Off the Yoga Mat
Chapter Two from the novel
There may have been a connection between the yoga triangles Lulu Betancourt demonstrated and her tendency to form love triangles. She had reveled in her share of risqué encounters with men and women in the past decade. Now, Lulu thought, brand-new year, leading to the millennium. Slow down! She’d missed meaningful coupling, enduring love. Of her many relationships, including a brief marriage to Wendell, none had stuck. She visualized herself in a playful dance with one who twirled her, pressed her close. She could shimmy out of that person’s grasp without breaking eye contact, solo and yet mutual. Then it would be her lover’s turn to shine within her circle, a complete being all alone. She refused to dwell on nightmares of a stout bald man taunting her in childhood.
Lulu walked from her apartment on Avenue A and 12th Street to 2 Squared, her studio in a red-brick building on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Street. Teaching, assisting others in a trial hatha class created a space to breathe out that nightmare. That man had known her mother in New Orleans when she was little, after her dad left. Lulu stared at the assortment of men and women who showed up to check out her sample class which she offered from time to time to attract new followers. She went easy, asked them to do a few standing poses, then she worked on their cores, backs pressed into their mats. The chanting afterward proved cathartic; students moved by harmonic vibrations sounding like a string quartet in a glade of trees. The tone of voices in unison, low and deep, formed a protective shield around Lulu.
*After folks cleared out, a guy named Jesse from the health food store stopped by—she forgot she had invited him over. They made small talk in the studio. Then he lifted her, kissing her non-tattooed shoulder. His lips on her skin tickled.
She expressed pleasure through non-Sanskrit chants and sighs. Lulu seldom planned such liaisons, but sex and yoga were mutual portals to her soul, the equipment in her playground. As Jesse spoke her name, Lulu thought, this feels rushed. It’s not what I want. She heard the door to the vestibule open with a rattle outside the yoga room. Who was there?
“Hello.” A deep voice echoed.
“Excuse me.” She wriggled out of Jesse’s embrace and adjusted her clothes. “Just a minute,” she shouted. She walked into the small vestibule entrance.
She squinted through the dimness and recognized the tall, striking guy with unkempt dark hair, pallor set off by facial stubble. He must have overheard giggles and kisses, might have glimpsed a quick embrace.
“Sorry I barged in,” he said, offering his hand. “I’m Nate Dart. Sorry to disturb … whatever. I took your trial class. Forgot my backpack. Can I take a look?” He walked through the studio door without waiting for her answer. Then he reappeared. “Got it.”
He was about to scoot away.
“Wait a second, Nate,” Lulu said. “I am curious. What brought you to my class?”
He paused. “For starters, I’ve got lower back pain. And … I can’t seem to write my thesis.” His stomach growled. He rubbed his midsection. “I’ve decided … to try this yoga thing.”
She noted wide dark eyes, long hair, tapered fingers. He was impossible to forget—wearing jeans in class, barely crossing his legs, and trying to duck out. Then he snored in bursts of intensity during savasana.
“Sorry to hear you’re in pain.” She pulled down her shirt. “If you saw or heard anything out of the ordinary … it’s not in the curriculum.”
“That’s for the advanced class,” he said, deadpan.
She laughed and whirled around. Handed him a pocket-sized schedule. “Yoga has great potential to release stress and increase calm, help you cast off your demons. Everyone goes at their own pace. Come back! Don’t let the others in class distract you.”
“I know about distractions,” Nate said. “I tend to avoid them.”
“Don’t avoid me.”
A powerful gust of wind blasted up the steps from outside into the vestibule. She folded her arms and shivered.
“I’ll close the door on my way out,” he said. He flashed a crooked smile before turning his back to her.
This Nate—scruffy, cool as a cucumber. In class, she had helped him to his knees and into child’s pose. She assisted in rocking him side to side, showed him how to form a spinal twist. He seemed embarrassed. “You’ve made me bend,” he said. “I thought it was impossible.”
She noted dark circles beneath his eyes, a dimple chin unaware of its sweetness. What was he writing about? Probably something unsavory.
After locking the studio door, Lulu found it impossible to focus on Jesse.
“I’m not into it,” she said and led Jesse to her tiny office, where they drank hot water over tea leaves. When he left, Lulu stacked the stray mats, rounded up cushions and yoga blocks, exhausted. Next, she concentrated on steady three-part breathing, then gathered her things to go.
She locked the door of the outer vestibule behind her and meandered down the long flight of steps. Outside she merged into the disparate chaos of the East Village. A car blasted its horn staccato. A man rode a bike past her on the sidewalk, nearly grazing her toes. Someone yelled “muthafucka.” Off to the side of the building stood a tall skinny man with a mustache, puffing on a cigarette.
“Ms. Betancourt? Glad I caught you,” he said, exhaling. “Didn’t you receive the notices? I’m from the building manager’s office.”
Shit. It must have been about those letters on behalf of the ginormous university. Why wouldn’t they let her be? Did they have to keep migrating, taking over the West Village, and now the East, educational manifest destiny?
“You’ve got 30 days,” he said. “The university is buying the building. Everyone out.”
“I need time,” Lulu said, composed. “I run a successful business.”
“Don’t we all,” he said. “Fill out the papers. Agree to vacate. I have a feeling you can negotiate, see some cash. It’s a win-win.”
“I have to go,” she said, breaking away.
She’d look them over later, maybe get some advice. No way would she let them toss her out. She had shoved earlier notices into a drawer.
As she walked north, a group of men and women climbed into and out of a dumpster in front of a supermarket. Others sat on the nearest stoop sorting through fruits, vegetables, prepared cakes. A tall woman with a pom-pom hat gripped a megaphone. The participants, known as freegans, were mostly white children of the middle-class. Lulu had passed them many times, found their behavior perplexing. Why frolic in garbage to make a point? She preferred charity behind-the-scenes, and to give back to women and communities of color who had it the worst. Those freegans? Privileged grandstanding.
Her recent New Year’s resolution: focus on yoga away from the mat, seva, a term used by her teachers in the ashram to indicate a spiritual presence directed to those in dire need. She considered developing a yoga class for distressed and angry children, kids who’d dismiss the practice but unwittingly find grace through it. Kids in the housing projects nearby who never had access to yoga. As an angry frightened child, racially mixed at a time it was rarely discussed, she could never be sure of peace. She was never certain of her parents’ love. Her mother Rosa discovered yoga by following the moves of a TV guru; her lion posture cracked up Lulu as a child. On all fours, her mother stuck out her tongue, then she roared. It marked a time before their lives spiraled away.
In the middle of Second Avenue the freegan leader shouted into a megaphone “Who will join us? So much food in New York City is wasted while others go hungry. The world isn’t going to end in the year 2000, but what if we could end hunger?”
Lulu stared at the scraggly dumpster divers. She planned to volunteer at The Bowery Mission or a nearby soup kitchen. So much begging on the sidewalks, ragged folks of all ages strewn across alleys and in Tompkins Square Park, runaway kids addicted to something, needing help they wouldn’t seek. Could she ever find compassion for herself in this desolation? What if she was forced to relocate, thrown out of the humble studio she had built from nothing? She’d go back to zero. A term from Buddhism gave her perspective: in the readiness of time. Embrace the one. Nightmares disrupted her days, but relief came from consulting the Pantanjali Yoga Sutras, cryptic aphorisms by a yogi from the second century. Live in the now-and-here even as she recalled dreaded fragments. Sometimes she could not recognize the false from true, or find a plausible answer. She’d get to the bottom of those nightmares while serving those who needed her.
Let go of judging everyone, even myself, Lulu thought. Pedestrians sidestepped the rag-tag freegans clogging a patch of Second Avenue as if their freshness long passed the expiration date. She dropped a five-dollar bill into the donation basket and prayed for patience and resolution.
CHERYL J. FISH (http://cheryljfish.com/, Twitter and Instagram: @cheryljoyfish) is the author of the recent collection of poems and photographs, The Sauna is Full of Maids, celebrating Finnish sauna culture, friendship, and travel, from Shanti Arts. Her book Crater & Tower reflects on trauma and ecology after the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption and the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. She has published poems in Poetics-for-the-More-than-Human-World, Mom Egg Review, New American Writing, Terrain.org, and Hanging Loose. Her short fiction has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, CheapPop, Spank the Carp, and Liar’s League. Her debut novel Off the Yoga Mat, is forthcoming from Livingston Press/UWA in 2022. Fish has written essays on June Jordan and Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives. She co-edited, with Farah Griffin, A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African American Travel Writing. Fish has been Fulbright professor in Finland, and she teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College/City University of New York.