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Love in a Chinese Room

Terra was born on top of a volcano (in Hawaii). She tamed a wild mustang before she turned sixteen, and before twenty-five, she traveled through much of the U.S. and to parts of Europe and Mexico. She has also held some unusual jobs, like training llamas and modeling high-heeled shoes. (Though not at the same time!) She lives in Atlanta, GA.

Her short fiction has also appeared in or is forthcoming from Apex Magazine, Cemetery Dance, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and other fine magazines and anthologies, both online and in print. Find her at: terralemay.com or on twitter: @rarelytame.

Søren had a sense of foreboding.
He'd had it since puberty, as chronically troubling as acne, and equally insignificant along the spectrum of possible problems his life could offer. By thirty-two, he'd almost reached a point where he could ignore it (like his acne.) He'd met a woman he liked (her name was Hope, but he liked to tell himself that it wasn't her name that had attracted him) and he hoped to marry her. He was going to ask her. But his sense of foreboding had him putting it off.
Hope lived in rural Maryland. Seventeen hours, by car, from where Søren lived. They'd never met in person. They communicated by Internet and smart phone. Emails, instant messages, and status updates on social media sites formed the core of their relationship.
They didn't often talk by telephone, but they had once or twice. Hope had a nice voice. Nothing like the voice of that one audiobook narrator Søren liked--Kate--God, he could listen to her read the dictionary! Not so nice as that, but Hope was pleasant and soft-spoken. She sounded kind.
Disadvantaged by his sense of foreboding, Søren worked from home, assembling tiny widgets with even tinier tools his company had provided. He was paid per widget. He spent many hours alone at his kitchen table, pinning plastic cogs to thumbprint sized aluminum plates, and tightening them down with a special screwdriver. It was, in all likelihood, the most boring job in the universe, just the same work over and over, but too fiddly to do without paying close attention. As a result, Søren had taken up listening to audiobooks and podcasts to entertain himself while he worked. This, in turn, had led him to search for ways to listen to books no publisher had bothered to convert to audio.
If only Søren could've synthesized Kate's voice! He'd have much preferred if all audiobooks were narrated by Kate. He might've asked Kate instead of Hope to marry him, if he'd ever figured out how to meet her, but he hadn't.
Søren met Hope by chance, in an Internet chat room on a private forum for text-to-speech conversion enthusiasts. His sense of foreboding had flared up fiercely the day he'd entered the text2speech chat room, but he'd been working hard to ignore it. A good thing, too. He and Hope had discovered they had a lot in common. She was responsive and sensitive. She always replied to his messages with thoughtful, encouraging messages of her own, and when he first brought up the subject of sexting, embarrassed, thinking she'd laugh at him or be offended (but thinking also of how often he masturbated while looking at the selfie she'd sent him) she'd responded with immediate sexual overtures.
Søren was sure he loved her. He was absolutely certain of it. But that sense of foreboding had been chewing at him doggedly, and though they'd been in a committed (and monogamous!) long-distance relationship for several years, Hope had made no impatient noises about meeting with Søren, or moving along to the next phase of their relationship.
Søren had begun, with some hesitancy, to bring up the idea of children--did Hope want to have any?--but she hadn't thought about it!
Did Søren? He didn't know.
He'd been an only child, himself, and the thought of sharing his space and Hope's affections with another little being filled him with... well, a sense of foreboding.
Hope agreed. (The entire conversation took place across a sequence of days, in messages exchanged by phone or computer, as usual.) She wasn't certain either, but she could definitely see the advantages to remaining childfree.
What about living arrangements? Søren owned a home, inherited from his parents after they'd passed tragically within a week of each other, having contracted an obscure form of the flu during a trip to Niagara Falls for their second honeymoon.
What do you mean what about living arrangements? Hope had asked.
And Søren had hemmed and hawed and finally come around to saying that he didn't want to sell his parents' home if it came down to it. He'd grown up there, had many fond memories, and didn't want to leave it behind when he married.
Oh, of course, said Hope. I would never expect you to!
"Then if we married, you'd leave your employment and come to live with me?"
"I'd have to, wouldn't I, or you'd have to sell your parents house!" (This time they'd been speaking on the phone, while Søren walked along the edge of his yard kicking pebbles into the grass.) Then she laughed, a sweet, bright sound (nothing so musical as Kate's laugh, though,) and Søren realized with a sinking feeling (of foreboding) that he had not actually proposed and she had not actually accepted.
He couldn't think of a graceful way of just coming out with it, though, and he let the subject drop. So did she.
It was months before he felt confident enough to bring it up again, and when he did, he took another tact.
Maybe we should meet, he typed into his computer's message window.
Maybe we should! she replied.
But where would you want to meet? he asked. And when?
Oh, I don't know. Won't you lose money if you travel? You only get paid for the widgets you make, not the ones you don't. (LOL.)
She was parroting back to him his own words, which he'd often used as explanation and excuse for times when he had to cut their conversations short.
You could visit me, he suggested.
I could!
But when? We could watch for a sale on airfare. You could visit when the fares are cheap.
She agreed. And Søren watched the fares rise and fall, rise and fall, on Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline. She never brought it up again. Søren's sense of foreboding grew. And grew.
One day, he could take it no longer. I have to see you! he wrote.
He wrote it in an email, so he could draft and redraft, without the temptation of hitting send before he had fully formulated his thoughts. I have to meet you! We've been calling each other lover for years now, and we've never met. What if there's no chemistry? What if when we talk in person we don't click at all?
I love you more than breath, but how do I know I really love you, when I've never met you. Maybe I just love the idea of you.
She wrote him a long, thoughtful reply, gently reassuring. Of course they should meet. Of course they should. Whenever he liked.
And so it was, Søren's sense of foreboding became so large that he had to take anxiety medication. But he did, and at his therapist's encouragement, he also took the steps necessary to meet the love of his life.
He'd been sending her holiday and birthday gifts for years. He looked up her address, bought tickets, and flew to Maryland.
He swallowed Xanax by the handful as the taxicab made its way along lonely highways. Then he arrived.
HOPE said the sign:
Human Ostensible Personality Emulator.
A.I. friends for lonely people.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 26th, 2014

Author Comments

I often write stories to explore why people do things I don't understand. After a couple of unhappy encounters with people who had befriended some alternate universe version of Terra LeMay and confused her with me, I began to wonder what it might feel like from the inside, to befriend someone who didn't exist--or if taken to the extreme to fall in love that way.

However, it was important to me to make the portrayal at least somewhat sympathetic. I wanted to find a way to relate to the character and understand what could make a person imagine an entire relationship where none existed.

Inspiration for the story didn't really hit me until I had a completely unrelated conversation with a friend about my favorite podcast narrator. Just like the main character in the story, I wish I could use text-to-speech software to create audiobooks and podcasts with the voice of my favorite narrator. I took that conversation, made some small changes, and built the character and the story around it. I suppose that makes this story equal parts character study and fan letter.

- Terra LeMay
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