Zen and the Art of Apologies

Alexandra Carmichael

The Lululemon girl prances to the front of the studio and unfurls her yoga mat. She places it on the floor in the middle of four rectangles, as if the rules only apply to those whose arms and legs aren’t as toned as hers. Grace watches the girl, teeth grinding. Blue masking tape divides the floor of the yoga studio into a neat grid like a parking lot. Grace put her mat in the middle of a rectangle, like you’re supposed to. What kind of psycho takes up four spots at once? Grace was tempted to place her mat in between two rectangles to get more space, since the class isn’t full, but didn’t. She’s trying to be more Zen, and hogging two spots seems very non-Zen.

Being more Zen is code for being less of a bitch. Day-to-day, Grace comes off as kind and harmless. People often describe her as sweet, a label that makes her skin crawl. What could be more boring, more absolutely forgettable, than sweet? Inside her head, though, Grace is a hardcore, judgy bitch. During most of her weekday subway rides, her inner narrator spews out a string of vicious thoughts about the strangers around her, whether she wants it to or not.

What kind of mother can’t stop her baby from crying on the subway? And why is she just carrying him? Where is the stroller? Just get off already and spare everyone.

You are not pulling off that top, girl. You may think you are, but you just don’t have the figure for it.

That guy might almost be cute if it weren’t for the patchy beard and beer belly. How about putting in the slightest bit of effort?

In order to quiet this inner narrator, Grace has come up with a rule. She’s not allowed to think mean thoughts about someone unless she has three solid reasons to do so. Three strikes. Taking up four spots is the Lululemon girl’s third strike. The first happened a few weeks ago when she walked into class six minutes late and interrupted an otherwise silent deep breathing exercise. The second strike was last week when she did a headstand in the middle of class for no other reason than to show off. This third strike comes as a relief. Grace watches the Lululemon girl stretch out on her rudely placed mat, and the swell of malicious thoughts that have built up over the last month start to pour out.

Who does she think she is, asks the inner-bitch, wearing $100 yoga pants to a scrappy studio in Queens that’s really just a stuffy converted apartment above a Dunkin Donuts? We’re not in Brooklyn, sweetheart. This is a studio for normal people who come to class in baggy t-shirts, old sweatpants and frizzy hair. This is a place where you can struggle through a downward dog and give up halfway through without feeling judged. Maybe this means the neighborhood is being gentrified. What if Grace’s rent goes up? What if she can’t afford her apartment in a year?

Grace is aware of her chest tightening, her heart rate increasing, and catches herself. Zen, she remembers. Be Zen. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Her heart slows. She won’t let Lululemon girl ruin yoga.

Grace has been taking Saturday and Sunday morning classes at this studio for four months, part of a quarter-life crisis slash self-improvement plan that includes doing yoga, being less of a bitch, and giving up coffee. That latter part really set her up for failure. It’s extremely difficult not to be a bitch when you’ve quit coffee cold turkey.

The instructor arrives. Sarah, who teaches on Sunday mornings. She is a petite brunette with a high-pitched, slightly squeaky voice that should be annoying but just adds to the no-pressure vibe of the place. No one here is perfect. Besides, Sarah is funny. A few weeks ago her cell phone went off during class. Grace was sweating through chair pose, her most despised of all poses, when suddenly the music from the Star Wars movies started blasting from Sarah’s phone. That dramatic march that always means Darth Vader is about to show up. There were a few giggles from the other students, and Sarah grabbed her phone.

“Sorry, sorry! That’s the ringtone that plays when my mother calls.”

Grace laughed so hard she fell out of chair pose.

Now Sarah walks to the front of the class and lights a thin stick of incense that fills the room with a heady lavender. She dims the lights. The routine triggers a delicious calm that radiates through Grace’s body. Nothing else matters, not the Lululemon girl, not the wisp of a headache brought on by her body’s whine for caffeine. It’s all endurable. Sarah instructs them to lie down on their backs, and Grace closes her eyes. She takes another breath. Someone opens the door to the studio and it bangs shut behind them. The intruder tiptoes inside and places their mat in the empty rectangle next to Grace on the right.

That’s strike one. Grace sneaks a glance — it’s a young woman in humble gray sweatpants — and closes her eyes again. Sarah’s chipmunk voice, which is inconceivably relaxing, guides the class through deep breaths. Grace ignores the woman next to her and begins to maneuver her body through the steady cadence of warm-up poses. Three weeks ago she was fumbling, a step behind everyone else, but now the flow comes easily and she keeps her eyes closed. Her head is clear as she moves through whatever pose Sarah calls out in a hypnotic rhythm.

shift forward into upward dog as you inhale

exhale, back to downward dog

inhale, lift the right leg high

exhale, step forward into low-lunge

twist to the right as you inhale

It’s during this twist that Grace opens her eyes, sees the face of the girl next to her and freezes. The girl has dark hair and a round face, the kind of face that announces its kindness to the world. A face that says its owner is someone you can talk about books with over tea, someone who won’t cancel plans the morning of. Her name is Yumi. The moment of recognition brings a clammy shame that oozes down Grace’s spine and settles as nausea in her gut. Grace tries to remain focused on the poses as Sarah calls them out, but any mindfulness she’d cultivated has evaporated. The sick feeling in her stomach festers. She and Yumi took an English course together in college, the same semester as the suicide. They had a few polite conversations in between classes, nothing more than small talk. Grace often thought of her as that kind-looking girl before she learned her name.

The last time Grace saw Yumi was six years ago, after the casino night at Binghamton University. Right after Professor Glover killed herself.

Every year one of the campus dining halls was turned into a Vegas-themed jumble of blackjack tables, roulette wheels and craps boards. All proceeds went to a local charity. Apparently public colleges can sanction a self-destructive and largely illegal activity as long as students are throwing their money away to a good cause.

Only a few days before casino night, each of Binghamton University’s 15,000 students had received an email notifying them that Professor Glover, a mousy woman with a short gray bob who taught in the English Department, had passed away unexpectedly. Her classes would be on hold until a replacement was found. Rumors about what had really happened polluted campus within hours. They began as hushed whispers within lecture halls and spread down tiled hallways, gaining momentum until spoken audibly in the dining halls and then hollered over the din of frat parties. There were claims that Glover had been found in her apartment, that she’d hanged herself. Some people said her husband left her, although Professor Glover had never mentioned being married. Others swore she’d been fired for some academic scandal. A friend of Grace’s was a journalism major and interned at the local paper. He’d heard that Glover was involved in some sort of cult, that they took all of her money and kicked her out, leaving her with nothing and no one.

Grace was too young to know how to feel, so mostly she didn’t feel anything. She mustered the distress and surface-level sadness that come from the shock of a death, cursory emotions that centered on the disruption of her own life. The campus-wide email noted that the largest lecture hall would be reserved all week as a meeting place for those who wanted to grieve together. Grace didn’t go.

Casino night continued as planned. Grace went with a group of friends. She was mostly sober, but the rest of her group was completely hammered. Yelling and belligerent, the kind of people she couldn’t stand to be around yet was always surrounded by. Grace had spent two semesters convincing herself that she enjoyed these people’s company, that they were all friends. Really, she was just hopelessly in love with Mark, the leader of the group. Mark was in her Intro to Political Science class and looked a bit like Patrick Dempsey from Grey’s Anatomy, with curly dark hair, deceptively kind eyes and a chiseled jaw. Mark was one of those privileged white guys with a personality so bland it was impossible for anyone not to like him. He had the too-perfect edges and shiny surface of a slice of American cheese. Grace could never quite explain what it was she saw, or didn’t see, in Mark that infatuated her.

This was back before Grace became secretly a bitch, before the constant stream of mean monologuing in her head. Back then, she was just a pushover. Grace had spent months following Mark around campus, watching his flag football games, helping him with assignments, shrinking herself into the airless confines of his hobbies, his friends, his life. They’d fooled around at one of the crummy bars downtown that didn’t check IDs, in the middle of a sweaty dance floor lit by sporadic strobe lights. This triggered a pattern of intermittent makeout sessions whenever Grace and Mark were drunk at the same party. Afterward, Mark would barely make eye contact, even though they shared a class and she often went to his dorm room to play beer pong with his friends. Grace was always so sure that the next time they hooked up, Mark would ask her to be his girlfriend. He never did, but her crush would linger for another three semesters.

That night when they all went to the fake casino, Grace’s delusion was at its most potent. Her heart fluttered whenever Mark glanced at her or acknowledged her presence. Mark and his friends had pre-gamed hard in his dorm, with Grace tagging along. They entered the converted dining hall hooting and hollering. Handmade signs were set up at each of the dining tables to explain the rules of the games, while black-vested dealers manned each station. The hum of giddy chatter mingled with the pop hits that streamed down from speakers in the ceiling. Grace, Mark and his friends had arrived late, and most of the tables were already surrounded by students waiting to place bets.

One of Mark’s friends was a huge guy named Nick who had looked about 30 years old since the age of 18. His favorite pastime was saying offensive things to get a reaction out of people, especially while drunk. Whenever someone grimaced, he’d say some version of “Don’t be so sensitive! It’s a joke!”

As they looked around the large room Nick hollered, “Aren’t there supposed to be hot girls offering me free drinks or dancing on the tables? Some casino.”

Grace rolled her eyes. When Mark and Nick ran straight to the roulette wheels, she walked in the other direction. That was when she first saw Yumi that night. They ended up side-by-side at the same blackjack game. Grace and Yumi smiled at one another but said nothing until the dealer paused between games to shuffle the decks. The two men sitting next to them were having their own conversation. After a few seconds of pained silence Grace turned to Yumi and said, “So, did you hear Professor Glover was in some sort of cult?”

Yumi went pale and her lower lip trembled in either grief or fury. “That’s not true at all,” she murmured and stared down at her hands.

It was then Grace remembered that Yumi and Professor Glover had both been in the Outdoors Club, that only a few months ago they’d gone with a half-dozen other students on a weekend backpacking trip. Her face went as red as Yumi’s was white.

“Sorry.”

Grace got up, hurried away from the table and went to find Mark and his friends. They had run out of money after only an hour and were staggering toward the exit. She followed them outside where they waited for the campus shuttle bus, which would take them from the main cluster of brick buildings back to their dorm rooms in the hills. The campus buses were all painted light blue, with the same cramped brown seats you’d find on an elementary school bus. When they climbed aboard, the shouts of Mark’s group filled the tiny space. Grace wished she’d walked home instead. She had almost sat right next to Mark at the back of the bus, but ultimately chickened out and sat a few rows ahead of the group, a choice she was now thankful for.

Nick’s mood had soured. As the blue bus rolled through campus, Grace could hear the dregs of vodka and lost bets in his booming voice.

“I don’t understand depressed people. Why can’t they just choose to be happier? Go to the gym or go get laid or something.”

Grace held her breath. He couldn’t possibly be talking about that. Even Nick wouldn’t go there.

“Maybe it’s all about attention or something. Either way it’s stupid.”

Mark tried to hush him. But that never worked.

“No! I just want to understand why someone would do that to themselves. It’s so selfish.”

Oh God, he was talking about it. This was really happening. Grace tried to sink as low as she could into her seat, to disappear as her face grew hot and her heart raced. She looked around and saw Yumi sitting a few seats ahead of her. Even from behind, Grace could tell she was upset. Her head was lowered and her shoulders were up to her ears. When she turned to glance back at Nick, her mouth was a thin line of distaste set in a clenched jaw.

“No, no!” Nick was yelling now. “Why am I not allowed to talk about this? Maybe if we talked about it more all those people would realize it’s not that hard to be happy.”

Grace had her eyes closed at that point, her nails digging into the flesh of her palms. She glanced at Yumi. Was she crying? 

“Anyone who is selfish enough to consider suicide should just do it already!”

Time froze and everything was silent. Grace thought she was going to puke.

“Shut the hell up! What is wrong with you?” It was Yumi, who had turned toward the back of the bus to face Nick. There were tears on her cheeks.

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Nick yelled back.

“Yeah, who even is this girl?” Mark said. The group around him cackled.

The bus stopped. Yumi shot out of her seat and ran through the double doors as they squeaked open. Grace imagined going after her, asking if she was okay and making it clear that Nick was intolerable. But she hesitated. What if she made a scene and embarrassed herself? The doors closed and the bus continued up the hill as her nails bit even deeper into her palms. From the smudged window beside her, Grace watched Yumi walk toward the dorms alone in the dark.

After that night, Grace and Yumi no longer made small talk during class. The semester ended and Grace no longer saw her around campus. But she replayed that moment in her head often over the next few years. Why didn’t she get off the bus and go after her? Why didn’t she make sure Yumi was okay? She kept imagining Yumi’s long, lonely walk up the hill.

And now here was Yumi, six years and 200 miles from Binghamton University, pigeon-posing right next to her. Grace spends the remainder of yoga class sneaking glances at Yumi’s face. She has that same knot in her stomach she felt on the bus, that tingly, sour feeling when you know you did something wrong.

The next thirty minutes are filled by imagined apologies. Grace runs through scenario after scenario, what she could say, how to avoid sounding like a crazy person. What if Yumi doesn’t remember her or that night? What if she doesn’t want to remember, and Grace sprung this crappy memory on her for her own selfish reasons? A silent debate plays out between warrior ones and forward folds. By the end of class, when they’re supposed to be meditating in corpse pose, Grace knows she has to say something. She’s memorized her little speech and practices it in her head with her eyes closed, making minor revisions each time.

Hey, sorry, did you go to Binghamton? I think we were classmates together, in English lit? Grace wouldn’t mention Professor Glover’s name, of course. Then she’d say something awkward but brave. Listen, this might sound weird, but I have this memory of you from school that I’ve always felt really bad about. We were on a campus bus and my friend was really drunk. He was being a complete idiot and saying horrible things about depression and suicide. I remember you were on that bus and you seemed really upset. I always regretted not checking to see if you were okay. It’s so random that I ran into you, I just had to say something, to apologize I guess. I’m sorry.

How would Yumi respond? Would she laugh, say she didn’t remember? Or would she say thank you, that means so much to me? Maybe they would hug, or decide to grab a smoothie together after class. Maybe they could be friends.

Class ends when Sarah delivers a final namaste and everyone begins to gather their things. Grace moves in slow motion, spends as much time as possible rolling up her mat. Yumi is putting on a light-blue hoodie by the cubbies at the front of the studio. Grace makes eye contact, and Yumi holds her gaze for an extra beat. This gives Grace courage. She walks toward her, opens her mouth to speak — then the hesitation comes. The fear of looking stupid. Grace succumbs to it. Again. She looks down at the floor and watches her own feet as they carry her outside of the room, then down the stairs and out into the street.

Grace tells herself that she’ll see Yumi again in the studio, that she can get to know her over a few classes and build up to the apology over time. A lingering tension creeps into her chest as she walks to the end of the block and waits for the traffic light to change. The tightness ascends to her head where a headache flares. The light turns green. Grace crosses and turns left onto her street.

Halfway down the block, a thought barrels into her mind with such force it makes her flinch: that was strike three. Her first strike was at the blackjack table with that stupid comment about Glover and the cult. Next came the bus, her failure to do or say anything that mattered. Ignoring Yumi in the yoga studio was the final strike. As she walks past her apartment and continues down the street, her inner bitch has a monologue ready and waiting.

You are such an overwhelming disappointment. With your weak chin and your fat thighs that no amount of yoga will fix. Dull brown hair that you’re too cheap to dye another color. Your filthy apartment. All the men who never loved you back were right. Devon and Lance and Mark and James. You are unloved. Unlovable.

Grace doesn’t notice her teeth grinding, but she does look up and realize she’s walked nearly two blocks past her apartment. She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Her favorite coffee spot is at the end of the street. She hesitates. The morning breeze animates a pile of leaves beneath her feet so they glide around her ankles as she waits. Grace takes a step, continues up the street toward the cafe. She orders a large vanilla iced coffee, takes her first sip of caffeine in four weeks, and feels her headache recede as she walks back home.

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