I had been the kind of girl who would always say yes. Not everyone knew this about me. And in that secret lay my power, or at least the 18-year-old version of me thought so.
I’d never been one to stay up all night, but I’d dance on my tiptoes on the side of a mountain ravine. I’d kiss the back of an old lady’s elbow, whether I knew her or not. I’d eat a sandwich of ants; I’d swim in the dark, my clothes long behind me on the shore. More than anything, I wanted to truly feel the world, and my life, and I launched into adulthood with those priorities in line.
But, as life tends to prove, things didn’t go the way I planned. Instead, my twenties were spent sick. At 26, after years of struggling, I was diagnosed with Crohns disease, and at 29 I had surgery to remove thyroid cancer that had grown for ten years.
To say I was sick, actually, is an understatement. The diseases I had choked my life, and I lived in a varied but constant state of pain, anxiety and depression. Carefree was long gone.
I would learn later that year that autoimmune disease (like my thyroid cancer, and my Crohns disease) means your body is attacking itself. The scary thing about the chronic pain of autoimmune disease is that you can’t escape it. You can’t run away from it because it’s inside of you, in some ways it is you. That’s it.
During that time I closed myself off to most of the people who knew me well, waving away the worry they had on their faces, refusing their offers to help, not because I didn’t appreciate it, but because I knew that having to deal with this kind of decay wasn’t something I wanted for them, 25- or 26- or 27-year-old friends. I didn’t want to put that on them.
But that sounds too nice. I also didn’t want them to see too much, or be too close to me, because at that point I was rapidly falling towards everyday disease. I made a choice to block them from my disgusting reality. I made a choice to retreat.
The truth was, I wanted some apathy. Maybe not feeling anything at all would have been my safe heaven. I wanted to be numb, which made me hate the happy, which was probably just another version of me hating myself.
But I had a friend Ben, who in his beautiful way, knew that I wasn’t any different from anyone else; that I wasn’t any different than him. He knew that in living we all face darkness, and in living, we also all face light.
When Ben first gave me the slip of paper, I didn’t know he knew about me. Not yet anyway.
“Here,” he said, “You’d like this, I think.”
“What is it?” I asked, reading his scraggly handwriting, an address, off Smith Street, ten blocks from my home.
“Trust me,” he said.
I did, so I went.
It wasn’t late when I arrived at the address, but it wasn’t early either, the old couples who preferred early dinner making way for young ones who wanted more.
When I got to the door, there was no sign.
“Hello?” I called.
I stepped in, making my way down the steps of what appeared to be a regular garden apartment.
It was dark. Someone took my hand. I followed, saying to myself: I trust Ben, I trust Ben.
Through the door it was darker, and someone whispered dryly in my ear: We are here.
I couldn’t see them, but I could feel them lift my dress up off over my head. For a second I was startled, then ashamed, and then I realized they couldn’t see me, they only felt me. And for some reason I let them. I stood in underwear and a bra in the middle of a hot summer room. I sweated a little, but not too much.
Are you okay? Another voice asked. I nodded. I trusted Ben.
Someone stroked my cheek, someone, maybe someone else, or maybe the first person, traced a feather lightly up and down my inner arms. I shivered.
Are you still okay? Someone asked again. And I nodded again.
Light tinkling music floated by my ear and then stopped, rising loud enough for me to hear nothing else in the room, not loud enough for me to need to turn my head away. A thick steady drumbeat took over and I was danced around the room to the rhythm echoing deep in the floor. Fans roared around us, my hair swirling around me like I was underwater.
Icy lemons wet my face, traced my lips and fell away. A soft gentle powder rained over my body, pooling on my shoulders, and the back of my knees. The tips of my fingers were blazing hot and then freezing cold. Someone placed a palm on my forehead, and held it there for much more than a moment.
I was spun around, kissed gently, kissed less gently. I tilted my head back, exposing my neck, my wishbone scar on full display in the dark. Someone traced it with a finger, kissed its beginning and its end. Someone lifted me up and I floated through the room on a blanket of arms. I kept my eyes closed. The soft scent of oranges glided by me, and was gone.
When I left, I took my sandals off and walked along the warm concrete. After a while I moved to the yellow painted curb, smooth like silk and sky.
I learned later that this troupe was an underground sensory experience club. It didn’t have a name. It wasn’t a place. It popped up now and again in different locations around the city. Somehow the address was leaked and the date was leaked and if you were lucky like me, you got an invitation to go. It was like a haunted house, or a rave. A sensory rave, I guess. It was scary, and thrilling, of course.
But it was more than that. To me, at that moment, it was about feeling something. Feeling something good, for just a few minutes. Letting my sickness and pain go for a bit, feeling free inside my body, like I used to feel. For those moments I could say yes again. And I’d say it again.