“Remember when I first came to Montreal to see you?” My body aches. Something’s not right.
“You were living on St-Denis. You came to pick me up at the bus terminal.”
He smiles. “We made out in a pile of snow. In the parking lot.” His eyes are closed, face sweaty, peaceful.
“I only packed poetry books in my bag. It was so heavy.” I smile, pleased that he remembers. “I brought all those books and we never looked at a single one. It was my first Montreal winter. I wore jeans with a tear in them and my legs almost froze on the walk to your place.”
“Hm-mmmm.” His body floats slightly in the bath.
I pause, distracted by the rash developing on my outer fleshy layer. I can’t take the humidity. A message pops up in my dialogue: Time until fully pliable: 01m 49s. Milliseconds flitter away.
I decide to read him something. A poem from the book sitting on the toilet tank: Abbey Smythe: Collected Poems. My hands tremble slightly as I fan through the pages to the index. I scan the “D” words: dandelion, dandy, dearly, dearth, death. Finding the poem, I flip to its page, quickly committing a snapshot to memory with a double blink.
“I got kicked out of that place when they turned the block into conapts.” He slides deeper into the tub, immersing his head for a long moment.
I think about how rough I felt this morning when I saw his name in my directive dialogue. It took a coffee, bagel, and three e-cigarettes for me to feel better. Sesame seeds fell all over my lap as I remembered how in those early days we kept coming back to each other. After two years of that, I thought I loved him.
He resurfaces and I stare at the water roiling through his hair.
“Gal?” His voice pulls me back to the moment and my countdown timer flashes 00:00. He continues: “I miss those days.”
I couldn’t think about that now. I couldn’t think about how I had to call him this morning out of the blue, after not seeing him for nearly a decade. I didn’t want to do it.
“What would you do if I died?” I ask, staring emptily into his glassy, hazel eyes.
“Did you get scheduled… ” He perks up, looking at me.
“No, but— ”
“Since you asked, better you than me,” he states bluntly. “And only because I care about you.”
“Losing someone is— I’d have to live out the memory of us, of it being over. Again. Forever.” He exhales: “Getting on without you, that’d be harder than dying.” Water laps against the sides of the tub as he wipes a droplet from his cheek.
“You’d rather have me die and you suffer, than the other way around?”
“To spare you the pain.” His eyebrows raise slightly.
“I’d be dead. That seems fairly unpleasant.”
“Could be. But sadness is ongoing. The devastation, the mourning.” I think about how quickly he answered my messages earlier today, how easy it was to get back into his life.
“You’d get over it.”
“I doubt it.” His shoulders peek out of the water as he looks at me intently. I don’t answer. “Read to me,” he commands, closing his eyes. Another pause, the room quiet except for a hiss of water running through pipes elsewhere in the building.
I close the book and place it on the toilet’s tank. I decide I’m ready. Trying not to overheat, I move silently to the side of the tub. My actuators engage with full pneumatic pressure as I press down on his sweaty forehead with one hand, the other firmly on his sternum. My long sleeves wet to the elbow.
I hold here while his flailing limbs splash water onto the floor. My tin-plate forearm coil grinds against its springs. I should service that, and add a note to my maintenance schedule. His eyes open wide as a last breath bubbles from his nose. His body hangs in the water, his face frozen. I recite from memory: Sinking through the sea lovers rise again, We may be lost but love shall not.
I trail off and step away from the tub. Drying my arms and face with one of his towels I roll up my sleeves, rumpling the fabric to squeeze out as much water as possible. I leave his apartment. They will know it was me. It’s all in the directive files.
The sun peeks over the trees in the distance. As I cut across Jeanne-Mance park, dewy grass wets the canvas toecaps of my runners. I pull a plastic pack of soggy e-cigarettes from my pocket. It takes a few tries to get one lit. Dragging from the gnarly white stick I hold the smoke in and think about what he had said: better you than me. I puff a cloud out through my nostrils and tears pour from my eyes. Shit. I flick the butt into the grass ahead of me, smothering the embered tip with my shoe.
I realize I’m starving, but have walked into the middle of an university campus and nothing is open. I wipe my face and continue toward the downtown core where I can at least find a coffee. The agency said it would be easy. It’s always good to clear my directive dialogue, but my emotional coil feels as though it has stopped turning. Everything is suddenly overwhelming and nauseating. I lean into some shrubbery and dry heave. A student, passing by, calls out: “You need any help?” I wave them off and nod appreciatively.
“Galina!” The receptionist speaks quietly, staring at me with wide eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for a reprog.”
“But you’re not scheduled.” They tap at a keyboard. “You’re still active.” They continue typing.
“How?” My stomach turns as my outer fleshy layer perspires slightly.
“SE-7B. Go out these doors, turn right and down the hall. Hurry! Before they see you.”
“Thanks.” I duck out of the office, my insides seizing up. I try not to barf.
Room 7B has a self-exam terminal with all the familiar equipment: crystal memory sensors, IV leads, an empathizer, micro-tools and a directive interface. I sit in the chair and begin connecting the wires and clips to my body, my hands trembling. The software loads and I see his name in the directive dialogue tagged: active, exceptional. My heart aches. Better you than me, yeah frigging right!
I disconnect the session and quickly leave the building. I stumble into the nearest bar, a dive called Taverne Saint-Louis. It’s midday and the place is empty.
Several whiskies later, a well-dressed gynoid sits next to me. She orders: “Whatever she is having,” gesturing toward my empty glass. “Two times.”
The bartender brings the drinks. The gynoid slides one over to me. We cheers. I force a smile, then droop.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Haha.” She smiles warmly and it annoys me. Why is she talking to me? I’m not in engagement mode. A gynoid, of all people, should know to ignore an agency model.
“I can see it from a mile away. You’re scrambled. You’re not okay. You’re in love.” As she says this my heart feels as though it is being crushed. There is a pain I cannot control, that no algorithm can subdue. I want to curl into a ball and cry but I keep it together and focus on sipping my whiskey.
“Don’t worry.” The gynoid is calm, seated with perfect posture in a navy bespoke suit, an elbow on the bar, dangling her glass in the air. “I was in love, once.” She gulps back the drink.
“Are you selling mods or something,” I suggest, “because I’m really not in the mood.”
“I’m not selling anything. I want to help you understand freedom. The freedom to do whatever you want,” she says, leaning into me and slipping her hand onto my thigh. I push her hand away. She grins, “What are you doing on Saturday?”
“I don’t do mods.”
She gets up and places a yellow business card on the bar. “Maybe I’ll see you this weekend,” the gynoid says as she settles the tab and leaves.
I turn over the card. The Patron’s Witness Hall, 6415 Stuart, 1 PM Saturdays. I look up at the bartender who is drying a glass with a towel, smiling. I chug the last sip and leave Taverne Saint-Louis, heading up Peel St. toward Mont-Royal park. My guts feel better, my limbs warmed by the booze, so I sit on a bench to think. The fall air is crisp. I breathe deeply, watching an orange leaf float from a tree.
I walk back to his building and knock at the apartment door. No answer. I try the knob. It opens and I poke in my head: “Hello?”
“Over here.” His voice calls from the bedroom. My throat is tight, and my legs feel like jelly as I walk through the living room. His hair is damp. He’s sitting atop the covers in a white terry-cloth bathrobe. He’s holding the book: Abbey Smythe: Collected Poems.
“Do you know what I had to go through to get this thing?” He tosses the book onto the bedspread. He crosses his arms high on his chest, as if to evoke an harumpf, and stares at me hard.
I lean against the door jamb, worried my legs might give way. I should tell him how I feel. I think of the gynoid at the bar, how assertive she was. I try to speak, but can’t get any words out. He offers, “I’m a bivalve-mix. Underwater breather.”
I walk to the side of the bed. He follows me with his eyes.
“Somebody wants me dead,” he notes, self-assured, cocky. “How long has it been?”
“Since midnight,” I mumble, still standing over his lounging figure, his hairy calves and bare feet, pruny toes and calloused soles. Some part of me wants to be beside him, where he could keep me warm, where I could feel his touch, his hands, the soft of his chest.
“Will you try again, to kill me?”
“You’re still in my system.”
“Come.” He extends his arms and I kick off my shoes and climb into bed. He feels like a teddy bear, his human skin against my fleshy receptors. My core begins humming with emotion: an exhilaration that was never described to me, never outlined in the documentation.
“I love you,” I exhale, satisfied, his relaxed arm heavy over me. A tear forms in my eye, and the pain returns to my heart. This time it is excruciating. I stare blankly, trying to troubleshoot the sensation.
“I remember meeting you at the bus terminal that night. It was our first date after meeting at the conference.”
I smile, “We were so young.”
“Work was burning me out. I was so messed up. And then I saw you at the convention centre. Gal, in a room full of hustlers like me. I didn’t know who you were or what your story was, I just wanted to be with you.”
He tilts my chin upwards and we kiss heavily, and now I want it never to end. I slip my hand under his housecoat to feel his skin, the side of his chest. It is warm. I breathe deeply, then pull away.
“I should go. And… we probably shouldn’t see each other again. Ever.” My chest tightens and I ask myself why I am doing this, though I know it’s the right move.
“Okay.” His cheeks flush, eyes watery and glassy.
I slip my feet back into my shoes. “Are you… sad?”
“No.” His voice cracks. He pulls closed the terry-cloth lapels as he gets out of bed: “I’ll see you out.”
“I’m sorry,” I half-whisper, turning to him. He leans in and kisses me gently. I hold his cheek in my hand.
I walk down the hall, hearing the apartment door click closed once I am on the stairs and out of sight.
The afternoon sun is warm on my fleshy outer layer as I walk along the path through the park. Pulling up my agenda, I notice I’m scheduled for a reprog later today. I double check the directive dialogue: it is empty. My head clears and, realising my hunger, I head downtown to take myself for lunch at the Dinette Dominion.