Queen of Atlantis
On the morning of my fortieth birthday I sat quietly in my office pondering the sad fact that I had taken a wrong turn in life. I was completely alone. There would be no party, no friends dropping by later with gifts. The woman I had loved for ten years was gone—off to a new city and a new job. It would have been nice on this day to hear her voice, but she was not taking my calls.
The problem, according to her, was that I thought myself too smart to work for anyone else. I had, in fact, given up a perfectly good job with a counseling service. I thought I would be fine on my own.
I occupied an office not far from Kenmore Square, on the second floor of an old brownstone building. One large room, a window showing the Boston skyline, bathroom down the hall. Below was a restaurant supply store. Above, a wholesale distributor of hemp products. There were three other offices on my floor, all vacant, which gave me a haunted feeling.
Now and then a client would show up. An old woman complaining about bad health, vindictive neighbors, loneliness. A widower abandoned by his grown children, friendless and heartbroken in his drafty house. And there was the occasional nut, like the unshaven man with long greasy hair and busy eyes who told me the government had put nanobots in his water supply, microscopic spies that swarmed in his toilet, monitoring the status of his defecations.
Once I had a visit from a slim, mild-looking man who spoke, quite casually, of sexual fantasies that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Look,” I said, “I’m just a counselor. You’d be better off with a psychiatrist.”
“You’re a lot cheaper,” he said
“But I can’t really help you.”
“Who needs help? I just like talking about the things in my head. You’re a paid listener.”
And so I was.
It was getting toward noon, and I wished I had someone to meet at the diner down the block for a nice lunch on this, my special day. But there was no one. All my old friends had settled into marriage. They had children and palatial homes and their yards were luxuriant emerald carpets. I was no longer invited to their picnics and barbecues, probably because of my forlorn aspect. I had lost the will to trade in irrelevant discourse. Even with a plastic plate on my lap and kids bopping around, I yearned to connect deeply with my host or his wife or his neighbor. What was wrong with asking someone you’d just met—some tanned guy in a Land’s End polo shirt—if he believed in an afterlife? Was it really improper to inquire of Caitlin, a pretty grade school teacher licking brownie crumbs from her delicate fingers, what she thought about orgone boxes? Mind you, I didn’t say these things to appear outrageous. I was quite sincere in my wish to ken the inner lives of everyone I met. This made me a good counselor, I believed. But it wasn’t helping my social life.
After lunch I battled sleep, my head nodding as I yielded to the digestive torpor induced by a heavy meal. What saved me from going under (snoring in my chair, head back, mouth open) was the sound of elevator doors opening and footsteps in the hall. They advanced to my door, and there came a soft, hesitant knocking.
“Come in,” I said, standing now behind my desk.
Looking back, I realize that I was primed, a sucker for beauty. So it is when you are a long time without love. And this was not just a pretty girl. She was the composite of every facet of feminine loveliness particular to my taste. Standing before me was a creature I had known on the playground, the prepubescent daemon who had entered my boyhood dreams to enact inchoate sexual tableaus of flight and rescue, with me in a cowboy hat or superhero’s cape. She was all the college girls I had gaped at, striding panther-like down cobbled walkways, their taut skins aglow with emergent carnality. She was the confident mature woman, elegant, experienced, shimmering with the mysteries of the Goddess.
Had I been a different man—my truck-driving cousin Frank, for example—this girl would have been a big-titted blonde with fat ruby lips and jiggling haunches. But clever Fate, knowing well the lineaments of my desire, delivered to my doorstep a young woman with exquisite features and slender limbs. Any attempt here at a thorough description would be hopeless. Instead, try to imagine the gestalt of a thousand ingenues. Feathery hair, light brown and boyishly coiffed. High cheekbones, long lashes, dark eyes lit with radiant sorrow…but no, I mustn’t. Suffice it to say that an angel sat before me.
Her name was Lana. I think she asked about my fee, and I suppose I answered her, and whatever words we exchanged are now lost in the fog of that dizzying moment. But I do recall noticing her legs, smooth and tanned, crossed at the knees and draped by her billowing white skirt.
Then she told me her story.
“I met Sean in Ann Arbor,” she began. “I was a junior studying psychology. He was a lapsed TA who worked in a book store specializing in the occult. I used to browse the esoteric psychology section. He was nice-looking. Long hair, glasses that made him look studious. Tall and well built.”
I sat at my desk, hands folded in front of me. As it happens, I am rather tall and well built, too. Had she noticed?
“When I bought something he always had a knowing comment to make, but never in a superior way. I was impressed. One day I ran into him at the student union and we had lunch together. He asked me my sign and I just smiled at him. No, I’m serious, he said. People make fun of astrology, but if you believe that everything is connected—you do, don’t you?—then how can celestial objects, with their powerful electromagnetic fields and who knows what else pulsing out of them, how can they not have some effect on our puny auras? So I confessed that my smile had been a defense, the result of too many science courses and sneering professors. Secretly I did think there might be something to astrology, and to a lot of other strange beliefs. I’m a Pisces, he said, how about you? Cancer, I said, and he got this big childlike smile on his face, and I think at that moment I started to fall for him. We’re water signs, he said. Very compatible.”
I wanted to scream at her, I’m a Pisces, too! And I am—it’s no lie. My heart beat faster—this was unprofessional. But I held my tongue, except to ask her, “And were you? Compatible?”
“Oh, yes,” she said.
My spirits fell, even though I’d anticipated her answer. But she did not elaborate—a mercy, since I had no wish to learn of the astounding synchronous climaxes she had shared with this lout.
“So then what happened,” I asked blandly.
She sighed. “Well, after a while we got married. A simple ceremony in the garden of a friend whose house overlooked a lake. Nothing fancy, but very beautiful.”
“I can imagine,” I said. “The flowers of springtime, the Unitarian minister bald and beaming, hummingbirds flitting about in their little pink frocks…”
She gave me a quizzical look.
“Don’t mind me,” I said. “Just trying to picture it.” I offered a self-deprecatory chuckle, realizing that I had better watch my step. “You stayed in Ann Arbor, then?”
She was silent. I knew she was considering whether to get up and walk out, having seen something frivolous behind the mask. And that would have been unfair, because it was not frivolity she had glimpsed, but bitterness that another man had pawed her, that her girlish fantasy of a wedding under the sky had been fulfilled not by me, that I was at this moment prevented from throwing myself at her feet and proclaiming with great passionate sobs that I must devote the rest of my life to the worship of her honeyed flesh.
I was relieved when she gave a little shrug and continued her tale.
“Yes, we lived there until I graduated. Then Sean got into an MA program at Ohio University.”
“Ah,” I said, “Athens.”
Her face brightened. “Yes,” she said, “it’s lovely there. Much warmer than Ann Arbor. We rented an old farmhouse and I found a job and Sean dug in for his studies. They were offering a degree in Transformative Psychology. Very new-agey. He loved it, of course.”
She paused again. Her gaze shifted from me to the window, to the blue autumn sky above the tall buildings. In a very small voice, she said, “We were happy.”
I saw a lachrymal glint in her eye. If tears came, I would offer her the box of tissues on my desk. But she was steady. “We had two cats. There was an orchard behind the house, and we would see deer, and sometimes wild turkey. We made friends and had parties in the yard, with wine and homegrown pot, and at night we would look up at the blazing stars and dream of the years to come.”
I said nothing. The quiet, dutiful counselor. In fact I was touched by her story. She had felt the breath of Eden.
Her voice became matter-of-fact. “Things didn’t go according to plan. Sean started to get weird. At first I thought it was too much pot. He zoned out a lot, staring off into space and ignoring my attempts at conversation. He was distant, and the tenderness went out of his touch. He lost interest in sex. I thought there might be someone else, but when I investigated—asked my girlfriends, snooped in his stuff, you know, that sort of thing—there didn’t seem to be anything going on. I confronted him, told him I was unhappy and that we needed to talk. All he could say was that he still loved me, but that he felt different somehow, like he was being pulled by mysterious forces into another life.”
“Yes. I didn’t understand it, either. What other life could there be, unless he was being drawn into it by another person. And that wasn’t the case, I was sure of it.”
I had been playing idly with a pencil, turning it around in my fingers. Now gently, rhythmically, I tapped the eraser end of it on the desk blotter. So her Sean was headed for some kind of breakdown. A sad business, and I was sorry for Lana’s pain, but yes, let’s get him out of the picture. “What happened then?”
“Well, naturally I thought it might be something organic, clinical depression perhaps. I didn’t know a lot about his history. His parents had died when he was very young and he’d been raised by an aunt in Michigan. He assured me that he’d never been on medication or under the care of a psychiatrist. But he had a loathing of doctors and refused to go to one now.”
“One morning, after a very bad night during which I said I couldn’t stay in a marriage like this, he came to me with an idea. We should go on a trip, he said. Yes, our life in Athens was pleasant, but we were stagnating. Same old everything—classes, work, friends, parties. His semester was at an end, he pointed out, and I had some vacation time coming. Why not take a couple of weeks and do some traveling? I hadn’t seen my sister in Albany for over a year. We could visit her and tour the Adirondacks.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“It was.” Her eyes were distant, recalling the memories. “We gave the house key to a friend and packed up for two weeks on the road. The weather was glorious—it was mid-May—and we sang along with the radio and gorged on fast food and stopped anywhere at all, because there was no schedule. My sister had misgivings about Sean, but she was happy to see me, and our two nights there were fun. After that we drove into the mountains and lost our troubles in the green wilderness. Sometimes we pitched a tent. Other nights we slept in cheap motels—anything, so long as they had a bed and a shower. We heard coyotes howling in the night, and once a tremendous thunderstorm woke us up, and we clung to each other like frightened children, and even though my eyes were tightly shut I could sense the lightning flashes. We made love every night, and it was beautiful. Once Sean held me in his arms and wept, saying he was sorry for the pain he had put me through, that he wanted nothing but to be with me forever.”
She was smiling, but one small tear slid down her cheek. I offered the tissues; she took one from the box and dabbed at her face. “Sorry,” she said.”
A heavy sigh. Another tissue and the blowing of her pretty nose. She continued. “Everything was fine. Better than fine. We headed back to Ohio after ten days, content and happy. We were on the Thruway, and we stopped for lunch at one of the exits. I remember the town, a beautiful Indian name. Canajoharie.”
“I know it,” I said. “I’ve passed through there myself.”
“There was a diner. I don’t remember what they called it. I was studying the menu and when I looked up I saw Sean’s face, and it made me physically sick. Instantly, like a jolt of electricity. I knew it even before I followed his gaze. He was looking at our waitress.”
Christ, I thought. He has an angel in love with him and he flirts with a waitress.
“I turned around and saw the same look on her face. It was as if they knew each other. That was my first thought—maybe they did. Sean had never told me much about old girlfriends. This would be some crazy coincidence, but stranger things had happened. Naturally I looked her up and down. She was gorgeous. Tall, slender, long black hair. I realized I wasn’t in the same league.”
“Impossible,” I said, regretting my interruption the moment it occurred.
“What? Oh. Well, thanks, but if you could see this girl you’d change your mind.”
“I think not. But please go on.”
She gathered herself, ready to continue her story. But was there something different in her eyes? Perhaps blurting out my thoughts had not been a mistake. After all, I wanted her to know something of how I felt, even though it was inappropriate at the time.
“We ate a quiet lunch. I was determined not to let this foolishness bother me. I didn’t want it to ruin our trip. But he kept looking at her. Do you know that girl? I asked. He denied it, of course. Then stop looking at her, I said. He ate the rest of his meal in silence. When she handed him the check I saw their eyes meet, and the look they shared was like a knife in my heart. By the time we were in the car I was fuming. I fought with him, but it was one-sided. He barely said anything. Finally I just gave up. I slept most of the way home.”
She stopped her tale. “Do you have anything to drink?”
“Of course.” I turned to the mini-fridge behind my chair. “Ice tea? Soda? Bottled water?”
I handed her the plastic bottle. She uncapped it and took a long drink. “Thanks.”
She smacked her lips and then wiped them on the back of her hand. At once I saw distress in her eyes, as if she were conscious of having made an indelicate gesture. But I had thought it lovely, childlike. “Go on,” I said, helpfully.
She told the rest of the story, and it was a doozey all right. After returning home Sean had fallen into a funk, had been morose and uncommunicative. Then one day she woke up to find him gone. His car was not in the driveway. He had not left a note. His duffel bag and some of his clothes were missing. She called her friends, but no one knew anything. She contacted the few in-laws she knew of, but they had not heard anything either, and it bothered her that they seemed disinterested. Had he done things like this before? In late afternoon on the fifth day of his absence, she heard his car pull into the driveway. Sean walked casually into the house, dropped his duffel bag on the living room floor and stood staring at her.
He looked like hell. Red-eyed and unshaven. Even after just four days his clothes hung on him in a sloppy way that indicated loss of weight. He had not been eating.
She stood across the room with her arms folded, waiting for an explanation, her heart pounding, her eyes and cheeks burning with rage and resentment.
Sean fell into a chair. Said he was sorry, that he should have told her, left her a note.
Told her what? She asked
That his destiny had suddenly been revealed to him. That he had to go back to Canajoharie.
So that was it, thought Lana. Destiny indeed. What a crock. He must have known her before. She collapsed on the couch. When were you with her? she asked. Was it Ann Arbor?
No, said Sean. Atlantis.
Atlantis. It was a strange word to hear all of a sudden. I didn’t respond right away. The street had grown quiet, and I was conscious of the muted, steady ticking of the clock on my desk. “I don’t get it,” I said.
“Neither did I at first. But he explained. Oh yes, he explained quite lucidly what exactly was going on. You see, Sean and this girl had been lovers—king and queen, actually—in ancient Atlantis. In another life.”
Another life. As in ten thousand years ago. I felt my lips distorting into the kind of involuntary leer that is often the reaction to tragic or preposterous news. I tried wiping it away with my palm. “Wow. And of course you didn’t buy it.”
She was silent for a moment. “The thing is, I’m sure he believed it.”
Sure. That they were Atlantean royalty. How come, I wondered, whenever you heard of such past-life recollections, the people never remembered being shoemakers in Atlantis, or maybe the guy who cleaned up the elephant shit in the Roman Colosseum. They were always kings and queens, great warriors. Cleopatra, or at least Cleopatra’s handmaidens.
“Okay,” I said. “So what happened next?”
She finished the tale. When Sean had returned to Canajoharie, the waitress was gone. She had quit the day before he got there. Left no forwarding address. And no one knew where she had come from.
He didn’t know what to do. He checked into a motel, and that’s when he had his second revelation. The girl’s appearance had been a test. He had felt the karmic connection at once, but failed to act upon it. He should have dropped everything and gathered her into his arms, ecstatic over finding her after centuries of separation. But he had been confused and afraid, had done nothing, and now she was gone. His punishment would be to roam the planet until he found her again. He would stay in Athens for a few days to liquidate his possessions and get his affairs in order. Then he would set out for parts unknown. Where? He had no idea. He would follow the wind. If it was his fate to find her, he would. If not, he would pass out of this incarnation a lonely and broken man, and hope to overtake her in the next go-round.
I sat in my chair, stunned. And for a second or two my petty self-interest didn’t matter. What pain this lovely woman had endured! I didn’t like that it had been caused by her passion for this Sean fellow, but there it was. Well, maybe I could help in more ways than one.
“That’s quite a story,” I said. I leaned back and clasped my hands together in my lap, affecting a look of contemplation. “The question is, how shall we deal with it?”
But I was derailed. Lana exhaled deeply. “You know,” she began, “I have to say that just telling you the story has made me feel better. I couldn’t share this with anyone until now. It was, I don’t know, too crazy.”
“I understand,” I said, “and I’m glad this has helped. But really, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. For example—“
She cut me off, calling me by my first name. The sound of it on her lovely lips charmed me, and I stopped. “I hope this won’t sound rude,” she said, “but I don’t think I want to discuss it any further. I’m very tired, and still sad, and I’d like to rest for a while. Let me hold on to this nice feeling you’ve given me. You’re a good listener.”
What could I do? I thanked her, and agreed that she was probably right to stop now. I offered to refund my meager fee—the small bundle of cash I’d slipped in the desk drawer—but she wouldn’t hear of it. She got up to leave, and I felt panic rising in my chest.
“Listen,” I said, “is there a number where I can reach you? I might be able to offer some insight. You know, I mean when you’re ready to talk about this again.”
She stood on the other side of the desk, staring into my eyes. Was there the hint of a smile on her lips? I wasn’t sure. But I was conscious of her breathing, of the steady rise and fall of the pouter breast beneath her soft blouse. Her eyes were wet and shining, and her cheeks positively glowed. I knew that I was hopelessly in love with her. I couldn’t let her walk out of there without at least a phone number.
“Why not,” she said. Reaching into her purse she took out a pad of Post-it Notes and scribbled the number of the friends she was staying with. The Steiners, in Malden. I took the note and extended my hand. Hers was cool to the touch, her flesh soft but her grip desperately firm, like the grasp of a dying child. I said goodbye and watched her walk out of the office, and knew that the interval between now and when I could plausibly call her would be unendurable torture.
Two days later I called the Steiners in Malden. Like a lovesick teen I had rehearsed what I would say. As the phone rang, my heart beat wildly in my chest. But after four rings there came the dreaded sound, those three notes climbing the scale, prelude to the recorded voice telling me that the number I had dialed was not in service.
I grabbed the phone book and frantically paged through it. There was another Steiner in Malden, with, thank god, a published number. I dialed it and after two rings a little girl answered. I asked for her mom or dad. She didn’t quite get the question and I grew irritated. Her father picked up the extension and I explained myself. Gruffly, he said they had no visitor named Lana. Never had. I called all the other Steiners in the greater Boston area. Same result.
This was a Friday night. I had been hoping for a nice dinner together, and perhaps a Saturday of sightseeing in Back Bay, or a drive to the Cape. Now there would be nothing.
The next few days were terrible. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Why had she ditched me like this? Why hadn’t I been more aware? I could have walked her to her car, memorized the license plate.
I had Lana’s married name so I searched the Internet, but there was no record of her—or of Sean—in Ann Arbor, or Athens, or anywhere else. When I called Ohio University I was told that they had never offered a program in Transformative Psychology.
In despair, I stopped going to the office. I ate only to keep my strength up, and my small apartment fell into clutter and chaos. And then, one sleepless night as I lay staring at a blank wall, the knowledge came to me.
How stupid I had been! How could I not have seen?
Sean had never existed. Lana had walked into my office out of the mists of time, trembling to behold her long lost soul-mate. The story—and the test—had been meant for me alone.
My office is no more. My apartment is cleaned out, and so is my bank account. My car is in good shape and ready to go. Like her mythical Sean, I will follow the wind.
I will not rest until I find her.
Gael DeRoane’s work has appeared in London Journal of Fiction, Opiate, Page & Spine, Clockwise Cat, and Fiction on the Web. His novella Arvin the Discontented Spider is available at Amazon in e-book format. Mr. DeRoane is a tennis coach and a cat whisperer, although they seldom listen.