Amour de Robot #17
When a married couple had forgone copulation for more than a five-month period it was required they report the aberration to their therapist. If actions could not be made to amend the situation, an amoureuse or a jouet de sex masculin would be commissioned. Week-by-week Sharima explained to her therapist, Maxine—a dry-looking woman with stick-straight silver hair—that a desert had crawled and spread inside the confines of her marriage due to a mysterious corruption. Like a tooth decayed beyond fillings, the reality of her marriage could not be dissected in a public setting, nor did she wish to fix things. She just wanted to know how to be stronger, so that one day she might tell Wendel it was over herself.
Sometimes it felt as if he was taking things from her; passing through the hall with an invisible stab to the back and all her blood drained; the cold way his hand knocked into hers in the bathroom over their marble countertops; a shift of silence while the morning coffee stewed then leached into their empty, gray stoneware mugs.
When Maxine asked Sharima for the umpteenth time how ‘things were’ and was told ‘the same,’ a slip for a jouet de sex masculin was written up.
“It won’t do any good,” Sharima explained.
“It’s worth a try,” Maxine told her.
Sharima drove to the nearest pharmacy to have it filled, and to get it over with.
Regrettably, Wendel had already admitted he’d had his prescription filled two weeks prior, adding he’d protested at first then given in because one’s health was important, and their marriage was important, yet he hadn’t told her what the results of his amoureuse were. From Sharima’s vantage, the effect was obvious and immediate. He smiled more, spoke less. Wendel did not allay if the female robot was still in his usage, and yet those extra hours and unaccounted for hotel bills were adding up like cobwebs in the corner. It was a frightening thing, this secret, much worse than their actual marriage. It felt like a new problem. And now she was being forced to give in and find out herself whether or not a medically prescribed sex robot was a remarkable thing or a vexation like a slow car wreck to endure.
Right there under halogen lights, the young pharmacist told her to fill out a list of attributes for her sex robot: hair color, body type, eye color and as for wit: sarcasm or silence. Sharima had trouble with that one. Her husband could be both sarcastic and silent, sometimes to the point you wondered if he had a pulse. She decided on the better of two evils, sarcasm, and went on to the next question. Did she prefer kisses or hugs? Kisses, she wrote, scratched it out then wrote hugs. She scratched it out again and emphatically wrote kisses. Her face burned hot like a welder’s torch when she handed the slip to the pharmacist. He took it, his hair stained green with neon dye, and pressed a wet rubber stamp onto the top corner.
“That’s model 17,” he said. “Strange.”
“What’s so strange about it?” she asked.
“Well, the most popular model is 13. 15 comes in close, but no one’s ever chosen 17.”
“I’ve never been one to follow the crowd,” she replied.
He disappeared into the back room of the pharmacy and Sharima nervously waited. A mother with a sick child came around. The child had a dry cough and lazy, heavy eyes. “Is everything okay?” Sharima asked, and the mother shrugged. “I don’t know if a dry cough is normal—you see, I don’t have children,” she went on. “We did try.”
“Allergies,” the mother said in a terse tone, shifting the child to her other hip. She rang the service bell impatiently and the child stirred. “Hush. We’ll get your medicine and mommy can send you back to Screen School.”
The child turned their golden, soft head to stare at Sharima. A smile formed and Sharima smiled back. She didn’t know how to smile at children but when she did the child seemed pleased. Maybe they weren't all mess and snot as Wendel had told her each time their attempts to procreate had failed. It wasn’t in the cards, he’d explained, and then stopped explaining. His silence after that became accusatory, and then Sharima felt something inside of her die.
The young clerk came out with a waxy faced, six-foot man in plaid shirt and nice trousers; brown hair as she’d requested and brown eyes. It was a nice touch that he was wearing sneakers. Number 17 looked at Sharima with expectation, and she averted her eyes. She hadn’t expected him to be that realistic.
“Here you go,” the clerk said, nudging him forward. “All fresh and new. Never used.”
A look of embarrassment crossed Number 17’s face.
“Will he still work the same?” Sharima asked and the woman with the child smirked.
“Sure. It’s like having a new car. No kinks, but you gotta figure out what makes him run smooth. Look, if there’s any problems, just bring him back and I’ll get a replacement.”
Number 17 lowered his head.
“Oh . . . I won’t be doing that. I’m sure he’s fine.”
The young clerk wrote something on a transfer pad and put the pink copy in Number 17’s front pocket. “Extended renewals can be made by calling your therapist. There you go, big boy,” he said, pushing him toward her again. “He’s all yours.”
The way the woman looked at her, and now the child. Eyes of accusation and disgust. The clerk as well, though maybe Sharima was imagining these things.
“Come here, 17,” she heard herself say in a coaxing manner, the way you’d draw a hesitant dog toward you. She held out a hand.
“I am voice operated,” he said. “But we can conduct human touch if it makes you more comfortable.”
His hand was warmer than she’d expected. Like a real hand. Strong and firm. Together they walked from the pharmacy into a day full of sunlight marred only by a few clouds. On the way to the car, she led him past window displays. They came upon a children's toy store. “I used to have one of those,” she said, breaking the ice. “It’s called a pogo stick. I was awful at it. Have you ever been on a pogo stick before, 17?”
He did not answer, so she moved on to the next window.
Rings. Jewelry. Expensive, shining stuff on velvet stands.
“Why did you ask about the pogo stick back there?” he said. “I am not programmed to be a child,” he said next to her. “I am programmed to be an adult.”
“I know,” Sharima said, embarrassed.
“So to answer your question, no, I have not been on a pogo stick, nor am I programmed to do so. I don’t play with toys. And I don’t bounce. I am programmed to do other things. When will we go to the hotel?” he asked.
She turned to him. “We’re not going to a hotel. There’s no need to. My husband is out of town. It’s very convenient. My husband is an efficient, convenient man.”
“You are ashamed to go to a hotel—cited from Psychology 101.com. Will there be charging stations in your home?”
“You just did an internet search? Oh . . . um, yes, we have a charging station for the vacuum. The voltage should be fine.”
He paused. “You’re right. It will be enough. Cited from Power Lab.com.”
“You are just a walking-talking Google, aren’t you?”
“I don’t understand—”
“Never mind. I was joking. The car’s just down this way.”
They came upon a flower stand of pink roses.
“Do you like these?” he asked.
Sharima sighed. “Not really. I like Carnations.”
“Eighty percent of women prefer roses, the rest a variety of blooming flowers consisting of Lily of the Valley, Tulips and Carnations. It is not typical for a woman to dislike roses. It indicates a mental health issue. Cited from Psychology 101.com.”
“Well, isn’t that nice?” Sharima said, annoyed.
“Would you like one?” he asked. “A carnation, I mean. I can put an order in right now.”
“How are you going to do to do that?”
“Like this,” he said, shoving one hand out. A fine smoke emitted from the index finger, then a laser beam shot out of his iris. An image of a pink carnation appeared in the smoke. Sharima reached for it, but her hand passed right through.
“It is a hologram,” he said, smiling. “I can make anything.”
“I don’t know why I thought it would be real,” Sharima said. “I guess this whole thing has warped my sense of reality.” She felt a strange disappointment.
“You are morose.”
“I am not.”
“I sense desperation. Would you like me to call 1-800-suicide?”
“No, I would not like that. I think we should go home now. Here’s the car. Would you like to see my home, 17?”
His face brightened. “Yes.”
“Good. Get in.” Once inside her old rusted hatchback, she reached for the seatbelt, noticing he did not do the same. But of course he wouldn’t. If there was an accident, he wouldn’t die, he’d simply not exist.
Minutes later, she pulled up to a split level home with natural wood elements and tall windows—the kind Wendel had insisted on because he liked natural light. It saved money. “Here we are,” she said, turning off the engine. “What do you think?” she asked.
17 peered from of the passenger side window. “It is in the million-dollar bracket but in today’s market you could list it for more. The market is hot right now. Cited from Real Estate Mafia.com.”
“We’re not selling.” Sharima grabbed her purse. “Ready?”
She made him dinner, though he couldn’t eat it. He pretended to pick at the curry she’d made and sometimes he picked up the glass of chardonnay she’d poured for him, but the liquid never went beyond his lips.
“It is a good vintage,” he said. “If you had not opened the bottle, it would be worth two-hundred dollars in ten years’ time. Cited from Wine Valley.com.”
Sharima finished the last of her food and wine and stood up to clear the dishes. “Listen, 17, I want to make a request. Stop citing the web. It’s not romantic.”
“But you specifically requested the fact package.”
“But mostly the romantic package.”
“You want me to be less factual? Yes or no?”
“Yes, I want you to be less factual.”
She’d asked for the fact package because it sounded honest. Wendel lied all the time and thought she believed it, yet being spoon-fed facts was no picnic either.
17 put his hands in his lap, then Sharima heard a motor click and something whirred deep inside. She stacked the dishes loudly to block out the noise.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said in a brand new tone, “did I ever tell ya I like your blouse?” he said, leering at her.
“I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go back to being factual, but not too factual. I mean, you can lie, but no come-ons—"
“Please wait. My brain is processing . . .” Whir. Click. “Feeding me was not required,” he said. His eyes followed as she turned on the tap. That’s when she noticed a small portion of his hair split by a tiny, microscopic lens.
“Are you recording me?”
“No, but I am watching. It’s part of my panoramic abilities. It does not record or go to a cloud-based storage system if you’re worried.”
Sharima downed the rest of the wine. “Just so you know, 17, you don’t have to watch me all the time.”
“It makes you uncomfortable? I will put the lens away.” It popped back into his skull and his hair went back into place. “The sink . . .”
“Oh!” She’d left the tap on. Sharima ran to turn it off before water ran all over their expensive refurbished barn floor. “My husband would die if I let this shit he calls perfection rot.”
“It is cheap wood,” 17 said.
“That what I told him!”
“Very replaceable. Linoleum would last longer. Cited from—”
“No, no. But thank you. Finally, a voice of reason. I’ve tried to tell Wendel about the floor but he insists on these things.”
“Your husband shows signs of OCD. Does he take medication?”
Sharima laughed, then leaned against the counter. The wine was blurring things. What the hell was she doing? She went to a pharmacy and brought home a male sex robot. Holy shit.
And now what?
On buzzing legs she walked over and stood in front of 17. “I’m curious—are we really going to have sex?”
“Finally,” he said. “A come-on. My real purpose.”
“Shh,” she said, finger to his lips. “Let’s pretend you don’t have a purpose. Let’s pretend we met at the library, and you want to be here. You’re attracted to me. Pretend . . . you’re human.”
“I will try,” he said, then leaned in to kiss her. “Do you like that . . . baby?” he asked, pulling away.
“Yeah, sure. I mean . . .”
“Then I’ll do it some more, baby.” He pulled her into his lap and kissed her again. John Wayne and Rita Hayworth. A loud, sharp beep interrupted them. He pulled away. “We have three hours before my battery dies.”
“Three hours? Yeah, that should be enough.” She looked into his mechanical irises. “Yet that doesn’t seem like enough time to . . . hey, your eyes look so realistic.”
“We’d better be efficient.”
Sharima stood. “Upstairs?”
17 followed her to the master bedroom.
“Here we are,” she said, taking off her boots and pointing to a window seat made of cedar. “You can sit over there,” she said. “While I put on a nightgown.”
17 strode across the white carpet and sat. He looked almost perfect in the natural setting, if not for his slightly waxy appearance. “This is a nice feature for a home. Cedar is a good selling point.”
Sharima unbuttoned her blouse. “We’re not selling.” One of the buttons caught. Her hands shook. “I can’t seem to be able to—”
17 got to his feet and came over in a nanosecond. Quickly, he began to undo her buttons. One ripped.
“My fingers,” he said, staring down. “I have failed.” He glanced up at her. “I’m sorry. And you . . . have champagne shaped breasts.”
“Trim on top, full on the bottom. A vase, Wendel said. Not Vas. Vase. Like the kind you put on an end table.”
“That’s not very romantic,” 17 said. His head bowed.
“What is it? Are you okay?”
“My system . . . is malfunctioning. My battery is draining.”
She led him to the bed. “Don’t we still have three hours? Sit. Even your face is pale.”
“I am at thirty percent now.”
“Thirty percent,” she repeated. “Well, that’s still good enough, right?” She patted him on the back.
“Not enough to fulfill my purpose, I’m afraid.”
“You’re really being dramatic, 17, like Wendel. You think you have to please me? No one, and I mean, no one, has to do that. I please myself.” Her face turned hot, but she knew he’d understood.
“That is very complimentary of you, but what about my pur—”
“Screw your purpose!” she said. “I’m sorry, 17. Look . . . let’s just relax and forget about it. How about a pillow for your back? And I’ll watch TV, then we’ll charge you. See? No problem.”
“But what about my . . .”
She put a finger to his lips and they were ice cold.
“I think we’d better start the charging process now. The vacuum charger is in the laundry room.” She stood and held out both hands for him, then felt another shock. They too were ice cold.
“You're freezing,” she said.
“I am sorry,” he replied, and withdrew. “I am malfunctioning.”
He followed her to the laundry station down the hall. Sharima never realized how far away it was, as if Wendel had designed it to hide her while doing chores.
She flipped on the light and spun to face him. “How do we do this?”
He turned around and lifted the tail of his flannel shirt. At the small of his back, beneath a flap of faux flesh, lay a round portal with a triangle-shaped set of holes. A blue light flashed smartly around the rim.
“Well, that’s handy.” Sharima reached down to the base of the wall to retrieve the charger cord, which had the same triangle pattern only with prongs instead of holes. Cobwebs brushed her fingers. She ripped the cord out of the poor, unsuspecting vacuum, and then stuck its spiky head into 17’s back. For a moment, she wondered what it would be like to put her hands there for other reasons. To slide them up and down. To pretend his flesh was real. In a moment, 17s entire body began to fill with a pink flush. She did as well.
“And now?” she asked.
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Here? I guess you’re right. And how long will it take to, you know, get back to full productivity?”
“All night, I’m afraid. My battery—I did not tell you—I was ashamed . . . is my most unreliable feature. They told me it was not my fault. They told me the battery would not matter because I was projected to be a less-frequented model, perfect as I am. This sounded adequate at the time but they did not say it would interfere with my . . . my purpose.” His voice began to fade and his eyes dimmed. “When they sent me to the shipping station at the warehouse, something strange happened. It was dark, and I was asleep, but despite that I became aware of everything around me: the beeping of machines along the concrete walls, the flash of lights when the workers and their rough talk arrived, off when they left and the terrible silence that followed. Each time, I felt my battery drain. It is still draining. I don’t know what to do.” Again, he looked at his hands. “I do not like this strange malfunction.” He shoved them into his pockets. “S-Sharima? I-I waited for you. P-patience is my b-best f-feature. Month after month. Finally, you came. You came along. I was pleased to know that at last I would have a chance to f-f-fulfillllllllllll—” His voice glitched then faded.
Sharima finished the words for him without speaking. Your purpose.
“It’s okay, 17,” she said to his drained face, now an ashy tone of morbid gray. “It’s going to be okay.”
He nodded, and stared ahead, past her to the blank wall. He appeared sad. But that couldn't be. He was a robot.
The man in front of her was only a robot.
Her thoughts slipped like train cars down a steep track. It couldn't be this simple, or complicated, she thought. Another part of her was furious. It wasn’t fair! A purpose? Bloody hell! What about hers?
For no reason, she thought of her parents. They lived far away in an expensive high rise in Dubai. Then, she thought of Wendel. Yes, even Wendel because he would be a comfort in that moment when she felt the most alone in her life. But her weakness of needing him, she knew, would only bring a deeper sense of betrayal later on.
Sometimes being alone was better.
You couldn't depend on anyone, she realized, to fulfill your purpose whatever it may be. Not a husband, not your parents, not even a jouet de sex masculin.
Sharima debated whether to shut the light off or leave it on. In her indecision, 17 did something unexpected. He reached out and touched her on the shoulder. “G-good-night, S-Sharima,” he said. Then he shut down completely.
She turned to him with a weak smile of her own, even though she wanted to cry. “Good-night, 17,” she said bravely.
For a long moment, she studied his perfect face. He possessed a fine roman-shaped nose, and a squarish jaw. Soft synthetic eyelashes brushed along his cheeks and in sleep his lips slightly pouted—the effect made him look like a little boy. Devoid of emotion, rested, eyes closed, she thought he was perfect. More perfect than a manufactured robot imitating a man. Or a man imitating a man. For all good intentions, he looked human. More than that, he looked frail.
She decided to turn off the light.
Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-with-number-code-on-her-face-while-looking-afar-5473956/