By Trista Hurley-Waxali
I want to say I came to the city to find a job at the company, or that there was someone waiting here to make these noisy days worth it, but the truth is that I wanted to escape the grasp of the small town. It wasn’t something my parents thought was folksy but encouraged, both growing up in the city fighting for a stool at the bar. One night both of them ordered the same drink at the same time and it was enough to break the ice between two strangers. They told anyone who listens that they wanted one day to have their long island iced tea on a porch looking at nothing but flat land. After they married it was all about dad finding a factory to apply to and mom a school zone close to a salon so she can touch up her roots on her way home from dropping us off.
My parents never understood why I insisted on staying in the city without working at a major company, but I wanted to help the people who looked for an alternative treatment. The Nonobot was a company that stood behind a procedure that had much controversy. A controversy from the same people who said they never wanted anything difficult but also went out of their way to make sure life stayed the same. People would drive past restaurants to look for ones with menus they agreed with. I always asked for tzatziki on my pita and saw my dad cringe or extra cayenne on my chicken to hear mom tell me how she wouldn’t be able to try. Some would find these traits romantic of a different era, but they terrified me. The effort they put to keeping an image went as far as putting me at risk. A risk that inspired someone to create a technology to help forget.
It was the month before prom. Most of us got back our acceptance letters and some were making plans on what to bring for their rooms. The tokens felt more like a time capsule than items to forge a future. Some of my friends planned to decorate their dorms together while I stayed quiet about my shared apartment.
“So did you get an apartment so you can have Ben show up without signing in,” one of my friends joked elbowing the other girls. Ben’s been my boyfriend since the start of the year, but I never pictured him entering the city, let alone continue a long-distance relationship.
“Right, like he would drive through traffic, if he gets to more stop signs than he has fingers, he’d turn back,” I said in an accent like his dad, everyone laughed. I got an apartment because I received a scholarship and thought keeping it with a quieter room would be better. Plus, I know my parents can’t afford to pay my way and a loan would be a last resort.
“Did Ben ask you to prom?” one girl asked only because her boyfriend did and wanted everyone to know she had a date.
“Not yet, he said he wanted to take me out this Friday somewhere nice,” I said, the girls in choir made noises, “It’s probably the shake place,”
“Then makeout point!” one girl said who doesn’t have a date, waiting for a mutual friend to get the hint, I winked at her.
“You never know,” I said. I’ve never been with Ben or anyone else to makeout point. Just never felt the urge to lose my virginity. An urge that would be replaced by a stain left on a tablecloth from being in the sun, burnt in for years to come.
Friday night was warm enough for mom and dad to be on the porch with their iced tea. I thought to wear a yellow dress, one I bought for my orientation day at the campus. I went with my friend and her mom, who at the time thought the dress was too short but knows that’s what girls like to wear in the city. My friend had on jeans and a t-shirt with the university colors in the stripes. I threw on a jean jacket and grabbed my messenger bag with a fifth of vodka like Ben requested. He pulls up to the driveway and steps out long enough to joke with my parents and have dad’s laugh echoing through the screen door. I come outside; for the last time I’ll be caught up in my thoughts in silence with anticipation.
The shake has large strawberries that need a spoon and Ben is kind enough to go up and ask for one. At that moment I feel lucky to have someone in my life who wanted to make my life easier; to think he would forever make things harder is why I deal with the wake-up calls by a drill in a wall somewhere in another building that I can never see from my window. We split the fries and he insists that mayo is superior to ketchup, one of the many competitions of our tastes. I wave my hand and say malt vinegar, it’s good to keep things simple. We finish our food and head to the car; the sun is still out between the thick clouds threatening to keep the night a hot one. I throw my jacket in the back before sinking into the passenger seat. He puts on some music and without confirming, drives us to makeout point.
There aren’t any cars we recognize when we pull off to the side. Maybe some of our friends will show up when the sun goes down. We both reach into the back seat and bump our heads; we laugh and touch our foreheads. He puts his hands up so that he’ll stay in one place while I reach for my messenger bag and pull out the vodka.
“I don’t really feel like mixing it with anything, I’m pretty much burping up strawberries,” I say before hiccupping. He smiles.
“That’s cool, I got a surprise to start with, so maybe that’ll help?” he moves his arm across my lap, careful to not fluff up my dress and opens his glove box. He takes out a tin of mints and opens the lid; oh god, I roll my eyes; “relax, it’s not what you think.” He takes out a couple white pills and hands one to me. He opens a water bottle from the cupholder and pops one in his mouth, “bottoms up.” I take the water bottle and put the pill in my mouth, I really think the worst it can be was a strong Aspirin. I was wrong.
My legs started to feel light and the hairs on my legs became soft. He opened the vodka and took a swig and then passed it to me, I took some because the chalky taste of the pill was left on my gums. I must have tipped the bottle for longer than expected because Ben was reaching for the bottle to take it away and started laughing at my glossy eyes looking at him.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said, one of many things as my head spun around trying to look over the rows of corn from this dry hill.
“God this is an awful view,” I said, “my place has a view, you should come and check it out.”
“I’d like that,” he said before unbuckling his seat belt and leaning over to me. He pressed his chest on mine and put his hands in my hair before kissing me; the heat was too much, and I pushed him off. I opened the passenger side door and stepped out.
“I’m so hot,” I said, waving my hand like a fan. He started the engine and put down all the windows, we were already parked in the shade. He got out, closed the passenger side door and opened the rear door.
“Here. The back might be cooler,” he said, I nodded at the cool cloth and sat next to him. I put my back on the door and had my hair out the window, legs draped across his lap. He sipped on the vodka and asked if I wanted, I waited a few minutes to let the wind pick up before I reached for it. I apologized for earlier, I guess whatever was in my system made me dizzy, he knew that more than anyone.
“So did you want to come to my prom?” I said after I drank, letting the burn give my mind something else to focus on; I looked at his face, a yellowish tint in the darkness of the back, not as soft as in the sun.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one who graduated last year but hang around because of the girls,”
“No, because of you,” he leans in again to kiss me, this time my stomach is turning like a dryer. I push him off, but he doesn’t budge; he pushes back on my chest. His hand is along my leg and going up my dress, I feel him pulling at my underwear.
“Stop, I can’t, I’m not feeling,”
“It’s okay, I’ll be gentle.”
“No,” I say before he put his mouth on mine, not wanting to stop kissing me to hear me speak, preventing me from having a say. I hear the jingle of his jeans fold to his knees. I look out through the window and see the branches of dying trees and think of the young birds in a nest. I hope this year isn’t too harsh for them, that they’ll be enough rain.
I don’t remember the drive home or going into the shower. I put the dress in the washing machine along with my jacket. Mom hung them up outside the next day so when I looked out, I saw the dress in the wind, I ripped it down and started cutting it with a scissors. My mom started screaming and my dad came out to take the dress away.
“You know we paid good money for this, you insisted on going to this boutique, took a quarter tank of gas to get there,” Dad yelled, in a way that still loops in my head, always about their effort. I was shaking and my mom asked me what happened, why I didn’t want the dress. I told them what Ben did to me, and she let go of me like I was contagious and stepped back. Dad turned and walked back inside without saying a word; I was thinking he’ll call the police. He didn’t pick up the phone, he didn’t demand mom do it too; they opened a beer and sat on the couch.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” I said, still feeling the effects of that pill.
“What can we do? you cut up the dress and still smell like booze; you probably didn’t remember you said yes,” I looked to mom to say something; she shook her head. “Plus, we can’t ruin his life over one night; next time learn how to control your liquor,” he sipped on his beer for a few minutes and turned to me. I wanted him to say something, but he didn’t; I heard everything I was going to from my parents. At that moment I knew I had to hear from myself.
I went back home during the holidays but that first summer picked up a job close to the apartment. In my last year of college, it was implied I was not coming back but rather remaining in the city. My dad asked me if I was going to take an offer at the insurance company, the one that had been looking for recent graduates. I told him I wasn’t. I didn’t want to tell anyone how much that night impacted my life. I thought of all the other people who contemplated using the Nonobot to make peace.
At the time of installing the Nonobot, the company warns against the procedure if you are planning on getting pregnant. How the bot, having completed the removal, will liquify and has been traced to blending into the placenta. The entire process of finding the device and beginning break down procedure takes less than a month. The company found that the bot can pose a risk to the baby in the womb similar to secondhand smoke. There was a movement among women who wanted to keep the bot, believing that the bot could change the signals in the baby’s brain. They wanted their baby to develop neurological coping strategies similar to the bot without them implanting the device. This way their children wouldn’t hold onto painful memories one goes through as a baby, toddler or teen. The very ones that child psychologists have said creates their individual personality. At our company our job is not to judge a mother’s decision to keep the device during pregnancy; it is to ensure a safe delivery. My job at the company is to create an experience for the mother to keep them in a state of joy to reduce the use of the Nonobot. These virtual environments are based on the client’s request for a safe place, to keep the bot from being active and harming their baby. At least that’s how it was until she came in. A client with a unique request.
She wasn’t like our usual clients who came in with a mood board, images cut out of magazines taped on top of each other to show which one really took more precedence over the other. We promised experiences to last the entire pregnancy, each could be surrounded on the trimester or the month, if there was a trigger that would happen during the pregnancy like a date, then we’d discuss that in the initial setup. The agreement is that the couple’s attempt at pregnancy will take place after testing of the simulation comes back without issue. Most times they’ll repeat requests that make it easy to put together a package, for those who don’t have the budget for a full-fledged unique reality.
This client not only had the money to create an individualized environment; she was important enough to be placed at the top of the queue with a one-on-one consultation with myself, a senior director. She had read about my reasoning for joining the company and wanted my insight to help her. She had never undergone the Nonobot treatment or testified about any latent trauma. I was curious what her intention was coming into our office, for wanting to get this kind of specialized treatment. She came in with a modest navy-blue shirt dress and trench coat, a relaxed look. She had an air of confidence we don’t usually find with soon-to-be-clients.
“Have you ever created an over-simulation?” she said. I put my chin in my hand, running through my time at the company.
“In grad school but never here. I have a couple engineers on the floor who had. Did you want me to get…”
“No,” she said, cutting me off, “I only want one person in the room, I haven’t been in a room with multiple people since that night.”
She gets up from the office chair and sits on the couch with the glass of water, I meet her there swiveling a large chair to face her while placing a bottle of water on the table. When our eyes meet, she asks me that what she’s about to say can never leave this room. I nod and promise her confidentiality. She takes a deep breath and begins her story.
Her friends knew she wasn’t feeling well from a recent breakup and thought a change of environment would help shift her mood. They meant well, wanting to get her back into dating; but they insisted on driving to the next state to get it. The one with cowboy boots in a line at dive bars. She didn’t want a late night, but they showed the flyer of a bar with a mechanical bull. They sang how it would be the kind of place they’ve seen in movies. The place was mostly for tourists, so they got a hotel room and dressed into kitschy outfits, thinking they were funny. She looks back at this being how she was made a target.
The bar was busy when they arrived. They blended in with the other tourists, each having one more shot before tackling the bull. Her friends were cheering on the ones who did well and laughed at the ones who fell flat on the floor. She watched the couples sharing secrets under the brims of their cowboy hats, coming close and careful not to knock anyone off their game. She figures it was then that he spotted her. He made a deal with her that if he lasted on the bull for longer than a minute that he could buy her a drink. Of course, her friends screamed yes but she shrugged thinking the gesture felt too staged.
He got up on the bull. At the time his thick legs took to the body of the bull in fun, but later around her waist they tightened when she wanted him to stop. He pulled her closer to his body until his hands reached her hips. He released her for a moment as someone entered the bathroom. She tried hard to push him off, but it was futile. Then another man opened the stall door. They gave her an animal tranquilizer to keep her still as they took their turn. Her screams were muffled from socks, each removed like a trophy as holes were examined. The last one came in and left a bruise on her ankle, the man who made the deal told him that could get him in trouble. He stood over her at the toilet tank like a shadow. He’d watch her pupils as the guys said they like how she gave some fight; the others weren’t so lively.
The next night she woke up. Her friends had called so many times that her phone died. She used a payphone to tell them where to find her. When they arrived, they saw her tears as her well as her bruises. She made them promise not to say a word to anyone — that she wanted to never hear of this night again. They all burned their cowboy boots and never sought to revisit. She thought everything was behind her until she missed her period.
The only one that didn’t wear a condom was the man who made the deal. She knew she had to do the Nonobot treatment to avoid the trauma associated with country songs at the big box stores; she couldn’t have a panic attack picking up diapers. She would stop hearing and then her eyes would go blurry, like the drugs were still in her system. She was terrified the baby would pick up on her hesitation to love them. She researched a treatment to ensure she’d get the feelings she needed to be as a mother. She read about the over-negative simulation treatment. To live without treatment in an intense negative simulation, a way to emphasize what happened over and over to keep the bot active and then give an overwhelmingly positive dopamine release upon birth. This way the bot would be in her mind even after being dissolved in case she had any flashbacks that would leave an impression. Thus, giving her the necessary connection when seeing the baby. A reminder of what the baby means: an escape.
The night she goes into labor our company’s midwife is there and texts me that they are at the hospital. The midwife is there to ensure the device is both working and to keep the client in her requested state until the second of delivery. I take a bottle of vintage Bordeaux and pull on a cardigan before stepping onto my balcony. The wind is strong but not strong enough to push over the stem as I leave it on the table. I smoke between the midwife’s messages, wondering at the grip the men had on her. Each holding her muscles in place, then leaving behind a baby to pass through the very place she wanted to hide. I think of Ben. I want Ben to know there is nothing left of me to take. My phone reads: Baby and mommy are healthy. I look at my client’s face and see the pain she went through to find this happiness. There’s a video attached of the baby crying, an echo in my head as a new loop is registered. One made to replace.
Copyright 2021 Hurley-Waxali