While the class sat expectant on mats in the library’s basement, the licensed meditation instructor arranged a plastic lotus flower, a portrait of a Japanese monk, and charts demonstrating meditation’s benefits on a foldable table. There were a dozen people in the class, including Quinn, and two new members scrunched together on the tattered loveseat along the back concrete wall—an older woman with arms wrapped maternally around a guy Quinn’s age. He wore an Army T with the left sleeve hanging loose where his arm should have been. This was Guillermo.
Quinn, wearing a Lilith Fair hoodie and pink glasses with large square frames, sat with her palms on her thighs and exhaled slowly through her mouth, applying a relaxation method called “noting.” The concept was to recognize emotions or thoughts, but not react to them, instead simply noting their presence without judgment.
The instructor, a spindly woman in yoga pants and hair to her waist, sat in an effortless lotus position. Her feet were bare and flecked with marks from the linoleum. A nametag in the shape of the two palms forming a mudra identified her as “Tamarra.”
Quinn noted she felt anxious but didn’t judge it.
Quinn noted she felt depressed but didn’t judge it.
Quinn noted counting how much tramadol, alprazolam and oxycodone hydrochloride remained in her pack of Newports and what sexual favors Duane would require to renew/forge the prescriptions but didn’t judge it.
“Welcome,” Tamarra said, directing her attention to the Hispanic duo in the back, motioning them forward with her arms. “Form a circle, please,” she said. “Today we are going to open with a guided meditation called Loving Kindness. This practice helps us develop compassion for ourselves and others by opening our hearts to all experience.”
Quinn despised the “Loving Kindness” meditation, specifically when it prompted her to send loving kindness to someone special, someone who appreciated her the most, who held her sacred. There was no one in her life that fit that description. Last week she’d followed Tamarra to her car, a dented Jetta with a kayak in the hatchback, and asked what to do since she didn’t have anyone to send Loving Kindness to.
Tamarra pursed her chapped lips, making a sympathetic sound.
“Remember how we said to love expansively?” Tamarra asked.
Quinn nodded, chewing on a hangnail.
“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need a person. It can be a pet, it can be a tree or smell, anything. The point is to generate these feelings of openness and acceptance towards self and others.”
But in class that night Quinn experienced the same issues during the Loving Kindness practice. Like a carousel, she thought of ex-boyfriends, family members, her sorority sisters, and Mr. Foltner, her psychology professor, who’d sponsored her medical leave for spring semester. Nothing connected. Her intention to send loving kindness was thwarted by resentment towards these people she was supposed to love, and then she pitied herself, and soon her thoughts were no longer “with her breath” or “in the moment” but had transformed into a maelstrom of self-accusation—for what did it say about her if nobody loved or cared about her?—and even though she awoke swearing not to drink that night (as usual), she then knew she would, the only question being if she’d drink alone in her mom’s basement, where she had returned in failure with her dorm crates, or with strangers at Suxbees.
She opened her eyes and looked at Guillermo, the sleeve hanging, swaying slightly from his nasal exhalations. He had sunglasses on and wore unlaced army boots. The pockets of his cargo shorts bulged.
He turned towards her.
Tamarra intoned, “Now imagine all beings, and with the full spirit of loving kindness recite the mantra silently, focused solely on how these feelings of openness and acceptance towards self and others enlarge your heart: ‘May all beings be happy; may all beings be safe; may all beings be healthy; may all beings be at peace.’”
The rest of the class’ lips moved at different paces, their backs not straight but hunched and bent, perspiration appearing at armpits and foreheads. Some picked noses or rubbed out cramps in legs. Guillermo pulled a pack of Doral Lights from a pocket and motioned with it to Quinn. When Tamarra cooed that the first session was over, and encouraged them to wiggle their fingers and toes before opening their eyes, Quinn and Guillermo were the first and only ones to leave, his mom whispering his name and asking donde.
Guillermo lit his cigarette like everyone else. Quinn’d held out her lighter for him, but he just looked at her through his sunglasses and lit it with his right hand, saying, “I’m good.” They were on a bench in the sculpture garden outside of the library. There were iron crescents beneath parabolic fountains, shrubs trimmed in the shapes of animals, a rock garden by the river.
“IED,” Guillermo said, in a soft voice with no accent. Quinn wondered if that was something the Army did, made you lose your accent. He had a tattoo sleeve of various names and dates on his right arm.
“Improvised explosive device,” said Guillermo. Him and Quinn exhaled at the same time, ashing on the brick walkway beneath the No Littering sign.
“Those things that you drive your car over and then…?” She gestured with her arms to indicate and explosion.
“We can only call it a device, Army orders. It detonated remotely.”
The bench was across from a baseball field. Following the abrupt ping of an aluminum bat, three boys ran towards home plate in succession.
Guillermo pointed with his Doral towards the park’s outfield fence, a plywood construction with signs advertising cable companies, pre-paid cellular data plans, credit consolidation loans.
“See that fence? When I was little, this was my favorite park ‘cuz of the fence. The other ones like in Witgen and Perksville didn’t have fences, you’d just hit the ball and the kids would chase it across the street. Nobody cheered then. But here, this park, the crowd erupted. ‘Cuz of the fence.”
Quinn leaned over and rubbed the butt out in between bricks.
Guillermo mused, “Sometimes I think that was when I hit my peak. Seven, eight years old. MVP both years. Pitched a no-hitter once, but that was before.” He looked towards where his left arm would have been. With his right hand, he grabbed the hanging left sleeve and slung it over his shoulder, exposing the the amputation site. “You can look, it’s okay.”
The amputation had carved out the entire shoulder, leaving a clean concavity at the arm pit, or axilla; Guillermo supplied the anatomical term. It was hairless and white, without visible scarring. It looked like there had never been an arm there at all, as if this were just a different way for a body to be constructed. It possessed a peaceful aura, Quinn thought.
Quinn decided not to share her thoughts at the time. “I assume you don’t want to hear any Thank You For Your Service shit?”
Guillermo rolled his eyes.
“That why you’re here?”
“Or your mom’s why you’re here?”
“She says I drink too much and scream in my sleep.”
“I’m asleep. How would I know?”
“I meant drinking.”
“I drink as much as anyone else I know. Nothing else to do around here; I don’t know anybody.”
Quinn said, “Me neither. I figure anything that gets me through the day is good, even if other people say it’s bad, people who have no idea what’s going on in my head.” She pointed to her head, or rather the hoodie that covered it. “People always think it’s one thing, one explanation, y’know, but everything is just…blah.”
Guillermo removed a Ziploc bag filled with blue gel from his short’s pocket. “VA doctors are like that too, telling me to cry, telling me to journal, and I’m like, what’s the point? They just want something to fill in their forms. I should tell them to just write blah.”
In the bag there was a petri dish containing a material Quinn couldn’t identify. The blue gel was a coolant, Guillermo explained, because the cellular tissue needed to remain cool to be viable for replantation.
“My arm,” he elaborated, holding the bag up to the streetlights, so the tiny arm bits were illuminated. “Mo saved part of it. Off the record, the army doctors said that the tissue could be regenerated, with stem cell research.”
“Why off the record?”
“It’s political. VA won’t cover it. And immoral, Mom says. She says this—” he gestured with his chin toward the nub, “—is God challenging me and I should just accept it and move on.”
Quinn made a look like What The Fuck.
“She means well.”
“How long before you need the procedure? Like, will the tissue…expire?” Quinn winced at her diction.
Guillermo ignored the question. He lit another Doral and strolled down the sidewalk a few feet, placing the blue bag on top of a shrub trimmed in the shape of a dog. “Looks like a beret,” he said, stepping back and admiring it.
“Don’t play with it! Especially there—it could get poked or something.” She walked over, picking the bag up with both hands and holding it out to him, peering at the axilla and imagining these parts replanted into it. There would be more scarring, the peaceful aura would be erased. It was like that—life—every time you tried to fix something you ended up with something worse. Perhaps the answer was to stop thinking in terms of problems and solutions, diagnoses and prognoses, pain and cure.
Quinn observed her heart opening and recited with directed thoughts to the axilla: “May you be happy; may you be safe; may you be healthy; may you be at peace.” The game had ended and kids were chasing each other with water ice while their parents lingered, talking stock portfolios, housing renovations, the rear-camera on their new SUVs.
Guillermo and Quinn just stood there, Quinn still mentally reciting the mantra, feeling for the first time that expansive love and awareness Tamarra had promised. There was a move to be made, obvious to both, but they just stood there. Before anything could happen—it would later, after snorting pills in Suxbees’ unisex bathroom—Guillermo’s mom appeared outside the library door with the DOWN arrow on it and screeched, “Come! Senorita says we start. Come, Gio, we start.”
Guillermo made a clucking sound with his tongue and said, with mock enthusiasm, “Indeed.” He cracked his right knuckles one by one, and then tapped the bag with his arm parts five times. “When I cracked them on one hand, I always had to crack the others.” He walked slowly towards the library, the lane sloping so he appeared to grow smaller as he receded.
“Hey!” Quinn called, still holding the bag. “What about this?”
“Later,” he shouted, not looking back.