Pooja Rathnakumar Sengottuvel is an ESL educator teaching English to elementary and junior high school students in this tranquil city called Yonago in Tottori, Japan. She enjoys writing subconsciously-driven short stories about characters who seem to emerge from a space unbeknownst to her: a space that both surprises and challenges her. She is a huge fan of Indian writing in English, spiritual writing, and American short fiction. When she’s not writing, she likes staying still, and waiting for the stories to unfold in their own course of time, cause, and effect.
THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
She could not speak the language of love, for out of all the languages she already knew, this was the hardest to speak. Adam, her ex, a chain smoker whom she’d dated rather mindlessly for two years in Dubai, told her she was not capable of real love; that neither did she know how to do “it”, nor did she know how to read a guy’s mind. Yes, with the language of love, she knew she had failed. But this did not deter her. There were other languages she could master. Still, it pained her that it was so hard: this flimsy, treacherous thing called love: perhaps more challenging than moving to a new country at the age of eighteen, an adventure she had chosen to undertake when the place she’d come to call home both frustrated and disappointed her, forcing her out of its contours, pushing her into new terrestrial periphery, rendering her an ethereal seeker of meaning. She already spoke five languages: English, her native tongue, French, Spanish, Italian, and a smattering of Hindi, which she had learnt from her past Indian roommate in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, who spoke to her mother on the phone every single night in Hindi, from some distant state in India Heather could hardly even pronounce right (was that Harry Anna, or Haryaaana?). Heather was great with languages; she could pick words out of a sentence like she was picking apples out of a tree. She had always had a knack for them, just as a seasoned chef has a knack for mustard seeds. Sadly though, she could not speak any Vietnamese, except to say hello and thank you, although she had moved to Vietnam three years ago, as the country found her in some strange, subtle way; and invited her into its horizons, like an enormous dragon flailing its arms around its predator, but this time, in a fond, delicate, inviting sort of way, till she could not say no, till she succumbed to its S-shaped diminutiveness on the world map her mother had stuck to her room when she was taking the SAT for a brief while to move to the United States for a degree in filmmaking, but later gave up on, once Harvard rejected her and Stanford disillusioned her. At eighteen, she had already mastered three languages other than her own tongue, having pored over dictionaries and news articles all her life; imbibing fresh vocabulary like fish in an aquarium imbibe food they have been introduced to for the first time; acquiring grammatical structures slowly but steadily: studying French in the mornings, Spanish in the afternoons, and Italian late into the nights. She had been home-tutored for long, and when she did try to go to school, her friends at the international school enervated her, talking to her about boys and tattoos all the time. When she came home one day with a face pockmarked with tears and a few cuts here and there, her parents thought it was best for her to be home-schooled again, to be let alone, to be released from the atrocity of whatever was happening to her when they were not around her, their precious daughter as she was. Heather’s parents were originally from Idaho. They were ambitious just as Heather was: the allure of money had brought them to Dubai when Heather was just six and could already speak French fluently, having listened to her French nanny coo French lullabies into her ear all through the day back in Kansas where she was born and raised till then. Heather’s parents ran an online teaching business which brought in so much money that abundance became the buzzword of their lives, but Heather had no inclination for money. She hardly threw parties or expressed any desire to buy anything expensive: she kept to herself and her books. Sadly, she was their only child and it upset them that they could not make her happy, even though the money flowed in like rain bursting from the clouds. What was it about languages that got her so obsessed, people who knew Heather could not tell. Well, Heather was just different. She had always been different. When her best friends at the international school she briefly went to in Dubai were taking dance lessons and learning to sing like Aretha Franklin, Heather, instead, was poring over books and dissecting bilingual dictionaries. Heather had eyes the colour of light blue; and wavy, curly blond hair that fell down loosely on her shoulders. For most people who knew her, she was very beautiful to look at, just as her mother was. Both mother and daughter had thick eyelashes and a nose whose appearance made other women easily envious. Heather’s friends were jealous of her till they almost despised her like a cat would despise a rat: they despised her radiant inner beauty; her command over language; her ability to be in her own skin no matter what. Why did it matter, anyway, to Heather, whether she was liked or not? Nevertheless, her friends branded her strange. But to Heather it was not a matter of concern, being strange, being different. What was strange about being strange, she thought, if you preferred to be strange, and had actually made peace with that, just as she had, making words her friends and dictionaries her companions? Her mother had created that confidence in her, to accept herself just as she was; and to make no noise about that, whatsoever. Her parents were devout Catholics. But like many things in life, Heather, with the cool-headed arrogance that made her who she was, did not care for God, either. Not until she met Josh and began praying for miracles. A Course in Miracles, a Christian text her spiritual teacher in Saigon had introduced her to, said miracles were a shift in perspective. Yes, all she needed now was a shift in perspective. Actually Vietnam was meant to be. At seventeen, the guy she thought she loved, Adam, had left her. He had slept with an enterprising, hot (that’s how he described her, anyway) girl from Tunisia he had met on a cruise along the Mediterranean and realized she was meant to be, at least she was better in bed, from what Heather could understand from his description of her. It was fun, you know, Heath, doing it on the boat, with the sea bobbing like that, he had said, sipping iced tea and digging into pepperoni pizza at The Dubai Mall, just after they had gone snow bowling together. Moments before Adam uttered these words, in his careless, insensitive manner, Heather had been entertaining very fond thoughts of him. She thought she was his world; that they were inseparable lovers in a tiny bubble that was huge enough to be the Universe. Her mother spoke about the Universe all the time: the Universe gives you this, the Universe takes away that. But to her, sometimes all she could make out of the Universe was an Adam biting straight into pepperoni pizza. That was all that mattered in her understanding of this macrocosmic, alluring thing they called the Universe. She had been fantasising for a long time about running away with him, living together with him. Even for her rationale and level-headedness, love left her reeling, like a car whose driver had unclutched without precision. She went through these phases often: one day Adam did not matter at all; and the next, he mattered. One day it mattered to her to master that extra French vocabulary; the next day it mattered how to master the intricate making of that plum cake that tasted like heaven on her tongue. Just as Adam was about to make that pronouncement upon her that indirectly questioned her expertise in bed (honestly, she thought reading Le Fleurs De Mal was way more fascinating than moaning in bed, which Adam almost forced her to do every single time), Heather had just wanted to kiss him on the lips, in a moment of great urgency. And then, he spoke about that girl with a masochistic grin on his face. Heather threw a slice of leftover pizza on his face and flung the iced tea onto her own and stormed out the cafe, as a group of Arab women from the next table started at her, incredulous. How could any woman ever do that to a man? It truly was unbelievable. Just as she got home (her parents were not around, much to her comfort, because there were things she could only do when her mother was not breathing down her back all the time), Heather used a knife to tear away at her pillow till all the cotton came out and wafted around the room like perfume visible to the eye; and swore out loud that men were the worst living creatures to reckon with. Two days later, she began taking Italian lessons. Tiramisu was the first word she learnt. It meant pick-me-up, the Italian to English dictionary her mother had recently handed down to her, said. Did it mean the same in Tunisian, too, she wondered. Two weeks later, she had learnt and mastered around a thousand-and-five-hundred adjectives in Italian. This is where she always started, with adjectives. She hated the nouns, because nouns were mere markers of identity, but adjectives stood for so much more, they spoke the truth about language in a way nouns never could. Whenever she started learning a new language, Heather did herself a favour. She bought a big notebook, blank-spaced, and started writing new words in them, as many as she had the energy to write down and memorise. This way, she was already on the way to mastering new vocabulary. Soon enough, in the midst of this far-flung romance with Italian that both challenged and transformed her, Heather knew she wanted to be in Italy. Her mother suggested she get a teaching certification and move there, if that was what she wanted to replace that raw, painful void stupid Adam had created in her life. But with her American passport, getting a job in Europe would not be child’s play. But she tried her luck anyway. Heather applied to fifteen countries and sent out fifty-eight applications to various parts of the globe (twenty of them to a couple of far-flung schools in Italy), and out of all these, she had only sent only one to Vietnam, a country she didn’t really care for. She had only just heard about Vietnam in the midst of random conversation, and did not know anything about the place except in her hazy, nebulous understanding of the Vietnam War. She heard from only one school out of all the places she’d applied to, and this school happened to be in Vietnam. For some reason, she had no reservations about moving into a new country, and move, she did. According to Heather, there were only two languages she could not speak. One, Vietnamese. Two, love. Which one frustrated her more, she could not tell. ***** They were both neighbours. Heather believed it was something very karmic, to be his neighbour, to be just a few metres away from him, although separated by the hostility of walls that could not be permeated, just as love could not. He lived in the studio right adjacent to hers, in that apartment complex that housed around fifteen expats from different parts of the world: all of them teachers of the English language. It was not surprising then that she saw him all the time, and that she, as a result, fell in love with him. There was something about Joshua. He was a mystery, and she saw in him everything she’d not seen in other men, even in Adam. The first time she ran into Joshua, she was running in the morning with a friend who’d been in her online TEFL class. Amy was from the Philippines, and she was now teaching Math in Ho Chi Minh City, though she had wanted to teach English abroad and not Math. Amy and Heather had developed a very close bond over the course, although they did not see each other and yet by some unknown force of fate, had been thrown together in this new country, as if by coincidence, or was this something karmic as well? Heather had begun to follow a wide range of Law of Attraction healers and teachers online after Adam left her. When she did run into Joshua on that fateful morning, her interest in this law of synchronicity doubled over into an obsession. Like one of those random things you find online, and lust after, Heather found about the laws of the universe and thought she could use them to manifest whatever she wanted, whoever she wanted. What was it she wanted now, more than to master the language of love, so that she could find someone better than Adam, someone who could complete her life in a way Adam never could? Amy was special, very special. She did not judge, atleast not in an obvious manner. With Amy, Heather could always be her authentic self. In this brief while that she’d known Amy, Heather found it hard to believe that she could be this close to someone, that someone could understand her so well. Until she ran into Josh, and a spark of attraction bound her to him, forcing her to surrender her heart over to him. As they ran, they talked about men, about unrequited love, about how no matter how much you tried, it was hard to understand a man’s needs. “Men are idiots, Heath, believe me,” Amy had said just as it happened. Amy had gotten pregnant when she was just sixteen, and after that first abortion, had decided to keep her distance with men. Even before she could finish the sentence, a motorbike came swerving down the alley and hit Amy, till she, with the force of her running and the force of that horrible motorbike hitting her, both comingling, literally flew to the other side of the sidewalk they were running on, and her head hit the pavement like an airplane losing its balance and falling straight onto the ocean below. Her head hit the ground with a thud, and in an instant, as if out of nowhere, the blood began to leak out of her skull. And just as he saw this happen, (he was running too, on the other side of the park, Heather had been eyeing him, and a shiver went straight into some part of her body as they brushed past each other, although not physically), he came running straight up to Heather, and said, oh man, shit, let’s take her to the hospital. For some strange reason, instead of being enormously nettled by the pain her friend was undergoing, Heather, instead, was plainly bewildered when the accident happened. Sometimes strangers do these things to us. They take us out of our vortex. They put us out of our energetic center, she had read. To put it simply, Heather had pointlessly, heedlessly, fallen in love, with a man who could only try to teach her the language of love. ***** There was something about Joshua. Heather had never imagined herself this lost in love. She grew up thinking she would spend all her life translating passages and making notes on dictionaries when other women made their babies and cuddled with their partners at Thanksgiving. But he did it to her. She did not think of him as Josh, as his friends called him. Names had to be whole, whole names made people whole; nicknames halved and truncated their identities. When Joshua moved into the expat apartment block run by Mrs. Nguyen, a matronly, sweet Vietnamese octogenarian, Heather had already been living there for two years. She was teaching kids as young as two, words and utterances in the English language, mostly toy and clothing vocabulary. It delighted her to be around those pudgy-faced little children, doing two-hour lessons with them, wherein for the most part she was distracted by five kids crying at the same time and three others wanting to go to the toilet every fifteenth minute. But this job gave her something to look forward to, and she thought she would do it for a while longer, before the Universe gave her something that would actually do justice to her love for language, the way she thought of linguistic justice. Her landlady really cared for her tenants. Mrs. Nguyen did not raise Heather’s rent for two years straight, and always offered her fruit she could not name in English, whenever Heather went up to the fifth floor where the woman lived, to pay her that lavish rent money in Vietnamese dong. She paid five hundred dollars, almost thirteen million dong, for the room she was living in, which was bifurcated into two independent spaces, one with a kitchen and a drawing room, and the other with a bedroom and an attached bathroom. Her dishes were done, her house cleaned five days a week, and her clothes washed, pressed and delivered to her twice a week. She lived in the most comfortable apartment in the building, whereas Joshua shared his house with a roommate, doing private lessons with little kids while also juggling that part-time contract he had with a famous language center in the city. Heather realized Joshua was her neighbour in May, two months after Amy’s accident, while paying her rent at Mrs. Nguyen’s. She walked into her landlady’s house with her footwear on, for some reason Mrs. Nguyen insisted she wear her footwear inside the house, in her motherly, matronly sort of way, every time Heather tried to get her shoes off before she entered. When she entered the house, what she saw surprised Heather. There he was, Joshua. A tattoo ran all the way down his left arm upto his fingertips: it was of a dragon, and reminded Heather of Vietnam on the world map. Mrs. Ngyuen was offering him some grapefruit, laughing at him in an affectionate sort of way, patting him on the shoulder, offering him tips on how to live in the new country he had moved into so suddenly as wanderlust took over the dead academician in him. “Deeees eeeess Heaaadhaaaa. Heaaaadhhaa, meet Josh.” Joshua looked at her for a moment, with a blank look which was soon replaced by an awakening. “Heather! What a surprise! Do you live here? Pleased to meet you!” “Hello…. ” “Joshua, call me Josh.” “Yes I do remember your name, Joshua, how’s it going?” This exchange didn’t last very long. For all his indication of being excited on seeing her, Joshua had left the room rather tersely, walking out with a brief bye-bye. But they had stayed in Mrs. Nguyen’s house talking for five minutes. He had smiled at her as though he found something special in her. He asked her a few questions about Amy. They had spent two hours together in the hospital when the accident happened, and he had helped her figure out the logistics of helping her friend heal and get back home. Amy had survived the accident, she went back to teaching Math just a month after the accident, with her head covered in plaster, but her resilience as strong as rock. Joshua seemed happy to hear that Amy had recovered. He seemed glad. This, in turn, drew Heather to Joshua all the more: his concern for the life of someone he had no apparent karmic debt toward. On the other hand, what she found so God-like about him, she could not tell. Attraction worked in mysterious ways, her spiritual teacher said. The woman introduced her to meditation, and taught her how to connect with her spirit guides, and how to invoke her intuition to foretell how her future would pan out, and how she, instead of her circumstances, could engineer her reality. Heather found this path intriguing, but did not know for sure if it was helping her. Her teacher said something like this took lifetimes to master, but if you got lucky, it could happen very quickly as well. Hence, just as she had given in to the allure of language, Heather gave herself in to the realm of the occult as well. First, her teacher taught her how to interpret dreams, and asked her not to share the technique with anyone she knew. But it did not work at all, because Heather slept like a log all morning and could not remember her dreams, let alone lucid-dream. Well, Heather, you are on the path, be patient, her teacher said. ***** (1) She looked at me from across the road. I think something is wrong with her fundamentally. I wish I could go up to her and tell her I’m not the super-awesome guy she thinks I’m. I was getting my avocado-durian smoothie from the smoothie stall next to home, on Ly Chinh Thang. I always go there. I love that place, they have the best fruit. It’s even better than it used to be back home in Virginia. My mum thought I was crazy moving to this country, “godforsaken”, she said. She loves that word. Everything I do is “godforsaken” to her. But I’m just so fucking glad to be away from her. She was driving me nuts. Anyway, I’m standing there next to the counter, sipping my smoothie. I told the waiter not to put any ice on it, because I didn’t want another nosebleed. But the sugar was just right, exactly as I wanted it. She stood there across the street, trying to cross that fucking road. And then she locks her eyes into mine. Honestly, if I were a woman, I would sue her. Teaching kids, it’s not so much fun. Especially when the teaching assistant is not with me in the class, and the whole class gets noisy. And I have to go, 3, 2, 1, be quiet everyone. Not like they listen, anyway! It sucks, really, teaching kids. But there’s some money in here. So yeah, she was looking at me, and I think she smiled at me, too. I turned around to face the wall. She tries to make conversation with me all the time. Is she crazy? Can’t she see I don’t give a fuckin’ damn? Maybe if I told her I already have a girlfriend, she would stop messing with me. And it was so funny, looking at her cross the road. I know this country is infested with motorbikes, all running berserk, but why is it so hard for her to even cross the road? I mean, a goddamnfucking road, isn’t that all there is to it? Just because her parents have got all the money, does she think she can have all she wants? I mean, how entitled can she possibly be? (2) Believe it or not, Josh, I think you are a hot guy. You get me sweaty so much, and I can’t but think of you all the time. Ever since I met you, I’ve stopped worrying about languages. How stupid was I, to think that words could keep me together, when it was your turn to pull me apart? The other day, I spotted you next to the pho place in the morning, sipping on your smoothie. You love Vietnamese food, don’t you? I’m not a fan really, but pho is delicious. I heard it takes the longest time to make, but it’s yummy, like you told me the other day. Pho, it’s yummy, I love it. I loved your Southern accent. It’s sexy. Yes, you were buying a smoothie, I was standing there all the while, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean to stalk you, why would you stalk a man you are in love with? My spiritual teacher told me yesterday night in my dream that you were meant for me. Of course yes, you are meant for me. And then those two Vietnamese women sat down in the table next to yours. They were looking really pretty, high-heels and all. And those cute dresses they were wearing. It surprises me how in this country, even women who go to a sinto store in the morning dress up so well. Yes, I have always admired the Vietnamese. Particularly the women. But at that moment, when they sat in the table next to you, I felt a sharp pang of envy. Or was it jealousy? Or even deeper, was it a more excruciating resentment cutting deep into my consciousness? Love does these things to you, Josh. It is an irreparable wound, when you fall in love, and will not be loved back in return. Do you know how much that hurt, when you looked at me, sipping that smoothie, I know it’s avocado-durian, I know, I have these powers, I can intuit, I can tell the future too, just like Maxine, the woman I’m going to soon be meeting. She is my only hope now. You looked at me, and I smiled at you. You turned to face the opposite direction. I mean, what is wrong with you, Josh? A hot girl like me, (well, that day I wasn’t looking so hot, but I wear lipstick every time I come down to do the laundry, don’t I? And also when I knock on your door to give you all the kebabs and biryanis I have learnt so assiduously from my Arabic neighbours all these years in Dubai?), looks at you, her heart bursting like a balloon, and you won’t look back at her, and smile? What the fuck is wrong with you, Josh? (3) They both were in love. Well, at least Heath was. But there was no way of knowing, with a woman like her, with that dogged persistence she is made of, with that never-say-die attitude. Sometimes the stupidest thing a woman can do is hanker after a man who couldn’t give a fucking-damn about her. Yes, Josh had his priorities. That day, Heath was walking down the street. She had just bought some fruit from the organic store right opposite their house. The house they live in: it’s a cute little thing, tucked away from the main road, you had to cross that mini-alley to get there. Heath was so happy in that house. Nothing in that house could possibly affect her energy in a bad way. She was living in a bubble. The Law of Attraction was her bubble. Except for those moments she was haunted by thoughts of Josh. She had visions of him moving out of the country, sitting on a plane, reading Le Fleurs De Mal in English; of his whisking off to Taiwan, a country he had recently visited, perhaps to check out teaching opportunities there. She envisioned him stepping out of the aircraft, smiling to himself, entertaining an endless swirl of thoughts about his life, but thoughts that had no relation to her whatsoever, thoughts that did not carry her weight. And then she would pray, for an entire hour straight, call on her spirit guides. And wait for an answer. If the answer did not arrive, she would keep her eyes closed, and visualise. Visualisation is power, Heath, her teacher said all the time. What you think of, grows. Energy goes where attention flows. Or was it, energy flows where attention goes? She saw them walking hand-in-hand, on that same street, all the way up to the bridge over the canal, that seemed to extenuate itself forever and forever into the horizon. She saw them together, sipping avocado-durian smoothie. She saw their shared future spreading all the way across Vietnam, Dubai, Idaho, Virginia, and back to Vietnam. Back to Ly Chinh Thang, where the fruit lady sold her fruit and the spring rolls woman sold her pork spring rolls. With the language of love, Heather would always be a failure. But how could I tell her that? What is meant to be will be. If a heart has to be broken, there is no stopping that. Heather better brace herself. I will not tell her straight-away, what is going to happen. The future needs to be experienced as it happens, not predicted. Never mind. Josh and I are in love. Heath better mind her step. What is meant to be, will be. ***** Heather’s spiritual teacher introduced her to Maxine, an intuit from Brazil who had moved to rural Cambodia to practice the occult sciences. People flocked to her from everywhere to have their futures altered, although according to Maxine, even an altered future had its own complications, just as a dress you alter may finally end up not fitting you the way you’d want it to. The subconscious activity is a mystery to the world, Maxine said. She said it happened at its peak in sleep. While Heather thought of Josh all day, obsessing over him like the children she taught obsessed over stickers and candy which she offered them at the end of every class based on how well-behaved they were, at nights, on the other hand, her obsession peaked. That was also when the manifestation energy worked at its best, Maxine promised. You need to get some sleep, Heather. If you don’t, the energy I transfer to you will not work at its best. All this scared Heather, she did not know if she was launching herself on the right path. If her parents knew she was communing with a healer, a healer who could potentially be a quack in this fluid, transient world of healers, they would be shocked and worried for her. So when her mother asked her what she was doing in Cambodia over a particular weekend under the pretext of a holiday, Heather lied that she had gone there to see the Angkor Wat in all its grandness. Maxine was forty-five (Heather thought she was a bombshell, she had those lips), she had been abused in three marriages, and was a victim of childhood cancer, till she went travelling across six countries in the world in her thirties to heal. In the process of healing herself, she decided to heal the world. Healers were capable of a brave vulnerability, and this empowered Heather. Heather had read and experienced enough the law of attraction to know that when people were led to healing, it was pre-destined. The spirit guides she communed with told her that the pain she was undergoing was meant to lead her to something higher, and that Maxine was the channel she was destined to work with to heal the blocks that were standing in the way of her manifesting true love. Maxine drew up Heather’s astrological chart based on her time of birth. When Maxine asked for her time of birth, Heather had called her mother to ask, blurting out some stupid reason for why she wanted to know something so abominable. When Maxine asked Heather what she really, really wanted, Heather said she did not know. She didn’t know if it was true love she wanted, or just a night’s excitement. You need to know what you really want, Heather. If you don’t tell the energy what you really want, it will take its own course. Go back to Vietnam, go back to teaching. Find out for yourself, and come back to me. But Heather did not want to go back, she wanted answers right-away. Maxine hesitated: the truth could not be realized for a soul that did not trust in Divine timing. “You need to be close to his presence when the healing happens. Wait till he comes back from work, and settles into the house. Then call me.” “I will go back tomorrow, if that is what you think is best. But are you sure this is going to work, your healing me on Skype?” “You need to trust the energy, Heather. Trust. That’s all that matters. The blinder your trust is than your love, the better.” Heather caught the next flight back home. Perhaps something would happen. Perhaps Maxine was for real. Would the energy she believed in disappoint her? ***** Heather knew energy worked in mysterious ways. It was not something she had control over, at least till she met Maxine. Her teacher said Maxine would be the “fresh air” she needed at the moment, but to Heather, Maxine was an eddy, flowing straight into the magnetic field of her mind, swirling, swirling again. Maxine said so many things over Skype chat during their second session together, things Heather was not so sure she wanted to believe: that Josh was married to her in a previous birth, that they had both had a child that was stillborn, that they lived together for many years yearning over the death of this child. That Heather and Josh were both teachers to little children in the same country, living exactly adjacent to each other, because they were repaying a karmic debt, a karmic debt that would tie them to children for this birth and for many more to come. When Amy heard all this a day after the Skype session, she laughed. Is this all true, Maxine, Heather asked, tears rolling down, tears that were made of the loss she felt when Josh was not around (which he wasn’t, anyway, for the most part), when she did not hear Josh taking a shower in the room next to her own as he came back home after a day’s long teaching; when she did not hear him open the door to his studio apartment with a key that he seemed to insert into the lock in the hurried manner of a locksmith trying his key on a lock; when she did not run into him on the corridor as he was walking with a pile of clothes to put into any one of the two washing machines that the fifteen inhabitants of Mrs. Nguyen’s house used all together at different times. You do not know what the truth is till you see it, Maxine said. But if we were really people who knew each other in a previous birth, why isn’t he attracted to me, the way I’m, to him? Why does he walk away from me like that, when he sees me in the corridor, just flashing me a shy smile, and then moving on? Why doesn’t he linger? Well, yes, given that he was married to you in the last birth, and you both made so much love all those years of being together, the fact that he doesn’t even linger enough to look at you, is an aberration. And why this aberration, may I know? There is another woman, Heather. An epilepsy almost overtook Heather. She wished Maxine was right there beside her, talking to her, holding her, instead of on Skype. The first time she’d met Maxine, there were together in the same room in her humble abode in rural Cambodia. Heather let it all out, crying endlessly for an entire hour, she spoke about Josh like she’d known him all her life, she spoke about him with a dire sense of longing. But the Skype session would do it, Maxine promised. He would come running after her. Don’t mind the shuddering, that’s how the energy works, stay still, keep your eyes closed. The answer will come to you. Heather’s nose was so clogged she wanted to reach for a tissue. She hadn’t cried this way for many years, not even in the first session. I told you, Heather, energy works in mysterious ways. If you are not vigilant enough, energy can be nasty. Don’t mess with it. Do you understand? Heather was already unconscious on her bed, head over the laptop. Welcome to the dream world, Heather. Some things here are not going to make sense to you. But you have to believe they are true. Do you see that woman there, crying over a child, do you see the man next to the woman, crying too? Do you see that child, just born a few minutes ago, motionless upon the mattress? Do you see the midwife? Do you see them all, their face full of the suspension of shock, except for that little one, that little one who seems to be smiling even in the throes of death? Do you hear the cuckoo chiming in from the cuckoo clock in the next room? Do you see the hospital? This is how hospitals were back in the day in this world. There were full of paintings. When a midwife helps a woman give birth, the woman lays down facing this painting of a woman giving birth. When you look at that painting, you think it is an actual woman giving birth. It was a curse on you, to look at that painting while you were giving birth. Of course, you were not looking at it, you were giving birth, but yes, to even face it, and to momentarily look at it after your water had broken on the bed, and the baby was ready to come out, was an aberration in the grand scheme of things. Hell, you shouldn’t have been there in that hospital. Had you given birth on the road even, your baby would’ve survived. I don’t care for the baby, Maxine. Tell me about Josh. Josh was quite the devoted husband. The way he tended to you when you were pregnant, the number of times he massaged your feet when they were swollen and bursting with liquid, well, he was quite the husband. You both were in the country of Malice, but your husband was a good man. And neither were you a woman of Malice, you were a good woman too. But he just wasn’t devoted enough. He was sleeping with another woman. But does sleeping with another woman make him less devoted to the woman he’s already married to? I don’t know, I can’t say. In the country of Malice, even sins were worth overlooking. In fact, if you didn’t sin, you were abnormal. He was committing adultery on your best friend from that birth. But you had no idea. No, your husband loved you. He would not think of any woman other than you. But that bitch, she was a fraud. She got him in her bed. Maxine, I don’t care. Why does all this matter to me now, in the twenty-first century, in love with a man from the twenty-first century, eating the food of the twenty-first century? Why does it matter if he was sleeping with my best friend or not? And yes, if you had told me I had given birth in Idaho, where my parents are from, I would honestly at least try to believe your story. Because karma continues. What do you mean? He was sleeping with your best friend. You just told me that. I’m not finished. What do you mean? He is sleeping with your best friend. Amy? Is that her name, Amy? I do not care for names, I care for the person, the person’s core. But Maxine, I don’t have a best friend. Amy is just a friend. I haven’t spoken to her in ages. She doesn’t even call me anymore. And she moved to the Philippines over two months ago. There’s no way Josh slept with Amy. Or any other “best friend” of mine. A persistent fit of coughing overtook Maxine. She reached for a bottle of water right next to the huge crystal she had out in front of her. Well, you see, Heather, like I said, energy works in mysterious ways… Heather woke up from her dream on the bed. She stared at a blank screen: no Maxine, no energy, no love. She received a message on her phone that said Maxine had received her full payment. Heather vowed never to see a healer again, at least not a woman who promised to put love together. The language of love was hard even for healers to understand. She walked out of her apartment, and knocked on Josh’s door. Something would happen today, at least, she believed. Josh did not open the door. Heather came back to her room, sat straight on a chair, and chanted a mantra. She first chanted it loud, till the whole room reverberated with the noise of it, just as Maxine had instructed, and then in a whisper, a whisper only she could hear, and then she chanted it in her mind, very, very quietly, as a stillness took over her, the stillness of manifestation, of attunement. And then she waited for the answer. The answer will come to you, Heather. She heard Maxine’s voice. She heard nothing after that. The only answer now was that there was no answer. Heather learnt from Mrs. Nguyen the next day that Joshua had left the house for good, gone back to Virginia to nurse his sick mother, and that he was not coming back. Ten days after that, Heather was already speaking broken Vietnamese. At least this was a language she could master. She bought a new hardcover notebook with a drawing of Ho Chi Minh on the front. And then Amy called, out of nowhere. She told her what happened over the phone. Maxine was not the fucking liar Heather thought Maxine was, after all! Energy works in mysterious ways. Don’t mess with it. Sometimes the answer is no answer. That, Heather believed, was the best answer. So be it. *****