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art by Melissa Mead

Safe Empathy

Ken Liu has worked as a programmer and lawyer, and he still thinks about drafting contracts and writing code the same way. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. He lives with his family in Massachusetts. This is Ken's third appearance in Daily Science Fiction, but not the last.

He was sullen when they returned from the party.
"What's wrong?" she asked, more out of obligation than interest.
She had meant to talk to him tonight, but she saw that was no longer possible. She went over the night in her head, moment by moment. Did she laugh too readily at another man's jokes? Did he get into an argument with one of her friends? Did she make some careless remark, a meaningless phrase that lodged in his mind, and like an oyster, he coated the irritant with the secretions of his imagination, polished it, nursed it, until it grew into a dark, lustrous pearl of rancorous fury?
She did not resist when he pulled her to him in the dark, and opened her heart to his. His anger and sorrow, tinged with frustrated ambition and raw insecurity, flowed into her, and though she had taken precautions to be protected, she vividly imagined their sharp, bitter taste, like scorched coffee, like tea left to steep overnight.
She shivered. And then he was done, asleep.
Young women these days, her mother used to say, don't know how to empathize. It's not the same thing with a barrier, not at all.
She waited until his snores were low and even. In the dark, he looked so peaceful that she felt tender towards him, despite what had happened. Quietly, she got up and padded into the bathroom. She took the barrier from around her heart, threw it into the toilet, and watched the pouch, a jellyfish of dark, viscous fluid, circle the bottom of the bowl before being flushed away, on its way to the sea.
In the early days of their courtship, he had wanted her both when he was happy and when he was not. The highs had been as intoxicating as the lows, and she had refused protection, so that she could be open to him, all of him. She had loved the way his righteous anger at the world made her nerves tingle, and the way his excitement at two in the morning lifted her, woke her from her slumber. Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.
But now he was careful with his happiness, stingy with it. He reached for her only when he could not stand to wallow in his depression alone. This is why men enjoy marriage so much more than women, her mother had said, not particularly sympathetically.
She remembered the empathy classes in middle school: kids furtively dropping off their permission slips in homeroom; the giggles and flushed faces as Mrs. Hagan explained how a barrier was used--"Wrap it around your heart, like this, before your partner's release;" the papier-mache model of the heart, dusty, with faded colors, like a drugstore decoration for Valentine's Day. Release, how she and her friends had laughed over that one.
"Goodbye," she whispered. And packed in the dark.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 21st, 2011

Author Comments

Many of my fantasy stories are based on making metaphors literal. This one began with an article about the negative dynamics in a couple that lead to divorce.

- Ken Liu
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