Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

Octopus vs. Bear

You woke up female this morning, so now you have a choice: do what other people want, or be a bitch.

It is a thing you know without precisely knowing it. The knowledge is built into the muscle memory of this miraculous new body; it is draped across the bones like a weight. You shudder, stretching your delicate female limbs beneath the unfamiliar, sun-drenched sheets. Female for a day, you think. You’ve always wondered.

• • • •

The game begins the moment you leave the house. It would have started before you left the house, but you spent hours too excited by your new body—touching your breasts, rolling the nipples between your fingertips until they are hard as button candy—to consider other people. But when at last you leave, and stumble to the bus stop in your butter-colored female shoes, a man is waiting there. He looks up at you. Your options hang heavy in the air, like overripe fruit:

  1. You may duck your head and fiddle with your phone, as though you are reading something intensely engrossing, or
  2. You may gaze into the distance with a vaguely grumpy expression, or
  3. You may say hello like a normal person.

Three is what you choose. Of course: You are a normal person. Well, perhaps not today; in fact, today you are the antithesis of normal, but still, you have unique opportunity to act as a representative of all women speaking to all men at all bus stops, and that is a normal interaction. It should be a normal interaction. Why must we make such a big deal out of everything?

You smile. “Nice afternoon,” you say.

The man smiles back at you. He is a little older. The pleasure in his face is genuine. “It sure is,” he answers.

You sit back, feeling flushed and warm. See? you think, though you’re not sure to whom. To the legions of girls you pass every day with their noses buried in their phones, or held coldly in the air. To anyone who’s ever worn a fake engagement ring to be left alone at bars. That was so easy. Simple human connection, just like that. You smile up at the sky, and the tree, and the bus stop bench where someone has scratched 4SKIN into the green paint. When the bus comes, the man smiles and gestures for you to step on first, and you do, not because you are female, but because he is being nice, and it is a nice thing to accept someone else’s generosity. “Thank you,” you say, and smile at the bus driver, who smiles back.

• • • •

You are, as it happens, female in a sprawling Southern city. You checked your wallet (nonbedazzled white leather, which both disappointed and relieved you) before leaving the house, but it gave no clues as to your quotidian life or employment. A driver’s license with an outdated photo, two credit cards, some crumpled dollar bills, and a business card for a plumber. No employee swipe card, no student ID. Your female body didn’t come, unfortunately, with the muscle memory needed to type its email password or unlock its phone. You wonder if your female body will get in trouble for skipping work today, but there’s not much you can do about that now. You wonder, briefly, if she woke up today in your body. You wonder what she is doing, what trouble she is getting into. Panic trickles through your belly, followed swiftly by cold resolve. You undo the top button of your shirt, roll up your skirt an inch. Two can play at that game, you think, though you aren’t sure what game it is you are playing.

The man standing beside you side-eyes the strip of your belly skin as you pull the cord and signal a random stop. You catch his gaze and quirk a grin, then slide off the bus, laughing, as his widened eyes follow in your wake.

You clatter to the sidewalk on a walkway over the river crawling sluggishly through the city center, a warm breeze shivering the leaves on the trees. You arch your back and wind down the riverwalk in the late afternoon sun, sweat crawling deliciously down the curve of your spine. Everything about being female is sensual to you: the arch of your foot in your shoe, the softness of your face against the backs of your knuckles.

You are not, to your disappointment, overwhelmingly attractive (you checked, this morning, and even after brushing your hair and attempting, disastrously, to put on makeup, you can reckon yourself—your body mid-twenties but too curvy, with wide-gapped teeth—no higher than a six), but still, now that you are female, the whole world seems to bend toward you. People look up more, smile more. Faces turn toward you behind the wheels of passing cars. Even the leaves, skipping down the street, seem to follow in your wake. You think of the loneliness you’ve felt your whole life, and anger floods hot through your stomach. All the embarrassment, the disastrous and clumsy groping. Always having to be the one to approach, to grin and bear it when girls turn away, and now this? You are inundated with attention. You cannot help but have it fall into your lap. You want to grab the closest woman and shout, You don’t know how easy you have it! But the closest woman is you: a thought that makes you laugh and laugh, and makes everyone, of course, look at you, as though maybe they can share in your laughter. As if, for the first time in your life, the entire world wants in on your private joke.

You have never felt this powerful. You could do anything. You could take off your shirt and run down the street, singing, and the world would burst into a musical number behind you.

So you do.

Grinning up into the sun, you undo your blouse, button by button, with your smooth-knuckled female fingers. Then you drop your shirt to the sidewalk and rush out into the street, the water-balloon weight of your breasts bouncing hilariously in their lacy black bra, arms flung wide. Because what are the stakes, really? If this body gets hit by a car. If it gets arrested. You woke up here today, like this, no reason, no explanation; you figure you’ll be gone again tomorrow: This day a strange gift in a strange wonderland.

A truck swerves out of your way and into the other lane, horn blaring angrily. Behind it, cars slam on their brakes, the scream of rubber piling up in the air like dominos. An acrid whiff of burned plastic curls up in your nose as you smile up at the sky, spinning.

“Crazy bitch!” a driver shouts from his window. “Get out of the street!”

Across the way, you see a group of yo-pro guys lounging outside of a bar—thirties, business casual, expensive cell phones forgotten in hands. They look at you, chuckling.

“Hey, guapa loca!” one of them, a white guy, calls.

You grin at them and shimmy your shoulders like a Vegas dancer, sending a ripple through your sun-drenched chest. One man shakes his head and thumbs through his phone, but the others whoop and holler.

The first man yells, “Come over here, party girl!”

You laugh. Even now, even half-deranged in the street, you are wanted.

You collect your shirt and jog over to greet them.

Your new admirers are named Owen and Luke and Paul and Will and Barry, sales reps at a software company that does something something with healthcare solutions. They are headed to a happy hour at a place called The Thirsty Nickel.

Do you like The Thirsty Nickel?

You don’t know. You don’t know, either, that you’re ready to duck into a small dark place with these people, not when the world is enormous and the water is sparkling in the river and there are so many things you want to try in this free body of yours. But you are becoming hungry, and if you know anything about the world, these men would probably very much like to pay for you to eat.

You grin. “Sure,” you say, breezily. “I’m down for whatever.”

They like this. “Down for whatever!” they say. One of them high fives another one, and then high fives you. Then they all want to high five you, and take selfies with you as you follow them down the crowded street in your skirt and bra. They ask you your name, and without thinking you say Alice, which is not the name on the driver’s license in your wallet, but the name of your high school crush: the one who got away and who, today, can get away with anything.

Luke and Will and Paul and et cetera head into the bar, and you pause outside the bar to tug on your shirt. Owen(?) waits with you. He makes a mock pouty face as you do up the buttons (awkwardly, on the wrong side), which is a little annoying. It’s not Mardi Gras, dude, and the sign clearly says no shirt no shoes et cetera.

There’s a tickling in your side: your cell phone, vibrating in your purse. You pause, digging for it. Owen makes a little huffing noise, steps a little closer. Definitely annoying. “Go inside,” you tell him, but he doesn’t move, just widens his eyes at you and jerks his chin, like, come on. “I’ll be right there,” you say, irritated, because what you wanted to say was I’ll get there when I damn well want to get there, and somehow, instead, you have said this thing which is what neither of you want. You turn your back to him and pull out your phone. There’s a breath of cool air on your neck as the bar door swings shut.

Your purse vibrates, and you check your phone. Elena, says the caller ID, over a photo of a smiling Latina woman. Her face is broad, her front tooth slightly crooked. From the reflection you saw in the mirror this morning, you suspect she may be your sister. Or any other Latina woman, really. This day is making you wonder lots of things, and the latest is that you are possibly a racist.

You swipe your thumb across the screen to answer. “Hello?”

The answer blurs across your ear in a smear of foreign syllables. You open your mouth to say, I’m sorry, I don’t speak this language, please speak to me in English, but the words emerge in Spanish. Your lips, somehow, responding in this language you do not understand.

There is a pause on the other end, then more Spanish: irritating, probing, questioning.

Please, you try again, and this you know you are saying correctly: por favor. You say, or hope you say, I know this is strange, but please.

The phone is quiet a minute.

Then a voice says, thickly accented, “What the hell is even your problem today?”

“I don’t know,” you say, honestly.

“You were supposed to get to Abuelita’s hours ago.”

“Oh,” you say, hoping this sounds convincing. “Shoot. That’s right. I forgot.”

The voice says, “What the fuck, Laura. What the actual fuck.”

A college girl saunters by in a tight skirt and you find yourself staring after her pert ass as she goes. Is this just habit, or is your body a lesbian? There is so much you do not understand.

The voice on the other end is getting higher in pitch now, and starting to cry, and there are words like sick and last chance and responsibilidad filtering through, and man, you did not sign up for this. The sky is burning a deep blue over the bridge, and the sun, beginning to sink in the sky, makes all of the buildings look washed so clean, and you cannot fathom spending your one day in this body trapped in a foreign room and pretending to cry while watching a stranger die.

“It’ll be fine,” you say into the phone now. You’re not sure where this is coming from—some new faith, some female intuition. Some hoping for it to be true. “Text me the address. I’ll be right there. I’m on my way.”

Fuck.

You were not present when your grandmother died. You were on your study abroad, in college, in Germany, paying a Euro a minute in a cybercafé while on the screen your father cried and cried. The girl next to you, a beautiful Norwegian backpacker, asked what is wrong and you knew that in that moment you could turn to her with a sad face, and tell her this sad thing, and that she would have comforted you against her beautiful Norwegian bosom. But you weren’t that kind of guy. The shit kind. You were the nice kind, finishing last and spinning out your moral code into the empty, unlistening air of your lonely single dorm room.

You drop your phone into your bag and walk into the bar.

• • • •

Owen and Luke and Paul and Will and Barry (Larry?) are already into their second pitcher by the time you get inside. They see you and shout, “Hey!” as a table and something warms in your chest. They scootch to the side, making space. One of them goes to the bar to get another glass. Another gives you eyebrows of approval.

“Everything okay?” Owen asks. His tone is casual, solicitous. Perhaps you imagined your claustrophobia outside. Surely, that is it.

You waver for the moment on the edge of an honest answer. My abuela is dying. Just thinking the words makes you feel delicate and fragile.

You reach for your glass.

“No,” you say. “It’s not okay. Because I’m fucking thirsty.” And they roar, and clap you on the shoulder, and say party girl gotta party, and it is all okay, because you earned this, you made this, and finally, finally, this is the thing you want.

• • • •

An hour later, you are halfway to hammered. More than halfway, actually. Okay, let’s be honest, you are pretty damned wasted. This body has shitty tolerance. You keep almost walking into the wrong bathroom, but once you get to the ladies’ you are pretty grateful to sit down to pee, because you do not feel exceptionally reliable in regards to the whole equilibrium thing.

“You’re really cool,” one of them tells you when you come back to the table.

“Thanks,” you say. He blinks at you a second, and you remember belatedly how your ex-girlfriend was always bitching about how women had to duck beneath compliments, never accepting credit for anything, and you wonder if you should have said, no, you’re the cool one, or I’m okay, I guess, but then you realize he’s just very, very drunk.

The guys closest to you are talking, you think, about reincarnation. What they would want to be if they got to come back as an animal. “Bear,” maybe-Luke says, pounding the table. “Bear all the way. Think about it. You’re huge, right? Total boss, nobody fucks with you. You spend all winter napping. And then summer?” he leans back, satisfied. “Endless pick-a-nick baskets.”

The one with glasses nods. “That’s what up,” he repeats, softly. “That’s what’s up.”

“No way,” you blurt. “I’ve actually given this a lot of thought. Octopus.”

Luke and Glasses both look at you, surprised. Owen leans across the table, muttering to Luke, “What’d she say?” and Luke answers, “Octopus.”

“Think about it,” you say. You tick off the points on your fingers. “One, awesome swimmers. Two, super smart. They basically can’t be contained in a tank, because they find ways to break out all the time. Three, they’re crazy good at camouflage. Even the word ‘octopus’ is awesome; it even has two plurals: octopi, octopuses. You really can’t go wrong.”

“It’s actually octopoda,” says Larry-Barry.

“Who would win in a fight,” says Paul. “Bear or octopus.”

“Bear,” says Luke.

“It depends on where the fight is,” says Glasses.

“In a forest, definitely bear,” says Luke.

“But a swimming pool,” Owen challenges.

“Is it chlorinated or not?” you ask. Nobody seems to hear you, so you ask again, louder. “Is it chlorinated?”

“Yes,” Owen says, at the same time that Luke says, “No.”

“Okay,” says the one with the beard. “Imagine it’s on land, but the octopus can swim through the air like it’s water.”

“Still bear,” Luke says. “Claws, teeth: no contest.”

“She’s still got camouflage,” Larry-Barry says, resting a hand on your shoulder. “She’s still got ink.”

Your head swims, cloudily. His hand is heavy on your shoulder, and you’re not sure when you became the octopus, or how to acknowledge his hand, or how to shrug it off. If you should shrug it off. Because you know this game, only from the other side: the testing of boundaries. Figuring out what you can get away with before being repelled. You wonder when it became this way, that men were always pushing, and women were always pulling away. If there was ever a moment in history where it was all equal: everyone leaning toward each other in a great rush, saying yes and yes and yes. How easy and warm the world must have been, then, and how fast. You feel suddenly, deeply homesick for this world without no.

Glasses says, “The ink wouldn’t work in the air, though.”

Luke leans across the bar, his shirt grazing the gleaming ring left behind by your beer. “Dude, regardless. Ink versus claws. Have you seen grizzly claws? It’d be like an infomercial: Make this octopus into calamari in five seconds flat.”

Everyone laughs, and though Glasses is half-shouting, “Calamari is squid, bro,” the group’s attention has flowed to Luke, and he catches your eye, eyebrows raised, like, eh?

But then the bearded one says, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and a low groan of approval swells up from the group. You look up at Beardy and smile, and, like a silent easing of weight, you can feel the other men drop away, one by one. As simple as that: You have your champion.

• • • •

The bearded one is named Will. The two of you sit at the end of the table and he buys you drink after drink. He reminds you, weirdly of yourself: early thirties, not quite happy, a thin veneer of alcohol and confidence plastered over the nervous hope that trembles in his face.

It is extremely surreal. You watch him watch you as you talk. You think, I know this game. I know it inside and out. When he listens, when he doesn’t. When he’s just looking for an opening to insert himself a little bit closer. He casually drops a hand on your knee while describing a rock-climbing trip he took to Croatia and your heart aches a little bit. He thinks he’s so close to getting some. He can’t believe his luck. He’s never that guy—never. It’s always Luke, with his handsome, asshole grin, who spent his teen years smiling and saying “yes, sir,” to parents and then calling everyone a faggot in the locker room.

You hate that it is this way. That the Lukes of the world work their way through girl after girl, and the guys like Will—like you—go home alone. Will says something funny, and you throw back your head and laugh, and the joy in his eyes hurts you a little bit, because you are definitely not going to have sex with this dude.

Although. You know.

Call it the alcohol. Call it cosmic justice. And, you know, you’ve always wondered what it’s like. And also, YOLO. And certainly YOWUFO (You Only Wake Up Female Once). And so you find yourself ducking under Will’s arm as you leave the bar together, him turning back and grinning at the coworkers whose envious faces you can imagine so well you do not need to see.

• • • •

Will takes you to his apartment. Dusk has crept up the shoulders of the summer night outside, cooling the edges of the sky as he unlocks the door and invites you inside with an awkward sweep of his arm. You sail in grandly, taking everything in with a smile (that falters slightly at his DVD collection—the entire American Dad boxed set, really?) as if to say, I know it is vulnerable to reveal your inner life to someone you have so far tricked into thinking she would like to have sex with you, but it is okay, you can be yourself, I am not going anywhere.

But. Will doesn’t seem embarrassed. He seems, in fact, satisfied? Like, maybe he wasn’t really nervous at all? Like maybe he saw this as a foregone conclusion?

You know, because he’s like you—he is like you, despite the complete lack of The Wire in his DVD collection—that he didn’t see this as a foregone conclusion, that his relaxed air is just a play for confidence because he knows intellectually that Women Find Confidence Sexy. But that satisfied smirk has you thinking about what the foregone conclusion actually is.

And then he’s pulling you into his arms and kissing you, which is whoa, but actually, you know, not too terrible. You expected this whole sex thing to be awkward, but this man you have chosen is surprisingly self-assured, and (ha ha) cocky. Maybe a little too cocky. Maybe a little pushy, in fact, you think, as he tugs at your clothing. You want to slow down a little, absorb every detail. This is a pretty special thing for you, after all. His beard is scratching your cheek, and that’s a little annoying, but his hands are cupping your breasts, and your ass, and you are intoxicated by the soft weight of them. How light you feel, how heavy and thrumming. You are flooded with a sensation you almost recognize, and you laugh a little when you realize it is lust.

He draws back, examining you through his eyebrows. “What?” he asks. There is hurt laced through his voice, and beneath it, the beginning of anger.

“Nothing,” you say. You want to shout, Can’t you tell? Doesn’t this seem wrong? Different? But you just say, “This is nice.”

He smiles and then leans back in. He kisses down the line of your neck, hand working up your thigh. “Hey,” he says gently, muffled in your neck. “Touch me, baby.”

You comply, reluctantly. You’ve forgotten for a moment that this is not all about you, the shape of your body beneath foreign hands. You slide your hand down to his crotch, thrilling with excitement and something like dread. Everything in this moment is surprising and unsurprising: the hook of his thumb in your underwear. The hard lump of his cock beneath his fly. These are all things you know and you do not know. You wonder how it would be to have sex as anybody. If these things ever cease to be so painfully thrilling and boring all at once.

He guides your fingers to the zipper and pulls it down, and, yup, there it is. All . . . phallic. Being a phallus. You get lost a moment, sizing it up (is it bigger than yours, or smaller? it is difficult to tell from this angle), and he guides your soft brown hand onto it. After a few minutes he tries pushing your head down, too, but nope, ha ha, no way, you are not interested in that. He tries again and the energy between you falters for a second. He’s saying things as you stroke him like, “Uh,” and “Yeah,” and “Baby, that’s good,” but his mouth is tweaked at the edges by annoyance. Your mouth feels thick and dry with the memory of beer. You are starting to sober up a little bit, and trying to remember what you did the first time Layla came home with you, and also what exactly you thought you were accomplishing here now.

There is a low hum in the room: the buzzing of your phone in your purse as Will slides your underwear down your hips and starts to push you back into the couch. You look down at your female body, which this morning looked so ripe and so lush, an impossible landscape of desire, and now, it looks only like flesh, defenseless.

You are not sure you want what will happen next, but the options are scattered across the floor like your unfamiliar clothing:

  1. You may make a lame excuse, or fake an emergency. As in, my God, I have forgotten to feed the dog. I have forgotten, there is a Labor Day sale at Macy’s. I must go, I must go.
  2. You may pull yourself together, smooth your hair. You may say, I know that every action I have taken up until this point signals consent, and that desire is raging in your body, and that my reasons may seem inexplicable to you, but I have decided that I no longer want to have sex with you, here, tonight. And you may be angry, and you may not understand, and it may seem incredibly unfair, but I need to go, now. Thank you for your time. Thank you.
  3. You may tell yourself that you want this, and smile bravely when it is over.

• • • •

You once asked your high school girlfriend how rape could really be bad. “I mean,” you said, fumbling awkwardly with the words, “sex feels good, right?” You remember her look of horror. The way, after that moment, there always seemed a space between your bodies that you could not close, no matter what you said. How hard, or soft, you tried.

• • • •

And it does feel kind of good, although more dimly than you are used to. You are not sure how to describe what you are feeling, because you are not used to having these parts to describe.

• • • •

You leave while he is in the shower, dressing awkwardly in the dim light of the television. You’re out on the darkened street when you remember that you can’t unlock your phone. You could go back and ask Will to call you an Uber, but you can’t fathom knocking on that door now. The busy highway swims ghostly up out of the trees in the distance, and beyond it, impossibly far, the beautiful, deaf city skyline.

You lean back against a street post and pull out your phone, hoping that maybe there will be something you can do. The lock screen is filled with texts from Elena.

DONDE ESTAS??????? >: (

en serio, date prisa

si vengas, ven ahora mismo

Unbidden, the translation pops into your head, the ghost of Spanish 102: If you’re coming, come now.

And then, one hour ago: nvm.

That’s it.

You take a long, shuddering breath and stare up into the streetlight. Everything is blinding, and outside of the blindness, dark. There’s a crimson throbbing in your pelvis. You try to remember if Will used protection, wonder if you should leave a note for this body when it wakes up tomorrow without you in it—Go to pharmacy for Plan B. And also, I’m sorry.

You dig in your purse for a paper and a pen, when a movement to your left scatters your heartbeat into a thousand pieces: a man standing on the sidewalk across the street from you. He is stooped and unshowered, carrying a stained backpack. He looks up at you and then down again, up and down, twitchily. Like a marionette nodding, yesyes. Yesyes.

He’s got seven inches on you, probably, and fifty or sixty pounds. These are not odds you are accustomed to.

You pull out your useless phone, power-walk away. You want to break into a run, but you are afraid, because if you start to run, then he might run, too, and right now, like this, when you can pretend you are just walking—just getting exercise, nothing out of the ordinary—you can pretend that nothing is wrong, and maybe this means nothing will be.

• • • •

There was a game you used to play at night when you were little, riding in the back seat of your father’s car. You would focus very hard on the feeling that you had of sleepiness and warmth and tranquility, and then tell yourself, This is all a lie. Everyone here is a zombie and they are all out to get you. Everyone: your parents. Every person in every passing car. If you managed to jump from the car and roll, there would be nowhere to get away from the zombies: The yellow lamp-lit houses would be filled with zombies, and the gas stations, and even the fluorescent McDonald’s, all the people pretending to stand in line for Big Macs and McFlurries ready to turn and catch you and splinter your bones between their teeth. You would run and run and never be safe. In glimpses, sometimes, you could make yourself feel it, that thrill of not-safety. It was not so much a whole feeling as a layer: everything-you-know-plus-this-other-thing. Everything plus the awareness that it is all a lie.

• • • •

Somehow, you reach the freeway. You are unscathed, or maybe not.

You climb the concrete barrier and cross, gasping, in your stupid and impractical shoes. The lights of strange trucks roaring up at you out of the darkness, and then away.

• • • •

Somehow, you find your way back to your house. Somehow, you stumble up the front walk and through the door. You expect, in the plain yellow light of Laura Guzman’s tiny apartment, to find your butter-colored shoes scuffed and stained, but they look, much to your amazement, exactly the same.

A phone is ringing when you come inside: a salmon-colored landline phone shrilling tinnily beside the fridge in the galley kitchen. It goes silent just as you reach it, the echo buzzing in your ears.

You lift the receiver, thinking to dial *69, the callback code. But instead, you dial your own phone number.

You’re not sure what you expect. Maybe that Laura Guzman will answer. Maybe that she’ll say, I don’t know how this happened either, ha ha, but how was your day? Or even I have spent the day as you, a stranger, and I understand and forgive you now more deeply than anyone has before; can we meet, I need to tell you everything.

But instead the phone just goes to your voicemail. You stare absently at the photo pinned to the fridge—an old woman smiling from behind a pair of Coke-bottle glasses—listening to your own voice unspool in your ear: all chipper and impregnable and whole. How complete you sound from the outside, you think, studying the red, inflamed skin peeking out of the heels of your butter-colored shoes. How easily life must come to the person who sounds like that.

You drop into bed and stare up at the ceiling, waiting for darkness to consume you and set the world to rights. You are still waiting when you wake the next morning to the same ceiling, dawn pinking the horizon and the sun rising over a brand new day.

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Kendra Fortmeyer

Kendra Fortmeyer

Kendra Fortmeyer is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer whose fiction has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016, One Story, The Toast, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ workshop in 2016, and received her MFA in fiction from the New Writers Project at UT Austin. Her debut magical realist YA novel, Hole in the Middle, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in 2017. She also serves as the prose editor for Broad!, a women’s/trans*/nonbinary writers’ literary magazine. She loves mermaids, the word swamp, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find her at kendrafortmeyer.com or on Twitter @kendraffe.