Nighttime routine (I)

Clouds were colluding to cover the shyly emergent moon, at a bus stop astride a freshly tarred road, as a bargain was made between the devil and a female millennial. Under the ochre streetlights, she playfully gambled her life away for lack of anything better to do. In that puddle of light, she abandoned her future, gleefully.

They were alone at the bus stop, and the silence of that road took on new dimensions; the air felt specific, hard, and real, as though diamonds had been scattered over the ground. Only the shadows of night were witnesses to the deal, and they made their disapproval clear in how they maneuvered to shade her face in a richly enigmatic, bruise-like blue. Miles away, the ocean—jealous master of mystery—hissed in white and ultramarine, desperate to wield the palette necessary to equal that color. “It’s not possible for you,” the night whispered, half in condolence, half in exultation. “You’re no sinner.”

A calfskin bag was slung over her left shoulder. As she spoke, in sweet, airy tones, she let her manicured hand graze idly over its leather panels. Her fingers, capped with eggshell tips, moved with the rhythm of a rich man enjoying flesh with his eyes. She wanted him to admire her hands, and then to appreciate the brand name emblazoned on her bag. The devil, a willing dance partner, smiled knowingly. She smiled back, lapping up the feeling of him looking at her, drinking in the heady, smoke-tinged air of the city—leisurely, lackadaisically, but nonetheless with a tinge of the anxious enthusiasm particular to the women of her time.

“It takes a lot of effort to look like this,” she said glibly. Then, with a calculated note of vulnerability, making a show of letting him into her sparkling, feminine inner world: “And a lot of product.”

“Uh-huh?” he asked mildly, pinching at the sleeve of his sheepskin jacket. “How much product?”

“Maybe five-hundred dollars’ worth. Ten different just like, things.” She was acutely aware of trying too hard, but couldn’t find it in herself to tone it down. Had she blown it by drawing attention to the necessity of all her balms and liquids? She hadn’t meant to insinuate she wasn’t naturally beautiful. She had merely wanted to appear both beautiful and accomplished. A work of art and its artist. A work of art and its dealer.

“Must take a lot of time to put that all on.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. Her painted lips, crowded around her chemically whitened teeth, made a moue of mock displeasure as vivid as blood circling a drain. “You can’t even imagine how long it takes for me to just ready for bed.”

He leaned against the cracked plastic wall of the bus shelter and raised an eyebrow.

They both understood that she found him attractive and that this was half the battle. She didn’t like anyone, but she liked him. She liked his obvious disregard, when she had opened the conversation with a remark on a tragic news headline, for the weight of the world, something she herself carried only uneasily, and only at arm’s length. She liked the implications of his identity, which he had revealed to her with so little attempt at secrecy that she’d been instantly disarmed. Every growing tendril of intuition, hacked off at the root. Every flicker of doubt, dispelled. (The ocean, night and moon, watching with weary understanding, sighed, and then co-signed the reality of the conjoined fate to come.) She had been charmed by him, and by possibility. The chance to flirt with the devil was intoxicating enough for her to agree to anything.

Later, she would blame the deceptive magic of that evening for her irresponsibility. She would ignore the memory of her uncomplicated joy at his lingering, clearly appreciative gaze. She would tell herself she was too tired from her job as a Senior Marketing Associate to think straight. Summoning all the energy of a peeved Human Resources manager, she would allege, in a cold, clipped, tone, that the deal was reached under duress. An expert in contract law, he would bark out a laugh.

The terms, decided under the limited light of the capricious stars, just as the bus pulled up, were as follows:

  1. Her nighttime routine would be shorter by one minute every night henceforth.
  2. No step would be compromised by the shortened time.
  3. No takebacks.

She batted her lashes and agreed. They swapped social media handles and she immediately liked the first three of his photos. “I’ve never met anyone so eager to chat,” he said, as he boarded the bus, fingers of one beringed hand fluttering in a regal wave. “Thanks for that.” Strangers stared through the grimy windows.

In bed that night, her hair braided into loops, her cellphone casting a blue halo around her head, she went through his Instagram photos. He had fewer followers than she would have imagined. In his profile photo, he was standing on Rodeo Drive at sunset, holding up a severed lamb head. Blood dripped from his mouth. She couldn’t bear to think a single thought. She let the phone fall against her chest, screen down, and dozed off with only the moonrise on her mind.

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