After they exchanged goodbyes, Natalie watched James' dark hair bounce in the late-spring light as the city swallowed her up. The traffic on Sixth Avenue had heated up to a noisy grind, and two crazies behind Natalie were loudly improvising dirty variations on subway-stop names—Rectum Street, C. Anal Street—as if they were the most hilarious guys ever to grace the earth. Listening to them, she felt exhausted and, she realized, extremely parched.
Natalie turned into a Jamba Juice and ordered a large Peach Pleasure smoothie, then reached into her purse for her wallet. She raked her hand against the suede lining of her handbag and was surprised when it didn't immediately hit upon her big lumpy wallet. Natalie nodded a little apology to the woman behind the counter and moved to a window seat to conduct a more thorough search. Her cell phone, book, and house keys were still there, but definitely no wallet. What the hell?
Unless she wanted to hitchhike across the Lincoln Tunnel, Natalie knew she had only one option. "I'm so sorry, but I can't find my money," she muttered to the woman, then rushed outside with her head ducked down.
Back on the street, Natalie tried to figure out what she should say to her aunt. I'm in the city pretending to be with you? Care to meet up so you can hand over some cold, hard cash? She took several bracing deep breaths, just like Maya had taught her, and unlocked her phone.
"Hi!" she said brightly, totally taken aback when the normally technophobic Maya answered on the first ring.
"Natalie!" Maya's tone was surprised. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Crap, crap, crap. Why hadn't Natalie actually paused to prepare her story? "I'm in the city," she said with no preamble. "Can I come meet you wherever you are?" It came out awkward, but then how else would it come out?
Half an hour later, Natalie joined Maya and her friend Sharmila at a vegan cafe on Crosby Street.
"Too grown-up to give our favorite aunt a kiss, are we?" Maya said, pulling Natalie toward her.
Maya was wearing a colorful poncho over a pair of beat-up jeans, the hems of which were rolled up to showcase a remarkably hideous pair of shoes. They looked as if they'd been hand-cobbled by a team of Third World village children, which, knowing Maya, was probably the case. She released Natalie and looked her over closely. "So now, what exactly brings you into our neck of the woods, my little goddess?"
Natalie had totally lied to her mother about her nonexistent plans with Maya, and now she was caught. Of course, now that she was actually with Maya, her lie had become the truth, right? It was perfect. Or it could be, if she played her cards right.
"I just woke up with this intense need to see you," Natalie said, delivering the line she'd come up with on the walk over. It wasn't brilliant, but it beat the truth. "I tried calling you, like, five times, but your phone went straight to voicemail, so I just followed my inner voice, or whatever you want to call it, and took the bus in, and now, well, here I am."
"Really?" Maya, who was famous for forgetting to turn her phone back on after her morning meditation, looked skeptical.
"Weird, right?" Natalie shot Maya's friend a smile.
"Well, I'm certainly glad you got through on the sixth try," Maya said. She was still studying Natalie a little too attentively.
"So, um, what are you guys up to?" Natalie asked nervously.
"We were just catching up before going to see Sri Dangnan lead this incredible 'Life Force' event," Sharmila said. "I'm sure we can get an extra ticket."
It was all Natalie could do not to groan. Why couldn't her aunt ever be headed somewhere normal, like a movie or a cafe that served actual milk? Natalie had met the long-bearded, certifiably insane windbag-guru Sri Dangnan before, and once was enough for this lifetime.
"Oh, shoot, I didn't realize you had plans," she said. "I totally shouldn't have just shown up unannounced like this."
"Ah, but you're living in the moment," Sharmila murmured. "It's beautiful."
"What do you say?" Maya asked. Beneath her geometric bangs her gaze was fixed on Natalie. "You'll come with us?"
Natalie shook her head. She'd rather undergo dental surgery than sit through another chanting session with Sri Dangnan. "Seriously, don't let me butt in on your outing. It was stupid to come into the city without reaching you first. I should probably get back home and hit the track, anyway. We have this big end-of-the-year practice thingie coming up. …"
"Again with the running!" Maya clucked. "How many times do I have to tell you, high-impact activity like that is not good for you?"
Then, telling Sharmila to hold on, Maya got up and pulled Natalie aside. As she stepped away from the table, Maya's wispy expression hardened, revealing the no-nonsense businesswoman she really was. "Listen, babe," she said, "I'll let it slide this once, but we both know you're not being totally honest here."
"But Maya, I—"
"I won't insist on worming out your real reasons for coming to the city this morning," Maya said. "I was young and foolish once myself, you know."
It was true: Before becoming "Mindful Maya," Natalie's aunt had focused on her acting career, which had peaked in a small part in a straight-to-DVD indie about transvestite bartenders on the Lower East Side. Maya had never explicitly told Natalie what she'd practiced back then, but it sure wasn't yoga.
"Just remember," Maya went on, "if you ever cross that river again without telling me, you'll be in serious trouble, got it?"
Natalie's eyes dropped to the gum-crudded sidewalk. "Got it," she said. And then, painful as it was, she finally got to the point. "And, um, while I'm here, do you think maybe you could lend me 20 bucks?"
"A-ha!" Maya nodded crisply, as if Natalie had just confirmed some deep-held suspicion. "So that's it, is it?"
"N-no!" Natalie stammered. "Not at all. It's just, you know, the city's always so much more expensive than I remember, and I, I …" she broke off.
Maya, meanwhile, had already unzipped her woven Guatemalan coin purse. "I'll always be there for you, Natalie, but do me a favor and don't ever underestimate me," she said. "And never lie to me. My third eye sees everything."
After gratefully accepting the $50-bill her aunt proffered, Natalie looked back up warily. Much to her relief, Maya was smiling now. "I was young and reckless once myself, to put it mildly." She winked. "Do you promise you're OK?"
"Of course!" Natalie said, and this time she looked her aunt straight in the eye. "One-hundred percent, I swear."
"Well, in that case, I release you," Maya said. "Go do whatever it was you were going to do—just be certain to do it mindfully."
Natalie breathed a long sigh as she said goodbye to Sharmila and headed out of the cafe. Maya was just so unbelievably cool. Given her lack of rapport with Elena, the niece-aunt relationship could've gone south pretty quickly after Izzy's sudden death 13 years earlier. But lucky for Natalie, Maya—who missed her big brother terribly—had taken it upon herself to be Natalie's fairy godmother or godguru or whatever.
As she meandered past a cute consignment clothing shop, Natalie's phone buzzed through her bag.
U want to come over and study?
The text was from Jenna, a clear sign from above—or, really, from Edgemont—that Natalie should turn around and retrace her steps back to the Port Authority. It wasn't as if she had any pressing engagements detaining her in the city, after all. But the sun felt warm on her shoulders, and Natalie had a fresh $50 bill in her pocket, and she just didn't feel like leaving yet.
Ninety seconds later, Jenna texted again:
Hello??!!! I meant TODAY Call meeeee
Thinking of how Jenna had sucked up to Thisbe at the movies on Friday night, Natalie felt inexplicably irritated as she read the words. What right did Jenna have to assume her trusty sidekick would always be at her beck and call? She grinned as she tapped out her reply.
In city with james the model girl—talk later xo
That should shut Jenna up for a while.