It was the second-to-last week of the semester, and Gene suggested Telephone. It was just the kind of disarming thing he’d do, to make us play a silly children’s game. Our small class of high-school seniors went along with it, of course. There was very little we wouldn’t do for Gene. Even the skeptics among us had been seduced by his lectures, mixing history, philosophy, world religions and what seemed to be his own brand of gnostic gospel.
The class was simply titled, Religions. Our hippie boarding school, strictly secular, allowed teachers the leeway to devise their own curriculum. I’d signed up for Religions on the advice of friend, who’d told me Gene treated his students to dinners at his house with wine and hot tubbing. What she hadn’t mentioned was his incredible personal magnetism. He did not only teach about religion. He offered his students the experience of religion, through his own, mystic person.
It was true, though, about the dinners. Midway through the semester (after Siddhartha, partway through the Bhagavad Gita) he drove the 10 of us out to his house, built into the side of a small Vermont mountain. He’d built it himself, of course, out of hand-hewn logs. We sat around his long dinner table by candlelight. The soup and bread his wife served us seemed permeated with the love Gene radiated. We were giddy on the Chianti he’d poured. We watched the sunset through the tall dining room windows. “Remember this moment,” Gene told us. “Look around at the people around the table. Feel the spirit we all share.” We looked at one another, meeting each other’s eyes. “I want you to fix this moment in your mind,” Gene said. “Say it with me. ‘I will never forget.’” We repeated it, all together. I will never forget.
It worked. I will never forget that night. I’d wanted to sit near him at dinner, but he’d taken hands with Alice and Poplar on the way in, leading us all in a hilarious dance around the dining room before settling at the head of the table with one of them on either side. I’d landed halfway down, perpetually handing butter and salt back and forth. I tried to breath into my jealousy. Be Here Now, I told myself. A knee bumped mine. Red-headed Cooper sat at my right. Had he touched me on purpose? I shifted in my seat, letting my leg graze his again. Would he move away? Easily distracted and sexually innocent as I was, the question of Cooper’s interest occupied me through much of the meal.
The stars were coming out as we devoured the last of the excellent apple pie Gene’s wife had baked. “Who’s up for a dip?” Gene asked. “The hot tub seats 8, if we get cozy.” I thought maybe I could arrange to sit next to Cooper, since Gene was clearly out of my reach. “If you can’t be with the one you love/Love the one you’re with!” ran through my head. I mentioned it was a hippy school, right?
Outside the night was cold and bright with stars. The moon was a far-off sliver. We hurried to undress as Gene uncovered the steaming cedar tub. Cooper called a casual goodnight to us all, not singling me out. “I’m loaning Cooper my night binoculars,” Gene told us. “He’s going to see the owls that live in my upper meadow.” Gene was done readying the tub, and was stripping off his clothes. I felt self-conscious removing the last of my underwear. Skinny dipping was an ordinary enough school activity, but there wasn’t usually a teacher along. I lowered myself into the concealing water rather more quickly than my skin would have liked. Gene, who turned out to have had swim trunks on under his clothes, got in beside me.
“Let’s all take hands,” Gene suggested, “And pass a blessing.” He squeezed my left hand, and, guessing his meaning, I squeezed Poplar’s hand. There was a laugh as the blessing went around, and another as it came back the other way. I sunk more deeply into the water, leaning my head on the side and looking up at the stars. Gene still held my hand. It felt electrified. A current ran from his palm right up my arm and into my heart, making it race. “I want you all to think about the transmission of spirit,” Gene was saying. “We’ve been studying the written word and oral traditions. But just now, we passed a blessing around that had nothing to do with words. I think it was bigger than words. There’s some holy truth to be found here, tonight - right now.” We were silent, listening. Gene let go of my hand, but moved his arm behind my waist, pulling me closer to him, resting his palm against my right hip.
“Let’s do a little silent meditation, here, and try to really experience the spiritual connection we share. In about 10 minutes, we’ll talk some more and share our experiences.” There was a murmur of consent, then silence. Over the bubbling of the whirlpool jets I could hear the slight rustle of breeze in the trees and the distant rush of a car going by. I closed my eyes. Gene turned his body towards me and pulled me back against his chest. Both his arms were around my waist. His palms burned against my belly. I felt incredibly naked. “Rest,” he whispered in my ear. “It’s alright to let yourself go a little, Penny. I’ve got you.”
I was thrilled and elated and terrified. What if he accidentally touched my breasts? What if he touched them on purpose? “Rest,” he said in my ear, and I tried to let myself sag back against him as if I wasn’t rigid with fear. He rocked me, then. Side to side, holding me firmly. It felt almost fatherly. I was ashamed of the throbbing I felt between my legs. This was supposed to be a spiritual experience!
Eventually, Gene unwound himself from me and I leaned against the side of the tub again. He announced the end of our meditation, and began leading a discussion. I had nothing to say, and for once he didn’t prod me to join the conversation. Though he tended to gesture with his hands when he spoke, he sometimes rested one on my knee. I felt as if I had truly received some kind of religious grace.
“The thing I hoped you’d get from tonight is that you are all holy. And when holiness comes together, when we’re present together, we can reach a place of communion with God, or Jesus, or Buddha, or nature, or whatever you want to call it. See if you remember this one, because it will probably be on the final exam--” A groan went up from everyone.
“I know you all hate thinking about that. But it’s ALL final exam, people. Every day. Really. Are you with me?” Nods and laughs indicated assent. “So here it is, gnostic gospels, straight from the mouth of Jesus via St. Thomas to me to you. ‘I am the light that shines over all things. I am everything. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.’ That’s about you. ‘I am everything.’” We were quiet. A few months ago, I would have laughed at this as spiritual mumbo jumbo. Now it made perfect sense. The light was in me. And Gene wanted to share it with me.
The semester was almost over. Gene gave us our class period off to work on our final papers comparing foundational works from any two major religious philosophies. I’d chosen the Upanishads and Gene’s favorite, the gnostic gospels of St. Thomas. It wasn’t going well. Without Gene’s enthusiastic exhortations to look more deeply, the teachings lost their transparency and became just nonsensical words. In my ignorant hands, the ideas were not moldable clay for building but impenetrable granite.
“You have to take yourself out of the equation,” Gene told me when I went to him for help. “You’re intellectualizing to the point where you can’t let the meaning in.” I felt frustrated. He wasn’t helping me. Maybe it was all meaningless. Gene must have sensed my feelings. “Wait while I go through Poplar’s draft,” he suggested, “And then I’ll have time to work with you.”
It was a long wait. I sat on the floor in the hallway and reread my highlighted texts. I was resisting their meaning, I knew I was resisting. My old cynical self was at war with the spiritual being Gene had awoken in me. Eventually Poplar reappeared. Her face was flushed and I wondered if she’d been crying. “Are you okay?” I asked, but she kept on walking as if she hadn’t heard me. I stared after her. Poplar was usually so light hearted.
“Thou art that,” I heard, and turned to find Gene looming over me. I’d doodled those words all over my notebook. It had been one of the first concepts we’d studied, and remained both my favorite quotes and a source of continuing annoyance. “Thou art welcome in my office,” Gene said, smiling down at me, and I awkwardly took the hand he proffered and rose.
Gene’s office was a narrow, oblong closet at the back of the classroom. One side was lined with high windows and a built in desk. True to form, Gene had installed a shrine on the desk and placed pillows on the floor instead of using a chair. “Welcome to my nest,” Gene said. I attempted to imitate his graceful transition from standing to cross legged. “Push the door shut,” he suggested, “So you can lean on it.” I arranged myself against the door, and Gene moved forward until our knees were touching. His nearness was intoxicating. He was looking into my eyes. I tried hard to look back, though I found their paleness unsettling. It wouldn’t do, I thought to myself, to let my eyes wander to his lips. Of course, to think it was to do it. His eyes twinkled. Did he know I’d been thinking about him kissing me?
“Tell me about Thou Art That,” Gene said. I blushed.
“It’s an essential Buddhist truth,” I ventured. “It means we’re all part of Buddha nature.”
Gene leaned in towards me, his hands on my shoulders. “Not part. It means you--and I--ARE the unknowable, infinite, ecstatic everything.” His eyes pulled me into them, limitless as the sky.
“I want you to try a lotus meditation with me,” Gene said, not dropping my gaze. I nodded.
We were sitting cross-legged, face to face, knee to knee. My long hippie skirt draped over my feet. Gene moved it back casually, and took my top calf in his hands. “Shift this here,” he said, unfolding my knee and lifting my leg over his. He did the same with my other leg, then uncrossed his legs, too, and moved closer to me. I was half reclined against the door, legs half spread. my thighs resting on top of his. His legs wrapped around me, his ankles supporting my lower back. My heart pounded. My nipples pushed hard against their confining layers of fabric.
Gene had the half smile he often wore during teaching, an abstracted sort of smile as if he were reciting a mantra in his mind even as he talked with us. He pushed my skirt all the way up my thighs and placed his hand flat over my panties, thumb against my vulva. “I’d prefer your skin,” he said, tilting his head questioningly. I tried to speak, but only a strangled gasp came out. I nodded instead. Gene moved his hand to the same position but inside my panties. His palm crushed my pubic hair against me. His thumb was firm over my clit and the top of my vulva.
“Close your eyes,” he said. “I want you to picture yourself as a seed. You have hard, hard skin to protect you against the sun and the cold. But now you are in the water, the perfect place to grow. It’s time to soften that hard skin.” His thumb pulsed, just slightly. Pulse. A beat. Pulse. “Breath,” he said. “Breathe deeply and listen.”
“Your hard shell is softening, layer by layer, breath by breath. You feel something awakening inside you.” His slow pulsing caress continued. “It’s growing, emerging with every breath. You become aware there is mud all around you. But Above you, above this muddy pool of dirt, mud and filth, you can sense sunshine and air.”
I wondered if my arousal was the filth. His thumb was making slight circles now. I was growing wet. “Penny,” he said, refocusing me. “You are beginning to grow roots. Can you feel them? Wiggle them into the earth.” Oh god--was he telling me to wiggle? His palm rocked against my pelvis. Involuntarily, my hips jerked a little against him.
“A stem is rising from your heart.” he went on. “It’s growing up towards the light and air. A bud is forming.” His voice lowered. Though my eyes were still closed, I could feel that he’d leaned in closer to me. “Feel your bud swelling in the warmth of the sun,” he said. His thumb plowed downward, between my pussy lips, and rose again, slick. His voice continued. “Feel your petals beginning to unfold.” Everything in me was rising, rising. “Soon you will burst into bloom. Soon all the walls will fall away. You are opening.” I was opening. My petals were unfolding. I was floating toward ecstasy. “You are a lotus,” Gene said, “One with creation.” I quivered and shook and burst into beautiful bloom.
That night I wrote my paper in one, feverish sitting. Both philosophies called for unmediated experience of the divine within. I felt lifted out of my old life into a world of spiritual unity and enlightenment. I couldn’t wait to see Gene again.
I turned in my paper to Gene’s office mail box that weekend. He’d promised to return them at our next class period, Wednesday. It felt like a long wait. I masturbated each night with alternating thoughts of Gene kissing me and a lotus blossom unfurling inside me. When Wednesday finally came, I rushed to class, hoping to be there ahead of the others and have a minute to greet Gene properly. I wasn’t sure what that proper greeting would be - would he take me in his arms? Kiss me on the forehead like the disciple I was? But I wasn’t the first to arrive. He was already in conversation with Conner and a raised hand and smile were all he could spare me. I took my seat at the far end of the table.
“Today I want to talk again about transmission. The semester’s almost over and I’ve thrown a lot of words at you. But in some cases, words just obscure the truth. We’ve talked about how different versions of documents come down to us through the ages, and how the great truths are expressed over and over again in different traditions. Even in our small circle, words can be distorted, can’t they.” There was a murmur of assent. “So to further our understanding, we’re going to play a little game of Telephone.”
Wonderful Gene leaned over to whisper in Conner’s ear. I envied Conner desperately. Conner gave Gene a questioning look, then leaned over to Anna. Anna whispered to me. The words filled me with a glow I tried not to show. Still, I couldn’t help a glance at Gene. He winked. I turned to the boy on my left and repeated, as clearly as I could, “Penny is a blooming white lotus.”
He repeated it to Poplar. I could hear the edges of his whisper. Poplar turned red and stood up fast. She was staring at Gene. “Penny?” she said, in a stricken voice. “Penny?!” She hung there for a moment. We all did. And then she turned and slammed furiously out of the room.
I sat there, agape. Alice got up and ran after Poplar.
“What’s so bad about being a lotus?” Conner asked. I felt sick. I looked at Gene, but he was handing back papers and didn’t meet my eyes. “Class dismissed,” he said. “Good job, everyone.” I sat, numb and miserable, and left as soon as my paper landed in front of me. I got an A, I noted. I didn’t look inside to read his comments.
There was a substitute for the last few classes of the year, during which we read aloud from a standard World Religions textbook that had never been brought out from the closet before. Rumor was Gene had been fired for getting students high. We girls knew better. I tried not to think about it. But every night, despite the shame, or maybe, over time, because of it: I masturbated to the fantasy of sitting on Gene’s office floor, his mouth on mine and his thumb buried deep inside me.
Read at the August, 2012 BedPost Confessions