Buddha and I were having a beer. Actually he ordered a hard cider. Before he invited me out to the bar, I had always thought Buddha didn’t partake. Come to think of it I never pictured him doing much more than sit on his ass with a big grin on his face. After a few ciders, I clued into the cause of his happiness.
We lived in the same neighborhood. We first met at Max and Cherry’s Laundromat and Gift Shoppe. We were folding clothes at adjacent tables. He was buttoning up a Hawaiian shirt when a long sigh left his mouth. I looked at him and he caught my eye. He smiled and nodded toward the shirt. Just remembering, he said. Have you been?
Maui, I replied. I swam with a sea turtle.
Buddha chuckled. They sure do stick their necks out when they want something.
When he first introduced himself, I misunderstood and thought he said, Buddy.
Hi Buddy,” I said, shaking his chubby hand. My name is Mark.
He mumbled something I couldn’t make out, but before I could ask him to say it again, Cherry appeared. She was behind my new friend and could barely touch her fingers as her arms wrapped around his belly.
It’s so good to see you, she said.
She extended her hand toward me. Hi, I’m Cherry.
I shook her hand but in the process brushed my fingers against Buddy’s belly. I remember thinking it was simultaneously as hard as a turtle shell and as soft as a cumulus cloud.
I am Mark, I said.
Short story is Buddy and I took a liking for each other, though for several months our relationship was confined to the laundromat. One time I got there before he did. After I put my wash in, I browsed in the gift section. To be honest, most of Cherry’s stuff was junk and covered with dust. No one came to a laundromat to buy a gift.
Eventually, she figured that out and replaced all that stuff with a counter service that sold hot dogs, French fries and an assortment of snacks and drinks. That was about when I stopped going there, but the time I am writing about this moment was when Cherry had this dusty collection of figurines, trinkets, and tea cups.
It was then that I noticed a figurine that looked an awful lot like Buddy. The figurine wasn’t wearing a shirt and I had never seen my friend without one; so I couldn’t recognize any resemblance there, other than both bellies were full and round. The figurine was standing, belly projecting forward like some sort of a promise. The face was smiling, perhaps even beaming and the figurine had a hand raised high into the air.
When Buddy finally got there, I showed it to him. Buddy. It looks just like you, I said.
Yeh, he said. They are all over town. It’s embarrassing.
So it is you?
Pretty sure, yeh, unfortunately.
When he was younger, Buddy posed as a model for some students and as best as he could surmise, the figurine was based on one of his poses. There are other ones, too, he sighed.
Yeh, actually the most popular figurine seems to be one of me sitting cross-legged with a clown smile on my face. I am just sitting there, not doing a damn thing.
I smiled back. Did you sign a release? You know, you should be paid something if they are using you as their model.
Buddy waved me off. Trust me, he whispered. I don’t want anyone to know I am the model.
Cuz you are embarrassed?
No, not really. Because I don’t want to feel the pressure of meaning something.
He was like that. He said the strangest things. At first I would ask an array of questions, but his answers were always more like unsolvable riddles. Eventually, I knew better and instead would change the subject.
It was on a night like this, when we were out drinking, that he told me he admired how I learned to change the subject when I was confused.
I laughed. Hard to trick you, Buddy.
He set his drink down and did his best to put on a stern face. First thing, my name is Buddha, not Buddy. I corrected you when you got it wrong, but you didn’t hear me and I never bothered to tell you again. He tried to look serious about it, as if this correction was vital to the future of our relationship.
Okay, Buddy. I grinned.
He grinned, too.
I have known your real name since the first day we met. Cherry told me.
Oh was all he said.
Is there a second thing?
His face relaxed and the lines of joy that graced the corners of his eyes smoothed over and his typically unrelenting, bright smile became soft. He said, Often changing the subject is the only way to clarity, my friend.
That was the first lesson he ever gave me that I recognized as a lesson. I say that because I have a feeling just knowing Buddy was one big, continual lesson that I may never master.
As time passed, we had each other over for dinner, went bowling together, and hung out at outdoor cafes. One night we went to Blues on Whyte in Old Strathcona. Buddy knew the singer and they had a chat during the break while I played pool with one of the bikers.
When Buddy and I were back at our table, he said, Haven’t seen that girl since she sang at her cousin’s bar mitzvah. He paused for a moment. He put his finger on his chin and I wondered for a moment if he would complete the stereotype with a, Hmmm, but he didn’t.
My mind’s counter was clicking like crazy; I had so many questions, but then the music started up and Buddy turned his chair toward the band and grinned nonstop until the next break during which he would stock up on Strongbow and flirt with the bartender, Melinda who, rumour be told, was married to a Hell’s Angels a decade ago in Chicago.
They made for interesting aesthetics. Buddy short and rotund with chipmunk cheeks and often made annoying humming sounds at the oddest of times. Melinda was tall, with long scraggily blond hair and a tattoo sleeve on her left arm and burn marks on the other. She tended to swear a blue streak except when Buddy was around. Her voice turned nearly sweet then.
I asked Buddy what was up with Melinda and him. By now we were both rather drunk and Buddy got a little loose in the lips after a 6 pack or so.
We met at a singles event at that United Church downtown, you know the really old one that’s falling apart.
I laughed. Sure you did, Buddy. It’s okay you don’t have to tell me.
Buddy laughed. Suit yourself.
One night Buddy came over for fried chicken. He brought his laundry with him, which he started doing as soon as I moved into a suite that had the equipment. He never even asked. He just showed up one Sunday with two bags of dirty clothes. When I opened the door, he said cheerfully, I don’t have soap, but I brought some wine. Two bottles, he giggled. It’s true. This is not one of those times a writer uses the word, giggled, when the character’s disposition does not support it. I swear, he actually giggled.
Anyway. This night seemed like most the others. We watched Netflix films we never heard of and got drunk, turning to whiskey when the wine was gone. As usual Buddy ate twice as much as I did, and trust me I eat quite a bit. He was still chewing the last of the chicken when he turned to me and said, I am leaving tomorrow.
I didn’t think anything of it. I said, Vacation?
When Buddy said my name, which wasn’t often, it was always a preface to something important he wanted me to hear.
I shifted toward him. I am listening, Buddy.
I have things to do, he said. And I can’t get them done staying in one place.
I tried to make light of it. Oh come on, Buddy. There’s a whole whack of stuff you can do right here. I tried to chuckle but what left my mouth sounded like my throat clearing.
Besides, Buddy said. It’s better to travel well than to arrive.
Jesus, Buddy. What does that mean?
He gave me a slow wink. I am not totally sure, he said. But it sure makes me sound wise, don’t you think?
I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked. Somehow I thought Buddy and I would be lifelong friends, sharing things together, having fun, and enjoying the calm of never being judged.
Finally, I said, You never told me.
I’m sorry, Buddy said. If I had told you, it would have changed everything. He paused and that said, Mark?
I knew he wasn’t really going to ask me a question. I knew to wait.
Mark, we were present in every moment we shared together. We didn’t worry about tomorrow or what might be if this or that happened. I don’t get that very often.
Yeh, I said. No kidding.
Well, those moments are over and new ones are being born. That’s all this is about.
It was awkward waiting for his clothes to dry. I didn’t know what to say, and Buddy didn’t seem to think anything more needed saying.
We stood by the front door fumbling with last words that no longer mattered.
As he turned the door knob, I said, Buddy, I feel a little empty now.
Buddy stepped toward and put his arms around and got on his tip toes and whispered in my ear: That’s just another way of saying you feel mostly full, Mark.
We emailed each other for a time and he sent me a postcard once but wrote on it, I am not here. Just like the photo. Love, Buddy.
He made me laugh, but not so much because he was funny. It was the joy of knowing him. Oddly enough it wasn’t until I realized Buddy wasn’t going to email me anymore, that it hit me. I had learned the lesson he had been teaching me since the moment I met him.
Later this evening, like I do every evening now, I am going to pour myself a drink, maybe a rum creation tonight, and then I am going to lift my glass and toast the figurine of my friend, Buddy, that beams at me from atop the television.
And I tell you what. I bet you ten dollars that goofy looking guy who buttoned his Hawaiian shirt crooked the first time I met him… I bet you ten dollars he already knows what I am going to say.