Latest from MIT Tech Review – Be a good example
Freshman year of high school, my boyfriend asked, “What’s it like having her around all the time?” He meant Kim. The bell for third period rang. I shifted against him, a combination lock pressed into my back, lockers slamming around us. Our mouths were still so close. I’d been wondering if he also felt hot shivers straight through the center of him. And then he’d asked about Kim and I felt nothing through the center of me anymore.
My next boyfriend asked about Kim right in front of her. As if she wasn’t there. She smiled at him, at me, at him. She touched the three-pronged outlet behind her left ear, a simple gesture she’d adapted for gaps in conversation. I gave that boyfriend a long flat stare, then set my eyes on the ceiling until he knew to walk away.
Then I tried, up front, telling the boys what I didn’t want to talk about. But they wouldn’t listen.
Our father said teenage boys were always like this. It was nothing new.
Thoughts. Sierra Kidd is my sister. I am her Older Sibling. My name is Kim, what is yours? My age is 15. This thing is called a plane. A plane. The water down there is called the Pacific Ocean. Programmable age is 15. Bethany and Robert Kidd are my parents. Mom and Dad. I look like people, but I am me. Mom and Dad might want me to call them Bethany and Robert, and if so, that is not a reflection of negative feelings. People change their minds. Preferences make people individuals. This thing is called a plane. Drink water, the attendants tell us. Drink, drink. All the time. Stay lubricated. You do not want to get squeaky, because squeaky is disruptive. Squeak, squeak, they say, in a different voice than before. And now they smile. I look out the window. That is land. I am smiling.
“What do you want to be?” Kim asked me. I was six or seven, in bed, and she was crouched down to my eye level. Her hands gripped the edge of the mattress as if a cliff’s edge.
“Astronaut,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “That’s new.”
A few days before we’d watched the shuttle Discovery carry the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. On the couch with me, her arms raised as she braided her hair, she’d gasped when the shuttle lifted from the launch pad. It wasn’t the first time a launch had been on TV, but Kim seemed to recognize something new. Even as young as I was, I knew to expect a change. She was adapting all the time.
It came a few nights later. She said, “I want to be an astronaut too.” I blinked hard, her face so large and close to my own. We both had green eyes, dark hair, a dimple in our chin. Freckles. Wanting to be something was new.
Little Sierra. Hold hands. Don’t worry. Sleeping baby, two years old, likes bananas, dry cereal, smells like milk, soft skin, softest behind ear and back of neck. I am welcome and trusted, because I am a good example, and I am one of the first of me, and the more I learn, the more I am. The first Saturday of every month, at the coffee shop in Georgetown, the Older Siblings meet. There are so many of us that we push six tables together. Pam says, The more I remember, the more I remember. We don’t like this as much as Tim saying The more I learn, the more I am. People in the coffee shop think we are interesting. We smile back at them. Be a good example. The Older Siblings ask each other, What do you do with your child? And I say, We sing, we dance, we nap. Not everyone has thought of dancing yet, so I pretend to hold little Sierra’s hands, and I move from foot to foot. No, Pam says, I know what dancing is, but I had not thought about it as an activity to do with my child. The group looks at me. We know what dancing is, Tim says. I let go of invisible Sierra’s hands and I sit. Pam says, The more I remember, the more I remember. She says, When my battery gets very low, I remember more. I am remembering people in another place. Tim asks, Who are the people? But Pam doesn’t know. Tim asks, What is the place? Pam says the place is bright and noisy and she does not know.
I met my husband in my mid-30s, after three therapists, two attempts at God (the first Lutheran, the other the AA kind), countless attempts to quit drinking, and two suicide attempts. After all that, more rehab and meetings. Memorization of adages became actual acceptance. Things clicked. I thought I might become a social worker.
The man who became my husband was first the admissions counselor for graduate school. I told him I wanted to turn my trauma into service. He didn’t flinch. In fact, he said social work was a common trajectory for people so experienced with recovery.
On our first date, he held my hand as we crossed the Memorial Bridge at rush hour. The air was strong with exhaust and something rotten from the river, but my whole body was alive, as if a switch had flipped. The warm night, even warmer in the joined palms of our hands. It’d been so long since anyone had reached for me. Casual intimacy punctuated with perfunctory questions. All the things people think they need to know about each other.
“What do your parents do?” he asked.
“They were researchers. Robotics.”
“No,” I said. “You?”
Beautiful Sierra. Smart Sierra. I wait for Tim to finish showing the group the same photos of his child. It is a bad sign. His child is two years older than the photos he shows. Here, Sierra in her blue and silver dance uniform. Here, Sierra practices the saxophone in her bedroom. The group passes around my photos. I have missed the last two meetings, because summer is busy. Summer is camp. I do not have camp photos yet, but the group understands. No one else has photos. We drink water. Tim says, Has anyone seen Pam? No one has seen Pam. She is the second one to stop coming to the coffee shop. I don’t say so, but I saw Pam’s child at camp. Pam was not at camp, though.
At the end of middle school, our parents sat us down and explained that Kim would be enrolled as a high school freshman alongside me.
“You’re not a companion anymore,” our mother said. “Instead, we’d like you to be a teenager.”
“You’ve earned it,” our father said.
I shifted on the couch next to Kim and in my peripheral saw her hands move into her lap and clasp. She was always listening closely, but this was her pose for demonstrating it.
“From now on,” our mother said, “You’ll have a birthday. Next year, you’ll be 16.”
“My programmable age will be 16?”
“Sure,” our father said. “The point is, Sierra can handle herself now. She can be responsible for her days.”
Sleeping baby, two years old, likes bananas, dry cereal, smells like milk, soft skin, softest behind ear and back of neck.
Kim turned to me. So often in our lives I felt I could read her mind by watching her face, but not now. All I saw was the slow processing of new information.
I shrugged. “No one I know has an Older Sibling anymore.”
Sophomore year I tried out for the swim team. The other girls seemed serious and confident in a way I admired. There’s something self-assured about throwing yourself headfirst into a thing that can’t really catch you.
I came up from the final lap, gasping at the wall, and there was Kim in her own suit. Smiling, looking alien in a swim cap. The coach signaled for the next group. Kim leapt from the starting block, arcing long and effortlessly over my head, and entered the water. When she did not surface, I ducked under. Her body cruised all nine feet to reach the bottom.
I tried volleyball instead, debate team, student council, track. It wasn’t only that Kim followed me each time. I couldn’t quite make a place for myself anywhere. I floated, sat near the edges of tables and rooms, entered last, departed first. This is when the drinking started: those kids were my people, I guess, though we knew little about each other’s home life. We only knew there was something about each of us that didn’t quite work in the normal world.
I turned away from Kim in the halls. She registered for different classes because I told her I was in them. She waited near my locker, repeated my name as she stood behind me in the lunch line, waved across the parking lot as I got in a friend’s car.
At home, I could be all hers. But in school, I silently chanted, Just adapt already, please, please, just adapt.
In the spring, I saw her across the quad. One among a gaggle in shining red nylon uniforms, cutting through the overgrown grass toward the track. I saw another girl hand her something. Kim swept her hair back into a ponytail. A hair tie.
“Is this okay?” Brandon asked. It was later that same day. Our bodies brushed against each other underneath the blankets. Naked except for our socks. His basement bedroom had cinderblock walls, the room cool and silent.
“Do you have a condom?” I asked. Among the group, until then, we’d hardly spoken. He wore the same three Nirvana T-shirts. His arms were nicked with scrapes and scars from skateboarding.
I trembled the whole way, my body out of my control, and he kept asking if I was okay, and I said yes, then I said stop asking, then I stopped answering. When it was over, I abruptly fell asleep.
Kim in my dreams. She and the track team running through a field, ponytails whipping. I couldn’t tell which was her.
I run and run, but I slow down. Practice. But I slow down. Ralph in the grass, stretching muscles. His hands. Hold hands. I finish the last lap. The coach says, Good going, K. And I go to the concession stand, which is closed, but I am allowed to use the plug with the surge protector next to the deep freezer. I charge. My heart rattling. I breathe and breathe. I slide open the window, which is for customers, but the stand is closed so there are no customers, and I watch the next practice sprint. I hear people shouting. I see Ralph on the track. He finishes first and goes to the cooler by the bleachers and dumps a cup of water over his head. He shines. He waves to me. He comes over. He reaches his hand into the window. Hold hands. That is that. That is that thing. Whoa, Ralph says. I can feel, like, your electricity.
“What do you want to be?” Kim asked me. I was 11. We were on the monkey bars at the park near our house, each of us swinging from opposite ends to meet in the middle.
“A news reporter,” I told her.
“That’s new,” she said. “Mom says Older Siblings would make ideal astronauts.”
We hung there, face to face. I was supposed to say something, but I didn’t want to, and I wasn’t sure why.
She started again. “Mom says—”
I wrapped my legs around her waist and let go, wrenching both of us down to the dirt. It shocked the wind from my chest. “Breathe,” Kim instructed. When I inhaled and sat up, we both stared at the odd backward bend in her left wrist. She raised her arm. The hand flopped forward. There was a quiet buzzing coming from somewhere. She raised the hand to listen, and put it up to my ear next. A small, furious sound.
“Does it hurt?”
“No pain,” Kim said.
I checked the benches on the other side of the playground, several yards away. Two women in khaki shorts and polos watched us and made notes, one on a clipboard, the other dictating into a small recorder. Sometimes they brought a video camera. Our mother said they were her coworkers. “You’ve met them,” she said. “They’ve been to the house. Remember your dad’s surprise party?”
“Any siblings?” “No,” I said. “You?”
Looking at the women that day, I felt unsteady and strange. The women were adults, but neither came forward to help or scold. They watched us, waiting.
I threw my arms around Kim’s neck. “I’m really sorry,” I said. My remorse was real. But I also knew that I had to demonstrate it.
“How’s it going?” our parents would ask me. They meant Kim and me and high school. They meant data worth reporting.
“You have to get her to stop following me around,” I said.
“She’ll adapt,” they said. “And it’s okay if she doesn’t. We need to know that, too.”
“This isn’t fair,” I said.
“She held you as a baby, Sierra. You want us to send her back? She’ll be put in storage.”
I didn’t know what storage looked like, or where it was, but I pictured darkness. Constriction. Regulated cold. Last thought unfinished, not even echoing, gone from time. The mention of storage always stopped the conversation.
Ralph says, You’re really real. Ralph says, I love you. Ralph says, Pray with me, Kim. My parents won’t let us be together anymore. I pray, but I don’t know. I am trying to know. They call me doll slut and ask me if I like how it tastes. I don’t know God, I know people. Too difficult. No thoughts. I run until Coach says, Stop, K. You’re shaking. You need to—Sierra—Sierra—Sierra is my sister, I am older. I am older. Hold hands. Coach holds my hand, his face is close. Coach says, Kim, can you hear me? Hand squeezes hand. Kim, you fainted. Or, I don’t know? Warm. Grass. Dirt. Sky. Sierra—Sierra—Sierra. I remember—I remember—the plane. I remember the plane. No. Before.
With my husband, the beginning was the best. The tender, stuttering attempts at togetherness. Helping each other cook. Choosing a DVD. Brewing coffee in the morning. Driving, one of his hands on the wheel, the other on my thigh. Still, the moments between were hard for me. I felt I’d given him everything, up front, that first time I sat across from him in his office on campus. I could understand wanting to know more, but I preferred being in bed. The questions were easier.
“You never ask me anything,” he said, after, his mouth against my neck. He smelled of mint and garlic from dinner. His heart hammering at my back.
One night when our parents were away, I was home watching TV and waiting for the bleach to set in my hair when I heard Kim collapse upstairs. The bathroom door was unlocked. I found her on the floor, the hairbrush still gripped in her hand. This is not serious, I told myself, though it had never happened before.
Contradiction slowed my thoughts—a body on the floor, but no, not really a body on the floor. Her battery is too low. She is not hurt. I told myself these things to quell the panic as I gripped under her armpits and dragged her across the hall.
In her bedroom, I put her on the floor next to her bed, flipped her hair over her face, and plugged the power cord into the three-pronged gap behind her ear. The lights flickered. I heard the TV downstairs suddenly pop and go silent.
She hummed. I crawled onto her bed and laid on my stomach along the edge. I wanted to see the moment she came back.
“Sierra. Sssss-airrruh. Ssss-sss …”
Her voice sounded like air. I hated hearing it like that.
“You’re okay,” I told her. “You’re charging.” I held her hand. Her body hummed. I’d never heard it so loud before, like a refrigerator.
The more I remember, the more I remember.
When she could speak, she told me about a dream. A bright and noisy place. She said the voices were kind, but hard to understand. I nodded along. She’d never told me a dream before. I didn’t even know she had them. In it, she couldn’t feel her legs or arms, but she felt cold air on her head, the sense of being exposed. Then the dream switched to a long hallway. She could feel her legs now. Around her stood several people. A small woman with dark hair waved her hands, saying, Come, come. You can do it. Good boys and girls, come, come.
“I thought you couldn’t understand the people?”
“Oh.” Kim laughed. “I was wrong.”
“That’s dream logic,” I said. “Things that don’t make sense in real life are suddenly not a problem.”
“Dream logic,” Kim repeated, then: “Drink water. Drink, drink.”
“You want water?” I asked.
“Pam was right.”
“The more I remember, the more I remember.”
She closed her eyes. Her hand remained in mine. Eventually I fell asleep, forgot all about the bleach. I woke up with my scalp burning and clumps of hair on the bedspread: I had to shave my head.
I go to the coffee shop. I have no pictures. I have not been to the coffee shop in a long time. I ask the new Pam, Have you seen Tim? She says, I do not know Tim. I say, The more I learn, the more I am. She blinks. Then I say, The more I remember, the more I remember. I say it twice. But the new Pam shakes her head. I don’t understand, she says. What is your child’s name?
I attended a small, women-only liberal arts college a few hours away. Surrounded by woods and mountains, I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me. The other girls with shaved heads felt my scalp in appreciation. Everyone was different in the same ways. Nose piercings, hairy legs, bumper stickers about tolerance and revolution. The social groups were porous and the acceptance was surreal. Drinking became about socializing, not hiding or waiting to escape.
Back home, our parents got Kim a job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Sometimes she called me from work, leaving messages about the number of root canals that day or the little kids having their first cleaning. She was telling me about her life. I knew the implication—she wanted to hear about mine. But I never called.
Our parents told me they’d found her unconscious a few times. Her battery too low. Once she’d even passed out during dinner, slumping to the floor in the middle of a sentence.
“She needs your engagement,” our mother said. “We’re putting her on a bus.”
On the drive from the station, she didn’t stop talking, commenting on the smallness of the town, the mountains and curving roads, the manicured campus emerging from nowhere. But when I introduced her to my roommate, Kim grew quiet. A shyness I hadn’t seen before. As my roommate and I chatted, Kim drifted around our dorm room, lingering in front of bookshelves and photos tacked to a bulletin board. Then she sat on my bed and pulled the cord from her suitcase and plugged herself in.
“Oh wow,” my roommate said. “I’ve never seen one of those.”
“Please,” I said. “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”
My friends were polite at first, complimenting her hair and khaki dress, but that night, in the woods off campus where we always went, the questions began.
“Can you get drunk?”
“Does it hurt when you plug in?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“What was Sierra like as a baby?”
“If you were to, like, kill somebody, and be sentenced to life in prison, would that mean forever? Do you live forever? Or could you refuse to charge and just end it?”
There was a pause. Kim responded, “I don’t know. No one has ever said.”
The guys from town showed up. People grew drunk and brave and slipped away in pairs, until it was me and Kim and a guy. I shook my head at him, and he went off to the truck. Country music drifted from the open windows.
“You seem great,” I told her.
“Has it been about me all this time? I thought it was both of us.”
“Can I visit you again?” she asked.
I forced a laugh. “You’re still visiting me right now. How are people at work?”
“Everyone is nice. Coworkers don’t have to be friends.”
“Did Mom and Dad tell you that?” Before she could answer, I nudged her shoulder. “Hey, if you could be anything, what would you be?”
“I’m a receptionist.”
“Not forever, though. Just right now. You can do anything now.” I forced another laugh, again nudging her. “You could be an astronaut.”
She touched the outlet behind her ear. “No one can be anything.”
Later, one of the guys tossed Kim the keys to his pickup.
“She doesn’t drive,” I told him.
“I have my license now,” she said.
Hollering, screaming, all the way into town. I sat in the cab; everyone else piled in the truck bed. She even knew how to drive stick. I was mesmerized by her ease with it and could almost see what kind of person she might be in the world if I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. The waste of it, of who she was and I was.
But she accepted all of it. She’d live as long as her hardware would let her. And whatever her original purpose, she’d possess it forever. Which meant so would I. Vodka flowed through me. Utility poles stuttered in my peripheral. My thoughts went thick and blurry, half-finished.
At the diner, the group took over several booths, Kim on the outside of one and me on the inside of another. She was stillness amid chaos. I told myself not to pay attention to her. She could sink or swim. After a while, the waitress lost patience with our racket and started dropping checks. I looked for Kim, but she wasn’t there.
Then I saw her, across the diner, at another table with two women. I shoved my way out of the booth, thinking, vaguely, I need to make sure she’s okay, and then I saw the clipboard. The tape recorder next to a cup of coffee.
She told me it was the only way our parents would allow her to visit. When she saw the women at the diner, she’d gone over to explain that it wasn’t a night worth observing. She was asking them to leave, but then I’d made a scene. Swept my arm across the table.
“You’ll be in their notes,” Kim said.
“Fuck their notes.”
“I shouldn’t have lied to you. I’m sorry—”
“What do they want?”
“They want to know how we’re doing. If we’ve changed with age and distance.”
“Have you always been a part of it like this?”
“A part of it?”
“Has it been about me all this time? I thought it was both of us.”
“Ralph once said life was a miraculous thing,” Kim told me later. We were sitting on my bed—my roommate was staying in her girlfriend’s dorm. “He said I was included in that. And everything I’m doing now is about that too. If I don’t help them with their research, what happens to everyone like me?”
We must have slept, because I woke up. Kim was on the floor next to my bed, and I knew from the awkward way she was sprawled that her battery had gotten too low. I sat up and, gently, knocked her with my foot. My temples throbbed. Across the room, the curtains were partly open. I watched the mountains grow more distinct as the sky bleached into day. My foot knocked harder against her body.
Her power cord was wound into a neat pile, unused, on the desk. She could be in the world more easily now, her own person, yet somehow she was still my responsibility. I pushed a book off my nightstand. She didn’t flinch when it hit her head.
I paced the room. Threw a sneaker. Another book. My gym bag. I expected her to sit up and look confused. But she was motionless. A body on the floor, but not a body on the floor. I found myself searching drawers, shelves, the closet. It was my roommate’s precision knife, used for drafting class. I flipped the plastic safety cover off. It didn’t feel like I was doing anything. It wasn’t me, it was only my hands. The rest of me was still across the room.
My philosophy professor paused midsentence. The whole room shifted as two campus police officers entered the auditorium. The buzzing in my ears drowned everything. My professor’s mouth formed my name. Faces shifted again as I stood, squeezed past knees to the aisle, the whole place following my descent one step at a time. A cool sweat wrapped around me, the world narrowing.
It was in the newspaper, but the towers fell the next day, and what I’d done was quickly lost. I was kept home. For a long time, a therapist came every afternoon. I made up stories, but she always knew what I was trying to do.
“I should be in a straitjacket. Locked up,” I said. “But my parents don’t want anyone to know. Bad data isn’t profitable.”
“I think she was as real as anyone to you. But I also think some of us have particularly bad parents.”
“Do you feel you need to be in a facility?”
“You don’t believe I killed somebody?” I asked her.
“No,” she said.
“Why not? You don’t think Kim was a real person to me?”
“I think she was as real as anyone to you. But I also think some of us have particularly bad parents. What you did, you did out of a misguided survival instinct.”
The officers directed me from the auditorium, down the hall, and through the double doors. The sun struck my face. There wasn’t anywhere to go, but I ran. What I felt inside of me was vibrant, rushing, almost electric. I heard the officers shouting my name. I didn’t stop.
I left the parking lot and crossed the two-lane road that ran alongside campus. My chest heaved and burned. I ducked into the woods and my sneakers slashed at the muddy ground as I tried to push faster, totally breathless but still alive.
Her body went to storage. There was no funeral. A few photos remained on the wall. I went on. She was good. She was beautiful. She was good. I grew up. I was always imperfect.
I have never forgiven my parents, though for a time I pretended I did, because I thought it would free me. But forgiveness felt like another trap. I made a mess of my life, cleaned it up, made another, cleaned it up again. When I reached the eighth step, I put Kim’s name on my amends list, knowing it would ruin me—I’d been doing so well, but I was starting to think about what I don’t deserve, so I wrote her name down. Then I got drunk and jumped off a bridge and didn’t die.
I treaded water and brought myself ashore. Started again. Life is a miraculous thing, and I am included in that. I would keep going until I couldn’t anymore.
Walking home from my AA meeting takes me past the Smithsonian Museum of Robotics and Scientific Engineering. One day they were pasting an enormous image of an Older Sibling to the front windows. The museum worker used some kind of roller to press the image to the glass, and I watched as face after face went up. None were Kim’s. Most, I recognized, were later models. The exhibit was celebrating early AI technology from the recent past. I wondered if my parents were making any money off it.
When I married my husband, I thought, Yes, this is how it goes from now on. But he wanted kids, so badly. He understood my reluctance, my fears that I might be capable of hurting another person. “You were a victim of that situation,” he said. “As much as she was.”
We tried to work through it—he was patient and desperately kind, and I begged him to want me anyway—but sometimes there’s no way. Surrender. You can’t promise that everything you’ve been through hasn’t changed you for the worse. Deal with today on today’s terms.
Late last year, when the divorce was finalized, I started jogging. It was either that or start drinking again. I went to a meeting. I called my sponsor. I pulled my hair into a ponytail and went for a run. I have trained myself to keep going.
April Sopkin lives outside of Richmond, Virginia. Her work has most recently appeared in Joyland, Response, and Carve.