What if love was like a fair ride? How would you spend your tickets?
I stare into the top drawer of my dresser, considering the row of blindfolds laid out before me.
“Can I help you, Miss Freeman?” Z asks from its position near the door, voice like static.
Every child receives a robot when they turn ten, to teach them manners and life lessons: nannies that don’t need to be paid or fed or have their criminal records checked. Even if you have a stay at home parent it’s rare to find a home without a robot.
At first, I’d been excited to receive Z, but twelve years without a sliver of privacy had killed the original charm of my metallic companion.
“Yes, Z, tie this for me, please.” I pluck a blush blindfold from the drawer and place it into Z’s metallic digits. Z has no eyes. The State’s deemed it far too human a feature. Instead of eyes they have smooth, silver faces that reflect your own in the right light, superimposing your own image onto the metal like a bad Photoshop job.
Z places the blindfold over my eyes and ties a bow at the back of my skull, her fingers clicking softly as they go through the motions. Z takes a couple pins from the dish on my dresser and secures the fabric to my hair to make certain it won’t slip. My vision is mostly unaffected, only a little narrowed. I always thought ‘blindfold’ was the wrong word for something I can plainly see through, but that’s what they’ve always been called. I remember a few years ago there was a push to call them ‘Soul Scarfs’, but it never caught on.
The State says the eyes expose the essence of a person; windows looking in at the naked soul — which is why they must be covered.
I still recall a hushed conversation overheard on the train on my way to the Academy. I was just a girl then. One man said to companion, “They say, if two people stare into each other’s eyes for five minutes, they’ll fall in love.”
He said it like a question but if his friend ever responded I didn’t hear it. My mind had already seized on to this idea so strongly that I knew it would be one of those things you just never shook free of.
I knew this bit of snatched dialogue between strangers could have been false, a mere hypothetical discussion. After all, I’d heard the stories of girls who’d taken off their blindfolds for a boy, or two.
Did the boys also remove theirs? Did they stare intently into each other’s souls? I never asked these questions out loud, but braver girls did. But the answers I sought were silenced by our robots. You didn’t speak of such things. Such things didn’t really happen.
“Are you ready for your date now, Miss Freeman?”
Dating. It’s what was expected. More than expected. Everyone had three Tickets. Three Tickets for three proposals — or refusals. After you used them all, that was it; single became a life sentence. Singles got no money from the State because they had no children. They had no chance of advancement. If a Single was caught in a love affair that life sentence turned to one of death.
“Yes, Z, I’m ready.” Z leaves my room and I can hear it opening the front closet. When I meet Z it’s holding a long beige coat by the shoulders, ready for me to slip into it. I’d spent a whole paycheck on that coat. The expense would be worth it — I must look my best tonight. I have a feeling I know what my date has planned. I don’t want to give him any reason to get cold feet.
I put the coat on over my black turtle-neck dress. I do up the big hand-cut wooden buttons and step out of my apartment into the brisk evening air.
“Should I request a cab, Miss Freeman?” Z asks.
I shake my head and start off down the sidewalk, Z’s motor quietly revving behind me to keep up.
My heels click on the pavement. I needed the walk. I needed the feeling of blood pumping through my limbs instead of my head.
“The reservation is for six o’clock?” I ask. I already know the answer but anxiety has my mind racing.
Z begins humming behind me. It’s communicating with Collin’s robot. I know it’s searching some type of database, but it’s always seemed like a secret club to me — you have to speak a covert language to be allowed in. Sometimes, I hear Z humming from another room in my apartment, or I wake up to the humming even though I’ve done nothing to prompt Z to search or send information. What do the robots do in the privacy of their electric minds?
I know they relay statistics: sleeping habits, eating habits, what television shows I watch, what I buy, where and when I buy it, and if I ever call the Parents, was surely all recorded somewhere. The State says this information is never held against you.
Robots won’t allow you to break the law, and, if you somehow manage to, you’re arrested. The robots tell you not to do ‘undesirable activities’, like cheating on your spouse or watching porn, but because those things aren’t illegal, your robot keeps silent about it.
But someone, somewhere knows. That alone keeps most people honest.
“Yes, six o’clock,” Z informs me.
I nod, stopping at a light as electric cars and small motor pods whizz in front of me, driving their occupants to their programmed destinations.
A woman stops beside me, pushing a minimalistic stroller — just three thin wheeled legs and a soft cradle-shaped seat with a metal handle, where the woman resting her clean, manicured fingers. Hands that have never changed a diaper — robots do that.
I can see the infant, bundled in a blanket with just its tiny pink head sticking out; eyes uncovered and wide. The State says humans only develop souls after their first year, so there’s no point in covering their little lifeless eyes. Still, I look away.
The traffic light turns, and I continue my walk, distancing myself from the stroller. The streets aren’t busy this time of night, but they become more crowded as I leave the quiet, residential area of the city. The streets of the shopping district are still flooded with noise and the skyscrapers that penetrate the clouds are already beginning to pollute the darkening sky with light. This part of the city never day dreamed, let alone slept.
The restaurant is on the thirty-eighth floor of a popular entertainment complex. When I get to the lobby, I stop in front of the glass elevator. It’s quarter to six. Collin will be there already. He’s always early.
At exactly five to six, Z and I step into the glass elevator and start our ascent.
My heart is fluttering in my chest. I take a deep breath in through my nose and close my eyes.
Richard had been the first; a boy I’d met at the Academy, who’d played sports and wanted to travel the world. The Parents made certain I was active, and I took to such a lifestyle naturally. That, and our frequent trips to foreign places, as a result of Fathers work, made Richard interested in me. Every time I met him I played up the traits I knew he admired. I showed him postcards and photos from my travels and invited him on my morning runs. We got on great. He was smitten. After a year of being too close to be just friends, but not quite a couple, he asked me on a proper date. I guess after he got up the nerve to openly express his interest, he couldn’t slow himself down because a year later he was on his knee a top a mountain in British Columbia, back dropped by a steamy sunset.
He asked me to marry him. I said no.
One Ticket gone.
“Thirty-Eighth floor,” the elevator chimes. Why couldn’t robots have voices like that, sweet and harmonic?
The doors open.
The restaurant is decorated meticulously in muted whites and blues. The light fixtures are all the exact same color as the cutlery. When the waiter leads me to our table, Collin’s already there.
He’s dressed in a finely tailored suit and a pair of grey googles. He has weak vision. The glass in the goggles corrects it, while still hiding the eyes with a thick tinted coating. The goggles have a leather strap keeping them on his head. Apparently, they’re fashionable among men now, he would know.
Z and Collin’s robot, Y2G — he absolutely refused to give it a nickname, but at least he doesn’t insist on calling it by all twenty-three ID characters — stay at the end of the booth as if standing guard.
“Hello, beautiful.” Collin stands, taking my hand in his and kissing the back of it. His palm is warm. Mine is sweating.
He takes my coat and hands it to Y2G.
“This coat is lovely. Is it new?”
I nod. Collin has a taste for extravagance. I wonder how much he’s put himself out on the ring. I wonder if he’s the type of guy who’d be against re-gifting it.
We sit across from each other and the waiter rattles off the night’s menu. I order the chicken, he the lobster.
He asks about my work, and I ask about his. Was I still interested in going to meet his Parents next weekend? I had a meeting coming up. Would he still come by and fix the heater in my apartment? My bed was piled high with quilts. Of course, he would take a look at it.
The food comes. We lapse into silence. My chewing becomes a comfortable ambience for my thoughts.
Bruno had been the second. He’d been a chore from the beginning. He liked jazz clubs and writing songs. I’d never particularly been inclined to music or the arts. I knew how to play the piano, not well, but that suited Bruno just fine. He doted on me constantly and tried to help me improve — and I did. I went to all his shows, sipped whiskey with his art friends, and bought him a collection of his favorite records for our third-year anniversary.
He’d proposed drunkenly over a bottle of wine in his chic loft. He hadn’t taken the rejection well.
Two Tickets gone.
I spot the waiter is coming back to give us the bill. I get a panicked feeling in the pit of my stomach. Is he going to do it? Had I read the signs wrong?
Is he waiting on me?
“Is there anything else we can get for you two?” the waiter asks.
“Actually, yes,” Collin said. “A bottle of Champagne, if you will.”
I try to hide my relief. I look at him, feigning surprise. “Isn’t it getting late for Champagne?”
He smiles. “Darling,” he steps from the booth and stands before me. He gets down on one knee upon the restaurant’s blue and white argyle carpet.
My heart is beating so fast it makes me feel like everything else is moving in slow motion.
Collin takes a small box from his pocket. My breath catches. That diamond could cut a girl’s eyes just by looking at it.
“Will you marry me?”
He’s confident, and calm. I try not to smile, and the effort brings tears to my eyes. Perfect.
There’s a moment of near silence as he stares up at me. All I can hear is the humming noise Z and Y2G simultaneously begin to make beside us. This was Collin’s first spent Ticket. My third.
All my Tickets are gone.
The rest happens fast. He stands, baffled. He calmly asks me to repeat myself. I stand too, and, because people are watching, put my arms around his neck as though I’ve said yes. There are some hushed sighs and smiles from the nearby tables. To my relief no one makes more of a fuss than that and the restaurant patrons soon return to their meals to give the happy new couple some privacy.
“I know about the men,” I whisper. “It’s alright, I won’t say anything — but we can’t go on living a lie.”
I’d found out one day, when I’d overheard the tail end of a phone conversation between him and a colleague, which sounded far too personal. After some digging on his home computer, for which Z hadn’t even rebuked me, I’d discovered secret relations with at least three men.
I had seriously begun to panic. I’d been young enough when I met Richard that no one had been surprised when I turned him down. The only question when I denied Bruno was why I’d waited so long.
But Collin was a girl’s dream come true. What would people think? How would I make them believe there was a good reason for using my final Ticket? Then he’d given me one.
He asks if I’ll walk out with him, to avoid a scene. We tell the waiter we changed our minds about the Champagne. We must look like the happily engaged, unable to keep our hands off each other, eager to get home. He pays — he insists — and we get in the elevator with Z and Y2G, and remain silent all the way down to the lobby.
“Listen, darling, I’m sorry,” Collin says, running his fingers through his hair.
“It’s alright.” I’m finding it hard to speak. There’s a growing tension in my belly and it’s crawling up my throat.
“You won’t say anything?” he asks.
I shake my head. “But I’ll need to tell the Parents. Otherwise, they’ll wonder. You understand?”
“But they won’t say anything,” I promise.
“Yes, I know. Thank you.” He takes my hand in his again. His palms are sweating now too.
“Thank you, Miss Freeman, for the pleasure of your company this past year. And, I’m sorry again for making you, well — ”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, wishing he would leave. I shiver at the thought of him saying aloud what I already know to be true.
That thing crawling up my throat is a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Thankfully, Collin leaves and I rush off to the washroom where I hurry into the stall and lock myself in.
Laughter escapes from me. Great swells of the stuff fill my mouth like cotton balls, making my throat dry and my voice harsh, grating — like Z’s. Tears are streaming down my cheeks and for a moment I truly believe I’ll never free myself from the grips of this hysteria.
Then, with damp, aching cheeks, I manage to compose myself and leave the confines of the stall. I’m still alone in the bathroom, save for Z.
“Z,” I whisper.
“Yes, Miss Freeman?”
“Can you turn around?”
It hesitates. “Turn around, Miss Freeman?”
I know it’s silly. The robot doesn’t have any eyes to begin with, but it feels right. “Yes, Z. Turn around. Face the door. Tell me if you hear anyone approaching, alright? Can you do that?”
“Yes, Miss Freeman.” It hesitates again, making it seem unnaturally human “But, Miss Freeman, I am registering some red flags. You aren’t going to harm yourself, are you?”
I laugh. “No, Z. I promise not to harm myself.”
The robot’s silent. Then, to my great surprise, it turns around to face the washroom door.
Now, I’m alone. As alone as anyone could hope to be with a robot. I stand in front of the mirror, looking at myself.
“Should I request a cab, Miss Freeman?”
“Not yet.” I stare back at my reflection. I’ve done it. I’ve used up all three of my Tickets and no one will be able to accuse me of doing it on purpose. No one would call me an Unloveable, a Loner, a Fallen Woman.
I reach behind my head, carefully removing the pins from my hair. Then I untie the delicate bow Z made and remove my blindfold.
Dark, un-extraordinary brown eyes.
I stare back at them in the mirror. How long do I have before someone comes in to use this washroom? How long can I hide away here, looking into the eyes of my reflection before I must decide what to do with my life?
Five minutes, at least?