The Yoga Teacherby Alexandra Gray
“Funny and incisive . . . smart, stylish, and one of a kind.” —Candace Bushnell
“Funny and incisive . . . smart, stylish, and one of a kind.” —Candace Bushnell
Dissatisfied with her job as a pharmaceutical rep and struggling with the decline of her long-term relationship, Grace, a well-heeled Londoner, uses yoga class to unwind, reflect, and momentarily transcend her earthly dilemmas. While pitching her company’s latest antidepressant to the disarming Dr. James, she is inspired by his plan to study Eastern medicine in Vietnam. Galvanized by his bravery, Grace confesses to her own dream—she quits her job, and her disappointment of a boyfriend, to become a yoga teacher.
At the White Lotus Foundation in California, Grace learns lessons beyond the confines of the yoga studio. Her fellow students—an education in themselves—include a Californian Gothette, a taciturn Russian model, and Sam, a rare male presence in this world of flexible females. Grace returns to England, ready for her new life, but nothing could have prepared her for the motley crew of students she amasses—from the octogenarian industrialist desperate for distraction, the supermodel married to a rock star who indulges yogic aspirations when she tires of kabbalah, to the American film star who uses yoga classes to conceal a scandalous affair. In Grace’s newfound role (aka guru, yoga maid, babysitter), she finds herself relying on her correspondence with Dr. James in Vietnam for solace and inspiration, his words hovering above her London life like a sweet promise.
With an eye for the absurdity and humor in every encounter, Alexandra Gray gently skewers our society’s preference for a quick-fix nirvana in this chronicle of one woman’s quest for love and meaning in a world numbed by materialism and psychotropic drugs.
“Gray’s narration flows smoothly, and her familiarity with the world of demanding celebrities and sex-seeking teachers lends authenticity and panache to the tale. . . . Gray, in the true spirit of yoga, [shows] us the sublime within the material.” —Vikram Johri, Barnes & Noble review (Spotlight: What Not to Miss This Week)
“Remarkable . . . for its smarts, flair, and honesty.” —Salon.com
“Funny and incisive . . . smart, stylish, and one of a kind.” —Candace Bushnell
Natarajasana—Lord of the Dance
Nata (dancer) raja (lord, king), the Lord of the Dance, is one of the names of Shiva, god of stillness, death, and destruction, but also of the dance. It is said Shiva is dancing not to entertain, but to involve the world in his dance and awaken it to the wonder of creation. Shiva, destroyer and creator, is the god within whom all the forces of nature exist. This dramatic pose is dedicated to Shiva, Lord of the Dance and source of yoga. It is essential when holding the pose that the hip bones be parallel. If the practitioner cannot hold the big toe behind the head, the ankle may be held instead. This asana balances the nervous system and builds strength and concentration.
While performing asana the yogi will assume many forms resembling different creatures, from the most insignificant to the most divine. Asana practice teaches the yogi that the Universal Spirit, the source of atonement and unity, dwells in all creatures regardless of their form.
Grace owed yoga much. Sometimes she believed she owed yoga her life.
It had all started so simply with a picture of Natarajasana, that elegantly, ambitious balancing pose, on the cover of Yoga Journal. Grace had bought the magazine—and the outfit the cover girl was wearing. A yoga teacher came next.
A good yoga teacher is always hard to find, but it was a lot easier when there were only three yoga studios to choose from in the whole of London. Grace rejected the clinically white Iyengar Institute in Maida Vale and the purple saris and bindis at the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Centre in Putney. She chose instead Swami D’s yoga studio in Kensal Rise. Today better known as the neighborhood north of Notting Hill, it was, and is, a no-man’s-land south of the Harrow Road, three minutes’ drive from Grace’s house.
Concealed by a wire fence—and lilac in the spring—Swami D’s studio was an abandoned Church of England hall, Easternized (before it was fashionable) by Sanskrit scripture and incense. Attracted by a pose Grace may have been, but once she could stand on one leg while holding the other behind her head what kept her coming back was Swami D, one of the few truly wise men in London. He had not always been.
Spells at Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton prison had prompted plain Dave Green, at twenty-one, to pack his bags and escape the criminal future awaiting him in London’s East End. He had traveled India, then settled for an incarceration of his own choosing in an ashram in Kerala; he became a devout student of Sri Swamiji, a revered spiritual master. Dave rose every day at five to meditate, then helped to clean the ashram and work in the kitchen. Day after day, he practiced asanas for hours; then, after eating with bare hands food served from a metal bucket, he studied the scriptures. Every evening he meditated before going to sleep on a rush mat. And the purpose of such austerity? To cultivate a dispassionate attitude to all things, to overcome prakrtic, or the conditional existence favored by the mass of human kind.
Dave was a willing student and within sixteen years he rose above the conditioning of childhood and culture to understand the God within and was able to say “I am” with no trace of ego. Finally, Dave desired no more than was necessary for the maintenance of life, and it had long ago occurred to him just how little that was. Then, in his seventeenth year at the ashram, Sri Swamiji told Dave that he had mastered himself and earned the title Swami. And Swami D would have been content forever with ashram life. His teacher, however, saw contentment creeping in. He advised Swami D that his dharma—the desirable action leading to heaven—was to take yoga to the West. For the first time in years Swami D experienced resistance: his desire was to stay forever in India. To overcome his attachment to a simple life, he accepted his teacher’s teaching.
Swami D was in his late forties when he returned to live without money or community in London. His dharma felt like a punishment, and every day was an act of faith. To the East End boy in Swami D taking yoga West meant building his centre in West London, which is why he squatted in and finally signed a lease with the Church of England for the hall in Kensal Rise. Things started looking up when he met a woman who persuaded him that the city was no place for celibacy, and that he had forsaken his title for a pleasure it had denied him for almost twenty years. With lean tattooed limbs, ponytail hair, and eyes that glittered from meditation, Dave still looked and behaved the Swami in every way but one. His students affectionately preserved the title.
By his sixties (his age, like much else, was a mystery), Swami D’s faith and obedience had yielded two children and a yoga studio full of students who admired him for living by the creed from the Bhagavad Gita that was inscribed in gold above his door: “Hateless toward all born beings, friendly, and pitiful; void of thought of Mine and I; bearing indifferently pain and pleasure; patient.”
Swami D talked with his pupils about their lives, less indifferent toward them than the Bhagavad Gita suggested he might be, and he held Grace in affection. It wasn’t difficult. Tall and generous looking with long auburn hair, a slender neck, and a strong, flexible body, she had a softness to her mouth that men felt they needed. She responded to Swami D’s teaching, accepting his adjustments, trusting the magic in his hands as they eased tension from her. Like a pea on a drum at the start of class, by its end she would sink into the floor as though it was moulded to fit.
For six years Swami D observed Grace’s transformation: at first she had come to class as though in competition and all had assumed, including Swami D, that she was the kind of woman whose path through life was easy. Grace was successful at work—something to do with health care was all they knew—and lived with Ted, the man she loved. He would sometimes arrive at the end of class, when Grace slid toward him and away from the rest. Yoga was not Ted’s style. He was addicted to action, a foreign correspondent whose coming and going kept them alive to each other and life.
Grace and Ted had been together six years—all good things since the beginning with more to come—when he had caught bronchitis, taken an assignment anyway, and come home with pneumonia. He had refused to see a doctor. It was as if he knew it would be game over. When he was too weak to resist, Grace had taken him to hospital and was there, days later, when the consultant explained that his immune system was depleted, compromised by a strain of cancer—it didn’t matter which. Hearing the consultant say: “Degenerative, progressive, terminal,” had been worse, in a way, than holding Ted when he died and all Grace felt was love.
Ted had wanted to be at home for the end, and that’s how it had been, three days before his forty-second birthday. In those last months he had protested that Grace did too much for him. She was practical, funny, resilient. She said she wanted nothing in return. At the yoga studio (a world away from Ted), Swami D could tell that something was wrong: Grace was remote but softer, broken, he recognized, but could not have guessed why. She told Swami D that Ted was ill weeks before he died, and only then did she fall apart, because despite what she’d told Ted she had wanted something, and what she’d wanted, and secretly expected, was for her love to save him.
The studio became Grace’s haven. She was there, every day, perfecting the asanas—the physical postures that limber the body. After class, she would talk with Swami D and he could see that outside the yoga studio her interest in the world, even for living, had waned. Slowly he began the process of persuading her that life alone was the gift and the yogi’s path was to advance from the physical to the metaphysical. As Swami D hoped it might, Grace’s curiosity pierced her grief. He gave her a copy of the ancient text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was irrelevant that sage Patanjali may or may not have existed, or was perhaps several persons writing under the same name anytime between three hundred to five thousand years ago. Regardless of authorship, the terse injunctions attributed to him, setting out the sacred science of yoga, remained powerful, a little austere.
As Swami D had secretly anticipated, Grace was drawn to pratyahara. “Through the practice of pratyahara,” he told her, “you will learn to control the senses, to turn your attention inward and retreat from the world. It might even revive your appetite for it.” But Grace’s senses, dulled by bereavement, closed down with such ease Swami D suspected that she had not surrendered but had cut herself off, falling into overwork and isolation: the twenty-first-century trap. He sensed her agitation, as once again she became withdrawn, difficult to know.
Swami D intermittently warned Grace that she worked too hard. “Surrender takes a lifetime to master. This retreat into yourself will be tested,” he cautioned. The kind of test Swami D had in mind appeared when Harry Wood walked into the studio one late summer Sunday for the seven o’clock class.
Harry Wood was no yogi but he was also under no illusion either about what he wanted from the studio. He had heard that Swami D’s was the best place to meet women that didn’t require a bar, a drink, or a fat wallet—essential considerations for Harry at the time. On the day Harry met Grace he was two years and one month without cocaine; three hundred and forty days without a cigarette; and one year, one month, and six days without a drink—or sex, come to that. It had been around the time of his daughter’s first birthday that sex with his now ex had felt like hard work; without the substances, it had proved impossible.
Sometimes Harry believed that’s why he’d moved out of Vicky’s four-storey Notting Hill house, and sometimes he remembered that it was her idea that he should leave. It was a grey area, like much of his past.
By the time Harry met Grace, that couples got together at all seemed a miracle to him. Nobody he knew had done it sober, which was the stone cold prospect that terrified him—until he glimpsed Grace through the changing room mirror taking off her business suit. He had kept his focus on his own reflection when he said, “These Thai pants looked a whole lot better in Phuket.”
“Don’t worry. On the mat priorities change,” Grace had said, and hers certainly had when Harry lay beside her, horizontal and so close they might as well have been in bed. It was as though pratyahara had primed her senses rather than dulled them. Grace was unsettled by her delayed reaction to Harry’s rangy good looks, which she felt she should recognize from a magazine or television, such was his indifference to their effect. When the class had started, as it always did, with Swami D instructing, “roll your head slowly to the right,” Grace had gazed at Harry as a lover would a sleeping beloved. His refined profile, gentle breath, and the shape of his mouth beside her in candlelight collided with a memory of Ted, and Pandora’s honey vase (it never was a box) had opened. Desire, followed fast by hope, had escaped to claim her. Grace was Harry’s before he asked her.
Throughout their first class together Harry had been diverted from yoga as much by Grace’s beatific face as her heavenly body, which he eyed furtively in all the postures while he attempted them himself. When the agile old Swami had adjusted her forward bend, settling his hips into her upturned bottom and pushing his hands down her back, Harry had felt his own energy surge: he’d wanted to hit him, “nut the old fucker,” he had later confessed. But even he could appreciate that beneath the Swami’s touch Grace’s body was granted release, allowing her to nestle her forehead closer to her ankles. At the end of class, when students were told to rest, Harry may have been surrounded by supine women, but cradled by the sound of a sitar and candlelight, he was soon asleep, and was still sleeping when the other students had rolled up their mats. Intent on saving Harry from humiliation, Grace had kneeled beside him and whispered, “It’s time to wake up.”
Two years after her sympathetic whisper, the day-to-day had eroded Grace’s romantic notion that meeting Harry at Swami D’s was proof of a karmic connection. It broke her heart that he still laboured under the consequences of his past, while labour of a lucrative kind eluded him. At first she had been seduced by Harry’s insistence that he had changed his life and was destined for greatness. Grace saw his potential, set him on a pedestal, and supported his dreams of one day becoming not only an actor and a model, but also a clothes designer. So far, Harry had acted for two weeks in total, one of them in Notting Hill’s fringe theatre. He’d earned less than £52 since they’d been together.
Once upon a time, Grace hadn’t cared that Harry was penniless. She had never worried about money, and refused to start. She was well paid and Ted had left her the house and a bit beside. To rediscover pleasure was all she expected from her time with Harry in their early, loving days. Her London life had been transformed by their walks in Hyde Park and breakfast on Golborne Road where they browsed Moroccan shops, the storerooms crowded with antiques, and the secondhand bookshop. They had always finished at the fishmonger followed by the fruit and vegetable stall opposite, run by the old man from Marrakech. Grace bought the food, Harry cooked it: an apparently innocent switch in the conventional roles. Then there had been cycle rides along the canal path to Camden, and for the first time in years, Grace had taken public transport, where she and Harry stood as equals. Being the passenger in Grace’s Mercedes had put Harry on edge; travel cards had been his solution, and her delight, especially when the bus or the underground train swung them together—though this romantic enthusiasm didn’t survive the mass of drunken humanity on the last Friday train from the West End. They were back to her car. Letting Harry drive didn’t make him more the man, and as the months went by, his dreams of greatness felt like an indulgence for which Grace paid the price. His latest scheme, to film friends’ weddings, had lost rather than made money and lately he spent days at home designing yoga clothes. Grace no longer found their role reversal modern: all she wanted was for Harry to get a job—any would do. These days he balanced precariously on the pedestal she had set him on. That he would topple into the baggage that dragged him down seemed inevitable. Harry’s load included an adorable five-year-old daughter, Lucy, who could, at times, love Grace as if she were her mother. The woman who actually had that privilege—a destructive force fueled by wealth and celebrity—was Vicky Hope. Her design business was a nineties phenomenon that still thrived in the new millennium. Her second book, Encore Décor, was on the best-seller list the whole time Grace and Harry had been together; Grace no longer went into Waterstones on Notting Hill Gate, where multiple images of Vicky’s airbrushed face smiled down from the local author’s shelf. She had never seen Vicky smile in real life. That didn’t seem to trouble Harry as much as Grace felt it should, and he remained as compliant as he had been in the face of her fame, fortune, and motherhood—a potent combination Grace had thought to tempt him from with love and hope and naked nights.
But Vicky’s life was a roller-coaster ride Harry couldn’t get off, and Grace had to accept that if she stayed with him, she was along for a bumpy ride. Only yoga returned her to sanity. Over the years, it had strengthened her, as she had hoped. What she had not foreseen was that it could subtly undermine her faith in Western medicine, and that wouldn’t have mattered if she’d had a different job.
Harry called her “the drug dealer” and said with perverse pride that only he, reformed addict that he was, could have picked her from a room full of yogis.
“I’m not a drug dealer, Harry,” Grace would protest, weary of defending herself. “I work in medical health care.”
“Drugs are all the same to me, scored on the street or packaged by Suprafarma.”
The orthodoxy of Western medicine was the liturgy in Grace’s family; to work outside the medical profession would have been inconceivable. Her father had been a surgeon, famous for pioneering the “boob job,” a phrase he decried for demeaning his art and the most sublime of all God’s creations. Grace’s father had started his career as a breast surgeon, but been lured from this path on a quest to perfect the healthy breast tissue of the rich and famous. His reputation was such that women from all over the world came to London to be enhanced by his hand, long before such procedures were screened on prime time TV.
Grace’s mother had been a different kind of doctor, a pediatrician, dedicated to a stream of patients. Grace had seen, firsthand, what it took to be a medic and preferred the theoretical realm; after graduating from Cambridge in natural science, she had joined the pharmaceutical giant Suprafarma. Psychotropic medication was her specialization, and in the lab she worked on the brains of rats and mice, developing compounds for antidepressants and mood enhancers. Progress took time and trouble. Convulsions, paralysis, hallucinations: Grace saw them all—indeed, she induced them—but always within the sanctuary of the lab. She preferred it that way. You could always walk away from a rat. By the time the drugs she had helped develop were tested on humans, her involvement was over. Even so, she respected the men who first tested a drug—the so-called “healthy normal volunteers,” who were always males aged eighteen to twenty-four, and paid to swallow on our behalf. Grace called them “phase one heroes”; the pharmaceutical industry was less laudatory, persuading itself that the £3,000 it paid volunteers to enter a trial was money easily earned.
Like distant parents watching a child make its way in the world, Grace and her project team would track the progress of their drugs through multiple trials all the way to the pharmacy—although few ever made it. When one of their drugs reached the market within seven years of leaving the lab, it was considered a record. Only four of Grace’s compounds ever got so far but one of them was Procent, a new-generation antidepressant, and the most successful on the market.
When Ted had been ill, to give her time with him, she had given up research to work part-time as a representative promoting Procent to the psychiatric departments of the hospitals in Greater London. No sales rep had ever been as qualified to talk about a drug. Preoccupied with Ted, Grace hadn’t missed the laboratory; reaching sales targets became her obsession, an almost soothing distraction. The condescension of doctors took her by surprise but did not intimidate her. Not all her new colleagues were as resolute: one still suffered panic attacks in certain streets in W1 and couldn’t say Harley Street without stammering.
After Ted died, returning to research held no appeal. Nothing did. Neither she nor drugs had saved Ted. Too dispirited to find the energy to think, still less to ditch her job, she’d carried on selling Procent. In fact, for a very long time, Grace was indifferent to everything apart from yoga—until she met Harry, and for that she would always be grateful.
But Grace had picked a boyfriend who was opposed to medication and who denounced her work. For that, too, she would later be grateful, though not just then. The job no longer felt like her calling—had it ever been, she often wondered now—but to have admitted that, out loud, would have robbed her of a reassuringly familiar script. Besides, with none of Harry’s grand projects coming off, it felt too soon to depart from salaried security. That suited Harry. “We can’t both die of optimism,” he’d said when she’d once hinted at her secret wish to stop working as a sales rep.
This Friday evening, Grace was not reluctant as she once would have been to leave Harry resting at the end of Swami D’s class to go into the West End for a Suprafarma sales meeting. The consultant psychiatrist, Dr. James, had been at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital for almost a year; it had taken Grace that long to persuade him to meet to discuss Procent—an appointment he had repeatedly canceled. But that afternoon he had called to suggest Claridges Cigar Bar at nine o’clock. “I’d like to go there while it’s still fit for purpose. What will they call it come the smoking ban?” He laughed. Grace liked his laugh. In fact, she had always liked the sound of Dr. James’s voice, and there was a leap in her belly that had nothing to do with securing a sales contract when she agreed that, yes, Claridges would be fine.
New regulations of the pharmaceutical industry (as Dr. James had to be aware) prohibited a sales rep from meeting a possible client anywhere that served food and drink, apart from the hospital canteen. The “sweetners” that had once been permitted in the industry—business-class travel to exotic locations for half-hour seminars, the latest goodies from Apple, delicious dinners—were all illegal now and there was less fun to be had promoting drugs. Doctors were more reluctant to meet; they had so little time, and could find out about the drugs they wanted from colleagues or online. Pharmaceutical sales reps, Grace guessed, would one day be a rare breed.
On her way to meet Dr. James, Grace was consoled by the pleasure of driving her car—the one undeniable luxury Suprafarma still afforded. The Westway, the direct route to the West End from Swami D’s, was her favourite stretch of London road and she accelerated her Mercedes into its broad curve. Grace had liked cars for as long as she could remember. The cocoon of metal and music, the responsiveness to command: cars adhered to reason, their occasional sickness simply remedied—inspection, operation, cure. Easier than people, thought Grace as she accelerated. Driving to meet Dr. James put things in perspective. Deep down, though really not so deep, Grace knew that practicing yoga while promoting pharmaceuticals wasn’t a match made in heaven, but nothing was anymore, and she convinced herself it was merely inconsistent to sell medication while being a yogi. The road ahead was clear, there were no speed cameras, the car seat was warming up. All would be well.
Grace entered Claridges ten minutes late. The impeccably dressed man in the dark blue suit sitting at the bar with a margarita and a copy of the Psychiatric Times was no doubt Dr. James. From the bar Dr. James spotted his medical rep with equal ease; the tailored suit, elegant heels, and briefcase betrayed her caste.
“Sorry to drag you to the West End this time of night,” he said, approaching. “I have a patient staying at the hotel; this is my only free time for weeks.”
Shaking his hand, surprised by his courtesy, Grace’s diary slipped to the floor. Everything she had filed in the book’s back pocket—credit cards, business cards, stick figure drawings of yoga poses, a photograph of Ted, and one of Harry—spilled at Dr. James’s feet. Composure shaken, Grace bent down, hoping the doctor would take Ted and Harry for one and the same. The messy dark blond hair, the square jaw: surely in the low light of the Cigar Bar he wouldn’t notice they were two different men. The doctor didn’t seem to be interested in the photographs. He was looking at Grace. “Let me,” he said, resting his hand on her shoulder.
Grace watched his hands—elegant and deft—gather the scattered bits and pieces. She managed a closed-mouth smile when he returned what suddenly seemed to her the pathetic representation of her life. “What would you like to drink?” he asked, mercifully indifferent to her humiliation. Perhaps it was Dr. James’s manner that disarmed her, or the effect of her two-hour yoga class, but for a moment, Grace had no desire to push Suprafarma’s pill. She edged onto the bar stool and said yes when he offered her a margarita. The cocktail, prepared with swift precision, was served with a short blue straw. Dr. James raised his half-empty glass—a toast, she supposed, to the account he was about to give her. Instead he cautioned, “Always more potent when you suck.” Amusing but patronizing—and perhaps he fancies me, thought Grace.
Grace knew about the straw: it had long been her father’s trick to induce a hit. She sucked through the straw, the tequila went straight to her head, and she launched into her Suprafarma pitch, failing to observe that Dr. James was hardly in the mood. He leaned forward rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long day. What about side effects?”
Grace edged him the latest fact sheet for Procent. “Nothing fatal. The usual,” she said, circling the thick paragraph in reduced print at the foot of the page with the tip of her Bic. “Drowsiness if mixed with alcohol, headaches possibly, weight gain, and our faithful friend, constipation—for which I have a very effective laxative. Ta da!” Grace produced the packet she kept in her pocket for such occasions, aiming for humour without demeaning her product.
“Nice to know you’ve got a sideline in laxatives. Some of my more medicated patients haven’t had a shit in weeks.” The doctor’s tired eyes sparkled but Grace refused to be seduced. She liked to control the humour until her work was done. “I think you’ll find Procent surprisingly side effect—free,” she said.
“You think I’ll find?” Dr. James pushed away the sheet.
“It’s late. We could have sorted this out over the phone. Sitting here with you I’m already in breach of clause nineteen.”
“Ah,” he said slowly, “the latest code of practice.”
“The very one.”
“If you hold the Procent literature and I take off my tie, can we forget about business?” He loosened his collar and looked sideways at her.
“Okay,” she said, cautious but intrigued.
He pulled off his tie, leaving it curled in his lap. Grace liked how he did that but hid her pleasure. Dr. James turned to her. “I probably shouldn’t say this, in fact I know I shouldn’t, but I saw you the other day at the hospital and wanted to have a conversation. That’s really why I called you.”
Underhand passes and innuendos from admiring men were easily combated, but Dr. James’s honest appeal unnerved her. He was attractive in his Savile Row suit and wanted to talk. Where was the harm?
“The thing is, I’m disillusioned,” he went on. “I thought I saw that in you, too.” He smiled, a thin line at the corner of his eye creasing deeper than the rest.
“Disillusioned? Where was I?”
“Outside Dr. Carmichael’s office.”
“Oh dear. Well. I’m sorry,” Grace laughed. Dr. James’s appeal for a response beyond her remit—and his—made her nervous. “I don’t know if disillusioned is the right word. Preoccupied possibly. There’s something I need to talk about, but my boyfriend isn’t the right person, and I don’t think you are either.”
“Is your boyfriend in medicine?”
“No, he isn’t,” Grace said, wistful.
“So what does my competition do?” Dr. James was a margarita ahead and surprisingly playful. Impossible as it is for a man who has always worked to imagine one who hasn’t, he was unable to see Grace’s dread of the subject.
“Is he independently wealthy?”
Grace put a stop to the game. “Dr. James, what your ‘competition’ does is dream. Otherwise he’s unemployed.”
“You shouldn’t feel responsible.”
“Thank you, but I do. I feel his responsibilities more than he does.”
“Is that what attracted you?”
“Oh dear. Is it that bad?” They both grinned.
“Actually I can’t tell how bad it is anymore. It’s gone on too long. It’s all a bit depressing.”
“Do you think you might be depressed?”
“Is this a conversation, or a consultation?”
“You don’t have to answer,” he said and smiled softly.
It was then that Grace realized that they were at ease with each other, as if they knew—knew what? Perhaps that they could trust each other—if they dared.
“I’m not depressed,” she said. “I know what depression feels like.”
“Did you ever take Procent?”
“Not the first time. I was too young.”
“Who diagnosed depression?”
“Me,” she laughed, “years later. Looking back I see I was shut down and would have been classified as depressed if my father had taken me to a doctor. I’m grateful that he was too busy or too drunk. As hypocritical as this sounds, I’m glad not to have had a medicated childhood. I don’t think it would have made my mother’s suicide any easier to bear.”
This rare confession was a release, and the last thing Grace expected to say. She would have moved the conversation along, if she could, but no words came. Her dark secret could still rouse her shame—shame at not being enough for her mother to choose life. Dr. James seemed to know this. He waited, then asked, “How old were you?”
His sympathy made her tearful. She couldn’t look at him. “I was twelve.”
“There should be a law against suicide.”
“And all untimely death,” Grace added.
Dr. James watched her for a second. “Did somebody else die?”
“Yes. Ted.” She had learned to make light of her hurt, and by the time she looked back at him, she was ironic, resigned. “Unlucky, don’t you think, to lose the two people I loved the most?” Before he could answer, she asked, “How about you, have you been lucky in love?”
“Sometimes very lucky, but not for long. I got divorced nearly ten years ago. I’ve been married to my work since. Were you and Ted married?”
“It was better than that, in a way. When I lost him, I lost myself, and as I don’t believe suffering has any particular merit, I took Procent.”
“Are you still on it?”
“Why did you stop?”
“At first it took the edge off. Mind you, so does this,” Grace said, finishing the last of the margarita. “I gained weight on Procent. Being physically heavier neutralized the benefits of being emotionally lighter, and that tiny pill always felt stuck here,” she said, raising her chin. He watched as she stroked her throat. She looked beautiful like that, with her chin lifted. She dropped her hand. “Procent didn’t suit me, and that was depressing.”
He was aware of the cost to her of such self-disclosure; suddenly aware, too, that he was negotiating his own conflicting emotions.
“So the road to health isn’t paved with pharma drugs?” he asked.
“I think we know that, although some drugs do give some people a better life than they might otherwise have.”
“That’s the problem right there—some drugs for some people. We don’t know which to prescribe to whom, so it’s trial by error, with no guarantees. Isn’t that why you’re disillusioned?”
“Probably. I still don’t want to admit that I am.”
He waited. “It’s hard to be invested in a system you have cause to doubt. I’ve had a similar experience, and I no longer fight it. I don’t tell many people this, but I have an academic training in acupuncture.”
“So you’ve consulted an acupuncturist?”
“Is it good science?”
“It’s a different science that convinces me. I’m tempted to go to Vietnam to retrain so that I can come back and practice Chinese medicine. In the West we’ve specialized ourselves out of treating patients holistically.”
“It’s not that drugs don’t work,” Grace insisted. Dr. James lightly touched her forearm.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t get agitated. I wish I could walk away.”
“You will, when you’re ready. Anyway, as you said, some lives do begin again with medication, although I’ve known too many galvanized to action by antidepressants and the only action that made sense to them was suicide.”
“The work I did protected me from the reality of patients.”
“You never wanted to practice?”
“I felt . . .” She paused. “I thought, not felt, that to go into medicine would have been hopeless. My father was a remarkable surgeon. Breast remodeling.” She smiled, or started to. “His reputation would have eclipsed anything I tried to do. My mother was a different kind of doctor; she questioned everything and sought solutions. I think it became unbearable for her when she realized that she wouldn’t find them. At least that’s how I account for her suicide.”
Dr. James waited, wondering if she would go on. He realized that she needed him to speak, and he did so, softly. “What does your father think?”
“The day after my mother died, he took me out of school for tea and told me, ‘Mummy’s gone to heaven and everything will be all right.’ To prove that it was, he dropped me back in time for prep. We haven’t spoken about it since.”
“Do you think the right medicine at the right time could have saved her?”
“Believing that it could is why I went into research. I wanted to help people who suffered like my mother, and save a child from what I went through losing her. After sixteen years in this business, such aspirations sound naive. You know, sometimes . . .”
“Sometimes?” Dr. James prompted.
What the hell. Grace no longer cared if it sounded absurd. It was about time she confessed. “Sometimes I dream of being a yoga teacher.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m not in a position to give up Suprafarma.”
“Unless you’ve got no choice,” Dr. James said, gentle complicity in his eyes.