When I first told Louis that I was a loner who'd recently led a nomadic life, he asked me what I was running from. We'd met a few days earlier in the flower shop where he works; now we were sitting across a red-checked tablecloth, eating lasagna, trying to bond on our first date. Louis didn't like to talk, but when he spoke, he meant what he said.
"What are you running from?" he asked when I told him that in the past six years, I'd lived in 26 different locations. The question insulted me. I wasn't running, I was a seeker; there was a difference. The way I saw it, seekers were heroes, while running was a cowardly act.
After the plague struck and friends started dying, I quit my job as an editor and shifted gears from struggling up the media ladder to making sense of what, if anything, life might mean. I wanted to know why I felt inauthentic, as if I were a chronic impostor; why, in spite of an outwardly prosperous life, I was so drained and depressed inside, and sometimes even wanted to die. I knew that my soul needed careful attention, whether or not my body was sick, and I spent the next six years seeking answers and training from teachers and priests, traveling in Europe and India, immersing myself in spiritual texts, believing that only a higher power could fill this grim emptiness inside me. This seeking became more focused and urgent the day I learned I had the virus.
|Somehow, in all my compulsive seeking, I'd forgotten that enlightenment started with love.|
Louis listened to all this without reacting, then quietly said that three months before, he'd woken up to find his partner of nine years dead on the pillow beside him. Louis didn't flinch when he said it, adding that he was infected as well. It took me a minute to catch my breath. Then he asked how I'd come to believe that "meaning" was something that one had to search for, as if one's essence, one's life were elsewhere.
"I'm talking about enlightenment," I said, thinking that he didn't understand. "Enlightenment with a capital E."
He looked at me through the flickering candlelight, pausing a long time before he responded. Finally, he asked, "Do you mean kindness?"
Kindness indeed, I wanted to spit--as if the glories of philosophy could be reduced so plainly! I wanted to put Louis in his place; instead, I shut my caustic mouth and felt completely humiliated. Clearly, Louis had hit a nerve, seeing through my sacred blather to the heart of something I did not want to admit. Somehow, in all my compulsive seeking, I'd forgotten that enlightenment started with love. The words I mouthed were abstractions; in truth, wisdom was simpler and closer at hand. I saw that Louis could teach me something I hadn't been ready to learn before and, six weeks later, with great trepidation, asked him if he would live with me.
A former editor at Interview magazine, Mark Matousek has written for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, the Utne Reader, and Common Boundary, among other publications. The author of "Sex Death Enlightenment," he lives in New York City.