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Fear and Yoga in New Jersey
Nina was in the middle of yoga nidra with her nine oclock intermediate class when Debby Jacobs from the ten-thirty beginners ran in. Interrupting yoga nidra, as everyone knew, was a major breach of yoga etiquette. Even a beginner should know better. Nina closed her eyes and allowed herself a deep, long exhalation before deciding how to handle the intrusion. Ginseng candles were lit, Gaelic flute music floated up from the speakers of a portable CD player, and all seven members of the class lay flat on their backs as they imitated corpses. If there was one thing that distinguished Ninas classes from the dozens of other yoga classes available locally, it was the hard-wrought serenity achieved during yoga nidra—the practice of complete relaxation—which took up the last five minutes of each class. Nina was strict about no giggling or whispering—even in the classes filled with writers, who never wanted to shut up, ever. It was a time of rest and regeneration. But there she was, Debby Jacobs, bringing all her Russell terrier energy into the studio and positively gyrating with excitement.
Nina placed a silencing finger on her lips. Already Anita Banschek had popped open a curious eye.
In an exaggerated pretense of civility, or else her interpretation of Marcel Marceau imitating a burglar, Debby tiptoed over. “I really didnt want to interrupt,” she said. “I knew youd be mad. But”—she lowered her voice and made the universal gesture for waves, or a snake, maybe—“theres a flood in the waiting room.”
It had been barely three weeks since Nina moved into her new yoga studio, in the swankest part of town, where brick crosswalks set in a herringbone pattern provided safe pedestrian passage for the blond wives and children of the rich men who took off for New York every morning on the 5:58, the 6:27, and the 7:03 to move massive amounts of other peoples money around.
The shopping district was in one of the older Essex County towns, where, with the exception of a few gaucheries like Dunkin Donuts, things looked pretty much as they had for decades: parking meters, alleyways between Tudoresque buildings, a movie theater whose old-fashioned marquee was protected by a historic preservation commission, and street planters carefully tended by a committee of shopkeepers. The timeless effect was reinforced by a towering verdigris-edged public clock, the old-fashioned analog kind with hands that swept around in a circle as they counted off the dull suburban hours, paid for by a local jeweler in business for three generations and now part of the townships official logo.
The commerce, in this part of town anyway, tended toward goods and services that pampered and cosseted. Except for the contents of one hardware store (specializing in brass house numbers and Ralph Lauren paints) and one deli, there was nothing for sale that anyone could possibly consider a necessity. If, on the other hand, you were looking for candlesticks in the shape of fez-wearing monkeys and were willing to pay $183, youd come to the right place. But for the occasional thirtyish male with shaved head and tiny glasses tapping away on a screenplay in Starbucks, the district might be a sorority composed of women twenty-five and up. The younger ones jogged after infants perched in special aerodynamically designed chariots. Women a bit older held the tiny peanut butter-smeared hands of toddlers who had known only toys made of wood and natural fibers. Women in their thirties or forties, wearing impossibly small jeans and talking on cell phones, darted into hair salons and therapist offices, running hard to accomplish whatever they could before three oclock, when they turned into taxi services for lacrosse-playing, karate-chopping, Irish step-dancing, back-talking offspring. Women old enough to have grown children emerged from expensive German cars, bearing shopping bags almost always destined for return.
This wasnt Ninas milieu, not exactly, though it was comfortable enough. It did make her a bit self-conscious of her peasant ancestry, of the fact that her hair was black and coarse and puffed up at the slightest hint of humidity and that, no matter how much yoga she did, her body tended toward the zaftig. In fact, the neighborhood was kind of a WASP version of the Long Island town where shed grown up—although she liked to think shed outgrown all that and arrived at a more enlightened place. Shed been raised in Princess territory, bred to marry a dentist like her father, and had been bestowed with a Bloomingdales card, her very own name embossed and capitalized across the bottom, at her sweet sixteen party—equipment for honing the shopping skills critical to the Long Island Jewish matriarchy to which she was supposed to aspire.
Alas, those aspirations were dashed in twelve short weeks during her sophomore year at Brandeis, when she took a life-altering womens studies class. It all started with Anna Mae Babcock, a pioneer woman whod lost two children to whooping cough in the summer of 1817, whose diary was assigned as an example of the rare primary source that recorded “herstory” rather than “history.” Nina had known, of course, about the tragically high rate of child mortality, but shed assumed that there hadnt been too much grief, because such deaths were so common. Anna Maes diary put an end to that misconception. Then she read stories of Chilean women whose husbands had been taken in the middle of the night by the henchmen of Augusto Pinochet. As Nina read of their terror and their bravery, their fearless demands for answers as they sought their husbands remains, Nina began to see her own life for the silly two-dimensional cartoon that it was.
When she came home that year for winter break, Nina was determined to interview her bubbe about the pogroms in Russia. But Ninas mother dismissed the idea with a wave of the hand. “Who wants to remember all that?” she said. “Please, she gets agitated.” Later, when Nina saw her mothers cleaning woman, a Guatemalan named Feliz, down on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, she tried to liberate her on the spot. “You dont have to clean rich peoples houses just because youre of color!” Nina said. “You should go back to school, get a degree.” But Felizs command of English was marginal. “You want colors done? Laundry?” she asked, running upstairs to Ninas hamper to put in a dark wash.
Nina shopped for new clothes during that break, haunting thrift shops and adopting a new uniform of long skirts, gauze blouses, man-style work boots. She stopped wearing gold, which broke her mothers heart, preferring instead chunky jewelry made of silver and turquoise. After college, she moved to a Brooklyn neighborhood her parents found menacing, worked at jobs they considered dead-end, and decorated her rooms with a series of parental castoffs that otherwise would have gone to Feliz.
The migration from Brooklyn to New Jersey, a few years after marrying Michael, wasnt so unusual. It was a well-established route, trod by many earlier pioneers, so she was reassured that there would be organic food co-ops and used book stores when she got there. It helped that the town was a shade-dappled place with fine wraparound porches and old-fashioned rose-covered trellises, much sought after by filmmakers and people who made TV commercials, and unlike the suburb she grew up in, her adopted town had black people. The integration of the public schools was almost as much a matter of civic pride as the fact that there were six Thai restaurants in town. True, she wasnt the renegade shed been in her twenties, but she prided herself on being a good citizen of Mother Earth. She drove a Prius, recycled religiously, eschewed synthetics, shopped organic, drank bottled water, and bought all her stationery from third-world countries.
And she taught yoga. What could be more vital in todays stressed-out world? Shed started when Adam went to full-day kindergarten, and had made a lovely studio in the attic of her house. But it was cramped; she could have only three students at a time; heating and air-conditioning were problematic. Nina had decided last spring, after a consultation with a highly regarded tarot reader, to expand her business and shed been looking for space on the grittier end of town, or what her bubbe would have called the schvatze neighborhood, where the hair-braiding joints and check-cashing establishments were, but which had recently attracted an upscale French restaurant that had gotten a good review in the Jersey section of the New York Times.
But this space, her new studio in the posh end of town, had opened up quite unexpectedly and was just too good to pass up. It had last been occupied by a ballet teacher, now facing child-endangerment charges, whod had to vacate rather suddenly after it came out that shed slapped some of her young students. The landlord, wanting to put the scandal quickly behind him, let Nina pick up the lease at a bargain price. It was a lovely space, with tall floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows, which infused the second-story room with a serene light. As a former ballet studio, the space had floors that were already gleaming, a polyurethaned light oak, and the wall opposite the windows was fully mirrored, adding to the sense of openness and light, and allowing her students to see how their poses actually looked.
It took almost nothing for Nina to convert the space, just a small outlay for yoga mats, pillows, and blankets. Shed also put a nice sisal rug over the ugly linoleum floor in the waiting room to add some warmth, picked up a Tibetan fabric wall hanging, and found some simple chairs in a birch veneer from Ikea. The final touch, the one thing shed hoped to provide the enchanting entrance to her studio, was the chakra meditation fountain, which shed ordered over the Internet and which, she supposed correctly, was causing the flood.
Michael Summer took his pink slip, which actually wasnt pink at all but a regular white 81/2¥11 inch piece of paper, creased it down the middle, folded each side into a nice flap, folded it again to create wing tips for additional lift, and touched the pointy little nose with pride of craftsmanship. Then he walked out onto the control towers weather observation deck and launched the plane in the general direction of the tarmac.
Just an hour ago, hed been on autopilot, driving down the Parkway with his windows down because it was unseasonably warm and the air-conditioning in the ten-year-old Honda was still broken, then rolling them up as he passed the fried chicken joints and liquor stores of Irvington. The four blocks of ghetto were part of his route because the highway engineers had been too stupid or cheap to build an actual eastbound exit ramp from the Parkway to I-78. Thirty minutes ago, hed typed his user name and password into the system and discovered, three times, that it was no longer providing him entry into the airlines dispatch system. Twenty minutes ago, hed called his supervisor to find out what the hell was going on, and just a minute ago, hed been handed the piece of paper informing him that his job had been outsourced. To the frigging Philippines.
Apparently anybody, anywhere in the world with a working Internet connection and who knew how to read a synoptic chart, could do Michaels job: letting the pilots and air dispatchers know whether it was safe to put planes into the air above Newark.
The paper airline sailed effortlessly for about thirty feet, after which it spun several times and nose-dived onto a black tar roof. The crash destroyed the planes fuselage but still the breeze picked it up and carried it onto the ground. Michael watched as it rolled and bounced toward the runway like a paper tumbleweed, and then stared out for a long while after it disappeared. It was the first time hed made a paper airplane since he was a kid.
He turned to the process of clearing his desk. A lackey from the airline had already brought him a corrugated box to pack everything in. There was a pictogram on the box showing a person putting items from a desk into a box and waving good-bye. Amazing. They actually manufactured packing crates just for downsizing. People were employed in some factory somewhere at this very moment making boxes expressly designed to cart off other peoples careers. Strange, and strange, too, that he should be packing already, just minutes after being told his job had been eliminated. Hed expected two weeks notice. Wasnt that the American way? Two weeks vacation, two weeks notice? But apparently, the last thing anybody at an airport wanted in this age of terrorism and office shootings was a soon-to-be-terminated employee hanging around with an airport ID and a fat grudge. He was told to be out before lunch, although his compensation package, of course, would run for several months.
There wasnt much to put in the box. A photograph of Nina and Adam on vacation in Cape Cod, his prize nineteenth-century nautical barometer, some swag hed picked up at weather conventions—key chains and mouse pads advertising various online weather services. Everything else, everything he used to ply his trade, was online, on the computers. Michael remembered what his father had said, all those years ago, when hed been deciding between joining the merchant marines and enrolling in the atmospheric sciences program at Penn State. “You always have a job with a career in meteorology, son. No matter what happens in this world, therell always be weather.”
His father was half right. There would always be weather. Only now, like everything else, it could be outsourced. He thought about calling Nina, but he didnt want to interrupt her day. To be honest, he really didnt want to tell her at all. She was already anxious about money, more so since shed started paying rent on her new yoga studio. No, after he was packed, hed just go home. Nina could wait until dinner to find out.
Michael stopped at the door and put his box down for a minute, looking back at all the guys with their headsets and their computer monitors, all busy in the process of landing and launching planes, and took a second to freeze the image before he walked out. Charlie Kavorski, Ed Halloran, Jack Knutson, guys hed known for years. Hed taken phone messages from their wives, listened to their vacation stories, given them cigars when Adam was born. He couldnt believe this was it, his last time in the control tower.
Charlie Kavorski looked up from his monitor and flicked Michael a tiny salute. Michael saluted back, then bent down for his box and left.
“Continue with your yoga nidra. Ill be right back,” Nina said to the class, before allowing Debby Jacobs to lead her into the waiting room. Debbys step had a little premature victory in it, as if she were an eight-year-old whod just pulled her mother away from the stove to tattletale on a misbehaving sibling. Flood? Nina was sure Debby was making a big deal out of nothing. Someone had probably spilled a cup of tea.
Yet, sure enough, when Nina entered the waiting room, she found her ten-thirty beginners all perched on top of chairs, looking as if theyd just smashed through a roof and were awaiting rescue from a hurricane. “There!” Debby said, vindicated, jutting her chin in the direction of the gushing fountain.
There was already an inch of water on the floor, rising quickly, and Nina saw that it was almost to the level of the electric outlet shed plugged the fountain into. Worse yet, she was in charge. In a jumble, the situation presented itself to her brain: Water! Electricity! She knew they shouldnt mix, but she didnt have time to puzzle the situation out. Reaching down to unplug the cord seemed foolhardly. And yet if she didnt . . .
Nina grabbed the cord and instantly felt an unholy tingling, as if shed just been struck by a giant tuning fork. A split second later she was up on a chair herself, with the rest of the class, looking down as the plug thrashed, sizzled, and sputtered in the puddle below.
So this is how it was to end. She was going to die, along with her entire ten-thirty beginners class, electrocuted by a meditation fountain.
Breathe, Nina told herself. Breathing was the simple admonition she always relied on in a crisis, and yet strangely, at this moment, it didnt seem to help. Still, she couldnt afford to fall apart. She was the teacher, the guru. And, more ominously, the proprietor. The one who would get sued. Or prosecuted? Nina quickly scanned the room. They were still all there, on the chairs, more wide-eyed than ever, but alive. Thank God for small miracles.
But now, ridiculously, she was stuck atop an Ikea chair, looking down at the lethal brew, knowing that at any moment her intermediate students could get up from yoga nidra or more beginning students could waltz in. Nina calculated the distance between her chair and the studio door, and planned a Tarzan-style leap. Yes, she could do it. She could leap off the chair, push open the door, and land, safe and dry, in the studio. And then what? She didnt know, but something would come to her.
“Ill be back,” she yelled to the troops before her jump. “Stay out of the water.”
Nina executed her leap, throwing her weight against the door, then tumbling back into the studio with a leaden thump. Several of the corpses lifted their lazy heads, but Nina (ever the yoga teacher) signaled them to continue resting. She longed to join them herself, to pull up a mat and lie down, not to be the one in charge of this emergency. Instead, she grabbed a blanket off Sue Kasdon, who was always complaining about hot flashes anyway, ran back out to the waiting room, and threw it onto the floor. The water slowly bubbled up through the blankets natural fibers, drawing patterns in little continents, which grew and connected to each other until the whole blanket was one sopping mess. She stood there, allowing the blanket to do its job, and when she was convinced that the electric cord had stopped writhing, Nina picked up the fountain and dragged its dribbling hulk down the hall to the ladies room. It was a very bad sign that her new chakra meditation fountain, purchased to consecrate her new studio, had caused a nearly lethal flood. What, she wondered, had she done to aggravate the universe?
It was the day before Lisa Epsteins bat mitzvah, and the cafeteria of Central Junior High School was positively thrumming with anticipation. The girls were talking about how much they would dress up, the boys about how much they could dress down. Mara Peebles and Jenna Heller had appointments for manicures and pedicures right after school, but Lisa easily topped that, announcing that local cosmetics mogul Bobbi Brown herself was coming to Lisas house at seven-thirty Saturday morning to personally apply her bat mitzvah day makeup. A few unpopular kids, on the wrong side of the social divide, moved peas around with their forks, hoping no one would notice their silence. Being on the guest list for Lisa Epsteins bat mitzvah was crucial, this being the first big social event of the fall, way bigger than the back-to-school hoedown organized by the parent-teacher association to welcome the new seventh-graders, bigger even than the first school dance, planned for Halloween. It wasnt that anybody relished waking up early on Saturday to sit for hours in synagogue; it was the party Saturday night that mattered. And it all mattered because of who Lisa Epstein was, Central Junior Highs answer to Paris Hilton.
Lisa was big. Big meaning tall, big meaning popular, big meaning developed. And big because it was rumored, and probably true, that Lisas father worked as a lawyer for Joey “the Undertaker” DeFilippo, who was now, despite Mr. Epsteins best efforts, in the middle of a twelve-year stint in Leavenworth. DeFilippo was reputedly the most important Mafia figure in Essex County and supposedly the inspiration for TVs Tony Soprano. It was widely believed that mob money had paid for the Epstein familys Costco-proportioned house and pool, as well as the horse that Lisa boarded at the stables in West Orange. Lisa, of course, did nothing to dispel such rumors. It was, in fact, a Lisa Epstein legend that when the assistant principal took away her cell phone in sixth grade, shed fixed him with a defiant stare and said, “You know, I could have you killed.” Shed come to school with a new, tinier cell phone the next day, and the assistant principal, over the summer, accepted an assignment as a wrestling coach and gym teacher at a high school in Morris County.
Lisas bat mitzvah invitations had been colossal, almost the size of the things Adams parents called record albums. There was $1.82 in postage on each one, and when you opened the envelope, gold-colored confetti exploded out like July Fourth fireworks. Luckily, Adam had made the cut. One of the monster invitations had shown up in his mail, and the confetti had spilled all over the living room floor. So, of course, had Adams best friend, Philip, who stood seven inches taller than Adam and who, because of his height, affected the bearing of someone much older and more sophisticated. Philips pedigree also included being the son of a former foreign diplomat (now at the UN) who had lived in Paris, Geneva, and Moscow. So it was hardly surprising that Philip was now explaining, for the benefit of those poor benighted eighth-graders whose parents had not served as foreign diplomats, what exactly did and did not constitute black tie.
Philip also spoke with authority because he was Jewish, 100 percent. Adam, on the other hand, was only half Jewish, and his mother was anything but proud of her heritage. Nina Gettleman acted as if being Jewish were something to outgrow, like Long Island, or a speech impediment. When she saw Lisa Epsteins big lavender invitation and the residue of glitter it had deposited over the living room floor, shed shaken her head in disgust and announced to Adam that thirty-six dollars was all she planned to write a check for. Lavish bar and bat mitzvahs, Adam knew, set his mothers teeth on edge. Which was just part of the reason why, after shed married a non-Jewish husband and had a child, shed joined them up to be members of the local Unitarian Church.
“And if you want to rent a tuxedo, youre going to have to do it with your own money.”
Adam, who didnt like to dress up even in a suit, had no interest in renting a tux for Lisa Epsteins bat mitzvah. In fact, hed been wondering whether he could wear a baseball cap in the synagogue, rather than a yarmulke. Now he was discovering that Philip not only planned to wear a tux to the nighttime party at the Mountain Edge Chalet, but he owned one.
“No baseball cap,” Philip said. “And Ill lend you the tux I outgrew in fourth grade.”
Suddenly, to Adams relief, the conversation lurched in a much more interesting direction. How much money, Chris Atalier asked, did people think Lisa Epstein would get?
“No way,” said Philip. “Asa Samuelson got eight thou, and his parents dont live in a mansion. Think about it. These mob guys, they give out envelopes filled with fifty-dollar bills at regular old birthday parties. Dont you watch The Sopranos? And theres all her rich relatives, too. Twelve thou. Minimum. And I wouldnt be surprised to hear twenty.”
Chocolate milk spurted from Adams mouth. “What?”
“Oh, believe it, my friend,” Philip said, handing him a napkin.
“And how much are you, you know, are your parents, um, giving her?”
“Oh, a hundred. Thats standard.”
Adam gulped. That was sixty-four dollars more than his mother planned to give, and he couldnt exactly take a check written by his mom and cram extra cash into the envelope. What a racket, he thought, having a party and then charging people to come.
Copyright © 2008 by Debra Galant. All rights reserved.
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