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Copyright © 2010

John Thornton

Satan in Love


1. The Theory

We’ll start from the theory, painful to artists, that nothing can be created or destroyed: only changed. We’ll apply this theory to the question of souls.

The one serious sticking point in the idea of reincarnation has always been the limit the theory places on the number of souls in existence at one time. The obvious reductio is the number of people who buy books with pastel covers and lots of bullet-pointed lists and who decide on the strength of these books that in a past life they were more important than they are in this one.

But reincarnation is usually—and unnecessarily—thought of as linear. Cervantes died in 1616; he must therefore have been reincarnated after 1616. Suppose you were born on the same day as James Joyce. You draw comfort from this. But couldn’t it equally be said that James Joyce was born on the same day as you; that from your failed life he extracted the lessons he required to write Ulysses? That the literary destiny granted to you by your “shared soul” will be fulfilled by the person who, from your point of view, has already fulfilled it?

Instead, start from this: a soul at any point in space and time can become a soul at any other point in space and time.

But here we encounter a problem. In a normal view of time, every human has a unique soul. The number of souls is the number of people throughout eternity, hopefully an infinite number. But say that not every person has a unique soul. Say that every soul is reincarnated exactly once into another soul. You now have half as many souls as you do people. Suppose every soul is reincarnated three times; four people to every soul. Twenty times; one thousand times; one million times. Why not one thousand souls for infinite people? Why not a hundred? Why not one?

The theory is at once monstrous in its narcissism and striking in its humility. All humanity’s accomplishments and all of its sins—they’re the work of one soul, your soul, if you think about it. Learning in every incarnation, we hope approaching perfection somewhere in our future or our past. You lot in the auditorium listening to me: you’re listening to yourselves; you’re lecturing to yourselves. Some of you think this is senile nonsense and some of you remember delivering this nonsense fondly. Some of you remember how much you hate the fucking sight of yourselves.

I close the hour with a parable.

God created the world. The Devil, miffed, visits Her to ask Her why.

God’s garage is littered with carpenter’s glue, insulation jutting from bare planks and designs carved into its pink crust with a finger. At its center a vast rotating globe, blue and silent and terrible. The Devil looks on it like you’d look on the Taj Mahal made of matchbooks lining the floor of your friend’s bathroom.

—How—how long did this take you, he asks.

—I’ll never tell you, giggles God, and fires a cap pistol at the Devil with both hands, and holds Her nose with one finger as she jackknifes into the oceans around the globe. Hidden somewhere within Her creation.

The Devil shuffles and massages his temples and adjusts his tie clip. He looks on it all rotating like a fat blue berry. Juice drips out of it, a slow greasy leak all over the dirty floor.

—Someone has to clean up this mess, he announces, and after changing into suitable trunks he wades in. He enters the phenomenal world and binds himself to birth and death and reincarnation.

One soul. The Devil’s soul. Chopping the trees. Building the cities. Inventing the novel, the plumb bob. All the time searching, searching, searching for God—to hold Her to account.

The bell is ringing, so write this down for Wednesday. All of you, freshmen and seniors alike, you’re all the Devil. I look out over your ugly beer-swilling fraternity faces and tan-swollen sorority breasts and I shout: Satan! Satan! Satan!

2. The Practice

The Devil stepped away from the platform, tapped his lecture notes into order, and gave a lazy high-sign to his prior incarnation in the front row. The Devil, sitting in the front row, winked back at himself and turned to the girl sitting next to him, who was not the Devil; who was God.

—He’s obviously crazy, whispered the Devil to God.

God popped her gum and stared straight ahead. Her eyes didn’t match; he had told her many times that this made her look exotic; she never listened. In the collar of her turtleneck she looked like a prairie dog, waiting with its head half-in half-out of its hole for the empty desert all around her suddenly to seem safe.

God stood up and left the auditorium,. The Devil massed around her in the aisles, kept her within sight. She stepped out of the sociology building and pulled out the pack of Pall Malls the Devil had sold her earlier. She stood against a brick outcropping and stupidly tried to spark it in the wind between the buildings.

—Got a light? asked the Devil. His blond pixie cut rustled past his ears and a black skirt with bubblegum trim tickled his chubby thighs.

—Yeah, said God. She held out the lighter he had sold her earlier. The Devil cupped his hands around hers and cradled the flame to life. He inhaled and coughed.

—Thanks, he said, and gave her a glitter-glossy smile and went inside.

God let the cherry drop to the pavement and pushed off of the wall with her satchel swinging at her side and her unrestrained breasts at sway. The Devil got an eyeful: a women’s studies professor late to discussion section, a traffic officer at Dean Keeton and University and another at Guadalupe and 25th, every driver in every car, the jogger who sang to himself as he and his iPod cruised past the sorority halls in West Campus, the man who picked up bottles in the parking lot of her apartment building which had eight parking spaces and the Devil was illegally parked in every one. He slammed the door of his van as she approached the staircase of her building and gave her a leer, to remind her.

She climbed the stairs; she went into her apartment; she closed the door behind her. The Devil could no longer see her.

He took solace in his memories. The time she was born was nice, when he faced himself giving birth to himself and grunted and in his mind twiddled his thumbs, and presto—something new. It was God, and he gathered around her, slapped her, injected her with vaccines, put her behind glass and watched her and loved her, loved her.

The time he was giving God a bath and had her stand up so he could scrub behind her knees, and he asked her where she would live when she grew up, and she said that she would like to live anywhere else and she sat back down in the water with a splash, and the Devil laughed, how perfect she was, her mismatched eyes and her sulk.

The time she cried when he put his hand under the blankets, the electricity of her, the infinite resilience of her.

The time he came home and he opened the closet door to hang up his red raincoat and God was in there with the Devil’s silver striped tie around her perfect neck and around the silver bar that held up the hangers, her pretty toes wrapped around the edge of a kitchen chair that she’d dragged in here, tough little soldier, and the Devil shouted at her and grabbed her tight so she couldn’t jump and he wrestled the tie loose and it hung down the front of her, and her tears had stopped. And the Devil’s heart broke because he knew that God would never let him see her cry anymore, that this was the last time; that something behind her mismatched eyes had dried up and she could not cry ever again.

He took solace in his memories because somewhere behind the door, someplace else she was doing something that did not include him and he held on to the reins of the world, forced himself to concentrate on his presentation of sales figures to himself twelve-fold and bored around the conference table, forced himself to pay attention to his hands on the rocket controls and to steady the sights on his rifle, himself in the crosshairs, forced himself to keep a grip on the whole great work of the world and not to let go, to drop it all and come running to God’s door and to hammer it down and to rush into her and fall at her knees and stare up into her mismatched eyes and decide for sweet eons which one was better, the left or the right.

And then he sat up and stared into his computer screens: a spark. God had posted an ad to Craigslist.

WFM 19 Young college girls brains/beauty looking for cheap fuck. D/D free preferable but not necessary. Can host, pic for pic, seriously need to get fucked tonight so be real.

The Devil was certainly real! He cheered and signed on to hundreds of different accounts and sent her a hundred different pictures of his penis. In no time at all he checked his many email addresses and received pictures of her, inside her apartment. Again he drank her in: the skinny shoulders, the mole where her breast joined her ribs; he knew all of this. He looked behind her: the fake plants, the action figures, the corner of a blue couch, a green thumbtack in the wall bearing the weight of a pop star poster or a Georgia O’Keefe print or some damned thing that was no longer in the photo, that one day she had gotten sick of and torn down, and only the thumbtack was left, glinting behind her naked body photographed off-center and in bad light.

For the most part the Devil signed off immediately to masturbate. One of him called the phone number she had sent.

—Hey, God said to the Devil. He squeezed shut his eyes, felt his heart swell.

—Hey, slut, he said, in rapture. —You looking for a fuck tonight you said?

—Yes, said God. —That’s what I said in the ad.

—Yeah all right, said the Devil. —You look at the picture I sent you?

—Yes, said God.

—And you like what you see? said the Devil.

—Yes, said God. —It was a very impressive penis.

—Yeah, you like that, said the Devil. —That get you hot, slut?

—Are you going to come over or not? said God. —I really have to know so I can call someone else if I have to.

—Seven, said the Devil, and God agreed and hung up.

He clocked out at six-thirty and he cruised up the highway listening to himself sing Born To Run and he cursed at himself in the other cars, always blocking himself, always getting in his own way. At the corner store on 29th and Nueces he bought a pack of American Spirits and a box of ribbed Magnums.

—Good luck tonight, said the Devil to himself as he rang up the condoms, impressed.

—I already had good luck, know what I mean, crowed the Devil as he accepted the change.

They high-fived and smiled huge smiles as the Devil went out the ringing door.

His hands began to shake as he found a parking spot two blocks away and he walked slowly, smoking an American Spirit down to the filter. He passed himself walking in the other direction and he nodded encouragement to himself, psyched himself up. At seven forty-five he knocked on God’s door—and here was God’s door, opening to him.

God was wearing a black denim dress that buttoned up the front.

—Sorry I took so long, said the Devil, flicking his filter down the stairs.

—It’s fine, said God. —Come in.

Her apartment was a shoebox; her walls felt like they were pressing on his shoulders. A kitchen counter wide enough for one person to stand comfortably. Cardboard boxes of books stuffed under the stairs that led to a crushed-in little loft. A long desk littered with school papers and a stack of textbooks still shrink-wrapped in plastic. The blue couch from the photo—and on a table at the end of it, the gold watch he had sent her for her birthday. He had forgotten about it. The air smelled like old mice, sweat, and insulation burning somewhere behind the walls.

—Nice crib, the Devil made himself say, his heart going out to her.

—Do you just want to talk to me all night? God asked him, her mismatched eyes rolling over him.

—Oh nah baby, said the Devil. —Nah, I had something a little different in mind.

She climbed the stairs and he followed.

Her loft bedroom was exactly wide enough for her bed, a trash can, and a stack of books wedged between her mattress and the wall. Along the baseboard she must have taken every plate she owned and put a lit candle on every one. God sat on the bed and crossed her arms over her denim-wrapped breasts. The Devil rocked on the balls of his feet.

—You got anything to drink? he asked.

—Downstairs, she said. She was still staring at him. He pulled off his shirt.

—We gonna do this or are we gonna do this, he said, suddenly furious with her.

—It’s up to you, God whispered, and the Devil strutted to the bed and he put his rough hands on her crossed wrists, his left to her right and his right to her left, and slowly he began to guide her arms apart. She stiffened her muscles and locked her elbows. The Devil sat back, heart breaking for her again.

—What the fuck, bitch, he said.

—I’m sorry, she said, and suddenly her mismatched eyes were on her knees. —I’m—not good at giving myself away.

—Bullshit, he said. —You not good at giving yourself away, why’re you posting on websites saying you need to get fucked and shit?

—Because I don’t want to be afraid of people anymore, she said. —Can you understand that?

—I can understand something, yeah, said the Devil, overcome by painful emotions, and he got up and started to stomp down the stairs.

—Wait, called God.

The Devil stopped.

—I’m fucking waiting, he said.

God breathed. She breathed deep, let the breath flow all the way down her to the base of her spine as the Devil watched and understood just what she was doing, and approved. She let her arms unfold like a rose and she unbuttoned the first button of her denim dress with the Devil’s eyes on her and the candles burning all around her feet. And the Devil came to her and put his fingers on the dimple in her neck that she was showing him, like he owned her, and he ran his hand down the lateral meridian of her and hooked each button with the bone of his finger and pulled it apart, and her skin against his hand was cold, the way God’s skin ought to be.

And oh, how the Devil had her, how he fucked her for the first time in years, furious and burning, her mismatched eyes on him the whole time, frozen open, breathing heavily and steadily and without heat up at him!

The Devil finished and pulled out of God roughly. He jogged in place, did a sloppy jumping jack, and then pulled his black track pants on again.

—I’m gonna get that drink, he said.

She nodded, and now her mismatched eyes were closed. She rolled away from him.

The Devil went downstairs and found the half-bottle of vanilla vodka in her refrigerator. He poured himself a glass and he picked up the gold watch from the gift box on the table beside her couch and read again the note that he had written to her on her birthday.

Please come home. We miss you sweetie we miss you.

He remembered, of course, what it had felt like to write it, and, in a sentimental mood, he pocketed the gold watch. He held it tight in the pocket of his black track pants, wanting to absorb every stray cell of skin that had come off on the metal when her fingers had accidentally brushed against it, because the Devil knew, even as he wrapped it up and sent it, that God would never want to touch it.

—I’m gonna split, he announced as he put his shirt back on. —Thanks for being real, yo.

—My professor said something crazy today, God said, still facing away from him, her blanket resting under her defenseless back. —He said that everyone in the world was really the Devil, including him. Could you imagine what that would feel like? Living in a world where everyone was the Devil, except for you?

—Nah, said the Devil, terrified.

—I can, said God.

He felt his heart cracking, and he wanted to kneel down beside her bed and let the candle flames burn him and confess everything, apologize for lying to her for all these years she was hidden in her own creation: yes, I’m the Devil; I’m so sorry for letting you down.

Instead he slipped the watch into his track pants and he left without saying goodbye, too overwhelmed by God as she lay there naked with her dry and mismatched eyes. Instead he closed the door and left her alone in her bedroom lined with candles. She buried her face in her pillow and breathed her own bad air in, closed her eyes tight—alone in the bedroom until the day when he would miss her again and he would break down the door of her apartment—all of him, everywhere; she could never get away—and they would swarm in and they would pull her down and they would make God give them an account of herself at last. She knew it was coming. For so long now she’d known everything.