By Kimberly Ramos
After Kevin Brockmeier
The first time it happened was at the local high school. The students were settling into their seats for American History, the last warble of the bell dying in the air. Conversations wafted about the room, most of them centered upon the homecoming dance that weekend: who had asked whom, what they would wear, when to abandon the dance in favor of house parties with shadowy couches and secluded bedrooms. Nearly everyone was spoken for except the star quarterback, who had kindly but persistently turned down all the girls that had asked to be his date.
There he was, entering the classroom and flaunting his red and white jersey for the Friday night game. He sidled by the rows of desks to his seat, holding his hand out as he passed a teammate who usually played right guard. The two grasped each other’s hands as they had so many times before on the field: in celebration, in determination, in mourning. A firm recognition passed between them.
Who can say exactly how it happened? Ask any of the other students, or ask the bespectacled teacher at the front of the room, and they’ll tell you that it was an immediate transformation. One moment, the quarterback was there, grasping his teammate’s hand. The next moment, he had been seemingly replaced by a little cardinal, its scarlet feathers flashing as it swooped through the air. It chirped, and its falling aria sounded very much like a repeated human word: You, you, you.
It alighted on the right guard’s shoulder, its small talons clutching at the thin fabric of his jersey. It was clear whom the quarterback had chosen, whom he loved.
The same suddenness of transformation took place all over the town, though of varied styles and forms. A husband, leaning down to kiss his wife’s cheek before leaving for work, became a faintly warm fire pit, its white coals emanating a reassuring heat throughout the kitchen. Two middle schoolers, horsing around during recess, shot backwards from each other as one became a lit match and the other a firework spitting smoke and light across the blacktop.
Of particular note was what occurred in the midst of the grocer. Pulling change from his green apron, he commented on the weather as he handed a few bills and coins to the red-headed woman at the front of the line. She had started shopping here a month ago when he had offered her an orange slice as a sample, the sliver so sweet and juice-heavy she swore the taste lingered on her tongue for the rest of the day. He had taken to setting aside a few oranges for her groceries each week. It was such a kind gesture that she felt she might ripen from the inside out.
As he passed her the change, their hands briefly brushed. At the unexpected contact, her skin grew rough and striated as she shot upwards, finally bursting into a shower of green leaves. The checkout lane was now blocked by a great oak tree, its roots twisting in and out of the clean white tiles of the supermarket. The grocer, shocked, quickly set out his “Lane Unavailable” sign and directed the remaining customers to a different register. Taking the spray bottle he usually used to mist the small plants in the front window, he spritzed the roots and low-hanging leaves of the tree until it sparkled with dew. When the woman finally calmed down and reverted to her original form, she found the grocer administering cool droplets of water to her forehead.
Of course, she asked him on a date. He agreed to dinner that night.
At the town hall meeting the following week, several residents came forth expressing their concerns. It was fine and all, they said, if people were so taken over by love that they underwent marvelous transformations, but it was beginning to get in the way of the town’s usual operations. An EMT, having been called to his neighbor’s house, found that he could no longer insert the IV because he had become a puddle of glistening water. One of the other EMTs was able to finish the task and stabilize the patient as they traveled to the hospital, but there was a horrible moment when the patient’s heartbeat had grown unsteady, not from love but a genuine medical emergency. Another townsperson cited the traffic jam that had occurred after a pair of elderly women held hands as they crossed the road. A rolling tide of monarch butterflies swarmed around the remaining elderly woman, adorning her sunhat, long floral dress, and bejeweled handbag with dozens of amber wings. It was beautiful, sure, but the butterflies had been so thick and bothersome that the crosswalk had to be shut down and traffic stalled.
There were other drawbacks, too, but less fit to express at a town meeting. Some couples slept in separate rooms because, no matter how much they touched each other, nothing happened, and they could not fully explain to each other why it was so. Others upped the frequency of sex, hoping that their desperate bodies would transform as they dug and clung to one another. What was perhaps even worse was when only one person would ever spark or flurry or ricochet into something beautiful: a shower of white petals, lengths of cerulean silk, or even rich, dark soil. They would come out of their transformation hoping to see some evidence of their partner having experienced the same, but instead they were met with a face drawn taut with worry.
New relationships, already shaky enough as two people learned to weave their lives around each other, grew even more complicated. A partner might feather into a swan, melt into honey, trumpet into an elephant within a week of dating, and the other would be left dumbfounded as to how an affection could build that quickly. They struggled to care for their new partners in these strange forms, for they did not yet know how to tame a swan, how to jar honey so that it stayed free of dirt, or how to comfort an elephant after seeing a cockroach. And it was anyone’s guess as to what one person might transform into. What if your partner became a graceful garden snake, but you hated snakes? What if they became a thousand ringing bells, but all that sound made you want to give up hearing forever? And what if you were the thousand ringing bells, awakening only to find your lover holed up in the corner, cotton balls stuffed deep in their ear canals? From then on, how could you ever hide yourself or deny the transformation as it happened?
The town council decided to outlaw all public instances of touching, no matter how brief or innocent. There were to be no contact sports, no brushing of bodies in crowded restaurants, and certainly no kisses or hands held between couples. Townspeople were advised to wear long sleeves and pants. People with jobs that required skin-to-skin contact, such as doctors or hairdressers, were legally required to wear latex gloves at all appointments. Touch, the council decided, was to occur in one’s home only, far out of the public eye and away from the usual bustlings of the town.
For the most part, life resumed as it always had, but with an added layer of caution and hesitancy. People kept to themselves, and the space between them began to feel real and unbreachable. There were no more whispers, hidden gestures, or accidental touches that sent a shock of electricity down one’s legs. Priests no longer gave their parishioners blessings by the laying on of hands, but by using a paintbrush with a long stem dipped in holy water or oil. Weddings concluded with a knowing glance between the two spouses rather than a kiss to avoid the potential embarrassment of a lacking transformation. Young people in search of hookups limited their encounters with new people to once or twice for fear of either one of them accidentally falling for the other. High schoolers especially, with rage in their chests and a strong distaste for boredom, grasped each other’s hands behind the school, daring each other to let go, to be the first to admit that they felt something happening, that large and foreign warmth bubbling up from their lungs and stomachs.
Children were instructed to keep their hands to themselves more than ever. It was unlikely that a child would truly be in love with anyone until they were adults themselves, but the townspeople decided that it was best to learn early. A clever young teacher created a picture book in which she imparted the following moral: There was only ever so much love in a singular body, and wayward touches could spend it on people you didn’t know or care about.
The townspeople learned not to discuss transformation in public. That sort of wayward magic was meant for closed doors and carefully curtained windows. Sure, close friends told other close friends about what happened on those quiet nights when one partner became a trough of rainwater, another a rabbit with a twitching nose, or, on some miraculous occasions, when a double transformation occurred. But even these were not ensured to be joyful. There were hushed stories about a lion devouring a mouse, a grand piano crushing a minute spider, gas and flame destroying an entire house.
Still, it was not all terrible. One night as rain sang against the roofs and caressed the gutters, a man ran down a residential street with his jacket held over his head. A woman trailed after him, utterly soaked by the rain. She did not care to shield herself, hair plastered to her forehead and a challenge thundering in her step. Why, she asked him, do you keep running away from me?
His eyes flickered, traveled up and down her body, finally alighting on her face. Because, he said, I am afraid that if I touch you I will turn into something bright and loud and impossible and I won’t be able to hide my feelings for you anymore.
She stepped forward and grasped his elbow, slowly rolling up his shirt sleeve to expose his forearm. She held them together there, all the while staring right into him. She glanced down to where her hand merged with his arm and found that he was trembling. When she looked back up, his body had been replaced by riotous lightning, leaping across the asphalt, looping through fences, twisting about street lamps. She laughed and laughed, and her voice boomed through the houses. The townspeople pulled back their curtains and blinds to see two almost-bodies dancing in the rain, light and sound bending about each other, the vague outlines of two people where the rain flowed over them.
If you ever visit this town (and it is unlikely you will—it is such a small town, tucked away in the sea of land we call the Midwest and hardly worth the detour of leaving the main highway), you will find the new generations of townspeople dutifully passing by each other without the slightest skimming of skin against skin. The buses have only one person in each seat to avoid the chance of one’s leg catching the knee of another passenger as they slide past. Schools encourage children to play games in which touching is not allowed: volleyball, tennis, anything with a net and vast spaces between players. No one shakes hands in church, and the Lord’s Prayer is said without clasping hands with the other people in the pews. Most bank transactions take place at ATMs or through those plastic metal tubes that roar as they suck up checks, bills, and pens.
It is likely that some of the townspeople are not in love with the people they date and marry, at least not to the extent that they become rhinos or clouds or velvet pillow cushions. It is likely that some had once transformed together but no longer. But something else beats between them, something even less tangible than lightning or spring wind. No one knows what to call it. All they know is that it makes a familiar sort of sense. It is a lot less messy, too: no horns making holes in plaster walls, no precipitation and snow storms in the bathroom, no tripping over softness strewn through the bedroom.
And still there are, and always will be, thousands of moments pregnant with what is not yet said, breaths caught in longing throats, hands floating above lovers’ brows, reckless and careful all at once. There will always be the urge to close the distance, to feel the far and unfamiliar pulse of another person, to walk over that great abyss. And at least once, we all become it. I promise, we do.
Kimberly Ramos is a queer Filipina writer from Missouri. They currently study philosophy, whatever that means. Their forthcoming chapbook, Alive, Today, Again!, was named first runner-up of the 2022 Flume Press Chapbook Contest. Their work has been published in Southern Humanities Review, Lantern Review, and Nashville Review, among others. You can read more of their work at kimramoswrites.carrd.co.