I go into the programmer’s office at Stanford and propose my project. The programmer rubs a finger over his mustache and beard, his brown eyes off-focus behind round metal glasses. I can tell he spends a lot of time in his head. The office is a mess. The desk looks like a giant block of dirty Doublemint gum, littered with empty Coke cans and peanut M&M wrappers. Dust lines a nest of computer cables and coats the stacks of reprints on the floor, reprints from the journals that distribute his brilliance all over the globe, according to Google. He is clearly one of those people who doesn’t see dirt.
“The only thing that concerns me,” he says, “is being able to feel it. Seeing and hearing is not a problem. I mean, it’s going to take a lot of code. And you’re going to need someone else to do the graphics. We can take the machinery from an arcade game—find one on eBay, adapt it. No problem. Maybe add some sort of biofeedback device, make it so your emotional reaction influences what you see. But feeling it like you’re there?” He shakes his head. “We’ll have to add something, some kind of drug.”
Another programmer sits behind him at another chunky green desk. He has his back to us and has been so quiet that I haven’t paid him any mind since I came in. But now he looks at my programmer and my programmer looks at him. They both smile.
* * *
Roxanne is a few years younger than me, and looks, to me, like a young Jacqueline Onassis—not quite so tall or nearly so thin but with the same kind of quirky brunette beauty. When I come into the part-time faculty office after class, she is sitting at one of the temporarily functioning computers studying the offerings on OKCupid.
I teach composition and reading at two community colleges, and so does Roxanne. Actually, I think she teaches at three. Teaching at a community college means that, even if we get full-time jobs, we will never be required to write books and ignore the students like professors at private universities. We will never make $150,000 a year and we will always be open, on a daily basis, to the needs of more than a hundred students each. Some of the people I meet in the part-time faculty office did not choose to be here; they are here because university jobs are not available. Roxanne is not one of those. She is a chooser. She can do anything she wants. She comes from money; you can see it in the way she dresses and the kinds of cultural events she attends. But she wants to share. She takes her students to the opera and to museums. She gets them to read obscure Japanese fiction and like it.
“What’s up, Roxanne?” I say.
She continues to stare at the screen, chin resting on palm, fingers curled over her shapely upper lip. “Trying to find a date.”
I set my backpack on the floor and sit at the other computer. It is not functioning; a sticky note on its screen tells me that a work order has been sent in. I take out my laptop and wait for it to boot up. I rub my temples. “What kind of guy are you looking for?”
She still doesn’t look at me, mumbles something that sounds like, “Polish.”
“You want to date a guy from Poland?”
Holding her hand out, palm up, she taps her wrist with one finger. “Pulse,” she says. “I’m looking for someone with a pulse.”
I think through my acquaintances and friends, try to settle on someone to set up with Roxanne. “Don’t get a fat head,” I tell her, “but I don’t know anyone worthy of you.”
“Yeah, yeah. It sucks being so desirable.” And she goes back to her matches with her broad-shouldered and long, but discouraged, back to me.
And then I think of the programmer—not my programmer. The one sitting behind him. The smiling one. “Except—”
She turns, just her head, and looks over her shoulder at me. “Except what?”
“Well, I just met this guy,” and I explain to her about the programmer and the circumstances of our meeting and I can tell right away that she is interested, not just in the man, but in the project. While I am telling her—though I am happy to have hooked her so easily—all I can think is that, if Roxanne can’t get a date, I am doomed.
* * *
I decide to go ahead with the divorce anyway. All I have to do is visualize a scene from my marriage to keep myself going. Visualization is an important part of memory. I tell my students: few people have photographic memories, but most people can remember more if they picture something in their heads. Focus on the one detail you do remember and let the rest of the scene unfold, like you’re looking around a room. Move from object to object. Focus on the word you remember and let the rest of the sentence, the rest of the page, float up. If you can. This is how I remember. It works for some students. I have other methods as well.
The scene that keeps my divorce on track occurs in the living room of the rented house I shared with my soon-to-be-ex-husband. The room has hardwood floors and walnut moldings and cream-colored walls and many large windows, including one that is arched and multi-paned, cathedral-style. There is a fireplace with ochre tiles and a dark-brown chrome coffee table and a giant black leather couch with two orange suede throw pillows. The orange of the pillows is picked up in the bill of a rubber ducky in a painting on the wall above. I can see it all, clearly; I saw it every day for three years.
But what I see most clearly, in this particular moment, are the overly long toenails of my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s soon-to-be-new wife, a mutual friend. She is in the process of moving to a new city, moving out of a cottage a few blocks from our house, the cottage she moved into when she got divorced. She is wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt and brown leather sandals. I look at her feet, and it occurs to me that I would never wear open-toed shoes if my toenails were that long. She has been using our laundry and a basket of clean and dry, but not folded, clothes is balanced on her hip. She is looking at my soon-to-be-ex-husband, and her pretty face is folded in a frown.
My soon-to-be-ex-husband is lying on the giant leather couch watching TV. He is also frowning, probably because our mutual friend is berating him for not doing more to help her move. I am standing slightly behind her; I was seeing her out when she stopped to berate him. When I remember the scene, I see myself as clearly as anything else, as if I were outside my body. I think this is because, during that moment of their interaction, it was as if I were truly not there, as if they were not only the only people in the room with an emotional connection but the only people in the room. I look at myself. I am wearing shorts and a tank top and my feet are bare. I look tan and strong and I don’t matter. My irrelevance forms an aura around me. I breathe it in like second-hand smoke.
And then I get on with my divorce.
I don’t have any money, so I am doing it myself, with a book. I haven’t seen my soon-to-be-ex-husband in six months. I know where he is and with whom, but other than that I have no idea what caused him to leave. I know that other people don’t break up relationships; they enter into the gaps of a relationship already broken. But I don’t know where ours broke. It was in an effort to find that fault line that I came up with the idea for my project. It was Jack’s idea, originally. Jack is another part-time instructor; he teaches English as a second language. I don’t know him well, but if he wasn’t gay, he could probably date Roxanne. I like him very much.
I was sitting alone in the part-time faculty office trying to collect myself after a phone call from my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s soon-to-be-new-wife. Other people don’t break up relationships, but they sure can make it easier to walk away. Our mutual friend helped my soon-to-be-ex-husband find an apartment—when he decided to move away, he decided to move to the city she had recently moved to. See how that works? She even found people to help him move. She had called to assure me that she was good to us both.
Anyway, Jack walks into the office before I am fully collected. We exchange hellos and he sits down with his back to me and turns on a computer and for a minute I think he is going to overlook my red eyes and sniffly breathing, but then he says, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience your first marriage in virtual reality? That way you could figure out what a putz your partner is before your parents pay for the reception.”
His simple, kind question sends a wave of endorphins through my body, as if I have just heard one of the sopranos in one of the operas Roxanne sometimes forces us to listen to hit a particularly high, particularly pure note. The hairs on my forearms stand up, and my tears evaporate. “That’s a brilliant idea.”
He never turns. “Run with it. Just make sure you write me into the patent.”
* * *
“There’s a problem,” my programmer says.
I found my programmer on datesforgeeks.com. My soon-to-be-ex-husband is a programmer and so is the guy I dated before him. You might think I have a thing for programmers. I do not. Programmers have a thing for me. Both my soon-to-be-ex-husband and the guy I dated before him came after me like gangbusters. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because I am good with computers but not interested in them so they never have to talk shop around me. Maybe it is because I don’t care about money and don’t want to have children. I don’t know. But I knew that the minute I put my profile up on that site I would get plenty of hits.
I chose the programmer from Stanford because of proximity. Proximity and the fact that he is engaged in an experimental project—some sort of somatic simulation—which led me to believe that he might be open to other experimental projects. Projects like mine. He responded pretty well to the idea that we be collaborators rather than lovers. “It’s better to get to know people first,” he said. Something like that.
“What’s the problem?” I ask him.
“Well—I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but—in order for it to be realistic, you’re going to have to tell me everything that happened—everything that he did, everything that you did.”
He takes off his round glasses with their plain metal frames and polishes them on one of the tails of his shirt. He seems to have an endless supply of well-made, simply patterned dress shirts—this one is white with blue stripes—which he doesn’t iron and wears untucked. I bet he doesn’t even unbutton them to take them off. He clears his throat. “Isn’t that going to be a little uncomfortable?”
I smile in a way that I hope is reassuring. “I’m writing it for you,” I say.
He looks away, down, gives his glasses a go with the other shirttail. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just go to therapy?”
Clearly my programmer is a pragmatist, not an idea man. This makes me like him more. “I thought about that. If I just went to therapy, it might solve my problems but there would be no product. Besides, I don’t believe in therapy when it comes to relationships. You need the other person there.”
He puts his glasses back on and looks right at me, his neat brown beard shot with red streaks, his eyes slightly magnified by his glasses, slightly droopy in the corners, eyes that, despite his well-documented brilliance, are quite like the eyes of a dog or cow. Kind eyes. “What about couples counseling?”
“Look,” I say, “don’t make my problems your problems, OK? Just write the code. If I could pay you, I would, but you said you were in for nothing so I gave your money to the graphics person.”
The graphics person is a woman. I gave her all our photo albums and she went right to work, no comments about counseling or therapy. Too bad she doesn’t write the kind of code that could animate my soon-to-be-ex-husband and myself and move us through the perfect, virtual replica of our house she has created and make us do the stupid, dysfunctional things we did. I need my programmer for that. I need to figure out how to reel him back in.
But it will have to wait because I have a class to teach and he has a meeting with someone from the Department of Defense—which he shouldn’t have told me about, of course, but it’s as if he can’t help it. We have started to build trust; I have revealed something of myself to him and so he feels compelled to reveal himself to me. Funny how relationships just start to happen with the people you don’t choose.
* * *
I didn’t choose my soon-to-be-ex-husband, either. As a matter of fact, the first time he came after me, I told him no. I wasn’t interested. I was, in fact, still dating the previous programmer—from a very long distance, it’s true, but I wasn’t playing that game. And besides, I didn’t like him—my soon-to-be-ex—that much. I thought he was unserious.
We would joke, throughout our relationship, about how long it took him to wear down my resistance. He always claimed it was a week, but I know it was longer. But not very long. I had never been subjected to that sort of attention before—intense, flattering attention that would not be knocked down. Like one of those blow up clowns with sand in the base. You punch it and it comes right back up. I would pass on a date with him and the next morning I would look through the open door of my classroom and see his black boots and know that he was sitting in the chair just outside. I would finish teaching and he would wait for the students to clear out and then ask to walk me home. Is that not charming? I was teaching at a university then, as a grad student, and he was still an undergrad although it wasn’t as scandalous as it sounds; he was only four years younger than me; he was taking college slowly whereas I had gone through very fast.
This intense, flattering, and yet somehow not demanding attention continued for quite some time. Much more than a week, certainly. And then finally, one day, he did something I liked. He talked about a novel he had read and I liked the way he talked about it. That was enough for me. I was tired of resisting.
Later I learned that his charming, unceasing attention was consistent with a personality disorder. I learned it from a self-help book I read—got paid to read, mind you. I proofread for extra cash. I am not the kind of person who reads self-help books for free. This book was called Loving the Self-Absorbed. According to its author, the self-absorbed are acute rather than chronic wooers. The intensity of their attention is born of desperation rather than attraction. They need something to fix them, and if their gaze falls on you, then you are it.
I gave all the photo albums to the graphics person. I gave the wedding video to my programmer, to help him reproduce our voices and movements. Perhaps that is why he has become so obstructionist. He is jealous. It was a great wedding. Especially the exchange of vows. We laughed, we cried. We look honest. I was honest; in fact, it was only in the course of the wedding itself, during the actual ceremony, that I became fully convinced that I wanted to be married. For me, the vows were transformative, like an incantation. They made me realize what I had and what I wanted. For my soon-to-be-ex-husband, on the other hand, they simply completed the process of acquisition, placing me firmly within the hole in his psyche and making it clear that I would never be big enough to fill it. According to the self-help book. Anyway.
* * *
As it turns out, Roxanne doesn’t have all that much money. At least that’s what she says. But she does have connections to money—she chose to be a community college instructor instead of an investment analyst—and she put together the first meeting with the venture capitalist like it was nobody’s business. That’s how I got the money to pay the graphics person.
I decide that the best way to convince my jealous programmer to stay on task is by getting him some money. I don’t think he needs it, or wants it, but giving it to him—having gotten it for him—will create in him a sense of obligation. My programmer is a very decent man.
So I ask Roxanne to set up another meeting, which she does, and this is how we come to be waiting outside Il Fornaio’s on a Friday evening. We would be waiting inside, except Roxanne is smoking. I used to smoke, but I quit when my soon-to-be-ex-husband left because I was broke and cigarettes became prohibitively expensive. Roxanne doesn’t smoke often, so I know she is anxious.
Because we are standing outside, we witness the arrival of the venture capitalist in a brand new Audi convertible, silver, with “UNDER 30” vanity plates. Although Roxanne made the reservation, the venture capitalist chose the restaurant, and as he tosses his keys to the valet it occurs to me that he chose this particular restaurant to create just this scenario: two women standing on the sidewalk in the dusk-deepened shadow of a potted palm, waiting for him as he tosses his keys to the valet. Roxanne rolls her eyes and grinds out her cigarette and we break script by walking into the restaurant before he has fully caught up with us.
I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, exactly. It is just that I have come to understand a few things about people with money. Although I didn’t know it, money was part of what attracted me to my soon-to-be-ex-husband. Not having money—because when we were married, he was, rather inexplicably, always broke—but having come from money. Coming from money made him interesting. Again, not that I knew it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that his having gone on countless journeys to exotic places to do interesting things was not the sign of a uniquely free spirit but rather the logical result of having money. Have money will travel.
I remember being charmed by the way he was in airports. I remember him coming off a flight and insisting that, rather than rushing to baggage claim, we sit down in one of the waiting areas to chat and relax and reflect. I remember thinking that this was something special and delightful about him. But now I know that he just traveled a lot. So the mechanics of it—retrieving luggage and making connections and securing ground transportation—weren’t that big of a deal. To him.
Inside, the restaurant is crowded and loud, lots of well-polished chrome and large-leaved ferns. Roxanne and I stand in front of the maitre d’, who looks past us. “How many?” he asks the venture capitalist, who has just arrived, but before he can answer, Roxanne shakes her head.
“Table for three,” she says, “McLaughlin.”
“Oh. Pardon me, Ms. McLaughlin,” says the maitre d’, with a short, fake, sorry-I-didn’t-see-you-standing-there-right-in-front-of-me little head shake of his own, as he grabs three menus and charges off to our right. “This way.”
Roxanne rolls her eyes again and follows him. The venture capitalist has seen all—he is very intelligent and observant, I’ll give him that—and has a self-satisfied smile on his handsome chiseled face. I linger to take a box of matches from the bowl on the reception desk—this must be the last restaurant in California where you can get a box of matches—and, without further encouragement, he walks in front of me. Not a gentleman of my father’s generation, certainly. We take our seats and the maitre d’ drops a napkin in each of our laps and walks away. The venture capitalist studies the menu, lips still cradling that tiny snotty smile. I will enjoy lying to him. I decide to get started. “There’s been a change in plans,” I say.
The venture capitalist seems to respect me, perhaps because it is my idea that will be making him money. But he doesn’t like me, and it is obvious. “And I suppose you need more money,” he sneers.
“If you have any,” I say. “If not, we can find someone else.”
The waiter comes, and as it turns out we know him; he is Felipe, one of my and Roxanne’s students, first mine and then hers, and he is, like many of our students and like most of the wait staff in the restaurants of Palo Alto, Latino. Roxanne and I take the opportunity to practice our Spanish, which is not very good Spanish, but which the venture capitalist cannot understand. Roxanne goes so far as to tell Felipe that the venture capitalist is her ex—something she has never mentioned to me—and that she wouldn’t mind terribly if something nasty fell in his food.
By the time Felipe returns with our gin and tonics, which he says are on him, the venture capitalist’s little smile has slipped a bit. He eyes his extra dry martini suspiciously. I examine my menu, which is large and leather-bound. If he wants to know what’s going on, he will have to ask. He tries to wait me out, but can’t. “Tell me about the change,” he says, and since he has what I need, I do.
* * *
On the way back to our cars—we parked in the public lot down the street—Roxanne is thoughtful. I walk beside her in silence, watching the moon spark silica chips in the cement, watching the sparks twinkle out as we step over them. The evening is warm, unusual; typically, all heat drains from the air the minute the sun goes down. It is May. Today would have been—is—my two-year anniversary. I realized this when I received an email from my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s soon-to-be-new-wife. In the email, she berated me for being unfriendly to her, and when I read it I remembered that it was my anniversary.
“I thought there wasn’t really a change,” says Roxanne, just as we reach the cars, which are parked under a floodlight. Her face is made more pale by the falling yellow beams.
“There isn’t,” I say. “I made all that up.”
“Made it up? Of course you made it up. You’re making all of this up. Making up all of this. What I’m saying is that we should do it. It’s better and more practical than your original idea.”
“Matter of fact,” says Roxanne, “I think the reason John is balking is because your original idea is impossible.”
John is my programmer. “No. John is balking because he likes me and hearing about my relationship with my ex is making him jealous.”
Roxanne’s expression shifts in the draining yellow light and shadows gather under her eyes. Her forehead creases—she is thinking, thinking, moving the shadows around her face. She leans her butt against the fender of her car, puts down her purse, takes out her cigarettes, and searches for her lighter. She shakes her head. “No. He’s balking because he has a big ego and doesn’t want to admit that he can’t do something he said he could do.”
I can’t think of what to say to this, so I take the box of restaurant matches from my pocket and light her cigarette for her. The gesture makes me feel gallant and in control, like a man.
Roxanne smokes, still thinking. “To be perfectly honest,” she says after a minute, “I can’t believe that I believed the original idea would work. I can’t believe you got John to believe the original idea would work.” John is also the name of the venture capitalist, and somehow I know which one she is talking about just from the tone of her voice. “If anybody likes you,” she says, taking a deep draw on the cigarette, “it’s him.”
I consider. This scenario is very different from the one I have in my head. In my head my idea is perfectly possible, my programmer has a crush on me, and John the venture capitalist can’t wait to cash in on my ingenuity despite the fact that he despises me. But Roxanne’s version seems equally plausible, and thinking that I could have misread the situation so totally makes my head hurt. It makes me feel like I did just before my soon-to-be-ex-husband left. “If John likes me, I am clearly doing something wrong.”
Roxanne blows smoke out of both nostrils, like a beautiful brunette dragon. “He doesn’t like you like you. He just wants to get in your pants.”
“Is he as bad as he seems?”
She nods, drops her cigarette, crushes it out under the pointy toe of her expensive shoe. “Belt-notcher,” she says, in exactly the same way she said “Pulse” in the part-time faculty office just a few months ago. She puts her cigarettes in her purse and buttons off the alarm on her car.
“Bold though,” I say, “to have his IQ right there on his license plates.”
“That is an insult to the developmentally delayed,” she says, and opens the door to her car. “Think about it. Think about your new idea. Talk it over with John. See if he can make it work. That’s your moneymaker, or I don’t know anything.”
* * *
My original idea, Jack’s idea, was simple: write two people into a program that allows them to act out, individually, with the help of a machine, a few of the more high-intensity—both good and bad—moments of a virtual marriage. Each person answers a list of questions—a lot of questions, certainly, but not an impossible number—and provides photos and video and the programmer puts it all together and you strap on the machine and take the mild hallucinogen and voila—you see, hear, and feel how a relationship will turn out—or, in my case, relive a relationship and figure out why it turned out the way it did.
I wasn’t overly ambitious. But there are problems. Even I have to admit them. For example, as it is set up, the demo version only works for me. The deeper significance of the selected scenes is not available to the outside eye. To the outside eye, it just looks sad. Not the kind of thing anyone would want to pay for.
And my programmer—despite the money—is balking again. It is the sex scenes—the not-quite-sex scenes, actually, because my soon-to-be-ex-husband stopped wanting sex about a year before he left—that are stopping him now. I understand his discomfort; they are horrible scenes. But this is one of the parts I want particularly to figure out.
“I just won’t do it,” he says. “Not for any amount of money. Please don’t ask again.”
So I don’t, but I also don’t discuss my second idea with him—my moneymaker, as Roxanne calls it. I discuss that with the other programmer, the smiling dark-haired programmer who shares his office, the one Roxanne has been dating since I set them up.
My second idea is even simpler than the first, and I can link it to something that exists, which makes it better. Online dating services construct personality profiles through questionnaires. You pay the money—for most of them—and then you answer the two billion questions: Do you like candles? Do you like tattoos? Do you believe in God? Are you aggressive? In arguments? In business settings? In bed? The profiles help you to find people who are compatible with you. My idea takes it a step further: use the profiles to program a virtual first date.
It works like this: you fill out your profile and find a profile that seems compatible with yours. Then you leave the comfort of your home and go to a bar or your gym or some other public place where there would be a kiosk—I’m thinking to call them “Love Shacks”—with a virtual reality set-up inside. You tap in a code, the Love Shack opens, and you go in and experience your risk-free first date. We couldn’t recommend taking psychotropic drugs, but you’ll probably have a few drinks first, and that should be enough. For a nominal extra fee, you and your match can inhabit your avatars simultaneously—interact, virtually, with the other participant instead of his or her programmed profile. Almost like meeting someone in person, but still enough like a video game to get the rocks off your average adult no-friendo.
There will be some construction costs, of course, but businesses don’t seem to mind construction so much these days, and once the Love Shacks are built they won’t need attendants, just occasional maintenance and cleaning. I know how little those online services like employing actual people.
“But really,” I say, to Roxanne and her programmer, “who is going to pay for this kind of thing?”
We are sitting on the steps that surround the fountain outside the undergraduate library. We are at Stanford because Roxanne’s programmer has meetings all afternoon and can’t stray far from his office, and we are outside the undergraduate library because, according to Roxanne’s programmer, it is the one place my programmer never goes. Apparently, it was beside this fountain that my programmer’s ex-wife told him she was leaving him for a radiologist from Singapore.
“Be serious,” says Roxanne. “This is Silicon Valley. There are thousands of people here with lots of money, limited free time, and no social skills. Of course they’ll pay for it.”
Roxanne looks to her programmer for confirmation, and he smiles and nods. Roxanne’s hand rests on the concrete step just inches from that of her programmer. There is something about the space between their hands that tells me they are barely restraining themselves from touching each other, and I am happy, happy for Roxanne.
“It wouldn’t be difficult to do,” Roxanne’s programmer says. “I mean, it wouldn’t be that different from programming one of those survival games. I know people who could do it. I could do it, although you’d probably want to hire people with more experience, so they can get it done faster.”
I know people with experience programming those survival games. That was one of the things my soon-to-be-ex-husband worked on. The people who ran that company were incompetent, though, and they ran out of money and had to lay him off. He didn’t have to go back to school to retrain, but it did take him a while to find a new job. I was still in school and we had to live off of my student loans and credit cards for six months. At the time, I thought it was a bonding experience.
Roxanne moves her hand away from her programmer’s hand and places it on my knee, an oddly intimate gesture for Roxanne. She shakes my leg. “It will work. It works. Tad and I already did a demo. We went on our virtual first date. It was better than our actual first date—”
“Hey,” says Roxanne’s programmer. “Careful, there.” But he is smiling.
Roxanne continues. “Think about it. You could make a lot of money with this.”
I try to think about it, but I have trouble focusing. The fountain is a giant circle, suspended horizontally, and water falls from it in a sheet though, if I look carefully, I can see the separate gouts of liquid that make up the flow. I visualize my programmer being dumped by his ex-wife and striding into the fountain, walking through the wall of water to the empty center. I shake my head. “Or you could,” I say.
“You could. Make a lot of money.”
“Well, of course, I wouldn’t mind a cut for getting the initial outlay from John. But I don’t think you understand. I am talking about enough money to completely change your life.”
Roxanne’s programmer is nodding his head. “Patent it,” he says, “before someone takes it from you.”
* * *
Fortunately, Roxanne’s programmer knows all about patenting things, since that is why Silicon Valley is where it is: because the scientists and engineers and other brilliant, lucky people who work at Stanford are permitted to keep a portion of their patents. He has already patented two of his ideas and has been getting enormous royalty checks for five years, since he was twenty-eight.
But I am glad he already has tons of money because it makes it easy for him and Roxanne to buy me out—after I make sure that they will write Jack into the patent. I am happy that they will be able to make themselves rich with my idea. I don’t tell my programmer what is going on, and my guess is that Roxanne’s programmer doesn’t either. I give my programmer some more money and convince him to keep working.
A week later, he texts me; he has finished another scenario. I go to his office to try it out. I don’t even bother with the mild hallucinogen, but after he gets me all set up—shortens the straps on the helmet, takes the adjusted lenses out of the goggles, polishes the contacts on the biofeedback device, pours me some coffee, dims the lights—my programmer swallows the pill and wanders off in the general direction of the undergraduate library.
I put on the helmet and goggles, clip the biofeedback sensor to my finger, initiate the sequence, and step into the living room of the house I shared with my soon-to-be-ex-husband. I walk across the hardwood floors past the fireplace with the ochre tiles, guiding my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s soon-to-be-new wife to the front door, not noticing her overly long toenails until she stops in front of the giant leather couch where my husband is lying, watching TV. She begins to berate him for not doing more to help her move.
The details are all there. I see myself as clearly as anything else. I think this is because during that moment of their interaction, it was as if I were truly not there, as if they were not only the only people in the room with an emotional connection but the only people in the room. I look at myself. I am wearing shorts and a tank top. I look tan and strong, and I don’t matter. My irrelevance forms an aura around me. I breathe it in like second-hand smoke. The device works perfectly.
Except—suddenly the front door opens and my programmer comes in. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and his soon-to-be-new wife do not see him, do not turn. “What are you doing here?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “Easter egg.”
“You? That’s fucked up.”
He shakes his head. “It doesn’t have to be me. It’s whatever you want. I mean, within a wide range of limited possibilities.”
“Oh.” I try not to think too hard about what I want. I look at my soon-to-be-ex-husband and his soon-to-be-new wife and my programmer turns into a dragon—a beautiful blue-green and gold dragon that fills the front entry, blocking out the light from the cathedral-style window, the fins on its spine and head bent down by the high ceiling. It flicks its tail, scales rippling prismatically, and opens its mouth. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and his soon-to-be-new wife are engulfed in flame. In seconds, they are incinerated, showers of black ash falling to the hardwood floor.
I pull off the helmet and goggles and drop them on the dirty Doublemint desk. The walls of the office pulse in the dim light, as if a tremor is passing through them, as if there has been an earthquake. I am sweating. I look at the cup of coffee my programmer poured for me and wonder if he slipped me something. No. Not like him. I press my palms on the surface of the desk until they are cool. I catch my breath. Then I rewind the sequence a few ticks and put the helmet and goggles back on. Everything is the same. Only this time I am not looking at myself or my soon-to-be-ex-husband or his soon-to-be-new wife. I am looking at the door.
It feels good to be moving on.