I find out third hand that I have been put on the untouchable diet, the most severe of all the diets. No salt, sugar, oil or sex, and in the final stages, no touching at all. A shaman told my boyfriend, via email, that my soul is full of demons and that anyone who touched me risked some of my soul mixing in with theirs. I don’t care enough to argue. I remember a blues singer back home telling the audience to be careful who they had sex with. She said that every time you have sex with someone, you exchange a little soul with each other. “Well, it’s a little late for that,” I remember thinking. No wonder my soul is full of demons.
I become my boyfriend’s pet project. He plucks the rice cakes right out of my chubby American hand and replaces them with the peppers he’s grown in the community garden. He boils sweet potatoes for us to eat with cabbage and turnips every night. He pours the water from the sweet potatoes into a Nalgene bottle and encourages me to drink from it on my hikes for added nutrients. He wants me to be pure for the exorcism.
I feel like I’m getting further away from home every day, preparing to take stupid chances on my life with one of the most handsome foreigners in town. So handsome that within the month, I’ll end up drinking a vat of tobacco juice because he encourages me to do it, and then fall to my knees projectile vomiting onto the mud and into my string bikini. Oh, excuse me, I’ll purge all over the mud and into my string bikini. I wonder if the girl who dies from ingesting tobacco juice that same week in that same country would have cared what I call it.
I have to admit that I would never have ended up with this guy, no matter how handsome, if my best friend, Shaira, hadn’t left me all alone. We used to laugh at him trying to come around and knock on my door. The Medicine Man, we called him. He was always trying to get closer to me, so I would make a big show of bringing my Syrian lover around and holding his hand or sitting in his lap. We were wild about each other and I didn’t mind showing that off. But then, my Syrian lover went back to Aleppo to bury his parents, who died in a bombing. I discouraged him from going and neither of us expected him to survive the trip. Shortly thereafter, my best friend went back to her country to bury her own mother. I stopped laughing after I was left alone for a few months. This handsome guy was the only one left who spoke my language. His accent reminded me of my best friend’s.
“Why’d she leave you, if you guys are so close?” He asks.
“Her mother has cancer.”
“It’s probably from bad energy. You can heal cancer with meditation, you know? But nobody wants to listen to that. If they just tried it, there wouldn’t be any more cancer. Did I tell you I healed my back with mindfulness?”
“You did.” About a year earlier, I had proposed a game to myself. I would take a shot whenever this guy mentioned “mindfulness” or “meditation.” When we were just neighbors, it was fun. Now that we’re the only two foreigners left in the building, the game is turning me into a hardcore alcoholic. He’ll knock on my door, I’ll let him in, and then, within minutes, I’m reaching for my liquor cabinet.
“I had nine surgeries before that. Nine. I started meditating one day, and poof! No more back problems. It was all about my relationship with my mother, see…”
For someone so crazy, he sure is boring. These are the kinds of people I attract when I’m abroad. Weirdos, or people on the run. I much prefer the latter. I can feel myself becoming a creep from having been lost and left alone for too long already. I feel like I’m suspended between worlds. The newbies don’t get that. Only the other lifers do.
By the time this guy used his accent to ask me to pour my life savings into a trip to Peru, I had to admit that I didn’t really have anything better to do. The last vacation I had, I ended up reading Carrie by Stephen King and then, in alarmingly quick succession, joining a cult. I was baptized in a bathtub across the street from my apartment, and now I have to take the fire escape every day to avoid running into those people. I can’t afford to be alone again. There aren’t any drugs in this country, but there are other ways to slip away, and I know I have a knack for finding them. So, me and this guy start planning our trip to the rainforest to go see that shaman we don’t know in real life who prescribed me an exorcism. Via email. Naturally.
“If you have your period, they’ll isolate you.” He informs me one night, reading one of his many books on the subject while I’m pouring myself my third “end-of-the-day” drink. Normally, I don’t pay him any mind after my second drink, but this information alarms me.
“Excuse me? You mean those isolation tents where women get raped and killed in Africa? That’s oppressive. I’m not going in a fucking tent.”
“No one’s asking you to go in a tent. If you get your period, you can stay in our tambo. You just can’t come down to the maloka or participate in the ceremony. ”
“I’m paying a thousand dollars a night. I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want. My blood’s not dirty.”
“It’ll bring demons down on everybody. Don’t you respect anyone’s culture but your own?”
“How am I obligated to show respect for a culture that doesn’t respect women? I just won’t go, then. Fuck it.” Frankly, I’m scared. I’ll use any excuse I can to get out of this trip.
“Hey, don’t get upset. This is the cure for PTSD. Don’t throw that away. It’s going to fix you. No more nightmares, can you imagine? We need this. Anyways, it shouldn’t matter. I’ll just try to schedule it for the beginning of the month.” We?
“Hang on a second. The beginning of the month? Are you tracking my period?”
“Of course. I’m your boyfriend.”
Are you? I want to ask. And if so, a follow up question; since when? I don’t remember asking for a boyfriend. But he’s always telling me how sick and crazy I am. That does sound like me. I guess I must have just blacked out and woke up with a boyfriend who cooks. I have to admit that there are worse things to wake up to. Of course, he lured me with pancakes before he trapped me with turnips, but I think he’s right. If there’s even a one percent chance I can wipe my mind clean and start fresh, I should try. The nightmares are killing me.
He explains to me over and over again how Ayahuasca works, how it has worked for thousands of years, how it’s the last word in cures. He spares no small detail, explaining to me how to purge at length.
“Anyways, it’s worth it, and it shouldn’t be a problem for you. Didn’t you tell me you used to be bulimic?”
“I don’t remember telling you that.”
“Yeah. You were really drunk.” His eyes linger on the drink I’m holding now. I consider this for a moment, then take a deep sip. “Anyways,” he continues airily, “tuns of veterans with PTSD go down there. You can talk to them all about those nightmares that have been keeping you up. And it’s not always throwing up. Sometimes, it’s diarrhea.”
“How romantic,” I smile at him.
“Yeah, I know.” He smiles back. “It’s just a little poisonous, so you have to purge it before you can start tripping.”
“My dad did peyote in Arizona once. He said he had to ‘pull the trigger.'” Just for fun, I mime making myself throw up.
“Yeah, it’s the same thing! But of course, this is purely medicinal.”
“Of course. Do you really think it’ll cure me?”
“Baby, do you know how many of these books I’ve read? I know it’ll cure you. One hundred per cent.”
I move closer to him on the couch and lean in for a kiss. He jumps up like I’m contagious. “Not just yet,” he reminds me. I nod and take another drink.
The first time I do Ayahuasca, there are monsters, things chasing me up, up, up an endless set of stairs in an old colonial house. I reach the attic but keep being chased up. I don’t want to keep running. All while I’m lying still on a mat in the maloka, my breathing is ragged and my legs are exhausted. Then I see Shaira holding out her arms to me. “It’s ok,” she says, “you don’t have to run away anymore. You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to. Stay here, with me. Those monsters will keep chasing up and up, past our hiding place.” I crawl into her arms and cry out of happiness. Of course, she eventually turns into a plant, and her arms into vines, but I feel fine with that under Ayahuasca’s spell.
The next morning, though, I keep seeing the transformation and crying. I hadn’t wanted her to turn into a plant, I wanted her to stay with me. I cry over the compost toilet, I cry as I write in my journal, I cry as I comb my hair. I cry until my boyfriend finally wakes up and asks me what’s wrong.
“I really miss Shaira. I thought we were going to start a new life together and be roommates. I don’t want to go home without her and I don’t want to stay away forever. I don’t know how to start a life alone.” That’s not true, a little voice retorts, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I try swatting it away, but it continues, How do you think you got to Korea, to Spain? You know how to start a life alone better than anyone, and that’s not a bad skill to have. I draw my legs to my chest and tuck the mosquito netting around my single bed further into the mattress. I lay my head on my knees and stifle a sob. “These fucking mosquitos are making me even crazier than I was when I got here! It’s all just too much. I don’t understand this place. I want to be with Shaira.”
“Why don’t you go be with her?” My boyfriend asks.
“Trust me, I want to. I can’t get citizenship! It’s impossible.” The little voice says nothing. It is impossible. I start crying even harder, and my boyfriend lifts the mosquito net to sit next to me on my bed, careful not to let our thighs touch.
“Well,” he smiles, “I’m a citizen.”
“That’s awesome for you. Enjoy the universal health care. But it doesn’t really help me.”
“I’m just saying, there’s a little piece of paper that could fix all of this.” He keeps smiling. Does he wink?
Is he seriously suggesting marriage? That’s the last thing I need. Then again, I want that citizenship more than anything. We could get a house next to Shaira’s. That little voice that apparently comes with doing a copious amount of drugs in a short time period interrupts, Why is it that your solutions always boil down to men and marriage? Hey. I thought, it’s not always like that. A job brought me halfway across the world. No, a man scared you away halfway across the world. The job was incidental.
Ok, but my bad mental health brought me back to the Americas-No, your “boyfriend” brought you here because he thinks your mental health is bad. Well, he’s right. My mental health is bad. How do you know? Because I always get drunk. Because I have nightmares and cry in my sleep. Because I have panic attacks that make me scream bloody murder. And I don’t stop screaming even though I live in an apartment with very thin walls. And then I torture myself for having screamed out. Because I want to go home desperately, even though I have no idea where that is or what it means. So, because you’re lonely, basically? No! Whatever. Because my soul is full of demons, I guess. Leave me alone.
Hey, my soul says, Do I sound ‘full of demons’ to you? I-I don’t know..
Listen, maybe your mental health isn’t perfect. Let’s be real, you’ve never had a full deck of cards to deal with in the first place. That’s neither here nor there. But this guy, he only really thinks your mental health is bad because you don’t like him. You don’t look up when he walks in, you don’t laugh at his jokes, you don’t make him laugh. That’s the real reason he thinks you’re sick, and it bugs him. He can’t imagine any other reason why you wouldn’t be enamored with him except severe mental illness. He’s arrogant. To him, it’s a bonus that you’re broken. He was looking for something to fix, anyways. It’s not going to work, you know.
Whatever, I thought, shut up, soul.
What if I did shut up? My soul sneered. Where would you be then? Be careful what you wish for.
Says the soul who I’m only just hearing from now, after doing hallucinogenics? Where were you when I needed you most?
I was there. You just couldn’t hear me.
I ignore the voice and move in to kiss my boyfriend. He moves away. “Uh-uh, no touching, not yet. Trust me, I want to. One more week, baby, and you’ll be cured. Then we can fuck for days.” Ugh, I thought, I should really pick up smoking again.
The monsters that were chasing me the first night catch up with me on my next session, and I become the screamer of the group. Well, it was bound to happen. I screamed while under the influence of melatonin and chamomile tea, so why not Ayahuasca? I don’t think I would have set off screaming so bad, though, if it weren’t for Tim.
Tim is a walker. He rises off his mat and walks around while everybody else stays put. His eyes shine like a bad flash picture in the dark. The black dog that’s supposed to protect us howls outside when he does this, and I shoot straight up and scream. Someone comes to my side and I tell them I’m terrified of Tim. “He’s ok,” they say, “he’s just like you, he’s tripping.”
“I don’t want to be like him,” I insist, and ask to be taken out to the toilets to vomit again before surrendering to the feverish nightmares that await me on my sweaty mat.
My soul becomes scared and starts screaming. Don’t let Tim near you. Don’t let his soul touch me. We’ll never get rid of it. Over and over, louder and louder. It’s a fitful night.
Tim isn’t any less scary in the morning. He doesn’t talk much, eats his rice and beans like the rest of us. My boyfriend tells me he has an ex-wife and kids and that he’s done Ayahuasca 37 times. “Well, I guess they’re not getting child support,” I retort. This is the most expensive drug habit I’ve ever heard of, and I ask him about it over breakfast.
“So, Tim, 37 times, huh?”
“Yeah, man, yeah. And I still feel like a kindergartner as far as Mother Aya’s teachings go, you know? It’s like every time I do it, I know less than before.”
“It sounds like it’s not working.” I tell him. My boyfriend kicks me under the table.
“That’s great. What a journey.” My boyfriend tells him.
We argue later. “How can it be the end all be all cure you talked about if this guy has done it 37 times and he’s still creepy as fuck?”
“I don’t know, Leah. Do you feel like it’s helping you?”
“We still have 4 more sessions. Try to open your mind up.”
I hate the disappointment in his voice, the exhaustion. He’s too old to believe in such a fairy tale , a one stop cure for a shitty girlfriend. And I’m too young not to have believed it. I have to admit, $5,000 later, that I never believed Ayahuasca could cure me. I was hoping it would prove me wrong, but it’s just another scam, a way to taunt people who are genuinely hopeless.
This place attracts people with terminal cancer, wanderers like Tim, screamers like me. We’re the only ones on the untouchable diet. The rest are free to canoodle as they see fit, and it’s a touchy feely group. Some people say they’re just here for the trip, and some of them really are. They talk about seeing butterflies and glowing Mother Aya plants that hug them. They try not to let my screams seep into their good vibes. They offer me the same kind of casual sympathy they offer to the lady with terminal cancer. “You’re so brave,” they tell me, “I wish I could hug you, but you know, the no touching.” They seem relieved to cite the rule. Nobody wants my soul on them.
Hey, I’m not the one whose been screaming. That’s all you.
Oh, what’s the difference?
“It gets worse before it gets better,” the cook tells me. She’s lying, my soul says. It’s rice and beans every single day, eggs or mango if we’re lucky. I’m nauseous all the time, anyways. I stop eating. My boyfriend gladly takes on the extra portion.
I play with the black dog or the kittens that tend to come wandering around at meal times. I tell my boyfriend to give the kitten whose mewing at him a bit of egg. “No,” he says, “We’re not supposed to feed them.”
“She’s skinny and she’s crying.” I point out.
“They feed her plenty. I watched the guy feeding her the first night.”
“Look at her! She runs all day. It’s obviously not enough.” And just like that, my boyfriend shoves both of our eggs into his mouth. He takes a scrap of egg that has fallen off his chin and feeds it to the kitten. It’s a third the size of my thumbnail. My soul recoils and packs up for the day. Who is this guy? I have no idea. Well, you sure know how to pick them. That’s it. I can’t take this. I’m going to go back up to the tambo to read. Wait! You can’t leave me! All the same, I hear my soul’s footsteps recede.
“You’re a pig. I can’t believe you just did that.” I tell my boyfriend.
“What?” he asks, his mouth full.
“You’re not getting my portion tomorrow, or ever again. I’m going up to the tambo. You can stay out here with Tim and the starving kittens.”
I don’t make any friends while I’m in Peru, but I do get a lot of reading done. My boyfriend tries to make really close friends with all the other girls wearing string bikinis, but after awhile, I notice them trying to stay away from him. Lets accuse him now, he’s always been a shit.
“Are you hitting on the other girls?” I ask.
“Of course not. That’s your illness talking. You’re still very sick, you know. It’s the trust thing. You’re just not trusting me.” Right, my soul says, isn’t there a word for what he’s doing to you? It’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s gaslighting. So you admit it? It really doesn’t matter, I tell my soul. I never really liked him in the first place. I’m just lonely. What do I care, then, about other girls. We’re both lonely. You deserve better, that’s all. I know my soul is being gentle with me. She could say, Yeah, $,5000 and four bad trips later, it doesn’t matter? But she doesn’t. I appreciate that.
We have a day of rest between sessions. While the group hikes, I do yoga in the sun. I endear myself to the cook and use my rudimentary Spanish to get extra food for the kittens. I coax the black dog into a canoe and row him around the little frog pond on the property. I like the rest days.
On the ayahuasca days, I get sick in advance. I’m terrified of what happens in the maloka. I see things in there that I’m not sure humans are supposed to see. But I do feel like it’s helping. My mind is expanding, my heart is lighter. I keep going.
On the second to the last session, I finally have a good trip. I fade away all the monsters by will and crawl back into my mother’s womb, where I stay, smiling on my mat for the rest of the night.
“That’s it!” I announce at breakfast, “I’m cured. I know it. All the blackness is gone. I can start fresh! I’m not even going to the last session. I don’t need to. I’ll just read, you guys have fun.” I beam and everyone beams back at me like I’m a blushing bride.
“That’s so wonderful, you were one of our tougher cases. I was getting a little worried, but I knew it would heal you eventually. I just didn’t think you’d get to the good stuff this time around, to be honest. You came here with so many demons. It’s really rewarding to see such a turnaround. But you don’t want to miss out on your last session, do you? Mother Aya always has more to teach. Now you can finally relax and enjoy it.”
“No,” I smile, “I’m really, really good.” Atta girl, my soul says, you tell them. We’re not ever going into that maloka again. That place is horrifying.
But then, it is a thousand dollars down the drain. My boyfriend reminds me that it’s also a waste of our 2 months with no sex, salt, sugar or oil. Everyone tells me it’ll be fine, that there’s nothing to be afraid of. “Let Mother Aya into your heart,” they say, “don’t you trust her by now? Hasn’t she showed you that she’s not out to hurt you?”
Oh, hell no, my soul says, as I enter the maloka for my last trip.
It’s all dark. All the advice they give me fails. I writhe like I’m being tortured. I feel like I am. I can’t defeat the last monster. None of us can. I went to hell, and I stayed there for eight hours. I still believe that. I wish I didn’t.
I left the maloka hysterical. I wasn’t any less so during our morning meeting. I shot all their clichés down. “It’s always darkest before the light,” Someone offered. “No,” I said, “you don’t understand. I do. There is no light.” My voice cracked. Everybody went silent as I curled up and wept into my knees. “Aren’t you going to help me?” We were told there’d be crisis counselors here. We looked it up specifically. I saw this coming. You did, too. You should’ve listened to me.
Please, don’t turn on me, now. Not you, too. This is really hard. I don’t know how to handle what I saw. But my soul doesn’t answer. It’s pissed.
“Well, you’re clearly not finished with Mother Aya, yet. You’ll have to come back. But for now, you have a plane to catch. I’m sorry.”
“What?” I ask. These people are the worst people we’ve ever met, that’s what, my soul answers. We never should have come here. It’s a fucking expensive cult. And now we’re retraumatized and have all these spiritual questions, and we’re going home broke as shit. Because you had to do the last session. You should’ve known when to stop.
I don’t answer. I’m pissed. Where is God in all this? He certainly isn’t watching me. And why? What the fuck have I done wrong? Nothing that wasn’t deserved. Bad things, maybe, but to be expected, under the circumstances. Fuck you, I want to tell him. Fuck you so hard.
People disseminate. My boyfriend tells me he’ll pack our bags up at the tambo. A good country boy, Joseph, the one whose saving up for a house already, for his future wife and kids, is the only one to approach me. “Hey,” he whispers. “I was thinking about what you said. How it’s all dark. I was thinking, I don’t know. Maybe you’re surrounded by darkness because you are the light, and you just can’t see it.” I raise my head to look at him. “I don’t know.” He repeats, “Just a thought.” I smile at him. I am, after all, a country girl. Had I forgotten that? He smiles back. “I really hope you feel better, ok?” “Ok.” I whisper.
Back home, my boyfriend tells me I just didn’t get enough of the medicine. He says he’ll order DMT online right now and we’ll go trip in the woods. “It’s really strong stuff. It should do the trick. We can do it as many times as you need.”
“I am never, ever doing drugs again,” I tell him, “and I’m not going anywhere with you. Not even to the convenience store for those unsalted peanuts you like so much. Maybe I like salt. Did you ever think of that? And another thing, you can stop feeling sorry for me. I’m not broken and I’m not full of demons. You’re the one whose full of shit. I’m not nearly as sick as you and that stupid shaman made me out to be. I should never have told you I have PTSD, you used it against me. Like I don’t have enough problems already,”
“I was trying to help. You didn’t seem to mind before. Does this have something to do with that Syrian guy?”
“Shant? No, he’s in Aleppo.”
“No, he’s not. I’ve seen him skulking around. Is that what this is about?”
“What?” He cocks his head at me, and I flee the building. It’s Saturday night. All the Syrians will be at the Whiskey Weasel or the Kebab shop. The stores fly past me. How long has it been since I stepped foot inside of Whiskey Weasel? It’s been months. He could’ve come back by now, why not? I hold the railing as I fly up the stairs of the high rise building. On the third floor, familiar faces blur past me and familiar music enters my ears. I swing open the saloon style doors. The place is almost empty, except for the Syrians in the furthest booth. Adel, Ali, Samer, and Shant, who is slumped in the corner with his eyes closed.
“Adel!” I yell, looking to start a fight.
“Hello? What the fuck is this? Shant’s back, and you don’t tell me? You know my number.”
“I know. I ask. Shant say no, he don’t want. I think he crazy.”
“What? Shant!” I shake him awake. “Shant, you’re back?” The whiskey on his breath hits me full force. He’s back, all right.
“Oh, oh, hello. You come back.”
“No, you came back. What the fuck. I thought you were in Aleppo.”
“Yeah, it’s so bad. I finish there. I ask for you. You have boyfriend now? I know. Nice, American boy, yes? It’s ok.”
“God, no. Just you.”
“Habibi, I’m sick. Every night I sleep, I see. It’s no good, really.”
Someone get this boy another drink, my soul urges.
He doesn’t need another drink. I put my hand on his cheek, and he smiles.
“That’s ok. You sleep with me.”
“Now?” he asks. My soul doesn’t protest. I smile.
“Yeah. Right now. Come on.” I take his hand and lead him out of the bar. I’m sure the last guy has cleared my apartment by now. He should’ve, anyways. It’s been almost 10 minutes, already.
Later that night, I find God hiding in between my Syrian lover’s thighs, and I don’t tell him to fuck right off. I tell him to come closer, so I can feel him inside me.