As Dr. Hyde shuffled into class the next morning, Takumi sat down next to me and wrote a note on the edge of his notebook. Lunch at Mclnedible, it read.
I scribbled Okay on my own notebook and then turned to a blank page as Dr. Hyde started talking about Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam. I’d only scanned through the reading — I’d been studying only enough not to fail— but in my scanning, I’d come across great last words. This poor Sufi dressed in rags walked into a jewelry store owned by a rich merchant and asked him, “Do you know how you’re going to die?” The merchant answered, “No. No one knows how they’re going to die.” And the Sufi said, “I do.”
“How?” asked the merchant.
And the Sufi lay down, crossed his arms, said, “Like this,” and died, whereupon the merchant promptly gave up his store to live a life of poverty in pursuit of the kind of spiritual wealth the dead Sufi had acquired.
But Dr. Hyde was telling a different story, one that I’d skipped. “Karl Marx famously called religion ‘the opiate of the masses.’ Buddhism, particularly as it is popularly practiced, promises improvement through karma. Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful. And that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there’s a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.'” A woman so strong she burns heaven and drenches hell. Alaska would have liked this Rabe’a woman, I wrote in my notebook. But even so, the afterlife mattered to me. Heaven and hell and reincarnation. As much as I wanted to know how Alaska had died, I wanted to know where she was now, if anywhere. I liked to imagine her looking down on us, still aware of us, but it seemed like a fantasy, and I never really felt it — just as the Colonel had said at the funeral that she wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere. I couldn’t honestly imagine her as anything but dead, her body rotting in Vine Station, the rest of her just a ghost alive only in our remembering. Like Rabe’a, I didn’t think people should believe in God because of heaven and hell. But I didn’t feel a need to run around with a torch. You can’t burn down a made-up place.
After class, as Takumi picked through his fries at Mclnedible, eating only the crunchiest, I felt the total loss of her, still reeling from the idea that she was not only gone from this world but from all of them.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“Uh,” he said, a mouth full of fries, “nan good. You?”
“Not good.” I took a bite of cheeseburger. I’d gotten a plastic stock car with my Happy Meal, and it sat overturned on the table. I spun the wheels.
“I miss her,”Takumi said, pushing away his tray, uninterested in the remaining soggy fries.
“Yeah. I do, too. I’m sorry, Takumi,” and I meant it in the largest possible way. I was sorry we ended up like this, spinning wheels at a McDonald’s. Sorry the person who had brought us together now lay dead between us. I was sorry I let her die. Sorry I haven’t talked to you because you couldn’t know the truth about the Colonel and me, and I hated being around you and having to pretend that my grief is this uncomplicated thing — pretending that she died and I miss her instead of that she died because of me.
“Me too. You’re not dating Lara anymore, are you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. She was kind of wondering.”
I had been ignoring her, but by then she had begun to ignore me back, so I figured it was over, but maybe not.
“Well,” I told Takumi, “I just can’t — I don’t know, man. That’s pretty complicated.”
“Sure. She’ll understand. Sure. All good.”
“Listen, Pudge. I — ah, I don’t know. It sucks, huh?”