From the author: I got the opening line of this story--"Beatrice's lover was made of lip"-- when I was 17. It took me twenty years to figure out where to go from there. The result: a story about a sex toy genetically coded to its owner, a notion I still find deeply disturbing.
Beatrice’s lover was made of lip. She wouldn’t say more, just smiled, delicately tracing the edge of her glass with one finger. Susannah, more than anyone else there, knew Beatrice’s theatricality, her beautifully detailed gestures. Susannah, more than anyone else there, knew that to give way to her curiosity was to give way to Beatrice.
Still, “Lip, Beatrice?” she murmured, trying to sound wry and doubtful.
“Uh huh.” Beatrice’s smile broadened and shone on Susannah; she finished her wine and turned to get more.
Was she the only one in Renata’s living room who had heard Beatrice? Susannah wondered. Or did the others take the casual statement as an example, either of Beatrice’s extravagance or of her hyperbole? No one but Susannah seemed particularly interested. And beside the delicious, disturbing image of Beatrice’s lover there was only one thought in Susannah’s mind: not to show Beatrice she was intrigued. Captivated. Hooked again, like the old days.
“Wanna see something?” Beatrice would whisper. They were sammies then, refugee kids at a Samaritan school after the Big Everything, the disaster of ’19 which had wiped out so much of New York City. “It’ll cost you a halfie.” And Susannah had found the half-dollar coin hidden in her pocket and given it to Beatrice and had been permitted to view the dead cat or the page torn from an old porn magazine or, once, the body of a bum who had frozen to death outside the school the night before.
“Wanna see something?” Beatrice would whisper. And every time, every damned time, she fell for it.
Even now, twenty five years later. The most Susannah had learned to do was look indifferent so that the others at the party—friends of Renata’s, who was a sammie too—wouldn’t notice her fascination.
Later, when the party was breaking up, Beatrice offered Sue a ride back to Manhattan by way of Tamerlane. “I have to stop home anyway. Come in, I’ll give you some real coffee.”
Susannah opened her mouth to say no, and was unsurprised to hear herself say Yes. Old habit, old captivations. She followed Beatrice up to the copter on Renata’s roof.
“I’ve named it Abelard,” Beatrice said as she fastened her seatbelt.
“Why not Dante?” Susannah asked, trying to play the game.
“Too obvious.” Beatrice smiled, a whiteness glittering in the dusk. She flicked a row of switches and the copter hummed to life. In the fading daylight and the green glow of the instrument panel, Beatrice looked unearthly, vivid and perfect, her long fingers manipulating the toggles and dials expertly.
“Besides,” she added, once they were up in the air. “Abelard sounds sexier.” It certainly did the way Beatrice said it, a sigh rolled along the tongue.
For ten minutes Susannah fought the temptation to ask “where did it come from?” Finally, unasked, Beatrice said, “I had him made for me. One of the bioengineering places squeezed my order in between batches of interferon or something. I understand it isn’t that hard to do. Just expensive.” Beatrice lingered on the word. “A parent tissue, a little fuddling with DNA, program in some instincts—“ her voice was an elegant drawl, only her smile in the near-darkness was lewd. “There’s only one in the world, and it’s mine.”
“Beattie—“ Susannah murmured.
“I know you’ll keep this a secret, love. It’s not breaking the law, but…bending it a little.”
Susannah stared into the deepening gloom. Below them scavenger boats fished scrap metal from the Long Island Sound; to the right in the distance the squat buildings of the South Bronx Hospice glittered silently. After their hungry, grubby childhood, Susannah had continued on to college, gone to work, built up a small independence for herself. Grubbed for money, Beatrice said, and shook her head. Herpath had been very different. Beatrice had worked only as long as it took to find, and marry, Felix Ferrar-Giroux, one of the mysteriously wealthy men who had emerged after the Everything. He took her home to Tamerlane, a huge house on the Sound that unfolded like a tesseract, disclosing rooms where none could logically be, and there Beatrice learned to spend his money. He encouraged her extravagance as if he were feeding a rare bird. No impulse too wild, no whim too expensive. Including, it appeared, this new extravagance.
I will keep my mouth shut, Susannah thought grimly. I will look at her new toy—despite herself a flush of warmth spread through her at the thought—and then I will go home.
At Tamerlane they were met at the door by a superior looking manservant who took Susannah’s three-year-old cloth coat with as much ceremony as he did Beatrice’s fur. Beatrice led Sue to a small den and poured wine for them both.
“You must relax, Susah! You take everything so seriously. There, drink that. Why areyou so edgy?”
“I’m not edgy, but I have work at home I need to get through tonight.”
“Susah, you can’t let work rule your life,” Beatrice said irritably.
“I don’t let it rule my life, Beatrice—“
“What else rules your life, then? You haven’t had a lover since whatsisname walked out—“
“Greg,” Susannah whispered.
Beatrice made no sign of hearing. “You won’t enjoy yourself, you act like you haven’t earned the right. That’s the difference between us: you think you haven’t earnedanything. I knowI’ve earned everything I can lay my hands on. We survived, Susah. We’re alive. We don’t owe anyone anything. Idon’t, anyway.” Beatrice raked her hair back from her broad forehead with one hand and looked up at the ceiling. “Why do I bother. Come on, love. Let’s go meet Abelard.”
They went down a string of corridors, stopping just as Susannah began to get seriously lost. The room Beatrice led Sue into was almost empty, uncarpeted, dimly lit, painted a shining white. The floor was a parquet pattern, doubtless of real wood. There was a clean, soft smell to the air, like talc or running water; two lush throw rugs and a futon in the corner, a fern hanging in a ceramic pot. Nothing stirred.
Beatrice crossed the room. “Shut the door behind you, Susah.” Then she went through a door at the far side of the room. Susannah had a moment to look around curiously, breathe the sweet air, wait for revelation.
“Come on, precious. Come on, sweetie-pie.” Beatrice stood in the doorway a moment to assure herself of Susannah’s attention before she reentered the room. Something moist and gibbous squirmed uneasily into the room behind her, moving by throwing its weight forward, falling and rolling over until it “stood” again. It was ovoid, dull red, strangely plastic, with a faint sheen that gave no impression of sliminess. Ugh, Susannah thought, but was unable to take her eyes away as the thing rolled after Beatrice like a puppy after its master, struggling with that sidling somersault to keep up with Beatrice’s elegant long stride.
“Abelard.” Beatrice stopped in the center of the room, one palm extended to present the thing to Susannah. With the other hand she reached caressingly down to it and it responded, stretching upward in an effort to reach her circling finger. At last they touched, and the thing grew round her finger, nursed it. For the first time in all the years she had known Beatrice, Susannah saw her entirely captivated, not thinking of the next moment or the next, caught entirely in the present, all attention focused in that one finger.
The mood was contagious. Susannah’s faint revulsion at her first sight of the thing dissipated. She felt a warmth and sweet laziness born of the fragrant humidity of the room and the unsettlingly erotic sight of the creature suckling Beatrice’s manicured finger. She sighed quietly in the stillness.
“Do you want to touch him?” Beatrice’s voice sounded abnormally loud.
Susannah tried to make her murmured Yes seem casual. She stepped near, reached out a finger and touched, tentatively, at the side of the lover. “Abelard?” she murmured. The thing did not move toward her, but it did not move away, either. Sue pushed her finger a little harder. The surface of the lover was warm, firmer than she had expected. Like lip. It gave slightly, then closed around her fingertip and nursed at it, tasted it. Susannah felt a string of electric pulses ripple up her spine; the flesh surrounding hers was damp and warm and faintly pulsing.
“I thought you’d like him,” Beatrice said smugly. At the sound of her voice Abelard released its grip on Susannah’s finger, dropped away and shrank back, its rolling weight carrying it toward Beatrice. “Hello, Pet,” Beatrice crooned. “Is devoted to Beattie, in’t it? Is got Beattie under its skin, hasn’t it?” She ran a caressing palm flat along one side of Abelard’s top while Susannah, shivering in the warm air, tried to regain her composure. Then, abruptly, Beatrice pulled away from the lover and turned to the door. “Come on, Susah.”
Susannah followed, trying to ignore the tremor that lingered in her arms and breasts and knees, making walking a shaky, uncertain chore. From the doorway she took one backward look and saw Abelard, shrunken and forlorn, abandoned in the center of the room.
“Potter will move it back to the tank later.” Beatrice waved a vague hand in the direction of the room as they moved up the hall.
“It spends most of its time in nutrient bath. Or something. I told the Bioform people I didn’t want to know particulars, they’re so unromantic. Potter takes care of him. It. Now, I promised you real coffee, didn’t I?”
Susannah had forgotten about the work she had waiting in Manhattan. She followed Beatrice mutely back to the sitting room where a lavish meal, with the promised coffee, had been laid out. Through the meal and the copter ride to the city, where Beatrice landed on the roof of Susannah’s building in violation of any number of ordinances, through the rest of the evening and the next day, Susannah was haunted by the memory, the teasing sensation of that warm flesh suckling at her finger. Which was just what Beatrice wanted, she told herself scornfully. An audience. Someone to want what she has.
Which is just what Susannah wanted.
Sue saw Beatrice irregularly, now and then at Renata’s house in Connecticut, sometimes at a restaurant in the city for lunch. With her usual perversity Beatrice did not mention Abelard, but sometimes in the midst of talking she would break off in mid-sentence and smile deliciously into space for a moment, then start theatrically, “What was I saying?” Sue believed these lapses were contrived for her benefit, but that didn’t diminish their power. She was grimly certain that Beatrice understood that all too well, and was grimly determined to show herself unmoved.
Other than lunches with Beatrice, parties or weekends at Renata’s, or her occasional work-related social duties, Susannah didn’t seek out contacts, friends, lovers. Her last man had decamped more than a year before, in a shower of mutual accusation and disappointment, and Susannah couldn’t nerve herself to try again. Too messy, certain to fail, just not worth it, she said to Renata when she asked about Susannah’s love life. To Beatrice she said she was too busy to think about sex, let alone love. She was not quite busy enough to forget the unsettling image of Beatrice’s lover, nor the ghost sensation of the thing suckling on her own finger, even after months had gone by.
One day, several months after the visit to Tamerlane, Beatrice called her at work, arranged to meet for lunch. She bubbled and enthused, every word was an event, and by the time she put the phone down Susannah knew that Beatrice had some new extravagance and needed an audience. Needed her. She made arrangements to take an extra hour for lunch, her superiors looked kindly on her lunches with Beatrice Ferrar-Giroux.
They met at a small restaurant in the rehabilitated section of the east Fifties. The place had not yet been discovered by anyone but Beatrice, who would relentlessly drag it into fashion and then tire of it. Today she was dressed like a wealthy gypsy, scarves and beads and skirts layered around her so that she looked half-buried in bright fabric. Her hair was in dark ringlets this time. She looked beautiful, elegant, radiantly pleased with herself and the world, and Susannah immediately loathed her own blue suit, which that morning had seemed fashionable and attractive, and her simply dressed dark hair.
“Susannah!” Beatrice rose and enveloped Susannah in a spicy over-whelming embrace full of foreign enthusiasms and endearments. Susannah returned it carefully, fearful of disturbing Beatrice’s artful disarray.
Before the first drink had arrived Beatrice was launched on an epic, a saga of her life since they had last met. By the time the second drink and the faux salmon appeared Beatrice had arrived at the crux of her story. A new lover, a man. He was beautiful, he was bright and shining, incredibly sensual, a gypsy, a madman. He had been, until Beatrice discovered him, a gardener at Tamerlane.
“Who’s doing the garden now?” Sue asked dryly. Beatrice blinked, laughed, and went on. By the time the consommé arrived Beatrice had descended from flowery abstracts to coarse particulars. Susannah listened in silence.
It was not until the waiter served the veal and poured more wine that Susannah could get a word in edgewise. “What’s going to happen to Abelard?”
Beatrice looked at her blankly for a moment. Then, “Oh, God, that’s right. I hadn’t even thought. Well, after all, Susah, it’s only a blob, isn’t it? I’ll have to tell Potter to take it back to Bioform?”
Beatrice was paying for the meal; it was not often that Susannah could afford real meat, let alone cheese and fruit and wine this good. She ate every bite. It tasted like dust. Over coffee she asked, “What will Bioform do with him?”
“Put it back in the vat or something, I suppose. Recycle the ingredients. Really, Susannah,” Beatrice drawled. “It was only a toy.”
She wasn’t supposed to care, Susannah knew. She was supposed to change fascinations as Beatrice did, just one step behind. She shook her head and changed the subject back to Beatrice’s new lover.
When they were putting on their coats, Beatrice regarded Susannah with the same old look: satisfaction wanting to flaunt itself. “Susah, you must come meet him. When can you come out to Tamerlane?”
She faltered, thinking of the work on her desk, the reports in her briefcase waiting to be taken home. Then Susannah surprised herself. “Tonight. I can come tonight, after work.” And do what? Fight free of the place with Abelard tucked under one arm? Ridiculous. Still, “Tonight,” she said.
“I won’t say goodbye, then,” Beatrice said. “I’ll pick you up at six!” She smiled again, suddenly irresistible and childlike. “Ooo, Susah, wait til you see!” And then was gone.
Flying out to Tamerlane, Susannah let Beatrice’s chatter wash over her like warm, scented water. Potter waited at the door to receive their coats and lead them to a different small den. Susannah wondered briefly if Beatrice had a suite of rooms for each lover she took; row on row of white rooms with the smell of running water and one green vine in a white ceramic pot. She settled herself in a deep soft chair and sipped wine, thinking. A young man, very tall and muscular, with a face of masculine prettiness and a slow, assured walk, joined them. Susannah noted that he was as besotted with Beatrice as she was with him.
“Susannah, this is John.” Beatrice pulled the young man down to sit beside her on the sofa, their fingers found occasions to touch, and the air between them rippled as if superheated. Susannah looked away uncomfortably, embarrassed. When Potter announced a call for Beatrice the lovers rose together and left the room. Potter looked at Susannah as if she were part of some vulgar conspiracy, then he too left. Susannah could hear Beatrice’s soft murmuring from the antechamber, the click of the phoneset replaced in its cradle, but neither Beatrice nor John returned. She thought she heard more murmurings, the soft sighing of silk against skin and skin against skin. Her face warmed as she realized that Beatrice meant her to hear, wanted her to hear. Probably thought it was a great gift to her poor friend Susah, she thought in disgust.
She rose and left the room. If anyone stopped her, she would say she was looking for the lavatory. No one stopped her. It took her three tries to find the right corridor, the right door. When she entered the room she found it empty; the futon and white rungs had been rolled up and piled on one side, the vine trailed unwatered from its dusty pot. The air was still and musty. She walked across the bare floor and opened the door to the inner room carefully, afraid she might startle the creature.
It was flattened, submerged in a shallow plastiglass tank that brimmed with viscous pink fluid. It looked like photographs Susannah had seen of human hearts prepared for transplant; there was something lonely and pathetic about it. Ugh, she thought. How could anyone—but Susannah thought she knew how. She stood very still, just inside the room, listening to her own pulse and breathing, watching the faint pulse of the lover in its tank. She was only aware that Potter had entered the room behind her when he cleared his throat.
“I was only looking,” she began.
Potter regarded her steadily and said nothing.
“I mean, it’s horrible, just putting the poor thing back in some sort of vat, as if it were clay or something. I mean—“ she faltered. “When does he—it—go?”
Potter smiled thinly. “When Madame remembers to instruct me.”
Susannah nodded, still staring at Abelard in the tank. “I just mean, well, it was made deliberately. It seems so awful to just destroy it. It must feel something….”
“You want it,” Potter stated baldly.
“It should be saved,” Susannah corrected. She kept her gaze fixed on the lover. “We can’t just let Beatrice throw it out. It’s alive. It just seems…” she faded off. The only sound in the room was a faint hiss and bubble from the tank.
Then, “We might arrange something,” Potter said. He closed the door behind them, shutting them into the humid, medicinal-smelling room with the creature. “Something could be arranged,” he repeated. Susannah looked at him as he told her what.
They negotiated. As Potter made his offer and Susannah her counter offer, she thought of the warm sucking at her finger, the firm plastic surface of the lover. Her breath came faster as she calculated her slender resources, the money she had saved for years, hoping to buy an apartment larger than her cramped two-room. She thought of little economies she could make, freelance work, extra income.
When she left the white suite Susannah and Potter had come to an agreement.
All the way back to Manhattan, riding with Beatrice in the copter, Susannah was aware of a new sensation, a smugness Beatrice herself would have recognized. She had taken something from Beatrice, and Beatie would never know it. It would be her own.
Susannah spent her lunch hour at the bank the next day, transferring money to the account Potter had named. As she wrote the figures out Susannah had a brassy taste in her mouth, a moment of cautionary fear: What am I doing? Then sanity was overwhelmed by the rising image, the image she had lived with for months now, of the lover at her fingertip, nursing gently. Susannah signed the bank chit recklessly and went back to work.
Potter was early. When the security guard at her building door called up for clearance Susannah was still eating dinner. She looked quickly around her apartment, a painfully neat room on which she had lavished all her energy, choosing fabrics and art that would create a sense of space and graciousness. Except for the dark wood folding table on which her dinner sat half-eaten, the apartment was in order. She went to the door to wait.
“Good evening, Miss.” Potter might have been opening the door at Tamerlane for her, rather than she for him.
“Good evening,” Susannah replied seriously.
It took only a few minutes to move the shrouded cart across the room, slide the tank as gently as possible onto the floor, unstuck the cans of nutrient fluid which Potter had brought along. “Part of the accoutrements,” he told her. Then he looked around the apartment once, shook his head as if his worst fears had been confirmed.
“Well, Miss,” he said at the door. “I hope it gives you great…pleasure.”
Susannah blushed. “I’m just trying—“ she began. Gave that up. “Good night, Potter.”
“I certainly hope so, Miss.”
When he was gone, Susannah turned back to the apartment, seeing the drying track of fluid dribbled from the tank and the shifting sprawl of Abelard against the plexiglass walls. The tank and cans of fluid took up a space about a meter square, displacing an armchair she had stored away in the basement. Her heart beat so strongly she felt the pulse under her jaw. Susannah walked toward the tank. The pink fluid on the floor smeared greasily under her foot. But when she reached out a hand and touched the lover its surface was not greasy, scarcely even damp. At her touch, Abelard slowly stirred, enveloping her fingertip in warm, firm flesh, just as she remembered.
Susannah drew away. Some ritual was demanded. The lover sank down into its tank again while she cleared the dishes and started a bath. She soaked for a long time in water as hot as it ever got in her building, then toweled herself dry. When she could think of no further reason to delay, she set about her seduction.
First there was the clumsy process of getting Abelard out of the tank. The lover did not reach for her as it did for Beatrice, nor follow the sound of her murmurs, her heat and scent. But when touched it did respond, reaching upward to her. After a moment Susannah figured out how to use its weight to move it, letting the lover overbalance and roll forward over the beveled edge of the tank wall. Even so, Susannah had to pull with both hands, palms flat against the malleable flesh, until the creature was wholly out of the tank. Susannah stared at her palms, which tingled with the contact.
Abelard waited, unmoving. Tentatively Susannah reached out again and touched it, stroking the warm surface. The flesh of the lover kissed her hand, rising to follow the line of her arm, nibbling tenderly at the soft skin of the inner elbow. Susannah sighed, shifted from kneeling to sitting, pushed gently at Abelard’s surface with her free hand until it was enveloped in soft, suckling tissue. The lover was warm like the touch of breath against her skin. Seen closely its surface was a dusty rose, lined, porous and unappealing; after a moment Susannah closed her eyes. Then there was only the touch, the slow sliding pressure on her arms, a kissing of flesh on flesh.
In the still of the room there was the faint singing of her breath and nothing else. She floated from touch to touch at the lover’s whim; there was nothing to do but be there, be touched. No responsibility for the lover’s pleasure, no necessity for talk or reassurance. Just her own sensations, intoxicating. Abelard swarmed over her, nuzzling and kissing, rocking her gently in the first orgasm, clinging warmly.
Gradually the stroking at her throat, her breasts, her inner thighs and labia became more insistent, probing. The lover seemed to absorb the energy of her arousal, feeding on it. Susannah was once distantly aware of how strange it was to have no one to hold on to, no shoulders or buttocks to knead. When she stroked the lover its skin kissed back, another sensation, distracting, and after a moment or two she let her hands fall to her sides.
The lover went on stroking, probing, kissing, shape-changing. Susannah grew tired, overexcited and raw. Her languor turned into heavy-limbed paralysis: it was impossible even to shudder away from the ceaseless warm caress that went on and on. At last, dizzy to fainting, Susannah rolled away from the lover, shivering in the sudden uncovered cool of the room. She lay for a long time, boneless, flushed and exhausted against the pillows. When she turned over she saw Abelard, vaguely forlorn, returned to its squat ovoid shape. She knew she should put it back in its tank again—how long since she had coaxed it out?—but it was still difficult to move.
Finally she did rise from the floor, pulling on a robe, to attend to the lover, urging it back toward the tank and, at the last, pushing it over the shallow rim again into the nutrient bath. At the first touch of her hands the creature began its slow kissing again. Susannah felt as if every cell in her body was electrified by sensory memory; after the quick shove it took to up-end Abelard into the tank, she pulled away, panting again, waiting for the electric charge to dissipate. Foggy with surfeit she sand back to the floor. After a while she drifted to sleep where she lay.
At work the next day Susannah was tired and stiff. She found herself drifting into daydreams, her eyelids suddenly heavy and her mouth pursed in a soft “o” as if by surprise. Pressing her legs together she could summon up a flush of physical memory that was momentarily incapacitating. She felt a little drunk; she smiled often. At the stroke of five she cleared her desk and left.
Somehow she expected her apartment to be changed, tinted pink or filled with musky scent, something exotic. It was the same two small rooms, her careful decorating scheme knocked awry by the tank in the corner. Susannah allowed herself a brief glance at the lover, then committed herself to ritual: dinner, small chores, a bath, all prolonging the expectation. Finally, when she could not distract herself further, she took Abelard from the tank.
It was as it had been the night before: soft caressing flesh, ripplings of sensation, her body bathed in warm kisses. Even when the pleasure began to mix with pain she could not stop, convinced by her body that the final sensation, the perfect sensation, was only a moment away. When languor gave over the exhaustion, sensation which broke itself, pleasure which hurt too much to bear, Susannah rolled away shaking, listening to her heart pound in the silence of the room.
In the next few days Susannah developed dark patches under her eyes and a staccato way of talking. It was impossible for her to be in the apartment and not eventually succumb to the lover’s allure. Beatrice called and Susannah said guiltily that she had no time for lunch. Renata called and Susannah pleaded a head cold. At home it piqued her that Abelard still had to be coaxed to her. She remembered the way the creature had yearned toward Beatrice’s hand, her voice. What had Beatrice said? That it was programmed to respond to her physical chemistry. In time, Susannah thought, the lover would learn herchemistry, respond to her, not Beatrice.
Abelard had been in her apartment for a week when Susannah noticed a callus, a small rough patch on its surface. When she touched the patch the lover responded instantly, sucking gently at her finger.
“No, sweetie,” she murmured absently. Concerned, she checked the nutrient fluid, but it was the same clear, uncontaminated pink it was supposed to be. For a moment Susannah entertained thoughts of sexually transmitted diseases, explanations to doctors. “This is ridiculous,” she chided the creature. “There is nothing wrong with you.” Still, when she took him from the tank that evening she made sure the leathery patch was turned away from her.
The next night the patch seemed larger.
Beatrice called again, insisting upon lunch. They met, embraced, and Beatrice launched into her narrative before they had taken their seats. This time, thought, there was a difference. After a few minutes Beatrice broke off and stared curiously at Susannah.
“All right, what is it?” she asked.
Susannah trembled. “What is what?”
“Susah, you’re off in neverland somewhere, you haven’t heard a thing I’ve said. It must be something. You’ve met a man! Tell me.”
“I haven’t met a man.” Susannah was enjoying herself.
“All right, a woman, then. Tell.”
“I haven’t met anyone, Beatrice. I spend my nights quietly at home.” Susannah smiled seraphically. Beatrice’s frown was petulant.
“Well, don’t tell me.” Her bad humor lasted another few minutes and then was forgotten as she launched into gossip about her gardener-lover at Tamerlane, about Felix and their parties. By the end of lunch she had talked herself into charity with Susannah again. “You must come out to Tamerlane soon. I’ll even find a gardener for you!”
Susannah smiled politely. They embraced again and she turned away. Behind her she felt Beatrice watching curiously, for once in all their lives the puzzled one.
That night as the lover churned over her body Susannah was suddenly aware of the complete silence, the lack of another breath contrapuntal to hers, no words, no noise at all. Later, when she rolled Abelard back into the tank, she found two new leathery patches, and the first was definitely larger, and cracking faintly. Before she left for work the next morning Susannah examined the lover. It seemed shrunken to her, slightly withered. This time she opened two cans of nutrient and recklessly dumped them into the tank. As her hand grazed the lover it nestled sluggishly. Poor thing, she thought. Up close in the light of day it was really kind of awful looking.
She was late at work, haggling with a customer in Zurich over duty compensation; when she got home she had only enough energy to wash her face and fall into bed with a curious sense of relief. She did not remember to check Abelard for further sores then or in the morning. All day she was conscious of an edginess; that night, for the first time, she did not bother with her rituals but pulled off her clothes and tumbled the lover out of its tank as soon as she arrived home. She really did not look at it until later, afterward. The firm, pliant skin was scaly and withered, as if the creature had shrunk inside its own flesh. The first of the calluses was cracked and oozing faintly. Susannah hurriedly pushed the lover into the tank and went to shower the touch of it from her. She did feel some brief compunction, and dropped more fluid into the already-brimming tank before she went to sleep.
The lover was dull brown by morning, and the fluid in the tank was contaminated with small particles. Susannah was horrified, thinking of the touch of that thing on her body only hours before.
When she got home the lover was dead.
Susannah knew it the moment she opened the door; there was no smell, but a sense of presence in the apartment was abruptly not there. Abelard floating in the tank, shriveled and dark, strands of peeling skin suspended in the murky fluid that surrounded it. Susannah wanted to close and lock the door to her apartment and disappear.
It took her a while to think what to do. Finally, Susannah dragged the lover out of the tank and wrapped it in an old towel. Its withered form was surprisingly light and much smaller than it had been alive. Clutching the bundle tightly to her chest, she carried it down seven flights to the garbage room in the basement. Then she pushed it away from her violently, heaving the creature and the towel into a trash can. The sight of the gray-brown husk half hidden by terry cloth in the bottom of the can was the final straw. Susannah fled, weeping, back to her apartment. It was some time before she thought to empty the tank of its tainted nutrient and bring it, and the remaining cans of fluid, down to the basement.
Then Susannah went into some kind of mourning, reducing her already small world to a simple loop of work and sleep. She lost weight, the former tidiness of her apartment declined into dusty clutter. She saw no one outside of work. The thought of people dismayed her. Friends called, Beatrice and Renata, an old boyfriend back in town, a man from work. Susannah left the phone off the hook and fell asleep each night to the rhythmic whine of the signal. Daily she watched what she was doing to herself and was appalled, but inertia outweighed everything and nothing changed.
At last Renata got through to her. A party at her place in Connecticut. Susannah would have to come, someone would certainly five her a lift out. Of all the people she had known from the Samaritan school, emphatic, generous Renata was the one Susannah liked best, feared least, and was most likely to ignore. But today Renata used her most persuasive voice and best blandishments. Perhaps, Susannah thought, it was time to go out.
Renata was delighted. “Wonderful, wonderful. Listen, Beatie’s coming. I’ll tell her to give you a ride out. Wonderful! Wear something nice, sweetie. There will be some lovely men.”
Men. Susannah was not ready to consider the idea. And of all the people in the world Beatrice was the last one with whom she wanted to ride out to Connecticut. She thought of calling back and canceling, but the habit of inaction was just too strong. It was easier, finally, to just go.
Beatrice was chattering before Susannah had closed the door of the copter: how had she been, where had she been, why all the mystery? “You look marvelous, Susah, so thin! But you just dropped out of sight. I was right, wasn’t I? You had a new lover? My God, love, it’s been months since I’ve seen you.”
Susannah agreed that it had been months, and stared stolidly down at the forest of spires below them, the slowly reemerging Manhattan skyscape.
“I should have tried harder to get hold of you, I know,” Beatrice went on, expertly guiding the copter east over the Sound. “We’ve been all at sixes and sevens out at the house, even poor Felix had to get tangled up in it. Can you imagine? We had to fire Potter.”
Susannah felt a hollowness in her stomach, as if the copter had suddenly made a two hundred foot drop. “Fire Potter? Why?”
“God, Susah, he’d been taking advantage—they all do, it’s expected, up to a point. But Potter overstepped the bounds.” Beatrice’s long eyebrows arched in amusement. “Do you know, he actually took it upon himself to throw out my little toy? You know, that thing I had made—“
“Abelard,” Susannah whispered.
“God, Abelard. What a memory you have. Felix was convinced that Potter had sold the poor little thing on the black market, but I can’t imagine anyone buying it.”
Susannah stared straight ahead. What did Beatrice know? Was this one of her dreadful teasing games?
“I mean, there wouldn’t have been any point,” Beatrice continued.
She’s waiting, Susannah thought, for me to pick up my cues. “Why not?” she asked.
“It couldn’t have been used by anyone but me, love. Not for long, anyway. It was made for me. Touching anyone else that way would have poisoned it, like an allergy. Potter knew that, the Bioform people told him, for heaven’s sake. He knew there was no point in anyone buying it. Unless he sold it as food, and that’s too revolting a thought even—“
Susannah leaned against the door of the copter, wishing it would open and drop her into the water five hundred feet below. Beatrice went on and on and on. Susannah didn’t listen. She was concentrating on not throwing up as the copter dipped and canted in the early evening breeze. In her mind she played over the picture of the lover, of Abelard, draped in her bathroom towel and discarded in the trash.
Renata was waiting for them, chivvied them into her small house, already packed with people. “Susannah, sweetie, you look like death. You were airsick, weren’t you? Beatie, you fly that damned thing like a maniac. Go take off that dreadful fur and find yourself a drink.” She pulled Susannah into a bathroom.
“Really, Susie, are you all right? Do you want to talk?” Her arm around Susannah’s shoulders, Renata sat them both down on the side of the tub. Distantly Susannah felt the warmth and weight of Renata’s arm around her. “Susie?”
Susannah shook her head, afraid to speak. Finally she managed, “Fighting off a bug or something. I’ll be okay. Thank you.”
Renata squeezed her again, then stood up. “All right, Susie. You don’t have to tell me what it is, but fix yourself up and come out as soon as you can, will you? This is a party, love. You’re here to…to part.” She smiled with pleasure at her own silliness, kissed Susannah’s cheek, and left her.
Susannah stared around the blue and white bathroom, at the embroidered hand towels and sculpted soap. Here to part. With what? With Beatrice? Maybe, after all these years. Maybe. With Abelard? Another wave of deep nausea: she had killed Beatrice’s lover, she had been deadly, the damned thing had died giving her pleasure.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was pasty white; she splashed in icy water until some color returned to her face, then pushed at her hair until it fell a little more softly about her face, so that some of the stricken look diminished to mere fragility. Come out as soon as you can, Renata had said.
She thought of the lover, of the cool silence in her apartment, the safety of it. Then, with sudden warmth, she wanted caring, the human clamor that filled Renata’s hallway, the sticky, confusing, demanding and personal world outside the bathroom door. Friendships. Chaos. Love. It was time to go out. As she opened the door she thought she felt something warm at the nape of her neck. A brush of memory like Abelard’s kiss.
©1995 Originally published inThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.