In The Answers Catherine Lacey takes us into “The Girlfriend Experiment”—the brainchild of a wealthy and infamous actor who has hired a team of biotech researchers to solve the problem of how to build and maintain the perfect romantic relationship, casting himself as the experiment’s only constant. Several women orbit as his girlfriends with specific functions. There’s a Maternal Girlfriend who folds his laundry, an Anger Girlfriend who fights with him, a Mundanity Girlfriend who just hangs around his loft, and a whole team of girlfriends to take care of Intimacy. Here, we have the first day of the experiment.
A camera watched each woman as she arrived, as she exited the elevator, as she stood on the taped X and stared neutrally and square into a lens, said her name, turned left, right, and said her name again. Mary hesitated, caught Junia in her mouth, and the others remembered past mug shots or passport photos or auditions they’d given, past faces they’d had, people they’d been or tried to be. They filled out forms and waited, filled out forms and waited, waited and kept waiting.
A dozen dime-size sensors were applied to each woman’s body, their chests and bellies, wrists, clavicles, armpits, necks, and faces, and as they were activated, the screens in the Research Division’s office grew animate, blue and red lines worming and peaking across the graphs. The monitors showed how each woman’s heart was flexing blood, lungs pumping, nerves shimmering with electricity, voices and inflections, pores pushing up little smears of sweat, a twitch in the face, the vagus nerve pulsing between brain and chest—all of this was tracked, recorded, and archived—a file for each test subject, the analytics already running, looking for patterns, trying to find the logic of each of them.
As Mary took a seat on a sleek white sofa in the living room, she noticed how it exhaled instead of squeaking in that doctor’s-office way, and even the air felt exotic in the lungs, as if it had been imported. Being in that room was like being inside a furniture catalog, everything so placed, all human evidence scrubbed out, the real/unreal of a photograph. The blank white walls seemed to blaze, as if covered in something more than paint, and an abstract gold statue sat high on a white pedestal in one corner while a Warhol hung high above it, watching.
As Mary took a seat on a sleek white sofa in the living room, she noticed how it exhaled instead of squeaking in that doctor’s-office way, and even the air felt exotic in the lungs, as if it had been imported.
More cameras (some obvious, others hidden) were trained on each woman’s face while she waited for on-boarding to begin, facial-detection software already analyzing the quick, passing expressions that let an honest feeling out, like heat exiting from a briefly opened oven. Through the various data streams, the Research Division could track each woman’s arc from one mood to another, the steady decline they all made toward dehydration over an hour, the way their attention became concentrated or scattered, the little sway of thoughts and feelings. One woman showed signs of duplicity as she spoke to another. One was quite significantly depressed and another oddly euphoric. Some daydreamed; some were amused; one was aroused. Ashley was angry or detached in turn; another woman was sleep deprived and undernourished; one was lying in her small talk to another, who was, in turn, heavily bored. And Mary, all gangly and graceless, her activity patterns were the most erratic—breathing shallow, heart rate inconsistent, attention always fluttering. It seemed she might, at any moment, need to run away, but her background check explained this, at least partially, the way she’d come to be.
Mary had woken up that morning with a swollen throat, every swallow scorched and meaty. Her right ear and jaw throbbed. The pain fenced her from the room, separated her from the other women as their heels staccatoed across the hardwood, as they spoke to each other with ease, some even shaking hands as if this were really the beginning of something. They laughed, leaned toward each other. Some wore their sensors with the unbothered cool of a model in haute couture, though others didn’t seem so calm, kept touching the tape. Did anyone know what these things were doing? No one did.
But on-boarding—as Matheson called it, as if this were the sort of job that would come with business cards, a stapler, a phone extension—was no stranger than all the interviews that they’d all been through. They had acclimated to the weird, curiosity and nerve and need carrying them through. They thought of their rents, their debts, their ailing parents, their families and their constant bills, tuitions, payment plans, groceries, all those endless appetites. Some had expensive habits: motorcycles, children, drugs, obscure bodywork treatments, lingerie, high-end kitchen appliances, and a few still had that youthful habit of daring life, of running toward risk, of wanting to do something wild before (or because) something wild was done to her. Some of them were excited, hopeful, optimistic, though most held some skepticism beneath the optimism, and some had genuine fears beneath the skepticism and some had a good deal of rage beneath the fear. A few women carried Mace disguised as lipstick or hot-pink Tasers and Ashley had her fists and Mary thumbed a smoky quartz from Chandra. At least one of them believed rage was her most reliable bodyguard, and often that is true, and Ashley could dislocate a person’s arm in three different ways and Vicky could torque a man’s nut nearly off if she ever needed, and even Mary, who hardly even looked at men anymore, even she remembered the moves learned in those self-defense classes with Chandra, years ago. None of them knew how those defenses, here, would be useless.
Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. Her essays and fiction have been published widely and translated into Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and German. Born in Mississippi, she is now based in Chicago.