THE COLD PAST
by JH MAE
Samuel looked at me like he wanted to hurt me.
He stood in the living room of our apartment and it was early in the evening, just after he got home from class. I remember a shaft of light from the setting sun cast a band of gold across his chest, and by the time I finally spoke it had dipped to cut across his belly.
“You’re a cold bitch, Dahlia,” he said. Those were his parting words after three years of what I believed was love. And I knew I would never do any better than him.
Brigitt was incredulous when I said as much to her to the following Monday at work, and in the months that followed. She is always there for me, my surrogate mother. And she’s there for me again tonight, but this is absurd.
“Trust me sweetie,” she says as we walk up to a drab split level, crouched in the shadow of pine trees whose needles rattle in the wind like bones. Brigitt smiles with a certain hope. “You’ll discover things about yourself you never imagined and everything will make so much sense.”
I’m not so sure. Compared to the luminous Brigitt, I am even more broken and lost and I long for the happiness I see in her eyes. I am ashamed of my desperation and afraid she can sense it, like a dog senses fear.
We walk inside and Brigitt leads me through the foyer, into a hallway and past a kitchen. Everything is dark and smells unfamiliar and I lose my bearings. The hallway soon opens onto a living room, lambent with golden light.
Immediately I notice the others, six expectant faces with smiles spreading across their lips, staring at me. Brigitt told me there would be other people here but I was hoping they wouldn’t show up and I could experience this weirdness alone.
The others are seated on three mismatched sofas. I see four different, overlapping oriental rugs and tall pillar candles lit and glowing. I see a Buddha and some odd, geometric paintings. Strong incense burns somewhere. I walk through the room, eyes down, and seat myself next to Brigitt, my stomach sour with nerves.
“Is there anyone in the room who hasn’t had a past-life regression before?” The practitioner’s name is Paul, and his silky voice is lulling. It’s soft like his light gray hair and powder blue sweater.
Brigitt raises my hand. Paul turns to me with his grandfather eyes and smiles.
Let me be, please let me be.
“You look a little nervous,” he says. I turn away to look at his feet instead; I notice his neon green sneakers with tie-dye shoelaces. Unfortunately, I haven’t lured him away. “I assure you, you are safe here. There is nothing to fear.”
Without looking up, I smile. That’s nice, I’m glad he thinks there’s nothing to fear.
He continues his introductions, inquiring after everyone’s well-being. I try my best to be amiable, as I should, but I find the forced exercise difficult. These kind faces look at me like I’m in a cage; observed but separate; present but detached, always.
I smile back. This has to work.
“A brief foreword is in order, then,” Paul continues. “Past-life regression is based on the idea that we are all beautiful, eternal souls, and that the body you now occupy is just one of many bodies you have inhabited through the ages,” Paul says, turning about the room so he can address each of us. “These lifetimes make up one cumulative soul experience. This means that in this life, we may be learning lessons from another. We choose each life to be challenged, to have an experience we must have in order to grow and learn.”
Across the living room, Brigitt’s three friends, whose names I can’t recall, nod with peaceful expressions. They and Brigitt claim to have uncovered past lives. They have regular sessions with Paul, followed by long spiritual discussions over wine. One of them claims she was an indentured servant in Colonial America who had an affair with her master. Somehow that helped her find herself, but I can’t understand how.
They look happy, though. Maybe I can be, too.
“But you don’t need to have a past-life experience to learn something about yourself,” Paul says. “Regardless, this exercise can be used to understand yourself and your problems more clearly. Does anyone have any questions?”
Paul looks at me.
Should I be scared?
I look away and catch the eye of one of Brigitt’s friends - the woman with the blonde bob and cheap costume jewelry. I’ve no doubt Brigitt told them all about my problems, because the blonde’s smile is warm and maternal. Pitying.
“Cold bitch. . .”
Samuel’s voice was so full of hate. I didn’t tell Brigitt that it was my fault I lost him.
He had decided that morning before I even woke up. He had thought about it all day and planned every word, every gesture; each one expressing his hate for me. When I met him in the living room, he threw his dissertation on the coffee table, its sharp thwack echoing in the stillness. I flinched. The room, the very air, felt wrong.
“You didn’t even read it,” he said.
I had neglected and disappointed him so many times. I would never do it again.
Paul’s voice snaps me back. My heart is racing.
“If no one has any questions then we will get started.”
Brigitt massages my arm. “Are you ready, sweetie?”
No, not really.
“Sure, I guess so. This is a little weird,” I whisper. “Are you sure this will help?”
“Of course, Dahlia. Open your mind.” Her words are accompanied by a flourish of her hand in the air, as if indicating the universe.
Paul hits a switch on the wall that dims the lights, and then turns on some music; a string quartet. Vivaldi, I think. Everyone shifts to find a more comfortable position. I do the same, sinking deeper into the love seat’s soft cushions.
“Everyone close your eyes,” Paul says, and I let the shade fall, pretending I am alone. “Breathe deeply, in and out. With the out breath, let out all your tensions. With the in breath, breathe in all the beautiful energy around you.”
That’s easy – in and out, energy in, tension, out. The deep breaths make me slightly dizzy.
“Let your mind wander naturally. Don’t analyze or judge your thoughts, just let them be – just experience them.”
With every breath, Paul’s white noise voice seems farther away; I imagine his face diminishing into a sea of black. As I breathe in and out, in and out, Samuel’s face appears, but he won’t look me in the eye.
“Relax all your muscles, one by one – your neck, shoulders; your arms, your legs; every finger, every toe; everything. Continue to breathe, in and out.”
I let everything go slack like I’m playing dead. My limbs feel heavy and foreign. The music echoes around me, embraces every cell of my brain and carries me away…to where, I don’t know. This is easier than I thought it would be.
“Let my voice carry you into deeper relaxation, let the distractions around you fade,” he says. “Go to a state of total peace and calm.”
My body could float away, off these soft cushions and above this tiny room and the unorthodox folks I’m sharing it with. Away…away…again, Samuel’s face passes through my mind. He is very angry with me but there is so much hurt in his eyes, his beautiful hazel eyes. Was he ever that sad or is that my imagination?
Don’t judge, don’t analyze…
“Now imagine a bright, healing light, a spiritual light, just above your head. Let this light – and it can be any color you want it to be – come through the top of your head.”
I pick yellow because it seems like the friendliest color; it’s pale, like the morning sun in winter.
“Let this light enter your brain and go down your spine and into your body. This light heals you from within, every cell and every molecule.”
I imagine this light glowing behind my eyes and it inches along my arms and legs, flowing downwards like ocean waves. My chest and stomach are warm, like they’re being filled with molten liquid. My fingers tingle. I can barely feel the tips.
“Imagine the light is even stronger now and let it envelop you, let it embrace you. Continue to deepen your relaxation.” Brigitt shifts just a little next to me and a haunting cello begins to play a Bach suite. “Now I’m going to count from ten to one, and as I get closer to one, relax even deeper, so deep that you can transcend space and time.”
I don’t know what that means…
“Deepen your relaxation so that you can go beyond this life and into your past lives. And as I count from ten to one, experience all of these levels, and realize that you are always loved, that you are never alone.”
Always loved, never alone. It seems like a nice thing people say, a false comfort. I hope it’s true.
I breathe deeply, try to separate from my body and escape inside my mind.
There is Samuel’s face again. Roundish and soft, rosy cheeks, pinprick dimples. He’s smiling, and I sense his love for me. It’s real and vibrant and trusting. I want it back so badly that everything inside me hurts.
“One,” Paul says. “You’re in a perfect state of calm and you come upon a garden. It’s filled with the most beautiful flowers and plants. Imagine your garden however you want it to be.”
Mine is small and surrounded by a tall pewter fence. I walk over smooth, even stones between emerald green bushes thick with flowers the size of grapefruit. Ferns arch over narrow pathways and I pass exotic flowers of fiery orange, blue, violet and soft pink.
I turn to face the sky and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Nothing can hurt me here, not even myself. I sit on a stone bench between two fragrant lilac bushes. In front of me, chickadees chirp and hop from post to post on a blown-glass bird feeder that looks remarkably like one my mother had when I was a child. Maybe it’s the same one…
“You are now in a deep state of relaxation and in this state, we will begin to go back in time,” comes Paul’s voice. “I’m going to count backwards again, and when I reach one, you will be in a memory of your childhood, a memory that is happy, or significant to you in some way.
“Five, four, three…”
The colors of the garden combine and then reform, and in slow motion, a figure appears out of the haze and begins to focus like an image in the lens of a camera.
“One…You are there…”
The figure is Jared, my best friend from childhood. He smiles broadly, dimples denting the skin around his mouth. I’ve always loved dimples…
“Be in the memory – if you want to go deeper, take a deep breath. If you are scared, just float above the scene. If you are very anxious, just open your eyes.”
Jared is holding my hand and I recognize where we are. Its summer and we’re behind the barn at his grandfather’s farm, alone and shielded from view by tall oak trees. A warm wind jostles their leaves and whips long hair into my face. My heart is sick with longing for my friend, whose face I haven’t seen in 15 years.
What a kind boy he was…Why couldn’t I keep him?
Jared swallows his nerves and leans in to kiss me. I smell earth and his warm skin, taste root beer on his lips and tongue. The memory is vivid and tears tighten my throat.
“Let your mind wander to other moments in your past…”
Jared’s face blurs and the uncaring wind carries it away.
The colors form cold solid walls and the sound of a hundred voices attack my ears. The bell is ringing and my heart fills with dread. Kids, laden with backpacks, shuffle to their next classes, but I’m not looking at them. I keep my head down but chance a glance upwards to see if I’ve been noticed. I haven’t. I feel so lonely, so lost, so forgotten.
Look at me! I don’t want to come back here…I want to leave!
“Let yourself realize why this memory is important.” Paul’s voice seems to come from the intercom and I look up to listen to his voice as my classmates file around me, unseeing. “What lessons can this memory offer?”
I’m sorry, Paul, there can’t be any purpose to being so helpless and sad.
And now Jared is walking down the hall towards me. He is four years older and six inches taller and so handsome. I glance at him for a second, my heart light with hope, and he glances back. But his eyes are cold - he has abandoned and forgotten me because I didn’t grow up to be beautiful.
Don’t you miss me? Why won’t you talk to me Jared? You were my only friend…
“Now we are going to go even farther back, to the womb. Just let yourself experience it. Don’t worry if it’s real. Five, four, three…”
The scene, and with it my pain, disappears and is replaced by a benevolent darkness. A rhythmic noise fills my ears; it sounds like the inside of a seashell.
“What are you aware of? What sensations do you feel?”
Love and newness and calm. I feel like something is about to begin.
“Ask yourself – why are you choosing these parents? And this life?”
Because you need to learn how to be human.
That thought is not mine. Who said that…? Be human, what’s that mean? Wait, stop, he said don’t analyze, just experience. Paul is talking again. “How do you feel? Are there people around you?” I think I have missed something.
“Now float above the scene, and we’re going to go further back now, into a past life, or maybe another dimension. Let yourself just go there.” The darkness around me changes. “Imagine a beautiful door, and that this door will lead you to the light.”
I see it! It’s a sleek, shimmering black but there’s no doorknob.
“On the other side of this door is a scene, a scene from your past life. I’m going to count backwards from five to one, and when I get to one, you will be there. Five…four…three…two…one…
“Open the door.”
I reach out my hand but the door swings open without my help. A radiant white light pours out, growing from a sliver to a shaft that never fills the darkness. The light urges me to join it. I walk through the door and on the other side a canvas of muddled colors– browns, blues, pinks, oranges – encases me. There are voices, too, mumbling behind the curtain of all that color.
The colors grow brighter, their edges sharpen, and the chorus of conversation grows louder as I walk farther inside. The words aren’t English – Italian, maybe?
“You’re nearly there,” Paul says. He said I can open my eyes if I’m scared. “One. You’re there. Are you in your body? Look at your feet. Look around you. What do you see?”
Details fill in - the lines of windows, cobblestones and buildings painted in earthy shades of brown and orange. I’m in a courtyard sitting on a hard stone bench, and to my left a small fountain tinkles with glistening water. There is a small crowd of people around me in old-fashioned clothes – long dresses, high collared coats. I watch them, study them, but the women seem to capture my interest.
So I’m a man! I look at my legs and hands. I’m in brown pants and wear leather shoes dull with scuffs. My hands are large with hairy knuckles. Yes, I’m a man!
“Is anyone familiar? Are they people you know?”
No, I don’t know them, but I want to. I note where the women are going, their style of dress. Does it look expensive or hint that she’s poor? I try to catch their eyes. I think I’ve seen one before. She’s petite, her hair slightly mussed and she wears a weary, searching expression.
Someone needs a friend…
I’ve done this before, whatever this is. I know her name – Matlida. And I know where she lives – in a boarding house on the Via Santa Caterina. Across the courtyard, underneath a hand-painted sign, she leans against a building and looks at me with pitiful eyes. There is no recognition in them – but in that second, I feel an orgasmic rush of hunger. Something very enjoyable is about to happen but I know I must keep calm.
“You can go backwards and forwards in this life to learn more,” a voice says, and the scene fades again into black. The color doesn’t return right away. Instead I feel enormous space around me and the air is wet and cold, the ground under my feet gritty. I smell decay and metal and smoke.
It is silent. Then she whimpers. This tells me that she is awake and the show is about to begin. In my right hand is a lantern and I strike a match to light the wick; in the orb of light I see little but her, crumpled on her side with arms violently shoved and tied behind her back. Her dress is ripped and dirty – it’s the same one she wore in the courtyard.
I kneel and place the lantern on the floor, its tinny scrape echoing off of the ceiling. I hum Rossini as I place it close to her face so I can see her fear. My movements are mechanical, as if repeating a ritual.
I look into her shimmering eyes and sing, delighting in the echo of my voice off the distant ceiling.
“Ecco, ridente in cielo. . .” The girl whimpers again but her words are muffled by a piece of cloth I have tied through her mouth. “. . spunta la bella aurora.”
“Shhh, il mio tesoro…” I say. She is interrupting my cavatina. I reach forward with a steady hand and stroke the soft flesh of her face, wet with tears. Matilda winces and whimpers again, her sharp soprano echoing in the vast stillness. Fresh tears pool in her eyes and fall down the side of her face to drip on the dirt floor.
Excitement rushes through me like a shiver. I almost can’t wait to get started, but I shouldn’t be hasty, I am always too hasty and don’t enjoy myself as I much as I hope to. I can play with her until I’m done and then she’ll go in the Po like the others. I have all night with dear Matilda.
“. . . E tu non sorgi ancora. . .”
My honeyed tenor has always been my greatest pride and I let the notes hang in the air, pleased with their ring in my ears. My audience writhes on the floor beneath me and I stare into her eyes, enjoying the terror I find there.
“E puoi dormir cosi'?” I sing.
Her eyes are wide like a crazed animal, carnal and bloodshot. I love that look. In those eyes I see the desire for life, so primal and fierce. Matilda didn’t realize until this night how much she loved to live. Now she is appreciative, now she is truly living. That energy is intoxicating and soon it is too much; I can’t wait anymore.
I shove her flat on the floor. She grunts, and then screams because she knows what’s happening. I straddle her, my knees crushing the curve of her wide hips. A rush of pleasure as she squeals in agony, like a pig. I smell her sour sweat, a hint of lavender perfume.
“Sorgi, mia dolce speme…” My voice is quieter now and there is no echo. The music is just for her.
I ease myself down onto her soft body, and let my hands explore her, the small breasts, and the gentle rise of her belly. She is mine, after all. I may do whatever stirs my fancy, whatever I please. And what I fancy is to drain this body of its warm blood and watch as the light fades from her eyes and the flesh becomes cold.
“Vieni, bell'idol mio…”
Matlida cries harder and her face is now crimson and shining with tears. I push the lantern closer and the glass almost touches her cheek. She recoils at the heat and underneath me her body writhes and jerks, but I’m too strong for her.
The more she cries and the harder she struggles, the better it is for me. They never seem to get that.
I pull up to stretch my back, take a steadying breath, focus my thoughts, soak in everything, memorize it – her smell, her cries, the color of her hair– and then I’m ready.
“Rendi men crudo, oh Dio…”
My hands reach out, inching closer to her neck. She throws her head back and forth to resist me.
Her neck is narrow and delicate, the skin hot. My large hands wrap themselves around it and I squeeze. Matilda’s eyes burn with a fresh horror and I am blissful.
I open my eyes and fill the room with my screams.
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