Once I Wed a White Woman
“I’ve never dated an Asian before,” she said when we sat down, covering a breathy laugh with only three fingers. A small stretch of smile remained exposed, creeping out from behind her hand. It was our first date. I took her to my favorite sushi bar. There were three Korean men behind the bar slicing sashimi and using bamboo mats to roll rice and seaweed in the Japanese fashion. At first, I called her the girl to all my friends. The girl was tall and blonde, had that towering sort of stature that made many men uncomfortable. I probably would have been too, if I weren’t so used to being the smaller one in relationships. She asked, “So what are you again?”
I shrugged. Her eyes kept flicking away from mine to the glass wall by the entrance. I turned around once to see what was distracting her. Just pedestrians. White folks ambling to their dinners or movies or CrossFit classes after work. Little more than illusions of form and color gliding across the glass, catching her attention the way a moving dust mote does a cat. I replied, “You first.”
She straightened. Her lips pulled toward one side of her face. An eyebrow curved upward. I smiled. She hooked a wisp of her yellow hair behind an ear and chuckled. Her eyes darted down for just a moment. “Oh, a joke, huh? I get it.”
“My parents are Vietnamese.” I kept my smile up.
Later, we went two blocks down to a bar with blacklights and hip hop music. The walls wore abstract murals of fluorescent paint, all angles and diagonals that seemed, under the violet lamps, to leap angrily out to the center of the room. We stood at the bar. She drank vodka tonic with a lime wedge. I drank bourbon with three ice cubes. She was tall enough that I had to look up to her. She asked, “Do you dance?”
I answered, “I have no sense of rhythm.”
“Don’t you play an instrument? Piano?”
I couldn’t remember if I had told her that or not. I laughed and nodded. “Yeah. Not piano though. Just guitar.”
“Oh really? What kind of music do you play? I love acoustic guitar. It’s one of the most beautiful instruments, don’t you think?”
I nodded again. I said, “I play in a local death metal band.”
“A what band?” She showed me her ear. My eyes fell to her cleavage for a moment when she looked away. I dragged my attention up her chest, over the crest of her collarbone, along the slope of her neck, and then to her small ear. It wasn’t pierced. I liked that. I had an urge then to bite the lobe, to tongue along the canal.
“Death metal,” I said louder.
When she faced me again, she squinted at first. And then she made quarters of her eyes. She said, “Oh.” She bit her lower lip. She sipped her vodka tonic.
“And jazz,” I added.
Now she beamed. She touched my arm, exclaiming excitedly, “Really? Who do you like? Holiday? Or do you prefer more classic stuff? Fitzgerald and Armstrong?” Her fingers were cold, moistened from the cold glass of her drink. It was crowded and though we stood close, she leaned in closer still, like she couldn’t risk my response getting lost in the noise surrounding us. Where her body didn’t press against my skin, her heat did. I could see now that my eyes came to her nose. When she exhaled, her breath carried the taste of her lips to my own.
I didn’t have a good answer for her. She’d only named singers and I believed real jazz had no room for singers. Words were obstructions; music was to be heard, not listened to.
I took her wrist and pulled her onto the dance floor. She moved well with the music, her hips popping or pivoting at each beat. I could always time my wrist to a drum, but never my hips. Different kinds of rhythm. Different kinds of movement. I moved like a crab next to her, awkward and off-time. She laughed at me. She called me cute when I blushed.
Later, I took her home. We walked up the stairs to her fourth floor apartment. Her door was painted the color of creamed coffee. She turned the knob and then her body twisted to face me again, her shoulder blades pressing against the door, opening it with her weight. She clasped her hands around my wrists and pulled me in with her. She didn’t expect how easily I would be led by her, and so we fell against a wall. A large down coat dropped from its hook over her right shoulder. It curtained her head and shoulders. I swam through the fabric to find her face again, led by her giggling. We kissed. She tasted faintly of lime. She smelled of mint. She kicked the door closed.
When I first moved into my apartment, I framed a poem that the Buddha recites at the end of The Diamond Sutra and hung it up on the wall over my bed. I chose birch for the frame. The grain was mostly an amber color, striped with black.
There is a copy of the sutra that is considered the oldest printed book known to history, pre-dating the Gutenberg Bible by nearly six hundred years. The text appears on silk scrolls using thick sheets of engraved birch bark to press the script. In it, the Buddha encourages his disciple Subhuti not to cling to concepts, but to accept the nature of reality as change itself. Suffering is the delusion that things can remain as they are.
The poem reads:
All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them.
Three months later, the girl had become the girlfriend. It was May. She met my family at a Mother’s Day dinner. “Isn’t it weird to always do family dinners at a Chinese buffet?” she asked in the car.
I shrugged. “My dad won’t eat white food.”
“There’s a white food?”
“American food,” I corrected myself.
“Does he eat anything that isn’t Asian?” she asked.
I had just pulled into a parking spot in the strip mall. I was staring at the bright red letters above the door that read PETER PAN BUFFET. I asked, “Does Indian food count?”
“No. That’s still Asian.”
“Yeah, well, I mean, technically.” She laughed at me and slapped my arm. “Okay, no, he doesn’t. I mean, he will, but he doesn’t like to.”
Stepping inside the restaurant, everything became red and gold. There was a hint of ginseng in each breath. The clatter of carving knives came spitting toward us from the far end of the room. The cooks were sharpening their tools; they were slicing roasts from behind a glass sneeze-guard and a curtain of hissing steam. My family sat at a large circular table for six: my parents, my brother and his also-white girlfriend were already seated. Their plates were empty.
“Sorry we’re late,” I said.
No one spoke. My brother shrugged, his lips a left-leaning line. I pulled a seat back for the girlfriend. She sat. The others stood and departed the table. The girlfriend looked at me, her mouth open, astonished. I answered, “They’re getting food.” She still looked confused. I explained, “We don’t really talk to each other. Not much.”
I started for the plates. When the girlfriend appeared behind me, I handed her one. She said, “You just walked away from me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you want us to sit until they came back to fill our plates?”
“No, I mean, you didn’t say anything.”
“I don’t get it.”
She sighed and shook her head and then walked around me to the row of stainless steel trays and shoveled a mound of fried noodles onto her plate. I thought she was upset, but when she picked up a prawn that had been cooked straight, she pointed it out to me with a smile. It lay limp on her dish beside the wet brown tangle of noodles. “Kinda creepy, huh?” She placed a curled prawn beside it.
I nodded. I said, “The straight one seems more dead.”
Everyone was already seated and eating when we returned to the table. My mother asked, “So how is everything?”
And I answered, “Okay, I think.”
We talked briefly about nothing. My brother and I then engaged in a conversation about recent video games. I paid the bill. The girlfriend and I stood and waved our goodbyes. She asked quietly, “Why did you pay the bill for the whole family?”
I whispered, “I’m the eldest son. That’s how it works.”
When we were back in the car, the girlfriend stared at me. I asked, “What?” I turned the ignition. The engine coughed into a start.
She asked, “You don’t hug your mother goodbye?” Her eyes looked wet.
I answered, “I don’t hug my mother at all.”
It is said in Buddhism that all phenomena arise from causes and conditions. This is the doctrine of interdependent origination. It is said that because the concept of “self” can only be defined through its relationships to other objects or persons—a person can be defined as a mother or son, friend or foe, bourgeois or proletariat, woman or man, etc.—that the self therefore can only exist as a construction of convenience. It is a delusion. We only exist through our relationships. We are nothing more than a web of interlocking phenomena enduring the same causal process of change. Loneliness is just a consequence of ego; it is the delusion of independence.
A year passed. The girlfriend moved into my apartment. We had been living together for a single spring, and were a month into the summer. We took down my altar to Gautama Buddha and moved it into a corner of the bedroom. We put up framed pictures of ourselves. We took down the ribbons of red silk scarves, which wore swastikas stitched in gold thread, from my walls; we replaced them with works of art that meant nothing but looked pretty. I had known for years that I had to eventually take them down, but it still bothered me. Westerners couldn’t look at a swastika without a sense of shame, and so I was supposed to feel this shame too. Shame for my own faith.
Now I came home to my culture in a corner. And change kept coming. The next month, the girlfriend said she wanted a new bed. “That’s ridiculous. We have a king,” I said.
“You have a platform bed,” she said.
“It’s too low to the ground.”
“I like low to the ground.”
“I don’t,” she said. “It makes me feel uncomfortable. Like someone could come in and walk all over me.”
“Okay, okay, maybe I get it. It’s a white thing, right? The high chairs thing. The high bed thing.” I tried to flash a smile. I shrugged my shoulders with a peaceful smirk. “And this is an Asian thing, right? I’m short and all. Like an oompa-loompa.”
She appeared in the doorway, grinning. “Not everything’s about race, asshole. I just like feeling like I’m floating on my mattress. Sleeping near the ground is a little depressing, isn’t it?”
I paused. I told her, “You have a good point.” She had strange ways of showing her affection, but she was often right. There was something dark about descending into your own sheets, each night literally putting yourself down. I admitted, “Maybe it could help my mood.” She nodded slowly, and then crossed over to me. She threaded her arms beneath mine, embraced me softly. I kissed her left temple. I thanked her for releasing me from my own dogmas, but I didn’t know if I believed myself.
One of the Buddha’s titles is also a description of reality itself: Tathagata, thus come, thus gone. When we meditate on the nature of this name, we are told to contemplate that all objects we hold in our minds have already gone, that we hold onto empty vessels, deluding ourselves into believing in their substance, in their permanence.
We count twenty-eight Tathagatas who arose, abided, and passed into extinction. Neither the Buddhas nor their dharma can endure. All that arises ceases.
Every moment is always an ending.
The fiancée loved to travel. She said she wanted to experience other cultures, to gain worldly perspective. She had to leave home to understand and so did I, even if she needed an airport and I needed a driveway. We went to Thailand. We had different concepts of culture. She wanted to bike from city to city and I wanted to visit monasteries. She wanted to experience how the Thai enjoyed dance clubs and I wanted to meet the Thai Forest monks who had achieved arhantship—nirvana, the cessation of birth. She said, “I don’t believe in enlightenment.” I wondered how anyone could go through life without believing—or at least hoping—for a reprieve from consciousness. But then I remembered that only atheists, Buddhists and Confucians believe in liberation and I felt a pang of empathy for the rest of the world, for everyone who wanted to keep living, to endure suffering for eternity.
The fiancée and I chose instead to compromise: we visited an animal sanctuary. The entrance was a short bamboo fence that rose to the middle of my belly. I couldn’t believe how the elephants behind it were contained. They could have smashed down the wall with flicks of their trunks if they wanted to. I wondered if they knew they were caged. I wondered if they cared. The fences would break down eventually anyway.
We sat on a young elephant named Khunying. She was peacefully pulling chunks of a split melon into her mouth with her trunk. In the distance, beyond another fence, was a platoon of adult elephants standing in a circle, all facing each other. We watched; minutes passed. Every so often, we could see their trunks stretching skyward and then falling again. Occasionally, one or two elephants would retreat from the circle and walk around, picking up sticks and branches. They’d drop their sticks on the ground over other sticks and then pick up the whole bundle, wrapping it up in their trunks. When their bundles became sizeable, they returned to the circle, squeezed themselves between two behemoth bodies. The clatter of falling sticks came to us as a cascade of quiet clicks. The fiancée said, “I wonder what they’re doing.”
“Sort of looks like they’re building a campfire,” I said.
“Funeral,” said Khunying’s handler who stood to our right. He had a palm on the elephant’s side and beside my leg in case she decided she wanted to throw us off or something. He was a thin man, brown-skinned, and was dressed in a blue jumpsuit. He gave us a snaggle-toothed smile. “Bury friend.”
“Funeral,” I repeated with a nod. I looked back at the creatures. I squinted. I could see between their legs; I could see the mound of mud and branches and leaves at their center, a coffin of the earth itself.
We call the cycle of births samsara. The Tathagata described all things as cycles. The universe repeats cycles of expansion and collapse. Not even the dharma endures. It too dies and is reborn as something different.
The girlfriend has been reborn six times. She is always someone new. Once, the girlfriend was unfaithful. Once, the girlfriend was cheated on. Once, the girlfriend was born as the fiancée. Once, the girlfriend became the wife, and she passed into extinction.
Four months after Thailand, we were married in her hometown where her parents had wed. She’d wanted a traditional ceremony in a church. I mentioned early on, “Neither of us are Christian.”
She said, “I just want a normal wedding.”
The church was a small building with white walls. From the gutters at the edge of the roof hung ribbons of rust that settled into the paint, staining it in oranges and browns and ambers. The paint had cracked and formed fissures at the corners of all the door and window frames. I thought about the space between the cracks, how a house of God wore rivers of absence.
The pews inside were glossed in a chocolate finish. There were kaleidoscopes for windowpanes that cast color over our clothes and our skin. A man in a black robe talked to us about togetherness and God and eternity. I stopped listening.
In her vow, she promised to love me unconditionally.
In mine, I didn’t.
I heard a monk once say that Buddhists could not honestly believe in marriage. “Love cannot last forever,” he said. “Nothing can.”
I was a college student then. I was a young man. I was angry at him. I asked, “So why do we marry?”
He said, “Don’t misunderstand. Love is a gift we are not meant to keep.”
He said, “Marriage is the delusion we can keep love forever.”
He said, “No one can promise forever. People change into other people. You were a boy. Now you are a man. Next you will be an old man. You are never the same person. You can be a man one moment and a woman another. You cannot promise to love someone forever. You can only promise to cherish love as it lasts.”
He said, “Divorce. Now, divorce, Buddhists can get behind.” He laughed and when he laughed his face folded at the cheeks and braced the sides of his up-curved mouth, like his lips were a parenthetical note for his argument.
Once, when she was the wife, I convinced her to go on a meditation retreat with me. We drove for seven hours. The road went from asphalt to gravel and back again. Then the road became dirt and the buildings around us became trees and the emptiness before us became a monastery that was a small cabin.
Inside, we knelt on pillows in a large room, painted red like berries, where the walls wore golden ornaments—octagon charms called mandalas, or else swastikas. We listened to monks in brown robes chant in a foreign language. Before us was a Buddha, legs braided together beneath his robes. He sat on a throne that was a bowl formed from giant lotus petals. He was the color of light itself; an empty smile pulled up the ends of his lips. His eyes were frozen open. From the ground, thin ribbons of smoke stretched up and faded below his golden gleaming chin. When the chanting ceased, silence came. The kneeling worshippers all fell forward; we pressed our foreheads to the ground. The carpet smelled of ginseng. Spilled tea, I thought.
We sat in the stillness for an hour. When the wife started snoring, I nudged her awake.
Later, we walked in the woods. Chirping birds peppered the air. The wife and I diverged from the group and found a place where a razor blade of sunlight sliced through the tree branches. We sat facing each other. She was sluggish getting to the ground. She looked partway in a dream. There was darkness under her eyes and crow’s feet crackling out from the corners. “This is the most boring thing in the world,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
“You just have to focus,” I told her. “Focus on this moment. Right now. Don’t let your mind carry you away from here. Don’t think about home. Don’t think about work. Or the future. Or the past.” I reached out. I took her hands. I pulled them into my lap. “Focus on this moment,” I said again.
“I can’t,” she said. “I try and it just isn’t there. There isn’t anything to focus on.” Her eyes welled with water; sunlight broke against the surface of her tears.
“Exactly,” I said. She looked at me. “It isn’t there,” I repeated. When she pulled her hands from my lap, I thought for a moment that she understood. But she didn’t speak again. She was there in the moment—the moment I spoke of—and she kept on looking at me as if there was something there to see, as if I weren’t already gone.
AN TRAN’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle Magazine, theCarolina Quarterly, and the Good Men Project, among others. He has received a “Notable” distinction from the Best American series, as well as nomination for the Pushcart Prize. He is an Associate Editor for Big Lucks and pursued his MFA at Queens University of Charlotte.