by Jared Oliver Adams
Some science fiction stories make you see life from a different perspective, Ride-Along is one of those. Feeling like an inadequate loser, Gary has an implant to help him overcome his social anxiety. The high tech solution is not nearly important as the internal changes Gary needs to make in order for his life to really change.
The website made the whole thing sound so easy. A short outpatient procedure, with very little real surgery involved. You go in, get your ride-along installed, and walk out a better man. But they didn’t mention how you had to wait in a cramped room with track lighting while people pretended not to watch you over the tops of their magazines. The pressure, the judging looks—they were too much. Gary was going home. This had been a mistake.
A nurse stepped out of the door leading to the office and Gary froze. She was looking right at him. Did her lip curl up a little in disgust?
“Gary Renard?” asked the nurse.
“I wasn’t leaving,” he lied.
She looked confused. Gary never said the right thing. “Come this way,” she said.
Gary hugged his arms tighter around himself and levered himself out of his seat with a grunt. The back of his shirt clung to his body. How come nobody else in here was sweating?
Back in the halls of the doctor’s office came the indignity of the scale. Two-hundred fifty-eight pounds. The nurse calmly typed it into her pad, but inside she must have been trying not to retch. She herself was a skinny little thing.
Gary was thankful when the weighing, the blood pressure, and the questions about medication were done and it was time for the procedure. There was a pinch in his forearm for the IV, and all his worries began to seep away.
As he relaxed and his eyes slid shut, Gary wondered what it would be like to wake up with someone else’s voice installed in his head.
Gary’s eyes burned when he woke up, and his face was awash with tears. He had been warned about that, told it was a normal sensation. The surgeon could get to the auditory and olfactory nerves easily enough through the aural canal and the nose, but to embed the sensors into the optic nerves, they had to insert some kind of ultra-thin tube in the space between the eyeball and the socket. Gary’s eyes burned just thinking about it.
He rubbed at them and looked around the room. Nobody there. Good He must look like a wreck—More of a wreck than usual.
The microscopic chips now inside Gary’s head linked his senses to the support person he’d selected from NeuroPsy’s website, his “ride-along”. The person’s name was Sarant, and his humor scores had been his selling point. If Sarant was funny, maybe he’d make Gary funny too. It’s okay to be fat as long as you’re funny.
Gary blinked some more tears and took in a deep breath of bleached doctor’s-office air. “S . . . Sarant?” he said.
There was a series of clicks, but no sound.
Did the doctor install it wrong?
More clicks, and then some sort of humming drone. It was soft at first, but then it got louder and louder, so loud he clapped his hands over his ears. But of course the sound wasn’t coming from outside. The sound was coming from the chip inset in his aural nerves. Covering his ears did nothing.
The pitch stopped abruptly. Gary heaved a sign of relief. Then his eyes went haywire. First, his vision went completely black, as if he was suddenly struck blind. Then a rainbow of colors kaleidoscoped before him, swirling, bending. They stopped as abruptly as the sound, and his vision went back to normal.
Next came the olfactory sense. Smells blossomed in his nose in quick succession—garbage, flowers, apple pie, sea air, and then back to the doctor’s-office smell.
“That part never quite makes the brochures for some reason,” came a voice.
“Sarant?” asked Gary. Then he cursed himself for being an idiot. Of course it was Sarant.
“Indeed. How you feeling? When I got my sensors installed a couple years ago, I felt like I’d been smashed in the face with a two-by-four.”
When Sarant spoke, Gary kept having the urge to bring his hand up to his ear, like he was holding a phone. “My face hurts a little.” Why could he never think of better things to say?
“I feel you. So, it says here you need help talking to people.”
Gary cringed. Why did he put that on the form? It made him sound like a total loser.
“Any specific goal in mind?”
Well, of course there was. Gary wanted a girlfriend. But he couldn’t just come out and say it, could he? It would sound so pathetic. Sarant would probably laugh. Fat guy can’t get a date, ha ha ha.
“I take it by your silence that the specific goal is . . . feminine?”
This guy read him like a book. He probably got middle-aged losers looking for girlfriends all the time. “Yeah,” said Gary. “Feminine.”
“Well, buck up Gary, ’cause you’ve got yourself a wingman.”
For the first few weeks after the installation, Gary’s life was more or less the same. His boss sent him design projects to do and Gary completed them from his home office. He ordered groceries and sundries online and had them delivered to his door. He watched TV, he read, he played games online.
Sarant signed on at the agreed-upon times, just for a couple of hours at first and then for longer as Gary got more comfortable. Gary would play games online and Sarant would watch.
A month passed before Sarant started making suggestions. Gary received an email from his boss about an assignment and started to type a reply, asking him to clarify what he wanted changed.
“Just call him,” said Sarant.
“He’ll get the email pretty fast,” Gary objected.
“Call him. Your phone’s going to become chemically fused to your desktop if it sits in the same spot any longer.”
Talking on the phone terrified Gary almost as much as the prospect of talking to somebody in person. “I’ll just do the email, I think.” He set his hands back on his thighs, where his keyboard was projected.
“Consider it a step. Boss now, pretty girl later.”
Gary looked over at his phone. It was a bit of a dinosaur, one of those old-fashioned touch screens without projection capability. It seemed out of place resting on his expensive desktop—a hybrid flat screen and projection model that was inset so he could write on it with a stylus or project objects above it to mold with his hands.
The projection part required motion pickups along the screen’s edge, and his phone was sitting in the far corner so as not to hamper them.
When was the last time he’d talked to his boss? At least a year. The phone had a substantial layer of dust on it. If Gary called now, the boss would probably think something was wrong. Or he wouldn’t answer and Gary would have to leave a message. Gary hated leaving messages.
Wordlessly, Gary finished the email and sent it. Sarant was silent. His silence made Gary feel guilty. Here Sarant was trying to push him, to get him to change, and Gary was too scared to follow his simple instructions. Sarant probably thought Gary was a coward.
“Next time,” said Gary to save face. “I’ll call him next time.”
“I’m going to hold you to that.”
When Sarant finally guilted Gary into calling his boss, it was awkward and scary and by the end of it Gary was drenched in sweat. But he did it. Now, three months later, Gary talked on the phone at least once a day, and he hardly sweated at all unless he was talking to a female.
Also, Sarant made him go to the grocery store instead of ordering all of his food online. It was a harrowing experience, all those people looking at how dumpy he was, murmuring under their breath about his clothes, his balding head, what food he bought, but he got through that, too.
Now he went once every two weeks. He dreaded going so much he could hardly sleep the night before, but it was never as bad as he imagined, mostly because of Sarant.
“Homegirl needs some calories,” Sarant said about some skinny tattooed girl in the organic food section. A red arrow superimposed itself over Gary’s vision, pointing to the girl. “Even just a cracker. You got any crackers on you?”
The girl looked over at Gary in disgust, as if she could hear Sarant’s voice too. She had a shock of unnatural white hair that looked like it belonged on a Siberian husky. “Grouchy too. Is that the lack of food or the follicle implants?”
Somehow, Sarant pointing out the flaws in others made Gary feel more comfortable. “Whoa. Check out that temper tantrum. Does he want Cheetos, or what? And look at Mama. Spanking doesn’t seem like such a bad idea now, does it Mama?”
“Ooh, look at that guy over there. Twenty frozen pizzas, five jars of peanut butter, and what is that big crate? Ramen noodles? Somebody’s about to learn about the ‘freshman fifteen’.”
The worst part was always checkout, with its small talk. “How’re you doing today, sir? How’s your day going?” and “Have any weekend plans?” Inevitably Gary would have a response ready for one question, and then they’d ask a different one.
“What’s up?” said one teenage clerk.
“Fine,” responded Gary. He never got it right.
“Fine day, isn’t it?” said Sarant. Gary repeated the words. How did Sarant think of things so quickly like that?
“Yeah,” said the kid. “I guess. Just wish I was out in it.”
“Tell that to the roofing guys across the street. Bet they’d change places with you in a heartbeat right about now.”
Gary said those words too. The kid at the checkout chuckled. “Guess there’s that.”
Sarant also required Gary to take a walk every day. “For my sake,” he said, but Gary didn’t believe him. He knew he was fat. Sarant was probably sick of looking at Gary in the mirror.
At any rate, Gary started walking around his apartment complex, first at night when there weren’t so many people around, but soon, he was walking at noon. He found it gave him a burst of energy for his afternoon work, and eased the pain in his back.
All in all, Gary’s life seemed more balanced with Sarant, and four months after the installation, Gary couldn’t imagine going back to life without a “wingman”.
Then came dating.
Gary had never been on a date that wasn’t a virtual one. He’d asked somebody out once in high school, a girl named Bode Lewis, but when the time came he couldn’t bring himself to meet her at the movies like they’d arranged. His mother was driving and Gary had told her to just keep going. He couldn’t stand the chance of rejection, the chance of making a fool of himself. He texted Bode to tell her he was sorry, but she never talked to Gary again.
So when Sarant reported one morning that he had created a profile for Gary on go_for_coffee.com, Gary remembered what it was like texting Bode, how deeply her snubs hurt afterwards.
“I don’t think I’m ready for that, Sarant,” said Gary.
“Well, get ready then, because you’ve already got a message waiting for you. Heidi Johanson from Edmond. Redhead.”
An email from Sarant scrolled across the bottom of Gary’s screen, and he clicked the link there, saw his dating profile. The picture for it was actually cool. It was a reflection of his face off of his computer screen, and you couldn’t even tell that he was going bald. Sarant must have captured the image from Gary’s eyes one day.
“It says on here that my hobbies are running with the bulls in Pamplona, scuba diving, and hang gliding.”
“I can’t talk about those things!”
“I see you’ve already accepted that you’re going on a date. Good.”
Gary hadn’t accepted it at all. “She’s going to think I’m cool though, and fun.”
“You are cool. You are fun. Is this a bad time to bring up the fact that I’ve already scheduled a date with her?”
Who did Sarant think he was, running Gary’s life like this? What right did he have? “Please tell me it’s not tonight,” said Gary.
“Like honest Abe, I cannot tell a lie.”
“Six-thirty. If it’s any consolation I got you reservations at a really nice restaurant. They’ve got fondue.”
The date with Heidi Johanson did not go well. Not only did Gary spill wine all over the tablecloth trying to do a toast at Sarant’s recommendation, but he wiped his forehead with his dirty napkin and got a streak of grease there. And fondue was not a good choice—He was sweating enough without the added heat on the table.
When he listened to Sarant or repeated the lines Sarant fed him, Heidi usually responded well, but Gary was so distracted most of the time that he couldn’t pay attention to Sarant at all.
There was a table a few feet away where the people kept looking over at him. And did the waitress roll her eyes? When Heidi got up to go to the bathroom, Gary figured she wouldn’t come back. Those five minutes while she was gone seemed to last forever.
“Thanks for the dinner, hun,” Heidi said afterwards as they walked out of the restaurant. “But I don’t think we really suit each other.” She shook his hand and Gary was mortified because his hand was so sweaty.
“Please tell me you remembered to grip her hand?” said Sarant. But Gary realized he hadn’t. What a failure! He was never going to get a girlfriend at this rate, never in a million years. Why did he even think he could try this?
“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” Gary told Sarant, and he tapped three times on his Adam’s apple to deactivate his sensors. He had half a mind to leave them off for good.
When Gary got back home, though—after making a stop at a gas station for some Ben & Jerry’s—there was an email waiting for him from Sarant.
“Sorry about that,” said Sarant. “I know that was a lot to throw at you tonight. Probably not on your friend list anymore. Just think about this: You did it. It wasn’t pretty, but you did it. You got through. I think that’s worth something.”
Gary ate his ice cream and thought about it, and when he went to bed that night, there was a small measure of contentment mixed in with his embarrassment and anger.
Three days later, he turned his sensors back on.
Months passed. Every week there was a new date. Sarant made Gary a profile on every dating site he could think of. He called it “canvassing the neighborhood”.
Eventually dating became . . . tolerable. Sarant played soothing music through Gary’s ear sensors as he drove to the dates, and he did aromatherapy, too—vanilla, mint, fresh-baked cookies—to calm him down.
Gary still needed Sarant’s reminders not to pay attention to the other people in the restaurant, though. Sarant would catch his eyes flicking to neighboring tables and make a “tsk-tsk” sound. “Someone’s not minding his own business,” he would chide in a sing-song voice.
Even though Gary got better at it, there were still no second dates. “That’s not really the point anyway,” Sarant said.“Point is to prepare you for the big leagues. What we’re doing here is batting practice.”
In the doldrums of January, Gary went on a date and discovered suddenly that practice was over. This woman was different than the others. Special. Her name was Nollette.
Sarant didn’t have to remind Gary once not to look at other tables that night. His eyes were transfixed on Nollette, on her tight cap of black curls, her dark red lips, the shark’s tooth necklace that rested on the front of her modest black dress.
Gary even talked to her a little without Sarant’s help. He told her about some of the websites he’d designed, some of the obstacles he’d faced in making them. “Take out your phone and show her,” Sarant prompted, and when Gary did, Nollette actually looked interested.
He showed her site after site, and once, when she slid the phone back across the table to him, she touched his hand for just a moment.
Nollette used to live in North Carolina, and had moved to Oklahoma City just two years ago for no other reason than “for a change of scenery”. She worked now for the state as an accountant.
That night, when Gary took Nollette out to her car, Sarant told him to hug her. “Just one arm though.” He’d never prompted Gary to do that before, and it was an awkward gesture. She hugged him back.
“Will I see you again?” she asked. As if she wasn’t totally out of his league. As if he wouldn’t do anything to see her again.
“Say yes. Yes. Yes. Gary! Wake up and say yes.”
“Yes,” Gary said quickly. But he kind of mumbled it, so he said it again. “Yes.”
“It’s alright if you don’t want to,” she said. “You can say no.” And she looked down at her feet.
“You reassure her right this instant, young man.”
“I . . . no that’s not . . . I mean, I do want to see you. For sure.” Gary cringed. That was bad. Why couldn’t Sarant have just told him exactly what to say like he usually did?
Nollette looked up and smiled faintly. “Okay.”
“Make a date. Right now. Say, next Thursday. The . . . oh, the Aquarium. She’d like that.”
Gary tried to sound nonchalant, but it didn’t work. “Do you want to come next week, with me, to the Aquarium?”
She said yes.
Gary went to the Aquarium on Thursday, the whole way expecting a text message cancelling. Instead, he arrived at
five o’clock as scheduled and found Nollette waiting for him at the entrance, swathed in her winter coat.
They had a fun time. There weren’t many people there, and Gary enjoyed walking through the glass tunnels surrounded by fish and sharks and stingrays. He’d never done that before. Not even when he was a kid. He lived a ten-minute drive from the Aquarium and he’d never been.
The worst part was when Nollette said something about scuba diving in the Florida Keys and Gary didn’t understand what she was talking about. He had to admit then that his profile was trumped up, and as he told her he was terrified that she would storm out of the Aquarium, just like in a romantic comedy when the girl discovers the guy has been lying to her. Instead, she just laughed.
“And running with the bulls at Pamplona?” she said.
“The only place I’ve been outside of Oklahoma is Texas when I was a kid; we went to the Alamo.”
Her laughter echoed through the glass tunnel they were walking in. Above them, sharks glided this way and that. The light in the tunnel was diverted by the water above and fell upon Nollette’s face in shimmering waves.
She leaned forward conspiratorially. “I have a secret for you too then, since we’re being honest. I don’t like to read. Not even magazines. I put Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky on my profile to make me look smart.”
The next time they met was at a Mexican restaurant. Gary didn’t really like Mexican food, but he pretended he did. He ate it up, had really bad heartburn later, and felt like the king of the world as he pounded back his generic-brand Tums. They already had a fourth date planned.
“I think you’re getting the hang of this talking-to-girls thing, G. I barely had to say a thing that time.” And Gary realized Sarant was right. His wingman had fed him a joke to start off the conversation and then he’d only interceded a few times during the dinner.
Maybe Gary was getting better at this.
Then came Nollette’s office party. Technically it was a Christmas party, but to avoid any kind of religious connotation, it was moved to the first Friday in March, and it was called a “holiday celebration” instead. The entire workforce of the Oklahoma state building was going to be there, hundreds of people crowded into a big room with loud music.
“No prob. You’ve been out to restaurants, right? Well it’s just the same. A room full of people who don’t know you, who don’t care what you are doing, and who will probably never see you again in their lives.”
But Gary knew it was a different thing entirely. He was going to meet Nollette’s co-workers. He’d have to shake their hands and make small talk and laugh at the right times.
When he followed Nollette into the convention center where the party was being held, the building loomed over them like a gigantic mausoleum. People were coming up to them before they even got to Ballrooms A and B. Some of them walked right up and gave Nollette a hug!
“This is my friend Gary,” she’d say, and Gary would shake their hands and say hi while they checked him over.
“Deep breaths, G. You’re doin’ fine.”
But then they got to the ballrooms where the party actually was, and deep breaths stopped working. The place was packed with people. Music was throbbing. A seizure-inducing stream of lights flitted across the room over people dancing, and people talking, and people laughing, and people drinking.
“Come on, Gary,” Nollette said.
They wound their way between hundreds and hundreds of people. Gary kept accidentally brushing against them, because he was so fat, and they turned and glared at him over the booming music. “Come on, Gary,” Nollette kept saying. “Come on.”
They went deeper into the crowd and then there were more introductions. Gary couldn’t hear what the others were saying unless they yelled, and Sarant’s voice was garbled static in his ear.
“You alright?” one of Nollette’s girlfriend’s shouted over to Gary. “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”
“Lighten up,” said another. “You’re at a party.”
And Nollette looked over at him and gave him this pained expression, like she was ashamed to have him there, sweating like he was, acting so weird in front of her friends.
Sarant was trying to say something, but Gary couldn’t distinguish a single word over the music. He hugged himself and tried to pretend like he was having a good time. “You sure you’re okay?” Nollette kept asking. But he couldn’t think of what to say, so he just smiled and nodded.
After an hour, he couldn’t take it any longer. People kept bumping into him, and everyone was looking at him and having conversations behind their hands, and Nollette was talking to everyone but him, because he couldn’t think of a single word to say.
Nollette always had people around her, talking and laughing. And why not? She was perfectly comfortable going to parties. She looked magnificent in the dancing lights. She was that kind of person.
And Gary wasn’t.
So he left. When Nollette pushed her way to the dance floor with some of her girlfriends, he sidled away. He went out the ballroom door, exited the convention center, and went out to the parking lot. When he got to his car, he took out his phone to text Nollette. The March air was chilly on his sweat-soaked shirt.
“What are you doing?” Now that he was outside, he could hear Sarant perfectly.
Gary didn’t answer. Sarant wouldn’t approve of him breaking up with Nollette. He might see through Gary’s eyes, but he didn’t know what it was like to be Gary.
“Hell no, Gary. You are not texting her.”
Gary pulled up Nollette’s number, started typing.
“Gary, no. Don’t do this. Don’t. You like Nollette. Don’t do this to her.”
“She can find another ride home,” said Gary. “She has plenty of friends.” It had been stupid of Gary to think he could come here to this party like a normal person, to think he could be like Nollette. So stupid.
“You’re going to regret this. Please Gary, just put the phone down.”
Gary reached for his Adam’s-apple to turn off the sensors, shut Sarant out.
“Wait. Don’t turn me off. Please.”
Gary slammed his palm on the cold roof of his car. “You’re always pushing, pushing, pushing,” he said to Sarant. Usually when he talked to him, he spoke in whispers. The sensors picked up that volume just fine. Now Gary yelled. “You sit on your pedestal in my head and joke and give advice as if I’m you. Well I’m not. I’m not like you, Sarant. I don’t like people all around me. I don’t like talking to people on the phone. I’m sure you’d go to a party like this and fit right in. Well, I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Sarant didn’t respond. The only sounds were the cars going past on the nearby interstate, and the swishing breeze. When Sarant spoke, his voice was unusually soft. “Who do you think I am, Gary? I mean, what kind of person?”
“You’re one of them,” said Gary, gesturing back at the convention center. “You’re one of the perfect ones, the ones that don’t have problems, don’t have conditions.”
More silence. Gary suddenly felt embarrassed for his outburst.
“I’m going to show you something Gary. Something you need to see.” Gary’s vision went suddenly dark, as if he was blind. Sarant had hijacked his eyes.
Just as suddenly, a picture resolved in front of him. It was a man, looking into a mirror in his bathroom. Gary couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “What is this?” he said.
The man in the mirror was sitting in a power chair, the kind that invalids use. His bones stuck out under his wan skin, one shoulder far higher than the other, and his neck was craned at a painful angle to look up at the mirror. A straw came around to his mouth from the top of the chair.
“Is . . . that you, Sarant?”
“It’s me,” he said, and the frail man in Gary’s vision moved his mouth along with the words. Gary couldn’t believe it. He’d always imagined Sarant as a movie star or the captain of the football team, someone like that. He’d imagined him at parties or on dates, smooth, suave, debonair, everything Gary was not. When he thought of Sarant, he imagined James Bond.
Gary had never imagined him like this.
“I think, Gary, we have more in common than you realize.”
“But you . . . you gave me all that advice, and . . .” But he couldn’t finish his thought. The revelation was too much. Suddenly the walks outside made sense. “Do it for me,” Sarant had said, because he couldn’t walk around like that. And then, of course, Sarant was always available when Gary needed him. He didn’t have engagements, dates. He was at home all the time.
“I can’t get a girl like Nollette, Gary, not like I am. Caretakers do everything for me, keep me alive. To a woman, I would just be a burden. But you have a chance. You. Not me. Not the voice in your head. You. Now I want you to lose that phone, go back into that convention center, and take your chance.”
Sarant locked eyes with himself in the mirror. It looked like he was staring right at Gary. Sarant’s face was thick with uneven stubble, and his eyes were set deep in his face. He held still for several seconds, and then let his head hang down onto his sunken chest with a sigh. Gary’s vision went black again and resolved into the parking lot, his car, his phone in his hand.
“Take your chance, Gary.”
Nollette’s number was already showing in the text message window. The message was half-written. The wind shifted direction for a moment and carried a few bass thumps from the party in the convention center. Gary looked over at it. Inside, the ballroom would be crawling with people, like swarming ants.
But the image of Sarant’s broken body, his pale, sickly face, was engraved in Gary’s mind. All this time, Gary had longed to trade places with Sarant, and Sarant had been wishing the same thing.
His words echoed in Gary’s mind. “Take your chance.”
Gary took a deep breath to steel himself for the trauma of reentering the crowded party, stuffed his phone back into his pants’ pocket, and went back inside.
“Gary, where’d you go?” said Nollette, when he found her in the horrible press of people. “I was worried you’d left.” And there was a hint of desperation in her voice, just a hint. Had it been there all along?
“Sorry,” said Gary. “I had to take a call. From a friend.”
She took his hand and squeezed it. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Everyone was looking at him, pressing on him, all the people, but Gary smiled nonetheless. He squeezed her hand back.
“I am too.”
©Jared Oliver Adams