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Girl Meets Toy

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The gift box was small and square, and my face flushed as my boyfriend handed it to me. How perfect, that he would get me a ring for my twenty-seventh birthday; how excited he looked, handing it to me first thing that morning, as I propped myself up on my elbow in bed. He wasn’t down on one knee, I noticed, but that was all right. I still planned to say yes.

I unwrapped the present eagerly, the sharp corners of the plastic packaging indenting my fingertips, my heart shriveling under my ribs. It wasn’t a ring. It was something that looked like a small, white plastic egg.

Welcome to your Tamagotchi!, the packaging said. Your new virtual pet!

"Isn’t it cool?" asked Tim, grinning. "Here, lemme see it."

He reached out and swiped the toy from me, turning it over in his hands, studying the directions written in both English and Japanese. "Isn’t it cool?" he asked again. "Don’t you love it?" He handed it back to me, triumphant. "Here, turn it on. I want to see how it works."

I looked at the toy, mostly to avoid looking at his face, which I knew still bore his trademark grin: an anxious, teeth-clenched pseudo-smile that was always more rapacious than happy. We’d been together for a year, spending every day together as co-workers at a dot com startup, and four or five nights a week as lovers; I knew his expressions the way I knew my computer passwords — automatically, intrinsically. How well did he know mine?

I struggled to smile. "Wow," I said. "Neat."

It wasn’t a ring. It was something that looked like a small, white plastic egg.

I studied the plastic egg, with its inch-square screen, which, when activated, would display a shifting series of grey squares that would represent my virtual pet, pictured on the box as a hamster-ish creature with plaintive, neonatal eyes. There were three buttons under the screen: one to feed the pet, one to play with it, and one to clean its waste. There was no off button. According to the directions, once I turned it on, I would have to tend to my pet religiously, feeding, amusing, and/or cleaning it whenever it chirped to announce its need. The more I cared for my pet, the longer it would live.

"Turn it on, turn it on," Tim urged.

"I think I want to wait." I wasn’t ready to be a mother, especially if I wasn’t going to be a wife. I put the egg aside, to Tim’s great dismay. "But it looks great. Thanks."

Three days later, we broke up. We’d muddled through the rest of my birthday, the rest of the day gone strangely sour; then he blew me off — no call, no nothing — over the weekend that followed it. At work that Monday, I left a note in his in-box. It said, I think this is over.

That night, I took my Tamagotchi out of its package and turned it on. It beeped its cheery welcome song; the shifting grey squares arranged themselves on the screen into the form of a cute mammalian blob. The blob had floppy ears, hopeful eyes, a round belly, and a tail that splayed out to the right of its feet, which danced with joy and appreciation. I knew it was just a bunch of code and pixels, but I couldn’t help but feel tenderly towards it.

This was always my downfall — I couldn’t help but feel tender. I’d rolled my eyes at Tim when we first met, thought he was just another fratty, wiseass programmer, with his backwards ballcap and his obfuscatory jargon, but then he’d started to woo me, hard, showing up at the door to my office with his hat in his hand to ask my opinion on the such-and-such project, sending a dozen roses to my desk. He was needy, almost maniacally so, his leg bouncing under the table at meetings until someone praised his work, at which point it bounced even harder, but I was attracted by his need; it was like the gravitational pull of an exceptionally dense planet. And I was in love with my new job — my fancy-pants, pie-in-the-sky job, where people rode skateboards through the hallways and smoked pot on the roof and spoke entirely in buzzwords. Sleeping with Tim was as close as I could come to sleeping with my job. Thus, I became tender.

        

  


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My Tamagotchi beeped at me. I pressed the button to feed it. It looked happy and grateful.

I named it Edgar.

I woke up the next morning and fed my Tamagotchi. I played with it on the subway to work, and cleaned it in the elevator. I saw Tim coming towards me in the hallway, and I kept my head high and my smile tight. We nodded stiffly at each other. I turned into my office. I pulled Edgar out of my pocket and pressed his play button. He did a little dance. I smiled.

There were some guidelines on Edgar’s package as to how long I could expect to keep him alive. According to the package, the Tamagotchi would get more demanding the longer it lived — if you had to feed it three or four times a day to start, by the time it was a week old, you were feeding it every half-hour. Most Tamagotchis lived for about a week, before they starved, died of boredom, or were fatally sickened by their own filth — the package said that seven days was "average." Keeping it alive for two weeks made you "great," and if you could get your Tamagotchi to survive for more than twenty-one days, you were a "master."

I knew then that I would be a master. I would lavish care and attention on Edgar, and Edgar would live forever. Never mind that he’d been programmed, ultimately, to speed up and fail. I would defy science for love.

The next week was a Pavlovian symphony of beeps and responses. I checked Edgar constantly, pulling him out of my pocket under the table at meetings, placing him next to my plate during meals. He was so adorable, and so easy to please — every time I pressed his button, he shuffled his feet in delight. I grew to love the slight weight of him in my hand, the celebratory beeps he emitted after feeding, the shift of his grey squares as they formed a six-pixel smile. Edgar proved that I was excellent at loving, and that Tim was wrong to abandon me. He proved that if you took care of someone, they should love you in return.

Beep!, he said helplessly. Beep beep! Tears sprang to my eyes.

I was at the dentist that week, reclined practically flat in the chair, the dentist’s gloved hands deep in my mouth, the tang of blood on the back of my tongue, when I heard a beep from my pocket: Edgar needed me. I instinctively reached for him under my plastic smock, but I couldn’t draw him out — the dentist was blocking my arm. Edgar beeped again, more insistently. Was he hungry? Dirty? Bored? If I didn’t respond quickly, he would grow weak and despondent; it would take extra vigilance to restore him to full vitality. Beep!, he said helplessly. Beep beep! Tears sprang to my eyes.

It was twenty minutes before I could get to my Edgar, and the squares that formed his eyebrows were drooped plaintively, his listless arms hanging at his sides. I cleaned, fed, and played with him, and he managed to perk up slightly, but you could see the mistrust in his eye pixels. How could I have ignored his beeps? Didn’t I love him? I clutched the egg to my breast, swore that I would never let such a thing happen again. Edgar beeped in reply, already hungry again.

I started waking up in the middle of the night to tend to Edgar. He had a "sleep" function, which put him in stasis for a few hours every night, but he would still chirp with pleasure when he got nocturnal care. He was becoming increasingly demanding during the day — scarcely fifteen minutes would go by that I didn’t need to press one of his little buttons. I still loved him, I would never resent him, but I wished he weren’t quite so apt to need me. I was doing my best to make him happy, but his happiness was more and more short-lived.

  

        

  


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Meanwhile, Tim and I continued to work together, keeping our interactions professional and brief, his grin still locked into a grimace, my own head held so high I thought it might fall off my neck. We had a quick exchange of emails, re: returning the stuff I’d left at his apartment; beyond that, there was no discussion of the year-long love we’d let die. He saw me, on more than one occasion, pulling Edgar out of my pocket under the table at a meeting, frowning at his flagging condition; I could tell that Tim was dying to see his progeny. Once, he was unable to stop himself from giving me the raised eyebrows look, a sharp nod with his chin — See, it wasn’t such a bad gift, after all.

No, it was a wonderful gift. It’s rare that someone hands you an explicit metaphor for the end of your relationship, but that’s exactly what Tim had done. I knew I was becoming perverse, showering attention on a lifeless phantasm that was doomed to fail, desperate to prove my superiority as a lover; I knew that Edgar represented the man who’d borne him to me. I didn’t care. I would love him until death.

It had been almost three weeks since the breakup, and the shock of the abrupt fracture had worn off; the disappointment, loneliness, and humiliation started to hit me. Our co-workers were acknowledging the new state of affairs, offering me their unwanted condolences — or were they snickers? I couldn’t tell anymore. The season changed hard over the course of a week — it wasn’t late summer anymore, it was a cold, grey fall. I came down with a miserable flu.

I called in sick to work and took to my bed, Edgar on the night table next to my tissues and NyQuil. I watched terrible TV, interrupted every few minutes by Edgar’s beeps — feed me, clean me, cheer me up. I could barely feed and clean myself, couldn’t drift off into a nap without being awakened by the incessant beeping. Goddamn it, what is it now?

I could still hear his faint beeping as I padded back to bed, the beeps speeding up, getting louder and more agonized.

We made it through the day, but barely; the night was worse. The next morning, Edgar woke from his "sleep," and started chirping right away. I didn’t even want to lift my head from the pillow, aching and fevered as it was. I knew then that only one of us would survive the day.

I forced myself out of bed for juice and soup, taking Edgar into the kitchen, where I dropped him into a drawer. I could still hear his faint beeping as I padded back to bed, the beeps speeding up, getting louder and more agonized. Where are you? I need you! Don’t let me die! You once said you loved me. Keep me alive!

I tossed and sweated in my sickbed, tormented by beeps and dreams of beeps. I napped fitfully, woke in a panic; I wanted to rush into the kitchen and rescue Edgar, but I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. There was no way I could continue to keep Edgar alive; his need was too great, his expiration pre-destined. I could no longer stay his fate, or mine — it was time to say goodbye. I took a long draught of NyQuil straight from the bottle, and dropped off into a thick, dreamless sleep.

In the morning, I checked the drawer. The pixels that had formed Edgar’s wistful eyes now formed two Xs. His cheery chirp would be heard no more, his feet would ne’er shuffle. Edgar was dead.

I kept the lifeless egg in the catch-all drawer by the stove, and forgot it was there, until almost two years later, when I was packing to move — I’d rented an apartment in Manhattan, to be closer to my new boyfriend, a man I’d met at work. I came across the egg and caressed it briefly, remembering how I’d loved it, and how it had loved me in return. But it had never been real; neither the toy nor Tim. It was just me pressing buttons.

I let the egg slide from my hand into the trash, and went into the bedroom to join my new love.
 

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©2008 Janice Erlbaum and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Janice Erlbaum is the author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir,
and Have You Found Her: A Memoir, which was released in February by
Villard. She was a contributor to Bust magazine from 1994 through
2007. She lives in her native New York City with her domestic partner, Bill
Scurry, and their three cats.