Nasha regards me with pale gray eyes. “Did you like being there at all?”
“I did. It wasn’t all bad.” That’s what makes everything so bittersweet. My mixed feelings confuse me. Parts of it I hated, but parts of it I loved. “I miss it,” I finally say.
“I guess… I miss my friends.” I go to the hammock behind me and crawl in. It’s made of stretchy material that molds itself to my body, sort of like a cocoon.
“But if they couldn’t share your emotions, how could they be true friends?” Nasha asks.
“It’s not like that. I know some Imrians think that humans are less evolved than us, but they’re not. They’re just different. They make connections with each other too—just not through susum’urda. They… they talk. They share their emotions by speaking about them.”
I shift so that I can see Nasha’s face in the golden glow of the overheads. She’s attentive, curious. I find myself telling her about living in the dorm with the other girls at Hunter Glen. About how fast news can travel through texts and messages online and plain old gossip. Nasha seems fascinated by boarding school since Imrians almost always live with their parents until after kibila’sa. I talk about the dining hall and classes and cliques and even watching TV with my friends in the common room at night. Nasha is immediately interested in television, and I spend several minutes explaining what it is.
We have something like acting and theater on Kurra, but it’s very different from human performances. I’ve always thought that there’s a rawness to human TV and movies that our performances lack. Maybe because humans don’t have susum’urda, they spend a lot of their energy trying to simulate it in their TV shows and books and movies. All of those things give humans an approximation of getting inside another person’s head.
Imrian performances, in contrast, would probably look totally bizarre to a human. They take place with very small audiences, because the point is for the actors to lead the audience into a shared emotional experience, and too many people fragment the experience. The seats and the stage in an Imrian theater are made of a special material that can conduct the actor’s emotions—sort of as if everyone were holding hands—and a lot of the performance is silent, although there are incredible costumes and what humans would call special effects.
Nasha asks me about my favorite human performances, and I start to tell her about all of Morgan’s favorites, because she was the one who liked movies. I always liked books more; they felt more like susum’urda to me, whereas movies always seemed too distant.
“Who’s this Morgan?” Nasha says. “Were you two hilima?”
My eyes widen. I must have been talking about Morgan a lot for Nasha to ask that. “No,” I say. “We were just friends.” Part of me finds it hilarious to think of Morgan in this Imrian context. She would have been so far out of her comfort zone. The night that Zach kissed her, she acted as if it was as important as a marriage proposal.
“But you liked her, I can tell,” Nasha says of Morgan.
“Yes, well, she didn’t like girls.”
“I’ve heard about that. How humans have these restrictions about pairing off. It sounds so limiting.” Nasha says limiting with something like disgust, almost in the same tone of voice that Zach used when he called me a dyke.
“Humans are different,” I say.
“You didn’t find it bizarre?” She looks shocked.
“At first, yes, but I got used to it.”
“Did your friend Morgan know that you liked her?”
I hesitate. “She—she found out.”
Nasha swings her legs out of her hammock so that she’s using it more like a chair. “What happened?”
I tell her about the camping trip, and Nasha’s face grows increasingly incredulous. “Why do they think love can only be between people of opposite sexes?” she asks. “It’s so strange.”
I turn so that I free one of my legs from the hammock, and I push my toe against the floor to rock myself back and forth. “Not every human thinks that way,” I say. “But that is the way a lot of them think. It doesn’t make any sense to me either.”
“Is it because they don’t have susum’urda?”
“You’re going back, aren’t you?”
“In six months. I have to. That’s why I was born.” My parents created me to do this: to be in between places. After kibila’sa, I will have a job to do on Earth.
Nasha asks, “Do you want to go back?”
I think about it. I’ve always known what my responsibilities are. Despite Aba’s advocating for me to make my own choices, their expectations have never felt like a burden; they have felt like a gift. “I do,” I say. “I like humans, even if they don’t always make sense to me. And maybe someday—if what my mother and the others are doing works out—maybe they will make sense to me. To all of us.”
“They’ve been working on this for so long. Do you think they’re close?”
“Yes. I really do.”
Nasha considers this. “That’s good, then.”
I stop my hammock from swinging back and forth and tuck my leg up inside the warmth of the fabric again. “What about you? What will you do after kibila’sa?” After the ritual, most Imrians transition out of school into apprenticeships. The transition can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year, depending on how certain an Imrian is about what they want to learn.
Nasha smiles at me. She’s very pretty, with bright eyes and curving cheekbones that seem more prominent now that her hair is so short. “I’m thinking of becoming a performer. I might apprentice at the theater in Sakai’uru.”
“Oh.” That makes sense, given Nasha’s many different looks and her curiosity about human performances. “When will you go?”
Her smile turns sly. “I don’t know. I’m starting to think maybe I should stick around for a while. Six months? I don’t know why we’ve never been… friends. Maybe we should.”
There’s a flirtatious look in her eyes, and a flush heats my skin. “Maybe you were busy,” I suggest. “You had so many hilima.”
She laughs her warm laugh. “There’s always room for more.”
Her invitation hangs in the air between us, and if this weren’t kibila, I know she would reach for me, and I would be more than happy to be another of her hilima. But it is kibila, and it’s getting late.
“We should try to sleep,” I say, smiling.
She stretches her arm up to touch the pillar at the head of her hammock, and the lights dim. “We should,” she agrees. “Dream well, then. Tomorrow you will be a new person.”
“And so will you,” I respond. “Dream well.”
As I lie in the dark, I think about kissing Nasha. Or—not about Nasha, but this girl in the hammock nearby, who wants to become a performer. I imagine her on an intimate stage in Sakai’uru, dressed like the legendary Gashan Tabira, the lead in the most famous theatrical production of the last thousand years, with her gleaming fishtail and mouth colored purple by the fruits of the sea. She will be magnetic. I pillow my head on my hands and fall asleep thinking about her lips.
Morgan avoided me all afternoon. At dinner—hot dogs this time, with potato chips and a three-bean salad that nobody except the teachers ate—she sat with Zach. I sat at a different picnic table where the other kids didn’t talk to me, but kept sneaking glances at me when they thought I wouldn’t notice. I noticed.