The night of the first expulsion, I asked the robot in my closet what to do. Usually when I asked him a question about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, he’d respond with something funny like “reply hazy try again” or “all your base are belong to us” or just “42.” He knew what I liked. This time, he paused, made a sound like swallowing, and said, his voice flat and almost human:
“Every scenario I compute ends in chaos.”
There was no need to ask him what he meant. I, too, had been monitoring the signs, assembling my own equations. The expulsions had been forecast since the beginning of the regime, and, now, “the removal of the undesirables from our great nation” was finally coming to pass. Back when the regime first took power, Gerry had been here, his shoes lined up neatly outside the door and the smell of his cologne wafting out of the bathroom. Then, we were just two men who shared an apartment and might get married someday. We spent our days at the office, our evenings cooking elaborate meals and holding hands on our couch watching HBO. In bed, he’d curl up next to me, put his head on my chest, and I’d touch his hair until he slept, listening to him breathe.
The work camps came first. Gerry being what he was and us being a secret, he got called to go. He was a high-level computer guy – exactly what they needed. They gave him this lanyard to wear around his neck, attached to a laminated photo ID card with his real name, Ghazir, and an asterisk to mark him. He looked like himself in the photo, all wild hair and eyes full of hope, his shoulders sagging in a way I knew only I could see.
The workers, it seemed, had so much to do that the regime had them move in a few months later. On our last night together, I helped Gerry pack his things into the giant suitcase his dad had brought from India forty years earlier. It still had a Delhi address on the outside and no wheels but Gerry said it didn’t matter; they were sending a car for him anyway. Once we filled the suitcase, I realized how little of him there had been in our apartment: just some clothes, his toiletries, his pillowcase, and the shoes that lined the mat outside. Everything else was mine. I cried even though it wasn’t very manly and he laughed, touched my face, and kissed me full on the mouth, leaving me with a hole I couldn’t fill with all the HBO left on the TV. I didn’t go to work the next day or the day after that. I sat on our couch, rewatching The Wire, while the world outside disintegrated and our apartment slowly ceased to look and feel like a place Gerry had once lived.
Before he left, Gerry had smuggled home spare parts from the computers at work, things he’d taken out to try to slow down the generation of the lists that would fuel the expulsions. I built the robot out of Gerry’s parts, winding the metal to look like his hair, which was messy and curled in ringlets straight up. It was only after he’d packed up for the barracks that I gave the robot Gerry’s mustache, which crept over his lips most of the time, even though it was those little hairs that drove me crazy when Gerry kissed me. The rest of the robot came from the apartment, his body built from the hot water heater and his single eye constructed from my old Playskool yellow and blue flashlight. I kept him locked up all day in the darkest part of my apartment. When I opened the door, his light would be on, flashing red or green depending on how he was feeling. I called him Jerry with a J. By the time I opened up the closet door on the night of the first expulsion, we had been alone, the two of us, for 147 days, only ever interrupted by the delivery guy from Hunan Palace, the restaurant where Gerry and I once had our first date.
“The regime relies on you,” the Palm Pilot said from my hand as I stood in the closet, Jerry with a J’s flashlight lighting up the grey screen, alternating red and green so fast it made me think of Christmas. They’d confiscated all of our other devices and, instead, given us Palm Pilots straight out of the 90s, packed full of regime approved news.
“It is fear that drives the madness,” said Jerry with a J. A flash of a green light, then red straight into my eyes.
I looked at the grey screen. On it was a picture, drawn with the stylus, of the dumpster behind my apartment building. Then as if it were happening on a piece of paper in front of me, someone squiggled out “meet me @ 7:30.” It had been months since I’d seen his handwriting.
“What do you think?” I asked Jerry with a J. “Is it really him?”
“The risk is infinite,” he said, flashing red, green, and then red again. The past few months it had been our game: I’d ask him to assess the risk of everything I did and he’d respond with his calculation.
“Minor,” he’d said when I’d first asked about the risk of slipping on the bathtub and cracking my head open when I showered.
“Miniscule,” he’d said when I asked him about the prospect of causing a fire in the kitchen. “Just watch your burners.”
But when I asked him about going outside, he always said the same thing.
“Every situation I compute ends in chaos.”
That was fine with me. Every time I tried to walk out the door, I’d get dizzy, my heart beating too fast. Too risky, my mind said and Jerry with a J agreed.
I stood there looking at the handwriting on the screen, filling up with something awful and wonderful at once.
“It’s him,” I said, “It has to be.”
“The risk is infinite,” Jerry with a J said. This time, he paused and made a noise like swallowing again, a gargle in the back of the water pipe that was his throat.“That does not mean you should not go,” he said. I looked at the flashlight on top of his head. It switched from green to red and back again.
How could something have infinite risk and still be worth it? I thought of Gerry with a G, his too long mustache, and the pile of unkempt curls on top of his head. I looked at my Palm Pilot. The screen had gone to sleep. It showed nothing but the time, 7:28.
My heart still beat too fast, my head already light, but something else was dragging me forward, across the line between outside and in. I stood up and said nothing.
“Be careful,” Jerry with a J said.
I left the cushiony darkness of the closet for the uncertainty of the kitchen. Gerry had always been the one to wash the dishes, to sweep the floor, to keep me under control. Without him, the latest of my Hunan Palace stayed on the dishes until there was a film and a smell I didn’t like but couldn’t stop. I put on my raincoat, zipped it up, raised the the hood over my head, and pulled the strings under my chin until they were tight enough that I knew the hood would stay put, hiding my face from view.
I opened the door as quietly as I could, sliding my feet into my rain boots, just in case, even though the Palm Pilot had said nothing about precipitation. The stairwell was empty and quiet except for the sound of the rain boots slapping against my calves. I moved slowly, trying to minimize the noise. Back when Gerry had been home, we’d hear the neighbors laughing, talking, or singing and we’d make our own noise, as loud as we could, until all there was left to do was laugh at ourselves. Now, as I approached our front door, I listened for the sound of cars driving down what had once been our busy street. There was nothing.
I slid my right foot out the door just after I had opened it, letting my boot hold its weight while I reached my hand into my raincoat pocket and pulled out the Palm Pilot. 7:32, it said. I was already late. I walked down the short flight of stairs to the sidewalk, my boots knocking against my ankles. The path behind the apartment building was hidden behind a row of overgrown bushes. I slipped through, letting the branches rub up against me, pushing back as I moved forward.
It was Gerry, the real one, behind the dumpster. He was thin and his hair had grown long, past his shoulders, his eyes sunken and wild. I wrapped my arms around his waist and felt his hip bones poke into my forearms.
“How is my robot?” Gerry asked.
“Keeps me company,” I said.
“What did you end up calling him?” he asked. I let my face slide out of my raincoat hood and pressed my cheek against his beard.
“Come upstairs,” I said into his chest. It no longer smelled of cologne but it did smell like Gerry, which was what was important. I wanted to wrap him up in blankets, inhale that scent, and look into his eyes until I had no choice but to blink.
He shook his head. I pulled away until the only thing left touching was our pinkies.
“How do you know the robot is a ‘he’?” I asked. I’d never said.
“What else would it be?” he said. We looked straight into each other’s eyes as best we could. Even after all these days, I was still a good six inches shorter than he was.
“You’re right,” I said, “I call him Jerry with J. After all, what would he be without you?”
Gerry’s mustache still inched over his upper lip. I thought I saw his slow smile emerge from beneath the overgrown hairs. His eyes looked sad and tired, his hair wild as if he’d just woken up from a long nap. A rat scurried in the bushes, startling us both. I remembered when we’d walked down our block and laughed together at the unexpected rustle of the neighborhood cat in the bushes, a mouse between his teeth. Gerry looked like he couldn’t remember how to laugh. I could remember and that seemed worse.
“I’m on the list,” he said, looking down at his feet. He was wearing his old pair of Adidas Sambas, green, dirty, and worn at the sides. It had always been a mystery to me why he’d loved those shoes so much. “I’m at the bottom but I’m there.”
I felt something itch inside my throat. It was warm outside and the dumpster smelled like rotten food. Flies swirled around the top of it, even as it stood closed, the cover opening up to just an inch of darkness. I wanted to reach toward him and tell him it would all be okay, even though I knew it was a lie.
“I’m sorry,” I said, instead. “What will we do now?”
He looked down at me and leaned against the dumpster, wrapping his pinky tightly around mine. It was cold, bony, and rough, and yet, there was a clammy warmth to his skin that reminded me of home. I saw him swallow, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down in the moonlight, the smell of garbage everywhere. He looked at me, his eyes slick in their cavernous sockets.
“Run,” he whispered like it was a question and an answer at once. “They haven’t finished building the Northern Wall yet.”
That was the one they built to keep us in. The first had been, they said, to keep them out.
Still as I looked at Gerry, the mop on his head more beautiful than I’d remembered, I thought of Jerry with a J and what he’d said about the infinite risk. It was true. How could you quantify what was outside? It was safer in the darkness of my apartment, the silence of my room, the sloppy solitude of my kitchen.
I shook my head. His pinky slipped away from mine.
“I thought you were dead,” I said. But still it wasn’t enough.
“They’ll come for you someday, too,” he said, “Jerry with a J can’t stop them.”
“Every situation I compute ends in chaos,” I said.
Gerry sighed and leaned his head against the dumpster. The smell of garbage was everywhere, sweet and foul at once.
“What’s the point then,” he said, “of staying in your apartment? Why not come with me? At least you won’t be alone.”
The risk is infinite, my heart said. My mouth said nothing.
“The risk is always infinite,” Gerry said in a robot voice, knowing like he always did what was in my head.
“You’re right,” I said, “and still.”
“And still…” He said. He looked at me. His eyes were wet and cold. They didn’t look much like I remembered. He reached down and pulled back the hood of my raincoat, my head bare against the night breeze for the first time. He kissed me on the top of my forehead.
“Everything I compute ends in chaos,” I said.
“I know,” Gerry said. My forehead was warm and wet with his kiss. I no longer smelled the dumpster.
He slid around the corner of the dumpster, his pinky touching mine one last time.
“Stay safe, Fred,” he said, and turned away from me. I closed my eyes. I listened for his footsteps but they were soundless. I willed my feet to move. They didn’t.
A crack opened up inside of me, just enough to let the chaos in.
Image: “Robot Head Light” by Eric Kilby, licensed under CC 2.0.