a short story
The first time Déa saw herself, it was from half
a block away. At first she didn't realize what her eyes were following
through the crowd. Then she slowed and froze in the middle of the crosswalk
just outside the East Village zoom station, the music from her implant
storming through her head.
"What are you doing?" asked Tanya, coming back for her from the far
curb. "We're late."
Even Tanya's tattoos seemed impatient, the colors racing around the
patterns on her neck as if Tanya's metabolism was driving them extra
fast. She grabbed Déa's arm and marched her to the sidewalk.
"Are you looping again?" she demanded.
"No," Déa answered. But she wondered. The afterburn from five
years of k-drugs was enough to hover around you for a long time, the
docs had told her. Like an aura, one of them said, something that's
always with you. To Déa, that fit. No matter how many skins she
thought she had shed, she knew she was as dirty as ever. And the difference
between what was her and what was not wouldn't ever be as obvious as
it used to be.
So the figure she had glimpsed on the sidewalk in front of her --
the lanky body moving crossways to her through the surrounding people
as if it were a boat heading for open waters, the prowlike face seen
in profile, the shoulders set like a confident sail, the light brown
hair blowing back in a fan as the woman walked -- was that real? Or
another of the hallucinations that had come up like a barrier and sent
her careening from the drugs? And the man on the other side of the figure
... it couldn't be. Déa had sent him away, into exile, back to
the land of those who feel and those who live. It had been months since
she did that and freed herself from his pleadings. Almost as long since
the hallucinations began. Many weeks since she got clean.
"Sorry," she said to Tanya. "I thought I saw somebody I knew."
"From when?" said Tanya.
"I don't know," she answered.
Tanya raised an eyebrow.
"It wasn't him, was it?"
Déa shook her head, hoping she looked sure. Memmer would have
been able to detect her uncertainty, but Tanya was a lifer, and had
the blunted sensibilities she needed to get through the week.
"That's good," said Tanya. Tanya didn't like anybody who might take
Déa someplace Tanya herself couldn't go. "We better leave if
we want to save our asses. Unless you want to follow him. Or is it her?"
"No," said Déa. "I want to get out of here."
They turned and went uptown as if it were any other Thursday, and Déa
let the music play.
Yasha was waiting for them, something he didn't like to
do, and he had a friend with him this time, something he hadn't warned
them about. As Déa sat on the rug with the friend in front of
the fireplace, his gaze made a spot of fear, cold as fog, appear in
her stomach, but she masked it as best she could and tried to appear
nonchalant when he spiked himself with an injector.
He watched her observe his eyes change.
"You've been here, I can tell," he said.
"I'm playing clean for awhile," she explained. "Doctor's orders."
He leaned over and pinned her down on the rug with his forearm against
her throat, jamming the injector against the skin between her breasts.
"There's enough here to blow you to Mars and back," he said.
"Leave her alone," said Yasha from the sofa.
"I thought you were ready to slice them both up for being late," the
"That's up to me," said Yasha.
The friend shrugged and flipped the injector away, then got up and
held out his hand to Déa. She took it and let him pull her up
and sling her over his shoulder and carry her into Yasha's bedroom,
knowing what was coming, knowing she'd have to explain to Memmer later,
again, how she just couldn't, on top of staying clean, figure out how
to make a living some other way. How she had been ruined for anything
else for a long time.
And the truth was that, even as the friend had her pinned again, this
time on Yasha's bed, and was slapping her and calling her names and
pulling off the rest of her clothes the way an animal pulls flesh off
a carcass, she felt a distant sympathy for him. He was just trying to
feel something. That's why he didn't use an AC. A doll could be programmed
to allow a man to act out his power needs, but it couldn't fill the
void at the heart of him. Whereas if she felt something -- like
pain -- it meant he was feeling something.
She remembered that same effort, the effort to feel, and how difficult
it was, how ultimately fruitless.
It could be worse, she thought, as she obligingly started to cry. He
could really care about me. He could be him.
The second time it happened, a few weeks later, she had
almost buried the first time, along with pretty much everything that
had happened in between. It was a Wednesday. She was alone and had just
come from Memmer's, so she already had that scraped feeling that talking
to Memmer always produced. She knew that what was scraped away wouldn't
come back, but what was exposed hurt.
Not that she wanted Memmer to know that. And keeping the information
from him took effort, because, unlike Tanya, he saw everything, and
heard things in her voice that she didn't realize were there until he
commented on them.
Nobody knew she came to his creaking little office on the lower West
Side, with the window that looked out over the haze-covered river and
the rug, scrolled in figures of old pink and brown, that dated to the
last century and smelled like it. It was her secret world. She liked
coming here, although she dreaded it too. The surrounding buildings
muffled the roar of the city, the way she had read that islands blocked
the wind, making her life seem far away. It -- Memmer -- calmed her,
unlike the robodoc she had tried first. The robodoc had an underlying
electronic whisking noise, almost undetectable, that was a constant
reminder of what it was. She also didn't like its style. It asked too
many questions. When she told Memmer about it, he called it recursive
therapy, therapy that spiraled or curled back in on itself. He said
he liked questing therapy better.
Talking to Memmer was like talking to two people. One of them asked
her questions: What had happened since their last conversation? How
did she feel about this and that? What did she think such-and-such an
The other Memmer listened, invisibly, saying nothing. That Memmer felt
much bigger than the one who asked her things. He seemed to hover like
a large insect in the room, brown with kindness, weaving something inside
of which she could rest, putting her head down and sleeping as she could
not remember ever sleeping. When she answered the questions asked by
the first Memmer, who sat, alert, in the chair opposite her, she had
the feeling that the second Memmer, the listening Memmer, was hushing
the questioner so that her answers could be taken in and put away for
safekeeping, in a place where no one else could find or change them.
"Tell me about the drugs," he would say, for the hundredth time.
"I told you," she would say. "They were there. A guy gave them to me.
All it takes is once, and I knew that, but it seemed ... " here she
always trailed off.
"Seemed ... what?"
She would think about the answer, looking at the carpet, envying its
flatness and silence and the musty way it didn't have to respond to
questions. And finally she would shrug.
Still, she knew he remembered, the listening Memmer, and her shrugs
and I-don't-know answers were accumulating somewhere and forming some
mass that would someday mean something.
"Why did you stop taking them?" he would ask.
"I told you," she would say again. "They kill you, that's what the
k means, and I decided that wasn't how I wanted to do it." And she would
smile at him, knowing he knew the smile was a challenge. Ask me if
that's what I really mean, the smile said. Ask me about the things
I hallucinated, so I can finally ask you why I saw them.
But though he did ask the first question, she simply said yes: That
was what she really meant. And though she knew he didn't believe her,
they went on to other things. Today, for example, he had said, "Something
This time she didn't smile. She hesitated.
"Something happened," he repeated. "I can see it in your face. What
are you afraid of?"
"I can't tell you," she said, although she had intended to say nothing.
"You've told me about the drugs and all the horrible things customers
do to you ... what could be worse than that?"
She shook her head.
"You wouldn't believe me."
"It doesn't matter whether I believe you," he said.
She laughed, then was silent. He watched her for awhile, and she had
a sense of the insect hovering over her, listening.
"Is this about him? That man? The one you've never talked about?"
Color swept over her face as if he had hit her. She looked away.
"It's not just that," she said.
"Not just what?"
She took a breath, thinking about the woman she had seen.
"Well ... regrets. I've got more than most people."
"You want to leave the life," he said.
She was already shaking her head no.
"I keep telling you, it's not something you leave," she said. "It's
something you are."
"Is that why you wouldn't go with him?"
"He was ... impractical," she said.
He waited for more, and she finally decided to give it to him.
"He told me he loved me and that he couldn't live without me, but that's
not all he meant," she said. "He wanted me not to be able to live without
him, too. The others, they just rent me. I'm the owner. But somebody
like him -- it's too much. Somebody like that ... I'd have to give myself
"People do that every day with people they care about," said Memmer.
"They've got enough to give," she answered. "I don't."
Memmer was silent for a moment, and she could imagine that the traffic
noise way out in the streets was actually wind in the trees. She had
never uttered so many sentences at the same time. She felt as if both
Memmers were listening now, along with the rug and everything else in
"What if it turned out you were mistaken about that?" he finally asked.
She stared at him. Sometimes he said things like this. It was part
of his job. Mostly she simply disbelieved him, and they went on talking,
and he knew he would have to wait longer. She expected the same thing
to happen this time, but instead, she felt tears coming into her eyes,
like water into a dry place.
"I have to go," she said, and left, even though there were five minutes
remaining in the session.
And now, walking toward the zoom station that would take her home,
just as she was raising her hand to thumb her implant on and distract
herself with music, she saw a back that looked familiar. It was wearing
black -- something like leather, only artificial. The woman's head turned
as she looked at something she passed, and Déa heard herself
gasp, as if a seizure was starting. Her body suddenly filled with fear
-- not the little bit induced by Yasha's nasty friend, but a dread that
flooded over her and into her like the longing for the drugs, like sex,
charging her with energy. Her feet stopped walking.
As before, the body was moving away from her, half-disguised by the
people around it. Déa couldn't move. What should she do? She
wanted to run back to the office. Memmer kept to the rules, though.
Twice a week, on time, no other sessions, always in person because that
was the real way, the hard way. In the time it had taken her to walk
out of his building and across the street, the session had ended. Even
if he would see her, he would ask her why she hadn't gone after ...
He would also ask her why she hadn't told him about the other time.
Déa ran, her feet dragging because her knees were so trembly.
She looked and looked, but the woman who was her was gone.
Starting the following Monday, she and Tanya did four bankers
in a single afternoon, then parties of five and eight on sequential
evenings, followed by Yasha and another friend (a girl this time) on
Thursday afternoon. A bridegroom and several of his closest buddies
rounded out the week.
The numbers kept her distracted and sane, but in every group there
was somebody who had that same shade of brown hair that he'd had, and
even while she was working them she could feel her mind floating away
to some safe place where she hoped he couldn't bother her, thinking
Why is he here? the way she always had when his image had followed
her into her life.
By midday Saturday, she had had nine hours alone, asleep. Waking, she
lay wrapped in her blue coverlet with the sun baking her through the
wall of temp-control glass that ran along the side of the apartment,
letting the bruises from the week heal, staring at the screenspace she
didn't feel like turning on and too tired to read.
The phone buzzed, but because the screen was turned off, she could
just lie there, waiting to hear who the message was from.
"Hey," said Tanya's voice. "What the fuck was that about earlier? You
run into me on the street, you fucking say hello. Plus, stay away from
purple, it's evil for your coloring."
She muttered something and hung off.
Déa was crying out for the screen to turn on, screaming for
the phone to activate her voice, but it was too late. Tanya was gone,
and she'd switched off her handphone. Déa couldn't reach her
She went to Memmer's office, but didn't go in. Instead,
she began covering the neighborhood, looking for a woman in purple.
She went to every kiosk, every store, within a six-block radius. Then
she went through them all again, and store owners began to notice her.
She expanded the search another two blocks, but still found nothing.
Eventually it was six and she had to go home to prepare for an eight
o'clock. This one was on her own; she wouldn't be seeing Tanya again
until Monday night. And Tanya still wasn't answering her phone.
I can't even leave her a message, Déa thought. What
would I say?
The solo gig was with a man and his wife. They adored each other; each
of them wanted to watch Déa with the other. She found it harder
than group bangs with just men. The feelings were so unfamiliar, like
a language she was trying to imitate without really knowing what anything
meant. By the time she got home, she was exhausted. And all night, she
kept waking up, gasping, out of dreams in which she was holding herself
under water. His voice was always in the background, and she couldn't
On Monday, she walked into Memmer's office and sat down,
then got up again.
"What is it?" he said. "Sit down. Sit," he repeated when she just stood
She sat down and stared at him. It was as if she'd never seen him before.
His eyebrows were gray and twisty; how had she never noticed that? His
knuckles were swollen. She realized he was wearing the same clothes
he'd worn the previous week, a red tunic and gray pants. They'd been
worn so much the fabric had lost its body, and hung limply. With a feeling
as if someone had punched her in the stomach, she realized he would
"I'm worried about you," he said suddenly.
She heard herself laugh, an uncontrollable sound as if she had barked.
"I think I'm hallucinating again," she said.
"You hallucinated when you were taking the drugs," he said immediately,
with a penny-has-dropped expression.
"And that's why you stopped."
"Yes," she said.
"What were you seeing?" he asked.
She sobbed one breath and stopped herself.
"Him," she said. "I saw him. What did you think?"
Memmer sat with her for a few minutes without answering. She felt both
Memmers come together, as if the kind brown insect had descended into
the thin body in the chair opposite her.
"And what are you seeing now?" he said.
"Him," she said. "And -- " she could hardly say it -- "me. I'm seeing
Again Memmer waited. Then he asked, "Have you ever contacted him?"
At that she rolled her eyes.
"What would I say? He's a norm, I'm not. He's on the inside, I'm out."
"But you're keeping him around."
She stood up.
"I'm not keeping him around, he won't leave me alone," she said. "I
want him out of my life."
"You're angry because he reminds you of what you think you can't have
and who you think you can't be," said Memmer, looking up at her. "Please
But she wouldn't. Her face twisted suddenly because it wanted to cry,
and she put out a hand as if to ward Memmer off, then walked out of
the room. She went to the ladies' room down the hall, imagining all
the women who had come here to cry after talking to Memmer, and looked
in the mirror and made her face totally still. Then she walked all the
way home, block after block after block, not looking at anybody, looking
at the sidewalk and the trees and sometimes people's shoes, but never
at their faces, ignoring the men whose glances she could feel, ignoring
Tanya had left a message for her saying she was sick, so
Déa had to go to the evening appointment with a sub, a dark-skinned
blonde who called herself Opaline. The two of them made themselves available
in an antechamber off a ballroom for a succession of male partygoers,
and a couple of women who thought they were brave enough but weren't
in the end. Déa tried to be bored, but the truth was that every
face looked the same to her now. She began to feel disoriented.
Finally, in the middle of negotiations with two older men, she told
Opaline, "I have to go," and put her pants back on. "I don't feel good."
Opaline had started to express astonishment at how little the men were
offering them, even though it was a lot. She paused with her mouth open,
the blonde hair around her head halolike and her hands on either side
of her, palms up, the luminescent nails tipping her fingers with fiery
green. Déa couldn't stand the look of her. She was out the door,
stumbling, running to the zoom station to get away from Opaline and
everybody else. Not even the designed lighting and marble of the Upper
East Side station could soothe away the sense of something looming,
like a wave that would tip her over backward.
She dreamed about the woman again that night, and woke up before dawn,
wondering what the woman was thinking and feeling. As she fell asleep
again, she was asking herself why the woman wore purple, when Déa
By ten she'd woken up again, this time out of a dreamless
sleep. She dressed and tried to eat something, but couldn't swallow.
She left and spent an hour on the zoom, going past the Central Park
West station in both directions, back and forth, before she got off.
He'd always been a morning person, so she was surprised not to get
an answer when she buzzed his apartment. But, then again, she really
wasn't. He was probably watching her from the viewscreen inside, just
as she would do if he came to her place.
"Forget your code?" said a voice behind her. She turned; a woman was
coming up the stoop. Not the woman she was looking for, but someone
who seemed to recognize her.
"Sorry about that," Déa said. "Can you let me in?"
"Sure," the woman said. "Long as you're the right person." Déa
laughed with her as the door opened, and followed her in.
The apartment was at the back, on the ground floor. Déa walked
along the narrow hallway as the woman -- another tenant? -- went up
the stairs. Finally she heard the sound of a door opening and closing
two flights up.
She paused at his door, listening. There was no sound on the other
side. He was aware of her, watching her displayed in his screenspace
right now --
The door opened. The woman in purple was standing there, watching her,
except that she wasn't wearing purple. She was in black again. Her face
had a look Déa remembered from long ago in her own life.
"Hello," the woman said.
Déa tried to say something. Her throat closed up.
"I have known that you are coming one day," the woman said. "Please
Her eyes on the woman, Déa took a few steps over the threshhold,
thinking, Is that what I sound like? She had to take another
step to make room for the woman to close the door.
The apartment was the same. Everything was the same, except for her.
She was different. And not.
"What's your name?" she said.
"He wanted me to be Déa, like yourself," the woman said. "I
wished to be Philippa. That is what he calls me now. Would you appreciate
something to drink?"
"No, thanks," Déa said. Her arms and legs felt numb. She didn't
want to faint.
"Please sit down," said Philippa.
"No," said Déa. "No. I can't. I came to see -- "
"He is not here. He is gone to buy clothing for me, something he wished
me to have. I do not know what. He will surprise me."
Déa stared at her. She looked happy, happy as Déa herself
had never been.
"You don't talk the way I do," she said.
An expression of regret crossed Philippa's face.
"That has been the very hardest thing," she said. "I speak in a formal
way. I do not sound relaxed. I try, but ... " she lifted her hands in
frustration. "It is because of the way I learned to speak. As an adult,
you understand. Learning with no background, no past. Everything has
taken a long time. I have tried to learn quickly, but it is difficult."
"No past," she said. "You mean you know ... "
"Of course," Philippa said. "He has been completely honest with me."
They looked at each other, and after a few moments Philippa's face
turned pink. She's jealous of me, Déa thought.
"What did he use?" Déa asked.
"A smear of your secretions," said Philippa. "He still keeps the remainder
between glass slides, in a box in the bedroom."
Déa remembered him getting up from the bed, going into the bathroom.
She felt her face go hot.
"I didn't know it was possible ... " Possible for her to be so perfect,
"It is," Philippa said. "But it is certainly difficult and expensive."
"Yes," said Déa. "A very expensive way to be able to fuck somebody
you can't have."
Philippa gasped, and they stared at each other.
"Did you know I only had sex with him once?" Déa said. "Did
you know that made him crazy? That he would have done anything to do
Philippa began to cry. Déa's heart was thudding. She was suddenly
dying to spike. She wasn't sure she could get through the morning without
it, much less through the rest of her life.
"You're a substitute," she said.
"No, she's not," said a voice from behind her.
Déa stopped breathing, and Philippa stopped crying, and in that
moment Déa realized that she was jealous of Philippa, too, and
that Philippa knew it.
Forcing herself to take a breath, she turned around. He had opened
the door without either of them hearing it.
He looked the same, only more so.
"She's not a substitute," he repeated. He closed the door.
"Then why is she here? Why did you violate me and duplicate me, you
monster, except to make a substitute -- "
And suddenly she had flown at him and was hitting him and screaming
at him, and at everything she had ever hated: herself, the drugs, the
life, everything. He didn't fight, he just tried to shield himself.
She pounded him, screaming, hating him, hating herself -- punching his
face, shoving his head into the wall, elbowing his neck, kicking his
shins, hitting everything she could reach, shoving him against the wall
again, hitting him some more. Finally, worn out, she leaned against
the back of the door, her chest heaving. The drug wave was gone, but
everything it masked was there. She knew Memmer would be pleased.
"You shit," she said, and hit him again.
"Don't!" Philippa cried out. She was cowering.
"Shut up," said Déa. She stared at him. He uncurled his arms
from around his head and looked steadily back at her. A bruise showed
blue next to his eye where Déa had made contact.
"She's you, but she's not you," he said.
Déa shoved him again.
"Metaphysical shit," she said. "You shit."
"I can't undo it, and I wouldn't want to," he said.
"I'll bet," she said. "You get to have everything I said no to. How
convenient. She might as well be made of plastic."
"No," he said. "That's not right. She's as individual as you are. She's
you, but with different influences."
"Really," said Déa. "How's this for an influence?" And, before
he could stop her, she turned around and drove her fist into Philippa's
face. Philippa thumped to the floor and lay still.
He was kneeling beside her in an instant, cradling her and stroking
her face. She was white, but moaned a little as she started coming around.
Blood seeped from her nose.
"What do you say I initiate her?" Déa asked him. "Take her on
rounds with me, get her spiking, introduce her to everybody I know.
Then she'd be authentic."
"I don't want her to be authentic," he said. "I want her to be who
"She's me, you shit," Déa said.
But he didn't hear her. He was stroking Philippa's face again, talking
to her, looking into her eyes.
He didn't even notice when Déa opened the door and stumbled
On her way back to the zoom station, she reflected that she could tell
Memmer everything now. She could tell him that she had lost the man
she loved to herself, and that he was gone forever. That she would never
walk down the street, anywhere, ever, without the afterburn of this
-- of wondering whether she would see someone especially familiar. That
she would never leave the life now, because she didn't have to -- because
she had gotten to start over without leaving. And that she hated herself
for that privilege, which she would never have. And that she was happy
for it too.
There was no music on the way home. Just a huge and majestic silence.
© Karen D Fishler 2004, 2005.
This story was first published in Interzone (Sep/Oct 2004).
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