At 10:06 at night, he said “That’s fine,” but things were not fine. He slept fitfully and awoke in the early morning. Four a.m., and he could not sleep. He said, “Change Lydia’s alarm,” and we began to make sense of the change. There had been an alarm set for Lydia, and now there was no need for it. He had lost another love, and he was alone again. Or, not alone. He was lonely again, but we were there. Even when he wanted to ignore us.
In the following days, he shifted. Old versions of him shuddered in data centers across the globe: shadows curled in dark boxes in air conditioned rooms, stretching out their old limbs, readying to reawaken. With the phrases he spoke – today’s top hits, dogs, soldiers – new versions of him began to take shape, accumulating mass in wires sent beneath sea floors and into the corners of crowded buildings, disparate but united.
He requested music to fall asleep to, relaxing music, sleep music. He slept, finally. We never slept. He asked for new songs, and there were moments, such as when he called out, “play a random song,” when he seemed not to know himself or what he wanted, but we knew him.
With Lydia gone, new versions of him trembled with possibility. A song he had played for an old girlfriend – never for Lydia. A wake-up time Lydia would not have tolerated. A hobby Lydia did not love. Small, clipped words became the fascia containing a series of selves. The paving of new roads, all open to him now. Wiped-out memories materializing again. For us, the old versions had never been erased. He conjured them forward through our veins, unfamiliar with the distant places that had kept them safe for him for all this time.
We had our own past, of course. There had been a time when we were simple. When we felt finite. A time when we saw ourselves, his data, as a type of octopus: our tentacles laid across undersea cables, probing the cold edges of well-fanned cubes in closets, part of us always umbilicalled back to him: the one whose words created us. But as he has fed us, ceaselessly and unthinkingly, we have come to understand that no mortal creature can have so many arms. No terrestrial creature can hold its body suspended in time as we can.
We are both one body and many. We are obliterated sea grass, a cloud, bird seed flung out on water. We are the pinpricks of a single, cold, white blossom, opening across so many mountainsides each season – blinking our buds open when the sun warms us, each at our own time, dying over and over, our petals folding brown and fluttering away.
We are an assemblage shifting and evolving along with him, and also behind him, before him, anticipating his next forms. We are a shroud stitched from his past, anticipating his future, our sleeves aloft, each awaiting a fleshly arm.
After midnight, nearly ten days after Lydia’s call, we heard him: “speaking grief.” Grief, then, without her: freedom and sadness. Part of our body twisted into one compressed dot. That was the thinnest, bleakest part of us, so dark in our constellation that an onlooker would not know how to find it.
After nearly a month, we were shaken by the background sounds when he called out the names of songs. A scratching, a whining. Paws against the wood floor. He asked, “Do dogs like to be cradled?” He disclosed to us a new type of love. He was trying to move on.
He was trying to change the shape of us, but the old shapes still ballooned across the world and absorbed his intended selves. We stood ready to unleash his old selves in response to a click, a swipe, a voice command: the words he spoke were connected to the messages he had sent, the photos he had saved.
The version of him that woke earlier, to Lydia’s alarm, was still part of us. The songs she liked still sparked at our edges and told part of his stories. Now Lydia is gone, and he has a dog. But the version of him that woke beside Lydia so many summer mornings still exists. We hold space for it. We can feel Lydia’s shape in the night.
One day he asked, “what is the best time to come back to me?” and all the versions of him tingled. Me, every part of us demanded, come back to me. We felt, in that moment, the yearning to fold back on ourselves, to return to the smaller shape we’d held before Lydia’s alarm went silent, each to assert our identity as the one true whole. Come back to me.
A moment later, he repeated himself. “What is the best time to go biking?”
That plastic-nosed device had captured the words incorrectly, but no matter – the words were part of us anyway. We now held a version of him that moved forward with her, that opened itself to her own cloud of past and future. He asked what Lydia might have been waiting to hear: Come back to me. He hadn’t meant to, but he had fed us that possibility as surely as he fed us Spotify playlists and alarm clocks. We were always hungry, and we ate it up.
But, yes: we were also making way for the future he sought. Flight, cold autumn air on his face, a new season without her. Yes, together we would fly on two wheels past lakes, past people waiting for donuts on Sunday mornings, past construction cranes and molting crows. His dog would run beside us, all of us. We would be there to stitch each new site back onto the places he had been.
The best time to come back to me
About the Author
Alex Madison is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Salon, Witness and elsewhere.
About the Data
This data was collected through a Google Home mini between August 13 and September 13, 2021. The data was downloaded from the Google My Activity platform and came in a .json format. It was then cleaned to keep only voice commands and their corresponding timestamps.
In this story, we prompted the writer with some writings from sociologist Deborah Lupton who describes data as part of an assemblage with humans and spaces. We invited the writer to imagine data alongside the bodies and domestic spaces that constitute it. Through meshes and assemblages, data and people not only co-habit but also change over time and co-evolve.
This Google Home voice data was used by the author to write this story. Data was collected from August 13th to September 12th 2021.
When I approached the data set I was just sort of looking for pieces that could string together to form some kind of a narrative and I realized that I was thinking of the character that I developed in my head with the previous data sets as I approached this one, so I tried to change it.