There is the night we lie against each other, naked, when George freezes, breath trembling in his throat. "Do you think—this—would they pay to see—"
I kiss him hard, but the thought is already out. It hangs like a marble on a string between us and grows foggy with our breath. Yes.
Is the answer. We both know and the marble grows bigger and presses a red welt into my chest. Yes.
Not only would they, but they will and they have and they probably are. Just because this thing is newly discovered to us doesn't mean it isn't old and tarnished to plenty. And plenty who wanted to eat or wanted to please could so easily say: You want human bodies? You want flesh? Come this way.
Not prostitution, exactly. No give and take of pleasure. Just watching. They would take the same kind of joy in it that they take in watching cashiers scan groceries, girls play clapping games, men fix a roof. Could sex still have beauty if it took place under such bland, curious eyes? Could it still have cruelty if that horror was supplanted by the blunt horror of being observed? Meanings warp, meanings dissolve. But still we let them in. Into the most Eleusinian mysteries, even when it breaks our hearts. The marble, giant now, weighs on my lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Why is it never us, I wonder. Why are we never the ones who get to smile, to say—No, this is not for you. It's complicated. In a million years, you could not hope to understand.
One night, my father asleep in front of the television, I hear the newscaster say, "With us tonight, Johanna DeWitt, first human to return from shipside. If you think the studio looks emptier than it should, don't worry! Johanna has undergone the splitting process. On the street you'd be hard-pressed to tell her from your average alien. Tell us, Johanna, how are you feeling?"
Johanna's responses scroll as text along the bottom of the screen. They angle the studio lights so that we can see her shimmering a foot above the couch. Another woman sits next to Johanna. The caption on the screen informs us that this is Helene, Johanna's wife. She is small, with a round face. Her eyes look straight ahead but down, maybe at the cameraman's shoes.
The Johanna scroll informs us that she and Helene met in graduate school, that they devoted their lives to alien tech, that they were both so overjoyed when Johanna was selected as an ambassador. My body is safe, Johanna assures us. And I feel so indescribably free.
Helene hunches her elbows in, as though trying not to occupy the space that Johanna's body would need, if Johanna were there. She twists her wedding ring.
George comes up to me after school, squinting, hands jammed in his pockets.
"So, do you . . . should we go on a date, or something?"
I burst out laughing almost too hard to gasp out, "No."
"Thank god." Tension relinquishes his shoulders.
"But—want to swing by the library?"
That means, want to punch me until my skull rattles, but we never say that. The fights exist in a new vicious language, modulated by the color and spread of our bruises. Since we both speak it, there's no point in translating.
If you could lay your thoughts down on my brain, George. What would I understand?
When either of us lands a solid hit on the other, there is a ripple of excitement among the aliens. My elbow goes into George's stomach, and I can almost hear the chimes of their thoughts. Like starving men watching someone eat, I think. George hears it too. He clutches his stomach, his mouth frozen in the shape of pain. After a moment he catches my eye and grins, hard and grim.
I lean into his blows. Each punch he lands unmoors me a little more. If I can turn every inch of my body to bruise. Convert the entirety of my flesh to pain. Then by default, the mysterious points of anchor will sever. I will rise into the air.
When I sit down to dinner with blood crusted around my nose, my eye puddled purple and yellow, my mother stares. My father saws at his chicken without putting any pressure on the knife. My mother swallows. "We could buy you some new foundation," she says.
Protestors grow more active in the wake of Johanna's appearance. Will we let them disembody a generation of our children? No, we will not! Protect our human heritage! There are rallies around alien portals. A protestor grows wild, shoves his arm with his middle finger extended through the rippling air. His body convulses in a shudder—delight or anguish?—and he falls to the ground. They revive him with Gatorade and Cheetos.
I want to tell George how funny it is, the protestor slurping down Blue Ice, with dangerously cheesy dust around his mouth. Protect our human heritage! But George is not in school. He's not slouching behind the library or riding the kid swings at the park and drawing dark looks from the nannies. Four days go by.
I wake up feeling the imprint of his head against my chest. Every glimpse of dyed hair or glitter makes my heart lunge. I even try his mother's house and she says, "I'm sorry, who are you?"
The Chicago portal is destroyed. An organized act of terrorism, say the newscasters. No simple firecrackers, either; they used alien technology. Set fire to the air inside a tightly controlled ring, and devoured that unfathomable field. There's nothing there in the morning, when the cameras arrive. A crowd gathers in the shadow of the Bean, unwilling or unable to believe that it is gone. For the first time in a long time, they are actually staring at empty air.
The camera sweeps across the flock of faces, and my heart flips so hard I can hear the deafening clap in my ears. There in the crowd, a green mohawk. His arms are crossed over his chest as he stares at the spot where the portal used to hang. His smile is hard and grim.
I knew something would happen, says Lute. It and I are in the park. I sit with my back against a beech, a knot digging into my spine. We should not have given so much, so quickly. You could not deal with it.
"No," I say. "It's not that. Not exactly."
Lute is puzzled but I keep silent. They get our actions. Our angers, even. But not our reasons. Not this time.
Finally Lute says, In any case we should hurry things along. I know officials shipside. They could bump you to the front of the list.
Its presence is pale, diffuse. In my mind I catch fragments of distaste, anger that softens to grief. The sun is a low yolk in the sky. There is an ant crawling up my calf. Across the park two kids are trying to ride their Big Wheel bikes down the grassy hill. At the bottom they catch, go flying off, and for a moment their long shadows leap away from their feet.
Lute says, Could I—do you think—can I touch you?
I know Lute doesn't truly mean "touch," but I know it does mean "front of the list." And the front of the list means escape. Certain definitions can be made hazy. Some lines can be blurred. The change in density that marks the boundary between my skin and the air can be bridged. Touched.
My heart races. I pick at the gummy lines of my cuticles. My wide hands with their bulging knuckles. The loaves of fat lying under the skin of my thighs. I could never have to look at this body again. I could never have to breathe.
So I say, "Yeah, sure." Lute is a patch of air in front of me, and then is not. Lute is now the length of my forearm. My flesh glows if I watch from the corner of my eye but fades if I look straight on. Lute moves up my arm and through my torso. Lute is a gentle orb of heat, or else a chill that ripples through me. Lute is saying, Wow, wow, wow.
Deep inside my head, I picture my consciousness as a hot air balloon, harlequin red and blue and gold. It strains against a hundred ropes. One by one, they are struck through with an axe. The balloon trembles. Its basket tips back and forth.
Vessel. The word jumps into my mind so derisive it scorches my hair. Vessel. Now I am open to the mockery of late night talk show hosts, politicians, mothers who gossip at luncheons. They don't know it, but when they say it, vessel, they are talking about me. Imagine it, being probed by the unknown. Being . . . occupied. Their disgust tinged with the heat of fear.
Vessels hand over not just actions but the medium of flesh. It's what all the aliens want. It gives them bragging rights shipside. They tell horror stories of their close encounters with bodies. Their friends listen raptly, the ones who would never be brave enough to come down here. They think, shuddering, of their own bodies, wherever they have left them. When they sleep (or whatever) they have dreams (or something different) of being trapped.
I tell myself that this new kind of revulsion is just a temporary burden. I tell myself guilt is just another trapping of flesh. My body senses that its time is almost up, and so it casts out wild nets of feeling, trying to trap me and haul me back in. When I wake up retching at three a.m., sure that the gentle orb of heat has returned, that it has come through my neighborhood and my walls and my sheets to slide again up and down through my body, that's just muscle memory. Not a part of me.
And when I have no container? When I am no container? I will be nothing but myself.
I get out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I cup a hand between my legs, cover everything up. I lay my other forearm over my breasts. More acts of self-censorship. Neuter. Neutral. It. It feels so strange. This is it.
George shows up at school the next Monday. He sits in the back of class with his head on the desk and the teachers don't bother calling on him. He ignores me at lunch. I stake out his locker after school but he doesn't pass by, and by the time I've figured that out and sprinted from the building he's halfway down the street. He freezes when I shout his name.
I catch up to him and spin him around by the shoulders. It's disconcerting how much he looks the same. What did I expect, some disfiguring scar? A brand on his forehead? Whatever words I had desert me.
He speaks instead. "You applied for exchange." It's not a question. And now his face is falling apart. "All those times—you said you hated them. You said how stupid they were."
Oh, George. Oh. You are not the only betrayer here. How can I explain that yes, I said that. But more than those things, I want to fly and I want speak in the music they speak and I want to touch and be touched the way they are. He would say they had tricked me. He would look at me with pity, and when pity didn't change my mind it would change in him to disgust. But it's my right to want those things. It's a want that is in myself, not my flesh.
He's not done. His voice cracks. "How can you hate yourself that much? How—you would go somewhere you're not even sure exists. You would leave your own body. And me."
You've already left me, I want to say. Not in the same way that I would leave, but it's your way, and it's as real to you as my way is to me. You know it is.
"Day. There are other ways to escape. We're fighting them. You should join us."
Join, ha! The word could mean so much more. The meaning he intends for it is sad, inadequate.
But the impossibility of that word brings me up short, and grief bells inside me. I want to stave off that truth as long as possible. I lean forward and kiss him, clutch him to me. Suddenly it doesn't matter whether the desire is in my flesh or in my mind, whether our words are adequate or not, whether everyone on the street is staring at us. Stay with me.
He pushes me off. "For fuck's sake, Damia. Sell yourself to the devil, sure. At least stand by your own position. This is pathetic."
Words calculated to smart. Words to reach where blows cannot. Where bodies refuse to go. It digs a honed edge into my chest and all the reasons why I can't lose him spill out like organs. I clutch my stomach—the points of anchor will be severed—and turn, and flee.
I plow through my house, upstairs into my room, punch the wall. Hot tears bully their endless way out from under my eyelids. Stupid girl. Typical girl. Crying because I would lose the boy I loved. Because my body was something people looked at as an artifact, and I was trapped inside it.
My mother comes into my room, holding the computer. She sees me slumped on the rug and kneels down next to me. "So you've heard."
I have no idea what she's talking about.
"You got a letter. From the regional exchange office." She hands me the screen.
In light of recent terrorist attacks, the alien bureau regrets to announce that all scholarship exchange programs will be put indefinitely on hold. We regret the inconvenience and hope that amicable relations can be restored with all possible speed.
Postscript—Damia, I'm really very sorry about this. —Lute
Behind their words, I can feel it, really feel it, for the first time. The bafflement. The seeds that will blossom into disgust. The aliens rustle and murmur, Look at what you did. After all we gave you. After all we sang your praises. How did we deserve that? How could you?
"Honey, I'm so sorry." Mom pats my hand. "I know how hard it is to feel you have nowhere to go."
But I drop the computer and ease out from under her palm. My eyes are dry. My nose isn't running anymore. I stand up and step into the doorway.
"Actually, I think I'm going outside."
I jog into the center of town and stand outside the Stray Cat. Aliens spill out of it, following the end of the lunch rush. Aliens everywhere, following shoppers, watching toddlers drop ice cream.
"You want to fucking understand?" I scream at them. "Come here." The humans who are around look up too and cover their babies' ears. Fuck that. "Put this in your fucking guidebook."
The aliens follow me. They call to each other in their incomprehensible music and more come pouring out of shops and houses and Starbucks. They flock behind me, until I'm wearing a shimmering cloak of air that billows across the whole street.
I don't need to look more than one place. George. I know where you are.
I hope he gets my message, through my eyes and my set chin and my clenched knuckles. There are no more words between us. I will lay my thoughts down on his body, and he will give them meaning.
I round the corner of the library just as he's stubbing out his cigarette. He sees the aliens behind me, the flock, the exaltation, the avalanche. His eyes grow huge. I don't pause, just bring my fists up and heave myself into his chest. He catches me around the waist, eyes still wide. Yeah, this dance. Remember, George?
But he just pushes me back, barely any force, his lips parted in a silent question.
I slam my fist into the side of his face.
He staggers sideways, recovers. Bounces once on the balls of his feet and then lunges. Some restraint has been severed. Blows rain down from either side. He's stronger, he's always been stronger. He's a he, not an it. My head rings like a hundred aliens are screaming. A hundred aliens are screaming. There's something warm running through my hair. Lights in my skull explode. Light reflects off the sweat on his nose. I drop down, jut my shoulder into his stomach and feel his guts rearrange. He flips over my back, legs flailing, hits the asphalt with a noise of meat and wetness. I've always been faster. I'm a she, not an it.
The bar of his shin knocks my ankles out from under me and I drop. My head bounces on—softness. George's outstretched arm. My whole body peals with pain. Heartbeats flood my brain, drowning out the bray of alien projections. I can feel George's pulse through my scalp. His forearm is slickening with my blood. My body fills with the crashing of my breath, in and out and in. Dark arterial colors are leaching into my vision. I fight it, wrench my eyes into focus. Above us the sky is dazzling blue, and empty.