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This time you control her wrists, spin her around, and the two of you go dancing across the kitchen.
The pump gurgles loudly, the hum cycles down, and the damp smell of the first is carried inward on a breeze.
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by Lucius Shepard

She's the girl with the Halloween hair. The Morticia Adams Cut, dyed jet black, with asymmetrical streaks of orange. She's twenty-four, twenty-five. A child-woman, you imagine, who dotes on books about famous poisoners and has several of the more painful piercings. Typical Goth material. But once you get past the hair, the vintage dress, the pearl ring shaped like a bulbous spider, the tattoos on the backs of her hands (a vampire's skull, a human heart), and the extreme makeup, you notice that her face has a maternal sensuality and softness that seem too unguarded to be part of the modern world.

Most weekdays she has lunch at this little teriyaki place just off the Ave on 45th, in the University District of Seattle. She usually sits at a table where Bill Gates once ate, an occasion memorialized by a framed polaroid of the great man on the wall above it, and she always orders the Number Three (Veggie Special) and a bottle of water, and reads while she eats (trade paperbacks, as a rule), except when it's raining—then she stares out the window, absently forking up bites of food. This suggests she might be native to the region, because people born in the Pacific Northwest don't generally view the rain as depressing; they are more likely to accept it as a comforting veil drawn across the world, one that encourages contemplation.

No one hits on her, and that surprises you. Some guys are doubtless put off by her personal style (which you sense is less a statement of cultural disaffection than a disguise), and some will assume she's a ballbuster and that any approach could trigger a barrage of insult. Yet, others wouldn't be so easily dissuaded. She's a beautiful woman—no, a lovely woman; lovely being a word more evocative of her antique quality. Her breasts, always displayed to advantage, are large and milky white, zaftig, like the breasts of models painted by Titian and Raphael, and the remainder of her body conforms to this unfashionable standard of voluptuousness. There must be a special atmosphere around her, you think. An envelope of force that keeps her space inviolate. One way or the other, you understand she's not a girl who can be easily acquired. You can't just walk up to her and say, Mind if I sit here? or If you're going to break my heart, do it now, because later it'll be too painful or Didn't I see you at the Crocodile Club last Saturday? and talk about the cool bands you've both seen and then ask for her number, and by then you'll have gone past the need for conversation (it's really more of an animal preliminary), and you'll either wind up in bed together or you won't. Though you desire the same thing that guys who use such uninspired openings desire, you recognize that if you are going to reach that night, that bed, you'll first have to desire everything about her. You'll have to fall in love, succumb to her, so when you introduce yourself, employing no greater wit than that typically employed by anyone else your age, your introduction will be supported by a depth of emotion, a weight of knowledge, and you will have discovered that conversation is rarely a trivial matter for her—a moral conviction underlies her words—and you'll have learned she works with the handicapped as a massage therapist and lives alone in a frame house on a fir-lined street in Fremont, and that her eyes are green as bottle glass under strong sunlight, and that she's called Abi, which is short for Abimagique.

Of course no one names their daughter Abimagique. It's a self-chosen name, a name that, when you first heard it, caused you to harbor derisive thoughts, to imagine her the victim of some Wiccan delusion, and this appears to be essentially the case. On the walls of her house hang classic representations of the angels, Tibetan and Native American masks, curious constructions of dried vegetable matter and silk ribbon, ankhs, crosses, and backward sevens and other symbols less readily identifiable. Long strings of beads—silver and amber, topaz and lapis lazuli—drape the bedroom mirror, carving reflections into slices; herbal sachets that yield peculiar odors are strewn everywhere; scraps of paper bearing inscriptions hand-inked in a Tolkienesque script are tucked beneath pillows, in the backs of drawers, under potted plants, inside tins and jars, many of these featuring a backward seven. After you've been friends with her for a month (you've insinuated yourself into her life as a client, seeking treatment for back problems you suffered in an automobile accident years before), you realize that these arcana don't announce her character, they merely reflect it; they're natural expressions, like sprays of foliage from a central trunk. When she talks about God, gods, spirits, ghosts, miracles, monsters, the magic of animals, of plants, the circles of Hell, the potency of angels, the entirety of the mystic landscape she inhabits, she expresses herself neither defensively nor assertively, but with a calm certainty that inspires you to argument. You want to debunk her beliefs not because you're such a huge fan of empirical truth or because you're so locked in to your science-geek grad-school thing, but rather because a vague male reason demands it. She refuses to argue; she merely submits there may be some things you're not yet aware of, and that's not something you can argue, though you try.

Just past the turn of the year, you become lovers. Rain falls intermittently, and the firs enclosing Abi's house lend the pewter light a greenish undersea opacity in which her skin glows. You discover a backward seven tattooed on the inside of her right thigh, close to her sex; you trace the blue ink with a finger, puzzle over it a moment, then make gentle play with her genital piercing. She tells you that she loves you, but her tone is oddly dispassionate, and, once you're inside her, though you experience the ferocity of desire, your feelings seem muted by a tranquil energy you recognize as uniquely hers, as if you've penetrated that protective envelope you sensed, that atmosphere, and now it surrounds you. You're lulled, cradled by her acceptance. It's like you're adrift on the undulations of a tide, not moved by female sinew and bone. But the instant before you come, she breaks the languid rhythm of your lovemaking; she places her hands on the small of your back and presses down hard with her fingertips, manipulating the nerves and muscles there. Electricity snaps along your spine, heat floods your brain. You cry out from spasms of sensation so violent, they take you to the brink of unconsciousness. Once you recover, you ask with a degree of anger (because it hurt), but with a greater degree of wonderment (because you've never experienced such an intricate orgasm), what the hell was it that she did to you?

"It's a massage technique," she says. "Didn't you enjoy it?"

You start to say "no"—you're accustomed to having more control in bed than, in retrospect, it appears you had, and you're annoyed. "I would have enjoyed it a hell of lot more if you hadn't sprung it on me," you tell her.

"That doesn't say much for your sense of spontaneity." She fixes you with her green gaze. You're startled by how specifically it communicates her disappointment; you suspect that her emotions may be more deeply held, more genuine than your own, and thus easier to read. Whether true or not, the thought that it might be increases your annoyance; but then she cuddles against you, her softness a distraction, and says, "I won't do it anymore if you don't want."

You're coming to understand that's how things work in your relationship, and how they probably always will work—she cedes control to you when control is no longer an issue.

· · · · · 

Days, weeks, months fly past, and you move in with her, but what you know about her never gets much more detailed than the fact that she likes teriyaki. Oh, there are things you discover through observation and experience. Things about her character, her quirks. She believes the world will end in a series of cataclysms for which we should prepare. She loves the rain and likes to run out into it without an umbrella, sometimes without clothes. She keeps a large aquarium filled with water, with a pump that gurgles loudly, but no fish—she explains that she hasn't found the right kind to put in it but enjoys the sound made by the pump, so having fish is unimportant. She eats a weird vegetarian diet, flavored with herbs grown in a garden at the side of the house, that you also must eat (though you supplement it with burgers you sneak after classes or while at work in the microbiology lab). She has the habit of calling you "angel," a term she also applies to taxi drivers and restaurant workers, random people, and when you ask why she does this, she says that some people are descended from angels—she recognizes them by their aura—and she's just acknowledging them as such. She practices Tantric magic, sex magic, a discipline you're coming to appreciate, being a direct beneficiary of it. But her history, the plain truth of her, remains elusive. She says her parents died when she was young and she was brought up "… all over the place …" in foster homes, but she pushes the subject aside so quickly, you have the idea that it may be standing in for a more unpleasant truth. She doesn't appear to have any friends but claims to have a few and promises you'll meet them soon. As far as you're concerned, the fewer friends, the better. Your fascination has grown to the level of obsession and you want to monopolize her time. Trying to explain how you feel to your best friend, Gerald, you're reduced to cliche and hyperbole, and say that she's redefined your view of women.

At twenty-four, Gerald's a full year older than you, yet he still wears his baseball cap backward and acts like an idiot. He tells everyone he's in a band (he's not), shares an apartment with a lipstick lesbian whom he claims is his girlfriend (she's obviously not), and is employed as a barista, manning the coffee cart outside the University Book Store. Nevertheless, you maintain the illusion, held since you attended high school together, that his opinion has value. He slams an espresso shot, wipes his mouth, and shudders as if in reaction to raw whiskey.

"Yeah?" he says. "She a trannie?"

You tell him that the qualities you perceive as flaws in other women, Abi possesses as strengths. Her skill at manipulation, for instance. You never feel used, you say, when she manages to get her way by manipulating you, because there's always something in it for you, and also because she performs the act with such subtlety, it's as if she elevates it beyond criticism. And that has allowed you to see that the art of manipulation in the female is pure and necessary, as essential to her well-being as body mass and muscle to a male.

You understand that you're talking utter bullshit. You're trying to convey Abi, all of her, by describing, ineptly, one aspect of her, and that can't be done. Gerald isn't listening, anyway; he's leafing through a skateboard magazine.

"Dude, is she hot?" he asks.

"Why don't you tell me? You want to meet her?"

"'Cause if she's hot …" Gerald swats at you with his magazine and grins. "None of that other shit matters."

Gerald's partner, a white guy who's too cool to talk—he nods, he grunts, he gestures—and has nasty-looking blond dreadlocks that have been dipped in blue dye, takes over at the cart and you drive to Abi's house in Gerald's shitbox. It's raining steadily by the time you arrive, and Abi is out gathering herbs in the garden. Her T-shirt's plastered to her body, reminding you of an old Italian flick in which Sophia Loren wandered around for half the movie wearing a ragged, soaked-though dress. You park across the street, point Abi out to Gerald, and the two of you sit and watch for a minute. Her curves accentuated by wet black cloth, Abi looks nothing if not hot.

"I don't get it," says Gerald. "She's a plumper, dude. I didn't know you're into plumpers."

You gape at him.

Gerald turns his eyes toward Abi once again. "She's got some potential, okay? But seriously, man. Way she is now … I mean, she's built like your mom. What's your mom now? Forty-five, forty-six? If Abi-whatever is this big at twenty-five, time she's forty-five, she's gonna be like one of those freaks they have to cut through the roof to lift 'em outa their bedroom."

"Fuck off!!"

"No, really. I'm trying to help you out, okay?"

"No, really! Fuck off!"

"Hey, man! Since you been with this chick, she's got you so whipped, it's like you're not even the same guy. You're all fucking oh-I-love-her-so-much-she's-such-a-big-fat-goddess. You should hear yourself. You got me thinking about doing an intervention."

Gerald has adopted an earnest expression that doesn't quite cover up his underlying attitude, which you perceive now to be one of jealousy—you haven't been spending much time with him since you hooked up with Abi, and he's taken it personally.

"I'm serious," he says. "I'm thinking about it."

"You're being a real asshole, y'know."

"You're the asshole! Letting this cow lead you around by the dick!"

You open the door, and Gerald, angry now, says, "Carole, man. She was hot. I can't figure why you broke up with her. But this one, she's got a butt on her looks like a bagful of oatmeal. Maybe you got a thing for chicks who look like your mom."

You jump out of the car, slam the door.

"Maybe you got a thing for your mom?" Gerald shouts. "Little Oedipal thing? Maybe that's why you're so into Miss Piggy!"

He says "edible" for "Oedipal." You tell yourself it's time you left high school behind you. Gerald's trapped in a universe of Tool concerts, stoner weekends at Rockaway Beach, and raves in some scuzzy warehouse with underage girls on Ecstasy, whereas you have moved on. Steaming, you flip him off as he pulls away from the curb, shouting something about "… fat bitch!"

Abi stands at the edge of the garden, her fingers black from grubbing in the dirt, and there's a smudge on her chin, too, where she's wiped her face; strands of wet hair cling to her pale cheeks. She looks like a sexy vampire fresh from a dirt nap. "Hey, angel," she says, and asks who was the guy in the car, and you say, "Just this assbag." From the way she kisses you, a promise of more and better to come, you imagine that she must have heard some of what Gerald had to say and the kiss is your reward for defending her.

Gerald's dismissal of Abi, however, has planted a seed, and in the weeks that follow you spend a good deal of time wondering if your entire experience with her has been the product of a newly manifested perversion. The suspicion that your feelings might be unhealthy or somehow unreliable causes you to notice things about her that are less than ideal, and you become aware that she's far from the perfect woman you described. Her refusal to talk about personal affairs now strikes you as pathological. While she'll go on at length, say, about the relationship between astrology and electro-magnetism, or the role of angels in human affairs, she's reluctant to speak of anything regarding your relationship. This frustrates you—it's like you've switched roles with her. Equally frustrating is her tendency to talk about the end of the world as though it's already occurred. Because of this, it's impossible to make plans more than a couple of weeks in advance without prefacing the discussion by saying, "If we're still around …" or something of the sort; otherwise she'll point out the omission and maneuver the conversation onto a different track. Her passion for the rain seems demented, cracked, fetishistic; her diet gives you gas. Perhaps the most grievous of her flaws is a lack of empathy. Crossing a Safeway parking lot with her one evening, you encounter a deaf couple having an argument, a man and a woman of late middle age, reeking of alcohol, wearing soiled down jackets and baseball caps. Instead of making delicate, quick speech with their hands, they jab at one another with fists and fingers, gesticulating wildly, their fury all the more intense for its silence. Abi laughs and says disdainfully, "From a distance you'd think they were Italian."

Taken by itself, it's not an important failure. But it opens a door that's difficult to close, and you're persuaded to believe that what appeared to indicate a slight insensitivity goes much deeper: Abi is contemptuous of everyone, and, though you're getting the best part of her, the kisses, the smiles, the sex, you conclude that her passion for you must be counterfeit and what you have assumed to be gentle teasing in regard to the movies you like, the books you read, your favorite foods, everything, has always borne the stamp of contempt … and yet you refuse to accept this as true. Your ego won't permit it, nor will logic. If she feels nothing for you, why hook up with you? You decide you must be missing something. She displays such a narrow range of emotions, perhaps you're overlooking some nuance that distinguishes her disdain from her affection. You can't quite accept that, either (you're not sure which are less trustworthy, your judgments or her emotional responses); but it makes a good fallback position.

One night, coming home late from lab, you round the corner onto your block and spot Abi standing in the doorway, dressed in her green silk robe, talking to two figures on the porch—they're partially silhouetted by the light issuing from inside the house and are wearing purple sweatshirts with the hoods up. You can't tell much about them, but you assume them to be men since they're considerably taller than Abi. Startled, because this is the first time you've seen her speak to anyone except busboys and waiters and the like, you slip behind a fir trunk across the street and spy on them.

You can't hear what's being said, but every so often, over the ambient noise, you catch a fragment of a gruff voice. Abi stands with her arms folded; the men's hands are at their sides. Solicitors, you think. You get lot of Greenpeace people in the neighborhood, Secretaries For A Better Tomorrow, that sort of thing, most of whom Abi rebuffs, saying that it's far too late to save the planet their way. But that notion takes a hit when one of the men puts his hand on Abi's shoulder, a gesture you interpret as affirming, as if he's saying "Be strong" or something similar. With that, the men trot down the steps and walk briskly away. As they pass beneath the streetlight, you notice that their sweatshirts are identical, each bearing letters that spell out Washington Huskies Athletic Department. Their jeans and running shoes, also identical, look to be brand new, but the light shows nothing of their cowled faces. Abi gazes after them and, with a sharp glance in your direction, goes inside and shuts the door.

"I saw you lurking," she says as you enter and toss your pack on the sofa.

"I wasn't lurking."

"Do you always hide behind a tree before you come in?"

"I was surprised you had company."

"Well, if you'd acted normally, I could have introduced you."

"You should have called me over."

"I didn't want to interfere with your lurking."

She passes into the kitchen and you follow, watching her ass roll under the green silk.

"Who were they?" you ask.

"Just some friends. Mike and Rem Gregory. You'd like them." She peers inside the refrigerator.


She moves a Tupperware container aside. "I think it's short for something."

"So are they twins?"

She frowns at you over her shoulder. "No. Why would you say that?"

"Because they dress alike. You don't see a whole lot of that these days … adults dressing alike."

She takes out a bottle of water. "They're eccentric, but they're angels, really. I'll have them over to dinner some night."

"That's cool. Maybe next week sometime."

"They stopped by on their way out of town. I'm not sure when they're getting back."

"Yeah, well, let's do it for real. I'm looking forward to meeting them."

"For God's sake, stop it!" Abi gives an inarticulate yell and throws the bottle at you. Thankfully, it's plastic and her aim is off. "You're always picking at me! You're always prying and sneaking around!"

"What do you mean? I'm not sneaking around!"

"What do call hiding behind a tree? Then you stroll in asking all these questions about Mike and …"

"Are you insane? I was making conversation. I don't give a fuck about your fucking friends!"

Abi stares coldly at you; she takes off her pearl spider ring and sets it on the edge of the sink.

You laugh. "What … you gonna take a swing at me?"

"I'm insane, I'm liable to do anything."

"Calm down, all right?"

Without further warning, she hurls herself at you, scratching, clawing at your face, and slams you back into the stove. You cover up, but a fingernail clips you near the eye; you feel wetness on your cheek and push her away. She reels off-balance and goes staggering through a door that leads into a hallway. With her robe fallen open; breasts swaying; panting; hair in disarray; she looks like the poster girl for a bad acid trip. She rushes you again. This time you control her wrists, spin her around, and the two of you go dancing across the kitchen. Momentum carries you out into the hallway, where you manage to pin her against the wall. She tries a knee that you block by flattening her with your body.

"Calm the fuck down!" you shout.

She snaps at you, snagging your lower lip. She struggles to break free but gives it up after a few seconds. She slumps; her face empties.

"You okay?" You relax your grip slightly, and she tries to headbutt you. "Goddamn it!' With your right hand, you clamp both her wrists above her head and put your left hand at her throat to restrain her.

"Want to rough me up?" She lets out a peal of laughter that would not sound out of place echoing down the corridor of an asylum. "Come on! Rough me up!!"

"What the hell's wrong with you?"

"Can't you handle it?" She grinds her pelvis against you. "Come on, bitch!"

"Take it easy!"

She snaps at you again, but less fiercely, more a love bite, and keeps saying, half under her breath, "Come on, come on!", taunting you, turning the fight into animalistic foreplay. You're bleeding from the corner of your eye and from your lip, but you go with the moment and drag her into the bedroom, shove her down onto the bed. She raises her knees, opens to you, laughing now, and soon you're going at it like beasts.

You expect her to apologize afterward, but she merely inspects your wounds, says "You'll live," and then gets out of bed and slips on her robe.

You watch her searching for the sash. "Can I ask a question without setting you off?"

She finds the sash, ties it, sits on the bed. "Sure."

"Why do you get so defensive?"

"It's not defensiveness, it's I'm irritated. You do pry a lot. And that hiding-back-of-a-tree thing was just stupid."

"Maybe so, but you totally overreacted."

A shrug. "Didn't you have fun?"

"Fun? At the end I did. It wasn't much fun earlier."

"I enjoyed every minute."

It takes you a moment to absorb this. "You mean you weren't angry?"

"I was angry … just not that angry. But I thought letting it out would be a healthy exercise."

She's a wholly different woman than she was a half hour before. The way she's sitting there, fussing with the end of her sash, giving off a vaguely cheerful, self-possessed vibe. It's difficult to picture her shrieking, infuriated … though not so difficult as once it was.

"So you were …" You grope for the right word. "Acting out? We could've gotten hurt."

"I have complete confidence that you're my physical superior. I knew you wouldn't hurt me."

"You hurt me."

She makes a wry face. "Oh, yeah. You're scarred for life."

You tell her you don't see how going straight from minor disagreement to a violent confrontation is going to do other than muddy the waters.

"Do you feel muddied?" she asks. "I don't. I feel perfectly clear. And we went from a disagreement to violence to sex. You left out the sex." She stands, cinches the sash tighter. "Life is the reasoned exercise of passion. When it's not, it's death."

You're becoming accustomed to her use of homespun aphorisms, but still it tends to piss you off, as do the lectures that invariably follow. But you're too worn out by the reasoned exercise of passion to do other than listen.

"People today are like tigers who've forgotten how to be tigers," she says, moving toward the door. "Which explains why everything's so fucked. We have to teach ourselves to be tigers together. That's how we'll last. I realize I haven't been very forthcoming with you, and I realize that makes you crazy, because you're very inquisitive. We have to push back the limits slowly, gradually reveal our natures. You'll learn everything about me in time. And about yourself. Until then we need to snarl and claw on occasion, and let sex heal us." She pauses in the doorway, gives her sash a final tug. "Want something to eat?"

· · · · · 

Each Friday morning you catch an early bus to the U District and prepare for your eleven o'clock seminar in one of the coffee shops along the Ave; on a morning in late May, while you're poring over an article on protozoan genomes amid conversational clutter and the smells of exotic grinds, a man stops beside your table. He's got snappish blue eyes edged by crowsfeet and deep lines bracketing his mouth. All hedged by an unkempt reddish-brown beard. It's an odd face, an old-young face like a leprechaun's. Hard to put an age to him. He could be in his late twenties or, just as easily, in his forties. He has on scruffy jeans and a denim jacket covered in patches that celebrate Jimi Hendrix, marijuana, Peter Tosh, and a sampling of leftist political causes; he's leaning on a cane. His torso is twisted—there's something wrong with his spine. With a labored movement, he lowers himself into the chair opposite, draws a deep breath, and releases it unsteadily.

"So you're her latest," he says; then he cocks his head and says in an altogether different voice, a reedy British voice, "Latest what? you might ask. Lover? That would be the obvious assumption." He leans forward, pushing into your space. "Perhaps he's referring to something else. Something more sinister, eh?"

You're accustomed to being approached by whack jobs—the U District is their natural habitat—and experience has taught you to be brusque. Yet in this instance, you're pretty sure that "she" refers to Abi, and you ask him what he's talking about.

"About Abi." He stares at you intently. "You're sleeping with a fucking monster."

"Watch your mouth."

"It cost me a lot of pain to come here today, man. You need to hear this."

You begin stowing books and papers in your pack.

"My name's Richard Reiner," he says and tries to connect with your eyes—you look away, make a pretense of signaling the waitress. Maybe he knows Abi, but he's still a whack job.

You tell him your name's Carl, thinking it would be unwise to tell this madman your actual name. His face tightens; he swallows dry. Managing his pain, you suppose.

"I met her five years ago," he says. "She wasn't exactly my type, but there was something about her. You know what I mean. Once you hook up with her, it's like an addiction."

You say "Yeah" to keep him moving along, certain that his experience with Abi—if, indeed, he had one—could have nothing in common with yours, though his reference to addiction strikes a chord.

"She lived in the same house, wore the same clothes. Looked the same. Nothing ever changes for her. Anyway, I moved in with her. Just like you."

"How do you know that? About me moving in?

"Because I been checking you out, Carl," he says, giving the name a sardonic emphasis. "You want to be Carl, that's fine with me. But don't think …"

You zip up the backpack, scrape back your chair.

"Hey! Where you going?" Reiner grips your forearm, but you shake him off. You've heard enough to validate your judgment. The guy's a flake, possibly a dangerous stalker.

"The thing she does when you fuck," he says. "The thing with your lower back? You don't want to let her do that anymore."

That surprises you. Angry at Abi for using that trick, one you've come to relish, with another man, and angry at Reiner for forcing you to confront what seems, against ordinary logic, an intimate betrayal on her part, you ask, "Why not?"

"She'll turn you into a cripple, man. Before she did it to me, my spine wasn't a fucking corkscrew. I could walk more than ten steps without having to stop. That shit she makes you eat … all that fucking seaweed and algae and herbs. I think that's tied in with it. I think it makes you susceptible. Or maybe there's drugs in it and that's how she keeps you under control." He grabs your arm again as you try to stand. "It's the truth!! I was her first …"

The waitress materializes and you order another Americano, tell her you'll pick it up at the counter. She asks Reiner what he's having, and he says impatiently, "Nothing, okay?" and glares at her until she walks away. "I was the first," he goes on. "But she's done it to six other guys. There might be more, for all I know. Here …" He two-fingers a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and pushes it toward you. You unfold the paper and look at the six names and addresses written thereon. One, belonging to someone named Phil Minz, sticks in your mind because it's in a building where you used to live.

"She must have fucked it up with me," Reiner says. "Punched the wrong buttons. Or maybe she just needed more practice, because the others are all in wheelchairs."

"I have a class," you say.

"You're not hearing me!" Reiner slaps the table, frustrated. "I used to be into it, man. Way she'd slip her hands down there and start poking around. I was like all …" He puts on a show of panting rapidly, like a dog. "I couldn't wait for her to set me off. And then this one day, it was like she hits me with the A-bomb. I was fucking drooling. In a stupor. Jesus couldn't have made me feel any better. I fell asleep, and the next morning I was all seized up. Not like I am now. It got worse over a period of about six weeks. But she did it to me. The doctors, they can't say what happened. When I tell 'em, they don't come right out and laugh, but …" Reiner leans back and rests his cane across his knees. "You're not laughing. You know what I'm talking about."

His manner seems rational, though what he's telling you does not. But you've had a recurrence of back trouble since you and Abi became lovers, and you've been blaming it on too much sex. "Why would she do that?" you ask. "Even if she could … which I'm not buying."

"You want to understand her motivation, ask her. I thought maybe she'd messed up with me. Y'know, like it was some kind of dangerous technique and she went too far. But six other guys, that tells me different."

You stand and shoulder your pack.

"C'mon, man! Talk to her! If it's bullshit, what the fuck's the harm in talking?"

The waitress pops back over and cautions you to keep it down or you'll have to leave.

"I'm leaving," you say.

Reiner struggles to his feet. "You want to end up like this … or worse? Do you?"

You make silent apology to the waitress, slip her a couple of dollars.

"What do you think I'm doing here?" says Reiner as you head for the door. "I'm trying to break you two up? I want to spare you from suffering my fate? I'm crazy but well-intentioned? Fuck you! I want you to make the bitch pay! After that you can fucking die!"

· · · · · 

That night before making love, lying with Abi in bed, you tell her about Reiner and show her the list of addresses. Her silence makes you feel contrite, as if you're confessing, as if you're guilty for having listened to Reiner. When you're done, when she says "I'm sorry," it's like she's bestowing a benediction.

"What're you sorry for?" you ask. "Some whacko running around saying shit? I shouldn't even have told you."

"You needed to tell me," she says. "Otherwise I couldn't clear things up."

"You don't have to clear anything up. I only told you because I thought you'd want to know."

She shifts closer, a breast nudging your arm. "Richard was a client. He's right about one thing. I did make a mistake with him; I got too involved. When I broke it off, I tried to maintain the friendship, but … I should have seen how psychologically damaged he was. He became irrational. He accused me of making him worse. Now he's taken it a step further."

You rush to assure her everything's cool, you didn't give what Reiner said any weight, but she goes on as if she hasn't heard.

"The diet," she says. "I'm trying to keep us healthy. I realize it's not what you're used to, but … I don't know. I can try fixing you a separate meal. I won't cook meat, though. I don't even want it in the house. If you need meat, you'll have to get it somewhere else. This …" She reaches behind her and fumbles for the list. "These are some of my current clients. They are in wheelchairs, but all of my clients are incapacitated in some way. I'm not sure how he got their names. Perhaps he followed me." She lets the scrap of paper fall between you. "If you don't want me to manipulate your back when we make love, I understand."

"No, I mean, if you want to, it's all right." You're eager to compensate for the weakness you've shown, for half-believing a lunatic, for injuring her.

"I do it to increase our pleasure. To hurry you, so you'll come when I do. I like it when we finish together."

"I do, too."



You kiss, you apologize for doubting her, she apologizes for getting mad, you say you didn't notice, her anger as mild as her passion, and you kiss again, a deeper kiss. Soon you're moving together, and the shadows crouched in the corners, the hum and gurgle of the pump on the empty aquarium, the candle flames on the night table flickering … You're aware of these things as extensions of her. They're her shadows, her flames, her humid breath. Even you are in process of becoming her, an immersion in another human being such as you've never felt before, and when her hands slide down to the small of your back, her touch tentative, you encourage her, you submit to her. Afterward, dim with pleasure, you recall what Reiner said, how he didn't notice any ill effects until the next day. But you're secure in the moment, and, holding Abi spoonstyle, you indulge in one of those passages that come to lovers during which they ask questions that seek to annotate their relationship, trivial questions like When did you know? and What did you feel then? and When was the first time you looked at me … I mean really looked? You find yourself asking what was it that attracted her to you? She says it wasn't anything specific. But you insist, you say, "There must've been something you noticed first."

"Your eyes," she says. "Your beautiful blue eyes. I'd like to have babies with those eyes."

This being the first mention ever of babies, you're a little uneasy, but you decide she's speaking more or less in the abstract. "Yeah," you say, trying to sound on the positive side of neutral. "That'd be nice someday."

She makes a forlorn noise and says, "I don't know if there'll be time."

After puzzling over the comment, you realize it probably refers to her sense of foreboding about an imminent doomsday. You've begun to think that her obsession with the end of the world is responsible for her emotional detachment and that she doesn't allow herself to become exuberant about anything because she sees the inevitable downside. You don't know what to tell her, so you hold her more tightly. Ten or fifteen seconds flow past and she says, "I don't believe you understand how serious things are."

You're astonished that she wants to get into this now, that she's willing to trash the afterglow in order to pound on the lectern and talk about the death of nations. You start to say as much, but she cuts you off.

"No, listen! It's very important that you listen," she says. "Our future depends on it."

You tell her, grumpily, to go ahead.

"I know you think I'm a nut …"

"That's not true."

"Yes, it is." She disengages from you, rolls onto her back, and locks you with her eyes. "You humor me. You love me in spite of it. But you think I'm nuts. That's all right. I'm used to it. And I realize nothing I say now is going to change things. But I want you to try, hard as you can, to give me the benefit of the doubt."

"Of course I will. You know …"

She puts a finger to your lips. "Just listen. I want you to try to accept that I know certain things, things you don't know. I want you to try to accept that this knowledge has an important application. You won't be able to do it right away, but I want you to try in any case, because there's going to come a moment when you'll have to trust me. And if you don't, everything we've been working toward will be destroyed."

"I'm … What am I supposed to trust you about?"

"Everything. You'll have to place your trust in me completely. Do you think you can do that? No matter how things look? I think you can. I think we have that kind of potential."

"It sounds like you're talking about something dangerous."

"Love's dangerous," she says. "And these are dangerous times to be in love. Do you believe that?"

How can you disbelieve such a melodramatic challenge, with her eyes boring into you and her breath heating your skin?

"Promise you'll always remember this conversation," she goes on. "If you do, if you can remember us, the way we are this minute, everything will be all right."

The pump gurgles loudly, the hum cycles down, and the damp smell of the firs is carried inward on a breeze.

"Do you trust me?" you ask.

"I'm trying to."

"Then why not tell me what's up? And this stuff about you knowing things I don't … What do you know? What's the situation going to be when I have to trust you completely?"

"I think for us," she says, "trust has to be like when we make love. It has to come together, you giving your trust and me giving mine, at the moment when we want it the most."

You're uncertain of the metaphor, but you understand her.

"Promise me," she demands, pressing her body against you.

Though you're no longer clear as to what you're promising, you promise. She clasps your head in both her hands and looks at you for a long time, searching below the surface glints and gleams and searching for whatever hides in you from ordinary light. At last, apparently satisfied, she pulls you close and tells you all the things she wants you to do to her, whispering them sweetly, almost demurely, as if concerned that God and his angels might overhear.

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Over the summer, you give up on hamburgers. You've become so accustomed to Abi's food that even the smell of a burger makes you nauseous. It's a small thing to have given up—you've never been so happy. The way things are going, if you and Abi were traditional types, you'd be renting out a church and looking into rings. You run into Reiner occasionally, and whenever he tries to accost you, you sprint away, leaving him to yell some madness about Abi in your wake. One day in the fall, you're coming back from a meeting with your thesis committee, a distinctly unpleasant meeting, your work's been slipping badly, and Reiner limps from the doorway of a used CD store directly into your path. Your temper flares and you push him back into the doorway and tell him to keep the fuck away from you or you'll bring in the cops.

His laughter has an unsound ring. "You can't threaten a dead man."

You become aware again of your surroundings, of passersby slowing their pace and staring, of two long-haired guys inside the CD store who appear ready to intervene, to rescue the cripple, and you take a step back.

"Those addresses I gave you … you never checked them out, did you?" Reiner asks. "You haven't done anything."

You start to turn away, but he grabs a handful of your jacket and hangs on. "What'll it cost you to check 'em out? Just check out one of 'em!"

"They're her clients, man!"

"Jesus … fuck! She made them her clients! She crippled them."

You twist free of his grasp.

"You still have the addresses?" Reiner asks.

You tell him you do, you'll check them out, and hurry off.

"Didn't she even leave you one ball?" he shouts.

The scrap of paper bearing the addresses is long gone, but you still remember the one, the building you used to live in, and a month later, walking past that building, you have a what-the-hell moment and stop to inspect the directory. Phil Minz, 1F. Once inside, you walk down a corridor past apartments A through E and catch sight of a harried-looking gray-haired man wearing a coverall coming out of F, preparing to lock the door. You inquire of him, and he tells you that Minz moved out last week. They took him, he thinks, to a clinic somewhere. Maybe in California. He's only now getting around to inspecting the place.

"The apartment's available?" you ask.

"Yeah, but I won't be showing it until after it's cleaned."

"Can I take a look?"

He hesitates.

"You know how hard it is to find an apartment this close to the campus. Let me take a quick look, okay?"

A beat-up sofa in the living room, some paper trash on the floor. The back room is empty but for a queen-sized bed stripped of covers and, set on a counter recessed in the wall, an aquarium filled with greenish water, pump gurgling, empty of fish.

"Guy left his fish tank behind," the super says unnecessarily.

"What kind of fish did he have?" You peer into the tank, searching for signs of habitation, for algae, fish gunge, food debris. Thoughtful of them to clean a tank that was going to be abandoned.

"Hell, I don't know." The super joins you at the tank and for a second you're both peering into it, like curious giants into a tiny lifeless sea. "I never was in the apartment when he was here."

The presence of the empty fish tank is an odd coincidence, but you doubt it's other than that. It's conceivable that Abi thought the sound of the pump might soothe her patient, and it's far more likely that she had nothing whatsoever to do with it, that there were fish in the tank and someone did a cleaning. You promise yourself that you won't let Reiner undermine your feelings anymore. Abi's flaws aren't mysterious or sinister. They're human flaws, and if they have an underlying explanation, it must have something to do with her past, with whatever secret she's keeping. She says that someday she'll tell you about it. Someday when the two of you are closer.

"Closer? We've been together for months," you say. "What's it going to take?"

"You don't think we can be closer? I do. I believe we've got miles to go."

The way she deflects your question with half a compliment, half a criticism, implying that the relationship has room to grow and at the same time telling you it's imperfect—you understand she has the ability to outflank you, that she can switch subjects or turn a conversation into a guilt trip and you'll fall into her trap every time. It make you crazy. She plays this game so much better than you, it would be pointless to keep pressing her. But you press her anyway, and, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, exasperated, she says, "Let's get through the holidays, all right? Then we'll have a talk."

You're not sure what's going to be so difficult about getting through the holidays, since they're the same for her as other days—she attends neither parties nor religious services, and invites no one over to the house. Yet you don't care. At least there's a firm date set for clearing up the mystery.

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