It’s Not A Cult



Neighborhood: All Over, JFK/LGA, Letter From Abroad

It’s Not A Cult
Photo by Mr. Rollers

“I have to get to New York” says the woman in front of me at the Portland, Oregon airport. “You don’t understand, I have to get there.” She repeats this urgently, in a slightly hysterical voice to a man in uniform behind a counter. I smile at her sympathetically.

The flight to JFK has been indefinitely delayed due to snow. On the news it’s announced that “all the snowplows the city owns” are working overtime. People are advised to stay inside. I curse the notion that weather is more than a passing inconvenience and stare at the TV screens. I would rather sleep in the airport than go back to my parents’ house.

The boy with the amethyst earring provides a welcome distraction. I see his dirty sneakers pause in front of me, and when I look up I find a lanky blond kid, asymmetrical haircut shaved on the sides, one crystal point of amethyst dangling from a silver hoop in his ear.

“Will you watch my bags for me?” He gestures to two shapeless brown sacks.

I shrug and nod, “I guess.”

“Just kidding,” he says, “that’s illegal!”

“With these security guards, I’m not too worried.” I say, covering a moment of unease.

“They’re pretty strict?” He raises an eyebrow, also with a silver ring in it. Had I really been about to watch a stranger’s bags? It didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, security took my shampoo. They can’t have let anything through on this scruffy boy.

He sits down near me and tells me, “I’ve never been to New York before.”

“Oh, really? I live there, it’s a great place.” I smile with thoughts of the city that has been my home for more than a decade.

“It’s a crazy story, how I got here,” he says, rummaging in one of his bags, “Where’s my heart?” He pulls out a red plush pillow in the shape of an anatomical heart and holds it tightly, “You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“It sounds like a cult but it’s not.”

“That sounds like my childhood, go on.”

“Okay, so. I left my heart in T’s bed so I had to go back for it.”

“This heart?” I gesture to his pillow. He nods and continues.

“When I got there she wasn’t there, but in her bed was this other girl I’d never met before. We started talking and she told me things about myself in 20 minutes that no one has ever known about me, things I didn’t even know. She was headed to this community, where I’m going now. She told me I belong there, and made me her recruit. She tells me their password, even, and says she’ll make sure I get in if I follow her.”

“There’s a password? For real?”

“Yeah. It’s not a cult though.”

“But, do they know you’re coming?”

“No, but she does. And I’m taking them things to offer them, gifts, like this.” He lifts a bottle of gin partially out of his bag. “I’ve been reading about spirituality, see,” he passes me a book from his bag, then finding something further down, wrapped in clothes, he tells me, “You have to see this, I made it.” He unwinds thermal shirts from a clay bowl and holds it up. The edges are furled and wavy, glazed with a milky white. “Oh, I know, it’s very vaginal.” He says, “Everyone notices.”

I nod, amused but skeptical.

An overhead speaker informs us our flight will begin boarding in 35 minutes. My face releases into a broad smile of relief, “New York, at last!” I cheer, but my new friend begins to look worried. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” He says. His book of spirituality is still in my hands. He begins to get up.

“You can borrow that,” he says.

“Oh, well thanks,” I say flatly.

“What seat are you in?” He asks.

“Like, 23, A or something.”

“No. No way.” He looks spooked by this information, ”I’m in 23C. Let me see.”

I pull out my boarding pass and we compare. We’ve been assigned seats in the same row, with only one seat between us. “I can’t believe this. This is a sign.” His voice sounds shaky, and his pale face has picked up a pink tinge. He disappears briefly and returns sipping a can of 22oz beer cloaked in a paper bag.

“Meeting you is a sign.” He tells me, looking at me with a strange, intense gleam in his small blue eyes. “Going to New York is the right thing to do.”

“I think it’s just a coincidence,” I say, shrugging, “But going to New York is always the right thing to do,” I add with a smile. At least I’ll have company on the six-hour journey. I could use some distance from Portland before I think too much about my own life, and the doctor I have agreed to see when I get back to New York. A psychiatrist. My parents believe something is wrong with me, but this is not new.

When we board, we switch seats with a woman seated between us. I give him the window. As the plane taxis to the runway he unhooks the amethyst pendant from its silver hoop in his ear and places it in my hand. He begins to tell me about the man he got it from, the huge collection of these purple crystals this man has. The plane speeds up and lifts into the air. “Amethyst is the heart gemstone,” he says, “it signifies love.” I turn it over in my hand. It reminds me of the crystal point that a doctor I was brought to when I was small used as a pendulum.

This doctor would hold herbs to various locations on my body with one hand while, with the other swinging her crystal on a chain, reading its motion in her fingers. My parents have told me, for as long as I can remember, that I was sick. Always something subtle, that only they could see. No one has ever been able to cure me. Now that I don’t live with them, it is my head they think is sick, not my body. The boy next to me talks on about love and the powers of gemstones. I don’t feel lost in his stories of abuse and love. I listen, fascinated by the long, confusing tales of his life.

It’s when the airplane has landed and is slowly trundling towards the lights of JFK that he says, as though he had just remembered something, “I have most of a crow in my bag. I don’t think that’s allowed.”

“What?” my mind reels with confusion. “Most of a real crow, you mean?”

“Yes.” He says, looking sheepish.

“You’re crazy. This is crazy.”

“I knew you’d think that.”

“Most of…? Which parts of the crow do you have?”

“The wings, the beak, the head, and the feet.”

“Oh.” I stare at him, horrified. “Where did you get it?”

“I took it; It was dead.” He explains, “I wanted it, so I offered something, and I took the carcass.”

“The whole thing?” I ask.

“Yes.” He says, looking out the window as we trundle towards the gate at JFK.

“But you only have part of it here?”

“I’m really spiritually okay with it.” He nods his head.

The amethyst sways from his ear. “I kept it, and I prayed to it. Then one night I took off most of the feathers, and the beak. The next night I took off the feet.” He gestures, as if arranging something with his hands, and continues in a soft voice, “I kept the wings, just got the mites off them. Took the claws. I have everything except the body.”

I negotiate the escalator with a foreign woman in an outfit of boldly patterned cloth, a matching hat jaunty on her head. She has less experience with wheeled suitcases than I do, and attempts to push hers on in front of her. When I get on the J train, relief floods me. I’ve been caught up in the unstoppable rhythm of this city once again, impersonal yet familiar. I watch sleepy teenagers slide into each other as the train lurches in and out of the stations. I have forgotten about the crow-boy, because in my head I never got on the train.

I walked off the airplane and out of the airport, without stopping at baggage claim. I didn’t wait for the conveyer belt to start up, hands shoved in pockets, exchanging nervous nods with the crow-boy, or watch as he hoisted the dun-colored duffle bag containing the crow onto his shoulders. He didn’t gaze meaningfully into my eyes, or wish me good luck, and I didn’t feel ashamed or disgusted. In my version, I never made a psychologist appointment. When the doctor tells me I am healthy, my parents do not refute his assessment, or question his credentials.

Instead, I left my nylon suitcase tracking circles in the dingy airport basement. Outside I waited on line, the gum-speckled concrete reeking of gasoline. When I got a cab I asked the driver to take me to Times Square. I told him I wanted to see the neon, I wanted to hear the noise — that this was my first time in New York City.

I see everything as brand new, and I am exhilarated by the city all over again.

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