The smooth face appears without expression. “Mr. and Mrs. Baron, my name is Camille.” Only the eyes seem to know exactly how to fix themselves on the couple smiling back from the other side of the screen. “As you know, I’m with the New Suburban Affiliation.” Aside from the mouth, the face hardly moves when speaking. “Before we begin, may I call you by your first names?”
“Please, do. I’m Mina, this is my husband, Jude.” They make a show of taking each other’s hands.
“Then we’re off to a good start.” Even the tone of voice is hard to classify. “I’ll be going over your application with you today.” And yet there’s a singsong quality to its otherwise ambiguous mood.
“Thank you Camille,” Mina and Jude say together, and Jude says, “we’re very excited about this opportunity,” and Mina adds, “sorry if we seem a bit nervous.”
“Don’t worry about it. So, Mina, Jude, I’m seeing here you’ve been out of work for just over a year.”
“Yes,” they say together again, and Mina goes on, “we both stopped work at the same time.”
“We worked at the same company,” says Jude, “CEO? I’m sure you know it?”
“And you’ve been living off benefits ever since?”
“Yes, we’re in the sink,” Jude says, and Mina goes on, “that’s what we call the Subsistence in the City plan.”
“And how’s that been for you two?”
They look at each other. “Not easy.”
“Have you been trying to look for more work?”
“We look…” Jude says, and Mina continues, “but there’s nothing, really.”
“That’s perfectly Okay.”
Jude asks, “will that affect our application?” and Mina answers, “we’re really hard workers.”
“Do you feel it should affect your application, Jude?”
Mina and Jude shake their heads and stammer a little.
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s move on.” The eyes blink once, slowly. “I see you have no kids. Planning on keeping it that way?”
They haven’t left their apartment going on six months. Not that there’d be much to do anyway. To take a walk would be nice. But oxygen was getting harder to find.
Mina met Jude while working at a call center. For both of them it was their first job out of the City college. Neither could find work in the field they’d studied.
The Community Engagement Optimization Corporation had a policy: Everyone gets a job who wants it. Or needs it. Anyone with a recently validated health certificate. CEO’s call center department was always accumulating new representatives.
Mina and Jude met at the company’s on-site twenty day training camp; lots of people paired up in relationships while there. Jude would notice Mina as the only one rolling her eyes at some of the corporate lingo, like ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘empathy management.’ Mina liked the way Jude could never seem to get comfortable in his chair, especially how his fidgeting annoyed the other trainees. Both were politely avoided by everyone else at the social events, allowing these two to gravitate towards each other to swap witty mean comments about the rest of the group, the program, the company, and society in general. Marriage was inevitable.
The work would be done from home with a suite of proprietary apps: a helpdesk platform, a task management tool, a time tracker app, a mouseclick and keystroke tracker, an empathy monitor, a team gamification platform, and a proprietary webcam and microphone extension.
After the camp, the couple found a cute, spacious apartment in what was a green and charming part of the City. It was bright and they agreed to furnish it sparsely. There was even a small extra bedroom, which became their CEO office.
To begin with, Jude took the day shift and Mina the night. The idea was to switch every month.
Mina looks over and sees Jude’s temples are shiny. He’s been sweaty more often, she thinks, ever since we stopped working. His body is so much more present — his impatience seeping through his skin.
“All right, Mina, Jude, I’d like you to tell me, what is your impression of us here in the NSA projects. Even if it’s silly, don’t worry about it. I hear the strangest things and it’s completely normal.”
“Thank you for giving us the chance to tell you,” Jude says. Mina inhales sharply and holds it in. Jude goes on, “it’s our understanding that there are no personal belongings.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“Do you mean,” Jude asks, “do we know what it’s like to not have a lot of stuff?”
Mina smacks Jude out of view of their webcam, but says sweetly, “Honey, that’s not what Camille means.”
“That’s perfectly Okay. Please, go on.”
“Not that we think you don’t have things,” Jude says, and Mina adds, “very nice things, we’ve seen the pictures,” and Jude continues, “right, nobody seems,” he looks for the word, “poor?”
“Mina, do you feel similarly to Jude?”
“What? Oh yes, of course I agree with my husband. What Jude means to say, what we both mean, is that we know you do things differently.”
“But that doesn’t mean people there are unhappy. Right?”
“Interesting. How do you define ‘happy,’ Jude?”
Jude looks down, then at Mina, who is staring at him intently, then up, and away, and mumbles, as if to the air, “fulfillment?” and looks at the face on the screen to see if he got it right.
“Great answer.” Camille raises a thumbs up.
“And all the videos and pictures look really beautiful, everything so clean and new,” Jude says, and Mina adds, “I especially like the design of all the rooms and buildings.”
“My wife is an artist,” — “Honey,” — “Was an artist. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. But tell me, Mina, how do you feel about art now?”
She looks at her husband, wants to scold him a bit with her glare, but he’s trying to remain fixed on the screen, smiling. She starts, “I studied art in college.”
“Yes. We are aware of that.”
“Are you asking if I plan to ever take it up again?”
“What we would like to know is, what are your feelings on the matter, now that you know first hand how art industries really work?”
Jude begins to answer, “it’s been a long time since Mina thought about that—” she cuts him off, “I have no plans to ever be a part of that world again.”
“Thank you Mina. Seems like we’re very much on track here. Next question…”
Life in the City was fine for a while. They both worked hard and had full eye-contact sex every night in the few overlapping hours when both were free. They had one day off every two weeks and it was always unhurried and glorious. It was mostly spent on the sofa ordering from various deliveries and binge watching TV shows. From TV to food to each other’s bodies, these were days when any disagreement was unimaginable.
After rent, utilities, City identification fees, medical insurance, private security fees, neighborhood cleaning services, student loans, appliance financing, furniture rental, streaming services, and the CEO app licensing fees, the Barons still had a little something left over each month. They ordered things for the apartment: decorative stuff, kitchenware, electronics, linens, hobbies, games, toiletries, sex toys, small tins and jars of fancy food, and alcohol — they couldn’t imagine anything worth saving for that could ever be inside their budget. A bigger place was out of the question. Maybe years from now they could travel if they were frugal. But where could they go?
Community Engagement Optimization had a monopsony contract agreement with the City. Customer support reps helped City officials and residents troubleshoot the City’s various programs, websites, software and in-person services. CEO used a sophisticated helpbot to handle the simple tickets. Mina, Jude and all the other reps worked non-stop on higher-level problems: electricity blackouts, lost or stolen ID cards, infestations and mold, broken air vents and tainted water, un-diagnosably ill children, the arrest or disappearance of parents, siblings and spouses because of a missed deadline, a bureaucratic error, or for no apparent reason at all.
Then there was a standoff between the board of CEO and the City offices. The contract was up for renewal and CEO wanted to renegotiate terms near impossible for the City, which by this time had much depleted its independent capacities. CEO shut down operations and laid off all the reps. Rumors online claimed the core company re-emerged as a subsidiary of a private military industrial cartel which was increasing activities all over the outskirts of the City.
It seemed absurd for Mina and Jude to look for new work. All leftover jobs would pay less than CEO, and it wasn’t like there were any benefits that came with employment anymore. The Subsistence in the City plan had done away with those alongside any legacy social institutions. On top of that, CEO was offering their former reps a phase-out process that would expedite their registering for the SINC plan.
Besides, Mina and Jude were never dead set on a family. It was more like a final option in their development as adults. Otherwise they were willing to accept that the rest of their lives would be a slow rideout of their current existence. But if they wanted to keep that option open, getting into the SINC seemed like the only way.
“We don’t really get many opportunities to interact with neighbors—” Mina cuts Jude off, “I’d say we’re the kind of neighbors who’d sooner lend a hand than keep to ourselves?”
She’s been doing this a lot, Jude thinks, cutting me off. And judging. In some ways he’d been looking forward to this interview so that she could focus her attention on someone else. Anything else.
“That’s so great to hear, Mina,” Camille says, and makes an emphatic smiling expression. “Let’s talk about work now. Jude, tell me, why did you never follow through with your college training?”
“Thanks for asking. I applied with every company in the medical services industry in the City, but all the real healthcare work is getting outsourced to highly specialized professionals now.”
“Jude applied for extra certification, but the cost of the program keeps going up,” Mina says, and Jude goes on, “apparently there’s a max quota on certificates,” — “and they keep lowering that too,” — “as for regular hospital and care work,” Jude finishes, “that’s all being done by machines anyways.”
“Plus, Jude has a criminal record,” Mina adds. Jude shoots her a look, but she maintains a modest expression, sure that her admission was the right approach.
“Yes,” says Camille. “We are aware of that.”
“He was young.”
“That’s perfectly Okay. Nobody here is judging.”
“Thank you,” the couple say together, this time unrehearsed, and Jude goes on to ask, “is it true that you don’t use robots or computers or any of that stuff?”
The face makes a broad, open-mouth smile. “Of course that’s not true, but your misconception isn’t your fault. You are all just poorly informed.”
Mina goes “hmph” and nudges Jude’s knee.
“All our lodgings and recreational centers are fully automated with the latest in robotics, natural language processing, and machine learning technology.”
“Oh,” Mina says, “we thought the whole idea was that people do things for themselves?”
“Great point, Mina. Thanks for asking.” Camille’s voice then relaxes. “Everyone here works very hard. It’s true, we don’t employ complex machine-systems in production. Only in leisure. We believe, after a standard forty-day period of fulfilling manual labor, everyone deserves to be waited on for their day off. And since nobody can serve or be served by another member of the New Suburbs, it’s only fair that ‘robots,’ as you might call them, do this kind of work. Did you not read about it on the website?”
“We’re very hard workers.”
The benefits from the SINC was a fixed rate. At the time they got on the plan it was a bit of a step down from their CEO wages but they thought they could manage. But prices kept rising. On top of that, they had to spend nearly all of it. Personal savings accounts no longer existed, and keeping it the City account incurred negative compound interest.
Mina and Jude had gone through every show and movie that was included in their service. There hadn’t been anything new in years — those industries not surviving the last series of crises. Still, in their apartment, the TV was never off. Soon, one of them started crashing on the couch while the other took the bedroom.
For a while, trying new recipes kept them busy, but then they couldn’t afford anything but the most basic grocery orders.
The only pleasant times they had were the walks they took on the days when the air was tolerable. They weren’t permitted to leave their neighborhood, so the two of them liked to try and remember which storefront was that restaurant or cafe or shop or bar they used to like when they first moved here and the neighborhood was still charming and green. After a while, being outside for any extended period of time was only possible with respirators.
One night they had a fight. Jude finished the last bit of powdered mashed potatoes without asking Mina if she wanted to split it. She wasn’t hungry. He knew that. But any pretense to accuse each other of being selfish or judgmental or moody was hard to sidestep. A word or gesture could ruin the evening and sometimes whole days.
The idea of splitting up was so materially impossible to imagine. Yet both felt like they were only treading back and away from one another — edging toward a cliff whose nothingness beyond they might not ever reach. There was a silence. Jude licked clean the potato spoon and dropped it loudly on the table. Mina folded her hands on her belly and said “hmph.” All four eyes fixed on the dull metal utensil and its inverted reflection of their life around them.
She looked up and was about to speak. But loud banging at the door first broke the silence.
Before they could get up, the door smashed open and a team of private security specialists in full tactical gear rushed in. One grabbed Jude by the neck and threw him up against the wall. The others surrounded Mina with assault rifles, yelling for her to get their City IDs.
They had gotten the wrong apartment on some technical error. One of them recited a prepared speech that was a non-liable apology; it still sounded very much like you have the right to remain… When they left, Mina and Jude remained in shock, both trying to breathe normally again. Soon the audio from the TV faded back into their senses. They’d seen this nature show about monkeys many times before: the narrator describing a baby orangutan throwing a temper tantrum while the parents just watched stoically. The two used to do the voices for mama and papa ape. “What are we going to do about it?” — “Do you think we could take it back?” — “I hope you didn’t throw out the receipt? — “Uh oh…” Now from opposite ends of the apartment they came together in front of the screen and fucked like it was a crime against the state.
The next day was like one of their old fortnight day-offs from CEO. Hungover but hungry for each other — their intertwined gestures and expressions open to all manners of rediscovered possibility. To eat, drink and breathe of each other’s bodies so lately sick with stress and fear and hope. In that mood of total openness, they decided to look up those new suburban projects: some affiliation of private enterprise living services far from this wretched City.
It was a casual online search at first. They ridiculed the hoaky copywriting and the soft-focus stock photography. The retro futuristic tower blocks. The huge warehouses and fields of happy manual laborers. The edgeless calm of knowing each day will be the same — if not better — than the last, and there will be nothing to worry about ever.
“Well Mina, Jude. How do we all feel so far?”
They look at each other, then back. “We’re feeling ready for this,” Mina says first.
“That’s so great to hear. Now I see you’ve put down that you’re interested in either the young couple’s dorm, or the studio flat. At the moment we only have the couple’s dorms available, which is fine, as it’ll be just the two of you.”
“Oh,” says Jude, turning to Mina. She’s glaring at him.
Mina sees his upper lip is sweating. She straightens up and says, “how long, just out of curiosity, is the wait until the bigger place is available?”
“Mina, trust me, if it’s space you’re worried about, there is plenty of wide open communal space. Outdoor space. Think of that.”
“Of course,” Jude says, “we’ve seen the videos.”
“But,” Mina says, “out of curiosity?”
“I can’t give out any exact information. But it could be up to three years.”
Mina digs her nails into Jude’s knee below the table and says, “can you give us a moment Camille?”
“Sure, take your time. Say my name when you’re ready.” The face disappears. In its place is a montage of stock photos from the new suburbs. An endless field of ordered crops tended to by laborers smiling in the sun. A pool with children doing laps in rigid swim lanes.
Jude relaxes his jaw. “Do you think they can hear us?”
Mina stands up and stretches. “What do you want to do? We can’t stay here, Jude, not after…” she points to their still broken front door. He looks, touches the sore spots on his neck, and says, “two, three years, can you wait that long? Can we even afford to wait one more year?”
“You mean, just the two of us?”
“We really should have thought this through before…” he gestures to the screen. Rows of fresh produce in wooden crates. Cute jars of preserves lining wooden shelves. A young couple in side-by-side sleep pods, peaceful as death. “I don’t know, it’s all going too fast.”
“So let’s take the dorm. We can decide later about the other thing.” She thinks about caressing the side of his face but holds back. “We just can’t anymore. I just…” She plops back down in her chair and sighs.
“Okay,” he wishes she would touch him. “Let’s do it.” They both straighten up, smile, and together say, “Camille?”
The face comes back on screen. “Mina, Jude, have you reached a decision?”
“So, we think we’d like to start with the dorm,” says Jude, and Mina goes on, “we’re just too excited, we want to join up as soon as possible,” and Jude adds, “we can wait a year or two,” — “in case we decide our family will need something bigger,” — “but not too big, the studio flat should be fine, right honey?”
“Oh, I don’t think you understand.” For the first time, the face of Camille seems to change its character. It’s almost sympathetic, but possibly disappointed. “You either sign up as a couple and get the dorm. Or, you sign up as a family and get the studio flat. Did you not read all about it on the website?”
“You mean,” Mina asks, “that’s it? For life?”
“It’s all explained on the website, Mina. Did you not read about it on the website?”
“I think we’ll need some time then,” Mina says.
“Did you not read it on—” but Camille stops, and the face turns to neutral. “Well, Mina, Jude, don’t take too much time. Your application window expires in exactly four hours and 36 minutes. As you might well know, our waiting list is quite long and always growing.”
Mina opens a can of food. The contents slide out into a pot. She cranks the stove knob and puts the lighter to the burners. No reaction. There’s no hissing sound, no sulfurous odor. She lights the lighter and stares into the flame, wondering, can I put you out with my mind. Her belly groans in reply but she doesn’t make out its message.
Jude is on the couch thumbing the TV remote, browsing through all the options they’ve already seen. He stands up and steps closer, as if proximity might reveal something new, or at least speed up the whole process of allowing him to settle down with something familiar to lull him to sleep.
“Do you think we could wait it out here for a year or two?”
“Maybe even three?”
“But is that what you want?”
“We need the change, don’t we?”
“But, this kind of change? I really don’t know if there is another way…”
“What do you want?” Jude Baron waits and hears nothing. “Mina?” The space between the living room and kitchen expands to infinity.
— Michael Zunenshine has no social media presence, for now.