Thea woke up to find a man sitting in the corner of her room. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and he was wearing a polo with jeans. His large body was curled into a ball, with his knees hugged to his chest. He had short, cropped hair that stood up against his oval-shaped head. His eyes, a dark mahogany, watched her with a curious expression. Thea sensed that he had been watching for a while. He lifted his chin from his knees, as if he were asking her a question, as if she were in his house and not the other way around.
Thea propped herself up, steadying her breath. As the fog of morning steadily cleared from her mind, she reminded herself that the shipment was supposed to arrive this way. She just hadn’t been expecting him for another three days.
“You must be Jerry,” she said. The man slowly unwound himself and stood up. His moves were mechanical and precise, each one planned. He nodded, eyes still locked on her face. He walked towards the bed. Remembering her low-cut tank, Thea pulled up the covers.
“Well don’t just stare at me like that.” He jerked his head up and looked at the ceiling. “Didn’t they program you to make polite eye contact?”
Jerry shook his head no.
“Can you talk?”
With his face still angled upwards, he nodded.
“Then talk.” Thea reached for her side drawer for her cigarettes, gripping the comforter in a knot above her chest. She tried not to smoke first thing in the morning—usually it was her nighttime routine—but she struggled with change. Trying to hide her shaking hands, she lit her cigarette and took a long draw. Her therapist Jean hadn’t told her how awkward this would be.
“What can I do for you?” he said. Jerry spoke with over-exaggerated mouth movements, like his lips and tongue were trying to learn the shapes of words.
“A cup of coffee sounds nice.” Thea nervously pulled out her phone, her usual cue that she was done with the conversation, but he made no signs of leaving.
“I would like for you to make me a cup of coffee,” Thea explained, emphasizing each word. It was like talking to a toddler. Jerry turned on his heel and left the room. A crash came from the stairwell. Thea sighed and called Rebecca.
“Hey, hun,” Rebecca picked up. “What’s up with you today?”
“You said this would be fun and easy,” Thea whispered. “He’s so strange. You said he would be natural.”
“Well he is a robot.” Rebecca, always stating the obvious. “Trust me, once they adjust to you and your lifestyle, mendaxes make the perfect boyfriends. No fights or anything. Just romance and sex.”
Thea couldn’t imagine how such a relationship could ever work, but her therapist seemed to think it was the best option for her right now. A man who could fully dote on her.
“But how do they even—”
“I have to go now.” Rebecca didn’t like to talk for long, especially with her newest boyfriend, Wayne. She made him customized herself. “Have fun, darling!”
Thea laid back down on her bed, scrolling through Facebook on her phone. She came upon a post from August, her ex. Attached to the post was a picture of a quaint yellow box-shaped house. “Just moved in!” it said. “So excited to start a new chapter of my life on Woodward Road.” Thea switched off her phone and rolled deeper into her pillow.
“I have your coffee,” Jerry said. Thea started; she hadn’t heard him approaching. He must have figured out the stairs.
“Thank you,” Thea mumbled. The coffee was black. She wished Jerry had brought cream and sugar. As she took her first tentative sip, she noticed Jerry’s leg was bouncing a bit. Do mendaxes do that? She’d have to call the company.
“Um, I would like to get dressed,” she said. Jerry stood still, patiently waiting for instructions. Thea put her cigarette to her lips as she avoided his eyes. “We don’t really know each other yet. Could you leave the room for a bit? Just sit on the couch downstairs until I come get you.”
Jerry pivoted on his heel and marched out of her room. Thea shivered before taking another draw; it would take a while to get used to this. As a middle-aged woman, she had had her fair share of men. Real men. She had proudly resisted the new trend of dating mendaxes for the past decade. Actual men seemed like they would be more authentic in relationships. But then she found herself in Jean’s office with a black eye.
“Do you want to tell me how this happened?” Jean asked. They both knew how it happened, but therapists have the annoying habit of making one spell everything out. Jean looked upon Thea with the same look of sympathy she gave her every other week on Tuesdays at 11am. Thea uncrossed her legs and crossed them again, adjusting her weight. She stared at the calendar on the wall. It was themed “goats in coats.” Thea wondered if Jean had her own therapist.
“August hit me again,” mumbled Thea.
“And how do you feel about that?” Jean prodded as if she didn’t know the answer.
“Obviously, I’m hurt,” Thea said. She was not in the mood to play this game. Jean stared at her blankly. Taking the hint, she continued. “I mean, he loves me, he just has anger issues. You wouldn’t dump someone for being depressed, would you? So why would you dump them if they are struggling to handle their anger?”
Jean scribbled something on her notepad and then leaned back. “But he is still hurting you. Physically. That’s the difference.”
Thea rolled her eyes. “I know you want me to dump him,” she said. “Everyone does.”
Taking a deep breath, Jean opened her desk drawer and began shuffling through numerous papers.
“Here,” she said calmly as she pulled out a brochure. “This brand is covered under your insurance.”
The brochure said “J-Mendax: The Perfect Man for the Recovering Woman.” Squinting her eyes, Thea looked up at Jean skeptically.
“Yes, we previously discussed your aversion to dating mendaxes.” Jean sighed. “But just think about it. Please. Sleep on it. The J-Mendax is specifically designed for women coming out of volatile relationships. You may find it in your best interest to leave August and try out a mendax.”
Thea didn’t have to think on it long. August decided for her. The next morning, he was gone. The J-Mendax brochure that she had put in her purse lay on the kitchen counter. A sticky note was attached to the front.
“Enjoy sucking fake cock,” it said in his sprawling handwriting.
After a twenty-four period of mourning which was more out of politeness than necessity, Thea ordered Jerry.
As Rebecca had promised, Thea did warm up to Jerry as he began to understand how to act around her. She liked the occasional well-timed joke, usually with dry humor. At night, she scheduled about forty minutes of quiet time to read romance novels. During this time, he would lay next to her in bed and read older books, remnants from her literature classes in college. Thea wasn’t sure how much Jerry actually understood of these novels, but he seemed to enjoy the challenge. They went on walks together three times a week, Jerry adjusting to Thea’s speed, and they deemed Friday nights to be date nights.
They even began inviting guests into their home for dinner parties. On a particular Saturday, they had invited Rebecca and her boyfriend Wayne as well as April. They had given April a “plus one,” but Thea knew she would come alone. Together, they had been the only women on the street who could see through the mendaxes. April had stayed single in protest of the new dating phenomenon and, if Thea had guessed correctly, she felt quite betrayed when Thea gave in to its propaganda.
After introductions of the two new boyfriends, everyone sat quietly clinking their silverware at the table. Thea sat at the head of the table, occasionally eyeing April, sensitive to any nonverbal signs. When Jerry had said his name, she curled her nose with distaste. Hopefully, she could warm up to him.
As dinner concluded with small talk about the latest celebrity news, the neighborhood gossip, and favorite coffee shops, Jerry brought out a madeira he had selected. The dinner party sat sipping wine, finally loosening up. Somehow, the conversation had wandered into real estate and their dream houses.
“Oh, Thea,” Rebecca said, waving her wine glass around as Wayne carefully watched in. “Remember that place you so dearly wanted to move into? Where was it, Woodmont Road?”
“Woodward Road.” Thea took a gulp of wine to disguise her discomfort.
“I heard it’s still on sale,” she wriggled her eyebrows. “You two could move in there. Hasn’t that always been your dream?”
It had been Thea’s dream, but with August. Thea exchanged a pleading glance with April, begging for a topic shift. Taking the hint, she perked up for the first time all night.
“How about everyone moves to the couches? They’re much more comfortable. Thea and I can clear up the dinner mess.”
Rebecca linked arms with Wayne and slinked out of the room, chatting with Jerry about the construction down on 5th Ave. To Thea’s relief, Jerry was politely engaging as he led the way.
Thea sighed and stood up to begin picking up the plates. April slid closer to her.
“He’s a mendax?” she whispered. Thea nodded
“But he looks so real,” April said, skepticism creeping into her voice.
“I’ve thought the same myself at times.” Thea brushed April to the side as she took the plates to the sink. April followed her empty-handed. “But trust me, he’s not all-natural. I had to teach him how to turn the shower on.”
“I’ve heard a rumor.” April softly placed a hand on Thea’s back.
Thea glanced into the other room. Jerry was laughing politely at some joke Rebecca had told as he delicately sipped on his wine. Wayne held Rebecca on his lap.
Thea turned back to the sink. She and April had theorized about different origins for mendaxes, but they had never heard anything from others. April took a deep breath and explained. She had found an article expose claiming that mendaxes were humans rewired. When April checked the same website the next day, the article had been taken down and replaced by one detailing the different robotic mechanisms used to create mendaxes.
“Funny, April.” Thea scoffed, avoiding eye contact with April. “I thought this would be something serious. Where would they even get people willing to do that?”
“Thea, listen!” She hissed.
“Look, April,” Thea finally looked her in the face. “This is the happiest I’ve been in a while. We don’t even fight. Remember how bad August and I were? Always screaming at one another? It’s not like that at all.” Thea paused and noticed her hands were shaking. “I’ve never met a man who could understand me like Jerry does. Don’t mess this up for me. Please.” Thea turned to head towards the common room.
“Have you seen him sweat?” April pushed. Thea halted mid-step. “How about when you have sex? Doesn’t he still finish?”
“The engineers design them to be as realistic as possible,” she snapped and walked out of the room.
The next few days, Thea paid close attention to Jerry’s actions. He spilled his cup of coffee. Would robots do that? How do they even drink coffee? Or pee it out? Thea thought back to the baby doll she had as a child which she gave fake milk, and later it would pee. It had to be something like that. One evening, as he was reading Crime and Punishment and she was enjoying a pensive smoke, she shifted her weight to look at him directly.
“Do you have any memories, Jerry? From before me?”
Jerry looked up from his book, a puzzled expression across his face. He seemed to think deeply.
“I have one memory of myself in a dark, warehouse-like building. Dark concrete walls. I’d assume that’s where they made me.” He returned to his reading. Thea nodded slowly.
“How do you feel about being a machine?”
For this question, he placed his leather bookmark on the page and closed his book. He reached for Thea’s hand and began playing with her fingers.
“I don’t think about it too much,” he said. “I like to believe I’m human. Like you. It makes this all seem more real.” He reached for her cigarette and put it out on his nightstand. Gently, Jerry wrapped his arms around her.
“I like to believe that too,” she said, burying her face into his chest.
Thea was in the kitchen, preparing the night’s dinner. She had always hated cooking, preferring to get takeout from any of the local restaurants, but Jerry had encouraged her to try making something herself. A couple of nights a week, they would concoct a dish together. In the morning, Jerry would stare at a recipe book before they would head to the grocery store, where they would laugh to each other as they walked through the aisles searching for new ingredients like jicama, fennel, and chia seeds. What should have been a half-hour grocery trip would turn into two hours with them bothering worn-out employees. It was a beautiful date for the two of them.
They would then mess around in the kitchen, trying to make sense of terms like “braise” and “parboil” before remembering they had smartphones. In between chopping ingredients and combining flavors, they would slow dance with each other, mocking each other’s clumsiness in the small kitchen.
But today, Jerry encouraged Thea to take on the beast solo while he repaired some worn-out patches in the roof. There had been a family of raccoons living in Thea’s ceiling, and they had finally decided to move out. Before they could come back, Jerry had insisted on fixing the roof himself.
Thea was studying the cookbook, trying to determine the best way to go about making an eggplant lasagna, when she heard a crash outside.
Heart racing, she ran out the back door. Her eyes frantically searched before finding Jerry, his body contorted in an unnatural shape on the now-crushed lilies by the side of the house. She rushed over to him, placing her hands on his back. He was facing away from her, breathing heavily with one hand on his head, the other bracing himself up off the ground.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. Her eyebrows were scrunched up and her hands were shaking.
“I think so,” he groaned. “We’ll have to get my head patched up.”
Thea paused. She had never thought about him being injured. She took a deep breath and, bracing herself, she pulled him up off the ground.
“Thanks, babe,” he turned around to smile at her. Upon seeing his face, Thea stepped back, crossing her arms across her body.
His skin had peeled off near his temple, only about an inch long. Not a bad injury, but on any normal person, it would have required stitches. Where there should have been crimson blood swelling out of the wound and trickling down his face, there was nothing. Under the cut, Thea could see a bit of some metallic gray matter which shined in the sun when he moved.
“I’m fine, Thea,” Jerry said, reaching his arms to her. “I can’t have brain damage. It’s still me.”
Thea took a step back. And another. She turned and walked back into the house, clutching her chest.
When Jerry went to the plant to have his face reconstructed, Thea called J-Mendax and told them not to send him back. She collected her literature books into a cardboard box and set it in her common room. “Donate,” she wrote in scribbled letters on top. Going through her cookbook, she marked all the recipes they had cooked together. Stuffed peppers, Buddha bowls, vegetable omelets. Foods she wouldn’t be making for a while.
Standing on her back porch, she called April as she lit a cigarette. Her eyes rested on the spot where he fell.
“You were wrong,” Thea said.
“He wasn’t human.”
“Oh.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Is he still there?”
“No,” Thea took another puff. “It’s strange,” she went on, exhaling. “I knew he wasn’t real. I knew that, April.”
“I know.” Another pause. “I’ll be over in a half hour with scones from that café you like. What is it, The Gothic?”
“Thank you,” Thea whispered, stubbing out her cigarette.
After they hung up, Thea looked through her texts with August. There was a lot of anger, one of them was late to a double date, the other forgot about their plans that afternoon. Each angry message had led to an actual fight, with a bit of yelling and a lot of attempts to control their own emotions. But afterward, they would sit on her couch entangled in one another. Thea would hold August’s head on her chest with her legs intertwined with his. She would rest her hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat. They had made a mess out of love.
Inhaling sharply, Thea tapped the button on her phone. She stared at her still-crushed garden as she listened to her phone ring, waiting for him to pick up.
S.G. Smith is an undergraduate student studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University. Her work has been published in The Journal, The Blue Marble Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She is the second place recipient of the university’s Jacobson Short Story Award.