The Spiritual Age of Machines
by Sybil Baker
followed by Q&A
I wasn’t manorexic, as my wife asserted. I was simply trying to live forever. Or at least until 2029 when, according to The Spiritual Age of Machines, humans will be able to download their brains into computers.
“What if the computer you’re living in crashes?” my wife asked one night before sleep. I was lying very still on my back because I was too bony to sleep on my side. Her back was to me because she said if she saw my body before she fell asleep, she had nightmares.
“That’s very two thousand and eleven thinking,” I said. “It won’t happen.”
“Then what about sex, love, and families?” she whispered.
I closed my eyes and saw stars. “Once we’re living in a computer, we won’t need any more of that.”
My wife didn’t understand this. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t have even a bite of her pot roast (too calorie dense) or measure only two ounces of wine (just enough resveratrol) every evening or why I was cold all the time (no fat), or why I didn’t want to have sex anymore (no desire). I explained that it was the side effects of CRONing—Calorie Restriction, Optimal Nutrition—which slows down the aging process so that my skinny sixty-year-old ass could get to 2029 strong of heart and mind. I told her that my lackluster libido was a result of the lower testosterone which was a result of the calorie restriction, and she said, fine, she wasn’t attracted to me anyway now that I was a 123-pound skeleton.
Even now, living in the future, I still don’t know why she didn’t understand me. We both watched her father suffer from searing headaches and nightly hallucinations of hooked pirates coming to kill him before he finally died of brain cancer. We buried our dog Lucky in our backyard after he’d been flattened by a garbage truck. And we went to the funeral of our only child Luke in 2004, a soldier who died in Iraq. But that’s not what I said to her when she asked why I wanted to live forever, because she knew all that. Instead, I told her that the world was big and long and exciting and didn’t she want to stay and see what would happen? She said I was going to die, whether I liked it or not. And I said, well, they starved the monkeys and they’re still alive and the ones who ate normally aren’t, so there’s that.
I’ve eaten the same meal twice a day for the past six years, a shoebox-sized salad composed of six different vegetables, water-packed tuna, three types of berries, and twelve almonds all tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Until a few months ago, this meal allowed me to sustain a CRON lifestyle, first by losing thirty-one pounds in two years and then by maintaining my target weight of 123 pounds for the past four. That was why I didn’t understand how, for no apparent reason, I started gaining weight, at a rate of two pounds a week. After the weight gain started, during my lunch break at work (I’d been working in the paint section at Lowes since my construction management job was eliminated during the Great Recession) I’d raise my concerns on the CRON message board, detailing down to the gram what I’d eaten that day, but my fellow CRONies all said I must be missing something. They said people just don’t start steadily gaining weight on a plan they’ve been following for years. They accused me of sneaking in calories, of becoming lax with my measurements, of lying to myself, and so, out of hurt more than anger, I told them to fuck off.
On the day I reached 129.2 pounds, I decided to start intermittent fasting two days a week as a way to jumpstart the weight loss. After a few weeks, my weight gradually went down again to an acceptable 124.9 pounds, which meant that I was once again aging slowly. But the fasting was affecting me; I would get light-headed at work and quickly fall short of breath when I stocked the paint cans on shelves. My wife got even angrier with me, since I refused to go to any social events on my fasting days. It was summer, and barbeques and pool parties abounded. When I did go, my wife wouldn’t even let me wear a bathing suit to the pool parties. She said I looked disgusting, like a carcass on the side of the road. Road kill.
“We’ll see who has the last laugh,” I said.
“Ha ha ha ha,” my wife said in a leaden voice.
Even with the fasting, I was still 1.9 pounds away from my optimum 123 pounds that I’d maintained for so many years. I dreaded my six-month blood work appointment the next month, as I was certain that my numbers (amazing the doctor had told me on the last visit, they’re the numbers of a very robust thirty year old) might creep back up. I was worried that I was aging again, if only slightly, but enough to keep me away from 2029. If that didn’t work, there was Plan B, which my wife didn’t even know about: cryonics. If the computer brain technology didn’t pan out exactly as planned, I could at least be preserved until 2099, when, according to the Spiritual Age of Machines, “Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.” So if I couldn’t live long enough to be downloaded in a computer, at least I could be preserved, and later revived, once the technology had caught up with our dreams. The only hitch was that actual cryonics implementation was not yet perfected, so I still needed to count on CRONing to increase my life expectancy until the kinks were worked out, so to speak.
Because of the dizziness and breathing problems, I decided I could live with 124.9 pounds and reduced fasting to once a week. Sure enough, even without stepping on the dreaded scales each morning (125. 4, 126, 126.8, 127.1, etc. etc.) I could feel the weight steadily accumulating, like drops of rain in a water barrel. The side effects, important indicators that I was CRONing, were disappearing. I didn’t need my sweater at work, for example, and my cheeks weren’t quite as hollow. When I reached 131.3, I even initiated sex with my wife for the first time in months, and, although she kept her eyes closed, she didn’t refuse me. This was not good.
When my weight topped 135, I knew I needed to do something drastic. I decided to fast continuously until I was under 130, and then I’d fast every other day until I was down to 125. For three days I lived on watery broth, and by the fourth day I was no longer hungry. I was at 130.7, halfway to the finish line, and I was determined to fast for one more day. That fourth morning, as I was slowly dressing for work, my wife (she’d already moved to the spare bedroom on the second day of the fast) threatened to divorce me unless I ate at least a small salad the next morning. I relented, as I was sure I’d be below 130 by then, and went to work. That afternoon, as I was mixing paint for an impatient man with a foreign accent, I must have breathed in too many fumes and passed out. When I came to, I was bent like an upside down V over a coworker’s shoulder who was carrying me to the break room. “Damn you’re bony,” he said. “My ten year old weighs more than you.” I decided not to remind him that his son was a tubby overeater who was destined for diabetes and an early death. In the break room another coworker was on her cell calling an ambulance. I told them there was no need, that it was just the paint fumes and the flu, that I’d be fine. But they were adamant that I go to make sure I’d not had a heart attack or anything, so I excused myself to the bathroom (anything but the hospital, with its glucose tubes and force feeding!), and snuck out the back exit. I was still a bit shaky and my heart was beating like a hummingbird's, but I managed to walk to my car (parked in the spot farthest from work for light exercise) and get on the road home. I just needed to rest, to lie in bed and sip weak broth and watch something non-challenging on TV. In the morning I would eat some lightly steamed vegetables with my special miracle dressing, and a bit of salad as well, to please the wife.
I pulled up to our house, surprised that my wife’s car was already in the driveway. She didn’t work that far away (she was a dental hygienist), but she always went out to lunch with her friends, where she could enjoy her food and eat with normal people, she said. I quietly closed the door to my car and walked around to the back, where she wouldn’t see me. I suspected she might have taken a lover and that they were having an afternoon tryst. If she was, I’d rest in the car while they finished. I thought a lover might allow us to coexist more peacefully. I peered into the bedroom, but it was empty, so I walked around to the kitchen area. She was hunched over the counter sprinkling something from a clear plastic baggie into my herbal supplements, vitamins, and protein mix, all arranged in front of her in a tidy row. From the back with her rounded figure and falling hair she looked like a witch mixing her potion. Sabotage. I ran into the kitchen and wrapped my bony fingers around her neck. She elbowed me in my ribs, and for the second time that day I fell to the floor.
Five minutes later, we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, me accusing her between my jagged sobs while she rubbed the fingerprint bruises purpling her skin.
“Why did you betray me?” I cried.
“I hated it that you want to live in a future without me,” she said.
I wanted to say, but if I don’t live forever, then who will remember? Who will remember the way your pinkie won’t straighten because Luke slammed the car door when he was late for soccer practice? Or how your father made the best ice cream, hand cranking the cream and vanilla cooled by salted ice because he swore that it tasted better that way? Or your hands, the color of red wine from the blackberries you picked at the edge of the woods to put on top of the ice cream, like an exotic bird’s wings as you lifted the spoon to your open mouth? How I used to spend days in the garage cutting wood and nailing things together while Luke played in the sawdust at my feet? He’d build the things I had—tables and chairs and log houses—with his Legos later that night while you and I sat on the couch and watched the local news. How when a piece was missing he’d cry, and we’d be on the floor searching under furniture and dusty corners, not giving up until we found it? Or how you hung the bed sheets outside with wooden clips because you thought the fresh air made them smell sexy? Who will remember the cicadas outside in the late summer night, the windows open, the ceiling fan humming along with them, all of this before we could afford air conditioning? Or your voice as you sang to Luke when he was sick, a little flat with a tendency to wander, more a wave than a straight line, how after a few minutes he’d fall back asleep?
How could I explain to her if she didn’t already know it, that one day sooner or later we’d be separated, whether I lived or died? That since she had no desire to live forever, our parting was inevitable. But we were beyond all that, so that’s not what I told her. Instead I said, “Who will remember the last time we saw Luke? Before they killed him?”
“They didn’t kill him.”
“He was on nine different medications all prescribed by the same military physician and that’s what he used to kill himself. To me, that means they killed him.”
“He was always so sensitive,” my wife said, in the same wavy voice she’d used when she sang to him. “Maybe it’s best not to remember forever.”
We’d reached an impasse. Since she couldn’t understand, I decided I might as well put my theory to the test. I moved out the next day into a small, sparsely furnished apartment not too far from work. From there I continued my CRON regime unimpeded and returned to my 123 pounds, stabilizing there without much effort. Now I inhabit the future, where my memories of her and my son are all I have, and so far this has proven to be true, all I’ll ever need.
Sybil Baker is the author of a linked collection, Talismans, and a novel, The Life Plan. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently Prime Mincer, Prairie Schooner, and The Journal for Compressed Arts. After living in South Korea for twelve years, she moved back to the States in 2007, and is an Assistant Professor of English at UTC. An MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she also teaches in the City University of Hong Kong’s low residency MFA program. Her novel Into This World will be published by Engine Books in 2012. For more information see www.sybilbaker.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Years ago, I was a lurker on a CRON message board, and one of the regular posters mentioned The Spiritual Age of Machines as his inspiration for living longer. The starting point for this story was, “What if a guy wants to live forever, but not for reasons that we might normally expect?”
Q: What have you been reading lately?
A: Re-reading The Odyssey, Antigone, Oedipus Rex. Recently read Heliopolis by James Scudamore, Shin Kyung Sook’s Please Look After Mom. On the October to-read shelf: Other Heartbreaks: Stories by Patricia Henley and The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I’m nomadic, but usually the kitchen table or the living room sofa.
Q: Deciduous or coniferous?
A: Decidedly deciduous.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing up edits on my novel manuscript Into This World, to be published by Engine Books in 2012.