One morning while bored at work I was searching for a website to pass the time; OKCupid, I remembered, it’s been a while since I’ve tried that. The website’s algorithm showed me an update about a woman whose handle was Cilanto_Princess, and her preoccupation with storytelling. How interesting, I thought. I messaged her and to my delight she responded immediately. I noticed from her profile that she spent a lot of time thinking about “polyamory through the lens of Indra’s net.” I wondered what exactly she meant by this, but thought little more of it until we had made plans to meet the coming Friday.
We went to a bar on the corner of Ash and Broadway called Tugboat—my suggestion— a place you’d meet your professor if you’re a grad student, with forgotten histories and hardcover war novels on high shelves and boardgames played by the myopic and socially awkward. Soon we were talking about Jung and metempsychosis over a second beer and I was thinking about whether this kind of “connection” necessitated a kiss at the end of our date. I recalled reading at the bottom of her profile that she never rushed into moments of intimacy and this relaxed me. Claire, that was her real name, must have sensed this because she then invited me on a hike Sunday afternoon with a couple of her friends who also happened to be polyamorous. The possibility of a nature-orgy flashed into my mind before she said that it was a very special trail about an hour away, and what made it so great was this rock formation that looked like Indra’s Net. What do you mean, I asked. Well you lie under it and this may sound weird but it shows how everything in the universe is connected and I think it’s a great way to tell if my suspicions about someone are correct. Suspicions, I said. Yeah, like if you and I are actually working on the same plane. Do you take drugs while you’re there. No. Then how does a rock formation help you learn about the people you’re with, I asked. You’ll have to wait and see Sunday, Claire smiled.
I passed Saturday the way I usually do when I’m looking forward to something—in a state of fantasy and excitement followed by self-admonition to live what’s in front of me. But the words ‘connected’ and ‘polyamory,’ when used together had to be code for orgy, didn’t they? We were to meet at Josie’s, over in Belmont, a purple bungalow, one of those typical Portland houses that’s doubled in value over the past five years, despite the leather couch sitting on the porch. Josie invited me into her kitchen, festooned with creeper vines and hanging succulents and offered me almond milk while we waited for Claire. Josie’s boyfriend Josh, only a little shorter and slightly less hairy than a Sasquatch, entered the kitchen and asked if I wanted to rip his bong. I passed and figured maybe this was what led to The Net’s revelation since as I’ve found since moving here many people don’t consider weed a drug.
Once Claire arrived we piled into Josie’s car and drove east on the 84. The Gorge opened before us like a fjord, the river a few shades darker than the oyster-gray sky, firs and pines lined the highway and covered the towering rocks with a green mixed from the same cloudy palette. And then Claire’s hair, thick and black like obsidian, captured the light and my gaze, which I shifted often so as not to freak her out. We exited the highway and drove along a windy road deeper into the wilderness to the trailhead. So how far is Indra’s Net from here? I asked. A couple of miles, Claire said. Relax, I told myself, it’ll be at least an hour.
Josh had lit a joint and was heading ever higher into the ether while Josie orbited him. It was clear I didn’t have much in common with them though I was satisfied breathing in the scent of pine needles and damp soil, to be near the river on this mountain. When conversation did arise between the four of us it was about the elements or other hikes they’d taken, which led me to wonder how many other guys Claire had brought to The Net, and whether she truly enjoyed Josie and Josh’s company. After an hour of hiking I asked, So how did you discover this rock. Claire looked at Josie and said, We came on this hike really stressed. She pointed to an enormous granite overhang fifty meters farther on and continued, Once we found it we lay under it to take it in and soon we saw it for what it is. Indra’s Net, Josie laughed. So this is how we do it, Claire said as we stood below the monolith, Lie down, focus, and you’ll see what you need to. So it was a hippie meditation point, I thought, and was even more disappointed than I thought I’d be if, as the possibility had grown ever since we’d left the car, this didn’t turn into a nature-orgy. I rebuked myself for having had such high expectations while I followed Claire, Josie and Josh in taking off my coat and propping it under my head, setting my makeshift pillow next to theirs and lying down so our heads touched and our feet pointed in cardinal directions, with me south toward the wall over which the Net hung. I lay down, inhaled the botanicals of Claire’s shampoo and sighed in resignation. Okay, now no speaking, she said, until I say so. And I stared up, all of us did, and funnily enough there was none of that suppressed-laughter-settling-into-silence that young people often emit; instead the Net drew all of our focus into a thick vein of quartz in its granite that resembled the vein in my arm, like the veins of nickel in the mountains to the east and silver south of that, those in Claire’s neck, veins of water covering floodplains, of gas and dust that circle the outer planets of our solar system, atomic trajectories reflected in that same expanding nebula; the atoms of my eyes, of hers beside me, of the dead becoming ribbons of nutrients absorbed by yew roots; a midget clown sticking a screwdriver into his nose and spinning it; waiting for applause unfurling ferns, branches bouncing and soughing in breeze, palm fronds burnished by sun rays that filtered through ozone and soaked the faces of Indian children, bronzed the legs of tourists on Greek isles, bleached the sides of a tanker on its way to Somalia, graced the masts of ships in Nordic harbors; an astrolabe, a satellite, dusty phonographs, a Babylonian sundial, a tiger’s stripes veining together in white underbelly, a dandy’s satin lapels; the bored look of a policeman sitting behind a desk; silkworms boiled alive, the endless permutations of clouds mirroring the events below them; quinceañera dresses, children screeching, old women pointing, cities sprawling like moss over continents, plumes of smoke, terraces of rice, simultaneous tremor-rumbles and small avalanches in the Andes and Himalayas; derisive comments echoing under a fluorescent hum; ice floes cracking like thunder on the Ob; a reel of overcrowded apartments filled with different-colored people wearing jeans and saris and down-coats and caftans, portraits of their faces, orange beards and vermilion bindis and trenched wrinkles and shiny foreheads; etiolated coral in the Great Barrier Reef; flight paths crossing the globe in waves; sheets of rain during a monsoon; rotting leaves flaking under boots at dusk; condors’ blood-stained bald heads shining like rosebuds; frozen crests of unpeopled tundra, a white rabbit emerging from its den to flick its nostrils in gelid air—
Okay, Claire said. You guys ready? We sat up halfway, elbows supporting us to slow the blood rushing from our heads or to regain a sense of our immediate reality, and we smiled at each other as if we’d woken from a long, peaceful nap. Like what you saw, Claire asked, and in her eyes was a beauty I had not noticed before, a beauty I had ignored, no, that had not surfaced yet, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which shimmered in her retinas and across her pupils and led me to study the faint red veins in her sclera. I wanted to hold out my hands for her to take them and as this want came into my brain she knew it and together we pulled on each other to stand. No one mentioned what they had seen; it was unnecessary, like talking about the particulars of a psychedelic experience; it was enough to know we’d shared it together.
As we walked down the path, I studied the back of Claire’s head and became embarrassed about my original desire, far more juvenile than I’d realized; Indra’s Net swept those jejune remnants floating in the shallows of my consciousness into the depths of my maturity, where they sank, battered by awareness. Around me, each tree, every stone and the clouds above expanded in their painfully complex histories and interconnectedness, radiating a glow of energy, an aura. By the time we reached the parking lot, the intensity of my surroundings was wearing off and I could gaze out at the river and not want to cry.
The car ride home was quiet but buoyant and we were back at Josie’s in forty minutes. After we said goodbye, Claire and I walked to our vehicles, and before we parted, she took my hand, thanked me for coming and kissed me on the mouth, pulling slowly away, adding a ‘See you soon.’ I was incredulous as I drove home. I had been changed and was glad. Claire had seen that I was worth taking to The Net.
At our next date Claire explained that she was in fact seeing someone else, two someone elses, actually, that’s what polyamory meant after all, but that she felt so good about what had happened at The Net that if I was okay with that then I could easily be the third person in her life. And of course I too had the freedom to see other people, though honesty was important in the world of polyamory, and if I did, I had to tell her openly about it. Two weeks later, on our fifth date, Claire and I had sex, which was about as good as you’d expect it to be with someone you share the kind of experience we had together at The Net—very good, with just enough room for improvement to keep you wondering what will happen next time, to be excited to see each other, and learn more about what is possible.
Then last week, over salmon salads at a restaurant in Slabtown, I mustered the courage to ask Claire about the other people she’d brought to see The Net, not just those she was seeing, who made me kind of nervous, because I really did like and admire Claire for her lifestyle and honesty, but all the others from the past. I was curious if The Net was part of her interview process, if I was at all special to her or special enough only to be part of her momentary crew. Her brown eyes glowed; a smirk played over her well-defined lips. What about them, she replied. Well, did they see it too. Yeah, they did. And are you still in contact with them. Some, she said, but with most, we saw that we came together to learn from each other and then separated with nothing more between us, no harsh feelings, no jealousy or desire. It was then that I understood what Claire meant in her profile with that line that had so intrigued me before we met. And for the first time since messaging her a month before I knew we were no longer coming together, but drifting apart.