You sign only your first name in my yearbook, with a tiny drawing of the sun. You pass the book back to me and heat curls off the page, dewy, sweet. You grab my wrist and I inhale the letters. When you say you will miss me, they take root in the soft soil of my belly. You stand up from behind your desk and your hands, kinetic, insistent, inhabit me like water. You, broken dam, flood me quietly from the inside out. Vines sprout and twist around my insides, craving light and air to feed them. You, Spanish moss, open my mouth and make me grow around you in tangled knots. My mother used to sing me the same lullaby every night. Salmon run to the sea, river run to the sea, if you need someone you can run to me. Her voice echoes in the cracks between leaves that barely separate us. Flowers grow to the sun, shine on everyone. If you’ve lost your warmth, I will give you some. I search for her fingers smoothing my forehead in the darkness and prick myself on thorns, bleeding out. I see who you are, and I like what I see. If you want to be, you can be with me. You, life-giver, break me apart and turn me to rot.
I sat cross-legged on the bathroom counter and you told me I should write a book. The notion came out in between gargles of toothpaste and spit. I watched the word write, white and foamy, spin down the drain, followed by book, clinging to the back of a sliver of popcorn shell. You shut the faucet, beige sweatpants hanging off your hips like the days in between seasons. We’d just finished watching a movie about aliens. I held your rusty blonde head in my lap and grazed my nails along the strip of bare skin just behind your ear. I wondered if you could hear straight into my femoral artery, if you were quiet enough. I could feel it pulsing and gurgling under your weight, trying to talk to you, but your body was louder than mine. Bass tones rippled under my hands.
I clicked the subtitles on, as I do most nights, so I could read the voices over the deep humming of your exhales. In this particular envisioning of extraterrestrial life, the aliens aren’t already here. They come instead in thin hovering stones that look, to me, more like sex toys and less like ships. I dropped a kernel in your hair when I stifled a dry laugh and left it there, feeding junk to your microbiome. I pictured amoebas in a gooey liquid movie theater with boxes of Junior Mints and accidentally spit on you. I blended my bacteria with yours easily enough. The aliens invite the human officials into their phallic crafts with their rifles and recording devices, but they aren’t the bug-eyed, green, take-me-to-your-leader beings we thought they’d be. They are black, with 7 legs, and huge bulging heads. We decide to call them heptapods. They communicate noiselessly by projecting rings of mist into the air, with smaller shapes attached at the periphery.
I tapped the pause button as you shifted yourself around again, wincing. Your lips parted and I hoped you wouldn’t ask why the back of your neck was sticky. Instead, you were vehemently adamant that humans and aliens wouldn’t be able to consume the same atmosphere. Something about nitrogen heterocycles. I nodded seriously towards your flying hands, doing chemistry in the air, and lined tiny pieces of popcorn fluff on your side, arranging them into their own orbit. A buttery galaxy, a salty solar system. Your reaction finished and you reached for the for the play button, sending a meteor to rip through my delicate Redenbacher planets. Boom. Cataclysm under my breath. I close my eyes and trace a new circle behind your ear. Red and stinging. Temporary, like most beginnings are. A hesitant linguist deciphers the symbols and discovers that alien time is non-linear. They can see the future as a circular construct. They show the linguist her baby daughter, who will die young. They envelope her amygdala in the tenderness of motherhood and rip it away. She is brave in her science fiction heartache, but firm in her belief. The alien’s gift to society is their brand of foreign language, a fresh perspective. To learn it is to see the world as the heptapods do. All that lies ahead of us, to the side of us, under our feet. The linguist publishes her book of translations, a famed guide to knowing circular time. She meets an Army man and translates him into a lover, a husband.
The credits rolled and your cheek was lined with grainy indents from my fleece pajamas. You tugged me out of bed, barefoot on the tile. Cold and dusty. I missed the spring. I stepped into my matted pink slippers, snickering at the left one. Its bow fell off last week. I kicked it under the bed without a proper funeral, doomed to exist in the dark with the other floor creatures. I shuffled after you to the bathroom, thinking about popping popcorn in space and aliens with pink bows, when the tip of my nose prickled at your voice. It wavered, just a little, an octave higher. Non-linear time, you mused, flipping your toothbrush in between your thumb and forefinger. Huh. You tilted your chin down at me with eyes clearly expectant, unpolluted blue. I inched into the silence between us and started to tell you about the inherent stupidity of time as a straight line. Thoughts slid out of me like things that can’t go back to where they came from. I wondered what shapes they would be. Imagine an ant, I prodded you and coaxed your arm up and out. An ant on a tightrope. Where can it go? I made my first two fingers crawl forward towards your hand. Or backwards. The ant scurried back towards your elbow. Or upside down. I flipped your wrist, so the thin flesh under your humerus was exposed. You dropped your arm and the ant fell off. See? I guess. Your voice returned to its regular octave, and you kicked the bathroom door open with the back of your heel. I hefted myself onto the stained linoleum as you popped the cap off the red tube.
My bun rested on the mirror and I began, softly, to explain my déjà vu dreams, reading to you from self-contained flashes of things that hadn’t happened yet. Once I dreamt of a girl shouting “Hey, where’s the cow tongue?” into a crowd of people. I visited the cow tongue in the flesh 6 months later, engorged and on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I stuck my tongue out as far as it would go to demonstrate, choking on the rest of the soap-bubble memory. Huh, funny. Your response was garbled by the intensity with which you scrubbed your molars and came out closer to “ah, fan eye”. You peeled a flake of dead skin from the corner of your mouth, still slick with popcorn oil. Would you want to know how your whole life was going to play out, if you could? A deadly query right before the credits. You should write a book. I belly laughed without making a sound. The ant and the tightrope crumpled and compressed between a cardboard spine, going nowhere. I wondered how to title an entire universe. No one’s ever had to. I hopped off the counter and tripped on my left slipper, trailing you back to the bedroom. You asked me to turn off the light, already perched on the edge of the comforter. I stood by the switch and brushed the crumbs from my pants. The linguist had her baby anyway. The thought ran and threw itself and broke open behind my eyes. I exhaled and blew out smoke and shrapnel with the last particles of light.
When they find my mother’s cancer, they cut it out and send it away. I hesitate at the edge of her bed and hold in my exhales like an offering. I wonder how I can repay her. My mother, who would carve out a piece of herself to stay here with me. Purple and brown crater on the side of her breast, divot where malignancy has been excised and stitched over. I cover it with my palm and try to complete her again, root her here. It was only stage one, she reminds me, resting my cheek on her blue-check gown. Luck and damage are defined by proximities. They stick the crook of my arm and send my blood away, too, just in case. Tears pool on my chin and I tell them I’m thankful. Really, I already know what they’ll find. Both of my mother’s parents died when she was sixteen. She likes to say that I saved her life. She healed when she held me. Her flesh regrew, reignited. I picture her heart deep and curved like a cereal bowl. My mother, unbothered by the sting and itch of hastily closed wounds. How do I tell her, this woman already riddled with holes, that I cannot fill her in. I wait till she is asleep to let the breath out of my ribs and press my thumb into the needle-prick bruise. The skin rises and I wonder exactly how much of you they will see under the microscope.
Allison Palmer is a rising senior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY, studying Biology and English. This past semester, she was a member of the Trias Residency Workshop at HWS led by award-winning author and teacher, Lidia Yuknavitch. She resides in Plymouth, MA, with her parents, sisters, and pets.