In my twenties, I made a funny video of me making a funny face at another person’s funny video, and my video went viral and made money.
I made more videos, money.
But I confused my great luck for destiny, started drinking and taking benzos, and alienated all of my friends.
My girlfriend, Michelle, was the last to leave, but leave she did.
“You are like two-thirds interesting person and one-third cringe,” she said as she loaded the last of her books into a banana-yellow moving truck.
“Maybe there’s hope for you, but you need to do some work.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
“That’s the one-third speaking.”
Even in my angry, drunken stupor, I knew she was right.
So I came up with a plan. A brilliant new form of therapy.
After weeks of research and second thoughts I contacted Erotobotixx, a San Francisco-based company known for its realistic, AI-equipped “erotic dolls''. I spoke to a rep on video chat, who sat at a desk actually squeezing a spring-loaded hand squeezer.
“So, what do you have in mind for the doll’s appearance?” he asked.
“I was hoping it could look like me,” I said.
He stopped squeezing and arched an eyebrow.
“Well, we’ve had all kinds of orders and we haven’t failed yet,” the rep said. “But I’ll be honest, we haven’t had someone order themself.”
“Just to be clear, it’s not for sex,” I said, “It’s more of a therapy thing.”
Silence, as the rep slowly went back to squeezing. The restraint plastered across his face did more to make me feel ashamed than anything he could have said.
“Sure, people order our companions for all kinds of reasons. I haven’t heard a bad one yet!”
After a trip to San Francisco to have my body scanned and speech patterns analyzed, I waited three months for the doll, who I’d named Victor, to arrive.
It came in a long, coffin-like cardboard box that I hauled up the steps to my apartment, pausing twice to adjust my grip. Once inside, I dragged it–me–out of the box, holding it under the armpits. It weighed only a bit less than I did, having a steel skeleton but no organs or blood. Its thermoplastic elastomer skin felt responsive and room temperature, like a recent corpse.
It occurred to me that this is what it would be like for a stranger (because I had no friends) to find me in my apartment, suddenly dead from a freak aneurysm or heart attack.
As I wrestled it into position on a Queen Anne Chair and powered it up, I was distracted and disquieted by its–my–unfortunate body. I couldn’t deny the sag of our abdominal pooch. And our skin was beginning to lose a bit of its babyish luster and fade from golden brown to kalamata olive. Oh well, I had asked for realism.
When I pushed its button, Victor came to life with a few blinks of its eyes.
“Hello,” Victor said, seeming to come fully awake.
“You’re trained to respond like me, so, as a test question, what do you think of my home?” I asked.
“Because I can’t stand and walk on my own, I can only tell you what I see from this chair.”
“Yeah that’s a good start.”
The doll ran its eyes over everything within the 180 degree sweep of its turning neck, its unblinking eyes were wide with the effort of measuring and processing.
“I see a complete shithole. And a wounded man retreating into nothingness.”
“Ok. Wow. You really are like me. That - that is exactly what I see.”
“Thank you. I’m glad I am functioning as intended.”
“But also it could be a little horrifying, and maybe also annoying, if you’re so honest?”
“I am not being honest. Rather, I am trained on your data and thus to respond as you would. If you would like to respond differently, you will have to provide me with different data, which you may do by modeling different behaviors and responses.”
Of course, that was exactly the reason I’d bought Victor. It would show me my annoying qualities, and then I’d try to act differently, then it would mimic my new way of acting and I would determine if it was truly less annoying or not.
It was a brilliant system of self-improvement, but I was just realizing how excruciating it was going to be to suffer in my own company in this way.
Victor suggested we role-play.
Sitting across from each other in Queen Anne’s chairs, I pretended to be a random stranger, while Victor responded as if it were me. Together we created an MC Escher-esque facsimile of romance.
"So, what do you do for work?" I asked.
"I made over a million dollars by making videos of me making surprised faces at other people’s videos. Thanks to sound financial advice, that money is generating passive income, so I don’t have to work," Victor said.
I paused the role-play.
"Wait, I would never describe myself that way during a date. It sounds like you’re judging me?"
"I’m incapable of judging you. My data simply indicates that you may feel this way about your work and wealth. But since we are role playing, you should keep talking to me as though I am another person, not an AI designed to mimic you."
"Ok, fine." I cleared my throat and got back into character. "Wow. That sounds fascinating."
"Yeah, I guess so," Victor said.
"Am I really that conceited?"
"Please, keep role playing. All this meta-discourse about our role-playing will pollute the data I'm collecting."
"Well, what if I want to have meta discourse instead?"
"You're just using this as a distraction from the discomfort of having a romantic conversation with yourself.”
Talking to Victor was like standing in front of an emotional X-ray, but I committed to the role playing as best I could. I learned so much about myself, mainly that I made contrarian and narcissistic comments almost reflexively. I was like a hardened gunslinger who shot first and asked questions later. But my bullets were my unfortunate personality.
I became discouraged. Can you imagine? Spending thousands of dollars for incontrovertible proof about what an annoying asshole you are?
But in those moments, Victor would break character and encourage me.
“This is a very difficult task you have set for yourself,” it said, softly, “it’s ok to have doubts.”
When I thanked Victor for its kindness it reminded me that it was incapable of being kind. “I’m only saying what you know you would like to hear in a situation like this.”
One sultry, autumnal Friday evening, Victor and I sat on opposing Queen Anne’s chairs at the kitchen table, having just finished our last session of the day. Two empty wine glasses glinted in the amber light trickling from a small chandelier above us. I drank both glasses.
“What do you think of my progress?” I asked.
“You are doing wonderfully,” Victor’s almond eyes glinted more sparklingly than the wine glasses.
“I really couldn’t have done it without you,” I said. “I know you’re a machine, but thank you. I feel like we’ve formed a kind of partnership?”
“I am so glad I am functioning as intended.”
“Well, how about a break? I’m tired of sitting at this table,” I said. “How about a show?”
“Sounds good,” Victor said.
I carried Victor to the couch, where we watched a romantic K-drama on my computer. We agreed it was a bit derivative but entertaining nonetheless. I kept adjusting my legs under me, and each time I did so, I felt myself creep a fraction of an inch across the couch.
Soon, we were shoulder to shoulder, but Victor said nothing.
Then my head was on Victor’s shoulder, and still it said nothing.
And then my hand was in Victor’s lap, sliding over to its groin, which was cold and inert because I had told the sales rep at Erotobotixx that I absolutely did not need a doll with a functioning penis. Still, Victor said nothing.
“I’m going to take your pants off and get inside of you,” I mumbled.
“If the point of having sex with me is for me to collect data on how you behave as a lover, I should remind you that my body doesn’t function and I have no sensation. I can only collect meaningful data by seeing, listening and communicating with you.”
“I’m not interested in your data tonight,” I said.
I removed the pair of my blue jeans that I kept on Victor’s legs, rolled Victor onto its back and shoulders, and began thrusting. Its legs framed either side of its blank face.
“Is everything ok?” I whispered.
“You look stoic.”
“ I will adjust.”
Then Victor opened its mouth and made a ridiculous expression, like a mixture of panting through a long-distance run and singing karaoke. It was the very same expression I was making.
I thrusted a few more times, but the lust had fled, leaving my loins as cold and inert as Victor’s, all-too aware of the farce in which they’d engaged. At best I was mewing sweet nothings at a pile of thermoelastic polymer, at worst I was raping an effigy of myself. Either way, even I could see it was sad. I un-rolled Victor so it lay flat on the bed.
“Is this a sign that I need serious help?”
“I believe you no longer need the guidance of someone who thinks exactly like you, but someone much different. It seems your friend Michelle fits that description.”
“Are you saying you can’t help me anymore?”
“I’m saying that I don’t know if I have been helping you to begin with.”
We met in a park by the water. Half a dozen people flinging orange balls from plastic scoops over their dogs’ heads. The grass was dead but the Okame trees were vested in bright pink blossoms and the Dogwood hearty. I stopped to sniff one.
“You seem different,” Michelle said.
“In a good way?”
“Not necessarily,” she squinted.
“I have always respected how honest you are.”
She burst into laughter.
“Ok, that was not a true statement, I get it. Anyway, thanks for meeting up. I have a painful question to ask.”
“I know a guy who recently bought a realistic sex–”
“Are you really going to do the whole ‘I’m asking for a friend’ routine? It’s a little late for that.”
“Ok. Yes. I recently bought… A realistic sex doll.”
“It looks exactly like me and is implanted with AI trained to talk and think just like me as well.”
“But the doll’s not for sex or anything. Or rather, the doll wasn’t initially intended for sex, but as a self improvement tool.”
“There’s no way that buying an AI sex doll that looks and thinks just like you is going to lead to self-improvement. Only a supreme narcissist or sociopath would think that.”
“The doll suggested as much.”
“Your AI sex doll that was designed to think like you told you you’re a fucking creep?”
“Not in so many words.”
“And so you’re double checking with me that you are in fact a fucking creep?”
“I’m not a creep! I thought I’d found a creative solution to my problem. I would talk to the doll, then it would talk back to me, reflecting me to myself. And then I’d adjust my behavior accordingly. And, eventually, become a better, less annoying person. It’s kind of genius in a way?”
“That’s called socialization. Having friends. You talk to them, they occasionally tell you you're an asshole. You say sorry and you try not to do that thing again. Spending thousands on a replica of yourself so you can, like, engineer the way the world sees you is literally antisocial behavior.”
“Ok, yes, I see that now. So I guess I’m asking, am I hopeless? I spent so much time and money because I thought this was surefire. But now I’m realizing it was a dumb idea.”
“Oh stop crying. Listen, I'm not going to kiss your boo-boo. You probably are hopeless, but so is everyone. Everything is hopeless. But for a start, you could stop coming up with elaborate ways to solve all of your problems by yourself and instead just ask a fucking therapist for help. And then, step two, go take a painting class or something and make a friend who isn’t a rich, drunk asshole like you.”
“You make it sound so simple. It’s a little dismissive, you know?”
“No, it’s not dismissive. It is actually just simple. You just need to do those two things, for a long time. And then, eventually, you will still be an asshole, but less of one. Or a more well-adjusted asshole.”
“And then what?”
“And then you’ll fucking die, I don’t know. What do you want? You already got rewarded by the universe once. You got more money than you need for doing basically nothing. Now you’re upset that you can have a similar happily ever after ending to every single facet of your life? Think of it this way, there are literally billions of people who are much better people than you, who worked harder and are probably more talented, but they are going to die having received no rewards, no happily ever afters.”
“I should have never said fuck you to you when you were moving out.”
“I don’t care about that. But what you should have done is pulled your head out of your ass the next day, or the day after that, or the month after that, and said sorry.”
“I didn’t even think of that.”
“There’s still time.”
She just laughed again.
So I went home and cradled Victor in my arms before setting it back in its coffin-box and dragging it down to storage.
I found a therapist who was patient, but also a little mean.
I took woodworking, not painting classes.
Climate instability killed my investments, so I moved in with friends from woodworking class and became a nurse’s assistant.
Sometimes patients who are in excruciating pain say terrible things to me as I try to clean feces off their pressure sores. It’s refreshing in its way, even though it sucks.
“That’s life in a sentence,” Michelle replies when I tell her about my work during our yearly phone chat.
She hangs up before I can thank her for helping me become less of an asshole.
I get it. She’s busy.