The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

Degrees of Retreat

Every little thing in Rosa’s house has energy, down to the dish towel. She never stands close to the microwave. All her pots are cast iron. Her clothes are cotton, and her food, organic. Every piece of furniture she and her husband bought has been replaced with its natural, unpolished wood equivalent. It has also been positioned in accordance with the electromagnetic field lines that Victor, the cancer expert, has mapped out on the back of Anna’s science test. He maps a special kind of EMF, which he calls “Energy Lines.” Rosa can’t see the lines, but Victor senses them through his palms.

After an hour of walking in between bedroom appliances—last week they finished the kitchen—Victor takes out a pencil from his trousers and begins to sketch. “This house is like a Manhattan grid.”

“Is it that bad?” Rosa asks.

Victor puts the sketch down and holds out his palms once more. He hovers by the bed. He double and triple checks, and draws a line that crosses through the rectangle meant to represent the bed.

“We need to move it right now. When you lie down there’s an Energy Line running through your breasts, and you have been sleeping like this for what, ten years?”

Rosa nods. She has been so stupid. “And what about Anna?” she asks, peering over the map.

“We’ll move hers next.”

They push Rosa’s bed to the opposite side of the room. It is heavy, dead weight. A miniature statue of Ganesha falls off the nightstand in the disturbance. Victor moves the small elephant-being to where he saw it before, on the pine shelf that is Rosa’s shrine. Its familiars include an 8×10 of blue Christ, 8×10 of Pharaoh Zoser, a 4×6 of Sathya Sai Baba. There are also crystals, turquoise stones, rosary beads, and a tiny gold pyramid, recommended by Victor himself for its ability to balance energy. “Think of it like an air filter,” he had told her, “but for the spirit.”

He takes a seat in the middle of the repositioned bed, careful to avoid lines. “How is July,” he says. “Next month too soon?”

“No, let’s book it. I’ll see if Anna wants to come along.”

“Great.” Victor scratches at his short, wiry beard. “This your pillow? The memory foam?”

“Yes, A. J. prefers the hotel marshmallow kind.”

“You should see if you can change that. It’s no good he sleeps like that.”

“I tried already. He won’t budge.”

“Just switch it out.” Victor takes Rosa’s memory foam pillow and plops it by the foot of the bed. “This way from now on, too.”

Rosa studies the bed and envisions nights of feet-to-head with A. J. like raw, Yin Yang shrimp.

“Tea break?”

They leave the room with the nightstands on the wrong end and the flat screen hanging oddly above the head of the bed. All to be dealt with.


Rosa is out of Lifestyle Awareness, and has been drinking Traditional Medicinals’s chamomile. She pours a cup for herself and Anna—one with a print of an aardvark and the other with one of a dingo—and leaves an empty cup for Victor, like an offering. He likes to drink from the pangolin.

When he comes back three days later, they rotate Anna’s bed ninety degrees to the left. Rosa changes the floral bedding to a baby blue, winter-themed set identical to her own. The material is cotton and good.

“Feng shui is off,” Anna says.

“There are health risks, Anna. Want to look at the map?” Rosa opens Anna’s dresser drawers and begins to unravel its contents: T-Shirts, undergarments, pajama shorts. “You’re going to need to make two piles. Victor knows which materials are bad for you. You can label the tags with a Sharpie. I’ll be doing the same.”

Anna scratches at the tag on the back of her shirt. On it is a family of meerkats—lengthy, wide-eyed, and of course, nude. Her father bought it at a zoology conference. He is fond of odd animals.

Victor stretches his palms to the shirt. “That one is bad.”

“Anna, take it off,” Rosa says.

“What? Now?” Anna says.

“No. Clearly after Victor leaves.”

Rosa pulls out three flabby hundred dollar bills. The new ones, touched most recently by the print machine, were also no good. Victor pockets the cash and kisses Rosa on the cheek. “Let’s talk on the phone later this week,” he says. “Track any improvement.”


On Monday nights, the video which normally plays on all TVs in the house, as Victor recommends, is replaced by Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor in the bedroom. At all other hours, there is nothing to see but a floating head. In the video, Victor never speaks and never moves. Occasionally he shifts an inch to the left, or to the right. His eyebrow twitches. Mostly he stares. He is there even when he cannot be. He is an energy guard dog.

A. J. always arrives home in the middle of The Bachelor. By five he is out of the lab, and by eight-thirty he is out of Mcgillicuddy’s, a loosely Irish pub. Afterwards he makes his ritualistic run to Stop and Shop to buy a bouquet of lilies. He never seems to remember that Rosa is allergic to them.

“Give me one, Chris!” Rosa begs the TV. She and Anna are scrunched in the middle of her bed, chins up to the screen like they are sitting in the first row of a movie theatre. The bed is littered with Twizzlers and dried apricots.

“Mom, Chris is not that hot,” Anna says.

“What does it matter?”

Anna hands her mother a hair brush.

“Thank you. I accept this rose.”

Rosa combs through Anna’s hair, like she is a little kid and not a sprouting teenager. There is ripping at the roots.

“Ouch,” A.J. says from the doorway. “Your hair is dead, Anna. It’s obviously the do-it-yourself dyes.” He puts down a vase of lilies on the dresser.

“Did you buy any nasal decongestant with those?” Rosa says.

“It’s in the cabinet.”

“Hey, Dad, want?” Anna holds up a Twizzler.

“I’m okay.” He kisses Anna on the forehead, which is stained slightly orange. The red color strips off more with every wash.

A. J. goes into his office down the hall, which is more of a deep, cleaned-out closet. There is room for a small desk, computer, and chair. He shakes the mouse to wake up the screen and types: “Novilase Breast Therapy.” Columbia University’s Medical Center webpage offers the treatment.


That night Rosa dreams of decapitation. She feels like she has experienced death so many times that if it were to happen in real life, she would know what’s coming for her. Once, she dreamed she was a male soldier covered in mold. Her throat had been sliced by a sword, though eventually her head grew back. Another time, Anna’s science teacher came up from behind Rosa. She was sitting at a lab table that stretched long and infinitely, like a highway. The teacher chopped her good.

When Rosa wakes up, it is still night. She knows Anna has barely sorted through her clothing, so she takes her Ganesha statue and moves it into Anna’s room, just in case.


A. J. does more research throughout the week, and asks around to be sure about the treatment. Before joining Rosa in bed, he dabs his feet in the bathroom with a handful of flaky toilet paper. Rosa is wearing an eye mask, but he knows she is awake. She is one of those people who are very bad at sleeping. “I found an alternative method,” he whispers.

“A woman from the Sivananda retreat—we were sharing a room and she showed me her padded bra. I do not want to wear a beanbag.”

“You wouldn’t need to. You wouldn’t need a mastectomy.”

“What I’m doing is working.”

“It’s not.”

Rosa kicks at the headrest. “Let’s ask the pendulum. I’ll go get it.”

She paws through the jewelry in her dresser drawer and chucks empty boxes saved for re-gifts on the floor until she finds the thumb-sized purple crystal. She holds it up by its chain. “Move up and down for ‘yes’— left and right for ‘no.’” Her hand is shaking and it swings wildly. “Is what I’m doing working?”

“Rosa, don’t start. Let’s talk, you and me. Leave the crystal.”

“Is my tumor getting smaller? Will it spread? Is the house making me sick?”

“I don’t see how it could with your pyramids and your herbs and your army of religious figureheads and whatever else.”

“Will my husband ever understand? Will he ever buy me roses, for God’s sake?”

A. J. lunges from the bed and rips the crystal from Rosa’s hand. “Up for ‘yes,’ and side for ‘no.’ Why is my wife fucking her scammer-healer?”

“You think I’m getting fucked.”

“Notice how I didn’t ask a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.”


The next morning, when Anna is at school, Rosa enters her room and scouts the closet floor, the bed, the hamper. She picks apart at the two untouched piles of clothing, hunts through hangers, and starts again. She claws through the drawers. There, at the bottom, is an ear of sky blue. She pulls it out and faces the family of meerkats. Only one of the meerkats is looking forward. The rest have their eyes fixed elsewhere, each diverted by some force outside of the shirt. She throws it and the rest of the bad clothing into a donation bag and begins to pack.


Rosa dreams of birds above her head. She and Anna are having tea at the kitchen table with porcelain china. In the corner is her bed, which has folded in on itself. The walls around them are gray, like graph paper, and Rosa identifies what feels like the essence of basement, though it is unclear what kind of room they are in. She looks up, assuming blue, and sees white cobwebs running through and around the birds. They are motionless.

“Show me what you got, Annsy,” Rosa says. “How many degrees? The bed is the shape.”

“My test tomorrow is European History,”

“Then—how many migrations?”

“Ask the Starlings.”

“I will if they have nice accents. What do you think a British chirp sounds like, Victor?”

Chop-chop,” Victor says. He is in the webs, sitting lotus.

Cheep-cheep,” Rosa calls. She caws.

“Mom, I gotta study.”

“Flying North?” Victor asks.

“Not yet,” Rosa says, suddenly stern.


“Where’s my meerkat shirt,” Anna says in the morning. “Where’s my stuff?”


It is Monday again, and Anna sees that more is missing. Rosa’s bedroom is empty. The snowflake sheets are gone, there is only one pillow, and it is fluffy. The shrine has been cleared away, except for a purple jewelry box Anna painted in Pre-K that now holds her mother’s Rosary beads and healing stones. Pictures have been taken down. The mirrors have been wiped clean, and still have streaks of Method all-purpose spray.

“Anna, I booked a retreat before my retreat. I am leaving tonight.” There is a rolled up, green yoga mat by the door. “You’ll like the Ashram, the peppermint tea, the sauna rooms. Come with me. Victor will drive us.”

“Where’s Dad? I’m getting Dad.”

“You don’t know what I need, Anna. You don’t.”

“You don’t know what you need. Or what anyone needs. And you should know, neither does Victor.”

“This home is making me sick. You have to understand. Please, come with me.”

“No, Mom. Just let me know when visiting hours are. Okay?”

“At the Ashram?”

Anna leaves the bedroom and shuts the door to Rosa’s room and hers. She turns off the lights and watches the dancing and The Bachelor on her phone. She pretends not to hear Rosa drive away, and Rosa pretends she is going nowhere. A late night run to the store.

A. J. returns a couple hours later with apology roses. In the office across the hall, the computer is on from the night before, but the tabs with medical centers are dark, in sleep mode.


At the Sivananda retreat, Rosa composts her food scraps and helps cook meals made with vegetables from the gardens. She takes yoga classes every morning and afternoon. There are campfires at night, and when it is warm she and her friends sleep in tents. After the few weeks are over, Rosa re-books her room. At three o’clock on Saturdays and Sundays, she calls Anna, and sometimes A.J. They do not always pick up, but if they do, she asks them about their day and shares a singular joy: a sunset, a mint leaf, a funny joke. She does not want to indulge.

After the first two retreat sessions, Victor returns home. They do long-distance healing over the phone. Sometimes, when no one is around, she swims topless in the lake behind the Shiva temple.


Rosa is visited at Mercy Hospital. Hours are between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. Anna and A. J. bring a bag of dried nuts and fruit. Sometimes Rosa asks for Pepsi. She has not seen Victor in months. He stopped visiting as the tumor started seeding in her bloodstream.

Anna drops her school bag on one of the puke-green hospital chairs. There is a meerkat stuffed animal on the window sill—a gift bought at the hospital gift shop.

“Where can I sit?” Anna asks.

“Anywhere. You can bring the chair anywhere.”


Carina Kohn

Carina Kohn is an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. She has been published in Chronogram and the Stonesthrow Review.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues