Missy sat with the pillow book edition of the Kama Sutra in her lap. In a voice betraying more horror than fascination she said, “I can’t believe people do that.” She turned a page and winced, “Or that.”
She handed the illustrated text to Arnold who adjusted his wire-rims, stared, turned the book upside down, re-adjusted his wire-rims, righted the book and stared again. “Holy Cow. Look at these guys. All six of them.” He showed Missy the book’s twisted gymnastic group coupling.
“I can’t do that one, Arnie.”
Arnold placed the volume, face down, on the wicker table and said, “I’m sure they have a beginner’s manual here. Somewhere.” He searched the drawers and closet. There was the herbal-erotic-pharmacopoeia, two saffron robes, and a box of quilted Kleenex. “I guess that’s it.”
“Apparently,” said Missy. “Let’s go for a walk.”
They exited through the gaudy—yellow, orange, purple—plastic beads that dangled in the entryway. They gazed at each other before stepping outside and shook their heads at the lack of a door that locked.
Missy and Arnold were momentarily disoriented in the sunshine. Their eyes adjusted: simultaneously they observed Blake lifting weights by the pool and decided to walk in the opposite direction. They accidentally stumbled onto a path with a small sign: Waterfall —>
They strolled to the promised waterfall, following the creek; it was less a running watercourse than a series of deep pools connected by thin rivulets of water. “Blackberries, I recognize,” said Missy, “but what’s that?” She pointed at a tangle of red-barked shrubs with tiny white and pink flowers.
“Manzanita,” said Arnold. “What variety, I really don’t know.”
“It’s pretty, in a scrubbly sort of way.”
“It’s nice to be upwind of that skunk.”
Through hills as green as Ireland, dotted with regal oaks in the lime-green of new bud, the couple continued in silence and sunshine toward the waterfall.
Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Missy, who had learned Russian as a child from her Grandmother, taught Russian Literature at Indiana State University and had always considered Tolstoy’s opening line much more a simple statement of fact than a literary indulgence.
Happiness, not the sappy pabulum of The Walton’s or the eternal idiotic mirth of The Brady Bunch, but solid, ingrained contentment seemed to Missy to be identical, no matter how each family expressed it. There was ease and honesty and a communication, mostly non-verbal, that pervaded and permeated the family. She knew that it was beyond language; she’d experienced it with a grandmother who hadn’t spoken English, a deaf grandfather, bilingual parents, and a husband mired in the confines of American English with a mid-American accent, vocabulary and sensibilities.
Missy and Arnold had developed the silent sonic communication of a happily married couple: a raised finger or eyebrow communicated more than hours of dialog and debate. Walking alongside the creek they could hear the waterfall and taste the mist. But something, a discomforting unhappiness hung between them. Not a word was spoken until:
“I’m sorry I called us beginners,” said Arnold. “Back there in the sex hut.”
Missy kissed his cheek and replied, “That’s okay.”
This short and laconic exchange actually communicated the following subtext to the duo:
Arnold: We’ve been married nine years and I love you very much.
Missy: I love you too, Arnie.
Arnold: It’s just that we haven’t made love in over a year.
Missy: I know. Since the miscarriage. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Arnold: If anything’s wrong, it’s wrong with us, Missy.
Missy: It’s just since we’ve lost the baby, I’m not myself. But I hope we didn’t make a mistake in bringing our sexual dysfunction here.
“I’m sorry I called us beginners,” repeated Arnold.
“It’s over,” said Missy.
They arrived at the waterfall.
After several hugs and minutes admiring the cascade Arnold skipped four flat stones across the pool, the final one skittering to the base of the waterfall. “It can’t be that deep,” said Arnold, “come on.”
As they had on their first date, following the Sadie Hawkins Dance at Falls River High School, Southern Indiana, they removed their shoes, rolled up their trousers, and waded hand-in-hand. They kissed and laughed and had a splash-fight.
Arnold let Missy win.
"The waters of the Mississippi had escaped the levee,” said Altair, “and flooded all the surrounding lowlands. And a Baptist Minister, instead of evacuating, climbed unto the roof of his house. Sitting alongside his satellite dish and chimney he watched the muddy tide rise and inundate cars, fences, and trees.” Altair paused and glanced around the circle. Helena and Blake, robed and barefoot, attentive, sat to his left. On his right were Apple, then Missy and Arnold. Mary Francis Mulvaney’s burgundy head was enfolded in Missy’s robe; she stroked him distractedly. Arnold fidgeted, looking like a saffron-gowned ashram accountant in glasses, black socks and slip-on Hush Puppies. Altair continued: “The Minister’s neighbor, in his huge four-by-four blared his horn and screamed through the rain, ‘I’m the last vehicle outta town Reverend, you’d better hop-on-in.’
“‘God will provide,’ said the Minister. And the waters rose to the eaves. Pretty soon, the Sheriff putted by in a fourteen-foot outboard. ‘Hop in, Reverend, the flood hasn’t even crested yet.’ ‘God will provide,’ said the Minister. And the swirling waters swept away the satellite dish and engulfed the chimney. Then a National Guard helicopter hovered over the Minister, who stood, ankle deep in water lapping over the chimney. The helicopter lowered a life-line. The Minister pushed the life-line away and screamed, ‘God Will Provide!’ the helicopter chuffed away to find a willing rescuee. Still the Mississippi floodwaters rose, drowned the Minister, sweeping his body down to the Gulf of Mexico. Up in heaven, at the Pearly Gates, the Minister screamed at St. Peter: ‘I gave my LIFE in the service of the Lord and I was abandoned in my time of need!’ ‘Abandoned?’ said Peter. ‘You idiot! I sent a truck, a boat and a helicopter.’”
Despite hearing the story twenty-one times a year, Apple chuckled sincerely. Helena smiled limply but politely.
Missy was still too shaken by the illustrated Kama Sutra pillow book to relax and enjoy anything but the Irish setter’s head in her lap.
Arnold nodded at the joke’s comic irony, which was unappreciated by Blake and the dog.
Altair paused a moment, sniffed audibly and said, “God’s gifts are all around us. He is always sending help in the form of trucks, boats and helicopters. It’s up to us to see them as the gifts they are. This weekend, could be a gift. From Us to You. From You to Yourselves. From Yourselves to each Other. From—”
Apple cleared her throat and stared at Altair.
“—right. Love as a gift to each other,” said Altair. “That’s our theme this weekend.”
Actually it was every weekend’s theme; at Tantricity Hill Retreat the only thing that wasn’t canned and pre-prepared were Apple’s enchanting vegetarian meals. “What does it mean when you say, ‘I love the Beatles, or I love Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream?”
No one answered. Mary Francis Mulvaney licked a paw. An airliner, soundless, left its white scuffs across the bright spring sky.
“It means that we use the word love much too casually. The Greeks had three words for love, Eros, Philos, and Agape. Philos would be the love of the Beatles or a hometown team or a favorite restaurant. The root appears in many English words: Philosophy, love of wisdom. And Philogyny, love of women; from which I suffer.” Altair smiled at Apple who had just seated herself after distributing handheld mirrors to Tantricity Hill’s acolytes.
Apple slipped her robe up-and-over her head while still seated, cross-legged, on her terrycloth mat. Her gymnastic figure had an all-over tan; her shaved head was crowned with a circlet of wildflowers, predominately poppies, and the only hair on her lithe and lissome corpus were the two tufts of red-brown beneath her armpits. The ivory ring in her belly-button resembled a half-sucked-down Wint-O-Green Life Saver. She luxuriated in the glistering sunshine, leaning back and letting it splash across her like scented water. Apple wore her casual attitude toward nudity and public displays of sex like a Joint Chief-of-Staff General flaunted his medals: something that set them apart from commonplace civilians. Her sky-blue eyes lazed shut as Altair continued:
“Agape is a selfless, Platonic love. The English word agapanthus, love of flowers is also the genus of the Lily of the Nile.” He pointed at an agapanthus he had planted in a half wine barrel as a handy teaching aid and reference. Still too early in the season, the pale-green plant’s umbrels swayed un-blooming in the breeze. Altair studied his congregation:
Helena had removed her robe, folded it beneath her as a cushion, and savored the sunshine. Heliotropic as a sunflower, she leaned toward Earth’s closest star. She closed her eyes and lazed.
Blake stood and pulled off his robe, seeming to expect, if not a smattering of applause, at least a gasp and an admiring nod. He wore a Stars-and-Stripes Speedo and his weight-trained, proportioned build compared favorably with Roman statuary or an Olympic water polo player.
Missy, fully clothed, still fondled Mary Francis Mulvaney.
Arnold fiddled intently with a frayed strand on his left sock.
Altair, done surveying his flock, continued: “Eros is, of course, the root of erotic and eroticism and is named for the Greek equivalent of Cupid: he who inspires physical love. And love, of course, begins with the self.” Altair stepped out of his garment, picked up his mirror and repeated, “With the self. And that’s where we’ll begin our first Tantric sexual practice.” As hairless as an apple and brown as a bran and blackstrap molasses muffin Altair approached a statue of a three-foot phallus in the center of the circle. Apple stood and approached a female version. Standing beside their respective exaggerated stone-replicas Apple and Altair raised the mirrors to their faces.
Altair said, “Gaze at your own eyes in the mirror.”
Silently, obediently, the couples raised their looking-glasses.
“Concentrate and narrow your vision, squint if need be, to frame your eyes, but only your eyes, in the center of the mirror. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul; but this is true only of humans,” instructed Altair. “A greater or lesser ape would reach behind the mirror to capture the ape on the other side. A cat would hiss at the strange feline; Mary Francis Mulvaney, if she weren’t blind, would bark at the canine she’d just encountered. Self-awareness and self-identity are strictly and essentially human traits.”
“As is,” said Helena, loudly, without lowering her mirror, “Narcissism.”
“Ha,” said Arnold, “nicely played.” He lowered his mirror and glanced at Helena, quickly returning his gaze to the mirror after seeing her naked: breasts bared with her legs spread and entwined with the young and hulking Blake.
Altair quickly removed his hand from the stone replica of his tallywhacker, but otherwise ignored Helena’s observation and continued, “Concentrate on the physical characteristics of your eyes. Is your pupil solid black? Iridescent purple? Lighter toward the edge? Streaked? Are your eyes all blue or brown or green? What other colors are contained within the predominant hue? Can you sense your identity? Can you catch sight of your soul?”
“Do you have a soul?” said Apple, not missing a beat. “If so, what is its shape? Can you glimpse, even for a tiny instant, the infinite?”
Helena: Wow, a new little quickie-meditation I can use while stuck in traffic or waiting in the 12 Items or Less line at the grocery store.
Arnold: The shape of my soul? That’s like when Merlin appeared before the Knights of the Round Table, pointed to Arthur and asked: “Who is this man?” He offered a bag of gold to the knight with the correct answer. One said, “King of England.” Another said, “Son of Uther Pendragon.” Yet another, “The Once and Future King.” Merlin pronounced them all wrong and said, “He is the wind.” And the bag of gold disappeared, into the wind.
Missy: The shape of my soul? What the heck? Everyone at Indiana State University warned me about these California mind-games, but just staring at my eyes without thinking, like they were a portion of an independent and discrete landscape, relaxes me. It’s not a trance or a trick. Really, it’s not. It’s…cool.
Blake: Is that a zit starting on my nose? My Pecker Pills always make me break out.
“Now lower your mirrors and stare into the eyes of your partner,” said Altair. “Make no facial expressions; reactions, or communication. And above all, no speaking. Does the addition of another ego revise the stillness of your moment? Do you feel the need to console? To control? To act? To do something?”
Helena, still slightly infatuated with the discovery of an effective Quickie-Meditation, had difficulty concentrating for more than two minutes at a time. But she savored the sun on her shoulders and examined Blake’s eyes: if taken out of context his iridescent green-grey orbs were vulnerable and beautiful; almost feminine.
Blake, used to isolating and “working” body parts, stared unflinchingly into Helena’s eyes. She ceased to be a female client or even a person. After several minutes Blake felt “floaty-floaty-floaty” and almost keeled over. Helena steadied him. He nodded his thanks and they continued the exercise.
Too much playfulness and companionship leaked from Missy and Arnold’s eyes and every twenty-five seconds they giggled like third-graders; enjoying the assignment more, perhaps, than two adults should.
After ten minutes, Altair said, “Excellent.”
“Now,” said Apple, “it’s always essential to practice with oneself, sexually, to develop and discover further depths of sensation. The purpose of this Circle Ritual is to learn, while self-stimulating, to orgasm on different levels. Vaginal, clitoral, mental, spiritual.”
“For men,” said Altair, “it’s to learn to hold ejaculation throughout different stages of arousal; which will eventually allow you, and your mate, to travel to greater depths of arousal and ultimate release.” At the base of the sculptured schlub sat a white kitchen timer. Altair set it for twenty-three minutes; then placed it on the chiseled left testicle. “For twenty-three minutes we will explore ourselves, simultaneously inviting, and then resisting climax.”
Blake slipped out of his Speedo.
Helena, examined Blake’s turgid tiller, smiled sweetly, then closed her eyes and began her self-strumming.
Missy and Arnold, still fully-clothed, shrugged at each other and began shuffling beneath their robes for their respective and appropriate parts.
Mary Francis Mulvaney, as if on cue, sniffed twice, headed for the shade of the bench press and began licking herself.
Altair and Apple spoke as they themselves practiced: “Begin your strokes slowly; lightly,” said Altair. “Relax. Smile and be frivolous. Resist the urge to stroke faster. Take a breath and continue. Close your eyes. Feel the sweetness and gauge the firmness. If you feel that you are coming, stop, take a breath and relax deeper. Then begin again; subtle, tender; soft.” Given the appendage clamped in Altair’s left hand it was an ironic choice of adjectives: Soft.
The timer tick-ticked-ticked; Arnold’s gown rustled; low moans were heard; the wind played through oaks, the potted agapanthus, the grassy hills. Apple removed her tiara of flowers and placed it atop the stone replica of her hubby. She said, “Play with yourself, ladies. Literally, be playful with yourself. Use it like a treasured toy. It’s Christmas morning and you’re the first one awake. Unwrap your present.”
“You’re naughty, opening presents before the adults are up. Investigate; explore the nuance of breath, feeling and pleasure. Treat it as a meditation. Find the point of Om. The stillness and silence.”
Tick, tick, tock, tick, tick, tock, tick, tick, tock.
“For the next three-hundred and sixty seconds,” said Altair, “take your lover’s hand and guide them; teaching them how to touch, precisely, in the preferred way you touch yourself.”
Helena and Blake fumbled into an awkward and mechanical rhythm.
Apple and Altair performed the exercise with the slick, practiced, almost bored proficiency of two Tavern on the Green bartenders blending a pitcher of Herraduras Margaritas during Happy Hour.
Missy and Arnold probed beneath each other’s robe. Of the three couples they were the only twosome still maintaining eye-contact. Arnold adored Missy’s root-beer-brown eyes; looking into them was like listening to Bach in front of the fire on a snowy evening. Missy smiled with those brunette eyes and communicated to Arnold’s slightly bloodshot, jet-lagged, baby-blues: I don’t know why, nor do I care why anyone else is here. I want us to learn to make love like we did before. But more important, I want to heal our personal pain and forge a future together. I know we can do it.
That’s when a gunmetal gray Mercedes convertible thundered across the bridge over the ravine and rumbled into the Tantricity Hill retreat. The Mercedes skidded to a dusty halt alongside the lumpy black building, the Omphalos. The Mercedes’ occupants waited for the dust to settle before they exited and studied the Tantricity Hill tableau through matching mirrored Ray Bans.
“Jesus Christ,” said Blake, “it’s Devon Adams and Debra Shaffer.”
Debra Shaffer, who had been appearing nude in “A” films since the day of her eighteenth birthday, and on grainy, ill-lighted Super-8 since she was nearly fifteen, raised her eyebrows—still auburn from her latest film—and said, “How rude, starting without us.”
“Welcome, I’m Apple. You must be Devon and Debra.” Apple made quick introductions
“Welcome, welcome,” said Altair. He extended his right arm in a disturbing, vaguely Aryan salute. His left hand still clamped another portion of his anatomy, which was extended in eager ruby salutation.
“You’ll forgive me,” said Devon, chewing on his mustache, “if I don’t shake hands, eh?” The actor flashed a smile intended to dazzle.
And it dazzled.
“Sorry aboot being late, mahn, we missed our connecting flight,” said Devon. He pronounced sorry and about like a Canadian and threw in Mahn like Bob Marley. Not a bad Hollywood affectation for an abandoned-at-birth-child and ward of the state from Grand Junction, Colorado. Devon figured since he had no family, aside from a disastrous succession of foster homes and institutions, he’d speak any goddamn way he pleased.
“Let’s use, said Altair, “this interruption—”
“What are you guys doing?” said Debra.
“—as a learning tool. Join us,” continued Altair, “and my friends will instruct you, as I’ve just instructed them.” He motioned at Tantricity Hill’s other campers and then Nodded Solemnly, reminding Debra, vaguely of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
“We’re whacking,” said Blake. He elbowed Helena, just a little too hard, and said to her in an excited whisper, “It’s Devon Adams and Debra Shaffer. Here.”
Helena opened her eyes and stood. She glanced at the Hollywood Power Couple. She oozed disdain as she stood and wandered away to the swimming pool, aloof and naked: leaving her saffron robe like a pat of butter melting in the sun.
“We’re exploring,” corrected Apple. She paused to watch Helena dive cleanly into the swimming pool, then continued, “We’re discovering, yes? Examining, if you will, the nature of the flora in our personal gardens.”
“Beautiful,” said Altair. “Beautiful, beautiful.”
“It’s Devon Adams and Debra Shaffer,” said Blake to no one and everyone. “Here.”
“Yes,” said Debra, shedding her clothes; shorts and tank-top, no bra or panties beneath. “Indeed, it is Devon Adams and Debra Shaffer.” She stood naked and proffered herself to the sun. Standing nude in the Northern California sunshine Debra demonstrated why the millions-of-dollars-per-movie and the annual necessity to acknowledge and award, validate with golden icons, their work in front of the camera, actresses do not receive enough money. If four frat-boys after five beers each saw the fifty-something Helena nude they’d concur:
Nice rack for an old broad. Really pulchritudinous, dude. I bet in her day…
After viewing Apple they’d rhapsodize:
What’s a piece like that doing with that burnt out old hippie? That armpit hair is spank. Sexy, lascivious, lubricious.
Seeing Missy undressed they’d agree:
Never would have expected it; what a tight package; what a wanton little wildcat. Those eyes; man, those simpering chocolate orbs. (These frat boys are English Majors who, in addition to beer bottles, open the occasional Thesaurus.)
But seeing Debra naked they would, because they’d seen her, airbrushed and perfect, in magazines and on the Silver Screen—the Totemic Tabernacle of Our Times—they would view her as their property, and criticize accordingly:
Her tushy is a little flat; I’ve never seen those freckles on her back; what’s up with that bush? Does she even own a razor?
They’d drain their sixth brewskies, belch, and feel vindicated; correct and above reproach in their criticism and analysis.
And of all people, Debra would understand. When she was doing porno: literally meeting an “actor” who could memorize seven words, bench press 252 pounds, pass a VD screening and maintain an erection in front of the camera crew, curious onlookers, and the director—not an undemanding feat—she was filled with whimsy and mirth and the hee-hee-hee vibe of knowing that what she’s doing is shocking people and paying the rent.
But she never felt so whored, prostituted, downright used as when she shot her first big-budget film. Not movie, not video, not project but MAINSTREAM HOLLYWOOD FILM.
The media owned her. The film company’s publicist reorganized and then orchestrated her life. The fans possessed Debra, curious about her every whim, with a zeal that staggered and confounded her.
Who cares? Debra remembered writing in her journal. Who could possibly care this much about a skinny girl from Pismo Beach with a fortunately composed face who is so non-committal about nudity and sex that it’s palatable as an occupation? Please allow me to love someone who cares that much about me. Please? Please? Please?
Debra’s every turn and gesture and shrug and utterance was photographed and analyzed; scrutinized and reported. She’d been placed in a fishbowl without so much as a little-pink-castle to hide in. And that’s why she’d agreed to this weekend getaway; to decide how to tell Devon she wanted out of that fishbowl.
Out of movies.
Out of this professional, arranged marriage.
Out of Devon’s control.
And once she admitted, honestly and to herself, that she wanted shucked of the Hollywood Scene Debra realized that she hadn’t had an authentic thought, feeling, or emotion for years. Her actions were all calculated to enhance her image. She, now, just wanted to be Debra; if she still, indeed, knew who that was.
Standing nude in the sunshine at Tantricity Hill, vulnerable, impossibly helpless and susceptible, nearly broken, she had an epiphany. She felt for the first time in her life, after becoming all that others wanted her to be; directed her to be, she felt, at last, like Debra. And she realized that Debra was a fractured and shaking little girl.
She, wordlessly, deserted Devon and sat between the still-fully-clothed couple. Debra somehow felt that the brown-eyed female was her Lost Sister: that she had somehow felt the same pain. There was safety, validity and truth surrounding this person she had yet to officially meet. Debra lowered her head to her new soul sister’s shoulder and in turn was held like a child.
And Debra cried.
In America nudity is both under-rated and over-rated: Over-rated because we think it means something.
Under-rated because it does mean something.
Sitting with no clothes, not in front of a camera; not for a-purpose-a -drachma a-shekel-a-dollar, Debra melted into the arms of a saffron-robed stranger and felt more at home than she ever did while being adored at the Playboy Mansion, framed by Pulitzer-possessing-photographers, or in her celebrated husband’s clutches. But now Debra Shaffer was a sad and shattered little lass reaching out for help. She sat in her birthday suit and wept on Missy’s shoulder.
A red-tailed hawk screeched.