Mia’s turning 30, but she doesn’t want to go to the bars. She sends paper invites with her home address, a date, a time, and an asterisk that says to wear comfortable clothes and bring a pillow.
Mia is an old friend, a friend I made when I first moved to LA, but a friend I grew apart from when she met Brian, who five years later is now her fiancé. It’s the year that both of us will get married, engagement rings on both our fingers. But Mia will get married first at a winery in Temecula and I’ll be married three months later on the beach in Ventura. My fiancé has to work, so I go to the party alone, a pillow resting on my passenger seat.
Mia’s siblings attend her party, and I know all of them. I know her older sister who is pregnant with baby number two, her younger brother who is back from the Navy, the middle brother who smokes too much weed and never found his way, her eldest brother who brings his new wife to the gathering, and she’s shy until she finishes her second tequila drink.
Mia wears those baggy Levi’s jeans that all the girls are wearing these days, the ones that fit your butt perfect but are loose around the waist and make you look like a model. She wears a crop top and her hair is half up, half down. She looks a little stressed and asks me if I can help set up some blankets on the floor. I'm happy to have a job to do, a role to fill, to be of service.
Some channel that only plays music videos is on the TV. A girl sings a song about how men are evil and she sits on a chair in the middle of the desert. The chair catches fire and so does she.
Mia’s best friend Evelyn walks in late with her boyfriend in tow. I never learn the boyfriend’s name, but I’ve seen pictures of them together on Instagram. Evelyn has over 500,000 followers and sometimes companies pay her to photograph herself holding products and tagging them in the caption. She’s very pretty, and she wears the same jeans as Mia but in a lighter wash.
The eldest brother’s wife knocks over a succulent and Mia scolds her. Brian tries to repot the plant and there’s a knock at the door; the special guest has arrived.
Sebastian introduces himself to the group. He’s tall and bald and has big DJ style headphones around his neck. He explains the surprise. We’ll be doing a guided, group meditation to try and induce lucid dreaming while awake.
“Is that like astral projection?” Evelyn asks the room, not looking at Sebastian but instead questioning the group. “I cannot astral project tonight!”
Sebastian tells her that although it’s possible, it probably won’t happen. I look at Mia and she catches my eye. I give her a look like really, her? and she shrugs and waves away my glance.
We all lay down on our respective pillows and are told to put on the headsets, adjust the sound to our liking. We’re told that if the meditation becomes too intense at any point, we can simply turn down the sound, or take the headset off altogether.
Music begins to play through my headset. The tiredness I felt on the drive over from East LA to Culver City starts to return. I hadn’t been invited to Mia’s birthday the last two years, and I hadn’t been sure if I even wanted to come tonight. I wasn’t sure where we stood, what part of the arc of our friendship we were currently in. At the very least, I suppose I’ll get to take a nice nap during this thing. But when Sebastian starts to speak quietly into his microphone, his deep voice penetrating my ears through my headset, I feel myself relax and grow calm.
The meditation begins with a story about a rain forest, something about a tree deeply rooted in the ground, a tree in the middle of nowhere with no people around. Then the rain, the rain falling and pitter-pattering and the wetness of the air. Then we are transported to clouds, layers and layers of clouds and sky and atmosphere. Every so often, Sebastian will return with the phrase, “A dream within a dream,” and when he does, it wakes me up for a moment, snaps me out of the picture he’s painting and back into the present moment on the floor of Mia’s apartment.
Next, Sebastian tells a story about outer space and the planets and the Milky Way and the rings of Saturn and I start to feel my heart race but I don't want to open my eyes. My right hand reaches for the left, feels for my engagement ring. Then I hear, “A dream within a dream” and I'm okay again. The stories continue: one about the desert, one about a frozen tundra, one about the deepest, bluest ocean.
There is only silence when the meditation ends, and the silence, too, wakes me up, my body reemerging into the world. I feel refreshed like I do after Yoga. I feel a little high.
I remove my headset and sit up. The room is still dark but I see that Mia is up too. Sebastian remains seated at his spot at the dining room table, his set up like a DJ booth.
Everyone gets up eventually and Mia decides she does want to go to the bars after all. I tell her I have to go and don’t say why. There are many reasons, too many to start explaining now. I’ve barely been able get my therapist to understand my nerves, and I don’t want to ruin Mia’s big night. Mia comforts Evelyn who appears to have had some kind of spiritual awakening.
How can you tell a friend that you love them, but that you are not capable of being what they want you to be? Can you love them anyway and can that love ever be enough?
I take my gift for her out of my purse, a small painted dish to put by her bedside to keep safe her engagement ring. She thanks me and doesn’t try to persuade me to stay. “I really enjoyed that,” I tell her and I want her to believe me because I did.
I take three highways to get home: the 10, the 2, the 5. The drive feels like a dream, and I wonder if I’ll wake up at any moment back in Mia’s apartment, back on the floor. I scare myself for a second, thinking I forgot my pillow, but when I turn to look, it’s right there on the passenger seat. I don’t remember picking it up, carrying it to my car.
In therapy, there is a grounding technique where my therapist asks me to name five objects I can see, four feelings in my body, three things I can smell, two sounds I can hear, and one taste in my mouth.
The highway, my hands on the steering wheel, the moon, my rear view mirror, the dashboard in my car. My heart beating, my breath filling my lungs with air, my tongue sliding across my teeth, the fresh air on my face as I roll my window down. My perfume fading, my leather seats, the gasoline in the air. A horn honks as someone passes another car, I flip on my turn signal. Mineral—bloody, metallic.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches General Education at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. Substack. Fiction Workshop.