I was on the spaceship for three weeks before they even let me out of my room, so it was kind of hard to get used to the aliens. I’d see one of them when he brought me my food, but only for a few minutes, and it all seemed very formal, at least to me. Like, I didn’t know if they always wore those headdresses, or if they only wore them when feeding a prisoner, or what.
And, on second thought, I’m not sure if it really was one of them, or a bunch of similar-looking one(s) of them(s). So as acquainted as I got with the weird bioluminescent walls and strange gurgling noises in my room, I couldn’t get a real feel for the aliens in their “off-time.”
After three weeks they said I could leave, I just had to stay on the same level and not try to force my way through any locked doors or anything rude like that. Most of the doors were locked, so the level was really just a longer, better-lit version of my room, but it allowed me a little more interaction with the aliens, at least in passing.
Thing is, the aliens would act funny whenever I walked by. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first – I thought it might be another headdress situation – but then I saw a few of them walk by each other and not do it. Then I figured it out; they’d sniff. With some of them it was very subtle, like they had a tickle in part of their foot-and-a-half of snout, and with others it was way more obvious, like they were getting ready to hawk a real lunger.
After a couple days of this, I tapped the translator they’d strapped around my neck and said, “Why do you keep doing that?”
The alien tapped his own translator. “Doing what?” he asked.
“Sniffing,” I said. “The sniffing thing.” I demonstrated with my own miniscule nose.
“You stink,” he said, and started to walk away.
I stopped him with a hand on his chest, I think. It was somewhere in what I’d call the upper torso region. “Woah,” I said, “I do not stink. If I smell like anything, it’s your ship.”
“You smell like the Earth,” he said. “You haven’t been through the Cleansing.”
“The Cleansing,” I echoed. “Is that like a bath or something?”
He scratched something on the top of his head. “You’re really the one your planet sent to travel with us?”
I narrowed my eyes, trying to look peeved. It was hard to gauge his reaction, so I said, “I want to do it. I want the Cleansing.”
“I think that would be a good idea,” he said.
Lxdlf set the whole thing up. They had a whole room specifically for Cleansings, apparently, but it wasn’t on my level, so he had to get permission from the captain. I guess the aliens all go through the Cleansing after visiting a planet, but since they’d never had a human on their ship, they didn’t know if it was the type of thing we’d be “into.” Which was very polite of them, now that I think about it, though they didn’t have to rub it in with the whole sniffling thing.
After weeks of walking around in my tiny cabin and the narrow hallways, the Cleansing room felt enormous. It wasn’t really huge, by any means, but it was round, and the effect was enhanced by smooth, convex walls. It was like being in a giant contact lens, with all the attention drawn to a big tub right in the middle.
I had to be naked, which was a little disconcerting. On the one hand, it’s not like I could really play “what’s he packing” with the aliens, since I couldn’t point out their genitals on a doll. But on the other hand, as the representative for the entire human race on this ship, I was a little concerned about the temperature, or lack thereof.
While I didn’t have any real idea of how big the ship was, it felt like the entire crew was in the Cleansing room; fifty or sixty aliens, two or three rows deep, all facing the tub as I was led in from the lift. Nobody laughed at my naked form, thankfully. Just a lot of sniffing.
The water was murky, some unique combination of blue and green and maybe some milk, still as a bog. The surface looked like oil paint. I looked at Lxdlf and the other alien who had led me in, something like a pleading look on my face. “Do I just get in?” I said.
Lxdlf tapped his translator. “I can’t understand what you’re saying,” he said, then pointed to my naked neck.
“Because I don’t have a translator?” I asked, louder.
Lxdlf’s buddy nudged me towards the tub. I almost lost my footing, and murmurs rippled through the crowd. I got the feeling that this wasn’t going to plan. I stood up straight, trying to maintain a little dignity.
“You just get in,” said Lxdlf.
I dipped one foot in the tub. The water, if it was water, was tepid and slightly thick. I leaned in slowly, searching for the bottom. This was clearly a tub designed for the aliens. It might have been the perfect size for their larger frames, but my toes didn’t even hit something solid until the water was up to my thigh. I swung my other leg over the edge and stood there, feeling at the same time like the water was too deep but still left me too exposed, and raised my eyebrows to Lxdlf.
“Sit,” he said.
Hugging the edge, I lowered myself down. The water crept into each and every crack and crevice. The warm, substantial liquid felt like a fog rolling in over my personal landscape, engulfing everything, wisps hugging the valleys. It was like falling into a blue-green cloud.
Except for the smell, which – while it wasn’t as bad as I expected it from the looks – was un-fog-like, un-cloud-like, un-rain-on-a-sidewalk-like, and very, very alien. “Cleansing” is not a word it brought to mind. “Alien mildew,” maybe, or “alien tub liquid.” And this from the guys who thought I stunk. No sense avoiding it, though, so I took deep breaths until I couldn’t notice it any more.
Sitting on the bottom of the tub, the liquid was up to my chin, so I had to lean back to keep breathing. I couldn’t see the aliens crowding the Cleansing room from this angle, just the edge of the tub and the ceiling. All of a sudden I felt profoundly alone, like the tub was the size of an ocean, or like a guy on an alien spaceship hurtling through space.
Lxdlf leaned over, his head rising from the edge of the tub like a sun on the horizon. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“What do I do?” I said, but he couldn’t understand me.
With the water sloshing in and out of my ears, it was hard to hear the sound at first, but it got louder and louder. Chanting. The aliens were all chanting, and it was kind of a round, because I heard the waves of chants ricocheting around me, a buzzing racecar running laps around my head. Some of the water got in my mouth and I spit it out.
As the chanting got louder, and the laps got faster, I felt my eyelids starting to get heavy. The aliens disappeared, the water disappeared, and blackness bloomed behind my eyelids.
And it’s weird, because I opened my eyes, and I wasn’t on the ship anymore, I wasn’t in the tub anymore – I wasn’t even lying down. I was back in my office, on Earth. My boss was leaning on the edge of my desk, playing with my Rubik’s Cube.
“The thing is,” he said, lining up a row of blues, “we have all our important people out in the field right now, and we don’t entirely trust these aliens.”
“Uh huh,” I said. Or watched myself say. This all happened before, a month ago.
“That’s why we’ve decided to send you,” he said. He set the cube down, unsolved, and wiped his hands on his pants like he’d been handling a particularly filthy piece of garbage. “If you could have your affairs settled up by tomorrow–”
“What?” I said, when his words caught up with me. I stood up, something I usually saved only for walking to the bathroom or leaving at the end of the day. “What do you mean, send me?”
He finally looked at me, seeming a little surprised. “The company policy,” he said, “is to send an agent to accompany every new contact.”
“Right,” I said, “I know that. But I’m not a field agent.”
He shrugged. “These aliens…” he started. “I’m going to level with you, they’re weird.” He looked at a picture of a space shuttle on my wall, the same picture that I think everybody had in their office. “They don’t want resources, they don’t want conquest, they don’t want to trade, they’re just traveling.” He looked at me and said, gravely, “I think they might be communists.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I asked.
“We don’t think we can get much from these guys,” he sighed, “but like I said, we have to send somebody.” He adjusted the edges of the space shuttle picture. “But we don’t have to send somebody important.”
I closed my eyes and it happened again. One second I was there, back in my old office, considering the relative straightness of my space shuttle picture and difficulty of my Rubik’s Cube, wondering exactly what my boss meant by that last comment, and the next second I was in my apartment, packing a suitcase. A pair of underwear in each hand, my phone between my shoulder and my ear.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said my Mom.
“It’s outer space,” I corrected her. “It’s a year, at least.” I stuffed my underwear in the suitcase and opened another drawer.
“Well,” said Mom, ”it’s not like you have a family to support, or a wife to miss you…” she trailed off. “Your father and I will miss you, of course,” she added quickly.
“Thanks,” I said, pulling shirts out of my dresser. I paused, deliberating between a t-shirt and a sweater. The memo my boss forwarded about the aliens was pretty lacking in any useful information. The only thing really nailed down seemed to be my departure time.
“I just think it’s a great opportunity,” she repeated.
I looked at the half of my room that still wasn’t packed into boxes. My affairs were distinctly un-settled-up, and that wasn’t going to change by tomorrow. I started to wonder why I’d even bothered to pack that first half into boxes; I had nowhere to store anything. When I didn’t pay my rent, on account of being an irresponsible tenant and also in outer space, I was going to be evicted, and everything was going to get hauled away.
It happened again when I sat on the bed, but I didn’t open my eyes on the ship, or in my office, or in another room. I opened my eyes and I was floating in darkness. It didn’t feel like the alien tub water, or like I was covered in blankets; it was the feeling of nothingness, all around. Just me and my one suitcase of stuff.
And the blackness was so deep that it started to swallow me up. Not just my body – that wasn’t enough. It chewed at the edges of me, and I felt my images of my boss, and my mother, and my home, all being nibbled and chewed and harder to recall. They just left feelings, impressions sort of wrapped up in a ghost. I felt layers of me being stripped away like the peel of an orange. Layer after layer, right down to my core. Then the darkness took over.
The food they gave me when I was back in my room left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t my first taste of the cuisine, sure, but I just kept thinking back to when I was a kid and I got my tonsils taken out. They gave me the biggest bowl of ice cream I’d ever seen in my life. So I thought after a ritual or a Cleansing or something, they might break out the Neapolitan, but it was the same gruelly stuff they’d been serving me all month.
I still vacuumed it up, though. I was famished after the Cleansing. I felt like I’d lost weight, but when I grabbed at my love handles they had the same pliable give they’d had since I gained the freshman fifteen. It was a different kind of weight, I guess.
After a couple bowls of gruel I left my room and just stood in the hallway, leaning next to my door. Aliens kept walking by. Some of them nodded, or did something that could have been a smile, and I did my best to smile back at them all. I kept expecting them to sniff, but not a single one did. I wondered if they were picturing me naked.
Lxdlf tapped his translator as he approached. “How do you feel?” he asked.
I tapped my translator, then realized I didn’t know how to put it into words. “Lighter,” I said, finally.
He nodded. The look on his face could have been recognition, or understanding, or gas. But he didn’t sniff.
“What was that?” I asked. “What happened?”
“The Cleansing,” he said. “When you joined us on Earth, you were dirty. Now you’re clean.”
“I was clean,” I said, somewhat offended. “I took a shower and everything.”
“It’s not just dirt and sweat,” he said. “We can smell more than that.” He pointed to his gargantuan schnozz. “All the things you carried with you from Earth, physical and otherwise.”
I thought of my boss, my mother, my apartment. They seemed fuzzy around the edges – they were still there, but it was like they were behind glass, or somewhere hermetically sealed like a piece of medical equipment or a tv dinner.
“Whenever we leave a place,” he continued, “we go through the Cleansing to remove everything that contaminated us. We can’t carry those things with us; we have to be ourselves, our pure selves, to keep going.”
“Contaminated,” I repeated after him. “My dirty laundry.”
“Sure,” he said, slowly, probably not understanding what “dirty laundry” meant.
“But I still remember everything,” I said. For a moment I was worried that it hadn’t worked, and I’d submerged myself in the psychedelic alien tub water for barely anything, besides a warm bath. “It’s still with me.”
“It’s not about remembering,” he said. “It’s about what’s weighing you down. There are the things you carry with you, and then there are the things that hitch a ride. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” I lied. “It’s simple when you put it like that.”
He put a hand, or something like it, on my shoulder. “You can start fresh now,” he said. “Isn’t it a wonderful feeling?”
The smell in the ship didn’t feel fresh. And his whatever on my shoulder didn’t feel fresh. But the more I thought about Earth, or tried to think about Earth, the better I felt. Because when I was on Earth, I never felt this clean. It’s not that I felt dirty, but there was something around me , like a cloud of flies, that I never could shake.
For the first time in a long time, I felt clean. I felt like I belonged.