Donkey Pose | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Donkey Pose 

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I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but in the six months that I've been a client coordinator at my yoga studio, I haven't exactly been keeping up my practice.

It's not like there isn't plenty of opportunity. We're officially supposed to call Pureasana a "chakra spa," which means you can, like, come in for an energy healing and a Swedish herbal ball massage at 1:15, get your pedicure at 3, maybe browse the EmPURErium--where we offer over 30 brands of props, clothing, and hair and skin products--and make it to the Vinyasa for Clarity class at 4:30. We've got reflexology and herbal wraps and facials and Reiki, and even ayurvedic hair services. So this should all be a huge incentive for me to stay totally balanced, right? Before I started working here, back when my old job was being slowly snatched out from under me and my parents had decided to give up on 30 years of marriage entirely out of the blue and my 21-year-old brother, who was depressed and snorting Adderall constantly but thought I had no clue, was crashing on my couch, and then there was 9/11 and all those anthrax scares, and I constantly felt like I was trapped in one of those rooms where the walls are pushing in on all sides until there's no space left and you're squashed and you die--well, my practice was really solid then. Now, I work eight hours a day at the front desk and if I'm not getting some complimentary spa treatment then I'm probably out the door, unless I run into Dexter, who expects me to attend at least three classes a week--because, you know, we're not just his employees, we're his employogis.

I'm not complaining, though. Dexter's a good guy. He spends a third of the year chanting kirtan and doing sun salutes on the sundeck of a private mountain resort in Bali, but he's super smart about business, which you have to respect. I confess, however, that sometimes I get a little frustrated. I mean, things go wrong that, you know, probably shouldn't go wrong at such a classy establishment--and I have to deal with them. Like now, Dex is handing me a stack of promotional flyers and a Pureasana-branded Sharpie. I start inhaling deep and slow, catching the scent of what I believe is sage-tipped essence of bergamot, possibly emanating from the glossy black tips of Dexter's fin--the kind of half Mohawk that's super fashionable right now and looks especially hot on Dex, which is what I told him when he returned, freshly shorn, from this other spa in Sedona where he'd been giving private Ashtanga lessons to Catherine Zeta-Jones, no kidding. Apparently they're tight now. Anyway, he runs a finger down the list of master teachers scheduled to lead weekend workshops here in the next two months and stops and taps on Vehena Dirsam Batiste. There's a thumbnail picture of the back of her head; she's got a thin braid that reaches all the way to her butt.

"I don't know if you've heard, but we have to cancel Vehena Dirsam Batiste's workshop next week," Dex says, still tapping the flyer, each word like something shiny you place gently on an altar. "Something's come up." I can feel him trying to make eye contact with me, so I look up from his feet. I'm wondering if they're pedicured. He certainly has nice-looking toes. "What we need to do," he says, "is mark through her name on each of these flyers. Try to cover all the letters neatly in one stroke."

Then he shows me how. He says it wouldn't be cost-efficient to print a whole new batch and draws careful lines on five flyers. I know this is just the way Dex is; he's a perfectionist, which obviously has something to do with his being such a success. But when the landlord calls, as lately he does at least once a day, it's me who tells him that Dex is in a meeting, at lunch, there's no manager on duty, just me, sorry, I'm just the front-desk person--uh, excuse me, client coordinator--sorry, I'll be happy to take a message. There is never a message. I figure it's all part of the entrepreneurial challenge, which I'm pretty clueless about myself, so who am I to question Dex?

"Oh, by the way," I say, "that guy Frank from the management company called again. While you were at Dean & DeLuca."

Dex smiles and positions the flyers in two neat piles on the front desk. "Thank you, Diane," he says. "I really appreciate your help around here."

I smile, but what I hate to admit is that I'm thinking how my name, as typed on my paycheck, which by the way was late this week for the third time in a row, is Diana. Not "e," "a." Three syllables, which I try really hard to enunciate if Dexter's in earshot when I answer the phone. Not that that happens very often.

But I don't like to think bad thoughts. I don't like to think bad thoughts about Dexter most of all because I believe his heart is open and pure at its center, and from it came this chakra spa, which by association must have a pure center, too. I stand at the front desk and tuck my tail and chin and feel the four corners of my feet root down through the earth, and I relax my jaw, and I think that here, here, I am cultivating that pure center. Pure and purifying, every day, every minute, every second.

I make it through half of the flyers before the rush for the 4:30 class. The teacher, Javier, is really into the breath of fire, which is all about short, quick exhalations--fnh! fnh! fnh! fnh! fnh! fnh!--and the navel should be moving toward the spine on each breath, like, visibly, and if you're really good like Javier wants you to be, you can do this 180 times in a row without stopping. I've improved over the years, but eventually I always start gasping or my navel jerks out of sync with my exhales, which is so frustrating, and really I hate to admit this, but it's gotten so I hate it when he asks us to do the fucking breath of fire.

I know: the poses you resist most are the ones you most need. I know.

Anyway, Javier is the real deal, an old-school yogi who practices bare chested, wearing only these baggy, faded purple Jams, and he's really a fabulous teacher, but I can't get past the fact that his mouth hangs open, like, perpetually. I want to go up to him and push that lower lip into place--there! Much better!

Bad thoughts again, very bad.

I inhale deep, deep into my obviously blocked energy channels.

Here's Petra Rusiecki, whom I think of as our irregular regular. Today her orangey hair looks freshly dyed, and she's wearing it in pigtails even though she's got to be pushing 75. She carries her turquoise yoga mat in her hot pink tote bag, which features the Statue of Liberty against a fake night skyline and NEW YORK in bright yellow capital letters. A blond lady who's been trying on tank tops gives this bag a troubled glance, like maybe she thinks there's a bomb in there. Or more likely it just offends her aesthetic sensibilities. But Petra's oblivious, counting out change for the bottled water she always buys before class.

Petra's client record says that she's been coming to Pureasana several times a week since it opened three years ago, back when it was just like any other studio. I wonder if she liked it better then, but she doesn't exactly encourage conversation. I've never seen her in the salon, and she doesn't linger in the EmPURErium before class like so many other regulars who drift back and forth from the front desk to the racks to ask me if this or that top looks too tight. She just sits on the bench in the reception area, pulls a bottle of Purell out of her bag, and squirts the antibacterial goo on her hands. I've seen her in class doing warrior two, with her arm wattles quivering and sweat droplets collecting on the mat beneath her. When she puts her mat down near mine, I find it hard not to stare at the dense scattering of moles all over her upper chest, neck, and back.

Now she pushes some quarters and dimes toward me and picks up one of the corrected flyers.

"There is another mistake?"

"The Vehena Batiste workshop," I say. "We had to cancel it."

She stares at me. "Vehena? I register since two months."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I say with my signature cringe of dismay. "Did you not get the phone call? It's canceled. But you'll get full credit toward a future workshop, or any package of classes if you prefer."

"Is she sick?"

"Um, I don't know," I say, tracing an invisible star between moles. "Quite possibly."

"You do not know why she's cancel?" Petra clicks her tongue and sighs deeply.

"You'll get full credit or--"

"Yes, yes, I understand. But I am very disappointed. Where is Dexter?"

I'm so surprised she knows Dex's name that I tell her the truth before I think better of it: "He's getting a massage," I say. "He should be out any minute."

"I will wait." She announces this less to me than to the blond lady, now waiting at the desk too, holding a red tank that reads "Cowgirls need prana, too."

The blond doesn't register Petra's comment. "Can you order this in black?" she asks me.

The phone rings, and while I'm booking a bachelorette party's all-day Chakra Nourishing Experience, Dex emerges from his massage. He glides into the lobby, sunglasses on, Benz keys in hand, and there is Petra, waiting. Then I get another call, from Frank-the-rather-gruff-landlord, and by the time I've fended him off, Petra's in class and Dex is waiting to talk to me. I missed the whole thing.

"That woman doesn't understand that our business doesn't revolve around her. See, Diane, this is why I'm glad we're not having the Batiste workshop--she attracts people like that. They're smelly, and they want things. Do you know what I mean?"

I nod, focusing on his sinewy smooth olive triceps and deltoids, his Sanskrit tattoo band.

"Pull up her file for me, Diane," he says. He peers through his sunglasses at her long attendance history, and I move out of his way so he can click around--looking for what, I'm not sure, but I don't think he's going to find it. I'm dying to ask why we're not having the Batiste workshop, but I guess that's, like, none of my business. Finally he gives up on Petra's file and clicks onto today's revenue stats. He seems to have successfully rechanneled his anger.

"We'll refund her money of course, and give her a free class voucher."

"OK."

"But she's not getting anything else. I'm not going to cater to these people."

"Sure," I say.

"Thank you, Diane. I really appreciate your help around here. I'm sorry you had to witness that."

Di-an-a didn't witness it, I think; she was on the phone with Frank. But I'm not going to bother him with the message right now. I know it's not a good time. I just wave as he glides into his ski jacket and out the door into cold sunlight.

A week later, I'm processing new client forms at the end of my shift when in walks a tall woman wheeling a purple suitcase. She's wearing a pair of boot-cut yoga pants with orange and red flames down the thighs, and it takes me only a second to register who she is by the braid that seems to trail down her chest like ivy on a pillar.

"Hello," she says, offering me a hand. Her grip is firm and warm. "I'm Vehena Batiste."

"Umm...hi," I say.

"Is Dexter Niyama here?"

"Umm...let me see," I say. "Just a second." In his office behind the reception area, Dexter is actually at his desk for once, talking into his cell phone headset.

"You haven't held up your end of the agreement, Stu," he's saying. "Why should I pay you when you--Stu, I'm sorry, excuse me." He looks at me. "Hey, Diane, what is it?"

"Vehena Batiste is out there," I say.

Then we stand there, just kind of squinting at each other.

"Shit. Tell her I'm on an important call, Diane, and I'll be out as soon as I can."

"Sure thing."

"Close that door behind you, please."

I ask Vehena to wait, and she nods serenely and thanks me and retreats to a table at the far end of the reception area, where she studies the flyers for upcoming special events. When she returns to the front desk holding one, I pretend to be very busy processing new-client forms.

"Why is my name crossed off this list?" she says.

"I'm sorry?" There's nothing to do but examine the flyer and give her my signature frown of dismay. "Hmm. That's odd."

"Yes, it is. You don't know anything about my workshop being crossed off this flyer?" she asks, her voice milky and low. I can see her now, walking around a room full of students in some grueling pose. She'd remind them that right attitude leads to right action, practice is moving meditation, focus on the breath, remember your intention. Our eyes meet, and I know she can see that I know, and I want to tell her I'm really sorry, but I am just a front-desk person, I mean client coordinator--I'm truly sorry, and I have no idea why she got canceled and even less of an idea why she seems to know nothing about it. But then an angel sends me a phone call, and I ask her to please excuse me for a moment.

While I'm booking an astral cleansing, Dexter summons Vehena into his office, and right after that, Petra comes in, and from what I can tell she's still miffed. She signs in without even looking at me and heads for the studio where Javier's class is getting started. I start to call after her but then realize I have no idea what to say. And then Ashlee, a night-shift girl, shows up to relieve me at the front desk, so I follow Petra into class, which I of course now feel I'm needing in the worst sort of way. Everybody's sitting cross-legged on their mats doing breath of fire.

Unfortunately I find it very hard to concentrate on Javier's instruction to leave the rest of my day behind and focus my gaze inward, partly because I'm obsessing about how every time I look at him his mouth is hanging open and partly because I can't stop thinking of Vehena in there with Dexter, getting the shaft for some reason. And of course there's Petra, in my direct line of sight, wobbling but holding her own in a modified version of side plank.

"Practice ujjayi breath, harness the pranic life force. Feel it circulating through your limbs, flushing out anything stale or unwanted. Inhale...ehhhxhale."

I dive into a forward fold and hang there for five breaths per Javier's directions. The woman next to me still has spacers between her toes from her four o'clock pedi. The woman next to me on the other side has a rock on her ring finger the size of my pinkie nail. I close my eyes and tell myself to fucking quit it, and then I tell myself to fucking quit being so hard on myself, damn it. I remember back when I was such a fucking head case for a while I used to come here and practically weep on command whenever Javier told us to flush out anything stale or unwanted.

Rising now, one vertebra at a time, I picture each one glowing briefly, a little trail of lights right up to my first chakra. I picture all the bad thoughts escaping through the top of my head, scattering like greasy bubbles that will pop and cease to bother anybody. But then I wonder how many other people are emitting bad thoughts, and I picture the room full of bubbles, and before long I'm clenching my jaw again while stumbling out of bird of paradise and checking out Petra, who's shockingly balanced and limber for her stature. That should be me.

I give up on bird of paradise and take a vinyasa, jumping back into the comfort of good old down dog. And now I feel Javier's strong hands pressing my shoulder blades, spreading them like wings, and I close my eyes and just breathe, my hands melting flat into the mat, squeezing all the cupped air out, my sit bones rising to meet the sky, my down dog nearing perfection, my eyes on my perfectly polished toes, and Vehena is no longer my concern. Petra isn't either, Dexter can chant this place into the ground for all I care, I have put the external world aside, I am grounded and my gaze is inward, focused, pure.

Then later, during final resting pose, Javier reads us a little inspirational passage, which is something he likes to do. I am lying on my back with my eyes closed, concentrating on melting my jaw, when it begins. "A donkey is a donkey," he says:

"Our first priority is to serve others. In the process of doing that, if you think that you have to take a little rest so that you can serve more, then go take rest. Still, your taking rest is for the purpose of serving. If we can apply this in our daily lives then we don't have to worry about taking care of ourselves. Each one is already taken care of by everyone else.

"You should simply serve in whatever way you can. It may even be that your purpose is to serve as a warning to others.

"Don't pretend that you can do more than you are able. A parrot can talk to you but not a donkey. Does the donkey get upset over it? No. It's happy as a donkey. It need not try to copy the parrot and then cry, 'Oh, I can't even sing or repeat anything.' If you have been created as a donkey, be happy as a donkey, because you have a purpose."

Well, forget it, there is no more rest for Diana after this. My jaw tightens right back up, and I am way confused because I know he is talking to me. I don't know if I'm a donkey, or just a front-desk monkey, or if I'm just cruel and petty for wanting to shove Javier's bottom lip up to meet his top one. I decide I am all these things and more. And worst of all, I almost busted out laughing when Javier brought up the whole donkey thing in the first place. I mean, he is so sincere, and everyone else is too. And look at me. All this balancing and opening and cleansing, and my heart's still clenched tight like a fist. OK, maybe I am a donkey, but if so I'd like to know just what exactly my purpose is.

After class I wait for everyone to leave. Then I refold the whole sloppy pile of sweaty, hastily abandoned mats. I coil the belts and straighten the blankets. I burn sage, inhale its cleansing smoke deep into my filthy little lungs. I even pick the yellow leaves off the struggling ficus in the corner. When I return to the lobby, Ashlee widens her eyes at me and beckons.

"Hey, Diane, that Vehena Batiste chick showed up after all!"

"Ashlee, my name's Dian-nuh," I say, trying to smile.

"Oh," she says. "I've never heard anyone call you anything but Diane. Sorry."

"Don't be," I say. "Now you know. So--what happened with Vehena?"

Ashlee lowers her voice. "Well, you know her workshop got canceled, right? She's like, no, I didn't get any message about this, how could I miss that message, and he's like, well, I guess somehow this time you did. And he started in about not enough people registering, the cost-benefit analysis showed that blah blah blah. But then he shut the door, and they've been in there ever since! He's gonna be in a super-pissy mood." Ashlee seemed all excited by this story at first, but now she looks solemn, as if the telling has spoiled it. Then she looks over my shoulder. "Can I help you?"

"You said Vehena Batiste was here?"

I recognize the voice and at the same moment I catch a whiff of Purell: it's Petra, clutching her pink New York tote. She's damp-curled from class, wearing a billowy, sheer Buddha-print blouse with a scoop neck that allows a full view of her mole constellations. Happy little Buddha faces squint out from her stomach at me. Javier's rigorous class and donkey devotional have left me with a serious case of yoga brain, so Ashlee beats me to a response.

"Yes, she was here, but there was a mix-up," she says. "I'm afraid her workshop's canceled. Hey, that bag's hot. It's super kitsch."

"Thank you," Petra says, still frowning. "It is present from my nephew. You say Vehena Batiste is here?"

"No," I say, "Ashlee's mistaken. There's this woman who looks like Vehena, you know, with this real long braid, and..." I lock eyes with Ashlee. "And you must have thought it was her because you didn't know the workshop was canceled."

"Yep, you must be right," Ashlee says, turning back to the computer. "Nobody tells me anything."

"Let me explain to you something. I've never before wanted to do workshop. I had been expecting for Vehena Batiste since two months. And then you cancel and will not offer reason why. There should not be happening things like this. I have been coming here since three years, and I am noticing this place falling to pieces!"

Ashlee takes this as a personal slight. "Ma'am, I'm sorry your guru can't make it, but we offer a ton of great services here, and I don't think one little cancellation means we're falling apart."

"This is not what I mean to say."

"That's what you said."

"You have just said that nobody tells you anything. There is breakdown of communication."

I jump in. "It's just that we're growing so fast, trying to serve the interests of our increasingly diverse clientele."

"You grow too much," Petra says. "You need to trim branches. Where is Dexter?"

I wonder what a donkey would do.

"You know what? You don't want to talk to Dexter," I say. "He's in a super-pissy mood. Come with me." I cup Petra's shoulder and ease her out the door. We walk across the parking lot and into the juice bar across the street, where I order us two shots of wheatgrass before Petra has a chance to say no.

"Look," I say, "I'm going to tell you, not that it'll make any difference: Vehena Batiste is here. Right now--yep," I say, as Petra blinks rapidly at me. "She didn't get the news that her workshop was canceled, so she showed up."

"I know this. You tell me something else, but I heard what she say, the other girl." Now Petra's face sags into true disappointment, and I know that this is it, this is karma biting me in my little yoga-toned butt. I've been expecting it, really. All the times I purposefully pitted mom against dad to get what I wanted, all my bad thoughts, even the couple of Adderall I stole from Josh. I mean, the truth is that I've made mistakes and I've lied--like everyone else on this lousy planet, sure, but whatever--but now Petra has caught me in a lie, right on the heels of yoga class no less, and there can be absolutely no denying that my energy field is, at least for the time being, entirely fucked.

But as I toss back my wheatgrass and suck on my orange slice, and Petra does the same--which I admit kind of surprises me because really, who thought she'd have any experience with the stuff?--I begin to understand that this old lady is an angel, with her fugly New York bag and Buddha blouse and her eavesdropping and insistence. Maybe it's the wheatgrass, but I see things from a whole new perspective, truly. Her moles seem to twinkle at me, and I swear I see tiny threads of white light zipping between them, and Petra is saying something about taking a class with Vehena many years past, and how she, Vehena, is the reason Petra has practiced so much yoga, and how can it be there is not enough people for this workshop, and she's going on and on and it's hard for me to understand it all, really, but I'm trying. The juice bar is like this glowing, citrusy orb in the dark, and in the distance the reception area of Pureasana is a collage of rectangles in sea green and blue, smoked glass and blond wood. Petra must be watching my gaze drift because she says, "It is pretty place. But it tries to be so much."

I nod.

"Do you know that there used to be sausage shop?"

I shake my head.

"It was sausage shop. Very good sausage, in fact. I was both sad and happy when yoga studio came in."

I watch the door to Dexter's office open, and Vehena strides out, pulling her purple suitcase behind her, and as she pushes through the front door, I say "Look, that's--"

"I see her, yes," Petra says.

"You should go talk to her! Don't let her get away," I nearly cry, my heart rate rising.

"You are right," Petra says. "I go."

I remain seated, watching her as she pauses at the edge of the sidewalk, waving with her free hand. Vehena Batiste is unlocking her car door when she hears her name. She looks up and waits for Petra to make her way back across the street.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Luba Lukova.

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