Janice needed to get off the phone. She needed to sit in silence. A minute before, I had told her about my plans to meet up with a friend, a friend I’d known for twelve years, a friend who happened to be single. I tried to explain we’d only ever been friends.
“I have to meditate!” she yelled. “You have fun with your friend!”
“Why are you so threatened?” I asked, gripping my phone, now in full throttle defense mode.
“You know how I feel about her!” she said. “I’m off to my meditation room.”
Why the hell was I putting up with Janice’s controlling behavior? Like I’ve done in the past, I tried to understand her situation. After all, her last two girlfriends cheated on her; once she felt more secure, she’d loosen up and trust. Besides the scotch taking the edge off, at least I had my sick border-collie/corgi, Belly, lying near me. She didn’t mind when I pet other dogs.
That’s when I smelled something burning. Was my furnace on fire? I checked my basement. Nothing out of the ordinary down there. In my kitchen, I sniffed a sweet smell. Maybe incense, yet I hadn’t burned any in months. Within the hour, the smell dissipated. Other unexplained incidents have occurred in my house—I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to a baseball-size white orb of light affixed to my wall. When I turned my lamp on, then off, and the orb vanished. But a few hours later, I woke again, and there it was—the orb of light in the same place. Three nights in a row. I’ve also seen flashes of light in the form of a human figure standing by my bed.
Tall, lean and blonde, attractive in a Jodie Foster pixie-ish kind of way, Janice had a bounce in her step and an impish smile. So far, we’d spent four weekends together, and for a moment, maybe two, I thought I had met my person. She was my age, a successful painter with gallery representation around the country, meditated every morning, went to kickboxing classes and seriously considered a move to my small city from her hometown of Atlanta.
In the hotel parking lot where we had first met in person (we found each other on a dating website), a mile from my home, her eyes veered down and shoulders hunched. Her limp handshake felt like a sweaty rag. We walked to a bar, where she said, “If you’re not attracted to me, I could leave tomorrow.”
“Let’s get to know each other,” I said. “How was your drive?” Maybe, if I were on her turf, I’d be just as insecure.
By the end of the next evening, she loosened up, and we kissed and she showed me photos of her abstract paintings. We held hands while watching Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
She brought homemade chicken treats for my dog. She loved dogs, and in fact, adopted two incontinent beagles that wore doggie diapers. As a testament to her love of animals, she told me a good chunk of her estate would go to a local animal shelter.
The second time she visited, she studied artwork I created in my twenties and early thirties, mixed media photographs. She asked how I made them, encouraged me to take up art again. “My galleries would love these,” she said. “I could help you get a show.” She also didn’t understand why I made little to no money on my writing; she made thousands of dollars on her art—she showed me emails she received from her reps, news of her paintings selling out and begging her to produce more.
And we couldn’t keep our hands off of each other. Our bodies fit together like a missing puzzle piece.
But now, after swigging scotch, a feeling of rage, of paralysis, overtook my body, similar to when my mother barged into my room and asked if my breasts had grown. I screamed, “Get out!” Even though I placed a dresser drawer in front of the door, my mother pushed it out of the way; at least it slowed the entrance down.
“Let me see,” my mother said. “Pull your shirt up for a second.”
“Get out!” I said. “Now!”
Although I begged my mother to look at my artwork, to listen to my music, she spent most of her time in front of the television, or singing the Israeli National Anthem to our black miniature poodle. In retrospect, she gave me attention, albeit unwanted attention. Maybe, without knowing it, I viewed any attention as good.
When Janice’s accusations knotted up my neck, when she accused me of sleeping with my friends, why couldn’t I tell her to get out? Why couldn’t I find the strength I had over thirty years before, when I navigated Manhattan’s East Village with my shoulders high, and a don’t-fuck-with-me-or-I’ll-kick-the-shit-out-of-you attitude? Why couldn’t I be that confident smartass who told a Hare Krishna in an orange robe, when asked if I wanted to join him for a free vegetarian meal, “Get out of my way! I like meat! Bloody, dripping meat!” Why couldn’t I take control of myself, like I did when a clean-cut young couple stopped me on St. Mark’s Place and asked if they could walk with me. I said, “Sure, as long as you’re not a Moonie, as long as I don’t have to take a free personality test and read Dianetics, as long as I could have control over my bladder,” and they said, “Some people are so cynical.”
I prided myself on cynicism, way too smart to ever join a cult, or even watch television, claiming that TV is a tool to control the masses, like religion. With my then-boyfriend, I moved into a run-down tenement on East 13th Street—the prior tenant moved out after a thief broke through the kitchen window—catty cornered to a burned out building. The thief stole all the tenant’s valuables and walked out the front door. My boyfriend had a locksmith friend install iron window gates, and despite the roaches and blaring salsa music and drug dealers selling heroin from baby carriages below my fire escape, I felt like I won the lottery. I had a lease in Manhattan.
During this time, my boyfriend researched tactics of The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and messenger of Jesus Christ, its members castigated as “Moonies” and cult members. He yelled at them, told them they were pawns to Moon’s business empire.
Maybe I had a tough exterior, but when it came to matters of the heart, I’d always been a pushover. In an angered state, my boyfriend said to me, “You’re a cheap Jew! Hitler didn’t finish his job!” His face turned red with rage and he punched walls and stomped off. But he’d later apologize and dance like a baby with his hands swinging in front of me. This was love. A little nurturing, a little rage, a little loss of control.
I stayed with him for five years.
On FaceTime, Janice transformed into her sweet self, her impish smile lighting up the screen. She showed me her dogs curled up together. “Can’t wait to curl up with you,” she said.
The next time Janice visited, we drove to a gallery where her paintings were featured in a show. She introduced me to the gallery owner. He took pictures of us together, arm in arm. On the forty-five minute drive home, Janice’s glazed eyes stared out the window, as if she were possessed.
“Anything the matter?” I asked.
“No,” she mumbled.
This wasn’t a comfortable silence. “You sure?”
“Fine,” she said, her eyes affixed to the passing landscape.
I’d much rather be alone than trapped in a car with a woman who claimed to be spiritual but disappeared and reappeared, as if drifting in and out of consciousness. Maybe she was thinking about the turbaned man, or chanting in her head, or maybe she had a dissociative identity disorder, like a prior girlfriend, who planned our life together one day, and the next, lay in bed and went mute, as if she had no clue who I was.
Once we ate dinner, Janice snapped back to her fun self, as if she stepped out of a gargoyle costume. I calmed down enough to enjoy the meal, to look into her eyes and say, yes, maybe she’s the one.
“Thanks for always making the drive here,” I said.
“Your dog is sick,” she said. “You need to be with her.”
She looked at her phone after it dinged. She told me her ex was stalking her. “It’s like she knows what’s going on with me,” she said. “I hadn’t heard from her in almost a year.” Janice told me she’d talk to a lawyer about getting a restraining order. She told me her ex has guns. She told me she once had to pull a gun away from her ex after her ex threated to kill herself.
“Maybe it’s best I don’t visit,” I said.
She took my hand and twirled me around the kitchen, her beaded necklace slapping against her neck, the beads that she claimed protected her. “They’re dried seeds from the Himalayan mountain range,” she said. She showed me the website where she got them, a website run by the Indian guru she followed.
“A hundred and twenty-five dollars for beads?” I said.
“Every necklace is blessed,” she said. “It’s well worth the protection.”
The website also advertised expensive jewelry, yoga mats and incense burners. “You sure you’re not involved in a cult?” I asked.
Janice’s blank expression appeared. Then disappeared. “Not at all,” she said. “He’s amazing.”
A friend of mine had gotten involved in a cult in her college days. For three years, she wasn’t able to speak to her family and friends, worked fifteen-hour days for no money and barely slept. Her family hired a deprogrammer and eventually she worked for the deprogrammer. She knew that Janice’s guru was considered a cult leader. She told me cult leaders are often seen as special individuals with unusual connections to God. Members of the organization show great attention and love to new members, and those who do not keep in step with group policies are shunned. Also, members are shunned for having contact with others outside the group.
Now that I think of it, for the price of affection and momentary pleasure, I have given up friendships, didn’t take care of myself, allowed anxiety to take over my body, lost sleep, my appetite, and control. Like cult members, I could have stepped away at any time. But I didn’t. Affection and pleasure are hard to step away from, or at least hard when feeling beaten down and there’s nowhere left to go but off a cliff.
And now, because of Janice’s emotional hold on me, because of my want of love, my fear of abandonment, because of the initial intoxicated sensation I got from Janice’s attention—and wanting that back, I might as well have been wearing the beaded necklace and praying to a framed photo of a bearded Indian man dressed in white, sitting cross-legged, a creepy smile across his face.
Two days after Janice left, she was enraged. I took too long to answer a text. “I kept checking,” she said. “Why did you take so long to answer?”
I told her I didn’t have my phone with me when I walked my dog. “When I got back home,” I said, “a friend called.”
“What friend?” she said.
I told her about my friend in Boston, an artist who has two teenage daughters.
“How do you know her?”
My anxiety level shot up. I told Janice I met my artist friend on a dating website four years ago and we’d only ever been friends. “She likes butch women!” I said.
Janice, again, said she needed to get off the phone and meditate.
I barely slept. And thought about the many relationships I’d had, the many nights I couldn’t sleep, especially with partners I didn’t trust: the one who bought me a computer and fleece jackets and a vacation to Puerto Rico but screamed and ignored me after I brushed a crumb off her face; the one who showed up an hour late and drunk to a concert. When I expressed my disappointment, she said, “I bought those tickets, and you’re complaining?”
I apologized, backed down.
The next time Janice visited, she rushed into my house. She drove without a break, pecked me on the lips and flung my bathroom door shut. She hadn’t yet noticed the incense smell saturating my home, incense I didn’t burn. “It’s strange,” I said, after hugging her boney frame. “I was on the phone when I started smelling it. I thought something was on fire.” Belly sniffed Janice’s low-cut black leather boots and halfheartedly jumped to greet her.
Janice stepped lightly through my living room, her nose sniffing and twitching. “That’s Nag Champa. I hate that smell.” She turned around and asked, “You sure you didn’t burn any incense?”
I assured her I hadn’t burned incense for months and never even heard of Nag Champa. “I went swimming,” I said, “and called my friend Cindy when I got home.”
Now Janice’s face snarled, hands in her back pockets. “Who the hell is Cindy?”
“The artist in Boston,” I said. “I told you about her. Remember?”
“I can’t remember all your friends’ names,” she said. “You sure you didn’t burn any incense?” She shook her head. “Nag Champa reminds me of dirty hippies.”
“I told you,” I said, losing the little enthusiasm I had for her visit. “I was on the phone when I starting smelling it.”
“I hate that smell,” she said.
I told my deprogrammer friend about the Nag Champa smell in my house. “You probably think I’m nuts,” I said, “but I did a Google search and found someone else who had the same experience. He wrote: I smell Nag Champa when a particular guide of mine is around…and it’s happened where others can smell it too.”
My friend said, “I have my own stories.” She told me about crying uncontrollably after her mother died. And then she felt a warm feeling around her body. She saw her mother’s face. She stopped crying. “I’m a believer that there’s something out there,” she said.
She said that Nag Champa incense is connected to an Indian Guru, Sai Baba—a self-proclaimed reincarnation of God on Earth. He died in 2011. Along with the supposed ability to manifest holy ash as well as watches, rings and necklaces out of thin air as gifts for his followers, decades worth of allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia were lodged against him. He left an estate worth over nine billion dollars. But his organization did a lot of humanitarian work—they opened hospitals and schools and provided drinking water to poor parts of India.
And his organization, or at least his incense, did me a service too.
Over lunch, I said to Janice, “Maybe the incense is a sign.”
“A sign for what?” Her lips puffed out.
I wanted to tell her this was a sign for her to get out. Of my house. My life. But instead, I said, “A sign to take Belly for walk.”
Two days after Janice left, Belly refused to eat. Her bloated stomach made it impossible for her to sit down. I cried, called Janice. She said to hug Belly, to ask Belly to give me a sign. “She’ll let you know,” she said, “when she’s ready to go.” At two in the morning, Belly stood by my bed and stared at me. I offered her a pain pill covered in fancy paté. She refused it. It was time. I drove her to an all night emergency vet. After the doctor injected the first shot to relax her, she closed her eyes. Her body relaxed. I thanked Belly for her love and wished her safe travels. I held her and cried and said my final goodbye. At four in the morning, I drove back without Belly, shocked, teary-eyed, exhausted. Janice offered to visit. But I didn’t want her to visit. She said, “If my dog just passed, I’d want you here.” I said okay, come. But my gut hurt. I called her back. “Look,” I said, “it’s best you don’t come. I need to grieve. I need to go.”
And I got out. And I didn’t fall off a cliff.
But I did light a candle for my dog. And burned old pine incense I had in my kitchen drawer. Incense is used as a purification ritual in a number of religions to welcome God’s visit. Whether my spirit guide, my guardian angel, my dead mother—whomever or whatever was responsible—I took it as a sign to leave Janice, to purify my home, my body, my mind, a sign to let my own God in.
Image Credit: Bleu de Ciel, Wassily Kandinski (1940)