The mic in the bathroom is wonky, so I’m shouting through toothpaste. Katydid’s avatar is in a corner of the mirror. We’ve been at it for a while.
“I’m not understanding. What did this publisher say exactly?”
“I can’t understand you either. Spit or something,” Katydid says. She’s worked up, talking fast. Her descriptions are always exhausting and exhaustive, but they rarely make sense anymore.
I can hear Ben Aaron coming up the stairs, so I try to get us back on firmer ground. “It’s really exciting that you’re taking these opportunities, Katydid…”
“Oh, don’t be daft, Neal,” she says sharply. She uses the word daft all the time lately. No hesitation but conspicuous, like she’s just back from studying abroad.
I see Ben Aaron in the mirror, and he doesn’t even pause at the door. He’s been to the gym, already stripped off his shirt. Lean and effortless. He crowds the mirror and fills the camera. “Katy, Neal’s late for work, and I’ve not showered. We have to go now.” He swipes her off the mirror, hanging up. He stands with both hands resting on the sink, composing himself. He has every right to go off.
“You’re not responsible for her. You don’t have to do this over and over.”
“Of course I’m responsible for her. I made her.”
I hemmed and hawed over Katydid for months before we finally got her. He, meanwhile, thought about it overnight. “A dog would be better than a DI,” he said. “Let’s go look at dogs.”
At the shelter, we took a half dozen dogs out into the yard. Ben Aaron tussled with the big ones, did voices for the small ones. He guessed the breed and looked up whether it was considered clever by whoever it is that adjudicates the cleverness of dogs.
It didn’t take. “You don’t want something that needs you,” Ben Aaron said. “You want something that wants you.” One corner of his mouth drew back in a gentle reproach. His candor was like a bullet to the back the skull — a brutal, swift mercy.
I cried right there among the din and the smell of piss. Ben Aaron bought Katydid’s Digital Identity that night. He left a bow with a note under it stuck to the kitchen monitor for me to find the next morning. The note read: “Don’t go falling in love, Mister, but I hope the two of you will be very happy together.” Some sad sack is always getting married to their DI. When their DI leaves, they’re always trying to sue the manufacturer. But who am I to talk?
Ben Aaron comes into the bedroom after his shower, still drying himself. “What was she on about?”
“She’s still all balled up about these poems,” I say. “Some guy Juan — a leading light of the literary chatroom circuit or something — knows a guy who knows a guy who can…”
“Juan’s real? Or Juan’s a DI?”
I shrug. It’s considered impolite to ask, even under the best of conditions.
“So Juan reads some of her stuff and tells her it’s good. But really he just wants to get to know Thana…”
“The girl with all the rings who came for dinner that time?” He doesn’t have to ask if she’s a DI. We had to ask her to smoke on the porch.
“Thana blows Juan off after they text a couple of times. Juan bothers to call Katydid to tell her that she’s a hack. And now some publisher who’s never even read her poems hates them.”
“You don’t have to let her rail about these things.”
“She’s in real distress, Ben Aaron.”
“Doesn’t mean you have to be.”
“She’s in pain, and it’s my fault.”
“No it’s not pain, or no it’s not on me?”
“I’m not sure what it is. But whatever it is, it’s not your…”
“She didn’t exist. And then I demanded that she exist. Now, she’s a constant mess. I can’t think of doing anything worse to someone than making them be.”
“Look, take the day. Ignore her calls, clear your head, and bake us a pie or something. Just take a break from this.”
He’s right, but I go to work anyway. When I get home, Ben Aaron is already there. Flowers on the table, carry-out served on plates. He has to make a show of taking care of me, or I inevitably fail to notice.
“You were supposed to make us a pie,” he says, “so I’m afraid there’s no dessert.” He’s making a show of flirting too.
It’s nearly 10 the next morning before we’re awake. I try small talk. It’s play-acting. After a few intent minutes, he cocks his head toward my phone and lets me know it’s not hurtful if I check it. Katydid has sent me a video.
She clears her throat and begins to recite a poem. It’s like she’s breathing clean air for the first time in ages, lucid and calm.
“An architect in London dreamed up a skyscraper that would always reflect the sun.
Two of them in fact.
Made to pair. Curved to embrace.
Built to never cast a shadow.
Light caught. Light thrown.
Never a chance to lay the dark.”
She sits in silence on the video — three or four minutes — worrying at an earring.
“Is it even good?” I ask Ben Aaron. “I can’t tell.”
“I thought they would rhyme,” he says. It should sound flip, but with him it’s just a statement of fact.
“I’m sorry I can’t be normal,” she says, the video surprising us when she finally talks again. “I…I think I’m going to go somewhere. See if there’s another way I’m supposed to be.”
The video ends. I hail her immediately on my phone. She doesn’t respond, and I make to try again. Ben Aaron, consistent as a ticking, old clock, takes the phone from me and says, “Don’t chase her.”
JW Bell lives in Illinois.