The man sat at the kitchen table, ignored by the child. The boy sat on the other end, his feet planted on the kitchen laminate with his eyes and most of his face obscured by the console that engulfed his head. Perhaps in some admission of subservience to the man, only one earbud was in place.
“Today is special, special indeed.” The man said. He let his hand idly circle the plastic cup in front of him, steam rising from it. It carried the scent of coffee with an acrid twist. The child did not respond. “Yes, I remember my thirteenth birthday. Yes, I do.” The man continued. The child’s hands twitched rapidly. He must have been at a difficult moment in the game. It was a mix of measured, efficient movement and almost spastic impulse. “In your grandpa’s religion, today is the day you become a man.” The child made no indication that he heard this. “Marcelo? Could you stop, please?”
The child did not seem to hear or care. The man slammed his hand against the table, the sound of hardened plastic creaking.
“Few more secs. Just a few more secs.” With a singular jolt through his body, the child shuddered and finally let his hands go to rest. After a heavy breath, he took the machine from his head and stared at the man, cheeks flushed and pupils dilated. “What? I’m practicing.”
“I wish my childhood games rewarded me like that for practicing.”
“Ok.” The boy said. His father was embarrassed, unable to look at the boy in the eyes. The boy adjusted something in his pants and let out another sigh.
“Clean up and put the console away. We need to talk.” The man said. The boy groaned. The man rose from the table in an instant and reached for the console. The boy dodged out of his chair and made his way to the bathroom. He returned after the father had drained his coffee and refilled it at the terminal, adding his own flavor from a small flask in his pocket. The boy sat down, the console still around his neck, the wires connecting his spine to the machine still attached, but his pants were clean.
“Today is special. Today, we need to talk.” The man said, a slight quake to his voice.
“About many things.”
“Like what it means to be a man.” The man took a moment to sip his coffee. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Well, what do you think it means to be a man?”
“Sex?” The child answered promptly. The same twitch as the game entered his hands for a moment. “Do I get a SIP today?”
“No no.” The man responded just as promptly. The child held no blush, but the man fought to stop the growing glow over his weathered face again. The boy just did not care.
“But Anthony, Roger, and even Moira have one and they are only a few months older than me.” The child pleaded.
“Sex does not make you anything, Marcelo.” The man said, taking a thin plastic rod from his pocket and pulling out thick vapor from it. He exhaled heavily. The child watched closely. “Besides, those things don’t really count.”
“Then why can’t I get one?” The child responded again. “I won’t show Nacho or Luz. I know they’re too young for it.” The child made his counter-point. “The new versions can even alter their looks without sending them back to the store.”
“I said no.” The man said, his voice creeping lower. “They aren’t real, Celo. They aren’t real. That’s why it’s called Synthetic.”
“So? Anthony like never cares. UPlife is dumb anyway.”
“And how often have you and Anthony done anything together outside of your network games?” The man countered. The child shrugged. “And my unplugged life is what pays for that machine of yours, so you can think it’s dumb, but you better be smart at it.”
“I don’t care. Our team is second in regionals. We’ll make the quarterfinals for sure as long as he keeps practicing. Then I’ll have my own money.”
“He’s probably not been practicing so much since the SIP, right?” The boy had no immediate reply.
“Yah. I guess.” The child finally responded. The man took another drink, gave a sigh, and leaned over the table to be closer to the child.
“I know it’s hard, but think about the future. People aren’t SIPs, and if you get used to one, you’re never going to be happy with just a regular person. You’re not old enough to understand that fantasies are not supposed to be real.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Let’s talk about being a man. It’s not about sex or SIPs. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself. It’s about taking care of other people.”
“Can I go now?” The child asked, his hands drumming the console.
“No, this is important. We need to talk.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Too bad. Things have to be said.” The man took another deep drink from his mug. “You don’t say things, you don’t change things. You get stuck in it, get used to it being unsaid, then it just is, and every day, it gets a bit worse.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“I am talking about being a man, and sometimes, that’s having to say things that are hard. Sometimes, it’s admitting that you were weak, and you made a stupid decision. ”
“Ma, what is Dad talking about?” The child said as the woman entered. She was dressed in simple clothes, clothes designed to be stained or damaged. Her makeup was flawless. The man took a heavy drink from his coffee as she picked up a plate from the counter and placed it into the washer.
“I don’t know, sweetie. “ The woman said. Her voice was cheerful, crisp. The sound of tears and cries of rage came from the other room. She looked out of the kitchen and gave a wide smile. “Oh, your brother and sister need to learn to get along. Now that you’re older, you should help more.”
“I hate Nacho, and Luz never listens to me anyway.”
“You’re their big brother. They will always listen to you. You have to take care of them. I won’t be here forever.” The woman said, kissing the child on his forehead. Her eyes were pale amber, clear and bright. “Nacho has a bad cold, so he didn’t sleep at all last night. That’s why he is a bit cranky today.”
“Yes, didn’t sleep at all.” The man muttered. He watched the woman, his eyes occasionally moving to watch the child.
“Well, I should go make sure they aren’t tearing this place down and clean up the living room. What would my friends say to see the place like this?” The woman kissed the child again as she left, stopping to kiss the man as well. He turned away from her in the process, her lips grazing his ear. She left humming, the perfect sound of vibration lingering in the kitchen. The man and child sat for several moments.
“You guys don’t have friends.” The child said not so under his breath.
“Please don’t make this any harder.” The man responded.
“Can I go now?” The child asked again. The man sat thinking, staring into his coffee.
“It’s hard, Celo. It’s hard to be alone.” The man said. “Even just a few weeks felt like my whole life.”
“So why can’t I get a SIP? That’s why they’re called Partners after all.” The child smiled as he said it, a child’s glee at twisting parental language.
“I said no. Never in this house. Never again.” The man looked at the faded black ink that was his wedding band. “You aren’t alone. You have your brother and sister.”
“It’s not fair. SIPS aren’t even that expensive anymore.”
“You need to focus on other things. You’re growing up, and that means taking on responsibilities. Taking on burdens to make life better for others.”
“Do I have to babysit Nacho and Luz?”
“That’s stupid. We have a-“
“They are your family. Have you thought about them? Have you thought how they will feel?” The man tried to keep anger from his voice. Tried to keep his hands busy.
“But Ma is already here.” The boy said. “Why change everything?”
“She can’t be around forever.”
“But she’s here now.”
“That’s not true.”
“Why do you want to change things? Stuff is fine.”
“Things have to be real, Celo. I didn’t want things to change, and now it’s even harder. Life changes, even for the worse, that’s still what it has to be.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?” The child said, with no real anger in his voice. It was acceptance. A long and hard acceptance.
“Being a man means knowing that even if you did something stupid out of love, you still have to atone for it.” The man continued. His son folded his arms and reclined into the chair. “You are growing up, and I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s true. I know that you know she is gone-“ The man began to speak but stopped himself when the woman entered, holding a vomiting toddler.
Her back was covered in the thick, yellow mixture. The large child dwarfed her petite frame, already taking up her entire torso. She balanced him deftly with a single arm while her other was twisted behind her, lifting up her shirt to catch the vomit from falling onto the pristine floors. With a flourish and a giggle, she spun her body so that the vomit slid into the sink, all while balancing the heavy boy with her other arm. She made it seem like he was nothing more than a dish.
“Oh, my little conchito. Mama is so sorry you are sick. Yes, she is. Yes, she is.” The woman at the sick toddler. The child clung to her, nuzzling his face against her neck. She cleaned the boy and wiped her shirt to avoid dripping as much as possible. The man took another long pull of vapor from the rod.
“You said you wouldn’t do that in front of the children.” The woman said. It was a light tone, a gentle voice. “You will have to be the one to explain to them why they can’t do it too. I don’t envy that at all.” She finished and flashed a brilliant smile, a light that seemed out of some archaic story.
Satisfied that her point was made, that the small child would not vomit again, and that her shirt was merely stained, she carried the toddler back into the other room to change properly, humming as always. The man and the child sat in silence for some minutes.
“This is stupid. She works fine.” The boy said. “Can I just practice more?”
“No. The real world isn’t pretty, and every time we try to run from it or pretend it is something else, it just gets uglier.” The man took another lungful of the vapor and let it sit like a fog in his mouth. He exhaled as he spoke. “Please, I need you, Celo. I can’t do it to Nacho or Luz alone. I just can’t.”
“So I have to watch them, really?” The child spoke, a density to his voice.
“Yes, sometimes. Responsibility is what makes an adult an adult.” The man said. He watched the boy’s face. “Responsibilities do mean more privileges.”
“Can I finally have friends over?”
“Yes, eventually. We’ll need to make the transition first. It will be hard, especially on Nacho. But yes, eventually.”
“I do.” The man said. He took a long drink from his coffee. “I have never broken my promises, have I?” The boy looked at him for some time. His face took on the mask of heavy memories. He looked puzzled then finally let his gaze fall to the table.
“Never. Even when you should have.”
Daniel Jose Ruiz is an educator and writing living in Los Angeles. He is the product of the CalArts MFA program in Creative Writing and the UC Irvine MA program in English. He is proud to be a tenured professor of English at LA City College. You can find him on Facebook at facebook.com/djrthelostboy and on Twitter at @djrthelostboy. His debut novel, Coconut Versus, is available from Floricanto Press.