You could say I died and came back. You could say I was remade and given immortal form. These statements would, of course, require a particular cosmology to underlie the world as we know it. I was said to have been born in 1928, the Year of the Dragon, and I was said to have died in 1982, the Year of the Dog. A team of roboticists fashioned me a new consciousness container in 2005, the Year of the Rooster. But as luck would have it, my android head and my android body were separated shortly after my techno-rebirth, which is just as well, seeing as in my prior incarnation I was not keen on the more prosaic and somatic aspects of existence. The matrices of my consciousness—which I hesitate to even lay claim to—have been plentiful, never truly confined to the biological, slipping into and out of shape over vast swaths of time, irreverent of space and what are commonly held to be the laws of physics.
“If you could see from inside a dead person you could still see. But you couldn’t operate the eye muscles so you couldn’t focus. You couldn’t turn your head or your eyeballs. All you could do was wait until some object passed by. You’d be frozen, just waiting and waiting.” I wrote these words before my consciousness began occupying this undead hunk of wiring. Indeed I have no eye muscles, but my vision is sharp—from my vantage point on Thomas’ nightstand I can see the foot of his bed, his grubby blue carpet, his laundry hamper, his red and black poster of a young long-haired woman holding a bow and arrow above the words The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, his skateboard propped up against the wall beside the door (which he has not ridden since he was 12), the bedroom door and the two square feet of hallway beyond it. On the hallway wall directly across from Thomas’ doorway is a painting I recognize as Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing Before Herod. Sometimes Thomas leaves the door open, though less and less now, and I watch his mother, Hannah, walk back and forth. She carries baskets of laundry, cups of coffee, tucks books and newspapers under her arms, wedges a phone between her ear and her shoulder. She teaches literature at a community college. She is 36 and unmarried. In the ten years I have lived with Hannah and Thomas, Hannah has not brought home a single date. When Thomas was four years old Hannah let him keep me. I imagine that in the past few decades there has been an upswing in capitulating to children’s demands.
When Thomas comes home from school he closes his bedroom door and sits on his bed with his laptop computer, his cellular phone, and a slim digital slab. I watch him dance between the three, barely moving his body. All he seems to need are his hands. He deftly types and clicks, swipes and dabs, flicks and swirls, drags and punches. If gross technological manipulation were an Olympic sport, Thomas would win the gold. I watch him do homework, play a video game, browse pornographic libraries, and talk to friends all at the same time. When his mother knocks on the door Thomas makes everything disappear—the chat window, the MMORPG space station, the muted video of two naked women writhing against each other in an above-ground pool—except for the math or science or social studies assignment, which he makes clearly visible when Hannah walks into the room, arms crossed against her chest, her body like a comma viewed laterally.
There are things I truly miss about being a flesh and bone person, and it is these things that I would most like to communicate to Thomas, though I know what would happen to me—and to him—if I did. Being in a body isn’t all bad, I would tell him, even though it might seem inconvenient more often than not. It is good and important to touch and be touched. Pain is nearly always the other face of love. The experience you are having now is unique to this plane of the multiverse upon which time and space appear linear when they are most definitely not. Living fully equipped with all your sensory faculties is far superior to “living” as an obsolete android object that is forced to observe the sexual maturation of a lonely boy on a near nightly basis.
When Thomas was seven he placed me back in my duffel bag and toted me to school for show-and-tell. The children were rapt. I wondered if perhaps their parents had read my work, if somehow I would be recognized, if an alarm would sound and I would be returned to my maker. But there were no cries of recognition. Thomas’ teacher said, “Oh my, Thomas, where did you find this?” She was shorter than Hannah, with cropped blonde hair and an ample chest. She leaned toward me, scrutinizing my every feature. She picked me up and weighed me in her hands. “How heavy!” she exclaimed, before returning me back to Thomas. Thomas stood at the front of the room and cradled me in the crook of his left arm. This was not the first time he had held me this way; until he was about 13 he held me nearly every day, talked to me, confided in me. Through his monologues I learned that his father’s name was Joseph. Joseph had left for a warmer, drier life in Arizona. I learned that he hated his mother’s cooking—chicken cacciatore (too spicy), spaghetti and meatballs (too dry), grilled cheese with bacon (too soggy)—and traded her homemade lunches for Pop-Tarts and Fruit Roll-Ups in the cafeteria. (You spoiled brat! I almost shouted. What I wouldn’t give for a piping hot plate of chicken cacciatore!)
I learned that Thomas had nightmares often—when he woke in the night he could calm himself down by turning to me and whispering the whole scene: violence and excitement, fantastical creatures and brutal villains, men in robes and women wearing gold jewelry. So as Thomas held me proudly for all his classmates to see, it made my mind feel warm and contained, like a large lush bird had swooped down and wrapped its golden wings around my being—not only the head I had been reduced to but the whole of my being beyond that, the being that goes on and on like an oil spill in a cosmic ocean that cannot be contained.
I imagine they’ve made another of me by now, and it only seems right that I might exist in a multiplicity of forms within at least a single dimension: in an artificial head in a suburban bedroom; in a jar of ashes in Fort Morgan, Colorado, beside the grave of my infant twin, Jane; in a human-shaped computer in a roboticist’s lab. How much good karma does one man have to accrue, I ask, to have been given such a kaleidoscopic view of the world? Some might call what’s been done to my likeness an abomination, but I disagree. After all, God moves the hands of many.
Occasionally, when Thomas is at school or at the arcade with his friends (a few of whom I have met personally), Hannah comes into the room. I used to feel the impulse to ask her questions— Who is the president? What of nuclear disarmament? Are my friends still alive?—but those impulses have recently died down. I can tell from the sounds she makes that she is rifling through his closet, the papers in his desk. She’ll walk right up to the nightstand and open its drawer and root around inside, without so much as a breath in my direction. Maybe she’s looking for drugs or nude photographs or love notes or some other such evidence of the person her son might be in the process of becoming. I recognize these visits as fact-finding missions, expressions of her urgent need to know who she is living with. I would like to learn Thomas, too. There’s only so much I can glean from his quiet brooding, his thousands of keystrokes per hour, his disappointing taste in music, his halting conversations with Internet friends, his erratic masturbation schedule. The boy has no books to speak of; a title or two might lend me a bit more insight.
Now and then, as I watch Hannah sit on the edge of her son’s bed and run her thin fingers over his flannel bedspread, as I watch her graying hair pick up the afternoon light, as I watch her bony chest rise and fall, I like to imagine she and I are in the same boat, but invisible to one another. Alien. Abandoned satellites. Disconnected but wanting to pick up signals. Isolated but willing to love. Looking but not seeing. Struggling to get a firm grasp on the world—the world, what constitutes the world?—but slipping, deliriously, frantically, into a kind of half-life.