Detail from Vision of Yeshe Tsogyal by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
The five members of the Tuesday Evening Meditation Group are flat on their backs in the upstairs classroom of the Unitarian church where they meet. The room is warm, its temperature set for people who don’t move around much. Eyes closed, they are tuned in to Conrad’s voice: “Feel the pressure on your pelvis as you relax into any tension there. Feel your shoulders where they sink into the carpet.” He is bringing them back from twenty minutes of acute body awareness visualization, horizontal variation. The thin gray carpet is stained and smells faintly of the collective dross of many years of church potlucks, and visualizing your shoulders sinking into it is not an altogether pleasant image, so they are grateful to be nearing the end of this exercise. This brings to a close an hour of marginally successful work to empty minds—earlier twenty-minute installments included simple sitting meditation and sensory breath-awareness meditation—and now another part of their anatomy needs emptying.
“And… back,” Conrad says, working the segment to a close. He tries to be soft and soothing, but his voice is naturally nasal and off-putting to some, and he speaks with an awkward cadence. “Now [pause] open your eyes [pause] slowly [pause] and come back into the space [pause] with everyone else.” He inhales deeply and loudly, then exhales with a whoosh. “Good. Let’s take a ten-minute break.”
Jennifer wishes he would have said slowly open your eyes instead of open your eyes slowly, because she’s suggestive by nature, and when he said open your eyes she just went ahead and opened them, quickly, and then when he said slowly it was too late to go back and do it that way, so the effect was jarring. The last thing Jennifer needs in her life right now is jarring. She is a short, stylish, forty-something human resources director with short, soccer mom-ish auburn hair who is fond of tight turtlenecks, and during lying-down meditation Conrad likes to watch her chest rise and fall as she breathes. Having peeked, Jennifer is aware of this, and even though she isn’t attracted to Conrad, it makes her wistful. She has a well of resilient good humor that she draws on as a defense against the torrent of personal misfortune she is undergoing: the recently fired husband who spends his days looking at Internet porn instead of searching for a job. The 93-pound teenage daughter in an inpatient program for anorexics. And the very recent news that the tiny lump she discovered in the shower a month ago is a big enough deal that her left breast will have to be removed. How interested would Conrad be if he knew that? Just yesterday, after her husband forgot to clear the search history on his laptop, Jennifer found a link to a website of women with mastectomies who had gotten tattoos to cover their breast scars. Some of them were quite beautiful.
It was Jennifer who several weeks ago suggested that they refer to their mid-session bathroom break as “achieving flow,” and everybody had laughed. Everybody except Conrad, who thought her glibness bordered on sacrilege, but said nothing. Conrad is tall and gaunt and has a braided black ponytail flecked with gray. He majored in Tibetan poetics and culture at a quirky but accredited college out west and wants the class to call him “rinpoche,” but as none of them are familiar with that term and Conrad himself seldom speaks unless he’s directing a meditation exercise, it’s unlikely that this will happen all by itself. Conrad has prostate cancer, but he doesn’t know it yet. This explains the pain he sometimes feels during sitting meditation. He has started to sit on a cushion, and this helps some. The cancer is the rarer, fast-moving kind. His reliance on homeopathic remedies won’t help him much, and in eleven months he will be dead.
Willow and Alex roll up in unison like it’s some kind of dance move they’ve practiced and then take turns massaging each other’s shoulders before they stand and stretch. They are young lesbian lovers from the college who are there because they saw a flyer outside their Religions of the Eastern World classroom. They are also there because they read on a blog that Sting meditates, and who doesn’t think Sting is cool, even if he is sixty. They hold hands when they meditate, aiming for a shared mystical union. This is kind of lovebird cute, but it also royally pisses George off, because while Willow is dark and scrawny and heavily pierced, Alex is an Amazon, lithe and bronze from time outdoors with the college soccer team, so when George sees her holding hands with Willow all he can think is, What a waste.
Ron has a crush on Jennifer but he hasn’t done anything about it. He is a single forty-seven-year-old librarian with a blondish comb-over. One Tuesday during a break Jennifer asked him what he did for a living and the top of his head went crimson as he tried to explain his job, where he wasn’t the head librarian, but after a recent promotion was number two. Jennifer, who asked Ron this question on a night when her husband was entrenched in front of the computer and her daughter was in the hospital and she herself ended up staying at a friend’s, found his shyness kind of charming. But since then Ron has avoided her. It was as if that one brief conversation succeeded in making him think that Jennifer might actually like him back, and breathing the rare air of that possibility was enough.
Ron also has a sort of crush on George, who joined the group just a few weeks ago. Not a romantic crush, but a man-crush, the kind of crush men felt about Sean Connery during his peak Bond years, a wanting-to-be-like-him crush. Not that George was anything like Sean Connery, to say nothing of James Bond, but he did exude a robust masculinity that Ron himself lacked. George was short and solid where Ron was tall and wispy. George was loud and boisterous where Ron was shy and nervous. George bellowed when he laughed and Ron did this sniffly thing that came out his nose. George has farted loudly and unapologetically during sessions, while Ron has endured stomach cramps. George arrives from work on Tuesdays in wrinkled grey suits from his job selling something—kitchen appliances, Ron thinks—his tie pulled loose at the collar. George smokes cigars and has high cholesterol. Ron is a near-vegan on a gluten-free diet. George is also, Ron thinks, the last person in the world you would expect to find in a meditation group.
George is at a urinal, so Ron steps to the single toilet stall. George pees like a Clydesdale, and Ron is envious of this, too. “Whatever inspired you to start meditating?” Ron asks, to relieve the awkwardness of just listening to pee.
George uncorks a bellow laugh as he tucks himself back in. “Shhhh,” he says, looking at Ron with a broad smile on his face and a thick index finger on his lips. “I’m not doing meditation.” Ron gives him a puzzled look. George winks, then explains. His wife thinks he has a drinking problem and has said she will leave him if he doesn’t get help. George did some research and found an AA group that met Tuesdays at the church. He went once and hated it. No one was any fun, and their stories were depressing. On his second visit, he discovered the meditation class meeting at the same time. “So,” he says to Ron, “here I am.”
Ron flushes and fixes George with an admiring grin. “You’re kidding,” he says.
“No, seriously. Tell you the truth, I like it. Worst-case scenario, I get a little nap.”
“And your wife thinks you’re at AA.”
“Yeah. But I don’t need AA. I’m not…” His voice trails off and he does a gesture of helplessness with his hands. His wife says that whenever he says he’s not an alcoholic it just proves he is, but is in denial. She learned this from something she Googled. He finds the logic absurd. “It’s perfect, right?”
“And you know the best part? She’s thrilled by how well it’s working. Says she’s so glad I’m so committed to it. Can’t believe the progress I’m making.” Then with a stroke of ironic self-awareness, George reaches into his jacket pocket and withdraws a slim silver flask. He unscrews the top and extends it toward Ron, who laughs a real laugh, not his usual sniffly laugh.
“Jack Daniels,” George says by way of persuasion, but Ron shakes his head. “Suit yourself,” George says, and takes a swig.
“Oh, what the hell,” Ron concedes. As he feels the burn in his throat, Ron wonders what George will think of single-nostril breathing when Conrad gets to it.
Jennifer is standing at one of the sinks in the women’s room. There are two toilet stalls, which is more than sufficient given the church’s flagging membership. A flush comes from one and Willow emerges and goes to the sink next to Jennifer’s to wash her hands. Their eyes meet in the mirror, where Jennifer is drawn to the tiny silver stud in Willow’s right nostril.
“How many do you have?” Jennifer asks, touching the side of her own nose to indicate to Willow that she means piercings. Between the nose stud and the eyebrow hoop and the assortment in Willow’s ears, Jennifer counts nine. She herself sports a very conventional two, one per earlobe, and she’s partial to gold dangly things.
Willow thinks for a few seconds, her head bobbing slightly as she counts to herself. “Fourteen. I think.” Three more head bobs, left-right-left. “Yeah. Fourteen.”
“Wow,” Jennifer says, reaching for a paper towel to dry her hands. Then, risking a level of intimacy she has no right to risk with this young girl, but newly intrigued by the concept of unconventional body ornamentation, she asks, “Where?”
Willow pauses for a second, then grins into the mirror and sticks out her tongue, displaying a round silver stud the size of a BB. Jennifer laughs. Then Willow lifts her black T-shirt at the waist to show Jennifer the tiny silver hoop in her belly button. The second toilet flushes, and it startles Jennifer, who turns to see Alex. Alex glances at her, expressionless, then locks eyes with Willow in the mirror. Her eyebrows arch questioningly. Jennifer feels her face redden. She looks down at the sink, then back at the mirror, missing the slight nods that Alex and Willow have exchanged. Then Willow lifts her shirt higher, then higher still, and pulls up her sports-bra with it. Her breasts are small and round and taut. Two silver hoops pierce her left nipple. The right nipple is un-pierced. Willow is grinning, though with the shirt lifted up Jennifer can’t tell.
Jennifer’s eyes fill with tears and she starts to cry.
Willow quickly covers herself back up. “What’s wrong?”
Jennifer waves her hand as if to say, nothing. Alex puts an arm around her. “You OK?” she asks.
“I have cancer,” Jennifer manages, then musters a brave smile and goes on to explain.
“Oh my God.” Willow sounds stricken. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“No,” Jennifer says. “It’s OK. Really. I asked, didn’t I?” She looks carefully at Willow, who is only a few years older than her own daughter. She feels a rush of desire to comfort the girl, and starts to reach up to touch Willow’s face but pulls back. “I’m grateful. Really. Thank you.” She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex, then smiles and says, “You’re beautiful.”
“Do you want to just hang out down here for a while?” Alex asks. “We can stay with you.”
The generosity of these two girls moves Jennifer. She hopes her daughter will be like Willow when she is her age, then realizes that she has just wished for her daughter to become a heavily perforated lesbian and laughs. Willow and Alex laugh with her. Jennifer wants her daughter to meet them, thinking that maybe that would help, though from the look of Willow, Jennifer can’t rule out the possibility that she has food issues too.
“I’m fine,” Jennifer says. “Let’s go back up.” They are halfway up the stairs when Jennifer stops and grabs Willow’s arm. “Wait,” she says. “That’s only thirteen. Where’s the last one?” Willow and Alex exchange glances and burst out laughing, and Jennifer delights in joining them.
Conrad is sitting cross-legged on his cushion as they reassemble. He hears rain on the roof, and decides that tonight they will skip walking the labyrinth in the yard behind the church. Ron twists himself into a full lotus that will go from mildly uncomfortable to full-on knee pain in about two more minutes. The meniscus in his right knee is torn—an orthopedist has confirmed this—but neither that knowledge nor the pain will motivate him to abandon his lotus. Emboldened by George’s whiskey, he plans to talk to Jennifer after tonight’s class, and decides to use this final meditation exercise to think about what he will say. George, as always, pulls up a chair, and Conrad silently judges him for not trying harder. Alex and Willow sit with Jennifer between them. The sight of Jennifer giggling with the two lesbians produces in Conrad an emotion he might call rage if not for the fact that he has worked so hard to eliminate rage from his emotional vocabulary. He worries that they are mocking him. He has troubling thoughts about what might have gone on in the women’s room. “What’s funny?” he says with cool nasality, and Jennifer half-expects him to do the admonishing third-grade-teacher thing and add, Is it something you’d like to share with the group? But he doesn’t.
“It’s nothing,” Jennifer says, struggling for composure.
“Humble apologies, sensei,” Willow says, head-bowing with prayer hands, and the three women fall into each other, laughing hysterically.
Richard Bader‘s fiction has been (or is about to be) published by the Burningword Literary Journal, SN Review, and National Public Radio. This is his second story for r.kv.ry. He lives and writes in Towson, Maryland.
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I enjoyed your story, Richard. I love the premise, the details, the movement and all that is left, the negative space. Also, your blog post on “recovery” in fiction is interesting to me. I have thought about this often. I have used the same argument about the concept of transition, that all characters are in transition. Fiction is about change, at the very least. If nothing is different at the end of the story, or if the character has not gained the slightest bit of awareness, even in the smallest sense, then do you really have a story? I enjoyed sharing this issue with you.
I enjoyed your story. It has a cinematic quality in how it move from one character to the next, starting with the external and shifting gradually to their internal lives. I appreciate that it is not all about recovery but is more about the moments we are in right now. The importance of sharing our fears. How naming our fears and speaking them out loud to another person takes away some of their power. The story has a nice pace and is just about the perfect length. Thank you.