“Banker” the person would reply. That would be that. They may get more specific but it never got further than:
Not much by way of explanation and it really doesn’t say what the sorry sack did for a living “exactly” but it would do. It always did. This went for doctors and lawyers as well.
When Michael shared his frustrations with a friend, the friend, meaning well, told him to just say scientist when asked next. So he did. The exchange went like this:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a scientist.”
This is when the usual conversation would end. But not in Michael’s case.
“So what do you do exactly?” the person had asked.
Was it because all little boys wanted to be astronauts and that is why they’re so intrigued? Michael was at a loss. He wanted to start making up jobs. Not boring one word answer types but if people really wanted to talk maybe he could say he was a lion tamer or a mime or something.
As it stood he was driving to a fundraiser for some charity that helped provide scholarships to kids who excelled at the sciences. He white knuckled the steering wheel with both hands. Only when he removed his left one to wipe the sweat seeping from his scalp down his forehead did he realize his hands were cramped.
He turned down a side street and parked. The sun was setting and people were shuffling home from work or out for some fun. Michael wondered what they all did for a living. Did it even matter, he thought. Why should what I do be who I am? I am more than a rocket scientist, or much less for that matter. My existence is a constant rally of going to work and enjoying my job and going out and hating everyone who asks me about it. Why can’t I be content with people’s inquiries and describe to them the joys and successes that I experience in my work? Why do I hate them for their genuine curiosity? Why do I feel like some circus sideshow?
He locked his car and started walking. He came across a bar and went in. It wasn’t his usual type of place. Not low-brow or run down but certainly not the high class leather chair watering hole he was used to. It was more middle of the road. What a better place to keep to myself, he thought.
The waitress asked him for his order and not what his employment was. For some reason he expected that for some odd reason she would ask.
He spotted her; Jane was her name, from across the dining room area where he was seated. She was at the bar, drinking something he’d never seen and reading a newspaper. Michael had always been a little intimidated of women. He thought it was an inherent trait of the nerd. And to him the rocket scientist was atop the nerd pyramid, a messiah of all things lonely men cling to. He had had women before but usually other scientists or the like. He had never just approached a woman before that wasn’t somehow linked to his profession. He downed his pint in one gulp and went and sat next to Jane.
“Hi, I’m Michael,” he said extending his hand.
“Jane,” she said eyeing him in his tuxedo. She met his hand and he shook it like you would the father of a date not a woman whom you met in a bar.
“May I join you?” he asked, shocked by his own bravado.
They sat in silence for a moment, taking each other in.
“May I ask why you’re wearing a tuxedo? Attending a special event tonight?” she asked.
“No, it’s the only thing that fit me.”
“I don’t get it. Was that a joke of some kind?”
“No. Thirteen years ago I lived here in this city. After building up a successful beginning in a career as a pilot I was on a two day break in Amsterdam. I went to a market on the first morning I was there and I met a man. A monk. I was eating a pear and he asked me how it tasted. It was good I told him. He asked me how the crunch was.”
“The crunch?” Jane asked.
“Yes, the crunch. He asked me about the quality of the crunch. It was fine I said and began to walk away. How about the grower, the person who picked it, the person that brought it to the market and sold it to you, do you think about them when you enjoy this fruit? Do you take a bite at a time and enjoy the different textures, the skin, the meat? He was asking me all these questions in the middle of a busy market. I would have thought him crazy if it weren’t for the attire from the monastery that he wore.
“I told him that I didn’t think much when I ate, I just ate to feed my body. He told me that I can feed my soul with food as well. He called it mindful eating. He invited me to the monastery for dinner that night.”
“And you went?”
“At first I wasn’t going to. I was tired as anything and I’d be flying out the next night and just wanted to enjoy my downtime. I thought about it though and figured I had nothing to lose. It’d be a story to tell at the least.
“So I went to the monastery that evening and I really didn’t know what to expect. It was a nice place, not too far outside the city. I didn’t even know they had monasteries there. I thought I’d be the only regular person there but there were other regular people, mostly locals and from speaking with them some of them had eaten there before.”
Michael took an extended sip of the pint handed to him by the bartender. He couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth. Where was this all coming from? He felt the dim light of the bar in his bones, he heard the slightest movement of a chair or the clink of a fork hitting a plate. His senses were heightened. He felt so alive. He looked at Jane who was listening intently. She was intrigued and he was so exhilarated. He was beginning to get an erection from it all. He took another sip and continued as much for the woman who hung on his words as for himself who didn’t know where this was going either.
“So I was lead to this great dining hall and we all sat at this grand hand carved table. There was about 30 or 40 monks and about a dozen lay people there. The atmosphere was relaxed and so exciting. It was so new. I was soaring to feelings I had only felt in the fleeting moments of my youth.
“After everyone was seated someone hit a small gong near the head of the table. Another monk, whom I assumed was the leader came in and addressed us. He told us that we were here as their monthly open house to teach people about mindful eating. We were to eat our meals slowly he said. To properly observe our meals we were to put our utensils down after each bite. We must consider our food, truly experience each atom of it. We were to not speak at all unless addressed by him, who was referred to as Sifu.
“A few monks came out from a side room which I assumed housed the kitchen. They placed before each of us a small bowl of a rice and vegetable mixture. It was fragrant and colourful and we were instructed to observe the mixture of food. Think of the farmer who grew the broccoli, the trader who first introduced the spice to this part of Europe, the truck driver who brought the rice to the Netherlands. We were to observe all of this for about five minutes before eating. By the time we were told to pick up our forks I was salivating.
“I took my first bite and swallowed within seconds, without truly appreciating the food. The texture, the flavours, the experience. I sat in anguish looking at my fork waiting for the instructions to take another bite. It was madness I thought and fought the temptation to shovel my food and plow through the meal.
“By the second course I began to get it. I tuned out the world and I believe I ate for the first time in my life that evening. It’s such a reflex, a filling of an urgent bodily need that I never truly enjoyed it before.”
Michael sat silent for a few moments and Jane silently sipped her drink taking it all in.
“That sounds so serene. That is a truly fantastic story. I don’t mean to get off the topic of the monastery but you had said all this was about the tuxedo?”
“Absolutely. I was so amazed by all of this. So absolutely filled with a desire to feel. My whole life up until that point was a series of moments lived to attain a means whether it was social status or career advancement or what have you. What I learned there was I could live for the moment. Live for what I am doing now. I was so preoccupied with living for the next moment I let every single second of my life pass me by. I never left.”
“You stayed at the monastery?”
“Yup. It wasn’t easy to convince the monks let me tell you. These monks were 30th, 40th generation Buddhist monks and here I was a pilot from the western world trying to convince them to let me stay. They thought I was some yuppie trying to do something to impress my yoga class or something. I went for a walk through an orchard that night with Sifu and he said he’d let me stay for one week. That one week got extended for thirteen years.”
“Why did you leave?”
“A few weeks ago I was walking with one of the monks, one whom I had grown very fond of in my time at the monastery and he asked me why I didn’t leave? Now I understand this may seem a tad abrupt and even offensive but it was direct and sincere and real and from the heart. In this city we are so consumed with people’s ulterior motives we look for underlying meanings in everything they say. If someone is direct we see it as rude. What we fail to understand is when two humans have a genuine love for one another, a genuine compassion for one another’s well-being and happiness such annotations and backhanded compliments cease to exist. If we know that every word spoken is thought through with the same intensity we take each bite of our food with then we shall truly hear the speaker and must consider their words with the same thoughtfulness and soundness for which they thought them with.
“So when he asked me that question I truly thought about it. So much so in fact that it took me over a week to answer him and in that time I didn’t utter a single word. What was I doing there? What was I accomplishing in my time and what did I hope to achieve staying there? I awoke one morning and just realized I had accomplished all I could there. I wasn’t a monk, never claimed to be, and never planned to be. I was just a man who wanted to learn to live. I learned how. It was time to go out and practice what I learned. I told Sifu and I left this morning. The clothes I had come with were too big and Sifu had this old tuxedo lying around for whatever reason even he could not remember. The others found it fitting that I would return to the western world in a tuxedo of all things like it was some sort of royal reception.”
“Well that explains the tuxedo,” Jane said with a smile.
Michael couldn’t believe what just happened. What struck him was this was the first woman he had had a connection with in years and it was built on a lie. Very unlike the fake self he had created.
“So tell me Michael what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I doubt I can go back to flying as I’ve been away much too long. I’ve always had an affinity for science. Maybe I’ll become some sort of scientist.”
He waited. With a trembling hand he took a sip of his pint and stared at Jane, waiting with cocoons birthing butterflies in the pit of his stomach for the dreaded follow-up question. She never asked. She didn’t seem to care.
Matthew Laffrade’s fiction and poetry has been published in various publications including The Wilderness House Literary Review, Sassafrass Literary Magazine, Verse Wisconsin, The Coe Review, Hitherto, and Requiem Magazine, amongst others. He is also the recipient of the University of Toronto’s Harold Sonny Ladoo Book Prize for his novella Past Present. He is currently at work archiving his work at www.matthewlaffrade.wordpress.com
. He lives outside of Toronto, Canada.