by Julian Keys
This story started with a tattoo.
That is, long before I decided to write this tale, I’d seen the tattoo that would be the inspiration behind it. It was at a casual gathering and on the shoulder of this one young gentleman was the tattoo of a fish. Not just any fish. It was a Panderichthys. An extinct fish from the Devonian with extra fins showing an evolutionary transition (or at least the possibility of one) from fish to reptile. I was immediately struck by this tat and got into a long discussion with the gent. Seems his passion for science and evolutionary biology had led him to get that rather ugly fish beautifully inked onto his upper arm. I thought it was pretty cool. More on this later.
Jump ahead to the writing of this story. As is no doubt evident, I’m very fond of opposites attract stories and the most common such story is that of the geek and the “not geek.” Like the nerdish boy who manages to take the most popular (and seemingly shallow) cheerleader to the prom, or the brainy and/or artsy girl who connects up with the star quarterback (equally shallow at the beginning of the story, but with a poetic soul she manages to draw out). In both cases, the geek usually gets a Cinderella-ish fashion make-over toward the end of the story so that their inner beauty becomes outer beauty. Meanwhile, the not-geek’s outer beauty becomes inner beauty as they gain depth and empathy.
I had already more-or-less tackled the nerd and the beauty queen in a different story (Exchange Value—which will be out soon), but was motivated to try my hand at the jock and geek-girl if I could come at it from a different angle. There were a couple of things that bothered me about the brainy girl & the jock story: for one, the fact that it still held to the creaky old cliché that all a girl has to do is take off her glasses and let down her hair and the clueless guy would finally realize she was beautiful.
And people mock the fact that Lois Lane never realized Clark Kent was Superman!
I know some very brainy girls (and guys) and most of them are far from fashion impaired. Some are very hip, with their own cool style, including piercing and/or tattoos (Hm. Tattoos). Any way, why couldn’t the jock be attracted to the brainy girl just as she was, rather than only after she was given a make-over? One that usually made her look like every other pretty girl? Wasn’t the point for the jock to evolve?
Evolve. Evolution. Hm.
And that was another thing. I didn’t want whatever the jock learned from the brainy girl to be just window dressing–like an appreciation of art or poetry or astronomy. I wanted it to transform him, give him a different view of the world, like a fish gaining lungs. Likewise, his relationship with the girl needed to transform her. At the same time, however, these two had to remain who they essentially were. The fish who gains lungs is still a fish. And wasn’t that essential to the story? That the jock love the girl for being a brainy geek and she love him for being a jock?
It was at about this point that I remembered the fish. I remembered it because tattoos are like x-rays: they tell us who a person is inside, what matters to them, what they care about and how they think. Like that guy with the Panderichthys on his arm. That he had that ancient fish rather than a trout or a shark told me an essential thing about him, something that, like the tattoo, wasn’t going to change.
Evolution, after all, isn’t just about our ability to change and adapt. It’s also about those bone-deep qualities we have which make us desirable, the fittest to survive. That, I decided, was what I needed to explore if I wanted to mutate this story into something more, something better than the usual geek/non-geek romance. I had to get down to the bone, down to what made these characters who they were. Because we don’t fall in love with another person because we know they’ll adapt to us, we fall in love with them because they are special and different from us. Because however good we are on our own, we can become even better if we’re with them. And that is how a primitive fish tattoo evolved into this story, the story of a jock and geek who adapt and change even as they remain, in their bones, the same.
Anthologies which include this story: