What do you say when your friend's 13 year-old sister asks you whether you love him? Apart from growing red, stammering and dropping glasses to the floor. Well, one option is to tell the truth. "I haven't really thought about that" admits Tom. "But I guess you could say I love him as a friend. Not in the same way I would love a girlfriend, of course, or a brother if I had one. But each day I look forward to seeing him again, and when we're together – I mean, when we are in the same place – I feel more happy, more alive, more complete. As if a part of me has always missed him. So I guess you can say I love him. But we boys don't say things like that."
"Why not? If you love someone, you must tell them. Even if they know. They still should get to hear it."
"I think that is only girls. Boys don't like to think about it that way. As long as we are happy together, we don't mind what it is called."
"Then boys are really weird."
"Yeah. That we are, at least when it comes to love."
"Ben says 'love you' to Mom and me."
"I guess it just sounds weird when boys say it to boys."
"And do you kiss?"
"What?? No way!"
"Not at all?"
"Not even goodnight?"
"Then perhaps you don't love him after all."
"We're just friends! Friends don't kiss, no matter how much they love."
"I don't think you can love without kissing. But I'll ask Mom. After we're finished here."
"That sounds like a good idea."
They finish the dishes in silence. The atmosphere is not exactly tense, but the silence still makes Tom uncomfortable. He cannot think of anything to say, though. Luckily there wasn't a lot of dishes so they are soon finished. Rita leads on to another room. This place is so big, it reminds Tom more of a mall than a home. But the actual rooms where the Starborn live seem to be of more normal size and standard. He is not sure what the rest of the manor is used for, and is afraid to ask.
Rita is not afraid to ask her mother at least. "Mommy, can people love without kissing?"
"Oh yes!" The answer is so immediate, she might as well have waited for that question. "To love simply means that you want good things to happen to another. To hate means to want bad things for another. If someone doesn't like kissing, then kissing them would not be love. Also often there are other things people need more than kisses. For instance if someone is hungry, love would be to give them food. If they are cold, love would be to give them warm clothes or a warm place to stay. And sometime people kiss because they want to, without thinking of whether it is good for the other. Then it is not really love. But kissing is a good way to show love. People who love each other like to be close together, but people who hate each other feel bad about being close. So by hugging or kissing, you show that you don't hate someone."
"So that's how it is!" Rita turns around and bows deeply to Tom. "I was wrong. You know more about love than I do after all."
"Hehe, well at least about boy love."
That did not sound right. Not at all. "I mean, since I am a boy, of course I know more about how boys feel and how boys experience things. That's only natural, of course. That's all there is to it, really." He looks quickly at Ben, but Ben is busy reading something on a fish reader. He may not have heard after all.
Anita Starborn smiles, and her smile has the power of a blessing. Whatever he may have said, she has understood what he meant, and he can feel the tension drain from his body. "My daughter is the literate of the family. She has almost certainly read more than her brother already, and perhaps when she is grown up she will overtake me as well! She just loves reading, and lately she has pulled a lot of love fishes off InterText. But books and fishes don't tell the whole story. That's why, one day, she will have to go out and see for herself, like her brother."
"I want to go to school too!"
"But not for a few years yet."
Tom silently agrees with that.
Rita isn't one to stand around pouting. She brightens almost immediately. "Wait here, I'll show you something neat!" she says to Tom (as if he knew anywhere to go) and then she is off. She sure can run. He has notice that Ben never gets winded when running at normal human speed, and evidently this is another Visitor thing. Even though they can't teleport, they sure can move fast when they want to. Half a minute later the long-legged girl is back, holding up a small, lightweight device that fits in a hand, and with one side being pretty much entirely a screen. He has seen them, although they are pretty new.
"A palm reader!" declares the proud owner. "I got it only last month! See, you feed the fish here, and use these two wheels to get quickly to the right chapter and page."
Tom smiles: "You know, I can remember the time when feeding the fishes meant something totally different."
"Tee hee. You mean fishes that swim."
"Yes, in the ocean. When people were seasick and threw up from a ship, we said they were feeding the fishes."
"And some people have fishes as pets! In aquarium! They feed the fish too!"
"Yes. Microfish hasn't really caught on until the last ten years or so.1 I can still remember when we got our first fish reader, but then again we are farmers. We are supposed to be a bit primitive."
"Because we work with plants and animals, like almost all people did a few hundred years ago. So city folks think that perhaps we are like people were then."
"But someone has to work with plants for us to have something to eat!"
"Yeah. You know that, but then again you are smart. I know it because I do it, otherwise I might not have thought about it. After all, I could say, why do we need cows when we can buy milk in the supermarket?"
"That would be really unenlightened."
"I think that is exactly the right description." Tom grins.
"I shall have to leave you now" announces mother Starborn. "I am sure you will get along fine though." The teens jump to their feet and after they all follow her down to the rail, where there is protracted hugging and kissing that Tom does not take part in. These people are certainly not shy about showing their feelings. Then again, their feelings are pure and genuine. Could he dare to be so spontaneous? No. He couldn't. Because sooner or later, if he were, he would do something he shouldn't.
1This technology is in our world spelled "microfiche", and had a boom around 1970-1980. It never caught on, as paper has remained cheap and digital technologies eclipsed microfiche and microfilm for quick retrieval.