Interplanetary Risk Management and Other Reasons to Quit Cheerleading
Her species procreates through a sacred sermonic skin grafting ritual, but the idea of sex with a teenage human male she found truly grotesque.
quote-unquotetypical teenage problemsEarth Life Manual
air-quoteborn in 2003.
Earth Mother: How was school today, Emma Claire?
Emma Claire: [drawing a slow breath] Fine.
Tammy Tonya: Ready?!
Emma Claire: Okay . . .
BTW, cheerleading has been ideal for Emma Claire’s cover due to the cultural expectation of its simplistic, two-dimensional sensibilities: mind-numbingly excited, or subjectively flat-lined, even if you’re in the quote-unquotesmart classes. This requires immense mental sublimation on Emma Claire’s part considering she’s a scholar with the equivalent to a double PhD in Theories of Exopolitics and The Implications of Interplanetary Risk Management.
What’s so disheartening about her Earth Mother’s total disapproval of Emma Claire’s stellar adoption of American Teen Speak, is that she’s, like, literally a master of the English language. Not only do her vocabulary and grammatical skills perform at the highest level, but she can also intuit a sentence’s subtext with perfect accuracy, and she has learned to anticipate swift vernacular evolutions in the internet-based slang so common amongst her air-quotepeers, including acronyms and upspeak. She quite literally knows what she’s talking about? TYVM.
Unfortunately, Emma Claire’s been feeling a quote-unquotemalaise these past few weeks. She’s been sleeping, like, a lot. Sleeping through stupid cheer practice, even. She figures: Why stand in a row of turd buckets practicing High Vs when she could just take a nap?
She already knows the routines anyway. She has, like, perfect photographic and kinetic memory. And when Tammy Tonya starts barking for quote-unquotemore precision, Ovary Wastes!, she starts having blood temperature problems, so it’s better to just avoid it all to begin with.
But today, as Emma Claire made her way to her usual nap spot under the bleachers, she was confronted by a gaggle of the squad’s highest ranking members: Tammy Tonya, Becca Bridget, Amy Jo and Amy Aimee—aka, The Amys. They all stood in a circle, whispering to each other, and Emma Claire’s first instinct was to televaporate, but then her sneaker squeaked on the gym floor and they all turned around at once and glared. Emma Claire’s blood temperature spiked.
“Oh, hey, Emma,” said Tammy Tonya, “sorry, are we getting in the way of your precious nap time?”
The group giggled. Good one, Tammy.
“Look, Dirt Vagde,” she continued, “we can’t technically kick you off the squad unless you’re, like, pregnant or something—are you pregnant?—because if you are that would totally work for us right now.”
Emma Claire shook her head. It was not possible. Her species procreates through a sacred sermonic skin grafting ritual, but the idea of sex with a teenage human male she found truly grotesque. The pack of cheerleaders closed in.
“If you don’t get your act together we can certainly make your life a living hell.”
Emma Claire genuinely contemplated this offer because she is always fascinated by oxymoronic figures of speech, but it must have come off smug.
“God, it’s no wonder you have no friends, you stuck up bitch-on-a-log. I mean, are you, like, from another planet or something?”
More giggling. Emma Claire stood motionless, trying to prevent her blood temperature from rising any further. The group sauntered past and made exaggerated efforts to bump her shoulders on the way out. Her blood felt like a sauna and the moment the gym doors slammed behind them she bolted for the safety zone she scoped out the first day of school.
She wasn’t sure how long she sprawled out on the floor of the school cafeteria meat freezer. It’s difficult to regulate her temperature when she feels so confused.
What initially stunned her was the notion that Tammy Tonya—cold-blooded, inventive-insultress Tammy Tonya—suspected that Emma Claire might not be who she says she is. She was also miffed at the implication that her lack of companionship would be derived from her extraplanetary origination. It’s not like she’s aware of how air-quoteAnti-Universalist that is, but come on!
What really got her, though, as she mulled it over again and again, is that Tammy Tonya invoked a desire for something she didn’t even know she should have. Like that time she saw an advertisement for ice cream in a taco shell—who knew you could ever need that? But once it inserted itself in her brain, it wouldn’t go away. What did she even mean by quote-unquoteno friends?
Tammy Tonya invoked a desire for something she didn’t even know she should have. Like that time she saw an advertisement for ice cream in a taco shell.
First of all, there was no way she could have any idea that Emma Claire is like, actually from another planet. Her home planet’s Department of Narrative Construction would have seen to that.
Friend (noun): a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard. The closest equivalent in Emma Claire’s native language is “Circumstantial Person,” who is by definition a person with whom you are calculably bonded at a rate of ((Spatial Proximity + Relative Interest(s)) x Time Spent). And you better believe she’s had, like, so many CPs in her lifetime TYVM!
Emma Claire finally began to cool down and pried herself from the frozen concrete floor. The icy imprint of her body looked like a stick figure, almost formless. Unhuman. She could really use a nap right now. She could really use a televaporation back to her home planet while we’re at it. But she knew it wasn’t possible and she knew her Earth Mother would be waiting for her at carpool pick up and that she was probably ready to smother her with air-quoteconcern.
Outside, she stared at Earth Mother’s car. Earth Brother bounced around in the backseat in the dim car light—oh right, she was supposed to walk over to his school down the street and watch him while they waited for pickup. Oops! Earth Mother scowled at her cellular device.
She opened the car door quietly, like she didn’t want her Earth Mother to notice—whatever verbal criticism she had queued up, TBH Emma Claire so did not need it right now.
Which is why she was caught off guard when Earth Mother said, “Honey! Emma Claire, baby, are you OK? Jesus, you’re freezing—what happened to you? I was about to call the police!”
Her tone so dripped with warmth and comfort that Emma Claire felt emotionally cornered. Her blood temperature spiked ever so slightly, but only in her nose and eyes until, to her own shock, liquid substances seeped through them, simultaneously gooey and thin. So this is what it’s like to cry. Gross!
Earth Mother reached over the cup holders between them to hug Emma Claire around the neck. Emma Claire was touched by how uncomfortable that must have been for her. Earth Brother continued to bounce up and down in the back seat.
“Pipe down, Trevor,” Earth Mother called back and he abruptly stopped. Emma Claire hesitated for a moment, and then curled her arm around Earth Mother’s neck in return.
Back at the house, Earth Mother draped a blanket over Emma Claire’s cold shoulders, handed her a cup of tea and asked what happened. Technically she asked for quote-unquote the deets but Emma Claire could forgive status offenses for sincere interest.
As Emma Claire relayed the details in the most humanly-compliant manner possible, she looked around the living room at the family photos where her figure had been elegantly inserted by the Mission Integration and Assimilation (MIA) Consultants. A younger version of her human self with Goofy’s arm slung around her neck while Earth Brother rammed his forehead into Minnie’s hip at Disney World. The three of them at the top of the bunny slopes, winter-clad and red-faced smiles. Her air-quotekindergarten graduation in a blue cap and gown. She was comforted to know her Earth Family’s memories were happy ones.
“If you do want to stay on the squad, you’re just going to have to own up and apologize. Ask for forgiveness. And then show up—show ’em why you’re one of the best the Rally Raptors have to offer,” she gave Emma Claire a soft punch on the shoulder which made her feel simultaneously embarrassed and endeared. It felt as though she wasn’t just her Earth Mother, she was her mom—and for once, she didn’t feel so completely alienated from life on Earth.
“I just don’t get it,” Earth Mother said, shaking her head.
“What?” Emma Claire said, taking a warm sip of tea. She allowed herself to luxuriate in their newfound intimacy.
“I mean, I know she’s a year older than you and y’all kind of drifted apart when she started high school, but,” she looked off like she couldn’t quite read something in the distance, “you and Tammy Tonya used to be such good friends.”
Emma Claire didn’t just spit out her tea, OK? It burst out of her mouth like a geyser. She stood up and told Earth Mother she was tired and heading to bed. She looked up at Emma Claire like she’d taken away her favorite toy, so Emma Claire kissed her on the forehead—and there she saw it. In a thick silver frame, a photo of Emma Claire and Tammy Tonya in matching spaghetti strap tank tops licking popsicles outside the Planetarium. WTF?
The road to reconciliation with her fellow Rally Raptors was a bumpy one. Upon returning to cheer practice, Emma Claire was predictably ostracized by the whole squad and explicitly branded an air-quoteloser. She was relegated to the bottom of the human pyramid where one of The Amys kept digging her knuckles into her shoulder blade.
Emma Claire quadruple-verified the former status of her relationship to Tammy Tonya. There was evidence of sleepovers, ballet classes—even weekend trips to Tammy Tonya’s country house just outside town. The two of them, pretending to milk cows. The two of them, sunbathing by an above-ground pool next to a vast field of corn, Tammy Tonya shooing whoever was behind the camera away from their post.
It was all documented in thorough, highly decorated scrapbooks with stickers and glitter, an artistic effort on which they apparently collaborated.
Unfortunately, it was all news to Emma Claire! The Narrative Constructionists on her project seemed to have left this all out of her memory. And now, not only was she super in the dark about a key component of her Mission, it was also just super awk with Tammy Tonya.
She tried to apologize to her and the co-captains. She worked up a lot of courage and meditative expertise to keep her blood temperature down.
“I am sorry. I will be a better Rally Raptor from here on out. The best I can be. Promise.” (JFC, she’s an extraterrestrial being, not a freaking Girl Scout.)
The Amys blew glitter in her face and walked away. Tammy Tonya and Becca Bridget lounged on the locker room benches.
“Whatever. Just keep showing up,” said Tammy Tonya, inspecting her nails.
She then seized Becca Bridget’s elbow and pulled her in for a secret—the most coveted of all female-to-female interactions, research shows. And it showed—Emma Claire’s gut dropped with the anvil of jealousy. Where was this coming from?
She stormed out of the locker room, eyes stinging, snot dripping. The door slammed behind her. This whole crying thing is a pretty stupid biological response to stress, she thought. She cried the entire walk to her Earth Brother’s elementary school for pick up. Though on the upside, the moment Earth Mother saw her face they drove straight to a convenience store for ice cream in a taco shell.
Despite being treated like she had some sort of contagious disability, the desire to win favor with Tammy Tonya tightened in Emma Claire’s chest like a deadbolt after that day in the locker room. The squad created human circle fortresses at lunch and in the locker room, matching white sneakers all in a huddle. Emma Claire sat close enough to hear what they were saying, sometimes piping into the conversation unsolicited.
Whenever TT & Co. weren’t directing vile indignation towards her, they were extremely preoccupied with the subject of air-quotesex. They seemed to know next to nothing about its process or consequences, yet they knew that they musthave it, and frequently articulated this certainty within earshot of the entire Varsity Indoor Soccer Team.
Tammy Tonya’s participation in the histrionics was, like, especially extravagant. Details of intimate encounters with a Camp Go-Go-Cheer partner made the rounds and by the sound of it you’d think they were like, a pair of fantastical contortion artists, a flailing mess of fluid and limbs writhing in a storage closet until they’d out-sexed themselves in a dissonance of moans and panting.
Emma Claire thought it time to accelerate the apology tour.
The next day, she cornered Tammy Tonya as she exited a bathroom stall and tried, again, to apologize. Tammy Tonya did not look surprised to see her.
“And what exactly are you sorry for?” she said.
Of course, Emma Claire didn’t know.
“If you have to ask, then you’re not really sorry, Whore Scum.”
She pushed past and Emma Claire’s innate desire for Tammy Tonya to like her coalesced with her frustration over not knowing why she didn’t like her anymore in the first place.
“Whatever, Slut Breath!” Emma Claire yelled back, admittedly a notch above the level of discourse they had initiated. Yet, she continued: “I hate this stupid cheerleading squad almost as much as I freaking hate YOU.”
Tammy Tonya stopped at the door and turned to look at Emma Claire. Her eyes were so sad—a sadness so big it voided biological response. Tammy Tonya’s large eyes lowered. An image blipped in Emma Claire’s mind: a corn stalk tassel woven in the golden strands of Tammy Tonya’s hair, just above her ear. Man, those Memory Implantationists had really glitched this one up.
An image blipped in Emma Claire’s mind: a corn stalk tassel woven in the golden strands of Tammy Tonya’s hair, just above her ear.
Tammy Tonya’s brow darted inward, her sadness swiped to anger with theatrical precision. She punched open the door and did not look back again.
The very next day, it came to the attention of the top-ranking squad members, Tammy Tonya included, that air-quotefreshman year: Emma Claire was never hazed!
They weren’t certain how she’d gotten out of it—the rest of the squad that year had to squirt entire cans of whipped cream in their mouths and shave each other’s stomach hairs with a barber razor.
Emma Claire blessed the incompetent Narrative Constructionists who royally failed to give her a bulletproof personal history as sanctioned under scientific code! Who knew what the Rally Raptors would have in store for her individual hazing, but at least she could use the opportunity to incur favor with Tammy Tonya.
“Tell your mom you’re staying at my place tomorrow night,” said Tammy Tonya, “and we’ll find someone to watch Trevor for you after school.”
Emma Claire almost couldn’t wait to lie to her Earth Mother.
Tammy Tonya drove Emma Claire to the hazing. The car had a bumper sticker that said, “DO YOU GET THIS CLOSE TO JESUS?” and was really messy inside for such a neat-looking person. The smell had weight to it. Tammy Tonya picked up a large, empty soda cup from the holder between them and threw it at the backseat in disgust.
“Don’t mind the mess,” she said, “mom took the keys to my truck but she’s gone with her quote-unquote boyfriend for the weekend, so,” and this she said brightly, “I’m borrowing her car.”
She sang along to songs on the radio and seemed in high spirits. Though Emma Claire had not had time to memorize, like, every chart-topping tune, she had trained extensively in moving her mouth to appear as though she knew the lyrics, too, and tapped her fingers on her thighs to the beats.
They pulled into the driveway of what Emma Claire was surprised to recall as Tammy Tonya’s one-story house, which had a flat quality that seemed to throw Tammy Tonya’s sharp personality into relief.
The blinds were closed on the windows and it was dark on the inside. Emma Claire followed Tammy Tonya’s march to the front door. The Christmas lights strung up on the front porch, which sparkled like twilight in the distance, had fused with cobwebs and dust.
The front door opened with a screech. Of course, she could hear Becca Bridget, Amy Jo and Amy Aimee giggling in the darkness.
What she didn’t hear was the miniature figure they struggled to keep still between them, who, upon a switch of the lights, revealed himself to be Earth Brother.
His eyes flashed like stars. Becca Bridget held his head while the Amys grabbed both his arms as he fought to run in place. The little terror.
Tammy Tonya stood atop the kitchen island. Emma Claire was struck by how much she admired her militant stance. In fact, she downright respected her leadership. If this is the fate she must endure to win back her favor then so be it.
“Go on, Trevor, unleash your special talent!”
Just then, a memory glitched in Emma Claire’s brain—Tammy Tonya at her house holding a zip-lock bag of crescent shaped ice up to her butt and stroking her hair, Don’t worry, Nurse Tammy has the cure!
It was clearly evident that Emma Claire’s Memory Implantation was improperly installed.
The Amys let him go and he leaped after Emma Claire. She braced—she’d never squeezed her own butt cheeks so freaking hard.
He pounced and she fell to the ground fighting him off—but he wasn’t trying to give an Atomic Wedgie. Was he? Was he tickling her?
“Trevor, stop! What are you freaking doing?”
“Mommy said you’re just an e-mo-shun-all-y un-stay-bull teee-nager and sometimes you could just use a good laugh.”
He seemed very pleased with himself as his tiny fingers danced over her neck and abdomen. She didn’t have time to explain to him that laughter derived from physical discomfort is quite different than laughter derived from the disjunctural mental sensation produced through humor.
“That’s it!” said Tammy Tonya. She surged toward Trevor, but he squirmed away and chased after the Amys, who ran with their hands cupped over their butt cheeks. Emma Claire started to laugh but then felt a strong tug at her shoulders and she was up on her feet. Tammy Tonya pulled her by the elbow outside—a lightning sensation went straight from her forearm to her stomach. Tammy Tonya opened the trunk of her car.
“Get in,” she said. Emma Claire almost argued that this was in no way a safe method of transportation, but it was difficult to fight the stone look on Tammy Tonya’s perfectly parabolic face.
Who knows how long they drove. Emma Claire bumbled around in the trunk, equally confused and curious. Her blood boiled in jolts, like a sparked fuse.
The car stopped. Tammy Tonya’s sneakers crunched on gravel. She opened the trunk, her ponytail swinging in front of her face, her figure surrounded by twinkling stars. They were definitely outside the city limits.
“Get out,” she said. Emma Claire pulled herself up. On either side of the gravel driveway were vast stretches of cornfield. Tammy Tonya stood with her back to Emma Claire, her arms folded.
On the one hand, Emma Claire felt relieved. They had arrived in an optimal location for communication with her home planet.
On the other hand, she was discomforted by the feeling that she had been in this exact location before. She would have been more terrified if the earthy smell of the place didn’t light up such positive sensory receptors upon inhalation. She knew that olfactory nerves are deeply connected to memory in the human brain, and so she thought that maybe if she just, like, breathed really hard, it just might spark something.
They stood in silence, Emma Claire drawing long, slow sniffs, as Tammy Tonya, who clearly wasn’t going to explain herself, glared on.
When it became clear that respiration would bring her no relief, she got to work on the cornstalks. She wasn’t sure what she should even say to her home planet. How would she explain what she needed help with?
She pulled one stalk down like a lever, thinking it’d snap off, but it was deeply rooted in the ground and popped back upright.
“What the hell are you doing?” Tammy Tonya protested. . Emma Claire stood suspended in time and space.
“You must know why I brought you here.”
Emma Claire fiddled with a corn leaf.
Tammy Tonya stomped her foot on the gravel. “Ugh, what-EVER,” she said, and stormed back to her car.
She slammed the door; she started the ignition. She was going to leave Emma Claire alone out here. Emma Claire tugged desperately at the cornstalk.
But then the engine sputtered. It let out a sneeze and then hissed. Tammy Tonya beat the steering wheel with her forehead.
“Stop that,” said Emma Claire. She wasn’t sure if she should approach the car or not. Tammy Tonya was having, like, a total meltdown!
She smushed her nose into the car horn, which let out a sad, drawn-out baritone. Emma Claire looked up at the stars, still twinkling. She’d read a study on how expanding your visual vantage point can correlate to expanded consciousness? A few thin, grey clouds skimmed over the surface of the atmosphere. Somehow, she knew to get in the car and sit with Tammy Tonya, to not say a word.
She wasn’t sure how she should sit, if she should put her arm on the armrest or not. Her blood wasn’t boiling but it felt like another kind of pressure was closing in. She fiddled with the air conditioner vents to make sure there wasn’t, like, some kind of invisible toxic gas emanating from them.
Tammy Tonya took a deep breath and lifted her head from the steering wheel.
“How can you act like you just don’t remember anything?” Her voice sounded like it had been pierced with a laser beam. Frustration flushed through Emma Claire—she was going to murder those Narrative Constructionists, even if it meant she would be tried in the highest Exoteric Court.
“Tammy Tonya . . . ”
“Emma, why are calling me that? You know that’s what my mother calls me when she’s pissed.”
Emma Claire wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything.
“You’re, like, the smartest freaking person I know, but also, like, the biggest Idiotic Rectum ever.”
A paradox, she wanted to point out, but Tammy Tonya continued.
“Come on,” she said, and then held up both index and middle fingers in the air and pumped them in literal quotation marks, “’THAT TIME?’”
Still nothing. Tammy Tonya’s hands gripped the steering wheel.
“Right before you left for stupid freaking Astronomy Camp?!”
How does one describe the forceful rush of recollection? Quote-unquotememories wooshed through her frontal lobe like flying saucers:
A white picnic blanket. Tammy Tonya’s tanned foot brushing up her ankle. Pulling a corn stalk tassel out of Tammy Tonya’s hair, which seemed to be trapping celestial light within each strand. Clinking teeth. Smacking lips. Giggles.
Something about these memories felt more like solid, crystallized objects radiating from their centers, with those centers being, like, the gravitational force around which all other memories and experiences circulated. The other memories from her air-quote past now seemed tofloat through her mind with the significance of a late-night infomercial. Emma Claire did not have language for how to proceed. The silence in the car ballooned around them.
Another memory swooped in: Tammy Tonya, face splotchy-red with dark, wet lashes: “We can’t ever do this again.”
Emma Claire listened for Tammy Tonya’s breath. Her arms were folded at her chest, her hands clutching the crooks of her elbows. Emma Claire wanted to place her hand on top of Tammy Tonya’s hand and perhaps ease some of the tension in her body. She was overcome with a sudden belief that such a small gesture could televaporate whatever had come between them with sonic-boom-like force, and whatever it was that they had done, they could most certainly do it again, couldn’t they?
She was overcome with a sudden belief that such a small gesture could televaporate whatever had come between them with sonic-boom-like force.
Tammy Tonya’s gaze fixed ahead. Emma Claire reached over to her, her hand gliding through the space between them, and just as she was about to make contact, a white, astral light poured in from behind, startling them both.
They turned around, squinting, and through the rear window were faced with two sets of headlights. Tammy Tonya jumped out of the front seat. Emma Claire followed suit.
One of the headlights belonged to Earth Mother’s car. A tall woman with big hair got out of the pick-up truck beside it, her eyes gleaming in the darkness behind the headlights.
“What in the gobsmacking hell do you two Dyke Floozies think you’re doing out here?” she stood the way Tammy Tonya stands when barking orders at the Rally Raptors.
Emma Claire’s Earth Mother, firmly: “Emma, honey, come get in the car, please.”
Emma Claire looked at spotlighted Tammy Tonya, who looked away, her ponytail slicing the air. Tammy Tonya’s hand gripped the crook of her elbow even tighter, but Emma Claire knew that she could not reach for her. The space between them now felt subsumed within Emma Claire’s body, a black hole she knew would only be filled with the oncoming biological response to emotional stress, and she found herself moving toward Earth Mother’s car before the first blast hit.
They backed out and turned in the other direction, headlights flashing over the endless cornfields. Earth Brother snoozed in the backseat and Earth Mother yell-whispered in a consecutive fit:
“I can’t believe that woman! Just hateful. What kind of a mother treats her daughter that way? Why didn’t you tell me about any of this?”
Emma Claire looked back at Tammy Tonya, her head hung low as her mother yanked her by the elbow towards the truck.
“I don’t know, Mom,” she said, defeated. Tammy Tonya and the truck became a blip in the distance, “I’ve been trying to fill out all the Narrative Holes in my life.”
“Did I not make it clear enough? That it would be okay?”
She couldn’t see Tammy Tonya anymore and the black hole inside her became as heavy as it was infinite, knowing there was no Circumstantial Person equation to fix what had happened between them.
“None of this excuses you from lying, by the way,” Earth Mother continued, “you are so grounded.”
A grounding—she thought that sounded nice for a while. Earth Mother kept looking at the road and then back at Emma Claire to let her know how serious she was as she went on in Parent Speak about trust and responsibility and older sibling expectations. Earth Brother snored in the back seat. Stars and corn stalks whisked by, and though this new heaviness settled deep into Emma Claire’s being, she couldn’t help but smile through tears at the contorted form of her mother’s stern face—totally foreign and furious with love.