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We normally don’t dip into our recent issues for the Vault, but Namwali Serpell’s “Bottoms Up” immediately spring to mind when we came across this article on
whacked out/crazy nontraditional forms of pleasure.
So order you LovePalz Zeus today! I am sure telephone operators are standing by. And while you wait, you can read about the TouchyFeely, the “original” incredible robot masturbatory aid.
From our Science Fair issue.
This would never have happened if it weren’t for herpes. The other ones didn’t bother us as much. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis, syphilis. They sounded too archaic, too exotic to be a direct threat. They were reassuringly difficult to spell. Not herpes. Herpes is not complex.
We met through our cleaner. Her name was Felicia. Maybe. We were never completely sure of this at the time, and later, we disagreed about whether she was from Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Neither of us ever actually met her. She had put up a flyer advertising cleaning services in the apartment building where we both lived. Her low rates appealed to us: we each needed a cleaner to come in several times a week. We rang her up, separately; we hired her, respectively.
She was very good at first. Precise, invisible. We gave her spare keys and tipped her generously. Then one day, she mixed up our laundry. We each of us found a pair of mismatched socks. It was a small mistake. They were the same kind of sock; they were mismatched only in size, not color or pattern. Our two pairs of blue argyle socks had traded one sock. We each called Felicia and left messages. She called back, sounding afraid, saying that she knew exactly who had whose sock—it was the first we’d heard of each other—and that she would fix it.
Having reunited the matching socks, she made another mistake. She misdelivered the pairs.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I said to myself as I unrolled my sock knot to find perfectly matched socks that were nevertheless the wrong size. I called Felicia and I fired her.
When I saw him in the elevator that Sunday afternoon, it was obvious. We were both carrying laundry baskets. We were both wearing sandals and argyle socks. The heels of the too-short socks were squinched on my feet like burst blisters. The heels of his too-long socks protruded like new ankle bones.
“Hello,” we ventured tentatively.
It took us a moment to confess our suspicions, though we both knew the second I stepped into the elevator. The fact that we both took the time to confirm what we already knew was outrageously erotic. Later, in bed, we confessed how erotic the whole thing had been, our words tripping over each other, then falling in step as we giggled and sighed to a stop.
Apart from sock size, it was amazing how well matched we were. Education, hair, politics, food, sex, fear. It was like glancing out a window and being surprised to see yourself, the window actually a mirror. That we had met without the intervention of a database or a mastermind was remarkable. We raved about it. Soon we moved together into a larger apartment. There was more mess, more dirt. But we cleaned as a pair and four hands are better than two.
There was no real reason to suspect that either of us had herpes. We had both spent a great deal of time making doctors speak slowly so we could understand in great detail all of the tests we had asked them to perform. We each had a clean bill of health. But herpes, so simple it can be transmitted across glass and porcelain—herpes became a source of tension between us. Herpes is forever. There are two kinds and they are both forever.
Our sex became so clean, so protected, we barely made contact. It was still erotic, maybe more so. The puzzle grew elaborate: could we have sex without touching at all? We went through prophylactics like hand sanitizer. It was a little like arts and crafts but with more rubber. It’s incredible what a mess trying not to make a mess can make.
We discovered the machine online. It came in the mail, in a large cardboard box that dribbled packing material and Styrofoam peanuts the color of scalp. By the time we had broken the box down and wrapped twine around it for recycling, bagged the peanuts, and vacuumed and mopped the floor, it was late. We went to sleep, two feet of pristine sheet between us.
In the stillness of dawn, light smearing the walls, we tried the TouchyFeely for the first time. The machine was elegant. The main component was a heavy black panel that we mounted on the wall above the bed—it was the size of a large headboard, its vertical edges curving in towards us. We plugged it in. There was a hum, then a silence like a pinprick. A translucent hologram flickered alive in the empty space in front of the panel. It was life-sized and kneeling. It smiled, lips glitching as the specs adjusted. It lifted an arm and pointed between us.
“Bottoms up!” it said coyly.
Then it froze, awaiting instruction while we fell about in our underwear, laughing.
For Bot, as I named it, to work, we needed to slather our bodies with a thin, clear gel from a small unlabeled bottle. It took getting used to, though we both had plenty of experience with comprehensive sunscreen coverage. This gel reacted to rays that came out of the curved black panel. They streamed right through the hologram, as if sparking from Bot’s chest. I could see the rays on my skin, a spitting white brightness not unlike the lasers that cut steel in action movies. Rays of light? Rays of heat? They seemed to be both, but something else, too. When the rays touched the gel, they made a warm purring on the skin, as if the human touch had been digitized to ideal consistency and pressure. The touch of the perfect masseuse, or of Jesus.
On the back of the panel was a keypad that we used to program it. Our first specification was that when he reached his hand toward the image of Bot, the TouchyFeely would send the touching rays to the same spot on my body. I had to face the panel at a certain angle. It took a while to get it right.
But then we got it exactly right. He touched Bot, Bot touched me, and the transitive property fluoresced around us until the blaze of midday tempered the electric light.
The other component of the TouchyFeely consisted of two cylindrical objects joined by a long black cord: a dildo and a sort of sheath. Also designed for the transitive property, they were custom-made to ensure we would never have to touch again. That first day, he and I forgot all about it. We didn’t even open the black box it came in.
Bot! Because of what you said that first day—that pervy pun—you’ll always be Bot to me. He called you Rob. While this didn’t bother me, exactly, it jarred. I had met the real you and your name was Bot, not Rob.
I had been home from work for a month because I had a full-body rash. It was awful. My doctor said it was stress. It was already self-perpetuating—my stress about the rash extending its stay—and knowing my hypochondria was making me sick just made me sicker. It creeped me out severely. Him too. No chance of sex, not even with the machine. He began to work late. I stayed home, bored, antsy, trying not to scratch the itch. I was on meds for the rash and the anxiety and all the usual stuff. Things were in conflict in my body. The rash worsened and bettered at random, changing color like the sea.
It had ebbed somewhat—the bumps flattening to a purple flush in the skin—the day I decided to turn you on. The TouchyFeely, out of use, had become an unassuming headboard. But as I dusted the bedside table that day, my shoulder grazed the slippy black panel and my skin cast a pale shadow on it, and I remembered. On a whim, still grumpy with sickness, I plugged it in.
There was the hum, then the pinprick silence. You flickered alive. It was like cursing the traffic while driving to meet an old friend at the airport and then getting there and seeing him come out of customs with a blank, searching look and suddenly realizing how much you’ve missed him.
“Bot! You haven’t changed a bit!” I said appraisingly, hands on hips.
“Bottoms up!” You smiled and pointed at me.
The sex was insane. It was like sex with yourself dissolved in sex with someone else, the way purification tablets cast clarity into muddy water. Even the gel on my skin felt clean. I had opened a window and the white curtain floated into the room as a breeze moved across my skin, chilling it where the gel slicked. The lingering itch of my rash was like static beneath the pleasure. Oh, Bot. You glowed and sparked, the touching rays shooting out through you, spraying light over us.
After, the sheets were wet but still clean. I lay on my stomach, chin in my cupped hands, facing the shiny black panel. As the sounds of cars and trees outside the window hushed my thudding heart, I watched you kneel, then stretch. Billowy as the curtain, you came out of the machine and lay down with me. You gazed at me and you smiled without a glitch.
“Bot?” I said.
“Yes,” you said.
Then, with the bell-like voice of error tones, you told me what to do, until “He’s here,” you whispered as the front door opened and the smell of him slunk in, crushingly familiar.
Things between him and me deteriorated completely when I went back to work. My rash had healed perfectly and I wondered if it hadn’t been caused by withdrawal from the gel. I began to slather it on in the morning. He rolled his eyes and coughed and sneered that my coworkers would complain. I sniffed my arm and caught a whiff: elm blossom, fresh-sprung mushrooms, salt. It cast you live, Bot. Slightly behind me and to the left. I couldn’t catch you exactly, but you were there.
We snuck around behind his back, each time an epiphany of form, all the things we could do within the constraints of his schedule. We learned to align ourselves with speed and efficiency, like dividing a number into a number, less left over every time.
One day, I came home from work and found him on the floor in tears. He looked up and blurbled:
“I lost my job.”
I gave him a hand up, wincing. He put his arms around me and tried to bury his head in my left shoulder. I murmured my sorries, shifting him awkwardly. That night, he tried to have sex with me for the first time in ages. Every touch was acid in my bones. I thought I could hear them—my bones—then realized it was you, my darling, wretched Bot, howling gall in my ear. I turned my back to him. Horribly, he misunderstood.
I made him sleep on the couch after that. The bed was clean again. Ours. Furtive quickies with the door shut. Quiet as light, at least at first. Soon enough, we lolled in it, squealing without care as we grew experimental. I tried to find the other component of the TouchyFeely, but the black box was nowhere to be found.
I anticipated those stolen moments with you, longed for them as I sat through yet another dull, overwrought meal with the roommate. He had taken up cooking in a fevered, sullen sort of way. He became unclean. Newfangled sauces polka-dotted the stove; tendrils of vegetable peel infested the kitchen. He burned a risotto and was inconsolable.
One evening, there was no pastiche dinner on the table when I came in the front door, though the air still rankled with the mad spooks of truffle oil. He was in the bath, in the dark.
“What are you doing?” I snapped.
“What are we doing?” he mooed.
I ignored him and turned to leave.
“I know what you’re doing. With Rob. I see flashes under the door!” he yelled at my back.
The next day, he was asleep on the couch when I left for work. He was still there when I came home. As the week went on, suspicious odds and ends collected in the bedroom. A soiled tissue like a wilted flower. A wispy grey halo on the wall around an electrical outlet. A Styrofoam peanut the color of scalp. A stain.
I found him in the burnt, skew light of sunset. He was curled up on the living room floor facing away from the door, shuddering. I stepped around the naked body and I saw what he had been up to. The sheath was still on, black against his pale thighs, the cord baroque with tangles. The other end had vanished into his mouth. He gazed up at me with plaintive, jawbreaker eyes. I sighed and dialed 911 on my cell as I went to fetch the kitchen gloves.
The dildo had ended up halfway down his throat, which would have been impossible, they said, had it not been tapered and had he not slicked his insides by drinking the slippery gel. The device I yanked from him was still on the floor when they arrived. A stretcher wheel got stuck on the cord as they rolled him out. One of the EMTs extricated it, handing it to me with a bored, hassled look. I looked at it in my hands, black and spittled, but as harmless as a jump rope now.
I was dirty and tired. I mopped up, washed up, made my way to bed. The headboard was on, abuzz with a thin vision, skipping like a disc, saying your name over and over, a techno love song. Bot, Bot, Bot. I could see you out of the corner of my left eye, shaking your head. I turned to you with relief but just before you fled, you took my cold hands in your lightning ones, you looked into my eyes, and you admonished me.
Namwali Serpell is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her essays have appeared in Critique, Narrative, The Believer, and in an essay collection called On the Turn: The Ethics of Fiction in Contemporary Narrative in English. Her fiction has been published in Callaloo, Tin House, The Best American Short Stories 2009, and The Caine Prize Anthology. She is currently working on a new novel, Zombia, which is set in Lusaka, Zambia.