My first husband was a man of curses. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true. If you refuse to take my word for it, I invite you to pay Nathan a visit. He lives on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. He’ll be very glad to see you. He’ll smile at you with his overlarge teeth. He’ll serve you coconut juice and verify every word I’m about to say. But watch your step, he may also curse you.
Nathan and I exchanged wedding vows in our twenties. He was twenty-nine and I was twenty-four. We had been in love for two blissful years and decided to tie the knot. This part of the story has no curses in it.
We hung our wedding clothes in a closet and moved into the old house to which it belonged, a two-story Georgian overrun with natural light. Everywhere was natural light to spare! So don’t think it was the house that brought on our misfortunes.
My name is Amilya. I won’t tell you my current age or describe myself. I’ll only say that when I was twenty-four and married to Nathan Flanagan, I was boldly brunette and full of candor. My figure was slim; my skin, brown. I was particularly great. Nate was aware of it and made love to me every night and sometimes during the day. Back then, he was as healthy as a horse. Our friends described us as offbeat and nonconformist. We were aware of life’s little ironies, yet refreshingly carefree and easygoing. Bohemian, or something like that. Don’t think we were losers.
We were winners at love and winners at life. Nate ran a successful hair-growth business. In college, he studied chemistry and combined this pursuit with homeopathic intervention and legal radiation. He had great passions. In the lab, he managed to grow mice fur on bald men. The hair was short and coarse and absolutely white, and on the right man, somewhat sexy. Nate patented the treatment. Today, men all over the world enjoy having mice hair. I still see these men in shopping malls or the supermarket or on the golf course. The product Nate invented was called Mouse Mousse.
Mouse Mousse made us a great deal of money, not that I relied heavily on the wealth it generated, me being an independent woman. My interests and talents lay far afield. In those days, I was a pop curator who bought interesting people’s emails. In case you don’t know, emails, much like the written correspondence of the 19th and 20th centuries, are still traded to profit and fortune on the free market. Words, in the right arrangement, are cold cash. I was one of the brokers, well, actually more of a trendsetter or tastemaker if the truth be told. I tasted and traded. Drove prices into the sky! You might imagine my clientele to have been only celebrities, and I did have a few film stars, but what I thrived on primarily were the nobodies. Average people who wrote the most stupendous shit.
Take a look:
Don cho cum rond haïr no more.
That was written by a six-year-old girl from Wichita. I sold it for a quarter-million. The email was parlayed into a T-shirt and bumper-sticker empire, so don’t say I didn’t know what I was doing.
My savvy and the riches from Mouse Mousse permitted Nathan and I to move from the Georgian in the suburban boondocks, to digs more befitting our station in life: a penthouse apartment, high in the sky, which was where the cursing began.
The first person Nathan inadvertently cursed was our friend Claudia, a thirty-something museum curator planning to spend her summer vacation on a catamaran crossing the Atlantic. Claudia hadn’t sailed much and was obviously being brought along for ballast. Hers was to be the nightwatch, an odious task delegated to newbies and underachievers. Nathan didn’t tell her this, but he and I had a good chuckle about it.
Claudia flew to Miami where the boat was set to depart. Promptly, upon boarding the craft, she dropped her phone in the water. She publicized her tale of gracelessness over social media. My husband responded with a quip about foreshadowing and omens, implying that her imminent voyage was doomed to fail in some capacity. He might have mentioned Buddy Holly who died in a plane crash. It was all meant to be a joke, really it was.
Claudia didn’t take it that way. Immediately her posts came back with a lack of humor, a gloominess. More things began to go wrong. The boat was delayed in the harbor. A hurricane arose. Claudia accused Nathan of being bad luck. On the passage from Miami to Bermuda, the catamaran sunk. Along with it, Claudia, and everyone else aboard, was dispatched to the bottom of the sea.
“It has to be a coincidence,” I told him.
“No. Call Stephen Hawking and have him rewrite the laws of the universe.”
Nathan was joking about that, too.
We went about our curseless lives until one day a trader of mine, a Portuguese man by the name of Zevo, sold me a forged email costing me dearly. I should have spotted it, but the ISPN numbers were so convincing it was nearly impossible to tell.
Over dinner that night, I related the story to Nathan.
“What a bastard,” he said.
I was drinking chardonnay. “I’ve filed an official complaint, but Zevo is long gone. I’ll never see that money again.” It was then that the diabolical idea occurred to me, which at the time was meant only as a playful gesture, nothing more.
“I think you should curse him,” I suggested.
Nate looked up at me from behind his forkful of pork butt. “How would I do that?”
We were both a little drunk. “In the same way you cursed Claudia.”
Nathan laughed. “C’mon now.”
“Let’s try it,” I said, pushing his phone on the table toward him. “Text Zevo something vicious like ‘I hope all your teeth fall out’ or ‘may impotence befall you.’ Something like that.” I picked up my phone and forwarded Zevo’s number to Nate, but as soon as Nate’s phone chirped, I could tell he was losing patience with me.
“Can’t I just say it out loud?” he asked.
“No. It has to be by phone. The same way you killed Claudia.”
His eyes reflected my tactlessness. “Amilya, I did not kill Claudia.”
“Do it,” I insisted.
He gave his head a rueful shake, probably thinking it would be easier to do as I asked than argue around it. He sent Zevo a quick message.
“What did you write?” I asked.
Nathan took a bite of his pork butt pie. “The thing you said about the teeth. It was good.”
We finished our meal feeling mirthful and prankish. The next day we went to work as usual. Nothing strange happened all that week, not until Friday when Melissa, a colleague of mine, approached me on the trading floor.
“They caught him,” she said in a whisper.
“Zevo. The police caught him. We’re going to get our money back.”
I felt my face flush. “Really, that’s great.”
“Funny, though. I heard somebody busted him up. Knocked out all his teeth, or something like that.”
Nathan was out of town at a Mouse Mousse conference. I chose not to bother him with the news about Zevo. Over the weekend I brooded on it, debating the coincidental probabilities. I couldn’t come to any firm conclusion.
On Sunday, I called Nathan’s mother, ostensibly just to chat. I asked her about Nate’s family tree, such as who his ancestors were and what they had done. I had never been too inquisitive about Nate’s family before, so Olivia, Nate’s mother, laughed at me, wondering why I wanted to know.
“Just curious,” I said.
I’m not sure whether she bought it. Olivia was a shrewd woman. Nevertheless, she coughed up the goods, which turned out to be uninteresting: run-of-the-mill lawyers and dentists. Irish and French descendants from many generations back. No witches, no sorcerers, no gypsies, no voodoo.
“That’s it?” I said.
I hung up feeling foolish and spent the rest of the day exercising and reading. By nightfall, I decided not to tell Nathan about Zevo when he came home. Why? Because deep down I wanted him to curse again and I was worried that Zevo’s demise would torture his conscience. If Nathan were to wield his hoodoo anew, it would have to come from me.
I chose the next victim in secret, an old boyfriend who had cheated on me, struck me once, and cleaned out my bank account. His name was Arthur, and Nate hated him. When I told Nate that Arthur was back in town and bothering me, he picked up his phone and let loose a good curse: HOSPITAL, DUDE. THAT’S WHERE YOU’RE HEADED.
The following week, I got in touch with a mutual friend of mine and Arthur’s, a college buddy of his named Jerry. I inquired as to Arthur’s health and happiness and heard a snort on the other end of the line.
“Health?” said Jerry. “Arthur was in a car accident. He may never walk again.”
The news thrilled me. “When?” I asked.
“Last Friday. Geez, it’s uncanny that you called and asked about him.”
Uncanny indeed. Nathan had texted Arthur the Thursday night before the accident.
Now I was convinced: my husband was a bona fide warlock, a master of the universe. It was time to confront him.
“Are you serious?” he said. He and I were having dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant, the place I brought him whenever bad or unsuspecting news needed to be aired. Nathan loved the manicotti.
“Claudia, Zevo, and Arthur,” I said.
Nathan was having a hard time coming to terms with his mojo. Being a scientist, a rigid man of cause and effect, he didn’t believe in anything remotely supernatural.
“You have true power,” I said, trying to force into him the conviction I felt. “Let’s test it one more time.”
“I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
“So you do believe in it!”
Here, I had him, but he remained reluctant.
“Okay,” I bargained. “If not for revenge, then what about justice? What if we could right the world’s wrongs through cursing?”
Nate laughed, but I could see in his eyes that I had intrigued him with the idea.
Deep thought overwhelmed us.
After a spell, Nathan looked up. “Lou Jenkins.”
Lou Jenkins was a shifty congressman often accused of illicit practices. On more than one occasion, he had voted against laws that would have benefitted social or scientific progress. Nate hated him.
Over breakfast the next morning, Nate and I researched the rarest diseases that could overtake a person. We chose kuru, a vicious killer caused by a strange protein that triggers acute brain damage. It can only be contracted by eating the brains of someone infected.
“Would that satisfy your scientific method?” I asked Nate.
“Yes,” he answered.
Our glasses of orange juice clanged in a toast. Nate left a comment on Lou’s forum that read GUYS LIKE YOU DESERVE TO CONTRACT KURU.
We cursed and waited. Nothing happened to Lou Jenkins, neither the next day nor the days after. By the following week, I was so disgusted, I felt as though I myself had eaten a bad brain.
“I told you, Amilya, the others were only coincidences.”
“No,” I said, “that can’t be.”
But the more time wore on, the more I came to accept Nathan’s conclusion. It sucked, really, me having been so convinced I was married to a man of amazing power.
The days I waited turned into weeks. Nathan and I bickered over trivial things. Ate breakfast in silence. Had sex less frequently. Made our way into hinter rooms to avoid each other.
In one of those rooms I began researching kuru, or as it’s known in the medical community: transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Once the brain is infected, tiny holes form in the cortex, causing it to appear like a sponge. As I clicked and scrolled, I learned that the physical symptoms of kuru—ataxia, loss of coordination, memory failure, insomnia—were similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. mad cow.
Had we overlooked something? I searched for recent outbreaks of mad cow disease and found plenty, strewn all over the world. Strangely enough, there seemed to be no connective cause of contamination. The cases appeared to be randomly situated anyplace and anywhere.
I examined Nathan’s curse again.
GUYS LIKE YOU DESERVE TO CONTRACT KURU.
What fools we had been! I made a tally of Lou Jenkins’s physical characteristics including his age, hair and eye color, and bingo! Each person who’d been supposedly felled by mad cow was male and physically resembled the congressman. Nathan was a greater sorcerer than I ever imagined.
But my heart sank at the thought of those innocent people who suffered because we were so careless with our curse.
During dinner I told Nathan everything and apologized for getting him mixed up in such an irresponsible scheme. He took the news better than I’d expected and served himself an extra portion of green beans.
Over the subsequent weeks, I noticed changes in him. He started slowing down in front of mirrors, dressing snappier, exercising at the gym. His hesitant stride slid into a swagger; his gaze shot forward in bold rays; his handsomeness reached new levels; his performance in bed improved.
“Who have you been cursing?”
“No one. Nobody.”
“This was our thing, Nate. Don’t you start cursing without me.”
“I swear, I’m not.”
There he sat, lying to me, thriving in his newfound dominion, his every molecule, glowing. I had to know whom he was cursing behind my back.
I checked on the prosperity and health of his competitors. From what I could tell everyone seemed fine. Two bullies from his prep school showed no signs of deterioration. Ex-girlfriends, happy and full of life.
All the wrong places.
It turned out that Nathan had been hexing in higher realms. Up in the political stratosphere. The topmost echelons of statecraft. I learned this by inspecting his text logs with the phone company. He was cursing left and right and with great success. Within months, nuclear power was abandoned for wind and solar. Fracking came to a stop as did the over-fishing of the oceans. Factory farming was outlawed.
“You lied to me.”
“I wanted no one else to know.”
“But it’s me, Nate. No one else knows you’re the most powerful man in the world.”
“Let’s keep it that way.”
Single-handedly, he went about turning the planet into an ethical utopia, and all through cursing. Running shoes suddenly cost a fortune. Salmon became too expensive for anyone to afford. Banks halted their illegal trading and the stock market crashed. The airlines went bankrupt. Beavers, who turned out to be worse than raccoons, overran the park.
Nathan and I took one of the last operating flights to Bora Bora. We booked one of those swanky bungalows on pylons over the bay. The floor was made of glass to better see the colorful fish. I swam every day, nude. My body never looked better, yet I was miserable. Nathan spent all his time on his phone, delivering curse after curse.
“It’s our vacation,” I scolded him. “You need to relax.”
In the middle of our stay, the resort had to shut down due to imperfect environmental practices. Nathan and I went on a catamaran cruise, a boat similar to Claudia’s, perhaps.
Before leaving the port an idea struck me. I asked the captain to stock more provisions than we’d ever need.
“But no canned tuna,” I told her.
“Don’t worry. There’s none left.”
We sailed for days to the remotest places. The water and wind were perfection. Sunsets to die for. The captain brought us to private idylls, atolls where absolutely nobody lived. Most of the islands were rich with coconut trees and lush vegetation. We kept moving farther and farther out, the wind firm, our sails full. It was me and Nathan, the captain and her first mate, a kid named Charlie.
What was I planning? To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure. I guess I hoped we would sail out of GPS range, become happier people, save our marriage and stay on that catamaran forever.
GPS did stop working and Nate finally put his phone aside. He began to truly relax. All that cursing had made him a wreck. We snorkeled each day and fished. And we kept sailing.
I don’t remember the name of the island. Frankly, most dots in the South Pacific don’t have a name. Just a smudge or a speck on an ancient map someplace, so fuck you, Google. At any rate, I told the captain and Charlie to load up a dingy with whatever provisions we had left. It was Nathan’s birthday. I had a surprise for him.
I goosed the small engine and Nathan and I took off on our own. We reached the island toward midday. Like the other atolls we had passed along the way, this one was profuse with coconut trees. I steered us up onto the white sandy beach and made preparations for a barbecue. I gave Nathan his snorkel and mask and suggested he rustle up some lobster and parrotfish. He loved parrotfish.
By the time he swam back to shore, I had unloaded all the provisions and was beyond the breakers in the boat, tears streaming from my eyes, my face in the wind. But my chin was up. I turned and saw him waving to me from under a coconut tree. It was then I threw his phone in the ocean.
I reached the catamaran with a tragic tale. I cried all the way back to Bora Bora and went home.
Today, as you can see, home is a suburban split-level. From here I drink coconut juice and keep an eye on current events. The world is back to being as fucked-up as ever. In fact, it seems to have gotten worse since Nathan’s interventions, as though needing to catch up. But despite its lousiness, the planet works again. We can have a bagel and lox without paying through the teeth. We can exercise in inexpensive clothes.
When you rang my doorbell, you were expecting to meet someone who’d appreciate your efforts to separate glass bottles from paper waste in this community, someone cooperative who’d sign your petition. But now that you’ve heard my story, hopefully you’ll understand why I can’t. In some terrible, unforeseen way, my signature might curse the world rather than help it.
Trust me, it’s safer to do nothing at all.