I met Nina at her work. She worked in one of those cafes where the baristas are allowed to be mean, and wear whatever they wanted as long as they had one of those half aprons on.
I googled what she had on her t-shirts. Sometimes it was a band that (of course) I had never heard of. I downloaded their discography and listened to it through headphones on my couch, trying to imagine her listening to the music. The picture I had of her was romantic and probably incorrect – I imagined she played records on her inherited record player in a sparse apartment, sashaying in skirts to these sad bands that played with dark synthesizers and jangly, disjointed guitars.
When I talked to her, I tried to be offhand. “I’m James,” I said.
“This is your espresso, then,” she answered. She worked methodically. She cared about what she did. Sometimes she would talk about the coca-cola notes in the single origin fair trade organic coffee beans that were roasted in house. When I decided to court her, I stopped drinking their drip coffee.
“What’s your name?”
She pointed to her nametag. She was the only one of the workers that wore one. She served the dark espresso in a tiny biodegradable paper cup. I sipped it and said, “What are you doing tonight?”
“James,” she said. She said my name slowly, like it was a foreign language that she was just learning to speak. She looked me in the eyes. “I think you’re going to invite me somewhere, James. And I’ll say yes.”
Forward girl. Whatever metaphorical vehicle we were getting into, she floored it. I took her to my places. Restaurants and secret parks. I tried to impress her with out of the way bookstores and al fresco, twinkle light dining. She took my hand when I offered it to help her out of taxis. We laughed and drank champagne and, even if maybe we weren’t, we did a very passable impression of a couple falling in love.
“Have you always wanted to be a barista?” I was flirting, or trying to.
“I have always wanted to be Serge Gainsbourg’s girlfriend. But I can’t, and I’m not as pretty as Jane Birkin. So.”
I knew I was only getting first level Nina. She was giving me the frosting on her cake, and it was as sweet as I imagined it would be. I wanted to taste the rest of her layers, unravel the rest of her mystery, even if I was mixing my metaphors.
One night, six months after I had stopped going into her café to drink her expensive coffee, she told me that she wanted to show me something. We were three bottles of Shiraz in, and the room was spinning pleasantly. I was laying on the couch where I originally used to only imagine her.
She stood up.
“Are you going to tap dance?”
She shook her head. She did something fast with her fingers, and threw her head back. Her knees knocked together, and held there, like they had become magnets. And then suddenly she started to shoot long trails of light from her fingers. They started like a Fourth of July sparkler, but became something like tendrils of bright white fiber optics. She pointed them at me and they covered me from head to toe. I started floating above my couch.
Then she unlocked her knees and I fell back with a satisfying whump. I felt like my limbs were all waking up from being a sleep, all those little pins and needles.
“I’m a spellcaster, James, but I need a partner.”
From there, my life dissolved. Whatever idea I had of myself as a mildly talented designer at an advertising agency became effervescent bubbles of antacids in a glass of water.
Spellcasting was like a runner’s high. I wasn’t far off when I asked if she was going to tap dance. Our fingers were our tap shoes. She taught me all the routines she knew, slowly, holding my hands, and we filled my two bedroom apartment with what can only be described as power.
“There are consequences,” she told me, laying with me one morning, drinking a Bloody Mary and handing me the celery stick. “Every spell takes something from you.”
“I know. I feel tired.”
“No, it’s like smoking cigarettes. It’s cancer. You cast a spell and some part of you hardens. You use up whatever power your mitochondria has in your cells and then they die.”
She let that hang for a moment, and then she buried her face in my shoulder. “Healing spells don’t take much, though. We can keep each other alive.”
I kissed her. “I’ll keep you alive.”
“Thank you,” she kissed me back, hard. “I’ll keep you alive too.”
We made trees dance and walked underneath oceans. We made private fireworks shows after we slept together. She made magic chocolate, and it spoke beautiful, private words while I ate it.
We were counterfeiters very quickly, and masters of the neighborhood weather. We traveled via radio waves and spent a weekend on the moon. When I was alone, sometimes I would cast a spell to feel it bounce away and bring her love back to me, like a boomerang.
It was so very easy to forget anything that wasn’t Nina and magic. Our hair went gray quickly, and we dyed it together, shocking colors. We made water into wine and felt biblical and all powerful and all encompassing in our love.
When she left, I wasn’t surprised. I told myself she was part sprite, part fairy, part demon. I cast spell after spell, alone, after she left. I didn’t know where she’d gone. I went down to our beach and sent searching spells, but nothing worked.
There was nothing left from before her, and I didn’t know what I had after. I cast everlasting colors over the ocean and hoped they would take residence in the sky.