The first big one was when I took my best friend to see the solar eclipse over New York in 1925. I thought it was a great idea, me and Nisha standing in the middle of the Bronx in drop-waist dresses and cloche hats, bundled in woolen coats against the January cold. Nisha adored historical fashion, so it seemed like a thoughtful present for her twenty-seventh, even if the time-hopping wristbands from the Telarians cost the same as my rent. Alien tech’s not cheap to import, I figured, and Nisha’s the best person I ever met, so my budget could suck it. Besides, I wanted a vacation, too. I’d never been able to take one before.
But it turned out to be about zero degrees outside, we’d grabbed the wrong size boots, and then Nisha got into a small but fierce argument about the presence of her brown skin with a small and equally fierce white woman. Me and Nisha and the woman and the three others who came to Nisha’s side were all too distracted to do more than glance up at the miracle happening in the sky. For a second, when the angry racist lady shoved me flat on my back in the street, I stared up at the dark, my brain fritzing about what time it was or if I’d hit the time band accidentally, until Nisha helped me up. I could feel snow and dirt and who knows what else seeping into my rented outfit.
We could’ve tried to hop back five minutes and over a block to see it again, but that would’ve violated the rental contract for the time bands, and I couldn’t afford the penalty fees on top of everything else.
* * *
A few years later, I bought tickets for Nisha and me to see the Flying Polar Bear Circus. Again: Sounded like a solid idea. Nisha loved a spectacle, and always thought more should be done to save critically endangered species. If Telarian flight implants combined with human love for training wild animals got people to pay attention to polar bears, great! All the proceeds went to preservation efforts, too.
Except I really should’ve taken into account the lockpick set Nisha owned, and clarified that it’s action, not spectacle, that Nisha loved.
In the end, it was about thirty percent my fault that Nisha let the polar bears out of their cages and helped them fly to a liberation group that took them to a rehabilitation station near the Arctic Circle. I mean, I did hold the door for her.
But it was one hundred percent my fault that I ran smack into a guard on the way out.
* * *
Finally, I had the greatest idea ever: a trip to the Telarian home world. Just me, Nisha, Nisha’s husband José, and my partner Sam. We booked as soon as the Telarians announced they were preparing two-way travel for humans. We’d heard it was astonishingly like Earth and entirely unlike it, with beautiful islands and vast continents, thousands of cultural destinations to choose from. Plus, floating cities on the ocean! The Telarians said a month on Telar meant only six weeks away from Earth, thanks to their ships. Perfect.
I didn’t think twice about how much Nisha was reading about Telar, or the language lessons she started a full thirteen months before the trip.
Halfway to Telar, we got news of a previous ship that disappeared on the way back to Earth. No sign, no explanation. Sam had to talk me out of a panic spiral. “It’s a fluke,” Sam said, their voice soothing me through the door of the bathroom, where I was curled up on the floor. “The Telarians have been making the trip for years.”
Even though it was her birthday, Nisha scheduled me for her Telarian psychic massage, saying that she wouldn’t have any fun if I was stressed out. The masseuse, I learned afterward, hadn’t been fully trained in human psyches. Especially stressed psyches. I didn’t sleep for three days, and all of us missed a trip to the floating city of Mnelosk while I panicked and hallucinated.
In the end, our ship did return to Earth without incident, but none of us were on it.
* * *
Each birthday, Nisha gave me a tight hug and said, “That was such a good present, thank you!”
I said, of the eclipse, “We didn’t see anything!” to which Nisha replied, “I saw people come to my side to shut down a fool.” Then Nisha raised her glass to me. “Cheers!”
I said, after the Polar Bear Incident, “We got arrested!” and Nisha gave me a high five. Then she added, “And I met José!”
I said, during the trip to Telar, “Nisha. Nisha. We can’t just stay here. We’re Earthlings!” to which Nisha said, “Being an immigrant isn’t so bad, sweetie,” and unlocked the door of the flat she was moving into. “Besides, I’m not keeping you here.”
Sam looked bewildered but intrigued when I told them about Nisha’s plans. The whole trip, Sam had been marveling at the purple-tinged sky, the variety of Telarians all around us, and now Nisha’s view of the ocean from her flat. At a party, José introduced us to the Telarian who was helping the two of them through the process of staying; me and Sam had long talks under the alien stars — about Earth and what was there or not there, about being afraid, about what matters, or rather, who matters.
I realized that Nisha was way better at this birthday thing than I ever was — see, for birthdays, I always had the first part of an idea and it went sideways. Nisha improved it.
A week later, on my birthday, Sam and I moved in next door.
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