The Golden State

Lily Christie 


I’d been in California for three years, taking yoga classes nearly every day, when I figured out how to balance in handstand in the middle of the room. It took a lot of practice, strength and breath work. But once I mastered all those things, I could place my palms on the floor, press my feet to the sky, and turn myself upside down in one swift move.

Floating to handstand from down dog became second nature, as did lifting up from crow. Learning the fancy transitions that could take me in and out of inversions was my number one goal during the years I practiced the local religion of the Santa Monica Bay. The local religion had many different rituals and levels of devotion—all deemed correct. The beauty of the local religion was that there was no right or wrong way to show one’s reverence. Simply moving to a beach town filled with full-time psychics and surfers meant the conversion was complete.

For some, practicing the local religion meant smiling at strangers or wearing crystals or moving energy with the mind. For others it meant lining up for an annual hug from Amma when her tour stopped in LA. Some practitioners wore mala beads or got chakra adjustments or went to a sweat lodge in Ojai. Or they went on a vision quest deep in the Topatopa Mountains. There were those who gave up caffeine, sugar and white bread. Others went hardcore vegan, shunning meat and dairy and all leather products, too.

For me, practicing the local religion meant going to the farmers’ market and health food store to stock up on kale, quinoa and kombucha, then driving up Pico Boulevard to sit at the counter of Apple Pan and eat bacon and cheese hickory burgers washed down with Dr. Pepper straight from the can. Proving I could walk the walk of my new religion meant chucking my career in corporate law and working at a nonprofit committed to protecting the marine life that was constantly getting tangled in nets and debris. Looking the part in this new land meant wearing flip flops and ragged t-shirts while riding a thousand-dollar bike on the paved passage that led from the medicinal marijuana shops by Muscle Beach to the spinning amusement park rides at the Santa Monica Pier. It meant having messy hair and expensive elective dental work. But mostly, from the day I arrived, practicing the local religion revolved around going to an afternoon yoga class, then sunning myself to a crisp on the patio at Shutters hotel, where a rust-haired bartender I sometimes called my boyfriend mixed lethal margaritas made with organic tequila. Less frequently, at certain times of the year, my version of practicing the local religion meant sitting on the sand, alone and in an altered state, crying at the sight of a giant orange moon that looked as though it had gone off course and was about to crash onto the beach.

*

The contortionist on the yoga mat next to mine hated her family and never wanted to talk about where she was from, but she also wanted to make sure everyone knew she was a direct descendent of our country’s founding fathers and would be at her family’s much-mythologized private island the entire month of June. The man on the other side of my mat, the weirdo who wore a Spiritual Gangster hoodie and aviator sunglasses the entire class, was a movie star going through a very public divorce. Tony, my yoga teacher, was a former heroin addict who used to run with Grace Slick. Sometimes I would look at those strange strangers and think we had nothing in common, yet a day without them felt incomplete.
One day Tony told our class that he had hep C and was about to take a leave of absence. During his time away, he’d complete a round of interferon treatments. He’d practiced the local religion for 30 years, eating right and seeking alternative cures, but now his body was in full revolt.  His choices were to keep doing things as he had and likely die, or surrender to the ways of modern medicine and hope it saved him. It would take four or five months of treatment and recovery to find out if he’d been cured.

I called in sick the rest of that week so I could take every single one of Tony’s classes—sometimes two a day—before he went off the schedule. Yet I never wished him luck or offered a handshake or made eye contact after his announcement. I wasn’t a fan of the type of conversation that leaves me teetering on the edge, wondering if the person before me is speaking his last words.

I saw Tony twice during his leave of absence. Both times toward the end of his interferon treatments. He was still tan, with the seductive, thrilling good looks of a romantic lead on the silver screen. But now he was thin, with diminished biceps and triceps and no swagger at all. No tiny paunch of a belly from indulging in the one guilty pleasure he allowed himself: whole wheat blueberry pancakes.

The first time I saw him, Tony was at the corner of 14th Street and Idaho, leaning against a shade tree. Catching his breath while looking at the pavement. He seemed to be in need of help, but I couldn’t bear to be near the sick or suffering, so I drove off without stopping to ask if he was okay.

The next time was a few weeks later at the Whole Foods on Rose. I’d been having more anxiety attacks than usual, so at the suggestion of my massage therapist, I was stocking up on Rescue Remedy drops and pastilles and spray. According to the company’s website, the products were designed “to help mankind achieve joy and happiness.” I read that promise and was sold, instantly. I drove 65 in a 35 all the way to the grocery store so I could fill my shopping basket with two of every Rescue Remedy item in stock.

On my way to the checkout, I heard Tony’s voice call out to me. “Amy,” he said. That’s not my name, but I didn’t correct him. He knew about all my frailties: the tendonitis, the migraines, the broken big toe that hadn’t healed quite right. The ribs and collarbone I’d broken in a car accident right before moving to California. He didn’t need to know my name to know who I was and what I was about.

“Amy,” he said again.

I kept my eyes on the displays in the distance, hoping Tony would move on. Of course, if I was going to play the game of not noticing, I should’ve kept walking. But it was impossible for me to move. Tony had a Brooklyn accent that pulled at something deep inside me. It was the sound of home, I guess. By the time he said, “Little Miss Handstand,” I lost the resolve to keep playing my game, and looked up into his dark, wise eyes.

I didn’t say hello or ask how he felt. What I said was, “Hey, what’s that song you always play during surya B? It was on full blast the first time I did a handstand.”

He played one of about 30 different songs during the round of sun salutations we practiced midway through class. Often he told a topical story to explain his song choice. Something about the Santa Ana winds, or the fires jumping from canyon to canyon in Malibu.

“I love that song,” I said. “You know the one. That song by the Beatle. Not John and not Paul.”

Tony looked calm and all-knowing, just like when he was standing at the front of the class, telling me how to fix my alignment in warrior three.

“What is Life,” he said. “George Harrison.”

“Yes! That’s it. I—”

Out of nowhere, a lean, muscular body pushed me into a display of the latest miracle food. The offender was Jane, a yoga teacher who preached kindness and nonviolence. As I rearranged the food display, I watched Jane throw her arms around Tony. While Jane cooed over Tony, I spotted yet another yoga teacher, the woman I thought of as a semi-pro contortionist. She was practically running straight toward us. I couldn’t believe all those teachers were shopping for their organic, sustainable groceries at the same time. But Whole Foods was known as one of the best places to spot yoga teachers outside of their natural habitat, so what else did I expect?

Tony had trained the two women to teach. When they’d been his apprentices, they’d both laid their hands on me during class, correcting the tilt of my spine, the angle of my chin, the way my left knee failed to track correctly over my ankle. They had offered adjustments gently, uncertain of their skills, and uncertain whether or not I understood what they were asking me to change. Later in their training, they had corrected me with confidence and a firm touch, yet still with a look that questioned whether or not I had learned what made my technique so poor.

That day in the store, Tony’s acolytes didn’t take note of anything I might have been doing wrong. They were respectful and deferential to our beloved teacher, and seemed desperate for assurance that Tony was going to pull through. Tony’s voice was a shaky whisper as he answered questions about his sleep patterns and appetite. His body was also shaky; at one point he gripped Jane’s shoulder to prevent himself from falling over. Jane took hold of his free hand and nodded,
encouraging him to keep talking. The corners of Tony’s eyes and mouth curled in strange directions as he tried to smile.

I turned and backed away. I’d seen worse, but I had to get out of there. I touched a hand to my pocket and said to the empty space ahead of me, “My phone’s ringing. I need to take this call.”

There was no call at that moment, but my phone had been ringing for months, years. The calls were from home. Not from my shotgun bungalow steps from the surf and sand of Venice Beach, but my parents’ red brick center-hall Colonial on the East Coast—my real home, the home I’d left behind.

When my phone really did ring, and the call came from a number on the other side of the country, I let it go to voicemail. Only when I felt numb enough did I listen to my messages. They were always from my parents, who wanted to share the latest about my sister: she’d moved her right index finger; her eyes had opened and moved back and forth as though watching a tennis match on TV; her blood pressure was weakening; the doctors had never seen someone with such a powerful life force. My parents said all this, and ended every message with the declaration that my little sister was holding on, waiting for me to come back so she could say goodbye. 

I never returned the calls. I never knew what to say.

Delete, delete—that’s all I could do.

*

When Tony’s name reappeared on the schedule, I got to the studio 30 minutes early so I could get a good spot in his first class. I thought I’d planned well, but when I walked in the door, the lobby was already buzzing and packed with all the familiar faces. Lots of people who owned million-dollar houses and had the lost, angry look of the homeless.
Tony stood in the doorway to the studio, still looking thin and weak. When I walked past him, I heard him tell another student that the interferon had worked. “I’m cured,” he said.

Cured. That word bounced around inside my head as I stepped into the studio.

Cured—he was one of the lucky ones, and he knew it. “I’m blessed,” are the words he used.

A wave of nausea flooded my body as I unrolled my mat. I needed to sit in a chair and put my head between my knees until the feeling passed. The dressing room had a bench, so I went there, but my discomfort grew stronger as I listened to the chatter all around me.

“Thank God,” Jane said. She was in line for the bathroom. “We get to keep our Tony!”

“Yeah,” said another woman, “But did you see him?”

“He’s alive,” Jane said, “isn’t that enough?”

Was it enough just to be alive?

To have a meaningful life, didn’t a person need to be alive and speaking? Alive and thinking? Alive and balancing upside down?

Lightheaded and queasy, I walked back through the crowded lobby. The front desk was turning away students because the class was already full. At 108 people, they explained, the room was already beyond capacity. Tony waved goodbye to the disappointed students, telling them to come back tomorrow. Yes, they promised, they’d be back; next time they’d be the first in line.

Inside the studio, the mats were all within an inch of each other, making what looked like a giant quilt in shades of purple, yellow, orange and blue. Someone had moved my red-and-white striped mat from the first row, center, to the third row, left. The culprit was obvious. Kai, the movie star who was going through the messy, public divorce, was standing in my spot.
I didn’t care. The guy couldn’t do a handstand. He couldn’t bend his front knee to a 90-degree angle when in warrior two. He couldn’t straighten his arms above his head in warrior one. He didn’t do any of his own stunts on camera, and it showed. There’s this yoga expression: a man moves on the mat the same way he moves through life.
I warmed up my shoulders so I could press up into handstand. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could just throw my body into. I had to prepare and visualize. I had to get my breath just right. I had to make sure my mat wasn’t too close to the ones nearby—I needed space to do my stunts.

The students erupted into applause when Tony walked across the quilt of mats and said it was time to start the class.
“Okay, okay,” he said, once the cheering and hooting stopped. “Okay,” he smiled, looking boyishly embarrassed. 
He led us through a sequence of the movements we knew so well. But everything was different. The music of our breath filled the room, instead of the rock-and-roll Tony usually played. And his assertive voice was softer, less demanding. Instead of insisting we power through poses even when our legs shook and we didn’t think we had the strength to go on, he told us to take breaks and sit and meditate and listen to our bodies.

When it was time for sun salutation B, Tony said, “I wasn’t going to play any music today, because I barely have the energy to stand.” He wobbled and windmilled his arms for comedic effect and the room laughed, relieved he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. “Teaching and playing DJ for 90 minutes would push me beyond my limits. But I think I can handle playing just one song.” He smiled self-consciously, looking humble and shy, “This is the song that played over and over in my mind the past few months, when I was waiting for Kai to come to my house so we could hang out and talk, or David to come and bathe me, or Jane to bring food and feed me by hand. I was pathetic. I’m still pathetic. But you’re all here. I didn’t know if you’d all be here. So,” his voice cracked as he looked away to fuss with the stereo. Static crackled through the speakers. Tony lifted his eyes and looked straight at me. “Thank you.”

I heard the familiar notes and horns and drums, cuing me to stand at the front of my mat: big toes touching, shoulders pushed back. My stomach felt sour, my throat dry. I tried to ignore the sensation of discomfort, but I felt myself faltering. With the first words of the song: What I feel, I can’t say, I raised my arms. By the time George Harrison sang Tell me, who am I, without you by my side, I was upside down. I stayed there longer than usual—to the end of the song—knowing it was the last time I’d do a handstand in that room.



Issue 13


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