by Meredith Westgate
The purple haze of Jupiter surrounds us in its cool-toned glow. Sparks suspended from the campfire atop our teeny tiny asteroid flicker into the air. Our own, defiant atmosphere. A passing asteroid narrowly misses us and I turn to Aaron, his smile bright against my flashlight. He’s pleased with himself. I can see why.
“The fire might be an issue,” I say, turning back towards the hearth. Always better to avoid prolonged contact, let alone smiling, on the job. Aaron looks handsome in the fire’s light, and the circumstances are already stacked; it’s too easy to fall. Meanwhile, a single, twinkling spark floats into the ether. “If people still care about that sort of thing.”
“Nobody cares about physics,” Aaron says as he leans over, pretending to warm himself in the fire’s light. “Nobody even knows.”
Like any self-proclaimed genius, Aaron underestimates the masses. But he also misidentifies our customers as the masses. For the most part, they’re like him — overly informed about details that don’t matter on Earth, and about circumstances that will never be real. Knowledgeable to the point of a social disorder.
“Did you know Saturn is the root of the word Saturday?” Aaron says, proving my point. I look past his head, where Saturn’s rings extend like a Frisbee caught in perpetual spiral.
“I mean,” he continues, “the planet might as well be called date night.”
“Hmm,” I say, now eager to disagree. “I thought Friday was technically considered date night.” My married friends with kids are the only ones who use the term date night and from what I can tell that’s always on a Friday. The irony, of course, is that for single people still actively dating, every night is “date night” — every night or often none at all — though I never mention that to them. These aren’t the things one focuses on amongst old friends when connecting across different planes in life. And seeing as I’m currently standing on an asteroid outside Saturn’s atmosphere debating the root of its name with my colleague, that difference in planes has become planetary.
“I’ve decided this should be a third date,” Aaron continues, ignoring me as he does whenever contradicted. “They’ll have to unlock this one with a few preliminary experiences, make sure it’s worth it. You don’t take a first date to the Oscars, you know? Actually — write that down. A virtual Oscars experience, for you and your date. I mean, what’s more mojo-enhancing than double-dating with Brad and Angelina?”
“Oh, they broke up.” I find myself paying attention to the silliest things when Aaron speaks, desperate for any opportunity to trip him up, even if this particular instance relies on celebrity knowledge I’m not proud of in the first place.
“What?” he says, bracing against my question as if his mind continued on and he’s at risk of losing it. An asteroid comes close to colliding with his head, and I flinch before it disappears behind us into the sparkling purple sky.
“Brad and Angelina,” I say, focusing on my feet planted atop the dusty, uneven ground to regain my balance, my composure. “They’re no longer together.”
He pauses. “Well, whatever. Unimportant. Did you write that down? An Oscars experience. It could even be a sponsored opp. Devon will love that. That’s all I hear these days — we need more sponsored content. What the fuck am I, some tampon company? What was I saying anyway?”
Aaron often tells me to write things down while we were both plugged in and virtual. I know he understands the software — admittedly in a way I never could — so I don’t understand how he expects me to do this. Nothing in my hands is visible. I’m in his world, and he hasn’t built me a notepad to write on here. Lately I find it helpful to focus on these things while up in the stars with him, just to keep my head straight.
I realized soon after being assigned to Aaron that my role at Flutter is now largely to keep him from turning our app into a tool for tricking women into sleeping with men who don’t deserve them, or haven’t done the appropriate efforts to land them. Land them. I’ve even started talking like Aaron, and in my own head at that. But internalizing the enemy is the only way to truly defeat them. At least that’s what I tell myself late at night when I wait for sleep to come, or first thing in the morning when I look in the mirror, sleep-deprived, and wonder how I got here. Not just me, but the world — the tiny, fast-paced part of it I now live in. Whether Flutter actually cares how our programming affects women remains to be seen; most likely I was implemented as a precaution, should we ever face a lawsuit. Proof that there was a woman supervising on the backend. Supervising. Now that would be news to Aaron.
Aaron builds his own reality with no concept of social responsibility. If his experiences are shark bait, Flutter is the tank, and women the poor swimmers just looking for love amongst the chum. What our female clients don’t know, of course, is that Flutter’s latest pivot has turned on them. And now not only are we playing female customers in a way that veers close to coercion, but we are playing the men too — padding Flutter’s pockets with a second source of revenue besides customers. Companies. Sponsorships.
“Third date option,” I remind Aaron, shining the flashlight controller I still hold across the asteroid where we stand. That’s become the other part of my job, keeping track of his tangents. “You were saying this would have to be unlocked, and only after three dates.”
“Oh yeah. Right, this shit is too good to waste on some chick you might never see again. This is an experience to use when you’re ready to close. Anyway, what am I telling you this for?”
The thought of a woman organizing one of Flutter’s excursions has never crossed Aaron’s mind, let alone the thought of two guys, or two girls, plugging in together. Of course, I hesitate to ever bring that up, especially the latter — certain that Aaron’s head would either explode or that he’d come up with something so eroticized and inappropriate that I’d be forced to finally report him to HR and likely lose my job, not his. Aaron’s a genius, after all.
“Here’s the best part though,” he continues excitedly. “Guess what I’m gonna name it.”
“I don’t know —” I begin, thinking.
“Put a ring on it!” he interrupts, before I’ve even taken a breath. Then he steps back, nearly off our asteroid entirely.
At this angle, Saturn’s rings now form a demented sort of halo behind Aaron’s head. I roll my eyes, though I know he can’t see them. Or, maybe, because I know.
Flutter hasn’t always been this way, all virtual — orchestrating a contrived perfect storm of romance, risk, and excitement that could make almost any two people fall in love. Or at least, follow the illusion of love. No, Flutter used to be about perfecting the ideal common ground on which to introduce love — not fake it.
I joined Flutter shortly after its inception, when Mark, the co-founder, sought me out for my expertise in travel and food writing. My book 100 Ways to Plan the Perfect Date had been a national best-seller, a one-stop shop for planning the ideal first date across hundreds of cities and on a range of budgets. The magic of it — as promised on the book jacket — wasn’t just restaurant recommendations, or listing off beautiful day trips; rather, it came down to composing the ideal experiential tonality, with just the right opportunity for happenstance. My work was about introducing people at their best, enjoying themselves, and seeing if those two bests got along with one another. It was idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, sure, but never manipulative.
Some of my earliest designed dates for Flutter involved sunset cruises through the Hudson River, or a summer sculpture tour at Storm King that concluded with a picnic in the grass, under the shade of a towering di Suvero sculpture. For daredevils, I even planned an afternoon of cleaning skyscraper windows, finishing with wine and cheese in the service box, high in the sky. After all, fear is a shortcut to intimacy. Still, those were real-life activities, ideas that came to me in travels or as I walked to my favorite coffee shop and simply looked up. I wasn’t a physicist; I wasn’t a programmer. I was just a romantic.
But the world changed shortly after I joined Flutter. The United States became more fragmented. With one election, or the culmination of many little ones, politics took a seemingly sudden turn. The news came in frantic blasts and, like an email or text holding your lock screen hostage, there was no hiding. No more Saturday mornings with our heads in the sand — nor learning to make the best blueberry corn waffles on a fourth date at a maple syrup farm in Vermont. Citizen responsibility — or at the very least, culpability — finally replaced apathy. On any given street, one now found — or was — one of the many pedestrians crying into their phones as daily news alerts streamed in, scary and upsetting. Even our weather became unpredictable. 75 degrees in February. Followed by two feet of snow the very next day. Record rains in June. In short, it became impossible to plan anything at all, let alone a stress-free shot at love with a new person. This seemed like a world in which love didn’t matter, or survive.
And so Flutter pivoted to a virtual space we could control, making my expertise — Senior Experience Manager — largely perfunctory. I was renamed a consultant and assigned to Aaron, the secret weapon they’d hired straight out of MIT, where, I gathered, based on the months that followed, he had very limited exposure to dating, or to women in general.
In addition to my signing off on each of Aaron’s new simulations, management decided last week that we should actually test the experiences out together before making them available on Flutter. After spending months trapped inside the mechanical vibrations of our back office, looking over Aaron’s shoulder as he built new environments and creatures to shock more couples into immediate intimacy, and after feeling him ignore my every suggestion at every turn — well, the thought of being forced into romance with him seemed ludicrous, if not insulting.
However, after only our third official simulation in the past few days, I’m beginning to notice feelings for Aaron. Of course, I’ve always had feelings for him — why is it that “having feelings” for someone implies that they’re good? Everyone has feelings. But by that third trial, a single week amongst many months of working together, my previously distasteful ones began to turn. In fact, standing in space beside him now on our fourth “date” — him, the only other human in our new virtual galaxy — I’m acutely aware of a pivot, of sorts, taking place inside of me. The way he moves atop our small, interplanetary particle, the gentle brushing of his body against mine as we navigate the space we share. The smell of his detergent. I continue to hate him, to doubt him, but I also can’t wait to see what he plans for us next. How he handles himself behind the illusions of his making.
Today I even found myself walking with a newfound urgency to our dingy office in the back of Flutter’s corporate space. The glass-walled rooms with their colorful, inspirational murals and plentiful couches, of course, are reserved for investor pitches and team meetings. The real work takes place back here in our studio, alongside the hum of massive computer towers, so loud they make you wonder if they’re infecting you with some toxic waves, the side effects of which have yet to be discovered. Here, the floor is unfinished, with tread marks where older desks and tables, or perhaps a meat-grinder, previously sat. The room’s been totally cleared, save our row of monitors along one wall and the bright blue-colored tape on the floor in the middle of the room, marking off our VR testing zone — a rectangle of 6 feet by 8 feet. An arbitrary measurement that now defines most of our days.
When I asked Aaron about the awkward shape a few weeks ago, after reports came in of couples accidentally stepping out of the rectangle mid-conversation — an incident that is not only upsetting for their partners to watch, but which also seriously interrupts the illusion that Flutter’s success relies on — Aaron said that was just the way it came out when he tried to draw a sample square on the computer during his first day working at Flutter. Just like that, no further explanation, nor embarrassment. I’ve never known a man — and certainly not a woman — so confident, or proud, in discussing their own lack of consideration. He reacts to any criticism of mine as though outside insight into the way his brain works is simply fascinating for all, like one might feel in learning that Einstein couldn’t see the color blue, or that Picasso failed at simple math — were either of those remotely true. No, the fact that running inventory on Aaron’s shortcomings and lack of foresight is literally my job never seems to cross his mind. As for the shape, at this point he’s gotten used to the rectangle, so he incorporates it into the design for most of our virtual worlds, never considering that a square or a circle might be easier for anxious customers to navigate when floating in a new galaxy, with an infinite drop below. Symmetry can be as psychologically anchoring as gravity is physically, though Aaron has tried eliminating that on occasion as well.
While most programmers claim to possess total control, as though God(s) creating their own worlds, those at Flutter seem inclined to take any superficial limitations that happen by chance as a sort of informing structure to guide their work, when in fact they could simply change the premise altogether. Modify the dimensions. Recolor the sky. Reset the surroundings. Perhaps it’s like writing, where true freedom often comes only from externally-imposed limitations. But look at me now, atop this small taped section of dusty floor, hidden in the back of a dating startup. Hardly a writer anymore, I think, if ever I was.
Our first date — simulation, I tell myself — was atop an asteroid in the Milky Way. The visual that Aaron built reminded me of those soft jelly stickers I loved as a kid, the ones that would squish and change color when you pressed your warm fingertips to them. The Milky Way was one of the first galaxies Aaron tried, and it took him several frustrated days to perfect its disk-like structure, balancing that with the “milky” impression we have of it from Earth. Such an illusion would certainly not be visible from an asteroid within it, but this was the tragedy of Aaron’s work. The more accurately he portrayed something, the less our customers appreciated it. Recently, I’ve noticed, he’s simply given up. Hence today’s comfortable perch atop an asteroid soaring through an amethyst sky, alongside Saturn. Hence, the fire. The point of Virtual Reality, Aaron decided last Friday, after a failed attempt at simulating a Great White Shark, is not to recreate what’s possible. It’s to provide the impossible.
Given the way I’ve started looking at Aaron from behind my own goggles, I need no further convincing. He’s already accomplishing the impossible.
“Hold on a sec,” Aaron’s voice says from behind me now, over my own headphones, although his projection still hovers over the fire, his face illuminated in a golden tan that I know to be impossible. Our late March skies have given seven straight days of sleet and snow — not that Aaron ever steps out from this tiny studio anyway. Is it possible to tan from halogen overheads? This simulation, beginning with the purple hue of Saturn, has been giving Aaron trouble in refining its details, let alone the ensuing prompted actions. He’s been pulling late nights. “There, how’s that?” he says, and I hear his footsteps behind me.
His figure rustles into life again beside the fire, where two skewers now appear, one in each of his hands. He extends one out to me, and I take it, feeling the remote — same as ever — warm from his hands. His latent heat makes my chest flutter, not squirm as during our first months together, when his warm chair grossed me out each time I sat to review his plans, his budgets, his mock ups. His very body heat then had felt like an intrusion. Now the remote is charged, its plastic thick like a bicycle handlebar, but of course what I see doesn’t match that, and my mind tries to catch up. Soon I almost feel the nubs of the long thin tree branch I’m holding, can almost feel its bark rough against my skin. “Here,” he says, and he hands me a marshmallow.
I reach my other hand out to grab it, touching his finger as I take the light, round object — dusty like the real thing. In fact, I lift it up to take a bite. He’s been incorporating real objects lately. I push the rest of the marshmallow down onto the imagined stick and hold it over the virtual fire. Aaron’s has already turned brown around the edges and is nearly charcoal on one side, just the way I like it — when the marshmallow’s crisp shell separates from its molten contents. He pulls two graham crackers from behind him, whether real or virtual, and slides them around the marshmallow just before it falls. Chocolate oozes out from one of its sides and down his hand. He holds the stick up to his face — his projection, I remind myself — and licks it clean, a tiny smudge of marshmallow stuck in the bristles of scruff below his lips.
Without thinking I reach my hand up to wipe it away. He’s smiling and I find myself leaning in closer, when I feel the hard shape of his goggles against my own. I stumble forward as he steps away.
“What’re you doing?” he asks.
“You had some on your face,” I say, matching his disdain with my own. “I thought that was the point of the prompt. We’re meant to follow all possible subplots, right? Whose fault is that?” Good god, how did I get here? Defending my own feelings for this… this… person is an overstatement.
“Ah, fuck,” he says, disappearing altogether from our little asteroid. Not even his projection remains now. I look around, suddenly lonely. The wheels of his desk chair roll across the wooden floor behind me. “That’s another glitch. We don’t want anyone actually touching in the fucking simulation. It exposes that their projections of each other aren’t real — or accurate. Plus then what — they fuck in their simul’s too? We can’t deal with that liability.”
“Yeah,” I say, my body still humming, but all I can think about is his next to mine. My lips sting, as if from the dry, oxygen-less air of this atmosphere, though I know it’s more likely from licking the nonexistent chocolate from around my mouth, over and over, like some itch that keeps moving, retreating deeper and growing stronger. I see it there, next to the marshmallow I hold now — dripping from it, down my fingertips — but no matter how I move my tongue, I can’t find its sweet, chalky taste. I crave it more as I find only the rough contours of my own lips, that taste that’s invisible to you and you alone. Numb to its very opinion of itself.
I’m still straining my tongue, curling it down towards the cleft of my chin — or at least I imagine it to be this long — when I feel it. Aaron’s hand on mine, though I see nothing, only the sparks from the impossible fire rising into the nonexistent atmosphere.
Then his lips are on mine. My eyes blink quickly behind my goggles, though I can only imagine what my projection is doing, if he even has his goggles back on. I’ve tasted many mouths. Licorice, ashy. Sweet like cola. Mothballs, closed up, unused. I wonder about myself each time, hoping to catch my taste, as if it might escape on its way to theirs. But this time, I don’t wonder. This time, I’m hardly even there, except for his presence against mine. And then, before I can taste him — before I can separate him from the fake smoke of our campfire, the fake fogginess of this atmosphere, or the very real smell of rubber from my goggles — he’s off of me.
“Did that work?” he asks, matter-of-factly.
“Excuse me?” I’m relieved to still be wearing my goggles now, though also aware that my mouth might still betray me. How even the smallest ripple below it, in my chin, might give away my surprise, disappointment, anger. I force a shrug for him to see.
“Could you process that? Even stuck in the world. Like as if I were there?”
“Well, I couldn’t see you,” I say. We are really talking about this.
He appears again before I can fully hate him. His face has that tan, golden glow from the fire, though he’s too far from it now for that to make sense. He must’ve programmed that in as a sort of perma-glow for his projection. Suddenly I wonder how he’s programmed me to look. I hate how good it feels to see him again. I hate the thought of what I look like staring back at him.
“Aaron,” says a voice from beyond. It sounds like Chad, another programmer who shares space in here whenever he’s building too. He’s the face of the programmers, so to speak, which means he spends most of his time explaining their work to those investors who visit the glass walls, conducting demos and giving tours in the fake “rec rooms” where investors are told the actual building takes place.
“What is it?” Aaron’s projection continues to smile, ruggedly handsome, his brown hair slightly tufted from our atmosphere’s moving currents. He’s wearing only a white t-shirt and jeans that fit him in a way I’ve never seen in person — the shirt clinging to muscles in his stomach that most certainly do not exist.
“Is that your yogurt in the fridge or mine?” Chad says. “I don’t see your name on it, but that last time you said — whatever, I’m gonna eat it if not.”
Aaron’s smiling image disappears again, and now I hear him talking from beyond. “Did you open it? Dude.”
Their voices sound dangerously close together, so I pull off my own goggles. The headphones.
There is Chad, short with dishwater-blond hair that’s fine and tucked long behind his ears. There is the yogurt, a white plastic container with its aluminum peeled back, taunting. And there is Aaron, getting in Chad’s pointy face with his own red, pimpled skin. Angry flesh. There is Aaron’s hair, now flat and greasy, and his pale yellow polo shirt clinging around his belly even as one hand tugs it down, self-consciously, as he speaks. There is our studio, the hum of the computers. There I stand, alone.
Meredith Westgate is a writer based in New York, where she teaches writing with a focus on art and design to undergraduates at Parsons. She holds a BA in English from Dartmouth College and an MFA in Fiction from The New School.
Featured image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce.