The invitation arrives on a Sunday morning. Of course. Not by postal mail; no, Maya would never be that common. It appears in a puff of lavender-scented smoke on the middle of our breakfast table, before I've even finished my first cup of coffee. Definitely before I'm ready to cope with my boyfriend's ex.
Jeff scoops up the card while I'm still staring, caught off guard. He had a bad audition yesterday, so he's been yawning and grouchy ever since we woke up, slouching around in his rattiest old tartan bathrobe and answering me in monosyllables. Now his face lights up as he scans the invitation.
"It's from Maya!" he says.
I wrap both my hands around my coffee cup and cling to it like the last shreds of my sanity. I can hear in my head what my mother would tell me: Be nice. Don't make waves. And my friend Amy chimes in, too: Don't be a bitch! So I bite down on my tongue, hang onto the coffee cup for dear life, and don't say what I really want to, which is: I would never have guessed.
Luckily, Jeff can't hear my inner thoughts. "We're invited to a party at her place tonight. She invited you, too—isn't that cool?"
"Very sweet," I mutter, through clenched teeth.
My friend Amy doesn't get why I'm hovering so near the brink.
"So he's still into his ex," she said last week. "So what? He's moved in with you now, right? He's committed. If he still has a couple of weird little fantasies about how perfect she is, why let it bother you? He'll get over her eventually."
Jeff's already gulping down the last of the buttered toast I made him, almost bouncing with impatience.
"We need to walk downtown and find her a gift," he says.
"Is it her birthday?" I try to sound curious, not sniping.
He looks at me as if I'm crazy. "No, of course not. It's just polite. Everyone brings her gifts."
I smile. Smile, smile, smile. I wonder if my smile will break off. I think about the work piled up for me to get done before tomorrow. I think about the dinner I was planning to cook for Jeff, to cheer him up.
"Too bad it's raining. Hey, Lauren, make the rain stop, okay?" He reaches across the table and tousles my hair affectionately.
I bare my teeth in the semblance of a grin. "Ha ha. Sorry, I can't."
"I know." He shakes his head, laughs ruefully. "It's just . . . Maya could."
And there, right there, is The Issue, the one I can't quite bring myself to explain to Amy. How the hell am I supposed to compete with an ex-girlfriend who is a literal goddess?
The limo arrives in front of our house at four o'clock exactly, while I'm still wrestling with the size-ten miniskirt Amy talked me into buying last week.
"Lauren," Jeff yells from downstairs. "It's here!"
I twitch a corner of the curtain open to look outside. The limo is long and sleek in the rain, like a black shark. It's completely out of place on our street, which is full of sagging porches and chipped paint.
"Lau-ren!" Jeff yells. "Are you ready?"
"Coming!" I yell back.
With a burst of nerve-propelled strength, I suck in my breath and yank the zipper of the skirt all the way to the top. I step into the brand-new strappy high heels my mom got me for my last birthday, in one of her many efforts to make me more feminine and sexy, and I practice my sweet, knowing girlfriend smile.
"Hi. Maya? So lovely to meet you. Jeff's told me so much about you. Every day, actually. So much."
I'm not an idiot. I've read the women's magazine articles. I've listened to Mom's and Amy's advice. Acting snarky to your boyfriend's ex can only make you look bad. Especially when she's a three-thousand-year-old goddess who can turn you into a slug if she gets mad.
"There you are." Jeff's already holding the door open, waving at the driver, when I get downstairs. He holds the umbrella over me as we run through the pouring rain, and he squeezes my hand as we slide into the back seat of the limo. "You look great, honey."
I try to relax against the suede seat, as if this isn't my first time in a limo, as if my whole stomach isn't a knot of quivering tension. Then I see the driver's orange-and-red eyes reflected in full Technicolor in the rearview mirror, and I realize that relaxation is an impossible dream.
Since the glass screen between us and him (it?) is closed, I decide to risk a whisper. "Jeff? Who—what is this guy?"
"You mean Clark?" Jeff beams and gives a thumbs-up to the rearview mirror. Clark's return gesture shows off a snazzy set of sharp-looking claws that stick out two inches from the fingertips of his black leather gloves. "Oh, he's been chauffeuring Maya's friends around forever. I mean, forever. Jeez, I remember, back when Maya and I were going out, he'd be waiting outside my apartment building every Friday night—and some weeknights, too. We'd be off to some Greek island, or one of her old temples in South America, or some party up in Trondheim, or. . . ."
Something about my glacial silence must have broken through the cloud of reminiscence, because he blinks and pats my hand. "But hey, it all got really old," he says. "Who can party all the time? You need to settle down to reality eventually."
"Right," I say glumly.
He nuzzles the side of my neck. "I'm so glad you're coming with me, hon."
His lips are warm and soft against my skin. I try not to think about Technicolored Clark, watching through the rearview mirror.
"Of course," Jeff says. "You'll finally get to meet Maya. That's so great! I mean, I know I've told you about her, but when you meet her . . . well, I really think you'll just be blown away."
I think I might just puke.
The limo abandons our neighborhood with what feels to me like a sigh of relief and glides through the rain into the university district. There was no address listed on Maya's invitation. Now, while Jeff reminisces about the theater where Maya first descended upon him, and the group of guys he used to hang out with (Who'd have thought there was a whole social group of men involved with the gods? Do they have their own lifestyle magazines, I wonder?), I watch the rain-veiled buildings through the tinted window and make bets with myself about which neighborhood Maya will live in. Shadyside? Too modest. Chapel Fields? Too predictable. Maybe. . . .
The limo swerves right in the middle of a busy downtown block of shops, a street I've never seen before opens up before us, bright sunlight floods the air, and I sit bolt upright in my seat.
"What—how—where are we?"
Other cars drive before us down the wide, red-gold street. In the distance, I see people flying in the same direction, dipping and gliding through the bright blue sky with rainbow-colored wings.
"Neighborhood of the gods," Jeff says smugly. "Pretty incredible, huh?"
"But I never—that street didn't exist! It just—"
"You can only see it if you're one of the gods' Chosen. They don't let just anybody walk in." Jeff pats my thigh. "It's okay, Lauren. Just sit back and enjoy the view."
It isn't just a view. It's a different world. Sunlight spreads across a landscape of grandly rolling green hills, and blue water—ocean water? in the Midwest?—glitters in the distance. When I crane my neck backward, I can see a vertical line of gray behind us, where the rain begins. For normal people.
"Look!" Jeff says. "See all those cars? That's where Maya lives."
I look. The limo slows down as we approach, as if sharp-clawed Clark wants to give me extra time to prepare. I think about asking him to turn around, but my voice won't come out. The car pulls to a stop.
Golden pillars soar up into the blue sky, higher than my eyes can follow. Lavender and blue smoke floats around the bottom of each pillar, so that the crowd of entering guests seems to be sucked straight into a massive, scented furnace. Devoured. The—house?—is half temple, half glittering-gold dreamscape. It's grotesque. It's gorgeous. I can't breathe.
Jeff's standing outside the limo, clutching the wrapped gift and waiting for me. Clark holds the door open and reaches in to help me out. I take his gloved hand gingerly. Claws scrape my palm as I step outside into the warmth of the gods' sunlight.
I let go of Clark's hand and turn around. "Thank—"
But Clark and the limousine have disappeared.
My throat feels tight. I look down at the palm of my hand, where a pale white scratch lingers, tingling. Jeff puts his arm around my waist.
"C'mon," he says. "Let's go inside."
Lavender and blue smoke sweeps up around our ankles and envelops us completely. It smells of tangy herbs and burnt offerings. It makes all my senses prickle, then go numb.
We enter Maya's home.
At first I can't focus through the blur of colored lights—too many people, too many shapes that can't be real. Jeff pulls me forward through the crowd, past waterfalls and jungle vines, past creatures resting on clouds that hover above the ground, to the end of the receiving line. Ahead of us, a woman's laughter spills out like a river. It's her, I can tell it from the sheer, inhuman perfection of the sound, even before I see Jeff's face go still, shot through with longing. The line inches forward, person by two-headed creature, everyone bearing gifts. I put my hand in Jeff's. His fingers are flat and still; his eyes burn as he stares ahead, searching. I wrap my fingers around his. I try to remember Amy's advice.
Be serene, she told me when I phoned her earlier for help. Don't let anyone see what you're really thinking. Act like you'd love to be her best friend. And make sure that you look gorgeous.
I've imagined Maya so many times, I expect to recognize her like a photo fully developed from my darkest nightmares. She'll be tall and model-slim, with legs that seem to stretch forever. She'll wear size two and love it. I'll look like a short, chunky shadow beside her, and her eyes will pass over me with contempt and dismissal.
And then we reach the front of the line, and I realize that I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Maya isn't model-slim. Maya is lush. Maya's golden flesh overflows with the abundance of a harvest, and her curves are like the promise of summer after a long, cold winter. Her black hair shines as it ripples down across her ample, glowing, perfect body, and glittering stars swim in her deep, dark eyes. Looking at her, I remember every cheese-filled meal I ever denied myself, every dessert I left half-eaten with my mother's warnings ringing in my head, and I realize that it was all a waste. Maya is more beautiful than any normal woman could even dream of becoming, and I was insane to imagine that competition would be possible.
"Jeff!" Maya opens her arms, and he steps into them without looking back.
"I'm so glad you could come," Maya murmurs, and I watch Jeff nod dumbly into her shoulder. Her voice deepens. "I've missed you, darling."
My feet want to turn and leave right now, but I'm frozen by a mixture of deer-in-the-headlights fascination and the certainty that I could never find my way back out through the crowd.
Maya finally nudges Jeff away, I guess because the wrapped gift is pressing into her back. Her eyes light up when she sees it. "And what's this?"
"Oh, um, this is from us. From me and Lauren." Jeff gestures awkwardly at me and steps back to stand halfway between us.
"Of course. Lauren." She turns and takes my hand. "How lovely to meet you. We must get to know each other."
"That would—" I start, but then I stop.
I stop because Maya isn't dismissing me with contempt. No, she's doing something infinitely worse.
Maya leans forward and looks at me, and the stars in her eyes swallow my voice and my heart, and I feel her radiantly inside me, inside my mind and memories, and I know that she knows everything about me and about me and Jeff, as a couple, as my dream.
She knows about the years I spent in law school, studying eight full hours a day and working at the cafeteria in all the leftover hours I was awake, sweaty and disgusting and scared of failure and always, always desperately tired.
She knows about the three years after I got my degree, when all my friends were partnering off with merry abandon, coupling and marrying and having wild passionate affairs, and I heard about it on the phone in my office, where I worked sixteen hours a day to keep up with my frantic case load.
"Mmm," Maya murmurs, still holding my hand. "Contract law. Now that is useful. But it must be very hard on your social life."
She knows—oh, God—she knows about the way my heart flipped over when Jeff walked up to me at the party Amy dragged me to, the way he looked with his golden hair and bright blue eyes and his smile. She knows how I felt the first time we made love. She knows I cried because he made me feel like I might be a beautiful, sexy woman after all, I might be what my mother always wanted me to be.
"Don't worry about what your mother says to you," Maya says gently. "She really does love you, you know. She only wants to help you be happy."
Maya knows everything, and she feels sorry for me.
She pats my hand, and releases it. "We'll talk later," she says. "You two go and have a good time."
We stumble away from her. I hang onto Jeff's arm for support. I don't know if he even knows that I'm touching him.
A waiter glides up to us, bearing sparkling champagne, and, for the moment, I don't even care that his skin happens to be bright blue. I just scoop up a glass and pour it down my throat for reinforcement, the only thing that might just get me through and help me play my part. The waiter offers a drink to Jeff, who shakes his head.
"See?" he mumbles, as the waiter slides away through the crowd. "Amazing, isn't she?"
"Amazing," I agree, and finish the champagne.
Jeff looks down at where my left hand grips his sleeve. "I've, uh—I've gotta—"
I'm not sure what I'm agreeing to, but I let go of his arm anyway, and he stumbles away, staggering slightly, leaving me alone in the shifting crowd.
Chattering erupts above me. I look up and see flying monkeys wrestling in the air, their wings dark and bat-like. Where are my ruby slippers, to carry me home?
Maybe home isn't far enough, anymore. Now that a goddess has seen straight through me, how can I hide the truth from myself anymore? This is who I really am. Twenty-eight years old, wearing a skirt that's too tight, dressed in clothes picked out by my best friend and my mother. I'm not fooling anybody.
"So," says a rich, plummy voice just behind me. "You're Jeff's consolation prize, are you?"
I turn around with a sinking feeling of doom. I'm facing a satyr straight from Greek myth, with pointed horns, an oily-looking goatee, hairy legs, and cloven feet. I try not to look at everything else he's baring. He smirks and takes a sip of his wine.
"I heard he'd found someone new. Poor boy. He was very broken up by the whole game with Maya."
"I'm not that new," I say, and try to inject confidence into my voice. "They split up almost two years ago. We met—"
"They? Dear heart, Maya dumped him without warning. Jeff wasn't really in her league, you know. Sweet boy—very pretty—but he had no idea how to act with a goddess. Everyone could see that. He was like a little puppy dog, always wanting more attention, more involvement, more. . . ." He shrugs eloquently.
I wish my glass wasn't empty, but I don't know if I'd drink more champagne or just throw it in his face. "It sounds like he wanted a normal relationship."
"Darling, you don't have a 'normal relationship' with a goddess. You worship her. She shines upon you, if and when she chooses. There are rules, and I'm afraid Jeff didn't measure up. It was very sad. He kept trying to get back into the neighborhood, begging one of us to carry Maya a message, asking what he had done wrong." He sighs. "Poor boy. You never really get over a goddess."
I step back. Be serene. Be serene. "I don't think I should hear this," I say.
"Nonsense. You deserve to understand how things work here, don't you? After all, you. . . ." His gaze flicks up and down my carefully-selected outfit, my excruciatingly-applied makeup job, my legs. "You've obviously never spent time with the gods yourself." His eyebrows rise; he signals with his wineglass. "Jeff! How nice to see you again."
Jeff steps up beside me. "Achyron. How are you?" He's flushed; his hair is damp. He always splashes water on his face when he's nervous; it's one of the little traits of vulnerability that endeared him to me from the beginning.
"So nice to meet your new lady friend," Achyron murmurs. "But I must mingle. . . ." He fades into the crowd.
"Having fun?" Jeff asks, scanning the room.
"No," I say. The word almost chokes me, it's so opposed to the rules I've learned.
"Good, good. I—what?" He turns and frowns at me.
I take his hand. His fingers are warm and strong. I think about them running across my hair with affection, caressing my body when we make love. Achyron's words echo in my head. I won't cry. Not here, in the goddess's own home.
"Please," I say. "Can we go home?"
"What are you talking about? We just got here."
"I know. But—"
"Jeff!" A gorgeous, dark-haired guy bounds up and grabs Jeff's shoulder. "Buddy! Good to see you!"
Men flood around us, human men, laughing and talking. They're all leg-meltingly gorgeous, all in a perfectly-dressed-yet-macho way. In fact. . . . I brush away the stupid, self-pitying tears and see: their clothing itself blurs, reshaping itself at every moment to match the wearers' gestures exactly. These men may be human, but they're dressed by the gods—or, more specifically, by the goddesses. This is the group of the goddesses' boy toys: the group Jeff was part of for over a year.
We're introduced, but Jeff gets that over with quickly, and then they're on to the real topics, their heavenly mistresses. The latest parties they've been to, the latest whims enacted; the new valleys created, the palaces, the gifts; the oracles selected, the politicians blessed. Each of them literally glows with happiness, with the seal of his goddess's love.
Jeff laughs and asks questions and smiles and smiles, but in his eyes I see the desperation of a little boy with his nose pressed to the outside of a candy shop window. This is what he had. This is what he lost. This is what I was supposed to replace.
He doesn't even notice when I back up and slip away.
It's hard to find a quiet corner in Maya's party, but I finally stumble on a small blue pool, ringed by stones and pine trees, in the back of the great hall, past a group of nymphs dancing. I sit down on a large gray stone beside the pool and look into the water at my reflection. Human, human, human. My makeup is good, but it's starting to slip. A few strands of my hair have already come loose from my barrettes. I look tired and unhappy. My feet really, really hurt.
My cell phone rings. I scoop it out of my purse.
"Lauren!" It's Amy, bubbly as ever. "I thought I'd call and give you some moral support. How's it going, babe?"
I nudge a pebble into the water with the tip of one shoe. The pebble disappears without a ripple.
Nothing less than perfection in the goddess's home.
"No? Well, don't worry, it's not too late as long as you don't panic." Steely determination enters Amy's voice. "You're going to have to stay cool, Lore. You haven't said anything stupid to Jeff yet, have you?"
I adjust the phone on my shoulder, so I can use both hands to pick up a larger rock.
"I asked him to take me home."
"You didn't!" Amy's exasperated sigh floods the receiver.
I drop the rock into the pool. Still, no ripples. Only my reflection, relentlessly imperfect.
"Okay, look, this is what we're going to do. You're going to go back and find Jeff—you're off somewhere sulking, right?—and you're going to apologize to him. Tell him you don't know what you were thinking, blah blah blah. Then you'll hold onto his arm and smile and laugh and show him just how much fun you're having, you're the life of the party, you're. . . . Lauren, are you even listening to me?"
I don't answer for a moment. I'm still looking at my reflection.
"So you want me to go back and pretend to be the goddess of girlfriends," I finally say, flatly.
"Yes. Exactly. You are going to be a goddess. And Jeff—"
"No," I say. I almost laugh. "Amy, I've seen a real goddess today. Trust me. I can't fake it!"
I press the button to end the call. As I turn the cell phone off, a voice calls out behind me.
It's Jeff, walking toward me, his arm linked with Maya's. His face shines with reflected radiance. "You won't believe the news!" he says. "Maya's offering—well, I'll let her tell you."
Maya smiles at me serenely, her eyes full of stars. She's so gorgeous, so sympathetic, I can't help standing up to meet her.
"You've been so good to Jeff," she says. "The improvement is amazing."
I swallow. I almost shuffle my feet.
"Thank you?" I say. Well, mumble, really.
"She's letting me come back," Jeff says, "with you! Isn't that great?"
"With me?" I blink. "How—?"
"You could be so much more," Maya says, her voice full of comfort and wisdom. "I can see it waiting inside you, Lauren. I can help you. You'll be everything you ever wanted to be."
"And Jeff?" My voice comes out as a squeak.
"Jeff will be all yours, nearly all of the time." Maya's gaze is full of affectionate understanding. "I think that's best for all of us, don't you?" She reaches out to me, smiling, and takes my left hand in hers. Warmth runs up my arm and fills my body. "No more worries, Lauren. No more knowing that he's secretly yearning for something different. And you. . . ." She shakes her head in pure admiration. "You will be a goddess among women. Look."
She looks into my eyes, and lets me see what's waiting for me.
I can barely breathe.
She knows everything I've wanted so badly to be, and she's ready to give it all to me, for such a small price. All I have to do is make her an offering, give her a gift.
I look at Jeff. "Is this what you really want?"
"Of course," he says. He laughs with pure joy. "Lauren, people would kill for this! We've been chosen by the goddess." He takes my right hand and smiles at me tenderly. "Our lives are going to be incredible."
Such a small offering. A little piece of my small human soul, so full of fears and flaws and mistakes. It's worth almost nothing, to a goddess.
I can't speak. I can't move, can't break that shivering balance. But then my foot shifts on the pebbles beneath my ridiculously high heels, and as I stumble, I look down and see my reflection in the pool.
It's the reflection of someone who's better at researching complicated legal issues than at dancing in a nightclub. Someone who would rather eat dinner with one friend than hang out at a party for one hundred. Someone who doesn't look like a model and never will.
I don't look like a goddess. But worse, in this outfit, I don't even look like myself.
I am sick and tired of worshipping the gods.
I let go of Maya's hand and let the warmth of her touch drain away. I let go of Jeff's hand and let my heart release him.
"Good-bye," I say.
I walk away through the crowd and don't look back. Maybe Jeff calls my name and starts after me. Maybe Maya holds him back, knowing that he can't change my mind. Whatever.
I take off my strappy, sexy, painful high heels and walk barefoot along the red-gold clay, toward real life and its imperfect possibilities.