[My Zendik memoir is due out from She Writes Press on May 8, 2018. To see the cover, pre-order, and get email updates, please go here.]
I began spinning a fantasy about Zendik mating the night I arrived.
Cross-legged on the living room floor, a metal bowl nestled in my lap, I watched a short, round woman with buoyant ringlets burst in from the kitchen, bowl in hand. Another woman called to her, across the room: “Are you having a date tonight?”
Between them lay a sea of Zendiks; maybe two-thirds of the Farm’s sixty-plus members filled every chair, couch, and patch of rug. The lemon scent of Murphy’s Oil fused with the glow of standing lamps to bathe us in resinous incandescence.
Forks clanged against stainless steel. Chatter rolled past me like delicate thunder.
The short woman nodded, her face erupting in a joyous grin. I felt a prick of envy. It must be so lovely, I thought, to go out for dinner and a movie with a guy you like, then return, in cricket-quiet, to this cozy old Farmhouse. Never mind that none of the handful of dates I’d been on – all as a teenager in New York City – had involved dinner and a movie. This was Polk County, North Carolina. The sticks. People here must mimic the mating behavior of characters in Sweet Valley High books and Archie comics. I wondered why the woman going on the date had gotten food for herself. Wouldn’t she be eating out, with her boyfriend?
I took another bite of brown rice and pinto beans, topped with fresh salsa. I snapped off the sweet white stem of a leaf of romaine. I was eating the same food as the others. But the bowl I ate from, the fork I ate with, set me apart. They warned that Zendik warmed as you pushed towards the center. I was at the outer rim. I would have to earn my way in.
Minutes earlier, a graceful young woman named Eile had shown me to the shelves where bowls, plates, mugs, spoons, forks, and knives were stored. I was to pick one of each and mark it with my name, in felt-tip pen on masking tape. “You’ll be on quarantine for ten days,” she said, “which means you can’t cook or wash dishes or eat from the same dishes we eat from.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling as though I’d just broken out in sores only I couldn’t see. No commune I’d visited before Zendik had placed me on quarantine. Eile shrugged in apology. “It’s just that we live so close to each other,” she said. “If one of us comes down with a bug, everybody gets it.”
I folded the rest of the romaine leaf into my mouth. Eile joined me on the floor. “So how’d you find out about Zendik?” she asked.
“I saw it in The Communities Directory.” The Directory was an encyclopedia of well over a thousand groups, most in North America, most devoted to homesteading. I’d ordered it the previous winter and pored over it in my Harvard dorm room. The next spring, just before graduation, I’d won a thirteen-thousand-five-hundred-dollar travel grant to spend a year visiting a few of these communities.
My grant proposal wasn’t the first stage in a master plan. I had no master plan – only a couple tropisms: away from school and jobs, toward being outside and touching what was alive. After eighteen years in classrooms, I yearned to put my body to work, as something more than a dolly for my brain. To learn sources of food, water, warmth, and shelter, beyond “the supermarket,” “the tap,” “the furnace,” and “the landlord.” I sought a story broader and sweatier than the one I’d grown up in. Touring villages rooted in the back-to-the-land movement seemed like a good start.
By the time I arrived at Zendik, on October 26th, 1999, I’d stepped into a few communal stories, none strong enough to hold me for long. I’d spent three weeks at the Reevis Mountain School of Self-Reliance in the Superstition Mountains near Roosevelt, Arizona, where the ruling couple seemed pleased with their seclusion and the only other intern left before I did. A day and two nights at Alpha Farm in Deadwood, Oregon, where I was told to sit in the garden and give it my “love energy” (subtext: we’re overwhelmed by our own chaos; we can’t help you with yours). A night at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach, California, whose dense fog of patience made me wonder where people buried their snarls, their irritation, their hatred – and where, if I lived there, I would bury mine. Back home in Brooklyn I’d taken the ferry to Staten Island for Friday-night dinner at Ganas, where most of the men were pale or gray-haired and the aim of the full-group mealtime discussion – an example, I was told, of “feedback therapy” – seemed to be to elicit bewildered, angry tears from the two women at the center of the ring. Soon after that I’d sold myself on visiting Zendik – using its Directory listing, its fledgling web site, and a phone conversation with Zylem, the veteran Zendik in charge of recruiting. Then I’d boarded a Greyhound bus to Hendersonville, North Carolina. A couple Zendiks had retrieved me from the depot after completing the Farm’s weekly shopping. I was loosely planning on staying two weeks.
When I mentioned The Communities Directory, Eile’s eyes lit up. “Really?” she said. “Me too! But I think we’re the only ones. Most people showed up because of the magazine.”
I’d flipped through my first Zendik magazine earlier that evening, in the back seat of the car that had brought me to the Farm. I’d zeroed in on a story by a woman named Karma about a Zendik road trip to Woodstock’s corporate reincarnation in the summer of 1999.
“You guys go on road trips to hand out magazines, right? Like that trip you took to Woodstock?”
“Yeah,” said Eile. “We go out most weekends. When the concert scene is slow, we sell the street.”
I could tell that “sell the street” meant “sell merchandise on the street.” What threw me was the word “sell.” “So you don’t just hand the magazines out? You sell them?”
“Yeah, that’s how we support ourselves. We get donations sometimes, and apprentice fees, but they’re not reliable. Selling is our survival.”
Selling for a living sounded intriguing – but I doubted I could do it. Once, I’d spent an afternoon distributing free copies of The New York Observer on a busy corner in Soho. I’d crumpled under the neutral cruelty of brush-off after brush-off, while my partner, laughing and bantering, had rapidly emptied his satchel.
“Does everybody go selling?” I asked.
“No, not everyone. I mean, almost all the girls do, every other weekend or so. But some of the guys aren’t that good at it, so they only go out once in a while.”
As Eile spoke I noticed a bright fringe of scarves, shirts, and sweaters trimming the rail of the loft above the living room. “What’s up there?”
“That’s where a bunch of the girls sleep. We just moved in a couple weeks ago. The guys don’t mind the draft in the barn, but for us it was getting to be too cold at night.”
Uphill from the Farmhouse, at the end of a wide gravel path, stood two barns – one for horses, one for goats. Before dinner, Eile had led me up the hill, pointing out studios for music and dance, a wood shop adjoining a trash shed, a storage yard for building materials salvaged from demolition jobs in nearby towns. Then I’d followed her up a steep, rail-less staircase to the horse barn loft. A few dozen bunks lined the loft’s long sides. Wind slipped in through gaps between wall slats. These bunks slept most of the Zendik men.
At the back of the loft stood an insulated plywood box, about eight feet tall and twice as wide. Half of the ten bunks inside the box belonged to a motley crew of strange males who, like me, were “new people.” These would be my roommates.
Sitting with Eile in the living room, admiring the gaily decked railing, I wished I didn’t have to trek up to the barn in the dark. I wondered what would earn me a bed here, among women.
* * *
The next morning, after breakfast, I reported for my first Zendik work assignment: helping dig a trench for running power cables from the Farmhouse to the dance studio. I waited outside the dance room door, at one end of the day-glo orange line sprayed on the ground as a guide. The rest of the crew – all women – sauntered up a dirt path from the toolshed, one pick-ax and a half dozen shovels resting on their shoulders.
Karma was first to grab the pick-ax. She straddled the line, knees bent, quads taut against tight jeans, and hoisted the pick above her head. With a fierce downswing, she drove it deep in the earth.
Her hair slipped from a loose knot and tumbled in blond hanks to her shoulders, veiling the iridescent dreamcatchers dangling from her ears. Her low-cut T-shirt, tie-dyed in sea colors, barely hid pert, bra-less breasts. She’d perfected the macha-yet-feminine look favored by Zendik women.
“Yeah!” she grunted, slipping her hand down the pick’s shaft for a second swing. “Nothin’ like a little pickin’ to get the blood movin’ in the mornin’!” The daughter of a Texas-based diplomat, she’d had ample opportunity to hone her hillbilly act.
When it was my turn to pick, my heartbeat accelerated with excitement. Blood rushed to my cheeks. Euphoria surged through me as dormant muscles roared into use.
“Yeah! Swing it!” yelled Karma. I glanced over my shoulder at her. Heaving a shovelful of clods over the lip of the trench, she flashed me a mischievous grin. I smiled back, then redoubled my attack on the line of glowing orange. Each thwack of the pick swelled a joy I’d rarely taken in my innate strength.
“Hey, Helen!” called Karma, from a few feet farther back. I swiveled to face her and rested the pick against the building, guessing my turn with it had ended. She stood with one foot in the ditch, the blade of her trenching shovel poised to slice into the gray muck beneath the red clay. She knitted her eyebrows and thrust her jaw into geezer-jowls, mugging for me and a couple other women who’d paused to listen. “Are you a lez-bean?”
What? I thought. But I could see why she’d asked. My baggy brown overalls hid every curve her jeans exposed. The neckline of my shirt clung to my collarbone. I owned no jewelry. After years of disuse, my ear piercings had almost closed. And my head looked like a shag rug – four and a half months earlier, a couple hours after receiving my college diploma, I’d given myself a buzz cut. Knowing I’d be wandering, I’d wished to spare myself the bother of keeping my hair clean – while showing my disinterest in doing anything to attract a man.
According to the mating story I’d brought to Zendik, the man I was meant to spend my life with would find me. He would see through my butch do and bad clothes. He would know that when I blushed – when I shunned his gaze for a book, a rug, a traffic signal – I was subtly showing interest. He would reach beneath my silence and hunch to stroke my soft animal, curled and panting. He would fold me in his arms, set me at ease, sweep me to ecstasy. He would call, I would respond. Out of his touch would spring a lifelong bond.
I’d already begun wondering if this man would find me at Zendik.
Earlier that morning, through half-closed lids, I’d watched as a Zendik named Estero let himself into the plywood box at the back of the barn loft. Starting with thick, red-faced Rebel, snoring from a bunk opposite me, Estero roused each of my roommates with a touch to the shoulder and a cry of “Seven-thirty! Rise and shine!” He ranged through the room with slouching grace, his dark curls pulled carelessly into a tangled ponytail. A tiny smile played at the edges of his eyes and mouth. Maybe it amused him to be alarming others when he was still groggy himself. I snuggled into my mummy bag, eyes shut tight, and feigned the steady breathing of deep sleep.
I felt the air shift as he crouched to reach me. I kept my eyes closed. Then – there it was. The touch on my shoulder, igniting a tingle through layers of nylon, goose down, cotton. I let my eyes open to meet Estero’s eyes, dark and wide, lit by that hint of a smile. “Seven-thirty, time to wake up,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m awake.”
I lay still, transfixed, as he rose like steam from a hot spring and disappeared through the door.
Later, at breakfast, I’d washed down my bowl of honey-drizzled oatmeal with an intoxicating drink from the Farm’s brimming pool of rippling masculinity. Tucked in a corner of the living room, I’d sipped surreptitious glimpses of firm biceps browned by farmer tans, frayed cuffs over muddy work boots, roughened hands resting on comfortably slung tool belts. I’d savored the notes of a new music of male names: Dymion. Prophet. Lyrik. Estero. (Again: Estero.) With their lively eyes and vigorous strides, their ease with the work of survival, the Zendik men seemed like a breed apart from the scholars and artists I’d known at Harvard.
But Karma couldn’t read my insides. And she wasn’t the first to miscast me. A few months earlier, in the ladies’ room of an Applebee’s on Flatbush Avenue, a woman had snarled, “What are you doing in here?” before seeing I was female. Her mistake had stunned and hurt me.
“No,” I told Karma, the word “lez-bean” still ringing in my inner ear. “No, I’m really not. I just cut my hair short so it would be easy to take care of.”
“I get it,” said Karma, dropping her hillbilly act. “I was just curious. We like to get things clear around here, you know? Lay it all out in the open!” With a friendly wink, she sliced her shovel deeper into the ditch. Gripping the pick-ax again, I wondered if staying at Zendik would make me anywhere near as sexy as she was.
* * *
Later that morning Toba, one of just a few older women on the Farm, recruited me to help her build a cinderblock furnace house for the Addition, a new two-story building at the crest of a hill opposite the one I’d climbed the night before. The sun rose behind the Addition and set behind the barns, passing at midday over the Farmhouse.
Toba stopped by the Farmhouse porch to load two fifty-pound sacks of Portland cement into a rusted blue wheelbarrow. She grabbed its shafts, and I followed her up a dirt track, past a manufactured home on stilts – the Mobile. I’d heard it was overcrowded, and that its residents would ascend to the much larger Addition once it was finished.
At the construction site, Toba dropped both sacks on a patch of mortar-stained grass, then slit one open and emptied it into the wheelbarrow. Behind her a chop saw whined through siding, sending off the burnt-sugar scent of fresh sawdust. Hammers rang against nail heads as a half dozen men fixed planks to the building’s last bare flank. I crimped and straightened the hose, at Toba’s command, watching her pull the mixing hoe through the moistening glop with swift, sure strokes. She was lean, slim, tanned, and at least as macha as the younger women on my trenching crew. Her T-shirt’s plunging V-neck revealed a deeply hollowed collarbone. Lips pressed into a thin line, she focused on her work.
With the mortar moist and smooth as cookie dough, Toba handed me a trowel and showed me how to lay it in twin tracks along the inner and outer edges of the top layer of cinderblocks. I asked how she’d wound up at Zendik.
Her journey had begun twenty years earlier, when she’d left Winnipeg – her hometown – to study psychology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She’d abandoned academia in search of something better after ending her marriage to an aspiring professor.
“He was always in his head, you know?” she said, rounding the long “o” into a northern “awh.” “My biggest problem is that I’m so shut down emotionally. I needed to be in a place where people would call me on my bullshit. Force me to get in touch with what’s in here.” She stabbed the point of her mortaring trowel towards her heart. “People just get so hard, they build so many walls, living in the Deathculture. You have to, to survive, you know? And then you can’t let anybody in, not even the people who love you. I wouldn’t even think of raising Eave out there.” Toba had given birth to Eave, now three, at Zendik. She was one of the Farm’s three children. “Deathculture,” I knew from the Zendiks’ magazine and web site, was their term for the outside world, where competition and lying were killing everything: humans, animals, ecosystems, joy, love, friendship. I neither shared this view nor shied away from it. I had yet to firm a story of why we hurt ourselves and others.
As we laid track and set blocks, Toba sped through the questions I’d answered a half dozen times since arriving at Zendik – where was I from, how had I heard about the Farm, how long was I planning to stay. Then she picked up the line of questioning Karma had started down.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.
“No, I don’t,” I said, blood flooding my cheeks. Like her, I’d come to Zendik untethered by romance. No man would tug me back home.
“Ay,” she said, with a quick nod. “Have you ever had a boyfriend?”
“Yeah, once, in high school.”
Toba nodded again, urging me on.
“We lasted about two months. He dumped me the day I called to say I got into Harvard. I asked him why and he said we were too different. I was too eccentric.”
I paused, recalling the helpless sobs of that breakup. I’d met the boy – Frank – by matching his pace in an undeclared foot race. I was a senior at Dominican Academy, a rigorous but modest Catholic girls’ school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was a junior at Regis, the city’s most prestigious school for Catholic boys. Each October, to raise funds, D.A. and Regis staged a joint Walkathon. Almost all the girls and some of the boys strolled the ten- or twelve-mile route, immersed in flirtation and gossip. I, like many of the Regis guys, speed-walked. It didn’t matter that there was no prize. We wanted to win.
Stopped short by a “Don’t Walk” sign on Central Park West, Frank introduced himself and I reciprocated. Later that day, back at Regis, we slipped out of the thronged courtyard to wander the school’s cavernous halls. He described the calisthenic feats he’d need to perform to make the cut at West Point; I told him I’d applied early action to Harvard. It was then – before we’d even started dating – that he posed his condemning hypothetical: “So if you got into Harvard but you were going out with a guy who couldn’t do better than, say, some SUNY school, would you ditch Harvard for SUNY to be with him?”
“No way!” I said. If I heard the doom in his words, I dismissed it. Plenty of couples in books stayed in love long-distance.
“It was fitting that he called me eccentric, I guess,” I told Toba, “since eccentric also means elliptical and I have the same birthday as Johannes Kepler – the guy who discovered that the planets orbit in ellipses.”
Kepler’s predecessor, Nicolas Copernicus, had correctly posited that the planets orbit the sun – while perpetuating the fallacy that they move in circles. To cement his story against contradictory observations, he added dozens of circular sub-orbits. Sixty-odd years after Copernicus died, Kepler rolled out elliptical motion and cleared the sub-orbits away.
If Toba found my Kepler comment funny, or dorky, she didn’t show it.
“So that was it, ay? You haven’t done anything since?”
“Actually, I have,” I said, flipping my trowel too quickly and dropping a glop of cement. Hardly anyone knew what I’d done since Frank. Around my mother and sisters I sensed – imagined? created? – a force field repelling discussion of sexual experience. I was too shy to raise my escapades to my girlfriends, and only one or two had ever drawn them out.
“I fooled around with a couple guys I met on the road. In Arizona and Key West.”
I’d met J.J. in March 1998, towards the end of a year-long break between my junior and senior years at Harvard. Wandering the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, afraid my detour from school had been a mistake, I’d befriended a trio of locals at Arivaca Lake. One of them set me up with a place to stay. I’d be sleeping – by myself, he assured me – in his friend J.J.’s extra trailer.
J.J. had other plans. That night, after treating me to dinner at the Feed Barn and taking me four-wheel-driving to the local catfish pond, he brought me to the crest of “FM Hill” – so called because, from here, a car radio could pick up all the Tucson music stations. Through the windshield I glimpsed the shadowy hulk of the Santa Rita mountains and the lights of Arivaca, sprinkled across the sleeping valley. I felt the chill caress of winter-on-the-cusp-of-spring, through the pick-up’s rolled-down windows…the nubbly weave of the dingy bench seat…and a calloused hand, suddenly clutching my knee.
J.J. had made his move, as I’d been hoping he would. My touch-starved skin tingled in gratitude. He leaned in to kiss me, his dank cigarette breath slithering up my nostrils, his coarse beard and moustache rasping my chin and cheeks. Back at his trailer he came to bed, scrubbed and nude under a bearskin rug. I luxuriated in his sinuous heat, and the wonder of being entirely unclothed with a man for the first time. Maybe this was what I’d been wandering towards. Maybe this was how I’d dissolve my doubts and settle into now.
But when J.J. lifted his head from my crotch and slid his chest onto mine, cock hard, I shook my head. “I don’t wanna have sex,” I said. I wished to share my sexual initiation with a man who might be my mate – not a roughspoken ranch hand whose sole comment on the future had been, “You could stick around here and keep house for me, I reckon. Maybe pick up a shift at the Feed Barn.”
I pulled back from the brink of sex again in January 1999, under cover of night, at the tip of a dock snaking into the Gulf of Mexico. I was in Key West on winter break from college; my seducer was Jorge, a suave Chilean graduate student who’d come on to me by resting a warm hand on my back and tilting my eyes towards the belt of Orion. I thrilled to his touch – and ignored the email he sent, a month later, saying he’d like to see me on a trip he was planning to Boston.
Had Toba asked, I would have shared details of my flings with J.J. and Jorge. But she just nodded, eyes on the block she was setting. Then she looked up. “Did you make it with them?” she asked.
“‘Make it?’ What do you mean?” Some of the Sixties-isms the Zendiks favored needed translation.
“Have sex,” she said. “Did you have sex with them.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks again. The thrill of being recognized as a sexual being overrode any alarm I might have felt at the trespass in her question.
“No,” I replied. “Both guys were ready but I stopped them. I didn’t wanna get pregnant. And I didn’t wanna do it for the first time with just anyone.”
As I spoke, I flashed on Karma’s description, in her Woodstock story, of approaching a bare-chested man with the magazine: “I liked the painter even though I had to shield against too strong of a sexual connection….Sex in the world isn’t friendly yet.” Had I avoided sex “in the world” partly because I’d sensed it wasn’t friendly? Could it be true that sex at Zendik was friendly, already? In a scenelet of the selling crew’s drive home from upstate New York to North Carolina, Karma quoted her fellow road warrior Cayta – “who’s in charge, if anyone’s in charge” – as saying, “I always want to have sex on the way home – clean bed, hot food and sex.” Maybe, at the Farm, sex was something warm and sweet and easy to come by that you enjoyed with the blessing of friends. Maybe choosing the right matrix mattered just as much as meeting the right man.
* * *
My task after lunch was to help Zeta – one of the young women from the trenching crew – paint shelving units on the Addition’s upper level, divided into three bedrooms. The one we set up in was a loft at the crest of a spiral staircase, bright with sunshine pouring in through windows and skylights. From the railing I admired the structure’s soaring floor-to-roof sweep, as well as the love glowing through each handcrafted detail. I would not have guessed that every board in the building had been pried from the skeleton of some rotting home or shop. The Zendiks had taken a motley jumble of derelict stuff and found purpose for it in a smooth new whole.
Zeta filled two yogurt containers with thick white paint from a bucket nested in newspaper. As we laid it in sleek glides over rough reclaimed pine, I learned that she, like me, had grown up in New York City. She’d even attended the same arts high school as my sister, at about the same time. A musical virtuoso, she played violin and sometimes sang backup in the all-improv Zendik band. She met her machisma quotient with high-topped combat boots, and tiny toothed shells biting into her dreadlocks. At the Farm about a year and a half, she was one of only two Black women in the group, and one of only three Black Zendiks.
Warmed by news of our shared origins, I barely blinked when Zeta switched subjects. “Hey,” she said, with a playful smile, “has anyone told you how dating works yet?”
“No,” I said. “But last night at dinner I heard one of the girls say she was going on a date. I figured she and her boyfriend were heading into Hendersonville to see a movie or something.” Watching Zeta’s smile widen, I began to doubt the story I’d supplied.
“Was I wrong?”
Zeta laughed and nodded, eliciting a burst of clicks from the tiny teeth. “Yeah, you were wrong,” she said. “Dating here is nothing like dating out there. The way we do it is totally different.” She paused, raised her brush to remove a stray bristle. “Have you met Shure and Loria?”
“They’re the dating strators. They’ve been here forever – I think since Boulevard.”
“Strator,” I would discover, was Zendik slang for “administrator.” Boulevard – a town outside San Diego – was one of the Farm’s earliest locations. Other Zendik vintages, from older to newer, included Bonsall, Topanga, Texas, and Florida. In its thirty-year history, the Farm had moved many times.
I nodded. Zeta continued. “If you wanna get together with a guy you like, you ask one of them to hit him up for you. You can hit him up for a date – which means sex – or if you just wanna kiss, hold hands, make out, you can start with a walk instead.”
My brush slowed as I imagined ambling through a meadow at midnight, hand in hand with Estero. The thought of my fingers twined in his roused a delicious wave of tingles.
“You can say in advance how far you wanna go, and the guy will respect that. No games, no pressure. No dumb pick-up lines.”
My vision dissolved into the final scene of a vivid dream I’d had when I was ten. A handsome man, at least thrice my age, was chasing me through a tropical forest. Upon catching me he said, “Let’s not have sex. Let’s just make love.” I was enraptured and relieved.
Twelve years later, I still thought “making love” and “having sex” were separate things. To me, “making love” meant luxuriating in the holding and kissing, the stroking and petting, the languor and longing, as long as you wanted. This, it seemed, was the promise of a “walk.”
Zeta broke in with a question. “You’re a virgin, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, taken aback. “How’d you know?”
“Oh,” she said, dabbing extra paint into a knothole, “Toba told me. At lunch.” She covered the patch around the knothole with short, quick strokes. “So yeah, you’d wanna take it slow. Here you can do that. People will help.”
I thought again of Estero – the latest in a string of crushes threading as far back as first grade. How many boys, then men, had enthralled me with their wit, their salt, their sweat, only to dance out of reach? How many chances had I missed to take a hand, test for a match?
Where had Zendik been all my life?
“Wow,” I breathed, gazing out the bedroom window at a pillow of mist falling on the Blue Ridge. “That sounds like a fairytale.”
* * *
A couple days later, I caught my first glimpse of Arol, the Farm’s matriarch. Glancing up from my lunch bowl of salad and broiled tofu, I saw a silver-haired woman sitting opposite me, in an armchair by the door to the porch. At sixty-one, Arol was a generation or two older than the rest of the Zendik women, who ranged in age from early forties to late teens.
She looked older in person than she did in pictures. On the cover of We the Poet – the Zendik band’s latest album – her hair fell in shining ripples; her skin, smooth and youthful, luminesced behind a wall of rain. A Zendik magazine photo taken about ten years earlier showed her commanding a barn doorway, hip thrust out, slim and sexy in jeans, cowboy boots, and a tailored denim jacket. Her luxuriant hair spilled over her shoulders in dark waves tinged gray. Crowning her right cheekbone was a dime-sized tattoo of a blue whale, poised for the rocky voyage past her stormy gaze. She seemed to be hurling a challenge: I dare you to say I’m on the fade.
Since posing for the photo, Arol had overseen two moves (from Texas to Florida and then North Carolina), lost Wulf, her mate of forty years, and aged in frame and face. The woman across the living room wore a baggy sweater and loose cotton pants. Gravity tugged at her cheeks, her neck, the dime-sized whale; wrinkles webbed her forehead. Her hair, still thick around her shoulders but brittle at the ends, had faded to gray.
My mother, nearing fifty-seven, had parted her graying hair down the middle and pinned it back in a neat bun each day for fifteen years. A Catholic schoolteacher with monkish habits, she would never have dreamed of going bohemian or getting tattooed. Nonetheless, it was my trust in her that primed me to trust Arol. Had Wulf been alive and giving orders I might have fled the Farm within days.
Arol was murmuring what seemed like instructions to a flint-chipped man crouched at her elbow. A dark, billed cap obscured his eyes. He nodded every few seconds. Her lips almost grazed his ear. This was Prophet, Arol’s consort. He was a year older than me, and just six months older than Swan, Arol and Wulf’s daughter. They’d gotten together a few months after Wulf’s death.
When Arol finished, Prophet nodded once more and gently squeezed her forearm. He rose to leave the room, never raising his gaze to reveal his eyes. Cap brim, nose, moustache, goatee – a study, in living quartz, of precision focus.
The room filled with the clatter and click of fork against bowl, fork against plate. Arol looked up. At me.
“You’re Helen, right? The Harvard chick. Where’d you come here from?”
“New York City. Brooklyn.”
“Ha! That’s where I grew up. The projects. Williamsburg, Hell’s Kitchen.” She laughed. “New York’s a real shithole, isn’t it?”
I smiled at her bluntness. I too loathed New York, in moments, for its crowds and concrete, its everyday brutality; I welcomed the idea that it wasn’t a suitable habitat for humans. If that was true, then I was right to bail out. On the other hand it was home, the place I knew best. I’d long thought that if there were a footrace up Broadway, complete with real-life rush-hour throngs, ill-timed “Don’t Walk” signs, and motor vehicles threatening pedestrians in the crosswalk, I’d win. I was that skilled at the dance of New York City. And I’d been lucky enough to grow up in a large apartment on Prospect Park West – affordable for a family on food stamps because we’d moved to Brooklyn in 1977, when the South Slope was rowdy and rents were low. I tried for a compromise between contradicting Arol and unduly dissing my home city.
“Well, yeah, it can get pretty ugly. But I didn’t mind living there when I was a kid.”
Arol lifted one corner of her mouth in a sardonic smile, then switched subjects. “You know we work pretty hard here. It’s not like college. It’s a much deeper commitment. You have to be smart to make it here, but that’s only part of it. You have to put your heart in it. You think you can do that?”
She stared at me, her eyes storming mine. I wasn’t sure what she meant, but she seemed to know, and I was intrigued by the story taking form: At Zendik I’d grow in new ways, working toward rewards at once more real and mysterious than grants and grades. Revive sweetness in romance. Practice the mating dance without leaving home.
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