A British voice streamed from Martin’s tablet, announcing the top three bakers of this week’s bake-off. Beth tapped her pink nails on the underside of her own tablet and muttered, “Hey headphones. Increase volume by fifteen percent.” She shifted against the mound of pillows behind her, beat them with her fist in tempo with the piano, and returned to her dark romance novel.
“Woo!” Martin hollered and pumped his fist. “First place, Christy! My girl!”
Beth breathed deeply, remembered the breathing exercises her new therapist told her to do, and tossed the comforter from her legs, which covered Martin and his tablet. In a moment of annoyance, she wished the show would end and he’d visit the Robot Room—The Sex Cave, she called it once—but he merely threw the comforter to their bedroom floor, buzzing in excitement to know who would go home this time.
At one point, she adored the quirky nature of his baking love. Because he himself couldn’t bake, so instead, he settled for his architecture and the baking shows, but that adoration existed back when she could flow in and out of the rooms, from silence to noise.
Now, Martin followed her. The noise never left.
“Oh no! Not Louis! Riley can go, but Louis just made one mistake, that’s all.”
“Must you?” Beth couldn’t help herself.
“Look, baby!” Martin tilted the screen to her. “Louis is still in! I knew the judges knew better.” He caught the back of her neck with a snaking arm and brought her head close to his chest, kissing her kinky hair.
“Wonderful,” Beth agreed and angled her tablet to read the next line.
The days when their sons were home, when they and Martin would watch, entranced, in the living room, she would read in bed, in peace, alone, and listen to the excitement through the walls.
Warmth from Martin’s hand slid beneath the edge of her nightgown, a soft hum over her skin. She sighed and rested her head against his shoulder.
“Can’t you just let me read in peace for one night, darling?”
“Yeah, sure,” Martin’s said, still upbeat, as he kissed her cheek and released her.
As he left the bed and stretched, his soft belly jiggled. He exited, and a heavy silence against her shoulders stayed. The idea had belonged to her. The sexbot, that was. Immediately after their youngest son departed home for his own life, Martin wanted to throw her on the floor and get at it ‘just like in college.’ She said, “You just need one of those sexbots for your never-dying sex drive. I’m too old.”
The idea lingered with him for awhile. He even asked repeatedly for permission, and to turn back on it seemed wrong, so Beth said yes, darling, isn’t technology neat? Who even needs a wife beyond mere companionship?
Punching the pillows again, her shoulder twinged in an ache, and soon, she gave up on them, choosing to stomp when she stood for the living room. With a quick command, the two lamps beside the bed winked out.
Beth gravitated to the oldest piece of furniture in the house: a faded artichoke-colored recliner, uninhabited ever since the youngest son moved away and took the dog with him. It was dubbed “The Artichoke” by the boys, who could not believe their mother let such a color into the home. Sinking into the cushion, Beth curled her legs beneath her and enjoyed a peace that, for some unknown reason, made her skin crawl. No noise permeated through the walls.
The next day, after work from the mobile veterinary truck, Beth carried her leftover catfish into the house with her steps dense and slow in memory of Pumpkin. Shoving the meal into the fridge, she skimmed the glowing to-do pad, swiping the tab to the right and deleting all the chores at once. The day stank of death. The death of an old dog. Not a sick dog, simply old and lazy, and thus, boring and unuseful.
The blonde woman had simply crossed her arms over her chest and said, “Well. He’s just too old. Look at him! How is he supposed to keep my son entertained?”
Beth popped the cork from a bottle of Merlot and kicked her sneakers off toward the artichoke.
She had raised up her leather hands and wanted to yell, “Well, look at me, look at you, both old hags, ain’t no one putting us down, are they?”
Instead, her assistant grabbed and held her hand while saying, “Dying in peace, with his family, is better than being euthanized at the shelter.” It didn’t calm Beth. She got through the euthanasia by imagining slapping the woman quite a few times.
Looking over her empty, quiet living room, she imagined a heap of sneakers, clothes, books, and God only knows what else, in the chair, stinky and messy. Now, though, everything rested perfectly in place, undisturbed by sticky hands or excited bodies over baked bread.
“Command. Vacuum on. Music on, something slow and soulful.”
She nudged the vacuum off its stand with her toes, stepped over it to open the doors in the hallway, but intentionally skipped the Robot Room, as usual. Sipping from her wine, heat spread in her chest from feeling like a stranger to a room in her own home. Anger bubbled for Pumpkin, that grey-muzzled lab with a happy smile, tail wagging in the face of death.
“What am I supposed to do with these dog’s old, arthritic bones?” That blonde woman had said.
The walls shifted around her—she didn’t realize she turned and crept up to the Robot Room’s door. Frustration, or malice perhaps, slinked with her as she neared the room her oldest son previously occupied. It stood empty for nearly half a decade before it became Martin’s Sex Cave. Just sex, she tried to reason, a Robot and a cave, and nothing more.
The door creaked as it opened, the perfect woman upright on a blue bed. The floor lacked any obvious signs of dirt and dust much to Beth’s disappointment.
Once, Beth snidely suggested that Martin put a TV in here, but he just asked, “Why?” All Martin gave this room was a nightstand with a lamp and a tablet propped up, a dresser, a bed, and that sex robot. Ignoring the obvious aspect of her interest, Beth strode up to the dresser, inspecting the tiny layer of dust on top.
“Of course,” she said softly, relieved almost.
Walking to the bed and placing her wine bottle down, she found the black mess of horror knotted on top of the robot’s head.
“Of course!” She rolled her eyes. The robot’s tangled and matted hair looked more like a brillo pad than anything human.
Beth grabbed the bottle of wine and tapped her fingers on the glass.
“Caveman, always,” she muttered. “He can’t even… I mean, men.”
She stomped to the hall bathroom. A moment later, returned with a bristle brush, she shook her head at herself, at Martin, at the doll, and Beth carefully sectioned a lock of hair from it.
Methodically, she tugged the brush with short, gentle strokes from the bottom to the top. Finished a section, placed it in front of the uncanny face, sipped her wine, and picked apart another section. Drank. Started again.
The curls reformed, bushy and big, after each section. Nothing but the bitter swirl of wine down her throat and the touch of silken polyester through her fingers entered her mind. When she fought the last knot out, she placed the brush in the robot’s lap.
“Don’t mind holding that, do ya? Nah, because you’re not even turned on. Ha. Even when you’re turned on, you’re not turned on, cause you are a robot.”
Beth twisted strands of hair to reform it into beautiful black twists—just like hers when she met Martin at a young and wild age and never minded the hassle of it all. Martin loved her natural, longer hair, but shorter was always simpler when wrangling animals, children, teenagers, and grown-up sons who’d always need her, every now and then at least, right?
With a long gulp, nearing the end of her bottle, Beth left the room and nearly tripped over the vacuum as it silently vroomed beneath her feet into the opened cave.
Cursing technology, its benefits and its functions and its replacements of duty, she fell into the artichoke with a breathing exercise on her lips, then sang along absentmindedly to the female voice drifting from the speakers in the ceiling. How come the AIs always started female, and if you wanted male, you needed to manually change the setting?
Emptying the bottle on her lips, she touched and played with the few inches of hair on her head, drifting from thoughts of AI to herself to Pumpkin to Martin.
If he landed the contract to draw up the designs for the new AI-integrated lofts for downtown, what would annoy her for the next six months with him gone? Unprecedented silence would fill the house. Before, the boys would latch onto her in their father’s absence. There were no boys in the house to latch, though. Noise did not content her. The silence did not settle her.
Finding herself both frustrated and infuriated, she tossed the bottle in the trash and grabbed a new one to accompany her back into the Robot Room. Without looking at the robot, she flew to the tablet and pressed On. “ELLIE” lit up on the screen before shrinking and flying to the top left. Multiple option boxes appeared, and Beth chose DIALOGUE.
The history listed conversations from three minutes to two hours. A quick burst of red nausea in her gut made her nearly swipe the tablet to the floor with an open hand.
“Ellie, huh,” she said to herself instead.
What a funny name to give an inanimate creature when your wife’s name was Elizabeth. Surely, a mere coincidence of an old and unused nickname. Coldly, she realized Martin had named it.
She sat on the unoccupied side of the bed and twisted the cork free with the wine key.
The robot’s head swiveled to stare at her with wide blank eyes.
Beth screeched, nearly spilling the freshly opened bottle.
“Hello!” The robot said in a sweet, overly-enunciated voice. It blinked.
“Hello,” stuttered Beth.
“I don’t recognize your voice,” Ellie said. She blinked twice, her long lashes brushing her cheeks. Her jaw moved in time to most of the syllables. “Who are you?”
“Martin’s wife,” Beth responded. She leaned forward and whispered, “Do you like getting fucked by my husband?”
Ellie’s head moved in an expression of thoughtfulness. She blinked deliberately, “Martin is very nice. I enjoy his time. Do you like getting fucked, Martin’s Wife?”
The question surprised her, even though she knew protocol called for a sexbot to create a profile of each user. She picked at the wine label with a pink nail, wondering if Ellie’s auditory sensors picked up on the repetitive scratching.
She said, “I brushed your hair.”
“That is very kind of you,” Ellie replied. The plump, shiny lips turned upward to perfectly resemble a smile. “I like that.”
With the label half torn off, Beth clicked her tongue, fighting for words. She poked the leg of the robot doll. It was soft, not flesh, not warm, but it gave to the touch and it was soft. Silicone, her mind supplied.
“Can I,” Beth trailed, “could I look at, well, your, you know?”
“My ‘you know’?” Ellie’s levelled voice picked up at the end to indicate a question.
“Your,” Beth waved her hand with the label in the air, looking away, “your bits. Your lady part, you know, your ‘vagina.’”
“Oh,” Ellie’s head moved back straight. “I like that. I’m quite in the mood to be touched.”
“Not gonna touch it,” Beth muttered, setting the wine down.
Standing, she looked at the length of the doll—short, probably only four and a half feet. That’s normal; she learned that while researching it online one day after blurting that Martin should get one. And then he did.
Gingerly, she hiked the pink nightgown up by pinching the sides of it with her fingers. She pressed the thighs apart with her hands, surprised they did not fall open easily, but it didn’t take too much pressure.
“I hope it’s not too straightforward…” Ellie’s voice sounded.
Beth failed to pay attention.
“What the fuck?” she said.
Her fingers curled in reflexive shock when they found nothing. There were no ‘bits.’ She felt only the empty space inside the doll. Nothing existed between the legs but a vacant hole.
Ellie continued, unfazed. “…but I like you, Martin’s Wife, and I think I’d like to have sex with you.”
“Where is your vagina?” Beth demanded. She strode to the dresser and rifled through the drawers. She forgot the vagina piece detached, for cleaning, but something about Ellie lying there all hollowed out disturbed her.
“What do you mean? Do you not like my body?”
Lube, cleaner, rags, a green nightgown, but no vagina piece.
“I’m starting to feel self-conscious,” said Ellie, plump lips in a frown.
Beth threw open the door to the small attached bathroom and immediately laid her eyes on the ‘bits.’ It sat in the sink, as there was no counter, on a green hand towel, obviously left to dry.
A car door shut outside.
Beth jumped to the tablet, “That’s all for now, Ellie! Shut off!”
“Will you talk…”
Beth snapped Ellie’s legs completely shut and shoved the nightgown down, and ran to the living room, unsure why her heart beat so hard in her throat.
The artichoke armchair slid back a few inches with her crash landing. She plucked her tablet from the stand, and Martin entered, whistling.
“Look at you, Elizabeth!” He said and threw his keys into a bowl by the door. “Reading, and as beautiful as the day I laid my lucky eyes on you.”
“Oh, get off it,” Beth said, smiling breathlessly.
Thoughts of the wine bottle, the label, the open bathroom door, and the crumpled comforter tickled her brain into a frenzy. Martin would think… God, what would he think? That she used it?
“I got it, baby.” Martin side-stepped and danced over to her, the grin never leaving his face. He snapped his fingers, swinging his arms from side to side, shaking his waist, and Beth laughed at his age-old dance move. “Got the contract. With this, I can retire. We’re gonna be set now.”
“Oh, wonderful!” Beth said and rose, throwing her arms around him. He loved new jobs, the freedom to draw a building into life. “But you… you can do whatever you want, after. Continue working, travel, whatever.”
A dream, suddenly, of endless baking shows and burnt muffins in the oven appeared before her. Her throat tightened a bit, and she said, “Everyone should have hobbies.”
Martin kissed her and rocked to the music from the ceiling, “We’re free!” He laughed.
“I suppose,” Beth mused.
“Oh, don’t be sour, my love. You’re just as sour as ever, I can basically feel you yelling at me and all, nose in a book.” Martin pressed his cheek against hers.
“Off it!” She ordered. “You were as loud as ever back then, too. Hollerin’ in a library.”
They danced for a few minutes as the music Beth requested earlier continued to play.
“I got catfish,” She told him.
“Been awhile since fish.” He twirled her under his arm.
“That’s cause the boys never liked it. Said it stank.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” His smooth voice ebbed away her worries.
“I’m gonna get a dog.”
“I’m serious. I want one. An old geezer. Like me.”
“If that’s what you want. But he’ll be all yours to take care of,” he said, as if he knew some secret she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, clue herself into.
“I already take care of you, don’t I?”
“Baby, I was always gonna be okay, but with you I–”
She finished his sentence with him, rolling her eyes, “You are everything. I know it.”
“I am everything.” He smiled, kissed her, ignored her rolling eyes.
He pulled her flush against his body. She felt the bulge of his erection against her. She thought of all the evidence left behind, and shame snuck little bites all the way down her spine until her legs tensed.
“Ah,” he said, leaning back. “I’ll let you enjoy your reading, my love.”
Beth wiggled her toes against the carpet; the fabric tickled her skin. Her hands wandered over his round belly, which fit perfectly against the shape of her body; they’re both softer than silicone, after all. His hands made her skin sing wherever he touched, both nerves and pleasure without desire.
“You don’t need to go anywhere. Not tonight. Let’s… let’s watch a movie and cuddle. That can be enough. Okay?”
Martin’s wide smile enveloped her lips, and she opened her arms to her husband, enjoying his murmurs of their yet-to-be future, the adventures they may yet take. A soft, pleasant noise under the thrum of the music.