Zach Amarosa was a collector of women. He had never intended to be one, but that was how he ended up. When he began, he tried to be respectful; at least, not cynical. It was not, he insisted, a matter of pride or revenge. He wanted to love everyone, or at least prove to himself that he could.

The psychology of it was unimportant to him. Patterns of failed relationships, prepubescent traumas real or perceived. He was interested only in action, and set to work immediately on schematizing the procedures of romantic bonding. The systems ranged in size and complexity and in the rate at which one traveled through them; but in the end they were all similar, and it was always a system. The monotony, far from boring him, only fascinated him further. It was all a matter of perspective. Sex, for him, began long before any instance of foreplay or physical contact, before any clothes came off or any doors were shut, began at the first mischievous flicker of interest, and it was the captivating and commanding of this unearthly flicker that compelled him more than anything else. Compared to this, everything that followed was boring and rote; mechanistic, he told himself when he was feeling sanctimonious. But he could never progress very far beyond sanctimony. He knew better, or at least knew himself too well. Though he had set out to become the world’s greatest lover, he ended up as the world’s most obsessive collector.

There was no physical component to his collecting. He retained no clothes, no keepsakes, and did his best to forget perfumes. Nothing digital, either: no images, either still or moving. His collecting was of a different order. He was like a lepidopterist who loved his butterflies too much to ever kill or mount them.

He began by ingratiating himself in groups. They swarmed the streets of the East Village on those hot summer nights, drunk and stilettoed, their bodies jumping like teams of eager horses as they charged down the sidewalks. Zach haunted First Avenue near Houston Street, trying his luck with both the rich bohemian crowd trickling down from the cocktail bars to the north and the bridge-and-tunnel set bubbling up from the cauldron of clubs to the south. He had just gotten his teeth fixed, and was now making enough money to afford a flashy wardrobe and a place of his own. In a way, he had ordered his whole life from college forward on the fulfillment of this project, and that was why it was so crushing when he met at first with little to no success.

It wasn’t a matter of confidence. He had had plenty of girlfriends, and plenty of casual encounters besides. But he was playing a game now, whereas before he was not. Even if the rules had not changed, it was a different thing entirely to be aware of them.

At first, he took what he could get. The more pretty ones, thinking they were acting magnanimously, fobbed him off on their less attractive friends. Zach considered this a sort of victory nonetheless. Sometimes, he didn’t even bother taking them home; that was never the point. It was enough to know that he could.

Eventually, he honed his technique. He got better at talking to the choicest specimens. He got better at fighting down the fear when they were sitting next to him at his apartment; figured out how to swallow it and turn it into fuel. Exultant at the tangible evidence of success, too excited to sleep, at night he would lay awake drinking the women through his eyes. He forgot their names and eventually their faces. Their essences remained, and that was what he collected.

He began to spot them at a distance; could discern, with one look, the substance if not the specifics of a girl’s temperament. The soul had a way of imprinting itself on the body, and though he had promised himself never to do this, he began to develop a type. He gravitated away from pure blondes, and then strawberry- and dirty- and bottle-blondes too. A month later, he found that brunettes no longer appealed to him. He would accept no trace of color in a woman’s hair. Only black; jet black like a polished stone, so much light rippling off its surface that he could almost see his own reflection looking back. So powerfully black that he could sense the presence of immense space below or behind, like a pool of water seen by moonlight.

Next, it became a matter of skin tone. Here the ideal was harder to find. It was more a question of proper synthesis rather than tendency toward an absolute. He spent months in observation without acting. And then he understood. But it was a passive sort of understanding, one that had established itself outside or above his conscious efforts. He simply stopped noticing any type of woman except one.

It wasn’t a matter of race or nationality. These women came from all over the globe. Sometimes he could even see it in wealthy northern European women, the ones who either took many vacations or spent small fortunes on tanning treatments and skincare products. But it generally surfaced in girls derived from the sunnier parts of the world: South America, the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and its subcontinents. It was a color he couldn’t find anywhere else in art or nature. Even in pictures, it didn’t come through the way it did in life. It wasn’t brown, wasn’t olive, wasn’t yellow. It was gold; deep gold like honey; gold that was more than just a property of another object, that had substance and presence of its own, that glowed with a light and heat independent of the human body. Once he figured it out, there was nothing he could do to resist the compulsion. There was no breaking the spell. He had been foolish enough, in his younger years, to fall in love with individuals; never did he think he’d be stupid enough to fall in love with a population.

He started seeing the same ones twice. Or even three or four times. In the past, he’d only kept their numbers long enough to know which calls and texts to ignore. He waited until they stopped trying to contact him and then purged their names from his phone. But there were only so many golden women in the world, and he, with a sense of approaching dread, as if he were only now doing something reprehensible, made an effort to hold on to the ones he had.

This was his fifth time seeing Maya. She was of mixed colonial and Indonesian extraction: a miracle of modernity, a sylph born from a pool of sweat and blood flooding forth from the well of the centuries. The November sky was clouded over, and he had to fight against himself to leave the pocket of warmth beneath the sheets. He tried not to be in bed when they woke up if he could help it. But her arm had draped itself over him through the course of the night, and it felt as immovable now as a rock formation carried by glaciers through the ages. It was drafty in the rebuilt tenement—the landlord was stingy with the heat—and he, with his sluggish circulation, was cold in his toes and fingers. When he touched her arm to take it from him, it burned with an almost searing heat. She was always hot, she complained. She slept in almost nothing and kicked the sheets off in the night. Her body was a furnace, and her eyes, black, and hair, black, like heat sinks which kept her from bursting into a pillar of flame. Zach, acting against his every inclination, held his breath and closed his eyes and stepped wincing into the chill gray air.

He had replaced all the bulbs in his apartment. Got rid of all the plain frosted whites and combed the specialty stores uptown for new ones. He kept his blinds closed and turned all the lamps on, and the apartment flooded with a bronze and amber glow like unflickering firelight. He preferred cloudy days now, and hated to see the sun shine. He preferred to bring the sun down to him, trap it like a June bug between his four walls, and live in endless summer as the autumn stole the color from the world outside.

He took her out to breakfast and ordered for the both of them: omelettes, cubed grapefruit, orange juice, tea with lemon served in clear glasses. Rain pattered outside and stained the sidewalks slick black. Zach drummed his fingers against the table after the bill had been paid.

“You look worried,” said Maya.

He nodded half-heartedly; she was right. But he didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t want to leave.

They rode the train out to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Rainwater ran in clear rivers down the greenhouse walls and flowers bloomed in the swamp heat contained therein; flowers pink and red, leopard-spotted, tropical and angular, with petals cut like knives and layered blossoms opening like tiers of razored jaws. Zach had dated a girl in high school who liked to cut herself in the shower. The heat: that was what she liked most about it. The heat of the water, the heat of the blade.

After they had seen everything there was to see in the garden, they descended again into the dripping chill of the train station. Zach reached behind her and up through her coat; probing, found his way through the buttons on the back of her blouse, and touched his cold fingers to her skin.

He began to think of her when he wasn’t with her. Thoughts only half-sexual, or barely sexual, having more to do with mysteries of aesthetics than certitudes of sensation. He just wanted to look at her. But that wasn’t all. He wanted to look at her as she stood unclothed in front of him. And he wanted to touch his hands to her skin to see what it felt like. He imagined a heat like that of a metal statue that had stood for hours in the sun, imagined leaving his hands there until they became burnt and blackened and blistered, until the nerves died and he could feel no longer. Nothing could possibly be strong enough. Not even her. Not anyone else; he knew this without ever trying it. That was why he never told her this, or told her anything.

He tried picking up other women to distract himself. Not even golden women; just anyone. But his heart wasn’t in it, and they could tell. No matter how solid his technique, no matter how inflated his confidence, it was the determination that mattered most, and was most perceptible to female intuition. Lacking this, he lacked all else. He curled up in his bed and summoned forth the memory of Maya. He concentrated until it was almost a physical thing, the thought, until it was only one step away, and tried to clutch it close to his chest beneath his folded hands. But it was still a vapor, not all the way present, and it always slipped away right before it was about to come real.

The next time he saw her, she told him she had a boyfriend. She was sorry, she said; she didn’t know things would get so serious so fast.

He didn’t ask the obvious questions. Didn’t bother bartering with her. He had never had to fight for a girl before, or fight for anything else in his life, and it didn’t occur to him until it was already over that this time maybe he should have.

“It’s not serious,” he said. “It’s nothing.”

He took the train to the botanic garden and searched the foliage overhead for signs of color. But everything was mostly brown and tan by then. Some leaves, diseased purple like an infected limb, still clung, limp and sickly, to a line of red maples. Farther on, there were some oaks with pale melon-colored leaves speckled with black spots of rot. And that was it. He ignored the flowers and hothouses and regretted paying the admission price. He never found what he was looking for.

There was another girl browsing the gardens alone on this sleepy weekday. He trailed her unconsciously, following her at a distance from grove to decaying grove. She was perfectly average in terms of appearance. Her hair was drawn back into a utilitarian ponytail and she wore plain sneakers and plain jeans and a shapeless sweatshirt embroidered with the name of her school. She wore no makeup as far as he could tell. But he didn’t care. There was no one else around, not a soul on the whole windswept campus. He couldn’t escape the feeling that she had been sent to him somehow. Her name was Maria and she was just going into her sophomore year.

He made conversation to buy himself time, though he didn’t know yet what he needed the time for. He felt that he would figure it out just by remaining in her presence. Whenever he could, he took furtive glances at the downy little hairs that curled up around the edges of her ears and at the back of her neck. The infancy it implied was not that of the individual but that of the species: like she was the first woman ever made, and what she lacked in perfection was made up for by the freshness she radiated. All around them, all of a sudden, or at least it seemed, was the smell of cut flowers, their stems healthy white on the inside and dripping pearls of thick phloem.

“Let’s go somewhere,” he said.

All his subtlety, all his suavity was gone. It was like all his prior encounters had been mere simulations, and this the real thing. It was like a war: blind with fear, he abandoned all protocol and rules of engagement.

“Go where?” she said.

“Anywhere. It doesn’t matter.”

Her manner changed then. Like she was the one in control now; like she had orchestrated the encounter from the beginning. Somehow. In some way he couldn’t explain. She blinked her eyes and the force of the impact was enough to make the world spin on its axis. At the top of his form, he had slept with semi-pro models and would-be starlets and empresses of tiny social media kingdoms. But this small, silent woman baffled him. Studying her hair where it unfolded from her skin in graceful curves, it was like he knew, but only at a remove, as if he were observing another’s inner process of falling in love with her, what it would be like to know her so well that he could intuit without effort which way each strand of hair would want to fall after being displaced. He was flushed with heat, every pore pumping out sweat. He felt his heart pounding and his skin crawling like an addict going through withdrawal. And he understood then that there was nothing physical about these symptoms; that they had nothing to do with the body and its constellations of chemicals. It was just fear, pure fear. Not fear that you would never experience again what you were craving but fear that you had never experienced it at all. He awaited her judgment like a penitent, eyes teary, head hanging. He had never before wanted so badly not to get what he wanted. She held him in her gaze like this until he could no longer breathe, and then she set him free:

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t think I can help you.”

He bought a bottle of whiskey on the way home and drank it sitting on the floor of his apartment, cradling a feeling in his chest like a sob that was never going to come out. He held the liquor up to the light and watched it glow, and saw his hand glowing through the bottle. And felt the liquid glowing inside him. The glow spreading out from the very bottom of his throat into his heart and from there pumped all through his limbs until even the air he breathed out was glowing slightly. And his skin was glowing too, glowing with a sort of inflammation until it was no longer a boundary between him and everything else and more like an interface through which he was seeping into the world. He closed glowing lids over glowing eyes and saw a sea of gold with waves flashing a million different aurum shades, and above it, where the sky should have been, another sea of gold looking down. There was a sea of gold on the wall of sky above the horizon, and the perspective was so collapsed that even the air in the space not enclosed by the seas leaped and shivered and sparked with a golden aura. Everything shone with a brilliance that was almost frightening, a brightness that implied permanent damage to the organs of sense. But there was nothing Zach could do to shield his eyes. All he could do was see. And through the glare, and through the trillions of walls of golden molecules, he saw a woman standing there wrapped in robes and veils. A woman tall as a mountain, with eyes like gems that were every color at once, and all the robes and veils in the world would not have been enough to contain her radiance.