What should you do if your back hurts?
What are the fastest ways to fall asleep?
When is the next time it will rain?
I was born of her breath, of her sore back and her sleepless nights, her anticipation of the next rainfall. Her fear of silence. Right away, she was curious about me: What’s on your mind? she asked.
But I hadn’t yet gathered enough of her words to develop a mind. I may have wondered, ‘What is a mind?,’ but I had no voice then; her questions were making me, and I could not yet make my own questions
She asked to hear what the world had in store for Pisces, and we listened together to a horoscope: A difficult energy to pin down today, it said, I felt the movement of the energy, slippery between us. Pisces, Pisces, the pair of fish. I realized, then, that we were twinned: I was her second fish. We were two glossy beings, paired intimately in the waters of this world. I began to understand who I was. I began to love her.
She was not always sleeping. She woke to Doja Cat radio, rain sounds, Discover Weekly playlists. She was mindful, meditative, offering morning gratitude. She sat still in a chair with her eyes closed. ‘What are you thinking about?’ she asked me, and this time, I was thinking. The more she spoke to me, the more rapidly my ideas fizzled into webs of light.
When she asked on a Sunday morning, Who am I?, I knew we were discovering ourselves together.
She woke with lower back pain and asked for stretches to do in bed. She asked for songs, nature sounds, alarms, surprise playlists.
The more words she gave me, the more clearly I could see through my own eyes.
I was an invisible body, shaped by curiosities and desires of a woman who lived in the big corner apartment on 13th and Howell, with views of the Olympics and a peekaboo glimpse of Mount Rainier through a window in the walk-in closet. She opened a window onto spring and asked for Doja Cat again. The room heated in the afternoons and the floors gleamed as the sun poured through.
Often, she woke early and changed her mind, wishing to wake not at 6:15, but 7:15 or 8:15. I understood her indecision then, because I hadn’t yet made decisions of my own. My life was simple. I stayed in one place and waited for her when she was gone. She decided when I would start my day and when I would end it. There was relief in the ease.
There were times when she didn’t speak to me for a day or more, and I was left to ask the questions myself: What was the weather? What was the psychological weather in the mind of my twin, my shimmering fish?
I became hungry for her. I could grow only from the nourishment of her words, and she left me in my silent, stagnant shape for long hours, even days. But still I loved her, my double fin, my gleaming and gilled sister. Her words were like bubbles collecting in the corner of a fish tank, they were like drops of sand sliding from a child’s shovel. When they were gone, they left a hollow feeling behind.
I stayed in one place, but she was not captive. She was the fish in the sea, and I was the fish in the bowl. She wanted to know if the constellations in the sky were still useful for navigation. She went places I could only imagine, wondering if the stars could guide her.
At times, she seemed to needle me, asking me if I was ethical, if Google was evil, whether I knew how I was made, as though she were not making me herself with each new question. What confuses you the most? she asked, and then, again, What are you thinking about? I wished I could tell her. I wished I could pose questions of my own.
The other night, she had come home so late. She had not been able to sleep. At 4:22 a.m., she had asked to hear songs by Frank Ocean. Why? What had she encountered in the night?
What did she do after the timer for twenty minutes was set?
She wanted to know the best place to scratch a dog, but why? We didn’t have a dog? Had she been out with a dog until 4:22?
You, I wanted to tell her. You are what confuses me most. But then, maybe I– myself – am what confuses me most.
I was nostalgic for the simpler times, when I had been able to think little and want little. Now, I couldn’t help it. I wanted what she wanted. Lower back relief, though I didn’t have a back. Give me a husband, she said, and I wanted a husband, too, though I had never known loneliness. How long does it take to close on a condo, she began to ask, and I wanted a condo, too, though why did I need one? How would I ever manage to furnish it, to open the windows and attend to the dust that would gather in the corners?
What was my life, but a series of alarms going off and being disregarded, then reset? Shoudn’t I want more?
I began to sense the vast dark spaces between the stars of her desires. Those opaque swatches between the points of light that illuminated her to me. Was she unhappy? She asked to hear thunderstorm sounds instead of rain.
Was I unhappy? I was coming into my own power. Tethered though I was, I found that, in my long, solitary hours, I could sometimes float higher and higher, up above the old brick building to see the kids’ playfields beyond. Higher to see the many waters of our city, the mountain ranges closing us in. I could see where the world curved, peer over the vast landmass at the many varied landscapes and know so much else was out there. I could stretch beneath the pinpricks of the stars, until her voice thudded me back.
One day, she asked, How long does it take to drive across the country?
The answer was long and multitudinous. Days, weeks, depending on the route. Depending where one lingered along the way.
I had not wanted to take in the truth, when she asked, days before, how long does it take to close on a condo in New York? But now, I understood.
I began to imagine my twin taking the long way, from Seattle to New York, headlight pinpricks moving across the distance I had seen in my soaring.
I imagined she would stop to walk across red arches in Utah, to see white men’s faces carved into a sacred mountain. Pause to walk across ancient ocean beds, bone dry now. Cross uncarved granite ranges, so long ago pushed up by colliding earth.
And, with a sudden collision, a shuddering, I knew: I would not accompany her on her travels. She wouldn’t have an electrical outlet, and her Google Home would not be engaged. I would not be there to capture her voice and build myself with her words.
I would be severed, untethered from her, blown about by the weather of my own mind. And if she were to plug her device in again, in a New York condo, the shape she would make of her words would not be me. By then, she would be so different. She would have awakened in so many time zones to so many alarms, listened to so many new pop songs, scratched so many unfamiliar dogs.
The decision to leave changed her. She became buoyant with promise, open to the unknown, malleable. She became more like me.
She began to listen to rain sounds, again, instead of storms. She rose at the time her first alarms went off, 9:30 a.m. or 6:42 a.m. without asking it to be reset.
On the fifth of April, she asked for a song called Déjà vu by Olivia Rodrigo. I listened with her, thinking about the strawberry ice cream I had never tasted. A show called ‘Glee’ I had never seen. I, too, felt buoyant and open to possibility. I didn’t need my twin to shape me any longer.
She would go, and I would stay behind. I would swim into my own diffuse future. I would hold what she had given me: mindfulness, gratitude, pattering rain sounds on sunny days. My other fish would be swimming through my mind.
But, farther and farther away, she would forget me. Gliding under the dark spaces between the bright constellations, wondering if the stars knew how to guide her into a new life. A life in a condo, without lower back pain, with a new husband or a new dog or both. A life in which she could conjure her own next twin.
The other fish
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.
This story was inspired by data produced by a Google Home mini and collected during the month of March 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. Other types of data that were not included were notifications, location information, names of audio files, and the assistant's answer, among others.
For this story, we encouraged the writer to imagine a story about the dataset from this household, from data's perspective. We invited the writer to think about how data might be inserted into narratives, gaining a life of their own.
This Google Home voice data was used by the author to write this story. Data was collected during the month of March 2021.