This story appears in our second print issue, Anti-Sisyphus.
“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it,” the menu promises. TAROT is a trendy place, far too trendy for her, and it serves pomegranate tacos and goose egg omelets and “magic beans,” which are lentils. She doesn’t really believe in magic, but she also doesn’t believe in restaurants like this one with careful fonts and reclaimed wood furniture and a short lifespan she can sense as though the white minimalist walls are spattered with blood. To be fair she doesn’t believe much of her life exists at all lately and yet she manages to wake up into it every black drizzling dawn.
“‘Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’… that’s a Roald Dahl quote.”
He’d Googled it. He’s not a reader. He’s a watcher. He watches her now and she tries to see herself the way he does, her fine bones and pallor which hopefully read as temptation rather than desperation, or maybe temptation because desperation. She tilts her neck. If she has to she can be a game-bird, a pretty quail startling in the undergrowth, her neck and all her nerves ticking forward, fragile and oh-so-breakable, straining ahead for something, anything, sustenance or danger alike.
“Are… you okay?”
“Sorry.” She uncricks her neck. “Tell me about your job.”
This is good; this is easy. He wants to talk. He has the untroubled grin and bright blurred gaze of someone who likes working in tech, who genuinely believes in the mission and, of course, the money. She used to live a diminished version of that life, performing remote data entry for a company that would eat photos of your apartment and spit out your scientifically optimized aesthetics, your exquisite objets, your precious self. Her task had been to re-tag products sent in from their secret corporate partners, since the A.I. tagger was only right 68 percent of the time. Nope, this one is actually a wingback; this is a papasan; this is a chaise lounge. It was good, it was easy. She would wake early. She would dress and eat an orange. She would pad through the beating grey light to her computer and click for ten hours. A finger on the cursor, a set of eyes, a brain. Disembodied parts strung together by flesh and electricity, her mind leaping blindly from one corrected metadata tag to the next while her body sank into the chair and rotted.
“…so we’ve upped audience engagement by a lot. It’s substantive engagement, not just random clickthroughs—”
She likes him. He’s nice. He’s like a white noise machine. On his profile he calls himself “a traveler. A hunter of the mind.” She pictures him hunting brains in the woods. Her napkin says, “Magic lies in challenging what seems impossible.” It seems impossible that he can talk so much, with so little engagement from her, while she eats her magic beans. The lentils are just okay. They certainly aren’t magical. That would have been impossible.
The strange thing about the choice of restaurant—definitely his, not hers—was that she had believed in magic, once upon a time. She’d had the classic astrology-and-salt circles phase as a teenager, but then the divorce happened and both parents plied her with gifts, so what would probably have been a passing interest was fed, became a sustained obsession. Tarot cards and medicine balls and runic necklaces and white sage incense: tribute laid at the feet of the conqueror, as if all the shattered glass and changed locks and throat-ruining screams had been a battle fought for her, one which she’d had to win, being unable to lose.
“This isn’t about you,” divorcing parents tell their children, as if offspring could be somehow, magically, debited from the equation. One and one had produced three; the synthesis of alchemical opposites, male and female, had produced her. At seventeen she’d persuaded her mother to buy her a massive alchemy tome, which she’d only wanted because of the titillating Rebis on the cover, and because it smelled old and ruined and real. The book had, in fact, been artificially aged in a lab and sold in chain stores. Her mother couldn’t afford a $300 grimoire of fake spells but had bought it anyway, to prove to the ex-husband that she was safe, she was fine, she was doing just great without his income, his anger.
“So—any siblings? What are your parents like?”
It’s okay to say her parents are divorced because he’s divorced, too. With a young son, a fact which provided half the motive for her yes. Not that she likes children; she doesn’t know what to do with them, they’re like puppies who scream and need clothes. That doesn’t matter. His profile fit the profile of what she needs right now.
“Divorce is awful,” he sympathizes.
It’s the worst thing that ever happened to him. It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to him, besides possibly being hit by a bus, which is unlikely but not impossible, and therefore not magical. His wife left him for an ex, an old flame. As though it had suddenly flamed up in her—I am not with the right man, I am not where I am supposed to be, I am not in my right life no matter how comfortable— and her flame sparked the flame of her old flame, and they burned together. In the old days they would have been considered the worst sort of sinners.
“And they don’t help me with Anthony at all. They’re living in New Mexico. Some artists’ trailer in the desert.” He sighs. Tragically humiliated, but not for himself. For them. It’s embarrassing, two people loving each other more than their own dignity, cleaving to each other at the cost of everything else.
On the cover of the alchemy book was the Rebis, a single human body divided in two. Half male, half female; half a dangling cock, one softly drooping breast. The male half was blond and shaggy and held a blond shaggy sun in his right hand. The female half was dark, and held in her left hand a lambent silver moon. Together they stood on the back of a dragon that was meant to coil in sleepy menace but the artist—or more likely, the machine that had clumsily reproduced the drawing from centuries of clumsily recopied manuscripts—had given the dragon a blocky, confused expression. His horns bent, his teeth awry, his tongue curling down the page as if trying to remove himself from the scene, dissect his own crooked body and escape.
“What are you thinking about?”
He’s smiling. The TAROT staff have dimmed the lights and the tealight flame on the table transfigures his eyes. Hazel eyes. He has a fit figure, though a bit soft in the stomach, and black hair that isn’t thinning too much, not yet. This is her moment, in the magic light. She’s been waiting for it all evening. The part where she’s allowed to transform briefly from object to subject, pretty nodding bird to voiced maiden. Much more magical than the beans.
But what can she say? If she tells him what she’s actually thinking about he’ll just be confused, or repulsed. “Are you one of those astrology girls?” And she isn’t, not anymore. She hasn’t been for years. After her occult phase she toyed around with religion for a while: Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism. Nothing stuck. But she’s still looking. She’d still like something to believe in. Some place to lay down her head and sleep. She could believe in him. It would be very easy. He already believes in himself so well.
“What kind of work do you do? Your profile was vague.”
She tells him about the old furniture-tagging startup, and her current work, which is whatever she can find. More mechanical Turking but less well-paid: dog-walking apps, homework assistance, personal shopping, middleman food delivery. Last week she was robbed in Queens for a burger. She was just standing outside a duplex at midnight, waiting for the person who’d ordered the burger, but she’d been there ten minutes already and was about to leave when a rat-tailed man whipped around the side of the building and hissed at her to stand still. He had a gun. He held her up at gunpoint for a burger, which wasn’t even her burger. The burger place she was delivering from was just okay. It wasn’t even that good of a burger.
He laughs, but uncomfortably. She’d hoped he would feel strong in the story—oh if I had been there I would have, etc. etc., grabbed the gun, badassedly. I would have protected you. And he seems to feel that a bit, but he’s also bothered; it’s too close to reality, to a real thing that happens to people. People not like himself. The wrong approach, she realizes belatedly. Most men she’s dated seem to want a woman around for contrast, and self-definition. So they can be the shaggy golden man-half, the eloquent speaker, the mighty hunter. Or else they just want to assuage their nostalgic adolescent loneliness. But this man, with a child, doesn’t need to be a child anymore and he doesn’t need something else fragile to protect. He’s eager to settle down with someone, of course, but he needs a wife. His profile should have been a job listing. Must be able to fold laundry, give great head, and pick up the kid after school. Room and board included. Must love me and my stock options enough to never leave.
She’s afraid she’s failed completely, and he’ll want to split the check. There is precisely $32.78 in her bank account, which will not cover $20 lentils and a single $18 rosewater cocktail, which had been much more water than roses and gin.
She asks to see a photo of his son. It’s his lockscreen, of course, which he shows off proudly. The boy is about six years old. Red-haired, not ginger but dark as pomegranate. Even his eyebrows are red, square-root arched, coming in thick over his eyes and disappearing harshly at the edges. He looks angry and supercilious, a little threatened Satan. If this were a horror movie, the audience would be yelling, “Don’t go in there, don’t accept a second date, don’t take this relationship-job with the demon child, you stupid fucking bitch.”
He pays, and even pays for dessert, which she accepts although she’s full and she dislikes mochi, but who knows when she’ll be able to afford to eat something unnecessary again. He seems to have had a delightful evening, though not without concerns. She guesses she’s probably third place on his spreadsheet. Next time she’ll bring some delightful piece of conversation, some sparkling story that highlights her reliability, her cheerfulness, her fondness for children, her can-do spirit. Maybe she can collect three references from the cousins and neighbors she used to babysit. He’s her best available prospect. She can afford rent for one more month, maybe two if she sticks solely to ramen and steals paper goods from café bathrooms. He really isn’t that bad.
Outside TAROT he suddenly grabs her shoulders and shoves his mouth at hers. It’s meant to be fierce, romantic. It’s not. Wet and bumpy and unpleasant: a toad’s kiss. She’s turned by it into something small and mean.
“We’ll do this again,” he says, decisively.
“I don’t know if I can,” she says.
He lets go of her shoulders. He’s absolutely stunned. It’s impossible, which means it must be magic. Only some kind of curse could make a lonely, lovely, desperate girl reject him. Only a curse could explain why women keep walking away from him—him! With his stock options! He stalks away, furious.
It’s raining lightly but she tacks north through the streets, heading for a different subway stop, not wanting to run into him by accident since they live off the same line. He’d laughed about that as if it were a remarkable coincidence rather than just a tedious fact, as if they were specially linked, sewn together, rather than simply two bodies among thousands of others that might intersect for a time.
North and west through the late empty ghost of East Midtown, a homeless person on every block sleeping in damp cardboard, black trash bags sheeting off the wind. Spilled garbage from knockedover cans and the sidewalk smelling of piss and rotten apples. No one minds her, in her skinny black peacoat like everyone else’s. Hers is ripping at the lining of the right armpit. She’ll need a new one before the season’s out. Especially if she ends up on the street herself.
Passing the Plaza, lit up like Versailles; north past the Pierre, where she once middleman-delivered chocolates to the disorganized basement where the hotel’s food was stored on dirty shelves. Cheap food too, Mott’s applesauce and Vlasic pickles and drugstore-brand crackers, the olive oil sweating in plastic bottles from the laundry room too close by and its sudden blasts of white-hot wind. You’d never know it from looking in the Pierre’s first floor windows—the romantic rotunda room, the trompe l’oeil walls, the illusion of a blue-and-gold countryside. Couples laughing over tealights behind the gold-trimmed glass, and guarding it all the doormen with golden buttons listless, half-sleeping on their feet.
She turns abruptly west away from the Pierre, into Central Park. Under the dark bare grasp of November trees the hansom cabbies are trotting the horses away for the night. She’s at the end of the line: the horses stand patient, weary, while the drivers smoke and chat, waiting their turn in clumps. She’s heard that the horses live in tiny stalls in Hell’s Kitchen and never go out except to work. A life of blinders and car exhaust, of whining tourist children and the same route through the same clipped artificial park over and over and over again.
She stops at the last horse in the line. He’s grey, or grey-dappled. She doesn’t know the proper names. She never was a horse girl, only a magic girl. That was her one brush with the alien, the unknowable. The impossible. What lay beyond the way things were, the way they continued to be.
“Here,” she says, holding out her hand. Abruptly the horse buries his grey muzzle in it as if he’s been starving for touch. She strokes the melting softness of his nose, wonderingly, while he snuffles against her palm. He lowers his long arched dragon neck and she strokes that, too. Ahead the clump of smoking drivers pays them no attention. Any minute she expects to be yelled at, for handling property she didn’t pay for, which belongs to somebody else, not even the driver. There’s a horsefly crawling about the horse’s eyebrow. Below, the black eye opens like a void, a gulf of grief.
She brushes away the fly.
“It’s okay,” she tells the horse, though she isn’t sure at all. She wants to believe it though, even if it ends up being impossible. ♦
Lyta Gold is the Managing Editor of Current Affairs.