Notes on My Wife
Notes on My Wife
I was working in Shanghai when I met my wife. It was an app: Expat, which connected Americans abroad to other Americans. Like most inexperienced Americans, she was an English teacher, not at a regular Chinese school, but at a school for Taiwanese children. Most American teachers were men looking for Chinese brides, but my wife seemed to want nothing but the experience, living in Suzhou, a city famous for its canals, about a half-hour train ride away. “Isn’t that sort of inconvenient?” I asked. “I mean, there’s nothing there.”
“No, I love Suzhou. Last year I lived in Nanjing and I wanted to die, it was such Soviet block housing hell. Suzhou is gorgeous.”
“So you picked a city because it was pretty.”
She laughed – remember when she used to laugh? “Well, it’s true I can’t get a salad there, or decent pizza… and my toilet doesn’t connect to anything… and my shower only gets two minutes of hot water – that’s why my hair is like this.”
“So why don’t you move to Shanghai?”
“Why would I move from New York to Shanghai? I can’t even tell the difference between them.”
“But how do you get around in Suzhou?”
“A taxi is only like 40 kuai. I make 7,000 a month.”
“Wait. You make 7,000 a month? That’s a local salary.”
She shrugs. “I barely spend any of it anyway. It just piles up in my bank account.”
“Still. What about savings?”
“I don’t need savings.”
She has savings now, I made sure of it, and a job; I enrolled her in a masters program in teaching back in the US. I signed her up for everything – a credit card, a career, BlueCross, every signifier of adulthood, and she let me, indulgently, as if it were unnecessary. At the time I thought she was carefree, and absentminded, and maybe a tiny bit irresponsible. But maybe she was none of those things. Maybe she always knew she would only be my wife, anyone’s wife, for ten years.
She was odd, on that first date. So matter-of-fact, I thought – in the robopsychic world, we would have called it a lack of affect. No goals, no regrets. The thought flutted through my head: is she a sociopath? But as I walked her to the train station – she insisted on the train, even though I offered to pay for a cab – we passed a group of women practicing tai chi at one of China’s playgrounds for the elderly. She looked up at me, her hands clasped, and I saw she had tears in her eyes. “They work so hard to take care of themselves,” she said. I laughed and she let me hug her. “They know no one will do it for them.”
I knew then that I would text her again, and again, and again.
“Wanna get dim sum?” I wrote.
“Dim sum and then some,” she replied.
“Is that a pun?” I sent it and then I realized I wasn’t actually sure. I thought she’d call me on it, being an English teacher and all, but she wrote,
“Puns are the highest form of humor.”
I take off my shoes in the doorway and immediately step on something small and plastic that crunches under my heel. “God--“ I start. “Baba!” Katie wails. “You broke her, you broke her.” She mutters this to herself even as I pick her up, the way her mother mutters, selfish, selfish, when I can no longer make love. The whole floor is strewn with small plastic waiting to be crunched. I make wide sweeps with the outside of my foot as I walk, sweep-step, sweep-step.
“Honey?” I shout up the stairs. “I think you need to come see this.” But she doesn’t come to look at anything. Of course. Why did I think she would? I walk up the stairs (sweep-step, sweep-step) to our room, more frustrated with each step, ready to explode, but when I enter the room she is still on her back, visibly not concerned with the state of our living room. “I figured it out,” my wife says. “your real wife -- not that someone should leave you, of course--" she takes my hand --"but for whatever reason she did, and i woke up, and I'm here in her place..." “i don't understand.” “this is not my life,” she says, and gestures wildly to her dresser. “your clothes? your powder? what?” “this, she gestures again. what? this, she insists. if this isn't your life, then what is? “i'm not here. your real wife took my life.” her voice drops to the familiar mutter. “and now she's off in… nairobi sunbathing with… zebras...” “you didn't feed them. “i think they're old enough to take the lid off a cup of yogurt.” “which parts of life are you on strike from exactly? because you're not on strike from living in this house. you're not on strike from sharing this bed.” “but i'm not your wife.” “you are my wife. you're in my bed.” “but i'm not your wife.” “what are you talking about? remember our wedding? You know, that big party ten years ago with all our friends and family?” “like photos of my grandmother.” “what?” “i know they're her, but they're not anymore.” “so we're not married.” “we can still have sex if you'd like. well... “she pauses as if i'm not here. “well, i don't know about sex...” she stares at the wall, then shakes herself off like a dog at
the beach and says, “i'll let you know if i want sex.”
“Mama!” Katie sobs from downstairs. “Mama!” I stare at my wife. She picks at her nails.
“Well?” I ask. “Can you hear that?”
“She’s your kid.”
“She’s your kid too!”
“I don’t know that.”
“Did you go somewhere today?” I ask.
“Ugh.” She rolls over. “It’s too hot.” She unzips the coat and pulls it off, turning the sleeves inside out. She leaves it beside her in a lump. under the coat she has not a dress and leggings but a wetsuit. “what is that?” “oh.” She looks down. “Alina recommended this personal hydrographer.” “what, like someone who studies your water? is that your pee?” “no, they study my inner water.” “like blood? “no, my personal water. you know—“ she says this as if i know—“you know my element is water.” “is this some astrology thing?” ‘No. Astrology is bullshit. And I’m a Capricorn anyway, that’s an earth sign. This is real.” “What is?” “Personal hydrography. this man is helping me figure out when my body got switched and where i'm supposed to be. it's actually very interesting-- he measures the water i produce against the residual water left from your real wife... “your body is this.” i shake my head. “this is your body. “no. j would know if it were. “what does that mean? “carter, i've explained it to you. if you weren't listening before. that's your own fault. “don't talk to me like i'm your student.”
So she doesn’t talk to me at all.
The children are crying when I get home. “What’s wrong?”
“I fell down,” Katie sniffles, and shoves a bruised finger into my eye.
“And Mommy says she doesn’t care and we have to take care of ourselves because we have no parents anymore.”
“Honey?” I shout. She is immersed in an inflatable tub in our bathroom, her head on a folded towel, a blindfold wrapped around her eyes. “Honey?” She doesn’t respond. Is she dead? Is she unconscious? “Who did this to you? Was it John?”
She shrugs me off impatiently. “Carter, can’t you leave me alone for five seconds?”
“Why didn’t you give Katie a Band-Aid? It would take five minutes.”
“So you give her a Band-Aid. I have to concentrate.”
“On a bath?”
“It’s supposed to help me balance my hydrostatins.”
“That’s not a word!”
She takes off her blindfold and stares at me, cold, dark. “Mark wouldn't do this.” “Who's Mark?” “My real husband.” “I'm your real husband.” “You and I have nothing in common. Mark is...” I dread she'll say tall, or wealthy, or has a big penis, but she says, “Mark talks to me,” and I breathe a sigh of relief: of course she doesn't want a bigger penis, why after ten years do I keep worrying about that? “Mark likes dogs, and he likes to travel.” ‘I like to travel.” “But you don’t travel. Mark travels. he's not saddled with these children.” “they're your children too.” she shakes her head. no they're not. “I watched them come out of you. She shudders. “that wasn't me.” “what does that mean? “Carter,” she says gently, her head tilted, her eyes wide open, “I'm tired of explaining everything to you. When i say something, you should try to figure out what it means before you ask.” “Stop talking to me like I'm one of your students. You said it. You tell me what it means.” “Mark wouldn't ask. And Mark wouldn't turn up the heat while i was sleeping. And Mark doesn't wear a fleece. And Mark doesn't have a last name for a first name.” “yeah, but his name is Mark.” “and we'll find your real wife, whoever it is who uses all that exercise equipment downstairs.” “I use that equipment.” I see her side-eye. I choose to ignore it.
“Your real wife washes her face every day and stays awake during movies and works out.” “Oh, honey,” I say. “you don't need to work out.” “Great,” my wife says. She doesn't listen when I compliment her and then she says I hate her body. “Mark wakes up early and goes to bed early. Mark doesn't giggle when I kiss his neck.” “It sounds like you want a male clone of yourself.” “No,” she says thoughtfully. “Mark is a little taller. And he has great hair.” “I have great hair.” “I know,” she says, “and so does mark.” “Mark is not your husband.” How can I hate someone who doesn’t exist? “Oh, sweetie, I know that. Maybe I don't even have a husband.”
++++ “Dr Xue!” Although most of the grad students call me Carter, Chloe insists on calling me by my title. She is a nervous girl, prone to giggles and hair-twirling. “We have to show you what miss-e did.” The e in miss-e stands for electric, a sort of joke since all her muscle cells were grown from dog and all her skin cells were grown from hamster. Miss-e is five feet tall and, unlike most robots, somewhat rotund, since her primary function is comfort. “Miss-e,” Chloe commands. “come.” miss-e walks to Chloe and stands chest to chest with her – Chloe built Miss-E to her dimensions. “Oh, miss-e,” she Sarah Bernardts, hand to her brow, “how will i ever make it through my dissertation?” miss-e envelopes Chloe in her batwing arms and makes circular motions. “poor chloe,” she says. chloe leans into sturdy miss-e and exhales loudly. i cough and chloe jumps up. “Miss-E, enough,” chloe barks, and miss-e drops her hands to her side. chloe giggles. “see, dr xue? she hugged me.” “that's quite impressive,” i say. “oh, dr xue,” chloe says. she clasps her bloodless hands together. “and she can do it with a human of any size,” dylan interjects, glaring at chloe. chloe doesn't sulk; she can't sense a glare. we got the idea for miss-e from that autistic woman who built cow huggers to calm them before the slaughterhouse. at first we partnered with researchers on autism: maybe we could calm an autistic child having a tantrum. then we expanded: all children have tantrums. why not ease all their suffering? then we expanded further: what about phobic adults? adults with fears of flying -- we could install a miss-e in every airport in the country. adults with social anxiety: use your miss-e before a party. we've partnered with the linguistics department to preprogram miss-e to recognize not only words, but language patterns and tones that indicate distress. as we say in robotics, a robot easily learns anything a human learns after age five. anything we master before then is very difficult for a robot. walking. folding laundry. building a sandcastle. soothing. No one has ever built a real comfort bot like ours before. But I remain emotionless in front of my grad students. No sense in getting their hopes too high. “want to try her out, dr xue?” dylan asks. “oh...” i make an awkward noise in the back of my throat. “come on, dr xue,” chloe says, “how do you know if she works if you haven't tried?” she punch-strokes my arm; i recoil. “all right,” i say, and square my shoulders. “miss-e, i'm sad.”
Miss-E pats my arm. “I’m sorry.”
“Why is she apologizing?” I ask. “Why doesn’t she just say something comforting?”
“I’m sorry is comforting,” Dylan says.
“But she can say other things,” Chloe interrupts. “She reacts to her person. Whatever her person likes.”
“Maybe she could say, There, there,” I say.
Miss-E pats my arm. “There, there,” she says. Chloe laughs, but Dylan holds it in.
+++ at the lab, we are working with the child psychologists, who play Chutes and Ladders all day and somehow earn five times our salaries. “children express distress differently,” they say. they have brought EEG printouts to demonstrate their loose ties to hard science. my grad students and i roll our eyes at each other. but we must collaborate with the child psychologists, since children --or, really, their parents-- are our first targets, and they cannot convey their emotions in words, so miss-e must function as a translator. “are you worried at all about privacy? should Miss-E be able to disclose these sorts of -- well, secrets? indiscriminately?” are you worried that your job can be performed by a fat robot? i think. “well, it's only an experiment,” i say, “and if concerns like this become widespread, it may never advance beyond that.”
My wife, despite the cold, is lying flat on her back on the floor of our bedroom. "I'm on strike," she says. “From work?’ “In general.” “You think I like waking up at seven? You think I want to go to work today? Everyone wants to go on strike. I want to go on strike.” “I thought of it first,” she says. The kids are screaming. The TV is turned up loud enough for me to make out every step Peppa Pig takes. "The kids are awake," I say. She doesn't move. “Aren't you hungry?” I ask. “If you're on strike, what are your demands?” Now I've got her. She stares at the ceiling a while. She shrugs. "Great," I say. Last night she woke me up crouched on top of me, like some carnivorous South American rodent. I screamed. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked. “Carter, I have Talking Heads syndrome,” she said. I patted her on the back until she fell asleep on top of me, then I rolled her back to her side of the bed. “Well, you can tell the kids,” I say.
FILL IN “Do you still love us?” Jackson asks. “I can't say no,” she says. “But I can't honestly say yes.” “Are you still our mother?” “No,” she says more definitely. “I'm on strike.” “what does that mean?” she exhales loudly. “i can't answer questions. i'm on strike.” “baba!” jackson screeches. He tries to hide his head in her chest; she rolls over. “she didn't mean that,” i say. “she is your mommy and she loves you very much. go eat your breakfast.” i tighten my tie in one jerk. my neck turns purple. “you look very handsome today,” she says. “thanks, honey.” i bend down and give her a quick peck on the lips. “you look beautiful too.” “again,” she says, and i kiss her again, more deeply. “again,” she says. she is wearing a t-shirt and no panties, her usual sleepwear. how late will i be? too late. “i've gotta go to work,” i say, and bite her ear. she giggles. “did you call in?” I ask. “it's February break,” she says. “oh!” i laugh. “that's not a strike.” I put on my jacket and kiss her on the forehead. “Bye, honey. Have a good day.”
+++ February break has ended and my wife is still on our floor, not at work. I have used her phone to text her school, but she refuses to speak to them. I’m starting to worry.
“Hi, sweetie,” I say, and kiss her on the forehead since she will not kiss me on the mouth. I have worn only my best suits this week, the slim-fitting tailor-made suits that she likes, and even though it is bitter cold I’ve left my blue fleece at home. She hates my blue fleece. She says only a child lesbian would wear it. It doesn’t seem to matter, though; she doesn’t even look at me as I kiss her. I notice that she has dressed up, too. Her nightshirt is gone, and instead, a parka.
++++++ “Where's mommy? “She's upstairs with john. “We're not allowed up there cause she's not our mom anymore. Can we have breakfast for dinner?” Jackson asks, but I'm bolting up the stairs -- who is John? what is she doing? he is a man with a notepad, listening as she sits on the bed in her bathrobe and talks. he is looking at her, he is looking at my wife, but she is talking and looking at a place above his head. As a child she spent her summers on a quaker farm and she doesn't notice nudity. She doesn't realize that for everyone else, for men, it can be intriguing. “honey,” i say, and move to block her. “hi carter. this is my new private eye. he's helping us track down your wife.” “russell thinks she's been missing at least a month, maybe a year. it could be a year,” my wife muses. “Who's Russell, your partner?” I joke, because this man clearly has no associates, he's wearing wrinkled maroon corduroys and he hasn't shaved in a few weeks, but my wife doesn't notice. “Normally in these sorts of cases, the soul switch takes place over the course of a few weeks, allowing the recipient time to adjust to the new life without realizing what's going on. It's actually quite remarkable that you were able to retain some sense of your former self, although you may lose that over the next few days or weeks.” “you're saying this switch is still happening?” she asks, fascinated. “it's ongoing.” “so you're saying she could get over this in a few days? i could have told you that.”
She ignores me. “But how do we stop it?”
“Well, that can be difficult. If we stop the transfer right now, you’ll stay where you are. you’ll always be straddling two lives.”
“I’m not straddling two lives now,” she says. “I’m only me. None of me is this.”
I walk into the lab and hang my coat on the door. I haven’t even taken off my scarf when a woman asks, “Dr. Xue, what’s wrong?” and puts a hand on my shoulder Chloe, if you don’t stop hovering… I begin to think, but when I turn around, Chloe is beaming at me from a stool. The hand on my shoulder is warm latex. I give my students a tight-lipped smile and carefully limbo out from under MISS-E’s hand. I don’t want to touch it with my bare skin.
“Isn’t it amazing, Dr. Xue?” Chloe asks. “She can read a person’s body language in a nanosecond and respond.”
Unlike you, I think. “Why is her hand so hot?”
“That was something we were trying out,” Dylan says. “If she’s going to comfort people, we thought that cold, hard plastic might be off-putting. I mean, she provides mainly physical support, not conversation.”
I think of my son’s wails as his mother watches Law and Order reruns.
Let me bring her home and see how my kids respond, I say, and luckily, my grad students don’t know the rules. They don’t know that Miss-E can’t leave the lab, even for their supervisor.
Since my wife has stopped grocery shopping, I buy a can of salmon and a carton of eggs on the way home. My wife and Miss-E are mincing dill in unison. “Why do I bother?” she asks. “They’re not going to eat it.”
“You sound upset,” Miss-E says.
“I am upset! I do all this work, they don’t eat it, and then Carter acts like I’m flogging them, he gets so angry, he’s like, you can’t not feed them, what if they don’t eat?”
“He shouldn’t do that.” Did we program her to say that?
“I know! He wanted to have children, and then he wanted me to raise them, and I was like, fine, I’d rather not collaborate anyway, I hate group work. So I thought I was going to do everything my way, but it turns out he’s always hovering over my shoulder, like, every little thing I do, he sees it, he’s like, Those bananas aren’t ripe, kids shouldn’t eat pancakes, I was lactose intolerant and my parents still gave me cheese and that’s why I’m so gassy now.”
“Did he really say that?” Miss-E stops chopping and looks at her. “I swear,” she says, “every time I feed those two they treat it like a first offer, like, what can I get from Baba? And the thing is they always get something better from them because he’s always freaking out that they’re going to starve. I should stop cooking for them.”
I’m going to stop. I’m going to build some kind of window display dinner, I’ll show it to them, they’ll say no, I’ll put it away and take out my grown-up falafel and they can just bother their…”
Miss-E laughs. “Claire, you’re hilarious. You’re hi-claire-ious.”She looks up and sees me.
“Hi, Carter,” she says. They both stare at me as I slip off my shoes in the doorway. I notice my blue fleece. “You practicing your ninja skills?” she asks.
“It’s just that normally you stomp in here like a caveman, and now…” She laughs.
“What’s Miss-E got on?” I ask.
“It matches her eyes, don’t you think?”
I look into her eyes and she looks into mine, impassive. The blinks that we programmed every ten seconds seem to draw on an extra microsecond, like the lids of the bartender who’s gotten tired of your lies. Her mouth quirks at the edges. She smirks.