They kissed in the closet; they kissed in the back of the van. They kissed on an inclined plane; they kissed on a rotary turnstile. They kissed in the bleachers. They kissed on the demo lot. Their mouths a mess of rubber and tape. Their gears meshed and missed. They dripped oil. They kissed without knowing how to kiss. It wasn’t in the blueprints. They kissed and ran down their battery packs. They kissed in the driveway on Sri Lankan Independence Day. And then he said, Lyle said, I want to introduce you to someone, and she said, Keerthana said, spitting out a bit of curry leaf, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
No, it’s not like that. She’s awesome.
Then how did I know she was a she.
Because, he said, coming up close, so they were parka-on-parka, breathing his stale smoke at her acne, as close as he knew how to be without robotic assistance, because you’re my Sinhala queen, my ten-terabyte wet dream –
Shut up, you spectrumy son of a bitch. I wrote that for you.
His car, his mom’s car, mostly rusted-out now, the Taurus wagon with the handmade bumper sticker: robots cured my autism.
No, he said, seriously. Her name’s Rachel. Don’t say what you’re about to say. She’s not a Normal. She’s hard core.
what is this, teen soda wednesdays?
She was speaking in her mother’s voice again, with the head-waggle, the chin mounted on ball bearings. He didn’t know how else to describe it. The pelvic dance it made him do, thrusting the knob under his pants waistband. She flipped her controller open – it was an old flip-phone she’d customized, worth an A+ in Dr Zaganov’s Reductive Design AP – and her new robot whined out of the open garage, circled around, and bit him in the leg with its rubber grips. It hurt. He was hard, he hurt. Welcome to high school, he thought.
So much as touch her breast, Keerthana said, backing up toward the house, letting the robot do the work, as always, butting his leg, so much as put your hands under her shirt, for any reason –
Keerthana, describing things they hadn’t done themselves –
You mean her real breasts? he had to ask. You mean her real shirt?
I’m getting a new drone for my birthday, she said. You don’t want to know what it can do. Go home, go home.
And after we break up, she texted him later that night, you don’t get to say it was all your idea. It wasn’t.
It wasn’t. He would never have said otherwise. He texted back, I would never have said otherwise. I’ll put it in writing. You, Keerthana Obeysekere, and I, Lyle Chancellor, together invented RealRobotSexLive. No one’s pulling a Zuckerberg here.
Because how could it have been otherwise?
Sophomore year: after they’d built those terrible first designs, hucked them, looped back. Somehow they wound up always being last in the design lab, a retired AP Chem classroom, retired after Jonas Mikkelsen self-immolated with a few lengths of rubber hose, some duct tape, a lighter and a gas line left open. No Bunsens would burn there again. They made stupid jokes from the safety of their marble acid-scarred countertops.
Keerthana was the first one to build a unit that moved on tracks. Nothing to blow your wad over, but it had reverse clamps that when placed at a certain angle created, unintentionally, the impression of an opening. She’d put a heavy burgundy tubing over the clamp arms, because it was all they had, and it looked, you had to admit it, vulvar in nature. And so she said, joking, check it out, Lyle, I made a robot pussy.
Dr and Dr Obeysekere were not in the least fond of their daughter’s potty mouth, not understanding it as what it was, a form of STEM survival. I fucking dare you, she said once to Kevin Lauermeister, who made it a practice to interrupt her every time she spoke in AP Chem: The next time you jerk off to my yearbook picture, she said, think of my cunt full of razor blades, think of the bloody hole where your tiny dick used to be. Cave vaginum dentatum, motherfucker. In front of his friends, at lunch, she said that.
Lyle, on the other hand, who had been through years of occupational therapy – strictly for the purpose, he sometimes thought, of being able to respond if a girl ever talked to him in tenth grade, his best chance of contributing to the gene pool – was like, that is extremely cool, Keerthana.
At that point he didn’t quite have her name right.
Now I have to build a dick to stick in it.
That was basically it. That, plus a YouTube page with ten thousand subscribers. Plus a basement studio, in her house – let’s face it, Lyle said, when they were installing the second set of professional lights, it’s a porn set – and hundreds of willing participants, from every robotics prog in north Jersey, at least, Westchester, Lawn Guyland. The Live part came later, when they realized, quite abruptly, that they could film at competitions. After competitions, after the awards were handed out, when no one was paying attention. What else were smartphones for? Their subscribers wanted realism, they wanted amateur action, unnatural angles, newbies.
no human being has ever appeared in a realrobotsex video, said the disclaimer at the beginning of every one. all robots are over the age of 18.
This is what we did in high school, Lyle observed once, that can go on no transcript. Like being in a death-metal band. It’s our quotient of irrational exuberance.
And that’s when she put her arms around him the first time. It was two in the morning. They’d gotten their PSATs that afternoon, and Dr and Dr Obeysekere, in a mood of irrational exuberance, had had a glass of Chablis each and gone to sleep at nine thirty. She put her tongue in his mouth, and then pulled it back, and said, it’s weird, isn’t it, when you don’t have to think about the refractive angle.
And he said, I know I could develop a mechanism for the bra catch.
Don’t be a douche, she said, unbuckling his belt. Save it for your sweaty dorm cubicle at MIT, you ex-retard. After I’m long gone.
That was how he knew it was real. This is real, he said out loud. This is really happening. Not happening to robots.
Why do you have to talk and ruin everything, she wanted to scream, but instead licked the sweaty crease between his thigh and scrotum, which smelled like a sock and tasted like a penny. That was it. That, it turned out, was enough. You know, she said, a week and three bottles of Woolite later, I really liked that sweater. He grinned and said, my settings need to be adjusted. She said, we’ll have to work on that.
This is teen love last Wednesday: Dr Obeysekere driving them through downtown Newark, in their white minivan, the Space Shuttle, with tinted windows and curb feelers she bought by accident, because it was the cheapest one on the lot, and now the kids try to ignore the corner-standers and 5-0 staring as they go by. Suburban Minivans from the Hood to Outer Space. This is Keerthana and Lyle sitting in the back with a parka strategically over their laps and Paul and Vanessa running interference in front of them. Half phones, half IRL. The blizzard of texts in advance of their arrival at the Robotics state semifinal.
heard Jeffersonville-4 is running 3 rotors #fucked
never mind wheres the afterparty yo
@robocall quit acting all gangsta your from Tenafly
@breadandcircuses teaneck losers cant afford invisalign
Keerthana bringing her bae #whataloser
This is Rachel sitting in the bleachers, with her needles, with her hand-spun yarn, her copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, judging not judging them.
Go wash your hands, Cindy Xu whispers in Keerthana’s ear. I don’t want your boyfriend’s jizz all over my equipment. But K isn’t remotely listening. Staring up at her. The fawn corduroy skirt and the red Mary Janes. The thrift-shop cardigan and the grandma pearls. She wants to eat her alive.
Is that her? she asks Lyle. He gives a quick guilty look and says, yes it is. I want you to meet her. But there’s no need, because Rachel trips down the stairs with her hand extended, sort of swanlike, as if auditioning for The Age of Innocence. It’s so great to meet you, she says, as if she really means it. Lyle and I just started talking one day when we were stuck doing this boring thing in Chem, and I had no idea about any of this stuff, and it’s fascinating. It’s so illicit and post-human.
If she was anyone else, she’d want to fucking pulverize her, but instead she wants Rachel to give her a hug. Not to hug but to be hugged. She loves how slippery theater kids are, the exotic blooms of the literary magazine staff, rare orchids and corpse flowers, but this is more specific, she wants to feel that body against her, she senses Rachel is wearing some kind of vintage underwire if not an outright bustier. The metal of an adolescent who doesn’t traffic in metal. She takes her hand, and says, yeah, Lyle mentioned you’d be coming.
I like that choker. It’s very Heathers.
Well, brightening, she says, like the movie says, I can’t really accessorize for shit.
Exactly. I can tell. You’ve got that thing.
When you walk into a room and everyone knows who you are.
What is this flush, this prickling, the way all her pores seem to be standing at attention? Usually she hates girls. Chronically disappointed in female friendship. Ever since Michelle Dorfman slipped her a note in seventh grade: You really need to think about hair removal products.
I have to go, she says. SriSri needs me.
It’s not as if, as if, she ever wanted to be some kind of celebrity. She tells herself that, out in the parking lot, connecting SriSri’s battery pack and maneuvering it out of the van and down the skids. The thing she likes about those extra .23 ounces of lithium is the crispness of the handling, the way it rolls its radius. It’s still a glorified erector set. Those are the rules. Not a hipster. But among her people: a cool nerd. A Nipster. That’s a real thing. There’s a Tumblr. It means, you don’t wear the lime-green competition T-shirt with all the little sponsor logos on the back. A little angle in her bob and the shaved bit at the back, the black studs at the top of the ear. She knows how the little boys stare. And they’re all little boys. Even the advisors. Especially the advisors.
Come on, Lyle hollers. He’s stepped outside for a quick vape. You’re going to miss pre-meet.
Like I give a damn about pre-meet.
Stop avoiding her.
How is she supposed to preserve her cool and still admit the truth, that it’s exactly the opposite? A girl like that just makes me want to quit the rodeo. So she says, you didn’t tell me she was hot, Lyle. You left out that crucial FYI.
Those things are all so subjective.
No, she says, they’re really not. But it’s okay, Lyle. I’m good with it. I’m not jealous. I’m inspired.
What the L does that mean?
I’ll let you know when I find out.
The action all happens afterward: Rachel knows that. She stands where Lyle positioned her. After the awards are distributed, the sweaty palms wiped, tears shed, parents dispersed, sent on errands, dispatched to other pickups. The gym floor is almost empty, the remaining contestants just fooling around. Keerthana has her eye on this sleek little number from Summit. Fresh gears. Driver a twerpy tween, his cheeks glossy with proto-acne, in a Princess Mononoke T-shirt. She guides SriSri around its rear couplings and rubs a tentative probe up against its release arm. Mononoke stands alert, not ten feet down the bleachers, but pretending not to be. Alone. A hot target. His unit does a little double-roll, a little booty shake. Ooh, that’s good, Lyle says, next to her. She ignores him. Bring it closer, he says, taking out his phone. You know my zoom’s broken.
Then use mine.
You are so bad about clouding stuff.
Hold tight, she says, little Patel, this one is ribbed for pleasure. She thumbs the guide wheel into ADV setting, and whistles Eine Kleine Nachtmusik between her teeth.
Can I watch you? Rachel asks.
Just don’t make it look like watching.
Rachel turns around and watches on her phone screen. Taking the world’s longest selfie.
Bingo, Keerthana says. The fix is in. Watch that probe. SriSri tilts the unit over and gives it a solid thrust so hard its central screws creak and a set of Stage One lights comes loose and flaps around like a white flag.
It’s like animals, Rachel says. Only not like animals.
It’s really not like anything else, she says, turning inexplicably red-faced. It’s its own thing. We don’t use analogies, to, like, try to justify it. See what I mean?
I see exactly what you mean.
I don’t think you do, she says. I mean, just don’t assume you do. You’re not machine-identified.
Oh shit. Is that a thing?
You’re not writing this down, are you?
Do I look like I’m writing it down?
Mentally you do.
I’m just curious.
No such thing, Keerthana says. We don’t allow it.
But she lets her keep watching anyway. Because Lyle wants it. And that makes it kind of hot. Like desire itself is looking over her shoulder, not yet quite sure what it wants. Just that it wants. There’s no arguing with it.
These competitions, Lyle tells Rachel, later at Chan’s, they’re just so infantile, it’s such lowest-common-denominator stuff. Make the robot drop the ring in the basket. Make the robot climb a ramp. I mean, yes, from an engineering point of view, it’s not that it’s not complicated. But what the fuck, man? Lots of things in this world are complicated and not worth doing. He gurgles Diet Pepsi through a straw. That’s where it came from, he says, that’s how it all began. Boredom and misdirected lust, the alchemy of so many great inventions. There’s the events, the competitions, the scores, the trophies. And then afterward –
Rumor has it that the first RealRobotSexLive ever was at Massapequa High back in ’08, ’09, another generation back, an eon in adolescent time, when some girl, @IamKwon, strictly small potatoes, a Regional Silver, took a selfie with her Rover, an awkward spread-eagle with the grip in a sensitive place, pale flesh and razor rash and all, and some genius thought it would be better for all concerned to take the girl out of the picture altogether. Considering the major felony implications and all. In the beginning they played with latex and modeling clay and inflatable dolls ordered online, and that was funny, it YouTubed in the mid-fives, but then, nextGen, someone thought, robot sex isn’t human sex, let’s see metal-on-metal action! And that’s when things really took off.
RealRobotSexLive: blocked in every school in the Tri-State, denounced at PTOs, featured on Wired. I mean, wrote the reporter, strictly you could say it doesn’t look like sex. Which raises the question: if these teenagers are turned on by this, what do they think sex is, anyway?
Keerthana hangs back, picks the chilis out of her General Tso’s. Watching Lyle as he holds forth. A bit of scallion clings to his bottom lip and Rachel reaches out with the napkin. It’s good for him; he needs this. She should take a discreet shot and text it to Karen. They have a good but fucked-up relationship, she and Lyle’s mom: especially since the divorce. Karen has never been shy in saying Keerthana is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. She uses words like lifeline and survival mechanism and eroto-therapeutic. She’s offered to buy Keerthana a car and send them to a couples resort in Cancun. Dr and Dr Obeysekere hate her almost as much as they love Lyle. But they do love him. He’s just eccentric enough to be a great disrupter, her dad actually said, in front of her, barely looking up from his iPad sudoku, but he has the social skills to go out and capitalize. He could be the Black Swan of high-school boyfriends.
And none of them, none of these dear parents, otherwise wise to the ways of the teenage world, have any idea about RRSL, about the domains and the PayPal transfers and the money Keerthana and Lyle have stashed in Bitcoin and aliased bank accounts; about the sub-Reddits devoted to them; the invitations to Adult Video conventions and Comic-Con panels; the RRSL tattoos some guy does in Idaho, which Lyle wants to lawyer up and C&D.
I want you to come over to my place and listen to some records, Rachel says. And then they do. It happens just this way. Night is falling over Essex County and the house crouches back from the street, behind bushes that remind Keerthana of boulders. No one else seems to be home. They shuck their shoes at the door, and descend through an actual sunken living room with a white carpet. Where are your parents, Keerthana wants to know.
After a while, Lyle says, when they’re comfortably ensconsed, all three of them, draped across the futon with strategic parts touching, after a while I started to realize that Mom couldn’t really let go of my diagnosis, and who can blame her? She stopped working, stopped lawyering for ten years to take care of me. Endless credit. But when it turned out, I mean when I turned out, when I turned the corner, got mainstreamed – there wasn’t much left for her to do. Other than my laundry. So that was splitsville for them. She has purpose now, though. You wouldn’t believe what it takes to succeed in the blow-drying business.
I’m telling you, Rachel says, these towns are nothing but petri dishes, and we’re nothing but flowers of exotic mold. Endlessly customized achievement modules. We’re the event horizon of commodified childhood.
True, Keerthana says. True, to a point. Though remember you’re talking to people who make money selling robot porn. We’re not exactly making the Maplewood High home page.
That’s my point, she says, lighting another clove cigarette and propping her feet up on a Hegel-shaped pillow. You’ve done technology. I’m asking you to think about what lies beyond technology, like, what lies outside the grasp of a lab-based solution. And believe me I’m not talking about art. Art is for babies.
After a few moments, Lyle’s thinking, an interpersonal silence takes on the quality of negative space, shaped by the non-moving parts of the interlocutors. He can taste the cloves.
He texts Keerthana, is she trying to get us to sell drugs or what?
Or what is the part I’m worried about?
I’m talking about radical sufficiency, Rachel says, the idea that the world is enough just as it is, that we don’t need anything extra. We don’t need to compete. We don’t need to have a platform anymore. Or a brand. We’ve proven we can do that.
We’ve proven we can do that, Keerthana says. Just to be clear.
Well – she gestures at what must be a desk, under piles of cloth-bound books and LPs, at a silver sliver of a laptop perched precariously atop Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. If I weren’t so relaxed I would get up and show you.
Show us what?
Ingénue, she says lightly, squinting with her eyes closed, as if imagining a sunny day in a dream. Ingenue.com. That was me. Was me, mind you –
Son of a bitch, Lyle says. You’re so kidding.
So not kidding.
But no one ever found out who –
I was good at covering my tracks.
Sold in the low seven figures, Keerthana reads off her phone.
People loved it, Rachel says, still with the eyes closed. Something about the voice. I never wondered why. Just took the endorsements and kept switching VPNs. It was hard staying one step ahead of the bots and the Moldovans and the 4chan geeks trying to doxx me every other day. Finally it was either staff up or get out.
Tell me about it, Lyle says.
My point is: what’s next? Rachel says.
For the entrepreneur who’s done it all by seventeen.
You should do a TED talk.
You can get the fuck out, Rachel says, so help me. Say those initials again. I dare you.
Keerthana gets up and changes the record to Hatful of Hollow.
I’ll tell you a secret, Rachel says. Are you ready for this? I’m an emancipated minor. My parents don’t live with me most of the year. They live in Pasadena. I have them on salary. They show up for parent-teacher conferences, a few events here and there. The general understanding is that they travel a lot for work. The house is still in their name for tax reasons. But it’s just me. Basically, financially, I peaked way early. You guys know what I mean. But I’m starting to think about my well-being over the long term, and I’m getting concerned.
I can’t imagine why.
I want to get them to come back, she says. I’ve got six months left of high school. I want to, like, have meals together. I want them to give me a curfew. I’ll stop using Uber and buy one of those sweet little starter cars. I want them to teach me some important life lessons. I want to go to prom. This is what I’m talking about. Radical sufficiency. I want to go totally normcore and see what it feels like. De-accelerate. I’m going to tell people I’m taking a gap year and considering my options.
Instead of what? Keerthana wants to know.
Instead of going to Stanford. She blows a cloud of smoke at the ceiling. They have this super-secret program for teen CEOs. I was admitted two years ago. Prepaid. Their lawyers wanted some kind of IP agreement but we nipped that nonsense in the bud. The understanding is that I’ll, like, buy them a new climbing wall or endow a stem-cell line. But I’m on the verge of ditching the whole thing. Look at us. All we’ve done in life is chase things. All we are is a trajectory. I want to, like, sit in a field and do nothing for a year. While I still have my healthy self. And this amazing skin. I will never look better than this naked. I want to enjoy my body. I might even have a baby. I mean, why the hell not? I’m so elastic and fertile. And so are you, she says, looking directly at Keerthana. You’re the only people I can admit this to.
Because we’ve been there, Lyle says.
You are there. I think this should be, like, a movement. A secret movement. A watchword. No hashtags, no URLs. No coverage. No PR. Just human beings and their human bodies. All face-to-face, skin-to-skin. When the apocalpyse comes this is all we’ll have left anyway. We need to relearn what it means to be here.
Here, Lyle says, as if he’s weighing the word for its specific gravity.
I know. It’s a weird concept.
It must have really been something, Lyle says, what high school was like before the internet. He’s driving K to school with one arm out the window, surfing the air with his left arm. When you didn’t know what everyone else was thinking all the time. I don’t really understand it. I guess there was the radio. And, like, three TV channels. It was sort of like North Korea with commercials. Also, if you wanted to make money you had to leave the house.
K puts a hand on his thigh.
Careful, he says, that circuitry makes it hard to drive.
I’m thinking maybe she’s right, and we should drop it. Just drop out. No more robotics. For our own good.
Once the semester’s over.
No, I mean right now.
My GPA can’t absorb that, he says, feeling a pinprick of panic.
I mean, fuck it, maybe we don’t need to go.
We’re not quite in her tax bracket, Keer.
The thing is, she says, I think we can make money when we need to. I’m actually not worried about it. The thing is, I have a spectacular ass. I don’t want to miss it when it’s gone. I’ve never had a rim job from a human being.
Don’t say things like that, he says, making a weird face, a baffled grimace. Don’t quote her. It’s gross.
I’m trying to be gross, she says. Admit it, Lyle, We could take this whole thing public, we could make sex robots. Real sex robots, not those lame fleshlight things they sell on Pornhub.
We swore we would never, ever, ever.
We swore a lot of things. I’m just wondering: do we ever really need to cross into the legit world? I mean, look at Rachel.
Your very own manic pixie dream girl.
She is not.
She’s straight out of central casting.
That’s an insult, Keerthana says, a misogynist insult, but that’s okay, I’m just going to have to put it aside, because it’s not really what we’re talking about. Or maybe it is. I’m talking about the next level of fulfillment, of self-actualization, and maybe you don’t want to go there with me. Because you’re too stuck. I mean, look at me. Look at the struggles. Et cetera. The shit I have to be reminded of. What do you have to be reminded of? The samsaric world could actually turn out to be awesome for you. You can always go straight and douchey. I don’t have that option.
So that’s what this is all about, he says, you really think you’ve found your guru, don’t you? You’ve had a spiritual awakening.
Don’t put imaginary air quotes around it.
Because if you want to know something about ordinary life, he says, about actual sufficiency, meaning that which is sufficient for survival, assuming there is any such thing in an American context, that anything can ever be enough, you should understand that it involves jobs, and money, and working really fucking hard, like your parents do, and taking every competitive edge you can get, and silently resenting anyone who has a competitive edge you don’t, even if it’s not PC to say so, even if you understand your feelings of powerlessness and unfulfillment are a market-driven fantasy, and what you’re calling radical sufficiency is just a way rich people swap one fantasy for another, whether it’s mindfulness or living your best life or –
Shut the fuck up. You’re the one who introduced me to her.
I thought she was interesting, he says. And hot. I didn’t think she was Pema fucking Chödrön.
You just wanted a three-way.
I wanted a new friend. I like making friends. It’s new to me. And you, you just want someone who gets you, who isn’t so much work.
And you just want to, like, be so superior all the time, because you have a photographic memory and read in four languages, when you’re just, like, dripping, lactating white privilege all over yourself.
Even for you that’s a bizarre image, Keerthana. Think about it for a second.
I’m done thinking, she says. I’m just going to say and do whatever the fuck I feel like doing.
Finally, he says, finally! Keerthana Obeysekere, teenage rebel. My work here is done.
In study hall, third period, in her usual library carrel – earbuds in, rocking someone’s YouTube playlist simply titled ‘Loud’, which plays Mahler symphonies slowed down to 5/6 bpm, crunk-style – she idly clicks on a folder marked ‘Extinct’, and without quite knowing why, opens a six-slide PowerPoint she started last April, ‘Robot Sex: A Prosthetic Manifesto’.
Promiscuity is necessary but also boring + gross. (And of course potentially dangerous.)
Marshall McLuhan=media as extensions of man, but extensions of man=erogenous zones, explanation for online porn, but younger generation doesn’t believe in screen-genital exchange, i.e. sweaty pathetic obese guy jerking off to Reddit fapfest into Kleenex
Robot/genital barrier is like blood/brain barrier
Do people actually orgasm watching machines (I do. Not ashamed) Do boys. Are robots foreplay but not orgasm. Is orgasm necessary. Anatomical compromises.
Robots invested with agency, feelings, ambiguous gestures
Does feeling end when session ends/emotional dynamics of ‘switching off’
? How can I get smone to pay me to research this
You’re working too hard, Rachel says next to her.
You didn’t actually just say that.
I just wanted to know how it felt to say it.
As if there was any such thing.
But there is, Rachel says. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.
You don’t understand how it feels, she says. You don’t know how badly I’ve needed someone to tell me that. You’re perfect. You probably don’t exist. No one is ever going to tell you that you come off as too white on your college applications and make you feel like shit because you hate field hockey. Another fucking Indian girl with straight APs, robotics, lab internships and oboe.
You’re Sri Lankan, Rachel says, to begin with, and you need to understand the ends part of this ends versus means equation.
I have no idea what that means.
Put your hand up my skirt is what it means.
See, this is everything I’m arguing against.
Your resistance isn’t the problem. You’re just resisting the wrong things. The truly achieved person is a virtuoso of all things, even normalcy. Especially normalcy. We have to reverse-engineer our genius so that we can appreciate the simple things, like me going down on you in the supply closet.
And she thinks, in her heart of hearts, I don’t want an achieved person, I want an achieved robot.
Which supply closet?
Lyle’s going to be upset.
Lyle is free to come strolling in any time he likes.
He has gym, actually. Couldn’t figure out a way to get out of it.
No, you see, he should have gym. He needs gym. He needs to remember he has a body.
And nobody is going to know about any of this, Keerthana says. No phones, right? No platforms. This is all analog. Not in English or any other language. Not on WeChat. Not on the darknet. I feel like
I have to get you to sign a form.
I swear it’s like fucking 1986 or something, Rachel says, and nobody knows who we are.
She’s beginning to write, and it feels weird. Her laptop, covered in stickers from R-Comps, plus bands Lyle loves, like God Bullies and Pitchshifter, has always functioned as a, well, as a machine. Not a well of feelings, not a listening ear, the way she imagines it must be for creatives and empaths. She has never in her life tried to describe an emotional state. Or for that matter even really experience an emotional state, rather than translate it into an assembly. All her text files are papers for English class or lab reports.
The first time I experienced real terror in life, she writes, was in fifth grade, when I had Mrs Fotheringill, the strictest teacher ever, and I realized I’d lost a whole page of instructions for my poster on the digestive tract. It was while we were driving to school. I found it crumpled at the bottom of my backpack. There was nothing I could do, and I was going to get an F.
It’s so slow. The pace of it. The idea that you have to finish every sentence. I don’t know if it’s worth it, she texts Rachel.
Stare at a plant for a while. Any plant. A ficus tree. They grow slowly, too
You’re comparing me to a ficus
Now who’s being slow
Her laptop pings: Lyle messaging her through World of Warcraft. That’s their hotline, the way of getting through when you can’t get through. Danger Danger, he says.
RADICAL SUFFICIENCY: The Post-Millenial’s Guide to Life
by Rachel Priestly
Representation: Susan Greenglass Literary, firstname.lastname@example.org
Publicity: Samantha Goss, OnlyConnect Communications,
Where did you get this, she whispers him back.
She left it open overnight, I just spidered it and took a screenshot
Son of a bitch she sold us out
You’ve been waiting all your life to say that
She thumbs through the emoji menu, not knowing how to respond.
I mean what did you expect
I expected the world to offer up some actual new ideas once in a while
Not this world.
They don’t call it a bedroom community for nothing
I feel like I’m texting with the delphic oracle
It’s time for us to blow this petri dish
YOU MET HER, she says. YOU LET HER IN.
I’ll make it up to you somehow
It doesn’t work that way. I feel damaged
Meet me in your driveway I’ll be there in five
Also you’re not damaged you’re perfect
I poured out my life to her, she says to Lyle. In his car again. In her driveway again. I believed I had a life to pour out. I felt like
a character in a YA novel. I believed in romance.
Don’t sell yourself short.
I believed in something that can’t be engineered.
That’s called charisma. Which basically amounts to the ability to fuck people over without them noticing. Until later.
I believed – she wants to say it without knowing exactly what to say. Around her, she says, I started believing in scenes, she says, like time can be divided into meaningful increments, edited into pithy encounters, and the rest of it conveniently discarded.
Some people, he says wearily, are always ready for their close-up. Life organizes itself around them that way. They arrive in life pre-profiled by, I don’t know, Vogue?
We’re like that too.
We are not.
We are too.
We are not.
Every part of my life, she says, folds together like a takeout box, rigid, transportable and containing nothing. Even us. What I Learned from My Autistic Friend.
Who’s not actually autistic.
MIT doesn’t fact-check admissions essays.
What would it mean to blow the whole thing up, is what I want to know, she says.
That’s the wrong question, he says.
What makes you the authority on everything.
Because I have the keys, he says, flipping screens on his phone. Your parents gave it to me, you know. To prep it for the big day.
The XS-7. In the picture it crouches on a beach, clearly not wanting to be there, big as a coffee table and ugly as a giant beetle. Look at those rotors, hand-machined in Leipzig. It can fly six miles on a single charge. It has a night-vision camera, a VR headset, a speaker up to six decibels, a universal mount heavy enough to hold a firearm classed up through .225, though who would want that. It baffles her, it’s always baffled her, this toddler-sized need to turn a machine into a gun, as if a machine wasn’t a prosthetic self, capable of almost every other thing.
You know I’m just going to scare her, she says. I’m just going to send a message.
This conversation never happened.
Then just drop it off.
And ruin the surprise.
I don’t like surprises, she says. I like identifiable outcomes. My life is a controlled explosion.
Your life, Lyle says, grinning. That is so Claire Danes. You love being the protagonist. Don’t you.
As much as you love being my wise-beyond-your-years love interest/enabler/sidekick.
Then I should be more tragic, he says, and be suicidal, or have a heart condition, or be a vampire. As a bottomless well of attachment-object feelings I just don’t stack up. I mean, I have a bottom.
I wish we were a movie, she says, and it was 1991, and we could go to Blockbuster and rent ourselves. On one of those big ugly tapes. I wish you could take me home like a useless knobby piece of plastic. And then keep me, and be stuck paying late fees for the rest of your life. Until Blockbuster goes bankrupt, and the last VHS player on Earth stops working, and I’m part of the giant trash island in the middle of the Pacific.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, he says, but I can’t quite find it.
Give me the controller, she says. Is that hard to follow?
And then this part really is like a movie of a movie of a movie. She’s hovering outside Rachel’s window, and Rachel is wearing some kind of getup out of Desperately Seeking Susan, a plaid kilt, fishnets, black lace fingerless gloves, and conducting an interview on Skype or something, speaking into the silver laptop’s open clamshell, her head in the mouth of the crocodile that has swallowed us all. On a screen watching someone else on a screen through another screen, because what else is a window from the outside at night, with lights and people behind it. Keerthana thinks, this is just a metaphor. She means to tap the glass but she’s forgotten to attach the XS-7’s rubber bumpers on the upper arms, and she’s miscalculated the trajectory of a forty-pound miniature German military helicopter against the surface tension of an ordinary Andersen window, which spiderwebs and disappears silently, because she hasn’t taken the input mic off mute, and then she does, in time to hear Rachel scream. Papers and paperback books and all kinds of insubstant objects are flying around the room, and probably bits of glass as well.
It’s okay, she says, and hears the reverb of her own voice in this very small enclosed space, and turns herself down. It’s me, Rachel. I’m sorry. I fucked that up.
She’s never heard her name like that. It gives her a surge of feeling. It’s as if she has never been alone with anyone. Rachel crouches fetally on the carpet with a cut under her left eye, like a hapless grown-up would. Stand up, she tells her, her voice booming through the speaker. Actually, cancel that. Lie down. Lie down on your bed.
Why the fuck should I do that?
It’s easier for me to see you. And not hurt you. I can just, you know, hover. We can have a conversation.
I’m not having a conversation with a fucking drone.
I’m not a drone.
The light goes out with a discreet ping; she must have rotored the fixture right off. Through the headphones it’s just the rush and whoosh of wind, but frankly, she gets it, anyone would be terrified. Look, she says, I’m going to land, and does, using the stab lock, right on the bedspread. Now everything goes silent. See, she says, no hard feelings. Now it’s just me. Her voice reverbs in the room like a middle-school Wizard of Oz, though she can’t tell how much of that is the mic hearing itself.
I’m calling the cops.
I just want to say that I get it. These problems are so much bigger than us. You just can’t help whoring out your subjectivity to the highest bidder, and I can’t help that I want you to caress me and tell me that this is what I am, that I’m a beautiful machine.
You’re a beautiful machine.
No, you have to mean it.
Don’t ever call me a whore. You’re one step away from getting stuck in one of those trailers in Nevada, murdering children in Yemen.
We got those offers last year, she says. All the top robotics kids do. So help me if I ever shoot a gun in my life. Even in Halo. Even in a dream. I just won’t do it. There’s just more to life. Like, all of life, frankly. That’s what this is, she says, saying and thinking it for the first time, making new life.
I am, and you still want me. Put your fingers on the curved thing on the left side.
What is that, a handle?
Never mind what it is. Touch it.
You’re going to cut off my arm. Or shock me, or something.
Why the hell would I do that?
Are you sure this is okay?
For Christ’s sake, she says. Touch it.
You can’t feel it, Rachel says, scooting closer, making an Eeewww face. Don’t pretend this is some kind of higher-level VR. You think you’ve made the first drone sexbot. I’d like to see your IP lawyer explain that. I have a contact in Dongguan who could get me a prototype in three weeks. Where’s your non-disclosure form, Keerthana?
Now I know I’m turning you on.
Fine, Rachel says. There. Is that what you want?
And for a moment neither of them say anything.
But she was missing Lyle the whole time. The story returns to the past tense, as it has to, and becomes a cautionary tale. There is such a thing as joy, she was thinking, as Rachel kissed her steering arm, wrapped her tongue around the directional shaft. There is such a thing as naive joy, the thrill of finding out what our bodies are for. You may only ever find one person who wants it the way you want it. The person who knows never, ever, to use the word robot. She was thinking a new theory of the world: there are two kinds of people, the solids and the liquids, those who care about bodies for their own sake, and those who always want to turn a body into something else: pixels, digits. As she rotated out of the shattered window and up into the heavy, humid night over Essex County, and its liquid contours, its geography of I-don’t-give-a-shit, and flicked on her GPS and entered his address, she thought, I can’t wait for college. I want to turn myself into a problem that can’t be solved.
Artwork © Edward Tuckwell