[Originally written in 1998. © Brendan Hodge]
The party was exactly as Geoff had feared it would be. He stood in a corner of the living room, across from the big screen television on which some interminable sports game was playing, tightly clutching a bottle of Samuel Adams. The stuff was not particularly to his liking, but he could not bring himself to commit one of the other two sins available: cheaper beer in cans or cheap wine in plastic cups. Around him, people dressed more trendily than himself discussed foreign films and best sellers. The subjects were hardly beyond him -- he prided himself on being current and literary -- but he found their viewpoints pedestrian and dull. Say something real about the symbolism of Umberto Eco or the color theme in Kieslowski’s trilogy and their eyes would glaze over.
“Carl said you went to college back east?”
Geoff glanced at the woman who had spoken. He didn’t know her, if she was from the office at all. Perhaps she was some other friend of Carl’s.
“Yes. Hamden College. In Vermont.” Geoff tried desperately to remember her name. He knew Carl had introduced her to him. She seemed subtly out of place among Carl’s group. Her hair was golden and she had allowed it to grow down her back in long waves of curls, making her stand out from the other women with their dusty blond hair in short, secretarial cuts.
“That’s a beautiful place to have gone to college.” Geoff nodded. Sara. That was the name. “What did you study?” she asked.
“Literature,” Geoff replied. He was rather proud of the way the word alone could halt whole conversations with its musty, academic weight.
“How wonderful! Older or modern?”
He was surprised by the enthusiasm of her response, but wary as well. Throughout college he had lived in terror of those well meaning but overly effusive women -- often elementary education majors -- who “knew nothing of literature but loved to read”. He took a sip of his beer and instantly regretted it. Really, how people liked such bitter stuff he just could not understand. “Modern British. I wrote my thesis on Philip Larkin.”
Sara’s gaze became unfocused for a moment. “‘High Windows’?” she said after a moment. “‘Church Going’?”
“Yes!” Geoff found himself setting aside his bottle in excitement. He hadn’t met someone who knew his field since he graduated four years before, and even then there were few enough who cared about it.
“Did you ever read much Gunn?” she asked.
“Some. ‘Black Jackets’ ‘My Sad Captain’ Others. I wrote a paper in sophomore year.”
“Graves, Sassoon, Owen.”
They moved slowly out of the living room, swapping authors and favorite lines, and took refuge in the kitchen. Sara rummaged through the ice chest of beverages till she found a bottle of pale red wine. They sat down, facing each other, at Carl’s kitchen table and Sara poured them each a plastic cup of wine. Geoff watched her as she did so. He couldn’t guess her age with any certainty. Perhaps as old as thirty, as young as twenty-three. Her eyes were a pale blue, almost grey, and though she smiled as she poured the smile did not reach her eyes.
“So, do you have a girlfriend?” she asked as they both sipped their wine.
For a moment they were both still, caught off-guard by the implication of the exchange. Then Sara burst out laughing, almost choking on her wine. Geoff contained himself just long enough to take another sip, then burst into laughter himself.
It was 11:06 by the kitchen clock when one of Carl’s other guests stumbled beerily into the kitchen and began to rummage loudly through the ice chest. Geoff and Sara exchanged a silent glance, and by mutual agreement rose and left. Out on the sidewalk they breathed in the cool evening air of late September in Santa Monica. There was a breeze blowing in off the beach, and the smells of salt water and washed-up kelp were bourne upon it.
“It was a terrible party,” Sara said and collapsed into a fit of laughter, hanging on Geoff’s arm as she half doubled over.
“Appalling. Shockingly mundane.” Geoff laughed as well.
“Mmmm. Where should we go now?”
Sara’s arm had found its way around his waist. He stopped walking and brought her around to face him. She was almost as tall as he was. Two or three inches shorter at the most. They stood there for a moment, and then suddenly she reached up and pulled his head down to hers.
Her mouth was cool and tasted of the wine they had both been drinking. Her hands ran through his hair and pulled him closer. His arms closed around her, and he felt her against his body. He pulled her to him, her chest pressed against his own. As he did so she gave a little moan and clutched him tighter.
He stepped back and looked at her, her face pale in the light of the street lamps, her lips wet and smiling, her eyes sparkling. “We could go to your place,” she said.
“It’ll be a drive. I’m over the hills, in the valley.” He hoped this would prompt her to offer her own place instead. His apartment served his needs, but it was not a place that he was proud of. Most of his income had to go to paying off college loans.
She shrugged. “I’ll enjoy the drive.”
He started towards his parking space. “Did you bring a car?”
“Well then,” he held open the passenger door of his car: a much aged BMW which he had bought used and maintained with more enthusiasm than real ability -- the age a proof of his indifference to class bias and the make, of his appreciation for quality.
It was not yet 11:30 when they reached Geoff’s apartment. He fumbled with his key at the door, embarrassed at the drab appearance of the building. Pushing the door open, he led the way in and turned on the light.
It was not as well furnished as he would have liked. He had two real bookcases and a third which was bricks and boards, dorm room style. Besides his books the furnishings were sparse. There was a small, worn couch in front of the television. A battered wooden table stood in the dining niche surrounded by four chairs that did not match. His espresso machine sat on the kitchen counter.
Sara went straight to one of the bookshelves, just as he always did in a stranger’s house. He smiled.
“Do you want coffee?” he asked, moving towards the espresso machine.
How they came to bed Geoff could not afterwards remember. They had both known that it would come, that it was their final destination for the night. Knowing this there was no need for moves, for thinking, “At this time I will touch her so, and if she responds then we will move on.”
He made espresso, and they talked. There was a certain amount of cuddling as they spoke and drank. His hand would brush against her breast and pause, for the briefest of moments, before moving on. Her fingers would rest gently on his leg and move every so gently, ever so slowly, tracing farther up and then retreating. But there were no doubts, no moments of seeing what the other would do.
And then they were in his bedroom, illuminated only by the moonlight streaming in the window. Her mouth was cool against his own, and her hands played gently over him. The zipper at the back of her dress eased down, the fastenings of her bra were undone, and both dress and bra fell away. Her skin was smooth under his hands and pale in the dim light. She tied her hair back from her face, and it bounced and swung against her back as they moved.
The glowing red numbers of Geoff’s alarm clock read 4:23. He lay for a moment and stared at them, slowly bringing his eyes into focus. He was alone among the tangled bed sheets. Had she left already? He sat up and looked around. There was no one else in the bedroom. After a moment he heard a faint sound from the front room. Pulling open his bedside drawer he took out a pair of pajama bottoms and pulled them on as he got out of bed. Then he padded out into the light.
Sara was curled up on his couch, his copy of Greek Art and Architecture spread open across her knees. Her skin was paler than he had realized, the smooth lines of her body like a marble statue. She glanced up as he entered.
“You could not sleep?” she asked.
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
She laughed. “I do not have to sleep as you do.”
He had the vague feeling that some joke had been made which he had failed to notice. He laughed awkwardly.
She set her book aside and rose. She seemed to have no consciousness of her nakedness. Geoff found himself looking away. His gaze rested on the floor for a moment, then he forced himself to meet her eyes again.
“Will you come to bed?” he asked, feeling foolish and nervous for the first time that night.
“Of course.” She came to him, and they met in an embrace, body against body, warmth against warmth. There was some deeper truth in this joining of man and woman, he realized as he felt her living body against his own, her breathing, her heartbeat matching his. His grasp around her tightened.
There is more than pleasure in this, he thought. This is a sacrament of life. We only know we are alive through others.
When he awoke again it was morning. The sun shone through his window casting a bright square of light across the bed. He was alone again.
Rising and dressing quickly he went out into the front room, expecting to find Sara reading or eating breakfast. She was not. He stood there for a moment, his gaze scanning the room, searching for a note at least, a telephone number. Nothing. The only thing which had been moved at all was his copy of Greek Art and Architecture which lay open on the table. He approached to find that it had been left open to a statue of Aphrodite. Slowly he wandered back into his room. The bed was in disarray, the sheets stained and tangled by the passion of the night before. Aphrodite. He could not help laughing at the irony. It was delicious.
“Great party Saturday night,” Geoff said, approaching Carl at the coffee maker the following Monday afternoon. “Sorry I didn’t get the chance to talk to you before I left.”
“Heard you spent most of the evening with Sara,” Carl said, dumping two packets of powdered creamer into his cup of coffee.
“Yes. What’s her last name? Do you know her?” Geoff asked. She had not called him, and no one who had been at the party seemed to know who she was or how to reach her.
“No. Last name’s Faye or something like that. She came with... Shit, who was it? Carol? Dunno. One of the women.”
“Oh well. Thanks anyway.” Geoff lifted his coffee cup and turned to leave.
“Hey, Geoff,” Carl said following him down the isle between cubicles. “Is it serious? Did you score?”
“Fuck off, Carl.”
“Come on. I just asked if you laid her.”
“I said fuck off, Carl!”
By the end of the week Geoff could think of nothing else to try. No one at the office knew Sara. Each person thought she had been the friend of someone else. He had gone to the library and searched every phone book they had for Sara Faye and found nothing. Email search, the phone exchange, and the Department of Motor Vehicles all knew of no such person.
Sunday was hot and still as was not unusual for the San Fernando Valley during September. Geoff’s apartment seemed silent and oppressive. He was too restless to read and there was nothing on the television. He spent some time staring at the three-quarters-full bottle of brandy in his cabinet. But he had not been drunk since college, and it was not something he wanted to repeat. He even considered going out to buy a pack of unfiltered cigarettes, another habit left behind at college, but he discarded that idea too. Finally he went down to his car, turned the air conditioner up to full blast, cranked the volume of the stereo high enough he wouldn’t have to think, and simply drove.
It was almost an hour later that he stopped. He was at a park somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley. For several minutes he sat in his car, the engine still running, the stereo still blaring. Children were playing on the swings and jungle-gym, chasing each other across the sandy playground. Under another tree sat a pair of lovers, the woman with her back against the tree, the man lying stretched out on the grass with his head resting on her lap. There was a fountain in the middle of the park, three jets of water shooting up from the center of a pool. Another young couple sat entwined upon the fountain’s edge, oblivious to all the rest of the world.
He shut off the engine and got out of the car. There was a breeze blowing, and it was slightly cooler here than back in San Fernando. He walked slowly past the playground, watching the children play and listening to their shouts, and past the fountain, where the couple failed to give any sign of noticing the intruder in their little world. Beyond the fountain a curving path led up a wooded hill. Running alongside it was a little, artificial stream which gurgled along its sculpted concrete bed. The trees fell away as he reached the top. There was a grassy expanse, and at the center of it was an artificial pond which was the source of the stream.
She was there, walking slowly along the edge of the pond, dropping bread crumbs to the eager goldfish, her hair falling loose down her back and her light summer dress blowing against her bare legs in the breeze. Geoff paused, just under the shade of the trees, watching her. She was the only one there at the top of the hill. Her feet were bare as she wandered carelessly across the grass, her sandals swinging from her left hand. When Geoff approached her and laid his hand upon her shoulder she turned to him as if she had expected his arrival. Before he could speak she placed a finger gently against his lips. Then she took his hand and led him off across the grass, deeper into the park.
“I should not have let you find me again,” she said at last. They stood upon the crest of a hill, the city stretched out below them. The breeze blew directly in their faces and Sara’s hair streamed out behind her.
“Why not?” Geoff turned to meet her gaze but she was looking away, out over the city. “Are you married?”
She glanced at him and then began to laugh. A bitter, ironic laugh.
“What?” Geoff demanded.
“No one,” she said, still laughing, “could be as unmarried as I am.”
Their gazes met. Geoff was about to speak, but before he could she threw her arms around him and kissed him. He could feel her skin through the flimsy fabric of her dress. Their tongues met, dodged, and chased each other in a watery game of tag, and he returned her embrace, pulling her closer so that he could feel the contours of her body against his own. They stood on the brink of passion. Then he stepped back and pushed her from him.
“Why did you leave? Without even a note? Couldn’t you at least have woken me up before you left?”
She turned away. “Why does it matter to you? Why have you been thinking of me and searching for me all week? Why can’t I just be a memory? A woman you’ll never see again but who came at the right time, when you needed someone who could understand what you are?” She sat down on the grass next to her sandals, which had been dropped in their moment of embrace, and hugged her knees against her chest. “Isn’t that enough for you?” she demanded, half petulant. “Can’t the memory be enough?”
“I don’t want a memory. I want you by my side when I wake and when I go to sleep.”
“You can’t have that.”
Geoff turned away from her and stared out over the hazy expanse of the city below him. “If you were so sure you didn’t want to be a part of my life, why did you sleep with me?” he asked finally.
“Because it was the only gift I had to give,” she replied, so softly that he could barely hear.
There was a long silence during which neither one looked at the other. “Do you believe in the old gods?” Sara asked at last.
“What gods?” Geoff started to turn towards here out of sheer surprise, but forced himself to turn away again.
“Aphrodite.” She paused then went on, her voice, which had been flat and toneless, slowly regaining emotion. “Each of us have only one gift. Athena gives wisdom. Hera gives marital fidelity. I give passion. But only passion. I cannot love as you want me to. I cannot be with you in the morning, see the tangled sheets in the frank light of dawn. That is not my gift.”
“You’re a goddess?”
“That’s one name for it.”
He turned to look at her, on the point of laughing and then stopped. She stood facing him, and her face was bright and terrible. Her eyes flashed like fire, and her hair shone like liquid gold. In the afternoon sun her skin was brilliant white as polished ivory.
“I believe you,” he said in awe, feeling as if he had stumbled, unawares, into some ancient temple. And yet the vision before him was more beautiful than any sculpted idol could have been.
Then she smiled, and she became Sara again. Tall, pale, and beautiful yes, but no more so than was human.
“Accept the gift that I can give,” she said. “It is enough if you will let it be so.” Then, with a calmness that was almost inhuman, she pulled her sundress over her head and stood bare before him in the afternoon sun.
“Here?” Geoff asked, half excited, half horrified at the prospect. “This is a public park. We’ll be seen.”
Sara laughed. “This is not a part of the park that any mortal could come to without my help. I am a goddess; I do have some power.”
Geoff began to unbutton his shirt. A calmness had settled over him, and he undressed quickly but without nervousness or fumbling.
The world that Geoff knew seemed to fade away from them as they made love. The grass was still grass, but it was soft and did not scratch or stain them as they rolled and thrust in passion. The wild rise and fall of pipes and singing seemed to surround them, and several times, through the mist that sprang up to encircle them, Geoff thought he glimpsed wild animals running and leaping.
It was dusk when they separated and lay still. Geoff sat, his arms wrapped around his knees, covering his nakedness without being so obvious as to dress. Sara lay, uncaring, on her back, her head resting on her folded hands.
“What are you thinking of?” Sara asked him after some time. “Why don’t you rest or sleep?”
He hesitated a moment longer, then turned to her and spoke. “I’m wondering when you’re going to leave me.”
She sighed. “Must you think of that? Can’t you enjoy this moment without thinking of what will happen next?”
Geoff lay back again, his head now just a few inches away from hers. “I love you. I don’t want a moment; I want a lifetime. Can’t you at least imagine what that feeling is?”
“No.” She sat up and turned away. “The gift I give is one moment of perfect bliss, and a memory of passion. A beautiful memory. None of the fights, the arguments, the resentments, the compromises of a marriage. I’ve comforted soldiers on the eve of battle, on the night before their deaths. Brought them the memory that they’re human beings, not just meat in the grinder of war’s hate. I’ve given hope to travelers in the wilderness, and to people surrounded by so many others that they are even more alone. I have given people who would never have had any beauty in their lives one perfect moment to look back on. It’s not so poor a gift. Don’t throw it away without looking at it.”
She rose, her perfect skin rosy in the last light of sunset. Then she put on her dress, picked up her sandals, and walked away. And rather than jumping up to follow her as he would have liked, Geoff found himself falling into a deep sleep.
When he awoke he was back in his apartment, in his bed. His clothes were scattered across the bedroom floor in disarray. He was alone.
The first light of sunrise shone in the window. It was 5:36 by his alarm clock, an hour and a half before he had to wake up for work. But he got out of bed anyway and began to dress.
When Geoff opened the door to his apartment Friday night he found the lights were already on. He stopped, the door half open, wondering if there had been a break in or if he had simply left the lights on in the morning.
“Who’s there?” he called, hoping he sounded menacing, the sort of man who carried a revolver for such occasions.
“Just me,” Sara’s voice replied.
Geoff smiled and hurried in. “Sara, how did you get here?”
The apartment smelled of cooking and as he set his things down Sara appeared from the kitchen carrying two plates of steaming pasta which she set down on the table. She wore jeans and a black spandex top. Her hair was in a single, tight braid which swung back and forth as she moved.
“I came to see you. And I brought some dinner. And wine. I brought a bottle of wine. And I thought we could eat and talk and...” She was talking rapidly, almost desperately. She took a deep breath as if trying to calm herself. “Will you eat the dinner? It’s been so long since I’ve cooked. And I made it for you. And--”
“Yes. Of course I’ll eat dinner with you. I was just surprised,” Geoff said, trying to sound reassuring. The Sara before him seemed a completely different person from the confident, almost cold woman he had known before. On the one hand he was disturbed -- frightened even -- that this woman, or goddess, should be capable of such a state. But on the other, in a corner of his mind he tried unsuccessfully to suppress, he found this more vulnerable woman less threatening, more appealing. The sort of “little woman” a man might be greeted by when coming home from a long day’s work, who would fuss over him and tell him of her little triumphs and troubles of the day.
It was a strange meal during which there was much talk and little said. When they were finished they cleared the table together, rinsing the dishes and stacking them in the sink. Yet as they moved about their tasks in the close confines of the kitchen they somehow never touched each other. There was a tension between them that there had never been before, a question as to what would happen afterwards.
When they were finished and had moved into the living room she came to him suddenly and began unbuttoning his shirt, quickly and methodically as if it were an undesirable duty which must be got over as quickly as possible.
“No.” Geoff caught her hands between his own and held them. “Tell me what’s wrong. Why did you come here?”
Sara pulled her hands from his grasp. “I just... wanted to see you again.”
“What do you really want?”
She reached for his shirt again, but he restrained her. “No. You don’t want that. You’re hiding behind it.”
She turned her back to him. “I was with a man today,” she said, after a silence that seemed interminable. “A business man. Black suit. Middle aged. We met in a restaurant. I could feel how alone he was. And I could feel how much he wanted me. I thought...” She climbed over the back of Geoff’s couch and sat down on it, hugging her legs to her, forehead resting against her knees, her hair shielding her face from view.
“We went to his house,” she went on, her voice devoid of any emotion. “He had a beautiful bedroom. A large bed with silky sheets. And we... made love.” She spat the words with such bitter irony Geoff could think of no obscenity that could have been more biting. “His wife came in. Saw us. She was shouting and slapping at him. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him, but he held me down. He hated her. He hated her so much each thrust was just another way to hurt her. He didn’t care about me, about my gift. Just hate.”
She fell silent. Geoff sat on the back of the couch, his hand resting on her shoulder. When she raised her head and spoke again it was a fierceness that shocked him. “He’ll never do that again,” she said. “He’ll never do that to anyone again.”
“What did you do?”
“I made it fall off,” she said with relish. “If he thinks he can do that with my gifts, I can take them back.”
Geoff recoiled but forced the instinct down. It was not the punishment that shocked him but the reminder of what sort of creature it was his hand rested on, beautiful and intelligent and kind in her own way but at times, when he least expected it, completely alien to him.
“Though of course,” she went on, her voice becoming ragged. “It really isn’t such a gift in the end, is it.” Then she did the one thing that he would never have imagined possible. She began to sob.
Geoff sat with his hand still resting on her shoulder, feeling more helpless than he ever had in his life. An ordinary woman’s tears were mystery enough to him, and here was a goddess sobbing on his couch.
“I want to love,” she said at last, voice quavering. “I want to marry you, and I can’t. I can’t even stay the whole night.”
“What if we don’t have sex? Would you have to leave then?”
Sara looked up at him, her eyes red from crying. “I don’t understand.”
“If we don’t make love, if we simply sleep side by side like some long-married couple, will you have to leave?”
“I never tried.”
“Well then. Try it now.”
It was a moment before she replied. Then she burst out laughing. “I don’t know how,” she said, half amused, half hysterical.
Geoff couldn’t help smiling. “Did you bring... things with you? Do you have a nightgown?”
“Well then. Go into the bathroom and put on the nightgown. I’ll tell you what to do next when you’re done.”
“All right,” Sara agreed, bouncing up with apparent enthusiasm for the new experience, her previous problems forgotten for the moment. She hurried into his bathroom and shut the door. Geoff got up more slowly from his seat and went to his bedroom. He undressed, folding each article of clothing and stacking them in the corner. Opening his bedside drawer, he took out a pair of pajama bottoms and put them on. Then he went and knocked on the door of the bathroom.
“Are you finished?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sara answered from inside. He opened the door to find her inspecting herself critically in the mirror. She was wearing a long, black, silk nightgown, and her hair was tied back with a large black bow. “Is this all right?” she asked.
Geoff nodded, unsure what sort of verbal response would be appropriate. Then he picked up his toothbrush and toothpaste. “I have a new toothbrush in the cabinet if you need one,” he said, squirting paste onto his toothbrush. She shook her head but watched with some interest as he brushed his own teeth.
“What do we do next?” she asked when he had finished.
“We lie down next to each other and go to sleep.”
He led the way into his bedroom and climbed into bed. Sara climbed in beside him, and he pulled the sheet up over them. They lay gazing at each other across the pillows, their faces no more than a foot apart. Sara smiled, then leaned forward and kissed him. A short kiss, shy and playful, like two teenagers who had never loved before. Then she snuggled up against him, as innocent as a child climbing into its parents’ bed for warmth. He hesitated a moment, then put one arm around her. Her breathing, he could feel, had already slowed, and in a moment she was asleep.
It was some time before he himself fell asleep. He lay there feeling her warm presence next to him. Never, he realized, would he do so again. He looked down at her face, serene and innocent in sleep. Finally his own breathing slowed, and he drifted into deep, dreamless sleep.
There was a warmth against his lips, and he awoke to Sara’s gentle kiss. She sat up, beaming, as he opened his eyes.
“It’s morning,” she announced. “And we’re both still here.” She laughed, and Geoff could not help joining her. They kissed again, more lingeringly this time, their tongues making quick, playful darts at each other.
“So,” Geoff said when they separated, breathless and slightly flushed. “Do we have breakfast or make love?”
Sara’s face seemed to cloud over and she looked away. “I think, breakfast.”
“I’m sorry.” He reached out to lay a hand gently on her shoulder. She touched her own hand to it for a moment before she shrugged it off and rose. She leaned forward to kiss him, lightly this time, then turned and went into the bathroom to change.
They breakfasted on bagels and coffee at the Starbucks on Ventura and Topanga. There was silence as they ate. It was not until they were both lingering over their coffee, the meal complete, that Geoff spoke.
“What will you do now?”
Sara shrugged, staring down at her coffee cup. “Live somewhere quietly. Pretend I’m capable of being alone.”
“You could visit--”
“No. I suppose you couldn’t.”
She reached out, her fingertips brushing lightly along his arm. “The illusion wouldn’t work with you. No, I’ll live alone for a few weeks, years, a lifetime; I don’t know. And then there’ll come some night when I convince myself that my gift is as good a thing as yours. I’ll go back to what I am and stop again and start. And try to be satisfied with my own ‘one perfect memory.’” She crumpled her cup slowly in her hand.
A moment later they rose, as if by mutual agreement, threw their paper cups away, and went outside. The sidewalk they stepped out onto was filthy and splotched with black patches of aged chewing gum. Cars drove in and out of the parking lot in a constant stream as the two of them stood, facing each other and holding hands.
“I love you,” Geoff said after a moment.
They met for an instant in an embrace that was more friendly than passionate. He released her, and Sara turned as if to go. Then she turned back, and their lips met in one last, brief kiss, a mere brushing of the lips. She turned again and walked rapidly away.
Cars honked out on Ventura Boulevard. A crumpled front sheet of The Los Angeles Times Book Review blew against Geoff’s legs as he watched her disappear around the corner, her long legs moving rapidly and her hair rippling slightly in the wind. Then he turned away and walked slowly back to his car.