Mother's Day is coming up again, and amongst all the fanfare, commercials, and my own effusive love for my mother, I'm reminded of my friends for whom this is not a joyous holiday. Some of my friends have wanted to have children, but have been unable to for one reason or another. While some of them went on to eventually become parents, others did not.
This is for those women. You know who you are.
Better Than Dreams
Maya met him when she was twenty-three, stray bits of salt from last night’s tears clinging to her eyelashes, her lips still bruised from the kisses two nights before.
She barely missed stepping on the heels of her boss when the woman stopped. The tower of items in Maya’s arms--binders, reports, two bottles of water--threatened to topple. She took in a deep, slow breath as they settled. The scent of hot asphalt filled the summer air, mingled with the astringent smell of some burned, alien fuel.
Maya kept her gaze low as the Balorans stepped from their spaceship, as they approached, loose gravel crunching beneath their heels. She’d seen vids of them--she didn’t need to stare. But their leader spoke, and she found herself looking up and inadvertently meeting his gaze.
The differences caught her first: the large eyes that flashed like cat eyes in the light, the towering height, the pale, slender fingers that reminded her of anemone tendrils, translucent and glowing beneath the water.
“I am Lavorus,” he said. His gaze slid to her boss’s face, so quickly that Maya wondered if he’d seen her at all. And then the two of them were speaking the language of all diplomats--the small kindnesses, the subtle jostling, the probing.
Maya followed behind, an invisible part of the entourage.
He found her at the reception, later. She’d lingered on the edges of Baloran conversations, their speech soft and sonorous, filled with the lilting tones of their mother tongue. She went to refill her wine glass, wishing, again, that her boyfriend hadn’t left her.
“Your people are very direct.” Lavorus appeared at her shoulder, his pale fingers wrapped around a glass.
Maya’s heartbeat thrummed, a hummingbird in a cage. “We are. We don’t live as long as you do.” And then, emboldened by the wine and her aching heart, she added, “You should try it sometime.”
He looked taken aback for a moment, and Maya wondered if she’d caused a diplomatic event, but then he merely nodded. “Perhaps. What is your name?”
“Maya.” Her name, from his mouth, sent a shiver up her spine. He spoke it in two tones, at once. “What do you know of us?”
So she told him her facts, her vid-learning, her reading--and he countered with tales of his home world, his strange childhood, his journey into the stars. She interjected her own personal stories, and he did not laugh or smile, but she sensed he took in every word.
She found him again at the end of the reception, outside on the balcony, gazing at the night sky. She touched his elbow--a Baloran gesture, “I’m here”--and he turned around. For a moment, his eyes flashed, and her breathing quickened, and then he leaned down and kissed her on the lips.
His mouth was cold, and slicker than a man’s mouth--the skin smooth as if worn away, like pebbles in a river. His fingers rested on her cheek. She ventured to lay a palm against his chest, and she felt the beat of his heart, slow and steady as the ticking of a grandfather clock.
“I can be direct,” he said as he pulled away, “when I wish it.”
She wanted to throw a clever reply his way, that she wanted him to always wish it, that she often gave good advice, but the words stuck in her mouth, swallowed by the stars.
She was fired when her boss found out, and subsequently rehired a few months later, when it became clear this was not some wanton fling. The press was favorable, painting Maya as an ingénue, and the Baloran diplomat as a kinder, wiser version of a man.
And she did feel ingénue-like, a child next to his eighty-six years, full of spite and longing. She wondered, sometimes, what her ex must be thinking, seeing her face plastered on the news vids, blissful in the arms of her Baloran lover. Was he sorry, at all?
She didn’t waste too much time on these thoughts. Instead, she became Lavorus’ personal ambassador, carting him to all the places she loved, sharing the experiences she cherished. He seemed to take a ponderous joy in all the things she showed him--except toffee.
“Here,” she said, dropping a paper-wrapped candy into his palm. “It’s my favorite. Try it.”
He did as she bade, and his wide eyes went wider, his mouth puckering around the candy, tighter and tighter, until pop! He spit it into his palm. “This cannot be food,” he said.
She laughed and kissed his cold cheek, but he only frowned. “It’s a treat,” she said. “You only eat it to feel good.”
“I don’t understand.”
She tried to explain, but it was a wall he could not see over. When she finally threw her hands up in frustration, he caught them, pulled her in close. “I do love you,” he said. “No matter how strange you are.”
Maya melted--it was the first time he’d told her that he loved her, and she wondered if love meant the same thing in his tongue that it did in hers, or if the translator he used in his ear, against his throat, only found the closest substitute.
She didn’t care.
When she was twenty-five, and lying in his arms in the diplomat’s suite, she asked if he would take her back with him, to Balorus.
She pressed her ear to his chest when he spoke, feeling the rumble of it beneath her cheek, the two tones each creating their own vibrations. “Your people have been kind and generous, and I’m afraid our planet is less so. I cannot take you back with me unless we are bound.”
His eyes flashed by the dim light of the lamp when she lifted her head to look at him. “Bound? Like, married?”
Lavorus pressed his lips together as he thought. “It is a similar concept, yes.” His expression brightened, and he pulled her toward his mouth. The kiss stole Maya’s breath. “Would you?”
Her voice came out in a whisper. “Would I what?”
She pounced on top of him, eager as a puppy, her hands on his broad shoulders, and his eyes flashing like all the stars in the sky. “Yes,” she said. It was not the proposal she’d dreamed of, with a man on bended knee, but she had things so much better than that.
When she was twenty-eight, he took her to Balorus. There, the Balorans didn’t wear heavy robes; they shed them and warmed themselves by light of their sun, like reptiles. Maya found herself the subject of much curiosity--the absurdly young wife of one of their diplomats. They touched her hair, her skin, exclaimed at her tiny eyes, her stubby fingers.
Lavorus took her to their mountains, filled with weeping vegetation that found purchase amongst the boulders. He took her to see their oceans, glittering surfaces broken by the backs of beasts vaster than freighters. She marveled at this planet that was not hers, and everything was new to her.
He took her to their cities, and to one of their nurseries. The Baloran children swarmed over Maya and Lavorus as soon as they entered, asking for lessons, for songs, wanting to be held, to be comforted, to show off some project or another. Lavorus walked among them, doling out his favors as best he could, and Maya watched him and remembered their long-ago conversation, when she’d been twenty-three.
“Balorans do not have offspring until just before they die,” he’d told her. “So the children are all our responsibility. I grew up in a nursery, with many mothers and fathers.”
She’d thought it grand, at the time--an entire society pitching in to raise their young. But now, as a Baloran child held his arms up, begging to be lifted, she wondered what it really meant. She swept the child into her arms and rocked him, and something in her heart swelled, as surely as the tide in the sea.
At thirty-two, after they’d settled into a house on Earth, Maya started her research.
There had been other interspecies relationships in the past. Some poor man had even married a Tiferath, and how they managed in the bedroom with the Tiferath’s spines, Maya didn’t know. But what she wanted to know was whether or not they’d had children.
There was technology, now, that could combine one set of genes with another, no matter how incompatible the mother and father first appeared. There were workarounds, ways to gestate a child in a controlled environment instead of in the womb--a place of biology and uncertainty.
She found a program that let her input Lavorus’ information, and her own, and it spit out holos of what their children might look like. They were tall, like he was, but with her darker skin and curling hair. Their fingers varied between long and slender and her short ones. But their eyes always flashed. Maya sat at her desk with her chin in her palm, her diplomat’s paperwork forgotten. She stared at these starry-eyed children, and wondered what they would sound like--if they would speak in her husband’s two-toned voice, if they would learn his language or hers, if they would call her “mom” and if they would fit into her arms the way the Baloran children had.
She brought him the holos when she was thirty-three.
“They can combine our genes,” she told him. “We can have children together.” She traced the image of a cherub-like cheek. “You don’t have to wait.”
His mouth puckered, and Maya felt the wall between them. “These aren’t Baloran children, or human children. Why would you want them?”
“Because they would be ours.”
“It's not natural. I’m too young for offspring.”
She clutched the play-disc closer to her chest. The holo flickered as it met her nose. “I’m not.”
“I have given up my home,” he said to her, and it was the closest she’d ever heard him to angry. “I have married you, against the will of my people. And now you wish me to break another of their precepts? I have given you everything, Maya.”
He had. He had given her the stars. “I know,” she said, because it was all she could say.
Lavorus could not see over the wall, and perhaps it was this that bothered Maya the most. Sometimes, he tried. Sometimes, she felt as though he were about to give in. Sometimes, the anger stirred hot in her belly.
If he loved her, he would give her this.
And then, when the anger cooled: if she loved him, she would not ask it of him.
She wept out her frustrations in their bed, she rescued too many stray animals, she tried desperately to find some way around the wall--researching procedures and medications that might lengthen her life to a time when Lavorus might agree. Nothing seemed certain.
“I can’t see you like this,” he said one night as he held her. “Maybe I’m not right for you, Maya.”
She cried into his shoulder, harder than she’d wept before. And then she bruised her lips against his as she kissed him--again and again, wishing she could stay in this moment, that nothing had to change.
After he’d fallen asleep, she went to her desk, and found the play-disc she’d kept of their holo children. She took it to their closet, found a box of old things from her university days, and buried it at the bottom, resolving never to view it again.
She had everything. It had to be enough.
He took her to other stars, other planets beyond the realm of human discovery. She tempered her sadness with joy, with learning, with throwing herself into the diplomat’s calling--becoming the first human several alien races met, impressing them with her charm, her knowledge of their cultures.
In the evenings, when her back began to ache from long days spent on her feet, Lavorus kneaded his thin fingers around her spine. “I will always be there for you,” he whispered into her ear.
Except for the one thing. Maya closed her eyes, and sighed, and thanked her husband for his kindness--a diplomat’s words.
When she was sixty-four, they returned to their home on Earth for Maya to receive the Titus Award--the highest honor a diplomat could earn. The world feted her with a banquet, with speeches, with applause. She cradled the plaque in her arms when they gave it to her, and the edges dug into her ribs.
“I love you,” Lavorus said when she found him during the reception. “No matter how strange you are.”
The words awakened a familiar ache, but she smiled past it, and handed the plaque to him. “This is how we honor people on Earth,” she told him, “with wood and metal and words.”
He swept her into his arms and kissed her. She saw the flash of cameras through her closed lids, red and bright. Theirs was a fairytale--an interspecies relationship that had stood the test of time, that seemed effortless.
When they returned to their house, Lavorus went immediately to the refrigerator, searching for food he found more palatable. “They never get it quite right,” he muttered, “no matter how hard they try.”
“I’ll be right back,” she said as she crept up the stairs.
She found the play-disc right where she’d left it, and to her surprise, it still flickered on when she pressed the button. The holo cycled through their possible children, one-by-one. Their eyes flashed, their curling hair almost real enough to touch.
Maya smiled as she slipped into the dream, the one where she’d gotten more than everything. The one where starry-eyed children raced through the house, bare feet slapping against the wood floors.
She wondered if any of them would have liked toffee.