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art by Void lon iXaarii

Eyes Like Microscopes

The alarm clock read 4:40 am when I slapped it off my bedside table to no effect. The ringing didn't stop. For a second I thought about which thin-walled neighbor would wake this early before I noticed the clanging noise sounded more like a fire alarm than an alarm clock. I heard shouting from outside and it hit me that I had to get out quick.
I rushed out into the hallway of my apartment building to find it black with smoke. There were two ways I could run, to the front or the back. Back was closer so that's how I went. After a few steps of groping my way through the hallway, I could tell I had chosen wrong. The smoke became impossibly thicker, almost a physical barrier to get through. And it was getting hotter. I couldn't breathe enough to turn around and find my way to the front. I had to keep going, even though it might mean walking straight into the fire. Chances were, I was going to die. I thought about what that meant. I thought about my life up that point and all I could do was shrug.
The night we meet, it's the first thing I really tell you about myself. I don't give many details at first. I just say I was in a fire and it happened fast in the way I rehearse to everyone I meet. Just to get it out of the way. But you press me. You want to know what it felt like, what I thought about. You want the story. So I tell you the story in a way I haven't told anyone before. I tell you what it was like to almost die.
"But you didn't die," you say to me.
"No," I say. "I didn't."
I shrug. You smile.
I'm struck by how beautiful you are. Short-cropped hair dyed blonde like a rock star, not bleached blonde like a housewife. Smooth arms. Red tattoo on your left shoulder. Small breasts. Long neck. And those eyes. There is nothing noticeably out of the ordinary about your eyes. Except they're stunning. I know I wouldn't have a shot with you at all if it weren't for the fact that you're a mutant.
We meet at the appetizer table of a fancy party where neither one of us particularly belongs. I'm there due to vaguely implied work obligations. You saw the lights from the street and thought it would be a funny thing to crash. You do that. You'll never back down from anything if there is a thrill involved. No matter how weird it can get by the end.
The first thing you tell me is how disgusting cheese is. People set out plates of the stuff from all over the world and they call it refined. They say it's fancy. But it's full of bacteria, weird misshapen creatures, just eating and shitting each other out so that we can eat them as we talk of real estate and politics and abstract impressionism or whatever we can think of to sound intelligent and refined, all covering the sounds our bodies make in preparation for the inevitable trip to the toilet. However we try to see ourselves, we're all really just tiny monsters in the end. You slur your words as you tell me this.
The second thing you tell me is about the first time it happened. You found your father's collection of porn videos when you were thirteen and curious, put them in the VCR. With that, the way you saw the world changed. Everything suddenly became far too close, the world too overloaded with detail. To this day you still have trouble thinking of sex as anything other than a series of three color bars. It's also, you tell me, why you fuck like a porn star.
We don't make love. We don't have sex. We don't go on dates. I'm not your boyfriend. We are not hanging out. We are not seeing each other. We are fucking. You're very clear on this point and I do my best not to labor under any delusions.
We race through all the standard positions almost every time. I'm on top. You're on top. I'm behind you. We're sideways. You make noises just like a girl in a dirty movie. I take pictures in my head because I know I'll never have it this good again. I try to memorize it, the way you bite your lower lip when you're close, the expectant look you give me from your knees. I'll be replaying these moments for the rest of my life, and here I am in the middle of it, still watching it all like a dirty movie. I take it in, all I can, but I can't let it go too far, I can't let it get to the point where there's no coming back and so when you ask me, baby, what's wrong? I say nothing, I'm just too drunk to finish.
Eyes like microscopes. I'm still not exactly sure what that means.
You tell me when you're out in the real world, and you have to look at people and deal with them and pretend to see the way normal people see, everything looks blurry and out of focus. I ask if that's why you drink so much. You tell me you like to have a normal reason for the world to look blurry and out of focus.
At your place. A warehouse full of crates and those crates are full of Petri dishes and you tell me those Petri dishes are full of millions of different, tiny things. You look at Petri dishes all day. It's your job. It's important work and you're well paid. When I ask you what it is you're looking for in those Petri dishes, you tell me that you'll know when you see it.
Why not just regular microscopes? When I was in middle school we looked at single celled organisms like cilia, amoebas, mitochondria. For the final project in the unit our teacher made us write letters as if we were Anton Van Leewenhook, inventor of the compound microscope, trying to convince the Royal Academy of our findings. Instead of arguing for the existence of microscopic creatures, I confounded my teacher by enquiring about its ramifications. Did this mean, I wanted that hypothetical seventeenth century group of old men in powdered wigs to tell me, that the world was much bigger than we'd ever imagined? Or was it in fact quite smaller?
I received a check minus.
I can't help but wonder if it's different for you. Seeing these creatures without the interference of a glass lens carefully ground by an artisan in Holland. Are these miniature creatures more real or less? Is there something more valuable about seeing such a tiny world through a naked eye?
I live in a boring stretch of houses in an area that's not quite the suburbs, not quite the city. I get off the train and walk home from a job that doesn't matter very much and look around, not feeling that there's anything to be a part of. When I walk the streets in your neighborhood I'm struck by how alive it is. Mutant restaurants, mutant art galleries, mutant theater, mutants on the street corners giving glimpses of their amazing abilities for spare change. Of course there are clinics and hospitals and special practitioners and the schools that gave Mutant Town its name originally. A lot of people around here don't want to think about those. Not the newcomers to the neighborhood. The young. The trendy. They come here so they can tell stories about it to their less adventurous friends or freak out their parents about living on the edge of Mutant town. They come here so they can feel progressive and liberal about their position on the Mutant Question. They aren't like those people that want to lock you up. They aren't like those people that made you feel you had to hide it. Still, they see some of the less attractive mutants, some of the freaks and weirdos, and they won't be able to disguise the look of disgust that washes over their faces. I know, because I feel that reaction when their eyes are on me. I walk the streets in your neighborhood and feel like I'm part of something. Until I remember that I'm not. I'm not part of anything.
When you get bored with different positions, you want role-play. You want abuse. You need torment, crave humiliation. I grab you by the hair. I hold your throat. I let you know exactly what you are. Freak. Abomination. Mutie. It's not the kind of thing that can be covered up with a dye job, a tattoo, or any amount of makeup. I tell you about the task force being formed, the papers have been signed and once and for all they'll round up and eliminate the mutant menace. But if you're good, I can spare you. I can hide you in a closet, maybe keep you in a cage as my pet. I can feed you once a day from a bowl like the animal you are. All this, and in exchange, I get to do what I want with you.
You tell me it helps. You say you feel afraid, but you always feel afraid. With me, with this, at least for a while it's under control. It feels pure and at least for a little while you aren't distracted. Not staring at the wrong tiny thing while the rest of the world closes in all around you. You thank me. You tell me it means a lot to you. That's as close as we ever get. But you don't ask what it's like for me. So I don't tell you how I feel dark and cruel and wrong. I don't tell you that I feel exactly like the thing people see when they cross the street to avoid me. Myself, maybe as I truly am. A freak. An abomination. A mutant.
Your last boyfriend was a mutant superhero. Flyboy from the Mutastics. It took me a while to piece together. The way you'd react when something would come on the news about them or their name would come up around Mutant Town. You'd act like you weren't interested, but you were trying too hard to not seem interested to actually not be interested, so clearly you were interested.
We ran into him one time and it was pretty obvious. A crew of five or six drunk guys followed us. I could hear some of the things the drunks were shouting. They didn't particularly like the idea of a mutant-human couple. They'd probably be surprised which one was which, but stopping to explain anything to them seemed like a bad idea. They were too drunk on booze and their power to intimidate. It probably wouldn't go any further than that. It would just be the kind of thing you hear sad stories about and wonder at how far we still have to go. But there was the chance it could turn into something much, much, worse. We tried to stay calm as we walked briskly towards Mutant Town, me occasionally looking over my shoulder and informing you that, yes, they were still following us.
Then he swooped down between the gang and us. He asked the gang if they really had a problem with mutants wouldn't they like to take it up with him. Nobody said anything to him. They just shuffled along the sidewalk, acting as if none of them had been following us to begin with. He looked at us and before I could express my gratitude you were yelling at him about how we were doing just fine and the kind of thing he just did would only set mutants further back. Then you put your arm around me, you snuggled up close to me, affectionate in a way you never are in public (or, really in private). He looked at me for a second, mumbled an apology and flew away.
It tripped my alarm. I did some googling. Do you know how many pictures of you and Flyboy are on the Internet? You're practically a celebrity. Sometimes I still look at the pictures when I have too much time alone in front of a computer screen. He looks strong and brave and heroic and you look glamorous and beautiful and a little plucky. You look like a superhero's girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend. The way I see you, posed with your arm around him, the way you look up at him with wide and happy eyes, I can tell you wouldn't mind if someone used that word. Not with him.
When we have quiet moments, I ask why me. You say it's because I don't give a shit. You could tell that right away. Most people, they care about stuff. Love. Hate. Jealousy. Getting a promotion. Working hard. Having fun. Having a giant number in their bank account. Life. Death. Stuff, that when you look closely enough at it, isn't even there at all. You could tell I was different from the way I carried myself, my slumped shoulders, my shuffling feat. I know it's all pointless. I'm a man that shrugs at death. I just don't give a shit. That, you tell me, is the only intelligent response to the world that you can think of. That, you tell me, is what you need right now.
You tell me other things sometimes. Not during the quiet moments. We'll be fucking and you'll tell me what burnt flesh looks like up close. You'll describe the way the skin cells are fused together, half dead, smooth where they shouldn't be, rough in all the wrong places. Misshapen and amoebic, wrong; that's what my face looks like.
As if I needed eyes like microscopes to tell me that.
I'm never sure if you really mean it, the cruelty in your voice, or if it's just another game. Probably both. Don't we always mean it when we're playing games?
You don't stop at my face. You'll tell me about the crystalline structure of the crust in my eyes, a million tiny daggers between me and my only means of looking at the world. You'll tell me how alien and disturbing my eyebrows look. You'll investigate the colonies of dandruff living in my hair. Abominations and tiny monsters, that's what little boys are made of. There are times it's almost enough to finish me.
Was it like this with the superhero? Did you play games too? Did he ever wear the costume for you? Did you let him do all the things that I do? Or did he not have to? Did you scream louder for him? Was it all fear and pain or did you not need to do that? Did you go on dates, like regular people? Nice meals, walks holding hands, movies and shopping? Did he actually make love to you like a man?
Does it matter? Not caring. Is skipping out on rent, getting into fights and sleeping with strange women any better than coasting along, showing up on time, living in a nice house, staying at a job because it's easy? Doesn't it all just amount to the same thing? Sometimes I think about it--the thing you've been looking for in those Petri dishes. I can't help it has something to do with humans and mutants. Is there a way to get close enough to tell the difference? You're still looking, aren't you?
The alarm clock reads 3:34 am when I slap it off the bedside table to no effect. The ringing doesn't stop. I wake with a start and see you sleeping beside me. It hits me. I'm not in my apartment but I still have to get out quick.
Then it hits me that I should try to get you to come along.
I tell you I think something's wrong. You mutter groggily at me and put a pillow over your head. I can hear the alarm screaming. I shake you. I tell you your fire alarm is going off. You push me off and tell me it's a false alarm. It happens all the time. It will stop soon. I should go back to sleep. I should stay with you.
But I can't. It's impossible to do anything but try to smell smoke. I tell you we have to get out of there. You call me a pussy. I beg you to come with me, but you tell me you'd rather sleep. I say you might die, you tell me you don't care. I shrug and take off through a window. By the time I make the alleyway the alarm stops ringing, but I've already convinced myself staying wouldn't have made a difference.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Author Comments

The fire was real. I did wake up at 4:40 am one morning, first thinking a neighbors' alarm was going off, then ended up standing outside in my pajamas watching injured firemen get stretchered out as my building burned. That was ten years ago. I've had some version of this story cluttering up my hard drive since, waiting until I had enough distance from that period to make some sense out of it. The rest is mostly made up. My face isn't hideous, cheese is not disgusting, and I got a check-plus on my 7th grade Anton Van Leewenhook report. I did date my fare share of mutants though.

- Steve Gillies
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