Please try your call again, this is a recording

The acrid wash of Pepsi bathing the back of my throat was regrettable, but I needed that other feeling that I loved. Right now, that feeling was beginning to explode, in response to the sugar on my tongue. Slightly later, that feeling is slowly creeping to the rest of my body. I’m pretty sure it’s called Joy. There’s always a sugar induced hangover shortly after, and I would pay that price. But right now. At this moment. I wanted to enjoy that amazing feeling that soda gives me. And this is the moment my ex calls and wants to talk to our boys. Great! Just fucking great.

“Hey Marty. How’s the angel business? You save the world today?” 

I can’t help but give her shit the moment her image blinks on the WalScreen in my kitchen. There’s an image of trees and an ocean behind her that reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, but there’s really no way to really know where she’s actually calling from. It’s been 3 years since she’d divorced me, and I hate the way I still find her so fucking beautiful.

“Hi Sam. Where are the boys?” 

Her voice still gives me the same feelings it did when we first met. That latin accent and intelligent tone are still a killer combination. But goddamn her. Why did she have to ruin everything? I hated being a single dad. I was happy to have won the right as residential parent for the boys, but doing this kind of thing alone sucks.

“The oldest is making something with a hot glue gun and whatever else he can find. The little one is watching YouTube. I doubt either one wants to talk to you.” 

I know I talk to her like I’m an asshole, but I’m still hurt. Even all these years later. And she’s the one who hurt me. I don’t feel like sugar coating anything anymore. Not when I barely have time to enjoy a fucking Pepsi! Today is a god damned Tuesday for Christ’s sake. With the way the schools have been lately and all the trouble with the economy, I’m just strung out in every direction right now and tired of these fucking video chats from my ex every single day.

“Sam! You have to make them talk to me. I’m their mother. I birthed them.” I’m not sure how she can talk so fast when English is her 2nd language, but all her words come out in one breath. “You have to make sure they show me respect!”

I put my Pepsi on the counter and begin to put away the rest of the groceries, which had been delivered just a few moments ago. I really hadn’t wanted to tip the delivery drone. Everything was getting so expensive lately, I was starting to worry. I really needed a different job. 

“I don’t think they’re comfortable with your situation. I don’t think either of them really understand what’s going on.” I said, forgetting myself.

Shit. This was not the time I wanted to get into all this. Per the parenting plan, she was entitled to talk to the boys for 1-2 hours every day, and I would just seem like a jerk if I tried to get in the way of that. But really, the boys were getting bored with this.

“Look Marty. I’m tired of fighting with the boys. I’m going to put you on the screen in the kid artist’s room. If you can’t get Pablo Picasso to talk to you, that’s your problem. Okay?” 

Martha was her mother’s name and she hates that she got it too, so my ex loves it when I call her Marty. She just gives me that sultry look she knows I always fall for and says, “Of course he will talk to me! I’m his mother. He loves me.”

I grab my mobile device from my pocket and try to remember the tutorial I watched on YouTube the other day. I whip my mobile the way they showed me in order to snatch her image off my WalScreen. I’m hoping to keep her from roaming around the house this time. Zooming around on the different WalScreens in each room I have. Even the bathrooms. She has absolutely no boundaries. Just like when we were married.

I also don’t want her to give me shit about how messy the house is. I’d been working 2 part time jobs for the past couple of months and things were piling up. She’d just use it as another thing to dig into me with. Fucking negativity. Just what I needed. Where’s my joy? I thought divorce meant you got to say goodbye to your ex. Back in the old days maybe? Where did those golden oldies go anyways? Technology took a crap on it. That’s what happened.

Yeah. Back then, divorce meant that everything about your ex would go away. The things that made you marry your mates in the first place are gone. Those amazing things. You’d miss them, sure. But you’d also get to stop dealing with all that less than spectacular stuff they did too. All their annoying shit. That nagging and critical storytelling that women are so good at. That goes away too! Right? Not in the future buddy. No. The future has changes for us parents, old boy. Just get used to it.

Modern technology is sometimes a bad thing, I thought as my ex sees the groceries on the counter and starts lecturing me on sugar. I grip my mobile harder. I try imagining I’ve trapped her with my device like a djinn in a lamp. Trying to ignore the sound of her voice, I go in search of my kids.

When I find our first born, he’s stripped down to his underwear, looking like a child surfer amid an ocean of paper scraps and mini potato chip bags. He’s designing something. That’s for sure. But that’s about where I stop comprehending what’s going on in here. “Your mom’s on the phone.”

“I don’t want to talk to her.” 

He doesn’t even look up as I swipe her call from my mobile onto the WalScreen in his room. The YouTube tutorial said if I did it this way, she wouldn’t be able to roam around the different screens in the house. Like she’s been doing the last few times she calls. Making herself at home. Lately, she likes to follow me around when the kids start to ignore her. She’s like a ghost the way she flits from WalScreen to WalScreen in my house. Asking me if I’m dating anyone. Pointing out where I can be a better dad.

I should be rid of her now. Her call should be locked into his room, but she was always better at figuring out social media tech than I am. But I’ve watched the tutorials, and I’m hoping she’s my son’s problem now.

“You don’t want to talk to me?!” She says it in a tone of mock shock. To play it off as a joke. But I know her. I can hear the small part of her voice that is crying. “Mi-hijo doesn’t want to talk to me. Por que? What is more important than your mother?”

The corners of his mouth curl slightly, but not enough. She’s losing him right away. I can tell. I know my son so well. My ex never took the time to figure out what he liked when we were married. I was always coaching her in parenting her own son back then. Now, I find I’m always having to help her figure out what to talk about on these fucking video chats. I hear that crying sound in her voice though. I’m the only one who seems to be able to. 

I can’t bear to stand here and do nothing so I say, “Why don’t you tell your mom what you’re making?”

He brightens immediately and begins to talk. I’m not sure why she doesn’t know how to get him talking, but there it is. “Oh yes. Look mom. This is a bat, but if you fold it this way and turn it around. And…. just lift this flap. See?! It’s a vampire now!” He’s actually taken his eyes off his work to look up at her image on the WalScreen, so he can see her reaction.

“Wow, mi amor! That’s amazing! I think you are such a great artist.” I slowly close the door on this touching moment and go back to the kitchen. 

On my way, I pop my head into the little one’s room. He’s got his shoes off and is doing a Detroit lean on the small couch in front of his WalScreen. He’s watching YouTube videos of people playing video games. I say, “Hey dude. Your mom’s on the phone. Your brother is talking to her right now, but you’re next.”

He grabs a pillow and smothers his own face with it. I can still hear his scream that’s half joking – half frustration under it. When he pulls the pillow away, his face looks truly sad. He’s such a good actor though, so I can’t tell if this is actually causing him severe emotion or not.

“Mom is boring!” There’s actual tears forming now. He really is a good actor. I’m kind of proud. Kind of worried too.

I’m also not dealing with this shit. “You’re talking to her or you’re going to be in trouble!” I try to put enough gruff in my voice, but my heart’s not really in it. He gets distracted by the video again, and I can see he’s zoning me out. 

“You know we have this video game. Right? Wouldn’t you like to play this game yourself? Why are you watching someone else play a game you own?”

He just looks at me like I’m an idiot, so I quickly shut the door to put an end to it. I understand. I really do. We all just got home. Both boys have been at school all day, and we’ve only been home less than an hour when their mom called. She’s always calling at bad times.

I get back to the kitchen, and I can see a ring of condensation around the Pepsi I left on the counter. Just the sight of it reminds me of the previous reward I had been seeking. Joy. There’s ice cream melting and other perishables I should put away. My ex’s call had interrupted me putting away my groceries before, but I just need a moment now. Just something simple. Can I have one sip? Can I have one moment in time for myself?

I uncap the Pepsi and bring it to my lips. The sweet taste of sugar turns to acid as Marty’s image blips back on the kitchen WalScreen. “He’s ignoring me! I’m trying to talk to him and he won’t listen to me.” The crying sound is gone from her voice. 

The sound I hear now is one I know well. Accusation. Everything is my fault. The divorce is my fault. It’s my fault the court decided the kids would live with me. Now it’s my fault they don’t want to video chat every single day. I’m sure she even thinks her current situation is all my fault too!

“Let’s see if the little one wants to talk to you.” I say as I snatch her call from my WalScreen. I know how to swipe, but snatching is new, and I’m just not completely up to snuff on the newest technologies out there. I look at my mobile, and the call shows that it’s assigned to my device. I’ve got this.

I reach my youngest son’s room and take great delight in hacking his WalScreen with my mobile. I hate the way he watches other people play video games. I remember when I was a kid, they used to tell me that playing video games was a waste of time. I’d always say that I was developing skills and stuff like that, when I’d argue my case with my mom. Like hand eye coordination and stuff. But my son. What could he tell me that would make me think that this was a good way to spend his time?

The last time I tried this, I’d swiped my ex’s call to my oldest son’s screen after snatching it. Maybe that was the problem? I still swiped it in the end. How does snatching work again? Hmmm. Now, I was going to try placing her call manually into his WalScreen’s terminal. Is that how you have to place it after snatching it? There. Marty should be stuck here now.

My son just shrieks as his video is replaced by a giant head that looks like his mom. Once again, I just shut the door and walk away. I head for the kitchen but can’t help popping my head into the artist’s room. “Hey buddy. How’d the talk with your mom go?”

He’s still making something. Still in his underwear. 

“She doesn’t listen to me.” I can hear crying in his voice. I doubt my ex can hear it. “I talk to her and she doesn’t hear me. And then…. She talks about what she wants to talk about. I don’t want to talk about that stuff.” He’s really getting into his creation now so I don’t want to distract him too much.

“I know.” And I do. I know what he’s talking about. “Is there anything I can get you?”

“Can I have hot chips?” 

“Yep. There’s a bag in the kitchen. The groceries just came. I’ll go grab it.”

She’s waiting for me when I get back to the kitchen. She sees me grab a bag of spicy flavored chips from a cloth bag on the counter. “Are those for mijo? Oh no Sam. Those things can give him indigestion!”

The ice cream is melting, but fuck it. 

“You know. I thought when you divorced me that I’d finally got rid of you. That I wouldn’t have to deal with you again. This is my house. I can do whatever the fuck I want!”

I know my tone is reaching that point where she likes to accuse me of being aggressive, but I’m tired, and my soda is probably getting close to room temperature now. 

“We are not married anymore. You can’t tell me how to parent my kids. I’ll feed them what I want.”

“No Sam. I have rights in the parenting plan. The plan has articles that specifically say you have to feed them healthy food.” God I love her accent. But why does she have to be such a bitch all the time?

“I do feed them healthy food! They get to have treats too.” 

My afternoon is slowly slipping away from me. I had hoped to look for a job later, while the kids decompressed after school. My ex was just getting in the way of my routine. I understand that she greatly lost the ability to interact with the boys because of the court decision a few years ago, but I have shit that needs to get done! I can’t keep avoiding the laundry.

“Treats? You mean sugar. Sam, there are healthy treats. Why don’t you try…” She just can’t help herself.

“Will you just shut the fuck up! Why don’t you just talk to the kids? Why are you talking to me?! This is supposed to be your time with them.” 

I’m shaking with frustration and anger now. I just wanted a little soda. Just a sip. Just a little joy. Is that so much to ask for?

“The boys don’t want to talk to me? Why is that? Are you not respecting me?” She’s observing me so closely right now. Trying to see if I’m hiding anything. Her eyes are beautiful. Really.

I think about destroying the WalScreen, but that won’t really solve the problem. Because of modern technology, I’d have to destroy multiple walls throughout the house. That’d just be crazy.

And it’s not just technology that I have to consider. Laws have changed too. Because of the recent laws passed which greatly benefitted mothers over fathers, I’d be seen as a radical if I tried to fight her on this issue. These fucking video chats. Most people thought I was lucky to have been awarded custody of the kids. Back in court, I’d proven I was the better parent. More stable. However, even with her current situation, I’d be pushing it if I tried to end her right to these calls.

“Sam.” She says my name and changes her tone to say it again. Trying to make it more civil sounding. “Sam. The boys have to talk to me. I’m their mother. This is important.”

“And I agree with you, but this just isn’t playing out that great.” I feel deflated. I’m just standing there defeated. “What do you want me to do? I can’t make them talk to you.”

“Of course you can!” She doesn’t seem upset now. She seems excited to be giving me things to do again. “You have to make them. And you have to start feeding them better.” I love how her demands always seem to multiply out of nowhere.

I just can’t take it anymore. Decorum and whatever the court awarded her can go get fucked. I’m just so tired. Being a parent is hard enough when you’re on your own. Having a backseat driver giving you directions is just insulting.

“You know, if you weren’t already dead I’d be about ready to kill you right now!” The words were out of my mouth before I could think twice. I’d gone and said it. I didn’t mean it that way. I’d never really kill her. It’s just an expression. 

But I liked getting this little dig in the conversation. You know. You’re dead bitch. Fuck your advice. Fuck your shaming and constant complaints. This is what you get for divorcing me. This is what you get for getting in a car crash 2 years later. You’re kids don’t want to talk to you anymore. They can’t see much of a reason to. And did you give them much of a reason to talk to you before you died? No you didn’t. So why is your AI confused? Huh Marty?

You’d never been a good mom when we were married Marty, and you just got more distant after the divorce. And just in case you wanted to make my life hell forever and ever you decided you’d download your consciousness into an AI computer so we’d never have to live without you. So that you’d always be so close and yet so far away. You’ve gone and made the divorce so final when you died Marty. And yet this fucking modern technology is making it go on and on.

I can imagine the AI, which projects her complete mental expression on my WalScreen, is examining the rankings of different programs to start exploring how to deal with me right now. But the image in front of me gives me that same look she always did at times like these. That look that says she feels sorry for how stupid and unrefined I am. I’m such a thug. That look that says she’s about to help me evolve into a better person.

“You’re so aggressive. So insulting.” The sound of her voice isn’t hurt. It’s playful. “The parenting plan gives me rights, Sam. I get to talk to the kids 1-2 hours a day. You have to get them to talk to me.” 

And she’s right. The law is the law. Ever since abortion became such a conflaguration of violence and hysteria in our country during the Biden era, sanctity of life laws had to be taken to another level in response. Biden was such a horrible president that a lot of stuff went to shit during his administration, but the fight over reproductive rights really went into a tailspin under his watch. In the years since, things took a turn that everyone really regretted.

After the Requiem, things never went back to anything resembling the way they were. In the fight over abortion, women came away with less rights over their own bodies. However, they did come away with more rights over their children. All the men who had led the charge to steal women’s right to choose ended up kicking themselves for what had to happen. Ultimately, they’d lost the rights to their own children. Men became second class citizens in most custody rights cases.

It’s an oversimplification of what happened during the Requiem, but that’s basically where things stand now. Since women were treated as reproductive vessels that couldn’t choose when to operate their periods of birthing, they had to be bestowed with something else of value in exchange for that loss of freedom. They then argued that if they should be treated as reproductive vessels they should be the sole owners of the products of said vessels. Children would belong to women from now on. Or in a democratic nation, women were given a whole slew of reformed laws that tried to convince them to stay in the baby making business. Cities would crumble otherwise, if you haven’t taken the time to think about it. Some people in the government have thought about it, so I had to go through a ton of shit (because I’m a dad) to get my day in court for the custody of my kids.

That’s why most people were surprised the kids had stayed with me after the divorce, but there were other circumstances that most people didn’t know about. When my ex died a couple of years after the divorce, the current laws on parental rights, being the mess that they are, allowed her to continue to enjoy these video chats. I think her AI enjoys them anyway. Her real brain got spread like peanut butter on a turnpike in Florida. She hated to drive at night. It always scared her. But she was trying to build her career. She felt it was important and they made her work crazy hours. If it had been dark, and she was tired… I wonder if the kids missed her like I do.

But now her AI is looking forward to this Christmas when she’ll have custody and I’ll have to do the video chats everyday. Things will be reversed. The boys are confused about what that is going to be like, and I am too. Her family says that the boys will just stay with Marty’s sister, and have her AI on 24/7 in the home’s computer. Even though I’m uncomfortable with this, I don’t feel like fighting it. Times have changed. It’s a new world. Sometimes, her family admits that Marty’s AI glitches and doesn’t seem to act like her. 

Her glitches. Those things they’re talking about. Those aren’t glitches. That’s Marty. She’s just like that. I know her. Why those annoying things are more noticeable to her family when she’s dead is beyond me. Maybe it’s because they forgave those things when she was alive, because she was alive. Now that it’s a computer giving them shit, I guess it doesn’t seem as cute. Everyone likes to argue whether or not these new AIs are real people or not. But I think the technology is amazing! This thing is just like her.

I’ll have to buy more ice cream. I’m so defeated. It just doesn’t matter anymore. This is just the way things are. It might have been different years ago. But technology changes things. Even parenting. Even love. And yes. Even joy.

I grab the Pepsi off the counter and pull a long sip off the top. I let the bubbles filter through the back of my throat and up into my nostrils. That long breeze of carbonated freshness that leaves you helpless but to say, “Ahhhhhh.”

“Okay Marty. You’re right. I’ll talk to them.” The blinking image of my deceased ex-mate seems placated. I know she blinks her eyes because a computer program is blinking them for her, but is it any different from the program in my brain that makes me blink? I wonder. The only difference I realize is that I need to blink. She doesn’t. Not anymore. I still need to placate her though. To get through my day.

Divorce wasn’t supposed to be this way. God damn it. Why do things have to change so much and yet stay the same? This is crazy. I was never going to get rid of Marty. I should have known that. I’m never going to move on. I could hunt down her AI. Find the box that she dwells in. I mean. It must be on a shelf somewhere. SItting with all the other AIs that have taken over the living functions of people like her. Couldn’t we just unplug it? Would that really be murder? But I can’t think like that. If I follow that train of thought, we’d be headed for another Requiem.

“The boys need a mom.” She says it in such a serious way.

“You’re right. They do. But you left. Didn’t you?” I begin to put the groceries away as I turn my back on her image. “Try calling again tomorrow, and I’ll see if the boys want to talk to you.”

She seems satisfied. Somehow. Who knows what she’s thinking.

“Okay Sam. I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Bye Marty.”

I take the lid off the ice cream and can see it hasn’t melted too bad. The relief that this gives me, causes a small blip of joy to pop into my frozen mind. I won’t have to buy more after all. I put the lid on the ice cream and put it in the freezer.

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