believe it, I like the thought, that they are still connected after death, after departing. How it is the soul they recognize and are familiar with, no matter what the physical form. The program shows the monks petting the tigers, bathing them, feeding them from their palms. There is a part that shows what the monks do when a tiger dies. They build a pyre and the body burns as they watch, kneeling, chanting. After it's over one of the monks is interviewed and he is smiling and cheerful. The narrator asks him why he doesn't seem sad and the monk, small and frail, speaks to us in subtitles. I will see him again, he says. The closing scene shows a tiger resting his enormous head in a monk's lap, both sleeping peacefully.
It's late when we leave to go home and outside the air is humid and heavy. Before we get in the car we listen to the sounds of the night, of the summer - the crickets, the sprinklers, wind rustling leaves. Fireflies flicker and dazzle. We stand together in the driveway. There is heat lightning and the sky is swollen with purple-gray clouds that are lit up internally by the bolts. They flash yellow and pink and red, like the sky is hurt, full of bruises. I want to ask Nick and Sarah what it means, but I don't because this is a time for silence. I'm just happy to be seeing it with them. The night marches on in flashes and I feel like the world is suspended, hanging before us. There is so much that we can do. We are young and alive and standing together, here, now. This is all that matters. Everything else can wait.
About the author:
Lou Amodeo is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois who now lives in Chicago, where he pretends to be a young professional. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Southeast Review, Frigg Magazine, Word Riot, Dicey Brown, and Montage, a journal at the U of I. He also has a story forthcoming in Opium Magazine. Lou likes the following things: pizza, photography, and cooking. His biggest goal in life: to have his black cat, Wayne, featured on the cover of Cat Fancy magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org