Brian found it difficult to describe the sensation in his left side to Dr. Huang. It was a cross between numbness and pain that he felt sometimes in his face, and other times in his hands, arms, feet, and legs. When anxiety peaked, his entire left side was alive with unwanted sensation. Stomach pain and headaches were also a problem, but they were more straightforward to treat. Dr. Huang listened and then asked Brian to join him in his private office. It was small and orderly, like the doctor himself.
“Mr. Madson, you have a little stomach irritation, but, as we discussed earlier, all of your tests are normal. Your symptoms seem to be the result of acute anxiety. It’s usually an aggravated form of long-term stress. I’d recommend that we try Alazopram. It’s a generic form of the tranquilizer Xanex. It has fewer side effects than Valium so more doctors prescribe it now.” Dr. Huang picked up a prescription pad and began to write. “Alazopram isn’t addictive, but if you keep taking it, you’ll need to increase the dosage over time. Long-term we might consider an antidepressant like Paxil or Prozac. They can be very useful in treating anxiety, but they often have side effects.”
“For example?” said Brian.
“In men, the most common side effect is impotence. That’s why we try the Alazopram first.”
Brian rubbed the pain in his left forearm with his right hand, calloused from long workouts with weights. Exercise seemed to be the only thing that relieved his tension. He had more questions for Dr. Huang, but he did not ask them.
“Impotence probably wouldn’t matter that much right now. I’m not thrilled about taking drugs, but let’s try the stuff you recommended.”
On the way from the doctor’s office in San Jose to the Palo Alto pharmacy, he argued with the chairman of one of the investments he managed. Alone in his BMW with his cell phone off, he hosted the battle entirely in his mind. The subject of the argument was hypothetical. He thought about what the chairman might say and how he would reply to each point and counter-point. The thread went on and on and on until he stopped himself.
“What the hell am I doing?” he said aloud.
Brian took a deep breath and rubbed his neck. His head hurt and he felt a little dizzy, but he was grateful that his stomach was in good shape today. He remembered that Katherine’s period should be over today and wondered if they would make love that night. He started to feel aroused until he remembered that she had turned down his sexual overtures the last two times. Knowing that he would not sleep if she turned him down tonight, he tried and tried and tried not to think about sex. It was hard enough to sleep without a raging sexual appetite. What was the point in sleeping with a beautiful woman for five years if she turned him down for sex half the time? He began an argument with his wife, saying bitter things in his mind he would never say if she were really listening. The argument ended when he reached the pharmacy.
“I’ve got to stop doing this. I love Katherine. What is wrong with me?” he said, getting out of the car.
He filled his prescription, threw it into the backseat, and drove home. When he turned thirty a year ago, he had felt obligated to own a house. The boom that had given him the money to buy in Menlo Park had made the house cost eight times as much as his parent’s home in Portland. It was smaller than his parents place, but in good weather he rode his bike to his office on Sand Hill Road, the center of venture capital in Silicon Valley.
It was early afternoon and Katherine was still at work so he decided to take a short nap. Carefully moving her sketch-book from the bed to his grandfather’s oak writing table, he noted the beginnings of a drawing of Boomer, their neighbor’s dog. Lying down, his mind raced and his stomach began to cramp just below the ribcage. He tried different sleeping positions and then gave up.
Going into his office, he turned on the computer and connected to the Internet. He answered a few e-mails, checked his stock prices, and then typed “anxiety” at a search-engine prompt. 283 pages of web sites were returned with subcategories containing more web sites. Anxiety.com, National Anxiety Foundation, Panic Resource Center, Child Anxiety Network, Dental Phobia and Anxiety. It was clear that he was not the only compulsive worrier.
For the rest of the afternoon he researched the relationship between stress and anxiety and different ways to cope. He took notes and saved the addresses of the most interesting web sites. He read everything he could find that seemed competent and relevant. His approach to research was the same as his approach to everything in life. He was proactive, intense, a man of action. But the more he read, the more he learned the answer to his problem was the opposite of proactive. Katherine, the serene, often told him to just relax. It was like telling a man with consumption not to cough. Relaxation was not something that you could do or have. It was the lack of action and absence of anxiety.
Brian weighed his options. Drugs sucked. Spirituality required belief and he was lacking. Therapy was expensive and potentially embarrassing. Biofeedback was appealing, but required classes and machines. He wanted something he could do at home without explanation to anyone except Katherine. The answer was meditation.
After looking at a number of meditation techniques and reading user reviews and feedback, he reached into his jeans and pulled out his plain black wallet. In a moment, his credit card number was submitted and checked against a database to ensure it was genuine and that he had the credit necessary for a set of tapes from Swami Choudhury, a self-proclaimed expert in deep meditation. Brian purchased both the beginner and advanced series and paid the additional charge for Federal Express shipping.
The garage door opened and then closed as Katherine put her bicycle away after her ride home from Stanford. Most of her friends assumed it was her eye for beauty and her wealthy husband that allowed her to be a graduate student in art history, but she was serious about her work. At twenty-six, she was five years younger than Brian. She came into the office pushing her blond hair, tousled by her helmet, out of her face. Wearing a multi-colored nylon shirt and tight, black pants, she took off her backpack, sat down, and pulled off her bicycle shoes.
“How are you feeling? What did the doctor say?”
“Nothing wrong with me that drugs, years of therapy, and regular sex won’t cure.”
“Good. When do you start therapy?”
“Tomorrow. I ordered some meditation tapes. But we can start therapy now. Why don’t I help you shower after your ride?”
“Sex isn’t a stress relief exercise. I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.”
Brian’s disappointment showed. He folded his arms and rocked in his chair, looking at the floor. “Katherine, you know I can’t handle a baby right now, if that’s what you really mean.”
“I wasn’t talking about a baby; you have a guilty conscience. We’ve talked about children for three years and it’s always the same story.” She gathered her bicycle gear. “The tapes sound like a good start, but you really should consider seeing a therapist. It makes more sense than constantly going to the doctor to have more tests.” Katherine left to shower, alone.
He fought the growing ache that started in his groin and progressed upward towards his stomach. Would diapers and crying and responsibility push him over the edge? He imagined a son in his own image, a muscular body, and dark, curly hair.
He received the Federal Express package at work the next day, but left it unopened until late in the evening at his office at home. There were seven tapes. Six were commercially boxed, shrink-wrapped, and labeled, with a smiling picture of Swami Choudhury. Tapes one, two, and three were “Meditate for Life, Lessons for Beginners.” Four, Five, and Six were labeled “Meditate for Peace, Advanced Techniques.” The seventh tape was unboxed with a hand-written label, “Meditate for Desire.”
Brian closed and locked the office door. He unwrapped tape one, pushed it into a VCR, and pressed play. Initial credits were followed by the smiling face from the box, speaking in an accented, melodic voice. It took nearly an hour to stop feeling silly, but he listened and tried to do the exercises as instructed. He stretched when the Swami stretched, closed his eyes when he was instructed to close them, and tried to form the pleasant mental pictures the Swami described. The tape finished with instructions for morning and afternoon meditation. He was to repeat these exercises for at least two weeks before advancing to the next tape.
The next evening, Brian decided to fast-track. He opened and played tape two. Choudhury began to speak, but his face had lost its smile.
“There is nothing in these lessons that will interest you, if you have not mastered the simple techniques of the first tape. For some, it takes a few weeks and for others years. When you can sit in the quiet place you have constructed in your mind, you are ready for the next lesson.”
Brian paused the tape and attempted the techniques he learned the night before, but he could not form a clear mental picture. In disgust, he ejected tape two and replaced it with tape one. For the next hour he reviewed the lessons of the night before.
Each evening thereafter, he tested himself and failed. Each evening, he returned to the first tape in frustration and then took Alazopram to help him sleep. After three weeks, he gave up and pushed the box of tapes, already covered with a layer of dust, under his desk. For three days, he ignored the tapes and his lessons, but on the third evening, he turned off his computer and sat quietly in his brown leather chair. He began the exercises outlined for him, the breath, the chant, and then the quiet vision. A meadow and a stream appeared with grass and small flowers rustling in a light, warm breeze.
When the vision faded, Brian was elated. He pulled the box from under his desk and started the second tape. Swami Choudhury outlined new lessons, which focused on the sense of touch and hearing. In another two weeks, Brian could see, feel and hear the gusts of breeze in his meadow. A few weeks more and he finished tape three; now he could smell the flowers and taste berries growing at the forest’s edge.
At first, he was disappointed when he started the advanced set of tapes. He would have skipped the exercises, but he was beginning to feel the results of his mastery of the first three tapes. It was a subtle difference, but he was using Alazopram less frequently to deal with stressful situations.
Tape four focused on seeing himself in the meadow in his mind. It seemed so simple, but although all his senses were alive, he was unaware of himself. He tried to see his hands and saw only the grass and trees. For nearly a month, he listened to the tape and reviewed the tapes that preceded it. Then one morning, everything changed. He did not simply sense the meadow and surrounding forest, he was there. His footsteps cracked branches and rustled pine needles.
Tape five brought other creatures into his meadow. Deer, rabbits, birds and an occasional coyote or lynx wandered in and out of his peaceful setting. Six, the last advanced tape, focused on entering the meadow during distracting or stressful situations. Brian practiced in public settings, at McDonald’s, at the hardware store, on a bench in downtown Palo Alto and, finally, at work.
Meditation did not solve problems, but after eighteen weeks, Brian could enter his meadow anywhere, under the most stressful situations, and there he found peace. When the subject of children came up at dinner, Brian’s face went blank. He watched a doe feeding at the forest’s edge as Katherine spoke.
“Brian. Brian! Did you hear a word I said?”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Never mind. You were dreaming again. I’m glad you’re feeling better, but I wish you wouldn’t space out every time the conversation doesn’t go your way. You’re the only person I know that can be obsessive about something that’s supposed to help you relax.”
Late that evening, Brian pulled out tape seven, the final set of lessons. “Meditate for Desire”, hand-written on the label, was appealing. While the first six tapes had been professionally produced, this tape appeared to have been shot using a simple home video camera. Instead of robes, the Swami appeared with a long, white, cloth wrapped around his waist and loins, his body covered in sweat. He spoke, not to an audience, but to the person holding the camera.
“This lesson is for you dearest one. Only with one’s Guru should it be practiced so we will keep it for ourselves. As you are my desire in this life and this body, so I will teach you to be my desire in the worlds of my mind.”
Brian wondered how the tape came to be included in his package. Fascinated, he watched and listened, anxious to practice what he heard. With the door to his office closed and locked, he walked his glade for hours, looking and waiting. Finally, walking along the stream, a figure walked towards him. Even at a distance, her hips swaying, he knew it was a woman. When she approached he saw that above her thin, bare waist, full breasts were obscured by a green, long-sleeved top. Below her navel, the same fabric veiled firm legs and thighs in pantaloons that ended at the knee. Her face was Asian, and Middle Eastern, and Caucasian all at once. She stopped within his reach.
“Hello, Brian. I am Jasmine.”
“Are you real?”
She lifted her eyebrows and smiled. “Are you? Touch me and we’ll see.”
He reached his hand out and touched her breast, caressing her nipple through the silken fabric. She pressed her right hand over his, moved closer, and with her left hand pulled his face down to hers. Her tongue was warm and anxious. Brian wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down onto the grasses of his meadow and there, with warm pine breezes, they made love until they were both exhausted.
The next evening, Brian waited at the edge of the forest. Minutes passed and then he heard his name floating through the pines. He walked forward and the pine needles under his feet were replaced by white sand. The trees faded and the sky opened to the ocean. Sitting on a blanket under the sun, was Jasmine.
An hour later, sand stuck to the sweat on their bodies, Brian wanted to talk. She would chat about the things around them, their bodies, the palms, the birds, dolphins swimming beyond the breakers, but nothing outside their view held her interest. Night after night they met, sometimes on her beach and sometimes in his forest glen. Each night, Brian wondered if he had broken his marriage vows. Every man he knew would be an adulterer if acts of the mind were counted, but Jasmine was not a simple fantasy. She felt, and sounded, and tasted as real as Katherine.
At home, Brian began to clean up after dinner. It was a new habit for him, but he enjoyed the peaceful action. While he washed dishes one evening, Katherine stayed at the table, her hands folded in front of her.
“Brian, I need to talk to you.”
”I can’t remember a time when you were more at peace and felt better or when I’ve enjoyed your company more, but you haven’t touched me in weeks.” She paused, rhythmically pressing her index fingers into her folded hands. “I would think you were having an affair, but you’re always home, locked in your office doing meditation or Yoga or whatever you do in there.”
“I didn’t think you wanted me to touch you.”
“When we got married, I always saw us with a family. And I saw us as lovers, even when we were old. Now I feel totally alone or like I’m living with a kind, older brother. I understand if you don’t want children, but don’t treat me this way.” There were angry tears in her eyes that she tried to brush away.
He sat down at the table with her and took her hands.
“I’m sorry, Katherine. Something has happened to me. I think some of it is good, but it’s clear that not all of it is helping us.” He paused for a long time, rubbing the back of her hands with his thumbs. “What do you think it would be like to have a child?”
“I don’t really know, but I think it would be wonderful.”
He stood up, still holding her hands, and led her into their bedroom. Slowly, he made love to her and she responded, but when she got up to get her diaphragm, he pulled her back into bed. Somehow, trying to conceive a child was different; he felt power, and purpose, and accomplishment, and love. They rested, talked about the future, and then made love again.
For the next week, Brian avoided his meadow. When he returned home on the seventh day, the message light blinked on his answering machine. The first message was from Katherine, saying she would be late. The second was from his mother. The third message caused a cold, hard pain in his stomach.
“Brian, come to me.”
It was Jasmine’s voice. He had always felt that she was real; his own mind couldn’t have created her in such detail. It was her imperfections that gave away her reality; the mole on her left shoulder, the small bruises on her shins, the chips in her fingernails.
It took him longer than usual to center himself and enter his meadow, but once he arrived, he didn’t wait to hear his name. He ran through the forest and into the cloudless sky and hard sun of Jasmine’s beach. It was hotter than he remembered and there was no breeze. She stood in the shade of a low palm tree waiting.
“I’ve grown weary waiting. Where have you been these last days?”
“Why is it so hot?”
“It is hot to suit my mood, but you don’t need to be uncomfortable.” A light, salty, breeze began to blow, cooling Brian’s sweating skin.
“How did you do that?”
“It’s simple. Do you want to learn?”
“Yes… No. I’m sorry, but I can’t be here anymore. I just came to tell you.”
“Brian, I’m done with Choudhury and the others, but not with you. Come here to me.”
“You know the Swami?”
She laughed. “Yes, I knew him, and he knew me.”
“It was a mistake to come here. There is something very wrong.” Brian started to back away.
“There is no mistake. I sent you the seventh tape. I keep hoping that one of you will stay on your own, but it appears I’ll have to keep waiting.”
“I don’t know how you got my number, but don’t call me again. Goodbye, Jasmine.” He turned and started to walk over the hot sand toward the edge of the forest and his meadow beyond.
“There is much to learn beyond the seventh tape that Choudhury could not teach you,” she screamed at his back. “He will never teach anyone now that I know. You and I are bound now and if you will not feed me with your love, you will feed me with your life.”
Brian ran over the sand, through the forest, and to his meadow. He felt a sense of anxiety, something he had never experienced in his place before. Anxiety turned to dread as he found that the gentle thought that caused the fading and awaking had no effect. None of the lessons he learned from the tapes took him back to his office at home so he pinched himself, cut himself, and finally struck his head with a rock. Nothing worked; he was trapped.
“What have you done to me,” he shouted. From the direction of Jasmine’s beach, he heard laughter. In frustration, he ran through the forest until the pine needles ended and the sand burned his feet. Her beach was empty. He tried to explore beyond his forest and beyond her beach, but one always led, in all directions, to the other.
The sun never changed position; there where no meals, or sleep, or any of the rituals we use to mark time. When Brian noticed the changes in the forest, he could not tell whether an hour had passed, or a year. The proud boughs of the pines surrounding his meadow began to sag and the grass under his feet began to turn brown. No more animals frequented the wood.
Sometimes he heard Jasmine and less often he saw her, but when he tried to get close, she faded away. The sun over her beach grew hotter and brighter even as his forest and meadow began to die. By the time Brian noticed the changes to himself, a dry wind blew dead pine needles and dust into his eyes. He looked at his own sallow skin and at his arms and legs, thin and weak. Lying down on brown grass, he waited to die.
Brian opened his eyes as someone brushed the layer of dust and pine needles away from his face.
“Katherine! How did you get here?”
“The tapes. Brian, you have to get up. You’re dying here.”
Brian stood, wobbling, on his feet. “You have to leave. Jasmine will kill you too.”
“I’m not leaving without you. Come with me.”
Katherine put her arm around him and helped him towards the dying pines. As the trees closed around them, Brian stumbled. She helped him move forward again until the wilting pines were mixed with small, vigorous redwoods. Finally, the pines were gone and they sat down to rest in a stand of giant redwoods. A stream flowed through the center, flanked by giant ferns. Brian removed his clothes and rinsed the dust from his emaciated body in the cold water.
“I found you in your office, Brian. You looked asleep, but you wouldn’t wake up. You’ve been in the hospital for months now.” Katherine helped Brian to dress. “I started listening to the tapes when I found them. When I first saw this place, I knew that you were lost somewhere like this.”
“Not like this. My place is dying.”
“So are you Brian. You have to return now.”
“I can’t. I don’t know how she holds me here, but she won’t let me go.”
“Jasmine? Brian, she was Choudhury’s wife. He’s dead. She owns the company that sold you those tapes.”
“You know Jasmine?”
“I found the address of the company that sold you the tapes and visited them. I met Jasmine. She is beautiful, but there is something very strange about her.” She paused and watched his face. “Is she the reason you are here? Are you sure you can’t leave on your own?”
“Yes. I’ve tried everything. I would kill her if I could.”
“Brian, I have to go, but I’ll come back. After an hour, go back to your place.”
Brian sat with this elbows on his knees, his hands dangling and head drooping. “I don’t know if I can go back there. Can’t we stay here? It’s beautiful.”
Katherine stood next to him and pulled his head to the gentle swell of her stomach. “Do you feel that, Brian? She’s moving.”
“Yes. I know it’s hard, but you have to go back and wait so you can return from your place. If we wait here, we’ll all die.”
Brian nodded against her waist while tears fell between his knees. Katherine stepped back and began to fade. There was no way to measure an hour in this beautiful place so he waited until he felt strong enough and then started to trudge back the direction they had come earlier. The redwoods faded and dry, dusty air began to blow as he neared his dying meadow. When he reached the center, he sat down, exhausted from the short trip.
The dust collecting on his body was the only way that Brian could measure time. His consciousness faded and he slumped to the grass. He pushed himself upright again, afraid that if he lay down, it would be the end.
He was too exhausted to stand when he saw Jasmine enter the meadow. Afraid, searching for something with which to defend himself, he saw Katherine running toward him from the other direction. He wanted to call out to her, to tell her to stay away, but fear and despair were too strong.
“Oh, God, Katherine. Help me!”
Jasmine and Katherine arrived at almost the same time and stood on opposite sides of him. Katherine’s face was flushed and bright when she spoke.
“He’s dying, Jasmine. Release him. Now.”
“I have no intention of releasing him. I came to watch him die, to take the last of his life. He lasted longer than the others, but its time now.”
“If he dies, I’ll kill you, Jasmine. I can do it.”
Jasmine paused and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them. “You’ve tied me to a chair in my office, but how will you kill me? Strangle me? Smother me? Beat me to death? Have you given it any thought?”
Katherine knelt down, put her arms around Brian and kissed his cheek. She stood and faced Jasmine, a few feet away.
“I’m going back to call the hospital. If he is awake, I’ll untie you. If he dies, I will kill you, Jasmine.”
Brian slumped to the ground as Katherine turned and walked away. When she faded into the trees, Jasmine screamed her anger. She kicked dust and dry grass over his face and then turned and walked toward her beach.
For the first time in five months, Brian felt physical pain. There was pain in his throat from the respirator, in his eyes from the light, and, most of all, in his head. He blinked and focused on his mother standing next to his bed shouting into a cell phone.
“Katherine, you were right! He’s awake! Oh God, thank-you. He’s awake!”
A few hours later, when Katherine arrived, the respirator had been removed. Brian sat, propped up with pillows, sipping apple juice. Brian’s mother embraced her, cried, and then left them alone.
“It’s not hard to guess what type of relationship you had with Jasmine; it’s strange to be bitter of something that happened in your mind, and hers. I searched her office before I untied her. She’s dying, you know. She has leukemia.” Brian watched her as she sat on the bed next to him. “I found a file with a list of nine men that got the seventh tape. Five of them are dead; there were receipts for flowers she sent to their funerals. You were number six. I called the other three. They thought I was nuts, but I told them enough that if they ever master the seventh tape, they’ll stay away from Jasmine. She looked pretty sick after I untied her; I’m guessing she doesn’t have much time left.”
“I never thought that I would be so happy to have pain and worry.” Brian stared at the tray in front of him. “I didn’t deserve what you did for me. Thank-you.”
Katherine put Brian’s hand on his daughter, restless in the womb.
Six months later, while their daughter Rebecca slept, Katherine and Brian sat together in their living room. At first Brian’s hands, held firmly by Katherine, were shaking. Once his calm grew, he found himself in his meadow again. Green grass and new flowers pushed through the dust and dead growth. As he walked towards the trees, he saw they were covered by healthy buds of new needles. Katherine met him where the pines turned to redwoods and they sat together, without speaking, by a stream that ran from her forest into his.
Copyright © 2001, Scott Daniel
All Rights Reserved