September 1, 2020

A Bitter Thing

by N. R. M. Roshak

“But O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.”

—Shakespeare, As You Like It (V.ii.20)


“Were people really eating octopus to express their resentment at the hexies’ presence?”

I should have known that something was wrong when I found Teese in the back yard, staring at the sky. It was sunset and the horizon was a particular shade of pale teal. At first I thought Teese was just admiring the sunset, but then I realized he was trembling all over. His eyes were wide, and irregular patterns swept over his skin, his chromatophores opening and closing at random, static snow sprinkling his skin.

I touched his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Above us, the sky darkened toward night. Teese shook himself like a dog, blinked, looked at me. “That sunset,” he said. “We don’t—these colors—This doesn’t happen on our world.”

“You don’t have sunsets?” As I understood it, sunsets should happen anywhere there was dust in the air.

“No, no,” he said. “Of course we have sunsets, Ami, but they tend more toward the red side of the spectrum. Your planet is so rich in blues. These colors, they’re not very common on my world. I suppose I was surprised by my reaction to seeing that particular shade of blue spread across the sky.” He smiled down at me. “Anyway, it’s all changed now. Fleeting as a sunset, isn’t that the expression?”

Teese was back to his usual smooth articulateness, so I wrote it off as his being momentarily overcome by the Earth’s breathtaking beauty. In retrospect, that was pretty arrogant and anthropocentric of me. But at the time, I thought: who wouldn’t be struck dumb by my amazing planet?

* * *

That night, Teese stared deep into my eyes as we made love, and trembled, just a bit. Static flared across his cheeks as he came. His heart-shaped pupils flared wide, drinking me in, and he murmured “I could stare into your eyes forever.”

So of course I thought we were all right. We were all right. However unlikely, however improbable, what could it be but love?

* * *

The next warning sign came weeks later, when Teese painted the linen closet blue. He moved out all the towels and sheets, took out the shelves, painted the walls (and the ceiling, and the back of the door) greenish-blue, and perched on a stool in the middle of the closet. He called it his “meditation closet,” jokingly, and said that he went in there to relax. At first it was for minutes at a time, then slowly his “meditation time” grew to hours.

“The things your people do with color are amazing to me,” he said. “So many colors, and you put them everywhere.”

“What, you don’t have paint where you come from?”

“Of course we have paint,” he said. “But we use it for art. No one would think to put gallons of blue and green in cans for people to take home and spread all over their house. It would cost—” He paused. Interstellar currency conversions were impossible, finding correspondences of value almost as difficult. “Many years of my salary, I think, to paint just this closet.”

“Well, that makes sense. If you went to an art supply store here and got your paint in little tiny tubes, it would cost a lot more here too.”

“And the colors,” he continued. “I think I have told you that most of our colors are in reds and browns and oranges. Even in paintings, we don’t have so many shades of blue.”

“That’s weird,” I said. “I mean, you can see just as many shades of blue, right?”

“Yes, but—” He considered. “Ami, I think that you have so much blue that you don’t see how it surrounds you. You can make a painting with a blue sky and blue water, and use one hundred different shades of blue, and everyone sees it as normal and right. But think of another color that you don’t have in such abundance, like purple. Imagine a painting with nothing but one hundred shades of purple.”

His words triggered a memory. “I actually had a painting like that once,” I admitted. “I found it in the trash in college. It had a purple sky and a purple-black sea and two really badly painted white seagulls. It was so awful that I had to keep it.”

Amusement fluttered across his skin. “Tacky, right? Well, that’s what most of my people would think of your sea and sky paintings. But I love it. I love to be surrounded by blue.”


He waved an arm noncommittally. “Ommmm,” he said, brown fractals of laughter flashing across his skin.

* * *

Then Teese bought one of those fancy multi-color LED lightbulbs, tuned it to the exact shade of the walls, and didn’t come out for a day.

He was in the closet when I left for work, and still there when I got home. I tapped on the door—no answer. I told myself to give him his space and went about fixing dinner, even though it was his turn to cook. Teese’s diet was similar enough to ours that we could cook for each other, though there was a long list of vegetables he was better off without. I knocked on the door when dinner was ready and called his name. No answer. I ate without him.

Later, I pressed my ear against the door but heard only my own heartbeat against the wood. It was dark by then, and blue light seeped out from under the door.

Finally, I eased the door open a crack and peeked in. Teese was sprawled on the floor next to the upturned stool, eyes vacant, skin utterly blank.

I yelled his name, shook him, even slapped his face. My fingers shook as I pressed them urgently into his skin. I remembered that Teese had two hearts but I couldn’t remember where they were, or how to find his pulse. There was no one I could call, no doctor or ambulance who could help him. I was alone with Teese and Teese was gone, sick, maybe dying.

I dragged him out into the hallway, slowly. Teese doesn’t have any bones to speak of. He’s all head and muscled limbs. Normally he holds himself upright on four powerfully muscled limbs and uses the other two like arms. Passed out, he was a tangle of heavy rubber hoses filled with wet cement. I had to pull the blanket off the bed, roll him onto the blanket and drag the blanket out of the closet with Teese on it.

I stood over him in the hallway and felt terribly alone.

* * *

I had met Teese at a party I hadn’t planned to go to. At the last minute I’d let myself be swayed by the rumours that one of them would be there. A so-called hexie. Their ship had landed months ago, and while the VIPs on board were busy hammering out intergalactic trade deals, most of the ship’s crew were just sailors who wanted to get off the ship, get drunk, and maybe get to know some locals. They’d been showing up by ones and twos at bars and clubs and parties all over town. I’d seen the hexies in the news, heard about their appearances at bars and parties, but never met one in person. And like everyone else, I was curious.

I saw him the moment I stepped in the door: big head held up above the crowd, two long and flexible arms gesticulating, one of them holding a drink. His eyes swept the room, scanned over me, and snapped back. From there, it was like a romance novel, of the kind I’d always found tedious and unrealistic. Our gazes locked. He stopped mid-sentence, handed his drink to someone without looking, and started pushing his way across the room to me. My heart hammered in my chest. Of course I couldn’t take my eyes off him, but why was he staring at me?

He stopped in front of me and took my hand, coiling his powerful armtip around my fingers as gently as I’d cradle a moth.

“I am Teese,” he said. “Forgive me for being so direct, but I have never seen eyes as beautiful as yours before.”

Hackneyed words, but they sounded fresh coming from his lipless mouth.

“I’m Ami,” I stammered. “And I’ve never seen anything like you either.”

Orange and brown checks rippled across his face. Later I would learn that this meant interest, arousal, excitement. I let him lead me to a quiet corner.

We talked. He told me about his ship, the long watches tending to the cryo boxes, the vastness of interstellar space. I told him about my job at the Citgo station and my apartment and the time my cat died.

“When I look at you,” he said, “I feel things that I’ve never felt before.”

What else could I do? I took him home, and he stayed.

* * *

Now I was alone in my hallway with Teese unconscious. I stepped around his arms and closed the linen closet, and sat down on the ground next to him. Soft blue light leaked out from under the closet door. I turned on the hall light and turned off the closet light, for lack of anything more constructive to do. Then I sat down on the ground next to him and wondered what to do. Smelling salts probably wouldn’t help an alien from another planet, had I even had any to hand.

I could sprinkle water on his face, but I had no idea if that would work on him. I could pinch him.

I could sit next to him and stare at his open, blank eyes and wish I’d thought to ask him for a way to contact his ship.

I could search his things for a way to contact his ship, but I didn’t want to go there if I could avoid it. Teese had been living with me for two months, which is both a long time and not long at all, and as far as I could tell he’d never gone through my closet or papers while I was at work. I owed him the same respect.

Teese stirred sluggishly on the floor next to me.

I leaned over him. “Teese?”

His eyes focused on me. “Ohhh, Ami,” he said, half moaning. And then his skin was suddenly, completely covered in violently red spots. Across his face, all up and down his arms, from the dome of his head to his armtips, he was covered with hexagonal measles that shifted and spun.

Teese’s emotions showed on his skin, but I had never seen this one before, never seen such a violent and complete display.

I laid a gentle finger on his cheek, trying to pin one of the spots under my fingertip. “Teese,” I said. “I don’t know this one.”

Teese looked at me for a long moment before replying.

“Shame, Ami,” he said. “It is shame.”

Teese’s people feel emotions the moment they see them. If I’d been one of Teese’s people, I would’ve been flooded with shame the moment I saw the red blotches on his skin, and a paler echo would have bloomed on my own skin. It’s beyond empathy: it’s instant and direct and irresistible. If I’d been a hexie, I would have said: “Why are we ashamed?”, while my skin and emotions thrummed in synchrony with his.

But I wasn’t, and so I could only ask, “What are you ashamed of?”

Teese sighed, a sound I had taught him to make. “I spent too long meditating,” he finally said.

“Did you forget to eat?”

“Hm. I suppose I did, but I don’t think that’s why—You shouldn’t have had to drag me out of the closet.”

“I think we’re doing something a little beyond gay here,” I quipped, then wished I hadn’t as gray puzzlement dusted itself over the shame blotching his skin. “Never mind, bad joke. But if it wasn’t hunger, why did you pass out, or whatever that was? Teese, are you sick?”

“No, no,” he said. “You don’t need to worry, Ami. I’m fine.” He sighed again. “It was—I was—I just don’t know how to explain it.”

“Try,” I urged him. Partly because I was worried and scared, and partly because, as we talked, the shame was slowly fading from his skin, supplanted by the dark-orange fractal trees Teese sported whenever he was thinking hard.

“Well,” he said. “I was… I was looking at the walls and I got… too much blue.”

“Too much blue,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I thought, I am meditating, I am going deeper and deeper into the blue. And then it was too much.”

That was unusually unarticulate, for Teese. He was usually better at expressing himself in English than I was. His skin was clearing and dulling to a muddy grey.

This one I knew well. “You look tired,” I said. “Let’s get you into bed.”

“Yes,” he said. He started to haul himself down the hallway toward the bedroom, not even bothering to stand.

I covered my mouth with my hand. Teese usually stood himself up on four of his six limbs. The velvety undersides of his limbs gripped together along most of their length and the tips acted like feet, scooting him along the floor. It made him about as tall as a person, a head above the average man, and left him two limbs free to act like arms. Of course I’d known that the posture was for our benefit, that Teese’s people didn’t spend all their time standing like that on their own ship. But he’d always kept it up, even in our apartment, with just the two of us. And now—now he was just hauling himself along the floor, one tired limb at a time.

“I’ll get you some water,” I said, and fled to the kitchen.

When I came into the bedroom, Teese was in bed, head on the pillow, eyes almost closed. I fumbled for a limb-tip, pressed the damp glass into it.

“Thank you,” he said. “Ami, will you stay?”

His skin was still gray with exhaustion. “Yes,” I said. “Teese—”

He opened one eye fully, fixed its heart-shaped pupil on me. “Ami?”

I’d been about to scold him, to tell him I had had no one to call, no way of knowing whether he was near death and no one to ask. But even in the dimness of our bedroom, I could see the gray mottling his skin. If I’d been a hexie, I would have felt exhausted just looking at him.

“I was worried,” I said instead. I slid into bed with him and curled up against his arm. I think he was asleep before I’d pulled the covers up. But I lay awake a long time, watching the light from car headlights slide across the ceiling, mottling it bright and dark.

* * *

Teese was my first live-in boyfriend, although that feels strange and wrong to say. Teese was a friend, more than a friend, but there was no way to think of him as a boy or a man. I can’t say that he was my first love. He didn’t move in because I loved him. He moved in because the sex was great and because he couldn’t rent an apartment to save his life. The morning after our first night together, I learned that Teese had been couch-surfing his way up the Atlantic seaboard. Then I went to work at the gas station, and when I came home we had fantastic sex, then ordered pizza and ate it together messily on the couch and fell into bed, and the next day was pretty much the same, and slowly it dawned on both of us that Teese was staying.

* * *

I couldn’t really afford the rent on the apartment by myself. I needed a roommate, someone willing to pay me to sleep in the living room of my one-bedroom hole-in-the-wall slice of crumbling neo-Gothic shitpile. Instead I got Teese.

“I can pay you,” Teese said. “I receive high pay and long leaves in exchange for my long watches. The trouble is that local landlords do not want a hexie and I have not found a hotel who will take my currency.”

From somewhere he produced a thin, shiny rectangle. “Here,” he said. “This is rhodium. I haven’t checked the price for a while, but it should be worth at least a month’s rent.”

I took it gingerly. It was about the size of half a Thin Mint, maybe a little thicker. There were odd markings on it, presumably spelling out “YES THIS IS REALLY RHODIUM” in Teese’s language.

“Teese,” I said, “I have no idea what to do with this.”

“You could sell it?”

“Who could I sell it to? Do you seriously think I can go to Downtown Crossing with this and find some guy in Jewelers Exchange who’ll say ‘Oh yeah, this is alien rhodium, we get this all the time’ and give me a stack of cash?”

Teese waved a tentacle that was freckling olive-green with exasperation. “Well, at least you believe me. All the hotels I tried just pushed it back at me and said they couldn’t take it.”

“All the hotels—wait, did you try taking it to a bank?”

The olive-green freckles spread. “Of course I did. They told me they required a jewelers’ assay. The jewelers told me they required payment in advance for the assay. And of course they cannot take payment in this possibly worthless metal.”

I sighed. “Well, maybe you should try again next month. Sooner or later one of your shipmates is going to get a paycheck cashed, and then all the rich people will be buzzing about the dank alien rhodium and scheming to get it out of you as fast as they can.” I pushed the rhodium tablet back into Teese’s tentacle.

He made the tablet disappear again. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “But in the meantime, Ami, how will you pay for the rent? Shall we get a roommate?”

“Um,” I said. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea with you already staying here.”

“It would be crowded,” he said, stippling with agreement.

“Right,” I said. “Crowded. I’ll see if I can pick up any extra shifts at work, and if I can’t I’ll short my student loan payment this month.” Again.

* * *

I had to take two buses and a train to get to the Citgo where I worked. Metro Boston, where none of the workers at the gas stations can actually afford to keep a car. But, unlike driving, the bus gives plenty of time to watch the scenery. A sign in a restaurant window caught my eye. “WE SERVE OCTOPUS!!!!” Not calamari, octopus. I didn’t know octopus had a culinary following, I thought. And then, Wait, are they trying to say they’d serve Teese? Hexies can eat there?  But then another sign flashed by. Tiny baby octopus marinated in a thick brown gravy, with thickly markered letters shouting “THIS IS HOW WE LIKE ‘EM!” “This” was underlined six times. And another: “I LIKE MINE CHOPPED AND FRIED.” And another: “OCTOPUS IS BEST DEADED AND BREADED $16.95!!!” I shifted in my seat. I was starting to feel uneasy. Were people really eating octopus to express their resentment at the hexies’ presence? It was stupid, a stupid thing to wonder and an even stupider thing to do; so stupid that I could just about see people doing it.

I shifted in my seat again. How many people on the bus with me felt the same way as the sign-writers? How many were chopping up octopus at home and calling it Hexie Surprise?

And what would they do to me if they knew I was fucking one every night?

* * *

“Ami,” Teese asked, “what are you feeling?”

I opened my eyes. “Umm,” I said. “Sleepy?”

He shifted in bed beside me, propped himself up on one limb so he could look down at me in the dimness. “Besides that. Are you happy? Are you sad? Are you annoyed? It is difficult for me to tell.”

I shifted too. “Well, now I’m feeling awkward,” I said. “I think everyone has trouble telling how someone else is feeling sometimes, Teese. Especially in the dark, you know?”

“For my people,” Teese said—he never called them ‘hexies’—”it’s harder to see feelings in the dark too. But it’s not that dark. You can see my skin, and I can see your body and your face.”

“It’s probably just harder for you than for, you know, other humans,” I said. “Like, I had to learn that when you go a certain kind of pattern of olive green, you’re getting really annoyed. And it doesn’t hit me in the gut the way it does when I see a person with a mad face. It’s like I have a, a secret decoder ring in my head that I have to check. I turn the dial to ‘olive green squigglies’ and I see Oh, Teese is feeling frustrated or annoyed. And then I can start to have my own emotions about that.”

“Hit you in the gut,” Teese said thoughtfully. “When you see someone angry, Ami, you feel their anger too?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “I might feel scared, actually, especially if they’re mad at me and they’re bigger and stronger.”

Teese lay back down. “That is very different,” he said. “In my people, if I see someone who is angry, I feel their anger immediately. And they know I feel it because they see it reflected on my skin.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Do you ever get a surprise that way? Like, you didn’t realize you were angry until you look at the guy next to you and see that he’s mad too?”

I felt Teese shift to look at me with both eyes. “Why wouldn’t I know I was angry?”

“Or sad, or whatever.”

“But why wouldn’t I know I was sad? Ami, all my life I have seen my feelings on myself and on everyone around me. I would have to be—damaged not to know my own feelings by now.” He paused. “Probably there are people who are damaged like this, children who are born blind and have to be told their feelings and everyone else’s. But you won’t meet them on a starship’s crew.”

Is that how you think of me—damaged? I bit my tongue, held in the words. But I felt my body moving away from Teese slightly.

After a pause, Teese spoke again. “I feel blind with you, Ami,” he said. “I see your face change and I don’t know what it means. Or your voice, or your body. I am like that blind child who can’t read skins, when I’m with you.”

“Welcome to the human race,” I said.

* * *

After he moved the towels back into the closet, Teese asked if he could use my computer while I was at work. I told him I was shocked that he hadn’t been using it already, and showed him how to log in and how to connect to the wi-fi and how to google. He tapped the keyboard delicately with the very tips of two tentacles, like a two-fingered typist, while I got ready for work. When I left, he was browsing Reddit at the kitchen table.

When I got home after work, Teese was still in the kitchen. “I found a way for us to make money,” he called.

I stuffed my coat in the closet and headed into the kitchen. “Really? Whatcha got?”

“Look at this,” he said, pushing my laptop toward me.

“Oh, ewww,” I said. A naked woman rubbed a dead octopus over her genitals. “Are you kidding me?”

“I know, I know, just look,” he said, pulling up another page. A woman was having sex, improbably, with a horse. And then another: a man and a—pile of balloons?

I was getting a nasty feeling about Teese’s idea. “What the hell?” I asked.

“I know! There are all kinds of pictures of people putting their genitals in things and on things. All kinds of things! Animals, people, food, machines! And they get money for this! Is this news to you? It was news to me.”

I made a face. “Teese, I am not going to put an octopus on my twat for money. That’s…. ” Words failed me.

“No no, of course not,” he said quickly. “I would not ask you to do that, Ami. But there is one thing I did not see in all my searches. I found all kinds of people having sex with every kind of thing, but never with…” he paused dramatically “… one of my people!”

His big eyes focused on me expectantly. Yes, my boyfriend was suggesting that we camwhore ourselves for rent.

“Oh, Teese,” I said helplessly. “Setting aside the fact that I’d probably be lynched, that’s… that’s…” I sighed. How was I going to explain porn to someone from another world? “Let’s get delivery. That’s a long conversation.”

* * *

I got home the next night to find him swiping tentacles broadly across the keyboard and staring at a text editor. “I installed Python,” he said. “I hope that is all right.”

I stood staring at his keyboard technique. “Sure,” I said, “just ask first next time, and… how are you doing that?”

“Doing what?” he asked, covering the keyboard with two arms. Lines of text appeared on the screen as if by magic.

“Typing?” I said. “You are typing, right?” If I looked very closely, I could just see the top of his arms twitch.

“Oh! I found that this is the easiest way to operate your keyboard, Ami. A little focused pressure on each key works just as well as striking. It took a bit of practice, but it’s not too different from the interfaces on our ship.”

“It just looks like you’re hugging the computer and it’s writing text for you,” I said. “What’re you writing, anyway?” I peered over his shoulder. It looked like free verse in English-laced gibberish.

“Python!” said Teese enthusiastically. “I told you, I installed one of your programming languages. It is not terribly different from your spoken language. I am writing a program in Python. Do you know this language too?”

“Um,” I said. My nearest approach to programming had been customizing my Facebook settings. “No, can’t say I do.”

Teese lifted his arms off the keyboard and started telling me about his program. I tuned out and watched his skin. Watery gray patterns rippled enchantingly across his arms as he gestured. It wasn’t quite like anything I’d seen before, but it was familiar, reminiscent of his skin when we were having a particularly intense conversation.

“And then —” Teese interrupted himself abruptly. “But you are not interested in this, Ami?” He peered up at me.

“I’m not a programmer, Teese,” I said. “But go on. I can tell you really had fun working on this.”

Teese’s skin pinked and dimpled, his way of smiling. “I did indeed. Here, look at this.”

He hugged the keyboard again. The screen blanked, then broke out in cheesy red hearts. “I LOVE YOU AMI” scrolled over the pulsing hearts.

I burst out laughing. “Is this what you spent the day on, you nutball?” It was awful. I loved it.

Teese’s skin rippled with pinkish-brown giggles. “Anything for you!”

* * *

Teese kept up with his programming hobby. After the love note came bouncing hearts that filled the screen, blanked, and repeated. Then it was fractals, lacy whorls that spiraled chromatically across the small screen. Then seascapes where the shifting lines of ocean blended into deep blue sky.

I thought Teese was programming to kill time. I had no idea he had a goal in mind. Day after day, I came home to find that he’d built another seeming frivolity. His electronic compositions were getting bluer, though, tending toward the same pale teal he’d painted the closet.

I suppose that should’ve been the third warning sign; or maybe it was the fourth. I’ve lost count.

But I ignored it, like I’d ignored all the others, because every night when we made love Teese looked deep into my eyes and told me he couldn’t imagine life without me.

* * *

When I got home the next night, Teese was back at the kitchen table. “I found another way to make money!” he called to me.

I couldn’t help grimacing. “I think I liked it better when you met me at the door with sex,” I said.

“This is better, I promise,” said Teese. “I’m going to surprise you with it. Some of my crewmates have figured out the banking system and they are the ones who will pay me.”

“In rhodium?”

His skin rippled with brown giggles. “No Ami, no more rhodium! Cash! Wire transfers!”

I came to stand next to him. The screen really was filled with gibberish, as though someone had transliterated a foreign language into English and sprinkled it liberally with varicolored emoticons, often mid-word.

“This isn’t a program, right?” I asked. “Just checking.”

“Chatroom,” Teese said happily. “It is a non-sanctioned communication between members of my ship. There is a metals exchange in California where my crewmates have been able to exchange their pay at a reasonable rate. I have known about this, but I have no desire to go to California, actually —” he peeked up at me almost shyly “—I would much rather stay in Boston.”

“I’d kinda rather you stay here, too,” I said. “So are they going to exchange some of your rhodium for you? Like, you have a ship bank you can transfer it to them with, and then they transfer you back the US currency?”

He waved a tentacle. “Actually, shipboard regulations would make that complicated,” he said. “Private crew currency exchanges are not very encouraged. Otherwise I could already have done that. But now I have something to sell.”

“You do?” I said. “What is it?”

Teese pinked with pride. “I have created a program that my crewmates desire!”

“Really? What does it do?” I was really curious. I couldn’t imagine what Teese had cooked up on my old laptop that sophisticated space-faring hexies would pay cash for.

Teese stroked the keyboard. The screen went black, then slowly faded into a shifting, pale aquamarine. It was a seascape, an abstract, a fractal, all of these and none of these at once. Barely felt lines radiated from the center, branched, shifted, dissolved. Dozens of fractal forms shimmered and danced in the background, shifting and changing. It reminded me of waves rippling the ocean, of sand grains roiled by wind, of the patterns on hexie skin.

It was mesmerizing. It was beautiful, it was somehow alien, and something about it was hauntingly, naggingly familiar.

After a few minutes, the screen blanked. “It has a timeout,” Teese said quietly. “So that I do not become—lost.”

I sat back. “It’s gorgeous, Teese,” I said quietly. “Are you an artist? Back home, I mean.”

“No, no,” he said. “I never had any interest in this. But now I have inspiration, Ami.”

“I can see why your people would pay for this, especially if they’re all as into blue-green as you are,” I said. “But wait, didn’t you tell me that your people would find so much blue tacky? Like that all-purple painting I had once?”

Thoughtful orange fractals rippled Teese’s skin. “Actually, it is kind of tacky,” he said. “But it is more than that. Ami, you can have no idea how interesting, how appealing and stimulating this is for one of us. When I look at this, I feel—things I cannot feel without it. That’s why I put in the timeout,” he added pragmatically.

Art has always prompted strong feelings in people, so I assumed that’s what Teese was talking about. I thought it was a little weird for Teese to talk about his own art like that. But Teese clearly hadn’t been exaggerating, because the money started rolling in. He’d never managed to get a US bank account, so the money went into my account. Suddenly, rent was no problem. I paid the rent, made up all the student loan payments I’d shorted, and still we had more money coming in each week than I made in a month at the Citgo. I thought about quitting my job, but didn’t.

Teese wanted to take me out to dinner, to shows, to operas that neither of us had the slightest interest in. I demurred. We hadn’t been out together since he’d come home with me. At first there had been a steady flow of invites to parties, ostensibly for me but always appended with, “Oh, and be sure to bring that hexie who’s staying with you.” But we’d been too wrapped up in each other to go out, and the invitations had slowly dried up. Now we had piles of money and nowhere to go. I wouldn’t have minded taking Teese to a few house parties, but Teese wasn’t interested. “I’ve met lots of humans,” he told me. “Now I have met you. Meeting more humans will just be—disappointing, I think. But I want to take you out, Ami.”

“I don’t really need to be taken out,” I told him. “I’m pretty low maintenance.” And I don’t want to be lynched, I added silently. Teese might have met lots of humans, but they’d mostly been liberal, east-coast, college-educated twentysomethings at house parties. As far as I knew, he’d never even seen the “WE SERVE OCTOPUS” signs I passed on my way to the Citgo. And I wanted to keep it that way.

We compromised on a museum date in the afternoon. Boston is dripping with museums. We went to the ICA and looked at all the blue things.

“I think your computer art is better,” I murmured to him, just to see him pink.

He rippled brown with laughter instead. “I did have unique inspiration,” he said cryptically.

“Being inspired to pay the rent is far from unique,” I shot back. He just laughed in return.

That might have been the fifth warning sign; or maybe I’m just paranoid in retrospect.

* * *

The next day, I had a double shift at the gas station. I came home to a dark, silent apartment.

“Teese?” I called out, groping for the light switch. Maybe he’d gone out?

Something moved in the darkness. Startled, I dropped my coat and hit my head on the door frame. “Ow! Shit!” My hand finally found the light and I snapped it on.

Teese was hunched in the corner of the room, skin soot-black. He’d been nearly invisible in the dark.

“Teese, what’s going on? Are you okay?” As I spoke, I noticed that the little duffle bag he’d brought with him when he moved in was sitting beside him.

“Ami,” he said quietly. “No. I am not okay. I have been recalled to my ship.”

I came in and closed the door behind me. “Why? What’s going on? Are the hex—are your people leaving?” I hadn’t heard anything on the news.

“No,” he said. “Not as far as I am aware. No, this is personal. My commander is displeased with my actions and has terminated my leave.”

“Your actions—Teese, what did you do?”

“It’s about my program,” he said. “And about selling my program to my shipmates. This has been ruled, ah, trafficking I believe is the word.”

“Trafficking? Like your program is a drug?”

“Exactly like that,” he said. “I told you that it has a strong effect on my people. It has been deemed an intoxicant.”

“Your art is a drug?” I slid down to the floor, back against the door. “Are you in trouble?”

He waved a tentacle. “Yes and no,” he said quietly. “If I report to the ship immediately, it will not be so bad for me. I should have left a few hours ago, I think. But I had to speak with you first.”

“I had a double shift,” I said inanely. “Wait. Wait. Are you coming back?”

“No,” he said softly. “I will not be allowed to come back. And I have more bad news to tell you.” He was still coal-black, but now his skin blotched red with shame as well. “The money has to go back. Everything my shipmates have paid for the program must be returned. Even though I made a gift of it to you. The ship’s bank will take it back, right out of your account.” His voice had faded to a whisper on the last.

“But we spent some of it,” I said. I’d go into overdraft.

“I know,” he said. “I—I will leave you the rhodium. Perhaps you will be able to exchange it soon.”

I stared at Teese. The red hexagons spun and spun on his coal-black skin. He focused his heart-shaped pupils on the floor.

“I know the red,” I said, “But what’s the black?”

He murmured, so softly I could barely hear him, “I am afraid.”

“You’re scared of what they’re going to do to you?”

“No. I’m afraid of how I will feel, not seeing you. I am afraid of how it will hurt me.”

“I could come with you,” I said suddenly. “It’s an interstellar ship, right? And you have years-long shifts watching over your frozen shipmates? You must have some provision for bringing your partners on there or you’d go crazy.”

Violent brown lightning flashed across his black-red skin. A bitter laugh, I realized. “Take you with me!” he said. “Ami, don’t you realize? How don’t you realize? You are the problem, Ami, you are the last human they would ever allow on the ship!”

I felt like he’d slapped me. “What? Why? How am I the problem?”

The shame-red bled away from black skin that crackled with jagged, bitter laughter. “How are you the problem!” he repeated. “You’d be a walking riot. My shipmates would fight each other to look into your eyes. They’d beat each other to death to be the one to make you come.”

“Make me come,” I said slowly. An awful light was dawning inside me. All the times Teese had said he loved to look into my eyes. My greenish-blue eyes. The strange familiarity of his program, as though I’d seen it somewhere before. His greenish-blue program that was, I realized now, the exact shade of my eyes. Just like the sunset that had so captivated him, and just like his “meditation closet.”

“The way your eyes change,” he said, “Ami, the way your eyes change when you come. The blood vessels, the tiny capillaries, they dilate.”

I saw it now. “Fractal patterns moving through them, like hexie skin,” I said. “And what you see, you feel.”

“And what I see in your eyes, I have never seen anywhere else.”

Teese’s romantic-sounding words came back to me. I have never felt before what I feel with you. He had meant it literally. His limbic system responded to something in my changing eyes with a new emotion, one that none of Teese’s people had ever felt before, while his skin struggled and failed to keep up, lapsing into static.

I sat with my back against the door and thought back over the past months. Teese had only said he loved me once, in a cheesy e-valentine. But he’d told me that he loved to stare into my eyes at least a dozen times. I’d naively thought that that meant the same thing.

“I was never your girlfriend,” I realized out loud, “I was your drug.”

“Please don’t say that,” he said. But I was pettily satisfied to see red shame-spots creeping back onto his black skin.

I stood up. “You’d better get back to your ship,” I said, moving away from the door. “Just tell me one thing. What did it feel like? What did you feel when you looked into my eyes?”

He was silent for a long moment. “What is the word,” he said finally, “for a color no one has ever seen? How could there be a word for it?”

“Was it a good feeling, at least?”

He closed his eyes. “It was like nothing I’ll ever feel again.”

He paused at the door, as if wondering whether to kiss me goodbye. I stared him down. He looked into my eyes one last time, and left.

* * *

After Teese left, I pocketed his rhodium and went for a walk. I wanted to hate Teese, but I couldn’t. He’d never lied to me. He’d been telling me exactly what he saw in me from the moment he’d first seen me. I just hadn’t heard.

And what if I’d been the one given the chance to feel a brand-new emotion, one never felt by anyone before? I probably would’ve taken it. Hell, I’d let an alien move in with me mostly for the orgasms. And if I’d loved that alien later—well, that wasn’t his fault either, not really.

I fingered the rhodium. Teese couldn’t get anyone to exchange it, but that might’ve had more to do with his tentacles than with the metal’s value. I still couldn’t see myself haggling over it at Jewelers Exchange, but I could probably pawn it for a few hundred to tide me over, and buy it back when I had the money to pay for an assay.

Because I did plan to have more money. Teese might be a terrific programmer, but he’d never learned to clear his browser history. It’d be easy to find the hexie message boards where Teese had sold his now-banned software. I didn’t need the software. I’d just aim a webcam at my eyes and the money would come flooding in.

I’d have dozens of hexies staring into my eyes, chromatophores fluttering. Maybe hundreds of hexies—who knew how many Teese had hooked on his program? Enough to worry his bosses. Enough, I realized, to enforce a ban on Teese if I made it a condition of my show.

It wouldn’t be porn, not in any human sense. Not as long as Teese wasn’t watching.

I couldn’t truly hate Teese. But I’m only human. And I couldn’t help thinking of Teese, sitting alone in his quarters, skin rippling with regret, while his shipmates watched my eyes as I came. And I felt —

Well. If I had been a hexie, my skin would have pinked and dimpled at the thought. But I’m human, so I had to make do with a smile.


* * *

Originally published in Writers of the Future, Volume 34

About the Author

N. R. M. Roshak writes all manner of things, including (but not limited to) short fiction, kidlit, and non-fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, Daily Science Fiction, Future Science Fiction Digest, and elsewhere, and was awarded a quarterly Writers of the Future prize. She studied philosophy and mathematics at Harvard; has written code and wrangled databases for dot-coms, Harvard, and a Fortune 500 company; and has blogged for a Fortune 500 company and written over 100 technical articles. She shares her Canadian home with a small family and a revolving menagerie of Things In Jars. You can find more of her work at, and follow her on Twitter at @nroshak.


2 thoughts on “A Bitter Thing

  1. If H.P. Lovecraft would have tapped into self-compassion instead of horror we might have a gentler approach to mental health. Any chance Cthulhu to meet for Tesse for a more collaborative Mythos?

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