The Climaxing to Consciousness group met every Friday in a hot yoga studio on Canal Street above a store advertising ten-dollar aura readings. Zoe had been persuaded to come by her roommate, Tali, who had hair the color of Windex spray and said things like your pussy is your power. She had agreed solely because the class was free, which meant it was the only thing she could afford to do that night.
Until that week, she had been making ends meet on her income as the sole employee of a women’s boutique on Christopher Street. It was a tiny velvet box of a store, owned by a stylist with family money and a fairly obvious drug problem whom Zoe had lent a tampon to at an after-party (she’d used the applicator as a coke straw). The clothing sold there catered to the tastes of a particular type of West Village woman, one both wealthy and vaguely bohemian, who worked as…Well, Zoe wasn’t quite sure, but in some career path that meant she was free to shop during the weekday.
Zoe had been instructed to sit in the window and look pretty to attract foot traffic, which suited her inner exhibitionist well. Despite this robust marketing plan, the store was often empty for hours at a time and, since it remained closed between her shifts, Zoe decided that she was free to borrow the clothes with impunity, as long as she was careful not to spill on them, a plan which nipped her own nascent shopping habit in the bud. Best of all, she was paid under the table in cash, which meant she had even been managing to save a tiny bit of money for the first time in her life.
But then she got the medical bill. She’d opened the envelope from Beth Israel carelessly enough, not anticipating that it contained the financial equivalent of a dick slap. Within it she found outlined in clinical detail the substantial costs of the brain scan she’d had at the hospital with her brother Frank and his new wife Cleo. She had health insurance (paid for by Frank, of course), but that only brought the remaining payment down to just over a thousand dollars. Her options for getting funds fast were limited. Since their wedding, Frank had made it clear that the Brother Bank was officially closed. Going to her parents would require telling them that she’d had the seizure in the first place. She had no choice but to pay it, and in doing so wiped out her entire measly savings in one go.
And so, her Friday night plans had been reduced from dinner at Indochine with her Tisch friends to attending this complimentary sex positive meet-up with her slightly unhinged roommate. At nineteen, Zoe was substantially younger than most of the men and women settling into a semi-circle on the wooden floor when she arrived. She thought that, if asked to describe the group afterwards, she would sum it up by saying there were two people present wearing, for no functional purpose, leg warmers. One pair belonged to the man who was now standing in front of them, slapping his large palms together and asking everyone to take a comfortable cross-legged position.
Zoe sat down next to Tali and studied the group more carefully. She counted two tie-dye tee shirts (one emblazoned with the slogan “The Motion is the Lotion”), a handful of newsboy caps and fedoras, one white woman wearing a bindi, and an assortment of crystal pendants. The only other person near Zoe’s age was a girl sitting directly across from her in a deep V-neck t-shirt that barely contained her pushed up cleavage. She had a pretty, slightly sulky face that reminded Zoe of a French bulldog.
“Welcome guys,” said Leg Warmers. “As most of you know, I’m Kyle. And how are we all feeling tonight?”
“Fucking fantastic, Kyle!” yelled one woman—the bindi wearer—and the group whooped in agreement.
“Glad to hear it,” he beamed. “Now before we get started, do we have any new members tonight?”
Several of them tentatively raised their hands, including Zoe and the busty girl across from her. Zoe felt the group’s attention shift onto her and the warm sensation of being witnessed, and inevitably admired, rushed through her.
“Welcome,” said Kyle. “No need to be nervous. We’re all a bunch of weirdos in here, but the good kind, I promise. Now, hopefully you already know a little bit about Climaxing to Consciousness and what we do here.”
Nevertheless, Kyle launched into a detailed explanation of the practice. Zoe felt her face grow hot as he described how a “stimulator” would stroke the clitoris of the receiver in an attempt to bring her to a higher plain of consciousness. According to Kyle, there were three physical stages: the caressing of the receiver’s inner thighs, the application of pressure to the upper left quadrant of her clitoris, and the grounding of the groin area with a flat palm after orgasm had been achieved.
“Upper left, guys!” repeated Kyle. “That’s the sweet spot. Now, any questions?”
He smiled enthusiastically around the room. Zoe, who felt she was grounded enough already, looked towards the door longingly.
“Nope? Well, tonight’s group is just about getting to know each other,” said Kyle. “We’ll be recreating the stages of the physical meditation verbally through some fun word games and exercises.” He winked at the group. “So sorry, none of you will be taking off your pants tonight.”
Several people mock-groaned or whooped, followed by a smattering of applause. Zoe checked her phone; she had been there less than ten minutes. For the first exercise, Sand asked the group to go around the semi-circle, each person shouting out how they felt in that moment. Excited! Nervous! Horny! Ready to do this! Grateful! Loved up! Motivated! Sexy as hell!
“Broke,” said Zoe when it came to her turn.
“Sorry, was that broken?” asked Kyle.
She repeated her word.
“That’s great, Zoe,” said Kyle. “Although I think we’d call that more of a state than an emotion.”
“It’s a pretty emotional state when you’re in it,” said Zoe.
Tali glanced sideways at her disapprovingly but the other girl, the pretty bulldog, met her eyes and smirked. Zoe had always been good at connecting with one other person in a group this way. “Connection through rejection” or “bad behavior bonding” was what her counselor at the therapeutic boarding school she’d been sent to called it.
“Alright.” Kyle rubbed his hands nervously. “Onwards and inwards.”
For the next game, a handful of them could volunteer to sit in a stool at the center of the room known as the “hot seat” while the group called out personal questions to them. Zoe learned that Sandra the bindi-wearer was a life coach who enjoyed masturbation in the bath, newcomer Ralph’s biggest turn on in a woman was kindness and a willingness to try anal, and that Kyle—who abashedly agreed to take a turn in the hot seat at the group’s request—was a polyamorous vegan who loved cooking for his mother. Zoe caught Tali’s eye and mouthed I hate you to her before turning back to the group with a tight-lipped smile.
Next, Kyle asked them to lie on the floor and relax their bodies as much as possible. Zoe checked her phone again; some friends were meeting for drinks at the opening of a new bar in the East Village. All of life, it seemed, was happening outside that room.
“I want you all to close your eyes and imagine a moment in which you were really vulnerable,” said Kyle, dimming the lights.
Zoe would do nothing of the sort. She stared at the ceiling and tried to think, instead, of how she could make money quickly and without effort. But the thought, the one she’d been so carefully not thinking about, bullied its way to the front of her mind. She was fifteen years old and she was in love. He was in the grade above her at her first boarding school, a guitarist in the school jazz band. He kissed her at the Halloween party—he was dressed as a strip of bacon, she a sexy mouse—then took her to a grassy knoll behind the science building. They had sex in the wet grass with their costumes scrunched to their waists. And that was it. He became the hook upon which she hung her whole self.
“How did that moment make you feel?” whispered Kyle. “Scared? Exhilarated? Angry? Really sink into that feeling.”
Just the thought of him was a kind of warmth, a blush from the inside out. In class, she would ignore whatever lesson was happening and turn into herself to relive every moment of that night. He was kind but indifferent towards her when she showed up to his band practices or orchestrated ways for them to bump into each other between classes. She couldn’t stand, or understand, his passivity. They had found this incredible thing together. Why didn’t he want to do it again and again and again?
The following weekend, exhausted by her own disappointment, she decided to try getting drunk. She and a friend waited outside the liquor store in town until they found a man willing to buy them a bottle of vodka, then sat on a bench with a carton of orange juice taking turns slugging one, then the other, until they’d finished both. An hour later it had seemed like an amazing idea break into his dorm room and surprise him. It would be adventurous, romantic. She wanted to lie next to him, to cradle his head on her chest and comb his hair with her fingers. She was scrambling through his window, too drunk to even remember the act afterwards, when she’d collapsed onto his dorm room floor in her first seizure.
“Now imagine a moment in which you felt safe and loved,” said Kyle.
But she was already too deep inside the memory to leave now. Coming back to consciousness after seizing was like smashing through a pane of glass. She remembered opening her eyes to the school nurse’s round white face. She’d had no idea where she was. It was when the nurse helped her to her feet that she felt the wet cling of her skirt to her thighs. There was a dark patch on the carpet. The shame she’d felt, such shame. So physical that even now it brought her hands involuntarily to her face.
“Now imagine a moment in which you made someone else feel safe and loved,” said Kyle.
She’d read afterwards that it was common during grand mal seizures and had lived in terror of it happening to her again, but so far it had only been that first time. In the weeks after, she’d watched video after video of people thrashing on the ground, heads whipping from side to side as though trying to break free from their bodies. It was an act of violence to herself to watch them. He had seen her like that. Had anyone in this room ever been vulnerable like that? Had anyone in the history of the world ever been humiliated like that?
“I feel the healing energy in this room,” said Kyle. “I feel it.”
After they’d stretched and sat up, Kyle told them they would be working in couples for the final exercise. Zoe was relieved to be paired with the girl who’d seemed amused by her earlier. Kyle instructed them to press their palms to their partner’s and make short, declarative statements about themselves starting with “I am” and “I am not”.
Zoe pushed her palms to the girl’s, who introduced herself as Portia. Up close she was more sultry than pretty, with a slightly upturned nose and full, pillowy lips colored a dark plum. She had a diamond stud in her cheek where a dimple might have been. They eyed each other shyly.
“Go on, girls,” said Kyle. “I am…”
“I am thinking this is a load of horseshit,” muttered Portia as Kyle retreated, rolling her dark eyes around the studio.
“I am not disagreeing with you,” replied Zoe.
“I am only here because my psychiatrist suggested it.”
“I am not here because I want to be,” said Zoe. “My crazy roommate convinced me.”
“I am ready to start drinking heavily,” grinned Portia.
“I am not opposed,” laughed Zoe.
Accelerated intimacy, that’s what Zoe was good at. She’d learnt early that it was quicker to bond with another person over what you didn’t like than what you did, and that the easiest way to feel close to someone was to do something transgressive together. That’s why smokers always made friends. Her counselor after the seizure incident had suggested this was part of what got Zoe into trouble, but Zoe still didn’t see it as “problematic behavior”. So far it had always worked for her. Tali, who had looked over when they started laughing, frowned at Zoe from across the room.
“Why’d your psychiatrist think you need this?” Zoe whispered, leaning closer.
“Because I like my job. And he’s a prudish piece of shit. It was either this or S.L.A.A.” Zoe cocked her head. “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous,” Portia explained.
“Oh right. My mom’s in the other one.”
“A.A.? Mine too.” Portia rolled her eyes. “Or she was.”
“So, what’s your job?”
“I’m a Sugar Baby,” she said proudly. “I’m on this website called Daddy Dearest that pairs gentlemen of a certain means”—she pulled her palms from Zoe’s and curled her long lilac nails into air quotes—“with girls like me. You have to be in college or have graduated to be a Baby. They just have to be rich. It’s men who want attractive but, like, educated girls to take to work functions and business meetings and such.”
“Sleep with them?” Portia said brightly. “That’s between you and your Daddies. But if you want to arrange something with them…Well, I paid off my college loans and bought a Honda Accord off that shit.”
Zoe didn’t know what a Honda Accord looked like, but the loans part was impressive.
“And you just have to be in college?”
“And hot,” Portia said, her cheek diamond winking. “Which girl, you are. Anyway, if you’re really broke like you said, you should try it. They go mad for ethnic girls on there too.”
Zoe decided to let this comment go.
“I think I’ll ask my brother to help me out,” she said. “But that’s really cool about your car and everything.”
She knew Frank was already being generous by covering her rent and tuition. It was her mother’s fault, really, that she was in this mess. Her mother had always been careless with money, in the way that people raised with a lot of it often are. She should never have started that luxury ski rental business, taking Zoe’s poor father along for the ride. It seemed to Zoe that she was the only person in her friend group at N.Y.U. who didn’t have parents providing her with endless funds for dinners and nights out—everything that made living in New York actually fun.
“Look, I’ll give you this.” Portia turned to rummage through her Louis Vuitton bag and produced a business card. “I’m stopping soon so I’m not saying it to promote their shit or anything. One of my Daddies wants me all to himself, so he’s hooked me up with this swank office management job. I’m making money, honey!” She snapped her fingers and wiggled cross-legged on the floor.
Zoe laughed and took the card. It was thick, matte black, with Portia’s name and the words Sugar Baby scrawled in hot pink above the website address. On the flip side was a silhouette of a woman. She could have been anyone.
To close the session, the group joined hands and chanted a series of long “oms” with their eyes shut. After a few minutes Zoe could no longer hear where her voice ended and the others began; she could feel all the human noise in the room humming in her own throat. Maybe, she wondered, this is what an orgasm with another person felt like, not knowing where they end and you begin.
The truth was she had never had one—not with anyone, not even with herself. Maybe she was a late bloomer, but she had never tried when she was young. She lost her virginity before she had really gotten to know her own body. She had tried to touch herself a few times after the seizure incident, but she had mostly felt uncomfortable and numb down there, so she had quickly given up. Sex since had been about validation and power for her, rarely physical pleasure. She felt no closer to having an orgasm with a man inside of her than she did riding the subway. Her body, she had decided, was defective. She couldn’t even drink alcohol like a normal person, let alone come like one. All her body knew how to do well was betray her.
The chanting grew quieter until they were silent. Kyle struck a single gong and the people either side of her released her hands. When she opened her eyes again, she was surprised to find herself blinking back tears. She tried to make her way quickly towards the bathroom, but Kyle intercepted her.
“I’m so glad you came tonight, Zoe,” he beamed. “I get the sense you might still be a little confused about what we do here, so I was wondering if I could tell you a quick story?” Zoe nodded unwillingly. “Great! One day, out of the blue, a guy falls into a deep hole. Help, help! He yells but no one comes. Eventually a rabbi walks by. He lowers a Torah down and tells him to pray to find a way out.”
Zoe looked towards Tali in the hopes that she would help her find a way out, but she was talking animatedly with a woman Zoe had earlier heard claim to have given birth in silence.
“Next, a priest walks past and gives him a Bible. Again, no result. A psychiatrist tells him he’s stuck because he’s depressed and throws down some pills. No dice. A nihilist tells him to imagine the hole doesn’t exist but that doesn’t work either. A politician, an intellectual and a bunch of others try but nothing works. Then a spiritualist, a wise man really, comes to the edge of the hole. He looks down at the man at the bottom and jumps right in with him. And that’s what this meditation is about, Zoe, someone getting in the hole with you.”
Kyle smiled expectantly at her.
“But how do they get out of the hole?” asked Zoe.
“Exactly,” said Kyle.
“But there are two people stuck in the hole now,” said Zoe.
Kyle squeezed her arm.
“Hope to see you next week,” he said before walking away.
Zoe looked towards the door just as Portia was leaving. She caught Zoe’s eye, slapped her ass, and mouthed something at her. It was money honey.
Excerpted from Cleopatra and Frankenstein. Copyright Coco Mellors, 2022. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.