Nighttime Routine (III)

She took a week off work to search for the devil. (Technically, this was a violation of the PTO policy at her employer, but she knew Herbert in HR and she knew how to cry to him when necessary.) At the bus stop, her sunglasses flashing against the purpling light of the sunset, her arms crossed tightly over a cream-colored baby tee, she bared her teeth at the odious moon, the yellowing grass, the commuters who stared too long. Every gesture in her approximate direction seemed to her a provocation. Every stranger resembled an ex-boyfriend or an intolerable coworker. Her body itched uncontrollably.

Waiting for the devil at the bus stop failed to replicate their initial meeting-at-the-crossroads, so she turned to the digital crumb trail scattered across his Instagram stories. She followed him through a chain of venture capital-funded coworking spaces, then a suburban Walmart converted from an airplane hangar, then a Catholic seminary, where she was imprisoned for a full day and night after being mistaken for Satan’s accomplice (she ultimately escaped from a balconied window, teeth gritted, with the assistance of an undercover doctoral student posing as a nun and a rope of altar cloths knotted together like a rosary). She staked out the local DMV in a strip mall where the devil had an improbable appointment to renew his driver’s license. She hunted him around a tediously vapid nightclub, and then into a grimy alleyway across the street, where he dissolved into a pool of shadow, leaving her there in a cheap party dress, grasping only moonlight.

She finally pinned him down in the back of her city’s worst-rated Starbucks. He had a stickered MacBook balanced precariously on one knee. “Hey cool girl,” he said when he saw her, breezily, with real pleasure, as though they’d planned the rendezvous. He held her gaze as she slid into the seat opposite him.

“I can’t remember anything,” she said. The glass-top coffee table between them was fractured in three places. The rug underneath her feet was a kitschy stars-and-stripes pattern. “I’m losing actual time. I thought the agreement was just about the nighttime routine. Not about the whole day. Not my whole life.”

“You neglected to define the terms,” he said. “Who can say, after all, when nighttime begins and ends?”

“I feel like it has a pretty universally understood definition, asshole,” she said.

He shrugged, unperturbed. She stared at him. The music playing in the store—an EDM hit circa 2013, i.e., a prime cut of nostalgia bait, a selection from the liturgy of the pop music past—was slowly sending her into a froth of increasing despair.

Weakly, her breath catching in her throat like skin on a thorn, she said: “So I’ll just like, lose all time?” and he produced a toothy smile.

She had the distinct, oddly physical impression of being outside her body, of observing herself from outside herself. Not-her had a body of her own, and she sat at some distance, at an imaginary bar, ankles crossed at the lowest rung of a teak stool, nursing an espresso shot between her hands. The warm light glanced off her freshwater pearl earrings. From this vantage point, not-her could see the signs of her building panic attack, though not forestall it. Poor girl, not-her thought. A yikes situation, and it’s not even a good skin day for her.

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked. The devil gave her a look that suggested he was not impressed at this attempt to game the system.

“My dude,” he said, with an easy familiarity that succeeded in pissing her right off but also in derailing the incoming panic attack, “haven’t you seen ‘Click’ with Adam Sandler?”

“What? ‘Click’?” At the bar, not-her rolled her eyes at the reference. She quoted one of Christopher Walken’s lines at an imaginary bartender, playing with a pearl earring as she did, and they shared a companiable laugh. “Are you serious?”

“What can I say? I’m a 2000’s kid,” he said, pissing her off even more. “I hunger for the classics.”

“Shut up. You’re not a 2000’s kid. You’re like, I don’t know, a million years old.” Not-her turned on her stool and frowned pointedly, concerned that such obvious hyperbole made them seem uncultured. “Wait, how old are you?”

He brushed the question away. “Can I get you a coffee?” he asked, in a tone that could almost pass for affectionate. “A mint, uh, Frappuccino? A frankincense spritz?”

“Are you flirting with me?” she asked. Before he could reply, she shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t support Starbucks. I take issue with the lack of transparency in their supply chain.” Not-her nodded in vigorous agreement; the bartender clapped approvingly at this show of virtue.

The devil snort-laughed into the sleeve of his sweater. “What’s so funny?” she asked, indignant.

“Everything,” he said, voice muffled by the sleeve. “Everything is just hysterical.”

She kicked at the leg of the coffee table between them, half-wincing when the blow made harsher contact than intended.

“You know, you can usually fix this sort of thing,” he said.

“That’s a bit cryptic,” she said, sourly.

“I mean, you can work with the technicality of it,” he said. “I’m not usually this helpful. I’d be grateful, if I were you.”

“I wouldn’t describe you as helpful, really.”

His eyes returned to the MacBook screen with a finality that suggested he was done with dealing with her. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” he said, by way of farewell, expressionless in the wan light of the computer screen.

That night, at seven forty-five in the evening, she unplugged her phone from where it lay charging on the hardwood floor. The dark screen came instantly to life and she swiped along its surface, trawling. She navigated to a two-hour, springtime Tibetan monastery soundscape video, complete with photorealistic Himalayan mountains and an endless parade of cartoonish, red-robed monks fluttering across a petal-strewn path. She propped her phone screen up over her dryer, where she could see it as the need for spiritual consolation arose. Then, theatrically, she threw open her bathroom cabinet doors, ignoring the squeaky sound of their rusted hinges. She arranged her products one-by-one in a circle around her sink, like a crowd of penitents leaning over a scrying pool. Her lotions, balms and potions held their breaths in anticipation of an unknown ritual. Not-her poked her head in through the open door. Her face was beautifully made-up. Her body was hidden underneath a peach-patterned terrycloth robe.

She selected the first bottle—baby pink, filled with a cloudy liquid indistinguishable from tinged water, manufactured in a country that recalled vaguely tropical associations. It trembled in her hand. Lo-fi, monkish drone-singing urged her forward. She popped the cap open and, before she could rethink the decision (“The excess! The expense!” cried not-her, realizing now what was to come), began emptying its contents into dirty bowl of the sink. The stench of cheaply-formulated synthetic rose filled the room and she registered the foulness of it with pleasure, as the first stage of her long penance.

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