Rea Bochner / The Cape House
There was this one night, though, after reading the Dalai Lama, when I parked myself on my bed and resolved to sit in meditation until something happened.
At first, frame after frame of thought shot past at rapid-fire. My back hurt. The sheets bothered my legs. I was antsy and wanted to go eat something. But I forced myself to stay there. Maybe ten minutes in, it occurred to me: I am watching all this like I’m watching a movie, the thoughts, the pain, the itch, which means that I am separate from it. The thoughts are not me. The back pain is not me. The itch is not me. I am something else.
It was like a bomb detonated in my mind, blowing all thought into a silent void. For a sweet moment, all was calm, the stillness dense around me like a forcefield. The gnaw in my spirit was soothed.
Then came a thought: I want to live here. Instantly, the spell broke and the flow of thoughts rushed back in, washing me out of my sacred lacuna. I was grief-stricken, having discovered something life-chang- ing only to lose it. But I sensed the power of the discovery itself, in knowing the lacuna existed at all. I would see things differently just by having been there.
I’ve been trying to get back ever since.
There’s one other thing, too, that’s drawing me to see this Avatar:
Jake, who in three short months has become my best friend. We go to the same college in Boston but never met until we arrived at a medieval castle in Holland (complete with moat) to travel Europe for one wild semester. At the time, he was fresh from a breakup with my friend Jules, moping around all lovesick and puppy-faced. I learned quickly that this is his way, falling quick and hard for damaged beauties who are hard-wired to hurt him. Jake brings it on himself, of course, driven as he is to fix all things broken in the world. He’s on a search, like me, if not for enlightenment than at least for some meaning behind all the suffering he sees. A staunch socialist, he loses sleep over everything from the genocide in Kosovo to child labor to pesticides. If asked, he can recite the full list of Native American tribes that were displaced as part of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. The night George W. Bush was elected, he sat in front of the television with his head in his hands, like someone whose life had just fallen apart.
“He stole the country,” he said. “He stole the whole goddamn country…”
Surprisingly, Jake is not a vegetarian, and he smokes like a burn- ing building. A stranger might take in the baggy jeans and patched hoodies, the aggressive hunch and leather bracelets, the “Congress of Cow” and “Rancid” t-shirts and assume that Jake is the combative type. In fact, he is the opposite, sunny and calm, quick to laugh despite the heaviness in his mind. Being genuine, he expects the same from others. The posturings of “sexy girls” hold no interest for him; he likes full-flavored women who stand for something. Sadly for him, these women love their causes (often, themselves) more than they love him.
I know all this because when Jake gets burned in love, I’m the one he tells about it. He looks to me for solace and insight. I parrot some threads of wisdom from my spiritual books, offering advice I’ve never had the chance to test. In his eyes, I am worldly, experienced, evolved. In reality, I am a scam artist, playing the best friend because I’m too afraid to tell him I’m in love with him.
I tell myself it’s enough just to be with him, getting stranded in the rain trying to visit Monet’s house, being stricken with a rash from a Dutch mystery flower, eating sweetbreads in Rotterdam without knowing they were innards, and losing hours talking and talking and talking as the European landscape zips past our train window. But then I make him really laugh, and he’ll look at me and say, “You know, I really love you,” and a tingle spreads up my arms. I long for him to mean it the way I want him to, instead of the platonic way he actually does, cupping my hands around a tiny flame of hope that Jake might be the one who’s different, the one who will bypass my out- sides and see the real me buried underneath. The possibility sweetens the seconds with him, deepens a brush of the arm or a head resting on a shoulder to sleep, and dilutes the sadness of knowing it’s all a game of pretend.
“Alright,” I say. “We’ll go.”
Wherever I land in Europe, from Dublin to Milan, the first thing I do is call my mother.
“Mom! You’ll never guess what.”
“I’m in Copenhagen. Denmark. It’s crazy, eight out of ten people are the most gorgeous you’ve ever seen in your life. And get this: they have holes in their money!”
“It’s four in the morning here. Get off my phone.”
On the surface, I’m giving Mom a pin to locate me on her mental map of Europe. But really, each call is a reassuring tug on the invisible cord that connects me to her, to the one place in the world I belong. I think of her everywhere: climbing the steep ladder into Anne Frank’s annex, seeing the disappointingly puny Mona Lisa at the Louvre, hanging upside down to kiss the Blarney Stone. In a sleepy fishing town on the Italian coast, I watch an impossible sunset rouge the sky and spread a blanket of stars on the water, and all I can do is miss her.
As soon as we get to Bamburg, I find the nearest pay phone.
“I thought the whole place would look like Auschwitz, but Germany is gorgeous,” I say, taking in the quaint, cobblestoned town square surrounded by old world shops. The spine of a green mountain range runs beyond the rooftops and slopes into lush, sheep-dotted farmland. “It’s like Epcot Germany, where the guys in lederhosen roll around on beer kegs.”
“Who are you with?”
“Ohhhhh,” Mom says in that ooh-la-la way that both annoys and thrills me.
“It’s not like that,” I insist, more to myself than to her. “I told you we’re just friends.”
“Your father and I were friends first.”
I’m grateful that eye rolls are silent. “It’s different, okay?” “Why?”
“‘Cause you looked like Cher. I look like”—I glance down at my giant ski jacket and monumental thighs bulging underneath—“this.” “The right guy is going to love you for who you are,” she says. “That applies to everyone but fat girls. Fat girls live in the friend zone.” Through the cafe window next to the booth, I see Jake sipping from a coffee cup. As if sensing me, Jake looks out, spots my phone booth, and waves. I hold up a finger to tell him I’m almost finished.
“Maybe,” says Mom, “you like living in the friend zone.”
“Yes, Mom. I’d much rather watch everyone else be happy.” “Well, it is safer.”
Her presumption, and its correctness, makes me want to smash the phone booth window. “Right, so I’ll just get over my fear of intimacy and suddenly I’ll have a million boyfriends.”
“Who needs a million? One good one is enough. I’m not saying Jake is the guy for you. I’m just saying you don’t even give yourself a chance.”
“Why should I, when there is no chance?”
Her sigh reaches me from across the ocean.“So what’s your plan there?”
“I don’t know, see some castles, eat some food...” I deliberately don’t mention the Avatar. It takes a lot to shock my mother - she packed me off to college with a box of condoms and a note: “These need no explanation. Call MOM (note the capitals) for advice!” - but something about seeking enlightenment from a Hindu deity feels verboten. On the train here, I imagined some pickled yenta heading me off at the Avatar’s door, slapping the back of my hand, and saying, “That’s no place for a Jewish girl.” In reality, it’s possible that at the word “Avatar”, Mom would book a red-eye to Berlin to save her hippie daughter from a cult.
“I’m sure you’ll have a blast,” she says.
After I hang up, Jake and I drop our things at the hostel, then find the address provided by the Avatar’s secretary:
an imposing white castle overlooking the town from the side of a mountain.
“That’s not intimidating,” I say.
He whistles in appreciation. “Avatars get sweet real estate.”
We walk through the main entrance to a red-carpeted parlor, where a tiny woman with thick glasses sits behind a wooden table. “Namen?” she says.
Jake and I look at each other in confusion. “Noms?”
“We’re here to see the Avatar?” I say lamely.
She nods like she’s cracked a riddle. “Americans. Names, please?”
She finds us on her list and waves us toward a door to her right. “May you be open, and receive…”
Jake and I enter a wide room with creamy walls, dark wooden beams, and a few mounted heads that hearken more to a Nordic hunt- ing lodge than the salon of a castle in rural Germany. A dark, heady mixture of incense and human musk swirls around us, along with the hum of chanting from 100 people seated on the floor: tanned, Australian surfers with dreadlocks, a chocolate-skinned couple in African Dashikis, a ruddy, football-jerseyed Scotsman, baldheaded men and women in marigold robes, and backpackers in the uniform jeans, boots, and hippie-print scarves. At the front of the room hangs a massive red tapestry with a gold “Om” symbol in the center, fat and smooth and satisfying to the eye. Along the rim, pairs of tiny golden elephants stand tail-to-tail. The tapestry leaps into vision against the white walls, demanding recognition as the center of the room. An ornately carved wooden chair sits before it, soon to hold an Avatar.
Near the back of the room, Jake and I find two open cushions, one of which he folds down to in one easy movement. I pray silently that I can maneuver to the floor with a modicum of grace. I sink to one knee and tip over like a teapot, anchoring my hand to ease my butt onto the cushion. The carpet is slippery, though, and my hand skids. The rest of me plops down sideways.
Not my best work.
No one seems to notice, though, not even Jake, who has already closed his eyes. He never quite sits still, his hands drumming against his kneecaps, head pulsing slightly. I leave him to it, shutting my eyes and turning inward. I imagine The Avatar gliding in wearing a bright gold sari, light dripping from her like water, saturating the room with peace. She touches her nose to mine, giggling like a child, and suddenly I’m back in my lacuna, safe, content and there to stay.
There’s a shift of energy in the room, 100 people’s anticipation intensifying as the minute hand on the clock inches closer to the twelve.
As I open my eyes, the chanting heightens. Hands rise toward the air. Backs sway. From some deep recess of memory, my old Torah teachers whisper to me of the grave sin of Avodah Zarah, idol worship.
I’m not worshipping anything, I hiss back. I’m just looking for a power source.
Just like that, the chanting stops. A dark wooden door at the front of the room softly opens, and a diminutive woman enters. She wears a simple tunic and pants, a zip fleece, and a chenille scarf wrapped thickly around her neck. Her obsidian hair is pulled into a messy ponytail, like she’s just woken up from a nap.
This is the Avatar? I think, searching for a hint of divinity about her. She’s wearing North Face, for God’s sake.
The Avatar seats herself in the wooden chair, closes her eyes, and breathes in deeply. Then she sets her shoulders, ready to begin. There’s a loaded moment before the first brave soul approaches the Avatar, kneeling at her feet and gazing up. She studies him intently, making no sound. After maybe ten seconds, the man rises and returns to his seat.
“How long are you supposed to look at her for?” I murmur to Jake.
“Until one of you are done, I guess.”
I think of my staring contests with Gabe and his absurd Muppet face.
A line forms down the center aisle, snaking slowly toward the Avatar like a vein carrying blood to the heart. A respectful yet awkward hush, the kind that precedes a funeral, falls over the room as person after person kneels down before her in silent supplication. I study their faces when they rise: one frowns like he’s just been given bad news; another looks thoughtful; a few smile. I rhythmically rub my hands against my thighs, torn between the conviction that this whole thing is a hoax and the hope that I will see infinity.
It’s my turn. I sink to my knees and look up at the Avatar’s face.
Her eyes are pools of sadness, shiny with unshed tears, her irises yellowed like the pages of an old book. The brown of her skin is washed out, her clothing drab and muted. It’s like she’s draining away.
Show me something, I beg her with my eyes. Anything.
But even as I ask it, I feel absurd. She’s just a person. A human person.
She looks and looks at me, her eyes growing heavier.
Do you see something?
It strikes me that The Avatar isn’t trying to transmit anything. Maybe it’s the opposite: like a spiritual garbage collector, she’s looking for mess to remove.
No wonder she’s so depleted. The woman is a landfill.
I wait for lightness, for the relief of a burden unloaded, but there is no change. I’m an American plug to her European outlet, with no adapter to connect us.
She blinks, and I know that we’re done. I rise and step away. Thanks for trying, I think.
Then her eyes briefly flicker in my direction, a few heads turn toward me, and I realize I’ve said it out loud.