Vipassana Romance by Claire Wilcox

A 47-year-old divorcee attends a New Mexico meditation retreat to try to come to terms with her emotions; by Claire Wilcox.

Image generated with OpenAI
Even with my eyes closed, I can see him. Jeff. Jeff. That's his name, I guess. Before I saw Jeff on his tea mug, he was just him. I've been zoomed in on him since the first moment of the retreat, three days ago. He picked the cushion next to me in the hall, and now...

The left side of my body - the side closest to him - sparkles, as if my fine arm hairs are raised. My upper torso tightens and burns, and my throat is parched. Perhaps if his skin touched mine, he'd feel the electricity, too, and be weak in the face of it. Oh God, his skin. So close. If I just moved my hand there, just a bit, just a smidge.

"Tonight, we are talking about desire," the teacher says.

Ha! It shouldn't surprise me that this is the topic - we are at a silent Vipassana meditation retreat, and craving is the root of suffering, and all that. But it feels like Kate's words are directed at me.

I hope whatever she has to say next might restore my balance, because I feel like I'm on the edge of something precarious. But I also hope it doesn't.

Because a big part of me craves an adventure. I'm sick of spending my days and nights in the concrete prison of the hospital - surrounded by discolored, dying people - rounding, diagnosing, treating, writing notes. My only good times lately occur when I blast '90's Hip Hop in my car after a shift, on my commute. Home is dreary, too: the monotonous self-care routine, sleep, and waking up the next day to the same thing. Work, more work.

I've done it to myself - I've gotten in a rut, peri-divorce. That's why I'm here, to figure a way out of this. But what could have possibly inspired me to choose a week of sitting rigidly on a cushion? I wonder if I have a self-destructive yen for discomfort.

"As you go through the rest of the evening, take notice of how wanting feels in your body. Is it hot, sharp, pulsing? Is it in your head, belly, or heart? Is it pleasant, aversive, or neutral? Remember, it's not you feeling the desire, it's just desire. Notice it and investigate."

I have an impulse to leap off my cushion and jump on top of Jeff, and kiss him and kiss him until he kisses me back. Instead, I re-open my eyes a crack, and peek out.

Our instructor is small-boned, a marvel of composure. She has a faint smile on her face, strikingly similar to that of the small black Buddha statue next to her. Around the room, a couple dozen yogis sit quietly on their cushions, too, backs straight, bodies geometric and statuesque. Blankets and pillows scatter the floors, ready to use for warmth or to support achy body-parts.

I, too, am sitting, back straight, but my insides are blaring like a tornado siren. I need to peek at him, but the silence of the hall terrifies me. I will be seen or heard. But I can't not. I turn my head to my right, moving as slowly as I can, away from Jeff first, giving nothing away. I wobble my head from side to side, feigning a neck crick. No one seems to notice; all are deep in concentration. Silently, slowly, I turn my head to the left, with a little patter of anticipation.

This man is so beautiful, or at least he is to me. I hope it is just me, because if he's as objectively good looking as he seems, he's most certainly out of my league, or taken. At any rate, he's delectable to fantasize about, and there's no harm in that. His dark hair is slightly long and tousled, his face sports 3-day-old stubble, and his hands have the most wonderfully knobby knuckles and long, serious, slightly calloused fingers. An artist's hands? A climber's? Making out with him would be like eating brownies fresh out of the oven, topped with walnuts and vanilla ice cream. Yummy.

I admire his soft manly-man flannel and see a little sprig of chest hair peaking up over the worn collar of his undershirt. To put my fingers there, then down, towards his chest...

Ugh, too much, I think and whip my head back to center and squeeze my eyes tight. Too pornographic for a meditation hall. I double down, to do what I'm told, and look for the wanting. It's kaleidoscopic. Jeff's silhouette paints itself behind my eyelids... I wonder if... maybe...

If Marie was here, she'd warn me to be careful, remind me "your picker is broken". But Jeff is a meditator. Spiritual. He's in a different class than my ex, right? Way better choice, Marie. Not a mistake.

Plus, after all he did pick a cushion next to me in the hall - that was all him. And, I wasn't bad looking now - I'd taken off those 20 pounds that had crept on during the lost John decade, and was working out again and had cut out the sweets. He couldn't be more than 15 years younger than me either. At the most! More likely 10. Probably late-30s.

Somehow, I am looking at him again. I'm watching the rise and fall of his belly as he breathes in and out. My gaze is bolder now, direct. But how crazy I would look if he saw me! I whip my head back forward and redouble my vow to stay that way. My heart slams loud in my chest and blood runs to my face.

Maybe he's the reason John and I divorced a year ago.

Obviously not the only reason. A knife twists in my gut. I watch the nausea rise, and wish the meditation was done. It feels like I'm shielding myself from something.

I return to eyes-closed, facing ahead. I wonder what Jeff's stomach looks like now, as he breathes in and out. The happy confetti colors are back.

"Just be with it," Kate echoes, as if reading my mind. As if she sees me and me alone.

Ha, I think. Right.

Finally, the gong rings. The yogis stand, bodies shift, clothes rustle, the yogis cough. Me, I stay seated on my cushion, wanting to bathe in it all for a little while longer. My body is alive and wild, and for the moment I give it permission to take me on a joy ride.

I skip the late morning meditation, sneak into the cafeteria, take a carefully folded piece of paper out of my pocket, scope the room for observers, see none, and post it - a note labeled "Jeff" - under a little yellow tack on the message board. At a corner table, hiding behind my tea mug, I fight the urge to take it down before anyone sees it. The silent crowd finally fills in from the hall. I can't back out now.

I have already come to appreciate the distinctive, soothing sound of mealtime here: the clink, clink of silverware on plates, the occasional scooting out or scooting in of a chair, and the rare exchange of a utilitarian whisper. Solitude amongst friends.

I get some food and sit down to taste the Indian-spiced lentils over brown rice and the kale salad, and I wonder how they make even the most basic of food so delectable here. I try to be mindful of my eating - noting every detail, its smell, how it feels in my mouth being chewed or in my throat being swallowed - and my associated emotions and thoughts. That's the assignment. Always.

But my brain is fighting me with all that it has. The note is like a little beacon. I can't believe I did it. I wonder when he'll see it. I wonder if I should take it down before he does.

I resign myself to people watching. Thanks to my peripheral vision, I know Jeff's sitting, eating. But I deliberately avoid looking at him - anything to stay anonymous.

Instead, I watch a man with crow's lines deep as canyons moving his fork between his plate and his mouth at an impossibly slow pace. There is also a young waif of a girl eating her salad leaf by leaf, and I feel a jolt of concern, thinking "eating disorder". A rosy-cheeked freckled red-head looks orgasmic as she bites into the blueberry fruit-crisp in front of her - I want to be her friend.

Another young woman with the shiniest blonde hair I have ever seen, and an impossibly symmetric and flawless face catches my eye. She chews each bite of her salad with exquisite gentleness, closing her eyes for the experience. Her face is so sweet that it makes me squint. She seems like someone who's never experienced disappointment.

A sense of distaste - I don't want to be her friend - hits me like a slap, as if from outside me. I am surprised by my own vitriol. She reminds me of Elizabeth... fucking Elizabeth. I try to think of something else.

I see Jeff move out of the corner of my eye. He stands up slowly, and my heart pounds hard. But, he is just getting a second helping. He sits back down at his spot. He still hasn't seen the note.

I try to concentrate on my food. Be a good yogi, I say to myself, though I'm anything but. A yogi is worthy of a bow. I'm more like a bumbling idiot, a disaster.

Suddenly, there is a noise - a sound, like cowbells - coming from the general direction of the tea-table. I look towards the sound. A tall lanky man, maybe in his 50s with a bit of a hunchback, receding hair-line and wire-rimmed glasses, is up there perusing the message board, stirring his tea, mindlessly, and quite loudly, his spoon clanking against the side of the mug. Against the constricted silence of the room, it's like a call-to-attention.

Andrew is his name. I was almost matched with him for dishwashing duty. I remember how unsure of himself he seemed on opening day, dropping his welcome-papers twice when we were introduced, and how relieved I felt when I didn't end up with him. Irrationally, his awkwardness seemed contagious, at the time.

He's oblivious to the clamor he's creating, and it goes on for several seconds, maybe half a minute. When he finally looks up and notices all the stares, and then realizes why everyone is watching him, his eyes broaden in embarrassment, his hands tremble slightly, his face reddens, he spills a few drops of his drink on his open-toed feet, and he flinches (apparently the liquid is hot).

He looks down, then out at the crowd again, and then smiles apologetically to no one in particular, as if he is seeking some sort of redemption. I'm blushing for him, and he makes eye contact with me. I hope I'm not showing my pity too strongly and attempt to cover it with an "it's ok" wink. Before I know if I have helped him, he turns on his heels and flees in a flurry.

The room settles back, forgivingly, into its rhythmic routine.

I look for Jeff again and notice that he is no longer in his seat. Oh! he's heading towards the door, and Oh! he notices his name and the note, and Oh! he picks it up!

I watch, terrified, out of the corner of my eye.

"Dear Jeff, I know your name because I've seen it on your tea mug. You don't know me, and I've gone back and forth about whether to reach out, but I finally decided that I needed to, no matter how inappropriate or silly it might be. I feel drawn to you. I don't know why. It's just a feeling. I also don't know why I wanted you to know, but I did. I wish you a wonderful and fruitful retreat. Best, a quiet admirer."

His face shoots up after a few moments to scan the room, and I glue my eyes to my plate, sweating slightly. I intuit he is flattered, maybe a bit agitated too, as his movements appear more bird-like than before, but in a good way. He pockets the note and departs.

It's been two days since I left the note for Jeff, but it feels like months, here, at this place, nestled in the Taos Ski Valley, encapsulated in the silent routine of it all.

I don't want him to know. Not yet. But I also don't want him to not know. Maybe he, too, is recovering from a failed disastrous relationship and finally has the courage to give it a go again. We could help each other. If that were true, and I didn't do something, well, what a loss that would be. For us both.

"I have a question about thoughts," Andrew is saying. We are in the middle of a question-and-answer session, and this is one of the few opportunities we have to speak as a group over the two-week retreat. I cringe, inwardly. He's going to humiliate himself again.

"It seems like the goal of all this is to let our thoughts just come and go, observing them, detached. But thoughts are useful, aren't they? Not all of our impulses should be ignored, right? Like, what if there's a fire or something while we're mediating?"

"So, your question is about when it's wise to act on thoughts versus sit with them?"

My heartrate picks up. I think about my own act. The note. Was it wrong?

"Yes," he says, weakly. "I think so. I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe it's something else that I'm struggling with." He pushes his glasses up his nose twitching it slightly. A tick, I think. "I have a hard time making decisions," he concludes.

"Is this a regular thing for you?"

"Yes, it is, actually. I worry I'll make the wrong one - all the time. Sometimes it's very uncomfortable," Andrew continues.

I wish he'd stop talking. But Kate nods encouragingly. "Thank you for this question. Just rest in the awareness. If you do act, just observe how your actions affect you and the people around you. The message is not to let the fire burn you up while you sit on your cushion. We're here to learn, to practice attention. Like practicing piano. Not to be statues."

"But how do we know if it's better to act or not act?"

"When I'm anxious about a decision, I tell myself: 'I'm going to make a mistake!' Then, I'm less caught up in the consequences, and things are lighter. Does that make sense?"

Andrew is still and expressionless, and I wonder how he will take it. Suddenly, his face lights up and he blurts out, "That's crazy enough that it's worth a go."

Laughter erupts from the group, and I find myself giggling too.

"Or, if you want to sit with it," Kate goes on, "that's always a choice. Now, let's sit for a bit."

We do. As the hall settles into silence, my mind resumes its familiar dance.

Jeff. Our breathing is synced, today. Mine slows when his does, and his does when mine does. We are like a couple who's slept together for years. I wonder if I should just reach my hand out, right now, and touch his with mine, gently. The wanting surges in my chest. And I watch it, the good yogi. Maybe our fingers would intertwine, melt together.

How hard it would be just to stop there!

I am crazy, thinking of him so much. I know it, and I can't stop.

I'm sitting outside the teacher's office waiting for our second one-on-one. A woman is sobbing inside. Kate's behind schedule, and I'm grateful for it, because I still don't know what to talk about.

At our first interview, she asked me about my intentions for the retreat. I had told her I was working too hard in the wake of recovering from a divorce. I wanted a change.

"You're in the right place. Here, we find improved self-awareness and stillness of mind that isn't present in our ordinary, busy lives. We get clarity around what we really want and need." I wondered if she was quoting a pamphlet, but felt encouraged, nonetheless.

Today, what I should do is tell her about my situation, dare I admit, my Jeff Obsession. Instead, I will talk about something innocuous, like the troubles I'm having in following my breath, or something. I need to come up with a convincing script.

"Excuse me," a voice whispers, and I look up to see Andrew, frazzled, a little sweat at his temples, sporting hiking clothes. I feel myself recoil. "I was supposed to have my interview with the teacher at 10:45. Do you know, is she on-time? Or did I miss it?"

"No, she's late!" I whisper back. "I'm next. I'll be fast. Would you like this chair since I'll be heading in soon?" I stand.

"No, that's ok," Andrew looks up at the door, grimaces, as the sobbing behind the door gets louder, and gestures me to follow him away from the door and down the hall. "What's happening in there?" he whispers. "This place is a trip, huh?"

I wonder if he's a fellow-skeptic. "Yeah, it is. Have you done one of these before?"

He nods. "Several, and I always go a little nuts."

"Huh. Do you think it's worth it?"

"Hard to say. But, there must be something, because I keep coming back. What about you?"

"My first." I don't add, "and probably my last."

"I'd suggest withholding judgement until the end. Give it a shot."

I nod. Considering, but mostly wondering what he finds of benefit in going "a little nuts". On a whim, I add, "by the way that was great, what happened in the cafeteria yesterday with your tea mug. Better you than me, but could have been me in a heartbeat."

A wide smile graces his face, and I feel good that I did something - useful - for the first time in days. A kind deed for an insecure man.

And then the door-knob jiggles, the crying yogi, apparently miraculously healed, emerges, blotchy-faced.

"Don't worry," he says, "I'll wait over here, I won't listen."

"I'll be honest," I say. "I'm really not sure why I'm here," I blurt, surprised at my own candidness. "I feel like I'm going insane."

Kate laughs, nods.

Heartened, I continue. "This is, really, really hard. I expected this to be difficult, but sitting still is not in the least bit relaxing. The opposite, really."

She laughs again. "This sounds like doubt. One of the hindrances. Tell me more."

I hold back the urge to blurt, "I think I'm falling in love," and instead say, "that it can be really intense... the desire thing," her eyebrows raise, and I add, "...for desserts." She nods, and my face flushes: she knows it is not about desserts at all.

"It's uncomfortable. You're wondering why it's good to sit with it."

I nod.

"Has desire ever lead you astray?"

I think of John, with his hardy Swedish build, thick, wavy hair and chiseled features, and remember how I could barely look at him when I first met him, smitten by his gorgeous masculinity. I ignored early warning bells, telling myself that it didn't matter that we weren't a good fit. Then ten years passed. "Of course," I say.

She continues, "Getting quiet helps us find our wisdom, but first we have a lot of noise to off-gas."

"Off-gas?" I think, wondering how one would define that in biological terms, my smile receding. I wonder if this whole Buddhism thing is too woo-woo for me. But something about what she says hits home too.

Back in the cafeteria - another meal, another round. I can see Jeff today from where I sit. He is scanning the faces and looking around, agitated. I wonder the mystery of the note has pushed him to the edge. Guilt wafts over me.

Suddenly he makes eye contact with me - the first time in a while! - and guilt transforms to hope, and I smile, and he returns it! To me! But his smile is neutral, and he moves on quickly. Not a good sign. Had he liked me in that way, he would have kept my gaze. Disappointed, I continue to watch him stealthily. He locks eyes with someone else, and he smiles again, but this time he does so with more enthusiasm. And my heart sinks further. Because I then see he's making eye contact with her. The perfect one. The pretty little thing. The Elizabeth-clone.

A shy smile lingers on her lips as she looks away. And I want to scream. Because I can see what is about to unfold.

Girls like her get it all.

Now, I want to grab that silky blonde hair of hers in my shaking hands, and curl my fingers in it till they're all knotted up, pull back slightly and then push her head forward onto the table with all my might, crushing that cute little sweet little freckly nose on the hard, unforgiving wood. How beautiful the red blood of justice would be when it flowed out of her nostrils, trailing down over her pearly little chin, staining her light blue shirt.

I'm disgusted at myself, for imagining this.

But somewhere back there, my wise observer self is watching this storm unfold in my head - maybe I am a yogi. I'm letting it wash over me, just like Kate suggests. Off-gas. I close my eyes now and continue to invite in my rage. I don't normally allow myself to feel it. Who would have guessed I - a life-long healer - would be having fantasies about beating up strangers.

An image of my ex-husband John pops up.

And the anger turns white hot.

Me, working like a slave, answering page after page, sticking needles into backs and stomachs and necks and breathing tubes down throats, constantly covering my ass to avoid getting sued, writing notes until after the sun sets. Then, finally returning home, the house always in a shambles. He, never lifting a finger, always "writing". My handsome ex-husband who could charm the exoskeleton off a cockroach.

Then he cheated on me, with the waitress who worked in our favorite restaurant, Elizabeth. I used to call her "his other girlfriend" when John and I were alone, teasing him, because she blushed when he spoke. One evening, she pulled me aside, and confessed that she actually was.

I deserve a bit of rage. Notice where it manifests in my body, I tell myself again, channeling Kate. I breathe into it.

Then a new squall. The shame. I remember that night John told me I drove him to the affair. Which was true in a way - the nagging that I just couldn't contain, the simmering judgement and rage about his inadequate house-husbandry, my pickiness that ballooned with time. I was no saint, myself.

Find it in my body, I say again. Because there's nothing else I can do.

I've written another note, and this time I've signed my name. It burns in my pocket. It's early afternoon, and I'm sitting alone in the cafeteria.

If you are going to tell him who you are, it's now or never. Because he seems to be falling for the blonde, if I'm reading things right.

I hesitate.

Because once I do it, it's done. There's no turning back. Jeff will know who I am. And then, with five more days left of the retreat, I will have to sit in silence with any number unsettling thoughts and emotions - embarrassment, anxiety, excitement, desire - and who knows what else, depending on how he responds, if he responds.

But if I don't, what if Jeff's "The One"? What if he's the man I left John for, the man that I'd lose the chance to be with forever if I don't ACT NOW?

What would my inner-Buddha say?

This whole year of healing from the divorce, doing therapy, taking on too many shifts, learning how to meditate, exercising, moving on. I'm ready to date again, and, at my age, these opportunities don't happen very often. He just has to be a good person just by the fact of him being at a silent retreat, right? Plus, I'll hate myself for not trying.

Decided, I get up from my tea mug to move towards the message board. But the door cracks open, and in comes... oh no, Jeff, of all people. It's him!

I change course, veer to the snack table, grab an apple, and return to to sit in front of my tea. He and his beautiful broad shoulders and swingy lanky arms and legs amble - NO! - up to the message board. He posts a note there, himself! Or could this be good? Could it be to me? Then he turns and walks back out with a sense of purpose as if I didn't exist - which is acceptable behavior for a silent retreat, I remind myself - leaving me alone again.

I look around. Alone. I stand again and peek out the front door confirm it. No one coming. Alone.

I MUST see what he has left.

My hands are shaking when I get to the board and see the name on the note posted there. "Amy," it reads. This must be her, the Elizabeth-like girl. My stomach coils. Looking out, still no one is watching. I remove the tack, unfold the note and read it.

It says, "Dear Amy, I received your note (I believe it was you) the other day. Was that you? Please come to visit me to talk if you'd like. Tonight, or whenever you want. Jeff (room 6)." My vision blurs as tears well up. I hastily re-fold it and secure it back to the board with the tack, careful to use the same hole, to hide all evidence of tampering.

My throat closes, and I let the tears come freely. It's over.

I know my place now. He wants Amy. And no wonder. They always want the Amys, the Elizabeths. Not the ones like me.

We are all back in the hall, sitting again.

I want nothing more than to break out of this place, pack my bag, get in my car and drive the 30 miles back into Taos. There, I will purchase the most expensive hotel room I can find: one with a private outdoor hot-tub - and order in a five-course meal with two desserts - a hot-fudge sundae, and fresh-fruit pie a la mode.

This retreat thing is a scam.

John told me once, drunk, that he was the best I could get and that I was lucky to have him. He's right. I'm going to fail in relationships.

I identify these as thoughts and try to let them go. I breathe.

Jeff is perfectly still next to me, and every cell in my body urges me to run, but I know that if I stand up and leave now, everyone would notice. I crack my eyes open.

It is afternoon, and the sun blares through the windows casting a diagonal shadow of a torso with a rounded stomach on it before me. The reality hits: that stomach is mine. I'm a middle-aged Midwestern woman with a bit of a paunch and flat hair.

I'm delusional. Who am I to imagine that I'd have a chance with a handsome, mysterious younger man!

I want to turn into dust and disperse into the air. My respirations pick up. The floor looks like waves on an ocean, the zig zags in the carpet moving slightly, and I feel seasick. I pinch myself, renewing my commitment to the task at hand - meditation - squeeze my eyes shut, and anchor myself to the cushion, repeating Kate's words "just be with it". My breathing slows, and I attend to the air at my nostrils going in and out. Good yogi, I tell myself, stay on it. I feel like I might die.

I craft an imaginary wall around myself. I am in an enclosed space, there is no one. I'm safe and alone. I can keep it together, if I just stay in this bubble.

The hotel sounds good. Maybe they have a hot tub, and I can crack out that novel. I'm not sure why I'm here. It really is making me crazy. I should just go.

But what might I miss? I promise myself I will at least go on a walk, first, before giving everything up.

As soon as the meditation session is over, I bundle up and head out into the wintery woods, following a vague path. Fresh snow blankets the ground, but there's less than an inch. I move fast, trying to get away from myself.

But the pain is forcing me to contend with it. The thoughts hit me like darts. Who am I to see myself a sexual object, at my age? At 47. With dumb crushes and imagining I'm still in the game. I'm an embarrassment. Nothing will change things or me. Not meditation. Not therapy. Not getting in shape. I should give up on love. Focus elsewhere. Where though? Where?

I am hiking up the steep trail, hard. The air is thin and cold, and my lungs hurt. But a transformation is happening: the more I breathe, the better I feel. Movement is good, action is good. It hides what's there, but it's helping me find a solid center again. I start to see how adolescent my emotions are, right now.

After a while, I sit down on a perfect tree-bench for a break. I'm sweaty and tired and sniffling. Everything is quiet, and I realize the sadness is still lurking, threatening, back there.

Suddenly, I hear footsteps. Andrew is coming up the trail.

"Mind if I sit?" he says, voice deeper than I remembered.

Both irritated for being intruded upon and grateful for the distraction, I answer, "Sure."

"I saw you run up the hill. You were crying, and I thought, well, I wanted to be available if you needed to talk. But, if you'd rather be alone, that's totally fine, I'll go. You were cruising," he ended with a smile.

"No, that's fine. Please sit down."

"OK, thanks. I will." And he does, on the same log, but at a respectful distance.

"I'm alright. Just working through some stuff."

He nods, a benign, unselfish concern in his eyes.

The look unleashes it all again - the fatigue and grey emptiness of my marriage, my stupidity for making excuses for John, and my grief over the time lost. I hunch over my knees, and Andrew puts his hand on my back, gently. Just present. I let it all come up, again.

"I'm sorry," I say, after a while, when the wave passes, and sit up again.

"Nothing to be sorry for," he replies.

"I don't know what's come over me. I'm not normally so blubbery. Must be this retreat thing." I wonder if my face looks all splotchy, and I turn away from him. I'm aware my nose is running, and I rummage around in my pocket for a tissue.

"Emotions are weird things that don't always make sense. If you want to talk, I'm here."

"Sounds good," I say. "Silence for now though, I think."

"OK," he responds. I blow my nose a few times, and we look out again.

From our log, there's a view of a pine-covered mountain across the valley. The snow is fresh and white, blanketing everything, tree branches weighted down with its heaviness. The sky is blue, the air is cold, and fog surges out of our mouths with each breath and quickly dissipates.

There is a benevolent stirring in my center that seems to have come out of nowhere. And next, a sense of wanting to lean towards Andrew. Something like radiance comes from him, but it's subtle. Like a warm-springs... the kind you could sit in all day.

We exchange smiles. There are things about him I hadn't seen before - his nose and chin are strong and confident, his nerdy wire glasses a good fit for his face. His cheeks look ruddy with the outdoor air. His eyes shine intelligent and bright.

I break eye contact to gaze back out at the trees, both uneasy and pleased. "I'm thinking there might be something to this whole retreat thing, after all," I find myself saying. "I'm feeling like I'm slowed down more, more sensitive somehow, not just to the bad, but also to the good, you know?"

"Yeah," he says. We meet eyes again, then look back out. He taps me, and points at two birds picking at fallen seeds in the snow. We watch them in silence. They seem happy, and I feel we are a family.

Then, suddenly, Andrew blurts out, "Can I... sit a little closer to you?"

I swivel my head towards him in shock, his words jolting me, and I fight the urge to stand up and run. Instead, I bark, "Are you flirting with me?"

He springs up from the log, like he'd been slapped.

"Well," he says, then pauses, and finally replies, "Yes?" He looks at me, worried.

My heart pounds, and I feel an explosion of anxiety followed by an uncomfortable tingling in my arms and hands - adrenergic fall-out. I breathe with it. Close my eyes. Then open them.

"OK. That's OK." I finally say. "But, too much for me now. Can we just sit here a bit longer like we were? Quietly, again? And enjoy the snow and clean air? We don't have mountains like this in Minnesota."

"Sure," he replies, visibly relieved, and returns to his prior perch, an invisible insulator between us.

We settle in again, and watch a squirrel chirp at another one, each high up in their own trees.

After a while, Andrew points in the direction of the new sound of cracking twigs. There, an elk emerges from over a hill, and makes its way towards the trail. It is browsing methodically through the underbrush, taking its time, apparently oblivious to us. We watch its strong muscled body navigate the wintery paradise with impossible elegance. I notice Andrew's steady breathing next to me. I feel a sweetness arise in my chest as we observe the majestic beast.

One of the squirrels chatter, the elk looks up at it, then sees us, and freezes. It pauses and assesses, its eyes still, brown and round. We are all motionless. We are radiating stars of goodness, I think. I revel in the shared silence. It's a new feeling.

Apparently satisfied we are harmless, the elk looks away from us and begins to work at some tree bark. Andrew and I exchange a brief smile again, honored by its continued presence. Its neck muscles contract under its irregular dusky fur as it gnaws, and its antlers hit branches and trunks, occasionally creating an echoey sound. After a while, it returns, deliberately, up over the hill from whence it came and disappears.

I notice Andrew's gentle heat again. It beckons. I smile. I stay still. I want him to move close to me, now. I want to grab his hand. How funny!

Will full awareness that a good yogi would keep her distance, I lean in towards him and bump him briefly: a coy gesture, a shy one, or both. It gives me a little head rush and a skipping of the heart. Then, quickly, I rise from our bench and say, "Shall we head back?" My gaze, I'm aware, is a tiny bit flirtatious.

Head cocked, questioning, he says, "Sure?"

"Great. Silence again?"

"Sure," he says, graciously, and stands.

We head down. I concentrate on the sensations in my own body, the earth and muscles holding it upright as I glide down the trail, the brisk air nourishing and invigorating.


  1. Claire’s story is very funny and very sweet. It shows how one can go from an infatuation with “eye candy” to an appreciation for a real human being. (The chief surprise being that “Jeff” was not named “Brad;” all youthful lotharios are called Brad). Virtually the entire story occurs inside the mind of the MC – I don’t know if she was ever given a name; certainly not more than once – and we tag along as she gloms onto Jeff, only to come to terms with what she really seeks—companionship, solace, comfort. It is perhaps significant that the MC at first disdains Andrew – she uses words like “hunchbacked” and “weak” and “apologetic” to describe him and his actions. The same is true with Amy and Brad…oops!, I mean Jeff. She fits everyone into a neat little category. It was laugh out loud funny when the MC fantasizes about slapping Amy down onto the unforgiving oak table. The story concludes with a possible beginning – the way any good story should, with the MC considering what might develop with Andrew. At the end, Andrew’s traits have become “strong,” “confident,” “intelligent,” and “bright,” and “gracious.” There is also a believable back story – the MC’s unfortunate relationship with a pernicious “writer” and the inevitable breakup and divorce. I enjoyed this story very much and was sorry to see it end. Thanks, Claire.

  2. “I know my place now. He wants Amy. And no wonder. They always want the Amys, the Elizabeths. Not the ones like me.” This is the type of rawness that I love in this piece. I’ve been to a retreat like this. As such, to me I see the meditator narrative alongside and sometimes recursively with the woman narrative. She makes progress along both pathways. I loved this story and felt it was vivid and urgent and raw. Thank you!

  3. Rozanne CharbonneauOctober 7, 2023 at 8:01 PM

    I enjoyed this story. The female narrator is reeling after being dumped for another woman. And in this misery, she contemplates how invisible she is to the opposite sex. All the women I know over fifty feel like this. But Andrew truly "sees" her. A hopeful ending. Well done, Claire.

  4. Charlie/Claire: The proof-reader in me wanted to give you a heads up that in the fourth paragraph of the seventh subsection there is a “to” missing between the word “going” and the word “fail”.
    (“John told me once, drunk, that he was the best I could get and that I was lucky to have him. He's right. I'm going fail in relationships.”)

    I was rooting for Andrew and was pleased to see the MC make a connection with him by the end of the story. As I read the MC’s introspections on mating choice and attraction, as a contemporary woman character, I could not help but be reminded of the book “The Evolution of Desire” by anthropologist David Buss. He studies human mating strategies in contemporary culture. He observes mating preferences women have in men. In studied populations, the focus is on (1) men with resources, (2) men with high social status, (3) older men (as they often have (1) and (2)), (4) physical attractiveness (strength and height - to protect against physical danger), and (5) men who are kind and generous (so they will share (1)-(4)). Jeff may have strength/height/attractiveness, but Andrew clearly displays a great deal of kindness and generosity! Go Andrew!

    Yoga retreats, physician burnout, divorce, mid-life, romance - this is a great story! :-)

  5. I enjoyed the story and particularly enjoyed the ironic "Are you flirting with me?" during her encounter with Andrew. The story allows the reader to know more than the narrator does. And as the reader I suspected she wanted him to be flirting with her. I also liked that she was dubious about the retreat, while wanting to believe in it at the same time.