I was mesmerized by this first sight of naked flesh other than my own.
Before talking again, they'd pour some gooey gray liquid from a big jug into a glass and swallow a few gulps.
by Claude Lalumière
|Even after all these years, there's still some rubble left, littered across the broken grid formed by rows of cracked and potholed asphalt that used to be streets. When we lived here, the train ran parallel to the neighborhood's largest thoroughfare. The tracks are still laid down, peeking through the weeds.
I count the streets. There are no houses, no landmarks to jog my spatial memory. It's no use. If I could inhabit the spaces of my past, I might believe in it again.
And then I see you. Counting streets.
Long, straight black hair. Freckles. Cute button-nose. Just like I remember. I wonder if you dye your hair.
It can't really be you, though. It could be anyone. It was nearly forty years ago when we took off our clothes for each other, revealing our not-yet-budding bodies.
I walk up to you. I say, I used to live here.
Without looking at me, you say, "Me too."
I so want it to be you.
I tell you my name.
You laugha short laugh, a burst of fleeting pleasure. "Really?" Then you look at me and tell me your name.
· · · · ·
20 July 1969. That night I stayed up late. The whole family spent the entire day watching television. Watching the Apollo Moon mission.
They landed. The astronauts landed on the Moon. I don't remember hearing the famous words. All I remember are the grainy images on my family's black-and-white television setof the astronauts in their bulky spacesuits, of the desert moonscape, of men in ties sitting behind a desk, shuffling papers, smoking cigarettes, smiling in a strangely serious way.
· · · · ·
The first time, it was a Saturday morning. The Saturday following the success of the Moon mission. All the cartoons had been preempted because of the aliens. On every channel: news, and more news. I was five years old. All I wanted was Bugs Bunny. Or Spider-Man. George of the Jungle. Jonny Quest. Underdog.
My parents were still asleep. I left through the back door, walked through the alleyway to your house. I stood on tiptoe to peer through one of the small rectangular windowpanes set into the wooden door, hoping to see you. But the kitchen was deserted.
I tapped lightly on the glassonce, twiceafraid to disturb your parents and be ratted out to my own that I went around knocking on people's doors at seven o'clock on Saturday mornings. Even though this was the first time I'd done anything like thatand only because there were no cartoons.
Then you walked into view, still in your pajamas.
I smiled and gestured at you to come out and play.
You shook your head and mouthed, "I can't."
I insisted, but you still shook your head.
You held up your index finger and pressed it to your mouth. A twinkle appeared in your eyes.
You started to do gymnastics. Or maybe dance. I never did ask you. You flexed and stretched your limbs. You twirled around on one leg. You kicked your bare feet in the air toward me. Without interrupting your movements, you unfastened a button of your flannel pajama top. And another. Another kick. Another Twirl. Another button. Flex. Kick. Twirl. Button. Flex kick twirl button. Flexkicktwirlbutton. And then you slung off your shirt. A few more kicks. A few more twirls. And you dropped your pants.
I was mesmerized by this first sight of naked flesh other than my own. So pale, it almost shone.
Utterly naked, at a steady, determined pace, you continued flexing and kicking and twirling. For my eyes.
I think we both lost track of time. There was a thud from somewhere inside your house. Without skipping a beat and without another glance at me, you picked up your clothes and sped out of the kitchen.
I ran back home. My parents were still in bed.
That afternoon, I saw you in the alley, hanging out with the other kids. I joined you and our friends. We all played hide-and-seek, and neither of us mentioned our morning tryst.
I went to your door again the next morning. You were waiting for me, standing in the kitchen, facing outside, the top button of your pajamas already undone.
Flex. Kick. Twirl. Button. And your naked flesh. That was the rhythm of my summer mornings, 1969.
· · · · ·
Their flesh was different. It wasn't just the colora deep indigo bluebut the texture of it. The way it caught the light, I thought at first their skin was an aggregation of tiny scales. The wife let me touch her scalp oncethey were bald, completely hairlessand her flesh was softer than I'd expected, almost spongy, not at all hard like scales. The weirdest thing about their heads, though, was that they had no noses and ears, just tiny slits above their mouths and on either side of their faces.
They spoke with a musical tilt, and their vowels were always a bit off. They smiled all the time, with their wide mouths and big shiny white teeth. Or maybe it was just the way their faces were builtsmiling.
Most of the kids made fun of them, in that mean way some kids never outgrow. Without exception, on our street at least, parents warned kids to stay away from the aliens. Even my parents, who should have known better. Somehow, I pulled the word hypocrites from my five-year-old vocabulary, and I was forbidden to play outside for a week after that. The next morning I snuck out anyway, to watch you strip out of your pajamas. I snuck out every morning during that week, and every morning you exposed your pale flesh.
The next week, when I was free again, while I played with the other kids, I watched the aliens from the corner of my eye, trying to gather the courage to go meet them.
They had moved into a semi-basement apartment two doors north of your house. Husband and wife. No children. They always wore the same clothes: Hawaiian shirt, black pants, white socks, and sandals for the man; knee-length brown dress, orange pantyhose, and white hospital shoes for the woman. They spent most of every day sitting in the alleyway outside their place, on lawn chairs, with a little table between them. They practiced our language on each other, an exercise that often led to long, loud laughing fits. Before talking again, they'd pour some gooey gray liquid from a big jug into a glass and swallow a few gulps.
The aliens had come to Earth because of the Apollo mission. That's what the men on TV said. No one knew how they'd gotten here. Or where they were from. The day after the Moon landing, they just appearedand moved in, integrating themselves into society as if there was nothing special about it.
The new teenager making bicycle deliveries for the grocery store down the street, he was an alien, too.
· · · · ·
The aliens weren't the only new people in the neighborhood that summer. Within minutes of joining the rest of us in the alleyway, one of the new kids called me an alien. That kid, he was such a jerk. The kind of jerk that inspires everyone else to be jerks, too.
Aside from that, I can remember exactly three things about him. One, his big protruding square chin almost lunged at you when he spoke to you. Two, I always picture him wearing the same T-shirt: an ugly beige thing with red piping and a picture of a race car. Three, his name was Tolby; I've never met anyone else with that name.
It was like a dam had burst. Tolby called me alien, and suddenly all the other kidskids who'd always been my friendswere laughing, pointing, calling me names. Hateful names. Making fun of me, of how I looked. Different from all of them. Of different flesh.
I searched for your eyes. You were standing aside; at least that's what I choose to remember. You didn't laugh. You didn't say anything. You didn't participate, but you didn't defend me either. You didn't look at me.
I was so mad, I finally went over and introduced myself to the aliens.
· · · · ·
The aliens had this screen, which they called television, but it was more. For one thing, the screen was big, wider than I was tall. And the screen itself was all there was to that television, with no big box to hold the circuitry. They operated it with a remote control.
It doesn't sound fantastic now, but in 1969 that was the stuff of science fiction.
The technology itself wasn't the most wondrous thing about their televisiontheir Space & Time Screen, as I called it.
On the Space & Time Screen, the aliens showed me life on their homeworld, with houses hollowed out of gigantic purple trees. They showed me dinosaurs stomping around on prehistoric Earth. Ancient Greek athletes. Aztecs building pyramids. Philosophers of forgotten African civilizations hotly debating topics I couldn't understand, even with the aliens translating. Primate children playing long-forgotten games. The primordial ocean. Dragons flying through interstellar space. And so much moreI'm not sure now what I've imagined since and what I really saw.
When I said I was thirsty, the wife poured me water from the kitchen faucet. "Can I have the same thing you're drinking?" They laughed at my request, but it was a kind laugh, and the wife handed me the glass of water.
· · · · ·
"What did we tell you about those people?" My parents were angry at me. My father even raised his hand, but he caught himself before it could come down on me.
Mom said, "You're never to speak to them again. Never to go into their house again. They're strangers. Understand?"
I glared at them.
"Do you understand?"
I told them what had happened. What the other kids had done. The names they'd called me. I carefully repeated the words they'd used, accenting every syllable.
Their fists tightened, then their anger melted away. Their spines crumpled, their necks barely supporting the weight of their heads. When they looked up at me again, I had never seen them so sad and defeated.
"Oh," they said. My father ran his fingers through my hair, and the three of us stood there silently.
"Oh," they repeated.
· · · · ·
Of course I went back to see the aliens and their Space & Time Screen. They were my friends, the only friends I had left. I stopped playing with those other kids. Even with you. Nevertheless, our morning trysts continued: a secret ritual we shared and were loath to abandon. We weren't quite friends anymore. We were only five years old. What else could we be?
· · · · ·
In September, everything changed.
We started kindergarten, you and I. Although we went to the same school, we wound up in different classes. With the advent of school, life's rhythms followed different patterns.
If there was a reason I stopped peeking through your kitchen door, I've long forgotten it. All I know is that I did stop. In later years, I often wondered if, that first morning I failed to show up, you stood there in your pajamas waiting for me. Waiting to flex, kick, and twirl. Or maybe you, too, sensed that life was changing. Maybe it just makes me feel better to imagine some grand cosmic convergence and think that I didn't abandon you.
There was another change brewing: my parents had received notice that we would be expropriated. The city was planning on razing a large part of the neighborhood. A community of small, tree-lined streets, hundreds of households, and dozens of local businesses would make way for a new superhighway, a giant luxury hotel, and a shopping mall with a vast parking lot.
We would have to move by the end of the school year.
I also fell out of the habit of visiting the aliens. In fact, I stopped hanging out in the alley altogether. When I wasn't at school, I'd watch TV or sit in my room, drawing.
The bulldozers hadn't begun their work, but already the life I'd known was shutting down.
· · · · ·
I didn't make any friends in kindergarten, but more importantly I wasn't picked on. I have the aliens to thank for that. In my class, there was one alien, a shy little girl, slightly shorter than anyone else. There were other aliens in other classes, in other grades. I saw them in the schoolyard.
No one ever hit the shy little girl alien, but they only ever talked to her to make fun of her. The teacher never interfered.
Neither did I. I wanted to feel guilty for not taking her side, but all I could honestly feel was relief at not being the victim. I remembered how you'd stood aside the day Tolby turned the kids against me. Flesh against flesh.
· · · · ·
The last time, it was also a Saturday morning. Not just any last time: the last time I saw you.
It was too early for cartoons; the sun had barely risen. I was drawing: Underdog and Bugs Bunny teaming up against Doctor Octopus. A light rapping at my window led me to you. My young heart swelled with delight. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed you.
I skulked through the kitchen and quietly opened the back door. In you came. We crept back to my room, and I carefully shut the door.
Silently, you inspected my room: the toys, the action figures, the comic books, the piles of drawings.
Then you grabbed my wrist and brought your lips to my ears. You whispered, "It's my birthday."
You stepped back and watched me, your eyes wide open with anticipation.
I wanted to laugh, but my breath caught. I was happy, yet I trembled.
Trembling, I flexed, I kicked, I twirled. Trembling, I unfastened a button.
I fell, clumsy. The loud thud echoed in the dawn silence. I picked myself up. Frustrated and embarrassed, I hurried out of my clothes.
Naked, I finally stopped trembling.
You smiled at me. Then you, too, disrobed. No flexing, kicking, twirling.
"What's going on in there, sweetie?" My mom's voice.
You grabbed your clothes, swiftly but with surprising poise, and slid under my bed just as the door opened.
"Is there someone in here with you?" She stepped into the room and saw me standing naked in the middle of a pile of drawings. I was suddenly aware of my penis. This woman, my mothershe'd seen me naked every day of my life. Changing my diapers. Bathing me. Dressing me. Yet my hands rushed to my crotch, as if hiding my genitals would protect our secret.
"What happened to your pajamas?"
So many questions, and no good answers. I was afraid to lie. Silence seemed my best option.
"Were you sleepwalking?"
Mom dressed me and made me breakfast, looking puzzled the whole time.
By the time I went back into my room, you'd managed to slip out, undetected.
· · · · ·
The funds for the project never materialized. All the people left, and the neighborhood was destroyed, pulverized. But nothing new was ever built.
My family moved to a different city. New school. New kids. New house. New everything. It was years before it occurred to me that there weren't any aliens anymore.
"I don't remember the aliens."
Yeah, that's what everyone tells me. I haven't mentioned them to anyone in years. I thought: maybe here, maybe now, maybe you. But
Forget it, it doesn't matter. They're just memories.
This is my first time back. I was always afraid to discover that the neighborhood wasn't real. That maybe you weren't. What luck to run into you.
"Luck?" You chuckle dryly, sounding a bit miffed. "I come here every year. Always on the same day."
You see me slowly understand.
You grip my forearm. I love the chiaroscuro of your pearly white hand against my skin. How your nails dig into my flesh.
You lean in. Your lips brush against my ear, and you whisper, "It's my birthday."