Haru Jenkins’s husband has been abducted at 3:23 AM every Thursday for six years. The first abduction occurred a month after their youngest son went away to college. Haru’s husband was returned to his bed at 6:18 AM, well rested and still in his striped pajamas. The same has happened every time since. It doesn’t matter if they visit one of their children for Christmas or go on holiday to Italy — her husband still disappears every Thursday morning at 3:23 AM. The abductions track space and time zones.
It should go without saying that aliens abduct him.
Although at first these unexpected but consistently timed events terrified Haru, the chipper early-morning demeanor of her husband when he returned slowly brought her around. It helps that their sex life also improved. No longer satisfied with simply heaving his big body onto her, her husband often joins her in the shower now, gripping an enormous erection and explaining, “I thought of you while getting probed this morning.”
But most of all she appreciates the solitude. The dark and quiet it affords her have proved fertile ground for growing a secret world of her own where private habits bloom: sliding her fingers into cold, wet suburban grass; reveling in grainy reruns of Dark Shadows; and tending to her job — her first paying job — as an advice columnist for an online newspaper. When her feet pad across the kitchen floor, they are unheard by anyone else. This stirs her inner being.
Tonight she places her laptop on the kitchen counter with a clack and settles, soft and small, onto a stool. She pulls a cup of tea close, inhaling the ginger-scented steam, and turns her head toward the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard. In the door’s reflection she can see her “I Love Ringo” mug and her body, a pale leaf in the blank, dark surface. She relishes her containment.
Haru is not surprised to find her inbox bursting with e-mails from her readers, all sent within the last week. She scrolls through them, brushing her fingers over the metallic track pad and waiting for a subject line to catch her eye. Some, like “THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU, MADAM X,” inspire a smile. Others, like “You stupid FUCKING BITCH CUNT,” do not. (She immediately deletes such messages, suppressing her memory of them.) But it isn’t until she reads “Dog Fucking Dreams, Please Help” that she feels moved to click on one.
I’m a 16-year-old straight male and I have an amazing girlfriend. She’s super nice and fun and sexy. We have really good sex and a lot of fun together. We’ve been together for like 4 months and it’s been amazing. But for the past week I’ve been having really intense dreams about fucking her dog. What’s that about? I feel really grossed out by my subconscious and don’t know what to do. Like, in the dream I kind of know I shouldn’t be doing it, but it feels really good, so I do. And then I wake up without cumming. I’m always super hard and I can’t help touching myself and kind of thinking about the dog. Now it’s so bad that when I see the dog in real life, I get like a half-boner. But I really really really don’t want to actually fuck her dog. Like at all. The idea of it creeps me the fuck out. I just want to keep being with my girlfriend. Can you please help me? I don’t know what to do.
Haru looks at the clock: 3:50 AM. The message makes the warm porcelain in her hand and the familiar tea at her lips feel good and new. That the young man hasn’t made any effort to hide his identity amuses her. His e-mail address contains his full name, middle initial included. An odd, frank boy, not unlike her youngest son, whom she often pictures wandering around Greenwich Village in a chunky sweater, running lines for auditions, not needing her. Haru sets down her mug and rests her head in her hands. Madam X, she is sure, has an answer.
Dear Dog Lover,
You think you have a problem. And you’ve written to me searching for an answer. But the best thing I can tell you is that there’s nothing wrong with the situation you describe — or, if there is, it doesn’t matter. So you dream about fucking your girlfriend’s dog. So you masturbate to the thought of fucking your girlfriend’s dog. So what.
You know, we have this idea that we’re morally responsible for our sexual fantasies. Well, I don’t buy it. And if you’re a regular reader of my column, Dog Lover, you’ve probably predicted this response, which suggests that, on some level, you don’t buy it either. I say, keep on keepin’ on.
I think the more interesting question to ask here — with zero anxiety and knowing that it will all be OK — is this: Why are you so turned on by these dog-fucking dreams? Does the dog represent something or someone else? (Most obviously, your girlfriend?) Is it simply that dog fucking is taboo? Or do you, on some level and despite your disclaimers, actually want to fuck the dog?
My first hypothesis is a yawn. If the dog is a symbol of your girlfriend, then how sweet or whatever. But the second is worthier of pursuit. I’ve often claimed Taboo Land is a woefully underexplored place. We should be more willing to go there in fantasy and play when we can’t (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) in reality.
But if my third hypothesis turns out to be the case (as you will find out if your half-boners become full-blown boners, assuming they haven’t already), then we really have a fascinating situation on our hands. And if you do actually want to fuck your girlfriend’s dog, I must urge you to continue to limit yourself to fantasies in Taboo Land. Because even I won’t go so far as to say that you should actually fuck her dog, or any dog. We all know my number-one rule. That’s right, say it with me: Consent!
Animals can’t consent. So don’t be a dog rapist. Instead, enjoy flirting with the taboo. Enjoy dreaming and jacking off.
Hopefully Unnecessary P.S.: Don’t tell your girlfriend about any of this. Not everyone is as enlightened as Madam X.
Haru pulls her feet up to the stool seat and hugs her knees to her chest. The clock reads 4:24 AM. She doesn’t want to e-mail her editor immediately. Instead she wants to keep still and feel her heart beating against her knees. Or strip off her clothes and stand in the middle of the backyard and let her body grow so cold her nipples turn to stones. Or open all the windows and light all the candles and cook fish, the kind that reminds her of her childhood but makes her husband wrinkle his nose and wave his hand in front of his face as if to clear the odor.
Her husband never asks about the fish when it disappears. He is always too excited to tell her about everything that happened to him while he was away. “They did the most backward thing,” he said last week, while grabbing orange juice from the fridge. “I could write a whole book comparing their grooming rituals to the Japanese. Actually something about them reminds me of your mom.” Haru didn’t respond. Instead she focused her attention on flipping two eggs she’d been frying for them. One of the yolks broke, leaking yellow. She stared at it, trying to decide whether she would eat the broken egg or give it to her husband.
It wasn’t that she felt she didn’t have permission to speak at that moment. It’s that she didn’t know what to say. She’d lost her words. Often her husband will pause midsentence and look at her, his head cocked to the side. “You OK?” he’ll ask. Sometimes he’ll even grab her hands and shake them a little. “I feel like you never tell me what you’re really thinking,” he’ll say with a sad laugh. Only when she writes as Madam X do her words come freely. And yet she still wonders if they are really hers or just Madam X’s.
Now, making her way around the living room, the kitchen, and the guest bathroom, Haru opens windows and lights candles. As she reenters the kitchen, freezing dawn air sweeps into the house, chilling her skin. The pans clink and crash together as she pulls one from the cabinet.
She likes how the pan’s silver shines, reflecting the kitchen light and the gas-stove fire. She likes how, when she prods the pad of butter with her chopsticks, the butter melts and sizzles and its yellow drains away.
She drops the salmon into the pan. Specks of butter splatter across the stove top and her clothes. As the air thickens with the fishy smell, she knows the shiny silver skin is turning brown and crispy. The smell clings to her hair and face, her clothes and fingers. Feeling it would be more satisfying to eat after e-mailing the new piece to her editor, she returns to her stool.
See attached. Don’t ask me to choose a diff—
She hears movement in the bedroom. But it is only — her eyes flash to the clock — 4:56 AM. She still has over an hour to finish up, eat the fish, clean the pans, close the windows, blow out the candles, bury her clothes in the hamper, and scrub her skin and hair. She hears it again: Rustling. Thudding. Footsteps? Yes, footsteps. Her husband’s footsteps, maybe. But someone else’s, too. Or something else’s? The door leading to the hallway rattles and opens. For a moment she is frozen with her hands on the keyboard, remembering a nightmare she had as a little girl of an intruder. Is this the same intruder? Are those somehow his footsteps? Was that nightmare in fact a premonition?
When her husband’s big hand comes into view — and then his arm and shoulder — she lurches forward and laughs.
“Oh my God, Roger. I thought you were—”
He steps into the kitchen and sniffs the air.
“Ah!” she says, leaping toward the stove. She drags the pan off the burner and flips the contents into the trash. She pumps and pumps soap into the pan as her husband laughs.
“Har, what the hell are you doing? Why’s it freezing in here?”
She pumps more soap into the pan, buying time. What is she doing? Oh, just cooking, she wants to say. But she knows it wouldn’t sound right. She is supposed to be unconscious under her covers, not frying fish.
The bottom of the pan fills with blue goo, and then, as she turns on the water, bubbles foam to the brim and run over the sides. She sets the pan in the sink and turns around. She is just about to ask, What are you doing home so early? when she sees it: standing next to her big, square-shouldered husband is an alien. A gray? She thinks that must be what it is. Roger told her that his abductors were “grays” — slim aliens with big black eyes and, as their name suggests, gray skin. But this gray looks different from the images she found online — the ugly, naked creatures with the indifferent, mean faces of Signs and The X-Files. This gray isn’t naked at all. It wears a gauzy white shirt, white pants, and — most surprising — little white slippers. Its expression is open, curious, friendly even. And it isn’t ugly. It has smooth, shining skin and long, elegant limbs and fingers.
“Har, this is Bex. Bex, this is Har — I mean, Haru,” Roger says, gesturing between them.
Haru can’t speak at first. Blood throbs at her temples, and she wonders exactly how badly the house — and she — reeks of fried salmon.
“Har,” Roger goes on, “sorry if we scared you, but—”
“I was just surprised,” she says, looking around at all the open windows and burning candles. She was supposed to have over an hour left.
“Well, sorry we surprised you. It’s just that Bex decided she really wanted to meet you after all these—”
At this the alien places a long hand on Roger’s arm, silencing him. It — or she, Haru notes with alarm — steps forward while talking and gesturing between Roger and herself. The alien’s voice is soft and high, not unlike Haru’s. Its words sound almost like English but aren’t. As the alien speaks, Haru wonders why Roger never mentioned that some of the aliens are female. Has he been careful with his pronouns? She tries to remember how he’s talked about his experiences, the exact wording he has used.
Roger laughs. “Bex, hold on, she can’t understand like I can. Let me translate.” He looks at Haru. “Bex knows English, but she can’t really speak it well enough that just anyone can get what she’s saying. She wanted to meet you after all these years because— Har, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Haru has turned away and is leaning over the kitchen sink, struggling to close the window. “This thing’s stuck.” She pulls down on the sash, the glass rattling.
“Give that a rest for a sec.”
“I just want to get to the windows and candles real fast,” Haru says as she abandons the window and disappears into the living room. It is brighter than she expected, filling with purple morning light. The living-room windows are easier to close, and she blessedly lit only one candle in the room.
She bursts back into the kitchen to find Roger leaning down, listening to the alien whisper in his ear. She notices the alien is roughly the same size she is. The sight forcefully reminds Haru of a photo taken decades ago of Roger and her at a Christmas party, holding teetering drinks and sporting teetering eighties hairdos. He was leaning down, listening to her. They looked like pals with a secret. She’d left their sons — no, son; she’d had only the oldest at the time — with her mother for the night. The photo sat on her bedside table for years, in a frame decorated with gold leaves. Where is it now? Buried in some drawer probably.
Roger and the alien turn toward Haru, and they still look like the photo. “Bex wanted to meet you after all these years. She’s seen you in my mind.” Roger laughs, perhaps realizing how strange he sounds. He asks Haru to sit. “Don’t worry about the cold,” he says. “We’re fine.”
Haru sits on the edge of the stool, the tips of her toes brushing the rungs.
“Bex knows a lot about you, Har. She thinks you’re really interesting. And she’s talked it over with everyone else, and they want to invite you to come with me next Thursday, and maybe every Thursday after that.”
Haru has no interest in going with Roger next Thursday, or any Thursday. She knows what they do aboard the mother ship, how they link minds, how they chant and travel. She knows about the probing. It doesn’t sound like her thing at all. Roger likes it, but it isn’t for her. She can’t imagine her naked body splayed out for them. She can’t imagine enjoying it. And besides — she glances at the open computer. The alien follows her gaze and exclaims, its voice piercing, as if saying, Oh! Oh! What’s that?
Haru moves to close the laptop, but the alien stretches out its hand and wraps its long gray fingers around her wrist. They are cold like metal, like her silver pans. It chatters again, holding tight.
At the alien’s touch Haru’s mind fills first with static and then with an understanding of herself: She is inherently strong-willed, given to waves of passion and fits of rebellion, but she wants very much to please others — her father and mother, her teachers, her crushes and high-school boyfriends, her sons and husband, all of whom have expected her to be quiet and serene. The two parts of herself cannot coexist, and so she — or the world — has pushed down her desire, and she has kept silent when she most needs to speak. As Madam X she has found a way back to that other part of herself, that dangerous, free-willed part. On some level Haru knew all of this. What she doesn’t know is if her progress toward Madam X is good or bad — but the alien releases her arm, and the exchange of knowledge ceases as suddenly as it began.
When Haru’s awareness returns to the kitchen, Roger is at her computer. “Who’s Jeff?” he asks. He clicks the attachment to the e-mail Haru had been about to send, along with Madam X’s answer to the would-be dog fucker. “What’s this?” Roger’s voice has an edge to it.
The alien intervenes, pointing at Haru, whose cheeks flush with shame.
“No,” Roger tells the alien. “I didn’t know about any newspaper column. She isn’t—”
The alien jabbers again, cutting him off.
Roger’s face lightens. “Yeah,” he says, chuckling. “I guess it is kind of funny.”
The alien asks Roger a question, and Haru worries about the salmon smell, hoping this Bex won’t think all human women reek of fish. Then she blinks back angry tears as she realizes that, even after all that was revealed in the moment the alien touched her arm, she’s still frantic over the salmon smell.
“No, it’s fine,” Roger replies. “I get why you’d find it so interesting. I just didn’t know Haru was writing a relationship- or sex-advice column or whatever. She’s never showed an interest in that sort of thing.”
Haru wonders what he means by “that sort of thing.” Writing? Working? Sex? Her responses in bed have always been enthusiastic — full of moans and back-arching and the unembarrassed use of her own saliva. As Madam X she would probably call this behavior “performative,” but what does that matter?
Except it does matter, she tells herself. It matters very much.
Roger turns back to Haru. “So anyways, Har, what do you think? Want to come with me next week?”
Haru notes the time: 5:15 AM. If not for the interruption, she would have already sent the e-mail and started cleaning the house, her clothes, herself. And five minutes before Roger was supposed to come back, she would have slipped into clean pajamas and back under the covers. She would have turned off the light by the bed and rested her head on her pillow, which would have been cool from her absence. And she would have started the process over again next Thursday at 3:23 AM. Now, no matter her answer, it will all be different. Now that she knows what she knows, writing as Madam X could be worse or better, but it won’t be the same.
“Well, Har?” Roger asks.
Haru searches for a response, jiggling one leg against the stool. She remembers something else about that Christmas-party photo, something she’s never given much thought: After it was taken, Roger’s boss bumped into Haru on the way back to the bar. He looked down at her with his unfocused eyes and leaned close and called her pretty, called her exotic, his breath stinking of bourbon. He seemed to think he was offering an apology or a compliment, or both. Roger did, too, because he laughed. She remembers them laughing. It seems absurd to her now that she didn’t tell them to stop.