ISSUE #76 GUEST EDITOR Tobias Carroll was previously featured in Storychord as Issue 32 writer. Recently his work has been published by Joyland, Tin House, The Fanzine, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Underwater New York, and Bookforum. He is the Managing Editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and can also be found at thescowl.org and at @TobiasCarroll.
THE HUG CLUB
by Elisabeth Donnelly
Maddy wasn't very good at meditating. She started when her mother interrupted, glaring at her shoveling cereal into her mouth with the newspaper rolled out on the table, staining her fingers.
"When you're eating, just eat," her mother said. Maddy thought that her mom was full of it. What was the point to sitting very quietly and still with your legs crossed, sitting around trying to watch your breath and listen to your thoughts and then maybe end up thinking that they didn't quite matter as much?
Issue #76 soundtrack: No Other "Destruction Song"
Her mother cut a deal with Maddy - for every morning where she read the Globe and ate her cereal, she would have to meditate for ten minutes. Maddy was a cat sprayed with water; she didn't want to do it. But it took, it took enough so that when summer rolled around, hours of nothing to do just sitting, full of langour, on the green grass, Maddy heard the weirdest thing coming out of her mouth: "Yes, I will totally go to teenage meditation camp."
Maddy had hopes. She had no idea what sort of kids would be there. She was bored with the greater Boston area, the potato-faced boys with their hockey shirts and broad voices that were loud even when it was time to whisper. Perhaps the caliber of people could be something different and interesting at this weirdo hippie camp.
Small group put Maddy in with a whole group of teen meditators. There was Myk. Sebastian, Jennifer, Jessica, Tatiana, Aaron, Eric, Chris, and Allegra. Everyone had better names than Maddy. Eric was the guy who wore shorts year round, even in the dead of the winter. When it was thirteen degrees outside with a windchill of zero, Eric would wear shorts. "See, this is what meditation does," he said. "You may be feeling the cold outside, but I can feel through it. I know how I feel and the cold doesn't affect me in the same way. I'm warm in my core." He thumped his chest with his fist.
They had talked about a lot of things that week. How to be a good person. How to be aware of the outisde world. How to not listen to all the teenage messages blaring at our teenage heads about how to be pretty and popular and ultimately successful, and that the monkey brain is basically a constantly chatting little stereo that never shut off. And when it was just about to shut off, that's when the worst songs in the world, the bleat pop nightmares heard echoing past the silence of a buzzing grocery store refrigerator, that's when those songs would claim their hold on Maddy's brain.
So many inane words to so many inane songs about love, and butts, and fickle, crazy, sexually instaitable women, and they were all in Maddy's head. She learned that at meditation camp.
Every day in the last week of June, Maddy would be sitting in small group at 11 in the morning. Their group, the oldest kids there, had lost out on the best meeting place, the bowling alley in the basement. Instead, Maddy went over to the parlour room of the great estate, the place where the once-a-Brahmin owner would take in visitors, and now hippies gathered there. Despite her best efforts, Eric always sat next to her. He was disgusting, disgusting like a man, not a boy. He wore the same thing every day, day after day. Khaki cargo shorts, a hunter green fisherman's vest, and his long blonde hair was pulled back into a scraggly ponytail that stopped at his shoulder blades. He said he was a sophomore in college, but if he said he was a thirtysomething guitarist in a Swedish death metal band, Maddy would've believed him.
Sex hung in the air at teenage meditation camp, leaden and weary of all the permutations envisioned. The air hung pregnant with so many copulating possibilities. The first day, they were warned about the danger of sex by the camp leader, Michelle. You will fall in love, she said, wrapped in a blanket, her legs in lotus position on the small altar. You will fall in love, and the intensity will feel immense becuase you sit in a room with this person for hours, hours where your mind can take flight and you're nearly married. Maddy shivered. She wanted to fall in love, to see what that was like.
Michelle kept talking. Kids, she said, this room is like a womb. You're going to come out of it a different person. She rang the bell and the vibrations bounced off the windos. She continued. You have to leave a small wake in your path. Figure out how to be a calm boat, secure in the water, not ready to tip everyone else over with massive waves of something. It was a tortured metaphor, Maddy thought. But she had been meditating for two hours before it, stepping slowly in the labrniythn outside, feeling like a gallon of water, slowly pouring into her body. The balls of her feet, her calves, her leg, moving her hips so that her other leg would go forward.
Maddy had wanted to experience something completely new. Instead, she was learning how to walk.
By the last night, Maddy mave have been in love. She spent the week in meditation thinking about who she would do it with if she had the chance, if the world ended at this exact moment and the people in the room were humanity's only chance for survival. Maddy would do it, if she had to, with Aaron. He had mussed-up dirty blonde hair and glasses that made him look like an inquisitive owl, but he had a tendency to spend free hour sitting on the djembes, playing a relentless drumbeat for the camp. He was too much of a hippie. Then there was Myk, the boy who breathed loudly during meditation, big greedy gulps of satisfied air. He had a buzz cut and a wonderfully round head. He seemed pure. He spelled his name in a ridiculous fashion. What was so wrong with vowels? There were mutters in small group that he had gone to Burma and taken monk's vows.
Those boys would do, if Maddy had to. But Michelle was right: she had fallen in love. His name was Sebastian and he was perfect. Curly black hair that fell over one eye, eyes blue like a sky with no clouds. He had a smile you could build a life on. He only wore striped red pants that he had gotten in the village, somewhere. He was from New York City, and he was incredibly devoted to the pursuit of happiness, or enlightenment, or something.
Maddy sat behind him in every meditation. When we'd do walking meditation outside, Maddy clocked his every movement, as he clasped his hands behind his back and walked forward towards the woods, nodding like a bird on the hunt. Later in small group he talked a lot about what he discovered while meditating. "A mosquito landed on my arm, so I had to stop. I stood very still, and I was just filled with so much love for that little bug. It stayed on my arm for a while, and I let it hang out. We had a moment."
He was kind. He was always barefoot. He spent their spare hours curled up on a blanket talking with Jennifer, who sang jazz songs at clubs in Boston. She knew things. Maddy felt so many feelings about Sebastian. She wanted to make him hers in some way. She imagined that there would be a moment, a look, where he'd see her for the first time, he'd take her hand and pull her over to the woods. Seeing a soft, sun-dappled log covered with moss, in front of a bubbling brook, Sebastian would pull Maddy down and she'd sit next to him, their legs touching and every molecule on Maddy's body exploding with electricity. Ever so slowly, Sebastian would take Maddy's hand and stroke her forearm with his pointer finger. That sort of action was love, and that was the precursor to sex.
When Saturday night rolled around, meditation camp went on hiatus. It was the last night and the rules were different now. Instead of a night meditation, a silent tea, and quiet hours in the dorm, there would be a bonfire. Smores. Other things. Maddy didn't know what to expect.
The bonfire crackled and the camp edged their way around it. Michelle started the night with a speech. She made everybody circle around the fire and hold hands. Maddy was next to Myk, who grabbed her hand. "It's cold tonight," he said.
"Yeah," Maddy replied, scanning the crowd for Sebastian's head of hair. He was across from her, standing in the back, a white fisherman's sweater pulled over his usual red striped pants. He was holding a guitar. Maddy couldn't see anything else.
Michelle made an announcement: "And Sebastian's going to start us off with a song!"
Sebastian strolled to the log in front of the fire, the makeshift stage. He was barefoot, as usual. He pulled the guitar strap over his chest and said, "My mother used to play me this song. 'The River,' by Joni Mitchell."
He sang. Maddy felt like there were angels on the earth. She wanted to cry. There was feeling, nuance, experience in his voice. Myk poked her. "You know that song's about an abortion, right?"
Maddy shrugged. "Yeah? So?"
"Nothing wrong with it. It's really sad. I read a book and I think Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were a thing. James Taylor was a stud even though he sucked."
Myk's words cut through Maddy, blurring out the perfect tableau of Sebastian and the log and the kind sweet light of the fire, looking at his left hand with the fond, soft eyes of a lover. The world seemed easy for him. The way that he was cute, and charming, and had the confidence that magic would happen, like any sort of artistically minded New York City boy. He finished his song and Maddy clapped vigorously.
Next up, Tatiana sidled up to the log. "I want every girl in my small group here." Myk grinned and pushed Maddy forward. She took a spot towards the back, behind every amazing girl with every amazing name. "We're singing 'Both Hands' by Julia Brody," Tatiana said. "One two three." She hummed and started the verse. Maddy knew the song's chorus, but she had no idea about the torrent of words that made up every verse. Something about being dumped, phones and dial tones and walking and chests. But when the chorus came in, she joined in, sounding like a bleating cow on the beat, every line an exclamation: "Using both hands! Both hands! I am writing it down! Both hands, it's what they do, they tell you our story!"
The song went on, verse chorus verse, mumbly loud mumbly, and it ended and everyone clapped and Maddy ran back into the circle, next to Myk one more time. "Did you know that Julia just got married? To a guy?" It was surprising news. Julia Brody fulfilled that lesbian folksinger stereotype.
Spoken word poetry about being present in the moment. Someone got up to talk about their love of horses. Another girl sang, in a quivering voice, "Angel" by Sarah MacLachlan. It still sounded like a song about misery, a beautiful piece of sadness. Maddy had moved onto the smores, and she was ready to go someplace else. Maybe she could find where Sebastian had gone to, although she suspected he had taken Tatiana to the woods. They had been standing next to each other at the campfire. He helped Tatiana roast her marshmallow.
And perhaps the battle was given up, the war was over. The moon hung high in the air, bright and full and early, lighting up the night. Maddy wandered away from the campfire, back into the estate. The kitchen was full of workers, meditation camp counselors, diligent and doing their homework on the scientific production of popcorn, armed with just a pot. "Want some?" Garth asked.
"No, I'm going back to the meditation room," Maddy replied. They were allowed to meditate all night long. The offer was on the table. If the students hadn't become a completely different person yet, the meditation hall, with its shiny hardwood floors and single Buddha on the elevated platform, served as a place to rest and to recover. Maddy felt like that would work for her at this exact moment. She thought about Michelle's words, about how you can fall in love in a room. Maybe putting forty teenagers in one room resulted in a heightened, hormone-driven feeling of a one-and-only love. Perhaps. But Maddy didn't really know any other form of love. There were the ones that were passable and the ones you wrote poetry about. The ones you wanted to turn into 18th century poets in pirate shirts and bloomers, able to write the greatest words about Maddy's mere presence.
She walked down the hall to the meditation room. Before she could open the door, Jennifer burst out. "Do not go in there," she said.
Jennifer wrinkled her nose and motioned gingerly towards the room. "Somebody definitely just had sex in there. It smells like sex."
Maddy cocked her head and peeked inside. She took a whiff. It smelled like nothing to her. Cleaning fluid, something metallic, maybe. Jennifer narrowed her eyes. "I just think it's ... maybe kind of sacrilegous."
"I guess," Maddy said, feeling shy. She didn't know what sex smelled like, but Jennifer did. Jennifer knew all sorts of things because she sung at jazz clubs. "Just, find something somewhere else. It's gross in there," Jennifer said.
Maddy turned around, wandering back into the night. The estate felt grand and full of shadows. Like there were too many stories hanging around, too many spirits and too much energy. Back in the night, the ground was clean and the moon shone brighter than the carpet of stars. Maddy didn't know where to go. Maybe it was time for bed. But she still hoped to see Sebastian somewhere, the idea that maybe there would be one spark and suddenly he'd realize what was right.
Her cabin had a light on in the front. Maddy walked inside. Someone grabbed her leg and she hit the floor like a middling wrestler. The room went black. Heat surrounded her. "Argh! We got you!" She didn't recognize the voice. It was a sea of bodies in sleeping bags.
"Come join us! We're the hug club!" It was Tatiana and Allegra and a man's voice. Maddy saw the bright blonde hair, brilliant in its absolute lack of color. Eric.
"The hug club?" she said.
"Look, everyone wants to hook up tonight and make something happen and its the last night. But we're just going to stay here and hug. Join us!" Tatiana was talking. Allegra and Eric started to chant. "Join us join us join us!"
Another head popped out of the darkness, illuminated against the screen window. "Myk!" Allegra squealed. "We're in the hug club!" Mike stepped in. Maddy was feeling ambivalent. Eric rolled her over next to him. He hugged her. His arms were strong and he smelled of patchouli. It wasn't unpleasant. She felt the length of his body, and it made her feel small. Protected. Tatiana got behind her, hugging her, her breasts on Maddy's back. It was weirdly affectionate. Maybe sexual. Maddy didn't really know. Something hard pressed against her thigh. Maddy jumped up.
"I have to go to bed. I have to sleep." Maddy wanted to puke. She didn't want to think about Eric's erection. He was a man, and she wasn't at his level. She couldn't be there in the cold, uncovered. She needed a blanket and she needed to sleep. She didn't want to explore anymore.
"No!" The hug club protested. But air had turned. What was welcoming, affectionate, had become different. Metallic. Maddy didn't want to be there. "Sorry guys. Sleep now."
The next morning, Maddy's small group was silent. Everyone put their name on a piece of yellow legal paper, folding it up, and they passed it around. Sebastian rolled in looking sleepy, wearing the same sweater. Eric was in his fisherman's vest. Everyone silently wrote on each other's paper, saying their "real opinions" about each other. Maddy didn't know what to write for Eric. She thought the fact that he wore shorts all year was silly. She hated his ponytail. She didn't know whether he'd be attractive if he cut his hair. She wrote something long and verbose and really complimentary on how Eric was always himself, even when it wasn't necessarily cool, and she wanted to be like Eric when she got older and was in college.
At the end of the session, Maddy got her personalized paper with everyone's words. All those fancy names wrote nice things about her, her spirit, how well she tried to meditate. Sebastian said that if she was in New York they should get ice cream. Everyone signed their name, except for Eric. And all Eric wrote was one word, scrawled in caps: LOVE.
Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer in Brooklyn. Her essays, features, and interviews have been published in places including The Boston Globe, The LA Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Paris Review Daily. She is the cowriter of the forthcoming Polis Books release The Misshapes, a YA novel about teenage superheroes with powers that suck, under the pseudonym Alex Flynn. Visit her online at elisabethdonnelly.com and @heydonnelly.
Fabio Sassi is a visual artist from Bologna, Italy. He makes acrylics using stenciling techniques on board, canvas, or other media. In some of his work, he enjoys incorporating logos, tiny objects and other objects considered to have no worth by the mainstream, and he still prefers to shoot with an analog camera. For more, visit his online portfolio at fabiosassi.foliohd.com.
No Other is a Philadelphia-based trio formed by guitarist/vocalist Maria T. following the dissolution of her previous band, Bedroom Problems. Once she had a clutch of songs ready, Maria reached out to drummer Carly M., current member of Philadelphia’s The Pretty Greens, with whom she had played bass in a Go-Go's tribute band a few years back. Maria and Carly began rehearsing without a bass player in June of 2013. Not long afterward, Maria was introduced to Laura C., a Georgia native who previously played in stoner metal bands, notably Helmsman. Check out the band's full EP at no-other.org.