A Short Story
So I guess I have to say I’m happily conventional.
Bottom line, I’m not even likely to buy a house without cornice moulding, much less spike my hair, wear pink shorts, chant cross-legged, or apologize for the Fourth of July. You can do that if you want to, but I got very much in touch with my hyper-traditionalism in grad school, the first time someone apologized for being “hetero-normative.” When someone grieved over boy-meets-girl, when someone lamented bikinis and sunshine, I knew it wasn’t worth pretending to be indignant about convention. I love convention. There are some revelations about people that leave you reeling, and I retreat, on those occasions, to normalcy. Give me a diet coke and a grilled cheese sandwich.
That’s why, when Brad and Sabrina moved in next door, years later, I fell into an easy backyard comradery over smoked salmon and beer and politics. Sabrina came up in the world through department store cosmetics and Brad was the most casual commercial real estate guy I’d ever known. They made a living — a good living. They liked the movies. They understood a practical joke. We tried to grow tomatoes and basil together one summer.
It was all easy and reassuring and superficial, but then several years later, when Yvonne left me, when Brad and Sabrina had moved on to a much nicer neighborhood, I wasn’t particularly on guard when Sabrina invited me to what she called the “Lodge.”
“It’s special,” she said, “and we’ve missed you.”
So picture this, a few days later: I walk into a big room.
It’s spacious, with high ceilings, carpeted, lined with windows and french doors on three sides. An uber-large oil painting of a pine tree adorns the fourth wall. It has to be at least 16 feet tall. There are several comfortable chairs in the room, facing the pine tree painting, and you can’t help noticing that as people take their seats, they put their hands over their face for a few seconds, close their eyes, and appear to be doing some sort of breathing exercise. They fall into easy conversation with other people after this is completed, but you haven’t seen one person take a seat without going through this ritual.
“Branch work,” Sabrina explains.
“It’s a peace-placing devotion,” Sabrina explains.
Brad chuckles. “There’s a lot of moss-drying to do before we truly feel Summer.”
Someone pats Brad on the back as he walks towards a chair. “I haven’t felt this moss-free in years.”
“Good for you!” Brad says. “Dry that bark!”
“The enemy,” Sabrina explains, “is spiritual moisture.”
“It’s so good,” Brad says. “To finally be dry.”
“Dryness!” a few nearby people shout wearing dreamy smiles.
“The tennis court,” I say, reeling a bit. “Did you mention something about this place having a tennis court.”
“So wet,” Sabrina calls you. “You are still so wet.”
At that point, Sabrina called over several friends. “Ellen, Jan, Brianne,” she said. “C’mon, ladies. Let’s see if we can dry Jared off.”
They surrounded me and asked me to close my eyes. Two of the women grabbed my ankles. Sabrina stood in front of me and held both of my shoulders. The last one, (I’m not sure which was which), started massaging my biceps and forearms.
“Okay,” I said, “Sabrina. I mean, I’m not complaining, but am I being punked here?”
“Poor thing,” one of the ladies said. “He’s as wet as they come.”
“Jared,” Sabrina said, “I need you to concentrate. The tree is growing, wet, but also destined for death. It’s in a dank, primal forest, alone, covered with moss and eventually it will fall, crushing everything it hits.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Do you want to be that wet, moss covered, vernal liability, Jared, or do you want dryness?”
Later that night, at a restaurant, I nursed a White Russian and took a good hard look at my two old friends across the table. Brad had the look of someone with inside information, someone who suspected I was on the verge of epiphany, and that all I had to do was say the right word, and I could then be given my Templar’s sword and secret decoder ring.
“Honestly,” I said, “I just wanted to play tennis. It’s been hard getting a court lately.”
Sabrina laughed, then sighed. “You are still just so wet.”
“Okay, what does that even mean?” I asked. “Wanting to play tennis is a wet thing?”
“Refusal,”Brad chimed in, “to explore, to dehydrate, to desiccate, to get above the water line where you can breathe, where you can get to an understanding of what is really important in life. It’s not the tennis. It’s the refusal to explore.”
I hesitated. “Maybe,” I started in, “it’s because the exploration doesn’t look very promising? I mean, seriously, two women holding my ankles for ten minutes?”
“They were getting your roots,” Sabrina explained, “out of the wet soil. It’s an invitation to consider a dryer, higher plane.”
“You don’t think that would strike a new disciple of this thing as odd?”
“You were chosen carefully,” Brad said.
Sabrina nodded with a solemnity I had never seen before.
“Everyone,” Brad said, leaning in, “there tonight was there just for you. The last meeting was a discussion of your life, verses a few others that were being proposed. Our proposal was chosen.”
“Your proposal?” I asked.
“You,” Sabrina said. “Brad and I nominated you.”
I was considering my response when Brad said, “over 12 others.”
An hour later, over at their place, Brad could see I was impressed with their new digs, the pool, the cabana cottage beyond it, the pleasant blending of Monterrey balconies and fountains and Mission courtyards.
“It’s a George Washington Smith,” Brad said. “Vintage Spanish Revival. One of his last, 1928..”
“Gorgeous,” I said. “Very impressed.”
“Dumb luck,” he responded, “I got in on a bizarrely good run of mega-box warehouse sales and leases. The decline of brick and mortar made for some insanely big distribution centers.”
I could see, in the far distance, someone moving through the kitchen, but it didn’t look like Sabrina.
“That’s not Sabrina,” I said, squinting.
“Our cook. She’s live-in.”
So, that did it for me. I began taking “dryness” a little more seriously. My old friends had a live-in gardener, cook, and maid. The presence of a staff immediately made the place look about five acres larger. I can remember, over the course of that evening, travelling through three distinct bends in the river. First, I was pleasantly buoyed at the prospect of seeing old friends. Second, I was quite sure they had completely lost their minds. Third, I was now sinking, peasant-like, into a state of gentry idolatry. My friends were fantastically wealthy. I remember trying, at that point, to regain the posture of “casual old friend,” but – shamefully – that was nearly impossible. Superficial and conventional man that I am, I knew I would do well to just avoid appearing something like a supplicant.
Because money is a bit of a bitch that way, isn’t it? It legitimizes everything. I could already feel their crazy lodge — the “peace-placing” and the “spiritual moisture” growing more substantial in the shadow of this place where a young, pretty woman in her twenties was folding laundry in a service area next to the cabana.
To be Continued..