a replacement theory
Simon Tarses – a young and impossibly cute medical technician aboard the Enterprise – totally deserved to appear in more than a single fourthseason episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is the target of Starfleet admiral Norah Satie’s investigation when she boards the ship to expose a Romulan spy. Though innocent, Tarses has a Romulan grandfather, and even when Captain Picard gallantly comes to his defense, Satie is convinced he’s lying, repeatedly putting him under bright lights. He sweats, he stammers, he looks like he needs someone to hold his hand on a stroll through the arboretum.
I’d started watching Star Trek again after quitting my job answering phones at an upscale salon two months before Thanksgiving. In lieu of job searching, I watched nearly 100 episodes on Netflix, keenly tuned into secondary characters, looking for gay subtexts, imagining I could grasp their backstories through just a few lines, a swimmer’s figure, or a barely audible lisp. I made lists of the ones I thought were cute and became emotionally invested in the rest. I sobbed when Jadzia Dax died in Worf’s arms, again when Captain Janeway brought her crew home. Time scrunched together.
I was living in an Indiana college town down the road from my boyfriend’s apartment. Patrick was enrolled in a PhD program, and to be with him I’d twice chosen to renew my lease even though I’d finished my MFA and was itching for Chicago. I wanted to expand my photo projects, find new models and locations, but young love, I told myself dramatically, demands sacrifices. Over two years I'd let myself believe we were smoothly moving forward. Never mind his refusal to move in with me, to Skype with my parents in Connecticut, to hold my hand in public. Never mind how annoying it was when he pulled a strand from my man-bun onto my face as he called me “pretty lady.”
This Star Trek binge lasted through October and November, during which time I was working on a series of long-exposure portraits of men in various degrees of nudity. I was fascinated with colors blurring together, with the model’s body blending and emerging from the background, with multiple moments of time compressing
themselves together for the sake of the image.
The Friday before Thanksgiving, Patrick and I met at his apartment for drinks with a group of our friends that hadn’t left town yet. As usual, he’d started drinking without me, and we talked about our plans for the week as I tried to catch up. While my family was too far, his was in Michigan, a manageable five-hour bus ride away. One of his two remaining grandparents had recently passed, and all he could talk about was how different everything would feel. I did my best to commiserate, but mostly I was gripped by the sense of loneliness I was about to endure as the town emptied, and I was left mashing potatoes for only myself.
I stopped him mid-sentence to ask if I could come with him. The only member of his family I’d ever met was his father – briefly, when he came to help Patrick move – and I thought meeting the rest could give me a new perspective, could help me forget the growing number of conversations I’d had with friends in which they wondered why we were still together if he made me as uncomfortable as I’d claimed.
“I thought about asking you,” he said, “but there wouldn’t be anything for you to do while we went to dinner at Grandma’s.” She didn’t know he was gay.
“I could just stay at your house with Duffy, hang out with you the rest of the time.”
He shook his head. “He doesn’t like strangers. He’d bark at you the whole time.”
That night we met up with our friends at the Root Cellar, a basement filled with old furniture, abandoned license plates, and cheap drink specials. It was crowded, bodies crammed together on what passed for a dance floor, 90s club hits played just too loud. I’d learned long before that Patrick wasn’t comfortable dancing with me when we were out with friends, though I could never tell if this was because of a genuine desire to be inclusive or an uneasiness with who else might see. He passed for straight when I didn’t, and often I wondered how much he relied on that ability, how he played up his queerness in academic settings but never stayed near me at the grocery store.
What’s most interesting to me about Simon Tarses is that he was indeed lying, just not about what Satie was convinced he was. The Federation, for whom Satie was investigating, was on the verge of war with the Romulan Empire, and Romulans were expressly prohibited from serving on Federation vessels like the Enterprise. Tarses’ Romulan grandfather made him only three-quarters human and ineligible from serving; his entire career was made possible only by claiming on his application that his grandfather was from Vulcan – a Federation planet whose people are genetically similar to the Romulans. While not guilty of the treasonous crimes of which he was accused, he was facing, early on, the unraveling of his entire career based on things he couldn’t control. I wondered if he’d convinced himself the lies were true, wondered what else he’d risk to preserve himself.
Just after midnight at the Root Cellar, people started talking about moving to another bar, and I couldn’t find Patrick anywhere. I thought perhaps he’d gone to the bathroom and kept dancing with my friends. To one, I confessed that when I was drunk I only wanted to know where he was, to be with him. Later she’d tell me that was the first nice thing I’d said about him in months.
When I’d made it to the next bar and still couldn’t find Patrick, I texted to ask if he was coming. Nope, he wrote, and ignored my follow-up questions. Why? Where are you? Are
you home? Are you okay? I told my friends I was going to look for him. When I got to his apartment, I’d almost given up knocking when he finally answered wearing only boxers, looking more like he’d been pretending to sleep than sleeping. He didn’t want to tell me why he’d left. I asked again, then more generally what he was upset about. This was the trigger: He didn’t like that two of our gay friends were dancing when they didn’t like each other. He didn’t like that I was “pressuring” him to take me home for Thanksgiving. He didn’t like that I was writing about old lovers in my poems. He didn’t like that I was taking photographs of other men.
“How am I supposed to feel?” He screamed. “I don’t know,” I said, and left. The walk back to my house was quick. Because it was drizzling and I was drunk, I didn’t notice I was crying until I got inside and opened Netflix. The first option it listed under ‘continue watching’ was Simon Tarses’ episode The Next Generation. I pressed play. When the episode had finished, I decided I needed to know everything about him.
I exhausted various Star Trek wikis, made a list of books the character appeared in, checked it against the library’s collection, and went on Ebay looking for copies of him on trading cards. One seller listed a collection of hundreds of Star Trek collectible game cards detailed with how many she had of each, and you could buy up to 50 of them at a time. She had 12 copies of Tarses’ card, so just before going to bed I ordered copies of his card – and a few of Satie’s for good measure.
Patrick and I went for a rather long, tense walk the next day, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. “So what’s up?” He said after we’d been walking for a few minutes in silence. I told him I didn’t think I could stay in town a third year, that I felt like he was ashamed of me, that my parents wanted to know why they hadn’t met him yet, that after two years he should trust me to take photographs of men I had no intention of sleeping with. It seemed – finally, bluntly – our ideas about fidelity and our future had never actually been compatible, and I thought about breaking up with him, ripping off the proverbial Band-Aid.
Instead I said, “I think we should take a break until I can find a job.” He agreed and headed for home. I wanted to turn away too, but I couldn’t keep myself from standing still, from watching to see if he’d turn around to look at me. It would be a sign, I thought. He didn’t.
On Monday I went to the library and checked out David Mack’s Star Trek Destiny trilogy, in which one of the wiki pages promised Tarses would feature. It made an intimidating little tower on my nightstand, but I knew I’d have the time over Thanksgiving. On Tuesday the cards I’d ordered arrived much sooner than I’d expected. The information listed below Tarses’ photograph emblematic of just how little he mattered in the Star Trek universe: “Crewman First Class Simon Tarses is representative of Starfleet medical technicians.” His only special skill is “youth.” Out of ten, his cunning and strength are fives, his integrity a six. But what really mattered, his photograph, was perfect: the blue of his uniform
“Over two years I’d let myself believe we were smoothly moving forward.”
bouncing against the blue of the background, his hair shimmering in the light, his brow furrowed with worry. He was adorable. I laid the 12 out on my desk.
The trilogy turned out to focus on humanity’s role in creating the Borg, a genocidal race of cyborgs bent on assimilating every species they encountered. It was a dizzying read, stuffed with four starship crews, diplomats, multiple time periods, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Tarses, trapped conducting autopsies in the medical bay while the rest of the characters got all the action. It was obvious: The books had nothing to do with him. My life, even, had nothing to do with him. He was a distraction from Patrick, nothing more than a man I’d love to take portraits of. I realized then Patrick was only interested in me superficially, as I was for Simon. He didn’t see that I’d loved him for more, he had never wanted what I considered a real relationship.
Patrick returned from Michigan on Saturday, and I asked him to go for another walk on Sunday afternoon. I broke the déjà vu of initial silence with what I’d practiced saying on my way to his apartment.
His “okay” was followed by more silence. When he asked why, all I said was how I didn’t think it was fair of me to keep him waiting. I knew he was expecting more, but I couldn’t give it to him. How could I say everything I wanted when we lived in such a small town, when we shared so many mutual friends and would have to make things work in public
“I’m gonna go home then,” he said, and asked me for a hug. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d been that affectionate in public.
I continued walking for over an hour, and there was a Facebook message waiting for me when I got home. Can we at least still be friends? He’d written. I know it sounds stupid, but I’d really rather not never see you again. I cried, suddenly ashamed even I knew I’d done what was best. Of course, I wrote.
I looked at the pile of Simon Tarses cards on my desk and felt an overwhelming urge to throw them out. I shoved all but one in my junk drawer. I held the last in my hands.
“I wondered if he’d convinced himself the lies were true, wondered what else he’d risk to preserve himself.”