Four years I had been away, four years knowng nothing of what had happened since we left, and no one would tell me.
Samael had been back every so often, and every time he returned, he would tell me nothing. Still carrying a grudge he would never admit. Sophia, too, had been and gone, and she wasn’t telling, either. She would simply laugh, and shake her head, and walk away, and I would be none the wiser. So much I wanted to know, so many questions I wanted answered, and neither of them would tell me, as if they had somehow both decided I no longer had the right to even ask, and maybe I didn’t.
Every day I thought about her. Wondering what had happened in the aftermath, the night we left, wondering what happened later, her books and her stories, where had she ended up in her life.
I was not allowed to know, not until Sophia came to me and asked if I would like to return.
I had been so certain I could drop everything and leave, until suddenly I wasn’t.
I had pulled a fast one on her, one last little practical joke, and knowing that fearsome temper, I wasn’t too sure I’d receive any rapturous welcome.
In the end, my curiosity couldn’t stand it any more. I had to go. That was all.
To see her again. Would she still be able to surprise me, still be able to make me livid and make me laugh within the space of a few minutes? Would she still know precisely which buttons to push?
I didn’t know that answer any longer.
The simple, elegant movement of putting one foot in front of the other, that momentary sense of dislocation, and – I was walking down a Flatbush street on a warm June night. Children playing on bikes and skateboards on the sidewalk, the smell of burning charcoal and charred meat in the air, the sound of TVs in the background, someone playing music loudly further down the street.
It made me smile. Music had been so important to her. I wondered if it still was.
On the porch, a stunning redhead in a white dress was sitting with a friend, another stunner, this one a blonde in forget-me-not blue. Halfway through a bottle of wine, it looked like, laughing at something, both with bare feet up on the railing, so preoccupied with their conversation, they didn’t even notice me until I was almost upon them.
“Hello, ladies,” I said.
There was an awkward moment of stunned silence as they both gawped. They gave each other a look, looked at me again.
“Ah!” They both screamed in unison, before they slammed down their wine glasses and flung themselves down the steps. Fulla threw herself at me. “What in the name of Hel’s nose hairs are you DOING here?”
One thing about those Nordic ladies. If you don’t know them, they can seem so cold, so indifferent. Once you do, they’re anything but cold.
“Geez, keep it the fuck down you two, you want to rile up the whole goddamned neighborhood?” That Brooklyn baritone, the voice from the crypt. A blind was drawn upstairs, and Saint Peter stuck his head out. He hadn’t changed a bit.
“Hey!” I grinned up at him.
“What the----it IS you!” He looked down. “Fulla, tell me I’m not dreaming. If it isn’t the biggest asshole on Planet Earth.” His grin was as big as the rest of him.
“You’re not dreaming! He’s real enough!” Fulla kept hugging me. Freya, on the other hand, looked as if she wanted to smack me into next week, standing with her arms crossed over her chest. Those eerie blue eyes boring into mine. Tricky one, Freya. I had crossed her several times, and found out just how costly that was. Threatening to feed my testicles to her cats. Trust me, given a sliver of reason and not much more opportunity she would have done it, too.
“So…” I shrugged, grinned, wondered how to tackle this situation.
“Well, for crying out loud,” Fulla exclaimed, “don’t just stand there, stupid, come in!”
She unearthed another bottle of wine in the fridge, once we were settled in the kitchen. What used to be Sophia’s kitchen. I could still see that white body laid out on the marble island, dying in front of me.
“Four years.” I lifted my glass. It was so strange and so familiar to be back, familiar because nothing had changed, and strange because everything had. I was no longer who I had been. That era was over. Earth had no need of scapegoats, if they ever did to begin with.
Three expectant faces looked back at me. “So.” Wine. A Pinot Grigio. Cold, not too dry, glowing pale gold in the glass. “How is she? And where is she?”
“She’s…” began Saint Peter. All three of them exchanged looks across the kitchen table. “She’s OK, now, it would be fair to say. But it got pretty hairy for a while…”
Freya was still sitting with her arms crossed and a frown between her eyebrows.
“No. Dude, that won’t do at all,” she said. “Begin at the beginning. Back when it ended.” She leaned over the table toward me. Her smile was positively feline. “She got married, you know.”
“She did?” That surprised me. She was so adamant she could never, ever fuck in captivity, I remembered.
Saint Peter grinned again, twirled his wineglass. “Man, that was some week, I’m tellin’ ya. OK. Yeah, she got married. She married Anders on August 16th, four years ago almost in Las Vegas, and that was as they say a wedding to remember. I was there, Fulla, Freya and Diarmait even.”
Freya beamed. I knew that grin. Freya and Diarmait. He’d never live that down.
“What happened,” Fulla shrugged, “was that they decided they didn’t have any time to waste anymore. So – Vegas. She invited us, because we’re all family now, and we had an incredible time…oh, man, it was some wedding.”
Saint Peter showed me. The Hard Rock Hotel. Elvis officiated at the Las Vegas sign, and later sang “Love Me Tender” and “Trouble” to the anything-but-blushing bride. They both looked like glamorous black-clad rock stars either stupidly happy or in dire need of rehab, and maybe they were. She was winning at a blackjack table, an obscene amount of money if those stacks of chips were anything to go by, Anders, his arm apparently glued to her, calling up his mother in Copenhagen.
“Mom, I‘m calling from rehab…no, Mom, it’s a club in Las Vegas. I just got married…” And everyone at their banquette table high on champagne, high on the vibe, Saint Peter with Fulla, Freya and Diarmait, the bride and groom, all in total hysterics. Indecent, incandescent happy.
A red-and-black hotel suite with a lot of empty champagne bottles, and a “Do Not Disturb” sign on a closed door. Someone, not her, not her handwriting, had taken a red Sharpie and written “EVER” underneath. A ransacked room service cart was parked outside.
I knew what happened behind that door. For a moment, I had to look away, stretch out my hands that had contorted into fists and I hadn’t noticed.
“Well…” Saint Peter sighed. “It was so perfect, it was boring, ya know? Not much to tell afterward. We used to go there for Christmas. Hard to stand all that happy, man. Makes me nervous. I’m fuckin’ Catholic, for Chrissakes.”
“What about her books?” I asked.
“She’s a star now,” said Freya with a grin. She emptied her wine glass. “They’re wondering how she does it. Two books on the New York Times bestseller list, the first one sold really, really well, she’s done a truckload of articles, interviews, two book tours, she’s even sold an option and a script of her first book, and we’re all waiting to see what happens with that one – it should make a killer movie.”
I saw clips from a few TV appearances and had to laugh. There she was, bouncing all over talk show sofas, hardly sitting still, as outrageous and as smart as ever. As pretty as ever.
“You said…‘were’.” I noted. “What happened?”
Three somber faces gave me a baleful look.
“Ummm…” Fulla sighed and poured more wine. “One night at Alcatraz last year, there was some kind of crisis on a Friday night. Anders was home with her, taking some time off for a change. Well, he went out the door and walked to Alcatraz, but on his way home he got hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street. He was dead instantly.” She put her head in her hand and traced a pattern on the condensation on her wine glass.
Poor woman. She never did have much certainty in her life, and whatever she did get never lasted long. Her one continuity – her oldest, truest friend – killed in an accident.
“Well, she held together OK until everything was settled,” Freya continued. “And then, do you know, I think she really did go crazy for a while. She disappeared.”
“Come on…” I found that hard to believe, considering the company. “She’s probably one of the very few human beings on Planet Earth who can’t disappear, and certainly not to any of you. Sophia took great care, when she…”
“She disappeared,” stated Saint Peter flatly. “We looked everywhere. Everywhere, and you know me, give me a computer and I can locate anyone in about five minutes.” He sighed, a massive sigh. “It took me over a month. She hid her tracks well.”
“She was in a residential hotel in the French Quarter in New Orleans when we found her again,” Freya went on. She tossed her hair back over her shoulder, frowned, sipped her wine. “It wasn’t – pretty. She had tried to kill herself just about every way she could think of, but she couldn’t. You know. Not after Sophia. She didn’t want to live any longer. Not for her books, not for us, not for anyone. She said the ground had disappeared beneath her. She wouldn’t stop crying, wouldn’t stop blaming herself for what happened that night because she had wanted him to stay home, wouldn’t let go because she felt he was all she had ever really had.”
This was not the happy Hollywood ending you expected to hear about. This was the brutal truth about just how meaningless life and death really were.
Fulla slammed back the contents of her glass. Her face was ever so slightly flushed, a pink glow blooming across her flawless cheekbones. “So we brought in Diarmait, who was nearly as distraught as she was, and he was working on a suicide waiting to happen.”
“Yeah, so…those two went on a New Orleans bender of epic proportions,” said Saint Peter. “When they weren’t slamming down absinthe to a fare-thee-well, they were either screaming at each other, bawling on each other’s shoulders in blues clubs or screwing their brains out. Something to get out of both their systems, I guess. There’s been no one with her since.”
“Never mind.” Freya dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “It worked. Or else it was that Vodou mambo I took them to, a little help from the loa Baron and the Guédé…” She shrugged. “The chicken got it instead.”
“What?” That surprised me. “A vodou mambo? That’s not like you…” I laughed. The idea was so incongruous. Freya. And voodoo. The chicken got it. It boggled my mind.
She gave me a dirty look. “I had tried everything else I could think of. Whatever it took. It worked. We came back to New Orleans two weeks later, and they were mostly… back to normal. They’re still friends today. He’s running Alcatraz now, opening up another club soon, but she owns it. Anders left her everything he didn’t leave to his son.”
“Where is she now?” I asked again.
“West 23rd Street,” Saint Peter growled, “right across the river. She took some of her royalties and turned them into real estate, bought it when she came back from New Orleans. Couldn’t handle Copenhagen any more, and I can’t say I blame her. She’s been working like a maniac. Another book is almost out, she’s been published in lots of different places, done interviews, articles, all kinds of things, like Freya said.”
New York. She had always loved New York. I had to laugh. West 23rd Street. Where she and I had begun our little tango.
Saint Peter waved, and showed me her apartment. A loft, actually, with all the floor space and hardwood floor anyone with a penchant for air guitar could wish for, ceilings that soared fifteen feet. A state of the art kitchen off the living room with plenty of room to cook in. A large midnight-blue bedroom, a rather more elaborate four-poster bed than the one she used to have. Books and bookcases everywhere, in every room, stacked up five high beside the bed. In the living room, an oversized green sofa sprawled underneath her Cappiello devil. One window sill was covered in a thick cushion occupied by two enormous, white-haired cats with red ears and tails, the others held at least ten small orange trees. An entire wall was full of CDs and LPs, a serious stereo, a huge set of speakers. Music was still important, no question about it. In her bathroom, a black and glossy cave, at least fifty perfume bottles glittered in the light. Toward the front, in frequent rotation, there was a bottle of Chêne.
The one I had taken with me was long gone.
In another room off the living room, she was in front of her computer, a pencil in her mouth, ear buds in her ear, bare feet tapping in perfect time to the music she was listening to. She didn’t look a minute older than that night four years ago, and thanks to Sophia, she never would, still wearing ratty yoga pants, another gruesome black band t-shirt, no makeup, her hair up in a clip.
I remembered how I had loved to watch her write, even when she thought I was reading the paper, how I loved to see that look of rapt absorption on her face, even as she would sing along with her iPod, play air guitar or headbang, she never broke her train of thought.
Behind her hung framed cover mockups of her books, a huge bulletin board with quotes and photos, articles she had written. The laminate from that concert was on the board, along with several articles written about it. Three photos had been blown up to poster size – an old black-and-white photo from Copenhagen, a punk couple standing by the Stork Fountain, a lanky, broad-shouldered, spiky-haired boy with his arm curled protectively around a tiny girl whose Mohawk had to add at least two feet, Indian bridal jewelry from ear to nose, unusually stylish for a punk, an appalling amount of eye makeup. Two young faces with no illusions left except the one standing next to them. Their future had been stolen, so they would take it back.
A different one, a press photo taken that last night, in profile, on stage with my former lookalike singing ‘Trouble’. Right after I left. They were playing it up for the cameras, facing each other, and you could almost sense the tension between them in the way they mirrored each other’s body language exactly. So that was what we had looked like together, she and I. There was that same challenge on her face I had seen many times before. There was a look on his that anyone with half a brain could recognize.
Another poster-sized photo across from it, a wedding shot from Las Vegas, that punk couple from before, twenty-nine years later, both still in black, both still defiant in the face of conformity. She was holding a bunch of orange blossoms in her hand. They were rock-star arrogant, rock-star beautiful, incandescently happy, both their faces still burning through the camera lens, in the future they had taken for themselves.
If I had loved anything about her, it was that defiance, that truly ingrained punk attitude she had never lost. She knew she was nothing and no one special, so she would do something important, she would be someone special, she would grab what she could take and never back down and never go back on a promise, and that, too, made her special.
“I have never reneged on any kind of deal I might stand to either benefit or learn from,” she had said. Even after I had tried to intimidate her that night at the sushi restaurant, she had said that.
Skin like silk, a perfumed promise of deliverance, that low, feline growl at the back of her throat, that green and sappy, smoky trail of Chêne at the back of her neck that drove me mad.
“Fuck love! Sex I can understand, but when has love ever done anything good for me except let someone else fuck me over from behind?” Said sometime that first stay at the Chelsea. I remembered the look on her face as she said it, the look of a woman who had lost so many illusions, who had been forced to kill so many dreams, and that was another reason she and I had understood each other so well.
“Meanwhile, it’s a Mount Everest slide down to anyone else, and I don’t even know if there will ever be anyone else again…” Even in the Waiting Room, she had still had that catch in her voice that gave away her pain.
“I don’t want to, it costs too damn much and I don’t want to be that vulnerable ever again, not even to you…” Ah, but she was. She was because I had made her believe.
“No damn it, today I’m in charge and I call the shots and when I say you do, then you get down on your fucking knees and you worship me, do you understand?” Something happened after Lilith had nearly killed her, something that made her refuse to be cowed or dominated, something that made her try to dominate me that night, and I had let her. I’d let her again if she wanted to.
“Now. Now. Now.”
Oh, yes, I remembered everything. Everything. And everything hurt to remember. Her anger, her attitude, her laughter, her amazing mind, her shifting moods, her scents, the feel of her, full and round and female beneath my hands, the taste of her, and once was never, ever enough.
So painful to remember that I had hurt her so badly, had to pull that one last epic joke, just because I could, just because it would give her what she wanted more than anything else on Earth.
The question was, would she? Did she? I had waited long enough. Time to find out. I emptied my glass and stood up.
“Thanks for the wine, guys.”
Saint Peter waved his huge hand. “Door’s open. You know.”
And I walked down the hallway and through the front door and down another hallway and a quiet room, the click-clack of computer keys tapping out their own erratic rhythm. Pause. A flurry of clicks. Another pause.
She was staring into the screen, tapping her head with a pencil, frowning. I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind.
I leaned up against the doorjamb and waited. I did not look like I had that first night at the café, borrowing someone else’s skin because I could and it locked straight into that dark and secret fantasy of hers.
I looked like myself. The man she had seen in her bathtub, the truth she had seen in Heaven.
It took her a while to notice me. She inclined her head, breathed in. Her nostrils flared. And she looked up and saw me standing there. I saw a whole history of emotions play across her face in that short instant, from our beginning at the café to the end, all compressed into those few seconds of fast forward.
“So it is you,” she whispered when she finally found her voice again.
“Not quite,” I said. “I’m not that entity any more.” Such a relief it was, too.
“That’s a relief.” She sighed. “So you won’t scare the crap out of me?”
I had to laugh. That wasn’t what I was expecting after four years.
“Only if I have to.” I gave her my best attempt at the five-year-old grin.
“Good.” She saved her work, shut down the computer, swiveled around on her high-tech desk chair. “Why did you come back?” Arms folded over across her chest, one leg over the other. Her body language was closed up, and her tone was confrontational. I could understand that. I had put her through so much, far more than I should have.
“No one would tell me anything. I wanted to know what happened.”
“And did you find out?” She spat out the words like bullets, like a challenge she flung in my face.
She wasn’t giving in. This wasn’t the rapturous welcome I’d been fool enough to hope for.
“I think so.” I used to be the one who made her nervous and fidgety, but today of all days, the tables had been turned on me.
Maybe I should have stayed away.
“So you know about…” her voice trailed off.
“I do. And I’m sorry.”
“Not nearly so much as I was.” She sighed. A sigh that told me the pain was still there and always would be.
I understood that, too. “Well…” I said. “Now that I know, I can just…” I took a step backwards toward the hall.
She was out of the chair so fast, it scooted across the floor and spun into the bookcase behind her. One step, two, and she pushed me into the wall, absolutely livid. Her eyes were blazing green in her face.
“You’re just going to leave, like you did the last time, like you always did, isn’t that typical of the biggest asshole on Planet Earth, just vaporizing in thin air whenever things get too tricky to handle? God fucking damn it, I hate that!” She was so livid, she was practically jumping up and down in front of me.
“I can stay if you want me to,” I tried to placate her.
“Why the fuck would I do that, exactly? Do you realize how I felt that night? Do you have the slightest fucking idea what it was like to have to go to New York and promote something I didn’t write?”
“Well, you didn’t have to. You lived it. I thought that might do wonders for your conviction. It was the book you were supposed to write. It worked. Look at you now.” I swept my arm around the room.
Which was the exact wrong thing to say. It brought me back in an instant to another one of her moments, that December morning at the Chelsea, when she pointed out that even the Devil was not infallible.
She sighed, a long, drawn-out sigh, and let me go, turning away toward the door. “Maybe you shouldn’t have come back.” She whirled on her feet. “Maybe I don’t want you any more, did you ever stop to think about that?” Her arms were wrapped tight across her chest, I noticed. I also noticed her knuckles were white.
“Or maybe you do, you’d just rather die than admit it. That’s happened before, baby.”
“Oh, fuck you!” As she started to walk away toward the living room, I reached out to grab her.
“Please.” That stopped her in her tracks. “Even if I’m not what I used to be any more.”
I had my hands around her legs at one very particular spot, that delicious curve at the very top of her thighs.
We stared each other down. Five heartbeats, six maybe, and I could see that challenge in her eyes, I could see it plain as day, all the pain I had put her through, all the agonies I had caused. Shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye, her hands in both my back pockets and she hadn’t even been aware she put them there.
Until there was nothing more to say, not up against a brick wall, not vertical, not in words, not in anything other than the language she and I had spoken from that very first moment in a café at midnight.
This one. Oh, yes. This skin, this touch, this scent, this mind, this woman, this dissolution, this mouth, this conversation.
Her phone rang several times, and she didn’t answer. Her door buzzer rang some time later, and still she didn’t answer.
Midnight beyond the curtains of her midnight-blue bed, dark above Manhattan, the half-hearted dark of a midsummer night when she finally did find the words again. Only two, but they were enough.
“Miss me?” she asked.
After four years, I gave her the only answer I could.