All summer, the nights stayed brutally hot, ninety degrees at midnight. Esther would find me in the early evenings and we’d escape to cool places, air-conditioned movie theaters and basement galleries, then a nocturnal cafe on Telegraph Street where each table had its own electric fan. Esther would fold our straw wrappers into wrinkled sea creatures and set them floating on the stream of air, animating them with a few words that—she once confided—hadn’t been spoken aloud in forty-four centuries. Then she’d fill a tall glass with ice and eat the cubes one by one, crunching them between her teeth.
Back at my apartment, we lay naked on top of the blankets, soaking in the breeze from the open window. By morning we were cold, our skin goose-bumped and dry. I had no appetite, and would often wake hours before dawn to the ache of acid gnawing at my empty stomach. Esther and I were always picking up the thread of an interminable conversation, never quite beginning, never reaching the point. It was too hot, I told her, to think about the future. She said she agreed.
Then one night, after we’d spent the evening spooning and listening to a muffled argument between the men next door, she roused suddenly and demanded that I wake up, this was important. There was somewhere she needed to go.
“‘The place with no return’?” I repeated. “That doesn’t inspire confidence.”
“Rough translation,” she said—then shook her head. “No, wait, that’s a pretty solid translation. Look, Nin, I need to see someone.”
“Should I be jealous?”
“No.” She had been silent for a moment, like she needed to think about it. She raised herself on her forearm over the bedframe’s protests.
“Listen,” she said, and I could see the dampness glistening on her forehead, “I’ll need you to bring me back. You understand? It has to be you.”
“Okay.” The word fell from my mouth before I could question it. Did I understand? I rubbed at the half-dollar of tension that had come to rest at the base of my skull. At least in part, I thought. I knew what she needed me to feel, and knew I was the closest alive to feeling it. “Sure, of course.”
She inched closer to me, until her soft breasts pressed against mine and the smell of her rose sharp and green in my nostrils. “Thank you, lover.” Her long hair was everywhere: across her shoulders, across the pillowcase, in my mouth.
It’s pointless, asking forgiveness for this, so I don’t. I’m only trying to explain.
How does a mortal woman meet a goddess? The usual way: through mutual friends.
Someone was throwing a party at their loft in the low, swampy district east of the canal. Early in the evening I’d planted myself on the Hollywood Regency settee, a muscular production of tufted seafoam velvet. A girl I occasionally flirted with was there, her boyfriend out in New York for the weekend, and she’d sit too close and jostle my thigh and ply me with dark-papered cigarettes she rolled herself. When she got up to piss or fetch another beer, I stretched my full length on the couch and eyed the evolving ecosystem, the knots of artists, actors, freelancers, and graduate students holding their beer bottles by the neck and gesturing emphatically, shouting about Freud, or politics, or the Tribune’s new drama critic.
At one point I glanced across the coffee table, a slab of live-edge walnut laden with takeout Thai, and saw Esther paging through a hardback edition of Anna Atkins’s algae cyanotypes. She wore a T-shirt as blue as the photographs, and lipstick so red it was almost black.
How does a mortal woman seduce a goddess? Call it blasphemy, but truth is, it isn’t difficult. You let her catch you staring. You laugh at her jokes. You make room for her on the couch, but not too much room. When she steadies herself with an arm across the settee’s tufted back, lean into it as though it were an embrace. Tell her you like her smile.
The morning she left, we took the fire escape instead of the lobby stairs, exiting into the alley between my apartment building and a Greek diner. The dumpsters stank of lamb grease and old tomatoes. There on the dirty pavement, equidistant between the walls, was a puddle. Not brown and shallow as it ought to be, but blue like a slice of ocean.
Esther knelt and I crouched next to her, steadying myself with one hand on the concrete. The puddle went down, down, impossibly deep—miles, it seemed—and at the bottom, something gray and extinct swam in a circle. I could feel the wake the creature dragged behind it, heavy and cold, pulling on us like gravity.
Esther gave my free hand a squeeze. “Wish me luck, lover.” Then she touched the water. I thought she would sink, dive through those sharp impossible miles to the depth where the beast circled. But the change came faster: her hand lost color, then solidity, and the whole volume of her cascaded into the puddle, like gallons of water poured from nowhere.
The surface tension held. There wasn’t even a splash.
I peered down, fighting vertigo, and saw that the prehistoric beast had vanished. Now there was nothing by which to judge distance. I stayed in the alley, resting my ass against my heels, until my thigh muscles began to tremble. Half the morning I sat there, as it became embarrassingly clear that I wouldn’t be able to do the only thing she’d asked of me.
I went to work. What else could I do?
I work four days a week in the plant gazebo at a hardware yard on Cedar, watering and rearranging the plastic trays of succulents, zinnias, embryonic tomato vines. After my shifts I eat an early dinner at the bar across the street, whose main attraction is an old jukebox, a midcentury Wurlitzer, its lights the shape and color of overgrown citrus gumdrops. The song library has expanded since Esther left, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley supplemented by names I recognize from a college course on folktales: “The Black Bull of Norroway” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” both by some indie pop-punk group called Psyche and the Golden Asses. Drops of water bead on the title cards. I munch my fries and drop a few quarters into the machine, punching numbers at random, and hum along, off key, when I can guess at the lyrics.
I’m not an idiot: I can see where all this is tending.
Duke, the bartender, takes the stool across from me and passes me quarters. He’s a bull of a man with the most beautiful nose I’ve ever seen—broad and uncannily symmetrical, underscored by a septum piercing. Duke is also a witch. The bar mirror is papered over with Tarot cards, The Magician plucked from fifteen or twenty different decks. I asked once how he could perform readings with a trump missing, and he glared at me as though I’d attempted to juggle his barware.
“In one version of the story,” he tells me—it’s all he tells me these days, the infinite variations of this one tedious tale —“there’s a meat hook. Inanna takes one step into the underworld and her sister strings her up like a slab of beef.”
The image flashes in my brain: Esther’s little body, so thin the ribs showed, her brown skin dusted with hair like threads of copper; the hook pushed through her shoulder, emerging from the place I so often pressed my lips. I imagine the sound of it in motion, a dry, sterile moan.
“What pisses me off,” Duke says, although he never really sounds pissed off, “is that she wouldn’t have refused you anything. Absolutely nothing, if only you’d asked.”
“And now what?” He spreads his massive hands. “It could be worse, Nin. You could be cleaning bloody shirts or sorting eighteen different types of grain. All you had to do was love her.”
I nod. It was the easier task. But not easy—not easy.
One evening, the third or fourth time she came over, we visited a strange storefront museum of Paleozoic fossils, ammonites and trilobites and a perfect acanthodian, a so-called spiny shark, its fins splayed like sails. In bed that night, Esther stretched out on her stomach and I rested on top of her, my cheek pillowed on her coarse hair. Her breath raised and lowered us both. She wore cologne, a heated, grassy vetiver that made me think of cornfields.
“I like your warmth,” she murmured. “You’re like a desert.” She turned and kissed my forehead, licking a bit of salt from my hairline. I couldn’t know it then, but that was the closest I came to loving her.
The next morning, we waited in line at the coffee cart outside the bus station, and she took an ammonite fossil from her purse. I couldn’t imagine how she’d slipped it out of the exhibit. She pressed the ridged spiral into my palm: “Lover, you are the best thing in my life right now.” She said it in the same tone she used to order her latte.
But they were fatal words. After that, there was no recovery.
Don’t misunderstand me. What I felt for her was often reverence, an admiration bordering on fear. If one could argue oneself from awe into passion, my love for her would have been cavernous, vast, Silurian. But it wasn’t. Awe is an emotion of surfaces, of mountains and lava and floods; it dries up quickly.
I explain this to the damp spots on my ceiling.
The thing is, I want her out of my life. The puddle evaporated from the alley but I find fragments of her everywhere. Straw wrappers. A whiff of vetiver. A fossil sitting on my counter, a perfect Lake Bonneville trilobite, but in striking cyanotype blue. I grab a book from my shelf—my book, one I read long before I met her—and there are water stains on the title page.
What does it take to banish someone you almost loved? How do you evict the dead from your life?
This strikes me as something she would know.
I find Duke on my day off, a bit earlier than usual. He’s alone at the bar, muttering something to the jukebox to make the lights change color.
“I’ve been thinking,” I tell him. “There has to be another way. Everywhere has a back door. I suspect you can find it.”
He wrinkles his perfect nose. “You’re not wrong.”
I follow him into the bar’s dim single-occupant restroom, a damp cave of graffiti and discarded paper products. Duke gestures for me to lock the door while he clogs the sink with paper towels. When I turn back, his pen knife rests open on the sink’s edge. The stained porcelain frames a familiar sight, and in the clear shaft of water, two prehistoric beasts roll in deliberate synchrony.
“Give me your hand.”
I hold it out, swallowing. Duke jabs the penknife under my thumbnail, quick and shallow, freeing flakes of potting soil and dry skin. They drift into the sink, followed by a single drop of blood.
For a moment, nothing.
Then one of the creatures breaks free of its orbit. The floor begins to shake.
“I should tell you,” Duke says, raising his voice as the rumbling grows louder. “There’s a catch. She’s not going to remember you.”
“Will I remember her?”
He must have seen the traitor spark of hope in my eyes. I feel the shove, like an animal charging, then the back of my skull colliding with the toilet seat.
When I come to, there’s a spot of blood on my hairline, and someone is rapping at the restroom door. I raise my hand to the lock and notice a strange bruise beneath my thumbnail. Dark and ragged, like the shoreline of an evaporated lake.