Myra stood by her bedside table, staring at the LadyMate in her hand. She was thinking about what the tabloids would say, what they’d write about Myra, some nutty gal named Myra, and what the people who read the tabloids would say, and then that night what they’d dream about. She thought about Rex and if he’d even remember the color of her eyes. If she canceled, did they wipe him or keep him somewhere on disk?

She had to get to work if she was going to go to work. If she wasn’t, she had all the time in the world.

Same old, same old. She was up at 7:10 a.m., rushed into the kitchen, filled the pot with rusty tap water, stopped to catch her breath. She glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes before she had to be out the door. She shoved an eggy-pop in the micro, spooned three spoonfuls into the coffee filter. The dream ran through her head like roaches.

Horrible dream. Her UniQard didn’t work. She had been out shopping on a rainy day, and suddenly it wouldn’t credit, it wouldn’t debit, it wouldn’t give cash. She tried it on shop doors, the turnstile of the subway, a toilet stall. She stuck it in the slot of her PalmPal, which informed her that she was Dr. Mike Tuck, dentist, born August 18, 1998 in Portland, ME. Myra didn’t exist. A dream, a dream, she kept repeating.

Too close to reality. Nothing worked any more. She half-believed her cousin Booboo, a conspiracy nut who claimed there was a grand plot by the Chinese or the Arabs or whoever really controlled the country to drive us all nuts so we’d kill ourselves, and that’d bring down health care costs. But she couldn’t bring herself to believe that people were smart enough to pull it off. The bosses and big shots she’d seen were all too stupid. They were geniuses of stupid. They’d win the Nobel Prize.

She took out the eggy-pop: still clammy. She tossed it in the trash and poured a cup of watery coffee. Couldn’t cut it too close: last week she was five minutes late and they docked her an hour. But last night she’d been too tired to tune in to Myra’s Channel, so she had to take at least a few minutes now to catch up on the story of her life.

She knew she was addicted. She’d read an article about Vid-iction, they called it. She had a hard time reading, but sometimes she tried. The article said they put images on the personal channels, without your knowing it, to make the adrenaline spurt. Maybe the quick sight of a grinning face at the window while Rex was doing it to you, or a spider on his eyelid, and that made the adrenaline spurt. Made it more addictive.

Still, she wasn’t as bad as Clarisse, who subscribed to the War Channel, paid an extra premium to get the close-ups, and kept a basin by the Vid for when they made her sick. She was spending four hours every night in heavy combat after a day of bagging groceries, but she felt it was welcome relief. Most of her friends subscribed to the War Channel to stay up on current events and it was a lot easier than reading about that stuff. Most people she knew had a hard time reading. Even college professors had a hard time reading now, the scientists said. Something the microwaves did, but nobody could prove it, and even if they did, people would have a hard time reading about it.

Was there time? Just barely. She found her purse on the counter, fumbled for her UniQard, swiped it through the Vid slot. Her hands were shaking. Was that from adrenaline? Maybe just fear. Whatever you did with your UniQard got stored somewhere. But they didn’t have time to snoop on everybody, so if you minded your business you had no problem. In the long run, it made you feel safer. They’d caught a lot of terrorists—thousands, millions. They were catching more and more. Seemed to be a real growth industry.

The UniQard didn’t work. She swiped it through the slot again, then banged the screen. A flicker, and it worked. Sometimes just a little brute force was all it took, like with kids. She remembered Sammy and Candice. Gone.

Life was better now, she told herself. Better without Morry and the kids. Better without the everywhere-shitting dog. Better without coming home from a day’s work to cook and pick up toys and undershirts. Better standing at the brink of suicide, not that she’d actually do it. She had to be grateful to AA for persuading her to put her life in the hands of a Higher Power: it helped to be able to blame it all on God.

She just wished God could take her shift at the hospital once in a while. One of the AA group—Ariel, the skinny, stringy-haired big-butt blonde—was heavily into bourbon and yoga, and her theory was that we were really God’s dream. Myra was going to say that whoever’s dreaming this pissy world must have had a pretty bad day.

But she didn’t say it. At least God wasn’t dreaming her having a butt like Ariel’s.

Though maybe that theory wasn’t so farfetched. If she could flick the Vid and watch herself getting fucked at any hour of the day, who was to say if it’s Myra or Comcast or God trotting off to her ten-hour day of dumping bed pans? It ought to be God. Wasn’t it Him that invented diarrhea?

She punched the remote, perched on the edge of the kitchen stool, waited the long twenty seconds for the screen to glow. Damn, someday she might save enough to get the kind Sherry had, where it came on the second you punched it. This Vid still took twenty seconds, and no 3-D, so no wonder she felt like she sat in a wasteland of emptiness.

Here was the Proxy Myra. A frozen image, waiting for instructions. Maybe blonde today—no, redhead. Myra clicked the remote. What to wear? She clicked Surprise Me. A nice sweater & slacks, warm tans and reds, kind of Mexican pattern on the sweater. Wish I really had that. Look a little thin today? Make-up? Fuck, no, I’ve only got ten minutes. Make it happen.

She clicked Now. Proxy Myra walked by the pond on her vast estate, contemplating the flowers. Soft music somewhere, strings. She heard children laughing on the distant veranda, and their nanny good-naturedly scolding. She smiled in the warmth of it all. The Myra in the kitchen smiled too.

Proxy Myra sat in the chaise longue by the reflecting pool and started to write in her pink-tinted calfskin journal, took a sip of cappuccino, looked up at the slow ballet of the clouds in the tremulous sky. The day spread its blessings before her. From between the musk-scented pages, she slipped out a folded note, glanced at it—she knew it by heart—and pressed it to her opulent bosom. Myra grimaced. Proxy Myra was always pressing things to her opulent bosom. It was getting tiresome.

Proxy Myra suddenly turned. At the gate, Rex stood watching her like a raptor. Last month he had come to service the septic tank, and they’d caught each other’s eyes. Next day he’d written her a cryptic note: Yes? Since then the septic tank had needed constant attention.

Myra had usually watched these episodes of her life with divided attention while she was cleaning ants out of the toaster, but it wasn’t that hard to multitask. The writers—computers actually—were programmed to make things obvious: they must know their consumers were watching while cooking dinner, changing diapers, or holding ice to their bruises.

Now he was here, with only five minutes to spare. Myra glanced at her watch. Did she have time to let it play out? Sometimes, in a hurry, she’d jump out of the plot line by hitting Imagine, which took her into Myra’s imagination, which jumped straight into the sex. But they always did it with bluish light, soft and slow-motion to show that it wasn’t real, and that was too much like Morry on weed.

Rex stood, a square-jawed erection, by the gate. She knew what would happen if she let it. By now the program—interactive with her choices, her interrupts, her punching Less or More—knew her well enough to go directly to some fairly kinky stuff.

But not that kinky at $14.95 a month. They played it so you got a clear idea of what Rex was about to do, then he’d change his mind, but you figured he’d probably do it for another ten bucks a month. That must be part of the addiction. Never give a sucker full value, because when she sees she’s being teased and short-changed and cheated, she’ll get that one extra spurt of adrenaline that finally brings her to $49.95.

That was the level of Sens-yu-matic Gold. No bounds to fantasy, and state-of-the-art electrodes to feel the electric sensations. It didn’t work for everyone, of course. There were the heart attacks, the epileptic seizures, and some users felt an uncontrollable urge to shit, but most people had no problems, according to the ads. When Myra had mentioned it at work, Clarisse said, “For chrissake, just get a vibrator!” But she missed the whole point. Life isn’t something you take in your own hands. It’s something that’s being done to you.

She wondered how it was for guys. Probably the same.

Rex swaggered toward her, unbuttoning his shirt, letting his fingers casually brush the ripe bulge in his chinos. She rose, trembling, her lips opening, her eyes wet with fear and longing. Her hands slid beneath her silk blouse to tweak her tingling nipples—

No! Idiot! Stop it! What’s the point of waltzing some hairy stud down the garden path at 7:28 a.m. when she had exactly two minutes to get out the door? She hit the Fry button, and Rex sizzled into nirvana or limbo or wherever dumb fantasies went when they went on hold.

Yesterday at work, Rex had said something dirty to her. The real Rex, the personnel director, a big, bulgy, baby-faced guy in his fifties. Tyrannosaurus Rex, they called him. She’d thought about filing a complaint, but that’d be a major hassle, and either he’d lose his job or she’d lose hers. Actually, she really liked him when he wasn’t being an asshole, and that’s why she’d named her fantasy hero Rex. The comparison was so ludicrous that it made her laugh, and that helped. Maybe that’s why she did it. She could tell herself that she paid $14.95 a month not because she was a lonely, pathetic, love-starved bitch but because she needed a laugh.

But she wasn’t laughing. Myra stood watching Proxy Myra staring toward the open garden gate. If only Rex would come. She clicked Myself, and Proxy Myra’s hand moved downward across the silk. She clicked Blitz, and a black leather glove, knuckle studs gleaming, clamped over Proxy Myra’s scream. She clicked Imagine, and a foggy blue Myra was floating underwater as Rex’s tongue lapped her into rapture. She heard the bark of the neighbor’s dog, and somewhere a toilet flush.

Myra clicked Myra off.

Where did she go? Sure, it was all simulation, electrons or quarks or whatever, but somehow she felt those people had souls. When she was little, she’d gone to Sunday School, and Mrs. Bursted told her that her dog didn’t have a soul. Only people had souls, and that’s why it was okay when her daddy put Ragsie to sleep. After that, she hated Sunday School.

What if Myra got put to sleep? Whichever Myra, Myra or Proxy Myra, would it matter? If Proxy Myra didn’t have a soul, who was to say that this one did? She paid $14.95 a month—actual real-life money—to keep Proxy Myra alive, but who knows what Proxy Myra was paying to keep her alive? To keep her crying about her kids. To keep her scrubbing the backsides of dying old men. To keep her wondering if the lump she felt in her breast was just her imagination. To keep her longing for a touch of the real Rex’s clammy sausage hands. To keep her dreamless, longing for dreams.

If Myra wasn’t there, where would Proxy Myra go?

To work. She glanced at her watch, took a last chug of her cold acrid coffee, started to cry. Sobs racked her as she put on her coat, checked her purse for bus tokens, found her keys, stared in frantic frozen rage at the blank screen, went to the door, then stopped. She was forgetting something. What was it? Oh yeh. Completely forgot it yesterday and scared to death all day.

She hurried back to her bedside table, picked up the LadyMate, stuck it in her purse, started toward the door. The sobs were dry now, almost dead. She knew she was going to be late again. They’d dock her, and she’d have her first demerit. All because that goddamned Proxy Myra wanted to be fucked at 7:30 a.m.

Myra—the one standing in her kitchen, staring into blankness—took out the LadyMate, released the safety catch, put the snug barrel to her face, against her upper lip. It was cold against the skin and smelt like a doctor. She held it there, breathless, and felt a sharp urge to urinate. After a moment, she snapped the safety, put it in her handbag, decided she didn’t need the bathroom, and went out the door.

Walking to the bus stop, she felt a youthful spring in her legs. She recalled that Ariel said to start every day with a smile, so she smiled all the way to the corner. She wasn’t so bad off, she told herself. The LadyMate would always be there, if needed, like a plane ticket to Paris in the back of the bottom drawer. She had the basics of life. She had a job. She had her UniQard. And, as long as she could pay the premium, she had Rex.

(Published in Crack the Spine)

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