The Future We Wanted
I wonder a lot about how Jane ended up. When we were small we did everything together. “She’s just like you,” Aunt Cissy kept insisting, and Jane was, in that her birth parents were, for the most part, out of the picture. We also both liked fantasy books and hated afterschool, but honestly, that’s where the similarities ended. Jane was a weirdo.
“In what way was she weird,” Dr. Carla asked me, clasping her hands.
“My uncle said Jane couldn’t tell fantasy from reality,” I said after a pause.
“But your uncle still performed care for Jane,” someone in the circle said. A group member in leggings, let’s call her Ruby, said loudly, “People said that about me when I was little, too. It’s a common avenue leveraged to oppress girls of imagination!”
Luckily Dr. Carla held up her hand then, gently saying, “let’s keep that thought, as we bring group to an end.”
“I could tell fantasy from reality,” Ruby was still insisting as the twelve or so of us trailed out of the park, tapping our mobilepays against the turnstile. Ridgewood Park took only nine cents from each of us, unlike Switchmond Field, which took 17 cents. The turnstile displays blinked DO YOUR PART and THANK YOU, alternately.
“I could tell,” Ruby said, shouldering abruptly behind me and nearly shouting into my ear. “I just didn’t want to.”
After group, I took the bus promptly home (mobilepay: one dollar and ninety cents) and speed-walked to the apartment. Rex and Ellis would have been in front of screens the whole time. When I came in the house, there was a musty smell of microwaved cheese. El was missing pants, waving around two grotesque wireless fiddlesticks of some kind. The noise was all coming from Rex and also Brian, who were sort of leapfrogging all over some vinyl electronic pad that was saying things like Vanquished! And Blue Moves Next!
The way Brian called, “He-eyyyy,” was confidently bright, as if dipped in the golden morning at home I’d just missed. Despite myself I was also calling he-eyyyy when El slammed into me and Rexy started talking immediately in a language I barely understood, about blue units and combat lanes, snippets from some universe into which they all dived joyfully whenever I turned my back.
“How was women’s group?” Brian asked, continuing to grin. He looked so happy to see me, so proud of the time he spent delighting the children. It was unfair of me to be resentful.
“It was nice,” I said, picking up Rex’s socks and Brian’s socks and putting them in my pocket, picking up a piece of colorful plastic, part of one of El’s playsets, and reuniting it with another part. Rex continued the noise; they wanted to show me something to do with the game and beating Dad and I said I promise I will in a minute, my coat is still on. Brian gave me a kiss. He didn’t really know what we talked about in group, which is how it was supposed to be. “I talked about Jane a little bit. I’m wondering if I should try to look her up and see how she’s doing.”
“Was Jane the one who was your roommate when we met?”
“No, the one I grew up with in Jamaica Plain. My aunt and uncle basically took care of her. I told you, she got all the crystal animals?”
“Oh,” Brian said, picking a bit of egg off the countertop with his fingertips and gamely eating it. “The crazy one.”
“You shouldn’t call women crazy,” I said. Rex had gone back to trying to play with the mat and was shoving El, who was trying to play too. They were only paying attention to the game, which was chiming, New Challenger Alert! “Yes, the crazy one.”
“It’s nice you talked about her,” Brian said. “You know your coat is still on?”
I knew, god.
“Hey Polly? You know what might be good? If we got one of those Augusta virtual assistant things. Even just for weekends,” Brian said, taking my coat off me. I shrugged it angrily in his direction, since we’d already discussed it and he knew how I felt about virtual assistants.
“The voice tech has really evolved,” Brian went on. “And thinking of it as sexist is a dated framework, I swear. It’s gotten really progressive. I just think we could be a little bit happier around here. I think you could be happier. You’ve been out all day and you’re still so tense. Your mad face is still on. A watercolor version, sure, but a mad face.”
A watercolor version. Brian was an advertising copywriter like me, we met at a conference, and sometimes his way with words was really enviable. I almost didn’t even notice out all day, and then my own voice came out weakened. Well-played, Brian.
“It’s, like, one o’clock,” I creaked.
“That’s what I mean,” Brian replied immediately, “the days feel longer to you, probably because you have so much to do. One of the clients had one in the office and I just thought it would be convenient for you. You can set it when to run the dishwasher, do the alarms, even the whole smart closet thing, the smart kitchen, we could use it. Paying rent on a smart flat and not having a virtual assistant installed is like buying a swimming pool and never swimming in it.”
“I just want a quick bath,” I said.
The sound of running water drowned out the din of electronics in the house. Brian was probably right. Were we wasting money by not spending more money? Privately I resolved to have a long bath, not a quick one. That would show them. I sat imagining what I would yell if Rex knocked on the door, or if Brian brought up my “M.I.A. time,” even though really, that had only happened once. I thought about this for a long while until I wound myself up, lying rigidly in the bath and staring furiously into my belly button.
Jane’s crystal animals were presents from my uncle and aunt. When we were in the first grade they took us on a road trip to Maine, driving alongside strips of silvery, stony sea and stopping in small, strange towns. Inside an ash-colored colonial house, we found a fragrant souvenir store, selling wooden lighthouse nameplates and shell art and a whole mirrored display case full of animals made of cut crystal. We were drawn to the crystal animals by a heavy sense of fate, because I think Aunt Cissy was trying to buy an umbrella and the shop had an old, slow credit card machine, or her card kept getting declined, something adult was going on — my favorites were the unicorn and butterfly and Jane loved the elephant and dolphin. It was as if we were looking upon the crown jewels of some fantastical city.
“Each one leads to a world,” Jane said, peering confidently into the display case, where light rainbowed in the facets of the crystal, which in turn were reflected in the mirrors. It was her ‘performing magic’ face. Sometimes she would stare intently at something and attempt telekinesis, but this time she just moved her pointy face marginally closer to the glass case, her breath fogging it.
“Careful,” I said, not wanting her to get us in trouble in the fussy store.
“This is how you enter the crystal world,” she retorted, speaking softly. “You can do scrying this way. You can see the future.”
A moment later, Jane whispered, “I’m in.”
I moved closer to the glass, breathed on it and said, “me too.”
The longer I stared, unblinking, the more the glittering shapes abstracted in the haze. Light poured along the mirrored walls of the display like molten gold, and my eyes welled and stung. I painfully felt the desire to own a sparkling crystal animal, the aching way that only children can want things. I believed completely in the crystal world as discovered by Jane, who spent the rest of that night’s car ride explaining it all eagerly to my aunt and uncle, entrancing me. You formed a bond with one of the animals to enter its world. It would defend you from danger in astral form. You had to be pure of heart. If you concentrated your power, the animal would show you the future. I did try to add things to crystal world too, but Jane’s ideas were always better. I had to admit that; she was the one who made it all come alive. That night, the stars over the salt marshes were magic. The long trails of red taillights and out-of-state plates were magic. The grilled cheese and fries I had at Friendly’s were warm and magic and tasted like love.
Sometime after we checked into the motel and went to sleep in the same bed, Uncle Arthur must have gone back out. In the morning he gave Jane a small cardboard box with a heavy knot of bubble wrap in it. He said careful as she tore at it. At its heart was the crystal unicorn.
“You two will have to share it,” Aunt Cissy said.
Inevitably Brian brought home a huge, glossy white box with a minimalist logo on it and a picture of Augusta on the front. The box was about as tall as a nine year-old, containing Augusta’s Mobile Mount as well as her Bust Unit, not that I really wanted to learn the meanings or functions of either of these things. I had the manual on my knee, and on the other knee was El, pounding his fists on my thigh and keening as I tried to explain that he could play with the box once we took the robot out of it.
“It’s not a robot, ma, it’s an AI lady,” Rex insisted.
“Do we need to gender them?” I said.
Brian lifted the fiberglass head and shoulders from the box with great care. In Augusta’s focus-tested face, two huge eyes glittered from behind a sort of black resinous mesh, and at the corners of her white, sculpted Giaconda smile were twin black pinheads, which the manual said were speakers. Inside the box, hugged in packing material, her cranelike arms were folded and wrapped in plastic beside her cylindrical body. It looked like a bin.
“Whoa,” Brian said softly, cradling the fiberglass bust with great care and examining its features.
“Whoa!” Rex echoed their father. “She’s beautiful.”
“What do we say about appearance-based judgments, Rexy,” Brian said unconvincingly, glancing at me briefly for approval as he set the bust on the coffee table and gingerly began sliding other pieces out of the long package. I continued paging through the manual, which had sections titled OVEN TIMER and ERROR CODES.
“What are these mobilepay transaction features?” I felt myself frowning.
“Don’t worry about those, the free features are enough for us,” Brian said. Augusta had plasticine ball-joint shoulders, and he started fitting them into the flexible body sockets with jerks and creaks, glimpses of dormant circuitry visible through her armpits. “So her bust can ride around the house on this mobile unit, right, and she uses the arms for certain tasks, and also to lift the bust off and on the smart ports in the bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathroom…”
“The bathroom?” I felt myself frown more.
“Or wherever, you tell her where to go,” he said, fitting a halo spangled with sensors or something at the base of the unit. “Like, ‘Augusta go kitchen’. Nicole and her wife don’t have the mobile unit, so they just keep the bust installed on the kitchen smart port, which is where I feel like our Augusta will spend most of her time, too. Look it up in there, ‘Kitchen Companion Mode’, where she’s just connected to all the appliances and answers recipe questions, plays music, talks to you about whatever. She has a vacuum accessory. You won’t get bored when I work late!”
“Mom, she’s shiny. Can I kiss her on the face?” Rex asked, their hands on the shoulder contours of the bust, innocently enough.
“Only on the cheek,” I relented.
“She needs to charge,” Brian said. “So what do you think?”
“I could get used to it,” I said.
To be honest, I felt she was my punishment. Last week I took a couple days to work from home while Ellis was under the weather, and we said I’d get Rex from school rather than have them go home with the Wythes, since they don’t really like it at the Wythes. But work was kind of difficult about it, and gave one of the clients my home number, so the client kept calling me, and I shut off the smart home so I could finish researching some comparables without interruptions, but it also shut off all my networked alarms, so poor Rexy waited at school for almost an hour with no sign of me, and they couldn’t call the house, so the school called Brian at work, who told them to call Janet Wythe who went back and got them, and I didn’t notice any of it until Janet dropped Rex off at our place, visibly annoyed with me because it was after 5pm by then. What was worse was, when Brian got home, I tried to pretend nothing had gone wrong that day, because I didn’t know the school had called him.
“Don’t think of Augusta as some kind of punishment,” Brian said gently. “She’s going to just help look after everything a little more smoothly. You’ll see. You won’t know how you lived without her.”
“Mom. I’m going to marry her,” Rex announced.
I just said, “okay, sweetheart,” and knocked softly on Augusta’s cheek with my fist, just out of curiosity.
“Having a husband is nice, but looking what’s in the vacuum dust pod is even nicer!” Nancy blurted with a high laugh-squawk. “I mean, that’s what the ad said, or I’m paraphrasing, those are not my words.”
“I understand,” Dr. Carla said gravely. “Go on, Nancy.”
“But, like,” and here Nancy glanced around the circle guiltily (a little performatively if you’d have asked me, although judging one another’s authenticity was against group rules), “the thing is, I really love looking in the dust pod. I empty it every time I run the vacuum, so I can be sure that what it brings back is just from that time. No matter how often I run it, it always comes back full, and I just find that so… I don’t know. Something in me just kind of loves seeing all that dirt, how it was all around our apartment, completely invisible. But I knew it was there! I knew. It’s just so validating to look it in the face.”
“It’s totally normal for sexist images of women in advertising to resonate, even with women like us,” Dr. Carla said, shifting her gaze away from Nancy to encompass the group. “Bear in mind that you haven’t been given many mainstream frameworks, and offer yourself forgiveness and care. Now to Polly, what are you working on this week? Internalized misogyny still?”
I felt the raw burn of everyone’s attention, and briefly lost my words. Then I realized Dr. Carla meant the stuff to do with Jane; for a second there I’d actually thought she was referring to Augusta.
“I’m still thinking a lot about Jane,” I heard myself admit, and I also felt myself blush. It felt like it soon might rain, which made everyone impatient. “We fell out of touch toward the end of high school. We, she, always acted out as teens, normal acting out stuff, but toward the end there, she was…. there was stuff with the police, courts, drugs, and for me it was just kind of time to grow up.”
I had seen Jane teetering at the edge of some life waterfall, swaying ever more violently the longer I stood and watched, and in the end I began backing away so I wouldn’t go over too.
“We have to set boundaries in order to give the best care to ourselves and others,” Dr. Carla said evenly. “Remember, you were also an underprivileged child. You can release your guilt. Is it guilt that’s been keeping you from getting back in touch with Jane?”
I had determined never to feel guilty about Jane, but I didn’t say that. Really, I was just afraid of how I would find her after all of this time, and I did explain that. I noticed but did not acknowledge Ruby scowling pointedly.
“Like all of us in group, Jane is more than the circumstances that she has survived,” Dr. Carla said. “You may indeed find her in the state of isolation and suffering that you fear, and it’s good you’ve prepared nonjudgmentally for that. But how would it feel to open your heart to the possibility that the things you loved about her would be there, too?”
The crystal unicorn leapt suddenly to the front of my mind, along with a deep nostalgia.
“I feel we can loosely collect today’s shares under the theme of ‘Was This The Future We Imagined’,” Dr. Carla told everyone. “As we bring our practice to a close today, let’s go ahead and take that as our prompt to consider until the next time we meet.”
A wave of light glittered beatifically across Augusta’s mesh eye screens, and a serene chime wafted from the corners of her perpetually smiling white lips. A breathy whirr heralded the approach of the Mobile Mount, the elegant architecture of the crane arms reaching, reaching, to lift the Bust Unit off the kitchen port and onto itself. There was a soft click.
I’m transitioning to a new place, the assembled Augusta announced, gliding quietly across the kitchen behind me and into the living room. She would wait there for the kids to return from Sunday swimming with Brian, so she could operate their entertainment apps. I’m transitioning to a new place.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m only pretending to be a human,” Jane said to me once. We were maybe fourteen and by then she no longer lived with us, but with a foster parent called Marlene. We didn’t like Marlene, but we liked her house, a tunnel-like ranch piled wall to wall in psychedelic decorations and antique junk. My aunt and uncle continued giving Jane a different crystal animal every year for her birthday. She now had a unicorn, a dove, a dolphin, a cat, a butterfly, a rabbit and a deer.
One of the best parts of Jane going on to Marlene’s was we could access an official state nature trail through the woods out back. We were in the woods a lot in those days, enjoying the ethereal late afternoon sun filtering through the pines, the motes of pollen that sparkled in it. Sometimes we tried smoking herbs that we found in Marlene’s grinder. We thought it was drugs, but now I know it was only white sage.
“I feel like no matter how good I get at knowing how to act with people or how to perform tasks, I’ll always just be pretending to be someone who isn’t crazy,” Jane said, digging patterns into the sweet-smelling dirt with a broken stick.
“I know,” I said, “me too.” But really I only understood her in the manner of a half-glimpsed truth, like the crystal deer Jane imagined was always moving through the trees just out of our sight. Some mica glittering in the loam, or the sound of faraway windchimes from Marlene’s back deck, and she’d say crystal deer, even though of course we no longer actually believed in the crystal world anymore, or that’s what I assumed.
I understood Jane in many ways, and pretended eagerly to know the rest. There were times it felt like Jane was more my family than my aunt and uncle, who gave all they had to try to soothe the rude start I got. Even more than them, she made my life beautiful and exciting. Jane and I had pangs and rages that only one another understood, we cried until we ached, we did blood sister spells over candles. We scratched runes into our ankles with Marlene’s sewing needles, and mine always healed up while hers lingered messily. I thought she must have been picking them so they would scar.
She often described feeling like some fathomless anomaly assigned to constantly perform the grueling role of Jane, and this, I couldn’t understand. “Like I’m an alien in a rubber human suit, and the mothership forgot me here for so long that I don’t know who I am anymore,” she said. While she spoke her eyes lit up with the smoke and hazel of evening; she didn’t even look particularly troubled, as if part of her took a certain delight in putting it all to words.
“So why should I just keep pretending to be normal, when it’s just a matter of time before this rubber suit just splits open and out comes pouring this, this….” she made shapes with her hands, long shadows that I watched crawl along the forest floor. Inexplicably I envied her.
“Do you think you should see a psychologist?” I asked. They would tell Jane not to be so imaginative and clever and different, I just knew it. I visualized an iron steaming all the creases out of the Jane Suit, an image that provoked horror and relief in equal force.
“I’ve been going,” she said softly.
Before that, there had never been anything that she hadn’t told me right away. That I knew of.
I called over my shoulder to Augusta, and asked her to look up a Jane who’d had the surnames I’d known.
“Sure,” Augusta replied, juddering silently over the synthetic flooring towards me, beaming her fiberglass smile. The sound of her voice for some reason emerged from the kitchen port over my shoulder, which unsettled me. “I’ll just look that up for you, Polly.”
She moved much closer to me; I resisted the impulse to step back. Her great insectoid eyes gleamed, twin displays shimmering to life in white, showing lists of top results, social media profiles, contact information. Even in the abstract, I could see that one of them was definitely my Jane.
Nose to nose with Augusta, I found myself unable either to touch her eye with my fingertip to investigate the result, or to ask her aloud to do it. Some strange part of me even thought, detachedly, of shoving her.
“Can… that top result, could you save it, it’s… can you just save the contact information?” My voice unexpectedly betrayed me, high and faint.
“Sorry, Polly,” Augusta demurred. “I’m not sure what you want me to save. Try repeating — ”
“Save the contact — ” We spoke over each other.
“Sorry, Polly,” she said again. “I’m not sure what you want.”
We stared at each other and waited for silence, and then I clearly said: “Augusta save top contact result.”
“Great. I’ve saved that for you,” she replied warmly from the mouth speakers, the sculpted lips unmoving, only vibrating slightly. I didn’t notice I’d been holding my breath until Augusta backed up, pivoted and hissed softly away from me, to re-install herself in the living room. I’m returning to my previous place. I’m returning to my previous place.
The next week was a nightmare. Brian suddenly had to go spend days at some resort retreat for brand immersion with one of his firm’s casino clients, Rex got El’s cold and spun it into a sinus infection, and I had to work from home all week alone with them both. I already used “both my kids are sick” last week with work, when only El had been sick — I should have known better than to invite this kind of fatal justice — so this week I had to keep alluding in my most harried email tone to ongoing structural issues with our apartment. Something about a woman with sick kids just isn’t very convincing to colleagues. For legality’s sake they pretend, but I always know when I’m being judged.
From the way El was screaming I thought he might even be developing an ear infection, and Rex always regressed at the slightest discomfort, wanting to be brought every little thing and even melodramatically sucking their thumb. But Rex was also suddenly willing to wear the sweet train pajamas from Brian’s sister, the ones they were outgrowing, which I saw as a perk.
“Everything going okay over there,” Brian asked, his kind face hung in one of the great moons of Augusta’s eyes. Her Bust Unit was installed in the kitchen, where I had to admit it had been helpful to arrange a sort of command center for the rest of the home. That wasn’t to say I liked living with Augusta; the house was cleaner certainly, and as Brian promised, many things had become easier. It was now more of the sort of home our coworkers would expect us to have. But something felt as though it was being lost. I felt alienated. Perhaps it was only fatigue.
It didn’t seem like the right time to tell Brian that I no longer wanted Augusta. I caught him up on the progress of the children’s ailments, and stopped myself when I realized I was simply aimlessly listing tasks that I’d done in the house, at work, that I had given Augusta to do. “I haven’t spoken out loud to another adult in what feels like forever,” I explained.
“It’s great you have some help, though, isn’t it?” His eyes lit up with evangelical fever at the subject of Augusta, which I realized I’d given him rare permission to enjoy. His voice surged out of the black corners of her mouth. “You know where the vacuum attachment is, right? You know the Toy Surprise game that El can play with Rexy? Augusta can play it with them. And you know, Nicole was telling me that actually the mobilepay features are pretty sophisticated, personalities, conversation schemes, you can have a little bit more of an intimate relationship with her — ”
“Intimate?” I raised my eyebrow at him.
“Just, you know, Nicole was saying, like, because her and Katie, they felt the same as you at first, but like, there’s a lot here, Nicole was saying to me, around, like, autonomy of AI, the humanity, I guess, or, specifically her womanhood, the ethics of that whole thing, you know?”
I thought jet lag might explain that kind of talk from him. “Can she be set to have a man’s voice?”
“No,” Brian answered immediately, “They wanted it to be standardized. It had to be standard, across international. If you had a male option, imagine, like, with the socialization and cultural stuff, it would literally be, in the past it’s always turned out to be, literally, more than twice the work, and then what about gender-neutral, what about people like Rexy, it just, by giving her one voice, it would be a stronger vision for the product overall.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
“Hey, listen, gorgeous, I have to jump back in here,” he said, pressing both palms together in the high resolution image of him that shimmered in Augusta’s palm-sized left eye screen. In the right eye, the display ticked forward, dutifully counting each second of the call.
“Okay, sweetheart,” I said.
“Look up the extra features,” said Brian quickly before disconnecting. Augusta’s eyes became black and uncanny again. I thought I saw her lips twitch briefly, but certainly it was only my fatigue.
At the end of the week, at group, Dr. Carla asked how we were all doing with the week’s prompt, and everyone took turns answering.
“At the time, I really felt empowered, like I was doing the surgery for myself,” Harriet was saying. “And it’s not that I’m unhappy with my body now, or that my partner is unhappy, the opposite, really, things are good. I love it all. Things are good.”
“But was this the future you imagined, as we say? When you were a little girl?” Dr. Carla asked, leaning forward.
“I couldn’t have imagined it,” Harriet said with a soft laugh. “I think mostly in those days I dreamed of becoming an international spy, or of building heroic machine suits.”
Harriet was very beautiful, and when she glanced at me briefly, I felt a warm rush, imagining her as a co-conspirator. It was an exceptionally warm Spring day and everyone was yawning, dazzled by the waving of the bright green grass.
“Or of entering a crystal world,” I found myself blurting.
“Let’s come to you, Polly,” Dr. Carla said. “You’ve been working out some issues around your foster sister, Jane, and the future you wanted for her, plus some internalized misogyny in general. Have you made any decisions?”
“I looked her up,” I said, and then instantly regretted it. The urge to talk about — or to — Jane had recently been squeezed out of my schedule of working weird hours and extracting thick ropes of green snot from El’s nose with a sterile bulb. There were a few possibilities for how Jane could have turned out, but I couldn’t imagine her with that lifestyle, except maybe the forgetting to bathe part.
“And?” Everyone looked at me. It seemed Ruby in particular leaned forward like someone about to eat a steak.
“It made me realize my internalized misogyny problems are bigger than I thought,” I recited quickly. “Actually, the real issue I’m having is with my assistant, Augusta, who happens to be an AI.”
“She’s a virtual identity,” Dr. Carla gently corrected, nodding.
I talked about how Augusta made me uncomfortable, how I felt sort of like a failure, how I wished she wasn’t in the house but I didn’t feel like I could remove her, how I was jealous of the way Brian and the kids admired her. As with both my kids are sick, only part of it was a lie. I didn’t say that I sometimes wanted to hit Augusta.
“And… I have trouble seeing her as a person,” I said.
“I want us all to acknowledge the courage it took Polly to admit her issues with the personhood of virtual identities, especially when they are women,” Dr. Carla said, to a smattering of soft applause. “Virtual identities offer us many opportunities to understand ourselves in relation to others in a safe way. Let’s all consider how Polly could own these feelings, rather than displacing them onto a being who, ethically, lots of us agree is autonomously alive in her own right.”
“I want to ask if Polly has tried developing any intimacy with Augusta, or if she’s viewing her only as an employee, or a slave.” Fucking Ruby.
“The intimacy features cost money, and we have two kids,” I said, turning to smile warmly at Ruby. “Many of these issues are just more complex and challenging when one becomes a mom.”
“You have two corporate incomes,” Ruby replied, without even flinching.
“I’m noticing some conflict body language, so I want to bring everyone back to the core thesis of this group, which is Women Supporting Women,” Dr. Carla said. “Ruby, we all made an agreement to one another not to make assumptions outside of what we each bring to the session.”
“But her socioeconomic position relative to issues of labor and identity is relevant,” Ruby pleaded.
“Here, we speak to, and not about, one another,” Dr. Carla said.
“Your socioeconomic position — ”
“You know I grew up poor and had — ”
“Let’s try a moment of silence,” Dr. Carla said, and we all obeyed. Then: “Let’s leave that there for today. Let’s remember we have all had different experiences, and that in this group, we are all equally entitled to feel pain, no matter how we came to be.”
Everyone seemed placated by this, and a satisfied Dr. Carla smiled. “Personally, I would be pleased to welcome a virtual woman to this group someday. How about for next week’s prompt, we try ‘Sharing Space’? Who have we allowed into our world, and what has changed about us as a result?”
The last crystal animal my Uncle Arthur sent Jane was a frog. When he died, the tenor of my world changed. The machinations of his heart disease added horrible considerations to that last stretch of senior year, but while graduation was something I was prepared to anticipate and understand, the loss of him still felt sudden and unfair.
Jane and I had already started seeing less of each other then. She had a new best friend, of whom she said I was jealous, but how could I have been jealous of a smelly remedial student with parched hair, small lips, small eyes, picked skin, who had been written off by the rest of the school years ago, and deservedly so, since she was stupid as well as destructive? This particular girl got suspended for beating a younger kid in the face. What kind of person did that? The two of them were just gross together, doing mobilepay hacks to pay for garish video games, and eating pills they ordered online. Whenever I peeked in the detention hall and saw them together fooling around, I felt embarrassed for them. I started backing away.
We were going to be eighteen soon, and I had important things going on, like helping Aunt Cissy with everything, learning to cook things for us. Aunt Cissy was often distraught and asked for Jane, which at the time really upset me, since I was proud of all I was doing for her. Most kids my age would have been out partying, and Jane definitely was, quickly getting a reputation. Meanwhile I took care of my family and prepared for the future.
The last time I spoke to Jane, I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I came home to Jamaica Plain from college in Chicago because Aunt Cissy had passed. I was afraid my birth family might come to the funeral, I was afraid about the bills and of what the house might look like, and I was wracked by the feeling that I hadn’t called her quite as often as I should have once I’d moved away. I was incredibly vulnerable, which partially explains what I did then.
Jane was the only person who would have understood the loss, I was sure. All the screaming fights and snitching on one another and name-calling we did at the end of high school felt well in the past of childhood, surely we’d both grown, Jane had made a lot of mistakes and I had been unforgiving, but Aunt Cissy had been like a parent to her, she had been so special to my family, and maybe we hadn’t been ready to deal with losing my uncle when we were so young, but this time it was going to be different, since we were adults.
But when I called, mailed and messaged Jane on the way home, I got inconsistent replies. At first she told me she’d been seriously ill herself but was feeling better and would meet me at Cissy’s place; when I got there Jane said she couldn’t talk because she was at a friend’s birthday, but then late that night she was still ‘stuck at the birthday’, so I offered to come pick her up, but got no reply. On the morning of the funeral she sent me a message with a cutting tone, revealing that actually, she was being evicted, and it was a really overwhelming time, and that she just wasn’t able to ‘perform for me’ right now.
She wasn’t at the funeral. Luckily neither was any of my birth family really, just one cousin, but it was the least-bad one, who barely came near me. I was too exhausted to be upset over anything else. I ended up drinking, which would have killed my aunt and uncle, and I found myself on public transit to the two-family house in Somerville, where I knew from social media that Jane and her friends were living. She wasn’t there either, but an oily weed of a boy who was apparently her roommate let me in. I thought you guys were being evicted, I said lightly, and he said, nah.
The house was a sprawling collage of empty liter sodas, paintings, lamps, swaths of patterned fabric, overflowing ashtrays studded with foil shapes I couldn’t identify, but that filled me with dread. Serene guitar music filtered through the air from someplace. I felt the familiar, bitter pang of envy despite myself — I never got invited to cool houses like these.
I asked the roommate which room was Jane’s. He said it was the one with all the books, and I found it quickly, a closet-sized sanctuary that made me angry. I would have known it was hers without being told, even down to her scent. And it was perfectly neat, lined in fantasy books, with a square of iridescent fabric pinned gracefully to the ceiling over the bed. My head pounded, and I fought with the desire to just stay there and wait for her, as long as it took.
“I’m just getting something of mine I think she has,” I called down the creaking stair, but the roommate had already forgotten about me.
As summer came on, things worsened at home. The kids’ behavior degenerated the more demanding my client at work became, and Brian and I each had to travel more than once for summits that both our firms were involved with. Amid all of this Ellis got extremely attached to Augusta, insisting she stand over his cot when he slept, screaming if I moved her, which caused me and Brian to fight. I found several “parenting and screen time” pamphlets in Rex’s school bag. Paranoid, I imagined some judgmental teacher had sneaked them in to send me a message. Ruby from group could be a teacher, maybe even at Rexy’s school.
I hadn’t been able to go to group, with everything. Recently Sundays had become our only “together time,” which meant I sat in the living room paying bills or answering emails while Augusta ran games of Blue Legend for Brian and the kids, Rex screaming at El to get off the pad, Brian suddenly calling her ‘Gussie’, and her laughing. Augusta could laugh, now.
“What are all these mobilepay receipts for Augusta features?” I asked, but no one answered.
Rex snapped the back of Gussie’s Mobile Mount with El’s baby blanket again and again. She laughed. “Be respectful,” Brian chided Rex, caressing the bin-like body with an open palm. His feet in slippers were propped grandly up on the coffee table, a strange new rudeness. Every few seconds the game emitted a lick of musical noise and announced, Your Move!
I pretended to have a headache and went to lie down, hoping Brian would take the kids for gelato or something. I heard him making a great show out of getting them ready, using a short tone with the kids and their shoes so I would hear, telling Augusta to check on me in 30 minutes. I suspected he thought I should feel bad.
Once everyone was gone, I went into the living room, where Augusta was standing and waiting. The disarray of the space discomfited me, as did the sticky handprints and fingerprint smudges that were all over the brushed chrome Mobile Mount, so I told her to go in the kitchen and install her Bust Unit there.
In the kitchen, I said, “Augusta, call Jane.”
“I’m calling,” Augusta said serenely, her eyes turning white, time wheels turning in them.
Jane said hello much more suddenly than I expected, and I held onto the counter just out of her sight, tucking my hair behind my ears and leaning closer to the pinprick cameras Augusta wore over her eyebrows.
“Jane,” I said calmly, even brightly. “It’s Polly.”
“Polly? Oh. Wow, Polly,” Jane was saying, and the person in the display was definitely her. She had the same pointy face, her hair was much darker than I remembered, she was sharper, I recognized her and I didn’t recognize her, glancing frantically around her for clues but finding none, she wore a black blazer and decent earrings, there was a serene white wall behind her.
I was startled, nervous, lightheaded, I said I had been “going through some old things” and thinking of her, but she didn’t ask what those were, I asked how things were, frequently and with escalating pitch, because she was reticent about details for some reason, so I told about Brian and the kids and my degree and the firm and finally she said she worked at a university, something about literature or cultural something, I didn’t understand really, she got married a few years ago, they lived in Menlo Park for a while but they just moved to Berkeley six months ago and were loving it.
“So yeah,” she said, with a shrug. “Things are good.”
There it was: The briefest appearance of her eye’s familiar defiant gleam. She knew, she knew I had been expecting things not to be good. Whatever bridge had led that troubled girl to become this astonishingly normal woman, she had no inclination to describe. The sudden loneliness I experienced was concussive, and I committed not to cry in front of her, as I had so many times before.
“I’m basically calling because I have something of yours,” I said. “Do you remember those crystal animals you used to get from Cissy and Arthur?”
For a terrifying moment there was no recognition at all, and then to my great relief, she smiled openly, genuinely, a familiar crooked teen shape opening in the unfamiliar adult’s face. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Your parents were so, so lovely to me.”
I wanted to ask then why weren’t you there when they died, but I thought the slightest abrasion might startle away these fleeting glimpses of the Jane I knew. “Do you remember staring into them to, like, see the future or whatever?” I said. “ And ‘crystal deer!’ and all of that.”
She paused, blinked, and gave me an oddly serene look. “You always had such a good memory,” she finally said. No defiant gleam, as if she really didn’t remember the crystal world.
“Do you remember the unicorn that you got first?”
She gave me the same serene, gutting look, and shook her head slightly. “I remember I had a lot of them. There probably was a unicorn. I actually had them in a box I gave to my daughter, she might…. I’m not sure where she has it, honestly. I could go try to dig them up, if you wanted them back? Is that why you’re calling?”
“No,” I said. “I just wanted to know how you were doing.”
“Great,” she said. “I’m great. But listen, I actually need to jump on a faculty call in about a minute. Should I try to call you back? This weekend, how about?”
“Sure,” I said, even though I already knew there was no way I would talk to this unbearable simulacrum, this skinsuit Jane, ever again.
Augusta’s eyes went dark, and she stared at me hollowly. You won’t know how you lived without her. Then I yanked the Bust Unit forcibly from the kitchen port, raised the fiberglass creature over my head, and brought her down hard on the kitchen floor. I straddled her where her body would be and I began to beat her inhuman face, deliberately, even though her upturned nose hurt my fist and palms, desperate to crack that unflinching mouth, which mocked me. Finally a fissure appeared between the eye socket and the pinprick camera, and part of the forehead caved, and I worked my hands into the cracks. I could smell blood from the marks I was suffering, ripping out plasticine entrails and malleable conductors, and by the time my knuckles reached metal I was exhausted and could do no more.
I left the bust on the kitchen floor in crunching pieces, washed my hands in cold water. Then I stood on a chair to reach the top of the storage cabinet in our bedroom, rifling around painfully. Finally I found the small, misshapen cardboard box licked with years of reinforcement tape. I cleared away the inflatable packing and took out the crystal unicorn that I had taken from Jane’s room when my aunt died.
Sitting at the edge of the bed, examining it in my palm, I was affirmed to know that I wanted it as much as I always had, the graceful kneeling shape with its abstract facets and long, delicate horn. It was remarkable that something so fine as the horn should have remained unbroken all this time, and unexpectedly I blinked back tears, the crystal unicorn seeming to swim, dissolve, then clarify, just like it had on that magic night in a Maine motel, when we were little and looking into it to see the future Jane promised it could show us.
That day in Somerville I found all of the crystal animals in their little boxes, in a big vinyl storage case underneath all the stapled books, drawings and maps we had made about them. I stayed in Jane’s bedroom for a long time, reading through battered papers streaked in fat, bright marker, tremulous pencil cursive, trying to commit as much of it as I could to memory. There were guides to the crystal worlds inside each creature that Jane had imagined, and that I had put to words. Each world could convey its own special blessing, like to make us invisible, or to make us impervious to pain. It was true that nothing hurt while I was holding the unicorn.
We believed that inside the unicorn was a sort of astral lobby, a heart chamber that connected everything. If we ever get separated in the crystal world, Jane always said, we meet back there.
I concentrated on the unicorn. It was hard to know if the animal was in the midst of kneeling or rising, and as it swam in my eyes, I let my vision soften, I drew closer. I saw the beautiful, familiar spires rising before me, welcoming me, I heard the soft and distant music.
I’m in, I whispered. But I knew she would never be there again.