Who’s the author of your electric fantasy?
The first time I saw her was in an antiques store in the Ginzu district. I was looking for a television set there. I’d already been to seven or eight stores that night and hadn’t had any luck. That’s the way it is these days though. Televisions are almost impossible to come by. I should know. I have ten of my own and it’s taken me over six years to get them. So I wasn’t really expecting anything when I walked in the antiques shop. More than anything, I was just killing time before sake went on sale for half price at the bars downtown.
Which is one reason why I was so surprised when I saw her.
The other reason was that her face was on a television screen.
And as far as I knew there haven’t been images on televisions for the last fifteen years. There weren’t any signals for TV’s to receive. That’s what I thought at least. But here was this girl on an old model Panasonic. She couldn’t have been older than eighteen. There was an odd green tint to her color and it looked like she might be underwater. I couldn’t tell. Everything around her was a little blurry and I didn’t have my glasses.
I squinted at her. For a moment, it seemed like she was looking back at me.
How strange, I thought to myself.
I heard a bell clink and the owner of the shop came to the counter. He was a small, balding man with black spectacles and a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. He had a steaming bowl of noodles in his hands.
Ah, he said. The Panasonic.
I looked over at him.
It’s a nice set.
Are you a collector?
That one just came over, he said. A man sold it to me. From Thailand.
Are there a lot of TV’s in Thailand these days?
The old man shrugged.
There aren’t a lot of TV’s anywhere. This is the first set I’ve seen in a long time. No one cares about these things. Everyone has the implants.
Do you? I said.
No, no, he said, laughing to himself. I’m too old for virtual reality. My mind wouldn’t take to it.
I looked back at the television. The girl was waving her hand now. I smiled. It seemed like she was inviting me to come join her behind the screen.
You’ve got to tell me, I said. How are you getting this image? I thought TV signals didn’t exist anymore.
They don’t, the old man said.
Then where is this girl coming from?
The old man set his bowl of noodles down on the counter, took a drag off his cigarette and looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
What girl? he said.
Her, I said, gesturing toward the screen. But by the time I turned back around and looked at the Panasonic, she was gone.
. . .
Have you decided yet?
That’s what my ex-wife Judy used to ask me.
In the month preceding our divorce it seemed like I had to answer that question every day. She wanted to know constantly if I was going to get the extra training to become a neuro-electrician. And every day I said the same thing.
I’m not sure.
It only takes a year, Judy used to say. And imagine—after that you’ll be able to customize ocular implants. You’ll be the author of people’s electric fantasies.
Right, I would say. Right.
But the thought didn’t appeal to me. I liked working on external electronics just fine. Machines made sense. But the idea of going inside someone’s mind and playing with their neurons like copper wires made me uneasy. I didn’t trust electric fantasies either. I didn’t think they were good for the brain. I tried to explain that to my wife a few times but she didn’t want to hear it.
You don’t understand, she used to tell me. This is what people want.
And Judy was one of those people. She’d been one of the first to get ocular implants. Toward the end of our relationship, she was spending six, seven hours a day in virtual reality. She couldn’t understand why I refused to get the implants when I had the chance. It was a turning point in our marriage. I don’t think that’s the only reason why we got divorced though. I think it was an accumulation of a lot of things.
Like all the affairs she was having.
. . .
I rode the train back to my apartment in the Shinjuku district with the Panasonic on my lap. I’d decided to skip the sake. I didn’t feel like drinking anymore. I wanted to get home so I could open the television monitor and see what was different about it from the others. I wanted to know where that image of the girl had come from.
There weren’t many people on the train. It was late. I looked out the window at the city. Judy was out there somewhere, I knew that. I tried not to think about her but it was hard not to.
A kid in a black hooded sweatshirt came walking in from another train car and distracted me from my thoughts. He had a chain wallet and he was wearing headphones. He paused by a guy sitting a few rows ahead of me and looked at him for a moment. The guy’s head was tilted to the side and even though his eyes were open, he didn’t seem to be awake.
The kid waved his hand in front of the guy’s face a few times and there was nothing—no response at all.
Right, I thought to myself. Electric fantasy.
His mind could have been anywhere at that moment. He could have been scuba diving with the President of the United States right then for all I knew.
It was always a bad idea to enter virtual reality in a public place. There were plenty of warnings about it, but that didn’t stop people from doing it. Especially the ones who were addicted—which I was assuming this guy was. Most people were, even if they didn’t want to admit it.
The kid stole a quick look around the train and then started going through the guy’s pockets. He fished out his wallet and took a set of keys too. I wondered if I should say something and then I thought, forget it.
People who were strung out on electric fantasy deserved what they got.
. . .
I got back to my apartment a little after two o’clock in the morning.
The first thing I did was turn on my television sets in the living room. I liked having them on. There was nothing on the screens of course but I liked the feeling of being surrounded by electricity. I sat down in my recliner, put on my glasses and reached for my screwdriver. My plan was to open up the back panel of the Panasonic and see what was going on in there. Before I could though, I saw something flicker in the corner of my eye.
And there she was again.
This time she’d flashed on my 15” Toshiba in the corner of the room. I put down the Panasonic and walked toward her. I could see her much clearer now that I had my glasses. She was smiling again and she was very beautiful. Once I got over there though, she disappeared.
I looked at the Toshiba and blinked. The screen was blank. And then all of a sudden I saw her on the other side of the living room, in the Mitsubishi I had near the hall. I walked over there too and once I did she jumped to another screen. And then another. Before long she was bouncing all over the room, from TV to TV and she was laughing the entire time.
She was playing with me.
And I was so caught up in what was happening that I didn’t realize until later—the Mitsubishi was the one TV I hadn’t plugged in.
. . .
The next day at work all I could do was think about her.
Where’d she come from? From ancient TV signals?
I didn’t know.
It was hard for me to focus. My boss must have gotten sick of seeing me stumble around the office so he sent me to an accounting firm to fix a digital vending machine in their corporate cafeteria. Once I got there it was a pretty typical scene.
Most of the employees had their heads tilted to one side and were staring vacantly into space. Occasionally one of them burst into laughter. But other than that everyone was silent and unaware of what was going on around them.
It’s like that at a lot of companies these days. Most people skip lunch and use their break to go on electric fantasy instead. I know Judy did. That was probably the ideal time for her to have one of her affairs.
Of course, she never saw them as affairs.
They happened in virtual reality, she said once I found out. They’re not real.
But I disagreed.
You made a decision, I told her. You chose the kind of fantasy you wanted to have. That’s real. Anytime you make a decision like that, the consequences are real.
We argued about it for hours. And the whole time, Judy just shook her head.
You don’t get it, she said over and over. You don’t have the implants. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know how wonderful it is. There’s no way you can understand until you go and experience it for yourself.
. . .
I didn’t last long at the corporate cafeteria.
The sight of all those people in virtual reality made me sick. I left the vending machine broke. I didn’t care what my boss said. I decided to take the rest of the day off and head to the sake bars downtown. It was early but I got good and drunk. I put some blues on the jukebox and then I flagged down the bartender. The sun was starting to set and there was something I wanted to ask him.
Hey, I said. Tell me. Do you believe in ghosts?
The bartender gave me a funny look.
What? he said.
Ghosts, I said. Spirits. The supernatural.
The bartender poured me another glass of sake and then glanced over at the only other person in the bar—a middle-aged woman clearly on electric fantasy with her head tilted back and her eyes wide open, muttering to herself in bits of French.
Well, he said, shaking his head. I guess anything is possible these days.
. . .
When I got back to my apartment I had an idea. I stumbled into the living room and started to stack my televisions on top of each other. I was pretty drunk so it took me a long time. Finally I got them the way I wanted. When I was done the stack of TV’s was about a foot taller than me. I stood back and admired my work. I’d put the Panasonic at the very top.
After that it only took about an hour for her to show up.
And this time it wasn’t just her face, but her entire body spread out across the TV screens. I just stood for a moment and looked at her. She was larger than life. Her clothes were drifting and floating in the space beyond. She smiled and put her hand against one of the screens. I walked close and put my hand against hers from the other side of the monitor. My fingers were tingling. I could feel the electricity between us. With her other hand, she beckoned for me to come join her on the other side.
Soon, I told her. Soon.