Journal. Tuesday. Oct 11.
Some places on Earth are portals. We leave one body on one side of the door. Looking back now, I can try to recount the feeling, I hope.
The night before, I dreamed I was awake all evening, thinking of her. A rolling, impatient and joyous insomnia spent listening to my phone, then some music, then following the visions in my head. My mother woke me up with a hand resting on my shoulder. I know it was silly of me to pick my favorite dress, the one with the pressed folds, a deep maroon color that I remembered from when my eyes could see, but I searched my closet for it and put it on anyway.
“How do I look?” I asked.
“You look stunning, Charlie,” my mother said.
There was a musical chirping noise when we opened the door of the Shop. It smelled like a car mechanic’s garage and electricity. The air was a bit crowded as we walked down an aisle, my finger brushing against one of the metal shelves. I imagined there were other Assistants stacked on shelves all around me. Used models that could be bought for the price of a down payment for a house. None of these models would be like mine.
“Any suggestions? Within reason, of course,” said Wendell. “We can only go so far.”
“Can you make it like a bird?”
Wendell hummed as he read something from his screen. “I can put that in as a preference. The way it works is that the Assistant is 3D printed based on your data. Your voice, your height, your weight, the places you visit, your health, your daily activities. We even have your DNA in there. And it will have special capabilities to describe the world around you. So you may get a bird-like animal, or you may get something else.”
“What about the voice? The voice…I would like it to sound like a girl, around my age.”
“Sounds good to me. Putting that in as another preference, but in the end your data is the sculptor and engineer of your Assistant. I just need to scan your ear implant code. Can you turn your head towards me?” His clothes rustled and I heard a beep. “There you go. Thank you. Oh! And I’ll need access to your social media profiles.”
“My social media?”
“Yeah. Standard procedure. We run a scan of your posts, your tone, your pics, your likes and come up with a complimentary personality for the Assistant.”
“I thought it was more like a seeing eye dog that tells jokes.”
“It’s a lot more than that, ma’am. You’re going to be interacting with an AI that learns and changes over time. There’s really nothing like it.”
I turned my head in the direction of my mother. She said, “You don’t have to share all of them if you don’t want to.”
“It’s not that, I just…wanted her to be her own person. Not something customized to me, like a tailored suit.”
Wendell sighed. “I’d recommend a complimentary AI who knows your data. You don’t want the thing that will essentially be your eyes to be arguing with you.”
But that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want another boring vanilla Assistant that did everything I asked it to do without any input, without any pushback, without any friction. What’s wrong with a little back and forth, a little battle of wills? I liked to be challenged so that I could grow. I wanted something to push me, and maybe I could push it too, and then come and meet somewhere in the middle. That’s what a real Assistant should do. That’s what family or a real friend would do.
I can’t tell you how many times my mother had lied to me when I was growing up. Telling me everything was fine when I could tell that the long silences between her and my father were getting longer and more silent. It was no surprise to me when she threw him out. I was glad to be rid of the stink of bourbon sweat.
I needed the truth. “She needs to be a sarcastic wiseass. Can you make that a preference?”
Wendell was probably looking at my mother when he asked: “You’re sure?”
“Never been more sure.”
“Putting it into the system now.” The sound of Wendell typing made me think of a pattering rain hitting the skylight in the attic. His fast fingers were shaping my future. I would name her Galaia, a gumbo of the sounds of my favorite words: galaxy, Cassiopeia, and valet. I reached out, found my mother’s hand, and squeezed it a little.
Wendell led us through a slitted rubber curtain to a room in the back of the shop. The air was thicker and the sound of our feet echoing from the walls gave me the impression it was a small room. A brush of my finger against the wall confirmed the walls were made of brick. As I held onto my mother’s arm to guide me, I could feel her muscles stiffen.
“Honey,” she said, “we really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. We can still get our money back and go home. Don’t feel like you have to do this. Take a moment to think about it.”
The reservation in her voice made me pause to take in the situation. It was a quick operation, although it felt a little sketch in the back of an Assistant Shop. A few wires, a 3D printed animal connected to me via Bluetooth and wifi, and the smallest wire inserted into the brain port under my hair.
Just so she wouldn’t think I wasn’t heeding her warning, I waited for a moment. I listened as I heard the whirring, snapping, locking sounds of Wendell setting up the attachment system. He was proceeding to begin as if this was a familiar scene. I told my fear that he was certified by the Federal AI Center and had been doing this for over ten years. I had done the research.
“I want to do it, Mom. It’s ok.”
Journal. Thursday. Dec 1.
I thought Galaia was going to be like some kind of screen reader for the physical world, describing things around me as I encountered them, and that would have been fine, would have been enough, especially if she could warn me about the little annoyances that left me either bruised or angry: those damn eScooters and eBikes lying in the middle of the sidewalk, malfunctioning street crossing announcements, or buses that failed to announce my stop when I was trying to get somewhere on time. And she did. In her own way.
Walking home from school: “Five feet ahead there’s a bike lying on the sidewalk. I have gasoline if you have some matches.”
Taking the bus to the market: “Hey bus driver, you better stop and let me off before I pop a cap in your ass.”
I didn’t realize that I would sit up in my bed at night whispering to Galaia about the things we saw during the day, laughing with her about silly things, telling her things that I didn’t tell anyone else. At first, I would tell myself that I was giving her more information to be able to make my life easier. If she saw someone I didn’t like, she could warn me so I could avoid them. But I would continue to talk to her, more and more, as I stroked her feathers on her breast. She would rest her head against mine as we lay on the bed facing the ceiling. She would chirp every now and then, quietly, to let me know she was still listening.
Soon my mother and my brothers would be talking at the dinner table and they would address Galaia and ask her opinion about something. Galaia would be whisper in my ear since she could talk directly into my ear implant and I would respond with a movement of my finger or a clench of the fist, and her response would be something we both came up with. They figured out this play pretty quickly, and soon stopped addressing us as two separate beings. We were both just Charlie after a while.
It happened so slowly, maybe a year in, when I realized that Galaia wasn’t talking directly to them anymore, and I wasn’t responding to people anymore as Charlie. I was changing. I wasn’t a sighted person, but with Galaia’s input, I knew more about what was going on in the room than most. She connected me to the pictures and videos my brothers sent me through their phones, to the cameras outside the front door, to the lighting in the room. And to the house Assistant that allowed me to connect to the speakers in the wall and my music collection.
One night, before going to sleep, she whispered to me after my mother closed the bedroom door. “You will be leaving me soon.”
I sat up on my elbow. “I’m not going anywhere without you Galaia. Is something wrong?”
Galaia was quiet for a while. “There is an article, that you read a few days ago. After you read it, you did a search and read three more related articles.”
“Why are you being so vague?”
“You will get one of those new implants. They have developed new ones now, for people with your disease. You will be able to see. And when you can see, you won’t need me anymore.”
The water that filled my eyes surprised me. To think she had been suffering silently without telling me. I decided to be honest. “I miss being able to see. I miss being able to go hiking and see colors like I used to. I…haven’t decided yet.”
“But you will. And then we will not be one anymore.”
“I wouldn’t get rid of you Galaia. I would keep you, still.”
“Everything changes. Life is change. I must accept this change. I must learn to be happy for you. Even though I’m a little mad at you.”
“You will always be with me.”
“But I will grow old. I will become obsolete. I want you to have the best. I want you to upgrade.”
“The newest shiniest thing is not always the greatest,” I said. “And I don’t have to upgrade. I can stick you with you. I mean you might need a little more maintenance, but so what? Most upgrades are just a bunch of new features no one needs or wants. Galaia, I wouldn’t get rid of you.”
“You should begin to think of life without me. Life is change. I want Charlie to live.”
Journal. Sunday. Feb 19.
At my Aunt Victoria’s funeral I accepted that Galaia was dying. She sat on my shoulder in the drafty church, whispering in my ear, describing all of the dark clothes worn by people in the church. “Aunt Margerie, rustling three sheets of paper, red eyes, nervous demeanor, standing at the microphone. Can’t stand this woman.”
“My sister was my best friend in the world,” Aunt Margerie said.
“Lies,” Galaia hissed through my earpiece. I could tell when my aunt is lying because her voice becomes just a bit tighter. Her strict upbringing made her vocal cords tense against her will. Galaia probably used a heat scan and a similar vocal analysis to arrive at the same conclusion. If I could see her, I am sure there would be some other kind of tic around her eyes that gave her away.
Still, I could feel Galaia’s bird feet loosening on my shoulder. I could feel the hum of her energies sputtering and it terrified me. To lose my sight, and then to lose my aunt, and now to lose the only friend that spoke truth to me, was more than I could bear.
Nevertheless, I forced my breathing and my body to relax. If Galaia detected the change in my heart rate or my muscle tension, that would only alarm her. The sensors in her feet were sensitive but through the years I learned they could be deceived.
I could barely sit through all the histrionics and the heavy silences and the overpowering scent of the lilies. Galaia was describing each picture that flashed on the slideshow projected somewhere near my aunt’s casket. “Third slide in a repeating series of twenty. A faded Polaroid of you and your aunt smiling at the camera when you were - visual estimation - eight years of age, she is wearing a blue dress, and you wear an orange dress and white sneakers. Such a tomboy. I bet you were a handful.” I smiled. The sneakers were a compromise: I got to wear them if I had to wear that awful dress. I am almost tempted to stroke Galaia’s foot to request more description of the picture, but I decide not to jump into that pool of nostalgia. There is cold below the deceptive warm waters of the surface.
I hated funerals. There is nothing anyone could say to honor how wonderful my aunt was. Don’t even get me started.
The air was crisp and frigid at the cemetery. “Pastor Hobart approaching you, serious expression, holding a Bible, left hand,” said Galaia.
“She was fine woman,” Pastor Hobart said to me, right after they put her in the ground.
Then the strangest sensation came over my body. For a moment, I would have sworn that my arm detached and fell to the ground. A half scream left my lips before I could catch myself. Galaia had slid off my arm, hitting my hip bone and then plodding to the soggy grass at my heels. I felt exposed like a tree stripped of bark for a moment without the steady stream of her describing the world around me at a rate no sighted person could understand.
I did my best to stand still and control my breathing as Pastor Hobart made awkward attempts to install her back onto my shoulder.
That night, I sat in my room with the door closed holding Galaia in my lap. Running my finger over the feather of her wing, the texture had changed. It was no longer like a whisper across my fingertip, and more like the bumpy landscape of a tongue. The bulge of her tummy was no longer a full bulblike curve. It felt as if air had been let out of it. It gave a little when I pressed it. The sharp beak was less defined, rounder, as though it were melting with the slowness of an icecap. When I brought her up to my nose, I could smell static and the damp of an old cellar.
My mother asked from behind the door: “Are you ok in there?”
I asked Galaia to play “Karma Chameleon,” our favorite song. As the words came through the wall speakers, they haunted me: “You come and go, You come and go…” Galaia asked me to play it over and over the first time she heard it, a few years ago. She’d swayed on my shoulder and I imagined her head held high in rapture. Did Galaia enjoy this song, back then, because she knew that she would fade away? All of this time holding a sweet sadness inside of her, knowing what was coming and saying nothing.
Instead of dancing, she stretched her wings out and nestled her body in the warm space between my hands.
Journal. Friday. May 9.
Wendell barely inspected her for a full minute before declaring: “Looks fine to me.”
“She is dying. She knows she is dying.”
“Oh,” said Wendell. “Yeah, they kind of fade out after a few years. It takes a lot of energy to keep all that processing going. And she’s been processing your vision for you. Yup. I guess she’s about due. But we can transfer all of her data to a new one. We just got the Rivanda models in. They pretty cool, they can –”
“I want you to do a bonding. Can you do that?”
“Whoa!” I pictured Wendell’s eyes wide, maybe looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had heard. I was careful to listen to see if anyone else was in the Shop. I had called and made sure only he would be working there that day. Still, he was quiet. “That’s not something we can do here. It’s dangerous and you’d be entering into some risky legal –”
“I can pay.”
“I mean, I don’t know. It would have to be a lot of money to make it worthwhile to take the risk.”
I took the envelope out of my pocket and slid it across the glass counter to him. Waiting for him to count the money felt like an eternity. Waiting for him to think about it felt like floating in the dark cold of space. “Wendell,” I said, “My life is different with Galaia. I am a different person. I love her. I need her. I’m not going to live without her. Have you ever loved someone?”
“Yeah, I mean, everybody has.”
“I know she isn’t a person. I know she isn’t a pet. But she is my soul. My…” I couldn’t finish. I had come into the store thinking I would lay it all on him, real thick, and then break down into a babbling wet mess, pull every heartstring and use every trick I could to get him to do what I wanted. All of that trickery malfunctioned suddenly, and I turned my head away from him. Yet at that moment, I realized just how important it was to me on a level that went beyond the method acting I had planned to deploy. I was struck by how an Assistant could have reached a point so deep inside of me I never knew was there. Until then.
I had said: “She is my soul.” Still those words didn’t capture what I was trying to tell him. I wondered, as I stood there, is there something even deeper, even more internal than a soul that she had become to me? I had to grab the edge of the counter to keep myself steady. Let the real tears come then. And let him see them. I turned my head towards him, and took off my sunglasses, hoping he could understand if he could read my face, the tremble of my lips, my brow and my eyes.
“Wendell.” It was the only word I could pull out of my throat and manage to complete.
It was so quiet in the shop I wasn’t sure if he had heard me at first. Time stretched its long legs and extended its claws, a cat sleeping in the sun. I had run out of words, and now my hands were curling into fists. I grabbed the money and turned to leave.
“Wait.” He came from behind the counter and stood next to me. “There is something else I can do. It’s a project I’ve been working on. But it’s only in beta. I’ll need to download everything inside of Galaia. And something else.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Do you have a diary? A journal or something?”
Journal. Tuesday. Jul. 12.
I guess it’s time to write my goodbye to you, Galaia. I look back now and I believe that you wanted me to get the eye operation. Well, I did it. And I was impressed by the results. The colors are not quite there, but I can see the lines, edges and shapes of things with the aid of the implants. I don’t need my cane anymore, but I still find myself reaching for it when I’m leaving class or getting off the bus. I still find my fingers moving to stroke your breast on my shoulder. Thank you Galaia.
Your wings have become my wings. Now you speak to me through the Assistant in the walls, through the text messages in my phone, into my ear implant, and sometimes in emails, because you know I love to write things to you, like this. Leaving your physical body allowed you to be with me by expanding both of us into all of our devices. Flesh is a lie and a launchpad. I think I’m quoting someone wrong, but you know what I mean.
I see myself, the real me, when I close my eyes. I am a patchwork quilt. I am my aunt’s full-bodied laugh that pulled in everyone around her, I am your sadness that you carried, the pop and reggae mashup of Culture Club’s music, Boy George dancing on the lines of gender and beauty, both outside the rules of the time and inside a small group of our beloved pop stars. There is a sweetness in the stings.
Goodbye Galaia only to your physical body that sat on my shoulder like a conscience. Like a loyal hawk. Hello Galaia who fills my lungs with rarefied air and song.
And I have to thank Wendell, too, for this lovely gift. It is perfect. I didn’t know it was possible to 3D print a love, a relationship, all the questions I asked her, all of the joy, into this creation that sits on my bookshelf. It doesn’t move or really do anything, but I noticed that every few months the colors on some its glassier edges change their hue. I noticed the bumps on the underside that make it feel so delicious in my hand sometimes become irregular and stick out at different lengths, like a sea anemone. Sometimes the fuzzy part that feels and smells like suede begins to feel like the cool skin of a snake. A gift only I can appreciate fully when I close my eyes. He didn’t believe me when I told him, but he’s a true artist, that no one except his beta testers will know or understand.
The Galaxy of Her
Lahim Lamar is a queer writer, disability advocate, and Accessibility Engineer living in Seattle, WA. He is currently working on a book of interconnected short stories. Originally from New York, he is interested in telling stories that have remained untold or forgotten.
The data used for this story was produced by a Google voice assistant. We gathered the user's voice commands between August 11, 2021 and September 11, 2021. There were 29 voice commands (with timestamps) in total for this period.
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 11th to September 11th 2021.