There were two locations of the Mars 2112 theme restaurant. People remember the one in Manhattan, but there was another at the Woodfield Mall in my hometown, Schaumburg, Illinois. It closed without warning on May 14th, 2009. The night before, I lost my virginity to an alien performer, and something happened that I can’t explain.
I went to Mars the first time for a birthday party. I hate parties, but I was invited by my boss, the Dean of English. I had no choice. The party was for a woman that I didn’t know, an assistant professor specializing in Science Fiction.
She said, “You’ll love it, and Doris will be sad if no one comes to her birthday party. They make it feel like you are actually traveling to Mars.”
It was true. The front door of Mars 2112 led to a motion simulator ride that took you on a journey through the stars. These rides usually make me throw up, so on this first journey, I kept my eyes shut while the space ship shook me around. When I disembarked, I was welcomed to Mars. I followed the neon signs past a bar dug into a cave of red rocks and descended the steps to the dining area, the Crystal Crater. There was a large screen set high up in a red rock wall, and below it, there was a small stage where the aliens performed.
My party was seated directly in front of the stage. When they saw me, they waved and blew their noisemakers. They were already drunk. The Dean must have sensed my trepidation, because she came over and took me by the arm and led me back to the table.
The waiter was in the middle of taking their order, so I only had a minute to look at the menu. It was standard American fare, chicken fingers, hamburgers, hot dogs, baby back ribs, all with Martian names. Cosmic Chicken Fingers with Asteroid sauce! Venusian burgers with Titan bacon strips! They cheated this other imagined world. They should have hired a novelist or a poet. They should have imagined a whole other kind of animal that the chicken fingers came from, a creature suited to the atmosphere of its planet with a skin thick enough to survive the extreme temperatures and small wings to gently lift and move its two thousand pound body in the light gravity. But they didn’t. They gave the menu to a regular person in a cubicle and said, I need this back by the end of the day. And they obliged, like they always do. Nobody ever asks me about this stuff before they do it. Everyday I walk out into a world already shoddily created.
The Crystal Crater only went a few inches deep before the illusion wore out. I remember thinking if only the vulgarity of the bathroom with its normal white porcelain contrivances that kept our little human hamster cage clean weren’t there. I suppose certain government ordinances kept them from making Martian-like guesses at whether we would stand or sit, or lay on a some kind of spinning centrifuge before pushing the button that flung the offending material into space. For that matter, the tables and chairs and utensils showed a certain lack of imagination. But if you watch a science fiction movie or read a book, everyone still sits at tables and chairs. No one is willing to imagine a world without tables and chairs.
I was a thirty-one year old adjunct instructor in English at Lakeside Community College. Teaching people to explain was my job. Back then, the people who knew me well enough to know, wanted me to explain my virginity. But, but, but, they would argue on, lost in some echo of the physical sensation, not realizing that I wasn’t arguing back.
It wasn’t by choice, and I wasn’t bitter about it.
I’ve been seeing psychiatrists since I was eleven. The pills have changed colors and shapes over the years. Some chop down the highs and some lift up the lows. All of them add a little distance, like a narrator is reading my life an instance before it happens. Imagine being on a date with me. It is the end of the night, and you have finally cornered me. I’m looking blankly into your face. I’m too tired and stressed and scared to play act the normal human emotions anymore. I look at you like a mirror and see an image of myself that has gone out of control with teeth and skin and eyes that aren’t mine. I’m just as relieved as you are to be going home alone.
So now that I’ve confessed, you might not believe a word I say now or even worse you might act enough like you are listening that I get excited and tell the whole story to you, only to have you erase all of its meaning by telling yourself, Bless his heart. Me taking pills doesn’t change the truth. People don’t listen to you either. They don’t listen to you because you are too old or too young. Because they want to sleep with you or don’t want to sleep with you. Because you are the wrong or right color. They may be more polite about it, but you might as well be talking to your television.
Because they were drunk, the English department got to the topic sooner than most. Doris, the birthday professor, told me, “You’ll feel better when it’s over. It makes the whole world seem different.”
She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. It was affectionate, but there was something else in the gesture. Her hand felt like it was appraising me. I had wondered why I was invited, and now I knew. They had brought her a virgin. I nodded formally. It was a serious offer, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I suddenly wanted to talk to my sister. I was walking around the restaurant, looking for a signal, when I fell in love.
Illusions always have weak points. They are meant to be seen from certain directions. I was standing a little behind and to the right of the screen at the center of the Crystal Crater. A corner of the hanging fabric was askew, so that I could see into the hallway from which the alien performers emerged. Cutie-Pi was already in costume. Her mask had two large silver eyes with long black eyelashes. Her mouth was painted with a small smile, quiet and sure. None of her human skin showed. The material was purple and stretchy like yoga pants. She wore a short metallic green skirt for modesty. She was getting ready to perform, and she was nervous, steeling herself. She stretched and jumped and clapped hands, trying to beat the nerves. A song of the future was playing, flutes and electric violins. She was waiting for the exact moment, the synthesized beat that she had to come in on. It was so brave. It reminded me of what I have to do every morning just to leave my house.
When Cutie-Pi went out, she killed. She had a quiet grace befitting her royal galactic station in life. But when the music got funky, she started handing out the hi-fives and shimmying down to get eye level with the kids. That wasn’t what made me fall in love. When Cutie-Pi exited, she was standing in the hallway. The persona dissipated. She exhaled, and I saw the weight of the world fall back on her small round shoulders. All that bravery would have to be summoned again and again. It broke my heart.
After seeing this profound thing, I did my best to follow the conversation of my colleagues. Doris put her hand on my knee, but I ignored it. I watched the stage and waited. Cutie-Pi didn’t appear again. That night I couldn’t sleep. I felt hot, so I laid on top of my sheets. I wanted to hear her real voice. If I allowed myself to fantasize about her, I could fall asleep, but I would never again have the courage to speak to her. I wished I was sick. If I were sick, I could look out my window and the moon would show me where she was. The clouds would cover and uncover her. The faucets would sing her name, hot and cold. I would know everything. I went to the bathroom, turned the faucet on and only cold water came out. I was relieved and disappointed.
The next day I stood in front of my morning class, my head a few inches above the wash of pheromones. They looked up at me with their flat hungover eyes. All but a few were woefully unprepared for the small moment of engagement that my job required me to seek. I wasn’t annoyed. I wasn’t above them. I wasn’t up all night drinking, but we shared the same black circles under our eyes. Our hair was tangled and matted. I, too, didn’t care whether they would ever be able to compare and contrast two movies or college football teams or states of being. I looked away from the podium that held my class notes and out the window at the low gray clouds approaching. And I knew in that moment that they had followed my line of sight and had all joined me in the sky above the parade grounds. Still focused on the roiling clouds, I, please forgive the crudeness of expression, shot the shit with my students. I asked, “What’s the difference between being in love and not?”
They turned their heads back to me with the interest one might apply to an exotic bird in a zoo, one that had been hidden and for no reason, has stepped out of the bushes and spread its plumage.
A pre-law kid answered back with a question, “What kind of love?”
A woman who hadn’t said a single word all semester rolled her eyes and sighed with a frustration that seemed to encompass all her feelings for men, “He said in love. It’s romantic love. You aren’t in love with your mother are you?”
From his silent and troubled expression, I could tell that the image of his mother had been superimposed over the attractive young woman.
“No,” he stammered, and then rallied, “It feels good. You feel like yourself, that you can be exactly what you want to be because you are already that thing in her eyes.”
I nodded and wondered what Cutie-Pi’s real eyes looked like. I did feel more confident and that was without saying a single word to my beloved.
A woman in the back who wore blouses cut so low that I had to avert my eyes when I handed back papers, gave her testimony, “I have been in love for six months, and it sucks. It is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“What happened?,” the boy asked.
“Nothing happened. You think love is so great because the person loves you back. You’re having sex and it’s all grand. But if the person doesn’t love you back you are powerless. They call when they want. They come over when they want. It’s humiliating. All I feel is anxiety. It gives all the power to another person.”
I considered that. There was no guarantee that my feelings for Cutie-Pi would be returned. How long would the feelings last if they weren’t of any use to me? Cutie-Pi could be with someone else right now, doing terrible things. I doubted the darkest of the student’s implications, because I trusted in Cutie-Pi’s good nature.
“Maybe you aren’t really in love,” another pro-love student challenged.
This made the young woman very angry, but before she could answer, I refereed, “That’s not a thing that we can argue about. We can describe our feelings, but we can’t challenge each other about their existence.”
I did consider how crazy this all sounded. I wondered about the intensity of my own feelings. How could I be in love with a person that I have never talked to or slept next to or ate a meal with? Of course, you could turn this question around, how could you ever love someone that you have done all those things with. Love is the most dangerous when it is abstract. It is the un-fillable desire, the never reached shore. Think of that poor damaged human bird, Mark Chapman, at the movies looking up at the giant flickering movie image of Jodie Foster. He never had a chance. He was all alone. I have the pills to protect me. I have my love of English and clarity to protect me. The most important lesson in composition is considering your audience. Chapman was too sick to know how much he scared the object of his affection. If Cutie-Pi told me that it was never to be, I would bow my head politely and step aside.
“Mr. P., what’s the homework?”
I came back to them from my weighty considerations, and they became students again instead of confidantes. I thought about the pile of papers that I would have to grade had I gone through with the assignment that I had planned. I thought about Cutie-Pi shaking her cosmic tail feathers to the Mars Bop, and I knew that what was buoyant in my mood could not come back down to earth enough to read their arguments.
“Tell you what,” I told them, “go back and do something that you didn’t do for me. Find some piece of homework or reading that you didn’t finish. Do that.”
The girl who was unhappily in love complained, “But I did it all.”
“Then, you are one step ahead of everyone else in the room.”
I don’t know why. Maybe it was the high of love, but I suddenly hated her, the one student in the room who was the most like me. After class, I went home to get ready to go back to the restaurant. I shed my adjunct instructor clothes and regarded my pale freckled body in the mirror that went from my head to half way down my shins. I cut my toenails. I looked ruefully at the tufts of hair that stuck out from behind my ears, and my less than flat stomach. I found my one party shirt. It was dark black, cut from a soft suede-like material. The lapels didn’t button down and were bigger than normal. The shirt was like the me I always wanted to be in a roomful of strangers.
I barely made the bus to the mall. People in cars want people in buses to be ashamed of themselves. But I couldn’t care less. Nobody sees you on the bus. You can stare out at what’s going on outside all you want. You should see the faces of the drivers. The most educated, refined looking person can go from calm to snarling animal in seconds over the slightest, most abstract and fleeting thwarting of will. These are the sane people, the tax paying, home-owning, car driving folk. I’ll stick with the crazies on the bus. And your thought is right, your silent correction of me. There are a lot of crazy people on the bus.
On this trip, there was an old man with bristly white hair who was sitting three seats in front of me. He was fidgeting. He standing and sitting back down and looking around to make sure nobody saw him do it. Finally, he headed towards the map, but he couldn’t put one leg in front of the other. He only moved forward with his right foot, letting his left catch up a beat later. With the wild hair, the gait gave a bird-like effect. The map did not make him happy, treacherous colored noodle bowl of possibilities. He started back towards his seat, changed his mind, stopped, started back, and changing his mind yet again, strode toward the map with large but relatively normal strides. This time he was all business. He was not going to show the map any fear. He was the boss. He kept the stride all the way back to his seat and put his head in his hands. It took him a few blocks to recover and then he looked out the window and enjoyed the certainty that he earned. When it wears out, he will be back at the map. I guess that’s why most people don’t ride the bus. But that old man was right. They change those maps all the time, and the world outside the bus is constantly rearranging itself. Someone should be keeping an eye on it. Look at me. The day before that bus ride, I wasn’t in love.
I took out the pocket-sized notebook that I carried with me everywhere and noted the difference between the scheduled time and the actual pick up. People always pay attention to the scheduled times, but it is the un-scheduled times, the difference between what is promised and delivered, the good intentions and the way the world has always been, that is the most important. At the mall stop, the old man thought about getting off the bus, got all the way to the door before he changed his mind. I got off and watched the bus pull out. The old man’s face was pressed against the glass.
The stop was at the back of an enormous empty parking lot. The location of the stop made it clear that the bus stop was not for customers. I started across the lot with a few of the workers in differing shades of food court polyester pastel. Mars 2112 was at the opposite end of the mall. I walked the squeaky shiny linoleum trying to keep my nerves down. I had no choice but to keep going, but part of me wished that I was at home watching TV.
When I finally reached the restaurant, I realized how little I had considered what would happen. This was not a place to go alone. A woman dressed in a futuristic flight attendant outfit, was there. Without looking up from her silver notepad, she asked, “How many in your party?”
“Just one,” I said and tried to smile the sanest, most pleasant smile that I could, the smile that I reserved for police officers and the Dean of English.
She looked up and without moving her head, her eyes scanned me. Her mouth opened a little before it closed again on her silent verdict. She must have settled on harmless weirdo. I’ll take that whenever I can get it.
“Very good then, Sir. I hope you are ready for the trip to Mars. It can get a little bumpy,” she said as she led me into the space craft.
I was the only one on the shuttle.
The hydraulic doors rose, and a tall kid in a red shirt showed me to my table. I ordered a Gorzak salad. When the news finished (meteor showers expected and Mars won the intergalactic Torboor games), I moved back behind the screen. The fabric was still hanging down. I was trembling. But when Cutie-Pi came down the fluorescent white hallway, something was wrong. This wasn’t my Cutie-Pi. This performer was at least six inches taller. There was no moment of pause to become the alien. This one was, in the worst way, an exhibitionist. While my Cutie-Pi had been demur, this one was flirty, almost obscene, the children didn’t know what to think. When the funky music came on, this one danced so suggestively that the men drinking beer hooted. It made me think that I had hallucinated my Cutie-Pi, some trick of the blue pill talking to the red pill. But then I thought it meant the opposite. It wasn’t being on Mars or the costume that made me fall in love, but the being inside the costume. There was only one for me. I took out my notebook and noted the time.
I have a twin sister. This is never something that I tell people up front. People act hurt when they find out, like I should have told them all along. Sam was born on the sunny side of the womb. None of my issues, pretty and sensible, no liberal arts for her. She worked in Finance, until she married and became a housewife. We were fighting. I wanted to take my niece and nephew to a basketball game at the college. She was willing to let me, but only if she could have coffee with me first to see if I was on my med’s. Logically, I understood it. I used to go off my med’s. But emotionally, it made me want to not talk to her for a long time. Now I needed her.
I called her up while I was waiting for the bus. Love had made me a man of action. The phone rang four times before she answered. I pictured her looking down at the phone and wondering now what, “Yo Bro.”
“Hold on. Hold on.”
I heard her say something to Mike and the door open and then the hollow thwapp of the screen door. She took the call outside, so she could have a cigarette.
I heard a long exhale and her bright voice took on a note of smoke, “Did you get my email about the band show?”
My niece played clarinet.
“Sorry. I had to teach a class.”
“It was good. You would’ve liked it. They did the Star Wars theme, and the band director wore a Darth Vader helmet.”
“That does sound cool. Look, I was thinking about what you said.”
“I know that I’ve done some weird things when I was off my meds.”
I was understating things. She was there the last time that I was hospitalized. I thought the small pictures of authors on dust jackets could talk to me. They wanted me to re-shelf some of their books at the public library. Kurt Vonnegut wanted to learn to cook Mexican food, so he had me put Breakfast of Champions in the cookbook section. Drunk, sad Jack Kerouac wanted all his books hidden. He wished he could go back and add some paragraph breaks. I put him in the geology section. Soon, so many of the writers wanted things that I couldn’t keep up. I tried to move faster and faster. One night, the nice old ladies called the cops, because I scared them. My sister talked the cops out of arresting me. Before things got out of control, I still remember how happy the authors were that someone had finally helped them.
“I want to take Ollie and Zach places, and if you need to have coffee with me to make sure that I’m well, that’s okay.”
“So, let’s have coffee tomorrow.”
“What’s the urgency?”
Urgency was a loaded word. It was a probe for mania. I did my best to sound as flat as I could.
“No urgency. It’s just that I want to take them to Mars 2112 this Friday at the mall.”
Friday was the week anniversary of meeting my beloved and the day based on my very limited data that Cutie-Pi would most likely be there.
“Cool. I wondered if you had been there yet. I almost want to go.”
This panicked me. Would Cutie-Pi get confused about our relationship? Plus, sometimes when we were together, we freaked people out. We weren’t identical but when we both turned our eyes on someone at the same time, it scared people, waiters and teachers and mechanics and in the past, even bad boyfriends.
“First, let’s have coffee.”
When the plans were made, I said goodbye and watched the headlights of the bus slowly approach across the acres of empty parking lot.
I was at the coffee shop early, grading a paper that the lit class had done on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I thought pleasantly about Cutie-Pi rolling up her pants legs and consuming peaches. I won’t assign this poem again. I had to spend too much time trying to explain what it was like being old, and the students were disappointed when they realized that there wasn’t going to be any real love in the poem.
Sam came in her tennis clothes and was still a little flush from her match. She was a good athlete, and when she started beating me at every sport we played, I became an avid reader. She ordered an ice coffee and a croissant. She sat down across from me. How much of our lives had been spent like this, staring at each other across a table? It was different now that we were grown ups. There was a wariness that took a holiday or a funeral to disperse.
“How was the match?”
“Okay. I played like crap.”
“Sorry. Did you lose?”
“No. It just wasn’t as fun as it should have been.”
She kept fiddling with her croissant and scanning the coffee shop. I felt like I should be asking her if she was the one on her meds. We sat quietly for a few minutes playing poker with the silence and whatever we had on our minds.
“So, what do you need to know?” I asked.
“Nothing. I just needed to see your eyes. Now we can talk. I haven’t seen you in three months.”
“I get worried when I don’t know what’s happening with you. Mom, too. She wants a visit.”
“How are your classes going?”
“Good. Good bunch this time.”
“And you? You are good?”
I nodded and things were quiet again. Finally, she said, “You’re supposed to ask me.”
My brow furrowed, and I shrugged to show that I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Me. You’re supposed to ask about me.”
This was making me nervous. When Sam talked to me, she usually held onto small talk like it was a life preserver, and she just fell off a Cruise ship.
“How are you, Sam?”
“Thanks for asking. I’m not good.”
I was scared now.
“Are you sick?”
“No. Not sick. I’m going to tell you something that I can’t tell my friends. Not a single one of them could keep from blabbing it. I’ve kept so many of your secrets that I can barely keep them straight. And I know this can’t be good for you to hear, but I need to tell this to someone.”
Sam looked around the coffee shop again. She bent over the table towards me and motioned me to do the same. It felt like we were kids again hiding something from our parents, something alive that we had brought into the house, maybe a turtle or a frog.
“I cheated on Mike.”
I suppose that I should have felt bad for Mike. He was distant with me like most people were when they find out that I’ve been sick, but his politeness felt more sincere. He wasn’t visibly angry when he helped my sister get me out of whatever my sickness got me into. I might have been judgmental before I fell in love. This fact seemed like another facet of it. There was this whole secret world out there that I had known nothing about and now I was exploring.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. Whew. That wasn’t so bad. It feels a little better now that someone else in the world knows.”
I felt terrible for her. I knew what it was like to be compelled to say something. Sometimes they were horrible things. The pressure lifts after you have said them. Then, you have some time before it builds back up.
“How did it happen?”
She shook her head at me, “You want details?”
“You know what I mean.”
“This is going to sound like I’m blaming Mike, but I’m not. I thought he was cheating on me. You know how damn competitive I am.”
“I don’t think so anymore.”
The metaphorical light bulb went off in my head and before I could stop them, the words were out. “It’s like an equation that has to be balanced.”
“Don’t be weird right now.”
“Okay. Is it still going on?”
She shook her head.
“How awful is this? You are doing this nice thing for my kids. Taking them to this restaurant. He’s a manager there. I was thinking about inviting myself along just so I could run into him.”
“Not awful at all,” I lied.
The words had a coppery feel, like I had bitten my tongue. Before the distaste of the first lie had dissipated another one came fast behind, “You should come.”
It was true. Love made you lie. Love made you false to be true. Petrarch was right all along. I desperately wanted to make some notes, but Sam would have lost her mind if I took out my notebook and started writing. You see, don’t you? I couldn’t have told my story. It would have sounded crazy. And it would have been rude to answer her tale of heartbreak with my own of new love. I could brainstorm fifty more reasons if I had to for my silence. She answered just as I thought she would and arrangements were made. She would drop the kids off in the food court and go to the mall spa for a few hours.
Looking at her, she seemed so anxious, so uncertain, something that she never was before. I did the only thing I could for her. I put my hand on top of her hand. She looked up at me and started crying. My perfect sister grabbed her things and ran out of the coffee shop. The map was changing.
It had been a week, since I saw my Cutie-Pi. This time I left the party shirt behind. I wore my teaching clothes, the beige rainbow with a blue tie. I wanted that persona to fall back on. I got to the mall early and went for a walk. In front of JC Penney’s, there was a man with a whistle dressed in a track suit with eight older women doing stretches. It was some kind of fitness group and too late, I noticed that my Mom was in the group. She waved and motioned me over. While she was touching her toes, she asked, “How long’s it been?” and not waiting for an answer to her rhetorical question, bent over and holding the position, asked, “How are you, son of mine?”
The guy with the whistle changed the call, and she was reaching one hand at a time for the painted sky.
“Good, Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I’m here every Friday morning.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
“I need you to do something for me.”
“Something’s wrong with your sister.”
The leader gave a short tweet and moved his hands like he was directing traffic on a tarmac. In unison, the ladies started down the main walkway.
“C’mon. I’m not done yet,” she said.
“I’ll just call you later.”
“But you won’t.”
They started slowly but sped up to a walk with the exaggerated gait of olympians, arms pumping and velour covered fannies moving back and forth in a duck-like fashion. I had to jog to catch up. We would have been a danger had the mall not been so empty.
She was breathing heavier now. “I need you to find out what’s wrong with her. You are the only person that she might talk too. I’m scared she’s sick or something.”
“She’s fine, Mom.”
“How do you know?”
My scalp started to itch, and I knew that a sweat was about to break. I stopped before I had to buy a new shirt, and Mom turned her head back and mouthed, “I love you,” and gave a back of the hand wave. With a synchronized squeak of tennis shoes, the group made a left and disappeared behind the Gap.
The whole family was converging on this mall. When I am sick, I can see connections in everything, the blinking of traffic lights, the speech bubbles in advertisements, distant world events. When I’m well, the world seems less threatening but lonely and unorganized, the parts falling away from the parts, like astronomers describe the galaxies and planets spinning away from the Big Bang. This was the opposite. I headed towards the food court. There was a merry-go-round in the center if it. There were circus animals instead of horses, friendly tigers and bears in tutus. A few kids got on, and the operator started the ride. I was hoping for old-time calliope music, but it was pop, all the human voices replaced with the silver sugary thin-ness of auto-tuning. I watched them go around, until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Zach was wearing a blue tie just like me and a gray sports coat, and Ollie had a nice dress on. I gave them high fives. Sam was standing ten feet back with a large blue purse. She waved bye and used her fingers to indicate eight o’clock. Before I could say a word to her, she was gone.
“You two look awesome.”
“I wanted to look good. I never met an alien before,” Zach said.
“They are very friendly.”
“Aw, they can’t be real can they?” Ollie said, stomping her foot.
Before I had a chance to answer, she ran to the window of a shop and made faces at a toy robot. I started walking towards the restaurant, and they fell into place.
“How are the books coming, Zach?”
“I’m working on a new one, Pine.”
Zach made books of puns. He took a word and when he had thought of all the puns that he could, he wrote them down, folded the paper over, punched holes and bound the loose sheet with yarn or twine.
“Can you share one?”
“Where do the most successful pine trees live?”
I took a moment, put my hand on my chin and raised my finger to indicate that I was really pondering the question. He loved this bit of theater. He didn’t like it when you came up with the answers, so I didn’t try.
“You give up? Hunh?”
He was practically dancing, up on his tiptoes like he needed to go to the bathroom. I made him wait.
“Do you know the answer, Ollie?”
“I don’t do riddles. Mom said I don’t have to.”
“Alright, then. I give up.”
“How do pine trees eat ice cream?”
“Cones, Cones, Cones!” Ollie said, ruining his riddle.
Zach was mad, but before they could start fighting, we came to the restaurant. There were small floodlights on the brushed metal sign and red lights were running in a line from one end of the wall to the other. They were in awe. The doors slid open and the same lady was there with her silver notebook. This time, there was no double take. I was exactly what she expected. I was invisible.
We strapped in and the vibrations from the engines warming up started and when they reached a maximum intensity, the captain gave a countdown. I kept my eyes open this time. The ship went on two instead of one to surprise us. We were slung into space. I was on the way to the land of my beloved. The captain made the flight sound like a routine shuttle between Chicago and New York. It wouldn’t be. In real life, the trip to Mars would be like the settlers crossing the Great Plains. It would be a one way journey. There would be tears. So many things would be left behind. I looked at my niece and nephew. I was happy with this crew. I was sad at the thought of leaving my books, but then I thought of Cutie-Pi. How patient we would have to be. How slow the words would come. How touch would have to be our first language. We hit warp and there was a moment of peace as the simulator leaned back and the pinpricks of light stretched. The video screen should have showed this the whole time, but instead, the distractions started, the cheap amusements. An alien ship appeared and started shooting at us. We initiated evasive maneuvers that shook the simulator in all directions. The captain lost the computer interface to the laser. He asked us to call out, “Fire” when the alien ship was in the sights. I didn’t. The kids cried out with gleeful blood lust, and the ship was vaporized.
Some routine announcements were made concerning the atmosphere. We were not to worry. Mars was actually richer in oxygen and lower in pollutants. It was a rocky Garden of Eden. We were given the word for hello and goodbye, the same word, Fly-sa. When we got off the shuttle, the kids greeted the red shirt guy in unison, “Fly-sa.”
He bowed his head.
The newscast was the same as the last two times. None of the news on Mars was bad. No suicide bombs. No Ebola. No tsunami’s. If the news wasn’t made up, I’d say it was sanitized. After the newscast, we ordered our food. They got kids meals with moondogs and phaser cups. While the kids were busy coloring the place mats, connecting the dots from Mars to the Earth, I checked my notebook. I told the kids that I was going to the bathroom, and at exactly 7:23, I moved behind the screen. It was her. But this time, a manager, white shirt, thin black tie, was with her in the hallway. She was shaking her head, and he was trying to take off her mask. She reached up with the side of her arm to wipe the tears that were on the inside of her mask. He was holding her hand now, and she was pulling away. She wanted to make her cue. She stepped through the curtain and the dance music started. I stared at him a few seconds longer. He had hurt her, was hurting her. His black hair was slicked back, and I noted the name on his tag: Bill. I went back to my table and waited for Cutie-Pi to work her way to us.
She came to the table and did an elegant curtsy. It was hard knowing the difference between her performing persona and what she was feeling. This was not knowledge that I should have had. I thought of my own expressionless face and the swirl of emotion that I had being there. I felt guilty that I had violated her privacy. She leaned over the kids, checked their work on the place mats, traced with her green finger, the dots. She gave a thumbs up to each of them. The music started, and she did a little hand jive and motioned towards the dance floor, as much an order as an invitation. The kids got in the line. I stood back and watched them. She saw me and came back.
“No, I can’t dance.”
I saw her lips move silently under the costume. She mouthed, “Yes.”
She stood arms akimbo before pulling me out onto the floor, and for the first time since Junior High School, I danced. It was a medley of Earth dances: The Twist, The Hustle, and finally The Chicken Dance. When the music stopped, she waved and bowed, and we went back to our seats, our cheeks red with exertion and excitement. Cutie-Pi continued on, entertaining, spinning from table to table.
The waiter brought the last course for the kids, soft serve ice cream with gummy alien heads. While their heads were down, shoveling in the ice cream, I went back to the spot so that I could see her. I hoped that she would take off her mask. I wanted to know more. The manager was already there waiting for her. Like me, he had probably been watching her the whole time. When she came through the curtain, she started shaking her head no, and I could read his lips, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She disappeared from view. He was upset, breathing hard, and then the thing happened. His face changed. The surface of his face that was alive became waxen, dead. He held his hands out and made the shape of a sphere. When he pulled his hands back, a small silver bubble floated in the air in front of him. He put his right hand above the bubble, a few inches, and his left hand below the bubble and then made the space wider between his hands, and the bubble stretched. When it was large enough, he stepped into it. You could see his human shape stretching the bubble. The bubble got bigger so that it was a perfect sphere again and began to shrink until it disappeared.
I knew only one thing . I had to help Cutie-Pi. I searched for a moment until I found a sign that said, Employees Only. I pushed on that part of the wall. When it swung back, I ran down the white hallway. I passed the black curtains that led back to the tables. Further down the hallway, there was an opening to the side that I couldn’t see from my original vantage point. Cutie-Pi was sitting on the ground with her head buried in her arms.
“Are you okay?”
She shook her head.
“Where did he go? Did you see that?”
Standing, she answered, “Never mind about that.”
She took my hand and pulled me further down the hallway. She whispered in my ear, “Are you nice? Have you ever hurt anyone?”
“Not on purpose.”
She took my hands and put them on her breasts and put her hands on the small of my back. I should have stopped. My beloved wasn’t loving me. She was getting back at the manager, stopping whatever hurt he had caused. I let her. She wouldn’t take off her mask. She nuzzled me; she buried her head in my neck as our bodies moved together. She pulled down her purple Lycra and guided me inside. When we pushed together, there was ecstasy, and when we pulled back, there was agony. It was like we were a creature in a book, half one thing, half another. We sped up, the two feelings merging, and when it was over, I slid down the wall until I was sitting. She rearranged her uniform. It was like the moment before she went on stage. She started to leave.
Cutie-Pi turned back around.
“That was my first time.”
She sighed. She walked back to me, pulled the bottom of her mask up and kissed me.
“Sorry, “ she said, before running down the hallway and opening the double doors that said Emergency Exit Only.
Stunned, I went back to the table. I wondered if I was sick, if any of it had really happened. All the martian illusions seemed more tawdry, like the paintings on a cheap carnival ride. Zach and Ollie’s faces were covered in ice cream, and there was a check on the table with three peppermint candies and a smiley face by the amount.
I feared that I would never be that close to my beloved again, and no one would believe what I saw the manager do. I paid the bill. The kids charged out of the restaurant, and I staggered after them as they led me back to the food court. My sister was seated and typing a message into her phone. When she saw us, she pocketed the phone. She must have been texting him. Her nails were done, and her skin looked softer. It wasn’t to forget him, but because of him that she went to the spa. We were both in anguish. I bought ten dollars worth of carousel tickets and the kids spun around and around. We watched them. I tried at small talk. Poets profess their love, but love had filled me with things that I couldn’t say. I don’t know why I asked her. I didn’t think it was any of my business.
“What’s his name?”
Looking away, she said, “Bill.”
It was the manager who had been with Cutie-Pi. I knew now the name of the enemy. I had to take action, confront him in some way, tell him that I knew what he was doing. I pulled on the stories that I had read. If I didn’t have courage, I could drink it. I went back to Mars 2112. I skipped the simulator ride. I didn’t want to see any more of their tricks. I went straight to the bar and sat on one of the silver bar stools.
I wasn’t normally a drinker. Drinking messed with my medications. I knew that the line of bottles behind the bar did all kinds of things. I didn’t want the ones that made you cry. I wanted the one that made you not care what happened next, that made truth more important than self preservation. Orange pill, brown pill, red pill, yellow pill. I wanted the black pill. The bartender had Vulcan ears and big breasts. She asked what I wanted. I gave a grunt back, a sound somewhere between indecision and confusion. The Vulcan slid the cocktail menu towards me. It was filled with bright colors in tall glasses and at least a paragraph of prose for each drink. Now I could pick. It would be an exercise in literary criticism. I chose a drink named, “Bond, Alien Bond.” It was for a man on a mission. She took a bottle from the rack and turned it upside down in my glass while she poured a bright green liquid from a pitcher. I took a sip. Who knew that courage could taste so sweet.
I felt the warmth rise in my body, and when the booze relaxed me, I thought again of my coupling with Cutie-Pi. I wanted to go back to that hallway. Ashamed of my desire, I cleared my head by shaking it. I pictured her sitting in the hallway crying. I thought about my sister’s pain. When the glass was empty, the bartender gave a meaningful stare. Before I knew it, another drink was in front of me. I started working on my speech. I had to tell him in no uncertain terms that his behavior was hurting people.
The bar was empty except for a bachelorette party. At some point the women were around me, and I was wearing a baseball cap with pink writing and an air-brushed penis. We were all singing, Single Ladies. At the end of the song, I was ashamed again. My purpose had been blunted. I paid for my drinks, took a deep breath and started down towards the Crystal Crater. At the bottom of the stairs, there was a small chain with a closed sign strung across the entrance. The lights were off. They had gone home. I had failed. Filled with sadness and shame, I started home. A guard waved me out to the parking lot. The mall was closed. I walked alone through the parking lot, the long way around the mall to the bus stop.
The parking lot would tip unless I focused on a street light far away. Finally, I made it to the bus stop. I didn’t sit. I was scared that I would fall asleep. I held the pole with the schedule on it. At this, my lowest point, my luck turned. A silver Toyota Celica parked a few feet away from the bus stop. I could tell that the driver hadn’t seen me. He shut off his car and lit something. In the red flare, I could see his face. It was Bill. I staggered over to his car and looked in. I didn’t have a plan. He had taken off his tie and unbuttoned his white shirt. I watched him fuss with his pipe for a few seconds. I knocked hard on the passenger side window. After a moment of terror in which he dropped his pipe, he leaned over and rolled the window down.
“I know what you are doing. I know what you did to Cutie-Pi?”
“And I know what you did to Sam.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“I saw you step into the silver bubble. I know you are an alien.”
At that moment, still full of the courage I bought, I looked him straight in the eye or at least what I thought was his eye. Once again, what was human in the face went away, and the face grew waxen. The mechanism of the disguise was failing. At the same time, I felt a terrible rumble from my middle, and the world started spinning the opposite way, to the left this time. It was going faster and faster like I was in the teacup ride at Disneyland. I looked away from him and staggered to the back of his car and vomited green liquid onto his trunk in three long heaves before sitting down.
“Christ,” he said, “You’re Sam’s brother.”
“I’m in love with Cutie-Pi.”
“You can have her.”
He took a towel out of his backseat and threw it to me.
“Wipe yourself off. I’m taking you home.”
“I’m not getting into your ship.”
“It’s just a car. I’m going to drive you to your house.”
“Take me to my sister’s house.”
Bill didn’t ask for directions. It was midnight and no one was out on Sam’s street. He got out and opened the car door for me. The earth started spinning again when I exited the car, so I got on my hands and knees and crawled towards the front door. He came behind me, scared that I would pass out before I rang the doorbell. He rang it and ran back to his car. He peeled out. Sam opened the door, and Mike was right behind her. They led me to the kitchen table and sat me down with a glass of water. Sam put a blanket on my shoulders. She wanted to ask me many questions. Mike smiled. I could tell he was calculating how tired he would be the next day.
“It happens to us all, Bub,” he said.
I knew that wasn’t true.
Jason Primm pursues modest goals in a coastal city. When he isn’t writing, he can be found sharpening his slice backhand. His work has most recently appeared in Atticus Review, Five on the Fifth, Zone 3, Stoneboat, and Bridge Eight. He maintains a blog at jasonprimm.wordpress.com.