by Nori Muster
Copyright 2012. Nori Muster, the author, retains all rights to the literary content and design of this book. This special edition of Spiritual Summer appears exclusively at norimuster.com. All rights reserved. Nori wrote this story in 1991, during a Writer's Digest Fiction Writing Workshop.
A Few Words from the Author
Sandy woke up and blinked a few times, looking around the bare room. Light poured in, splashing against the white walls. She sat up, remembering the events of the night before that had led her to spend the night at the Krishna Center temple. She was in Prana's apartment, but where was Prana? Sandy noticed Prana's sleeping bag had been rolled up and put in the closet. Sandy climbed out of her bag and walked across the clean linoleum floor to the window, where she could see a four-lane boulevard, now busy with morning traffic. Sandy could also see the temple street. There were a few devotees walking around and music was coming from the pink building again.
Too early to be up if you ask me, she thought as she walked back to her sleeping bag. There were no curtains on the windows to block the morning sunlight, so she put the pillow over her head and drifted back to sleep.
"Time to get up."
The words jarred Sandy awake. She pulled her arm out to look at her watch and removed the pillow from her face. "Eight-thirty?"
"Sure, you'll miss half the day if you sleep any longer." Prana looked even thinner than the night before and was dressed in another white sari. The only difference was that now the sari rested comfortably around Prana's shoulders, instead of like a headscarf.
"I have to go to work," Prana began. "When you get yourself up take a shower and get dressed, then come on over. We can talk about what you're going to do while you're here. Maybe you can stay with me, but we can talk about that. I work in the front of the green building. I'll be there all morning."
Sandy gazed up at Prana, who seemed to be in a hurry to leave.
"There's some cereal in the kitchen for you. I have to go." Prana walked through the door, but then turned back to Sandy, who was still lying in bed. "By the way, welcome to the temple."
After Prana left, Sandy rolled up the sleeping bag and put it in the closet. Taking a shower felt good and seemed to wash away the stress of the day before. Sandy unpacked a few things and looked around the apartment. Besides the bedroom and bathroom there was a kitchen with an adjoining living-dining room area. The apartment had a sliding glass door and tiny cement balcony looking into a courtyard. The only furniture in the place was a brick and-board bookshelf and a low table with an altar.
It's austere, Sandy thought, but might be just right for Prana.
In the kitchen she found a stainless steel bowl of oatmeal, an apple, an orange and a plastic cup of lukewarm milk. She poured the milk on the cereal and tasted it. It was sweet, like pure sugar. She ate standing up in the kitchen, since there was nowhere to sit down.
After walking out to the street, Sandy found a green building next door and climbed five concrete steps to an open apartment door. She peeked in and saw diminutive Prana sitting behind a long wooden desk. She seemed to disappear behind stacks of paper piled up. The rest of the décor seemed equally unlikely: black slate floors and an ornate Persian carpet, a velvet couch with matching chairs, and framed oil paintings on all the walls.
"What is this place?" Sandy asked.
"This is Nada Swami's office," Prana said matter-of-factly. "Sit down."
"Who's Nada Swami?" Sandy asked, taking a seat in front of Prana's desk.
"He's the guru here."
"He has an office?"
"Well, sure. He has a lot of responsibility in the worldwide organization."
"Oh. Of course," Sandy said.
After some questioning, Sandy learned that the L.A. temple, being one of the biggest in the organization, was considered by some to be the world headquarters. The organization's founder, Swamiji, when he was alive, had spent much of his time there writing books. When the guru died, two years before, his top disciples became gurus to carry on his work. Nada Swami was one of those men, Prana explained, and she was his secretary. Part of Nada Swami's work was to manage the printing and distribution of the founding guru's books. Nada Swami also helped manage the day-to-day affairs of the L.A. temple and several other temples in Southern California.
"But his biggest priority is to publish books and encourage the other temples to buy and distribute them."
"At the airport?" Sandy asked.
"Yes, anywhere and everywhere."
"What about the other gurus? Do they work here too?"
"No. They're all around the world. But they come here for meetings sometimes, since this is the world headquarters. There's another world headquarters in India where they all meet once a year."
"Oh. Two world headquarters?" Sandy wondered why they couldn't agree on just one. Also, it still seemed odd that a guru would need an office and a secretary. It doesn't seem spiritual, Sandy thought, since a guru is supposed to be an old Indian man with a long beard; someone who would rather meditate than go to meetings or manage a book publishing business. That was what the Guru Swami was like. But then, he also had his secretaries at the Topanga Canyon Yoga Art School. Sandy let it go at that.
"Nada Swami is quite an amazing man," Prana said. "Wait till you meet him." She paused a moment to see Sandy's reaction. "In the meantime, let's talk about some basics. First of all, how long do you think you'll stay?"
"I don't know, but I have to be ready to start school in September."
"That's a ways off, isn't it? But not indefinite. You're welcome to stay with me, then." Prana smiled.
"That would be great." Sandy smiled back.
"Now, second, how old you are you?"
"I'm seventeen, why?"
"I was afraid of that. Nada Swami would be against that." Prana tapped the top of her desk with her index finger. "See, it might be a problem because you're a minor. Normally we wouldn't care, but we're in the middle of this court case where a woman and her mother are trying to sue us for brainwashing and false imprisonment. It's a long story. Anyway, she was a minor and it's a big, expensive lawsuit. Right now we're not taking any minors." Prana trailed off, tapping her desk again.
"Oh, this is too much, being kicked out of two ashrams in two days. I'm going to be eighteen in August. I mean, I'm almost eighteen, doesn't that count?"
"Well, you could possibly stay if your parents give permission. But that might not be too easy." Prana tapped her pencil this time, trying to think of an alternative.
"I'm pretty sure my mom would say it's okay."
"Your mother wouldn't mind?"
"I don't think so. She let me stay at the art school in Topanga Canyon and that was an Indian yoga ashram, too. She'll probably think it's a good idea, since that place closed. She doesn't want me just hanging around the house the rest of the summer."
"Can you call her?"
"Oh, sure. I was thinking I should call home anyway."
"No time like the present," Prana said, turning the phone to face Sandy. "Go ahead."
Sandy's mother answered on the second ring.
"Sandy, doll, how's the Art School? Great to hear from you."
"Actually, Mom, there's been sort of a turn-around."
"What do you mean, dear? A turn-around?"
"Yes, Mom. Actually, I almost ended up coming home last night. But, well, anyway, I'm in a Krishna Center temple right now."
"Are they still around? I lost track of them about ten years ago."
"Yes, I'm staying at their temple in Los Angeles. There's a really nice lady who's letting me stay in her apartment. Want to talk to her? Her name is 'Prana.' Sandy handed the receiver across the desk to Prana.
"Hello? Mrs. Edinburgh? Yes, your daughter is quite an avid student of Eastern philosophy."
"Just like my sister," Mrs. Edinburgh said, "Well. That's very nice of you to take care of her. Can you put Sandy back on the phone?"
"So, Sandy, honey, I thought you planned to stay at that place in Topanga Canyon. What happened?"
"I was there for a week and everything was going fine," Sandy began. "But then a telegram came from India saying the Guru Swami died! They canceled everything and told all the art students to go home. I was so upset, but then I met these nice Krishna Center people in the airport and they invited me to stay here."
"You won't be going to the airport to sell flowers, will you?" Mrs. Edinburgh asked. "What would your father say?"
"No, Mom! That's not all they do here. They have a big temple that used to be a church, and they have artists and it's very spiritual here. Can I stay?"
Mrs. Edinburgh was silent a moment and Sandy held her breath, hoping her mother would agree.
"Let me think about it, dear. You give me the phone number where you're staying. I'll call your Aunt Trina and find out what she thinks. Be a good girl and don't get into any trouble. And remember, if Trina says it's too dangerous, then you're on the first plane to San Francisco, okay?"
"Okay. I suppose it will be okay, but I want to talk this over with your father, too." Another moment of silence. "Honey, I'm sorry the Guru Swami died. I can understand your disappointment."
"And another thing," Mrs. Edinburgh continued, "I suppose I'm glad you found something to do for the summer. You're just so darned independent, it scares me sometimes."
"Now give me the number and I'll be calling you back."
When Sandy hung up, she told Prana that her mother had tentatively approved of her staying at the temple.
"Wait until Nada Swami hears!" Prana said, standing up. "He'll be so pleased."
"Nada Swami?" Sandy asked. "Why should he know about me?"
"Oh, he knows everything that goes on in the temple. Anyway, I've already told him—we keep in touch by phone."
"Where is he?"
"He's in New York, meeting with the other North American leaders. He should be back in a week." Prana turned off her desk lamp and said, "Come on and I'll give you a tour of the temple."
Prana led Sandy around the community introducing her to people with exotic names. Along the way they visited the temple gift store, museum, grammar school, and the production offices where devotees prepare the Krishna Center books for printing.
After the publication offices, Prana and Sandy continued their tour by car. Prana took Sandy to a warehouse in an industrial area nearby. On the front of the buildings were the words "ICKW Publishing."
"ICKW stands for International Center for Krishna Worship," Prana explained. "This is where we have our legal department, our warehouse, and our Spiritual Scents incense factory."
Prana led Sandy inside the air conditioned building, again introducing her to people with long Indian names. About three-fourths of the people looked like they could be working in any casual office; the rest wore ICKW devotional clothes. Aside from the obvious things, the offices were typical of any small business with lots of activity and communication. Prana and Sandy went through the offices and out the back door into a large warehouse area. They stood on a platform overlooking a 20,000 square foot room filled with boxes. Sandy recognized them as the same boxes Jeff had in his van the night before. They were arranged in orderly rows and reached fifteen feet into the open space of the room. Sandy had to admit the sight was impressive.
"These are all our books," Prana explained. "From here we ship them to temples all over North America." She gazed at the books, obviously feeling a sense of pride. "Want to go down?"
Sandy followed Prana down the metal stairs to the warehouse floor. Now the piles of books seemed to tower over head. Sandy noticed a green forklift with the words, "Chant Krishna," stenciled on the side. How fitting, she thought, a spiritual forklift.
"Around this way is the incense factory," Prana said, walking through the rows of books. She led Sandy to a chain link gate enclosing a work area with barrels of scents and dipping machines.
"They're not open today or you would get a demonstration," Prana said. "ICKW developed this business. We even distribute the incense to boutiques and department stores."
They left the building through a door on ground floor of the warehouse and walked out into a parking lot. The sun seemed bright after the darkness of the warehouse. Sandy noticed a semi trailer at the loading dock. On the side was the ICKW Publishing logo, painted in bright blue. After the tour Sandy and Prana drove back to the green building in time for lunch.
"Lunch is upstairs," Prana said, leading Sandy toward the temple.
Instead of going to the first floor guest reception area where Sandy had waited the night before, they went up a flight of stairs to a level with several large rooms. Sandy didn't see anything in the first room, but when she tried to go into another room, Prana pulled her back saying that was for the men. Sandy didn't see any furniture in there either, and although both rooms had large sunny windows, there were no curtains or shades. After Sandy looked in a man came up and pulled the door closed.
Women sat in rows on the bare linoleum floor in their room. Many had babies or small children, who squirmed and made noise. The room hummed with the sounds of chanting and conversation, as a woman in a pink sari walked down the rows, laying a paper plate in front of each person. Another woman, who dropped a plastic spoon and plastic foam cup on each plate, followed her. Then a woman with a stainless steel pot and wooden spoon walked down the rows scooping rice onto each plate. The woman in the pink sari passed by again, this time dropping a serving of vegetables on each plate. And another woman put a ladle of soup in the cups.
After the devotees sang a long Sanskrit prayer, Sandy sampled the soup and found it tasted good.
"We're vegetarian and we offer all our food to Krishna."
"This food?" Sandy asked, tasting it again.
"Yes, it's called prasadam."
Another impossible Sanskrit word, Sandy thought, blocking it out.
"It means 'the grace of the Lord.' " Prana took a bite of rice. "We offer everything to the Lord and he offers everything back to his devotees."
Sandy kept eating, not giving any indication of whether she was actually the good little student Prana seemed to take her for.
"Why don't you have any carpet or curtains here?" Sandy asked.
"Well, that's a good question. We believe in offering all opulence to Krishna and taking nothing for ourselves. You will see in the temple room that everything is very beautiful. We get pleasure from making Krishna's house beautiful, but we keep our own quarters very simple."
"But your office, that place is decorated like a Marin County lawyer's office."
"Well, that's for the guru. The same principle applies to him. The guru is Krishna's representative, so we offer all opulence to him, also. He passes it on to Krishna as the offering of his disciples."
"But he lives like that while his disciples live with no furniture at all?"
"Not exactly." Prana took a breath and hesitated.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a creep," Sandy said.
"It's okay. They're good questions."
"No, I can see you're into what you're doing," Sandy said. "I respect that."
"See, we believe the material things aren't important," Prana tried again. "Just like this sari," she said, holding the cloth in her fingers. "This sari is white to show that I'm renounced. I was married, but now my husband and I don't associate anymore. He serves Krishna in the photo department and I serve Krishna as Nada Swami's secretary. We're both serving Krishna but we're separate. And I'm not trying to find another husband."
"So you're a celibate?"
"Yes, but it's blissful because I'm serving Krishna," Prana continued. "We get our happiness from serving Krishna, either as a devotee, a friend, a parent, or as a lover."
"I see, so it's like a nun? Devoting your love to the church, right?"
"Yes, that's it exactly. And all the men wearing saffron are also celibate. The men wearing white are married. They're the only ones who associate with women."
"Wait a minute. When the women wear white it means they're celibate, but when the men wear white it means they're not?"
"And when the men are celibate they wear orange?"
"I don't think it's simple at all," Sandy said.
"You'll get used to it."
After lunch, Prana took Sandy to see the artists' studios, which were located in converted apartments in the green building. They walked past Prana's office and up a flight of stairs. After passing through a darkened art library, they found a woman working on a canvas in a room that looked like it had been a kitchen at one time. The artist was wearing a white sari like Prana's, but was taller and had thick, short brown hair and glasses.
"On a tour?" the artist asked, looking up from her work.
"This is Sandy. She might be staying with us until September," Prana said. "She's an artist so I'm showing her around the art department."
"An artist?" the woman asked, blinking at Sandy.
"Not an artist yet," Sandy said. "I'm starting college in September and I plan to major in fine art."
"Prana," the artist said, dropping her brush into a bottle of turpentine, "Why don't you get her to help with the festival painting? Then I won't have to. How many artists do you need, anyway?"
"That's an idea," Prana said.
"What?" Sandy asked.
"Let me see if I can pull some strings," Prana said.
As Prana and Sandy walked down the steps, Prana explained, "This just could work out. We might have an art job for you."
"What kind of job?" Sandy asked, following Prana into her office.
"I can't say for sure, because it may not go through, but the temple needs to pull about eight of the artists from their regular work. They'll be painting signs and decorations for a festival. I think they've already decided, but depending on what they need, you may be painting full time starting right away. But it's not for sure, so don't be disappointed if it doesn't happen."
"Painting? Full-time?" Sandy felt a rush of excitement.
"I have to get back to work now," Prana said, taking a seat behind her desk. "I'll check with the temple about the job. And, oh, and here's a key to my apartment, Sandy. You'll probably want to get unpacked."
Sandy took the key, thanked Prana, and left. She skipped down the concrete steps and started toward Prana's building, when she saw Jeff, standing on the sidewalk across the street.
"Jeff!" she called, waving at him while crossing the street.
When she reached his van he reached inside and turned off the ignition.
"What's happening?" he asked. "You look ecstatic."
"I am. You'll never guess how well things might work out."
"I saw you coming out of Prana's office."
"She took me to meet one of the artists and they want me to start painting decorations for the temple, for a festival."
"I knew you were an artist. Prana is good association. You know, she's Nada Swami's secretary. You're lucky she's taking care of you."
"She's great. She took me all around today. We went to a big warehouse where there were thousands of Krishna Center books."
"Quite a place, isn't it? I was just leaving to go there. I have to make a book run at six o'clock."
"You drive to the airport every day?"
"Every day? I drive back and forth an average five times a day, seven days a week. More during marathons!"
"No wonder you're never around here, then," Sandy said.
"It's my service to Krishna. In fact, I'd better get going."
"Everyone seems so busy around here."
"There's a lot of service to do."
"Why did you decide to become the van driver?"
"I didn't decide, exactly. When I first moved here they needed someone to drive the van. I wasn't doing anything, so Nada Swami gave me the keys one morning and told me to make a run to the airport. I've been doing it ever since."
Sandy smiled and looked into Jeff's eyes. He smiled back, a warm, caring smile, and then turned to his van.
Sandy woke in the middle of the night and heard the shower running. She held her watch up to the light coming in from the hall and saw it was four o'clock. Although she closed her eyes and tried to sleep, she couldn't. Then she remembered that she had fallen asleep at about eight o'clock the night before. The shower stopped and Prana entered the room dressed in a white slip that reached to the floor and a white midriff bodice. Prana pulled a sari from a hanger, unfolded it, and tucked a corner of the fabric into her slip. She wrapped it around her waist, tucking and folding the white cloth as she hummed a Krishna song to herself. In a final motion she swept the remaining cloth up and around her head. Sandy watched in the dim light.
"You awake?" Prana asked.
"Yes," Sandy answered. "I can't go back to sleep."
"Good, then do you want to get up and come with me to mangal-arotik?"
"To what?" Sandy noted another Sanskrit word she would never remember.
"The temple, do you want to come to the temple with me?
"At this hour?" Sandy could see that Prana was serious and it sparked her curiosity. She got up, took a shower, and got ready to leave by 4:15.
As they walked through the courtyard Sandy noticed the lights were on in most of the apartments. Outside, in the still-dark neighborhood, people were coming from all directions to congregate in the temple building. The soft glow of the street lamps seemed to illuminate the robed figures as they walked through the pre-dawn mist.
Prana instructed Sandy to leave her shoes outside on the steps and to follow whatever she did once they were inside. Prana knelt down on the floor and then lowered her head and hands to the floor and recited a prayer. Sandy did the same, noticing that even though it was June, the marble felt cold. Prana motioned for Sandy to follow her up the stairwell. They came out on a balcony where there were at least another thirty-five women. Some had their children wrapped in blankets, asleep on the floor.
The room buzzed with cacophonous chanting. All the people had their right hands in their cloth bead bags; some were walking, some were sitting still on the floor. Downstairs the men were following each other in a circular procession around the room as they chanted. Many of them were completely shaven except for a ponytail on the back of their heads. The sight of the bald-headed, pony-tailed men struck Sandy as whimsical, especially from her vantage point in the balcony.
"What are they doing?" Sandy whispered to Prana.
"This is japa time. Everyone is chanting japa on their beads. I'll show you how to do it, too."
At that moment the wooden doors of the altar swung open and the lights went down. Everyone in the room bowed, so Sandy did too. When she stood up again, three priests on the altar blew conch shells, making a loud droning sound. The men on the marble floor below started playing drums and cymbals. The room was dark, except for the lights on the altar illuminating the deities. The priests lit incense sticks and began waving them in a circular motion, as if offering the scent to the flower-covered deities.
The chanting started and everyone in the room sang along. The words were in Sanskrit. It started out melancholic, but gradually picked up a bouncy dance rhythm like the kirtan the night before. Two dozen or so men danced around the marble floor. To Sandy it looked like a sea of bald heads bobbing up and down. The women, dancing as excitedly as the men now, made Sandy feel uneasy. She pushed her way to the side and leaned against a wall.
When the music ended everyone bowed on the ground again; Sandy simply watched. The priests blew the conch shells again and then rang bells as they shut the altar doors. Next the overhead lights came on and the devotees started singing another song. When the singing finally ended, half the people in the building left, while the rest took out their cloth bags and resumed the cacophonous chanting. Prana joined Sandy in her corner, giving her a cloth bag with her own string of beads.
"You chant one mantra for each bead," Prana explained. "The mantra is up there on the wall, see it?"
"Yes, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna," Sandy read the words from a plaque at the front of the room.
"Yes," Prana said. "This is mantra meditation. While you're chanting the mantra you count the first bead. Then you move to the next bead and chant the mantra again. Then you move to the next bead. Try it. Everyone will be chanting until seven o'clock."
"What if I get tired?"
"You have a key, so you can go back and rest if you need to. But try to get into it; see if you like it."
While Sandy chanted on the beads, her eyes wandered around the dimly lit temple, trying to make out all the images: the wall hangings, the paintings mounted on the ceiling, the women pacing in their own circle as they chanted on their beads. Downstairs, where the men were pacing in a circle and chanting, Sandy noticed a large framed picture of Swamiji, the original guru, sitting on a golden throne. Some of the men were standing in front of the throne, rocking from one foot to the other to the rhythm of their chanting.
Sandy continued chanting and staring over the railing at the men below. She noticed Jeff and some other men sitting by the foot of the throne, chanting peacefully. She stared at Jeff, hoping he would look up and see her. He seemed different, as he now wore his orange-colored ICKW robes. She had never seen him in anything but his jeans and orange T-shirt. His hair was a little longer than most of the men; at least it looked like it had been a while since he shaved his head. She could see now that he clearly did have a ponytail that hung down his back. She watched him closely, pressed up against the railing, trying to communicate to him somehow, "I'm here. Look up in the balcony."
A woman tapped Sandy on the shoulder. "Hey, 'scuse me, girl," the woman said. "But you're not supposed to look at the men." The woman stared Sandy right in the eyes and then walked away, chanting loudly on her beads.
Shocked, Sandy whirled around so her back was against the railing. Prana was gone now and suddenly Sandy felt all alone. Not look at the men? She couldn't figure it out.
Another woman walked toward Sandy and knelt down. In a more gentle tone the woman said, "When you're in the temple you're supposed to sit cross legged, not with your legs sticking out, okay?"
Sandy nodded and crossed her legs, even though her jeans felt tight. What is this place? she wondered. Resentment welled up inside her and she decided she couldn't take any more. She got up and walked down the stairs.
Outside she searched for her shoes, but could only find one. She looked around at the morning sky; the sun had just risen. Holding onto the metal rail she spotted her missing shoe and hopped over to it. Then she saw Jeff coming out the other temple door. There was no one else in sight, except some devotee men gathered across the street.
"Oh, Sandy, I was hoping you would be up this morning. Hey, come on over here and say hi." He motioned for Sandy to follow him around the corner to an alley. They sat down on the curb.
"I see you have some japa beads."
"Oh, Prana gave me these," Sandy said, hanging the bag around her neck.
"That's great, Prana's taking good care of you. Chanting is the real nectar, of course, it's also the hardest part for me since I'm so busy."
"It's okay, I guess."
"What's the matter? Don't you like it here?"
Sandy's heart sped up. Some things she liked and some she didn't. She didn't know exactly what to say. "I like it yes and no," she replied, not wanting to hurt his feelings. "There are some things I guess I just don't understand about temple life."
"Like what?" Jeff's voice was calm but concerned.
"Like all the rules. I'm new at this and everybody in there keeps telling me what to do."
"That happens a lot to new devotees, not just you. This community has a pretty high standard. Once you've been around awhile you forget how hard it is for new people to get used to."
"But it's just, well, I'm trying but some of them are so mean."
"Ignore them. Pretty soon they'll leave you alone," he said. "You're going to make a good devotee."
"There's so many things I don't understand. Can I ask you a few questions?"
"Sure, like what?"
"Like how come all the men stay downstairs and all the women have to go upstairs?"
"It's not discrimination, it's Vedic."
"Vedic culture, ancient India, the Vedas, you know. That's the religion we're following and in Vedic culture the men are always separated from the women, that's all. It's not a sexist thing. See, in spiritual life, we see all living things as spirit souls, so women, men, everyone is a spirit soul, perfectly equal."
"Equal?" Sandy asked. "Then why can't the women stand with the men?"
"See, there has to be separation because," Jeff hesitated again. "Just like I can't talk to you unless it's for preaching," Jeff continued, pointing to his orange cotton robes. "Look, I'm wearing saffron. That means I'm a brahmacari, I'm not supposed to associate with women."
"That's ridiculous," Sandy said, remembering Prana's similar explanation.
"It's a spiritual vow. If I want to get initiated I have to be a brahmacari, because that's what Nada Swami wants."
Sandy stared into his eyes and smiled. "Then you and I can't talk to each other?"
"I'm preaching to you, that's different."
"Oh. Well, go ahead and preach to me then. Tell me why you want to get initiated." Sandy smiled at Jeff, wishing he wasn't such a staunch spiritualist.
"See, I wanted to get initiated by Swamiji, but well, he was sick for a long time and then he left his body. No one was getting initiated. But after a while I found out that Nada Swami would be the new guru here, and see, I immediately realized, 'Hey, Nada Swami is my real guru!' So I approached him for initiation. I should be getting initiated any time now. I've been waiting more than a year."
Jeff noticed some men coming their way from the opposite end of the alley. "I better go, but, hey, I'll see you around. Keep chanting." He jumped up and disappeared around the front of the building.
Sandy felt excited about her encounter with Jeff as she started to walk home. Then she heard the music starting inside the temple and decided to go back. The service lasted about a half-hour, followed by a reading. When everything was over she met Prana outside and they went to the building next door for another oatmeal breakfast.
"You've had quite a morning, haven't you?" Prana asked, as they sat down to be served.
"Yes, I was tired at first, but now I feel okay."
"Do you think you need to take a nap?"
"No, I feel fine."
"Perfect, because I've set it up for you to start painting the decorations for the Ratha-yatra festival."
"Oh, sorry," Prana said. "I guess I forgot to tell you about it. The Ratha-yatra is the festival. It's a festival from India. We had it at the beach last year and we're doing it again this year. It will be August eighth."
"That's my birthday!"
"Oh, how auspicious," Prana said. "Then you'll have a great time because the festival is like a big party. We have a parade down the Santa Monica boardwalk and then there's a festival with all kinds of exhibits and entertainment. People come from all over the city just for our festival."
"What's it for?" Sandy asked.
"God is in the temple all the time, but once a year he wants to go out and bless all the people who can't come to him. So we organize this festival to bring him out. We get the Jagannatha deities, the wooden deities from the altar, and take them for a ride at the beach."
Sandy wasn't sure what it all meant, but she was sure she would find out if she stuck around. After breakfast Prana dropped her off at the temple and told her to wait inside for the other artists. They were supposed to be on the way, but Sandy waited for over an hour and started to get discouraged. She stood in front of the gold throne and looked at the picture of the old guru. He looks sad, Sandy thought. She noted that he wore orange robes and had his hand in an orange bead bag, like the devotees she had seen that morning. She walked to the altar to look at the deities that would ride in the parade. The three-foot-high wooden figures had large black and white eyes and painted mouths. They looked friendly, almost humorous with their big red grins. Like the other deities, they were dressed in beaded garments and had thick flower garlands hanging from their shoulders.
When the other women artists arrived they welcomed Sandy and explained that she was to help them make signs for the festival booths. One of the women explained that they were waiting for two dozen plywood boards, which they would decorate with green, yellow, and red enamel paint. Once the wood arrived, Sandy spent the rest of the day painting with the other artists.
She daydreamed about Jeff as she worked, especially remembering the way he said, "Do you like it here?" as if it was so important to him that she did. She tried to imagine what he was like as a student and wondered why he decided to become celibate. She thought about how he jumped up when he saw the men coming. Was it bad that he was talking to her? Wasn't he just "preaching" to her? She thought about his soft brown hair and ponytail and the way he sat so contentedly in the temple chanting.
She also thought about the morning program at the temple. That was okay too; it reminded her of the rituals the full-timers at the Yoga Art School practiced.
By evening Sandy was tired and fell asleep early again. The next day she got up at four A.M. and went to the temple again. After a few days her mother called and said she had gotten a good report about Hare Krishnas from Trina.
Since she was going to stay, Sandy decided to buy a sari from the temple gift store to wear to the morning program. She and Prana picked out a purple cotton sari, covered with roses.
"Now, wearing a sari, you look like a representative of Krishna," Prana said after showing Sandy how to drape it.
"Me, a representative of Krishna?" Sandy said, trying to appear flattered. She admired her reflection in the mirror, but was sure Prana overestimated her level of devotion. To Sandy it was just a pretty piece of cotton and she was certain she didn't know enough about Krishna to consider herself his representative.
Prana took a lot of time from her busy schedule to help Sandy understand the philosophy and the organization. One day she spent an extra half-hour of her lunch to make it clear that the figures on the altar were not "idols," but rather "deities" of Krishna. Prana compared the devotees' feelings for the Krishna figures to the Catholics' feelings for images of Mary and Jesus. Prana explained that the deities accept the devotees' prayers. She told Sandy how Swamiji, the original guru, was raised in the Krishna religion in Calcutta; how he had worshiped the deity of Krishna since childhood. And how, at the age of seventy-two, he brought the Krishna religion to the shores of America. From there it spread all over the world.
Sandy decided that devotees like Prana were sincere in their religion, but some things still bothered her. Especially wearing the sari. It was okay for the morning program, but after a few hours the cloth always seemed to sag and feel like it was going to fall off. She wore her regular clothes as much as possible, aside from the morning program.
Sandy applied the final touches of yellow to a sign with ten inch high letters that spelled out: "Vegetarian Buffet." Leaving the sign straddled over two wooden sawhorses to dry, she pulled off her white carpenter's apron and bunched it up.
"This is finished. I'm going home to change," she told the woman who was supervising the work.
She stepped outside and observed people walking everywhere, unloading things, moving things, and talking in groups. The festival was drawing near and it seemed everyone in the temple was getting involved in preparations. The temple owned three thirty-foot carts, smaller replicas of the original Ratha-yatra carts for the festival in India. The painting crew's next project would be to repaint the carts.
Although the temple mood was growing stronger and more excited each day, today was a special day for the community because Nada Swami was returning from his trip. His plane was expected to land at LAX at two o'clock and devotees were already lining up in front of the temple to greet him. Sandy went back to Prana's apartment to change into her sari. When she returned, the crowd had grown larger and some men were leading the chanting. Sandy noted that the men lined up on one side, while the women stood on the opposite side, leaving an aisle down the middle so the guru could walk up to the temple. Always "separate but equal," Sandy thought.
From her place with the women, Sandy searched the row of men to find Jeff. She spotted him and tried to catch his eye by stepping to the front of the women's row, but he wouldn't look at her. Ever since that morning they talked in the alley she couldn't seem to get his attention. He was so kind up until that day; she wondered what happened. Maybe he was preoccupied with his work.
By 2:15 there was quite a gathering of devotees, still chanting. Sandy wondered how they could all manage to drop what they were doing to assemble in the middle of the day to chant. The music picked up momentum and everyone swayed and sang in the hot sun. Sometimes Sandy liked the chanting, but other times she didn't. When she concentrated on the sound and let it permeate her thoughts, she felt peaceful, spiritual, and her material cares faded away. The chanting was at once soothing and invigorating, since the tempo tended to speed up. But today Sandy could not meditate peacefully. She felt anxious about finishing the signs. Besides, it was hot, at least eighty-five degrees, and she felt uncomfortable in the sari, which was constricting and sticky. Since the cloth refused to stay on her head, she let it fall around her shoulders.
Someone tapped her shoulder and said, "Cover your head."
"Oh, yeah," she said, pulling the sari back up.
Some devotees seem more bitter than spiritual, she thought, looking at the matronly woman who had tapped her. Maybe it's because they work too hard, she thought. Anyone who works this hard for no pay and then goes home to an unfurnished apartment and can't even watch TV, she thought, has an excuse to be bitter. Do this, do that, don't look at the men, cover your head. Sandy felt the sting of resentment and didn't feel like chanting. Even worse, she felt like she was the only one in the whole crowd who felt uncomfortable.
She looked at Jeff, who seemed totally immersed. He was moving his head from side to side with his eyes barely opened. If only they had met under different circumstances, she thought. If only he was still a student at Santa Barbara, they could have met there, instead of here. But maybe he was romantic under all that orange cloth, she told herself. Her attention returned to the situation and she felt impatient. When is this Nada Swami coming? she wondered. What does he look like? She already knew he wasn't Indian, or old, and she figured he wouldn't have a long beard. Krishna Center devotees don't have beards or moustaches for the same reason they shave their heads. They think body hair is dirty.
Sandy felt the sari cloth creeping down and falling across her back again. She grabbed the end and tried to yank it up. It stayed for a second and then fluttered down again. "I give up!" she said. The little girl standing next to her looked up with innocent eyes. The woman who corrected her before frowned and diverted her glance.
The sound of the chanting changed, becoming more intense. The men, especially, bounced up and down excitedly, chanting louder and louder. Through the crowd Sandy could see a black Mercedes-Benz pull up. When the door opened everyone threw flower petals. The mood was frantic; the drum players went into a frenzy. Sandy let herself be pushed to the back, since the others seemed much more enthusiastic about seeing Nada Swami. She checked her watch, it was now past 3:30. This is taking forever, she thought, but she reluctantly went along.
After following the other devotees inside, Sandy observed that the signs and painting supplies had been pushed to one side of the room. She wished she could go back to work, or maybe go home and rest. But she didn't want to be a spoilsport. If Prana or Jeff later asked her how she had liked Nada Swami, she didn't want to have to say that the whole thing bored her and she went home to take a nap.
The chanting continued and devotees were dancing wildly around the room. Nada Swami was seated on a throne-like dais, next to the larger, more ornate dais that held the Indian founder's picture. The chanting died down and then started again at a slower pace. Sandy went up to the balcony to try to get a better look at what was going on, pushing her way to the railing to look down. Several men were gathered around Nada Swami, taking off his socks. They put a stainless steel salad bowl under his feet and poured a pitcher of water over his feet into the bowl. All the while the tempo of the music was slow and solemn.
Sandy tried to understand if this was some kind of worship ceremony, when she remembered Prana saying that they would be washing Nada Swami's feet when he arrived. Washing his feet! Sandy suddenly realized that that's what they were doing. Who does he think he is, Jesus? Krishna? she wondered. Besides washing his feet, she noticed, a man was fanning the guru with a round, flat fan made of peacock feathers. She looked more carefully to see if anything about the guru commanded this much respect. He was thin, almost scrawny, like Prana, and didn't look like a guru. He didn't even shave his head like the other devotees, but had thick black, medium-short hair. The only thing that made him look like a devotee were his orange robes. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and looked young; Sandy guessed late twenties. There didn't seem to be anything distinguishing about him.
Sandy watched as the foot bathers poured yogurt, honey, oil, and more water over his feet. The ingredients collected in the salad bowl to form a white, yogurty-mush. Then they poured pitchers of water over his feet. When the foot bathing was done, the men removed the salad bowl and dried Nada Swami's feet with an orange bath towel. They put his socks back on for him. Another man took the salad bowl and splashed the sticky white substance at people in the crowd. The dancing intensified and the floor became wet and muddy as people danced in the yogurt-honey-oil-water.
After twenty-five minutes the chanting stopped. Sandy thought it was over, but then someone brought a microphone to Nada Swami's seat. The guru tapped the mike a few times and it made a loud "thud, thud, thud" through the speakers hanging above the altar.
"Hare Hare," Nada Swami said.
"Hare Hare!" the devotees answered in unison.
"Krishna Krishna!" the guru shouted.
"Krishna Krishna!" the devotees shouted back.
"It is so nice to be back in our Krishna Center world headquarters." The guru straightened his back and, holding his chin up high, looked around at his admirers. "I hope you are all blissfully engaged in preparing for our Ratha-yatra festival."
Sandy, noting his New York accent, thought to herself, A Brooklyn businessman is a guru? The other devotees, who seemed to be unable to sit still with all the excitement, roared back their enthusiasm to Nada Swami.
"So fired up!" the guru said, and then he chuckled. "That's good because we have to work hard to get the Lord's mercy."
The devotees again roared with delight.
"Let's see," the guru said, "how many more days until the festival?"
Several people in the crowd shouted out, "Ten."
Nada Swami appeared to be calculating in his mind, then he said, "That's right, only ten more days. And this community has a lot of work to do! I have just returned from New York, where I met with some of our fellow leaders in this International Center for Krishna Worship. They had a very, very successful Ratha-yatra festival in New York City, but we know the festival here in Los Angeles is the best in all of North America."
The crowd shouted in agreement.
"Okay, okay," Nada Swami said. "But we have to make this year our best yet! I have invited the other leaders to come here to see how to put on a Ratha-yatra festival and I think we're going to have seven visiting gurus here in approximately one week. I want everything to be perfect, which means every one of you must do your absolute best. Rise to the occasion and the Supreme Lord will certainly recognize your sincerity and reward you a million-fold."
Sandy felt a little lost, since she still had only a vague idea of what the festival would be like. The other devotees seemed to soak in every word.
"I want each and every one of you to make any sacrifice necessary to make this festival a success," Nada Swami continued. "As you know, last year the festival didn't make a profit, and this year we'll be lucky if we break even. Therefore, I've planned a marathon to help raise the necessary funds. I want each of you to take it upon yourself to do your part, either by donating something from your own, personal savings, or by voluntarily going out to preach."
Go out to preach? Sandy wondered if that meant "go to the airport and panhandle." If that's what it was, she was sure Nada Swami's speech didn't concern her. Hadn't her mother already asked her not to go to the airport? Besides, she would be busy repainting the parade carts. Nada Swami continued talking, giving the marathon a big build-up, but Sandy didn't pay attention. She kept looking at her watch and wishing it would end. It was already getting close to five o'clock, time she would ordinarily stop painting for the day. Great, she thought, the whole day has been wasted.
After another ten minutes Nada Swami said a final "Hare Hare" into the mike and it was over. He got up and walked out of the temple, followed by enthusiastically chanting men. Sandy watched as they followed him across the street up to the green building, where he went through Prana's office door and disappeared.
Sandy walked back to the apartment feeling frustrated and confused. She hadn't gotten any work done since morning and now it was too late. She thought about Jeff, especially how he avoided her. Maybe he is totally sold out on this Nada Swami guru and wishes she didn't exist. Maybe she should leave and let him have his guru and his austerities; his whole absurd little world. Worshiping this guru fellow is too much, Sandy thought, letting the top of the sari trail behind her.
She went to her room and pulled off the sari, then changed into her own clothes, the jeans and flowered silk shirt she had worn the first day at the airport. She looked at the garland of carnations Prana gave her the first night, which was now drying in the windowsill. Instead of getting angry, she decided to take a walk. Maybe things would seem different if she could just get out to think for a while.
She started west down Venice Boulevard, thinking there was a mall not very far. She would only be gone a while, she thought, so no one would miss her. Prana would be working late to catch her guru-boss up on his correspondence, phone calls, legal details, temple politics. All the things big-city gurus must worry about.
Sandy kept thinking about the ceremony and the guru's speech about getting more money for the festival. Spiritualists shouldn't be so concerned about their income, she felt. She kept thinking that she could see the mall in the distance, but it was just a mass of street lights and electrical poles. She quickened her pace. Just then, a white van pulled over to the side of the road. Her heart pounded. Jeff jumped out and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of her.
"Can I give you a ride somewhere?"
"Oh, God! Jeff!" Sandy felt her knees become weak. She searched for something to say. "I'm going to the mall. I can walk."
"The mall is a lot farther than you think. I can give you a ride."
"I can manage," she said, reluctant to share her anger with him, since he probably felt good after seeing his guru.
"No, really, it's at least four miles to the mall. Please let me give you a ride."
He was still smiling and his ambience softened Sandy's mood.
"Oh, all right. Thanks."
They got in the van and Jeff started driving down the street toward the mall. Sandy looked at her floral blouse, unable to speak, remembering the first night she met him.
"Pretty ecstatic ceremony, wasn't it?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah, great, sure, I loved it," she said.
They drove along in silence. Sandy could feel Jeff's mood fading, falling to equalize with hers.
"Where should I drop you off?" Jeff asked as he drove into the parking lot of the mall.
"I guess here is okay," she said, reaching for the door handle. "I'll probably only window shop, anyway."
"Is something wrong?"
"As a matter of fact, yeah, there are a couple of things," she said, releasing the handle.
"Can I help?"
"I wish you could explain something." Scenes of Nada Swami and the foot bathing ceremony whirled through her mind. She couldn't understand why there were so many rules about gurus and celibacy. "Tonight when--it's just that you --" She tried to express it, but couldn't. She felt a tear rolling down her cheek and wiped it away with her hand.
"What's the matter? Is it something about me?"
"No, it's not you. It's something else." She noticed his kind glance and decided to change the subject.
"There is one thing," she said. "Why do you ignore me around the temple? Did you disown me?" Sandy crossed her arms and bit her lip.
"Oh, no. I haven't been ignoring you. As a matter of fact, I think about you all the time. Maybe too much."
"You do? But you treat me like I don't exist," she said, hesitating again and wiping her eyes and nose with a tissue. "Sorry. You probably think I'm stupid."
"No," he said, patting her gently on the shoulder.
"I think about you, too. You say you think about me, but then why do you ignore me?"
"I already told you, I'm a brahmacari. I'm not supposed to look at a woman, much less talk to one at the temple."
"But you just said you think about me."
"I know. I shouldn't even do that."
"You know what? I think that's ridiculous! You're not the monk type. It's the group. They're making you think that because of all their rules."
"Now wait a minute."
"Look, Jeff, what's wrong with a guy liking a girl and a girl liking a guy? Why do you have to follow all their rules so strictly?"
"Remember the other day, when we were talking in the alley? That was my ashram leader we saw walking up. Anyway, he told me to stay away from you."
"That's what I mean! It's not fair!"
"That's the way it is," Jeff said. "A brahmacari isn't supposed to talk to a woman. Not like that, anyway."
"Then why don't you leave? What's stopping you?"
"You don't understand, Sandy. It's my decision. Just like a family has rules, the devotees are my brothers and sisters and Nada Swami is like my father."
"I have a father, too, but we don't wash his feet."
"All right, that's enough," Jeff said. His voice sounded tired and strained. "Nada Swami is my spiritual father, my guru. It's a form of worship to wash his feet. It's authorized."
"Authorized by who?"
"By the Vedic scriptures," Jeff replied.
"All right, look, I don't want to debate religion here. I'm just telling you that they've got you all mixed up, that's all."
"No, I'm happy here," he said, appearing more composed. "What makes you think I'm mixed up? This is my home. I like it."
"You don't like me, too, then?"
"It's complicated. I'm not supposed to."
"Forget about 'supposed to.' What about how you really feel?"
Jeff put his hands to his forehead, covering his face. "It's my decision."
"But you're a human being," Sandy continued. "You can't go on denying your feelings forever. What if you meet someone you like? What will you do then? What if you want to talk to her and hold her?"
"Stop it! It's not what you think," Jeff said, still holding his forehead in his hands. Then he reached out and took Sandy's hand and held it in both hands. "Please don't get a bad impression of ICKW because of me."
Sandy's heart fluttered and she stared into Jeff's eyes.
"I do think of you too much," he said, pressing her hand in his and looking into her eyes.
"Don't worry about it, Jeff, I don't hold it against you."
"I can't help myself," Jeff said, putting his arm around her shoulders. "There's something special about you. I knew it the first time I saw you."
"I feel the same."
"You're right, there's nothing wrong with feeling like this," he said, kissing her gently. They sat for a few minutes embracing and looking into each other's eyes.
Jeff pulled away. "This is wrong. I shouldn't be doing this." He turned to the steering wheel.
"It was just a little kiss."
"No, we should go back."
"Let's stay a little longer."
"We're going back. It isn't you, it's me. I don't know what I'll do." He started the van and drove out of the parking lot. Without speaking he turned onto the street, toward the temple.
"What was it like for you at college? Did you ever have a girlfriend?"
"Yeah, I had a few girlfriends."
"How old are you?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Just wondering how much older you are than me." It was now getting dark and Sandy looked at the lights and the buildings as they drove down the street.
"I'm twenty," he said.
"Good, then you're only three years older than me."
"It isn't going to do you any good."
"Can you promise not tell anyone about this? Especially Prana or any of those women you paint with in the temple?"
"Why would I tell them?"
"I know how you women are," he said. "Seriously, though, I would get in a lot of trouble. Nada Swami is very strict about these things."
"I like you, you know," Sandy said.
"Oh, I have a problem now, don't I?"
"Just don't ignore me anymore."
"I'll think of you."
"Excuse me sir," Sandy said, approaching a man in a suit and tie.
"I'm in a hurry," the man said, holding up his hand.
Sandy backed away. She saw a woman in a yellow dress coming the other way and walked toward her. "Excuse me ma'am," she said.
"Leave me alone!" the woman said, walking past.
Sandy shoved the plastic daisy in her pocket and looked around. The other devotees had gone off in different directions leaving her alone near one of the airline waiting areas. She threw the book bag on the ground and several passers-by turned their heads to look, but she kept walking. Sandy dragged it on the floor and walked to one of the boarding areas. She found an empty seat near the window where she could hide from the ICKW women, and sat, slumped over, resting her forehead on her hand. How did I get myself into this? she wondered. Taking the wallet from the book bag she counted her collections. Oh, God! I've been doing this for more than an hour and I've only collected four dollars. She decided to tell her companions that she felt sick and wanted to go back to the temple. What would her mother say, anyway, if she knew Sandy had been at the airport soliciting? She thought she better not tell her mother or she might have to leave.
Downstairs, as she waited for the temple van, she recounted the events of the morning that led to her coming to the airport. During japa time Prana had informed her that Nada Swami wanted her to try going to the airport. He had asked for her by name. At first she had protested, but then remembered Jeff would be driving the van. It seemed like a good opportunity to see him, but unfortunately there were other women along and he talked to them the whole way, ignoring her. It was frustrating, but she felt she couldn't say anything, since it might give away their secret. She waited by the curb, looking out for the van, hoping that this time he would be alone.
"I thought you'd never come," she said when Jeff drove up.
"I thought you'd never go out on the marathon," Jeff said, smiling.
"Oh, sure, why not?" she said, fastening her seat belt.
"How was it?" Jeff smiled and looked into her eyes.
"Nada Swami will be so pleased. It's the highest form of preaching, you know. Nada Swami said these books can save all the conditioned souls in the world. He said that just seeing the books, even just touching the books purifies them. They get purified even if they just talk to a devotee."
Being with Jeff, listening to his voice, made the morning's frustration at the airport fade. She didn't listen to what he was saying and secretly hoped she would never have to collect donations at the airport again.
She interrupted his talk about Nada Swami, saying, "I don't think he's as great as you say. I mean, I don't think Nada Swami wants to save people. He just wants to get his money back for all those books he printed."
"Come on Sandy, Nada Swami is a great devotee!"
"Oh Jeff, Nada Swami is a businessman, you'll see."
"No, you'll see, he's a transcendental personality. You haven't been around him enough."
Plenty long enough, too much, in fact, Sandy thought to herself. But she decided not to badger Jeff about his guru now. It could break up their relationship for good.
"Okay, let's compromise," she said. "He's a transcendental businessman. I'm sure it will hit me soon."
"You'll see." Jeff sped up to merge onto the freeway, then added, "By the way, things back at the temple are picking up. The festival carts were towed in from Culver City last night and I think they're going to start painting them this afternoon. People were asking where you were."
"Did you tell them I was at the airport?"
"They weren't asking me. But anyway, you didn't miss anything except, well, Nada Swami has been walking around all day encouraging people to do service for the festival."
"Nada Swami! Nada Swami! If I say I like your guru will you promise to talk to me at the festival?"
"I'm talking to you right now," Jeff said.
"But when we get back to the temple you'll ignore me again?"
"I sort of have to. I'm sorry."
"See, Jeff, you should grow your hair out and tell them to leave you alone. Then you and I can move to Santa Barbara and escape together."
"But what if I don't want to escape?"
"Then I'll kidnap you."
"Don't joke about it," Jeff said. "My mother tried that once for real."
"Okay, then I won't kidnap you, I'll just lure you away gradually."
When Jeff dropped her off at the temple, Sandy changed into her work clothes and went to the parking lot to see the parade carts. They were like nothing she expected. They were huge. The wheels alone were six feet tall! It would take a lot of work to repaint them, even with the whole crew working overtime. She looked over the carts again. The giant wheels supported a platform with railings, and above that was a spire. They would only have to paint the wheels and the main deck, since seamstresses at the temple were preparing silken covers for the spires. While the men finished washing them down, Sandy and the other women set up their painting supplies. She spent the rest of the day painting the carts and thinking about her encounter with Jeff.
At the morning services the next day, Nada Swami stood at the front, right before the altar. Then he retired to his guru throne for his own worship. All the men faced him, chanting his name, "Nada Swami, Nada Swami," to a familiar chanting tune. While the ceremony continued they approached him one at a time to drop flower petals on his feet. After dropping the flowers, the men bowed down at the foot of his throne. All the while this was going on, a priest performed a worship ceremony, offering Nada Swami incense, candles, and other sacred items, fanning him, and so on. Sandy watched from the balcony in disbelief. Nada Swami rarely showed up for the morning service, but when he did, he always received this god-like worship. The chanting continued. When all the men were finished offering their flowers, the women lined up. Each took a handful of flower petals from a silver tray and filed past the guru, adding them to the pile already on his feet.
Sandy didn't think Nada Swami deserved flower petals on his feet, but since everyone else was doing it, she lined up too. The chanting was loud and fast and the men were now facing toward the main altar. She took a handful of flowers and waited her turn. The guru had a placid smile on his face, his eyes barely opened, as the women honored him with their flowers. He swayed to the music, seated on his velvet pillow, oblivious to the offerings. Sandy looked straight at him when she dropped her flowers, but he continued playing his cymbals, unaware. I wonder what Jeff sees in him? she thought.
At the end of the service, with a swish of saffron silk, Nada Swami exited the building, followed by his male devotees. Sandy watched as he crossed the street and slipped into his office. This time, instead of disappearing, he reemerged on his terrace. All the men stayed, gathered on the cement steps and sidewalk. Only a thick hedge separated them from the guru. The guru placed his bead bag on his hand and walked back and forth on the terrace chanting loudly and shaking the bag. All the men put their hands in their bead bags and imitated his loud chanting. The women watched from the temple side of the street, also chanting on their beads. Sandy stood with the women, noting how intently all the devotees watched their guru, as if studying his every gesture.
"Chant louder!" the guru commanded.
Everyone seemed mesmerized by his presence and continued chanting.
"Where is Jeff Miller?" the guru shouted. "Bring him here."
One of the men took off in search of Jeff. Everyone else continued chanting. Jeff returned dressed in his jeans and orange T-shirt, his bead bag hanging from his neck.
"Where were you this morning?" the guru demanded.
"Loading the book van."
"You missed everything."
"I'm sorry, Your Divine Grace," Jeff replied.
"Sense gratification," the guru snapped.
Jeff lowered his head.
"Now get going, you have a lot of work to do."
"Yes, Your Divine Grace." Jeff bowed down flat on the sidewalk and then stood and looked at Nada Swami for a moment.
"Well, get going."
Jeff ran down the driveway.
"That goes for the rest of you too. It's time for everyone get to work. We have a festival coming up." The guru gazed over the devotees a moment before turning sharply to go inside. The chanting stopped and everyone disbursed.
Sandy felt dazed and self-conscious after the incident and wondered if it had anything to do with her. Could Nada Swami somehow know about her relationship with Jeff? She couldn't imagine how, since she had not told anyone and was sure Jeff had not, either. Could he be angry just because Jeff had missed his worship ceremony? She followed the other women up to the breakfast room and spotted Prana.
"I have a question for you," she said, sitting down. "Were you just out there?"
"No, I've been here," Prana said. "Why?"
"Nada Swami was just outside and he, well, it seemed too harsh. He called one of the men over and yelled at him for nothing."
"Transcendental anger," Prana said, peeling an orange. "When the guru is angry, that means Krishna is angry; when the guru smiles, that means Krishna is pleased."
"Oh? But this was material anger."
"He can be pretty intense, I know," Prana said. "The guru is soft like a rose and hard like a thunderbolt."
"But I can't see any reason why he would be so mean."
"Did I ever tell you the first time I met Nada Swami?" Prana asked. She continued peeling her orange, looking at it, smiling.
"When Nada Swami first came to the community his job was to organize the book distribution," Prana began. "Book distribution was the main thing going on and I was just a lowly temple devotee, taking care of the deities. A festival was coming up and I needed people to help decorate, so I dared to ask one of his book distributors to stay back from the airport to help me. Well, I guess that was the wrong thing to do because he was having a marathon too. He didn't even know who I was, at least he had never spoken to me.
"Anyway, that afternoon I was walking down the street, right out there," Prana gestured toward the street where the incident had just taken place. "He drove by in a car and yelled out, 'Hey Mother Prana! Don't you ever, ever try to take one of my girls away from the airport again!' "
"He yelled at you like that?" Sandy asked.
"Yes! And I was thrilled! At that moment I knew I wanted to work for him."
"Because no one had ever yelled at me like that before!"
"He yelled at you, so you wanted to work for him?" Sandy tried to share Prana's enthusiasm for the memory.
"Yes. He was so powerful."
"Does he still yell at you?" Sandy asked, horrified.
"Oh, yes, all the time. But that's because I always do stupid things."
"Does he yell at everyone?"
"Not everyone," Prana said. "He would only yell at an advanced devotee. He can judge who's ready for it and who isn't. It's the guru's mercy that he corrects his disciples. The guru is supposed to train the disciple and he uses the rod of chastisement to do it. He's not really angry, it's transcendental anger to train the disciple."
"Hmmm," Sandy said, contemplating. "But this incident I just saw, just outside here. That seemed different because he seemed to be mad, really mad about something."
"Who was it?" Prana asked.
"It was Jeff Miller, the man who drives the shuttle."
"Oh him, well he's a nonsense."
Sandy bit her lip, not wanting to defend Jeff, for fear of making things obvious. "A nonsense?"
"Well, he tries, but he's been around for more than a year now and still isn't initiated."
Sandy couldn't believe Prana's cold judgment of Jeff, but she bit her lip and didn't say anything.
"People who want to get initiated must learn to control their senses," Prana continued. "There's a lot to do and everyone must be willing to work hard. Nada Swami doesn't want to initiate people who are just going to fall down. He has enough nonsense disciples already."
Could Prana possibly know about her and Jeff? Sandy wondered. Maybe she and Nada Swami could somehow tell. No, no that's impossible, she assured herself. She ate her oatmeal quickly, without asking any more questions.
"I heard you went to the airport yesterday," Prana said. "How did you like it?"
"I didn't do too well," Sandy admitted. "I think I should stay here and work on the carts."
"At least you tried," Prana said.
Sandy nodded. But I'll never do it again, she thought.
Sandy climbed the stepladder with her paint and brush and began to carefully trace over the Indian designs on the cart's railings. With each stroke she reviewed the recent events. She wondered how Jeff must feel after Nada Swami's tantrum. Did he take it as a lesson, as Prana suggested, or was he upset by it? Sandy wondered if Krishna really was showing some displeasure through Nada Swami. No, she concluded. There's nothing wrong with what Jeff did. It must be that Nada Swami has a bad temper. She continued painting, trying to imagine why all the people in the temple were so in love with Nada Swami.
Throughout the day Nada Swami's personal driver brought VIP visitors back from the airport in the Mercedes. Gurus were arriving from all over America and one from Australia had come, according to some of the other women. Ordinary devotees were also arriving by car from other parts of the country; the temple street was clogged with traffic. The sidewalks were filled with devotees she had never seen before. Where would they all sleep? she wondered, amazed that there were so many people in the organization.
Preparations for the festival were in full swing. To accommodate the massive festival cooking projects, the kitchen parking lot had been cordoned off and covered with a colorful tent. Devotee-cooks stirred giant kettles, which were set up on portable gas stoves. Other workers loaded the food into cardboard barrels and wheeled them onto a refrigerator truck, which would later carry all the food to the festival site. Inside the temple, visitors washed and cut potatoes.
Sandy noticed an animal trailer pull up and unload a live elephant in front of one of the temple bungalows. She learned from the others that this elephant would lead the parade, so it had been brought there for a press conference. Late in the day Sandy observed men with television cameras and boom mikes walking around the community. Nada Swami followed them, talking to a woman reporter.
Nada Swami seemed to be everywhere all day, Sandy noticed, shouting out orders to anyone who looked idle. Whenever he came into the parking lot where she was painting, she got up on a ladder so he wouldn't talk to her. She could hear his shrill voice, though, which seemed to carry for quite a distance. Later in the day she saw him walking around with an entourage that included some of the visiting ICKW gurus.
The next morning when she went to the temple for the morning program she noticed seven thrones about the same height as Nada Swami's. Those must be for the visiting gurus, she realized. During one part of the service, all the gurus sat on their seats or honor and accepted flower petal offerings from the devotees. Sandy didn't participate this time, since the temple was crowded and the flower queue was long. Besides, she didn't know any of these men and felt a little embarrassed about putting flowers on their feet. The chanting intensified as Sandy slipped out the door. There were many more devotees outside; some chanting, some talking or bowing down to one another.
Considering that the festival was the next day, Sandy decided to get out to the parking lot early to work on the carts. There still seemed to be so much work to do. Some of the others artists had the same idea, so they worked together through the morning without stopping for breakfast. Seamstresses had finished the silk canopies and men were stretching them over the spires. There wasn't much time, but Sandy hoped everything would be ready for the next day. One of the women on the crew had to spend most of her time rounding up volunteers from among the visitors to string flower garlands. That left all the more work for the few artists that remained. Sandy worked steadily, sometimes thinking of Jeff, but also absorbed in her work. She remembered his promise that they could meet at the festival.
On the morning of the festival, some of the devotees went to the pre-dawn services as usual, but the artists and other volunteers gathered at the curb to catch a ride out to the parade site. Sandy boarded a van with the rest of the painting crew. They were going to finish decorating the carts, which had been towed to the beach in the middle of the night. The first rays of sun were just lighting the eastern skyline when the van pulled into the Santa Monica Beach parking lot. Sandy got out and stared for a moment at the three carts, which stood poised just at the edge of the sand, awaiting the parade. They seemed to loom above the flat and placid Pacific Ocean, their red and blue silk canopies rippling in the breeze. Sandy felt a rush of pride at seeing the freshly painted carts. All was still except for the sound of the canopies and the ocean waves. In the morning's peace, Sandy couldn't believe that in just six hours hundreds of devotees and spectators would gather there for the parade.
The women unloaded decorations and crates of flower garlands, along with tools, ladders, staplers, ribbons, and tape from a flatbed truck. They spent the rest of the morning applying flower garlands, colored streamers, and helium balloons to the carts.
Breakfast arrived from the temple in a station wagon at 9:30 A.M. After eating, Sandy fell asleep in the back of a car.
Hundreds of people now filled the parking lot and the elephants headed the parade. Sandy awoke to the sound of conch shells blowing, marking the start of the parade. The carts were stunning and fully decorated: the first one in yellow, the second in red, and the third one in blue. The elephants were also decorated with tempera paint flowers across their sides and backs and colorful decorations around their eyes, trunks, and ears. Each elephant carried a rider dressed in a silk costume.
The carts were designed to move by human power. At the front of each cart were two thick ropes, which were to be pulled by twenty devotees on each rope. Under the platforms of the carts two men sat in plastic bucket seats to control the steering and brakes. Additional braking power could be obtained by pulling on ropes tied to the back. Anyone can pull, so Sandy took her place on one of the ropes of the middle cart. At exactly noon, priests aboard each cart blew conch shells to signal the beginning of the parade. The elephants started down the boardwalk, followed by the three carts and about a hundred and fifty chanting devotees.
Sandy let her sari fall off her head and down across her back, since there was no way she could hold the rope and her sari at the same time. She smiled at the onlookers, who lined the boardwalk. Many had cameras or video recorders to photograph the procession. Still pulling the rope and chanting along with the others, Sandy turned to admire the carts. They seemed to rock back and forth as they moved along; their silk canopies rippled and bumped. Devotees on board threw flowers and bags of peanuts to the crowd.
The parade and the chanting continued for over an hour, rolling steadily down the boardwalk. Sandy grew tired of pulling the rope and decided to walk at the front with the elephants. She dropped the rope and other people's hands filled in the slack. She walked on the sand to catch up with the beginning of the parade and walked with the elephants the rest of the way. As the procession poured into Venice Beach she noticed the tops of the festival tents in the distance. The boardwalk was wider now and the crowd enormous. As far back as she could see there were people, now thousands of them, following the parade. The devotees were in and among the carts, but there were now hundreds of beach-goers dancing and following the carts.
The parade of people poured into the festival site, where a crowd was gathered. On the stage, musicians were playing Krishna music through an electronic sound system with six-foot-high speakers. While the parade merged into the festival crowd, the carts were pulled around to the far side of the stage. Some of the lead chanters from the parade climbed onto the stage and began chanting through the microphones, joining the musicians who were already there. The chanting was loud and intense, and it had a rock 'n roll beat because the some of musicians were playing electric guitars. There were now hundreds of people dancing. Sandy danced too, enjoying the crowd, the devotees, the blue, cloudless sky, and the warm sunshine.
When the chanting ended, the atmosphere became still. Some in the audience sat down on the grass, while others remained standing. Nada Swami and the visiting gurus walked onto the stage. Devotees seated them in folding chairs and brought a microphone to the center of the stage. Nada Swami stood at the mike and began speaking.
"Welcome to our Ratha-yatra festival, we're very glad you could come. This is an ancient festival from India."
Nada Swami continued, but Sandy slipped away to look around the festival site, which extended across a grassy park area of the Venice Beach Pavilion. Besides the main stage, there were another twenty-five booths where devotees sold refreshments, books, and religious paraphernalia. There were tents and displays, all bearing signs the painting crew had worked on the previous month. Sandy recognized some signs she had painted, "Transcendental Refreshments," "Sights and Sounds of India," "India Boutique," and others. The sun blazed down on the crowded festival. Sandy bought a slice of watermelon and ate it as she walked around. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jeff coming out of a tent. He seemed to be heading away from the festival site, toward the parking lot. She followed him.
"Hey, Jeff," she said, catching up with him just outside the festival perimeters.
"There you are, stranger," he said. "I was looking for you."
"You promised we could spend some time together, remember?"
"So I did."
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere," he replied. "I helped all morning setting up the tents and I'm off now. I don't have to be anywhere until tonight when we break them down."
Sandy walked with him down the street.
"Hey, I'll buy you a soda," he said, pointing to a liquor store.
They walked along together, sipping their drinks.
"Where do you want to go?" Jeff asked. "I don't think it's right for us to walk around together, since we're dressed in our devotee clothes, and all."
"Do you have anywhere in mind?"
"My van's parked nearby," Jeff said. "We could drive around or something. Do you have to be anywhere soon?"
Sandy and Jeff drove north, up the coast, with the windows rolled down, the sun shining on their faces. They drove from Venice to Santa Monica, where the parade started, then further north, into Malibu.
"Hey, I just remembered, I know a neat place," Jeff said, turning off on Malibu Canyon Road. He started through the canyon.
"I didn't know there was a road like this in L.A.," Sandy said, observing the tree-covered hillsides.
"We're not in L.A. anymore," he said. "We're about a quarter of the way to Santa Barbara now." He pulled off the main road onto a dirt road and soon brought the van to rest on a hilltop.
"Let's get out and take a look," he said.
From the plateau they could see a panorama of ocean, canyon, and trees, that stretched almost three hundred and sixty degrees around. Jeff slid the door of the van open and they sat on the carpeted floor. A breeze blew across the top of the mountain, making it seem cooler.
"Sure was a nice festival," Sandy said.
"Sure was," Jeff said. They sat for a few more moments.
"Sure is beautiful up here," Sandy said.
They sat quietly, looking at the ocean and feeling the wind blowing against their skin.
"Now that we're all the way up here, what do you want to do?" Sandy asked.
"I don't know, what do you want to do?"
"Oh, what day is this? I just remembered something," Sandy said. "It's my birthday. I'm eighteen today!"
"Happy birthday," Jeff said. "I wish I had known."
"I forgot myself. How stupid. Oh, I told my parents I would call them today. What should I do?"
"Don't worry, I'll drive you to a telephone on the way back."
Sandy smiled, looking into Jeff's eyes. "Can you believe I forgot?"
"No, I think you just wanted to surprise me. Happy birthday."
"How about a birthday kiss?"
Jeff put his hands on her shoulders and lightly kissed her. She put her arms around him and tried to pull him closer. He pulled back.
"What's the matter?"
"We shouldn't," he said. "You--it doesn't matter, but me--it matters."
"What is it, the saffron cloth thing again? What difference does it make? We're all the way out here."
Jeff stood up and looked over the landscape again, with his back to Sandy. A hawk soared over the canyon, diving and gliding. He watched its flight while Sandy sat in the van.
"We should go back. This isn't right," Jeff said, turning to Sandy.
"Let's stay, oh please. It's my birthday. We don't have to do anything, just talk."
"That's okay with you?"
"Of course, Jeff, come on. I don't even know you that well."
"I guess I don't trust myself," he said, sitting next to her again.
"You're brainwashed, you know," Sandy kidded. "You don't have to worry about that stuff. We women aren't as bad as they make us out to be."
"Oh, Sandy, come on, don't criticize something you don't know anything about." Jeff stopped for a moment, then added, "This is my life. Don't try to tell me how to run it."
"How come you have to be celibate? Who decides?"
"A man decides for himself. Look at the swamis, like Nada Swami. A swami takes a vow to never have sexual intercourse with a woman for the rest of his life."
"I know and I think they're nuts," Sandy said. "Some of those men don't look over twenty-five years old. How are they going to go for the rest of their lives completely celibate?"
"It's their decision. Swamis take a vow for life, but a brahmacari can later become a householder," Jeff continued. "I have to stay brahmacari at least until I get initiated, because Nada Swami wants it that way. Also, I want it that way, I guess. But maybe after I'm initiated I'll get married; I'll put on white." He looked at Sandy, smiling.
"We're not talking about getting married, are we?" Sandy asked. "That's a long way off for me."
"But there's no way we can associate otherwise."
"Can't we just get to know each other? It still doesn't make sense to me. You're a free person. This is a free country, isn't it?"
"Sandy! Oh, God, Sandy. Don't do this to me. I don't know what to do. Everything was fine until you came along. You're eighteen now. Why don't you forget school and just stay in the temple? After I get initiated we can get married."
"But I'm too young." Sandy lowered her head to rest on Jeff's shoulder.
Jeff put his hand on her head.
"I have another idea," she said. "You leave the temple and come with me to Santa Barbara. We can get an apartment together and both go to school. That way we can get to know each other before we get married."
"How could I?" he asked. "First of all I don't have the money and second, well, no, most important, how could I leave the temple?"
"Just leave. Nothing's stopping you."
"But I told you already, it's my family. It's my home. I don't want to leave. I've lived here more than a year. My friends, my work, my guru, everything is here."
"Nada Swami is a creep. What about when he yelled at you the other day? Didn't that make you mad?"
"No, of course not. I deserved it, besides I know he wasn't really mad. He's my guru, my father. I never had a real father and I need Nada Swami."
"You worship him on a throne, you throw flowers on his feet. That's not what I call a father."
"It's not a throne. It's a vyasasana."
"I don't care what it is. It looks like a throne to me. Anyway, you worship him and then he yells at you. And you still think he's your father? He's not your father. Can't you see that?"
"Stop right there," Jeff said, pushing Sandy away. "I don't have to break my vows to satisfy a lusty little teenager. Nada Swami is right: women are the incarnation of lust. It says in the scriptures that women are ten times lustier than men. You're just maya in disguise trying to make me fall down. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
His words echoed in the silence of the hilltop. Sandy felt tears starting to form in her eyes. Jeff turned toward the mountains as if searching the horizon for a reply.
Sandy started to weep slightly. "They've ruined you!" she shouted. "You're brainwashed. You're cruel. I hate you!"
Jeff lay back on the floor of the van and clenched his fists together over his face. "I'm sorry," he said in a vague, quiet tone.
"I didn't start this, you know. I didn't drive us out to this place and park here. It wasn't my idea to come here. I just wanted to talk. And I still do just want to talk. I wasn't trying to make you fall down. I'm not sure I even know what that means."
Jeff rolled onto his stomach and then sat up. He stared down at his Indian shirt and shook his head.
"It's me, I know," he said. "It's been a constant struggle for me being in the van with the women. They talk to me every day and I'm around women all the time. Me wearing saffron is a joke. It's not Nada Swami. He knows what's in my heart, he can tell. That's why he always has to chastise me. He knows I'm no brahmacari. I can't blame it on you. You're innocent. It's me, I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have brought us here. Please forgive me."
"It's okay with me that you brought us here. We were just driving around, weren't we? There's nothing wrong with that."
"I had it all planned," Jeff said. "I brought you here because I wanted be alone with you to kiss you. I admit it. Okay, I'm fallen."
Sandy reached for Jeff's hand, smiling, and he pulled her down to him. Then he wrapped his arms around her.
"I don't agree with all the rules," Jeff said. "I don't know what I'm doing. Can you forgive me?"
"It's okay," Sandy whispered. "It's brainwashing for fanatics. There's nothing wrong with you."
"Would you consider marrying me?" Jeff asked, still holding her.
"I don't know. I still think I'm too young."
"When you get older?"
"Maybe, but I don't know where I'll be."
"If we still know each other, then would you?"
"Yes," she said.
"You're the only woman I've kissed since I've been here. I think I love you."
"Can I kiss you again? Then we'll go back?"
"I don't want to make you break your principles."
"No, no, I won't. I don't want too. I just want to hold you, to kiss you a little bit longer. I've wanted to do this since I met you. Please?"
"Here are the address labels," Prana said, entering her office after a brief trip to the copy machine. Just put one label in the middle of each envelope and try to keep them in order. I'm going back to the copy machine and will be gone for about an hour. Then we can get these together and get all the packets ready to mail." Prana tucked the originals of the finished newsletter under her arm and left for the warehouse again.
Sandy sat down at the folding table and looked at the box of envelopes and pages of label stickers. She sighed. Not as much fun as working on a festival, she thought. Nevertheless, it was something to do. She peeled off the first label and stuck it squarely in the middle of the first envelope. She read the label, "ICKW, P.O. Box 1100, Durban, South Africa 3680." ICKW, she thought to herself. It sounds like some mysterious corporation, not a spiritual group. She tried to imagine what the ICKW temple in South Africa was like. The next label was for an ICKW temple in Kenya, then Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. She skimmed through the sheets and noted there were labels for India, Europe, Latin America, Australia and the South Seas, as well as North America. Man, these guys are taking over the world, she mused as she put the sheets back in order and continued preparing the envelopes.
In the days since the festival Sandy had been helping around the office. Nada Swami had been out of town, but was due to come back the next day. She felt comfortable in the office with him gone, but worried what it might be like when he returned. The alternative, street chanting with the other new devotees, would be worse because it was the hottest part of summer. Besides, she wasn't a real Krishna Center devotee and didn't feel right representing herself as one on the street.
She hadn't spoken to Jeff since the day of the festival. In some ways she felt she was the one who had let the relationship die down. But then it was he who always seemed to ignore her. Sometimes he came to the morning service, but usually not. In the morning, when he picked up the airport devotees, she would try to be around. But there was no way she could talk to him. Too many people around. Sandy wished she had respected his spiritual principles and felt guilty for allowing him to kiss her. She felt confused about what the relationship was, since he had not given any indication. In view of the circumstances, she thought it best to try to forget about him.
"Can you come out to the car and help me carry something?" Prana asked, poking her head in the front door.
Sandy put the labels down and followed Prana to the driveway. There were two cartons of paper, so they each took one. "I'm almost finished with the labels," Sandy said. "I never realized how many ICKW temples there are."
"I do this mailing once a month, and believe me, they're out there." Prana cleared the table and set out six piles of paper to collate. "I'll hand you the finished newsletter, then you staple the corner and fold it in half, okay?"
"Doesn't this take you forever by yourself?"
"I always manage to get help," Prana said. She worked quickly, her slender fingers snapping up one page at a time and then tapping the finished newsletter on the table before handing it to Sandy.
"You remind me of my little sister," Prana said. "Only she died in July, just before you came here."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"I went to her funeral and saw my mother and father. They took it pretty hard."
"I didn't realize."
"Of course everything is temporary in this material world. You can't hang onto anything, or anyone, forever. But try to tell my parents that." Prana was silent a few moments and then added, "My sister didn't have to die. She was a good kid, basically; just hung out with the wrong crowd. One more reason to surrender to Krishna and live in a temple, for me. The world is a dangerous place."
Sandy stapled another newsletter. "But there are good things about it, too."
"Temporary," Prana said, handing her a newsletter.
"Temporarily good then," Sandy said.
"People risk their lives, they even kill, just for some temporary sense gratification. There's a story of an old yogi who lived in the heavenly planets. He had a life span of one hundred thousand years, but he never built himself a house. He would sit outside in the rain and the scorching heat. Then one day a man came up and asked the yogi why he didn't build a shelter. And you know what he said?"
"He said he didn't need a shelter because life is temporary. His life span was a hundred thousand years and he didn't even want to build a shelter! Here we are with our one hundred years at most and so worried about getting our wealth, our sense gratification."
"You have to try to be happy, though, don't you?"
"No. The key to a good life isn't sense gratification, it's serving God. If we can just do some little service for God during our wretched lifetime, then everything is perfect."
"Sounds kind of depressing. What if God wants us to be happy?" Sandy asked. She noted Prana's tense, quick movements and wished she could say something to comfort her. God must want people to be happy, Sandy thought, but devotees seem so worried all the time.
"We're not trying for our own happiness," Prana continued. "We may become happy in the process of serving Krishna, but we basically just want God's happiness." She put together the last newsletter and Sandy stapled it.
"Good, now let's put one in each envelope. Try to keep them in order so I can separate them into zones before I put the postage on."
"Got it," Sandy said. She wondered where in the scriptures Krishna said people couldn't be happy just for happiness' sake. "If people don't feel happy," Sandy said, "and if believing in God doesn't make them happy, then what's the point of believing in God?"
"A pure devotee is always happy because he is in complete harmony with God's will," Prana said. "But for some devotees, who are still influenced by material desires, sometimes they aren't happy because they want things God doesn't want them to have. The best they can hope for is that God will let them do some service anyway."
"What if someone is forced to do something they wouldn't ordinarily have done? Would God forgive that person?"
"God will forgive him if he doesn't slip and do it again. There's a reason for everything. Sometimes a sinful reaction is good because it's a lesson. We can never know what God's purpose is."
Sandy felt uneasy, imagining again that Prana somehow knew about her and Jeff. She wanted to change the subject to a more philosophical key.
"Then what good does prayer do?" she asked.
"We should pray for pure devotional service," Prana said. "Like I said, maybe God puts a devotee into suffering to teach him a lesson, so we shouldn't pray to God to take away our problems. And we especially shouldn't pray to him for material things."
"It sounds kind of hopeless."
"No, not at all," Prana said, folding newsletters.
"Can I ask you something else?" Sandy continued. "How come at the temple the men always stand at the front and the women have to stand separate, at the back or off to the side?"
"These women's bodies were created to be a temptation to men. If men and the women mingle together there's sure to be sex-life. Have you heard the story about fire and butter? Men are like butter--they can be strong and firm, but when you put them near fire they melt. Woman is the fire. That's why women have to stay at the back, where the men can't look at them and become lusty."
Sandy stuffed newsletters, listening to Prana's preaching, and concluded there was no way Prana could know about her and Jeff. She wondered if Prana had ever been young and in love. Maybe something happened that was disappointing, that turned her toward the hereafter.
There was no office work for Sandy the next day, since Prana had to get ready for Nada Swami's return. Instead she worked in the kitchen chopping vegetables. That evening there was going to be a meeting of all Nada Swami's disciples and future disciples. Sandy didn't see any reason to attend, but Prana insisted that she would be welcome and should go. Sandy realized it would be an opportunity to see Jeff, even if just the back of his head. At about five o'clock Sandy left the kitchen to shower and change into her sari.
Prana's office was overflowing with people by the time Sandy arrived. The wooden desk and other furniture had been removed and replaced with a single rocking chair for Nada Swami. Everyone else sat on the bare, slate floor. Sandy squeezed her way in and sat down against the back wall. A vague feeling of indignation swept over her because, although this had been her territory for the last several days, she now had to share it with dozens of devotees and sit on the floor in a crowded little corner of the room.
At seven o'clock some of the men started chanting and everyone joined in. At 7:30 Nada Swami made his entrance from a door behind the rocking chair. He was dressed in freshly pressed robes and had a broad smile on his face. His eyes seemed to sparkle as he looked around the room at all his disciples and future disciples. The chanting stopped and everyone bowed down, not easy to do in the crowded room, Sandy noticed. The guru sat majestically in his rocking chair, as the proud lord of these men and women. Without a word he opened a velvet bag, took out a pair of brass cymbals, and started tapping them together. Then he led the chanting for another fifteen minutes. When he stopped everyone bowed down again. Nada Swami looked around the room, as if counting heads.
"Where's Aaron? And Jeff?" he asked. "Somebody go get them. This is important because we're going to talk about initiation, something those two might be interested in hearing." His voice seemed a bit sarcastic. "Quickly! Someone go find them!"
One of the men stood up and attempted to walk out, stepping through the crowded room. The women leaned and pushed to clear a path.
"Before we begin, does anyone have any questions?" Nada Swami said. No one raised their hand. "Then just let me just congratulate you all on the greatest Ratha-yatra festival this community has ever put on. Also, to those of you who go out on book distribution: I want you to work extra hard this week as we continue to pay for the festival. Once again, the festival did not make a profit. Although, for next year, we are working on a transcendental plan to change things in this regard." He chuckled. There was a low chuckle among the disciples.
Jeff walked in with the other two men, stepping through a path cleared by the women. They sat down near Nada Swami's rocking chair and bowed down.
"Jeff, I'm sorry you weren't here. We've been talking about something you should be interested in."
Jeff looked up at Nada Swami and quietly apologized.
"All of you should be quite interested, I hope," Nada Swami continued. "Now that the festival is over and things have settled back to normal, we are planning an initiation. I want to speak tonight about what that means." Nada Swami straightened his glasses and rocked in his chair. He took a sip of water from a silver cup and then replaced it on the oak lamp table next to his rocking chair.
"Initiation means," he said, clearing his throat. " 'I am dedicating my life to my guru.' It means 'I am totally sold out, like a sold-out animal. I will do anything to please my guru, no matter what he asks, because he is the representative of Krishna. Wherever my guru goes, that's where I want to be. Even if my guru takes birth after birth, I want to be there with him. Because my guru is serving God. And if I am with my guru I will be serving God, too.' That's the meaning of initiation."
Sandy looked down, playing with her hair, wishing Nada Swami had not fished Jeff out to come to the meeting.
"Accepting initiation means, 'I am going to serve my guru no matter what the inconvenience,' it means, 'There is nothing I won't do for my guru, because my guru is the representative of the Supreme Powerful Lord. He draws his intelligence from the Supreme Powerful Lord and communicates it to me. I accept my guru as my higher intelligence.' That's what it means to take initiation. It means divine guidance. Assurance of attaining the goal of life. And what is that goal? That goal is the most important goal for the living being. That goal is eternal salvation, an eternal place at the lotus feet of the Lord."
Jeff sat quietly, right at Nada Swami's feet, looking up to behold his guru. He's soaking it in, Sandy thought. She wanted to leave the room, but couldn't. She wanted to raise her hand and ask Nada Swami if he believed in individual freedom, but didn't. Why can't people just be with God on their own? she wondered. Why do they need some guy from Brooklyn to tell them how to get next to God?
"The guru is like the boat that takes us to the other side of the material ocean," Nada Swami continued. "Without the boat of the guru we are lost, sinking until we drown. But then you might ask, 'Where has this boat come from?' and it is not the guru's boat. It is the guru's guru's boat. So when you accept me as your guru, it is not me who takes you to the other side, it is my guru, Swamiji. He is our real source of strength. But by the power of disciplic succession, Swamiji's strength, Swamiji's knowledge, Swamiji's love for Krishna is still available to you today. Even though Swamiji has left the planet."
The devotees murmured and breathed sighs of ecstasy. Nada Swami slowed his speech as he let the impact sink in. Then he thundered: "But you have to take advantage! That boat is not available unless you take full advantage! The opportunity to take initiation from someone empowered by such a divine personality as Swamiji is very rare. Those who pass up this opportunity may not get another chance for billions and billions of births. It is that rare." He stopped again and glanced around at the disciples. They all looked at him eagerly.
"What kind of a person would miss this opportunity?" he asked in a low voice. "Only a fool!" he shouted. He looked directly at Sandy and it startled her. She stopped playing with her hair and stared back at him. Then he continued looking about at the others.
"So let us take it to heart that we have made the right decision to give Krishna's representative full control of our lives, guiding us, protecting us, helping us serve God."
A slight murmur broke out as many devotees expressed their agreement.
"Are there any questions?"
"Yes, Your Divine Grace," a young man in the front said. "What if a devotee takes initiation and tries his best to follow all the regulative principles, but falls down?"
"The question is," Nada Swami repeated, " 'What if someone is foolish enough to take initiation and not fulfill his vows.' The answer is simple: that person is a dog. Only a dog would do such a thing. When you get initiated you vow to do four things. You vow to abstain from meat eating, first. You vow to abstain from intoxication and gambling. And you vow to abstain from illicit sex-life. And what is that illicit sex-life? Any sex outside of procreation, with your legally married spouse. Only a dog would have illicit sex-life and only a dog would bark, 'Yes my guru, I accept these vows,' but then not act upon them. It is simply a dog's barking, and nothing more. Sex-life means 'dog life.' The dog has sex on the street, the human has sex in a comfortable apartment; that's the only difference. Any sense gratification will bind you to the material world, like a dog is bound to its master on a leash."
When he paused, several more devotees raised their hands. "Your Divine Grace, doesn't the spiritual master have to accept the karma of the fallen disciple?"
"Yes, that's correct," Nada Swami continued. "The dog-like disciples make their spiritual master suffer for their sins. Do not make your spiritual master suffer."
Another man raised his hand. "Your Divine Grace, what if someone wants to take initiation, but they aren't sure if they're ready?"
"Just hear," Nada Swami answered. "Just sit by the feet of your spiritual master and hear from him. When you have heard--really heard--then you will know it is time to take initiation."
Sandy raised her hand, wanting to test him, "Does Krishna want us to be happy?"
"I want you to be happy and Krishna wants you to be happy a million times more than me." He paused for a moment and smiled like a child. "The problem is that you can't be happy in this material world. You may get some happiness, but then it is taken away. You get some security, but then it is taken away. You get some love, but then you have to leave it. Your real happiness must come from within, from the spiritual realm. And that is where the spiritual master will lead you, to eternal happiness."
Other devotees continued asking questions, but Sandy didn't pay attention. Her heart pounded and her hands shook. She thought about his words over and over, trying to find fault. She felt dizzy, like she might faint, but no longer cared about leaving the room. At the end of the meeting the chanting started again and someone brought a tray of sugar cookies to the guru's side. One by one each devotee walked up and took a cookie from the guru's hand. It seemed to Sandy like a communion. When she went up to accept a cookie, Nada Swami smiled at her.
"How do you feel about organizing closets?" Prana asked. She led Sandy to a supply closet in the office hallway, behind the kitchen. "This one will take you all day."
Sandy looked over the disorganized mess of boxes, paper, file folders, books, and jars containing push pins, coins, paper clips, rubber bands, and other miscellaneous items. "All day? This could take a week," she said. "It must have taken at least six years to get this way."
"It's all yours, your mission if you should decide to accept it," Prana said. "Just put everything in order and ask me before you throw anything away. I'll be out front if you have any questions."
Sandy surveyed the closet once more and started removing things from the top shelf. What a collection of junk, she thought. She started to arrange things in piles along the wall. A lot of it was simply trash. At mid-day she and Prana went to lunch and came back around one o'clock. Within a few hours she felt she was starting to make progress. She immersed herself in pens, stamp pads, envelopes, and keys that probably were obsolete. The shelves were dusty, so she washed them with a soapy rag from the kitchen.
She knew it would happen sooner or later: she heard Nada Swami enter the front room. She stopped working for a moment to see if she could catch any bit of the conversation. Nada Swami asked Prana about phone messages and told her he was going to take a nap; to hold all calls. Then she heard footsteps coming her way. He stopped in the kitchen and she could hear him rummaging around in the refrigerator. Then his footsteps started coming toward her. She looked around at the piles on the floor. Suddenly he was right there, looking at her.
"Oh, hello," he said. "Can I get through here, what is all this?"
"This is your closet," she said.
"I know it's my closet, but what's all the stuff doing out here on the floor?"
"I'm cleaning it."
"Oh, that's very nice. But how am I supposed to get through?"
"Step over?" Sandy said, looking at the piles, hoping it would not be an impossible request.
Nada Swami looked at her and smiled. "I guess that's what one must do if the closets are really in need of cleaning." He looked at the hall again, calculating his path.
"Excuse me, sir, but I'd like to tell you I enjoyed the festival a last week," Sandy said.
"Me too. Quite impressive, isn't it?"
"I would like to come back next year."
"You won't be staying with us?"
"No, I have to go to college. I'll be leaving in two weeks."
"What a shame. I hope you've enjoyed your stay. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to try to make my way through here." He hesitated and smiled, and then stepped through the obstacles on the floor. Sandy watched as he turned into his bedroom and closed the door.
For the rest of the afternoon she tried not to make any noise at all. Every time she bumped or dropped something, she cringed, imagining that he would come out in a rage at any moment. There were no further incidents, however, and Sandy managed to get the hall cleared out, except for a few things along the wall. At five o'clock she told Prana she was leaving the rest for the next day.
Falling asleep that night she thought about the scene with Nada Swami. He reminded her more of a broker than a guru. Everybody around here seemed so in love with him. What a strange man, she thought as she drifted off.
The next day Sandy continued working on the closet. While she worked, she could hear everything going on in the front office. For the day, Prana's office resembled a doctor's waiting room, with devotees from the community waiting for their turn with Nada Swami. "It always gets like this before he goes out of town," Prana told her during lunch. Prana also explained that there were several more festivals coming up and the various temple leaders had to coordinate their efforts with Nada Swami before he left.
The next morning Nada Swami came to the morning worship. When the chanting ended he walked up to the microphone to make an announcement. Sandy watched from the balcony.
"I'm leaving now," the guru said. "But while I'm gone I hope you will all be preparing for our Janmastami and vyasa-puja festivals."
Sandy had learned from Prana that these festivals marked the birth dates of Krishna and of Swamiji, respectively. The two birth anniversaries fell next to each other on the devotees' calendar.
"I'll be visiting our temples in Dallas and Atlanta to discuss book distribution in those regions," Nada Swami continued. "When I return, I have scheduled initiations for the morning of Janmastami. You can check with my office to see if your name is on the list."
Sandy looked over the balcony for Jeff and saw him sitting a little off to the side. She imagined how this announcement would affect him. It was a commitment, she thought, one that would prevent him from leaving the temple any time in the near future. She imagined again how much better it would have been if she had met Jeff under different circumstances.
"I am making a special request to everyone, especially the book distributors, to work very hard in the coming week," Nada Swami said. "And I'll see you all when I get back." He smiled and looked around the room quickly. Then he walked toward the front doors of the temple. The men beat drums and followed him out of the building, chanting. The black Mercedes was waiting at the curb, and in the early morning light, Nada Swami waved to his followers from the back seat as the car drove away.
Sandy watched the scene from the balcony windows, and thought of the announcement about the upcoming initiations. Her original ticket home had been for August 28, the day classes would have ended at the Topanga Canyon Yoga Art School. She planned to fly home on the twenty-eighth because that would give her exactly ten days to get ready for school. She thought of her little blue VW parked in her parents' garage at home. It was hard to believe that in just two weeks she would be driving down Highway 5 to start school at Santa Barbara. She was already planning the drive and mentally packing her car with everything she would need for college. She even started keeping lists of what to bring.
What would it be like to stay at the temple and forget all about school? she wondered. No, that was out of the question. College was something she had looked forward to all her life. It was so exciting to be accepted, and such an honor. Besides, her parents had already allowed her to make a deposit on an apartment. She couldn't undo that. When she visited the campus and the college town, Isla Vista, and it had all seemed so perfect.
Maybe there was still a chance Jeff would leave with her. No, that announcement this morning was so final. She decided fate would have to take its course; there was little she could do now.
Sandy knelt on the marble floor of the temple, paintbrush in hand, tracing over the fading pattern of elephants and lotus flowers that once vividly decorated the walls of the temple. She was glad to be involved in an art project again. The whole painting crew was working so with luck they would be done before Nada Swami returned. Other devotees cleaned the altar area or stood on scaffolding to polish the crystal chandeliers. One man buffed the marble floor with a rented machine; others painted and did repair work in the balcony. There were several women applying fresh gold leaf to the guru thrones. From what Sandy understood, one of the artists in the community had cast a life-size statue of Swamiji to replace the framed photo on his throne. Everyone was inspired to work hard because there would be an installation ceremony for the statue on the founder's birth anniversary. But Sandy had reservations: the two-day festival involved fasting and staying up until midnight the first day and getting up early again the next day and fasting again until noon. Also, the initiations would be on the first day, so she already planned to spend the rest of the time depressed. But for now, repainting the wall decorations occupied her mind.
I sure am putting in a lot of hours painting. Much more than I would have done at the Yoga Art School, she mused to herself. The elephant and flower boarder reached to about waist high and had once been bright gold and red. She wondered what the temple must have been like in the old days, when Swamiji was the guru, before the young businessman from New York took over. She wondered how many ceremonies the founder had performed in the building and how it must have been with him there in person, sitting on the golden throne.
It's too bad Indian gurus have to die and leave their missions to unqualified Westerners, she thought. Just like the Yoga Art School, where they threw everyone out, without so much as a ride to the airport. She wondered what things must be like for that group now. Maybe it had settled down. Maybe. She thought about what it must have been like in the L.A. temple during the period just after Swamiji died. She recalled something one of the students at the Yoga Art School had said: "What's an Indian guru organization without the Indian guru?" She continued applying new gold paint to the wall decorations, lost in thought.
The painting crew finished the decorations on the first morning of the two-day festival. While the artists cleaned their brushes and packed up their supplies, others continued to work. The temple room was congested with devotees on ladders and scaffolding, hanging the last decorations, and women sitting in circles stringing flower garlands; there were bits of decorations and flowers strewn everywhere. Sandy could see that the cleaning, painting, and repair work was going to be worth all the effort, though. Everything seemed to sparkle, and most of all they were meeting their schedule. Even the velvet wall hangings and curtains had been dry cleaned.
In the center of the room, near the altar, some of the priests were preparing an arena for the initiations. They cordoned off a square area, and placed grass mats on the floor for initiates to sit on. In the central part of the cordoned area the priests built a brick fire pit and filled it with sand. Sandy wondered what it was all about.
With the time for the ceremony approaching, devotees put the final touches on decorations and cleared away the boxes. A man came through with a push broom and swept up the leaves, string, and stray flowers. Sandy checked her watch and decided there would be time to go home to rest and have some fruit before the ceremony. She appreciated the devotees' desire to fast for their holy days, but didn't think she could make it for a day and a half without eating. When she returned to the temple at four o'clock there were already a few dozen devotees waiting for the initiations to start. Five men played sitars, tambouras, and other stringed instruments, and sang ritualistic songs. Most of the others chanted on their beads. Sandy sat down with the women at the back of the room.
Rows of folding chairs were set up for any relatives who might be attending the ceremony. She was looking around the room, admiring the way it looked, when she noticed Jeff seating a man and woman in the folding chairs. It must be his mother, Sandy realized. She felt a chill go through her body and an irresistible urge came over her. Without thinking she jumped up and rushed over to greet them.
"Hi, Jeff. Is this your family?"
Jeff smiled but seemed uneasy. "Yes, Sandy. This is my mother Martha Miller."
"And this is Vern Mitchell," Martha said.
Vern held out his hand to shake.
"It's very nice that you came for the initiation," Sandy said, shaking Vern's hand.
"She had to make sure they didn't make a human sacrifice of the boy," Vern said, chuckling.
"Now, Vern," Martha said. "Jeff invited me, so I came. That's all. It's not every day you lose a son."
"Now, Martha, don't start again. I thought we already had this worked out." Vern took Martha's arm and continued consoling her.
Sandy looked at Jeff, wishing to apologize.
"Sorry about my mom," Jeff said. "She gets like this over any kind of ceremony. She's terrible at weddings, too. I've got to go, okay?" He turned and, after saying goodbye to his mother and Vern, walked to the back of the room. He ducked behind the velvet curtains beside the altar, where Sandy assumed the other initiates were also waiting in the wings.
Sandy sat down next to Martha, who had now calmed down. She was a pleasant-looking lady, about forty-five. She wore red lipstick and had a puffy face and round figure. Wearing her Sunday best, Sandy thought, noting Martha's brown sequined dress and black short-rimmed hat. Vern wore a black three-piece suit, although he had removed his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. He had gray hair and a tall, slim physique.
"I'm a friend of Jeff's but I don't live here," Sandy said.
"If you don't live here, where are you from?" Vern asked.
"I'm from San Francisco. I'm just visiting for the summer. I leave in a few days to start college."
"Oh, college. I wish Jeff had finished college while he had the chance," Martha said. "He was going to Santa Barbara."
"I know. He told me. I'll be going to the same school."
"You're a lucky girl," Vern said.
"How do you like this, Jeff getting initiated?" Sandy asked.
Martha looked down and then looked at Vern.
"We're tolerating," Vern volunteered.
"Tolerating," Martha confirmed.
She seems like a pretty reasonable woman, Sandy thought. Maybe if both she and I had a talk with Jeff he would reconsider getting initiated and leave the temple. Sandy prayed for a moment that Jeff would come back and see her sitting with his mother. Maybe he would come over and together they could talk some sense into him. It would be the last chance. But no, she realized, it was all a dream. Obviously, Jeff had been defying his mother since he left school and no amount of convincing was going to change his mind at the last minute. Actually, Sandy thought, it would be better if Jeff didn't see her sitting with his family. He might think she was ganging up against him and never trust her again.
"It's been a pleasure talking to you Martha," Sandy said. "And Vern, you too. But you'll have to excuse me. It looks like things are getting started."
"It was nice talking to you," Vern said.
"Bye," Martha said, smiling and raising her hand slightly to wave.
"Enjoy the ceremony," Sandy said, raising her hand, too. But then added, "If you can. Oops, I mean, I'll see you later."
She felt a tingle as she hurried away. That was Jeff's mother and mother's boyfriend, she kept thinking to herself, over and over. How great to meet Jeff's mother! She seemed like a sweet person. After Sandy went up to the balcony, devotees continued to fill the room. The musicians laid aside their stringed instruments and switched to the usual percussion instruments of the temple chanting. When they began chanting all the devotees joined in.
The initiates came into the temple room through the velvet curtains and took their seats on the mats. Each mat had a paper plate with a pile of grain and a banana. First the men came in and then the women. The men sat on one side of the fire pit, while the women sat on the other. A priest opened the altar doors to reveal the deities and began ringing a bell and offering flowers in worship. The clean, decorated temple was saturated with the smell of incense, the sound of chanting, and an air of expectation.
Nada Swami entered through the double wooden doors at the back of the building and paused to ring the temple bell. Everyone turned to look at him and the music stopped. People on the floor cleared a path and he walked to his throne, head held high. He had shaved his head in the Krishna Center fashion, leaving a thick strand of hair at the back. The musicians and chanters seemed to go wild, chanting with full intensity, "Nada Swami, Nada Swami," as the guru took his seat. Sandy had never seen him with a shaven head and maybe the others never had, either, she thought. Maybe that's why they were chanting so enthusiastically. Then again, she reasoned, maybe it was just because this was an initiation and Nada Swami was the main focus of attention for all his disciples.
Before the chanting died down, Nada Swami took the mike. "Hare Krishna," he began, and everyone returned his greeting. "Today is a very special day. Not just here in Los Angeles, but all over India, and for every follower of the Hindu tradition. Today is the appearance day of Lord Krishna, the supreme attractive personality of Godhead. You can see Him here on our altar," he said, pointing to the center set of deities, "with his consort. The Krishna deity is always seen playing a flute. That is because, as Supreme Lord, Krishna doesn't have to worry about the cares of the world or perform any cumbersome work. And why is that? That is because his devotees of this world are here to carry out his will.
"Today we will perform a ceremony to initiate seventeen new devotees into that sacred duty. So are the initiates ready?" He paused and looked over the people gathered inside the cordoned area. "Fine. Then let us begin." He turned from the microphone and motioned for an assistant, who handed him a sheet of paper. He glanced over the paper and then pulled the mike back. "Yes, we're ready.
"Jeff Miller," the guru said.
Jeff stood up, exited the arena, and knelt before Nada Swami. Jeff was wearing his saffron robes, but instead of a shirt he wore a saffron-colored cloth draped over his shoulder. Sandy noticed his golden skin and bare back. Too bad he has to do this, she thought.
"Jeff," Nada Swami began. "What are the four rules you promise to follow?"
Jeff didn't have a microphone, but he spoke loudly enough to be heard. "No illicit sex, no intoxication, no meat-eating, and no gambling."
"Good. And how many rounds do you promise to chant every day on your beads?" Nada Swami asked.
"Sixteen," Jeff said.
"Very good!" the guru said, smiling at Jeff and the rest of the assembly. He handed Jeff a string of chanting beads and Jeff bowed down at his feet. When he sat up the guru continued.
"Jeff, you have been our shuttle driver for a long time and you have worked conscientiously in that service. You may know that book distribution is very dear to my heart, and very dear to the heart of my spiritual master, Swamiji. Swamiji once said that the publishing and book distribution is his very heart. And you have been helping us in this great effort. The name I am giving you is a name that will help you remember that you are serving the great devotees with your work. Your spiritual name is 'Das Anu Dasa.' "
Devotees shouted their approval.
" 'Dasa,' " the guru continued, "means 'servant,' and 'Das Anu Dasa' means 'servant of the servant,' so you are a servant of the great devotees. Also, now that you are initiated, you must dedicate yourself to serving the devotees by following all the principles of spiritual life very carefully."
A tear slid down Sandy's face as she realized she would now have to release him. It must be even worse for his mother, she thought.
Nada Swami called up the next man and went through the same procedure, hearing the disciple's vows and giving him his spiritual name, with an explanation. Then another disciple took initiation, then another. When all the men were initiated, Nada Swami began initiating the women. The name giving took a long time. After each disciple learned his or her new name, the audience cheered.
After the name-giving ceremony, Nada Swami moved to a more modest dais in front of the fire pit. As the chanting continued he set up small twigs and kindling on the sand, placing larger pieces of wood around. Then he struck a match and lit the kindling. He added larger pieces of wood until a fire was going.
Sandy watched Nada Swami's movements and tried to judge whether his shaved head made him look like a guru. At least he looks more like an ICKW devotee now, she thought. Building a fire, wearing his shiny silk robes, he appeared to Sandy like a mad wizard. Because it was freshly shaven, the top of his head looked a few shades lighter, bluer than the rest of his complexion. Sandy stared at the man, angry that he was making it impossible for her and Jeff to be together.
A fire was crackling now and the guru added more wood. He lifted a ladle out of a pot of liquefied butter and poured it on the fire. The fire licked and blazed more brightly. He added more wood and then another dipper of butter. Soon the fire blazed. When he turned on the mike, the musicians stopped chanting. Everyone was silent, waiting for him to speak.
"Now we are going to recite some mantras," he said. He picked up a book and began reading aloud. With each Sanskrit word, he paused so those in the ceremony, and the rest of the room, could recite the word. The chanting and reciting built up into a strong, rhythmic drone. When he came to a particular mantra it was a signal for the initiates to begin offering their grain into the fire. With each round of mantras, the disciples threw a handful of grain. The fire crackled. When the mantras ended, Nada Swami instructed the initiates to stand up and place their bananas in the fire.
"This fruit-offering signifies the last of the initiates' karma," the guru explained for the benefit of anyone in the audience who did not know. "This initiation has purified and freed these young men and women from millions of years of good and bad reactions in this material world. It's a second birth, a spiritual birth."
On his command, the initiates approached the fire and placed their bananas in the flames. The fruit all but extinguished the fire, and it smoldered, filling the room with smoke. After a few minutes more chanting the assembly poured outside to the sidewalk, into the fading sunlight. Sandy observed that Jeff, now Das Anu Dasa, was surrounded by his friends. She turned and wandered down the street, which had been blocked off with city barricades for the event. Festival booths, the same ones that were used for the Venice Beach festival, lined both sides of the street. The local Indian community had been invited to the temple to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna and hundreds of people were expected to arrive at seven o'clock.
She walked around the booths, admiring the signs she had helped paint, and getting a better look at some of the displays. The booths were illuminated with neon lights, and the temple building was decorated with strings of tiny white lights, giving the whole block a carnival feeling. People circulated through the booths and gathered in front of the stage, awaiting the entertainment. Sandy felt hungry, but it wasn't as bad as it could be if she were fasting completely like the other devotees. She glanced down one of the apartment driveways and saw Jeff talking with some other men in front of his van. She froze for a moment then circled around the booth and looked again. The other men were leaving now and Jeff was alone, unloading empty cartons from his van. She decided to leave the festival and walk down another driveway that led to the parking lot where Jeff was working. She made her way back to the garages and waved at him from the shadows of the building.
"What are you doing here?!" he whispered.
"Come over here," she said. "I want to say goodbye."
"You come over here. Get into the van. Quick" He looked around to see if anyone was in the area.
She jumped through the open door and Jeff slid it closed behind her. Then he got in the driver's door and climbed from the front seat into the back.
"You're crazy to come here like this," he said. "Today's my initiation day. What if you get me in trouble?"
"But it's the last chance we'll have. I'm leaving in five days."
Jeff paused a moment, then said, "That's right. I forgot."
"I'm sorry I got your mom all upset. She calmed down after a while."
"Don't worry about her. It doesn't matter."
"She's your mother, though, I wanted to meet her."
"Look, let's not talk about my mother right now. What do you want? There's rumors going around about us, you know."
"Some of the guys asked me what you were doing with my mother. But don't worry, I smoothed it over."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was so touchy."
"Well, it is, and you shouldn't be here."
"Don't be so mean," Sandy said. "I'm leaving and I just want to say goodbye, that's all. We may never see each other again."
"You have no intention of staying, then?"
"I have to go to school. You know that."
"You won't change your mind?"
"No, of course not."
"Then maybe we won't see each other, but it's your decision, not mine," he said.
Sandy started to protest, but realized he had already made his decision final. "We've both chosen different paths. Neither one of us can change now."
Jeff didn't answer, but sat silently, looking at her.
"Just think, five days and I'll be gone for good."
He still didn't answer.
"You'll be rid of me forever," she repeated.
He took her hand and held it for a few moments, still not speaking. "My offer is still open," he said. "If you change your mind and don't like school. . ."
"No, Jeff. That isn't going to happen. I'm not meant to be a devotee. I couldn't live like this forever." Her words trailed off and they both sat quietly for a moment.
"But if we were married we wouldn't have to sneak around," he said. "We could get an apartment and live like householders."
"No," she said. "That's not it. It's just that I'm not really a devotee. It wouldn't be what you think. There's no sense in waiting for me, either. We're different. I hoped it wasn't true up to the last minute. But now you are initiated and you should stay here and be a good disciple."
"I guess I thought somehow that you were going to be with me. I still think, somehow you're going to stay here. What could your parents say, anyway? They've gone along with everything so far and now that you're eighteen, you're old enough to make up your own mind."
"That's not the problem," Sandy said. "We're different. You're going to stay here, with your spiritual family. I'm going to go to Santa Barbara. I have to follow my own course; you have to follow yours. It's so simple. We shouldn't try to make it more complicated than it is."
"You're breaking up with me then? Is that it? You're sure there's no way we can work it out?"
"I guess," she said. She studied his features, his short brown hair and worried expression, his strong shoulders, now covered by a silk saffron shirt. His skin appeared smooth in the dim light although she could see a slight shadow around his cheeks and chin. She reached out to stroke his cheek with the back of her hand and wiped away a tear.
"Why did I even get involved in the first place?" he asked.
"I know. I asked myself the same question tonight."
They looked at each other and both said, "You can still change your mind."
"We can't," Sandy said, now brushing away her own tears.
"But Santa Barbara is so close," he said. "You can come and visit."
"And what? Say, 'Where's Das Anu Dasa? I want to sit and talk to him in his van.' I don't think that would go over very well if you're still wearing saffron."
"No, you're right," he said. "But I could come up and visit you. I could take a day off and drive up there."
"Don't say that," she said. "You'd be breaking your vows. Just stay here and do what they tell you. Please. I've already done enough damage to your spiritual life. It's over now, it's over."
"At least let me hold you again," he said. "To say goodbye." He pulled her toward him and put his arms around her.
"I don't know why you're doing this," she whispered. "Please leave with me, Jeff. Please come with me."
"Are you going to be at the installation ceremony tomorrow?" he asked. "The artists have made a murti of Swamiji and they'll be installing it on the vyasasana. It will be ecstatic, then there will be a big feast."
"I know," she said. She buried her face against his shoulder trying not to cry, but she could feel herself losing control. "I better go now."
"No wait," Jeff said. "Is this is the end? You can't just go."
She leaned over and kissed him. "Don't be sad. Doesn't your philosophy say everything is temporary?"
"I can't think about philosophy right now."
"Okay, but don't be sad, please. It just makes it hurt more. We should be glad that we met, that we had this time together."
Jeff let her go and said he would be back out to the festival in a while. She walked under the building, through the dark parking lot to the back entrance of Prana's apartment building. When she got inside, she threw herself down on her sleeping bag and cried. She fell asleep, missing the rest of the festival.
In the morning Sandy woke up early and went to the temple to attend the installation ceremony for the statue of Swamiji. She watched from the women's balcony as devotees chanted and read their eulogies. All morning long she watched Jeff, who sat attentively near the front listening to the readings. The atmosphere was sad, since the devotees were remembering their departed guru. Sandy felt that everyone in the room was crying; the devotees because of their guru, she because of loosing Jeff. The readings continued until noon, then there was solemn chanting for an hour.
At one o'clock the ceremonies ended with a feast served outside on the lawn. Sandy went to the feast and kept seeing Jeff all day, but tried to avoid him. She didn't want to talk to him anymore, so she went back to Prana's apartment.
Inside, she unrolled her sleeping bag and stretched out to rest. After several minutes of staring at the ceiling, she pulled out her airline ticket. Sitting up to lean against the wall, she stared at the ticket. Maybe I should have used this ticket instead of coming here, she thought, turning it over in her hands. I could have avoided so much pain. She tapped the ticket on her knee and looked at it again. Looking around the familiar room, she felt a sudden reluctance to leave. But maybe it's better to have had the experience and suffered, as Jeff suggested, than to have spent the summer bored at home. She tossed the ticket in her bag and got up to start packing.
Once packed and ready to leave she realized she would remember this place. She pulled her backpack onto her shoulders reluctantly and left Prana's apartment for the last time. Outside she heard the familiar sound of bells coming from the temple, so she took a few minutes to go inside and pay her respects before leaving. The temple still looked freshly painted and bright. Devotees had the ladders out again and were busy removing wilted flower wreaths and decorations left over from the festival a few days before. The new Swamiji statue sat regally on his golden throne. She made a wish, or a prayer, and glanced around the room to remember it. Outside again, she surveyed the temple street. Devotees walking on the sidewalks, chanting on their beads; children playing on the lawn. She walked into Prana's office.
"You're all ready to go?" Prana asked, standing up from her desk.
"I wanted to stop by and thank you for everything," Sandy said. She turned to leave, but Prana stopped her.
"Let me get you a lift to the airport," Prana said. "I'm sure I can get the Mercedes if I can find the driver."
"No, no, that's okay. I'll take the shuttle. You don't have to,"
"It's no problem. I think I can get the driver on the phone. Anyway, Nada Swami's out of town, so I'm sure we can use it."
"I shouldn't ride in the Mercedes," Sandy said. "That's Nada Swami's car,"
"Come on, take the Mercedes," Prana insisted. "Forget about riding in the shuttle with Das Anu Dasa. You've already made the poor guy agitated enough. Give him a break."
Sandy took a deep breath. "So you knew all along."
"You are easy to read, Sandy. Come on, I'll go with you. Let me make a phone call and run back to the apartment for something. You wait outside."
Sitting on the concrete steps in front of the green building, Sandy tried to collect herself. How long had Prana known? Maybe it is better this way, going in the Mercedes instead of the van, she thought. She had already said goodbye to Jeff and didn't want to go through it again. While she waited, the Mercedes pulled up and parked in front of the building. She noted the driver's saffron clothes, shaved head, and ponytail. Sandy wanted to remember the image. The Krishnas chauffeuring her to the airport in their guru's Mercedes-Benz would make a humorous story to tell her parents when she got home.
"You leaving now?"
She looked up in surprise. Jeff was standing beside her.
"I heard you're going today," he said.
"Oh, Jeff, I mean Das Anu Dasa."
"Just call me 'Das,' everyone else does."
"Das, I'm leaving. I'm on the way to the airport."
"I wanted to see you," he said. He seemed to tower over her, leaning on the railing and blocking the sunshine from falling on her.
"What are you doing here? Won't someone see us talking?"
"I don't care anymore," he said. "Everyone already knows. They don't know everything and they won't find out, either. But I'm not going to pretend to save my reputation by letting you just get away."
"The guys were teasing me about you this morning. They said you would be leaving today. They asked if I was going to give you a ride."
Her heart raced. If only--but it was too late. "Prana got me a ride already," she said, pointing toward the Mercedes. Jeff looked over and the driver lifted his hand and nodded. Jeff waved back; they obviously knew each other.
"So you can't turn down a chance to ride in the big car."
"It's not that. It's Prana. She insisted. She knows about us, too."
"I guess the story is out," Jeff said, still standing over her. "That's how it is in this community, everyone poking their noses into your business."
"What's going to happen to you?"
"Who knows," he said, sitting down next to her. "I don't care. All I can think about is how much I'm going to miss you. I've gotten kind of used to having you around."
"But it can't be, Jeff."
"I'm asking you one last time, Sandy, please stay here. Don't go."
"And I'm asking you, Jeff, come with me. There's no future for you here."
"But there's nothing out there, either."
"Sure there is. You're young. There are lots of things you could do. Even if you can't go to school, you could get a job in Santa Barbara and we could see each other."
"No, don't even think it. I can't."
"Then we have to let each other go."
"I can't do that either."
"I had to let you go when you got initiated."
"But getting initiated was something I had to do before I could get married. I thought you would be happy."
"No, no, why? We can't get married if I'm in Santa Barbara and you're here." She felt her heart beating hard. "It doesn't make sense. You're hurting me."
"I don't mean to."
"Then just tell me you're going to leave the temple."
"Now you're hurting me."
She tried not to cry, or at least not let Jeff see her cry. She looked down at her luggage, letting her hair hide her face.
"Prana's going to be coming soon," Sandy said. "She'll tell Nada Swami we were talking."
"You're not going to change your mind, are you?"
Sandy turned her head down again for a moment and then looked straight at Jeff. "What makes you want to stay here?"
"I've dedicated my life. They need me," he said, pausing. "This is the only place I can be happy. The material world is a frightening place."
"It's not as bad as you think," she said.
"Well anyway, even though you won't stay, I want to give you this to remember me." He placed a thin gold band on Sandy's finger. "It was my grandmother's."
Sandy looked at it. "Thank you, but how can I?"
"It's for you, even though you won't stay. You're the only one I've ever wanted to give it to." He took her hand and admired the ring. "Please remember me. I'm sorry things didn't work out."
Sandy clutched his hand. "Maybe there's still a way."
"No, it's too late. I better be going. I won't forget you."
As he walked away Sandy saw Prana coming down the sidewalk with a manila envelope in her hand.
"I've got something for you," Prana said, waving the envelope. "Let's go."
They got in the back seat of the car and the driver took off. Sandy looked out the back window as they drove away from the community, making a right turn onto the boulevard. She could see the top of the temple building for several blocks. She looked at the ring and then covered it with her right hand. The seats of the Mercedes were deep and comfortable and the driver played a chanting tape on the car stereo, blocking out any street noise.
"The time has gone so quickly," Sandy said, turning to the thin, sari-clad woman sitting next to her.
"Cheer up. You'll get over him."
They rode along in silence. Then Sandy said, "I hope I wasn't too much of a disruption."
"Don't be silly. You worked hard."
"I mean about Das. If I distracted him."
"He'll get over it. Besides, it was nothing."
To Prana it was nothing! Great; that meant she could change the subject. The driver would probably tell Jeff everything later, anyway, so the less said the better.
"The festival was great," Sandy said. "And thanks for getting me that job. I liked working with the artists."
"You did a lot of service."
"But it was fun, not like work." Sandy didn't know what else to say.
"I have a present for you," Prana said, handing Sandy the manila envelope.
Sandy pushed back the flap of the envelope and took out five color photos of the Ratha-yatra festival.
"My husband took these," Prana said. "We wanted you to have them. They'll help you remember your stay here."
Sandy looked at them one by one. The first picture showed the decorated carts, just before the parade. The next showed the parade in progress, with elephants; then one of her pulling the rope during the parade. The third and fourth pictures were of the festival site and Nada Swami on the festival stage. The last picture, of men putting up the festival stage, showed Jeff in one corner, working with some other men.
"They're beautiful," Sandy said, looking at all of them again, before putting them back in the envelope.
The two women talked about the festival and other things all the way to the airport. When the Mercedes parked at the curb, Prana jumped out to help Sandy with her bags. She embraced Sandy, saying, "My little spiritual sister." Sandy said goodbye and walked toward the building. Inside, she turned to watch the Mercedes drive away. She went to the counter to exchange her ticket.
Waiting at the gate, she took out a notebook and started to write, "Dear Jeff. . ." Then she wondered if it was even possible to send him a letter, since all the mail came to the same temple address. Maybe her letter would fall into the wrong hands and get him in trouble. She stared at the blank page for a moment and then at the ring. Why was I so stubborn? she wondered. Maybe I could have stayed at least a little while longer. She thought of his words to her on the steps. She wondered if it was fair of her to build up the relationship, making him risk his reputation, and then simply leave at the end. Maybe I should have stayed, she thought.
She looked up from the notebook and noticed some Krishna Center women approaching people in the walkway. Even though they were dressed in Western clothes, she could picture them in their saris. She recognized both of them, but what were their names? She thought deeply, but those Indian names were difficult. Oh, yes, she remembered, they are Radha and Devi. Devi had just been initiated along with Jeff. She hesitated to go over and say hello, because she wasn't sure if they knew her. But then one of the women spotted her and waved. They walked over.
Sandy stood to greet them.
"Did you come to meet Nada Swami?" Radha asked. "He'll be coming in a few hours."
"No," Sandy said.
"Why are you here then? Are you flying somewhere?"
"Yes, it's time for me to go home."
"You're not staying at the temple?"
"No, I have to start school in about a week."
"School? What do you want to go to school for? Why don't you stay here at the temple?"
"How could I stay?"
"Aren't you going to miss the temple?" Devi, the younger, newly initiated woman asked.
"Where's your school?" Radha asked, dropping her heavy book bag to the floor.
"It's in Santa Barbara, but I have to go home first."
"That isn't too far away. You can still visit."
"I'll see how school goes. Maybe I can."
"If you visit you can stay in our ashram," Devi said.
Sandy heard the boarding call and said, "I have to go now, that's my plane."
"Are you sure you can't wait and see Nada Swami? All the book distributors from the whole airport are going to meet his plane."
"It's okay. You offer him a flower for me. I have to go."
The women looked at each other as if to say, "It's no use, let's get back to work." They said goodbye and left. Sandy gathered up her luggage and got in line. She looked at the ring again, feeling resolved about her decision. She wondered if the whole summer would just fade into a memory once school started.
The furnished studio apartment was tiny, but within walking distance to campus. Sandy brought a box in from her car and set it on the floor, next to some other boxes. Right now it's a mess, she thought, but soon it will be home. She looked around at the small space, now full of her possessions: clothes, dishes, bedding, stereo, and stuffed animals. It wasn't everything she owned, but it was everything that would fit in her car when she left San Francisco. She stopped unpacking for a moment to draw the curtains. Outside her window was a swimming pool and deck area. All the residents of the building were students; many of them were also moving in that day. She had already met some of her neighbors and the building proved a friendly place to live. She set up her easel in front of the window.
While in San Francisco, Sandy had purchased frames for the photos Prana gave her. She hung the pictures on the wall behind the easel so she could look at them when she painted. She thought about her ten days at home, sharing her experience with her mother and Aunt Trina. Trina knew all about the Ratha-yatra festival, having been to one in Golden Gate Park years before. They enjoyed talking. That was one thing about the women in her family, they could talk for hours. Sandy told them about the signs she painted and the office and Nada Swami, how they bathed his feet in the temple. She talked about Jeff, but didn't let her mother or aunt discourage her or form any negative opinions about him just because he was an ICKW follower. Jeff and her relationship with him were special to her and her mom respected that.
After unpacking, Sandy made the bed and rested for a while. She pictured Jeff's face in her mind and wished he would call. She looked at the phone wondering if she should call him. Thinking of him made her feel restless. She got up and decided to explore the town. School would be starting in a few days and there might not be time to do anything but homework. She went outside. The bright sunshine of the Southern California day seemed to burn away her dull mood. She walked out of the building and let the gate slam shut behind her.
She walked straight down the street, through block after block of apartment buildings. So many students! she thought. She continued walking until she came to a cliff. A path wound down the mountainside to a white beach below. There were people, students, walking on the beach and she decided to go down. She noticed students talking in groups or lying on beach towels in the sun. Others were walking dogs or jogging along the shoreline. Sandy decided to walk and see where the beach led. After a while she noticed that she was chanting softly. It was the first time she had chanted since leaving the temple. It felt right, walking along in the warm sunshine. Following the path the joggers left in the damp sand, she removed her sandals and put them in her purse, letting the water lap around her feet. She looked out over the water. Jeff is a hundred miles down the coast, she thought. I wonder what he's doing.
The beach led to a grassy hillside and the ocean water flowed into a lagoon. At the top of an embankment she saw a building and headed toward it. Then she recognized that it was part of the campus; this building was the commons. Students were coming and going from the building, so Sandy went inside. On the lower level, overlooking the lagoon, was the school cafeteria. She decided to stop for a soda and see what else the cafeteria offered. She sat down with a soda and gazed out the window, still thinking about her summer in Los Angeles.
Even though she had a car, once classes started Sandy found it move efficient to take the bus, or simply walk, than to try to find a parking place on campus. The art department was great and she met many creative people in her classes. She mentioned her summer as an artist at the temple to some of them, but there was so much to do that the subject faded. Sandy loved her apartment for painting and drawing homework, but preferred to do her reading other homework at the school library. Throughout September and most of October she spent her time painting, studying, and swimming in the apartment pool.
Sandy was putting the final touches on her mid-term project for beginning painting, when the phone rang.
"I got your number from directory assistance. You don't mind me calling, do you?"
It was the first time she had heard Jeff's voice in two months. "I wish you had called sooner. I've missed you."
"But you made it sound so final when you left," he said.
"I did?" She tried to remember what she said on the steps that day. His voice sounded grave so she sat down to concentrate on what he had to tell her.
"Something has come up," he said. "Nada Swami could tell that I had material desires. When a brahmacari has material desires there's only one thing to do and that is get married."
Jeff paused a moment but Sandy couldn't make any response.
"Nada Swami told me to put on white. He said I'm not fit for wearing saffron." Jeff paused again. "He picked out a wife for me, a younger girl, you don't know her. Devi."
Sandy recalled the young woman she met at the airport. She felt numb all over as she listened to Jeff's words.
"I couldn't turn him down. He was very forceful about it." Jeff hesitated. "Sandy, I'm sorry."
"Are you married now?"
"No, I'm calling you because they want me to get married."
"You're calling to tell me you're getting married? To someone else?" Sandy looked at the gold ring on her finger and started to cry. "Why did you do this?"
"It's not my decision. Listen to me, Sandy, I didn't know what your reaction would be. I thought things were all over with us, but I just wanted to make sure. I'm not married yet, just betrothed. Sandy?"
"No, no, don't do it, Jeff. I miss you so much."
"I thought you would have another boyfriend by now; that you would have forgotten all about me."
"How can I forget about you? And I don't have anyone else. The guys around here are creepy. And anyway, I've decided to be celibate, like you. I miss you Jeff."
"Oh, my God, then I've made a big mistake."
"You're not married yet?"
"I might as well be. You know how this community is. I'm wearing white and Nada Swami has made a big deal about it. A few of the other guys are betrothed, too. I couldn't show my face around here if I broke it off now."
Sandy looked at the painting on her easel. It looked so joyous, a still life with nasturtium and ivy. When she started the painting she never imagined that things would take this turn.
"Sandy, are you there?"
"I'm here, but what do you want me to say? 'Oh, great! Congratulations! I'm so happy for you!' How old is Devi, anyway? Fifteen?"
Arranged marriages may be okay in Asian cultures, Sandy thought, but for Americans? Besides, getting married isn't supposed to be a punishment for having material desires.
"At first I didn't want to do it at all," Jeff said, "But then I thought maybe, because Nada Swami told me she will make a good wife."
How could he? she wondered. She felt an impulse to hang up.
"Sandy? I can't do it. I don't want to marry her. I wish I could be there with you."
"Come up here, then."
"There's so much pressure on me," Jeff said. "Nada Swami, he found out everything, and he just won't let up. He took me into his office and blasted me. He made it clear that the only way I can please him is to marry this girl and become a good householder. Plus, he's having another marathon and I drive to the airport all day and night. I don't get enough sleep. I feel sick. I don't know how much longer I can keep going."
"Have you talked to your mom?"
"My mother!?" Jeff laughed. "My mother has run off with that man, Vern, the one you met. She's married him! They're even selling her house and she's moving in with him. He's a widower with no kids. He was married, but I think his wife and kids got killed in a plane crash. I think he and my mom are planning to travel or something. She doesn't give a damn about me, just like my father."
"You may think so, but she loves you. You're her son."
"No she doesn't. I have nothing except the temple. I have to stay here. I don't have any other choice. I have to go through with it."
"No you don't. You can stay with me."
"Your parents wouldn't like that. Don't be stupid. You have your studies. I'll work out my own problems."
"Don't do it Jeff."
Jeff didn't answer and the line was quiet for a few moments.
"I have a picture of you," Sandy said. "It's on my wall and I'm looking at it right now. And I still have the ring you gave me."
"I wear it all the time. I think about you every day. When you didn't call I thought, 'he doesn't have my number, anyway--so why would he call?' But I kept thinking that somehow you would call me. I've waited every day for you to call."
"I didn't realize that, Sandy. I wish I could be there with you."
"Come visit. Just sneak out for a day."
"I'll try," Jeff said. "I don't know how, but I'll try."
Sandy felt nervous and sick when she hung up. Jeff sounded so different, so upset. She fixed a cup of tea and sat down at her kitchen table to drink it. She poked at the tea bag with a spoon and felt an urge to drive to Los Angeles to talk to him in person. She pondered the matter and decided to wait. Things were awkward enough for him. Her presence would just complicate matters. He said he would try to visit.
Sandy walked through the campus library looking for a quiet place to read. She picked a soft chair near the window and sat down, setting her notebook, books, coat, and umbrella on the carpet. She read page after page, taking in facts and figures about early Western history. After an hour she felt tired and let the book rest in her lap. She looked out at the falling rain. It's the middle of the day but it's dark, she thought, then nodded off to sleep.
After a minute she got up to stretch and wake herself up. A shiver came over her as she remembered Jeff. Why hadn't he called her back? He sounded sincere on the phone. Did he change his mind? She sat down again. Picking up the book, she tried to read, but could only stare out at the pouring rain. Why didn't he call? She forced herself to stop thinking about it and went back to the book.
After finals it would be Christmas vacation. She contemplated whether to return to San Francisco. Her mother had already indicated that it would be okay if she didn't want to drive home, since it was three hundred miles each way. Besides, Christmastime just meant going somewhere for a vacation, either to a resort or overseas. And it was always a last minute decision. Sandy made a mental note to call her mother soon.
The rain started to let up and Sandy counted how many pages she had read. It seemed like a good time to go. The rain could start again once it was dark. She gathered everything up and walked toward the bus stop. When she got home she looked at the photo of Jeff and felt a chill come over her. Before finals, before deciding whether to go home for Christmas, she had to know what was going on with him. It was something she would rather avoid, but under the circumstances she decided to call the Los Angeles temple. Maybe she could say she was his sister or something.
"ICKW, may I help you?" a woman's voice answered.
"Yes," Sandy said. "I wonder if you could help me. I'm trying to get in touch with a friend of mine who lives there."
"I'll take a message," the woman said.
"It's Jeff Miller, Das Anu Dasa."
"He's gone. He's in the hospital."
"Oh no." Sandy felt another shiver go down her spine. "What hospital? Can you give me the number?"
"It's City Memorial. That's all I know."
"Thanks." Sandy remembered that City Memorial was the hospital just across the street from the temple. She hung up and, after calling information, dialed the hospital. Her fingers slipped on the buttons and she wasn't sure if she dialed the right number.
"City Memorial Hospital, how can I help you?" an operator said.
"My friend is there. Can you help me find him?"
"If you give me his name I can look it up."
"Jeff Miller. He's twenty years old." While she waited, scenes of Jeff passed through her mind. Her heart was still beating fast.
"According to our records he was released to his parents four weeks ago," the woman said.
"Do you have their number?"
"I'm sorry but we can't give out that information."
"Oh, please," Sandy said. "He's my friend. I have to contact him."
"I'm sorry," the woman repeated.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
"No, I'm not allowed to give out that information, either."
Sandy hung up dazed. Maybe she could call information for Jeff's mother's number. No, his mother had been remarried and moved. Sandy thought of looking up Vern's number. But what was his last name? Then she thought of calling the temple back, maybe they would know. She dialed.
"Hi, I just called looking for Jeff Miller," Sandy said. "And the hospital said they released him to his parents. Do you happen to have the number?"
"We don't have it," the woman said.
"Can you at least tell me what happened to him?"
"He totaled the airport van," the woman said. "I don't know what happened to him except they took him to the hospital and he never came back."
"Was he hurt bad?"
"Yeah," the woman said. "I heard it was pretty bad."
"Oh, my God. Okay, thanks." Sandy hung up. She felt a pain in her heart but there was nothing she could do. She sat down and looked out the window for a long time. The rain had stopped but the sky was still dark with threatening clouds. The sun was setting and Sandy decided it would help her to get out and maybe walk to the beach to look at the ocean.
Walking down the street, she noticed lights already on in some of the apartments. She saw some students standing around a car in front of an apartment building. Another party, she thought. With finals coming up? She remembered Jeff's complaint about the party atmosphere of the college town. He had said people weren't serious about school. Now she could see what he meant. Thoughts of Jeff filled her mind; how he said the material world was a dangerous place. Maybe he was right. A car squealed down the street and she heard laughter and shouting. How vulnerable we all are, she thought.
She stopped at the cliff overlooking the beach and studied the sunset. Rays of sunlight were breaking through the clouds, making the water glimmer. She remembered the festival carts and how they looked standing against the backdrop of the same ocean one morning a few months before. Now the sky was growing dark and the clouds were red, violet, yellow, with the sun, now a golden light, glowing just above the water. Soon it would be night. She hummed Krishna songs to herself as she walked, feeling like a little child, defenseless and volatile in a scary world. He totaled his van, she kept thinking over and over. Totaled. She walked home and when she got inside, locked the door. Maybe the world's suffering could be locked out, too. Before getting into bed she took Jeff's picture off the wall and stared at it for a long time. She cried herself to sleep.
Then next morning rain clouds still hung in the sky. Sandy opened the drapes and stared out the window. It looked cold, but no rain was falling. She decided to call home. Her mother said they weren't planning anything special. Sandy translated that to mean her mother and father both wanted to go different places, so they hadn't reached any decisions yet.
"I'm not sure if I want to come home," Sandy said. "It's a long drive and there are a few things I have to work out."
"Do you have some new friends down there?" Mrs. Edinburgh asked.
"I just don't feel like driving. The friend I want to see is Jeff, the one from the Krishna temple. I showed you his picture, remember? He got in a car accident in L.A. but I can't get in touch with him."
"That nice boy who gave you the ring? The one you talked about so much while you were here?" Mrs. Edinburgh asked. "I'm so sorry, dear. But can't the people at the temple give him a message?"
"The temple doesn't have his number. He was in the hospital for a while, but now he's back with his mother. I can't look it up, because she changed her last name."
"I can't believe the temple doesn't have his number. What about that woman you stayed with, what was her name? The guru's secretary?"
"Mom, I can't call Prana for his number. What if she doesn't want me to talk to him?"
"That's ridiculous. You just gather up some courage right now and call her. What do you have to lose?"
"That's true," Sandy said. "All she can say is no."
"Now you're talking. Do it right away and put your mind to rest. When you know what you want to do over Christmas, call me back, will you dear?"
Sandy said goodbye and pressed the button down. She dialed Prana's number. Please answer, please answer, she thought.
"Is this Sandy?"
"Yes, Sandy, you remember me?"
"I thought that was you," Prana said. "Thanks for your note. How's Santa Barbara?"
"I'm just starting finals, but it's going okay. I have a favor to ask. I've I heard that--" She hesitated, crossing her fingers. "I'm calling because I heard Das Anu Dasa got in an accident."
"Yes, the poor kid."
"I want to talk to him. Do you have his number?" She prayed, hoping Prana would say yes.
"I think I have it. Hold on." Prana put her on hold.
Sandy walked back and forth around the bureau playing with the telephone cord. Her palms were sweaty and she shifted the receiver from ear to ear.
"Here it is," Prana said, giving her the number.
"Oh thank you, thank you Prana." Sandy scribbled the number on a piece of notebook paper, anxious to hang up and call Jeff.
She dialed the number and Martha, Jeff's mother, answered. Sandy took a deep breath and tried to calm herself enough to talk.
"Hello, is this Mrs. Miller? My name is Sandy Edinburgh. I met you at the temple one time."
"My name is Mrs. Mitchell now and we're not taking any calls from the temple," she answered.
"Wait! I'm sorry Mrs. Mitchell, but I'm not calling from the temple. I'm in Santa Barbara. I'm a student, remember? Is Jeff okay?"
"The doctors say he'll pull through. He has a broken leg and broken ribs, but he was in a coma for seven days. Let me see if Jeff can come to the phone. Hold on."
Sandy waited, now feeling even more nervous.
"Sandy?" Jeff said, coming on the line.
"Oh, Jeff, I've been so worried. I didn't hear from you for so long. I called the temple last night and they told me what happened. I've been frantic trying to get in touch with you. This morning I called Prana and she gave me this number. Jeff, what happened?"
"Pretty wild story. Why don't you come down here and visit? I'll tell you everything. You can stay here in the guest room."
Sandy drove down the highway toward Los Angeles wondering what to expect. On the phone Jeff's mother mentioned that Jeff had a big, bulky cast on his leg. Just the idea of a car wreck worried Sandy. She turned the heater off and exited the highway at Reseda Boulevard. She turned right, following Jeff's directions, crossing a busy street up into a hilly residential area. The street forked to the right and left and Sandy followed the directions to the address. As Jeff indicated, she turned onto a long driveway and followed it to a stucco and glass house.
She parked and rang the doorbell. Martha came to the door looking more casual than she had at the initiation. She wore lime green nylon slacks and a green and white cotton shirt. Her hair was still in a bun, but without the hat. Martha welcomed Sandy and invited her into the living room to sit down.
"You'll have to excuse the mess," Martha said. We moved in two months ago, but haven't had time to unpack everything with Jeff being sick and all."
Sandy looked around the room. There was a grand stone fireplace with Christmas wreaths and stockings hanging from on mantle. Next to it was a Christmas tree, not yet decorated, with boxes of ornaments and tinsel lying at its feet. The walls were lined with moving crates. Sandy noted the large windows overlooking The Valley below.
"It's a beautiful house, Mrs. Mitchell."
"Call me Martha," she said. "Before we wake up Jeff let me show you your room."
She led Sandy down a hallway to a bedroom with a double bed, a floor lamp, and a chest of drawers. "Do you think you'll be comfortable here? I couldn't do much about all that," she said, pointing to a row of unpacked boxes. "It took a lot of work just to get the room looking livable. There's a bathroom right next door and I've left some clean towels for you here."
Sandy sat beside Jeff's bed waiting for him to wake up. The covers came up to his chest and he looked just as he did over the summer, except thinner. His hair was shorter on one side and there was a scar along the hairline above his ear. His breathing was even and he seemed to have a slight smile. Sandy didn't want to disturb him, but she had already waited half an hour, so she took his hand and stroked it. He gradually came to consciousness and opened his eyes, looking at her for a long time without speaking. Then he smiled and squeezed her hand.
"You're here," he said. "I just had the strangest dream. There was a big storm and the people at the temple put me into the water in a wooden shoe. They shoved me off into the water with no food or water; nothing, not even oars. But the boat had a little sail. I was going to sail to an island but it wasn't there. Then all of a sudden I was in my mom's new house and you were here, but I couldn't believe you were here. Then I woke up and here you are. Am I still dreaming?"
"Does it feel like a dream?" Sandy asked.
"No, but sometimes dreams feel real."
"What does it mean?"
"I feel like that old shoe," Jeff said. "They treated me like an old shoe. They used me to drive the airport van and didn't let me get any sleep, but when I crashed they just discarded me. When they saw my hospital bills they called my mom to pick me up."
Sandy sat quietly, listening.
"When I first woke up from my coma I couldn't talk or move. Even though I looked like I was asleep, the doctors told my mom and Vern to talk to me, so they did. My mom held my hand all the time and Vern came over after work every night and read to me from the newspaper. I had total amnesia about the accident and the temple. I couldn't remember anything until later. When I finally opened my eyes it all came back to me. I felt guilty because of abandoning my mom and being cold to Vern. She loves me and he does too, but I rejected them. When I could get around well enough they took me to their therapist. We talked about everything. My mom told me how worried she was when I joined the temple. The therapist made me take responsibility for what I did. She would not let me off easy, like I was still a kid. I'm twenty years old. I was trying to throw my life away. I see that now. I thought that I was no good and I thought that ICKW was the best I could do."
"Rest now," Sandy said, lowering her head to his shoulder.
"We're a fine bunch," Martha said, looking around at the others at the dinner table. "Christmas is two days away and we haven't even started getting ready." She stood up, took Jeff's plate and stacked it on her own. She was a great cook and creative, too. She had come up with vegetarian versions of her favorite dishes for Jeff. Sandy also enjoyed Martha's special cooking.
"We're falling behind in our Christmas duties," Vern said, pointing to the still-undecorated Christmas tree standing amid unpacked moving crates in the living room.
"What do you expect? It's been years since we've celebrated Christmas," Jeff said. "I mean with a real tree, and all."
"My family never gets a tree," Sandy added. "We usually just go somewhere, not really in the holiday spirit, I admit."
"So what if we're not the greatest experts. We'll improvise." Vern said, getting up from the table. "When Martha is done with those dishes, then we can all decorate that little tree she bought."
"Maybe I should help her," Sandy said, leaving Vern and Jeff at the table.
Sandy and Martha talked and loaded the dishwasher. When the kitchen was clean, they joined Vern and Jeff around the tree. Jeff was still having trouble getting around because of his broken leg, so Vern dubbed him the artistic director and set all the ornaments and tinsel around him on the hearth.
"I don't have any edge on this," Jeff said. "But I think we should start with the lights."
Everyone agreed that would be a good place to begin, so Vern and Martha started untangling the lights.
"Oh, wait a minute," Vern said, turning to one of the unpacked moving cartons. "I have something that will put us in the Christmas mood." He opened the lid of the box and began pulling things out. He found a record album and held it up. "A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. Perfect condition vinyl, 1957. Let me put it on." He carefully removed the disk from its cardboard sleeve that showed Sinatra tipping his hat in holiday greetings. He carefully placed it on the turntable and set the needle down gently.
Frank belted out a jazzy "jingle bells" as Vern returned to the tree decorations.
"Want to help me with the lights?" Martha asked, offering Vern the end of the cord.
Vern shook the colored bulbs and started putting them in the sockets. Then he and Martha started to wrap the lights around the tree.
Sandy noticed that Jeff was sitting quietly, watching everyone else work. She let Vern and Martha continue with the lights while she sat down next to Jeff on the hearth.
"What's going on?"
Jeff tapped the plastic on the ornament box with his finger and looked down.
"Hard to just sit and watch?"
"No, I don't care about that," he said. "But I haven't gotten any presents for anyone. How can I go out when I'm like this?"
"There's still one day left. I could go out. Come to think of it, I haven't gotten any presents for anyone, either. I could get them something from both of us."
"But the crowds will be miserable," Jeff said.
"I like crowds," Sandy said.
"What will I get for you, then? I can't make you buy your own present," he said.
"Get me something later, when you're better."
"Come on, Jeff," Vern said. "You can help with the tinsel."
Jeff opened the package and put a few strands on the tree. Everyone hung the tinsel and the ornaments. Vern turned over the Christmas record. Soon the tree was decorated and Martha started gathering up the empty boxes and cartons and stacking them at the side of the room.
"Will you relax, Martha?" Vern patted the couch next to him and she sat down.
Sandy sat down on the hearth next to Jeff.
"That's the most beautiful Christmas tree I've ever seen," Martha said.
"It was a lot of work," Vern said, "but worth it. What do you kids think?"
"Looks good," Jeff said.
"You say you travel at Christmas every year, Sandy. Where do you go?" Martha asked.
"My father works all the time, so when he gets a vacation he usually wants to go to a resort, or something like that."
"That sounds exciting," Martha said. "Have you ever been overseas?"
"Oh, sure. We've been to Europe three times, Mexico twice, Canada once, and Hawaii and Florida a bunch of times. About five years ago we did a tour of Asia: Hong Kong for Christmas, then Tokyo, and then Bangkok for New Years. It was hectic, but fun."
"I used to travel to Asia for business," Vern said.
Even though Vern was dressed casually in a sweater and slacks, Sandy could not help thinking of him in a business suit. He always looked so formal, with his neatly brushed gray hair and gold wedding ring.
"The farthest I've ever been is New York City," Jeff said.
"I took you to Canada that one time, remember?" Martha said. "We visited your Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Jack in their cabin and hiked in the mountains all day long?"
"I remember now," Jeff said. "And they had those horses in the back."
"You remember that?" Martha turned to the others. "He made friends with this one pony and spent all his time with that animal. We just couldn't keep him away from it."
"Aw, Mom," Jeff said. "Do you have to tell baby stories?"
"You were cute!"
The next day Sandy went to a mall and bought perfume for Martha, a desk calendar for Vern, and a brown and gold terry cloth bathrobe for Jeff. She had it all wrapped at the store and drove back to Jeff's house. When she came inside, she admired the tree and put the presents around it. She noticed several other packages lying on the white cloth around the foot of the tree. Martha had lined up her Christmas cards on the mantle and hearth. It's so Christmas-ish, Sandy thought, delighted to have an old fashioned Christmas.
Vern was at work and Martha was gone. Sandy cracked the door of Jeff's bedroom and looked in.
"You asleep?" she asked. "The tree looks nice."
"Did you get everything?" he asked, looking up from one of the moving cartons stacked along the wall.
"What are you doing?" Sandy asked, sitting on the corner of the bed.
"My mom packed these boxes from our old house. I was just looking at my old stuff."
Jeff continued looking through the boxes as he and Sandy talked. Martha cooked a big holiday dinner and they ate together. Most of the conversation was about Christmas, the beautiful tree, and the appearance of so many presents so quickly.
Sandy awoke the next morning to the sound of Frank Sinatra. It's almost nine o'clock, she thought, looking at her watch. They'll open all the presents without me. She jumped up and went out to the living room in her pajamas and slippers and looked at the tree. The lights were on; some blinking, and there were candy canes in all the stockings on the fireplace. She heard the others in the kitchen and went out. Martha was making pancakes for Vern and Jeff, who were sitting at the kitchen table, eating.
"Good morning, Sandy," Martha said. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," Sandy said, rubbing her eyes. "Am I late?"
"No problem," Vern said. "It's Christmas!"
"I heard your music."
"Aren't old records the best?" Martha said, putting fresh pancakes on the table.
Sandy ate a few pancakes and then went back to her room to get dressed. When she came out to the living room, Vern, Martha, and Jeff were sitting on the couch.
"We want you to deliver the packages," Vern said. "You get to pick."
Sandy couldn't recall ever playing Santa before, but it seemed like fun. She took the first package, her gift to Martha, and gave it to her. "This is from us."
Martha opened it and looked at the perfume. She sprayed a little on her wrist and smelled it. "Thank you, Oh! Sandy and Jeff." She replaced the bottle in the box. "It's delicious, thank you!"
Vern took her hand and smelled the perfume, then got a silly love-struck look on his face.
Sandy brought Jeff her present and he opened it. He lifted the bulky terry cloth bathrobe out of the box and admired it.
"That's beautiful, Jeff," his mother said. "Something you'll get a lot of use out of for the next month or two." Martha draped the bathrobe around his shoulders.
"I thought you'd like it," Sandy said. "Here's a little one," she said, picking out a flat, square box. "Oh, this one's for you, too, Jeff." She handed the package to Jeff. "It says, 'From Vern and Martha.' "
Jeff pulled the ribbon off and tore away the paper. He opened the box and all that was inside was a card. He opened it and read. Tears came to his eyes and he dropped it in his lap. He looked at his mother, sitting next to him, and couldn't speak.
"Tell everyone what it says," she said.
"Vern," Jeff said.
"Tell Sandy what it says," Martha repeated.
He handed the card to Sandy and she read, " 'This card good for one college scholarship, signed, the Mitchell and Mitchell Scholarship Fund.' "
"I can't believe it, Mom!" Jeff hugged his mother and put out his hand to shake with Vern. Sandy watched as they shook and hugged and cried. She knelt before Jeff and put the card back in his hands. It was true. She looked up. Jeff put his arm around Sandy's shoulders and kissed her on the mouth.
"Do you think you can get back in at Santa Barbara?" Vern asked.
Oh, Santa Barbara, his old school! Why not? Sandy felt a surge of excitement.
Jeff calmed down a little. "I'll call the school first thing tomorrow morning."
"That's the spirit," Vern said.
"Do you want to do it, Jeff?" Martha asked.
"Are you crazy, Mom? Of course!"
"See, Martha." Vern smiled and rapped her arm with the back of his hand. "Let's do some more presents."
Sandy walked back to the tree. "I know that's a hard one to follow." She picked out another present and said, "Oh, from Jeff to me!" She shook it softly, then tore off the paper. It was a colorful porcelain figurine of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod afloat on their Dutch wooden shoe. "It's you on the boat, right?" she said, hugging Jeff. "Where did you get this?"
"It was in one of those boxes. My grandfather gave it to me when I was a kid. He used to read the story Wynkin, Blinkin, and Nod to me. It was my favorite.
"I love it, thank you," Sandy said, setting it carefully on the table. Then she picked out another present and handed it to Jeff's mother.
Martha read the tag. "It's to all of us from Vern." She opened the package and found four tickets. "The L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra at the Music Center! Oh, thank you, Vern!" She gave him a hug, smiling. "Sandy and Jeff, we have four tickets! Do you want to be our guests to hear the symphony on New Year's Eve?"
Jeff nodded yes and looked at Sandy. "Can you stay until New Years?"
Sandy smiled. "If it's okay with your folks."
"You're no trouble," Martha said. "We have plenty of room, don't we Vern?"
"We'd love to have you stay another week," Vern said.
They continued unwrapping presents until they were all opened. Sandy loved the sweater Martha picked out for her, and Vern appreciated the desk calendar because he had not yet had time to buy one. Sandy and Jeff spent the rest of the day talking and watching TV; Martha and Vern also watched TV for a while. They ate a big meal together, then took a long walk around the neighborhood.
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Downtown Music Center had already been home to the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra for a decade by that time. The building was a soaring structure with white pillars and a fountain in front. From the patio Sandy could see the downtown skyline. Everything seemed so amazing to her, because up until that night she thought Los Angeles had no culture. The concert was inspiring. Vern loved good music and was happy to share it with his newly-formed family. The music ended at 11:30, then everyone poured into the lobby where they served champagne and sparkling apple juice. Vern saw some people he knew from many years of symphony attendance and took Martha to meet them. It was just a few minutes before midnight and Sandy and Jeff found themselves alone, standing slightly off from the crowd.
"I want to remember this night," Jeff said. "It's a new year and I feel so happy."
"Me too," Sandy said.
Just then a clock began to strike twelve.
"I love you," Jeff said, just before kissing her.
She felt like the moment could go on forever.