Image: “Return or Exchange,” by Ann Marie Sekeres, digital drawing, 9x12in.
Return or Exchange
By Iris Litt
I finally got to the desk of the Bureau of Husbandry in the huge Riverside Mall after waiting in line for over half an hour.
The figure behind the counter had a completely blank face, as blank as the faces of the robots who personned some of the other stations. Perhaps the directors considered this station, called Return or Exchange, one of the few delicate, non-cut-and-dried situations covered by the Bureau (although, god knows all the situations seemed pretty delicate to me) and had therefore assigned a humanoid to handle these cases.
“Yes?” the humanoid said, not unkindly yet without expression.
“I’d like to return a husband,” I said.
“Do you have your receipt?”
“Yes,” I said proudly and handed it across the counter. I was proud because I had kept it all these years. I had also, of course, scanned it into my computer in case I lost the original, but I knew that I would be subjected to less bureaucratic turmoil if I were able to present the original hard copy itself.
She studied the slip of paper. “You kept him a long time. Thirty years. You might have trouble proving he was unsatisfactory.”
“He was satisfactory at first,” I said, “but he has not worn well. He wore out much sooner than he was supposed to. If he were truly satisfactory, he would have lasted for life. I mean, there was a lifetime guarantee.”
“You will have to prove there was no misuse,” she said. “He was in good condition when we delivered him to you. Why would he wear out so quickly? He is only sixty-five. He should have almost another hundred good years in him. Back in the twenty-first century, that kind of wear and tear was expected, but no longer.”
“I assure you I never overused him,” I said somewhat indignantly. There was actually no point in expressing indignation or for that matter any emotion with this or any other government bureaucrat.
Sure enough, she was pushing a pile of forms at me across the counter. “Just answer the questions on the form, please. And be sure to check the right box on the top, indicating whether this is a return or an exchange.”
I was stumped. It hadn’t occurred to me that they would offer me an exchange.
“Do you want to pick out another one?” she asked. “There’s no charge. It’s covered by your lifetime guarantee. If you want a replacement, you can go into the video room, and when you’ve narrowed it down to five of the products, you can teleconference with them.”
“I…I’m not sure,” I stammered.
What did I want? If I just returned William, there’d be all that peace. I thought of laying my tired head on the pillow at eleven or so at night, watching a little idiotic late-night comedy on the satellite TV, and going off peacefully to sleep. I thought of having a neat house. I thought of silence, free of his loud jazz. Free of his impatience, even though it was interspersed with some sweetness and affection which, after all, made his annoyance and crankiness even harder to accept. Free of this, free of that. Free.
Of course, if I exchanged him, I would still be free of some of his annoying habits. After all, maybe I could exchange him for someone who liked to go to sleep at eleven, too. That is really the basis on which to choose a mate: whether he goes to sleep at the same time you do. And I might get someone good-natured and reliable, too. But who knew what package of habits might come with him? Was it worth the risk? After all of the routine government-subsidized counseling I had had, I still didn’t know.
As though my ambivalence inspired some kind of long-submerged human compassion in her, Ms. Humanoid proceeded to guide me through the intricacies of the seven-page form.
“On Question 12, are you reporting any loss of income?”
“Oh, yes. He couldn’t hold onto money. As soon as he got it, he spent it. So I ended up supporting him.”
“There’s a box on page three. Just enter the sum you lost. Of course, you’ll need to attach receipts.”
“I have them all,” I said proudly.
“Good. When you’ve filled in the forms, bring them in with the product you’re exchanging or returning so we can videotape him and offer him to other customers. Someone might take him.”
“He’s actually quite nice-looking,” I said, “and really very intelligent. And he can be quite funny. And very cuddly. If only he weren’t always in a terrible mood, he’d come off quite well. Even be a bit of a bargain.”
Was I really advertising him in such a positive light? Was I actually a bit wistful? If only. That was a big If. He had made me so angry for so long that it seemed as though the only solution was to return or exchange him. Yet here I was vacillating again, thinking of the endearing qualities that had influenced my original selection of him via video and then a delightful telemeeting. And was this actually jealousy I was feeling at the thought of another woman selecting him from the range of videos she would be shown? What would he say to her during their telemeeting? My wife doesn’t understand me? My ambivalence was almost as painful as my anger.
Ms. Humanoid leaned toward me across the counter, and I looked closely at her face for the first time. I thought I saw a flicker of expression in her eyes, a slight twitch of nerve near the cheekbone. Had she felt something? Was this ambivalence something she had experienced in her own life? I wondered what kind of male humanoid she had chosen—or had she chosen freedom? I knew it would be a huge breach of form to ask anything resembling a personal question of the humanoid who personned a desk of the Husbandry Bureau. I might even become disqualified from the Bureau’s services.
But no, she was leaning forward in order to say something sotto voce, in a mere whisper that no other humanoid could hear and no robot could record and play back later to one of her superiors.
“I strongly advise you,” she said, “to visit the video room and consider possible replacements. Although they don’t publicize it, the Bureau will be more disposed to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have explored every intervention they offer in keeping you connected to a life mate.” She paused as I digested this material. “Besides, it will take only fifteen minutes.”
She looked past me. Several other customers had arrived and were queuing up. She obviously had reached out to me beyond the call of duty and was now ready to get rid of me.
“The video room is directly behind you and to your left,” she said firmly. “Take the blue form with you. When you come out, we’ll attach the blue form to the yellow form, and then you fill out the yellow form.”
I had little choice but to obey her. She was already becoming annoyed with me, and I was afraid of jeopardizing the possible return of William and my refund.
I sat in the video booth, clutching my blue form and the remote. The form said I could access five prospects on the video screen. I was to check the Yes or No box on the form in each case. If I wished a teleconference, I was to push the appropriate button on the remote. If none of the five pleased me, I could do another round.
I punched in the information about William’s hoped-for replacement: age, education, height, weight, location, bedtime, etc. Immediately, five faces appeared on the screen. I felt a bit overwhelmed, as though they were all looking me over, even though I knew they couldn’t see me. What if they could? If any of them were sitting in my place, would they choose me? Surreptitiously, I ran my hairbrush through my hair.
I clicked on the first face, and he became animated. He smiled obligingly. I re-sized the frame so I could see his full figure. He was actually very good-looking. Since I had indicated an age younger than my own, he was youthful, sleek, and in top shape.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Winston. I have two skymobiles and an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City, on the 250th floor, and a country house fifteen minutes away by skymobile in the Adirondacks. I also have a timeshare in a condo on the most prestigious space station in the galaxy. The views of the earth biosphere are breathtaking. I work out every day on the most advanced machines. I could show you a very good time.” I thought he leered a bit as he said the latter.
I clicked the next face and Winston faded back into immobility. A totally shallow and materialistic individual, I thought. All he’d talked about were his possessions, trying to impress. I quickly went through numbers 2 and 3.
But Number 4 was different. His high forehead made him seem noble, whether or not he was. He was obviously a man of purpose and integrity. He would never be late for an appointment, as William invariably was.
“Hello, my name is Gary. I teach at New York University, and I live in one of its two thousand faculty housing skyscrapers. I’m working on a new art history book. I have two adult children who visit me often.” He smiled, a truly sweet smile.
“I always get tickets to the Philharmonic. I like to take walks, go to concerts and museums and art galleries. But it’s not much fun doing these things alone. I’ve been lonely since my wife died in a skymobile accident.” He wiped his right eye as though to conceal an errant tear.
That did it. I couldn’t wait a second longer. My finger hit the teleconference button.
And there he was, almost in the flesh, lifesize. I leaned forward, toward him, because now I knew he could see me, too. If I’d known this would happen, I’d have washed my hair this morning.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Robin.”
“I’m so glad to see you, Robin,” he said, looking at me as though I were a cold beer. I think I love him, I thought. “I am amazed at how pretty you are.”
Any skepticism I had had melted completely. True, William often said, “I’ve got a really good-looking babe here.” Suddenly, I felt as though I were cheating on William. Returning him was bad enough, but at least that was a simple, decisive action. However, staring in delight at a real—well, almost real virtual male and fantasizing the future seemed shabby and undercover.
We talked fast so as to get to know as much as possible about each other during our allotted time. Gary had a good-natured way of talking, and he responded to many of my remarks with a kind smile and a supportive answer. It was a balm to my wounded spirit. I told him of my unhappiness, my sleeplessness, my desperation.
As though to assure me he would be a far happier choice than William, he said, “I go to sleep promptly at eleven. Promptly. Right after I put the garbage out and lay my clothes out for the morning.”
He clasped his attractive lips shut.
“But you do stay up later sometimes, don’t you? Like if there’s something good on the satellite or, like, if we got to talking?”
Now why had I asked that? How often had I prayed for a man who would snuggle up at 10:30 or 11:00, watch a little TV, and drift off? And a man who took out the garbage and was planful enough to lay his clothes out in advance! William had never planned anything in his life.
Now, as I studied Gary’s face, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. It was as though He Had Spoken. Rigid, that was what he was. The opposite of William. William was floppy. William never knew what he wanted to do next. William changed his mind five times before and during every situation. William was always late, and incredibly messy, and his socks never matched. But with all that came the charming playfulness that had held me to him all these years.
Gary looked at his watch. “We have only seven and a half minutes left. May I have the Bureau of Husbandry arrange a personal meeting?” He may have seen the look of caution on my face. “Or can I call you? Or arrange a videoconference on your own computer? Or at least e-mail you?”
Something in me panicked. “I haven’t actually returned my husband yet. You seem very nice, but I have to think about it. If I become free, I will contact the Bureau.”
I saw the disappointment in his face.
Was I crazy? Even if he had some annoying habits, he would be a much better bet than William. I waved goodbye to Gary, pressed the Off button on the remote, and left the room. I started the walk across the great expanse of floor to Ms. Humanoid’s counter. I could see her in the distance, but she was blurred by my unexpected tears.
I would not say it, and I was not supposed to even think it. It was not supposed to be a factor. I loved William.
“Well,” Ms. Humanoid said. “Did you select one?”
“No,” I said. “Number 4 was the best, but I have to think about it.”
She gave me a look, and I pictured her checking a box labeled Hopeless.
But once again, I had underestimated her. She leaned closer, whispering in her significant voice, “You know, you can request a raincheck.”
“They’ve put that in very small print. It requires a lot of record-keeping on the part of the Bureau. It’s good for two years. At that time, you can come in and select your new merch. Of course, you won’t get your refund until you use your raincheck. If you return or exchange the merchandise now, you will receive your refund within fifteen days.”
A blessed relief came over me. Suddenly, I didn’t care about getting my money back. At least I would not have to decide now. My mind raced, searching for solutions so I wouldn’t have to make a decision of such finality. William was not required to come in and be videotaped or chosen by another customer. Perhaps I could persuade him to bide his time while we lived separately. But then the old problems started rushing in, too; without the government to place William elsewhere, where would he go, how would he live, considering his financial impracticality?
Of course, if I decided not to go through with this at all, I could merely neglect to return the form. Nothing official or irrevocable had been entered into the Husbandry Bureau’s computers yet. But then I’d be right back where I’d started. And what if, after all that, I still couldn’t decide whether to return, exchange or—was I really thinking this—keep William?
“But what if I don’t use my raincheck when the two years are up?”
“You’ll be single for life.”
Everything was so black and white with her. So simple. All you had to do was take the emotion out of everything, and it was simple.
As though reading my thoughts and wanting to prove my image of her otherwise, Ms. Humanoid added, “Of course, this means only that you cannot get a government-approvedhusband, backed by its wide roster of government services. But what you do on your own is your own business. This is a free universe.”
Oddly, I felt there was something she liked about my indecision, my wavering. It even occurred to me that, in her emotionless way, she liked me.
She continued in a whisper, “You are free to find a man on your own, outside the jurisdiction of the Bureau. Of course, you will get no guarantees. No refunds. No medical coverage for him. No losses, financial or psychological, will be compensated. No free counseling will be offered. It might take you a long time to find the new man. He might leave you. You might leave him. Once you’re over one hundred twenty years old, it may be harder to find a man. For some strange reason, they still don’t last as long as women. We can put a person on Mars, but we have never found the answer to that one. But you are still free to strike out on your own.”
“I guess that’s the way it was in the twenty-first century,” I said. I was actually daring to philosophize a bit. “People had no previous training or counseling and often didn’t have a wide selection to choose from at any one time. They just followed their impulses and took their chances, and if it didn’t work out, they got a divorce.”
“Divorce was expensive,” Ms. Humanoid said sternly. “Besides, the average life span was only eighty or ninety or a hundred years. They didn’t have time to go through a lot of husbands. The Wifery Bureau has the same problems. Except more, because of the nature of men. The hundred-fifty-year-olds all want hundred-year-old women.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“It’s still better now than it was in the old days,” she concluded firmly. “Our way is better.”
She carefully signed the green raincheck and handed it to me. “Don’t lose it.”
We exchanged a significant Woman-to-Woman look. Person-to-Humanoid, perhaps I should say. We shrugged.
“Quien sabe?” I said.
“Good luck,” she said.
Several rows of automatic doors opened before me as I walked out of the mall into the sunlight of the vast parking lot. The air was crisp. The light on the great river running alongside the mall sparkled silver-white, and the riverbirds squawked as they waited for handouts. It seemed to me that at this moment, I could be back in the twenty-first century, just the river and the birds and me, free and crazy and unpredictable. I ignored the sleek spires of the city across the river rising many hundreds of stories into the air and the occasional skymobiles whooshing above my head. It was still a wonderful, exhilarating world. I was only sixty-five. The simple rules of the Husbandry Bureau, with all their conveniences and protections, didn’t work for me. I would live day by day, feeling my way through this tangle of confused and often opposite emotions as humans had done in the twenty-first century and I would, to borrow a quaint phrase from that time, play it by ear.