The investigation stalled,I took to reading for religion class again, which seemed to please the Old Man, whose pop quizzes I’d been failing consistently for a solid six weeks. We had one that Wednesday morning: Share an example of a Buddhist koan. A koan is like a riddle that’s supposed to help you toward enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. For my answer, I wrote about this guy Banzan. He was walking through the market one day when he overheard someone ask a butcher for his best piece of meat. The butcher answered, “Everything in my shop is the best. You cannot find a piece of meat that is not the best.” Upon hearing this, Banzan realized that there is no best and no worst, that those judgments have no real meaning because there is only what is, and poof, he reached enlightenment. Reading it the night before, I’d wondered if it would be like that for me — if in one moment, I would finally understand her, know her, and understand the role I’d played in her dying. But I wasn’t convinced enlightenment struck like lightning.
After we’d passed our quizzes, the Old Man, sitting, grabbed his cane and motioned toward Alaska’s fading question on the blackboard. “Let’s look at one sentence on page ninety-four of this very entertaining introduction to Zen that I had you read this week. ‘Everything that comes together falls apart,'” the Old Man said. “Everything.
The chair I’m sitting on. It was built, and so it will fall apart. I’m gonna fall apart, probably before this chair. And you’re gonna fall apart. The cells and organs and systems that make you you — they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart. The Buddha knew one thing science didn’t prove for millennia after his death: Entropy increases. Things fall apart.”
We are all going,I thought, and it applies to turtles and turtlenecks, Alaska the girl and Alaska the place, because nothing can last, not even the earth itself. The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we’d learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn’t fall apart, you’d stop suffering when they did.
Someday no one will remember that she ever existed,I wrote in my notebook, and then, or that I did. Because memories fall apart, too. And then you’re left with nothing, left not even with a ghost but with its shadow. In the beginning, she had haunted me, haunted my dreams, but even now, just weeks later, she was slipping away, falling apart in my memory and everyone else’s, dying again.
The Colonel, who had driven the Investigation from the start, who had cared about what happened to her when I only cared if she loved me, had given up on it, answerless. And I didn’t like what answers I had: She hadn’t even cared enough about what happened between us to tell Jake; instead, she had just talked cute with him, giving him no reason to think that minutes before, I’d tasted her boozy breath. And then something invisible snapped inside her, and that which had come together commenced to fall apart.
And maybe that was the only answer we’d ever have. She fell apart because that’s what happens. The Colonel seemed resigned to that, but if the Investigation had once been his idea, it was now the thing that held me together, and I still hoped for enlightenment.