“…he’s just a drunk poet, floating through life, totally enlightened.”
Oliver Ahmed’s brown ears, faded by the fog of winter, perked up at this, the rosiest corpuscles of his upper cartilage obeying normative physics – heat rising and rising. The wooden bar looked like the bow of a ship, the oak bending where his chest rested. He had just finished a professional drag of a Belgian blonde – the kind of sip that leaves an unarmed beer sweating along the entire upper half of its glass fortress. As far as intermissions between double vodka sodas went, this random draft was first class. In the brief space between the warmth of his buzz and the dark cloud of despondency it was encapsulating, lay this intriguing, off-the-wagon loophole of Taoist spirituality.
“Those dudes are crazy though,” she said to him, but really to no one.
If the smallest sip could somehow be measured – not by the volume of liquid that departed the ice-filled, short cocktail glass – but rather, by tracing the film of liquid to cover a tongue, then surely it was impossible that Emily had spent the last hour drinking more than one drink. The tab, eight deep, defied reality.
She brushed an oily, platinum blonde streak of hair away, revealing another portion of her flushed, pale forehead and continued, “…people find spiritual peace anywhere, Ollie, if they are attentive enough. Everywhere.”
Another Guinness-World-Record tiny sip.
“Obviously I don’t have to explain this to you, but when I wrote my thesis at Brown, I realized that Islam is actually the most meditative religion. It’s built on modesty and respect. It’s the only religion where Eve isn’t blamed for biting the forbidden fruit, y’know? It’s odd to me that Islamic countries are so sexist because the Koran couldn’t be more empowering. In fact, Muhammed had saved Khadija along with…”
Jesus H. Christ, Ollie thought. His ears dulled now, and he nearly laughed at immodesty that he and Emily had shared the night before. Surely that didn’t align with the empowerment written in a book of rules that he had never read. And why read it anyway? Faced with an expertly-crafted ham-based hoagie years ago, his father had said as long as the feast was credited in the name of Allah, it didn’t matter if the meat itself broke arbitrary boundaries. Drunk enough so that thoughts came with linearity, he remembered the god-forsaken dose of benzodiazepines Emily was prescribed for anxiety. He wondered how that colored her perspective on spiritual peace.
“There are only two ways to reach peace – running or drinking. Both are earned keys that unlock a spiritual door. You have to pace yourself so that your mind can transcend. Sips, slugs, steps, and strides. Once you open the door, you enter a timeless dimension. The lack of time is chaotic and unruly, but it also negates all of your stress into nothingness. Or it magnifies it into infinitude. Those are the same thing, by the way, unless you decidedly act on the latter,” Ollie retorted. Well, that’s what he would have said if he had the energy tonight. Tomorrow was a big day. He was almost pleased that Emily sent him home after an empty session of moist kisses in the lobby of her apartment complex, locking him out from a different, more important door. Almost pleased.
Despite the late hour, it made sense to Ollie to lay out his clothes for tomorrow: black slacks, a black crew neck Topman sweater, gray suede Chelsea boots (because he had no black ones), and a 20-something karat gold necklace. He decided he wouldn’t shave his beard, even though the hair was coarse like wire and congregated in tufts that he unconsciously fingered while he read his brother’s tattered books. The necklace and the beard were so stereotypically southeast Asian – he knew his brother Ray wouldn’t be able to contain his laughter. Maybe Ray would tousle his pomade-coiffed hair and call him Dr. Ollie, the ‘crappiest’ gastroenterologist of all time. Sensitive Ollie spent his entire young life with a tear in his eye, a lump in his throat, and an electric shock down his back whenever he thought about the future. It happened as an adult now too, but only within the confines of a high or alongside the eternity of a hangover.
“Oliver, things never stay the same. May Allah help you find the way. A big change is coming your way and you will change too. Love you.”
Ollie realized he hadn’t looked at his phone all night, his eyes oscillating between Emily’s eyes, Emily’s thighs, and more prominently, the glass that was in his hand. This was the final Friday night text waiting for him. It was from his mom and from a few hours before. Certainly, it was sent before she laid down in her bed, which was in the second guest room on the opposite side of the house of Ollie’s dad’s. It was a Jack and Jill to the first guest room where Ollie was laying out his ridiculous uniform. Even though the only slice of light from her room was the faint glow of a night light, Ollie knew she was still awake, praying, crying, praying, and crying.
To the bank first to deposit a few checks. To the post office next, right when it opened, to send this month’s bills. To the dry cleaners for the week of work ahead – the only one that took scrubs. To Java Coffeehouse for the bitterest, heaviest pour-over that only a chain-smoker could endure. To Kroger to replenish a travel-sized mouthwash.
The Saturday morning checklist that existed for Ollie’s dad as long as he could remember included two detours, only for today: the florist and a Chinese bakery that did Ray’s favorite fresh strawberry cake – vanilla in the middle and white icing all-around. On his birthdays, Ray would swipe the icing on the base with a spoon while their dad fumbled around with the camera and give Ollie the first few tastes. Intensely sweet was the gesture and the cake, but Ollie knew he’d pay for it later with a cheek covered in icing and a maniacal laugh from his older brother.
“Oliver, what do you even need to go out for? There’s no time today. Whatever you need your khala* can get it and bring it. Seriously you cannot be late. Not for me, your father, or for Ray. It’s already nine AM. You don’t know the Arabic so the raka’ah will take much longer. We need to do all the surahs in English today for you. This isn’t just like Eid where you can pretend to pray and copy your father’s movements.”
Instead of lambasting his mother with the defensive, empty anger he felt when she gave him this lecture, Ollie reassured her that he would be back after running just one errand. Dad was running five, he reminded her. Dad had a two-hour head start, she reminded him. Whatever, there’s only one way I survive this day, Ollie spat to himself as he smoothly steered the wheel of his blue Audi A8. He resented how this nice car, gifted to him at 18, stuck out like a sore thumb in the context of his life.
Each red light blended into the bloodied corners of Ollie’s memory. He thought of the yellowy pages of the books Ray had given him and the watery black ink in the margins. There was a total of five roads to the liquor store from Ollie’s house. At each turn, he thought of each book:
No Mud No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
Mindset, Carol Dweck
Constructive Living, David Reynolds
“Ray had it figured out,” Ollie said this to himself out loud.
Growing as an outsider to the culture, he felt his mother used Islam strategically, drawing freehand lines in the sand, setting boundaries wherever most convenient. Instead of driving her inward to face her pain, it let her justify inaction. That was the part of organized, monotheistic religion that Ollie despised. There was no enlightenment in a symbolic necklace or in marrying a person who read the same Book. Ray said that answers came by stripping your ego away from your mind, observing your suffering not with the lens of your ‘self’, but with no lens at all. Religion and its rituals, he believed, acted as a vehicle for such introspection.
Suddenly, a lightning bolt of craving shot from behind Ollie’s right eye and travelled to a part of his brain he couldn’t tangibly describe. As it dispersed and sunk into his subconscious, he felt hot air in his mouth, sick with shame for judging the one woman who loved him unconditionally. Ray never did that.
Three times Ollie failed to correctly enter the 12-digit code on the electronic keypad in front of him. The modern locking device was nothing like the four sets of creaky, windy stairs and moldy gray walls that led to his brother’s apartment.
Ollie was distracted.
He was thinking about a documentary that outlined an aquarium’s mistreatment of orca whales. There was a scene showing a mother orca in obvious distress. For the viewer, the sound engineer quieted the sonar cacophony that even water could not dull. Apparently, this mother was providing her captors with a scientific breakthrough: the ‘loudest’ and farthest-reaching echolocation clicks ever recorded in the species. Pain had provided her the strength to call out to the opposite end of the universe. She was searching for the daughter that had been permanently stolen from her.
Ollie stopped trying to unlock the door. He had heard that desperate scream from his own mother four days ago when she found out Ray committed suicide. Unlike the movies, there was no policeman with his hat in his hand – and his heart in that hat – delivering the bad news. Instead, there was a phone call to the landline that Ollie’s father awkwardly decided to answer. There was only, “Are you sure?” and “Okay,” from the stoic 70-year-old. Minutes before, Ollie’s mother had decided to pray for the first time in weeks, urged by a soft secret in the air. His father interrupted her, which he rarely did, and touched her, which he never did. Ollie didn’t hear his father say a word, but the scream began, and it reached and reached and reached.
“C’mon OhhLiiiWer, buck up, bay-tah**. That poor orca’s got nothing on Mom. She woulda blown that whale RIGHT outta the water.”
Ollie smiled through the tears streaming down his face, the tears that were dripping and staining the suede on his boots. Ray may have been a reader and critical thinker, but first and foremost he was a dark comic with a love for terrible wordplay and a ridiculous Indian accent. Even though Ray would never be on the other side of that door, Ollie had him forever.
Still, it made no sense. Ollie lied and told his parents he would pick up more food for the service on the way home. He was searching Ray’s apartment for one small piece of evidence, just a morsel of an inkling, to explain what happened. Everything was going so well. Ray had not just beaten his depression, but championed it, mastering the waves and the storms of his mind like an expert sailor.
Ray’s rooms were clean so his mind must have been clear. What was strewn about – ink pens, backup eyeglasses, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, two moleskine notebooks, a Firestick remote – they all glowed with his warmth, were all left askew by his smile. Sure, it was evident Ray drank a lot. There were two handles of Jameson (one empty, one half-full), a cutting board with a knife and limes, a short glass oiled with fingerprints, and a small unmarked bottle of simple syrup. This meant he was making sours, which he did when he was at peace, just like those drunk poets. When he was sad, he took shots.
The most curious thing to Ollie was the content of Ray’s refrigerator. Besides the bottles of Coors Light, which you were supposed to drink with whiskey, there were only two other items: a fresh pint of strawberries and a brand-new half-gallon bottle of whole milk. Both had expiration dates that flew deep into the eternal abyss of next week. Why would anyone buy anything set to expire after themselves? This was one of the many paradoxes the mind could accept: you could plan to kill yourself and plan to eat fresh fruit, but if they were meant for the same day, you could only act on one of those plans. Ollie decided to give up.
He lined up three shots of whiskey. They call it ‘brown’ but it looked yellow compared to Ollie’s tanned fingers. Between big breaths he did the necessary polishing. He grabbed a Coors Light, pausing to look at the strawberries and milk one more time. He shook his head and laid down on the couch.
For the first time in his life, he had to entertain an idea that he avoided at all costs: perhaps Ray didn’t have it all figured out. Ray was charming and articulate and smart, but there were questions he couldn’t answer.
Maybe we all give up on answering in order to survive or give up surviving in order to answer, Ollie thought.
His eyes were closed. He didn’t need sight to take another sip. Ray would have kissed Ollie on the cheek, right in the patchy bald-spot of his beard, for thinking of an adage like that.
God was the one who stopped the screaming. It wasn’t Ollie or Ollie’s father. It was God. Somewhere inside his mother’s rocking back and forth, between her fingers flipping sacred pages right to left, beneath the light material of her hijab, God whispered the truths that comforted her: You are loved. Have faith. Ray will rest. She hummed and He hummed and they spoke without words. And when they laid her stolen son down beneath the earth, she had no more need to scream.
Ollie left his eyes closed while the tears dried, promising to himself that he would try something different. Maybe he would take his mother up on the practice that had given her peace. It was worth a shot.
Not today, though. For now, he drifted off to sleep, gently dropping the only religion he knew – the only religion he and his brother shared – onto the hardwood floor.
*Khala = aunt.
**Beta = son/brother/term of endearment