Her heart was racing. It was clanging against the bones of her ribcage like an animal at the zoo—so hard she was afraid it would break free from her chest. She took a breath, and he smiled at her so surely...like he knew something she never would. The hand on her knee squeezed in assurance, but she thought it was too firm and too moist and she didn’t really want it there below the hem of her skirt. But she didn’t move it either.
He leaned into her comfort zone, and the pressure in her chest rose the closer he got to her—there was a volcano of protests climbing up her throat that she hoped would erupt and stop him from moving any closer to her lips. But they didn’t. She froze instead, caught in the slow motion of his movements, and she watched the trajectory of what was about to happen in shock and discomfort. She sat still, and she cringed for impact.
His lips met hers in a crescendo of wet uncertainty. His mouth tasted like pink bubble gum and lemonade and she guessed his kisses were okay...of course, she had nothing to compare them to. She wanted to feel the spark. The butterflies and the fireworks and the instantaneous confirmation. She wanted to feel the feeling all the commercials had told her to expect.
It lasted a few moments, and he pulled away with an unsettling grimace on his face like he hadn’t felt what he was supposed to feel either. He nodded at nothing in particular and his eyes lifted to hers, and then his eyes averted her gaze just as quickly—she saw the flash of embarrassment there briefly; and then he excused himself from the dinner table to use the facilities.
She contemplated what had gone wrong with their date at the table, alone, watching all the others who had been set up on dates as they giggled awkwardly over apple cider and candlelight. Her mother had set her up with Richard, reiterating that Donna had to know what she was before Opt-In Day. She was only 19, but apparently most people started their experimentation much earlier—so Donna was already behind. She had until she was 21 to know—to claim her label before The Council.
She and Richard had talked all night—the boy had gone as far as to hold her hand during the black and white movie they had watched before dinner...it had felt neither bad nor good...so she had let him do it while she contemplated what acts of complacency and indifference would mean for her future. He opened her doors, and he smiled at her the whole night—and every time they moved to his bike or elsewhere, his hand went to the small of her back, and she tried her best not to flinch at the contact.
She could only wonder, as Richard reclaimed his seat, if it would be this way with all the boys her mother set her up with. Or if it would be this way with any of the girls her mother set her up with.
"I’m gay." His mouth was a stern line on his face. "I guess...I guess I knew but—yea, I’m gay. I...I like you a lot. But I can’t like you in that way. I’m sorry."
He looked away from her, and he took in the other people on dates; confirming or denying their own suspicions.
"Maybe we can be friends?"
She didn’t have any friends. Donna and her mother weren’t the most affluent of families. After she graduated from high school, she had gotten a full time job. She didn’t have time for the things most experimenting people her age did. She nodded and pushed the food around on her plate, not really upset...more disappointed at the implications.
"Do you think you’re infertile?” Donna asked as she moved bits of uneaten chicken around on her plate. Richard shrugged at her question.
“I suppose I should assume I am. Gay people are carriers. If I’m gay…I can’t have children. I guess I should get used to that idea. I should get used to where I’ll be in a few years. Who I’ll be and what I will have to do for the bare necessities. The longer it’s ignored, the harder it is to accept your lifestyle assignment. So…I should start preparing myself for it.”
“Maybe you’re bisexual? Questioning, even? Have you ever kissed a guy before? I mean, if you have done it and didn’t like it you could very well fall off the spectrum—you can be—”
“Be ostracized? People who fall off the scale don’t have the best of lives, you know. Either you’re fertile and you fulfill your obligation, or you’re sterile and they throw you away. And if you’re gay…just gay, you’re infertile. You don’t have a purpose." He moved his dark hair away from his face; his green eyes tearing up, and he caught the moisture before it could fall down his face and embarrass him. He cleared his throat and adjusted his tie.
"I’m sure it’s great. To be able live your life however you like. To do whatever you please without any commitments to the Coalition. But that in itself is like prison. You know that other people are happy. You can’t get a good job because you don’t have any kids, so you just live in squalor and hope that one day you can fall in love." Richard’s somber smile was sincere enough for Donna to notice his dimples, "You’re a beautiful girl. If there was any heterosexuality in me I’m sure I’d know when I kissed you. And yes, to answer your question, I’ve kissed plenty of men. But it’s terrifying knowing that only loving men will just cast me out. Did…did you feel the spark? Are you…are you a lesbian? Questioning? Asexual?”
Donna shrugged. She didn’t know. How could she without proper experience? She had never been attracted to anyone in her life. All she had were her easels; her oil paints and brush strokes. All she had were the backs of her eyelids and her Technicolor dreams. Her art. She didn’t have time for flesh tones and reality; disappointment and failure. She had never pulled herself away from her art enough to connect with other people. She hadn’t had a reason to; most people would be separated after Opt-In anyway. Her mother had left her to her own devices for so long because she assumed that Donna would grow curious as time passed.
“I don’t know…I—you’re the first person I’ve kissed. I was going to just...accept whatever I’m labeled after the test anyway. They only want us to announce it so they can weed out the problematic. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel or who I’m supposed to love or make children with."
She leaned on the arm of her chair and threw down her cloth napkin. "Besides, it’s pointless to worry about what happens after Opt-In. It won’t compare until you get assigned anyway. Once you get assigned, you won’t see the majority of anyone you know again. Unless you’re assigned the same lifestyle labels and your mates live relatively close. You go to where you’re appointed and you start a family. I got a job—I saved my money just in case I’m labeled an infertile. I am enjoying my life before Opt-In. I don’t understand why anyone would dedicate their freedom to preparing for their imprisonment."
"You’re right." Richard threw his own napkin down after wiping his face. "Want to get out of here, do something fun?"
They walked side by side down the quiet streets, the sun casting shadows long enough to dance across the cracked cement as she let Richard lead the way. She hadn’t asked any questions as to where they would be going or why Richard had left his motorbike behind. The tall buildings all looked the same as they passed—gray brick and cinder block, tiny windows on the suncrapers. They were in The Core. It was where she and Richard had lived their whole lives—it was one of the places inside The Shell expecting parents went to raise their children after they had Opt-Ins and were carted away. There were plenty of other places like The Core that Donna had never known of. Places so like her own home that acted as an incubator for all the transitional children awaiting lifestyle labels. After her life here in The Core came her lifestyle assignment; somewhere else, dependent on if she could conceive.
The infertile went somewhere else entirely. And they never came back.
They walked for a while longer, until the sun had touched the sides of all the scrapers and finally disappeared, and they stood in front of the quiet high school—a place she hadn’t been in so long it felt strange for her to be standing at the doors.
"I love to come here when it’s dark out and watch the stars from the roof. Makes you forget about everything, you know?"
She nodded and followed him through the doors that were never locked and up familiar stairs that brought nostalgia with each step. By the time they reached the top, the moon was in the sky, and they settled on a pair of chairs and watched the city sparkle beneath it.
"I always hoped I could be bisexual...I mean—I knew that I liked guys and I knew what the implications of that could be. But I had hoped, through experimentation that I could find a mate I was friends with so it wouldn’t be that awkward."
"True; but being bisexual doesn’t mean you can’t be sterile. You can still have it—" Richard leaned back on his chair until the base of his skull was cradled by the back of the chair. He sighed noncommittally and stared at the stars.
"I know, Donna. But all this time I’ve been trying to deny that I was gay. I kept telling myself—maybe you just haven’t found the right girl. Maybe, maybe there is still hope. You don’t think about these things?"
She shrugged at him, her eyes darting around them, and the stars looked like blurring diamonds in the sky over the chrome and gray brick of The Core.
"No. I don’t think about these things. I did everything I wanted to with my freedom. And after Opt-In day I will fulfill my obligation. If I am a lesbian, I can go live with all the infertile people and do whatever it is they do after assignment."
"Why not prepare yourself for the inevitable?" Richard wiped a stray tear away as he awaited her answer.
"If it’s inevitable, why prepare for it at all? If I’m infertile, I can’t change it. If I were able to choose, then I don’t think I’m straight. I haven’t had the experience to prove anything true or not, but if I had to guess, I think I would have a preference for women. The implications of that inevitability just makes me want to be happy now—for as long as I can be until I’m assigned."
"No one has ever explained it that way. I guess I can respect that decision."
Silence enveloped them, and the stars danced around them as the wind picked up. It was warm, and the breeze felt nice on her bare legs as night began to crawl through the city.
"Do you know what the spark feels like? Have you ever felt it?" She shook her head in the negative.
"I only know it from the commercials.”, Donna answered quietly. A rebuttal came immediately after, “Have you felt it?" Richard nodded. "What’s it feel like...really?" The commercials always exaggerated the feeling—the monochrome broadcasts were just reminders to people in The Core of how they should conduct themselves...of what was important.
Richard’s smile spread slowly across his face— as if the thought alone had brought back the feelings. "It happened to me once. I was dating a guy who was a little older than me. He had so much experience. When he kissed me, I felt like adrenaline filled caterpillars were running around in my stomach. He had Opt-In last year...he thought he was infertile. I suppose I’ll see him again. Do you think...do you think we should at least try? Maybe we’ll feel it after?"
Donna knew what he was asking. It was the basis of experimentation—to gain enough experience to eliminate doubt. She nodded at him again, and he moved from his chair to take her hand. The ground was covered in a soft matting—she remembered the rooftop from high school, when they would sit atop it during astronomy class to point out constellations. She lay down on it as he settled beside her, her hands suddenly clammy.
Those experimenting were allowed to have sex; to try it. If they were indeed fertile, and they had a child—they would be assigned a lifestyle assignment together. Those living in The Core all had a possibility of being fertile; as all of their parents had been before them. If this experimentation resulted in conception, all they had to do was document it and report it before Opt-In day. Richard wasn’t bad—he was intelligent and opinionated and handsome. If this would be her first time, she had no qualms with it being with him.
He lay beside her, quiet. His hand reached down to hold hers, a reassuring thumb rubbing circles into the back of her hand. "This...this will be the first time I’ve done this, with a woman..." Donna nodded. She had no grand expectations. She knew the science behind the act—but that didn’t stop her heart from speeding up.
He kissed her on the mouth, slowly, until his tongue slid across the threshold of her bottom lip and her eyes finally slid closed. She assumed it was impolite to kiss someone while staring; so she let him lead and she tried not to concentrate on the firmness of his chest against hers and the calluses of his hands rubbing down her arms as his mouth traced kisses down the column of her neck.
She felt tingles; all over—everywhere. No one had ever touched her this way; at least, no one other than herself. She let him explore her body casually, until he was above her—her underwear off and her skirt pushed up. She could feel him against her; hard and ready—the commercials always talked about neurological responses and reactions. A gay man could technically copulate with a lesbian female—but it didn’t make them any less homosexual.
She took a deep breath before he pushed inside her. She wasn’t prepared—her hands went to his chest to stop his movement, and she took a moment for the feeling to resonate. He was watching her patiently; waiting until her say to continue. Once the discomfort subsided, he began to move, and she tried to place what emotions were stirring inside of her. She watched him, content to just let it happen but not interested enough to participate.
Instead, she watched him as he moved; noticed the sweat gather on his brow until he shuddered above her—spent. Until he pulled out of her. She could feel the warmth that flooded her; the sticky remnants of his orgasm as it sifted down her thighs when she pulled her underwear up and fixed her skirt. She didn’t worry about disease—her mother had told her once that those things were fixed a long time ago...and that the only disease you could catch these days was a child.
They sat in silence for a while. Her thighs were sore, and she felt empty...there were no adrenaline filled caterpillars dancing in her stomach. There was no sense of satisfaction or accomplishment.
"I think I’m a lesbian." It was an honest assumption. She felt like she wouldn’t have to worry about them not using protection— especially if he was gay— but she knew one fact. She didn’t really want to do what they had done again. Richard pulled an arm over her shoulder and tugged her closer—and she felt comforted by his touch for the first time that night. He smiled at her warmly and let his head rest on hers. "Think we can be friends?"
She knew they could; especially now...she would never have to watch him leave.
She got home a few hours later. Her mother was sitting in front of the television set. Curfew started at midnight for the entire Core—and Richard had dropped her home 20 minutes before then with promises to come visit her the next day. Her mother didn’t look away from the broadcast—the large flat screen display stopped all entertainment programming at one. The Coalition broadcasts had already begun. Her mother was always interested in what was happening with the government—she stayed abreast with new bills being passed and the people being arrested for violating the Seven Rules of Conduct.
"Hello, mother." Donna sat in the seat beside her, still sore from the night’s activities. "How did it go? Did you experiment or did the date end in a slew of unanswerable questions?"
She shrugged away her mother’s questions. "We had sex, actually."
Her mother looked shocked—shocked enough to look away from the television set. "Very well. Can he get you pregnant?"
The question was weighted. "No, he can’t get me pregnant."
Her mother nodded and turned back to the news. "Do I have to schedule another setup? Or did you at least enjoy yourself?"
She shrugged, standing to go shower and wash away the smell of sex and confirmation.
"Yes, schedule another. A female. You always said I should be sure, mother."
Her room was a smorgasbord of smells and chemicals. Her mother only allowed her what they could afford—and for a girl born to a bisexual man and an asexual mother, it wasn’t much. Consequently, she bought all the expensive things with her own money—or rather, how much of it she was willing to part with. The rest, she saved for after Opt-In, just in case she is deemed infertile and would be without work for a while.
She picked up a random sketch book, turning pages until she found a blank one. She could still see his face above her; the rocking of their bodies...the pressure coming from where they were joined. It had been her first intimate encounter with another person; and from it, she had gained a friend. A friend she could still potentially lose once Opt-In day arrived.
She needed to remember him in case they were separated. He could still be bisexual and she was starting to think she couldn’t be anything other than homosexual. She walked around her room looking for pencils. She found one stuck in the spiral binding of the last sketch book she had drawn in. She began sketching him from memory: the contours of his face, the bridge of his nose, the depth of his eyes. When she was finished, she undressed for her shower.
Work in The Core for someone her age could only be one of three things: a retail associate, a call center operator, or a fast food worker. Each of them paid minimum wage; and each of them could be easily replaceable when the onslaught of Opt-In day became imminent. She picked up her phone when it rang, a smile plastered on her face as protocol dictated; she forwarded the emergencies to the Initiative and all political inquiries to the Coalition.
She fielded calls specifically from The Shell—a network of sprawling communities that fanned around The Core. The Shell was made up of biologically fertile communities. The heterosexual and the bisexual fertile people lived and worked there after their lifestyle assignments. All emergency dispatches and political reporting had to be routed through The Core. She worked at The Coalition Initiative Call Center since she had graduated from high school three years ago. Schooling was mandatory only until that point, and further education depended solely on your lifestyle assignment.
In the three years of her employment there, she had never gotten a call from The Enclosure. It was rumored that they weren’t allowed communication devices—but no one who had ever been sent to The Enclosure had ever returned to The Core. It had all been myth to her until that moment, when an unidentified number flashed across her caller identification screen. She almost didn’t pick it up. There was no procedure she could remember for this kind of thing; but she decided to see who was on the other end.
"Thank you for contacting the CICC, you are speaking with Donna Meadows, operator number 6653. What is your emergency?"
The line crackled loudly in Donna’s ear, as if someone were talking through an old walkie-talkie. She leaned forward in her chair and waited for a reply.
"I am calling from the Enclosure on the behalf of the—" The transmission cut out. The line went dead. She sat back in her seat and waited for the next call to come in—not that she fielded many calls.
The Enclosure was the place all infertile people went. The sterile bisexuals and those questioning and all the gays...and less often, the of the scale people who had inherited the trait from their lineage.
There were stories, growing up, about what really happened after Opt-In to the sterile. Her mother could only clarify what she went through in The Shell, and even still, she remained vague enough to leave Donna guessing. She could end up somewhere her mother had not been—so her mother didn’t talk too much about life before Donna’s conception. There were always the archives—the great library of The Core. Or you could just watch the commercials and other designated programming that aimed to teach growing children how to accept their roles in society when the time came.
The Enclosure was often alluded to as a place the infertile went to live, and to die. They got to do as they pleased for as long as they pleased. And then they would die, and hopefully the trait would die with them as well. The only time someone from The Enclosure got to leave it was when they were adopted out for servitude by a family member affluent enough in The Shell to make it happen. But that, too, was rare.
Donna didn’t know what to do. She could keep quiet about the call and hope none of her supervisors questioned her about the unknown number in her log.
Or she could write a report and hope there wasn’t some great unknown rule for handling illegal or unauthorized calls from The Enclosure. Donna tapped her console to life, and began typing on the holographic keyboard on her desk. Her phone rang again; this time it was Richard’s face, bright and cherry on her monitor.
"Hey, gorgeous! We still on for lunch?" She rolled her eyes at him. She couldn’t help but like him. And if she was a lesbian and he was gay, maybe she could keep a friend without the fear of being separated.
Things stayed the same, for a while, and she got to know Richard, and they grew closer. Months passed without much change, until her mother had informed her that she had been matched with a woman and was set to go out with her that Friday. She felt nervous; more so than she had when she went out with Richard. Something felt different about this time, and it wasn’t a feeling she was familiar with.
She had a dizzy feeling in her stomach and she felt lightheaded at the thought of meeting the beautiful girl she had read up on. She had gotten the information file through her email, and she had read it at least five times before she was sure the two of them would be compatible. For what, Donna wasn’t sure yet. Isabel was a gorgeous girl, 20 years old and looking to experiment with someone immediately.
Donna had changed her clothes three times. Nothing fit the way she wanted it to, her hair wouldn’t unfrizz, and she couldn’t find the right foot of her favorite black shoes. By the time she left to meet the girl, she was already ten minutes late. They were meeting at the lake. There wasn’t much to do there but to rent a boat and row the water. Just Donna and Isabel, alone.
She hated how anxious the thought made her feel. She wanted things to be different this time…for reasons she couldn’t decipher right then. She swallowed the dry mouth that was attempting to choke up her throat before spotting her. Isabel was waiting by the front gates, a daisy twirling in her hand as she searched for an absent Donna. She took a steadying breath and smoothed out the kinks in her skirt as she walked right over to her. Isabel wore a simple button down shirt of royal purple and a pair of gray slacks. Her blond hair was neat in her ponytail and her hazel eyes were the first things Donna noticed as she approached.
“Hi. I’m Donna, Donna Meadows.”
Isabel smiled, an easy spreading smile, her lips full and bright against the glow of her alabaster skin. She gave her hand for Isabel to shake, and Isabel dropped the flower to shake it back. “And I’m Isabel Thoreau, pleasure to meet you.”
They turned at the same time, and walked through the gates leading to the lake. People were milling about, the crowds tepid and sparse. Donna made small talk, apologized for being late, and asked a few necessary questions as they waited for the attendant to rent them a boat.
They decided on a paddle boat, and they wandered away from the other people on the water. There was enough space to lie back, and they floated without effort, talking as they glided across the lake.
“Is this your first setup?”
Donna cleared her throat. She felt something akin to positive tension coiling in her gut. “No, I went out once before with a guy named Richard. He’s a friend now, but that’s it. You?”
Isabel twirled the length of her ponytail between her fingertips. Donna’s eyes stuck there, at the spot, and she watched her nimble fingers toy with the wispy strands of her soft hair. “I’ve gone out with a few people. I didn’t feel the spark. I wanted to, but I couldn’t force it.” Her hand went to play with a loose button of her shirt. She was wearing a camisole beneath it, black and delicate. Donna licked her lips, and focused on paying attention to anything other than Isabel’s moving hands.
“I know the feeling…” Donna took a breath between words, a beat passed. “…it said you played music. On your file. What kinds do you play?”
Isabel smiled. Donna felt physically shaken—shook up at the feeling of her insides doing flip flops at the sight of Isabel’s soft smile. She sat up on her elbows; she felt too close to the girl, like she couldn’t breathe because she had been holding her breath too long.
“I play the violin. The piano. The guitar. Anything I can learn, I guess.” A nimble hand pulled Donna back, the boat rocked and steadied, and Donna’s heart rate crept faster; a quickening ‘chug’ ‘chug’ ‘chug’ up some proverbial cliff. “I’m very talented. My instructor thinks that regardless of the Opt-In, I won’t be forced to The Enclosure.”
Donna let the insinuation settle.
“So you know already what you’ll be assigned?”
Isabel quirked an eyebrow. “I’ll wind up making it on the Coalition’s Orchestra. Regardless of fertility.”
There were people that got out of the strict assignment process, sometimes. Those extraordinary enough to make a difference. The Opt-Outs. Most times, it was a revolutionary mind of some sorts; an infertile that had to be put to better use than breeding or not. Donna’s mother would relay to her stories of the first broadcasts; the commercials the Coalition had sponsored to educate the remaining citizens of the new regime. They’d say things like: “The man who cured cancer was an infertile homosexual. Get tested; know your status. Opt-Out.”
“So why am I here?”
Isabel smirked simply at Donna’s question and the motion cleared all thoughts from Donna’s mind. She reached out a hand to draw patterns on Donna’s arm. Donna felt the contact instantly, and she could feel her body tense, the nerve endings reacting like car crashes wherever Isabel touched her. She let out a shallow breath. Her body felt like it was going haywire, like she was being shocked—but she couldn’t get enough of the feeling.
“Relax, Donna…I think that you’re thinking about things too much. You can enjoy yourself with me. Tell me something I don’t know about you. Something I haven’t seen in your file—which was bare, by the way. You shouldn’t let your mother fill out your questionnaires.”
Donna felt the chuckle leave her mouth before she could stop it, and she felt the ease building between them as she relaxed beside Isabel. She fixed her skirt. She tried to ignore the bubbling buzz in her stomach, and she focused instead on the words she wanted to say.
“Whatever life I have after Opt-In is irrelevant. I’m doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do now.” Isabel stared at her openly, as if Donna had just told a lie and Isabel could see right through it. “Well, not everything…”
Silence ensued. The water around them sounded loud; slipping against the shell of the boat beneath them; like fanning fire with waves. Her dress was riding up because she was flat at the bottom of the boat, and the girl beside her was coming closer.
The tightening in her chest was a rush of anticipation; like a balloon was blowing up and she was waiting for it to pop. Isabel’s eyes were zoned in on hers, and Donna felt the treble of her chin as she watched the girl come closer. Her eyes never looked away from Donna’s. Isabel’s movements were confident—precise. Donna didn’t dare look away. She listened to the explosions in her chest reverberate and escape from her mouth in puffs of air—her broken resolve; the never-ending wait. Moments passed like millennium as the space between them grew shorter. Donna just wanted something to happen.
And when it did, her eyes stuttered shut; and she couldn’t string together normal thoughts, and all she could feel was the gush of her blood chanting through her veins, her ears—making her skin hot. Soft hands stroked languidly over bare skin. Donna wanted Isabel’s hands in her hair…on her, everywhere, all at once. Donna hadn’t felt anything like it; ever.
It felt like her entire body had come alive so willingly in Isabel’s presence.
Isabel’s still moving hands traced long strokes down the insides of her bare thighs; Donna’s reaction was instantaneous. She wanted more; she couldn’t deny it. Donna started participating, reaching and exploring Isabel’s skin-- slipping beneath the dainty camisole underneath Isabel’s shirt and cupping her breasts in her hand. Isabel’s heartbeat was sporadic against Donna’s palm-- her breathing shallow and uneven against the lobe of Donna’s ear. Donna mewled out and quickly caught the sound with her lip pinched beneath her own teeth. This was it, Donna was sure, this was the spark. It was the rush of blood through her veins and the heat on her skin; it was everywhere Isabel was touching and the ache everywhere Isabel was not.
It was the want--the mutual attraction-- the connection...it felt right. Donna wanted this no matter where it ended and she wanted to do this as often as she could while she had the chance to. Isabel’s wandering hand stopped all the confirmations zipping through her mind with a swift flick over the length of her heat; her hips bucked and she tried to catch her breath but it was lost the moment Isabel’s bare hands slipped beneath the cotton of her panties.
Donna’s eyes squeezed shut at the contact. Her body was overwhelmed, her brain suddenly ceased function. Donna was sure now-- she was definitely a lesbian.
They had gotten ice cream after the boat ride. Donna had been privy to Isabel’s attentions (not that Donna was complaining), and she had succumbed to Isabel’s dexterous and talented fingers as quietly as she could manage at the bottom of their paddle boat. Donna was curious about everything Isabel could do well-- but the environment wasn’t suitable for those types of indecencies. Isabel eating ice cream did wicked things to Donna’s mind, and she found herself blushing at the thoughts cruising through her head.
"So I take it you know, now?" Isabel asked and Donna nodded, biting into the cone of her vanishing treat. "I know that I’m probably going to the Enclosure. Will I get to see you again, before your Opt-In?" Isabel tossed the cone of her own ice cream into a trash bin. "If you’d like. I have a few months until then. We can experiment as much as you’d like for as long as I’m around." Donna reached out a hand to take Isabel’s as they walked the length of the forestry surrounding the lake.
There was a feeling growing at the pit of Donna’s stomach. It was the first time she had felt it-- it was regret. Maybe she should have started sooner...she had been telling herself that she didn’t need to know. Had she known what the spark was like...she probably would have experimented more-- sooner. "Did you feel it this time, Isabel?" The girl squeezed her hand before speaking. "May I be honest?" Donna nodded-- there was no reason for lying.
"I don’t think I ever want to feel the spark. At least...not until after I Opt-Out. Falling for someone and watching them get ripped away from you...well I’d rather not know that feeling." Isabel loosened the tie on her hair and let it fall in waves down her back. Her hand found Donna’s again in reassurance. "Will you at least...experiment; mutually? Exclusively? With me, Isabel?" Donna hated the tightening in her chest. She wanted to do everything she could with Isabel for as long as she was willing.
The girl shrugged. "I don’t know about the mutual...but we can experiment; date. I don’t mind. Until Opt-Out, I’m available for anything."
Donna nodded in understanding.
Donna couldn’t wipe the smile off her face by the time she got home. Her mother was wearing a spot into the couch, as usual, when Donna shut the door and leaned against it when it closed. Her mother didn’t turn around until she heard the door close. She nodded curtly at Donna’s demeanor, a slight grimace tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"So it’s decided. Are you sure?"
Donna’s hands went immediately to tangle together. Her mother had no judgments in her choices before this--Donna wasn’t accustomed to her mother caring about anything other than the news and her job. She could hear the caution in her mother’s tone-- she approached her slowly.
"I am. I will claim homosexuality on Opt-In day. There is no doubt--" Her mother sighed heavily. "You date one girl and you’re sure?" Donna nodded at her, unsure of why she would find fault in her choice. "I’m sure. There is no doubt." Her mother nodded again. "Very well. Congratulations, Donna. I wish you well on your journey."
Donna could tell that her mother was holding something back.
"What? What’s wrong?" Her mother’s normal indifference shrouded her features. "Nothing. I just thought...I assumed you would be fertile." Donna laughed. "Because you were?" Her mother stared at her blatantly. It was the most attention her mother had paid her for as long as Donna could remember. "Because I hoped better for your future than The Enclosure."
Donna scoffed, her arms crossed over her chest. "Why care now?"
Her mother looked away. She had never seen her mother hurt. But in that moment she saw the emotion cross her features. "I do care about what happens to you, Donna. You’re still my child." Donna scoffed again. "More like your charge! When have you ever cared about me in any facet other than obligation? You’ve made me feel like you couldn’t wait for me to be out of your life soon enough!" Her mother took a deep breath and stood from her seat.
"Donna I never wanted children. It was the only certainty I’ve had in life. I wanted to be so much more than a status. I was better than a yes or a no. And suddenly I was just shoved into this role. So, sorry if you felt put out. I’ve done this on my own since you were born. I watched your father give up his status to go be with the man he loved and I had this tiny person I was in charge of. I don’t want to see you go to The Enclosure--"
"Why not? I can go off and be as free as I’d like to be. I can do whatever I please and have no obligations. And what do you know about The Enclosure? Last time I checked you were still here, mother!"
Her mother’s mouth shut abruptly. "I know more than you think child-- keep thinking The Enclosure is some safe haven. Your father thought that too. Until he found out what it really was and tried to get adopted back into society." Her mother waved a hand at the television screen to turn it off and stepped away from her to go to her room. She turned on her heel just as quickly to face Donna again, her face softer than Donna could ever remember it.
"It may not seem like it, Donna, but I have done my best as a parent. I nurtured you and I watched you grow. If things were different; I would get to see you go off and do great things. But you being a lesbian...I will never get to see you again after Opt-In. I will get to drop my obligation and live freely knowing that you will not. I love you, Donna. And I’m sorry you can’t see that."
Donna’s mother left her there. It had been the first time her mother had ever brought up her father; more importantly it had been the first time her mother had actually uttered words of affection to her. The concept felt so foreign to her. Her chest felt heavy. She gathered herself and went to her room; in shock of the night’s developments. She took a shower and settled on her bed with intentions of drawing Isabel. Instead, she drew a picture of her mother, Diane, in charcoal-- her soulful brown eyes the only color.
If she would never see her mother again, she wanted to remember her this way.
Months passed with Isabel and Richard by her side. She explored the facets of her new found sexuality with Isabel (albeit a one-sided exploration). And Donna got used to the commitments being friends with Richard made. She sketched and painted, she went to work and she went home and she tried to forge a relationship with her mother before she no longer had one.
It began with sitting beside her to watch the news late one night, after spending the day with Isabel in her father’s empty house. There were old cartoons on the television, ones her mother found amusing for one reason or another. There were electrical plugs and outlets in grayscale animation; with human characteristics and outlandish voices. Mr. Plug and his friend Mr. Cord had just met two beautiful ladies: Miss Outlet, and Miss Receptor giggled boisterously at their new company.
"May we stick our plug inside your outlets? They say it’s all the rage--we’ll feel a spark!" Mr. Plug said it with mirth; and Mr. Cord agreed in hearty laughter.
"We’ll have to decline, Mr. Plug, we feel the spark whenever we are together, so no thanks, no thanks."
The television screen broke away; and a Technicolor standby screen replaced it. Color television was something only the affluent were allowed. There weren’t any explanations as to why... but Donna assumed that the constant black and white was a reminder that the citizens should be working and not indulging in time wasting things like television when they should be procreating. Moments passed and the television snapped to a different setting; the gray was back and President Prescott looked grimly into the camera, his hands folded in front of him. He only made announcements on Opt-In day, and sometimes when evacuations were in order for extreme weather. There wasn’t much crime in The Core.
"Good evening citizens. President Prescott here with an emergency news bulletin." His white, bushy eyebrows were stern and downcast-- the corners of his eyes crinkled in a way that would make Donna believe he was a jolly old man. The weathered, hostile look in his eyes negated that initial assumption. "Over the last week, a there has been a problematic recurrence in the Enclosure; with many of the infertile seeking refuge from the existing economic conditions." Donna had only seen President Prescott twice-- once at her high school graduation and again at the CICC for her initial training. He continued, "This morning; the main gate to The Enclosure was breached; and 12 people have fled their lifestyle assignments. In light of this situation, curfew will remain in effect until the fugitives are apprehended. Stay inside; many of the fugitives may be armed, and dangerous. If you are approached by anyone unfamiliar; please contact the Initiative immediately at the emergency hotline below. Thank you for your time, and good night."
The first thing Donna thought of were the trackers. On Opt-In, people were tagged with a symbol-- something like a nude tattoo-- on the pad of their right thumb. It detailed their fertility, orientation, and it also tracked the person branded with a microchip. It seemed odd to her that people could disappear, unless they had gotten rid of their trackers somehow. Donna looked over to her mother, who remained neutral throughout the broadcast.
It had taken three days before she was allowed to leave the house. She had gone stir crazy, often video chatting with Richard and Isabel until another gray scale broadcast of President Prescott beamed over the airwaves. It also happened to be the day before Opt-In day. She wouldn’t be a part of it this year; and she had time to experiment a bit more if she chose...or enjoy her life in other ways until next year. Her birthday was today; and it was also the last time she would see Isabel if Donna was assigned to The Enclosure.
Isabel’s father was a tan man with graying blond hair and bright green eyes. He had a happy disposition in spite of losing the love of his life. It had been odd when Isabel explained her parents to her, Donna couldn’t comprehend it-- the idea of having a home life that included both a loving mother and a loving father seemed taboo to Donna. Especially when Isabel had showed her old photos of the pair; with a spark in their eyes that Donna couldn’t relate to. Mr. Thoreau let her into the house as he was leaving for work (Mr. Thoreau was a watchman at the entry gates to the city).
She wandered up to Isabel’s room, calling out without answer until she reached the door. She had been there a few times before; enough times that she felt comfortable in Isabel’s space. She called out again before knocking and when she received no answer, she decided to open the door. Isabel was sitting at her vanity, staring at something in her lap. Donna watched her quietly in the reflection of the mirror, stuck at the door.
"Hey..." She stepped inside the room and closed the door behind her. Isabel sniffed quietly before adjusting, and she turned to face Donna with the sorriest of smiles.
"Hey you...come to see me off?" Donna sat down on the bed and crossed her legs at the ankle. "So you’ve gotten notice?" Isabel nodded at Donna before spinning on her vanity stool. What she had been looking at in her lap was a thick booklet, The Core seal imprinted on the front jacket. It looked important. "I got my acceptance letter for the music school yesterday. I get de-branded tomorrow. But they sent my code of ethics...and well—Opting-Out isn’t as extravagant as I thought it would be." Isabel laughed a solemn laugh and brushed a stray tear away from the corner of her eye.
Donna didn’t know what to do.
"What happens after school?" Isabel frowned at Donna’s question. "After schooling is complete; I am indentured to the Coalition for a minimum of 22 years. I am not to mingle with the general population. I am not allowed to engage in any sexual activity with any fertile citizen nor with my music peers; I am not allowed into The Enclosure. I... I don’t know if I can-- I don’t know what life will be like if I can’t do anything."
Tears fell from Isabel’s eyes, finally, in quick succession and she blinked them away just as quickly...as if she were surprised they fell at all. She straightened before standing, putting the booklet on her stool. She chose to sit beside Donna, until their shoulders knocked together and Isabel leaned her head on Donna’s shoulder.
"I thought...I thought Opting-Out would be so much better. I thought I’d have a chance at all those things I’d miss going to The Enclosure. I’m infertile. But essentially, I’m married to my craft now. Some comeuppance huh?”
Donna felt it like an icepick to her chest. It was cold and it stung but she felt numb just the same. She and Isabel had gotten comfortable. Sure, Donna kept telling herself that she was happy, and she was ready for what happened next. Opt-In, assignment—obligation or banishment. But in reality she didn’t know what to be ready for. She would miss Isabel; what they were just starting. She hated that her life wasn’t hers to live.
She wanted to give Isabel something to take with her. She had nothing of value to physically turn over to the girl she’d been experimenting with. But she had to give her something that could get her through the next 22 years of her life. It was the first time in Donna’s life that she had ever felt that something was unfair. What made it worse: there was nothing she could do about it.
Isabel was crying quietly on her shoulder, Donna’s fingertips found Isabel’s chin and tilted it up. She was even gorgeous when she cried, and Donna couldn’t help but be transfixed in the moment. Donna would try to give Isabel the one thing she might not find for a long time.
Donna leaned toward her, slow and sure, and she kissed her longer and harder and better than any time before that second and then she broke away. She found Isabel’s eyes drowning in her tears and she knew what she could give to her.
She kissed her again, and wiped the tears freefalling down her face away. Donna’s palms caressed Isabel’s cheeks and she kissed Isabel until Isabel started kissing her back. Donna could feel Isabel’s hands pulling her shirt from her skirt, pulling her closer in until there was no space between them…no air. Isabel never let Donna touch her. Isabel was always the aggressor, excavating her body like an architect digging for treasure. And Donna accepted the attention selfishly.
She hadn’t realized that it was Isabel’s way to be ready for what happened next. But no one ever knew what to expect after Opting-In or Opting-Out—it happened and by the time you got back all the influential children are shipped off and out—clueless. Donna wanted to give Isabel a just in case… just in case it would be worse than she ever imagined.
Donna leaned until Isabel fell backward on her bed. She got rid of all the clothing covering Isabel’s ivory skin and she took a moment to appreciate the scene. Isabel’s chest rose in fell in a chanting melody of enthusiasm maybe nervousness. Donna had never seen her so excited and so afraid; so fragile and so ready in tandem. Donna had never wished before that moment that she had more time.
She kissed Isabel until the air was gone from her lungs, and she trailed her lips across the canvas of her body as slowly as her anticipation would allow. She dipped tongue in the valley of Isabel’s parted legs; from her feet to the musky scent of her provocation. She kissed her in places that made her back arch and her toes point downward. Donna kissed her until Isabel’s hands curled in her hair and even after that—Isabel clutched onto her-- when the only intelligible sounds from Isabel were broken whimpers of Donna’s name.
Isabel cried after. And Donna held her to her chest and let her do it. It felt like Isabel was going off to war and all the realities had crashed into her all at once and wrecked her outlook. It felt like “This is for my country” had turned into “I don’t know how I’ll make it back from this,” all in a matter of moments. Donna stayed in Isabel’s bed as she cried, and she stayed after that when she slept in her arms.
Donna had left Isabel’s bed the morning of Opt-In, kissing her goodbye while she slept. They had copulated numerous times the night before-- at first slowly. Isabel had let Donna in to do all the things Donna had imagined doing with her. As the night progressed, Isabel grew desperate; angry at the consequences of her talent-- unsettled that she may not have another chance at intimacy for quite some time. Donna left her nude in her bed; and Isabel had gone to be de-branded later-- she probably wouldn’t see her again in her lifetime.
Donna thought about what it all meant then; from a different perspective. She lived for her art. It gave her joy. It may even be something that she could do in The Enclosure; if she wound up sentenced there for life.
The Core did its job in educating the citizens. The growing children and the newly returned-- she grew up with the influence of The Coalition, the history of The Trials...the obligation of repopulating Old America. It was their duty. Without Opting-In and serving; there would be no more people. School for the children of The Core had been a bulk of her free life. She learned why they were suffering from extinction. She accepted that to keep life going...sacrifices had to be made.
But that was before.
Now all she could think about was how The Enclosure would be. All the things Donna didn’t know were scarier than anything she could assume now. It made her want to experience everything she could. Just in case...
Just in case.
She hadn’t loved Isabel. She would miss having Isabel in her life. She would miss the connection she had with her, because Donna had never felt that connection until now. Donna was scared that she would go in search of it and never find it again. She would cherish her experimentation- what little time she had left of it.
Donna’s life didn’t change as much as she would have thought since losing Isabel. She and Richard kept each other sane; and her mother put her profile back in the database after a gentle prodding from Donna. It took a while before she was matched again, with a questioning girl named Erin, who was younger than her but still, way more experienced. Weeks passed and they had sex; weeks more did, and they realized there was no spark. Time rushed past Donna once she had started counting the minutes, savoring the seconds until her own Opt-In date.
The database was a sophisticated program. It matched people by likes and dislikes, hobbies and intelligence quotient. It also matched people based on the fertility of their parents (in heterosexual match ups, anyway). The system had its flaws and gaps of coverage, but as time went on, Donna experimented with a variety of people.
She met Jacqueline, who loved to watch others participate in sexual activities; but only that. There had been Tori; a girl who loved to have multiple partners, all at once. There had been Carol the foot fetishist and Astrid, the only woman who had tied Donna down to give her pleasure. Who untied her to give her pain with instruction not to move. Donna came to know them all from their sparks; she came to see them for what they were because of what they were attracted to.
The spark was what they called a mutual connection between two people to identify orientation. It could be felt through sexual attraction, intellectual stimulation or longing. The absence of the spark after ample experimentation probably meant that you were a questioning citizen. Donna had met those types of people as well; and she respected their desire to act on no desires at all. She drew each of them in pencil or in charcoal or in oil paints. And she saved their images for days when she couldn’t remember life before assignment.
Just in case.