I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs to capacity only to forcefully expel the air moments later. I tried in vain to block out the sheer pandemonium that enveloped me. I reached around and felt for my hoody and brought it up over my face allowing space for my mouth to continue to breathe at the break neck pace. It proved to be a weak insulator as the woman lying next to me was bawling uncontrollably as the memories of her past seemingly resurfaced. I heard the man Dante, who I had only met just hours earlier crying out, allowing a primal moan to escape his lips. His moan would eventually crescendo, conflagrating with the slurred ramblings of another stranger's guttural, unintelligible chatter, contributing to the firestorm of raw emotion that had ignited. As I continued to lay there surrounded by grown adults writhing around on the floor in emotional angst, I was suddenly struck with the remembrance of Jonestown. Is this what the end was like for them? Had we all unknowingly drank the Kool-Aid? No. This wasn't Jonestown. In fact, perhaps the most disturbing aspect to this all was the fact that I had actually paid to take part in it.
The call came from Nashville. My friend Kate, who had relocated to the city to realize her country music aspirations, had seemingly been side tracked by the New Age movement. I'm all for self-improvement, and despise the idea of being cast as close minded, so I was on board when Kate called me and told me there was to be a workshop in her newly adopted city. Kate and I had recently had a falling out, the likely result of my traveling to Nashville two years prior, the week before her country music video shoot. Her anticipation of the shoot had left her quite on edge, as she simply wasn't herself. Although, to be fair, I doubt I would have behaved any better if my daily allotted nutrition was merely an elixir comprised of water, maple syrup, and cayenne peppers; a Hollywood fad diet at its finest.
In the two years since I had been to Nashville, Kate had recently graduated from the institute of 'rebirthing'. The coursework consisted of Kate following the renowned Rebirther Sally Ross across the south, enrolling in workshop after workshop. Kate was now a licensed Rebirther. I still wasn't entirely clear as to what exactly that entailed. But her enthusiasm for the feat was remarkable. Thrusting herself into the role of apprenticeship, Kate had become close friends with Sally Ross, who had written several books on the topic of rebirthing, and I had to admit that I was slightly anxious to meet the woman as she seemed to dominate our conversations for the months leading up to the workshop.
Kate had organized her book signing at Borders the evening I landed in Nashville and when the moment arrived, I was sitting in a row of folding chairs when Ross ascended the stairs. The crowd, consisting of five middle aged women, was nearly beside themselves with glee upon her arrival. Ross was not what I was expecting at all. She was extremely tall and thin with short platinum blond hair, and that smile. I don't know if it was the fluorescent whiteness of her teeth, or the penetrating gaze of her gray eyes, but the entire ensemble was terrifying. The woman had the predatory grace of a bald eagle. I felt like a lowly field mouse, as if she could predict my every move from atop her high perch, and swoop in for the kill at any moment. Kate introduced me and we shook hands. Her grip was surprisingly weak. I guessed her to be in her late 60's, but Kate couldn't confirm her age, as Ross' birth was mysteriously missing from all of her information on her websites.
Later that evening after dinner and drinks, we retired to Kate's one bedroom guest house. She was renting the small dwelling from a local asshole that was continuously popping in to say hello, and 'check on things.' Kate's sister had also flown in for the workshop and the three of us were to be staying with Kate for the duration. The landlord took a liking to Kate's sister immediately and began to flirt with her almost as much as he did with Kate. The man was a douche bag denizen, clad in his uniform of black button up shirts, designer jeans and West Hampton inspired penny loafers. He introduced himself to me as an afterthought and patted me on the shoulder and returned his focus to Kate and her sister, eagerly boasting about the size of his…wine collection. I was used to it. Kate was the most glamorous person I had ever seen in real life, and men seemed to fall all over themselves whenever they were in her presence. Kate giggled, flashing him her infamous white toothy grin and flipped her hair over her shoulder and assured him that the fire pit he had recently installed in her backyard was in perfect working order, and he finally retreated. Kate laughed dismissingly, as if her manipulation of men were a game. She reached for her phone and listened to a few messages as her sister and I drank a glass of wine in silence. Typically, I tend to feel the awkwardness the most when the conversation lulls and feel as if it is my personal responsibility to alleviate the situation with mindless chatter.
"This wine tastes really good." I lied. To my unsophisticated palate it tasted like melted batteries, but for the sake of awkward silences I pretended to adore it. Kate's sister barely looked at me, with a subtle nod of her head, thus squashing my attempt at small talk. Luckily, an exasperated sigh escaped Kate's lips as she tossed her phone on the coffee table and reached for her glass of wine.
"What's wrong?" her sister asked, her voice full of concern.
"Oh, it was just a message from Ryvre. She said she didn't have time to grab nametags for the workshop tomorrow and wanted to know if I would." Kate said, as her sister sipped another drink and stared at her knowingly.
"You see what's going on here, right? It's a test." Kate's sister said, stirring the proverbial pot. Kate sighed in agreement.
"They're just threatened by me." Kate answered.
"I'm sorry, what?" I said as I was thoroughly confused as to what the underlying discussion was.
"They're threatened by me, because I'm Sally's favorite, and I'm the youngest Rebirther, and they don't want to respect my authority in organizing this event." She explained.
"Oh…" I said hoping my skepticism wouldn't seep through. I remembered meeting Ryvre earlier that evening. She was a fine human being and was ridiculously nice and I doubt that she would be so petty as to shirk off her nametag responsibilities as a ploy to assert her power. Kate shook her head slowly and reached for her phone and dialed Ryvre. Another couple of moments passed in awkward silence as I pretended to study the contents of my wine. I found the entire thing to be absurd, but I didn't dare say it out loud as only a few hours earlier, Kate classified me as negative because I had foolishly mentioned that it might be tough to get seated right away at a restaurant, at 8 o'clock on a Friday night. According to Kate, my storm cloud of negativity had descended upon her oasis of positivity the moment I had arrived at her place. She had a painted wooden sign hanging on her wall which read "Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." It got me thinking, as I tilted my head to the side.
"Isn't that cute?" she said, as she noticed me staring at it.
"That doesn't make any sense. The moon is closer than the stars, so it should say 'shoot for the stars, even if you miss, you'll land among…the…moon…" I said. She glared at me.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" she asked.
With these two instances in my short term memory, I didn't want to be perceived once again as a downer for saying the obvious; that she was reading far too much into this situation and she should just buy the Goddamn nametags herself.
"Hi Ryvre, this is Kate. I just got your message, and I'm returning your call. I'm so sorry but I've just got a lot of stuff going on right now, and I actually won't have time in the morning to grab the nametags. Okay? So sorry. It's just really hectic right now. I hope you understand. See you tomorrow. Namaste." She hung up the phone, and took a hectic sip of wine and smiled sweetly to us.
Later that night, Kate and her sister were sleeping in her bed, and I was on the couch staring up at the ceiling wondering what I had gotten myself into. I felt like I didn't recognize the person Kate was becoming and it saddened me. I heard the two of them laugh down the hall, and wondered if I should just get my own hotel room despite Kate insisting on I stay with her. I knew it had been awhile since she had seen her sister, and I didn't want to get in the way of their sister bonding time. I was an only child, so I was clueless when it came to matters of the sibling heart. Kate said that she would put her sister up at a hotel if it got to be too much. I sighed, and rolled over and smiled in anticipation of the workshop the next morning.
The workshop was held at the campus of what used to be a women's missionary school of sorts. The collegiate gothic style of the buildings was slightly intimidating as the three of us entered carrying our pillows and blankets. Kate rushed in ahead of us so she could assert her newly acquired organizational skills. Her sister and I ascended a large spiral staircase to the floor where the workshop was to be held. There was a woman behind a table smiling up at us as we approached. Her nametag read Petal. She smiled and handed us spiral notebooks with our names scribbled on them in black ink. I wasn't sure which joke to crack first; the fact that her name was 'Petal', or that she was indeed wearing a nametag. Kate's sister had made it painfully obvious that we didn't share a sense of humor, so I opted to remain silent. I flipped through the empty pages of the notebook and entered the room where the workshop would take place. It was a spacious room with multiple large windows open, letting in the sun and the city air. I set my pillow and blanket off to the side with the others. A few rows of chairs had been arranged facing a tall director chair at the front of the room. A shrine had been set up off to the side with a picture of a young, wise looking Indian man staring out with Mona Lisa eyes; the kind that followed you as you moved about the room. A small end table was in front of the picture with red roses in a vase, as well as red rose petals sprinkled on the table and floor. A single candle was lit. To someone with a meager understanding of Eastern practices, I found it all to be a tad eerie, as my eyes scanned the room for any punch, or Kool-Aid like substances. What exactly had I gotten myself into?
As the rows of seats began to fill up with people, a quiet chatter began to surface as everyone was in anticipation of Ross. A grey haired man entered the room dressed in white slacks and a button up shirt, apparently his painting clothes, as they were covered in streaks of multicolored pastels. He walked to the front of the room and just opposite of the shrine, he began to unroll a large painting canvas and stapled it to the wall. It stretched from the floor to just a foot shy of the ceiling. He knew we were all staring at him, but offered no introduction or an explanation of any sort.
"What the hell does he think he's doing?" I heard someone whisper behind me. I laughed slightly and turned to look behind me when I saw Ross enter the room. The room went silent as she walked up the aisle that parted the dozen or so people who were there for the workshop. She was wearing a tight red sweater with a faux fur collar, a black skirt that settled just above her knees, and knee high, shiny red plastic thick soled boots. The left heel had scuff marks on it. It was something that I would stare at the rest of the day, as I found it incredibly distracting for some reason. She took her seat in the director's chair and smiled that vacant, Gary Busey smile of hers. She noticed that the majority of the attention was now focused on the man behind her who was now setting up his paints. She looked over her shoulder and smiled lovingly at him and back at us.
"For those of you who don't know, this is my companion- or I should say fiancé Marty." She said as if that would serve as an explanation for his actions. "He's an amazing artist. You can see his other works in the brochures on the table by the door next to my books, which I suggest each of you pick up." She said. I feel that 'pick up' should have been substituted with 'purchase' as she had all of her books she'd ever written on display. I would have thought the 300 bucks I paid for the workshop would have at least included one of her books. "I invited Marty here today, because I wanted to introduce a creative energy to the room. So he will be here behind me painting a portrait of prosperity. At the end of the workshop, we will have a silent auction if you are interested in purchasing the painting." It was at that moment when I was absolutely certain that Kate would undoubtedly be the highest bidder. The day before, when we returned to her place, I saw a glaring yellow and orange painted canvas hanging on the wall in her room.
"What is that?" I asked. Kate smiled proudly.
"That's one of Marty's paintings. Isn't it gorgeous?" I suppose I've never had an eye for art, so I stared at the yellow and orange swirls on the canvas and nodded my head, in an effort to recognize its true beauty.
"It kind of looks like a vagina, doesn't it?" Kate said as the oblong swirls came together in a more specified shape than I had previously noticed. It was so apparent, that I don't know how I couldn't have recognized it immediately.
"Sally's fiancé painted this?" I asked. Kate nodded.
"I saw it and had to have it."
"Really?" I asked in an octave higher than my normal voice, a dead giveaway of my incredulousness.
"Yeah, you see this little dot right here?" she pointed to a small mark. I nodded. "I have the same one on mine, in the same place." She said smiling. I was thoroughly confused.
"So…are you saying that you actually posed for this, or something?" I asked as Kate laughed hysterically.
"No! Of course not! I just saw it and felt a connection to it." She said, as if it made perfect sense. Who willingly buys a portrait of their vagina? I couldn't imagine waking up to that each morning. She then told me how much she paid, and then it was my turn to laugh hysterically. She went on to point out the simplicity of the painting and how it truly was a great work of art. I then wished to point out that it looked like the artist had simply wedged the paint brush betwixt his butt cheeks and attacked the unsuspecting canvas with streaks of yellow and orange that happened to merge with one another, settling into the shape of Kate's vagina. But of course, I refrained.
The workshop began without a hitch. We were all scribbling down notes in the wide ruled notebooks that were provided for us. I would much rather have preferred college ruled, but poor Ryvre was probably too pressed for time, having to purchase the nametags, to care about the width of the notebook lines. Ross brought up an easel with a large pad of paper and began to poorly construct an oblong shaped pie chart, dealing with the management of money. She laid out specific percentages of what we should spend on bills, how much to put aside in savings, and the remaining amount was for our 'disposable income' which I believed was a contradiction of terms. The small percentage she used simply couldn't be considered 'disposable'. Moreover, the entire segment was a disappointment to me as the information she provided was something I could learn from the entry level bank teller at my local Wells Fargo.
Once the 'financial segment' had concluded, Ross informed us that we would now enjoy a musical interlude. She pressed play on a mini CD player and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" flooded the speakers and filled the florescent lit room with the carefree sounds of the 70's. Much to my surprise, Ross rose from her director's chair and began to dance. She encouraged us to follow suit, and so we did. Slightly nonplussed with the unfolding situation, I rose from my chair and began to sway gently back and forth, tepidly, as I could feel the eyes from the picture of the wise looking Indian man upon me, judging my dance moves. I smiled uncomfortably as everyone danced around me; the middle aged women lifting the hems of their jean skirts allowing their Birkenstock clad feet to prance about the room. Kate caught my eye and flashed me a dirty look to suggest that I participate more. I in turn, flashed her a look to suggest that I didn't fly across the country to dance about like some Goddamn nymph at a country fair.
The Johnny Nash song segued into a performance by a local band consisting of three women and a bongo. I will refer to them as the Brahma Mamas, as they seemed to be the reggae counterpart of the Indigo Girls. They chanted powerful mantras of divine femininity in three part harmony as one of them furiously swatted at the bongo as if she were swatting away the unwanted advances of a gentlemen suitor. She whipped her head to and fro, her dreadlocks uproariously flying about in a frenzy of New Age bliss. Needless to say, the crowd found it riveting.
Upon the conclusion of the Brahma Mamas rousing performance, Ross instructed us that we were now going to have a group rebirthing session. It was the reason that the majority of people had signed up for the workshop. Without going into too much detail, because Ross most likely has a trademark on the concept; rebirthing is simply another way of saying you will be breathing rhythmically for an hour straight. During this time, suppressed memories and past negative experiences can be supposedly brought to the surface of the conscious, allowing them to be dealt with in a safe environment. I would encourage anyone to do their own research on the subject as it has been known to help many people. I've always possessed a healthy sense of skepticism, and this is the sole reason Kate believes I've never had the experiences that many others have had. For instance, it didn't make me cry hysterically like the lady beside me. It didn't make me speak in tongues like Dante; instead it just made me very angry. I was angry that I had spent nearly $700.00 to fly across the country to attend this farcical workshop. I was angry with the way Kate was behaving. I could feel our friendship beginning to slip away once again and I couldn't do anything to stop it. Anything I said that even slightly contradicted Kate's new circle of friends was met with an onslaught of rhetoric of not being 'open to new experiences.' I stopped breathing rhythmically, and stewed in my anger when Delorian, one of the helpers crawled over to me. He began breathing in my face to encourage me to continue to breathe rhythmically as he whispered softly in a cadence coated in garlic that 'I was innocent'. I obliged him and resumed breathing and felt a tingling sensation in my hands, which is a common side effect when a dramatic increase of oxygen is introduced into your system. Tingling aside, I still felt completely ridiculous lying on the floor in a roomful of crying adults.
We broke for lunch and Kate took us back to her place to get her guitar as Ross had requested her to play for the workshop as a sort of musical petty fore. On the way we stopped at deli which Kate informed us had the most amazing sandwiches. As her sister and I exited the car, Kate remained. I asked why she wasn't coming in, and she mentioned that she had to write down some notes for later. Before I walked away she handed me her credit card and told me to buy my sandwich with it. It felt like a compulsory motherly reaction. I found it odd and thanked her for it, but informed her that I was capable of paying for my own food.
"Why can't you just be open to accepting someone doing something nice for you?" she insisted as she shoved the card in my hand. It didn't feel nice. Naturally, I went inside and bought the most expensive sandwich on the menu. It didn't matter that I didn't enjoy heirloom tomatoes; I could just pick them off. As I got back to the car, I felt guilty about it, and I thanked Kate for buying my lunch as we drove back to her place. She was in a rush to get home so she could put her clothes in the dryer for later in the evening. Upon arriving we saw that her landlord had lovingly switched them for her. I was tempted to tell her to make sure all of her underwear were accounted for, but tensions were already running high, and I honestly had no idea what I could say around her without setting her off. It was as if she were incapable of recognizing sarcasm from negativity. She was under a lot of stress as organizing a workshop which promoted love, peace and acceptance ironically created an environment rife with hate, fear, and resistance. As soon as we entered her place Kate immediately began cleaning as Ross would very likely be visiting after the workshop. I offered to help but she told me to go in the backyard and enjoy my lunch. I wasn't about to argue with her so I grabbed my jacket and stepped out on her patio and began eating my sandwich. Kate was right; it was probably the most amazing sandwich I had ever tasted. The large cut slices of mozzarella were absolutely delightful. I casually tossed the heirloom tomatoes into the newly installed fire pit and relaxed for the first time since I had arrived. She had a picturesque backyard and I stared at the trees swaying gently in the chilly February breeze. It allowed me some time for some much needed self-reflection. I once again felt guilty for harboring such angry thoughts toward her. Under the veil of impatience and frustration, I knew her to be a wonderfully kind and considerate person. I took another bite of my delectable sandwich as an overwhelming sense of optimism washed over me. I knew that once the workshop ended, Kate would return to her normal self, and we would have fun like the old times. I was suddenly looking forward to finishing the workshop and spending the following few days with Kate and her sister.
A few minutes later Kate stepped out onto the patio. I smiled genuinely at her and a few moments of small talk passed before she revealed what her intent was for talking to me. Her smile gave way to a look mixed with nervousness and guilt.
"You know I want what's best for you, right?" she asked. I nodded slightly, as an uneasy wave of insecurity slowly crept up my spine. She handed me a folded up piece of paper and walked back inside. Completely at a loss for words I unfolded the paper and saw that in her erratic, chicken scratch handwriting, she had written me a letter. The thesis went something like this: Kali, please allow yourself the gift of receiving by allowing me to put you up in a hotel. I'm afraid my place is too small to house all of our energies. She signed it with a heart. I felt as if she was watching me through the window so I acted as calmly as possible as my nervous system was engulfed in a blind rage. I delicately folded up the letter and set it on the table and picked up my sandwich. I could barely eat it as the once delicious mozzarella now tasted like tears and rubber. The delicate bread seemed harder as it scratched the roof of my mouth. I saw Kate move away from the window and I instantly dumped the sandwich into the fire pit. I pictured her discovering it later, crusted up against the wrought iron and she'd begrudgingly hose it down, having to chip away at the dried on tomatoes with a knife. Now I knew why she insisted on buying my lunch. She wanted to feel like she was doing something nice before she got rid of me. And the 'notes' she was writing down was most likely the note she had just handed me. I checked the time and realized that we'd be leaving soon, and I had to pack up my belongings since I was no longer welcome at her house.
As I was packing my suitcase Kate timidly entered the room and smiled weakly at me.
"Are you mad at me?" she asked. I fought the urge to laugh incredulously. I had no idea how to respond to such a question when every time I spoke my true thoughts, she would bury it under the catchall cloak of negativity. It was rejection at its finest. I replayed the conversation in my head in where I willingly volunteered to stay at a hotel myself, and she insisted that it wouldn't be necessary. But here she was, kicking me out, citing some erroneous excuse of my energy exceeding the allotted amount she had reserved for me. Of course I was mad, but instead I smiled coldly at her and shook my head in a disgusted manner.
The rest of the workshop was filtered through the lens of anger and frustration. I was certain that our friendship wouldn't be able to survive this weekend. As Ross stood before us, she looked back to Marty who had just completed his painting. It was a black pot of gold with a rainbow stretching out of it towards the sky. He had glued on various coins and dollar bills, and it looked like a child's rendition of an early prototype of a Lucky Charms cereal box. I looked over it carefully, my eyes searching for any subliminal vaginas, but came up empty. Ross clapped in delight and admiration which elicited sparse clapping from the rest of the group. She then proceeded to brag about Kate's singing voice and guitar skills and asked her up to the front to perform a few songs to close out the day. Ross reminded us that the Oscars were on that evening so she was going to wrap things up a tad sooner as to allow us time to get home to watch it. I honestly don't think anyone in the group was even aware or concerned that they were airing later that evening. The juxtaposition of Hollywood and a workshop about healing seemed ridiculous and nearly undermined her authority as a spiritual teacher.
After Ross' soaring introduction, Kate took her place at the front of the room. I noticed that Delorian promptly found an excuse to exit the room. Earlier, Kate had informed me that he was her rebirthing nemesis and he was jealous of her relationship with Ross. I now had the strange feeling that I had common ground with someone who was deemed a 'rebirthing nemesis'. It's strange what two days in Nashville will do to a person. Kate sat on a stool and proceeded to give the worst performance I had ever seen from her. Her voice was hoarse, and she managed to pluck the wrong strings at various intervals. All the anger I had for her disappeared and I genuinely felt bad for her. I knew that she was nervous, and would most likely blame it on the negative energy from Delorian, Ryvre, and the rest of the hippy staff. To conclude the workshop, Ross announced that Kate had won the silent auction, and that she was the lucky person who would be taking home Marty's very literal rendition of a portrait of prosperity. Not one person had bid against her.
After the workshop ended, Kate and I walked silently to her car as I was under the impression that she was going to take me to the hotel she was putting me up at. Instead she simply opened the trunk and retrieved my suitcase and set it down on the rain soaked asphalt.
"I got you a room here." She explained as she led me to the check in area. The teenager behind the counter greeted us, and Kate handed him her credit card explaining she wanted to get me a room. I stared at the calendar on the wall to distract myself from spontaneously combusting from the silent rage that dwelled inside of me. It felt like a punishment, as if I hadn't behaved myself at her place and so now I was sent away to learn my lesson. I happened to glance down at the credit card receipt as she was signing it. The charge was 30 bucks. She turned and smiled at me and told me there was a Starbucks and a fast food place just a few blocks up the road. And then she left.
The kid from behind the counter led me through the campus to an old dormitory that had been converted into the most pathetic excuse for a motel. In comparison, Motel 6 would have felt like The Waldorf-Astoria. The room consisted of a twin sized bed, a desk and a crucifix. The bathroom was down the hall. In a dramatic fit of despair, I flung myself down on the bed only to have it toss me to the floor. I sat up and found that the bed was missing a leg. The pirate inspired wooden leg that had propped it up rolled out from under it and rested next to my leg. I flung the thing across the room.
Kate and her sister joined Ross and her posse to discuss the success of the workshop while eating dinner and watching the Oscars. I was also fortunate enough to watch the Oscars. There was a black and white TV in the 'lounge', AKA the room with a couch and a microwave, and if I adjusted the rabbit ears just so, I was able to get a semi distorted picture. Naturally, I checked out early the next morning and got a cab to the airport. I wasn't scheduled to fly out until the next day, but I found the thought of remaining in Nashville any longer to be completely suffocating. My friendship with Kate was officially finished as far as I was concerned. In high school we bonded together as social misfits against the world, and yet here we were years later, completely different people trying to convince each other that we hadn't evolved into two entirely different people. I came to this realization as I was cutting up my pancake at The Waffle House. It was a place I would never willingly choose, but in the end, it was fortunate that I ended up there because at any other establishment, my crying into my orange juice would have gotten stares from the other patrons. But at The Waffle House, I simply blended in with the other sad and desperate diners.
When the plane landed in Portland I felt a sense of relief. As I got in my car, I received a text from Kate. She assumed I was still at that sad sack, nunnery that she left me at. A ridiculous amount of time had passed since she'd dropped me off at the front desk, and for her to think that I would still be there, waiting around for her was absolutely absurd. She asked if I wanted to go to dinner with her and her sister. I replied that I was already in Oregon. We talked maybe a handful of times after that, mostly to rehash that weekend only to once again come to different conclusions. Soon after that weekend, she moved to India and shaved her head.
Namaste, man. Fucking Namaste.