If Timothy were to cite the reason that Natalie of two years broke up with him, he’d have to go all the way back in time—before their first fight (rum-soaked run-in with ex-girlfriend, blurry night, red bra later discovered in car), before they met (Freshman English class, slammed appendage in door, six hour trip to ER, exiting hand-in-bandaged-hand)—he’d have to go much further back and farther east for context (India, approx. 500 BCE, prince rejected life of luxury, etc.). He’d have to blame the Buddha.
He didn’t realize this, of course, when he invited her to his class field trip to the Asian Art Museum. He just preferred to stare at her knotted, strawberry blonde hair flowing all the way down to her perfect, round ass than at the 200 CE painting of the Buddha sitting cross-legged under a tree. At one point, she knelt down to read the inscription on some old Chinese urn. Who needs enlightenment when you go home to that every night?
Natalie was, as Timothy’s late grandmother would have said before making the sign of the cross and pursing her lips together fearfully, a lost soul. Her life she recounted in details that failed to chronologically fit together (runaway at fifteen, joined a commune, lived off the streets, fucked for cocaine, now a Junior undergrad, etc.) He never understood how she got from there to UC Berkeley without any complications, pragmatically, financially, or academically speaking. He wouldn’t outrightly call her a liar, but listening to her anecdotes required suspended disbelief.
Timothy was a Biology major, much more comfortable in the world of dividing cells, of the things that make humans, than in the art world, where the humans make things. He hated that Art History was a requirement—he’d never say it to Natalie, but he thought art was unimportant, essentially just pretty shit on walls. Natalie was a European History major who dreamt of being an artist. When he stayed over, she would sit up naked in front of her canvas, finger painting early into the morning until he pulled her into bed. Do you get it? She’d ask. It’s about the things that make us human. It’s about our history, and our culture. Sure I do, he’d respond, and pull her on top of him, feeling her, cold and slick with paint, smudge handprints between his thighs.
A week before the museum, he was pouring himself some coffee alone in the kitchen when she stumbled out in his faux-vintage Space Invaders t-shirt and declared that she loved him. He gaped at her before offering her a cup of coffee. She took his own out of his hand wordlessly and tousled his hair before giving him a sly smile and slipping back into his room.
Timothy didn’t know how he felt about Natalie. He always had trouble differentiating between what he felt and what he thought he felt. How was he supposed to identify his emotions when he couldn’t use outside sources? He began to keep a journal to track them. When he found himself thinking about her and she wasn’t around, he’d take notes about the circumstances around aforementioned thought. (i.e.: October 23rd: 72 degrees, no fever, was watching Top Chef, 75 beat pulse). He found no correlations with any factors.
As he followed his monotone professor around the Hindu room, taking notes, (lotus spawned from mud, broken off nose/defacement = removal of power), he glanced at a sculpture of Vishnu and looked up just in time to see her dart out of the Hindu room and into the next—Buddhism.
After the lecture, he entered the Buddhism room, searching for Natalie. Various sizes of Buddhas were perched on platforms. Some were made of metals, others wood. Buddhas with earlier dates were lean and almost muscular, whereas later statues had the trademarked belly.
Natalie stood solitarily in front of a large, gold Buddha. Timothy’s scuffed-up Vans made an unforgivably high-pitched shrieking noise as he neared his transfixed girlfriend. She didn’t turn around to meet him.
“Wow,” he finally said to the back of her head, which was two inches higher than his own (something which always irked him), “three hundred BCE.”
She leaned back into him.
“Don’t you just feel so calm and peaceful right now?”
He rubbed the knobs of her shoulders, her taut alabaster skin stretched like drumheads.
“You know, we’re the only ones here,” he tipped up his head and whispered into her ear.
Natalie shook her long mane of hair. Her split ends prickled his skin like spider legs crawling up his arms.
Disappointed, Timothy released her and they went downstairs to the gift shop where she shoplifted a small golden Buddha with a tacky spray paint job.
That evening she used his laptop to download .pdfs of free Buddhist texts while he waited patiently for her to come to bed. She never did. Her furrowed brow, intense from reading, was illuminated all night long by the computer screen.
The next few weeks she began to miss class and his phone calls. She began to wander, empty-eyed through her life, labeling it as “a heightened sense of awareness”. A small altar with her stolen Buddha and some sandalwood incense she bought at a swap meet appeared in her doorless closet, atop a dresser he found on the street for her and a purple tie-dye sheet too small to use as a blanket.
The less she had anything to do with him, the more his journal would fill up.
The last time he went over to her house, they got stoned and watched the Twilight Zone on her green velveteen overstuffed couch. At the commercial break, she muted the TV and turned toward him.
“Babe, I’ve been thinking. I’ve developed an earthly attachment to you, you know? I think we need to take a break.”
Timothy turned to her, searching for some sort of signal in her eyes that she was joking. He saw nothing at all.
“What?” he repeated.
“Shh, show’s back on!”
Natalie flicked up her wrist and unmuted the show.
“We’ve seen this one a hundred times. The man breaks his glasses after the world ends. I think you’re being ridiculous.”
“I need this,” she told him, locking eyes with him briefly before turning back to the TV.
Timothy sat in silence for the remaining duration of the show, wishing he had a way of checking his temperature right then, because he could swear he was on fire. Did his pulse just speed up or was he imagining that?
At home, he lay in bed with all of his clothes on, staring at the picture he kept of her by his bed, at her cocky, crooked grin. He moved his finger to the center of her face, and pushed hard, harder, until he penetrated her.
At the end of the day, is it really this simple? Two homo sapiens run into each other, they mate (but not for life), they separate. Some man a long time ago sat down under a tree and thought he got it all figured out. Detach yourself from everything you love, even from yourself. The primordial commitment-fearing man?
Timothy lay in the dark, strangling his wrist and counting the empty thuds, hoping for the aberration in the pattern that would explain everything.
Micaela Gardner is an eighty-five-year-old woman trapped in a 21-year-old’s body. She enjoys crossword puzzles, cats and knitting.