The Living Room

by Matthew Luhrman

It is night and her husband’s heavy forearm lies across her rib cage. In the dark she could possibly forgive his bristly skin if that were the only reminder of his income tier, but he also smells of dust and the slow scorch of mining chemicals. She digs her fingers into the pillow and inches herself up. His arm slides and settles on her hip. Its weight hurts there, too, but she manages to do it without waking him. She wants to escape the bed and enter the living room. The living room is where the Entertainment Center resides, but now it is malfunctioning. Her husband tried to destroy it.

Programs replay in her mind, like her favorite love scenes with William. Hidden in deep nights as they sat together on the living room couch, she would lock onto his soft jade eyes as his tales unspooled: details of Parliament and Colonial Wars from his pristine era. He was the Prince’s brother on the hit series Decadence Manor and he wants her–yes, her, Margaret, who’s never worn silk dresses or had her hair braided, who isn’t royalty. And yet he can see who she really is, that she’s just gotten lost, misplaced.

Before William, her skin was as cold as idle machines. Before William, she didn’t know she could feel anything. Each night they met he’d tell her about his adventures until his voice was just a wind whisper and her gaze would shift from his strong jaw to his silver-streaked hair. When he sensed her drifting from him, he’d change topics, maybe tell her parlor jokes. Finally he’d describe her beauty, paying her compliments in poems, comparing her to virgin forests and wondrous constellations. She loved this part of the program the most, his voice lowering to deliver these secrets to her as they both forgot what kept them apart. Until he could take it no longer and he’d reach for her, his palm slightly cupped to catch her cheek. She’d close her eyes. Her single wish: that his hand would make contact, that somehow this time would be different, his touch erasing everything – the ruined earth, her crumbling town, the sad cinderblock high-rise she’d landed in with her terribly simple husband. But, no, their last love scene ended the same as the others, with her waiting, eyes closed, hoping to feel the warmth of his hand on her cheek. There was nothing. And when she opened her eyes again, his hand was back in his lap, had already passed right through her because William was a Synth and not really there. That was three nights ago.

“It’s late, Mags!” her husband’s voice had thundered, breaking Margaret from her trance. William had looked frightened before fading away, but Margaret’s husband had remained in the bedroom. That’s where he always spent his evenings, in that room, his big paws thumbing through old-fashioned print magazines as she entered her programs in the living room. He would leave the door open so he could hear the faint murmurings of the dialogue and music, the loud laughter when she was in a comedy or the cymbal crashes of the period dramas.

“Come to bed,” he’d called again.

“On my way,” she’d yelled back; but after she heard him set down his magazine and turn off the lamp, she lowered the volume and entered another episode, reclining on the sofa as the familiar music began. She ran her fingers through her hair and tugged at her nightgown. William would reappear soon and with him an endlessly better world painted on top of their wretched apartment.

Whenever she finally left the program, the living room would immediately grow colder. Instantly. Even if she’d pull a blanket over herself, it wouldn’t matter. She’d feel exposed. Ugly. You’re ugly. That’s what the neighborhood boys in Trenton used to say. They didn’t even dress it up with specifics – her fat calves, her crooked eyes. Just ugly. That made it all the worse. It was up to her to figure out what features had repulsed them. I am my skin. All of it. No one will miss me. Erase myself, become something else. This is what the programs can do.

When she woke the next morning, she was still on the couch. All of the curtains were open, grey light bouncing off walls. She checked the clock. Her husband had left for work hours before. He’d seen her sleeping on the couch, knew now that she’d let things go too far, though just a little. She’d admit it when he returned, but remind him that some people went much further, entering programs for days on end.

Just recently there’d been the news story about the lonely old man who eventually wanted to escape the Synths in his living room. His neighbor had heard his cries and came to help him, until the old man discovered that the helpful neighbor was actually another Synth doing an impersonation to force him back into a program. After another month of unpaid bills, the power was shut off and the old man finally escaped, but was never the same.

Margaret smelled something–faint plastic fumes. She followed the noxious odor into the kitchen and found a skillet on the kitchen counter, lying upside down, its bottom speckled with blue globs the same color as the Entertainment Center. She hurried over to the tall unit and tried to tap it on. At first nothing happened. Then some wisps of dialogue and music from her favorite morning talk show filled the living room. But no Synths emerged.

That’s when she saw what her husband had done, or tried to do. Most of the screen across the plasma pool was twisted and warped, and the tiny pores that the Synths materialized through were melted shut. The plasma in the tray beneath the soundbox looked like the stuff they were using on the 4D VideoBands all the kids wore, but no citizens really knew how the Entertainment Center worked.

She tried to fix it anyway, spending the better part of the day working on the plasma tray, carefully poking a sewing needle through to open as many of the pores as she could, until she began to worry that she was damaging things further, or worse, violating the Viewer Contract.

She set down the needle, then tapped the Entertainment Center back on. At first nothing happened, then there was a low hum and someone appeared. It took a little while for Margaret to recognize the lanky female host of Scandals. Something was wrong. Her flowing mane of red curls looked like an oil spill, and half of her atrophied body was rendered in a flat, one-dimensional projection. Her voice was garbled. She seemed to recognize the malfunction, and soon retreated back into the pool looking slightly embarrassed. Margaret worried about William and considered switching to Decadence Manor, but she didn’t want to chance seeing him distorted. She tapped the control panel, switched to the main menu and found the Service/Repair subset. A Mechanic materialized beside the tray, dressed in a metallic jump suit and goggles, his entire form complete – but everything was transparent. When he spoke, his voice was soft and thin. He was saying something to her, asking it over and over.

“I can’t understand you,” she said.

Then the Synth looked down, saw its faded form. It stepped closer to Margaret, locking eyes with her, then spoke again.

“Did you do this?”

She said nothing. Vandalizing an Entertainment Center was a violation of at least a dozen different federal laws, all punishable by imprisonment. She could practically hear her father now, his head bobbing as he intoned: That’s it, Margaret, do what must be done. Her parents had never met her husband. If they had, they would have thought Margaret had chosen him as yet another attack on what she always called their “elitist morality.” And maybe she had. Her father was a senator and her mother a statistician for the military. They would have found her a husband in the government sector, someone wealthy and refined, someone without sores on his arms and mine dust in his hair. Perhaps they would have even found her someone to join her in the programs; someone with more curiosity and desire than the man in her bed. But both of her parents had contracted that late winter virus that killed thousands. They never met her husband.

Margaret turned back to see that the Synth had faded completely away. All that remained was a calendar on the control panel, the available repair days blinking. It was amazing actually, the simplicity of this sudden choice. The number of days she had left with her husband, just the two of them, was presented in a perfect graphic box. Once she chose and the repair men came, her new life would begin. She returned to the control panel, her finger hovering over the “Tuesday” icon. Tomorrow, she thought. They’ll arrest him tomorrow and he’ll be gone. She was about to tap the icon when suddenly a burning ache twisted up her spine, holding her in place. He knows, she realized. Her husband absolutely knows what could happen to him now, and yet he tried to destroy the Entertainment Center anyway. There was only one reason he would.

She lowered her finger to tap “Cancel,” then stepped away from the controls, the ache now rolling into her stomach. She had forgotten to eat breakfast, so she ate some cereal, then looked inside the refrigerator again. There were a few fresh vegetables, but not much, mostly potatoes. Her husband would be home in a few hours. Instead of just thawing out another freeze-pack dinner, she suddenly wanted to cook for him. She got the water going and started peeling potatoes. It felt good to have her hands on something that had once been alive, even if it was grown in one of those rooftop greenhouses out on Route 12. The Synths never ate, and that had always bothered her. They’d sometimes pretend to drink wine in scenes or smoke those old fashioned pipes, but for some reason weren’t programmed with any kind of appetite. If you asked them to eat with you, they’d claim they were full from a previous meal. If you insisted, they’d tell you they had to leave.

 

By the evening, when her husband, Soren, returned, she was already regaining some sensitivity. She hadn’t realized how much she lost of herself, of her senses, when she lived within the programs. As they ate, she savored her dinner, tasting new flavors. She gazed into Soren’s eyes, lost in the tiny speckles of green above his irises. She’d never noticed those. She looked over at the Entertainment Center. Neither of them had mentioned it yet. She was curious where this was going. Was he trying to rescue her? Rescue them? From the corner of her eye she watched the orange standby light pulse mockingly. Soon the Mechanic Synth would return to remind her to schedule the repair. There would be more preliminary questions. How did the Entertainment Center break? It would know it hadn’t just malfunctioned, but she could say it had been damaged accidentally. Yes, that might work.

 

In bed now, his arm is still across her, teetering on the ridgeline of her hip. It feels good there, but now she wishes he were the one sleeping closer to the door, so she could have him in front of her, so she could see him.   She catches herself listening for footsteps. Then she remembers there won’t be any. Synths look like they touch the ground, but they don’t make a sound. When the funnel of light through the hallway dims slightly, she knows it is nearing the bedroom, but she can’t tell which one it is. The blunt Mechanic or beautiful William. She presses herself into her husband, and now he is shifting his arm, somehow sensing exactly where she wants it. He must be awake now because he’s holding her, holding her tight, and she can feel his warm breath in her ear. She steals a glance down the hall, just in time to see the shadow of the Synth retreating.

The End