by Sonya Taaffe
“Don’t be afraid,” Adam whispered. In the sloping afternoon light she could see the sweat shining on his cheekbones, half from summer, half from her nearness; he had shaved that morning and already there was shadow grained beneath his skin. She wanted to touch him, put one hand alongside his jaw until the faint sandpaper sensation rasped against her palm and the tips of her fingers. If she tilted her face, she could make their mouths meet. But sorrow like stone weighted her movements, dragged at her blood, and instead she stood very still as Adam murmured again, “Don’t be afraid.” His reassurance made her smile. He was the one afraid: shy and fearful of getting it wrong, not pleasing her, scaring her away. What could she fear? He would not hurt her. He could not. But she would hurt him; that was the way of the world, and her bones ached with the knowledge. The old mantelpiece clock, now transferred to a sideboard in the miniature kitchen, ticked out time in the stillness softened by their breathing. She did not know how many seconds she had left. Despairing, desiring, she took Adam’s hands in her own.
He had been showing her his apartment—not really his apartment, his grandfather’s, but his grandfather was visiting Adam’s aunt in Topeka and his parents had allowed him the month’s experimental use of the three rooms and storage closet—and now they stood together in the sunlit living room, as careful and awkward with one another as all first-time lovers. Earlier they had eaten Thai food across the street from the bookstore where Adam worked, browsed the used book store where Adam spent all his paychecks, and walked back to his grandfather’s apartment with their hands clasped and swinging between them. Nothing had happened; she was still a little surprised. Over their heads the sky had simmered rich with the season, clouds blossoming out of the haze feather-white against heat-soaked blue. Their shadows had paced one another on the sidewalk. Asphalt stuck to their shoes. Fortunately the apartment was in the basement; shadowed, but not subterranean, and light streamed over the floor when Adam flung up the shades. For a while they talked, as Adam showed her pieces of his life and his grandparents’ that had settled about the apartment: sculptures his grandfather had done before his eyesight went, old books that slid household to household depending on who wanted to read what, photographs of Adam and his family at varying ages, childish drawings, dried flowers, detritus of memory that she absorbed through his words. “It’s amazing that your parents trust you this much,” she remarked. “Not to mention your grandfather. Handing over the apartment to an adolescent— You must really get along.”
“Yeah.” Adam shrugged, unimpressed and a little embarrassed. “They’re good people. I like them. How about yours?”
“Oh,” she said, quietly, “we don’t talk much anymore.”
“I’m sorry.” They were sitting side-by-side on the couch, beneath a charcoal sketch of Adam’s grandmother holding her first child, Adam’s father, in her arms. In the blurred lines she could find familiar traces of Adam: broad, raised cheekbones, peaked eyes, mouth that widened easily into a sharing smile; unbeautiful in repose but more than attractive when animated. Roughed in, his grandmother’s hair was braided and piled about her head. Adam’s hair sprang over his shoulders, dark and unruly. He looked nothing like his maternal great-uncle, for whom he had been named. She could grow to like him very much.
Suddenly it hurt to breathe; it hurt to hear Adam’s sympathy. “It’s all right,” she managed. “I’m doing fine.” But she was not, she was lying, and Adam did not know. He did not even know to look for the lies, as when he called “Eva!” because he wanted her to see a book he had found, because that was the name she had not denied when he guessed at it. He liked the cheerful, impossible allusion. She did not have the heart to discourage him; it had been his own name that first caught her attention.
He looked nothing like his oldest namesake, and only like any of the other countless Adams she had met in all the years since as one human man looks like another. Adam Harrow, the great-uncle who had been her friend, had been earnest and red-headed—gone springing white in later photographs, an unblown dandelion with a shy smile—thin and bespectacled, the very archetype of a weedy scholar. In fact he had been a newspaper editor, a well-read one, and had known her name before she told him. But an earnest short-sighted editor had not helped her, nor the banker who had borne his name before him, nor the courtier, the alchemist, the monk, the madman…After the first few millennia, she had learned to disregard the years, but she had never learned to disregard the pain.
Whether she thought Adam Loukides could help her, or whether she merely felt the hopeless smile cross her face as soon as he introduced himself and she knew she had made her decision, she did not know. But the irony was wonderful, and he was cheerful and meticulous when she asked after a book that had caught her curiosity. “Robert Graves’ Hebrew Myths? Out of print,” Adam apologized, “but I know this great used book store around the corner, and I can run over and check and see if they have it. Do you like Robert Graves? I’ve only read his Claudius books. You know, the Roman ones. Only because I’m a Derek Jacobi fan, really, which is kind of sad…My mother was a classics major in college.” From the moment he spoke, she loved the sound of his voice: informal rambling phrases said with crisp ease, a classically trained actor with a high-school vocabulary. “Look, I’m off work in fifteen minutes. Do you want to run over to the bookstore with me? We can get lunch from the Thai place—they’ve got amazing coconut soup—or there’s this place that does sandwiches, really nice ones, and we can sort of poke around. There’s a plethora of restaurants in this area. Not enough bookstores, but a lot of restaurants.” Suddenly shy, he flushed beneath his fair olive skin and said almost too loudly and too quickly, “How’s that sound?”
Already she liked him; and because she knew it was hopeless, she was safe in her liking. Adam’s eyes were the color of ancient amber, dark until the light tipped into them and clarified to a smoky, concentrated almond. His fingers tapped an arrhythmic tattoo on the countertop. Before he could speak again, she nodded. “It sounds wonderful,” she said. “I’d love to.”
She did not find a copy of her book that day, although she had a very nice sandwich eaten on the green outside the library, but she had found Adam. “Adam Yves Loukides,” he said grandly, gesturing with his own half-eaten sandwich, “and if that isn’t a name to make you cringe, I don’t know what is. My parents were trying to name me for each side of the family. Pity that everyone in my family has names no one’s ever heard of.”
“I think most people will recognize Adam,” she said dryly.
“Fine, but Yves? The last person I saw named Yves was in a medieval mystery.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” Adam sulked, sprawled full-length in the sunlight with half a tomato sandwich in one hand and the other folded as a pillow behind his head, “complain to my parents!” Then he grinned. When she came back to the bookstore the next day, it might have been for the care he took over her book, his sandwich recommendations and his speeches about names, or even his kind, spontaneous grin that eased a little of the worry collecting cold beneath her heart; but regardless, she came back, and Adam was very pleased to see her.
A week later they finally made it to the Thai restaurant, where she tried the coconut soup and agreed that yes, it was amazing, and almost destroyed her sinuses asking for red curry extra hot. After that, he invited her home. This was an idyll, a dream. She had loved every swift-running second of it. Now she stood beside the glass-topped coffee table where she had risen to escape his kindness—his understanding that could never really understand—holding Adam’s hands in fear and tenderness. He had put on one of his grandfather’s records for her, Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall version of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but it had ended almost ten minutes ago. The melody was still going around in her head. She was listening to the clock tick.
Clocks and watches were useless to her, long before their invention; she measured time in the silent geologic roar of cracking continents and rising seas, mountains lathed to desert, stone pried from stone, the winds that swept from every quarter of the globe save that one forgotten place. She had not forgotten it. She never forgot. But mortals forget, men forget, Adam had not been able to find Graves’ book and did not know her name. Scant inches from her face, amber eyes fractured with the light filtering through the dust-glazed panes, he was trying to comfort her, trying to kiss her, drawn to her for reasons he would never be able to explain. She knew them, of course. Made for love, to love, she could not help but want to hold him; she could not hate, only sorrow. She was sorrowing now.
Adam drew one hand free of her clasp, combed fingers through her hair; lifted the dense fall from her face and touched the angle of her cheekbone with his lips. He was very gentle. With equal gentleness, she turned her face and closed the distance between them with her mouth.
Adam’s body tensed against hers, eager, undemanding, and she felt more than she heard the soft noise he made under his breath as her hands slid to the nape of his neck. Her mouth tasted of nothing at all. Did he find that odd? Lost in the taste and texture of him, she could not tell; his mouth moved on hers, his hands traced her body; blurred with the scant distance between them, she saw the dark fan of his eyelashes closed against his cheekbones. Between her fingers, his hair curled soft and wiry, and his skin heated beneath her fingertips. There were tears packed behind her eyes. With the certainty of millennia, she kissed Adam and waited for it to happen.
It came like a galvanic flash, a lightning stroke driving into him through her body, and it smashed them apart. His head jerked back and she knew he had seen, she saw it in his eyes, not the last sight of a dying man but the last image of dying love. Imagination flayed her, skin peeling from flesh, veins stranding from muscle, disclosing blood that seeped, saliva that spilled, jellied globe of one beautiful disconnected eye; he saw her constructed from marrow to breath, the cartilage fretwork of her throat knotting with ligaments, ribcage filled and pulsing to the spasmodic double beat of heart and lungs, hair sown in her scalp over the thin zigzag bones. Metamorphosis without physical change, realization and recognition: the rooted stubs of bone his tongue explored, the sag of glands his hands cupped, wet meat, slick bone, membrane and gristle waxed with fat and corded with sinews, all the fascinating sickening strata of flesh that slid beneath her faultless skin. Adam made a sound in his throat—not the same noise, so much the same noise that she felt the wrench like bones breaking about her heart—and let her go. One minute their mouths were fastened, the next he stood halfway across the room, disgust smeared and stamped on his features so clearly that even he felt it and tried to smooth it away, wiping both hands over his face, shaking, too shocked even to swear.
“God,” he said when he could speak, the words heaving out of him, “oh, God. Eva—”
“Don’t call me that.” In his moment of understanding she had drawn into herself, receded from beneath the margin of her pristine skin. She felt a physical distance between herself and her bones, her flesh and the air that pressed against it; she moved as jerkily as a marionette as she got herself to the couch and folded onto it. The ancient sorrow ate at her breath and she gasped a little, between words. She whispered, “It’s not my name. I don’t have a name.”
Adam leaned against the wall. The blood had run out of his face, leaving the bones pressed white against the skin: startled out of himself into a stranger’s look. He swallowed shock and croaked, “What are you?”
Her face bent in a smile without humor. “That book knows, the one we couldn’t find. The nameless virgin. Adam’s second wife. After Lilith left, threw him over for Ashmedai on the shores of the Red Sea, God made— You have to call her a woman, she wasn’t anything else. But not a woman like Lilith was a woman, like Eve was a woman, made out of earth or flesh. He made her out of nothing, out of his will, before Adam’s very eyes: bones, muscles, tendons, flesh. Piece by piece. Layer over layer. You saw. What’s inside everyone, that’s all, but Adam had never looked into a living body. They didn’t have Gray’s Anatomy then. And he saw her and sickened. He couldn’t touch her. So Eve was made while he slept, so that he should not see her creation; and on waking he managed to forget what he had learned from the sight of the second woman, the forgotten one, the surface of Eve’s beauty so enthralled him. Maybe God helped him to forget. God was kind to him. The second helpmeet— Some people say God destroyed her. Some people say he only made her leave Eden. Gone out into the world like Lilith; not like Lilith, really. Lilith had her anger and her beauty, her immortality and her power. The nameless woman had beauty and immortality only. No gifts, those. Nor did she fall, like Eve. Adam wouldn’t get near her: how could she ever leave her innocence? No one touches her. No one can bear it.” Her voice crumbled under the burning tears. “I can’t touch anyone. Ever.”
“Eva . . .” Adam swayed; his precise, slangy voice wavered and he sat abruptly on the floor, collapsible as a string-cut puppet himself, to sink his head forward and shudder. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that…I don’t know what to call you now.”
“There isn’t anything to call me. In any language. I’ve learned so many,” she whispered, “so many.” Of all those who had tried to touch her, men and woman both, the kind ones were the worst. She did not care when a groping hand stiffened as though stung, a mouth rummaging over hers yelled in shock, but she flinched from the anguish scoring Adam Loukides’ face: that he should see her suffering and could not ease it. He could not even press her shoulder in a friend’s caress, could not even hold her hands as she wept. “No name. Nothing. God made me so.”
“I don’t believe in God.” His voice shivered on the edge of crying. “But people breathe, bleed, shit, all of that, I know that; I’ve got hydrochloric acid rattling around in my stomach, it’s no big deal; but I couldn’t, I, I saw— I saw you, Eva!” he cried, and she did not stop to correct the name. “I shouldn’t feel like this, I shouldn’t. It’s not reasonable. But I can’t— I don’t understand it. It’s not God. I don’t know what it is.”
“God or no God,” she said, desolate, definite, “what does it matter? My memories are the story. What I remember happened in someone else’s words, the words of the storyteller who took the tale of Adam and Eve and filled in the spaces, the words of the man who translated the midrash, the words of the editor who proofed the book for publication, and all the generations in between and after—but still it happened to me. My creation is the story.” Sunlight warmed her shoulders; it did nothing for the ache of ice branching in her veins. She closed her eyes. She did not want to see if Adam was looking at her in fascination, away from her in revulsion. In his eyes she would see the knowledge of the first Adam, what he had learned from her and then forgotten: another kind of fall. She murmured to the red-washed darkness behind her eyelids, “God doesn’t have to exist. Only the tale. Only me.”
“So change the tale. Tell the story differently. Say the nameless woman, Adam’s second wife, found a boy she loved who worked at a bookstore and spent the rest of her life with him. Say she kissed him and nothing happened except what’s supposed to happen when two people who’re attracted to one another kiss.” Hope made his voice raw. “Tell the story that way.”
She shouted, “Do you think I haven’t tried that?” There was no anger in her voice, she could not be angry, only a great and tearing grief. “Your great-uncle tried it. He wrote stories—not very well, but he loved doing it—and he wrote me a story where we stayed together until our deaths, side by side in the same bed, breathing out our last breath on the same sigh. And here…Here I am, Adam. Adam, if I could touch you—” She bent her head into her hands and tasted the tears that ran between her fingers. “I don’t know how not to want to.”
She heard the catch of his breath, as it struck him: the ceaseless journey, a different country every time, a different face, a different courtship, but always the endless repetition of the same story over and over past all human limits; but she was not human, not mortal, lost to Eden before its gates closed. Adam’s first failure that had stamped her into this changeless mold still held true.
Adam Loukides, her dark-haired garrulous Adam of the bookstore, whispered from across the room, “What now?”
“I don’t know.” Now she lifted her head, ran a hand over her face and pulled tear-wet strands out of her eyes; he was not watching her with horror, nor with interest, but steadily and with pain. “People love me. And they are always hurt. Everything we’ve ever tried”—she and all the thousand thousand friends, lovers, companions that might have been—“has never worked. Each one thinks he’ll be the one to change things, she’ll break the curse, we’ll live happily ever after. Nothing changes. Our lives go on. Adam, I have to leave. It will get worse. You can look at me now, but soon you won’t be able to do even that. You won’t be able to stand being in the same room as me. Soon you won’t want to think of me; and then, like the first Adam, you’ll wake one morning and forget. You’ll never know I was here. Or if you remember, you’ll remember only that something terrible happened, that it didn’t work out in some awful, sickening way. Like the first Adam. Only I remember.”
“I…I understand.” Adam’s mouth worked over a word he did not dare to say. Then he rose, clambering to his feet with one hand against the wall, and crossed the room in hesitant strides. “Come on. I want to look at you. I want to remember.”
“No, I do. I mean, it hurts somehow, to see you. But I keep thinking, if I look hard enough, it’ll stop hurting. Like eating that red curry you ordered, remember? I thought the inside of my mouth was going to peel off. That’s a disgusting image…But I kept eating it, because I figured it couldn’t get any worse. And shoveling in the rice. And maybe it worked, because I still have my tongue and all my teeth . . .” Rambling as when she first met him, he stooped and held out one hand, and she took it to pull herself to her feet.
He flinched. His hand snapped out of hers, his feet took him two stumbling steps backwards before he realized what he was doing. Immediately a brick-red flush slammed into his face: shame and guilt burning beneath the skin. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, “Christ, I’m sorry. I thought— I hoped—”
“It’s all right,” she answered. Of course it was not. “It’s not your fault.” He hovered at her elbow as she left the living room, passed the bedroom and the kitchen where the light fell in late dust-grained slants through the high windows; he unlocked the door for her and followed her up the stairs, close enough that she could feel his presence stir the air against her skin; but he did not try to touch her again. Though she heard Adam make soft choked sounds from time to time, she was not crying. Her heart had broken open, and all her tears run out.
On the steps, he paused in the doorway and raised one hand in something between a farewell wave and a summons; the gesture hesitated, and he let his hand fall. She was already walking away when she heard his voice and turned.
“Come back.” A sallow ghost of his sympathetic grin twitched at his mouth. “You know where I am. I work all through August, and in the fall I’m back at college. I’m easy to find.” Tears glassed his amber eyes, turned illegible black by the fall of shadow from the yew hedge beside the door. “If…if I don’t remember you, tell me. I’m not your first Adam. I want to see you again.”
“You won’t. It’ll be the same. It’s always the same. Don’t you understand”—though she knew he did, and would have kissed him for his daring if it were possible—“I can never get close to anyone!”
“Stories are never fixed.” A spasm of disgust tightened his face; he had seen her again, fat and muscle cased around bone, beauty stripped to reveal the nonsensical repulsion that seized them all. But he did not look away, though he blanched with the effort, and when it passed he was still watching her. “It’s one of their great virtues. They don’t tell themselves: they are told, and change in the telling…Please, nameless woman, Adam’s second helpmeet, I don’t know what to call you and I don’t know if I ever will, come see me again. When I’ve forgotten. When you can bear to see me.” He added, broken-smiled, “At least we’ll get another crack at that curry.”
She could give him no promises. She did not know if she could ever learn to see him without the memory destroying her, if she could endure the same loss a second time, if she could bear to do such a thing to him; or whether between this moment and next summer she would meet someone else and be drawn to this new one as surely and fatally as to Adam Loukides, to enact the old pattern once again in pain. Across the road, the sun was settling a film of gold across the late cloud-trailed sky. Four or five children were playing in a yard; she tried not to see how casually, carelessly, they touched. Her mouth still remembered the particular flavor of Adam’s kisses, her fingers knew the curl of his hair and the roughness of his jaw. Better to walk away, to keep walking, continuing the endless journey of story sealed onto life. But no one had ever asked her to come back. She had never waited to see if they would.
“All right,” she said quietly. “When you’ve forgotten.” What she would do then, she would have to wait and see. But it was enough now for Adam; and, perhaps, for her.
She left him as she had come to him, solitary, carrying nothing but the gathering weight of memory, her beauty and her immortality, and her despair. Walking away from Adam, she walked down the street that led away from his grandfather’s apartment, going east. Her shadow splayed before her. She followed it, past the used book store and the Thai restaurant, over the scrubby green and the parking lot outside the library: moving nameless through the streets, lost in the world, and loved.
Published in Not One of Us #27, March 2002