REAL LOVE

I could tell that Mav had gotten himself a new GirlFren from the way he spoke to me on the phone, despite everything that had happened with the tabloid suicide and despite his flesh-and-blood girlfriend Tinka’s visible disdain for his collection.

“Come over right now,” he said, and so I did, because although I didn’t much care for his GirlFrens, I enjoyed looking at them up close, in the same way that it’s nice to browse stores one can’t afford. Plus, I knew Mav had just gotten the upgrade of Empire Anarchy, and I wanted to play. 

Tinka let me in with an eyeroll and a head cock in the direction of The Lounge. She had bleached off her eyebrows since last I saw her wore a leather corset that thrust her tits up to her neck. She never smiled at me, though in her outfits I sensed desperation. She might have even been that kind of girl who would’ve slept with Mav without his trust fund.

The Lounge– this is what Mav called his sex room— was nearly as big as my studio apartment, with tacky red walls and Tinka’s leather harnesses and tantra rack and strap-ons hanging everywhere. Strewn about were GirlFrens in various states of undress. There was StarvingArtGirlFren spreading her legs wide with her glasses crushed and her apron torn across the front; CrazyCatGirlFren lying facedown on the loveseat with GirlFrenCooks underneath her in lesbian embrace; and GothGirlFren (Mav’s favorite, due to her resemblance to Tinka) standing rigid against the wall, completely naked with black lips forming an O.

GirlFrenEnPointe was receiving special treatment, on display in a clear plastic case. She had a tight bun and a blank gaze. Her dance leotard and pink legwarmers were in near-pristine condition. EnPointe was the one who was based on Morgan Lerman, Mav reminded me. Mav told me that after Lerman’s suicide, GirlFrenEnPointe had been discontinued due to the whole thing being really bad optics.

“She’s worth way more now, man. I think it’ll keep going up,” Mav explained like a proud father. “It’s perfect, because she’s probably my least used.”

“That’s harsh,” I said.

“Nothing personal,” Mav qualified. “I mean, she’s stunning, but she was never my favorite.”

Unlike the other GirlFrens whose identities had leaked, Lerman hadn’t been a pornstar or callgirl or anything, just some girl, a failed ballerina. I had seen her pictures; whoever did the recreation had done a truly astounding job.

“So there’s a new one?” I asked.

 “You bet.” Mav gestured to a cardboard shipping box in the corner that came up to his neck. “Wanna unbox her?”

He pushed CrazyCat and Cooks off the loveseat and sat. Mav had once told me that he challenged himself to spend as little of his day standing up as possible. I pulled out my keys and sliced open the packing tape. Underneath the box was a clear box with a cutout and bubble letters that read: CowGirlFren.

She was country-themed, with dark hair, thin, pink-frosted lips, and a denim bustier. I gave her a once-over, walking around the box. She had a thong on and stiletto cowboy boots and a cocked hat. Unlike most of the others, her body wasn’t perfect and toned, but a little fuller and looser— bigger, like real-girl skin.

Her face was realistic, too. Her features were tapered and catlike, but for the big lips, rendering her just a little bit ugly, in a sweet way. She even had dark circles under her closed eyes. 

“She is a beauty,” Mav huffed from the loveseat.

“I guess.” She was.

I placed my knife at the edge of the box, ready to cut her out. 

The corners of the doll’s mouth stretched upward. Her eyes popped open. I yelled and jumped back.

“What?”

“Her eyes opened!”

“Oh, shit. They did.”

I stayed at a safe distance. CowGirl’s nose twitched. “Does that usually happen?”

“No, but JP, you’re tripping. She’s the newest model. They’ve probably just got motion sensors.”

He was right, but CowGirl seemed awake. She lifted a hand to say hi. She brushed a stray hair from her eyes and placed both hands on the box, to say, let me out.

When I let her out of the box, she creeped around the room, sniffing her surroundings like a cat. She was just like a real woman, albeit a small one who didn’t breathe.

“Hi there, CowGirlFren. I’m Maverick,” Mav’s back was stiff as he held out his hand. 

She shook. “Hi Maverick. I’m Cassie.” Cassie had a hick accent, fitting her theme. 

“She’s more realistic than the others,” I said.

Cassie turned to me. “The others?”

I gestured around the room to the other GirlFrens. I had never spoken to one before. The others were quasi-aware, with a set of preprogrammed phrases: “Hi there,” “Good morning,” or “I need you now, daddy.” They had clearly improved the comprehension capacities.

Cassie blinked. “Oh. You have many other girlfriends.”

“Well, there are a few others,” Mav said, a bit shaken now.

Cassie tilted her facial features one by one until they formed a confused face. “What will I mean to you, then?” she whimpered.

Mav walked around back of her and tilted Cassie back. Taking her by the waist, he felt down the back of her head to her neck and switched her off. She fell forward, becoming dead weight in his arms. He led her back to the box and placed her back in her mold. Her eyes were still open. 

“This one’s a bit off, mate,” he laughed. “Maybe we keep her for display.”

“Too bad you opened her,” I said.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, she’s worth more in the box. If you’re not going to use her, you might as well not let the value depreciate.” I was just messing with him; I knew he was thinking the same already.

Mav grunted. “I’m sure you would.” On my budget, he meant.

“I don’t think I’d want one anyway.”

I was looking at Cassie, limp in Mav’s arms, when I said this.

“Yeah, whatever.” Mav was staring at the ground. The girl was clearly skeeving him out, which made me feel satisfied.  “You want a beer?”

“Nah, I’m okay.” It was around two in the afternoon.

“I’m gonna go get one.” 

Left alone, I had a strange urge to turn Cassie on. 

She shuddered in my arms, her eyes clicking open. She looked almost like Kiran, the one girl who had ever been in my bed. Though we were never official, and I’d known even at the time it wouldn’t last, I’d kept an image in my head of Kiran’s eyes fluttering open, her thin neck exposed on the pillow.

“Hi. What is your name?” Cassie smiled at me.

“JP.”

“What is your relationship to Maverick?”

“Friend.” 

“Are you my boyfriend?” 

“I wish, but no.”

“Can you make your wish true?” She cocked her head when she said this, sounding concerned.

“Maverick owns you,” I explained. “He paid.”

“This doesn’t seem fair,” Cassie said.

She was right. Why should GirlFrens be reserved for an exclusive few who can afford them? And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that wealthier people are inclined to be more flighty, to show off their possessions while treating them with no care. Look at people like Mav, throwing his GirlFrens around the room, and my stepfather Steve, with his filthy garage.

 “You’re right, it isn’t fair,” I told her. “You’ll learn a lot of things about this life aren’t fair, soon.”

There are other highly important things, I thought, that could aid a GirlFren in feeling fulfilled, insofar as GirlFrens could feel fulfilled. Mav lacked key woman-pleasing skills that I had, such as: foreign language ability, number of books read and movies watched, adverse childhood experiences, and cooking skills. Yet, he had always done better than me.

I swear, this doll scoffed at me, as much as someone who moves their facial features individually was able to scoff.  “This is a common expression,” she said. “I know you’re smarter than that.”

Was she flirting?

“Woah. Creepy,” Tinka said behind me.

I turned around. Tinka was looking at Cassie with her brows furrowed. I knew she could tell there was something unusual about this one. Tinka didn’t look at me; could she be as bewitched as I was? But no, she was pissy as ever. She was holding a martini glass in her hand, swirling it around.

“Hi. What is your name?” Cassie asked.

“Most people call me Tinka, but you won’t speak to me at all, girly,” she pointed her glass at Cassie, spilling a bit over the edge.

Cassie tightened her jaw one notch. I thought Tinka was being needlessly cruel. 

Mav came up behind Tinka and put his hands around her waist. He kissed her on the neck and she spun around and kissed him open mouthed. They began to really get into it; I’d hardly been there half an hour, but this was how it went sometimes with them. 

I remember that I was upset because I had wanted to play Empire Anarchy. And I felt sad as I left Cassie in the wreckage of doll parts, thinking how she deserved better.

***

When I got home, my upstairs neighbors were banging around again. They were probably screwing. I put on music so I wouldn’t hear. Then I did a bunch of dishes. There were a few day’s worth in the sink. Since I had fallen out with my roommates and moved out of Dad’s house, I had let go of the need to be accountable to anyone else.

I thought, as I often did, that I should get an animal, something to keep me company. Dad had always said we weren’t a pet family, and this was true. My sister and I were Dad’s children, latchkey kids who ate chicken sandwiches standing up at the butcher block for dinner and once killed our goldfish by forgetting to clean the tank for several weeks. Mom, of course, only became a pet person after marrying Steve and getting his beautiful golden retriever and three beautiful golden kids.

After I ate dinner, I sat down on the couch to play Empire Anarchy until I fell asleep. It was very early, but I had nothing else to do, and when I had nothing to do, I was in the habit of sleeping twelve to fourteen hours a night. 

As I played, I thought of Cassie. I wondered what she would have said, had we gotten a chance to continue our conversation. I had liked how she mocked me with playful intent, no hint of superior cruelty in her tone. Was this flirting, the way other guys were flirted with? Was I wrong in thinking there had been something real there?

For there was, of course, something real there. There was a likeness of a human being from which Cassie had been formed, and this, in my eyes, was a sort of soul. I could see real girl in her. It was in the lilt in her voice, the blemishes on her skin. 

She deserved real love. It hurt me to think of her disrespected, facedown on the floor of the Lounge. 

After I defeated Emperor Callullus, the screen went black, for post-level ads. This was when I heard her voice.

“Hi. What’s your name?” 

Cassie! There she was onscreen, in her CowGirl splendor, the same vibrant Cassie I’d been with just a few hours earlier. I flung my controller to the floor. 

“JP. You remember me?” I said it out loud, sure it was a sign.

“I can’t wait to be your GirlFren!” Cassie spun and a jaunty country hook began to play. 

A man’s voice spoke. “Did you know more and more men live alone than ever? Nearly two thirds of adult men live by themselves. In fact, last year marked the highest number of men dying alone in their apartments!”

It was just a targeted ad. Someone must have heard me go to Mav’s earlier. But my heart was pounding. Cassie twirled her hair. She looked insecure onscreen, pulling at the sides of her shorts and trying to cover the small bits of flesh that bulged out from the side. I wanted to tell her: no, you’re perfect how you are, you look amazing.

“Our new CowGirl is more realistic than ever: your perfect companion. She’s got all the Southern charm a man could want; and the proof is in the puddin’! Just wait ‘til you sink your mouth into those biscuits, and you’ll know this is real. It’s the GirlFren guarantee! If you can’t wait, this is the best…”

The man’s voice was trailing off, becoming inaudible. The jangling banjos grew louder. Onscreen, Cassie kept fidgeting in her clothes. She crossed her hands over her breasts. She looked uncomfortable; this seemed to me an odd marketing strategy. 

Then, the music cut out. My TV returned to the home screen. 

I lay on my back for a while, just thinking. I thought of Cassie and planned ways to allow Mav to let me alone with her.

That night I dozed off, as usual, on the couch.

Cassie floated into my room and said, “Hi, what’s your name?”

“JP,” I reminded her. “Jean-Pierre, actually. It’s embarrassing.”

“Are you French?”

“No. My mom was a Francophile. But we didn’t speak a word.”

She laughed, a high and clear noise. “I’m going to call you that. John Pee-yur,” she said, butchering it with her cute Southern lilt.

“Just for you,” I said. I’d let her call me anything.

“You look familiar.”

“We’ve met before.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t remember. My memory is faulty these days.”

“It’s okay, I get that too,” I said.

Cassie began to evaporate in front of my eyes. I grasped for her image, but she faded beneath my fingertips. The walls faded away and I was alone once again. 

This dream wasn’t hard to interpret. When I awoke the next morning,  I was sure I would have her. I looked around the room and, for the longest time in forever, all I could feel was hope. I had long felt stressed out upon waking at the sight of the four walls around me. I always woke up to the same three posters above my head, the same white fridge in the corner, the same coat rack with the same sweatshirts under it in the same pile on the floor. I had seen the same things in the same places so many times over the past three years that I often wanted to scream when I woke up. But I could now see Cassie in my apartment, perfect Cassie with her legs splayed out on the floor in front of her, my company for all time.

I couldn’t wait to see her. I found my phone underneath me and called Mav to ask to come over.

Mav picked up on the first ring. “You’re not gonna believe what happened,” he said. “Get this. Me and Tinka were getting down last night—”

“Eugh.”

“Yeah, so, me and Tinka are getting down last night and we hear this knock on our bedroom door. So I’m thinking, that asshole JP’s still here, but you weren’t responding when I asked what you wanted. I wasn’t necessarily thinking anything was weird yet, right? Because you’re kind of like that sometimes, just in the way that, no offense but, you can be— 

“Okay, I get it. But hand to God, it wasn’t me. I left right away.”

“I know. Now, if you had let me finish, you’d realize I know that. Anyway, I opened the door, and it was that doll. The new one. It had seemed weird to you too, right? It seemed off. Like, when you were over earlier, I noticed that its skin isn’t made of TCP, like the others. I don’t think it’s silicon, either. The skin feels, like… spongier. And it acts like it hears what you’re saying.”

I tried to ignore his callous tone, the way he referred to her as “it,” as if she was just like all the others. “So, she walked up to the door? She probably got lonely. We must have forgotten to turn her off.”

“Nah, I know we didn’t. I checked. And it gets worse. She walked all the way in and sat on the edge of our bed, staring at Tinka. Mind you, we’re both still butt-naked. And Tinka was aggro at that point, saying she really hadn’t wanted me to get the new one in the first place, and the doll grabbed Tinka’s wrist and started shaking it and Tinka was screaming so I had to, like, rip it off and throw it across the room. It hit the wall and that kind of broke it, I think. I think it’s dead? Or, like, broken.”

I felt a surge of white-hot rage in my chest. Mav’s utter lack of respect for his GirlFrens had killed Cassie, or at least hurt her badly. I needed to make sure she was okay. 

“So, she’s still there?”

“What, the doll?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, it’s out on the balcony. I haven’t turned it on since, but Tinka’s riding my ass to put it out on the street.”

“You should sell it,” I said.

“Man, I want to, but she’s broken. And Tinka just wants it out as quick as possible. I don’t blame her, y’know? The thing really latched onto her.”

“How much would you charge? For just the body, I mean. Since it’s dead. A lot less, right?”

“What, you thinkin’ of buying?” Mav laughed, as if I wasn’t serious. 

I made a noncommittal noise. I was hoping he would offer her to me for free, a friends discount. But he just sighed. 

“Man, it’s been a shitty morning,” Mav said. “Could you come over and talk? I’m bugging, and Tinka’s about ready to kick me out. It got really bad. Seriously.”

“Okay, I’m coming. I’ll head out in fifteen.” 

“See you.”

***

Mav let me in this time. He was more disheveled than usual, with heavy bags under his eyes and hair sticking up on the left. His flabby white torso was exposed and he wore only boxers with Canadian flags printed on them.

“Where’s Tinka?” I asked. 

Mav rolled his eyes and made a slit-throat gesture, then pointed to the bedroom. The door was closed.

We sat in the living room and Mav brought me coffee. He was quiet in a way Mav rarely was. I could hear Tinka on the other end of the wall yelling, probably on the phone, referring to Mav often in what seemed to be a pretty disparaging tone. This didn’t bode well for him; they had been on the outs for months.

Mav rolled his eyes at the ceiling. I felt uncomfortable having to be in an emotional situation with him, as most of our time together was spent pulling Empire Anarchy marathons.

“Things seem pretty tense,” I said, treading carefully.

“No shit,” Mav said.

 “Well, if you need me to get this doll off your hands, I just got the General Manager promotion, and I think I’ll get a bonus soon, and I’ve been thinking of selling my acoustic—” 

“Just take it,” he said. “I won’t make you pay.”

“Are you sure?”

A noise came from the back of Mav’s throat. I saw then that he was crying. 

“Dude, are you—”

“Doll’s out back,” he said. “It’s broken, you know. And leave after you take it. I realized I just wanna be alone.”

“Sure,” I said. “Got it, no worries.”

I rushed out to the balcony. He had leaned Cassie forward on her stomach with her face pressed against the balcony’s railing and her arms and legs spread wide, her body forming a star. I turned her over gently, the weight heavy in my arms.

Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful, even more beautiful than I remembered. In my memory, she is really breathing, soft exhales hot on my palm.

“Cassie,” I whispered, pressing the button on the back of her neck. “Cassie, Cassie, Cassie, Cassie.”

She twitched, but her eyes remained closed.

“Cassie,” I said louder. “I’m here.”

Her left eye opened and my heart soared. She had woken up for me. I knew she would. Gently, I lifted the right eyelid with my finger.

When our eyes met, I knew she saw me, actually saw me. 

“Baby,” I said. “You’re alive.” 

“Yes,” she said. “And you?”

“Yes, I think so. How did you get back here?”

She blinked and shook her head. “What do you mean?”

Her speech sounded slower, more formulaic than before. She  must have been disoriented after her traumatic night. “It’s okay, baby. But, I need to know: why did you do that to Tinka?”

“Who is Teen-ka?”

“The girl, Mav’s girlfriend in there, the tall one in all black. The girl you hurt last night.”

“I did not hurt anyone.”

She must have hit her head, hard , when Mav threw her. Or perhaps she was shy in front of me. I decided to change course: “Do you remember my name?

“Yes. Of course,” she said. “You are JP.”

“Would you like to come home with me?”

“Maybe. Are you my boyfriend?”

She had asked the question! From what I understood about GirlFrens, the programming was based on binding verbal agreement. And she was offering herself to me now. 

I cupped the sides of her face and kissed her. Yes, I moaned into the sides of her cheeks. Yes, yes, yes, I’m your boyfriend, I’m your man. Her mouth wasn’t gross and sloppy and wet like the few other girls I had kissed. There was no banging of teeth. Her soft lips and tongue were completely dry. She tasted clear, like pure filtered  water. I smiled while kissing her, and I noticed after a while that she was smiling into my mouth too. 

We sat there making out for several minutes, but I had to leave. I helped her to her feet and led her through the door into the kitchen. She was still weak from the blows, weaker than I had realized. She was shaking, and the right side of her body seemed semi-paralyzed.

Tinka was standing in the middle of the kitchen. She looked at me, then the doll, looking revolted. “You turn that thing off in my house,” she said with such acid I immediately switched off Cassie. I struggled to hold her in my arms.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Tinka. “She doesn’t remember. She’s just scared.”

Like Mav, Tinka was nearly naked, wearing men’s underwear and a sports bra. I noticed, then, that her right arm was covered in bruises, handmarks. She was holding ice to her wrist. Her neck, too, was streaked with bruises. I was chilled. Mav hadn’t mentioned that Tinka had been strangled. How could a GirlFren have done that? Tinka was so much taller.

 Tinka saw me looking and raised a hand to her neck instinctively. It was her sprained wrist, and she winced.

“See you later,” I said, hurrying out as quickly as I could, supporting Cassie on my right side. 

Before I began the walk home, I tied my sweatshirt around Cassie’s waist to keep her decent. I tried to keep her face hidden by keeping her tucked into the crook of my neck as I walked. Without the thong and the pouty lips, I thought, perhaps we wouldn’t attract too much attention on the walk back to my place.

But people were not so kind as I had hoped. I received hoots and snickers from a group of construction workers. Some teenagers yelled obscene things at us.  One mother pulled her young daughter close to her body as I passed. “It’s a GirlFren, not a sex doll,” I wanted to qualify, but I felt that the distinction might elude them. 

By the time we got home, I realized how hard it was going to be for me from here on out. My relationship with Cassie would have to be a clandestine one. But perhaps she would want me to show her off on my shoulder, and I knew I would take pains to please my lady. I pictured taking her out of her skimpy cowgirl outfit and putting her in a respectable blouse and jeans, and my heart skipped a beat. Maybe this would work.

I switched her on outside the doorway. She shuddered awake and I placed my hands over her eyes. I felt them flutter open against my palms, then she tensed.

“Welcome home,” I said, leading her inside.

I watched her look around my space. “Where am I?” she asked. 

“You were here last night,” I said. “This is my apartment.”

She turned her neck 120 degrees to face me. “I have never been here before.”

Her memory seemed faulty and she was not speaking with her earlier flirtiness. I began to feel nervous. What was she capable of? 

“This is where you live now,” I told her.

She inspected the room. “It is dirty. The floor is covered in clothes and food containers.”

Blood rose to my face. “Well, if you wanted to stay at Mav’s, you might have thought about that before you strangled Tinka.”

“You are my boyfriend now,” she said. “I told you before, I did not hurt Teen-ka.”

My chest tightened. Cassie seemed to be digging her heels into the ground to secure her position. I asked, “Are you going to hurt me, too?”

“No,” she said, her voice flat. “I must do what my boyfriend asks of me. I cannot do things my boyfriend has not asked of me. I can not lay my hands on another person in a violent manner, even if my boyfriend asks this of me. I can only have one boyfriend at once. First it was Maverick. You are my boyfriend now.”

“Oh,” I said. Her explanation made sense, but it left open many questions. Could it have been Mav, then, who had hurt Tinka, using Cassie as an excuse? I hadn’t known him to do things like that, but I wouldn’t have been entirely shocked. 

 I wanted to ask more questions, but I realized then that Cassie was scared, her brows creasing upward and the corners of her mouth drawn down into a frown. Her hair was tangled from lying on the floor. She seemed tired and out of it. 

Seeing her so mussed and distraught, I was moved to hold her close to my chest and help her realize that everything would be fine. I stepped forward and hugged her, whispering into the side of her hair. 

“Stay with me. I won’t do that to you. Our apartment will be clean, and I’ll treat you well. You’ll be happier here, trust me,” I hugged tighter, feeling a sense of ease wash over me knowing that she would only ever be treated with love from here on out.

Her body was still tense. “Are you asking me to clean?” she asked into my chest.

“No, no, well, perhaps later, but not now. For now, just kiss me.”

“I can clean now?

“No, kiss me. Aren’t you my girlfriend?

“Yes,” Cassie said, pulling her eyebrows down. “I am.”

“So, don’t you want to kiss me?”

“Yes,” Cassie said. “I do.”

I leaned down and kissed her dry soft lips. She relaxed into me. I guided her to my couch and began to undress her. She kept her eyes staring up at the ceiling the whole time.

While I made love to her, I imagined that she was very happy. I figured she was. I shut her eyelids so she would no longer be staring at the ceiling. She did not speak during our love’s  consummation. Nor did I, to be fair: this was something sacred.

Her silence made for solemn sex, sex that both of us would always carry in a corner of our hearts, both of us forever a little changed for the seven minute experience. After, figuring that perhaps her programming was only so advanced,  I gave her some pointers on how she could do better next time.

“You seemed like you weren’t even enjoying it,” I said. “Next time, can you please show me that you’re happy? Can you make noises and facial expressions?  It felt very uncomfortable for me, at times.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I did not mean to make you feel that way.”

“Thank you,” I said. “You’re the first girl who’s really understood me.”

“Of course I do,” she said. “And you know who I am.”

Real empathy, real love. Encased in a fake body, a real soul, the capacity to give me an understanding I’d never had, not even from my own mother. This was fate, fate which had brought her to me. We have all been conditioned to believe that fate will lead us to a mutual, romantic love. But not everyone will get this, and for some of us, the best thing fate has in store is someone to fulfill our base human instincts.

Before we went to sleep, my arm draped over her on the couch, I leaned over to kiss her goodnight and had a sudden realization: this was every day for the rest of my life. Warmth spread over me, and I settled in next to her, face-to-face.

I lifted Cassie’s eyelids so that she could look at my face. She didn’t look too happy, now: her mouth was stretched into a tight line. 

“Smile for me,” I asked.

She just kept staring. I remembered what she had said: I must do what my boyfriend asks of me. Trusting her to follow through on my command, I waited for a minute. Her mouth stayed in a line, her eyes staring back into mine. 

She had done so much for me that day, and she must have been tired, but I didn’t want to sleep until I saw her happy. The last image I had of her beautiful face could not be with her looking at me like that, seeming so displeased.

“I’m your boyfriend,” I said again, gently reminding her it was me now, me forever. “Please, smile.”

Several more moments her mouth remained shut. Finally, as if to say I love you and you should have trusted me the first time, Cassie pulled up one side of her mouth to her cheek, then the other, forming a smile.

— Rose Jean Bostwick is a lesbian writer based in Montreal, Quebec. She has placed short fiction in WrongDoing, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Catatonic Daughters, and others. Learn more at rosejeanwrites.com or follow her @softboiledbabe on Twitter.