When monster meets monster, one monster must give way,
and that monster will never be me.
Kano -- Opening
The road to Circe is little more than a path through the swamps. The pavement recedes silently into the mind of the traveler, and the swamps themselves seem to take the land. The land is thick and overgrown and the undergrowth reaches up for you, suffocating you with its moist, green fingers. The water is still, muddied by insects and the remnants of life. Alligators hide beneath the water's tall grass. They wait quietly. You can barely see them in the daylight. The institution crawls out of this murky soil, as if planted there by nature herself. It sits, waiting quietly. Its white walls lean awkwardly into the soft, damp earth. From a distance the old watchtower can be seen. It's crooked and battered. Despite its years of constant use, no one has bothered to repair the older parts of the institution. They remain quiet and dull, listening to the voices of the madmen within them.
Cassie once told me that ancient and angry spirits guarded the fort. They were the keepers of the institution. They were its patients and its doctors. I never believed her. I rarely believed anything she said. But I always listened. I watched her pale lips bob up and down and wondered at all the strange philosophies that drifted out of her mind. Cassie became Circe for me. Not the lonely witch who seduced Ulysses, but the place. She became cool stone and marble. A fantasy with the power of a haunted house or a lost dream.
"Circe" is what we called the place. It was actually named after some long dead man with gray whiskers and a propensity for racism. Dr. Clement Richard Clark had enough vision to turn an abandoned fort into an institution and Circe carried his name. With a little bit of an Alabama slur, C.R.C. always came out Circe and throughout my childhood I thought the hospital was named Circe. After I took my first mythology class, I figured they named it after the mythological enchantress. As an adult, despite my knowledge, it seemed more appropriate that the hospital be called Circe.
Circe always seemed to have some power over us. It had a power over all of those who lived and worked there, whether they knew it or not. The first time we saw its crooked and chipped walls it carried an unnamed mystery. It was foggy that first day. It's often foggy in the swamps of Southern Alabama. The air was thick and hot and we drove to Circe because it was our future. Our rite of passage. We would no longer be graduate students after we left this place. We would be psychologists. Healers of the mind and soul. We were to become the modern witch doctors. So the mystery with which I perceived Circe on that foggy morning came as much from my own psyche as from any of the fog that encased it, but it had that effect on all of us. All of the interns were daunted by the future it held for us. The buildings were hidden at first. Hidden behind the veil. All we could see of the place was the parking lot, wrapped in 12-foot fences and barbed wire. It was ugly, as parking lots always are. In front of it, perched on a mailbox, there was an azure peacock. Its tail feathers were spread widely, exposing all of its extravagant beauty. It gazed out at us, through the fog, as if it was guarding the stark parking lot. It was out of place. A fish in the desert. At first, I thought it was some plastic bauble set up to decorate something hideous, but then it moved. It drew breath and walked away and we all laughed. We laughed at the absurdity of the creature itself.
The white walls of Circe crept out in front of us as if they belonged to the swamp. These high, impregnable walls had once withstood weeks of cannon fire, and now they entombed the mentally ill. Three doors allowed entry into the hospital. A beautiful and ornate arch opened up into the main court from the picturesque visitor's parking lot. All around this entrance there were beautiful things. An old fountain spat rust-filled water into the sticky air. Flowers lined the walkway. Huge oaks lined the gardens. All this beauty and splendor also encased the second entrance to Circe. That door opened up into the main office, which was rumored to have held Geronimo on his trail of tears. The old building had once been a prison and an armory. Now it was decorated with pictures of pink daisies and happy children. Plump secretaries sat behind cool desks smiling happily at visitors on the same floors where countless Indians had marched to their demise.
The last entry into the fort was hidden. A tiny door had been built into the walls of the fort forty years ago to allow the staff to go directly from the dreary staff lot into the main hospital.
Buildings from long ago peppered the square within the wall. The large watchtower in the center of the fort used for vocational rehabilitation had existed for as long as anyone could remember. It rose out of the earth like a monolith, taller than anything around it. It could be seen from miles away. It was a fading testament to the French occupiers who had been there before. There was another building, old and dark, built out of red brick and crowned with a cupola, which loomed near the front of Circe. This dilapidated structure had been constructed during the Victorian period. Huge, ornate, and beautiful, its dark windows looked out onto the square. Motionlessness engulfed the building. Cassie told me that this building was constructed at the turn of the century. It had been abandoned not because it was structurally unsound, as I was to be told, but because people were too afraid of its dark history.
The modern facilities didn't fit in with the rest of the fort. Their architecture stood out as a monument to 1950's postmodernism in all of its glory. They were faded and tattered, but these antiquated buildings housed all of the patients of Circe. Cassie avoided the first of them. She described the admissions unit as a processing center for the mad where the acutely mentally ill would stay until a better place was found for them. On the other side of the tower lurked Cassie's building. It looked exactly like the admissions unit, but the chronic ward hid in the back of the hospital, alone in an empty field. The patients who lived here were too far from reality to ever hope to find a way back.
To me, when I think back, it all began there. My voyage. My journey. When I close my eyes it is all I can see, staring back at me through the mist. But I had a life before that place and my story does not begin within its walls. It begins with my wife. My beautiful wife.
I often ask myself now, "Who was I?" I wonder at the kind of man I had been. I had been empty. Empty and hungry. Always searching for something out of reach. I went into psychology because it happened upon me. My father had been a psychologist, and I excelled in the subject. I did wonderfully in math and I did wonderfully on my Graduate Record Exams. I was competitive enough to get into the best Clinical Psychology programs in the nation. I chose to go to the North because I wanted to see a new world. I took my wife with me knowing she despised the North. I took her with me, knowing how much she wanted to stay in Alabama. She cried when we packed the U-Haul and she cried when we drove away, but she never blamed me for the next four years. She never blamed me for Detroit.
Circe made my wife jubilant at first. The night I told her my internship was going to be there, I was finishing my dissertation early. I had built off someone else's research. This made it much easier for me to produce an excellent dissertation in less time. I was working on the conclusion of my dissertation that Christmas Eve. We did not go home that year. We couldn't afford it. Pria, my wife, had been supporting us both. She had supported me financially and emotionally. She snuck up behind me that night, and wrapped her arms around me.
"Merry Christmas," she whispered.
"Is it Christmas?" I asked. I did not turn to face her, although now I wish I had. I wish I could remember the curve of her cheek illuminated by the computer screen. I wish I could see the line of her body, with the Christmas lights she had so painstakingly put up glowing behind her perfect black hair. But I kept on typing. I kept on working and I never looked back.
"Yes," she said. There was such sadness in her voice. "Can we open our presents?"
"Go get everything set up," I muttered. "I'll be in after I enter this last set of numbers."
Pria was a mixture of perfect paradoxes. Her mother was from Northern India and her father had been born and raised in Mobile, Alabama. Instead of compromising on faith, her mother had tried to raise her Muslim and her father had tried to raise her Baptist. Pria believed in both and neither. She could talk about Christ and Mohammed in the same sentence. She would mouth devotion to make her parents happy, but she clung only to the rituals that she found the most interesting. She would fast for Ramadan (mostly because it helped her lose weight), and then celebrate Christmas with a vengeance, manger scenes and all. Her personality was as dichotomous as her faith. She was brilliant, but could be banal. She was all parts of woman: independent and unyielding, but needing and compromising. She was addicted to modern culture, but constantly seeking her mother's traditions. She would wear the most stylish modern clothes, only to turn around and wear a sari the next day. She was all things to me and I adored her.
After I finished my work, I followed her into the living room of our tiny apartment. She was smiling brightly. My wife was a beautiful woman. She had a tiny waist and large hips and chest. Her skin was dark and so were her eyes. I called her my fertility goddess. She used to get mad at me for that. She said that meant I thought she was fat. But I never thought that. Her skin was smooth and soft, and was never puckered with cellulite or excessive fat. Her curves gave her a sexuality that glowed from her whenever she moved. The mix of ethnicity in her was perfect.
I sat down beside the tree with her. "You only get coal this year, you know," I said.
"I think it's you who gets the coal this year. Working all the time and neglecting your poor wife."
I leaned over and kissed her. "I would never neglect you. How could I?"
"My other lover says that you neglect me."
"Other lover? Are you saying that you're sleeping with another man?"
"Not just one," she teased. "Ten beautiful men who hang on my every word. And all of them promise that they'll take me back to Alabama for New Years."
I became serious. I always took her seriously. "I'm sorry about this."
"Nothing to be sorry about." She smiled as she cried. "I knew what I was getting into when I married you. You never lied to me and I'll never regret it."
She kissed me and I forgot about my dissertation. She had that power. "Open your first present from me then," I said.
"Which one should I open?"
"The small one."
She shook the little box before she opened it. She tore into the silver paper like a child. Her hands quaked as she unfolded the small scrap of paper inside the box and as soon as she read the scrap she laughed almost hysterically. The laughter melted into tears and she threw her arms around my neck.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
I basked in the warmth of my success. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I mean, you can have any internship you want. You could go to one of the best internships in the country."
"I don't want that. I know you think I can't, but I know how sad you've been. You hate this place."
"Oh no. I love it. I love the yellow snow and the black ice. I love the smell and I love the fact that I'm terrified to walk the dog after 5:00 p.m. What's not to like?"
"Always joking," I said with a wry grin.
"My humor is what has kept me alive these last four years."
"It hasn't been that bad?"
"Not that bad. I had you and I have a few friends. I'm just homesick and I hate the cold."
"Well, to Pintlala, Alabama we go then." I said with a grimace
"It wouldn't have been my first choice, but it is still closer to home than before."
"There aren't too many internships available in Alabama."
"I know. I'm not complaining at all. Have you ever been to Pintlala?"
"No. I've been to Mobile. That's about as close as you can get and not end up on dirt roads."
She laughed. "Sweet home Alabama." I hugged her.
"Aren't you going to open the rest of your presents?" I asked.
"I don't need to. This is all I want. We'll only be a few miles away from Mom and Dad and Sally and Rachel and all of our friends. It'll be good for you too, you know. You'll never have to have my icy feet on your belly again."
"Somehow I doubt that. Your feet will be cold when it is 90 degrees. Your feet are always cold."
"That's not fair. My feet get warm."
"I can't think of when."
That was a good Christmas. She was happy. I had made her happy. I had made her glow and that was all that mattered. I did not want to return to Alabama. We were going home and I was ambivalent about this; I had been content in Detroit. I found its stark landscape alluring and I loved the way the steam rose from the manholes in the winter. I liked the silence with which the general population moved through life. Never greeting one another. Afraid to make eye contact on the street. They were all separate and estranged. They never asked questions or cared what you did or whom you did it with.
At home, everyone smiled and asked you how your day was going. They hugged you when they didn't know you and talked about you when they didn't care. It didn't matter. It was just a place, like any other.
Pria and I rented a small house in Mobile. It was nestled among the long, lazy oaks that make the South famous. Spanish moss hung from the branches of the enormous trees in our yard and brushed the ground with their blackened fingertips. Spider webs had taken over the backyard and enormous, yellow banana spiders lived in colonies that hung over our heads. We didn't mind the fist-sized spiders because they kept the phone-sized flying, tree roaches at bay. They also formed what my wife called a protective net. In her mind, this net kept the mosquitoes out of our house. Sometimes she even fed the spiders. She called them our pest control men.
Before I began work, she and I would sit on the back porch clinging to cups of saccharine sweet tea and watch the spiders. The dog would get caught in the webs and run back to us with the sticky nets clinging to her nose. Pria always laughed at this and she laughed at me when I got mad at the dog. I hated bathing the dog and I wouldn't let it in the house when it was dirty. Pria mocked me. She called me obsessive-compulsive, and somehow this seemed to make it better. It made the dog seem less dirty and the dirt seem less important.
For the first week we were in Mobile, we were bombarded with friends and family. They packed our two-bedroom house with housewarming presents and surrounded us with a nest of welcome. I hated this nest. I hated people moving in and out of my space like they belonged there. Her friends, her mother, other people. They drifted in and out of my life like it was their own. I missed the cold and the solitude. My wife pulled them in. She cooked for them and put out our wedding china. She gave them keys and smiled when they walked in without knocking. All I could do was sit in the corner and wait to begin work. It was the incessant prattle that wore on me the most. Their chirping voices rattling on about things that did not matter. Shoes, food, who aunt so-and-so was dating and which people back in India were doing what things.
After that first week, I became lost in my own emotion. This emotion mutated into rage. Rage that I had sacrificed my career and my dreams to sit and watch Pria talk about the most inane bullshit with everyone in the world. My brothers noticed my mood and they swooped in to save me from myself. My brothers took me to New Orleans.
I'm one of three boys. It is a common misconception that all Southerners are stupid white trash who can't do much of anything well. This isn't true. In my family, there are many well-educated and successful men and women. Unfortunately, my brothers had nothing in common with these men and women. They embodied the Southern Stereotype. They weren't successful and they aren't educated. Jeremy, my older brother, works for Alabama Power and Jeff, my younger brother, moves from job to job. Neither of them had ever left the small town we had grew up in. They liked Gulf Shores. They liked the blue water and the warm sand. Mostly they liked to drink and watch the sun rise and fall on the ocean. I always wanted more than this, as had our parents. I had worked hard to erase my Southern accent and to talk "proper" as my brothers said. I had also worked hard to become everything my father wanted of me. I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps.
My brothers and I went to New Orleans as we always did. We had always lived only two hours from New Orleans, and the culture that built our area wasn't so different from the culture that had shaped New Orleans. Not that we had ever cared about that. Mostly we went to drink on Bourbon Street and watch the pretty girls lift up their shirts for anybody who offered them a strand of fifty-cent plastic beads.
Jeremy and Jeff got a room at the Days Inn on the edge of Canal Street and the inter-state. We didn't stay in that room for more than ten minutes. We tossed our stuff on the grayed comforter and disappeared into the chaos. At first, we just wandered. We talked and watched. We didn't want to pick a bar too quickly.
"I'm amazed Pria let you come," Jeremy said with his heavy Alabama drawl.
"Pria would have taken me to a strip joint herself for bringing her back to Mobile."
"Still. She has got to know that all we're gonna do is go from one tittie bar to the next."
I laughed. "No one told me that we were goin' to tittie bars."
"You've been married too long," Jeff responded.
"Long enough to know I'm not going to watch a bunch of fat or skanky underage girls rub all over a filthy pole."
"I didn't think there was anything else to do in New Orleans," Jeremy laughed.
"Hey, now. Don't forget the chain of Voodoo shops and Karaoke bars," Jeff said.
"Look y'all, that girl over there is showing her tits right now. Isn't that enough? We'll go sit at Cats' Meow with some beads and watch the pretty sorority girls lift up their shirts. You know I won't be able to go home to Pria if I walk into one of those strip joints. It's not like y'all aren't married men. What are Carrie and Brooke gonna say?" My Southern accent was already rediscovering itself again. My brothers had that effect on me.
"We don't have the pussy-whipped relationship with our wives like you do with yours. Brooke doesn't tell me where I can go and I don't have to tell her every time I take a leak," Jeff said.
"Y'all are a little too close," Jeremy added.
"What does that mean?"
"It means Pria has your balls in a little jar beside the bed. Hell, we all know you hate it here. You always hated Alabama. You could be at one of the best programs in the country, but instead you're here and she's got your dick in her hand."
"I don't even need to answer that. I did not come here to get lectured on what a healthy relationship is by two guys whose wives come over to my house to bitch incessantly about them. At least my wife is happy. And I promise you that happiness results in me having a lot more fun with my nights than y'all have wandering around at night looking for sleazy strip joints."
Jeff shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette, "You got a good point. And Pria is hot."
I smiled broadly. "None of these women even hold a candle."
For a while the topic was dead. We found a bar and sat and talked. Mostly we drank until Jeff's speech disintegrated into a slurred mush of y'alls and fixin' tos. It was like being a teenager again. At that moment, I had to admit to myself that I was happy to be home again. I had missed my brothers. We could just sit and laugh about nothing for hours. Mostly we talked about football and women. I was the only Auburn fan in my family and my brothers rode me hard about it. It didn't matter though. It was the same things we had always talked about. Nothing changed with them. It was as if they had been living in suspended animation.
"That's it," Jeff declared around midnight. "You're on your own. I'm too drunk to sit in New Orleans without seeing something besides tits."
"I thought we finished this talk," I said. "Do I have to kick your ass?"
"You're gonna have to. I'll meet y'all back at the room." He just left with a sheepish grin, and Jeremy followed him.
I sat there for a while finishing my drink. I wasn't mad at them. I couldn't blame them. That was who they were and that is what they had always done. I wouldn't have expected them to change or do anything different. The only difference was that four years ago, I would've gone with them. And I couldn't judge them. I had my own vices.
After a while, I just got up and wandered the streets. I watched the swarms of people interact. A couple of frat boys had glowing spin sticks that they spun above their heads to read, "Show your tits." Men chanted at teenage girls. Other men curled up and vomited on the curb. Finally, I made it away from the Bourbon Street chaos to Cathedral Square where the fortunetellers sat at card tables or on benches. Most of the fortunetellers looked like teenagers who had bought books on palmistry at the local Books-a-Million and were just trying to scam the tourists. Others looked like some of my old patients. Either way, they did not seem like wise men or prophets that one would go to learn about one's past or future. I stood in front of the white cathedral watching the people move. Watching their gestures and trying to imagine what diagnoses I would give each of them. I thought that when pathology was as grotesque as it was in New Orleans, maybe I could tell by just watching.
I didn't see her at first. She had been just part of the crowd, but once I saw her it seemed impossible for her to be part of anything but herself. Her green eyes stared out at me through the heat and I stopped thinking about anything but the moment. Her hair was short and cropped. It hung off her head in sharp knots, like feathers. It glowed an artificial blue-black in the dim streetlights. She moved deliberately, like she wanted to draw attention to herself. She turned and smiled at me, showing me her back. She wore a black slip that left her entire back naked. The eyes of an emerald green peacock stared out at me from the enormous tattoo on her back.
I moved towards her without thinking why and she never took her eyes off me. When I approached her, she didn't smile or greet me in any traditional way. She just took my hand and looked at my palm. She had a youthful look about her, but her exact age was impossible to determine. She seemed like a tiny bird. Her skin was cool and soft against mine.
"You're going to die young," she said.
"You're doing it wrong," I answered. "You're supposed to placate me with vaguely positive predictions about the future so I feel good and pay you more money. You're supposed to figure out what I want to hear and say it."
"You don't have much faith in my art," she said.
"I'll have faith if you tell me to," I responded.
She just looked at me for a minute with a complete self-confidence that only made her more desirable. She knew the effect she had on men. "Do you want to hear the rest of your fortune?" she asked.
"Only if you're in my future."
"I don't think so. I see other women in your future."
"You see all of that in my palm."
"No, I can see that in your aura. I see a dark woman. She looks foreign. And I see another woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. The dark-eyed one has no future. It is the one with the blue eyes who is really your future."
"Are you saying I'm going to leave my wife?" I asked mockingly. She was speaking vaguely enough that anyone could have found truth in her predictions. Everyone has some woman in his life who is dark, and everyone wants someone who has blonde hair and blue eyes, at least stereotypically. I put no more faith in her prediction being true than I did in God himself.
"I didn't say that. I only said that the dark woman has no future. I see you on the beach before a storm with the blue-eyed woman."
"When will I meet this blue-eyed devil?"
"It's too bad your eyes aren't blue. I would like to end my days with you."
She laughed. "I thought you were a married man."
"Until I saw you."
"Not too insecure, are you?"
"I never saw the point in playing games. I wasn't very good at them, either."
"You owe me $20.00."
I handed her the money. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee or a hurricane?"
"You can tell me more about the future. I'm dying to know how many children I'm going to have. And you haven't given me much information on this blue-eyed woman I'm going to leave my wife for and spend the rest of my life with."
"I may need to read the runes to find out all of this. It may be expensive."
"I need to know."
She smiled. "My runes are at my apartment."
It was that easy. I followed her through the maze of streets that led to her apartment with my heart in my throat. Anticipation can be the most potent aphrodisiac. She didn't say anything. Just watching her walk was enough. It was the thought that made her inexorable. It wasn't her, but the hint of her. The parts of her that were unknown and forbidden. I did not want to wait until we found her apartment and I felt as if I couldn't wait. You have to understand that I was drunk and in those few moments she had become everything I had left behind in Detroit. She was the dank pavement and the cold aloofness. She was without family, without attachment. She required no sacrifice and I could have her without regret. I wouldn't have to feel guilty for leaving her behind or for bringing her with me. She was the anonymous stranger in the dark.
I pushed her up against a wall in a deserted alley and kissed her with such force that she lost her breath. She was hard. Skin and bone and angles, not soft flesh, like my wife. I felt her arms around me and there came in me a flood that I couldn't stop. I had her skirt up and her panties down and was done before she could even whisper her name. There was a moment when she muttered something like, "wait until we get to my apartment" or "wait for something." But her hands were in my hands and she kissed me with a fury.
When it was over, she disappeared into the darkness without a word. I leaned up against the wall for a minute and just breathed in deep release. I felt no remorse. I felt only peace. I had done this before. The first time it had happened, I had felt a twinge of conscience, but it had become more dream than reality. I reasoned that it affected no one. It was like masturbation and Pria would never know. I didn't know the women or feel anything for them. They were all easy and had followed me without thought. It was part of a fantasy that helped keep me calm when I was stressed. If no one knew, it wouldn't matter. It was no different than the men who made love to their wives and imagined they were other women. No worse then the men who loathed their wives and masturbated to imaginary women with perfect breasts and thin thighs. At least when I was with my wife, I thought only of her. When I kissed her it was only her I wanted. When she was with me, I was filled up entirely by her image. This was my way of staying emotionally faithful to my wife.
I wandered back to the Days Inn with my hands in my pockets. I took my time. The image of the tattooed woman had completely faded from my mind and I allowed my mind to wander to my internship. There would be two other interns at Circe with me. A woman who had attended the University of Alabama for both her undergraduate and graduate work, and a man who had attended Loyola for undergraduate and the University of Florida for his Ph.D. I had been given their names and telephone numbers so we could work out a carpool. The commute was a beast. Sharing the gas was the only way to make it.
I wished I knew more about them in advance. I had to be the best, and without any knowledge of the competition it would be hard to know where I could really shine. I already knew that my education was much better than theirs. I had gone to Vanderbilt for my undergraduate work and Wayne State for graduate school. These were not Yale or Harvard, but they were better than the competition and I had a perfect GPA with many publications under my belt.
By the time I made it to the hotel, I had a plan of attack for Circe. I was excited and I couldn't focus on anything but work. I had beaten my brothers back and I went to sleep easily and comfortably. No one would ever know about my indiscretion.
My brothers didn't return until five in the morning. They were so wasted that they collapsed on the beds without so much as a word. After about an hour, Jeff got up and vomited twice.
I did feel guilty when I returned home. Pria had gotten rid of all the relatives, cleaned the house and cooked me dinner . She looked like a Hindu Goddess. Just watching her in the candlelight made me regret every other woman I had ever been with. I kissed her hands and held her.
"I need to stop," I told myself. "I have a problem and I need to stop." In my mind, I could analyze myself. All the cognitive distortions that had been reinforced by my father's behavior became perfectly clear. I believed that loyalty to a wife wasn't necessary for her to be happy because my father had never been loyal to my mother and my mother had always told me, "Sometimes it's best not to know. Happiness is an illusion. Why not choose the ones you want to keep?" I ran through everything I had learned from my father and mother and how this had impacted my own irrational thinking; and in this two-minute therapy session with myself, I knew I could heal myself instantaneously and never cheat on my wife again.
I don't know what it was about that night that made me feel this way. I think it was the scent of the curry-laden chicken drifting out of the kitchen. Or maybe it was the way her hair draped her back. It's funny, the details you remember. I forgot almost everything we talked about that night, but the shade of her nail polish is still as vibrant as the waves crashing before me now. She had perfect cotton-candy pink nails. They were shaped and manicured and flawless. I can still see her tiny feet in my mind, wrapped in pink, strappy sandles. Her shoes matched the color of her toenail polish. She was a woman of details. The napkins always matched the plates and the plates always matched the candles. Her lipstick was always the same color as her polish, which perfectly complimented her pale pink shirt.
"You're looking at me as if you were mesmerized," she said as she served me a piece of chicken.
I smiled. "You know I am. You just want to hear it again."
"I never get tired of hearing it."
"You're beautiful tonight and I can not take my eyes off of you."
"Thank you," she said. "Are you nervous about tomorrow?"
"No. I think that I will be the best intern by far."
"I'm honest with myself."
"I don't think there's a difference with you."
"I'm not sure if that is a compliment or an insult."
She laughed. "Neither am I."
"Does it bother you?"
"That I'm confident."
"No. It's one of the things I've always loved about you. You never hesitated. Every other man/boy, whatever, that I dated always flirted and played games. You walked right up to me and said. 'You're the one'."
"I know what I want."
"I know, but I would like to see you afraid just once."
"No. I think I'm going to put some spider webs in your bed tonight."
"That's not fair. You know my weaknesses too well."
"Lots of them and a big spider. You're not so confident when you're asking me to kill a spider."
I reached out and tickled her. She squirmed and laughed. "I'll get you if you do."
"Eat your food," she said.
"I'll sneak up behind you and tickle you until you cry."
"And then I'll put your toothbrush on the back of the toilet."
"And then I'll hide every pair of those stupid little strappy sandals you collect."
"I'd have to leave you then. You know I love my shoes more than you."
"I've always known that. But you can't leave me. I'll tie you up in the closet and feed you only moon pies and the most fattening food I can find until you get so fat you can't fit out the door."
She laughed again. "Eat your food. You talk too much."
After a while she looked up from her food. She was serious. "I'm nervous for you," she said. "I know you came here for me and I know if things go wrong it will be my fault. I really hope you love this place."
"I know. You don't need to worry, Pria. I'm adaptable. I'll make things work wherever I am. I always do. It's just another place and it was a worthwhile trade."
"Is it? You'll hate me forever if this ruins your career."
"You catastrophize too much. This couldn't possibly ruin my career. The worst thing that could happen would be that my career would stagnate, and I can recover from that. Don't over dramatize."
"I don't want to hear it anymore. What about your job? When do you start?"
"Thursday. It pays better than the last job."
"You're good at what you do."
"I try to be. I like the atmosphere a lot better. I hate working in hospitals. This rehabilitation center fitness club thing has a lot more of an atmosphere that's conducive to healing."
"You make people better, not the environment."
"Unlike you, I try to be humble."
"You're the best physical therapist in Mobile."
"How would you know?"
"I know everything, remember?"
She laughed. Her laugh had the timber of music, perfect and lovely. I smiled, taking her face in my hands. She made love like a melody. The symbol of everything perfect in my life. Of everything good I had ever done. It washed away all that had come before it like some old Catholic Sacrament. Like baptism or the last rites.