She had been getting bad again. She knew it this time, which she supposed was an improvement. Her days all blended into one, reality sometimes so out of reach that it had almost become completely elusive, taunting her, dangling its precious fruit before her starving eyes and daring her to chase it. She couldn’t. She was stuck.
Before, she would have taken whatever she could to clamber back to vitality, crawled on hands and knees in unknown apartments and inhaled as if breathing for the first time. Now, she felt like her lungs were caving in on her, like everything was caving in.
She saw the advert at the community centre, where she worked as a counsellor. She often perused the bulletin board, took in the details of everything going on, liked differentiating between the more professional looking flyers and the handwritten notices. So it didn’t stand out to her at all, at first. But eventually, her beating heart felt its first flutter of excitement in months as she read ‘Yoga Retreat - Joshua Tree. Two weeks for $1000 inc. all accommodation, food and classes. Meditation also available at no extra cost! Email email@example.com for more info’. She took it as a sign and knew instantly that this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
One thousand dollars was a lot of money, an amount she would certainly have to scrounge for in every bank account and purse she owned, but she needed an escape - or a chance to come back to herself. And this was it. She took her old iPhone 7 out of her jacket pocket and fired off an enquiry.
Returning to her office, the air felt a little lighter.
The flight from Boston to LA took just under six and a half hours. In that time, Katya managed to: aggravate the passenger beside her with her incessant fidgeting so much that they moved seats, eat an entire family size bag of skittles, design a series of outfits on a sweaty handful of napkins for her made-up-on-the-spot private detective alias, and organise all the spare change upon her (deeply nervous) person. She glanced at the time on her phone at too-regular intervals so the digits began to melt into each other, seeming to her like a lame, millennial Dali knock off. Though she was partially relieved to have a natural buzz within herself again, existing in her own skin at this point was excruciating.
She had begun practicing yoga over ten years ago in an attempt to bring about some balance in her life. She swung like a tumultuous pendulum from erratic, energised highs to vacant, hollow lows, so viciously that the inbetweens were nothing but whiplash. It was exhausting. Whichever mood her thoroughly fucked mind thrust upon her left her bereft. But what was really the cherry on top of the absolute shit cake, was the plain fact that, no matter how fiery her thought processes, no matter the complexities which twisted and turned inside her, no matter how vehemently her pattern of thinking was described to her and by her as terminally unique, her ultimate turmoil came from the insistent and stubborn refusal to admit that she was just like everybody else.
She had written an email to her friend, back in the good old days before Apple controlled everyone’s monkey brains and correspondence habits, trying to explain herself. Because her mere existence presented as a moral conundrum, she had spent three days unable to sleep, fixated on pinpointing precisely what it was about her character that made it so difficult to reconcile with playing the game of life. The exact content of the email escaped her over the years but whenever her despondent memory grazed over that time, she would get a vaguely eerie chill from the knowledge that she was still struggling to rectify such a problem.
How she conducted herself, both internally and not, when sober or beyond all recognition, was a preoccupation akin to obsession. Katya found it delicious to explore how some of her most vehement, immoral acts occurred without having taken a single trace of an illegal substance, and how her kindness and vibrant, all encompassing love burst out of the blurred confines of her intoxicated, liminal body when doped up.
Maybe she was just a narcissist in poor disguise. Maybe she was enthralled in a messed up kind of mindfulness yet to be discovered by fellow, less enlightened yogis…Maybe she was one more skittle away from onset diabetes.
As a precursor to the retreat, Katya had been instructed to set out her intentions for her time at Ru’s Farm. She had assumed Michelle, who was running the program, meant to write them down, or at least have her reasons at the ready. Despite being experienced with the practice and enjoying a range of hatha, ashtanga and vinyasa classes several times per week, Katya had never looked into retreats before now and hadn’t even spoken to anyone who had been on one. She’d fleetingly figured they were more of an LA thing, for people who had time and money and a relatively healthy self image - which wasn’t a very virtuous assumption to make, she would be the first to admit. Yet, there she was, fretting herself silly at thirty five thousand feet above ground because she would be starting one the following day and - holy fuck - she was underprepared.
It was hot, scorchingly hot, when she trudged off the plane. The afternoon sun blazed overhead and her blood red sunglasses did little to prevent her from squinting her way towards the terminal building. The action of going through TSA settled her, for some unknown reason, and by the time she was calling an Uber to her downtown hotel for the night, she had stopped shaking and started to ease into the practical motions of travelling.
She didn’t get out of Boston much anymore, her recently chosen career path lucrative in all ways but monetarily, and she found that, though being geographically stationary was both a blessing and a curse, the home turf routine she had constructed only involved an existentialist level of anxiety and not an am-I-going-the-right-way-have-I-got-everything-I-need-will-I-be-able-to-contact-my-support-network one.
It was refreshing, seeing palm trees and beautiful people rollerblading past her open car window and countless coffee shops and vintage stores and idealised tourist hotspots. Her eyes scanned as much as they could as she wondered how best to spend her evening so she wouldn’t end up wasting it, nauseous and sweating on the bathroom floor. She considered asking her driver for advice on the most interesting art exhibitions or performances. She decided against it when she caught him leering at her in the rear view mirror and resolved to give him a one star rating as soon as she was checked in and safe out of his vicinity.
Another uncertainty she had surrounding the retreat was whether it would be all-female. She wasn’t a violent person; when things were horrific she tried her hardest to only harm herself, not others (though, of course, all actions led to reactions, and she couldn’t escape it - every ripple of a relapse or an episode reached every corner of her social parametres). There were times when needs must. Other times when second hand trauma or persistent paranoia meant she couldn’t bear to be around men, to the extent that she had once refused to interact with the opposite sex for two months. A decision made under psychosis but one she stood by down the line. It was sensible for her in that moment. Her friend Craig had been hurt by her rash, harsh decision, which had softened her slightly. Her father, ever the typical strong silent type, gave her a taste of her own medicine and didn’t speak to her either, but that whole act was more out of pain than resentment. No, she wasn’t a violent person, however her compassion only went so far.
Men were sometimes the enemy and sometimes the bystanders and either way they never proved themselves worthy. So it scared her to be embarking on something she knew would be earth shatteringly personal, would reach into her deepest core and stretch her physically and mentally and emotionally. But it terrified her to think this could all go on in the presence of those she would never feel wholly comfortable around.
When she reached the hotel, there was a small queue at the front desk. She took the time to let her mother know she had arrived safely (‘Landed, disappointingly didn’t burst into flames mid flight and cause another 9/11. Bush still has one over on me!’) and checked to see if there were any last minute emails from Michelle with regards to pick up times or other arrangements.
Katya would be getting the coach with the rest of the group at 9am the next morning outside a yoga studio in the city and they would all reach Joshua Tree by midday, ready for a welcoming ceremony, gong bath and meditation session. Despite all her concerns, she couldn’t deny her curiosity and staunchly refused from then on to undermine the flurry building within her the closer it got to the start of the retreat. There was a reason she was there and she would not let her disfunction get the better of her. She would not covet cowardness’ false idol. She would not let chance slip away.
She slept surprisingly well. After brushing her teeth and touching up her makeup, she had gone out for an early dinner and ventured to an independent gallery to see a Dadaism-inspired exhibition. She had got back just after ten and was flat out by 11. Her alarm woke her at 7, giving her enough time to shower, change, grab breakfast and get to the yoga studio. She was twenty minutes early, which both satisfied her and heightened her unease. LA was still rather unfamiliar to her, despite having visited several times years ago. There was a vastness to its infrastructure that she couldn’t quite adapt to, leaving her always wanting more, searching for things to uncover and make her own.
Before long, more people began to linger. There was a group of three friends, all limbs and flowing, glossy hair - intimidating in a way that Katya understood was totally unintentional on their part. Another few women turned up and quickly got chatting with each other. Nonetheless, several other women, who were evidently making this trip on their own, too, sidled up against the studio front one by one. Fiddling on their phones or with their outfit, they radiated a similar nervous energy and Katya began to loosen.
Just as she was about to strike up a conversation with the middle aged woman next to her who had piqued her interest, there was a small bustle out of the studio front door. A petite but commanding woman with dark hair and darker sunglasses marched to the side of the street, holding a folder seemingly filled to the brim and a glitzy handbag.
Hot on her heels was an outrageously beautiful man, draped in artful layers of flowing black fabric, brown skin glowing in a way Katya had only ever seen on the cover of Vogue. His grey hair lay tousled on his shoulders. He was talking animatedly on his phone, wrist loose and accentuating whatever he was saying as if he was painting the air. They made a strange pair, Katya mused.
“Morning everyone!” The woman addressed the crowd that had now been pulled to her full attention, “I’m Michelle. I want to welcome you to our retreat. I’m glad to see most of us are on time. We have a coach parked around the corner which will be taking us to Ru’s Farm. Hopefully its engine won’t blow like last year...Anyway, we’ll all do formal introductions once we’ve arrived. Lovely to see so many beautiful faces! Let’s get going.” She led everyone to the bus where the driver took bags and cases. With careful attention, Katya watched as woman after woman embarked. She breathed a slight sigh of relief for her earlier fears had been quashed. Michelle’s companion was an instructor, all would be well.
She waited at the back of the queue, getting on last and taking a window seat near the front behind where Michelle had dumped her things. She gazed out to the street, the sun soothing the creases on her forehead and spreading its warmth across her face. She let her eyes close as she inhaled for four counts, exhaled for four, inhaled for four, exhaled for six. As she completed her breathing exercise, the conversations of the women around her seeped into her periphery and rooted her to her surroundings.
When she opened her eyes again, the first thing she saw was a peroxide blonde running as fast as she could in their direction, dragging her bright pink suitcase behind her and brazenly holding her heavy, bouncing breasts. Her oversized Dolly Parton t-shirt clung to her chest and rose above her hips when she leapt off the kerb, landing coachside much more gracefully than Katya expected for someone radiating so much chaotic energy.
Before she knew it, the woman plonked herself in the empty seat next to her, heaving a dramatic huff before turning to her and quipping, “Sorry I’m late, I lost track of time fucking my dad.”