“Because he won’t leave the Institute of Immersion”, I said.
“Not for one day?”
She didn’t get it. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t get it either.
“You could at least ask him,” she said.
“I did. Believe me, I did.”
So I told her. I’d met Cal in one of the Institute’s concession cafes, where we got coffee in carboard cups with a loyalty card. He was thinner than when I’d last seen him and when we found a table, he sat on the edge of his chair as if he didn’t plan to use it for long. There was a nervous energy in him, as though he was living on coffee, but he didn’t touch the one I’d put in front of him.
“Can’t make it, Ed,” he said. “I’m in love.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Who’s the poor girl?”
“I call her Angela. She’s here.”
I looked around the café, thinking if that was his cue to introduce her. It would explain why he was so on edge.
“No, not here.” He wasn’t looking me in the eye. “She’s, I mean…”
He inclined his head toward the stairs leading to the Institute chambers.
It took me a moment.
“You mean you’re in love in immersion?”
“I thought the immersion experience was supposed to be tailored for you. The ultimate in…” I bit off the word ‘solipsism’. “I mean there’s only one client per immersion.”
He didn’t say anything while I caught up. Just looked into his coffee. “So who are you in love with? A subroutine?”
His head jerked up. “Don’t call her that. Her name’s Angela.”
I didn’t get it.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
In our family, we communicate with each other. It’s what we communicate that is usually the problem.
“I’m in love with her.”
“It’s only for a day.” It was easier to focus on my wedding than on having a line of code for a sister-in-law.
“But I’ll feel so…empty,” he said. “I’ll spend the whole time thinking about her. Missing her.”
“Cal, look at me.”
He was facing his coffee again, but he raised his eyes to mine if not his head.
“She’s not real, Cal.”
“I know that. You think I don’t know that? She’s here for me. That’s what matters. She’ll do anything I want. She doesn’t have to be real to anyone else.”
I nearly asked what he meant by anything he wanted before deciding I’d rather not know.
“She’s not real,” I said again. “I’m real. Julia’s real. We’re family. Family is real.”
Cal tapped his heart with his fist. “What I feel here is real. That’s what matters. It’s the same as what you feel for Julia. It doesn’t matter whether she’s real or not.”
When I finished telling Julia about our conversation, she frowned for some time.
“I think,” she said, “it might be better if Cal doesn’t come to the wedding.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!