Rea Bochner / The Cape House
“Fast Eddie fell in the moat last night,” Jake says, dragging deeply on a Gauloises.
I stop chewing my toast and Nutella. “Shut up.”
“I swear. He was so wasted, I had to walk him home from The Vink. The whole way back, he was going on and on about how his Dad is Lord of the Dance.”
“His Dad is Michael Flatley?”
Jake raises an eyebrow. “You a fan?”
“That’s classified information.”
He chuckles, smoke seeping through his wide, square teeth.
“Anyway, I’m like, ‘Whatever, dude, fine, your dad is Lord of the Dance.’ Suddenly, Eddie stopped walking and got up in my face: ‘What, You don’t believe me?’ And he started doing that Irish jigging thing.”
“He’s like a foot from the moat, right? So I tried to grab him, but I wasn’t fast enough. Boom: Eddie’s in the water, covered in moss and goose turds and God knows what else.”
“That’s amazing.” I savor the dark pleasure of laughing at Ed Welsh, AKA Fast Eddie Douchebag, who has distinguished himself among our group of student travelers by getting drunk every night and doing something ridiculous. When he’s sober, he’s not a bad guy, intelligent, mildly handsome, nervous in a sweet way. But when Ed drinks, he becomes someone else. His eyes turn dark, like whoever lives there is no longer home. At the Vink, our Dutch town’s local bar, I tease Eddie with extra gusto, highlighting his foolishness and establishing myself on the safe end of the joke.
“So, listen,” Jake says. “Come with me to Germany this weekend.”
“We’re Jewish,” I say reflexively, as the word “Germany” conjures images of children’s shoes, piles of corpses in mass graves, a little boy with arms skyward and an SS gun at his back. That last image, which I saw in a textbook in fourth grade, gave me nightmares through my teens. Though less gruesome than others I would see over the years, there was something disturbing about the timing of the shot, the camera shutter closing on the living boy, leaving me to imagine the dead one he would become seconds later.
“So what?” Jake replies, tapping his thumb and pinkie against his thigh to a beat only he can hear. “National Socialism went bust like 60 years ago. And there’s an Indian Avatar there who sees people.”
“Like dead people?”
Jake bursts out laughing. An avatar, he explains, is the human embodiment of a Hindu god. They have the power to see into people’s souls, infuse them with deep spiritual knowledge, and, if one has re- fined oneself sufficiently, grant instant enlightenment.
I picture a raisin-faced swami shooting laser beams from his eyes. “How do they know he’s a god?”
“She,” Jake corrects me. “It’s a woman. I forget her name, Jasvinder something. When she was six, she could heal people with her dreams.”
“Impressive. What’s she doing in Germany?”
“She’s married to a German guy. He does her P.R.”
“Avatars can get married?” Somehow this knocks her down a few spiritual rungs. “Shouldn’t she be abstaining from worldly pleasures or something?”
“That’s monks,” Jake says, flicking ash off his cigarette. “Guess the rules are different for Avatars. Meadow saw her last week and said it was awesome. We should go.”
I’m hesitant but intrigued. I’ve been on a search for enlightenment (or something) since a Halloween party last year when I was struck with a strange epiphany. I was dressed like a geisha that night, kimono draped strategically to hide my stomach, my face painted an exotic powder-white that drew second and third glances. My date was a six-foot-tall, African-American drag queen named Mahogany Brown who entertained the crowds in Copley Square by doing cart- wheels and belting Celine Dion. I don’t know what it was about the evening: the crisp air of Autumn, which always makes me feel wistful and melancholy; the surprise of my own reflection, unrecognizable in the shop windows of Boylston Street; the Celine Dion; or the mason jars of Sangria I guzzled, one after the other, when I arrived at my friend Vanessa’s apartment. Whatever it was, my mood was pensive. Instead of socializing, I watched from the kitchen as the other party guests swirled around each other, trying to get as intoxicated as possible, to do something worth noticing and maybe get laid.
From nowhere, a thought bubbled up:
There’s got to be more to it than this.
I didn’t know what I meant by that, but the thought wouldn’t go away, even when I was sober. It was like a toddler had grabbed my hand, yelling at full volume, and pulled me out of my current conversation. It led me to the bookstore, where I bought titles like The Four Agreements, The Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, The Alchemist and The I Ching. It dragged me to classes on Eastern religions, meditation, and Tai chi. And it took me to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where I spent afternoons in the Japanese Temple Room with a giant statue of Buddha, trying to glean something from his stony silence. (And, just maybe, fill myself with enough spiritual wisdom to kill the itch for food. Alas, holding a copy of The Power of Now in one hand still left the other hand free to dip a four-foot baguette in Boursin cheese.) Inevitably, I would leave the Buddha’s side with more questions than I’d come with, then wander into the gallery of impressionists to the famous mural of Paul Gauguin. His scattered sequence of browns and blues depicting life from birth to death fascinated me, and I studied it like a map. There was the baby asleep on a rock, the two confidants glowing pink in the background, the bare-breasted beauty luxuriating in her youth beside a bitter, brown crone. A bright blue idol presided. In the top left corner, like a narration, Gauguin had painted the mural’s title, which put my own thoughts on canvas:
Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?
I fed my head to the point of bursting, hoping to strike a deep chord that would make me hum with wholeness and purpose and awe. I strained my eyes staring at sunsets and cityscapes and the wind rippling through trees, willing inspiration, hope, or anything, to move me. But there was no breaching the wall between me and the rest of the world, or from feeling like a mystery appliance, relegated to a high, dusty shelf, that could whir to life if only it was plugged in. And there was no quieting the incessant, terrorizing stream of thought that has hijacked my mind since I moved away from home: The world is too big…I don’t know the rules…Anything could happen…I have no protection. It’s even worse now that I’m in Europe, thousands of miles from anything familiar. I had hoped this new place might make me brave, a change of scenery that rewrites the story. But just a week ago, walking down the Champs-Élysées, a free-floating panic gripped me so fiercely I had to abandon my friends for the safety of the hotel room to sedate myself with room service.