By Max Bell
Featured Art: King Lake, California By Albert Bierstadt
I hear every word. I know exactly where I am. Dr. Shelley, sitting across from me in her white lab coat in her air-conditioned Westwood office, has told me that I have cancer. The pain in my chest does not signal the cancer’s home but its most recent lodging. Each scan and test reveals that it is too late for any combination of surgery and chemotherapy. I should not have ignored the signs. I delayed it all for too long.
Dr. Shelley pauses after delivering the news, searching my face to deduce how soon she can relay more information, how quickly she should speak, how she should modulate her voice. No speed or timbre seems apt. I do not worry about how she will sound after the silence. Taking offense at anything in this moment, or in any other, suddenly seems a waste of valuable time.
Why have the movies lied when depicting the cancer revelation scene? The world does not dissolve into a warm haze. Everything is clear, sharper than before. It’s as though I am someone with astigmatism who’s found the perfect corrective lenses. The sun strikes through the glass of the office’s wall-to-wall window, accentuating the details of each object in the room. The ridges of the lone paper clip on Dr. Shelley’s desk are as clear as the dotted brushstrokes of the purple-red sunset that casts a shadow over the sand in the reproduction of Lemmen’s Beach at Heist, which hangs in a dark brown frame next to her college degrees. I can read the spines of the books on Dr. Shelley’s shelves, the letters on each embossed in muted gold on leather that looks like tanned human skin.
Sound does not disappear, either. Instead, I feel like someone has placed a stethoscope on the world and forced the earpieces inside my head. The footsteps in the hallway outside the office, the phone ringing at the front desk, a car horn ten stories below—all of it pulses between my ears. When Dr. Shelley breathes, the air moves in and out of her nose with an unsettling whir. I hear myself inhale deeply. The sharp scent of rubbing alcohol stings my nostrils, and I wonder why I am just noticing it. Still, my face remains vacant, as unchanged as that of a Botox recipient. Between strained breaths, I realize that the cancer revelation scene in the movies is backward. Dr. Shelley is not looking at a person. I am a silent blur.
“Do you understand what I’ve told you, Mr. Asche?” she says. “How long do I have?”
“Your chest pains are minor, which is a good sign, but we have no way of knowing whether you have one month or several. Of course, there is one final measure.”
“A transfer?” I ask even though I know the answer.
“Unlike other programs, we’ve had a 100% success rate. Not one restore or reboot on the books. Doppel even lists us on their website,” she says, before pulling a tablet from her desk drawer. “We run two transfers simultaneously, so in the rare event of a failed or corrupted copy, your mind is protected. I can show you video testimonials from each Transfer Person and—”
I hear every word, but I am not listening to the faces of the TPs she projects on the wall. While images of beautiful, unblemished Doppels™ flit past my eyes, I realize that I did not need the prospect of inoperable cancer to arrive here. Before I knew that something was amiss within my body, I was consid- ering a transfer. Despite the public censure of every Christian conservative and the private handwringing of even the most liberal minds, I was enamored with the prospect of starting over again. Each time I read about another failed case, each time I added the name of that person, that TP, to the list of the dead in my phone, I was weighing the risk of recovering a past I had never owned.
Dr. Shelley says something else. I nod as though I understand, but I am actually running through the names I know by heart. Jeff Singleton, the founder and CEO of Solar Fields™, failed to copy mid-transfer. Upon waking in his Doppel™, he couldn’t pronounce “photovoltaic,” much less explain what it meant and how it related to the company he no longer knew. Beverly Wade, who spent decades in therapy working through the pain of her childhood molestation, remembered her attacker prodding her, squeezing her shivering pale thighs, more vividly post-transfer. Bert Koudis, Virginia Hitchcock, Sam Goldman, Lupe Marquez, Isaiah Reed—they all short-circuited and now wake every morning thinking they have just come out of surgery. Dozens more became so depressed from looking at the unchanging face of their Doppel™ day in and day out that they sought the end they had paid so much to avoid. Others still, afraid to come out to the world, fearing they would be found out and deprogrammed by a radical fundamentalist group, could not live with the burden that once belonged to the LGBTQIA community. According to the Times, the mortality rate is higher among TPs who choose a younger self.
“After we remove any healthy organs, your body is cremated. Before you go under, you can decide whether you would like the ashes,” Dr. Shelley says.
“While your Doppel can take a few weeks to create, the transfer itself usually doesn’t take more than an hour or two.”
I watch Dr. Shelley’s thin lips meet and wonder if she is a TP. The glow of her bronzed skin seems natural, but her face never wrinkles or creases. I do not know whether she asked for the mole on the right side of her chin or the slight asymmetry of her eyes. Some people, I hear, pay more for the imperfections.
“Once it’s done,” I say, “will I know that I’m no longer in this body?” “Some patients have trouble believing they are no longer in a human body, while others wake up fully aware of the transfer. We feel the latter frame of mind is much healthier.”
“I’ve heard that some Doppels have an estimated expiration date,” I say. “Our engineers tell us that will no longer be a problem,” she says. “How long would I have?”
As the garage gate scans my license plate, I remember the attendant who lifted the gate for me after I had lost my ticket somewhere between my father’s walk-in freezer of a room and level 2B. I was a recent college grad then, and the attendant looked as old as I am now, though my arms and legs are better toned, my beard and eyebrows more scrupulously groomed. Today, if confronted with the prospect of chills and an unforgiving bed, the harsh swish of a nurse’s scrubs, and hospital food, would the parking lot attendant choose a transfer? I place my thumb on the pay station. It takes ten dollars from my account and raises the gate. I do not want to die yet, but I do not know what forever means. I am not sure I want to be forever.
“Where are you?” Tad says, the Bluetooth projecting his exasperation from the Tesla speakers.
On our first date, for which I arrived ten minutes early, he was already sitting down and drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio, flirting with the waiter.
“If you’re on time, you’re late,” he said, smiling and raising his glass.
Today is our day at the gym. I am already 15 minutes late. After six months together, I am accustomed to being put on trial for any and all tardiness.
“Turning onto Santa Monica,” I say. “Cars can drive themselves and still, somehow, L.A. traffic remains.”
“How did the appointment go?” he says, the impatience in his voice undercut by what I believe is genuine concern.
“Same old body. More meds, but cleared for physical activity,” I say as the car turns onto Santa Monica. “Blood work was negative, too.”
I do not make a habit of lying to Tad, who thinks the appointment was largely about the herniated disc in my lower back. Somehow, these words do not sound untrue. I tell myself that I am protecting him, though I have trouble believing he is the one in need of a guardian.
“Good,” he says softly. In the background, metal thuds and bounces on the gym’s rubber mats before clanking against other metal. “Now get your tight ass to WeHo. Jerry has been making me do squats.” His voice is louder now, verging on laughter. Jerry’s gruff voice says something, but I can’t make it out over the noise of the gym. “He says hi, by the way.”
TPs do not sweat and are discouraged from too much exercise. Some people say that if you listen closely when you are near one, you can hear the fan inside them cooling their circuitry. In the locker room shower, trying to balance on one rubber sandal as I take off the other and scrub my foot with my loofah, I think that it would be nice never to worry about hygiene again. No soap, face scrub, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, toothpaste, floss, toilet paper, or baby wipes. Who wouldn’t want to be eternally clean?
“Are you okay?” Tad asks as we dress at our shared locker.
He buttons his red-and-blue-checkered Lanvin dress shirt as I crawl into the gray Perse V-neck I wore to the appointment. When the shirt is on, I feel guilty, as though Tad has caught me with another man. Unlike many men I now know, I have never been unfaithful. Still, I am certain that dressing in front of the cheated party is an interminable purgatory. The soft, gossamer-like cotton weighs on me like a baggy orange jumpsuit, and I think that this must be what it feels like to be inside a Doppel™.
“Fine, sweetie. Why do you ask?” I say, trying to meet his eyes and smooth face.
“It felt like I was working out with a ghost, like you were still in Westwood,” he says, moving closer to me. He places his hand on my shoulder. Though it feels cold against my warm skin, I do not flinch.
“Are you sure everything went all right with the doctor? Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
Whenever he senses that something is wrong, Tad acts much older than his age. Still, no matter how much he might protest, I know he cannot understand. He is young, invincible until proven otherwise. And he has been out for as long as he can remember. In fact, his mother pushed him into figure skating and introduced him to his first boyfriend. I suppose I have her to thank for his lean frame, excellent pos- ture, and impeccably sculpted legs. My mother, on the other hand, has just learned to accept her 44-year-old son’s “awfully late decision.” I am not sure she wants to understand why it took me so long or why I decided to give up a “perfectly fine” home in Mar Vista to move to West Hollywood. She does not approve of Tad living with me in my new apartment. If I understood it all myself, maybe I could help her. At home, after sex, we shower again. Though I tried to tighten my core in the middle of it, my back is a forest fire, the scorched branches of one nerve setting the others ablaze. No matter how many windows I open or how cold the water, I find no relief. When I breathe deeply, my chest feels tight. I am able to suppress a coughing fit, though the taste of iron washes over my tongue.
“What do you want to do for dinner?” Tad says, bending to dry his feet. The side of his right ass cheek is streaked with my nail marks. Though his skin is noticeably raised, there doesn’t seem to be any redness.
“Well . . . any thoughts?” he says. The pause is his attempt to quell his impatience, which we’ve discussed many times. He claims it’s generational, and I claim it’s childish. Perhaps I envy his relentless haste.
“Pizza?” I say.
“So much for the gym, old man.”
TPs do not have to eat, though they can. They will taste the food, or at least they will think they do. For some, this tasting and not tasting is unbearable. As the last greasy slice settles on my stomach, I try to imagine how Doppel™ has mimicked digestion. There is no information on their website.
When Tad is asleep, his nose whirring softly in the silence of the night, I roll from the memory-foam mattress and tiptoe to the living room. The shag is thin, but it cushions my steps. I lie on my back and stretch, bringing my knees to my chest one at a time. Turning, twisting, and rocking, I try not to think about transferring, the lines on my drooping face that look as erratic and omi- nous as an EKG, or the burning in my chest. My vertebrae pop like fireworks. The pain in my lower back, now dulled, still radiates down the side of my right leg, finally stopping at my ankle. When I finish, I lie face down, burying myself in the carpeting and hoping that I will not have to rush to the bathroom and turn on the fan to hide another fit of blood-hacking coughs. To distract myself, I listen to the hiss of the cars on Sunset and imagine their headlights mingling with the glow of the bars, billboards, and streetlights.
Then, the burning in my chest begins to take on a heaviness I haven’t experienced before. It feels as though the cancer is sitting there, plopping down to rest on its journey through my body. Itinerant, I think, the word floating in the blackness of my mind like those in a Magic 8-Ball. Like the creatures it destroys, disease is itinerant, forever unsatisfied with its current habitation. How else can we explain its ubiquity?
I have never liked going out at night. That’s not entirely true. I did enjoy walking the quiet streets of my college town during the semester that I scared up enough courage to hang out at the dive adjacent to the town’s only gay bar. Though I often walked home alone, I remember the faces of the young men with whom I shared cigarettes, suggestive looks, and the cooling darkness on the curbside. If I find myself thinking about the two nights I gave them more than nicotine, I try not to remember the face I saw in the mirror the following mornings, the face they did not see.
“City of night,” Tad has whispered in my ear between bars. I never ask if he’s quoting Rechy, Morrison, or neither. I prefer to believe that he knows, that he has some connection to the years when I pined for someone like him, years when he was not alive.
Tad says that he never feels more alive than at midnight in L.A. When the hour approaches, he beams. Of course, he is always most alive on Santa Monica Blvd., at the Abbey, Fubar, Trunks, and the rest of the bars that have kept their name and continue to update their décor. I go with him because he asks, because I need a distraction. This is what I tell myself when we leave the apartment and get into the Auto, when Tad gabs with the doorman at Rage, and when I feel heads turn to look at us as we walk inside.
After the first round, I am honest with myself. I go with Tad to live through him, to watch as he sways and twirls without spilling a drop, as he laughs and sings above the music, to watch the other men watch him with that life-affirming fusion of awe and lust I know well. I do not dance, and Tad is kind enough to say that he understands, that it is my body stopping me.
Tonight, he sees someone from his acting class, introduces us, and says he’s off to snort something in the bathroom. Though Tad parties harder than most, he always seems fine the next morning, and I never worry. Instead, I order an- other whiskey. It is the only habit I picked up from my father.
“More fuel for the tank?” Jerry says as he leans over the bar and pours. Most nights, he shaves his small head to a marbled sheen, which makes him look like a pawn in an expensive chess set. But I have seen him at the gym often enough to know how far back his hairline has receded. Also, Tad told me that Jerry gets bi-monthly Botox injections. When I look at his taut, expressionless face, I worry we are the same age, that if I were a chess piece, I would most closely resemble the stout, corpulent rook.
The light hits the whiskey as it falls into my glass, and as I watch, I remember reading that TPs do not feel the effects of alcohol. Any altered state of con- sciousness can be turned on or off with the swipe of a button on the Doppel™ app. No hangovers, crash, or their attendant depression. No need to shower. Repeat without consequence.
“This is a bit personal,” Jerry says, leaning his elbows on the bar, “but do you think Tad is . . . you know . . . ?”
“I don’t think so. Why?” I say. “He just seems so—”
“Beautiful?” I say, turning around to look for Tad gliding between the bodies and flashing neon.
“Free,” he says. “From what?” I say.
Jerry holds up a bulbous finger, the joint of which is bigger than most anal beads Tad has shown me online, and moves down the bar to handle another customer. I nod, pick up the glass, and sip. When the liquor hits the back of my throat, I think of my father again. In a way, he was like a TP, able to drink end- lessly without consequence. He never physically harmed my mother or me, but his silence bruised us both. And though I only heard him condemn a gay man once, that was enough. “Disgusting,” he’d said, looking at me. “It’s unnatural.” I’m certain that his words were his way of beating me beyond recognition. I learned to embrace his quiet.
“Hello, Fantastic Mr. Silver Fox,” Tad says, pinching my ass.
I know most of the taxonomy, but I do not use those words. They do not feel like mine. They remind me of the decades I spent talking without saying anything.
“Hey there,” I say. “Onward?”
He rests his chin on my shoulder and turns to look up at me. When he grinds his teeth, it feels like a small animal is burrowing into my muscle, the slight pain deep and warm.
“I’ll close my tab. Meet you out front.”
I make a quick slicing motion across my neck to let Jerry know I’d like to close out. He nods, and I think about the number of times that I’ve made that motion since I told my mother, since Tad. I wonder if the surgeons do that before a transfer.
“You two headed out?” Jerry says, pulling the pay machine out from underneath the bar.
“Tad is restless,” I say. “I guess we’ll have to continue our conversation another time. I might hit the gym—”
“I fucked one last week,” Jerry says as I press my finger to the machine. In the dim overhead light, I see the veins of his hands nearly bursting through their wrinkled skin. “Told me right in the middle of it, like he couldn’t have been prouder. To be honest, if he hadn’t said anything, I never would’ve known.”
For the past two weeks, I have managed to keep it all from Tad. I scrub the sink and flush any red tissues down the toilet. When I cannot quell a coughing fit in his presence, I tell him that the doctor said I should quit smoking. Though he does not ask questions, I wonder whether his concern is suspicion in disguise, whether he is waiting to jump at the first inconsistency. Right now, we are heading home after a long hike in Topanga Canyon. Sweaty, dusty, and exhausted, I stare at the blue-green Pacific as the car drives us along PCH. My body is in agony, but I feel a strange peace as the sun hits my face. Then, my phone rings.
“Incoming call from Dr. Shelley,” the Bluetooth shouts. “Incoming—” “Send to voicemail,” I say, trying to sound relaxed.
“Are you sure you didn’t want to take that?” Tad says. “No,” I say, reaching for his hand. “Why?”
“It must’ve been important,” he says, pulling his hand away. “Doctors don’t usually call on the weekend.”
“She probably pocket-dialed me. She—” “Don’t lie,” Tad says softly. “Not anymore.”
I have never seen Tad cut his nails, pluck his eyebrows, shave or wax any part of himself. We’ve discussed these acts, but I have yet to find an errant clipping or follicle on the floor or in the sink. When I touch him, he is nothing shy of immaculate, the spitting image of the Ken doll I’d hidden under my bed during grade school. I cannot say whether this is normal or if it is just Tad’s way. I have no basis for comparison. He is my first.
Right now, he is in the kitchen making our Sunday breakfast. I use the word “making” lightly, as Tad’s culinary skills extend only as far as cutting fruit and pouring cereal and juice. Still, I’ve come to cherish this ritual.
When I check my email, I look over my shoulder. Last week, three weeks after my appointment with Dr. Shelley, I put a down payment on a Doppel™ that promises to be the spitting image of my 28-year-old self. I do not want Tad to see any correspondence related to the transfer. The first message in my inbox is from Dr. Shelley. In light of my condition, she’s moved me to the top of the list. She wants to know if she can schedule my transfer for this week.
When I hear Tad approach, I close my computer. He sets the fruit plate, the bowls of Cheerios, and the tall, perspiring glasses of orange juice on the table. I take it all in, admiring the smoothness of his skin and the steadiness of his movements.
“Don’t worry about me,” Tad says when he sits down. “Answer your email.
I’m going to do that thing where I look at my phone and don’t speak.”
We smile at one another, eat spoonfuls of grainy, milk-sodden circles, and return to our screens. I reread Dr. Shelley’s email and look at my calendar. When trading your mortal coil for whatever heat-conducting coils are inside a robot, is one day more appropriate than another? I decide on Wednesday, which will give me a few more days to back out, a few more days to tell Tad. I do not want anything to ruin what could be my last Sunday in my body. I begin to type.
“Oh my God,” Tad says, his voice cracking. “Oh God. Did you see this?”
He holds up his phone. I stop typing and take the phone from his fingers. No matter how often we go to the gym, his hands never callous.
“We just saw him last week,” Tad says. “It’s horrible . . . ”
Before I look at the screen, I search his eyes for tears, for any semblance of moisture.
Beloved West Hollywood bartender Jerry Sterner died Friday evening during a failed transfer. He was found in his apartment with several cables protruding from his shaved scalp. Police say the surgery was performed by one of the many black market outfits operating in the greater Los Angeles area. LAPD spokes- person, Officer Thom Mann, advises anyone considering a transfer to seek proper medical consultation. “He didn’t just pour drinks,” wrote @CareBear69 on Twitter. “He slid you a piece of his soul.”
“Why—why didn’t he find a legitimate doctor?” I ask. “Maybe he didn’t qualify? Even then, I guess, it would’ve been a risk. It’s—”
Tad looks down at me. “Horrible,” I say.
We do not speak for the rest of the morning. After staring at my cursor for nearly an hour, I do not respond to Dr. Shelley’s email.
When the afternoon arrives, I suggest we go to the beach to unwind, to take our minds off of everything. Before Tad responds, I know he will say no. He knew Jerry before I did, introduced us. I have never asked about their relation- ship. As I lock the door, I wonder if Tad believes anything I tell him.
After the car parks itself, I walk to the pier. The sun is out, but dense, gray clouds snuff its warmth for minutes at a time. Moving past the bars, restau- rants, and convenience stores on the Venice Beach boardwalk, I feel a chill scrape the back of my neck and settle between the hairs on my head. With each step, my lower back throbs. Oddly, I have not felt the chest pains today.
When I reach the pier’s first bloated plank, I stare at the splintered, gnarled wood and decide to head for the sand. In my haste to leave the apartment, I did not think to bring a towel. I begin to reconsider sitting on the sand, not wanting to find it on or inside me later. Corresponding with Dr. Shelley, I have learned TPs must undergo monthly cleanings to remove any dirt, sand, hair, or dead skin from various chips and motherboards. Doppel™ does not say whether you are conscious during the vacuuming. I do not believe they use the word “con- scious” in their online literature.
Before I plop down, the clouds part. A vacant beach chair sits several life- guard towers from where I stand. Though I cannot be sure the owner has left, I kick off my sandals and move toward it.
There aren’t many people trying to sun, but I see several families camped at the top of the slope that runs down to the edge of the water. In one group, parents read on their tablets while their children, a blond boy and girl, run to and from the tide, screaming gleefully when the water laps their pumping heels. The group after them is fixed on their phones, parents included. Yet two teenage boys in the group, clearly unrelated, nudge one another conspiratorially and smile. After I pass a third group, I try to guess which of them will eventually have a TP in the family. I do not think I will ever tell my mother. She knows enough.
No one is near the chair. Looking past the first break, I cannot see anyone swimming who might jog up to claim it. I look to the third family in hopes of catching someone’s eye so that I can ask, with the gesture of a hand and an ex- aggerated look that conveys inquiry and courtesy, “Is this seat taken?”
To lessen the mounting apprehension I feel, I slowly turn in a circle and swivel my head, pretending to look for someone I know is not there. When I turn back to the family, the father, a stern-looking man with a square jaw and a budding gut, meets my gaze.
The back of the chair is warm. Its dark, crosshatched fibers have soaked in all of the heat granted to it between passing clouds. I close my eyes and focus on the chair, the pain in my back receding like the tide. Though I hope to sit like this for hours, I am unable to ignore the sudden sound of grunts and smacking flesh. The two teenage boys, having wandered far from their camp, are wrestling halfway between the water and me. I consider getting up to stop them but am paralyzed as I remember the times I allowed my father, living and dead, to separate me from the grip of boys and men I will never know.
I pull out my phone to call Tad. It does not matter whether he will understand or whether he knows everything already. Maybe, if he’s already done what I’m about to do, he can walk me through it. He can help me understand what it means to be a TP, a true something from the beginning. I look at the boys once more and wish I would have asked Tad months ago. No matter the answer, my love for him will not diminish. Then, I am typing Jerry’s name, adding it to the list of the dead. For what seems like forever, I stare at the blinking cursor and listen.
Max Bell is a writer based in Long Beach, California. His journalistic work has
appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Ringer, The Guardian, NPR, and elsewhere. Bell’s short story “Recovery” appeared in issue 25 of New Ohio Review.