Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Exchange Student by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste's comic short about a young man who asks an extraterrestrial exchange student on a date.

She had big, beautiful eyes: two blue and one green. At first, the grotesque features perturbed me. But after half a semester across the lecture hall from her, I found myself staring at human girls and thinking their faces looked incomplete. Once I fell for three eyes, going back to two would be downgrading.

The blue eye on the left was my favorite. It moved independently from the other pair as though it alone was in the throes of concocting a devious plot. Sometimes, right in the middle of Calculus II, as I imagined what grand collusion that eye could be contemplating, I'd glance up from my digital notebook and it would be looking straight at me. As soon as I returned the gaze, that furtive blue imp would join its brethren and pretend to watch the instructor lumber across the front of the classroom. But I knew better. She was interested in me. Or at least her left eye was.

"Are you serious about going out with that exchange student?" My roommate sat in a puddle of filth that consisted mostly of used food containers and soiled laundry.

"Of course I'm serious." I couldn't believe she'd said yes, especially after I sputtered out the first date proposition in a series of 'ums' and 'wells'.

My roommate smirked. "In that case, I've got the perfect thing for you to wear tonight."

He emerged from his stench and opened the closet door. Inside hung a hazmat suit. I blinked at the reflective silver exterior.

"Whole body protection," he said. "You don't know what kind of interstellar diseases she's contracted. When we say a local girl's gotten around, we at least mean on our planet."

I grabbed my tweed jacket and started for the door. "How about you use the suit to clean up your mess?"

Remember to ask if human meat is a delicacy on her planet, I thought as I trekked to the parking lot. If so, I've got the perfect specimen for her to sample.

I couldn't quite articulate her name. Human languages don't always translate perfectly from one country to another, and when there's a galaxy in between, simple syntax proves rather hopeless. On the first day of the fall semester, she introduced herself to the class. The moniker sounded sort of like 'chipmunks', but more guttural, more like 'cheeuawwwmayunnks' if you really put your diaphragm into it. Naturally, her fellow students failed at the proper elocution, so she said she was fine with being called Chipmunks. However, I doubted she was aware her namesake was a neurotic little rodent, and I'd already opted against making it a topic of first date conversation.

The entire trip to Alpha Delta, I practiced what I'd say to her.

"Your eyes look bigger and brighter than ever." Too obvious.

"In that dress, you could practically pass for human." Too insulting.

"Not even galaxies could keep us apart tonight." Too esoteric. And corny.

I settled on something middle-of-the-road.

"You look lovely this evening." Simple but not too clichéd. If I said pretty instead, that might seem trite, but lovely felt genuine enough. Which syllable to stress occupied the remainder of the drive.

But all my emphatic preparation escaped me when she answered the door.

"Hello." She wore a smile. And nothing else.

My head twitched in any direction that didn't contain the sight of her naked body. The wooden door frame, a stairwell railing, and the fuzzy carpeting that lined the foyer fragmented into a single mosaic in my mind. Every few seconds, my vision darted down the hallway where several of her human sorority sisters huddled together in giggling observation. I found myself jockeying to avoid their stares as much as my date's bare skin.

"What's wrong?" she asked. I could see her vague outline as she tilted her head and observed my spasms.

Don't ruin the date already, I thought. Focus on her face. Focus on her face.

On the whole, I succeeded, but a few downward slips spoiled a perfect record.

The trio of eyes gawked at my jacket and tie. "Why are you wearing that?"

"Why are you wearing nothing?" My peripheral vision informed me that more than just her face sported a pale emerald pallor.

She glanced at herself and back at me. "This is what we do. We like to start things honestly. If we don't like what we see, we can terminate the appointment immediately."

I exhaled in an almost whimper. "Do you want to terminate the appointment?"

"I don't know," she said. "I can't see what you look like to make a determination."

The hallway giggles hit their peak before scurrying into an adjacent room.

With a flimsy jaw, my tongue struck the palate several times. "You expect me to take off my clothes?"

She shrugged, and I tried to ignore the resultant jiggle. "Not if that would make you uncomfortable. Am I making you uncomfortable?"

"A little," I said. "I think I'd be more relaxed if you wore pants or a dress or whatever." I shifted my weight to the opposite foot, not for any reason but just to have something to do. "Wearing anything would be better really."

Compared to human anatomy, I spotted nothing obscene about her form, but I suspected that without at least a wayward piece of attire, the restaurant where I made reservations would deny us entry. My cheeks started to smolder, but I comforted myself that even if she noticed, someone with green skin probably couldn't understand the significance of blushing.

After Chipmunks departed to her room to dress, the snickering pledges reemerged and crept toward me, pressed against the walls like rats in search of food scraps.

"Bet you didn't expect to get her out of her clothes so quickly, huh?" A blonde with bland features mocked with vacant curiosity. Her hand landed on another girl's shoulder, a wordless signal for that one to speak next.

"You're thinking she looks pretty good. You're thinking she's the best thing you can get on a Friday night." The minion scrunched her nose and volleyed the conversation back to the apparent ringleader.

"Best thing?" The blonde pursed her lips. "Don't you mean she's the only thing he can get?"

In unison, artificial nails dug into painted lips and managed to subdue another crescendo of laughter. Chipmunks appeared on the top landing of the stairs, and I peered up at her. Despite our superficial differences, she was more human to me than members of my own species.

"Why did you pledge to that sorority?" I gripped the steering wheel and invoked nature to prevent any further mishaps for the evening.

"I don't know. I guess I wanted the full human experience." Chipmunks tapped her smooth green feet to the music that played softly on my car radio. "And why does anyone pledge?"

"Camaraderie I guess." Lame answer. Try again. "I don't know. I think it's silly." Offensive answer. Try again. "But I'm stuck with a roommate I hate, so I don't know much about proper college life."

She turned toward me, and although my gaze remained on the road, I could feel all three of her eyes watching me. "What's wrong with your roommate?"

"He's gross and rude." I paused. "You don't happen to dine on human flesh where you're from, do you?"

"No," she said with a laugh, "and if I did, I wouldn't be interested in an unkempt meal."

We arrived at the restaurant ten minutes early. The hostess led us to our seats, a perilous march as every shocked face accused me of abominating against the basic order of things. That was what I figured they were thinking anyhow. Maybe they just liked Chipmunks's sea foam blue frock. I had already told her three times that she looked very fetching in it. I used that word too. Fetching. It's even better than lovely.

As we glanced over our menus, the waitress approached with a clear pitcher and poured me a glass of ice water. She stepped back several steps and took an inventory of Chipmunks' features, from the extra eye down to the pair of elongated legs that drew as many stares as her sage complexion. Once the waitress had memorized enough to recount the tale to friends, she lifted the pitcher and held it near her face like she was trying to sell a product on television.

"This is water." The waitress emphasized each word in an ardent drawl.

Chipmunks gave her a half smile. "I assumed that." She nudged her glass toward the edge of the table in a hopeful bid to curtail the awkward conversation. Valiant though it was, the tactic failed.

"Do you drink water?" The pitcher held its position in the waitress's death grip.

"Every day."

"Okay." Shaking her head in protest, the waitress filled the glass.

I scanned the menu, desperate to find an acceptable entrée before the waitress disappeared. The date needed alone time, not 'explain my alien physiology' time.

"I'll have the baked salmon." My arm suspended in the air for several moments as I tried to distract the waitress from her languid stares at Chipmunks long enough to relinquish my menu. The waitress spotted my attempt and haphazardly reached toward me, though she never diverted her glare from the foreigner.

Chipmunks pretended not to notice. "I'll go exotic and have the coq au vin."

The waitress gasped. "But that has onions! Won't onions poison you?" The question echoed past the other diners, an imposition that might have attracted their attention if they hadn't already been ogling.

Chipmunks smiled. "Why would that poison me?"

"Well, onions are toxic to dogs." The waitress examined the ceiling as she formulated her argument. "I figured you might have the same type of reaction."

"I'm pretty sure I can consume onions without incident." To move the time or perhaps to stop it altogether, Chipmunks tapped her tendril-like fingers on the table, but the motion served only to mesmerize the waitress. I contemplated the number of seconds it would take for me to grab my date and rush out the nearest exit. About eleven, I determined as I inched out of my chair in preparation.

"I'm sorry," the waitress said suddenly. "It's just that I've heard about people like you. But I've never actually, you know, seen one." Her hushed tone suggested something particularly noxious about the creature in question, as though Chipmunks didn't exist at all, except in folk legends and the general lore of crazy people.

"Common sentiment." Chipmunks surrendered her menu. "Like I said, I'll take the coq au vin."

According to the local restaurant guide and its reliable dollar sign system, the place was one of the nicest in town. Expensive, intimate, and apparently not supportive of the university's Interstellar Exchange Program. As the waitress rushed off, I wished we'd gone to the burger place on campus. At least people there had already seen Chipmunks and would be less likely to accuse her of being a canine.

"How does she eat?" A little girl whispered in a yell to her mother.

"I don't know, sweetie. But it's not nice to stare." The two proceeded to gape at us.

We should leave, I thought. Chipmunks might decide human meat isn't so bad after all.

But before I could review the escape plan, Chipmunks leaned toward me. "I sometimes consider shoveling food into my lap and pretending that's how I take in nourishment." With a sly grin, she watched me but mimicked the child's shouted whisper. "Because obviously the mouth on my face is just for talking."

"How rude." The mother scowled and motioned for her daughter to finish her pâté.

I stifled a laugh. Chipmunks nodded her head once and quaffed her hard-fought water.

The food arrived in perfect form, and I hoped dinner might still be salvageable. But as I took a knife to separate my meal's pink flesh from its silver scales, the manager emerged from the kitchen, plotted in quick whispers with our waitress, and began to make his rounds in the dining area. After each superficial greeting at the other tables, he turned toward us, belying his obvious target. I stared at my plate with dread until he arrived.

"Are the two of you enjoying your meals?"

We nodded.

"So everything is fine?" He smiled with rigid arrogance. "No one is having any... allergic reactions?"

"To what?" Chipmunks intimated an air of innocence that was so convincing, even I wondered if she was oblivious to his meaning. Then her left blue eye shifted toward me and winked.

"No problem with the chicken breast or the, uh, onions?" The man dipped his chin and inspected us, his sallow and detestable face trying to drive us from the establishment.

"Why is everyone comparing my date to a domestic animal?" I wanted to toss my plate of fish at his head but worried some of the juice might splash on Chipmunks. And she'd been extra accommodating to wear that dress, so it would be rude to tarnish it.

"It's fine." Chipmunks extended her sinuous hand across the table to placate me. "The meal is terrific, I'm feeling fine, and there's nothing to worry about."

The manager stared sideways at us, emitted an eerie grin, and retreated from the table.

Engulfed in our meals, we didn't speak again for awhile. I told myself that talking and eating could be a messy combination anyhow, but I feared Chipmunks was wondering if she could retroactively terminate the appointment. I couldn't blame her. The restaurant disgusted us both, I'd probably embarrassed her earlier about the outfit, and my conversation lacked even the basic elements of sociability. I'm going to die alone, I thought. And I'm going to deserve it.

Her gaze flitted about the décor. "This is so different than back home. Dining out for us is a spectacle."

"A spectacle? Like jousting?" My only point of reference was a Renaissance dinner I'd attended as a child, but I doubted her people ate with their hands, given the obtrusive tendril situation.

"Not exactly." Chipmunks speared an onion emphatically and glanced up at the manager and waitress as she popped it in her mouth. "At our eateries, they keep a herd of live leeuaxeno on site. You choose and butcher your own."

"Lee-oo-ax-een-oo." My pronunciation failed, but she smiled at the effort. "How big are those?" I imagined a herd of aqua blue space chickens that clucked and clawed about the carpet of a four-star alien restaurant.

Her middle eye squinted as she contemplated the question. "They're about the size of an adult human. Twice the strength though."

"Couldn't you die?" A piece of wet salmon shot out between my teeth and deposited itself on the pressed tablecloth. "Fighting something so huge, isn't that a pretty major risk just for the sake of dinner?"

"That's why you go out," she said. "If you wanted your meal already dead and cooked, you'd stay at home. Human restaurants are the same as any ordinary dining room. What's the point?"

Gaping at her, I decided that no response on Planet Earth could suffice.

She noticed my shock and with a nonchalant wave, added, "I guess there are some of your traditions I still don't understand."

"I could say the same to you."

I jabbed the slab of fish with the tines on my fork. But images of my date suiting up for combat with a virile man-sized chicken derailed any remaining appetite, so I tossed my napkin on the table and motioned for the waitress. She lobbed us the check without uttering another word. The onions ordeal had all but destroyed her vim, and I pitied the other diners who would have to endure especially lackluster service for the rest of the night.

My wallet soon emptied, and I lamented that for the trouble the staff and other patrons gave us, we should have received a complimentary dessert out of the deal. But the waitress would probably figure Chipmunks was allergic to chocolate too.

On our way to the exit, everyone watched as though they didn't trust us not to double back and stay until closing just to ruin their meals. In meager defense, I began to draft the specifics of my angry online restaurant review.

We reached the door, but before I could flee to the parking lot, Chipmunks grabbed my shoulder.

"Wait," she whispered and turned toward the scores of glaring faces.

Gripping her throat, she feigned a series of gasps. "The onions!"

Her green skin and blue frock crumpled to the floor in a stunning display of color.

The disdain around us transformed into profound horror. From his contorted expression, the manager immediately formulated his argument for the police and insurance agents he assumed would follow-up after an alien's death.

"I told her not to order it!" Our waitress wilted against the nearest wall.

A tiny laugh emanated at my feet, and Chipmunks extended five flowing tendrils. As I helped her up, she regarded the spectators and shrugged.

"False alarm."

We drove back to Alpha Delta in silence. Throughout the ten minute ride, I attempted to devise several clever anecdotes, but when I was sure I'd be able to charm her, the words became a ridiculous blotch, a linguistics bastardization that no decent living creature should punt into the ether. Enough ignorance had already blotted our evening. I didn't need to add any further offense with inane banter.

The car puttered to a stop in front of the sorority, and we listened to the commotion inside as a lookout announced our arrival. Seconds later, faces plagued with two eyes peered out at us from every visible window.

With the failures of the evening on mental repeat, I shook my head. "I'm sorry I wasted your time tonight."

"Wasted my time?" Chipmunks observed the house as random high-pitched squeals within the sorority vibrated the car windows. "The only thing I missed was the rousing commentary that occupies Alpha Delta round-the-clock."

Sighing, she rested her head against the seat. "Sometimes, I wonder why we didn't use our giant death ray and destroy this planet upon discovery."

I squinted at her through the darkened car. "Do you really have a death ray?"

"No," she conceded with a groan. "But I should lie and tell everyone we do. Say that I'm the emissary to see if my people should use our weapons against Earth."

"I bet we would have gotten a free meal at the restaurant," I said.

"And we might be able to get your roommate to take a bath."

"And get your sorority sisters to curb their nosiness."

We laughed, and I thought for a moment that maybe the whole date wasn't a loss. I stared at the grooves in the steering wheel as I amassed a final dose of courage. "Would you be willing to try this again? I'm free the entire weekend."

Flushed and slightly sick at the range of possible responses, I turned toward the passenger seat to gauge her reaction. All three eyes blinked back at me.

"On one condition." I saw her smile in the glint of the LED streetlight. "Tomorrow night, we dress appropriately."

5 comments:

  1. Hi Gwendolyn, I found this amusing. I wonder was she really an alien or was she a human, whose family had eaten too many genetically modified onions?

    James.

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  2. first class, really liked it, great Scene Setting.

    Mike McC

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  3. Difference enriches, but difference is perceived as deviance when fear kicks in? Light, delicate strokes express 'the other', and the consequence of not conforming are evident. However the central thrusts urges us to stay with our best understanding. A strong allegory for the UK in this election year? We will make connections and thrive. Thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  4. I agree on the 'other' comment and see it as a metaphor for black-white or Christian-Islam encounters. Our abundant similarities overwhelm our few differences. Well done.

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  5. That is one memorable opening: She had big, beautiful eyes: two blue and one green.

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