“Turned Away” by Jane Cornish Smith, oil, encaustic on board, 2014.
The one thing you promised, you swore, was that you’d never allow her inside our house. Remember, when we came here, that you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not outside reality, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said that we’d have sons. Their predictions were what made us get engaged.
You said this was the house where we’d grow old. I say “this was the house” because, though you don’t know it yet, there was a kitchen fire last week. Your patio, gutted. Much water damage to the tiles, the basement, other areas. Cheap melted plastic and disjointed machines, the sound of a soft female voice droning all her broken syllables, pathetic. Don’t bother asking what became of her. I won’t answer. You shouldn’t care. You have her download store-housed somewhere permanent. You have what you need to make as many new Malins as you need. I can’t say the same for making me.
I know you’ve got enough to think about, nodding and bowing your way through the summer retreat with VC’s, trying to make sure you keep your job. Everyone at Ganesha Inc. is aware now, aren’t they, not only engineers, even corporate, that Malin became one with you, somehow? That like an animal researcher who gets too attached to his primates, you seek to protect her constantly?
I shouldn’t say “her.” I never forget what Malin is. A mannequin with hardware, an old-style robot encased in new-style coverings, turning her tricks. A plastic dream. The sum consciousness of notebooks, graph paper, comic books you used to read and collect long years before I ever met you, where women’s breasts were large and conical, leg muscles strong and well-defined enough so they can leap between buildings. Malin’s a fucking joke, the sister of inflatables. She isn’t real. She never will be real. It doesn’t matter that her legs and arms can move so precisely. Her smile plays to your dreams and isn’t her own. She can’t own anything.
But that must be why you love her. Your Malin has nothing to lose.
That old stupid question: What does she have that I don’t? I know the answer without having to ask. Her sight. She can see better than most people. Ninety-seven percent of humans, nearly as good as an eagle. But that reflects on you, not her. You designed and built her laser gaze. I recall just how intent you were that day.
I was just back from the neurologist, a cold morning that left me shivering. The doctor in JP was still too …what? I couldn’t say. Empathic? Guarded? Practical? All of the above? To make my diagnosis definitive, even though I’d read enough and knew enough by then not to be fooled. The best we could hope for was relapsing remitting. Then there would be good days, even Richard Pryor funny days, days I could walk and even dance a little bit. But the doctor wouldn’t confirm even a name. “How many children do you have again?” he’d asked, the absent-minded and respectable doctor. “Zero,” I forced myself to say, only because at that moment, I craved his pity.
By ten-thirty, I’d taken a cab home because of how pressed-down I felt; how held back by the silence in the examining room, the sense of life moving so fluidly all around me. I hadn’t exposed myself on public transportation—I mean “exposed” in the sense of even sitting on the T among strangers—because of how frightened I felt. What would go first? My speech? Mind? Hearing? Where would the plaques surface, white clearings where there should be brain forest? I did not want to know.
You had equipment spread on the table, a naked blond woman open and smiling before you, flat on her back. You had a headlamp on and tiny screwdrivers and tools I did not recognize. But most of all you had the room and there was no way I could have entered it. It wasn’t for three weeks afterward that, spent after your run around Jamaica Pond, you came to me smiling, wanting to make love before you showered, the way you often do, and I had to show you the neurology report, the patient education handout. Wait for you to read it. Blame and even hate myself for turning you so grave. You didn’t run once you found out; you stayed. We stayed in bed for hours. I can’t remember what we did, except that I had you completely, you had me, yet all the while, I felt empty-handed.
That was six months ago. Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed. There is a taut anticipation in our lives. We wait for the worst, know it will come. I lose my balance often. You catch me before I fall. You’re dutiful, perfect, really. The best neurologists. Second and third opinions. The articles you clip, saying it might be Lyme’s disease, Guillain-Barré, benign tumor, even a mild case of herpes. Anything reversible. Anything but what it is. And yet, the more responsible you are, the less I have of you, the less you’re here. You disappear into the closed garage, the place where I once thought of gassing myself. While I still can. While I still have enough control to decide when the end will come. But the garage is your space. The place where Malin was constructed, after a big check was written to your AI program from no less than Paul Allen; after your postdoc at Stanford and your being recruited to a Kendall Square biotech; after you’d earned a big enough bonus to bring me to you from India and bid high for this house.
And now there won’t be any sons, or other kids. There won’t be birds singing in the trees. Sunrises, sunsets. First my balance, then all my senses, ephemera, sometimes working, other times blocked because of muffled synapses, ghosts in the machine of me. My cellular catastrophes.
But you’ll have Malin, won’t you? Yes. This being, first inert, named after some Swedish actress, your crush from that movie about superheroes, but now, quite a bit more. This thing that’s come alive. She can think now. You look like you could spend eternity watching her think.
No doubt, when you build her next version, salvaging whatever you must after the fire that I set, unable to bear the living and moving sight of her, the way she sang songs you programmed in her—no doubt she’ll tell you how frightened she was. When I approached her, leaning on my cane, dousing her with kerosene, lighting the match. At first not caring if I burned myself too, but in the end managing to run while she stayed still. I’d glued her feet. I’d tried to think of every possibility.
I couldn’t kill her. It shouldn’t surprise you, given that I couldn’t kill myself either. The fire was only for her physical body. Your files, your work in the garage, I left intact. So you will be able to rebuild, of that I’m confident, and also—that you’d rebuild me if you could. That if you had to choose between Malin and me, there’d be no choice. But we don’t get to choose. Have or don’t have; we’ll have to wait.
Sorry my love, my dear. I truly hope that she’ll give you comfort.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Michigan Quarterly Review, Redux, Compose, Nimrod, Asian American Literary Review, Notre Dame Review, jellyfish review, aaduna, Bangalore Review and elsewhere. She received a Henfield Transatlantic Writing award, scholarships to Grub Street and Squaw Valley Writers conferences, and is at work on a novel.
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