by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Shark Week: An Ocean Anthology, June 2021
My skin is drying out. I can feel the withdrawal symptoms. I want to go back home and run a bath, lace the water with sim-dopa66, and soak, soak, soak up the delicious chemical through my salamander skin. Without the magic chemicals, I’m withering, drying up, shriveling like a water lily in the desert.
That’s me. An orange-skinned water lily in a desert of fuzzy creatures — bears, badgers, dogs, cats, weasels, ferrets, mice, moles, rats… They all have more in common with each other than I do with any one of them. They look at me, and no matter how many clothes I’m wearing, no matter how puffy my jacket, no matter how long my sleeves, how high my turtle neck, all they see is the naked skin of my spade-shaped face, my smooth jawline, the expanse of dimply skin between my eyes. It’s all naked. No fur. I’ll never fit in.
But I can’t give up and go back to my apartment. I can’t run that blessed bath. I flushed the last of my sim-dopa66 down the drain. I swore I’d get clean. I’d dry out. Hah. I hadn’t realized how literal that would be. I know these symptoms will only last a few days, maybe a week or two, and then my body will readjust. But I feel like I’m dying without the sim-d. No amount of fancy almond cream or apricot body oil makes a difference. Natural products can’t touch the deep dryness of my body screaming out for more sim-d.
My skin feels flaky, like it could fall right off, shedding like orangey-brown leaves falling from the trees in autumn, leaving me more naked than naked. Raw musculature; shining white bones. A skeleton covered in glistening red meat. That’s all I am. Everyone else in this restaurant is coiffed in thick, luxurious, velvety fur. And I’m just meat.
But I let the ferret waiter guide me to the table. I gulp down the water, trying to fill my body with the moisture I can feel gone from my skin, but it sits in my belly like lead. I slurp up an ice cube from the sweaty wet glass, juggle it around inside my mouth, playing with it using my sticky tongue. Freezing my tongue; melting the ice. The beads of sweat from the glass feel like an affront on the dry skin of my bulbous fingers, making them feel only more raw. My skin doesn’t absorb the moisture. Not like it should.
I hate withdrawal. Sim-dopa66 isn’t the most dangerous drug, but it sure as hell ain’t easy to quit. I know that if I can hold out long enough, my skin will regain its natural levels of moisture. But I don’t think I can make it.
I’m seriously considering going home, selling my TV, and seeing if I can buy some more sim-d. Then I could bliss out for another week. My TV should buy that much. After a week of sheer joy, I’m sure I could find something else to sell. I think faster with sim-d zipping through my veins anyway. I’m sure there’s a better solution than drying out. What was I thinking? Without sim-d, I’m nothing but a ball of nerves and raw skin, unable to think straight or enjoy anything. I’ll never find a natural high. Only the chemicals work for me.
Then I look up, and I see my blind date is already here, another addict I met online and bonded with through the veil of a furry avatar, someone else trying to get clean. My spade-shaped jaw drops open when I see him. My skin-covered, furless spade of a jaw. Orange and raw. And dry. But I feel a tiny wellspring in my heart.
He is gorgeous. The roundness of his snout. The jaunty flip of his little ears. The fullness of his figure. And the bare, naked, pinkness of his skin. Bare and naked. Like me.
“Hi,” he oinks and smiles at me.
Maybe I’ll give this a try.
So, I say, “You’re Greg? I’m Lily.”
“Somehow, I could tell,” Greg says, sitting down in the chair across from me.”
I laugh nervously. Looking around the room, I can see what he means — everyone else is happily grouped together, tables of two, three, four, or even larger. Talking, eating, and not fidgeting restlessly with their water glass like they wish they could crawl inside it and melt into a liquid themselves.
“Have you been here before?” Greg asks.
I tell him that I haven’t, but I’ve been studying the menu while waiting for him. It’s sort of true. I did glance at the menu while trying to foist off my panic attack. To prove myself, I point to some of the things that look good — mostly artificial proteins and vegetable plates — and ask if he knows if they’re good.
“My ex-boyfriend was a salamander,” Greg says, “and he introduced me to this place.” The handsome pig takes my menu out of my hands, turns it over, and points with his keratinous hoof-hand to a special on the back I hadn’t seen. “This was his favorite.”
Candied flies and roasted earthworms. That does sound delicious, like it was designed exactly for me. “So few places serve dishes like this…” I don’t say, “with actual dead animals.” Sure, they’re only flies and earthworms, but there was a time when pigs and salamanders weren’t considered so differently.
I put the menu down, tilt my head, and stare at Greg as he studies his own menu. When he puts it down and smiles at me, I say, “So, ex-boyfriend?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, I’m bi.”
“Cool,” I say. “But… salamander?”
He shrugs again. “We furless species are… way over-represented on… um… you know, the forums where we met. No matter what avatars we might choose to hide behind.”
“That’s true,” I admit, trying not to see it as a red flag that Greg has dated a salamander before. There aren’t that many of us in this city. It’d be weird if he was seeking us out.
Wouldn’t it be?
Or maybe that’s just the paranoia side-effect caused by coming down from sim-d.
Greg and I order — the special for me, and a vegetable plate for him — and settle into the awkward conversational dance of getting to know each other as real live people, who have to say words with our clumsy tongues, and think of them on the spot, instead of carefully crafting blocks of text to each other over the course of days, polishing and refining them like diamonds.
It’s a struggle, and yet, I feel more comfortable with Greg than most people, even people I’ve known a long time. He seems okay with the awkward silences, and he grunts appreciatively at everything I say, like he gets it, really deep down inside of him, he gets it.
By the time our plates are empty, I’m starting to feel terror at the idea of this blind date ending. What if I’m mis-reading everything, and he’ll actually be relieved to get away? What if Greg makes everyone feel comfortable, and I make everyone uncomfortable… so, of course I like him, but it doesn’t mean anything about how he feels about me.
Greg draws a deep breath, sighs it out, and I can hear the words ready to come: goodbye, see ya later, so long, catch ya on the forums. And then we go back to being blocks of text, and I never get to touch his pink, nearly glowing skin.
“You don’t get out much, do you?” Greg says.
My eyes widen. I know my spade-shaped face looks especially uncanny when they do that, so I try to stop it. How did he see right through me?
He puts a hoof up and says, “That’s not a condemnation. I just mean… you seem uncomfortable.”
I don’t know what to say to that, but it makes the burning, flaky feeling all over my skin so much worse, and I think he can tell I’m stumped for words, because he goes on:
“Can I take you somewhere? It’s kind of underground… well, not literally, but it seems like a lot of people don’t know about it. And I think you’d like it.”
I nod, mutely. All I want right now is for this date to keep going on… or maybe to run away, sell my TV, and bliss out in a bathtub of sim-dopa until I die. That might be easier.
But letting Greg take me by the hand, lead me out of the restaurant, and onto a subway train heading to Little Oceania is more exciting. His skin is warm in a way mine isn’t, also in a way that fur never can be. The warmth is part of the skin, radiating out from the blood rushing underneath. There’s no layer of fur between his skin and mine. Creatures covered in fur can never feel this close, not just by holding hands.
Sure, they might have paw pads, little islands of skin in their great grasslands of fur. But it’s not the same. Greg’s bare arm presses against mine in the crowd on the subway train, the smooth concavity of the inside of his elbow, the length of his forearm.
When we get off the train, I feel like we’ve been flirting indecently in such a public place, even though we were just holding hands.
Having bare skin doesn’t feel so bad when I’m not the only one.
And when someone else seems to want to touch it.
It feels less like a mark, a brand, something that screams to the world: there’s something wrong and different about this one!
Greg leads me through the streets of Little Oceania, a small and strange part of town. Many of the windows here are filled with aquariums; sea green water behind them bends the view in the wavery way that water has. Light from inside the buildings falls on the concrete outside in dappled, twisting ways. I start to wonder whether the windows are filled with aquariums, or if that’s just the inside of the buildings. Are the buildings here all filled with water?
“I’ve always been curious about Little Oceania,” I say, quietly, not wanting to sound like a rude tourist to the sea animals we keep passing — mostly otters, seals, and sea lions in rolling chairs. Fuzzy mammals, just like everywhere else. Though, there are sharks, dolphins, and fish too. Some of them using wheelchairs; others have prosthetic legs. I think, there are more creatures with furless skin here than elsewhere.
“Oh yeah?” Greg says. “Why haven’t you checked it out?”
“It didn’t seem like it was for me,” I say, peering through the windows we pass as intently as I can while seeming casual. I’m almost certain I’m not pulling “casual” off, and my anxiety starts to sky rocket, like a buoy when you try to pull it deep under water, and it just screams to go flying back up to the surface.
But for me, the surface would be my own apartment. And that bathtub. The one that’s empty.
These buildings aren’t empty. I see shapes behind the windows — figures moving in the shadowy depths of the water. Could Greg and I even go into these buildings? Or would we drown? If I pulled open one of the doors, would water come rushing out onto the street while sharks and seahorses yelled at me in squeaky underwater languages?
“I think… I’m getting tired,” I say. “Maybe I should just go home.”
Being here feels like a punishment for wishing my skin didn’t feel so dry. Now there’s water everywhere — too much, and also, too out of reach.
“Just one more block,” Greg says. “Then you’ll see what we’re here for.”
So, I hold his hand for another block, and we arrive at the unimpressive entrance to a community rec center. There’s a banner hung over the double front door with bright blue, cursive writing, surrounded by wavy lines, presumably to represent ocean waves. The banner says: “Welcome to the Undersea Ball!”
A smaller banner in a more plain font underneath reads, “Every 1st and 3rd Tuesday of the Month. All welcome.”
“Undersea Ball?” I ask, voice getting embarrassingly squeaky. “A party?”
I stop walking, and since Greg keeps walking toward the door to the rec center, he ends up pulling on my hand.
“Oh, come on,” he says, when he see my reluctance. “You said you were worried about not belonging, but look!” He points at the banner with his free hand. “All welcome! Also, how could you belong here less than me? I’m a pig. You don’t get much more landlubber than that. Salamanders at least lived in creeks and ponds originally.”
“Have you been here before?” My voice is less squeaky now, but quavers in a way I don’t like. Almost gravelly, rough with all the feelings I’m trying to hide. Or contain. Shove down and swallow until they don’t exist.
If only I could let my feelings swirl down the bathtub drain like I did with my stash of sim-dopa…
Greg is talking, and I try to shake the thoughts — the cravings — of sim-dopa out of my head and focus on his words. He’s telling me stories about all the times he’s come to this Undersea Ball. I can’t focus on much of it, but his snout is really cute, and he’s trying to coax me. Imagine that. A good-looking, well-adjusted pig like him is trying to coax me.
It almost makes me feel like I’m worth something.
Then I remember that I met this guy on a sim-dopa forum in the first place, and he’s just as much of an addict-loser as I am.
But somehow, he’s getting by okay.
He’s walking around town, going to parties, and making it through entire dates without trying to run home and sell his TV.
Maybe… there’s something to this rec center party, if he believes in it so wholeheartedly. Because through the fog of my panic and cravings and anxiety and longing, I have managed to piece together that Greg is saying he finds this party helps him stay off of sim-dopa somehow.
I don’t see how. But… Giving it a try is better than any of the strategies I’ve been using. Especially because I’ve run out of strategies. So, I relax into the gentle tug on my hand, and I let Greg pull me inside, through those double doors.
The rec center is one of the few buildings around here without water right behind the windows. Crepe paper in shades of blue flutters along the hallway walls, just below the ceiling. We follow the crepe paper. I hear echoey noise up ahead. When we get to the end of the hall and Greg opens the door, I see a standard rec center swimming pool. That’s why the sound echoed so badly. Something about the water just works that way.
But all around the pool, there are bouncy castles and inflatable water slides set up. There are tables laid out with food and fliers — the fliers look like they’ve been laminated to protect them from the water. Everything is wet, and everyone is splashing. The pool is filled with more of the kinds of animals we saw outside, walking the streets of Little Oceania, but also a random cow, a couple chickens hanging out with a group of ducks, and even a lion with his mane done up in braids. He’s standing in the middle of the pool, splashing his big paws against the surface of the water more than anyone else. It looks like the braids are meant to keep his long wet fur from hanging in his eyes.
“The lion’s named Bruno,” Greg says. “He comes every month. Says he’s a sea lion now.”
“Is that…” I don’t know if I want to ask if it’s weird or offensive or what. I just don’t know what to make of any of this.
Greg shrugs. “None of the actual sea lions seem to mind. They throw this party to draw us landlubbers in.” Greg looks at me and adds, “Well, not necessarily landlubbers. I still think you’re at least halfway to being an ocean animal.”
I point at the tables of food. I’m not hungry after the delicious dinner, but I ask, “Is the food good?”
“Oh, it’s the best. I don’t usually eat before coming here.” Greg looks down at his hind hoofs, his pink cheeks growing pinker. “But, you know, tonight was kind of special.”
“Yeah?” I ask
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, wasn’t it?”
“I guess so,” I say. “I’d been really looking forward to meeting you.”
“Me too,” he says. “Talking to you these last few months… it’s been the only thing that’s kept me from… you know, going back. Well, you and–” He gestures around us. “This.”
I stare at the chaos around us, and I feel the chaos inside myself subsiding. There are dolphins and sharks swimming circles in the pool, just under the surface. A pair of seahorses are sitting on deck chairs by the edge, their long, curving tails draped into the water. Under the noise of voices and splashing water, I hear strains of music, and I look over to see a band made up of lizards, a river otter, and a pufferfish playing waterproof instruments.
This time, I lead Greg, and we go over to the edge of the pool. I sit down and dangle my feet in the water, and he sits down beside me, still holding my hand.
The water feels cool and soothing, completely natural, and his hand feels warm. My skin still itches from my withdrawal, but there’s too much joy here for me to pay attention to it.
Greg points out everyone. He seem to know them all by name, and a little bit of each of their life stories. He’s a really friendly guy. Even his ex, the other salamander is here, and they seem to still be friends. There’s a whole community here that I never knew about. That I would have been too afraid to try on my own. I’d have never walked through those double doors and down that long hallway alone, without Greg’s hoof holding my hand.
But now I’m here.
And I can feel the currents in the water from the dolphins and sharks swimming by, pulling me, teasing me, asking me to jump in. Get to know people. Try out this place
“Next time,” I say, “we should bring swimsuits.”
“Oh, absolutely,” Greg agrees. “Swimming here is the best.” And then the smile under his snout grows really wide, making his cheeks as round as apples, when he realizes I’ve just said there’ll be a next time.