A Short Story by Elizabeth Powers
Mirabel had known Joseph for all of three hours, and already she knew that she wanted to bash in his head. Or lick his face. She couldn’t really decide which, and the line between destruction and desire was maddening. He had introduced himself as Joseph K, and she had immediately known two things about him: that he thought very little of her intelligence and thought a lot of his own. Still, she was intrigued by his quick wit, the way the word “narcissism” rolled off his tongue when he told her about its Greek origins, all honey and olive oil and red wine.
She saw him standing at the reflection pool, blue-eyed and dark locked, his cheeks sallow, his muscles wasted away. She wasn’t sure why he had started talking to her about the book she was reading, why she had let him sit across from her, black coffee in hand, leaning over the table like a lover, whispering words of acumen and self-interest that sounded like songs. But the way his lips curved around the word “nymph” was why she let him continue the conversation over dinner. She insisted on briám and baklava and he took her to a restaurant on the lower east side, where they sat on overstuffed purple pillows in a dimly lighted room and he tried to make her eat everything with her hands because he said it was more sensual.
His apartment was not exactly what she expected, but it was close. Instead of the upstairs of an old house or an old-fashioned brick structure that was converted from a brothel, he lived in a basic grey building with stain-resistant carpeting lining the halls. But the inside more than made up for the nondescript outside. Bookcases lined the walls, filled with collections of Joyce and Kafka, a copy of Chekov on his coffee table opened to The Lady with the Dog. A stool cluttered with plants stood next to the front window. A painting of a naked woman hung across from the kitchen.
“A drink?” he asked. “I have a cabernet or a bottle of whisky.”
“The wine,” she said. “Straight from the bottle.”
He chuckled and brought back two mismatched goblets filled with dark liquid from the kitchen. Hers was blue and etched with globes of fruit that she tenderly ran her thumb over as they toasted. They sat on his couch and drank the entire bottle, him talking about his work as a graduate student, how mythology and literature went hand and hand, how Persephone was the unsung beauty of the underworld, her moods as dangerous and changing as any other heroine, her skin as ivory soft as the spring, as the feather of a swan, as Mirabel herself. When he touched her for the first time, his palm on her bare knee, lightly feeling out her geography and the effect of the wine, her skin raised, goosebumps peppering the tender flesh underneath her skirt.
“You see?” he said, his hand making circles upward, “they are all the same stories.”
They had sex on his gray sofa, her body contorted, back uncomfortably bent at different angles. A welt, she was sure, to form across the side where she had been pressed into the metal bars, too distracted to stop him while he pounded into her madly, pulling on her hair.
Afterward, sticky and sore, she stretched her long limbs out against the fabric and he stood up with his back to her. She followed him to the bathroom where he smoked a cigarette out the third story window while she cleaned herself up. She washed her face in the mirror and noticed that the bottoms of her eyes were rimmed with thick black mascara lines that looked like pieces of seaweed and that her hair was knotted. She took comfort when she realized that they both looked ridiculous. It wasn’t so much his physical appearance as it was the stance he was currently taking. His cigarette dangled from his hand, propped against the open glass, his other hand resting on his hip. He wore only his dark grey boxer briefs, slung low on his hips. He would have looked like a Calvin Klein ad, all sex and indifference, if he hadn’t been standing inside a white porcelain bathtub. He flicked ashes out the window and smirked at her still naked body
Mirabel pretended to doze off after a cup of lukewarm coffee, no cream, and slipped out the door a little after three. She walked four blocks and then sat on the curb in front of a Dairy Mart and called for an Uber. She contemplated Joseph momentarily. Mostly she contemplated the empty bagel box that sat on the side of the road, half crushed and wholly dirty from the recent downpour, which had covered everything from waist level down in a thin grime of loose gravel and dirt clods. She felt a vague kinship to this box, and when the driver dropped her at her building she took a shower and made herself a piece of toast and watched an infomercial for a new kind of vegetable chopper.
She did not expect to see Joseph a week later, while she was perusing tomatoes at the farmers market. Actually, she had all but forgotten about him until he appeared behind her, bag of apples in hand, and told her she should wait a few more weeks if she wanted her tomatoes to be really ripe.
“Red and juicy,” he said. “These aren’t there yet.”
She asked about his school and he followed her from bunches of kale to heads of cabbage talking about his latest paper on modern perceptions of Aphrodite. He asked if she knew that the goddess of love was actually born from the remnants of the ruler of the universe’s castrated testis, thrown into the sea. She said no and put down the head of garlic she had been considering. He asked her to dinner but she politely declined, claiming she was meeting a group of girlfriends for sushi. She went home and heated up a cup of ramen noodle soup instead.
“Some would call this fate,” Joseph said two weeks later, sideling up very closely next to her in a used book store.
“Some would call it stalking,” Mirabel said.
Joseph chuckled and held a tattered book out in front of him.
“So fate, literally.”
He told her about Athena as they perused shelves of horror stories and misspent poetry. Strategist and virgin. Motherless and cut out of her father’s forehead.
She did not deny him when he asked her to dinner. They ate pancakes and bacon at a 24 hour diner, cup after cup of black coffee keeping them there into the night.
“Why Greek mythology?” she asked.
“Because, they got it right.”
She laughed at him and shook her head. He just smirked, his cup of coffee held up between them.
Mirabel declined the offer to spend the night at his place, but did agree to see him on purpose the following weekend.
When she got to the coffee shop that they had agreed upon, Joseph was not there yet. The night was rainy and cold, a clear sign that the summer was ebbing away, and her hair was stuck down to her forehead. She found the restroom, slicked her hair back into a high ponytail and fluffed her bangs back into place.
When she returned to the main room, Joseph was waiting, a glass of wine for her in one hand, a latte for him in the other.
“Presumptuous of you.”
“I aim to please.”
They talked about poetry and music and Joseph asked her if she knew that the name Mirabel comes from the Latin word for “of wondrous beauty.”
“Ah, so it’s not Greek then,” she said, smirking.
“Joseph means ‘he will add’ in Hebrew. We can’t all be perfect.”
After their drinks, they walked, his breath puffing in front of him in small white clouds. Her hands were cold, and she shoved them in her pockets. Joseph stopped outside his building around the corner and asked her if she would like to come up again. The rain had stopped, but the cold was still there, and so she followed him up the steps.
He did not have wine, and the tea he poured her was hot and smelled like lemon. She picked up a book that was sitting on the table, a title she didn’t recognize. She pretended to read the back cover, but mostly her mind kept drifting back to the first night she had been in his apartment, the couch and the wine and the feel of metal against her bare back. But now, he was sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room, not next to her. And she remembered her initial impulse upon meeting him. Pleasure and pain and destruction.
“It’s not an accident, you know. You and me.”
“No,” she said, setting down the book and looking at him. “Stalking, like I said before.”
He chuckled. His skin looked pale and his eyes looked wide. Mirabel felt like maybe she should be afraid of this man and his mythology, but she couldn’t make herself look away, couldn’t muster up the feeling of anxiety, the rush of adrenaline that she knew she should feel coursing through her. She wanted to ask him if she could lick across his ribcage, all muscle and taut skin. Instead she said, “When did you know?”
Joseph looked at her for a moment, his eyes traveling the length of her body, pausing on the soft curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts, the slit of skin visible between her thin sweater and her waist.
“I thought I knew the moment I saw you,” he said. “But I was sure the moment I touched your skin. So soft. So yielding. So unforgiving.”
She glared at him.
“I have time,” she said. “Before I return.”
“Oh my dear,” Joseph said, “you stopped following the rules ages ago.”
Mirabel shook her head.
“Times have changed, but the seasons stay the same.”
Joseph chuckled, lifting his tea to his perfect lips. Mirabel looked at him again, more closely than she had allowed herself when she first met him; his chiseled jaw, his muscled arms, the feature of his face perfectly symmetrical. It was no wonder she couldn’t stay away from him in the dark. But looks had been his downfall, hadn’t they? Hadn’t beauty destroyed most things in her world, including herself?
“He won’t be happy with you,” she said.
“I’d be more worried about your husband’s wrath if I thought you were going to tell him about our tryst. Besides, it’s only right that the two most beautiful people should end up with each other. It was as inevitable as the orbit of the sun. He should have known it when he sent me to look for you.”
“I’m surprised that he could pull you away from yourself long enough to go. I will admit, you were well named. The word ‘narcissism’ suits you.”
“At least the world has co-opted me. I live inside their minds, leaving their lips in moments of anger, in fiery passion. When does Persephone grace the thoughts of the world? You are all but forgotten. A distant memory. Your beauty buried and rotting.”
He stood, coming closer to her. She could see the look in his eyes, the same other men had given her millennia ago.
“He can make you a queen, but you are not immortal in this world. Here, you are nothing but flesh and bone.”
He pointed to the books that littered his walls.
“Where are you in all of them? A footnote to a greater god. A source of pain to your mother. Nothing more.”
He leaned in then, hovering over her.
“But I can change that,” he whispered. “I can make you infinite.” She felt his tongue dart out, making contact with the soft shell of her ear, and knew that she would give in to him again.
As Mirabel headed home, she raised her eyes to the sky and let the early morning sun sink into her skin. She would walk, she had decided, and enjoy the final moments of the summer. She could smell the scent of autumn in the air, knew the familiar dankness of the soil would soon beckon her home. She looked up once more at the open window where she knew the once beautiful boy was still sleeping, his cheeks sunken, his body all but bones in the light of day, and decided the encounter with Joseph had been a myth all of its own.
Elizabeth Powers has lived and wrote in many different places, but somehow always returns to the area of Cleveland, Ohio. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and works in electronic communications to pay the bills. You can normally find her bopping around coffee shops, binge-watching bad television with her significant other, or chasing after her young daughter.