What’s next? the e-mail said. Maria hated when her friends asked her that. Whenever Maria quit a job (she hated) or broke up with a boyfriend (who wasn’t really a boyfriend), e-mails arrived, asking the dreaded, “What’s next?”
Maria stared at the computer screen. What’s next? Well, maybe next would be a year in Italy leading to one of those spiritual awakenings that would then motivate her to write a book that would get made into a movie starring Mary Louise Parker. Maybe next would be a bestseller and a book tour including a stint on Oprah and then, an Academy Award for best screenplay, plus truckloads of fan mail from women like herself in their fifties and single and filled with youthful hope (although none of them sure for what), thanking Maria for showing them the inherent possibilities in what’s next?
Maria breathed. Not the deep belly breathing she’d learned in yoga where she puffed out her stomach, then slowly exhaled feeling herself deflate. And not the ujjayi breathing that if done right, inhaling deeply eeee and exhaling long and hard aaaa sounded like an ocean in the throat.
Maria simply, naturally, languorously, breathed. The way she’d been doing since the day she’d been born. She didn’t quite understand why, if in and out breathing had kept her alive for 53 years, why wasn’t it fine for yoga? She knew she was supposed to focus on her breath, clear her mind. But even with her belly rising or her inner voice going eeeee aaaaa, she thought constantly, painfully, what’s next?
Maria Joy Shapiro was one of those five-year olds who screamed her throat raw on the first day of Kindergarten. To onlookers it must have appeared as if Helen Shapiro, her mother, dragged her down Morris Avenue in the Bronx. Trains rumbled across the El above them. Maria’s hand grabbed for her mother’s sweater pocket; her fingers pulled loose a strand of yarn, she refused to let go.
Once they arrived at Public School 68, Helen pried Maria’s fingers free (a small miracle), but too late to have stopped the yarn from unraveling leaving a small hole in the sweater pocket. Her mother walked her inside the schoolyard, where circles of children touched their toes in Simon Says. A boy sat on the bench; his mother held a tissue to his snotty nose.
Helen Shapiro pointed. “Do you want to be a baby, like him?”
“Nooooo.” Maria’s orange-red hair flew about as she shook her head wildly.
“Good girl,” Helen said, then walked her to the circle where a teacher stood with a sign, Miss Simpson K-101. “That’s your class,” Helen said. Maria grabbed onto her mother’s skirt, but she walked swiftly away to the other mothers. Her flaming hair lit the women sharing a laugh.
“Mommies can’t stay in Kindergarten,” Miss Simpson said, leading Maria to a bench, instructing her to put down her pink sweater and stuffed kitty. Afterward, she joined the circle, where she bent sleeveless and sweaterless, touching her fingers to her toes, then her shoulders. By the time Maria had her fingers on her head then her nose, she wondered why her mother was still there. The other mothers left.Helen’s fingers hooked through the fence, the way their family canary clung to the cage when she wanted to be let out.
The kids now had their hands on their shoulders, except for Maria. She watched her mother and sat on the cool ground-her skirt flared around her.
Spiritual awakenings don’t come cheap. And that was an issue when Maria quit as an adjunct at Connecticut State College. Just one month before her friends threw her a party for getting her Masters in creative writing. With school over, Maria worried about what would come next. She sighed with relief landing the teaching position. Professor Shapiro her friends called her, even though Maria explained she was one of 85 underpaid adjuncts hired to teach Freshman Composition 101. Nothing creative there. At the interview, Maria wanted to give herself a few accolades for returning to school at fifty, and explain her methods for helping students tap into their unconscious creativity. But Dr. Morse, the program director, talked for exactly seventy minutes about “the course,” explaining the unique syllabus he’d designed requiring students to write six five-page essays (in Times New Roman not Courier), each essay subject overlapped the other until the final exam where six voices plus the student’s conversed. Maria felt dizzy.
“Seventeen percent of all freshmen fail,” Dr. Morse said, in a military tone. “They call this the nightmare course.”
Dr. Morse was tall and slim with brown wavy hair tied in a neat pony tail. A tiny, diamond stud sparkled from his left earlobe. Long-haired, hippy academics were Maria’s weakness, turned her brain to pudding. So when he offered the job and handed her three loose leaf binders of instructional material on how to teach “the course,” she smiled and said, “thank you,” when what she should have said is, “I cannot teach writing as a nightmare!” And grading papers every other week against a twenty-four point checklist on an adjunct’s salary meant she’d earn $5.22 an hour. She could make lattés at Starbucks for more and receive medical insurance.
But if she refused the job, she would have wandered into the oblivion of what’s next. In fact, Dr. Morse’s looks and entire academic gestalt had nothing to do with why she took the job. What’s next had been looming since her first day of kindergarten. What’s next was what sent Maria to school at fifty years old in the first place. What’s next was her most feared place on the planet.
Maria clicked out of her hotmail program. She rose to check the yoga schedule taped to her fridge. Vinyasa yoga at 1:00. At least at yoga nobody asked, what’s next. Yoga was concerned with now. And the instructor never said, “What now?” She said, “Pay attention to your breath” or “Remember to breathe.” If Maria made the 1:00 class, she’d have one of the few pleasures she counted on these days.
Lightening crashed, breaking open the sky. Rain fell without warning, drenching teachers and Kindergartners. Miss Simpson gathered her young charges and herded them toward the heavy metal back door, shooing them inside. Maria ran back for her sweater and kitty. Her mother appeared like a mirage, mascara smudged across her cheeks, her print dress pasted to her body. She swooped up the sweater and kitty from the bench. “Drowned rat,” she smiled at Maria, holding out the stuffed animal, whose pink fur was soaked and clumpy. The sweater had that smoky smell, like after she’d lost it once in the woods behind the park her mother took her to.
“Maria!” Miss Simpson shouted. “Hurry up!”
Maria’s face reddened. None of the other mothers were in the yard.
Helen grabbed Maria’s fist and pulled her toward the door. They followed Miss Simpson into the classroom. Fluorescent overheads flicked on. Maria gazed at the miniature kitchen with a sink and stove and plastic dishes. Hard rain pelted the windows. The classroom felt cave-like and warm.
She didn’t understand the sinking sensation in her chest, like a throb, wishing her mother would leave. She’d never wanted her mother to go away, in fact, Maria had spent the week before school wishing for a sickness that would keep her at home forever.
Helen took off her sweater and draped it around the back of a chair.
“Mrs. Shapiro!” Miss Simpson said, removing her water-stained glasses. “Why don’t you wait in the office until the rain stops?”
Maria’s eyes widened with relief.
“Could I stay here just a little while?” Helen asked. She had already found a picture book on the bookcase and was about to read to two girls.
“I guess that would be okay,” Miss Simpson said, pointing her finger and counting heads.
Maria wandered to the cooking corner, where she burrowed alone behind the small appliances.
India and Asia were Maria’s yoga friends. When they first introduced themselves,
she laughed, but quickly stopped when she realized they didn’t see anything funny. Now, India placed blue sticky mats on the hardwood floor in the gym, setting spots for people who hadn’t yet arrived. Asia arranged the teacher’s spot in front of the windows, two mats, one atop the other the way Karen liked, and a Styrofoam block for lotus position.
After kicking off her black flats and slipping off her sweatshirt, Maria dropped her towel on a mat and stretched out. A slender man wearing sweatpants and a Yale tee-shirt drifted in and smiled. Maria thought he was cute and wondered if he was married in the way she wondered about almost every man who was reasonably attractive.
Asia sat down and smiled. They were all such happy Buddhas.
Maria closed her eyes and mind-traveled. Dr. Morse’s face appeared smack in front of her third eye. She then tried breathing yoga style. In her left nostril, out her right. In her right, out her left. She breathed deep, pinching her nostrils open and shut, concentrating on the in and out flow of air. But toxic thoughts (otherwise known as how she really felt) surfaced. She recalled the days before quitting her adjunct position. It was 3:00 a.m. and for the second night in a row, she graded papers. The twenty-four point checklist confounded her. She’d read somewhere that when the brain attempts selecting from too much information, it shuts down, goes paralytic. Maria was there, in that awful place. She numbly scribbled C’s and B’s, a few Ds and F’s.
The next morning, clutching the stack of graded papers, Maria explained to the class Dr. Morse’s grading system. Eyes centered on her, their fingers toyed with pens, notebooks. She held up the grid with its twenty four boxes, pointed to each bullet point.
“There were a few Fs and Ds,” she said, her voice wobbly. “Mostly Cs.” Her eyes welled. Twenty-two somber faces stared, their lips clamped as she walked up and down the aisles handing back the papers. Shuffling out of the classroom, students placed their next round of papers on the edge of her desk. Maria stared out the windows, memorizing the tall elms. Its branches were lush with gold and red leaves. Ripples in the river just behind, lulled her.
It was now 1:07 according to the clock on the wall above Karen’s mat. She was the only yoga teacher at the gym who came to class late. Breathing turned heavier, labored. No more happy Buddhas. Maria went to open a window, let the cool air refresh her. She wasn’t angry, not at Karen. Not quite at herself, although she was close, at that edge of turning her thoughts of what could’ve been, in on herself.
When she was on one side of a situation, she so easily forgot what it had been like on the other side. An underpaid adjunct at Connecticut State College was not a glamour job. But she wasn’t in it for the glamour. She liked the students. That was the absolute truth. She liked their eager faces and the way they looked to her as if she knew things. And she did know things. She knew how to write an essay, how to write exquisite prose, how to turn a phrase. What she didn’t know was how to write an academic essay.
Karen arrived at 1:14. Two women who’d never before taken Karen’s class rolled their eyes. The man in the Yale tee shirt powered down his cell phone to the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. India placed her palms in front of her heart in prayer pose. Maria sat on her block and crossed her legs.
“I am so sorry,” Karen gushed. “The trains were running late.”
Maria felt embarrassed for her. There was nothing wrong with the trains, and if there was, that was not the reason Karen was late. She simply couldn’t be on time. Just as Maria, before saying “I quit,” simply couldn’t pause.
Bright sun spilled into the kindergarten momentarily blinding Maria. She closed her eyes tight. Opening them, she was startled to see her mother seated on the floor in the center of the room, her wet sweater draped over her shoulders.
“Miss Simpson will be right back, children,” her mother said. “I’m Maria’s mommy.” She pointed to Maria, who was beginning to feel feverish. Everything inside of her felt hot, wrong. The only time her mother sat on the floor was when they played. What was she doing there? Maria wanted her mother to go home.
A girl came up to Maria and said, “Is your mommy the teacher?”
“She’s funny,” the snotty nosed boy said.
“Shut up!” Maria shouted.
Everything inside of her shifted. From the moment she saw her mother at the fence, Maria hadn’t known how to feel. She wished her mother would disappear, not for good, just until Kindergarten ended. That feeling terrified her.
Miss Simpson had been gone for only a moment, yet it was long enough to turn Maria’s world upside down. “Mrs. Shapiro?” Miss Simpson said, “Are you alright?”
Helen groped around in her sweater pocket, slipping her index finger through the hole Maria had torn. “His ring...” Helen whispered. The teacher leaned down and took Helen’s elbow. “Mrs. Shapiro, can I call someone for you?”
“My husband’s wedding ring...he left it...us...me and Maria...I put it in my pocket...” she choked out and then broke into uncontrollable sobs.
Maria paled, remembering the end of yarn she had pulled on. Twenty pairs of small eyes stared at her.
Miss Simpson wrote something on a piece of paper, folded it in quarters and gave it to two girls. They skipped out of the classroom to the Principal’s office across the hall.
Karen had an operatic voice. She led a series of chants before beginning the poses, except for when she was more than ten minutes late. Maria was disappointed that Karen went straight to “om” and then ear-to-ceiling pose.
Now, with her head tilted to the right, and her eyes searching for the ceiling, Maria recalled telling Dr. Morse, “This part-time job takes sixty hours a week, and I can’t do it!” All puffed up, she walked into his office; he smiled at her. His smile took her aback: it was not at all what she expected. There had been that second then-while she absorbed his smile-when she could have paused. She could’ve smiled back, let the air out of her lips. She could’ve collected herself, regained her poise, breathed. She was, after all, Professor Shapiro.
She at least knew the answer to what’s next? Forty-four papers to grade, lessons to write, readings to assign, student folders to get in order so that she could get graded. But then, there was the small problem of warning rosters. She had to transfer lateness, absence, late paper, and no paper notations from her roll book to her roster. On her second day, Dr. Morse’s secretary told her roll books cost $6.00 and teachers would have to buy their own. And so Maria had no roll book, which meant she didn’t keep a formal roster. She typed up a list with everyone’s name and made x’s and o’s in different colored ink, never dreaming she wouldn’t be able to crack her own code. The daily e-mails with their subject line, “Warning Rosters due Monday!” kept her awake at night.
Her head now turned to the left, Maria focused on the space where the wall and ceiling met. Two flat pieces of plasterboard seamlessly came together forming a structure. A ceiling on one side, a floor on the other. The meeting of two perfectly aligned edges brought tears to Maria’s eyes.
“Breathe,” Karen said, and Maria was grateful for the reminder. She often clenched her teeth during class and didn’t understand why, since she enjoyed the poses, even the ones she strained to do.
Then she stood and placed her palms in front of her heart in prayer pose, as India had done earlier. Maria wasn’t sure if she was actually supposed to pray, but she did. She prayed to forget about the job with its warnings and papers and students terrified of flunking “Comps.” At the same time, she imagined herself on the train leaving Manhattan, steel and brick replaced by trees and rolling hills. Warm, salty tears now slid down her cheeks.
Maria breathed. She extended her arms out and up in a circular movement and let her body go limp until she hinged at the waist. Peeking through her legs, she saw the man in the Yale tee shirt. He was hyper-extended, stretching so hard on his hamstrings Maria’s own hurt. She would tell him when class was over.
Behind him was Asia, hugging her knees to her chest. India was on the floor with her legs up the wall. Maria liked the way everyone did what they needed to do, sit out a pose, rest or push hard, strengthen muscles they didn’t even know they had. No one cared, no one asked, what now? Although in Yale tee shirt’s case, Karen should have gently said, “It’s ok to bend your knees.” Maria would take care of that though. If she remembered, if she didn’t reach some state of nirvana or at the very least, stillness.
Helen was now crying in the middle of Maria’s classroom. “Baby,” Helen whispered, reaching for Maria.
“I’m sorry I lost Daddy’s ring!” she cried.
Two policemen took Helen by each arm and tried leading her out of the room. She broke free, tripping down the front hallway stairs. She landed flat on her back.
Laying face up in corpse pose, Maria sank into the floor. Lying still, palms to the sky, she tried opening herself up to the present moment. She wanted to live in the now, that was why she practiced yoga.
“Make a fist with your toes,” Karen said. “Then relax and forget about them.” Her toes curled tight, Maria wondered if what’s next could be a creative writing teaching job, where writing was taught as a dream, not a nightmare. Where there were no papers, only poetic angst-ridden stories where others like herself wandered in the artistic gloom of what’s next? In true good karmic fashion, Maria would come to thank Dr. Morse and comps. For in having said yes to the job she’d wanted to say no to, her fear of what’s next was revealed. And that was one of the points of yoga, to face the monster.
The ambulance careened through traffic, tossing Helen and Maria this way and that. Maria sat on the edge of the bed, clutching her mother’s hand all the way to Mount Sinai Hospital. There, Helen was whisked away. Maria sat alone in the waiting room until a woman from Children’s Services arrived.
“Hi Maria, I’m Gloria,” she said, offering a red lifesaver. “The school tried to call your father. But there was no answer. Do you have his telephone number?”
Maria sucked on the candy, said nothing.
“Is there someone I can call to get you? An aunt? A neighbor?”
“He died. His heart hurt.” Maria said.
“He died?” Gloria echoed. “Your father? When?”
Maria shrugged. “He drove a bus.” She stuck out her tongue. “Is it red?”
Gloria smiled. “Yes, honey, your tongue is red. Can you tell me...who takes care of you and your mommy?”
Maria clasped her hands tight. “I do,” she said.
Karen dimmed the lights. “What happened in the past and worries for the future fade away,” she said. “In savásana or corpse pose, we prepare to let a part of ourselves die.”
Maria understood that everything that already happened was over, done. She tried entering true savásana where she was fully relaxed but not asleep. Emptying her mind and lying still was the hardest pose. In that absolute connection with now, she wouldn’t care what was next. She would go from one now to another.
“Breathe naturally,” Karen said, “Try not to drift.”
Maria tried pushing out all thoughts, finding a point, anything-a spec of dust-to lead her to savásana. But her mind was a giant arm, reaching back.
Gloria patted Maria’s shoulder. “Your mommy needs to rest. She can’t do that at home, taking care of you.”
Maria bit down hard on a new green lifesaver. She thought about Miss Simpson and the miniature kitchen. She wondered if she’d be in Kindergarten tomorrow.
“We’re going to find a relative who can take care of you until your mommy is well,” Gloria said.
“No!” Maria shouted. If she had gotten sick and stayed home all week, none of this would have happened. She shook the woman’s hand off her shoulder, wailed, “Nooooo!”
Maria’s fear of what’s next rose from her fingers, her toes, her entire body. Tears
slid down her face as she remembered telling Gloria she had no aunts or uncles. Gloria
took her to a big house where kids slept in rows of beds, until a kind family came for her. Maria remembered her new daddy buying her lifesavers every day, and she remembered the day, six months later, when Helen came to get her.
Maria now envisioned a ghostly version of herself, walking right out of her stomach, slipping through the edge between floor and ceiling. Her body seemed to lift off the floor, float in midair.
Maria recalled Helen reaching for her. “My big girl,” she said. “You’re so brave!” No matter how far Maria drifted, the earth supported her. Even though it was really the third floor of the YMCA, it was the earth; solid, fertile.
Karen tiptoed to the wall, darkened the room. “No rush, but when you’re ready, fall to one side with your knees bent, in preparation for rebirth,” she said.
Maria fell to her right side curled in fetal position. She still felt light, woozy. A small version of her settled inside the curve of her body. She lingered, until she was ready to be reborn.