Every time I tried to start a new lesson—about our nation’s emergency response services, for example, or libraries, or the electoral college, or the IRS—the Venerites interrupted to ask about food. Why do humans consume three squares a day, Pam asked, and I had to tell her the expression she was looking for was three square meals. Mike wanted to know how many Americans owned microwaves, and what causes heartburn? What, for that matter, was a frozen dinner, or a tapas bar, or a flavor profile?
Venerites didn’t eat food. They couldn’t taste, or swallow, or go to the bathroom. Instead of ingesting their nutrients, they absorbed sunlight. Instead of speech or writing, they communicated amongst themselves telepathically. And instead of intercourse, they reproduced asexually, in their sleep. Their young popped out from under their toenails, the newborns curled like little snails. This could happen anywhere or anytime, even in my classroom at the adult education center if someone fell asleep, as Tom did last week. He birthed as single snail daughter before waking up and looking around, as if startled to find himself on a strange planet.
Sorry, Miss Tracy, he said, and tucked the baby out of sight in his desk.
I had taught him that, how to apologize. It was one of my proudest accomplishments.
* * *
The Venerites had been on our planet for six months. A thousand of them arrived in the United States overnight, without warning. They landed near Mount Rushmore and scattered. The largest group went to New York to admire the skyscrapers. Others went to Denver and donned ski googles, while another group moved to Los Angeles and clutched maps to the stars’ homes. Small pods of Venerites settled all over: in Montana, the Texas panhandle, Milwaukee, Nashville, Pennsylvania Amish country. The last group came here, to our modest town in Maine, where they walked our streets like they were giving a parade. That first day we all stayed in our homes, gawking out the windows.
Venerites stood just over five feet tall. Their skin colors ranged from blush pink to sunset orange, seafoam green, or a shy robin’s egg blue, but their heads were covered in the same silvery, androgynous hair. Their eyes were my favorite part—instead of one iris, each Venerite eye had three. The inner ring was a sparkling emerald, the middle violet, and the outer ring a bright cornflower blue; scientists were convinced the aliens could see ultraviolet light. The Venerites didn’t have to worry about heart disease, obesity, or acne. They never got B.O. or athlete’s foot. They didn’t have to floss. They were all equally beautiful.
Venerites had mouths and ears and arms and legs like we did, but they didn’t wear clothes and they had no genitals, breasts, or body hair. Gender did not exist for them. When it was time for them to select their own American names for my class, they chose an equal mix of male and female designations: Sally, Kate, Anne, Pam, Molly, Amy, and then Tom, Jack, Matt, Josh, Mike, and Bob.
The Venerites’ voices were higher pitched than human voices, but they spoke clearly and carefully for our benefit. When they first landed, they tried explaining in their own language which planet they’d come from. The best our human ears could understand it was as Venerine, so they became the Venerites.
This was surely an inaccurate translation, but they didn’t seem to mind. Venerites didn’t have much use for identity.
* * *
My class of Venerites fixated on food for a full week before they turned to time. Pocket watches, the atomic clock, Rolexes, time zones, Daylight Saving Time, stopwatches, alarm clocks, leap years—they wanted to know it all. I came in one morning to find them gathered under the classroom clock, a heavy metal circle with brass hands that moved in jerks. They stared up at it in wonder, like it was a sun to worship.
Okay, everyone, I said. Time to take your seats.
The Venerites didn’t move.
My paltry government training hadn’t prepared me for the Venerites’ brand of curiosity. My mother was right: I was too nice, and I cared too much about people liking me, all of which would get me in trouble. Some nights I woke sweating from a dream in which I’d been fired.
All right, I said, raising my voice. We’re going online.
That did it. The Venerites took their seats and adjusted their personal sun lamps, which they needed for the nutrients. Earth’s sunlight was apparently a lot weaker than that on their home planet. I hooked up my laptop to the projector and surfed around online while the Venerites watched. At first I only visited .gov sites, determined to follow the curriculum to prepare my students for their intergalactic citizenship exam. But the Venerites found the government sites boring and asked if we could discuss pop culture references instead.
Please, Miss Tracy, Amy said. Please let us look at other things, please.
For a Venerite, this was a complex use of the word please, and so I decided to indulge them. My federal security detail, which had dwindled from four to three to two agents in the last few weeks, had taken to waiting outside my classroom. Apparently the Venerites learned better without armed agents looming over them, and by then the government was satisfied that our alien visitors were harmless.
All right, I said. Pop culture coming up.
I took suggestions for what to look up. Sally wanted to know about Mikey from Wheaties, which led me to click on the Kellogg’s rooster logo, which led to John Harvey Kellogg’s Wikipedia page. Soon I was scrolling through all this wild stuff about how Kellogg invented corn flakes as a bland food to discourage masturbation. This information felt vaguely familiar to me, but that was the problem with the Internet. It was easy to take something in and then let it get washed away.
What does it mean, Kate asked, this thing Kellogg calls self-abuse?
My palms grew clammy. I closed the Kellogg tab and tried loading a video on TMZ.com as a distraction, but the Venerites only stared at me, waiting.
It’s perfectly natural, I said at last. It’s a way for humans to explore their sexuality alone, without a partner.
The Venerites leaned forward in their chairs, mouths agape. Dread trickled through my body. Their obsession with food had come first, followed by time, but this third obsession—with humanity’s capacity for self-inflicted pleasure—was something far more serious. Even then I suspected that it could be my undoing.
* * *
People were terrified of the Venerites at first. The morning after the spaceships appeared, the President did a live broadcast where she promised to take every measure possible to ensure the safety of the American people. For a solid twenty-four hours, things were really tense. Some people were convinced the world was ending.
But we were not under attack. Instead, the Venerites spent their first hours on Earth smelling lilacs and complimenting dogwalkers on the softness of their dogs. On the second day, someone posted a YouTube video that showed a little girl teaching a Venerite hopscotch. Venerites didn’t have great balance in our atmosphere, so this one kept falling over and giggling. A Venerite laugh sounds like a human laugh on helium, only funnier. After that video went viral, things started to shift. Within a few weeks, the government released a public service announcement touting the Venerites as a peaceful, non-violent species. Independent researchers followed suit, going on cable news to offer assurances that there was no threat. Not everyone was convinced, but those of us who spent time with the Venerites knew better. These creatures would never cause us harm. In the beginning, when a few overzealous armed citizens shot two Venerites, the other aliens didn’t even retaliate. They just calmly tended to the injuries and even thanked the humans for the bullets, which they kept in mason jars as souvenirs.
I recently asked my students why they landed in America instead of Italy or Thailand or Bolivia. They shouted out answers right away: Route 66! Reality TV! Amber waves of grain! The Harlem Globetrotters! Hillbilly! The Big Apple!
But really, Pam said, it is because America is a big country with many landscapes and climate zones, of which we are curious. And also because so many people here are lonely, and we do not understand what it is to be lonely since we always have each other.
The Venerites nodded in unison. I fought the urge to cross my arms across my body, as if my clothes had just evaporated and I was standing naked before them.
* * *
In class, I let Tom keep his single baby hidden away in his desk. To do this I had to fib a little. I promised him I’d informed my security detail of the newborn and that our government was tracking it along with the others. I felt bad about lying to him, but I had no choice. If I reported it, the agents would remove the tiny hibernating snail, and I liked having her in my classroom. It comforted me to know she was sleeping in the dark coolness of Tom’s desk. She felt like a mascot, or the class pet.
Plus, her birth—how she’d sprung forth from Tom’s toenails while he slept—served as a physical reminder of the Venerites’ sexless natures and why they were so fascinated by human sexuality. From a clinical standpoint, they could grasp that pleasure drove humans to mate, which allowed us to produce offspring. But that didn’t clear up things like oral sex or homosexuality or masturbation. For reasons I didn’t understand, it was that last act that most astonished the Venerites.
I could tell this was on their minds as I gave a lesson on sex education. My lecture was brief; the government had labeled this subject non-essential once it was clear that Venerites had zero sexual interest in humans and that interspecies mating was impossible anyway. My students listened politely as I defined fallopian tubes, ovaries, testicles, vas deferens. Ejaculation, fertilization, zygote. As I spoke, I felt increasingly distant from my own species. Humans really were bizarre, when you thought about it.
Are there questions? I asked.
Matt raised his hand. Do you have any daughters, Miss Tracy?
No, I do not. And the gender neutral term is children, I reminded him, but I knew it was useless. They had set upon daughters not long after landing on Earth, and that was that.
We cannot stop having daughters, Anne said.
It was true. Tom’s baby was the only one born in our classroom, but the Venerites had been reproducing steadily since arriving. Their babies remained little sleeping snails that had no need for care or nourishment. Because the Venerite offspring would remain in that state for the equivalent of a hundred human years, none of us on Earth would see them grow up. Besides, the Venerites insisted they’d take the babies with them when they left. Our alien friends were only tourists, here for a vacation of a mere fifty years.
I understand how humans create daughters, Josh said. But I am not clear about this masturbation. Can it, too, produce daughters?
No, I said.
But what is the purpose of it then?
Pleasure, I said. A sexual release.
The Venerites looked at me in wonder. I paced a bit, trying to land on a better explanation. Through the narrow window in the door, I caught a glimpse of one of my security agents sitting in the hallway. He seemed to be sleeping. I thought of all the other guards protecting civilian teachers across the country—surely those teachers were sticking to the curriculum. Their Venerites would pass the citizenship test on the first try while my students would answer each question with “genital stimulation” or “masturbatory ejaculation,” and I’d be humiliated on the national news.
The Venerites were still waiting for my response. It was impossible to explain masturbation without explaining shame, and the Venerites seemed to have no concept of shame.
It is private, I said at last. Like a secret.
I was failing even worse than usual. I decided to dismiss class a few minutes early, a decision my students met with neither joy nor disappointment. The Venerites simply gathered their things and waved goodbye in their own fashion, by standing and holding both arms straight over their heads. Like they were planning to skyrocket right into space.
* * *
I never should have been placed in the position to teach the Venerites, and everyone knew it.
Once it was clear that the aliens meant us no harm, the U.S. government was quick to claim the privilege of drafting the galaxy’s first human-alien naturalization program. After the Venerites passed a special citizenship exam, they’d receive temporary U.S. passports and be granted the same rights other Americans enjoyed, excluding the right to marry or vote. Then, after fifty years of touring our planet, the Venerites would blast back to their own planet across the galaxy, hopefully spreading the word to other alien civilizations that Earth was a place worth protecting.
The newly created Department of Alien Interior put out a call for local, civilian instructors to supplement the federal roster of professors, linguists, and anthropologists who’d also teach the Venerites in periodic sessions. I’d been working at the adult education center for a year, teaching GED prep, ESOL, basic computer skills, and business writing. Before that, I’d spent a year teaching Creative Arts and Music at a private school in Augusta, a position that disappeared at the first whiff of budget cuts. And before that, I’d been a college student sleeping in a loft bed, where I had to train myself not to knock my head on the ceiling when my alarm went off.
I loved teaching more than anything, even when I couldn’t tell whether I was any good at it, so I sent in my Venerite application. In a town this small, every local applicant was granted an interview, which was how I found myself gathered in the adult education center one night with the area’s finest instructors: the AP chemistry teacher, the pottery instructor who’d shown work in galleries in New York, and the sixth-grade teacher who published bestselling young adult novels. I felt embarrassed to be among them, worried they might think I considered myself their equal.
We didn’t know the Venerites would have a hand in choosing us. I for one didn’t expect to see the Venerites at all, but they came tumbling into the entryway of the adult education center nonetheless, staring at the wood-paneled walls like they were in the Taj Mahal. They interviewed us one by one, asking what we did for fun, where we most wanted to travel, our typical midnight snack, and our favorite sleep position. I was so nervous I answered truthfully: roller coasters, the Bermuda Triangle, dill pickles straight from the jar, and the fetal position.
The director of the adult education center made a face once I’d given my answers.
I’m sure you’ll want a more experienced instructor, he told the Venerites.
The Venerites ignored him. They huddled in the corner to confer, then whispered something to one of the federal agents, who made a mark on his clipboard. Finally, the greenish-blue Venerite I would come to know as Matt stepped forward and pointed at me.
We choose Miss Tracy, he said. She is perfect.
But she’s so young, the director sputtered. The others are far more qualified.
We want her, Matt said. The person who already teaches here is the best for us. Plus, she is—what is the expression? Weird and wonderful.
By this point, the director’s face was bright red. He retreated into the office with a few agents and shut the door. It would not be easy, I knew. The government might object. Everyone in town, and maybe beyond, would pick apart my meager qualifications. But no matter. I looked upon the dozen Venerites waiting in front of me, and I beamed.
I already felt that they were my own.
* * *
In our next class, the Venerites wanted data on masturbation. I explained that the matter wasn’t so easily defined. Yes, there was research from the Kinsey Institute and elsewhere, but the data was self-reported, and the topic so shameful that people sometimes lied even on anonymous surveys. Women, I explained, were particularly reluctant to talk about this. Many didn’t admit even to their friends that they do the deed.
Why? the Venerites asked.
Once again, I was at a loss. How to describe shame, and sexual repression, and the puritanical values on which our nation was founded? I was clearly unqualified to teach this. Back in college, during a game of Never Have I Ever, I did not drink when one of the guys said, “Never have I ever masturbated.” None of the girls had taken a sip; we were all deniers. Later, when I tried to model myself after the more sophisticated city women I watched on television, my best effort was to give a friend a sparkly pink vibrator at her bridal shower. Get it, gurl! I’d written on the card. When she opened the gift we all laughed, like sexual desire was nothing more than a joke for women.
Maybe a man should be the one to teach this lesson instead, I said.
The Venerites looked at me blankly. They had only a shallow grasp of the differences between men and women, so I explained that the average man generally—probably—engaged in self-satisfaction a lot more than the average woman. It was different for men, a stronger biological imperative. As I talked, I simultaneously felt I was saying something both wrong and right.
A man might explain this better, I concluded.
The Venerites shook their heads.
But you are our teacher, Matt said. He spoke simply and firmly, like this was the single truest fact of life.
* * *
That night I went home and drafted my report for the Department of Alien Interior. I was meant to send weekly status updates covering what I’d taught the Venerites and how the class was progressing. In the first week, I’d been honest. The second and third weeks, I’d bent the truth a bit, embellishing some lessons I hadn’t taught very well and omitting others I’d added on the fly.
By this point, I’d given up. Everything I wrote was a lie. The Venerites are particularly passionate about the tax code. The Venerites have successfully memorized the admission fee structure for each of the National Parks. The Venerites practiced blowing out birthday candles and now comprehend the concept of making a wish.
I finished the report and got into bed. I was trying to imagine masturbation from the Venerites’ point of view. To do this, I pictured inanimate objects in the act. A pine tree jerking off, a glacier rubbing itself until it came. It was ludicrous. Not even disgusting, just bizarre and kind of sad.
I felt restless. I got up and dug around in my closet until I found it, hidden in the far back, where it was tucked away in a box inside another box inside a bag. My vibrator. I hadn’t used it in a few months. Sometimes it was too much trouble to unpack it and then pack it away again. Now and then I wondered who would find it if I died.
An ex-boyfriend got me this vibrator. I apparently couldn’t even buy my own.
I used it. It was surprising, how fast it could work sometimes. Afterward I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling until my eyes started to play tricks on me. My imagination conjured the dazzling eyes of a Venerite. Emerald-violet-blue. Eyes that had seen distant galaxies before they traveled all this way to see me.
* * *
The Department of Alien Interior sent an email in response to my report. They wanted more details. They seemed concerned that my Venerites were not getting a top-notch education.
I sweated for a while before writing back another string of lies. Then I dug through my bag until I found the stack of worksheets I’d give my Venerites recently. A primary school teacher in town had provided the sheets when I’d told her I was curious about Venerites and self-esteem. Along the top, each sheet read, THINGS I AM REALLY GOOD AT! followed by several blank lines. The next section said, THINGS I COULD BE BETTER AT!
The Venerites had puzzled over the assignment. The top part was easy, they told me, but they weren’t sure about the bottom section.
You could list the things you’re not so great at here on Earth, I suggested.
In the end, every Venerite individually composed the same answers. In the top portion, they wrote that they were good at: healing, telepathy, and intergalactic friendships. At the bottom, they admitted they could improve at: food, sex, and gravity.
I scanned the worksheets and attached them in a single PDF, which I sent along to the Department of Alien Interior. I checked twice to make sure the document contained all twelve worksheets, even though they each said the same thing.
* * *
What the Venerites loved most were the myths. They found it wonderfully amusing that humans claimed masturbation could cause insanity, blindness, or hairy palms. John Harvey Kellogg had been even more creative; he accused self-abuse of causing epilepsy, leprosy, bashfulness, rounded shoulders, or a desire for spicy foods.
You are such a playful species, Anne said admiringly. How creative you are.
Yes, I told her, but you’ll notice these myths served as a deterrent. They were dreamed up to discourage people from touching themselves, as though it’s a dirty, sinful act.
The Venerites looked around at each other. For not the first time, I wondered if they could read not only each other’s minds, but also my own. If so, then they would know I hadn’t had sex in two years, and that I kept my vibrator hidden deep in the back of the closet like it was a murder weapon. I was being ridiculous—federal and independent researchers alike had assured everyone that the Venerites could only read their own minds, not those of humans—but still. It was a startling prospect.
Humans do like to have fun, I continued. That’s why friendship is so important to us.
I prattled on about friendship, relieved I’d managed to steer the conversation to something safe. Before long, I was sharing memories of my own best friends from childhood and adolescence. How we went to skating parties and the mall and had sleepovers. The Venerites seemed to think the concept of a sleepover was too amazing to be real.
You stay up late, in the dark, in your pajamas, and play games? Pam asked. And you don’t actually sleep?
Eventually, everyone sleeps, I said. At least a little. You sleep on the floor, in sleeping bags. But first you lie awake talking.
The Venerites leaned forward in their seats, grasping the edges of their desks with their six-fingered hands, and they blinked their sparkling eyes at me in rapid succession. They asked if we could have a sleepover, all together, that very night in the adult education center.
I’m sorry, but no, I told them. That is not allowed.
They asked if they could come to my house, but I shook my head. The Venerites were on a government watch list. They weren’t supposed to go anywhere without permission, and I wasn’t cleared to host Venerites in my home.
The guards would notice if you didn’t return home tonight, I told them.
Maybe just one of us could go, Amy suggested. We could be sneaky about it.
Whenever one of them correctly used a vocabulary word, like sneaky, pride welled in my chest. And she was right that it was possible. After class every night, the Venerites walked along a country road to reach the farmhouse where they were staying. While the guards confirmed the Venerites made it inside, they weren’t too diligent about counting them by this point.
Okay, I said, but only if we’re careful. If the guards start to suspect something, we drop it. Understand?
The Venerites nodded vigorously and asked who among them would accompany me home. I studied my students, knowing all along that I’d pick a Venerite with a girl name. Which was silly, considering that gender did not exist in their species, but I couldn’t help it. Despite my efforts, my brain was still attuned to the binary view of gender I’d been raised with, so it would have felt scandalous to bring home Mike or Bob or Jack.
I chose Sally, the Venerite with skin the color of a rosé wine. She was delighted, and the others took the news in stride. Jealousy wasn’t an emotion the Venerites seemed to experience. After class, we hurried outside as the guards stayed behind to secure the building. I ushered Sally into the backseat of my car while the others gathered around to provide cover. The agents didn’t notice a thing, and I uttered a quick prayer of thanks for their laziness and inflated federal salaries.
You’ll have to lie down in the floor, I whispered to Sally as I shut the door on her.
She flattened down so she was out of sight. I glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and then I slipped into the driver’s seat.
* * *
Some people still worried the Venerites were out to get us. They believed the Venerites would reveal their true selves at a later date, at which point they would do something awful like blow up the Earth or steal all our oxygen.
And then there was the issue of the Venerite offspring. Even though the babies wouldn’t awaken and grow to maturity for a full century, no one like the prospect of the Earth being overtaken when that time came. On this issue, the Venerites were transparent to a fault. They cooperated with federal agents to track every newborn, allowed unannounced inspections of their nurseries, and signed documents promising they’d take all offspring with them when they left. Even so, the sheer number of newborns was unsettling. Maybe, some conspiracy theorists posited, the Venerites were amassing an army that would one day rise up to destroy us. Until then, perhaps the aliens were merely making us comfortable.
I knew the Venerites well enough not to put stock in any of this nonsense, but if it was true, I thought we should be grateful. The Venerites didn’t have to make us comfortable. They could just get on with their destruction and call it a day.
* * *
You have a beautiful home, Sally said as we stepped inside. Her words made me smile. I had taught that line during our unit on hospitality and manners. I led Sally to the den.
Don’t I need pajamas? Sally asked.
You don’t wear clothes.
No, but this is a special case. My first sleepover.
All right, I told her, and I left to root around my bedroom. I came back with a pair of pink cotton pajamas that were decorated with little bicycles. I handed them to Sally and she slipped them on. She looked so odd in clothing that I almost laughed.
Now what? she asked. I want to do all the normal sleepover things.
I thought of my past sleepovers, how I loved talking to my girlfriends all night long. I took that intimacy for granted. But by the time I graduated from college, everything changed. I moved on my own to Augusta, and I wasn’t there long enough to make friends. When I came here, my friend Yvonne lived with me at first, but then she moved to Boston to start a master’s program. Now I was alone.
I am waiting, Sally said politely.
We’ll do makeup, I said.
I dug up my makeup and sat Sally down under the light. I started with the pink lipstick and some blush. I had to apply a lot of blush to get it to show up against Sally’s complexion, but it looked nice. Next, I pulled out the green and blue eyeshadows. Up close, I could see that Sally’s eyelids weren’t quite the same as a human’s. Her eyes were slightly closer to the surface than ours, which left less room for lids. I applied the eyeshadow to the area just below her eyebrows.
Ta-da, I said, and held up a hand mirror. The eyeshadow brought out the brilliant colors in her eyes, but Sally observed herself without comment.
Do I do yours now? she asked.
I took a seat under the light. Sally picked up a wine-colored lipstick and applied it liberally to my mouth, not concerning herself with keeping it constrained to my lips. Then she put the eyeshadow on my cheeks and ran the mascara brush lightly through my eyebrows.
Glamorous, she said, which was another vocab word.
We watched movies next, a romantic comedy followed by a horror spoof. I got up at one point to make popcorn, forgetting that Sally wouldn’t eat it. When I held out the bowl, she grabbed a handful of popcorn and shoved it in her mouth. She gummed it for a while, then spit it onto the carpet as the credits rolled on the screen.
Miss Tracy, she said, may I get into my bag of sleep now?
Sleeping bag, I corrected her, and I helped her get comfortable. I was about to leave for my bedroom when she cleared her throat.
Now is the time for us to talk, she reminded me.
I wandered over to the couch and covered myself with a blanket.
What should we talk about? Sally asked.
My friends and I would have discussed all manner of things. It was stunning, the breadth of topics we could cover in a single night. Our crushes, yes, and all the complex social politics at school. But we talked about deeper things, too. What we wanted to become, and how we might do it. How the world worked, and why it was such a mystery.
I’d like to hear about your planet, I told Sally.
She was quiet for a long time. I thought maybe she had fallen asleep.
My planet has three moons and two suns, she said at last. The gravity is much better than here. Sometimes I am homesick, but then I think about all the fun I’m having on Earth, like with you at this sleepover, and how soon I’ll have my U.S. passport and can pay taxes like a real American, and then I don’t mind being on vacation at all.
Oh, I said.
It was the most personal information I’d ever heard a Venerite share in one stretch. I was considering what to ask next when I heard a funny, high-pitched sound. I leaned over to check on Sally.
She was snoring.
* * *
I woke the next day feeling shy, as though Sally had been a one-night stand. But Sally merely slid out of the sleeping bag, took off the pajamas, and left them neatly folded on the floor. Then she got on the floor and dug around into the bottom of the sleeping bag. When she pulled her hands out again, she was holding three little snails.
My newest daughters, she said. I must account for them once I get them back to the nursery.
I edged closer and looked at the newborns. I’d never seen the Venerites’ nursery, which was really just the chicken coop behind the farmhouse, but I could picture it: row after row of these infants nestled in the straw.
Do you and the others keep track of which daughters you each birthed? I asked.
Sally looked confused. No, she said. Our daughters are shared.
Don’t you ever worry that they might get hurt, or that they’d somehow get stuck here and have to grow up on Earth?
Sally cocked her head but didn’t say anything.
I’d be worried about it, I went on. Waking up on a strange planet, not understanding the people around me. It sounds terrifying.
We don’t worry like humans, Sally said kindly. Besides, our daughters have each other. They will never know what it is to be alone.
I swallowed. Sally got quiet after that, which made me wonder if she was communicating telepathically with the other Venerites. Who knew what they said about us in private. I imagined them critiquing our fixation on pleasure, our human loneliness laid bare and spreading like a rash.
* * *
I made sure no neighbors were in sight before rushing Sally out to the car. It was Sunday, which meant we didn’t have class. It also meant that most people in town would be at church, which allowed me to take Sally home undetected.
When we pulled up to the farmhouse, the Venerites came dashing outside right away. They surrounded my car and took turns shaking my hand when I stepped out. Handshakes were awkward with Venerites, considering their six-fingered, thumbless hands, but we managed.
Please come in, they said. Enjoy our hospitality.
Inside, the house was spotless, especially the kitchen, though I supposed that was easy if no one ever cooked or ate anything. Sally left to deposit her new babies with the others in the chicken coop out back. When she returned, she praised my sleepover skills.
Miss Tracy made me beautiful, she said, and pointed to the smudged eyeshadow still shimmering above her eyes. The rest of the Venerites smiled and nodded.
She is truly the best teacher, Amy agreed.
I frowned. I was thinking of the citizenship test, and how they were probably doomed.
I’m curious, I said, why you want to get your citizenship in the first place.
The Venerites thought this was a silly question.
We’ll have passports, which means we can fly around the world in airplanes like real American tourists, Anne explained.
But why do that when you have your spaceships? I asked.
The Venerites shook their heads. They apparently loved our human airplanes. They loved the reclining seats and the uniformed flight attendants and the little no-smoking signs. For them, air travel was like us visiting Colonial Williamsburg—a way to remember how strange and backwards things used to be.
* * *
Back in class on Monday, the Venerites were in rare form. They interrupted my lessons, asked relentless questions about the mechanics of self-gratification, and kept getting up to look out the window. For some reason they had the idea they might see a bald eagle out there. I finally gave up and decided to just show them some porn. What harm could it do? Showing Venerites pornography would be like showing it to a forest full of vaguely interested trees.
After a few minutes of searching, which I did with one eye closed, I found a site specializing in masturbation. The first video I clicked on showed a woman lying on a bed with blue sheets. It took her six minutes to reach orgasm. The next video was of a man sitting on top of a closed toilet lid. He took four minutes.
The Venerites watched both videos closely, but they seemed particularly compelled by the man’s video. This irritated me a little. The Venerites, an alien species who didn’t even have a concept of gender, still managed to find the male version inherently more interesting than the female.
He uses so much energy! Josh said.
The end reminds me of how our spaceships shoot into liftoff, Pam added, which I thought had to be the best compliment a human male could ever receive.
* * *
That night I went to bed early and slept straight through till morning. I woke feeling optimistic. I put on my navy dress with the red belt, and I spent twenty minutes doing my hair in a complicated braid. It felt like ages since I’d taken the trouble to look nice. Outside, the air was fresh against my skin. I walked all the way to the adult education center, feeling awake and alive and ready to teach.
Once I stepped into the building, everything dimmed. The director stood waiting for me in the entryway. He was flanked by two strangers, a man and a woman wearing expensive-looking suits.
Come with us, Tracy, the director said in a weary voice.
He led us back to his office. I sat in a rolling chair while the strangers, whom the director introduced as agents with the Department of Alien Interior, loomed over me.
We have some questions for you, the woman began. Is it true you invited a Venerite into your home?
I looked from her to the director. Did Sally tell you that? I asked.
And is it true, the woman continued, that you entered the Venerites’ home without government clearance?
I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of incriminating myself.
Tracy, the director said. This is a small town. People talk. We have witnesses claiming a Venerite left your home Sunday morning, and others noticed your car parked outside the farmhouse.
Furthermore, the male agent put in, is it true that you showed pornography to the Venerites?
We’ve been tracking your Internet usage during class, the woman said quietly.
That was when I started to get scared. Maybe I’d go to jail. Maybe I’d be charged with gross sexual imposition of an alien species.
What will happen to me? I asked in a hoarse voice.
I think it’s obvious that you’re fired, the director said. Effective immediately. We’re going to bring in Mrs. Edmondson to take over for today until we can hire someone else.
Mrs. Edmonsdon taught knitting, crochet, and table manners. She was about ninety years old and wore glasses thicker than my arm. No way would she entertain any discussion of masturbation in class. Maybe I should warn her.
Perhaps we all share the blame, the director was telling the agents. She’s too young, too inexperienced. What did we expect?
To be fair, I don’t think anyone expected that she’d show them pornography, the woman said.
No matter, the director said. Tracy, gather your things and leave. We’ll deal with the rest of this mess later.
Can I at least tell them goodbye? I asked.
The agents glanced at each other.
Fine, the man said. But make it quick.
I hurried into the classroom. The Venerites must have known something was up because they all turned to stare at me in unison. I closed the door and moved to the front of the room. I was already blinking back tears.
I’m afraid I have to leave you, I told them. You’ll be assigned a new teacher. I won’t be back.
They watched me. I knew they knew what crying was. We had covered it in our unit on emotional reactions. For a few seconds I felt a wild hope. The Venerites had chosen me in the first place, so maybe they’d demand to keep me. Or it could be more spectacular than that—maybe they’d take me home with them, to their far-off planet with its many moons and suns. They’d help me adapt to their special gravity and teach me how to live without food or sex or sleepovers.
Are you sure, Miss Tracy? Amy asked.
I nodded. I made a little gasping sound as I fought back sobs.
Don’t cry, Sally said. You were a perfect teacher.
I wiped my eyes as the Venerites stood up and formed a line. One by one, they gave me hugs just like I’d taught them. Their skin felt a little tacky, like if I held on too tightly, I might not be able to pull myself away.
Well, I said at last. I should go.
I started for the door, but Tom told me to wait. He reached into his desk, where he’d stashed his daughter the day he fell asleep. He pulled her out and pressed her into my palm. She felt doughy, like a steamed dumpling.
For you, he said.
I slipped the daughter in the tiny pocket sewn onto the hip of my dress. Then I gave my Venerites one last look and fled the classroom, leaving them all behind.
* * *
At home, I wasn’t sure what to do with the daughter. I held her up close to my face and saw only a sticky, pinkish snail shell curled in on itself. It was hard to believe the incubation period was a hundred years. My life would be over by the time hers began. It seemed a terrible, thrilling thing.
I decided to put her in a flowerpot out in the garden. Perhaps she bore some sort of tracking device so the Venerites could locate her at the conclusion of their fifty-year vacation. I wondered where I’d be in fifty years. Still alive, I hoped. Maybe by then I’d have someone I could talk to in the middle of the night. It didn’t have to be anything romantic. I wasn’t picky.
But I could be wrong about the Venerites returning for this daughter. She might be stuck, destined to live here on Earth. I peered into the flowerpot and tried to picture it: this daughter uncurling a full century in the future. She’d wake to find herself on a strange planet surrounded not by her own kind but by humans—fragile, mortal beings who worried and cried and gave way to unspeakable pleasures, who endured the whole of their lives by the light of a single sun and one mere moon.
Laura Maylene Walter is a writer in Cleveland. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, The Sun, Chicago Tribune, Ninth Letter, The Offing, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many other publications. She has been a Yaddo Fellow, a Tin House Scholar, and a writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution and Art Omi: Writers. Laura works as a writer and editor for Cleveland Public Library, is editor-in-chief of Gordon Square Review, and blogs for the Kenyon Review. Her debut novel, Body of Stars, is forthcoming from Dutton.