Diana Xin holds an MFA from the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Third Coast Magazine, Gulf Coast, Narrative, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of fellowships from the M Literary Residency, Artist Trust, and Hedgebrook. She lives in Seattle and serves as a contributing editor to Moss, a journal of the Pacific Northwest.
I am now a woman of middle age. There is no denying this, not by any measure of life expectancy or family history. There is only as much road ahead of me as there is behind me, barring any unexpected negligent drivers who may chance to take me out. For now at least, in any direction I look, I can see the pinpoint light of a beginning and an end flickering on and off in the equidistance.
I am not a woman of extraordinary luck or inordinate misfortune. I have lived an unspectacular and average existence. If aliens were to abduct me, I think I would make a good representative model, though I am sure you have your own story to tell, and I do not mean to dismiss your story, but I cannot imagine another sentient being caring enough to sift through every variation of trifling tragedy and mundane melodrama before opting to obliterate us all out of sheer boredom.
What l mean to say is, I am unhappy, and I know that you do not care, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop talking.
Somewhere down this stretch of road, I wouldn’t mind spotting an alien. Not one of those humanoids with a large fetal head and chordate features like the inkwell eyes and some kind of mouth hole that leads to another hole, but a real alien. Something without limbs and without a face. Something we’d have to invent new words to describe.
My husband, too, is hungry for new experiences. In this long slow middle of our lives, as my ovaries offer up their last treasures, my husband is finally and unexpectedly interested in children, but only the adult type. The type who can reason and think critically, but whose brains are still malleable and receptive to new ideas and influences, open to suggestion. He fancies himself a teacher, which actually he is, but now he wants to go further. He wants to expand horizons and impress upon his students an altered worldview that closely resembles his own. He particularly wants to do this for the blonde children, the ones who are eager to please, who have small pubescent breasts that don’t bounce during low impact team sports, who join sororities because they are lonely, and who then wear the attire of that sorority because pink tank tops emblazoned with Greek letters provide them with a sense of identity.
I can see why there is a need to change their mindset.
My husband assures me they are bright, idealistic, and strong-minded—beacons for the future—but how would he know? They are not his students. I don’t even know how he meets them. Imagine my husband, translator of Sophocles, lurking at ice cream socials during rush week. How sad our lives have become. I am fairly certain, at least, that none of the girls are from his department. After all, who studies the Classics anymore? Certainly no one my husband wants to fuck.
I am not altogether certain it is really about sex. The first time I joined him at the cabin, we spent the entire evening rewriting a paper on Milton’s Areopagitica. “So does he pay you, or do you pay him?” I asked that girl. She stared at me as if my face were sprouting antlers. “We’ve never shared a bank account,” I explained. “Nothing destroys a marriage faster than money.” She blinked dumbly. When my husband came out of the bathroom, I was explaining for the third time when to use it’s and when to use its.
We got a B+ on that paper, which I thought was pretty good. I am a practiced editor, but not a creator. After midterm grades came back, however, we never saw that girl again.
I don’t always go to the lake with my husband, but the property is pleasant, and when we spend the night, the mornings are peaceful. We don’t know the neighbors well. The houses are too spaced apart to really inspire the effort. I would not say it is a remote area but, certainly when I was young, I would not be feeling great about trekking out to thereabouts with an older gentleman, as refined and scholarly as this particular gentleman is.
My husband is always grateful when I accompany him, because he thinks it is easier on the girls, soothing their nerves, and he almost seems genuinely concerned about their comfort. I go with him, because why not? There is never anything good on television anymore.
And the mornings, as I mentioned, are nice. I take a hot mug of tea out to the dock where I sit and read and watch the water drift under me as if it were carrying me away, though I haven’t moved at all. I imagine riding these rippling oscillations to some unknown elsewhere, where I could be anybody. Where I could be anybody’s.
This morning when I return, my husband is in the kitchen with the girl, flipping pancakes. They look at me, startled as deer, the air still reverberating from some gunshot I released. But I greet them with a pleasant good morning as I refill my mug with fresh coffee. When they are calm enough to begin talking again, the peace I have spent all morning cultivating dissipates with the fog. This girl, as far as I can tell, will laugh at anything. She does not have a pleasant laugh. It is mindless, insouciant. There is no joy in it, only reflex. I hope she does not come back here.
The girls are all pretty, but unremarkable. They are pretty because they are young. Brigid is beautiful. Once, after coitus, she let me French braid her hair.
Brigid’s future is a mystery to me. With the other girls, I can guess how the rest of their lives will unfold, and their paths do not differ much from mine. There will be infidelity, followed by boredom. There will be choices they struggle to make and regret for the ones they did. Anguish, followed by complacency, which is not far off from complicity.
I hope Brigid never has a husband. She is too bright to be stifled or contained. She must be allowed to burn out.
This is dangerous too, of course. I do not know where her path will lead. It could be very good or horrifically bad. I tried to search for signs one night in the branching lines of her palm, but I know nothing of this kind of soothsaying. I just know that I want to clasp those hands and pray for protection. Those hands will build such beautiful brilliant things, but if it should happen that they are pushed into foul acts, I want her to know that I would hold onto them still. I wouldn’t let her go. There was no way to tell her this, so I kissed all her fingertips.
Of course, she can still be annoying at times, but she can’t help herself. She is beautiful and young. What can she do? I have not seen her for months.
I am amazed at the patience my husband is able to display for these girls. He is tender in a way I have never seen before, except maybe once with an injured kitten who let us take her home for a few weeks.
He waits patiently for them to complete their sentences when they start talking before they know what they are planning to say. Whenever they arrive at the point where they can no longer proceed, their heads tilt in one direction and their jaws go slack, and I have to fight the urge to feed them a wafer or pull a lever to start them up again in their story about yoga socks or limoncello or whatever their new discovery of the week. My husband, however, embraces the silence, leans into their last word like they are about to let free some forgotten ancient truth.
Certainly, he has never been this patient with me.
I could be righteously indignant about this, and I have been in the past, but what’s the point? Although righteous indignation is one of my favorite emotions, I am tiring of it. Why can’t I simply be mad? Why does it need to be justified?
Most days, I walk around with a low-level dissatisfaction, a fuse in a bucket of gasoline aching to be set off. Although I tend the most toward anger, this is not the only thing I’m looking for. I’d like to be amazed one day. I’d like my socks knocked off. What is left out there to bring me to my knees? I run through the errands of the day—dishes, bedsheets, shopping—and there in the supermarket I’m struck by an overwhelming desire to weep, yet I cannot. There is something blocking me and a beefsteak tomato in my hand. I think about crushing the tomato instead, letting the seeds and juice run down my arm. I think about what it might be like, to be the tomato.
I am outside the bank when I see her, walking arm in arm with a man I don’t know. He is a head taller than her, even though she is already very tall, and he has accentuated his height with a bun at the very top of his head. He sports dark sunglasses, so I can’t read his face for signs of danger, but I can sense that the danger is there. He walks with sharp angularity and too much bravado.
I follow them to the library, where the man unburdens himself of a book, and then to a cafe. I wait twenty minutes before I go in to order a latte.
“Brigid! Darling! How lovely to run into you.”
“Oh. Hi, Mrs. Wollansky.”
The boy cocks an eyebrow. “Wollansky? Like the prof?” Up close, I can see that this kid is no good. He has a Chinese character tattoo on his forearm.
“She’s his wife,” Brigid says.
I bristle at this introduction, but it does not deter me. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen you, Bridge. Why don’t you come for dinner sometime?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her nose crinkles in fake apology. “It’s so busy now. Never enough time.”
“We don’t have to drive out to the lake. We can do it in town. Come by the house tonight.”
The boy looks me up and down with a sluggish grin like he can see right through me, but guess what, kid. Inside me there is nothing but pulp, already squished, nothing left for you but a few stringy globules of broken seed capsules. Nothing left for me, either.
“Please, Brigid. I would really like to see you.”
After some deliberation, she smiles bitterly. “Sure, Mrs. Wollansky. Could you make the … what do you call it?”
“The beef bourguignon. Absolutely. We’ll get those iron levels up, won’t we?” Neither of them returns my smile. Their faces are empty tombs. “I’ll see you at seven.”
On the way home, I buy a bouquet. Blue orchids with bright yellow roses, but after I bring them home I realize the roses are too bright. I rip off each yellow petal. She will come. She will not come. She will come. I simmer red meat in red wine. I take out the good china and the fancy napkin rings. I light three white candles so a flame flickers for each of us. For a final atmospheric flourish, I add Saint-Saëns for cello.
Our symphony is accompanied by a clinking of forks against plates. My husband clears his throat and then clears it again, coming up empty for words. He adjusts his cufflinks and tugs at his collar as if an invisible hand is slowly choking him. Something clearly has transpired between the two of them, but since I have not been privy to it, I feel no need to acknowledge whatever it is that has happened.
“Tell us about that time you went to space camp,” I prompt Brigid, “and you were the only girl there? I’ve so missed your stories.”
She used to regale us, Brigid, have us laughing in ways we’d forgotten. Muscles unaccustomed to this kind of trembling would ache in our throats, our cheeks, our abdomens.
But today she tells us this story begrudgingly. Rockets made of paper tubes. Aluminum foil everywhere. The little boy with the freckles and the electrifying red hair. She was the little girl who sat next to him, rubbing balloons on his head, fingertips humming a new kind of song. Static. The little girl is still here in this room, inside her face. She hasn’t outgrown her childhood just yet, though she is getting close. She knows how to give a severe look, but she can’t completely hide her annoyance.
I’ve baked her fresh cookies. Dark chocolate and sea salt.
“I’d really love a bath, too,” she says.
When I point her upstairs to the master, I know she has been here before, but I don’t hold this against her. I bring her a glass of cold milk, and to balance it out, a shot of Grand Marnier.
“Brigid.” I perch myself on the edge of the tub. “We love you. We really do. You’re extraordinary. Did you know that?”
Brigid shrugs and blows some bubbles off the top of her knees. A panicky chord starts up inside my ear, like the dial tone after someone’s hung up the phone.
“We want to help you, in any way we can, to become your best self.”
Hearing my words, the dial tone rises a decibel. Sometimes I slip into this other woman, cloying with cliché. She’s been with me my whole life, and I can’t seem to shed her. She’s memorized every inspirational quote she’s ever encountered, and they rattle around inside my head waiting for moments like this to commandeer the use of my tongue.
“I want to help you,” I amend my statement. “Whatever you do, I want to be there.”
An alarm has gone off or a tea kettle is whistling. Then I realize it is all the sound inside my ear. I push forward.
“I belong to you,” I say, and I can’t take it back.
Like the practiced sophisticate she is, like any young person privileged with gifts of beauty and a wide-open future, she accepts this confession without surprise or regard. She rises out of the foam like some cold, impervious goddess, and she says, “Gretchen, how does that even work? You need to take care of yourself, Gretchen. I’m worried about you.”
Her slippery skin shines. Bubbles cling to its crooks and turns. I have always assumed that she is flawless, and it is easy to accept the mirage, but in my vision, the blurred worm of a floater squiggles in. A pale smile of a scar, below her belly button. A smirk resting above a cloud of foam.
“Who did that to you?” I need to know.
She follows my gaze downward, a protective palm covering up the slash that once ripped across her skin. She hunches reaching for a towel, then straightens once she is concealed.
“You don’t know everything about me, do you?” she says.
“Of course not,” I say, “but I want to.”
“Some stories I choose not to tell.”
Fireworks flare inside me. They burn both hot and cold, so bright the rest of the world dims. The tinnitus rises to fever pitch. I reach for her and press my lips against hers, not so much a kiss as a way of consuming her, or a way for her to consume me. It doesn’t work. She pushes me back and my heart and spine collide. The sink slams into my ribs.
I watch her from the top of the stairs. She flies down and slips out the door with her hair still dripping wet over the white towel that encases her.
My ears ring as I descend the steps, placing my feet over the wet patches she’s left behind. What will she tell her friends when she returns in such a state? That she has been abducted? That we are aliens?
The wind ripples outside. If I were an alien, I could stitch her to my side. I could send my genes down her throat and force her to swallow me. I could cut off my arm and watch it regrow into her perfect clone. I could do this life so differently.
But it’s too late now. It’s far too late. The lights recede so quickly down the lane. At the stop sign, she careens and turns sharply to the right, spinning off into darkness.
Take me with you, I think. Take me with you. Take me with you.
“ This piece started with the voice and a question about why we apply human forms to extraterrestrials. It evolved to examine how our decisions and complicities can estrange us from ourselves. And that is probably as far as I'm able to go when it comes to writing about aliens. ”