There are some places that just don’t look right when viewed in the light of morning. The main stretch of Angelwood had a washed out white light and sat at a tilt; all the storefronts seemed to lean drunkenly in at you when you looked straight down it. Morning made a deserted fairground out of the streets. It was almost embarrassing.
I was doing what anyone with a a brain would do in Angelwood at ten in the morning. Anyone who wasn’t wisely still asleep under cover of absolute darkness. I was sitting in a bar, leaning against the corner of the wall, drinking coffee and wearing big square-shaped sunglasses. I was scratching absently at yesterday’s newspaper. Someone had left it there on the table, and I liked the way the fibers felt under my fingernails. I was making steady progress at fusing the paper to the stale beer on the tabletop, kneading at it with my knuckles like I was making a grave rubbing, planning to peel it back to delight in the crackling, and my middle knuckle happened to rub over the date in the heading: the 31st of August. So -- September again.
During the autumn I always, even as a kid, felt a nostalgia that was somehow older and sadder than my own memories. It manifested in strange stomachaches that left me without an appetite and had no remedy except for laying flat out with the windows open, or sitting on a park bench somewhere, and trying to let the feeling build up so large until I could surge over the top of it like I was riding the crest of a wave and just float into shore. Sometimes it could take hours to get to that point so I usually just crammed it away somewhere, and the next time it came it would be multiplied by its predecessor. I didn’t even feel a twinge of it now -- but I wasn’t fooled. Heady August heat still presided here, in the stale beer and smudged mirrors behind the bar, and in the way even the sensation of drinking piping hot coffee seemed to meld with the rest of the heavy atmosphere and body heat and strange smells of summer in the city. The minute coffee began to taste clear-cut against the backdrop of a real, cool, fall morning I would be really in for it, considering how the past month had gone for me. But not now.
A couple of collegiate boys of the touristy sort swung their way in. They leaned over the bar on their elbows and ordered bloody marys. I was irritated by their presence and watched them through the dark lenses of my sunglasses. They clattered barstools and sprawled themselves out like young European aristocrats in an oil painting. I ripped at the corner of my newspaper and pretended to be completely unaware of their existence whenever either would glance in my direction.
I wanted to leave the bar. But going home was out of the question. By this time, my roommate would be awake and in the full throes of her daily rituals.
It had only been a month since I’d moved into the rented house at the edge of the neighborhood and it made me uneasy to think about how quickly everything had changed. How much I had changed; there were days I felt so untethered from myself it was like I had been loosened from my body and drifted away into August haze; I pictured a shimmering outline of my body rippling in the sky like a lost balloon.
One of the boys sauntered past me. As he passed, he let a cocktail napkin drift on top of my newspaper. He turned his head to look at me for just a second before he shouldered into the bathroom, with a suggestive one-sided grin. I looked down to see a message written in boyish scrawl, and a phone number.
I crumpled the napkin, stabbed around in my bag for cash to cover the coffee, and left the bar.
To understand how I was feeling that day, you have to understand how I started. I won’t bore you; I’ll start right at the crucial point, the mark in the path which initiated the loosening of my old self from my body. Which was the first of August when I moved into the house at the edge of Angelwood.
I will tell you how I got to live in the house in the first place. Nigella set it all up for me. She was one of those rare, saintly people who take it upon themselves to provide and plan for their friends without thinking about it. She knew I needed a place to live, and a job. And she said she’d ask around about a job but that she knew for certain a girl called Coral, who sometimes also went by Coralee or Cassandra, had just had a room open up in one of those little historic houses in Angelwood that still had all their original wood lattice work and crumbly brick fireplaces and lead-paned windows. Nowadays it was a neighborhood for slightly offbeat people, artists and alternatives and goths and career bartenders. Being an artist I thought it sounded like a good idea. I could live there for a while, make friends with the local characters, soak up the raw creativity there, sit by a real fire at night and write poems.
The first time I met Cassandra (that’s how she introduced herself to me), I almost backed out. Nigella had warned me ahead of time that she had a kind of off-putting nature, but that wasn’t it. I don’t usually mind people who make other people uncomfortable. It was because of the way she looked.
It was also, paradoxically, because of the way she looked that I ended up taking the room after all. I never told her that. I try to be open and unashamed about my feelings, but there are a few things that I can’t tell anyone because I’m scared if I say them out loud that they’ll open up this locked little box inside of me and let out horrible things into the world. I keep them with me because I think it’s important to have that inner dynamism -- that these dark, undefinable feelings will bring out by contrast the exact opposite feelings. So in some perverse way, by living with Cassandra, I thought I was doing something good for myself.
And I was full of optimism at the beginning. The house was beautiful and old and full of material for imagination. Any new home is a little like that -- it hasn’t yet been contaminated by all your possessions with their histories, and all of your habits and banalities, so it’s just a dwelling place for a dream. It’s a dream of a house rather than a house. That lasts about a few days and then somehow the old annoyances seep back in. But the first few days felt fresh and lovely while I took my time settling in and getting to know Cassandra.
I remember clearly that it was the 6th when I got an uneasy feeling that I’d made a mistake. It was tied to my earlier hesitation about putting my name on the lease because of the way Cassandra looked. And this time it was because of something she said.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to me like a person who’s looking for something that’s hard to find. Almost impossible to find.”
It set off a chorus of ringing alarms in my mind. I stumbled to answer and gave some vague, unoffensive answer. And that was when she first told me about the rituals.
“There’s something I’ve been working on, a process that I’ve developed over some years, and it’s hard to do, and not many people understand it. But to get there I have to go into this state. Like a trance. I bet you’ve wondered by now about the furniture in the house -- how it’s arranged?”
She went on to detail the steps it took to reach the trance state -- all with this unclear, circular logic. From what I understood that day, it relies upon two principles: uninterrupted repetition and careful positioning of objects. The furniture’s arrangement had to do with both. Cassandra needed to pace around the house in perfect concentric circles without obstruction -- consequently, all the furniture was stationed at unconventional points and angles in the room. The furniture positions also had something to do with energy flow in the house, which sounded a bit like feng shui, but made less sense -- she kept mentioning the phrases “vital impulse” and “intimate geometry.” Finally, in keeping with the theme of repetition, she repeated a mantra, not speaking it aloud, but mouthing the words and keeping it at the forefront of her thoughts. She wouldn’t tell me the mantra -- it belonged only to her, and in theory anyone who performed the rituals would have their own.
I don’t think it’s possible to understand what happened without actually experiencing it, which I did, after that, and other times that August. It’s the difference between reading about a tiger and facing a tiger in its natural environment, without a sturdy enclosure between you and it, and feeling and experiencing its pure, unaffected being. Because really all she was doing was pacing around the room in concentric circles and mouthing an unknowable mantra. I can’t possibly convey the sense of urgency that was created when I witnessed it -- an urgency that thrust my mind into a great spiral-shaped Odyssean race whose object was quite unknown, a palpable pressure change in the room that was deep-reaching and going deeper with each circle like a corkscrew burrowing into sand, the air in the room effortlessly giving way to reveal older and ever more agitating layers of feeling. It felt like being trapped in a whirlpool that gripped both my mind and body, when all the while I was just sitting in my living room while my roommate walked circles and mouthed. But that’s what it felt like.
On the rare occasion she attempted to explain, in her roundabout way, the purpose, she drew from a stock vocabulary that served only to confuse me. Invariably the words “future” and “history” made appearances. “It’s about the future,” she’d said once or twice with obvious exasperation. I was feeling it, but I was not grasping it. This was one of the main reasons that our relationship soured -- other than my mounting fear -- slowly over the month of August. I didn’t have the one piece of the puzzle that would unite the others and make sense of the picture. And of course I refused to try the rituals myself, which offended Cassandra to her core. Because she was so passionately convinced of their essentiality. The closest I came to understanding was that by nature of the repetition and circular movements, her state of mind itself became layered and round, and she was able to see things -- things that had happened, things that might happen, all stacked on top of each other yet still part of the same round piece.
The worst part was that, even though I couldn’t comprehend the larger objective, I was still deeply affected by the changes in atmosphere. Even when I finally refused to stop watching the rituals, they continued to shape my moods and thoughts. My habits became more repetitive and fed into each other. Everything that wasn’t inside those ever-deepening concentric rings was negated by the round barrier that they formed around me. So by the beginning of September I had become so wound into this way of thinking that whole parts of me had disappeared. Just vanished.
In middle school and high school, I ran track with a girl called Marina. We were both good and made a game of one-upping each other. I can’t say too much about her. It’s one of those things that I keep locked up inside and am afraid to let out. What I’ll say is that she meant a lot to me; she meant a lot to many people. She was another rarity, the kind that everyone wants to uplift in some way, because they have something sparkling and true and a little heartbreaking that radiates out of them. If you believe in past lives, she was in her first -- a young soul searching for guidance and love with eagerness and sincerity. But she was also just like all middle-school girls, with the same wishes and aspirations and anxieties.
We became closest in our sophomore year of high school. We’d run around and around the track and we’d talk and talk. And it was right around this time, when we were most intertwined with each other, that she took a turn and began to change. She would say mysterious things and clam up when I asked for elaboration. She seemed more frantic; I remember how her forehead seemed to be stuck in a permanent crease of worry. And in our conversations she would fixate aggressively on lofty, conceptual, almost impossible plans for the future, tempered only by her long mournful recollections of the past. I had no idea how to handle such a rapid shift in behavior. All I could do was try to talk to her like I normally did. I still carry a sinking guilt about those final weeks that became so utterly devoid of everything that was essential about our friendship that I couldn’t even talk to her at all. Because she disappeared right before our junior year, at the tail end of an unbearably hot summer, and no one had been able to find her since.
And I think that was what unnerved me so when Cassandra said that I looked like someone who was searching for something impossible. Not only because I was still looking for Marina at every street corner, in every crowd, knowing in my heart that it wouldn’t be possible to find her. What Cassandra said to me that day sounded exactly like something that Marina would have said in those handful of months after her change, something that I couldn't hope to ever understand. Something that meant something else, with the meaning floating just beyond the edge of the words. When Cassandra performed her rituals, and spoke to me about them, it was like Marina had come back to me in a terrible form comprised of all the most frightening and confusing parts of her after her change. I experienced her disappearance and return simultaneously and constantly in the cyclical feeling that the rituals engendered in me. And I still couldn’t find the unifying piece that made sense of either of them, that would be able to soothe my teenage self, trapped still in me by helplessness and tortured by the inability to explain her disappearance.
And, the other thing that unnerved me about Cassandra. It was that she looked exactly like Marina.
Only once during that August I tried to move the furniture. It was a few days before the end of the month. I moved a bookshelf slightly because it was set at an angle near my bedroom door where it would always catch my toe. I also, secretly, wanted to see if Cassandra would notice. Of course, she did immediately, like a dog catching a scent. She yelled at me for the first time, and her anger was so very like Marina’s that I knew I couldn’t do it again. It was why I’d been spending more time outside the house lately, though it broke with my newly spiraled life. I was thinking about the bookshelf as I walked home from the bar and trying to remember not the aftermath of moving it, but actually moving it, how it felt. It’d felt like a test of something: my will, or Cassandra’s. I was trying to recreate the anticipation between thinking about moving it and deciding to move it, because it felt not like the exhausted nerves that had been plaguing me with their endless cycles, but almost like the good kind of nerves, that came before a first kiss or a track meet. Cassandra’s fury marred the memory, ripping it into pieces, but I found if I concentrated I could collect them and assemble a rough impression that almost returned to me as the feeling it had once been.
As I was putting together these scraps in my head, I arrived in front of the house, and I did something truly odd. I don’t really know why I did it. I’d never done something like it before or since. But I had a lighter on me, an old pink BIC that was almost dead. And flicking at the lighter, I concentrated on holding the pieces together in my head, trying to tape them together. And I knelt down at the foundation of the house where dry summer grasses and weeds were bursting through the wooden lattice. And I held the lighter out and watched as they began to burn and curl up, until one stayed lit. And it began to spread, steadily drawing in more grasses and weeds around it until it was blackening the edge of the lattice. And then the lattice was drawn in too. And I stood up and watched it for a few seconds. And then I walked away.
When Cassandra told me about the idea of the individual mantra, I tried for a few days to think of what my mantra would be. Everything I came up with sounded too contrived. But when I was walking away from the house a few words came surging to the forefront of my thoughts and I found myself mouthing them as they resounded in my mind.
I’m free. I’m free. I’m free.