Publisher’s Note: The publication of Arya Jenkins’ “Epistrophy” is the third in a series of short stories she has been commissioned to write for Jerry Jazz Musician. For information about her column, please see our September 12 “Letter From the Publisher.” For Ms. Jenkins’ introduction to her work, read “Coming to Jazz.”
photo by Claudine Doury
Disenchanted leaves fell early through the trees the summer I left my life for an ashram. The path to the ashram snaked into the woods not far from Tanglewood and reminded me less of where I had been than where I was going with its rotund emphasis on kindness and formality-Within a year I would be studying Buddhism in a monastery and teaching English at Cornell in Ithaca.
I was attempting to put a punto finale to the moneyed nonsense in which I’d lived too long in Fairfield County, and wanted to quell my fulminating instinct, my destructive fires and find some kind of peace and stability, even at the expense of boredom–which may have been expecting too much.
When I was a kid, I dreamed once of coming upon an empty box in the woods through which wind whistled. I woke up terrified, sure I was being consumed by wind or emptiness, this being what I understood since those days be the human condition. No other dream save one other where I was being crucified and split apart while on a cross stirred so much fear and angst in me. Well, anyway, it was 1993, and I hoped to shake hands with some other understanding of emptiness, and perhaps even cultivate my spirituality while at Kripple-U.
The ashram was called Kripple-U by its residents, Kripple-U referring less to the style of yoga practiced there than to the crimping rules of the place, which included sexual abstinence. We were encouraged to hang with members of our own gender, which suited almost everyone, as almost everyone I knew there was gay. The women were girlishly beautiful and the men, beautiful and boyish as if perhaps we were all stuck on some adolescent bridge. There was an understanding, implicit in the air, that many of us were balancing on some precarious inner edge.
There was for example the wealthy and beautiful Tessa, from Boston, with a successful business, children even.
“What are you doing here,” I asked her one day as we decorated the main hall for a celebration, “Why are you here?”
“I’m afraid of killing myself,” she said loosely, tossing a long, white ribbon into the air. I watched the ribbon spiral downward slowly.
“If you do kill yourself, that will be your main legacy, no matter what came before,” I told her bluntly.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “But I always think about it, which is why I’m here, trying this.”
Another boy, adopted and anorectic, went on the longest fasts, stretching his limbs extraordinarily whenever he did yoga postures. I used to see him walking the long hill into town in flip flops, still in his whites, murmuring to himself, and that is how he haunted the place after he committed suicide, drifting among the trees, a specter of unfulfilled longing. He hung himself from a nearby tree.
I have never met so many lean, hungry people as I did that summer at Kripple-U, everyone there hungry for something and longing to appease that hunger. As for sex–as often happens, the thing prohibited became the sought-after prize. Sex happened often-in empty bedrooms, bathroom stalls, meditation rooms, even the sauna.
At the end of Jenna’s 30-day fast, drinking only grapefruit juice with cayenne pepper and syrup, we celebrated going out for sushi. Afterwards, at a gas station, I could see a latent energy spiraling out of her as she assiduously cleaned my front windshield. She got me so distracted whispering in my ear as I drove back to the ashram, I swerved and hit a barrier, blowing out the left headlight and denting the front corner of my brand new GT. Back at Kripple-U, we raced the long, red-carpeted corridor into the first available room we could find, Jenna yanking me by one hand while massaging her throat with the other.
From time to time, just for kicks, I rented soft porn videos from a store in town and snuck them into Kripple-U. We lugged the lounge TV into our residents’ room, where there was minimal space between two sets of bunk beds, and hunkered down over sesame oil-and soy sauce-sprinkled popcorn to watch naked French girls go at it on the screen, the irony being that all my girlfriends at the time at Kripple-U were French Canadian.
Kripple-U prescribed vigorous yoga, vegetarian meals and kirtan–a ritual where, dressed in our best whites, we chanted and swaying blissfully before the white-robed guru as he lectured us sweetly from his throne onstage.
The guru surrounded himself with an entourage of elders who had been with him for years. Many of them dressed in orange to commemorate their long status as celibates and often handed down fierce judgments on what they deemed our shortcomings. Suspicious of my independence and questions –“why do you treat us like children?”– they put me to work alone in a windowless room transcribing teachings.
Six mornings a week I sat before a desk and computer, listening to the gentle, lisping words of the guru through a headset connected to a tape recorder. Once in a while, someone peered in with a smile or snack. Sometimes I took breaks to meditate, sitting cross-legged for hours at a stretch before a mirror on the plush red shag carpet. Some evenings after seva, I went to that room to draw or paint on posters. Once, Karen from California and I spent the night there, limbs entwined under a thin blanket, reveling in sensual comfort. In this way, I managed to turn that jail into a nest.
Weekends, we swam in a nearby lake or trespassed properties to crash luxurious pools, that being the one amenity unavailable at Kripple-U. Sometimes I escaped in my red mustang to go to Northampton alone. I liked roaming the funky cafes, bookstores and record shops, where I picked up Dexter Gordon’s, Miles’ and Monk’s music. Nights, I danced in the gay clubs, crawling back to my bunk at Kripple-U in the wee hours, wreaking of smoke and decadence.
In October, most of my friends returned to their routines in the world. I myself had no intention of going back to where I had come from, except to pull a few warm things out of storage and return fast as I could to the artist’s studio I had found in Lenox.
Situated on the second floor of a white clapboard building on a side street in town, it had once belonged to one of Chet Baker’s girlfriends, a singer. It had everything in it I wanted and needed: a small, narrow kitchen, rectangular wooden table and two chairs, and in the main room, a couple of lamps, futon and television, set on a blue carpet. During the day, light fell through the windows creating staffs on which I imagined notes dancing when I listened to music. It was always jazz, Miles’ and Monk’s compositions, creating a counterpoint to my inner life.
Many nights, I sat, my back against the kitchen wall, pondering my future. I had not let go of a past that haunted me and was burdened by dark secrets I was loathe to share. What could anyone do about what had happened to me? No matter what I said or how I said it, the listener would look at me, not at the culprits, as the one with three heads, the one to be regarded suspiciously. How could I rein in my memory, turn the page?
Following a therapist’s advice, I had sent missives to my parents while I was at Kripple-U, hoping against hope for some positive reply. None ever came. My letters may have been discarded, perhaps unread. Eventually, as if in reaction to a delayed guilt, my father sent me occasional checks encased in a blank note of denial.
I was born Frances Blakely, adding the III to be dramatic during my Catholic high school prep days, when I aspired to little more than drinking myself to death. As a kid, I would imagine myself a lush and stumble around my room dousing myself with glasses of water–practicing, I suppose. Soon as I could, I started imbibing, anything to numb myself.
Drinking did what it does best, drew out my demons, and quickly got me expelled from school. Afterward, my parents sent me to a shrink, who, upon hearing of my antics–which included slicing my wrists when I was drunk–informed me I wouldn’t “live to see 20.” The next shrink, well versed in insobriety, dubbed me a character disorder. The one after that, bipolar. I made the round of rehabs until, as the AA saying goes, I became “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and stopped drinking altogether.
Sober, the dramas of the moment quickly dissipated and I endeavored to talk about the past–as I knew people did in therapy–but found I could not. I would open my mouth to deliver a memory and freeze, literally. It was not that I did not know what to say-a torrent of words awaited at the gate of my mouth, but I physically could not utter them. It was as if I was still under the spell of the willful child I had been who had sworn never to speak.
I had known people with more unspeakable pasts. My friend Devon’s father used to shackle him and his younger brother to the kitchen radiator when they were kids so men coming to the house could sodomize them after paying at the door. Devon’s younger brother overdosed on heroin and Devon himself joined a 12-step program. These are the sorts of people I have always attracted–freaks, drunks, addicts and deviants– because they know I will be both moved and unruffled by their bizarre pasts.
To this day I don’t know of anyone besides myself who was sexually molested by her own mother as a kid, except for the writer Linda Sexton, whose mother, the famous poet Anne Sexton, was a twisted, talented lady, not unlike my own mother. What I remember most about Linda Sexton’s book about life with her mother is the scene when, after Linda tells her psychiatrist what her mother did to her–she breaks down, curling into herself with grief, while her shrink does nothing.
What can anyone know about such betrayal without having lived it? My intention was to forgive and get beyond my mother’s abuse and, what had been worse for me, my father’s rejection of the truth and me. To move on, get through this dyskinetic dream called life. I wondered about these things, memory, dreams and my responsibilities to them as the days grew whiter and colder, and I lay out the tools of my survival-pens, paper and paints.
It was then in that studio, listening to Monk’s music as I sketched and painted poems, which became a living breathing thing then because of the energy of the music and my will combined, that I began to sense a kind of humor in the universe, a kind of laughter growing out of the tragedy that it is to live. Monk, a crazy cat, dyskinetic too, made me laugh and I had no idea why. Here was someone who could barely put one foot in front of the other, but listen to his music, man, what genius. My only choice was creativity.
My whole life I had masked the reality of my mother’s intrusions pretending nothing had happened. How else could I have greeted my tormenter, day in, day out, except by pretending nothing had happened between us those nights when I should have been sleeping like any child. During the day, we might have been strangers unless she deigned to parade my sisters and I in one of our best outfits to be admired in front of guests. Sometimes I acted out, prodding my sisters and friends in the chest and shoulder, as my mother would me at the start of our nightly game, but when I saw this elicited only anger in others, I knew my only recourse was retreat.
I imagine it started as a way to practice rhythm, the Catholic method of birth control. Why else would she have left the bed next to her husband, entered my sisters’ and my room in her sheer gown, lifted me out of my bed near the door, asked my sister sleeping on the upper bunk to come and take my bed while the youngest slept below.
On that top bunk, my mother and I were invisible to all. Only the ceiling watched. My mother turned her dark eyes on me then, malevolent and unrecognizable, not my mother’s, as she began to prod here and there. I knew I could make no sound, show no fear, no giggles, nothing. Only remain where I was, allowing her to do what she wanted. I was afraid then, knowing instinctively what was to come that I could neither reverse nor stop. And then she did prod me there, in that place no one, not even my self, was ever to touch. Then she pulled me on top of her as she began masturbating. Pressed between her large breasts, I struggled to breathe. The intense heat, discomfort and strangeness of it all made me nauseous even though I knew I could not throw up or reveal my disgust. I did not want my mother to see it and therefore hate me and so I swallowed all I was feeling until I felt I would drown in my own repressed gut of emotion.
There was so much happening inside and outside at once, the scent, unimaginable, the energy too much, all of it, unspeakable. Then finally my mother let go an unholy cry, then throwing an arm across her forehead said, “I am sick, sick.” And I said, “You are? Let me help.” And she said, “No, go away.” I turned so as not to disturb her, moving as close as I could to the cold white wall, it being then the only relief, the only kind thing, as it absorbed my shivering heat.
When I was a kid, I rarely slept and would lie in bed, arms crossed over my chest, always wondering if she could come, fearing that she might, praying to that entity called God beyond the ceiling somewhere far away that did not hear me that I might survive the night.
Some nights, desperate for rest, comfort or love, I got up and went to my parents’ door, raised my fist to knock and froze, realizing, despite all I wished, that if I knocked she might be the one to answer. And I did not want her to be the one to come to me.
One night my father who was never there came and sat at the edge of my bed in his shorts, impatiently rubbing my chest too hard, and said “Sleep, count sheep.”
“I can’t,” I said, then slowly, slowly, over the span of many minutes, all the while praying he would stay with me then, I managed to get out three words. By then, I was no longer able to speak much at all. I had lost my ability to say anything, all things being a kind of lie and myself knowing lying was a sin. “She…..touches…..me,” I said, many years, many lifetimes in-between each word.
Grimacing, he turned suddenly in the direction of their room where she slept, indicating to me he had heard me, and my heart leapt, thinking he is there now, my savior, he will help me. Then, looking down at me, he said, “I don’t ever, ever want you to speak of this to anyone ever again. Do you understand?”
My eyes must have widened then with surprise, shock even, before I felt something leave my chest and then blood drain from me into space and myself falling. For many years, I did not feel anything and every word I spoke was a lie, the unspoken being the only truth. It was drink that brought up those secrets I had contained so long, making the pain of holding on to what I knew so intense that something in me cracked again, the place in my mind refusing to let go, so that without the alcohol, slowly, slowly I began to spill into the world. Now, an adult, with so much still unformed in me that had frozen, stopped, so early on, I could barely speak to my parents or have anything to do with them, they having forced me into such a world, and how would I shape my own identity and survive their betrayal? And on and on this story went, with me struggling to rise above it. And music being the only balm.
To take breaks from that internal dialogue, I took walks through the wintry haven that was Lenox. Next door was an art gallery and I got to know its owners, and across the street, an inn, where I found work as a waiter. The two gay owners figured I was a guy, which was okay with me, as I was not only thin, but my hair still short from the ashram days. I served breakfasts and afternoon tea to rich white old fogeys and got decent tips, soon carving a routine to keep from feeling boxed in. One snowy night, I went to a New Age potluck and picked up a sweet blond guy to bring home to cuddle with against the cold.
It snowed so much that winter, the sidewalks became virtually unpassable. You could barely make people out across the street, only colorful caps filing by behind a high wall of snow. Sundays, I skipped over to a local elementary school where this guy had a studio filled with wall-size oil paintings of giant whales and other sea creatures that he sold to corporations. He made a load of money from his art, but lived like a pauper, with a coffee pot and cot in one corner, and Sundays hosted an open house, painting nude models. He often slept with the models, so needless to say, his wife dumped him and his studio became his casa for good.
The artists who lived next door were from New York and spent their time between Lenox and Sarasota, Florida-she, with white blonde long hair and big, watery blue eyes; he, tall, with an orange-fake tan. He would look me up and down, not knowing what to make of me. Once I started catering and had to wear a tie, he started calling me Little Joe, that being his name too-perhaps figuring I was one of his bastard offspring. He collected stray cats too.
Anyway, Joanne of the soulful eyes and colorful outfits, liked my wily art that she dubbed Existentialist Picasso and hung some of it in her gallery.
“You mean expressionist, don’t you, in which case I would be more like Jackson Pollock.”
“No, you’re more spacious than Pollock. Existentialist, boundless,” she threw her arms wide, inventing new meaning for the term.
The apex of that long winter was Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April, which shook everyone I knew out of winter’s sleep. I was tired of my solitary reveries by then, so tired of counting wrongs they had become like sheep in my imagination. So, as snow began to melt, I started hanging with some young poets I met in a café. I had only just started painting, but had always written poems, and published some too.
The young poets were super bright, angry, politically-savvy, from broken families themselves and did not seem to question or care about my origins, proclivities or whatever. I fit in with them, and they with me, and we performed together in cafes and on the radio. A group of six whittled down to four that included–17-year old Zoe; the darkly handsome Garrett, then 19; and Jack, who was 20, addicted to Rimbaud and with whom I fell in love.
Jack was a strapping guy who wore holey jeans and tees and had some beautiful fire in his blue eyes. Man, could he write, and how he inspired me to write that spring and summer. We worked on typewriters, enjoying the clickety-clack rhythm of the dance, conjuring poems in a school auditorium, as we messed with mikes, echoes and our voices.
We discussed art and poetry, dadaism and surrealism and did a tape for blind students, throwing our entire bodies into improvisations in that auditorium like we were tossing die onto the wide-board floors of the universe. My poet friends were always pumped about something, “Torch, what do you make of this?” “What do you think about The Doors?” “What about Patti Smith?” I had changed my name to Torch while at the ashram, all to reinvent myself.
“Lou Reed and Patti Smith know tradition, but expand boundaries with their poetry and music. They’re jazz too.”
“But they’re rock ‘n roll.”
“Fuck the labels, man.”
We got on this kick, examining everything we knew that went beyond itself, even religion, determining that Buddhism was the jazz of religions.
“Torch, let’s read some Rimbaud,” was always Jack’s wish, Jack who fed on the highest words of the ages, mysticism, death and the mind’s awakening from darkness, which is why he was the best poet among those kids, the most serious and most daring. I knew when I looked into his eyes or heard him read, his big hands holding up a paperback of poems, his longish hair dangling, that he would do anything for the art. He was a true artist, that one.
Jack and I sometimes went to Northampton to see art movies, and afterwards walked arm-in-arm along the sidewalks not caring what people thought-whether I was older, and he, younger, whether we were related or not, of the same sex, or not, not caring of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of our bond, which is what it was, the two of us committed to art and poetry, and me, to jazz, which bridged the whole fucking world of inconceivabilities.
Jack, Garrett and Zoe took me to see the Grateful Dead and Phish. I took them to Manhattan on the train, knapsack straps across our damp tees and thin button down shirts, outlining bony shoulder blades and fed bread to pigeons in a park and blew a few bucks at The Village Vanguard so we could experience jazz together. I said, “Guys, you have to hear jazz to know poetry.” Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano performed, playing Coltrane, Miles, Monk and Mingus too, along with his own originals in the dusky belly of the bar while notes crisscrossed the air like secrets.
Only Jack dug jazz at first. Only he understood what I meant connecting jazz and poetry, the two stemming from great love and the ability to take risks with what you know to be true in the deepest part of you. So he and I started listening to jazz in my little studio, Monk, Dizzy, Miles, and Keith Jarrett, typing jazz into our poems. I wrote poems with a staccato fury –“I was born when jazz raged and a continent sang with blood, streets were caked with it,” began one of my poems from that period that was published in The Café Review.
One time, when we were hanging in my studio, Garrett said, “We need a name.” He said “syncopation” and Jack said, “and anarchy,” and we became that, using that name when we read Lorca’s New York poems and Langston Hughes’ poems in voices, swinging, fingers snapping too.
Through Garrett, I met a long-haired aesthete who had fallen for Garrett, although Garrett not with him, and who ran a store full of rare objects from all over the world in Pittsfield. Marlin understood jazz and poetry, Shakespeare and Rimbaud, as he suffered over Garrett as over other pretty, unavailable young men. He wanted to put together a book of our poems on the high tech computer he kept on the third floor of his store, but Zoe and Garrett kept hedging.
“I feel like a book would trap us,” said Zoe. “We need to experiment more.”
“Maybe so,” ventured Garrett, fingering his nonexistent beard.
Jack just kept writing into his notebook. It didn’t matter to him what happened. Like me, he just kept writing.
One afternoon Zoe read us a poem she had written that had some strong female sexual images. When she was done, no one said anything.
“I don’t care if you don’t like it or think it’s gross. I don’t care.”
“It’s disturbing,” said Garrett.
“You’re a wuss,” she said.
“Well it’s not like I’m going to lose sleep over it,” he replied.
“Then it’s not good enough,” Zoe said, storming out of the room.
Another time, Zoe said, “We need instruments.” We went to Marlin’s store and used his African drums and flutes, listening to the sounds drift up the high ceiling, transforming possibilities and words.
I ran the store for Marlin during the summer months as he scouted for precious goods in Africa, and he brought me back a black Moroccan cape–necessary for a poet, he said. Garrett and I alternated shifts. I’d watch him counting money, hair disheveled, the worry of ages upon his furrowed brow. I could see him then becoming a man for whom money would mean everything and the moment this registered, some tender need in me to give to him switched off.
That summer, I alternated between the lilting songs of Loreena McKennitt and the high glass walls and brittle sun of a would-be museum in which wooden dolls from Africa, Moroccan capes and Tibetan vests, all seemed part of my heritage and ken, and the punk absences of jazz-inspired poetry–cruel and staccato words expelled out of hopelessness, helplessness and glee, hung on the fences of pages meant to represent a different, fresh aesthetic, although they were really the articulations of common human urgencies.
The hunger in Jack blossomed, and I let him go, urging him to grow beyond the pond of Pittsfield. He went to Syracuse, then Oxford on grants, disappearing in a wave of ether as we all did when fall came, as if we had all encountered the illusion simultaneously that we were made of greater substances separately.
A year or so after Lenox, Zoe dropped out of a community college, aborted Garrett’s baby and ran away to Ithaca, where I was studying Buddhism. We hung out, talked, meditated and photographed the homeless kids in the Commons, one of which she herself became, tattooed and rabid to adopt her own renegade family.
I listened to Dexter Gordon’s ballads on my headset, walking to and from my job at a bookstore in downtown Ithaca and hiking up and down the hills to Cornell, where I taught English to visiting scholars. Dexter’s tenor sax seemed to say, “Don’t worry, don’t fret, just listen to the love.” Which is what his ballads were for me, a greater love, like Coltrane’s and Monk’s music too.
In Ithaca, contemplating absurdities and the universe according to Buddhism, the sacred sounds of mantras became my spiritual mother and father, transforming all that was capable of lifting me above my own suffering.
Of course, whenever I dwelled on the past, I continued to wonder what had caused this woman, my mother, to do what she had. Was it a bad husband? Too many children? Something missing in her life? I could come up with no answer. Only madness. And so to this, chaos and unknowing, I consigned her, to an eternal darkness that I would plumb with questions for the rest of my life. But the sacred could combat it, infuse it with light so there might be some answers.
I found true kinship in jazz and a way to transcend myself in sacred repetition. In jazz and Buddhism was the divine. Emptiness they both sang. All phenomena is emptiness.
One day Zoe and I went to the local movie theater to see The Piano. At the moment in the film when the jealous husband-to-be punishes his mute fiancé for her infidelity by cutting off her index finger so she can no longer play the piano, Zoe gripped my leg, whispering loudly, “I have to go. You don’t understand, I have to go now.”
I said “wait,” as I was absorbed in the movie. Zoe insisted, so we stepped out into the alleyway. where she paced nervously, struggling for words, she with her head shaved, looking much like a nun or boy standing in the darkness that was brilliant after rain.
“What is it,” I said, wondering what she was up to, myself on the verge of impatience.
“I couldn’t watch. It was just too close, you know. I shouldn’t have done what I did, shouldn’t have.”
“Done what,” I said, not wanting to presume.
“A fetus is a thing, a child to respect too. Because we are all fetuses,” she said, spreading her hands wide as she made her pronouncement.
I wasn’t sure what she was expounding on-abortion, evolution, or both, or if it mattered. What I felt was her reaching beyond herself.
I remembered one time when we had been strolling in the Commons and I gave her my umbrella. Without missing a beat, she had passed it along to a homeless guy who used to walk around wearing a tattered raincoat carrying a briefcase stuffed with plastic bags. He was napping on a bench, oblivious to the rain, but Zoe opened the umbrella and secured it so it would protect his face. I had thought then she understood what I hadn’t realized she did, that the world is larger than her, than all our individual pains. Since coming to Ithaca, she rarely talked about herself anymore, although she was still full of drama. I could see then she was growing beyond herself too.
That night in the alleyway, I waited for her to elaborate, she knowing she could count on my listening. But instead, she began dancing like a Greek, spreading her arms wide, sidestepping around me, moving to some inner tune. There was no music, yet I could see her lips moving, as if reciting something, and herself still dancing, tracing invisible shapes around me, larger and larger boxes.
* * *
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