Saturday short story: Alien - A dissertation, by Eileen Merriman
"This is what Wellington boy said, after he finished his quick and bloody deed. You know what your problem is? Once a slut, always a slut": a short story by Auckland writer Eileen Merriman.
An eighteen-year-old alien moves to Dunedin to study. There she eats minerals, deconstructs, ingests poison, disintegrates, and ultimately, reassembles. There is no moral to this story.
On the first day, I sit cross-legged on the desk in my sixth floor hostel room, gazing out over the Lego-like buildings below. Beyond those, the harbour, and beyond that, the fathomless ocean.
Fathomless, that’s me.
#1: To get into medical school.
#2: To make lots of friends.
#3: To find a boyfriend.
Methods and Materials
On the first night, I drink beer with a boy from Wellington, a beautiful girl from Invercargill, and an acerbic girl from Auckland. Soon enough we tip down the hill to the pub for more beer. Three pints later, I stand in a blurred line for the toilet, a brief escape from the talking heads around me. My face, in the mirror, is rosé. Or perhaps it is just red and blotchy, dried salt lines on my cheeks from the tears I shed when I realised I was an alien.
On the second day I wander, lost, around the campus. Hours later, I line up with nine hundred and ninety-nine other wannabe medical students, some with private school accents and carefully distressed jeans. I look for other aliens, but I don’t see anyone else looking lost or frightened.
That evening, I drink beer and listen to the incomprehensible conversation of my fellow freshers. I try to join in, but my voice is too loud, and their eyes pass over me as if I’m not even there.
In the urine-scented toilet cubicle, I dig crescent moons into my thighs before chewing my nails to the bloody quick. When I emerge, I drink more beer until the sharp edges have gone. Then I walk home with Wellington boy and let him do things to me in his room until I escape into the shower.
On nights three, four and five, I switch to cider, drinking until I crack open and the tears escape once more. Acerbic Auckland girl says, you try too hard, that’s your problem. Beautiful Invercargill girl says, you get really drunk and then go all quiet and I worry about you. But that doesn’t stop her going off with Wellington boy for non-alien sex.
For most of day six, Sunday, I wallow in my sweaty sheets. Acerbic Auckland girl says, come to the pub. I say, I might stay back, have a quiet one.
On day seven I spend my week’s budget on textbooks of anatomy and physiology. That night I stay in my room, alternately smelling the pages and copying anatomically correct diagrams of hearts and blood vessels and slices of brain into my diary. Most memories are stored in the amygdala and hippocampus. As I am an alien, I don’t know if this is true for me. There are many truths I am unsure of.
On day eight, I sit in the lecture theatre, seeking out others like me. It is at this point that I realise I need to learn telepathy, because everyone’s face is either blankety-blank or hysterically smiley. I go back to the university bookshop, where they inform me that there are no books on telepathy. They offer me a book on homeopathy instead. I tell them I don’t believe in that hocus-pocus and leave.
That evening, Acerbic Auckland girl and Beautiful Invercargill girl tease Wellington boy about his series of one-night stands, a different girl for each day of the week. I say, stud and slut are gender specific nouns. Beautiful Invercargill girl says, why do you have to be so fucking judgey. After retreating to my room, I copy anatomically correct pictures of genitalia onto my white-white belly.
On days nine, ten and eleven I learn about the pathway for glucose metabolism in the cell, the differences between respiratory and metabolic acidosis, and how to sleep with earplugs in. The earplugs don’t shut out the voices inside my head, which tell me I am ugly and fat and socially inept. When I finally fall asleep, I dream of Picasso faces and jokes with spikes in. In the morning, I write in my diary: dreams = reality = dreams. This seems as though it could be a truth, although an unsettling one.
On day twelve, my hostel mates have a drinking race, North Islanders versus South Islanders. We sit on the lawn above the hostel, a semi-Arctic breeze ruffling our hair. I’m in a panic because yesterday I learned how many kilojoules are in a standard drink and I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to burn them off, even if I run on the spot in my room all night. But because I am ugly and fat and socially inept, I tip beer down my throat until it comes back up again. By that stage I am lying on the fathomless lawn, and everyone is laughing. I guess they are laughing at me, but I’ll never know.
On day thirteen, I hide in my room, drawing anatomically correct diagrams of the digestive system on my legs. I have an oesophagus on my left thigh and an anus near my right knee. When I venture into the corridor, Wellington boy says, what the hell, you’re so weird, and Beautiful Invercargill girl says, has anyone ever told you that you have a monobrow. After that, she kindly offers to wax my eyebrows. When I look in the mirror, I don’t resemble me anymore, just another Picasso face.
On days fourteen to twenty-one, I draw and eat and sleep and drink drink drink. The inside of my gut has turned to stainless steel. The inside of my head is full of everyone else’s words, alphabet soup. There is not enough space on my abdomen for my deconstructed picture of the brain, so I use my wall. The temporal lobes and pituitary gland soar above a cauliflower-like cerebellum and broccoli-stalk brain stem. It is perhaps disturbing that the brain looks so edible. I don’t think I am a cannibal.
On day twenty-two, I draw a four-chambered heart on the wall between Acerbic Auckland girl and me. When I go to sleep, I feel the walls expanding and contracting around me, and the booming is so loud it blocks out all the voices in my head.
On day twenty-three, it’s unseasonably warm, twenty-five degrees. Several of my classmates bunk off early to go to the beach. Worried about my pale fish flesh and my unfashionable one-piece swimsuit, I walk back to the hostel instead. The tar is bubbling on the road, which is so steep I’m worried about sliding off the face of the earth; an alien in orbit. I lie on the footpath and push pieces of gravel between my lips, grinding the rock candy between my teeth before swallowing them, one by one. The tarry lumps in my belly are strangely soothing.
On days twenty-four to thirty-one, I ingest more gravel, as well as shiny white pebbles from the Botanical Gardens, and once, an ochre stone I find at the feet of the Robbie Burns statue in the Octagon. Each time, I whisper to myself, I am of this earth. I am grounded. I am animal, vegetable, mineral.
At night I lie in bed listening to the blood rush through my ears, river rapids. A tsunami is coming.
On the evening of day thirty-three, I drink so much I black out. When I wake up, I’m in bed, and Wellington boy is lying on top of me. Before I can tell him no, he has cleaved me in two. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I scrub, I can’t seem to put myself together again.
The next day we have strawberry mousse for dessert, soft and pink like the lungs I have drawn on my desk. I eat the lungs fast, then throw them up in the toilet.
On day forty, I write all the words I cannot say on the inside of my wardrobe; words like ugly and consensual and slut.
This is what Wellington boy said, after he finished his quick and bloody deed. You know what your problem is? Once a slut, always a slut.
Acerbic Auckland girl says, you know what your problem is? You never talk to anyone. No wonder you don’t have any friends.
Beautiful Invercargill girl says, you drink and drink and then you go all quiet. That’s what your problem is.
They are wrong. The problem is buried deep within my amygdala, a hippocampal horror.
On days forty-one to fifty-five I stockpile tablets, aspirin and paracetamol and ibuprofen. On day fifty-six I come home early from a lecture about the kidney (glomeruli and pyramids and tubules) and dissolve forty-eight aspirin in water. I swallow them all. After that, twenty-four ibuprofen and twenty-four paracetamol to join the aspirin-gravel slurry in my gut. I lie on my bed, and stare at the ceiling. The voices in my head say slut and be quiet and you’ve been flirting with me for weeks. I’m no longer sure which voices are mine and which are memories from my hippocampal house of horrors.
The vomiting starts three hours later. Soon enough, the ringing in my ears is loud enough to drown out the voices. Acerbic Auckland girl intercepts me in the corridor that evening and says, are you all right, you’ve been spewing for hours. I say, I’m fine, I’m sure I’ll feel better in the morning. Beautiful Invercargill girl says, but look at you, you’re not even breathing right. That’s probably because my lungs have turned to strawberry mousse. That’s probably because I have acute kidney injury.
I don’t tell them this. Instead, I pluck a few more words out of the alphabet soup in my head (touch of gastro; just need to sleep), and creep back into my room. The bones inside my ears have turned into cymbals. The heart on my wall contracts around me, tighter and tighter. My vision fractures. I turn, facedown, on my pillow and wait for oblivion.
The next morning, the hostel rector comes to see me. He tells me everyone is worried about me, and that he is taking me to hospital. Here is a needle in my arm, an antidote for my chemical solution. Here is a charcoal drink to absorb the undigested pills in my stainless-steel gut. Charcoal is made of carbon and ash. It is produced by the heating of wood or other substances in an oxygen-starved environment.
I am carbon. I am ash. I am starved of oxygen, and everything else that matters.
The doctors talk over me, using words like underweight and dissociation and capacity to consent. I want to tell them that consent is to lie still and wait for it to be over so he doesn’t hurt you even more. I want to tell them that I did not have the capacity to consent then, and I certainly do not have it now.
On the sixty-first day, I emerge from my fog for long enough to tell the psychiatrist about what Wellington boy did to me. Several days later, Wellington boy will tell the police that the sex was a figment of my imagination. He will tell the police that the only sex we had was in the anatomically correct picture I drew on my wall.
And really, there is no defence for that, no words I can pull from my alphabet soup to combat Wellington boy’s slippery alternative truth. There are many truths I am unsure of, but I know this: years later, I will say #metoo –– and arise from the ashes, anew.
(1) University diaries of P. R. Harris, 2010.
(2) Gray’s Atlas of Anatomy, 1st edition. Drake R et al 2008.
(3) Medical Physiology, 2nd edition. Carver et al 2004.
(4) The #MeToo Movement: An Opportunity in Public Health? The Lancet, Vol 391, Issue 10140, 2587-2589. June 30, 2018.
Next week's short story is by John Parkyn, a New Zealand writer now living in Mexico.