The Santa Lucia station swarmed with security guards, choking off all water traffic. And Carlo sat sulking in his gondola, an American couple in his charge, their faces burning a bright shrimp pink as they strained to get a look at the pop star.
In a reproduction of Cleopatra’s gilded barge, the diva sat on her throne, fanned by musclemen with oiled skin, sheltered from the sun by a canopy of spun gold, regaled by ephebic flautists and trained baboons. You would never guess that she grew up in a New Jersey suburb. You would never guess that she was mortal, that she suffered from clogged pores and menstrual cycles and an incurable toenail fungus that always resurfaced in the depths of summer no matter how many specialists her private physician consulted.
As she floated by him, she was not a creature of flesh and blood, but a vision of all he had desired during his adolescence in a dusty town known for its cement works. She was a genie from his media screen, a pixie of pixels. She was the Most Oft-Googled Woman on the Planet. When she looked into his eyes, Carlo felt his stunted wings stir. He did not dare open these imaginary appendages to their full iridescent span, but stood smirking with secret knowledge. Strange electricity passed from her to him.
Later that evening, when a blank-faced woman in a business suit approached him in a café (she had found him through the tourist agency), he showed no surprise. He took a puff of his cigarette, careful not to look rakish, but rather respectful, lost in thought.
Yes, he would be honored to meet Signora on her private terrace. Yes, he spoke English. Yes, he would bring his Carta d’Identità Elettronica and endure a series of security scans.
When her bodyguard removed his velvet mask, Carlo found himself on a balcony at dusk, perched over an abyss of flowering lavender. The goddess (as he would eventually call her) wore a fitted linen suit. She was three years younger than his mother. But she looked magically nubile, embalmed with the effortless dewiness of youth. In lighting engineered to match her coloring and downplay wrinkle-enhancing shadows, she sat, carefully painted to look unpainted, her lustrous hair heaped.
She scrolled through questions listed on a tablet, her face floating over the ruffles of her blouse. Night birds cawed. A servant slipped from the shadows and poured Carlo another glass of wine, a dark burgundy that stained his lips black.
Tell me about the town in which you grew up?
Did you go to college?
Are you religious?
He described his bleak hometown with flourishes of pathos—his domineering working-class father, his romantic mother of privileged roots, two beautiful sisters dressed in discount clothes. Picturing his mother in her only nice dress, a strand of fake pearls circling her stringy throat like a noose, Carlo felt a stab of guilt. What would she say if she could see him now, preening in his tight polo and skinny jeans? His shirt smelled of cheap laundry soap and the mushrooms his mother had fried for lunch. He felt dirty and uncouth. He feared that he smelled of garlic or, worse, the musky, medicinal scent of Raphael, his mother’s decrepit poodle, whose belly rash had to be treated with a special ointment. Picturing the dog staring out the window of their apartment, its clammy eyes trembling with excitement upon spotting a cloud of factory smoke, Carlo felt exhausted—tired of searching for a cheap apartment in Venice, tired of the train ride that seemed longer each week, tired of his father’s endless sinus-clearing maneuver, which always ended with a special snort of disdain for his pretty-boy son.
Carlo forced his thoughts away from his family, spoke about his year as a student of mass communications. He babbled vaguely about spiritualism, the power of positive thinking. A pink moon floated above a stone turret. Crickets chanted. Some kind of animal—large, rangy—slunk in the shadows where the security guard had retreated with his electronic cigarette.
The chauffeur had driven for an hour at least, perhaps in circles to trick him. And now Carlo was drunk, somehow, on two glasses of wine. When she asked him about his sexual history, with a demure smirk that brought blood to his cheeks, he could no longer think clearly. He trotted out his parade of small-town loves, his encounters with Venetian bar girls, his flings with American tourists and European ragazza alla moda. He’d been in love once, but he chose not to mention this, especially since the woman had been older. She’d lived at the top of their building in an apartment that seemed to touch the clouds. Her hair had smelled like damp wood. When she invited him in to try out her new espresso machine, he understood, for the first time in his life, the poignancy of the word escape.
Do you understand the need to undergo certain medical tests?
The goddess took a sip of mineral water and pinned Carlo with her matter-of-fact gaze, the gaze of the businesswoman who lurked behind her lavish antics. Her eyes were the green of grapes. The bodyguard, shrouded in darkness, permitted himself a titter. Her personal assistant would make all of the necessary arrangements, the pop star said, and email him with instructions about where and when.
After grazing his cheek with her lace-gloved hand, she disappeared into the building—a castle, Carlo suspected, though he couldn’t be sure. The guard had already slipped the velvet blindfold over his eyes.
In a Belizean villa, in a fantasy grotto designed by Nari Gandhi, Carlo waited. The fake cave, tucked into a private lagoon, was painted in delicate shades of epithelial pink. As balmy air caressed him, he had the sensation that he was entering the warm, throbbing body of an enormous mammal. Lucite wall sconces glowed. A hanging plastic pod appeared, the goddess coiled in it; she’d just returned from a spa in Spain and her skin had been reconfigured. Nanobots had recharged her epidermal cells with enzymes from human embryonic tissues. Her body had been smeared with a beauty balm that not only filled in crevices and pores, but gilded her surfaces with gold polymers that made her shimmer like a bioluminescent being. And Carlo trembled.
In the interim between their first meeting in Italy and his flight to Belize, he’d avoided his small circle of friends. He’d invented a fictional bicycle tour of the French countryside to thwart his parents’ inquiries. He’d hidden out in his darkened room, stoking his fire in front of his media screen, bewitched by the phantasmagoria of the diva’s various selves. He’d watched her fly spacecraft, transform into jungle animals, and, in his favorite video, melt into a puddle of molten silver that regenerated as a swarm of impish, Lilliputian sexbots that frolicked upon the body of a grotesquely obese man. The fact that the goddess now stood before him in the flesh (if you could still call it that) was difficult to grasp—especially since he’d flown for over twenty-eight hours and had not slept and had again drunk the strange black wine just after his velvet blindfold had been removed. When he heard a guard coughing in the shadows, he felt uneasy.
The pop star walked barefooted across rose quartz sand. Her hair was a crown of pagan braids. She wore a silk, neo-primitivist dress with a bronze choker. When she drew her hand to her mouth and murmured into a cocktail ring, an androgynous being in a loincloth appeared with a tray of drinks. Although Carlo felt jealous of the beautiful person (male, judging by the nipples), the beverage made his heart sing. And soon he was laughing. He scampered after his mistress through a maze of tropical succulents that looked like carnivorous alien organisms. Nestled into flowering nooks of landscaping were various seating arrangements. Amid the purple shimmer of orchids, he took her upon a fat chaise longue that resembled a giant tongue.
Carlo did not know that her vagina had been surgically enhanced, the labia snipped and tucked to virginal perfection, muscles tightened, the interior epithelia fortified with ovine fetal collagen. He found himself howling, gaping at stars that looked too bright to be real, wondering if she’d redesigned the heavens via satellite.
Though he “moved in” with the pop star he never gained unmediated access to her—mind, body, heart, head. He spent weeks alone in hotel rooms and remote villas, unnerved by an endless stream of bodyguards who avoided his gaze and seldom spoke directly to him. The planetary system of media images that circled the goddess’s solar immanence separated them. A hierarchy of skittish personnel separated them. A hundred different styles of architecture separated them.
On Tuesday he found himself freshly landed in Scotland, stumbling through the crumbling stone maze that led to her bower (a renovated dungeon), escorted by black-suited men with handguns tucked into armpit pockets. And then, four days later on Saturday, he sank toward his lover in a cylindrical stainless steel elevator, descending for a solid five minutes to a subterranean boudoir with cobalt floors. One week later he found himself rising endlessly into clouds, stepping out of a mirrored lift onto an obsidian-tiled terrace. His darling turning from the rail to illuminate him with the million-dollar wattage of her smile—her teeth pearl-plated, her gum tissue pink from recent transplants.
He fell to her feet and kissed her toes. He sniffed like a dog, searching for animal scents. Circled by guards and agents that Carlo envisioned as priests and priestesses, he and the pop star cavorted with drinks and consumed the alchemical concoctions of her chefs. At midnight, the diva pulled him upon one of the most exquisite mattresses produced in the twenty-first century. By now he had experienced many mattresses—mattresses made of silk, cashmere, organic hemp, and bamboo microfibers, mattresses stuffed with flax, wool, cotton, and hypoallergenic horsehair, heavenly mattresses puffed with dove feathers and perfumed air, but this particular one, plumped with Tibetan glacier water, bristled with tiny, heat-sensitive papillae that massaged his skin and revitalized his muscle tissue.
The goddess bit. She clawed. The depths of her throat tasted of mucus. Carlo and a handful of personal assistants knew when her menstrual cycle occurred. She was a petite woman with a husky voice, but the childish whimper that followed her final convulsion stippled his skin with chills. He felt like a lion as he roared from the force of an orgasm enhanced by Japanese seahorse powder.
Afterward, amid the labyrinths of her identity, he found a small trembling mammal that emitted musky scents. As the colossal apparatus of her wealth and fame receded, he imagined that they were teens trapped on an island together: no money, no media, no agents—just the two of them on a wind-swept beach.
Of course they talked. They discussed fashion, contemporary design, haute cuisine, exotic breeds of genetically modified animals. They confided in each other about their miserable childhoods (she, too, had had a domineering father). They conversed about global warming, species extinctions, and the diverse religions of the various populaces they found themselves amid. In the wee hours they spoke hoarsely of their own love, which they deified as a holy emanation that enveloped their bodies in a nimbus of unspeakable grace. They appeared at restaurants and clubs and awards ceremonies together, occasionally on public promenades or beaches, and once, they braved the slopes of an indoor ski facility in Dubai as a thousand cameras flashed.
It was in public—in restaurants where the lighting was not quite perfect, or while hustling from airport ramps to SUVs—that he saw traces of mortal woman: crow’s feet as she cringed at a camera; marionette lines encasing her snarl like parentheses; a renegade wattle sagging from her chin. He Googled for images of his beloved without makeup, monstrous contortions of photography, flesh doing strange things as she turned abruptly or broke into a spontaneous grin. Contrary to being disgusted, Carlo felt an aching tenderness, as though his goddess had stepped down from the clouds, risking the evils of gravity, free radicals, and carcinogenic sunlight to join her earthbound lover.
Sometimes, when he was between flights or stranded at a hotel as she “recharged her battery” at some spa, he’d chase wilder speculations in the hinterlands of the internet. He might pass an entire morning on a beach-front balcony, eavesdropping on message boards that chattered about her infant-blood baths, her daily consumption of fetal bone marrow, her kidnapping of virgins whom she then had surgically flayed, their juicy skin grafted onto her parched hide. Naturally, he’d look to see what the tabloids said about him—the boy toy rumored to be cheating with some flash-in-the-pan teen starlet, which he never did. Perhaps he was caught in the weave of a love spell, as the tabloids said. Perhaps the pop star’s shriveled guru, who lived in a Tibetan mountain cave, was really a wizard who did her dark biddings.
Sometimes, when traversing a moodily lit hallway of one of her castles, Carlo felt like a child trapped in the lair of a fairy-tale witch. He longed for the shabby comforts of his childhood apartment, where accent pillows hid sofa stains and ancestral silver twinkled in a cheap china cabinet. He longed to lounge on the floor with his sisters as their mother roasted peppers in the cramped kitchen. Of course his sisters had moved out by then, but he always remembered his family just as he’d left them. And he longed for the simple luxury of leaving his dwelling on a whim, without consulting a monosyllabic bodyguard to walk down to a corner café where the wind smelled of ocean and roasting meat.
On a drizzly Tuesday in June, the day before her forty-second birthday, the goddess slid from her eminence to the unsatisfactory status of Second Most Oft-Googled Woman on the Planet. A younger diva with a thousand faces had risen from obscurity to haunt the world’s media screens with her pitch-corrected siren songs and constant shenanigans. That afternoon, the pop star fired a dozen servants, including the housekeeper who’d told the National Enquirer that Madame conducted bizarre juvenescent rituals according to the lunar phases, and that just before dawn on the morning of the new moon she could be seen crouched on a green knoll amid Stonehenge-like boulders in her true form: a toothless hag with wisps of gray frizz on her scaly scalp, tits dangling like dried bladders, her rump fouled with the ignoble dribbling of geriatric incontinence.
There is a hag hiding inside every maiden, Carlo thought on the night of the birthday. He waited in a castle turret, staring out at the ocean that lapped at the southern shore of her private Ionian island. She emerged in a four-thousand-dollar wisp of silk, not laughing but cackling. She hunched as they descended the stainless-steel stairs that coiled amid the velvet greenery of an indoor waterfall. The hand that gripped his buff bicep popped with veins. Was it his imagination, or did he smell a faint staleness lurking beneath her lotions and perfumes?
Around a table of carved obsidian sat various celebrities and hangers-on. When the goddess appeared, they collectively murmured the word stunning. Carlo sighed, closed his eyes, and felt dark winds bluster through his head. He released his lover’s arm and helped her onto the bejeweled throne she’d recently commissioned from a Sri Lankan surrealist.
Just after her birthday, as though to remind the world that her sacred womb was still worthy of worship, the goddess fell pregnant with Carlo’s child. After a three-month period of morning sickness, she emerged, clad in flowing gowns. Paparazzi performed acrobatic stunts to snap pics of her baby bump; tabloid images featured her strolling in green havens with her young Italian inseminator, eyes focused on distant mountains or ocean cliffs. For a few magical weeks, when she once again became the Most Oft-Googled Woman on the Planet, she skipped like a pot-bellied schoolgirl down impeccably landscaped paths.
They spent more time together, gravitating toward her cozier estates. She eased into gentler forms of yoga, working out for two hours a day instead of four. She replaced her organic chef-in-chief with a biodynamic spiritualist who measured the potency of fruits and vegetables with an electromagnetic wand. She drank mineral-rich water from the Hunza mountains, sipped mare’s colostrum from the Steppes of Central Asia. Each day she consumed a small lump of raw, frozen cow liver, the bovines grass-fed locally and slaughtered according to the principles of kashrut.
Forgoing caffeine and alcohol, putting the production phase of her next LP on hold, she allowed her cheeks to grow plump. She kept Carlo for extended stays in country palaces where they fell asleep in gazebos and outdoor rooms. She stroked his hair. She caressed his face. Under the guidance of her doula, the couple practiced pranayama breathing, meditation, and positive visualization. They drew primitive birth art with nontoxic pastels.
In the vast boudoir of a Gordes mansion, a kaftan-clad OB-GYN smeared Aquasonic gel upon the pop star’s belly. Despite her devotion to natural childbirth, the goddess could not resist the reassurance of a fifth-month ultrasound, and Carlo held her sweaty hand. Her doula and midwife, also wearing white tunics, chanted ancient Sumerian fertility hymns as the OB-GYN pressed the diva’s bulging abdomen with her magic wand.
When Carlo saw the bulbous-headed being afloat in the mysterious brine of his lover’s uterus, transparent and glowing like a deep-sea creature, he wept.
“A girl,” said the obstetrician.
Carlo felt a gush of affection so fierce that it frightened him. We will finally be a family, he dared to think.
“Her name is Athena,” pronounced the goddess, and so it was.
The pop star hugged her paramour. They kissed. Diverse personnel moved discreetly into the shadows as the couple sobbed in each other’s arms.
The next day, the diva travelled without Carlo, shipping him to her next destination as though he were a very expensive tiger.
On a sunny day in October, at the beginning of the pop star’s third trimester, Carlo found himself at Durga, a maternity spa on one of the Seychelles Islands. He stood alone on the beach, staring up at the paparazzi-proof hospital that rose in feudal splendor amid a village of luxurious eco-cottages. Their birth villa was locked, and no one on the staff had been informed about his existence. After he’d shown a receptionist his ID and several internet images of himself cavorting with the goddess, a stern woman in a peach sari handed his luggage to a valet and escorted him to a beach gazebo, assuring him that he would be summoned when his mistress arrived.
He felt like a phantom as he drifted back and forth along a stretch of empty beach, glossy pamphlet in hand, passing the same security guard over and over, which made him suspect that he was being followed. He sat down in the sand, looked out at the amnesiac vastness of the sea, and felt the edges of his identity dissolving. He turned his attention to the pamphlet:
Feel yourself blending with nature when you take residence in one of our womb-shaped birth villas. Composed of breathable geo-polymers and inspired by the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, each pod is nestled into a biodynamic garden fed by an idyllic brook. Equipped with a salt-water birthing pool and the latest technologies, our lux eco-cottages are the perfect blend of old and new . . .
The goddess should have been there over an hour ago, and Carlo feared she’d gone into labor on her private jet. When he felt the violent presence of his heart—a raw muscle convulsing at the core of him—he popped a Lethe. He concentrated on the spider-like scurrying of small gray crabs as he waited for the pill to calm him. At last, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned, saw the pop star’s personal assistant, her smile pinched with tension.
“Is she okay?” he asked.
“Fine, fine,” said the assistant, turning away to check a text.
The diva awaited him in the living room, her entourage whirring around her, putting everything into its place.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing at the hexagonal shelving that flanked the stone hearth.
“A dynamic mix of Paleolithic fertility fetishes and terra-cottas by Hannah Wilke,” said the woman in the peach sari who had escorted Carlo to the beach. Now she smiled at him. Now she kowtowed. Now she introduced herself as Kira, their personal hostess. She knew that he was no hanger-on, but the significant other of the Second Most Oft-Googled Woman on the Planet, and Carlo straightened himself up to his full height.
Kira pointed out several dark icons, impeccably spaced on the stucco walls.
“Authentic gravidas from medieval midwifery manuscripts.” She turned to the other wall, “And an original painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.”
Carlo recognized the floral vagina from his student days, a period during which he’d been perpetually stoned.
Kira moved around their new home, pointing out Egg chairs by Jacobsen and Womb chairs by Saarinen, Ylem sofas by H. R. Giger and original Overman pods.
In the subdued amber lighting of the birthing chamber, Carlo felt the pop star’s small, sweaty hand grasping his own. He could smell her mammalian musk, the raw pheromones that pushed through the exhausted molecules of her perfume.
The sunken chamber, which resembled an imperial boudoir from The Planet of the Apes, featured an enormous flying saucer of a bed, its base an airy whirl of rattan that lifted its hemp and silk mattress toward the heavens. There the goddess would bear her heiress. Or perhaps she’d squat on a cashmere rug or use one of the hand-carved birthing stools. Or grunt and float in the jade-tiled pool, which curled from the bedroom out onto the stone terrace. Carlo imagined her pacing under the stars as the Great Mother Ocean convulsed and the first contractions took her.
Kira, going on robotically, interrupted his fantasy. “Although each cottage is equipped with guest rooms and a modest servant’s quarters,” she recited, “one of the perks of Durga is the abundance of specialized service personnel, ranging from rolfers and raw chefs to Wiccan priestesses and CIA-trained security ninjas. Dispensing with the stress of managing your retinue, you can ease into the flux of the natural birth process.”
Kira nodded, asked if they needed anything, and vanished with a flutter of peach chiffon.
The diva pulled Carlo upon the enormous bed. She squirmed against him. He slipped his hands over her sacred belly and thumbed her navel, the withered knot of cord that had once flowed with blood and life, connecting the fetal goddess to the placenta of a stenographer in Summit, New Jersey.
And so the temperate days passed in a pleasant succession of meals and therapies. The pop star’s belly swelled and her limbs remained toned. Her hair grew luxurious from abundant estrogen and the special care of a mineral hairdresser from Milan. In keeping with the advice of her doula and midwife, she enjoyed gentle sex weekly to strengthen her uterus with orgasmic contractions, after which she reclined with her consort on the terrace’s double chaise, servants tucked away in the shadows, his hand rubbing her tummy with lavender jojoba oil. Feeling an electrical jolt of joy every time the little one kicked, Carlo would gaze out at the silver sea and pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
When they had the baby, he planned to take his new family to see the apartment where he grew up. They’d sit at the kitchen table as his mother fried mushrooms and his father lurked in the doorway and his sisters made a fuss over their beautiful new niece. But then Carlo would picture the pop star’s favorite bodyguard, slumped in the cramped hall. He’d see the goddess glowering in the living room, hovering an inch above the floor, the carpet beneath her stained from the foul leakage of Rafael the poodle. He’d see his mother stricken with shame, arranging naïve hors d’oeuvres upon an ancestral pickle plate. Remembering that he hadn’t spoken to his parents in six months, Carlo felt queasy. He vowed to call them as soon as he felt psychologically prepared for the task. But he never felt prepared. Perhaps he never would.
“I am sick of the sea,” said the diva on her due date, frowning at the ocean as though it were a cesspool. “Crisp mountain air is what I need, but we’re stuck.” When Carlo reached out to stroke her arm, she pushed his hand away.
The island was shrouded in stagnant smog. The goddess lolled in a chaise longue, her belly so vast that Carlo wondered if she had a twin stashed in some secret uterine nook. Blotches of darkened skin had developed on her cheeks and forehead. Her hands and feet had swollen with fluid. Varicose veins snaked up the backs of her knees. The hair on her chin had thickened into a downy beard that she had threaded twice a day.
“I can’t get comfortable, and I have to fucking pee—again.” The pop star stood up and walked like a duck toward the cottage. She peed every thirty minutes. Having slept poorly the night before, she’d skipped her morning prenatal yoga session. And there was the Indonesian medicine woman, standing at the edge of the veranda, wearing a hot pink kebaya. She nodded at Carlo. When the pop star returned, the medicine woman coached her through guided meditation and deep-breathing of the womb. They chanted the names of archaic mother spirits, soliciting them to open the pop star’s cervix like a jasmine blossom.
Afterward, the diva sulked on the veranda with a glass of coconut water.
Her midwife arrived, checked her cervix again, and pronounced it closed. When the midwife departed, the goddess summoned her young lover for sex, demanding a quick procedure in the canine position, after which she remained abed to allow the prostaglandins to work their magic upon her cervical tissues. Then she shooed him away, faking playfulness, her eyes looking hard.
Carlo drifted out into the Zen garden with his tablet. He searched the internet for a trace of his old girlfriend, feeling helpless as hundreds of women bearing her name appeared—real estate agents, exotic dancers, and authors of self-help books. He dialed his youngest sister’s number, reached her voicemail, and hung up. Succumbing to the undertow of a dark mood, he walked the beach without a security guard, feeling like a shadow as he drifted among the dunes, catching glimmers of light from other cottages, straining to catch a glimpse of some heiress or princess or potentate’s wife, some mogul’s moll or drug lord’s lady pacing in the throes of labor. But he saw only bodyguards, beefy sentinels thumbing their phones or enjoying forbidden cigarettes.
Over the next few days the pop star devoured pineapples, fresh squaw root, and black cohosh. She took long walks on the beach, chanting the names of the Great Earth Mother and crooning to her stubborn fetus as her bodyguard trailed at a respectful distance. While electronic tablas pulsed, her midwife rubbed evening primrose oil onto her cervix and stimulated her nipples with circular strokes. Masseuses palpated her belly in spiral patterns. On the night of the full moon, a shaman from Vyvenka sprinkled her belly with snake-egg-ash as Buddhist nuns chanted the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life.
But still, nothing.
On a drizzly Tuesday morning, a week overdue, the goddess drank castor oil and vomited her vindaloo. Her midwife managed to strip her membranes, but her cervix failed to dilate beyond a centimeter, refused to ripen into a mushy fruit. On Thursday, when an ultrasound revealed that her amniotic fluid was dangerously low and her OB-GYN firmly declared the necessity for medical induction, the diva turned toward the wall and wept.
Carlo placed his beautiful hand on her shoulder. She shook him off with a fierce twitch, yet he still remained hopeful that when she felt the first contractions she would clutch his hand lovingly. And then they’d work together to bring their child toward the light.
Clad in a silk kimono, the pop star tried to look stoical as she extended her thin arm to receive the needles. The OB-GYN had demanded aggressive doses of Pitocin, a synthetic oxytocin administered via IV. The goddess had filled her morning bath with lavender and Jamaican dogwood blossoms. Her golden hair spread prettily upon her silk pillow. She still wanted to try for a “natural” childbirth. Though it would be difficult to walk around, squat, lunge, roll on the birthing balls, and climb in and out of the pool with tubes hooked up to her arm, she was determined to avoid an epidural.
She smiled at her young man. She took his hand.
Personnel scooted discreetly from the room as the couple murmured a prayer to the Cosmic Life Force. Carlo’s heart wobbled as he felt the fusion of their souls and envisioned the multitude of couplings that had led up to this moment. His imagination took him backward through time, before the mating of his parents and both sets of grandparents, through generations of men and women, all the way back to the dawn of humanity when beastly people had emerged from the forests and shed their fur.
Four hours later the pop star crawled across the floor, howling, her hair a tangled whirl. She’d tried the pool and birthing balls. She’d tried lavender compresses and visualization.
“Idiot,” she hissed when Carlo presented her with a photograph of her grandmother romping with her toddler mother in some midcentury backyard. (This was the image they’d selected in a childbirth class as a therapeutic tool.)
Carlo retreated to the shadows to sulk. He felt outside of things. He had the odd sensation that he did not know this woman, who’d flung off her kimono and was gritting her teeth as she performed the Cat’s Breath yoga maneuver, naked, while her doula massaged her lower vertebrae. Carlo could not help but think of baboons in estrous as the diva arched her back without a hint of self-consciousness—this woman who’d once micromanaged her breakfast lighting. Regarding her grimace, he envisioned the creature from Alien, the one with the small, venomous set of fangs that popped out of its larger mouth, glistening with corrosive saliva.
The pop star’s pendulous breasts swayed as she rocked and moaned. Meanwhile, medical personnel strode in and out to manipulate various machines and tubes, especially the fetal heart monitor that filled the room with the reverberated rhythm of his child’s life-force.
Carlo pictured his daughter simmering in the increasingly toxic hormonal broth, her pruney face twisted into the stubborn frown his grandmother had wielded when they’d attempted to move her into a nursing home. The old woman had died before they could get her out of her house, and this association haunted him. As he watched the diva worm across the tiles of the adjoining bathroom to once again snatch a bout of unsatisfactory relief by squatting on the toilet, he found himself praying to the old god of his parents—the cruel, patriarchal, white-bearded tyrant who’d raped a virgin and offered his son to be tortured and slain, the god whose cannibalistic worshipers ate his transubstantiated flesh and blood, and whose sanctified priests wore gaudy costumes and often found themselves involved in child molestation scandals. Carlo approached this god with the same disgust that a citizen on the foul side of the law might approach a corrupt governor.
He heard a savage shriek. The pop star, upon being informed that she’d dilated a mere three centimeters, had begun to beg for an epidural. Of course she’d signed an “Epidural Agreement” authorizing her doula and midwife to withhold the analgesic lumbar catheter until she uttered the “secret password.” And now the two women were kneeling on opposite sides of the crouched diva, hurriedly going through the “list of reasons for not administering an epidural” that their client had written out six months ago on her private yacht, when the Mediterranean had glinted optimistically as far as the eye could see.
At last, the goddess was fully dilated, fully docile, her pelvis raised, her legs bent like a frog’s and held firmly by nurses—she who had once straddled the globe in a music video and made the moon her bright plaything, she who had dined with queens and kings, she who was richer than Oprah and more ubiquitous on the internet than Jesus Christ.
No one told Carlo what to do, so he sank back into his chair. His head had begun to swim. He longed for his childhood bedroom, with its flaking paint and tiny windows. Part of him wanted to dash out onto the terrace, leap the rail, and gallop down the night beach like a renegade stallion. But the better man inside him ached to see his child’s face.
Listening to the instructions of her OB-GYN, the pop star pushed every time the monitor revealed a ripening contraction, strained until blood vessels on her cheeks burst. The doctor discovered that the child’s head, twisted slightly, was stuck in the pelvic basin. Carlo winced as he watched the obstetrician, a stout woman with a cranberry pixie cut, stick her hand inside his mistress to monkey with his child’s skull.
The diva felt nothing from the waist down and remained focused on pushing, going pale with terror as her child’s heartbeat revealed signs of distress. The OB-GYN jammed a shoe-horn-like device inside the goddess and clamped a suction cup onto the infant’s skull. Carlo’s heart wobbled when he saw a patch of slime-clumped hair just at the threshold of his mistress’s orifice.
At 6:45 in the evening, after a fecal excretion had been wiped away by nurses, and a third-degree laceration ripped through the goddess’s vaginal tissue and perineum, the purplish infant emerged, its head elongated into an alien cone, its features iguanoid, its mouth and fists clenched in outrage at being yanked from its aquatic haven out into the cold, stinging air.
After the infant had been examined, cleaned, warmed, and placed upon its mother’s breast, the diva, fluttery from a bolus of Demerol, fell asleep as the child took its first sloppy tugs at her nipple. The attendants left the infant with her father as the pop star was rushed to the hospital for perineal repair and an emergency vaginoplasty.
Carlo sat in the living room, its glass wall open to the sea, holding his wide-eyed child. She did not cry. She did not squirm. She appeared to gaze intently at his face as though it were the moon, her features an elfin version of his own, so delicate and mysterious that he swore he’d met her before on another cosmic plane. He had the strange sensation that an ancient, infinitely wise angelic being, newly decked in human flesh, nestled in his arms. She would forget the star-glow of the place she came from, he thought, and learn to cope with three dimensions—mud, sweat, and sorrow.
Some kind of insect was singing in the reeds. The fog had cleared. Carlo realized that the infant’s eyes—the deep, sweet darkness of molasses—were exactly like his grandmother’s. He thought about how strange it was that the dead old woman’s genes had travelled through the body of the goddess to be reborn on planet Earth. Lost in speculation, he rested alone with his child as the vast womb of the ocean heaved and starlight voyaged light years through the black heavens to reach them.
But of course they were not alone. The assistants and specialists that shuffled in the shadows with exquisite tact began to emerge, including the stout nurse from France who swept up the infant in one seamless movement and manipulated its small, plum-colored body as though it were an intricate gadget, making it yawn and blink.
“Has she asked for me?” Carlo inquired.
“Not yet,” said Carmine, the assistant who had approached him three years ago at Ridere Iena Café in Venice.
The nurse took the child to its mother, who was recovering from her postpartum procedures in the vast fortress of the hospital, groggy but anxious to suckle her newborn. And now Carlo was alone again. He pictured the goddess in a tower at the top of the medical complex, her dyed hair flowing from an open window and coiling down into the hospital’s famous mango grove. In his mind’s eye, golden fruits glowed like small suns, and delicate monkeys shimmered in the trees. He saw himself climbing the rope of her hair over and over again, only to be pushed back out through the window by a bodyguard with a face of granite.
Over the next few years Carlo spent time with his daughter, but never unmediated, never without the presence of some nanny, tutor, or bodyguard. From increasingly remote positions in the pop star’s retinue, he watched as his mistress reinvented herself. After recovering at an exclusive spa from her brutal birth experience and breastfeeding her child for four months, she hired an Indian wet nurse and resumed her intensive exercise regime. When she was almost back to her pre-pregnancy weight (strategically humanized by a pound of excess fat) she began to appear in photo shoots wearing diaphanous white dresses while clutching her rosy infant, whom her erstwhile lover glimpsed more often in photographs than in person. No matter how many times Carlo clicked on a website and saw a digitally perfected image of his glowing child, her beautiful black eyes expressing the old-world wisdom of his dead grandmother, he could never get used to the shock of love.
In interviews the diva spoke rapturously of motherhood. On her child’s first birthday, the pop star released an LP in which she crooned reverberated, pitch-corrected lullabies to ambient techno tracks “composed” by a handsome young DJ from Milan. Her music videos from this period always featured her as a fertility goddess—a maiden frolicking in a primeval garden; a robed astronaut meditating on the moon; a mermaid swimming in the Aegean, spewing a silvery trail of minnows.
But, six months after that, she reemerged as a gaunt sex goddess in a shimmery spandex skin. Nubile and writhing in rut, she was courted by loin-clothed suitors in disco torture dungeons. During this period, she sometimes summoned her young lover for sex, but she was suspicious and tentative. After all, Carlo had seen the goddess ripped open and oozing the stinking fluids of mortality. But this made the features of her regeneration all the more miraculous: the sylphish waistline that bore no stretch marks, the perky breasts with pink areolas that showed no trace of mammalian engorgement, and most of all, the moist, trim pussy that smelled like clean rain.
One drizzly morning in Yorkshire, after the pop star had not slept well, Carlo spotted the lurking crone—a general ambient sagging of the face, ropy arms, and veiny hands—never mind that she was surrounded by five thousand dollars’ worth of floral artistry, never mind that Disneyesque birds and butterflies fluttered in her midst. She looked like a middle-aged woman.
Rather than feeling repulsed, Carlo felt a surge of desire for this human woman, this creature of palpable flesh with glands that pumped and pores that emitted oil and hair that smelled of human musk. Seeing herself seen, the goddess regarded Carlo with a sad, lost look.
“Leave me alone,” she said.
That afternoon, she summoned Carlo to her leather-bound library. Seated behind a marble-topped regency desk that crouched on gilded lion’s claws, the diva shuffled through a pile of papers.
“We have grown apart over the past few years,” she said.
And then she laid out the rules. They would be separating. If he respected her privacy and never breathed a word to the media about her, her estate would pay him fifty thousand a year for the rest of his life. He would, of course, have access to his daughter: he’d visit on birthdays and holidays at the estate of his choice; his offspring would meet him for approved dinners and outings in public venues with impeccable security; he and his daughter would be allowed one private week-long “vacation” per year, during which they would be accompanied by bodyguards and nannies.
Carlo turned away from the goddess and gazed out at an endless pasture dotted with blurry stallions. His face was wet. He could not prevent himself from shaking. He felt an acute pain in what he thought was his liver, and he had the feeling that obscure organs inside him were shriveling.
“Carlo,” she said, her fake British accent disappearing as her old voice broke through. “I’m sorry, but this is how it has to be.”
Careful to look him in the eye just as she had during that fateful interview in Venice eight years before, she informed him that if he had any fantasies about writing a tell-all or appearing in a documentary exposé, he would never see his daughter again.
“If you utter one negative word about me to the press,” she said, pushing several contracts across the desk, “I will not be able to guarantee your safety should any of my mentally unstable fans choose to exact revenge.”
For years after their official separation, Carlo was able to maintain an illusion of connectivity by dwelling on the outer reaches of her retinue, checking his bank account for deposited funds, bracing himself for paparazzi whenever he left his apartment in Los Angeles. He appeared at meticulously orchestrated events where he sat beside his gorgeous colt-legged daughter, who always regarded him with the kind, dreamy eyes of his dead grandmother. At these events, Carlo “the dear old family friend” laughed with the glittering goddess, who kept her new lovers discreetly tucked away.
But he spent most of his time alone in front of media screens, drinking his looks away. His graying hair endured many bad dye jobs. His stomach softened into a detectable paunch. He suffered from gum disease, hepatic fibrosis, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. When he caught an occasional glimpse of his old self on the internet, it was like sighting a rare bird, a flash of scarlet in deepest forest gloom. The dead tree of his inner self would quicken with birdsong; feeling green leaves unfurling, he’d chase his elation with another drink.
“Poor Papa,” his daughter murmured as she inspected an Armani cast-off jacket he’d obsessively stalked on glossimer.com. On a beach-front terrace in Cannes, the silk-haired creature hung upon his neck like an elegant monkey, preening for cameras that flashed in the darkness below. At ten, the child spoke three languages. She rode white ponies that smelled of vanilla. She dove into cleverly designed swimming pools that blended flawlessly with ethereal landscaping. She wore amethyst chokers and cashmere slippers and traveled the globe with her own entourage, treating her tutors and nannies with gentle condescension, a trace of which Carlo now detected in her interactions with him.
“But it looks good on you.” She snapped a pic with her phone. “Let’s have brunch at le glouton vertige tomorrow.”
He’d looked up this restaurant on the internet, gasping at its prices, pining for those enchanted years when he swilled gallons of rare wine without a thought. This vacation, funded by the goddess, was a bittersweet reminder of those limitless times.
Stroking his dyed hair with her tiny, beautiful hands, his daughter asked about her grandparents, whom she’d met once as a small child in front of the alligator tank at Zoosafari Fasanolandia.
“They live. They eat. They shit. They sleep restlessly,” said Carlo, surprised at the bitterness in his voice. But his daughter thought he was joking.
She laughed and leapt from his lap. She stared up at the pocked and ancient moon.
“Mom says I can visit the moon when I turn thirteen,” she said.
And Carlo knew that this was true.
Three months after his thirty-sixth birthday, Carlo learned that the goddess was pregnant by a “mystery man.” Beyond his balcony, from which he could make out a blue patch of ocean, birds pecked at autumn berries. His eyes went wet. He felt like a ghost. He held an outmoded tablet in his trembling hands.
He wiped his eyes and scrolled through the article again. The night was a special one because Hermes, the chimp-manned land rover that the United States had sent to Mars, would touch down around midnight if all went well. The moment would be celebrated with an event jointly sponsored by NASA and the Kodak Theater in Hollywood: a star-studded variety show hosted by an aging boy-band heartthrob. At the height of the festivities, the fifty-four-year-old diva would appear, five months pregnant via her own cryogenically preserved ova. Warbling a tune she’d written especially for the occasion, this avatar of advanced reproductive technologies would celebrate American ingenuity.
In keeping with her previous pregnancy, the pop star had gone into hiding during her first trimester, and this would be her debut as a knocked-up quinquagenarian. Carlo had seen precious little of his old love lately, nor of his daughter, who’d become a sarcastic tween with pink hair. The media build-up to the goddess’s latest incarnation was, he thought, appropriately punctuated with shots of Prometheus the chimp, decked out in his silver astronaut suit, hurtling through the diamond-specked void of space.
Carlo sat in front of his dark media screen, blackout shades drawn, a twenty-watt bulb burning in a vintage lamp. He’d skipped lunch. He’d eaten a bag of pretzels for dinner. He’d been consuming light cocktails since noon. At seven o ’clock, he clicked his remote.
The Diva Channel, one of the many networks hyping the event, was interspersing live coverage with a retrospective of the goddess’s career, and by eight o ’clock Carlo was a sodden mess of nostalgia and champagne. Bewitched by the old one’s numberless incarnations, he gasped each time he saw her rise from the ashes to spread new plumage.
“She is eternal,” he thought, popping a newfangled pharmaceutical to calm himself. And he, a bricklayer’s son from Sassuolo, had had the honor of servicing her divine womb.
By eleven o ’clock he was awash in a sea of fantasy, his mind mixed up by the delusion that the goddess herself would be landing on Mars. On the red planet she would reveal her true form, dazzling mortal Earthlings with her flaming essence. As media entities discussed her miraculous pregnancy, they showed footage of her previous conception. Carlo saw himself at twenty-four, idling in her shadow, his previous handsomeness a memento mori.
He rose shakily for another trip to the medicine cabinet, where he kept an arsenal of prescription medication designed for his genotype. When he returned to his chair, the narrative had again switched back to the plight of Prometheus the chimp, who was playing around with floating balls in his antigravity gym.
At last, just after Carlo switched to bourbon on the rocks, the Kodak Theater stage went dark. A techno overture from Thus Spake Zarathustra swelled as a gilded egg floated down from the Empyrean. Out hatched the goddess with spurts of red flame—a postmodern Helen, daughter of Leda and Zeus. The lights popped on and she was on Mars, unfurling her new form amid the craterous terrain built by Zerif, the famous film-set designer.
Clad in a rubbery crimson bodysuit, her hair a writhing mass of serpentine tentacles, the pop star lip-synced her new song, a devilishly catchy dance tune about reaching for the stars. Although she did, indeed, sport a bump bearing testament to her marvelous fertility, the rest of her body was shockingly ripped.
The media had been babbling about her body all night, entertaining various speculations about its cyborgian components. Had she been rebuilt from the titanium-fortified bone with baboon muscle cells and synthetic protein filaments? Had geneticists cloned her and transplanted her brain?
Did any of that really matter? She was hot—hot as a molten planet finding its shape in the hallowed blackness of space. She’d moved beyond yoga into contortionism, and Carlo gripped the arms of his chair as he watched her flex into an effortless pretzel and scamper spider-style across the floor. Yodeling through a vocoder, she offered her pregnant belly to the sky.
“She is divine,” he murmured.
He could no longer feel his limbs, having overmedicated with the muscle relaxants once again. And there she was, fluttering around Mars on incandescent wings. There she was, holding its twin moons in the silken palms of her hands. There she was, vanishing into the fourth dimension from whence she’d come.
Carlo saw Prometheus the chimp grinning through the fiberglass window of his space helmet. As the primate ambled across the Martian desert in his silver suit, he struck the parched terrain with the pole of an American flag. When he grew frustrated and dropped his implement, the Diva Channel switched to a commercial break—airing an ad for a miraculous new skin cream.
Just before Carlo passed out, he saw cartoon nanobots crawling inside a middle-aged woman’s pores. Toiling away in dark, bat-infested caves, the tiny automatons swept away cobwebs, repaired cracks, and refortified each and every epidermal cell with solid gold microparticles.