The drive from LAX to the retreat center is three hours, and excruciatingly quiet.
You think it's preparation for the weekend ahead, the silence in the car. When you realize it's self-imposed, you mash your hand at the console, thumbing through for something, anything, to fill your head up with before you get there. The past few months, someone else has always taken care of the music for every drive, long or short.
When you arrive, even the check in is silent. You can hear the scratching of your pen against the sheet, the rules you agree to. The facilitators point to signs and paperwork. You know the shorthand when you're not allowed to speak. You know the rules. No eye contact, no touching, no non-verbal hellos. You agree to "cultivate a state of experience resembling solitude." You resist rolling your eyes at the statement. It could be more concise. LEAVE EACH OTHER THE FUCK ALONE.
It starts immediately and you wonder what the last thing you ate was. You remember: bagel and lox late that morning, in the car. You're very good at eating in the car, eating while you're walking, eating while you're doing everything else. Here, you eat intentionally, almost painstakingly so. Miso and some kind of grain. Greens. Small portions. You agree to "maintain an energy and vitality for meditation."
You agree to be sexually abstinent, and not just tantrically continent, which always seems to make you want to laugh. That phrase. Tantrically continent.
You know the schedule by heart. Up with the sun, meditate alone for two hours, eat, meditate collectively for four hours, eat, walk, meditate collectively for four hours, eat, walk, meditate alone, sleep, repeat.
You sit in the circle and your eyes catch someone else's -- it feels like breaking the rules -- and she stares back at you, almost pointedly, aggressively. She looks familiar. Painfully so. You have no idea who she is, but it's on the edges of your memory, hazy. Unfamiliar. You don't give her the polite tight smile and nod that means hello. You follow the rules. You are at your best when behaving within a strict set of rules. It feels like freedom. You keep your head down, your eyes closed.
You want to run screaming from the room by the time the first meditation set is over, and that's how you know it's working.
Your thoughts race and recede, race and recede, you feel like you're trying to corral them, and once you get them under control, one errant thought flies off and breaks into a thousand pieces. Did Veronica get the flowers? Is your dog giving Danny a hard time? What is Evan doing, right now, at this very moment? You remind yourself this isn't your first time. This is how it always goes, the rise and fall of your thoughts, the buzzing and then the quiet.
The second walk of the day is at sundown. The desert is beautiful at this hour. The heat is giving way to cold, just how you like it. The sun glows, and it's hazy, and you feel content in the quiet. You're wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt, your hands tucked into the pocket. This is your favorite time. This is the time in the weekend session when people start breaking down. The silence gets to them. The lack of communication. Being in the presence of other people and being discouraged from looking at them, touching them, communicating in any way. You understand how it makes normal people go off the rails after 24 hours.
Everyone walks the grounds but you like finding a place to be alone, even during this time. You know a spot, but it's an evenly weighted gamble whether or not there will be someone there already, crying quietly, unable to cope with the extended solitude. Being alone with your thoughts is dangerous, but for you, the dangerous time is the beginning, the first few hours of it, when you feel like you have a scream trapped under your chin.
You round the building, back towards where the path tapers off into dirt and dust. There's a nook there with a view. When you come around the next corner, there she is. The brunette from the day before, with the wild hair, the face that looks so familiar, but you can't quite place.
She's crying. She lifts her eyes and aims them at you, and it feels like an accusation. It breaks the rules. You're baffled by it, and it shakes your resolve. You can't help but make eye contact, communicate. You lift a hand, dip your head in apology and turn around. You'll just keep walking. You can feel her staring at you as you retreat.
By the last round of meditation, you feel exhilarated.
Technically when they ring the bell at the end of the last day, the silence is broken, but very rarely do people decide to talk. You return to your room and roll up your things, tuck your clothes back into your duffel. You pull your cap onto your head and put your sneakers on. It's still bright out, the sun heading down, but not quite dusk yet. You are lighter. Relieved. Happy.
You can hear everything back at your car. Gravel under tires, the hydraulic-sounding hiss of your trunk opening. The soft thunk of your bag against the floor of the car. Your phone buzzes in your pocket.
The sound startles you, and you turn. She's there again, the crying brunette. She's not crying this time. Her face is set, steady. You don't say anything. You just narrow your eyes at her. And frankly, you're not ready to start talking yet.
"You don't remember me?"
You try. You wheel back in your brain, over and over, searching for who she could possibly be. You're thumbing through faces and names. Your memory trips on something, quick, seemingly insignificant.
She has a tattoo on her shoulder, small, a little blue bird. You remember now. Four years ago, in this same spot. A ten day retreat. Not a weekend. You were a wreck. You were lonely. You disregarded the rules, you met her eyes at meals, during walks. You were flagrant, but none of the monitors caught you.
When the 10 days ended, she stood here like she is now. She got in your car. She waited for everyone else to leave. The sun went down.
You open your mouth to say something, but the crack of her palm against your cheek stops you.
"You're a fucking asshole," she says, and she leaves.
You watch her peel out of the dirt, back onto the main road, into the distance.
You get in your car, turn the engine over, music suddenly blaring. It startles you and you jump, mashing your hand against the console again, until it stops. Your face stings.
The first words you shout, after 48 hours of silence, are: what the fuck!?