In Moderation

His phone alert rang with synthesized chords from a distant decade. He shared his childhood with her. Now they shared a battle anthem.

Lost in dreams of the day ahead he was startled awake under a shower stream. After hundreds of dollars and hours of work he would have the chance to become for one day his animated idol. "My mother’s sacrifice shall not have been in vain!" The scene where Duchess Immensia bravely led the charge into the heart of the Terrimax army still gave him goosebumps. He remembered fondly losing himself in Saturday morning television and how it was to feel small and vulnerable to a new world. Short work was made of his stubble.

His wife who slept in their hotel bed was more than happy to take the lifecast upon which he sculpted Immensia's face. A rubber copy sat ready for application as he set up his tablet and launched his "Tachyon Dynasty" playlist. The first time she met Nanoboy played as he prepared his canvas. "If you must be at my side I shall have to make the most of it. To follow me is to charge into danger without a moment of hesitation!" His mouth moved in sync with her words. Her loyal companion beeped in reply. He held to his face her nose and with adhesive made it his own. Her full cheeks were firmly secured along with her chin in a single enveloping piece. The fourth episode began to play as their lips met.

*****

On waking Sarah spared a moment to embrace the lingering scent on his pillow. In minutes and sweats she was ready to step outside their room.

"Good morning, sweetie."

"Mm - mmh."

"Did you want me to bring you some breakfast from downstairs?"

"Mm - hmm."

She checked in on her husband. "Justin, not again!"

"Mmm - mhm - mh."

"I know but you still need to be more careful. What did you want to eat?"

He mimed inserting a spoon into his mouth.

"Kinky, but you'll need more calories than that for today!"

He laughed through his accidental gag.

"I'll bring back some dry cereal."

He scrubbed with solvent the adhesive sealing his mouth while distracting himself with more of his favorite childhood show. Immensia had been imprisoned on a Terrimax battlecruiser and only Nanoboy knew of her predicament. "I swear by my noble birth if you lay one hand on my family I shall instruct you on the meaning of wrath!" After the robot hacked the ship's computer she had been set free to deliver kicks and punches to her foes as her anthem played for the viewer.

He moistened his lips and waited. His wife returned with his cereal, some oranges, a couple of biscuits and milk.

"It looks good so far. The edges are nice."

"Thanks. I'll need help when I get to the bodysuit. Will you need any with yours?"

She swallowed and cleared her mouth. "I would appreciate some with the helmet."

After breakfast he returned to his makeup. This time the lips were affixed with care. Layers of bright white paint were applied and set by powder. A lavender wig in her trademark spikes came over a wig cap. White sclera contacts and dental veneers reduced his features to those of a comic illustration. In spite of it all he couldn't see her in the mirror. The reflection smiled, then bared its teeth and glared. Something remained missing.

"Are you ready for the rest of it?"

"I suppose so." Wearing only her face he removed from a shipping box her silicone torso. After an hour of labor it was thoroughly adhered to his muscular physique. Generous amounts of paint, powder and glue disguised the seams. Her ample breasts and hips made him adjust his stance.

She reached up from behind to toy with his new chest. "By the end of the day you'll regret those."

"You know I’ve worn heavier equipment." She gave his behind a playful swat.

Matching stockings and gloves were adhered to his skin and the bodysuit. Black foam armor covered little more than public decency required. The decision to wear sandals was made with comfort in mind.

She stood back for a full view. "I still can't understand her choice in armor."

"It never made sense to me either. Her skin is supposed to be unbreakable. Why didn't she fight naked?"

"Maybe because it was a show for children?"

"Great deduction, my darling Nanoboy!"

"Beep boop! Although you'd think the creators would have given her more than a bikini in that case."

"And teach children to be ashamed of their bodies?"

"That is NOT the body of a child!"

"Did I say it was? Besides, I grew up on ‘Tachyon Dynasty’ and look how I turned out!"

She gave him a moment to reflect.

"You're right. Bad example.”

“Not at all. I was thinking more that the show wasn’t your whole childhood. I’m sure you had better influences along the way.”

Her words felt cold. “There were other stories and characters, of course, but she was special. She was strong, fearless, confident, loyal and wasn’t afraid to love.”

“She was a violent sex puppet used to push merchandise to adolescent boys.”

His head and shoulders slackened. “That hurt.”

“The truth usually does. Okay, my turn. Help me get into my costume if you want Immensia to be seen with her sidekick out there.”

“I’m sorry but I'm going to need some time to myself in the restroom.” A smirk flashed across her face. “To work on my character!"

"Is that a new euphemism?"

He pulled back his lips. "Why do you have to be that way?"

"I'm only teasing you."

"I'd rather you didn't. Get dressed. I want to have time to browse before the panel discussion."

She worked her way into her black spandex pants and shirt. The clumsy bulk of chrome foam armor, work boots and gloves obscured her curves. The helmet was set out and switched on. She made a fist to trigger lights and sounds from the robotic mouthpiece.

"It works. Can you give me a hand?"

Justin was occupied with his appearance in the mirror. Until now her full figure was an image he associated with power and influence. He consulted her on his tablet. Immensia was pleading with her mother to let her command a warship on the front line. "My life means nothing without sacrifice for the people I hold dear!"

He gave it his best imitation. "My life means nothing-"

"Dear, can you help me?"

"Can it wait one more minute? I'm trying to get into character!"

"You're a giant alien stripper from an 80's cartoon. Not one person out there will notice or care if your performance is accurate."

"I will," he said under his breath. "She would."

Sarah broke the long silence. "Forget I asked."

His imagination failed him. For now it was a worthless thing to know her as phrases devoted to memory. "I guess I need to experience you.”

Her helmet was secured over dark curls. "Experience who? Immensia? Oh sweetie." She took in her hands, bare for the moment, the rubber-clad palms of her anxious husband. "We are here to have fun. You told me that you needed this and as your wife I didn't ask questions. But now I need to know. Is this more than some silly costume fun?"

"Yes. Let me explain." Her grip tightened.

"I know she isn't real. I know but she has felt real to me for so long and- and that has to mean something." He pulled away from his wife. Without another word he stored his tablet away with his other supplies in his black handbag.

*****

Today the rooms and halls belonged to CosmiCon. Attendants roamed the floors in search of their personal slice of culture. Decades of comics rested in bins beside artists ready to create on demand. Actors and writers were set to answer to those for whom their work was precious.

Within the crowd were expressions of admiration through costume with the best among them receiving their share of praise. Justin wished for the sake of Immensia that his efforts would be acceptable.

The smell that hit him brought to mind afternoons employed in farm labor. Sarah saw his prosthetics stretch and wrinkle in response. She was glad her helmet had an odor filter. “You’ll get used to it again in a few minutes.” The lines emerging from voluntary order that bent and slowed around them reminded him of the streams he would watch as a child.

“Honey, keep moving. We’re holding up traffic.”

“It seems to me we attract traffic.” Justin saw a curious expression aimed in his direction. A woman in a deep green gown locked eyes briefly before gently touching the shoulder of a distracted musketeer. Her face was framed by a long brown bob and accented with lines from years of forced expression. The man at her side feigned indifference to her direction.

“Oh, Hank, look. Look!” Another tap brought his attention to the alien couple and Immensia’s captivating curves. The heroine beamed in the hope her warmth would be shared by the couple.

“Please don’t stare. I’m sorry, my husband lacks manners. I’m Lucy. You two make such an attractive pair. You’re from that cartoon from the late 80s, what was it again?”

“Yes, ‘Tachyon Dynasty’. I’m Duchess Immensia and this is Nanoboy!” Sarah activated her helmet as a greeting. “We’re also from the comic book and video game. We’re even available in pog form!”

Lucy brought her hand to her chest in mock astonishment. “I hadn’t thought of that in years! My brother was such a fan of Immensia! He even had a poster of her in that very outfit above his bed. I guess all boys need to look up to a strong woman.”

An insisting and muffled voice came from underneath the helmet. “Please, call me Sarah. Aren’t you two from ‘The Last Love’? Cosette and Pierre?”

“Yes!” Lucy was ecstatic. “I loved the movie so much that I bought the book!” Holding his hand she brought her husband in close. “Neither compare to having the real thing but we all can use a bit of fantasy in our lives.”

Hank snapped to attention. “Oh, yes, of course.” He offered a reluctant smile as he continued with fleeting glances toward Immensia’s chest and waist.

“Nanoboy and I would love to see the panel for ‘The Last Love’ but it’s at the same time as the one for ‘Tachyon Dynasty’.” Sarah shrugged.

“Oh, that’s too bad. That Mitchell Adams is such a stud!” Lucy gave Hank a hard tap on the shoulder. “Wouldn’t you agree? And stop staring at that poor woman!”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind! I’m flattered, really!” A long beep came from his partner’s helmet.

Lucy directed her speech at Sarah. “Maybe we can get dinner later on. I recommend “The Peach Tea Cafe” on the corner of Peachtree and Peachland. Can we meet around seven?”

Sarah looked at Justin for agreement and answered. “Sounds great!”

“They have a dress code so you’ll have to wear actual clothing if you come.”

Justin laughed at the mental image of struggling to stretch his slacks over his hips, now far too wide for masculine dress. Funnier still was the idea of pulling a button-down shirt across his massive chest and leaving his stomach exposed. The hours it would take to remove Immensia’s skin made the proposed time impractical. Besides, an evening as the heroic Duchess would be much more fun. “On second thought I think we’ll pass.”

“I’d love to go!” said Sarah.

Lucy rolled her eyes. “I should have guessed clothing would have been a dealbreaker for your friend. Nevermind. Enjoy the cartoon panel.”

*****

They stood to the side posing for pictures. Justin would rest his hands on her shoulders or lean over so their faces were level to get in frame. Sarah seemed detached as she allowed herself to be posed.

He apologized as they ended their improvised modeling session in favor of browsing and returned to the crowds. “I can’t believe you actually wanted to have dinner with those two phonies.”

“Oh come off it. You can have whatever passes for food out there but I’d rather have an adult meal for once. And before you ask, nothing at “Jed’s Pork Shack” counts!”

“They serve adult beverages, don’t they? Wait here, let me see if they have the 1989 Annual.” The spacefaring duo arrived at a comics booth tucked away in a far corner. Stiff steps sent vibrations through his rubber features and earned attention from the vendor on duty. His ruined t-shirt and unkempt face gave credence to old stereotypes. “Nice paint job you’re wearing”.

“And a good day to you, kind sir!” Justin could feel eyes upon him again.

“Think you might, uh, need help, you know, scrubbing it off later?”

“No, but it was kind of you to offer.” A sharp beep came from behind. “Where are my manners? I’m sure you are familiar with my partner here.”

“Hello, *beep*wit,” said Sarah derisively.

The vendor’s quick glance gave him no useful clues.

“This is my loyal companion, Nanoboy!”

“Wait, who?”

“Nanoboy. Do you not recognize us?”

“Of course I do! That’s Nanoboy and you’re his near-naked alien sidekick from that thing where she’s an alien and- yeah, I got nothin’.“

He took out his frustration on a bin stuffed with old issues. “The nerve of that peasant!”

With eyes locked on Immensia he addressed her companion. “Did she just call me a peasant?”

“You’ll have to excuse Her Highness. One of us should”.

He finally turned around. “Wait, your voice, you’re a girl too?”

“I prefer ‘woman’, actually.”

“Hey, calm down, you aren’t exactly showin’ it. They’re great costumes for you. Ugly dykes gotta dress up too!”

“*beep* you!”

Immensia turned away from her search. “Nanoboy says ‘Thank you!’.“

“Yes. Thank you. In the eyes. With syringes.”

Justin squeezed his way through the gathering crowd. “We should go now”.

“To get syringes!”

“Nanoboy, my dear, you are embarrassing me in front of the peasants.”

“Huge honking syringes!”

He draped an arm across her shoulders. “Not in front of children. What would your students say if they saw you behaving this way?”

“I’m in special education, remember? It happens that my entire class this year is nonverbal so you do the math. Please remove your arm.”

They tumbled through the crowd in their rush. Several times he felt hands linger against his rubber skin. Immensia, he decided, would believe in the best motives of others. He replied to physical contact with smiles and apologies.

“Stop encouraging them.”

“Look at me, can you blame them? I don’t mind and it seems to make them happy.” He greeted a young man in a white robe who initiated a long and embracing hug. “What a nice gesture! See, no harm done.”

Her sigh went unheard beneath her mask. “You can’t let them think that behavior is acceptable just because it doesn’t bother you. Most women aren’t fans of random groping.”

“I think they shouldn’t let a few hugs bother them so much.”

“Where do you get off dictating how other people should feel?”

He put a hand on her helmet. “I don’t want to fight.”

She tried to push him away but he wouldn’t allow it. “See? This is exactly the problem. You’re bigger than most women. Most men, even. You can push people away. You have physical control. But you think wearing that rubber skin for an hour in public gives you the right-”

“You don’t understand. Immensia loves physical affection and so-”

“You do not get to tell me what I understand! Your fantasy would break a man’s arm for stepping out of line with her! That doesn’t make it right but she doesn’t live in the real world. She. Is. A. Cartoon!”

“Listen. Forget our argument for now. I need my Nanoboy at the panel in an hour.”

A sound resembling a heart monitor alert trailed off into the crowd.

*****

The main conference room had filled with admirers of the latest romantic story to capture the public imagination. Renaissance costumes were scattered among those in plain attire. Alone among them was a woman in chrome armor cradling her robot head in her arms. She found Lucy sitting with her purse held in an adjacent seat.

“Is this seat taken?” Sarah already knew the answer.

“I’m saving it for my husband.” She checked the time on her cell phone. “He said he would only be a minute but that was fifteen minutes ago and they’re about to close the doors. You know, you’re a better seat holder than my purse. Can you sit here until he gets back?”

“I exist to serve, apparently.”

“You aren’t going to your other panel? How come?”

“I’m not really a fan of the show. I was just trying to be a good wife but the Duchess made me feel more like a prop.”

Lucy reacted as if an intimate secret had been conveyed. “You two aren’t just friends? How very brave of you. Where did you marry?”

“Right here in Georgia.”

“Oh, you must mean a church wedding, not a real marriage ceremony! A legal marriage, I mean. No offense.”

“No, we’re legally married. It’s not like we’re cousins. Although this being Georgia and all that wouldn’t exactly matter.”

Lucy paid no attention as she stared at the back of the room. “Where is that man? You people are so lucky sometimes. I remember this one time at the mall when I was in the dressing room trying on these hot new pants. You would have loved how I looked in them. I finally came out of there and where was he? He was getting a pretzel for himself! Men have such strange priorities sometimes.”

The room was at capacity as a member of the convention staff took to the microphone. “Hey everyone, I know you’re excited to be here today so let’s get right to it. Mitchell Adams and Sandra Dawes, stars of “The Last Love”, have come all the way from Hollywood to CosmiCon to talk to you all about the experience of bringing Pierre and Cosette to life on the big screen! Let’s give them a round of applause!”

The crowd erupted as the pair emerged from the curtains and took their places on opposite sides of the podium. After the room settled the presenter took the lead again. “We’ll get to questions from the audience in a moment. The author of “The Last Love”, Robin Lowell, was unable to be here today.” She paused for an audience reaction. There was none. “However, he prepared some questions for the stars to get us started. To both of you, how did the novel prepare you for your film roles?”

Sandra’s eyes seemed to search the room for an acceptable response. “My agent said it wasn’t in my contract that I had to read it.”

Mitchell could only cock his head and smile. “Does the script count?”

The presenter returned to her notes. “Next question, also from the author: How do you two chucklefff-” She exhaled sharply through her teeth. “How do you avoid drowning in the shower every morning?”

“I take baths,” he replied, causing a swell of laughter in the audience. Sandra appeared mildly embarrassed. The presenter shoved the note cards out of sight under a folder.

“Let’s move on to the audience. Who here has a question?” Hands shot up from the crowd, with some leaving their seats hoping to be more visible. A woman near the front row was selected. “Go ahead and tell us your name.”

“Hi, my name is Amber and my question is for Mitchell. Describe your ideal date. I’m sorry, that wasn’t a question. Can you describe your ideal date to us?”

He leaned toward the microphone. “Yes.” He sat back in his chair and looked over to see the presenter attempting to tear a plastic folder in half between her index fingers and thumbs.

“Let’s take another question. Yes, you in the green dress. No, the other woman, go ahead.” Lucy continued standing and made her question heard over the confusion. “Yes, my question is also for Mitchell. How can I make my husband more like you?”

“I don’t know. What kind of guy is he?”

“He never pays attention to me anymore. He always wants to go do his own thing. How can I be the thing he wants to do?” A loud murmur spread through the audience.

He ran a hand across his chin stubble in a moment of thought. “Could you tell him that’s what you want?”

Disappointed, Lucy sat back down. Sarah removed a glove and offered her hand in consolation. Lucy took it. “He didn’t really answer my question,” she whispered.

“You didn’t really answer his questions either.”

Hands went up in the air again. “Does anyone have a question for Sandra?” Most hands were lowered. “Yes, go ahead.”

“Hi Sandra, my name is Angie. What was it like to kiss Mitchell in the rain on the castle wall?”

*****

Justin sat near an air conditioning vent to avoid sweating further underneath his rubber skin. His early arrival made it easy to find a seat on the front row. The padding around his hips made for an awkward seat until he shifted his weight forward into his legs, then into his hands on the sides of his chair. With his breasts thrust forward he straightened his back.

As he was used to being on his feet all day on the job it was an easy decision to instead stand against the wall. The cool air was more direct there and sent a relaxing shiver down his back and across his shoulders. Glancing back at the room entrance to see Hank dragging his rapier on the carpet made him turn away as if doing so would somehow hide his identity.

Both men tried to find a way to occupy themselves in a way that would hide their intentions. Justin stared ahead at no point in particular while Hank gained a fleeting fascination with a carpet stain. The white sclera contacts had begun to dry out from the air above. Reaching into his handbag for eye drops caused Hank to jerk his head in his direction. He blinked hard as the drops brought relief to his eyes. Upon lowering his head he saw that Hank had taken the opportunity to move to the nearest chair.

“You’re Hank, right? What are you doing here?”

“I’m trying to give my wife some space.” He pulled at the shoulder of his ruffled shirt. “We do stuff like this all the time. We go dancing together. We play tennis together. We dress up together. Seriously, is she afraid nobody will recognize her costume without me?”

“I’m sure she only wants to share what she loves with you.”

Hank let out a sharp laugh. “Love! That woman doesn’t love anything anymore. She obsesses over things but she has no love for them! I feel like I fall somewhere between her shoes and her collection of bedsheets. The passion left years ago.” The lovelorn musketeer changed his tone. “So, are you here with anyone?”

The alien stared at the floor. “I was but she left me. I guess she didn’t like seeing me being affectionate with everyone.”

“If you ask me, you should feel free to express yourself. I know I can’t stand that Lucy isn’t open anymore.”

Almost out of necessity inspiration struck and Immensia’s voice came through. “Precisely. I see no reason for emotion to be withheld. If not love then for what shall we live?”

“Exactly! We should feel free to be as love, in its infinite beauty, sees us! To run and soar with the winds to places never before felt by human hearts!”

Justin looked down on Hank and turned his lip up in a sneer.

“Not to your tastes? There’s a room full of ladies over there who adore that sort of language. But clearly you aren’t like other women.”

“You have no idea.”

An older man in practical glasses and a buttoned shirt took his place at the front. The room was at half capacity but showed no signs of filling before the panel began. Doors were left open as he began his address.

“I guess I should start with ‘Hello’.” A few equally timid greetings from the crowd were returned. “I doubt many of you recognize me but I’m Russell Thames, creator of “Tachyon Dynasty”, of course. I mean, that’s why we’re all here. Anyway, I was the lead writer for the show and its 20 episodes and I was able to continue the story as a comic until 1995 when the editor-in-chief decided to assign a new creative team. It was a big part of my life for almost a decade and I’m glad to see it was a positive part of yours too. I’m here to answer any questions you may have about the story and its characters or if you want to know more about writing for comics or television I’d be happy to discuss that as well.” He tossed up his hands and laughed in a release of nervous tension. “You know, feel free to ask me whatever you want. I consider myself an open book. Just keep it polite!”

The audience looked among themselves for a volunteer to begin the discussion. Russell saw along the wall a potential icebreaker. “First of all, we should congratulate our cosplayer here for her excellent portrayal of Duchess Immensia! If I were to be honest I could see you in a live action film adaptation. Not that there is one in the works, please don’t make that a rumor.” Justin was aware he had the attention of individual fans in passing moments but being put in the spotlight by an admired creator left him speechless. Immensia saved the day by responding on his behalf.

“Your words of praise honor me, good sir, and I am fortunate to be here today with you all. Please, do not be shy on my account!”

The crowd felt warmer in its response and yet once more none came forward. The floor defaulted to the author who again addressed Immensia. “Maybe you can start us off since you’re apparently a very big fan. I mean literally you are- no, wait, I shouldn’t have said it that way.”

Justin had hoped for an opportunity to ask a question of the creative mind behind his favorite story from childhood. Only now that it was given to him did he realize he had no question to ask.

“How can I…” He paused mid-sentence to compose his thoughts. “How can I be more like Duchess Immensia?”

The author waved his hand as if the truth were plain. “I’m looking at you right now and I don’t think there is anything more for you to do. You may not be a noble alien warrior but aside from that how are you not the perfect image of her?”

The audience had their attention fixed on the heroine and seemed to be in agreement. “You can’t be any more like her,” said a fan in the third row.

He felt naked. He shrunk against the wall and tried to cover his breasts with his hands to little effect. “Is that all she is to you? I’m just a body to everyone?”

Russell shielded his eyes before speaking. “No, I’m so sorry. I’m terrible with words. I am without editing at least. Duchess Immensia is absolutely more than her appearance.” He took the time to ensure his thoughts came across clearly. “If I were to describe her, I would say she was a strong woman dedicated to her family above all things. When I wrote her and needed to give her motivation for her actions it was always with family as her first priority. I didn’t realize that’s what you meant. Besides, I don’t know who you are under there and it would be rude of me to assume that you were nothing like her. I’m sure you are a talented and caring person. I mean, I’m not perfectly sure but I think it’s a safe assumption. I’m rambling, did you want to ask anything else?”

Justin took a deep breath and sighed in relief. “It was my fault. I asked a silly question. What inspired you to create the character?”

The writer took a moment to reminisce. “It was my mother. She was and still is an amazing woman. She worked hard to take care of us and make sure we had everything we needed. When I was ready to head off to college I wanted to study accounting. It wasn’t that I had any passion for it. My desire was always to tell stories but I felt I could never make a living from it. She sat down with me and told me that she didn’t sacrifice for us to see us grow up and give up on our dreams. So I studied English Literature and dedicated myself to being a writer. When it came time for me to create a heroine I could think of no better model. You all know the rest.”

The duchess lowered her guard. “Thank you for that wonderful response.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll take another question now. Don’t be shy.” Several hands were raised. Justin was glad to hear that, from the writer’s perspective at least, Sarah was wrong. “His mother,” he whispered to himself as Russell held the floor with a story about the creation of the Terrimax army.

*****

The hotel room shower washed away the grime and sweat from her time in costume. Sarah tossed her towel aside and stepped into a white cocktail dress last worn at Christmas. Pans of white greasepaint were pushed to the side to make way for conventional cosmetics. She rarely had a good excuse to put on her best face and planned on making the most of it.

Lucy sat on the bed outside the bathroom and continued to occupy herself with stories of her wayward husband. “Now I told him to wear the brown tie for the interview but he insisted on the black one. It looked so ordinary with his pants and shoes and I just knew it would cost him the job but do men ever listen? Anyway I ended up finding him another job elsewhere so it wasn’t so bad that they turned him down but our lives could be so much easier, don’t you agree?”

Sarah finished applying her foundation. “Does he ever make his own decisions?”

“Of course! Then I come back and correct him! You have to make them feel independent sometimes. That reminds me, he should have checked in by now.” Lucy dialed her husband on her cell phone. Sarah enjoyed the brief respite as she put on red lipstick.

“He still won’t answer. Oh well, we can make it a ladies’ night. I’m sorry I was rude to your wife earlier but do you think she might want to join us somewhere more casual?”

“My wife?” Sarah set down her lipstick. “Are you saying you thought that musclehead bimbo out there was an actual woman?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I? Sure, she’s not exactly petite but some women are just built different. Right?” She looked her friend in the eye. “Are you telling me that was a man? How?”

Sarah took from the bathroom a large and nearly empty bottle of adhesive. “A whole lot of rubber and glue. I still don’t think he makes a convincing woman with his build.”

“He looks exactly like Immensia in that costume though.”

“That isn’t a point in favor of realism.”

Lucy sat quietly with her thoughts while Sarah put the finishing touches on her face. “I think it says a lot about you that you were secure enough to allow your husband to go out in public dressed that way. I always make sure Hank presents himself as a handsome and clean gentleman.”

“ Wait. ‘Allow’? You and I have very different ideas about relationships. We don’t ‘allow’ each other to do things. We support each other in what we do. I don’t treat him like a child the way you do your husband.”

“Well you don’t know my Hank. If he didn’t have someone to look after him the way I do he would be in all sorts of trouble. Did I tell you about the time at the baseball game when-”

“Yes, you did.”

Lucy charged ahead with her anecdote. “-he forgot to wear his sunscreen and we had no shade but I brought an umbrella just in case because although the weather forecast-”

“Stop. Okay, just stop right there. If we go out tonight there will be no discussion of our husbands. Since we met it seems that’s all either of us has had to talk about. You said you read ‘The Last Love’? I thought Pierre was a far more interesting protagonist in the novel but the changes made a better fit with the movie plot. Which did you prefer?”

Lucy headed toward the door. “I, uh, I said I bought the book. Hank told me he read it and thought it was lovely.”

“Nevermind.” Sarah followed and locked the door behind her. “Do you play sports?”

“Yes, I love tennis!” They made their way to the elevator at a brisk pace.

“Well there we go! Where do you play?”

“We’re members at the ‘Golden Peach Club’. You know just the other day Hank and I were playing a doubles match against the Thompsons and he forgot to bring his water bottle and I just knew that was going to be trouble for me later but I had a spare-” They stepped into the elevator and headed for the ground floor.

“I usually hate to interrupt but tell me, does the cafe serve adult beverages?”

“Of course, what kind of adult restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol? I often used to enjoy a good wine myself.”

“It sounds like you still do.”

*****

Duchess Immensia, valiant defender of House Tachyon, was sprawled across a row of metal chairs in an otherwise empty room. A styrofoam plate littered with ketchup and wooden sticks rested on her stomach. The last of her corn dogs rested against her waiting lips and set the scene for Hank as his search had at last come to an end.

“There you are! Hiding from your adoring fans?”

She lazily turned her head in the direction of the disruption, causing her wig to slip. “Their attention gets old after a few hours. It starts with a hug and you think ‘How nice of you!’. Then they start seeing how much they can get away with and suddenly it isn’t so friendly. You have to draw the line with the touching at some point and when you do they act like you’re the one being rude!”

“Look at yourself. Can you blame them?”

The alien noble wiped the grease and ketchup from her lips with the back of her hand. “Yes. Absolutely. I can blame them. In fact, I am blaming them right now.” She shouted to the space beyond the room. “Do you hear that? I blame you all!”

“I don’t think anyone is left out there with the convention winding down.”

“Yeah, that was more of a cathartic yell.” She licked the crumbs from the corners of her prosthetic lips. “You look like you want something.”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier about love and how you want to be more like Princess Immensia.”

“I’m a duchess. I’m content with my planetary province.”

“My apologies,” he said with amusement. “So what do you think she would do if a man came to her for help in reconnecting with his wife?”

“I suppose she would either punch him in the head or come to his aid. Do you have a preference?”

“I’ll choose the latter. My phone says Lucy is at a cafe downtown. Maybe she’ll listen if I’m with another woman.”

*****

The discordant conversations that dominated the convention were replaced by calming harmonies and polite whispers. United with muted colors of dress and decoration “The Peach Tea Cafe” was an oasis of relaxation for the two women who sat ready to order.

“Yes, we’ll have a dozen of your dark chocolate macarons and a carafe of milk with two cups.”

Sarah motioned to the waiter. “Actually I’d like a glass of white wine and a slice of your caramel macchiato cheesecake.”

“Julian, don’t listen to her. She’s new here.”

“Thank you Lucy, you saved me from a huge mistake. Bring the whole damn bottle.”

“I’m sorry, I’m just so used to coming in with-”

“You do not. Say. His name.”

“I’m sorry.” She saw Sarah’s eyes go wide. “And I’m sorry for apologizing so much, wait, I’m-” Lucy straightened her napkins out of nervous habit.

“This isn’t healthy and you know it. You are not your relationship. You are a person within a relationship. Let’s change the subject. What can you tell me about this place that doesn’t involve you know who?”

Lucy composed herself as she surveyed the room. “Julian here has been a waiter for about seven months now. He’s a sweetheart but I think the only reason he got the job here was because he was dating Anton at the time. Oh yes, Anton is the manager here. Well, he was until that incident with Mrs. Temple’s bichon frise but that’s another story.” Sarah’s eyes were glazing over. She contemplated the combat potential of her dessert spoon in the event of an armed robbery until she was shaken from her daydream by the waiter.

“It’s about time,” she said as she allowed him to pour the first glass. She grabbed the bottle from him as she reluctantly became aware of her dining companion.

“That’s what I was saying! I don’t know why it took them so long to buy that house but when I heard they finally made a decision that’s exactly how I felt about it!”

Lucy was astonished by the speed at which Sarah was drinking. “Everyone I know drinks that way and I just do not understand it. Why not take the time to enjoy the things in front of you, you know?”

Sarah rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “This was a mistake. I’m sure that somewhere underneath that Sandra Dawes hair and makeup is-” She stopped herself short of needless honesty. “May I talk about myself for a moment?” Lucy straightened her chair and motioned for her companion to continue. “I work in special education.”

“Oh that must be so rewarding!”

Sarah gently jammed a cookie in Lucy’s mouth. “As I was saying, I work in special education because I believe that every one of us has something to give. Some of us need more help than others but the potential is still there. Hell, we all need help at some point so why even draw a line? Huh? Where would you draw it?” She took another gulp of wine and topped off her glass. “Yeah, exactly. And so in looking for that potential I have developed a high tolerance for character flaws. Or maybe I’m just a social masochist. I don’t know anymore. But one positive thing I have to say of you,” she said as she let her gaze drift to the tablecloth. “One thing I can say is that when it comes to these things that I have believed my whole life, you have been the first who has driven me to think.”

Lucy washed the remainder of the cookie down with milk. “I’m flattered you would think of me that way.”

“If you could think in any way you wouldn’t be.” Sarah flopped back in her chair. “What are we doing here? Is this it for tonight? Just eating and drinking and talking about things that mean nothing to us?” Her head lolled in the direction of the door and the street beyond. Minutes passed before their husbands in tattered costumes approached. She raised a finger to her luck in a silent curse.

“Lucy, listen,” Hank pleaded. “I have something that needs to be said. Go ahead, Duchess.” Justin, with his face smeared and wig cockeyed, was shoved in front of the pair at the table. Lucy looked up in curious anticipation at her clueless costumed mediator. He searched his memory for relevant words. Coming up short he fell back on impersonation.

“Fair maiden, your suitor wishes that I intercede on his-”

“We’re going away together!” Hank’s interruption sent a silencing wave through the group and a murmur of gossip through uninvolved parties present. Sarah could only look at her husband in the way a cat might look at an aggressive toddler.

“Yes, Lucy.” He wrapped his arms around the waist of the heroine made captive by embarrassment. “She came up to me today and told me she fell in love with me the moment she saw me. Go ahead, tell her.”

Justin no longer had need of makeup to appear pale white. Lucy responded in typical fashion with her expression carefully composed. Sarah was livid.

“I need an adult!” Once brave, he now appeared to wilt under the full pressure of the dining guests.

Hank’s hands migrated to Immensia’s breasts. “We’ve even talked about having children. She says she wants two, a boy and a girl.”

His wife snickered as she choked mid-sip. “Good luck with that, babe.” She dabbed away milk from her lips with a napkin.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I bet you don’t even know ‘her’ name!”

“Of course I do, it’s-” He gazed up at his large companion, his mouth contorting in the hope that any of the syllables formed might be met with some confirming sign.

“Cath…” Immensia bit her lip. “Mich…” The alien responded with a lopsided smile. “Sus…”

“Justin.”

“Justine!” His wig shuddered in reply.

“Hank, you’re groping rubber man tits,” Lucy said with great satisfaction.

It took a moment for the information to register. “Shit, really?” Justin nodded. “Well, damn. You make a very convincing woman. To be fair it has been a while since I’ve felt actual firm breasts.”

“I certainly hope so.” Lucy’s tongue froze against the roof of her mouth as she became aware of what she said.

Sarah stood up from the table and addressed the restaurant in disbelief. “Am I the only one who thinks he looks like an albino gorilla with gynecomastia?” She called out a man at a far table. “You! You agree with me, right?”

“I, uh, think she, he, uh, looks just like that comic book character,” he stuttered.

“That’s the problem!”

Having released his rubberized acquaintance, Hank moved to the table. “You can have her seat, dear. Don’t worry about the tab, Sarah. You can leave now.”

Her voice was dripping with sarcasm. “Oh, can I? Golly gee, can I leave now? Do I have your permission, mistress?”

“We should go,” Justin said to his wife.

“Don’t you start on me!”

“It’s only a suggestion. Do whatever you want.” She bolted from the cafe with her husband close behind.

The musketeer, exhausted by his ordeal, collapsed into the seat. “There was a time when seeing me with another woman would have made you so jealous. Remember? You’d demand my attention in bed for hours at any hint that you might lose me. Then we got married and I guess at some point things changed.”

Lucy reached out to her husband. “Listen. I never stopped loving you. I didn’t realize that you stopped seeing that. But my jealousy went far past lovemaking. Remember when I threw that brick at your door after I saw that postwoman drop off mail at your apartment?”

“Yeah, that was cute.”

“No, it wasn’t! And what about that dead cat I put in your beer cooler?”

“Which one?”

“The blue one. Remember?”

“That wasn’t mine. I was borrowing it from Bill for a fishing trip but it rained so we canceled and I returned it to him. There was a dead cat in there?”

Lucy shrugged and laughed. “Well, I guess I know why they never invite us over anymore! But you need to understand that wasn’t healthy. I’m on medication now and I need someone to help me be stable. I don’t appreciate you trying to hurt me like you just did.”

“I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I just wanted a reaction, some reminder that you actually cared that I choose to be with you. I feel like you just care about appearances these days.”

“Says the guy who fell for a crossdresser.”

“I was just using her, uh, him. You know that.”

“I understand completely.” Lucy called for the waiter. “More macarons, please.”

*****

The chill wind helped Sarah sober up while she kept a brisk pace down the street. It made Justin wish he was wearing more than a thin layer of silicone rubber.

“I have no idea what he was thinking. He said he wanted help talking to his wife. I thought that meant he wanted me to try speaking to her for him. If I had any idea he was going to use me to make a scene I never would have agreed.”

“I’m not mad at you. Okay, so I’m still a little mad from earlier today but I don’t blame you for what happened in there. Those two imbeciles deserve each other.” She slowed her pace to walk even with her husband. “Why did you let those creeps at the convention treat you like a piece of meat?”

“I don’t know. At first I liked the attention when I thought it meant something.”

“What could it have possibly meant? That they liked you? They absolutely had no idea who you were. If they cared at all they wouldn’t have groped you.”

“I guess I thought I was making some people happy.”

“That’s one way to put it!”

“Come on, how often do you think those guys get positive attention from attractive women?”

“Not often but there’s a reason for that and it has nothing to do with their looks.”

“I get that now.” They reached the bus stop and settled onto a covered bench. “Why did you go out with Lucy? She seemed so fake when we met.”

“When you get to know her you realize she’s more than that. She’s also dense! But honestly, I guess I just wanted to give her a chance to prove me wrong. I ran into her at that panel and she seemed so lonely with her husband gone.”

“Yeah, he was over at the ‘Tachyon Dynasty’ panel. I think he tried a pickup line on me but he ended up backpedaling. Oh, I got to ask Russell Thames a question!”

Sarah expressed genuine curiosity. “The writer for that show of yours? How was he?”

“Awkward but sincere. Pretty interesting guy, too. Do you know who he says inspired the creation of Duchess Immensia?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I have no idea, who?”

“His mother! Can you believe it?”

“Oh, wow, okay, so let me get this straight. Inspired by his mother, he created a woman who runs around in a stripper costume punching and kicking people? What did she do for a living?”

His smile faded as he took a moment to consider the question. “At this point I’d rather not know.” He smoothed the prosthetics on his face to try to scratch an itch underneath them. “What time was the bus supposed to come by?”

“I never pay attention to the schedules. They’re just another piece of written fiction.”

A comfortable silence overtook the space between them. “Sarah, I’m sorry if I made you feel unwanted earlier.”

“They’re just costumes. Characters, that’s all they are.”

“Yeah.” He pulled from his handbag his tablet computer and flipped through his ‘Tachyon Dynasty’ playlist as he had done in many idle moments before now. It occurred to him to close the playlist and open his collection of digital books. With his other hand resting on his wife’s knee he began to read to her.

“He saw her kneeling in the soil, tending to a row of red and yellow tulips. The sight of her made him painfully aware of his loneliness and its meaning. He could not bear to live another moment without knowing the name of beauty itself. He called out to her from the road. ‘Mademoiselle, may I be blessed with knowing you?’ “ Sarah smiled and brought her hand to rest atop his.

“Call me Cosette.”



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