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The Number

“What it is, is that I want to have sex with you. I think it would be really good for me to have sex with you.”

Illustration by Malin Bergström

In the morning they went walking through the lobby, toward the arcade that ran under the hotel. Daniel was rereading the last texts he wrote The Number. They were stupid. He switched off his phone. They got onto an escalator going down, and Daniel’s father said, “I had a dream last night.

“There was a court case. A Chinese man was accused, and his defense team kept messing up. His lawyer showed up at a deposition wearing a sweatshirt.”

Daniel said, “That French place looks OK,” and pointed.

“I had the Chinese guy’s email address, so I was writing him in jail. You emailed him too, but then we realized we didn’t have his real email address, we’d just been making guesses.”

They had gone into a café. It was one like you’d find in America, and Daniel was looking at rows of salads in an open refrigerator case.

“What are you going to eat?” he asked.

“I am going to eat…” his father tried to guess what would be right.

“What about salad?” Daniel said. “I think I’ll have that.”

“I am going to have… bread! And chai.”

Soon they would be at the monastery, and Daniel knew he should enjoy any available luxuries while he could. The last time he had texted The Number, she had asked him, “What will you do in India?” “I don’t know,” he said. 

They had two rooms at a monastery in a small village in the north. They took a car there. The driver was handsome and contained. They set out after dark. Just as they reached the edges of the city, Daniel’s father turned and said, “I’m going to be sick.” They drove all night, into the morning, stopping at small places for Daniel’s father to shit and barf. When the sun rose, the driver had a different face. He looked like an animal. Later he stopped the car abruptly on a winding freeway and said, “Eagle.” It stood in the road with its wings folded. Its claws on the asphalt looked strange. 

They were lost. The driver stopped the car again and said, “If you get out, you can get a cab.” Daniel’s father got out of the car and went back to get their suitcases from the trunk. Daniel said, “Get in the car, Dad.” Daniel’s father closed the trunk and got back in the car. The cab driver gave Daniel a dirty look. They started again. A terrifying dog ran after the car, leaped up, and nearly bit his father in the arm. “This place is dangerous,” he said. 

At last they arrived, and now Daniel was in bed. It was close to lunch. He was listening to a song about love and looking out his window at the temple, with its gold roof, the Himalayas behind it, and enormous birds circling. A gong rang, and he took off the bandana he had tied around his neck and let himself out of his room. He met his father on the walkway, and they went downstairs. 

People were eating outdoors under an expensive-looking tarp.

“Do we sit with these people?” Daniel’s father said.

“We can do whatever we want.”

They sat across from a couple in their 60s. Nobody introduced themselves. The table filled up. One of the old ladies took an interest in Daniel’s father. She had short gray hair and wore a blue Patagonia vest. She had extremely bad table manners, and it was unpleasant to watch her eat. She ate like a little rat. 

“What brings you to India?” she asked. 

“Surgery,” Daniel’s father said. “I’m here to get my teeth done.”

The woman was eating greasy chopped cauliflower with both hands. 

“I was going to get implants in the US, but it costs $65,000.” Daniel knew what was coming next. His father liked to describe intimate details of their financial distress to strangers. “I have that money in a trust that will go to Daniel. One of the stipulations of the trust is that it can be spent on health care or education for myself. I picked the teeth because they turned me down at Berkeley.” He waited for the woman to laugh. Her hands were now in her lentils. “Daniel encouraged me to go ahead and get the surgery in the US, but doing it in India costs $55,000 less.” Daniel’s father continued with the details of the surgery and its costs: “Plus, I get the free trip.” 

There was a long silence. The old woman cleared her throat, stuck her fingers in her water glass, and wiped her face. “What is the nature of the procedure?” she said.

Daniel said, “Dad, don’t.”

His father said, “They cut open my gums, and then they implant a spiked pole.”

He lifted his upper lip with his fingers. 

“See that? They sew that back up. I wait for the flap of my gum to heal around the bar. I wait six months. When the scar tissue heals, they snip tiny holes in the gums and screw the implants onto the poles.”

“They screw them?” 

“Or maybe they poke them. I’m not sure.”

A woman sat across from Daniel, beside his father. She was in her 50s and skinny, with cheekbones and shoulder-length gray hair. She had it ironed flat, so it made those lines like a 70s movie star. 

The old lady turned to Daniel and said, “Did you meet Chris?” 

“No.”

“We met,” Chris gave Daniel a shy look. She held his eyes a very long time until he looked away, and Daniel said, “If we did meet, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“He wasn’t paying attention.”

She looked at Daniel’s father.

“When did we meet?” Daniel asked.

“Earlier. We waved. I was on the opposite balcony. I liked your bandana.”

She had on one of those shirts, the silk kind, with a loose collar. It closed just over her breastbone, which was freckled. Below her collarbone was a tiny-linked golden chain, so light it got caught on her chest in different swirly shapes.

Daniel’s father said, “Do you live at the monastery year-round?” 

“Yes,” she said. “Actually, I’m taking a house next week.”

She talked about how it’s tricky to get a house in India, due to whatever laws, but Daniel wasn’t listening. When she stopped talking, he said, “I saw you. You were watering your flowers. But I thought you thought I was staring. And I thought it was weird that I already knew your name.”

“Oh no, I didn’t think anything like that. I shouldn’t be out there half-naked anyway. And I already know about you.”

“What did they tell you?” Daniel asked as though he had a lot to hide, but she did not understand the joke, or if she did, she ignored it. She said, “I heard that you’re a journalist, and that you had a visa problem, but there’s probably a lot more to learn about you.”

Daniel said, “I do have a visa problem.”

“They only gave him a three-month visa,” his father said. 

Daniel’s father took over the conversation. He began an elaborate self-portrait, painting himself as a longtime student of Buddhism, one of unusually high status back in America. He mentioned that he’d run the dharma study group in Houston. “Of course all this was 30 years ago. That’s when I was attending His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He gave me this amulet.” He pulled a gao from beneath his shirt. It was the one Daniel had given him in December. 

Chris waited until Daniel’s father had finished his story. Then she told them about a factory down the hill where you could buy meditation cushions. She started to describe where it was, and then said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll just walk you down there.”

“Please.” Daniel’s dad was giddy, and Daniel was sorry about that, because he already understood. He had even understood it waving to her on the ledge. He told Chris and his father to leave their dishes, he’d wash them. When he had done that, he walked back to the lower landing of the monastery and sat on the steps.

A few hours later, his father came up the path and gave him a half-moon cushion. 

“What’s this?” Daniel asked.

“Chris picked it for you.”

“What?” 

“Well, I say that. Maybe it was just…” he shook his head.

“Just what?”

“Maybe she was just telling me to…” he shook his head, then sat and lowered it into his palms.

“What?”

“I’m sorry,” he turned and faced Daniel. “While we were at the factory, I was looking at the cushion. Chris said, ‘That’d be a good one for your son, because he has a small ass.’ I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but that’s what she said.” 

His father shook his head. They sat a while. Chris came out of the office toward them. She had to pass between them to go up the stairs, and she took a loud breath like she’d been hit by something. She said, “Are you thinking about sex?”

“Always,” Daniel’s father barked. He elbowed Daniel in the ribs.

She walked between them, up the stairs, and to her room. His father leaned back on his hands and tilted his face to the sun. Daniel bent over his cushion. In the habit of telling The Number his thoughts, he had already begun to narrate for her his feelings about the woman, Chris.

The email began, “I’m in Bir.” 

T

he following morning, Daniel and his father checked their email accounts. The Number had sent Daniel two new promotional photographs of herself, in which she wore new glasses and had sweatbands on her wrists. She asked him for his opinion. 

“Sweatbands,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” his dad asked.

“Oh, nothing. Just this home bullshit. Nothing.” 

His father grunted and went back to reading about a stereo shop in Mumbai. “This shop here I found. You won’t believe the prices on these subwoofers. If we imported them we’d make a killing. These are some high-quality subwoofers.” On the radio, a man was singing a romantic song in Hindi, set to synthesized drums playing complicated beats.

“I like this music,” Daniel’s father said. “Is this syncopated?”

“The thing is,” Daniel blurted out, “why is she wearing sweatbands?”

“What?”

“Do you like my new glasses?” Daniel reread the line. “Do you like my new glasses?” What is this shit, Daniel wondered. And then he typed, “Yes.”

At lunch, a tanned Californian woman in a newly purchased Tibetan chupa and several flashy malas around her neck spoke about her private audience with the Sakyong.

“He had us take a vow. One person in the audience stood up and said, ‘I really love wine. Do I have to give that up?’ And he said, ‘Can you only have one glass?’ and the man said he could, and the Sakyong said, ‘Just don’t get drunk.’”

The woman beamed. The others at the table told stories of meetings with gurus that suggested alternate views on wine. Then Chris joined them.

Daniel watched her. He noticed the stretch of skin from her elbow to her wrist. It was covered in violent eczema. Chris took the forearm in her hand and said, “This comes out when I’m worried.”

“Why are you worried?”

She met Daniel’s eyes. 

“I was afraid.” She let the words hang. “I’d come here before, but never for good. This time, it’s for good, and that generated a lot of hopes and fears.”

She shrugged. 

Daniel leaned back in his chair and called up the photographs of The Number in her sweatbands. Then his father began to explain about slicing open his gums and the spiked bar. 

“What’s wrong?” Chris said.

“What? Oh. It’s these—I got these emails. It’s just some drama. Some home drama.”

And he didn’t know why, but Chris laughed. 

C

hris had the door open, and Daniel began without any strategy. He walked in and said, “I’m very upset.”

She looked up from her bed, “Daniel.”

“Can I sit down?”

He sat on her bed. She said, “Oh dear.”

She stood and closed the door to her room. 

Then Daniel told Chris about the past three years of his life, and how he had fallen in love with a woman, and now he kept this phone with him, that he had left his job and he was confused and, “What it is, is that I want to have sex with you. I think it would be really good for me to have sex with you. Because, I never had—I never end up actually having sex with people—and I think—obviously, I’m not a virgin. I have sex. I have sex, you know, with women I meet at bars. I mean, I’m not going to marry you, or I’m not an asshole. I think if you were my age, I’d end up thinking like that.” 

Chris handed him a tissue. He wiped his eyes and talked. He said too much, and he turned to look at her. 

“How am I supposed to respond to that?” she asked.

“I really don’t know.”

Out the window a dog barked on the lawn. She started to make a comment about the dog, but stopped. She said, “Well, I’m attracted to you. For sure.”

Daniel smiled.

“It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.”

She explained her situation. Her husband had died one year before and she had been celibate since. She said, “While I’ve thought of how pleasurable it might be to have sex with you, my first good thought is of you, and whether or not it would be in your best interest. I’m considerably older than you. I am also a bit crazy right now, even though you don’t know it.”

“It’s in my interest,” Daniel said.

T

he following afternoon, Daniel was sitting in the courtyard with his father. His father was trying to blow the thighbone trumpet he had borrowed from the Californian woman, the one with the chupa. Chris came out of the smaller temple. Under one arm she carried a comb-bound sadhana. Daniel caught up with her on the steps.

She said, “Have you thought anymore about our discussion?” 

“I’m not the one who has to think.”

“I thought you were very brave to talk about your feelings.”

“Mm.”

“I did,” she said.

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I need some more time to determine if it’s in your best interest.”

“If that’s the only problem, then there is no problem. But if you are afraid, I can understand it, because I am, too.”

She appeared to swoon. Her eyes rolled back, and she rocked onto her heels.

“Well, OK, goodnight,” she said.

He watched her walk away. Then he heard his father coming up behind him. He was out of breath.

“What do you think about that Chris woman?” 

“Ah, she’s great. She’s beautiful.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, too. That’s a fine piece of ass. Notice how she keeps circling around us? That’s no coincidence, Son. I think I’ll ask her to circumambulate the stupa tonight. If you know what I mean.”

C

hris called Daniel the next day at noon and asked him to come to her room. When Daniel looked at her, he could see she had made up her mind. The answer was no. 

She said, “I don’t want a love affair, Daniel.”

Then he saw it was the other way. Four minutes later, he had taken her clothes off, and they recalled the simple truth of it.