I'm gonna start by saying that this entire story is true – and that it's something I've never told before. Suffice it to say, the reason for the secret cover will become clear with each flicker of an orange candle and each breath into a napkin.
Doesn't make sense? Hop on board and try to go with it. But do so knowing that it all won't make sense by the end of the story either.
It was early August and I was feeling somewhat out of sorts. The only way I can really describe my emotions is to say that I wished that my skin came equipped with a zipper so that I could slide out of myself and maybe send my shell to a dry cleaner or a car wash or any place that could have purified all that felt compromised.
Why was I feeling so off? It's impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I think it was from the psychological cocktail of waiting for an agent to read a script I wrote, dating guys who couldn't hold my interest after the buzz from a single drink wore off, and the knowledge that the autumn was rolling in faster than the waves I'd avoided since my first bad burn of the summer.
I hadn't been sleeping well, which is not something all that new for me, but it was starting to get to me. During the hours I could sleep, I was having realistic nightmares populated by every person that I knew. Remember that poster of The Simpsons where every character in all of Springfield was splayed across the thing? That's what my dreams were like: every human being I had ever interacted with, especially ones I had even a second of conflict with, popped up to say fuck you in my subconscious.
I needed help.
I did a little reading on the subject of feeling outside of oneself in a way that didn't feel cool in an existential kind of way, and what I first tried as a remedy was good old exercise. That's when the power walks started, when the sneakers came out and stayed out. And the walking felt good, but it wasn't a cure. I thought meeting a new guy might be a slutty little band-aid, but the next guy I was considering managed to walk himself right off of my personal planet with this exchange:
Me: Hey, I'm sorry I have to bail tonight, and the reason why is weird. I wrote a script, and my friend in LA is calling me with notes. The call is tonight at 6pm his time – which is 9pm our time – right when you were supposed to come over. Another time?
Him: No problem. I understand. Good luck. And if it doesn't work out, remember that Shakespeare said that failure was natural.
Me: Fuck Shakespeare.
And that was the end of that guy, and it didn't matter to me at all that he had a good job, good hair, and great lips. Because when somebody in my life believes and then cheerfully promotes the idea that – when it comes to my writing – failure is an option, I don't even have the desire to wave goodbye.
Still, crossing a distraction out of my life didn't make me feel better. What scared me was that it didn't make me feel worse. It didn't make me feel anything, and very little, I realized, had lately.
I needed some kind of emotional tune-up.
I'd heard of someone once going for a psychic kind of cleansing, and it always stayed in my mind because it seemed so crazy. I mean, I understood a physical cleanse, where you flooded your organs with shit like lemon juice and cayenne pepper, and I understood regular therapy, but the mystical cleanse thing struck me as the very last thing I would ever submit myself to.
And that's exactly why I decided to do it.
I will not go into how I found this person or what her real name is. Instead, I'm going to call her Glenda, because I'm pretty sure that she is a good witch.
I showed up for our first meeting – to be clear, I thought this would be our only meeting – dressed like I was going on a date where I’d end up putting out. I was in a little skirt and a tight tank top and I was wearing heels. I also tossed on my locket, the one with my father's picture in it, which I tend to wear for luck or for pretend protection. Why I got so dolled up for a cleansing was perfectly clear to me: I wanted to come off looking like I was together even though I'm pretty sure that a person who's completely together doesn't cold-call a mystic. I got the dichotomy – I'm not stupid – but I wanted to prove to this stranger that I wasn't a total fucking mess.
Working against me was that the day before my entire face had broken out like I was trying to snag a Proactiv commercial. I searched my bathroom cabinets for concealer and piled that shit on like I was a drag queen. Awesome, all of it.
I drove to the designated meeting place not knowing what to expect. I had told nobody where I was going. The entire thing felt so cloak and dagger that I really wished I had chosen to wear a trench coat.
I knocked on the door and was let inside by a small woman who was probably about fifty years old. She wore comfortable clothing and looked normal. Had I passed her in a store, I wouldn't have looked at her twice.
She had an office, and it was pink. It was very pink. Pink chairs, a white desk, pink accessories all over the small room. There was nothing I could see, other than a basket of candles, that looked in any way spiritual.
I sat across from her on one side of the desk like she was about to do my taxes. I smiled warmly, bravely, like I was a girl who had it all together. She stared back at me – her look wasn't what I would call kind, but it also wasn't what I would deem unkind either – and then she asked me why I was there.
"I think I need some kind of cleanse," I told her, saying it easily, saying it like that was a sentence I had ever uttered before in my life.
She nodded and took out an unflavored tube of Chapstick and applied it messily to her full lips.
"You have really dark energy," she said to me. "There's a lot of negativity coming off of you."
I hadn't been myself lately, and I knew that. But to be told I emitted negativity was like being told that I was really a man. All of my life, one of my defining characteristics had been my unfailing positivity or my ability to fake positivity. I had random students I didn't know stop me in the hallways at work to exclaim that I was always smiling. And here I was being told just the opposite.
I felt whatever confidence I had begin to falter. I felt myself sinking tragically into that pink chair.
"Can you help?" I asked. "Because negative is not who I am, and it's not who I'm willing to be."
She looked at me closely. She didn't smile.
"Here's what I need you to do. I need you to fill up something with water from home and bring it to me. Then I need you to take some napkins – between five and ten – and ask specific questions while you blow into them. Then place the napkins in a bag and bring those to me too."
These instructions were said to me like she was asking me to bring Brie for a party, like anything she was telling me made sense.
"Wait, wait, wait," I said in a rush, and I picked up my phone and flipped to the Notes app. "I need to write this down. Now, does it matter what the water goes in? Does it matter if it's plastic or glass?"
"Nope," Glenda said, and she looked bored.
"Now, about these napkins: should they be all white? Should I wear or not wear lipstick as I blow into them? Should it be one breath or puffs of air?"
"None of that matters," said Glenda, and for the first time she looked amused.
"When should I do this?" I asked.
"Today," she said firmly. "And you'll bring everything to me tomorrow at one. I will not charge you for today. I don't know if I can help you yet."
And then she steered me out of her office and I found myself back in my car, alone.
I don't even remember the drive home. All I remember was a circle of thoughts in my head that were linked by the fact that I was such a gaggle of negativity, a professional cleanser wasn't sure she could cleanse me. And I had to go back for more of this shit tomorrow. And what the fuck was I going to put water in, and which faucet should I get it from?
I got home and immediately typed ten questions into my phone. They were varied, those questions, veering from who I was as a daughter and a sister to my career to the fact that I wondered if a man I thought I had loved had ever cared about me. And I wrote a question about if my script would ever be bought.
I had just gone food shopping and I had a package of brand new napkins. I counted out ten of them, read each of the questions out loud, and after saying each question, I breathed deeply onto the napkin. I did this ten times, and then I placed the stack in numbered order into a plastic bag with a zipper closure. Then I found a mason jar in my cabinet and filled it with water from my kitchen sink and I placed the jar next to the neatly packed plastic bag. And I never felt crazier in all of my life.
A guy I had gone out with once texted me at that moment: Hey! I miss talking to you. What did you do today? Anything cool?
I literally stared at the phone and laughed for a minute straight. Then I wrote him back: Nope. Nothing too exciting.
The next day, at one on the dot, I was back in the pink room, except this time I was clutching a jar filled with water and a plastic bag stuffed with napkins. Glenda sat down and looked at me and twisted the top off of the jar and stuck two or three of her fingers into the water.
"How are you feeling?" she asked and her fingers moved rhythmically through the water.
"I feel kind of weird," I told her honestly. "I have never been told I was negative before, and I have certainly never exhaled into napkins. But I'm open to seeing what will happen next."
At that, she smiled and she looked at me like she had maybe seen something different.
"I want you to go home tonight and light this candle," she said, pulling out an orange candle. "I want you to burn it to the bottom. And tomorrow, you will light the red candle." She pulled out one of those too.
"Okay," I said. "Do I need to say anything when I light the candles?"
I figured that if I was going to do such odd things, I wanted to do it all right.
"I want you to say 'Two wrongs don't make a right,'" she said, and I just nodded. I had been prepared to have to say some crazy incantation or maybe sing the theme to Fraggle Rock or say something else that made zero sense to me, so her plain instructions were fine by me.
"Then I want you to use these salts in a bath," and she passed me a small canister that I placed into my bag.
"Is this the cleanse?" I asked.
"This is the start," she told me. And then she told me that I should also take a laxative over the weekend.
"I had kind of a nightmare experience with a laxative when I was a senior in high school," I said, "I’m pretty sure I saw my spleen. So I don't think the laxative thing can happen in this process. Is that okay?"
"That's fine," she said with a wave of her hands. And then she handed the jar of water and the bag of napkins back to me. She had not so much as looked at the napkins.
"I'll see you on Monday at noon," she said. "Bring the napkins and water back with you."
Then she got up and ushered me to the door and I found myself again in a car with napkins and water in a jar.
At home, I burned the orange candle. The next day, I burned the red. Then I filled up my tub with water as scorching hot as I could take it and dumped in the bath salts she gave me. I turned off all the lights in the bathroom and submerged myself into the water in the darkness. And I flipped through my music in my phone and sat in the scalding heat while I listened to Jungleland on repeat.
In the hours that followed, my entire face cleared up. I could have been the spokesmodel for a skincare campaign. I touched my soft skin as I gazed at myself in the mirror and wondered if any of it had to do with Glenda.
The next day I had lunch with two of my closest friends. One of them had prepared a whole Asian menu that he served us with chopsticks and a delicious cocktail loaded with vodka. I had a wonderful time and laughed like I was fully myself, but the moment I returned home, I found myself running to the bathroom like I had just taken a laxative, which I hadn't.
"Did you have a tummy ache after lunch?" I texted one of my friends, the one who hadn't cooked the meal.
"No. Why? Did you?" she responded.
At our next meeting, Glenda asked to see the napkins.
"Do you want to know the questions that correspond to each?" I asked. I had them typed into my phone.
"No," she said, and she removed each and felt each one and rubbed one or two of them against her cheek while I watched her. Then she counted softly as she paged through the napkins, pulled one free, placed the other ones on the table behind her and said, "I only want to focus on number eight. What was the question for number eight?"
I had to look through the list; I had no idea what question eight had been. And when I saw it, I closed my eyes with resignation.
"It says, 'Did he ever care about me as much as I cared about him?'" I told her. And then I asked, "Are you sure you don't want to talk about napkin number two?" That was the question about an agent signing me.
"Nope, number eight," she said. "Were any of the other questions you wrote about this man?" she asked.
"No," I answered, and I felt suddenly very cold.
"I need to see a picture of him," she said with authority. "Do you have one in your phone?"
"I think I deleted every picture I had," I murmured.
"Can you Google him?" she asked.
"No," I said shortly, "I don't do that." But then I remembered that his face would come up when he called, so I went into my Contacts list and scrolled to his name and his picture came up. I didn't look at it – I wouldn't look at it – but I passed my phone to Glenda.
"He's very handsome," she said quickly, and I nodded. Then she handed my phone back to me and I quickly turned it off and shoved it back into my purse.
"This is who you're supposed to be with," she said with far too much certainty to make me feel anything but awful. And then she started ripping the napkin into square-like shreds. Clutching the napkin remnants, she rose and walked towards me.
"Repeat what I am saying after me," she instructed, and then she began to say things about who I was and what I deserved and that I was forgiving and that I was strong. Not one of the things she had me say was about that man. Everything was about me. I wish I could remember her words, but all I remember was that at one point, she told me to keep my eyes open while I was repeating what she said.
She pressed the pieces of napkin against my hair, against my chest, against my heart, against my temples, against my throat, and then she asked me to roll the top of my skirt down so she could press a piece of napkin against my stomach.
"I'm a little boated right now," I said somewhat apologetically as I brandished my stomach for her. I was on the second to last day of my period.
She pressed against my stomach hard and kept asking me to repeat what she was saying, and then she took the jar of water I brought with me and poured some of it into the plastic bag that once held my napkins and she put the pieces of torn napkin that she had pressed against my flesh inside of the bag, and the water turned black.
My very first thought was that she had somehow put some dye on the napkins, but I couldn't deny that she was the one who had me keep my eyes open the entire time.
"How do you feel?" she asked me. She looked exhausted.
"Tired," I responded.
"I want you to go home and try to sleep," she said, and no instruction had ever sounded better. "Call if you need me. And let me know when he contacts you.”
"He's not going to contact me," I told her, and it felt like something I knew for sure. "When I'm out of his life, I'm out of his life. It's who he is. And I'm not even positive that his absence is why I'm feeling this way."
"Yes," she said bluntly. "It is why."
"But I'm not sure I want him back," I told her, and my voice sounded strong when I said it. "And I definitely don't want him back through some spiritual channel. If he comes back into my life, I want it to be due to his desire, not mine."
And then she laughed. She laughed hard and real and she touched my hand.
"This had nothing to do with him. I don't even know his name. This was about opening you up to who you always were and allowing you to get rid of the darkness so you can see clearly again. And when you are seeing clearly, I am seeing you and your path clearly. And what I know is that this is the man you are meant to be with. All I did was clean the pain away to make room for what comes next."
That last thing she said? I remember every single word. I couldn't remember the things about myself she had me chant as she touched ripped up napkins to my skin, but I remembered her end words. I think I had total clarity because what she said felt true, scary, and nuts all at the same time, a trifecta that's not easy to pull off, even for a mystic.
This time when I left, Glenda hugged me.
"Go home and take a picture of yourself, as you are right now. And for the next few days, expect to continue to feel the cleanse in action," she said.
"Okay," I responded with a nod, though I had no idea what she meant.
When I got home, I went into the bathroom and saw that I was all but hemorrhaging. My first thought was that I really hoped I hadn't gotten blood on Glenda's pretty pink chair. My next thought was that it was possible that one of my ovaries had fallen out and could at that very moment be sitting in a parking lot somewhere and I hoped that some nice infertile woman would be the one to find it. And then I wondered if this misery was part of the continued cleansing of which Glenda had spoken.
I sprawled myself over the couch then, and I lifted up my phone and took a picture of me in that moment. And then I all but crawled upstairs and went to bed.
The next morning, bright and early, my yoga teacher arrived.
“What would you like to work on today?” Annemarie asked.
“Anything that will make me sweat,” I responded.
She stopped unrolling her mat and stared at me.
“You hate to sweat!” she exclaimed, and she was right, but I felt up for anything.
While I was in Warrior, I looked over at Annemarie and told her about what had happened with Glenda. I hadn’t told anybody else, but I needed to share the bizarre thing with somebody, and I figured a girl who smelled like patchouli was probably the right person to tell.
“That is wild,” she said. “How do you feel?”
“I feel strong,” I told her, maneuvering myself into a plank. “But I’m kind of hyper-aware that it might be a placebo thing – like something I did wasn’t real, but I am allowing myself to think that it was and that’s why I feel good.”
“Who cares why you feel this way? Embrace it!” she told me, and that, I suppose, is the role of a yoga teacher who is also a good friend.
Late that night, I started writing something new. I wrote for hours. I wrote from memory. By the next night, I had written over 127 pages of what might be a new book.
I was editing what I had written – my favorite part of the process, since I sometimes don’t remember crafting sentences and then I have a moment where I read them over and I think, damn this chick can write – and I heard my phone across the room ping with a text. I waited until I was finished going over a chapter and then walked over and looked at my phone.
It was him.
My heart did not begin to beat wildly.
My head did not swirl like it was floating through a tsunami.
I was completely calm.
And I texted him back.
So what happened next? Well, I’m going to take a page from one of my favorite boys in all of literature, Holden Caulfield, and simply say that’s all I feel like telling you about right now. I will say that unlike Mr. Caulfield, I did not wind up in a psychiatric institution, though I have often wondered where the ducks have gone.
I never saw Glenda again, though I did give her a call after he and I began to talk.
She sounded not at all surprised.
As for me, I don’t really know how I feel about any of it. The whole thing was beyond weird, but I can’t say that I didn’t kind of enjoy the process. Sure, I kept in the back of my mind that the entire thing would make a great story one day, but that’s not the only reason I kept going back during that hot, humid week in August.
I went because I had hope.
I went because I wanted to feel like myself again.
I went because I was willing to open myself to something that could not be explained with the logic I usually rely upon.
I just wish I knew how she got the fucking black dye into that plastic bag…