A short story by Eamonn McKeon.
Sebastian knew what sort of woman his wife was. But to be sure, he signed up for Pandora, having spent the previous six months saving up for its £5000 membership fee. He sat at his desk and gazed at the site’s interface and hovered his hands over his mouse and keyboard. I’m finally here, he thought. I’m finally here, and this time he said the words aloud, and in a sudden burst of excitement he set about creating the avatar that would vindicate his wife’s good character and eradicate the thoughts that skittered inside his head like balls in a lottery machine.
He thought about the sort of man his wife would like. She would want someone tall and sculpted, with subtly broad shoulders and intelligent, deep-set eyes. Let’s make the eyes blue, he thought. She was the sort of woman who fantasised about men with blue eyes.
He changed the eyes of the avatar from brown to blue. He increased its height to six-foot-two. He watched the animated naked man stretch out in small, incremental leaps, and considered for a moment how ridiculous this whole thing was, how silly he was being. Sebastian was not six-foot-two — he was barely six-feet — and his eyes were far from blue, could never be close to blue, but none of this mattered: she had chosen him, she had married him, he was her ideal. He was going to leave the site, perhaps apply for some kind of refund, and forget that he had ever stooped so low.
His eyes lingered on the animated man. He zoomed in on its blank, thoughtless face, which seemed faintly to be bobbing up and down, like something floating on placid water. Sebastian scratched at his earlobe. The more human they tried to make these things, the more terrible they became, the more vaguely threatening; it looked back at Sebastian through the screen as if it had just committed some terrible crime about which it had no feeling.
The face was too symmetrical. No faces were that symmetrical in real life. He wondered what would happen if he made no adjustments to the template’s facial structure, if the company could actually supply an actor whose features were so horribly perfect. Sebastian thought about his own face: the uneven, craggy nose, the bags of flesh starting to pile up over his jawline, the one eyelid that sagged a little lower than the other so that he looked always to be slightly puzzled and accusatory. No, he thought. Maisie would want someone sculpted. He moved the SCULPTURE and DEFINITION sliders until the face was sharp and handsome. Then he tweaked the other features until he had arrived at a mugshot that was intense and rugged and masculine and that made a huge, tender heartbeat coarse through his entire body when he looked at it.
The rest of the body he made ropey and angular. He made it so that the biceps had a slight bulge. He widened the chest and toned out the stomach, then made the animation turn around so that he could firm out the back and buttocks. As he worked, something like a swirling shingle moved against his throat. There was a time when he looked something like this. As a teenager, he had worked under several modelling agencies. He had known that he was attractive, and when he thought about himself, he did so only through the imagined lens of other people, with their envy, their obvious pangs of lust. His was the type of youth that simply could not conceive of its own transience. At nineteen, he was going to live forever.
He darkened the skin tone so that the man had a light tan. That was something that Maisie had said. Maybe we should try and get some colour. Maybe we should go in the sun. This maybe a year back. And by we, she meant he, because she was already fairly golden, and he the colour of baking soda toothpaste. He peered down for a moment at his belly, small but growing, as it pressed like a lump of dough against the wooden table’s edge. He became acutely aware of the sensation, or lack thereof, and began to imagine the bundles of fatty tissue lying between his nerves and the wood, of the hardness and coldness it seemed vaguely to promise but which it could never deliver.
He gave the man a full head of hair. Black and slightly long, messy, tangled over the forehead in perfect locks. His own hair was salt and pepper, and beginning to recede. When he and Maisie first started dating back in their twenties, she would often run her hands through his hair and comment on its glossiness, exclaiming wildly when he told her it was natural. She had not touched his hair for a long time.
Sebastian finished by lengthening the avatar’s penis. He did this swiftly and without much ostensible thought, as if worried that someone in the room was there and watching him and only interested in this one bit. Then he submitted the application. The screen turned from colour and animation to just words. The words said, Thank you for sending off your model template. We will be in contact shortly when we have found a model who best adheres to your customisations.
He stared absently at the screen and tried to think about what he had just done. But no real thoughts came; there was only feeling inside of him at that moment, a tiredness behind the eyes, a vague ache inside the chest. He looked out through the window and saw the sun breaking over the horizon and thought of all the things he no longer had time to be. He had been at this all night. Maisie would be up for work soon. Was there any point in going to bed?
When he went to his bedroom, he saw that Maisie was already awake. She was sprawled out on the bed, her tired eyes squinting at him as he stood tottering in the doorway. You never came to bed, she said.
Sebastian pressed his hand against the door frame. I did, he said. You don’t know that I didn’t. You can’t possibly know that I didn’t.
She didn’t say anything. She just kept looking at him, with those bleary, probing eyes. Then she kicked herself free from the covers and got up and started to get changed. I’m working late again tonight, she said.
Oh, Sebastian said. He felt a pang in his empty stomach. That’s fine.
She gave him a look. It was the sort of look that could inflict a wound on him, though he would never show it. We have an inspection coming up, she said. Do you think I want to work late?
I don’t know. I never said I thought you wanted to work late. I never said anything. I’m just tired. I couldn’t get any sleep. I can’t remember the last time I got a proper sleep.
She fastened her eyes to him as she walked over. She held her hands down by her waist, supine, as if carrying a long, invisible weight, and clasped them against his. He felt the warmth of her against him, and tried not to shudder. He wanted to savour her. That was all he wanted. He loved her, and it was not the sort of feeling he could keep constrained to the realm of the abstract. He wanted specificity. He wanted to squeeze their love into a ball that he could hold up and point to and say this, this is something concrete, this is something mine, only mine, and it’s not something I’m ever going to lose.
Her eyes roamed over his face. He felt his own eyes drifting languidly around the room; he did not want to look at her directly, because he felt as though doing so might only accentuate the ugliness that had seeped into his face, an ugliness she may not have noticed yet and that he hence could not afford to make naked.
I want to make this work, she said. He felt the weight of her against his groin, and started to ache from deep within. This weekend, she said. We’ll go somewhere. We’ll have a proper talk.
He nodded. That would be nice, he said.
Because sometimes it’s like you’re somewhere else, she said. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.
She spoke gently. There was no malice or suspicion in her voice. Sebastian was once more reminded that he did not deserve her. I’m not somewhere else, he said. He let go of her hands and patted her on the shoulder. I’m here, he said. I’m always here.
Ok, she said. Ok, good. She suddenly burst into life. I better get ready, she said. I’m going to be late.
He sat on the bed and watched her as she darted back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom and as she put on her perfume and sorted her bags. He let her peck his cheek and then watched as she hurried down the stairs. He heard her rummage through the cupboards in search of a quick breakfast. Then the front door slammed shut, and she was out of the house, and as she walked out of the drive and down the road and out of sight and the wedge of blue sky above and beyond her blistered in its rich, burgeoning intensity, he thought about the things he ought to have said. Where else would I be? he said to the empty room. Where else would I be, Maisie, but here?
He spent the day in much the same way that he had spent the last thirty or so days. He tried to find a job. But there was nothing. Or maybe there was something, but deep down Sebastian didn’t want anything, and this was why he had been unsuccessful, because unconsciously he was sabotaging whatever opportunities were manifesting themselves. By early afternoon, he thought about closing the laptop. He needed to take a nap; his eyes felt as though they were lined with glue. But just before he went to log off, he received an email from Pandora. We’ve selected a model for you, the email said. The image was loading up on the screen, and Sebastian held his breath, feeling giddy, the walls around him seeming to lose definition and droop.
Then the image loaded. It was uncanny. The resemblance to his customised animation was uncanny. He never thought they would be able to find someone who looked like that.
Please provide details about the person you would like your model to seduce. Please also provide a timespan in which you would like him to work. If you’re not satisfied with the model’s appearance, then you can request a new one.
Sebastian was more than satisfied, although satisfaction didn’t feel like the right word. In truth, he was frightened. He could not imagine Maisie being able to resist a man who looked like this. He could not imagine many people being able to resist a man who looked like this.
A burst of clarity shot through Sebastian like a headrush. But that’s exactly the point, he said to himself. He started nodding. If she can resist a man like this, he thought, a man of her dreams, then I know that I can stop worrying. I can sleep. I can hold that concrete thing in my hands, I can own it, and I can know that it is real. He accepted the model, and spent the next hour filling in a lengthy form, which detailed timespan, acceptable methods of seduction, Maisie’s whereabouts, her interests, her quirks.
When he was done, he decided that he had earned some leisure time. He called up Roy to see if he would like to go for a drink. Roy was a bore, and not particularly good company, but he was someone Sebastian could talk to. He wanted someone to explain this all to. Roy said he was visiting his mother-in-law at the hospital today, but that he could do some time later in the week. This suited Sebastian even better. Now he could get some sleep.
He went to bed. As he closed his eyes, he thought about Maisie. He imagined all the scenarios that might take place. He thought about the model kissing her behind the ear, and thrusting his hand between her legs. Caught somewhere between states, he grimaced and stirred. But soon these thoughts faded into the darkness, and the darkness melted into sleep, and the sleep was long and dreamless and empty of all worry.
For the next few days, he tried his best to study Maisie whenever she was in the house. He scrutinised her subtly from the corner of his eye, as though trying to pre-empt some sort of attack. He wasn’t sure what signs to be looking out for. He wasn’t sure about anything, and he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
There were no new scents on her body. Her schedule remained unchanged; still she got back late, still they had no time to talk or to do things or to hold each other. There were no marks on her neck, or smudges on her lips. Once he thought he saw small bruises on her thighs, fresh and pink, but by the time he had a chance to look again properly the grey evening haze had already crept into the room, and it was impossible to see anything in the shadows. By morning he had forced himself to forget the whole business. He felt as though he was in danger of becoming paranoid, and the paranoia was making him see things that weren’t there, evidence of his wife’s adultery that simply did not exist.
Occasionally he would ask her questions like Good day? or Is everything ok?, but she offered little in return, electing mostly just to shrug or to grunt or to offer a sighing, noncommittal jumble of words. And her eyes would linger on his in the seconds immediately after he had spoken, not exactly glowering at him but certainly on the cusp of it; eyes pensive and probing, as if the words he had spoken were physical things caught in the air between them, like shards of glass carried in the wind. He would feel the burn of her eyes and quickly occupy himself with other business.
One morning, he told her that he was planning on meeting Roy for a drink. But she didn’t seem interested at all. She seemed almost slighted that he had confided in her in this way. Ok, she said. That should be nice.
Why are you being like that? he said.
I’m not being like anything, she said. She seemed to be in quite a rush. But you tell me these things as if I’m meant to know everything. I don’t know Roy.
You know Roy, he said. He’s been here. He’s been here twice.
She stared at the contents of her bag with a face that was etched in concentration. She looked puzzled, as though she might be missing something important, but couldn’t be sure what the important thing was. Sebastian took this as a signal that the conversation was over.
He finally managed to meet Roy at the end of the week. They met at a quiet pub on the edge of town. Roy was a good twenty-minutes late. Sebastian spent the time drumming his fingers against the placemat and thinking about the model he had created, playing over the scenarios in which he might play a part. He wondered if the model would try and visit the house now that he was away.
The air smelt of old paper and stale fruits. The aroma of weary, middle-aged men, tired and vaguely insipid, hung in the room like a great cloud. When Roy came in, he fit seamlessly with his surroundings, with the pub’s worn, sagging interior and the sparse assortment of drinkers who dwelt in it. He greeted Sebastian with a quick raise of the eyebrows, and lumbered over to the booth.
Sebastian, he said. The two of them shook hands.
I got you a beer, Sebastian said. But it’s probably a little warm.
That’s fine. Thank you.
He took a long, steady sip, and followed it up with an aah. He always followed it up with such a sound. Roy looked around the pub, as if expecting to see someone he knew, and this gave Sebastian a chance to see if anything about his friend had changed. It hadn’t. He was a short, wide-cheeked man with cloudy dark eyes and a mild, almost dubious way of carrying himself. He may have gained a little more weight, but that was hard to determine, especially in his baggy shirt. His head, unsurprisingly, was still pasty and bald.
How’s your mother-in-law? Sebastian said.
Fine, Roy said, taking another sip. He gulped quickly. I mean, not fine, obviously. She’s not really all there anymore, if you know what I mean.
Sebastian did. He had seen his father succumb to dementia. It was quite something to witness a human being living in that way. I’m sorry, he said. That’s very sad.
It is, Roy said. She doesn’t recognise Sue anymore. She stopped recognising me months ago, obviously, but somehow I never thought she would stop recognising Sue. I know it sounds stupid, but I suppose I just expected that part of her to endure.
The mothering instinct, Sebastian said.
Yes. Yes, exactly.
That’s not stupid, Sebastian said.
I know. Thanks. Maybe it’s not. Roy seemed to be finding this difficult. His eyes were fixed on his glass, which he was rolling back-and-forth in his hand. He was struggling to say whatever it was he wanted to say, the muscles in his face faltering and pained. It’s just, the idea of not being able to recognise your loved ones. People you have known for decades. People you have shaped and been shaped by. To no longer see them, know them, to have that all taken away — I wouldn’t want to live like that. That’s not what living is.
He took another long sip. He could not look Sebastian in the eyes. Sebastian could see that he was fighting hard; he could imagine the dryness that must have been clawing at his throat, the pressure billowing in his sinuses. If Roy spoke again, his words would be stolen by tears. So Sebastian decided to speak. And he would not speak about himself, or about Pandora and the model and Maisie’s imagined adultery. Roy didn’t need to hear any of that. He would talk about anything else.
They talked for a good few hours. It was good talking, happy talking, the type of conversation that glides in the air and makes a mockery of time. They talked about being at university, of all the ex-girlfriends and half-forgotten embarrassments. Once, Roy asked about Maisie. He asked how she was doing, and Sebastian didn’t know what to say. He settled on saying, She’s ok. I mean, she looks ok to me. He raised his glass, aware for the first time that he was slightly drunk, his forehead warm and his fingers weightless, and said, Maisie’s Maisie. Then they both laughed and talked about something else, and by late evening they were well and truly hammered.
Sebastian was the slightly more sober of the two. He was able to book a taxi home for Roy but he had to take Roy’s ID card to show it to the driver. They shared a long, clumsy hug, then went into their respective taxis and parted ways. On the drive back, Sebastian drifted in and out of consciousness. Occasionally he opened his eyes to watch the roads and the trees and the houses as they sailed past, but he found himself put off by the light streaks that shimmered in the darkness, so he shut himself away. Overall, though, he was content. He felt glad to have made Roy happy, if only for a few hours.
Maisie was asleep when he got home. He was surprised that she did not wake up when he came in; he was not exactly able to tiptoe. He took off his shirt and then tried to take off his trousers with only his feet, because his hands were busy holding his phone. He couldn’t make out anything on the screen. It was all a blur, and the glare hurt his eyes. But then he saw a new email from Pandora, and the world took on a sharp, arresting clarity.
He did not want to open the email. He also did not want to delay opening the email. He thought for a second that he could go on like this, not knowing, living in this state of limbo, maybe opening the message tomorrow when he was sober. But he could tell very quickly that this would not do. He pressed his thumb against the screen, and felt all the breath going out of him, as if his heart had squeezed out its final pump.
But the words looked actually to be good ones. He reread them over and over, worried that maybe he was misinterpreting. But even in this state, there wasn’t much to misinterpret. The message was unequivocal.
We are emailing to update you regarding the status of your Seduction Operation, Ref No 060899. The target of the attempted seduction has been wholly unreceptive to your customised model’s advances. The target has even threatened to inform the authorities should he persist. Accordingly, we are opting to withdraw our model from the operation at this time. Thank you for using Pandora, and if you have any further queries, do not hesitate to get in touch.
Sebastian felt warmth and joy pouring through him. He held the phone up to his face as if worried that looking away might somehow negate the contents of the message. But he soon realised that this was silly, and peered over at Maisie, at her blank, docile face, her pale shoulders that rose slowly and regularly with her breathing, and found himself wanting to both laugh and cry at once. He did neither. He coaxed himself into the covers, placed a hand on Maisie’s head, and stared up at the dark ceiling. He thought about all the things that had happened. He felt his worries slipping out of him like falling sand, so that by the time sleep came he was smiling and weightless.
He awoke with a head full of cement. He could barely move. The taste in his mouth was like something animal; nothing so foul could be endemic to a human being. He rolled over and felt the dented warmth of Maisie’s absence. He wondered how long she had been gone. He wondered how late it was, but when he saw the gleam of sun gushing in through the blinds, he thought that perhaps he did not want to know. He looked over again at the blank mattress. Maisie had said that they would go somewhere today, to talk things through. But she must have been working again. It was ok, though. Of course it was. From now on, he reminded himself, everything was going to be ok.
He got up and got changed and guzzled down about two pints of water. He decided he was going to go to the shop. He was going to prepare a dinner, and when Maisie came home, they would eat and talk, and maybe in the evening they would go out onto the balcony while the moon shone through the summer clouds, and their talking, maybe, would turn into something else.
As he was about to leave, he saw something strange on the entryway table. It was an ID card, but the man was pale and bald, and looked somehow eerie. Sebastian kicked himself. Roy, he said. I have to get this back to Roy.
It wasn’t much of a detour. He parked up outside of Roy’s house and went over to the front-door and knocked. There was nothing for a long time. Sebastian felt the sun blaring against the back of his neck, and heard birds flitting about in nearby branches, and thought, this heat is really something vicious. Still there was no answer. He wondered if Roy was ok. He wondered how long he should wait before calling someone.
Then Roy opened the door. He was wearing his dressing-gown, and Sebastian could see the papery whiteness of his chest, the small clumps of hairs that dotted the flesh. Roy looked strangely aghast, as if Sebastian’s presence was unfathomable, like he’d thought he was in a different country. Sebastian, he said, and the word was more a question than a greeting.
Sebastian eyed him cautiously. He had this feeling like something had gone wrong, and he felt panic setting in, and he was suddenly urgent and afraid. Roy, he said. What’s going on?
That was when he heard Maisie’s voice. When he heard it, all of the breath went out of him, the air and surrounding heat siphoning it straight from his lungs. She came up from behind Roy, slow and casual at first, walking in a breezy, weightless sway, until the moment she saw Sebastian. When that happened, her body fell out of her grasp.
Sebastian, she said, her voice all shock and whisper.
Sebastian didn’t say anything. He let the scene before him organise itself; he felt unable to intervene. For a moment it looked as though Roy might back away and close the door but he didn’t; he weakly moved his arms, and saw that there was little point in doing anything else.
Sebastian, Maisie said again, and she gestured towards the walls and the ceiling and the air in front of her face as if she had said something that explained any of it, as if these unspoken, impossible words were as plain and visible as objects, and if only Sebastian could see those objects then he would understand that this was all a big misunderstanding. But it wasn’t a misunderstanding. Sebastian knew exactly what he saw.
He saw the colours and shapes of Roy’s hallway behind her, and he saw the measured, rising movement of her chest. She was wearing a loose blouse, and not much else. He could see her skin, oceans of it, and it ran down her body in white streams, as if finally in a place where it belonged. The walls of Roy’s house were grey and patterned. There was a cluttered bookshelf in the hallway, and a box of cat-litter just before the kitchen. Sebastian could see everything, right down to the smallest things, even the trivial, the seemingly insubstantial, and he realised then that he did not want to see anything else at all. He stood by his friend’s front door and let the heat from the sun seep into him, right into his bones, and then he turned around and went to the car and shut his eyes as hard as he could shut them.
Read more about the author Eamonn McKeon HERE.