out-of-body-travel at thirteen
Chris yelled to me over the phone, “Ughhhhh! I hate that! My big sister just did something totally disgusting!”
I heard sneakers squeak and scuff linoleum, nails scrape denim, and a chair bounce on its wood back and thud like rubber. Then Sara laughed carelessly. After a hand-muffled yell, Chris apologized, “I’m sorry I left you hanging. She shoved her big fat ASS right in my face and farted!”
The phone got smothered again (by who?) and Sara yelled, “Liar!”
“Get away from me — you big fat — NO!” Another thud, and Sara laughed bitterly.
“You’ll pay for this” he warned.
She thought he was threatening to tell on her and called him, “Cry-baby.”
After a long silence he asked, “Can I call ya back, later, Alec?”
Their love-hate for each other smoldered all the time. Partly it was because she was a senior and we were only eighth graders. It was like me fighting what my big brother called a “rival sibling,” meaning himself — the showoff. When they weren’t killing each other, they were so close that they thought the same thoughts the way twins can. When they were killing each other, it was terrifying because their hearts were really in it. In the end, it pushed me over the edge, too.
Sara’s class tortured our class at will. We were labeled the Troubled Underachievers year. All our teachers, the principal — even the guidance counselors — compared us to my brother’s class above Sara’s, and even their older brother Tom’s class beyond theirs. We had fewer honors students, dimmer all-stars, and lesser geniuses. Worse yet, a bunch of us in the accelerated section had “rival siblings” ahead of us, so we even looked like little versions of them.
Once on the after-school bus, two ninth grade field hockey stars, Sara’s teammates, spotted me across the aisle. Wendy the pretty blonde smiled, “Hey, are you Little Yo?”
I’d never heard my belittling name before, but she smiled so nicely I said, “Uh huh.”
“Wanna read my button, Little Yo?” Her eyes fired gleefully as I nodded. Then she flipped her bright orange miniskirt up to show a big white button with some slogan pinned on the crotch of her orange panties. I was so shocked they exploded in laughter. Then she tilted her pelvis up to face me more, asking, deadpan, “Can ya read it?”
I nodded “Uh huh,” and she mimicked, “‘Uh huh,’” and then they roared so deliriously that they cried for, like, five minutes until Wendy’s friend pushed down the skirt and said, “You can close your mouth now, Little Yo.”
I hadn’t realized my mouth had dropped open. They roared till they snorted.
Yet I was lucky compared to Chris; he got teased even when I stayed over.
We saw too well (not to mention sometimes smelled) the seniors’ dirty underwear. We didn’t draw big bubble-letter versions of our names; we drew cartoons of domestic violence and plans for pipe bombs. We didn’t break magazine-selling records; we broke records for having illegal explosives. We didn’t read The Three Musketeers; we read Slaughterhouse Five. We suspected all greatness was fatally flawed.
But at least we could do things that would’ve looked too flaky for our “rival siblings.” Since we’d never be able to match the last years’ studies of genetic mutations in white mice or do dissections of lambs, we could do borderline stuff like Transcendental Meditation, which was what my friend Cheryl did. But she had this freedom to entertain nonwestern concepts not because the Science teacher respected her study of ancient ideas but because he didn’t respect her.
Anyway, the TM thing surprised everyone though it started quietly. A couple weeks before she’d asked Chris to be the guinea pig who would go into a TM state in front of the whole class but he thought I’d be better.
So Cheryl implored with intent, womanly eyes and said that on the big day all I had to do was lie down on the lab table and relax. She said she’d read four different books on it and researched its history and explained it as a truly empirical method of exploring inner realities. She was no dummy.
So the next thing I knew, I was hearing the class twist leftwards in all those right-handed desk-chairs to watch me stiffly lie down. I was actually intrigued by then.
Cheryl was lecturing from her notecards, “If western empirical methods do only objective tests, following ‘the scientific method,’ only things without subjective consciousness will be valid. This is the great blindness in western science.”
Mr. Rissinger frowned so hard you could hear the “F” getting etched into his big black grade book. “That’s an interesting point, Cheryl.... But it belongs in a discussion of philosophy, not science.”
So she had to apologize for questioning the validity of western science and cut off her introduction.
When she started talking to me, her voice surprised me because it sounded so smooth and mature as she told every muscle in me from my feet to my face to gradually release. Flipping slowly through her note cards, she painted this scene for me: I was hovering above a light green valley, a river shaking sun across its waves, grassy banks dotted with violet and orange-white flowers, fragrant buds in the trees, luminous clouds and streaming sun. It put me at peace, as planned. Even my right hand began to relax. But when she said, “You feel you can go anywhere you want,” her cards got stuck together.
“Oooops — Uhmmmm — uh, you — ah...” Just to fill the awkward pause, she ad-libbed, “Um, you can go anywhere you want.”
That was the last thing I heard — the fake valley was gone, and my class, the table, the teacher, and my body were elsewhere.... I felt the doors of the body opening and blowing apart like curtains.
I was walking a wide desert plain on a narrow path toward the bright red sun just over the horizon aglow with orange, violet, and deep blues, and there was a feeling that who I was there was not who I was here. The alkali floor was cracked, hard and warm, but the slight wind comforted me along the trek and I was not alone. On my right was a woman or man in a hooded robe — someone I’d never seen yet knew well, somehow, if I could only see. I felt the face would have been so calm because the peace I felt then was so much deeper than I was. It comforted me just to know such ways to feel could be, needing no words, no desires. I was free — the sky and dust were all I wanted. I began to see her face, began to see who she was, to feel how she felt — I would have stayed out there with her forever....
But then Mr. Rissinger prodded me, shouting so hard in my ear it ached, “ALEC! SNAP OUT OF IT!!!”
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I yelled, jolted up by the pain.
Cheryl asked with deep concern, “Where did you go? You were — out — for twenty minutes....”
There was supposed to be a follow-up interview in front of the class anyway, but Cheryl looked upset. So I told the whole class what happened – even Mr. Rissinger was stunned.
He stammered, hypothesizing quite creatively, for once: “Malfunctioning neurons... must have induced a vivid kind of dream.... Alec was sleeping probably. But it wasn’t verifiable, it wasn’t even TM. It was not a trance,” he pounded the table but persuaded no one. What he was really thinking, though, was that Cheryl and I didn’t have the discipline to do hard science like proving white mice like drinking sugar water more than piss.
The bell rang and everyone scrammed except Mr. Rissinger whose hard frown drooped under his dark mustache.
“Were you faking, Alec?”
“I — I swear — it happened.”
He closed in, his face one great glare. “Would you swear you were telling the truth?”
I stuttered, “Uh, I j-j-just did.”
Supremely annoyed, he declared, “Alec, you must’ve dreamed the whole thing,” and stalked out.
Cheryl shrugged him off, then laughed nervously.
“Oh. I just remembered... Alec, I don’t wanna embarrass you or anything, but everyone saw, so I oughtta tell ya.... You — you were — standing out a lot.”
Her eyes fell away, suddenly coy.
I was mystified, so she blurted, “Uh, I mean, for a while you got an erection....”
“Whaddaya mean — everyone?”
“I think that’s why Rissinger believed you.”
“Oh no! And whaddaya mean — for a while?”
She gently prodded me toward the door, “Twenty minutes, maybe?...”
She smirked, “You were ‘outstanding,’” she grinned and burst out laughing, “I didn’t know you had such a big talent!”
On a slightly more sympathetic note, Chris saw how badly I was shaken up — the bounds of my universe had been ripped apart. As we were walking between classes in the crushing hallway herds, I said, “I feel like I can’t pretend to be innocent about ultimate things anymore.... I feel like I’ve been drafted. Ya know what I mean?”
“Hmmm. I know what you mean. I felt that way after I saw my uncle Howie’s ghost. Nobody got it — how hard that was to be the only one.”
“Yeah, I don’t feel lucky or privileged. I feel like I’m being called to something, but the service to come isn’t going to be an easy. Plus, being out there, I could see how petty my ordinary self really was, ya know?”
“I know just what you mean....” Chris said, and then he cracked up, “Uhm — I mean, not that I think you’re petty or anything....”
There was only one other fluke exposure to another eastern meditative tradition in 8th grade. We instantly loved the energy of this one-day sub from California who was the stereotype Surfer — tall, blond, strong and tanned. He had no plan but to go outside, sit us in a circle in the sun, pass around a “secret word,” the mantra Namihyo renge kyo, and start us chanting. He gave us so much respect he actually valued our time as if we were guests. He didn’t preach how the syllables would resonate down our selves’ essences and every things’ around. He just led us in the chant until our voices flooding the field entranced us, helping us forget where we were and that we’d have to go back to the same old crap. The sky unfurled intensely blue, the hot sun seemed to strike us into one celebrating choir. It was stunning to really feel something in school since who-knows-when! My voice hit harmonics in others’ vocal cords and others struck harmonics tingling spontaneously inside my throat. We soared so free the class flashed by, some girls even cried they felt so elated — my peers were suddenly people, not just kids I had to cope with all year. It seemed like summer again but with a deep joy buzzing in the air.
Then the bell rang — something like Algebra was about to happen in three minutes. Worse yet, we knew he wasn’t coming back.
Afterwards, for days I felt it was such a war not to lose all creativity. Chris realized more than anyone else how school kills. He was the only friend I had whose mind could be blown wide open by the way sunlight whitens the grass in the wind, the way elms sound when it rains, the way the muddy creek flows with green debris after a storm. The smell of grass and weeds that turned sickly sweet in spring and the light of clouds that vibrates till it stings — these were pure poetry to him stronger than any drug could be for insight into reality. (On the other hand, our wonderful families drove us to drugs later anyway....) We would’ve shriveled up without these ecstatic feelings. Chris, who wrote poems since he was ten, was also the only friend I had who thought my hand was a kind of a gift because it made me more thoughtful.
Once we were sitting in the lawn in front of the school and while pulling up some grass he told me, “Did you know that these grasses are immature? I mean, they get cut down before they can reach maturity and seed.”
“Uh huh,” I said, not getting his drift.
“Look, don’t you get it?” He stared into my eyes, “What they do to the grass every time they mow it is just like what they do to us.” I could tell he was sad.
“You mean, because they want to create order, they can’t let things just grow?”
“Yeah. They even talk about us like weeds — like we’re the bad ones. They even called kindergarten kindergarten.”
“Yeah, I never thought of that.”
“Yeah, and it pisses me off that they think these words are cute. Because what’s just a word to them is torture to us.”
“Because we have to live with what’s just an idea to them.”
He nodded, “Did you ever see grass that grew wild — like three to five feet tall? Did you know grass has a whole life-cycle it actually will go through if you don’t cut it back prematurely.” We were both thinking really hard as he said, “But for some reason American people keep doing this lawn thing....”
“It’s permanent youth, to them. That’s what they like about it. It never grows old the way it would in nature.”
“Yeah, and like grass, they keep us all around the same height, despite the individuality bullshit they spoonfeed us.”
It was obvious that it wasn’t going to be easy for us to be who we were. Though he was among the most gifted of athletes and thinkers in the school, he always felt intelligence was a burden. It was painful especially because low hopes hemmed us in on all sides.
So it was inevitable that one day Sara would push him over the edge. I was at their house one Saturday nobody was getting along. We were trying to get organized for this ride with Chris’ brother Tom who was old enough to drive. In the living room, Sara was sarcastic and condescending. She usually didn’t bother me, but this time when she overheard us talking about God, the soul, and reincarnation, she said, “Jesus Christ Almighty.... Listen to you two — The Saint and the Sinner.” She laughed at her own joke.
“Who asked you? And who’re you calling the Sinner?” Chris fumed.
“Oh. Well. How about the Genius and the Goddess....” she sneered.
I could’ve felt offended, but it didn’t mean anything to me. But Chris’s temperature rose – his face reddened. I was about to say something, but he snapped, “Stay out of this, Alec.”
He looked at me and I saw anger in his eyes like a hard, bright, blue light. I reminded him we’d planned to go somewhere anyway, and Tom who was finally ready shouted from his room, “Chris! You gonna just talk all day or are you going to do something?”
“Well we’ve been waiting for you long enough!” he shouted back.
So we went outside and climbed into the van.
“God, it pisses me off when she talks that way! Especially to you. I never act that way to her friends!”
“I don’t care what she says.”
To our surprise, Sara climbed in front next to Tom who was driving. This upset Chris even more because she hadn’t wanted to go before.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Chris demanded.
Putting the little van in gear, Tom said, “I’m gonna drop her off at her friend’s.”
Chris stared coldly at the back of Sara’s head, commanding, “But you’re gonna take us to the tennis courts, first.”
“Take me first. I asked first,” Sara reminded him, and when Tom nodded, she stuck her tongue out at Chris. Then she added, “Besides, I don’t wanna be seen in the same vehicle with them.”
“Oh, well — kiss my royal ass,” Chris said.
“You’re such a pervert you’d love it.”
Tom shouted, “Shut up, the both of you! Or nobody goes anywhere.” Tom took his foot off the gas and the van drifted a little too far left.
Frustrated, Chris implored, “Alec. Can you believe this?”
“Y’hear that, you two?” Tom shouted again, peering at us in the rear-view mirror.
“Whaddaya mean — us?” Chris was angry we’d somehow been blamed.
Tom pulled over. Now he was mad too, and he shouted about how he’d meant Chris and Sara, not Chris and me, and if anybody started a fight they’d get kicked out — especially us. Then just for aggravation he called us “wusses.” Chris took all this in with arms locked across his chest to stop the coming explosion. A mile later, Sara called us “homos” just for spite.
“At least I’m not a lesbian!” Chris shouted.
That did it — Chris lurched forward from his seat with his fist clenched, and she turned around laughing and challenging him, “C’mon...I can still take ya.”
Before he connected with a punch, I grabbed his arm at the instant he was winding up, and pulled him back. I caught him unawares — his muscles were hard as rock and he was so angry it made him too stiff to slip my grip. I hated restraining him because he only got madder. But I couldn’t let him pulverize her. I was able to just barely hold him back because he didn’t want to fight me too. I knew he felt terrible — I did too. She made it worse by slapping him, and when she hit him, he surged like a tidal wave. And just to be mean she called him a “pussy.” I thought my arms were going to fall off.
In a little while we got kicked out at the tennis courts and as Tom and Sara drove off Chris was still yelling at them. He was mad at me too, “Goddamn it! Why did you do that to me? How could you do that to me?”
I was so sorry I couldn’t say anything.
He grabbed one of the little elm trees by the asphalt court in the grass and started tearing down a thick branch. I was stunned — because he loved trees, and also because the branch was over two inches thick. Groaning and grunting, he snapped the branch after bending it to earth repeatedly. I wanted to stop him, but he wasn’t listening. He shouted with an agony that made him even madder. Even hurting the tree wasn’t helping.
My body felt like lead poured into a statue. It was so awful to see him this way, and to have added to his pain was unbearable. The pain was so overwhelming that I snapped — like a branch — and was released.
If a tree had a soul that flew away when its boughs were broken, it would have felt what I felt then. The sky absorbed me like a breath exhaled. Beyond the cars, blacktop, cinderblocks, glass and careless passersby, a peace held me like a cloud sustaining an ice crystal in its mist. I felt like a sapling that suddenly remembers its ancestor forest, its millions of green lives in each tree, each rooting into other lives, and each racing rival life-forms: parasites grinding pulp leaves to worms’ food, warm and cold-blooded voices, mammals moved by rage, hunger, lust, fear. My spirit understood each thing but was free from the struggle to endlessly be. The spirit that every body holds was one with me – for a while I was as free from “self” as I was from my body.
I saw my self with all its flaws before it could slam shut its gates of mind again — I saw what I was and what Chris was. He was so absorbed in rage he couldn’t see me. And I felt for him and even for me – fifty yards away and twenty below down there.
Then in the awful moment when hate gushed out of his heart toward my empty body, he realized he was looking at the shell of me. Suddenly he knew better and stopped. He was so sorry as he came back to his senses.
I had to choose to be thrown in the mess of life again, or I could stay in that higher peace. I wasn’t being prodded and yelled at like in Science class. And in that instant when the self shut its doors again, my body dragged me in its heavy wave, but the bodiless feeling still filled me like a sail. Chris was apologizing over and over. I felt tired, bewildered, and small. But because I was back in my kid self again, I was happy to see his face.