Many people ask me why I started dating a Martian and my first response is that I didn’t plan it. It was just one of those things that happen. One minute I was standing at the Eat Right health food store minding my own business and the next I was dating a Martian. The first thing that attracted me was his looks, sort of male-model looks. I’ll admit it. Burt the Martian looks like a male model, maybe not the top tier A-list sort of Tyrese or Calvin Klein underwear guy, but a Sears underwear guy, kind of good looking, but not too sexy, with a thin chest and eyes that cross ever so slightly. Wholesome sexy. He has nice buns, if that’s what you’re wondering. And a porn-star mustache and a chin that is best described as chiseled. I guess the Martians wanted him to look attractive to humans in a pleasing, safe way, and they got most of it right.
As I said, I met him in the health food store, and I was struck immediately by not only his good looks, but his social awkwardness. Even though I have a job at the art museum a few storefronts away and have to schmooze people all day long, when I am on my own time, I’m shy and a little tongue-tied. So when Burt the Martian halted a little on the pleasantries of my food purchase, a bagel if you must know, saying, “The clouds seem to portend ominous amounts of sunshine,” I was immediately struck.
“You don’t like the sun?” I asked, amazed to meet a fellow traveler in this seaside town.
“It can be oppressive,” he said, “to have so much of the same weather.”
His courtly language made me smile and he tilted his head and smiled back like we were playing some sort of game. I liked it that he was odd and little spontaneous, taking the dollar I handed him and licking it. His tongue lapped the side of the bill and he smiled at its taste, as if he was licking my hand. I can’t remember now if he asked for my number or just read my mind, but that night I got his phone call and it seemed wholly unsurprising after our exchange that afternoon.
“This is Burt,” he said, “from the health food store that you frequented today. I would like to ask you on a date.”
It surprised me how forthright and serious he was, and I when I said “yes” he gave a pleased little yelp.
“This pleases me a great deal,” he said.
What I didn’t know then that I know now is that Burt dated by committee and I was the first girl to be approved by his crew: Durai, a Sufi dancer he had met when he first arrived; Oscar, a rent-a-cop; and William, his coworker at Eat Right. Who all just happened to be in the store that day.
We decided to go to a movie, whose title I have now forgotten, at the local university, about an obsessive and doomed love. Then, Burt talked about his penchant for operas about dead presidents and underground music.
“The more industrial, the better,” he said. I was smitten.
I felt I was doing something important, because of his hopeless nihilism and the way, as arm candy, he rated at least an eight.
When the film was over, I was saddened by how dark the movie for our first date was, ending as it did with a double suicide and the poetic falling of dead leaves. Burt, however, was elated. It was as if he’d only seen the most trite of Hollywood movies with the sappiest of endings and that a movie could end badly was a revelation to him.
“Such death,” he said, “without massive amounts of firepower is unusual.”
He was saying he mainly liked movies about cyborgs and the occasional dog, when I was about to volunteer my secret love of “Benji.” Before I could say it, he bent down to kiss me. The sky was full of stars and we were standing outside of the auditorium in the grass. I felt a small electric spark (which I thought was due to the surprise, and have found out since is a Martian thing) when his lips touched mine and he kissed me in the shaky way new and eager lovers do. I could feel the tension in the way he held me to him, and the chemistry that is both right and a little wrong. When he finally came up for air, he was smiling so that every tooth in the front of his mouth showed.
“That was fantastic!” he exclaimed. “It was even better than I imagined.”
When he held my hand afterward, I knew it would be hard to get rid of him later, when and if the time came.
As I lay in bed later replaying the kiss, there was a knock on the front door. It was well past midnight and there on the porch was Burt and Durai, the Sufi dancer. They stood there as if there was nothing unusual about their timing, as if people just dropped by in the middle of the night all the time. Burt seemed to glow a little with a slight green cast, a kind of chartreuse that some people describe as lemon-lime or neon. It was faint, and somehow, I thought the porch light was playing a trick on me. As I stood there in my Camp Beverly Hills nightshirt and leggings, Durai scanned me with his dark eyes.
“I was telling Durai about your beauty and the kiss and I wanted him to see you again for himself,” Burt said.
Durai smiled and I was struck by the whiteness of his turban and flowing shirt.
Then Durai took my arm and began twirling me around the front yard in large sweeping circles. I felt dizzy and breathless as he swung me around, covering almost the entire surface of the grass. Burt stood to the side and smiled as a bridegroom might and I thought this was some odd and joyful marriage dance, a kind of welcome to their tribe. After and hour of dancing, I felt flushed and ecstatic, and happy in a way I hadn’t been in awhile. It was past 2 a.m. when they left, waving their goodbyes even as the wind stirred behind them. I leaned into the tree and wondered just what I had gotten myself into.
The next day I was at work thinking about the night before when Katrina, my boss, tapped my desk. “Waaaake up, Selene,” she said in her rich person’s lockjaw coming down hard on the “c”s and “d”s. “Don’t forget, we have an image to uphold.” She used the royal “we” like I was sullying the image of the museum with my poor posture and less-than-perky demeanor. Every day she watched me from the other side of the office we shared and in the months we worked together I’d started the lockjaw thing, too. It was unconscious; somehow, I just picked it up.
“You need to have the Ellsworth proposal done by tomorrow,” she said, as if I had somehow forgotten the 35-page request for $50,000 to exhibit the work of some crappy French artist no one cared about.
“I’m on it,” I told her. “It’s in the baaaag.” I imagined a man in polo shirt and madras shorts when I said the word “bag,” drawing out the “a” when I said it, thinking I had become like one of them.
I was preoccupied then by Burt and Timothy, the photography curator, who had asked me to pose for him. Timothy said I had an interesting look, like a maid one day and like I owned the place the next. He liked the scar on my stomach from the time I fell off a tree when I was a kid and had to be cut open. The juxtaposition of my sweet and wholesome face and the savage scar. He wanted me to pose at his house, which was bad enough, and he wanted me to pose naked. They would be arty nudes, I knew this, in black-and-white, but I was not ready, shy in a way that shocked me. Frightened that being naked would be more revealing than I could even guess. That I wouldn’t be good at it, that I wouldn’t be open enough to make it work.
When I got home, there was a present from Burt waiting on my doorstep. A raw, organic chicken wrapped in plastic. There was no note or anything, just the raw bird, steeping in its own blood. I looked at it and I wondered if this was some kind of message, that I would be gutted and naked after going out with him, or if he meant to buy chocolates, but forgot, or if he really had no sense that this was an inappropriate gift. I left it there, glistening in the sun, not knowing what to think.
An hour later he called and asked with excitement whether I had received his gift.
“You looked like you needed protein,” he said.
I told him he was the strangest person I knew.
“Selene,” he said, “I would like to kiss you again.”
After our second date, I noticed I was starting to glow a little. Not in the blushing bride way, but in the greenish, muted glow that sometimes occurs in off-brand stores under the wrong kind of fluorescent light—fluorescent, that’s it, the way I looked. I started thinking that the museum was doing this to me, since my office looked out on a wall and the light was more artificial than real, but then I remembered Burt having the same glow. And he was such an avid kisser, in fact, he was more avid about kissing than anyone I had ever dated, that maybe he had passed some radioactivity to me. Seated as we were in the bar of the Rusty Scupper, a nautical-themed restaurant that was out on a pier over the water, I looked at him and he smiled back. We were watching the luminous fish light up below us, in the dark churning water, and I wondered if there was something he was not telling me.
“Burt,” I said, “I am glowing.”
“That happens,” he said,” with the exchange of molecules.”
“Back up,” I said. “Exchange of molecules? What’s going on?”
This was when he sprang it on me, noting that he knew I might figure it out sooner than later.
“I have something I have to tell you,” he said, “that might dismay some people, but you have been selected, in part, because of your ability to synthesize information.”
“Huh?” I said, because this is usually what men said when they sprang that they were married on me.
“Selene,” he said, “I am not from this biosphere.”
“I am from another planet.”
I sat there thinking this was a new one, not the “I’m just in town for a convention” or “I live in Iowa.”
“Which one?” I asked, blinking out at the harbor lights.
Jesus, Selene, you know how to pick them, I thought to myself.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Burt said with his arms around me, “just that you’ll have a slight green cast to you. Wearing brown usually helps hide it.”
Suddenly, I felt very tired and told Burt to take me home, that I would call him in a few days.
He seemed more distressed than I can say, but he acquiesced.
Over the next several days, I noticed that butterflies seemed to hover around me, as if my new coloring has drawn them to me or as if Burt has sent them. Other things started happening, too, bizarre things, like traffic stopping just as I approached the crosswalk even if there wasn’t a light, clouds parting over me, if I walked under them. Men in muscle T-shirts seemed to appear on corners where they never were before, like the Secret Service. I got the Ellsworth grant in and it seemed to levitate above the post office counter.
More strange gifts appeared. High fiber cereal. Batteries. A leg of lamb (which I hated). Flax seed. Bamboo plates. Open-toed huraches, which were surprisingly stylish. Except for the lamb, his gifts were strangely timely, each almost anticipating what I needed. But I was not sure about this Martian business, because, in the words of the old song, “I fall in love too easily.” Give me the right combination of oddness and eloquence and I am done for. And I have sworn off men after each time I get hurt: the reggae drummer, the TV weatherman with a sink fetish, the coked-up city redevelopment guy. I usually last two weeks in these swearing-off cycles until the next highly literate social misfit comes along. More than anything, I hate being alone, ever since Antonio, my first love, disappeared in a catamaran that got lost at sea.
So I did what I always do when I need to think. I went to the ocean and tried to skip rocks. Once, I skipped a rock five times, all the while whispering to Antonio’s spirit to give me an answer. But that day I didn’t feel like fooling with the rocks and I just sat there, digging my toes in the sand, eating a vegan fig bar that Burt had left me. I saw children with a kite near the water and the kite had a Martian face on it. It was one of those big-eyed creatures with an oval green face and I smiled at it, and the way they were struggling to get it to fly. There was a dog, worrying a piece of seaweed in his teeth, and the seagulls circling and looking for treats. It felt good to be alone and away from everything — and knew that I didn’t have to have all the answers now, that they would come with time. And when I saw the Martian kite crash, I was sad in a way that has nothing to do with the kite, and I knew that I would call Burt later. And I knew he would pick up and say how good it was to hear from me.
Adapted from “Burt the Martian,” published in “LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers” (Red Hen Press, 2016).
Cynthia Adam Prochaska’s stories have appeared in the florida review and the Santa Monica Review. Her work has also been anthologized in “Literary Pasadena” and “LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers.” She was formerly an English professor at Mount San Antonio College and lives in Pasadena with her family.