Once, not so long ago, a woman on the street told me my fortune. She said it was good news: I’d live a long life. I’d be happy. Bouncing babies, etc. I was past thirty by then, and I’d had these things on my mind. But there was a catch (well, isn’t there always?): You’ll never get your good, long life if you keep asking the wrong questions, the woman said. I wanted to know: Which question is the right question? She passed my fingers between her palms, my palms between her fingers. She said, Not that one. But I was only teasing her. I knew which question to ask.
A suicide, they said. Nothing to suggest otherwise. If not a suicide, perhaps an accident. The steep cliff, the shifting rocks. When you see hoofprints in the forest, the authorities said. What would horses be doing in our forest, we wanted to know. Accidents happen all the time, the authorities said. We know you had nothing to do with this.
I’ve found the authorities to be, in some matters, unreliable.
The man who drove me up the mountain in the first month of my sixteenth summer looked nothing like my father. He had thick black hair, a thick red neck, and a rosary wrapped around his rearview mirror, but instead of a cross, a miniature naked woman, whose breasts seemed not quite to scale, dangled from the coil of synthetic beads. She bobbed in the flow of the air vents, twisted and slapped two-dimensionally against the cheap black cab plastic, and I was reminded, again, of the shapes of women, the impossible geometry into which I was meant to fold myself. I couldn’t look at her for long. Not because of my own monstrous reflection, which I kept catching in the rearview—also not quite to scale, I thought—but because my stomach was weak in those days. Whenever the car hit a quick dip or banked a long curve, it felt as though parts of my body (throat, liver, one thick thigh) were left hovering, separated, while the rest plummeted, or swerved, or bumped, or whatever.
It was a long drive, our trajectory relentless. Even approaching the Levitation Center is an exercise in antigravity, people used to say, and it’s true: the Center was high enough in the mountains that I felt the air thin out long before I even saw the main building, with its paper-white stucco walls, its red-tipped roof, its enormous golden seal. The atmosphere loosened steadily as we drove; I could feel all that nice, thick sea-level air pooling at my ankles and then abandoning me, even through the churn of the air-conditioning.
In the end, I spent most of the ride staring at an amoebic mole on the back of the cabdriver’s neck. That was my mother’s wisdom: to combat motion sickness, look unwaveringly at something inside the car, something small and still. If it’s decidedly cancerous, dark purple, spreading out at the edges, no matter. Say nothing. Try not to move your eyes.
I know a lot of people who can’t remember themselves as teenagers. They look back and see only smoother, pinker versions of themselves, the actual feeling of those frantic years replaced by anecdote and snapshot. Oh, look, weren’t we babies, weren’t we thin, remember the time we, etc. We were so bad! We weren’t so bad. Who can say? Me, I can’t forget. I remember the girl from that summer as though she were sitting beside me: a fearful girl, but insatiable too, possessed of a fundamental savagery. Well. Can we blame her? It had only been a year since her father had disappeared.
As soon as I started to become nihilistic about my nausea, the cab crested through a final bend and pulled into a white sand driveway the size of a swimming pool. A woman was waiting there, wearing a white dress. She introduced herself as Magda and took my hand, as though she knew me. For a moment, I tried to pull away, but she held on tight, and I was unsteady enough in the thin air that I let her. By now, we were almost eight thousand feet up.
I was late, Magda told me. I was the last, the very last to arrive. She led me across the driveway toward the Center’s main building. Paths lined with globular pink peonies scribbled out in the grass to either side, but we didn’t follow any of them. Instead we strode, hands linked, across the white expanse. The duffel bag on my shoulder felt heavy, much heavier than I remembered, and I wondered, briefly, if someone could have hidden something inside of it at the airport, when I wasn’t paying attention—a hard-packed pallet of powder, say, or a recording device, or the body of a small child. No, no. Don’t be silly.
That’s not what this story is about. (Isn’t it?)
Magda began talking, pointing out all the different buildings, the different trails, listing the daily activities, the times I’d be expected for meditation and meals. I couldn’t follow any of it. Commissary, dormitory, promontory, bedtime story. I stumbled on a bright white rock; it sparked across the sand like a popping kernel. Magda only tightened her grip. She gave an overall impression of linen and salt. They say everyone faints at least once during their first week at the Center, before they acclimate to the altitude. (Altitude is a perfect word for itself, don’t you think, all peaks and valleys and places to slip.) But I’d been drinking steadily from my battered canteen, the one my father had given me years before at a place very much like this one, and so I didn’t fall. Besides, I was busy looking back over my shoulder.
Back over my shoulder, the wind had caught in the loose white sand of the driveway, and was coaxing it upward into a steamy funnel. A group of strange-looking girls, who had clearly been installed at the Center long enough for their heads to become utterly untethered from the old brown world down below, appeared as if from nowhere. They yipped and laughed and took turns running through the snow-white mini-twister, holding hands, shrieking like children at a water park, coming out the other side with thick white eyebrows and heavy white eyelashes and red, sand-scratched cheeks, an instant aging. Magda turned and called out to them and, after a few more furtive whoops and peals, they ran past us toward the main building, sand streaming off their bodies like water.
During most months of the year, the Levitation Center was a panspiritual contemplative community that held meditation retreats, organized talks by spiritual leaders of various lineages, and offered programs with names like “Intermediate Mindfulness Training” and “Open Sky Intensive” and “Walking the Path of Indestructible Wakefulness.” Its visitors practiced Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, among other things. Dowsing, psychology, iridology, judo, aikido, tae kwon do, oil painting, law, yoga, croquet, bodywork, vegetarianism, Reiki, piano, lucid dreaming, crystal healing, palm reading, gratitude, abstinence, tantric sex. The usual assortment of practices for people like these: people who are looking for something.
The Levitation Center wasn’t its real name, of course. That’s just what everyone called it. According to legend, it was the only bit of land left in America where levitation was still possible, at least for those with the correct set of aptitudes. They said there was something about the place—a balancing aura or geological phenomenon or holy spirit, depending on the they in question—that made it easier for anyone with the potential for levitation to achieve it. It was like one of those thin places you stumble across once in a while on sea-beaten cliffs or in toothy graveyards, where the ancient pagan Celts would have said heaven and earth nudged even closer than their usual three feet. Most people walking by would feel nothing. But a bare few might find room there, space for upward motion, for unfurling like paper.
My father was a Buddhist. He too was looking for something. All my life, he’d flown across countries and continents, visiting meditation centers and monasteries, temples and contemplative schools, their names strange and musical: Paro Taktsang, Vajrapani Institute, Dechen Chöling, Samyé Ling, Naropa. I sounded them out to myself in bed while he was gone, spelled them in wet fingertip on my thigh. No one but us knew words like these. He’d go for a week, sometimes a month, while I did homework and ate breakfast and sat alone in my room, and then he’d come home, sliding his suitcase under the bed in the manner of turning a latch. He always seemed different to me in the days following his return: there was a new delicate rawness there, a lingering sense of sublimation, as if his external layers had been steamed loose and peeled away. After a while, they would grow back. A while after that, he’d leave again. It was not dissimilar to ecdysis.
My mother called these trips his retreats from reality, to which my father would say, when he returned, reality is a construct, consciousness an illusion, and my mother would either laugh or turn away, depending on how long he’d been gone that time. After a while, she stopped calling his trips anything, and a while after that, he moved to a small house one town to the east of ours. The direction seemed significant at the time; I see now that it was not. It was from this small house that he would eventually vanish entirely, without a word, without saying goodbye.
Of course: a vanishing preceded by a goodbye is no vanishing at all, though it can be just as incomprehensible.
The beginning I know for sure. Once upon a time, my father went to the Levitation Center. I also know the next part: and he never came back. He missed his weekend with me, and then the next. I remember my mother’s silence filling the car as we waited outside the darkened windows of that new eastern house, engine running, pretending the pile of plastic-wrapped newspapers breeding steadily on his porch meant nothing, nothing at all.
disappear (v.) from dis- “do the opposite of” + appear “come into view,” from the Old French aparoir, aperer “come to light, come forth”; see also: vanish, die out, abandon; see also: no letter, no call; see also: a year and more without a single message to your daughter, who is wondering what could have happened, who is alone with her furious mother, and who misses you.
“You’ve missed the welcome talk,” said Magda. Her bare feet were thin and coated in white dust from the driveway. They looked dead. “Are you hungry?”
My stomach recoiled. The cab, the mole. The slap slap slap of the body on the dash. I shook my head.
“All right.” She shrugged with one shoulder and I wondered how old she was. “Let’s drop off your bag.” She led me inside the building and down a short hallway. Most of the program participants slept in four small dormitories, she explained, though a handful would spend the summer in tents a half mile or so up the mountain. The tents were private, and more comfortable in the heat, but they also cost more, and, as I would soon find, few parents sending their daughters here wanted to grant them any extra comforts. Most of us were here to be punished.
The dormitory was unlit when we entered, but I could see that the wood supports of the bunk beds had been painted a dark green; the effect was of an encroaching forest, a bedroom Birnam Wood. The only single bed was positioned next to the door we had come through; Magda stepped protectively in front of it. The space was littered with sharp-colored detritus: suitcases half-gutted and abandoned, bottles of shampoo laid out on beds, sneakers all over the floor. But it smelled like cedar, and it was dark and cool, and there was a wide mirror on the back wall that reflected the door. Even then, before it all happened, I’d been the kind of girl who needed to be able to see the door in every room, to clock the exits, register all potential avenues of approach. It wasn’t cowardice, not exactly. I just wanted to see my murderer first. I wanted to see the blade, or the gun, or whatever it was going to be. Noose, wrench, kitchen knife. At home, I would bare my throat to the tight-latched door of my bedroom, eyes on the shadows until I fell asleep. But you know what they say: curiosity killed, etc.
The Center’s annual summer program was called “Special Teen Retreat: Becoming a Warrior in Body, Mind, and Heart.” The website had boasted that we’d spend eight weeks exploring the possibilities that unfold when we are fully present in the moment, and also that we’d deepen our awareness of our actions and their effect on the world, and also that there’d be lots of heart-cleansing activities. There was no air-conditioning. There was no internet connection. There was no cell service.We would be carefully supervised at all times. That “Special” was code, you see. Privately, I called it Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls. I was looking forward to the heart-cleansing activities.
So the girls at the Center were trouble. I knew that going in. They were slick-finish girls, cat-eye girls, hot-blood girls. They were girls who reveled. They were girls who liked boys and back seats, who slid things that weren’t theirs into their tight pockets, who lit fires and did doughnuts in the high school parking lot. They were girls who left marks. They were girls who snuck. Girls who drank whiskey and worse by the waterfront, looking out at the smeared reflections of the streetlights, making plans instead of wishes. They were girls who ran away, who inked their own arms with needles and ballpoint pens, who got things pierced below the neck. Below the neck, ladies, can you believe it? Only whores, etc. etc., as my mother never tired of telling me. They pierced too, these girls, and hit, and were sent out of gym class for raising bruises on the girls whose daddies brought them to school in Porsches, though some of their daddies had Porsches too. That wasn’t the point. That wasn’t the point! They had their problems. They had their demands. They were shoplifters and potheads, arsonists and bullies, boy crazy and girl crazy, split and scarred. They were, some of them, cruel. They were, more of them, angry—angry at their parents, at their schools, at their congressmen, at their bodies, at the painted white lines they saw everywhere, telling them no no no when they wanted yes—they were girls who were bored, so bored, or they were girls who were the opposite, who were so full up of feeling that they couldn’t simply do their times tables or learn their French conjugations or go to the movies on a Saturday night and discuss the relative cuteness of so-and-so’s haircut and let the age-appropriate boy next to them drag his sweaty palm around and around and around their pretty knees. They were too full up for that. They were too full up for caution. So they were girls who got caught. And they were girls who got sent away. They were girls whose mothers couldn’t deal with them for one more minute, not alone, not without help, not this summer while you sit in the office all day and come home late after “golf,” Carl, really, I can’t; girls whose fathers thought maybe some Good Clean Mountain Air and some Good Far Eastern Religion would cure them, since nothing else had. You know the girls I mean, because every school has them, every neighborhood, including yours, especially mine. I was not one of them, of course. Not yet.
Excerpted from The Lightness by Emily Temple. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.