21 Nov Nada Alic
THE UNBEARABLE HOTNESS OF BEING
It wasn’t immediate when I walked into his office for the interview, but once I sat down it became clear to me, I would love this man forever. He introduced himself as Robert and said that he didn’t like it when people called him Rob so to please not call him that. I already knew this because I already knew everything about him from the internet. Like I knew that he was a very wealthy Buddhist CEO who practiced ego-detachment by flying coach on business trips. I also knew he had his own line of Sake. This combination of power and spiritual awareness was like a cologne I never knew I liked.
I did all of the things you are supposed to do when being interviewed; I matched the grip of his handshake but let him lead to show him I was independent yet maintained a healthy fear of men. I crossed and uncrossed my legs when I was making a point. I turned my body towards the air conditioning unit so that my breasts were visible through my sheer blouse.
I wanted him to see that I was paying attention with my whole self, not just from the neck up. His eyes never left the printed resume I had brought in, but it was understood. The following Monday would be my first day.
I am a staff writer at an online magazine where I spend most of my day writing listicles designed to help you identify what kind of Starbucks drink best personifies you. Once published, all of my articles are then broadcast on a giant screen and ranked according to popularity. This is meant to bolster a healthy spirit of competition in the workplace. If your articles performed poorly, you were eventually transferred to another department where you would be relieved of your editorial duties and spend your day posting anonymous comments on your colleague’s articles with keywords to help strengthen SEO ranking. On my first day, I spent the entire time writing comments such as “this is a very useful article about Mid-century Modern, Herman Miller, Lloyd Wright, vintage furniture, antique, Palm Springs, modernism, Craigslist, for sale, Los Angeles, architecture.” I didn’t mind much, except for the fact that I was seated at the farthest possible spot from Robert’s office. I began pretending to fax blank sheets of paper at the fax machine near his office just to get closer to him, but my coworker Jill eventually took notice.
“You know that thing isn’t plugged in, right?”
“I know that. I was just practicing.”
“For when I have to fax something.”
I walked back to my desk and started typing, “fuck off, Jill” repeatedly on a blank Word document. Jill didn’t know that I was in this for love, not money or power, or all of the yogurt I could ever want. It wasn’t that I didn’t take pride in my work, but I knew it was no different than being asked to arbitrarily count all of the white cars that drove passed me on Hollywood Blvd, whisper that number into the sky and continue to do so day in and day out until I died.
As time went on, my interest waned until I very literally could not even. While researching topics like the male birth control pill and the best raw juice bar in Los Angeles, I would get distracted and spend the afternoon reading about the Syrian refugee crisis and excuse myself to the bathroom but instead, walk to my car and sit in the backseat sobbing with tears of untraceable origin. Tears accumulated from the womb, or from something a stranger once yelled at me from a car window.
When I returned to my desk I noticed an email from Robert with a subject line that read, “No Subject” which is the kind of email that says: what I’m about to say cannot be contained in one line, it requires no introduction, no explanation, it is too urgent to be prefaced. I clicked through and read it. It was a company-wide invitation to a local zendo where participation was not mandatory, but encouraged. It read as follows:
Brothers and Sisters,
Are you feeling stressed out? Distracted? Tired of the grind? I invite you to join me this Saturday evening at the “Don’t Worry Zendo” at 444 N Flores St. for a gathering of souls.
Let us zazen as one!
I then typed “what is zazen” into Google search and learned that it was just sitting on a cushion called a zafu and being quiet for a long time. I felt confident in my ability to do that. I looked down at my breasts and gently blew on them. This would be my moment.
The Don’t Worry Zendo looks more like a yoga studio than a holy place, but the Guru Neem Karoli Baba told poet Michael Attie that this was where the people would come to learn of Dharma in the West. I grew up in a nonreligious household so am in no place to say where miracles can and cannot happen. I immediately noticed Jill sitting next to Robert with a few of our coworkers in lotus position and mouthed “fucking Jill” under my breath.
I sat on the ground and felt my hatred as if it were a small child that clung to my chest. As we began, Guru Michael asked us to close our eyes. He came behind me and patted me on the shoulder to remind me to close my eyes but I did not close my eyes, I waited for everyone else to close theirs, then I looked around. It felt powerful to not give up my sight so easily. I stared at the back of Robert’s head while sending signals to him with my breasts. I started quietly singing the words of Bonnie Taylor, “turn around, bright eyes,” still nothing. I coughed an audible cough so that he could hear my voice. I followed this with an “excuse me” so that he could be sure that it was, in fact, me. He did not turn around.
I thought of leaving until a short elderly woman hovered above me and motioned for me to lie on my back. I wasn’t sure if this was a part of the practice but she was wearing a name tag that read Valentina and held a small blue bottle in her hand. Valentina took essential oils and rubbed my forehead in a circular motion with her thick, calloused thumbs. Rosemary and peppermint wafted in the space above my face and I became so docile that I nearly fell asleep. Feelings of judgment were replaced with feelings of pleasure. I felt embarrassed by my own arrogance and cowered like a small dog. Valentina proceeded to anoint my brothers and sisters next to me and I knew it was working as I had just referred to them as brothers and sisters. As I laid down in child’s pose, Robert turned to me and mouthed “namaste” as he nodded in approval before cradling his knees inward and rocking them back and forth. I felt millions of years dissolve into my zafu and absorb into the floor.
“Namaste, my love,” I thought in my head.
As the bell rang, we all wearily rose from our cushions and greeted one another as if we existed in a world without pain, only the gentle sound of our indoor voices, which were now reduced to a polite whisper. Our oily foreheads shining in the dull light and our eyes still adjusting, we laughed at our own innocence. I looked towards Jill and she was engulfed in a radiant white light, which was just the fluorescent light coming from the women’s bathroom, but it somehow still seemed holy to me. I walked to the exit and took a complimentary bag of trail mix with me.
I began visiting the Don’t Worry Zendo regularly after that, even carpooling with Jill at times. I felt my mood improve and even noticed my hair beginning to form early stages of natural dreadlocks and I just let it happen. I felt that my zazen was always rooted in a strong connection to Robert. It was as if the silence between us was his way of penetrating me through roles, ego-identities and several layers of sustainably-sourced linen.
As I sat, I observed my body vibrating on its own without any say from me. I thought about plants, and animals, and people sleeping in their beds next to other people, also sleeping. All of them vibrating in unison to create one endless hum. For every person who died, another person was born to take their place, so there would be no need to feel sad anymore. I thought about how beautiful that hum would sound if I could hear it, but I was not meant to hear it, no one was. It was going so fast that it was soundless. But it was right there, underneath my blouse.
Robert sent me another email on my birthday with the subject line, “No Subject.” It read as follows:
I have something for you, come to my office.
I walked into Robert’s office and he handed me a cassette tape called An Evening With Swami Nikhilananda.
“He is believed to be the manifestation of Krishna, Buddha, and Christ.”
“Wow, thank you.”
“It really helped me and my wife get through a rough patch.”
Wife. The word came out of his mouth and punched me in the throat. I felt sick. I took the tape and muttered “I’m late, sorry” but I was not late, I was already at work. I walked out of his office and got into my car.
I had nowhere to go. I just sat in my car until every car in the lot had left. Night fell and Arthur, the parking attendant, knocked on my window. I rolled it down.
“What? I’m fine.”
“I have to lock up soon.”
“It’s ok. I’m waiting for someone.”
It wasn’t a lie. I was waiting. I was waiting for Robert. I would zazen my entire life for him. I rolled up my window and inserted An Evening With Swami Nikhilananda into my cassette player. Swami’s voice filled the car.
Welcome to An Evening with Swami Nikhilananda!
Focus on the middle of your chest. Imagine there’s an opening in the middle of your chest and that even though you are breathing out of your nose and mouth, with each in-breath, into this hole in your chest, you are drawing in something very subtle, not even on the physical plane. Think of it as a very fine mist.
I breathed in and out slowly.
If there is a great sadness in you, let it out. You don’t need it.
I tried letting it out but my sadness was old, and possibly handicapped. It would require several able-bodied men to hold it upright and walk slowly with it towards the exit. It would complain about a draft along the way. It would need to stop and take its pills. It would never make it out.
Fill your body with this very ne healing mist. Now, rest quietly with your eyes closed and just listen to my voice.
Breathe in through your chest, drawing the Universe into your heart. And you will breathe out through the top of your head. Draw it back in, and come back down. In, up, out, down. In, up, out, down.
I did this for twenty minutes. It was quiet for so long that I thought the tape had stopped running. I began to feel very anxious about when the voice would return. Would it be too loud? Would it warn me before it comes or would it sneak up on me like Robert’s wife, who, in my mind, was just a very fine mist with possibly large breasts and naturally straight hair. Swami returned.
Now, I want you to open your eyes and look down at yourself. Are you a prisoner of your own body? Follow my voice. I want you to see your clothing as form. A material trap. I want you to liberate yourself from all forms. Take off your clothes.
The air shifted. I rewound the tape to make sure I heard that correctly.
Take off your clothes.
I imagined Robert and his large-breasted wife taking off their clothes at this very moment. I imagined this was the exact spot where they smoothed their rough patch. They took their fingers and stroked the patch as if it were a stone on the beach, polishing it over millions of years until it was a soft white surface. And when they were ready, they would make love on the stone that they made together. I took off my pants.
C’mon. A little bit more.
The voice grew agitated. Until I realized it was no longer the voice, but the sound of Arthur standing a few feet from my car. His zipper was down and he was touching himself.
“What are you doing? Get away from me!”
I didn’t have time to put my pants on, so I draped them over my legs and quickly drove out of the lot.
As I drove away, the tape continued to play:
And so my child, Atman, being luminous by nature, illuminates itself. It does not depend on anything else for its own light.
When I got home, I wrote those words in an email entitled “No Subject,” sent it to myself and went to sleep.
Nada Alic is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles, by way of Toronto. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: Future You (I & II) and I Saw It In You, featuring artwork by artist Andrea Nakhla. By day she is the managing editor at Society6, a print-on-demand art marketplace for 200k independent artists and designers. Buy Future You here.