You’ll Never Walk Alone

He can’t stop trying to touch her, though. It’s habit, and it’s heartbreaking.

Erosion patterns on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

“Dr. Hillman,” his new assistant thinks, “the McGuinns are here.”

“Thank you, David,” the doctor thinks. “Please bring them in.” Hillman closes their link, shuts the notebook he’s been writing in, and walks to the door. Most therapists meet with their clients via link, but Hillman’s old-fashioned. He prefers face-to-face sessions, especially with couples such as the McGuinns, whose problems are difficult to diagnose. Despite the increased accuracy of brain scans, you can still tell a lot from a patient’s eyes, posture and tone of voice.

In the time it takes to cross his office, Hillman replays the recordings of his previous three sessions with Jim and Rita. They’re 73 and 72, respectively, and they’ve been together for sixty years, married for fifty-two.

In their first session, the couple sits at either end of his couch, but they also sit up, equally engaged, neither slumped or waiting to escape. They also look at each other when speaking and interrupt only to finish the other’s sentences. They call their marriage their daily victory. Theirs would be ideal if Jim’s touch hadn’t suddenly started causing Rita pain.

He can’t stop trying to touch her, though. It’s habit, and it’s heartbreaking. Hillman watches him reach for Rita during their first session, then freeze when she flinches. After the third attempt, they both cry, and Rita reaches for him before freezing herself, which is more heartbreaking.

Near the end of the session, at Hillman’s request, Rita lets Jim touch her. As his hand inches toward her, her neck flushes. She sweats. Her breath and heartbeat quicken. Rita looks aroused until Jim brushes her wrist with his thumb. She jumps as if shocked.

“It’s getting worse,” she says in Hillman’s replay.

As they leave, Hillman shakes Jim’s hand. He feels nothing unusual. At Hillman’s request, Jim hugs him. He feels an odd twinge, probably caused by Jim nearly crushing him. Rita’s a great hugger, but Hillman feels nothing unusual hugging her either. He hears himself promise to help them hug each other again.

Hillman hopes to write a paper about the case. Touching has gone out of fashion. There are too many ways to connect at a distance. Many people, especially those of David’s generation, rarely speak out loud because they don’t need to; they never close their links, even to strangers. And replays are passed around, pooled and sold, taking the place of actual experiences. Something’s been lost. Hillman believes that most couples’ troubles would clear up if they, like the McGuinns, simply hugged more.

In their second session, Hillman asks about their health. They haven’t been sick. Their brain scans reveal heightened activity in the amygdala, but that’s to be expected. They both fear what happens when they touch and what’s to become of their marriage. Rita has suffered no recent trauma that would cause selective haphephobia, nor does Rita have a history of abuse. She likes to be touched.

Their environment hasn’t changed either. They’ve lived in the same house for thirty-two years; they keep it well-maintained; and it’s free of spores and bugs. They haven’t undergone any unusual stresses. No major changes at work or in their neighborhood. Their children are doing well. Liverpool, Jim’s favorite team, is pitching another great season into the tank, but that’s hardly unusual. Jim says it would probably be more stressful if they weren’t.

The session closes with Rita saying their sex life had been great. Then one day a few weeks earlier their sex life wasn’t at all.

It’s baffling. Hillman keeps waiting for one of them to hint at some resentment that’s been simmering so long it’s become invisible. He even asked Rita if she’d ever been a Man U fan. She hadn’t.

The third session focuses on their routines. As they have for the past three decades, the couple commutes to the city on the same railjet. They eat together most days, and at night they usually dine in. They could work from home, of course, but they like having an excuse to ride together. “Jim enjoys trains,” Rita says, “and I enjoy Jim.”

“Jim,” Hillman says, “touch Rita. Quickly.” (“Maybe,” reads his mental note scrolling beside the replay, “her fierce defense of their love has dropped some psychological barrier.”) Jim taps her hand. Rita screams. Hillman spends the rest of the session explaining himself. Jim spends it apologizing. Rita sits slumped on the couch as if her strings have been cut.

David raps on the door twice, then three times quickly. Hillman sighs. He prefers this tiny ceremony to a link prompt, and he likes how the sound calls his office space to order. If David, amused at the novelty of knocking, must treat the door like a drum, so be it.

Hillman starts his session recording, opens the door, and directs the McGuinns to his couch. They’re less chatty than previously. They also sit farther apart. Rita stares at her hands as if she’s never seen them before. Jim doesn’t know what to do with his. “They’re losing heart,” Hillman notes.

The fourth session, he doesn’t tell them, is often the make or break session. Couples know enough about their situation to choose a course, and they do, whether they admit to themselves they have. Hillman wants to make sure the McGuinns don’t choose poorly, and not just because the best papers should have happy endings.

He sits opposite them in a straight-back chair. “As we discussed, I’d like to revisit the moment your situation arose. Because you don’t have links —”

“Don’t need them,” Jim says.

“We share everything,” Rita says.

“We can use this share port.” He gestures toward the black triangle on the coffee table.

Like Hillman the couple does have sensory recorders, and they’ve replaced the prints on their right forefingers with brass pads. By touching the pads to the brass plates on the port, Hillman can join the couple in watching replays of their memories, something they normally do by touching their fingers directly. Hillman locks his own recorded memories to avoid session bleed.

“We’ve told you the story,” Rita says.

“It’s important that I see it for myself from your points of view, but uncoloured by your recollections. You may have missed something.”

She nods, and they each touch a side of the port.

“Let’s run through the week before,” Hillman says.

“We didn’t record everything,” Rita says.

“Of course.” The brain has its storage limit, and people usually don’t record and retain the mundane (a surprising number do catalogue their bowel movements). “What you each chose to record might be as telling as the actual events recorded.”

Turns out they can replay nearly all their time together, including Jim’s glassy-eyed stare while his avatar attends a game at Anfield or Rita’s blissful expression while she sits beside his body, reading. They spend a fair amount of their time replaying past memories for each other such that Hillman needs the couple to remind him whose replay he’s actually watching, especially when a replay within replay contains another replay.

Apart from some mildly amusing encounters Jim’s had, they’ve retained little of what time they spend apart, and that time, Hillman calculates, would be too short and predictable for an affair.

Indeed, nothing during the week raises any red flags. Hillman sees an established rhythm to their lives, a “house dance” he calls it, although much of it is spent sitting together.

One night when Jim opens their bedroom door for Rita, Hillman thinks their recordings will end. Only Jim’s does. After he clicks off the light, Rita’s replay turns green, and Jim’s face gets very close.

“Rita!” Jim says in Hillman’s office.

“I want this again,” Rita says.

In the replay Rita turns around, and Hillman watches the headboard rock beneath her fingers.

“I want this again too,” Jim says.

“No, Jim, not the sex. The arousal. I can’t remember it. It’s like that’s not me.”

Hillman tags her comment and shifts in his seat. He doesn’t tag his own arousal.

As they approach the fateful moment, both tense.

“I’ve watched this a hundred times,” Jim says.

“Me too,” Rita says. “It’s like every time he comes home.”

“Except this time we haven’t been able to replay it for each other.”

“Let’s begin,” Hillman says.

Rita’s replay opens with her sitting on their wraparound porch. Jim is calling to her from the sidewalk. She waves and looks down at the old hardcover book in her lap. (“She’s old-fashioned too,” Hillman notes.) Every time Jim sings her name as he crosses the lawn, her eyes are tugged away from the page. Hillman hears Jim bounce up the steps. Rita reads one more sentence, closes the book on her finger and gets up to greet him. He hugs her, and she pulls free.

“What’s wrong?” he says.

The sensory recorder shakes. “I don’t know.” She hugs him tentatively and stops. “Hugging you makes me feel so far away.”

“Then I should get closer.” Jim envelops her. She squirms out of his grasp and backs into the house. “No, it’s better when you’re over there,” she says. The screen door squeals closed between them.

In Jim’s replay he sees Rita on the porch and calls from the sidewalk. She doesn’t respond. He calls again. Her head stays bowed. The third time, he yells. She looks up, waves and looks down again. He sings her name as he runs across the lawn, trying to get her attention. He bounces up the stairs and waits for her to close her book. They hug, and the world goes wrong. The screen door latch clicks, and the replay stops.

Rita holds out a tissue. Jim can’t take it, as if the paper will conduct his touch.

Hillman says, “Let’s keep going.”

In many ways the next two weeks mirror the previous one. They commute together and eat together. They talk less, however. They go out of their way not to touch. By the end Jim is sitting across the living room, although he would clearly scoop Rita up in his arms when she says they should see a doctor named Hillman that her friend recommended.

“That’s enough,” Hillman says. They disengage and, although the replays took only ten minutes, they stretch. “Rita, you’ve said it hurts when Jim touches you, but in the replay you said Jim’s hug made you feel ‘so far away.’ What did you mean by that?”

“It’s tough to remember.”

“Take your time,” Hillman says. That’s not unusual when it comes to replays. Memories of them can replace the memories they depict.

Rita collects her thoughts. “Actually, it was like watching Jim’s replay. I was there and not there. When Jim touched me, he seemed to fly away down the porch. Then he let me go, and I snapped back into myself.”

“If you snapped back,” Hillman says, “then weren’t you moving, not Jim?”

“I suppose so.”

“Had you ever felt that way before?”

“No.”

“Have you felt that way since?”

“Only when Jim touches me.”

“So it’s not pain?” Hillman says.

“No,” she says. “I guess not. It feels like pain. But it’s the absence of pain. Emptiness. Weightlessness. It’s worse than pain.”

“What’s causing it?” Jim says.

Rita closes her eyes to relive the experience and snaps them open with a gasp, “Fear, maybe. Fear of you flying away. When I think about,” she forces the next words out, “about being touched by you, it’s like I’m standing on a ledge and losing my balance.”

That further explains the heightened amygdala activity. “Again,” Hillman says, “when you put it that way, you’re the one who’s moving. Do you want to fly away?”

“No!” she says. “No. Jimmy, I don’t.”

“I won’t fly away either,” Jim says.

“I won’t let you.” Rita grits her teeth and clutches his hand until she yelps and releases it.

“What did you just feel?” Hillman says.

“Falling. Pushed off the ledge. And I could only catch myself by letting go of Jimmy.” Her face drops into her hands.

Hillman says, “I have an idea.” He searches the diagnostic databases for the terms Rita used and gets some hits. “I think you’re showing symptoms of depersonalization. We don’t see it much anymore because the whole world is depersonalized. We’re always looking at ourselves through other people’s eyes. Initially, some people felt cast from themselves. Now the younger generations have a different sense of self than we had, never having known a world without links.”

Rita raises her head. “We don’t have links.”

“No,” Hillman says, “and you share experiences specifically and deliberately, not globally.”

“Like talking,” Jim says. “Which we also do.”

Rita almost smiles. “We have to, especially at dinner. You’ve seen how Jim eats everything with his hands.”

“Maybe that’s deliberate too,” Jim says. “Listening to Rita gives me an excuse to watch her lips and eyes.”

Hillman is encouraged that they can examine the problem from a distance. “The question is, why? I have some suspicions.” He motions toward the share port. “Rita, replay your time on the porch, but start a few minutes earlier, before Jim got home.”

“I didn’t start recording until he called to me.”

“You were reading?”

She nods.

“What book?” Hillman says. “Your IP governor fuzzed the text.”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Did it depict what you’re going through?” Hillman says. “Did one of the characters —”

Rita shakes her head.

“Jim,” Hillman says, “Have you read this book?”

“Before now, I’d never even —”

“It’s mine!” Rita says, flushing. “And I fuzzed the text.”

“Why?” Jim says. “Why hide the book from me?”

“Because we share everything else,” Rita says.

Her breath quickens and she sinks deeper into the couch, but when she sees Jim turn away, trying to hide his wounded expression, Rita lays a hand on the cushion between them and says, “I love this book, Jim. I’ve loved it since I was a girl. It takes me to a place all my own. When you came home early, you yanked me out of it.”

“So this is my fault?” Jim says. “I kept you from escaping me?”

“I don’t want to escape you. Sometimes I just want to be alone with me.”

“Maybe if you read the book again,” Jim says.

“I’ve tried. I can’t. It seems locked.”

“What if we touched,” Jim says, “now that we know the problem?” He puts his hand beside hers on the cushion.

Rita stares at it. Sweat glistens on her brow.

“I don’t think so,” Hillman says. “The problem’s getting worse the longer it goes on. It’s a vicious cycle you have to break.”

“How?” Rita says.

“In the early days of links and recorders, one tactic helped those suffering from depersonalization. It won’t be easy, though.” Jim and Rita meet Hillman’s gaze, which suggests the tactic might work. “You have to uncouple,” he says.

“From the recorders?” Rita says.

“From each other.”

Jim clutches his own hands. “For how long?” he says.

 


Hillman props up his notebook and reads a draft of his paper’s conclusion: “It took the subjects nearly a year to re-enable a physical relationship. She moved out, and a month later they started dating. They met for coffee and went for walks. When they couldn’t speak in person, they exchanged handwritten notes. They didn’t use their recorders. Essentially, the subjects established broad mental boundaries and slowly pulled them back, which simultaneously pulled back their physical boundaries. When they could finally touch again, both reported feeling ‘reborn.’” With a fountain pen, Hillman inserts a clause after “recorders”: “and they kept secrets.”

“I can’t imagine being with someone for sixty years,” David thinks. “Or being with just one person. Is that the secret to it, then: not touching, but leaving some things untouched?”

“Stop eavesdropping,” Hillman thinks and closes their link.

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