A.C. Koch

The Devil knew exactly where to go. There were plenty of places in the world where the sun slanted long across plaza stones and shone like diamonds in the spray of fountains. Plenty of places where women and men allowed their gaze to linger, sharp-eyed, upon the object of their desire for a heartbeat longer than necessary. Where the juices of limes, olives, figs ran down fingers that tasted warm and salty with traces of the sea. These were not unique things, but where else did they converge so perfectly?

Because this place, atop a craggy berm overlooking a plain that rolled down to the shore, this place was a kind of vortex. It was apparent in the way the Devil could look beyond this single day and into the days to come. Stretching outward, he saw the city that would one day arise. Rooftops scaled with terracotta tiles. First pathways, then roads, then streets cutting through rectangular canyons that glowed with streetlights and lamps in bedroom windows. The spires of churches, the skyward plunge of stone towers that rose above the rest of it, topped with crosses. The Devil smiled, a private moment of uncomplicated pleasure.

On the pathway far below this mountaintop vantage, a solitary figure in robes and sandals made his way. Seeing this, the Devil's smile shifted meaningfully, becoming both brighter and darker. There were plenty of places in the world where beauty overflowed and temptations bloomed, but only in this place was time so elastic. Now becomes the next moment becomes tomorrow becomes next year becomes the distant future. In other places, temptation teetered on the fulcrum moment of decision--Yes, dammit, fine, I'll do it--but here atop Mount Tibidabo, overlooking what men would one day call "Barcelona," time stretched. Time breathed. It pushed and gave like the flesh of a lover. And if the right temptation presented itself, you might find that, without ever passing a signpost of decision, you were already tasting that which had been offered. The juice of the apple already running down your cheek.

The approaching figure reached the summit, breathing hard. His sandals kicked up little eddies of dust as he came towards the windswept spot where the Devil stood surveying the world. The beauty out there, the glittering futures, the promise of all this, all this. Robes billowing, the Devil turned to receive his visitor with a chiseled smile and arms thrown wide open.


In another time, a young American couple strolled the passages of Barcelona's El Born district in search of dinner. Narrow stone alleyways, pocket plazas. Intimate corners of the city where they could rekindle things, the way a magical place can make that happen. Hand in hand, they passed a courtyard filled with tables under a canopy of palm trees where pinpoint lights dangled like stars. Jay took in the beautiful people, the bottles and glasses of wine, baskets of bread, plates of steaming pasta and mussels. The huffable tang of garlic sautéing in butter. "Damn," he said, adding--because he'd already sold his soul and it was on his mind a lot these days--"You're trying to Tibidabo me."

Matty, arm laced through his, tilted her head to mean What are you talking about now? So he elaborated once they were seated at a cafe table under a gnarled old limb. A busker sawed away on a violin at the street corner while bossanova shushed on speakers somewhere. The waiter delivered two glasses of ruby-red Grenache. Matty soaked torn-off hunks of baguette in a saucer drizzled with olive oil while Jay held up his wine to observe the beauty of the lights shining through it, the twilight outline of the landscape beyond the rooftops. "See that mountain? They say that Jesus and the Devil met up there and shared a secret."

Matty raised an eyebrow over the rim of her glass as she sipped. "You're religious now? We spend a couple weeks apart and you come back full of Jesus?" But she was smiling. There was a zing back in their repartée that hadn't been there in a long time.

Jay let that pass. "Listen. Jesus was out wandering the desert, right? Forty days and forty nights?"

"Oh my god, you've become a Jesus freak!"

He grinned, pushed on. "So the Devil shows up with some sweet temptations, right? He lures Jesus up to the top of that very mountain and shows him all the abundance of the world. The lights of the city, beautiful people feasting, endless kegs of wine, the open arms of every lover he could ever want, and the Devil says, 'All this, all this can be yours, if only you'll worship me.'"

Matty smirked. "Not a bad deal. I'd have to think about it."

"Right? And the official version--the Bible, I mean--says that Jesus was like, 'Nah,' and turned away. And according to the local legend, the place where all this went down was right there, Mount Tibidabo, overlooking this very city. That Dracula-ass castle up there?" He aimed a finger at the far mountaintop--beyond the leafy palms, beyond the rooftops--where the spires of the Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor were tiny spikes silhouetted against the purpling night. "That's the shrine they built to venerate the whole No-gracias-al-Diablo thing."

Matty was licking oil off her thumb. "So Jesus was hanging out in Spain in this story."

Jay spread his hands. "The Devil can show you whatever he wants, and I guess he thought there was no place in the world more tempting than right here."

"I'd say the Devil's got a point."


Meanwhile, the waiter arrived with their food, setting bowls of pasta among the wreckage of the baguette. Matty and Jay gave little moans of delight as they gazed at their glistening noodles veiled in steam. "I thought you said they had a secret," Matty said as she started twirling a fork in her fettuccini. "Not very secret if it's in the Bible."

"The story I heard," Jay said, dipping a finger in his coconut shrimp sauce, "includes a little detail that didn't make it into the holy book."

Mouth full, savoring, Matty raised her eyebrows in a question.

Jay leaned forward. "The secret you're not supposed to know is--he tasted a little bit." He sat back, slipped his creamy finger into his mouth and sucked. Infused his whole head with the transporting essence of coconut.       

"Of course he tasted a little! Jesus was half-human, after all."

Jay allowed that with a shrug. He looked around the leafy plaza where languages and music murmured and chimed, wiggled his fingers at all this, all this. "Big Religion wants you to think he just hesitated for, like, two seconds and then got right back on the righteous path."

Matty spoke through a bite. "Where'd you hear this story? Some sausage vendor on the Ramblas while he was picking your pocket?"

"Actually, it was the boat guy. Captain Adán." Saying the name gave him a rush, heat to the face, but Matty didn't seem to notice.

"Well, if anything about that dude's story were remotely true," she said, "Jesus would still be here, fucking and eating and boozing his way through Barcelona, and neither God nor the Devil could stop him."

Jay spread his hands. "I think I'd be a bigger fan if that were the case."

She watched him, love or something like it shining in her eyes. "Look at you. You went and got religion."

Jay sucked the remaining coconut sauce off his fingers--the almost overpowering sensations that accompanied that taste--and made devil horns. "Hail Satan."


There was another story that Jay could have told but knew that he never would, and it wasn't nearly as ancient and mythic as the Bible story. In fact, it had happened only ten days ago, and Matty herself had been a peripheral character at its origin, but even so she wouldn't have believed it. She would have rejected it and ridiculed it even more than she did the Jesus thing, not because it wasn't a believable story--it was--but because it would have afflicted her with something like a crisis of faith. It would have sent her into her own kind of desert for forty days and forty nights, and Jay didn't think their relationship could stand that.

Ten days before their dinner in Barcelona, the phone had chimed at 3:30 a.m. That was always how these things started. Matty's phone, doing a vibrating dance on the end table in their Barcelona hotel. Sitting up in bed, sheet gripped to her chest, a brief and frantic conversation that evaporated all grogginess. A question she kept asking because she wasn't getting an answer. "How did she fall?"

Her expat mother, 400 kilometers away in Montpellier, was in the emergency room after tumbling off her front stoop and getting clipped by a commuter cyclist. Broken bones, concussion, and were there any other next of kin?

That phone call chain-reacted into two more hours of telephone wrangling, with the result that Matty left their fifth anniversary holiday to fly to France, leaving Jay in their Barri Gòtic room on the day when they were supposed to take a sunset sailing excursion to recreate the best part of their honeymoon. "They have her on oxycodone," Matty said, like it was heroin.

"I'll come with you--you could use my help." He didn't push more than that. They both knew her mother didn't approve of him, the untrustworthy Californian.

Sirens warbled down the avenue as if they knew something. And the sub-audible throb of a nightclub somewhere, stretching the night until the dawn. Matty took his face in her hands. "Go sailing, sweet thing. We already paid the guy, and one of us needs to get something out of it."


The smooth white craft left the marina under engine power, 'Tibidabo' stenciled on its stern in art nouveau letters. Shirtless and smooth, the boat's captain, Adán, aimed his sharp features into the landward breeze and steered them past a forest of tall masts and rippling flags. He peered over his sunglasses and peeled a smile of perfect white teeth. Coffee grounds beard, sunburnt lips. "Ready to leave the world behind, my friend?"

"So ready," Jay said, and then berated himself for not coming up with a wittier reply. What did one say to impress a sailor?

The boat flanked the wave break and headed out to open sea. Gentle rise and fall. The sky behind glowed with the shimmering city along the coast. Spires and domes, scattered high rises. The bizarre cluster of the Sagrada Familia rising above the roofline, the spiky temple on a distant hill to the west. Jay held up his laptop, panning it across the view and then showing the hazy expanse of the Mediterranean where the sky blended with the sea in an azure blur. Matty coo'd on the computer's speaker. "I feel like I'm there!"

Jay set the laptop on the table between facing benches in the boat's stern. Matty, on screen, sat in a spill of light at the kitchen table in her mother's place in Montpellier. Her features were blobs of light and shadow where she leaned close to the camera. "My mom says sorry for all the trouble."

"That's okay, she's more important."

"That's not true, Jay, but she really needs me now. It was a nasty fall."

He studied her on the screen, the tiny square she occupied--without a body below the shoulders, without the graceful movements of her hands, without the scent of jasmine that lingered in her hair--and he summoned these missing details, fabricating her presence from her absence. He held his hands up. "Not being snarky, I mean it. We can do this trip again another time. Maybe for our sixth anniversary."

"Totally. It looks so beautiful. Wish I could be there."

"Well, you are--virtually."

Adán, just an arm's length off camera at the boat's bobbing wheel, tsk-tsked. "Ah no," he said in English. He was rubbing sunscreen onto his chest and arms, making himself glisten. Hint of coconut. "Virtual sailors do not exist, only real ones."

"Is that the pilot?" Matty asked.

Jay rotated the laptop to adjust the angle but Adán said, "Captain. Boats have captains, madame, and I am at your service."

Even though she was peering through unspeakable distances of digital transmission, Jay saw her see Adán. The sharpening of her eyes, the dimming of her smile. "Is there anyone else on the boat with you guys?" she said with a note of forced cheeriness.

Adán, still in view over Jay's shoulder, waggled a finger on the same hand that was guiding the wheel. "You paid for a romantic couples cruise, not a swinger cruise." He brayed laughter.

Jay felt himself reddening, aware that he was on camera and wondering whether it could be seen. Adán and that deep tan, he thought, would never betray a blush. "We did a cruise like this on our honeymoon," Jay said. "Five years ago."

"I see." Adán gazed over the placid expanse of water. "And how did a couple of beautiful people like you two meet?"

Jay and Matty laughed the same laugh, one digital and the other in the flesh. "It's a weird story," Matty said.

Adán spread his arms. Swimmer's physique, shiny and smooth as an otter. "It's a weird evening."

"My buddy and I were both dating her," Jay volunteered.

Adán hooted laughter. "Ménage à trois!"

"Ah non," Matty jumped in. She made a snipping gesture. "I cut the other guy out of the equation real quick."

To look at Adán, Jay had to turn his back on the computer. "I won the prize."

"I can see that."

"It gets weirder," Jay said.

Matty leaned in close to the screen as if to block that idea. "We don't need to tell him that part." But Adán was already waiting with a tell-me-more look.

"Matty was actually our French conversation teacher," Jay said. "Me and--well, this other guy--we were both sleeping with our teacher."

Adán showed surprise, gesturing at the screen to verify that they were indeed talking about Matty. Who had gone suddenly silent. Jay peered at the screen and found her face in freeze-frame in the midst of an emphatic expression. Mouth distended, eyes blurred.

Adán, seeing this, gave a sympathetic twist of the head. "Sounds very French indeed."

"And," Jay said, drawing out the word and thumbing the mute button on the keyboard even as he wondered why he was revealing this last bit, "my buddy and I were also messing around with each other, but Matty never knew that part."

Adán, eyes glimmering, gave an appreciative nod. "Homework must have been a delight." 

They laughed together. Seaward winds played with their hair. The long, golden light of twilight painted them as if this moment were safely outside of time. Jay glanced at Matty's stuck pose on the screen. "Looks like she froze."

"It is very much a shame that she cannot be with us tonight."

"Yes, it is, but at least she got a glimpse."

"The signal is not so good this far out." Adán keyed the engine off. It sputtered out and an expansive silence moved in. The lapping of waves as the boat slid through the water, drawing out long ripples. No rocks nearby, barely any waves, just a mirror-like surface to float upon beneath the watercolor sky. Before the light faded, Adán would tell the story of the secret between Jesus and the Devil, and not long after that, the taste of his coconut sunscreen--warmed and activated by body heat--would lie on Jay's tongue, smooth flesh sliding beneath his fingers. Jay, in the midst of exchanging his soul for pleasure, would sense the act was being observed. Not by Matty--her connection was decidedly cut--but by the steady gaze of a presence at the crest of the distant hills where winds swirled the robes of two silhouetted figures. A sensation of yearning that stretched across time. Pleasure flowing one direction, Jay's soul in the other. Jesus, thirstier than he'd ever been, running his thumb across his lips. The Devil stepping back, letting the moment flow like water. Jay, licking his lips, extending a hand.

But before all this, Jay fiddled for a few minutes with the computer, couldn't get the wifi to reconnect. Matty stared out in digital rigor mortis. He closed the laptop's lid, gently, and sat back to breathe in the sea, the motion of the waves, this perfect evening. The feeling of arriving at a destination you didn't know you were heading towards. A step already taken. Jay and Adán, neither of them saying a word, not a single word, not yet. It wasn't even a temptation or a giving in, it was just the next thing that happened.

*          *          *