Gods won’t save you. Gods will break you. Nevertheless, you will persist, and become anew.
This is the first myth: that your boyfriend from when you were fifteen will come and get you out of hell. He might come, but he won’t get you. You will never have an interesting conversation with him, though his haircut will suggest that he should be interesting. He’ll buy you a book of poetry called Love is a Dog from Hell, and this will convince you temporarily that he understands your transgressive nature. Later, you’ll parse that title. You’ll wait for him to become what he is destined to become, which means you’ll sit around for a year on couches in basements, watching his band get stoned. He will know two chords, then three. He will know nothing about laundry, nor birth control. All his songs will be about the girl before you, who’ll wear leather pants and also turn out to be his babysitter.
He will learn how to drive, and you’ll find yourself sitting in the backseat while his best friend rides shotgun. He will ferry you to a field to watch the Fourth of July. You’ll be on your back on a blanket. There will be a rattlesnake. It will smile at you, and you’ll think, Shit. I’m a goner.
You’ll be gone awhile.
You will eventually find yourself standing on a long dark staircase, dress wet, underwear in your purse, your boyfriend walking in front of you. He will step out into the sun, breaking the rules as he does, turning around to turn you into salt. You will protest that you’re not Lot’s wife, but Orpheus’s girlfriend, that your name, in case he’s forgotten it, is Eurydice.
“Everything’s always drama with you,” your boyfriend will say.
You will be the cold French fry left in the basket as everyone else in your group leaves to find someone to buy them beer.
Here’s the reality, girl, girlfriend, goddess, goddamn goner: You’re gonna have to get out of hell all by yourself.
This is the second myth: that your boyfriend from freshman year of college will teach you how to fly. The only way to learn to fly anything, you’ll know by now, is by getting on it. Magic carpet. Pegasus. Dragon of darkness. It’s all the same old shit.
You’re still trying to get out of hell, and it’s a long climb. You’ll think flight may be the answer, but you don’t learn to skateboard by watching boys on the half-pipe, and you don’t learn to fly by watching boys jump off cliffs, shirtless, skinny, while you hold the car keys.
You’ll ignore what you know, and get it on with Icarus in an extra-long single dorm bed. When he rolls off, there will not be any room for you on the mattress, so you’ll sleep on the floor. He’ll be super sweet though. When you wake up, he’ll give you half a protein bar and take you to the free screening of Satyricon.
You’ll meet his father. He’ll have a lot of money. You’ll sit at dinner saying nothing while they talk about pilot’s licenses and charter planes. None of the boys you date will ever have mothers, but they will all have mother issues.
“He takes after me,” your boyfriend’s father will say. “I used to date girls like you.”
Then, to his son, “I get it, man, I feel you.”
You will find yourself standing on a rocky beach, while Icarus and his dad are up in the sky, barely visible. You’ll aim the camera at them, taking footage for the documentary your boyfriend will have already managed, through paternal connections, to get accepted into Sundance.
Icarus will be dead by the time the film screens.
You’ll flunk out of college due to spending a season in the dark, cutting the footage into a documentary that will win an Oscar. You’ll edit Icarus into a generous genius. The moments involving hot wax and feathers? The one where he gave you chlamydia, for sure, despite denying it? You will delete those moments from the footage, as well as the moment when your boyfriend on purpose collided with the sun.
At the funeral, his father will embrace you, grab your ass, and lift you off the ground. This is not the same as flying.
Your name will appear in the credits under Special Thanks.
This is the third myth: that the man you marry in your twenties will let you rule alongside him. You’ll walk up the long staircase out of hell in a white dress, and then you’ll walk down an aisle. You’ll get a ring forged at Tiffany. When you fuck him, it’ll be thunder and lightning.
You’ll think that marrying Zeus will fix your problems, but shocker, spoiler alert, hello woe, it won’t.
He’ll be newly divorced from a wife who has a long history of turning his girlfriends into cows. You’ll live in fear of horns, but she won’t turn you into anything. This will be your punishment. You’ll remain uncomfortably human.
You’ll vow fidelity, and you’ll sit on top of your mountain, looking down at the green, cloud-dappled world. You will be missing some information.
Your husband will have an office with a door that locks. He’ll sit in there, talking to oracles on Facetime all day long, but the door will be soundproofed, so you’ll only hear mumbles.
When you mention that maybe you’d like to go down the mountain and grab a drink with a friend, he will bring you a bottle of wine, and tell you it’s made of grapes from the vine of life, and then he will say “nbd,” in the way that someone a few thousand years old would try to use the language of the kids.
When you mention you might like to go out for dinner, he’ll take you to a molecular gastronomy restaurant where there’s a dish called Haruspicy. It will be gold-leafed guts inside of balloons spun of bird’s eye chilies. Your husband will explain the pun to you. You will, by this point, have a classics degree, which, hey, is an attempt at getting yourself stealth to therapy. There will be a specialist sommelier who’ll come out and read your fate before you take the first bite.
This will not go well.
Zeus will ignore the fact that you’re a vegetarian. “You just haven’t had the right meat,” he’ll say, and offer you a slice of something that is part goat, part fish. “That’s pescatarian,” he’ll say, pointing at the tail.
He will have a closet in which hundreds of sex toys are alphabetized, mounted on pegboard and outlined in black Sharpie, as though they are tools in a home carpentry workshop. You will, the day you open it, see a silhouette of a Zeus-sized swan suit, complete with beak, but the suit itself will be missing.
Your husband will travel without you. He’ll take flights that leave when it’s still dark out. You’ll take his kids to school. There will be an unlikely number of babies, showing up at the door, in baskets, in shoeboxes, in giant eggs. When you ask your husband where they came from, he’ll shrug, and say “Women, lol.”
“No one says that anymore,” you’ll tell him.
Zeus will still have an AOL account.
You’ll drive all the kids around in a minivan with a trailer attached. You’ll bring a salad of canned mandarin oranges, shredded coconut, and marshmallows to potlucks and call it ambrosia.
You’ll run into his ex-wife on the stairs from soccer to Olympus and beg her to make you into something, anything, better than this. A bird. A star. A tree, even, just a basic little tree?
“Who are you again?” Hera will ask. “Oh, right. The nympho.”
“Nymph,” you’ll say, but she’ll already be two flights above you, her gown billowing, her pedicure perfect.
A few years in, your husband will have an affair with someone younger than you. She’ll be made of sunlight, and all the sex toys in his closet will start to glow so brightly under the door you will not be able to avoid knowing all about it.
You will step backward down the staircase. You’ll taste salt.
This is the fourth myth, unwritten in the larger canon, but it goes like this: You will be the woman who finally walks back into the place everyone else calls hell, and you’ll stay there.
You will wander the darkness until you know every inch of it. You will be unexpectedly good at winter. You will not be lonely alone.
You’ll bed down in an abandoned underworld, gutting fish from Styx and cooking them over the fire you make of the books bad boyfriends bought you. You’ll blaze the Bukowski, and fling the Fellini into Phlegethon. You’ll melt down your old wedding ring, and forge it into a claw.
You will not just be gone, but goner. Everyone you ever knew will wonder what the hell became of you, and you will not feel like being in touch.
You’ll write your own books. You’ll make your own films. You’ll paint your own portrait. You’ll be the leader of your own band.
You’ll fall in love again. You’ll fall out. You will not await anyone else’s version of salvation.
This myth will not be recorded, but it will be yours. You will not shrink until your body is invisible. You will not become a whisper, a breath, a beast. You will not be the tears that salt the earth.
You will not, in the end, be broken by this history of hell, these hurts, these old boyfriends and husbands and rapists and forget-me-nots.
You’ll forget those fuckers, those fucks, those fields other than Elysian.
You will be on your back on a picnic blanket in your own kingdom, with Echo between your thighs, and your phone will rattle, and a smiley face will appear on the screen. You’ll throw the thing into Lethe, get up, and walk.
This is the fifth myth, the one they name after you, and you alone, the one that gets written down in blood and scratched into cave walls, the one that women see when they look up at the sky and consider trying to live through this and make it to their futures.
You stand at the mouth of your own cave, looking out over your own kingdom. You step off the cliff when you feel like it, and you spread your wings and soar.
How many times can you be shattered in the toasting, a champagne flute lifted and listing? How many times will you survive, a woman made of her own history, and more than it? How many times can you put your heart back together?
As many times as you need to. You can make it through this.
That’s what you’ll whisper when they pray to you, asking for ways to leave their own disasters, asking for methods, begging for the lineage of the living.
You will be wounded, you’ll tell them, those who ask for clarity, those who want to know how to keep themselves out of hell, but your wounds will not kill what you were. You will be injured, but your injuries, even if they are fatal, will not erase you. You will make yourself again out of the ashes, and
you will be loved
you will love
you will be loved
you will love
you will be loved
you will love.
Now you’re the one who pours it out and fills it up, and now you’re the one who knows what love is worth, who knows what it costs.
They didn’t give you this knowledge. You gave it to yourself. You made your own heart, and you made your own mind. You are the divine result of crumpled receipts and pretzel salt, of expired condoms and forgotten phone numbers, of lipstick and longing, of hands opened and spread out, of dogs running and of trucks on the highway, of cheap champagne and of diner coffee, of address books thrown out the window, of paperbacks and of pregnancies, of crow’s feet and of silver streaks in the dark night of your hair.
You are made of rolling over to make love at four in the morning and you are made of walking barefoot through the kitchen, heating croissants for the one you’ve left sleeping. You are made of wild strawberries too small to see until you step on them, of roses smashed at the end of a bodega day, of funerals where you wore your wedding ring and of weddings where you knew that one day, one of you would die first. You are made of road trips and radios, of reading aloud, of hotel rooms in cities neither of you have been to before, of permission, of oysters on platters full of ice made of water from the beginning of the world, of cowboy boots and belt buckles, of blood on thighs, of words written in ink and spit and wine.
You are the one who receives the tributes, the love letters and the text messages from strangers who’ve fallen for their biggest dreams, the dick pics and the tits and the toasts at all the ceremonies.
You’re the one who watches over those who wish for companions, and the ones who are lonely, and the ones who are holding hands right now, fingers laced to those of their beloveds. You are made of deserts and of phone calls, of emojis shaped like things that look like love to no one but you and them.
You are the one who listens. You are the one who climbed up here, skirt torn and rumpled, legs covered in scars from thorns and barbed wire, skinned knees, toenails polished, and you are the one who’s on this mountain now, looking down at everyone living. You are still trying to learn how to give it up in the entirety, and you’re doing it with the rest of everyone, because hello heart, hello hope, this is how motherfucking goddesses of love get made. Out of smashed things and blasted things and things burnt and blistered, out of old bad knowledge and out of making your way through the holy impossible.
You’ll open your hands and from them will fall hotel keys and kissed papers, first dances and worn out high heels, flowers and honey and bees drunk on desire, snakes looking for throats, your boyfriend from when you were fifteen, and all the songs he played you when you were both so young you didn’t know how to get old.
They used to call you by another name, but now they’ll call you Aphrodite. The job of love goddess is a rotating one. You get it when you get there. You used to be the girl in the dark, but now there’s light. That’s how the story goes; that’s how morning happens.
“The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods” copyright © 2020 by Maria Dahvana Headley
Art copyright © 2020 by Wesley Allsbrook