by Kaisa Aquino
I make up girls for a living.
My day begins at six in the evening. This is when I wake up, fix myself a quick meal while checking my accounts. A new job notification. Someone passed the board exam. Someone went out on a date with her live-in partner. A new zine put out its new issue. I finish my only meal of the day, wash the dishes and take a long bath.
Two missed calls. I type, Sorry just got up.
I put on a black sweatshirt and my one-week old pants. It’s a little past seven when I get out of the house. I take the long way to the jeep station. A few minutes before eight I am at the office. I loiter outside the gate. I smoke a stick.
This is how I get by every day. I began working here fifteen months ago. Unsure of what to do after getting a degree I didn’t want in the first place, I took the first job that accepted me. I understood how the internet worked, I typed fast and I said I was open-minded. I work for a company that creates and handles international dating sites.
I make up girls for a living.
Tonight, we were understaffed. We are a relatively small company nestled up in this foggy hill. There’s a bit of a noise coming from the floor when I walked in. Someone didn’t come to work because he had mumps. There were two other people on leave. And one of the coaches took a half-day off.
My job task is to create profiles of girls on whom the lonely men of the world would want to waste their money. I make up names, make up the name’s interests and dislikes, make up histories and personality defects a man who isn’t getting laid or getting out of the house would find endearing, in whichever part of the world. I’ve made up bored nannies, boring mothers, high-profile divorcees, promiscuous kindergarten teachers, forty year old virgins, models looking for their true love. All kinds of girls. I’ve made them all up.
These profiles are then handled by a different department. They give them photos, account numbers, empty inboxes. There’s a required number of profiles each month. I was almost done so tonight was supposedly going to be breezy. I was thinking of looking up new apartments. I have to move out of our shared unit.
But because some people have lives to live, I was tagged to be a reliever for tonight. Someone who does others’ jobs.
I was moved to the floor where the stuff of 21st century romance happens. For ten minutes, I was oriented, taught how the platform works, the basic rules, what to expect, how to handle shady situations, among other things.
Here goes. Tonight, I am 24 beautiful girls all at once. My goal is to keep these men interested and talking. And paying.
I check the girls’ inbox and open all the unread messages. I try to reply as politely as I could. Like how I would want someone I have only met respond when I tell her that I have an always-absent wife.
I check my own inbox and see one new message: I miss you. When will you come home? I type and retype but settle with, I miss you too. Hazel, I’m moving out.
It’s quarter to ten in the evening. I make a cup of coffee. I smoke outside. I type some more.
Hours seem to trickle but suddenly, it is midnight. A bunch of my girls get winks – which is probably the equivalent of a hit in a bar, or a whoop in the street. I wink back and leave a message to guys who I feel will take our bait and pay. Viktoria receives a new message from a regular (as evidenced by their long chat history). They had talked about growing cabbages and post-coital depression. I quickly type in something sweet.
More winks from the rich and sad men of the world. Greta, Ilene, Norah and my other girls with unremarkable names are making money. I sneak in and log-in my own e-mail. No new message. I google random things and end up in a website that lists teacup mutations of animals.
A while later, Richard1 drops Alma a hello followed by a wink.
At this hour, the traffic is horrible. Her flight should have already arrived by now and I am only hoping that it will take her a while to gather all her luggage and that she’d want to swing by some shops for a coffee. I dial her number. She is not answering. What I feel about this is sad.
After moving a few inches, my phone lights up. Instead of a message from my wife who has been waiting for me for the past hour, it’s a new message from the dating website Danny made me subscribe to.
Alma [10:25:46 am]: Hi there! Richard, right? My name is Alma. I’m very flattered by your message! Tell me about you 🙂
Richard1 [10:26:20 am]: Hel
Honk. At last the cars move. I contemplate at the message. Her photo shows off a small girl with curly semi-long hair and a cute little nose. She is wearing sunglasses; I can’t tell the color of her eyes. I have green ones.
Richard1 [10:26:29 am]: Hello. I am pleased to be your acquaintance. My name is Richard Nowak.
Richard1 [10:27:08 am]: I am 39 years old. What is it you do for a living?
The skyway finally ends and I am pulling up by the airport. The screen says Alma is typing me a message. But my wife is waiting so I close it and walk up to the waiting area.
The screen says the flight from Mauritius is delayed. I am still early. I scan the shops for a coffee.
I remember making up this girl. She’s only a week old and I remember typing up her profile in between bites of a cold shawarma I was too starved to microwave. It was a Sunday. There were a lot of people then as we all scrambled to answer the flood of messages and subscription we were receiving.
Alma [10:28:01 am]: I teach ballet. For young little girls
Richard1 [10:30:05 am]: Oh, like that special type of dance!
Richard1 [10:30:22 am]: Is that your only source of living?
Richard1 [10:31:00 am]: Will you hang in there for a moment, please,,
This is probably another married man. About to go home to his wife or take her out for dinner or something. Most of the men who sign-up here are unhappily married. Or divorced. All of them missing the intimacy they once had with the woman they once swore to love for eternity. I think about intimacy and choke on the word.
I met Hazel in one of our companies’ Olympics. She was in a relationship then with someone from the office. Someone from the IT Department, I think. She just came to support him. He was a good player. And I was just there as substitute. Someone to fill in the spot if someone busted a tendon. Or had cramps. I sat in the tiny bleachers of the tiny field.
She was the only one sitting on the other side of the field. I waved hi to her and she walked towards me and sat beside me. That’s when I remembered she was in my batch during college. She majored in Physics and we had the same PE hours.
I’m usually quiet but her face was the kind of face that was so open it makes you want to put it all down on her. And I did. I talked to her every day. About stupid little things, like the weather, “it’s raining again,” to stuff I would normally not share, like my mother, “she was an alcoholic and she died when I was fourteen – car accident.” I talked to her until the small hours of the night. I would call her during my cigarette breaks.
When we ran out of things to say, I would ask her to read me something. Anything, just so I could hear her voice. I loved how her words sounded, slurred or sometimes squeaky. Or how quickly she spoke sometimes. Or how she stumbled on some words. How she misses the stress sometimes. I loved how she would pause mid-sentence to catch her breath. Or if it was a book she loved, I loved how she would stop and sigh and tell me it was one of her favorite lines.
That thing I had with her that summer, THAT was fucking intimacy.
Alma [10:31:14 am]: Okay, I will wait for you. I would love to get to know you more Richard xx
I go pee.
My wife was irritated but I can tell she was pleased. She was wearing a sea-foam coloured dress that had a large slit that began below her hipbone and travelled a long way down. I have never seen her wear this dress before today. She seemed to have had an excellent time at that island and she was talking to me about all the activities they did while they were there – snorkeling, beach volleyball, dancing, biking around the small town. She was in good spirits, despite her flight getting delayed for two hours.
We decide to eat out. The last time we went on a good restaurant was when her parents were in town and this was two months ago. This was when her sister gave birth and we went to eat at a bar, but was actually a restaurant and not a bar, because her parents did not like the food at the hospital.
We go to our favorite restaurant. We sit outside and wait for the waiter to arrive. The waiter arrives and we order their summer salad and a light wine. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom.
Standing in one of the cubicles, I open my phone.
Richard1 [11:48:02 am]: Hello, Alma. I’m currently in a restaurant out dining with my wife.
Richard1 [11:48:22 am]: Or more accurately, I’m at the men’s restroom typing you this message! Cell reception is OK!
Richard1 [11:49:10 am]: I would love to talk to you some more later. I will get back to you in an hour. Is that OK?
Alma [11:49:39 am]: You’re in the bathroom chatting with me? How cute are you!
Alma [11:49:50 am]: I’ll wait for you xx
I take my one hour break.
I like the way everything looks at this time of day. Apologetic and perpetually slowing down. I walk towards the row of little shacks that serve disappointing food. I order a bowl of lugaw and siomai. Afterwards, I smoke and buy some candies. I stay standing by the curb. My phone vibrates. It’s Hazel.
A cab stops beside me. The driver gets off and orders lugaw. He uses all the condiments sitting at the table and eats his food with relish.
“Why are you moving out?”
“I don’t think we should live together anymore.”
What happened to us that summer was the kind of thing they show in movie screens. Girl meets boy. Boy steals her away. Both convince they are in love. It was fantastic at first. We had all the time in the world. We talked about everything. I learned her. She learned me. Somewhere, at some point, I knew I truly did love her. And I knew she did too. There were good times. But we were too quick to happen. And as soon as it blossomed, it wilted away.
“I don’t think I love you anymore.”
Richard1 [01:17:12 pm]: Alma, are you still there?
Richard1 [01:25:03 pm]: Hello? I am home now.
I walked to the nearest 7-11 store and bought Gulp and a can of beer. Outside, illuminated by its 24-hour glow, I poured out half of it and poured in the beer.
Back in my desk, I see Richard1 has left new messages. Other girls received attention as well. Some had explicit sexual hints. Someone sends a funny picture in Skype.
Alma [01:32:00 pm]: Hi, yes I’m here! I just did some errands
Richard1 [01:32:10 pm]: Hello again, lady. 🙂
Richard1 [01:32:22 pm]: Why are you here?
Alma [01:32:40 pm]: You mean on this site? lol
Richard1 [01:32:40 pm]: Why are you on this dating website?
I quickly right clicked Richard1’s name. He signed up only a few weeks ago. Alma was the first girl she clicked.
Alma [01:33:00 pm]: Same reason as you
Richard1 [01:35:01 pm]: Which is what?
Alma [01:35:10 pm]: I don’t know
Alma [01:35:16 pm]: Why don’t you tell me?
Richard1 [01:39:20 pm]: I LIKE TALKING!
Richard1 [01:39:28 pm]: I think, very few people around me want to hear what I want to say.
Richard1 [01:39:41 pm]: I am still alive, but.. I sometimes think a lot of the people around me think I’m already gone, or I’m just a shadow.
Alma [01:40:03 pm]: I think that’s what everybody feels
Alma [01:40:09 pm]: But you’re lucky you have a wife. Don’t you two talk a lot?
Richard1 [01:41:11 pm]: No, not really. We used to, before, a long time ago.
Alma [01:41:25 pm]: Are you unhappy?
Our floor manager chats me up on Skype to remind me of our shift quotas. Gotta use my other girls, he said.
It took Richard a while before he sent in his message. He says he is.
I glance around and there she is, my wife of nine years in the loveseat in our house’s sun room. I like her most like this, which is when she looks herself, relaxed, and without all the walls she put up as she puts on her clothes during morning. I sometimes still find myself marvelling at her presence. Which, sometimes, is this tangible thing, almost like it touches me, like it sometimes even presses down on me. Even when I’m in another room, when she decides to fill the entire building, block, borough, city, with her presence, not just sometimes, but a little more than that, I feel all of her.
Sometimes, however, I have no idea she’s around. Or is it the other way around? What this makes me feel is sad.
“Do you want some tea?”
Or maybe she just forgets me. I learned to disappear at a young age. Living off in the forests, I learned to make as little sounds as possible. When I moved here, I learned to not be noticed. I would go with the crowd, do what everybody does, and stay still and quiet.
This city taught me the opposite of presence.
Could it be this city is taking away parts of me every day? At every flight of a group of pigeons, let me say, a bit of me takes off, too? At every tree that loses its leaves to the turning of the year, could it be something in me turns a different color and falls to the wind, too? If so, how little is left of me?
I stand up and make tea, just so I can check my body is still here. I cautiously touch the pot and lift it. I sigh a sigh of relief and at the same time, a sigh of fear.
Richard1 [01:56:21 pm]: I love my wife, I do. But the truth is, Alma, she disappears on me sometimes.
Alma [01:56:30 pm]: That’s scary
Alma [01:56:37 pm]: No I didn’t mean
Alma [01:56:56 pm]: I mean, it’s scary, like for me, you know, for a woman to not know where she goes, where she’s off
Alma [01:57:01 pm]: Do you want to talk about something else, Richard?
It’s a little after 2am. I reply as another girl, this one called Lulu and type in to some guy, I love that film! I proceed to Google and look up the movie. Eight more girls get winks and I send in the standard hello, let’s talk spiel. I type in as Zelda, Yes baby I would like you to touch me all over.
My hand brushes my crotch.
Richard1 [02:10:31 pm]: Okay, I understand. It’s not a cheerful subject, is it, Alma?
Richard1 [02:12:04 pm]: Do you know it is my first time to log-on a website like this? Am I doing alright? 🙂
Alma [02:12:06 pm]: Terrible
Richard1 [02:12:12 pm]: ;-(
Alma [02:12:49 pm]: Most guys would want me to you know, like them, so they lie and flatter me endlessly
Alma [02:13:00 pm]: There was this one guy who told me he was a celebrity
Faintly, I hear the shower running. My wife must be taking her late afternoon bath, which goes on for more than an hour sometimes. The sound of the water running alarms me a little, as it reminds me of the sound of rain and the shower of bullets. Somewhere, a beautiful woman in a story I do not understand is crying.
Richard1 [02:14:23 pm]: What other things, do most men who are in this website say?
Alma [02:14:40 pm]: That I look gorgeous in my photo? Lol
Richard1 [02:14:40 pm]: Well, it is true. I can also say that.. You look gorgeous in your photograph here, Alma.
Alma [02:14:49 pm]: There you go!
Alma [02:14:08 pm]: It’s a dating website, you know
Alma [02:14:17 pm]: It’s where guys sometimes meet ladies who they would marry, who could be their person, you know
Richard [02:19:15 pm]: I don’t think that’s what I’m looking for, Alma,, I’m not really looking for that..
Alma [02:29:36 pm]: You know how sometimes, you’re already like with someone and you think she’s the one
Alma [02:29:43 pm]: And then you meet someone. But. It’s not really like meeting someone new. But picking up from a point of an old life where you knew each other
Alma [02:29:59 pm]: Point I’m trying to make is, LOVE – the true and real kind that is, canstill and will happen even when you think you’ve already found it
“I need to tell you something.”
It was a Monday night. A day before she left her boyfriend. She texted me she was outside our office. I went out to meet her. Hazel wasn’t a smoker. Never was, she told me. But that night, she was holding a cigarette. I watched her light it and I followed the red glow at the end of her stick as she held onto it. I told her she shouldn’t be smoking.
A pair of lovers passed us. Her last draw on her stick was a long one. I stared into her eyes under the slow ascent of the smoke.
She told me something very important. Very quickly. As soon as the flurry of words was over, she sank her head into my chest. Into the quickening of my heartbeat. Into a chandelier falling over and over.
In a matter of seconds, I realized what was happening: we were opening. In the quiet that followed, we fell softly and suddenly into each other.
I am aware of the moment. As I held her. As she fell into me. And I to her. Without language, except for the ancient understanding of bodies desperate for touch.
Richard1 [02:39:38 pm]: That is something I have not really considered before. Alma, you make me feel lonely.
Alma [02:39:50 pm]: It happens, Richard. More than we’re brave enough to admit.
I stand up and I went to find my wife in our bedroom. She is busy working on the catalog of their gallery’s upcoming show, which I read in the invitation, was a curation of artworks inspired by Edward Hopper, an artist whose death anniversary is in a few weeks.
Mister Hopper is one of my wife’s favorite artists. She studied his paintings during her completion of her degree. I’m only familiar with one of his paintings and I don’t want to look at the rest. The painting that I know is called Nighthawks and because I haven’t seen a lot of art, which I figure now is a bit odd, considering I married someone who spends her days looking at all kinds of art, it is already my favorite piece of art.
I like how completely simple and unnecessarily true Nighthawks is. What I feel is reverence whenever I look at it and think about its honesty. This painting is famous, I read about in a book in our bedside table, because the picture does not have any exit, no doors, no windows, no hole of any kind. Interestingly, Mister Hopper, according to the writer, did not intentionally take out of the picture all possible exits.
Nighthawks is a diner scene without any possibility of way out. Mister Hopper said in all of his biographies he did not mean to make it like that. I wonder how his painting made him feel.
My wife does not like to believe Mister Hopper’s statement about this painting. She said, “he gets a kick out of pictures like that, pictures that skew your mind into thinking it’s normal, that it’s beautiful, it’s okay and then, just like that, it isn’t.” She told me this with her back turned against me, so I couldn’t see how her face looked like or how she felt. But her words rang in my ear long after she was done speaking, only because it sounded foreign, beautiful and delicate, but foreign.
Alma [02:48:03 pm]: Hey, are you still there?
Alma [03:05:06 pm]: Richard?
I joined her in our bed quietly so as to not rumple the sheets, which I know she doesn’t like. Laying my head on her shoulder, she remains still. The first time we touched, I almost felt my blood marble. Our bodies touching like this, a few years after, I feel a great disconnect, like she is an aunt I left in Poland, her shoulder a boulder under my head.
Alma [03:27:18 pm]: Are you busy doing something?
Still, I try. Like the humans that we are, I try. It is in the attempt, an old man who sat with me in the bench two Sundays ago had said. I put my hands in places in her body, practiced and measured, like we did when we were still young and reckless in the ways we touch.
I used to think of her body as a mansion, a beautiful house with rooms I have not discovered yet, rich and smooth and satin. I touch her now and she is elsewhere, the mansion that I have loved so fiercely and depended on for life, for understanding life, now an empty diner with shell disguised as people, who no longer remember their names, or who never had names.
I try harder, I try again. We are making love. I am making love to a vacant space, with empty stools and sticky tabletops from all the milkshakes that spilled and syrups that also spilled. I pray quietly, the words of a past religion coming back to me.
I think about Alma, I hope to talk to her again soon. I wonder how it would be like to touch her, would touching her feel more, somehow, fuller? I am making love to my wife. When we finish, she holds me for a long while and then she stands up and picks up her clothes on the floor, like the peelings of an orange.
Alma [03:32:23 pm]: Where are you?
Alma [03:40:22 pm]: Hey..
Just like that, this man I thought I had a connection with, who was a breath of fresh air among all the other dudes who are only after a brief measure of libido, disappeared back into his life. I am left talking to a sleeping computer. Alma is left talking to a sleeping computer.
I imagine her walking around her rented duplex, a cup of black coffee in her one hand and a Virginia Slims in the other. She walks to her half-window, half-balcony, squints at the sun and watches the people below. She finishes her stick and puts the cup down.
I step outside. It is still dark out. Soon, the sun will be up. I walk to the gate and spot the man selling taho. He makes me a cup before I even reach him. I hand him a twenty peso bill from my pocket. I sit by the curb eating the taho. He sits beside me.
I take my time. I smoke two sticks and walk towards the basketball court in the compound. I run around the court for a while. I keep running. I run until I’m sweating. Until my heart feels terrible. Until I feel young again.
The sky is starting to turn cotton candy pink. I lie down the cement.
A faint memory. Sometime last June. Hazel sitting here, probably in this same spot. Sitting cross legged, probably also about the same time as now. I ask her why she’s sitting there. She shrugs and lies down. Just like that. I kneel down beside her. And whisper, “I will love you for a long time. “
I type, I’m coming home.
I finish my round of tasks. Emptying the inbox of my girls, sending out messages, winks and invites and filling out the tracker for the shift’s quota. I even go as far as changing the photos of some of my girls. They tell me I’ll go back to my usual tasks by tomorrow and I am both relieved and disappointed. Just before I log-out, Richard sends a message.
Richard1 [04:51:09 pm]: I apologize for disappearing just like that. I enjoyed having a conversation with you. I would like to talk to you some more, because, as odd as it may seem, you make make feel less lonely, which is how I am most of the time.
Alma [04:53:42 pm]: Okay, Richard. Let’s talk soon xx
Whoever will talk to Richard will have to catch up. I hope they find peace in the beeps in each new unread message. I hope they help each other survive. It’s five a.m. and I am now packing my things. It is already light out.
A light drizzle ushers in the morning. I get off the jeep and walk the familiar narrow uphill. I turn the corner and climb the stairs leading down to the apartment. Our apartment. The door is unlocked. I climb to bed, nestle in the crook of her body. I sleep like a baby just as the sun warms the earth.