Harold Gates slowed the snow-topped yellow taxi and edged it along the slushy curb to a stop where she stood, shivering in a tattered wool coat in a January blizzard on the steps of her unlit... [+]
In front of him, for nearly every minute he was awake, there was a screen.
He tried to recall a time when it wasn’t this way. He couldn’t, so he watched old movies to try to remember.
“Yeah, but this was Hollywood,” he said to himself when he saw a man and a woman kissing on a first date, when he watched friends hug without a care in the world. “Nothing about their movies can be trusted.”
He returned to his work of updating software for the new version of a government surveillance app. He could do it in his sleep; he often felt like he did. Increasingly, he wasn’t sure exactly when he was awake and when he was asleep. Sometimes he’d stare at a calendar and shake his head, the numbers making no sense to him.
“What does it matter if it’s 23 or 24? July or September? Everything’s the same as yesterday, the same as it’ll be tomorrow.”
An incoming notification on his computer alerted him to his girlfriend’s presence. He often forgot he was dating someone until a message came in from her. He had been with her for a while now. Though he couldn’t remember precisely how long, he believed it had been months. Or at least it felt like months. Maybe years. He wasn’t sure. He accepted the request and the screen filled with her face, which was frowning.
“I think we should break up.”
She frequently said this.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so absent,” he said. “Let’s go on a date this weekend.”
“You mean it?”
“Say, 7:30 on Friday?"
She beamed at him and then broke connection, and he set a reminder for the engagement.
The day wore on, as days tend to do, as weeks tend to do, as life tends to do. He got up from time to time to use the bathroom, to fix himself a sandwich, to brush his teeth. He took ibuprofen for the unending pain in his hand, wrist, and arm, the one he used for the mouse, and he tried, but usually forgot, to stretch his body every couple hours to improve blood flow.
Mostly, he worked. He coded, he emailed, he tested, he uploaded, he downloaded—through it all, he typed. He and his computer, dancing partners until the end.
Soon it was Friday, and the late-summer sun had fallen into the window next to his desk. The horizon swirled orange and blue, the sky above paling violet. Across the street flew a crow, its strong wings rowing the air like two black oars. His phone lit up and vibrated and played a default jingle. 7:05. Time to get ready for his date.
He took a shower and shaved and combed his hair and brushed his teeth. In the mirror he realized that the reflection was someone he no longer recognized. He put on a nice shirt. She had sounded more bothered than usual, so he’d go the extra mile.
At 7:30 he sat down at his desk and contacted her. Her face showed up on his computer screen. She was smiling, and he could see she had put on makeup. He smiled back.
“Where are you taking us for dinner?” she asked.
“The Left Bank,” he said.
Her smile faded. “We did Paris two dates ago.”
He thought for a moment. “Okay. Tel Aviv.”
“I don’t know what Tel Aviv looks like.”
He didn’t either, but he knew it was on the Mediterranean.
“We’re sitting outside,” he said. “No one is wearing masks. I can’t tell if it’s pre-pandemic or post-, but everyone seems happy. Relaxed. It’s late in the evening, the sun is burning red atop the water, and it’s warm. But a gentle breeze coming in off the water wicks away our sweat.”
“The label on the bottle we’re drinking is in Hebrew, and the wine is white and dry, and it’s some of the best we’ve ever had. Beads of moisture gather on our glasses, the cold of the drink trying to fend off the heat of the evening.”
And so the date went. They enjoyed their imaginary food, their drink, the way the stars came out, one by one, as the day gave way to tender night.
“That was nice,” she said as they walked, hand in hand, back to her hotel. “Would you like to see my room?”
He awoke the following morning before his alarm, like he always did. The light outside his window was bluish grey, and the earliest of the birds had just started singing the first measures of dawn. He stared up at the ceiling, the fan slowly rotating above him. Did someone once sleep next to him? He looked at the other side of the bed. If he squinted, he could almost imagine the bunched-up blanket being the form of a woman. But a woman had never actually been here, right?
He crawled out of bed and poured coffee and went to his workstation. Above his monitor was a Post-it on which he had written “Lifestation.” He touched the mouse and his computer stirred.
“Good morning,” he said to his monitor.
He checked his email. Ninety-four new messages since last night. With the computational part of his brain honed to a gleaming edge, he did the math. Asleep for 5 hours. 94 divided by 5. That’s 23.75 messages per hour. From his desk drawer he took a bottle and poured three white pills into his hand and washed them down with coffee.
With every keystroke, he felt the stimulants coming on. He envisioned the inside of his brain as an immense antique switchboard with human operators—women with headsets and perfect posture and military green blouses and skirts—and as the molecules of caffeine and dextroamphetamine started dialing, the lights on the switchboard began blinking to life. And soon, with so many calls coming in, the operators were struggling to keep up, their hands moving so fast that their arms were a flashing blur, and the board was luminous with constellations.