Keep Talking14 min read
Gerald’s stomach clenched as he approached his daughter, Sarah. She sat at her computer, her back to the world, as intent as a cat scenting a mouse. “Sweetie, I have some big news.”
She sucked on a lock of her hair, eyes on the screen. He leaned against the desk, as much into her line of sight as he could. “Sarah? I got the job.”
“Live feed,” Sarah said, angrily, and leaned closer to her screen.
On her screen, a half–dozen text windows showed the usual columns of numbers, her obsession: the daily data streams and reports from SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. She’d always been so good at math, but when time came to take the SATs, she’d just said, “The problems all have answers,” and left her sheet blank.
Gerald turned his daughter’s chair toward him. Sarah dutifully turned, but her pupils tracked to the computer monitor, looking out the extreme corner of her eyes. “I got the job, so we’re going to move to Japan.” Gerald felt the weight of all the things he needed to say, the wall of facts he had to build one stone at a time. “I know you don’t want to, but it will be so wonderful, honey. Your computer is coming with us. Nothing will have to change.”
Sarah was getting that hard, tight look—the meltdown look. Gerald stepped back. “Remember that I love you. We can talk about this later if you want.”
Sarah drew the tip of her hair out of her mouth, letting it sit on her lower lip. “Go away.”
When Gerald let go of her, Sarah swung back to the computer like a released spring. She opened a new command–line window and started typing fast strings of figures. Gerald stepped back again. In an age of easy graphics programs, Sarah preferred to draw via line functions. Gerald used to think that was beautiful, a hopeful hint of how brilliant his daughter was, his genes going forth to do things he never could. Now it made him nauseated—the taste of dashed hopes. He left her room. The world of numbers had swallowed her.
Sarah was relieved to get back to her work, but sad her father had left so easily. People always left her. Her father was going to leave her, she knew, if she convinced him not to take her to Japan, and she would be completely alone.
She had a task to do, though, and she was in her room, where the light was dim and she knew where everything was.
The data took the form of pulses at three distinct frequencies. The scientists at SETI had chosen to represent these three signals as 0, 1, and –1. Balanced Ternary. Sarah liked it; it cut down the carry rate in multiplication. There were nine zeroes every seven hundred bytes. The other SETI users on the forum thought this was a tag to help parse the data. Sarah considered this a waste of bytes if it were true. Surely the aliens were smart, like her, not dumb, like forum posters. The data had to be repeating—signal degradation compensated for.
The SETI data would be released to the public soon. She wanted to figure it all out before then. The motion in the numbers had meaning. All math had meaning, but the data was sanitized, cut up in chunks already by the well–meaning SETI engineers. Something was missing, and its absence left a bad smell. She shifted the lines until they linked hands, became dance partners. That was the parsing tag, there, where a negative and a positive lined up exactly opposite. The data fell into neat pentagrams. Dance partners with five hands. Two higher than the other three.
The live feed from SETI announced that someone else had solved the puzzle. A team at Carnegie Mellon announced it could be a video. Sarah pushed back from her keyboard and sulked.
Miranda, Gerald’s girlfriend, came over for dinner as usual the next day. She kissed Gerald on the cheek as he opened the apartment door. He looked frazzled as always. He squeezed her hand. She could smell something garlicky cooking.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she asked, dropping her purse on the little table by the door. It wobbled and she steadied it with a nudge.
Gerald closed the door. “My cooking?”
Gerald squinted at her. “Aliens? That’s a good thing?”
“Of course!” Miranda leaned into the kitchenette, really just a corner of the main room of the apartment separated off by a low counter. A pot was about to boil over. She moved it to another burner on the ancient, harvest–gold stove. “Don’t you think so?”
Gerald turned off the burner. “What are we talking about?”
“The aliens. The video of the aliens. Dancing. Isn’t it wonderful? They communicate through dance! We’re beside ourselves at the studio.”
He still had that adorable absent–minded–professor expression as he tested the noodles and brought them to the sink to drain. “I had to break the news to Sarah today,” he said.
“About first contact with outer space? I find that hard to believe. I bet she was glued to her computer.”
Gerald looked helplessly at Miranda. Steam fogged up his glasses.
Miranda spoke slowly. “The SETI news? The video of aliens dancing? You can get it on YouTube now. It’s all anyone is talking about. How did you miss it?”
“They offered me the job,” Gerald said. He took off his glasses. “Aliens? You mean, like, real space aliens?”
Miranda framed his face in her hands. “Real space aliens,” she said. “And they dance!” She couldn’t help but kiss him then.
Gerald blushed. “Do you think… they’ll need dancers to interpret it, won’t they?”
Miranda secretly entertained just this hope, but she waved her hand. “There are plenty of people they’d want before they look at dance instructors in Cleveland.”
“You should volunteer. I bet you’d be the best.”
“Maybe.” Miranda stepped out of the kitchenette. “But Japan! How wonderful for you! Finally a chance to put all that schooling to work!” She pulled a chair out for herself at the dining table and turned to see Gerald slumped against the sink.
“I don’t know what to do about Sarah,” he said.
“You need this opportunity. You need to do what you were trained to do. Sarah can stay with me.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“It won’t be forever. She’s eighteen! She can learn to dance. It will focus her, give her a grounding in the physical world, make her less clumsy.”
“She isn’t going to dance the autism away,” Gerald said, angrily. His eyes slid to the corridor that led to his and Sarah’s bedrooms. He lowered his voice as he went back to dividing the pasta onto three plates. “She doesn’t want to go. She isn’t ready to stay on her own. She doesn’t even wash her hair if I don’t remind her.”
Gerry looked so defeated. He hadn’t been that way in college, back when he was dating Sarah’s mother and Miranda was just a friend. They were just starting on a romance together after years of friendship and they were both closer to forty than thirty. Miranda saw Gerald idling on the on–ramp of life, and traffic was only going to get heavier and faster. “You think I want you to go? I care that much about your future, your potential.” She slipped her arm around him. “I trust that you’ll come back.”
“I should never have applied,” he said. He turned out of her embrace and picked up the sauce from the stove. “If I hadn’t gotten the job, I wouldn’t be tempted.”
“What’s life if you don’t take big risks and do big things? Do you want to live in this crappy apartment forever?”
Gerald set the saucepan down. He looked at her, plainly hurt, but Miranda shook her head. “Don’t give me the puppy–dog eyes.”
A door opened and slammed. Sarah came into the main area of the apartment. She didn’t look at them, but they both watched her walk to the dining table and sit down.
“We’ll work it out,” Miranda said, and squeezed Gerald’s shoulder.
He nodded. “So,” he said, with false cheer, “aliens, huh? Wow.”
Miranda left him to pull out a chair next to Sarah. She thought about her father, who had always wanted to be a dancer, but like Gerald had done office work for the sake of his family. “Your father tells me he got the job in Japan. Isn’t that great?”
“I’m not going,” Sarah said. She stared at her placemat. “I have work to do. They still don’t know the message.”
Miranda raised her hand, unsure if she should touch Sarah or not. She ended up setting it on the back of Sarah’s chair. “Your father’s not strong like us. He needs us to help him. He needs you.”
Sarah looked straight at Miranda. “I’m not going, and I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say that. But you can work on your computer project anywhere.”
Sarah’s eyes squinched up, and then her nose, and then she screamed. Gerald dropped the spaghetti in the sink and rushed to put himself between Sarah and Miranda. Sarah hit him, her fist originally intended for Miranda. And then she lost control, scratching and biting. Miranda had seen it once before, but she thought Sarah had outgrown these fits. It was frightening, how she was not Sarah anymore.
Gerald knelt down, pinned her arms down, hugged her still. “Sh,” he whispered. “It’s okay. Be calm. We don’t hit. Remember? We don’t hit.”
Miranda stepped back, helpless and locked out. Gerald was calm and focused. He took Sarah back to her room, back where she felt safe with the lights off and the window covered in tinfoil. He came back to get Sarah’s dinner. Miranda sat alone at the dining table and wondered how she had ever thought she could take Gerald’s place.
A happy monster, all grey fur and smiling teeth, greeted Gerald on his desk at work. It was a plush gift from the movie studio that wanted to hire him. He’d caught their eye because of the free work he’d done for a local independent film. It was a cyberpunk robot romance story and had turned out better than it ought to have, being filmed mostly over two weekends in the Old Arcade downtown. They hadn’t gotten the correct permission ahead of time, and a bridal party walked right through the movie’s climax. It felt like an essential part, the beauty and the randomness. Pure luck. He’d translated a Japanese poem for the movie, which was used in the credits, and he’d written Japanese dialog for one character and provided Japanese subtitles, even though no one had asked for them.
Now a Japanese movie studio wanted him on board, translating for them. He could remember exactly this sort of job offer in his dreams when he was a college freshman, choosing against all reason to major in modern languages. He should feel like he was on a roller coaster, climbing the first hill, all the joy ahead of him and all the waiting behind.
He was still a little mad at Miranda for talking about “putting his schooling to use,” like translating grocery store signs for recent immigrants wasn’t useful. Like all the work he’d done raising Sarah on his own wasn’t as important as a job.
Business at the Asian American Community Service Agency was slower than usual. Gerald’s boss and the delivery girl lingered by the big front window, talking in excited tones about aliens and the future. A pile of pamphlets and manuals sat on his desk, waiting to be translated. Gerald felt the enormity of his personal news dwarfed by the motion of the world, become a rowboat in the wake of a cruise ship.
He opened up a chat window and sent Sarah a message. “Just thinking about you. Hope your day is going well. Home at five. Dad.”
Miranda walked barefoot across the dance studio. She still felt tight and unsettled, despite her usual morning yoga. She sat at the computer and opened YouTube. The alien dance was the featured video. Knobby, cactus–like creatures touched a high knob, then a low knob, twisting across a multi–colored floor. It hadn’t looked like dance when she’d first seen it, and a lot of her colleagues bristled at the media calling it such. But what else could you call it? Figures moving in space, repeating motions with slight variations, over and over. She wondered if the color was meaningless, a distraction. Maybe the aliens didn’t even see color. She picked up a pen and began taking notes.
If Sarah were captivated by THIS dance, if she could see the steps arranged clearly in bright, colorful symbols, she might become captivated by dance itself.
Sarah almost had it. The equations described almost all the motion — each body as a whole, the trajectories of limbs, but there were parts of the dance hidden from view, and you couldn’t extrapolate. She didn’t want to extrapolate. Extrapolation made her angry. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t perfect.
Miranda had entered the room, but Sarah was ignoring her in hopes she’d go away. Miranda was always trying to become her friend, since she wanted to become her mother. It was annoying and unreasonable. Sarah was too old for a mother.
Miranda pulled a chair close to Sarah. “I might be able to help you interpret the dance,” Miranda said.
Sarah doubted that, but she had to admit it was nice that Miranda had come right out and said why she’d come instead of saying useless stupid things about the weather and hello first.
Sarah curled a lock of hair around one finger, smoothed it to a point and stuck it in her mouth, feeling the hairs shift against each other, wet with saliva, they became elastic, a new material. She liked elastic things, like numbers.
Miranda set a tablet on the desk. On it were drawings of circles and squares. Sarah stopped sucking her hair and looked at it.
Miranda had made the extrapolations.
Miranda thought Sarah resembled a cat leaping upon a choice piece of fish as she picked up the tablet, eyes moving rapidly. Miranda laughed. “You’re welcome,” she said. She watched for a while, proud of her own work, before leaving Sarah to it.
Gerald stood in the hallway. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Just a little girl–time,” Miranda said. She kissed Gerald on the cheek, though he looked at her warily. “You and I, we’re not a short–term deal. That means I want you as a part of my life, and having you be a part of my life means Sarah being a part of my life. I want Sarah to stay with me while you go to Japan.”
Gerald looked past Miranda, into Sarah’s room. On the computer screen, cactus–like creatures twirled around each other. He thought it looked like a Eurovision dance number. He had laundry to put away. He asked Miranda about her day and about the performance her students were putting on at the end of the month. She wasn’t deterred. She followed him to the laundry room and back to the apartment, stood by him while he folded clothes on the sofa and followed him into the corridor to put towels in the linen closet.
“It makes sense. She doesn’t want to travel. We can move her to my place before you leave even, give you some transition time to make sure it works.”
Gerald couldn’t tell her that she doesn’t understand; she hasn’t been a parent. Because it wasn’t parental protectiveness that was pulling him in horror away from her suggestion. It was pride. He didn’t want to owe Miranda so much. “What if she never agrees to follow me? What if she’s never ready to be on her own? What about you? Do you just follow us? Leave everything you have here?”
“Maybe I will. American dancers could be a novelty in Tokyo. And dance will be big, Gerry. Bigger than big. The world is seeing what dance can do. They’ll be hungry for more.”
“All of your family is here. You have connections here. I don’t want to ask that of you.”
Miranda went into the living room and sat down, hands on her lap, a very clear “let’s talk” posture.
“I’ll order pizza for dinner,” Gerald said. “Or do you want to get subs? I didn’t take anything out.”
“You’re scared. I get that.” Miranda flattened a hand against her chest. “I’m terrified. But you have to do the things that scare you.”
Gerald peeked back down the corridor at Sarah’s door. It was closed, and all was quiet inside. If she had ever tried to get a job, if she had taken one of the jobs Gerald tried to arrange for her, maybe he could leave her, but she hadn’t. “Let’s see what I cook up,” he said, and went to the fridge.
Miranda followed him. “How many times have you fed me dinner? Let me give something back.”
Sarah’s door opened and she marched out in her usual careless, loping gait, all lank hair and swinging arms. She went straight to the refrigerator in the kitchenette and pulled out the orange juice. She was an obsessive orange juice drinker, which was good in a way because she hardly ate enough as it was, and Gerald told himself at least she was getting calories, though he had nightmares where her skin turned yellow.
Sarah turned her back to the fridge and drank.
Miranda smiled a forced smile. “We were just talking about Japan. Your father is going there.”
“I’m not stupid,” Sarah said. She took another long gulp of orange juice in the awkward silence before adding, “It was a cry for help.”
Miranda asked, “What was?”
Sarah shifted, avoiding eye contact. “The aliens. They’re dancing for help. For us to come save them. From what isn’t clear, but it’s definitely an extinction level event.”
“Oh,” said Gerald.
Miranda grabbed the remote control and turned on the TV, rapidly scanning through channels.
Sarah finished her orange juice. “They’re four thousand light years away. It already happened. They’re all dead.”
Miranda finally found a news channel talking about the aliens, but they were discussing their possible anatomy with a cactus specialist.
“We don’t know that,” Gerald said.
“Thanks for the extrapolations,” Sarah said. “I’ll be in my room.”
Miranda kept thumbing through channels. “Do you think she’s right?” Gerald said nothing. Miranda looked at him. “We should call someone. Maybe NASA. Gerry, they’ll want to talk to her. They might offer her a job!”
Gerald felt bloodless. He didn’t live in the world Miranda lived in—the world where you tried bold things and they worked out. His daughter was not another Einstein and no one at NASA would want to talk to her. He would not go to Tokyo. The aliens were all dead. He moved the laundry basket off of the couch and sat down next to Miranda.
Miranda had found a channel playing the alien dance. She had her phone out and was searching for phone numbers to call.
Gerald wondered what Miranda saw when she watched the aliens dance. He just saw shapes blurring and thought about all the people who died before you got to know them.
Sarah came back into the room. “Mountain View.”
He looked up.
“Mountain View, Daddy. Tell MIT and Caltech I get to work in Mountain View or they can go to hell.” And she tossed her vibrating cell phone at her father.
He juggled it, only getting a good grip when it had stopped ringing. “Mountain View?” he asked.
“Where SETI is,” Miranda explained.
Gerald felt Miranda’s warm, comforting arm around him. He saw the list of recent calls to Sarah’s phone without fully processing all the strange numbers. Miranda took the phone from his bloodless fingers.
Miranda paged through received emails. “She’s already sent her findings. Gerald… they’re really calling her back. This is… what time is it in California?” Miranda muted the TV and fussed through the mess on the coffee table, looking for a notepad and pen.
Gerald looked from Miranda to Sarah’s door. His vision wavered in a thin pool of tears. He saw the pattern forming, like a perfect translation. His daughter would be sent like a beacon to parts unknown. Or he would. Or both. There was no path that didn’t end in good–bye.
On the television, the cacti were performing their swirling dance, living on as ones, zeroes, and twos.