the god game
an updated version of in god's eyes, prometheus
by Ella Rous
i kick my heels against the rough concrete wall in the pool, watching the water swirl around my knees and lap against the edge. the tile at the bottom is holographic, rippling silver and split into colors by the faint light, pinks and yellows and blues and colors that shift in between, nameless.
i look up, smiling a little. you grin, a smirk that makes you look almost crazy. your shoulders shift as you take a breath and sink slightly into still waters.
i trace your hair, your brown roots disappearing into pastel pink tresses, pooling and sifting around your face, partially submerged. your eyes, hard and brown, hover above the water, little bubbles trailing from your mouth.
the sun breaks over the trees and shatters the soft silver colors into blinding light, rays that light your eyes and set them melting into gold. you tilt your head, lips breaking the water, exhale into the sunlit air, and i watch your muscles relax. i know exactly what you’re doing.
i kick my heels hard into the concrete. they scratch and sting in the chlorinated water. i focus on that, and in the blood rising in my lips, my teeth drawing it out. you settle, your hair drifting around your face in a cloud that doesn’t quite obscure your closed eyes, the dreamy smile—your hands suspended, fingers crooked not quite over your ears.
you are the only person i know who hates the act of breathing.
it’s eight thirty.
the electric lighting in this place, the upcycled tables and stools and the wall covered in photos that were old when we were kids here... it’s all so strange, when you look out the windows to see the warehouses. they’re like great, lumbering ghosts, symmetrical, marching into the distance on silent still feet.
the neon sign, a sketch of a pizza with dripping, melting cheese, is flickering. i noticed that when i came in, twenty minutes ago. you’re late, and my phone is dying, and i’m tired.
when the bell over the door chimes, i can’t help but look up. you drag a stool out, rattling in high-pitched protest.
you’re wearing the satin v-neck (lace at the top) that you got when we went thrifting months ago. i found it, but you wanted it, so i let you have it.
it doesn’t cover the gold paint that lines your collarbone, your cheekbones, your jaw, and has melted, running like rain on glass or blood from thorns. your winged eyeliner has faded, paling black staining your eyelids and mixing with the glitter they put on you. you love the stage makeup, love the looks it draws from the other patrons, love the way you feel, like you’re a little more than just human—more than just you.
your eyes are glittering with ideas and adventure tonight, like most nights, and i don’t know what’s in me when i agree to it, but god—you are infectious.
it’s eight thirty-five.
i don’t know what it is—fancy seafood restaurants and going out on the lake in the sunfish and pretty things in the gift shops—but there’s just something... different about you. softer. more relaxed.
we’re at our customary last-day restaurant, mick’s bar & grill. it’s situated right beside a pier, and we sit on the edge while we wait for our food to arrive, feet inches above the glittering lake. we watch the motorboats, my thoughts drifting into a light nothing.
“can you believe it’s been six years?”
it takes a moment for my focus to return. “what, since you started coming with us?”
you laugh. “no, i was thinking since we became friends.”
i smile. “you know, you’re different when we come out here,” i say.
“it brings a different side of me out, i guess.”
that’s not true. something in your voice—i don’t know.
“nostalgia, too. it makes me feel like i’m little again, without, you know... responsibilities. worrying about the future. all of that.”
that’s closer, i think, to whatever it is you can’t even admit to yourself.
“you ever think that ten year old you had it figured out?” i ask. “like she knew how to be... happier, maybe.”
“oh, probably.” you stare across the water, dreaming. “maybe i should ask her for tips.” your laugh isn’t bitter.
i know what you would say, back home, in the city. no shit, but who cares about happiness?you’re so predictable, there, like an image that stays static for years.
an image you drew.
the restaurant pager beside you vibrates, rattling the boards in the pier.
you’ve got your feet up on the empty chair beside you, toying with the wristband that announces your minority. by the way you act, it makes me think this isn’t the first time you’ve been in a bar, open mic or not.
the boy you’ve been flirting with all night, a curly haired angel with sharp cheekbones, brings us seconds on our shirley temples. i roll my eyes as you toy with a strand of your hair, waiting until he’s disappeared to pass you my cherry.
“you’re not nervous at all, are you?” i say, impressed. you shake your head, place both of them on your tongue, grinning.
you swallow—“nope,” you say, cheerful. you spread your arms grandly and tilt back in your chair, gesturing to the dimly lit, crowded room. “i was born for this, liza.”
“alright,” i say, amused. and i mean, i think you must have been. you are more comfortable than i’ve ever seen you, winged eyeliner and cherry stained lips and a room full of strangers, waiting for you.
the first hour passes quickly, only one or two performances worth remembering. we whisper through the whole thing—you point out things i never would’ve noticed, like singers that sing nasally, and how you can tell that you are by pinching your nose and feeling it vibrate.
i watch your eyes flickering from brown to liquid gold in the cheap tea lights on the table. you’ve never taken a single lesson, but you have so much passion that it’s palpable—like hours on youtube and scraping together dollars for concerts to learn, not listen, are enough. it’s enough to make me believe, if only for a heart-stopping second, that dreams are enough—to get what you want and to eat when you’re starving.
i think you’d do anything for this to be your future.
i think i know you—i think this might be what you want more than anything.
in that moment, with light flickering in two strange gold eyes, i commit myself to the mysteries inside you. because i think i might be wrong. you’ve never been simple.
there’s got to be something more.
there always is, with you.
there aren’t cars in the driveway, but you called me over five minutes ago, so you’re definitely here. i don’t bother with the bell, just let myself in. i don’t know how i feel about you asking me to come over—your mom hates guests and you hate people seeing your house. even me.
the hallway is mostly clear, but there’s a cluster of colored glasses and empty bottles by the dining room door. it only opens wide enough for me to slip through, banging my elbows, into a pale imitation of a functioning room. it sinks in slowly.
there is an overwhelming amalgamation of junk cluttering every surface and drowning the entire room. i notice, scattered haphazardly about across the room: dozens of pillowcases, a plastic tub of sandals and gym shoes, at least three suitcases, and umbrellas of every color, among other things. i begin to weave a path through the stacks, my feet stirring up dust that dances in dappled sunlight, filtering through barely-visible windows.
the kitchen door is ajar, and there is a fortress of cans stacked up to the ceiling on the counter. i bite my lip and turn away.
“mari!” i yell. your house settles, somehow, the silence thick enough to choke on it.
“where the—shit” i swear, stubbing my toe against a heavy stack of books “—where are you?”
your voice, muffled, calls: “mom’s study.”
my stomach drops.
millions of stars
the lights were off in your room when i came in, even though it’s only eleven and you never go to sleep at eleven, but you’re always different at the lake. you turn your lamp on, rubbing sleep from your eyes. “eliza? what...?”
i hold up two swimsuits. “it’s our last night...down for some night swimming?” you stare at them, sitting up, confused. “mom bought them for us, so we could go swimming tonight. don’t worry,” i add, grinning, “no one will see that we match.”
i can tell you have to work hard to keep your smile at bay. “i—yes, that sounds—awesome.”
it feels like old times again, to be honest. we’re both laughing so loudly that the neighbors must be pissed off. it’s an hour before we both sprawl on the beach, water up to our waists, a game of truth or dare (sans the dare), turning into half-questions formed by lazy lips.
silence falls, and i’m almost convinced you’re asleep, when the question slips out.
“what are you afraid of?” i ask, softly.
the only sound is the lake, lapping softly over our legs.
i turn my head, barely, and—you’re staring straight up, eyes glassy, full of millions of stars reflected, iterated, over and over again in each teardrop.
and you laugh. it is a hollow, broken sound. tears track (running like rain on glass or blood from thorns) down your face, and you try to rub them away.
“eliza, i don’t... i...”
“don’t tell me there’s nothing.”
“jesus, no. the opposite.”
i can hear your fractured breaths.
i must look horrified, because your face twists in a bitter smile. “if you say you’re sorry, please don’t.”
your face softens, but your fingers twitch. “i know, okay?”
“why didn’t you tell me it had gotten worse?”
you exhale, a sigh that shakes with tension and stress. “it’s, you know, an exponential thing. i didn’t think i had to.”
“that’s not true.”
“if you know why, i don’t have to say it.”
you glare at me, but ... jesus. you’d hate me for saying how small you look, standing surrounded by stacks of newspapers piled taller than you, so i don’t.
“why’d you call me over here, mare? your mom doesn’t like people...over.”
“i’m cutting up her newspapers,” you say, and grin, your eyes flinty.
“proving a point.” you wave towards the right end of the room with your scissors. “help me find either the word “prometheus” or “image”. “image” should be easy. i remember seeing “prometheus” over in that corner a couple months ago when i was in here, but it’s probably buried now.”
“why? what—why? she—you shouldn’t mess with her things.” my voice is rising rapidly. “you knowthat, better than i do!”
“i’m not going to show her,” you say, like i should have known. “and she never actually touches any of this—i’m not using any papers from the top of the pile, she’s not going to know.”
“what point are you proving, then?”
“a personal one.” a pause. “we got into a fight, okay? she told me i need to go to confession and repent, and then she went off, you know, that people are filthy sinners, saved by only one true lord, and so on, and i said that we’re all made to be like god. you know... ‘in god’s image’, and whatnot. i don’t believe in sin. she knowsthat.”
“i know, mari.” i look at her. “why prometheus?”
you smile a little at that. “oh. because i knew it would piss her off.”
“simmer down, second-mom,” you say, rolling your eyes at me. “nothing even happened, although if she tries to get me to go to church...”
“i am not going with you,” i say. “you’re not going to give this up, are you.”
you nod, passing me the scissors blades-first. “i’d toss them to you, but i hear that’s dangerous.”
a set is beginning to wrap up. you push your bag over to me. “i’m next up—my polaroid is in there, can you—”
“of course i can,” i say, and smile. “the first of many pictures, i promise you.”
you light up. “you remembered?”
“of course i did. it sounded amazing.” you beam. you told me once that you want to collect pictures from all over the world—on every stage, and i guess it’s all starting here.
the band finishes to a few scattered cheers and clambers off the plywood stage. over the intercom, we hear, “we welcome maristela rosario to the stage.”
you set the empty glass on the table and stand, your chair scraping against the floor. “wish me luck.”
“you’re not gonna need it.” i grab your sleeve as you start to turn away. “hey, mari?”
“i’m proud of you.”
your lips twitch, and you disappear into the crowd, emerging onstage moments later. you’re so comfortable, talking with the crowd, a radiant smile lighting up the room.
and when you sing, it’s like smoke. low and haunting, slow and sweet as honey. it’s a song you wrote yourself.
when you finish, it takes a moment for the spell you’ve set the crowd under to dissolve, but when it does, the crowd... goes wild.you leave the stage gracefully, but your smile is heartstopping elation.
you sang so beautifully that night, i’ve still got your voice spinning in my head.
“what am i scared of?” you pause, and you laugh again, helplessly, “i’m scared... of everything. i’m scared i’m going to mess up everything i want, and end up like my mom, or that i’ll end up like her first and never get to be anything because i’m so cracked up and—insane and—collecting used tissuesjust in casei need them—”
your voice breaks. i try, “mari, it’s okay—”
“no!” you laugh again, but strange, high, “what if i never become anything, notbecause i become her, notbecause i crack up, but because i can’t. i’m just... i’m me, and i’m nothing, and i can’t, i can’t, i can’t...”
you’re crying so hard, the words are nearly incomprehensible, but i can hear them, i know you so well i couldn’t unhear them if i tried. it doesn’t sound like you, mari, it’s not practiced, it’s not engineered. it’s honest and it’s excruciating.
you quiet for a moment.
“what if i never get out?” you ask, voice rasping, scraping raw. “what if i never escape her and that house and i never get to be anything, never get seen, never get to be better than this, because i’m me, and of course, of course, i can’t, and what if i do? i’ll always want to be more, and to be better, and different, i’ll always be wanting, eliza, because i’m never enough. for myself. i always want more. always.”
“you will be,” i start to say.
“what if i lose you?”
“i’m so scared, eliza. jesus. because i don’t know how to just... connect. or care. and i’m never going to actuallyfall in love or care about anyone because i’m just... i don’t know how and i don’t think i... i don’t know, have a capacity for it. for caring. for love, maybe.”
you finally fall quiet, the sound of the lakes’ little tides lapping fill the air between us. it feels like you’ve driven a knife into my chest, and by the sound of your breathing, you feel that way too.
thirty minutes ago, you met me at our place and told me we were going to do something amazing.
the lights go down and soon, the building is silent, and we’re still here. it sinks in, what we’ve done. i grab your hand, digging my nails into it. “jesus christ, mari—we could go to jail for this!”
“oh, we won’t,” you tell me, and smile, like you know things about this i don’t, which you clearly do. it pisses me off. i pull my hoodie over my face, hoping it’ll be adequately covered from the cameras, and shove the closet door open.
adrenalin floods my veins, as it sinks in—we’re in an art museum. after hours. your eyes are glittering, a similar adrenalin kick racing through your body.
we end up in a room full of marble statues, of gods and goddesses long dead. i hang back by the elevator, staying as far out of sight of the cameras as i can manage, but you walk straight into the middle of the floor of frozen deities.
i watch from the shadows as you revolve on the balls of your feet—waltzing, almost—through them, daring to look them in the eye as equals. you could carve yourself into a pantheon, i think. after all, you carved yourself into a perfect idea, a girl who was a bit better than human, with gold makeup and wild ideas and a perfect voice that left everyone you met in love—i thought i knew what you wanted. i thought i knew you—i thought i had you figured out.
but there’s always something bigger, isn’t there?
it’s only nine thirty.
“i don’t understand.”
you sigh. it carries the weight of worlds.
“i don’t like being... a person, eliza,” you say, finally. “i...i hatebreathing, hate having to eat... it might be because of her, but it feels like everything material is just rotten, and i want to be more, better. i know, okay, i knowit doesn't make any sense, but i just do. i just want to be more.” you pause, inhale. “i don’t know... i see the people and things i want to be, and it feels like they’re above everything. like they’re above humanity, or breathing.”
your chest rises and falls.
“i never feel like i can breathe right, either,” you say. “like my ribs are collapsing in, and i have to inhale until it hurts or i’ll suffocate... but i like it here. your family—us... i can breathe and be fine with it.”
“you can take the rose colored glasses off every now and then,” i say. my eyes shift to meet yours. you smile, just a little, blotchy, tearstained cheeks and puffy eyes—human, real, you. “trying to escape by pretending to be someone you aren’t...that’s just hurting you, mari.” there are so many stars. “you are good enough.”
your face crumples. i wrap my hand around yours.
your tears wash into the lake, carried to a sweeter, safer place.
living and breathing
the god game ends when i slip into the water, and take your hand. you may wish yourself in a godly pantheon, but you are still a person, with lungs that need air and a refusal to accept that.
but this time, i watch. i press my feet into the gravelly side of the pool, and the sun rises higher.
your eyes open.
you make the choice—you push against the pool bottom and rise to the top. you break the surface and gasp for air, your hair plastered to your neck and shoulders. you look to me, asking.
“stop.” i smile a little. “i figured you out.”
the answers to mysteries that turn flint eyes to gold...
i slip into the water, like i always do, but it’s different this time.
“i thought you just wanted to get away from her and that house and all of this and live out your dreams. but the singing and the pictures as proof—i think it’s what makes you feel like... more than just another person with breath in her lungs. because you hate breathing, you said that.”
your chest rises and falls, shallow.
“and, because breathing makes you feel human, and being human makes you feel small. you want to be...”
godly. godlike. without sin, without broken connections, without monotony or similarity, without disorder or disease, without needing to breathe...you feel like you haveto be better. in order to be better, you have to give up your lungs, in exchange for the lie you breathed god into.
someone that only exists here...
“you want to be more, better,” i say, my voice just an echo of yours, in the dark and the little waves and the millions of stars in your tears.
...in chlorinated water, with the sun setting it to silver shards of light.
your lips quirk up. “in god's image, prometheus,” you say, another echo. you hesitate.
“i—it’s hard, liza. and it won’t all get fixed because i finally broke. there’s more there.” you’ve been thinking about what you said at the lake house—and maybe you’d be willing to try. “it’s been awhile since i’ve just been myself.”
i smile. “yeah, well, when you do... you’ll realize that you’re the best person to be, really.”
and the sun keeps rising.