Fiction: Issue #5

Leonard_Kogan, An experience of conversion, oil on paper
*Image: “An experience of conversion,” oil on paper, Leonard Kogan

The Buddhists

by Shannon Reed

“The Buddhists have a saying,” Tim said, “that when something breaks, it is to distract us from the beautiful new thing that is being born.” His hands draped loosely, calmly, over the steering wheel. He smiled slightly, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepening, but did not look at his wife in the passenger’s seat.

Amy took a deep breath, willing herself not to reach over and slam her husband’s face against the wheel. Tim’s insistence on finding some beautiful, profound truth in what was really just a shitty morning greatly irritated her. His newfound acceptance of what he called “the flow of life” made her miss her husband’s previous, more misanthropic incarnation.

Nineteen years ago they’d been introduced by mutual friends who hoped they’d hit it off. The friends had immediately abandoned them, loping across the park to set up a picnic before the symphony played.

“Why did you wear those shoes?” Tim had asked. Teetering along in high-heeled sandals in a way she hoped might be charming, Amy had grabbed Tim’s arm to steady herself.

“I heard that you were cute,” she replied, “and I wanted to look nice.”

He had let out a long sigh before helping her across the park to the picnic. “They’re really ridiculous,” he’d said about the shoes as they arrived at the blanket.

Amy had plopped herself down, snapping over her shoulder, “I know, right? You’re not that cute.” He had studied her out of the corner of his eye all evening and called her the next day.

This opening set the tone for their relationship. They never really discussed why it worked for them. But once, on their third anniversary, a drunk Tim told a drunk Amy that although he disliked everyone, he disliked her less.

“You’re the best of the worst,” he said.

“I feel the same way,” she said. They raised their glasses of champagne to each other.

But now he’d changed. Not an hour ago Tim had dropped one of the wine glasses they’d received at their wedding, the very same glasses that he had insisted on registering for, despite their outrageous cost. Back then, he had proclaimed that they aerated Bordeaux the best; this morning he had been using one to stir up some Metamucil. When it shattered, he had paused for just a moment before shrugging, even as Amy let out a wail. He said, “That’s the way it goes, sometimes,” and wrapped the pieces in a plastic bag before tossing it, gently, into the trash can on his way out the door. He didn’t look back, not at the glass, not at her.

And now they were trapped in their SUV in the park, twenty feet from the parking lot, as a convoy of children crossed from one side of the road to the other. They watched the children, waiting for the parade to end. Neither the kids nor their teachers—all dressed in the same oversize yellow T-shirts reading “Sunshine Academy”—were moving efficiently, Amy noted. In fact, some of the children took three times as long as needed to cross the twenty-foot expanse of pavement, circling back again and again to laugh with their friends. A general, high-pitched shrieking accompanied the pilgrimage. But Tim remained calm. Even though Amy had turned away from him, she could picture his expression watching the children: peaceful, vaguely interested, happy to watch the bright pictures of humanity that the Universe had blessed them with on this day. It made her stomach clench.

They’d come to the park to ride their bikes on the two-mile trail that circled its perimeter. Riding a bike was a new interest for Tim, one of many he’d developed recently, after a lifetime of being engaged only by practicing law, listening to Chopin, drinking wine, and critiquing everything else. Amy would have been very happy to let him bike alone. She wasn’t looking for new hobbies.

But Tim had come home from Cycle City with two bikes, two helmets, two sets of riding gloves, and a bell for each of them, hers all in her favorite teal blue. “They didn’t have matching T-shirts?” she’d asked, and waited for his mouth to turn down in the familiar way.

But Tim had laughed and said, “We can get those too,” and put the helmet on her head. He’d remarked on how it brought out her eyes. “Behold! The beauty of Team Tim!” he’d exclaimed and chucked her on the chin.

That Amy did not want to ride a bike had not been discussed. This was because Tim had had a massive heart attack six months ago, and nearly died. After three weeks in the hospital and a couple of months recovering at home, he was at last able to return to what resembled a normal life. At his last check-up before going back to work, Dr. Paval had prescribed daily exercise, “or you won’t make it next time, my friend.”

“No can do,” Tim had said. “Can’t leave Team Tim without its leader.”

Amy wanted Dr. Paval to tell Tim to stop calling himself a team, a ridiculous habit he’d developed in the hospital. But no, Dr. Paval had nodded in agreement. Tim immediately went out and bought tennis rackets, an elliptical machine, hiking boots, snowshoes, weights, and the bikes, as well as all the gear.

What annoyed Amy about these purchases was less the expense, which was not overwhelming for their comfortable income, but the way they included her. She had not had a major heart attack. She was in perfectly fine shape and already walked daily at lunchtime with her secretary at the university. At every yearly check-up, Dr. Paval told Amy that if all of his patients were as healthy as she, he’d be out of business. She resented being drafted onto Team Tim and then chastised herself for being resentful, which only increased her resentment.

The kids had finally finished crossing the street, the last handful staring through the car’s windows at Tim and Amy as they ambled onto the grass.

“What a pack of sweethearts!” Tim said happily, putting the car back into drive. He parked by the soccer fields, and they climbed out of the car. Tim was in shorts and a stained Tanglewood T-shirt; Amy, in the full teal regalia he’d brought home, along with a T-shirt she’d gotten at the university’s last 5K and a pair of spandex shorts she’d recovered from a box of college clothes in the attic. She donned all of this not to please Tim, but in hopes of provoking him into making a cutting comment. She imagined something like, “Well, you’ve certainly committed” coming out of his mouth. Or a dry quotation from Wilde, perhaps. A crack about her thighs in the shorts, even. Anything, really, was fine, so long as it caused him to fall off this pedestal he’d so recently climbed up: Saint Tim, leader of Team Tim, the heart attack escapee. But he took no notice, only repeating that the teal brought out her “beautiful” eyes.

Tim was having trouble removing the bikes from the car carrier. One of the bungee cords apparently was hooked awkwardly, and he couldn’t leverage his body in a way that allowed him to loosen it. Amy walked around to watch him. A year ago Tim would have been swearing and grunting, pounding his fist against the car in frustration until he’d hurt himself or given up, making way for Amy to swoop in and be better at the task, merely because she stayed calm.

But that was old Tim. New Tim, Team Tim, was methodically working away at the twisted cord, trying to pop the hook out of the hole in the platform where he’d secured it.

“Won’t do it this way next time,” he observed to Amy.

“If there is a next time,” she said. He didn’t respond.

“If we ever decide to do this again,” she added. He looked up at her and said, “Why wouldn’t we do this another time?”

She shrugged, feeling churlish but powerful, the way a teenager responds to forces too strong to be defeated but that must be fought.

“Yes, I think we’ll love it,” Tim said, as if she’d asked if they would. He tilted his head back and looked toward the sky. “Feel that sunshine. That’s amazing. Lucky to be here.”

Amy went back to the passenger seat and added another check to the mental list she was keeping of how frequently Tim said, “Lucky to be here.” She’d begun the count at the end of last week. After they’d driven downtown to the stadium, paid $20 for parking and purchased $8 sodas, the Pirates game had been rained out before the players took the field. And Tim had said, “No worries, right, my dear? Lucky to be here.”

She didn’t think his being at either the game or the park or any of the other places where he deployed this phrase was lucky at all. Tim hadn’t taken care of himself, causing the heart attack, and Dr. Paval had done his job well, fixing the heart attack. Where was luck? It was logical consequences and competency that brought them here. That was all.

“Got ’em!” Tim called. She heard the bungee cords pop and the bikes being taken off the carrier. If the bikes had motors, he would be revving them excitedly.

“Go on ahead,” she said to him, leaning out of the passenger’s side.

“What?”

“I just got to call my office, ok? I’ll catch up.”

Too excited about the bikes and the sunshine and life, Tim didn’t bother to ask her why she had to call into work, just pedaled away after pumping his fist once and saying, “Team Tim!”

Amy settled back in her seat. They’d parked in the shade, and her sunglasses made it darker. The open car door let in a gentle breeze, and she watched the leaves sway. Her mind drifted to Tim, picturing him on the bike, his head back and a smile on his face. For a moment, the vision almost made her smile. She wished she could stop resenting him for being so happy about being alive.

She heard the Sunshine Academy kids yelling, at play. Amy remembered, suddenly, that it was this very park where she and Tim had taken a walk after the last IVF treatment, the one that ended with Dr. Bedel’s telling them that they’d know in a couple of days if the embryos had at last, this time, finally, taken hold. They’d held hands, walking slowly. They’d been careful in their use of language—lots of “ifs” and “I hopes” and “the baby could….” All for naught, as it turned out.

Amy was surprised to realize that the walk here with Tim—who was just Tim, then, not a team—was the memory she latched onto from that time. It seemed like such a gentle, sad memory when compared to the later moments: when she’d been on the examining table and they learned that none of the embryos had made it; the drive home in which Tim had told her he didn’t think they should try anymore; the way she’d spent that night in the big chair in the living room, staring out across their garden in the darkness and willing herself to let go.

Amy sat up in the car, propelled by a burst of anger, and before she could work out precisely what it was about, she’d slammed the door and yanked up the bike, throwing her leg over it. She noticed that it was adjusted perfectly to her height, which enraged her all the more as she pedaled furiously toward the swing sets. They marked the entrance to the path where Tim was riding.

She saw him up ahead, off the bike and by a stand of maple trees, his hands on his hips, bending slightly forward. He was probably looking at the wonder of the grass or something, for God’s sake. Though the screams of the Sunshine Academy kids at play still reached them, this part of the park was almost empty. No one saw her leap off the bike and throw it to the ground. She stalked toward Tim and shoved him from behind. It was so unexpected that his hands flew up in the air, and he gasped “Oh!” as he crumbled to his knees.

She stood over him. “Bad things!” she yelled, more out of breath than she had expected. She had to suck in air to keep going. “Have happened!” The “-ed” got sucked away by her inhalation. He stayed kneeling. “How dare!” Breath. “You call!” Breath. “Yourself.” Deep breath and a shaky finger pointed at his back. “Lucky!”

Tim rolled over onto his back, and she realized that he was panting for breath, his face pale.

“Tim?” He gestured around his face and chest vaguely.

“Are you?” Breath. “Having another attack?”

“Maybe,” he said, weakly.

“Oh, shit,” Amy said, and patted her pockets for her phone. No. She had left it in the car. “Do you have your phone?” she asked Tim.

He shook his head.

“OK, hang on, I’ll go back.”

Tim held up a hand and gestured for her to come closer. “Did you push me?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

She nodded, getting back on the bike. “I’ll explain later.”

Amy hadn’t been there during his first heart attack; Tim had been at work. She was secretly very grateful that she hadn’t been the person who had to establish whether he really was sick and then decide to call an ambulance. Mitch, Tim’s law partner, had done all of that, and he looked shaken every time he talked about it.

They’d been walking back from lunch—Max & Erma’s cheeseburgers for both—when Tim had simply crumpled onto a bench in the little pocket park. Tim had specifically told Mitch not to call an ambulance, that it was gas, that Mitch was overreacting, and that he would be fine, but Mitch called anyway, and saved Tim’s life. From the first time she heard the story, Amy knew that she would have believed her husband and probably watched him die in front of her.

At their car, Amy grabbed for her phone and frantically dialed 911. She tried to remount her bike to get back to Tim, but she couldn’t balance with one hand. After blurting out her location and situation to the operator, who seemed entirely too calm, as though, she, too, were a new Buddhist, waiting for the something beautiful to be born, Amy ran back to where Tim was. She found him still lying on his back and began to shout clipped words at him through her heavy breathing. God, he’d been entirely right: they both did need to get more exercise.

“Help. Coming. Just. Called.”

Tim said nothing.

“How. Are. You?”

Still, nothing. Was he dead? Her heart plummeted. She took in one deep gulp of air and sank to her knees beside him.

“Tim?” She shook him, and watched his body rock back and forth, his shirt catching on the pavement. “Tim?!”

She tried to establish vital signs—a pulse, some breathing—but found she didn’t know how. A quick, mean thought flashed through her mind—Good thing we hadn’t had a baby!—and then she reached to pull her phone out of her pocket, intending to redial 911. Someone would talk her through it, someone calmer than she was, one of the Buddhists they had there. But the phone wasn’t in her pocket, wasn’t on the ground nearby. She must have dropped it as she ran over.

Tim groaned, low. She gasped in relief. He was alive. She leaned down, and spoke loudly, “Tim! Hold on! Honey, an ambulance is coming! I’ll be right back.”

He grabbed at her hand, but she shook him off, saying again, “I’ll be right back!” She had to find that phone.

As she looked around frantically, she caught sight of one of the teachers from the Sunshine Academy looking across the grass at her. The kids were in the middle of a game of some kind, but the teacher must have sensed something was wrong across the park, her nose in the wind like a deer. Amy frantically beckoned for her, yelling, “Help! Help me, please!” The teacher began to run toward her, yanking a phone out of her fanny pack. Amy saw some of her kids start to move after the teacher, but the woman waved them off and shouted instructions to stay where they were. The kids froze.

“Should I call 911?” the teacher yelled as she ran.

“I did call! My husband…” Amy pointed to where Tim lay, 30 yards away, “I think he might need CPR.”

The teacher smoothly changed direction, and by the time Amy reached them, the other woman had Tim propped up and was listening to his heart. He was mumbling something to her—probably thanking her. Another member had joined Team Tim. It was a picture of such total competency that Amy was cowed and stepped back. She wanted to return to the car, maybe even drive on ahead to the hospital. With some fondness she thought of the spot where she had usually parked.

Then, the teacher held out her hand. “He wants you,” the young woman said. Amy hesitated. “He’s breathing. He has a steady pulse,” she added, as though trying to lure Amy over. It took several long seconds, but finally Amy forced herself to kneel next to her husband. He clutched her hands, pressing them together as if to pray. It was hard to stay balanced, and Amy’s knees hurt. The young woman remained on Tim’s right.

“The ambulance is on the way, Tim,” Amy said to him. She looked at the teacher and said, “I think this young woman saved your life.”

Tim looked at the teacher, nodded, and looked back at Amy, a question still in his eyes.

Amy said, “You’re going to be OK.” She tried to sound calm. “Do you think it was another attack?”

Tim’s eyes remained fixed on her. Amy sensed he needed something more, and gently pulled her right hand free so that she could take each of his hands in hers.

“Team Tim!” she said. “You’re going to make it!” She lifted his hands in the air, as if he was a baby in a crib. There was a silence.

“I’ll go look for the ambulance,” the teacher said. After she’d walked 10 feet away, Tim pulled Amy’s hands to the ground, forcing her to lean into him.

“Why the fuck did you push me?” he asked her.

She’d forgotten she’d done that.

“Already gasping for air!” he said, and Amy heard a familiar undercurrent of testiness in his voice, like a radio station coming back on the air.

“Why the fuck?” he said, and stopped, took in another long, shuddering breath, and stared at her. She sat back and met his angry gaze.

That’s right, she remembered now. She had pushed him. She smiled, feeling the same sense of power she’d first felt on that picnic blanket those many years ago.

“I didn’t realize anything was wrong,” she told him. She glanced over at the young woman, who was making a big show of watching for the ambulance. Amy looked back at Tim.

“Still,” Tim said, “you shoved me!”

Amy shrugged. “You were annoying,” she said.

Tim let out an aggrieved sigh and turned his head away from her. Oh, she knew that sigh.

Just then, they heard the ambulance’s siren. It came around the bend in the road where Amy and Tim had sat in the SUV just a half hour before. Across the park, the students had lined up at the edge of the ball field to stare. The two EMTs were dashing up the hill toward them, drawn by the young teacher’s calm but firm beckoning.

“Oh, hey, it’s Team Tim!” one of the EMTs said when he reached them. Amy recognized him from their visit to the hospital a few weeks before, when Tim had insisted on taking trays of cut fruit to the staff who’d been so wonderful to him. While fruit juice had leaked onto her shirtsleeve, this young man had told her, at length, about how inspiring Tim was.

Now he was kneeling by his hero. “Aw, shit, man, did you have another attack? Don’t worry, Team Tim, we’ll get you fixed up ASAP!”

“It’s just Tim,” Tim said. “I’m just one person.”

The EMT glanced at his partner, who shrugged. The men went to work, pulling Tim’s shirt off and sticking wires onto his chest. Amy stepped back to let them work.

“Can’t those kids find something else to do?” she heard Tim ask. She walked over to the teacher, and said, “Thank you so much for all you’ve done. Now, I think it’s time the children return to their games, don’t you?”

The teacher looked at Amy, then at Tim, and then back to Amy. It was a familiar look. Amy felt happy to receive it, scouring though it was.

“Sure,” the teacher said. “I’m glad he’s going to make it.” She didn’t sound convincing, but she jogged back to the kids who scattered as she approached, their noise fading away as they listened to their teacher’s commands.

The hum of the EMTs at work was the only noise in the park now, along with Tim’s grumbling that they’d put the chest restraints on too tightly. He is going to make it, Amy thought. She felt a small surge of happiness in her gut. Team Tim had been broken. Tim, her husband, was the beautifully ugly thing that had been reborn.

Shannon Reed

Shannon Reed is an essayist, novelist, writer of fiction, and playwright. Her work has recently appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Vela Magazine, The Billfold, Kweli Journal, Dialogue, Hot Metal Bridge, and Terrain.org. She is finishing up her MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Shannon is proud to be a teaching artist for City Theatre and the Public Theatre, both in Pittsburgh.

1 Comment