When the alien met the tree, it was love at first sight. The alien had paused by the grey waters of the Wembley Park pond, and his poodle piddled on the tree’s slender trunk. “Oh dear,” the alien said. The fake tongue of his anthroskin turned his words into clicks. He started to stutter. “T-Terribly sorry, really, t-truly.” He patted his scarf against the tree’s delicate roots, but the tree said nothing.
What she must think of him! The alien peered up at her, trembling. The tree waved her tendriled branches, and her leaves twittered. It was as if nothing had happened. The alien let out a sigh like a huff. All his breaths came out as huffs. His anthroskin’s air filter was getting old.
“Lovely day to be out, isn’t it?” he said.
The tree nodded her branches.
“Lovely, yes, lovely,” he said. He wanted to throw his arms around her for joy. She would think him too forward. They had only just met. He clasped his hands behind his back instead. His extra fingers ached where the gloves pressed them against his palms.
The poodle tugged at its leash. The alien sighed again. The sound was like a hamster gurgling. “Perhaps we’ll see each other here again,” he said. The tree bowed with the wind.
The Alien had no name. Where he came from, they spoke only with the gestures of their fibrils. When he had to give one—on the numerous forms from InterPlanetary Immigration, on leases and on job applications—he wrote “Tropical Cruise.” The immigration counselor, ten years ago, had said, “Pick something warm and pleasing, but earthly.” He’d seen the name on a poster of sun, turquoise water, and sand.
“Mr. Cruise,” the landlady yelled as he tramped up the stairs to his flat. The alien stopped and peered down to where she stood at the bottom of the stairwell. Her almond eyes frowned at the poodle. “Nasty smelly things,” she’d said when he’d bought it. The alien agreed. But many humans had dogs, and he hoped to someday comprehend why.
“What do you think of all that hubbub?” the landlady asked. Voices carried in from the street. They were hanging streamers and banners all down Delphi Avenue. Caribbean Festival, the posters had said. The air already smelled of sweat and spice. It made the alien wheeze.
“It is nice,” he said.
“You going out tonight? I hear the food’s excellent.”
“No,” the alien said. “I do not eat, only drink. I think I will sit by the clothes dryer.”
The landlord blinked. “Well, as long as you don’t make a racket.” She bustled back to her apartment. “Crazy E.T.,” she muttered. The alien knew he had not been meant to hear it. The slightest tremor of air sent his fibrils rustling, even cramped as they were inside the cap of the anthroskin. He hung his head to pass under a steel beam and fumbled into his flat.
The poodle bolted over the fraying rug to its food dish. Outside, a band started to play. Drums rumbled and voices warbled through the panes of the closed window, into the barren room. The alien quivered. The tinny notes of hands battering steel, the hoarse cries—what music was that? A moment ago the wind had been whispering through her lively branches.
He hummed against the top of his mouth. The false tongue jittered; the air condenser buzzed. He sat down in front of the dryer, which stood gleaming, white, and doorless in the center of the room. He tipped his head inside. The sound of the drums faded out. The air was still and cool. The polished walls gave off a smooth, metallic odor like the lake outside his first home.
Tomorrow he would go to the repair shop to get the condenser fixed. The shop was near the park—his fibrils trembled. He would show her his love. How did earthlings do it? He consulted his memory of movies, television, couples embracing on the street. An offering, he decided. He would bring her a gift.
The Anthroskin repairman looked the alien up and down. He twirled a pen between his wiry brown fingers. “Problem?” he said.
“Condenser,” the alien said. He breathed. The ‘skin gurgled.
“I see.” The repairman touched the soft plastic that was molded over the alien’s face. His nose wrinkled. “Going yellow, too. You been taking this in the water?”
“No,” the alien said. “I follow the instructions carefully. ‘Wash only with the sanitary cloths provided.’”
The repairman shook his head. “I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about it. I keep telling you guys, no swimming, no bath-housing, no showers. You’ve got to cut it out. The chlorine is a killer.”
“Yes,” the alien said meekly.
“Well, we can touch it up later. Model?”
“GRA6.5.” The alien offered the inside of his wrist. It was printed there in red ink.
“Hmmm. I don’t know if we have the part in. Sounds like you need a new oxymeth. Give me a sec. And don’t touch anything.”
The repairman disappeared into the back room. The alien looked around the shop. Rows of new ‘skins hung from the walls: ivory, beige, tan, ebony, and hair of every color known to animal and flower. The alien ran his fingers over a disembodied head of greenish strands. Like leaves—but hers would be softer.
The repairman cleared his throat from the doorway. The alien jerked his hand back. The man scowled. “You’re in luck,” he said. “I can replace it right here. Of course, it’ll cost.”
“Of course,” the alien said. He glanced at the green-haired ‘skin again. “What sort of gifts do females enjoy?”
“Females,” the alien said. “When you meet them.”
The repairman raised his eyebrows. “Candy. Flowers. Teddy bears. How the hell should I know? Do you want the ‘skin fixed or not?”
“Yes, yes.” The alien reached for the sealed seam at the back of his neck, not thinking, just rehearsing: Candy, flowers, teddy bears. Candy, flowers, teddy—
“Not here!” The repairman snatched the alien’s hand from the seam. He pushed him toward a cubicle in a corner of the shop. “In there, buddy. There’s a tempfilter inside. Throw the ‘skin over the top of the door. You stupid or something?”
The alien stepped into the cubicle. He started to peel off the ‘skin.
“Like I don’t see enough uglies as it is,” the repairman grumbled.
The alien bit his synthetic tongue. He had forgotten the laws about public exposure. He had to remember.
Candy, flowers, teddy bears.
The street was a crush. The alien pushed against it, through the suits of navy, scarlet, black, and violet. They jostled around him, brilliant in the sun. Video ads flashed. Cars groaned and whirred. He seemed to be going in the wrong direction. Everyone else was going away, away.
He passed a display window of heart-shaped chocolates and fluffy cushions. Hearts. That meant love. He let the human current pull him back and stumbled into the store.
He gagged on perfumed air: artificial rose. Tiered rows of greeting cards edged the aisles like bleachers. Stuffed toy llamas, dolphins, finches, and panda bears peered at him with vacant eyes. An obese woman with a heap of kinked brown hair waddled up to him. She tipped back her moon-face.
“Whatcha looking for, friend?”
“Candy,” the alien said. “A love gift.”
“All righty, got a row at the back.”
She plodded past the card tiers and threw her arm at a wall of red heart-boxes and golden tins. The alien picked one up. Caramel swirls. The box shimmered. The sunlight on her bark, her lithesome roots…
“These are for eating.”
“Well, yeah, unless your kind has some other use for chocolate. Trust me, she’ll love ‘em.”
The alien shook his head. He set the box back on the shelf. “She doesn’t eat.”
“These ones are low fat,” the woman said. She poked at a tin. “You could give ‘em a try.”
“No,” the alien said. “It has to be perfect.
The woman guffawed. “Nothing’s perfect, friend.”
“Sometimes it is.” The dun fields stretching out from the cliff over his first home, the dusky waters swirling in the breeze, the first step onto the crisp grey carpet of the immigration ship…
The woman shook her head and walked away. The alien felt sad for her. Humans must not believe in perfect moments. How could they be happy?
The cards’ glossy surfaces shone, stung his eyes. The animals looked fake and dull-witted. He turned and hurried back into the street.
Across the street from the park, a flower shop squatted amid Parisian boutiques. The alien strode past ferns and flamingos to the front desk. The man behind it was pale as a lily. He looked at the alien and bit his lip.
“I would like some flowers,” the alien said.
The man coughed. “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”
“Which kinds are best?” Daffodils and daisies and dahlias waved at the alien from the shelves in a cacophony of color. He closed his eyes.
“What’s the occasion?”
“A date,” the alien said.
“Well then, roses are classic. And the mixed bunches are popular, too.” The man pointed down the aisle. The alien opened his eyes. When he squinted, the colors were more bearable. He shuffled toward them. Roses of vibrant reds, cautious pinks, and delicate yellows peeked up at him. He caressed one’s petals, lifted it up. Drops of water trickled down its broken spine. He almost dropped it.
“They’re d-dead,” he said to the man.
The man turned purple. “They are not. You’ll not find fresher flowers anywhere in the city.”
“But they’re cut. From their roots.” The alien gazed at the vases and buckets. Silhouettes of sliced stems shaded their sides. All of the flowers, all of them dead, dying. He could not offer her something so horrible.
“Do you have any that aren’t?” he said. His hands were shaking. “Do you have any alive?”
“There are potted ones outside,” the man said. “Watch you remember to come back in to pay for them.”
As the alien moved toward the door, the man added, under his breath but loud enough, “Bloody aliens.”
The alien grazed his fingers over a lily head in passing, but he couldn’t bear to crush it.
The little plant seemed to shrink as the alien walked past giant oaks and elms. He cupped the glazed pot between his hands. The breeze stirred the befuzzed leaves and purple petals. African violet, the man had said. The alien had seen Africa on a map. It was the same shape as the ocean of his homeland. He hoped she would like it.
Laughter split the air. Children splashed through a wading pool in bright bathing suits. Mothers hummed to sleeping infants. Fathers called to their toddling charges. The wind rippled down over the pond, thick with lavender. It was fine and crisp and the alien found he didn’t mind the sounds or smells. His fibrils lay still against his head.
Then he saw her. Her tendriled leaves danced back and forth above the muted water. Her trunk curved against the sky. He pulled the anthroskin’s mouth into a smile and hurried forward.
The plastic lips fell as he grew closer. Her leaves weren’t dancing. They were weeping, weeping in trembling streams down into the pond. Their tips broke the water. The wind heaved through the slender branches. The alien hesitated. He gathered himself, and nestled the pot in the willow’s roots.
“I brought this for you,” he said. “Only for you.”
The tree shivered.
“What is wrong?” he said. His voice grew thin. “What is wrong?”
The tree was silent. She stared into the water. Her leaves swayed. Around her, the maples and pines stood straight and firm and tall. They didn’t yield. Not like she. She bent with wind and with the children whipping through her branches and with the birds resting in their forks. Only she—and in that moment, the alien understood. For what had he done, all day, every day for ten years, but bend and bend and bend. His sixth finger bent against his palm; his fibrils bent over his head. He understood perfectly.
“No,” he said. “Not only you. You speak true.”
And so would he. He reached for the seam of his anthroskin and pulled it back. His fibrils spilled out. Cool air flushed his skin. He blinked in the multifaceted light, holding the filter to his nostrils. He could still make her out, a shower of fractured brilliance. His fibrils extended, twined, reached skyward. They whispered and rustled. He spoke his love in dips and swirls for which he would never have words. He spoke until the police sirens screamed up and a gloved hand clapped on his shoulder.
The tree lifted, opened a little to the coming breeze. The sunlight twinkled in her leaves.
“You crazy, mister?” the cop said as she shoved him into the car. “Trying to get sent home?”
The alien smiled his true smile, with the fibrils that decorated his head.
Maybe he was.