We could see Earth when we looked over the edge of our backyards. It had been quiet lately. The humans were staying at home and away from each other. After some time, we eventually got word of the virus, the global pandemic going on below us. Sure, we felt sorry for them but only as sorry as people who’d never been able to touch one another could be.
Steve moved in next door when everyone else moved in. We were part of the research team which involved us conversing quite a bit but, after work, we still talked standing on either side of the fence. Steve wore baseball caps to hide his nearing baldness and shorts to show off his calves. His nonchalant whistling was so loud, I could hear it from my house on warm days when all the windows and doors were open. It looked like my yard looked at his yard and killed itself; his lawn was green like how I imagined music looked. We had been doing a decent job of replicating things but music was still a mystery to us. Mine was yellow and crunched under my feet.
“Raedene! Raedene!” We were practicing using our names. How they felt in our mouths and in each other’s. When we got here, we got to pick our own names so I chose Raedene for the simple reason that I couldn’t find a specific, logical meaning attached to the name. Steve chose Steve because he liked smiling and seeing people smile when they said it.
When he yelled like this, like there was a fire, all I had to do was poke my head out of my window.
“Shit!” Steve tripped over his hose. “Pardon my French.” We were also trying out idioms and cuss words.
“Raedene! Why do they ride on horses and camels and elephants but keep dogs and cats in their houses as companions?”
“They keep the cute ones because they’re cute, to show off to people. But they sit on the ones that can sit on them.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Power, Steve. Power.”
“I don’t know, Steve. I’m just guessing. But it’s not rocket science.” Power was a pretty good guess though. Usually, he was satisfied with that.
“Raedene?” He asked as I was pulling myself from the window.
It’d been a few months since we decided on Mars. At the beginning of Earth’s new year, we watched the fireworks from above.
“How long have we been here?” Steve asked.
“Since January. We’re on their fourth month.” When they didn’t know they were just months away from a virus that would kill thousands. And that we were watching them from Mars, copying the good parts and avoiding the bad.
“Time flies when you’re having fun.” We clinked.
We chose Mars for the weather, warmer than we expected but well below freezing for humans. And so we could keep an eye on the people of Earth.
They, the ones that made us, made us with skin that looked like that of humans but could withstand the Mars atmosphere. It could do everything the people’s skin could except touch. Something about the incendiary nature of another’s heat touching yours. But that was okay. We took notes but we still didn’t completely understand Earth’s laws of romance and marriage and love. Friendship, on the other hand, we understood.
Everyone on our street was in charge of studying the humans then turning around and living like them. We, however, had a different work ethic than the people of Earth. Our life span gave us plenty of time to do everything, unlike the humans that had to rush to finish. So Steve and I played tennis, using our shared fence as a net. We cooked food from all over their world and handed off to one another things of Tupperware stained red from curry or enchilada sauce. We wrote letters and reports, holding pencils like some humans hold guns and we held guns like some people hold pencils. We read books all day. Steve would underline passages he liked before we traded for me to find.
I tried things on my own too. I took up painting. Every wall in my house was soon covered with landscapes, portraits, even some abstracts. I saw humans work with their hands. So, even though I didn’t need it, I built another addition off the dining room in my house and filled it with more paintings. I taught myself when I should sleep, when I should wake up. And like I heard the humans do when they can’t fall, I counted sheep.
Steve and I watched movies from our respective yards, the screen pressed up to the window and the volume up loud. And like the people on the screen learning English from TV shows and movies, we were learning the language of people through TV shows and movies. He asked questions I didn’t know the answers to but I answered them and he kept asking them.
“Why is there a right and wrong side of the tracks?”
“Better views for the passengers on the right side. The wrong side doesn’t get the light.”
Then: “How does one become a superhero? ”
“Superheroes aren’t real. Humans lie a lot.”
And then: “I know that she’s crying but are they happy tears or sad tears?”
“Those are angry tears.”
“How many tears are there?”
“There’s probably tears for every emotion they have. But we don’t have to worry about that.”
To really be successful, we weren’t copying every single thing the humans did. We were finding what brought them joy and parsing through what brought them despair. Next week we had planned to tackle politics and religion but we said that every week. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” we traded off saying.
Music was harder to get ahold of because we physically couldn’t hold it. Unlike with DVDs and books, we didn’t know how the humans were taking in music. We didn’t know what it looked like, what it sounded like, what it felt like. From our research, we noticed instruments and speakers but we didn’t know how they made the music come out. Steve was positive he was making music with his mouth when he whistled, however.
I put on makeup. It was one thing I noticed that separated the men and the women of Earth. I watched the women in the morning like they were my mirror. They had nowhere to go but neither did I and they wanted to look good and so did I. My skin took to the products well. I put on concealer and foundation then bronzer and blush then eyeshadow and eyeliner and mascara then lipstick.
“What do you think?” I asked Steve as he made his way over to the edge. I turned tentatively, not used to holding myself up for scrutiny.
“Hey, look at that! You look like an Earth girl! Not bad.” That was it for him and he walked away to do some gardening.
“But do you think I look nice?” To that, he turned back around.
“I think you look cute. But a different kind of cute from how you usually look.” I took that as a success. In my lawn chair, I watched the Earth girls and some Earth boys take pictures in their makeup, contorting their faces and bodies in all kinds of poses. Then, I watched them wipe it all off.
So usually we buzzed around up here while the humans buzzed around down there, them unaware of the dance we were doing. And sometimes that dance consisted of us just sitting on our lawn chairs at the end of our yards. We observed and took notes and moved around the new words in our mouths. With our sunglasses on, sitting in our yards, drinking beers, we ended up looking like the couples in their Earth yards with their sunglasses and beers. Some were playing solitaire, sudoku, or crossword puzzles. Recently, there hadn’t been much change, however. Fear of catching the invisible virus kept the people in their houses, six feet apart from others, and covered in gloves and masks when going on essential trips to the grocery store. Steve and I watched them twiddle their thumbs in the afternoon and cry in their bedrooms.
“Do you think it’s because they can’t leave their house and have run out of things to do and feel trapped or because they can’t see their people right now?” He asked.
“I think it’s everything. They’ve never spent so much time in between those four walls and, unlike us, they need other people to survive. Need them to talk to and to, you know, touch.” We looked at each other.
“Also, thousands of people are dying. Thousands more are getting sick. They’re scared and they’re tired and they don’t know what to do. Something like this is unprecedented. Earth’s had wars and diseases but nothing like this.” I said followed by a sip of my beer. We watched so many humans sitting on lawn chairs in the grass or on balconies with bottles of beer sweating in their hands as they watched the people below them, counting which ones were wearing masks and which ones weren’t.
“All of this is so crazy.” He peeked further over the edge. “Don’t you think we should help them?” I paused and didn’t answer right away.
“No. I’ve decided this is good for them. The virus is declining the population, weeding the right people out. It has decreased consumerism and pollution while increasing social awareness and generosity. It’s made people stay home and catch up on things, relax, take a break. This is Earth’s break,” I said. “Can’t you hear her sighing?”
“Why do you think they call it falling in love?”
I thought about this for a moment.
Earth, still in lockdown, had not been very fruitful in gathering new information so we spent today on ourselves. We felt like humans didn’t look at each other enough. Even in quarantine, even when they’re screaming boredom, they stared at screens or at nothing. Neither of us wanted to talk about the intricacies of why we preferred each other to our neighbors, why we spent whole afternoons in our lawn chairs while the humans ran around, how we were really going to build this world to be a better version of Earth. So we looked at each other instead.
Steve had made himself as normal as he could when picking out his appearance. His face was rough. On his cheeks, above his scraggly beard, his skin was pockmarked. He wore glasses when he needed to, covering his lazy eye that had a tendency to wander. His Adam’s apple protruded like he swallowed a golf ball. The tops of his shoulders that I could see from his tank top were sunburned and freckled. I rarely saw his thinning hair because of the baseball caps he wore to prevent from burning his scalp like he burned his shoulders. The smile he would give me looked like one humans would look at and decide needed braces early. His lips were dry and his bad habit was constantly licked them.
I’m sure, as I was looking at him, he was noticing my uneven bangs that I cut myself. My mousy hair that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be straight or curly. My pale skin turned red as lobsters in the sun; Steve couldn’t tell but when I got undressed, the imprints of my clothes, where the sun didn’t touch, were still milky white. The depth of my collarbone looked like it could fill a swimming pool. My arms jiggled when I moved them. Maybe he was counting my moles that decorated my skin, across my face and up and down my body, like eraser shavings on a piece of paper. The corners of my eyes were already wrinkling, crow’s feet the humans called them. If I smiled more, I would get closer to the wrinkles around my mouth, laugh lines.
“You know that feeling you got in your stomach when they dropped us from the ship. That sinking feeling?” I asked. He nodded.
“I think love must feel like that, like falling. A little scary and a little exciting. Perhaps a complete acquisition of the mental capacities for the physical. Or the emotional that acts as the physical. People’s hands are always sweating, tongues getting tied, and hearts beating faster, dropping in their stomachs.” I hadn’t noticed, past the glasses and the slight tilt, that his eyes almost matched the lushness of his lawn. “At least that’s what I’ve noticed in the movies and the books. The love I see when we look over the edge looks quieter.”
“Well, the written word and the actors acting in films are always more dramatic than real life.” He said.
“Yes, right but it’s also another kind of quiet. Sometimes it’s just a simple caress, a small smile, or even just a look.”
“Fuck.” He was the one that taught me it, a word that could be used to mean sexual intercourse or to ruin something or as simply an exclamation, stands for Fornication Under the Consent of the King.
Down below, the virus must have been eliminated as humans were starting to come out of their houses. They looked like ants crawling out from under rocks, carrying all their baggage on their backs to the new place. The death tolls had slowed down. People itched to get back to work, to move their feet and hands with some purpose. The risk was there but now, apparently, so were the humans.
“I have something for you,” Steve said, breaking the silence. He ran into his house and ran back out in under a minute. In his hands, he held a guitar.
“I’ve been learning music. I know that you’d been stupefied by it so I got them to get me an Earth guitar the last time they visited.” He tuned it as he spoke. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
I didn’t know what to say which was new for me as I always had an answer, especially for Steve.
“Cats got your tongue, huh?” He laughed which made me laugh.
“Son of a bitch,” I said, exasperated and we laughed again.
The sounds his warming up hands made already sounded like music.
“When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my soul,” Steve sang. I didn’t know he could sing and, from the look on his face, I don’t know if he did either. There were moments where looking at him seemed too much so I looked down at his grass, his green green grass.
“Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day.”
And he sang those words over and over and over again. Until the guitar faded and his voice faded with it. He said them so much that I believed it was a lovely day. Every day before today had been mundane. But today was lovely.
I held my stomach. I was still getting used to what different flips and turns meant but it didn’t feel hungry or sick. And there was something in me, I don’t know if it was my stomach lurching or the music or something uncharted, but I wanted to touch him. I looked in his face as he looked in mine and the song lay between us. His cheeks were wet. And all I wanted to do was reach out and touch those pockmarks, the little craters that fill with his tears like reservoirs. We didn’t know what would happen if I actually did reach out though. The fear had always been enough for us not to try. But neither did the humans; they didn’t know what would happen when they left and they’re on their way to work.
Steve didn’t flinch or lean back when I reached my hand out. Maybe the something in me that was telling my hand to move was also agreeing with a something in him that wanted my hand to move. I believed it because I thought that’s what the humans would believe.
I crossed the fence and touched his cheek and he was hotter than the sun.
Doors were opening again and lights were coming on. The stay-at-home orders were lifted. We could go back to work and the kids could go back to school but we were careful. We didn’t want to end up back at home. And none of us wanted even more people to die. It seemed appropriate that this was the month we were to go back but slowly and tentatively as it seemed like we were constantly asking “May we this” and “May we that.”
But the OPEN signs hadn’t even been flipped before the sky started falling. The world had been so quiet for months. But everyone seemed to be making up for it now, screaming at the top of their lungs and ducking for cover.
The news reporters just barely got out what was happening. Of course, no one knew for sure so their professional theories looked something like a second big bang but in reverse or the return of another virus, this one much quicker and not as invisible. We didn’t know that Mars was blowing up above us and falling in pieces on to Earth. We didn’t know that this was it. We didn’t know that Steve and Raedene were in love but, then again, neither did they.