The Study and Practice of Astral Projection by Lesley Bannatyne
In “The Study and Practice of Astral Projection,” Lesley Bannatyne achieves a complex and authentic teen voice, capturing in protagonist Cassie the sense of entrapment and utter lack of agency that define the teenage condition (“She understood she was no longer a girl that did things; she had become a girl that things happened to”). Cassie, Gail, and Carl, the teenagers, each feel supremely real. Bannatyne uses allusion in the form of a found book on astral projection to explore Cassie’s pregnancy, her experience in her female body and her desire to leave that body—this is not an overly familiar teen pregnancy story. The setting of 1980’s rural Pennsylvania and New York contributes to the tone of isolation. Bannatyne’s corporeal writing is honest and strong; Cassie inhabits her human body, and wishes to escape her human body, with intention. Check out Bannatyne’s author’s note for more on setting, character, and astral projection. —CRAFT
Cassie found the book at a bus stop next to a pair of abandoned men’s shoes: The Study and Practice of Astral Projection: The Definitive Survey on Out-of-the-Body Experiences, by Dr. Robert Crookall. On the cover was a drawing of two figures—one lying on his back, colored in black, and the other, hovering above, colored in red. A drawn line connected their two hearts. Inside, people reported astonishing things: The astral plane is indescribable, fantastical. I move forward, move through. I began to exist in a body that was not the body I was born in.
Cassie was sure this was possible—that if she worked hard enough she’d be able to lift above her physical body and be free of it. It would be a beautiful feeling, looking down on the small, awkward actions of humans. She’d be untouchable, floating through an astral plane that glittered like a coverlet of fireflies. Loved in a celestial way, without judgment or fear.
Missing one period was, maybe, a fluke, but when she missed a second time Cassie cornered the girl from her homeroom with the fierce Joan Jett eyeliner. Everyone knew Gail had been pregnant before, and some kids said twice.
“You sure?” Gail slumped against the bathroom stall door, skinny arms folded against her chest.
“You tell the guy?”
“How the hell should I know?”
Cassie had already broken up with Jayben. She squeezed her eyes shut against the memory of the back seat of his truck, the slippery wet of his lips. She could no longer abide the sour smell of boy, the damp weight of arms. She had sucked air quietly through her mouth while he held her and cried.
Gail scanned for shoes in the other stalls. “You keeping it?”
Cassie shook her head no. That was crazy. She was sixteen. No.
“Okay. You know the place to go, right?”
Cassie looked blankly at Gail. All she could think about was how to get through the next hour, and the next. She felt as if her feet were sinking into the mud and every day they sank further until her knees, hips, hands, were buried; her neck, mouth, eyes. Each night she went to bed praying she could go backwards, change what she’d done, and each morning she woke and it was worse. The light was too direct, voices too loud, people ugly, food too watery or sparse or smelly. She hated the hair that was thickening on her legs and the blue veins tendrilling out over breasts she’d never had before. The bullet of flesh and cartilage lodged in her uterus was going to ruin her.
No, she didn’t know the place to go.
“You kidding me?” Gail dug through her enormous purse and pulled out a notebook with the name “Tommy” inked on every inch of the cover. She tore out a page and wrote on it.
“A dick. Here. You have to get to Harrisburg, but then it’s easy.”
Cassie went into a stall, rolled up her sleeve, and copied the number in ink alongside the vein that ran up her forearm.
She made her appointment with a receptionist in Harrisburg who had a soft Caribbean accent, who called her “honey” and told her to bring warm socks and a friend to drive her home. Then, for two hours on a snow-blown afternoon in January, Cassie disappeared. She walked, head down, past the lone protester carrying a color photograph of a fetus. She rode an elevator to the second floor, opened a waiting room door, smiled at the receptionist. She clutched a plastic bag holding a pair of winter socks and lied to the woman about the friend. She sat in a cheap blue plastic chair and stared at the floor. A doctor passed through the room in shoes with thick, ridged soles, like her pediatrician wore. If he hadn’t had on those shoes, she might have stayed. If she hadn’t had to wait so long in the cheap plastic chair, she might have gone through with it.
“No one needs to know,” her mother, Adela, said after the initial wave of crying died out. The baby would be adopted. Cassie would finish as much of the school year as she could. Before she got too obviously pregnant—
“Before you start showing,” her mother said.
Her parents would take Cassie out of school and drive the five hours from Meshoppen, Pennsylvania to Painted Post, New York, to Aunt Liz and Uncle Harold’s chicken farm. She’d have the baby there. She’d come back in time to start her senior year of high school as if nothing had happened. Cassie acquiesced to everything. She understood she was no longer a girl that did things; she had become a girl that things happened to.
For the next few months, Cassie kept to herself in case someone could smell it somehow, or see it moving. She wore big winter sweaters into April. When other kids headed outside for softball or Frisbee, Cassie stayed in a corner of the cafeteria, pretending not to see or hear. The rumors that buzzed around her were like living things and they stung.
“Ignore them,” said the note Gail crammed into Cassie’s locker.
“Astral Projection?” Gail plopped into the seat next to Cassie one fifth-period lunch. “No wonder everyone thinks you’re freaky.”
Cassie slid the book onto her lap.
“No, seriously. Why would you want to leave your body? Let’s pretend you can. Then what? Suppose there are all sorts of really cool things up there? You can’t touch them if you don’t have hands, right?” Gail stretched her scrawny arms over her head, unembarrassed by the dark tufts of hair she let grow in her armpits. “And how can you screw when you don’t have a body?”
Cassie pulled her fists into the sleeves of her sweater. “It’s not like that. You’re not really you, and you don’t care about what happens down here, like what you did or how you look. You’re bigger, you know, like your skin doesn’t hold you in, like you don’t have edges. And you understand. You just know”—and here Cassie whispered because it was so weird to say— “that real life has nothing to do with bodies.”
Gail wasn’t listening. She was staring back at a group of girls who sat bunched together like wads of gum. Gail was tiny, but there was something about her that made other people smaller. The girls looked away.
“I think I’ve done it,” Cassie said quietly.
“What do you mean, done it?”
“I was seven maybe, and I was walking across a field and it was getting dark. It was summer and I could hear music coming from an open window and I realized that the pace of my steps was the same as the beat of the music, and the lady sang a high note that was so beautiful and my heart floated up high in my body I was suspended off the ground. I know it’s true; I left the ground.”
Gail rolled her eyes. She grabbed Cassie’s book. “I’m writing my address so you can send me letters when you’re away. I’ll write back. I’m good about stuff like that.”
Cassie went back to reading. The connection between the two forms—the physical body and the astral body—is a golden cord. And according to Mrs. Beatrice Warsaw, if it were not for that, for that connection with all that is loved, I would not return from weightlessness.
All that is loved. Cassie understood the idea of a golden cord, but she couldn’t think of anything she loved so much that she’d make herself come back. She doodled a cord next to Gail’s address. At one end of it she drew a lit match, at the other, a bomb, like in Road Runner cartoons.
In early May her mother told the school that Cassie had mononucleosis and promised she would finish the rest of her schoolwork on her own. Adela came home with a neat stack of worksheets. She wasn’t a woman to lie, and especially not to a teacher. Cassie’s parents made comments on the scenery for the first half-hour of the trip, but then it got too hard and they all stared out the windows watching the suburbs, then the pine trees, then the soybean fields go by. Her father stopped at every Sunoco station claiming to need to smoke, pee, or stretch his legs, so the whole trip took nearly twice as long.
Aunt Liz and Uncle Harold had one son: Carl, long-legged, like his dad, a senior, meant to graduate high school in June. There had been a girl, Laura, but she died from leukemia when she was ten, so there was that. “Bloomed too soon and singed by frost,” Aunt Liz had written underneath her daughter’s photo on the mantel. When Aunt Liz saw Cassie studying the picture of the little girl with dark braids holding a baby rabbit she said, “People can get through almost anything, but not that. That cannot be gotten over.”
Aunt Liz placed a hand on Cassie’s belly and whispered, “When you have a baby of your own you’ll come to understand how completely a mother loves her child.”
When Cassie’s mother came to visit every few weeks, they would go out for ice cream, buy vitamins, see doctors. No one knew them in Painted Post, and it was almost like this thing that happened wasn’t as painful as they thought. More often, though, it was.
“You must be getting real excited, huh?” said the waitress at Friendly’s, indicating Cassie’s hard, round belly.
Cassie and Adela were huddled together at a window, sun blasting a white stripe across their table. Cassie stared at the meter maid outside on the sidewalk, who was biting a hangnail that Cassie could tell was already bleeding.
“She meant well,” Adela said softly when the waitress left.
“People should mind their own business,” Cassie said.
Women smiled at Cassie wherever she went. At Kmart, at the post office, when she was getting her bangs trimmed at Prime Cuts. She hated them all. “I just want this to be over.”
“I know, sweetheart. But some day you might not even remember this time so much. You’ll be grown and married.”
“Who would marry me?”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m a freak.”
“You’re not a freak. And you’re not the first, either. Girls get through this and go on to have perfectly ordinary lives.”
A plastic bag swirled outside the plate glass and lifted up on a puff of warm spring air.
Cassie opened her mouth, but then shut it tight.
“What?” Adela asked. “What were you going to say? Say it.”
“No, it’s weird.”
“Nothing bad. Just weird.”
“Sometimes—” Cassie squirmed in her chair, searching for a position that felt normal. Her stomach pressed into her diaphragm and she couldn’t get a full breath in. “Sometimes I try to imagine I don’t have a body. Like I’m floating above, in the air.”
Cassie felt the sharp shift in her mother’s attention.
“See, I told you it was weird.”
“You mean, floating, like a ghost? Dead?” Adela said.
“No, like in a dream. Not like heaven, not glow-y or anything. More like floating in a place that you don’t recognize, but you know somehow that everyone who’s ever lived is there and you’re all part of the same thing. It’s not like ordinary life, where everyone is so alone.”
“We’re not all alone, sweetie. There are things that tie us together.” Adela reached to touch her daughter’s hair but stopped herself. “There’s love. Love can bind people together.”
Cassie rolled her eyes and stroked her belly in big, exaggerated circles. “Love. Of course,” she said. “That’s what this is.”
Adela swept a few rainbow sprinkles off the tabletop into her palm. “Your Aunt Liz believes in ghosts, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“She thinks she sees your cousin Laura playing around the farm.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll keep an eye out for her then.”
At night, alone in her makeshift room on the sun porch, Cassie took out The Study and Practice of Astral Projection. Dream body, she read, was you, but only part of you, the part that was pure. A golden light permeated everything; everything seemed alive, glowing and pulsating. I was filled with wonder. People lifted easily—floating out of the body, and re-entering it is rather like swimming—and looked down at their own selves, aware that they were two places at once. The moment they started wondering about it, though, they’d slam back into their bodies. Cassie knew why. You couldn’t question. If she was ever lucky enough to lift out of herself and soar, she wouldn’t question it, she’d accept and be grateful.
She lit one of Aunt Liz’s utility candles and focused on the flame, trying to open her mind, her senses, to clear a path for her dream body. But the night outside was loud: crickets in the hedge pulsed sharply, then hushed. She went to the window. The yard was lit by a full moon. The family dog stood alert, eyes trained on the rusted swing set that sat in a corner of the yard. She sensed the shadows shift, caught a movement in the grass. Aunt Liz. Cassie could see her lying down, face up to the night sky, lips moving slowly, fingers working her rosaries.
By late June, the farm chores were a natural part of Cassie’s day. She tied tomato plants to stakes with strips of cotton pillowcase. She dug around in the lettuce and snapped off the rotted leaves. Learned to cut into a squash vine and pull out the grub that would kill it, then set the gash as if it were a cut on her own finger. All the while she felt her belly pulling down against her back. But something else, too. She could feel Carl watching her. Working a summer job now at the auto body shop, with high school behind him. She envied his freedom, his friends.
Her aunt and uncle slept deeply, so neither heard Carl sneak onto the sun porch, late. He knelt on the floor beside Cassie’s bed, his breath so close she could smell beer.
“Cassie, you awake?”
Carl nodded slightly, his eyes half-closed. He lay his head down on her bed. “How can you stand it?”
“It’s not so bad,” Cassie said tentatively. “I mean, I’m tired a lot.”
“I don’t mean that.” He sat up straight, cracked each of his knuckles on one hand, then the other. “I mean this farm, this town.”
Carl stared at Cassie’s foot, loosened from the sheet. She covered it.
“I can’t wait to get out of here,” Carl said, too loudly.
“Ssssh.” Cassie covered his mouth with her hand. She could only see the silhouette of his head. Dark, curly hair, so full of the moon’s silvery light that when she reached out to touch it she was surprised it was real. She had to stop herself from running her hands down his face. She was suddenly desperate to touch, be touched.
“Where would you go?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”
After that, she watched him, too. Carl, across the table from her at breakfast while Aunt Liz fried corncakes and recited the weather for the day: more than seventy, humid. Cassie walked straighter when she knew he’d be looking at her, swung her hips when she walked out to the barn and back. She loved being looked at. Carl, an older boy. A boy who longed like she longed, to be somewhere else. Who’d known tragedy, a dead sister. She felt powerful parading her belly and full breasts past him in the kitchen. She was the embodiment of sex and it felt adult and complicated, nothing like it was with Jayben. For the first time since this all started, Cassie wanted to make something happen.
One Friday night during a rain, Carl came to the sun porch and sat on Cassie’s bed. She waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. He bent forward to untie his sneakers, exposing the soft black hairs under the waistband of his jeans. Then he turned to her and slipped his hand under the covers onto Cassie’s thigh. A minute passed, two, both of them barely breathing. Then Cassie reached out and guided his body down next to hers.
“It’s not like you could get pregnant,” he said, teasing, his chin buried in her breasts.
After that, Carl came to the sun porch every night. When she got too big for them to do it, she let him rub against her.
Cassie felt full of awe. The sunlight was yellower in Painted Post, she thought, more peachy than back home. The way it tinged the hayfields was breathtaking, like someone had painted it there. She wanted to open up her skin and let it all inside her, swallow the whole astonishing world. This is why I’m here, why it all happened, Cassie thought. So Carl and I could be together. When he was at work she talked to him in her head, stored up things she needed to say. I’ve got to tell Carl. Carl would love this. How many more minutes before I can touch, feel, smell, taste Carl.
In August the storms came. Night after night the air turned staticky and heat lightning strobed in the distance, then closer, until a long rumble of thunder let loose the rain.
“Did you ever wish you could leave your body behind?” Cassie asked one night, as they lay on her bed listening to the storm move over and past them.
“Why would I want to leave my body?”
“I don’t know. To see things differently.”
“You mean like God?”
“It sounds like it.”
“No, seriously.” Cassie hoisted herself up to sitting so that she could look down into his face. “Wouldn’t you like to know if there’s more than this?” She opened her arms to take in the twin bed, damp curtains, pile of socks on a folding chair.
“No,” Carl said, tapping his class ring against his teeth. “Not really.”
Cassie shifted away from him and stared at the dark shape of her open suitcase, resting in the corner of the room.
“But I like how crazy you are,” Carl said softly.
By mid-August, the talk had turned to the hospital travel bag and keeping gas in the truck. The adoption agency sent a social worker to talk with Cassie about what would happen, and to make sure she knew that she was surrendering the baby to another family to raise. Adela came to be with Cassie for the birth. When the contractions started, Uncle Harold went to the truck and started it to check the gas gauge. When they were two minutes apart, Harold, Cassie, Adela, and Liz loaded into the pickup to drive to Corning Memorial. Carl was to stay behind and watch the farm, and they left him there in the driveway, listlessly kicking the overripe tomatoes that had dropped to the dirt. He picked one up and splattered it against the side of the barn.
A whole day passed. Two nurses’ shifts, three, and still Cassie was stuck at six centimeters. She thought she’d never get the baby out, and she felt sick from the smell of pee and alcohol. Each sharp stab stopped her breath. A nurse kept a strong hold of her hand but Cassie broke free and clawed the mattress, struggling to turn onto her side and kick her legs. She hurt. It hurt. Her legs shook so much two aides had to hold them still while they attached a wire to the baby’s scalp to monitor its heart rate. Fever, needles, damp sheets, hot lights. Finally anesthesia, shot into her backbone, and the room yellowed.
More hours went by. She pushed. Again. Again. Then she sensed—didn’t see, but sensed—her body crack open and a shape made of static rise up above her like a cloud of bees. But something was wrong. No. Everything was wrong—she was watching from below, not above, as her second self lifted away, ripped out from her thighs, torn from her, taken. Cassie convulsed and clawed at the air above her. No. No, no, no, no, no. She raked her fingernails through the emptiness, driven by animal instinct that didn’t care what she’d once thought or wished for. “Give it back, it’s mine, mine!” she screamed, but her voice died in her throat. There was a blur of motion. Fast footsteps. A cry.
It was a slick, beet-colored thing. Cassie saw only a flash as the nurses wrapped the wailing baby in a blanket and hurried away. She could hear her mother’s voice in the hallway, pleading. Then, a firm reply. Cassie couldn’t remember if the adopting couple was waiting there in the hospital, or how it all worked. She hurt. She wanted her mother.
“Ssshhhh. You’re okay, sweetie,” Adela murmured, when at last she was allowed in. “It’s alright now, everything’s alright.” She stroked her daughter’s damp hair until Cassie’s breathing settled and grew deeper. Through a haze, Cassie watched her mother ferret around the room until she found the soft cloth used to wash the baby, clutched it to her nose and breathed in the scent.
Only twenty-four hours after she’d given birth, they were back at the farm. Cassie was exhausted. She slept until suppertime, when her mother woke her to eat. Where was Carl? At work, her Aunt said.
After the adults went to bed Cassie stayed awake listening for Carl’s truck. Come home now, she prayed, I need you. I need you to hold me because I didn’t know how much it would hurt. And how there was a baby and it was a girl and they took her before I even saw her eyes open and I miss her beating heart and her feet fluttering in my stomach and now she’s gone. She’s gone, Carl, she’s gone and I need you to hold me. I need to talk to someone who won’t tell me things will get better.
Around 1:00 a.m. Cassie heard the sound of tires kicking up gravel. She threw off the bed covers and propped herself up on an elbow, smoothed down her nightgown. She listened to Carl’s steps—through the kitchen, down the hallway, four steps, five, six. Her face fell. Going away, not toward. Carl’s bedroom door opened, closed, locked.
At breakfast the next morning, no one spoke much. Cassie wandered out to the kitchen garden, praying that Carl would sneak around the side of the house and pull her to him. Are you alright? he’d say. I’ll come to Pennsylvania, I’ll get a job there while you finish school. The screen door banged open and Cassie turned to run to him, but no. It was Aunt Liz. She poked a black-eyed Susan into the buttonhole of Cassie’s cardigan. Cassie avoided her eyes, stared at the dirt. Then Liz took Cassie into her arms and held her so tenderly and for so long that Cassie could feel the calluses of years-old sorrow in the hardness of her aunt’s body.
Carl was still locked in his room when Cassie and her mom loaded their suitcases into the car and waved goodbye. Cassie cried the whole trip back to Meshoppen, her head on her mother’s shoulder, her mother’s one hand on the wheel, the other caressing her little girl’s forehead. They pulled up the driveway at dusk, Cassie’s father’s silhouette stilled in the front picture window. Cassie was a mother now, a mother without a child, and she knew it would break his heart to see her like that. It’s not fair, she thought, how your whole life can be defined by what’s not there. She hoped her dad knew enough to stay clear of Adela; her mother looked fierce.
It was pretty much a joke to her now, the book. Cassie read parts of it once in a while to remind herself how gullible she’d been. Like the one about the airline stewardess who saw herself lying on a hospital gurney: When she climbed back into her body there was no place for her feet and her shoulders wouldn’t fit into the space she once occupied. Idiot, Cassie thought. She’d been on a hospital gurney; her after-birth shoulders fit just fine.
The bleachers were packed for the Thanksgiving football game, meaning last football game ever; graduation was seven months away. Cassie held an envelope of photos Aunt Liz had sent from the tri-state fair that showed Carl with his arm around the fat waist of some farm girl in a daisy-printed dress.
Gail slid in next to her, reeking of cigarettes. Cassie handed her the packet.
“Wow,” Gail said. “Nothing’s fair. Whatever’s closest and easiest, right?”
“I was so sure about him,” Cassie said.
“People shape-shift. Forget him.”
A V of geese flew overhead, the sun gilding their wings. Cassie smiled to herself. The golden cord.
“How far do you figure they’re all going?” Gail asked.
“Virginia, North Carolina, Florida. I don’t know where they end up.”
Gail pulled her windbreaker tight against her chest. “How far do you think we’ll have to go? So nobody knows us?”
Cassie and Gail were waiting for this last year of high school to pass so they could move away and get jobs, go to college, something.
A wind tore at Cassie’s ears and muted the sounds of the stadium. She loved the feeling; it numbed her and cleared her head at the same time.
Gail tried to light a cigarette, but her hands were shaking with the cold.
“You’re a stick. No wonder you’re always freezing.” Cassie took off her peacoat and pulled the jacket snug around Gail’s shoulders, who, like a little bird, tucked her head under Cassie’s arm, away from the wind.
“Did you ever name your baby?” Gail asked.
“No.” Cassie said.
She had. She never said the name out loud, never would. But Cassie knew that out there, under the same sky, feeling the same hint of snow in the air, was her little girl.
“Wanna get out of here?” Cassie asked. “I’ve got Mom’s car.”
“Anywhere we want.”
They climbed into the car and pulled out of the school parking lot. Then Bruce came on the radio, “Pink Cadillac,” and Cassie turned it up, and Gail put her feet up on the dashboard, the both of them singing, as Cassie steered the car around corners, through corridors of houses they’d both known all their lives. Everything felt so different now, as if Cassie had been dropped down in a strange city and couldn’t figure out what language everyone was speaking or make out the writing on the street signs.
The Civic slid down Tiger Drive, right on Bridge, right on Tioga, up the ramp to 29 and out onto the two-lane where sounds flooded into Cassie’s ears—the crows startled from the field grass, P&G trucks idling along the roadside; and light flooded into her eyes—the pinking of hilltops, the low fingers of sun through the pines; and at the moment they drove over the Susquehanna, at the very same moment, Cassie and Gail rolled down their windows, opened their mouths wide as Texas, as pie, as love, as the sky, and screamed.
LESLEY BANNATYNE’s short stories won the Tucson Festival of Books first-place award in fiction and the 2018 Bosque Literary Journal literary fiction prize. Her stories and essays have been published in The Boston Globe, Smithsonian, Christian Science Monitor, and Zone 3; and in the journals Pangyrus, Shooter, and Bosque. As a freelance writer, she’s covered stories ranging from druids in Massachusetts to relief workers in Bolivia. Lesley writes extensively on popular culture, and her most recent creative nonfiction book, Halloween Nation, was short-listed for a Bram Stoker Award.