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veronica

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  We stepped into a room much larger on the inside than seemed possible from the outside. It was circular, though the building itself was rectangular. There was a bed, a chair, two lamps, and a narrow table. A fan directed at the bed from the end of the table was whirring softly. At the other end of the table, there was an ice bucket, a steaming teapot, and two cups on a tray. Also a black vase containing a cluster of starflowers.

The bed was large, with a black satin quilt over sheets that were dark blue with black polka dots. The lamps flanked the bed.

Their bases were complementary mermaids, five-feet tall, carved of jade. One was swimming upward, smiling, with outstretched arms; the other, looking fearful, was plunging downward in a graceful arc. Both had long hair, entwined with ribbons of seaweed, that wound over their breasts. And wide, tapered fins. The lampshades were inverted cones that fanned circles of light onto the ceiling. Circles that expanded and contracted to the rhythms of my own breathing. A small triangular mirror was hung on the wall. The room was painted sea-green, and suffused with the scent of orange blossoms.

Veronica slipped off her lizard belt, removed her bone hair clips, and crossed the room to the bathroom. Completely mirrored, its walls reflected her image dozens of times on all sides. "Pour yourself some tea," she said, closing the door behind her.

It was black tea. Depicted on the cup, in lush colors on blue enamel, was a tropical scene. Looming green mountains on which the silver threads of waterfalls descended jagged slopes. A broad savanna. And a line of palm trees rising up beyond a white beach. From the mountains birds were gliding in a V-formation. And for an instant, they came to life, disappearing into the clouds.

On the other cup, a very different scene was depicted. In blues and browns so deep against a black background that I could barely make it out: a dense forest within which, as I sipped my tea, I saw shadows darting.

So absorbed was I that I did not hear Veronica emerge from the bathroom. Sidling up beside me, she reached over and took the cup. Her hair hung loosely over her shoulders. Her silver lipstick gleamed. She put the cup to her lips and emptied it. Then she reached back, unbuttoned her green dress, and, letting it drop to her breasts, brushed my lips with her own.

"We don't have to wait anymore," she whispered.

I put my arms around her and drew her close. The blood rushed to my head as I cupped my hand over her breast and she ran her tongue along my lips and drank my breath away. Then she took my hand and led me to the bed.

Again I saw half of the tattoo that covered her back. The bare tree with the owl, and the blue and yellow bird hovering beside a pair of stars. But now, when her dress slid to her feet and she unsnapped her bra, I saw the entire tattoo, which reproduced the picture on the second tarot card Otto had turned over for us--"The Star." A naked girl kneeling by a stream pouring water from two antler horns. The bare tree was behind her, on a hill. Her head was wreathed by eight stars in all. With flowing hair and large eyes, the girl resembled a younger Veronica, as she had on Otto's card. Including her eyes: the right one blue, the left green.

Stripping off her panties, Veronica sat down on the edge of the bed while I slipped out of my clothes. Her body was long and firm, with the supple muscles of a swimmer. All of her skin glowed with the silvery sheen I had first seen in her face. I lay down beside her, and as she pressed up against me felt waves of heat emanating from her body. She ran her fingertips, light as fire, along my skin. My hands were busy too. In her hair, over her breasts and legs, down her back--the tattooed skin cooler than the rest--and then between her legs, where the silky hair crackled electrically.

She moaned, and kissed me again hard, and then, rising to her knees, licked my chest and stomach, lingering, teasing, until I felt I couldn't hold back much longer.

I climbed on top of her and she opened herself to me, with closed eyes. I had never seen her eyes closed. The bed's headboard consisted of eight brass poles, and with outstretched fingers Veronica tapped the first one, and the two lamps dimmed. I closed my own eyes as she guided me inside her and the heat from her body poured into mine, radiating outward into my limbs. Each time I thrust into her, she hugged me tighter and drew her nails across my back, down and around, repeatedly, in a figure eight. She crossed and locked her ankles over the small of my back, and when I opened my eyes again, the lamplight had turned red and Veronica was gripping the bedposts, her hair glittering with sparks, as if a live wire had teased it out.

The jade mermaids had come alive, one surfacing while the other dove. Red light streamed from their bodies like water. Their hair veiled their faces. It was as if the bed were a platform of stone, underwater, and the mermaids were swimming past it-- past Veronica and me, locked together. Except that they never did pass it, though they swam up, and down, fighting invisible currents with rippling muscles and flashing fins--stationary while still in motion, in a place where such distinctions had no meaning. Strings of bubbles, like pearls, issued from their mouths. When their hair was swept back by the fan, I saw that their expressions were reversed: the one diving was smiling and the one surfacing looked fearful.

"Leo." Veronica's voice was distant. I turned away from the mermaids. "Why are you stopping?" she said, breathing hard. It took me a moment to focus on her face. "Did you open your eyes?" she said. "Here, take my hand."

Out of the corners of my eyes, I saw that the mermaids were again lifeless jade. But their reversed expressions remained. And overhead I saw stars glinting--as if there were no roof over us.

When I squeezed Veronica's hand, I felt a splinter at the center of her palm.

"Yes, it's dip shing, " she murmured. "Being invisible together will heighten our senses."

"As I began to move inside her, she evaporated. My own body disappeared. I could feel her heart beating inches from my own. Could feel, too, the moisture beading on her arms and breasts. Our breathing, now in unison, filled my ears. But all I could see beneath me were the sheets, indented by our bodies. Pressed fast between our clasped palms, the dip shing grew hotter as my eyes fixed on one of the sheet's polka dots. Until I seemed to be falling into it headlong, enveloped in darkness, no longer sure whether my eyes were open or closed.

Then I heard a cry in my ear and I was staring down at the sheet again. All the heat that had fanned out into my limbs was flying back to my center. And now I heard myself cry out, holding Veronica tightly in my arms, the dip shing searing my palm, and that waterfall at the lake roaring in my head, as if suddenly the walls were no thicker than rice paper.

When I opened my eyes, I was visible again, flat on my back, arms and legs akimbo. My purple shirt draped over her shoulders, Veronica was kneeling beside me, her wet hair clinging to her breasts, running her hand along my leg.

I felt myself drifting off again.

"No, Leo, wake up," she said.

It was only when her hand slid up over my ribs that I realized she was holding an ice cube to them. In her other hand she held a cup of steaming tea. Her voice was gentle as she applied the ice to my temple.

"Sit up," she said, offering me the tea.

"Why don't you lie down, instead?"

"Even if we had the time, which we don't, this would not be a good bed to rest on."

"Why not?"

She let the ice cube drip onto my eyelids.

"All right," I said, pushing myself up.

"If we slept on this bed," she said, handing me my pants, "we would lose all of our memories. Even in this short time, you lost memories you weren't aware you possessed--that you will never know you possessed. We both did. That's the price we paid for making love here." She pointed at one of the polka dots. "Just as with a black hole in space: when one vanishes, it takes with it all the information contained in the light and matter it has consumed. The longer we lay here, the more of our inner selves would be consumed when these vanish."

She dropped my shirt onto my shoulders and slipped into the bathroom. When I finished dressing, I glanced down at the bed, and, indeed, the polka dots--now dime-sized--were shrinking before my eyes, until, a minute later, they disappeared altogether.

I walked around the circular room, sipping the tea. My skin was cool, my head light. For the first time that night, I felt that I was not just in my own clothes, but my own body again. So when I paused to look into the triangular mirror on the wall, I was jolted by the face staring back at me. The same face I had seen in the mirror at the laundry: the old man with the white hair. His eyes white too. His features, nearly identical to my own, blurred away, and sharpened again into the boy I had seen earlier. His eyes also blank as a statue's. Then he vanished and I glimpsed those headlights like a pair of cat's eyes burning in the recesses of the mirror.

Veronica strode out of the bathroom, and the mirror cleared. Fully dressed, with fresh makeup and her hair pulled back again, she crossed the room, lighting a clove cigarette. Her face was somber again, her eyes alert. As she buckled her lizard belt, I saw that she had put the green ring, her mother's ring, onto the fourth finger of her right hand.

She took hold of a silver loop that was fastened to the wall. I had thought it was to hang something on, but it was the handle of a door whose outline was invisible. Veronica turned the handle counterclockwise and the door opened onto a small triangular closet in which a single article of clothing was suspended on a hanger: a forest-green overcoat with a sash belt and a high collar. She put the coat on over her dress and knotted the sash in a figure eight. The coat, which fit her perfectly, was the same shade of green as her dress.

Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she took out the car keys and kissed me full on the mouth. Her hot ginger scent flew into my head as she walked out the door into the night.

Moments later, I looked back into the room as I closed the door behind me: at its center, dominating the room from floor to ceiling, was Keko's lunar globe. Illuminated from within, it was rotating on its axis. Its light was the same blue as the moonlight I stepped into, that bathed the parking area where Veronica was already gunning the car's engine, the ash of her cigarette glowing through the windshield and the wind ruffling her hair.

When we drove past the office, I glanced through the open door and saw the outline of a cat curled up on the counter, her tail ticking like a metronome.

Speeding down the road along the L-shaped lake, we turned left onto the road that stretched away into dense forest for as far as I could see. A mile down this road, there was a green sign off the shoulder that marked the municipal limits of the town we had just been in. Another town with the name of a woman.

In phosphorescent letters, the sign read: LEAVING FELICITY.

 
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Excerpted from Veronica by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 1996 Nicholas Christopher. Excerpted by permission of the Dial Press, Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.