A goshawk flew over the river running through our land yesterday, and the bowling alley gave me validation about the fat emptiness I’d held for a stint. The long lanes and lights in the lounge were caught up in pitchers and tonics. My collar bone snapped a week before when I was thrown from the back of a Charbray bull named Heinous, so I wasn’t bowling, just slumped in a seat that made leathery squeaks while I drained a pitcher and thought things over. For nearly two decades I could make it happen, the out-of-body experience, but then this bull kicked, and my astral self got caught up in the threads of my skin. I couldn’t project. I couldn’t leave my body. All those years slapping around bucking bulls with an astral hand, and I just couldn’t shake loose.
I took Tim, my boyfriend of six years, home from the bowling alley. I was full of beer, and we laid down in bed, but I couldn’t focus on him. It was the shooting pain in my collar bone, but it was something else too. After seventeen years training, riding bulls under the watchful eye of Grant Luffew, guru and guide to inner space, something broke. A connection got cracked.
“You gotta leave your body to find the bull. Come down from the stars and tame him from a different plane. He’ll want your touch. He’ll come to you in your psychic form,” said Luffew.
Luffew had a handlebar mustache and two gold incisors set inside weathered lips. His skin was leathery, and his long gray hair fell in waves from under a white cowboy hat with a turkey feather stuck in the band. His chest hair was gray too. He kept the top three buttons on his shirt unsnapped so a browned tank top stuck out with a chain hung over it made from 24-karat gold. His right eye was blue and his left eye was bluer.
Luffew came from nowhere. Or at least no one knew where he came from. All his talk of astral planes and mindfulness freaked out lots of riders and earned him his nickname “The Ghost.” After he came onto the circuit in the 1970s, The Ghost trained over 25 PBA champions, myself included.
Maybe my time was gone.
After squeezing out of my pants and popping my pearl snaps, I tried to spoon Tim and kindle some spark, but I felt all itchy. I got up and went to the exercise room, sat on the meditation mat, lit incense and unscented candles, then quietly chanted devotion to the lotus sutra.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo
I laid back and there was more pain in my collar bone from the pressure of the floor on my shoulder blade. It wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to leave my body. Everything felt so damned physical, so damned contained—the pain and all that. I felt strapped into the earth and into myself. About that time Tim poked his head through the door and asked why I was still up.
“Baby, you shouldn’t be working. You need to be resting.”
“I can’t rest. I’ve tried… fuck.”
“Give it some time. You’ll heal, and you’ll get back to it.”
“I was losing it before the collar bone. That’s why the collar bone broke, Tim. You know that.”
“Have you ever thought that maybe you aren’t escaping your body but expanding it?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes things slip out of me, and I don’t know what they mean. Maybe just think on it.”
Tim climbed back in bed, and I laid there groaning for a while. I wasn’t sure what I had with Tim. Love maybe. After a while our reckless intensity began to rectify itself with a sense of happiness and security that felt more like merging than exploding. Tim liked to ride horses, float rivers, and backpack. He explored the world with a tenderness that brought balance to my rowdy way of living. When I got back to the bedroom, he was still and quiet under the jersey sheets. Then his lips moved and he muttered something indecipherable. I tucked in beside him and wondered where his mind was.
Terry from the circuit told me over coffee and schnapps that I should consider a different career. I froze for a minute while the steam from the mug fogged up my glasses. It filled my nose all smoky, but good smoky, not like the smoke from the fires outside. I stared at Terry, and my eyes musta went feral, because I got mad. Real mad. Madder than I’d been since I was nineteen. Terry that sniveling, carrot crotch, wiry sack of shit… pasty fucking dweeb. Was he telling me I couldn’t ride anymore, that he was gonna kick me off the circuit?
Cool it, I told myself.
Me and Terry went way back. He’d been working for the rodeo circuit since I started. Terry booked fresh riders and then forced them into retirement. He’s always been a bachelor. Though the women came, they left just as quick. Before he knew it, his days of womanizing were over. The women looked right past him, and all his down home witticisms began to fall flat. At the age of 55, Terry began to wonder if was ever all that funny to begin with. His curly hair began to thin and gray, so he looked like a spent dandelion, though the red still had some presence there atop his head, albeit faded and feeble, not fiery like it used to be when we were diluted by our passing youth.
I practiced some breathing and remembered that Terry gave me a place to stay after my wife found out about me and Tim, and I tried to pull it together. I wasn’t ready to take that step with Tim just yet. Those days crashing with Terry were the best kind of blur.
He kept on going.
“You haven’t made it to eight seconds in a long time, Bruce. Now you’re getting hurt. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
I took another moment to put out the fire inside me and said, “Terry, look, I think I been escaping my body instead of expanding it, you know?”
He looked at me empty-eyed like I was stupid for saying it. “No. I don’t. Escaping…expan—look, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but I think you might have broken something more than a collar bone, pal. I think your goddamn brain is broke, Bruce. You can’t keep riding bulls. I’m not gonna book you anymore, because one of these days you’re gonna break your fucking neck and I’m not gonna be—”
I took my good arm and broke Terry’s nose. Flattened that fucker right out. I feel bad about it now. All that red blood clotted in his gray-red hair. It was gross. I just didn’t like what he was saying to me, and I didn’t feel like he had any right to say it.
After thumping Terry, I got up and drove home in the old Caddy, not feeling much shame, and found Tim glazing salmon for lunch.
I met Tim some years back at an ecstatic dance session that happened every couple weeks in the yoga studio a few blocks from my house. He was wearing a white cotton shirt that was unbuttoned and he was a little chubby but still confident in the way he moved, trusting his body to hold him. I’d never been to anything like that before, where the goal of dancing was not to get laid but to enter a trance state. Luffew suggested I attend. He said it would lubricate my soul. He always said weird shit like that. For me, the act of leaving the body was never oily. I always rattled it loose, jerked and shook until I was outside of myself staring down at my body going through the motions as the bull went wild.
I remember the first night I met Luffew. Something about him felt more like a presence than a person. Maybe that was just the legend and the mystique that surrounded him, because I’d heard it all beforehand. I rode well that night. He approached and asked if I wanted to get stoned. I said hell yeah. Luffew told me something about himself that felt pretty vulnerable.
He said, “When I was a youngin’ I spent some years in foster care. Got passed among a few hands that didn’t treat me too well. One night this big mean bastard put back a fifth of Wild Turkey and beat me senseless until I just slipped outside of myself.”
“Not certain I know what you mean by that Mr. Luffew,” I said.
“You ever hear of astral projection?” he asked.
“Can’t say I have,” I said.
“Out-of-body-experience?” He asked.
“That rings a bell. I’ve felt outside of my body a couple times. That was cause of pleasure, though, not pain. ”
“Pleasure, pain–it don’t matter… but that’s what I like to hear. A natural. That’s my secret. The astral body. That’s how I train champions, son. I knew there was something otherworldly about you.”
I’d never been called otherworldly before, and I liked the sound of it, even if I didn’t know what he meant. I met Luffew the following Monday and we got to training. Except training didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I never touched a bull. He was on some Mr. Miyagi shit. He had me doing breathwork, yoga, low-dose hallucinogens, fasting, chanting, dream journals–all kinds of hippie stuff he claimed could put me in control of my astral presence. A year and six months later I was an experienced psychonaut and a mother fuckin’ PBA champion.
The morning after I socked Terry, a western wind blew and the smoke cleared up, so I took a hike with Tim through the drainage south of town up Long Leaf creek. We got seven miles inside the tall peaks, before Tim confessed he was worried about me and thought I needed to get out into the world for a while after I defaced Terry. At that point, I still felt like Terry deserved it. From high up, I looked over the sea of larch and cedar and hemlock as they rippled, curving from the earth and dipping again back towards its center. We trekked up a ridge and descended toward an unnamed lake. When I saw it, I couldn’t help thinking it was the color of my niece’s eyes.
I sat down on a mossy log and inhaled the scent of mountain sage. The wind picked up and the trees got noisy. There was sand along the alpine lake. I laid down and there was no longer any pain in my collar bone. I took breaths in rhythmic patterns until the waters of the lake rose, washing over me and I turned into water too. I covered the world and then I evaporated, becoming the astral body of the planet strung up in the stars. Below it and between my legs, the earth was a bull bucking, throwing dirt and exhaling steam, kicking stars and blowing space dust. We were connected and covered by a dark, rippling substance.
Maybe you aren’t escaping your body but expanding it?
There was a presence moving inside the unending blackness of space. Stars as gold teeth. Superstrings as 24-karat chains. Particle waves as gray hair.
God, could this have gone on for hours? Maybe so. Tim found me wallering around the lakeside after he caught a couple of cutthroat trout. He let me be while he cooked the trout over a campfire. The smell of dry cedar hit my brain and brought me back into the moment.
The next day, I apologized to Terry and wooed him with top shelf smokey scotch. After a few drinks, I explained to him my epiphany. I said it would change the way I rode. I just needed to see myself as an extension of the bull rather than an outside force controlling it.
“What kind of drugs are you on there, Bruce?”
“ You’re saying that all these years I been telling you I was winning belts by astral projectin’ and you’re just now startin’ to think my methods are a bit off kilter? Well, buddy do I have some news for you.”
His nose still looked awful. It looked like it hurt. I was hoping the whiskey would assuage that, but damn it looked bad. That’s when I felt the guilt start to hit me something fierce. I thought about Luffew and the day he introduced me to Terry a decade or more ago. We stayed out all night together soaking up neon and well gin until 3 am. We went back to his place and sang Gram Parsons tunes–Grievous Angel, Wild Horses, 1000 Dollar Wedding–until the sun came up. Luffew was knocking on the door about an hour after we passed out face-to-toes on the futon and tried to recruit me for some mindfulness practice but my mind was racing and hurtin’ and there was no fullness to it.
Staring at Terry, eyes blackened and nose swollen, caused a big flood of memories and with it came the guilt. I threw my arms around the son of a bitch and said, “You always were my Dr. Gonzo.”
Terry tightened his arms around me and said, “I’ll give you one more shot you stupid mother fucker. That’s it, and you’re done.”
“… Sure, I’ll give you Heinous. Just dont you fucking die on me you cocksucker.”
A year and four months ago Grant Luffew left this place. I don’t mean he died because I don’t know what happened to him. He was camped somewhere outside of Moab, near the La Sals, and never came back. A few days later, a search party found his campsite and all his gear fifty feet from the Colorado River. His clothes were folded up inside his tent and there was a plate of rehydrated biscuits and gravy perched on a stone beside the fire ring. A full cup of coffee next to it. Luffew called me a couple times in the weeks before his disappearance. He’d seen lights in the sky every single night of his camping trip. Matter of fact, he’d seen three lights moving quickly in odd formations like there was some intentionality to it. Come Tuesday, he was gone.
My first night back on a bull, I thought I saw Luffew inside the stands with a joint hanging from his lips, looking weightless and opaque. Tim was sitting beside me and we were laughing at the rodeo clown catcalling girls and catching the finger for it. They had us stand up, and we pledged half assed to the flag as a rancher’s wife sang the Star Spangled Banner. We sat down, and I practiced my holotropic breathwork.
Inside the bullpen, I mounted Heinous. I breathed in and out real fast, going back and forth inhaling through one side of my nose and then the other. One by one our cells were becoming a single thing, the molecules shared. The buzzer buzzed and I oozed into the spine of that bull. He bucked and my body rippled as a continuation of his hide. I gripped the bull rope till we melted together. Everything evaporated around us. One by one they fell away. First it was the rodeo, then the town. The dissipation spread through the trees and the unnamed lake, then further too through the desert and the La Sals, until all of it was inhaled through me and Heinous, and there was no difference between us. I was part of him and all of it, like a finger or an elbow. I rode that bull and we saw the stars. Sitting among them was The Ghost smiling in such a way that I could see all of his teeth as meteors, and in his mouth was a swirling galaxy that spun in circles into the darkness of his throat.
When I came to, I’d broken the world record with a score of 98.76 on one of the most fearsome animals in this hemisphere. I wasn’t sure I’d ever beat that. Wasn’t sure I’d ever ride again. It didn’t matter. From the middle of the arena, I saw Luffew beyond the clouds made up of cosmic things.
Now, when I look toward the edge of this universe, I see Luffew.