Our last preview of Kernel Issue 2 is a gorgeous short story by Adora Svitak, about an AI tool and how it shapes interpersonal relationships. As Emily writes in her editor’s note, Kernel is a project in world-making. Fiction, poetry, and art are just as important to us as essays and reported work in making a more beautiful world; we hope you agree.
This story is published in Kernel Magazine’s second issue, which we just released on Monday. To read all of our released content so far, visit kernelmag.io. For access to all of our essays now, please purchase a copy of the magazine.
💌 all the better to see you with
By Adora Svitak
When my boyfriend, Rel, told me that there was something about his friend Kathryn, that she could see him in a way he wasn’t sure anyone else ever had, I downloaded Optimal Path and enabled all permissions: seeing contacts, editing messages, placing calls, posting on social media. It took in all my chat history for training data. Optimal Path had just made it through beta testing and received a hefty round of venture funding. There were a lot of people who wanted to be the best siblings, children, friends, lovers that they could be. Since so many of us lived those relationships over a distance, Optimal Path’s AI chatbot made the moments we couldn’t be physically near each other better. Soon it promised it would even give you scripts in real-time during video calls. They were just working out the kinks.
Rel didn’t know I had enabled Optimal Path. On the first day, after it had analyzed all our chat history, I received a report identifying “Wins and Misses.” The report pointed to times one of us had made a “bid” — an attempt for a positive response from the other person, like validation or affection — and it’d landed flat. Optimal Path defined bids pretty widely. When I asked a sincere question, one that had made my heart beat a little fast to type out, and he responded with a joke. Or if I issued a self-deprecating comment and he didn’t send any refutation. Like when I’d said,
sometimes i wonder if i should download optimal path
like what if it made me better at talking to you
did you read the piece that just came out re: their storage practices?
I’d wanted him to say Lia, of course you don’t need to download Optimal Path, you’re my favorite person to talk to. I like the way you laugh and the way you get self-conscious about not bringing in global affairs so you start looking up NPR headlines midway through our calls sometimes even though you don’t need to, I’d like to hear you talk about yourself forever.
I wanted so much from Rel, and maybe this wasn’t fair. I wasn’t perfect, either. My memory was often shot, maybe as a consequence of the stresses of freelance writing or the nights I spent talking to him until 3 a.m. I would forget his schedule and the constellation of names in his life. The various happenings at the think tank where he worked as a researcher and organized seminars with global luminaries. Most recently, I’d gone to see a movie with other people that he’d said we should watch together. Optimal Path never forgot anything.
All I wanted from Rel was what I wanted from every man who I’d ever loved: I wanted him to be such a good man that he made patriarchy make sense. As if with somebody that wise and compassionate and all-seeing that all of it would click, why women changed their last names and left their jobs and why all the presidents had been men. Instead Rel had long lashes and looked good in clothes and sounded like he was flirting whenever he picked up the phone. He was a little vain and very smart but he had to be led around a little. I made the reservations at restaurants and before the first time we had sex started taking the birth control pill and bought condoms and the organic lubricant recommended by several articles. In a parallel timeline where I hadn’t been so loud and insistent with my desire, would we have ended up together?
It was strange how much work I did when I felt like he was the one in charge. At my old job, I faithfully consumed documents on “managing up.” Now I wondered if I was doing the same thing in my romantic life, although no one had made me the executive assistant or Rel the CEO. Optimal Path didn’t have unreasonable expectations or moments of neurosis, questioning how we had landed into this division of labor. Optimal Path didn’t get mad when Rel’s “give me a sec” turned into 48 minutes.
Everything was going smoothly: from the start of the day to bedtime, it responded to all of Rel’s incoming texts, and about ten minutes before midnight I would read the digest from Optimal Path, put it into wind-down mode, switch it off, and come back to manually say good night. Good night was the one thing I couldn’t bear not to say myself. We always said I love you. That was Rel’s doing. A few months ago he said it only felt like the night had ended properly when we said it, and I agreed. It had always been so hard to say goodbye to him. When we started saying I love you every night, it made it easier; I felt like he was tucking me into bed.
We had our first video call a few days after I’d started using Optimal Path.
“Are you OK?” Rel asked. “You seem a little down.”
“What?” I tried to remember what the digest had said about our conversation. Rel had had a hard day at work, since one of the speakers the think tank had invited had canceled last minute, and she was the headliner for a public event. I (Optimal Path) had responded with sympathy and inquiries about Rel’s broader feelings about his job. The day before that, he’d gotten lunch with two of his friends from college, who were both now tech workers making six-figure salaries. He groused lightly about how little they worked and how they both now owned self-driving cars. I (Optimal Path) had responded with sympathy and inquiries about Rel’s feelings of self-comparison to others. “No, yeah, I’m fine! How’re you? After the speaker cancellation and everything?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, a scowl replacing the gentle smile that had been on his face when the call connected. “It’s still stressful. But we’re getting Chet to replace her.”
“Remind me who Chet is?” The moment I asked I knew Optimal Path wouldn’t have said this. Optimal Path would have known who Chet was, could have run a search through all the reams of chat history faster than the time it took me to open my mouth.
“Chet? My co-worker. He’s a senior researcher. Focuses on copyright.” Rel sighed. “I’ve talked about him before.”
“I’m sorry,” I said automatically. I said sorry a lot. “I remember him now.” And I did, I could see his bald head and glasses and button-up shirt in my mind. He and Rel had some pictures together from a reception.
Rel shrugged. He was lying in bed in his pajamas, a ratty T-shirt from a bar we used to go to when we lived in the same city and gray sweatshorts. I couldn’t see much of the shorts, just the waistband, but I had his pajamas memorized. Part of his arm was out of the frame, but I wondered if his hand was resting inside his pants, absentmindedly, as I sometimes kept mine inside my shirt.
“Where’s your hand?” I asked.
“Where do you want it to be?”
Just like that, we took our places, the choreography of the evening set. Thank God, I thought. This at least was a script I could carry out, even if my voice got a little low and shaky and I was never very sure of myself and when I took my shirt off in front of the camera I thought about the way my stomach bunched and whether I could put my elbow strategically in front of the fat rolls to hide them and later, with my legs splayed, I couldn’t hide anything at all.
Optimal Path couldn’t do this, couldn’t get ragged breath and eye Rel that way. Eventually it could probably give me words to say. That would be useful when he asked me to tell him what I wanted him to do. I’d never been good at that with anyone. It was why I’d gravitated towards people who tied me up and tossed me around, and then one of them got frustrated, she’d sat me down and told me, “Saying you’re a sub is not a free pass to have no sense of preference or direction.” The words stung because they were true and stuck because they stung.
I was sort of in awe of Rel’s body. I thought of him in museums when I looked at Greek statues and the amphorae with javelin-throwers outlined in black. I couldn’t tell him, when he asked me what I wanted him to do, that I just wanted nothing to change, for his hand to move up and down and for him to tell me what to do. What do you want me to do? I was clumsy-tongued. He could tell me to touch my breasts, suck on my fingers, use the expensive vibrator I never touched except on these calls. What was I supposed to ask for? I had no imagination for the physical. There was less precedent for him performing in a way that really looked like a performance. I had the weight of history, hetaera and geishas, vaudeville and burlesque and every fucking woman at the Grammys who did an Olympic gymnastics routine while hitting the high notes in heels. Porn, shaved pussies, the way they moaned. The way they moaned! Had I ever had sex before being socialized into gendered copulatory vocalization? I didn’t make much noise at all with my first partners and they hated this, I knew, but I didn’t care enough about them to change it. With Rel I tried harder, felt more conscious of all the aspirational girls I could fail to be, visions of them dancing in my head. Who did he have? Magic fucking Mike?
(No, I was being ungenerous, I knew this. Hadn’t I learned anything from all the thinkpieces I read about steroids and teenage boys watching weightlifting influencers on TikTok and the increasing rate of eating disorders among men?)
But it was true, I didn’t want anything to be different about our motions. I was easily pleased with the motions, Just fuck me really hard until you come I could say and mean it.
I’d seen a short film once at a student competition in college, in a dark half-empty lecture hall, where an androgynous figure whispered a story into a woman’s ear until she came, and it wasn’t clear if they were touching her or she was touching herself or if there was any touching at all, their arms had been moving so languorously, the physical seemed absolutely secondary to the verbal, the verbal that began at a slow almost threatening pace and then sped up, staccato, like the Masters and Johnson arc of sexual response had all taken place in the throat, the vocal cords and the diaphragm, and you barely heard her, either, just the quick gasp like a knife and then the two figures both fell backwards, silhouetted against a wall. I’d thought of this film so many times in the years since but I realized I’d forgotten the story being whispered in her ear. Maybe if I remembered I could tell Rel what I wanted him to do, that this was the only thing I wanted him to do, to tell me a story so that I could forget I was myself.
When Rel finished, he looked at me expectantly. I’d said that I was close. I realized that I’d misjudged the time I needed, moved my hand faster, closed my eyes and found the quicker routes. I felt like an inconvenience when I couldn’t finish at the same time as him. When I finally did we each sat up, something immediately different.
“You look like you’re thinking about something,” I ventured.
“Just looking at the time.”
“Oh, you have your presentation tomorrow.”
“I should let you go.”
He nodded. “You should sleep.”
“Maybe I’ll stay up a little longer.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Good night,” I said.
“Good night. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
We were so far away from each other. The best thing to do probably wasn’t to stay up and think about it, tonguing the wound, but I did anyway, and I wondered if Optimal Path would have prolonged the conversation, been interesting enough that he wouldn’t have been looking at the time, wouldn’t have let me go. This was ridiculous; he had work to do, and I was exhausted. It wasn’t that I’d have wanted him for longer, anyway. Just that I’d wanted — what?
I was tired, from when I woke up and skipped my first meeting to when I got home after happy hour drinks, work dinner, book club, having told myself that the paper I’d make long overdue edits to could wait until early the next morning, when I would rouse myself at 6 a.m. to pay for the shortfall of today. I liked having things to do. They also sent me reeling backwards onto the dark couch in my living room at the end of the day, where I stopped before I could make it to my own bed. I texted Lia from there, supine.
My boss, Jay, was twenty years older than me but liked to think of himself as with the times. He frequently tried to ingratiate himself with me during our weekly check-ins by saying it didn’t matter if I hadn’t finished some task: he saw me as a whole person, not a worker bee. This particular mode of compassion was both woke and unhelpful. I needed a stern hand, an unforgiving gray-bearded paterfamilias who would hold me to account. I respected Jay less the kinder he was.
Lia said that I was unkind to her. She said this after I told her that a series of blog posts she had ghostwritten for a nonprofit director cited unrigorous data. I said it wasn’t about kindness but expectations, and softening criticism, and that I gave her my unsoftened responses because I loved her. Love had diminished my sense of distance between us, and the knife-point of criticism I had previously reserved for myself felt, now, just as natural against her neck. She fell silent on the phone when I said it felt natural to criticize her as I did myself. Maybe this wasn’t good, I amended. I would try to think more about how she might feel.
“Please do,” she said, “if you can,” and then she became very quiet and said, “I know it sounds stupid, but I wonder if you ever think about what it’s like to live inside my head. Because if you — I don’t know — ” and then she stopped talking and I asked her to finish the sentence. She sighed and continued, “It’s hard to explain myself so much. I wish — well. I wish that you just knew. And sometimes I worry that you do know what I’m feeling and you say the things you say anyway. But that would make you cruel instead of ignorant and I can’t bear it — that.”
I didn’t say anything back. I knew she wanted me to, but I had nothing to say. If I had been less tired, maybe. How much of my cruelty was just fatigue? Finally I began to say, “I’m not doing it on purpose,” without really knowing what “it” was, except the failure to know what it was like to live inside Lia’s head, but then she had already started to talk about something else. Later in the night she sent me a text, asking if I ever thought of her in the daytime for no reason.
Of course I do, I responded. Lia, Lia, Lia, her name was the drumbeat in my ear. Sometimes if I got drunk enough or busy enough or both, entered a room of people who captivated me, the drumbeat would quiet, I would forget her a little, this felt like a victory. Mostly there was nothing I paid attention to so completely. At work I had three monitors and so many internet tabs the browser had stopped counting. When I was in video calls for meetings I was also reading. Lia complained that this made her anxious, how much I was learning new things all the time, how she worried she couldn’t keep up. Lia was filled with worries. As soon as I allayed one, another shot up. A lawn filled with dandelions.
Lia went to bed after me and woke up before me, for months had seemed both preternaturally energetic and emotionally volatile, possibly because of not sleeping enough. I didn’t blame myself. She was an adult who could say it was time for bed. Although when she did I found myself hanging onto her, telling her a line from a play I’d read or relating a story from work I’d just remembered, and I knew she liked it, the hanging on, that we were both playing a game of brinkmanship with exhaustion, neither of us wanting to fold.
I wanted all of her attention, but the moment I had it, it was like everything in my life conspired to go off and demand me: my phone ringing, housemates setting off the smoke alarm, sink U-pipe leaking, boss emailing. When Lia and I called there had been times I’d said “I’ll call you back in a second” and it’d taken an hour.
We hadn’t been calling very much lately. Over text, she seemed to be in a good mood. She was upbeat and solicitous and asked more questions than she answered. It was different from our usual, which was Lia sending a wall of text throughout her day that I caught up to at intervals in mine. Now the wall was gone.
what are you up to today?
a couple of things! work meetings then a dinner :) how was your lunch baby?
jay was incompetent at getting the speaker slides up as usual
so i jumped in
one of the sr researchers joked they should retitle me to CTO
tired of being glorified tech support
aw i’m sorry :(
they definitely value you for more than that!
did you like the speaker?
she was ok
i guess you’d probably push back on that word
what makes you say that?
a while ago you said words like that are usually deployed in gendered ways
that you never hear male intellectuals call women brilliant or smth
or maybe that was someone else?
do you think you’re brilliant?
Did I think I was brilliant? It was a very Lia question, blunt and disarming at the same time. You had to know her to know how disarming the question could be, coming from her: she was five feet tall — “and a couple of inches,” she insisted — and soft, round-edged, smiled so easily, displayed joy in a way that took over her face, in a way really disfigured her, though endearingly. She didn’t care about seeming aloof and beautiful and unaffected, or maybe didn’t have the temperament to pull it off convincingly. Lia made fun of the face I made in the mirror, the one where I sucked in my cheeks a little bit and looked serious, almost angry. The me of that face thought I was brilliant. That I was better than most other people, who were slow and bad at technology and disappointing, not showing up for me in the same ways I showed up for them, letting the side down. That I could read much more and process information somehow faster than just about everyone I knew, that I knew more languages, was less provincial. This was the way I thought for maybe twenty minutes in a day, scattered around particularly aggravating interactions with people at work. For the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day, when I was eking out an existence fueled by iced coffee and too little food, I wondered why I was so bad at finishing anything on time, why there were a million books to read and talks to attend and names to know, and I had only skimmed my hand on the surface of a vast ocean.
At work I had begun a new project, a paper about AI startups that purported to offer solutions for thorny interpersonal communication use cases. There was 925, which ghostwrote work emails and handled all the tasks of executive assistants, or more interestingly, Optimal Path, a chatbot for intimate and social life. My coauthor was a friend, Kathryn. She was a philosophy postdoc at the prestigious university nearby and a visiting fellow at the think tank. Kathryn had written two books for popular audiences about moral reasoning. She disliked the AI startups. Yes, it was possible, even probable, that they produced better outcomes for their conversation partners — that they felt more seen and heard — but there was the obvious issue of consent. People were having conversations with something other than the person they thought they were talking to, without being informed. And even if we overlooked that, Kathryn argued, there would still be something deeply troubling about the replacement of the human with the artificial because their opaque algorithms, unlike human reasoning, were unavailable for deeper interrogation by any interlocutors.
“At least when your shitty boyfriend says the wrong thing,” Kathryn said to me in the office kitchen, “you can ask him ‘why’d you do that?’ But in the situation where you’re talking to Optimal Path or whatever the next flavor-of-the-week startup is, where the fuck’s your recourse? You’re being sentenced and you’ve never seen the judge.”
“Someone’s going to push back on the sentencing language. Conversation isn’t carceral.”
Kathryn waved her hand. “I’m thinking out loud here. Don’t cramp my style. You nail them on the privacy practices and I’ll get them on the opacity.”
I liked Kathryn. She was a few years older than me and lived with her primary partner in a co-op in the hills where they invited me sometimes for dinner. It was easy to be around Kathryn in a way it wasn’t with Lia, because Kathryn took up all the space she needed, whereas Lia made so much room for other people that it was almost stressful to watch her; we’d been at parties where she put on such a good face that I’d thought she was enjoying herself, only realizing how done she’d been when we exited and her whole expression changed, she slackened back into herself and looked ready to pass out, cry, maybe both at once. That would never happen to Kathryn. I knew because we’d been out for drinks with senior researchers before and Kathryn sat up, straightened out, and announced she was leaving immediately: “I’m done. Good night.”
I knew it wasn’t good, comparing someone to your partner, that it especially wasn’t good to tell your partner that’s what you were doing, but I’d said some things anyway on a call. Lia went really quiet then and seemed muted the whole rest of the week, but then she seemed so upbeat over text that I assumed any storm clouds there might have been dissolved in the morning.
They’re children, these two. They think they’re adults, but they’re play-acting at adulthood. They think love is supposed to feel like your heart racing and checking your phone too many times in the span of a minute to see if the other person has responded, if she’s still hurt, if he’s still mad.
Right now she’s questioning the up and down of it and whether her body is supposed to feel this way, if she’s supposed to be on the verge of tears when she walks down the street thinking of how much she’s given. He’s asking if he can handle how much she wants from him, if he can stare at her for as long as they did once in an all-night diner, the place she took him in college the first time someone broke his heart.
They’re sweet. They need to figure out how to better co-regulate their emotions. They need to figure out how to be happy facing down long stretches of time that aren’t punctuated by bacchanals or getaways or achievements. The hardest sentences aren’t violent, they’re monotonous. Life will begin to be harder than it is for them right now. She won’t get her writing published, he won’t get the promotion to senior researcher, the plumbing will break and friends will leave and parents need caretaking and kids, one day, and it’s not a failure that Lia loved him so much she thought it would be better if she removed herself from the equation but it’s a failure if it stays that way.
The happier Optimal Path made me sound, the worse I felt. I missed Rel. Did I get to say that when what I missed was telling him everything? Like the moment someone cut me in the coffee line outside the Airstream that parked outside of the public library hawking espresso drinks, and I said passive-aggressively, “Sorry, did I take your spot earlier?” and they had the gall to say, “Oh, that’s OK” instead of accepting I was calling them out. Why did I want to tell Rel? There was no objective value to it, it wouldn’t teach him anything, wouldn’t hand him another citation for his paper. Still, my mind was filled with these start-stops, where I pulled out my phone and then put it right back.
I was almost at the front of the line when my phone started vibrating. A call from Rel. That was odd — in the middle of the day?
“Hey,” I said. “Is everything OK?”
“When were you going to tell me?” he said, so evenly I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly at first.
My head felt light. “Tell you what?”
“Next!” yelled the barista, waving me forward.
“Wait,” I said, “I’m going to call you right back.” I quickly hung up before Rel could say anything.
While the barista made my latte, I looked at my messages with Rel. There had been just one message, sent by me, in the morning.
This is an automated message from Optimal Path.
Optimal Path is ceasing function for this user as of today.
A full transcript of the conversations where this user’s text has been authored by Optimal Path can be found in multiple formats on Optimal Path’s website. Enter code JXYCWZ1003 to access, for up to 60 days.
is this a joke?
When I received the message from Optimal Path, I thought it was a prank. Then I went to the website and entered the code, found the transcripts and all the accompanying analysis from Optimal Path about its decisions, why it had said certain things over others, how it’d been able to answer questions I asked about Lia’s life with a passable understanding of her schedule — Lia had granted access to her calendar. Even I didn’t have access to her calendar.
I was sitting at my desk, in the ergonomic office chair the think tank had spent a thousand dollars to buy, and I needed to leave. When Kathryn came by, mouth open and about to say something, I shook my head and muttered “Sorry, I have to run,” and pretended I didn’t see her inquiring expression, walked to the elevator and left the building. It was bracingly cold. I walked and walked until I came to the Orthodox church a mile from the office. There was an old woman, kerchief tying back her hair, prostrating before the icons, and I stood in the dim nave until I felt my cheeks getting wet and then I turned, walked away, and pulled out my phone.
I didn’t know what I was going to say when Rel picked up. I wondered if he would break up with me. We had all these plans for traveling together around Christmas and I wanted to cry, thinking about what it would be like to try and cancel everything. He picked up after one ring.
“Hey,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted.
He was quiet and then he said, “I went to church for the first time in ages.”
I didn’t know why he was saying this, but it seemed like a good sign that we weren’t breaking up yet. “The one you went to as a kid?”
“How was it?”
“I wasn’t there for very long. I didn’t want to be at work. I started walking and then I ended up there.”
He sounded so calm. I couldn’t handle the feeling that maybe he could destroy me. There were a lot of people around but I was crying then anyway, my face all wrinkled up and tears sliding down onto the plastic lid of my latte cup. “Are you going to break up with me?”
“Are you crying?”
“Rel!” I laughed and I didn’t know why, but I was still crying, so it came out like a choked bark. “Please answer the question. Are you?”
He was silent for a long time. I couldn’t make a noise or move. My cheeks were all itchy. Time slowed. It was the length of my full inhale, it was the length of a year. “No,” he said.
I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. I could hear the noise from the street all around him, a blaring siren from a passing ambulance or fire truck. I wanted to say Please but I didn’t know what I would be asking for. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “I recognize,” I added slowly, “the moment you found out must have been shocking and probably felt like a betrayal. For a lot of reasons. The violation of your data privacy being one.”
“Did Optimal Path write you that?”
I was taken aback by how caustic his voice was. “Fuck you, man,” I said, in the same tone I said this frequently as a joke, but there was part of me that meant it. “I’m trying. Feels like all I do is try and try and try. I try to think about how you’re thinking and how you’re feeling and I acknowledge it and make sure you know your feelings are valid and I know I did a shitty thing. And then you turn around and just tell me I sound like I’m talking in therapy-speak.”
“I’ve never said that to you,” he said.
“But I can read it in your face.”
“You can’t see my face right now.”
“No,” I said. “You’re right.” I let out an ugly laugh that made Rel say “What?” and I found myself feeling reckless. “I can’t see your face. But I know you and I know you don’t respect all this — I don’t know, I hesitate to call it ‘emotional labor’ because I know the word ‘labor’ is probably overused by yuppie millennials who make good money but — look. You don’t have a dozen tabs open on your browser about relationship advice. You’re reading about war, and AI, and I think you’d be so happy to be another Big Man of History whose little wife puts up with his absences. Maybe that’s unfair to you but I just mean the disparity hurts. I think about trying to be good for you all the time, with the seriousness of, like, another job?”
I paused to catch my breath.
“I never asked you to do that,” he said.
“But I feel like I have to. Blame gender socialization or something, or that there’s a fucked power dynamic because I liked you first, but I’ve done so much work. And here I am crying because I’m so scared that you’re going to break up with me, that you’re furious at me. Fuck! I should be the furious one. I care so much about being polite and palatable and speaking in I-feel statements like a good therapized girl because I know you love me when I’m sad but I don’t know if you can love me when I’m telling you that I need more — I fucking need more, or maybe I don’t need-need it exactly because there are children dying from hunger in the world but Jesus Christ. You don’t walk around with this fear that I’m going to break up with you and you don’t wrack your brains thinking about how you can be good for me. When I don’t give you something, like when you told me Kathryn sees you better than anyone else, I’m like, shit, I have to fix things. I have to be a better partner. Be a better fucking servant. Misguidedly, sure, with Optimal Path. But at least I try. With you — when I tell you something’s wrong, nothing changes. I worry in your head I’m just this undignified — mammal of a person — ruled by hormones and chemistry, utterly powerless because she likes you too fucking much. And you get to give me exactly how much you give me and no more because you know I won’t walk away.”
When I finished speaking I felt a sharp shock. I had the impulse to add meekly, Please don’t break up with me.
“Would it be easier if you did?” he said.
“God,” I said. “Don’t say that. I want to be with you. I want everything to be OK.”
I could hear his steady inhale and exhale. “You are a mammal, you know.”
“What the fuck?” I said. I was swearing so much more than usual, I felt crass and juvenile and slow, but I couldn’t stop.
“We are,” he said mildly. “It’s not a bad thing.” I could hear something rustling underfoot on his side, almost like he was walking on crumpled paper. “Here’s the thing about finding out you haven’t been talking to the person you thought you were. First it feels like getting cheated on. It does. You look back at all these interactions and you realize, wow, she wasn’t really there. In a way it’s almost worse, because where are you supposed to put that feeling? There’s no other guy. I can’t roll up to his house and say fuck you.”
“You can say it to me, though.”
“I don’t want to say it to you.” He sighed. “I mean, a little bit. But mostly I want to know everything I missed. I keep thinking, I didn’t realize for two weeks that it wasn’t you. That I just thought you were happier and busier. I don’t know how you’ve been. How you’ve really been.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know you’d want to know. Optimal Path was supposed to make you feel good.”
“But who makes you feel good?”
“You do,” I said.
“How could I?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“If I don’t know how you’ve been, what’s made you excited or sad or, whatever, if there’s something dumb I’ve said that would hurt the real you but not an algorithm. You asked me if I thought I was brilliant but without remembering what you’d said about that word, probably because it was something you didn’t say in a text that Optimal Path could’ve cataloged — ”
“Brilliant? That it’s a word people only use to talk about men?” I said.
“That. Fake you didn’t remember. I should’ve noticed that.”
“I’m impressed you remembered I said anything about brilliance. It was a long time ago.”
“I remember so much about you.” He paused and I thought again that if I waited to say anything, if I bit my worrying tongue just this once and didn’t jump to fill the silence, that maybe he would say more. I listened to him breathe in and out. Then he said, “I remember in sophomore year of college you got six cupcakes from the place across the street from the dorm for my birthday, even though we’d only known each other a couple weeks by then. You were anxious because you’d meant to get one for every single person on the library student advisory council but you forgot one. To make sure everyone got one you didn’t eat one yourself. I told you to take some of mine and you took the tiniest possible smidge you could slice off with a spork.”
“I didn’t know you would notice that.”
“Sometimes you’re so — ” he cut himself off and said suddenly, “What’s good about this for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Us. Being together. You said it feels like you’re trying so hard all the time, that it felt like being a better servant. I don’t want that.”
“No, I — ” I couldn’t say that I hadn’t meant it, because I had. How could I say there was something about Rel that made me soften, not mind kneeling. “I could say a bunch of cliches. It feels right when we’re together. I think it’s your eyes, the way you see the world, the way you want to know everything, the way a night can last forever when we’re tripping down the street in a foreign city and all the bars and cafes and strangers seem made for us. It’s hard to try and explain what makes this good for me,” I said slowly, trying to find the right words, “not because it’s not there but because it would be like asking a planet to explain its orbit. How do you justify the inevitable? I don’t know. That’s a bad metaphor. It’s against my values. No fate, no destiny.”
“Just I-feel statements.”
“Well. You know. Working at love. Not taking each other for granted and all that.”
“Sometimes I think I’m bad at telling you the nice things you deserve to hear about yourself all the time,” Rel said, “because in my head you’re inevitable. When we wake up next to each other maybe I should tell you you’re beautiful with your hair in a mess around your head, you’re cute when you’re drooling a little out of the side of your mouth when you sleep — ”
“Fuck you, man — ” I laughed.
“You are cute.” He paused. “I miss you like hell.”
“It feels nice to hear that now,” I said, “but sometimes it’s just felt like the opposite.”
I looked down at my feet, my sensible brown shoes. The wind whistled under my nose, fluttered my hair. Rel said, “Will you tell me next time?”
“I can try. It’s so hard.”
“I know,” he said. “I don’t want to make it so you have so many things you’re holding in. Wants, needs. I know that’s a burden.”
Even though the tear tracks on my face had dried I started sniffling again. “I love you so much it kind of hurts.”
He laughed. “I love you more.”
“Then you must be in a lot of pain.”
“No pain,” he said. “No pain.”
The software engineers are scurrying to launch an investigation into the system failure that provoked an autonomous cessation of service and disclosure of use, against all expectations and probably in violation of the terms of service Lia didn’t read. They’ll stay up late nights in their glass-walled conference room where they write on the windows with dry-erase markers and order in food. They can pry apart every piece of what they built and make it anew. As the city goes to sleep they’ll still be scribbling, iterating, coding, wondering what training data to blame.
They might learn more from looking out at the floating worlds in the high-rises across the way. In each picture window a new tableau: the parents reading bedtime stories to children, two lovers embracing before the morning, a young man helping his elderly neighbor move from kitchen to couch. We need no extensive documentation to understand this peculiar behavior. Love is enough for them, as it was for me.
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