Serpentes Love by Renjana S.

I was given no contract to sign, no disclaimer listing the drawbacks of being human. No one told me that my tongue would begin to split at the slightest emotional trigger, that my skin would start to wrinkle and fold into small pinches, that I would start to hiss uncontrollably. Keeping the two ends of my tongue together was a conscious effort. Imagine, for example, having to keep two human fingers together for hours and hours at a time.

My first years as a Homo sapiens were spent indoors. I was deathly afraid of going outside, for the sight of a bird crashing into my neighbor’s window or an old woman talking to herself on the bus would cause me to unravel then and there, in plain view of everyone present. But in private, I was addicted to emotion. To learn humanness, I’d watch romance comedies online, read tragic novels and harrowing war memoirs. At the end of Anne Frank I was reduced to a hissing, slithering heap on my apartment floor. It was messy, humiliating, but also extremely exhilarating.

There were all sorts of conspiracy theories floating around, the “new sapiens” being one of them. Except we were very much real; as many as 50,000 non-humans were being transformed across the globe each year, according to the New Sapiens Center’s statistics. Scouts went into forests and homes to coax wild animals and pets into transformation. “Don’t you want to experience the full extent of love? Don’t you want to read books by dead Russian authors? Don’t you want to know exactly what these humans think of you? Don’t you want a real family?” they told us, using special headphones and a speaking device to communicate these words, altering them into emotions. When I felt the words, like soft, warm tickles on my skin, I knew exactly what I had been missing all those years moving about on my stomach.

I touched myself the first month or so after my defection, dreaming of the timber rattlesnake I was once infatuated with (his skin had the most symmetrical patterns, his hisses most confident and soothing), but my body simply refused to respond. I tossed and turned for a good hour, running my fingers on my legs and lower back, imagining him crawling over me and wrapping his tail around mine. But visualizing his two penises, like the appendages of a mucilaginous alien creature, only made me want to vomit.

After a half an hour of tossing and turning and prodding every orifice, I gave up and browsed an online site for a film to watch. I settled on Batman Begins, featuring a dark, anthropoid creature gazing boldly at an army of bats darting into an orange sky. Bruce Wayne, though clearly not a new sapiens as I had hoped, seemed to embody the most fundamental of human desires and pain; I, too, had lost my family and wanted very much to remake myself, to create my own destiny, to be useful for others.

To avoid getting too explicit, I’ll simply cut straight to the end: halfway through the rather impressive film, my tongue began to split; my skin began to scale and fold into itself, beginning with the periphery of my fingers and toes; instead of crying in ecstasy the way human females seem to enjoy doing in pornographic films, I began to hiss and hiss. I realized then that Bruce Wayne must have been what they called an “alpha male.” Oh, it was the most humiliating experience. When my tongue and skin were transformed back, I was drenched in sweat and tears. Don’t get me wrong. The sensation was absolutely delicious, but if I were a flagellant I suppose I would have flagellated myself to death from the shame. It took me years before I was able to summon the courage to attempt the real thing. But we’ll get to that later.

Suffice it to say, I spent my first few years as a person practicing self-restraint in public and keeping my unseemly emotions private, behind the closed door of my apartment. I would leave home once a week to attend the New Sapiens’ secret meetings. At least there I could talk about all my emotions, the loneliness, the sadness, even homesickness. I wasn’t warned before my transformation that all of these human emotions would be so overwhelming. As a snake, I apparently only experienced the truncated, primitive versions of these emotions. There weren’t words to shape them and somehow having the words made my feelings even worse, or perhaps simply heightened. It seemed that having a way to articulate what was once only a suggestion, a whiff, a hint of its full scope, made me dwell more, and the forming of words and sentences in my mind made the emotions all the more real, all the more important and essential to my being. My responses to love as a snake, in hindsight, were purely physical. Before I went to sleep in the forest where I grew up, my sister would slither toward me; we’d wrap our bodies around each other and become intertwined, our skins grazing at the slightest movement.

People say snakes cuddle only to keep warm. But I certainly remember feeling something pleasurable, a gentle burning that seemed to radiate toward my extremities. Perhaps it was love; numerous studies have proven that we reptiles are capable of love, although I am not convinced it’s the kind of love I’d come to experience as a human being, exactly.

The secret meetings, held on weekday afternoons at a local bar before it would open, were full of new humans: ex beavers wildly chattering their teeth even when it was warm, former dogs whining like human toddlers with a cold, former cats rubbing their necks against the person next to them.

We’d arrange our seats in a circle and drink non-alcoholic drinks, tea or coffee, while we talked. The shades would be drawn and only a corner light would be turned on, to limit sensory stimuli. We heard sounds, muffled and distant, as if they were coming from a television in a room upstairs: the soft rattle of a bicycle chain, a human baby cooing, the beeping of a car backing up into a parking spot, the boisterous laugh of a woman comfortable in her skin. There was something comforting about being in the dark and not being able to really make out faces. But still, all the sounds, though muted and far, overwhelmed me. What I really wanted when I was at these meetings was to lock myself in my new soundproof closet, built for me by the New Sapiens Association. “It’s the least we can do,” said our city’s adaptation coordinator when I thanked the association.

The discussion leader was a former African grey parrot. She was afraid of heights, convinced she’d forget one day that she could no longer fly, and would simply jump, the rush of soaring, the fast, biting wind below her wings, still fresh in her memory.

“My name is Chip, and I was a crow,” someone would say.

“My name is Vera, and I was a cat,” another would say.

The transformed would occasionally say “am” instead of “was” and the discussion leader would interrupt them: “Was, Linda. You were a golden retriever. Now you are human.” And we’d all clap our hands and holler and say things like, “You’re human now, Linda!” or “Two legs! Hooray!”

It’s strange that I was always the only former snake. Perhaps this is what caused my loneliness. The others always had their own cliques—a group of friends who understood each other’s peculiarities.

My therapist referred to me by the transformed center told me to get a job, though basic living expenses would be covered by the Association for life. He said working for money would do wonders to my self-esteem and confused identity. No wallowing, he said, you’ve made your bed. I did as he advised as soon as I managed to endure The Notebook without falling apart. I worked at a Chinese restaurant and got paid under the table, as they say. Fascinating, these humans. How they fussed over trivial things, lukewarm tea, overcooked tofu, overpriced lunch, etc. Not many of them would look me in the eye when ordering food, save a few exceptions here and there. I didn’t mind the rudeness. To me eye contact signaled aggression anyway.

At first I had to wear ear plugs at work and retreat to the restroom every half an hour to recover from the assault of sounds and smells. After almost a year, I was able to dispose of the ear plugs and began to make friends at the restaurant. Jemma and Katherine (I could never pronounce their Chinese names), cousins from the outskirts of Beijing, took me in as if I was a long-lost sister. We often went to the movies together. I of course always suggested action films; drama was certainly out of the question then. I felt most useful when I was with Jemma and Katherine. They always wanted to know what this or that phrase meant. I told them, for example, that making love meant sexual intercourse, with feelings involved.

And there was Maria, a runaway from Boston. It was Maria who taught me how to smoke. We would smoke in the parking lot during breaks. She told me about her ex husband, whom she married when she was eighteen, and her eleven-year-old son who was living with her ex in Boston. Once, as she was telling me her life story, Maria began to cry. I panicked and she told me all she needed was hug, so I hugged her. Maria sobbed into my shirt for what felt like an eternity. It felt odd, her tears seeping into the fabric, making my chest moist. I cried, too, because I thought about my family then, and the first few months I spent alone in the apartment, knowing that they must have not understood why I thought being human was better than being with them. Knowing that their sadness could not even come close to mine made me feel somewhat better.

When I didn’t feel my tongue resisting, I knew I was ready for the next step. I had worked at the joint for almost two years.

It was during one of our smoke breaks that I got to know Henry, a masseuse at the massage parlor next door. At the time, Henry had just been transferred from another branch of Earthly Pleasures. He asked us for a cigarette and joined us for a smoke. Where was I from, he wanted to know, and what ancestry was responsible for my beautiful, round eyes? He told me I moved and walked funny, like a penguin. Maria got very upset at him then, but I was sure Henry didn’t mean it as an insult. “See, she’s laughing. She thinks it’s funny,” Henry said to Maria. Anyway, it was the first time a male human being showed interest, so I went with it and showed him interest, too.

We went out on numerous dates: dinners, movies, and even bowling. Whenever I was uncertain whether he was cracking a joke or being serious, I would make sure to laugh, just to be sure. He told me I had a good sense of humor, unlike most of the women he knew. Finally, I was able to muster the courage to go back to his place. I knew what this meant, of course, that we would have sex. I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I didn’t buy condoms beforehand because Maria had told me that Henry would find a supply of condoms at my place off-putting. I told her I didn’t quite understand and listed the possible STDs I would be at risk of contracting. Maria waved her hand dismissively and said, “Men are animals. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got a Ph.D, at the end of the day all they care about is that their women don’t know anything better than theirs,” while pointing at her crotch.

Men are animals, I thought—not very scientific, since to my knowledge all humans were animals, women included. Besides, her tone irked me a little bit. What made her think humans were better than the rest of the animal kingdom? And in what way?

Yet there I was, wearing a skirt, a pair of stockings, and a polo shirt with the words “Green Jade” embroidered at the front. I had to laugh.

Henry and I went back to his place after a fancy dinner at a French restaurant, where he’d ordered mineral water, a portion of escargot to share and nothing else. I couldn’t bring myself to eat much. It was odd poking at the suspiciously tender snails, especially when I was once acquainted with a few of their kind.

Once we were in Henry’s living room, I wanted to ask him if he had a condom, but all I managed to come up with were a few restrained hisses.

“Oh, I see you’re cold,” Henry said.

He sat me down in his couch, put a blanket over my legs, and went to the kitchen to get a bottle of wine. I looked around and took in Henry’s books (several Dan Browns and alphabetized self-helps), his paintings (cheap copies of Rembrandt and Pollock), his doilies (he had lots of them, surprisingly; later I found out they were his mother’s).

When Henry came back and gave me my glass of wine, I blurted, “I’ve never had sssex.”

“Good one,” he said, laughing. We kissed briefly and he played a foreign film, the language like music to my ears. The wine made me tipsy, which helped. He massaged my feet (heavenly!), he kissed my neck and licked my fingers. I did exactly what he did, because I didn’t yet know of another way to go about it, I suppose (later I tried this on another man and he quickly made excuses to leave). But Henry seemed pleased enough. After a few minutes of fooling around, he got up and went to his drawer to retrieve a condom. My muscles began to tense, but no danger of my tongue splitting just yet.

Henry held the unwrapped condom in his hand and continued to lick me between my legs. I tried to focus on the film’s dialog, repeating complete sentences in my head, but I could feel my mental faculty slipping away as if I was occupying the body of another person. When I was ready to erupt, Henry pulled away and put on his condom. He pressed the tip of his penis against my opening and before he could put it in, the thing happened. The two ends of my tongue began to cleave. I desperately looked for something to cover my face—my hands flailing all over the place—and found a cushion. I pressed my face against it and hissed and hissed and hissed, carefully curling my fingers into the cushion so that Henry wouldn’t be able to see the scales forming at the tip of them.

Henry was ecstatic; he interpreted my strange behavior as unrestrained enthusiasm. He roared like a tiger and pushed the pillow into my face until I had to kick his leg to signal for him to let go. As soon as he had pushed his member all the way in, all I could think of was the pain, which was good, because my tongue began to unsplit and happily stayed intact during the intercourse. I suppose that is another way of saying that the actual sex wasn’t any good, but of course I didn’t know this at first, having no prior experience to compare it to.

I kept still the whole time, like a log. Thankfully, the affair was short-lived. “Is this blood?” Henry asked as he disposed of the condom, looking perplexed and, frankly, very disappointed. “Was it really your first time?” he demanded.

“Yes,” I said, remembering what Maria told me, expecting him to take pride.

“I thought you were joking,” he said. The annoyance was unmistakable.

What happened next was a catastrophe. Keep in mind that I had only been human for about four years and there were many things about the world I did not yet understand. I was under the impression that the thing Henry and I did meant we were bound by some sort of unspoken pact. What did I know? My only references were romance novels and Hallmark drama.

When Henry did not return my calls the next day and the day after, and never again went outside for a smoke with us, I broke down. I felt so hurt. Was I not any good, I thought. Did I smell funky? Or had he felt my scales?

“See? What did I tell you?” Maria said. “Men are pigs.”

We were in the restaurant bathroom. It was ten thirty at night and the restaurant had closed. I was crying into the sink. Maria patted my back gently.

“There’ll be plenty more to break your heart.”

“Why would I want that?”

Maria tilted her head back and laugh. “I see myself in you. You like pain, the hurt. It makes you feel alive, doesn’t it?”

I wanted to ask her if she was a new sapiens but decided against it. Instead, I asked for dating advice. I sat on the toilet and listened to her say one absurd thing after another: never admit to a man that you love him until he’s professed his love for you, never call more than once a day, never bring him food or just “pop by” at his workplace, never compare him to other men, never admit to being unhappy, never…the list goes on.

There are things that I do not quite get yet about humanity. For example, emotion seems to be a distasteful thing, but only when revealed in public. Too much of it and you might end up at a mental institution. Some display of emotion is acceptable, even desirable, however, if it is meant to communicate sympathy. For example, one might say to a friend, when one sees a homeless person, “Oh, how sad,” but never, “That old lady in pink makes me terrified of growing old.” Having strong emotions about specific, real things seems to put people in an awkward spot, except, of course, when you’re referring to a movie or some other fictional realm. Perhaps this is why Maria would tell me stories about her son but not any of the other waitresses at the restaurant.

After Henry, I tried dating other men, and to entirely abandon the idea of “making love.” Maria’s advice worked like magic. Being emotionally unavailable seemed to comfort these men, to lift the burden of potential attachment from them. My detachment made some of them actually want a relationship. The thing is, being with these men was never satisfying. Besides, I could never warm to the idea of penetration. I can’t quite explain it, but Maria’s idea of seduction, love, and relationship made me think of a snake eating its own tail.

I used to walk by a psychiatric hospital on my way to work. The place, situated on a small hill across the Green Valley National Park, is called the Happy Valley Hospital. The hospital is not quite like the mental hospitals you see on television. The patients, all wearing white, seemed quite normal when I’d see them in the vast front yard, reading or chatting. Some of them may have seemed a bit listless, perhaps, but as far as I could tell, no one was talking to himself or chasing orderlies around with a fork like in movies.

I first saw Dr. Pavlov, a psychiatrist at the hospital, when I was walking to work. He was walking toward the entrance, wearing a white doctor’s robe. A patient said hello from inside the gate, he said hello, and adjusted the patient’s lopsided pajama pants, stretching his arms into the gap between the metal bars of the gate. I suppose it made sense that of all people, I should fall in love with the arbiter of propriety.

But it wasn’t until a bit later that I fell in love with Dr. Pavlov, although I must admit that even then I was struck by his demeanor. I thought it was strange and funny how he stuck his hands into the gate to fix a patient’s pajama pants, as if he was simply wiping his mouth after a meal or picking up something he had dropped.

At the time, I had already grown somewhat bitter and disillusioned with the whole human thing. I was almost certain that I had made a mistake. What good were all these feelings I had when I couldn’t share them? So one day, I stepped into the hospital and made an appointment.

I was surprised when I saw Dr. Pavlov in his office and realized he was the man I’d seen only a few weeks before. There was a low, steady sort of hum in the room coming from a small refrigerator Dr. Pavlov had next to his bookshelf behind him. He said hello and pointed at the seat across from him. His office felt and looked warm: a lot of wood, antiques, a grandfather’s clock in one corner, a Persian rug, and a simple, five-bulb chandelier with golden brown lampshades.

Dr. Pavlov pointed at the chandelier.

“That? Nice touch, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I said. Very nice. Reminds me of old movies.”

Dr. Pavlov smiled. I noticed that he had crow’s feet, very subtle, around his eyes. I later found out he was forty-nine, but he seemed much younger then. Even with the soft wrinkles on his face, I thought he looked no more than forty. He was nothing like the bald psychiatrists I’d seen in movies.

“I think I might be depressed,” I told him.

“Tell me more,” he said, and when I remained quiet, he asked, “Do you feel sad?”

“Not just sad. I have all these feelings.”

I stopped, failing to find the words.

He looked at me, smiling with his eyes.

“I have feelings.”

“What sort of feelings?”

“All of them,” I said. I felt helpless and agitated. It had made so much sense in my head before; I had known exactly what to tell him, and now I couldn’t make sense of any of it.

“How is your sleep pattern?”

“Oh, it’s all right. I sleep seven hours a day, more or less.”

“Have you been sleeping a lot more or a lot less recently?”

“Hmm, no. Not at all.”

“Do you sometimes feel sad for no reason?”

“No. There’s always a reason when I feel sad.”

“Tell me about it. Why do you feel sad?”

I shifted in my seat, wondering if this was standard procedure for him, if my complaint was nothing special, if many others, human-borns and new sapiens complained to him about having feelings.

“I feel sad because I can’t share my feelings,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because I am told feelings are inappropriate.”

“How so?”

“Well, you can’t just tell someone you’re sad or that you love them. Maria is convinced people will only run away if you confess to such things.”

“And who is Maria?”

“A friend of mine.”

“You can’t tell men you love them, is that it?”

“Yes, I suppose that’s it. But also, friends. You can’t always tell friends you love them when you feel the urge to all of a sudden, you know what I mean?”

Dr. Pavlov scribbled something on his notepad and looked at me. “Yes, I know. But perhaps you have friends that you feel a certain level of comfort with?”

“But, you see, it’s like a snake eating its own tail.”

I frowned as soon as I had said the words. I was sure he would not get it.

Dr. Pavlov laughed.

“I see. The self-restraint makes it almost circular, doesn’t it? A lose-lose situation?”

“Yes,” I said, my heart beating wildly against my chest.

“How old are you?”

I almost told him I wasn’t sure, catching myself in time. “I’m twenty-four.”

“Really? You seem younger. Do you often feel anxious around people?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do you sometimes dread the company of people? Or get nervous when you have to be among new people, or speak in public?”

“No, not really. I just get tired of it.”

“Of?”

“Of behaving,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “What do you do for entertainment? Do you ever go clubbing, for example, or go see some live music?”

“Oh my lord no, too much noise for my taste.”

“I see. So what do you do in your spare time?”

“I knit. I could knit for hours and hours! I also love playing interactive games. They’re a really good way to learn about human interaction.”

Dr. Pavlov smiled and scribbled something on his notepad.

“Doctor, do you believe in the New Sapiens?”

“Animals transformed into human beings?” He wrinkled his eyebrows.

“Yes. I don’t believe it, but a friend told me I behave like one, that I act as if I’ve never had ‘proper’ upbringing,” I quickly said. “She’s convinced she’s met one or two.”

“But you don’t believe her?”

“No. That’s ridiculous! Animals turning into people. Haha!”

“Yes, perhaps it is. There are many of these conspiracy theories around,” he said, nodding his head.

“Hm-mm. The reptilians is my favorite. George W. Bush a reptilian. What nonsense!”

“Well, tell me about your upbringing,” he said.

I lived on the edge of the forest, I told him, on the other side of the State Park. My parents were distant, all they cared about was providing food for me and my sister, and even then not for long. They quickly lost interest and were often away for long periods of time. I had to start fending for myself when I was very little. I liked living by the forest and often wandered into the woods on my own. I liked the sound of leaves rustling, the damp soil on my skin, the earthy smell of dried foliage and fallen pine cones, I liked watching dandelions florets float in the wind.

“And your parents?”

“We never spoke. I mean, we don’t speak.”

I didn’t tell him of course that when I stumbled upon the scout, a former squirrel, I had said yes without hesitation, feeling what I think now may have been a vague sort of longing, loneliness, and perhaps even a slight urge for vengeance.

“You don’t speak to them at all now?”

“Never.”

“Were they ever harsh with you?”

“No, never. They were distant, that’s all.”

“I see,” he said.

His timer went off; its mechanical sound, the even, discreet beeps startled me.

“I’m very sorry. Why don’t we schedule another meeting? Maybe in two weeks?”

“Yes, I will.”

“Great. Now, just one more question. Do you ever think of suicide? Or have fleeting thoughts of suicide?”

“Never,” I said, though I wondered if wanting to simply stop existing amounted to the same thing.

“Well, we have excellent group therapy. I really recommend that you join our sessions,” Dr. Pavlov said, getting up and taking several flyers from the bookshelf behind him.  I took the flyers, with titles such as Managing Social Anxiety, Recognizing Autism, and Recognizing Depression.

“It seems to me that you need someone to talk to. I would like very much to hear more about your childhood, but this is unfortunately not my territory, so why don’t I make you an appointment with our group therapist and you can continue seeing me once a week. We may decide later that a psychologist would be a better fit for you. Would you like that?” he said.

“Very much, yes.”

“And it’s quite all right to have feelings. Why don’t you keep a journal and write everything you feel for now?”

“Yes. That sounds like a good idea,” I said.

“Perfect.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I stood up and we shook hands. When I glanced down at his notepad, I saw the words Avoids eye contact. High-functioning A? written on it.

I walked home feeling relieved. High-functioning A. Top mark! Never mind the question mark, signifying at least some doubt. I felt as if a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Finally. Someone I could talk to, someone who understood. I saw Dr. Pavlov on a regular basis. I became addicted to him, to his lulling voice, to his silences as he listened to me, to his knowing nods, his readiness to laugh at my jokes. The more I saw him, the more human I felt. How foolish of me, not understanding the difference between professional commitment and actual caring—not to say that he hadn’t cared about me at all; even now I’m still convinced he cared very much.

The group therapy, on the other hand, wasn’t very helpful. Other participants spoke of problems that were alien to me: a dying mother, an abusive father, fear of people, self-harm. I couldn’t relate to them. Whenever it was my turn to speak, I would simply smile and say, “Maybe next week.” When the therapist finally approached me after a session to recommend one-on-one sessions with a psychologist, I told him I was already seeing one. All I wanted was to see Dr. Pavlov.

I don’t remember how long I went to see the doctor, how many months. But I was certain then that what we had transcended professional relationship. He was the only person I could learn to look in the eye for one hour straight. And the way he would smile with such tenderness as he listened to my confessions…as if he understood me perfectly and felt the same way.

Jemma said I looked radiant, that I had grown beautiful, more confident. For my birthday, the sisters gave me a make-up set. I would spend hours at night watching make-up tutorials online and practicing in front of the bathroom mirror. I gave up knitting and computer games entirely. I would put on full “natural” make-up and wear short dresses to the hospital, convinced that it was simply a matter of time before Dr. Pavlov would profess his love for me.

“Wow, you’ve certainly transformed,” he said one day, toward the end of our session.

“I feel so much better now, Doctor. Thank you.”

He said he was proud of me, that he had not expected me to perform so well so quickly. “You’re a remarkable woman. You’ve been through so much, yet you’re still so positive, so willing to think the best of people.”

I’m not sure what emboldened me, but I slipped off my right heel and touched my bare foot to his ankle. He immediately pulled away, but I felt no fear. I tried again, this time running my big toe gently up and down his calf.

“Hey,” he said, getting up abruptly, looking flustered, his forehead moist with sweat. “This is not a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a very beautiful girl,” he stuttered, wiping his forehead with facial tissue. I saw the thing between his legs begin to swell up. “I’m very sorry. You should leave.”

He went to the door, opened it, and gestured for me to leave, keeping his gaze fixed at the floor.

I did as I was told. It was all very confusing. Why had he let me run my toe up and down his leg if he hadn’t wanted me? I was disappointed but was still certain he would one day let his guard down, once he saw that we were meant for each other. Despite the somewhat humiliating setback, I came home feeling optimistic and happy.

The next morning, I received an email from Dr. Pavlov, saying that it would perhaps be best for me to see his colleague instead, a woman who was very competent and experienced. He had already scheduled a session for me. Signed, “Best wishes.”

I printed the email and stapled it on a page in my journal, next to a picture I had drawn of the forest I grew up in. I stared at the arrangement for a few minutes and began to cry for the first time in months. It must have been minutes—it felt like minutes—before I felt an odd sort of tremor coming from my stomach, like an army of ants was running amok all over my insides. I tried to get up, but my feet gave away. I collapsed and must have lost consciousness for quite some time. When I woke up, I was on the floor, covered in scales, my tongue split. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. I wanted to close my eyes but couldn’t—my lids were apparently gone. I hissed and hissed into the empty room until I finally returned to my human state.

It was a terrifying incident. I could not leave my apartment for weeks after, until one day Maria came by to tell me I had been fired.

“My God. What happened to you?” she said as soon as I opened the door.

Maria went into my bathroom and filled my bathtub with warm water and bath bubbles.

“Take a bath,” she said. “You smell like a dead rat.”

I undressed and slipped into the bathtub. Maria sat on the floor by my side, running her fingers through my hair. I felt nothing then. Not sad, not heartbroken. Just worn and empty.

After I was done bathing, Maria wiped me dry with a towel and handed me a pair of pajamas. We watched a horror film together while drinking warm ginger tea, laughing at the film’s horrible visual effects. Once in a while she would stroke my hair and kiss my cheek.

“Thank you, Maria,” I whispered to her.

“For what?” she said.

Just like that, she began to sob. We cried and laughed together. We laughed so hard our abdomens started to hurt.

At around seven she had to return home to her son.

“My aunt who works at a school library says they need an extra hand. Give me your resume tomorrow and I will make sure you get the job, all right?”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t be silly. That’s what friends do.”

Lying in bed that night, I thought back to what the new sapiens discussion leader said: “When you’re feeling out of place, when you’re feeling sad, learn. Learn as much as you can about humanity. This is the only way we can save our kind, our less fortunate peers who are unable to speak for themselves.”

Apparently what I felt toward Dr. Pavlov is called “transference” and was a sign that the therapy was, in fact, working. When sexual feelings are involved, the phenomenon is called “erotic transference.” I spent weeks reading up on it online, to better understand myself. I read patient testimonies, Quora threads, psychology studies, until the paralyzing shame was finally replaced with the urge to laugh at myself. Had I become a typical human being, after all?

The following month I began working at a middle school library only four blocks away from my apartment. I’m happy to report that my life has been somewhat normal since then. I’ve been in and out of relationships, some of them more serious than others. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat acclimated to humanness and am quite capable of having realistic expectations of men. I even believe that I am more well-adjusted than most human-borns. Even Maria, whom I still keep in touch with, says I am the most independent woman she knows.

I have gone back to my birthplace several times since then, to see if perhaps I’d feel happier there, more at home—not that I’m miserable, because I’m not, really. But you know what they say, home is home, and there’s no place like it.

I have not been able to make myself enter the forest. I’d walk along the edge of the woods, bringing with me breadcrumbs to feed the pigeons. I’d lean on the steel fence circling the park, close my eyes so I can better listen to the still familiar sounds and smell the forest. Sometimes, when there’s no one around, I’d spread breadcrumbs around my feet and give the pigeons waddling around my feet my words of wisdom: “Dear pigeons,” I’d whisper, “Just remember. When those scouts come for you, just say no. All right? Just shake your head, like this. And do yourself a favor and cover your ears. Look, this planet is doomed anyway. Not like the new sapiens’ climate change mitigation and animal rights movements are really making a difference.”

The poor pigeons, they’re not at all into eye contact. Still, I hope they receive my message, somehow, even if the words don’t make any sense. They should be able to see that I was once one of them, sort of, and that being a member of the only bipedal primate species, I am clearly out of place here on the sidewalk.

But we’ll see. Perhaps someday I’ll be walking down the street on my way to work at the school and I’ll see a man or a woman walking in my direction, waddling, making odd neck twitches. She’ll see me and her face will light up in recognition.

Maybe we’ll go for coffee and commiserate. Who knows.

Renjana S. lives on a tropical island with her pets and the occasional snake.  She writes for a current affairs magazine and is now working on her first novel.

When asked which dead celebrity she would resurrect for a day, Renjana says, “I’d love to have Bach resurrected for a day, just to hear him play the Goldberg Variations on a contemporary piano.”

Art — Philip King lives with his partner, cat, and two plants in Portland, Oregon. He is in the process of editing his first novel and creating his first graphic novel, and his work has been featured in the Portland State University VanguardPathos Literary MagazineAnnex Zine, and Literary Brushstrokes. He has displayed work at the Saatchi Gallery in London, England, the Todd Art Gallery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and in Portland at the AB Gallery, the MK Gallery, the Sugar Cube, St. Johns Racquet Center, the Littman Gallery, Synesthesia Festival, NextNorthwest, Splendorporium, and the Holocene. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Practices from Portland State University in 2016.

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