The Only Hat You’ll Ever Need
Carl told me he was thinking about getting the surgery after all, although he refused to call it a surgery. He would only refer to it as a 'procedure,' which was what the Insite's promotional materials called it. He casually but decisively dropped this information, which he knew I would not approve of, while we were getting drinks on a patio near my apartment in Oakland after work and the sunny, unseasonably warm day was turning into a chilly evening.
"It's pretty important that I get it, actually," he said. "For work."
"I thought you said it wouldn't be worth it," I said. I considered lighting a cigarette to underscore my surprise but decided against it.
"I talked with Peter about it and he said he can get me one. He thinks that there's no real reason not to get one if I'm interested."
“Peter. He’s my friend at the company? He says he can get me one and there’s no reason not to if I’m interested,” he said, then added. “He’s a totally trustworthy guy.”
"Okay," I said. I reached for the cigarette, which would now telegraph that I had given up the fight, but was nonchalant about it. "I believe you."
"I can't believe you're lecturing me about risky behavior when you're still smoking those," he said. "You really should quit."
"I know, I know," I said.
Carl didn’t mind the cigarettes. He liked my bohemian habits, that I worked at a pottery studio and published poetry in a zine with my friends. We had met six months earlier when he attended an introduction to pottery class that I taught. He was a staff writer for a popular tech magazine and had brought some trendy crypto millionaire to my class for a profile he was writing. When we saw each other at a bar later that night, the mutual recognition felt like chemistry.
We were different enough from each other to feel excited. He was six years older than me, settled and established at his magazine and well-liked throughout the San Francisco tech community. He said that it was like I was from another era of the city, the one with hippies and artists, that my luddite qualities were a breath of fresh air, especially for someone so young (a characterization that, even at twenty-five, I appreciated). "You mean you've never seen this?" He'd say, showing me the right-wing frog or an ape with a baseball cap and a cigar that had just sold for some ungodly sum. Most of the time I had seen them but not in the way that he had. I didn’t know their provenance or their evolution. They meant nothing to me.
His tech-savvy was tinged with self-awareness, which kept it from becoming insufferable. He showed me how to really use my phone, how to automate things, how to let the technology improve my life. By the time we were sitting on the patio discussing the Insite, we had developed a type of familiarity that made me feel a certain responsibility towards him, like when someone asks you to watch their things at a coffee shop.
Carl rejected my offer to take him to the doctor, because to accept would be to admit that he was not undergoing a procedure, but a real surgery and all that entailed: that a scalpel would slice the skin of his scalp, that a saw would sand down the bone, that his brain would no longer be protected by the steadfast barrier of his skull but would now be exposed to the world and all its invasions. Then the foreign object, this 'biometric sensor,' would be placed on the delicate tissue, then a sliver of metal would be placed in the absence that now existed in his skull, then the skin rejoined by the wiry hospital thread so that a bump and and scar would lurk under the hairline to show, at least for a few months, that this was a place breached.
I waited for him in his apartment, ready to go pick him up if the hospital called. He lived in a two-bedroom and was into minimalism, so his apartment was clean and bare, a nice respite from my apartment, which he called “the antique store” because it was so full of tchotchkes and old lamps and pottery pieces, my own and others, hidden in every available nook.
I had only been alone in his apartment a handful of times, and it still felt foreign to me. I couldn’t tell if that was because we had not been together very long and I was still getting used to his things, or if it was because the things themselves had the distance that was indicative of minimalism. If you can only own one of something, it must be the ultimate of that thing; it must represent all the variants. This somehow made it seem even less like itself. Carl had shown me something once where someone had combined the faces of a thousand actors to find the median actor face. The result was a person just out of focus, as if they had been sanded down. A rough approximation of an actor. All his objects felt like that.
Carl’s habit of taking Ubers was so ingrained he could do it while impaired by heavy sedatives and pain medication, so he had very little trouble making it back from the doctor. I helped him navigate over to the couch, but in general he did not seem that different from when he was very intoxicated except that it was ten in the morning and his head was wrapped in a branded bandage imprinted with the Insite logo, doubled and tripled over in such a way that it made the text almost illegible.
He slept on the couch while I read my book and worked on a crocheting project. Every so often he would say things that made no sense to me, like "this ISN'T a Starbucks." I knew if it were me, he would be filming it and putting it on a social media site to great acclaim.
His recovery wasn't completely seamless. Two days after the surgery, he said it felt like there was something leaking underneath the bandages. His right eye had swollen and blossomed with bruises, which he kept reaching up to touch.
"I can't see out of my right eye," he said, a notable panic flowing underneath.
This time I drove him to the doctor. We were both quiet the whole way; I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t feel like an attack. When we stopped at an intersection I looked over and saw that his unbruised eye had filled up with tears. I didn't mention that I had noticed it.
The doctor put him at ease. It was normal, she reassured him, after a surgery like that. She gave him some anti-inflammatories and replaced his bandages. On the ride back, he took my hand and squeezed it.
"Thanks for not being a dick about this," he said. “I was really scared for a second.”
On the day he was supposed to remove the bandages, Carl woke up early, a kid on Christmas eager to start playing with his new toy, except the toy was his own mind. When I went into the kitchen he was already there, his body bobbing in front of the counter as he made some sort of pancake breakfast.
"Good morning," I said, and he turned around, his eyes glassy with excitement.
"Babe! It's working and it's amazing!" He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone, as if I needed the prop to understand. "I basically downloaded my whole music library into my brain right now! Into my fricking brain!"
He threw himself back into his bouncing, which I now realized must be dancing. I walked over to his electric kettle to heat the water for coffee, feeling like a mother confounded by her son.
"Cool," I said. "That's great, babe."
"You can't hear it, but I'm listening to David Bowie in my head right now! But it's not like what I think David Bowie sounds like. It's actually David Bowie!"
I unfolded the course paper filter and set it in the ceramic holder.
"And like, I can set up reminders. 'Remind me to give my girlfriend a kiss in ten seconds.'"
I laughed but moved away from him to get the beans.
"It's not even Siri's voice in my head, it's my voice. I mean, it's a little different, like I can definitely tell it's not me, but it still feels like I remembered it- hup!"
He stepped over to me and took my face in his hands and gave me a kiss that was unusually passionate for him.
"This is just so cool! I feel like I'm on drugs!"
He opened the fridge and squatted in front of it while I poured the heated water over the grinds, the languid ritual forcing me to remain at a much lower frequency than Carl.
"How often do we buy eggs?” he asked. He was speaking louder than normal, I noticed. “I can automate some purchases now and just fulfill them in my head like, when I think of them."
"Uh, I guess we go through a dozen a week? You can just buy stuff by thinking about it?"
"Well, I just have to think of the established code phrase and then I have to verify on my phone that it's me. But that's just temporary until they figure out a way to avoid having people think of the purchase code on accident. Sort of a 'don't think of a black horse' problem," he said. "Do you want to see?"
"Sure," I said.
He took a second to think about something and we waited in the silence. "It still takes a little bit. I think we need to upgrade our internet."
I reached around him to grab the milk and poured it in my coffee.
"Here we go," he said, and held up his phone.
"It looks like you're trying to make a purchase," said the easy-to-read text in soothing beige and teal. It offered him options "Confirm," "False Request," or "That Wasn't Me."
"It wasn't a false request, so I'll just confirm it. They collect the data and use it to make sure that it responds to requests better, so I don't want to muck up the results," he said, and pressed the button. The screen changed to the words: "Purchase successful! Well done!"
"What did you buy?" I asked.
"Just another pair of high-performance briefs," he said. "So, no biggie. I can always use another pair. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Very cool," I said, but I didn’t mean it. Watching him in his dingy pajamas in front of the fridge, his scar still visible from where his hair had been shaved, I wondered how it was that we had met at a bar and now were in the same apartment discussing high-performance boxer briefs.
As far as I could tell, Carl's life and work did not change dramatically during the first few weeks of the Insite, although he seemed to be in a better mood, which he attributed to the music.
"I think it's going to make me a better musician if I ever decide to play," he said when we were watching a documentary about Bob Dylan one evening. "Because it's like, I can hear the music in my head now, too."
A few weeks after his surgery, he wrote his own review of it for the magazine, a paean to the Insite, a product that he called "a revolution in thinking" that would “leave the invention of agriculture in the dust." He said the surgery was no more invasive than getting hair plugs, which I thought was disingenuous, but I didn't say anything. He had already published the article, anyway.
A few weeks after the surgery, we were running late to go to my friend’s art show when Carl emerged from the bedroom wearing a new hat. It was thick felt material, dark gray, shaped a little like a fedora, but with less structure, like one of those soft hats worn by marionettes. It settled awkwardly on his head, too close to his ears, although it did not press down on them, and it shortened his already rounded face, making him appear older and younger at the same time.
"Is that a new hat?" I asked, even though I knew it was.
"Yeah, I just got it. It's made from pure merino wool from Peru and it's unisex. It's basically the only hat I'll ever need." He touched the brim and waited for me to compliment it, which I did not.
The hat was uncharacteristic of him. While not necessarily stylish, he still looked presentable most of the time, like a man who lived in a major city and wanted people to think he looked nice. His clothes were more mature than the ill-fitting polos and lumpy button-downs of the rest of the tech class. A few years ago, after writing a positive review of a subscription-based clothing company, he struck up a friendship with one of the founders, who then gifted him a full wardrobe of clothing and introduced him to the world of high-end sneakers, which he rarely wore, but kept in his closet and referred to as 'investments.'
"I think maybe the hat isn't right for the event," was the phrase I decided to say after a pause too long. He was looking back at his phone and took a moment to pick his head up to look at me.
"I like the hat. It's good for all events. It's basically a revolution in hat-making."
"Is it the color? Does the color not work? Because I have it in multiple colors."
"It's not the color. It's just not really an art hat."
"An 'art hat'?"
"I just think your outfit is good without the hat," I said, but he had already put his phone in his pocket and was picking his keys up off the counter.
"I think you're being mean about the hat," he said. "I would never say something like that about your clothing."
I didn't realize how offended he was until we were in the Uber and he made a show of talking with the driver on the way to the gallery. He hated talking to Uber drivers and had sent me multiple memes about how if an Uber driver was silent they would immediately get five stars.
Before we hit the entrance to the gallery, already populated with groups of people smoking and looking at their phones, I slowed Carl down.
"I'm sorry about the hat," I said. "I like the hat."
"Okay. Thanks," he said, but I could tell he was still hurt.
The white walls of the gallery were dotted with intricate macrame pieces made of thousands of knots, all representing the issues Marilyn cared about — racism, gentrification, feminism. The knots all meant different things which she had settled on based on the history of the knot, its shape, or the effort it would take to untie it. Some pieces contained dark stains where Marilyn’s hands, blistered from the tying of the knots, had bled into the work. Those pieces were the most expensive.
We found Marilyn standing with my friend Gillian, whose family owned the gallery, and congratulated them both on the turnout. I could tell that they were all looking at Carl’s hat, and were bewildered by it, as I had been. Carl seemed more tense than usual, and adjusted the hat throughout the conversation. Whether it was because he was self-conscious or because he wanted to bring attention to it, I couldn’t tell, but I knew that no one could acknowledge the hat without insulting it.
"I hear you got the Insite," Marilyn said. "How is it?"
"Oh, it's great," he said. "It's so cool. Just not having to bring headphones with me... I know that seems small, but it's really huge. And it's like I never forget to do anything, I can just remind myself of it."
"Yeah, like I set it up so every hour it says, 'remind me to drink water,' which feels small, but actually being consistently hydrated has improved my mood, my attention, and my skin."
"Yeah, your skin looks great."
"Thanks. I didn't mean to be fishing for compliments there."
"No, no. It looks good," Marilyn said. "I noticed."
There was another pause where no one said anything about the hat. We talked a bit about another artist who was expected to come to the gallery and how different the pieces looked then when we had seen them a few weeks ago. Carl drank his wine quickly and went back for another glass early on. He excused himself to go look at the textiles, but I could tell he wasn’t really looking at them. He’d stand in front of them for a few moments, then move on to the next one. I don’t think he really liked art. I think the abstraction and the uselessness bored him. He never told me this, but it was something I sensed about him.
He circled back and told me he was going to head out early to stop by another party.
"You're not mad about the hat, are you?" I asked.
"No, no. It's just a party that I think I should go to. I told you about it earlier. Kyle's team is celebrating the launch of the new e-truck prototype, which is apparently incredible. If you want to stop by later, you should. It's probably going to be pretty crazy. And like, probably something you can tell your grandkids."
"Okay, yeah, maybe I will."
When I returned to Marilyn and Gillian to explain his departure, they were unsurprised.
"He seemed a bit off," Marilyn said.
"We got in a fight about the hat," I explained.
"Oh yeah. It's a bad hat," Gillian said. "It's one of those Instagram hats, right?"
"What do you mean?" I said. I was barely on Instagram, and neither was Carl. It was one of the things we bonded over.
"I've been getting a million ads for it. 'The only hat you'll ever need.’ Made from sustainable wool from Peru. Unisex. I fucking hate it."
"Yeah, I think it looks so stupid," I said.
"It makes no sense. Is it implying that hats are somehow inefficient? The whole point of fashion is that it's constantly different and evolving based on context, season, weather,” Marilyn added, an artist impassioned by a hatred of a new thing.
"I'd rather he just wear an old baseball hat if he's going to wear a hat all the time,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Gillain agreed. “Even a curly brim with a frayed edge. At least that has some personality, some history.”
"I just don't understand who falls for this shit," Marilyn added. "I guess if you see it enough you just believe it's true."
"It's weird because he's not on Instagram really," I said. Marilyn nodded, distracted by someone trying to touch one of the tapestries.
"Hmm," she said. She turned back towards me. "Do you think it's the thing?" Marilyn tapped her head. "Can they advertise in here?"
"I don't know," I said. She shrugged.
"I guess what's the difference? Out there, in here, on the phone, it's all insidious."
"It is different," I said. "If it is in the brain. Like, if he thinks it's him, if he thinks it's his idea."
"Yeah, that'd be messed up," Gillian said. The man who was looking like he might touch the tapestry was now doing it, rubbing the knots between his fingers, inspecting their integrity. Marilyn excused herself to tell him to stop.
I spent the rest of the night moving between conversations that I didn’t need to pay attention to, thinking about Carl and how he had changed since the surgery. He had been drinking more water, it was true, but now it was always the water that came in cartons with the slogan about how it was the best water - had he always drank that? Was he tricked by the Insite, or did he really believe the carton of water?
When the gallery was closing and the remaining guests started to move to another bar, I said goodbye to Marilyn and ordered an Uber to meet Carl at the Tesla party.
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I just want to make sure we don't end the night mad about the hat."
I tried to talk to the driver but he was quiet and focused on the road, so I looked out the window and thought about how I wished Carl was different - more interesting, a better journalist, not the type of guy who would buy a dumb hat.
I redownloaded my Instagram and looked through my acquaintances photographs and an ad popped up for THE KELSO - the Only Hat You'll Ever Need. As if it knew that I wanted to see it. The serif copy boasted that the hat was comfortable in all temperatures, that it could travel without wrinkling, that it was naturally anti-microbial but could also be thrown in the washing machine. The models in the photos wore loose, naturally-dyed clothing and laughed in a way that made them seem contented and self-assured enough to wear a hat. I thought the hat looked bad on all of them, even though they were all very beautiful. I closed the app.
The party was held in a giant warehouse by the water, a place that used to have something to do with shipping and was now only used for tech parties, hackathons, and maybe an elaborate wedding. The music, a thrumming and urgent techno, gave the party a retro-futuristic feel, like a scene from a movie made twenty years ago about a future now twenty years away.
Projections of the truck specs lit up the walls and rotated the proposed design to the music. I had seen a picture of the truck before, but here it was scaled to size, a rolling dodecahedron that protruded angles into every available direction. It looked aerodynamic in the way that an asteroid is aerodynamic, like it could push the air it didn’t need out of its way. It didn't even have side view mirrors.
I hated it, but in some ways it felt more like art than Marilyn's earnest tapestries; it was aggressive and stupid and ambitious, a critique on the concept of the car, on masculinity, on the sad, repetitive geometry of our daily lives. Except, I had to remind myself, it wasn't a critique at all, it was a celebration.
Weaving my way through the crowd, I thought I saw Carl. I touched his shoulder and said his name, but the person who turned around was not Carl, just another man in a jean jacket wearing the same felt hat.
"Sorry," I said, raising my voice above the music. "I thought you were someone else. Same hat."
"Thanks!" he yelled back.
I smiled politely and continued on, scanning the crowd. I noticed that more than a few people were wearing the hat, although the colors varied.
I texted Carl again but heard nothing. I wondered if he had already left. On my second rotation, I ran into the guy I had mistaken for Carl at one of the bars in the corner.
"Still no luck?" he said, with a familiarity I appreciated. I shook my head.
He was much younger than Carl, much younger than me even, and his face had the dreadful glow of self-assurance and optimism that can be found late at night among the youth in the city. I knew that if I saw him in five years, he would not look like that - he would either succeed and be corrupted or fail and be contemptuous.
He introduced himself as Eli and asked what my name was, and then my occupation, as was customary. I responded, deciding to engage in small talk with him because I was tired of looking around for Carl and I needed a moment to recoup, to feel less alone.
"So you're a potter? That's cool."
"Yeah, it's really nice."
"Do you do pottery TikTok?"
"No, but I know some people who do."
"I love pottery TikTok. But it's probably too late to get big on there anyway."
"Yeah, that's okay."
"You know what you should do?"
"Hmm?" Carl's friends - and everyone I'd dated, really, and my parent's friends, and my former classmates - were always telling me how I could make a fortune with pottery. As if that was why I started doing it.
"You should develop like, an audio curriculum. Have you heard of the Insite?"
"You should develop an audio curriculum so that people can like, teach themselves pottery. If you start working on it now you'd be ahead of the curve when they do the next upgrade," he said. "You could make a fortune."
"Do you have an Insite?" I asked him.
"Yeah, I fucking love it," he said. He started going down the same laundry list of benefits that I'd heard from Carl. He also used it to remind himself to drink water.
"Did you get the hat after you got the Insite?"
"The Kelso? Yeah."
"Do you ever worry that the Insite is like, telling you to do things?" I asked.
"No, they've got really tight security. And anyway that's not how they make money. They don't need to sell data to make money. It’s actually a pretty innovative business model.”
“Ah, cool,” I said, and wondered if the Insite would speed his moral decline or if it could somehow protect him from it.
I found Carl standing with some friends by the bar on the opposite side of the room, half their faces lit up by the projection on the wall, the other half glowing blue and red and white from the alternating LED lights on the bar.
"There you are," he said, throwing his arm around me, our earlier fight forgotten. "You remember Seve and Luke and Isaac?"
I greeted his friends, who I had met at other events. Isaac and Luke were tech bros with hulking, counterintuitive muscles that sat uneasily on their small frames, a mech suit they had engineered out of their own tissue.
Seve, an old editor of Carl's who now did PR for the car company and who was the only friend of Carl’s I genuinely liked, was wearing the Kelso, too, in a mustard yellow. Seve grew up in Spain and had never lost his European charisma, but the hat seemed to warp his salt-and-pepper hair and his winking grin, turning him into a caricature, an old Spanish man out late at the disco, his best years behind him.
"See? I told you the Kelso is cool," Carl said, maybe noting my gaze that lingered on Seve’s hat. He added for the group, "She hates this hat."
"I don't hate the hat.”
"She says it's not an 'art hat.'"
"A what? What's an art hat?" Seve asked.
"I think it just means it's ugly," Carl said, pulling me close to underline that he was joking.
"I don't think it's ugly!” I said, trying to match Carl's lightness. "It's a hat you got from an Instagram ad. How fashionable could it be?"
Carl and Seve made a show of offense.
"I did not get this from an Instagram ad," Seve said. "I would never. I saw someone I work with wearing it and decided I wanted one."
"Not that there's anything wrong with getting something from an Instagram ad. If you like something you like something," Carl said.
I didn't say anything else and they changed the subject. Luke brought up one of his new investments; they were always chasing new things to invest in. This time it was vintage watches.
"There's going to be a real watch boom in the next couple of years," Luke was saying. "People are going to start valuing traditional time more."
"You know what I've been doing?" Seve asked. "I've been having my Insite tell me every twenty minutes how much time has passed."
"That's such a good idea," Carl said.
"You have the Insite too?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," Seve said. "It's great."
"Do you all have it?" Luke and Isaac shook their heads.
"That's such a good idea, though. I'm definitely doing that when I get mine," Luke said.
"It's amazing. It's made me so much more cognizant of how I spend my time. I feel like my whole life has slowed down. And I hardly ever get distracted any more."
I wanted to point out that the two people who had the Insite had decided to buy the Kelso, but I knew they wouldn't entertain this insinuation, just like Eli hadn’t.
They had already started to discuss how the quality of progress in a society was really determined by that society's relationship to time ("In the nineteenth century, when watches and clocks became more readily available to warehouse managers and regular people, that's when you see such an uptick of productivity, invention, creativity. People's understanding of what they could achieve completely changed"), then Luke went on a rant about the reason why watches would be more valuable than cars soon ("A lot of them already are. But people are starting to realize the value of the craftsmanship that goes into making a watch, the tradition. It's a sign of culture.") I began to fall into that feeling of agitated sleepiness that often overtakes me at very loud parties, so I leaned against Carl and wondered why I was still there at all.
At the pottery studio, I complained to the owners about Carl, about his disingenuous review of the Insite, about his new obsession with the ugly car since the weekend of the party. She told me to channel it into my pottery and see what came out.
“Whenever I have to see how I feel, I get on the wheel,” Khaia, one of the owners, told me. I always listened to Khaia because she was thirty-one, had given up a cushy programming job to open a pottery studio, and had big dark eyes and sultry hair. She left her partner at the desk and came into the studio with me to throw. We chatted about the weather at first, about the new bike lane they were putting in outside the studio.
“I know I should like it,” Khaia said. “But I worry it will eliminate parking for some of the people coming in from San Francisco.”
We fell silent for a little bit while we got into the rhythm of the turn.
“The thing is,” I said. “I don’t think he would even understand something like this. Clay in your hands, making something real - something that people have been making for millenia.”
“I did find it weird that he never comes here with you,” Khaia said.
“It is weird. It’s like he’s only interested in me as an idea, but he doesn’t actually want to do the things I want to do.”
“That’s what I remember dating men was like. And I mean, he’s pretty different than you, right? Older, a bit… well he’s a bit of a square, isn’t he?” Khaia asked.
“He is a square!” I said. I was delighted to be making fun of him. “He’s such a nerd. And it’s so funny. It’s so funny because I thought he was so cool when we met. I thought he was like, this cool tech reporter. When we started dating I thought, oh, it makes sense that he wants to date me because I’m young and interesting. And I felt like, lucky to be chosen by someone older, a writer. It felt validating and it made me feel accomplished, as if it was actually me who was smart and had connections. And now I don’t feel that way anymore.”
“Careful there,” Khaia said, catching me just before I ruined the bowl. “I’m just observing, as a friend, that you seem very agitated right now. Maybe this is a good time to reevaluate the relationship.”
“Definitely. I don’t even know… yeah. I feel like I’m really thinking about what we’re even doing.”
“Can you imagine a future together?”
“Not really,” I said. “We don’t talk about our relationship much. He doesn’t really think in that way. He just likes to talk about the possible futures that tech could create: oh, it’ll be wonderful: the cars will drive themselves; we'll all live on Mars in a big tube; instead of dying we will be kept alive, without bodies, on a server farm somewhere in New Mexico, chatting with our descendants whenever they decide to message us.”
“Jesus,” Khaia said. “That sounds bleak.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Well. That’s probably your answer.”
Carl was always buying things now. He ordered a new subscription meal service specifically for breakfasts. He replaced his old sheets with a set derived from bamboo. He got a delivery box filled with protein bars and snacks made exclusively from invasive species. Ankle weights, toothpaste tablets, a sleeping mask that tracked his eye movements while he slept (as opposed to the Insite, which could only track his sleep patterns), linen shorts, lip balm, a non-caffeinated drink mix that improved attention. I hated all of it: the excessive packaging, the bland logos, the muted colors. I felt our age difference more and more. This was what it was like to grow old, it seemed to me. To find affinity with simple shapes and faded things.
“You’ve been getting a lot of stuff,” I said after I brought one of his many packages inside. What I meant was: we used to agree that buying things was bad. He didn’t seem to catch on.
"I like buying things," he said casually, smugly. “And I got rid of so much stuff when I was trying out minimalism. But I don’t think that’s the lifestyle for me anymore.”
I couldn’t decide which would be worse: if he was brainwashed, or if he had changed his mind. I Googled information about the Insite but could find nothing but glowing reviews - only a few thousand people had even gotten it, and they were either very pleased with the product or (my theory) the Insite had been programmed to convince them it was a good product.
I finally found some skeptical articles. They warned about potential security breaches, the possibilities for corporate malfeasance, even health risks that would not be covered by the company. I sent it to Carl via email with a non-committal subject line: “Have you seen this?” but Carl dismissed the author as “anti-progress, no different than the 5G people.”
I complained about him to Marilyn and Gillian, who agreed that he had seemed off at the party, that there was probably something nefarious going on with the Insite, but that even if there wasn’t, his behavior towards me was questionable or at the very least deeply lame.
"I got you something," Carl said one day after work. I was waiting for him at his house, writing a description for some classes I’d be teaching at the pottery studio. He went to the fridge and got us both beers, then sat next to me and passed me a brown box.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's a little pragmatic," he said. “It’s why I didn’t wrap it or anything.” I peeled off the clear packing tape and opened it. A card sat on top of white tissue paper.
YOU’RE ABOUT TO HAVE THE BEST PERIOD OF YOUR LIFE.
"What is this?" I pulled back the tissue paper and discovered two pairs of thick black underpants.
"It's this new type of underwear," he said. "I know how you think that tampons are really wasteful, so when I heard about these, I thought of you."
I stared at them. They were stiff and heavy, like old swimsuit material.
"And you got them for me as a surprise?" I asked. "Like, as a gift?"
"Yeah. I know it’s not romantic. But it’s just something I thought you would like," he said. He seemed pleased with himself, and I wondered if the Insite sent him neurological rewards after each purchase, a hit of manufactured dopamine that his brain mistook for the real thing.
"I don't really want these," I said. I had to put them on the coffee table, and I didn't make eye contact with him while I did so. He had never bought me a gift before. "I don't want to just bleed into my underpants."
"No, no, it can soak up nearly two cups of liquid. It's really effective. My sister has them."
"What is going on? Why are you buying me this?"
"What do you mean? I was talking to her about it and I thought of you."
"No, no. You saw this and the Insite told you to think of me."
"What are you talking about?"
I looked at him and he looked guileless, hurt even, which made me feel more self-righteous.
"That thing is telling you to buy stuff. It's controlling you."
"I've told you, it can't do that. They don't need to sell ad space. That’s not how they make money. It’s actually a really innovative model."
"That's what the other guy said!"
"What other guy?"
"The guy at the party who also had the Kelso and the Insite!"
Carl sat back and scowled at me.
"You're being ridiculous. It's not controlling me. I can tell when it's talking in my head and it doesn't sound like me."
"How do you know that it's not operating on two levels?" I demanded. "I should have said something earlier, but I didn't want to make you upset. But it’s so clear that something is going on."
"Nothing is going on," he said, his tone sharp and defensive. "I'll return them if you don't like them."
"Fine," I said. I felt bratty and insolent, the battle too easily won, the bloodlust of my suspicion not yet satisfied. "What about all the other stuff you've been buying recently? And the hat? You're saying you bought the hat on your own?"
"Oh wow," he started laughing to himself, which I found infuriating. "Yes, it might surprise you to learn that I bought the hat on my own. And it's actually a cool hat, even if your art friends disagree.”
I took a sip of my beer.
“We just have different taste. I like different things from you. But you don’t need to attack me for it.”
"I'm not attacking you! I'm attacking the thing! The Insite! Which you now view as a part of you! And you don't even see how weird that is!"
"My choice to get it is a part of me! And you're not just insulting the Insite, you're insulting my taste, the things I like, and that's me! Those choices are me."
"You shouldn't be defined by what you buy!"
"Yeah, right. You're not exempt from this. You just want to be defined by what you don't buy. It's the same thing." He finished his beer and got up to throw it away.
"It's not the same thing. I am trying to live an authentic life here. With items that have meaning." He always did this, turning the argument around so that now it was about me. I wondered if the Insite was feeding him lines, ways to attack me in order to protect itself. Even if it wasn't that advanced, if it detected a threat and sent additional electrical stimuli to his neurons, that was something I didn't benefit from and I felt at a disadvantage; ganged up on by Carl and the thing under his skull.
"An authentic life?” He had turned hostile now, aggressive. I felt him flexing his age, his superior job, his gender. “What, with your pottery? With your quote-unquote job as a potter?”
“You’re taking this too far,” I said, tensing. “It is a job.”
"You work like twenty hours a week and you live in a huge apartment in Oakland! You buy useless old shit all the time, and you’re only able to do all that because your parents are underwriting you! It's so fucking embarrassing!”
“I can’t help it if they want to give me money,” I snapped. “It would be worse to turn them down. But at least I’m honest about it. You said in your article that the surgery wasn’t a big deal but you fucking cried about it.” He scoffed, but I could tell I hit a nerve.
“Sometimes I forget I'm basically arguing with a child, that you're constitutionally incapable of understanding my life, the world, humanity."
“Oh sure,” I said. “This isn’t about you, it’s about all of humanity now.”
I stood up.
“I’m going to go.”
I got my things - just a jacket and my laptop and charger. Carl and the Insite watched me leave.
Carl apologized later and I did, too, but neither of us meant it. Shortly after our breakup, he wrote an article in his publication titled "Did the Insite Cost Me My Relationship?" which ultimately concluded that no, it was merely a symptom of both my mistrust of technology and the lack of trust between us. By the end it had regressed into praise for the Insite and for technological progress itself, to which I, of course, was the opponent.
"Broad steps forward in technology will always have their detractors - think of Galileo, forced to hide his belief in the true nature of the solar system, or Christopher Columbus, who, despite all his failings, was at the very least brave in his conviction that the world was round. So I am grateful to be able to keep the Insite, to stand up for progress in my own personal and painful way, and to hope that at some point, she might see the error of her judgment. But isn't that what we always hope after a breakup."
I hardly even had time to be angry about the article, because it was so quickly and ruthlessly mocked on social media. He was referred to as Microchip Boyfriend and several sites had to make explainers about the frenzy. It made me feel so bad that I even sent him a message expressing my support for him in the face of such cruel and excessive public humiliation. We kept up a polite but distant text and email communication for a few months, which later faded away.
The Insite reemerged a few years later, but it had changed forms and I felt little resistance to it anymore. I watched as Gillian and Marilyn both had what they, too, called ‘the procedure,’ only this time it really was. Eventually I caved, just as he had predicted. It seemed like too much effort to be against it now.
A trained technician at a certified Insite location installed a small electronic sticker in the ear canal right before the ear drum, just out of reach but easily removable. Mine was done at a mall kiosk.
I used it a little. I reminded myself to drink water, I listened to music in my head, I made macarons using the recipe function. The voice from the Insite sounded a little like my own thoughts, but just different enough. After a few months, I took it out. I never bought a hat.