“Exhibit Hall B has really good stuff,” Trexus tells me. “Let’s not rush.” He checks and rechecks that the pins on his lanyard are oriented to his specification, then turns to me for approval. I nod, not knowing what correct looks like, and we push through into the mercifully air conditioned Tucson Convention Center. He pulls a map from his back pocket and traces a path through the building with his finger. I’m supposed to be paying attention but instead I stare absent-mindedly at a replica flying saucer hanging from the ceiling. It’s the classic pie plate shape, and diodes flash intermittent green and purple behind clouded plastic portholes.
“That’s the route,” Trexus says, stuffing the map away. I tell him it sounds good and then he leaves to use the restroom. After a moment my phone pings. Don’t start without me, he texts, seemingly from inside a bathroom stall. I won’t, I reply. If I did I think his heart would break.
Trexus’ real name is Matthew, but at Unidenticon you can have whatever you want displayed on your name badge. Trexus is his handle on several of the more prominent UFO sighting forums. I’ve stashed my name badge away in my pants pocket, where it simply reads “Guest.” Trexus and I have been married for three years, but this is the first time I have accompanied him to anything like this.
“You’d come with me? Really?” When I asked to go he had just picked me up from a shift at the Golden Rose, where I still occasionally danced. He’d gotten so excited by the idea that I thought we might speed off unexpectedly into someone’s front yard.
The con doesn’t look as I imagined it would. There’s no men wearing plastic grey alien masks, no long bearded conspiracy truther types. Each person I see filter in and out of the exhibit halls resembles somebody’s dad, all tucked in t-shirts and phones clipped to their belts.
Trexus returns and I can tell he’s anxious to get going, so we walk the length of the convention center quickly. He’s nearly running and loses a flip flop which he has to go back to retrieve. We follow signs to “Roswell,” the largest of the exhibit halls.
The space explodes beyond the grouping of doors. Five rows of double-sided booths extend to the far wall and an enormous lighted stage sits empty behind them. Long green banners hang from the ceiling. The smell is not yet unpleasant. The flow of eager convention-goers parts and reforms around me, like I am a stone lodged in rushing water.
Trexus places his hand on the small of my back and smiles. “And this is just one of three.”
He guides me down a path flanked on both sides by dedicated hobbyists selling all manner of things designed to enhance the alien hunting experience: guidebooks and divining crystals and high-powered telescopes. A man in an X-Files button up will sketch you for ten dollars, replacing your head with that of the extraterrestrial of your choice. Trexus stops at a stand and inquires about the price of a star chart. While he haggles I wander to an adjoining table and thoughtlessly pick up a small glass jar filled with metal shavings.
“Authentic alien material,” the booth’s owner says. He is clean-shaven with grey hair in a part and has luminous teeth. He looks like a doctor whose ad you might see on a bus bench.
“What is it?”
“Not sure. Nothing on this planet really compares. When I was taken aboard the mothership the beings implanted it inside me.” He hasn’t stopped smiling. “After returning, I dug it out with a knife.”
“These were inside you?” I place the jar back onto the table cloth and wipe my hands down the front of my jeans.
“Indeed they were. They’re a bargain at fifteen dollars, too.”
I tell him I’ll think about it and then find Trexus. The star chart has been rolled and placed into a cardboard tube which he excitedly rolls between his hands.
“Not too expensive, I hope?” I say.
“Oh no. Guy didn’t know what he had. Got it for a song.”
I cringe at the thought of Trexus hanging it in our living room, but say nothing.
Matthew hadn’t been interested in extraterrestrials when we first met. He liked sci-fi, we both did, but nothing so extreme. We’d found one another at a shared friend’s holiday party and bonded over a mutual dislike of the classic Christmas music piping out of the stereo. He was a chemical engineer and I was still camming, which he didn’t think was strange. We spent the entire evening seated near the party host’s sleeping cat, talking about whether or not the new Star Wars was any good. Things progressed as you might expect and a year later we were married. I stopped camming in favor of dancing and Matthew began using his PhD to teach adjunct at the college. We were happily in love every day.
And then Matthew’s mother died. The car she’d been driving collided into a road sign and her body was found twenty feet away on the gravel shoulder. The police said that after the crash it appeared as though she’d unbuckled her seatbelt, left the vehicle, and walked some distance before collapsing. The coroners listed her cause of death as internal bleeding, common in automobile accidents. Her organs had been pulverized, but otherwise there wasn’t a scratch on her. The entire situation seemed capricious and random, a freak accident.
Matthew’s personality doesn’t account for randomness. As such, he spent the better part of six months trying to piece things together. Had she been drinking? The toxicology report said no. Had she been speeding? Not that the police could tell. Had she been sick? A checkup one month prior pointed only to a routine calcium deficiency.
After he ran out of crime scene documents to request from the city I thought he’d given up, or perhaps accepted that it was something we could never know fully, but then he asked me over dinner one night if perhaps she could have been abducted by aliens.
“What? Of course not,” I replied. “That’s absurd.”
“There’s credible reports online of people being taken from their vehicles.”
“What do you mean ‘credible’?” I swirled red wine around my glass.
“There’s dash cam footage.”
My response was swirling. “You’ve seen it?”
“No, but it exists.” He squirmed a bit in his seat. Warmth rushed to my face and I felt ashamed for minimizing him.
“Maybe,” I said, shrugging.
After that night his fascination grew beyond a momentary distraction from grief. He began to special order books online, to research locations of possible sightings on his phone. He joined a special forum where people recounted their abduction experiences. I would have intervened, but his mood was improving. He was excited to go out again to restaurants or to see our friends. We were having regular sex for the first time in nearly a year. He’d even agreed to take on extra classes at the college. Though in exchange for all this happiness I sat and watched Matthew become obsessed. “Is this still about what happened?” I would ask. Every time he would say no, he was simply interested now, and he said it enough times that I started to believe him. Then he would tell me that he was going camping over the weekend, which I knew was code for hunting UFOs.
Everyone has hobbies, and I told myself that it wasn’t all that different than birdwatching. Part of me believed he would grow out of it, but instead here we are, standing in front of an overflowing pebbled garbage can while Trexus introduces me to some of his online friends at an alien convention a thousand miles from home.
His friends are nice enough, almost stamped-out versions of Trexus himself down to the color and length of their hair, the kind of glasses they sport. We make small talk about the heat, about which of us has the seediest motel room, and then I am on the outside as they talk about a panel earlier that morning concerning extraterrestrial sightings in classical antiquity. I tell Trexus I am going to buy a bottle of water and that I will meet back up with him in a half hour. He smiles back at me and I peck him on the cheek.
On the way out to the hallway petitions are shoved into my hands by organizations with names like Humans for Mutual UFO Studies and The Identifiers. They are campaigning to get some new law passed that has to do with federal recordkeeping. With this legislation, I am told, they can start getting to the truth. They say I’d be helping a lot, so I sign everything that is put in front of me.
I tell myself that I’m doing this for Matthew.
Once I’m in the hallway I fall into a padded armchair and the tiredness pools up in my calves. I’m already exhausted. I scroll through Instagram and like photos of girlfriends out enjoying mixed drinks in the calm Seattle springtime.
At the behest of my father-in-law, Matthew and I saw a grief counselor, though only briefly. After the first few visits Matthew refused to go anymore. He was dealing with it just fine on his own, he said.
“It’s normal for people who experience unexpected tragedy to look for an explanation,” the counselor told me. “They need something to blame.”
I sometimes worry, however irrational it may be, that Trexus will actually discover tangible evidence that aliens abducted his mother. His answer will finally be found. What does life after that even look like?
Tonight the entire convention will move to a dry lake bed out in the desert south of the city where there have been many purported alien sightings. Trexus assures me that although he hasn’t personally witnessed a spacecraft yet, this year he has a good feeling.
I’m still wasting time on my phone when he slides into the chair beside mine.
“Hey good looking, come here often?”
He has acquired various trinkets picked carefully from intriguing stalls. Something that looks like a geiger counter sticks out from his official Unidenticon tote bag.
“Are you having a good time?” he asks.
“You can always go back to the room. I know this is a lot.”
“It’s fine, really.” I place my hand on his arm and his face lights up in a way that makes me beam in return.
“Ok, good. The guys and I are going to go back to the hotel and use the pool. Do you want to come?” I tell him I do and then, like a happy dog, he pulls me through the convention center to our rental car. We stop along the way for roadside tacos and then proceed through the suffocating downtown traffic. I fall in and out of a nap while Trexus listens to NPR.
Matthew is, in all other aspects of life, exceptionally mild-mannered. He likes to hike and read mystery novels and chat with work friends while shooting zombies on Playstation. The alien-centric moments of his life don’t amount to much, when placed end to end. However, in these moments—the moments Matthew becomes Trexus—his focus is pointed in a way that forces everything else into the background. Nothing else exists. Not me, not our marriage. Not even his own wellbeing. I get the sense that on this trip he is making a serious attempt to be on his best behavior. On our last day here he said we could do anything I wanted.
“No aliens?” I asked.
We’re going to go tour historic missions around the city. It was one of the more terrestrial things I could think of.
Back in our room we change into swimsuits and then wait in the shade beside the pool. There are a lot of con attendees staying at our hotel and the water is already full. A space opens up in the three foot zone and Trexus and I wade in to fight the heat slowly cooking our bodies. From our spot along the edge I can reach out and touch a sharp yucca plant covered in ants. Trexus wraps his arm around my waist and pulls us together at the hip.
“What do you think of the convention?” Trexus asks.
“It’s nice.” In the parking lot a delicate bird runs from shade to shade, kicking up gravel.
“You hate it.”
“No, really. It’s fun.”
Trexus waves at his friends, who have just arrived and are shoving past bodies to come toward us.
I rub Trexus’ back and hoist myself up out of the pool, planting myself in a vinyl deck chair so they can all talk about all manner of otherworldly things.
Sometimes, when Matthew thinks I am asleep, I can hear him speaking to someone. It’s like he is praying. He asks if he is doing all right. He asks if he is being a good person. He sometimes asks questions he knows can’t be answered. This person isn’t in the room, they might not even be on earth, but he speaks to them, sotto voce, like the words are at the very tips of his fingers. Sometimes hearing him talk like this makes me start to cry and often I hope to fall asleep before he starts.
I attempt to tan for a few moments until the water has dried off my skin and I can feel myself begin to burn. I walk over to Trexus, my soles aflame on the hot concrete, and let him know that I will be up in the room.
He nods and says ok, then kisses me. His lips taste like chlorine and honey-lemon lip balm.
Trexus isn’t satisfied with our placement.
We’re too far from the landing site.
The ground beneath our blanket is uneven.
Some people near us have brought their dog, and won’t they please shut it up for just one goddamn second?
“Do you want to move?” I ask. We arrived late to the lake bed and the viewing spots up near the landing site were all taken. After the pool we’d both fallen asleep in the hotel, a full person’s width between us on the bed to keep from sticking to one another. We’d easily slept through the alarm.
“No, it’s fine.” He sits in a heap and takes a picture of the night sky with his phone. You can’t see much on account of the nearby Tucson smog and light pollution, but the brightest stars are visible. Trexus points them out to me, holding my hand in his and guiding it like a professor’s pointer.
Everyone from the con is here. Pop-up stands selling water and glowsticks are lined up beside a wall of plastic portable toilets. People are hula-hooping, their bodies ringed with LEDs spinning rainbows in the night. Near the landing site, which is a large oval-shaped disc dug into the parched ground, a series of powerful spotlights are angled up into the sky. It is a signal, I am told, for our potential visitors.
And there are so many cacti.
Surrounding the lake bed in a giant ring, row upon row of the enormous long-armed plants throw their shadows against the mesas in the distance. Their limbs are like hands pointing upward, instructing. Look, they seem to say, or you might miss it.
Trexus and I lay back together on the blanket and listen to the faint sound of folk guitar from a few spots over. It’s finally possible to be comfortable now that the sun is down. Checking my face in the mirror before we left for the lake bed revealed a deep sunburn on my neck and ears. My manager at the club isn’t going to be happy when he sees my crimson shoulders. Peeling skin isn’t sexy.
“So, what happens?” I ask.
“The hope is that some kind of craft will appear.”
“Impossible to tell.”
My face screws up at the thought of staying out here until morning and I tell Trexus that if there’s nothing by midnight we’re going back to the hotel.
I’m sure Trexus knows this by now, but I don’t believe in aliens. I don’t believe in flying saucers and I don’t believe that his mother was abducted and deposited back on earth simply to die. To his credit, Trexus doesn’t try to convince me. Instead, he tells me about the things he learns in the same way other people recount the plots of their favorite books or movies. Did I know that one possible explanation for DB Cooper’s disappearance was that he was taken away via tractor beam during his fall? No I did not, please go on.
An hour passes within the low murmur of surrounding conversation. Or maybe it’s ten minutes. Perhaps less than that.
“I love this. It could happen tonight. I’d remember it for the rest of my life.”
Trexus is sitting up, stripping the needles from a shrubby plant through his fingers. I’m not sure he’s talking to me and I close my eyes.
“This is it. As close as I’ll get.”
I hear him pluck another stem from the shrub.
“I know it’s not ‘now or nothing,’ but I just want to know. I don’t see why I’ve had to wait so long.” He speaks softly under his breath, and I can’t be sure if he’s talking to me or to something beyond us, something spread against the curtain of darkness.
Matthew says, “I love you.”
Everyone is suddenly up and moving. Trexus shakes my shoulders.
“It’s happening!” he tells me. He takes out his phone and, holding it out in front of him to capture video, runs off toward the array of spotlights. A noise, droning like a truck moving along the highway, rattles the vendor stands and the wind chimes hanging from their awnings ping against one another. I stand up and clutch at myself, instinctively making sure that I am protected from whatever, if anything, is arriving. I’m suddenly very afraid. I’d give nearly anything for Matthew to be beside me right now, but he is, at the moment, one in a mass of shapes pushing toward the landing site, hoping for some conclusion to be made real.
The spotlights waver as people crowd around them, and the shadows of the giant cacti seem to move, to walk with an unearthly gait, reaching out. They will approach us, and we will recoil from the pain of their embrace.
Benjamin Kessler’s work has appeared in Hobart, DIAGRAM, Entropy, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and The McNeese Review, among others. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.