“Are you really okay?” Brook stares at me with her typical investigating eyes as if she is trying to see through my mind.
“Yes.” I smile. “I am really okay.”
“Really?” With a sense of disbelief, she seeks my response.
“Yes, I am a hundred percent positive that I am a hundred percent okay,” I say, but still I’m not sure if I’ve dispelled her suspicions.
“Okay.” She spares her attention back onto the wet glass and continues to wipe it. “But you two have been through so much! I don’t know any couple whose relationship lasted for that long.” She says with a pity I can sense.
“I know, I know…” I stir my drink, “Breaking up wasn’t what I was expecting tonight…” I glance at a certain finger, thinking about what could have been there if I didn’t end things with Ian.
“Well Jen, you know I’ll get you anything to drink. All on me tonight.”
“Thanks, Brook, you are the best. But I really wouldn’t be needing that much alcohol. I don’t feel sad or anything.”
She looks up again, peers at my left temple, “I know, I am fully aware you don’t.”
Her tone makes me a bit uneasy. I have always felt like there is an undertone beneath her sustained calmness. Knowing her, I have admired her uninterrupted rationality in things. For all these years I have never seen her having emotional meltdowns like I used to quite often do. She seems like an observer of this world, sometimes quite literally as she paints, but often times I almost feel like she is a bystander in life, detached from the troubles of the ordinary. In fact, I have this theory that she took this bartending job to satisfy her strange pleasure of people-watching.
“You know, this thing is quite useful. Perhaps you should try it out…bump up your joy or something. Think about it, guaranteed lifetime happiness amplification.” I slightly tilt my head to the left, referring to the module on my left temple.
“Well, excuse me for not wanting to stick an overpriced pin into my head.” She says with a sarcastic tone.
As somewhat of an artist, Brook can be quite cynical about what she deems as mundane, such as my E-mod. She certainly doesn’t find the necessity of controlling emotions. She never needs it as I do.
“Oh, come on, it didn’t even hurt! I bet it stings less than you getting all those tattoos.”
She cracks a smile.
Well, it really didn’t hurt.
The sales associate leads me to a quiet, luminous room. The serenity in this place is almost unnerving.
“The nurse will be here soon with your chosen module and help you with the implant, Miss.” Perhaps she has noticed my slight anxiety, she then tries to reassure me, “Don’t worry, Miss, you’ve made a good decision choosing our brand. Our modules have the longest standard life span in the market. Unlike MadeEm or others, E-mod’s ability does not diminish with time and does not require constant renewal. And it is my obligation to inform you that the emotion tuning settings are built into each module unit, where just the right amount of E-particles affect your neurons to adjust the level of emotions you experience. I just need to make sure you are certain about your settings and I will need your signature here.” She hands me her files.
I have no hesitations. I need this.
“Though this is rarely a case,” she continues with a calm voice, “If you are unsatisfied with your settings in the future, you’d need to switch to a new module. But here we offer a ten percent discount for returning customers. Keep in mind we also have more advanced modules than the E-mod Alpha 6 to adjust a broader spectrum of emotions. Do you have any questions for me, Miss?”
“Just one…does it hurt?” I’ve had enough pain already, let along this module costs me and Ian a fortune. I wonder if it’s all worth it.
“Not at all, Miss,” she grins, “We’d administer anesthetic if necessary. You will not experience physical pain.”
“And also,” she adds, “I guarantee you’d feel much calmer, much more blissful than you are now when you wake up in a bit.”
“You see, it’s more of a relief than pain getting this thing.” I lightly touch my left temple, tracing the smooth surface of the module.
“I know it relieves you,” Brook says. “But personally, an emotion modifier wouldn’t help me. It would be a setback, even.”
“Why? What’s the harm in taking control of yourself and being more composed?” I question her distrust. After all, I grew to be more sensible.
She answers in a bantering manner, “You know I didn’t mind your occasional emotional breakdowns before. I never expected you to be this composed.”
I sense how she cares for me and wants me to be me.
But I have hated that old me, who couldn’t help but got emotional so easily, who sought and relied on consolation constantly from other people, who was just so…
I have strength now. I have taken control of myself. I have steered away from seeking so-called emotional support from others. I have seized the ultimate independence, an independence that no one expects me to have.
“We strongly suggest that you keep at least two percent, Miss.” The sales associate says with a blissful smile that she has sustained since I stepped into the store. “In fact, in some states, it is mandatory to keep a certain percentage of any emotion when you tune them down with E-mod. All your other settings are standard procedures. Happiness one twenty, anger seventy-three, fear fifty-five…” She recites the form.
She then continues, “But it’s a dreadful process, Miss, if you want to set sadness level to zero percent.” She looks at me. I think she has noticed the slight swelling I was unable to conceal around the rim of my weary, moist still eyes. “You will need to submit an application to our company for evaluation, and you will need to be approved by a certified psychiatrist. The process generally takes several months. I speculate you probably wouldn’t want that?”
I sigh slightly. She is certainly observant, a competent sales associate for this business. Truly I do not want to and cannot wait any longer to get a module. Grieving hurts and I am already shattered. I don’t want to ever remember that I have lost someone forever, that an indispensable part of my life is now gone, emptied. I can’t continue to experience this pain. Why can’t they just take this feeling all away? My eyes are starting to well up again and I can’t help it.
Ian notices. Holding my hands tighter, he murmurs, “I think we need to get you this module as soon as we can. You need this right now. It hurts me seeing you like this.”
I love him. He always knows what’s best for me. I nod:
“Two percent it is.”
“I subverted your expectations, huh?” I don’t intend to conceal my slight pride in my transformation.
Brook nods, wiping the glass.
“I subverted Ian’s, too.”
She stops and looks at me. I sense that she is slightly surprised that I would proactively bring up Ian. She probably assumes I would avoid dealing with my problems until I got tired of venting. She used to have to console me relentlessly when I came up to her and poured my feelings all over. Now that there is no overwhelming blues preventing me from thinking straight, I feel fine to talk. She drops the question:
“Why do you think you broke up?”
“Look what this thing is doing to you.” He says out of the blue, interrupting my monologue of today’s anecdotes.
“What?” I am confused.
“Your boss had a near-death experience and here you are saying it’s melodramatic. Do you not care about her at all?” His tone sounds more impassive than unusual.
“Well, she is fine now. She just fainted. Working at a 4A company you’d have to get used to that.” I continue, “Plus, you know Sally and I were never exactly friends, Ian. I worked so hard for her and what did I get? She just told me crybabies don’t survive in this business when I was bullied by those clients. Anyways…”
To my shock, he interrupts me again, “I never asked you to be stone-hearted! I told you to get rid of it!”
His outburst is too sudden and too unfamiliar for me to process. I am slightly irritated, “And I told you that I don’t want to! Almost everyone at work has a module. You want me to be like Paula? Cried when the ambulance came today? It was embarrassing for her! I am better than that now. Why aren’t you happy for me?” I don’t understand where his frustration comes from. He never loses his temper on me.
“You had my support when you were devastated, but I didn’t expect you to turn into this cold, distant zombie! What the hell is going on with you?!”
“Zombie? Just because I am sober? Just because I stopped crying over your shoulder? Isn’t that a relief for you? Are you mad because I chose to take control of myself?” My irritation grows, and I keep questioning him.
He shakes his head. “No, no, no…” His volume gradually diminishes, and I am not sure whether that is his answer. “Do you even need me anymore?”, he asks, with desperate anxiety in his voice.
I couldn’t answer.
For a moment there is complete silence in the room.
“Do you need me?” He repeats, sounding tired.
Just then I realize how selfish he is and how twisted our relationship is. I suddenly understand that beneath all that composed sympathetic facade, he is just as insecure as I once was. He wants to feel needed. He seeks validation from giving me his consolation. He relies on my past vulnerabilities to feel like a rescuer himself, and I was just his damsel in distress. I thought I could never survive without Ian, my patient, caring, sympathetic savior, but now I see that he is just another victim of emotions.
I read this all clear now.
All my past relationships, I was so scared of them leaving, but they all left eventually, no matter how I pleaded for them to stay. I was never the one saying these words, but now I feel fine to say:
“I think we need to take a break.”
“I guess we just grew out of each other, or at least I did.”
Brook is giving me her full attention, and I continue. “But it’s fine. Breaking up is ordinary, right? It doesn’t distress me at all. In fact, not any supposed trauma does.”
I glance at her and think I almost notice a sense of sorrow in her eyes. “It’s a pity that you chose to give up on sadness. Sometimes I wished I had your sentiments in things if you didn’t notice.” She says.
It strikes me as a surprise. “What do you mean?” I ask her.
She sighs. “I live my life, but I do not remember since when I constantly feel that I cannot be a part of it. I paint but my paintings seem to convey nothing but isolation and detachment. They express nothing. They are meaningless. I want to make art, not illustrations. Then I took this job. People coming to the bar, I listen to their stories, and I try to sympathize, and I am just absolutely fascinated. I am lucky to have met you, too, Jen. Knowing you added almost…a sense of reality to my life, and that I could read the spectrum of emotions that I hardly used to feel. That’s why I wasn’t appalled by your emotional meltdowns. To be honest, I appreciate them.”
“I may never understand your artist mentality. But as far as I can tell, you grew up lucky to be a rational person, Brook. You know there is nothing good about having all those emotions, right?”
She shakes her head almost unnoticeably, does not answer but stares at me, and I continue:
“You get vulnerable.”
A persisting buzz tangles in my head.
My surroundings are fading in a gradual pace.
All I can hear are indistinct chatters.
All I can see are obscure silhouettes.
This block of a cell-phone weighs heavier than ever in my hands.
The black text on the cold fluorescent screen seems more prominent than ever to my sight.
For a moment, I don’t know how to respond to my mother’s text.
Perpetually, I don’t know how to feel about my father’s death.
And then it hits me.
It hits me that he is eternally gone.
It afflicts me that I can no longer hear he genuinely defending me from the rest of this cruel world. “No one treats my daughter like this!” His voice lingers.
It impales me that I have lost my chance to ever repay his unconditional guardianship. All I ever did was burdening him and I did nothing for him.
It’s too late.
Ian hugs me, warm as usual. “I am so sorry.” He whispers, gentle as usual.
But even he cannot console me now.
Tears flow and they don’t seem to drain. I am too tired to even try to let them dry.
I do not feel fine.
My heart is being torn into halves, strips, pieces.
I just need to stop feeling these overwhelming twists of sadness.
I don’t care what I do.
I just want to feel okay.
“But vulnerabilities are beautifully natural.” Brook almost tries to debate with me.
“Here the artist talks again. You can’t feed on vulnerabilities, Brook.” I tease her. I can’t understand her fascination. Perhaps she needs to be grounded to reality.
People come up to me and ask me how I am doing. I wonder which ones of them really care.
“I am fine,” I tell them all.
I can’t help but notice certain skeptical looks from some.
I am not lying, I certainly feel fine.
Some of them are weeping.
Mother bursts into tears as she stares at the casket. She mutters, “We can survive, right? We can live without you, right? But how, how…” I don’t know who she’s speaking to, me, the spirit of my father, or herself. I am not sure if she has even noticed my brand-new feature. At least for once, she does not try to take care of me like she always does, even at times when I didn’t want her to.
“Hey, sorry about your father, Jen.” Megan, my cousin, comes up to me. The rosy gold of her E-mod module goes well with the pale pink of her intentionally tousy hair. Several years younger than me, she’s still in college. I don’t know how she could have afforded such a nice module herself, but I guess her parents don’t mind keeping her up with the trend. “These old people should really trust technology for once. Why be such masochists? It’s like they’re psychotic or something. It’s good to stay cool, right?” She skims the rest of the room and looks at me, expecting my validation.
She’s still young. Her words are harsh. But they get me thinking how strange this all feels. The module changed something, but it feels like nothing changed.
I look around the room—sobs, tears, cries.
I look at my mother.
Suddenly, I feel relieved, a strange kind of relief. I am among them, but I am above. I still understand the social etiquette of grief, but I do not break like they do.
So, I nod, and validate my fellow:
“Yeah, lucky us.”
“I am no longer stranded. This is everything that I can possibly wish for. I am composed and blissful.” I tell her. I tell myself.
“I just hope you really are fine.” She mutters.
Of course, I am.
I am in total control.
I feel fine.
For a while, we stay quiet.
Somehow, a distant feeling of wistfulness entangles between my lungs.
Should have taken off those two percent.