At 3 a.m., Alan walks into the kitchen in his underwear, and Diane wonders if she hasn’t fallen out of love with him.
Alan turns on the television and sits down, scraping ice cream out of the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s carton. Mr. Ed is on Nick at Nite; Alan keeps the volume low, so she can’t hear what the characters are saying, only that they are talking. The laugh track is louder than their tinny voices.
Diane doesn’t look up from her textbook. “Are you having trouble sleeping?” She has been studying for an anatomy test since she got off work this evening.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Maybe you shouldn’t sleep so much during the day.”
She turns and looks at him, stretched out on the couch in his boxer shorts. His fly falls away in a manner that, six or eight months ago, would have excited her. Mr. Ed must have said something funny to Wilbur, she can hear the laugh track.
“Why don’t you put on some clothes, honey?”
“You keep the heat turned up too high,” Alan says, turning up the volume just enough so that she can make out what Mr. Ed says, but not Wilbur.
She catches a voice from the television saying, “I’d brush my own teeth for a filly like that ,” but she doesn’t say anything.
Alan peels back the sides of the cardboard carton and licks the last bits of tepid ice cream. “It’s only September.”
Diane turns a page, not really listening very closely.
He wads up the carton. “I can’t afford another winter like last one.”
“I get cold easily,” she says.
“Put on a sweater,” he says.
“Why should I, when I can just turn the heat up?”
“Because it costs money, dammit.”
“Then get a job.”
“I have a job.” He has two, really: he waits tables at the vegetarian restaurant, and he also casts lost-wax bronze sculptures of cetaceans, for commission.
“I mean a job you can use your degree on.”
“But Wilburrr...” Hahahahaha .
Alan turns off the telvision. “There’s no work around here in that.”
Diane looks at the page in her textbook. She’s been looking at the same page since he walked into the kitchen, at the same words over and over, but she doesn’t know what they mean.
“Can we not fight?” she asks, “I’ve got studying to do.”
“I didn’t know we were fighting.”
“We weren’t,” she says as she turns the page.
“You’re always muttering like that, then saying ‘nothing’ when anyone asks—”
“I said, we weren’t fighting. Because we never fight.”
Alan stands up. “Do you want to?”
Diane looks back down at her textbook.
“I thought it was a rhetorical question.”
He walks back into the bedroom and turns on the ceiling light, which casts long green shadows across the living room floor. That light has always been too harsh for Diane.
He comes out wearing sandals and a sweatshirt that smells like wet laundry. “I’m going to go get more ice cream.”
“You just had some.”
“We’re out now.”
For a few seconds, they look away from each other, not saying anything.
“Okay, bye,” he says, and before Diane can turn her head, the door is shut.
She closes her textbook and pushes it towards the bronze dolphin at the center of the table. She leans on her elbows, pressing the heels of her hands into her eye sockets, watching the patterns of light flash across the back of her eyelids. She wonders if it’s worth walking to the Seven-Eleven, and find Alan, then puts on her windbreaker and pulls her keys off the table. She doesn’t turn off the fluorescent bedroom light.
Instead of walking to the Seven-Eleven, Diane walks along the paved bike trail on the border of the greenway and the beach. Every hundred yards or so she sees a ring of stones surrounding a darkened patch of sand; remains of campfires. Well, it’s a public beach, you can camp here pretty much legally.
When the water line broke last October, both Diane and Alan were working late, so no one knew that their apartment was being showered until Mr. Peterson downstairs noticed staining on his ceiling tiles. By the time the landlord called a plumber, only the kitchen closet was left dry.
That night, they walked to the beach with the camping equipment that Alan kept in the trunk of his car. The couple’s clothes were soaked from trying to salvage as many of their costly uninsured belongings as possible. Their socks made sucking noises inside their shoes, which they could barely hear over their teeth chattering.
About forty yards above high tide, they made a ring of stones, and Alan lit a fire in it while Diane set up the tent. They draped their wet clothes—all of them—on makeshift driftwood tripods near the fire, and pressed their damp and naked bodies against each other under the itchy wool blanket. That night they squeezed into the single sleeping bag in the tent, so closely that sex was a necessity of space optimization.
During the night the surf had risen to within the high tide line, and the sound of the waves slicking over the sand and peeling back into the Pacific woke Diane. Against the green nylon walls glowing with cloudy morning light, she could see dozens of oblong silhouettes the size of her thumb, or larger. Slugs had swarmed the tent—very slowly—which had become slick with dew during the night.
Now Diane stands at more or less the exact same spot on the public beach, near the edge of the greenway by the bike trail. A few hundred yards down the beach she can see the glow of a campfire, flickering faintly against a circle of human bodies. It’s still summer, she thinks, but feels too cold on the beach, perhaps because of the rain that fell during the afternoon. The sand, when she takes off her shoes and digs her feet into it, is still damp.
Through the clouds streaking low overhead, a sliver of moonlight glistens across the waves; very romantic, she thinks. And the surf is good, breaking eight or ten feet because it’s still raining out at sea. She shuts her eyes and inhales the cool air, damp with the odor of salt and dead fish.
I should go to the Seven-Eleven, she thinks, and she shakes the sand off her feet and slips her Converse sneakers back on.
At the mini mall housing the Seven-Eleven, she sees Alan sitting on the curb, scraping a spoon into an ice cream carton and looking morose. Under the bluish mercury-vapor lighting he looks alien somehow, like a stranger she might see on the train and wonder why he looks so sad. He doesn’t see her until she sits down next to him.
“Hi,” he says.
He sucks his finger, sticky with ice cream. “Cool tonight.”
“Mostly just damp,” she says.
During the silence, Diane wiggles her sandy toes against each other in her shoes.
“Sorry,” says Alan.
She sighs heavily. “Quit apologising.”
“What? I don’t get it, what did I do?”
Diane squints hard at him. Maybe he doesn’t get it. She takes off her sneakers and rubs the grit out from between her toes with one hand. It’s not the same, not the same at all any more with Alan. They don’t do anything, don’t say anything...he just works, either at the restaurant or the studio on campus, he never does anything.
“Is it...are we...”
“Is it me?”
“I never see you, Diane. You’re always working, or, I don’t know, studying or something not much fun anymore.” Halfheartedly, he tosses the nearly empty carton out into the parking lot.
As badly as Diane knows she should cry, she doesn’t. It’s not like it was, not romantic at all. They don’t have nights sleeping on the beach, looking at the moonlight anymore; he never brings home leftover bean curd soup for her like he used to. She doesn’t give him shiatsu massages.
“Do you still love me, Alan?”
He looks at the carton leaking Rainforest Crunch onto the pavement, probably wishing he hadn’t thrown it away.
“Say it,” Diane swallows hard.
“Say...” she can’t even really talk now, past her breathing and a pain in her chest, “say...say you don’t...don’t love me...”
He takes off his glasses, wipes them on his sleeve, puts them back on. They slide to the end of his nose as he looks down into his lap.
“Diane, I...we’re not really in love anymore, are we?”
Suddenly, she can’t stand to hear any more; she gets up and turns away from Alan, towards the darkened street, towards home or somewhere safe. Then the spaceship lands.
She blinks back tears, forgetting for a moment that she just fell out of love. It looks for all the world like a whale, a humpback or blue whale, in a skin cast of shimmering yellow chrome with immovable metallic fins and flukes. It’s even about the size of a big whale, although the fins are too large and it has no head. It spirals downward, casting dim golden light across their faces like the reflections of water on the walls and ceilings of a hotel pool room. It comes to within a few feet of the ground, in the center of the parking lot, between the gasoline pumps and the mini-mall, no more than ten feet away from Diane and Alan.
Without warning, a sliver of light appears along the side of the craft, splitting open as if giving birth, and from within the brightened patch emerge two jellyfish. They hover seven or eight feet above the ground, and their hundreds of gauzy tentacles dangle to within inches of the pavement. Their bodies are translucent pink umbrellas, inside which can be seen shadows of blue and green and violet light, that shift and change in a hypnotically arhythmic pattern as the creatures rotate about one another.
Instinctively, Diane reaches around Alan, puts one hand on the nape of his neck. A powerful odor, foreign somehow, yet humid and familiar, emanates from no obvious source. Later, Diane will recall it as being like a cedar forest wet with fog, mixed with the odor of a household cleaner and rotting, fermenting fruit. But the smell seems to change, to twist around itself somehow, becoming richer and more alcoholic as the lights inside the jellyfish shift. Someday she will learn that the beings, as they communicate, exhale vast quantities of pheromones. Often, entirely accidently, human sexual pheromones.
The two beings move towards Diane and Alan, and inside their bodies a fluoresence of pink and orange erupts, as the odor grows more intoxicating. Diane’s heartbeat jumps; she turns to Alan to see him grinning, slack-jawed, tears glistening behind his spectacles in the dancing lights. The brilliance inside the jellyfish slows, then stops, and they rotate several times as they float across the parking lot toward the brightly-lit Seven-Eleven.
Diane turns to Alan and hooks her arms behind his head. She cannot breathe, she is dizzy with the thick chemical air. He is perfect, she notices, perfect in the way his glasses slide down his nose.
The glow of the spaceship cascades across his face, and she kisses him. Through one open eye she can see the spaceship, fluid and golden, maybe not so much like a whale as she had at first thought, but very romantic nonetheless. It’s more romantic than moonlight, she thinks, shining across the ocean; more romantic than shiatsu massages. It’s the most romantic thing she’s ever seen.