Karlee sipped her caramel mocha latte and gazed out the plate glass window at the Saturday morning humanity sauntering by. She glanced at her Tag Heuser wristwatch and frowned. Amber was already ten minutes late and hadn’t phoned with her customary apologetic reason for running “about thirty’ minutes behind. At this pace they’d be having lunch instead of breakfast.
Looking back out the window she noticed a man bent over tying his shoelaces. She bit her bottom lip as she admired the way he filled out the seat of his jeans. He stood and adjusted his t-shirt over his waist before removing his Ohio State ballcap and readjusting over his sandy blonde hair. She was still admiring his physique when he suddenly turned toward the window. Immediately she averted her gaze and brushed an errant strand of blonde hair from her eyes. In her peripheral vision she could see the guy grinning at her. Coyly she raised her cup with her left hand, the morning sun reflecting its light off her diamond.
“Subtle yet effective,” came the familiar voice behind her.
“What?” Karlee asked as she stood and turned toward her friend, her green eyes wide in mock innocence.
Amber looked lovely in her pink ‘Run for the Cure’ t-shirt and matching running shorts that seemed so appropriate for her athletically toned body. She pulled her long black hair back and wrapped a scrunchy around it close to her head as she smiled at her friend.
“The way you chased away your admirer by flashing him your engagement ring,” Amber said turning to watch the man walking quickly away. “Not bad,” she said smiling at Karlee. “Maybe I should go after him and let him know I’m available.”
“You’re so bad,” Karlee said, pulling Amber into an embrace.
Amber took Karlees’ drink and sipped it. “Mmm, this is good. I’m going to get one, and a bagel. You want anything?”
Two minutes later they were settling into a booth with drinks, bagels and a cup of fruit they planned to share.
“So what’s new roomie?” Karlee asked her former college roommate. It had been three years since the two had been roommates; yet it was still the preferred term of endearment for them.
“Same ole same ole,” Amber said shrugging her shoulders. “Work is work, the neighbors in the condo complex are still bitchy, hey—do you think I should save and buy a house?” she asked, a tinge of excitement in her voice.
“It’s a good investment,” Karlee replied. “Do you want a house?”
“I don’t know,” Amber said. “It’s such a commitment.”
Karlee smiled at her friend. “Still afraid of commitment?”
“Not afraid,” Amber said, her dark blue eyes looking over her Versace eyeglasses. “Just more cautious than you.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Karlee protested.
“It’s not criticism, roomie. It’s just that you always seem to know what you want and are able to commit to it quickly and completely. Me, I’m more of a ‘look before you leap’ type. Take Jim for example. The two of you fell in love at first sight, moved in together after graduation and are still together, still happy, still in love and ready to take the next step. Me, I have to take it slow. I have to date for a while before I get comfortable with a guy and by that time, they are either ready to get married or call it quits. So,” she shrugged, “I date a lot.”
“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” Karlee said looking away from her friend.
“Whoa, that’s a tone of voice I haven’t heard since you got a “B” on your English term paper freshman year. You okay?”
Karlee nodded her head as she chewed her bagel. After taking a sip of her latte and swallowing she sighed, “Yeah, things are fine.” Amber just stared at her as she stabbed at the sugar melon in the fruit cup. Karlee drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “Okay, here goes. Things really are fine. I’m teaching school which is what I always wanted. I’m in a relationship with a wonderful man. We live in a beautiful home, I drive a nice car and…everything is fine.”
Amber squinted at her friend. “But…”
Karlee looked out the window before looking back at her friend. “But I’m not sure that this is what I want.”
Amber’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Really? I mean you always seem so sure of yourself, so positive of your decisions.” She paused and studied Karlee a moment. “Are you and Jim having problems? He didn’t do something stupid like cheat on you did he?”
Karlee snorted. “God no, Jim? He’s not the cheating type. Ole Faithful, that’s Jim. Loveable, dependable, predictable Jim.”
“Spoken like that you’d think it was a bad thing,” Amber said frowning. “It’s not you know. Guys like Jim are hard to find. Trust me.”
Karlee tried to smile and nodded her head, her honey blonde hair falling into her eyes. Pushing it back with one hand she said, “I know, and I should be grateful. Hell, I should be elated. But I’m not. What’s wrong with me?”
Amber placed a chunk of pineapple between her teeth and pulled the fork out, the pineapple disappearing behind her lips. She chewed slowly, and swallowed before asking Karlee, “do you think maybe things between you and Jim have gotten a bit stale?”
Karlee thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes things are so comfortable they seem—”
“Boring?” Amber finished for her.
“Yeah. But the bitch of it is, even if things with Jim were to change, I’m not sure how or if I would want them to.”
Amber’s brow pinched together as she concentrated. A few seconds later her eyes sparkled and a smile spread across her face. “I’ve got it. You need to come with me to my office.”
“What? Why?” Karlee asked looking bemused.
“Just come with me and I’ll explain it on the way. This should only take about an hour and it will be good for both of us.”
Two minutes later the women were walking arm in arm up main street toward the old brownstone building that housed the software development company where Amber worked. “Remember when we were tweens and we spent hours on the computer, playing Sim City and Rollercoaster Tycoon?” Amber asked.
Karlee giggled. “Yeah, we were going to build the perfect world and the perfect amusement park.”
“Well, I’m working on a project now that we might market to dating services.”
Karlee stopped, nearly causing Amber to fall. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You aren’t going to have me taking some dating survey thing are you?”
Amber patted her friend’s arm reassuringly. “Not at all. We’re going to have you build your perfect man. Come on, it’s going to be a blast.”
After clearing security, the women climbed three flights of stairs to Amber’s office. “Cleaning crew have the month off?” Karlee teased as she surveyed the clutter of books, and printouts that covered the workstation and the lone chair available to a guest. “What’s that for?” she asked pointing at a stationary bike in the corner.
“Exercise,” Amber said. “It’s a new thing, you should try it sometime,” she teased. She felt the playful slap to the back of her head and laughed. “Okay, I deserved that. It helps me think. It’s also a great workout for my legs and buns.”
“You’re right, I should try it,” Karlee fretted as she looked over her shoulder in an attempt to check out her own lycra covered backside.
“Don’t be silly, you look awesome,” Amber assured her as she cleared the chair. “Have a seat.” She booted the computer tapping her fingernails impatiently as she waited for the login screen. “Finally,” she said as her fingers danced on the keyboard. A few seconds later the program appeared on the screen and she turned to Karlee. “The purpose of the program is to identify what characteristics, traits, attributes appeal most to you. Next we list characteristics you assign to Jim and we compare. We see how close the two are and allow you to make changes to Jim’s characteristics to see how close he can be to your ideal. So,” she smiled at Karlee, “it’s like building your perfect man.”
Karlee smiled crookedly. “I seriously don’t think this will be helpful, but what the hell, it could be fun. What do we do next Dr. Frankenstein?”
Amber tapped a few more keys and brought up a template. “The first ten items are the physical. First you mark the choice in the category that most appeals to you. Then you give it a percentage of importance. The sum of the categories can’t be more than one hundred so you could have one characteristic that was fifty with the remaining nine categories totaling fifty, you with me so far?”
Karlee nodded. “It’s a weighting system.”
Amber nodded her fingers moving quickly and gracefully over the keyboard reminding Karlee of a classical pianist. “The next ten items are personality characteristics,” Amber told her, her voice taking on a more serious tone. “You need to seriously consider these before making your choices or the outcome could be bad.”
Karlee poked her index finger into her friend’s ribs. “Really Mom?” she giggled. “Aren’t you taking this a bit too seriously?”
Amber shrugged and pushed on the bridge of her glasses though they hadn’t slipped at all. “I just think people sometimes focus too much on the physical and not enough on the personality.”
“In real life or in this?” Karlee asked, still smiling.
“Both,” Amber said emphatically. “Okay, let’s move on. This section,” she said bringing up the next screen, “is where you make lifestyle preferences.”
Karlee leaned forward and looked at the section. She read through a few questions silently before turning toward Amber. “So, these are multiple choice, right?” Amber nodded. “What happens if none of the choices apply?”
“Glad you asked. Note that the last possible choice for each scenario is ‘none of the above,’ ” Karlee nodded. “At then end of the section you type your own choice to any that are checked ‘none of the above.’ The program will do the rest.”
“You said this would take about an hour?” Karlee asked glancing at her watch.
“Normally, depending on how much pondering one does,” Amber said. “Some of our test subjects have completed it in less than thirty minutes and some took nearly two hours. The vast majority complete it in less than an hour,” she said reassuringly.
“Guess I’d better get to it,” Karlee said pulling her Tommy Hilfinger sweatshirt over her head before carefully folding it and placing it on the corner of the desk.
“I’ll be in the conference room if you need anything,” Amber told her before slipping out the door.
Forty-four minutes later Karlee stuck her head in the conference room doorway and said, “all done,” in a sing-song voice.
Amber glanced at the wall clock, “Not bad,” she said. “So, do you want to do the next part or save that for another time?”
Karlee bit her bottom lip as she considered the question. She had promised Jim she wouldn’t be all-day and that they would go to a park to play disc-golf since the weather was so gorgeous. Still-she was curious now. Actually way more than curious, she was interested as hell. “Let me make a call,” she said stepping back into the hall.
Two minutes later the women huddled together. “This section is where you make the tough choices. Obviously the perfect man would have only positive qualities and would meet all our inflated expectations but that isn’t reality. In this section you have a total point limit and you have to manipulate the attributes of your creation to meet a predetermined limit.”
Karlee was frowning, her thin eyebrows nearly touching above her nose. “So, let me get this straight. The perfect man I created isn’t realistic, so now I have to compromise?”
“Exactly. You have a total of 150 points available. The characteristics you assigned your character have a value of 200 points. Now you subtract and manipulate characteristics until you reach 150 points.” Amber looked over her glasses at Karlee trying to gauge comprehension.
Karlee ran a hand through her hair. “So, if for instance, I decide that I value intellect over humor, I would adjust the point total for intellect up and the total for humor down, right?”
“Exactly!” Amber said as if her star pupil had just solved a critical equation.
“And I still need to lose 50 points,” Karlee added.
“Yep,” Amber agreed.
“Bummer,” Karlee sighed.
“Nobody said being God would be easy,” Amber chuckled. “And if you want, you can take a profile sheet home and work on how you perceive Jim. Then we could see how Jim compares to your idea of a perfect match.”
“Sounds easy enough,” Karlee said scratching an itch on her shoulder.
“Actually, this may be tougher than you think,” Amber replied. “At least, that’s what our test subjects have indicated.”
An hour and a half later Karlee gave her friend a hug. “I’ll call you when I have the profile sheet complete,” she said as she waved her goodbye to Amber. As she reached the interstate she frowned. Something was wrong. She felt…guilty? Why? For spending way more time with Amber than she had intended and ruining the day for Jim? No, that wasn’t it. She chewed her bottom lip and stabbed at the radio with her index finger.
A blaring horn snapped her attention back to the road where she immediately corrected her lane drift. “Sorry,” she called and waved at the red-faced woman in the convertible. She pushed a strand of hair from her face and her thoughts returned to her situation. What was wrong? She stiffened when she thought of the possibility. What if Jim was different from her ideal man? Not just a little different but opposite end of the spectrum different? Is that what she suspected? She twitched when the next thought came to her. Is that what she was hoping for?
* * *
“So when do you think you’ll have the results?” Karlee asked, handing the profile to Amber.
Amber looked it over to ensure it was completed, before stuffing it into her attaché. “It shouldn’t take more than a few days,” she sighed. She bit her lip and her brow pinched together. “Unless I get put on another hot project, which is always a possibility.”
“So I’ll look forward to hearing from you in a few days roomie,” Karlee said turning and walking to her car, leaving Amber shaking her head slowly.
* * *
Karlee snatched the cell phone off the kitchen counter and answered before it rang a second time. “It’s about time,” she said more forcefully than she’d intended.
“Hello to you too, Roomie. Having a bad day?”
“Sorry,” Karlee said in contrite voice. “I guess I’ve been more anxious than I realized.”
“Ya think? What clued you in, the seven voice mail messages you left me?”
Karlee laughed in spite of herself. “I guess I’m obsessing a bit. It’s just that, you said a few days and now it’s been almost a week.”
“Yeah, just shoot me,” Amber said mockingly. “Jeez, you act like that was some kind of crime against humanity. Anyway,” she said before Karlee could interject, “my work crisis is over and if you have time we could,”
“Excuse me, hello there. IF I have time,” Karlee interrupted with faux sarcasm. “I’ll see you in twenty.”
Karlee pulled into a parking spot in front of Amber’s brownstone office building exactly eighteen minutes after ending the call. “What took you so long?” Amber deadpanned into the intercom as she buzzed Karlee in. When Karlee stepped off the elevator Amber, speaking to someone on her cell phone, motioned her to the conference room.
Karlee took a seat in a center chair and looked hopefully around the room. Damn, she thought, no folders. “So much for sneaking a peek,” she muttered.
Amber snapped her phone shut and said, “Roomie, maybe you should just chill a bit.”
Karlee took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled. “Okay, I’m calm,” she announced smiling broadly.
“Whatever,” Amber said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Sit tight while I get the results—by the way, we’re having Chinese take-out.”
Amber chewed her gum and Karlee chewed her lip while she read the summary. When she finally finished, Karlee slowly set the paper aside and looked at her friend without speaking.
“You okay?” Amber asked.
Karlee glanced at the paper again then back to Amber. Shrugging her shoulders she managed a weak, “I guess so.”
“So what do you think?”
“I think I’m a bitch,” Karlee pouted, on the verge of tears.
“Hey there,” Amber said slipping her arm around her friend’s shoulder, “don’t take this so seriously. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.”
Karlee blinked her eyes rapidly and said, “Well, learning that your boyfriend is nowhere close to your dream man is not my idea of fun. So yeah, about that—when does the fun begin?”
Amber grinned mischievously. “How about now?” She pulled her laptop closer and quickly tapped out instructions on the keyboard. The disk drive made a whirling sound and Amber turned the laptop toward Karlee. “Batter-up,” she grinned at her friend.
Karlee leaned forward as the image pixilated before her. “Hi Karlee,” Jim’s voice greeted her from the laptop. Karlee’s mouth dropped open and her eyes bugged out. The image staring back at her looked real; like Jim on a webcast, only there was something slightly different. She looked at Amber who was grinning ear to ear.
Karlee scrunched her nose and tilted her head slightly to the right as she considered the possibilities.
Straightening, she smiled and said, “Hi Jim, what’s new?”
The avatar returned a smile and said, “I think I may have gotten too much sun today.”
“Really,” Karlee said ruefully, “what makes you think that?”
Jim glanced downward and then looked directly at her, his deep blue eyes penetrating. He was no longer smiling when he said, “because I’m seeing a heavenly creature who’s much too beautiful to be real.”
In spite of herself, she found herself blushing. Amber leaned toward her and whispered in her ear, “Can I cook or can I cook?”
“This is sooo cool. So what’s supposed to happen next?”
The answer was delayed by the delivery of the Chinese food. Amber paused the program as they divided up the cartons of rice, sweet and sour chicken and chow mein. She stuffed a forkful of rice into her mouth when Karlee remnded her, “You were going to explain what happens next.”
Amber swallowed and took a sip of Diet Pepsi before answering. “I guess you could say it’s a relationship test drive. We took the profile of you ‘ideal’ man and overlayed it on your profile of Jim. This avatar, ‘Sim Jim’ if you will, represents your current love interest modified to be your perfect man. I also created an avatar representing you, that has the your profile. The program is designed to allow you to spend time with your ‘ideal’ romantic partner in a safe and non-committal way.”
Karlee squinted her eyes and scrunched her nose. “A computer simulation?”
Amber shrugged. “Look, in reality we meet someone who, for whatever reason, attracts us and makes us want to spend time with them. Sometimes it works—sometimes not. Almost always the ending is not mutually pleasant.” She stabbed at the chicken with her plastic fork. “This gives you the opportunity to see how you would interact with the personality type you’ve chosen. If, after say, three months the relationship is going well, we’ll consider the possibilities.”
“What are the possibilities?” Karlee asked, her eyes hopeful.
“One possibility is that you and Jim discuss what you liked about ‘Sim Jim’ and see if he’s willing and able to change.”
“And if he isn’t…”
Amber shrugged. “We help you connect with a flesh and blood counterpart. But don’t forget the other possibility.”
“Which is…?” Karlee made a circular motion with her finger for Amber to speed things up.
“That you decide you like Jim just as he is and no one gets hurt.”
Karlee speared a piece of sweet and sour chicken and chewed slowly while thinking. “How do we judge success?” Karlee asked before wiping her mouth with a paper napkin.
Amber picked up the carton of chow mein. “There is a built in grading system. The program is designed to allow the avatars to interact and react to changes that would normally occur in a relationship. The number and intensity of conflicts are recorded as are the good times.”
Karlee raised her eyebrows. “Good times?”
Amber smiled ruefully. “Most relationships result in laughter, affection, even physical intimacy.”
“Our avatars are going to have sex? Damn!” Karlee said with a smirk as she thought about some of the physical changes she had made on the profile of her ‘ideal’ man. Quickly her smirk disappeared, replaced by tightly pressed lips. “But the purpose is to see IF this relationship works better and we discover that it does, then…”
“Then you’ll have to decide what to do about your current relationship,” Amber finished her thought. “Hey, you’re the one with doubts. Don’t you think you need to explore the possibilities? Well, this is a safe way to do that.”
Karlee scratched her chin before slowly smiling. “I guess it’s no different than all the time Jim spends on Madden Football and fantasy leagues.” Without the potential of ending our relationship, she thought.
* * *
“It looks like things are going well,” Karlee said as she read the summary Amber provided. She bit the inside of her lip as she read, unsure if she wanted the relationship to work.
“It’s early,” Amber said matter-of-factly. “Like I said, things change over time”
“How much time?” Karlee asked as she set the page aside.
“Depends,” Amber shrugged. “Most relationships go through an early phase where everything is fresh and new and exciting, that could last weeks or months,” she sighed. “Then reality sets in as the faults we so fastidiously tried to hide start oozing out from behind the walls we’ve built.”
Karlee looked bemused. “Are you a programmer or psychoanalyst?”
Amber pulled her hair back and grinned sheepishly. “For this project—both.”
“Not to belabor a point, but how long will this simulation take? Is it the three months you mentioned before?” Karlee inquired.
Amber shrugged. “The time ratio for the simulation is every day of real time equals a month of relationship. The simulation lasts as long as you want it to last. You decide when you’ve learned enough to make your decision.”
“And the reports?”
“They’ll be emailed to you daily.”
Karlee nodded her head as she removed a hair from her navy blue pullover sweater. “So let’s talk about something else. Want to catch a movie?”
“I just want a hot bath and TV. Would Jim mind if we go tomorrow night?”
“Nope, because he’s out of town.” Karlee answered, her voice strangely indifferent.
“Tomorrow night it is then,” Amber said cheerfully.
* * *
Karlee sat on the couch, curled her legs beneath her and started to read the summary pages for the last week from her laptop. She had previously read each summary almost as soon as it appeared but she wanted to read each in succession to get a better idea of how the relationship was progressing.
She took a sip of chardonnay from the long stemmed glass on the end table and felt a flush as she imagined the lovemaking that had created such a high score in the sexual satisfaction category. She winced when she acknowledged that her own sexual experiences were more likely to produce a gentle sigh than an earth-shattering scream.
She spent the next half hour re-reading the pages and imagining herself experiencing the relationship she was reading about. When she finished, she rose and carried her wineglass to the kitchen and placed it in the dishwasher. She glanced at the clock and realized that it would soon be time for Jim’s nightly call. Dear sweet Jim, always calling her to ask about her day and wish her pleasant dreams. Sweet predictable Jim.
On Thursday Jim returned from his trip and to Karlee’s delight, delayed dinner while he carried her straight to the bedroom for an hour of passionate sex. It was way more intense and physical than anything they had previously shared and her head still tingled from where he had, at her demand, pulled her hair. While he showered she sat at the end of the bed and combed her hair in the dresser mirror. Now this is what I’m talking about, she thought.
After dinner Jim went straight to the couch and turned on the television while she cleared the table and put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, a task he normally did when home. I guess he just forgot, she thought as she turned on the dishwasher. On her way to join him on the couch she passed the curio with her miniature shoe collection. Jim made it a point to always bring her a new shoe for her collection whenever he visited a new city and had done so since she told him how cute they were when she’d seen some during a weekend trip to Gatlinburg early in their relationship. Maybe the intensity of the sex affected his memory, she thought ruefully. I guess he’ll give it to me later.
As she stood admiring the collection in the curio, he came up behind her and slipped his arms around her. She breathed in his scent, a familiar mix of sweat, soap and cologne. He was warm. He was always warm and she found it comforting, having him hold her and breathing his scent. He rubbed his hands over her arms and she could see her smile reflected in the glass of the cabinet. He hesitated only a second before asking, “Honey would you mind if I had a guy’s night out tomorrow?”
She hesitated only a second, her smile fading before her voice cheerily answered, “Not at all. Have a good time.”
* * *
Karlee dropped her purse and briefcase by the chair, kicked off her shoes and tossed her coat on the couch as she headed toward the bathroom. A full hour and a steaming bubble bath later she emerged wrapped in the thick pink terrycloth robe Jim had bought her for Christmas, a matching towel wrapped around her head. She went directly into the kitchen and moving a few things around in the refrigerator, was able to produce an unopened bottle of Reisling and a box of chocolates.
She opened the wine and for a split second considered foregoing the use of a glass. The bottle was made of glass, she reasoned before reconsidering and selecting a brandy snifter. She arranged the dinner as it were, on the end table and retrieved her laptop. She had meant to print the email summaries at school during her break but then the unscheduled conference with a parent who claimed her child was being bullied and the teacher’s meeting with the Superintendent who informed them of the immediate need for significant changes to the pay and benefit structure due to the failed school levy had consumed both her time and energy.
She powered on the laptop and navigated to her email box where she opened the summaries. There were five in her inbox and she read each carefully between sips of wine and bites of Godiva chocolate. She frowned when she completed the last summary as she tried to digest what was happening. The scores for some categories remained steady and sexual satisfaction had even increased slightly—always a good thing. But her anxiety score was trending up and her overall relationship satisfaction score was definitely on a downward slide.
She plopped another chocolate into her mouth and considered the situation. Perhaps this was a normal place to be at this stage in a relationship. Maybe it would be followed by a spike in overall satisfaction, she reasoned. She put the laptop away and made a mental note to discuss it with Amber on Wednesday when they met for dinner.
The television called to her from its perch on the entertainment center and she knew that while her time would be more productively spent on lesson plans or grading papers, she needed a mental vacation and so opted for the comedy channel. Four hours later she awoke on the couch as the credits of a forgettable 90’s movie scrolled on the screen. Her head pounded and she squinted at the now empty bottle of Reisling.
She quickly tidied the living room, discarding the empty bottle and assortment of candy wrappers before plodding to the bathroom in search of aspirin. It wasn’t until she had found her bed and was checking the alarm clock that she realized she had missed Jim’s call. She thought about getting up and checking her cell phone’s voice mail but decided that it could wait until morning. Right now what she really needed was sleep.
The next morning as she sipped her tea and nibbled toast, she checked her voice mail. Strange, she thought. No new messages. She tried to recall if Jim had said anything about not calling when she had dropped him off at the airport. She replayed the scene in her mind.
“You got everything?” she asked Jim as he leaned in through the passenger window.
He nodded, looking at her with his deep blue eyes as if about to say something. Instead he brushed his lips against hers. “Have a great week. See you Thursday,” he said before moving away from the car.
Well, she thought, no forewarning. I hope everything is okay. She glanced at the clock on the microwave realized that she was running late. She’d try to call him at lunch.
* * *
Karlee frowned and ended the call, then immediately pushed another number for speed dial. It connected on the fourth ring. “Hey Roomie, hope this isn’t a bad time,” Karlee said in a voice that betrayed her anxiety.
“Just working on code, no big deal,” Amber assured her. “What’s up?”
“I just wanted to hear a friendly voice,” she sighed.
“Little heathens giving you the blues?”
“No, they’re fine…” her voice trailed off.
“But you aren’t,” Amber offered. “So, are you going to tell me or do we play 20 questions?”
Always to the point, Karlee thought. “The relationship summary seems to be, a little off,” she suggested.
There was a pause as if Amber were seriously considering this. “Why do you say that?” she finally asked.
“Well…” Karlee began, scrambling to find some rationale to give substance to her verbal vomit, “The individual area scores seem to be either the same or higher but the overall satisfaction score dropped.”
“Hmmm,” Amber articulated.
“Yeah and that just doesn’t seem right. How can everything be right but something still be wrong?” Karlee sputtered.
“This isn’t really about the online relationship is it?” Amber surmised.
Karlee stared at her shoe tops for a long five seconds before answering softly, “No.”
When the conversation didn’t immediately pick up, Amber offered an encouraging, “Go on, I’m listening.”
Karlee finished telling her about Jim not calling and her not being able to reach him today. She barely had the words out of her mouth when Amber interjected, “You’re kidding, right? I mean it seems pretty obvious that he’s in a dead zone area.”
“Do you really thing so?” Karlee asked, considering the possibility for the first time.
“Yeah, I really do. Hey, we both know that ‘Can you hear me now’ commercial is bull. Don’t get your panties in a twist, sister.”
* * *
“Thanks for meeting me for dinner,” Karlee said hugging Amber in front of the hostess stand.
“Ladies if you’re ready to be seated, please follow me,” the smiling young woman said gesturing toward the seating area of the restaurant.
“Are you kidding me?” Amber answered Karlee as they followed single file behind the hostess. “I’d never pass up a chance to dine here. This place has the best breadsticks ever,” she turned her gaze toward a table where the food was being served, “and authentic Italian hunks,” she finished, flashing the waiter her best smile as she passed.
“You are too bad,” Karlee giggled as they reached their destination, a tiny booth in the back corner.
They settled in and quickly decided on a bottle of wine to share with their meal. They made small talk until the waiter brought their wine and breadsticks and departed with their order. When the waiter was out of earshot, Amber looked at Karlee expectantly. Karlee was quiet, feigning interest in the dessert card. Amber tapped her fingernails on the table. “Helloo, you said you needed to talk to me. Something important, remember?”
Karlee pushed the dessert card aside and sighed. “I stopped getting the summaries. I got them through Tuesday but nothing yesterday or today.”
Amber pressed her lips together hard and nodded once. “Then it’s over,” she stated.
“What do you mean? Is the program only designed to run for a limited time?”
“Oh, not at all,” Amber said almost defensively. “The program will run indefinitely. The relationship is over.”
Karlee froze, her mouth agape as she stared at Amber. Slowly her mouth closed, she blinked a half dozen times and frowned. “Does this mean I’ve been dumped?”
“Technically, you are not part of the relationship,” Amber corrected as she pulled a breadstick apart. “And the program doesn’t play out the drama of a break-up. It’s designed to stop providing summaries when the satisfaction scores reach a pre-determined low. Let’s face it, some broken relationships last forever because one or both parties are too insecure to end it.” She nibbled at the breadstick and took a sip of wine as Karlee stared at her. “Think of it as relationship euthanasia,” she concluded before biting the end of the breadstick.
“Thank you Dr. Kevorkian,” Karlee panned. “So is it possible to see what went wrong?” she asked as she traced the stem of the wineglass with her finger.
Amber nodded her head, crumbs of bread falling from her lips as she reached for her briefcase. She reached in and quickly extracted a multi-page report that looked very professional. Handing it to Karlee she swallowed and took a sip of wine. Another swallow and she was ready to explain. “It’s all in there,” she nodded at the report. “I think it does a nice job of showing how your choices affected the outcome of the program.”
“My choices?” Karlee asked.
“Yeah, you know, when you set up the profiles.”
Karlee just stared.
“Ok,” Amber began. “When you set up the profiles you made choices in order to get to the point total. Those choices, those characteristics you gave your avatars, well, they affected the relationship.” Amber shrugged. “Cause and effect.”
Karlee started to say something but was interrupted by arrival of the waiter. She set the report aside as the aroma of the dishes wafted upward. “Wow,” she said, “suddenly I’m famished. Talk about cause and effect,” she giggled.
The friends decided that it would be best if Karlee read the report in private and had a chance to digest the contents before discussing it further. “So when is Jim coming home?” Amber asked.
“Tomorrow evening,” Karlee said after wiping her lips on the white linen napkin. “I can’t wait,” she said.
“I told you he was probably in a dead zone,” Amber reminded her.
“Yeah, rural Wisconsin doesn’t have the best coverage,” Karlee admitted.
“What’s he doing up there?” Amber asked.
“Trying to sell inventory control software to a paper company. He said they even took him to the forest where they harvest the trees,” Karlee said.
“Lucky him,” Amber retorted.
* * *
Karlee finished the last page of the report and slowly closed it. Interesting, she thought. She never would have imagined that the changes she made, subtle as they were, could have such a big impact on the relationship. A little more aggression, a little less conscientiousness and suddenly the dynamic is drastically altered.
She looked in the direction of the arrival gates and could see a crowd of passengers making their way toward baggage claim. A smile spread across her face as she thought of the hug Jim would give her. It was a good exercise, she thought. It really made her see how Jim’s characteristics were a good match with her own. It opened her eyes and may have prevented her from making a big mistake.
When he finally reached her she pulled him close and whispered in his ear, “Welcome home darling, I missed you. Did you have a good flight?”
“A little bumpy,” he said looking toward the baggage carousel. “I hope it doesn’t take long to get the bags. I want to get out of here.”
“What’s wrong, you seem tense,” she said, suddenly concerned. He was missing his usual smile and their embrace had seemed a bit stiff.
“Just tired,” he sighed.
“Why don’t I take you to dinner?” she suggested. “A good meal and some wine should make you feel better.”
The buzzer on the carousel sounded and he moved closer to it. His suitcase was the second one to tumble onto the carousel and he quickly snatched it up. “I’d rather just go home,” he told her and started toward the door, “though the wine sounds good.”
“Whatever you want,” she cooed, slipping her hand into his.
He stopped walking and looked at the ground, then raised his head until his eyes met hers. “Yeah, about that,” he began. “We need to talk.”