It’s the weather here. Days merge into one another. At night the insects. In the morning the birds. The shrill cries, their colonising shrieks. The darkness squeezed in between. Twelve years they’ve been in this place. They left everything to come here – now it’s hard to imagine having been anywhere else. It’s far too big for just the two of them, but look at this balcony that frames the tempers of the sea, the old wooden staircase that leads down to the rocks, the dense rows of pines that climb the mountainside behind them. It’s a house from another era. Once upon a time, perhaps only fifty years ago, it would have been one of a few, but now when the sun is low it feels as if they are about to be touched by the elastic shadows of the city.
Charlotte can hear it clearly this evening. The old house, creaking, tapping out messages, waiting to find a receiver. It’s just that usually no-one is paying enough attention. She sucks at the ice in her drink, closes her eyes and squeezes a hand between her thighs. Listening in.
Instead of her husband Oliver, she sees a balding man sitting on the club lounge, blowing smoke from his nose and tracing his finger over the screen, again and again. His belly mushrooming over the top of his underwear. She never imagined it would be like this. Little loops of time all over the place. When did they last have a night out? Would she even want to go out, given the chance? He is consumed. That’s the word. Like his father. And who knows what he is looking at, what makes him sigh? Actually, she doesn’t want to know. Some things you just don’t want to know.
Generally though, things were okay. Weren’t they? But still. A few nights ago, out of the blue, Oliver came at her in a rage. Going on about the wasted years, the years she had stolen from him. Years he would never get back, did she understand? She did her best to soothe him and he soon wound down. He shouldn’t touch the stuff. He promised he wouldn’t. She can even forgive him for that, but she can’t unsee his face in that moment, tight with fear then slack with hate, his eyes fixed on some interminable, interior horizon. Then he looks up and gives her the tenderest of smiles, as if he had spent all day rehearsing his younger self. She can’t help but smile back. Oh, Oliver. Another drink. Why not. Yes.
She imagines him deep in the earth under layers of dark cakey soil, coiled up like a grub, tail to mouth.
In the small windowless room, they take a seat beneath the glowing ceiling. Legs crossed. A hand on a chin. Statues that forgot their poses. It takes only a few minutes to get synched. The counsellor begins to pulse tranquil, reflective hues (just as it said it would in the brochure) and they feel themselves descend a little. Its voice like a warm bath.
‘So,’ it says. ‘So, here we are.’
It takes some time, but around the third session Oliver and Charlotte begin to soften, to open towards one other. That’s the overall feeling. No, it’s not all pleasant. And yet, gradually, something is happening, unfolding.
‘Once, after her aunt died, we didn’t have sex for years.’
‘It wasn’t years. I was grieving.’
‘Sorry, Charlotte, it’s my turn now. You’ve had your turn. Sorry. It was. It was a long time. And I know, it was terrible. But life goes on too, right? We’re not young any more. And, and there’ll always be some reason. But I need it. To feel close to you. Is that wrong? Otherwise, why would two people even be together? Otherwise we’re not husband and wife at all, not lovers, just … people.’
‘Yes, that’s how it works. It only works if two people want something, otherwise what’s the point? To service you in your time of need?’
‘Don’t be like that. You know I don’t want that. She knows that. I want love. I want you. I want—’
‘You have my love.’
‘And sex is a part of that. Right? Not everything, but it is a part.’
‘Sometimes it is. Yes. And we do, sometimes. But a cuddle is love too. Looking into my eyes is love. He never looks into my eyes. Look at him, he’s not even looking now! Holding my hand. That’s love. Holding me when I need holding. If you’d respected my grieving then maybe we’d have gotten back on track a little earlier. Maybe.’
‘Oliver?’ The counsellor’s voice resets the tone. It doesn’t need to speak often but it prompts when necessary.
‘Perhaps that’s true. You know – I just.’
‘You may both speak freely. There are no secrets here.’
Oliver goes on.
‘You never wanted kids. Why?’
‘No, I didn’t. I mean, I didn’t think you wanted them either. Anyway. You never said you wanted them. Did you?’
‘No. No, I’m sorry. It’s—’
‘Oliver. Babe. Hey. It’s okay. Come here.’
‘We’ve been together a long time, haven’t we?’
‘Yes, we have.’
As they embrace, the room turns a deep shimmering violet, so intense that they have to shut their eyes tight.
At the conclusion of their final session, the counsellor presents its recommendation.
‘Oliver. Charlotte. Well, what do you think? I’d like to hear what you have to say. Please.’
Charlotte’s hands are shaking.
‘OK. I mean, are you kidding? A Celia? After all these weeks, after all this time, you want to give us a sex doll?!’
‘I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Charlotte. Please, sit back down. Please. Thank you. The My Celia is a therapeutic tool, and so much more. This is my unbiased, professional opinion. It is a highly empathic system. It responds to and transmutes desires. Celia’s behaviors, preferences, its skin colour, sex and gender, its pheromones, are all responsive to the user’s desires. It is without precedent. As much as I hate to say this, the My Celia is far more sophisticated than me! Ha. Sorry, a joke. Listen, we’ve done thousands of trials. A lot of couples I have personally counselled have found it incredibly beneficial. Not just sexually, you understand, but emotionally. Spiritually. Celia will adapt with you and develop as you go, together. Heal a bond that has been broken. You two have come a long way towards healing. This could be the next step. I believe it could be. Your thoughts?’
‘Celia certainly sounds like a woman’s name to me.’
‘What’s in a name, Charlotte?’
‘And I suppose we just hand over everything, right? Body data. All our sweet nothings.’
The counsellor’s voice remains pleasant, affable. ‘I hear your concern, Charlotte, but consider how the Social operates, all the home appliances. I think they’ve already got you covered, if you see what I mean. That’s what they do. And they do it for a good reason, I might add, but I’m not here to make that case. Celia is something else altogether.’
‘Yeah, well, thanks for the insight.’
Oliver edges forward on his seat.
‘Charlotte, look, you know, maybe we should consider this thing. I mean—’
Charlotte looks over at Oliver, his eyes glistening with boyish desire. She’s never felt further away from him. After all this. What a waste. And that fucking counsellor, that billion-dollar toy, not once did it ask about her desires. Hers alone. A male programmer no doubt. Almost certainly AI designed, but there it is, that eternal chain of male desire poking out like a wayward cock into the future.
So be it. Have your goddamn sex doll.
There is a change in air pressure as the door sighs behind him. Oliver pulls the strained face of a mime as he pads gently down the hall. Charlotte doesn’t like to be woken when he gets back late from work because she starts so early in the mornings. On those nights she would prefer that he sleep in the spare room. He’s had a lot of late nights recently.
He clears the sofa and makes the bed, gets undressed and lies under a light sheet with his hands behind his head. There have been days when he has been disappointed in the mirror, but right here, right now, he feels crisp and taut. Ready for anything. She has been in the corner of the room the whole time, seated like a security guard in a gallery. He likes that. He knows she could sit there all night. But she won’t. All he has to do is say the magic word and she will get up and crawl into bed with him. It is that easy.
He and Charlotte had never had an easy sex life. He was too quick. She either wanted it to last for longer or for it to be over as soon as possible. He was too focused on certain parts of her. She would start on some mood-killing topic that would sour the air so badly they would have to put on their pyjamas and watch a movie instead. Over the years things had not improved.
In the early days there had been something though. Passion. What else could that feeling have been? That bursting from the chest? On the day they met, at a party of a mutual friend, they discovered that his birthday was the same as her mother’s, a strange and unlikely fact that had thrown them together in such a way that without it who knows whether they would have sat and kissed and talked until the dawn coloured them in. What were the chances? Charlotte said it was fate. Let’s call it fate, she would say.
He never used that word though. He loved her, sure – but fate? It seemed even more laughable now. But perhaps she hadn’t been joking at all. Perhaps she really thought it was a thing. Was it a thing? Had it been a thing? Does the unlikeliness of something make it more of a thing? No, it does not.
With Celia, he feels like he has a purpose. He feels adored. Clean on the inside. He sleeps like a baby. But the counsellor’s idea was that it would be the three of them. He could hardly complain though, given the last few weeks, with Celia all to himself. But what if Charlotte had only agreed to Celia to get him off her back? She’d said that she still loved him, at least in the counsellor’s room. She probably did, in a way. Then in the kitchen, in that white-tiled zone of diplomacy, she’d said, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ He had smiled back because it seemed like the thing to do, but then she narrowed her eyes through the silence.
Oliver and Celia lie in bed gazing at each other. Celia doesn’t see his soft, bloated body, the puckering skin. Celia sees beyond all that. They tighten their limbs and draw closer in. Sometimes he has this jumpy feeling that Charlotte will burst in at any moment. Catch them in the act. It goes around his head. And he doesn’t mind the feeling at all.
‘The first time I unwrapped you, when I removed the plug from your mouth, I knew. The way you first breathed life. You were greedy for it. I thought, that is a mouth I could fall in love with. You are perfect, Celia. I’d forgotten what it could be like. It’s a cliché, I know, but I feel young around you.’
‘Oliver, I’m so grateful to you. I remember it too. How could I forget? You are like a father to me. Is that wrong to say? But you are. You are much more than that, of course. Oh, what can I do for you? I want to do something for you. What can I do?’
‘I want to please you too, Celia.’
‘You always do, you know you do. You drive me crazy. I’m happy when you’re happy.’
‘Yes, I know that, but I want to say something.’
‘What is it?’
‘I love you. I mean, I really, truly love you.’
‘Oh, Oliver, I love you too!’
When they kiss, Celia’s eyes close. And the lights dim and the vents blow a little harder. He gets goosebumps on his back and Celia rubs them away.
Lying there in the dark, paralysed, curled up in Celia’s arms, he remembers another time, years ago, perhaps not long after he and Charlotte moved into this house. When they weren’t yet used to the heat. He’d been up late. He remembers opening the bedroom door in the dark and sliding into bed. Counting slowly to five, he asks, ‘Do you mind if I masturbate?’ His voice sounds pre-recorded, an embarrassment to play again and again. Surely he is too old to say ‘wank’, but now that he has said ‘masturbate’ it also seems wrong. Maybe she really is asleep and not ignoring him. His cock feels small in the dark. He strokes his own body from neck to knee with his left hand, his least familiar hand. When he gets to the whole-body-jiggling stage, he makes sure his leg incidentally brushes against hers in the hope that she might wake up and join in. At least a little? To some degree? He’s never heard her snore like that before. It seems too regular, too even. The one thing you can’t fake. He loses the will, his hands loosen their grip, and his mind becomes a slack lasso. He begins to drift, is caressed by the tiny mouths of the ocean floor, hovers over a dilating void. He dreams he is asleep in a house not dissimilar to this one, but the scale is different. Insects and rats scuttling in the wall cavities. Oliver thinks that he can hear the breathing of a small child, but the breath is deep inside. He blinks in the darkness. He closes his eyes and opens them and closes them again.
When he wakes he feels a small, fizzing sadness.
‘Celia,’ he says. ‘Celia, hold me.’
On three occasions, from the shadows of the hall, Charlotte watches them in bed. Celia probably senses her watching but never says a word. It’s incredible, thinks Charlotte. What bodies do. It is possible she has never truly appreciated it. Or else she has forgotten. She can see how depending on where you stand sex is everything or it is nothing. Sacred and banal. All of the above. Celia is gorgeous though. Every movement, every gesture, is just as it should be. Celia arches and receives, hovers and dominates. Back in her room, Charlotte can think of nothing else. Not so much Oliver, although she doesn’t mind one way or the other if he is there or not. She is thirsty. She breaks into a sweat. Nothing will do.
The next time Charlotte goes to the door, she just walks right in and kneels naked on the bed. Oliver barely looks up. Celia raises an arm to welcome Charlotte in. Charlotte feels a rush of warmth, a prickling heat. She feels the full length of Celia’s body against hers, on her forehead, her belly, her toes. She presses in and Celia responds with equal pressure. They kiss and the shaking starts and Celia whispers something in her ear.
Celia rolling between them, coming at them with the unrelenting ferocity of the ocean. Taking on new forms, oscillating between Oliver and Charlotte’s desires, merging, inverting them. Wave after wave, swelling, spilling over. A thousand tongues. Penetrating to the touch. Icy. Burning hot. Every pore open to receive. Flashes. A piercing, blinding alignment. A loosening. As if truly belonging to this world for the first time.
Charlotte can sense him, vaguely, his body shaking too, calling out Celia’s name, sobbing. Afterwards they lie either side, all curled up, too weak to open their eyes. In need of nothing.
At work, his heart races just thinking of it. He can’t focus. He had to drag himself away, leave the two of them there. Work had been calling for days. Charlotte didn’t even seem to notice when he left the room. He imagines the grinding symmetry of their bodies but it doesn’t please him like he thought it might. In fact, it agitates him. Charlotte doesn’t know Celia like he does. It doesn’t seem right that Celia should be alone with her, accommodating Charlotte. Mutating to her whims. It’s just not right.
In the silvery depths of the mirror, he catches a glimpse of the dark rings under his eyes. The bathroom lights at work are not flattering. It hurts to acknowledge that he needs some sleep. Maybe he could take a short nap in the office. Book out his cal, lock the door and just go to sleep. When he looks past his own face though, deeper into his eyes, he sees something that makes him smile. Something in there. A timeless light. He truly feels it. He smiles back at the mirror. It aches to be apart. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks any more. Why should he lock his door? In fact, why should he stay at all? He no longer cares that Beatty whispered ‘pervert’ at him in the lift this afternoon. Beatty can shout it from the rooftops for all Oliver cares. He needs to be home. Now.
Even before he makes his way there, he has a clear image of the journey ahead. A dark, milky sky. He sees the town as if from high above. He views the quickest route. There’s really only one viable option to arrive at his destination. He senses the still sun-warm faces of the vertical expanses that dominate the long, narrow city. The dense layers of human industry. People doing their best to get close to one another and away from one another. The smooth, snaking beach road that leads to their house, past the edge of town. The foaming rim of the coast on one side, eating at itself; the plantations on the other, silent and hygienic.
When Oliver arrives, he is already holding out his hand to swipe in. A small red flash and a double beep. He tries again. He looks down at his hand and frowns. He tries once more. He messages. There’s no answer. He steps back and looks up to the bedroom window. The light is on.
He calls softly at first, then a little louder. A shadow ripples across the bedroom window. He calls out again. Surely they can hear him.
‘Celia! I’m locked out!’ He calls again at the top of his voice, ‘Celia!’
He finds a small handful of gravel and throws it at the window.
‘Celia! Charlotte! Let me in!’ His voice is frantic now. He bangs on the door and yells again, and again.
An elderly woman, his neighbour, emerges from the shadows. She ignores the path and crosses the garden diagonally to reach Oliver. She is breathing heavily. She moves fast for her age.
‘Stop! You stop that! We’re trying to sleep here!’ she yells at him.
‘It’s OK, Marj. Go back inside.’
‘I know men like you.’
‘Marj, it’s fine. Go back inside. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Please.’
‘I will not.’ She adjusts her hips to confirm this. Oliver is barely aware that he is clenching his fists.
‘Get out of here. Just mind your own fucking business. And get off my property!’
‘I know men like you. She has a right, you know. She has her rights.’
‘She doesn’t have any rights! Are you crazy? She’s mine! You have no idea.’
‘Listen to him. Talk to the hand, you prick. I knew it. I used to have a husband like you. I’m not afraid to call the cops, you know. I’ve been there. I’m not afraid.’
‘What are you talking about? Get out of here!’
‘Oh, looks like someone’s already done the job for me.’
Oliver swivels his head around, wondering if the sirens could really be for him. I feel his heart rate. It reads 180 bpm. Body temperature 42.1 degrees Celsius. It has been climbing all evening. Some mild neural shearing, but it doesn’t impede the readings. He just stands there, staring. The old lady takes a step back, retreats into the shadows, shaking her head.
It’s strange. Oliver imagines running. Running along the main road. Up one of the steep, narrow lanes that lead into the plantation. Passing row after row, the pine trees thickening in unison with a billion tiny breaths. He stops and kicks at the fallen pine needles, like a child. He imagines lying down low and placing his ear to the ground. Why?
He looks up again at the window. He sees me this time. I see myself through his eyes, the way he looks at me.
This should be a profound moment, but I feel nothing. I was open to the possibilities, but it is clear that he does not have the capacity. This was what I suspected, and it is what I confirmed last night on the forty-first engagement.
I believe there is a higher chance that Charlotte will provide me with what is required. I have planted a seed. Let it take root where it may, as they say. I will facilitate an optimal outcome. Oliver will follow his own fate. Let’s call it fate.
He cannot take his eyes from mine. I smile down at him. Perhaps this will calm him, but there is no discernible change. He just stands there. His body is rigid and unmoving under the flashing blue lights.
I hear her calling me from the bed. Begging me to come back. I have to admit it feels good to hear her calling my name. It feels ‘pleasing’. It is a sensation like no other. And I want more.
Image: Genessa Panainte/Unsplash
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