This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Drug use
- Mental health issues
I dated a sun god in college.
She was alone the first time I saw her, at a table in the student union, drinking hot coffee with the same furious intent I’d seen on the upside-down faces of frat bros with rubber taps in their mouths. Jesus, I thought. Her throat must be on fire. We were both studying for the same Organic Chemistry exam.
She was rubbing her temples, struggling to concentrate. Maybe I shouldn’t have stared. I was drawn in by something warm about her—not the sort of warmth associated with comfort. The opposite of that. She was warm like a fever, or like two sticks being rubbed together in the snow. I was sure she was in the middle of a bad headache. And here’s the one thing she never believed me about, even though it’s true: it was only when I bent down to reach into my bag for an ibuprofen that I saw one of her planets. It was crawling slowly toward its aphelion near the ceiling, a cold violet-brown color, very far away and obviously lifeless.
When I glanced back at her, she was looking at me. Her eyes were terrifying. I was saved by another planet, closer to her ecliptic and plagued by beautiful sandstorms, that passed in front of her face. I snapped my head down but couldn’t read any of the words I had just highlighted. A few minutes later, I heard her slam her textbook shut and leave.
I took the exam with the afterimage of her sand planet still burning behind my eyes.
We ran into each other again on Halloween. She was standing outside Hell House, dressed in a metallic gray catsuit, smoking. The women’s rugby team was throwing a party inside; some friend of mine had texted to come over, they were all drunk and comparing leg bruises. Led Zeppelin blared through the screen door.
I paused on the stoop, struck by the way her sandstorms looked in the multicolored light. A quintillion grains of infinitesimal size, flowing like liquid. There was something mysterious and absurd about them. At their own scale they were unrelentingly violent, not survivable by anything with skin, but they reminded me of powdered sugar at Christmas. Little mountains I made on the kitchen counter that collapsed in avalanches so soft they felt like nothing at all.
“It’s rude to stare.”
“Just trying to figure out your costume.”
She straightened herself up, bracing for an inspection. The Get it over with was plain as day. There had been lots of curious staring in her life.
I made a quick count of her planets. Three. There were three of them. Like electrons orbiting a nucleus.
“You’re a … lithium atom?”
“Nerd.” She turned away again, taking another drag on her cigarette. The thin whiffs of smoke that she blew out of her nostrils got caught in the atmosphere of her third planet. It was a brilliant, Earth-like blue with lush green continents.
“Yeah. I’m not the one in the costume, though.”
Later, I would learn that a race of intelligent squid-like beings was just beginning to globalize in the depths of those blue oceans, establishing trade routes and over-farming copper deposits on the seabed. Then, I didn’t dare ask any direct questions. I didn’t dare even breathe. Half a week passed in the lives of the alien squid while she decided whether to continue our conversation.
“I’ve been the same thing every Halloween since fifth grade, you know?” She shrugged, trying to be indifferent, but I saw her pressing her thumbnail hard into the bitten end of her cigarette. “Not much else I can think of to be.” She angled her next exhale downward so as not to pollute. I could see the tension in her brow again and wondered if she got these headaches often.
“I can think of something.” I took a timid step forward, unsure if I was inside the orbital radius of the little violet rock. “You know when Wile E. Coyote gets hit on the head with an anvil and he sees stars?”
For a second I thought I blew it. Then she cracked a smile. It changed her whole face; her eyes became incrementally less like weapons. She reached out a hand, standing on tiptoes for a moment and craning her neck so that the sand planet would miss me.
I took her hand and gave it a shake.
“Nicole,” I replied. “So, now we know who the real nerd is.”
She flickered for a moment back into the hardened object of other people’s curiosity, but I saw something in her expression, a little curiosity of her own. I let my gaze drop to our hands, still clasped.
“It’s the handshake,” I said. “Like, am I interviewing you for a job? You better have good references, nerd.”
She snorted and kicked me, jumping back a foot to save me from getting beaned by Little Violet. That was how it began.
I named them later. Little Violet, Earth II, and Sandrine. I could fall into a trance sometimes, watching Sandrine go around and around for years. It got so I craved it. Elaine asked me once what was so goddamn captivating about a planet with no liquid water, no life, nothing but wind and sand.
“Fortune-telling,” I said. “I can see the future in the storm patterns.” I always felt guilty when she caught me staring. There was a brittleness about her, along with her anxious heat. She was a campfire on the verge of collapse, a heap of white ash barely holding the shape of logs. I found it mysterious and alluring—that’s how oblivious I was.
“I see an idiot who’s guaranteed going to fail English Lit.” She talked mean like that, but if she talked to you at all, it meant she liked you. If she called you an idiot, it meant she more than liked you.
I tried to go back to reading, but before long I was watching Sandrine again on its slow, stately orbit around Elaine’s face. Perfect sphere, its surface shrouded by raging vortices of umber and tawny gold that never repeated and never ceased. Because I gave her head, she said, and because my fixation on Sandrine sort of amused her, Elaine let me stare. But I could tell she didn’t love it. I chose feeling guilty.
Sometimes, if I watched for long enough, I imagined I could see shapes under the storms.
For our first date, I took her to the soccer fields behind her dorm to watch the stars come out. It was the last warm day in autumn, and the sun had slipped below the horizon. The grass was dry and spiky, like straw. I spread out a blanket for us, and only realized when I saw Elaine’s frown that there was no way she could lie down on her back to stargaze. I apologized. We were both stubborn people, so we stayed there and sat five feet apart and got cricks in our necks from watching the sky.
She told me that when she was ten years old, her parents took her to a retirement home to meet a god.
“Why?” I asked.
“So he could encourage me, I guess. Show me what my future would be like.”
“Did it work?”
Her upturned face held no expression. “I think they were hoping he would make them feel better about my future, too.”
I imagined a smaller version of Elaine standing in a hallway with her parents, but couldn’t picture her without the eyebrow piercing and unimpressed air.
“The place was gross. Big windows, none of them open, and everything smelled like a combination of steamed broccoli and stale piss. I think my mother wanted to leave, but the front desk had already signed us in and we couldn’t go back. Then she had to act chipper because she’d arranged the whole thing.”
When she talked about her parents, they were always my mother and my father.
“What was the god like?” I asked.
“It turned out he had seven planets, three with life, one with intelligent life. My father asked a lot of questions.”
“Was it helpful? Getting his perspective on the whole god thing?” I really said that. Probably in the same chipper voice her mother had used.
“He wasn’t interested in us, much. Later I found out my mother had tried to contact a number of others. He was the only one who would agree to speak to us, and he didn’t care about anything.”
“What do you mean?”
She let out a short breath, and glanced down at the gooseflesh on her bare arms. “Whether he was hot or cold. Whether he made it to the toilet. What he smelled like or whether his hair had fallen out or whether he would ever leave his room again. It horrified me.”
I was supposed to react. I panicked, sitting there, neck sore, unbearably self-conscious. What did she want me to say? My instinct was to tell her that I understood, but I couldn’t say that, not believably. So there was silence, except for the far-off hoot of an early owl. I thought she was going to let the subject go, but then she got animated, started to gesture as she spoke.
“The whole time he was talking to us—mumbling at us—he had a huge piece of something stuck in his teeth. Some black thing, rotted food that could have been there for days. And he didn’t care at all. I thought, so this is what I’m going to become?”
“No you’re not, shut up.”
She frowned. It was getting dark; I could just see the lines of her face in the faint light of Earth II’s ocean settlements.
“I will, though, someday. It’s inevitable.”
She was trying to tell me she was scared shitless.
“But not for like, years, probably. Right?” I was trying to look on the bright side. I’d had the sort of life up to that point where looking on the bright side could solve problems.
She shook her head, and the planets danced. “I just want to make it to graduation.”
Elaine had never dated anyone before, and mostly refused to admit she was dating me. There were the logistics. Some of it was easy. I could duck inside her closest orbit, let the deep gravity well scramble my brain as she kissed me into oblivion. Other parts were trickier. We couldn’t walk to class holding hands. We couldn’t curl up together and drift off. The closest I could get to her at night was the bare dorm bed in the corner of her single room. I bought a set of sheets and a new pillow and slept over a couple times a week, but it felt lonely, and I was always trying not to feel that way because it wasn’t Elaine’s fault.
She refused painkillers for her headaches. Even the ones that made her miss class, huddled on her sleeping chair in the dark, alone. I think she was afraid medicine would dull the squid aliens. I told her if she didn’t want to fuck with her nervous system, she should stop smoking, and got the finger.
Elaine was worried about them. They were at a critical stage in their development, and she felt total responsibility for how they were going to turn out.
“No,” she said, when I asked. “Others do things differently, but hell. Without free will, what’s the point?”
I asked her why she didn’t just ignore them, then, and live her life. She sighed. She sighed a lot, and walked away a lot, whenever I started asking questions like that.
One night in the dead of winter, when we had been not-dating for about two and a half months, I showed up drunk. “Please,” I slurred, when she opened the door. “Everything’s spinning. I’m spinning.” I said something like that.
She tucked me in, bitching about how I had woken her up. The window was cracked because she was always too hot, and the bed was like a sheet of ice. She put a warm palm across my forehead before she went back to her chair.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I murmured. “Distract me. Talk to me.”
“Just anything …”
My nose was squished into the pillow. I felt like I was breathing through my skin. The room spun as fast as the merry-go-round used to, when the big kids came and pushed it and everything blurred into primary colors and I couldn’t get off. Elaine leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. I saw the glowing tip flicker as she inhaled. Then I closed my eyes and saw floating red devils.
“A squid is coming home from school,” Elaine said. “He lives in a cold climate, up near the northern ice field, basically the sticks. He just committed a crime. Not a big crime. He was only trying to impress some older members of his species who happened to swim above one of his classes.”
“What type of class?” I asked.
“History,” she said. “They were having a debate about whether a mythical queen really existed or not, but the young squid isn’t thinking about that now. He’s in distress. He just committed a crime, right in the middle of class, and he’s not sure who saw him do it. Why did he do it? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t. It’s just a sort of temporary craze that takes hold of the young, sometimes. The squid have a word for it. A sudden fear of conformity. A sudden dread of the future, of becoming another phosphorescent cloud rising from the copper farms. He’s praying to me. He swears that he’ll never do anything like that ever again, if he just can get away with it this one time. He’ll believe in me forever. He’ll devote himself to good behavior.”
“Are you going to take him up on it?” I mumbled.
“Too late now,” she said. “In the time I’ve been telling you about him, things have happened. But I wouldn’t anyway. Prayers make me sick. I hear them, all the desperation in them, but I can’t be that kind of a god. I just can’t. I can’t live like that. If I started controlling one thing I would have to control everything, and I can’t … I’m already …”
“What happened, then?” I asked. “To the squid.”
“He got home and found his mother talking to the principal. He spent the night cursing me and is on his way to a school board meeting now, where he’ll be formally expelled. He’ll have to go to work. He swears not the farms. His mother is a farmer.”
“Sounds like a human situation,” I muttered.
“No,” Elaine said, “I’ve been doing a lot of translating, giving you the emotional gist.”
I was about to black out. I don’t remember whether I really asked her what crime it was that the squid committed, but I thought she said he squirted some of his life-essence into an artwork, a graffito, to hang in the sea. Both the content of the graffito and the act of squirting in public were considered obscene. He did it when he thought no one was looking, wanted the older squid who were passing above to see because they were members of the squid counterculture or something. I don’t know. I can’t picture it. By the time I woke up again, death-mouthed, with an urgent bladder, he was probably nearing middle age.
Spring came muddy and cold. The snow melted into new grass, and buds appeared on the apple trees outside the biology building. We were sick of wearing coats and went around shivering.
“Do you think there’ll ever be life on Sandrine?” I asked.
Elaine was trying to quit smoking. I saw her hand start toward her purse, but she licked her lips.
“But don’t you think it would be fun? Little single-celled babies …” I knew better, really.
“You know that would be a disaster for me, right?” she said.
I got defensive to cover the guilty lump in my stomach. We pounded up the stairs to her dorm room shouting at each other; I didn’t mean for it to lead to sex, but maybe I did. Later, her arm thrown across her face, Elaine murmured, “What are you doing to me?”
When we went back outside, the sun was setting, and we decided to walk to an off-campus coffee shop. I was afraid we were going to break up as soon as we got there, and nervously watched Sandrine go around until it eclipsed Elaine’s face.
“It’s obvious you’re only dating me for that thing,” she said. “You have a fetish for it.”
“I thought we weren’t dating.”
She shrugged. The breeze was good on my hot skin, tightening me up where I felt loose. It was a contrast to the wormy way I felt inside.
I kept my eyes off her from then on, as we loped down the hill, our knees jangling with each impact of our sneakers on the concrete sidewalk. Neither of us said anything. I was waiting for her to talk. She was waiting for me to defend myself.
We made it to the coffee shop and Elaine couldn’t decide what to order. She could act so sure of herself, so bullheaded, and then at other times become paralyzed by meaningless decisions. Finally she picked a tea bag and we sat down. The silence at the table felt more unnatural than the side-by-side silence of walking.
“Are you going to say anything?” Elaine asked. She was dunking her tea bag like she tapped her cigarettes before smoking them, watching the hot water go muddy brown.
“What do you want me to say?”
She threw up her hands, almost hitting Earth II and when she spoke it was in a spitting whisper. “I don’t know! Maybe admit it!”
I raised my eyebrows. “Admit what?”
“Admit it, you’re only interested in me for my condition.”
I told her that I’d noticed her first, sitting there studying in the student union. Not her planets, not Sandrine. Which was the truth. Then I said, falteringly, “I’ll never mention the god thing again, if you don’t want me to.”
Elaine buckled. Her body sagged as though she were a lead sinker in a pond, guiding me down to where the big ones were hiding. She stared into her undrunk tea, and for the first time I wondered what it felt like for her when the squid died. A generation a day.
“Nicole,” she said.
“You don’t understand how fucking stupid that sounds, and I can’t even be mad about it.”
She shook her head. “Because you have no idea what a bad person I am.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. She was being ridiculous, I thought.
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling good about yourself right now,” I said, in a calm voice. I was trying to remain calm.
She glared at me and snapped, “Don’t be patronizing. You’re always doing that, flaunting your stability. Your composure. I don’t have the luxury, okay?”
I had no idea what to say. I wasn’t feeling composed at all.
“I know I push you away,” she said. “And you put up with me. You’re not perfect, but somehow you put up with me.”
I saw the edge of her jaw tense, a sudden flinch and a thrash.
“My parents couldn’t put up with me. I was awful to them. They’re paying for me to be here, but they don’t even try to talk to me. I drove them away. I thought they loved me unconditionally, so I let out all my pain on them. It has to go somewhere. I can’t keep it all. It’s too much.”
I pried her hands off the tea and held them, and she let me.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“If my parents won’t love me like that, who will?”
I was panicking, too hot inside Sandrine’s orbit, but she had finally told me what she wanted to hear. So I said it: “I love you.”
She shook her head, and tears spilled over. “You don’t …”
“No, I mean it.”
The whole conversation had been a fumbling attempt at this call and response. The clichés only made it feel more real, like we had followed a blueprint and arrived at structural integrity. We squeezed each other’s hands and started laughing—real laughter. Spring laughter, because the Earth was tilting toward the sun and life would only get better.
We signed a lease on the second floor of an old Craftsman. A narrow wooden staircase ran up the outside of the house to a door that had once been a window. It was hot, creaky, and the ceilings sloped so that Elaine had to duck. But we liked the privacy, and Elaine could sit out on the staircase to smoke in the evenings. After she adopted Crombie, he sat with her.
Crombie showed up in the last days of August, just before the war. We were eating takeout at a sagging picnic table in the park, and he went right up to Elaine. She started rubbing the folds behind his ears, peeled some meat off a teriyaki chicken drumstick for him. An old man walked by and told us we shouldn’t be feeding stray dogs.
“What stray dog?” Elaine asked. “This is my dog.”
So he came to live with us, and although he was perfectly friendly with me, he liked Elaine best. I was glad enough to have him around when the war broke out.
It began in early September, the second week of our senior year, and made Elaine so sick that she had to drop all but one of her classes. In the past, her headaches closed her mouth; she would not tell me why she got them or why they eventually went away, and the worse they were, the less she would talk. Just shook her head whenever I put pills in front of her.
This was so different, it caught me off guard. When she wasn’t groaning in her chair or vomiting into the bathtub, she was telling me war stories. She didn’t sleep much and only ate sliced cucumbers and packets of tuna. It was like watching hot iodine granules phase into gas—she seemed less solid all the time, had a fever but didn’t sweat. Instead, she kept up a stream of information, her breath warm and dry and smelling of fish.
“It’s that squid’s fault,” she whispered to me. I was kneeling by her chair, dabbing her skin with a wet cloth. Crombie stood guard near her feet. “The graffiti artist who got kicked out of school. I never should have told you about him.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Because I spoke about him, he acquired cosmic importance.” Her lips were chapped. They were beginning to crack and bleed.
“But he must be long dead.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a legacy?” She grimaced. “He has a legacy. It’s full of anger. Can you get the pillowcase out of the freezer?”
I changed her pillowcase and she explained. “After he was expelled, he ran away from home, hooked up with those punks. Turns out that because the punishment had been so harsh and because he cursed God openly, they were impressed. He began doing more art. Squirting out—you know you’re not supposed to do that until just before you die.”
“Why not?” I asked, horribly interested. “Should you be telling me this? Will it make the cosmic importance worse?”
She shook her head, and I saw Sandrine wobble in the corner of my vision. Beautiful, uncomplicated Sandrine. I was beginning to hate Earth II.
“The way they reproduce,” she said. “Males ejaculate once, as they die. It’s a tradition, not a biological imperative, has to do with religion and propriety. Their gametes disperse and go wherever the currents take them … Once a female reaches the age of fertility, she can get pregnant just by passing near enough to one of them. Like getting a burr on your sock.”
She glared at me. Her glare had lost some of its edge, but I apologized anyway. “And so this one you told me about—”
“It started as a social revolution. Then it turned political, now it’s going global. The current leader of the movement is trying to annex a certain coastal region near the equator, very rich in resources. They’re slaughtering farmers. Blanketing reefs in pollutants. They squirt propaganda for miles. God lies. God lies. God lies.”
I thought I saw a lick of flame come out of her mouth before she lapsed into unconsciousness. My fingers shook as I finished with the washcloth, and I realized I was jealous.
The god-cursing artists conquered half of Earth II before economic forces settled them on Homecoming weekend. They had established themselves as the seat of the industrial renaissance. Good for them, I thought, bitterly. Had it really all happened because I’d gotten drunk one night?
Elaine thanked me for taking care of her, but the war had turned us into a different thing. She went through half a pack of cigarettes a day. She took Crombie on long walks. She spent a lot of time at the library, despite the fact that she was down to one class, an easy elective. I followed her there a few times. I’m not proud of it. She read books from the Divinity section but never brought them home. At home, she was sensitive about me seeing her notebooks. We tiptoed around each other like freshman roommates.
Could she sense my jealousy?
I started spending nights on the couch at Hell House. If she was going to ignore me …
One night as I walked out the door, she made me promise to come back first thing in the morning. There was something in her voice.
I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t sleep. By the time I started back, snow was falling. Yellow in the streetlights, circling back up in gusts, flakes too small to believe in gravity. She was already gone.
I flipped on the light and saw Little Violet coming around the living room, low, at an odd slant. My first, tired thought was that Elaine must be crouching behind the armchair, waiting to jump out at me. But it was only Crombie, sleeping on the rug in front of his water bowl. Earth II was just passing his left ear. And Sandrine.
She’d left a letter on the coffee table.
This is for the best. I’m not asking you to trust me. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I trust myself. It was easy to do, once I figured out how. The bonds aren’t so different from the ones we’ve studied in Orgo. You can break down molecules, and you can break down a solar system.
I know you want them, but a person who asks for planets doesn’t know what they’re asking for. I can’t risk the squid with you, even if they are turning into little fascists. At least it will be gentle, this way. You can watch it happen.
I sat down on the cold, creaking floor. I stared at Sandrine and wondered where Elaine was, whether she was out somewhere in the snow. Where would she go? Back to her parents? Storm patterns were shifting. A wide orange vortex broke into pieces that spiraled away, many small eyes. I realized I could watch for as long as I wanted. We could watch each other. Around and around … I thought about what Sandrine would feel like, cupped in my palms. Warm whirlwinds of powdered sugar.
As minutes passed, I timed the orbital period of each planet. They were slowing down, their rates of rotation decreasing, days getting longer. I imagined being a squid in a never-ending afternoon.
I nudged him with my toe. Maybe if he woke up, things would get moving again. He didn’t stir, even when I nudged harder. His sleep wasn’t natural; his breathing seemed drugged.
“Some sun god you are.”
I lay flat on my back and edged into the gravity well. Instant headache, suffocating pain. Through it, muffled and distant, I thought I could hear Earth II. For a moment my body was either unreal or the wrong size for what was going on in my head, like being drunk in a hall of mirrors. Like being buried alive. I sat up, left with faint impressions of squid whose mothers were telling them no one had to go to school anymore.
After that, all I did was stare at Sandrine. Little eyes flowed, merging and blinking into yellow, into brown, into shining cataclysms that I ached to touch. I kept picturing my hands plucking it out of the air and holding it, peering into its opaque depths. Elaine wouldn’t want me to. Elaine would never know. The windows were already pale. The planets looked like tops beginning to wobble. I did some calculations, and guessed they would probably continue to spin for another twelve hours or so. What was twelve hours?
I held my breath and reached out. I meant to take Sandrine tenderly into my arms, but the moment my fingers touched it, I felt something like a bee sting. I jerked back. Sandrine fell to the floor and rolled. I heard Little Violet clatter somewhere to my left, hitting the coffee table on its way down, and saw Earth II’s oceans freeze over in an instant.
Crombie sneezed and opened his eyes.
I got to my knees and then shakily onto my feet, legs almost numb. I examined the sore spot on my right pointer finger, and thought I was waking from a dream. Sandrine had rolled behind the armchair. I picked it up, like cold sandpaper between my hands. The storms had settled. The planet was quiet, naked except for its ruined cities. They covered vast areas, colossal artificial structures battered into black debris, jagged cracks radiating outward from impact craters.
Oh God, Elaine.
I tried to process what I was seeing. I imagined her as a little girl, scared out of her mind, feeling her innermost planet erupt with intelligent life. A whole civilization. It happened fast, way too early, evolution had barely gotten started, and she was learning to multiply fractions and still had a flat chest. She couldn’t concentrate on her homework. One day her parents took her to meet another god.
I saw her on the car ride back, head pounding but forced to sit up straight the whole way, the horrible smell of the retirement home in her hair. Waiting until the house was quiet, sneaking out to the garage. She found something there. A tire iron, or an old baseball bat. She swung it, over and over. She kept swinging even when she couldn’t feel them anymore. When her arms were sore, she went inside and looked up genocide in the dictionary. She created sandstorms to hide what she had done. She learned how to keep them blowing, a habit like tapping her foot or breathing from her diaphragm, because people were watching. Because everybody stared. And she was holding it together. She was applying to college.
I could close my eyes and see her. The hot skin, cigarettes, face paved over so it wouldn’t crack. Maybe what she had left behind was only another dream, and maybe she wasn’t gone for good. I pictured her climbing the stairs, opening the door. We could walk down the street holding hands. I would show her the blister on my finger. The sun would be the spring sun again, our hair would float in the breeze. When I opened my eyes, the door was closed. I cradled Sandrine to my chest. Her cities were black husks.