My mother got me started on t’ai chi when I was a little kid, no more than five or six, I think. We used to go together to her class on Thursday nights at the elementary school gym. She sort of dragged me along.
The man who taught us was graceful, because of his balance, but it wasn’t a dancer’s grace, it was animal-like, controlled. When he put his foot down somewhere, you felt nothing on earth would move him until he lifted it himself. A truck would hit him but he’d still be standing there. “Rootedness” he called it, and we tried to learn that. His name was Lee, but I remember that nobody then called him Master, or even Mister; he was simply Lee, and we didn’t know if that was his first name or his last.
He told us wonderful stories that, being a child, I thought were meant to entertain me. He told us that a bird could alight in the palm of a t’ai chi master and be forever imprisoned in his open hand, because he could sense its beginning movement of flight and lower his hand just so, to compensate.
We went to his classes for years, my mother and I. She probably still would be. But Lee flew away to Ann Arbor to address a seminar on Chinese healing and never came back. We heard that he delivered his last lecture, then dropped dead rather peacefully at the closing banquet. He was among friends. He had a certain knack for completion.
My husband Robert, when he moved out, said to me, “That which fails must first be strong.” I am forever quoting proverbs at everyone. I understand that this must be a really annoying habit, but how else can you say so much, so totally ambiguously, with such economy? Still, Robert didn’t need to throw it in my face like that. We were at the front door at the time. He had his arm around me. I watched him go, and for the first time I felt the breath fly right out of me.
So anyway, one way or another I had kept up the t’ai chi, even through college where I had a pretty weird pony-tailed, balding guy for an instructor. (People in college towns must feel they have to look weird for no reason.) And now I’m teaching it myself, oddly enough, with no further credentials than longevity, and aptitude.
Last night they showed the original Breathless at the foreign film club. The one with Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. This morning, before I could change my mind, I went to the barber and had my hair clipped short like that. Now I can’t stop rubbing the top of my head. It feels wonderful, like a teddy bear I used to sleep with. They both looked so terrific in the movie, you know, so young and stupid.
I think something is happening to me. My mother says she was a beatnik when she was my age, and I’m feeling something similar myself. My wardrobe is slowly turning black. This hair. I never could have done this when Robert was around, he would have freaked. If I even pulled my hair back into a braid I would see a look begin to wash over his face, an expression of slight pain.
Robert is a biochemist. He is working on those enzymes that eat oil slicks and turn cheese whey into plastic. He lives down the road in Winnock Falls now, and I’m staying here in the house.
Phil, my lover, says I should sell the house, but he is rich and in real estate and must not know me very well if that is his best advice. I will keep the house as long as Robert lives nearby. Phil is a lot older than I am, and I don’t think he is going to be my lover much longer. I knew it last night watching Breathless. I suddenly remembered what it was like to be loved by someone dangerous and inappropriate. Oh, a high school motorcycle gang hero once, and a steely-eyed PTSD war vet later on. Probably what Phil would refer to as two economic casualties. Phil is way too cynical for me. There is a big difference between the nothingnesses of cynicism and existentialism, I guess. At least in attractiveness to me.
I saw the newer Breathless when it came out, too, and it was almost as charming. Not that I’m holding out for Jean-Paul Belmondo, you understand, or Richard Gere either, but I hope nobody tests me on that one.
This is great. My friend Ellen told me this. You know Richard Gere is from North Syracuse? Well, he was home for a couple of weeks campaigning for Rosemary Pooler’s November election. So Ellen’s friend walks into the Friendly’s in North Syracuse and there sits Richard Gere eating ice cream. She thinks she will die. You know how Friendly’s are laid out: the take-out, the cash register, the lunch counter? Well, Richard Gere is right there next to the cash register in the first seat. I am not going to make a fool of myself, she thinks, I am going to get my ice cream and leave. So she orders her ice cream cone, pays for it, and walks out and gets into her car. Sitting in her car she realizes she has forgotten to pick up the ice cream cone. So she walks back in and says to the take-out man, “Can I have my cone please?” “I gave it to you,” he says. “Well, I don’t have it,” she says, “I left it.” “It’s not here,” he says. “I don’t understand,” she whispers, trying to be unobtrusive, “I ordered it, I paid for it, where is it?” The counter man is looking at her as if she is nuts. Just then Richard Gere leans over to her. “It’s in your purse,” he says.
“Tonight we do kung fu wushu,” I say to my class, “kung fu t’ai chi.” I find this helps them with the kicks, although I have explained that the term kung fu means an inner mastery of any discipline or skill: kung fu gymnastics, kung fu calligraphy, kung fu open heart surgery. Still, the thought of Bruce Lee gets those heels up in the air, gets the ch’i flowing. “The force comes from your tan tien,” I say, indicating the abdomen, “and flows outward through your hands and feet like rushing water.” They are a good class, full of life, and I am happy to teach them; but then the gift of t’ai chi ch’uan is that just practicing the exercise makes you happy.
One guy in the class, an architect, seems to be exploring this facet. “I feel so full,” he declares happily after one of the early classes, “I can’t go on.” Another time he tells us that during the meditation everything outside the circle of his arms “recedes and blurs, and the circle feels like an aura of energy.” This is good. I think they are beginning to get it.
For me, there are benefits like the ten thousand things, but mostly, after an hour of class, there is an enormous sense of well-being, as if my body has been balanced, adjusted to its center, aligned. And there is a clarity of mind, this sounds funny, but an originality, a blast of purity, as if I haven’t felt this good before. Sometimes when I think about it, I realize it feels like it felt being married to Robert, you know, the first time you are all-out happy, and it is a good thing, and the right thing to be. I guess I miss that. I guess it’s probably only chemical, like eating chocolate.
We are practicing the Lotus Sweeping Kick, a high, looping kick with three weight changes, and their feet come down hard on the wood floor, unevenly, one after the other, like an exchange of shots. “Once again,” I say, “Lotus Sweeping Kick, then Bend Bow to Shoot Tiger.” Their arms sweep the air and their feet rise to meet them with a sharp slap at the height of the parabola. We exhale as one body.
“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish,” I say to Phil. “The Tao of Reagan and Bush.” Phil gives me a funny look. “It just means if you are cooking a small fish you should tend it carefully but not flip it over all the time and poke at it. Or you’ll end up with a little pile of mush in your pan instead of a whole, perfect fish. Really a brilliant metaphor for government.” I don’t remember having to explain the Tao to Robert.
We are watching the ten o’clock news. It’s the Watergate and Iran-Contra and Halliburton things, cropping up yet again. Phil gives a hard, derisive laugh. “What a joke. You just know they never even asked,” he says, squirting hot sauce on a taco and handing it to me. “Manipulating money is so easy. Nobody asks.” He pops open two beers and hands me one.
“Uh-huh,” I say, rubbing the top of my head—I feel this becoming another annoying mannerism. I see I have dribbled taco sauce down the front of my t-shirt. “Then I guess it’s time I asked. Are you a crook?”
There is a short silence while Phil turns a little white. “Of course not,” he says unconvincingly.
Driving home I see the lights are still on at Jim Dandy, so I pull in to get something cold to drink. It’s still crowded, even at this time of night. Truck drivers, kids, cops on coffee break. When I look down from the menu board I get a jolt: Robert is sitting there at the end of the counter. He doesn’t notice me, or recognize me, maybe. He is with the girl next to him. I stare at him for a long time, willing him to turn around.
Karen Alpha’s short stories are widely published in literary magazines: North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Epoch, New World Writing, and elsewhere. Currently she is working on gathering them into a collection and on a memoir of childhood.