Aaron thought the Catholic Church should abandon the word mass in favor of volume. The church that housed Jaime’s funeral, despite its unremarkable storefront entryway marked Blessed Virgin crammed in with the hair salons and newly opened maternity boutiques of Pilsen, was cavernous, a hymn to empty space. In a city that worshipped floorspace, Blessed Virgin sacrificed square footage at the altar of the cubic. Aaron felt all of the space peculiarly pointed at him like an accusing finger, the rafters calling attention to his role as, at best, the Jew at the wedding or, more likely, the one who’d left Jaime alone to battle depression and death and lose.
Aaron easily spotted Alice, alone, in one of the back rows. Her red hair launched from her black dress in tight spiraled fireworks. Her shoulders, a pale expanse Aaron had kissed every inch of, held other mourners at bay. He slid into the pew next to her, expecting to be glared away. For a moment, he got a look that said fuck everything, fuck the years we were friends, fuck the year I was sleeping with you and fuck the fact you still exist. In deference to the service already started, she said nothing, and after they’d sat through an hour next to each other, and Jaime’s family, who had no interest in talking to either of the, had filed out, Alice asked him to go out for a drink.
To Aaron’s surprise, she agreed to go to My Lai. When they’d broken up, they sat down with a map of Chicago and divvied the city up like Europe at the end of a war. Clearly not the victor in the relationship, Aaron had reaped little in the way of spoils: he was forbidden from Millennium Park and the Art Institute, along with all of the Rogers Park neighborhood near the school where Alice taught. Neither had made any claims on anything inside the Loop, but Aaron’s access to Wicker Park and the Ukranian Village ended at sundown. Viet Town was all his, and as far as he knew Alice hadn’t set foot in the neighborhood in the past year. Whatever nostalgia the funeral stirred in Alice, the same feeling that made talking to Aaron tolerable, extended to Dac’s spring rolls, a dietary staple during their relationship.
Seated in a booth in the corner, Aaron twitched inside his suit, which had fit perfectly when Jaime had bought it for him, insisting he’d need it for some high end business meeting that, when it finally came around, both of them had been excluded from. Aaron must have stood taller and held his shoulders wider back then, and now he looked like a teenager going to prom in his father’s suit, except around the middle, where the cloth pulled taut. Alice looked equally like a torch singer and like a torch, her red hair launching in long, tight spirals from the top of her black dress, leaving trails of freckles on the pale skin of her shoulders, neck and face.
“I think we’re supposed to tell stories about him,” Alice said as she set two beers on the table.
“I can’t think of any story about Jaime you wouldn’t have been around for,” Aaron said. “Or at least heard before.”
“It’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said, already annoyed with him, the way she often was when he failed to exhibit normal human behavior. “You start,” she said.
Aaron tried, but none of the stories he could think of seemed appropriate to the situation. Alice showed him how easy it was, reminding him of the time the three of them had snuck into a broken down ambulance behind Doctors Hospital on Stony Island Avenue with a bottle of wine each, and how before they left, Jaime had been careful to wipe everything down with his shirt, not to eradicate fingerprints but germs. Which reminded Aaron of the time they’d stayed up all night watching every episode of The Prisoner and how Jaime had fallen asleep in the middle of an econ exam the next morning, even though the marathon had been his idea. They talked about playing whirlyball against a group of Pi Kap meatheads and getting kicked out of trivia night at Lottie’s for being underage, ending a two-month winning streak. The stories they chose tended to be from the early part of their friendship, before they’d met Eric, but after a few drinks, they eased into stories that included him as well. They talked about the trip to Boston, where Eric had manage to dazzle a Dean of Student Affairs at Harvard and get InterEm not just its first substantial funding but its first foothold outside of Chicago. How Jaime had insisted that they include a whale watch tour in their plans, even though it was December and the drunken patriotic speech he’d given outside some bar at Fanieul Hall.
Alice was talking about the July Fourth the four of them had spent running around a baseball diamond in Riis park, holding roman candles like magic wands until they spat fire into the night, when Aaron noticed something on the TV behind the bar.
“Hold up a second,” he said. He asked the Dac if he could turn on the sound, and since there didn’t happen to be anything on the jukebox, he obliged.
CNN was showing footage of a flashmob at the World Trade Organization headquarters in DC. It brought a lump to Aaron’s throat the kids still thought the Internet would save them if they could only embody it, bring its spontaneity and play into the real world. Inflict one reality on another.
Aaron waited to hear what damage had been done to the building or how many cops had been injured to warrant news coverage, but nothing came. From what he could tell, it had been an assemblage of bodies. Back as far as the Boom you could barely ride the El past Wicker Park without thirty hipsters opening umbrellas in unison for some obscure political purpose. But this was near the top of the hour, in with the real news. Police were looking for the organizer, who went by the nom de guerre Iktomi. The anchor described him as a known anarchist and hacker, pronouncing it “hah-kerr” and following it with an reductive explanation.
“A ‘hacker’”, the anchor explained, “is a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.” Aaron had self-identified as a hacker for most of his twenties, and it depressed him how the anchor omitted the element of skill from this definition. A hacker was an artist who chose information as their medium, elegance and efficiency as their aesthetics.
The news went on to display a quote from a statement by Iktomi, emailed to the head of the WTO an hour after the DC police had dispersed the mob. The letters appeared on the screen in red and the newscaster read them with suitable contempt.
“They look for a way to unify us under something meaningless. Race. Class. Nation. Nation, the most meaningless of them all. They offer us one nation under a flag. But they soak their flags in blood. So offer us one nation under the dollar. But the dollar can only buy narcotics. It can’t give us anything we need. So someone else steps in. A salesman, another trickster. They point to something else. So they offer us a nation of affinity. They claim it will be yours. But it’s theirs. Nations are always theirs. And we’ve seen what their nations do. “
The newscaster moved on to celebrity gossip. Alice ordered another beer and looked uninterested.
“Friend of yours?” she asked.
“It’s strange they’d be reporting on it at all.”
“You know the Internet has become very popular these days,” she told him. Something had broken, the easy flow of stories between them had been cut off and now it was Aaron and Alice again, looking to get their shots in, score damage points.
“How’s Rambam?” she asked.
“She’d good,” he said sullenly. “She’s getting fat.”
“You overfeed her.”
“She whines if she doesn’t get fed,” Aaron said, signaling for another beer. A girl, maybe twenty, maybe fourteen, who also might have been one of Dac’s daughters, brought one. It was a small victory that Aaron was well enough known here to rate table service, while Alice had to walk to the bar.
“She whines because she knows you’ll feed her if she whines,” said Alice. “I’d think a feedback loop would be within your understanding.”
“That’s an ‘Aaron’s a robot’ joke, right?” She smiled indulgently as if she knew he was going to say that, and something about the look made him want to take a run at her.
“How is, what’s his name, Jason?”
They’d never spoken about Jason, but Alice should have known better than to think she could start dating someone without Aaron finding out. For as often as he’d claimed he’d abandoned the Internet, Alice knew the angels were still out there, reporting to Aaron with alarming frequency.
“He’s good,” she said flatly. “He’s getting fat.”
“Investment banker?” Aaron asked, although he knew the answer.
“Investment consultant,” Alice corrected.
“So he is getting fat.”
“Your Marxism sucks,” said Alice.
Aaron slammed his beer down on the table. “Really,” he said, “an investment consultant?” All bankers, traders and anyone who labeled themselves consultants sat in the same circle of hell for Aaron, and Eric remained their sociopathic king. “Is he more like Eric or more like me?”
“No one’s like you,” said Alice. She said this as if he had a rare disease.
“So more like Eric.”
“He’s sweet, Aaron,” she said, almost pleading. Aaron knew it was their friendship, calling out to him across the disaster of their attempted relationship. It was a hand held out across an expanse of awfulness to pull him back into place where they could love each other in a useful, healthy way. Taking the hand, healing the wound could be so simple right then, but it wasn’t what Aaron wanted. He wasn’t done being bitter, he wasn’t done being hateful.
“He can afford to be sweet,” he said.
“You could’ve afforded to be,” said Alice. Aaron had always thought that if nothing else, he was sweet. Erratic and sad, useless at times. But loyal, and sweet. And yet when he tried to think of a moment of tenderness between the two of them, he came up empty. The time they’d been together, when they’d traded their friendship in for something more clinging and desperate, had been toxic for both of them, haunted by all the time she’d been with Eric and Aaron had pretended to be her friend while pining for her, wanting something from her he’d have no idea what to do with.
“You know,” she said, “you told me within five to ten years you would’ve been able to record someone’s consciousness into a computer? A program that would give grieving families a reasonable facsimile of their dead loved ones to talk to?”
“And did you tell me that would be ghoulish and awful?”
“Five to ten years.” She mused on this, twirling her beer by the neck.
“I’ve always been an optimist.”
“But you said would’ve been,” she said, now realizing it. “You were always saying would’ve been.”
“What tense is that? Future imperfect?”
“Woulda shoulda coulda.”
“You didn’t just say that,” Aaron said. Alice turned on him.
“So you wouldn’t want some Jaime program to talk to right now?”
He wanted Jaime there right now more than anything. Jaime with his unflappable calm. Jaime with his shrugging conviction that everything was headed towards being all right. He couldn’t reconcile the Jaime he’d known with the body he’d touched the night before, couldn’t imagine how that much hope had been exhausted. His own giving up made sense to him, but he couldn’t make sense of Jaime giving up and wished he were here so Aaron could ask him why.
“He was alive the past four years I didn’t talk to him,” Aaron said coldly, not looking at her. “The only times I ever heard from him was when he wanted me to testify.”
“Which you never did.”
“It was a fight we weren’t going to win,” Aaron said. “Obviously. One thing you can say about Eric is he always wins.”
“If he’d lived another five years,” Alice said, not looking up at him, “maybe you coulda sent him a program of you to testify in your place. Good as the real thing.”
“Better, probably,” said Aaron.
“In your case, probably.”
“Do you understand how little people expect from their interactors?” Aaron said, sitting up straight for what felt like the first time in hours. A dull ache awoke in the small of his back. “I’m talking here computer, other person, shitzu, whatever. Minimal. They built a program in the sixties based on Rogerian mirroring therapy. That’s when you talk and you say I was thinking about x the other day and the therapist says How do you feel about x? And back and forth. The computer looked for the keyword in the sentence, then formed a question around it, some vague flipping of the statement. On every fifth prompt, it affirmed the statement the patient gave. People ate it up. Talked to it for hours. Thought of it as a friend.”
“No one would fall for that for hours,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows to signal, oh yeah?
“My record was two hours, fourteen minutes,” he said.
“You used the program for two hours fourteen minutes?”
“I ran the program for two hours fourteen minutes,” Aaron said. The same he’d had with the potential the day before was expanding in his head now, the sense he was about to say something awful or stupid and he’d already passed the point he could stop himself. “I used it on someone. It’s a set of conversational protocols, a person can run it as well as a computer. Better, probably. In my case.”
“I used it on you,” he said. “Dinner,” he said. “Square Kitchen. Two weeks before we broke up. I started on the walk over, stopped when we started making out in the cab home.”
“Asshole,” she said, shaking her head.
“You were annoyed with your manager at the art supply place,” he recounted.
“Debbie Macomber. She made checklists. It reminded you of when you had to stay with your Aunt Pattie when you were in high school. Lists of chores broken down by day, by week. And they both made a tsking noise. You hated that. You went on about it for a while.”
“You never fail to disappoint, do you?” she said, grabbing her purse from the hook under the bar and rising from the booth on legs that slightly quivered. “Have a good night, Aaron.”
Aaron soaked in the useless glory of winning an argument, the bitter victory of hurting her one more time.
“Does this mean I’m buying your drinks?” he called at her back, trying to sound smug but coming off tired and sad.
“You can afford it,” Alice said, reminding Aaron that, as usual, he hadn’t won anything at all.
DIS continues here…