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Karolina Letunova

October 31, 2018


Once there were dogs and cats, and the differences escaped Maria, but these creatures she’d seen in an obscure history show tugged at her, the clicking of their paws, the insistent lean of their small sturdy bodies, their desire to be inseparable. She imagined their shape and weight, added silky fur, the sound of their panting, and the visual of their pleading eyes. After she tweeted about it, her custom holo-three skin for the PET (Purchasing and Entertainment Tablet) became a hit.

SunriseGlo swells the glass wall sunrise-yellow and pink. The illusion of rising at dawn used to make her think that she could do anything. She imagined that’s how Nel felt running CleanUp Inc. She ought to be busy admiring and recording the day’s arrivals, then rushing to remove all the evidence before Nel returned. But today the pink looks fake and no matter how many MemoryFilters she chokes down, nothing feels the same and everything comes back to Nel.

The tablet lingers by her ankle, bobbing slightly. It follows her from room to room throughout the day, the screen in its back shrinking and expanding. She pats her lap. After it leaps into her arms, she turns off the PET mode, the tablet reverting to its rectangular default, and cancels the SunriseGlo window-film subscription. Maria didn’t think of it as concealing what needed to be witnessed, whatever that meant to Nel, but at least if Nel came back, she’d like that it was gone. The pink fades. The left side of the living room window is smeared with layers of grayish-white pigeon shit. The sun burns through the layers of shifting smog, lone rays bounce off the surfaces of the buildings below—the two-hundred-story buildings rising over the mass of the hundred-story ones. Their Home floats thousands of feet above what her mother used to call high-rises. “It’s all upside down now,” her mother had said, when Maria finally convinced her to ascend, her fingers digging into Maria’s forearm. She watched them flicker in a sea of smog and added, “the stars used to be above.” She never came back. Maria likes to layer MemoryFilters over her death and sometimes it almost works.

The PET announces the arrival of the delivery barge by whining and darting between her and the elevator. Her body seems to weigh twice its usual as she takes the elevator down to the dock. Nel’s toolbox is still there—it’s been days, so maybe this time she really did leave for good. Maria pushes the thought away. The dock’s doors slide open, revealing the abyss of smog, the air and the wind moving like a great beast, the stink of the landfill reaching towards her. She sways on the balls of her feet and the fear that scares her into stepping back is not of falling, pain, or death, but of ending up back in the landfill.

The delivery barge rises from the smog, sound dampeners hissing, aligns to the dock opening, and slides open its top to reveal her spoils. Since Batlló, she had kept herself from borrowing what she really wanted, the pieces that made buildings come alive, two-dimensional people carved into columns, fused into the plaster in the frescoes, or even better, the buildings’ fierce protectors, the bared fangs and watchful eyes of those guarding an abode. They made her come alive too, breathlessly putting her hand inside the snarling mouth of her first fu dog, squealing in delight at the sight of the last gargoyle, imposing despite its broken wings.

The barge contains a stack of paintings by Renoir and Monet, a baby grand piano, the last handmade one. Fine things, blossoming of their makers’ obsessions, yet also detached, prone to drifting, inert. Today, Maria can’t face all of it crowding into the living room, recording the items into the deco filter, sending them back to the museums and private collections they came from. She instructs the robot to send them all back.

The house robot chimes an alarm that the piano lender has gone bankrupt and there is nowhere for it go. Maria leans in and apologetically strokes the smooth black expanse of its top. The delivery barge lowers altitude to wait for the trash barge.

“It’s not my fault,” says Maria to Nel’s toolbox, standing in the corner like a silent accusation, the pursed mouth of its lid crimped shut, its bland facade and its mysterious contents defying her feeble attempts at understanding. After the dock’s doors close, Maria pries the toolbox open and examines Nel’s gadgets. She can’t even guess at their purpose, but their handles are worn smooth by Nel’s hands and she touches where Nel would have grasped them. She picks them up and runs their handles behind her ear, down her neck and between her breasts. She traces the contour of her lips with their indifferent edges. This morass of landfill Nel obsessed over, it wasn’t theirs, they didn’t create it. Nel kept on about how if everyone stopped consuming non-essentials, they could work through the layers of landfill, unearth the thin layer of disappearing soil somewhere underneath its stinking sludge, but for as long they all kept adding, the trash tide kept rising. She wanted Nel close, but Nel was busy pushing against the pollution problem like a proud and deluded Sisyphus, rolling mounds of trash up a hill only to have more crash back down on her. Maria thought that Nel’s plan was already sufficient. As the landfills rose, Nel’s CleanUp Inc built the skyscrapers taller from the recyclable materials. The grayish light was more than Maria had ever had, her mother’s studio made subterranean by the rising landfill, sludge seeping through the window cracks, the mass settling in the night with grievous sighs, an occasional window giving in and neighboring studios flooding with refuse. Walking stairwell after stairwell, failing to keep count, her thin legs burning, until LEDs gave way to grayish daylight, so soft against her eyelids that as a child she had tried to put some in a jar to take it back down with her. And then Nel fell out of the sky. Her glider had malfunctioned. Air-punched by the downdraft, Maria had landed on her back, trying to find the space that used to exist in her chest for breathing. Then this elegantly ruffled stranger ran up and placed her cool palm on Maria’s forehead and her eyes seemed to absorb every ache Maria had ever had. “Thank you,” Maria had mumbled, or something equally insufficient, confused that a human touch could feel so good. The stranger had smiled her relief. “I am so sorry, I lost control. The override to manual gets confused when the landing surface is so uneven. I’m Nel,” she said, tugging on a fistful of her ruffled short hair. Noticing the CleanUp Inc logo on Nel’s blue shirt, Maria lied that she was volunteering and not rooting through trash to find things to resell, and flirted subtly enough that Nel came back for her. Yet she made something of herself, all those days, months, years alone when Nel was out working. She learned and learned, inspired by that first documentary she had seen about Casa Batlló. The building stuck with her, art and a family house made indivisible, the beauty tearing at her belly with how inseparable it was from the simple function of shelter. Perhaps that’s how MutualLov would feel; Nel finally inseparable from Maria.

Back in the living room, she pauses near the deco-filter, its wall-sized touch screen emerging from the wall, shedding the guise of plaster. She could paint the walls with Alhambra’s tiled tessellations, add stone reliefs of arabesques, soak up the contrast of their geometric and sinuous lines until she stopped craving the sharp lines of Nel’s nose and the softness of her lips. Instead, Maria curls up in the nest couch, seeking the scent of Nel’s skin and her rose-rain perfume. Comfort over looks, lovebird. Nel’s wry tone, the exhale of the last syllable a hot burst in Maria’s ear, its absence cold. As Nel only ever sat in the nest couch, that’s the only physical piece of the original living room. Maria didn’t set out to throw it all away, upending Nel’s ugly bookshelf into the trash barge after Nel canceled their dinner for a work emergency, hurling her old clock with a grunt, the shatter like the tinkling of a chandelier in her silent evening, but Nel’s things crashing into the trash barge reverberated in Maria’s sinews to the timbre of justice, so she substituted piece by piece, a slight for a slight. She found that storing Nel’s possessions in the deco-filter made sense. They shimmered out of sight when Nel left—seamless, thanks to the tracker that Maria installed on Nel’s glider years ago. She didn’t want to risk Nel catching the extent of her decorating obsession, so the deco-filter turned on the Original Living Room preset whenever Nel’s glider docked. When Nel’s glider left the dock the deco-filter turned off the preset, revealing the naked pale gray bodies of the basic furniture molds. At first, she had hated how the molds looked—mass-produced humorless blobs, but then she began to see them as raw materials for her expression, ready to transform into any of the artifacts Maria had recorded with the deco-filter over the years. Venus de Milo had been a favorite, until Maria noticed herself talking to the sculpture to pass the daytime hours, its holo-three animation rendering it too real, nodding along to Maria’s monologues, bending sinuously under her touch. Ashamed and thinking of Nel, only of Nel, she deleted Venus from her database, belatedly unsure if the original had gone back to the Louvre. It was then, Maria sitting in the empty darkening Home, waiting for the sound of Nel’s landing glider, when the first MutualLov ad floated onto her screen, mesmerizing her with how peaceful the buyers looked, secured in the Highest Homes in plush reclining chairs, their faces wearing beatific smiles of contentment, their eyes emptied of all suffering.

Maria rarely descends anymore. It is wasteful to use fuel to go so far, she had once told Nel—back when Nel still asked if she wanted to come with her. She didn’t tell Nel the real reason, that she felt like an artifact herself out there. When YouTube University voted her channel down, the message was clear. No one cared anymore about Esthetics of Architecture. The comments popped faster than she could read them: “higher-world problems,” “elitist hack,” “come down and we’ll show you the real world.” Those were the mildest. She didn’t fear for her safety, for few had the resources to ascend, and if any did the security would keep them out, but it couldn’t keep out the hollowness that arched in her chest. Worse than vestigial, she was passé. The squeeze in her throat pushes tears into her eyes. She forces a swallow, imagining her neck is that of a vase, in balance with its wider base, meant to hold things put into it. She taps her thigh to call the house robot. A knee-high cube with rounded edges, it hovers closer and ejects her dosage onto its mirrored top. She grabs MemoryFilters from the surface, sucks the tangy pills against the roof of her mouth. The worst part was that Nel held her, made cooing sounds, then said, as Maria relaxed into the comfort of being understood, “but they are not entirely wrong.” Maria had howled as she tore out of Nel’s arms.

The house robot’s mass-manufactured exterior grinds at her senses, and she kicks him. He whirrs away. The MemoryFilters wipe at the memory of YouTubeU, making it seem like a bad story told by a stranger. If only they made MemoryClarifiers too, Maria would search for the day when they woke up and didn’t reach for each other. She’d search for the day when Nel left without coming back to kiss her. The day when she heard Nel’s glider dock and didn’t get up to say hello. The day they stopped calling each other lovebird. She imagines that if she found the root of the distance between them, pushing them to the different rooms of their Home, to the opposite sides of their bed, then she could excise it from their Home and find her way back to Nel. The room is too bright, the smog outside luminescent with the heat of the distant sun. The tablet nudges her with its red velvet corner and she finds window-film that simulates clouds and rain. She pays extra for Urgent Exterior Cleaning and hides her face in the crook of her elbow, waiting for the brightness to recede.

When she lifts her elbow, dusk swaddles the room, cleaners scraping invisibly beyond. She turns on her back, glides her fingers over the fabric, and blinks at the room around her. The process of searching for the arrangement that fed her senses was a creative process, she told herself. She wasn’t one to be satisfied with the mass-produced. She craved things shaped by one person’s inimitability. A noble pursuit, for there were so few people who appreciated such things anymore. Consumed with squalor, the masses below were lost. But she found the objects and through them found herself, if for a moment. When a curator, in a rare moment of intimacy, told her that the general population used to look at their collections, she thought he was joking. Came to look at the real thing? Art for the masses in the literal sense? She only wanted to share her finds with others like her. Not with the groping eyes of the nameless crowd, who always wanted more than they could have. She had been so excited when her YouTubeU course launched, she was going to share her deco-filter database with all her students, with everyone. She could just see herself basking in the accolades, the glint of admiration in the public eye, but they denied her, mocked her passion, so now she will deny them and enjoy her treasures by herself.

Nobody got that her efforts were downright beneficiary. She paid the price and returned the wares to their respective museums. If she had something removed, like portions of Sagrada Familia, then she had those flown back and reassembled, if the building still stood. The documentary about Casa Batlló was the first special she saw on the Higher channels during her first week in Nel’s home. Since then, she had hungered for the forms shaped by Gaudi’s hand, especially for Casa Batlló. An artful excess of a house, it rose like a fairytale affront to the squalor of what other people called homes. The otherworldly magic of it felt fitting for how her life had changed, and it stayed on her mind through the years. She longed for the swirling rainbow colors of the trencadís mosaic and the melting voluptuousness of the sea-blue tiles, but most of all she longed for the sensuous wooden shapes of the doors, the staircase rail, and the curving window frames. They flowed and contained no more of a sharp corner than one would find in a woman’s face.

She delayed the gratification of seeing the Batlló pieces in person until that day a year ago, when she could find nothing else she wanted, and Nel’s absence filled the Home to the brim just like its filtered air. She passed on the exterior fragments of Montjuic sandstone shaped like human bones, and she passed on the ironwork balconies shaped like skulls, but ordered a sample of everything else, including the electric-blue tiles of its serpentine roof. She spent a day caressing the pieces, and although she had the deco-filter record them, she didn’t want to let them go. Hardest of all was a brass door handle, elliptically smooth, molded to fit a hand. Usually she hurried, recording as many things as she could before it was time to clean up the evidence, but when she slipped that handle into her hand, the rush inside her had quieted. The handle seduced her with its simplicity, its curve cooling her skin, the comfort of its weight locating her gravity, reaching through her all the way to the center of the Earth, tethering her with an invisible line to everything else. She imagined telling Nel that she had a surprise for her, the two of them sitting down in the nest couch, Maria placing the handle into Nel’s hand, her eyes widening in surprise, her lips parting with the pleasure of it. Maria folding her hands around Nel’s, Nel nodding that she understood now and she was sorry that it took her so long. The brass handle would earn an honored place in their home, treasured for restoring their connection, for helping Nel understand what Maria knew all along. Except she’d have to explain the rest of it, the daily trash barge, and maybe for Nel the handle couldn’t outweigh the flow of possessions, the tide of them pounding their doorstep. Maria tucked the handle under her mattress, then thought better of it. She had the deco-filter record an empty corner and put it there, but it seemed insufficient and she couldn’t stand the thought of Nel stumbling into it and discovering her secret. Maria held the handle till the last minute, then placed it on the robot’s top as it finished loading.

Two days later, she received a message from the Casa Batlló owners. The PET translated in a monotone the owners’ shouts. The tiling they removed could not be put back. Listening to their voices break off and come up for air, weeping over the building that was once a magical beast, she wanted to dissolve into the smog. After a few message exchanges, they accepted her payment to restore the historic building as a holo-three illusion, and she paid for a holo-four, imagining a faint scent of the passing centuries, the molecules of want and wonder left by the visitors who had become dust themselves. They should have known before they dismantled it, she thought, trying to forget about it. Flushed, she argued with herself that no one cared anymore anyway. She was one of the last ones. On the morning of the day that Nel found her out, nothing signaled trouble.

“Have a good day, lovebird,” Maria had murmured, forgetting in her half-sleep that they hadn’t called each other lovebird in months, maybe years. Wanting the good part of the memory to last, Maria taps her fingers on her thigh and the house robot rolls up. She snatches a MemoryLast pill and pops it in. Her senses slow down, reliving Nel’s softening face as she cancelled her morning meetings, the silk of Nel’s skin under the sheet, Nel’s teeth grazing her clavicle. Maria giggles and stretches, the pleasure trilling through her body. Then the memory thins and spreads, cracking and dissolving. Maria pops another MemoryLast, crunching it in frustration, and cries out as she bites her tongue. Tears wet the corners of her eyes as the memory slips out of her grasp and surges in a direction she resents. With a few taps, Maria changes the tablet into a PET and cradles it to her chest, curls around it. She hates what happened next and she can’t stop reliving it.

Nel’s wi-screen lit up on her wrist, alerting her to a meeting, and she rolled out of bed. Maria blinked after her, every inch of her skin buzzing with the feel of their shared warmth in the sheets. The elevator pinged and she heard Nel’s glider pull out from below their Home. She listened for the accelerating whoosh that gave Maria the license to go on with her day, but heard only a decelerating whirr, then silence.

Maria sat up and pressed her face to the glass, but she couldn’t see the glider. She got up, flinging her robe on, and walked across to the living room, turning off SunriseGlo. As she peered down, her breath caught at the sight. The trash barge.

It came to their residence every night and collected the day’s refuse from Maria’s decorating before Nel got home. She couldn’t understand why the trash barge showed up in the morning. She screamed for the PET and pulled up the delivery logs. The bastards from Casa Batlló had sent her the heap of dusty ceramic and wood back. As she had already declined it, the trash barge came to intercept the delivery barge.

Maria cowered and held her breath, as if by extension the barges would also become invisible. “Go,” she whispered, “go to work, Nellie. It’s nothing. It’s ok.” The barges served the Highest Homes. Nel wouldn’t know that these two barges served theirs exclusively.

The two airbarges scraped to a halt next to each other, Nel’s speck of a glider below them.

Usually the delivery barge pleased her eye with the orderly rectangles of its load, the trash barge with its peaceful emptiness. Yet this trash barge, rerouted, was already almost full, and the delivery one looked wrong too, a dirty jumble that it poured into the trash barge. The two suddenly looked the same.

Nel’s glider rose to the airbarges and hovered. Maria could picture her calling up the barges’ instructions on her wi-screen. She should have guessed that Nel would investigate any trash barge if its behavior puzzled her. Maria held her breath. Then the glider rose, taunting Maria with a moment of uncertainty, and swerved for the Home dock.

The thump of the landing glider triggered the deco-filter and their Original Living Room shimmered into view. Maria faced the elevator: the ping of the elevator, the whirring down, the closing of doors. She wanted this argument to pass and she wanted it never to begin at all. If only they could go back, start again from the irises strewn across the bed on their commitment night.

The doors slid open and Nel stood there, blood trickling out of the asymmetrical swoop of her haircut. “This fell out,” she said, twisting her right wrist back and forth.

Something must have fallen out of the trash barge and hit her on the head. She didn’t yet realize she was bleeding. Maria rushed to her, calling the robot for a skin graft, but Nel raised her left arm and her palm stopped Maria as if Nel punched her in the sternum.

Focusing on the object in Nel’s other hand, Maria’s realized with a start that it was the Gaudi door handle. Except Nel held it all wrong, a dead thing pinched between her index finger and thumb, instead of allowing its shape to fill her palm.

Nel staggered and leaned on the elevator frame. “You’ve had a daily trashbarge for the last seven years.” The blood passed the corner of her eye, slid down the side of her face, and into the hollow of her cheek.

More than anything in that moment Maria wanted Nel to switch her grip, to experience the comfort of an object fit for a human body. “I return it to the museums when I can, Nellie. The barge is usually empty. I like to support your workers however I can.”

Nel gripped the handle the way it was meant to be held, then shook it in front of her as if trying to wrench open an invisible door. “How empty?”

“Oh, virtually empty.”

Nel’s single exhale of a laugh landed like pigeon shit on the living room window. “I checked the records, it’s been at 60-75% capacity. Daily. For months.”

Surely it hasn’t. Maria never watched it load, the robots handled that, but no, it hadn’t been that full. She fidgeted her hands inside her sleeves and gripped the openings closed from the inside. “It must be a mistake. It was temporary, I was just trying to-”

“I am losing this battle.” Nel’s voice cracked as her face contorted, and she brushed at her temple, smearing the blood. “I thought you, of all people, could imagine another way.”

If only Maria could find the right words, but the despair expanding inside her cut her off at her throat and she craved a MemoryFilter. She clenched her fists inside her sleeves, trying to stop the finger tap necessary to call up the house robot.

Nel stared at Maria as if she were a stranger. Then she turned, the handle dropping from her hand with a thud, and took the elevator down to the glider.

Maria picked up the brass handle the way it was supposed to be held and clutched it to her chest, absorbing the fading warmth of Nel’s body.

In the silence that followed Nel’s departure, she choked down three MemoryFilters. They took the sting away and she tried to focus on a memory of Nel coming home with a bouquet of irises. Living purple petals with intriguing yellow patches. They had laughed and made out on the floor, irises flung around them, same as many years ago, and only a hint of bitter pill aftertaste remained.

It’s been almost a year and she takes regular MemoryFilters, but the Batlló memory stalks her around the flat. Maria presses her face into the corner of the nest couch, but there is no Nel there, only a hint of her perfume, or a memory of it. She slides down to the floor and cradles her head with her elbows, her thoughts pumping against her temples. That cursed Gaudi handle. Nel had taken its shape, so natural in one’s hand, and opened the door on Maria, catching her in the act, seeing her for who she was, someone undoing Nel’s work. If she could remember the day when her decorating took on a daily quality… and what? She couldn’t undo it. The PET doesn’t answer but wags its tail, eyes attentive as only when it needs help getting into the pet bed to charge, or wants her to look at something. It scrolls some ads on the screen in its back. She pushes the fur aside to see them better. Beautiful things, she only wanted to layer them onto herself, absorb the promises they whispered, eat them up, gorge herself. Furnish her home in the most beautiful objects, so they reflect their beauty to her. Preserve them, show them that someone still cared.

MemoryFilters haven’t erased Nel’s expression as she gripped that door handle. Maria downgrades the PET back into a tablet edged with velvet and increases its size so she can see better. She taps the screen, grasping for a distraction, flicks the images faster, plastering them over Nel’s face in her mind, contorted with repulsion. But Nel had it all wrong. It wasn’t all satisfaction from the outside in, as Nel had pleaded, hissed, and screamed, when they crashed into each other over the year since Maria’s daily airbarge had been discovered. It didn’t all go to the landfill, either, just some of it.

Another image catches her eye. Perhaps she doesn’t even need to live with the unlikely chance of Nel’s forgiveness. Even if Nel returned, it wouldn’t be the same. She would always know how long Maria had lied to her, she might even push hard enough into Maria’s origins, find out that she grew up on that landfill where they met. Perhaps a Maria who didn’t have other options would jump in a glider and bare herself to Nel’s almost certain rejection. But this Maria can buy the certainty she craves. She closes her eyes and thinks of the best moments with Nel, when she felt carbonated with joy, as if her boundaries had dissolved and there was nothing she lacked. She can buy that love, that certainty, that admiration. Oh, yes. She can buy it all. She would buy it all. Her most sublime purchase would cost the most. She could throw the trash barge in Nel’s face. You didn’t want me bringing beauty into our lives?! Sure, Nel. Now I don’t need things in your absence, and I don’t need you either.

Her fingers hover over the sample of MutualLov. She had circled around it many times. Watched the previews. The Highest of the Highest Homes cost the most and the Buyers relax in their custom chairs, their faces so serene. It tempts and scares her. If she tried it, would she come back from it, taste the real relationship again with any measure of satisfaction? Yet MutualLov calls to her, makes her fingertips itch and dries her tongue with longing. It would be like making love to Nel and it would be like floating on her back in a pool of warm clear water at the same time. She checks the price. They ration them to drive up demand, she knows that. But also, there are support costs surely. If she sampled it, she could still back away.

A screen alert quickens her pulse. There are only two packages left. She grips the tablet, her fingertips crushing ovals on its edges. She has enough funds to cover the lifetime MutualLov package. Once she pays, they will whisk her away higher than she ever imagined she could go. A robot rolls up with a calming concoction. She gags at the sweetness but drains the cup. Before the nauseating calm has a chance to subdue her, Maria stomps on the plastic cup, the crunch satisfying, and picks up the sharpest piece. Once she clicks the button, she will no longer know any different. She squeezes the sliver in her grip. Goodbye, lovebird. She imagines the shape of a bird, remembers one soaring overhead as she looked up, a snotty kid who had climbed to the top of the landfill for the first time, watching the gull circling, at one with the currents on which it lay its wings. Maria leans over the smooth top of the house robot, pressing towards a part of herself she’d never been able to reach, anticipation wetting her eyes with eager tears, but can’t manage a single scratch on its smooth surface.

With a few swipes, she upgrades the tablet to a fluffy PET and carries its wiggly warmth to the nest couch. Maria holds the PET tighter and breathes in Nel’s scent. She tells herself she can still smell it. She could have had the deco-filter record Nel’s scent, but she held on to this real old couch. She wipes her cheeks that are wet for some reason. There is one MutualLov package left.

Quick, it might sell out. Her finger hovers over the Buy button on the sleek screen. She can hear her own ragged breath, feel the worn fabric under the pressure of her left hand, a broken spring under her ass. The Home seems to melt away, there is only her in the smog with the tablet and the decision she is about to make. She imagines Nellie’s face as her finger grazes the Buy button on the screen. The sun-bright smog thickens. Then the elevator doors slide open and Nel is running towards her, moving through the smog in slow motion. Maria’s chest is expanding, so full it could burst, her skin lights up with a million blinking lights, her nostrils flare at the faint scent of rose-rain perfume, and the joy in Nel’s eyes at seeing Maria is more, more than enough.

KAROLINA LETUNOVA was born in USSR and raised in a Siberian coal town. She has worked as an Organization Development consultant in the US, Israel, China, and Spain. Karolina currently lives with her family in Ann Arbor, MI, where she is a graduate student in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at University of Michigan. This is her first publication.