In the dream I was sitting in a medical room. There were two padded chairs that reclined. Instruments and a bright lamp hovered over each one, and a technician came in and made some adjustments to them. When he finished tinkering, he looked at me and smiled. He said something about getting lunch in the next twenty minutes. I wasn’t sure if I was hungry or if it was even lunch time, but I agreed. Then the doctor appeared with a man and a woman. The couple was young and smiling, charming as they glanced tenderly at one another from time to time while the doctor spoke to them. Together, they took to the padded chairs, and, upon the doctor’s urging, joined hands. The technician manned the computers, and the doctor turned to me. He was offering an explanation, but I couldn’t make out his words and quickly lost sense of their very sound. I was starting to sweat, and what little lights there were appeared very bright to me. I searched stupidly for sunglasses but couldn’t find any. I squinted at the man and the woman in the chairs as mechanical claws crept from behind the headrests and clutched their skulls like enormous spiders fussing about their egg sack. Strange expressions took shape on their faces, and these shifted and mixed seamlessly to other expressions. They half-smiled and half-frowned at the same time; they spoke gibberish; they looked as if they were on the edge of tears and then as if they were on the verge of murder. They cursed and praised. I told the doctor I wanted to leave.
“Derek,” he said, “we have to wait for the results before that can happen.” He looked back at me, his face now a shining bronze, the lights in the room reflected on his cheeks.
So we waited, and I became more and more nervous, rubbing my hands together until my left arm felt paralyzed. The doctor informed me that the results were negative, and that the proper debriefing procedure would be administered to ensure a safe psychological recovery.
Then, I woke up. The alarm clock was beeping and clutched tightly in my hand, and my body’s weight was resting on my left arm, cutting off the circulation. I sat up and put my feet on the smooth concrete floor of my apartment and contracted and extended my fingers until my arm stopped tingling. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I stared glumly at the shower, debating it, eventually deciding to make coffee and to watch the morning news.
Downtown, there was a demonstration, a protest by the Union for Love’s Truth, or the ULT. The ULT’s leader, a woman named Stephanie Guy, spoke to a reporter about the recent attempts made on the life of the famous Dr. Brennamen. Guy denied the ULT’s involvement in the attempts – there had been two in the previous week.
“An organization that espouses the values of the human capacity for love could never stoop to such terrorist levels,” she said, staring into the camera with an offended expression.
The reporter politely reminded her that persons associated with the ULT had been frequently involved in attacking psychologists and researchers from the Brennamen Institute as they went to their cars late at night.
“The people that participated in those actions are no longer affiliated with the ULT,” she said.
The reporter then mentioned that as recently as that morning, members of the ULT had assaulted a lab technician outside of his apartment on his way to work at the Brennamen Institute. They beat up the technician, urinated on him, and painted “Learn to love or die – a message from the ULT” on his car.
Guy frowned. “These are most certainly miscreants disguising themselves as ULT members to distract the authorities from their true motive and identity,” she said.
The programming moved to a conference room with three newscasters who proceeded to discuss the prevalence of ULT associated crimes and the conspiracy surrounding the political group. I turned the television off, found some resolve, and took a shower.
It was a long shower, and the hot water made my skin feel empty and loose. When I finished, steam had filled the bathroom and humidified the bedroom, fogging the windows that looked out over the city’s streets. It reminded me of Claire. Whenever I took a long shower, she would complain. “Derek,” she would say, “it’s like a sauna in here.”
I had another cup of coffee and read the newspaper. There was the weekly article about the steadily high divorce rates in the lifestyles section, and the financial section discussed how remaining unmarried throughout life had become far more beneficial to one’s estate in the long-run. The article from the financial section did point out, however, that those choosing to divorce now were less well-off than those who divorced back at the dawn of what everyone – scientists, historians, and media lackeys alike – referred to as the “New Emotive Era.” This was because when the “New Emotive Era” started, the government compensated divorcing couples handsomely. Of course, the article continued to point out that marriage was by and large a non-issue at the moment: only ten percent of American adults were married.
I finished my coffee and threw the paper away. Then I took the elevator down and left my building. I took a taxi to the Glass Forest Café to meet my daughter for lunch.
While I waited for the hostess, I admired the glass trees with their stained trunks and canopies of amber and emerald respectively. When the hostess appeared, I told her I was meeting Jessica Thompson, who had made the reservation. The woman looked at her list and shook her head.
“Okay,” I said, “Is there a Jessica Haley?”
There was, and I explained that she was my daughter and that she sometimes listed herself under her mother’s maiden name. The hostess nodded and led me to Jessica’s table.
Jessica smiled as I approached. She had dyed her hair from its natural blonde to neon orange, a look that was becoming prevalent among celebrities. She had her mother’s angular and petite features, and I tried to push any thoughts of Claire out of my head by focusing on Jessica’s vibrant hair.
“Dad,” she said, after I sat down.
“Daughter.” I smiled and picked up the menu in front of me and then looked up. “Already decided?”
“Yes. The spinach soup.”
Our waitress came by, and we ordered. I chose a turkey sandwich with Swiss and strawberry chutney.
“How are things?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “I’m still seeing Mark.”
She raised her eyebrows at this; I shrugged in apology for my choice of words.
“Something like that,” she said. “It’s a good relationship. A safe one. Neither of us is over committing emotionally.”
“Some would say that’s all that’s important. The experts, anyway.”
I tried to pick the right words: “Of course.”
“Yes, well, my friend Samantha would say otherwise. She’s obsessed with this guy named Thomas.” She frowned in disgust. “He’s studying the humanities so he’s dangerously close to these types of things. Anyway, they’re so obviously falling for each other and it just makes me sick to see her throw herself down the drain like that.”
I nodded in a concerned fashion, trying hard to portray every ounce of agreement with what she was saying.
“Young people,” she said, “are at the highest risk for falling in love. I keep telling Sam that but she doesn’t care. She is literally intoxicated and blind. I fear that if things don’t return to a more rational level, the relationship will implode into outright, unregulated emotion. You know,” she cringed, “into love.”
“Do you think she’ll need to go into treatment?” I asked, scared that my voice sounded too flat.
“I am. People don’t fair well even after treatment. The remission rate is astoundingly high.”
“Uh-huh. That’s what I’ve been hearing.”
Our food came, and Jessica continued to theorize on Samantha’s eventual downfall. Eventually she asked me about work, and I described some advertising concepts we were mulling over for a client of ours. Then I paid the check and walked her outside and shook her hand.
“Say hello to mom for me,” I said.
At first, she looked turned off by my comment. But then she smiled at me.
“You mean Claire, don’t you?”
I offered a weak smile. “I do. Take care of yourself.”
“I will, dad.” Her smile grew. Then she disappeared into a taxi.
I drove to my firm’s office and attended a series of executive meetings. One of my associates, a man named Walter Saldana, informed me that things had gone sour between one of our new employees and our client, Tek Audio Distributors. We phoned the people at Tek Audio and met them at a Chinese restaurant for dinner to clear the situation up. They were displeased with the approach of our man’s proposed advertising campaign, finding it unoriginal. We assured them that a senior member of our staff would handle their business from here on out. We shook hands and shared impersonal smiles. Then Walter suggested we get drinks at the Horned Cat, and I agreed with a feeling of malaise forming in my mind.
Fifteen minutes later, we were at a booth just behind a massive black statue of a cat with ram’s horns. The lights were dim, and a generic electric beat played over the speakers. We drank and talked about Wilson, the new guy assigned to handle Tek Audio. While Walter found Wilson intelligent but boring, I found Wilson unenthusiastic and generally unmotivated. Walter agreed and pointed out that he’d never seen Wilson take to anything with even a hint of desire, not even women at the office socials.
As we spoke, a smattering of sexes trickled into the bar, and they self-segregated. After we’d had two rounds of drinks, the overhead lights changed to vibrant pink and dulled at a near subconscious rate to red and then back to pink.
“Look,” Walter said, “we’ve both known each other for some time.”
“That’s right,” I said.
“In fact, I would consider you one of my good friends.”
“And I as well.”
“So,” he looked at me with eagerness, “can I ask you a question that a man can only ask his friend?”
I laughed, expecting something about sex or drugs or illegal offenses that I would normally keep to myself.
“Sure,” I said.
“Then tell me,” Walter asked, “what was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Oh,” I said, looking down and frowning for an instant.
“Hey man, it’s okay, we don’t have to talk about it.” He waved it away. He sipped his drink and looked around the bar at the women.
At thirty-two, Walter was a good fifteen years younger than I, and he had the luxury of coming into adulthood after the change.
“Well,” I said, “it’s nothing that crazy.”
“Yeah?” he said, his eyes lighting up with curiosity.
“You’ve seen it, right?”
“I’ve read about it.”
“You never saw that segment on the national news?”
“No, I missed that.”
“Well, what do you know about it?” I asked.
Walter shrugged. “Just that they sit you both down in these chairs side by side, attach this thing to your head, take readings, and then give you the results.”
“That’s right. And they make you hold hands between the chairs.”
“And very few people come out of it with positive results.”
“That’s true.” I finished my drink. “In fact, I don’t think any couple has come out of it with positive results.”
“Oh yeah? What makes you say that?”
His eyes followed a middle-aged woman with a lusty stare. She had long brown hair. Then he looked back at me.
“Well,” I said, “going through it at the time I did, I had a lot of friends go through the same thing.”
“Yeah. And none of them got positive results.”
“So they all split up?”
I nodded. “Except for one couple.”
“They just said fuck it?”
“More or less.” I shrugged. “They live out in the country together.”
He laughed. “In one of those communes.”
“No, just together.”
“Damn. Are they happy?”
“They say they are.”
“But you don’t think they are?”
“I don’t know. His name is Robert. Bob, I call him. He was a lawyer and his wife was a graduate student in psychology. Now they’re organic farmers.”
“Fucking crazy.” Walter shook his head.
I shrugged. “It’s one of the only occupations a married couple can have without taking a salary reduction to cover emotional insurance.”
He finished his drink. Then he went to the bar and came back with another round. I finished mine and noticed some women two tables away shooting us inviting glances.
“Man, happiness is a bitch,” Walter said.
“Before long they’ll have something to say about happiness,” I said.
He laughed. “That they will, that they will.” He raised his glass. “Cheers my friend.”
We bumped our glasses.
Then the women came over to talk to us. Their names were Cindy and Carmen. Cindy talked to Walter. Carmen had silver hair and a bronze tan that was obviously artificial. She reminded me of silverware that my mother had on display in an antique dresser when I was a kid. She was a sales manager at Fire Vision Graphics. We discussed the market and the current economy. Before long, I noticed Cindy and Walter exchanging SR cards – sex record cards. They talked a bit longer, and then Robert said he would see me tomorrow. They left me alone with Carmen who took their absence as an indicator that she needed to hurry things along. She leaned seductively against the table, showing her cleavage and resting her hand on my upper thigh. We were still talking about financial gain in the virtual education sector.
“Look,” she finally said, “do you want to exchange information?”
“Sure,” I said, trying hard to force an enthusiastic smile.
She slipped me her card underneath the table. She was clean and had never been married. She was thirty-three. Like Walter, it was all before her time. We left and went to her place.
The sex was rhythmic and predictable; a solution as stark as the number at the end of a math problem. An absolute without any human interest attached to it. I hadn’t had it in over a month, either. She had gold nipples and her entire body was shaved and smooth like a metallic sculpture from the art museum. When we were done, we laid in bed, not talking, not touching.
“Have you heard,” she said, cutting the silence and making my heart jump, “that they’ve been doing research on unconditional love, and that they’re even questioning that?”
“No,” I said. “That will be interesting, I suppose.”
“You don’t think so.”
“Maybe not. I’m unsure what I think sometimes.”
I turned and looked at her. She was the new woman, not much different than my Jessica. We talked superficially for a bit longer, and then I told her I had to get back to my place as I had an appointment early the next day. I dressed and left.
Back at my apartment, I laid down on the couch in front of the television, turning it on. Loveless images flashed over me in electric turquoise until my eyes burned and shut, the darkness carrying me to sleep.
- – -
I woke the next morning to a news segment on the ULT. Guy had been arrested the night before for shooting and wounding two staff psychologists from the Brennamen institute. I took a shower and made coffee. Then I left my building and drove to the Famaden Building and entered the offices of Reasonable Connection Support Therapists.
Except for me, the waiting room was empty, and I picked up a copy of People magazine. The cover article was about two singers who decided to get married, and how they had lost their respective fan bases and record label contracts because of it.
Claire came in the door. She walked briskly to the receptionist and avoided greeting me. She sat on the opposite side of the room. When her gaze finally came to rest on me in its slow, deliberate manner – as if she was scared of taking me in all at once – she offered a courtesy smile.
“Derek,” she said.
“Claire.” I nodded.
Then she averted her eyes.
“I had lunch with Jessica yesterday,” I said.
“She told me.”
She picked up a National Geographic and flipped through it. I pretended to resume my interest in People. But I kept glancing up at her. Her skin was not artificially tan, and it still had that ruddy undertone to its paleness that made her look real. Her hair had faded some, but it was still brown and beautiful in its worn, aged way. Dr. Hoffman, our therapist, appeared in the doorway.
We both got up and smiled in a customary manner. We followed Dr. Hoffman to his office where he motioned for us to sit on a large tan couch. We chose opposite ends, and Dr. Hoffman closed the door gently. He sat in front of us in a desk chair that swiveled. A stereo played the sound of a mountain stream.
“So?” he said, taking his cue from the silence. “I hear from the two of you that you’re having problems again?”
“That’s right,” Claire said.
I remained silent.
“What kind of problems?” he asked.
I turned red and looked at my feet.
“Well,” Claire said, “Derek has violated the emotional agreement we had.”
Dr. Hoffman nodded in a concerned fashion and beckoned at her with a hand. She produced the written agreement and handed it to him.
“How so?” he asked, skimming over the document with a concerned expression.
“Well, namely, he told me a little under a month ago that he still loved me.”
Dr. Hoffman smiled weakly and nodded.
“At first we had a disagreement about it and I thought it would all blow over,” she said. “But then he insisted on it again, a week later.” She scowled at me. “He said he couldn’t ignore what his heart was saying.”
“Yes, yes,” Dr. Hoffman said.
“And I tried to explain to Derek that it’s been common medical knowledge for sometime that those feelings of ‘the heart’ are just a mixture of hormones and other chemical responses in the body.”
Dr. Hoffman nodded and then offered his opinion. He explained to Claire that not everyone from our generation has made the adjustment to rationally viewing the experience of our emotions, especially since we had grown up with irrational views. He insisted that it was very hard for some people to unlearn what they had known all their lives, making it difficult for them to conform to the new social protocol, even though scientific advances had validated it. Then he turned to me.
“Tell me, Derek, have you been having enough sex lately?”
I told him about last night, making sure to include that I found it boring and remote.
“How so?” he asked, cocking his head in interest.
“There’s no meaning behind it,” I said.
“Yes, but Derek, you know as well as Claire and I that meaning attributed to sex is not absolute. It’s only perceived, something that your mind makes up to comfort you.”
I shrugged and crossed my arms.
“That’s what we call romantic meaning, and follow-up studies are showing that Dr. Brennamen’s groundbreaking—”
“I don’t want to hear about Dr. Brennamen,” I said.
“Now he’s mad,” Claire said. “Oh god, this is the problem with you Derek. You can’t control the range of your affect.”
“Look,” Dr. Hoffman said, leaning in and motioning for Claire to remain calm, “how many times have you breached your emotional agreement with Claire, Derek?”
“Quite a few,” I said.
“Don’t you think it’s time you gave emotional moderation medication a try?”
“You mean EMM?”
My throat felt heavy. “Can’t you just see it from my perspective?”
“Isn’t the fact that I keep relapsing proof enough that the first test we took ten years ago was a lie?”
“Derek, you know as well as I do that there is far less than a one percent chance of that being the case.”
“Can’t we just take it again?”
“Jesus, Derek,” Claire said, “We’ve retaken the test twice since we’ve been divorced! And every time you concoct this mess about it being necessary for closure and it seems to be doing just the opposite!”
“Claire, we’re talking about love here!”
“Derek,” Dr. Hoffman said, “You need to stay calm and watch what you say.”
But I couldn’t. I was in tears before I knew what was happening. I tried to hug Claire, but she pushed me off her and got up from the couch, glaring down at me and shaking with anger. Dr. Hoffman tried to console me while urging me to stay put and respect Claire’s state of mind and physical space. He then went on about the medication. He really thought I would benefit from it. He thought our relationship would benefit from it. I just shook my head in despair. Then I started telling Claire that I still loved her, and that I wanted to run away to the country with her like Robert had done with his wife. I suggested that we too could become organic farmers.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I need to get out of here.”
“That’s quite all right,” Dr. Hoffman said to Claire. “Just step outside and wait in the hall for me.”
She left, slamming the door behind her.
Dr. Hoffman leaned in towards me.
“Derek,” he said, “You must listen to me. This is not healthy for her or you. You need to give the medication a try. If I could force you by law to take it, I would.”
He continued to explain and rationalize my feelings, gesturing with his hands and moving around imaginary objects that were meant to represent the complicated emotions of the human mind. I blocked him out after a while. If only for her sake, I would give it a try. I would try the medication.
- – -
In my bathroom I extracted some razor blades from my shaving utensils and toyed with the idea of suicide. The stupidity of believing that any relief awaited me in the unknown, however, stopped me, and in the end I realized that I only had one option. So I wrote “I really loved you” on a piece of paper and taped it to the bathroom mirror. Then I took the EMMs.
The dreams stopped, and I would find myself sitting in conferences and board meetings and imagining the spider-like machines from my dreams emerging from behind a chair to grapple onto a person’s head.
I would go out with Walter, either to the Horned Cat or any number of sexual rendezvous bars, and I would meet beautiful women and have conversations that never penetrated the surface. They were fluid, and the dialogue always had a predictable structure to it. We exchanged names to begin with. Then we exchanged occupations and world views. Finally, and with seeming invariability, we exchanged SR cards. The women had skin tones that were, literally so, in all shades of bronze, silver, and gold. And their hair came in every violet and orange and emerald of the spectrum. I met one woman who had every hair on her body dyed to a permanent silver white. She was ghostly and beautiful, a forlorn spirit embodied in a spiritless, human form. Sex began to afford me a simple and routine pleasure, much like showering after a long day.
Soon, I believed that I understood everyone and that everyone understood me. The barriers of fear, happiness, indecision, anger, and – above all else – love had been lifted. I found the experience much like everyone else. It was liberating and quiet, the way I remembered feeling at the graveyard for my parents’ respective funerals.
Occasionally, though, I would forget to take the EMMs. Strange things would take shape in my gut. My pulse would rise, and I would acquire an unwarranted desperation. I would hold the pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other, and I would think this will not help while believing that it would.
At Christmas the family got together, and I was able to see Claire and feel absolutely nothing. It was the first Christmas that we had all been together in over five years. Jessica and her boyfriend seemed dispossessed of one another, but this seemed to make them happy. It even made me happy, albeit a different kind of happy. A happy you could poke with stick. A happy that you could see but couldn’t touch, like the movies. It was all fine with me.
One day, the piece of paper taped to my bathroom mirror had become soggy with the moisture from the steam. The ink on it was faded, and the tape had lost its adhesive quality. Like a dead leaf, the thing fell into the sink while I was shaving. I remembered what it had said, and I no longer cared for those words. Still, I resolved to write the words down again, and I hung it from the bathroom mirror as I had done before. Of course, the moisture and steam caused the same decomposition over time, and I continued to replace it. It was the one small habit I had, and it was the one I could not do without.