Jordan was drawn to Zosima Panopolis from her first Mountain Pose. Who knew just standing could look so good? The flared black yoga pants and black tank top, the glossy raven hair cropped short except for a single scarlet micro-braid tossed over her left shoulder, the heavy black eye liner and burgundy shadow should have been hopelessly goth. But somehow she carried it as if she were heading off to her next ninja assassination contract as soon as class was over.
He was glad he’d let Ashley browbeat him into coming to yoga. “So I got a little back twinge helping you move. It was just dumb luck.”
“You’re the classic ‘weekend warrior.’” She stuffed her laptop into her bag. “You sit in front of a keyboard ten hours a day, go home and play video games, and then come Saturday you expect your body to behave as if you’ve been training for a marathon the rest of the week. You’re getting too old for it.”
“Hey, I’m not even thirty!”
“By what – two weeks? In dog years that makes your back two hundred and ten.”
He crumpled his empty energy drink to a flat disk and threw it at her. “See that? Huh?” He flexed. “Arm of steel.”
She kicked it back to his chair. “Pick it up. Go on.”
He leaned forward and winced. “Uh – ”
“Yoga. Tomorrow night. There’s a beginner’s class at nine. Zosima will have you – well, maybe not dancing but at least not hobbling like an old lady.” She slung the bag over her shoulder and stepped out of the cube. “I’ll even come along to ease you into it.”
He argued – weakly – at her retreating back but threw sweatpants and a t-shirt into his car the next morning. After work and dinner he changed and followed Ashley downtown to a tony little unmarked storefront tucked into a corner facing the city park, shaded by an expensive retractable burgundy awning. She met him at the door and loaded his arms with a knobby rubber mat, a stiff blanket, a long strap and a pair of cork blocks. “You sure this is yoga?” he asked, leering suggestively as she held the door open for him.
“Funny man. Unless you can already touch your toes, you’ll need it all.”
Zosima emerged from her office as he looked for a quiet corner to colonize, waving to Ashley and padding catlike over to them. She was lithe and petite, with youthful skin and ageless, almond-shaped brown eyes, and Jordan couldn’t decide if she was eighteen or forty-five. “You are new?” She spoke with the barest trace of a Greek accent, though her coloring and features looked distinctly Chinese. Something about her seemed so familiar that he couldn’t tear his gaze away.
“This is my co-worker, Jordan.” Ashley put in as she poked him in the side.
Zosima gave him a quizzical look, a look conveying – or was he imagining it? – the same puzzled familiarity that he felt. “Is there a problem?”
“He hurt his back over the weekend,” Ashley prodded him again. “Maybe it’s the meds.”
“Back spasms? Come front and center, then.” She spoke in a tone that brooked no argument. “If you are new I should watch your form. Injured, doubly so.” He tried not to feel pleased that he’d attracted her personal attention. “We will begin with Mountain Pose.”
Though he couldn’t move with Zosima’s easy grace being in the pose was a no-brainer – it was just standing, after all. But his confidence crumbled when the frowning instructor spent five minutes correcting his balance, the angle of his shoulders and head, how he held his hands. He jumped when she squeezed his upper thigh. “Lift from the kneecaps,” she ordered. “It’s called Mountain Pose, not Melting Ice Cubes.” She put a hand on his belly and another on the small of his back in a manner that might have been erotic if she hadn’t forced the breath out of him by shoving her palms together as if she were flattening a pillow. “And don’t arch.”
Now considerably less pleased by her personal attention, he was grateful when she left him red-faced and mercifully alone. That lasted fifteen minutes, until she demonstrated the terrifying Cobra Pose. He could do the lying face down on the floor all right, but when she told everyone to put their hands alongside their shoulders and push their upper body into an impossible ninety degree backbend every muscle in his stiff lower back revolted at the mere thought. “Is there a problem?” she asked again.
“I just don’t think I should – do that. Not in my current state. You did say I shouldn’t arch.”
She directed everyone to sit on their heels and squatted next to him. “This is different. In spite of how it looks, it will help you.”
He shook his head. “I feel like I’d get stuck and never get out again.” He rubbed his back unconsciously at the thought. “I’ll pass on it this time, if it’s all the same to you. Maybe later.”
“It is not all the same to me, you will not ‘pass’ on it, and you will not do it ‘later.’” She smiled, not entirely pleasantly. “Look at it this way – there are two dozen people who can call 911 if you ‘get stuck.’”
Her peremptory manner took the edge off his desire to impress. “This is yoga.” In a moment of profound déjà vu, convinced they’d had this argument before, he snapped, “Aren’t you supposed to be all spiritual and healing and shit?”
“I run an exercise studio, Mr. – ”
“Brown. Jordan Brown.”
Her dark eyes widened for a moment before resuming their casual disdain. “An exercise studio, Mr. Brown. Not an ashram.” She returned to her mat. “Assume Crocodile Pose, everyone, in preparation for Cobra Pose. Everyone.”
As he meekly dropped back to the floor his annoyance at being cowed warred impotently with the nagging, alarming feeling that he’d wouldn’t win a contest of wills with this woman now because, after all, he never had before. He pushed himself into the pose and successfully back out of it again not once but three times. By the time class ended he had to admit that he felt better, so his surliness had few teeth when Ashley came up to him. “You ready to go?”
“I, uh – ”
She followed the line of his gaze to Zosima. “You’re not going to do something stupid like ask her out for coffee, are you?”
The thought hadn’t fully formed, but when Ashley gave it voice he realized that was exactly what he was going to do. “Well, why not?”
“Because I’ve been coming here for a year and I’ve lost track of the guys – and girls – who have dashed their watery hearts against Zosima’s rocky shoals.”
“Personal experience?” he teased.
“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.” She bent over and rolled up his borrowed mat, tucking it in her bag with her own. “Go on then. It’s your ego’s funeral.”
* * *
Zosima smiled with the polite vagueness universal to pretty women in service professions deflecting unwanted attention. “I don’t think so, Mr. Brown.”
“Oh. Well. Okay then.” His shoulders slumped as he headed for the door. He was glad Ashley had picked up her gear and left so he could at least stride out with some shred of dignity intact. But fate was not smiling on his dignity; he had taken no more than two steps onto the sidewalk when he heard a squeal of wrenching metal overhead and looked up to see the retractable awning, mechanics and electronics and all, falling toward him with alarming rapidity.
Time unfurled like a flag in a leisurely breeze; though the awning’s collapse took only a few seconds he had an infinity to decide whether to roll left, or right, or to sprint into the street. His leftward lunge was ungainly, but preferable to lying under the heap of fabric and sharp, twisted supports that occupied his former position.
The door opened and Zosima poked her head out, looking mildly concerned. “That was fortunate,” she said, placing a peculiar emphasis on the last word. “Are you all right?”
He tested his left ankle as he stood. It was tender, but not sprained. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
She stepped onto the wreckage and balanced effortlessly as she locked the door behind her. “Since my studio tried to kill you, I suppose I owe you a cup of coffee.”
“You don’t have to do that,” he flushed.
“No, I insist. Although would you mind driving? My car is still charging. If you could drop back by here afterwards – ”
“Sure, no problem. So you have an electric? I couldn’t quite make myself take the full plunge,” he tapped his remote and his Prius chirped and flashed its headlights in greeting, “but I tried to meet the future halfway.”
“It is always preferable to meet the future on one’s own rather than its terms. Nice color.” She patted the deep burgundy hood on her way to the passenger door. “Custom?”
“Yeah. I have kind of a thing for red. The brighter the better when I was younger, though over the years I’ve toned down a little. Especially with cars – you know what they say about cops, red and excessive speed.”
She slipped into the seat with shadowy elegance and pulled out her phone. “The secret is to make the police not want to see you.”
“Don’t I wish.” He started the car and pulled out onto the street. “Brew Haus okay?” Just a couple of blocks away, not too dark, not too bright, not too small, not too industrial: perfect for a neutral late-night non-assignation.
He glanced over when she didn’t respond. She was playing with some Tarot card app – he saw the Fool, the Devil, and the Hanged Man flash by in quick succession. Committed to a strenuous non-spirituality himself, he hoped he wasn’t hooking up with some kind of New Age nutcase. Oh well, that was why coffee was better than dinner. When she saw him watching she blanked the screen and put the phone away. “Would you mind if we went to The Coffee Berry? I know it’s a bit far, but it suits my mood tonight.”
The Coffee Berry was more trendy and intimate than he would have suggested, soft lighting and overstuffed red leather furniture and chess boards that no one stole pieces from. “No, not at all.” He made a quick lane change and headed for the nearest onramp.
On the way they chatted about fuel cells, discussed the merits of fluorescent versus LED lighting, debated whether shifting energy sources to so-called cleaner technologies would be sufficient to relieve a planet overstressed by too-successful humanity’s too-ubiquitous presence. Zosima was educated and passionate but elusive, dancing away from a conclusion whenever Jordan thought he was just about to pin her down. By the time they reached the coffee house he found himself responding in kind, problem spaces opening out with the austerity of a desert landscape: promising truths standing out with the clarity of a Joshua tree or a finger of rock, tantalizing falsehoods as clearly visible as heat mirages. Jordan would have thought it was the best conversation he’d ever had if he could have stopped thinking he’d had it before.
They ordered lattes and a tray of chocolate truffles and continued chatting furiously about all the taboos of polite conversation – politics, religion, morality – with detachment and no rancor. It was oddly restful, interacting with someone who had ideas rather than opinions, even if persistent waves of déjà vu continued to assail him.
Just as he was going to ask, however corny it might sound, if she was experiencing anything similar an arriving customer distracted him. Well over half the patrons were swathed in various shades of dark so a pale-faced, black-haired, black-suited man should have fit in, but something about his demeanor made Jordan ill at ease. Maybe it was the fact that he stood just inside the door doing none of the things ordinary patrons usually do. He didn’t move toward the counter, or read the chalkboard menu hung behind the register, or glance around the tables as if meeting a friend. Zosima tuned into his tension immediately. “Is something wrong?”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure.” He scanned the room. They were far from the front door and the man stood between them and it, but the kitchen was about ten feet away.
Zosima clutched at his arm. “That man has a gun,” she hissed. “I saw it in his jacket.”
He slipped a hand under her elbow. “Let’s go.” He steered her toward the near door, furiously willing the man not to see them.
They reached the kitchen unmolested, gathered up the kitchen employees and fled the building. Half a dozen cell phones were already out as Jordan made his way to the Prius. Zosima followed silently behind. He pulled out of the parking lot and just as wailing sirens and flashing lights blurred past he slipped onto a side street. “Should we have stayed?” she asked.
“They’ll have plenty of witnesses.” He glanced over at her but couldn’t read her expression. “I’m not much for unnecessary complications.”
“Nor am I.” She smiled. “Fortune is your friend again tonight.”
Fortune. The Hanged Man, the Devil, the Fool. A sense of unease pressed down on him like a coffin lid. “Maybe we shouldn’t push my luck.” He tried to sound casual. “Back to the studio?”
The red numbers on the dashboard clock read 12:15. “It is getting late,” she agreed.
Conversation meandered down more typical paths: what he did for a living, how long she’d taught yoga, how and when they’d been drawn to the California coast. Two off ramps shy of their exit Jordan dared to believe he’d make it back to the studio without incident. That was when the ducks waddled into the illumination from his headlights.
He groaned at the sight of them, a mother and her six ducklings strung out in a row behind her. Though the freeway had been empty a moment earlier now he was hemmed in by vehicles on three sides. Construction barriers closed off the right shoulder. There was nowhere to swerve without causing an accident, nothing for it but to keep going. With a heavy heart he plowed the car through the innocent, heedless creatures. Their tiny bodies made no impact beneath the wheels.
“Your hands are shaking,” Zosima observed coolly. At that moment he almost hated her.
“It’s such a waste.” He couldn’t keep an angry tremor from his voice. “Human progress leaves so much wreckage in its wake.” He slammed his fists against the steering wheel. “I should have hit one of the damned cars.”
She laid a comforting hand on his arm, her voice soft and compassionate. “We could go back. See if any of them survived.”
“Of course they didn’t! And I don’t want to see the little – ” he tightened his lips, not trusting himself to finish the sentence. “Anyway, parking on the freeway in the middle of the night isn’t the brightest idea. Especially not the way my luck’s been running.”
“Your luck tonight is precisely the reason to go back.” The look she gave him, intimate and pleading, melted his resolve to be done with this night, done with her.
He sighed. “Fine.” He got off at the next off ramp, swung back around and retraced his path. Zosima was already out of the car before he could turn on the hazards. “Be careful – ”
“They’re all right!” she called. “Didn’t I see a box in your back seat? Bring it with you.”
Jordan found a long forgotten shoe box on the left rear passenger seat. He retrieved it and joined her, staring in disbelief at seven feathery bodies huddled just off the shoulder. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Fortune smiles on you. You prove it again and again.” One by one she set the traumatized ducklings in the box. She handed them to Jordan, tucked the unresisting mother under her arm and returned to the car. “I’ll keep them at home for tonight and take them to the lake tomorrow.”
Jordan was silent for the remainder of the drive and Zosima seemed content not to draw him out. When he pulled into the studio lot a single car remained, a cherry red Tesla Roadster. Well why the hell not? he thought to himself. A yoga instructor owning a hundred thousand dollar car fit everything else about this eerie ass evening. “Spirituality pays well?”
“I have – other pursuits – in addition to yoga.” She unfolded herself from the Prius and leaned in to retrieve the ducks, returning after she settled them in the Tesla’s passenger seat. She held a card between two scarlet-tipped fingers. “Come to dinner at my place this Friday and I’ll tell you about them. No trauma. I promise.”
Jordan hesitated only a moment before taking the card. Aside from the delightful conversation, by virtually every objective measure it had been a wreck of an evening, more like a video game than his uneventful life. Zosima was shaping up to be his anti-good-luck charm. But she was beautiful, and intelligent, and interested in him. And presumably her house would be free of rampaging awnings, or bohemian gunmen, or ducks on improbable midnight strolls. “I’d be delighted.”
“Eight o’clock then.” She smiled broadly with lips as red as her fingernails, closed the door and started her silent car.
She was already gone by the time he realized the card had the address of the yoga studio on one side, the messy monochrome matrix of a QR code on the other, and no indication of where she lived. A persistent inner voice urged him to throw it out the window. But she was beautiful, and mysterious. And fool that he was, he never had been able to walk away from a mystery or a pretty woman. So he would play Zosima Panopolis’ little game, and see what Friday brought him.