Annika sits in the plush chair across from Nina and speaks about being alone with her child, about her listlessness.
‘What is it that you feel when you’re lying still, when you can’t attend to him?’ Nina asks.
‘It’s a kind of…paralysis.’
Annika clutches her throat when she says this. Nina is careful to maintain a calm, warm gaze. Her notepad is in her lap. The notes will be uploaded to the clinic’s server at the end of the day. She could write everything down and then edit, but what if every change is cached? She has had to learn a duality. Develop her memory. Keep a separate small paper notebook in which she jots down words she doesn’t want to officially record. It is kept in a locked drawer in her office.
‘I feel like I am supposed to know what to do and I don’t. And when Paul comes home I draw on all the energy I’ve conserved during the day to pick up the baby and make a show of being a mother.’
‘How do you feel about this word, mother?’
Annika looks stricken.
‘I feel it’s a very loaded word.’
There are many such words, Nina knows. Phrases like thoughts of harming others, fantasises about family member and suicidal ideation, involving public display have all been things she has written before never seeing a client again.
At the end of the day she is relieved to slip into her bumpsuit. She waves at the open doors of her colleagues and then rolls out into the foot traffic. The suit takes over, navigating around people and other obstacles. The suit gets her to the station where it is scanned for access. Her train is about to go, so it asks for permission to upgrade her speed to fast. She says yes and it zooms her down an escalator, beeping at an unsuited person standing on the wrong side, and slides her through the doors. When she’s safely on the train, it asks her if she would like to continue to be held for the journey, but she would judge herself for such idleness, so she says no. She comes back into her muscles and grabs a strap. She does ask the suit to continue noise-blocking unless it senses something insistent. She will be home in one hour.
Ferdy is cooking when she comes in. Nina sighs with pleasure: that is one less decision she has to make tonight. Ferdy is an academic, part of a major team researching micro-decisions and their effect on stress. So it is a recognisable gesture in their relationship when he decides to cook, clean, take the bins out, get groceries, or schedule shared activities.
Nina rolls into the kitchen and spins, before commanding her suit to undo. She steps out of it and folds it up, ready to put it near the front door for tomorrow. Ferdy leans back from the stove and gives her a kiss on the cheek. She smells oregano, sees vegetables and chicken.
‘The X100 looks good on you,’ he says.
‘I wish it didn’t have the bling.’
‘Embrace it,’ he says.
‘Yeah, but when you’re sliding past so many people who don’t even have suits…’
‘It’ll be in their reach soon.’
And she supposes he thinks they would all like to have one.
Ferdy’s certainty is sometimes intimidating. He says this confidence is a relief from the burden of many micro-decisions, which allows him to then make bigger decisions. Such as their decision not to get married or have children.
Ferdy is an optimist. He lives in a bubble at the university – that’s the impression Nina’s got from dinner parties with his colleagues. If she could ever bring her clients into the conversation, those career academics might learn what it’s like for everyone else. More than the government does, anyway. Instead she uses broad empathic examples of how she knows others must live and of how the system will keep it that way. Thankfully, Ferdy’s colleagues always have solutions to everything.
Nina is simultaneously attracted to and annoyed by his optimism, though she knows it saves her from certain dark spirals. But, still, sometimes she’d find it useful to be heard. To not be carrying this burden on her own.
But she does love the suit. The way it embraces and holds her. And the quiet. She should probably talk to someone about that.
She does love the suit. The way it embraces and holds her. And the quiet. She should probably talk to someone about that.
After dinner, watching a show at low-volume with the subtitles on, Nina notices Ferdy looking at her.
His lip curls. ‘I have a surprise.’
Sometimes it’s a bit much, how he goes out of his way for her. ‘Can it wait a sec?’ The episode is almost at its climax and she’s enjoying being caught up in the story.
‘Yeah.’ He nods, but looks disappointed. She pauses the show and turns her full attention towards him.
He smiles. ‘I bought a suit.’
‘But you already have – ’
‘No, the other kind of suit.’
‘Oh…’ She feels a beat of arousal. But then, also, various stored lines from her clients come into her head. Their mixed responses, feelings, reactions to when these innovations in technology have made their way into their lives. But she should have an open mind.
‘Want to come to the bedroom?’
She waits while he puts it on. When he walks in, she can’t hold back a giggle. It is meshy, almost see-through, but pushes and pulls in places – they obviously haven’t got much of a range of body types covered. His face, his cock, his nipples and his butt are showing. He is already semi-hard and, really, he looks ludicrous. She knows once she starts kissing him it will be okay – she’s not really moved by looks anyway – but she wonders how other people have got over this first hurdle. Well, she knows, but she tries to block that knowledge.
His grin is both sheepish and eager. He comes over to the bed and lies down beside her.
‘Are you ready?’
‘Go for it.’
He activates the suit with voice command.
‘It’s asking for a general level of sex: ten for energetic, one for super slow.’ He raises his eyebrows at her.
‘It’s like choosing how spicy you want your Bloody Mary,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe we just start in the middle and see how that goes.’
‘Okay,’ he says, and relays that to the suit.
His hands move in towards her and she notices his fingertips are also bare. His hand cups her naked breast and the suit feels silky, as warm as his skin. He moves his head towards her nipple and licks it gently, then flicks it a little harder when she arches up, reacting. Her hands instinctively reach for his head, but she can’t run her hands through his hair because of the suit.
His hand parts her, below, like a probe, and finding her wet makes use of this lubricant to circle her clitoris in a light, teasing manner. He is never usually this restrained and she finds it affects her greatly. ‘Oh, Ferdy,’ she whispers. The suit does for her what she struggles to ask of him – to slow down, to build up – because she’s always afraid of breaking the mood.
When he makes his way down between her legs, she actually has to hold back on her orgasm. He is, again, slow and tender, but slides his tongue hard over just the right places at just the right time.
‘Jesus Christ God,’ she says, uncharacteristically. She hears him give a small laugh. And then she comes, gloriously, clutching her thighs around his silky, meshy head.
When he enters her, fast, wiggling a bit to adjust the angle, and then moving only an inch in and out, concentration on his face, she feels a second wave come through her whole pelvis, almost unbearably pleasurable.
Afterwards, there is much smiling and clutching. He leaves the room to remove the suit, and when they turn off the bedroom light and all is quiet melancholy fills her chest. She can hear one of her client’s voices in her head: ‘I just can’t help thinking: was it so hard to read what I wanted before?’
Her bumpsuit voices the text on the way to work: N, meeting at 10:30. It’s from the director of the clinic, Brian. No problem, she dictates back. They don’t normally meet outside the Thursday clinic-wide catch-up. This is worrying. She runs through her clients, her note-taking. Has she been withholding too much? Or has she changed her patterns too fast?
When Nina had started out practising psychology, the discussions around troubled patients preceded the providing of information to other organisations – and back then, she knew the context and reasoning for a particular party requiring her notes. So everything they wrote down in their sessions with patients would be private and only revealed if requested by a hospital, in-patient clinic, mental health ward, the police, or, in the worst possible circumstances, a coroner.
When the changes came in, the staff had been assured the notes would only ever be used in emergency situations. But within a couple of months of the changes, clients had mysteriously started cancelling appointments. When she’d try to call them, they wouldn’t pick up. The first of these had been a resettled refugee who’d spent years in detention. His layers of trauma were unlike anything Nina had come across before. And yet it is his soft smile that she remembers most. Especially when he talked about his son.
Brian suggested that the government was potentially trialling some new, secret, longer-term psychological programs and it was possible some of their clients were being steered towards that. Nina didn’t socialise with any of her colleagues outside the clinic and so hadn’t revealed how she’d started being more careful – and less truthful – in her note-taking. Really, she feared they’d believe she was doing something wrong. She just couldn’t get past her training: that confidentiality was central to the therapy. And she just had this sort of instinct about it. But if you broke it down to what was better for the client, she supposed you could argue that the government knew best. Wanted to do the best for individuals, to do the best for society as a whole.
She has not told Ferdy what she is doing, either. She doesn’t want him to worry about the increase in micro-decisions she is having to make.
Brian stands to greet her when she enters his office, and his movements are a bit too fast, a bit too anxious. He is normally a collected man.
‘Nina, take a seat,’ he says, and she takes a wheelie chair by his desk. He sits back at his chair and crosses one leg over the other.
‘Look, I’m sorry to do this, but regarding your patient, Annika.’ He pauses. ‘Your notes have become a bit circular, and sparse, to be honest.’
‘Have they?’ She tries to look surprised.
‘Look…’ He fidgets. ‘Can you tell me if it’s a true reflection of your sessions with her?’
She sees his eye flick to his screen. Is it recording?
If you broke it down to what was better for the client, she supposed you could argue that the government knew best.
‘It’s a true reflection,’ she says. ‘You know as much as I do that it is often circular with patients.’
‘Well, not if you’re doing your job well.’
She feels a sick rage rise in her throat. She calculates, wondering what the right thing is to say.
‘Your notes don’t really indicate that. How so?’
‘Just stuck. I’m getting there. I’ll do better.’
‘Be sure you do. And a bit more detail, please.’
‘Of course,’ she says, standing up automatically, wanting to get away.
He gives her a strange, wide-eyed look, an almost imperceptible nod.
‘Thanks, Nina,’ he says.
She lets her suit hold her all the way home.
Ferdy wants to know what is wrong.
‘I’m just tired,’ she says.
‘Let me take care of that,’ he says. He puts on his suit.
In her next session with Annika, Nina is too aware, and it makes her shivery, wired. She is desperate to help her before it is too late.
Incredibly, Annika starts talking about possibly trying to go back to work. Her sister can mind the baby two days a week, enough to step back in. Nina writes it all down.
‘This is progress, Annika, I’m really proud of you.’
But there’s a heavy feeling in Nina’s chest. And she strangely mixes up Annika’s husband’s name. Something she never does. Still, she encourages Annika to talk to her old boss, see what’s possible.
‘Are you sure?’ Annika asks. ‘I mean, I don’t know if I’m ready, it was just a thought.’
‘The thought itself indicates a level of readiness.’
Nina’s heart is racing when Annika leaves her office. Her notes look good, very good. They show progress. Annika will be back in the world soon, and Nina will have done her job.
Waiting for her next client, she thinks about one of the graduation ceremonies she went to at Ferdy’s university. It was held in a stadium. There were three stages, with big screens broadcasting the action on each one. The names of the students, and their degrees, flashed up briefly on each screen. Each graduate was on stage for four to six seconds. Achieved. Achieved. Achieved.
The ceremony took three hours.
Ferdy messages her when she’s on the way home.
‘Exhausted from a lot of micros today, do you mind sorting dinner?’
She feels a beat of anger, feels bad for it, replies: ‘No problem, hon.’
It’s not that she doesn’t understand his job is also stressful. It’s something about the language. His research has become very fashionable and Ferdy is invited onto podcasts and TV shows as an expert. He’s just been signed by a literary agent who is seeking him out a book deal. She is so proud, she really is. But living with the authority on micro-decisions means she can’t argue with a text like that. She will pick up some takeaway near the station.
Ferdy is absorbed by his own thoughts during dinner, so she doesn’t share her day. There’s so much to it, it’s probably too hard to go into anyway, she thinks.
When he goes to put his suit on before bed, Nina says, ‘Can we not…?’
‘Not in the mood?’
‘Actually I am, but I feel a bit…disconnected from you.’
He stands near the cupboard, suit like a silvery fish in his hand.
‘I mean, are you just going to put that on every time now?’
‘What’s the problem?’ he asks. ‘You get off, and I am making less micros; it’s relaxing for both of us.’
‘Is “relaxing” the meaning of life? I mean, didn’t people used to value effort, consideration?’
He sits on the edge of the bed.
‘Those things have to be well directed.’
‘To your work and not to me.’
‘No…no, Nina, I didn’t mean that – it’s just a balance, isn’t it? Some days work requires more, some days other parts of your life do.’
‘I just think we’re getting too used to being…subdued. I don’t even know if I know how to make a decision anymore.’
‘You know how to make important ones because now the stress has been taken off the micro ones. That’s the point.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe more and more is just being decided for us?’
He gives her a pathetic kind of a look.
‘I just think we’re getting too used to being…subdued. I don’t even know if I know how to make a decision anymore.’
‘Maybe you need to talk to the philosophy department about that. I’m just trying to make people’s lives less stressful. Goodnight,’ he says, lying down, turned away from her.
She knows her thoughts have become uncontainable. She knows this is not useful or healthy. That a person can become stuck in a big, snowy thought-ball, and have their vision obscured by it.
Everything is fine, right? She has a job, a partner, enough money. Everyone has limits, right? In what they can change? All this questioning is definitely causing her stress. The research has shown that this level of questioning is not useful for the individual – it leads to pointless micro-decisions that only lead to more questioning. Spirals.
But if everyone thought that way… Ferdy is probably right. If there was a big decision she had to make, she would know how to make it.
She reaches over for his hand. He rolls over and wraps his arms and body around her, encasing her.