Exposure and Response

from Vol. 20 No. 02

One toothbrush was orange, the other green. Neither color instructed him on which would be the appropriate choice for a white, straight, twenty-nine-year-old man. If the toothbrushes had been pink and blue, Peter would have chosen the pink one to avoid gender essentialism. He had already touched them both—there had already been that contact—so parting with either one would mean a loss. Why the humiliation of regret as he put the orange one back on its peg, touching it for the last time, as if to apologize? He might think about the orange toothbrush for the rest of the day. But as he approached the cash register, confronted by the other objects of the pharmacy that might need (and deserve!) his attention, the jilted toothbrush slipped his mind. He stepped out the door entirely free, beholden to none but the highly acceptable green toothbrush that rode along with him in his pocket. He felt glad to be smiling—to be headed for the office now as any normal person would do.

Back at his desk, he put on his headphones and began listening to the recording he’d made with his therapist that week: “Even when I want to have sex with Julia, I can’t be sure that I really love her.” It was his own voice saying the sentence. Once he’d listened to the recording on a loop for enough time, its meaning wouldn’t bother him anymore—that was the idea. Right now it sure bothered him. He marked 6 out of 10 subjective units of distress in his chart.

Peter wished they hadn’t updated the office. There were no cubicle partitions anymore, just a stretch of desks clustered here and there with signs hanging over them, which the boss called the bullring. The sign above his cluster had a cartoon man with a lab coat and beaker that was supposed to mean they were testers. He didn’t like the cartoon. The one across the room had a whale with a spout of water coming from its blowhole. The guys over there handled the users who looked at ten, twenty times more profiles than the average. They started calling these users the whales, so the boss got that sign for them. He can’t remember when the guy in the lab coat appeared. At least it wasn’t as hokey as the heart and arrow over the engineers.

“Even when I want to have sex with Julia…” Who knew how many times he’d heard that sentence already? It was too bad about the cubicles because listening to the sentence was difficult when everyone was sitting right there in front of him. Wearing headphones wasn’t strange—everyone did that—but it was remarkably hard to find something to look at when you weren’t actually doing anything on your computer. Even looking at the screen was embarrassing. Someone might notice that he hadn’t typed or scrolled. Sometimes he tried looking out across the bullring, but he always caught someone’s eye and had to look away. Still, he looked out across the bullring now and tried to rest his gaze on the marketing cluster.

“…I can’t be sure that I really love her.” It was a terrible sentence. Plus, someone from the marketing cluster would probably look his way soon. He marked 7 subjective units of distress. The subjective units of distress were supposed to go down, not up. A hand smacked his shoulder, and he spun around.

“Ding dong, Pete!” said a guy from a desk behind his. Peter could never remember this guy’s name, let alone meet his enthusiasm—particularly now with 7, maybe 7.5 subjective units of distress.

“Uh huh?” he said.

“Which of them are you after?” said the guy, nodding at marketing. There were lots of pretty girls in marketing, which was why he usually didn’t look over there. And he never knew how to answer these kinds of questions. He thought about saying “your mother,” but it was so stupid to say things like that.

“No one,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” said the guy. “I’m going to grab a kombucha. You want anything?”

“Maybe a beer.” It would be perfect to have a beer after he finished with the recording. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? They were allowed to have as much beer as they wanted.

“That’s the spirit, Petey. I’ll grab you one of the Insane Crane IPAs.”

When the guy was gone, he brought his attention back to the recording, and guess what? Even when he had sex with Julia, he couldn’t be sure that he really loved her. No, no, he wanted to say, of course he could be sure. He loved Julia more than any girl he’d been with before. They had been together for six years. They shared a great little junior one bedroom in an Edwardian on Fair Oaks Street. Just wanting to say all these things meant that he had already said them in his head as reassurance, which was exactly what his therapist didn’t want him to do.

Sometimes when he listened to the recordings, he thought about how funny it would be if he wasn’t actually obsessive-compulsive, if he had just fallen out of love with Julia. It made the recordings seem like something from 1984. The thought police were correcting things so he would believe he was in love with her again. He’d had the same thoughts about Kelly before he broke up with her, though everyone wanted him to break up with Kelly anyway. There had been the evaluation—his therapist definitely thought he was obsessive-compulsive, but his therapist probably had an interest in thinking that. He decided to search for “obsessive-compulsive disorder” and have a quick look through the results. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder often repeatedly think about killing their spouses, running over pedestrians while driving a vehicle, molesting children (by accident, maybe), secretly wanting to be homosexual, writing or saying something inappropriate, having sex with Jesus, blinking, swallowing, breathing, or the nature of the self and reality.

There was nothing on this page about relationships. He clicked back and quickly found another page. This page had the stuff about molesting children and being homosexual, but there was still nothing about relationships. He searched “relationship obsessive-compulsive disorder” and finally found something. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder often worry that they do not love their partners, or have not found the “right” person. 

There was a story about a guy named Peter (like him!) who really loved his fiancée, Carla, whom he had been with for four years. Then Peter saw a woman across from him in a parking lot who looked just like Carla but was more attractive than her. Peter felt very guilty about this and spent the rest of the day, and then the rest of the week thinking about the woman in the parking lot and trying to convince himself it didn’t matter that he found her attractive. The best treatment for Peter was exposure therapy. Thank God for this Peter, even though he might not really exist. This Peter sounded exactly like him. He marked 3 subjective units of distress. Once he got to 2 units, he could stop listening to the recording and a luxurious 8 hours would pass before he had to listen again.

The guy at the desk in front of his was looking at profiles on the site. He must have clicked through at least ten of them in the last thirty seconds. Then he stopped for a minute on a girl with lots of small freckles and bright red hair, which Peter knew some guys didn’t like. But Peter sure liked the girl, and felt immediately guilty about liking her. She was holding a golden retriever puppy in her arms like a baby. Maybe the guy was trying to decide how he felt about girls with freckles and red hair, or with puppy photos. He suddenly clicked her away. Peter knew the interface well enough to be sure the guy hadn’t indicated that he liked her. He wondered, if he were clicking through girls as fast as the guy, would he even indicate that he liked Julia’s profile? His subjective units of distress had gone back up to a 4 or 5. A few minutes ago, when he was just staring at his cursor, they had probably gone down to a 2. He decided to mark 2 and call it off with the recording.

It was finally time to get back to work, one of the only things that kept him from thinking about whether or not he loved Julia (sometimes). He stared at the line of code in front of him, and tried to remember what he thought would come next before he went out to buy the green toothbrush. The guy finally came back with the Insane Crane—how perfect that he was finally getting back to work with a craft beer in his hand and no more recordings for the rest of the day.

“Cheers,” he said to the guy.

“Sure thing.”

Then from the far side of his cluster, he saw Scott approaching, a senior programmer in his mid-thirties who was filling in as a tester while one guy’s wife was having a baby. Peter liked Scott even though they didn’t usually have much to say to each other. He only wore jeans and t-shirts, but he always looked better than the other guys, even the ones who bothered to wear real pants and blazers. Maybe he had a home gym or paid a lot for haircuts.

“You coming?” said Scott. The Quantified Self meeting. Peter had completely forgotten about it. He had even forgotten to put his sleep tracker on last night.

“I forgot to track yesterday,” he told Scott.

“Doesn’t matter,” Scott said. “Just bring whatever you’ve got.”

He grabbed his phone and went with Scott to the little lounge with the window that faced the Bay. Several of the guys were already there, some with coconut water (they had tracked caffeine and alcohol use last month), but most with mixed drinks or beer like him. The meeting was a break, after all. You could see the Bay Bridge from there, and even the bell tower at Berkeley, where Julia was teaching her undergrads. He hadn’t thought about Julia since Scott turned up at his desk, but now he remembered the recording. His face must have drooped a little because Scott asked him what was wrong.

“Oh, nothing really,” he said. “Just tired.”

“Me too,” Scott said. “A lot of shit went down this month. You’ll see it in my numbers.” He got the feeling that Scott was dating a lot of women right now, even though they’d never talked about it.

It was Scott’s turn to present, so he plugged his laptop into the projector and welcomed everyone to that week’s Quantified Self. Peter’s self was already thoroughly quantified. He paid $225 a week for the privilege of quantifying. Tiers of colored lines appeared on the screen facing the group as Scott prepared to talk them through the greens, pinks, yellows, and dark blues.

“Thanks, all, for letting me present this one,” he was saying. “Sleep has been tricky lately, so I wanted to give it a try.”

It was true, Scott’s average number of hours was low: about 5.5 per night over the past two weeks. But the ratio of deep sleep (dark blue) to just sleep sleep (green) wasn’t so bad, as a guy named Tim pointed out. Peter found these kinds of observations a little boring, even when he was the one who made them. But they were better than sitting at his desk, where he was always in danger of thinking about Julia.

“And you’re getting about as much REM time as I do,” Tim said, stroking a beard that had probably gotten too long. “There aren’t so many yellows either.” The yellow bits were when you woke up for a while before you went back to sleep. A guy named Josh chimed in about Scott’s yellows. There were very few, he agreed.

“But what happened on March 26th?” Josh said. “Yellow mania!” He too had an Insane Crane in hand, which, Peter was beginning to notice, turned out to be pretty strong.

“Awwwww,” said a guy from whales, raising his glass. “I remember that night.” Two or three other whales guys started laughing. Scott waved at them to shut up, but Peter could tell he was happy the guys had remembered whatever girl they were laughing about.

A few more people praised Scott’s REM time, or bragged about their own, or talked about new apps—like the ones with the voice that described a seaside landscape until you fell asleep. Then Scott was beginning to wrap things up. He asked if they had noticed anything in particular with the sleep tracking.

“In other words,” he said, maybe with a hint of irony, “what did we learn about ourselves this time?”

“Deep question,” said Josh with no hint of irony.

An engineer Peter didn’t know so well raised his hand, which was kind of a no-no. People didn’t really raise their hands.

“Most of the time I wake up with one nostril clogged and the other not,” he said. “Did anyone notice something like that?” People shook their heads, except for one guy who was nodding a ton.

“Well, we’re continuing with sleep next week,” Scott said. “We could definitely take notes on that.” People were dispersing, heading back to their clusters. Peter longed to return to his code, even though he’d already written 77 lines before he’d gone out for the toothbrush. It was already evening and he promised Julia he’d be home earlyish. They were going to find something to do with the kohlrabi that came in the CSA box. They were good at that kind of stuff—figuring something out for the kohlrabi. He grabbed his things at the desk and headed down to the light rail stop.

Julia was always there by the time he got home. Most days, she worked in the little kitchen of their junior one bedroom because it got the best light. She twisted the ends of her hair while she read and licked her thumb to turn the pages. Nobody else he knew did that, but they didn’t read early Marx either. She was the one who told him about stuff like Marx and Foucault and gender essentialism. He didn’t have time to read about those things and he probably wouldn’t understand them well if he did. He understood them much better when Julia explained them, like she did to the undergrads in her Intro to Rhetoric class. She was a graduate student, so she could think about Marx and worry about whether or not she would get a job when she finished. Not many people get academic jobs now. Julia was thinking about doing one of those nine-week courses to learn how to write code once she finished her dissertation. To him, this was a horrible thought. He was sure that Julia would get a job.

He liked to see her bent over a book with her tortoiseshell glasses when he opened the door, as she was doing now. Her cheek was tinged red where she had propped it in her palm. This asymmetry gave her a tousled friendliness, which he liked. But he was always worried that he wouldn’t like her enough, wouldn’t feel the “right” way when he kissed her. He kissed her now and liked it. She smiled so effortlessly that he knew she never thought about things like that, and he felt sad that she was with someone (him!) who thought about those things.

“How was it?” she said.

“Alright,” said Peter. “Got a lot done in the morning, but then we had the QS meeting.”

“I thought you weren’t going to go anymore?”

“You kind of have to go.”

“Well, anything interesting happen?” She was looking at him over her glasses.

“We’re going to track whether or not we wake up with one nostril clogged.”

She laughed so much. He knew that would make her laugh—he had been looking forward to telling her about it.

They decided to make the kohlrabi into fritters, whatever those were, with eggs and breadcrumbs. Peter probably would have cooked it in a pan and slapped some butter on top, but he admired Julia’s ambition in these small things. He admired her ambition generally, and he still felt bad that he had worried about kissing her.

Julia cracked an egg. “I can tell you’re thinking about something weird,” she said.

“Yep,” he said. “You got me.”

“Just tell me what it is.” He had promised he would tell her when he wasn’t doing well, and days had passed since he last told her, bad ones.

“Oh, you know,” he said. “I’ve just been thinking about it again lately.”

“I mean, tell me what you’re thinking about right this minute.”

He told her most things, but it was too weird to say he was worried about whether he had liked kissing her ten minutes ago. He tried to think of something a little less weird to tell her.

“It’s stupid,” he said. “I saw some guy looking at profiles today, and it made me worried for a second that I might want to date other girls.”

“Oh Jesus,” she said, and covered her face with her hands. He set down the grater and rushed to hug her.

“It’s just stupid,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

She took her hands down in time for him to see her eyes roll.

“I’m kidding!” She was already tickling him below his ribs, laughing as he flinched away from her. “Why don’t you just tell me those things?”

He wanted to say that if he told her about all the weird things, they would spend all their time talking about them. The weird things might make her feel bad, or make her feel bad for him, or make her leave him forever because she was so tired of the weird things. She was gathering eggshells in her cupped palms, delivering them to the compost.

“I don’t want to bother you all the time,” he said.

She smirked at him. “I don’t care. I just think you drive yourself crazy keeping it all inside.” It was so moralizing of her to say this.

They began to smash all the stuff into little balls. Only a couple of the balls came apart in the cast iron pan. Julia lit some tea candles she bought at the hardware store last week and poured a bit of bodega wine. The dinner looked nice, and it was a shame they were both irritated. He didn’t really feel like saying anything to her.

She had told him about use and exchange value the night before, while he did the dishes and she bleached the grout in the shower. She was shouting at him from the bathroom. Things like bleach and scrub brushes only had value because they could be exchanged for something else. He hadn’t been sure if the point was that they could be exchanged for money or just that they were exchangeable. He hated to think that things were exchangeable. He had started to worry that she would bring up his thoughts again, so he decided to ask her to re-explain.

“The main point is that we think exchange value is natural when it’s really a misrecognition of sorts. There’s no reason we have to value things that way. It’s really kind of arbitrary.”

“I see.” He was pretty sure he saw, so he returned to eating the fritters. But he could tell Julia was about to change the subject.

“It’s not so strange,” she said. “To think about dating other people. I do it too sometimes.”

“I know. It doesn’t really mean anything.”

“Like, everyone in Bezerkeley is on a polyamory kick these days.”

She stabbed a piece of the salad she had insisted on making as a side, smirking again. She smirked when she got annoyed and became a little reckless, saying things she probably only half meant. “Maybe we should just try it!” she blurted out, then slapped her hand over her mouth. This had to be one of the things she only half meant.

“Right,” he said, buying time. A couple they knew who were both named Mary had opened their relationship and were having just a grand time. But it was the worst idea ever for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. If he stayed calm, Julia might forget about it. “How do you mean?” he asked, sounding less calm than he would have liked.

“I mean you could find a woman online and take her to sushi or perogies or whatever. And I’ll find some guy to pay for my perogies too.”

“Like, just for fun?”

“No,” she said, putting down her fork and looking him straight in the eyes. “You would take it seriously. You would just go with it if you liked her, and let yourself be scared until you weren’t.”

“Like an exposure?”

“Sure, if that’s what you want to call it.” That wasn’t what he wanted to call it. But the first rule of exposure therapy was never to avoid an exposure. Plus, Julia was already up and headed for her laptop. It was always possible that he would meet someone he liked. He scrunched his eyes without realizing it and put his forehead in his palms.

“Hey,” Julia said, and rubbed his shoulders. “It could be fun.” Then she was establishing rules (“a kiss could be ok for now, as long as it doesn’t get handsy”), creating profiles for each of them on the site, ordering a copy of The Ethical Slut. She matched with a musician guy in five minutes. But it wasn’t Julia he was worried about—it was himself and his stupid disorder. In fact, he was about to blow up about the stupidity of it all. And then Julia found a girl who looked like her but even prettier—tall, busty, high cheekbones, and long blond hair. The girl was, to his horror, a match. He would meet her next week, at a Korean place that, before he knew it, Julia had chosen.

Think, think, he told himself as he went down into the light rail from work and boarded a train that was just arriving. He needed to think of a reason why he would always love Julia. There were only three stops for him to come up with something. He was still thinking when he came out of the light rail and started down Mission Street, and as he approached the Korean restaurant. He had promised Julia he wouldn’t deliberately sabotage the date—he would really give things a fair shake and just let himself be scared. He was considering the fate of this promise when he walked into the Korean place.

Someone touched his right bicep, and, oh God, it was the girl. “Peter?” she said. He nodded and she held out her hand, which lounged into his with a terrible suggestiveness. This was the first time he’d ever taken a woman to a restaurant for the ostensible purpose of having sex with her afterwards, even though he had no intention of doing so, which somehow only made things worse. And she was just the sort of woman anyone would take to a restaurant for that purpose, her small frame clasped in a pencil skirt and close-cut blouse. Seeing her smile and look him over was almost unbearable.

“Jenny,” she said. He hadn’t remembered her name, and he wondered if she’d noticed. Maybe it didn’t matter—maybe it was better to seem a little cold in these first few moments. But who cared really?

“Should we get a table, or would you prefer a drink at the bar?” she asked.

“Oh, I ate at the office not too long ago,” he heard himself say.

“No problem,” she said, but he could tell she was disappointed. He remembered his promise to Julia and spoke again. “The food does look good though. I could eat, sure.”

They were seated at a high and narrow table facing the front window. It was hard to know if he should look at her or out towards the street, and she seemed to be making similar decisions about where to place her legs. His beer appeared like an oasis.

A guy from Quantified Self had emailed everyone the stupid 36 questions that psych researcher used to make people fall in love. Peter resolutely decided to forget them, but somehow these were the only questions that came to mind.

“Is this the part where you tell your partner your life story in four minutes?” he said, and Jenny laughed with her fingers over her mouth. He wondered whether she understood the reference or was just nervous, especially because she really was starting to tell her life story, while he nodded and made assenting sounds.

She was from a town outside Boston—her mother a massage therapist, her father a banker. Massage therapy could be kind of interesting to talk about. He would keep it in mind, for use in any silences. But she was already explaining that her father died of type 2 diabetes. Was this the kind of thing people brought up on dates? It struck him as confessional, but it probably wouldn’t seem that way to people whose fathers had died. A sizzling bibimbap arrived next to his beer. In the end, she had only ordered a salad that didn’t really look Korean.

Jenny let him bury himself in the bibimbap while she finished her life story, which was getting on toward twenty, thirty minutes. He felt grateful, but the story got less and less sterile, was even coming to include exes, to his queasy chagrin. She had gotten into Brown but went to a small college in upstate New York, so she could stay with her high school sweetheart. They didn’t break up until about a year ago. After the breakup, she had moved here to start a production company with her best friend, whose parents were floating the operation.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she explained. “But we’re trying to do some of our own stuff too, like this documentary about immersion schools.”

“Sounds great,” said Peter, and realized he meant it. There was nothing not to like about Jenny. She seemed as smart as she could be, capable but humble, affluent but not obnoxious about it. Watching her take a delicate sip of her second sake, he felt sweat stains growing under his armpits. But somehow, he was beginning to talk as though he weren’t thinking about how she was a touch less fastidious than Julia, how—God, could it be true—he was sure he could wrap his arm around her shoulders and draw her toward him. By the time his third beer arrived, he was even talking about his childhood in Seattle—his father the workaholic lawyer, his mother the wearied housewife with a rickety painting studio in the backyard. He hadn’t really wanted to talk about those things.

It made him embarrassed to talk about them with strangers. He told this to Jenny, but added he actually wasn’t embarrassed to tell her, which was odd but true—even more odd because, as he was telling her, he was sliding into a brutal abyss where he could always fall out of love with Julia.

“None of it’s embarrassing,” she said. “I mean, I was just blabbing to you about my ex.”

“Oh, whatever,” he said, hoping to end the topic of old flames (or current ones).

“You can talk about your exes, you know. It’s an important part of who everyone is.”

He tried to think of something to say about an ex, maybe Kelly, but nothing good came to mind. He could only think about Julia, and whether or not he really loved her.

“I guess it’s been a little while?” Jenny offered. “Yes,” he said, as if from a distance.

“For me too. It’s ok.”

The conversation had slowed. It didn’t seem like the right time to bring up massage therapy, and they had probably already had too many drinks. He was about to mention the irony of the fact that he worked for the dating site they met on, but then Jenny swallowed, alerting him that she was about to say something, inviting him to glance at her perfect collarbones.

“Come on, tell me about her. Why did you guys break up?”

“Oh, you know.” He was reaching for some details about Kelly again, but still thinking of Julia. “She was…really different from me.”

“How so?” Jenny touched his knee encouragingly.

“She would always talk about things I didn’t know much about,” he blurted out, realizing with sadness that this was true. “Things like Marxism. Use value.”

“Well, don’t worry because I have no idea what use value is.” Jenny wasn’t removing her hand, and he wished to God that she would.

“It’s like when an Eskimo eats a fish he killed. But only if he kills it with an arrow he carved himself. Nothing really has that kind of value anymore.”

“Hm,” she said. “Why an Eskimo?”

“See, I don’t really know.” That made her laugh. The hand was tortuously ensconced in his lap now, and the abyss was opening beneath him again, wide as ever.

“So what do you like to talk about?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Things like everything we told each other tonight, I guess.”

Now she wasn’t asking any more questions, just smiling into her plate and letting the silence extend. If their eyes met when she looked up, she would kiss him.

He felt himself reach into his back pocket for his wallet. He was taking out more cash than they would need for the bill—trying to tuck it discretely under the edge of his plate.

“What are you doing?” she asked, as his eyes darted over the few feet between their table and the entryway. He already regretted what he was about to do. He barely looked at her, but he could tell that her expression was begging him not to leave her sitting there alone.

“I’m really sorry,” he said, and meant it. “I thought I’d be able to handle this.”

Bursting out of the door, he ravaged his mind for a reason he would always love Julia and never love someone else, like the woman he had just inanely abandoned at the restaurant. Soon he was storming down Fair Oaks—as if it would help him think faster—but he hadn’t been able to settle on any specific reason by the time he was fiddling his key into the deadbolt.

Julia opened the door before he could unlock it. Their life in this apartment whooshed back to him. He put his arms around her and sunk his head into her shoulder. He loved her, he really did.

“It was that bad?” she said, already trying to snap him out of it.

“No,” he said. “I guess she was a bit boring, but it was ok.”

“What does she do?”

“Makes films, documentaries and stuff.”

“That sounds interesting.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

He could tell Julia was nowhere near satisfied with these answers. She propped his face back up. “Did it scare you?” she asked, staring him down in her terrifying way.

“Kind of, but nothing extraordinary,” he lied, squirming away. “She wasn’t really for me.”

He sat on the couch while Julia ate her dinner, a hodgepodge stir-fry of vegetables left in the fridge. She wasn’t saying anything, looked vaguely, no, very sulky.

“Are you jealous?” he finally asked, realizing she was about to cry.

She shook her head. “I can tell you didn’t really give it a chance,” she said. “You were too afraid.”

Julia herself was nervous on her date with the musician last week, after her initial storm of enthusiasm—so nervous she didn’t even let the guy touch her, apparently. The hypocrisy of it exasperated Peter. “Does it really matter?” he finally said.

She was crying into his shoulder now. “How are you ever going to get better?” her muffled voice asked.

He pushed her away, decided to be dramatic, to flop silently into bed and pull the covers over his head without brushing his teeth or doing any of the usual preparations. She turned out the lights except for the small one in the kitchen, where she was finishing the dishes. He could hear every move she made even though he knew she was trying to be quiet, which was already a kind of apology. Before ten minutes passed she was lying behind him with her face against his neck, pressing him back into certainty.

Peter couldn’t manage to finish his burger, even though they always had the best catering on Fridays. He approached the compost bin with its undignified remains. At least they had compost—it would be thrown away properly, not mixed in with cans and forks and other potential recyclables that had met a similarly indecorous end. Still, it was a shame that a cow had grown and been ground into this patty, never to perform its intended function: being eaten by him. But maybe that would have made this particular cow content, maybe this cow would even consider it faintly subversive that his flesh had somehow eluded the jaws of man. Peter decided this would make definitive sense and let the burger drop into the bin, feeling only the smallest of pangs.

He prepared himself for the next recording. He had to pee so there were still a few minutes before he would have to listen to it. There was even a bit of a line, and he even decided to sit down after the pee and take a few seconds to enjoy the Japanese toilet seat. But then it was time. He found a blog to pretend to look at and began: “It’s always possible that I will stop loving Julia and fall in love with someone else.”

When his eyes wandered, he saw Scott standing beside his desk, so he took off the headphones as casually as he could. He remembered that Scott had been wanting to talk to him about providing a better error message on the required association. That was probably why he was there. At least they would have something to talk about this time.

“The burgers were great, right?” said Peter, which made it sound like they didn’t have anything to talk about. And he had thrown half of his out anyway. But then Scott started in about the error message.

“The required option for ‘belongs to’ slash ‘has one’ associations works great,” he said, “but you still get the default error message ‘can’t be blank.’ That doesn’t make much sense for associations. I’m trying to get an error message like ‘doesn’t exist.’”

He knew how to help Scott with the error message. Scott dragged his chair and a Pilsner over to the desk and they got to work, straightened it out quickly.

“S.O.B.,” said Scott, doubling over with laughter. “It was that simple.” Peter did like Scott. He could laugh about a thing like error messages even though he seemed like the kind of guy who partied in SoMa on weekends.

They decided to visit the foosball table, to celebrate having improved the error message. Some guys from whales were already there with mixed drinks, so they went to wait in the lounge with the window facing the Bay. He always thought about Julia when he saw the bell tower at Berkeley, and now he remembered the recording too. He might fall in love with someone else. With Jenny? That could be true, but he wished he weren’t thinking about it still.

“You ok?” said Scott. “You seem out of it lately.”

“Guess I am,” said Peter.

“Anything you’d want to talk about? You don’t have to, of course.”

He didn’t have to, but it might be a good idea. He trusted Scott, and he thought it might help things to talk about the obsessions—maybe not the recordings, but the obsessions at least. Then he might feel less like someone from 1984. Somehow the explanation was coming out wrong though.

“It makes perfect sense to me,” Scott said, during a pause that was way too long. “Everybody overthinks their relationship.” 

One of the whales guys cackled from the foosball table. This didn’t seem like the right time to be talking about obsessions.

“For me it’s different,” said Peter, deciding to persevere. “I think about it even when I shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

“Well, sometimes it’s hard not to think about it.”

“Yeah, but I think about it even while I’m thinking about completely unrelated things. Like the other night I came home and saw Julia’s really small Dansko clogs with buckles right next to my big ones, in our entryway, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s so cute. We even have the same shoes.’ But then I thought, ‘Do you really think it’s cute? Because if you really loved her you would think it was so goddamn cute that it would make you happy right now.’”

“Huh,” said Scott. “I guess that’s kind of weird.”

“Yes, it’s very weird, and I think about that kind of stuff all the time.” 

“Are you sure it’s not just that you want to break up with Julia?”

Yes, he wanted to say. I’m very, very sure that I don’t want to break up with Julia. I love her so much that I’m listening to the 1984 recordings so that I can stay with her. I don’t even care that she has another date with the musician. He even felt tears coming to his eyes.

“No, I’m not sure,” he heard himself say. “There’s no way for me to be sure.”

Scott thumped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Everyone goes through this stuff. Maybe you just need some space to figure it out.”

“Could be,” said Peter. He could feel an advice-giving anecdote coming on, one he didn’t particularly want to hear.

“I’m right there with you. Just broke up with my girlfriend of eleven years.” Peter didn’t like to think about how long eleven years seemed. But what the hell? He might as well think about it.

“People were always like ‘Why don’t you just get married?’” Scott was continuing. People wondered the same thing about Peter and Julia. “So I decided to ask her about it—not with a ring and all, just a conversation over dinner about the possibility, nothing that different from what we’d already discussed. She said it sounded fine, but since we got together when we were basically zygotes, she wanted to sleep with some other people before we made things official.”

How old was a zygote? Had Peter still been a zygote when he’d first leaned in and put his mouth onto Julia’s? Was his date with Jenny the first step in a terrible inevitability that befalls all couples who come together as zygotes? Apparently, the girlfriend’s plan sounded like a good one to Scott. He decided to set her up with a loft downtown for a while so she could screw around with whomever she liked, and he would do the same at their studio in the Mission. They were both thrilled to get going with it and then start planning the wedding in a few weeks. Scott started trying to pick up girls at bars on Valencia. It sounded like all of them were much younger than him. A few days into these efforts, whatever he was trying out worked on a blonde project manager who ended up back at the studio.

Sex with this girl was simply electrifying, like nothing else in his life. Peter was nodding and wondering if he had experienced anything like it in his own. Maybe it didn’t matter, though, because a few days later, Scott and the blonde broke up. He was tired of watching shitty television and pouring her vodka cranberries. The next few girls were about the same—extreme hotties, but nothing worth putting up with for more than a few days. Peter could settle right into this part of the story. After a little while, though, Scott found a divorcée in her forties who was just as fetching as those young girls and also partner at a law firm in Marin. By the end of the time the girlfriend was supposed to spend at the loft, Scott was madly in love with the lawyer. And it turned out the girlfriend had found someone else as well, a guy with a craftsman home in Woodside. They decided to have a brunch together anyway, so they got some croissants and headed to Dolores Park for a talk. By the end of it, they had broken up, right there on the bench that overlooked downtown—the one that Julia liked so much.

“We both cried,” Scott said. “A lot.” But his voice had no emotion saying this. Peter told Scott how very sorry he was about all that, but Scott said he guessed it was no problem. He was pretty happy with the lawyer. He guessed he’d never quite get over being so sure about something and then having it pulled out from under him, but at the end of the day he was pretty happy.

“I’ve been thinking,” Scott said. “Maybe people should really check in every ten years, you know? Really ask, ‘Is this something we want to keep doing?’”

Peter wanted to tell Scott that he was used to checking in every ten minutes (ten seconds?), but that seemed creepy. The guys from whales were finished with foosball, but he wouldn’t be able to play anymore. He lied to Scott about a non-existent meeting with his team members in Palo Alto, and rushed to the bathroom to deal with the sweat stains under his armpits.

It was already getting dark. Scott would never believe him about the meeting but he didn’t much care. He needed to think of a reason why he would never fall out of love with Julia and fall in love with someone else. Think, think, he told himself as he went down into the light rail again. He started thinking about the first trip he and Julia had taken together. They weren’t even officially a couple yet, but they both had time off from the English teaching job they were doing in Thailand, where they’d met. They decided to take a walk together down a stretch of beach that didn’t have any of the all-inclusive resorts. It had really only been two, three days since they had first kissed, they probably hadn’t even done it yet—the time when it still felt wonderfully awkward to take her hand or reach for her waist when he was walking behind her. The water had a surreal turquoise color, but the sky was just barely grey, which saved the beach from looking like those awful, saccharine advertisements and let it seem more like something they had found.

They decided that it would be perfect to go for a swim in the water, before the sun went down. He had swim trunks, but Julia hadn’t thought to put a bathing suit on underneath her sundress. It was too bad that she hadn’t—he was disappointed—but Julia had a brilliant idea. She would just go in, without anything at all. This was perfectly revolutionary to him, to twenty-two-year-old him, who hadn’t yet done any of those things from the advertisements. He went down to the water first, in his swim trunks, and looked back up at the beach. She was slinking down to him in beautiful embarrassment, her willowy limbs slightly collapsed. It was the first time he had ever seen her so clearly. He was so in love that it took a few weeks for the thoughts to start, and a few years for him to tell Julia about them.

He got off the light rail one stop before his and decided to walk the rest of the way to the apartment. It was incredible that he had remembered the story about the beach in Thailand—he could feel perfectly well for days after remembering a story like that. He walked over to Valencia Street so he could watch all the people starting to arrive at the restaurants and bars in the last of the daylight. There was a new Asian fusion place with pho and pork belly. It usually annoyed him to see places like that—some kids who looked like high schoolers were pulling up to the valet in a Tesla. But he couldn’t wait to take Julia there. It looked like just the sort of thing she went for—pork belly and high ceilings.

After a few blocks, he decided to put his headphones on and listen to something good, really good—Radiohead or Beethoven’s Seventh, maybe. But he hit the wrong thing and the recording started to play again. When he tried to stop it, he hit last week’s recording and they started playing at the same time. “Even when I want to have sex with Julia, I can’t be sure that I really love her. It’s always possible that I will stop loving Julia and fall in love with someone else.” It was an app for DJs who had to play several tracks at once. What the hell, he thought, why not play all the other recordings too? He hit them as well. At first it was like some nightmare art installation or the rounds they were forced to sing at Boy Scout camp. The nightmare became kind of funny, though. He heard himself in the same monotone, over and over again until he was laughing. He was still laughing when he turned right onto their street. He couldn’t wait to take Julia to that new Asian fusion place.

They had talked about making dinner that night. Maybe he would already smell parsnip mash when he opened the door. Maybe she would be playing Radiohead or Beethoven’s Seventh. His hand reached the doorknob, and he turned it and went in. He saw the clogs in the entryway—how nice, seeing the clogs.

Only the little lamp by their bed was on. Julia had tucked herself against the headboard with her hands cupped over her mouth. She had been crying, he realized, and he remembered how sad he’d been himself lately. He turned her toward him to ask what was wrong.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, but then he understood.

“You’re leaving me,” he heard himself say, but she shook her head and cried again.

“I don’t know if I am. It’s so hard to know what to do.”

She was twisting the ends of her long hair even then. This was the woman he had doubted loving. It didn’t much matter that he couldn’t be sure he really loved her. He wanted to be with her, and there was nothing else to decide.

He remembered one of the worst recordings now. When he made it, he had imagined himself on his deathbed, knowing he had ruined both of their lives: “When I’m very old, I’ll realize that I was wrong all along about Julia.”

Taylor Johnston-Levy is a fiction writer and academic based in Tel Aviv. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature and MA in Creative Writing from UC Berkeley. Her literary critical work appears in Twentieth-Century Literature, Critique, Arizona Quarterly, and The Raymond Carver Review. She currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship in literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.