Commentary Magazine


First Day

I spent sixteen weeks at the center. Today’s my first day out. First I went for groceries. Then I put the groceries away. Almonds grown three hours north: door of fridge. Oranges grown an hour south: wooden bowl found in cabinet. Tea picked and dried only on certain days of the lunar calendar: lined up on counter. Kava, fennel, rooibos. Dried sage for burning in a coffee-stained mug.

Okay.

One at a time, gathering the things I need.

Taking it slow.

I am a sure-footed panther.

In this new life I own a suitcase of clothes, seven books, a journal, a computer, phone, two pairs of shoes, Japanese prayer mug. I got rid of the rest. Gave it away, let it go, haven’t missed it for a minute. I come from a long line of people with way too much stuff, each more loaded and miserable than the next. But they’re not my problem. “Look Forward,” reads the affirmation on the fridge. The prayer mug is maybe superfluous, but it’s an extraordinary mug; I use it every day, and Arye says we can’t let go of things until we’re truly ready.

My new place is quiet. A semi-furnished apartment on a short-term lease. I’m back in the world, reborn into calm, into quiet. Quiet inside, quiet outside. Breathing. Breathing. 

At the center I healed. A few weeks ago we did a meditation in which we each spent a full minute slowly, silently chewing a raisin. Have you ever really experienced a raisin? Close your eyes so your other senses sharpen. Resist the urge to swallow. 

What if all your food could taste like this? Arye said. What if your whole life could be like this? This conscious, this endless, this flavorful. It was the first raisin of my life. Later, in bed, my roommate Lottie wept.

What was that even about? I mean, seriously. Lottie’s troubles greatly eclipsed even my own. Her parents had found her wandering Eastern Europe half dead. She’d been sleeping on the street, prostituting, didn’t remember a lot of the details.

Mine weren’t half so dramatic. A more abstract exile: twice-weekly therapy, cluttered antidepressant/anti-anxiety cocktail with wine and pot garnish, almost never left my house. Constant online shopping. Everything a threat. Zombie-town, population one. My hair had started to fall out. I had no one.

Arye told us his own story constantly. The cocaine habit that destroyed his nose, the nasty custody battle that estranged him from his children, the time spent in prison for stealing money from his congregation. In recovery 15 years ago he found redemption and a new calling, and the center was born. A hybrid synagogue/prison/spa/halfway house/mental hospital. My stay was voluntary. Not so, Lottie’s.

Group’s in a couple of hours and the center’s a 20-minute walk, so I have plenty of time to make my slow, sure-footed way, stop at the café. I lock my new door and the world opens before me. In my old life I didn’t really know how to breathe. I turn onto Santa Monica Boulevard. West Hollywood really goes nuts with the seasonal decorations. Happy Holidays, Ho Ho Ho. One foot in front of the other, cutting through the good air. The sky is comically blue, the day bright and clear. Eighty-five in December. Imagine that.

It happens that my new life, my first day, coincides with the beginning of Chanukah. When I grew up I had no idea what Chanukah was even about, that there could be meaning behind it. I thought it was a way for Jews to be passive-aggressive about Christmas. My mother would host eight distinct, impeccably catered parties. 

Arye says this is no coincidence: my new life, the festival of lights. We are each of us a light, he said yesterday, at my farewell ceremony. The light animates us; we are its guardian. The true miracle is our willingness to take a risk, to leap into the unknown. To set afire what’s not serving us. To let our attachments be consumed, and to celebrate the light that’s left. A festival of lights, each of us a light. Rachel—he turned to me, his smile a benediction, and paused—a light. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We sat in a big circle. The sun was setting. We each lit individual candles from one central candle, surrounded by rose petals. We sat staring at our flames, watching their slow burn. We called out what we saw in the fire: Warmth. Steadiness. Confidence. Light. Life. Destruction. Arye said a special blessing to send me on my way. May you be the fierce guardian of your light. May you seek and manifest miracles of your choosing. Then, before my candle burned all the way down, I used it to light the first candle in the menorah. And everyone cheered. Lottie, in a breezy mood, beautiful in a long, sheer white-cotton sundress, like a bride, held my face in her hands and kissed me once, gently, on the lips. I breathed, buoyed.  

Then the first night in my new place, alone. Breathing, breathing, continuing to breathe.

I find a seat by the window at the café, order a tea, and overhear talk about the weather, the unseasonable heat. It seems everyone yearns to speak of other things: I fear my son’s spectrum disorder is my fault. Taking care of my elderly parent has devastated me. I don’t love my wife. I can’t get pregnant. I am 75,000 dollars in debt. I am worried about the implications of climate change. But only buried deep beneath How ’bout this craaaaazy weather!? 

And then I see a guy I used to know standing out in front of the café. My gut sputters like a faulty engine. Our parents are old friends. We had a thing once. He is sucking on of those dumb fake cigarettes, electric, designed to help you quit. Fifteen years later and he’s gone fat, which is, of course, intensely satisfying. I have to remind myself to breathe. 

He feels me watching him, sees me, comes in. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe, darling. 

“Oh my God, wow. Rachel! Wow.” He’s the kind of excitable guy who seems always to be leering. He’s got a couple of enormous shopping bags, the fake cigarette glowing now in the pocket of his hideously patterned Western shirt. A semi-famous actor who lived at the center for a few weeks when I first got there had a whole wardrobe of those Western shirts with snap buttons. A heroin habit, too.

I point to the fake cigarette. “Don’t you have to put that out?” Our thing was an awful time, a blur of a time. I was some other girl, then. That awful other girl. 

“I can’t believe this! What’re you up to?”

I put my book—Thich Nat Hanh, “On Anger”spine-up on the table like an advertisement for how different I am now. Smile a polite smile. The polite smile comes in handy. It works the way suddenly turning out the lights in a room will reliably quiet people. 

“Just sitting.”

“Wow, it’s been a long time.”

I nod slowly, breathe. “You’re married, I heard.”

He holds up his left hand. “Eight years.” 

“Kids?”

“Twins!” He shows me a picture on his phone.

“Cute.” They’re weird-looking. Hollow-eyed, with polite smiles of their own, as though the lab in which they were cultivated forgot to program them with joy. 

“Presents,” he says, gesturing to the shopping bags, the garish dreidel-themed wrapping paper. “They have it pretty good.” 

“I bet.” 

I assume our mothers still cater parties for each other, but I’ve lived way across town since forever ago and never, ever go west of Fairfax. I might as well live on the moon.

He leaves the bags by my feet, goes to order a coffee. When I knew him he carried a flask in his jacket pocket, spiked everything. Had dreadlocks. One time we got arrested for public indecency on the beach. He comes back with his coffee and just stands there until I say he’s welcome to have a seat. This is a gift from the universe, I remind myself. This is exactly as it should be. Breathe. 

“So what about you? Boyfriend?”

I shake my head, unclench my jaw, back to the breath, back again. Last year there was a lovely man at the bookstore wearing a newsboy cap. Medium height, balding, glasses. Reading Krishnamurti. Intelligent and kind, a sweetness so palpable I didn’t know whether to straddle him or offer him cradled arms and a breast. Or both. This is someone I could love, flashed a neon sign in the dark of my mind. This is someone I could love! But no one was maintaining the sign, see, so some of the bulbs slowly buzzed and blinked out, and within a couple of months the sign was illegible. And so I told the lovely man I did not love him, told him to go away, told him his glasses were stupid. Told him that he slobbered on my neck when he kissed me, that he was gross. Started sleeping with someone we both knew. Tossed back three tumblers of scotch one night and screamed get out, told him he was dumb and a jerk, that his newsboy cap was hideous. The confusion and hurt and surprise on his face, the woundedness. I have to carry it with me now. Now it’s mine. 

“Nope,” I say, too brightly. “No.”

“How are your folks?” 

“No idea.”

“You don’t talk to them?”

“Nope.” 

An Amy Winehouse song comes on. The cute girls behind the counter do a half-unconscious tandem dance to the opening bars. 

Before Amy Winehouse died, “Rehab” would come on in a bar or somewhere and people would smirk, nod, clink glasses. They tried to make me go to rehab. Now the room kind of collapses, everyone wearing the same baleful frown. And I said, no, no, no. 

“Oh, Amy,” I say. I wished I had the temerity to have her face tattooed on my bicep. Sweet little heartsick dumpling.

“Patron saint of lost Jewish girls,” he laughs. 

“It’s not funny.”

“Amy, come baaaaaack!” he says. “Amy, I can save you! I have a big shlong, Amy! Be my girl!” 

I was 23 when I was with this person. He does have a big shlong, that much is true. He was like a drug. Days would go by and we’d still be naked and high, so high, always high. Now he’s sweaty, overfed, with crappy posture. People turn into themselves, there’s no avoiding it. People become physical manifestations of exactly what they are.

“Nice to see you,” I say, getting my stuff together, standing up, breathing. 

“Hey,” he says, trying and failing to give me a hug. “Take my card. We should hang sometime.” 

I toss the card into the first garbage can I pass. Cast it off, continue breathing, breath like waves of an ocean, washing, washing. I walk briskly, thinking of Lottie, how much she’ll enjoy hearing about him, my old lover with the big shlong, jowls, manufactured family, electronic cigarette, Chanukah presents. How funny it all is, how ridiculous. His card! The opportunity to take up with this person again! I laugh out loud, laughter better even than breath. Laughter the drug I’ll share with her.

But when I get to group, she’s nowhere to be found. Everyone’s sitting, ready to start, but what the hell? Where is she? Going back to the same old miserable life? So they’re going to have to scrape her off the street again? Another sad doomed little heartsick dumpling. Goddamn it, where is she? Everyone else is here.

“Where’s Lottie?” I ask an entertainment lawyer with a sleeping-pill problem. He looks at me, startled, and promptly Arye’s assistant beckons me into her office, closes the door, inhales deeply, and exhales the words out.

“Lottie’s dead.” 

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“How?”

She shakes her head, eyes shut against it, whatever it was. It had to be heroin. Lottie loved her some heroin.

“Jumped. Downtown. Got a ride to go shopping, went to someone’s loft, someone she knew, I don’t know, seems an old boyfriend, disappeared up a stairwell. They found her on the street. I know you guys were friends. Rachel, I’m so sorry.”

Jumped. That is entirely not messing around. I am strangely proud of her, and then I think I might throw up, it’s like flashbulbs have gone off in my face. Too much light. The word jump, so soaring, hopeful, a blinding flash. And then street, unforgiving, bam, total darkness and disorientation. Information like assault.

She was named for a great-great aunt who had done something heroic before dying at Sobibor. She had long, elegant fingers, a mole on the knuckle of her right pinky. Long, lank, swinging dirty-blond hair. Beautiful, skinny arms covered with tattoos. These awesome terracotta-colored corduroy bell-bottoms. So tall, she could wear anything. 

“You’re lucky,” I said to her once. “Everything looks good on you.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m just so super-duper crazy intense lucky. That’s what I am.”

Friends, Arye says after the invocation. We’ve had a tragic loss. Our community has had a terrible, terrible loss. A light has gone out. He doesn’t say jumped. He doesn’t say street. I can’t listen to this bullshit.

I had been planning to speak, per tradition, about my first day, my new life, the miracles soon to manifest. I’d been rehearsing a spare, considered reflection on running into the guy I used to know. About how it was a gift, running into him, because I’m so different now, see? Because I am no longer that awful other girl! Because I am a light. A bright, unwavering flame. Nothing less. Not ever. Because I believed it: I believed it so hard I’d make it true.

But when they turn to me, I shake my head, shrug, sit there. They let me off the hook, which is good, because I have no idea what would happen if I tried to speak right now. A whole lot of ugliness. I used to think ugliness was important, vital, necessary. I retrained myself. And now what? Now what? Now what?

So Arye lights the menorah, two candles, no blessing, all somber. Then he leads a Kaddish for her, even though I’m pretty sure you’re only supposed to say Kaddish for a member of your immediate family. Arye bends those kinds of rules. Spirit of the law over letter of the law, whatever. He’s being super dramatic about it, really milking it.

Afterward, people hold their arms open to me, crying.

Angel flying too close to the sun, says Dan, who was in the first Gulf War and has been coming here longest of anyone. The polite smile is involuntary now; my face feels Botoxed. The corners of my vision have gone wobbly. There will have to be quiet and more quiet and quiet for a long time after that. I will have to go somewhere else, somewhere farther away, maybe even farther than that. I would very much like to try heroin, it occurs to me. Just to see.

Lottie’s parents are super religious. Funeral’s tomorrow. Private. They don’t want us there. We loser weirdos. They don’t want to be reminded. ’Course not. 

Everyone’s all going somewhere, some tea house or something. Not a bar, obviously. To sit around talking about the dead girl. A biker funeral, minus the bikers and booze. Lottie hated this place. These ideas. These people. She talked about Taos. She knew someone in Taos. Taos was a spiritually elevated place. She was going to get there when she got out.

Okay, I’m supposed to look for signs, right? I’m supposed to pay close attention to the circumstances of my days, the hours and minutes that compose my days? Okay then: There’s Dolly, former prostitute, aspiring actress, wearing a bright yellow faux-vintage T-shirt stretched tight across the rock-hard tits some producer bought her. “New Mexico: Land of Enchantment” it reads in faded letters, rhinestones studded all around. I can’t take my eyes off those tits, the words stretched across them.

Synchronicity.

So I go to the tea house with the group, which is all wrong. Awful. But I go, because the plain fact is that you can’t accomplish this alone, this stopping time. Dead girl. Dead girl. I’m like a robot, robot face, robot arms, every thought comes through like a transmission from a machine: robot, dead girl, chamomile nettle marshmallow tulsi, please. I am a robot, it’s kind of hilarious, even. Yes. No. I know. Me, too.

She’s done suffering, someone says.

Done suffering, I repeat, and giggle. Done suffering.

I’ll have to hold my own séance, shiva, call it what you will. For a period of days, weeks. But you can’t accomplish that alone, can you? That’s the thing, of course. You cannot accomplish that alone. 

I down my lukewarm tea like it’s a shot and leave them all there with their tiny mugs and their aphorisms and their recovery. Who am I kidding? WHO ARE YOU KIDDING, says robot voice, but at least the air feels nice on my walk home, my new home, my vast calm, my empty space. It’s cooler now, a relief. 

Of course I want to get high. They said it and said it and said it. Beware your first day. Beware your second. Beware the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. You will be back to get you, Arye says. The only question is when.

I could go to Nan’s place, where you sat on the couch in the front room with the other loser idiots and waited your turn to go into the back bedroom to examine your options and make your selection and go out front again to use the vaporizer with whoever else, maybe make out with someone, one of the other loser idiots or once, thrillingly, on a real quiet night, the gorgeous black security guard Charles, who played college football but didn’t make the draft. Sensitive-eyed Charles, who said, no thanks, he didn’t do drugs. His hands were the size of dinner plates. I could go to Nan’s.

Where you been, they’d ask me.

Or maybe they hadn’t noticed I’d been gone. 

The streetlights shine through my front window like the brightest full moon. I don’t turn on any lights. You’d have to be crazy to turn on a light at a time like this. Take off my shoes and lie down on my couch, ugly scratchy thing, institutional, forest green, long suffering. I close my eyes. Breathe and breathe and breathe. My only escape. And breathe. Soon I’ll not be awake, my suffering over for today.

A few weeks ago I lost consciousness in a session with a healer and awoke in an altered state. I was different. I felt calm, luminous.  

“That was good,” the healer said, turning his love-filled face on me. “You really moved down into your core, let go a lot. Do you feel how much space you have now?”

When I got back to our room, I told Lottie about the letting go, about moving into my core. My great energetic success, my vast calm. 

“Good for you,” she said, and began, as usual, to cry.

“I just completely let go,” I said. “It was amazing. I let go of everything, Lottie. You have got to go see this guy. He is a miracle.”

“Look,” she said into her pillow. “That’s great. Congratulations. I’m really happy for you. But I’m not getting better.” Her voice was muffled. “You are, but I’m not. I can’t.”

“No,” I lied, trying very, very hard to ape the radiant light I saw in the face of the healer, to be that light, actually be it, and to shine that light her way. “You can! You are.”

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