Keyi Cui

The Neanderthal brain is 1.3 times that of Cro-Magnon man.

And yet, there are commercials like this one: “So easy, a caveman could do it.” Really, Geico? Really? A talking gecko is smarter than him?

He clicks the remote. A beautiful Cro-Magnon woman stares back, her smooth, ridgeless brow concealed under a swath of straight blond bangs. “Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. CoverGirl,” she says, batting long, long lashes, gold mascara tube in hand.

Click.

A heartthrob movie star.

Click.

The star’s sex scandal.

Click.

A smooth detective, suave in a sleek Armani suit. “I think,” he lowers his sunglasses, “the murderer is his wife’s twin brother.” His female partner grumbles, knows he’s right but won’t admit it. “Whatever, James,” she says, clearly annoyed, clearly aroused.

Click.

A couple on a beach. “Will you marry me?” The man is smooth-browed, tall, blond, gorgeous.

Click.

He knows the answer.

The screen is black. The remote control drops softly on the carpet.

He slumps back on a couch half-empty, one cushion pristine, the other crushed under the weight of his short, stocky frame. He weighs 250 pounds. He isn’t fat, just husky. It’s mostly muscle anyway, pushups and cardio.

It’s not his body that’s the problem. It’s his fucked-up face. His bulbous nose, so impossibly large it looks almost prosthetic, like what the actors playing dwarves wore in “The Lord of the Rings.” But that’s an insult to the dwarves — he’s more of a glorified ape. Hair sprouts from his scalp and brows and ears in wires. Coarse. Shit brown.

This is a problem he can fix. Pluck his brows. Trim his ears. Get a haircut. He’s recently discovered the waxless wonders of eyebrow-threading — it’s sharp, it’s fast, it hurts, VOILA! Two eyebrows, parted, smooth. He is well-groomed, handsome even, for a Neanderthal. On some nights, foggy ones, under the haze of sodium lamps, he might get mistaken for an Italian man, if not for the cliff ledge jutting past his eyes.

He tries not to look at the TV screen. He does it anyway. Reality is reflected in the blank black box, his nose hoarding most of the frame, protruding as if through a fisheye lens or a funhouse mirror. Maybe, in an alternate world, his nose would be straight and slim, his eyes free from the shade of an oppressive eyebrow ridge.

Maybe, in an alternate world, the Neanderthal was dead.

***

He teaches anthropology at Pinkerton College, a small liberal arts school in middle-of-nowhere Vermont. His specialty is medieval Europe, but people inevitably ask about the Stone Age, thinking that he, of all people, must know all there is to know about his kind.

“What does mammoth taste like?” (He gets this one a lot.)

“Does your family make wheels?”

“Do you, like, worship Stonehenge?”

He’s learned to shake his head politely, to mention the new course he’s teaching. “Vikings?” they marvel. “Good for you!” The topic shifts to the Black Plague.

At the department meeting, Jonathan Dunbar proposes a new class: “Neanderthals in Pop Culture.” Flintstones. Geico commercials. The Croods. “They’re very smart,” Dunbar says, “Though not quite in the league of Homo sapiens.”

Please. If he wanted, he could squeeze the brains from Dunbar’s Homo sapiens head.

But he doesn’t. That would be murder. That would be a lifetime spent in jail. And people like them thought people like him were violent brutes, so he couldn’t.

Instead, he sits. He looks out the window. A squirrel is humping a tree. He peeks past his face framed in the dingy glass and sees the Cro-Magnon behind him.

She’s female. And pretty. And smirking at him. Embarrassed, he glances away. When he glances back, she rolls huge eyes at Dunbar, as if to say, “Look at this asswipe.”

“I want to avoid using stereotypes, sure, and Neanderthals have been underrepresented. But where are the Neanderthal CEOs?” Dunbar drawls. “When was the last time a Neanderthal was president?”

The female raises a fine-boned hand. “You have a professor right here.” She points, and all the room’s dark eyes pin professor Neanderthal against the window.

“Adjunct professor,” he says. He stares at his shoelaces. Wow. They look so white. His hand hides his face, black tie tightening noose-like around his starched white collar.

“Oh,” Dunbar squints. “You must be an exception.”

“An exception?” The woman’s rage spoke for him. “Neanderthals are artists. Have you seen their cave paintings? They invented glue. They invented fire.”

“We invented planes and cars. Has a Neanderthal ever been to space?”

“No. But a monkey has,” the woman grins. Someone snorts. Dunbar’s face boils bright crimson.

After the meeting, a finger — her finger — taps him on the shoulder. Soft electric pulses flood the hairs on his husky arm.

“What an asshole,” the woman grumbles. Her blue eyes roll like globes in their sockets. “Are you new?” She shakes his hand, squeezes it, smiles. Her voice sounds like harp strings. “I’m Linda.”

***

His name was Ugg, a stereotypical name for a Neanderthal boy. (His parents were accountants — not the most terribly creative of people.) If his last name were Lee, he would be the target of much schoolyard bullying. But it was Flores. The Flores Man. His granddad had been Indonesian.

UGG FLORES in all caps, under his freshman yearbook picture. He had glasses then, and braces, and hadn’t bothered to use a comb, hair heaping wild across his shoulders and tumbling down his pimpled face. He was the school’s only Neanderthal boy, a jumble of squat hulking limbs, lumbering past 6-foot Cro-Magnon jocks and scantily clad Cro-Magnon cheerleaders.

He felt as if the eyes of the world were permanently on him. They usually weren’t. But he felt like they were, as if he were always being watched, as if he were a gorilla at the zoo, a prisoner under surveillance. He learned to keep to himself, to keep quiet, silence rendering him invisible. And if someone saw him, eyebrow ridge and all, his eyes whipped away to the floor. If he didn’t notice them noticing him, it would make things feel much better. Right?

Ugg had friends, a few. He was chosen for sports, whether he tried out or not. His friend group, then, was surprisingly popular, made up mostly of football players, muscled Cro-Magnons who bragged about stats and how far they could go with a girl. He’d listen to their conquests, of Trina Harper’s lopsided boobs, of Kelly-Ann, who was so good in bed, though by now, she had a loose vagina.

“Why don’t you get a girl?” they’d elbow him.

“I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” they’d say. “What about Marg?”

Ugh. Marg. The school’s resident Neanderthal girl. Of course they would pair him up with her. What sane Homo sapiens would want him?

He could see their logic. You’re a caveman! She’s a caveman! Now kiss! It was what society expected, two brutes breeding with their own kind, murky waters mixing, never to rise from the depths of the sea. He couldn’t let society win. He was equal to any Cro-Magnon. Dating Marg would have been the same as admitting defeat.

Besides — he was totally out of her league. By senior year, he’d learned grooming methods, taking after his football friends, working out, taming his wild brown hair. He looked good. Well, as good as he could — that brow ridge was a permanent zit. His eyes, like Marg’s, buried under thick brows, barely visible, sunken in caves.

In college, he had better success with girls. To them, he was a novelty. “I’ve never been with a caveman before,” they’d say, downing shots of hard whiskey, acting as if, instead of a penis, his boxers hid octopus tentacles.

He was handsome, they’d say. Handsome — for a caveman. These words were flattering at first. Maybe his brow ridge looked less prominent than that of lesser Neanderthals; his nose, while large, was finely formed, distinctive, aquiline. He was a good-looking Neanderthal.

But was he a good-looking man?

How did he hold up to those Cro-Magnon hunks, their swagger, their smooth, browless stare?

He tried not to look in the mirror, but his stubborn eyes would wander on their own. It was masochistic, like picking a scab or checking a failed test score, but he did this — does this — obsessively, several times in an hour, a day. Fleshy cheekbones jut out prominently. An acne scar won’t go away. His face has become an unwanted friend, because in the end, who else would be?

***

He takes Linda to the Neanderthal restaurant that opened on Orange Street. It’s her idea. She loves Neanderthal food. Venison. Wild berries. Her favorite.

She asks him about himself. “What was it like, growing up in a Neanderthal family?”

Nothing out of the ordinary. His parents were normal. They lived in the suburbs.

Oh. “No caves?” Linda looks disappointed.

No caves in suburban Vermont.

“Was there a big Neanderthal population there?”

Nothing more than his parents and Marg’s.

“Fascinating,” Linda says. Her capped white teeth tear at raw meat. “The Neanderthal diaspora is so unpredictable.”

On their next date, Linda chooses the place: a limestone cave in the Green Mountains. She leads him through the underbrush, wolverine claws dangling from her ears, taking his hand as they step into the mountain’s shadowy maw. She strikes a match. The flame flashes yellow, brightening the calcified walls, deer and cows and stick figures dancing across the antique stone.

“Do you paint?” she asks, turning to him. Her eyes glow turquoise in the firelight.

No. He doesn’t.

“Do you wanna start?” She hands him a horse-hair brush.

They find a blank wall, and she draws a stick figure, a man with a squiggly spear. He sketches her eyes, big as a Christmas elf’s. He lingers on the curve of her lips.

“I thought you didn’t paint,” Linda teases.

He’d taken some pen and ink classes.

“Wow,” Linda says. “It must be genetic. Your people are such great artists.”

She tells him about her research, how Neanderthals have fascinated her for years, how she feels, in spite of her Cro-Magnon upbringing, that she is Neanderthal, inside. “I love your culture,” she says.

He doesn’t. “What do you like about me?”

She thinks for a moment. Her pixie nose wrinkles. She says, at last, “You are beautiful.”

***

The sex is wild. Fantastic. Linda likes it doggy style — she says it makes her feel primitive, she says that’s what real love should be. When it’s over, Linda on her side of the bed, Ugg’s clumsy weight crushing his, he wonders what their offspring would look like, if they ever planned to have children.

Maybe they would have her giant blue eyes. Linda’s sandy blond hair, her thin frame. Maybe their brows, like Linda’s, would be smooth, their noses petite. Not like his.

Maybe they wouldn’t be able to make any viable children at all.

It’s basic genetics. When horses and donkeys have nothing better to do, no one better to bone, and mate, the mule they produce is sterile. Cro-Magnons, in their superiority complex, class cavemen as a different species, donkeys among the Homo sapiens stallions of mankind.

But Linda’s research says otherwise. Interbreeding has gone on for years: The average Homo sapiens is 4 percent Neanderthal. Shared physical traits have shown it. DNA tests have proven it to be true. So, are they really that different?

“No,” Linda says, kissing him. They are one.

He’s a Cro-Magnon in a Neanderthal’s body. Linda insists that she’s the reverse. They complement each other, like yin and yang. They’re good for each other. They must be.

***

When they leave Pinkerton for the weekend, the office gossip begins.

“You know what I think,” says Jonathan Dunbar. “She should be with a Cro-Magnon man.”

“Oh, let them be,” the registrar says. “It’s only a phase.”

“A phase?” the department head laughs. “They’ve been going out for a year.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty fucked up,” says Jared, who was fucking a student.

***

That weekend, Linda takes him home. Her parents, she said, were dying to meet him. When the car pulls into the cobblestone drive, two white-haired Cro-Magnons rush out, one in a herringbone sweater vest, the other in a floral dress from the ’50s. “Oh! Hello,” the old woman smiles. “You must be our Linda’s new friend.” She steers him into the house, Linda’s Santa-faced father waddling behind them.

They are friendly. Such smiles! Linda’s mother serves pot roast, carrots, mashed potatoes. Forks and knives rattle blue porcelain plates. A bright Tiffany lamp warms the table.

“So,” Linda’s mother turns to him, beaming. “What do you do for a living?”

“I teach anthropology,” he says. “Mostly Viking physiognomy.”

“Vikings!” Linda’s father’s blue eyes crinkle.

“They’re his favorite football team,” Linda’s mother says. She spears a hunk of braised beef on her fork, raises it to her lips, nibbles, mouselike.

It is a good start. His mind is at ease. His roiling stomach, much less so. “Excuse me,” Ugg says, politely. “Where is the restroom, Mrs. Hunter?”

“Down the hall, to the left.” Linda’s mom mops her meat in watery pools of gravy.

“Don’t worry,” Linda’s father calls after him. “You’re not the only one who can’t handle Vicky’s cooking.”

“Albert!” Linda’s mother slaps her husband’s arm. Their laughter follows Ugg to the bathroom.

What nice people, Ugg thinks, squatting over the toilet bowl. So in love. So different from his own mother and father, who, in all their normalcy, gave their company spreadsheets more love and attention. Ugg never saw his parents touch — not that he’d ever want to. Looking at Marg, he couldn’t blame his father. Why kiss a woman with a thicker mustache than yours?

As a child, he thought his father’s neglect stemmed from the well-known fact that his mother — and all girls, everywhere — gave clean little boys the cooties. As a teen, his fear of cooties gave way to the fearful recognition that society was, in all likelihood, what pushed his parents together — two humans unable to do better, and forced to procreate. “Hey, Marg likes you,” his football bro winked. “Why don’t you go get that cave pussy?” Ugg shook his head. He shuddered. He thought of her naked and wanted to punch something.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. That would be a typical thing for a caveman to do. No, he was civilized — he was refined. “Nah bro,” he replied. “She’s a beast. Her chin’s so sharp, that thing could cut through mammoth meat.”

Marg’s mammoth-slicing chin was shaved clean three weeks before prom. She stopped wearing glasses, a small improvement, and started grooming her bloated brow, bringing a pair of tweezers to class and plucking when the teacher wasn’t looking. She squeezed her beefy body into a tight pink dress, and one lunch period, as Cro-Magnon students filed into the crowded hallway, her muscled hand, slathered in hot pink nail polish, grabbed Ugg’s arm and spun him to face her.

“Will you go to prom with me?” Marg’s other hand covered her chin.

Ugg had never been much of a talker, but in that millisecond, all the language faculties of his brain popped out of existence. He had never been approached by a girl, and up until that point, he had never talked to one, with the exception of his mother, who couldn’t understand her son’s obsessive primping in front of the mirror. “Jesus, Ugg,” she’d say in a low grunt. “You have functional eyes. Functional ears. Shouldn’t that be enough?” At 46, her beard had grown pricklier than her husband’s.

Marg wasn’t that bad-looking, to be honest. She just wasn’t his type — a type that had been formed from a lifetime of exposure to Cro-Magnon girls on billboards, swimsuit magazines, movies, CoverGirl commercials. She was pretty — for a Neanderthal girl. Still, he couldn’t. He couldn’t say yes. Not with those Cro-Magnon eyes in the background, his football bros watching. Snickering.

Marg ended up going to prom alone. Ugg didn’t show up at all. Twenty years later, and she’s a receptionist in some orthodontist’s office, married to a Neanderthal fitness trainer in Fort Lauderdale.

Ugg knows this. He’s tried to add her on Facebook.

Friend request denied.

While Marg does whatever she does in Florida (she inexplicably blocked him from viewing her posts), basking in the sun and running from alligators or whatever, Ugg washes his hands in a New England sink, set in marble, the faucets faux-gold. He sprays the bathroom with a blend of air fresheners — pine peppermint, citrus blast — before padding back to the dining room, where Linda’s mother shrieks across the table in whispers.

“This is the fifth caveman you’ve brought home,” she hisses. “Do you want our grandkids to be retarded?”

“They’re not ‘cavemen,’ Mom, that’s a racial slur.”

“Race?” Her mother’s frail fist slams the table. “They’re not even the same species!”

“That’s up for debate,” Linda says.

“This fetish of yours has gone too far.”

“Mom — ”

“Listen to your mother, dear.” Linda’s father spoons out leftover pot roast, dumping chunks of charred meat in the trash can.

“It’s not a fetish,” Linda says. “This one is different.”

“How?”

Ugg waits. He hides by the entrance, and waits.

And waits.

Linda doesn’t answer.

***

It costs $4,500 to get his brow ridge done. That’s three months’ rent. That’s one-fifth of his annual salary, well spent.

He sits in the waiting room, reading a copy of National Geographic. “Mr. Flores?” a young nurse’s aide calls. He follows her down the sterile hallway.

The next few moments of his life are hazy memories. A doctor in scrubs, pale flint-gray eyes goggled, blue latex gloves snapping in place. A gas mask lowering, a feeling of peace. A stark white light hovering above him.

***

Linda didn’t like his new face. Of course she wouldn’t. She liked cavemen. Ugg was still Ugg, but she didn’t care. No more eyebrow ridge? No more Linda.

He shrugs. Women like her will come and go. It’s his unwanted friend that remains: his face, his eyes, his nose, his mouth, all stuck to his head for eternity.

There is work to be done. It isn’t what he expected, this new face of his. He’s not exactly a Neanderthal now, though not entirely Cro-Magnon. He peers at his flattened face. The flattened face stares back. His slightly skewed nose, his broad square cheeks, his ridgeless eyes, now foreign.