My mom started doing Reiki because she was unhappy with my dad. He worked all the time; he always expected her to make dinner, and he didn’t help with the dishes. As she slammed clean plates and bowls into our cabinets, she told us that she had signed up for a Reiki workshop in the basement of the church down the street. “You work with other people’s energies,” she said, or so she had she read in the advertisement in our local newspaper. “It promotes healing.”
“Healing of what?” my dad shouted from the living room. “You’re not sick.”
“Spiritual healing,” my mom said.
My dad rolled his eyes at me.
She started going to the workshop every Thursday afternoon; on those days, she couldn’t pick me up from school. That was okay. My best friend Gillian and I usually had our own things to do after school. We had recently joined the track and field team, and on evenings when there wasn’t a meet or practice, we took the bus to her house and raced each other around her neighborhood. I was a lot faster than Gillian. Sometimes she trailed me so badly that I couldn’t hear her when she shouted at me to slow down. Afterwards we collapsed on her front lawn, our bare arms and legs against the grass, laughing at the difference between us. I was small, and Gillian had a fat ass and big boobs. She said her boyfriend liked her that way. I liked her that way too.
At the Reiki workshop my mom made a new friend, Deanna. They decided to start practicing on each other so they could learn faster, and they practiced at our house. Deanna had squinty dark eyes and seemed jumpy and uncomfortable. On the weekends, when Gillian was away at her dad’s, I hated Deanna being at our house because I couldn’t watch TV in the living room. She and my mom insisted on no distractions. They played a special CD, a recording of monks chanting the same words over and over. One Sunday my dad was over at his friend’s house for the Superbowl, and I watched Deanna practice on my mom as I pointedly sat on the couch waiting for them to finish. My mom lay on her back, on the floor, her eyes closed, and Deanna sat next to her. The sun streamed into our living room, and Deanna’s hands hovered over my mom’s feet, a centimeter or two away.
“Can you feel this?” Deanna asked my mom. Her hands were shaking a little.
“Yes, but I don’t think I can tell where, exactly, you’re touching,” my mom said.
“Not touching,” I interrupted. “She’s not touching you.”
They ignored me. “It’s not really a localized thing,” my mom said to Deanna. “It’s like a feeling all over my body. Like you’re taking care of all of me.”
She opened her eyes and stared at Deanna like she was trying to figure something out. My mom’s eyes were blue, like mine, but brighter, and they sparkled when she was happy, which she was, now. But Deanna looked away from my mom, staring at the floor instead. The monks repeated their one word that I couldn’t understand. It sounded like a kind of buzzing.
“Reiki isn’t real,” I said loudly. “The Internet calls it pseudoscience.” I got off the couch, put on my sneakers, tied double-knots. I took my iPod and headphones with me. I ran around the neighborhood, wishing it was Gillian’s neighborhood instead of mine. I played my music as loud as it could go and ran for so long I lost track of how many miles I’d gone. The only thing I felt was my own heartbeat in my neck.
When I told my mom I thought I was gay, she said she was happy for me. I sat at the kitchen table drinking Mountain Dew, and she put a frozen pizza into the oven. She made frozen pizzas at least twice a week because they were easy to cook. “Deanna is gay, too, did you know that?” my mom asked me.
“No,” I said, tapping my foot, over and over, against the tile floor.
“Sometimes I wish I was gay,” she said. “I think I would be happier.” She closed the oven door and turned to look at me, her eyes light, and I suspected she was pretending, a certain way she played sometimes with me or my dad. “I should have married Deanna instead of your dad,” she said, testing out the idea.
“Why?” I asked. “Because Deanna would cook dinner for you?” I tried to sound snippy, but my mom laughed and agreed.
She sat down next to me. She touched my leg to get me to stop tapping my foot. “Men are assholes,” she said. “You’re lucky you won’t have to deal with them.”
I pulled my leg away from her and resumed tapping. “Well maybe you should just divorce Dad and marry Deanna.”
“I would!” my mom said. “But I don’t want to have sex with a woman. Besides, I love your dad.” And then she added, more thoughtfully, “Being married to Deanna would be boring.”
I thought about Deanna, how her nervous armpit sweat stained her cotton T-shirts, how she said yes to anything my mom asked, no matter how ridiculous, how she once drove to our house just to bring my mom a bag of M&Ms because my mom had said she was PMSing and craving chocolate. I knew my mom was right. It would be boring for her.
“So what kind of girls do you like?” my mom asked. “Is there any particularly special girl?”
“No,” I said, swallowing the rest of my Mountain Dew. “Never mind.” It tasted like acid. Gillian and I drank at least five Mountain Dews a day. Once we each drank ten. Neither of us slept very well that night, we reported to each other the next morning. The kitchen started to smell like warm cheese. I stood up to go for a run before the pizza finished. I was angry though not surprised that my mom had somehow turned this into a game. I told her, “There aren’t any girls I like. I don’t like anybody. Maybe it’s just a phase.”
“Or maybe not,” my mom said knowingly. She thought she was being a great mom right now. “You can talk to Deanna if you want to,” she added. I didn’t want to talk to Deanna.
If my dad was away for an especially long trip for work, Deanna spent the night at our house—not frequently, but enough for it to become routine. She and my mom stayed up late together, reading Reiki books, discussing what they were learning while they drank white wine with ice cubes in their glasses. Deanna drank a lot more than my mom, at least four times as much. I kept track. Deanna finished the first bottle before my mom finished her first glass.
They were getting ready for bed, changing into their pajamas. I overheard my mom theorizing they were so tired because they had been picking up other people’s negative energies. She was trying to draw some imaginary symbol on Deanna’s arm. I felt restless and irritable. Gillian and her boyfriend were going out for a fancy dinner to celebrate their three-month anniversary. Gillian had told me her boyfriend said she could order whatever she wanted, even dessert, and he would pay for everything. I was thinking about the lighting of the restaurant, how it would probably be a little dark, and maybe there was a candle in the middle of the table. I was thinking about them laughing with each other about the elaborately folded napkins, the prices on the menu for the seafood and the steak. Gillian would probably try to eat some of her boyfriend’s meal. She always wanted other people’s food.
I stood in the bedroom doorway. “Why do you sleep in the same bed?” I asked my mom while Deanna pulled back the covers. “Gillian sleeps in the guest bedroom when she comes over.”
“We’re having a slumber party,” my mom said. She climbed into bed next to Deanna. It was a big bed, king-sized; there was a lot of room, and I had seen, before, the way they slept, far from each other, not touching. Still, I looked at Deanna. “Mom snores so loud, doesn’t that gross you out?”
“I don’t think it grosses me out,” Deanna said slowly. Her face looked softer; she seemed less nervous than usual, probably because of all the wine. “I don’t know. I like the way it sounds.”
“You like the way my mom sounds when she’s snoring?” I asked, my voice rising a pitch.
Deanna seemed embarrassed then, ducking her head and turning on her side, her back facing my mom. She apologized and mumbled something about drinking too much. My stomach turned. I hoped I would never be like Deanna.
My mom wasn’t paying attention. She was writing something down on the pad of paper on her nightstand, probably something about Reiki, some meaningless mantra, I guessed, that she would later repeat to my Dad and me. She wanted to hug me goodnight, so I stepped in closer and looked at what she had written. Her note said, Can Reiki ever do harm?
A few weeks later, the Reiki workshop was almost over, and one night Deanna drank too much and drove her car into a tree. As my mom grabbed her purse to leave for the hospital, she reassured me that Deanna was okay but she was dealing with some issues right now and would probably be in the hospital for a while. I was surprised that my mom visited Deanna, every day, but I was even more surprised when Deanna asked my mom to stop coming. My mom cried that night, getting into bed with me, telling me about Deanna, how worried she was about her. “She must have been in so much pain,” she said. “She must have been in so much pain and I didn’t know.” She hugged me and held me hard, pulling me to her chest like she used to do when I was little. I didn’t push her away even though I wanted to. I felt sad for her and for Deanna.
The next day, after dinner, my dad asked about Deanna, because he had read something in our newspaper about the accident. He said the tree she hit was just a few blocks away from our house. He and my mom were doing dishes together. About a month ago they had started attending couples counseling together, and they were acting a lot nicer to each other. My dad helped out with chores around the house, and my mom touched him more. He sank his arms into the soapy water and she leaned into him, kissing his shoulder for less than a second.
“Yeah, at Sagamore and Chatham,” my mom said.
“Do you think she was on the way over to our house?” my dad asked.
I was stretching, about to leave for a run, standing behind them in a way that felt like spying. I couldn’t see their faces but I imagined something flickered behind my mom’s eyes. I waited for her response, my shoe tapping the floor, over and over, a deliberate habit that had recently become involuntary.
“Deanna gets irrational when she’s had too much to drink,” my mom said.
“She always struck me as a weird person. It’s a very strange thing for her to have done,” my dad said. “Or tried to do.”
“Well she and I are friends.”
“Even so, what did she think would happen, randomly showing up to a married woman’s house in the middle of the night, that wasted?”
“Don’t talk about her like that,” my mom said. “She was probably—” But whatever she was thinking, she stopped herself from saying the rest of her sentence out loud.
I opened the front door with a bang. I said, “It’s funny. Ever since Deanna’s accident everyone is talking about her like they know all this shit about her, like they’re experts. But they’re not. Maybe people should realize there’s stuff about her they don’t know.”
My mom, uncertain, nodded. “She and I mostly just talked about Reiki,” she said. “And I guess we talked a lot about me, too. But she didn’t talk about herself very much.”
I said, trying to soften my voice, thinking for the first time that I should be more gentle with my mom, “But maybe you didn’t want to know very much about her.”
I was out the door before my mom or dad could say anything else to me. I ran slowly, though. I listened to my favorite song and I thought about Gillian. She had just broken up with her boyfriend. She had said she realized she didn’t even really like him that much. He smelled bad. He kept pressuring her to have sex but she didn’t want to. We had laid on top of the big blue mat after our meet at school. She breathed out heavy. A piece of lint from her uniform flew up and landed on her face, right under her left eye. “That’s too bad,” I said. “Are you upset?” She said she didn’t think so. I kept looking at her face and the piece of lint and thinking how lucky I was to be laying so close next to her, who else would get to see a piece of lint stuck on her face?
I stopped running for a second. I pressed my iPod to start playing my favorite song again. Tomorrow I was going to tell Gillian I liked her. It would be okay if she didn’t like me back. It would be good to tell her anyway.
A few years later, I was away at college, sitting in front of my computer and writing a long email to Jessica, a girl I liked on the other side of the country, when my mom called me to tell me that our state was trying to pass a law making it illegal to practice Reiki without a license. She sounded amused and not particularly concerned. After about a year of other classes, after she had fixed her problems with my dad, she had gradually lost interest in Reiki. But a friend of a friend told her about the proposed new law, asking if she might attend their protest downtown, and my mom was trying to decide if she should.
“I just don’t understand,” she told me over the phone. “Why would it be illegal? What possible reason could they give?”
“Hold on,” I said. “Let me google.” I read quickly; I could hear my dad in the background, joking, accusing my mom of being a criminal. “OK, I think it’s to prevent human trafficking,” I explained. “Like, how people advertise massages, but it’s really just a pay-for-sex thing?”
“That’s stupid,” my mom said. “In the community Reiki is treated as a very sacred thing. And you don’t even touch anyone! What kind of pervert could turn that into a sex thing?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never touched Jessica but—”
“Oh I know, I know all about cybersex. You’re right. Wait, does that mean you and Jessica have cybersex?”
“Mom, come on, don’t,” I said; she was playing a game again. “I’m trying to say something else.” I looked out the window of my dorm. I had a clear view of the campus soccer field; today the women’s team was warming up before practice, running laps. One girl trailed the rest of the group by a significant distance. I felt something heavy and light in my stomach. “I know it would be really weird to turn Reiki into a sex thing,” I said. “But people are weird. Like, anything can mean something, to a certain kind of person.”
My mom was quiet, and I knew she was thinking about Deanna. I was thinking about her too. They hadn’t spoken again after Deanna had told her to leave her alone at the hospital.
“Do you remember that note you wrote down about Reiki?” I asked.
“I wrote down a lot of notes about Reiki.” She sounded annoyed at herself.
“I think you were kind of drunk,” I said. “You wrote down a question, something like, can Reiki ever do harm?”
She didn’t say anything.
“So you must have considered it,” I said.
Abruptly she changed the subject, saying my dad was complaining he was hungry, he was such a baby, she needed to get off the phone, she loved me, and then there was a click.
I went back to my computer, but I didn’t know how to explain my mom to Jessica, not even in a long email. Since I had been away at college it was getting more and more difficult to read my mom the way I once did, and I was glad for that, but that afternoon I tried my hardest to imagine what my mom was doing. Hanging up the phone, desperately trying to find something else to think about. Her eyes weren’t sparkling, of course. My dad wouldn’t understand what was going on, and probably she was looking down, stuck inside herself for a moment, avoiding eye contact with him, which almost never happened. She could look anyone right in their eyes for as long as she wanted to. I wondered if, when she was still friends with Deanna, there had been a time when she couldn’t look at Deanna. I wondered if she ever saw Deanna again, now, if they ran into each other at the grocery store, or at this Reiki protest, or anywhere, in passing or not, if she would be able to look at Deanna, and I hoped that she would.