The sunlight filtering through the curtains painted the room in deep crimsons and blacks, a strange menagerie of shadows flickering across the few pools of light. Johnny strode in from the kitchen, his hand wrapped around a plastic bottle of water. He leaned over and poured the pure liquid into the two glasses, sitting side by side on the coffee table under a pair of watchful, bespectacled eyes.
“I don’t understand women,” Johnny bemoaned as he sat down on the sofa. “Do you, Peter?”
Relaxing on the chair opposite Johnny, Peter’s dark suit was completely at home in the shades of Johnny and Lisa’s condo. He tilted his head, adopting the concerned posture that put so many of his patients at ease. “What man does?” he laughed, an admission that any self-respecting psychologist would find deeply embarrassing. Luckily for Peter, this did not raise Johnny’s suspicions. “What’s the problem?”
“They never say what they mean,” Johnny declared, screwing the cap back on the bottle. “And they always play games.” He put the plastic bottle down on the floor with a thunk.
“Okay,” Peter absorbed Johnny’s words, analyzing them for any hidden meaning. “Um… What do you mean?”
Passing one of the filled glasses to Peter, Johnny sat back on the couch, trying to relax and feeling uncomfortably like one of Peter’s appointments. “I have a serious problem with Lisa,” he divulged. “I don’t think she’s faithful to me. In fact, I know she isn’t.”
Peter’s brow furrowed over the perfectly round lenses of his glasses. “Lisa?” he clarified. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Johnny confirmed. “I overheard a conversation between Lisa and her mother.” He looked down, studying the glass of water in his hands, seemingly entrance in the way it caught the dim light bleeding through the curtains. “What should I do, Peter?”
Blinking in surprise and confusion, Peter’s mind performed a quick search of its contents, comparing what Johnny had just told him to every experience he’d had with Lisa. “This is Lisa we’re talking about?” he asked again, uncertain.
Peter shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.”
“But you’re a psychologist,” Johnny protested. “Do you have some advice?”
Rising to his feet, Peter paced the room, eventually ending up near the fireplace, one arm propped up on the mantle. “It’s a complicated situation, Johnny. I mean,” he shook his head again, “You’re my friend, and I don’t want to get between you and Lisa.”
It was the most polite way of declining Peter could think of, and also his standard response. Since he’d become a psychologist, he’d found that people seemed to think that meant he was available to help them with their problems as a favour. He did have the expertise, and he would like to help his friends, but it was far too unprofessional. It was fine for mechanics or plumbers to fix some inanimate objects for friends and family, but delving into someone’s mind was different. It required emotional distance, an outsider’s perspective.
As an alien, Peter had the ultimate outsider’s perspective. He regarded his friends – not to mention his patients – less as people than as research subjects, objects of curiosity. That was all they were supposed to be to him, although lately he found himself growing fond of the strange creatures, a sensation that worried him. If he couldn’t maintain his distance, it might affect his ability to gather data. Even now, his superiors floating in orbit could be reading his last report, seeing the signs and preparing to call him back, ending his mission.
Getting involved in Johnny’s problems represented a double threat. His cold demeanor and detachment from his supposed fellow humans was fine, even expected when it was towards his patients. But towards his friends, it would not go unnoticed. He could fake mild concern and friendliness in a casual conversation, but a more serious problem required a more serious response, one that Peter didn’t trust himself to feign.
On the other hand, there was the risk that opening himself up to Johnny and Lisa’s issues would have the opposite effect, that he would truly start to care about the trials and tribulations of the lives of the primitive species. That was the absolute last thing he wanted to happen. He had spent the majority of his life controlling the hologram known as Peter. Both he and his superiors had invested so much time, and now he was in the perfect position to just sit back and observe. He couldn’t let something so important slip away just for the insignificant problems of a handful of the little creatures teeming all over the face of the planet.
“Look,” Peter finally said, deciding to give the most generic advice he possibly could, “If you want to, you should just confront her.”
“I can’t confront her,” Johnny groaned. “I want to give her a second chance. After all, she’s my future wife.”
Coming from a polysexual species that reproduced through psychic connections requiring a minimum of a dozen individuals – two females, three males, and a spectrum of the sexes that fell in between – Peter had no real conception of the betrayal Johnny was feeling, nor of his continued devotion to his future wife despite her deceit.
“You know what they say,” Johnny continued with a slight smile. “Love is blind.”
“Well, you’ve got a lot of faith in Lisa,” Peter said. He’d found, over the years, that as long as you echoed back the exact thoughts a particular human was having, the self-obsessed creatures would assume you were a genius. He shrugged. “Sometimes, life gets complicated and the unexpected can happen,” he added uselessly. “When it does, we’ve just got to deal with it.”
The doorbell rang.
“Did you hear the door?” Peter asked, calibrating his sonic sensors.
Johnny swallowed a huge gulp of water. “Yeah, I heard,” he replied gruffly. He stood and picked his way around the small living room, cluttered, nearly filled by the coffee table and the plush seating. “Oh, hi, Mark,” he greeted as he opened the door. “Come in.”
“Oh, hey, Johnny,” Mark smiled as he stepped inside. Noticing the supposed psychologist standing in the corner, he added, “Hey, Peter.”
“We’re just talking about women,” Johnny explained as he headed back to his seat on the sofa.
Knowing the reason for Johnny’s problems, Mark pursed his lips, not wanting to say anything, or at least not anything incriminating. In his denim jacket and jeans, he felt as if he’d already been convicted of his crimes against his best friend. “Women, man,” he observed. “Women just confuse me.” He took a seat opposite Johnny.
Watching carefully, Peter’s brow furrowed again. This stated lack of familiarity and mystification with female humans was a common pronouncement among the males of the species, and Peter had echoed it many times in order to fit in, but he still couldn’t comprehend the reason for the confusion. Although he could hardly insert himself into what the female humans referred to as ‘Girl Talk’, he had managed to analyse some of these conversations through the use of microscopic recorders, drones, and other listening devices, and he knew that the women vacillated between describing the same unbridgeable gap separating their species and claiming a complete understanding of males.
The purported confusion baffled Peter. The similarities between the two sects of humanity far outweighed the differences, especially compared to his own species. Far above, in orbit, he knew there were both the many-tentacled females and the round, globular males. He himself fell somewhere in between, although he wasn’t currently conscious of the hundreds of stubby, finger-like tendrils he was using to manipulate the Peter hologram.
But despite the physical differences, all of Peter’s species were able to work together, never doubting that their thoughts, goals and hopes were much the same. Possibly a side effect of being able to establish psychic links, Peter reflected.
“I have a girl,” Mark started, derailing Peter’s chain of thought. “She’s married,” he continued, testing the limits of what he could say before Johnny became suspicious. “I mean, she’s very attractive, but just…” He laughed as he trailed off. “It’s driving me crazy.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” Peter asked, intrigued that both Johnny and Mark were experiencing the same situation from opposite sides, wondering how they would react if provoked. “I mean, is it anyone I know?”
“No, man, you don’t know her,” Mark shook his head.
“Can I meet her?” Johnny wondered.
“I don’t think so. It’s an awkward situation.”
“You mean she’s too old?” Johnny teased. “Or you think I would take her away from you?”
In a split second, Peter analysed Johnny’s words, trying to determine if it was a threat or a joke. He opted for joke, and laughed.
“Nah,” Mark laughed along with him.
Immediately dour, Johnny took another sip of water. “I have my own problems.”
“Tell me about your problems Johnny,” Peter said. Now that Mark was in the room, he wanted to goad them into a response, to see what would happen if an argument was incited between two best friends. Mark’s relationship, he knew, could easily inflame Johnny. Or Johnny’s problems might force Mark to become defensive. Either way, it would be educational to see whether friendship or a difference of opinion would be stronger.
“Peter, you always play psychologist with us!” Johnny claimed, even though, a minute ago, he couldn’t pry any useful advice from the man.
“Look, I’m just your friend,” Peter backed off. “And I’m just worried about you.”
“Lisa is teasing me about whether we’re going to get married or not,” Johnny admitted. “And we didn’t make love in a while,” he added, although in this case a while means like, three days tops. “And I don’t know what to do.”
“You never really know, I mean…” Peter trailed off mid-banality. Desperate, he stopped. He had to give something resembling actual advice, or both Mark and Johnny might notice he had an understanding of the human mind that was shaky, at best. “Look, you should tell her about your feelings, okay? You shouldn’t hide them,” he told Johnny, guidance that would work in just about any situation. “You two have been together forever. You can work out anything as long as you talk about it.”
Peter had seen, personally, that this wasn’t usually the case, but it should’ve been. Humans were so unreasonable most times, when all it would take to make peace was often the tiniest of compromises.
“Not always,” Johnny disagreed.
“People are people,” Peter continued, defaulting to meaningless tautologies. “Sometimes they can’t see their own faults.”
“Hey, I’m thinking of moving to a bigger place, man,” Mark interjected, wanting to change the topic and get further away from his betrayal of the man sitting next to him, a man he believed capable of murder. “I’m making some good money.” This was a lie, of course. Mark was living off his rapidly depleting life savings and the good will of friends and family.
“Look, you should tell her the truth,” Peter told Mark, getting the newly introduced topic confused with the previous one. Quickly, he searched for the shortest link between what he and Mark had said, frantic to make his statement appear relevant and natural. “I mean you’re doing this for your girl, right?”
“You’re right, Peter,” Johnny chuckled in response. “Is she getting a divorce, Mark?”
“You guys are too much,” Mark shook his head. The discussion was getting far too close to Johnny and Lisa’s rocky relationship again. Still wanting to avoid that particular subject, he decided to try a different tack. “Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers again this year?” he addressed the room, in general.
“I am, sure,” Johnny nodded.
Peter turned away, defeated. There was no natural way for him to guide the conversation back to the trajectory he wanted. “Nah, I’m not doing it this year.”
As Mark swallowed the lump in his throat, relieved to have finally gotten the exchange onto neutral ground, Johnny chuckled in response. “Chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken,” he crowed. He cheeped, imitating a chicken, as Mark laughed.
Mentally, Peter performed a quick search of the memory databanks that provided him with the knowledge he needed to blend in, comparing the sound Johnny was making with all known bird calls. It didn’t match a chicken, coming closer to newly-hatched chicks, as well as a wide array of song birds.
“Why are you calling me a chicken?” Peter asked, certain the normal human reaction would be hurt and grief at their friend’s cruel mockery. “I just don’t like all the weirdoes,” he added ironically. “There’s too many weirdoes there.”
“I don’t mind,” Johnny shrugged. “Mark, do you remember the one with big tits, the blond one?”
Peter replayed the conversation briefly, wondering if Johnny had misheard weirdoes as women, or if he just mentally filed all women as weirdoes.
“How about the one with the bridal gown, with the sign?”
“Oh, yeah, Can you marry me?” Johnny remembered the phrase a native English speaker would be incredible unlikely to use and chuckled. “I thought I would take her up on it.”
“I never ate so much,” Mark added randomly.
“Yeah, the barbecue chicken was delicious rice,” Johnny agreed, reminiscing. “That was cool.”
“You guys proved me point,” Peter interjected. “You’re both weird.” Although he had only been trying to match the two men’s jibes and teasing, Peter had inadvertently stumbled upon a profound truth. He took a seat across from them and, seeing their downcast expressions at his pronouncement, tried to introduce a new source of levity. “You guys want to play cards?”
“No, we can’t,” Johnny sniffed. “I expect Lisa any minute.”
“Hey, come on man, who’s the king of the house?” Mark said, another mangled idiom a native English speaker wouldn’t employ.
Johnny chuckled in response.
“Yeah, you gotta,” Peter mumbled something about ‘guy life’, trying to feign some masculine bravado, specifying that whatever vague thing he had said had to be done, “Before you get married.” As Johnny rose to stalk around the sofa, Peter sensed that his ruse had not been completely successful, and decided to take the attention off himself. “Speaking of,” he raised his glass, “How did you ever meet Lisa? You never told us.”
“Well, that’s a very interesting story.” Settling in to tell it, Johnny perched on the sturdy back of the sofa. “When I moved to San Francisco with two suitcases, and I didn’t know anyone, and I hit the YMCA with a two-thousand dollar cheque which I couldn’t cash.”
“Why not?” Mark prompted.
“Well, because it was an out-of-state bank,” Johnny explained. “Anyway, I was working as a busboy in a hotel and, uh…” He trailed off as the picture came into his head, clear as day, as if it was happening right in front of him, right now, instead of years ago. “She was sitting, drinking her coffee, and she was so beautiful. And I say hi to her, and that’s how we met.”
Johnny chuckled as he remembered. He didn’t know where he’d found the nerve, but somehow, even though he was in a grease-streaked apron and she was in a gorgeous black gown, flowing to the floor, her had walked right up to her and said, “Oh, hi, beautiful woman.” Blushing, Lisa had giggled demurely, the men who she had just been speaking to, walking away in their tailored suits with the leather suitcase they had exchanged for the one now sitting under the table, already forgotten.
“So, I mean, what’s the interesting part,” Mark joked.
“Well, the interesting part is that on our first date,” Johnny recounted, “She paid for dinner.”
Confused, Peter decided to say nothing, although he still couldn’t see what was interesting about that particular data point.
“What?” Mark exclaimed, flabbergasted. From Bailey’s notes on the case, from the money they’d both spent so many sleepless nights tracing, Johnny should have had money flowing in by then. “No tips from your job?”
“Whatever,” Johnny laughed as he stood. “Do you guys want to eat something?” he offered, heading for the kitchen.
Mark only shrugged. From behind him, he heard the door open and the click-clack of high-heeled shoes coming inside. He turned to see Lisa slipping inside, Denny behind her.
“Hey, guys,” she said, ostensibly to the room, but her sultry smile was only for Mark. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, hey, Lisa,” Mark greeted her flatly, rising out of his chair.
“Hi, Lisa,” Peter smiled.
His eyes taking their time adjusting to the dim light of Johnny and Lisa’s condo, Denny stepped over to the window, opening a slit in the drapes and letting a narrow beam of light in to illuminate the room. He hovered near the window, gazing outside.
“Where’s Johnny?” Lisa asked.
Indicating with his chin, Mark told her, “In the kitchen.” His blue eyes fell on Lisa’s face, and he couldn’t help but smile. “I gotta go,” he excused himself, knowing he could barely contain himself around her.
“I didn’t mean to chase you off,” Lisa pouted, teasing. “You should stick around for a while.”
“I gotta work early,” Mark hastily lied. “See you.” With that, he pushed past Denny, making his escape. Lisa watched him go. Not far behind, Peter also stood and headed for the door, giving a brief wave to Lisa and Denny before he disappeared, leaving the door wide open.
Sinking to the floor, Denny sat where he was. The door still gaping open behind her, Lisa crouched, bringing herself to eye level with Denny. “Did you get your wedding gown yet?” Denny asked, picturing Lisa in flowing white.
“No,” Lisa told him, smirking, knowing that the wedding would never happen. “I’ve got plenty of time.”
“Are you sure you have plenty of time? It’s only a month away.”
“It’ll be fine. What are you so worried about?” Denny didn’t respond, studying the ray of light cutting across the hardwood floor. “Everything’s okay.”
“Johnny doesn’t seem very excited,” Denny observed, downcast. “Is there a problem?”
“There’s no problem,” Lisa insisted. “Why do you ask?”
Denny shrugged. “I just want you and Johnny to be happy.” He rose to his feet, Lisa matching his movements, keeping his face level with hers.
“I am happy,” Lisa grumbled. “Look, Denny, I need to talk to Johnny, okay? I’ll see you later.”
“Okay. You’ll tell him I said hello?”
Brushing Lisa’s hand as he passed, Denny marched out through the still open door, finally pulling it shut behind him. With a sigh, Lisa headed towards the kitchen.