The cute guy was in the smoking area again so I introduced myself. He was Will from Vancouver, visiting the Vermont meditation center to participate in Scorpion Seal, an upper-level Vajrayana retreat. I was Louise, doing an entry-level retreat as a reward for apprenticing in the center's garden all summer.
We sat on a log. The October mountain air was crisp, laced with scents of campfire and rich earth. I told Will I felt stupid doing a meditation practice we were taught where you place your hand over your heart to check in with your feelings, and remember you're alive.
"It just feels kinda corny," I said.
He laughed. "To be honest, when I was taught that practice I cried because it felt like something I had always wanted to do, just be like, 'Hey buddy, how you doing?'"
He said he felt like his practice hadn't been good that day, that he'd been all over the place.
"Yeah that's annoying," I said.
"But, not being satisfied is something to feel too," he added, exhaling smoke slowly and looking out across the lawn at the huddled trees on the mountain beyond with a steadiness in his gaze I could only describe as Canadian.
We talked about how we'd both been reading books by the deceased guru who started the meditation center, whose "crazy wisdom" teachings had inspired both Will's parents and my parents to devote themselves to him. We agreed the stuff we were reading seemed to apply to our psyches as we took it in, but by the end we couldn't grasp what we'd read.
"It's like infrastructure for stuff that doesn't exist," Will said.
I wondered if connecting with people at meditation retreats was so easy because of all the pointless shit there was to talk about. It was like working in food service and bonding with your coworkers over your idiot manager, but here the idiot manager was your mind.
Will's 10-day advanced retreat coincided with the final week of my introductory 28-day one. Maybe this was by design: send the enlightened troops along at the end to "seal the deal" with new recruits.
The Scorpion Seal participants were required to wear all white, rumored to be a way of making them extra mindful of their bodies and every speck of dirt. Many of their practices were secret, but one, called "aimless wandering," instructed them to wander around outside without a goal, letting themselves be drawn in any direction. Most of them were elderly, "OG" students of the deceased guru, which meant Will, who I guessed was in his late thirties, must have meditated hard and fast through the various retreat levels to be among their ranks. Yet he seemed like a calm, unambitious person.
Later that afternoon as I was pulling weeds with Jane, my fellow gardener, a smattering of aimless wanderers gravitated toward the garden, standing along the perimeter of the fence peering at us like zoo animals. Some of them ambled slowly through the gate and wandered among the garden beds, stopping to fondle plants and crouching down to gaze at dirt, grabbing handfuls of it and sniffing.
The weeds we were pulling were deep and manifold, clusters of tiny white flowers on tall erect stems with sharp, hard roots lodged in the soil. We stuck pitchforks in the ground and stood on top of them, jumping on the metal combs to drive them down deeper, then hung back on the long wood handles, as tall as us, with all our weight, to crack the muscley network.
I was telling Jane, who was a therapist in her normal life, about Will.
"What does he do?" she asked.
"I dunno, some kind of corporate healthcare package thing. But he said he likes to write poetry. He's got, like, the friendly Canadian thing but also somehow seems hip-hop, which is sexy."
"But I'm nervous," I said.
I hadn't had sex in three years. It wasn't a conscious choice, more like I'd found myself on a planet somewhere inside my head, moving farther and farther away from this one.
It was the last night of my retreat. At the closing reception I tried not to stare at my teacher too much. He was fragile, suffering from Parkinson's disease, but joked that he was a cyborg because of experimental surgery that let him turn his brain to either "talk" or "walk" mode with the press of a button. Numerous times during walking meditation his legs would glitch and he'd fall over, nimbly catching himself.
Afterwards, since I was already dressed up and there was saké at the party I was thinking about finding Will, but I wanted more alcohol first. On my way to the kitchen I saw him sitting in the dark dining room basking in the glow of his phone.
"Hey," I said. "Smoke?"
"Yeah," he said.
"I just need a minute," I said.
I went to the basement fridge to steal two beers, stopped in the bathroom to preen.
I came back up, beers stowed away in my tote bag.
Will said, "Mind if Tracy joins?" Tracy was his friend, a young teacher at his retreat.
"Of course not," I said.
As we were all walking out I said, "Smokers roll out!" then cringed inwardly.
We stood on the sloping lawn and the night seemed lit from below, trees black and a blue glow in the grass.
Tracy said, "So how'd it go today?" to Will.
"I did a better job of managing my rage at the endless lunch announcements," he said.
I'm doing a good job of pretending to be an extrovert, I thought.
Tracy went inside as Will pulled out a second cigarette. We sat on a log.
"Care for a beer?" I asked.
Usually at retreats you weren't allowed to drink until the end - his retreat ended in a couple days. But he took one.
I told him about a quote I'd been thinking about from the deceased guru's commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He says we shy away from the bright light of reality and go toward the dull seductive light of the realms of neurotic existence. He writes, "Often the reality is so blunt and outrageous and overwhelming that you feel facing it would be like sitting on a razorblade."
I asked Will what he thought it meant.
He said, "It's like there's the open space of mind, and it's confusion which causes you to split it into self and other - so that's the razorblade, that splitting into self and other—like in the thangka paintings, you see the Mahakala deity holding the razor blade and the skullcup, which holds the poison? And the blade should continuously cut as you drink the poison but we get addicted to the poison and want it. That's why enlightened people can work through self and other without getting caught, because they're continuously cutting."
I had no idea what he was talking about but I felt like I definitely wanted to fuck him.
We saw a couple teachers from my retreat approaching the smoking area so we hid our beers. They sat for a long time chatting and we smoked too many cigarettes waiting for them to leave.
Will said, "I gotta pee. You wanna go inside or you wanna chill here while I go pee in the woods?"
"Hmm," I said.
"Here, I'll go pee and you think about it," he said, and went into the trees.
I told myself, "Don't overthink it. Just be calm. This is how things happen between people, you just have to see what happens and not run away."
He reappeared. We walked inside talking about how we wanted to do less drugs, and I swerved into his side a little. He said he wanted to get tea, and I followed him into the serving area.
He made chamomile and I chose "tension tamer." As they steeped, since no one was around to side-eye us for using technology, we leaned over the counter looking at dog memes on his phone. We took a few sips then wandered into the dining area, abandoning our mugs, and I didn't know what to do so I said, "Well, I guess my tension's tamed" and hugged him as if to leave but as we were hugging he gave my hip two quick squeezes with his hand and suddenly we were making out. He sat in a chair and I straddled him. His hands were down my underwear grabbing my ass and I realized we were surrounded by windows.
"Do you wanna have sex?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "But where?"
I'd been sleeping on the floor of the main shrine room with some other participants since it got too cold to sleep in my tent. He was staying in the men's dormitory. I could only think of the two tiny meditation instruction rooms on the third floor.
"Oh, I'm on my period," I said.
"Perfect," he said.
As I was leading him up the stairs I looked back at him and he looked like he was trying to get a grip on what was happening, which seemed encouraging because I was thinking about whether I'd ever been this sober the first time I had sex with someone.
I stopped in the bathroom to remove my tampon. We went into one of the tiny rooms and locked the door. The lighting was terrible and the ceiling was slanted so we couldn't stand up all the way. But he had a condom and we fucked and it felt good.
At some point I was riding him and he was looking up at me with an expression of wonder, though his eyes looked far away as if he could see through my face and the ceiling to the vast beyond, and he said, "I love it."
As I was lying against him after, he asked, "Did you shave it?"
But I thought he said, "Do you shave it?" and I was irrationally afraid he was talking about my pubic hair, as if making a soft suggestion to shave it, but he was talking about the hair on my head, which was growing out from a buzz-cut. We kissed and went to our separate sleeping areas. I fell asleep marveling at the unexpected effortlessness of what had taken place.
Will was in his retreat all the next day. After dinner I finally spotted him sitting at a table. I approached confidently even though I was wearing an outfit that could pass for pajamas, and he threw his arms out to make peace signs. Maybe it was a side-effect of continuously sitting still in a noble-feeling position, or maybe it was the sex. I was in that rare mood where I actually inhabited my body. Too often my bearing would become awkward as a defense mechanism against people interacting with me. I'd hover in the space between my eyes and the floor to forget my corporeal existence and hope others did too.
I sat down at the table across from Will, wary of the other people in the room, including this guy Ben, who during a recent meditation session had suddenly broken into a fit of crescendoing giggles and eventually had to remove himself from the room. On one of the days when we'd been instructed to maintain silence, he'd passed me a note saying I looked cute in my glasses. I'd passed a note back to Ben saying I was focused on practicing, not romance.
Will was writing a thank-you speech he'd been assigned to give one of his teachers. I offered to show him the donation clothing rack in the basement laundry room so he could find a special outfit to wear to his retreat's closing reception.
We slipped downstairs and he modeled a pink bathrobe and we engaged in the silly banter of two people who just fucked for the first time. I turned the light off and he picked me up and put me on top of a dryer, and we started putting our hands and lips on each other.
But I didn't feel very turned on or sexy. I told him I was tired and we kissed a little more and parted ways.
I was always fickle like this. When another human developed an expectation to be able to continue to engage in sexual contact with me, it turned me off.
It was like I wanted sex to be a magic trick I was being shown, and magic tricks aren't very exciting the second time around.
Jane and I decided to take mushrooms and go on a hike. As we climbed up the mountain the fallen leaves under our feet were damp and bright like fire and we talked animatedly about psychedelic therapy. At the top we sat on a cliff smoking cigarettes and everything was covered with fog.
It felt like the part in a movie when a character gets zapped into the white space of their mind to confront some problem. I didn't know if my problem was the part of me that wanted to jump off the cliff or the part of me that was too scared. For a beat the fog cleared and our vision was filled with the lake's dark rippled blue below and then again it was swallowed by fog.
Back at the meditation center, we helped our friend Eli prepare desserts for the Scorpion Seal retreat's celebratory dinner while sneaking sips from bottles of wine. Near the end we went outside to the smoking area and Will appeared. Someone commented on the relative calm of the dinner, the retreat mostly made up of elderly people who, now that they were liquored up, were likely to go to bed rather than try to keep the party going.
"Yeah, we're a languid bunch," Will said, and I felt attracted to his use of the word "languid."
Jane and Eli and I dragged an amplifier into a rarely-used cabin up the hill called the Fire Offering Cabin, where people used to keep a fire burning for days, staring at it. Eli hooked up his iPod and we started dancing. I proceeded to get drunker as I hoped Will, who I'd invited to join us, would show up. I felt nervous because he'd shaved and put on a black shirt and looked especially handsome. When he showed up, we danced briefly, then grabbed each other and started kissing. Jane and Eli slipped out of the cabin. We fucked in a way where I stopped worrying about who we were and I didn't realize until much later that my spine was rugburned.
We went back to the main building and fucked again more quietly, in another less popular shrine room called the Community Room, and fell asleep on some meditation cushions. A car was supposed to pick Will up at 4 a.m. to take him to the airport, but we slept too long, and when he woke me up to say goodbye I could hear the birds greeting the sun and he started anxiously telling me how long the cab driver had been waiting, but I was still drunk and asleep and said, "What?" and he said, "Nevermind," and kissed me and had the look of someone who was frustrated at being late yet again, and I felt attracted to that. Maybe I was projecting.
Five years later I was in my apartment in NYC trying to write about a recent romantic entanglement—in which I'd taken MDMA and fucked a couple I was friends with and then almost dated them both—when Will messaged me on Facebook asking how I was doing. We had kept in touch. He would message me drunk sometimes and say "lots of love" or "big kiss kiss hug thing. all my love ok?". He still lived in Vancouver.
When I saw his message I decided to procrastinate by looking back at what I'd written while living at the meditation center. I pasted all the parts about Will into a new document.
I read the part where he explained a confusing teaching to me, and recalled that though his explanation had confused me further, it was as he spoke that I'd decided I wanted to fuck him.
I edited the document into a story and sent it to Will.
"I want to read about more of my memories," he replied.
We started chatting more and more. And sexting and sending pictures. I sent him videos of myself thrusting my crotch against the edge of my meditation cushion.
We smoked cigarettes over Facebook video chat. We discussed our intermittent, noncommittal love lives. Will had almost dated a couple too.
I told him how when I'd been staying with my parents recently, in the midst of a sharp depression I'd stolen leftover painkillers from various surgeries they'd had. And now I was wondering if I should confess.
He told me there was an old version of himself who would think he had to be honest just for honesty's sake.
I said, "Yeah, would I be doing it for me or for them? And if it's for me, is it worth the pain it'll cause?"
Another video chat, smoking weed together, I said, "How are you real? Is anything real?" and he said, "Put it this way. I'm breathing right now."
Will flew from Vancouver to NYC to visit me. I rented a car and drove to the airport to pick him up. There were too many parking lots and it felt like I'd never find him. I got out of the car and suddenly there he was, walking toward me, except it was more like lumbering, he was lumbering toward me, and I didn't remember that as his gait.
We got in the car and looked at each other. There was barely any talking before he was kissing me, hungrily. I thought there should have at least been more eye contact first. But I was glad he still wanted me in real life.
I started driving out of the city. He put his hand on my neck. The Pixies song "Monkey Gone to Heaven" came on the radio and we both started quietly singing as we sped down the dark highway. He turned the volume up and I felt relieved he was the kind of person who would.
We'd reserved a hotel room near Minnewaska State Park. We drank and fucked, and his beer belly was bigger in person, and he looked older and balder—the selfies he'd sent usually featured a baseball hat or beanie—but it didn't bother me. I wondered what he thought of my acne scars. The sex wasn't mindblowing but it had potential. We were both nervous. I went to smoke a cigarette.
He was asleep when I got back and crawled in next to him. He woke up and cuddled me and quickly fell asleep again. Then started snoring loudly. I almost laughed at how loud it was. I could barely sleep.
The next day we drove to the park and paid 10 dollars to get in. We poured hard cider, which we'd gotten at a convenience store, in a thermos.
The trail was high and rocky and circled a big lake. We came to a swimming area cordoned off by buoys with a lifeguard and opted to look for our own spot. It took a while to find a route down the steep hill thick with forest to the water, but before becoming an insurance salesman at the company where his dad worked, Will had studied forestry and worked in the industry, mapping terrain, so he navigated the brush with authority, and I felt happy to be in the presence of an adventurous person dedicated to ideal swimming conditions.
I swam toward Will and kissed him then swam toward the middle of the lake, surprised at how quickly I was out of breath. I tread the water and looked across it, my eyes floating up to the tops of the trees and staying there. They were more silent and gorgeous than I'd ever be.
We got out and stood on the dirty shore, our toes on leaves and twigs, arms resting on branches, fingers pressing against textured bark.
I asked Will how he was feeling about the Buddhist community we'd been raised in, which was falling apart because the deceased guru's son, who was now in charge, had been called out for sexual misconduct, as had other Tibetan Buddhist gurus, and the deceased guru himself, posthumously.
Will said he didn't know about any of it. He just knew he was into meditation, that it made him relate to the world around him with more softness.
We drove back to the city, dropped off the rental car and took the subway back to my apartment in Ridgewood to snort 3-meo-pcp while drinking hard kombucha and talking about how we liked the Native American tradition of respecting local energy.
My roommate texted asking us to talk more quietly.
At sunrise we took more 3-meo-pcp and went up on the roof. I started filming Will with my phone.
"What do you have to say, Will?"
He started pretending to sob and I filmed his beer gut going in and out. I filmed the sky.
"We got the sky, we got somma that, somma that..." I said, pointing the camera at trees and buildings shining in the orange morning.
"No seriously, seriously," Will interjected.
"Seriously, like, get serious," I said, pointing my phone at him.
"No. Big thing for me is, honestly, or like what's important or captivating for me, or captures, I guess what I, like, I mean I'm in an in-between state right now."
"Yeah," I agreed.
"But what captures me and captivates me and what keeps me interested? That's—that's the stuff!" he said.
"Yeah! Exactly," I agreed.
"And I think uh, so, pfft, I don't wanna say so many people miss it but so. many. people. miss it!"
"Miss it! They just miss it," I interrupted.
"And a lot of it is based on energy."
"And uh, I guess the who and the why and the what should get forgotten and just like—"
"Shoo hoo fah ha hoo," I interjected.
"Say it to me," he replied.
"Shoo hoo ha fah hoo," I said.
"Do you wanna order some food?" he said and I stopped filming.
We climbed down the ladder, got in my bed and began removing our clothing. I felt suddenly trapped by the feeling that my mind was bigger than my body, watching it, when what I wanted was for our minds to disappear in the dance. I let my body go limp like a ragdoll and Will didn't seem to notice, his body roving over mine as my eyes got misty looking at the ceiling and I closed them, thinking about an email I'd read that morning from an Instagram Tantric Priestess which said my pussy was a powerful tool of transformation.
We woke up in the afternoon and walked to Maria Hernandez Park as the light was fading. As we circled the park I remembered I wanted to ask Will to explain something he'd messaged me before he arrived. I scrolled through my phone, and reread his message to him: "we have an experience of spaciousness and then cover it up with ego out of fear".
"How do we not do that?" I asked.
He said he'd been talking about the process of meditation.
We left the park and walked by a graveyard. He said he might go for a sky burial, where they chop you up into bite-size pieces and leave you on top of a mountain to be eaten by birds.
"Who does that?" I asked.
"It's like a Tibetan thing."
"But like, there's a person assigned to chop or the family does the chopping?"
"We should research that later," he said.
For Will's last night we got a hotel room in Manhattan because he had frequent flyer miles to spend. We sat at the hotel bar and ordered cocktails and food. I felt uncomfortable and alien.
"Like I love drinking a fancy cocktail and eating a meal but also like, I hate it?" I said.
Will nodded like he understood. I'd noticed the way he could drink diligently when he got going, as if his stomach was a swiftly draining lake and he was in charge of keeping a boat from hitting the bottom of it.
And I'd noticed he always wore his white socks pulled taut on his calves. It had started to bother me. I wondered if it had something to do with ticks or other bugs on the Western Canadian coast.
And he always wore a watch, which reminded me of bosses, exes, and Father Time.
The next morning I woke up early and slipped out of the hotel room as Will slept. I lit a cigarette as I walked and called my friend Paloma. I told her I liked Will a lot but in a vacation kind of way, like we were using substances and meals and destinations to distract from what might ultimately be our boredom with each other.
"I'm afraid he goes more for comfort than challenge," I said.
"Like he doesn't have passion?" she said.
"That's what I always found attractive, with Marc, with the journalist man - they could be all kinds of messes as people but they had their curiosity driving them. And you know, it could be anyone who has that. I could talk all day to a shoemaker who has that."
"Yeah, I mean he cares a lot about people, his family and friends. And he goes to meditation retreats and uses that to balance his life."
I suddenly became afraid I might be dating my dad. I pushed the thought away. Or "let it dissolve," my dad might say.
It turned out whatever website Will used to book his flight home had scammed him and he'd lost his spot on the plane so he had to stay an extra night. We were lying hungover in my bed. As he struggled to book a new flight over the phone, I put my knees against his hip, messaging my Twitter crushes to distract myself from the romantic disappointment.
I read an essay written by one author calling out another author for stealing his style. He then attacked the author's basic nature, for being a fuckboy in the novel which was a thinly veiled fictionalization of the author's life. Am I a fuckboy too, I thought.
I messaged one of my crushes: "Have you ever felt super bad about having to dump someone? Like a nice person who just wasn't right for you."
He replied: "Yeah every time, that's why I just hit them over the head with something when they're not looking."
Him: "No pain, shh, there's no pain anymore, only new frontiers"
Me: "In that case might as well dump 'em first to increase the relative freedom of death"
Him: "Damn, good point"
Then Will and I fucked for the last time and at some point while riding him I started imagining I was fucking the crush I was messaging, and afterwards Will said, "That was incredible," and I agreed.