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 scent.
“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 sea.
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 steamed clam.
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 a fly.
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 mall.
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 subcutaneous regeneration.
“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 blusher.
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 tree houses.
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 iPhone.
“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 his hair.
“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 and longing.
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 glasses.”
“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 Red.
“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 sea.
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 cargo.
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 positive.
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 is complete.
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 air.
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 to end.
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 with narcissus.
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 Costa Rica.
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 and light.
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 water.
My body is like a pool’s surface, its brilliance dulled only by a skin of algae.
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 unashamed.
On the count of three, I open my eyes.