The first time I see the robot inside my husband, I think I must be imagining it.
The alarm fractures my dreams, propels me into a hot cave of blankets, a haze of stale air. I roll over towards Rob, who is still sleeping, somehow immune to the alarm. His chest rises and falls like a massive, shifting landscape. I crawl closer to his face, kiss his nose. The contact is delicate, almost imagined, but it does what the alarm could not: he smiles a little and opens his eyes.
That’s when I see it: his left eye fizzing into pixels for a second, the pupil and iris and sclera all vanishing into a buzz of black and white, like a tiny television screen filled with static. Just his left eye. The one that people always say is the window to the soul.
The next moment, he blinks, and with that quick, reptilian flash of his eyelid, all is normal again. His smile is so complacent and full of love that I almost forget what I’ve just seen. He closes his eyes again, as if preparing for a return to sleep.
I nudge him with my elbow. “No, no more sleeping. You have to be at work soon.”
He groans in pretend agony.
Open your eyes again, I think. “Have any cool dreams?”
“Actually, I did.” Smiling again. He still doesn’t open his eyes. “It involved the actress from Get Out, though, so maybe you don’t want to hear it.”
“No, go on. Allison is all yours.”
“Not in this dream, sadly.”
“I’m starting to think you weren’t paying attention to the movie, Rob. You wouldn’t want her to be yours. But tell me the dream.”
“We were at this resort. You and me and her, with a bunch of fans. She was riding around on a turtle…no, a Galapagos giant tortoise. And then she fell off.”
“Tragic,” I say, and laugh.
Finally he opens his eyes again: deep pigment-streaked green, like emerald shot through with gold. Perfectly normal human eyes. No pixels. No fuzzing. He regards me sleepily, skin creased from sleep, the normally taut planes of his face softer and looser after lying on a pillow all night. “You look beautiful,” he says, “but you’re staring at me pretty intensely. I didn’t do something bad in your dream, did I? Is that why you’re looking at me like that?”
“No, it was just something about a lizard,” I invent. “I’ve forgotten the rest.”
On the way to work I scroll through the newsfeeds on my phone, trying to stop thinking, to let myself be lulled into a mindless daze by the hypnotic rectangle of light. But the whole time, I’m wondering what I saw this morning. That flash of squares. That quick, confused fizz, the way radio static would look if you could see it. A mess of pixels the colors of charcoal and snow.
At work, I spend most of my time at my desk staring at a spreadsheet, aware of my boss’s eyes on my back. I have about an hour’s worth of actual tasks to do, but the real work is spreading it out over eight hours in such a way that makes me look like I’m constantly occupied.
When my boss leaves the room, I type out a text to Rob: Have you had any trouble with your vision lately? I almost send it, then decide not to. Outside the window the sky is flat, stone-like, all color sucked out.
When I first met Rob four years ago, his eyes were what drew me in at first—their lucid brilliance, that drench of saturation—but as we spoke about our philosophies and interests, I realized how similar we were. As though someone had stamped me out twice, changing my gender and figure and everything except the pure core of me. Too good to be true, I’d thought. And even with time, as his inevitable, human flaws began to reveal themselves—his habit of leaving his shoes strewn over the floor, his penchant for diving down conspiracy theory rabbit holes, the irritating rasp of his snores—I realized they weren’t real flaws. Not the kind I’d been expecting, the kind I had seen in so many other men: the sideways look of contempt, the half-mocking laughter, the latent sliver of cruelty. The words Shut the fuck up cracking like a whip across my face.
But Rob—Rob has always touched me as though I were made of spun glass.
I think again: Too good to be true. Since we met, it’s as though I’ve been waiting for some ugliness, some previously unseen horror, to come around a corner and strike me in the chest.
My phone vibrates. It’s my sister, Melissa. She’s one of those girls you meet and think, “Oh, so this is who everyone means when they talk about why they didn’t want to be in a sorority.”
I text her that I’m at work and can’t talk, but her response comes through almost immediately. Please please please call me back in the bathroom.
The bathroom is oddly dim and smells like cleaning products on top of cleaning products on top of shit. I usually try to limit my water intake so I don’t have to go in here too often. Standing at the sink, I call Melissa back. It takes until the fourth ring for her to answer the phone—a pretty delayed response for someone so desperate to talk to me.
“Hey, Lissa. What’s going on?”
“Hello,” she says. Her voice is thin and oddly formal. “Did you go to the bathroom?”
“If you’re asking whether I’m in the bathroom right now, the answer is yes. If you’re asking about my recent bowel movements, I’m afraid I can’t answer that comfortably.”
“Oh, shut up, Erica. You’re not funny.”
“Sorry. I just think it’s a strange question. Does it really matter to you whether I’m in the bathroom or not?”
“Someone might hear,” she hisses. Then she sniffles. “I don’t want anyone to hear.”
My irritation with my sister dissolves. “What’s wrong?”
“Start with one thing. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she says, and sighs heavily. It goes on and on; it sounds like she’s been keeping dozens of sighs built up just for this moment. “I’m always fine. But William might not be after I’m through with him.” Despite the bravado in her words, she sounds more resigned than anything.
“Why? What happened?”
“He’s been fucking around again. Some girl from work. Why he thinks a phone contact named Randi with a monkey emoji texting him five times in a row after midnight wouldn’t be suspicious, I’ve no idea.”
“I know, right? Like, what kind of a name is Randi, anyway? I tried to speak to him about it but he just started gaslighting me. Like he always does.”
“Maybe you should think about seeing someone.”
“I don’t think so. Two wrongs don’t make a right.” She sighs raggedly. “And ironically, William’s the only man who appeals to me now. It gets worse and worse with every girl he fucks. I think he draws his attractiveness from them, like some kind of sex vampire. It’s fucked up, Erica. My brain’s trying to sabotage me.”
“I don’t mean have an affair,” I say. “I mean see a therapist.”
“A therapist?” She sounds bewildered, as though I’ve suggested she see an upholsterer. Then she sniffles again. “I don’t think so. I’m not like you.”
I glance in the mirror, catch my own eye. My pupils look larger than normal, expanding, seething with darkness. I glance up at the fluorescent lights and discover why it’s so dim in here: any illumination the bulbs give off is filtered through a thick crust of dirt and mold.
“What does that mean?” I ask her. I saw a therapist every week during the last two years of college—partially because my parents were willing to pay—and it helped to have someone to vent to about academic stress and relationship problems, someone who wasn’t allowed to judge but only offer suggestions and advice. Although the way Melissa talks about it sometimes, you’d think it was a six-month stint in a psychiatric facility.
A pause, so long that I begin to wonder if she’s accidentally muted herself. Finally: “I’m just not sure I could talk to a stranger about something like this. I don’t think I have the strength.” It’s the closest I’ll ever get to a compliment from her.
And then, her voice shifting to a lower register, she asks, “Rob’s never done anything like this to you, right?”
“No,” I say—my response knee-jerk, almost mechanical in its automaticity. “Never.”
Even her silence is skeptical. Finally: “Do you think you would know if he did? I mean, no offense, Erica, but you don’t look through his phone or anything, do you? So, there is a slight chance he could be fucking around and you’d never even know.” Her voice lifts, as though her spirits are finally raising.
“Can we not speculate about my husband’s loyalty? I didn’t hide in the bathroom to talk to you about this. In fact, I need to get back or they’ll think there’s something wrong with me, so—”
“Wait, no, that’s not what I meant. It’s just, you know, most women know what it feels like. I was just wondering if…if you could relate to me.” Her words hang in the air for several moments. I imagine them creeping around Melissa’s shoulders with long, spindly fingers, tracing the cheeks that are so much thinner and sharper than mine. I’m glad the words are not in the actual room with me. Although, if you think about it, they are. Coming through the phone and all. I hold it a little further from my ear.
At this moment I know that, even if Rob were parading a whole conga line of women through our living room every day, I would cheerfully insist to Melissa that nothing was wrong.
“I can’t relate, Lissa,” I tell her. “Sorry.”
I get home before Rob, as usual. Moving slowly and casually, as though I’m acting out of nothing more than idle curiosity, I open up my laptop and type into Google: Pixels in eye. Of course I get nothing beyond tutorials on how to pixelate eyes in photography, digital art, et cetera.
I type in a few more vague sentence fragments—some fear pulls at me, prevents me from typing a full description into Google. I’m not even sure what I’m most afraid of: ending up in some isolated corner of the internet, maybe, on a message board teeming with paranoid people, all similar to me. Finding out that I have not just garden-variety anxiety but a grave psychotic disorder: something that would mean cocktails of medications with nightmarish side effects, trips in and out of mental hospitals, therapy not a weekly band-aid but a daily required fixture in my life. Nobody ever seeing me as normal again.
Or maybe it would be worse to find out that what I saw is real.
I finally type, I think my husband is a robot. Disappointment and relief mingle, bleeding into each other, when I still don’t find anything similar to my situation. Instead, I have stumbled upon a trove of forum posts like He’s acting like a robot or My husband is so robotic and distant, I don’t know what to do.
I click on some of the links, and the content is depressing. I’ve stumbled into a bleak world populated by wives whose husbands have changed, have become robots in metaphor if not reality: taking little to no interest in their children’s upbringing, spending more and more time at work or on their phones, losing interest in sex, throwing money at OnlyFans creators from their shared bank accounts. While their wives stand in the other room, motionless. Listening to the unchanging pulse of traffic outside and thinking, This is it, this is all there is. And night after night lying beside their husbands’ snoring forms, staring up at an indistinct ceiling, their wishes and hopes vanishing unremembered into the flickering dark.
It would be worse, far worse, if Rob were like that. I picture him undeniably human but unseeing, his eyes not fuzzing into pixels but instead shifting away from me, gripped by the television, by the promise of some other reality more remote and desirable than this one.
Rob has always wanted to look at me. I’ve never thought of myself as beautiful—a premature hunch to my back, my face muted and sullen next to Melissa’s contoured glow—but he swears he sees something different every time he sees me. Last week he compared me to a fox goddess. He was high at the time, holding a joint and leaning out the window to exhale smoke into the cold outside, his skin leaking a scent like woodsmoke and crushed spices. “There’s nothing foxlike or goddess-like about me,” I said, laughing, gesturing to my baggy jeans and flat chest, “so that doesn’t even make sense,” but he insisted that it made perfect sense. “Undeniably goddess-like,” he said, tracing the curve of my hip with his free hand, “and undeniably fierce,” and then I rolled my eyes and showed him that I was indeed fierce by getting on my knees and pulling his jeans off and making him gasp.
The memory blooms in my mind. It builds like a massive, glittering cloud and then fractures, tears apart.
Rob comes home later that evening. He hugs me, the first thing he does whenever he gets home, and I look into his eyes. Nothing there but the beautiful, dizzying green.
We watch a movie together, something about giant insects and the end of the world, and I fall half-asleep on his shoulder. After the movie is over we remain there in the dark and the quiet, Rob’s arm around me. Its familiar weight is reassuring, gravitational. My mind wanders to Melissa and how she and William might be faring. I picture them at opposite ends of their sprawling, luxurious apartment: she curled up against the living room wall, he hunched in the corner of his study, as far away from each other as they can get without actually leaving the premises.
It’s always seemed strange to me that she calls him by his full name, rather than Will or Bill. But those nicknames, Bill especially, seem to denote a domesticated, roly-poly partner. There is something more distant about “William,” something cold and elusive in those tall, thin l’s flanked by icy i’s. Perhaps my sister, who in her childhood was always developing crushes on cruel teachers and dead historical figures, gravitates towards things like that. Although to be honest, it’s probably not what she needs.
“Does anyone ever call you Robert?” I ask my husband.
“No, not since I was a kid. And that was usually when I’d done something wrong. Well, people do call me Robert in emails sometimes. Which has the effect of making me feel, for half a second, like I’m about to get in trouble.” He smiles. “Why?”
“Just wondering. No reason really. I like that you have two names.”
“And you just have the one. Wait, don’t tell me you want me to start calling you Eric. Or Er.”
“Er,” I say. “Sounds like err. Like an error. To err.” My tone is light, but I feel his arm stiffen around me.
“Come on, don’t do that,” he says.
“Don’t put yourself down.”
“I wasn’t,” I say. “I was just saying why Erica is a name that probably shouldn’t be shortened.”
“If I remembered anything from my college linguistics course, I’d tell you the word root of your name, because I’m certain it has nothing to do with err. It’s probably something to do with I don’t know, flowers, or some typically feminine quality like kindness or beauty or warmth.” He hugs me a little tighter to him. “But sadly, I remember nothing, so we’ll just have to go with…”
“Warmth,” I say. “Warmth is always good.”
By the next day, I’ve almost convinced myself things are normal. I click through spreadsheets at work, avoid the bathroom as much as possible, and dodge sporadic LinkedIn updates crowing about my old classmates’ successes. My earlier fears seem far away, like a memory from long ago that someone else related to me. Negative space filled in with too much worrying, too much stress and not enough sleep, a remembered flash of a dream.
But then, at dinner, Rob yawns. His mouth opens unnaturally wide, as though he’s showing me on purpose: jaw unhinging, a serpentine unlatching. And at the back of his throat, a glimmer of silver. I hear a tiny mechanical click.
“What?” I say reflexively. Confusion, the whirring of sirens in my brain. I’ve looked down my own throat countless times—checking for swollen tonsils, for white spots on the skin—and I’ve never seen anything like that. Of course: there is no metal in the throat. Rob doesn’t even have any fillings.
He covers his mouth. “Sorry. That was rude of me. My mom would be appalled.”
“No, I didn’t—” I shake my head. “Never mind.”
“You okay? Are the noodles too spicy for you?” He gets up and goes to the fridge. “Milk will help. A little-known trick my mother showed me. It’s much better than water.”
I watch him as he takes the milk out and pours it into a glass. My stomach feels hot, poisoned, like a cloud of smoke. I’ve never actually looked down Rob’s throat. I mean, I’ve never had to. What if there is some exposed wiring down there? A hint of metal?
“Thanks,” I say, and take the milk he offers me. It’s cool and slow and smooth as it goes down. I picture it filling my stomach in a cloud of dreamy white, and this whiteness then spreading up to my brain, blurring everything, paling my thoughts into nothingness.
We lie in bed that night, talking softly, telling one another old stories from our lives before we met. As he speaks, my mind wanders off, replaying what I saw. Yes, there were these two things. But the rest of him is so…so human. And after four years together, I’m only noticing those tiny things now.
A disturbing thought: What if all men are like this? Or half of men? There’s no proof that my exes weren’t like this, too. Or every man I ever dated, everyone I ever let into my home and body and brain. Perhaps if I leave Rob I will never find a human man and will end up alone, mourning the loss of an otherwise wonderful relationship. Or, worse, perhaps I’ll search and search and finally meet a non-robot man, someone who is human beyond all doubt, and he will turn out to have that sliver of cruelty again. That dark violence I thought I escaped from.
What’s that saying—never look a gift horse in the mouth. As Rob speaks, relating an almost-forgotten story from his childhood, I avoid looking him in the eyes. I focus my gaze on his nose instead. It’s completely human, covered with pores and freckles, barely visible in the weak moonlight. When I lean into him his breath is warm, familiar. I bury my nose in his neck and in that moment, inhaling the scent of his skin, I can’t bring myself to care about the truth beneath.
After all, the brain is really nothing but a map of neural networks. All of my thoughts and feelings and memories—everything I’ve ever experienced, everything that makes up my consciousness, my perception of life—are nothing but the product of signals rippling from one neuron to the next. Each thought an electro-chemical reaction, an electrical signal cresting through the brain and branching out to billions of neurons. It sounds pretty computer-like when you put it that way.
My chest is flush against his. I can feel the beating of his heart—or, perhaps, his mechanical heart. But it’s steady and it’s there for me. I let my eyelids flicker closed and relax into his warmth.
Senses or input.
Cells or wires.
Neurons or circuitry.
Is there even any difference in the end?