They pulled me out and all I could think about was my wife. The sweat dripping down my face burned my eyes and I could feel my sticking along my forehead. But I didn’t remember having hair. I had just shaved my head. My hairline was receding so my wife convinced me to shave it all off, saying a bald man looked better than a balding man. Her words convincing me to shave my head and the first time she helped me with the razor cleaning off what was left of my hair gripped my mind as I pushed the rogue strands of hair away from my face.
“Coupland,” I heard a man say. “Coupland, are you with us?”
“His brain’s still submerged,” a woman’s voice said. “We pulled him out too fast.”
Everything was a blur. Like the sun was pulled out of the sky and sitting in front of my face. A glaring light blared into my eyes and it took a few moments before I could make out any shapes.
“Coupland,” the man’s voice repeated. “Coupland, focus on my voice, Coupland.”
“Who’s Coupland?” I mustered enough focus and strength to grit out between my teeth.
“You’re Coupland,” the man’s voice continued. “Coupland Wilson. That’s your name. Is that familiar to you?”
The name was ringing something in my mind. But I was also trying to hold onto the image of my wife. It was slipping. I was losing some of her features. I couldn’t remember her eye colour.
“Where’s my wife?” it was becoming easier to speak.
“Coupland, you don’t have a wife,” the man’s voice said.
“Yes, I do!” I shouted back. “We’ve been married for thirty years! We have two kids together and a grandchild on the way!”
“What’s your wife’s name?” the man’s voice asked.
I didn’t have an answer. My wife’s name, my kids’ names, even the names we were considering for our first grandchild. Or was it our second? It was all slipping. Like waking from a vivid dream and trying to remember all the small details. I was losing more and more of her every second.
My eyes adjusted to the light and I focused in on the two people standing in the room with me. One man and one woman. The man was balding but let the salt and pepper hair on the sides grow out a little. I immediately thought about my hair but couldn’t remember if I let it grow out or kept it shaved. The woman was older, maybe in her 40s, but at that point I could have sworn I was in my sixties. She was holding a clipboard. I recognized them both.
“His pupils are dilating properly,” she shined a bright light into my eyes. “He’s focussing as well. I think he’s finally fully out of submersion.”
“Coupland,” the man knelt down beside where I sitting. “Do you know where you are?”
The name came to me fast, like every important name I was losing was being replaced with the names of what I wanted to forget. “Delton Rec Labs,” I answered.
“That’s right,” the man said. I remembered his name. Michael Gartner. He was the salesperson who sold me the package. I looked to the woman and she busily scribbled notes on her clipboard. I remembered her name too. Doctor Vanessa Taryn. We were introduced just before I went in. She was the staff neurologist. She was there to make sure I came back to reality okay.
“Okay, Coupland,” Gartner continued. “Try to stand up and walk. There is a physician here if you can’t feel your legs. That’s quite common. You’ve been submerged for a while.”
“How long?” I asked.
“Just over…” Gartner’s voice trailed off as he looked at the screens hovering above me. “Three hours.”
Three hours. That’s how much time I actually spent with her. It felt like a lifetime. Dating, living together, marriage, kids growing up, her parents dying, my parents dying. I think she got sick too. Cancer was it? I remember sitting at the hospital with her. Holding her hand. I remember holding her and crying when the doctor told us she was better. I don’t remember what the doctor looked like. All I can pull from my memory is a white lab coat. Three hours. That’s all I actually had with her.
“Not the longest we’ve ever had,” Gartner smiled. “But, we’re hoping the longest without any long-term side-effects.”
Side effects. That’s how I was able to get this package. Virtual vacations were usually reserved for the exceptionally rich. I was far from any kind of wealth. But they offered free vacations for anyone willing to risk being an experiment. They could only improve and enhance the services with human subjects. Rats and dogs didn’t exactly react to the stimuli the same way humans did.
The more that came back to me, the less I wanted any of it and the more I wanted to go back to my wife.
Gartner and Dr. Taryn unhooked all of the medical readout instruments that were strapped to me and I stood up, losing my balance at first and falling to my knees. After a couple more tries, I was able to stand on my feet and I was slowly led out of the room and into another room with a single table and two chairs, one on either side.
Dr. Taryn ran through some questions with me about my life. While she spoke, I remembered filling out a questionnaire with all of the same questions. All questions about my life, where I live, who my parents were. It was all back and I could answer the questions, but some took me a while to find the answer. I had to dig through my memory, figure out what was real and what I was remembering from the vacation. A lot of it was muddling together. The more we talked, the easier it was to place what was real and what wasn’t. But there were definite moments when my real life and my virtual life became indistinguishable.
Because the experiment was a success, they gave me an honorarium. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough that I didn’t have to worry about hustling for a few weeks. I looked around the streets outside of Delton Rec Labs and tried to remember which way was my apartment. I remembered it was a short walk and I recognized a few of the alleys I would sell pills near. After about twenty minutes of wandering, I found my building. It was dark out and one of storefront windows in the building reflected back at me. I didn’t recognize my reflection at first, the dark hair hanging along my forehead, the stubble all around my face, even my eyes looked weird to me. I thought they were blue. But they looked more green to me in that reflection.
There were a lot of cards in my wallet, but the only one I wanted was my keycard to get into the building. I sorted through the credit cards, gym membership card, buyers club cards for the grocery store and IKEA and GameStop, and I found the keycard into the building. It was behind my employee ID. I worked at Delton Rec Lab. That must have been how I heard they needed test subjects. Probably posted over the urinals at the office. This is where the confusion really hit. If I worked at Delton Rec Labs, why was I selling pills?
The answer came when I got into my apartment. They forgot to warn me about the nausea. I got through the front door and instinctively ran to the bathroom, where I didn’t even make it to the toilet before I was throwing up. Most of it got into the sink and I checked the cabinet behind the mirror to see if I had anything that would help this feeling that the room was spinning and my stomach was turning itself inside out. I found nine prescription bottles. Each one was for something different: diazepam, thorazine, fluvoxamine, trazodone, lorazepam, nizatidine, cimetidine, Percocet, and morphine. There was no way I could be taking all of these. I wondered which I was selling.
After cleaning up the bathroom, I wandered around the apartment, remembering where I left everything. I didn’t have a TV, but I thought I did. Most people didn’t own TVs anymore, so I don’t know why I thought I would have had one. Maybe me in the vacation simulation had a TV. I checked out the fridge only to find bottles of beer, a Chinese food takeout box that smelled awful, and some moldy pizza. I felt like I didn’t usually let my fridge, or any part of my apartment, get this bad. Could I have been submerged a little longer than they were letting on? My coffee table had a thick layer of dust, my closet didn’t have a lot of clothes in it, I didn’t even notice a toothbrush when I was in the bathroom.
My pocket vibrated and I pulled out my phone. The call display said Sofia. I couldn’t remember if I knew anyone named Sofia. “Hello?” I answered the phone.
“Are you done playing lab rat?” a shrill voice came over phone.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Sorry, who is this?”
“The fuck?” her voice climbed high. “Did using that virtual vacation shit fuck with your brain? It’s Sofia. You’re fucking girlfriend,” she annunciated slowly. “Where are you?”
“My apartment?” I answered.
“What the fuck are you doing there?” she spat out fast enough that it could have been one word. “You haven’t been there in weeks. Your stash run dry?”
“Yeah,” I played, trying to understand what was going on. It didn’t take long to surmise she meant my pill stash. I guess I just used this place to store my overstock. “Just grabbing a couple of refills.”
“Can you grab some extra thorazine and Percocet?” she asked. “I got some eager buyers.”
Wandering again through the streets, I slowly pieced together which way was Sofia’s apartment. It wasn’t too far from my apartment, but the neighbourhood seemed drastically different. The Delton Rec Labs and my apartment building was in a downtown, urbanized area. There were tall buildings all around and neon lights glowing and LED screens blaring out advertisements for deodorant and tampons and condoms. But those few blocks to Sofia’s apartment was like crossing into a whole other continent. I felt unsafe and it worried me. My memories slowly recollected and I knew I had been here hundreds of times and that I slept more often here than I did at my own place. This time, though, was different. The broken out windows and boarded up doors along the buildings spray-painted with bright coloured tags looked completely foreign to me. The smell of human waste in the alleyways and sounds of snoring and groaning homeless only added to my unease. I thought that I wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that moment.
Sofia’s apartment had thicker layers of dust on all her surfaces than my apartment did. There were empty bottles on the dining room table and all along the kitchen countertops. A baseball bat leaned next to the front door. A thick stench of smoke and body odour hung all around. “What took you so long?” she said as I came in through the doorway.
“Had some problems remembering how to get here,” I said.
“That shit really fucked with your brain, didn’t it?” she continued. “You make more money selling pills than you do working at that place. I don’t know why you don’t just quit, stop playing lab rat for those fucks, and hustle full time. It’s easy.”
I immediately felt repulsed by her. It wasn’t her looks, she was pretty. Her attitude, her aura, her energy, all that new-agey bullshit I never thought I would trust is what bothered me. As more memories and moments flooded back to me, I realized I was less her boyfriend and more her supplier. I had been realizing that, even before I submerged. Maybe that’s why I volunteered. A chance to get away from all of it, even if only for three hours.
“I can’t quit,” I said. “I quit, I lose my benefits, which means we lose our stash. And I don’t think either of us wants to start paying the pharmacist for these pills. Cuts into that profit margin.”
She popped open a yellow bottle and popped a couple of pills and swallowed them dry. “Right,” she said after she finished swallowing. “Definitely need that. It’s too bad. We could fuck all day and hustle all night.”
“Right, romantic,” I said, reaching into my pocket and handing her the pills she asked for.
“What the fuck’s gotten into you?” she took the bottles. “If I suggested that yesterday, or fuck, even this morning, you would have been all over that and trying to rip my clothes off.”
A sudden urge to ask something I had never asked anyone before suddenly came over me. “Do you want to go to the beach?”
“The beach? Are you fucking kidding?” she chuckled. “There’s no beaches around here. I can’t even name where there is a single beach. Who the fuck are you? Are you still fucking dreaming or something?”
No beaches. Somewhere in me, I could still smell the salt water in the air, feel the sun on my bare arms, hear waves running up along the shore. Had I never actually been to the beach before? I looked outside the window and watched the neon lights flicker against the grey sky and wet concrete. These signs never turned off. All night the glow of advertisements breaking through the window, waking people up to enticement of cheap sex, bad food, and useless junk that would be collecting dust or at the bottom of a landfill in just a few days. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted the beach.
My phone rang and I saw the name Gartner on the call display. “Hey, Coupland,” Gartner began. “We noticed some very interesting things on your brain scan and we’d like you to come back for some further experiments. I know this is sudden and unexpected, but we can schedule these tests whenever works best for you.”
I took another look around the apartment, at Sofia, the pills in her hands, I played with the bottle of pills still in my pocket. “How about right now?” I asked.
“Are you sure?” Gartner replied. “I mean, this is highly irregular. Typically we need a week between submersions. But your scans are showing no long term defects or hazards, so we won’t say no so long as you’re sure.”
“Completely sure,” I said, hanging up the phone. I reached into my pocket and threw Sofia my keys and the other bottle of pills. “It’s all yours,” I said. “I don’t want this anymore.”
“You’re breaking up with me?” her eyes didn’t show sadness. They showed anger. We had no emotional connection. I was her hook up. She was my physical outlet. I didn’t like that anymore. I didn’t want that.
“Something like that,” I said, walking to the door. “Take whatever you want from the apartment.”
“What, you’re abandoning it?”
“I guess so,” the truth was, I didn’t want her finding me after this. Whatever would come after my next submersion, I wanted to make sure I didn’t go back to this life. It showed me something. I could be something else. I may have once wanted this kind of life and revelled in it, but something awoke and I knew I needed to find something else.
“So you’ll just live in your fantasy world forever now?”
“Yeah,” I said, walking through the doorway. “Something like that.”
I took a brief physical before sitting back into the chair. The same medical monitoring devices were hooked up to me. I thought that maybe the last time I did this, I would have been nervous. But this time, I was relaxed. I was excited. I was happy.
“So, are we uploading the same program file for my submersion?” I asked.
Gartner smiled. “I was hoping you would ask that,” he said. “There was no program in your submersion. We didn’t simulate or implant anything. That’s what the real experiment was. We wanted to see what would happen if we stimulated your own mind to create what should have been your vacation. In your case, from what it sounded like, you created a whole new life for yourself. That was especially interesting to us. We had never seen that before. Everything you experienced was from your own mind.”
I open my eyes and we’re lying on a beach. The warm sand under my back and scrunched between my toes tells me it’s morning. We fell asleep here. I sit up and watch the water for a moment. Its calm and the waves are slow. The smell of salt water fills the warm air and the sun is beaming down on us.
She rustles a bit and opens here eyes and the peer directly at me. She smiles and I smile back, and we both yawn, stretching our arms still sticky with sweat and caked with sand.
“I can’t believe we slept here all night,” she says. And she’s perfect. Everything about her is absolutely perfect.
“Are you even real?” I ask. “How can someone so… perfect, be real?”
Her eyebrow raises and she chuckles. “What’s that supposed to mean? You think you’re dreaming? Or I’m a figment of your imagination?”
“No…” I trail off, staring at the water again. “I don’t know. Just a weird feeling I guess.”
I lie back down and she rests beside me. Her head nestles in her favourite spot, right where my arm meets my shoulder. “Reassure me this isn’t a dream,” I say. “What’s your name?”
She sits up and looks at me. “What?” she’s smiling. It’s like she never isn’t smiling and I never want her to stop smiling. “You are so weird sometimes.”
“Just humour me,” I continue. “Tell me your name.”
She leans in and kisses me on the check. And, into my ear, she gently whispers her name.