Some say that life is strange, but what I’d like to know is: compared to what?
I consider the line for a minute or two, and decide to jot it down in my sixth handwriting on my trusty burgundy notebook, bound with real leather and lined with authentic gold, gifted to me by my beloved mentor at the monastery, days before his tragic fall to syphilis. I’m kidding; I stole it from a booth down in Wufenpu just last month.
I abandon the faux meditation manual from which I had unearthed the one verse of value, letting the ruffled, thoroughly whitewashed paperback descend into the abyss, or, what you might call a pile of used books in a secondhand bookshop in Taiwan. It is never to be found again.
It is day two-hundred and seventy of my performance, and day twenty since I have transcended the human realm into quasi-Nirvana. You are to believe this because I am clad head to toe in the baldness and blood-orange (or yellow?) garb that characterizes the devout ascetic. You are also to believe this because I carry one hundred and eight black beads around my neck, and I am a mouthful of vague aphorisms. And now, stranger, I shall present the Four Noble Truths that guide my path to a comfortable living and financial stability: one, never break out of character, and two, like a good magician, never give away the tricks of the trade. It is the second Commandment by which I must ultimately abide, and consequently, I cannot divulge to you the third and last Commandments. Nevertheless, you will live on, albeit strangely.
What sets me apart is, for better or for worse, the fact that I am Unlike Other Monks. I do not play games; I merely create art and expand the bounds of the craft. While fellow conmen stationed in Vienna and New York City hide behind their foreignness, sputtering unconvincing lines such as “No can English,” and professing to not recognize the (debatably) universally pronounced names of Shakyamuni and co., I, a con artist, study up to become the most educated monk of all non-monks. On this day, I am proud to say that I have mastered every single Buddhist chant and have crafted verbal introductions for each in five different languages — even ones that do not yet exist.
When one wealthy tourist faces off against an authentic non-monk such as I, they have no choice but to submit to the insuperable conscience and let the coins (or better yet, cash) drop into my worn, coincidentally coinless sack. And this is without mentioning the compelling rhetorical arsenal with which I am so fortunately equipped. On days when I don’t feel compelled to speak, however, I rely on a heavily bandaged leg to disarm my audience with the crippling force of pathos. Other days, I hand out plastic good luck charms and request donations for the temple of wealth I am constructing for myself, a budding (and whopping) two million NTD, stored right in my left pocket, believe it or not — but of course, that is not what I tell them.
I confess: sometimes I feel as though I am no different from a real monk.
As I contemplate my own perplexing existence, I trudge out of the bookshop and into a characteristic Taipei alley. In the veil of the summer afternoon’s lapping heat waves, gray concrete railings tower over me at double the usual height, doubling also as the fences of inferno, wherein I must live out my divinely-ordained sentence to burn perpetually. But, alas, that cannot be, for my heart continues to palpitate in my chest, and an eternal hell is just a Western construct. I begin to whistle a tune of post-teenage angst, breaking out of character for — the first and last time, I promise. I stretch out my arms to allow air to pass through my thick sleeves and relieve my overheating armpits. All is well until I trip over a fellow beggar, perhaps a hooker, a female creature of extraordinarily plastic good looks.
“Watch where you’re going,” she spits, stuffing a sack of meager change down her red brassiere.
Watch where you’re sitting, I almost mutter behind hard-pressed lips. But instead of shedding my façade, I channel my inner Zen and flash her a winning smile. “I’m very sorry, ma’am.” I begin to stride away from the entire situation; it is rather unbecoming, all things considered, for a man of my social status.
“Fake ass monk,” she mutters to herself. I halt in my tracks and whirl around, smile still painted upon my soft porcelain countenance.
“Sorry, my dear. I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said you’re a fake ass monk,” she says, stoic as ever. I grant this insolent woman a better look. Double eyelid job, nose job, boob job, some kind of liposuction around the thighs, between which, most likely, the labors of her real job lie. That is all I see. It dawns upon me: she sees through me only because she is just like me. I quickly recover.
“At least I’m not half plastic, sweetheart,” I say, a cloying grin playing upon my poised, monkly face.
Her brows furrow together, and where the thick layer of artificial powder on her face has been sloughed off in the heat, I divine a peach-pink blush, the veritable hues of my victory. Smug, I step forward to hover over the shame I’ve inscribed upon her perfectly re-chiseled face.
“At least I’m not trying to hide the fact that I’m fake,” she finally murmurs, sending a jolt through my chest. “Isn’t Buddhism all about — what was it? Opening what is closed inside of you? Do every good Buddhist a favor and champion some other cause falsely, won’t you?”
To my dismay, a gasp escapes my lips. “Tell me, you damn artifice,” I hear myself demanding, “what’s your name?”
She straightens up, rising from the ground to level her eyes with mine, and dusts the dirt off the back of her tight satin skirt with two clean pats.
Then, she clears her throat.
“My name is Li-Na,” she says, “and I hope I’ll never see you again.”
I only notice then, as she turns to walk away, that she has purple and blue eyes — a concoction of colored contacts, of course. Unintentionally, I catch a glimpse of the empty sack she had slid into her brassiere. To my utter discombobulation, my heart performs a few somersaults while blood rushes to my head, a phenomenon I have experienced but once — or maybe thrice — in my life. Rhetorical strategies to withhold this contrived beauty race through my veins. These are the moments a monk lives for, in which one feels all one hundred and eight permutations of feelings that the masters of the past have so kindly calculated for us. They are dancing in the crevices of my soul — or, rather, I feel a strange tingling in my fifth extremity.
I grip her tenderly by the wrist. “Please stay,” I begin carefully, dilating my pupils on command. “Please tell me how you have seen through me.”
A little bit of vulnerability goes a long way, a Sister in Siddhartha once whispered as she chastised me for my hardness. We need not clarify what kind of hardness of which I speak. Relax, I’m kidding, for in all my years of monkeying around, I have not spoken to a single authentic man of the faith, much less a lady.
Li-Na wrenches her wrist out of my grasp. She looks me up and down, draws her face into a frown, sees me as if seeing for the first time. “Just look at yourself,” she says. “How can you not —”
Before she can continue, I seize her by the hand, and we run.
“What the fuck?” she says, yet her words are muffled by suppressed giggles. We snake through the labyrinthine alleys and onto the main road, where I pull her into a yellow cab and into my arms.
Li-Na and I spend the rest of the afternoon patiently unraveling each other under silky blue skies. Arriving at the Danshui District, we plunder bicycles from the borrowable bike stands the government has bestowed upon us; they are free for the first thirty minutes. And so we cycle on across the local Fisherman’s Wharf, pale waters trailing beside us like liquefied crystals. As the unforgiving heat of the sun assaults me, I feel my mask begin to melt ever so slightly. Side by side, we pedal, and she tells me the tale of her latest surgery, lamenting over the tragedy in the fact that she must look unlike herself in order to feel truly herself.
“It’s hard to explain,” she says. “I’ve always felt like a beauty placed by God — or karma, whatever it is you call it — in the body of someone ugly. In other words, I just don’t identify as somebody any less than beautiful. And yet, even after I’ve made all these changes, and even though I now have the nicest nose in Taipei — something still doesn’t feel right.”
As we slip under the shadows cast by a row of swaying beeches, I watch small patches of sunlight hopscotch across my well-shaped hands, gripped tightly over the handlebars. Unlike Li-Na, I realize, I feel completely at ease in my own skin. Years of weighted yoga and high-intensity interval meditation have shaped my body into a weapon unassailably beautiful from all angles. But, as a gesture of trust, I too decide to concede one small point of concern regarding my existence.
“I often feel as if I am no different from a real monk,” I admit.
I let the statement sink as we descend a hill, a light bump in the waterside path, into the void that is my heart.
She snorts violently, and violet seeps into my very being. We embrace as the sun sets over a neon Taipei city. The bikes are never to be returned, or paid for, for that matter.
Then, she clears her throat.
“My name is Lotus,” she declares, “and I would like to go on a date with you.”
“That sounds like an exotic stripper name.”
We passionately make out. Her purple and blue eyes are open the entire time.
Then, she clears her throat.
As she is about to allow me the honor of knowing her name, her phone rings. Still eyeing me with one part blue hostility, one part purple suspicion, she slips out her Nokia and flips it open. “Hello?”
She blinks rapidly as the speaker on the other end jabbers away. Ignoring rigid social conventions that encourage me to look away from girls in distress, I watch intently as her face contorts from a cosmetics-heavy mass into a cosmic mess.
“No,” she whispers, and proceeds to sob. “No.” The sobs interrupt one another, until they escalate into a full-scale panic attack. My eyes widen, and before I know it, she is all crumpled up like a piece of paper in my toned but sleeved arms.
“No, no, no,” she whimpers.
I stroke her head, half-irritated, fully gentle, trying to coo some calm into her. “What is it, darling?”
“Don’t call me that,” she mutters between sniffles. “I — I just. He wasn’t answering my texts. And they — I can’t give them what they want. I —”
“In the name of Siddhartha, my child, please just calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”
I expect to hear a biting retort of sorts, a “can you not do your fake monk thing right now,” but I only hear heaving breaths.
Exhale, inhale. They neglect to teach one this at local monasteries, I believe, but I read somewhere during my years of hermitry that in such situations, the exhale actually comes first. After one breathes out, the inhale arrives as if it had never left you. As I ponder over the common misconception, she recedes from my grasp, much like a breath slipping out of my lips. I glance up for a moment at the sky hovering over the gray railings of housing complexes, its body ablaze as it lays the sun to sleep and calls it a day. Exhale. Inhale.
“I — they,” she huffs. “They kidnapped my son.”
“Oh,” I say. “Fuck.”
“They said on the phone that they’re with the mafia. I don’t know why they would — I have nothing. B-but they said — they said they need a ransom.”
I frown. “How much?”
“Two million NTD.”
Could it be?
“T-They said they need it by next week,” she says, choking on thick air. “I don’t know how the fuck I could get that much money by then. I don’t know. Oh, god. Oh, god —”
“Honey,” I say.
“Don’t. Fucking. Call me that.”
“I have two million NTD.” Her face is blank.
I smile. I am looking Nirvana right in its purple and blue eyes, it seems.
We schedule our rendezvous at the alley of our very first encounter, when the night has long cast its shroud over the city, and the lights of a rain-washed traffic jam bleed into every corner of the alley.
A melody drifts out of the now closed secondhand bookshop. I discern it to be Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine,” and chuckle to myself, for it is perhaps the most apt accompanying track to the reunion with my plastic lady.
As Chet Baker’s voice scours my insides, I try to no avail to process all that has transpired. For a second, I entertain the possibility that I’ve given away my entire fortune for naught. And yet, it cannot be so; for the more boldly I trace the contours of goodness, the more I seem to edge toward something solid about myself. Something real.
Day two hundred and seventy is drawing to a close. So are the curtains of my show of patience, I think, but as soon as the thought brushes through me, she ducks into the alley, clasping a leather jacket over her head to shield her hair from the Taiwanese acid rain. I am surprised, but not all that much, when she launches herself straight into my arms and plants kisses all over my face. It has been years since I last felt a woman’s affectionate touch; they say abstinence is the gateway drug to Enlightenment. No — of course I’m lying.
She begins to tremble in my arms. Is it a rapture surging forth from our touch, or her gratitude pulsing through her? I dial back to the tears I watched her shed just this afternoon, more genuine than any I have ever seen, each bead a testament to her love for her son. I think of my impending, pure love for my very own posterity, perhaps a posterity that shall be reared by this very crinkling creature in my arms.
“You are most welcome, my darling,” I begin, my eyes fluttering to a close. “There is nothing I wish for beyond your happiness. Just as Confucius once said regarding the act of giving, giving to you has given me far more than you could imagine; perhaps it was more than the share I deserved.”
She laughs; a sublime appetizer to the soft clinks of Chet’s piano, which fade gently into clinker, and then a weighty silence.
“I don’t know how I could ever make this up to you,” she murmurs.
I am constructing a crude joke in my head when another song, a discreet chorus of guitars, just moments ago hushed by the pitter-patter of the summer rain, arrives upon our thresholds of hearing.
“It was a prank call,” she says as she bursts into tears. “Oh, god, I don’t know how I didn’t realize this, but on the spot, I just — I freaked out, and —”
“What” is all I manage to say.
“Y-you know those dumbass Taiwanese conmen, the ones who call you and tell you they’ve kidnapped your son, and they’re with the mafia, while your son is usually sitting right next to you doing homework, and so you play along for a few minutes and then hang up and then laugh and tell your friends about it, you know them, right?”
I remain silent. Something within me stirs, gurgling at the pit of my stomach.
She quivers as she sweeps aside a clump of mucus with the back of her hand. “I — after I made the transactions, I stopped by the apartment — and he was just there, playing fucking League of Legends, and I — I’m so sorry. I’ll pay you back in installments of twenty grand, once a month. I promise, I — ”
I laugh, I laugh, and I laugh, and the images of my years accost me, the meditation, the rippling auras of mindfulness, the beads tinkling at my chest, the ladies swooning in my arms, the words of my momentary masters sweeping me into another world, the world to which I truly belong, but only ever as a farce, an imposter, and yet, it is real, I am real, and I cannot stop laughing.
All of a sudden, I recognize the words of a despicable rock band of my youth, dancing into my ears from the half-open bookshop window. The air feels thick, dense with the Taiwanese humidity and my own sweat, and the concrete closes in on me.
“I’m not like them / But I can pretend… I think I’m dumb,” he sings.
Supernaturally Natural Deaths Haunt Citizens of S. District
Last night, near a bookshop in an S. District alley, a prostitute and a monk were found dead, lying just meters away from each other. Police are struggling to establish a connection between the two, whose identities they have not yet confirmed. According to early forensics reports, both persons, aged between 25 and 46.43 years, passed away naturally in the same hour from the grisly combination of starvation and heatstroke. The investigation has yet to uncover any evidence of foul play.
It is unclear whether the two even interacted at all, yet their lives ceased simultaneously. Authorities, in an effort to put the story together, have recovered various items from the scene: a worn-out, brown notebook, in which the monk had inscribed several quotes in English in different handwritings, as well as various names of donors for what is presumably a temple he plans on constructing; a tattered copy of Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, a meditation guide written by Western Buddhist converts, lying about three feet away from the monk; an empty coin sack tucked between the woman’s breasts; and, last but not least, a coin sack holding a mere twenty NTD in the left pocket of the monk’s garb.
Citizens of the district have generated several theories in order to rationalize the matter. One such citizen, local artist J., posits that “the two may be a fated or fatal or fated fatal duo of some sort.”
According to our sources from Cine Bon, a pitch for a documentary film inspired by the enigmatic incident has just sold to the prominent film distributor for over two million NTD. In typical exploitative fashion, the company is projected to reel in sales in the billions.
Meanwhile, our resident psychology expert F., a first-year doctoral candidate for Social Psychology at the University of T., suggests that an expectancy bias may be at play in the forensic investigation that led to such unlikely conclusions.
“Humans are subject to all kinds of cognitive biases,” he explains. “I learned this in class just yesterday. I suspect that the forensic scientists ‘found’ that [the two victims] died in the exact same minute as a result of such a bias. It is ultimately an inexorably human attempt to make sense of such a jarring image — consequently, they unknowingly project the expectation of a connection between the two and ‘find’ this connection in the times of death.” Proponents of this theory call for a re-run of forensics tests, though it remains unclear why they should care this much in the first place.
K., the man who stumbled upon the two corpses at around 4:42 P.M. last night, has another idea. “I wouldn’t think too much about it,” he says. “Life has a strange way of doing things.”
The owner of the bookshop, where the events ostensibly took place, pleads for the public to dissociate the incident from his business.
Then, she clears her throat, eyes flashing purple and blue like indelible bruises lumped over the windows to one’s soul.
And, with my demand for her name still hanging in the air, she walks away, leaving behind a trail of ashes, the burnt-out remnants of a pair of star-crossed lovers whose lives will never once cross.
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