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A Better Relationship
A When We Were Mothers short story
I wake up to the sound of Angela retching. “You okay?” I mumble, but she’s already flung the covers onto my side of the bed and closed half the distance to the bathroom.
She stops and straightens. When she turns to me, her eyes are clear. “Actually, yeah,” she says, “I am now. What on earth was that?”
“You tell me,” I say. “I’m not the one yurking in bed.”
The strum of my alarm sounds from my mobile, and a wave of nausea runs through my body when I tap the screen to turn it off. Why is the sound designed to soothe me awake suddenly giving me the spins?
I jerk away and sit up, feeling better the instant my hand is back in my lap. The wrinkles around Angela’s eyes disappear as recognition settles on her face.
“Oh, shit,” she says.
“What?” I say. Make it make sense, I silently plead.
“It started,” she says, which is probably the one thing that could panic me even more.
“The Electronics Detachment Plan,” she says. “Remember? The program that dude was talking about on the news last week? I can’t believe they actually did it.”
“What the hell are you—”
“Oh, that’s right,” she says. “You were working late. You probably didn’t hear the story.”
“What was it?” I ask, “And what does it have to do with my mobile?”
“I don’t know, Astor. Some guy on the radio talking about how the health monitoring implants were going to take a ‘more active role in our physical and mental wellness.’ Honestly, would it be such a bad thing to take a break from our devices?”
The implants are only supposed to passively monitor data. “How can they even–” I say, reaching over to look up the story on my mobile. Before my fingertips touch the front glass, my body rolls in on itself. I yank my hand back and swing my feet onto the floor, standing up. “So we just can’t use our mobiles anymore?” I demand. A hollow panic begins to settle in my chest.
Angela shrugs. Of course she’s not upset. She could lose hers for a week and it wouldn't bother her. If I did that, it’d take me another week to catch up on everything I missed. “All I heard is that the Council wants us to ‘curb our reliance on technology.’”
I raise my face toward the corner of the room where the speaker is mounted. “Rob,” I say.
“Yes, Astor?” the house AI says, infuriatingly pleasant as always.
“Why does using my mobile make me want to puke?”
There’s a pause, as if even the robot doesn’t want to deliver this news. “Your household has been selected for the Electronics Detachment Plan. Attempts to use electronic devices will result in discomfort.”
I turn back to Ángels. What the fuck? The initial withdrawal period is the worst, Rob says. We’ll start to feel better after the first few days, and after a week we’ll be allotted short windows of time and some activities to “develop a healthier relationship with technology.”
“This is bullshit,” I say. “I’m not some irresponsible teenager who can’t control my screen time.”
“Your electronics time averages 13 hours, 41 minutes per day,” says Rob.
That can’t be right. “I have to use screens for my job.”
“On average, thirty-seven percent of your time is spent on work-related tasks.” Can a robot smirk? Because this one sounds awfully self-satisfied.
“Participants have experienced greater productivity at work and enhanced satisfaction at home,” says Rob.
“I can’t do my job without a computer,” I say. “How am I supposed to even get to work?” Was that client meeting at 10:00? 10:30? I reach out to check my calendar and the churn in my gut reminds me of yet another thing I can’t do without my mobile.
“Your appointments for this week have been rescheduled,” says Rob, “to give you time to acclimate.”
I scowl at the useless collection of electronics one last time and squeeze past the oversized cardboard box in the doorway. The top flap stands at attention, shouting NURSERY WOMB in my direction. I flick it down without looking back.
The unease in my chest gets worse when we sit down to eat. Any other morning, I’d be catching up on email. Today, I’m face to face with a partner who hates me.
The only thing louder than my chewing is Angela’s. And she keeps looking at me, like if she just stares hard enough she’ll be able to decipher me. Eating together didn’t used to be this stressful.
“No devices for a week,” Angela finally says.
I stare into my oatmeal.
“We might actually have to talk to each other.”
I take a deep breath and level my eyes at her. “Talk about what, Angela?”
Angela glances down the hall and then back at me. I can’t see the box from here, but it might as well be sitting on the table between us.
“Not this again,” I say. “What more is there to say?”
The anger doesn’t look right on her. When she raises her voice, I flinch a little. “Oh, I don’t know, Astor. Maybe you could start with why, of all nights, you needed to work late on the night we were going to start our family? And then you can move on to what you expect me to do with the embryo cartridge sitting in our freezer like a bag of frozen tater tots.”
What can I say? That I never wanted a kid and only let her talk me into it because I can’t imagine my life without her? That I drove around alone for hours that night to avoid confessing I couldn’t stomach the idea of being a mom?
I reach for my mobile, but my fingers come up empty. I talk or I leave. Either way, my relationship with technology isn’t the only one at stake now.
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