After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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for Roger and Ginny Jordan and Pond House
“Please state your name for the record.”
“All of them? Because I’ve had lots of names and they’re all important, like every human being is important. Did you know every name means something entirely different?”
“Sir, please state your name for the record.”
“It might take forever.”
“A bit too early in this custody battle to be found in contempt, son, isn’t it?”
“Joshua Lafayette Chandler Wydell III. Sat Vikram Singh. Jelaluddin. Abba.”
“Your current name, then, is Abba Wydell?”
“Just Abba. It’s another way of saying ‘God.’ ”
Joshua wasn’t a guru when I married him. He was a tall man with good legs and thick blond hair that hung wild to his shoulders. He could stop a room, hold it there, and make the rest of the people in it look clumsy and wrong. For me, it was like discovering the most exciting human being on earth.
We were aggressive seekers of truth, and everybody with a story to tell or a soul to save passed through our door: sheiks, Sikhs, Tibetan monks, twins from Duluth who spoke in tongues, a former student of Gurdjieff, Allen Ginsberg, a Sufi choir leader, Alan Watts and the psychotherapist who lived in the houseboat next to his, some dervishes, a storytelling rabbi, someone who knew Fritz Perls, and a woman who never spoke but made dream-catchers out of her own hair and teeth — stars, all of them, masters at relieving us from the everyday hum of our refrigerators. They taught breathing, Zen, harmonics, posture, dreaming, letting go, getting to God, conscious cooking, chanting, bowing, pushing the mala beads around, bhakti, Shakti, cleansing the tongue, getting off the wheel of reincarnation, and pulling the kundalini energy right up your butt.
There were mouth breathers, nose breathers, and heavy breathers — traveling men with smooth leather pouches full of healing dust, ready with the gift of their sex to relieve the tightly wound American woman of her headaches, menstrual cramps, and general blues. There were goddesses with names like Zuleika, Radha, and Dove, all thin and yielding, with clean white fingers and satin shoes, letting their skin brush against yours as they danced by, holding your eyes like practiced whores. There were mountain-climbing, fire-walking Buddhists who had helped the Dalai Lama escape. And Ram Dass, and Yogi Bhajan with his white-robed followers, and Timothy Leary’s first ex-wife (the French one), and an eighty-year-old Hopi named David, who carried the prophecy and sang, “Honey, honey, let me take you to the rodeo. / Honey, honey, let me take you to the picture show,” with one hand spread firmly on my thigh.
Joshua and I were holding nightly meetings at the home of one of his students when I noticed a shy, thin guy named Gary who clearly hadn’t done much with his life. I mean, he was almost thirty and had never had a girlfriend. And Joshua (who now called himself Sat Vikram Singh) could read it in the dark: Thirty grand. He could smell it. The man’s entire savings. What was he doing with it? Nothing. It was just sitting around, like the man. Half the price of a house back in the early seventies. My husband put an incandescent arm around Gary’s thin shoulders. For events like this, Joshua wore a long white robe, an Arab djellaba sewn by one of his students.
“You all know what this man has done?” Joshua asked the group.
A few people looked up from trances. Gary held the pose of “one who would soon be blessed.”
“This man has given birth to possibilities. Like a woman, this man, this Gary, has made a future for our little holy community here in Taos. With his generous gift, we will find and live in the House of Devotion and Fun. Forever. Together. Amen.”
Joshua wiped his brow. It wasn’t easy to suck a man’s soul from his body in a room full of people without attracting the wrong kind of attention. My husband was good.
Gary leaned in slightly, seeming to let Joshua hold him up. Maybe he’d just realized what he’d given away. Joshua shook him a little, and the group formed a circle around them and sang, “ ’Tis a gift to be simple,” and my husband sang, “ ’Tis a gift to be poor,” and everybody but the man without a savings account laughed and laughed.
With all the spiritual comings and goings at our house, it took me a couple of years to recognize this particular talent of Joshua’s. He took sacred teachings from everyone who stayed with us, reworked them, renamed them, called them his own. At first I thought it was learning or wisdom. Then it came to me: my husband was a ghost; he had nothing but what he could steal from people. He could take the things they cared about most. It was his great gift.
“Help me find our community house,” Joshua said to me.
I knew he didn’t mean hire a real estate guy. He was asking me to see the house — something I was good at.
I closed my eyes and described what I saw: a white farmhouse on half an acre, with a balcony, a chicken coop in back, and rows and rows of pink and red peonies. He wrote down every word, and in a month we had the place.
When we moved in, Joshua (he was now Jelaluddin) took the three biggest rooms for himself: a bedroom to sleep in “like a holy man,” alone and naked on a blue futon; a sun room in which to see people and eat sprout sandwiches; and the chicken coop, for private sessions with pale blondes who had strong arms and missing fathers.
The first time I ever saw Joshua, he and his cold, clean girlfriend were teaching Sufi dancing, the two of them standing side by side on a stage, so tall and handsome that to see them together was to understand why kingdoms are formed.
I didn’t marry for the usual reasons: love, money, convenience. I married to stand beside him and become a kingdom. Not to be known by him, because, after all, what was there to know of me? Inside, I was just a small bird, and he would never see inside me because he was always busy leaning forward, his body pointed toward the future. He would never really know me, and this I liked. Keeping my feathers to myself.
Why does anyone marry anyone beyond the polite talk of friendship or common ground or twinkle, twinkle little love? Doesn’t it come down to this: How hands look next to each other in the moonlight coming through a car window? And isn’t it this: the animal smell that takes you back to wet forest floors and open sky, or back only as far as clean quilts and being tucked in by an aunt who loved you, with the window open, the curtains moving slightly, and the noise of the night train coming through?
There are better reasons, sure, but I don’t know them. I grew up in the House of Silence, Sorrow, and Food. (The silence and food were for covering up the sorrow.) We did not read the Sunday paper as a family by the light of day. Instead, we stole sections for ourselves, read them in our separate rooms, and lied about having them when asked. And then the guests came, the relatives. We were a big, spread-out family too cheap for motels. The guests got the good dishes, the good drinks, the good us. And when they drove away, we pulled the cauls back over our eyes, the caper-colored walls went back up, and we set about not speaking to each other for months.
Isn’t this why we marry: for the light on a hand, or the smell of the woods, or the memory of home, again and again?
As soon as Joshua and I moved into the farmhouse, I started seeing two children around us. I could feel them. The boy was older, fair, and had trouble keeping his attention in one place, but his heart was clear and open. The girl was dark, sweet, steady, a thinker.
“Do you ever sense any children when we’re here together?” I asked Joshua. I figured whatever I could see, he could see better.
“Maybe. What do they look like? Are they here right now?”
“Yeah, they’re here.”
He walked over to the gas fireplace and asked, “Where? Here?”
“Not exactly. Look, it’s not like I can pinpoint them.” He couldn’t see a thing.
“More like an aura? An essence? I think I’m smelling something. Am I getting warm?”
“No. . . . I don’t know.” I didn’t want to tell him any more, not about this. They seemed like my children already, and I felt the need to protect them. The boy had big cow eyes, soft and thickly lashed, and odd, like a birthmark you come to find beautiful. The girl kept saying, “Don’t worry about anything,” which worried me tremendously.
“They’re talking to you, aren’t they, Annie? What are they saying?”
He dropped down and put his ear against the uneven wooden floor, shutting his eyes. This would make a great evening lecture. He stayed in this position for a long time, using the full power of his concentration, waiting to hear something.
He never heard a thing.
That night, I was cooking for our group meeting: vegetable curry, mung beans, and Basmati rice. I had three huge pots going and yellow mustard seeds popping in an iron skillet so heavy it took two hands to lift it. Joshua’s words drifted in and out of the hot little kitchen:
“The gift of children will soon be with us. . . . I saw them, heard them myself . . . my own eyes and ears . . . like finding this house. . . . my vision is complete.”
Then there was applause.
My husband preached the gospel of natural everything. His clothing and food and life were unadulterated. Pure wool, silk, and cashmere. Our sheets were three-hundred-count percale. We cooked in steel or iron — never aluminum — and rubbed French crystals under our arms instead of deodorant. I did not “paint” my face, and our living room had flats of wheat grass where the couches should have been.
Sex, unfortunately, wasn’t so natural for him. He needed it to be a ritual. Once, I made the mistake of just reaching under the sheets to touch him, cup him in my hands, maybe get something going. He giggled like a girl and turned away as though we were doing something bad. Then he asked if I wanted anything. Like a cheese sandwich.
“Women are goddesses. I respect them all,” he said, reaching for his pants.
“That’s great, Josh, but we’re married now. It’s OK.”
“I respect you, my wife, most of all.”
“But making love is —”
“We will never ‘make love.’ We will unite and raise the primal energy, the Tantric tail of all men and women.”
Actually, I would have been happy just to come.
He lectured on, while I thought of my thighs tightening, holding him, squeezing a little to let him know I knew his place in the divine hierarchy of my holy body. Then pulling back, removing him, inserting him in my mouth with prayer and suck until he swelled to bursting. Cooling him. Heating him. Yeah, I still remembered a few things. I began to work on him slowly with my hand.
“The woman should scrub her body with a stiff brush — oh God, yes — then sesame oil to purify from head to toe — man, oh man — then the flossing, the sandalwood, the sage to purify the air. Holy Jesus H. Mother!”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“We are not doing this to get off — Annie, my God — we are waiting to hear celestial . . .”
I had him. I was moving down on him faster than words, moving in a rhythm he couldn’t miss, a rhythm that couldn’t be talked or learned or chanted away. His eyes rolled back in his head like an epileptic’s, and I came like it would never stop, the rise and fall of the thin note inside me.
No. This time was different. This time I did not scrub up, oil up, and approach him with dried apricots and offerings to the gods. This time I did not lie down on him, grabbing under his long white robe, trying so hard to be content with the mashing of cotton on cotton.
Instead, I got fucked. Good and pregnant.
The baby came sliding down my back with a pain so intense I threatened to kill my doctor if she didn’t shoot me up with something fast and serious.
“But you said natural all the way. I’m just being supportive,” she said.
I labored for two days and two nights, and there was nothing biblical about it.
Joshua was there in the beginning, but he got bored or busy and sent in various disciples to replace him, like a tag team. They’d come, young and hopeful, full of cheer and breathing techniques. Then they’d see me panting on all fours, my hospital gown spread open in back, ass up in the air. Lamaze, effleurage, decoupage — they all went out the window sometime around hour number twenty. Only my howling and the occasional bit of fecal matter or bodily juices remained. The disciples sat frozen in plastic aqua chairs next to my bed, their “You can do it” lost in the forest of sounds and smells coming from my body.
Heaving of ribs, stretching of vulva, bending of backbone. The loss of control over bodily functions. The dropping of my gown as, naked, I pushed on all fours, fists pounding into the bed, back raised like a cat. In between contractions I’d remember: Joshua was bored. Nothing happening here. No new faces.
I had my baby in a room with a nurse whose name I did not know.
Before I drowned in drugs and exhaustion, I saw him. His eyes. I licked his face, counted toes and fingers, inspected his ears, his penis, the shape of his little head. And the smell — oh, that smell — of something that comes from deep inside you, something you know you will love more than life itself. And I saw those eyes again, those cow eyes, unusually big, pale blue, thickly lashed.
“Somebody get Joshua. Tell him to come be with me and this baby.”
“His name is Abba now,” someone said.
I didn’t see much of my husband after I insisted we move out of that House of Love and Lunacy to have a life and be a family. He continued to spend all of his time there, surrounded by thin-lipped disciples who moved in bony silence. I stayed in our apartment and spent my time sticking a wet tit into a perpetually moving mouth. I was big and wore denim and baby excrement. Joshua was in his all-white phase, either a robe and turban, or a shimmery three-piece suit he’d found at the Salvation Army.
“But it’s sharkskin,” I told him, “a car salesman’s suit. A used-car salesman.”
“You have no imagination,” he said.
For an hour every afternoon, he played with his son. This was our agreement. It was actually good seeing them together, bellies to the floor, playing with plastic toys, making Lego towers. Of course, he brought over some of the righteous ones to watch; he always did better with an audience.
I didn’t gripe. I was too tired to gripe. I used the time to wash and mash and bleach. I kept my hands moving and listened to him talking to the baby:
“Hey, Buddha child, you wanna go on the road together? That’s right, pal, me and you. You can teach the world. Sing your songs to the world. Soon. Soon.”
Then I remembered: my husband could take things from people, the things they cared about most.
We made love only one more time. It was safe, the doctor had said. I hadn’t gotten my period back yet, and I was doing all that nursing. One more time and another child filled my belly.
One baby was enough. More seemed like trolling for trouble. I’d get an abortion. And who could blame me? I had no money and a husband who left each morning with his clothes on inside out and came home each night the same way. Everyone adored his little quirks. Everyone loved him. I would get an abortion.
Soon after I stopped going to his House of Horrors, a group of holy women came over to set me straight. A blond cadre of concerned citizens who held up their skirts as they stepped delicately over pails of soaking diapers and piles of neatly folded baby clothes.
“Surrender to your female side,” they said, practically in unison.
“How about a cup of coffee?” I offered.
“Abba says that unless you become a spiritual woman you will not be able to raise spiritual children.” Someone in the back coughed meaningfully.
“You’ve got to start coming to group meetings. Surrender to your husband’s teachings; we all did.”
All I saw was a row of pirates dressed in white on a sinking ship.
That night, I had one of those dreams you can smell and taste. It was her, the dark child in my belly. She held my hand and said simply: “Don’t worry. I’m with you.”
Right before this second child was born, Robert Bly stayed at our apartment. He sat at my kitchen table all day making notes in a cloth-bound book. At night he’d read poems to Joshua and the disciples. Back then, Bly wasn’t anybody famous, not the father of the men’s movement or the author of Iron John. He was just a guy in a vest who combed his long gray hair to hide his bald spot and translated Sufi poetry.
“Let’s the two of us talk,” he said.
Loser, I thought. I mean, how far could you go translating Rumi?
“Come on. Sit with me awhile.”
I made us a big pot of Earl Grey and sat across the table from him.
“Tibetan Buddhism is a heavy path,” he told me. “Now, you take those so-called American Buddhists. How can they humiliate people, drink like fish, sleep around, and still call themselves Buddhists?”
“I don’t know.” I lived in a small town and had a big belly. I pretty much stayed within my own four walls. “What are your thoughts on surrendering?” I asked him.
“How do you mean?”
“A bunch of Joshua’s prayer ladies keep telling me I should give in to my female side or else I’m doomed. They want me to go to these group meetings and kneel before my husband.”
“Should I surrender, Bly?”
“Not in a million years.”
Joshua showed no interest in the birth of our second child. He put in brief appearances at the beginning and end of my labor, but I didn’t care. I knew what to do, and was not surprised at the quiet, serious girl who came and immediately curled her hand around my finger. And she would not let go of me, not even while she slept.
A child has been taken, but the mother does not know it yet. She goes through her day with vague symptoms of a cold or stomach flu, not giving them a name. But she senses that one of the major chords that make up her soul, a chord that moves her from task to task with purpose, is incomplete.
A child is gone, but the mother does not know. She is out moving through the day, but something is not right. She prolongs the moment before she lifts the phone and calls the crippled baby sitter and asks her to look in the boy’s closet, where his small clothes hang far above the floor. The husband always said he’d lower the pole so the boy could reach his little shorts and shirts, but he never did, and now there is the sound of the baby sitter shuffling back to the phone, dragging her polio leg across the floor, the unbearable sound of something not right.
Everything is gone: his clothes, his toys, his shoes. The baby sitter is crying. Her words fall on top of each other like badly shuffled cards. He said he was taking him for a walk. That’s all he told me. I swear.
A child has been taken and no one will tell the mother where he is. She approaches the disciples one at a time. They don’t like her. She is not one of them. She does not go to group meetings. She has not surrendered. She and the girl child are adrift in their own little boat.
Each disciple says, Leave it alone. He’s gone now. Praise be to Allah.
The day ends and she still does not know where her child is and he has an ear infection that requires many steps of swabbing, dabbing, heating of oil. Who will do this? His bottom will get fiery from waist to knee if his diapers aren’t changed often enough. Who will do this? He is gone from her.
That night, Annie sits on the couch in the light of the television drinking Wild Turkey. She feels every drop, from bottle to belly and all the roads in between, feels as though it’s giving her whiskers. She will need these whiskers to get her boy back. The pain of separation and the whiskey cause the fog around her to lift. This is a kidnapping. She will take him to court. She will get her boy back.
It is the moment in which a woman knows she will leave her husband. She will leave him, even if there is nothing to leave but a thief and a crazy man. Still, there must be this moment.
She may be folding her husband’s socks for his next business trip — browns to browns, blues to blues — when she finds herself puzzling over a soaking-wet sock and then realizes it is wet with her tears.
Or she will ask her man to come away from the dishes and talk with her a minute, and he will say, Talk to you and do the dishes? And that will be her moment.
Halfway through the Wild Turkey, Annie knows. The “Star Spangled Banner” is on TV, stiff strangers saluting the flag, and she can think only of dead children in army and navy cottons rotting underground for their country. When the salt-and-pepper static with its electric buzz comes on the screen, she does not move to turn it off. She holds her girl baby to her breast and waits for the next day, when she will ask again of Joshua’s people: Where? Where?
She goes right up the chain of command until she reaches the top dog: Akbar. She walks slowly over to him in the store full of shoes he is selling and notices it is a summer day, warm and full of fragrance — a mixture of ether, leather, and cheap city flowers. She steps up close to him, a big man, six-foot-something, and sees in his eyes the place where her son is. Those eyes shift away, won’t look at hers.
What’s it to you? he says.
Anger climbs up her spine. She is a wild turkey mother, and grabs him by the throat, which is cooler than she expects, smooth and damp, with intricate bumps just underneath the skin — things she will push on and break if he does not tell her what she has come to find out.
He says she should meditate for answers, and this makes her tighten her grip on his air supply.
She is made of metal and cannot be shaken off.
She is prepared to die with her fingers, her nails, her wings, her jaws sunk into him, and she tells him this only once before he says what she has been waiting so long to hear.
I have again been drawn to Daniela Kuper’s “Holy Ghost” [March 1996]. It’s tremendous to feel so much a part of a story from beginning to end. When I first read it, my whole body reacted: knees shaking, palms sweating, breath shortened. My cells were responding to the memory of having been married to someone just like the man in Kuper’s story. It was disconcerting to realize there are more people like him in the world.