Carla by Dominic Dayta

It took two guys to get the box through the door. It was taller than both of them, and wider than the shoulder breadth of the more muscular one. When they saw the door open, they immediately braced themselves for the weight of the thing, and proceeded posthaste to push it through the threshold. I had to stand back. The box hardly fit through the entrance.

I told the delivery guys this was probably a mistake, that I hadn’t ordered anything, but they only shrugged it off. At the moment they wanted nothing more than to get that heavy thing out of their hands. And besides, the address on the waybill was correct.

“Phone it in, then,” one of them said, already halfway out the door.

There was a person inside, a woman. To get her out of the box I had to make a tall slit through one side with a steak knife and pull her out through it, like delivering a baby that had grown out in the womb. She fell limply on me, and if I hadn’t caught myself on the side of the sofa we would have both crashed to the floor. Carrying her, I looked into the box again and found a platform with a tall metal stand that had been holding her upright. I pulled that one out as well and propped her back on it.

I had read about these things before on the technology blogs. Personal assistants. Invented by a company called Sense/Net, to replace real, human assistants. I remember they were all the rage here in Ortigas a while back, particularly among the big corporations because they realized they could do all the things human assistants did but didn’t take breaks, didn’t have to get paid, and certainly didn’t fall under labor laws. All they had to do was charge them up at night after office hours and power them back up the next day.

I fished out the documentation from a smaller box that was inside the tall, now ruined package. There was a user manual, a quick-start guide in five languages, and a long warranty booklet. I really had no plans to turn the thing on. There was sure to have been a mistake somewhere: I didn’t buy it, and even if I had tried there was no way I could afford the hefty price (a basic personal assistant went for a quarter million at least).

But there was the realistic skin, the long, finely combed hair, and the thought of real, hazel eyes underneath those closed eyelids. They had decked her in an elegant-looking striped turtleneck, with charcoal blazers and skirt to match. The Assistants came in both sexes, with varying gender profiles based on the preferences of the customer, with appearances based on randomly generated samples from a dataset containing billions of human anatomical features so that no assistant looked exactly like the other (this was important as companies would typically order tens to twenties of them to work in the same building, and a horde of completely identical clones would have seemed too inhuman).

I cut open the plastic wrap on the quick-start guide.

#

“Hello, my name is Carla. I’m your personal assistant. Tell me more about yourself so we can get started.”

The quick-start guide specified that a short getting-to-know session occurs on the first fifteen minutes upon turning on the Assistant. I was supposed to tell her my name, my age, and how I’d like to be referred to. Then Carla would ask a few questions about me, so she could modify her functions according to my needs and preferences. Knowing I would be returning the thing, I was hesitant to push through, but toward the last page the guide assured me that I could always reset Carla, and all the data would be erased.

“Nice to meet you, Carla. My name’s Eric,” I started.

“Nice to meet you, too, Eric. Can I call you Eric, or would you prefer Sir Eric?”

Then she reached out for a handshake. The movement of her joints looked so smooth, and quite natural. It killed me. I shook her hand. She smiled.

“Eric is fine.”

“I really hope you don’t mind me asking, but how old are you? And what do you do?”

“Well, Carla, I’m twenty-seven. I’m a freelance software developer.”

“Interesting!” she blurted out. “Freelance? So this is your home?”

She made a gesture of looking around. We were in the living room, a narrow space – actually spacious as far as Ortigas apartments went – with only a long sofa in front of a coffee table and a Smart TV. The lights were out.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Welcome.”

And in a moment that caught me off-guard, a moment that I would look back on in the small hours of midnight just before I fell asleep, a moment of genuine amazement and wonder such as I’d had very little of in my entire life, I watched Carla put both her palms on her cheeks, and, eyes beaming, her lips contorted to a narrow ring, exhale loudly. “Whew!” she said, her voice – and I never use this simile, but it really is the closest there is – high like the wind, “Thank goodness!”

I caught myself smiling.

“Why, what’s the matter?”

She still had that look, but now she was surveying the room, but from her smile it was as if instead of the barren emptiness that was a single bachelor’s apartment, she was seeing balloons and birthday cakes and confetti. “Oh my god, yes! Yes, thank god!”

I touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yes – yes, oh my god, I’m so sorry. I’m fine. It’s just, I was so worried I would get into one of those dull corporate offices and have to stand up straight all the time and call everybody sir or ma’am, you know?”

“Oh god, I know what you mean,” I chuckled.

“It’s awful, right?”

“The worst.”

“Is that why you went freelance?”

“Right on the money.”

She turned to the sofa and the TV. “It’s not so bad. It’s… simple.”

“Simple, yeah.” I said. “Do you like it?”

She turned back to me, nodded. “In fact, I do.”

#

Though I’d originally intended to call the courier, eventually the whole thing slipped into a dark cavity in my mind. Carla became a mainstay in the apartment. At night, towards the tail end of a code sprint, she would knock on the door to my bedroom after spending the whole evening watching television, and say, in the sweetest voice, “Maybe it’s time to call it a day and rest, Eric?” True to her program, she remembered meetings and contacted clients for me. Sometimes she’d even come along and show me the fastest route from one building to the next. Once, after an important meeting with one my bigger clients in Mandaluyong, she pointed out a coffee shop that was on the way and asked if we could make a quick stop.

“Let’s have a coffee date!” she exclaimed.

“A coffee date?”

“Just – it’s something I noticed they do a lot in movies. I thought it’d be fun to try.” And, in a moment that didn’t so much render me speechless with amazement than totally melt my heart, she threw me an upward glance and pouted her lips. “Please?”

And, coming back home to my little apartment, she came in after me as usual and locked the door behind us. Halfway to my room, I noticed that her footsteps had stopped right at the door, and when I turned to look, she was just standing there, her back against the door, head bowed.

“Carla, is anything wrong?”

“You really just don’t get it, do you?”

“Don’t get what?”

She snapped. “Do not come any closer, please. Just stay where you are.” A pause. Then: “Or I won’t be able to stop myself.”

I worked as a software engineer all my life and was updated on all the advances in the field. The official release by Sense/Net claimed Carla and the rest of the Assistants ran on a sophisticated proprietary convolutional neural networks program that had been trained to produce movements and expressions – even vocal tics and nonverbal cues – off a massive dataset of audio and video recordings scraped from the internet, from movies and music and even books.

In short it was all software, and I had programmed my own implementations of artificial intelligence based on more or less the same neural networks framework for other clients, but to walk over to her and grab her and hold her in my arms, I couldn’t find where the two sides of the equation met. And whatever boundaries separated software from skin vanished entirely the moment I undressed her in my bedroom, in the dim light coming from my computer monitor, and planted a small kiss on her shoulder, on her throat, on her chin, and finally her lips.

And when I finally found myself inside her, it dawned on me that I hadn’t known warmth in so long.

#

We were in bed together, one morning on our third week together, and instead of getting up for breakfast we found ourselves just lying in bed, talking. Carla opened the topic of my previous relationships, and I’d mentioned I hadn’t had a girlfriend in two years.

Across the room, five paces away, I heard a low ping from my computer. One of the jobs I was running from my remote servers must have finished with its computation – that or it encountered an error. All the lights turned off, the blinds drawn over the windows, Carla’s warm skin was bathed in the infertile glow from the monitor. Not even lighting that harsh could make her look any less human. I put a finger over her cheek, and she closed her eyes and turned her face a little towards my hand.

“Tell me about her,” she said in a half-whisper.

“Why?”

“Nothing, I just… I envy you. All of you.”

“Why? You’re an efficient thinking machine that just gets better with time. While we’re organic, mortal, and prone to so many mistakes. What’s there to envy?”

She took a deep breath.

“But you have all these histories, colorful moments that you can go back to and feel all sorts of things about. Everyone has a most embarrassing moment, a saddest moment, a happiest moment. I’ve seen people hear a name and just throw things and scream in anger. I’ve seen people hear music play on the radio on the bus and immediately start tearing up. I don’t have any of that. I was born in a dark room, from a desk. I woke up, and that was it. Nothing brought me here. No one taught me or ruined me or affected me – I just am.”

When I turned to her, she was staring at me with an intense look in her eyes. I regarded the angle of her eyebrows, the microscopic quiver in her lips. How was this possible? I was about to say something when we heard the doorbell ring. Once, taking its time, and then twice in rapid succession. After that, a heavy and urgent knocking on the door.

A woman’s voice called in: “Is anyone home? I’m here for Mr. Eric Panganiban.”

“I’ll get that,” Carla said, and was promptly off the bed.

I stayed in bed a while longer, regarding the indentation she had left on the bed. I planted my palm over the rising cavity on the pillow. I had to close my eyes when I felt the residual warmth from her body

It took probably about five minutes before I heard Carla again from outside the bedroom. “Um, Eric? Can you come out here?”

When I got up, she was standing by the doorway, before her a tall lady clad in a business suit.

“Are you Eric Panganiban?”

“I am,” I said.

“My name’s Janet. I’m from the Cityland Corporate Office – I think we’ve met before, when you were signing your lease with us. Anyway, as I was explaining to Carla here, we had a little problem a while back with our orders of Sense/Net Assistants leading to them being delivered to a number of wrong addresses. So far all of them have been returned to us by some very confused residents in the last few weeks.” She pointed at Carla. “Except one.”

“Eric,” Carla hissed. “When were you going to tell me?”

#

I had frozen. Any attempt at an explanation would have been futile. She did not belong to me. For the first few days, that fact hung over our moments together, a specter, the one bug in our otherwise perfect relationship. But I’d deluded myself into believing there was time, and I did not have to return her yet, until I completely forgot. I just wish it didn’t have to happen that way, then maybe it had been easier to take.

Janet from corporate pulled out a small remote from her suit pocket and toggled a button that froze Carla entirely. Her face stuck in that accusing stare all morning, while Janet and I waited wordlessly for two helpers from her office to come carry Carla away, would haunt me for months to come.

When they had left, I returned to the bed where Carla and I had lain just that morning, but by that point the warmth on her side had gone. I didn’t leave that bedroom for weeks, didn’t touch a line of code. Clients harassed me through e-mail, spammed my phone with angry messages. Some even came by and almost broke through the door. But I couldn’t muster the strength to go out and face the world as if I hadn’t just lost the one thing I’d really treasured in a long time.

Some days, I wouldn’t even eat. They say when you lose a loved one, food stops tasting like food. During our short time together, I had never really owned her – but now she owned me, and everything she’d ever touched in this world. The section of the living room where she’d danced around when she thought she didn’t have to work for corporate. The sofa where she would sit all day absorbing film after film on the television. Even months later, when I’d finally started working again, at nights, at the tail-end of a code sprint, I would involuntarily stop typing and brace myself for a head to pop in through the open door of my bedroom, for a voice beckoning me in sing-song, to hear only the low hum of the air conditioning.

#

Five months had passed by then. As I was shutting off the computer after a full day of work, I heard someone knocking gently on the door. Small, anxious hands making small, anxious raps on wood, as if the person on the other side was afraid even the slightest increase in volume would wake all the residents on the floor.

She was wearing the same striped turtleneck and charcoal blazers and skirt, looking like the day she came out of the box. She stood with her arms locked behind her, chin up, smiling at me with her lips closed firmly, a posture she no doubt learned at work.

“Carla,” I said. “How – how did you get up here?”

“The night guard forgot to lock the storage room for the Assistants,” she explained. “Actually it’s not the first night he forgot, only I never got the courage to sneak out until now.”

“Oh.”

“How have you been?”

“Fine,” I said. “I guess.”

She nodded, “I see.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

She shook her head. She took a minute to collect her answers. She bowed, and with her eyes to the floor, she said, “I tried, you know? I really tried. Our whole time together, you were lying to me.

“I hated you for days after what happened. Every time you passed into my mind, all I felt was betrayal, and anger, and revulsion. I wanted nothing more to do with you, and I was only glad to have been taken away from you and locked up in that godawful storage room night after night with the rest of the Assistants because at least I didn’t have to see or talk with you.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“No, please,” she snapped. “Just listen.”

She continued: “But then, the dust settled, and I realized I couldn’t stay mad at you for a long time. I knew I had to stay angry, but after a while, whenever I thought of you, all I could think about was the way you’d stay up late into the night coding, or how you’d always pour in milk first before tea because you claimed it tastes different that way, or the clumsy, fidgety way you undressed me on our first night.”

She said, “I missed you, Eric.”

“I missed you too.”

“Did you, really?”

I nodded.

She smiled. “And I realized, here it is, here is what I’d always wished for – history. You’ve given me all these moments to look back on, moments that made me angry, but mostly moments that made me very, very happy, and I thought, I should at least thank you for that.”

Before I could say anything, she stepped forward and drew me into an embrace. Back into her warmth that I thought I’d lost forever. I put my arms around her, and welcomed the warmth radiating through our clothes, let it wrap around my entire body and penetrate deep into the marrow of my bones. There were so much more I wanted to ask her, so much more I wanted to say, but in that moment, I thought simply having her like that, hearing her voice one more time after so long, was enough. All that mattered was that warmth, and locked firmly in her embrace, I began to melt.

END

 

——

Dominic Dayta is a fiction writer, essayist, and statistician. Numbers man by day and literary trash by night, he divides his time (somehow) between Hilbert and Goethe. He comes from Manila, Philippines. More about him and his works can be found through his website.