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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The Ambivalence of Love - Part 3 of 3

‘Ana. Well, it’s Anastasia actually but…’ she nodded her head side to side, acknowledging the cliché, ‘people only call me that when they’re angry with me. Which means most of my ex-boyfriends most of the time!’ She grinned more widely, ‘And you?’

‘Jesse. Brutal of my mother to land me with that.’

‘Bet it didn’t go down well at boarding school.’

‘Day, actually, but you’re right.’

‘She had a thing for cowboys?’

‘No, she wanted to call a daughter Jessica.’

Ana threw back her head and laughed, drowning out the jays, the cicadas. ‘Oh, Jessica! That’s priceless!’

He was thinking, what can I say? How can I make her stay?

She said, ‘Jesse, why don’t you join us tomorrow morning? Get a real feel for what it’s all about here. Ask. They’ll be ok about it, I’m sure. And the yoga’s not too advanced. I mean, people are doing what they can do. It’s moving meditation not gymnastics here.’ He was considering. ‘Go on! It’ll be fun! It’ll help me to know there’s another human in there alongside all the saints!’ She laughed again.

‘Maybe I will.’

Of course he did. He hadn’t seen her for the rest of the day. He’d interviewed the monk and had a tour of the property. In the evening, he’d looked for Ana but she was eating with her group, her hair a bronze aureole around her head under the lamps on the patio. She was nodding, listening to an older woman, intent on the conversation, her body leaning in, her expression open, receptive. She was wearing black again, a vest top and a knot cardigan that draped her shoulders with unexpected elegance.

Jesse took his hire car down to the town. He wanted to drink wine, which wasn’t offered at the centre. He found a bistro where they served steak and frites, a demi-carafe of the good local red and a bottle of sparkling water. He tried to read, but found himself thinking of Ana. It seemed apt somehow that he was suffering this mental distraction while learning about the force of the focused mind. The monk had said, ‘You know when you are talking to someone and as the words come out of your mouth, you realise, “I shouldn’t be saying that?” Well, that’s the sign that there are two of you in here-‘ he tapped the side of his head ‘-at least two!’

Jesse said, ‘The witnessing consciousness? A knower and the known?’

The monk nodded, tucking his feet more comfortably under his body on the cushioned floor, ‘Exactly. So, the job of meditation is to strengthen that part of the mind.’

Jesse thought of it in pseudo-scientific terms: that meditators are attempting to tame the unconscious by investing attention in the conscious, that they are gaining control over automatic and instinctual responses and behaviour. It seemed a perfectly sensible proposition.

As though reading his mind, the monk said, ‘Those researchers in America, they are all talking now about the power of focus, sustained attention. We’ve been practising for more than two thousand years! It’s how we make ourselves more sane, more rational, more compassionate. It’s how we create what everyone wants – a heaven on earth. But,’ his grin widened, ‘like I said, we haven’t done it – even here. No reason to give up though.’

Jesse thought he caught a flicker of uncertainty, ‘So you, well, you do have doubts?’

The smile slackened somewhat, the eyes clouded, ‘Doubts? Of course, of course. No man can live in a state of complete conviction. I invest my whole life in this – and for what? A few rich people feel better every week.’ He stopped. The pause allowed him, it seemed, to draw back together the strands of something that was threatening to rupture. ‘Doubts aren’t the point, though. The point is this: what do you attain when you have attained control, balance, compassion? What do you do then?’

In the bistro, picking up the last few frites with his fingers, considering another carafe and a taxi, Jesse considered that. Where should he direct his mind and his life now? After splitting up with Rosalie, that prolonged and painful drama, over, what now? Time on his own to focus, well, it’s what all the women’s magazines said. Pop psychology. ‘Rediscover who you are.’ What crap. Jesse beckoned the waiter, a tall moustachioed man in the traditional get-up, his hair slicked smartly back, his teeth a little too big. Something of the Freddie Mercury about him. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The man told him a taxi wouldn’t be a problem, but smilingly suggested that the police wouldn’t bother him on this far-flung hillside. Jesse gave him a comradely grin, but decided the cab would be the better option. Then he could safely have a third carafe if he fancied it. And he rather thought he did.

They were close, it seemed, to moving in together. He was struggling to come up with any more excuses. He hadn’t explored why he was looking for excuses. It just seemed too soon, or he was engrossed in a project at work, or he had that time travelling backwards and forwards to the Midlands when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he had to organise a home and the sale of her house… too much going on. Never the right time. And one day he realised that it never would be the right time. So he told her. It was awful. There were repeated scenes. The scenes you’d expect. The time-worn complaints about wasting her best years, his lack of ability to commit. The usual stuff, but no less unpleasant for being ordinary. His mind swerved away from the memories. He didn’t try to turn it back. Why go over it? He’d lived it. Once was enough.

Sitting there in the bistro, he felt that the relationship had been over in his mind for years. Possibly for more than half of its duration. He was a coward. He had been in denial. He had failed to know the known.

And yet he remembered.

Watching her, one night, in her flat as she moved to the music coming from her Bose stereo, he thought, Perhaps there’s an emptiness in all of us that nothing can ever fill. And we all hunger for something, yearn for something. We all have some addiction.

Her eyes were closed as her hips swayed. He felt the twitch as his body responded to hers. It was always thus. He stood, held her lightly, just there, where torso met limbs, where the movement seemed to emanate from. He held her where her body was at its most free, where her mind asserted the least control.

She opened her eyes and her face softened into the look of sweetness for which her acquaintances loved her; with which he had fallen in love. He was sure that he was just the most recent in a long line of men. In that respect, he was nothing special.

‘This is so special,’ she said, her gaze fixing on his. ‘Don’t you feel it too?’

He nodded, the feeling flooding him, the feeling he’d begun to recognise as compassion rather than passion, ‘Of course, baby; of course I do.’ He pulled her head into his chest, letting the swaying of her body carry him into the music and into the moment.

It was only afterwards that he wondered if she was in the moment at all.

There is nothing more ambivalent than love.

He drained the glass and then remembered that he had arranged to get up for early meditation and yoga. The bill. The rental car. The sweeping climb up the hillside, drawn by the headlights and the thought of Ana.

The alarm was just about to ring when Jesse awoke. He dressed and walked through a strangely lambent pre-dawn to the shambhala. Ana was already there, her hair twisted into a bun, a thick cardigan over her yoga clothes. She waved him over and whispered that he should sit, as she was, on a bolster.

‘Stops your legs going numb.’

He nodded. The morning was too young.

A monk entered and the quiet voices, the rustling of blankets and mats was subdued. He was a young man, his movements smooth. It was as though he were gliding, his robes swinging around him lightly. He sat cross-legged at the front and wrapped himself in ochre and crimson. Jesse noticed that he wore an extra layer.

‘Deepen your breathing,’ the monk began. ‘Notice the flow of air into your nostrils. Notice the air fill your lungs.’

Jesse had meditated before and this was nothing new. The difference was the location. The dawn. The presence of Ana beside him. His focus was affected. His mind caught up, catching, returning again and again. And he was annoyed, doubly so for he recognised the irritation s a further barrier to calming his mind. One question resurfacing, ‘Why her? What is it about her?’

She wasn’t as beautiful as Rosalie. She was almost off-puttingly intense. And yet.

The yoga was led by a woman Jesse had seen a couple of times at the centre. Gymnastic figure and fierce eyes, something of the flare of the consumptive in her cheeks, though the deep breathing of the practice, surely, would prohibit that. She moved around the shambhala realigning people – helping the abler students into more advanced poses, guiding the less proficient to find the postures. He was impressed with the personal nature of her teaching, impressed too with the strength of her small frame as she pushed him more deeply into a forward bend. It was enjoyable, moderately, and he was able to find some peace as he concentrated on the movement rather than his mind.

Next to him, Ana flowed from shape to shape, her attention inward. As the sun rose and the room became warmer, he noticed sweat glisten on her back, her forehead. In the final resting pose, he saw her smile, as though satiated, and he felt the uncomfortable flicker of lust that he had been trying to suppress.

They had breakfast together. He thanked her for encouraging him to attend. The smile again, but wider, her eyes so candid that he felt blinded by their light. She talked but he couldn’t listen. It was, somehow, already, too much.

She promised something that he knew he didn’t have it in him to fulfill.

He ate quickly, excused himself and packed. He would be leaving that afternoon. He had one quick interview to do, an extra one, with a novice, a Frenchman, and planned to spend a few hours writing in his room. He didn’t need any distraction.

There is no reason now not to return to the hotel. The time. The depth of the morning. He has to go up. Up to Rosalie. Who has taken him back. He’s taken on the part of a man who has enough in his life, who doesn’t need any more. A man for whom passion is too much. A man who seeks peace. He is acting the role fairly convincingly. One day, perhaps, he’ll believe it.

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