There is a being smack dab in the center of the universe. It sits at the very point from which everything imploded out, and to which one day everything will slowly return. We’re nothing more than a dust mote in its eyes. A pore in its nipple. On top of its head are two large antlers, around which whole galaxies hang like sparkling garland from a tree. Its name is Asmoff.
I saw it in your eyes, the very first time I lost you.
Here’s what love is: it’s one giant gulp of air that you hold so long it hurts. But once you let it go, you feel empty. So achingly empty.
The first time we fall in love you are in your last year of college and I am already out, working a shit job, and hanging out with all the same people at all the same places I was when I was in school. We meet at one of those Halloween pub-crawls, and when we bump into each other we’re unrecognizable to even ourselves. But there’s something about the way you smell that speaks to me in a primal way. In the language of blood and butterflies.
By the time I finish trying to pat dry the beer I spilled on your shirt, and you lift your mask, I’m already in love. When I do catch a glimpse of your face it’s all over for me. Not just for that lifetime, but for all others, too. For eternity.
You had the most beautiful birthmark below the corner of your mouth. Like you’d just spit out a miniature key. The kind used to open diaries or wind music boxes. That was the first place I kissed, just shy of your lips by two centimeters. It was the same place I’d kiss for the next three years, morning in, night out.
It’s how much I talked about that birthmark that eventually annoyed Asmoff into making the bet.
Is Asmoff God? It is at the center of all things. It is, as far, as I can tell, the largest being in existence. It can manipulate matter in a way beyond human understanding, and understand things far beyond physical matter. Time is nothing to it. Death is nothing to it. Everything is nothing to it.
So maybe it is God. I don’t know.
It’s no romantic, that’s for sure. And it’s also kind of an asshole.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Asmoff told me when I first came face to face with it. One month before this, I had spotted it in your eye. It appeared there when your pupil relaxed with your last breath.
“Where is here?” I asked. I supposed I’d drunk myself straight into the grave. Or the cosmos.
Asmoff looked at me closer, cupping its hands around the nothingness I floated in and pulling me up to one of its eyes. Suddenly, it was my whole world, that eye. The murky-clear curve of it. Inside were churning clouds of dust and fog, coming together to form astral bodies for mere seconds before they’d blow apart into nothing but particles again. It was days I laid under that eye being scrutinized, watching planets form and unform.
“You,” Asmoff finally said, pulling me back. “I saw you see me.”
“You were there when he died,” I said. “In his eye.”
My heart was like a beehive thrust into a fire whenever I remembered that moment. All blind stinging and panic. It is still, despite the lives I’ve lived in between.
“Who?” Asmoff asked.
That was the first question Asmoff had ever asked another being. And it was a question it would come to regret. Not just in the next few days, but for centuries. For eons, even.
“My person,” I began.
Here’s what love is: it’s sitting down at a poker table full of professional card counters with empty pockets, and betting the rest of your future on a hand you don’t get to see.
It’s not that there weren’t bad times. There were. Sometimes, it seemed like that was all there was. But, dammit, when the clouds parted and the sun got caught in the fibers of your hair, and your mouth crinkled around the corners so deep the crevices threatened to swallow that little key I loved so much, well, baby, I didn’t just feel good. I felt like the whole world was symphonies and pop songs pouring out of my ears. That kind of love ain’t no joke, even though it cracked me up so bad sometimes, I couldn’t breathe.
“It was all hormonal,” Asmoff said, after days or years of this kind of talk. “It was all chemicals. I could tell you exactly what atoms were vibrating at what frequencies that caused you to feel that way. I could rearrange them even, if I wanted.”
“I don’t have any hormones. I don’t have anything. I’m not a body anymore, I’m a — what did you call it?–a temp—temporary, no that’s not right—a tamb—”
“Non-Temporal Echo of Consciousness,” Asmoff said.
“I think we’d call it a soul on Earth,” I said.
“Sounds like you had goofy ideas about all sorts of things down there,” Asmoff said.
“Whatever—like I was saying—I don’t have those vibrating atoms anymore. I’ve got nothing. Except for love.”
“Echoes of chemical reactions. Mere memories of a breeding impulse. Vestigial organs from a previous existence,” Asmoff said.
“Love,” I said. “It’s the only thing I can think about. We were supposed to be together. Supposed to live a long life, as partners, just loving each other. It was supposed to be us. I was supposed to kiss that key mouth every morning, and every night, for decades. And if there’s an afterlife, I’m damn-well supposed to be spending it with him, and not out here with whatever you are.”
“Supposed to, supposed to, supposed to,” Asmoff said. When it shook its head asteroids and stardust drifted down from the galaxies on its antlers like dandruff. “Nothing is supposed to happen. The universe doesn’t owe you anything. The universe doesn’t even know you exist, much less care.”
“And how would you know?” I snapped.
“Because before you showed up here, I didn’t know you existed. And I certainly didn’t care.”
“If that’s the case, then screw the universe. And screw you, too.” I said, then lapsed into silence. A silence that could have been fifteen minutes, or could have been a day. Only Asmoff seemed to understand how time worked at the center of things. For me, it was a mess. No matter where I was, with you gone, it was a mess.
“Maybe the universe didn’t owe us anything. Maybe it didn’t have a plan for us. But we did. We owed ourselves. We had plans. We were each other’s others. And we knew and we cared. And that was enough to make it matter. To make it true,” I said.
“Christ. You really think so, don’t you?”
I stared it down as a comet shot across its one eye, disappeared under the bridge of its nose, and resurfaced in the next eye.
“If, say, you were to go back—back to the very beginning of life, with a new body, a new mind, a new everything, you think it would happen all over again? That you two would fall in love, and you could make it work?”
“I know it would. We would. For sure,” I said. “I’d bet on it a thousand times. Ten thousand times, even.”
“So, it’s a wager then,” Asmoff said.
The second time, I seek you out before we’re even out of elementary school. You weren’t the you I loved before, and I was not that first me. We’d been rewritten at a molecular level. And yet, you still had that little key, this time perched on your left pinky finger.
Even without it, I would have known you, though. I felt a pull the moment I came out of the womb. A singular drive to find you, love you, and never let harm come to us again. It was there from the start; a hot, iron cord wrapped around my ribcage, pulling me in your direction. It was love.
The first time I saw you was on the playground during recess. Your hair was pulled up into lopsided pigtails, and you were sucking on your fingers. You pulled them out with a wet schlucking sound and looked at me as I approached.
“You wanna play house,” you asked. I nodded wordlessly. You took my dry hand in your wet one, and lead me to the jungle gym, and the world became nothing more or less than Doo-Wah-Diddy, set to the tempo of my heart.
In high school I gave you a jacket and a promise ring. We went to the movies, to prom, and nuzzled behind the Steak and Shake on Saturday nights. We were talking futures and colleges and everything was just Do-Wah-Diddy Diddy-Dum Diddy-Doo so loud that I didn’t notice when you’d stopped singing along. I didn’t notice you packing one bag, buying one ticket. I didn’t notice as you left, crying softly and quietly, into the small, insignificant vastness of Earth’s inky night. I didn’t notice a thing until all I had to listen to was my own voice, reading your goodbye off a note.
I’d loved you too early. I loved you too hard. Or maybe I forgot love wasn’t a line we had to follow from point A to point B. It was a diving board that could launch us into an ocean of possibilities.
You were scared, you said. You only had one life.
And in a sense, that was true for you, I suppose. This you would only be this you this one time.
And in a sense it was true for me, too. Because all my lives were tied into one continuous strand by my love for you.
When you’re longing for someone, seconds span the rise and fall of empires, and decades are just sighs. I picked up smoking and became a substitute teacher. I loved schools, now that they were a place where I’d spent most of my time with you. I checked in on you through shared acquaintances a few times. You got married. Never had kids.
When I was forty-six, and up to two packs a day, you ran into me outside of a gas station when you were visiting home. You covered your face with your hands and stared at me through the space between your wedding ring and the key birthmark.
“It’s you,” you said, shaking. “It’s you.”
We came together like two storm fronts.
Later you stuck your fingers in my mouth and I sucked the wedding ring clear off and spat it to the floor. You framed my face with your hands and brought it to your mouth like it was a pitcher of water and you’d lived the last twenty years in the desert, and baby, oh, baby it was Doo-Wah-Diddy Diddy-Dum, Diddy-Doo.
And sometimes it was fights over bills, or socks on the floor, or who said or did what jerkass thing. There was a year and a half devoted to your hellish divorce. And there were two years where I’d cry every time I saw a taxi that looked a certain way, and you were so mad because it meant we either had to move, or spend a small fortune on tissues.
But every time our music got too low, and the outside noise too much, I’d reach across and take your hand. I’d rub the key on your finger. I’d remember the long, empty stretch of years before I found you again. The smoking, the drinking, and the staring blankly at nothing until my eyes closed themselves. I’d remember first-you, laying bloody across my lap while the paramedics’ sirens blared and blared and blared, ten minutes, too late, too late, too much, too bad. Too, too bad.
I’d check your eyes for Asmoff then, and I’d hold my head to your chest until your heartbeat became a drum track, and the world started to sing again.
Then one day while I was putting away groceries and you were running a bath, something happened inside my skull. A kind of fluttering, like a moth was trying to beat it’s way out of my head. Then I couldn’t hear anything. No Do-Wahs or sirens. I couldn’t see anything, either. The world was a colorless, soundless nothing.
But I could feel your lips against the back of my hand, moving, softly. Over and over. I could feel the words.
The time—the wasted time.
And I love you, I love you, I love you. Come back.
Until your lips got tired, and then all I could feel were tears.
Who was I after that? Was I the first me, or the second? I couldn’t tell you at first. I can’t even give you an exact answer now. All I know is that between lives, I’m me. Every single me I’ve ever been, and all the potential mes I ever could be, and also none of them, all at once.
What I can tell you is I came back shaking, and crying the way souls do; with every single shadow of an atom I had.
“You’re back,” Asmoff said. “I’m a little surprised. I wasn’t sure you’d end up back here afterwards, to be honest.”
I sobbed, and I ached, and knew out there, light years away and eons ago, you were doing the same, and that made me sob and ache all the more. Asmoff sighed and waited for it to subside. When it finally did, I looked at Asmoff with tears still in my eyes.
“So I guess I’m stuck with you,” Asmoff said. “Tell me, how was it?”
“Send me back,” I said.
“Tell me how it was first,” Asmoff said. “We need to judge who won, keep a tally, and all that. This is, after all, a wager.”
“It’s torture,” I said.
“I thought you said it was love,” Asmoff replied.
“Oh please. You don’t know what torture is until you’ve spent all of eternity alone at the center of nothing, watching as everything drifts away from you. It’s so dull. Now tell me, how was it?”
“It was wonderful,” I began, and by the time I finished, Asmoff was sitting in sullen silence, its eyes as black, thick, and dull as primordial tar.
“Let’s see how well it works out if you don’t remember this time,” Asmoff said. “Let’s leave it to chance completely, shall we? See how your love works out then.”
Here’s what love is: it’s the warmth and relaxation and abandon that tricks you into spending an extra fifteen minutes laying in the sun, even though you know you’re already burning.
That first point went to me. The second one, too. My soul seeks you out, without my body knowing why. We spend a mundanely wonderful life together as a banker and a bookseller in Italy, before lung cancer takes you away from me.
I don’t actively try to die, but I don’t last long after you go. I never do.
The third. The fourth. Mine.
Each time I come back, I feel like my skin has been chipped off inch by inch. I feel like someone has reached into my throat and pulled my stomach inside out. I feel like I’m back on that street, and you’ve just been hit, and I’m holding you. My hands are going all over. And I know. I know I could save you, God dammit, if I could just stop the blood. I could save us, if I could just get my hands on life and wrestle it back into your body.
And then there’s Asmoff. In your eyes. In the emptiness of space. Alone, and waiting for me.
Asmoff takes the fifth. I don’t take the right amount of time in between. I come back feeling too raw. This time it’s harder to hear the music when we touch. It’s hard to hear anything other than the screech of tires and blaring paramedic sirens.
“This is over,” I tell you, during a fight that should have remained mostly innocuous. “Get the fuck out.”
For a few days I feel free. Like the whole universe has opened up in front of me.
And then, the rain falls a certain way and splatters against my hand and I hear Doo-Wah-Diddy, the waste, oh the waste, and my heart is sick for the rest of my life.
I look everywhere and never find you. I develop a fever while living out of a Motel 6. In the bathroom mirror, I catch sight of Asmoff in my pupils, beckoning me. Waiting. Laughing.
Come home, it says.
After that one, I float in space for a thousand years, while Asmoff tells me how every other life had been a fluke.
“It was never anything special,” Asmoff said.
While my heart was sick, I believed it. I wasted time, sulking. I pretended to forget.
But inevitably, that iron cord was still there, woven into the particles of what makes up my being, stretching across the universe to wrap around the neck of your little key.
No matter how it hurt, I just couldn’t stay away.
“Tell me more about how it works—electricity,” Asmoff said, rolling me over in space to face it. It saw that I was crying for the first time in a hundred years, and frowned.
“Not this again.” Asmoff said
“Send me back,” I said.
Here’s what love is: a roller coaster that hasn’t passed inspection yet.
346-23; We’re migrant workers, we’re poor, and I spend six years drinking too much, during which you spend two with someone else, but none of that matters in the end. I get clean, you come back, and fuck, baby, it’s beautiful the way we fit our tired, used bodies into the bed together at night.
“It’s cruel to run off right when you get back, you know. While you’re down there with them, I’m up here all alone, you know. You could take some time to talk to me at least, you know.”
“Send me back.”
516-29: Before I can get to you, an addiction does. The first time I see your face is next to your obituary. Asmoff has sent me back without full consciousness this time. Even still, I cry for weeks without ever knowing why, and never marry.
Asmoff reached into its eye and pulled out a stone the size of its finger nail.
“I could build you a whole planet, right here. I could build it however you like. You say it, and I’ll do it. I can even make animals. I can make other people. I can make you your own Earth.”
Asmoff crushed the stone into a cluster of small rocks and set them circling around a nearby star. “You can even pick which one you want to live on. I’ll be right here, watching. I can give you ten thousand guaranteed-good lives. I can give you even more.”
“Will they be there?” I asked.
Asmoff stared at me, and I stared back.
It waved its hand, sending the planets spinning off into the nothingness of space like tops.
“You’re going to regret this,” it said. A star rolled to the brim of its murky eye and pressed against the surface. White mist rippled around the impact site, before the star broke free and rolled down Asmoff’s cheek.
“Send me back,” I said.
968-30: We spend a perfect life together as frogs living in a shallow canal that runs along the highway. I catch you a bouquet of flies for our first date. You let me tongue the green key-shaped spot on your back. We dig holes in the cool mud, side by side, and we croak together. Our voices meld into a seamless, everlasting song. We compose it every second of every night, with every blink of our big, dopey, moon-filled eyes, every brush off our slick, goopy skin, and every bulge of our blooming throats.
It’s our song, and it’s perfect.
One night, while we’re singing our way back to each other across the expanse of road, a taxi rolls over your precious, small body, and my voice is left alone. A week later, I let the hot summer sun cook the life out of me.
“It hurts you,” Asmoff screams. “It hurts you. It hurts you. Why don’t you care that it hurts you? Why won’t you stop?”
“They’re my person.”
“Anyone can be your person. Anyone. I could make you a million persons. I could keep you safe from this—this—love,” Asmoff reaches out, but it’s too big to hold me. Even when it closes its fist, I’m still drifting in a world’s worth of empty space inside its palm.
“Please,” Asmoff says, peering at me through the circle of its fingers. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do. You do,” I say. “Send me back.”
Stars are pouring out of Asmoff. They’re cresting the film over its eyes one by one, shooting milky ripples across their surfaces until Asmoff’s eyes are churning with the force of a tsunami. The stars drip into its palm until I am floating alongside an entire constellation. The last star drops into place as I’m pulled back through space. The constellation takes shape.
“Come back,” Asmoff says. “Please. Come back.”
Here’s what love is: it’s you and me, and we’re building a house together. The blueprints are no good. Water got on them and smudged the upper right quarter. Where the bedroom is supposed to be, I say, and I reach out to pinch your butt. You throw the blueprints to the side and admit that you never knew how to read them, anyway. Still, we build. At first it’s so small, we can’t help but get in each other’s way, and smell the stink of each other’s feet. But we keep building. Sometimes I slack off and slip out the back to sneak a cigarette and drink coffee, and sometimes you worry that it’s all wrong, and it’d be better to just burn it all down and go start over on another plot of land. We both snap at one another, and hammers miss nails, and sometimes hit thumbs. But we build. It gets bigger every day. Inside there are libraries big enough to fit every love story known to mankind, plus all the ones that only we know about. There are as many mattresses, quilts, couches, and pillows as there have been soft words between us. There are photographs, dirty socks and breakfast dishes, and the non-temporal echoes of planet-sized kisses. We stop building, but find there’s still work to be done. There is always work to be done. Some rooms are drafty, some have holes in the wall, or are built at a slant. Sometimes the plumbing malfunctions, the place floods, and all the bad shit rises to the top. Sometimes, it seems too big, too messy, too much, and maybe we start wanting something newer, cleaner and simpler. Or sometimes, despite its size, we feel pent up, like we’re suffocating, and we just want to go outside and getaway to anywhere else. But at the end of the day, it’s a place you and I built together, baby, and it’s home. It’s our center. No matter where else I go, I’m gonna wanna come back.
I’m always gonna wanna come back.
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts. She’s spent the last four years teaching English in Japan. Her collection of fabulist and speculative short stories will be published in Spring 2020 by Bridge Eight. For more information follow her on Twitter @a_couri or check her website.
Cagibi Issue 7