Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday at 6:30 in the evening a big, burly guy, bull horns sweeping out in a c-shape from the sides of his skull, often dirty with what I think is soil, lumbers onto my tram heading toward Tomar Central Exchange. That’s where he gets off. I watch him trundle toward the platform that services the rail that will eventually take him through the Main Purvailan Gate off world. If he were a human, he’d be scary, but ariesians have this unexplainable thing about them. An aura. An energy. It’s fluffy and light and pastel. Even if they the look like the biggest bastards in existence, you can’t help but feel slightly cheered and at ease when you’re around one. Maybe that’s why they sometimes seem extra mean and aggressive: to compensate.
This guy seems to be genuinely nice, though. He’s the sort to give up his seat for the elderly, infirm, or pregnant. He even let me have his bench once because I was carrying a heavy box home from some lunch hour shopping. I fought with him over it a bit, at the time, but I decided the possibility of looking emasculated wasn’t worth the whole thing turning into a row in the middle of a crowded, rush hour commute. We actually struck up a little bit of a conversation that time. I found out that he’s a horticulturist specializing in inter-world plant hybridization and bio-compatibility. I hadn’t a clue what that would entail, but it sounded fancy and important even if it didn’t totally explain why he was so dirty all the time. He’s greeted me a few times since then, always with a cheery sound.
One time I saw him on a Saturday on a different line while out running errands. On normal days, his dull, canvas work clothes peaked out surreptitiously from the sea of twill and pinstripe. Today, he was in dark blue jeans and a button up shirt rolled up to the elbows. I was still undecided about wearing jeans outside of manual labor, but they were gaining popularity as casual wear. If you rode the trams around the Central Exchange you became accustomed to the different costumes of off-world travelers, but they still felt strange to the eye when you weren’t ready for it. My father complained frequently that suspenders and three piece suits weren’t in style anymore, so I supposed the feeling was something along the same lines.
He dropped down onto the bench across from me with a nod of acknowledgement and stared off into the distance. I found myself watching him out of the corner of my eye, casting quick glances over him. We were somehow the only ones in the car. With his natural size and the energy that hovered around him, he just seemed to take up so much space all by himself. It made him hard to just ignore.
A series of melodic beeps and chimes suddenly rang out, muffled by fabric. I looked around quickly for the source of the noise.
“Hey, short pants.” I jumped at the sudden deep voice. “Yeah, I’m on-world. I’m on the train right now.” I didn’t try to hide my staring at him now. A mobile phone was a very impressive thing to have. I’m sure on his world they were nothing special, but this was only the third or fourth time I had ever seen one actually being used in real life. The bright smile on his face flickered down at the corners a few times before dropping into a crestfallen pout.
“It’s okay. I’ll get lunch by myself then just call me again and we’ll meet up later in the afternoon. No, really, it’s okay. Yes. Okay. Okay. I’ll see you in a little bit.” He hung up the phone with a sigh then leaned his massive head back against the tram windows. He cast a furtive glance at me, then smirked apologetically. “Uh, sorry,” he offered.
“No, no, no, I should be sorry. I was just surprised by the phone, and I stared. I really shouldn’t have eavesdropped. It was untoward of me.” He snickered and mouthed the word “untoward” silently.
“It’s cool, I guess.” There was a brief tense silence. “It was my, uh, girlfriend. We were supposed to meet for lunch, but her fiancé is still at her house so we’re having to push it back a few hours.”
I choked on a tiny knot of disgust. It obviously wasn’t any of my business, but it seemed mighty unsavory to be so glib about what was apparently some kind of affair. I bit my tongue, though. The worlds had all kinds in them, after all. I averted my gaze from his after becoming acutely aware that he was looking at me with consternation settling into the crevices of his bold features.
“Oh, shit,” he said quietly. “That sounds awful, doesn’t it? No.” He waved away what he saw as a misunderstanding with his long, four-fingered hands. “They’re both nobility from Azelan. That whole world plays by an entirely different set of rules. They collect spouses like, I don’t know, trading cards.”
I nodded that I understood. This was all fairly common knowledge after all, and it was one of those things you just accepted. I let all the facts of the matter settle in my brain to be rummaged through and picked at. After a while, I inadvertently let out a very low hmph.
“What?” the ariesian questioned. I clacked my teeth together a few times before answering.
“Well, I was just thinking that even without the moral dilemma I don’t think I’d much like being in your situation.”
“Oh?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his squared knees. I fidgeted a little.
“Well, I mean…you’re the other man, right? Yes, no one cares, but you’re not the fiance. You won’t be the husband. You won’t be able to have kids or a family with her or anything.”
“Well, she’s human, so we wouldn’t be having kids anyway.”
“Right, right,” I continued. “Which, I guess, adds a layer of complexity to it, but it just seems like at some point it would stop being worth it. Yeah, when you’re young a wild romance is all fine and dandy, but what about five years down the line? What about ten? Won’t it all feel like a waste? I just think-” and noticing my eyes had started to study the cold metal floor, I forced myself to look up at his face. His nostrils were flared, and his eyes narrowed at me. “But, I’m prying. I’m sorry.”
He let out a puff of air and leaned back again.
“No…well, yeah, you are prying, but you’re right. That’s what Anne said to me, too, when I first told her that I loved her. ‘What will you get from it?’ or something like that. And you know what? I don’t know how things are going to go. I don’t think I know in the least. Kinda dumb, I guess.”
“If you love her, that’s all that really matters.” The minute I said it, I wished I hadn’t. I could feel the impending onslaught of a drawn out silence, though, and I had hoped keeping him talking would drown out the awkwardness that would come with it. I had that sinking suspicion I had made it worse, though. Then he started to laugh, the big belly shaking sort.
“Now that’s a fucking novel concept.” The ripples of his laughter swept out over the whole of the tram car. He dramatically wiped a tear from his eyes. “Shit. The thing is, though, I don’t really mind being the mistress. As much as I love her, and I do, with every bit of me, I’m not the marrying type. I like my freedom, my independence. And, really, it’s Anne who’s getting the raw end of the deal because her fiancé is the same way. They’re really only together because he has to marry someone and sire an heir, and she just wants her family off her back for good. Poor girl can’t win for losing.” He looked up at the ceiling wistfully. “You married?” He asked.
“Divorced,” I admitted.
The ariesian nodded. “Love matter then?” he said, dropping his voice into a murmur.
“She was sylvan.” I leaned back and picked at the bottom edge of my sweater vest. I wasn’t nervous, per se, but it wasn’t something I was particularly fond of talking about. “Half nymph, half nixie. Amazing combination it turns out. Stunningly beautiful with a voice like a nightingale. But…well…nymphs must follow the songs of the universe, sometimes, so she did. About a year and half later. Left to follow the ‘melody of the running water’ or some nonsense. I don’t know. It was probably a mistake to try and tie her down to begin with. I had heard that nixies were more stable, liked being around lakes and such, thought the two halves would balance out.” I, too, leaned my head back against the tram window and cast my own eyes to the ceiling.
“Shit,” he said to himself.
“I forgot to say ‘I love you’ on the phone with her just now. When my mom died, I was determined to make it a habit, always tell the people you love that you love them. Never end a conversation with a fight. That sort of thing.”
“Hm,” I replied non-committally.The tram rattled along its tracks. Outside the window, the familiar markings leading up to the next station appeared. There was a warning bell. Within the next two minutes, we’d pull up next to the stop.
“If she means that much to you, don’t let her go,” I found myself saying. It was the candy-coated ariesian energy. I wasn’t the sort who was generally sensitive to that sort of thing, but sentimentality had crept its fingers into me. He didn’t say anything, but that didn’t matter. The switch was on.
“Elva didn’t just up and leave without telling me. She told me she was going, and I asked her, ‘Where? Where could you possibly go in this little state of ours?’ Because, you know, if it was a matter of just moving across town, then no big deal.
But, no. She was going through the Correlan gate. And she’s a certified gate-chaser, so all her visas are active. It would only take about ten weeks to get my passport updated, and she said she could wait that long. She wanted me to come with her. And I wanted to. The only thing I had here was her and a job I was apathetic toward at best. No family, handful of friends. But I was scared, and I dragged my heels. I thought I was important enough to her that she’d decide to stay after all and we could just keep on as we were.
Apparently, the pull of the universe is too, strong, though, and she stopped waiting. And now it’s been two years and I keep thinking that I could still chase her. A little bit of money in the right hands would track her passport, probably. The Government is so particular about keeping tabs on that sort of thing. But, I’m still here, riding this same tram every day. Back and forth, back and forth.”
There were three dings. The tram eased into the station, swaying gently as it began to roll to a stop. I flopped forward onto my feet numbly. The ariesian was leaning forward, elbows on his thighs, horned head bowed almost to his knees. Standing next to him now, waiting for the door, I could see ever so slightly down the collar of his shirt. He had the girl’s name tatooed on his upper back.
“It must be hard for you. I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“They say it gets easier with time.” His head tilted back up, slow and cumbersome looking.
“Does it?” He was looking up at me, eyes round and painfully optimistic. He seemed smaller somehow, and this was the first time I noticed how young he was.
I sighed. “No, not really.” The door slid open, and I stepped out onto the platform.