Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Black Holes

Black Holes

You have butterflies on your skin, welcoming me in.

“What do you think it would feel like to die in a black hole?” Joey asked, then immediately added, “Not being morbid.”

Kant laughed. He had a loud belly laugh that made the bare bedroom feel full and bright. The mattress they were lying on had no bed frame, and, at the moment, no sheets. The only set not being used as makeshift curtains were drying in the basement. The only decorations on the walls were a handful of postcards. One was from Joey, one was from a high school friend living in Argentina, and two were from no one at all. Kant bought them himself, because he liked them.

Joey turned zer head to give Kant a wildly serious glare. When his laughs subsided, Kant said, “It probably feels like dying.”

Joey sat up. “But what kind of dying? You know — maybe it would crush you, or maybe you would suffocate.”

“Jo! This is morbid.” Kant said.

“What if it didn’t kill you?” Joey went on. “When I was a kid, I thought black holes just brought you to other places. New worlds. That’s what they did in TV. Or maybe the worlds that pass through them change.”

Joey was too embarrassed to tell Kant why ze had a sudden morbid interest in black holes. Kant always seemed completely open to telling Joey any strange, spiritual or superstitious thought that ran through his head. He told his roommate those things, too. He talked about them with people he bummed cigarettes from at the bus stop, if it was the right sort of day. Joey was still practically a stranger when Kant opened up to zer about his kinks.

• • • •

They had met by chance three times — first, they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend at a birthday party. Then they sat together at the transmasculine spectrum support group that neither of them ever attended again. After running into each other at the Eric Carle picture book art museum, they decided to make a real intentional appointment to spend time together. They met up one week later in a cafe called the Purple Kitty for brunch.

“Is it a latex thing?” Joey asked.

“No, it’s not latex, and it’s not just balloons,” Kant replied, digging the side of his fork into his eggs benedict. They had a crab cake in the middle instead of a slice of ham, and the menu called it Kitty’s Seafood Delight. Kant did have a knife, but neglected to use it even once. “It’s more specific than that.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Joey said. Ze worked hard to get good at saying that. It used to be a terrifying thing for zer to admit.

“It’s — I think it’s the moment that they pop.” Kant said, bringing a big gooey forkful to his mouth.

“I hate that noise.” Joey said. Ze had finished zer modest plate of single egg over hard and wheat toast, and sat with zer hands folded on zer lap. Ze looked around at all the cat-themed photographs, paintings, clocks, and trinkets littering the walls. There was one blue porcelain kitten with a white tip at the end of its tail on a shelf in the corner of the room, facing the wall.

“It’s not the noise,” Kant said tentatively, as if he was going to launch into a delicate explanation, but then smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think I can explain it. But it just fills me up with heat. People just have those things, you know?”

“Yeah.” Joey said.

“Do you?” Kant asked.

“Do I what?”

“Have one of those things?”

• • • •

Across the Atlantic Ocean and underground, Jean-Michel Gregory was speaking to Dr. Benedicta Goeppert about the end of the universe. She felt very strongly about the nature of existence being cyclical, that all matter would eventually return to the state that stimulated the beginning of the universe as we know it — long after humans were extinct and our sun was dead, expanding space would shrink until it was conducive to a big bang and everything that ever was would be again in its earliest, most basic form. Gregory wanted to know whether or not it would lead to another planet like ours, with creatures like ours, with he and Dr. Goeppert here, having this conversation again. She told him that this cycle would happen an infinite number of times, and since they were currently proving that this conversation was already a possible outcome, yes, someday, they would have this chat again. Gregory was more indifferent. He told Dr. Goeppert that he felt the same way about the end of the universe that he did about God: he could never know for certain, so venturing guesses felt arrogant.

Dr. Benedicta Goeppert smiled at him with her tight, pained smile that made him regret whatever he had just said. She excused herself, as she had a lot more work to do before she went home. They were actually going home soon — they had been working on site at the collider in Switzerland for a few weeks now. She would finally go to her home in Berlin and see her sister and her nephew, and he would go to his home in Lyon and see his wife, Anna, and their two daughters, Nadene and Anne. He was looking forward to it, but he already knew it would very difficult going back. He had fallen in love with Dr. Goeppert during the third day they worked together. That was the day that a miscalculation about the placement of a magnet committed by someone they had never met and would never meet set them nearly a month behind where they thought they would be. Gregory had glanced over at Dr. Goeppert, and could see that she was flushed and trying very hard not to cry from frustration, and at once he felt it all. Her angst, his angst over her angst, a need to keep her safe and close to him, a need to run his fingers through her dark hair, sweat, blood, idealism and dopamine. He loved her, oh, very much.

• • • •

You know that I could kiss you forever and ever?

Joey had started writing bad love poems on any spare bit of paper ze found in Kant’s apartment. Receipts, grocery lists, junk mail envelopes. Ze put them right back where they were before, and remained unsure if Kant accidentally threw them in the trash until he quoted them back to zer. On top of the polka-dot sheets that had been in the dryer the night before, Joey ran zer hands over Kant’s bare shoulder.

“They say hi.” Kant said with a tired smile, referring to his tattoo there. “Welcoming committee. Welcome inside, Joey.”

He had gotten the ink when he was eighteen, before he started transitioning, and even before he thought about being a boy. It was a very pretty cluster of black, orange and yellow butterflies. Kant only started to get questions about what they meant when he was twenty four, after he started passing as a man and his chest surgery scars had healed. It drew attention any time he wore tank tops or went topless at the beach (or more often, at the little swimming holes he and his friends found while exploring the woods of western Massachusetts). He had once very much liked trying to explain what the tattoo meant. On the rare occasion someone asked, he used to talk about growth, rebirth, and not changing, but becoming something you already are. Now that someone asked pretty much any time it was visible, he just said that it was pretty. He didn’t like that people needed a justification for him to put something beautiful on his body.

“Can I stay this time?” Joey asked.

“You can stay as long as you’d like,” Kant said. He shifted in the dark and kissed Joey’s neck, then across zer shoulder.

“Can I live here?” Joey asked. “I’ll live right here, in the bed. I can come in and out of the window. I won’t make any noise.”

“Jo, what are you talking about?”

“I want to live with you, Kant. I hate going home all the time. I hate being alone in my apartment. It’s making me nuts.”

“We’ll get you a cat,” Kant assured zer, and pressed his mouth on zer skin again.

“I’m allergic,” Joey said, but Kant’s kisses were trailing down onto zer chest. If he heard zer, he pretended he hadn’t.

• • • •

On July nineteenth, Jean-Michel Gregory was one of the last people to leave. He was unsure if he was even allowed to be alone anywhere inside the thing, but he took advantage of the quiet time in this underground city. The endless walls of metal began to seem less harsh and more majestic as he wandered undisturbed. It must have been past midnight. Everyone lost track of time pretty easily down in the Large Hadron Collider. He lay down on his back. The floor was cold, and he closed his eyes and imagined everything as it would be soon, bright and humming, full of possibility. He flushed with pride just thinking about it, even though he had no role in its inception and only a small role in its construction. He thought about Benedicta, about her tense smile. He hadn’t seen her since their end-of-the-world talk. He knew she was probably busy, just as busy as he was, but it still made him nervous. He wasn’t sure if he’d see her again after they went home. He wasn’t anticipating making love to her on the floor next to part of a particle accelerator, but the thought of never getting to say goodbye filled him with a deep, cold loneliness.

• • • •

“Eight, nine . . .” Kant counted. Joey was lying on zer back, and Kant gently pulled back zer lips to inspect zer teeth. “You know you have a funny wisdom tooth back here?”

“Yesh,” Joey mumbled. Kant released zer lips and ze swallowed some saliva. “I know.”

“It’s almost sideways,” Kant said, “Why didn’t you get it pulled?”

“Because there’s only one,” Joey replied. “My dentist didn’t think it was a big deal. I like being a mutant.”

Kant smiled. “Do you want to get brunch?”

Joey breathed deeply. “Yeah, okay. How late are they open? Can I trim my hair first?”

“Sure, whatever. It’s barely eight.”

Joey cut zer own hair, so ze was in a state of constant trimming and adjustments. Ze stepped into Kant’s bathroom and regarded zer reflection. Zer hair was currently in what ze thought of as a Safe For Work state, meaning that none of it was shaved or dyed, and the asymmetry came off as trendy instead of jarring. Zer summer job had ended a week and a half ago, however, and ze could use a change. Ze pulled open the cabinet behind the mirror and pulled out a pair of scissors. Ze grabbed a handful of wavy brown hair and chopped it off.

When ze closed the cabinet to take a look in the mirror, ze found light dancing in zer peripheral vision. Suddenly disoriented, Joey sat down on the toilet and closed zer eyes. When ze opened them, the phenomenon was still happening. It seemed like the trick of light ze used to experience as a child, when ze could see tiny micro-organisms floating on the surface of zer eyes. These, however, moved much more swiftly, and were distinctly opaque and silver. It was just as likely a new trick of light, but Joey was consumed with anxiety. The complete foreignness of the sensation made zer feel like these were tiny silver slices in the universe; reality seemed punctured and these were fragments of something else leaking out.

Eventually both the phenomena and the anxiety subsided. Still seated, Joey opened the cabinet underneath the sink and pulled out Kant’s razor.

“Buzzcuts all around, then.” Ze said to zerself.

• • • •

He saw her as soon as he walked in. Dr. Benedicta Goeppert was wearing a bright green dress with white buttons down the front. It wasn’t the kind of thing he thought she would wear at all, but he was thoroughly charmed. He reminded himself that he didn’t actually know her that well, that he was a ridiculous human being with a ridiculous fantasy life. He crossed the floor of well-dressed scientists and engineers sipping wine and stopped just before reaching her. Suddenly self-conscious about how he would greet her, he turned to a nearby table of food and pretended to consider its contents. She approached him and touched his arm, which thrilled him briefly. They talked about what they had done between leaving the collider and this reception. Then she asked a question that surprised him: Have you received any hate mail?

He gave a flustered no and asked if she knew of some enemy he had made. She told him about all the press around the world that the Large Hadron Collider was getting as the first run approached, and that some people thought they might create tiny black holes and effectively destroy the world. He laughed at the suggestion, and asked if she had received anything. She said she had, one letter. She did not laugh.

After some drinks, they wandered out of the ballroom and down one of the halls of the hotel hosting the event. Dr. Goeppert went into a restroom, and asked Gregory to wait for her. He leaned against the wall next to the door and his mind wandered. He thought about his wife, and wondered if Dr. Goeppert was right, if there had been some incarnation of the universe in which he never met Anna and married her. He loved Anna very much, but he thought that if he didn’t, tonight would be the night he would make love to Benedicta for the first time. In some other incarnation of existence she would come out of the bathroom and kiss him and ask him to stay here in the hotel with her tonight. When they were at the front desk, they would pretend they were married. They would hold hands like newlyweds, and in the morning they would plan to move here to Geneva together. If she was right, if the universe was born and died infinite times, then it had already happened, or it would happen, someday.

This time, she came out of the bathroom, walked straight to him and put her hand in his. She looked up and asked him, using his first name: Jean-Michel, will I ever see you again after tonight?

He told her that she would, of course. They did not kiss this time.

• • • •

I love your hips like mine, I love your body and I love my body less alone. Your body draws me into my body, because I know your body so well, and I know it to be beautiful.

When Joey finally emerged from the bathroom, head freshly shorn, Kant jumped.

“Wow,” He said, “I was wondering what was taking you so long.”

They went back to the Purple Kitty. Joey still had bits of hair scattered all over zer shoulders. They were especially noticeable against the kelly green of zer current t-shirt, the same one ze had worn to Kant’s place the evening before. Joey wore brown and black pretty much exclusively until ze dropped out of college.

“Joey,” Kant started hesitantly, tracing a line on his cup of coffee with his index finger, “Have you been okay lately?”

“Is this because I shaved my head?” Joey asked.

“Of course not.” Kant said. “It just seems like you’ve been . . . somewhere else lately.”

Joey adjusted zer fork and knife nervously. “I want to move in with you.”

“Is that really all?” Kant said. “Because we talked about that, and I thought . . .”

He trailed off. The first time they had talked about it, it had actually gone alright, but Kant’s current roommate, Ariana, was opposed.

“But she doesn’t like me.” Joey said.

“She likes you. She doesn’t want to live with you. Or live with me and you. It’s different. She wants her space.”

“Why don’t we move somewhere else?” Joey asked.

“And leave Ariana to pay the rent on her own? Or fill my room with a stranger?”

“Yeah.” Joey said with an uncharacteristic firmness.

Kant paused, then said, “No.”

His French toast and zer eggs came, and they both ate quietly for a while. Kant reached for the powdered sugar and picked up the conversation again.

“Just give her a while, alright?”

Joey felt a fluttering in zer chest. “September tenth.”

“What?”

“Kant, that’s all I can do.” Zer throat was growing dry and ze felt humiliated.

“That’s five days. This is so random,” Kant said indignantly.

“It’s the . . . ok, listen.” Joey said. Starting by demanding attention that way made zer feel like what ze was going to say was less ridiculous. “That’s the day they’re turning on the Large Hadron Collider. And I — I don’t think the world is going to end, necessarily, but I feel like — there’s no way we can know what it’s going to do. And what the world is going to be afterwards.”

“This is why you’ve been so weird lately.” Kant said in disbelief. “A science experiment in Europe?”

“Don’t make it sound stupid.” Joey said quietly. “I just — I need to know that I’m — that I’m worth this much to you. That I can spend my days and nights with you even if your roommate will be annoyed, or resentful. That you can deal with something so, so fucking small, because I’m worth it. Before September tenth. Because, yeah, I’m scared.”

Kant thought, then said, “I’ve known Ariana for years.”

“Right.” Joey said. Ze got up and fiddled with zer wallet.

“Jo, come on. I’m sorry. It’s not stupid.”

“Prove it.” Joey put a ten dollar bill on the table and walked away.

• • • •

You have butterflies on your skin, welcoming me in; I can’t tell your skin from mine, but that’s just fine.

On September tenth, when the LHC was awake and circulating proton beams for the first time underground in Switzerland, Jean-Michel Gregory was in France, tucking his youngest daughter, Anne, into bed. His older girl, Nadene, was also in bed, but sat up typing. An open laptop rested on the white cotton of her nightgown, and she tried in vain to find her father’s name mentioned somewhere in news about the collider. Jean-Michel walked up behind his wife, who was standing on the small balcony outside their bedroom, and gently kissed her shoulder. He told her he loved her.

In Germany, Dr. Benedicta Goeppert was talking to her mother on the phone. She told her about the reception in Geneva without mentioning Jean-Michel at all.

And in the United States, in Joey’s one-room efficiency apartment, the phone was not ringing. It had not rung. Ze listened to sad songs and looked online for a new job. The sun set and Joey’s melancholy soundtrack began to repeat itself. Ze turned it off and started searching for a new world.

RJ Edwards

RJ EdwardsRJ Edwards is a writer and library wizard. They are the curator of the LGBTQ literature blog Queer Book Club, co-host of the year-round holiday music podcast HARK, and creator of Riot Nrrd, a webcomic at the crossroads of geek culture, social justice, and queer romance. RJ currently resides in Vancouver, BC with their partner and their ridiculous cat, Kurt.