The Exhibit of You is the central attraction of an institution you could call a museum, in a population center you could call a city, beloved by creatures who you could call people.
We know that this is annoying sentence structure. If you cannot penetrate it, you might as well stop now. We will not think less of you.
It is a necessary sentence structure because the museum is the accomplishment of beings wholly alien to your sensibilities, whose advanced civilization does not resemble our own in any manner that allows direct transfer of operative terms like “museum” or “city.”
The creatures? They are about the size of pickup trucks, they are translucent, they look like paramecia, they manipulate objects with powerful cilia, and they smell like butter pecan.
How much do they smell like butter pecan? Honestly, any sheer terror you felt in their presence would be overpowered by the ice cream cravings.
Their bodies are disproportionately dependent on large bladder-like structures that fill with local atmosphere, do something arcane with the air, and then expel it. This sounds like they are lungs. They are not lungs. They have lungs. The air bladders are something else. To you and I, and one suspects to all human biologists, they do not seem to have any useful purpose except for generating the aroma of butter pecan. They might have something to do with attracting potential sexual partners from among their race’s twenty-seven genders. Not all the genders are necessary for reproduction and not all of them are fun partners at sexual intercourse. There are indeed three or four genders that exist only because their assistance is required for proper digestion. They have organs that must be recruited in order for the genders that do not possess them to process food from the algal blooms that are among the staples of their kind. If you think this does not create problems for the involuntarily celibate, you reckon without their equivalent of the late-night slice of pizza and the brothels that must be visited in order for the deprived to regurgitate their food into a bowl into which the provocatively-dressed slug of the evening will then spit, at length. This is a pleasurable process for the species and there is no point in exploring it further. We have only gone to this length to establish that these are alien aliens, different in body and spirit, and that the best we can do in relating the drama that follows is to approximate much of their behavior in human terms.
They are still intelligent enough to qualify as people, they have population centers great enough to be called cities, and they have a long and complex history we could use to fill volumes. Honestly, the War of the Thirteen Subjugates alone—what an epic! Were we only to tell you, an exercise that would involve thousands of pages and hundreds of appendices, would your eyes cross!
Let us skip the full course of world-building.
All that is relevant is this:
They have a museum dedicated to the study of you.
Accept this much: that it a museum in the sense that it is an extensive repository of knowledge and that it is open to the public, who come in droves, make the suggested donation at the door, and then mill about perusing interactive exhibits illustrating what is known, what is suspected, and what remains a mystery about the field of study in question, which happens to be yourself.
It is the greatest repository of knowledge about you anywhere in the universe.
Surely somebody in your immediate family has a photo album?
That is barely a pamphlet.
Maybe the IRS then?
No, even the postulated deep state doesn’t know what these creatures happen to know.
You ask how this could possibly be.
How much time do you have?
Look. It involves string theory. It involves certain irregularities in the laws that govern the speed of information. It involves serendipity. It involves a scholar from that world, who many years ago as they reckon time, discovered a little chink in the armor of the universe and through it a world profoundly alien to the sensibilities of his species, which he could view only through that one celestial peephole, large enough to allow the insertion of sensors and probes but not the invasion of scientists and explorers—an opening that was for another raft of arcane reasons centered on one specific human life, one particular set of questionable decisions and other growth experiences, which just happened to strike his kind as profoundly fascinating. It became the obsession of his entire species, and not just because the life under observation was so strange to them, but also because it provided the lens through which every other knowable datum about humanity could be inferred. You became the core curriculum. You became the course of study. You became a bit of celebrity, even as an infant blowing spit bubbles with pursed lips.
Go to one of our own museums and look at the dinosaur bones. It may not matter to you, the layman, how the paleontologist dug them up. What matters to you is that they are impressive, that they tug on your sense of wonder, that they are there.
Had any dinosaurs intelligence enough to understand that a race of upright evolved tree shrews would someday display their bones and study them with great seriousness, they would have been beyond aghast.
And so it is with you and this exhibit of you.
There are experts, sure. Aliens who know the physics involved. Others who have measured everything about you, up to, or down to, the most delicate hemorrhoid. They know where yours are. They have written theses about them. It is a matter of great concern for their scholars. Others come to the same exhibit as laymen and think no profound thoughts, merely goggle at how monstrous you are, how strange, staring with mixed awe and amazement at the recreation of you sitting alone in the wee hours, consoling your insomnia with a bowl of cold mac and cheese. The novelty is itself enough to entice the rubes. The details are what draw the scholars. And the details, exhaustively compiled, filter back to the rubes.
Want an example?
Let us say that they have a video clip of your parents fucking.
It is not what you imagine, a harsh video, but a three-dimensional realization of the moment, captured for the entire duration from all sides, including not just above and below and all other exterior angles but also a full recording of every wobble in the respective metabolisms. They have the moment mid-act when your father wasn’t looking and your mother felt a disturbing moment of disconnect, when she saw herself as if from a great distance and wondered about this strange sticky thing she had done before, that here she was doing again, and how arbitrary an activity it seemed. They have the mental images your father had to entice himself with in order to maintain performance, because by terrible happenstance it was during this specific act that she was most unattractive to him. All of this is annotated with black lines pointed to various parts of their bodies and multiple paragraphs of explanation in the language of the curators who arranged the video as part of their exhibit; and we urge you to the understanding that we have not seen this exhibit ourselves and are therefore just assuming what this particular act of coitus looked like, or whether it was joyful, unwilling, or for that matter, not coitus at all but a date with the turkey baster. Describing the actual event is like taking a turn in a game of telephone. I am telling you that the exhibits include this moment and that I am just approximating it in my own default terms; but there are attendees of this grand museum who linger in this room, fascinated by a biological function that does not match the one they are familiar with from their own life cycle. How amazing they find it, that these few minutes of sad frenzy resulted in you?
Some are horrified. Some are scornful. Some cannot breathe for nonstop laughing.
And here we arrive at the individual most important to us.
This individual is not named Fred, but we will refer to him as Fred because that’s most convenient, who slithers or glides or undulates into the room where he’s been so many times—not walking; their manner of getting about is most certainly not walking—and stares at the moment of your conception with palpable fury.
He hates you.
He is the greatest enemy you have ever had, and you have never once before this moment suspected he even existed.
How do I describe Fred?
Well, he is a rather typical specimen of his own species, except that to their eyes he looks forlorn and hopeless and resentful, all the things that he actually is. Fred is, they perceive, a loser, a creature who has never amounted to anything and who will never amount to anything, a being whose grand fate in life is to make others of his own kind recoil; and there are reasons for this that would require too much in the way of cultural and biological background to explain. The adjectives will not line up, but let us also say that he exudes the special aura of the creature who is doomed to never pass on his genetic material; also that we use the pronoun “he,” which would surely offend him, out of convenience, because it is a harsh oversimplification, and gender identification among his kind is a whole bag of worms—if you forgive me, a literal bag of worms—that we are not about to get into now. Again, it is to avoid footnotes that we approximate. In every species, there are outcasts, beings who do not possess the knack of getting along with other people. Fred is one of them.
And boy, does he hate you.
Fred has been fed a steady diet of lessons about you all his life, all while failing at everything he has ever attempted. He is a member of a species obsessed with you and so he knows more about your life than he ever could have wanted to, but if you want to know how he greeted these unwanted lessons, it was as the human child dragged by the wrist to one of our own museums, who though old enough to start absorbing academic pursuits, though expected to start developing interests, peers at all the manifestations of all our own knowledge and snorts, “it’s BOR-ing!” That child’s skull is a closed box that refuses to admit what so many scholars have devoted their lives to compiling. To him, everything but throwing rocks at birds and kicking over the sand castles built by smaller kids is BOR-ing, and always will be, and it is from this position, this deep loathing of the interesting, that he will proceed to a life dominated by others who have long since lost patience with him. The corollaries are, again, not perfect. Occasional ignition of a chemical sac on the part of the body that roughly corresponds with a neck is part of Fred’s panoply of difficult social problems. You can say something similar about the kid who thinks everything is boring, whose unpopularity in adulthood will someday be stressed by his foul potato-chip farts. Whatever. Fred is an unpopular guy, and he draws a direct association between that and all the excessive attention his species pays to you, the disgusting and gross creature from a small planet half the universe away: the being who gets the attention he does not.
He is bereft, is Fred.
He is despairing, is Fred.
He is at the point that some of us reach, in our daily lives: the moment at which all his endeavors have failed, all his dreams have curdled, and his only conception of the future is that of a creature teetering at the edge of the abyss.
Today is his last chance.
Today he will put aside his enmity toward the one creature he hates even more than he hates you, and clutch at his last chance; and today he will fail.
This is a tragedy, of a sort.
Farther down the hall there are exhibits dissecting your infancy and your early childhood. There are some finger-paintings you did in kindergarten. There is much scholarly debate about what you intended with those blobby images. Farther on, there is the stick-figure drawing of you standing next to a tree that your child self simplified to a brown stick topped with a green circle—and no, at this age you were no damned good at coloring within the lines. Here is another 3-D recreation, again captured by probes both inside and outside your body, of you at the zoo, being violently ill in the aftermath of too much candy; and it just so happens that the curators of the museum find special significance in this colorful incident, which has fueled hundreds of learned theses and what I will call a TV miniseries, though it was not TV and the thousands of episodes would take the average consumer of this species a full lifetime to consume. This is literally the story every child of this race knows by heart. I mean, American children get George Washington narking on himself for chopping down the cherry tree and the individuals of this species get you drowning an anthill in your excess sugar consumption. For some reason, the aliens find this particular barf, out of all your others, endlessly fascinating. But again, it is annotated, and again, it is to these people iconic.
But perhaps we should hurry past this wing, past the various low and high points of your education, your social successes and failures, and ultimately that holographic statue that is you suddenly realizing that adulthood looms ahead like a crumbling mountainside intent on crushing you. Entire libraries have been written about this first moment when you really bothered to give your future any thought, this first manifestation of the pressing question, “Oh, God, what am I going to do?”
These aliens do not have T-shirts, but they have an item of clothing that very roughly approximates, sold in the retail establishment that is this museum’s equivalent of a gift shop. They sell this item, emblazoned with your facial expression and your dismay about your future prospects. They wear it in public, with pride, or at least with irony.
They also have items bearing other legends key to other moments of your life, bearing such fateful quotes as,
Why did I say that?
Why did I eat that?
Oh, my god, I must have just come off as one colossal asshole, right then.
Dammit, I meant to turn left.
I think I saw this movie before.
I think I’m coming down with a rash.
Should I go with the small or the medium?
I’ve got something in my eye.
Why did they leave without me?
And so on.
All of which are permanent exhibits, with docents trained in answering questions from any visitor. Some of these are too alien for these aliens to understand easily, but they get the general idea, which is that you spend a lot of your existence confused not only about the overall direction of your life but also about small transactional problems. There are vast compendia detailing those moments where you have been stymied by doors, when you pulled and pulled because you did not register the signs that said push. The museum of you is nothing if not the first place anyone would go if they wanted to learn about all your embarrassing moments.
But here we return to its own collection of dramas. We pass an alcove dedicated to your supremely unfortunate first exposure to public speaking, to something that could be called a door and beyond it something that could be called a hallway, to various warrens where functionaries perform the necessary grunt work that keeps the museum going, into a larger and more ornate space where we meet a figure who to our eyes is no different from any of the other alien figures who work under him, but to them is a formidable figure of immense reputation of gravity.
We would call him the curator.
He is this world’s supreme expert on the subject of you.
He was born to the position, this creature who looks nothing like what I am about to describe but may perhaps be easiest to picture as a Victorian figure in exquisitely-tailored three-piece suit, whose eyes are blue and piercing and whose cheeks are festooned with muttonchops. Because his professional standing has elevated him to a position that is as much administrative as it is educational, he is a being of significant influence and power. He is the one who determines which dusty personages in the back passages get higher pay rates; which sections of the physical plant get the full benefit of the last emergency fundraiser; which larvae are plated in gold and plunged still alive but terrified into the raging fires of the ceremonial furnace. (I remind you, here, that not everything translates.) He is today preoccupied by a certain issue involving plagiarism of a textbook written by one of his institution’s greatest experts on your late-life digestive problems, that was published under the aegis of his office and that he is now expected to prosecute with all the legal remedies at his disposal, for this world does have lawyers even if court procedure does involve spiky balls being fired from cannons. Taking these steps will be a great inconvenience to him, taking him further away from the academic work he still favors, and the political repercussions will be staggering, and it will all be terribly expensive and vile, and so he is in a bad mood, this important figure, a terribly bad mood, which is not easy to distinguish from his usual bad mood.
This is where Fred enters.
You remember Fred.
The curator remembers Fred too, because Fred is his offspring. He is not happy to see Fred. He has some residual affection for Fred because Fred is his offspring—and this commands significant responsibility even though the specific means by which this species creates offspring is unimaginable to us in more ways than I can count, in no small part because it involves ritual cannibalism and gestation outside the body. You would find it as horrifying as these people find your mother and father fucking. They have no direct analogues to “mother” or “father,” but understand “parent,” and it normally involves protectiveness and love. The curator, as it happens, retains only a little for Fred, who has used up all of his last chances.
What follows is a recreation of what passes between them, translated into the most appropriate human analogues. It is not a perfect translation. It cannot be. You live in a world where an American audience can “get” maybe eighty percent of the social structure that fuels the great film Seven Samurai, and that is only one language barrier. Biology adds another barrier and so does the norms of a society fueled by a history entirely different from our own. Let us say that we get maybe thirty percent. We will not muddy the basics with excessive annotation. The basics are simple.
CURATOR: Hello, Fred.
FRED: Hello, Father.
CURATOR: I’m very busy. If you need money, it’s not a good time.
FRED: It’s not about money. I just need to talk.
CURATOR: You couldn’t make an appointment?
FRED: I’ve always made appointments, Father. I’ve always been told to go away and come back. I know you hate me, but this is too important.
CURATOR: I don’t hate you, Fred. I just don’t have time for you.
FRED: I know. I need you to make time. Just this once.
CURATOR: What do you want? Do you need me to call some professional to spit in your last meal?
FRED: I’ve screwed it all up, Father. I’ve messed up my life in all the ways I possibly can. I’m in more trouble than I know how to fix.
CURATOR: You’re an adult. That should not be my problem.
FRED: I know it shouldn’t. But here I am.
CURATOR: Tell me what you need. I have a museum to run.
FRED: It’s always about the museum, isn’t it?
CURATOR: I can’t discard the needs of the museum to suit your convenience. I have things to do.
FRED: (After a long pause) You’ve always had things to do, Father. You’ve always had this devotion to this bizarre creature a universe away from us, and never seen any of us standing next to you. We’ve always had to fend for ourselves, while you tended to the study of something that exists on the other side of the sky. Well, here I am standing next to you. I’m not asking you to abandon the museum. I’m just asking you to look at me as something other than an interruption, just once.
CURATOR: Just once? Do you know how many times your failures and fiascos have taken me away from my work? Well, more than once, I promise you!
FRED: And why was the work always more important than us, Father?
CURATOR: Who’s us? Are you putting yourself in the same category as all your brothers and sisters? Because, unlike you, they are people who have accomplished things in this life. They have contributed to our society and to our body of knowledge. I have time for them because they are worth the time. I am dedicated to this course of study because it is worth my time, because it has inspired a sense of wonder all over the world. Because it has raised the eyes of our people toward the stars. Because we have looked into the eyes of an alienness greater than our most accomplished minds can fathom, and through it learned the vastness of the universe, and because this has helped us define ourselves. Every iota of knowledge I pull from my studies of the alien builds on our knowledge of ourselves, and our entire race is always waiting for more, and not incidentally because I am compensated in resources that paid for your home, for your education, and for all the advantages I gave you, that you have squandered. I don’t hate you, offspring; I have just given you all I can, and I cannot pull more from an account that you have drained to the very last dregs. I am weary beyond words at dealing with your drama. I don’t have the time to deal with our past. But if you tell me what you want right now, I may be able to spare you some assistance, if it gets you out of my hair for a while. But skip the preamble. I’m busy.
FRED: Don’t you love me at all?
CURATOR: Of course I do. I just know what you are, and what you are is a failure at everything you ever set out to be, despite all the advantages I gave you. Now tell me what you need from me, or get out. I am very busy.
FRED: (Turns to leave, then returns) Damn you.
The museum is not just focused on your embarrassments. They dominate the place, in part because you are like most human beings in that you have had more embarrassments than successes, but your life has not been a nonstop parade of woe, like Fred’s; indeed, if he had the ability to focus, to make the best of the few bright spots in his benighted existence, he would no doubt find some source of comfort, some life not tied to his distant and disapproving parent. He could, let it be said, find redemption even at this late date. But he is not of the mind to perform that self-inventory and so it is with a sense of a box slamming shut on his existence that he makes his way to a special part of the museum focused on your unalloyed pleasures, your joys, your sources of pride in yourself: the little award you won in grade school, a compliment from the boss, a gesture of reciprocal affection from the one human being you find most attractive. It is a happy part of the museum, and to the extent I am making you aware of it you are happy that it is there, but what also needs to be recognized is that the species which has made you its course of study is profoundly alien to us and has trouble distinguishing your joys from your sorrows, and may not fully understand why your view of the sunrise from a mountain ridge is one of the best moments of your life, or why you tend to look back on that moment with a joy that comforts you at difficult times. Many find that perspective random, even arbitrary. The irony here is that Fred understands it perfectly; he is also a scholar in the study of you and has perspectives unavailable to the layman, even if his education was an unwilling one because of his youth in proximity to a parent who was fixated on you. It is not knowledge he wants to have.
Damn you, Fred thinks. He is mentally addressing his parent.
Damn you, he thinks. But this time he is thinking about you.
Earlier we mentioned that he hates you. Do you now understand why? For as long as he’s lived, you have always been at the center of the imagination of his species; and for as long as he’s lived, he has always existed outside the subset of things that his kind cares about.
This is him wandering past an exhibit of special importance to you.
Do you remember us referencing the exhibit of your parents mating?
This particular one is worse.
It is the worst moment of your life, one you recognize as the worst moment of your life, years later. We will not specify. Perhaps it shows you overcome with tears and standing in a high place, thinking of the impact against the river as a deliverance. Maybe it is a hospital vigil and you are seeing the one human being who meant everything in the world to you breathe her last few breaths. Perhaps you fought in a war and this is your sucking chest wound. Does it matter? There is physical pain and there is psychic pain, and it can be difficult to parse just where one experience ranks by the standard of another, even when they are the experiences of one human being and another, or even of one human being whose one life has been filled with extremes of all sorts, including those that render suicide a sensible option. This is impossible, and comparing your worst moment to an alien’s worst moment is even more difficult. Suffice it to say that this moment was truly so awful that it eclipsed anything else that your life offered, and that it made the world itself seem to tilt on its axis, and that while it was happening the terribleness of it all was so overwhelming that you could not internalize it. You could not imagine any means of going on, any way to survive, any next step that was not self-destruction. You might not have actually proceeded to that end, but at the moment itself, at the heartbeat when the unbearable met the personal limits of your endurance, Death was what tempted you.
This is all clear to the aliens passing through the exhibit, even if they don’t quite understand the fuss you’re making. The specific reasons for your angst and your suffering are, again, based on premises they cannot share with you. But they do feel for you, because they do understand the premise of sorrow too great to bear, and they understand that this is such a moment for you, and they pause near the iconography and drink in the commonality documented by this moment where your grief seems to echo with their own sources of grief, and they muse on how beautiful it all is, how touching, how universal.
Fred glares at you and thinks, they can feel you but they can’t feel me.
And this tips him over the edge into action, a specific action that he already had planned on his way here, that the trip to see his parent the curator was a last ditch effort to prevent.
He curses you by name. Given the differences between his vocal apparatus and your own, even the differences in the atmosphere of his world and our own, it is remarkable how well he pronounces it. If you were in his immediate presence and not choking to death from a habitat that you would find toxic, you would turn your head. You would, of course, then see what was talking to you. You would say, “What the hell—”
It is as much as you would have time to say. Because Fred has made up his mind.
He activates the control device secreted in one of his external gas-bladders.
His bombs—and this is one moment of perfect commonality between humanity and his kind; we both have bombs—go off.
They are incendiaries and they are set to spread.
Imagine tapestries hanging from the walls. Imagine the flames racing up them, toward the ceiling; imagine the smoke and heat blocking the portals between one room and another; imagine the suppression devices failing to activate, because Fred has sabotaged them. Imagine museum-goers bunching up at the exits, feeling the flames licking at their backs.
Imagine Fred dying with great satisfaction because this is what he wanted; imagine him thinking of this as not just an act of blessed revenge but one of great psychological victory, because he has never seen the point of so many of his people paying so much attention to you and thinks that he has done his kind a great service that future generations will someday come to appreciate. He thinks that from now on everybody can devote their study to something that matters, and as his flesh crisps he tells himself that this is a sensible reason to give up his life.
Now imagine the curator sitting in his comfortable sanctum, hearing the alarms and understanding just for one moment what must have happened. Imagine him thinking that he misread Fred, that the tough love he thought would make his offspring fend for himself has instead backfired and caused a tragedy. Imagine his great sorrow and imagine his rage, his loathing of the self-absorbed little twit who would destroy so much his culture considered important. Imagine that he is about to hurry to the exit when one of the secondary devices goes off and the floor beneath his bulk—not beneath his “feet,” of course, because he has no feet—when that floor opens up and he plunges, plunges, plunges, toward a lower level that is already an inferno, and imagine him screaming, and imagine one small part of his mind not giving in to the grief and horror and instead feeling a deep regret that the all-important project he initiated this morning, the translation of one particular piece of your correspondence, will now never be completed. No one will ever know what it says. You alone know, because I am telling you, that it is proof of a payment made, to a collection agency that had been bugging you for the delinquent amount. “Please fix this,” you wrote, and those words are now on a flaming sheet of a material that is not paper but could be, burning from the outside in, until it is reduced to ash, within seconds of the same thing happening to the curator, and only a few seconds after it has happened to Fred.
Imagine this vast collection that includes your first steps, your first word, your first day at school, your first glimpse of the clouds, your first touch of snow, your favorite pet, your first viewing of Casablanca, your first exposure to a book you hated, your first glimpse of ocean waves, your first kiss, your sneezes, your coughs, your agonizing belly pains, vanilla and chocolate, everybody you have ever hated and everybody you have ever loved, your heartbreaks, your joys, the stupid simple things that everybody knows but that you have never understood, the things you do understand that you wish in vain that other people would get, the first sight of a wrinkle on your forehead, illness, health, the dreams you achieved and the dreams that went to ruin, the feel of a pillow on the back of your head, the bubbling of carbonated water in your throat, the really great comeback you used against that lout the one time, the thing you really should have said something but were too stunned into silence to speak, that blister on the roof of your mouth, the first few bars that trigger recognition of the song you love, the little moan that escapes you when you recognize the first few bars of a song you hate or a song you love translated into standard elevator, all that, every bit of it and everything more important, everything that makes up you, falling to a conflagration on an alien planet on the other side of the universe, while everything still remains intact on the world where you live, because you are still living it and are still thinking that it will last forever, that time will not do to everything around you what Fred has just done to simulacra millions of light years away.
And here’s the secret.
There is a moment in winter, during a light snowfall. You are a child. You stick out your tongue to catch some of the precipitation. You feel it touch and you take pleasure in taking even that flavor, that limited flavor, from the banquet that life has afforded you.
Would it upset you to know that in the museum it is the last of the exhibits to be fully consumed by the flames summoned by Fred?
And would it upset you to know that when the lights go out on the life you’re living, when your neurological functions descend to zero and you go to the same place that awaits us all, that it is the last memory that flickers across your mind before it all goes to black?
Fred did not plan that ghastly coincidence.
But neither did you.
And there’s no gift shop to stop at, on your way out.