After they made love he said, “Ema, I’ve been reading a new book. Well, it’s an old book, but no one knows about it anymore. It’s a great book, though writing it ruined the author’s career. She’s a fascinating woman—she was—Sloane Newam, do you know her?”
“I’ve heard the name,” Ema said. “I think I read something by her—she wrote that thing about a television show, didn’t she?”
“Night Report on ABC. But the book is about a whole network!”
“That’s right. Night Report, that thing, bum-BUM-bum.”
“You would like this Sloane Newam. She’s funny. She reminds me of you.”
“What do you mean?”
At the airport the next day, he gave her a copy of Sloane Newam’s memoir and said, “Read it and you will see.”
She began reading in the line at check-in. Halfway through the novel, flying over Missouri, she came to a fight between Sloane Newam and the head of her network. Midsentence, Sloane Newam wrote, “This may be the wrong time to say that I loved him. I did.” Ema pressed the book to her chest.
“Are you all right?” the woman beside her asked.
Ema wiped her cheeks and nodded. She turned away from the woman. She’d drunk several small bottles of scotch. She didn’t want to be rude, so she turned back to face the woman and said, “It’s pretty, huh? Out the window. It’s Missouri. Get it? Mis-uh-ry? Misery. It’s like—I’m so happy, I’m over misery— Missouri. Ha.”
The woman seemed embarrassed and turned away.
Sloane Newam had written two novels. They were out of print. One was on sale on Amazon for a penny, plus shipping, and the other was priced at $109. Ema ordered both.
They came the day before Christmas. Ema made her champagne sorbet. It was made by pouring two bottles of champagne into a bowl and putting it into the freezer, then stirring every half hour. She ate her champagne sorbet from the bowl, in bed with a spoon, and read Sloane Newam’s novels.
The second was about Sloane Newam’s lifelong affair with a married man. Sloane Newam had captured what Ema could not. She had captured the way loving someone who wasn’t there made the world seem funny and enchanted.
Was the married man trying to tell her this? Ema didn’t think so. She didn’t think the married man had read the novels, and if he had, it was unlikely he would understand them. For him the affair was an escape valve. For her it was poetic. She had once tried to tell him, “You are in the fabric of everything I see. When I see three young men in denim jackets, I am already describing it to you. Before I describe it to myself, I am in a dialogue with you.” He hadn’t been able to make it out to L.A. for a few months after that.
But Sloane Newam expressed it, because she barely talked about her married man at all. Instead, she described scenes from her life. She described being stranded at an airport in France, in the ticketing area outside the terminal, and having to spend the night sleeping on a long bench with a group of French hobos. One offered her apple wine, and told the others, “She is normal. She is normal. Nothing happens to her.” She told a story of a bat that flew into her bedroom and perched on the exposed-brick wall, and how she took him out by hand. Her novel was a defense of adultery, and a rejection of the commonsense stuff everyone spouted—that he had to get a divorce, that she had to leave him. They did neither. At the end of her novel she asked the married man, “Do you ever wish I was the one with you?” He said, “You are.”
Ema completed that novel at 3 a.m., and she wrote a long text message to the married man. When she clicked send, her phone’s screen went blank. She flipped from the main screen back to the message screen. It had lost her text!
Then the first two sentences of her text rolled up. They had gone through, she guessed, but the rest of the text was gone. Horrified, she reread the two lines. They were weird and alone-looking.
I have been up reading Fiber Optics, Holy Places. I just finished it. It has this beautiful passage where she describes a kitten—she is Joan
Ema was confused. Two more lines from her text rolled up.
Newam—on the streets of Varanasi. It is so incredibly amazing—she’s there on assignment, and she’s just been to prayers at the
Ema understood. The married man’s old phone was cutting her single long text into 21 parts, of 144 characters each. She was powerless to stop it. She watched in a panic as another text rolled through, another 144 characters from her long text, to the married man in France.
In a panic, she turned off her phone to make it stop. She went to the oven, opened it, and leaned against the door. She could see into the bathroom and contemplated dropping her phone into the toilet. She turned it on, and waited.
She watched the screen as it loaded. She said, “Please. Please. Please.”
Then the texts really started to roll.
Ganges River, which she finds completely boring, and she’s just been coughing in the incense smoke and body odor, and then she
sees this adorable homeless kitten, like a stick with some fur, and she’s with the married man, and they look at each other and
know they have to take it—even though that’s completely crazy. And the kitten is so skinny and it’s actually in a puddy? So
they don’t even realize till they get it back to the very expensive room which they splurged— and they’re in this five-star
hotel, and have to bribe the man at the door, because they don’t think to hide this mud-covered CAT—that the kitten’s arm
is broken in three places. So they take it to the veterinary college the next day, and each of these darling, sweet Indian medical
students comes to feel the kitten’s broken arm, you know they’re students right, and you can tell when they’ve found the break because
the kitten goes, “Mewl mewl mewl melw mewl mewl mwl mewl” and cries! So after about the fifth medical student squeezes the poor
thing’s arm, Sloane steps in and tells them to stop it, absolutely enough, and of course it stops. And there are all these diagrams of cows
right there on the wall, and a surgical theater, harness for the cows. But the diagrams are like colored in by a kid, and most rudimentary
things, but she realizes these students actually use them to navigate inside a cow. That these young men in coats go inside and surgeons
and so they have to shave her cat to the skin to amputate its arm because it’s an old broken. And to shave it they ask her to hold the kitten
down, and he’s terrified. She has him by his back, and the scruff of this is the worst thing that has happen, and when they’ve shave
the animal of his fur they ask if he has eaten any food at all in the past twenty-four hours, and Sloane and the man she is in love
with do not know, of course, so the cat can’t have his surgery, and they take him home to the hotel, but he won’t let them hold him
any longer. And then his arm removed, and he can make it through that, and she sneaks him home in this case, and he can make it
through that, but when**a month lateR**she has to go on assignment to Haiti, it is the last thing the poor little animal
can take, she can’t just leave him ALONE< and he goes off into the woods to die. Like Jesus into the dessert, she writes, and I was just crying,
crying, crying, and all this time there’s the mouse in my house, chewing the stove, the one I told you about, so it’s like sometimes life can be so
In the morning, Ema woke up on the sofa. She had her shoes on. She woke up innocent, then remembered the night before. She lunged for her phone.
At 5:15 a.m. the married man had answered all of her texts with two words, “Good times.” And then, several hours later, he had texted: “While I’m out of the country, email is best. I’m sorry. Roaming rates are insane. x”
Ema put a listing on Craigslist, to sublet her apartment, and she registered for a monthlong meditation program in the mountains of Vermont. The program began in three days, and her apartment was sublet by noon. This struck her as a sign.
Just after dawn, Ema rolled up her sleeping bag. She stored her foam mattress in the attic above the shrine room. Still in her pajamas, she went down past the lower living room, where several people sat in armchairs drinking tea, and an old woman with the body of a classically trained dancer did her morning stretches. Ema paused for a moment and watched her. The woman looked familiar. Out in the rock garden, a bearded man ran a rake in a circle through the pebbles around a large rock. Ema went to the service area off the dining hall and poured herself coffee.
At six they met in the main shrine room. There were 40 of them. They sat overlooking a valley. At the bottom of a nearby hillside was a man-made turtle and lotus pond. The pads were flowerless in the muddy water, which was golden in the morning light. The umdze rang the gong and they stood and walked in circles around the shrine room, their right hands in the palms of their left.
Bill was the dhathun leader. He had a long face and gray hair, and he was tall. He wore a shirt and tie. They were in the dining room, it was just after 2 p.m., and he sat on the meditation cushion on the floor. “Is this anybody’s tea?” he asked, holding up a mug of tea. “Can everyone see me okay?”
“I can’t see,” Ema said. She stood up. “I can see now.” “Okay.” Bill clacked two pieces of wood together. “So when you hear that sound, that means you bow, and you untie your set.”
“You might want to follow along,” he said, and he looked at Ema.
Ema sat down. She said, “Are we supposed to come up after the bow? Or do we just go straight down.”
“Just go straight down.” Bill made the gesture again. He bowed, bent down farther, and untied his oryoki set. He said, “What’s nice about this knot is, if you do it right, it just pulls apart. It’s a slipknot.”
“How do you tie that?”
“You start out like this.” He laid his left hand, palm up, on top of his set.
“Wait. Can you do that again, this time so I can see it?”
“Well, you might want to stand up.”
“I can’t stand up and do the knot,” Ema said. “That’s what I said at the beginning, but you wouldn’t listen.”
He untied and retied the knot for her twice, then moved on to the second knot, and then he stopped short.
“I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Okay, now, actually, I forgot. The first thing we’ll do is, you’ll hear the ding, and then you’ll go and get tables. Now, there’re a lot of variations on that, and you’ll hear a million different ways, so let’s just say that the fourth member of the quadrant gets up, goes to the head of the quadrant, bows, and walks down the line to the back of the shrine room.”
“Do you bow first?” Ema asked.
“What do you mean, first?”
“Before you go and get the tables.”
“You bow first,” Bill said.
“I know that, but where do you bow? At the front or at the back?”
“At the head. Now,” he said. He lifted his wipe serviette. “You want to take this ratty dirty thing here and fold it in half, then fold it in a trifold.”
“I can’t see,” Ema said.
Bill extended both arms high above his head, and he repeated himself, demonstrating the fold.
“But normally, of course, you’re going to want to do this with your hands held a little lower.”
“A comedian,” Ema said.
“What?” The dancing-stretching woman gave Ema a look that struck to her core. She said, “Some of us want to learn.”
“I was just kidding.”
“Some of us have dexterity issues,” an elderly woman said.
“Some of us have just plain issues,” the dancing-stretching woman murmured, and everyone laughed, except Bill and Ema.
Bill said, “So once you’ve got your wipe serviette folded, you’re gonna want to take that in your left hand and set it down before you. Then you’re gonna want to pick up your setsu case with your left hand and rotate that 45 degrees, and set that down under your wipe serviette.” He shook his bowl out as he went on. “We always want to pick up bowls with our two thumbs,” he began. “Tell me if you can do that.”
“Uh, no. No, I can’t do that,” the dancer woman said. “Carpal tunnel. Lifetime of typing!” She turned to all the retreatants and said, “Use ergonomic keyboards!”
“I can’t do it either,” the elderly woman said. “Could you explain it better? I don’t think we’re getting it.”
After two weeks, during a break, Bill came and sat beside Ema. The dancer-stretcher was lying on the floor with her shin pressed to her cheek. After some small talk, Ema said, “How long does it take to do a thousand prostrations?”
“Not very long,” the dancer-stretcher said, even though no one asked her. She said, “About two, or two and a half hours.”
“It always took me longer,” Bill said. “Boy, you’re flexible.”
“Well, either way,” Ema said, “that’s a long time to stay focused.”
“But it really isn’t,” the dancer-stretcher said. “I mean, when you think about it.” She flopped forward to full splits and tapped her forehead to the carpet. Ema thought she had to be at least 55.
“Who said I was focused?” Bill said.
“I did ngondro two times,” the dancer-stretcher said. “I did the Drukpa Kagyu ngondro and the Longchen Nyingthig.”
“So you’ve done, in your life, two hundred thousand prostrations?” Bill asked.
The dancer gave a short nod. “The first time, I did them too fast—I was told to. The second time, I did them slower, and that was better. The first time, it was too much. We had armed gunmen come into the place where we were practicing.”
“Oh my God.”
“It was too much.”
“What did they do?”
“They tied us up and kicked us around.” She held her hands as though she had a machine gun. “It was too much. But then we called up this lama, and he did a mo, and he said it was okay to go on.”
A blind woman came and sat on Ema’s other side. She dipped her tea bag methodically in a cup of hot water and turned her eyes from person to person.
“Hey,” Ema said to the dancer, “I’ve been meaning to ask you this, because I saw you sleeping in the shrine room at first, and then I didn’t. Where’re you sleeping?”
‘I’m sensitive to the heating system,” the dancer said. “I have a secret place.”
The blind woman laughed.
“What?” the dancer said.
The blind woman said, “Nothing. Just, you know. ‘The secret place.’ I think we all have one.”
The dancer lifted one shoulder. She said, “Gross.”
Ema would have grilled the dancer, but apropos of nothing, the blind woman began to ask Bill about the nature of reality. The blind woman wore color-coordinated outfits, and Ema always wanted to ask her how she did it. The blind woman offered reiki during breaks, and she kept meaning to sign up so she could get her alone and ask the secret. Probably just something on her tags.
“If it’s all a dream. . .” The blind woman was talking to Bill. She had her face pointed at him. She said, “If I’m not real, then what about science? What about objective truth and reproducible scientific data?”
“But that could be a dream, as well,” the dancer said.
The blind woman turned to face the dancer-stretcher and said, “Sloane, think about it. Someone does an experiment in one place, and a hundred years later, in an entirely different place, it can be done again with the same results. How is that a dream? Fusion has been taking place on the sun before humans existed, so how is the atom bomb imagined.”
“Your name is Sloane?” Ema asked. She had a funny feeling.
“But all of that is in your mind,” the dancer said. “Sloane Newam. You’re Ema, right? Nice to meet you.” She rolled through the splits, then bent her knees and arched her back to touch the balls of her feet to her forehead.
“That’s impossible,” Ema said. “I think they’re just two understandings of reality,” Sloane Newam said. “Both are completely logical. See, in the Western sense, a subject precedes an object. Or I mean— sorry—an object precedes a subject.”
“No, I mean it’s impossible that you’re Sloane Newam. I mean, the Sloane Newam? Sloane Newam the writer?” Ema said.
“Used to be, yes. Now I do yoga.”
Sloane Newam rolled onto her neck and tried to touch her toes to the ground in front of her as she explained to the blind woman that, relatively, there were truths, but ultimately, there was nothing.
“I’m freaking out,” Ema said. “The same Sloane Newam who interviewed Gorbachev?”
She stopped and watched them. Then they turned and watched her. “Who arranged this?” she said.
Addressing both Ema and the blind woman, Sloane Newam got her feet onto the ground. She lifted herself to standing and said, “Take it like this. This table. When I reach out and touch it, I can’t experience anything but my mind. I’m not experiencing a table, but rather, sense data—so-called touch, sight—is being transferred from my fingers to my brain.”
“I’m seriously actually freaking out,” Ema said. “Can everyone please be quiet?” She wanted to touch Sloane Newam.
But the blind woman seemed moved by what Sloane Newam had said. She touched the table and said, “So the scientific data is in my mind as well.” Ema let out a groan and stormed off.
It was a special day. In the shrine room, Bill had set up a large flat-screen TV, and on it was a ceremony for the teacher, who was going into a yearlong retreat. Sloane and Ema were servers and sat outside the shrine room with a group of five others serving the meal. Inside the shrine room, people watched the TV, for the most part, from cushions. They were seated Indian-style on the floor, and the mood was quiet and still, as though they were waiting to, or wondering if they would, feel something. The ceremony itself was being held in a gymnasium on the other side of the country. Twelve Asian women in brightly colored dresses were dancing. Ema still hadn’t approached Sloane Newam to tell her the truth about what was happening. Whatever that truth might be—she herself wasn’t sure.
“He is utterly liberated from the skandhas,” the people inside the shrine room began chanting. “He has cut the knots.” Ema noticed that Sloane Newam was chanting, so she started to chant, too.
A server stood abruptly and said, “Do we set the rice bowl down on the ground?”
“We hold it,” Sloane Newam said.
“Exactly,” Ema said.
“You hold their bowl?” The man was in his sixties, and he looked desperately panicked.
“No, the pot of rice.”
“Right, of course.”
“Rice,” Bill said. It was the first time Ema had seen him flustered. “No! No. Not rice. No rice.” He held a flat palm toward Sloane Newam, indicating she was not to stand.
“If you can’t hold it,” Sloane said, “kneel on one leg, and balance the pot on your knee.”
Sloane Newam said, “Enter the shrine room with elegance.”
There was a soft clacking sound. It was the blind woman.
“Enter the shrine room with elegance,” Sloane Newam said.
“To the shrine,” Bill said. “To the shrine, to the shrine.”
“Do we bow?” the desperate man asked, and Sloane Newam pushed him forward. Ema was at the threshold to the shrine room when she realized all the people inside, hundreds of them, were singing, “Ema, the phenomena of the three worlds of samsara, not existing, they appear, how incredibly amazing.” She stopped and watched them. She set the pot of rice on the ground. Then they turned to watch her. They kept saying it!
“Who arranged this?” she said.
She saw Bill raise his eyebrows at Sloane Newam. Others of them looked confused, but they all kept staring at her and singing that song. She picked up the pot and went to a quadrant. It was a back one. You were supposed to start at the head. Some divorced guy who gave Thai massages to young women in the lower living room held up his bowl. He smiled at her, singing, “Ema, the phenomena, of the . . .”
“Cute,” she said, and spooned rice into his bowl.
He lifted two fingers to indicate he’d had enough, and furrowed his brow. She spooned three more shovels of rice in his bowl. “Cute,” she said. “Cute, yes, I see your fingers. How incredibly amazing.” She went to the next person, and she was at the third when Bill placed a hand on her shoulder.
“What happened?” he asked outside. When she told him, he explained that they had been singing one of Milarepa’s songs. Ema, in Tibetan, meant “How wonderful.”
“Or joy,” Sloane said.
“I’m sorry,” Ema said. “I have trust issues. I get these panic attacks, so if I seem weird, that’s why. This is kind of like a nightmare to me, and I think maybe I should just—”
Sloane Newam put a hand on her shoulder. “Babe, it’s why we chant. We chant each morning, ‘May my confusion dawn as wisdom.’ That’s why.”
Ema sat on a bench. As she put her shoes on, the tears started. She got up and walked back to Bill and Sloane.
‘Tm having an anxiety attack,” she said. ‘I’m having a breakdown.” Her face twitched as she spoke, folding in at her cheeks, and the color rose up past her forehead, shading into her hairline. She knew when that happened that she looked like a samurai at the height of emotion in a kabuki play, and—in speaking the words—she had begun to cry harder. Sloane said, “Okay-okay,” in a soft voice.
Bill said, “You go.”
“It’s only going to get worse,” Ema said. “I know myself I can’t do it, so you guys better figure something out. I can’t be here. I need to go away.”
She went down to the women’s changing room, where she sat in a plastic chair and, for a little over ten minutes, cried.
It was close to five, and almost dark outside. She got her cell phone from the pocket of her coat and turned it on. The house was quiet. It was empty. Everyone was in the shrine room, watching the time-delayed simulcast of the ceremony in Asia. In the dining room the tables were pushed against the wall. Lights floated in goblets of colored water, and globe-shaped paper lanterns were strung from the ceiling.
In the main office, two recent arrivals were looking around. One was in her late sixties. She was tall, healthy, and trim. She was tidy and debonair. The other was a man in his late thirties. He was handsome, with even features, large sympathetic eyes, and a beard that was just going gray. The office was spread with their baggage. They looked lost.
“Have you been checked in?” Ema asked.
“No.” The woman was angry. “We’ve been standing here alone.”
“I’ll go and get someone,” Ema said. “I wish I could help you, but I’m just a program participant, and I’m having a personal problem. I’m sorry, if you’ll wait here—they’re all—watching this thing. One minute.”
“No,” the woman said. She held up a piece of paper. “We’re checked in.”
“Oh.” Ema was confused. “What are your names?”
“I am Alida and this is Francisco.”
“Then I’m going to go and make a phone call.”
In the parking lot it was possible sometimes to get cell phone reception. It took several attempts before she reached him. She cried, and she tried to tell him what had happened. She said, “They have some big ceremony. They’re all in the shrine room. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I just—”
“Ema, what are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you doing? You hate New Age and you hate nature and you hate amateurs. But you’ve set yourself up with all three for a month, and you wonder why you’re feeling bad.”
“Oh God,” she said. “It’s good to hear an ordinary person. Sloane Newam is here. She’s turned into some kind of contortionist know-it-all. She’s the worst! And then there’s a blind lady who does reiki.”
“I’ve been reading her, too. You’re right, she’s a bit convoluted. But I’m glad you brought some good books to that place.”
“No, for chrissake, she’s HERE!” She started crying again. It was dark, and the parking lot’s packed-sand surface was almost like asphalt. Ema tried to tell the married man about the real Sloane Newam, but the cell phone cut out. It went dead, and then it began playing a three-note error tone.
Sloane seemed to manifest from the darkness. She came to a stop several inches closer than a friend would, and she said hello.
“Could you hear what I was saying?” Ema asked.
“I heard, ‘Dee-dee-deep. Dee-dee- deep.’” She imitated the phone’s error tone several more times.
“I was talking to the married man. It was a conversation I wouldn’t want anyone else to hear.”
“That’s what married men are for,” Sloane Newam said.
“What ever happened with yours?” Ema asked. “I mean, I read your novel.”
Sloane Newam said, “I never wanted to do the obvious thing. It seemed to me like we had two choices. I would either ask him to get a divorce or I would leave him. I didn’t see another option, but I didn’t want to do the thing everyone does, so I didn’t do either, and then he died.”
Ema crumpled in a ball and clutched her knees. She said, “I hate this. I hate everything. I can’t handle any more.”
Sloane Newam touched her head. She said, “Think of the benefits of renunciation. Or if you prefer, contemplate the illusory nature of samsara, and appreciate that you have nothing to renounce.”
“Be skillful and practice whichever works for you at this very moment.”
“At this very moment,” Ema said, “I wish that I were dead. I’m heartbroken, and if I had a gun I would use it.”
“Suicide is no escape. You must follow your karma.”
“I would shoot you,” Ema said. “And then I would go in there to that shrine room, and I would shoot Bill.”
When she said that, it was so outrageous, she couldn’t help feeling a little better. She said, “Then I’d shoot the blind lady.”
“Yes, I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve in the chest.”
Excerpted from You Are Having a Good Time: Stories, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Amie Barrodale. All rights reserved.
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