Sophia’s shift at the casino ended just before sunset. She showered and changed out of her uniform in the staff locker room and pulled her locs up into a high ponytail. Normally she’d put on a little makeup, but these days, her light brown skin presented a perpetual glow; no need for cosmetics.
She walked back to her tiny apartment on Morris. Her Atlantic City street was too unimpressive to be on the Monopoly board, and too far away from the Bay side for her to see the sun dip below the horizon. But she knew it had.
Three blocks. Two blocks. One. Sophia put the key in the lock of her apartment and paused, hopeful, before opening the door. She stepped in and looked at the floor. His boots were there, covered with rime and dried seaweed. Wayward grains of sand dotted the linoleum. She smiled. He’d come back.
“Ah, you are here,” came his deep, heavily-accented voice from the kitchen. “I have brought the dinner. I remembered correctly, yes?”
He’d picked up take-out from the local Chinese place. All her favorites sat warm in their cartons on the kitchen counter.
“Yes, Oloku,” she looked past the food and paper plates and straight at him. “Everything’s perfect.”
He’d brought wine and poured it into two of her mismatched dollar store glasses.
“And the day?” he asked in his odd manner as they sat eating dinner on her sofa.
“A day,” she shrugged and smiled. “Thank you for dinner.”
He always watched her lips when she smiled. “If you are content, I am pleased.”
“Oh, I am content.”
He clinked his glass against hers, and they sipped, looking at each other with hunger for something other than dinner.
The rest of the wine stayed in its bottle and much of the food was still on the plates when she led him to the bedroom.
His attentions always drained her, so she never felt him leave the bed. When she woke the next morning, he was long gone, as always. She lay in bed a moment, lingering in the scent of sea salt and his maleness. Only the sorrow of knowing it would be weeks before she saw him again made her rise and get ready for work.
They seldom talked. Even the night they met. She’d been at the club with some coworkers. He was so beautiful in a strange way she couldn’t quite name, and a good ten years younger than she. She’d been skeptical that he could be interested in her, not with so many young, in-shape girls his age in the place. But he’d asked her to dance, in a deep voice with a West African accent that made her shiver. So when he’d made his interest clear, she took a risk and brought him home. The next morning, he was gone, as she’d expected. What was unexpected was the note she’d found on the counter in exquisite cursive letters:
I hope you had as lovely a time as I did. May I see you again when I’m back in town? I’ll be at the same place on Saturday three weeks hence.
What man said lovely or hence? But she’d figured he probably learned old-fashioned proper English wherever he was from.
The girls at work had warned her that he was probably an illegal looking for an easy mark to get him his papers. But she’d never been that gullible. No matter how good the sex, she’d never wanted another man in her life. Men wanted things. Time, space, attention. Mostly their egos stroked. Sophia had no time for that, especially when they gave nothing in return.
But as she’d gone through her day, she thought about how good it was to have someone every so often, just to make crazy love to her, speak softly with old-fashioned words, and leave with no demands.
When the day of his supposed return arrived, she’d talked herself out of any expectations. She was sure he’d see her for the tired, staid 47-year-old that she was, and without the help of excessive alcohol, he’d politely say his goodbyes.
She made her way to the club and headed to the bar. She ordered wine and looked for an empty table, certain he wouldn’t show. But there he’d been, standing at a table nearby, waiting for her.
Suddenly nervous, she’d had to force her feet to move. He met her halfway.
“Sophia. I am…most pleased.” He smiled.
“Oloku, I…so am I.” She was grinning. She never grinned. They sat down.
“This establishment does not have much in the way of food. Would you like, when we have finished our drinks, to have a meal?”
“Yes, that would be…lovely.”
He smiled, his perfect lips parting to reveal perfect teeth.
She’d felt like a teenager, wondering what to say on a first date.
“So, Oloku, where are you from?”
“As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Africa. West Africa. An island you’ve probably never heard of, off the coast. And you?”
“Virginia,” she said, suddenly sorry she brought up the subject.
He noticed. “This…memory of your home makes you sad. Why?”
She had tried to laugh it off and failed. “My childhood was terrible. As soon as I was old enough, I ran away with the first man who looked twice at me. That was a mistake, so I ran away from him too, and wound up here.”
He’d looked at her, not understanding, but with an expression of concern. He took her hand after a moment. “So, you are free now?”
“Yes, I am free.”
“You survived the storm and found a harbor. That is good.”
She’d changed the subject. “Well, what brings you here?”
He blinked. “Work. I—how do you say it?—cleaning the sand….”
“Those massive things that go along the beach in the morning? Sand rakers? Yes.”
Something in his face made her think she must have misunderstood him, but he went on.
“My work brings me to beaches up and down the coast. I am in town only a day or two a month.”
Perfect, she’d thought. “I see,” she said out loud.
As the evening went on, she marveled at his striking looks. She’d been pulled into his wide-set, dark brown eyes with their unusual golden glint. His smooth skin practically glowed and it was all she could do to keep herself from reaching out and touching him.
“Oloku, you’re so young….” She had hoped she was giving him an out. Or maybe giving herself the out before she could feel anything for this man.
He’d looked at her, confused at first, then threw back his head and laughed. “Sophia, I am not so young as I look. And you…you are much younger than you think.” He stood and held out his hand. “Come, let me buy you dinner.”
They’d picked up food from the Chinese restaurant and went back to her apartment. They never finished the meal.
In the morning, there’d been another note.
I will be back in town next month on the 17th. I will stop by after sunset with dinner.
He’d never asked for her number. She’d never asked for his. This was exactly as she wanted it.
Her mirror had greeted her that morning with a noticeable change. The frown lines around her mouth had faded. Her crow’s feet were less noticeable. And her feet and knees stopped aching even after standing all day. Endorphins. Sex as the fountain of youth. And in three and half weeks, she’d get more of the same.
She’d decided not to tell anyone about seeing Oloku again. She wanted the joy of it, the secret of it, all to herself.
When he’d returned, they sat on the beach as the moon rose and he told her about how he would have to leave in the winter, unsure if he’d be back in the spring. He said he’d understand if such an arrangement, one with so little certainty, wouldn’t be to her liking. As an answer, she’d handed him a key to her apartment.
There was no denying the changes. The girls at work were asking what she was doing to make her skin look so good. But she looked something other than “good.” She looked and felt ten years younger, which on the surface was a positive. But the person looking at her in the mirror just wasn’t her. She didn’t know what was happening, but she was certain of the source.
“Oloku, something is happening to me, to my body. You’re…. What is it you’re not telling me?”
He looked at her and brushed his fingers along her forehead, lineless now.
“Ah…you are feeling the effects.”
“It’s you, isn’t it? Somehow you’re doing this.”
He smiled an odd, shy smile. “Yes.”
“How?” It was almost a whisper.
He had no words to sufficiently explain, so he showed her, placing his hand on either side of her face.
She felt like she ought to be frightened, but all she sensed was calm as she watched his eyes change color from almost brown and gold to storm-cloud grey. And she was falling into those eyes as if she was falling into a dream. And then she saw…
The Earth before the continents shifted
Rivers as they carved their way along the planet surface, reaching for the sea
Creatures that swam the oceans long before primates evolved
Early humans pushing the first boats into ocean waters
And Oloku was there the whole span of time.
And she saw
Other gods and demigods, creating and destroying
Humans being born from the slow miracle of evolution
The struggle of gods and humans
She fell back into herself, into the now, her heart racing. Oloku hadn’t moved.
She stared at him as his glow faded. She heard her pulse in her ears.
He smiled, shaking his head. “I am not the Great One. I am a god. My domain is the sea.”
“A god? A god? Of the ocean?”
He nodded, the gold in his irises particularly bright.
“I thought that was Neptune or Poseidon?”
He laughed. “I am all of these! Our children call us by different names, and some paint us with white skin and rosy cheeks.” He shrugged. “I bear them no ill will.
She reached out and touched his face, feeling a jumble of awe and curiosity.
A god. So incredibly old…. The things you have seen….
She sat back in her seat. “And what do you do to make me look and feel like this?”
“That which ages a human helps me sustain my mortal form. I hope this,” he ran a finger down the side of her face, “is in some part worth what I took from you.”
He looked contrite. “I was wrong to take what was not given freely. I am selfish, as gods are wont to be. And I didn’t want to frighten you.”
She felt many things, none of it fear.
“Is this why you chose me? Because I have so many years to give you?”
He looked confused.
“Did you choose me because I’m older?”
She saw understanding in his eyes. He sat up straighter and that golden glow strengthened.
“No, Sophia. For one, there are other, less pleasant ways of taking what I want from a human. I am a god.”
She had never seen him the least bit angry before, but now the room nearly crackled with his emotions.
He went on, in gentler tones. “And do you not see that to me, all humans lives are but a blink of an eye?
“Ah, Sophia. Your soul sings a different song than other mortals. I heard it as I passed and wanted to sing with you. I wanted to be near you so very much.”
She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “And I wanted to be with you.”
He was very quiet for a long moment. “The season changes, and soon I must see to my charge. The waters are sick, and I have indulged my own desires long enough.”
She nodded, her heart sinking.
Late one November day, she put on her winter coat, made her way to the boardwalk, and waited for sunset.
She wasn’t heartbroken, but it would still be hard to say goodbye.
“You came to meet me?” His musical voice was right by her ear.
“I wanted as much time as possible with you.”
He kissed her.
They walked the three blocks to the apartment. They made love and slept, woke and ate and made love again.
“Wake me before you go,” she said. “Don’t leave me this last time. Let me walk with you.”
He moved a stray loc from the corner of her mouth and nodded. “Then you should sleep now. I’ve already taken a great deal tonight.”
She shook her head. “No. Not yet.” She climbed on top of him and let him take what he needed as she took what she wanted.
They walked in silence to the water’s edge. She watched in wonder as his clothes, boots and all, fell from him like water and sand and seaweed. He stood naked under the waning moon and kissed her.
“Goodbye, Oloku” she whispered. “I will miss you.”
He placed his hands on either side of her face with a sad smile. “No. But I will remember you.”
He immediately turned and ran into the icy surf.
She felt as if she’d burst with the loss of him. She felt her chest tighten and the tears sting at the corners of her eyes and….
What am I doing on the beach at this hour? Have I been crying? How the hell…?
She hurried up the beach to the boardwalk. Then it was just three, two, one blocks to her apartment. At least tomorrow (today?) was her day off. She could sleep in.
Her bed smelled of clean sea mist, and even though she could feel sand in the sheets, she was warm and content. And then she remembered that gods could be selfish, though she had no idea why that thought came to mind.
This story first appeared in the anthology Dread Naught but Time
Edited by Marie Ginga