Publisher’s Note: The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “Soliloquy” is the first of three short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her column, please see our September 12 “Letter From the Publisher.” For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
By Arya F. Jenkins
I am a bastard son of the late great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who came to this country in 1970, amassed many followers and bedded many women, among them, my dear mother. My parents never married. My mother left my father and moved with me to the Big Apple when I was still a toddler. While my mother met and married a broker named Irv and had my sister Pearl, my own father went on to become a famous teacher and big lush.
Among my father’s actual accomplishments was starting a couple of Buddhist centers, but unfortunately what I inherited of his legacy was the drinking, and his Asian eyes and large ears. In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s believed there are 112 physical signs of a Buddha or enlightened being, and, like my father, I am said to possess a few, such as elongated ear lobes and a mellifluous voice.
I’m fond of the word, mellifluous, which I learned from my friend Abbie the year I got sober in Ithaca. We were both students at the Tibetan Buddhist center there. It was in fact Abbie who inspired me to stop drinking. I remember that night very well. I was in very bad shape, not having had a drink in a day or two. I was determined to stop, but was in a state of anxiety the likes of which I had never before experienced, stumbling around the Commons, looking for someone, anyone to help me deal with my bad feelings. I stepped into a coffee shop, and there she was. I recognized Abbie right away from the Center. She was new in town, and, I thought from the first, very attractive–tall, lean, with pale blue eyes and dark, short hair. My first thought was she’s a dyke, but I didn’t ask.
“Hey,” she said, immediately upon seeing me. “Myles, right?”
“Right, right. Listen, can I sit down? Are you busy? I could use a friend.”
I was desperate you see, and right away we got to talking. I couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. My shrink had put me on new meds that were screwing me up, so it was a really bad night. Abbie said, “Stick with me. We’ll go to a meeting tomorrow.” She was a recovering alcoholic herself, attending AA, and this was all I needed to hear. Really. I just felt the cushioning of a friend right then because the people I’d been hanging with in bars just didn’t understand, and had no inclination to help me stop drinking either.
Abbie and I started hanging around together, going to meetings, walking to and from Cornell and her place. She had a studio in a very cool duplex on Willow Avenue. We were both taking pictures, film then, in the 90s, and Abbie, who was in the Graduate Creative Writing program at Cornell, also had a photographic studio at the university, which we both used.
It was a heavy year and a happy year for us both, the best and worst of times. Stopping drinking was hard for me, and Abbie was losing her mother, who was dying of some kind of cancer. We had this Buddhist existentialist thing going on, where we would hang together late nights in cafes, drinking espressos, talking about all the suicides, the Cornell law students leaping over the falls. It was like really bad. There were three or four that winter. The falls were beautiful and there was some poignant aesthetic in choosing to die like that, we felt.
Abbie said, “My brother died an alcoholic. That is also suicide.” I thought about it and I had to agree that alcoholic drinking can be a kind of suicide.
I don’t think that’s how my father intended it, or how I intended it. Rinpoche, which is what he was called-it means revered teacher–drank in order to fit into this consumer society for which consumption is everything. I think he drank initially to relate to his students, or to have them relate to him. I drank to appease my nerves. Really. Once I realized I could get through a day without scotch, I was all right, you see. I asked Abbie why she drank and she told me it was to be close to her brother. She drank to feel close to him and to remember him.
“What made you stop?”
”I just realized one day it wouldn’t bring him back. And, as you know, ultimately drinking makes everything worse.”
I couldn’t disagree with that.
Abbie helped me stay off alcohol, but, unfortunately, I got her started smoking. I have been a habitual smoker since I was 13, and have for some years rolled my own because it’s cheaper. When Abbie and I made the rounds of the all-night cafes, she liked to help me roll cigarettes. She would down two or three espressos to my five or six, and eventually we would both be smoking, sitting outdoors in the freezing cold, listening to songs by Natalie Merchant, who was newly solo, or Bjork, or Lady Day wafting out the windows of wherever we were into the pitch black night that we loved so.
I had a kind of a crush on Abbie. I would see her sometimes with this blond chick from the Center that I knew was gay, the two of them strolling hand in hand. It was kind of obvious, so there was nothing for me to do or say. But one night, when we were hanging out at Stella’s, I said, “What do you see in me? I mean, do you find me attractive or what–do you know what I mean?”
“I could say it’s all the things you are, but you remind me of my brother,” she said. “You’re a person of excess like Jake was. It was always everything or nothing with him too.”
Her brother was an adventurer who left the country during the Gulf War, fled to Patagonia where he started a new life and grew a family. I never got further from home than this, four hours from the city. I went to Paris in my 20s, like everybody who has artistic inclinations, enjoyed the architecture and history, took snapshots. I visited Tivoli once too with my sister, who had a boyfriend there. But the last thing I am is an adventurer. I am the kind of guy who will buy a hunk of cheese and a salami roll and eat these in a single sitting. That is adventure for me. Still, I let Abbie have her illusion.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons we went together to an AA meeting, then we would hang together for six or seven hours at a stretch. We were both students of the universe, living mostly off stipends from our fathers. In addition to writing poems for her degree, Abbie worked in the local bookstore and was learning to play jazz piano. She was a jazz aficionado. I never heard her play, but she would talk about Monk, Bud Powell and others who had mastered the instrument.
“I don’t know of any great jazz pianists that are women,” I made the mistake of saying once. She looked at me like I had sprouted a third eye.
“Even if there was only Marian McPartland, that would be enough.”
“Hmm,” I would say. I was always trying to analyze her. She liked it when I murmured approval because of my deep voice. She would tell me, “Myles, your voice is so mellifluous. You should sing.”
”I can’t sing.”
”But you chant.”
“Okay. Do the Padmasambhava chant for me.”
So, I chanted for her. She really liked that. I think she sent a tape of me chanting once to her mother. The energy of the syllables is supposed to help healing. Abbie’s mother was very interested in Buddhist philosophy, in everything I think that had to with Abbie, who was her only daughter.
Abbie would have stayed in Ithaca, I think, if not for the event of her mother’s passing, which drew her back into the world, so to speak. What I mean to say is, she found a world here between the Buddhist Center and her poetry studies and Jazz U, which is what she called The Bookery. She discovered a lot of what she loved jazz-wise, listening to the assorted tapes friends brought there for her to play. There was always jazz music floating among the book stacks. For a while she was like hooked on Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.”
One time, I stopped by to visit Abbie at the bookstore when we were both feeling kind of low. She was on break at the university and got the idea we should rent a limo and go see McCoy Tyner perform at Birdland in New York City. It was a preposterous idea, but she was very spontaneous, you see. I resisted at first, “Oh no. That’s too much money.” But Abbie was set on it.
“Look Myles, it’s 400 apiece. We can swing it. McCoy Tyner is Coltrane on the piano, man. We have to go.” It was winter, and I wanted to drink badly, had not received news from my step-father in some time and was feeling lonely. The prospect of hanging out for a while with Abbie struck me as pretty practical, and so we went.
We rented a limo that took us through the twilit mountains to the city. Our driver Aydin had started as a city driver and moved to Ithaca only a few years back to be with his Turkish wife’s immigrant parents. They lived with them and had two children besides. Aydin said, “In my country, they call me Effendi; here I am just Bud.” He knew the city well, and waited for us uptown while we went into 2745 Broadway at the corner of 105th Street, where Birdland was then.
At the door, a humungous character named Lennie asked to see Abbie’s ID, which at first she couldn’t provide. “I should care more about driving and about this than I do,” she said as she plucked her license from her boot, “but I don’t.” She had given her car away when she moved to Ithaca, so she rarely carried her license. I think it was more the way she looked that made Lennie detain her at the door. She had punked up her hair with this stuff called Three Flowers that might have made her seem like a freak to him. Abbie looked very much the beatnik to me in a black turtleneck and slacks, and, once we got inside, a lot of guys started ogling her.
The walls were covered with photos of jazz artists that I wanted to check out, but we were led to the bar, where we stayed. We ordered virgin cocktails, cranberry juice and ginger ale, and watched the place fill up. We hadn’t been around so many people in a while, so I focused on everything and everybody. There was a woman seated overhead with long flaming hair like my mother had before she lost it to chemo, and like Pearl has, but I couldn’t make out her face.
Pearl and I are very close. She has an apartment on the Upper West Side and studies art. When I visit the city, I stay with her and we pull all-nighters talking. She goes over lists of things to do while painting her nails and says things like: “Do you think dad looks more like Pacino in The Sea of Love or The Godfather? ” Snapshots of Irv as a young man cover one high wall.
“Definitely The Sea of Love,” I say, then we both collapse, laughing.
Tyner was with his trio, Avery Sharpe on bass and Aaron Scott on drums, and they performed some tunes from an album called Soliloquy on a narrow space set at the center of this triangle, which had great acoustics, although I felt like I was in a mausoleum. Tyner wore a neat mustache and classy white shirt, and his short, wavy, greased-down hair really shone under the lights. He was intense, smacking the keys in what seemed like an offhand way, the left hand sometimes leaping cat-like then coming down as if to chase the mouse of the right. From time to time, he would pull out a folded handkerchief to wipe perspiration from his brow. The bass player wore a maroon tie with a bass design on it that kept bouncing near the strings of his instrument as he played. These guys were very dapper and cool, the drummer with a ponytail and goatee, so graceful, he looked like he might be conducting.
Abbie fixed on Tyner the whole time, her hands sometimes playing along with him on the bar, her fingers like small, graceful soldiers. Once, she leaned over and said, “He’s such a maximalist, like Coltrane. Did you know they played together?” A lot of the tunes they played were by Coltrane.
In my memory, Birdland would be lit with blue lights and filled with smoke as it might have been when it was at Broadway and 52nd Street, the way Abbie had painted the jazz scene for me in the bebop days, bluesy and vague, raw and familiar, even though it wasn’t that way when we went. Even though I had grown up in the city, surrounded by jazz, I had never really listened to it or appreciated it until then.
Abbie and I were really close then, maybe because we had spent so many hours together, but also because I was seeing her in her element, lost in the experience of the music, closing her eyes, physically letting go in a way that was very intimate. During “Española,” an exquisite piano solo, Abbie drifted with the tune and I went with her back in time to a place I missed without ever having been there. It was Abbie’s love of the music drawing me in.
Abbie was pragmatic about religion–it was what you needed to get through life, but she was passionate about jazz. After that night, I began to think the essence of the soul like jazz itself couldn’t be measured, was without boundaries, like the self and reality, couldn’t be established either.
”What attracted you to Buddhism,” I asked her once.
“I was raised Catholic. I like the colorful rituals. I don’t know. I believe in life after death. It makes sense to me. And you?”
”I don’t know. My mother used to practice. Maybe it’s my way of staying close to her.”
We put down a lot of non-alcoholic drinks and got drunk on the music, so when we stepped out afterwards, and found the streets wet after the rain, it felt right, like we were in Paris, characters out of a movie. Aydin was whistling away, waiting for us in the limo.
The whole ride home I tried not to doze as dawn crept over the mountains. Abbie said she imagined Patagonia looked like that, with ramparts of mist and purple sky. I kept blinking, trying to stay up. Then Aydin slammed the brakes to avoid a deer and we careened forward. It was really close. He missed the deer, but the trucker to the right got him, and Abbie saw the whole thing. It really got to her.
I put my arm around her as she began sobbing, short, dry croaking sounds that cut right through me. “It’s all right, all right,” I said, “Everything dies. Maybe it will go on to a better life.”
”I know, but it’s so awful.” Then she said the most child-like thing, “Why does everything have to die?” But what could I say to that.
I believe every relationship has that moment after which everything changes and this was it. I leaned close to her, so close I could feel her breath, which was sweet and made me long more than ever for everything I had not had and could not name. I wanted to change Abbie’s feelings, take them away, the way she had mine. I suppose I meant to kiss her, although I had told myself not to try. She turned her head and I found myself staring out the window at the barely visible blur of the landscape speeding by.
”Oh Myles,” said Abbie, pressing her forehead into my chest, “I just don’t want to see it. I don’t want to be there.” It was as if what I had done or tried to do had never happened. She was closer to me physically then than she had ever been and furthest away too.
It wasn’t until that night returning to Ithaca that I realized how alone I had been. I didn’t have a girlfriend like Abbie did at the time. She was really the most important person in my life then, next to my sister, who I saw only two, maybe three times a year. It’s funny, I didn’t think to stop by Pearl’s apartment, or spend the night there when we were in the city. It never occurred to me, or to introduce Abbie to her either. I didn’t really want the two worlds, my past and present, reality and where I lived, to merge. I only wanted to return to Ithaca, which was pure then, covered in snow, an oasis of prayer and literature, poetry and jazz. Only once in a while did you hear of the tragic descent of human birds down the waterfalls, the failure of hope in what was really a never land. There were times in the winter when the snow was so deep, it was up to your knees as you climbed the hills to Cornell, and other times you walked through the Commons, just wind beside you, when you sensed in the echo of your footsteps some far away place calling, only to realize you were already there.
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