Earth to Lydia

Earth to Lydia

Everyone took turns sharing their most recent purchases with the group. Sinead had brought a four-piece set of wind chimes that were handmade in the Pyrenees, then packaged and shipped from an Etsy shop in Maine. Our instructor, Martin, reminded Sinead that any objects that could be used for meditation purposes were not permitted. Roger, a recovering yogi from El Sereno, said that the sound of clanging wind chimes was deeply triggering, and that he felt Sinead's behavior was problematic for the group. Martin, sensing a breakthrough, encouraged Roger to explore those feelings.

"Go on, tell her how it made you feel."

"She's not taking this seriously. It's all a big joke to her," he said, dodging her placid, benevolent stare.

"Does it make you want to punch her?"

"If I'm being honest, a little."

"Sinead, what do you think about that? Getting punched in the face."

Sinead was leaning against the wall, eating loose homemade granola from a plastic baggie. "I would accept it with grace and love, my brother."

I didn't even know why Roger was here, he seemed fine. All his impulses were intact. I thought about whether I had the guts to punch Sinead and decided that I didn't, but that I would in time. I just had to be patient. Martin explained the importance of violence as an exercise in reclaiming power. He was extremely muscular for his small frame. Whenever he spoke, the vein in his forehead bulged. He worked out almost every day; he liked telling us about what he did and for how long. He was an amateur bodybuilder and studied Krav Maga under a supposed cousin of the master, Imi Lichtenfeld. He explained that he wasn't always this way—in the ashram in India, he'd been dangerously underweight. For seven years he'd swept floors, chanted Sanskrit, and washed the feet of his guru in total devotion to his practice. When he returned to the United States, he expected to meet fellow brothers and sisters of the Buddhist persuasion. It was Los Angeles in the nineties; people were into yoga and juice fasting. Instead Martin felt disoriented and chronically ill from the constant barrage of electromagnetic waves. After a few weeks of sleeping on strangers' couches, he found himself on the streets, until a non-denominational missionary group helped him land a job mixing paints at a hardware store. He liked to joke that he was high at Lowe's. This was one of many jokes he repeated to us. He said he never intended on working but felt that transforming consciousness required him to go straight to the source of human suffering (retail) to change people's hearts from within. He believed that liberating consumers would have a ripple effect of disrupting every aspect of modern life from corporate structuring to international supply chains, Wall Street, and the global economy.

It was in the paint department where he witnessed the way capitalism erodes the human spirit firsthand. Every day, it seemed, people wanted more and more paint. Customers would buy a gallon, then come back for more, covered in it. They could never get enough paint—"Paint to cover their McMansions!" he'd say. His impromptu sermons on the nature of reality started scaring away customers. One woman couldn't decide between Alabaster White or Chantilly Lace White, so he suggested she sit under a tree until she could sense no distinction between her body and the tree, the tree and the earth, the earth and the universe, and only then would the answer reveal itself to her. His supervisor, Dan, eventually reassigned him to inventory. What's worse—Dan mistook his morning meditation for napping. Napping! Martin had had enough. He could no longer function in a dysfunctional society; he had realized that achieving total spiritual enlightenment was too premature. People in the West weren't ready for it yet.

But just as he was about to return to the ashram to count grains of rice for his beloved guru, Swami Sivananda, he fell in love. At first, it was Sharon in Appliances, then Linda, Pam, and Maureen: gorgeous women with long mermaid hair woven in braids, or sometimes permed, or pulled back in loose buns—blondes, brunettes, or some hypnotizing combination of both. In the spirit of compassion, he'd lend assistance to any female employee he noticed attempting to reach for a product on a high shelf; if the woman had already climbed up a stepladder, he would offer to spot her. It occurred to him that he had never been in such close proximity to a woman's butt and felt a primordial urge to place his hands on her backside and squeeze. Surprisingly, none of them recoiled.

Among the staff, he had a reputation for being a loner and a delinquent, which endowed him with an air of mystery. He was intriguing, misunderstood. This clerical error on his social status offered him a banquet of carnal affection from the women on the floor. Once he'd finally touched a woman's butt, explored its buoyancy, the poetry of its curvature—he could not go back to the ashram. Swami Sivananda would not receive him. Touching women's butts was against the rules, even if it was just accidental or over the clothes. But the more butts he encountered, the more the world made sense to him, as is. He soon learned that making large sums of money improves your chances of touching a woman's butt, so he became a quick study: petty online scams just to get him going, then expanding into stocks and real estate. He even took up golf to network with powerful businessmen, pulling up in luxury cars paid for with stolen credit cards to look the part. The appearance of wealth afforded him access to a certain lifestyle and elite connections; "Fake it till you make it" was a motto he claimed to have invented. He applied a similar logic to working out, grooming, and dressing fashionably. Women loved the smell of his designer cologne: a concoction of pheromones, endangered tiger semen, and vanilla extract, illegally imported from Russia. Slowly, over time, he regained his senses and a lust for life. Wanting made him feel like a human again: not just a spirit incarnating a vulnerable meat suit, but a real, full-blooded American man. For example, Martin loved documenting his physical transformation by posting shirtless photos of himself on the internet. He loved getting comments and he loved commenting back.

Nice guns! an anonymous internet user commented.

Thanks!!!! #SWEATSACRIFICESUCCESSALLDAY, he'd reply with his signature hashtag that was too long to read. He sometimes added additional hashtags like #Nike #Adidas #Reebok #WorldCup #UFC #Olympics #ESPN hoping someone would one day notice and sponsor him.

But the Universe had bigger plans. Flexing in front of the gym's full-length mirror, he finally recognized himself. His happiness quickly soured into grief for the years he lost, and he dropped into a painful one-armed plank position to keep from crying. He suddenly wondered if full-blown ego annihilation had gone too far and if there were other people out there whose enlightenment had a negative impact on their quality of life. Cultivating one's soul consciousness made more sense against the serene backdrop of lily-pad ponds and ancient ruins, but America was spiritually impotent. The ego was its crowning achievement, its means of survival, its greatest evolutionary innovation. This led him to develop a program meant to re-assimilate ego-deficient beings back into society, through a combination of exposure therapy, role play, and aerobic workouts. We were the first group.

---

I waited for my turn in the sharing circle and looked down at my purchase, an overpriced ceramic dish from the popular home-decor giant Crate & Barrel. It was inscribed with the word inspire and an image of a blue whale. After careful examination, I concluded that the dish was useless. It was too small for soap, too delicate to carry food. It was the stupidest thing I could find. Looking at it made me nauseous.

When I showed it to Martin, he beamed. "We have a winner!" he said. "Lydia, stand up. Lydia, everybody." I could hear sporadic clapping echoing throughout the mostly empty auditorium of the Glendale Community Center. He explained that wasting money on frivolous things was our birthright, and that filling our lives with material excess helped to distract from the huge bummer that was our own impermanence. Denial and distraction were the best defenses we had against death. Martin continued on, relaying the four principles of happiness: status, wealth, pleasure, and vanity. He applied a specific affectation to represent the meaning of each. Rubbing his thumb across his fingers for wealth, raising his brows comically to convey pleasure as if we could not understand most things, including English. I took no offense; I could sense that Martin needed the validation. I liked that about him, how refreshingly human he was. He was so totally himself at all times. As he spoke, I zoned out and contemplated the particularly satisfying symmetry of the tiled flooring. The geometric patterns reminded me of the ecstatic oneness of everything.

"How does it feel to be number one?" Martin asked, at the end of class.

"Great," I lied. I felt nothing. Being the best at anything brought me no joy. I feigned a smile and zipped up my coat, then helped the others stack the chairs. As we stacked, I asked Levi, the oldest member of the group, what he thought of Sinead's wind chime stunt, knowing how much Martin encourages gossip among members. "It creates a healthy us-versus-them mentality," he'd explained. Levi just shrugged; as a lifelong Buddhist who'd taken too much acid in the sixties, he was trapped in a perpetual state of present, unable to access his short-term memory, leaving him in a tormented, unrelenting now. Instead, he described in great detail the community center's indoor air quality: "Notes of cardamom and exhaust fumes, industrial cleaner," he said before trailing off.

As we filed out of the auditorium, Martin announced next week's assignment: Lust. We all looked bewildered. We had just regained our sense of greed and wanted to explore it further. Roger had bought lottery tickets with our birthdays on them and Greta, our newest member, recently purchased a vintage sports car she could not afford. Before she became a practicing Buddhist, Greta was a renowned sculptor. Her pieces were sold at auction for six figures and she'd traveled all over the world to speak at various fine-art conferences and galleries. Despite her success, she'd suffered from debilitating migraines all her life and began meditating as a way to cope with the pain. Her daily meditation practice allowed her to loosen her attachment to suffering and, with it, her desire to make sense of her suffering through art. She started giving her work away and spent most days in a blissful, catatonic state. She eventually stopped working altogether and was forced to move back in with her parents where she focused her efforts on a community garden. The life she'd worked so hard to build was over, and she simply did not care. "Capitalism degrades the sensuality of the soul," she explained. "Wake up, sheeple!" she'd say until Martin intervened by dimming the lights and saying, "No, shhh, go back to sleep." It was a miracle she'd even come this far.

Greta's sports car was electric blue and sat low to the ground. She asked if anyone wanted to sit in the driver's seat and no one did. I thought for a moment that the pain in my chest was envy, but realized it was indigestion from the leftover banana bread Roger had brought for us earlier. We all watched Greta contort herself into the driver's seat of the compact car, scooping up the linen entrails of her pants leg before closing the door and driving off. I swore for a moment there, she looked genuinely happy.

---

When I got home, Nico was watching TV with Bethany on the sofa. Nico was my roommate who was still technically my husband, but I hadn't called him that in over a year. Sometimes I'd catch Bethany saying "husband" when she was calling to set up a family phone plan or when she was talking to her mother long-distance in Moldova, but Nico said they were just friends and that it didn't mean anything. I didn't mind at all. Ever since I learned how to Qigong, I no longer identified with pain and nothing ever really bothered me. Before I began practicing, I was a total mess. The old me probably would have killed Bethany by now. If she had a dog, I would've killed her dog, too. Now, every time I looked at her, it was as if I'd saved her from myself. How do you even begin to explain that to someone?

"What did you learn today?" Nico asked, his eyes fixed on the television. I walked toward the kitchen doing my Qigong in a manner that some might consider excruciating, depending on their level of attachment to how things ought to be. Breathing from the base of my spine, I slapped my limp arms from side to side to activate my chi flow.

"I learned that material objects elevate status and promote positive self-esteem," I said.

"Wow, that's great. I'm so proud of you," he said. Bethany raised the roof with her toned lifeguard arms.

Ever since my heart expanded to include all beings and not just Nico, he's treated me like a baby. I find this to be ironic since I'm ancient energy, temporarily bound to a decaying flesh suit that will once again be released back into the Celestial Body. He knew this; he took the online Expander Course with me but gave up on it once he reached the paywall. Even though I completed the course and achieved total mind/body enlightenment in just five years, I still subscribed to the weekly newsletter to hear from various ascended masters and disembodied beings like Baba Yee, who spoke through Rebecca, a teenage girl from Sacramento, or Rami Sheen, a third-generation shaman from Queens. I liked to know where my monthly donation was going. Nico thought it was a cult and worried I'd been brainwashed. He said he liked it better when I was a shopaholic. He said he missed finding hidden receipts in the vents but now all he finds are loose prayer beads and incense dust. I don't blame him. I suppose I put him through a lot, like that time I took us to a clothing-optional meditation retreat and he got a tick bite. We still don't know if he has Lyme disease or if he's always been like this.

Bethany asked if I wanted to watch a documentary on the social organization of termites with them, because she knew that I would say no, that I'd already watched it, that I'd recommended it to them two weeks ago. She does this because she wants to have sex, and I'd told her, "If you want to do it, just go ahead. I don't care, I celebrate it. Sex is a wonderful vehicle for enlightenment." Nico could use it; he was due for some temporary ego death. He'd been dealing with some body shame lately. His favorite jeans no longer fit.

"You know, when we used to have sex—" I began.

"Lydia!" shouted Nico.

"You're right. I'm sorry, I'll get out of your hair!"

I went to the bathroom and noticed Bethany's toiletries strewn all over the sink: a travel-size toothbrush, a tube of mascara, half-empty Sudafed chewables, used yellow cotton swabs, a mound of black hair wrapped around the bristles of a hairbrush, loose gummy vitamins, an expired Macy's card. The old me would not have handled the mess well, but the new me was making room for her in one of my personal drawers. Bethany bought extra-large tampons for her extra-large vagina. The old me would've probably judged her for this, but I'd come to realize it was probably more normal-size if you consider that the blue whale's vagina is so big, six people can fit inside it at once. Everything is relative.

---

That night I lay awake listening to their sex sounds in an attempt to reconnect with feelings of lust. I tried imagining their naked bodies wiggling in unison, but I knew it was just consciousness dancing with itself, no different than the sound of music or the laughter of children. Eroticism and taboo required a level of separateness I had yet to reintegrate. I listened as Bethany's reliably rhythmic moans transformed into a kind of mantra, each moan directing me into the infinite now. I noticed the way it changed according to her position, beginning strong, like a coyote howl, and then, suddenly realizing she'd overdone it and unable to sustain her enthusiasm, she pivoted to a breathy sigh that finally dissolved into a soft whimper. Nico remained silent, of course, until the very end when he released a violent grunt, muffled by a soft forest of black hair in his mouth. I sat up and tried to imagine their bodies in a pretzel formation on the sofa, resting into the empty stillness that followed. I felt nothing and this made me sad, which I noted was a feeling. I told myself it still counted.

Some hours later, I got out of bed to pee. Reaching for the bathroom light, I felt an arm. It belonged to Nico, who also had to pee. I should have known this; over the years, our cycles had synced up. The arm felt smooth. The arm had been shaved. Nico and his shaved arm couldn't see me in the dark and swatted my hand away as if it were a housefly. Startled, I let out a small animal noise.

"Lydia?" he asked, still half-asleep.

"No," I responded, "you're dreaming, this is a dream."

"I can see you," he said, turning on the light.

"What are you doing?"

"I have to pee."

"Go ahead, I'll wait."

As I peed, I could hear him crying on the other side of the door. Men with enlightened wives do this—they get girlfriends and take up tennis and shave their arms. They pretend it's fine, then cry suddenly in the presence of white noise of any kind: peeing, faucets, traffic, blow-dryers. They join chat rooms of other husbands who circulate a petition to legally recognize enlightenment as a psychiatric disorder but realize how difficult it is to convince the medical community of the dangers of excessive meditation. Nico nearly gave up until he saw Martin's flyer posted up on the community board at Trojan CrossFit:

NAMASTAY-AWAY: GET OUT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT!! DO YOU OR DOES SOMEBODY YOU LOVE SUFFER FROM EGO DEFICIENCY? I CAN HELP! SIGNS OF EGOLESSNESS: NO LONGER ENJOYING YOUR FAVORITE BAND, GIVING AWAY PERSONAL BELONGINGS AND/OR WEALTH, SUDDEN PREFERENCE FOR BREATHABLE COTTON WARES, BRALESSNESS WHERE THERE WERE ONCE BRAS, NEWFOUND FASCINATION WITH THE BREATH, LOSS OF APPETITE, LOSS OF LIBIDO, LOSS OF GUILTY PLEASURES, POOR HYGIENE, BORING PERSONALITY, ACCESS TO SPIRIT WORLD/OTHER DIMENSIONS, AND MORE!!! THERE IS HOPE. CONTACT MARTIN TO SET UP AN APPOINTMENT.

On my way out of the bathroom, I breathed in and smelled Nico's cologne. It smelled like tobacco and dried meats. I remember the smell from our first date, how rancid I thought it was. Over the years, I got used to it, loved it, and learned to recognize it as his signature scent so that whenever I smelled it on another man, I felt a misplaced arousal. But smelling it now evoked no reaction. I breathed in again to be sure. I looked at the smooth dark shape of him and said, "Good night," but what I meant to say was "I'm trying." Because I was.

---

At the next meeting, everyone seemed unusually sprightly. I chalked it up to the empty carafe of cheap coffee and the doughnuts, but upon closer examination realized it was something else. Martin had taken the group to get spray tans over the weekend and I'd missed the invite. "Did you check your spam folder?" asked Roger, his tangerine face glistening under harsh fluorescent lights. He looked healthy; they all did. "No," I responded, and really, I hadn't. I wouldn't have gone anyway, I have supersensitive skin. We sat around in a circle to talk about our wins for the week: Greta got her moles removed purely for cosmetic purposes, Roger bought a second expensive watch that was identical to his first watch, and Levi got an American Airlines points card with bonus air miles. Everyone was bettering themselves. I had nothing. When I brought up Bethany's sex moans, Martin asked me to reenact them for the group. I politely declined.

Martin prodded me further: "Lydia, what excites you? What really gets you going?"

"I don't know, loving awareness? Gratitude? Overcoming my fear of death?"

"Earth to Lydia!" Martin said, knocking his knuckles against the air above my head. The forcefulness with which he would pretend to hit us suggested to me that he really wanted to but legally could not.

For the next exercise, Martin dimmed the lights and put on a sensual R&B song about a man who loves a woman so much that he can only love her for one night; otherwise, he fears he will die of a heart attack. None of us had ever encountered a love so strong that it could kill a man, but we understood that artists take certain liberties in order to convey a universal experience. Your love's giving me a heart attack/I can’t come back/Love heart attack-ack-ack. Martin sang along. When he turned the lights back on, I caught several members of the group dabbing tears with their sleeves and the corners of their shirts. "Just beautiful," muttered Greta.

"Who here has been in love?" Martin asked the group while circling the perimeter with his hands folded behind his back. A few of us raised our hands. "So, you're all familiar with love." He nodded, using air quotes for both familiar and love.

"Guess what? Your unconditional love of all beings is naive!" he went on. "You wanna know why?" None of us did; we already knew what he was going to say. He'd recited this speech in some form or another before, with slight alterations and flair added each new time he said it. "Because real love isn't diluted. When you try to love everyone, you end up loving no one. Real love, my friends, is potent. Concentrated. Skin on skin," he said, rubbing his flat palms together to demonstrate.

"When I choose you," he said, pointing to Sinead, "I reject everyone else around you, because there is only you. You are my world." Sinead, visibly uncomfortable with being used as a prop for Martin's point, started to laugh uncontrollably.

Ignoring her, Martin continued with his hands on her shoulders. "Why is it that we love one person more than everybody else?"

Greta raised her hand. "Because we project our unhealed childhood trauma through another person who unwittingly acts as a parental surrogate, thus repeating the toxic cycle of abuse and codependency?"

"No, Greta! Pheromones!" shouted Martin. "Pheromones are nature's way of signaling us toward sexual pleasure!"

Greta nodded, writing the word pheromones in her spiral notebook.

"Now, I want to try something a little unorthodox. Lydia, take a look around. Do you trust us?" Before I could answer, Martin said, "Good, great. I want everyone to take a moment and write down something you don't like or find annoying about Lydia. It could be anything: her appearance, her personality, that annoying way she ends every sentence in question form. Feel free to get creative with it!"

Everyone began writing furiously; something about their group spray-tan experience had produced a tribal mentality. They seemed different, bolder somehow.

"What does this have to do with anything?" I asked.

He leaned in close. "Listen, do I come into your place of work and ask you about your business?"

I couldn't understand what he meant, so instead I tried to interpret the meaning through the girth of the vein on his forehead. It was like a silent scream. I looked away. Once everyone was finished, they took turns reciting their opinion of me:

"The only reason she's here is because she's in love with Martin. Maybe if she just admitted it, Martin would be open to it, who knows? Just sayin'."

"She was a huge bitch to me in my dream once."

"No one can pronounce her last name and I think she likes that."

"She really thinks she's pulling off that whole short-bob look."

"I get the sense that she thinks she's worse than us, which is to say she's better than us, and either way it feels presumptuous."

"If she weren't a woman, I would punch her in the tit, but I don't hit women."

It went on like this, one by one. Unprompted, the group then escorted me out of the building. What began as a slow shove soon worked itself into an aggressive tussle. We all started running toward the parking lot, or I was being chased; the lines between role play and real life blurred. I was being guided by two hands on my shoulders and little finger pokes against my back. They started chanting, "Lyd-ia! Lyd-ia!" Confused, I thought it sounded celebratory, like I had passed a test and maybe it was over. We would all go to the mall for haircuts and pedicures. But then I heard someone yell something in another language and the rest of the group erupted in laughter, repeating the word over and over. Since when had they all learned this language? Was it in another email I'd missed?

We made it to the end of the parking lot and the group stood, waiting for instructions, although Martin seemed to be on an important phone call, his free hand gesticulating as if conducting an orchestra. I took the opportunity to run to my car and sped off to a strip mall across the street. I parked behind a dumpster and idled in my car. From where I sat, I could still see the angry mob from a distance, exchanging high fives and stretching their calves. I watched them say their goodbyes and walk toward their respective cars. Roger and Greta lingered a while longer; I had suspected there was something between them but her hand resting on the small of his back confirmed it. I thought about plowing into both of them with my car and not stopping. The thought surprised me.

I consulted my inner landscape by closing my eyes and breathing deeply. For years, it had been a still body of water, representing my Buddha nature. Unchanged, unmoored by season or mood. This time, however, I noticed a ripple cutting through the smooth glass top as if some evil lurked beneath, swimming. Water leaked out of my field of vision into a dark space. As the tide lowered, I felt weak and hungry. I needed to eat. I looked up and saw a sign for ANYTIME DONUTS. Dizzy, I walked inside and ordered a chocolate-glazed doughnut, breaking my weeklong fast. I took a seat by the window and marveled at it: soft flaky dough bathed in a thick sheen of chocolate. When I finished, I got up and ordered another one. Then another one. Then one more. Fluffy, sugary dough slinked down my throat, filling my belly with warm, unfettered joy. Thirsty, I ordered a large vanilla iced coffee and kept going. Another powdered one. Then a cream-filled one. Then two plain ones. No matter what, it seemed, no bite was enough to fill me. Each bite contained within it the violent utterance of more. I felt sick but kept going anyway.

I could sense the teenager behind the counter watching me gorge, snapping photos of me to send to his friends, my face powdered white, my fingers bloodied with raspberry jelly. I didn't care. My eyes half-opened in a ravenous haze, I gave him a thumbs-up and continued. The teenager laughed unselfconsciously, like we were friends, like I was performing a trick for him. I laughed, too. His laughter subsided and he disappeared into the kitchen. I suddenly missed him.

While I waited for him to return, I thought about his pimpled face, his long unwashed hair collected in a low ponytail. I liked the way he listened to me, did as he was told, asked if that was all, even when he knew it wasn't. I thought about what I would say to him when he came back, something about sports or music or what he planned to study in college. I'd ask him for his number. I'd tell him about the social organization of termites, how the king and queen release pheromones that spread throughout the colony to prevent worker termites from reproducing. I'd tell him about how the king and queen mate in their own saliva and waste. I'd invite him over to watch the documentary about it.

When he emerged, all I could manage to say was "Do you have any éclairs left?" and he said, "No, we're all out," so I asked for another of the chocolate-glazed and he said, "We're out of those, too," and so I asked for a cup of water instead.

As my stomach settled, I could feel sugar whirring through my blood vessels, congealing into thick clots. I felt my heart thudding through my blouse like a death rattle. I thought about Martin's sexy song, the one about the man who risked his life for love. This man couldn't stay, even if he wanted to. His heart simply could not take all that love. What if he stayed? What if I stayed? I gave the boy my empty cup and walked out into the parking lot, feeling lightheaded and alive. Feeling like I could die at any moment.

It was still light out when I got home, but I went straight to bed. Nico and Bethany didn't ask, but if they had, I would have told them I had a terrible stomachache and not to worry, that I would sleep it off. I felt a twinge of sadness. Nico would sometimes ignore me on purpose to make me feel jealous, and for the first time, it bothered me. Not enough for me to do anything about it, but a little seedling of emotion had been planted. I would do my best to nurture it.

Lying in bed, I noticed an email from Martin on my phone. "Congratulations," it said. The entire class had been cc'd. It was a note to tell me what a good job I'd done, how proud they were of me for completing the exercise.

"No hard feelings, Lydia. It was for your own good," Martin said.

"Worked up an appetite, huh?" replied Greta. I must not have seen her spying on me in the doughnut shop from across the street.

"You might want to lay off the sugar, you don't want to get fat, ha ha," said Roger.

Martin reminded the group that the following week was our final session. "Lydia, you've come so far, I hope you'll join us," he said.

Of course it was a test! No one hated me or wanted me out; there was nothing wrong with my hair. The group just wanted to build up my fight-or-flight response to make sure I'd protect myself from physical harm in the real world should I ever be forced to. "I'll be there," I responded, signing off with a smiley face.

---

For the final class, Martin had us gather in a small conference room in the back of the community center. He handed us blindfolds and asked us to sign a waiver, claiming it was a standard photo-release form for his website. He'd used some illegible calligraphy font so no one could read it, ut we signed it anyway because we had no reason not to trust him.

As I looked around, I could see that everyone's spray tans had faded except for Martin's; he'd been freshly sprayed like a bronze statue, with little white halos around his eyes. Sinead wore thick eyeliner and maroon lipstick, and her thighs were bursting out of a tight black miniskirt. I barely recognized her. Levi greeted me with a big hug and wouldn’t release me until I said, "Levi, let me go," and he did, wiping tears from his eyes. The only other time I saw him cry was when he accidentally crushed an ant with his sandal and yelled, "Albert, no!" He had already named the ant and he buried it in the soil. "You're home now," he'd whispered, grief-stricken. I pretended to still be mad at him for participating in the mob exercise and flicking the air in front of my face while repeating, "I'm not touching you!" I knew it would help stoke his guilt.

"Where are the doughnuts, Lydia?" Greta teased.

"Shut up, Greta," I said, covering my mouth as soon as the words left my mouth.

"Cat fight!" Martin said, throwing a chef's kiss into the air, so pleased by our budding rivalry.

I apologized to Greta. "I ate them all, ha ha."

Martin had everyone take a seat and put on their blindfolds. "No peeking."

We all giggled nervously and waited for our instructions. "Remove your blindfolds," he said, and when we did, we saw Martin wearing a plastic Scream mask and holding a gun. "Now, get down on the ground," he said calmly.

"What's with the mask? We know what you look like," said Roger, still in his seat.

"Roger, if you don't get on the ground, I'll blow your brains off."

"I think you mean out, blow your brains out," said Sinead. It was true, Martin always got popular phrases wrong. He'd say phrases like It's a doggy-dog world! or One expresso please! Sinead had a thing about correcting him.

"Sorry, but you’re all going to die,” he said, waving his gun around the room. Greta was already crying; it was so like her to make this all about her. Levi grasped my hand so tight I thought he was going to crush it. I could not believe this was how my life was going to end, under a conference-room table surrounded by losers.

"Why are you doing this?" I asked.

"If you can't take the heat, get out of the game," he said, doing his best mob-boss impression.

"What?"

"Knock it off, Martin," said Roger, slowly rising to stand with his hands up, calling his bluff. "Just give me the gun."

"You want it? Here!" said Martin, firing just above Roger's head to prove the weapon was real. Roger dropped to the floor and everyone screamed.

"I'll give you each five minutes to think about your stupid little lives. I really want you to think long and hard about what you'll miss most and what you'll regret never having tried because you were too scared," he said, setting the stopwatch on his phone.

Levi tugged on my shirt, trying to communicate with me, and I kicked him away. I wanted my final moments to myself. When I closed my eyes, all I could think about was Nico. I'd put him through so much, and he stuck around. He made a whole new life for himself just to make me jealous. I couldn't believe how selfish I'd been. I said a little prayer to Nico in my mind: Nico, it's me. I'm about to die so I just want to say that I'm sorry. I love you so much and I really messed up. Also, I think Bethany is stealing from you, don't ask me how I know this. I wish we could go back to how it used to be. I'm sorry I abandoned you for the Universe, but you are the Universe, so how far could I have gone? I promise to haunt you in the afterlife, lovingly and only with your permission. Having a body was so hard anyway—this could be good for us. Anyway, I think my time is up—

"And, stop. I said stop, Sinead, god!" said Martin. Sinead was rocking back and forth in child's pose.

"Sorry," she muttered tearfully.

"It was a pleasure knowing all of you, but now it's the end. I promise it won't hurt one bit because..." A long pause followed, an eerie cliffhanger.

Laughter cut through the silence. It was Martin. "I'm sorry, but the looks on all your faces." I turned over onto my back to face him and saw that he was doubled over; the gun was gone. "You really thought...!" he whispered. "And Levi with the..." Unable to finish his sentence. "You guys must think I’m a"—he fanned himself to cool off—"I'm a monster!"

Roger slowly peeled away from Greta's embrace, realizing what was happening. Sinead was still curled in a fetal position, like a bug playing dead, hoping to be spared.

"Look! You got your life back, isn't that wonderful?" Martin said. "Those five minutes will stay with you for the rest of your lives. All your desires and regrets revealed to you in an instant." He paused for a moment. "What a gift!"

It was a fireworks display of emotion. Sinead did a wolf howl, hoping it would catch on, but no one joined in. Martin was a genius, say what you will.

"I miss being objectified," sighed Greta. "I think I'll get breast implants."

"That's a great idea. I love that for you," said Roger.

"I'm going to call my kids," said Levi. "Well, they don't know they're my kids, it's a whole thing." He started crying again.

I got up and wandered out of the room without saying goodbye. I felt a new kind of clarity, like a burning hunger in my gut. I called Nico and prayed to God he would pick up. If he didn't pick up, I would drive home and stand outside and scream, I'm still your wife and I want to come home, like they do in the movies, and Nico would smile and out of nowhere, that Phil Collins song would start playing, the one that goes "I've been waiting for this moment for all my life," as we'd run into each other's arms, slowly and tenderly humping as we hugged. Bethany would be gone, obviously. Attacked by her new dog, who would then have to be put down, eliminating them both, exactly as I dreamed it.

Nico's phone rang and rang, no answer. I kept calling. I hadn't noticed I was in my car and my car was moving, due to my driving it. I drove down unfamiliar streets and looped back around based on pure intuition like a cat that somehow always knows its way home, but I wasn’t home, I was parked in front of Anytime Donuts, I was getting out of the car, I was still calling, I was ordering a chocolate-glazed and shoving it in my mouth. Pick up, pick up, pick up, I mouthed, I'm yours.

Nada Alic's Bad Thoughts is out now. Read this story and many more in print by ordering our fifth issue here.

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As a nonprofit arts and culture publication dedicated to educating, inspiring, and uplifting creatives, Cero Magazine depends on your donations to create stories like these. Please support our work here.