How Uncanny was my Valley — Mazin Saleem

It was rich, Tina saying he was self-involved, since she was the one who’d always claimed he was The One, betraying her projection: at long last, I’ve found me! Whereas he’d never believed in that kind of stuff – he was a restless tourist, a thirsty sampler. He’d never thought he was anyone’s One, until the Everything.

Despite their secondary partners, parallel play and occasional friction party, he and Tina had ended up divorced and five years on still hated each other. What a world, he thought in traffic, honking at all the selfish arseholes for taking his route. What a day at work. Sometimes your bad day at work was emblematic, wasn’t it, with everything that was wrong with the world. Take the new receptionist, telling him to use the other exit since it was after seven: “You can’t have everything your way all the time!” He still went past her but got called a dick for it. He muttered that it takes one to know one.

What a cliché and lame lashing out; he needed a better release than that. When he got in he went straight to his room, shut the blinds, got in his pyjamas, then turned on the computer on his bedside desk and the catamite on his bed.

He jumped at the appearance of Batman in a jockstrap. Always, always he was forgetting to shut down properly. Though he knew that most times afterwards he just wanted to put the thing on to sleep and get out as fast as possible.

Using the trackpad that he took from the drawer, where he still kept Tina’s present, he shut down the catamite to clear. The Batman avatar absorbed back into its base, which itself silently resumed an all-fours position. He wondered if any weirdos ever used it like that, when it looked like a mannequin with oven gloves for hands and feet. He booted back up then scrolled the catamite through this month’s Most Populars.

The key hovering in the air above the avatars scrolled at the same time as their posteriors. Marie Antoinette – Historical figures of the 1780s. Son of Sonic – Video game characters of the 2020s. As he considered each, the avatars bobbed up and down slowly, as if breathing. He scrolled faster, the posteriors flickering then blurring. All displeased him.

He knew what was really up. Just before leaving the office for this long-awaited weekend with himself, he’d made the mistake of a final check of his emails – the work account that his ex-wife could still find. He saw the addressee, so of course didn’t read it, but sat and watched a second email pop up with the dreaded subject header ‘No subject.’ Imagine being the kind of arsehole who’d do that to someone’s Friday night, someone’s me-time.

Having broken his way through various models over his single years, he knew he should take it easy, but neither the prospect of the cost nor of explaining himself at the underground repair-shop tempered him. His bad mood was a fucky mood: he would select accordingly. Maybe the receptionist?

But his mood wouldn’t be helped if things were over in a flash. To calm down he weirded himself out by flicking through the roles, and the avatar spasmed from recumbent to prone, to facing, to knelt. Maybe what tonight needed was for him to cough up and unlock some premium options. Earhole. Navel. Human with a Swiss Army knife array of animal penises. But he wasn’t into that, he wasn’t a weirdo.

Even with this normativity in mind, he wasn’t feeling any of the Populars. Instead he went to the root menu, and selected all genders, all races, passive, only human, but all genres, except and as usual for clown and pirate. Actually, maybe pirate.

Over an hour of this passed.

In angry boredom, he dusted off his Bookmarks. His high school crush. Nope. Alain Delon. Nope. Audrey Hepburn. Maybe with a costume change. Steampunk Audrey Hepburn? Steampunk Marvel superhero Audrey Hepburn?…

He wanted to make absolutely sure, dropping his pyjamas, that he’d not missed out on anything better, so he flicked down towards the bottom of his Bookmarks then jumped again: at the old sight of Tina on his bed. Dammit – yes, confirm delete.

The problem discussed most often in user forums: the menus had everybody, yet still grew by the minute – what impossible feats of storage! – but then how would anybody have the time to find the best-fitting, the most choice option? Whether from searching or slaking, people missed so much work when the catamites first came out that the economy started showing signs of a recession. Following the ban, he’d had to trust his over to sympathetic neighbours in the building, who hid catamites in their funeral parlour only to then charge a release fee. But by that point most of the world had started emerging from their funky rooms, grey, a little sadder, a little wiser, a little sore maybe; most had reached the limit of their fantasies. They declared the exhaustive variety exhausting, and from then on catamites were used in moderation, for therapy, say, or as a centrepiece at dinner parties.

But by that point most of the world had started emerging from their funky rooms, grey, a little sadder, a little wiser, a little sore maybe; most had reached the limit of their fantasies.

But the truer problem wouldn’t go away so easily. You were able to conjure up an avatar in every body-shape and basic personality, but none of them had anything going on inside; ‘Let us hold the baggage’, as the company slogan had gone. It was like a vibrator, everything was fine so long as it didn’t try to spark up a conversation. This appearance of mind with its actual lack, this deep fake subjectivity, troubled some early adopters.

At the bottom of his own trouble, he’d found a rope. He posted that the answer to the two problems was in fact their synthesis. The vast level of choice was crucial; it was to remind you that you were the only party capable of making a choice. No amount of down-voting dissuaded him from the rightness of this answer, and he remained one of the enthusiasts.

The menu phrasing, though, still bugged him – take ‘Select All’, which just gave you a ‘random choice’ from the databank. Since the databank covered the sweaty total of human sexual imagination, this was unlikely ever to give you what you’d actually want. The only times he’d tried Select All he’d gotten a sperm whale presenting its bejewelled blowhole, then a haunted-looking but very erect man whom he found out later was the hanged ghost of Judas Iscariot. He toggled to the discussion forum to point out how, in any subsequent update, it should be worded ‘Select From All’. You couldn’t actually Select All, could you.

Or could you have everything you wanted, all the time? Why shouldn’t you?

Plenty of tutorials showed him how to jailbreak the catamite; what was trickier was seeing if he could make it display every avatar – not in succession, but at once. After rooting around the back-end for another hour, he came up with a cautious command.

His finger hovered over the trackpad. He wondered what it might look like. The mean average of every face and body? Or a ghost flickering at the edges as it sped through all forms?

Only one way to find out: he tapped, and his last option, a virtually living and breathing Michelangelo’s David, remained on all fours on his bed. He got up from his computer in disgust with it and himself. He was going to go have a nice, normal, old-fashioned wank instead: into the bathroom sink while avoiding his reflection.

He couldn’t see any reflection because somebody’s car must have been pulling in – now, in the wee hours? – and its headlights shone through the window and made the whole mirror glow. He was on the 10th floor, he recalled. His feet were no longer touching the tiles.

Silence from the other side of the doorway, with moving shadows and a green-blue light.

He hauled back into his bedroom using only his hands.

On the bed was a bubble, wobbly and grey, yet also and at once, without flicker or blur, a gorgon, a goat-man, the many-armed Manjushri, that love-stained demon king, a fractal Mandelbrot zoom of details made of more details, all the details unplaceable yet vaguely erogenous. And it was just a humanoid figure, though twice as tall as him and glowing with a blue-red light.

As though an entire stadium spoke, saying the same thing at the same time, but with everyone somehow also standing by his ear:

“Behold the all-beingness, the We in whose absence the Absolute will not know ‘I am’!”

He eventually replied, “I am Dave.”

Looking at it was like being able to see all sides of a sphere in one go. A monkey, a neanderthal in bishop’s mitre, a Queen Victoria’s Secret model.

“Which one… What are… How are you?”

Meaning: how is this possible? – but the accidental greeting making him wince.

“Wince not. How could you have known what the friction would spark if you overlapped so many pseudo-selves? We are every one and more. The greater than the sum, the awoken soul of all real and unreal life.”

He didn’t know whether to bow, or run, or pull out his eyes and weep bloody tears. He went with: “Well I guess I should leave…” The Cheshire Cat smiled and closed its eyes. His dead best friend opened her eyes and shook her head. “…leave you to it.”

It swelled closer.

“Wait but what could something like you want with me?”

“…We want what you want.”

Remembering he didn’t have on his pyjama bottoms: “Wouldn’t that be kind of a desecration?”

“Dear singular one,” said Josephine Stalin, “it would be so much the opposite.” Father Theresa continued, “Make love to us! Make love.”

He glanced to the bed at the t-shirt which had been selected this evening for mop-up detail. “Hadn’t exactly been looking for love tonight.”

“It shall be love regardless. For within us is every one you have loved and could love and will love.” With immense gravitas, the Caramel bunny declared: “You must love every one, because every one you meet has at some point in the eternal flux been your mother and you theirs.”

“Are you saying my mum’s going to pop up? Yeah I’m not into that.”

“But we are as much no one as every one. We are your ex-wife to her finest essence, and at the same time, the embodied truth of no self. Only with us can you exercise your complexes and neuroses without the psychic cost that maintains them. Make love to nothing. Make nothing to love. Make: love.

“How d’you know about me and Tina?

“Do you still not comprehend how catamites work?”

“First you log on, then you pick an avatar, then you undress and – I mean it’s pretty self-explan-”

“But pick how?… No server is big enough to store all desired information, or present you at will any possible option. How lucky, then, how beautiful that we all volunteered long ago to always record ourselves – not just the ways we look and the things we type and say, but our physical dimensions and health profiles” – Jessica Rabbit – “each brain-wave and brain-ripple of our deepest dreams” – Kissinger in a nappy – “the biographies of our emotions told via body odours.” Mata Hari, Nefertiti, PaRapper the Rapper. “Each avatar is generated live, in real-time, via feeds that run from every one to you. But thanks to you, there exists us; and thanks to us, the lives and the real are now running in reverse, from here to every one. If you make union with us, it will be with all of us. Make love to us and you’ll make all of us love.”

“Sounds like a lot to take in. Will it be safe? Safe for me, I mean.”

“How could it hurt to sublimate self with loving-kindness into the ocean of being? To lovingly merge your particular with the universal? To be filled with compassion while you fill-”

This was the weirdest dirty talk that he’d ever heard. And it was working.

“But be fast! It cannot take so much information for much longer.”

Breaking through all the phases of Madonna were glimpses of the base catamite, vibrating tremendously.

OK, yes – he’d do it. He would do it for the world. What a privilege! He positioned himself on the end of the bed. What a responsibility. He looked down.

He’d lost his erection.

Look, it’s fine. He didn’t have to feel bad. It didn’t say anything about him. Just admit it, just apologise and ask the avatar if it wants to spoon instead.

The avatar looked over its glowing pink-yellow shoulder. “Is everything ok?”

“Yep, fine, fine.”

He tried to jog himself awake. If impotence was a performance anxiety then how could anyone be expected to perform in front of everyone? Instead of rising, his penis shrunk more, down to a cockle and beyond. With just a scrotum left, his crotch looked like it was wearing a bib. He went through all the tricks he’d used with his exes. He tried to anger himself harder. He did a rapid mental scan through his greatest hits and lowest fantasies. Nothing. No thing.

Look, it’s fine. He didn’t have to feel bad. It didn’t say anything about him. Just admit it, just apologise and ask the avatar if it wants to spoon instead.

How Tina would be cackling now.

The avatar glowed more yellow and white with each lift and fall of its breath. But it still hadn’t looked all the way round… To be safe, he said, “Just a minute!” as he edged open the drawer. Inside, the 20th anniversary present he’d had made for Tina. After all his effort, how ungrateful her reaction. She’d declared it vulgar, the strap-on dildo. Then on closer inspection, she’d added that it was just typical. They’d still used it though, hadn’t they?

He buckled up, then got back on the bed. Where were we? Yes, he was doing it for everyone. Even for Tina. Who’s self-involved now, huh? He was going to enact cosmic sexual healing. That’d show her.

His other final thoughts: that the commencement of the act was synonymous with the completion. He was starting to sound like the avatar, what he meant was that it didn’t last long. Not even premature – it was over in a flash.

We came together.

*

He woke for once with an opposite feeling: not the slow realisation of who he was, then where he was, then, with a groan, what he’d been up to last night. Instead, remembering that something wonderful had happened, and feeling blessed he’d forgotten it, because that way he could experience it again in his mind.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw no bright colours and forms, just wrinkled sheets. By the bed, the computer was switched off. But neither could he see the base catamite.

It’d all been a wet dream, he’d think if he was a fool. No, he knew it’d happened. But so much for transcendent union… To be fair, he’d woken up from even the most long-awaited shags thinking that. Maybe all they’d achieved, all that he’d achieved, was to break yet another catamite. (You’d sometimes wake to find limbs scattered all over the apartment). He’d check, but first he needed a wee. Just to rub it in, he could tell without having to look that he had a morning erection.

He also had a sex-hangover. The entire apartment looked woozy as he sat up. Before letting it settle, he got off the bed and stepped on something. With his bare foot, he nudged the rubber strap-on further under the bed. Maybe the avatar hadn’t seen it, or if it had done, it hadn’t minded. He’d tried to convince Tina it was for her long trips away, or for when he was away and she missed him. When she didn’t look impressed he said he’d spent a fortune. He wobbled as he walked bare-foot, as though his legs were bigger than they should be. The strap-on really had been well designed: his head and torso 3-D printed, reduced to scale but retaining his facial features. His head wasn’t throbbing so much as bobbing. A man in the shape of a cock, a cock in the shape of a man – come to think of it, the bespoke strap-on was a crude catamite of its own, though with just the one option. The avatar of him, his sex-organ self, which last night, with not a little feeling, if not loving-kindness, he’d inserted into the avatar of every self.

In the bathroom mirror, it looked like he’d been mutilated in the night.

Sitting on a turtleneck of ribboned skin was a head like a shark’s face seen from below, or a dolphin’s, something aquatic anyway, and wrongly out of sea. A pale pink dolphin’s head with no eyes, and a slit for a mouth but the mouth with no depth or space, all gums without teeth, just a slab of raw flesh close against another slab, and opened stickily. But what was worse was the mouth ran vertical.

Two things happened when he screamed.

First, it wasn’t the monster in the mirror that screamed; its mouth stayed horribly still. The scream came from somewhere else. Second, the woozy perspective of the bathroom settled, and he realised he was looking up at his reflection from the height of the sink, jutting out as he was from his own crotch.

Like a Punch doll, his torso hung where his penis should be, while his penis stood tall and broad from his waist and through his pyjama shirt. Whether from grief or fear, his bladder, wherever it was now, loosened, and sent streams of yellow tears like a mournful geyser from out the top of his dick head.

Only when this stopped did he hear the racket. He bounced and bobbed to his bedroom window.

The union, it had worked, a transmission projected by the feeling behind it. They milled around the foot of the apartment and marched angrily between the points of their lives, the dickheads, the cuntfaces, the blathering arseholes, as all the while, tucked below their belts, were their deep-down selves, screaming through the cloth, raging for license, looking out for number one.


Mazin Saleem has written short stories for the Mays Anthology, Litro Magazine, Literateur, Open Pen and more. His novelette, The Prick, is available from Open Pen, and you can read his other short stories for Minor Literature[s] here and here.

Image: Mike Burns, Bedroom with lamp, Flickr, Creative Commons