Father’s house has always depressed me. It’s a three-story cream stucco mansion towering over the Bay. It looms over every house on the block, glowering from its hilltop like a fat Persian cat.
The lawn is green, perfectly trimmed. The window washers come every Thursday — whether the windows need washing or not. My father probably spends less than eight hours a day at home, but he is obsessive about its upkeep.
As a child I remember the house empty. Every three months my mother and I would get on a plane and fly from New York to California to spend a week in San Francisco. I’d bring my action figures and my model airplanes, foolishly excited to show my father, but he’d be working most of the time, and Mother would retreat to her room.
I feel like that child now — back at Sea Cliff after three months abroad. My hair is long. Father will hate it. I haven’t shaved in weeks.
The driver opens my door, and I climb out of the car with a heavy yawn. It’s lunchtime here, but it’s nearly midnight in Kathmandu. My body has grown accustomed to my heavy pack, but I’m sore from sitting on the plane.
Edmund walks down from the house to get our bags. It seems ridiculous after schlepping my gear around the Himalayas for ten days, but I’m so tired that right now it sounds nice.
Edmund greets me in his usual stiff English way — a dry half smile and a “welcome back, sir” — but I take a step closer and give him a hug.
It’s not the type of hug I used to give — one-armed, careless, with a slap on the back. I wrap both my arms around Edmund’s middle, and his entire body goes stiff.
Even after spending thirty years in the states, Edmund is not a hugger.
My companion gets out of the car, and I introduce him to Edmund.
“Edmund, this is Thokmay Jinpa. He is my teacher visiting from Nepal.”
Thokmay bows his head to Edmund, who has the good taste not to look surprised.
Thokmay is dressed in flip-flops and the long maroon robes of a monk. His head is completely shaven, and most of his face is taken up by his smile. It’s not the smile of an English butler — it’s a gleaming toothy smile of joy.
“Welcome,” says Edmund, offering a slight bow. “May I take your bag?”
Thokmay smiles wider but shakes his head. He’s holding his bag already. It’s a small leather satchel the size of a child’s backpack. It’s the only thing he brought to California and all that Thokmay has. Everything from the material for his robes down to his flip-flops was donated to the monastery.
Thokmay follows me up to the house, and I wonder how it must seem to him. Glancing over my shoulder, I see he’s stopped halfway up the path. His eyes are fixated on a shrub — a Baja fairy duster with brilliant red flowers. Thokmay examines its feathery petals, marveling at its fine texture.
The door opens before I quite reach it, and I smile at a maid I don’t recognize.
“Mr. Van de Graaf,” she says, offering a shy smile just a beat too late. “Welcome home.”
“Thank you,” I say. I feel a little bad that I don’t know her name. It’s likely she was here before I left, but I never bothered to remember what the maid looked like.
I’m sure I look different from what she remembers. I’m wearing the same tan hiking pants I left in, but I traded my luxury American-brand athletic tee for a souvenir at the market weeks ago. I’m wearing a loose white linen shirt, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds.
The woman shuffles back behind the door, and I feel her eyes lingering on Thokmay. He’s still admiring the landscape, though it’s a far cry from the magnificence of Nepal.
The foyer looks and smells the same: white marble tile leading toward the staircase and a round table in the middle bursting with fragrant orange lilies. Mother’s been dead since I was eight, and still Father keeps her favorite flowers — as though she might come waltzing through those doors at any moment.
“Your father is in his study,” says the maid. “He will meet you in the sitting room shortly.”
I nod and lead the way back toward the sitting room. It’s a little bizarre, being treated as a guest, but it’s how it’s been ever since I went off to school.
Thokmay takes his time crossing the wide marble foyer. I’ve grown used to his slow, careful pace. I was able to match it back at the monastery, but here I find it difficult.
Being back in this place makes me feel the way I used to: trapped, alone, and a little desperate. I feel the need to keep moving so I don’t have to think. Too much thinking is dangerous when I’m at home. It reminds me of those years after Mother died when I was always, always alone.
The sitting room looks just the way it usually does. The furniture is stiff, clean, and super uncomfortable. I’ve often considered getting my father a dog just so I might find a stray hair every once in a while.
Thokmay bends down to examine a Fabergé egg, which is probably worth more than my car. He seems fascinated by my father’s house, whereas I am deathly bored by it all.
Just as Thokmay takes a seat, I hear footsteps slapping across the smooth white tile. Those footsteps don’t belong to my father — they’re much too excited to see me.
A second later, the sitting-room door bursts open, and Sybil runs in. She just turned twelve — as gangly as can be — with wild black curls and crazy emerald eyes.
“Sibby!” I shout, getting to my feet and scooping her up. She’s already declared herself too old to be held, but she’s so beside herself that she allows it.
“You’re back!” she screams, her voice shrill in the empty house. “I’ve been waiting for hours and hours!”
“Good to see you, squirt,” I say, setting her back on the ground and checking her height against my chest.
“You grew a beard,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
“You don’t like it?”
Sybil shakes her head, which makes me laugh. Sybil always tells the truth.
“You grew at least a foot.”
“No, I haven’t.”
Sybil rolls her eyes. “Daddy said he didn’t know when you were coming, but I remembered that your flight got in this morning.”
“I’m glad someone remembered me.”
But Sybil’s attention span is too short for pity. She’s like me that way, but she’s smarter than I’ll ever be. “Who’s that?”
She’s staring at Thokmay, who is beaming. The two stand at about eye level, though Thokmay is rounder around the middle.
“That is my teacher from Nepal . . . Thokmay Jinpa.”
“That’s a weird name,” says Sybil.
“It means ‘unhindered generosity.’ Thokmay, this is Sybil — my baby sister.”
“How long is he staying?” asks Sybil. “Did he come here to live with us?”
“Thokmay came here to teach at the Buddhist center. He’s staying with us for now.”
A second later the door flies open, and my father walks in looking distracted.
“Daddy! Daddy! Tripp’s back!”
“I see that,” he grumbles, doing a quick scan of the room.
Father is a proud, imposing man. He’s got a thin stiff face and a neat gray beard. He’s wearing the same style of double-breasted charcoal suit that I’ve always known him to wear, 365 days a year.
“Good to see you, Father,” I say, crossing the room and taking his hand. My dad isn’t a hugger, either.
“You had a safe trip, I take it?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, deciding to leave out the three nights I spent at an opium den in Laos.
Father leans past me to get a look at Thokmay. “And who is your friend? Another student?”
“Father, this is Thokmay Jinpa. Thokmay, this is my father, Strom Van de Graaf.”
Father’s eyebrows lift as he takes in the monk’s long robes and rubber shoes. In all my life I’ve never seen my father in a T-shirt. He certainly doesn’t own any flip-flops. “How do you do?”
Thokmay gives my father a small bow, still beaming. As I noticed in Nepal, Thokmay uses the same brilliant smile for people and for plants.
My father turns to me, brow furrowed in annoyance. “Will your friend be joining us for lunch?”
“Thokmay is Tripp’s teacher!” Sybil adds, excited to have something to contribute.
“Is that so?” I can tell it’s taking all of Father’s self-control not to demand why I’ve brought a monk into his house. “And what, may I ask, is he teaching you?”
“I spent six weeks living at his monastery in Nepal,” I say. “He taught me a lot of things.”
My father raises his bushy gray eyebrows. They’re the one part of him that’s slightly wild and untamed. “You may have learned a great deal . . . though it seems you have forgotten how to shave.”
I fight the smile that is pulling at my lips. Thokmay doesn’t say a word. I know my father probably thinks he doesn’t know English, and I decide not to tell him.
By the time we reach the dining room, the table is already set for four. My father has an impeccable staff. Nobody misses a beat.
We take a seat at the long mahogany table, and Thokmay takes his time unfolding the napkin. I put the napkin in my lap and join him in chanting a prayer of gratitude for the food.
I can feel my father’s gaze burning a hole through the side of my head, but I try to put it out of my mind and focus on the chant. My father was raised in a Catholic household, though I’ve never known him to pray.
When we’re finished, Sybil is staring at me with the wide eyes of a child, and my father’s mouth is a hard thin line.
“Now I see what he’s been teaching you,” he says under his breath.
“Thank you, Mr. Van de Graaf,” says Thokmay after a long beat of silence. His voice rings out as clear as a bell. “It is wonderful that you should invite me to eat at your table.”
“You’re welcome,” says my father, clearly taken aback. He had not been expecting Thokmay to speak.
He looks uncomfortable now that he cannot drop any more snide comments. My father was brought up to have impeccable manners — regardless of how he feels.
Thankfully Sybil is immune to awkwardness. She immediately falls into happy chatter, and Thokmay turns and listens with delight. She tells us all about her lacrosse league, the championship, and the concert she’s going to in LA with her friends.
My father cuts her off with a tut, and Sybil seems to deflate in her seat.
“You know you’re not going to that concert.”
This seems to be news to her, though I can tell from my father’s tone that it isn’t the first time they’ve discussed it.
“After what you pulled at Saint Agatha’s, you’re lucky you were allowed to play in the league this summer.”
“I made a very sizable donation to that school, and even that wasn’t enough for those wretched nuns.” He glances at Thokmay and seems to realize what he’s said.
“What happened?” I ask, cracking a grin. Sybil is a troublemaker like me, but she cares less about getting caught.
“Nothing,” she huffs. This has obviously become a sore subject.
“Your sister,” my father says, “thought it would be funny to spread maple syrup on all the nuns’ chairs before the end-of-year banquet.”
“It was molasses,” says Sybil. “And it was funny.” She looks from me to Thokmay as if asking us to agree.
Thokmay frowns, and I can tell he doesn’t understand.
“Kind of like maple syrup, but stickier,” I add for clarification. “Sweet . . . like you’d put on pancakes?”
Thokmay seems to think for a moment, and then his eyes light up. He knows all about pancakes. I can tell when he gets the hoax, because he looks back at my sister and breaks into a full-body laugh.
It’s a laugh that starts off a bit like a wheeze, but it grows in strength as his eyes squeeze shut. He throws his head back so his belly bobs up. He laughs as though he hasn’t laughed in years.
My father just stares with a stony expression.
“Molasses! On nuns’ chairs!” Another wheezy round of laughter. “That is hilarious!”
“Hilarious it may be,” says Father coldly, “but now Sybil is no longer welcome at Saint Agatha’s, so I have had to make other arrangements.”
“Saint Mary’s?” I ask.
Saint Mary’s is another all-girls school, but it’s well-known in the boarding-school hell-raiser circuit as being more forgiving than Saint Agatha’s.
“Unfortunately, due to her track record, not even Saint Mary’s would have her.”
“Ouch!” I say to Sybil, though secretly I’m a little proud. At this rate she might break my record of getting kicked out of boarding schools.
“It’s off to Sacred Heart with you!” says my father in a resigned tone.
I raise my eyebrows. Sacred Heart is truly the bottom of the barrel.
“Quite the little juvenile delinquent,” I say, wagging my eyebrows at Sybil.
“Don’t encourage her,” my father snaps. “I would like one of my children to grow into a responsible adult. I need someone to entrust with the legacy of my company, and —”
“Hey,” I say, feigning offense. “I’m a capable adult.”
“That remains to be seen,” my father sneers. “Gallivanting all around Asia, joining monasteries, visiting opium dens . . .”
I drop my gaze. “How did you . . .”
“The son of a CEO cannot hope to make a fool of himself in private, Tripp — not even halfway around the world.”
Father touches his Optix, and a projection wavers over the dining-room table: a grainy photo of me in some Laos basement room, clearly passed out on a pile of dirty mattresses.
“No one can prove that that was me,” I argue. “The picture quality is terrible.”
“It doesn’t matter,” my father snaps, his bottom lip quivering with rage. “All it takes is for one idiotic backpacker to post it for it to be true.”
I don’t say a word. I can sense Thokmay watching me, and I can’t even look at him. It’s not as though he hasn’t heard worse. People have come to the monastery at Junbesi after leading all sorts of lives. It’s my father’s naked contempt that makes me feel ashamed.
“You’re nineteen years old,” my father continues. “You will be joining the company when you graduate . . . whether that is as a janitor or as a board member.”
Father wipes his mouth, tosses his napkin down beside his uneaten food, and gets up from the table to leave. I watch him go with a familiar feeling of disappointment and shame, though I’m not sure whether I’m more disappointed in him or myself.
We finish the meal in strained silence. Even Sybil seems too shocked to speak. Normally she would be glad to have Father ragging on me, but even she understands the seriousness of the offense.
I take Thokmay upstairs to show him his room, and his eyes grow wide when he sees his accommodations.
I gave him the nicest room in the house, but now I’m thinking it may not be appropriate. Thokmay is used to sleeping on a pallet in a room roughly the size of a jail cell. He probably can’t imagine why anyone would need a king-size bed and a bathroom with a jacuzzi.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” I say. “I’m embarrassed, actually.”
“Do not be sorry,” says Thokmay. “That boy your father was angry at . . . You are no longer that boy. He cannot yet see the reality before him. When he does, he will accept you.”
I nod. I want to thank him for his understanding, even if he overestimates my father. Father does not have a forgiving nature.
“Can I ask you something?” says Thokmay.
“Where did that picture come from? The one that —” He mimes touching just above his eye, and I realize he’s referring to the Optix.
Junbesi is a tiny Sherpa village, and tourists are not allowed to take photos inside the monastery. He’s probably never seen anything like it.
I rummage around in my bag and pull out my Optix, which is affixed to a small eyebrow ring. I put it on and show how it works, and Thokmay watches in fascination.
“Your father’s company manufactures these?” Thokmay asks.
Thokmay continues to stare. “But what is its function?”
“What do you mean?”
The monk seems to search for the right words. “What does it do?”
“Everything,” I say with a shrug. “It takes pictures. It allows people to communicate . . .”
Thokmay nods, but I can tell he still doesn’t quite get it.
“Anything I want to know, I just ask the Optix, and it tells me.”
“And you believe it?”
I pause. I’m not sure if we’re having a language issue or if we’re entering more of a philosophical discussion.
“Yeah,” I say slowly. “It can tell you just about anything.”
“Your device understands the true nature of reality?”
“Well, no,” I say, smiling to myself. Leave it to a monk to ask the really hard questions. “But it can tell you the weather . . .”
“The sky can also tell you the weather.”
“Yeah . . .” I trail off. I’m not sure how to convince Thokmay that the Optix is useful. How do you convince someone who’s lived without one for his entire life that he needs it?
“So what is its function?” Thokmay demands. He really wants to know.
“I told you . . .”
But Thokmay is shaking his head. “How does it improve people’s lives?”
“It makes things easier.”
“Easier not always better.”
I make a face. “Ehhh . . . As a rule, easier is usually better.”
“Not for your sister,” says Thokmay. “School is too easy for her. Easy is why she puts molasses on nun’s chair. Sticky nun makes life more interesting.”
I grin. Thokmay has a point.
“Well, people are busy. That’s why they have the Optix . . . to make things easier.”
“That is your American talking,” chides Thokmay. “What good is easier? Janitor or board member, your work should improve people’s lives.”
He speaks with such authority that I’m inclined to believe him.
“Maybe I’d do better as a janitor, then,” I grumble.
“Start as janitor; then you will understand.” Thokmay smiles. He always smiles. To him it really is that simple.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he says after a moment. “Your father has a beautiful garden.”