“Booth nineteen. Where the f*** is Booth nineteen?” Michelle whispered to herself as she slipped on the polished concrete floor. She looked drunk, but she wasn’t. She was just lost and frightened and hadn’t slept for days. She usually dressed tactically to conceal her plumpish core and skinny limbs, but this morning arrived at her appointment wearing nothing but a stained nightgown. Her ruddy complexion, which she’d always been so self-conscious of, was magnified by the intense fluorescence of the warehouse light. As she got to her feet, she caught a glimpse of her grayscale reflection in the floor – the thinning hair, flaccid cheeks and tired eyes – and was reminded why she’d given up on looking in the mirror.
Climbing rates of vegetarianism and generalised anxiety had prompted the recent warehouse conversion from abattoir to outpatient psychiatric clinic. Fifty defunct photobooths were shipped in, arranged in sequence around the interior perimeter, and revamped to function as small consulting suites. Lockable doors replaced flimsy black curtains and walls were sound-proofed to ensure confidentiality. Internally fitted glass screens divided the booths into separate spaces for doctor and patient. Seats were left un-cushioned and uncomfortable, but for twenty-minute consultations, that was seldom an issue. Each booth was identifiable by a description and adjacent photo of its resident clinician which was plastered to the door.
“Aha. Booth nineteen!” Michelle read the description aloud to confirm she’d found Joseph C.
Dr. Joseph C. is 65% practical and 35% understanding. He is available on
short notice, has no history of professional misconduct and is always on
time. His Freud-ish face and Attenborough-esque voice make him the near
As Michelle opened the door she was greeted by a flood of warm light and the gentlest face she’d ever seen. It was after 3am, but Joseph C. looked an exact copy of his photo—the same red tie, brown knitted vest, neatly arranged white beard, and black, round-framed glasses. He spoke almost immediately, “Michelle, I see you’ve made an urgent appointment. What is the nature of your emergency?”
Michelle had been warned that the booth psychiatrists were famous for their no-nonsense approach, and she was late, so she got straight to the point. “I need to turn it off, Dr. C. Him off, I mean. I just need to turn him off.”
There was a short pause before Joseph broadened his smile and spoke again, this time with the intention of quickly establishing a rapport, “Please Michelle, call me Joseph. This sounds like something that must be incredibly difficult for you. Would you mind sharing a little more?”
“‘Sure. Joseph it is. I mean, I can ‘share’ whatever you like, but what can one really say about fifteen years of marriage in twenty minutes? I guess I’ll fast forward to when this whole mess started, which was about two years ago with that f***ing limp. A ‘foot drop’ they called it, said it was a pretty typical ‘presenting complaint.’ I mean, I just thought a limp was a limp was a limp, you know? But apparently not. Everything nowadays must be classified and subclassified and sub-subclassified. A ‘foot drop’, by the way, is what happens when you can’t flex your foot up towards your head. It’s difficult to describe because it’s a movement you probably take for granted.”
Michelle stood up and tried to demonstrate, but the booth was too cramped.
“Michelle, I am aware that a foot drop describes a failure of ankle dorsiflexion. Please, sit down and continue.”
Michelle was taken aback by the bluntness of the instruction. She didn’t like being interrupted but did as she was told. “You’re not quite as chatty as you look, are you Joseph? I don’t mean to offend, it’s just…”
“Oh, you won’t offend me, Michelle. Don’t worry.”
“Ok. But you are quite clinical, aren’t you? I mean this is probably just what I need right now if I’m honest—frank advice from a kind face. Whenever I’ve seen a shrink in the past, I’ve had this tendency to tell half-truths, you know? It’s not that I’m a liar, don’t get me wrong. I’d just always put a positive spin on myself or my behaviour, so they’d tell me I was right, or hard done by or a victim of circumstance…”
“Please, Michelle. Let’s refocus. You were telling me about an emergency that arose from a failure of ankle dorsiflexion.”
“I guess you could say that… I heard it before I saw it, I think. I mean, how often do you really take a good hard look at your husband, hey? Don’t get me wrong, I loved Leo, but he would always just sort of float along in the background. Boy, I remember the sound so clearly.”
Michelle smacked the screen hard three times. Joseph didn’t flinch.
“On our new wooden floorboards as well. I remember screaming at him, ‘Jesus, Leo! Take some care!’ But really, he never gave two shits about anything nice I tried to do to our house – that just wasn’t his ‘thing’—so can you blame me for not paying too much attention? Boy, the guilt burns. Because still, before I took the time to take a good look at him, I remember thinking he’d suddenly become a real pain in the a**. Holding me up more often than usual, I mean. But again, I barely thought twice about that, because the Leo I fell in love with was always the daydreaming, slow walking type.”
Joseph removed his glasses and rested the tip of the left earpiece at the corner of his mouth. He leaned forward, tilted his head slightly to the right and looked Michelle straight in the eye. “Michelle, I want to reassure you that you are not to blame for your husband’s ‘foot drop’. Would you like me to provide you with some techniques to manage your pathological guilt?”
Michelle met Joseph’s unwaveringly empathic gaze with a look of confused indignation, but he didn’t seem to compute, so she finally broke the silence, ‘Please Joseph, could you just let me tell my story?’
‘Certainly Michelle. I will remind you though that there are only fifteen minutes left in your consultation.” Joseph put his glasses back on, leaned back in his chair and flashed the same broad smile he’d given earlier, which Michelle found slightly less reassuring the second time around. She took a deep breath.
‘Ok. As I was saying, one Sunday, a month or so after Leo had ruined the floorboards, he and I were walking down Collins St. I remember looking to my right to tell him to ‘hurry the f*** up’ – it had become a sort of reflex – but I got no response. And I remember turning around and cursing him again, because he really was nowhere to be seen. And then I finally caught a glimpse of him, a good hundred yards back in the distance! And for what felt like an eternity I just stood there, staring right at him, as he painstakingly slugged his way towards me, like some sort of cripple – leaning to one side, lifting one foot higher than the other and then flopping it to the ground. And Joseph –if you want a mental image of Leo, God bless him, he resembled a somewhat even less attractive version of Neil Young. So this whole thing is just not a pretty scene – a homeless looking dude, who’s meant to be my goddam husband, laboring towards me like some sort of extra-terrestrial blob, and I’m freaking the f*** out and screaming at him to hurry up. And then suddenly, in the middle of a busy intersection, he decides to fall flat on his face. The traffic screeches to a halt and I run over. I take him by the collar and – Jesus, I feel horrible – I’m frightened and embarrassed, so I just scream right in his face, ‘Leo, what the f*** is wrong with you?!’
“I tried, but I just couldn’t lift him to his feet. I was crying and panicking, and the traffic was backing up, so I ended up calling an ambulance. Things moved pretty quickly from there. Leo was admitted to hospital, had one of everything on the menu – blood work, biopsies, nerve conduction studies, MRIs, you name it – and was wheeled out by yours truly two days later. Within a week we were sitting in oversized leather chairs facing an empty desk like two petrified kids in the principal’s office. Finally, and as if he was doing us some sort of favour, ‘Monsieur neurologiste extraordinaire’, wandered in wearing this offensive looking pinstripe suit.”
Michelle stopped crying and broke off to give a one fingered salute into the distance. “Thanks for making it. a**hole!”
“Boy, he was a funny looking guy, let me tell you. Kevin Schwartz! That was his name. Quite like you, he was not big on the niceties. There was barely a greeting before he sat down, mumbled something about ‘Motor Neurone Disease’ and, get this – started eating a f***ing ham sandwich. My memory of the rest of that consultation is vague. I remember feeling hypnotised by the fluorescent yellow mustard shmear on Schwartz’s chin and falling into a sort of trance, imagining what this ‘Motor Neurone Disease’ might involve. Could it be some sort of terrible, genetic condition that would result in my having to look after an entire family of homeless-looking limpers? I tuned back in to ask him this and he responded with a correction, which is another thing I hate. He said that the limp is not a limp: it’s actually foot drop. ‘Well la di da, you f***ing dickhead’, I felt like saying. He then reassured me that I would not be caring for a family of limpers, because Motor Neuron Disease was not genetic. Either way, he wrapped up, having children at this stage wouldn’t be the ‘morally responsible thing to do’, because things were about to get a whole lot worse than just a foot drop. Then he smiled and said he would see us in a month.”
Joseph put down his pen and looked up. “Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal story Michelle. I will remind you that there are only 12 minutes left in your consultation and I would be grateful if you could narrow down the nature of your presenting complaint.”
“Hold on, Dr Perfect. I’m getting there. As is turns out your a**hole colleague was right. Things did get a whole lot worse. Twelve months on I was wiping Leo’s a** and trying to convince people that it was my pleasure because of love and all that. Then one day this pretty little rep came over – the type that used to make Leo’s head turn on itself. She squatted down next to him, put her hand on his back and explained that the device she had would be able to speak for him once he was no longer able to. He looked her in the eye, told her ‘No, thank you’ and that it was about time he ‘got on with dying’.
“And you know, as much as I hated nursing Leo, it was not until that point that I seriously considered a life without him. A half-lifetime of loneliness just petrified me, Joseph. I know what you’re thinking – ‘poor little Michelle, history’s first widow. Boo Hoo.’ But that’s not fair, because when it comes to loneliness, no one seems to have bothered with the sub classifications and let me tell you, there are plenty! And what of the over-the-hill, middle-aged woman who suddenly and unexpectedly finds herself alone against her will? How would you subclassify that, hey? The lack of hope. The artlessness. The sheer length of the pain that lies ahead. Come on!”
Joseph looked blankly. He was not familiar with any loneliness sub classification. “Michelle, can you tell me a little bit more about why you are here today?”
“Just as I thought – nothing! And that’s why we made the deal. I would help him die and he would help me keep him forever. I’d read about Humbot Corporation, who were meant to be the leaders in personalized humanoid creation. They were happy to help me immortalize Leo, but you wouldn’t believe the amount of detail and effort those shysters demanded. They first had me install cameras in every room of our house to record as many of Leo’s movements, postures and mannerisms as possible – whatever was left of them anyway. I then had to record interviews with him to collect as much data as I could: the food he liked, his political views, his taste in music, movies and art, how he felt about his friends. Most mind-numbing was having to listen to him recall as many memories from his childhood as possible. That was a labor of love, let me tell you! I was so determined to squeeze every little bit of data out of him that by the time I wheeled him onto the plane – rigid, dribbling and unable to talk – he was all pulp and no juice.
“We arrived at Humbot headquarters in California and Leo 2.0 was waiting to greet us. He looked, felt and even smelt like a fresh Leo, but was still lifeless. Before Humbot would upload the data and activate him, they were adamant that I turn Leo 1.0 over. And to be honest, I was so excited that I did just that. I gave him one last one-way hug and they wheeled him away to do God knows what.”
Michelle looked at the floor and shook her head again. Just as Joseph was about to revisit the ‘pathological guilt’ diagnosis she continued.
“Three hours later I was on a flight home with an upright, continent, verbal version of the original article. And in case you’re wondering, friends were easier to fool than you might think. People will believe anything you tell them with the words ‘stem cell’ and ‘miracle’.”
“The first couple of weeks with Leo 2.0 were like falling in love all over again. Humbot called it robotic limerence and said I would enjoy it. Boy, I wish I could show you a picture of him. Physically speaking, he was really quite something. I know I’ve been talking Leo 1.0’s physical appearance down, and this is not to say that version 2.0 was perfect, but he was certainly the best possible physical version of the original. And my god, sexually he was flawless. I should tell you by the way, that the thing that separates Humbot from their competition is that they collect partner preference data. So 2.0 was upsized, without foreskin, and had a thrust time-to-ejaculation – TTE they call it – optimized to just over nine minutes.
“They also had me submit detailed information on the things I like to hear! Without fail, 2.0 says the ‘right’ thing. Seven seconds after finishing, he is programmed to roll over and say, ‘Wow. That was intense, Michelle. You were amazing.’ He reassures me with just the right amount of conviction but without overdoing it so as to make me seem irrational. I found the whole thing pretty impressive for the first few weeks.
“But here’s what’s funny, Joseph – and now we’re getting warmer – this was just the thing that started pissing me off! The scriptedness of it all. The perfectly punctuated, infuriatingly innocent SMSs. ‘No thank you Michelle. Love, Leo.’ ‘That would be very nice Michelle. Love, Leo’. Who would’ve guessed that his ability to indicate – ‘When you do ‘X’ it makes me feel ‘Y’ – would end up sounding so formulaic? And boy, worst of all was the active listening function. I paid a bloody premium for that too. Every time I speak he looks straight at me, eyes wide, head ever so slightly tilted and he nods, adding ‘Mmmm’ every ten to fifteen seconds”.
“We’d been home for less than a month before I wanted to punch his lights out, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Because who doesn’t get frustrated with their partner every now and then, right? I thought that a little engagement with real people was all we might need. So I suggested that we join our friends for Saturday night karaoke. We used to go quite often, and I’ve always been a pretty good singer – would win talent shows and everything. Well, I gave my ‘stem cell’ spiel and Leo 2.0 received nothing short of a hero’s welcome. Funny if you ask me, because everyone used to dread 1.0’s rendition of ‘We are the Champions’. Anyway, get this, last song of the night, 2.0 gets asked up on stage and he proceeds to belt out a f***ing faultless version of ‘Oh Darling’. He’s looking at me square in eye the entire time, with that stupid longing head tilt and he’s asking me to ‘please believe him’. And Joseph, I don’t know what happened – the crowd was cheering like he was f***ing Paul McCartney – but I just lost it. I hurled my beer right at his face and ran out in tears.”
Joseph gave a concerned look. “You say the singing itself was faultless Michelle. What was it then about the performance that troubled you? This is information I could feed back to Humbot.”
“He’s an imposter, Joseph! He’s pleading with me to ‘believe’. But what am I to believe? There are no dreams, no fantasies, no imagination. There’s no possibility, no uncertainty. I don’t even believe myself anymore! My thoughts are all so muddled that my memory of the real Leo, the one that I love and miss, is confused and fading.”
Joseph looked at Michelle with maximal sympathy. “I see. This must be incredibly difficult for you.”
“So I started doing these funny little things as reminders that 2.0 wasn’t real. Maybe I was trying to catch him out, but I don’t think so. I put on our wedding video and quiz him about long dead guests who were there. He gives these kind of politely duplicitous replies like, ‘Gee, I just can’t quite remember the Steinbergs, Mich’. But I’m a sucker for punishment so I just keep digging. “How about our wedding cake Leo? Wasn’t that delicious?” And because he’s programmed for agreeableness, particularly in the presence of uncertainty, he’ll say, “Oh yes! Delicious!” and then smile and touch my hand. And you know what Joseph, we didn’t even have a f***ing wedding cake!”
Joesph sensed that Michelle was looking agitated.
“So I got to thinking, if that a**hole imposter wants to lie to my face, I’ll have to just catch him out while he’s sleeping. How do you like that one?! So I test him while he’s asleep. I stick all my sewing pins in quite deeply. He seems to bleed something quite like blood, but he doesn’t even rouse, that fraud. I bend his fingers all the way back on themselves. That’s right, all the f***ing way back and he doesn’t even flinch!
Jospeh scribbled furiously. “This is valuable information Michelle. Thank you.”
“Apart from that- the small amount of satisfaction I got from proving he wasn’t what he said he was- the only other pleasure I could cling to was sleep. For just a few hours a night I could forget that the thing lying next to me was an imposter. And then two nights ago, in a moment of half-asleep weakness I rolled over and put my hand over his chest. And I was awake just enough to feel a soft buzz where his heart should have been beating. Like the hum of an engine. And since that moment Joseph, no matter how hard I try I can’t unhear the purr and I can’t unfeel the vibration.”
Michelle leaned forward and rested her trembling hands on the screen, desperately hoping that Joseph would do the same. That he would mirror her hands with his, in the cheapest, cheeziest, Hollywoodistic way possible. That he would at least create the illusion of connection. She could finish off the lie herself. But he just gave her another sympathetic look and then looked down to take more notes. Her eyes welled up with tears.
“So I ring up Humbot. I tell them I need to switch it off. For just a while maybe. For just a little respite. But they tell me there’s no switch. Would you believe it Joseph? No. F***ing. Switch. I am sleeping next to a turbine with a face and it has no switch! All they could say was that adjusting to a new partner can sometimes be difficult but that I should make an appointment to see you.”
“Michelle, we only have one minute left before I will deliver my diagnosis and management plan. If you would like to continue you will have to insert additional funds.” Michelle had no money but wasn’t listening anyway. She was standing now and was switching quite rapidly between crying and laughing hysterically which Joseph couldn’t quite make sense of.
“If it cannot be turned off, I want to obliterate it. I will cover him with a towel while he’s asleep and I will very calmly and very quickly chop him into pieces, starting with his legs so that he cannot run away. I’ll then put him in a bag and return him to the manufacturer. I’ve already bought the chainsaw. I’m almost certain his insides are just red, homogenous glob with bits of computer chip. The whole thing would be just like smashing a keyboard, wouldn’t it?” Michelle’s eyes widened, and she gave a vacant look.
The light turned off and Joseph disappeared. Michelle sat for a short while in the dark, before starting to sob. It was only when she got up to leave that she realised she’d been locked inside in the booth.
The analysis, though based on an incredibly complex algorithm, took less than a second. A combination of key words, tone of voice and pattern of movement were all considered before the final diagnosis appeared on the screen: Delusional disorder (Capgras¹). High risk robocidal ideation.
Michelle screamed and yanked aggressively at the door but it wouldn’t open. She was to remain locked inside until she could be dealt with in the morning.
Had Joseph C. 3.0 been on just a minute longer, his analysis may have been quite different. Because even though Michelle’s hysteria settled quite quickly, her tears continued to flow as she sat quietly. Through image detection software, even the most basic Joseph models could quite easily identify the presence of a tear by its shape – modelled using a closed form of the elastica equation, the syntractrix of Poleni – as it emerged from a subject’s medial canthus.
Certainly for Joseph C. 2.0, a tear was a tear was a tear. But this new 3.0 model came equipped with advanced tear analysis technology. It could recognise the unique path of the undisturbed tear, well understood to be the saddest tear. Its rapid acceleration as it exits the canthus, running over a motionless anterior cheek, tracking ever so slightly medially at an angle of between 7-10 degrees to the vertical. It could identify the rapid deceleration of the tear as it settles and reforms just lateral to the chin. And finally, it could even predict the precise moment at which tear surface tension would give way to gravity, and the time it would take the tear to fall to the floor.
The booth floor could then calculate the sheer tear volume and the rate of tear production, which at 4000 microliters in total and 600 microliter a minute in this case, were both breaching acceptable norms of crying. Though arguably a redundant feature, the measurement of Prolactin and ACTH levels would confirm that these were indeed emotional and not irritant or basal tears.
So, had Jospeh C. 3.0 been on for just a minute longer, it would have likely computed an entirely different diagnosis- quite a specific sub classification of sadness: guilt (mild), grief (moderate) and loneliness (severe).