21/ @Jean 6

The Fault Line restaurant and bar exists simultaneously at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City, and in the Digital World at faultlinenyc.com/dre.  Set off from each of the Fault Line’s four function rooms is a small nook, where the evening’s honoree can take a minute and get her shit together, before she steps out into her Eye-Opening Party.

@Jean has been out of quarantine for eight hours now.  This is the first time she has left her rendered apartment.  She could get used to post-corporeal travel.  From her PhysWo apartment on 57th, she’d have had to catch the N & the R train here.  Add the walking to and from the subway stops, and that’s a half hour in transit.  But today the venue came to her, conjured up at the appointed time by her calendar app.  She only took the elevator down, passed through her building lobby, and crossed the street to the restaurant.

Now she is flounced on a couch, cooling her heels backstage, as it were.  On the far side of the closed door, guests are trickling into the banquet hall.  From time to time she can hear familiar voices.  As they circulate through the room, they rise and fade against the background music, and for lack of any other means of occupying her mind, @Jean strains to hear snatches of conversation.  Drink orders, generic party talk, most of it, for the most part.  More than once she picks up a comment about her: Isn’t it awful?… I was SHOCKED when I heard. … Thank GOD the Techs got to her in time.

A moment ago Eddie Sayles knocked on the door.  “Love you, Jean!” he called out.

“Eddie, what are you doing?”  That was a woman’s voice.  Probably his wife, Susan.

“You’ve not been to one of these before?  That’s where they keep the comebacker, until they call her out.”

“And it’s appropriate to be banging on the door?”  Yes.  Definitely Susan.  “Get away from there, Eddie …”

There is a full-length mirror on the wall, and @Jean stands up, straightens her dress, takes a moment to look at herself, one more time.  Her render is compiled from three sources: memory shares of discorporated acquaintances (there are not many of these, so it’s not the richest feed); photos and video contributed by friends in the PhysWo, and the full-body scan that the Copy Techs completed at the hospital.  The result is an amalgam of how (few) others saw and remember her, a scattershot of recordings across 20+ years of life, and her own corpse.  She looks like herself, and she doesn’t.

@Anne has told her she’ll get used to it.  Her answer for everything, it seems.

She is wearing her green dress tonight.  The one she wore at the party @Henry threw for her last year, when she made partner at the Firm.  When she pulled it off the hanger in her closet, she’d received a notice:

You have selected a digital copy of a design registered by Donn@ Karan.  If you put it on, you must pay a licensing fee or risk a lawsuit for copyright infringement.  The licensing fee is $20.

The going rate for digital fashion is 5% of the PhysWo price tag.  She paid the $20.

There is a second entrance to this room, on the adjoining wall to the right of the door Eddie knocked.  This second door swings open to reveal the unctuous event coordinator/ maître d’ who led her here twenty minutes ago.  Standing behind-beside him is Isaac.  Or more accurately, a digital rendition of him.

On the sight of her, Isaac pushes the unctuous man aside and steps into the room.  “Oh, Jean,” he says, “I’ve missed you.”  He might have hugged her, but he doesn’t.  He just stands there awkwardly.  @Jean at first chalks this up to Isaac’s emotional remoteness.  It upsets her.  This must be clear from her body language, because the Event Coordinator enters the room, wringing his hands, to explain:

“Ms. Woolsey, your … friend can’t —”

She understands and does not need to hear any more.  In the PhysWo, where Isaac is standing, he sees only a holographic projection of her.  He can’t touch her.  It would be like hugging a ghost.

“By contrast, however —”

In the DRE, both Isaac’s body and hers are solid mass.  And so she does the work.  She steps forward and wraps her arms around him.  She can feel his warmth, can even smell the smell of him.  The 5-D sensors at the Fault Line are state of the art.

“You look great,” Isaac says.  It’s not in his nature to say what he’s supposed to say.  Which means he is either telling the truth or he’s not feeling himself right now.  Or, @Jean supposes, it’s a little of both.

The Event Coordinator man thrusts a plate of canapés at them. Renders overlaid on the real.  They both reach for the same bacon-wrapped water chestnut, then each of them pulls back, deferring to the other.

“Both of you can have it,” the EC says, talking like a car salesman touting some innovative dashboard feature.  “Benefit of a mixed marriage.”

“We’re not married,” Isaac says.  Back on his game, apparently, and saying just the wrong thing.

@Jean gives him a look.

“Perhaps I should leave you two alone, to catch up.”

“Leave the canapés,” Isaac instructs.

“Of course.”  The Event Coordinator walks out.

They share a brief laugh together.  Then they eat that same water chestnut — together, making a point of it this time — and they laugh again, together.

Time passes, and Isaac’s smile fades.  “I love you, Jean, and I’ve missed you so much over these last few weeks.  But have you thought about how this is going to work?”

Going there now, are you?  Really?

There is a knock at the door, it creaks open, and their canapé supplier peeks inside.  “Jean, Isaac — we’re ready for you.”  That was barely three minutes of “catch-up” time.  @Jean suspects the Event Coordinator was listening at the door, and he has decided it’s part of his job description to rescue a mixed couple from a moment like this.

They step outside.  There is a receiving line.  At least two dozen of the guests lined up to greet her, though most of them, like Isaac, don’t know how.  Instinctively they reach for her, checking themselves only at the last minute, when they realize they can’t touch a hologram.  Eddie Saylor is probably four drinks deep.  He reaches right through her, and Susan pulls him back and scolds him.  @Jean smiles and steps gracefully clear of this exchange.  She quickly learns to take charge of the physical side of these interactions.  Hugs for her Some Body friends, handshakes for their +1s.  Make the first move, save them the grief. Isaac drifts into the background.

A handful of No Bodies are projected in to the party, in addition to @Jean.  @Violet is here, cornered already by three of @Jean’s college friends, who are longtime admirers.  From across the room @Jean can hear them awarding her grandmother this year’s Pulitzer — presumably for her reporting about the smashhouses.  The old social compulsions take over, and for a moment she forgets all the Some Body/ No Body awkwardness and whatever is happening with Isaac.  It takes nothing short of brute force to push through the stacked greetings and compliments in her way.  But she manages nevertheless to traverse the thirty feet to @Violet, before her fangirl friends can get so carried away as to start questioning her grandmother about the multiple sexual assaults she endured for capital-J Journalism.

There is so much ground @Jean needs to cover with @Violet: feelings, questions, calls upon her experience — for starters, what was it like in the in-between time, when Grandpa had crossed over but you hadn’t?  But her grandmother is insistent: now is not the time for the hard questions.  This is a party.  And @Violet spins her granddaughter off to re-engage with the several work colleagues whose well-wishes she had deflected moments ago, during her bull-rush across the function room.

The time flies by. @Jean downs three glasses of rendered champagne.  Her cheeks flush, she becomes more ebullient.  It all starts to feel ordinary — like it used to.  Isaac flits in and out of her frame, perhaps recognizing that the night belongs not to the two of them, but to her.  Or maybe because it’s just easier.  Now is not the time for the hard questions.  The closest they get to another one-on-one is when he approaches her with his sister.  Raya supplies a useful buffer.  She talks, wide-eyed, about the room’s fixtures and affordances, the quality of the holo-projections.  Leaning fully into her Simple Midwestern Girl persona, Raya quizzes @Jean about what she is able to see and hear and feel and smell and taste.

The walls: soft celadon green.  “Exactly!”  The rush of cool air when Some Body, entering or departing, opens the door to the function room.  “Check!”  The hint of anise in the shrimp balls. “Same!”

@Anne and Dougie from B.org arrive together.  More than fashionably late, and just to say hello: i.e., not their first choice for a Saturday night.  Two days ago @Jean wrote Talia, her work colleague and friend who was organizing the party, to see that they were invited, principally because they were enduring presences in her life over these past two weeks of difficult transition, but also because she was desperate to see their faces.  To her surprise, she finds that @Anne and Dougie both look much like she imagined they would — but not exactly, and the differences are jarring, at least initially.  Not unlike when she has first laid eyes on a long-familiar radio personality.

Small-talking with these two prompts @Jean to consider, for the first time, how much they know about how her brain is constructed.  But it’s not like they’re able to finish her sentences.  Or if they are, they know better than to do it out loud.  Ultimately Dougie gives chase to a circulating tray of chocolate-covered strawberries.  Something about @Jean’s expression or bearing at this point in time prompts @Anne to reach over and pat her, holo-to-holo, on the forearm.

“You’ll get used to it,” she says.  @Anne’s utterly flat affect all but negates her words of reassurance.

“Used to what?”

“To all of it,” @Anne says.

@Jean tears up, and barely a second later, the phone in her pocket rings.  It’s @Henry.  Like he’d had her under surveillance and knew she had started crying.  And maybe he did, she thinks, looking cross-wise at @Anne.  She excuses herself, takes the call, steps out into the hall, finger in her right ear, as always, with the phone held up to her left.

He explains that this really isn’t his sort of thing now, is it?

“Not mine either,” she says, “but here I am.”

“Fair enough,” @Henry concedes, “but of course more is required of you today, as the guest of honor, than of this crotchety old man with his allergy to pricey DREs.”

And as if he might be holding a calculator in his hand, he talks about the processing load, the cost of which is necessarily incurred by B.org, in the case of himself, @Violet, and now @Jean, too.  In his absence, a third of that expense goes to savings for the organization.

“But listen to me, counting dollars and cents, when all I wanted to do was tell you I love you.”

And all I wanted was to stand in a room with you, for the first time in twenty years, and embrace you, and cry on your shoulder.  @Jean doesn’t say this.  She might later.

They make arrangements to talk tomorrow morning.  She’ll see, then, whether she can persuade her grandfather to visit with her in person, or whatever the word is.

Then back into the function room for another hour of schmoozing.  A pie chart of subjects discussed might assign 12% to the upcoming SCOTUS case, another 12% to the unacceptable road conditions upstate, 25% to developments at the office while she was in quarantine — @Henry has a new surveillance case, apparently — 10% prying into the state of her relationship with Isaac.  And the rest would go to miscellaneous.

At some point nature calls.  It speaks to the quality of the DRE that this should feel ordinary to @Jean, the natural result of all the champagne, and the water she’s thrown down after it, to keep herself standing upright.  But as she steps through the side door into the hall, looking for the women’s room, she wonders why the restaurant would add urinary function as a feature for the PCE holos.  Slavish attention to detail, she supposes, or maybe they mean to open up possibilities for Some Bodies and No Bodies to run into one another and interact, at bathroom sinks, differently than they would in the party room.

A hostess directs her down the hall.  There’s a cubby on the right, with doors to the men’s and women’s rooms on either side.  Standing in between with two hands in Th@ch’s back pockets is, well, Th@ch.  Black suit, trim-cut, with white dress shirt, black skinny tie.  The suit and tie both have an inverted sheen, a depth to them.  It’s an all-swallowing black — not a material she ever saw, or thinks could exist, in the PhysWo.

Th@ch speaks first.  “The brochures at the front desk tout these affairs as state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, and a perfect release for the PCE just out of quarantine.  And here I thought it would be just excruciating.”

“You’d be right,” @Jean answers.

“All the small talk, the fluff and fizzy drinks, with the hard part — the complications and implications — deferred for later.”

@Jean only sighs.

“And if I know one thing about you,” and here Th@ch winks, “it’s that you don’t hold with such nonsense.”

“I do what’s asked of me.”

“Not always.  And speaking of, I owe you better answers than I gave you earlier, on the beach.  Wanna get out of here?”

@Jean closes her eyes, opens them, breathes out forcefully.  “Yes.

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