I brought the cake, since it was by no means my first rodeo, but the place was already throttled with peonies when I arrived: peonies coughing bright and soft - pink in every corner. And, since there was always, always, I mean, never a dress code, I wore plain white. My white nothing on the subway had attracted some raw comments. I had sat as near as I could to the door with the ice-blue cake box in my lap - the tiramisu cake, which sweated awfully in its mascarpone coat, and then I arrived.
   I observed that the peonies by the windows were like starlets - big-headed and languorous. They batted their eyelashes and vamped at the whole city. I was early, but there was no more ice, of course. The birthday girl was the only person in color; she wore tiresome green silk and appeared really deflated. Our mutual friends balked and soothed and blew up silver balloons. Ironic white bunting crowned the doorways. There was a sense of routine, and so I went for the ice myself.
   Out of the lobby I eyed the weak tulips at the roadside stand. Adolescent purple. A faint, cool breeze whispered itself through the mugginess. The sidewalks were packed. New pomegranates swelled from cobalt crates just a few steps over. The corner store would have the ice in bags in a chest freezer next to the popsicles.
   Pushing the door, I listened for the dark bell, and someone drew it the rest of the way whom I was not prepared to see. He had the ice in one arm and a friend behind him whom I recognized very vaguely.
   He said, "Aren't you supposed to be decorating?"
   We left the doorway and reattained the sidewalk; his friend, Siju, was continuing a separate conversation on the phone.
   "She didn't tell me you were coming."
   "Well, just to say hi."
   I was relieved when we went back into the golden lobby, which was air conditioned. I breathed deeply. I felt even better when we entered the elevator, but neither of us seemed to want to mention it.
   Just as his friend knocked on my friend's door, he winked at me and said, "I hope you've packed."
   But I didn't respond to that because it was birthday time.

   In the end, it was a quiet afternoon, and he really did leave after about twenty minutes - but not before he had stood in the back of the kitchen with me, while I nursed a paper plane.
   We discussed insignificances, and then, "You're not going to stand me up at the airport?"
   I didn't bother to respond. Blue and white daylight woke gradually through the narrow window at his back. He went back home to pack. I celebrated my friend, who was more lovely when irritated. She and I had been close friends since childhood and were now so close that we didn't even know each other.
   In the end, I didn't stand him up, even though I have a horror of flying. By eleven thirty p.m., I had relaxed considerably, and I was full of oasis thoughts. It helped to have seen my wretched apartment again.
   At the gate, he offered me a tango-colored pill with a little line and some numbers.
   "It'll work," He told me. "I promise."
   I became woolly, and then I didn’t care about any of it. He read to me from the start of a kitschy high fantasy novel about elves:
   "'The outer wall was made of a hard, milky crystal. It stood like a fog beyond the inner clear wall and obscured it. A short corridor communicated between the hallway and the princess' chamber, such that no one could pass between the two walls, which were precisely seven steps apart. The tiles of the floor inside the chamber were etched and inlaid with clear and colored stones. It was painful to cross it with bare feet. Each one bore, at its center, a single painted hieroglyphic in the ancient tongue. Read from top to bottom, left to right, right to left, and diagonally in both directions, the tiles described prayers for the longevity of the princess and her line.
   At night, the room was like an underwater cavern lined with unharvested jewels. Its windows had no glass, and the light of all three moons would pool reliably in its center. Directly opposite the rightmost window was the tiny altar where the princess prayed to her household gods. It was set into the wall and had two of its own doors that were never closed. In the moonlight, its vermeil figures seemed to gyrate and grimace, but it was said that no magic was involved.'"
   There is a lot that I don't remember from that flight, but I have the impression of a very good landing. Platinum corridors, travelators, glistering golden storefronts, everywhere the smell of money. There was a big black car, and, somehow, our silver suitcases. I remember a minute or two of intense humidity, and then the precious tile of a magnificent lobby. Traveler's palms stood in monumental lacquered pots, scratching the mezzanine. There had been no rain in that country for seven months.
   Later, he would ask, "What do you want from me?" But that evening I hovered in the footed bath, amid white hills of vetiver foam, while he sat on the rim and wondered if I was feeling hot or cold. What could I say? He turned the dial.
   Later on, we slept the sleep of the just. He was someone I had known since I was thirteen. We were so much a part of each other's inner landscapes that nothing - nothing - seemed to be able to go wrong.

   At eleven o'clock the following morning we had smoked trout with something crisp, green, and watery, a creamy sauce that tasted sweet, two soft boiled eggs, and tiny toasts. There was a little basket lined with thin paper for the fries, and ice water (water being like wine in the desert), and then a halo of crème caramel floating in bittersweet warmth.
   Much later, îles flottantes, rice cakes flavored with rosewater and dates, tiny square layers of pastry soaked in honey and seasoned with nutmeg, white tea, fresh mint, and brown sugar in the best ice cream that I had ever tasted. I was so happy there that I didn't even think about the Persian Gulf, which was about five minutes away.
   Bidemi claimed not to have any friends in Dubai, which I knew to be a lie, but by that time I was very ready to accept such things. He read me the entire book, and I learned that the elven princess had to suffer the loss of her entire family as a result of a coordinated attack by goblin armies. Her crystal palace was sacked, all the holy places looted, and she herself was forced to become a vagrant, and to support herself by living as a mercenary. The final third of the book was composed of descriptions of battles. As narrative, it failed somewhat, in my opinion, but then, on the other hand, the structure was as sound and delicate as that of a symphony.

   The higher portions of the escarpment overhung the lower, which had been gnawed by the breakers there for tens of millions of years, like crumbling eaves. Princess Muna-Catherine Serenity, whose coat, shirt, trousers, gaiters, and undergarments were now soaked, watched the shimmering veil of silver raindrops from the wide maw of a dripping cave in the cliffside. It flickered at regular intervals like an enchantment…
   It then occurred to her that on this occasion, as on many others, she had been very fortunate. The cavern into which she had burrowed when she first smelled the storm was spacious and free of puddles. She could stand in it, if she chose, to stretch her legs - though for the time being she remained in a deep crouch, observing the bowed entrance.
   The cave's innards were clogged with a darkness that sometimes appeared to ripple as though it were composed of fluid, and the sight of that rum movement congealed her blood. She would not venture there willingly to open caskets of treasure, and yet she would have to go, she knew, at any moment, to make certain that she was not sharing her shelter with any other creature.
   The princess steeled herself and put a stop to her trembling as she had been taught. She was aware that she shivered due to exhaustion rather than to cold, for they were now a month and a half beyond the season of haze, and in the valleys there was no more dust, only weeks and weeks of thin rain that spawned invisible marshes…
   Then the princess erred in daydreams for some moments, lured from her ego by moony specters which had been kindled to life in the clatter of the tempest and the bluff starlight. In her wanderings, she observed that an unfriendly sheen appeared to blanche everything beyond her shelter, like white enamel.
   Within a sprinkle of moments, the world had reverted to a perfect and hostile state - had grown, once again, pristine and chaotic, and spirits pranced upon the waves. The princess could just detect their capers above the keen, white surf, and the phenomenon gradually drilled her with terror… And then she remembered herself. Standing with caution, she extended one hand to the slimy stone above her head so that, should it begin to decline, she would be forewarned.
   But, as she walked, Princess Muna became aware of a vague and sinister presence within the cave - and yet it was a presence that appeared to know her language. That is, the language of her ancestral home. Lo was a ceremonial tongue and also a secret one, forbidden to be uttered within the hearing of strangers. It was only ever spoken, even by Lon elves, in ritual as a tribute to the household gods on the occasions of births, deaths, comings-of-age (which were multiple amongst their species), and marriages.
   The princess had lost her sole opportunity to learn it, for there was no formal training in Lo until early adolescence, all that was left to her now was its cadence - a tonal memory. All who had spoken it fluently were buried. And so it diluted her courage to hear those eldritch murmurs in this forgotten place.
   A spell! she had initially thought, holding still. Her left arm was still extended, so that her fingers stroked the clammy stone. With her other hand, she rubbed the jeweled pommel of her sword unconsciously. It was a gesture that tended to give her solace…
   The Princess sensed, as she attuned herself to the Loe utterances, and not for the first time in her life, that the joy of understanding lay just beyond the rim of her flawed perspective, as something under the horizon. And it was entirely due to this close-fisted allure - this familiar provocation - that she ventured closer toward the murmurs, for even the gray suit of grief and nostalgia would not ordinarily persuade her to forgo her vigilance - a woeful vigilance that she bore almost like an emblem, being the sole survivor of her kindred. And in truth she had observed, throughout her wanderings, that other sole survivors exhibited the same wretched insignia…
   Princess Muna-Catherine walked on. At one point or another, the darkness acquired the texture that it had appeared to have, and she found herself beginning to wade through it. There was magic afoot. She could recognize her own vulnerability in these circumstances, but she made no attempt to countervail it. Instead, she dreamed onward with what appeared to be the beckoning spirit of home - the simpatico mirage of buried knowledges.
   And there they were, of course - eyeless, spiritless agents of chaos. The princess, barely lucid, bore down on them in a violent trance. As she did, it occurred to her that she had purchased this. Goblins are fairly loosely constituted; they appeared to melt under her blade, falling in slabs and heavy ribbons to the stone.
   As their peers perished, more goblins slumped to her from what she assumed was their carrion, hissing and groaning. There was a noxious odor aloft in the cave. Without mercy, the princess lanced them one after the other, insensitive to her own exhaustion, and when the whole horde lay in crimson tranches about her feet, the warrior elf fell to her knees and collapsed.