The Real Thing
by Dan Reed
Lucas was sitting at a bar, a real bar, at 8:45 on a Thursday night, and he couldn’t get over the smells. There was the vomitous sweetness of spilled beer and sloppy tap pours, the sweat-soaked flannel stench emanating from the confab of carpenters sitting at a table in the corner, and just a whiff of long-neglected foulness wafting from the doorway that divided the barroom from the toilets.
No girl can be worth this, he thought. Why did I let myself get talked into a night out?
Avery and Lucas had been dating for months. He had started thinking — not definitively, just trying the idea on — that he loved her. At any rate, they were together in Synch basically every moment when one of them wasn’t sleeping or working. He’d been shocked when he had heard her say, “I want to meet the real you.” The only thing that shocked him more was that he had agreed.
Now she was late. He remembered from some anthropology holo that “women being late for a date” was an old cultural cliché from a century or so ago. But now it was practically giving him a panic attack. He wasn’t Synched in, so it wasn’t like he could just think himself somewhere else. He was concretely, inescapably in this bar, waiting for Avery to walk in the door.
Just as the mixture of boredom and anxiety was becoming unbearable, she materialized at the door, appearing almost as abruptly as she would have in Synch. Her eyes found his, and she smiled. With a small effort, he smiled back. She didn’t look right.
It wasn’t that she was obese or deformed or anything so dramatic: he figured that wouldn’t be her style, and he had done a little old-school Internet sleuthing to be sure. It was just that, in Synch, all her little flaws were smoothed out: her olive skin was flawless, her hazel eyes sparkled, her dark hair fell around her face in curls just so. In this bar, though, everything was just a little rougher, not as engineered to please. He couldn’t help thinking her breasts were just a little smaller and lower than they ought to have been. Still, he told himself, it could be much worse.
“Lucas! I can’t believe we’re finally doing this. I’m so excited!” Her voice was annoyingly high-pitched.
In response, he mumbled something that could pass for: “Me, too.”
She sat down next to him, and put her hand on his arm for a moment. Her hand was cold. Unpleasantly cold. That never would have happened in Synch. He wished he were plugged in instead of sitting in this nasty bar. Then they could have fun.
“You look great,” Avery said. “I was a little worried you wouldn’t look like... you.”
Lucas wondered if she had noticed his bald spot yet. That’s a feature he didn’t bestow upon virtual Lucas. He returned the compliment, and then they sat silently for a minute.
“Should I get myself a drink, do you think?” Avery asked. She sounded slightly disappointed, and Lucas realized he was probably expected to buy her something.
“No, no... let me get it... Um, what would you like?”
“Oh, whatever you’re drinking would be fine!” He had barely touched the beer in front of him, and thought it tasted like sour apple juice, but couldn’t think of any face-saving way to admit he had no clue what to order. To cover for his uncertainty, he aggressively flagged down the bartender: “One of these, for the lady.”
“That’ll be seven more, pal,” the bartender replied.
Lucas sheepishly let him scan off the charge. He wondered if Avery was paying enough attention to know that he was drinking about the cheapest thing possible, and now she would be, too. But she seemed unconcerned and was soon happily sipping her cheap brew and looking around at the accumulated bric-a-brac in the old dive.
“This place is so interesting! You ever been here before?”
“Well, it was a good suggestion, anyway!” She grabbed his hand, which was resting next to his beer and squeezed it for a moment.
Lucas hadn’t put any thought into picking the place, but he smiled and took a bit of credit. That touch of the hand made her words mean more, somehow. In Synch, every simulated contact was more intentional, more performative. He wasn’t sure whether anyone had casually grabbed his hand since his mother used to hold it.
The conversation slowly got going. After a bit, Lucas found himself almost enjoying the beer and ordered them a second round. He was so engrossed in the small talk, and in studying the subtle details of Avery’s face, that he didn’t notice one of the carpenter-types slide out of his booth and come stand directly behind him. Lucas just kept telling his story about the time he came across his boss — a very proper 62-year old man — using a My Little Pony avatar in Synch.
The man belched in his ear. “Oh, sorry to interrupt, buddy,” the man said with a slur. “Just have a question for you.”
Lucas turned around. “What’s that?” He knew that his attempt to sound nonchalant had been a failure. His voice sounded strained and squeaky in his ears.
“I just want to know if you’re going to be screwing that little piece tonight because, if not, I was gonna ask her if I could.” The man laughed, but there was no humor in his tone.
“What the hell, man! Just leave us the hell alone, okay? Not cool!” Lucas heard his voice climb to an even higher register as the words come out, and the part of his brain that wasn’t panicking told him he was digging himself a hole with both the man and with Avery. But the panicky part of his brain was drowning it out, screaming, “Run away!” and “Punch him in the face!” at the same time.
“You just don’t look like the type of guy who likes to bang for real, is all. You look like you’d rather do it in a chair at home, wearing a rubber suit and a visor. Hey, how long does it take you to clean yourself up afterwards?” His friends in the corner started laughing hard at that.
Lucas tried to shut his brain up long enough to think of something tough or clever to say, and tried to breathe in a way that didn’t sound like gasping. But before anything came to him, he heard Avery talking, loudly.
“For your information, jerk, he screws great and, if he feels like it, he’ll be screwing me later tonight. Now, go take your tiny, unused pecker back to your friends before I tell you what I really think.”
The big man’s hands balled up and Lucas braced himself, but before anything could happen one of the four men he was with, laughing hysterically, jumped up and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Nice going, George!” he said, almost in tears. “I think you might have struck out with this one, what do you think?”
George’s face turned tomato red, and he threw his friend’s hand off his shoulder before storming off to the foul-smelling men’s room. His friend went back over to the booth, where the other three men were already re-enacting the entire scene. The one speaking in the ridiculous falsetto was clearly doing Lucas.
The bartender reached under the counter, and the music in the bar suddenly got louder. The old reggaeton tune drowned the men out a bit.
Lucas looked intently into his glass while Avery sat silently next to him for a long minute. Then she reached for his hand again and said, gently, “Listen, don’t worry about that guy. He was just a loudmouth.”
Lucas nodded, then downed the remaining third of his beer in one swig.
Avery started talking about a Synch game she had heard about, but Lucas wasn’t paying attention, and after a minute signaled the bartender.
“Shot of vodka.”
“Sure.” The man poured out a shot of cheap stuff in a plastic bottle. “On me.”
Lucas knocked it back immediately. He had never drunk a shot of vodka before, though, and he choked on it a bit. Then, without looking at Avery, he got up.
“You ready to go?” Avery said, pushing herself off her stool. She tried to move next to him, but he took a step away and nodded toward the door. He let her go ahead of him and, as she reached the door, he heard renewed laughter from down the bar behind them. George was back from the bathroom, and the men had started another re-enactment.
Out on the sidewalk, Avery reached for Lucas’ hand, but he pulled it away. “Listen, I’m going home,” he said.
“You don’t want to try a different place? It’s still so early!” she asked, a bit of desperation in her voice.
“No, I’m done.”
“Don’t let that jerk ruin the night—”
“He didn’t ruin it, you did!” Lucas yelled. His face was suddenly scrunched up and flushed, as if he couldn’t decide between screaming and crying. “This whole thing was a total waste of time.”
“I thought we were having fun.”
“Coming all this way for bad beer and worse company, when we could have been doing something awesome in Synch instead? Yeah, this was an amazing decision.”
“I really wanted to meet you, Lucas.” Avery had read that men liked it when women used their names, that it made them feel desirable.
“We’ve met every day for months. I don’t need to do it in-body.”
She paused for a second, then decided to go for it. “I meant what I said in there. I really like you. This you.” She put her hand, fingers spread, in the middle of his chest, another thing she had read that men like. “And if you want to, you know, be with me for real tonight, we can go back to your place, or mine. I’d really like that.”
He stared at her, mouth open, for a few seconds. He started to speak a few times, but didn’t manage to form any obvious words. She tried to form an encouraging look on her face. Finally he gathered himself. “Are you some kind of psycho? Trying to get pregnant or something? I don’t know what your deal is, but you need to stay away from me. Don’t ever find me in Synch again.” With that, he turned and ran down the street.
* * *
The trip back to Avery’s apartment seemed like twenty days, not twenty minutes. She was so sure Lucas was the one, but he wound up just like every other male. Maybe she should try for a guy like George; at least he’d be willing.
Home at last, she could finally give in to her frustration. It’s funny, she thought while slipping out of her suit, I feel like Avery even here, not Viplix. But the apartment did feel huge when she moved around in it; she was all of two feet tall.
She’d report on her failure in the morning, she decided. Let Command, out past Saturn, think for a little while that she had finally achieved the ultimate connection with a human male. She was starting to doubt it was possible. Maybe physical love no longer existed on this world, either.
Copyright © 2020 by Dan Reed