WHEN A HANDSOME MAN invited me to come to his hotel room after dinner, I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know the difference. It was probably a language problem; my translatomat wasn’t good at picking up the nuances. Sure, if anybody had asked me, I’d have said it had something to do with sex. Because sex was in everything, sex was everything, here on Ammans World. All the travel brochures, all the advertisements said so. I’d accepted his invitation to dinner because I thought he was sexy, a term we used a lot in the aliens’ dormitory where I lived, and I thought being sexy was nice. He was handsome, kind, charming, and about thirty, just the kind of native that looks nice and sexy to a seventeen-year-old alien.
Every word of our conversation at dinner was nice and sexy, I thought. I was proud of having dinner with a real, adult native, I was pleasantly conscious of my voice speaking, of my clothing, my movements, my body. They were all nice.
I didn’t know what he was thinking then, but now I think he wasn’t thinking anything, but only feeling a sweet dawning hope, clouded perhaps by incredulity (this alien can’t be as naive as she seems), by caution (she might have powerful native connections), and by compunction (so young, so innocent, so alien).
Because I came from a different world, I didn’t know the difference between going to a restaurant with a native and going to his hotel room with him. I knew there was a difference, but I thought it was a difference of degree. I just thought that going to his room with him was even sexier than having dinner with him. But that was all. I mean, after all, they have sex on my world, too. Only I didn’t realize it was different.
He told me about a book he wanted to loan me. It was in his hotel room a couple of blocks away. Maybe he even said, “Won’t you come up and see my etchings?” and I laughed, because I knew that joke. I knew all about Ammans World. I’d studied it in school for years.
So I went with him to his hotel room and we talked about the book, and because there was only one chair and it was uncomfortable, we lay down on the bed and talked about books.
I’d learned in school about all the rules the Ammen have, and being young, I assumed that they obeyed them. Many of the rules concerned aliens. Aliens were more important to native life than one might have thought from the literature. In fact, aliens were essential to the structure of native society. Tremendous, primordial words were used for them, formed with the sacred native symbol wir. Though the satisfaction of native sexuality (wirity) was the most important thing in the world, there was a rule that could prevent a native from having sex with an alien, even if they both wanted it. Aliens who had never yet mated were placed in a special, sacred category, the wirgs, and wirgs possessed a power that the natives did not have, called wirtoo. The wirg (or wirtoosi) could make a signal, saying a two-letter word, a sacred monosyllable: “NO.” The native could not say NO, but he had to hear it. That was the rule. In those days.
Having read many treatises on the sexual behavior of natives and aliens, and many native poems on the subject, I knew the rules.
So I played with the rules, and so did he, there in the hotel room on that quaint world with its fascinating customs. And just when our discussion of books had unmistakably changed to activity of another order, I signaled, as a wirg should to preserve her wirtoo from his wirity.
He was too excited to receive signals, so I said it loudly through the translatomat: “NO!”
And the native stopped, slowly, heroically. He lay still. He sighed.
After a while he said, “Will you kiss me?” in such a gentle, pleading voice that though sitting up wishing I was back home in my own world, I was touched, and felt it would be a cruel excess of wirtoo not to grant him his wish. So I said the other sacred wirg word, the three-letter monosyllable YES.
Then I found that what he meant by a kiss wasn’t what my translatomat said it meant.
Now, at last, I realized my knowledge of the rules was incomplete. As an alien, once you’d said YES, could you say NO? Even if you didn’t know what you had said YES to? What was the rule now? Could only one sacred monosyllable work at a time? What was the rule for the kind of kissing he seemed to have in mind? Was I losing my wirtoo? I didn’t know what wirtoo was so I didn’t know if I was losing it. I didn’t know what we were doing. It was something that wasn’t done on my little old home planet, something that wasn’t a word in my language, not even as a letter followed by three dashes, not even as a row of asterisks, which was why my translatomat had misled me.
He tried to coax and show me how to do what he wanted, but instead of kissing I began crying.
It was his world, and he was the hero of that world. He played by the rules. He realized I was deeply alienated. He patted my shoulder and said it was all right. Don’t cry, he said.
I stopped crying and apologized. He asked me in a murmur to lie there a little with him. I thought I owed him that much. Why did I think I owed him anything? Why did I think he owed me anything? For reasons that had nothing to do with sex? But this was impossible. On Ammans World, nothing has nothing to do with sex. Does it?
We got up and rearranged our clothing, and he gave me the book that I’d come to his hotel room for. He drove me back to the dormitory, the house of wirgs, the place for aliens, At the door, he kissed me lightly on the mouth, said good night, and went away.
I knew now that there was a difference between going to a hotel room with a native and not going to a hotel room with him. So not long after, quite sure I knew the rules, I drove away from dinner with a native to whom I planned to say, if necessary, my primordial, sacred NO, and no other monosyllables whatever.
What I hadn’t yet learned is that there is a difference between one native and another, and that difference may be the one that really matters to a wirg from another world.
This native, though handsome and charming, wasn’t a hero. He stopped the car on a dark road. He didn’t wait for me to say YES and didn’t listen to me say NO. Unfortunately, I knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, I was not strong enough to stop him from doing it.
Afterward he explained to me that aliens did not understand the sacred monosyllables. When an alien said NO, he said, it meant YES.
I tried to understand this new rule, but found it easier to believe than to understand. For some while I did indeed believe it, until I found I was pregnant. He had told me that was impossible, and I believed that, too. He then explained that what he had meant was that natives of his world never got pregnant. Only aliens did. Pregnancy was a purely alien problem. You can understand that, he said. I did not understand it, but after he married the alien he had been engaged to all along, I found I had to believe it.
I thought I ought to stay here, because my baby was going to be half native, and anyhow I had so much trouble finding my way around Ammans World that I never could find how to get back home.
But the longer I live here, the less at home I feel. Oh, I know lots and lots of really nice natives, kind and handsome ones, and sometimes I get together with my old friends from the dormitory and we laugh a lot. But having an illegal alien baby didn’t really help me feel at home here at all. My baby was not half native, not by their rules. Babies on Ammans World are all alien, unless they are all Amman.
My alien baby is getting quite grown up now. She thinks she understands all the natives’ rules, although they’ve changed the rules completely since I was her age, and the more they change, the harder they are to understand. Oh, Ma, nobody says NO anymore, she tells me, so scornfully, so sweetly, that I have to believe her. But sometimes she seems to think she can act just like a native. I don’t think that will work. I keep thinking, we ought to leave, but I’m not sure where we ought to go. I’ve heard about this world somewhere where everybody’s a native and nobody’s an alien, or maybe it’s the other way around. I’d like to go there. I still have so much trouble with the language here. My translatomat broke down years ago. I threw it away. I didn’t want to use it anyhow. How can you talk a language where the word fuck is dirty and the word rape isn’t? The longer I stay, the worse my accent gets. Sometimes the natives can hardly understand me.
This story originally appeared in Reed Magazine.