She said she didn’t believe in God but she knew that he existed. I asked her what she meant by that and she didn’t say anything for a while. It was only then that I noticed how hot it was in the room: how hot and thick the sweat felt on my skin, like a coating of tar sticking me to the sheets. Yet the air that night had been cool and fresh. My heart rate picked up, I don’t know why. It became a little harder to breathe. Sirens outside the all-night liquor store. I didn’t know who this girl was. I had no idea what part of Queens I was in.
She said she knew that God existed because she knew that the enemies of God existed. She said that back in Nigeria a Juju witch had put a curse on her mother when she was two weeks pregnant. The curse had spread all throughout her mother’s body, pressed itself deep into the muscles and the blood, and poisoned the embryo growing slowly within, formless and thoughtless, nothing more than a microscopic clump of cells.
I was never supposed to meet her. We were never supposed to happen. I never go to parties, but I was at a party. I’d stopped doing drugs, but I was on drugs. I must have picked up the wrong beer and caught a dose. It was molly or something else that pops the body of light like a citrus fruit and bathes the eye in its juices.
A friend of a friend told me to come down to the basement with him. I hadn’t known that there was a basement in the place. Where do you think the music’s coming from, he said. There’s a DJ down there. He waved me on, and in the half-second he took to turn his face I wasn’t sure if he was the person I thought he was. But I followed him anyway.
The room was empty except for the DJ and the sprites of red and blue and green laser-light swarming in automated patterns over the walls. I looked for my friend but he was gone. I told myself I would finish my drink just to do the normal thing and then leave right after. It wouldn’t take more than five minutes.
I sat down in a folding chair and watched the DJ work his equipment in front of the empty dance floor. A young woman came down the stairs and walked straight toward the chair next to me. The colored lights left trails that dripped through the air when they moved over her skin. Her eyes and teeth glowed an ultraviolet bluish white. I thought we’d only been talking for ten minutes, but when the lights came on and I checked my watch again three hours had passed.
I have never been interested in healthy bodies. That was why we who lived in the cities and thought highly of ourselves did our best to make ourselves unhealthy. I spent my twenties alone and pined after women who harmed themselves, but they would only date alcoholics and abusers. It was only in my mid thirties, when my hair was falling out and my teeth were browning at the gums, that I began to have success with women. Women whose bodies had already begun to crack and fail, with lines on their faces and bags under their eyes and cellulite on their widening thighs. I had never understood the point of a coupling between two healthy and smooth-skinned people. It was too much like looking into a mirror. There was no need in that transaction: no sense that this was the only way to make it through another week, another day, another night. So I should have realized that something strange was happening when the lights came on in the basement and I saw that there was nothing physically grotesque about Lisa.
I asked her what it was like being cursed. She said she never slept. She said that she had to stay in bed some days when she was attacked by sudden muscle pains. She said that she could hear voices sometimes, but they whispered so quietly she could never understand what they were saying. She said she couldn’t keep a job. She said she couldn’t keep a man. She said all this with the hint of a smile, her voice soft and lilting musically. The only time I ever saw her get angry was when I told her, calmly and without any ill will on my part, that maybe her curse was more in her head than anything else.
You don’t know what it’s like, she said. You’ll never know. I hope to the devil that you never know.
She had laid her small fist on the table and kept clenching it in a jerky rhythm like an irregular heartbeat. The whole side of her body tensed up when she made the motion, as if it were a response induced by electric shock. It was something I had never seen her do before. And for about an hour, or maybe more, she would do nothing else.
That night she told me about all the other men she had been with. Starting when she was fourteen–an older man, a neighbor, one of her mother’s friends who had come in the apartment when she was home alone. And from there it had never stopped. She couldn’t help it, she said. It was never her choice.
And since we’ve been together, I said.
No no no no no, she said. Something about the way she begged me to believe her made me want to throw her out of her own bed. She still hadn’t really answered the question. No no no no no, she said.
I thought we’d only been together for a few weeks. But already it had been six months. The next day we were borrowing her friend’s car to drive down to Maryland and meet my parents.
People gave us long looks at the gas stations and diners we stopped at along the way. Maybe they didn’t feel long to them but they felt long to me. You tell yourself you’re ready for something like that, but you’re never really ready. I imagine you could spend your whole life like that and still never get used to it. The somewhat strained smiles on my parents’ faces. We were all nervous. Everyone working hard to show how happy they were. Lisa and I had spoken earlier about staying the night, but we made an excuse and did the six hour drive back instead.
She did a sneering imitation of my mother in the car. But Lisa sounded like a white person’s name, she said. But what will the kids look like, she said. Her hand kept clenching and unclenching, her voice was not her own. We were silent for the next five hours, thinking terrible things to keep from thinking about things yet more terrible.
She started staying out for days at a time, unreachable by phone or text. When she finally surfaced again she had no recollection of where she had been. Or so she said. I didn’t trust her anymore. Of course she found a way to turn this back on me. And where have you been, she said. Hanging out with white girls. Thinking about white girls. Some nice white girls you wouldn’t be ashamed to show your family.
There was no use in arguing when she got like this. And yet that was all we would do. Running out of things to argue about and just wounding each other for the thrill of it. We were both far too good at it. You don’t get to be thirty-five and single without learning what it is that people like the least about themselves.
Nice white boy who never did a day of work in his life, she said. You don’t have the guts to hit me.
We talked about breaking up. But I still thought that my love was the only thing that could save her. We screamed until her neighbors called the cops. Is anything the matter, ma’am, they said. Bored, overworked, overfed, running through their routine. She cried and said there wasn’t. Would you like to press charges, they said. She covered her mouth to cry and to hide her swollen lip. No, she said.
In February she disappeared for longer than usual. I told myself I was finally done with her and then spent the next six hours trying to track her down. I took a cab to her apartment and rang the buzzer. No answer at first, but I knew she was in there. Somehow I knew. The wind blew scraps of trash down the cracked Jamaica sidewalk. Women with tropical headdresses and chalky ungloved hands carefully buttoned the clear plastic shields over their strollers and set out to shop for imported groceries in this alien climate. I waited for fifteen minutes, forcing myself into anger so I could forget how cold I was. I wondered why I had even come. So I could kill her if I saw her. So I could do something to her that I wouldn’t have a chance to take back. I rang the buzzer one more time and heard motion in the stairwell within. The door opened a crack and the face of an elderly Nigerian man stared out.
Adaolisa does not want to see you, he said.
You don’t even know who I am, I said.
I do know, he said. I know all about you.
I grabbed at the door, trying to force it open, but the man pulled it calmly aside and stepped forward to block the threshold. He was dressed in a collar and a white cassock, his dark eyes peering angrily through large round glasses.
I am Adaolisa’s uncle, he said. I am taking care of her. She is not well.
What do you mean, I said.
The girl has a demon. She has always had a demon. I have come here to take care of the the demon. And I do not need anyone getting in the way.
I asked him how he knew she had a demon and he leaned in close to me, baring his teeth as he spoke:
Because I have been a priest for thirty-five years, he said, and I know what a demon looks like.
He said that they had known I was coming as soon as I left my apartment. He said that Lisa had predicted the exact moment I would ring the bell. He said she had a demon attached to her face that read my thoughts and told her where I was and what I was doing. He said that my soul was in grave danger, and if I had any sense I would never speak to Lisa again.
I wanted to be cursed like her: I wanted a way to know where she was and what she was thinking. I wanted to get a demon of my own so that I could catch visions of her through the ether. I wanted to talk to the witch doctors behind the beaded back doors of botanicas, I wanted to lie in wait for the voodoo priests in the dark groves of Prospect Park where the police used to find feathers and knuckle bones and pig’s blood staining the grass. I would have given anything in the world to know.
I met a girl in a Bushwick coven. They only practiced white magic, she said–only good energy. They got together and blessed apartments and pets. They made potions and wore crystals. We ate mushrooms in the park in the moonlight and I asked her if she believed in the devil. She looked around for her friends, but they were all gone. The trees were watching with their eyes, but they had no mouths and they had no arms. What do you mean, she said.
I mean, I said, do you believe in the devil.
I came closer and she started crying. She heaved so hard she had to throw up, and it took her fifteen minutes after that to start breathing normally again. She thought she was going to die, she told me later. She said that my face had changed into something horrible when I came closer, and that was why she thought she was going to die.
Her friends made her a wreath of flowers and did a healing ceremony over her. They prayed to the goddess of the harvest that she might be made whole. Later, when we were in her bed, she asked me if I would do something to hurt her. But it was hard to take her seriously. It was all just make-believe.
We fasted for days and drank ayahuasca tea with a shaman who was in town from Connecticut. Afterward he asked us what we had seen. But I didn’t want to talk about it.
Why not, he said.
Suddenly I was very angry: Because there’s nothing to fucking talk about, I said.
I had a headache and a bitter taste in my mouth that wouldn’t go away. The world wasn’t all the way real yet: it was still ersatz, illusory, floating like a movie screen over a truth that we had been forever locked out of.
You shouldn’t leave yet, he said. You haven’t come down all the way. You still need to close your third eye.
He had wet little lips beneath a wispy blonde goatee. He was scared, and I wanted to see what he looked like when he got more scared.
My uncle’s a cop, I said. How about I give him a call and blow the lid off this whole operation.
The shaman looked around to the others: I thought you said he was chill.
No, I said. I’m not.
It was night when I got outside. A cool autumn night like the one on which I had met Lisa. Maybe it had been a year ago, maybe two. I had lost count. I didn’t know what day it was. My watch didn’t make sense when I looked at it. I couldn’t figure out how trains or taxis worked. The streetlights beckoned me further, so I kept walking, feeling like if I wanted to I could have counted every leaf flashing on the branches as they thrashed around above me.
The wind lifted newspapers and plastic bags into the air like immolations to the urban gods. Every time you drink the sacred root, the shaman had said, make sure you listen for your revelation. I hadn’t had one, but I could feel it coming now. I don’t know why it was such a surprise. I hadn’t expected it to be so immense. For a second it seemed so unreal that I felt I might have been imagining things. The whole trip, the past two or three years. Maybe none of it had ever happened. There was a feeling then as if the sidewalk had vanished away, but only the parts of it which directly touched my feet. As if I had vanished away, and so had all the parts of the world that I had ever touched. And the further I went, and the longer I lived, the more of the world would disappear around me. Whatever it was that had been holding me together was no longer holding me together. Maybe nothing ever was. Maybe we have never happened, maybe nothing ever does.