by Jake Slovis
We heard about RealityCheck from Anne and Tom. They said it had really worked for them, that since they’d started playing, they hadn’t fought once. The evidence of their success was clear. We’d twice had them over for dinner that summer, and both times they’d seemed truly in love in a way I couldn’t remember seeing before. They’d held hands, laughed at each other’s jokes. They’d smiled and let the other speak. It was a far cry from the way they’d been the previous August—always calling one of us, either Lilly or me, to say they’d just about had enough, that a divorce was imminent, that they couldn’t stand to be in the same house any longer. Naturally, Lilly and I noted the difference in their behavior with amazement. And after Tom and Anne had left that second dinner with contented smiles, we understood that we needed to try RealityCheck too.
The trouble with Lilly and me was far different than with Anne and Tom. Where they’d fought and cursed each other out, we seldom yelled, seldom argued, and lived quietly, steadily and completely devoid of passion. It was all so boring, and while neither of us ever discussed this out loud, there seemed to be an implicit understanding between us that we were heading toward something terrible—a life of silence.
“But this game,” we agreed, “this game could make a difference.”
The next day after work I went to the local Best Buy. I’d never been a fan of video games, not even in my youth. Instead, I’d always favored books. Lilly preferred movies, and often our evenings passed with her watching Audrey Hepburn films in the bedroom while I read for hours downstairs. This cycle had gone on for the five years since we’d moved to Englewood Terrace. While in the beginning the habit had seemed pleasant, the longer it went on, the harder the cycle was to break until we hardly ever spent time together at all.
But on the evening I bought RealityCheck, things immediately began to change. When I arrived home, Lilly was waiting at the kitchen table with her laptop and an eager grin. “Did you get it?” she said. I handed her the Best Buy bag. She took out the game, quickly unboxed it, and put it into the cd drive. While she installed the game, I flipped through the manual, reading about gameplay. She looked over at me and smirked: “Just as I thought you would.” I shrugged. I couldn’t help but fall back on old habits. But I could see that if the project was going to work, we’d have to try something different. I closed the book and sidled up next to Lilly.
The installation took longer than expected. As we watched the bar load, we tapped our fingers on the kitchen table until at last the game launched. There were a few options for gameplay, but we knew from Anne and Tom that the best route was to enter “build mode,” which would allow us to construct a house before inhabiting it. We had agreed in advance to make sure the house was as near to our own as possible—hoping this would maximize the effect. Lilly clicked on the construction button and set to building the outer and inner walls of our ground floor. There was the main hallway down the center of the house; on one side was the kitchen, and on the other side stood the living room. A staircase went to the upper level where there were two more rooms, our bedroom and an office where Lilly worked from home as a graphic designer.
This all looked about right, and after that we adorned the house with basic amenities—faux-Indian carpets that most closely matched our own, Ikea-like lamps and sofas. Lilly did most of the building while I watched, nodding when the house appeared close to specifications. Then it came time to design our virtual buddies. I gave mine a pair of wire-frame glasses, a sharp jaw and dark brown hair. While determining body size, I settled on “slim,” but Lilly quickly intervened.
“If I’m being honest,” she said, “that’s you five years ago.”
“No, it’s not,” I said.
Lilly rolled her eyes. Although I burned with frustration, I knew she was right and made the virtual buddy a bit wider in the waist. “But I’m naming him Dave,” I said.
“Dave? Why Dave? That’s so boring.”
“I always liked the name Dave,” I confessed.
“Fine,” she said and reached for the laptop.
She began designing her virtual buddy after her image, although like mine, I noted that there were a few oddities. For one, she dressed her virtual buddy in jeans and a white t-shirt, which she seldom wore since our days in the old apartment in New York when she’d head out to the studio to paint on Sundays. She also gave herself a lighter hair color, closer to blond, before pausing and then just giving herself fully golden locks.
“If you get to be Dave, I get blond hair,” she concluded.
I didn’t protest, which I think bothered her—the point of all this was to argue and see if that brought about anything new. But sitting beside her it just seemed insincere to pick a petty fight face-to-face. So I reached for the laptop and started our virtual lives together.
The game began when I clicked on my virtual buddy on the ground floor, walked him upstairs to where Lilly’s virtual buddy lay watching television in the bedroom, turned off the television, then typed into the dialogue box: “I liked your old hair better.” The program analyzed the language to see if it was meant to be a compliment or an insult. This came up as decidedly an insult, and virtual Lilly immediately stood up from the mattress. The game then provided options to player two, Lilly. She could leave the room, she could slap Dave in the face, she could offer a retort, or she could continue to watch television. Lilly immediately clicked “slap” and her virtual buddy went into action—raising her hand far back as if winding up for a pitch, then flinging it forward across Dave’s cheek. Dave reacted by grabbing his face, and a grin spread on Lilly’s face—the real Lilly.
“Having fun?” I said.
Her eyes didn’t leave the screen.
I was given the option to either go to the medicine cabinet, leave, apologize, or retort. I typed into the dialogue box: “What the hell?” Soon the characters started to argue on their own accord. They thrust their hands in the air, snarled, stomped their feet. On the side of the screen, their anger meters rose from green to yellow to red, until my virtual buddy stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him in the process.
Lilly was then given the option to take out her anger through various activities—she could go for a run, she could turn the television back on, she could call a friend. The other option was to go find Dave and continue the squabble, which was the option she took. Soon virtual Lilly headed downstairs to the living room where she announced: “You’ve put on weight. And you’re lazy. All you do is read, sleep, go to work.”
From there more arguing ensued before Dave rushed out of the house to the local bar. Moments later an event icon popped up on the screen describing what had happened to Dave. Reacting to the fight with Lilly’s virtual buddy, he’d gotten into a fistfight with another patron who wouldn’t let him pick a song on the jukebox. The whole fight was depicted in a brief slow-motion video clip. Dave and the bar patron threw punches until the police came and Dave ended up in jail for the night. Lilly was then given the option to either pick up Dave, let him spend the night in jail, or file for divorce. She filed for divorce, and when she pressed the button, the real Lilly looked at me with a strange grin. “Just kidding,” she said.
That night we lay in bed, side by side. The television was on, mumbling voices about the upcoming election. I was reading that week’s New Yorker, although it was hard to pay attention. I kept looking up at Lilly, noting her little twists, turns. There was something uncomfortable in the air. I put down the magazine, opened my mouth, but paused.
“What?” Lilly turned off the television.
“I was just thinking about the game.”
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” she said. “Do you think Anne and Tom’s virtual buddies fight often? Or do they do something different? Do they go on pleasant dates?”
“That’s a feature?”
Lilly shrugged. “I know as much about it as you do.”
“Right.” I reached for the light.
In the morning I rose quickly, made coffee. I was about to continue my usual routine of reading the paper before work while Lilly stayed upstairs to watch the news when I suddenly found myself at the kitchen table, the laptop open before me. I bit my lip, rubbed my forehead, and opened our virtual lives. Time had passed, and it was the next morning in the game. I had just gotten out of jail and appeared in front of the virtual house where we lived.
“Lilly,” I called upstairs. “Will you let me in?”
“Just come and see.”
Pretty soon Lilly was back downstairs, and RealityCheck offered her options. She could let Dave inside, she could tell him to get the hell away, or she could call the police. I waited, wondering what she would do. Her eyebrows were low; her irises caught the glare of the computer screen. “You know you were a real dick,” she said. “Getting arrested like that.” She looked at me briefly, then back at the screen. “But hell, I can’t just leave you on the street.”
Her virtual buddy opened the door. Dave stepped in.
“Well?” Lilly typed into the dialogue box.
I typed: “Well, what?”
And then the arguing between the virtual buddies began.
Had it not been nearly eight o’clock, I would’ve continued playing to see the rest of the argument through. But as we traded words and Lilly’s virtual buddy stormed out of the room, snarling at Dave to get his stuff and move in with his brother, the real Lilly suddenly closed the laptop with strange delight and said: “Time for work, Dave.”
She seemed quite pleased with herself to end the argument in a moment of suspense, and leaving the house, I gripped my hands into little fists, wondering how I would punish her when I got home that evening. Would I break the lamps in our virtual world? Would I accuse her of having an affair? There seemed an endless list of attacks, and when I arrived at my desk and looked over the papers I’d left there yesterday, I wondered whether Lilly, the real Lilly, was thinking about what would happen on RealityCheck that night too.
Over the next few days there were quite a few developments between Dave and virtual Lilly. Despite the divorce, Dave refused to leave the house, which sparked endless arguments, more fights, and eventually Lilly’s father arrived to try to convince Dave to leave. When Dave refused, Lilly’s anger meter went off the charts, and she considered calling the police. But before she could, Dave came up to her, grabbed her arm, said, “Babe. I’ve never seen you look so good.” And suddenly, Lilly’s romance meter was popping. She was given the option to either call the police or head upstairs for lovemaking.
“I wonder if there’s a cock-and-ball torture option,” the real Lilly said, biting her lower lip.
“Is that something you’ve wanted to try?”
Lilly shrugged. “I don’t know. What about you?”
I swallowed. “I—”
But before I could respond, Dave and virtual Lilly were upstairs and making out beside the bed. Now seeing that this game was originally intended for a broader audience, not simply married couples, it was no surprise that there wasn’t a cock-and-ball torture option. Instead, the two stripped down, and over Lilly’s breasts and Dave’s crotch appeared little blurry bars that prevented us from really seeing anything at all. Then the lights in the room were out and the screen went blank. A message appeared on the screen: Your virtual buddies need privacy.
Lilly grinned. “I guess they leave it up to the imagination, huh?”
“And what do you think is happening in there?”
“Couldn’t say. I’ve never been in jail before.”
“That’s not true,” she said.
“That time in New York, before we moved in together. You got arrested for smoking that joint on the street.”
“I just got put in the police car.”
She reached for my hand. “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe for you.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you didn’t love bragging about that for weeks after.”
I laughed. “I was different then.”
That night Lilly and I made love for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, and just before I was about to come, Lilly whispered in my ear, “Not until I come first, Dave.”
I swallowed, feeling a shiver down my spine. I closed my eyes, thought about our virtual house, virtual Lilly’s blond hair, and when I released, Lilly smacked me across the cheek for disobeying her. The smack stung, but moments later I was laughing, and as she fell down beside me, she reached for my hand, pushed it down her stomach, then bit my ear.
By the end of it, the room was thick with our musk, and we were lying on our backs, breaths heavy in our chests.
“Well,” Lilly said.
I just laughed and reached for her hand.
But after a while, a familiar silence arose between us. Lilly stood and went to the bathroom, washed herself off in the shower, then sat at the edge of the bed before reaching for the television remote. I went to the bathroom next, wiped the sex off my abdomen, and looked at myself in the mirror. There were a few gray hairs streaking my temples—gray hairs that Dave didn’t have. I plucked them out with Lilly’s tweezers, then dressed and went downstairs to read until I grew tired. In the morning I woke on the couch. Lilly sat beside me with a cup of coffee. She handed it to me, sat on the couch across from me with the New Yorker I was reading last night.
“I thought we could try this today.” She opened the magazine.
“Okay.” I sipped my coffee and then reached for a book.
But whether it was the rustle from her turning the pages, her small breaths, or the pain in my neck from sleeping on the couch, sitting in that room with her proved difficult.
I put down the book and went to get the computer.
After a night of vigorous lovemaking, Dave and Lilly’s relationship had become a bit more passionate, and Dave started spending nights in the bed once more. But Lilly still didn’t trust Dave. She said it wasn’t going to be that easy to make things right. Dave just shrugged her off, thus causing further tensions. It all came to an explosion the night that Lilly suggested that they go out for a night on the town, and Dave said that he’d rather stay in because he didn’t want to risk another arrest. Lilly’s expression went thin: “Is that your only reason?”
“Yes,” Dave said. “Why? Is it not good enough?”
“Of course not,” Lilly said. “Don’t you have any self-control, Dave?”
Dave didn’t say anything as my hands hovered over the keyboard. I looked at the real Lilly whose face looked strangely similar to the woman on the screen, eyes wide, waiting, hoping for something to happen. It was up to me to respond; it was up to me to type a reply that could somehow change my virtual buddy’s fate. But instead, I froze, recalling the silence after we’d slept together the night before.
“What is it?” Lilly typed into RealityCheck. “Are you okay, Dave?”
“It’s Richard,” I said out loud.
“My name,” I said.
“I know that,” she said. “It’s just a game.”
I looked at her with a stern face. “It’s our marriage.”
I stood up and left the room.
For three days we didn’t play RealityCheck; for three days we fell back on old habits. Lilly spent her mornings in bed watching television; I spent my mornings in the living room, reading, or something close to it. We didn’t speak much, and on my drives back home from work I often considered pulling over to Tierney’s Pub for a drink. But whenever I thought I was going to pull into the bar’s parking lot, I felt something hard in my chest and kept going, hoping that somehow when I opened the door and entered our home, things would feel okay. Of course, this didn’t happen. Lilly was usually in her home office or watching television, and I didn’t even bother to tell her I was home. Then, one night, as we lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, she rolled over and looked at me.
“Do you think this is it?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“The end.” Her hair fell gently over her forehead; dark veins encircled her eyes. Perhaps it was the light, but she seemed far older than her age—thirty-two. Or maybe it was because I had stopped really paying attention to how she looked?
I said, “I’m not sure.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know.”
She smiled for the first time in a while and took my hand. “Yeah, me neither.”
It never occurred to me that the lives of our virtual buddies would continue while we weren’t playing, but apparently this was a feature of the game that had made it so popular. If you didn’t keep playing, things would happen. To keep your virtual buddy healthy you had to be attentive and careful. So when I opened up the computer a week later and logged onto the game, I found that Lilly and Dave had finished the paperwork for a divorce because neither had sought the help they needed, and their lives on RealityCheck, and the game, had therefore ended. I sat there thinking about what the real Lilly had said the night before.
“Lilly,” I called upstairs. But there was no response. Only silence.
I swallowed. “Lilly,” I whispered this time.
When there was once again just silence, my heart began to thump. I thought to go upstairs, but something held me back. What would that prove? What would I even say?
Instead, I felt the sudden urge to get out, and before long I was in my Camry, pulling out of the driveway, moving through the night. I turned onto Harrison Avenue, passed houses filled with other young couples, older couples and families. I drove straight on to Tierney’s Pub where I marched up to the bar, ordered a shot and a beer, then two more. Before long, my body was swelling with booze, and that’s when I thought about Lilly alone at home, watching television or working in her home office. I wanted to go up to her and admit that maybe she was right—maybe this was the end. But I only made it about two blocks from the bar before red and blue lights flashed behind me. When the cop knocked on the driver’s side window and asked me if I was drunk, I just laughed.
“Step out of the car,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Step out, sir. This is your last warning.”
My body shivered with delight. What would Dave do? Throw a punch? Drive off? My head throbbed with possibilities. Yet in the end I didn’t have the courage. I just sighed, listened to the officer, and soon found myself sitting in the police station until midnight, until Lilly came to pick me up. The drive back home was silent, and that night I slept on the couch again. When I woke before dawn, my head ached. A heavy feeling sat in my chest, and as I came to my feet, I realized that Lilly was awake—I could hear the mumbles of the television upstairs. I headed up the steps, knocked on the door, waiting. Her steps moved toward the door. She cracked it open. Her skin was pale, her eyes moistened, her hair tied up in a sloppy bun.
That afternoon we broke the RealityCheck cd in half, tossed it into the trash along with that old white t-shirt that Lilly had worn to the police station. Rather than spend the evening in separate rooms, we sat together in the kitchen, drinking tea, talking about how foolish we had been. We agreed that it was best to start doing new things together.
But before long we were back to our usual silence, and then one day the doorbell rang and there was Anne, crying about how things with Tom were worse than ever before. After that, Anne and Tom started turning to us more often—they seemed to have tired of RealityCheck too and reverted back to the version of themselves that we were most familiar with. First Anne called and talked to Lilly late into the night. Then a few days later Tom insisted that I come out with him for a beer and explained that things were really in the shitter. He rubbed his forehead and said, “I don’t know how you and Lilly do it. I just don’t get how you two look so content all the time.”
I didn’t say anything, just listened as he told me stories I already knew—how happy he and Anne had been when they’d met at NYU. How they’d moved out to the suburbs, much like Lilly and me, to start a new life, a new dream. They’d wanted to make the house their own, they’d wanted to plant vegetables in the garden, renovate the kitchen, maybe turn the basement into a music studio and the guestroom into a library. Of course, that was all before the fighting, before the constant arguing, before whatever idea they’d thought up in their heads never came quite true.
“Shame,” he concluded. “It really could be a great life.”
My eyes were burned with beer. “Yes,” I said. “It really could be.”
I drank with Tom late into the evening, mostly listening to more of the same about Anne, keeping silent about my own struggles with Lilly, seeing the pain in his eyes, the need to speak. When we’d finished, we left our cars in the parking lot, took a taxi, and parted on the street between our two houses.
The night was cool, and I could see the light was still on in the bedroom. But I didn’t bother going up that evening. Instead, I read until dawn on the sofa, and in the morning, I finally built up the courage to head upstairs to where Lilly slept. I shook her shoulder. She stirred, and I kissed her lips.
“Let’s not pretend,” I said.
“Let’s not pretend,” I repeated softly and kissed her lips once more. They were soft, sweet, tinged with the slight sourness of her morning breath. They tasted like no other lips I’d tasted before, and as I readied for work, I wished I could keep the taste of those lips in my mouth forever. But after brushing, after my morning coffee, after breakfast and climbing into my Camry, the taste was gone; only the memory of the taste remained, and surely by the afternoon this memory would also feel distant, leaving me to wonder if I, if we, could hold on any longer.
Then I drove off to work trying to stop the heat building behind my eyes.
Jake Slovis is a writer and educator. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Newark and is currently a lecturer in the Department of Humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology. His writing has appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two dogs.