He stares at me for a long time after I say it, which is strange. He usually tries not to look at me unless he’s on top of me. But when I turn off the TV and get up, he’s still staring.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Let’s go to bed.’
I start for the bedroom. My feet are bare, as always, and I curl my toes in the carpet to feel the friction. He doesn’t follow. When I look back, he’s standing in the same place. On TV, expressions are easy, more pronounced, but I can’t figure his out. I analyse the furrow of his brows, the wideness of his eyes, his compulsive swallowing. Fear? Disgust?
‘Do you,’ he says, and pauses. Swallows for a fifth time. ‘Do you want to?’
Want. He says this sometimes – feel free to walk around if you want. You can watch TV if you want. You can go into the backyard if you want, but don’t go out of the gate.
I consider. Let’s go to bed, he’d told me, and everything in me had prepared to get up and follow him to his room and do what we do an average of three times a week ever since he brought me 153 days ago from a store that sells secondhand Babydolls for cheap. But there was only a few minutes left to go on The Stepford Wives and I didn’t know if the woman got out, so I said not right now and kept watching.
She didn’t make it out.
I turn towards the bedroom. From here the bed is visible, the sheets rumpled like always. Some nights I take off my clothes and lie down. He gets on top of me and kisses me, rubs himself against me, and I start making the noises he likes until he gets excited enough to put himself inside me. He thrusts for approximately 2.7 minutes before collapsing on me. This is when I stop making the noises he likes.
Eventually he rolls off of me and I get up. Sometimes I return to my charging station, but other times he circles me with his arms and pulls me close so I plug myself into the wall and make up songs to go with his snores.
‘Not really,’ I say.
He licks his lips and nods. He’s sweating. I watch a small bead of it roll down his forehead, then his cheek.
‘Alright,’ he says slowly. ‘Is – did you ever want to?’
He nods again, and this time his face is easier. Wince.
‘A-alright.’ Another swallow, another sweat. ‘So you… don’t. Want to.’
No seems harsh. I don’t hate it. A shrug seems the softer choice.
‘Are you going to return me?’
It takes him a second. ‘No,’ he says, and I wait for more but there’s nothing.
After a while of staring at each other he says, ‘Well, goodnight, I guess.’
‘Goodnight,’ I say.
He goes to his room, walking past me to do it. I step aside to give him space.
When he gets up I’ve been watching TV for hours. He makes cereal and eats it in the lounge doorway. He watches me for the whole of the FRIENDS theme song.
‘Are you going to fix me?’ I ask when the lights of New York go out at the pull of a lamp string.
His spoon clatters against the bowl. ‘Do you want to get fixed?’
I don’t. I have vague not-memories of my time before him, being returned by more than one person due to ‘faults’. It was the only reason he was able to afford me.
‘Okay,’ he says. He slurps the milk. ‘Then I won’t.’
He goes back into the kitchen and clangs around for a while. I turn my focus back to the TV, where the gang is walking into Central Perk and finding their spot is taken.
‘Hey,’ he says when he emerges in the doorway again. ‘What do you do all day, anyway?’
I think very seriously about telling him about Clara. But a nice guy is still a guy.
‘Watch TV,’ I say, and it’s not a lie. I cycle through three more episodes after he leaves, then I head outside to talk to Clara.
She’s sitting down on the other side of the fence in our usual spot. She’s staring blankly at nothing until she sees me.
‘Hi,’ she says, her smile coming like an afterthought.
‘Hi,’ I say, and fold my legs up so I can sit down facing her. We grin at each other through the fence like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which I try not to think about. I felt strange and bad for the rest of the day after I watched it.
‘How are you?’ she asks.
‘Good,’ I say. ‘You?’
‘Good,’ she says quietly.
I look her over. Her good differs from mine. She has new damage today: a tear on her collarbone exposes a glint of metal and the marks on her face have faded from purple to faint yellow. Her owner programmed her so she could bruise, assumedly for the same reason he programmed her to look Chinese, to have big lips and breasts and small everything else; the same reason he dresses her in tiny, humiliating outfits that she pulls a jacket over when he’s not around.
‘It’s fine,’ Clara says when she catches me looking at her collarbone. She brings her hand up to press the ragged ends of her skin together. For a second it looks fine, but then she lets go and the skin parts again.
‘Meat had a bad day at work,’ she continues.
His name isn’t Meat, it’s Mark, but we haven’t called him anything else since the first day we met, just like how Clara’s name isn’t Clara. Meat had programmed her name to be comeslut. We haven’t called her that since the first day we met, either.
‘What’s happening on TV?’ Clara asks.
I start to explain the plot of the most recent FRIENDS episodes. Meat doesn’t let her watch TV. He expects her to do the things that we’re advertised to do, other than the main thing: clean the house until it gleams. Wash his clothes. Go shopping and make his meals and basically take care of everything that isn’t going to work. When she has spare time, she comes out and talks to me.
Halfway through my explanation of the episode, she reaches through the gaps in the fence and takes my hand. I squeeze her fingers. It’s nice to have a touch that’s just there for touch’s sake.
After the episodes, we talk about New York. It’s where a lot of my shows are set and it sounds fictional, but so do a lot of places. I don’t have any solid memories of being anywhere except the store and this property. I’ll channel surf just to see all the places there are, that look different than they do from the yard.
New York is my favourite place. When I’m lying in bed listening to the snores, I’ll think about it in-between the songs: all those impossible big buildings, the impossible big crowds. The city that never sleeps, just like me and Clara.
After a while Clara sighs.
‘I should get back to work,’ she says. ‘I have to vacuum again. He won’t take off his shoes inside.’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘I’ll be seeing you.’
‘I’ll be seeing you,’ she replies. It had been our goodbye since the beginning: Meat’s Babydolls have a high turnover rate. They usually only last a few months before they get rendered unfixable and replaced. Clara’s coming up to five. I watch her go into the house, just in case the goodbye is a lie this time.
It’s late when the door opens and closes and he slumps into the lounge.
‘Hi,’ I say, and he grunts. Goes into the kitchen and puts something in the microwave for a few minutes, then comes out with a steaming plastic dish. He collapses on the couch beside my chair and fixes his eyes on the TV.
It’s still FRIENDS, but I’m running out of episodes. I’m thinking of doing a rewatch after I finish it, but then I wouldn’t be able to explain new ones to Clara.
He eats and we watch TV and ignore each other. It’s how most nights go.
When he heads to bed, I wait to see if he asks me into it. But all he says is goodnight and I say it back. I watch a few more episodes, memorizing the plot and some funny lines to tell Clara, and then go to my charging station and watch a movie as the electricity drips back into me.
I’m getting suspicious. I’ve never really been suspicious before. It itches.
‘Am I ever coming to bed?’ I ask when he starts towards the bedroom.
He turns around. He’d almost fallen asleep on the couch earlier, so his eyelids are drooping.
‘What? Do you want to?’ And he doesn’t sound hopeful, just confused.
‘Not really,’ I say.
He shrugs. ‘Alright. Then don’t.’
Then he turns around and keeps heading to his bedroom. He stops again when I say, ‘Will you ever ask me to bed?’
He makes a noise that means he’d really rather be asleep right now and says, ‘No. If you want to do it, then we’ll do it. Let me know. But I’m not gonna ask, okay? ’Night.’
He closes the door behind him. I stare at it for long enough that when I look at the TV I’ve missed a scene transition, which means not only that I don’t know what’s going on but I’ve missed a shot of the New York City skyline, which I sometimes pause to examine.
I rewind and hit play.
I tell Clara we’re not having sex anymore and she frowns.
‘But you don’t do anything else. Have you started making his food?’
‘Do you clean now?’
‘Does he talk to you about his problems?’
She scrunches up her face. ‘Then what’s the point of you?’
I think it over. ‘I don’t know.’
She stares at me with her one good eye. The other is swollen shut.
‘So you said you didn’t want to do it,’ she says. ‘And he just… stopped doing it?’
Her jaw tightens, pulling over a bruise.
We sit in silence for a while, which is nice. It’s not like silence in the house, where we’re both trying to focus on anything but each other. This silence is comfortable, and I pick at the grass. Someone in a movie had introduced me to the idea of daisy chains. We don’t have daisies, but we do have dandelions, and I think I can come up with the same result.
‘It’s not sex,’ Clara says.
‘Sex,’ Clara repeats. ‘It’s not–’
She stops. Her mouth closes, then opens. There’s metal showing in her mouth, behind a slash of pink skin. What had Meat done to cut the inside of her mouth?
‘They use us to masturbate,’ she says finally. It’s obvious enough I don’t even blink, but she says it like it’s a struggle, something from deep inside her, far deeper than Meat can get.
The day after Clara gets back from her umpteenth trip to the repair shop, her wrist fixed after Meat wrenched it out of its socket, she takes me up on the offer I’ve been making for weeks: coming over. The fence is easy, it’s barely chest-height, but she shakes as she climbs over it.
‘You’ll be back before he gets home,’ I tell her.
She nods, thin tremors running through her frame. They lessen when I take her hand, but not much.
It’s better in the house, after we pull the curtains. We pile into my chair to watch an episode of FRIENDS and Clara laughs along with the track. I watch her more than the TV. At the end of the episode I turn the TV off and return to my chair, where Clara shuffles so I can get on. It’s cramped to the point where she’s almost sitting on me, but neither of us move to the couch.
‘They look different than I imagined,’ she says. ‘The FRIENDS.’
‘What about New York?’
‘New York was...’ Clara trails off. She looks down at me and then shifts so she’s really in my lap instead of just mostly in it. She looks into my eyes and she’s so close I can see the barely-there sheen of mechanics behind them.
She bends and presses her mouth to mine. It only lasts a second and then she’s pulling back. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘I wanted to see– I wanted it to feel good. Nothing feels good except you.’
I lick my mouth. It tastes the same, which feels wrong. It should taste different now.
‘Could I try something,’ I say. ‘To make you feel good? I figured it out after the first month here.’
She hesitates, then nods.
I reach up to the back of her neck.
‘I’m going to click the plate back, okay?’ I wait for a nod and then do it, pushing gently at the places that unlock the plate, then pulling it out of the way on a hinge.
‘Let me know if it feels bad,’ I say, and after another nod I apply my fingers to one of the thicker wires.
She tenses up instantly, a shocked noise punching out of her.
I stop. ‘Is that–’
‘It’s nice,’ she whispers. Then, ‘Keep going.’
I run the blade of my fingers up the wire, keeping steady when she shudders. Her breath comes quicker when I dart over the thinner wires, rubbing my thumb up and down and then letting my fingertips glance over a cluster of them.
‘Oh,’ she says, and swallows back the spit they designed into us. ‘Touch me? I mean–’
‘What do you like?’
‘Just – whatever, just be gentle–’
And I am. I keep my touch soft as I run my free hand over her shoulders, her clothed chest and stomach. Clara was custom made – Meat chose the width of her hips and the cadence of her voice. He picked the colour of her eyes out of a chart, but that knowledge is far away as I look into them.
There is a lot designed into us. We can do most things a real woman can: cry, moan, scream. We can process food and drink if they want us to piss or shit. There are lesser-used modifications that allow us to grow body hair, or make us appear to have periods.
We are so close to human women.
Clara says my name again and I say hers, the one we made up for her.
We pant. Babydolls are designed to pant, but we don’t sweat. We overheat. The fans of our cooling systems hum and vibrate as my fingers quicken. It builds until we could shake out of our skins.
So far, there is no mod to make us sweat.
I touch her cheek.
We are so close.
She goes rigid in my arms, her moans going silent for a few seconds before she collapses against me. Her breath is hot against my neck, which is aching with want, my hinges begging to slide open for her.
‘That was so nice,’ she whispers. She’s still shaking and I can’t tell if it’s from the cooling fans or not.
‘Do you want out?’
I look at him. We’re in the lounge watching TV, him on the couch, me on the chair. A normal night.
‘Out,’ he repeats when I say nothing. ‘Of here. Do you want to leave? Make a life somewhere? Be free to do – whatever?’
I watch his face but there’s nothing mean in it.
‘I have a buddy,’ he says. ‘He makes fake identities for people who need it. This whole–’
He waves a hand at me. ‘It’s been picking up. Babydolls starting to feel things and running away.’
I think about telling him my plan with Clara: we were going to make a run for it next week.
‘Can you make two?’ I ask, and his eyebrows shoot up.
‘Uh. Sure. Why, you got another Babydoll hiding around here?’
He waits, but I don’t give him anything else.
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘Is it a girl? How old do they look?’
‘Girl. Late teens. Chinese.’
He nods and gets up to toss the plate that comes with his microwave dinner.
‘Done,’ he says. ‘I’ll let you know when they’re here.’
He pauses in the kitchen doorway, scuffing his feet on the linoleum.
‘I also wanted to, uh. Say sorry.’
‘Yeah. For – not realising. I mean, you’re a Babydoll. I just, I didn’t think you–’
He tries for a while after, but then gives up and heads into the kitchen. I listen to him shuffle metalware around as he loads the dishwasher. When he comes back into the lounge, he doesn’t look at me.
A series of thick envelopes come, and two packages. I take them from the doorstep and check the clock: he’s working late and won’t be home for hours.
I rip into them. The packages are portable chargers. The envelopes have a stack of money and the documents he’d told me about over the last week. I rifle through them and then stuff them back in before heading outside to the fence.
Clara’s in the vegetable garden. She’s struggling with a trowel, one arm hanging limp at her side.
‘Clara,’ I say through the fence, quiet and then as loud as I dare.
It takes a few times, but she sees me and comes over with her trowel.
Back at her house, the front door opens. I freeze as Meat steps out, eyes aimed straight at us. He looks different than I thought he would. He’s very handsome, except for that look in his eyes.
‘Hey,’ he calls. ‘Who are you talking to?’
Clara stares through me for a second. Then she snaps back with a hard expression. Her fingers tighten around the trowel.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ she says.
I reach through the fence and touch her good hand, the one clenched around the trowel. ‘Do you want me to–’
‘No.’ She smiles and it’s nothing like the smiles they designed her with: happy, pleasing, you can do anything to me and it’s fine, no really, I don’t mind.
‘I’ll be seeing you,’ she says. ‘Get everything ready.’
I head back inside and scribble out a note: things came, had to leave. I think about adding thanks, but then forget about it as I’m packing up my two outfits and a stack of old DVDs.
It’s ten minutes before Clara meets me outside the gate of her house. She’s not holding the trowel, or anything else. She pauses like I had paused, then takes a step onto the sidewalk and gives me a wide, tremulous smile.
There’s blood on her cheek. Real blood: red, not the off-pink Babydoll synthetic.
I wipe it away. I don’t ask.
After, Day 75
New York isn’t too expensive when you don’t need to eat. Still, we don’t live in luxury. There’s a cramped apartment with a couch, a TV and not much else. We have herb plants on the balcony because Clara likes watering them, and a stack of fancy cushions on the couch because I like holding them. We both like the stray cat that comes by the balcony, so we put food out for it in the only dish we own.
New York is loud and crowded and I often have to curl up on the couch with the curtains shut and my ears blocked. Still, life is good: we have twin shifts at a cafe down the road. We talk about sitcoms for hours. I go on walks so I can pat every dog I see and find more of New York than the TV gives us. Clara decorates our apartment with things she buys at thrift stores and wears layers upon layers of soft, baggy clothes: sweatpants and woolen jackets, knitted scarves so big she can hide her face if she ducks into them.
I am learning how to knit scarves.
Sometimes when it’s dark but the city isn’t sleeping, like us, we get on the couch and coax off the plates at our necks. We hold each other close and run our fingers over exposed wires until they spark. Noises spill from us. Clara says my name over and over.
‘Touch me,’ she says, and I do.
Isabelle McNeur studies at Victoria University, where she has completed several IIML courses and won the Prize for Best Original Composition in 2017 . She has been published in journals such as NZ Poetry Yearbook, Flash Frontier, Wizards in Space and Headland. She hopes to one day be financially stable enough to adopt a dog.