David Bowie always fascinated me, so I thought it was about time I worked him into a story. Not that I ever wanted to have sex with Bowie, but that’s the fun of science fiction– if it’s done right, almost anything can happen. This short story was published In October 2018 in issue 14 of Riggwelter, one of my favorite online journals.
by DL Shirey
ROBIN: What I miss most about Edward is his kiss. The sandpaper grit of unshaved whiskers around his lips. Feeling the corners of his mouth pull up in a smile before inviting in my tongue. A thousand subtleties that foretold a mood, not for Edward, but for the lovemaking to follow. I could tell, simply by his kiss, if he was going to be playful or forceful or passive in bed. The tension in his lips. The way his tongue danced. And the degree of pressure between our mouths.
His kiss cannot be reproduced. That’s why I don’t kiss when I Couple, even though the men I’m with look exactly like my husband.
Ex husband. Dead husband. However it’s phrased, I am a widow now. I’ve come to terms with the grief by trying desperately to ignore my old life, failing, and then engulfing myself in the past. It’s a combination of complete separation, followed by total immersion. To forget Edward, I changed jobs and cities, divorcing myself from places and people we shared. Long-distance friends who continued to invoke his name are friends no more. Social media is anathema. I socialize with new pals and find men to date, trying to dam myself against memories, but comparisons are unavoidable. If I’m honest, I let the past in too easily. On dates I always wear the earrings Edward gave me on our anniversary. At some point I will find myself touching the bobble on my ear, feigning interest in the conversation, impatient for the night to end. Wanting Edward. The more I measure other men against him, the more tiresome and foolish it feels to keep out the very thing I crave. And I backslide into myself.
Loneliness deconstructs, it isolates. But when I chose to experience it in a strange new city, I didn’t know how cruel it could be. It’s human nature, I think, to be with people, so the need to avoid them must be inhuman; to crawl further into a hole of your own making is an animal urge. At bottom, there is a darkness of claws and fangs and lust to devour. Cravings no woman would speak of in polite company. An itch I cannot scratch without Edward. With only one way back to the light.
This is not emotional health, but physical need. Detractors see Coupling as anonymous sex, but it is so much more for me. There is nothing anonymous about touching another man who has Edward’s exact veneer. Deep inside I know he’s a complete stranger, but the fantasy is so real. The man across the bed from me looks just like Edward, fills me like it was our first time all over again. The shy smile. His fingers brushing my stomach just hard enough that it doesn’t tickle. When my lips meet his chest, it’s Edward. The arched back, the scar on his shoulder, the tension in his face. Only Edward.
Every time. Only Edward.
JESS: Everyone was talking about it and I wanted to see how it worked. I chose David Bowie because there are tons of pictures out there and I’ve had this thing for Bowie since forever. I guess the hardest part was which era Bowie to choose. Anyhow, so you load in images, select settings and preferences, and give them your credit card number. Once you get the passcode you can drop in any time.
I’ve read about Couple and it’s pretty amazing what they do. The room where it happens is called The Stage, and I’ve seen how it looks with everything off. There’s a mattress on a platform in the middle of the room. Everything is white. The room itself is round and there’s a domed ceiling for all the projectors and such.
It’s kind of cheesy when you first walk in. For our date I selected the beach, so all this sand is on the floor. Images of sand, I mean. And the walls are filled with waves breaking and boats sailing out and around. So obviously video, that’s how fake it is, but it doesn’t matter because, I mean, you’re naked, right? And you’re there to do it. Then in walks Ziggy freaking Stardust and he’s naked too.
So there’s this sheet of light or something between us. It’s definitely some kind of projection. Nice high-def too, maybe some pixilation around the edges. But, you know, you’re not here for the picture quality. Anyway, this sheet kind of sticks to your skin when you put your hand through it. Feels like being coated in Saran Wrap, so there’s a kind of physical membrane there. You touch through it and get touched back, but it doesn’t feel natural. There’s a difference in texture between bed and skin and hair, but it’s kind of plasticky at the same time.
Does it matter? No. Come on, it’s David Bowie giving it to you.
TRACY: I work with Jesslyn. I think she’s pretty and easy to talk to, so I asked her out for coffee. Don’t know where I got the nerve, maybe because she looked lonely too. I thought about it for a long time and we ended up together in the elevator and I blurted it out. She said thank you but no.
A week went by and, honestly, I didn’t plan to follow her. I’d seen a movie and was walking to the subway when I saw her up the street turning a corner. Good timing, I guess, but I was curious to see where she was going. I crossed the street about a block behind her and saw Jesslyn walk into Couple.
To me, Couplers are a little sad and desperate, but I understand why they go. I’ve tried online dating and it’s a lot like that. There’s a comfort-thing you’ve got to cross to put yourself out there, a risk you need to take. On dating sites you list out your likes and dislikes, try to honestly answer the questions. Yet, I found myself trying to sound more appealing rather than being one hundred percent candid. Am I religious? Yes, but I colored my response enough to make me seem more spiritual. Do I prefer dogs or cats? To not disqualify myself from either camp I said both.
Remember, this was spur of the moment, seeing Jesslyn. And it hit me, she could be more than a daydream if I could stop Couple from masking the appearance of my partner. So I followed, planning not to upload a photo, hoping to get Jesslyn in the flesh, without filters; the real woman.
Couple was crowded and I made sure Jesslyn didn’t see me. I ducked into a kiosk and hurried through the menus, deselecting any preference except for my sexual orientation. Jesslyn had just entered a changing room when I finally got my passcode. It was only a short wait until an adjacent door blinked unoccupied. I undressed, hoping my plan worked, that The Stage and my Jesslyn would be completely unenhanced. So when the door opened to a white bed and white walls, I smiled. And from the door opposite she entered.
Only it wasn’t Jesslyn.
This wasn’t whom I was supposed to be with and in the moment I was disappointed. Then she knelt on the bed and held her arms out, beckoning me. This was someone real and she wanted me. And suddenly I realized Jesslyn was only a fantasy. Here was a woman, perfect in her imperfection, gazing at me with such longing that I was afraid to look away. I didn’t even want to blink for fear I’d lose hold of this reality. Her eyes only turned from mine when she watched where her hands caressed my body.
If it wasn’t for the ache it gave me, her touch almost tickled. Then she pressed my shoulders down on the bed and gathered me in. Only then did I close my eyes, picturing no other face but hers. We rushed to oblivion. A gathering of angels shouted from above. Then our hearts unwound to a placid calm and I found her lying beside me.
Remembering where I was, I was afraid to look at her. What if the varnish was gone? What if the woman I’d loved had been filtered all along? It would be devastating, but even worse not to know. The passion I’d felt was fact and I needed to put the real person to it. When I turned to face her, she was still there: soft brown eyes staring at me, a mess of cinnamon curls framing her face. I reached out, swept a wave of hair behind her ear and revealed a turquoise star. The earring was a hidden jewel, draped over the line of her jaw. The star seemed to call for me to kiss it.
She bowed her neck as I pressed my smile beneath her ear, but when my lips sought hers, she demurred and pushed up from the bed.