“Don’t touch me.”
“I like you Clarissa. Can’t we just hold hands?”
“I…I don’t know, Brad. I don’t know if I feel…”
Clarissa isn’t afraid of what she doesn’t feel but what she will if she lets Brad touch her.
It didn’t happen all at once and it didn’t happen at all when she was little.
When Clarissa was a little girl, she loved hugging her Mommy and Daddy, her Uncle Bill, and her Aunt Sarah. She held hands with her best friend Emily when they were five. Touch meant love and security. She sat on her Grandpa’s lap when he read to her until she was six and then sat next to him cuddled up against his side after that.
It started happening after she got her first period. Clarissa didn’t know what it was at first. When she hugged her Daddy, she didn’t always feel warmth and caring. Sometimes she felt worry, frustration, and anger.
She thought Daddy was mad at her, but his voice was still soft and his eyes were still kind.
When she hugged Mommy she sometimes felt lonely and empty, as if life didn’t mean anything.
It took a while, but Clarissa finally realized what she felt when she touched someone wasn’t what they felt about her but what they felt about themselves and their lives.
Daddy had a job that he hated. He hated driving ninety minutes one way just to get to work. He hated having to live so far away from the City because the only houses they could afford were way out here. He hated what he had once dreamed of being was all gone now.
Mommy’s dreams were gone now too, especially her dreams about Daddy. When they met and fell in love, they each thought the other person was “the one” who would make them feel good and cared for forever. Then things changed, they had Clarissa, they moved, changed jobs, changed as people, until now Mommy felt like Daddy was almost a stranger.
As Clarissa got older, she touched her Mom and Dad less and less, until at age sixteen, she managed to convince them she wasn’t “into” hugging anymore. They took it as a stage in her adolescence.
She was sad Grandpa had died but in a way glad he left her before his touch became toxic as well. She wanted to remember him as her Grandpa, the person who always loved her unconditionally, who read the same book to her over and over no matter how many times she asked, who made drawings with her, who wrote stories about her being a space hero on his blog, who said he would never stop loving her no matter what.
Now in her memory, he would always love her and he never would change.
But every time she touched someone else, they changed. Well, they didn’t change really. Clarissa just found out who they really were inside.
It was horrible. Everyone had problems, worries, frustrations, anger, and pain.
She thought she was the only one until the power came to her and now she knew everyone was broken, damaged, hurt, flawed, wounded.
Trust. It’s only an illusion. You trust what you see and feel about a person on the outside, but if you know who they really were, you discover most of them don’t even trust themselves. Maybe they don’t even like you but as much as that realization hurts, what’s worse is how much most people hate themselves.
Maybe Brad really did love her. She needed someone to love her. It hurt to let anybody touch her, but she was so incredibly lonely and isolated. The little girl who still lived inside of her missed hugging and cuddling.
It was after school and she’d told Mom and Dad she was meeting some friends at the “Soda Shoppe,” a popular hangout for the kids. It was only two blocks from school and that’s where Clarissa and Brad were walking now.
He wanted to hold hands. It sounded so sweet. From the way the girls talking in the gym locker room, a lot of them weren’t even virgins anymore. All Brad wanted to do was hold hands.
He’s so cute. He has such a nice smile. His eyes are pretty. Clarissa opens her hand and lets Brad hold it. His hand feels warm. His palm is sweaty. He’s nervous.
Brad’s confused. Dad comes home every night, ignores him and his sister, and after dinner drinks beer in front of the TV until he falls asleep. Mom goes out to do errands, but Brad once saw a text on his Mom’s phone from a man he didn’t know. The text said, “I love you.”
He likes her but thinks Betsy and Shannon are cute too and Shannon has bigger boobs. He sneaks peeks at her boobs and butt when he thinks she isn’t looking, He gets online and goes to a porn site. He masturbates pretending he’s undressing…
“No.” She pulls her hand away fast and hard.
“What happened? What’s wrong?” Brad sounds scared and confused. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. This feels wrong.” Boys are pigs. He wants her to take off her top and bra so he can look.
“I’ve got to go.”
“But you said you didn’t have to be home until…”
“I changed my mind, Brad!” She’s aware she’s yelling. People around them stop walking to look at her.
“Okay. I’m sorry. See you for study hall tomorrow?”
He probably really is scared and confused. She should have found a better way but she was just so…embarrassed.
“Sure. Bye.” Clarissa turns and goes back the way they’d come. The bus stop was just a block away.
Was he really so bad? All boys think about sex. Clarissa blushed when she thought about Brad. She daydreamed about kissing him and she wondered about sex like a lot of girls. Only some girls talked about it. Mom told her “good girls” didn’t talk about sex but it was normal to think about it. She wanted Clarissa to stay a virgin, if not until her wedding night, at least until she went to college.
Clarissa wanted control of who she did what with and when. It was her life and her body.
But if just holding Brad’s hand was so strange and shocking, what would letting him or any boy inside her body be like? Sex was supposed to be really private and intimate, but if you could feel every emotion, hear every thought…
Boarding the bus always means casual touching, rubbing shoulders, bumping into people. He’s worried about his taxes, she doesn’t know how she’ll keep her three kids fed until her next paycheck. Bad marriage. Bad job. Lonely. Sister has cancer. Everyone worries. Is that all there is to being human? Why can’t she touch someone who isn’t depressing?
The next afternoon Clarissa and Brad are sitting opposite each other in the school library during Resource Period. He’s been helping her with an English Lit assignment and she was tutoring him on Algebra.
“I want to apologize for yesterday, Brad.”
He looks like the proverbial deer in the headlights. He still doesn’t know what happened but then how could he?
“I figured you had a good reason. I’m sorry if I did anything wrong.”
For the past four years or so, whenever Clarissa touched someone, she broke it off immediately. Maybe you had to touch longer to find out what a person was really like, to get past the surface. Brad wasn’t someone who just wanted her for sex, was he? Not all boys were that shallow.
“I want to start over again.”
“What do you mean, Clarissa?”
Hold up both hands, palms out.”
He did what she asked. “Now what?”
She held up both of her hands like they were going to play patty cake. “Just stay still Brad. Try to think the nicest thoughts you can about me.”
He looked at her funny, like he thought she was a little crazy, but he nodded “yes”.
She moved her hands forward a little at a time, like she was about to touch something that was hot. Then she gently pressed her hands against his.
Confusion. Wonder. His hands are sweaty. He’s nervous. He likes me. He thinks I’m sweet, pretty, he likes my boobs, he likes my lips, my eyes. He wants to ask me to the prom. He wonders how he’ll afford it. He’s worried about his Mom and Dad. His sister is only thirteen and she stays out until midnight and won’t tell him what she does. He’s thinking about sex. He wants to hug me. He wants to close his fingers around mine. He’s not just wanting sex but he wants sex. He thinks he’s falling in love. He wants to hug. He wants to kiss. He wants to put his hand in my top and feel my boobs. He is shy. He hates being shy. He wishes he was smoother with girls. He…
Clarissa pulls her hands back and puts them in her lap. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling, as if she absorbed some of his emotions, the need to hug, to kiss. The inside of her panties feel moist. Her nipples are sensitive. Clarissa looks down and sees they’re erect. Quickly she grabs her textbook and presses it against her chest.
“What happened, Clarissa?”
“I…It’s not you, it’s me. I just have a…hard time touching.”
The look on his face is so sad. She’s tempted to touch him to find out what he’s feeling.
“Did someone hurt you?”
“What do you mean, Brad?”
“I mean, well…like you know…molest you?”
When she was thirteen, she was playing volleyball during gym class. Angie Commoner tried to block the ball and missed. She lost her balance, knocking Clarissa over and falling on top of her. It was horrible. Angie’s Uncle had been molesting her since she was eight. He took her virginity at the end of last school year.
Clarissa yelled, “Get off me!” She sounded furious but she was really terrified. She could…feel it when her Uncle… She started crying and ran into the Girls’ restroom. She pretended he’d hurt her arm in the fall but she was mad at Angie for making her feel what Angie felt.
Later she felt guilty. It wasn’t Angie’s fault. Should she tell someone? When they asked Clarissa how she knew, what would she say? But Angie needed help. “But I’m only thirteen. What can I do?”
That had never happened before. It was a flashback to three years ago. After that day on the Volleyball court, she never went near Angie again. Angie moved away a month later. That was the first time Clarissa wondered if the knowing went both ways with some people.
“No. No, not me. Someone I went to Junior High with.” Brad transferred to their high school when his family moved to California from Colorado, so he didn’t know any of the kids she used to hang out with.
Did the knowing go both ways with Brad? He didn’t act like it did. He knew something was wrong, but he could have gotten that just because she was acting weird.
She was anxious but she was happy. There was more to Brad than just sex, but sex and love and everything else was so mixed up together, she couldn’t separate one from the other. Maybe Brad couldn’t either.
It was after supper. Her homework was done. Mom was in the den doing the online banking and Dad was watching the news. Clarissa stood by his chair. She must have looked pathetic or something because he stood up.
“What’s wrong, Baby?”
She held out her arms. If Brad was more than he seemed if she touched him long enough, Daddy and Mommy were too. She missed them so much.
He hugged her, “Oh my baby girl.”
Worry. Commute. Get the oil changed. Love. Daughter. He sees me as a little girl running in the backyard. He loves me. He’s cuddling me while we’re watching cartoons. He loves me. Mommy just gave birth to me. He loves me. Daddy and Mommy are holding my hands as we walk on the beach. He kisses Mommy. He loves me. I want a divorce.
Clarissa pulled back like he’d been electrocuted.
Hot tears stream down her face. Choking back her cries, the sixteen-year-old runs up the stairs and into her room. Dad comes up and knocks on the door.
“Go away!” He wants to divorce Mommy. No! No! No!
Later Mommy comes in and tries to rub my back.
Concern, worry, she thinks I’m acting strange. Not enough money. Debt. Dad needs a better job. She needs a better job. My poor baby girl. I love you. I love you so much. Custody. I want a divorce.
The Hat Creek Radio Observatory had been closed to the public for the past year-and-a-half, ever since they started receiving the signals from the direction of the constellation Lyra. SETI objected strongly to the secrecy but the NSA and Military insisted that national security in the face of possible contact with extraterrestrials was paramount.
Clarissa was twenty-six years old. She had a dual Masters in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering and a security clearance that allowed her access to service and monitor what they now called “The Lyra Array,” the collection of radio, microwave, optical, and other telescopes all focused on the source of the signal.
For anyone else it would have been a lonely job. Those stations were either sparingly staffed or completely automated. Except for Clarissa, there hadn’t been another person up at Hat Creek for three months.
She liked it that way.
She never went to the prom with Brad. Clarissa still thought of him occasionally. He really was sweet. She realized now that at age sixteen, he was just as confused about love and life as she had been. No wonder everything inside of him was jumbled. She heard he met a girl during his senior year at Stanford. They’re expecting their second child in March.
Mom and Dad never got a divorce. As Clarissa figured out when she got older, married people weren’t always happy or in love with each other all the time. When she was about twenty, she asked her Uncle about it and all he said was, “The magic comes and goes.”
Clarissa was calibrating one of the microcontroller analog oscillators for an RF antenna. She was just about done with the routine maintenance and hadn’t discovered any unanticipated issues with the array. She was done early. No point in driving back into town just so she could sleep in some seedy motel. She had a cooler full of sandwiches and a sleeping bag and it was so much more peaceful up here. No people. It suited her. It’s a big reason she took this job. She almost never had to deal with a lot of people.
There were all kinds of rumors at college about her being a lesbian. Sonia, her dorm mate who actually was a lesbian even asked if she were closeted. No one could figure out how anyone, straight, gay, or gender fluid could go completely without sex.
All she wanted to do was live in peace, but touching another person meant living in chaos, not only in the moment, but afterward as she tried to process the experience.
Mom and Dad seemed to sense something about her and by the time she was a high school senior, never tried to touch her again. Was it because they found it confusing and distressing too, or maybe they knew it felt that way for her?
A couple of times, she thought about visiting a shrink about the knowing. She’d even looked up places that did psychic research thinking maybe they could help. But she decided she didn’t want to end up a lab rat. She was comfortable with her own company. She still missed the cuddling and holding, but that was something only for children. She had to tell herself that so she could be okay with the sort of life she was leading.
She’d laid out her sleeping bag on a sofa what was in the staff lounge. It was softer than sleeping on the floor, but not by much. At first she thought it was a dream, but then she realized she kept hearing footsteps. No one was supposed to be at Hat Creek except her.
She grabbed her flashlight from her backpack and made sure her cell was in her pocket. Clarissa could have turned on the light, but that would make it easy for an intruder to see her but impossible for her to see him.
Clarissa listened. There were footsteps and they were getting closer. She pulled out the cell and tried to call out.
“Damn it. Millions of dollars of radio equipment designed to hear faint whispers across light-years and I can’t even get a cell signal.”
The lounge light came on. Clarissa had to blink until her eyes adjusted.
“I saw your car outside. I was hoping someone was here.”
“Who are you? I’ve already called the cops.”
“I don’t think you have but I’m not here to harm you. I just came to talk.”
“Answer the question. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
If he attacked her, she’d fight as hard as she could, but she was all alone and there wasn’t another person around for miles.
He didn’t look dangerous but that didn’t mean anything. He was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt and something she hadn’t seen in a long time, a down vest. He looked like he’d taken wardrobe lessons from Marty McFly in the first “Back to the Future” movie.
“My name is Bob…Bob Smith. I know I don’t belong here, but I know what you do. I came to talk. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“What are you talking about?” Clarissa abruptly realized she was still pointing her flashlight at him. She turned it off but held onto it. It made a better weapon than her cell.
“You listen with your telescopes. I thought you wanted to listen to me.”
Oh great. He’s crazy. He thinks he’s an alien, or a prophet, or an ET-whisperer or something.
“Unless you just landed in a spaceship from Vega, you aren’t what the telescopes are pointed at.”
“Not from Vega, Miss…I didn’t catch your name.”
She raised the flashlight in what she hoped looked really threatening. “Just turn around and leave and there won’t be any trouble.”
“You are very confusing. I know your arrays have been receiving…you could say it’s a calling card. An announcement if you will. A large group of vessels would be intimidating. First contact between two individuals is much…”
“Get out!” She was panicked. For once in her life, Clarissa wished she was in a room surrounded by people, hip deep in flesh and sweat. About ten or twelve Marines would be really great right now.
“I said get out!”
“But this is really important. If you could just…” He took one step toward her…then another.
Clarissa ran forward and tried to bring her heavy metal flashlight down on his head as hard as she could. He reached up, grabbed her wrist with one hand and stopped her forward motion by holding onto her shoulder with the other.
Peace. Joy. Wonder. Journey. Life. Communication. Sharing. Warmth.
She staggered backward.
“You understand. You communicate.” Now he was the one who seemed puzzled. “We didn’t know this about you. The touching. The knowing…”
“I’m the only one. I mean I’ve never met anyone else like me.”
He considered her words for a moment and then held out his hands and said, “May I?”
She was still holding her cell and flashlight. She put them both down on the floor. In the few seconds they had touched each other, she experienced something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Trust.
They walked toward each other and then held hands.
There was no chaos, no dissonance, no confusion. Everything he was, thoughts, feelings, mind, body, soul, all in harmony. Harmony was necessary to move beyond your world and explore the stars. No species in discordance could coordinate their resources and efforts into such an endeavor unless they were unified in purpose and will, dedicated to the well-being of the other and the whole. They were individuals, but individuals who so completely understood one another that they could embrace differences and savor similarities. Everything contradictory to that simply fell away.
It had been just after midnight when “Bob Smith” turned on the lights in the staff lounge. When he and Clarissa stopped holding hands, the clock on the wall said 2:38 a.m. She couldn’t remember a time in her life when she had touched someone for so long. She felt a little tired, but not from lack of sleep. It was more like expended emotion. Maybe it was like how you felt after making love with someone you trusted and adored.
“I understand. I think I do, Clarissa.”
“We aren’t a bad people.”
“It is too soon. You are not ready. Some of your kind would welcome us, but many more would fear us. Violence would likely result and we have no desire to be the catalyst for fear and violence. The message will stop. We have been transmitting the signal from outside the orbit of Saturn but have adjusted it so the distance to source seemed approximately 25 light years.”
“The distance to Vega.”
“Not our actual source. It gave you a location to focus on. Our source is much different.”
He turned to go.
He stopped and looked back at her. “Thank you for telling me what we needed to know. It is fortunate that you were the one I encountered. Your difference from the others of your kind made communication more effective than your speech.”
“Why should I stay?”
“You do not know what you are asking. What you see now isn’t me…isn’t my appearance.”
“I don’t care. Appearance means nothing to me. You know that.”
He looked at her with pity but appearances meant nothing. She walked up to him. He didn’t resist or pull away. Clarissa opened her arms and held him. After a moment, he put his arms around her.
The next morning, Clarissa’s parents got an email from her.
Hi Mom and Dad,
I met someone. Yeah, I know. It's the last thing you expected. He's such a wonderful person. I love him and I trust him.
Everything happened so fast. I'm going away with him. He lives a long way from here, so I don't know when I'll be back again. I hope someday.
I miss you both so much. I'm sorry I've been such a pain as a daughter but everything's going to be alright now. I've been so afraid of getting close to anyone but he's different. I can get close to him and it feels wonderful.
No, I haven't been kidnapped or brainwashed and I haven't joined a cult. I've just met someone who likes to live alone just like I do. Now we can do it together.
I love you. I hope to see you again someday but I don't know when. I just want you to know that for the first time in a very long time, I feel happy.
I wrote this for the Tale Weaver – #156 – 25th January – Body Language challenge hosted by Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use the image and the phrase “body language” as the inspiration for writing a poem, short story, or other creative work.
Recently, I re-watched “The Incredible Hulk” 1980 episode The Psychic starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, and guest starring Bixby’s then real-life wife Brenda Benet. Benet played Annie Caplan, a young woman who received visions about a person whenever she touched them, particularly if the person in question was in some sort of emotional turmoil. Imagine the visions she would have if she accidentally touched David Banner, the man who becomes the Hulk?
I decided to take that basic concept and extend it across a life and across multiple circumstances. It would be so confusing if a teenager experienced her parents’ thoughts and feelings without an adult context and yes, such a person would probably learn to shun human contact and eventually to take a job where they didn’t have to be around people very often.
At first, I thought about her becoming a Nun of joining some sort of cloistered religious order and then maybe one day touching a Priest or other person of faith only to discover a sense of peace in that person. But then even the best of us isn’t completely without anxiety and internal conflicts.
So how about an alien, someone so completely different that internal conflicts and contradiction is foreign to their very nature? With such a being, Clarissa might find peace for the first time since she was a child.
Will she travel with “Bob Smith” forever or possibly return home someday? She suggested in her email that she could come back. It might even be possible for her to learn to control her talent so she can live among humanity again.
The constellation Lyra just popped into my head but I had to make sure it was visible from the Northern Hemisphere, since the SETI Hat Creek Radio Telescope Array is in the Lassen National Forest about 290 miles northeast from San Francisco. The brightest star in that constellation is Vega which is a little over 25 light-years from Earth.
I made up “calibrating microcontroller oscillators” since I have no idea what sort of maintenance a radio telescope requires. I did a quick Google and found this PDF which sounded technical enough, but I freely admit my tech jargon is totally bogus.
I dressed “Bob” like Marty McFly to make him look a bit more alien and anachronistic.