by J. T. Townley
I’ve been on lots of yoga retreats, though usually just down to Big Sur. I went to Kauai once, but that had more to do with a bad breakup than spiritual awakening. But this time I traveled all the way to India. It was worth the trouble and expense, too. Bharadvaja, this guru everyone was raving about, totally lived up to the hype. I became free, light, and empty. And while I’ve brought that spirit home with me, right now I need a glass of chardonnay, a shower, and some sleep.
When I wiggle the key and step inside, the energy shifts. I catch a whiff of patchouli and unwashed feet. Sunlight streams through the open blinds. I trip on the hallway runner and bark my shin on the sofa table. I think I hear someone gasp, but it might just be my own muffled cry of pain.
“Don’t freak out,” says a familiar voice. “I can explain.”
I shield my eyes, groping for the blinds. As the sunspots fade, I can make out her silhouette. “Jenny?”
“Hey, Mel,” says my little sister, tucking her blonde surfer locks behind her ears. She’s spread a bag of weed, probably Hazemaker or Golden Zombie, and rolling papers on the glass coffee table.
My blood pressure surges. A knot begins to tangle itself in my chest. “Make yourself at home.”
Jenny grins. “When Mom told me you were—”
“Since when are you two on speaking terms?”
She sighs, fiddling with her Bic.
“So you thought, ‘I’ll just break into my sister’s house and squat for a while’?”
“Come on, Mel. It’s not like that.” She gives me that sweet-little-sister look she perfected when we were kids.
I rub my arm and say, “What’s it like then, Jenny?”
She ignores me, attending to her spliff making. I dump my bags on the love seat and wander to the kitchen. Though I left the place clean and tidy, it’s now a complete wreck, T-shirts and underwear strewn across the hardwoods, pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers littering the counters, empty beer cans in a pile on the kitchen table.
“Jezus,” I say. “How long have you been here?”
She licks the edge of her joint. “Couple days. Why?”
I swing open the fridge. Jenny’s all but emptied it, though my box of Danzia’s still on the top shelf. I grab a glass from the drying rack, then press the pour lever. Nothing. Not a drop. I shake the box: empty. The knot in my chest tightens, so I pause in front of the refrigerator and concentrate on my breathing. I try to stay centered and open, just like Bharadvaja taught us. In fact, I can hear him now: “I want you to stay grounded. Let the mind quiet. Practice being calm.” With Jenny around, that’s not easy. Nothing is.
“Where were you at, anyways?” she asks.
I breathe and breathe some more.
The scratch of a lighter. A pause. “Mom said something about Indiana?” Her voice is flat and muffled from trying to hold in the cannabis smoke.
I close the fridge and set the glass on the counter. “India,” I say. “The Asian subcontinent. A yoga retreat in Goa, to be specific.”
She cackles. “That’s a long way to Goa for some stretchy-stretch.”
“You’re a riot.” I slump onto the other end of the couch. She passes me the herbal cigarette, which, for some reason, I accept. “So are you gonna tell me what you’re doing here?”
I haven’t heard from Jenny in two years. Naturally, her story is rambling and disjointed, and the couple drags I take from her herbal cigarette don’t help the cause. From what I can make out, she was tramping around the Pacific Northwest, living in a van in Big Sur, and surfing the Zicatela break in Puerto Escondido. She’s always been a free spirit—everyone says so. In practice, that seems to translate as irresponsible freeloader.
“Yeah,” I say, “but why are you here? In my house? Now?”
“I just need to lay low and regroup.” Jenny gives me that sweet look again. “I hope I’m not intruding or anything?”
She passes me the joint again. It smolders between my fingers. I say nothing.
“You won’t even know I was here.”
I glance around at the devastation Jenny has wrought during her brief and unannounced sojourn. My eyes burn. My mind feels glassy. Although I know I’ll regret it, I say: “Couple days? Sure, no problem.”
When my phone warbles, I’m high on a mountaintop, standing at the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. I’m in tree pose. Bharadvaja balances upside down in stag leg pincha. “We’re working on equanimity,” he says, “a calmness that pervades everything we’re experiencing.”
But the voice at the other end of the line sounds anything but calm. “Hey, girl, welcome back. You better get down here pronto.”
“Missed me, right? Sorry to bring you back down to earth so quick, but we got a situation.”
I rub my eyes and blink. The marine layer grays out the sun, and heavy, cold air settles in through the open window. My mind whirs, thick and groggy. I pull the blanket up to my chin. “You can handle it. That’s why I promoted you.”
He huffs a little. “Girl, you ain’t listening.”
I open my eyes and stare into space. “Gimme a break. I’m still jet-lagged.”
“Good for you, globe-trotter. We’re all impressed.”
There’s an edge to his voice. I sit up against the headboard. “You remember I’m your boss, right?”
He laughs. “That’s right, Mel. But you was my bish long before that.”
I chuckle through my haze. “So what’s the problem? Somebody miss a delivery?”
“Nah, all under control.”
“Then what is it?”
In the background the bell on the door jingles. The register rings, clanks, and thumps.
“Lemme ask you something,” he says. “You got a sister named Jenny?”
Most days, I bike to Café Nirvana, but in my dopey frenzy, I can’t find my cruiser, so I walk two blocks south and take the beach route. I expect Jenny to have torched the place in a stoned stupor, but when I stride up, everything seems okay. Craig works the Marzocco machine while Stony, a young surfer dude we hired right before I left, mans the register, taking orders. The line’s only a couple-three deep. Fresh baked goods, croissants and scones and muffins, fill the pastry case. Customers in hoodies and flip-flops lounge at tables in the main room and on the patio. Craig’s remembered to push the accordion doors wide open.
I ease inside and glide around to the end of the coffee bar. Bebop plays over the speakers at low volume. “So what’s the story?” I ask. “How do you know about Jenny?”
Still focused on pulling a double shot of espresso, Craig says, “Why? She some kinda family secret?”
I take a breath, then another. The espresso machine hums. Craig shakes his head and laughs at something a leathery guy in a huge straw hat says. Customers slurp coffee, chomp pastries, and crinkle newsprint. They check their phones or gaze out at the bay overhung with a gray blanket of clouds.
The knot in my chest tightens. I try to tilt my head back and push my shoulders open, but it’s no use.
“What did she say?” I ask in a quiet panic. “What did she do?”
“See for yourself,” says Craig. His hands are occupied, so he points with his chin. “She’s right out there.”
I follow his gaze to the patio. Jenny’s got one hand wrapped around a porcelain mug while the other squeezes the shoulder of an athletic guy with curly hair. The woman sitting with him, who also looks like a pro athlete, wears a furious scowl.
“What’s she doing?” I say.
“What’s it look like?”
The milk steamer whirs.
“Why’d you let her out there?”
“She got here early, just barged in like she owned the place, saying she was filling in for you. Helped herself to breakfast and made a huge mess. Once the regulars started showing up, I had to chase her outta here before things got ugly.”
“How long’s she been at it?”
Craig saucers an espresso cup and scoops on dollops of foam, then sets it on the counter. He glances at the wall clock. “An hour, give or take.”
I’m about to march out there and give Jenny the hook before that guy’s lady demonstrates her Brazilian jujitsu prowess, but she saunters in, shaking her ass and grinning.
“What are you doing?” I demand.
She slides behind the pastry case. “Getting them their berry scones.”
“Them folks didn’t order nothing but coffee,” says Craig.
Jenny ignores him, putting the scones in a to-go box and sauntering back outside.
I grit my teeth and swallow a growl, stamping into the back. Several boxes of fresh pastries have been opened and picked through. Two cartons of milk have been left out on the stainless steel counter to curdle. The reach-in cooler is wide open. A carton of half-and-half lies on its side, its contents dribbling over the shelves. The old oak slats are strewn with coffee beans.
“Told you,” says Craig from up front. “Girl’s a disaster.”
My heart pounds. My jaw tightens. I look down, and my hands are balled into fists.
“She really your sister?”
“’Fraid so,” I try to say, but the muscles in my neck are so rigid, I can’t speak.
So I work on my breathing. Trouble is, it’s shallow and I can’t slow it down, and I soon start to hyperventilate. By the time I spot Bharadvaja, I’ve been breathing into a paper bag for a couple minutes. He’s in standing split pose atop a tub of butter in the reach-in. He looks up at me, upside down, from near his right ankle.
“It’s about nonattachment,” he says. “No one and nothing belong to us.”
I continue to huff my own stale breath.
“We’re free and light and empty.”
I ponder his words as my breathing slows and deepens. I crumple the bag and pitch it toward the trash can. “It’s not supposed to be like this,” I say. “I was on the mountaintop, empty and luminous.”
Now Jenny sashays into the room, grinning, and paws a pastry from an open box. “Who you talking to?”
My breath catches in my throat. “No one.”
She chuckles, stretching a croissant until it rips in half. “You’re not on the phone or—”
“You learn that at the ashram? Vow of silence gone awry, type of thing?”
“What would you know about it?” I spit. “What are you even doing here?”
She looks genuinely confused. “I’m pulling my weight.”
“Is that what you call it?” I say, gesturing toward her mess.
“Lighten up, Melanie.”
I take a breath and work on tingling from my temples to my toes. “I know that, in your way, you’re trying to help.”
“But you don’t have to. I didn’t ask for it, and it’s not an expectation. If you need a place to stay for a few days, no problem. You’re my guest.”
A smile flickers in her eyes. “Thanks, sis.”
I nod. “But you don’t work here, okay? I’ve got it covered. And, no offense, but this isn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet.”
“Whatever you ate or drank”—I take in the waste and destruction—“or accidentally ruined today is on the house. But all of this comes out of my pocket, Jen. Believe it or not, I’m not made of money.”
She shifts her weight and chews another hunk of croissant, then pouts in silence. I try to be patient. After a couple minutes pass, her face lights up. “Did you see that guy on the patio I was talking to?”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“Pretty hot, right?”
“That was his wife, you know.”
“They weren’t wearing rings.”
“Trust me on this one, Jen.”
To my surprise, things settle down after that. Together, we establish some house rules that Jenny does her best to follow, cleaning up after herself in the kitchen, keeping the chaos contained to the guest bedroom, and only getting blazed on the back porch. She doesn’t barge into the café again, raiding the kitchen and harassing the customers. Not that I’m naïve enough to think she’s turned over a new leaf, but still, it feels like progress. I slough off my jet lag and sink back into a normal routine that includes running the café and practicing yoga. I pedal my bike around town. I indulge an occasional long-distance swim in the bay on mornings when Craig’s scheduled to open.
For her part, Jenny really makes an effort. I’m impressed. I put her in touch with a friend who runs the best bookshop in town, and not only does she show up to her interview, she doesn’t shank the whole thing. “It’s not bad,” she says after her first day. “Think it’ll be good for me.” So four days a week she borrows my bike and pedals off to work. I don’t have to worry about her trashing my house or getting arrested, sabotaging my business or wrecking any marriages.
When Bharadvaja emerges from a seashell one evening while I’m doing yoga at the beach, he doesn’t even say anything. Instead, he leads me through a series of sun salutations, followed by a sequence of advanced moves that includes half-moon pose, eagle pose, and dancer pose. We finish upside down in feathered peacock pose, watching the sky fade from tangerine to rose to violet.
A couple days later, I get a call from my mom. She moved down to San Diego last year, and we don’t talk that often. She’s always on her way to a shuffleboard tournament or bridge game or singles night at the senior center. I’m at the café when my phone buzzes, so I reject the call without looking at the number, chatting with a pair of tourists from Temecula. When I feel it buzz again, I drift back to my office, goggling at the name and number on the screen. I take a deep breath and answer.
“You looking after your sister?”
“How have you been?”
“She’s fragile, Melanie. Life hasn’t done right by her. She needs stability.”
“Was it your idea for her to break into my house while I was away?”
The scratch of a lighter. A puffing suck and a long blow. “What do I know about your gallivanting? You never tell me where you’ll be or when you’ll be home. Never have. Always so strong-willed and independent.”
She means that as an insult, but I let it go. “She couldn’t stay at your place?”
“You know I live in a tiny condo.”
“Yeah, a three-bedroom.”
“She’d be miserable down here. Too many old fogies.”
“There’s the beach. She could surf.”
“And risk her getting back into the drug scene?”
“It’s worse up here, Linda.”
“That’s where you come in. You’re her big sister. This is a chance for you to redeem yourself and keep Jenny on the straight and narrow.”
“How’s it my fault that she went off the rails?”
Linda takes a couple puffs off her Virginia Slim. “She’s a free spirit, Melanie, but naïve as they come. Any pretty-faced guy who smiles at her is Prince Charming.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What’re you doing to keep her out of trouble?”
The bell on the café door jingles and jingles again. I glide out of the office and take a peek, but Craig and Stony have everything under control.
“I got her a job.”
“At that place you work?”
“You mean own? You’ll have to come in for a cappuccino sometime.”
“Ugh, that stuff runs right through me.”
I feel my lips purse. “But no, Jenny’s working at a friend’s bookstore.”
She puffs again, then hacks so hard she might cough up a lung. She clears her throat once, twice, three times. When she speaks again, she sounds out of breath. “Gotta run, Mel. My live-in’s just come back.”
“You have a maid?”
Linda chuckles. “No, sweetheart. My lover.”
Then the line goes dead.
Linda’s call has the desired effect. She’s always been a master manipulator. Although I know better than to take her guilt trips to heart, I can’t help but check in on Jenny at least once a day. From what I can tell, though, she’s getting her act together. She’s a natural-born slob, but she gets used to cleaning up after herself and not leaving disorder and destruction in her wake. My friend even tells me Jenny’s punctual to work and diligent, too. “Are we talking about the same Jenny?” I say, and I’m not joking. From what I can tell, she’s consuming so much cannabis in her free time, she doesn’t have the capacity for anything harder. Such amounts to the straight and narrow for Jenny. On mornings when she’s not working, she paddles out and surfs the Lane with the locals.
We stay open a little later on Friday, so I don’t shut off the lights and lock up until almost nine. Since Jenny has my bike, I wander down the beach to get home. The night’s first stars twinkle overhead, though an orange-and-pink glow still hovers over the ocean. A cold breeze whips up off the water. I hunker into my sweatshirt and pull up the hood. As I pad through the sand, I pass a couple of people building beach bonfires.
In the near distance, hip-hop music, up-tempo with lots of bass, thumps into the new night. It gets louder and louder as I make my way home. Maybe one of my neighbors is throwing a party and forgot to let me know?
When I step from sand to pavement and make my way up the street, I discover that the loud music is coming from my house. People cluster in the front yard and mingle on the porch, everyone drinking keg beer from red plastic cups. Marijuana smoke perfumes the cool night air. A fist clutches in my chest. As I climb the steps to the porch, the melody sounds sour and the beer smells stale. I thread through the bodies. A few of my neighbors give me head nods and wassups, and Tamara from next door even blows me a kiss. Maybe I smile or wave, or maybe I snub them, I don’t know. I’m on a beeline to find Jenny.
But the people are so thick in the living room, I can’t even see the furniture. In the kitchen three beach kids about Jenny’s age lean against the counter, sharing a spliff and nodding their heads to the beat. A guy with a leathery tan and five-day scruff passes me the joint. I take a long drag, then hand it to a girl with big blue eyes.
“Anybody seen Jenny?” I ask, peering into the fridge. I find a box of Gallo Pinto chardonnay, but a quick shake tells me it’s been drained.
They swap glances and shrug. Then a guy with bushy hair says, “Who’s Jenny?”
I finally find her on the back porch, sitting with a group of six or eight people around the fire pit. She’s cozied up against that married guy from the café. Like everyone else, they’re drinking beer and passing around a spliff. As I march up, Jenny goes white and her eyes saucer. “Take it easy, Mel. Lemme explain.” But I grab her by the arm and drag her into the house, shoving people aside to get to my bedroom. I slam the door behind us.
“What the fuck?” I say.
“Lo siento,” says a long-haired dude making out with a skinny redhead, “occupado.”
“You’re in my goddamn bed,” I snarl. “Now get out!”
“What’s up your ass?” says Jenny, as the lovebirds teeter into the hallway. “Everyone’s just trying to have a good time.”
I shake my head. The fist in my chest balls tighter and pulses red-hot. For a moment, my tongue won’t work. Then I say:
“Who are all these people?”
“Friends, Mel. Half of them are your neighbors. Don’t you recognize them?”
“Who said it was okay to throw a party?”
Jenny laughs. “What party? It’s just a few friends having a drink before the beach bonfire.”
We mill for a moment by the door. Jenny goes to the nightstand and pretends to study a picture of Linda, her, and me. We were just kids then. Linda always doted on her. Even when she hit adolescence and they were at each other’s throats twenty-four seven—they were too much alike—in the end nothing was ever Jenny’s fault. I found it infuriating then and still do. After all, who was the straight A student and all-state swimming champion? Who won all the awards and got a full ride to Berkeley? Who has a master’s degree and owns a small business? I stumble over and sit down on the edge of the bed.
“You should really leave that married guy alone, Jen.”
“It’s not like that.” She leans against the wall. “We’re just friends, Mel. You really need to lighten up.”
I stand again and face her. “And you need to grow up.”
“What?” she says, sneering. “And be more like you?”
“It wouldn’t hurt.”
She gives me a long, pitiful stare. “But how would it help?”
I stride toward the bathroom, eyes welling with tears. I gaze at my muddy reflection for a long moment. When I open the medicine cabinet, I expect to find Bharadvaja inside a pill bottle in king pigeon pose. I rifle through the meds, even knocking a few bottles into the sink, but for some reason he’s not here.
Jenny leans into the room, studying me. “Come to the beach with us, Mel.”
I wipe my eyes and close the cabinet.
“It’ll be fun.”
Now I tie my hair back and slip past her into the bedroom. I shrug off my hoodie, then pull a cable-knit sweater from the dresser and slip it on. “You need to get these people out of my house. Now. We can talk about your next move in the morning.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Are you kicking me out? We’re sisters.”
But I’m already pushing my way back toward the kitchen.
I barrel across the New Leaf Market parking lot, shoppers be damned. A shirtless guy with long, bushy hair glares at me, and a woman with a neck tattoo and a collie in a stroller gives me the finger. I ignore them, pitching my bike down and marching through the automatic doors. The place stinks of patchouli and sandalwood and unwashed bodies. Barefoot customers wander the aisles, muttering about antioxidants and beta-carotene. I locate the dark chocolate and rake a stack of 85 percent cacao bars into my basket, knocking over a display for Jogaübung cacao nibs in the process. A bean pole in a turquoise New Leaf T-shirt, whose nametag reads Arnie, peers around the corner to locate the cause of the ruckus, scowling in my direction. I unwrap a chocolate bar and wend back to the wine section.
The chunks of dark chocolate I break off are too big for my mouth. My fingers get sticky and smudge the wine labels as I feign reading about the terroir de provenance. I land in the rosé section. I unscrew the cap off a bottle of Kensho and flip it toward the cheese counter, then take a long guzzle. Nasty stuff. The chocolate caking my molars and filming my tongue actually improves the flavor. I chugalug until I can’t breathe, then wipe my mouth with my bare forearm. A belch leaks out.
“Excuse me,” says a greasy-haired woman in a New Leaf polo. Margot the Manager. “You can’t drink that in here.”
“My mistake,” I say. Then I hurl the bottle in her direction. It explodes against the laminate flooring a foot from where she stands.
Margot grimaces and knots her arms. “You’re gonna have to pay for that.”
“I’m not quite finished shopping,” I say, scanning the shelves and licking chocolate out of my teeth. “Perhaps you could point me to your chardonnay?”
Her eyes dart to the empty shelves where the bottles should be. “Hard to keep in stock. I can check in the back, if you’d like.”
I nod, uncapping a bottle of pinot grigio and taking a slurp. “I go for the boxed stuff. Danzia, Gallo Pinto, that kinda thing.”
“I’ll take a look. Don’t break anything else while I’m gone, okay?”
Soon as she disappears, I grab a bottle of Gewürztraminer by the neck. I’m about to hurl it toward a grungy girl in cutoffs and bikini top when I hear:
“Breathe, Melanie. Just breathe. If we do anything, we do it calmly.”
My head’s spinning from the wine medley. My tongue tastes like old pennies. I squint and blink, trying to focus in the fluorescent lighting. “Bharadvaja?”
He’s wedged himself—in rope pose—into a bottle of sauvignon blanc. I don’t ask how. By now I understand that he’s capable of anything.
“Let’s respect ourselves,” he says. He doesn’t even look uncomfortable in there. “Let’s stay rooted, centered, and balanced.”
I pitch bottles of merlot, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon this way and that. They explode in bright grapey bursts. By now I’ve attracted Arnie’s attention again, not to mention an old gray-beard in a straw hat and a group of college girls in yoga pants who remind me of Jenny before she went off the deep end. I set Bharadvaja on the empty chardonnay shelf. He gives me a peaceful smile that’s only partially distorted through the green glass.
The manager reappears from the storeroom with a box of Danzia in each hand. “Hell’s bells. Thought I said not to break anything.”
Customers gawk. Employees stare. Fluorescents hum.
Then Bharadvaja says: “Breathe, Melanie. Just breathe. Let’s meditate on light and love.”
I take deliberate sucks of air. I’m practically hyperventilating, I’m breathing so hard. The whole place stinks of sweet booze mixed with essential oils and armpits. “You’re right,” I say between breaths. “You’re always right. But that’s why you’re the guru.”
Now I assume mountain pose and breathe some more. When I’m ready, I inhale and stretch upward, expanding my chest and lengthening my spine. As I exhale, I reach down toward the floor, my back flat, palms to the laminate—never mind the spray of crushed grapes or shards of glass. Then I shoot my legs back, and I’m in plank pose. On the next inhale, I shift forward into cobra, arching my back and lifting my chest. I inhale again, and I’m in downward-facing dog, feeling the stretch in my calves and shoulders. As I exhale, I bring my feet between my hands, then ease back up into mountain pose.
As I breathe and move, everything becomes clear. My house will be a complete wreck when the last of Jenny’s party friends finally wanders off. Empty cups and broken furniture, sticky counters and soiled bathroom, sand everywhere. A vomit-stained rug. You can bet Jenny won’t be on her knees in rubber gloves, wearing out a scrubby sponge. And that’s if the place is still standing. Chances are, that guy’s wife will toss Jenny around the house, breaking windows and mirrors and framed photographs before beating her senseless. Then she’ll borrow Jenny’s Bic and torch my bungalow to the ground. And whose fault will it be? Not Jenny’s, of course. Nor Linda’s, though this was all her bright idea to begin with. There’ll be no one to blame but me.
Arnie’s already mopping up the wine and glass. The manager should be calling Santa Cruz’s finest, but she just stands there and watches as those college girls, along with several middle-aged women in Lololumen gear, set down their grocery baskets and follow me as I work my way into another sun salutation. I expect Bharadvaja to spiel about light and emptiness, but he says nothing. Maybe he ingested too much wine. Then I hear myself say:
“Now you’re tingling from your temple to your toes, free, light, and open.” I listen to the other women breathe as we ease into cobra together. They’re following my every move. As if, despite the circumstances, they trust me. As if I know what I’m doing. As if I’m the teacher they’ve always been hoping for. When we shift into downward-facing dog, I think I spot red-and-blue flashers in the parking lot, but it doesn’t faze me. I learned long ago that every action has a consequence. Now as I exhale, I say: “We’re all just trying to be where we’re at, as fully as possible.”
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (four times) and the Best of the Net Award. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he’s the Director of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Oregon State University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.