Call me a trendmonger, but I’ve sprung for a tree house. My
bamboo pod hovers amid galba trees, nestled in jungle but open to
the sea, the porch equipped with hemp hammocks. A flowering vine
snakes along the railings, pimping its wistful perfume. With a single
remote control, I may adjust the ceiling fans, fine-tune the lighting,
or lift the plate-glass windows, which flip open like beetle wings. My
eco-friendly rental has so many amenities, but my favorite is the
toilet: a stainless basin that whisks your droppings through a pipe,
down into a pit of coprophagic beetles. These bugs, bred to feast on
human shit, have an enzyme in their gut that makes the best compost
on the planet—a humus so black you’d think it was antimatter.
The spa uses it to feed the orchids in the Samsara Complex. As visitors
drift amid the blossoms, we may contemplate the life cycle, the
transformation of human waste into ethereal petals and auras of
“Orchids are an aphrodisiac,” said a woman at lunch today, her
unagi roll breaking open as she crammed it into her mouth, spilling
blackish clumps of eel. She had crow’s-feet, marionette lines around
her mouth, a porn star’s enhanced lips.
“Yes,” said a man in a sky blue kimono, “I think I read something
about that on the website.”
“They have orchid dondurma on the menu,” I said, scanning the
man’s face: budding eye bags, sprays of gray at his temples, the gouge
of a liver line between his green eyes. I placed him in his early forties.
“Fruit sweetened,” he said, “fortified, I believe, with raw mare’s
milk, if you do dairy.”
“Colostrum,” I said. “Mostly goat. But I don’t ingest sweeteners or
juices, only whole fruits.”
“My philosophy on dairy,” said the woman, waving her chopstick
like a conductor, “is that milk is an infant food. I weaned myself ten
years ago.” Her lush bosom actually heaved, hoisted by the boning of
a new-fangled corset.
For some reason (maybe it was the way the woman shook her dead
blonde hair like a vixen in a shampoo commercial), I found myself
smirking at the man over the centerpiece of sculpted melon. I found
myself wondering what he’d look like after completing the Six Paths
of Suffering. I couldn’t help but picture him shirtless, reclining on a
rock beside one of the island’s famous waterfalls, his skin aglow from
deep cellular regeneration and oxygenation of the hypodermis.
“I’m Red,” he said. And he was: flushed along his neck and cheeks,
the ripe pink of a lizard’s pulsing throat.
The powers that be at Mukti—those faceless organizers of regeneration—
have designed the spa so that Newbies don’t run into Crusties
much. We eat separately, sleep in segregated clusters of cottages,
enjoy our dips in the mud baths and mineral pools, our yoga workshops
and leech therapy sessions, at different times. As Gobind Singh,
our orientation guru, pointed out, “The face of rebirth is the mask
of death.” And this morning, as I walked the empty beach in a state of
above-average relaxation, I spotted my first Crusty crawling from the
Judging by the blisters, the man was in the early stages of Suffering.
I could still make out facial features twitching beneath his infections.
He had the cartoonish body of a perennial weight lifter, his
genitals compressed in the Lycra sling of a Speedo. He nodded at me
and dove back into the ocean.
I jogged up the trail that curled toward my tree house. In the bathroom,
I examined my face again. I studied familiar lines and folds,
pores and spots, ruddy patches and fine wrinkles, not to mention a
general ambient sagging that’s especially detectable in the morning.
Out beyond the Lotus terrace, the ocean catches the pink of the
dying sun. A mound of seaweed sits before me, daubed with pomegranate
chutney and pickled narcissus. My waitress is plain, as all
the attendants are: plump cheeks and brown skin, hair tucked into a
white cap, eyebrows impeccably groomed. Her eyes reveal nothing.
Her mouth neither smiles nor bends with the slightest twist of
frown. I’m wondering how they train them so well, to be almost invisible,
when I note a shadow darkening my table.
“Hi,” says the man from yesterday. “May I?”
“Red, right? Please.”
The bags under his eyes look a little better. His helmet of hair is
losing its sticky sheen. And his bottom lip droops, making his mouth
look adorably crooked.
“Just back from leech therapy.” He grins. “A bit freaky to have
bloodsuckers clamped to my face, but it’s good for fatty orbital herniation
and feelings of nameless dread.”
We laugh. Red orders a green mango salad with quinoa fritters and
mizuna-wrapped shad roe. We decide to share a bottle of island muscador.
We drink and chat and the moon pops out, looking like a
Though Red is a rep for Clyster Pharmaceuticals, he’s into holistic
medicine, thinks the depression racket is a capitalist scam, wishes
he could detach himself from the medico-industrial complex. I try to
explain my career path (human-computer interaction consulting),
how the subtleties of creative interface design have worn me out.
“It’s like I can feel the cortisol gushing into my system,” I say. “A
month ago, I didn’t have these frown lines.”
“You still look youngish,” says Red.
“Thanks.” I smile, parsing out the differences between young and
youngish. “You too.”
Red nods. “It’s not that I’m vain. It’s more like a state of general
depletion. The city has squeezed the sap out of me.”
“And life in general, of course, takes its nasty toll.”
“Boy does it.” Red offers the inscrutable smile of an iguana digesting
I don’t mention my divorce, of course, nor my relocation to a sun-deprived
city that requires vitamin D supplementation. I pass the
wine and our fingertips touch. Red’s wind-mussed hair is a significant
improvement, and I imagine kissing him, forgetting that in two
weeks we’ll both be covered in weeping sores.
I’ve opened my tree house to the night—windows cranked, jungle
throbbing. My blood’s up from Ashtanga yoga. A recent dye job has
brightened my hair with a strawberry blonde, adolescent luster. Wineglass
in hand, I pace barefooted. And Red: seated on my daybed, his
face feral from a five-day beard, lips so pink I’ve already licked them
to test for cosmetics.
Between thumb and index finger he’s rolling a globule of sap. Now
he’s inserting the resin into the bowl of his water pipe. And we take
another hit of ghoni, distillate of the puki bloom, a small purple
fungus flower that grows from tree frog dung. We drift out onto the
porch and fall into an oblivion of kissing.
We shed our clothes, leaving tiny silken mounds on the bamboo
planks. Red’s penis sways in the humid air. Shaggy thighed, he walks
toward the bedroom, where vines creep through the windows, flexing
like tentacles in the ocean breeze.
He reclines and smiles, his forehead only faintly lined in the glow
of Himalayan salt lamps. We’ve been hanging out religiously for the
past seven days, are addicted, already, to each other’s smells. Every
night at dinner we begin some delirious conversation that always
brings us back to my tree house, toking up on ghoni, chattering into
the night. Earlier, discussing the moody rock bands that moved us in
our youth, we discovered that we attended the same show twenty-seven
years ago. Somehow we’d both been bewitched by a band of
sulky middle-aged men with dyed black hair who played a broody,
three-chord pop. Now we can’t stop laughing at how gravely we’d
scowled at them from the pit, our gothic costumes bought from the
We’ve already been infected. Both of us received the treatment two
days ago, Red at eleven, me at three. And we met for a lunch of
shrimp ceviche between appointments.
All week long, Lissa, the lactose-free blonde, has been chattering
about the Hell Realm, wondering, as we all are, when our affliction
will begin. She’s the kind of person whose head will explode unless
she opens her mouth to release every half-formed thought. Her perfume,
derived from synthetic compounds, gives me sinus headaches.
Just as I suspected, she’s an actress. I’m almost positive she has fake
tits. Even though Red and I beam out a couple vibe, huddled close
over menus and giggling, she has no problem plopping down next to
him, lunging at the shy man with her mammary torpedoes. And he
always laughs at her lame jokes.
This afternoon I have a mild fever and clouds stagnate over the sea.
The meager ocean breeze smells of sewage. I feel like a fool for ordering
the monkfish stew, way too pungent for this weather. And Lissa
won’t stop gloating over her beef kabobs. Red, sunk in silence, keeps
scratching his neck. I’m about to exhale, a long, moody sigh full of
turbulent messages, when Lissa reaches over her wine flute to poke
Red’s temple with a mauve talon.
“Look,” she says, “bumps.”
I see them now: a spattering of hard, red zits. Soon they’ll grow fat
with juice. They’ll burst and scab over, ushering in the miracle of
“And my neck itches.” Red toys with his collar.
According to the orientation materials distributed by Guru Gobind
Singh, the Hell Realm is different for everyone, depending on how
much hatred and bitterness you have stored in your system. All that
negativity, stashed deep in your organic tissues, will come bubbling
to the surface of your human form. The psychosomatic filth of a lifetime
will hatch, breaking through your skin like a thousand minuscule
volcanoes to spit its lava.
“Time for my mineral mud bath,” says Red. And now I see what I
could not see before: a row of incipient cold sores edging his upper
lip, wens forming around the delicate arch of his left nostril, a cluster
of protoblisters highlighting each cheekbone like subtle swipes of
The Naraka Room smells of boiled cabbage. Twelve of us squat on
hemp yoga mats, stuck in the frog pose. Wearing rubber gloves, Guru
Gobind Singh weaves among us, pausing here and there to tweak a
shoulder or spine.
According to the pamphlet, Gobind Singh has been through the
Suffering twice, without the luxury of gourmet meals, around-the-clock
therapies, or hands-on guidance from spiritual professionals.
Legend has it that he endured the Hell Realm alone in an isolated
tree house. Crumpled in the embryo pose for weeks, he unfurled his
body only to visit the crapper or eat a bowl of mung beans. His skin’s
as smooth as the metalized paint that coats a fiberglass mannequin.
His body’s a bundle of singing muscles. When he walks, he hovers
three millimeters off the ground—you have to look carefully to detect
his levitational power, but yes, you can see it: The bastard floats.
I can’t help but hate him right now. After all, this is the Hell Realm
and hatred festers within me. My flesh seethes with blisters. My blood
suppurates. My heart is a ball of boiling pus. As I squat in meditation,
I tabulate acts of meanness foisted upon me over the decades. I
tally betrayals, count cruelties big and small. I trace hurts dating
back to elementary school—decades before my first miscarriage, way
before my bulimic high school years, long before Dad died and my
entire family moved into that shitty two-bedroom apartment. I recede
deeper into the past, husking layers of elephant skin until I’m
soft and small, a silken worm of a being, vulnerable as a drop of dew
quivering on a grass blade beneath the summer sun.
“Reach into the core of your misery,” says Gobind Singh. “And
you will find a shining pearl.”
The pamphlet, Regeneration at Mukti, features a color photo of a
pupa dangling from a leaf on the cover. Inside is an outline of the
bodily restoration process. My treatment has borne fruit. I suffer (oh
how I suffer!) from the following: urushiol-induced dermatitis (poison
oak rash), dermatophytosis (ringworm), type one herpes simplex (cold
sores), cercarial dermatitis (swimmer’s itch), herpes zoster (shingles),
and trichinosis (caused by intramuscular roundworms). Using a blend
of cutting-edge nanotechnology and gene therapy, combined with
homeopathic and holistic approaches, the clinicians of Mukti have
transmitted controlled infections into my body through oils, fungi,
bacteria, viruses, and parasites. As skilled therapists work to reroute
my mind-body networks to conduct more positive flows, my immune
system is tackling an intricate symphony of infections, healing my
body on the deepest subcellular levels: banishing free radicals, clearing
out the toxic accumulation of lipofuscins, reinstalling hypothalamus
hormones, and replacing telomeres to revitalize the clock that
directs the life span of dividing cells.
I itch so much that I want to scrub my body with steel wool. I
want to roll upon a giant cheese grater. I’d love to flay myself and be
done with the mess. According to the pamphlet, however, not only
does scratching interfere with the healing process, but the mental
discipline required to refrain from scratching strengthens the chakra
pathways that enhance positive mind-body flow.
I have a beautiful dream in which I’m wallowing in a patch of briars.
I worm my naked body against thorns, writhe ecstatically in nests of
prickly vines. I cry out, convulsing with the sweet sting of pleasure.
I wake before dawn, pajamas stuck to my skin.
For me, consciousness is nothing but the seething tides of itchiness,
hunger, and thirst, a vague sex drive nestled deep in the misery. I
live like an animal from minute to minute, appointment to appointment—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Morning: a bowl of oats with flax seeds and blueberries, followed
by a kelp bath and castor oil massage. After that: a cabbage poultice
administered by experts, who then slather my body with shea butter
and wrap it in sea-soaked silk. Before lunch I must descend into the
bowels of the Samsara Complex for blood work and nanotech nuclear
restructuring. Then a lunch of raw vegetables and fermented
organ meats, kombucha with goji and spirulina.
Postlunch I do a volcanic mud bath, then hydrate with a goat milk
and basil soak. Next comes a green-tea sensory-deprivation session,
then kundalini yoga with Gobind Singh. Staggering from this mind
fuck, I head straight for the Samsara Complex for stem-cell work and
injections of Vita-Viral Plus. Then a light coconut oil massage and I’m
good to go.
At supper I’m startled by Red’s appearance. Yes, I’ve been monitoring
his Incrustation. But I wasn’t prepared for the new purple swellings
around his eyes or the dribbling boils on his chin. Ditto the lip
cankers and blepharitis. Of course I’m aware of my own hideousness.
Of course I recoil each time I see my face in the mirror (think rotted
plums and Spam). And the itching is a constant reminder of my state.
Nevertheless, deep in the core of my being, I feel unscathed, as though
the process were happening to someone else.
Though Red and I haven’t touched each other in weeks, we eat together
most nights, fresh from soothing therapies and tipsy on our
allotment of organic, sulfite-free wine. We have about an hour until
the itching becomes unbearable, then we slump off to our respective
Tonight we’re enjoying the fugu sashimi with pickled dandelion
greens. The humidity hovers around fifty percent, great for our raw
skin. And the ocean looks like pounded pewter. Though we’re both
disgusting, it’s like we’re mummy wrapped in putrid flesh, our real
selves tucked down under the meat costumes.
“I was thinking about the hot springs,” says Red. “Since our infections
seem to be stabilizing.”
“Quite a hike,” I say. “It’d be hell on our swollen feet.”
“You can do most of the way by ATV.”
“What?” says Lissa, who’s hovering over our table, wearing a full-body
catsuit of black spandex, only a few square inches of her polluted
flesh visible through eye and mouth holes.
“I wanna go,” she says, sitting down on the other side of Red. “I
hear the springs help with collagen reintegration.”
“And improving the flow between throat and brow chakras,” says
Red, smiling idiotically.
“Really?” says Lissa. “The third-eye chakra? Cool.”
A waitress appears. Lissa orders kway teow with fermented beef.
The patio’s getting crowded. The music’s lame, all synthesized sitars
and tabla drum machines. But Red bobs his head in time to the
tunes. And Lissa slithers up next to him, gazes raptly at a pic on his
“That’s you?” she shrieks.
“A mullet. No way!”
“It’s an alternative mullet, not a redneck mullet.”
“Let’s not mince hairs,” quips Lissa.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!” cries Red.
And then Lissa flounces off to the bathroom, but not without tousling
“God.” I take a sip of water. “She’s dumb.”
“She’s not as stupid as she puts on,” says Red.
“What does that mean?”
“You know, the whole ingenue act.”
“She’s got to be at least thirty-eight.”
“Chronologically, maybe, but not biologically.”
I want to drill Red for a more precise number—Does she look thirty-two?
twenty-six? nineteen?—but I don’t. I grab my purse, a practical
satchel that slumps on the table beside Lissa’s glittering clutch.
“Don’t go,” says Red. “I haven’t swilled my allotment of vino yet.”
“That’s OK.” I manufacture a yawn. “I’m sleepy.”
I weave through the tables without looking back, skirt the rock
garden, and stomp down the jungle trail. Deep in the forest, male kibi
monkeys howl, adolescents looking for mates. The small nocturnal
monkeys spend their days dozing in the hollows of trees, but at night
they hunt for insects and baby frogs. They eat their weight in fruit,
sip nectar from flowers, sing complex songs that throb with vitality
After a four-mile ATV jaunt, Red and I finally steep neck-deep in a
steaming spring. Though Lissa invited herself along, I scheduled our
jaunt for a Tuesday, well aware of her strenuous nanotech routine.
For the first time in weeks, the itch has left me, and my body flexes,
supple as a flame. The hot springs stink, of course, a predictable rotten egg
funk, as sulfur dioxide leaks into the air. But it’s worth it. My
skin’s sucking up nature’s beauty mineral, strengthening collagen
bundles, improving cellular elasticity. Plus, mist-cloaked mountains
swell around us. And though Red’s facial blebs have started to ooze,
he radiates boyish optimism.
“Look what I brought.” He smiles, leaning out of the pool to dig
through his rucksack. “Sparkling apple cider. Organic. Though I forgot
“That’s OK. We can swig from the bottle.”
“Exchange HSV-1 fluids?”
“And ecthymic bacteria.”
We sit in the mystical vapor, sipping cider and touching toes. The
haze softens the hideousness of our faces. Our disembodied voices
dart like birds in a cloud. We talk about Red’s ex-wife, whose weakness
for fey hipster boys is partially responsible for his sojourn at
Mukti. I tell him about my money-obsessed ex-husband, who once
updated his stock portfolio while I was in the throes of a miscarriage.
Through the bathroom mirror of our hotel room in Bali, I could see
him in the other room, smirking over his Blackberry. And then I
heard him talking to his broker on the phone.
“I’m sorry,” says Red.
“I’m over it.”
I find his hand under the water. We sit floating in a state of semi-contentment.
Then we start up with the cider again.
Exceeding our daily allotment of alcohol, we drink until the bottle
is empty and the effervescence inside us matches that of the bubbly
spring. A plane flies over. The sun infuses our mist shroud with a
pearly glow. And then a man steps into the pool, emerging from the
steam as from another dimension, clad in dingy cutoff shorts. By all
appearances, he’s not a patient. His skin has photoaged into a crinkled
rind. He’s got senile cataracts and wisps of long, gray hair. And
when he cracks a smile, we see a wet flash of gums, like a split in a
leathery desert fruit.
“I have company today,” he says, his accent Californian with a
hint of Caribbean patois. “I’m Winter.” He extends a gnarled hand.
I’m thinking he must be an ancient hippie who retired here before
Mukti took off.
“You folks up from the spa, I reckon.” He sinks down into the pool.
“How’d you guess?” says Red, and the old man chuckles.
“And you?” I say.
“I’m from around. Got a little cottage up over the way.”
Winter tells us he keeps goats, sells cheese and yogurt to Mukti,
plus fruit from his orchard and assorted herbs. He asks us how the
healing’s going. Inquires about the new post office. Wonders what’s
up with the pirates who’ve been plaguing the Venezuelan coast.
“Pirates?” says Red.
According to the old man, pirates usually stick to freighters, but
have recently drifted up to fleece Caribbean cruise ships.
“Thought I heard something about yachts getting hassled near
Grenada,” Winter says.
“This is the first we’ve heard about any pirates,” I say, imagining
eye-patched marauders, dark ships flying skull-and-crossbones flags.
“Probably just talk,” says Winter.
Red checks his watch, says our soak has exceeded the recommended
span by four and a half minutes. We say good-bye to Winter,
speed off on our ATV.
Seventy-five percent humidity, and the boils on my inner thighs
have fused and burst, trickling a yellow fluid. My neck pustules are
starting to weep. Choice ecthemic sores have turned into ulcers. I
spend my downtime pacing the tree house naked. I shift from chair
to chair, daybed to hammock, listening to the demented birds. A
plague of small green finches has invaded the island. They flit through
the brush, squawk, and devour berries.
This morning I’ve neglected my therapies. Though I’m due for
nanotech restructuring in thirty minutes, the thought of putting on
clothes, even the softest of silk kimonos, makes my skin crawl. But
I do it, even though I know the fabric will be soaked by the time I get
to the Samsara Complex. I slip on a lilac kosode and dash down the
jungle trail, gritting my teeth.
I pass a few Crusties. I pass a dead turtle, its belly peppered with
black ants. I pass an island assistant, lugging her sea-grass basket of
eco-friendly cleaning chemicals. Though she, like all the assistants,
is a broad, plain-faced woman, the beauty of her complexion startles
me. But then I remember that in a few weeks, my sores will scab
over. I’ll crawl from my shell, pink and glowing as the infant Buddha.
I’ll jet to the mainland and buy a fleet of stunning clothes, get my
hair cut, meet Red for one last rendezvous before we head back to
our respective cities. We’ll revel in our sweet, young flesh—and then,
well, we’ll see.
Another evening in paradise and I pick at my grilled fig salad. The
ocean is gorgeous, but what’s the point? It might as well be a postcard,
a television screen, a holographic stunt. Red’s pissy too, grumbling
over his lobster risotto. And don’t get me started on Lissa.
Lissa won’t shut up about the pirates. Keeps recirculating the same
crap we’ve heard a hundred times: The pirates have attacked another
Carnival cruiser; the pirates have sacked yachts as close as Martinique;
the pirates have seized a cargo ship less than ten miles offshore
from our very own island. Angered by the resale prospects of
boutique med supplies, they’ve tossed the freight into the sea.
“I always thought pirates were the epitome of sexy,” says Lissa,
crinkling her carbuncular nose at Red.
“They won’t seem so sexy if you run out of Vita-Viral Plus,” says
“Unless you think keloid scars are the height of chic,” I add.
“But medical supplies are worthless to them,” whines Lissa. “What
would they gain from another attack?”
“They might attack out of spite,” I say.
“Mukti keeps emergency provisions in a cryogenic vault,” says
Lissa, “in case of hurricanes and other potential disasters.”
“Or so the pamphlet promises,” says Red, gazing out at the ocean,
where a mysterious light beam bounces across the water.
“You think they’d lie to us?” Lissa widens her enormous eyes and
runs an index finger down Red’s arm. She’s a touchy person, I tell
myself, who hugs people upon greeting and pinches shy waitresses
on the ass.
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Red smiles at her and turns back to the
Both Red and I are in the latter stages of contraction when the pirates
seize another cargo ship. Our flesh has crisped over with full-body
scabbing. We’re at that crucial point when collagen production stabilizes,
when full-tissue repair and dermal remodeling kick into high
gear. Of course, the powers that be at Mukti have not acknowledged
the pirate incident. The powers that be have given no special security
warnings. They’ve said nothing about waning provisions or shortages
of essential meds. Though the therapists and medical staff carry
on as usual, I detect a general state of skittishness—sweat stains in
the armpits of their white smocks, sudden jerky movements, faintly
perceptible frown lines on faces hitherto blank as eggs.
Rumors spread through the spa like airborne viruses. And one
day, a day of high humidity and grumbling thunder, the kind of day
when your heart is a lump of obsidian and you wonder why you
bothered to get out of bed at all, it becomes common knowledge that
the pirates have seized a freighter, that they’re negotiating a ransom
with Mukti, asking a colossal sum for the temperature-sensitive
Red and I are on the Lotus Veranda eating zucchini pavé with miso
sauce, waiting for poached veal. The waitress slinks over, apologizes,
tells us that the dish will be served without capers. Red and I exchange
dark looks. We imagine jars of capers from Italy stacked in
the belly of a cargo ship, the freighter afloat in some secret pirate
cove. And deeper in the bowels of the boat, in a refrigerated vault,
shelves full of biomedical supplies—time-sensitive blood products
and cell cultures in high-tech packaging.
All around us, scabby patients whisper about the pirates, reaching
a collective pitch that sounds like an insect swarm. Hunched in conspiratorial
clusters, they flirt with scary possibilities: spoiled meds,
botched stage-five healing, full-body keloid scarring, an appearance
that’s the polar opposite of that promised by Regeneration at Mukti
“Shedding your pupal casing,” the pamphlet boasts, “you will emerge
a shining creature, renewed in body and spirit, your cell turnover as
rapid as a ten-year-old’s. Skin taut, wrinkles banished, pores invisible,
you will walk like a deva in a pink cloud of light.”
I’m in the Samsara Complex for cellular restructuring. There’s a problem
with the nanobot serum. They keep rejecting vial after vial, or
so I’ve gathered through several hissing exchanges between the biomed
doc and her technicians. When Tech One finally shoots me up,
he jabs the needle in sideways, apologizes, then stabs me again.
I stagger into the Bardo Room, where a half dozen Crusties mill
among orchids, the floor-to-ceiling windows ablaze. Nobody speaks.
The endless ocean glitters beyond, a blinding, queasy green. The light
gives me a headache, an egg of throbbing nausea right behind my
eyes. I collapse into a Barcelona chair. My skin tingles beneath its
husk. I stare down at my hands, dark with congealed blood and completely
alien to me. I wonder if I should have stayed as I was—blowing
serious bank on miracle moisturizers, going to yoga five times a
week, dabbling in the occasional collagen injection.
Of course, it’s too late to turn back now. I must focus on positive
affirmation, as Guru Gobind Singh so smugly touts. I must not allow
my mind to visualize a body mapped with pink, puffy scars. With
such an exterior, you’d be forced to hunker deep in your body, like a
naked mole rat in its burrow.
Red, fresh from bee-sting therapy, joins me under the shade of a jute
umbrella, our eyes protected by wraparound sunglasses. It’s too hot
to eat, but we order smoked calamari salads and spring rolls with
mango sauce. Red’s incommunicative. I’m trying to read Zen and
the Art of Aging
on my iPhone, but the sun’s too bright. We don’t
talk about the pirates. We don’t talk about our impending Shedding.
We don’t talk about the chances of scarring, the jaunt to the mainland
we’ve been planning. I tell Red about the monkey I spotted from
my tree-house porch last night. I try to discuss the ecological sustainability
of squidding. We shoo jhunkit birds from our table and
decide to order a chilled Riesling.
More and more Crusties crowd onto the patio. Waitresses hustle
back and forth. They no longer inform us when some ingredient is
lacking. They simply place incomplete dishes before us with a downward
flutter of the eyes. Certain therapies are no longer offered—sensory
deprivation and beer baths, for example—but we strive to stay
Although we keep noticing suspicious changes in medical procedures,
we prevent cognitive distortions from sabotaging our self-talk.
When a bad thought buzzes like a wasp into the sunny garden of our
thoughts, we swat the fucker and thump its crushed corpse into the
flower bed. And, most importantly, we spend thirty minutes a day
visualizing our primary goal: successful mind-body rejuvenation and
an unblemished exterior that radiates pure light.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to sustain mental focus when your spring
rolls lack almonds, when your wine’s third-rate, when your dermis
burns beneath its crust. It’s hard to envision yourself floating in a
bubble of celestial light when you look like you’ve been deep fried.
I’m having trouble picturing the crystalline features of the deity. I
can’t help but notice that the sea smells of sewage, that our table is
sticky, that our waitresses are contemptuous, smooth skinned, and
pretty in their way, with decades of insolent youth to burn. When
Lissa alights at our table in a translucent white kimono, my misery
But Red only nods at her, keeps staring out at the empty sea.
I’m studying his profile when I spot a dark figure lurching from a
clump of pink hibiscus. Black skin, green shorts, ammo vest. The
man lugs a Kalashnikov. He’s yelling in Spanish. Other pirates emerge
from the landscaping, waving guns and machetes. One of them
screams fragments of English: Surrender, you scab-covered dogs
Lanky, with a dramatic cheek scar, he tells us to put our wallets on
the table, along with all cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, handheld
gaming devices, and jewels. Random pirates fire their guns into the
In one convulsive movement, patients start rifling pockets and
purses, removing rings and bracelets, plunking valuables onto tables.
Then we sit with hands behind our backs as the bandits have instructed.
We don’t flinch as they rip designer sunglasses from our
faces. We squint with stoicism at the boiling sea while they fill their
rucksacks with treasure. Shadows grow longer. The sun sinks. The
jhunkit birds, emboldened by our immobility, descend upon the
tables to peck at canapés.
When the pirates finally creep off into the jungle, crouched in postures
of cartoonish stealth, the waitresses spring into action. They
bustle about distributing bottled water. They assure us that security
has been summoned. They fill our wineglasses, wipe bird shit from
our tables, spirit away our dirty plates. The sky flushes pink. Lissa
trembles like a Chihuahua until Red drapes a friendly arm over her
back. He’s just being courteous, I tell myself, as I wait for this contact
A woman weeps quietly at the edge of the patio, then she blows
her nose and orders shrimp dumplings in ginger broth.
According to the pamphlet, the final days before Shedding should be
days of intense relaxation—no medical procedures, no exhilarating
therapies, no excursions. Even extreme dining is discouraged. It’s difficult
to drift like a feathery dandelion seed when Mukti’s security
forces have crawled out of the woodwork into our sunny paradise.
They’ve always been here, of course, lurking in the shadows, monitoring
the island from subterranean surveillance rooms, but now
they loiter openly in their khaki shorts, handguns only partially concealed
by oversized tropical shirts.
Yesterday, while enjoying an aloe vera bath in the Bodhi Herb
Garden, I heard a crude snicker. I gazed up through a tendril of sarsaparilla
to glimpse the smirking face of a security guard. There he
was, licking an ice-cream cone, his mustache dotted with pearls of
milk. And now, as I float in the Neti Neti Lagoon, stuck in step two
of the Instant Calming Sequence, I hear a security guard barking into
her cell phone. I count to six and wait for her to finish her conversation.
When I start over with a fresh round of uninterrupted breathing,
her ringtone bleeps through the gentle thatch of birdsong. So
I switch to Microcosmic Orbit Meditation, envisioning a snake of
light slithering through my coccyx. Now the security guard is laughing
like some kind of donkey. I open my eyes. Gaze up into palms
and spot a tiny camera perched next to a cluster of fruits. Its lens
jerks back and forth like the head of a nervous bird.
In addition to the dread of pirates charging through the bush, in addition
to the distraction of security guards and fears of type-I scarring,
we must also worry about the weather as the island’s now on hurricane
watch—or so the powers that be informed us this morning. The
ocean breeze has become a biting, sandy wind. A weird metallic scent
blows off the sea, and I get the feeling that the island’s swathed in
bad karma. Plus, a few Crusties, having shed their husks, have been
jetted to the mainland without the Rapture Ceremony—a ritual
designed to reassure remaining Crusties that their golden time will
come, that they too will walk in flowing robes, their silky necks garlanded
Yesterday afternoon, instead of gathering on the beach to watch the
smooth-skinned devas depart in the Ceremonial Boat, we crowded
into the lobby of the small airport. Through a plate-glass window, we
observed two devas dashing from flower-decked golf carts toward
a commuter jet, their faces shrouded by scarves and sunglasses.
Security guards swarmed, their tropical shirts easy to spot. And rumor
has it that one of the devas, a famous movie star, was being whisked
off to California where she’ll resume her career as a romantic comedy
queen—blonde icon of feminine joie de vivre, laughing in the sun.
Red, in the final throes of his remodeling phase, has a TSF of 99.6
percent. His exterior has the golden huskiness of a pork rind. And
now, as he scans the endless ocean, his beautiful green eyes burn
behind his scabby mask. He’s barely touched his scrambled tofu. He
takes long, dreamy slurps of mango smoothie. I know he’ll be jetting
off to the mainland soon. Once there, he won’t be able to contact me
by phone or e-mail, the Mukti contract dictates, so we’ve made arrangements,
booking reservations at the Casa Bougainvillea.
I keep picturing that moment when we’ll meet by the pool at sunset.
I keep picturing Red reclined beside the waterfall featured on the
hotel’s brochure. First he’ll look startled. Then he’ll smile as his eyes
run up and down my body. He’ll bask in the vision of a female epidermis
refortified with type III collagen and glowing like the moon.
Though I haven’t worn jewel tones for years, I’ll highlight the infantile
pallor of my skin with a scarlet sheath dress. I’ll wear a choker
of Burmese rubies. Dye my hair auburn, paint my nails crimson,
wear lipstick the color of oxygenated blood.
After we revel in the softness of a ten-minute kiss, we’ll drink
Romanée Conti under the stars.
Yesterday I stood in the airport lobby, watching Red hop from a flower-decked
golf cart and then scurry through strong wind to Mukti’s
commuter jet. Kaffiyeh-style headgear and huge sunglasses concealed
his face. When he turned from the platform to wave, a shadow passed
over him, and then he dipped into the jet with a sly smile. I have no
idea how his Shedding went. I have no idea what his refurbished carnality
looks like, though I’ve seen his Facebook pics, his high school
yearbook photos, a few snapshots of the young Red rock climbing in
Lissa too has been spirited away—nubile and golden, I fear. Though
she was obscured by a chiffon Lotus robe, I have the sick suspicion
that she’s gone through her Shedding unscathed. That she looks gorgeous.
That she’ll stalk Red at the Casa Bougainvillea, appearing
naked and luminous beneath his balcony in a courtyard crammed
with flowering shrubs.
And now, as the few remaining Crusties huddle in the basement
of the Skandha Center, awaiting the wrath of a category-four hurricane
named Ophelia, Gobind Singh lectures us on the Deceptive
Singularity of the Self.
“The Self you cling to,” says Gobind Singh, “is an empty No Self,
or Shunya, for the True Self does not differentiate between Self and
Other, which is not the same, of course, as the No Self.”
Gobind Singh sighs and takes a long glug of spring water, for we
are the Stubborn Ones, unable to take pleasure in the Shedding of
Others, greedy for our own transformation. According to Gobind
Singh, the True Self must revel in the Beauty of the Devas, even if
we ourselves do not attain True Radiance during this cycle, because
the True Self makes no distinction between Self and Other.
According to Gobind Singh’s philosophy, I should delight in the
divine copulation of Red and Lissa, which is probably taking place
right this second on one-thousand-thread-count sheets. I should yowl
with joy at the thought of their shuddering, simultaneous orgasm. I
should partake in the perkiness of Lissa’s ass as she darts from the
bed, turning to give Red a full-frontal display before disappearing into
the humongous bathroom to pee. According to Gobind Singh, their
ecstasy is my ecstasy.
Glowing with self-actualization, floating a few millimeters above
the bamboo flooring, Gobind Singh weaves among us. We sit in full
lotus, five sullen earthbound Crusties, slumped in our own hideousness.
We fidget and pick at our flaking shells. The second the guru
turns his back, we roll our eyes at each other.
And when the winds of Hurricane Ophelia pick up, shaking the
building and howling fiercely enough to blot out the throbbing of
electronic tablas, we can’t control the fear that grips us. All we can
think about is literally saving our skins. As the electricity flickers
and the storm becomes a deluge, Gobind Singh tells us that all men,
no matter how wretched, have a Buddha Embryo nestled inside
them, gleaming and indestructible as a diamond.
I wake alone in the basement of the Skandha Center, calling out in
the darkness for the others. I bang my shins against their empty cots.
Upstairs in the dim hallway, I discover sloughed Casing, shreds of
what looks like crinkled snakeskin littering the jute carpet. I pick
my way toward the light. Hurricane Ophelia has shattered the floor-to-ceiling lobby windows, strewing the floor with shards of glass.
Out on the wrecked patio, windblown chairs have been smashed
against the side of the building. And birdcalls whiffle through the air.
“Hello,” I yell, but no one answers.
The Samsara Complex is empty. So is the Lotus Lounge; both
buildings battered by the storm.
I jog down a jungle trail toward the Moksha Jasmine Grove. There,
a natural spring trickles from the lips of a stone Buddha. Pink birds
flit through the garden. The statue squats in a pool, surrounded by
trellises of Arabian jasmine that have miraculously survived the hurricane.
Raindrops sparkle on leaves. The garden is a locus of peace
From the deepest kernel of my being, I crave water. My throat’s
parched. My skin burns. And I know that my time has come. I feel
pregnant with the glowing fetus of my future self.
I shed my robe. I step into the blue pool. I sink neck-deep into the
shallow water, mimicking the pyramid structure of the seated Buddha,
face-to-face with his stone form. I drink from the spring until my thirst
is quenched. And then I breathe through my nose, fold my hands into
a Cosmic Mudra. Counting each inhalation, I become one with the
My body is like a pool’s surface, its brilliance dulled only by a skin
My body is like a fiery planet, casting off interstellar dust.
Slowly, I rub myself, chanting the Bodhisattva vows:
I vow to liberate all beings, without number.
I vow to uproot all endless blind passions.
I vow to penetrate, beyond measure, the Dharma gates.
And the Great Way of Buddha, I vow to attain.
My Casing begins to pull away. I don’t look at my uncovered flesh. I
squeeze my eyelids shut to avoid temptation and keep on chanting,
focused on the radiance pulsing within. In my mind’s eye I see
a glimmer of movement, a hazy form with human limbs, a new
and improved woman emerging from the murk—glorious and
On the count of three, I open my eyes.