The Happiness of Robots
We were iridescent with sweat, haloed with the August heat. I said we should go swimming in the lake, but Cady said Elio didn’t know how. Instead we had to burn.
Elio said, “I can just watch you.”
“No,” Cady said, peeling the skirt of her white eyelet dress away from her skin. Her eyes glimmered, distant and feverish. “That wouldn’t be right.”
We stood by the garden at the side of the cottage, mint and pennyroyal, full of drowsy bees and a few pale cabbage butterflies. Their wings the same dusty white as Cady’s summer dress. On the lawn by the road was a sign, A Place in the Sun. “What a depressing name for a cottage,” I said. “It feels like bad luck.”
Cady wiped at the perspiration across her forehead, shining like a tiara. “It sounds good, I guess.”
Elio’s Nirvana t-shirt dark with his sweat. The lyrics I don’t hate you anymore damp across his chest. “What the hell are you two talking about?”
“A Place in the Sun was a movie,” Cady said.
“Never heard of it.”
It wasn’t even noon yet. The trees drooped, dripping green against the white sky. “I guess no one remembers,” I said. Knowing he wouldn’t know the reference and pleased, secretly, whenever he didn’t understand something between Cady and me. “What happened to the girl, in the end.” But Cady wasn’t listening. She was standing there, by his side, her gaze somewhere across the road, towards the holographic shimmer of sunlight on water and sky. Sunshine so bright it left coronas of light around her head, like the auras beaming around stars and moons. Sun in my eyes and the salt drip of sweat, wet all down the neck.
In the afternoons, before he had arrived, Cady would try calling Elio on her cell phone, despite the weak reception. Cady shipwrecked on the island, Elio on the mainland — set asunder by Lake Erie, separation was romantic. I watched her try to languish for him. Although pining away was not as easy as it seemed in those Victorian novels. Cady no wan heroine — the gold shimmer of summer all over her, she had been the star sweeper of our soccer team, and when she ran no one could catch her. Still, Cady sighed, gazed across the water, kept a tally of the days till they would meet again. At night, in the small room we shared, I lay in my twin bed beside her and listened to the lake across the road as Cady recounted her summer with Elio: the late night car rides with the radio on; the wedding they had danced all night at; how he had gone with her three times to the movie theatre at Devonshire Mall so they could watch The Notebook and how he had cried, secretly, in the dark beside her; the nights in her backyard drinking iced tea and trying to find all the constellations …
During the days, while Cady circled the lawn, cell phone clamped against her ear in hopes of hearing Elio, I sat in the living room, making my way through a damp volume of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, page by page. (Hope: 1, To desire with expectation of fulfillment; I hope to be able to join you. 2, To wish; want: I hope that you will be happy). One volume of a set of two, the second missing, but A through Lobar was a worthy summer goal. It would be a prudent use of time, preparation for September. When Cady and I started university, maybe, finally, leaving Elio behind.
Elio wasn’t supposed to be there on the island with us at all.
“It’s a family vacation,” Cady’s mother, Rita, said that morning over breakfast. What she called eggs in purgatory — eggs surrounded by deep red tomato sauce and slivers of red pepper, like stranded little souls.
“Well, Clementine’s here,” Cady said, stirring her glass with a spoon, the iced tea she drank all day, mixed with sugar and lemon.
“Cady! Clementine is like family.”
“And Elio might be family too, one day.”
I didn’t look up from my plate of eggs. Wobbly little souls I couldn’t make myself take a knife to.
“I can’t even imagine,” Rita said. “I hope not. I hope you come to your senses, Cady. Please. Maybe Clementine can talk some into you.” But she had already relented, after weeks of Cady imploring her. Elio could come for the last weekend of the vacation, a compromise which satisfied no one — not Cady, who wanted him there the whole time. Not Rita, who didn’t want him at all.
We got to the dock to meet Elio as the ferry passengers disembarked. While Cady waited, I hid in the washroom of the bar across the road, deep breathing over the sink. When I finally came out, Elio and Cady were standing in the waning crowd, his arm around her waist, his face against her throat. “Hey,” he said, not looking up. When we were together, Elio had been growing this strange, sparse beard; I made him shave it off, Cady told me. The smooth line of his new jawline was startling. Pressed my palms against my dress, mirror image of Cady’s. We’d been drawn to the same one at the mall last spring, and bought two — in different shades so we could trade, Cady said. (Do you share everything, Elio asked, and I said, of course not).
“Hey, Elio. Nice to see you again.”
He made this low sound, a laugh or a growl, still pressed against her throat. But Cady was looking at him now, at the bluish ink on his forearm, small galaxy of stars, which he’d done himself at sixteen with a safety pin. “Your tattoo. You have to cover it.”
“Like a sweater, or something … ”
“It’s going to be in the eighties all weekend. I didn’t bring any sweaters.”
“You can’t let my mom see. She can’t stand tattoos.”
“Your mom hates me. I haven’t seen you for a week. Why don’t we go across the street, we can all have a drink together.”
We have these totally random things in common, Cady said, the night, months ago, she confessed her feelings for Elio. We know all the same words to all the same songs … Now Cady was frowning, thumb rubbing the ink like she could wipe it away. “No drinking this weekend. You’re supposed to be trying to get my parents to like you. Besides, they won’t serve us.”
“Clem has a fake ID. We’ll buy you your drinks.”
Cady frowned. “I’m going to the clinic. Maybe they have some bandages or something we can use.” We watched Cady cross the road, the front lawn of the clinic, tidy brick building beside the bar.
“What about you, Clementine? You want to join me for a drink?”
“Cady said no.”
“Remember the time we got so drunk on gin? They kicked you out of the bar for throwing up in a urinal.”
“I don’t remember.” He’d held my hair when I stopped on the walk home to get sick in the bushes, you don’t forget that. Or how he used to sing all the words to “My Darling Clementine”, sounding like Yukon Cornelius.
“You still like gin? I’ll buy you a drink.”
We’re not right together, I had said, and he said I’m not right for you, is what you mean. I reminded myself it was true. “No thanks.”
“Come on. Don’t you want one? I know you, Clementine. We used to tell each other everything.”
Now Cady was back, with a roll of cotton gauze. “They let me have this, after I begged them. I said it was for my dog.” Elio held out his arm. “You should thank me.”
Cady unrolled and then wrapped the gauze, around and around his arm, her hands steady, perfect. “There,” she said, examining her work. “That looks better. You can say you burnt your arm on something.”
We met first, at a party. A motel on Huron Church Road. Through the windows of the room you could see the Ambassador Bridge. The Skyview Motel.
Doesn’t every motel have a view of the sky, Elio asked.
I believe in setting the bar low.
So that’s why you’re talking to me.
It’s okay. It’s only a joke.
It was the start — of his double-edged questions, of my wrong answers. I had come with my cousin Charlotte, and she had disappeared with some other girls down the hallway. Elio standing there alone, awkwardly as me. The air conditioner was broken and the curtains had been drawn, uselessly, against the heat. The asphalt outside the window glittered beneath the sunset. Elio’s face damp in the late August swelter; he kept tugging his shirt, uselessly, from his clammy chest.
I think this is blood on the carpet.
Probably, Elio agreed, stepping aside. I’d borrowed a pair of Charlotte’s kitten heels two sizes too small, and wanted so badly to sit down, but there was only the bed. We used to sit in parking lots with the radio on and talk so much we missed the movies we had gone to see. Drifting on the swings in the park, until the stars punctured the sky. Went to Bulk Barn for bags of cinnamon hearts, burning our mouths, our lips red as candy. My Darling Clementine. But by November, I was drowning in his blue and wild moods. You knew this was coming, he had said when we broke up, and of course it was true, I did. For months afterwards, until Cady — and even after that, once or twice — he would call, saying I had ruined everything. It felt unfair, but also intoxicating — the ability to ruin something, even if I didn’t believe in it.
The next day we walked back from the lighthouse, pockets full of beach glass. Just Cady and I; I hate walking, Elio said. I’ll stay here and wait for you.
“Elio told me he had a dream about you last week.”
“Yeah?” I had gone to bed early, leaving Elio and Cady on the front porch. He had brought his guitar. I can show you how to play “Polly”, he’d offered us, but the thought made me sick. E minor G D C E minor, Elio’s hands over Cady’s as he showed her the chords. Or over mine. Either way, I had to leave.
Cady stopped by the side of the road. Trying not to smile. “He said, I had a dream Clementine drowned.”
“I guess I won’t go in the water.”
“He said he woke up disappointed.” Now she was smiling. “Clementine! Come on. Elio was just joking around. You know how he is.”
“I should know, I guess.”
I’m finally so happy, Clem, Cady confessed, weeks earlier — lit up with her love, a star going supernova. Jealousy a vulture on my chest, eating my heart out, breaking open my ribs.
“I’m done. I won’t talk to you about him anymore. It’s too weird.”
“You can talk to me about him,” I said. “You can talk to me about anything.”
“No,” Cady said. “It’s bothering you. That’s why you went to bed early last night.”
“I just wanted to go to sleep.”
“Do you ever just get so tired of being fake all the time? Because you’re not even a good actress. It must be so exhausting.”
Cady was right, and I knew it. It was my secret fear, that everything about me was actually fake. Acrylic nails over my real ones, my dyed hair. The extra padding I slipped in my bra. The other things, too, the way I smiled when I didn’t mean it or said yes when I wanted to say no, I lied all the time like that. But the prospect of really being myself was terrifying.
Sunday evening, things fell apart, because Elio wouldn’t play Scrabble. I sat on the living room floor, sorting our beach glass. Cape Fear on the television, Robert Mitchum drawling ah now come on. Cady and Elio just returned from a walk along the beach. The sorting was soothing. Maybe all my life could be divided into tidy little jobs. I would be happier, then, in the same metallic way robots are — coded, contented automatons.
“You’re supposed to be trying to make a good impression on my parents.” Cady’s mascara had a drippy look to it, black underneath her eyes, like the fierce, jilted girls of Lichtenstein’s pop art.
“Well, I won’t if I play Scrabble. I’m a really bad speller.”
“You don’t even want to try.”
“Seriously, Cady, I suck. Ask Clementine.”
The beach glass clinked into the jars. “It’s kind of true,” I said, finally. “He can never use the right form of their. Or too.”
“It’s why Clementine broke up with me,” Elio said, and I laughed, but shouldn’t have.
“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” Cady said, before she left the room. In the kitchen I could hear the scatter of Scrabble tiles across the board. I dropped green glass into a jar and tried not to look at Elio, not at him, or the faint trace of mascara on his cheek, just below his eye.
Our memories are redacted. How can I say now if, when I left, I wanted him to follow me and there is some relief in that, to not know anymore. Years later I realized I always drank, if I could, to the point where all became automatic, the body gone mechanical, thoughts robotic, synapses shotgunned. Damp smell of leaves and dirt after the rain. Behind the cottage the woods met you, suddenly; dark skein of brush and then the trees. Ten feet in, I stopped, sat on a fallen tree, shellbark.
“Hey.” There was Elio, sweating already when he sat down beside me. Named by his mother for Eliodoro Lombardi, 19th-century Italian poet — Elio, who hated to read and hadn’t touched a book since coerced by high school teachers. El-io-doro, how Cady said his full name sometimes, the way I hated, slowly and dragged out, like she had a mouthful of sticky candy. “What are you doing here?”
“Good question,” I said. “Existential.” His hand disappeared into the pocket of his grunge jeans, his mickey of gin. On his arm, his bandages were beginning to come undone. In grade two we conducted a science experiment, sink or float. Dropping whatever we could find in an aquarium — bark, stones, pinecones. We were all like that: some of us born buoyant, others doomed to sink, by elements and circumstances out of our hands, and in them sometimes too. He drank first, then let me have a turn. Felt immediately its warm efflorescence in my chest. I just want you to be happy, I said when we had broken up, and he said why can’t we be happy together?
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“Admit it, you like me better this way.” But I wasn’t sure if I liked him at all, most of the time. I used to feel I would die if he touched me and now I felt I would die if he didn’t. Those summer nights in Cady’s backyard, drinking iced tea and watching the stars. Did he wish it was gin, and me, or had he been happy with her? Trying not to think about Cady, the pictures we crushed together to take in the photo booth at Devonshire Mall, Cady’s cursive on the back, love you like a sister, or our sleepovers watching horror movies. We were so afraid of ghosts but I always said I wasn’t. Pretending like I held Cady’s hand across the span of our sleeping bags for her sake and not mine, too. And the years alter memory like a prism alters light, fracturing it. The way the branches of the trees above broke the last sunlight into pieces. Till all that’s left is broken, all that remains: hands to hips, don’t stop instead of don’t, stop, the green leaves, the damp woods, the wet dirt. Cady. Her ankles tender with insect bites, the way she wore her soccer socks to sleep because her feet were always cold. How she’d found me three days ago reading on the beach, stopped mid-sentence: oh, here I am talking to you when you’re almost done your book. When someone does that to me I feel like it’s the end of the world. I stood up. In the trees over us you could hear the yellow warblers — sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet, in the hickory and ash.
“This never happened.” He stood up too. “Cady said she told you, that dream I had.”
“You dreamed I drowned.” Walking away, towards the cottage “But you can’t even swim.”
Inside, they were still playing Scrabble, dim light from the kitchen pooling on the dark living room floor, oil floating on water. It was too late to join them. The television was on, gloomy luminosity of black and white. Robert Mitchum, sweating, swaggering, cracked his knuckles. Not Gregory Peck — good, lawful and clean — who my heart beat for, full of sympathy and love, but Robert Mitchum instead. Criminal and imminent, a convict cumulating rage, calculating the grim arithmetic of loss.
Anne Baldo lives in Windsor, Ontario. Previously she has published fiction in Apeiron Review, Qwerty, The Humber Literary Review, subTerrain, Broken Pencil, Duck Lake Journal, The Impressment Gang and Cosmonauts Avenue.