Illumination in Blue

A new year, a new decade. And I re-emerge, once again, from the void that swallowed me in the last months of 2019. A year that I could not wait to see the end of. The theme for my 2020 is “Illumination”. Enough of the darkness for a while.

The long period of creative dormancy was a perfect opportunity to reassess my writing. I’ve finally begun to submit my memoir, Wish I Were Here, to agents. I am grinding away, slowly, on a new blog post. I’ve unearthed my novel, Blue, from the vault. I’ve decided to re-edit it and re-submit it to agents and publishers. It’s not Pulitzer material, but I’m confident that it deserves a wider audience than it received. A few years ago, I posted an excerpt – “What I Was Doing in Guam” – on this blog. It was featured on Freshly Pressed. How many of you remember the pre-Wordpress Discover days?

Blue was published in 2006 by Murphy’s Law Press, a Canadian micropress which no longer exists. The story is about one young woman’s journey into the vibrant, but shadowy world of exotic dancing. How she uses it to take back her power after sexual assault and other trauma. Some of you may know that I worked as an exotic dancer (stripper) for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. The novel is not autobiographical, but some of the characters and scenes are based on my experiences in that world. For a few years, there were copies of Blue available on Amazon. But even those have disappeared, hopefully into appreciative hands. To begin this new year/new decade, I’m posting the prologue and chapter one. Some caution for more sensitive souls – the beginning of the novel is dark and somewhat explicit, so you may want to skip this one.

Prologue

In an industrial neighborhood of San Diego there is a lonely, forgotten lot guarded by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Little remains of the establishment that reigned here, or of the painted ladies who once graced its stage.

Stiletto heels protrude from the seared earth like tawdry tombstones. Sunlight glints off a garden of broken mirrors and scattered rhinestones. Sparkling apparitions flit about in the breeze. They are specters of the dancers who have been scattered like some lost tribe of Babylon.

Amid the rubble one thing remains intact: a blue sequined mask.

 

Chapter
1

When I was eleven years old, Christine told me the story of how I came to be. I walked into the living room to find her sitting on the floor, a faded pink boa around her neck, cabaret music blaring from the stereo. Clippings, faded costumes, and photos were spread out around her. The flotsam of a past life I never knew about.

I turned the music down and sat beside her. I wanted to reach out and pluck the false eyelash that hung precariously from her swollen eyelid, but I was afraid she’d slap my hand away.

“If irony were a color it would be blue,” she said as she gathered me to herself. Tequila fumes wafted at me, but I didn’t look away.

I stiffened, unused to her affection. Something was wrong.

“A color so profound can only lead to melancholy,” she said as she stroked my slumped shoulders. She took my face in her hands. “It’s time you knew where you came from. You got a right to know. But don’t never ask me about it again, you hear?”She picked up a high school yearbook. Swaying a bit, she riffled through the pages. “Here he is,” she said. “Kip Caruthers, your father.”

I looked at the black and white photo of the man who I was told had died in Vietnam. He was not what I imagined. He looked like a poster boy for the Aryan Nation. A frat boy. He wore an ascot in the photograph, for crying out loud. Be a good boy, Kippy, and fetch mummy another martini. This man never stepped one foot in Vietnam.

“It was all a lie,” Christine said. “I met him at a spring dance at a country club in Scottsdale. He saw me dance and, supposedly, that’s what caused him to approach a girl he wouldn’t have otherwise spit on. People threw money at me when I danced. That’s how good I was. Are you surprised?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was going to be a Vegas showgirl after high school. My parents hated this idea. But they knew better than to hold me back.”She paused, and took a deep breath. “Kip got me drunk and ended up forcing himself on me. I fought with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. I marched back to the dance all torn and dirty and caused a scene. I expected help, but all I got were looks of disgust. Only sluts dreamed of being showgirls. I got what I was asking for.”

I sat silent, stunned. I was the offspring of rape. A vile joke. I didn’t deserve to live.
Christine took another swig of tequila, “When I started to show, I stalked Kip. I went to his football practices. I strutted right by those snotty cheerleaders and took a seat in the bleachers. I’d pat my fat belly and call out, ‘Little Kippy says hi too’. After a couple of times Daddy Kip got involved. He paid me to shut my mouth and go away. I had no choice but to take the money. There was no longer any hope for me to be a dancer. Abortion was illegal back then and damned if I was going to ruin my body and give the child away. I know it’s not a pretty story, but you need to learn how to take honesty if you’re going to survive in this world,” she said. “Sugar-coated words aren’t worth shit, baby Blue. Look where they got me.”

They got her saggy tits, stretch marks, and me. And I got Kip’s blonde blandness. Every time she looked at me she saw him.

She stumbled down the hall to her room.

I sat amid the tattered remnants of her dream. I fished out a pair of white gloves and a rhinestone choker. I modeled them in the mirror, but couldn’t bring myself to meet my own gaze. Why didn’t I somehow abort myself and make it easier on everyone? Clenched within that claustrophobic scarlet cocoon, I was toxic. That’s what she should have named me: Scarlet. The color of blood-boiling rage.

But some part of me knew that I was destined for great things. I knew that someday someone would see the spark hidden inside me and nurture it to flame. It made me want to live as revenge on her revenge, but I was never able to muster up as much rage as she did. I was born seeing scarlet, yet my tendencies deepened into blue.

I made it a point to disappear from Christine’s radar. We wandered ghostly through each other’s lives like two phantoms trapped in adjacent realities. Most of the memories from my youth are as faded as the desert in the noonday sun. I know that I was an honor student. I won gold stars for perfect attendance. I was unseen, not even interesting enough to be picked on. I was a nice, quiet girl who didn’t make waves. The girl nobody remembered.

I awoke one morning when I was seventeen to find a strange man sitting at our kitchen table drinking coffee while Christine made scrambled eggs and bacon. I stood in the doorway, unsure if I should enter.

“Oh, hi, honey,” Christine said. “I made you some breakfast, too. George, this is my baby Blue.”

I slid into the seat opposite George. His eyes lit up when he saw me. He had short black hair with a long, skinny braid that curled up under his collar like a rat’s tail. I shuddered. “I’m what you’d call an optimistic fatalist,” he said and flashed a crooked smile.

“George has a degree in Psychology,” Christine said as she set his plate before him. She sat beside him, beaming at each mouthful he ate.

“I’m planning on going into Psychology,” I said, trying to make conversation. “Right now we’re studying the philosophies of Freud. You know, the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. It’s fascinating.”

His face was seized by panic, and then he brushed my words aside with a sneer. “As if any of these theories make a difference in the grand scheme of things.” He had no idea what I was talking about.

He wasn’t blatantly insulting, but I would have preferred that to his self-righteous arrogance. It took all my will to be polite. If he stopped coming around because of me, there’d be hell to pay.

I was in the final weeks of high school. Close to freedom from both school and Christine.“Once you’re eighteen you’re out the door,” she had said so many times, as if she’d have to force me to leave. I had a job as a waitress at a coffee shop. It was a dismal little place on Main Street. The customers were year-round desert rats who had nothing better to do than to blame me for their withering lives. I saved every cent toward my escape. I was fed up with living in a place where people came to die. All the trailer parks and wheezing geriatrics.

When Belinda Black walked into my life, I knew that my life was about to dramatically change. One day, she was there at the counter, a dazzling jewel amid the dusty fossils. Her green gaze was as direct and piercing as a cobra’s. Her dark skin and those shimmering eyes paralyzed me.

“My mother is Haitian,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “You get some strange genetic combinations down there.”

I stared at her, coffeepot poised in mid pour. She had spoken to me! With a quick glance around at the other customers, I refilled her cup and set the pot down. The dinner rush was over and I deserved a break.

“You go to my high school,” she continued. “I’ve seen you around. I don’t talk to anyone there. They’re a bunch of flatliners, but you’ve got a real spark in you. We should go out sometime.”

I nodded, dumbfounded. And so our friendship began.

 

“I haven’t lived at home in three years—since I was fifteen,” Belinda said as she put the finishing touches on my makeup. We were going to a high school party, something she would normally never do, but she wanted me to try out the man catching skills that she had painstakingly taught me. “Too many rules and not enough rewards. I’m out of here after graduation. Off to LA. Why don’t you come along? We’ll make our fortune in Hollywood.”

“Ok, I guess,” I said, trying to hide how thrilled I was. It wasn’t like I had any other plans besides to get away from Mesa. I was sick to death of looking at five hundred shades of brown. I wanted to be somewhere green, where things blossomed. California sounded so full of possibilities.

“Voilà, you’re finished, my dear,” she said as she turned me toward the mirror. “See how good you look with just a light touch of makeup? You don’t need a lot, but you do need a little help. You’re too plain without it.” I nodded, grateful for her attention.

“I’m going to be a movie producer,” she said as we pulled up to the party. “Push It” by Salt ’N’ Pepa blared out of the house. A boy barfed in the front hedge as we approached the front door. “I know I’m beautiful enough to be a star, but I want to work behind the scenes. I’m going to be the one that recognizes the talent hidden inside an unknown. I’m going to nurture it and make it shine. And grow filthy rich.”

Belinda was the only female I knew who smoked cigars and drank Armagnac. She conversed on topics such as stock options and world dictatorships.

“An educated woman who can also fuck like a whore is a gem,” she said as we made a circuit through the house. “She can name her price.”

I watched her work the room, scoping out the most promising conquests. The jocks pretended not to notice her; they rough housed and made fun of each other to hide their nervousness. What would it be like being worshipped like that? Women like her always get what they want, I thought. They’re all so sure of themselves too: Oh, I’m every guy’s type. When I tried it, it came across as desperate.

“Over there,” Belinda said with a tilt of her chin. It was Brett Banks. He was one of those boys who fit into every group and none at all. And for that every girl wanted him.

“Can’t we try someone less intimidating?” I begged.

“He’s looking over here. At you, not me,” Belinda insisted. “Go on. Remember, just stare deep into his eyes and pretend that anything he says is the most fascinating thing you’ve ever heard.” She gave me a little push.

I did what she said and it was working. We had just begun to make out when Belinda turned around and snatched him right from under my nose.

“Almost, but not quite,” she said with a patronizing smile as she led Brett away from me, toward a vacant back bedroom.

My heart wilted. I settled for the dorky friend, a boy with a face and name I didn’t know. I willingly laid down for him as I had for so many others. There was really no reason not to, and the boys all seemed to want it so badly. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The contorted faces and strangled moans. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. At least someone got some satisfaction out of it. All I got out of it was soreness and disappointment.

Boys were nothing more than amusement for Belinda. Diversions. She always had at least two flings going at once, usually with rich old men from the various country clubs in Scottsdale.

“You always gotta have at least two,” she said. “That way they sense that something’s up. It keeps them interested.”

She knew about my father and thought it would be a hoot to nab him. She never got a chance to penetrate Kip’s inner circle of cronies, however. My home life shattered for good, and Belinda was there to gather me up and whisk me away.

 

I should have paid heed to the unease that I felt whenever I was alone with George.
I came home from work one night to find him on our couch, whisky in hand, his flabby arm outstretched, inviting me to dance.

What the hell? I thought. Maybe I’d been too hard on the guy.

“Have a drink to celebrate your graduation,” he said. “Soon we won’t get to see your pretty face around here anymore.” He fixed me a drink. I downed it in one swallow.

“That’s a girl,” he laughed. He scratched his hairy belly and lurched toward me.
I backed away, already feeling woozy. “Thanks for the drink. I’m going to my room.”
The last thing I remember is walking down the hall, George on my heels, his clammy hand upon my arm. I tried to shrug it away as everything faded.

I don’t know how long I was under. Sometimes I wish I had stayed under forever. But consciousness gradually returned. When the shadows came into focus George was on top of me, slick with sweat, pumping away.

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Get off of me!”

“What, baby? You were digging it a minute ago. Let’s have some good sex. Your mommy doesn’t need to find out.”

“Oh, oh God,” I sobbed. I got up and ran into the hall. Streaks and sparks whizzed in front of my eyes. The Grateful Dead music that had once sounded sensual now seemed sinister. I nearly passed out again. I huddled on the floor of the bathroom sick with shame. How could I have allowed this to happen to me? Especially after I knew what had happened to Christine. I should have seen the signs.

Then Christine came home. Her harsh voice bounced up the stairs and down the hall, edgy as shattered glass.

I took off my window screen and climbed into the garden. She would never believe me. It was best to just leave. I threw on my work clothes that smelled of grease and sweat. Whatever drug he had given me wore off and I felt like filth. I didn’t have time to grab my shoes.

I went to Belinda. There was no place else to go.

“God, nasty old George,” she said. “He must have slipped you that date rape drug. Well, at least he didn’t finish off in you. Did he?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But you know what the worst thing is? When I didn’t know it was him, it felt good.” I shuddered.

“You give him too much power. All he did was stick his dick in you. Breaking your nose is worse. Think about it.”

I could have sworn she looked secretly pleased that I had nowhere else to go.

She continued, “Well, I guess we have no excuse to stick around these parts anymore. First thing we gotta do is go get your stuff.”

My work shoes were on the front porch when we arrived. They were lined up neatly, the toes pointed away from the door. Next to them a suitcase, my clothes folded neatly inside. Christine had even put my favorite stuffed animal, a pink bunny, next to the suitcase. That touch of finality, most of all, made my heart wrench. I sat on the steps and sobbed. It hadn’t been much of a home, but I could never again go back to it.

 

One evening, soon after, Belinda set me up with one of her country club connections. “You have to be practical. You have no money. You have to use what God gave you to survive. Anyway, it’s just a couple of times and then we can split for LA.”

The man, Alan, was seventy and made his fortune with high-quality hair products. When I met him he was wearing spandex bike shorts and a tank top. “I was just making a protein smoothie. Want one?”

I nodded and settled back onto the couch. “Pump up the Jams” by Technotronic blared from the speakers. He danced toward me, smoothies in hand. His flabby, gray-haired breasts swayed. I sighed with resignation and leaned my head against the back of the couch.

He launched into small talk. “How about this wacky weather? Monsoon season is so early this year!” He paused to get into the groove of the song. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?  You can never go wrong with a degree in Business Administration! That’s what I did and I’ve never regretted it!”

I took a deep breath and shut him up with a kiss. His mouth was wet and soggy. As appetizing as a fallen soufflé. I got up and walked into his bedroom. It was decorated like a lair. Animal prints, foliage, and in one corner there were giant plumes in a floor vase.

He rubbed his stiff weenie against me and bleated, “Oh, Blue, please hold me.”

I undressed and stretched out on the leopard-print sheets. He pumped away on me, watching us in the wall mirrors, while I clenched my teeth against the pain. Just a few more times, I thought. Just this one man. I tried to remember what Belinda had told me: I gave the physical act too much power. Nothing could defile me without my permission, and so on. I ended up crying silently, wishing he’d just finish.

He mistook my sobs for shudders of ecstasy, “Oh yeah, you like that don’t you, baby? No young man can hold out as long as I can.”

As if that were something I should cherish: a whiny old man banging me until the end of time.

 

“Adios, all you losers,” Belinda sang as we drove away from Mesa for the last time. The wad of cash from my visits with Alan was stuffed into the bottom of my backpack. As we left the desert behind I vowed to forget my past. All of it. My life begins now.

The Greatest Mystery

Easter Island – October 2016

Remember who you are.

Who you were before the world got ahold of you.

This is why you are here.

It is said that ancient minds expressed their immense knowledge of the cosmos through myth. Their brains worked with symbol and metaphor. A fusion of conscious and subconscious. A slow, relentless divergence occurred over the ages. Hard logic became more valued and imagination became irrelevant.

My mind does not grasp formulas, equations, hard facts, dates. But I understand. A deep knowing that fills my atoms. My reality is fluid, kaleidoscopic, limitless. I am awake in a dream without end. Beliefs are not held, but carried for a while and then set free as new evidence comes to light. But never do I forget that we humans know nothing. And no one is in control.

Wild horses roam the desolate landscape of Rapa Nui. They are almost as captivating to me as the moai. They converge in the road ahead. I trail behind their majestic parade. Your mind is more of a wild horse than most people’s, a psychic once told me. A mixture of admiration and pity in her eyes. Even as a child, especially as a child, my mind was rebellious. I dreamed of being an archaeologist and having rainbow-colored hair. My favorite color was clear. Not a color of the spectrum but the prism itself.

The exasperation and hostility it provoked: that color doesn’t exist!

But I can see it. It’s all around us.

Nothing can be done with you. You are hopeless!

I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I couldn’t restrain myself from imagining possibilities. I’ve never expected, or even wanted, others to see the world as I do. I peer out the dusty windshield. The beasts advance down the road. A wayward kind of grace. They toss their manes, haughty and jubilant. A devilish smile spreads across my face. An evil giggle escapes. I never stood a chance.

In the field, two males are locked a violent pirouette. Teeth tear flesh. Long, thick ropes of blood and saliva fly through the air. An image from this morning flashes through my mind. A dead horse by the side of the road. The bloated, contorted carcass. Its eyes were frozen in a fierce gaze heavenward. Even in death untamed.

Moai are strewn across the outer slopes of Rano Raraku like discarded game pieces from a divine hand. The soil in the crater is the color of dried blood. Here, the moai were extracted from the flesh of the Earth.

One must bleed until there’s no poison left. The wounds scab over, and it seems we are done with the bleeding. But then they burst open again. And again.

Deep within the abyss of the past, I believed everything I was told. This innocence was not lost, but purposely rejected. Exiled to this mysterious, magical land. I have come here to reclaim it.

When we experience pain, pieces of the personality shatter, disperse, and become lodged in hidden corners of the psyche.This is done as a means of survival, so the pain doesn’t reoccur. Those who search for answers find that, eventually, the sanctuaries become prisons. The bandages no longer shelter the wounds. The search must go deeper. Clues are unearthed and examined. Shards and tiny splinters. It is painstaking work. Some discoveries raise more questions than answers. Sometimes the revelations are catastrophic. They invalidate all previous work. If only we could bury it all again. But there is no going back.

Was it carelessness or rat infestation that caused the fatal deforestation? Who constructed the moai? Why do all sites face inland, but one? Certain moai are lined up with the astronomical year. Why? Is Easter Island part of the legacy of a lost civilization that existed millennia before recorded history? The survivors of a cataclysm were ancient mariners who journeyed to the far reaches of the planet, transporting their knowledge of the universe.

So many questions. So much energy is invested in trying to decipher the enigma of our collective past.

The greatest mystery one can solve is that of the self.

Hanga Roa. The only town on this remotest of islands. I drift into a tiny shop. Ocean blue walls close in on me. On display: a dismal selection of tinned food, crackers, cookies, and chips. The Pacific islands are a fussy eater’s worst nightmare. Tourists mill about. Languages intertwine. I get in line behind three young women. Words emerge from their obscure speech. Numbers. It’s Hungarian. Words from each of the languages I’ve taught myself over the years tumble through my mind. I’ve taught myself almost everything I know: how to write, how to navigate the planet, how to unlearn everything I was told I ought to be. How to interpret the secret, personal language that each of us carry into existence. The hieroglyphics scrawled on the walls of my soul.

A tingle to my left. Heat. I glance in that direction. A man stands in front of the cooler. Wiry, small-boned, Polynesian. Stately and youthful. He could be twenty-five or forty-five. His hair falls past his shoulders in inky blue-black waves. His gaze captures mine. Blazing black nuggets. I see you, missy.

I catch my breath and turn away. I pay for my water and stumble into the midday sunlight, head spinning. I get into the Jeep and place my hands on the steering wheel. Breathe, breathe. I stare into the rearview mirror. No one has ever looked at me like that before. Except me. I see you. Missy.

Long ago, I tried to been seen below my surface. The late 1980s. My last year as a teenager. Palm Springs, LA. The don’t-you-know-who-I-am crowd. So many offers of conditional generosity. Do you know who you are? was my reply. The best pickup line annihilator ever. Then, one eternal night club evening, eyes peered into mine. Orbs obscured by the grimy glaze of age. The gaze of a long-dead soul. No man will ever be interested in what goes on in that pretty little head, doll. A sneer. Your deep thoughts. If you’re really smart, you’ll keep your mouth shut and use the real gifts you were given. You’ll be set for life.

My beautiful defiance: take your BMW and shove it up your flabby, wrinkled ass, old man! Just because you’ve been alive since the beginning of time doesn’t mean you know everything!

But even the most determined scientist abandons a theory after finding no evidence to support it.

No one will ever understand me. A realization that can cause such devastation. Or empowerment.

Te Pito Kura. Navel of Light. The place of the magic spheres. Mana, spirit power, was harnessed here. Easter Island is also known as Rapa Nui, but its original name was Te Pito O Te Henua. Navel of the World. We are, each of us, the center. The quantum observers of our lives.

We did not come into existence to be educated into submission. To be herded into a corral of listless uniformity. We are here to observe, to experience, to formulate our own realities. To enter the labyrinth of our spirit, get gloriously lost, find our way to the center of light and back again.

And so the time of the moai came to an end and the Birdman became the mythical ideal. Like the Earth, our personal histories consist of eras. Each one more intricate than the last.

The cold wind tangles my hair into knots. I stand on the precipice and peer into the fog. The percussive hiss of ocean waves crashing into the cliffs rises from far below. A decision looms: sink into the safe and familiar forever or take that step into the unknown. I need my innocence – trust, hope, and belief – more than ever now. The fog dissipates, and, in the distance, the prize becomes visible.

The Rano Kau crater towers over the very edge of the island. A gray minivan pulls up next to me in the parking lot. Tourists spill out, identical blonde males and females. Their language is vague, strangled. Some form of Scandinavian. I follow them up the trail to the lookout. They veer to the left. A figure sits at the very edge, cross-legged and immobile. A monolith of flesh and blood. My heart stops.

Him, again. The wind stirs his hair. Raven wings taking flight and coming to rest again. The tourists cluster around him, oblivious to his presence. Squawks and exclamations engulf him. He does not move.

I walk up the path to the right and sit on a boulder. The crater gapes before me. A most ancient wound. An unsettling, post-cataclysmic stillness rises from within. A void that can never be filled. Some things you never get back. But with the passing of time, scars take on an exquisite beauty. If you let them.

The tingle again. I take a deep breath and reach out. We merge into a soft embrace of resonances. Warm and platonic and steady. I bow my head and smile. I see you, too.

Sadness and wonder coalesce. I close my eyes. Could it be that I’m not alone after all? I sweep my eyes in his direction, but he has vanished. A lone cackle breaks free from the cluster of tourists. It wafts across the crater, hovering for an instant before it’s swept away in the wind. Swallowed up by the emptiness of forever.

“Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.” – Timothy Leary

Dear Readers: Thank you for being my Others.❤️

The Island of Truth and Lies

Bali, Indonesia – March 2019

I am in the void. Conscious and floating on my back. A copper shimmer traces infinity in the blackness above me. It spins into two eyes. They lean close and stare into mine. Shiny pennies. I catch my breath. Unfurl, exhale. Okay. Look. I’ve got nothing to hide. The gaze is curious, amused. Familiar.

I move my lips in the softest whisper. “Who are you?” The eyes recede into the murk. The spell is broken. A languid ascent from sleep’s abyss. “You are me. Aren’t you.”

I pull the mosquito net aside and rise from the bed. Step outside into the dawn sunshine. Swim through liquid air. A delicious glow has invaded my atoms since my arrival in Bali. Wicked intoxication. It feels just a little too good. I float into the dining area and lower myself onto a cushion, still unable to speak.

Pebby gives me a knowing look. “I always have the weirdest dreams when I sleep in that room.”

I find my voice and tell her mine. She nods. “Uh huh.”

My little sister Penelope – my “Pebby” – teaches science at an international school for expat kids. She has aged so little in the almost nine years since we were last together. Hers is feral beauty. Deep olive skin. Eyes a rich, earthy green. Hair that changes hue depending on the light.

“I feel so strange since I’ve been here. So good, but apprehensive, too.”

“Bali tests you. They even asked me during the interview if I was mentally strong. So many marriages break up here. So many people fall apart.” She tells me of her longtime on and off boyfriend’s recent visit. After so many years, she saw how ugly he was, on all levels. She can’t stand him anymore.

Her dog, Lala, lies in a patch of sunlight. Mottled hyena fur, bloated body, shrunken head, feet like chicken claws. Her stinky feet stench persists no matter how often she gets washed. The sweetest dogs are so often the most hideous.

Pebby takes me on a tour of the school. On the scooter ride home, a downpour ambushes us. I arch my back and let it wash over me. There’s something so luxurious about being drenched by tropical rain. I wouldn’t trade this for the comfort of a car. Sensations are the most memorable part of a voyage. Warm raindrops on bare skin. The aroma of cooking grease, vehicle exhaust, and incense intertwined in the dense air. The vivid rainbow colors of traditional dress. The percussive thud of my heart beating with exhilaration.

When we get to her house, we sink into the cushions. Into the comfort of reminiscing. The family. Dad. Gone so long now. We have both mellowed so much over the years. We have survived, and, despite the dark times, thrived.

March 30, 1981

Ronald Reagan has been shot. My family gathers around the television. The footage is replayed over and over. Pebby is lying on her stomach, legs bent, chin on her hand. “Watch. Now the Pope’s going to get shot.”

The person who used to be my dad stares at her, eyes ablaze. His lips move. My mom frowns at him and switches off the television. He rises from the La-Z-Boy chair and goes to the basement.

The entity who now inhabits my dad’s body calls himself The Mediator Between God and Man. We are no longer his family, but his disciples. He has a small following at St. Anthony’s church. They like to hear his prophecies. They think he’s special, because he uses big words that they can’t understand. They are so stupid. Nothing he says makes any sense at all.

The Pope is shot just weeks later. “You know things, Penelope. Tell me what you know.” He follows her around the house and the yard. Takes her for long drives. When he was a young boy, he made tapes of his prophecies. A priest stole them. The neighbors across the street are in on the conspiracy. “Where are my tapes, Penelope? Tell me where they are.” When she hears his footsteps coming down the hall, she crawls under the bed. He barges into our room without knocking.

This is me: twelve years old, ninety pounds of freckles, braces, and unruly blonde hair. I clench my fists. “She’s not in here.” I glare into those piercing black holes. What did you do with my dad, you bastard? Bring him back. He leaves. I slam the door behind him and slide the desk in front of it.

I peer under the bed. Fierce eyes stare out of the shadows. A wild animal in the underbrush. “It’s okay. He’s gone,” I whisper. But still she doesn’t come out.

My siblings and I held each others’ hands through early adulthood, keeping watch for signs of incoherence, paranoia, delusion. The voices. It’s said that if none manifest by the age of thirty-five, you’re out of the woods. Other than an eccentricity that we embrace, we have made it. A doctor once told my mother that it’s a miracle that we aren’t all drug addicts or dead. Love is what saved us. Before my father’s schizophrenia spiraled out of control, life was stable. We were taught right from wrong. That there is a reason to persevere.

We have a deep connection to spirit, but an innate aversion to fervor. An impeccable bullshit radar. We are unable sit in congregations and nod our heads in unison. We prostrate ourselves before no one. The voices in our heads are our own. Ego chatter and, with increasing frequency, guidance from the Higher Self.

Our conversation switches to the present. Her work at the school. My work as a bartender this past winter at a dive bar in my village in northern Michigan. Most of the patrons live in the dodgy rooms upstairs and have lost the right to drive. The bar is their universe. I’m so grateful for all of the colorful stories I’ve gathered. But I am exhausted.

Tomorrow we leave for a trip to Komodo National Park, after which I will take off for a few days. To Ubud, a place of pilgrimage for the New Age crowd. Pebby snickers. “We all laugh about the Ubudian Yoga Pants People. So annoying. But it is a pretty area. A good base for day trips.”

I wander to my room, stopping to give Lala a goodnight scratch behind the ears. I tuck my mosquito net firmly under the mattress. A poisonous snake crawled up through Pebby’s shower drain a few weeks ago. One of her friends found a six foot cobra in her bedroom. I take no chances.

My head sinks into the pillow. Eyes close. Fade. To white. The brain flickers. Not a dream. A transmission. A sentient radiance streams through the leaves of a giant oak tree. An eminence, benevolent and awesome, prowling on the periphery. The truth has nowhere to hide under this illumination. It sees me. Are you ready?

I lift my face to the immaculate rays. Deep breath. Yes.

It is my second to last day of work.

“Hey Barbie, how much to show us those beauties under that sweater?” I deliver their cans of Budweiser and walk away. In order for me to be offended, I’d have to give a shit. Which I don’t. “You’re a beautiful woman. What do you expect?” An accusation not a compliment.

A soft-spoken hulk of a man sits in his usual spot next to the kitchen. His name is Randy. “I can’t believe what you ladies put up with.” He shakes his head. “Makes me ashamed to be a man.”

I sigh. “The women are no better.” Such delight taken in deceit and manipulation. The stupid games and fabricated drama. Everyone is cheating on everyone and they’re so proud of it. I’ve had quite the education about modern love these past few months.

Every day after work, Randy drinks a few beers here, not enough to get a DUI. Then he goes home and drinks himself to sleep in the basement, which has become his bedroom. When he tells me the things his wife says to him, my stomach turns. He stays for the kids. And, in spite of her abuse, he still loves her.

I go into the kitchen to fetch a food order. When I turn around, Randy is standing there. He shifts his feet, holds out a calloused paw. “Well, have fun in Bali. I’m really glad I met you.”

I look at him. So humble. So broken. My heart swells. I wrap my arms around his neck and squeeze. “You’ll see me again. I’ll come by.”

When I pull away, he bows his head and hurries out the door. “Take care of yourself.”

But the next evening, he’s sitting in his usual place.

I smile. “Hey! Told you we’d see each other again.”

He lifts his glass. “I’m drinking coke.” He grins. “I quit drinking.”

“Wow. Really?”

“That hug you gave me…did something to me. It made me realize that I’m not a piece of shit. If a nice lady like you thinks I deserve a hug, then I can’t be.” He takes a deep breath. Exhales. “No matter what she says.” He pulls himself up tall. Steely glint of determination in his eyes. “And another thing I did. I made an appointment with a counselor. I’m going to get to the bottom of all my stuff.” He pushes back from the bar. “Gotta go. Just wanted to stop by and tell you.”

I can only manage a whisper. “I gave you the hug, Randy, but you let it in.”

He lifts his hand in farewell and strides out the door.

I retreat to the kitchen and slump against a wall. Head in my hands. Oh, this beautiful, broken world.

There’s a finality to everyone’s goodbyes. A resignation. It’s as if they know they’ll never see me again. Underneath it all, they don’t want to see me again. Not because they don’t like me, but because I come from such a different world. When I told them I was going to Bali, they looked it up on the internet. “You are making a difference, JD. I want to do that, too.”

“I’m just going on vacation.” I laugh and shake my head.

“You are an angel.”

But I’m not.

Too many days too close together. A tiny room on a small boat. Clouds converge, much more ominous than our usual tension. Pressure deepens. Thunder rumbles. Lighting flickers. By the time we get back to Bali, the tempest is in full force. A cloudburst of old, old resentments. My retaliation is unrestrained. Did those words just come out of my mouth? Things that can never be unsaid. And yet, it is possible to feel both profound remorse and unapologetic. It needed to be said. We retreat to opposite corners of the house. When she leaves for work, I emerge.

I lie on the wooden floor next to the garden, weighed down by a leaden heart. Luminous petals of sunlight stream through the frangipani tree. I’ve lost my cool, my bliss. It’s been so long since anything, or anyone, has pushed my buttons. I close my eyes. I’m being too hard on myself. No one ever evolves beyond doing things that require forgiveness. Just chill out.

The click of thick toenails on wood. Grunts of exertion. An odorous cloud wafts around the corner. A daft, bony face appears.

I lift my heavy head and smile through a sigh. “Oh, Lala. You are so beautiful.”

Letters are exchanged. Pebby’s is sweet and funny: Lala will miss you! Mine is more serious: I don’t know what’s come over me. Could it be Bali? We’re old enough to know that we can only spend a few days together before conflict arises, before the inevitable communication breakdown. This hurt is deep, but not fatal. We will meet up again before I leave.

To Ubud I go. My guesthouse is a traditional Balinese house tucked down a long passageway off a main road. Paintings and statues of deities everywhere. A little shrine sits off to the side of the courtyard. Rai is the owner. Tiny, regal, eyes of pure gold.

I drop off my things and make the exploratory lap around town. I wander inside a temple of lotuses. In front of each picturesque statue, flawless princesses line up for photo ops. Identical shrink-wrapped, immobile faces. Flat doll gazes. Long, flowing dresses. A blonde lifts her impeccably manicured hands to her forehead in mock prayer. Her lips are so inflated that they are unable to fully close. After a long moment, she turns away from the statue. Two women lurch forward. They glare at each other, vicious cobras about to strike. I flinch. The boyfriends take the photos, obedient and oblivious.

What of their time alone together? Every move choreographed, every moan practiced, every expression of ecstasy contrived. No risk of communion in those eyes. That which lies beneath the pretty masks is too shallow, even, for the most basic existential angst. There is simply nothing to explore. They were born into a reality where identity is meticulously fabricated in pixels on a screen and worth is determined by likes, follows, and fawning comments by strangers. A two-dimensional wasteland.

I turn away and head out to the street. The sky rips open. I cover my backpack with the rain poncho. Heaven’s tears cascade over me. Washing me clean.

The cacophony of desperation recedes. The tugs on my sleeve, the faces thrust into mine. The voices, beseeching. Taxi! Cheap! Look here! Good price for you!

A sign materializes: Magical Rice Field in Ubud. My soggy footsteps echo in the narrow passageway. There is more to be revealed. Are you ready? I roll my eyes. No. Not really. When I emerge on the other side, the deluge has already finished. Rice ponds shimmer like liquid metal. I step forward and peer into the opaque mirror. Into my iridescent shadow.

I am beautiful. I deserve to be seen and valued. Loved for who I truly am. Randy’s voice echoes through my mind: I’m not a piece of shit. I bow my head and wrap my arms around myself. “I’m not a piece of shit.” Sobs erupt. A relentless flow from deep within, viscous and red-hot. Molten magma of the heart.

The most devastating lies are those that we tell ourselves. And is hope not the most achingly lovely of all? This exquisite bouquet of glimmers that I’ve gathered. Under this light, so merciless and merciful, it withers and dies. Time to loosen my grasp and let it fall. If only I could. A hot wave engulfs me. I hurl it away. If it’s not meant to be, then be gone. I never wanted this in the first place. It boomerangs back.

The responsibility for this heartbreak lies with you. The person is merely a mirror. A perfect mirror reflecting your deepest wounds. Focus on the lesson, the pattern. Deep, slow breaths. There you go. Go easy on yourself. The attachment still serves a purpose. It will dissipate when it’s time.

There is one fundamental lie which culture instills in us from birth: I am not good enough. It keeps us from standing in our power. It keeps us in line. It attacks the source of life itself – our ability to truly love. If you dig deep enough, through all of the layers, you eventually find it. In all of its horrific glory.

I trudge back to the guesthouse. I curl up on the bed and tumble off the precipice into a dreamless sleep.

Nothing is more precious than a heart full of dreams in a world that has turned to stone.

Tendrils of incense snake through the little shrine. I sit on the ground and lean against the rough stone wall. Tremors of pain radiate through the bottomless fissure in my heart. Death throes. Rai performs her morning prayers. Ethereal ballerina movements. Chants of unknown origin float overhead. Vintage bird cages sway from the roofs. Songbirds chirp a melancholy melody. Votives flicker. These strange, smoky orange marigolds. The color of funeral pyres. Ultimate purification. Cheek against cold stone, I let my eyes close. Out of the ashes I will rise.

Watch, now, my insolent sashay into the vegan cafe. Cutoff jean shorts, floppy hat, constellations of mosquito bites on my legs. Disheveled, haggard, bleary-eyed. Past the man buns, dreadlocks, Macbooks. Yoga pants. Looks of condescension and bewilderment follow my haphazard trajectory. That’s right, dudes. Diving into the chasm of the soul isn’t photogenic. I could sneer at them for being hypocrites, but I can longer be bothered. I lower myself on a cushion and order an herbal tonic. Now the convalescence begins.

A somnolent drift through temples and palaces and sacred forests. Cloud-shrouded volcanos in the distance. The shrill symphony of bats. Mischievous monkey hijinks. Demons and deities. Not always easy to tell them apart. Without total annihilation there can be no resurrection.

I have managed to reclaim my worth as worker, family member, friend, and writer. The people in my life now reflect that. But as a woman. I shake my head. The transcendent love you deserve exists. You have cracked your heart open to make space. Now you must let the love in. I come to rest next to a murky pond. Gaze into the eternal parade of koi fish across the waters. My spirit dives in. Surrenders to the flow.

Back in Ubud, I wine and dine myself. Spoil myself rotten. Pretty sundresses. Silver rings on my fingers – turquoise for self-forgiveness, rainbow moonstone for new beginnings. Around my wrist, a bracelet of anyolite to harmonize the mind with the heart. In a humble shack, a gargantuan of a woman tears my body apart and molds it back together again.

Come into your wholeness. Come Home.

For my final two days, I head to the coast. To Kuta, beloved haunt of blue collar Australians. It is the lowest part of low season. The streets are nearly deserted. The pubs and shops are empty.

My last evening, I meet Pebby at a multi-floored labyrinth in Seminyak. I ascend a staircase and glide across a terrace. Bland chillout electronica wafts over the crowd. My floor-length sundress swirls around my legs. The multi-colored beads on my sandals glow like gems in the soft light. Salty air curls fall around my shoulders. Male and female heads turn in appreciation. I look down at the floor and blush. An invisible hand takes my right hand. A grip so warm and unwavering. My queen, there is no other choice but you. I’m so proud to walk by your side. I lift my face and smile.

Pebby waves me over. “This place is kinda trendy,” she grimaces. “Sorry.”

“Oh, whatever. At least the food is probably great.”

Our apologies are encoded in the comfortable conversation. No need to bring it all up again.

A wall of clouds creeps towards shore. A legendary Bali beach sunset is not to be. I’m no longer disappointed by such things. Like every voyage, Bali has given me exactly what I need.

By the time we find our way out of the building, it is pouring. Goodbyes in the rain. Of course.

“I love you, Pebby.”

Her eyes are soft, hesitant. “I love you, too.”

One last dawn stroll on the beach and then it’s off to the airport. With the exception of the surf schools, I am the only foreigner. Fishermen. Runners. Couples holding hands. They all make a point to wish me good morning. I lower myself on the sand and watch Balinese surfer girls frolic in the waves. A mutt trots over and flops down next to me. He presses his body into my side. Territorial, protective. I smile out loud and scratch behind his ears. No place has ever witnessed the truth of my soul and made me feel so welcome. But I’m so ready to go home to my wilderness.

Above the hypnotic waves, on a lingering cloud, the ghost of a rainbow appears. A promise.