Jamie Lyn Smith
Deprivation of Body, Generosity of Spirit
Akāliko: timeless, unconditioned by time or season.
When it all came apart with Brian, Tess called Brooke—rather than any number of other friends—because she knew that Brooke would not allow her to devolve into self-pity. They’d been friends their whole lives, playing varsity basketball in high school, rooming together at Baron. The two of them ran the college co-op bookstore, selling dusty, outdated volumes of Norton Anthology of English Literature and Principles of Biochemistry. The books gave the girls’ hair a not-so-faint scent of decaying paper, which they fought with pyres of incense and bowl after bowl of weed. They had study parties, spaghetti dinners, muumuu movie night, beginner ballet classes in the back yard, a failed composting experiment, and two illegal tabby cats. After graduation, Brooke left for the Peace Corps, but Tess stayed in the county to run her father’s grain operation. For many years, Brooke had Zach, and for much longer, Tess thought she had Brian.
Now, Tess felt like a nerve ending rubbed raw and left twitching. She could not think about Brian without tearing up, the skin around her eyes dry as paper, creased lines radiating out from each corner. The scent of juniper and cold air snapped at her lips as she took one deep breath after another. She didn’t want to imagine the scene unfolding at the farm. Brian packing his things into the truck and driving away, taillights glowing red and fading into the distance as he drove towards Randy’s house.
There were signs I missed, Tess thought, steering the jeep along the narrow road. The inordinate amount of time Brian spent on call at the firehouse. The way he insisted on “guy night” each week. Golf in the summer, bowling in the winter, deer camp in the fall, a week on the Florida coast each spring. Tess’s tongue turned to felt and shame brought heat to her cheekbones when she thought about that night on the farm computer. She was logging in to look for a message from a colleague in Wichita about a grain hybrid. Shuffling papers on her desk, she didn’t realize she clicked on Brian’s credentials. She glanced up to see a chat window, a window he shared with Randy.
I can’t go on like this, it said.
I don’t know how to tell Tess, Brian replied.
I love you, Randy wrote. You love me… What’s holding us back?
I think I stayed with her so long because she kept me away from you, he said.
Tess read on, and on. She read three years of Brian’s correspondence with Randy. Another man before that, someone Tess did not know, a police officer from the city. And others. Many others.
Tess printed the emails out and sat waiting for Brian at the kitchen table. It was just after the solstice, and dark by 4:30 in the afternoon, when Brian walked in the door, stomping the snow from his boots. The silver nameplate on his uniform refracted a glare across the kitchen when it caught the light.
“Sit down,” Tess said.
“What’s up?” he asked. His pace slowed as he approached the kitchen table, wary as a hound. He lowered himself into a chair.
She pushed the stack of emails toward him. Brian read them with a hand curved over his mouth. Tess felt almost sorry for him. She waited for him to tell her it was a lie, a joke, a misunderstanding. He leafed through each one, turning the pages faster and faster, his face darkening. There was tightness to his jaw when he finally spoke.
“What the fuck,” he asked, “are you doing snooping in my business?”
“All you had to do was tell me.” Tess said. “I would have been content to leave.”
He circled around the table, his face so near hers she felt her throat thicken.
“You better keep your mouth shut about this.”
“You worry about you.” Tess said. “I’ll worry about me.”
Brian spun her toward him, gripped her shoulders and backed her against the wall. Later, Tess told her friend everything except that: the sudden reach of Brian’s hand for her jaw, the shove then, and his breath in her eyes, the bruises on her shoulder blades, the marks on her wrists and arms. She would only tell Brooke that it got ugly and that she had changed the locks at the farm. Brooke ordered Tess to Akāliko, stat. “It’s a healing place,” Brooke said. “Come see me and rest. The last thing you need is to be alone right now.”
Tess eased the jeep into the drive at Akāliko and tried to steel herself for the public display of calm that this visit would require of her. Tess cut the engine and listened to the river thrashing against the dingy, grey snow in the valley. Brooke flung open the door and ran towards her with her arms open. Wet hands dripped dishwater down Tess’s neck when they embraced. Brooke rocked her side-to-side, whooping, “I’m so glad you’re here! Happy almost New Year!”
Tess forced a smile and thanked Brooke for having her. Brooke had tried to get Tess excited about the annual New Year’s party. There would be a DJ, a whisky tasting, potluck meals, cross-country skiing, yoga classes, and workshops on spiritual harmony. Tess was disinterested in each of these, but determined to bear it all for the sake of company. She shrugged her backpack to her shoulder, while Brooke hefted the crate of food Tess brought for the potluck from the cargo hold.
“Bare feet and off-grid in the ashram!” Brooke reminded her, leading Tess into the foyer. She plucked the phone from Tess’s hand and tossed it into a hand-woven basket. Tess sat down on the floor to unlace her boots.
“How are you doing, honey?” Brooke asked.
Tess shook her head, pressed her lips together. “I want to die,” she said.
“Great!” Brooke said. “I can see you’re going to be a real charmer this weekend.”
“It’s true,” Tess said. “What do you want me to say?”
Andrew wandered in and Tess engulfed him in a hug she knew he didn’t want, enjoying how he went slack, then taut under her embrace. Tess knew him well enough to know that he was perhaps less enthused about her visit than even she was. When he talked to Tess, she always felt as if she were being lectured by a host on National Public Radio who had been brainwashed to spout Zen-wisdom desktop calendar aphorisms. Andrew had carved these sorts of sayings—sayings that Tess found just a tad too smug—into the woodwork above each doorway in the ashram. Timeless, proclaimed one doorway. Unconditioned by time or spirit, smirked another.
Bullshit, Tess thought. Time changes everything.
“Tess?” Andrew asked. “You still in there?”
“Tess is preoccupied with healing,” Brooke said, patting Tess’s arm.
“It’s okay,” Andrew nodded, placing a hand on his chest. “We understand.”
“I mean, I’m grateful you guys let me come here—” Tess said.
“Let you?” Brooke said. “We want you here.”
Brooke stared at Andrew. He blinked, ran his hand through his beard. “We sure do,” he said, mala beads clicking in his hand. “We hardly ever get to see you.”
“Well, I hope you’re ready to have some fun,” Brooke said, brushing a chunk of auburn hair back from her face. “Let’s get this stuff into the kitchen.”
Tess followed Brooke and put the crate on the counter, letting Brooke and Andrew rifle through it. They ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the home-canned jars of vegetable soup, blackberry jam, peaches for a cobbler.
“Is this your starter?” Andrew asked, spinning around the jar of beige, spongy-looking sourdough.
Andrew lifted a bag of flour out of the crate, frowning, and then set it aside. “It’s okay,” he said. “I have organic in the pantry.”
“We grow grain for that company,” Tess said, putting the bag of flour back in the crate. “It’ll be okay just this once.”
“But organic makes such a difference…”
“It’s true,” Brooke said. “Andrew went to a seminar with a man who is a professional techno-emotional cuisinist—”
“Are you freakin’ kidding me?” Tess asked.
“No seriously, just listen—”
Tess tried to follow the logic as Brooke drew out a complicated theory weaving intuition, the Bhagavad Gita, “mindful cookery,” and “culinary-emotional intent.”
“You’re overcomplicating it, dear,” Andrew said, wrapping his arms around Brooke’s waist and beaming at her. Tess waited for him to pat Brooke on the head as if she were a hapless puppy. “This chef can tell by the way the bread tastes if the person kneading it was angry, or discouraged, or upset, or in love… it’s amazing.”
“Indeed,” Tess said.
“I was skeptical too,” Brooke giggled. “But I can tell by the way Andrew makes my tea that he loves me.”
Andrew kissed her, and their lips lingered. Tess tried not to hate their guts.
“Why don’t you let us girls catch up?” Brooke said, gently pushing him back a bit, glancing at Tess.
Andrew squeezed Brooke’s hand and said, “I’ll be in the meditation center.”
Of course you will, Tess thought. Where else would you be?
Brooke showed her upstairs to the tiny loft where Tess would sleep. The room was made of polished timber so beautiful that Tess felt as if she were suspended in amber.
“You guys have done a ton of renovation,” Tess marveled. She’d been skeptical a few years back, when Brooke first announced her intention to move in with Andrew and run the ashram. He’d come into the property at Akāliko after his parents left him to handle operations there. They headed west for states where marijuana had recently been legalized, to build multi-purpose communities in dispensaries and expand their empire of spiritual wellness workshops and low-level weed trafficking.
Tess knew it wasn’t Andrew’s fault he was so ardently committed to whole living. Tess’s lunchbox had been full of Hostess Twinkies; Andrew’s had probably been full of kale bars. Nonetheless, the work he and Brooke completed at the center was impressive.
“Andrew and I planed all these beams,” Brooke said watching Tess take in the room. “We’re thinking of adding on more sleeping quarters, but for now… welcome home.”
“What do you call this thing?” Tess asked, gesturing towards a circular, tufted tapestry cushion on the floor.
“It’s a zabuton,” Brooke said.
“Where we come from,” Tess reminded her, “it’s a bean bag. Why can’t you just have a pullout sofa like a normal person?”
Brooke laughed. “Everything here is special.”
Tess flopped down onto the zabuton. “Especially you.”
Brooke lay down next to her.
“Doesn’t it get a bit overwrought?” Tess asked. “All of it?”
“You know,” Brooke said, “I was drifting around so much when Andrew and I first got together that I find I like doing stuff this way. I don’t have a chance to be anything but purposeful. I’m so busy minding the small things that the big things fall into place. And, I mean, we space out sometimes too, it’s not like this is a Netflix-free zone.”
“You probably know every line from Gandhi,” Tess said.
Brooke hit her with a throw pillow. “Thanks to you.”
Tess laughed. She had introduced Brooke and Andrew at a party, years ago. Brooke had recently returned from Guatemala, heartbroken over a breakup. They hit it off, but Brooke ran hot-cold. She left him again and again for other men, other countries, other projects, returning intermittently to rekindle things at her convenience.
It wasn’t until Andrew cut ties with Brooke and became engaged to a svelte, blonde ski instructor that Brooke returned to the township for good. She set up her massage table and hung her shingle in the village of Lorca. Brooke befriended the ski instructor, and then introduced the blonde to a handsome surgeon. Within a few months, Brooke was ensconced at Akāliko with Andrew, and the ex-fiancée was living in a subdivision up north, wearing mall khakis and making hors d’oeuvres.
They lay silent for a while. Tess heard a lone, winter fly buzzing and listened, following the sound to the skylight. She pointed at it, and Brooke nodded. It buzzed again.
“Andrew’s busy. We can kill the little sonofabitch,” Brooke whispered, swatting.
She missed. They laughed and fell quiet again.
The fly landed on Tess’s knee. She smashed it. Brooke grinned.
“Done,” Tess said.
“How are you, honestly?” Brooke asked.
“I’m really, really devastated,” Tess said. “Totally betrayed and heartbroken.”
“Well… that’s understandable. Here you don’t have to think about him at all. Just make yourself have fun this weekend… who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone…”
“I don’t want to meet someone. I want him to come back.”
“Why?” Brooke snapped. “Why on earth would you want Brian back?”
“I still love him,” Tess said.
“What are you, like a total doormat?” Brooke said. “He was terrible to you.”
He was. Tess knew it was true. Everything she was hanging on to about what they had been was a lie, but she wanted more time to tell that lie to herself before coaxing herself into letting go of it. She still woke each morning expecting the weight of Brian’s arm across her waist. Now he woke up that way with Randy. Tess could not stand it.
“Brooke,” Tess said, biting back tears, “Would it hurt your feelings if I went to Lorca tonight and slept in a hotel?”
“Why? No, no, and no!” Brooke said.
“I just… I really want to be alone, okay? I feel like crying all night. I don’t want to do that in a sleeping loft while you guys are having sex, like, ten feet from my bed.”
“We aren’t going to have sex,” Brooke said. “It’s full moon, and we’re observing Five-Precepts.”
Tess reluctantly asked what the fuck that meant, launching Brooke onto a tangent about deprivation building sensual response, restraint shoring up spirit of intimacy. Tess focused on a shelf of animal figurines. A zebra. A jackal. A water buffalo. Anything but the mating rituals of Brooke and Andrew. Or Brian and Randy.
“By the way,” Brooke said, “Zach is in town and he’s coming to the party. Did I tell you he called me?”
“No,” Tess said. “How’s Andrew with that?”
“Yeah, of course. Someone invited him, and Zach called to see if it was all right, and I said I didn’t mind.”
“When is the last time you saw him?”
“When I tossed his backpack off a moving bus in Peru,” Brooke said. Tess high-fived her, and Brooke rolled onto her stomach.
“He had it coming,” Tess said. “But I’m glad you two are all right now.”
“Check this out,” Brooke said. Her eyes lit up, gossip at the ready. “Zach’s… companion is some girl he met at Burning Man. She’s bringing a portable disco lighting system and a trunk full of costumes. He said she’s a contortionist.”
“At least I’m not the only one getting dumped for some tchotchke,” Tess said.
“Can you at least pretend to be interested in something other than feeling sorry for yourself?”
“I’m trying,” Tess said. “How would you feel?”
“I would feel, like, maybe grateful that your future doesn’t include that asshole, that the universe has better things in mind for you than getting treated like dirt by Brian Crowe.”
“You said that last time,” Tess said.
“Last time he messed up, you said it was the last time too.”
“This was different. Last time, all he did was wreck my truck.”
Brooke nodded. “Yes. I guess that’s true, babe.”
Brooke squeezed Tess’s hand.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Tess asked.
“Over there,” Brooke said. She hefted herself up on one arm and leaned over the edge of the loft to point out to a wood-paneled cubby that Tess initially mistook for a closet.
“It’s a dry toilet. When you pee, sprinkle a little sawdust on it. When you shit, sprinkle a lot of sawdust on it,” Brooke said.
Tess immediately determined not to shit for the next two days.
“Where do you shower?” Tess asked, clambering down the short ladder to the main level where Brooke and Andrew slept like ascetics on what appeared to be a giant zabuton.
“Oh, outside in the summer. In the winter, we bathe in the washtub on the deck.”
Tess eyed the closed bathroom door. “People pay you money to stay here under these conditions?”
Brooke’s short laugh came just a hair too late, and Tess realized she had hurt Brooke’s feelings. She cracked open the toilet door. “Hey. I’m just kidding.”
“Hundreds of years of innovation in plumbing and electric. Wasted on us,” Brooke said cheerfully. She paused, listened, and laughed. “Are you holding your pee?”
“I can’t pee when you’re listening,” Tess said, pulling the door closed.
“Still? After all these years?”
“Run some water.”
“Andrew will never forgive the waste of this,” Brooke chided, but she went to the small sink in the bathroom and turned the lever. As the water ran, Brooke said, “When you want to take a bath, just fill the tub half way with snow, then pour in boiling water. It’s the perfect temperature. You’ll like it. Trust me.”
“Wow,” Tess said, closing the door to the toilet. “I feel so conscientious, not flushing anything.”
“Well, hopefully,” Brooke said, “some of our mindfulness will rub off on you.”
“Oh, goody,” Tess said, “I can’t wait.”
Tess awoke early the next morning to find Andrew and Brooke engaged in a sun salutation in the meditation room. Andrew brought his finger to his lips when Tess opened the heavy, engraved door. The room was magnificent: mirrored walls on two sides. A wood burning stove heated water that circulated warmth up through the gleaming teak floor. Alabaster walls caught the light, and floor-to-ceiling windows afforded a view of the mountains. Neutral-tone beige yoga mats, sitting blocks, and meditation pillows sat stacked in neat towers. Red prayer shawls and elaborately embroidered tapestry hung from the vaulted ceiling.
She asked where they kept the coffee, and Andrew stopped his yoga to make it for her. He fussed over hand-grinding the beans, fetching clarified water from a designated bucket, measuring out the proportions just so. Tess gulped it down, and asked for a second cup.
“I really don’t know if I could drink another,” he said.
“That’s all right,” Tess replied. “More for me.”
Tess enjoyed watching him parsimoniously spoon two small heaps of grounds into the old-fashioned percolator. They sipped the brew in silence that was, Tess thought, less than meditative, while Brooke made small talk on a list of things they needed for the party and sent Andrew to town to fetch them. After he left, Brooke glanced out the sliding glass door and topped off her own cup, firing up the stove to make a third pot.
“I love him to pieces,” she said, “But the coffee rationing is ridiculous.”
“If a man kept me from a second cup of coffee, I would never let his dick within a mile of me again,” Tess said.
Brooke looked amused. “Oh, darling. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Hey,” Tess said, swirling the sludge in the bottom of her cup, “read my grounds?”
“I don’t know…” Brooke said. “I haven’t done that in a long time.”
“You predicted Brian,” Tess said. “You owe me.”
“Well,” Brooke said. “Maybe I can foresee his imminent demise.”
“Make it slow and painful.”
Tess put her saucer on top of the empty cup, closed her eyes, and made a wish. She slid the cup across the counter.