Janine and I Discuss the Nature of Love
Episode 8 from Must Not Sleep, a new novel which takes place in shamanic space, a realm of shapeshifting and trance. Check out episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. A free download of Michael Brownstein reading from the novel is available on Podiobooks.com.
The metal door to the apartment below Georgia's stood open. I walked inside, my eyes blinking from the bare lightbulbs burning overhead. Several windows I hadn't known existed let in milky winter light.
The main room was completely empty. From the bedroom came the loud whine of a floor sander. I peeked through the doorway and saw a man hunched over the machine, his mouth and nose covered with a mask, the air thick with wood dust.
"Hey!" I shouted, but he didn't hear me. I tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped away from me, then turned off the machine and lifted the mask onto his forehead. Tall, with sandy hair and Slavic features, he looked at me suspiciously.
"Hi," I said, smiling, "I live upstairs. What happened to the old guy who lived here?"
He took a step back, his eyes lingering on the embroidered blouse open halfway down my chest.
"I never see you in building. I know who live upstairs. I know everybody. I am super."
"I'm super too," I said, but he only grimaced.
Coughing from the wood dust, I cleared my throat and started over.
"You see, I met him five days ago and he asked me to help him with something."
"I'm worried about him, frankly. He didn't look too good. Has he vacated the apartment? Do you know where he went?"
He started the machine again, then shouted, "Nobody live here. Not five days ago. One month ago. Old man die in living room."
He pointed into the other room and held his nose. "Dead body smelling bad. Long time clean up mess. Fix everything. Paint walls. Put in new bathroom, new kitchen. Landlord raise rent. Twenty-two hundred dollars."
"Wow!" I shouted over the noise, "What a rip-off!"
Once I was standing in the hallway outside the apartment I examined the metal door. It had been covered with spray-painted phrases, none of which remained. SAY YOUR PRAYERS, I remembered.
A month ago...
What a kick in the head. Had I been sitting upstairs on that sofa without food or water for an entire month?
Maybe the super's lying. Maybe he feels threatened by me and wants to throw me off the scent.
I bounded down the stairs, my blood racing by the time I hit the street. The cold air jolted me awake. Walking quickly in my thin white costume, I rounded the corner onto Sixth Avenue. People shoved past me, their eyes glued to the sidewalk.
I entered a crowded coffee shop. The smell of rancid fat. No women except for the lone pale waitress. Male eyes following me as I made my bare-chested way to the last empty booth.
Boisterous voices exploding in my head:
"So look for it on the Internet, you idiot...Volkswagen has that for a lot less money...I walked up to her. ‘What's eating you, honey?' She laughed in my face...BMWs, they sell em real quick...Yeah I always tease him about it...How many miles you got on that?...All that cash he rakes in. Didn't even make the final cut. Fuckin scam..."
Nothing for me here.
Before the waitress had a chance to ask for my order I got up and left.
In spite of the intense cold, once I started looking at the headlines outside a deli at Sixth Avenue and Houston I couldn't tear myself away:
SADDAM IN BED WITH AL QAEDA
Vice-President Says U.S. Must Act Now:
"Clear and Present Danger"
HOMELAND INCREASES INSECURITY
AFTER TERROR WARNING
Stations, Malls, Stadiums Affected
JOHNNY KILLS SELF
Television Star Suicide Note:
"I Refuse to Grow Old and Ugly"
STUDY LINKS PAINKILLERS TO
INCREASE IN HEART PROBLEMS
AMERICA'S SOUL LOST
Shamanic Retrieval Underway
Teeth chattering, fingers numb, I finally left the avenue for one of the side streets and found a Mexican take-out place, Tacqueria Quetzalcoatl, its windows clouded with steam. Pushing inside, grateful for the fragrant warmth, I studied the laminated photographs above the counter displaying various dishes, all of which included beef or pork or chicken.
"Hi," I said to the woman at the cash register. We were alone in the little room. No more than five feet tall, her glossy black hair braided with colored yarn, she flashed a smile full of gold. From somewhere behind her I thought I heard a bird chirping.
"I want a big plate of rice and beans. No meat, OK? And a double order of guacamole. And maybe a salad too. Tomatoes, cucumber..."
"You mean plain? Just rice and beans? Sin queso--no cheese?"
She couldn't take her eyes off my white blouse. Turning to the kitchen behind her, she called out, "Manuel!"
"Right. And what kind of soup do you have?"
"Soup is only fried tortilla with pork."
"No thanks." I smiled at her. "I don't eat meat."
She giggled. A man appeared behind her, half-listening as she gave him my order in Spanish. He made eye contact with me and laughed gaily, as if I'd just finished singing his favorite song.
"You want a soda?" the woman asked.
I sighed. "Actually, I'd love a nice big glass of water if that's not too much trouble. With a slice of lime."
She went to the sink and filled a glass with water, but they couldn't stop glancing at each other, big smiles on their faces. The man made no move to return to the kitchen and prepare my food.
"Mister," he said timidly, "where you--"
Struggling with himself, his face turning red, he finally blurted out, "How beautiful is your shirt! Where you get it?"
"My shirt?" I looked down at my bare chest, momentarily embarrassed. "Uh, I--"
They exploded with laughter.
"Oh, senor, it cannot be--your shirt is from our village, San Miguel de Tulucan! Our home!" As soon as he said this his eyes brimmed with tears and the woman bit her lip and turned away.
The next moment all three of us were crying.
"I'm sorry," I kept repeating nonsensically, "I'm sorry."
He stepped around the counter and embraced me. Then he locked the door and reversed the OPEN sign in the window. Dimming the fluorescent lights, he gave me a little bow.
"I am Manuel and this is Rosa. What is your name?"
"Please come into the kitchen, Isaac. We must talk."
"Of course," I said. "But I'm so hungry, I haven't eaten in five days."
"Five days," he repeated uncomprehendingly. "Cinco dias sin comer?"
"Yes. I feel like I'm going to faint."
At the back of the kitchen a bright green and yellow parakeet chirped and warbled, flitting from rung to rung in a cage decorated with ribbons and mirrors.
We sat on metal stools in the narrow walkway between the stove and the refrigerator. Manuel and Rosa conversed in Spanish while I ate, Rosa getting up to heat one tortilla after another on the grill until I was full. When I tried to pay they refused to accept the six dollars, which wouldn't have been enough anyway.
"You are our brother," Manuel said firmly. "The shirt you are wearing, it is a sign. Not for sale in Estados Unidos. Not for sale in Mexico. Not for sale anyplace."
He hesitated for a moment. "Rosa says you have a good heart. Your soul is clean. Money--dinero--it don't mean nothing to you. She says you not like ordinary gringo."
Rosa stared at me. Suddenly, without warning, I was in the presence of the Goddess again.
Infinite compassion, unconditional love, radiated from her heart to mine. Then my body started to shake. Turning away with downcast eyes she said softly, "Para ti."
She extricated three strands of red yarn from her hair and whispered in some language other than Spanish while she quickly braided them together.
She handed me the braid. "This for protection. You wear here," she said, pointing at her wrist. "Or here," raising her skirt and pointing at her ankle. "Or you wear around the neck. Somebody looking evil at you, nothing."
"Oh, thank you, Rosa. Thank you so much."
I bent over and tied the red braid around my left ankle.
"We are working in New York many years," Manuel said. "Soon we go back to our home. You must come and stay with us. Just ask for Rosa and Manuel. Everybody knows where we live."
He smiled. "San Miguel de Tulucan. Not so far from Oaxaca. By bus maybe two hours. You know Oaxaca?"
Rosa said something in Spanish.
"She say we meet for a reason."
Proudly he drew himself up on the little stool. Fixing me with an unwavering glance, he added, "Quetzalcoatl, you know what it is?" He turned and pointed at the cage.
"You mean the parakeet?"
"Not the bird, Isaac. The song. Watch the song, where it goes. Even inside his cage, the bird fly to freedom...Don't worry. We show you...But not here. Not in Estados Unidos. This country..."
He shrugged. "It's OK," he said. "No worry. Some day Estados Unidos finished. Mexico finished. Every country finished. No more borders. Then we go outside. Without fear. We laugh and sing. Together, si? All the people together."
When I left the restaurant it was dusk.
Now that I had some food inside me I could play with the cold. As I walked along Sixth Avenue I allowed the icy wind to tear through my open blouse. Then I willed the heat at the core of my body to rise to the surface, spilling down my arms and flooding me with warmth.
Sharpen your intention like a knife.
By the time I reached Georgia's place I felt a vertiginous surge of energy. Turning on all the lights in the apartment, I paced back and forth anticipating her return. I longed to hold her in my arms but told myself to be patient. When the universe was ready she'd be with me once again.
"Or maybe not," I said aloud. "Consider the implications of that turn of events. Who'd pay the rent?"
I paused, utterly spaced out. I had no intention of paying rent anywhere ever again. And even if I did, I had no idea what the rent here might be, or when it came due, or where to send it. Or who to call. Or what day this was.
"Not Saturday," I said. "Or Sunday either. Everybody in the street looked way too purposive for that. Definitely a weekday. A weekday workday. That leaves Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday."
I started laughing.
Then came a tentative knock at the door.
Wearing my sweetest smile, I opened it. A large woman in her early forties, with dark hair and brown eyes, stood in the hallway dressed in an expensive winter coat and fancy leather boots. Her eyes refused to maintain contact with mine. Instead, examining the floor, she said, "I'm sorry to bother you. I'm looking for Susan. Is she here?"
My response made her nervous.
She took a step back, glancing at me in spite of herself.
"Oh, God, maybe you don't remember. We met on the street some time ago. At least I think it was you, although you didn't have a beard then. But...I'm Janine, an old friend of Susan's. I know she has another name now," she continued awkwardly, "and that's fine with me. Really. I just forget what it is."
I stared at her.
"Janine...What a beautiful name...I don't remember meeting you, Janine, but if you remember me, that's all it takes. Why don't you come in? Georgia should be home soon--I think."
"Georgia! That's it. I'm sorry."
"Please," I said as I stepped aside and let her into the apartment. "Why do you keep apologizing? I mean, so what? You can't remember her name, I can't remember you. It's all OK."
Still uneasy, she entered the front room and wandered over to the windows.
"This tree," she said. "It's dead."
"But what an absurd thing for me to say! Maybe it isn't dead. Maybe that's the way trees get in winter. It's hibernating or something."
"No, I think you're right. The ficus is finished. Somebody forgot to water it. For a long time."
I stopped smiling.
"Janine, tell me something. You say we met on the street." I paused. "I remember now. Houston Street, right? When was that?"
"When?" She looked out one of the windows. "Well..."
"Because I haven't seen Georgia since later that same evening."
She became almost frantic. "You mean to tell me you haven't seen her for two whole weeks?"
"Two weeks?" My mind stopped. "So it was two weeks ago?"
She headed for the front door. "I don't know. I can't remember exactly. This is all so upsetting. I just wanted--"
Touching her arm I said softly, "Janine. Listen to me. Don't be afraid. I love Georgia very much. Sooner or later she'll be back."
"You love her? Well, that's great, but what's it got to do with her being safe? Maybe she's in trouble. Didn't that ever occur to you? Didn't you ever think of contacting the police?"
"Georgia's not in trouble. She can't be, at least not in the ordinary sense. It's more like she's gone off somewhere. Besides, I've been away myself. Just got back today. You see, two weeks or two days, two hours or two minutes...From the point of view of nonlocal reality, they're all the same."
We stared at each other.
I held her glance, peering through the fear into emptiness. Finally she sighed.
"Something very important is taking place, Janine. Georgia's a big part of it, she's doing what she has to do. And you are too. Why do you think you showed up here?"
Smiling, calm, I added, "Please. Take off that coat. It must be heavy. Let's have some tea. There are a few things we need to discuss."
Not ten minutes went by before we were making volcanic love, her silk-lined coat underneath us on the floor. Biting and groaning, her big breasts swinging back and forth across my face, Janine outweighed me considerably. I had my hands full just hanging on while she rolled and pitched on top of me, coming again and again. Her eyes shut tight, she tilted her head back now and then to release earsplitting screams, then zoned in on my nipples, sucking them until they bled. The large gold cross she wore around her neck kept hitting my forehead, and only through the power of intention could I keep from drowning in the sour smell of cigarettes and alcohol.
However, being inside her was sensational and I would have gone on forever except that at one point I grew faint. Calling a halt to our lovemaking was like slowing down a runaway chariot. Gasping for air, her hands clenching spasmodically, Janine finally collapsed onto the coat, which had migrated to a corner of the room.
"Oh, God," she gasped. Then she was whimpering. I struggled to my knees and cupped her face in my hands.
"Sweetheart," I repeated tenderly, kissing her over and over, until she opened her eyes and managed a little smile.
"I love you."
She began bawling.
"Damn it," she finally said through her tears, "how can you say that to me? Why spoil everything? We don't even know each other!"
"But I do know you. And love isn't some exclusive, rare commodity. It belongs to everyone. I love everyone."
Looking pissed, she sat up and dried her face with the lining of her coat.
"Men--they always fuck it up. One way or another they have to lay their stupid, insensitive claim. Even if it's totally screwball like yours. Why can't we just lie here silently for a while next to each other?"
"And besides, what about Susan--or whatever her new name is...Georgia," she added sarcastically. "How do you think she'd feel? She'd be devastated finding us here like this, not to mention hearing you say that."
"No, I don't think so. Georgia and I have been through a lot together. We've worked on ourselves to release the past. There's no jealousy left, no reactivity. We don't take things personally anymore, so we're not responding with hurt feelings to whatever happens. Because experience is a mental construct. Like who am I, Janine--for you, for me, for Georgia, for my mother? Somebody different each time, right? There's nothing here but our projections. Our essence--our nature--is limitless light. That's who we really are. And from there we can love everybody."
Still naked, but with her coat wrapped around her, she sat cross-legged on the floor, her back against the sofa, listening intently.
Several minutes went by before she said, "It's not possible. It may sound great but it's just not possible."
"Because people need commitment. They need to depend on someone. I know I do. I want someone who'll be there for me. I've been alone--so damn lonely--for years now, but when the right guy comes along he'll be all mine, just like I'll be his. We're adults, Isaac, not space cadets. We need to be loved for our unique qualities, not wholesale out of some species-wide, generic impulse like you're talking about."
"But why not love more than one person for their unique qualities? Why not love whoever's ready? Otherwise you'll always be afraid of losing that one special person. You'll never feel secure. And that's what you're talking about, isn't it, your need to feel secure? What happens when you've invested all your expansive, vulnerable feelings in someone who turns out to be way different than you thought? You feel betrayed, and you either lie to yourself to keep it going or you split. With more wounds, more pain. Be honest, Janine. Isn't that why you're alone now? I mean, how many relationships have you run through in your life? Where've they all gone?"
She glared at me.
"Seriously. Think back to college or whenever. How many?"
"Oh listen, buster, I don't want to keep playing this game. It's gotten kind of tiresome. I came up here to see Susan--Georgia--and OK, I was feeling horny and attracted to you and we did the wild thing. But you can't turn the world upside down. You can't force people to be something they're not."
She stood up and searched for her clothes.
I laughed. "The wild thing...I like that...But what if you could open your heart, not only to me but to whoever's brave enough to let go of their need to own another person?"
"I'm telling you it's not possible!" she yelled.
By now she was steaming. Dressed in smartly cut charcoal wool pants and a red cashmere sweater, she said, "You're just living out some adolescent male fantasy, screwing whoever you want. It's a joke...Where the hell are my boots? I want out of here."
I stood up and approached her, waiting until her eyes stopped jumping around the room and met mine.
"I'm very fond of you. But if you leave and never come back it's OK with me. Because you're right--I can't force you to become conscious. It won't work."
"Conscious? Conscious of what?"
"Conscious of our nature, which is loving and free. Whereas monogamy always leaves us wanting more. It's part of a self-fulfilling prophecy where there's never enough to go around and the only way to survive is by constant struggle."
"But you're living in a dream world, Isaac. I'm proud of what I've accomplished, and it's come as a result of hard work. Like look at Susan and me--I can't call her Georgia--we knew each other way back when, waitressing in a restaurant uptown, working like dogs, fending off all sorts of assholes, above all the owner, to take home maybe five hundred dollars a week. Five hundred a week! And one day I decided I'd had enough. I spent a year and a half learning the banking business, a specialized corner of it, currency trading, sort of. I won't try to explain it to you, but you either have the knack for it or you don't, and I have the knack. I got a foot in the door and worked my butt off. I'm good at what I do. People respect me, they look up to me, they depend on me. I make four hundred thousand dollars a year now. I have a beautiful apartment, all the clothes I want, vacations."
"I mean, you can have both, they're not mutually exclusive. Why does life have to be so serious? Be the big banker during the day and at night peel off that persona like a glove. Join us--me and Georgia and all the others I haven't even met yet--and there's more of us each year. This culture's hitting the wall, Janine, people are fed up, they feel bamboozled, like they're not living their lives. Don't keep forcing your round peg into a square hole. Let your hair down. You've been afraid to show that beautiful heart of yours. And all that time you've been dying to connect..."
She sighed. "I don't know if I can take this."
I pushed further, dropping down into her, seeing more.
"If it's been so great for you, why are you drinking so much? Why all the cigarettes? Why the shrink? Why the weekends in front of the tube, stuffing yourself with those, those--"
I paused, staring blankly into space.
"Those endless fucking bowls of Doritos!"
Her eyes wide, she backed away from me.
"How do you know I have a problem with Doritos?"
"Well, truth be told, I'm getting more clairvoyant every day. Sometimes it's more than I can handle. But this was a no-brainer."
"What do you mean?"
"Doritos--all that garbage fried in hydrogenated oils--they're the snack of choice for the end times."
We stared at each other, and the next moment we were laughing uproariously. I leaned over and tickled her, and soon she was on top of me again, both of us naked on the floor.
"Listen," I gasped as she quickly came, her fingers digging into my chest, "there's something amazing I have to show you. A priceless gift from the Goddess, from the altered state version of Georgia herself. You see, we can ride this without coming. Ride it forever without losing our life force. Because coming--ejaculation--is the end of lovemaking. It brings us down."
Groaning, she rolled off me. "What are you, crazy? I want to come! I love it! It's such a release for me. I won't ever give it up."
"I understand. Just try it one time, Janine. Lie down. Close your eyes and let go."
When she was on her back I opened her legs and licked her until she was about to come.
"Ride the edge. Send pleasure everywhere, up your spine, down your arms and legs, into your head. Breathe into it. Don't be content with a vaginal orgasm. There's so much more."
Whenever she started to lose it I paused and began again. Her moaning never stopped. Eventually I entered her.
"The same thing now. Stay with it."
Slowly and deliberately we made love until we were exhausted. When we stopped her eyes were shining.
"I got it, Isaac," she whispered. "I really got it. Just do me a big favor. Don't be a jerk again and say anything, OK?"
We turned off the lights and lay in the dark.
Then I heard another voice spilling out of her, another voice entirely, serene and full of certainty, overflowing with unconditional love. My eyes filled with tears as that voice said, "You poor sweet boy...Trying to heal everyone you meet...But who will heal you, Mr. Stay Hard Forever? Who will take your head in her hands and comfort you? I will..."
Image by originalgrammatique, courtesy of Creative Commons license.