Part 1 of 2
I'm sixteen when George and I figure out the aliens will pay to watch us fight. We're leaning against milk crates in the alley behind the library and he's giving me shit about losing my waitressing job. To shut him up I bring my fist back in slow motion and plow my knuckles into the side of his mouth. He does an exaggerated, drawn-out reaction, flapping his lips out and staggering into the cinderblock. Then at the last moment he spins, catches me around my waist and pulls me in to him. My foot snags the milk crates and the stack comes clattering down.
A group of aliens are leaving the library—a family, maybe, if families are something they have. They catch sight of us—smell us, sense us, whatever—and drift over to the mouth of the alley. I feel George tense as the aliens say, What are you doing? What does this mean?
His face is drawing tight with irritation when I reach back and tickle him. My fingers dig into the softness between his ribs hard enough—maybe—to leave bruises. We topple to the pavement. He lands on top of me. His elbow jams my boob. Or, as my mom would say, the place where my boob ought to be.
"So says the weaker sex."
"I hate you."
His whisper hums against my neck. "I know."
I flip out of his grasp and my knee drags along pavement, leaving a stain of capillary blood on the faded asphalt and the tufts of grass that break through.
How thrilling, the aliens murmur. How visceral.
A moment later George lies on his stomach. His feet kick feebly, like a turtle. "Mercy, fair lady!"
Sitting on his back, I inspect my nails. Each capped with a rind of black grime. Sweat, his and mine, soaks through my Stray Cat Diner polo.
When I let him up, he picks his messenger cap off the pavement. Dusts it off. Drops his card in, and waves it toward the cluster of aliens. "Donations? Donations! Show your appreciation, whatever manner you feel is right."
Giggling, the aliens reach in and touch his card. Credit rushes into his account.
Even after they've paid him, they linger. They are fascinated by the way he grips the brim of his cap, the way I press my finger into the scrape on my knee and hiss as the sting flares and fades. George and I stand very still. Usually aliens don't leave unless you've really done nothing for a minute or two. They hate missing anything.
When they've gone, George flips them the bird. He checks the balance on his card and looks up at me, his mouth spreading into a grin. His eyes are hard and bright with opportunity. "We're rich."
I tell my parents that waitressing interfered with my school work. The thought of this is so horrific that my mother drops the dust cloth and runs to smooth my hair. "Don't worry, honey, you do whatever you need to do. Eyes on that scholarship, right?"
"Sure, Mom. Whatever."
Really, Mr. Reade fired me for not being welcoming enough toward aliens. "I don't give a damn how you feel, Damia," he said. "We need them. They want to go behind the bar, you let them. They want to get right up next to people and watch them put fries in their mouths, you let them. Anything they want, you let them. Understand?"
I said I understood, but I couldn't help it. When one of them got near me, I froze up. I could hear my heart lurching, big as a cantaloupe, filling my whole torso. I was sure they could hear it too.
Sometime before the aliens found us, they discovered a way of divorcing their bodies from their minds. In cartoons and commercials here, the alien bodies are portrayed floating in pods of translucent goo, humanoid forms with wires running into them, rows of thousands upon thousands. The reality, I'm sure, is something totally different, something totally beyond any portrayal we might attempt.
Earth is visited, then, only by alien consciousnesses. They move through air, through concrete, through steel and polycarbonate with equal ease. They speak, or rather do not speak, in streams of thought directed toward our minds. Look at one straight, it's like the sunlight that plays on the hull of a boat in a lake. Only no boat, no lake, no sunlight.
Whatever splits them from themselves is not the only technology they have. They dole progress out to us in small doses. Cheap and infinite energy sources. Cures for genetic disorders. Earth governments turn into throngs of men clustered hungrily around the alien portals. Slowly now, the aliens say. You'll ruin yourselves.
Recently, reluctantly, they have agreed to take a small number of people each year back to their ship (or wherever they come from). The people will study alien technology so that it can be more unobtrusively incorporated on Earth. They will get to leave their bodies behind and move as pure consciousness. An alien came to our school to discuss the opportunity with us. If I hadn't been taking notes so frantically, I might have been unnerved at how silent the classroom was, the lecture delivered straight into our heads. But I was too busy panicking that I wouldn't get every thought down.
Halfway through the talk something hit my hand and made me start. George's copy of the brochure on alien exchange, folded into a paper football.
George doesn't mention his new source of income to his family. His mother and his sisters, they take what they can get. No questions. George's father split a long time ago, part of a NASA division to study alien tech. Or that's what he said. He also said he'd send them funds every month, enough alien credit to take a bath in. All they get is the government checks.
We've been friends since we were seven. At the beginning of third grade, this asshole Ross Tate followed us around for a week, singing "George and Damia, sitting in a tree—"
Punching Ross Tate was how I began my long and tumultuous relationship with in-school suspension.
Two days into my first suspension, I heard from another kid in the slammer that Ross Tate's desk had exploded. Firecrackers. He and three other kids ended up in the ER. The principal found a note in Ross's cubby, saying he had a plan to blow up my desk. He spelled my name wrong—D-a-m-Y-a. Tate spent a week in the hospital, and then two weeks in out-of-school suspension, crying about how he had no idea what happened. George's extralegal career was always more calculated than mine.
The aliens have no gender. When we asked them about it, they laughed and told us it was irrelevant. But it feels so strange to call a thinking being "it." "It" is more general than one being. We use the word all the time: It was irrelevant. It feels so strange.
Just in front of the Bean in Chicago, a patch of shimmering air hangs at eye level. If you walk straight at it, you can't miss the glint. If you come at it from the side it nearly disappears. Mostly people give it some space, though you could touch it, I guess. Every now and then, a bulge appears in the shimmer. It swells and grows and finally detaches, a scrap of light that floats away across Millennium Park. It's an alien, just arrived through the portal from shipside.
They could drift from shipside all the way to the surface of Earth, but it would take a long time. Or something. We're not totally clear where they come from, or how they perceive time. At some level, we assume, they value convenience.
They have no interest in the Grand Canyon or Everest or Victoria Falls. They put their portals in places where people gather. Parks, gas stations, fish markets. When we bump into each other or high five or blow our noses, their delight is palpable. They've been here ten years and it's still unsettling. Sometimes when aliens follow George and me as we walk down the street, he will spin around. Flail his arms. Shout, "What! What are we doing?"
Those times, he might as well be talking to air.
When I was in elementary school, a fun thing to do was play alien. Little mirrors or LED screens glued all over our clothes, reflecting back our surroundings and scenes from music videos. We stood stiffly in corners, flitted down the halls. Asked everyone, Did you see me? Was it like I wasn't there?
In high school it would be grotesque to be so overt. We still try to mimic them, though no one would admit it, and maybe no one could say exactly how it's done. Starving yourself is not the answer. The boniness of an emaciated kid is completely different from the gossamer presence of an alien. It's more a way of holding your body. A way of sliding your feet as you walk. A way of knowing how the light falls on your face.
I wonder if the aliens can tell when we try to mimic them. If they coo over us in private. How flattering. How cute.
George sticks to coyer, anachronistic forms of rebellion. George grows his hair long. George wears all black. George pierces the protrusions of his flesh ("You have no idea how many aliens were in that tattoo shop") and fills the holes with metal studs. George stands in the middle of the football field and kisses boys.
One day we're sitting outside the library after a fight, holding matching ice packs to our faces. George leans back. "I don't get it. Why would anyone want to leave their body? It's part of you. It is you." He flexes his fingers as he says this, clenches his fist. As though whatever anchoredness he feels from these gestures will pass to the rest of the world. He cannot mentally separate himself from his body. I'm jealous.
"It's these stupid aliens making people think like this," he says. "They're making people go crazy."
"No," I insist. "People thought this way before. We just never had an answer until the aliens came."
"It's a new thing to do. That doesn't mean it's an answer. That doesn't mean we've got the problem right."
A few days ago, George shaved himself a mohawk. He dyed it bright green and spiked it up with a glue stick. He has gold glitter on his face. His nails are painted bright red.
"How about this problem," I say. "I can't debate you when you look like a Christmas tree from Satan."
He pushes his ice pack into my face and I bite it and condensation trickles down my throat.
My father is an insurance agent. At the same firm, his father before him. They sat behind the same oak desk and took seriously the business of keeping people safe. On one side of his desk there's a framed picture of my mother and me at the beach. Also a drawing I made when I was four, of horses.
But the aliens have made health care cheap and technology safe. And hardly anyone gets sick anymore anyway. My father was never laid off—the aliens grow stern at the idea of people losing their livelihoods. But there are mornings when I leave for school and he is frozen at the sink, bathrobed, staring out the window. There are afternoons when I come home and wonder if he's moved.
He buys cookbooks. He says he will become a gourmet chef, which was always his dream. He spends hours watching the Food Network. I come home from school and make us tomato and cheese sandwiches. I say, Daddy, how about we watch something different for a while? He nudges the remote over to my side of the couch.
My mother substitute-teaches and cleans. She pretends she cannot hear him when my father asks, could she turn off the vacuum for a while? She sets her body between him and the TV, vacuums around each of his feet in their slippers as though he were an ottoman she'd rather not touch.
At night I peel off my gym shorts and T-shirt and stand in front of the bathroom mirror. My lips, too big for my face. My breasts, too small. It puzzles my mother, who says at least once a week, I don't understand it, Damia. All the other women in our family have gorgeous bods. I think she's trying to comfort me. I guess it could be worse if she said, I do understand it, Damia. You got exactly what you deserve.
My hips are too wide compared to my waist. The pores on my nose are visible from several feet away. My hands are huge, like a man's, like a giant's. The curve of my shoulders—no, the hulk of my shoulders—is abhorrent. It's weirdly satisfying, this rephrasing of my body into something grotesque. So when I finally peel off the whole thing, it will be deserved.
I slap water onto my face and tell myself to quit wallowing. I'm lucky. Other girls born at other times didn't get my choice. Write three essays, get two teacher recommendations, take a test, drop into the goo (if we choose to believe the cartoons). You're wrong, George. We've all always wanted this. To have the doubts fall away. Everything and nothing. Reborn. Glory-blinding.
I tell George I have to make up a comp-sci quiz, and I linger after school. There's an alien in the guidance counselor's office. Is it the one who told us about the exchange program?
I am, it says. You are interested?
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, I am."
Please, sit down. Or, actually— In the fluorescent light of the office, the alien is almost invisible. A dime of dull air rather than a plate-sized shimmer. —would you like to go outside?
Under a tree in the school courtyard, the alien says, First, let me try to dissuade you.
Yes. This program—I'm not sure it's entirely a good thing. We don't fully know what the effects will be. And your way of life has been in balance for so long. It's a terrible thing to disrupt.
"You don't think you've already disrupted a lot?"
Its response is not quite words this time, only shades of discomfort, regret, defensiveness. I have to backtrack. "I'm sorry. I get it, definitely. But I've been thinking about this for a long time. I've made up my mind."
The alien's projection morphs into acceptance. Well. If you're sure. I've always said what independent minds you have. You'd be doing a great service for your planet, certainly. What's your address? I'll send you the application file.
George is smoking outside the old gas station and when I get there he says, "Jesus, that took a long time."
"Don't tell me. I'm shit at writing code." I focus on his shoes, the scar on his elbow, the cobwebby gas pumps. Not his eyes.
He knocks on my door when I'm working on my application, and I let my mother answer. I can't see her but I can picture her with her arms crossed, filling up the doorway, lips bunched into a disapproving rose. "You two seem to get hurt a lot, don't you?"
"What the fuck, Damia?" George yells through her like she's a screen door.
His voice makes the bruise on my thigh, the scrape on my knee, the split on my cheek throb angrily. My fingers hang frozen over the keyboard until he's gone.
It's the afternoon after I submitted the application, and the aliens are asking for another fight. George sits on the curb, scuffing gravel into a pile and not looking up.
"Oh, come on, guys. You're good for business. Wouldn't believe how good." Mr. Reade, my former employer. He likes us to beat each other up in the parking lot beside the Stray Cat. "They come from shipside talking about you," he tells us. "One of them called it—wait, wait, I got it—something like, 'an authentic celebration of human physicality.' That great or what?"
George snorts. "As long as they keep putting money in the fucking hat."
"Hat? They're putting you in a guidebook."
There's a sucking shrinking feeling in my chest. I edge toward George to sit down beside him, but without warning he kicks one leg out and swipes my shins. My palms smash into the grainy asphalt. The shrinking feeling is knocked out of me, replaced by something clean and pissed off. I take a deep breath and sweep gravel at George.
"Bitch!" He clutches his eye. "Rocks? Seriously?" Then he stands, brings his hands up, bounces on the balls of his feet. "Okay, cheater. Let's do this."
"What I'm talking about," says Mr. Reade.
The alien running the exchange program tells me its name is Lute. Or at least, it puts something in my head, and out of the jumble I get that word. Pretty, melodious name. Genderless as always. Lute says it came here to get away from responsibilities at home. Sometimes, when they talk about back home, the idea that fills me is "another dimension." Other times I only get "shipside." I put the two ideas to Lute. Were they different places? No, no. I feel Lute's patient smile. They are two slightly different ways of referring to the same place. Epithets. The distinction grows wider in translation.
I wonder what it's really saying. I suppose there's no way to know. "Understanding" is predicated on having the same apparatus translate things in the same way. One mouth must translate thoughts to sounds in the same way that other ears translate sounds to thoughts.
But Lute! Lute is sunlight falling on dust. Our apparatuses might not even lie in the same dimension. I am so lucky, that it can move through things as it does, bypass organs altogether. It lays down its intentions on my brain, and I give them meaning. The right meaning, I hope, though probably not. Inside the gnarled clod of my brain, something is always lost.
George shows up at my house one evening, looking like he's going to puke.
"My mother. Overdrew her card. Needed cash. Told the aliens, they could come and watch her pay bills. Watch her boil pasta." Something jumps in the soft skin under his left eye. "Those morons would tip to watch me shit."
"Maybe she deserves a break." I put my hands around his forearm. Whatever anchoredness I feel, let it pass to you. "Really. How's it different from what we do?"
"That's a performance," he gasps out. "We can shuck that off. This is who she is."
"Right. She's a broke lady."
"She's a whore." He clutches my hand. Squeezes my knuckles white.
"And you're a terrible person." I go to flick him on the forehead, and somehow my hand doesn't fall away. Two of my fingers rest on the line of his jaw. His hands have moved up my arm now. His thumb brushes the inside of my elbow. He has been staring out at nothing but now his eyes move to me. And I fall in.
"You know, I don't think you're gay." I'm trying to make a joke. Trying to find a lifeline. "At best you're an asshole." Then I kiss him.
His lips are dry and his hands move across my shoulders, down my back, over all the places where he has opened cuts on me and seen them heal and opened them again. All the places I wish different, that I do not like, gouged or no. His hands don't shy away. He never breaks away.
Then somehow my sports bra is over my head and his jeans are coming off. Oh, I think, it's so simple. Simple as throwing that first punch. These barriers between people, these gulfs, how easily everything collapses.
There's a moment, later, when I revise: Really, that was not like fighting at all.
A cross section of how we are, George and I. My blood, my skin, some air, his skin, his blood. Sometimes: blood, skin, air, wall, air, skin, blood. During sex: blood, skin, skin, blood. As close as we can get. Seeking closer. But that final, perfect closeness? Blood, blood? That's not a place we can get, no matter how deep we pull. We strain against the boundaries of skin.
Except sometimes, when we fight. My knuckle into his lip, just the right way. The gouge in his elbow knocking off the scabs on my ear. Blood, blood.
We get there.