Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
Finally, I was to meet Lisa. We had postponed our introduction several times. Something always came up in her schedule and at the last moment we’d have to cancel and reschedule. This evening, though, she called to confirm. 8 p.m. sharp at her place. “Don’t be late,” she cautioned. Was it because she knew I came from a country where people were not famous for punctuality? Or maybe she had no idea where I came from. Maybe my accent wasn’t so thick on the phone. I didn’t know what Dominique had told her about me.
In any event, I don't like to be late. I decided to drive to her place on the Upper West Side in my new used car hat I’d just bought from a dealer in Queens. I filled my pockets with quarters so that I could park on the street and tossed into my bag the magazine with some of my poems that I’d managed to get published. I wanted to write a dedication to Lisa but I didn’t know her full name. All Dominique had told me was: "You have to see Lisa." And I hadn’t asked for more. He is familiar with this world and I trust him fully.
I was looking forward to this meeting with more than a little anticipation. Lisa had assumed all sorts of dimensions in my mind. I put a great deal of hope in her and lots of illusions played tricks on my mind. I even thought I could achieve my dream of becoming a published author in this new, foreign, vast culture. Wasn't I coming to a country where dreams are fulfilled? Here miracles can occur any moment, and success can come overnight, I had been told. After all, Eastern Europe where I came from was ridding itself of communism, and that was miraculous too.
I heard Dominique telling me imperatively:
"You've got to see Lisa."
"Yeah, a friend of mine. Very talented, intelligent, with lots of connections. You'll like her. And I think she will like you too.”
I couldn't think of anything in particular that Dominique had told me about Lisa, but in my mind I somehow associated her with the literary world. I was left with the impression that she might possibly offer me some advice, some precious bits of information on how I could make it to the seemingly inaccessible world of publishing. Or, who knows, she might be a writer herself. And so there I was, dutifully bringing the magazine featuring my first poems translated -- the only breakthrough I could claim since immigrating to America.
I arrived in front of Lisa's apartment building on the Upper West Side by seven thirty and searched in vain for an empty parking space. Worried, I looked at my watch. It was well past eight, and Lisa's warnings against being late rang in my ears, now with bitter irony. Embarrassed, I called her.
"I'm terribly sorry. I've been looking for a parking space for half an hour now."
"We’ll be waiting for you. And don't worry, you'll find parking soon." Lisa assured me calmly.
Her words sounded a bit strange. “And why we?” So she wasn’t alone. Maybe a friend or a husband? I’d barely hung up, when the jeep in front of me pulled out. I quickly parked with a sigh of relief and blessing gold-mouthed Lisa. I crossed the wide avenue to the building's entrance and in less than two minutes was ringing the doorbell to her apartment, panting with sheer exhaustion, nervousness and conflicting emotions.
Lisa opened the door and looked at me as she had known me long time. I did the same. She was small, moving forward with graceful movements, displaying the most mysterious smile I’d ever seen. Her face took on various expressions as her smile gradually spread across her face. It didn’t start at the corners of her mouth, but rather in the middle of her slightly pursed lips. Her eyebrows arched, and two lines creased her forehead. She kept switching from a child-like air of innocence to the stiff image of a tough teacher. As her smile broadened, her cheeks took on a rosy hue, and her face relaxed, enhancing the delicate shape of her ears.
I felt as if she could change from a shy teenager, exuding candor and naiveté, into a wizened, skeptical intellectual, in a moment, hovering between curiosity and irony. In the end a little woman was scrutinizing me inquisitively. Lisa's unforgettable smile melted into an air of warm authority with which she studied me over the black rims of her glasses. She took my hand.
"We've all been waiting for you," she said, leading the way into the living room.
About a dozen women looked up at me. They were sitting on sofas and couches in front of coffee tables. Suddenly I was gripped by fear. So many women gathered in one place, all waiting for me? I barely felt able to take another step, but Lisa gently pushed me forward. The ladies were sizing me up, as if to assess if I met their expectations.
I sat on the nearest sofa, eager to avoid more scrutiny, having already committed the sin of arriving late. It was then that I realized that the blonde woman next to me was barefoot. I looked around. They were all barefoot. All their shoes were aligned in a neat row along the wall. Do I really have to? I gave Lisa a quick, apprehensive glance, and she, as if reading my mind, nodded a benevolent "yes; no problem, you can keep your shoes on.”
Lisa was seated on a tall chair, a kind of stool, dominating the group. She, too, kept her shoes on. Full of mystery, she broke into another broad smile, which I didn’t know how to interpret. Then she asked everyone to introduce herself – for my sake, since they seemed to know one another well. A photographer here, a social studies teacher there, an editor, a retired go-go dancer now comfortably transformed into a distinguished-looking housewife, a real-estate agent, a singer, a fashion designer, and so on. Dominique had been right: Lisa did have lots of connections.
The room was permeated with the atmosphere of a classroom or a conference hall, which at that moment was the last thing I needed. Hadn't I come all primed up for an intimate tête-à-tête with Lisa? Could this be a meeting of a feminist consciousness-raising group? I felt as if I could strangle Dominique.
Each woman stated her name, age, profession, family background, and her idea of a good time, peppering her presentations with bitter, caustic remarks about her past divorces or current solitude. Others betrayed their deep-seated fear of aging or the usual dread of loneliness. Lisa came over and laid her hand on my shoulder. Her gestures were natural and tender.
"Do you chant?"
Caught unprepared, after a brief thought - "what kind of a weird question is that?"-, I responded, with a smile,
"Of course I chat. Everybody does, right?" I asked. Lisa gave me a gratified smile,
"You think so?"
"Isn't that what we’re doing right now?"
I had no idea what I was talking about, but my words were making a good impression.
"And who taught you to do it?"
"Oh, it runs in the family," I answered confidently. "I've been doing it ever since I was a little girl, with great results. I’ve always had a sociable nature, boosted, no doubt, by my Latin temperament." I was trying to sound good-natured and jolly, but I could not understand why they were elevating the simple art of conversation.
"I didn’t know that the Latin temperament was an advantage,” said the lady next to me, as she rubbed her bare feet against each other.
Then Lisa put an end to all the whispering, buzzing, and rustling that usually goes on whenever a bunch of women get together, and announced, in a tone of authority:
"Well, shall we start, then?"
It sounded like an order. I felt uncomfortable thinking that I had to talk, probably a lot, in my poor English with my bad accent.
Lisa lit two sticks of incense and opened some sort of wooden box attached to the wall. A deep hush fell over the audience, all eyes fixed intently on it. I rose, meaning to take a closer look at it, but the blonde next to me stopped me with a gesture that brooked no opposition. She whispered into my ear,
"It's a gohonzon"
"A... what?" I inquired with a feeling that my English was getting worse.
"Actually, I don't know exactly”, she confessed. “They call it gohonzon. I believe it's a Sanskrit word."
"A sort of icon?" I tried.
"I guess! Something like that."
Each of the women pulled from her handbag a little book, turned to the first page and wrapped a string of colored beads around her fingers, then settled into a more comfortable position. Lisa, the conductor, with an incense stick in her hand, clinked a little bell, and all of them started chanting in unison: "NA-MIO-HO-RENGE-KYO". The same syllables, repeated again and again, sung in the same cadence and rhythm, while each lady was rubbed the strings of beads between the fingers.
I realized they weren’t chatting. I’d blurted out that I was an expert at chanting, only to discover now that, actually, I had no idea what to do. I’d dropped in on this session wholly by accident and was now forced to play along, lest they should discover the truth about me. So I kept mumbling on, as best I could, trying, but not entirely succeeding, to stay in tune with the others, sometimes failing miserably, skipping many beats, all the time hoping I could hide from them the truth that I hadn't the slightest idea what was going on here - I, who had never chanted anything in my life.
I realized how unprepared I was for the life of this city. How could I dream of getting published here? I couldn’t even understand the basics. My dream was slowly vanishing along with the syllables that I could barely pronounce.
The blonde woman next to me held out the little book halfway between us, pointing to each line with her finger as it was being chanted, encouraging me to fall into step with the other chanters. Then she placed her string of beads on my fingers, hoping this might somehow improve my performance. But it was no use! I was a disaster. The women kept uttering those dreary syllables, in increasingly loud, shrill voices, in a chorus that sounded both dramatic and languorous. They kept this up for almost twenty minutes.
That little book contained nothing but those same syllables, over and over, with pauses and changes of rhythm. How I would have liked to see additional words of that strange language, but the chorus wailed on its lugubrious chant, some of the women uttering the syllables in a high-pitched voice, while others apparently fell into a deep trance.
Here and there a voice had become irritatingly loud; one or two had apparently lost all of their saliva, and nearly all had eyes that threatened to pop out of their sockets, as, with a fixed stare, they diligently followed the enigmatic string of words.
I felt provincial and lost in this sophisticated gathering. I was definitely ignorant, unable to see anything magical in their chant, and felt ridiculous for not noticing meditation or spiritual uplift.
I remembered a similar moment that I experienced as a child in my tiny country in Eastern Europe when my grandmother took me from my playground on a beautiful Sunday morning and brought me with her to the church where she forced me to kneel, to be silent, and to listen to an endless mass. While she was praying with her eyes closed a mysterious smile illuminated her face. A smile very similar to Lisa’s.
Although this female choir had at first made me curiosity, eventually became just boring. My only hope was that their Sanskrit chanting would somehow rouse the ire of the neighbors who would come to the door and stop all this racket.
More than half an hour later, Lisa clinked the bell again and the chorus came to an abrupt stop. They all looked exhausted but happy. Lisa beamed her benign approbation, pleased with their overall performance, and, from the haughty elevation of her chair, asked me,
"How was it?"
"How are you feeling?"
"Oh, great, just great."
"You may come every week, if you want."
"Sure... we'll talk about it on the phone," I mumbled and attempted to rise.
"We'll stay a little longer," Lisa explained. "These are the choicest moments."
The women seemed quite relaxed, content, and, above all, relieved. Some of them kept their eyes half closed as if they’d just wakened from a pleasant dream. Others were staring open-eyed, as if they were seeing the world for the first time. Obviously the chanting had had a different impact on each of them. Only Lisa maintained the same controlled expression, the same mysterious smile.
“It’s in our power to save ourselves,” she told one of them, handing her a thick book.
They started to talk chaotically. The word “harmony” popped up several times. A cell phone rang, and its owner turned it off in disgust:
“He doesn’t understand that my life has changed.”
It wasn’t clear who. She may have been referring to the man who’d just telephoned. Several others nodded, smiling sympathetically.
“I’m a free woman, I’ve recovered my power, and I’m in tune with the universal harmony.”
Lisa watched her contentedly. I fumbled around, betraying my impatience, and handed the string of beads back to my neighbor.
"You may keep them, if you wish," she said, generously. "I have several more at home. There are a hundred and eight in all. Do you know what they stand for?" she tested me, taking pride in having this bit of information to share. “They are earth-bound wishes chanted away into the realm of cosmic energy.”
"Do these wishes ever come true?" I asked politely.
"Of course they do. Look, when you called earlier, unable to find a parking place, Lisa asked us to chant for you. And sure enough, shortly afterwards your wish came true, didn't it? Miraculously, you found a spot right away, did you not?"
"It's true," I said, bewildered.
She looked at me triumphantly.
“You’ll see how many problems you can solve by chanting,” she added.
I said my good-byes to the barefoot ladies, thanking my neighbor for her kindness, and gave Lisa a hug. She walked me to the door, unable to conceal her displeasure at my leaving so soon. I couldn't bring myself to look her straight in the eye. Just as I was about to walk out, she planted a kiss on the corner of my mouth and smiled mysteriously. I forgot all about giving her the magazine with my poems.
When I reached my car I found a 55 dollar ticket under my wiper. My time had expired. It hadn’t crossed my mind to chant for that.