I wake in the bed Lawrence and I share. Jeanine is beside me, naked, her long legs still partly wrapped in white insulating blankets. I lean over her, my face above hers, heart hammering. Her eyes fly open. Yesterday’s Jeanine would have smiled and stretched, as luxuriant as a cat, but I see from the consternation on her face that today’s Jeanine is a different story. I must look hurt, because she touches my hair. Empathy is part of her nature. The gesture, fingertips to hair, is part of her nature, too.
I draw back, study her. The past drapes over us like a scarf over a lamp, giving everything an unsuitably erotic sheen. I shake it off.
“Hello, Jeanine,” I say, all business. “I’m Mara, your employer.” I’m finding it hard to breathe.
Sitting on the bed in the fuzzy-blue light of early morning, the words that come to me are: I’m in too deep. I don’t even know what they mean. What depth would be the right amount, exactly? Still, they feel appropriate. I took a wrong turn somewhere, and I’m not sure where. Maybe at the very start, when Lawrence told me the house came with a housekeeper. “A housekeeper,” I said. “Swoon.”
Lawrence must have carried Jeanine to the bed. Did he wait by the machine so that he could be there when the motor stopped and the chamber opened? I don’t remember him bringing her. I don’t even remember falling asleep. Where is he now? I squelch a stab of annoyance. We said we would both be here when she woke. Leave it to him to have gotten sucked into his work instead.
Jeanine sits up. The bracelet on her wrist glows bright green. She studies me without speaking as I rise and put on my bathing suit, and then she follows me when I go into her room to get hers. Last time she came out of the machine, we started with a swim. Of course, she won’t remember that. Still, when I hand her the two-piece suit she puts it on, mimicking the gestures
I used to put on my own. It’s a blue and silver one I had in my suitcase. I gave it to her in June. She didn’t have one of her own.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” I tell her now.
The house, and the housekeeper, are perks of Lawrence’s job here on the coast of France. His “summer job” as we’ve taken to calling it. He’s a cybersecurity expert and the house belongs to the CEO of a Swiss pharmaceutical company, a man named Troxler. Troxler has other houses, in China and Malaysia, California and Zurich. He and his wife move from one to another like the royalty of old. The main house is closed in their absence, but we are in one of the guest “cottages,” which is far larger than our apartment in New York. There is another cottage, where Lawrence works, that’s outfitted with all the equipment he needs and sealed against scans and bugs. There he encrypts and evades, protecting Troxler’s secrets. We see only the caretaker, who comes once a week, and Troxler’s assistant, who sometimes comes to meet with Lawrence. Otherwise, it’s just us and the children. And Jeanine.
Clad now in the swimsuit, she runs out into the back garden and takes it all in: the plushy wild grasses, variegated in greens and reds, the bed of blue delphiniums, the trees casting rippling shadows on the pool. She touches the stone walkways, the moist dirt of the flower beds, the water in the fountain. She lifts a snail from the fountain’s edge and touches its shell, and then turns it over to stroke its jellied foot. She lies down in the lumpy bundles of ornamental grasses and rolls like a cat, the tasseled fronds tangling in her hair. She sits up, dew-streaked, and laughs, a long string of ha-ha-ha-ha’s like beads clattering from a broken necklace.
I sit on the wet grass in the hazy light and watch her exult in the miracle of life. I should be joyous too, I know. Two summers here in this absurdly gorgeous house with first Laura, and now Jeanine, to make our meals and clean our rooms. I should be grateful, at the very least. Instead I feel hollow. Bereaved. My palms are prickling with sweat.
“Jeanine,” I say. “How about a swim?”
Jeanine goes to the pool, steps in, ankle deep. Shuts her eyes. Whorls of ripples spool around each of her legs. There is no sound except the yard’s own scramble of pretty noises: bird song, bee buzz, tree rustle, the lapping of the pool.
She doesn’t dive in. I know I should go in myself, lead the way, frolic with her the way we did last month. But the air feels chilly to me and I stay where I am, hugging my knees against the hollow in my chest. I can’t stop grieving for her, even though she’s right in front of me.
Jeanine opens her eyes, takes a step down so that her hands are immersed, palms open. In the field of swimming-pool blue, she looks painted. I wonder sometimes how it is that she was born knowing how to swim. She knows how to read also, and she speaks French and German as well as English. I can’t think how this is done. But then I don’t know anything about her, really. Lawrence scanned her for circuits and there weren’t any. She’s all soft, warm flesh.
I walk around to the corner behind the potting shed where the machine is. The instructions call it the “Hot House,” I guess because the housekeepers are grown in it like tomatoes. Lawrence and I just call it “the machine.” I don’t know how many such machines there are in the world. I searched the internet, back when we first came last summer, trying to find out if the technology was something commonplace that I simply didn’t know about. We’ve always been late adaptors, the last of the analogs, through some combination of my Luddite nature and Lawrence’s professional skepticism. Perhaps the world was teeming with Lauras and Jeanines and I’d missed the memo. But there was nothing. If there are other machines, they have been kept quite secret.
“It won’t go mainstream,” Lawrence said, early on. “The technology’s too iffy. The equipment takes up too much space. And it’s got to be absurdly expensive.” Lawrence figures that the machine is just a prototype. It wouldn’t be a stretch for a Swiss Ag-Pharm company to consider making such a product, he reasoned, along with their gene therapies and engineered plants. “But they’re going to have to deal with the lifespan issue,” he said. “The renewal cycles would kill the market.” We only have two renewals in the course of a summer—one at the start of July, one at the start of August. But if we lived here year-round, we’d be renewing every month.
“It’s too cumbersome,” Lawrence said.
“Technology should be seamless.”
He was suspicious of the machine from the start. “I don’t like black boxes,” he said. “The whole thing could be packed with malicious code for all we know. If they’d asked me, I would have told them not to bring it on the grounds.”
Lawrence is paid to think like that, which is clever, since he’d think like that whether he was paid or not. His mind always goes to the worst-case scenario, which is why he’s so careful about keeping the machine shut and latched. Yet I see now that he has left it open, two of its white insulating blankets strewn on the grass like Christmas day wrappings. I put my hand into the chamber and feel the lifeless heat of it. It has a terrible smell, a mixture of chemicals and cheese mold. I suppose it would have been hard for him to close the lid while carrying the sleeping Jeanine. Where is he? It’s still so early; I expected him to go back to sleep after fetching Jeanine. I think of him tenderly lifting her out, carrying her to the bed still wrapped in the last of those blankets, and remorse nearly doubles me over. Why didn’t he stay with us? Why did he leave me to do this alone?
The locker-gray metal of the chamber is smooth and clean, as always. Not a hair, not a fingernail, not a streak of blood, no sign that Jeanine was ever inside it. “The Hot House is a completely enclosed system that produces only a small packet of waste,” the manual says. I shut the hatch. The machine whirs thoughtfully, assessing its next move. After a moment, a message crawls across the LED display, first in French, then in German, then in English: “You have one renewal remaining. Order your refill now!”
I feel a hand on my shoulder. Jeanine stands dripping behind me. I wait for her to take my hair in her hands, fingers grazing my ears. My spine shivers at the expected feel of it. But she just stands with her palm on my shoulder.
“Do I need to learn to operate this machine?” she asks. She has a hint of accent, as if she learned English from a foreigner. The consonants clotted, the vowels dimmed.
“Yes,” I say. “But not now.”
“Did you bring servants?” the caretaker asked when we arrived the previous summer. We shook our heads. Servants! In New York we have a housecleaner who comes in once a week.
“Good,” he said. “Monsieur Troxler prefers to grow his own. Security.” We nodded, as if we understood.
The caretaker, a soft, bland man with watchful eyes, showed us how to work the burglar alarm, the kitchen appliances, the controls that heated the floors of the bathrooms. He showed us the machine in the garden. “Laura knows how to operate everything,” he said, and with that I stopped paying attention. Machines are not my thing. It was Lawrence who went back to have a look at it the next morning and Lawrence who read the manual that explained about the renewals. We were instructed to keep the manual in the safe in Lawrence’s cottage.
For a while we tried to understand how the machine worked. We talked about the ethics of it—this person, or person-like thing, who was grown in a machine and had to be renewed every four weeks. We talked about Laura, trying to deduce something about the whole product line from what we knew of her. She had blond hair, rosy skin, green eyes. She smiled easily, but not for long. She did everything steadily, without complaint, and held herself slightly separate from us so that we didn’t have to ask ourselves too many questions. But here’s the truth: you get used to things. What shocks you today, is just how life is tomorrow.
I remember sitting out in the garden with Lawrence on one of the first evenings last summer. Laura had brought us a little plate of sliced figs and goat cheese and now she was in the kitchen braising lamb. The children were playing hide and seek in the taffy-thick twilight. It’s a good garden for hide and seek, filled with nooks and bowers and benches to hide under. I was talking about the day I’d had with the children at the beach, Artie learning to ride the waves, Caramia finding shells. Lawrence was listening and smiling, probably not actually listening but certainly smiling. There was a politeness between us then, the drab collegiality that time and children inevitably bring, I suppose. The daily grit that grinds down the machinery of love.
And then Lawrence was on his feet and running, straight through one of the lavender bushes, his long legs scissoring as he turned the corner behind the potting shed. I can’t think what alerted him—a mechanical hum maybe, or just his own suspicious nature. I followed at a run, not knowing why I was running, but understanding that it had to do with the children. When I turned the corner, Caramia was kneeling inside the machine, reaching up to close its lid over her head. Lawrence dragged her out, pinning her against his chest as she thrashed against him.
“Never, never, never get inside there. That is only for Laura. You must never, ever go in there.”
Caramia sobbed, trying to twist out of his arms.
“You’re scaring her,” I said and came forward to take her. “She doesn’t know what she did wrong.”
“That’s the point, Mara. I want her to be scared. She just scared the shit out of me. Why the fuck was the hatch open?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Is it supposed to be closed?”
At the time, I was only angry at him for making Caramia cry. I didn’t understand what had almost happened.
Jeanine kissed us each on the lips in that way she had, as if biting into an apple.
Two weeks into that first summer, the glowing bracelet on Laura’s wrist switched from amber to red. She stopped to rest as she vacuumed, her body wracked by enormous yawns. “It’s time for me to be renewed,” she said in the same placid way she announced that she was going to the market or making crepes for dinner.
That night she took an envelope from a box kept on a shelf above the refrigerator. When
she poured the contents into a glass of water, they foamed briefly, bubbles twinkling in the bright light of the kitchen. After she drank it, she washed the glass and then went outside to lie down in the machine. In the morning, the machine’s lid popped open of its own accord and Laura emerged, skin glowing, hair shiny, as if she’d been to a spa. The renewal had erased her memory, but she’d made a video ahead of time that explained her duties. She watched it in her bedroom before breakfast. That evening, she made us steak au poivre, haricots verts, lemon tart. Everything went on as before. She hung up the children’s clothes and bought the cheeses we liked from the farm down the road. Lawrence worked on the security project. I took the children for pleasurable jaunts, worked out, read novels. It was paradise, we always said. Sometimes the irony nudged at me, a boat tethered by the dock, touching shore and drifting away, touching and drifting. A paradise with its own Eves, one after another.
Summer’s like a weekend, Artie once observed. June is Friday, with all of it ahead of you. July is Saturday. August is Sunday and the sense of the oncoming Monday gives it a sepia tinge of running time. It’s August now. Today’s Jeanine will be the last of the summer and then we’ll go back to our high-rise apartment and all the crackle and bustle of daily life. Farewell to green meadows and morning sun. Farewell to the beach and the local cheeses. Farewell to Jeanine. But not yet. We have a little time yet.
After her swim, Jeanine and I pick raspberries for breakfast. I hold the bowl and watch her fingers tugging the soft red beads from the canes. She does everything with the same pure attention—it’s part of what makes her irresistible. One berry goes between her lips, her eyelids fluttering down as she tastes it. Then another into the bowl. Before we go inside she kneels and gathers a bouquet of violets.
The children are up when she comes into the kitchen. I had told them last night that she was being renewed and now they press close to see the transformation.
“Jeanine, these are my children, Artie and Caramia,” I say. “Guys, this is Jeanine.”
They look at her, hoping for some glimmer of recognition. When there isn’t any, they grin as if it’s comical to them, the way you grin when you tell someone they were snoring or talking in their sleep.
“We know you,” Caramia says. “We know where you’re ticklish.”
She reaches out her hand and tickles Jeanine’s ribs. She’s a terrible tickler, actually. She can’t get the pressure right and scratches more than tickles, but Jeanine used to laugh anyway. Now she stands very still, her expression appraising, as Caramia’s little fingers claw her bare skin. Then she reaches out and tickles Caramia. Caramia shrieks and giggles and darts away.
“You can’t catch me!” she says, her eyes begging Jeanine to try.
Jeanine takes a violet from the bouquet that she has dropped on the counter. She sniffs
it thoughtfully, inspects it. Then she springs forward and catches Caramia in her arms. Caramia thrashes and squeals and laughs and then goes limp, looking at Jeanine with an expression of pure love. Jeanine meets her gaze and there is a moment of stillness that is so potent I feel like the room might shatter.
Then Artie joins them, pressing up against Jeanine’s side with his fingers waggling in the air. “Make the pancakes!” he commands. “Or I will tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle you.”
Last summer I felt embarrassed when my children ordered the housekeeper around. Now, I let it go. But when I go to sit down I see that Jeanine is looking at me for help. I’d forgotten it’s her first morning—she hasn’t even watched the video yet. She doesn’t yet know how to make pancakes.
I begin taking the ingredients out of the cabinet. When I turn back to Jeanine, she is watching the children with the same expression she wore on similar mornings earlier in the summer. It is interest without expectation, a kind of pure objectivity. I can’t help but be awed by it: the gracefulness of experience that is uninformed by precedent. No one has ever been cruel to her. No one has ever disliked her. Yet there is a streak of wariness in her like a vein in a leaf, a taut cord of instinct adding strength to what might otherwise be too flimsy to survive. She seems a little tougher, this Jeanine of August, than the Jeanine I first met in June.
I make the coffee the way she likes it, milky with two spoons of sugar. “You can start watching the video now,” I tell her. “It explains everything you need to know.”
I hand her the coffee and lead her to her room, click the button on the screen that starts the video. Her own face appears but perhaps she doesn’t recognize it. She hasn’t yet had a chance to look in the mirror.
Jeanine wasn’t real, not in any sense that I had known reality to mean.
“You won’t remember anything,” we told her last night. “But we’ll be with you when you wake up.”
The bracelet on her wrist flamed bright red. Lawrence and I kept putting off the renewal, persuading Jeanine that it would be all right to wait a day or two, and then a day or two more. But we were afraid to go longer. The manual warned against it: “Do not delay renewal cycles or coding errors may prevent renewal completion.”
Before she poured the envelope of powder into her glass, Jeanine kissed us each on the lips in that way she had, as if biting into an apple. Remembering it now, I fold my lips between my teeth and lick them, trying to reproduce the sensation. But it’s impossible. Only one person has ever kissed me like that.
The children want to go to the waterfall today, instead of the beach. I’m eager to get away from the house myself. I bustle us into the car, carrying a bag of towels and changes of clothes. Lawrence comes out just as I’m backing out the car. He looks awful, as if he’s been up all night. His hair is lank, falling over his eyes and he’s wearing shorts and socks but no shoes.
“How does she seem?” he asks, leaning over the car to talk to me.
“Fine.” My voice sounds false to my own ears. “She just needs to get oriented again.” I take in all his human imperfections—the grooves in his face, the slight overlap of his bottom teeth, the spiky disarray of his unshaven chin. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just working. Troxler called—minor crisis.” He leans in to make faces at the children. “Smell you later, monkeys.”
He watches us go, hands dropped by his sides as if he’s forgotten how to use them.
“Why doesn’t Jeanine remember things?” Artie asks on the walk to the waterfall.
It didn’t bother him with Laura, but he didn’t feel the same way about Laura. Now he takes the renewals personally.
“We talked about this last time,” I remind him. “Jeanine and Laura have a special kind of sickness. When they get sick they go into the Hot House to get better. The machine makes them better, but it takes their memory away, the way medicines can sometimes give you a tummy ache.”
“Will you ever get sick like that?”
“No. It’s just something that happens to a certain kind of person.”
“What kind of person?”
I hesitate. “Housekeepers,” I say. “French housekeepers.”
The trees are thick around us, glowing with moss. The light comes through the canopy in shafts, forming a second growth of glowing white trees interspersed with the gnarled brown ones. Caramia walks behind us, singing to herself in the stagey way she has, lots of drawn out notes, most of them flat.
“But why is she not the same?” Artie says after a long pause.
“What do you mean, not the same?”
Artie puffs his cheeks out in frustration. “You know. Not the same.”
I barely remember the way Jeanine was when we first arrived in June. There was no explanation of why we now had a Jeanine rather than a Laura—perhaps she was an upgrade. It felt that way anyway. I remember being struck by how beautiful she was and by how much more she laughed than Laura did. There was a whimsy to her that was different, too. She put flowers in unusual places—in the showers, on the pillows—and she set the table with two colors of plates, alternating one with the other to make a pattern around the table.
The children wanted to be around her, but I said, “She isn’t here to play with you. She has other work.” Still, they’d join her in the yard, in the kitchen. Once, they had gathered all the fallen petals from the garden and made a kind of painting together in the grass, in pinks and whites and violets and reds, a swirling wave of stripes and dots.
I like to swim early, when I first wake up, before the children are stirring. I swim a few laps, then drift underwater like a minnow, absorbing the stillness that comes from being encased in blue. Underwater I feel smoothed over, whole, as if the water has sanded away all the little nicks and abrasions that come from being married to a man who loves the logic of machines more than he loves human unpredictability.
One morning in late June, I heard a splash as I drifted and Jeanine wriggled toward me, her skirt and blouse fanning out like the fins of an elaborate tropical fish. Silver bubbles streamed from her mouth. As she swam past me, she reached out her hands and traced the side of my body. I felt her fingers on my skin, warm and then gone. I gave her my blue-and-silver suit that day and we swam together every morning until the beginning of July, when she went into the machine for renewal. I was there waiting when she came out of the chamber.
“Good morning, Jeanine,” I said. “Let’s go for a swim.”
We swam naked then, that July Jeanine and I. My body was the first human thing she saw.
That same night, there was a thunderstorm. Lawrence was still reading to Artie. Caramia was asleep. I stood at the doorway watching the rain as it clattered over the garden. Everything in the garden seemed to be opening to the sky. The smells came to me in billows: the yeasty richness of damp soil, the sweet youth of wet grass, chlorine from the pool, wet towels, mold, berries, leaves. The air smelled like life: like all of our lives and like life itself. I stood there breathing it.
Then the thunder tolled, basso profundo, and lightning snaked across the sky and the rain seemed to be plunging to earth in swarms, as if it was trying to wreck itself by running headlong into the ground. Jeanine came and stood next to me. Her expression was intent, like a cat following a moving object. Then she squeezed past me, awkwardly, her hips pressing against me. She had to be in it, of course. Had to feel it. That’s always how it was with her. And so she was standing in the downpour, barefoot, lifting her feet and slapping them down to see the water run away from them. Opening her mouth to drink the rain. The lightning was very close—we could hear it hiss. It wriggled across the sky and she laughed. When the next roar of thunder came, she looked around to see where it came from and then put her hands on the ground, hoping, I guess, to feel the vibration.
“Come out of the rain,” I said. She turned, rain drops on her eyelashes. She came back towards the doorway where I stood. But instead of squeezing past, she put her hands on my waist and kissed me. Her mouth tasted of apples. The feel of her lips, her hands just cupping my lower ribs. I felt as if I was suffused with purple ink, as if ink were spilling from her mouth into my body, flushing me with clouds of color. As if I were water.
I kissed her back. I kissed her and my hands went around her. The small of her back. Her hair. Her ribs. Her breasts. Her cheek. That was how fast the ink traveled through me. I touched her and she seemed to swim in my touch, the way she had swum through the pool in her clothes. Like she’d known it all along.
Then she lifted her lips from mine and smiled and moved past me to go inside.
It was Lawrence who confessed first.
He came into the garden a few days later, after the children were in bed. We’d made it a habit to sit there at the stone table under the quince tree in the evenings, have a drink, talk over the day.
“I kissed Jeanine,” he said. “I can’t explain it but—I had to tell you.”
“When?” I kept my voice neutral, trying to understand what I felt.
“This afternoon, while you and the children were at the beach.”
“Did you like it?”
“Mara. That’s not—it was just a kiss.”
I knew, of course, that it wasn’t just a kiss. I knew how she had sighed when he’d touched her. I knew how the kiss had filled him with desire. How he had been thinking of her ever since, the salt-sweet of her, her taste of apples. I savored my own secret knowledge of how things would go. The second kiss, the third, and then the plunge. Her eyes closing and opening in response to Lawrence’s touch, absorbing it but also inspecting it.
“It’s okay,” I said at last. “I made love with her.”
“You what?” His face seemed to collapse.
“This morning. While everyone was still asleep.”
I waited for him to speak.
“What does that mean for me?” he asked. Jeanine solved it for us, the way she solved everything. She came up behind me and pulled my hair over my shoulders. She traced her fingers over my cheekbones and brow bone, then my lips. I couldn’t see her face but I saw Lawrence watching her. I saw him receive her invitation.
Afterwards, Jeanine slept between us. We couldn’t bring ourselves to send her to her own bed and so I slept uneasily, worried about the children coming in and finding her there. The world was altered, shifted, and yet it was the same. The same damp smells in the garden. The pool pale blue in the morning light. Jeanine there to swim with me. Breakfast for the children. Lawrence off to the guest cottage to ward off digital invaders. Artie and Caramia and I piling into the car to visit a farm where there were going to be sheep dog trials. By evening, I was sweaty with guilt.
“It’s wrong,” I said to Lawrence when the children were asleep. “She’s not—it’s not an equal relationship.”
He was slumped in one of the wrought-iron chairs in the garden, holding a glass of Pernod and soda. He’s a handsome man, not turn-your-head handsome, but pleasing. He wears his brown hair a little on the long side, and it was falling over his face as he looked down at the drink in his hands. His T-shirt was a faded tomato color, pretty in the twilight, and I was stripping it off in my mind, remembering the knotting of his shoulder muscles as he leaned over Jeanine.
“We’re her employers, for one thing. And she’s like a child—she doesn’t have any experience of the world.”
“Do you think she was made like this?” I said. “Do you think it’s a feature of Jeanines?” It made me sick to think it—that the moment she touched me had been burned into her genes, that she’d been created as a toy for people like us. People worse than us.
He shrugged, still slumped. “Does it matter?”
“Yes.” I wanted him to look at me. “Don’t you think? Free will? Isn’t that part of the equation?”
“Whose free will?” he asked. “Hers or ours? If her design makes us act a certain way, doesn’t that mean we’ve lost our free will too?”
I took a sip of my wine and felt the beauty of the garden pressing in on me. We weren’t in real life, we were on this absurdly beautiful estate and Jeanine wasn’t real, not in any sense that I had known reality to mean.
“Who is it harming?” he asked and then he did look up, nodding the hair out of his face.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t even know what she is.”
“She’s Jeanine,” Lawrence said. “Can’t that be enough?”
It was all for show, that conversation. We weren’t going to change anything. We were already in love with her.
Jeanine wasn’t much of a conversationalist in the first days of our romance. She had no past, no story to tell, and her present was the same as ours. But within a day or two she had absorbed enough of the world to know that we had pasts, and to ask us about them. Lawrence told her about his path from teen hacker to corporate security maven. I told her about my work as a psychologist, before I had the kids. She was interested in the kids, interested in the concept of childhood.
“Was Artie always Artie?” she asked. “Thinking so much?”
I told her about his colic, about how much he cried as a baby that I sometimes thought I might kill him, or kill myself. And then how the crying that had seemed so much part of him had just tapered off, so gradually that I never knew when he went from being a fussy baby to being a smiling one. His first word was milk. Caramia’s first: Artie.
“What was your first word?” she asked me. She was lying with her head on Lawrence’s stomach, her legs thrown across my lap.
“I don’t know. I was the youngest of four—by the time I came along, nobody was paying much attention.”
She twisted her head to look at Lawrence, an only child.
“I think mine was truck,” he said.
Jeanine nodded. “And mine?”
We were silent. The answers I could give were locked in their own room, a room nobody should enter.
“We didn’t know you then,” I said. “The Troxlers might know.”
“The mysterious Troxlers with their secrets.” Jeanine reached up to stroke Lawrence’s clavicle. She likes the feeling of our bones—her hands always go to them. “I think I’ll have many secrets too. Then I will hire Lawrence to keep them all for me.”
“How many secrets do you have now?” Lawrence asked.
Jeanine slid her leg along mine. “This is a secret, right?”
I nodded. We had talked about it with her very emphatically—that no one could know, especially not the children. “Sex is not for children,” I’d added, worrying that this most obvious boundary might have escaped her.
“So you have one secret,” Lawrence said.
“That’s a start.”
“Maybe I have another,” Jeanine said. “I can’t tell you or it wouldn’t be a secret.”
We couldn’t talk about the future with her either, of course. We knew our future. In a few weeks we would go back to New York. The children would start school. Lawrence would begin another security job. I would face the question of what to do about returning to work. But of Jeanine’s future, we knew only that the bracelet on her wrist would turn amber and then red and then she would return to the machine to be renewed.
“I might come and visit you in New York,” she said once. “I’ve been reading about it on the computer.”
“What have you been reading?” I asked, to shift the conversation away from the notion that she could cross borders, leave the machine behind, exist anywhere outside of this strange house.
“Everything,” she said. She was in the kitchen, cooking dinner. I watched her hands as they snapped the ends off asparagus. A bowl of chilled water and lemons was ready to receive the spears once they had cooked. Mussels lay tumbled in the sink, scrubbed to an inky shine. She didn’t have to think about any of it now—she learned everything so quickly.
“About the Native Americans first, and the Dutch. About Hudson, the man and also the river. About this place called Queens, with all the different people from the world, and Brooklyn where they make their food like artisans. About the planes flying into the buildings and the storm that filled the tunnels with water and all the different bridges. I read the poem by Hart Crane about the bridge: Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft, a bedlamite speeds to thy parapets.”
She stopped and savored the taste of the words, which were only vaguely familiar to me. I was long past my poetry-reading years. Now it was only novels and memoirs. Other people’s stories.
“I looked with the satellite view to find your house,” she continued. “But I couldn’t.”
Artie was at the kitchen table, drawing. I knew he was listening because his picture had absorbed the nouns from Jeanine’s speech: a queen, a plane, a bridge.
“That’s because Lawrence doesn’t like our personal information to be on the computer,” I said. “He knows how to make us invisible.”
“I’m going to take Jeanine to Central Park,” Artie announced, still drawing his bridge. “I’m going to show her the carousel.”
“What about Caramia?” I asked. “Can she come too?”
“She’ll be napping,” Artie said. “It’s just going to be me and Jeanine.”
Of course, I thought. He’s in love with her, too.
The same words come to me as before: we’re in too deep.
Late in July, I persuaded Lawrence to take the day off and come with me and the children to the beach. Jeanine stayed home; she can’t be in the sun for very long in any circumstances and her bracelet was already amber.
It was a rare pleasure to have Lawrence with us during the week and the children were giddy with it, taking turns jumping off his shoulders into the water, insisting on endless chicken fights. We ate ice cream at the little seaside stand where they sell plastic shovels and buckets and cigarettes, and then we made our way home. We were almost back at the Troxlers’ when Artie said, “Daddy hasn’t seen the horses.”
The day before, we’d seen three Percherons grazing in a pasture near town, yellow with blond manes and tails.
“They’re so pretty!” Caramia said. “Do you want to see them? We can feed them carrots from our lunch!”
“We don’t have carrots today,” I said. “We’ll just pet the horses.” But Caramia wanted to feed them carrots like we had before, so Lawrence pulled into the drive and I ran up to the house to get some.
“You’d better grab my work phone, too,” he called after me. “It’s morning in California and I’m expecting a call. It’s in the cottage.”
I went there first, since it was closer. I opened the door with Lawrence’s key and stood for a moment in the spangled darkness, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. When the shadows sorted themselves into shapes, I saw that one of the shapes was Jeanine. She was sitting at Lawrence’s desk.
“I’m cleaning in here,” she said. It was perfectly obvious that she was not cleaning. Panic surged through me. What if she had found out whatever it was that Troxler had hired Lawrence to keep hidden?
“You can’t be in here,” I said, realizing with a stab of disappointment that Jeanine had an ability I hadn’t expected—the ability to lie.
She shrugged and came to me and brushed my damp hair out of my eyes. “I only want to know what he does,” she said. “It’s natural to be curious. There’s so much I don’t know—and so little time to find out before I forget again.”
When I told Lawrence later that night, his face grew very still.
“Are you sure? She wasn’t cleaning?”
“She was going through the drawers,” I said.
He put his elbows down on the stone table and rested his head in his hands, raking his hair with his fingers. “They did it on purpose,” he said.
I waited for him to explain. Inside, Jeanine was cleaning up from dinner. She would join us soon with a bottle of wine and three glasses, sitting with her legs draped over the arm of a chair as one of us stroked her feet. For the first time since all this had started, I wanted more time without her.
“The renewals,” Lawrence said, lifting his head. “It’s for security. Even if Jeanine learns something she’s not supposed to, the machine will take it from her.”
“So that means she doesn’t really have to be renewed?” My heart flamed with hope. “I mean, if it’s not for any physical reason—coding errors or whatever they said.”
Lawrence pushed himself away from the table and flopped back in his chair, his palms raised as if I’d leveled a gun at him. “Mara,” he said. “I don’t know anything about this technology. I can’t hack it because I don’t understand it. Anyway, my job is to protect Troxler.”
Her face is slick with rain and she licks her lips and grins.
Today, when we come back from the waterfall, the house is dark and Jeanine hasn’t started dinner. I call out for her once, then send the children to their rooms to get out of their swimsuits. I go into our bedroom. For a moment, I let myself hope. It’s happened before that I’ve come home to find her and Lawrence dozing together in the bed.
I was furious the first time. The rage came over me like a foaming river, churning up all the flotsam from our marriage. Over the course of two summers he had never been willing to put aside his work to spend time with me and the children, not for a swim, not for an outing, and certainly not for a nap. Yet there he was, in the middle of the afternoon, dazed and soft with sleep and sex. Jeanine watched us snipe at each other—me cataloging his failings as a husband and father, Lawrence offering sarcastically to measure the minutes he had spent with each of us, was that what I wanted, a spreadsheet of his every moment? And once again, she saw how to fix us.
“Go be with the children,” she told Lawrence. “Mara and I need time together.”
That night, Lawrence came to me, chastened. “You and the kids are the most important thing in the world to me,” he said. “I never want you to feel otherwise.”
We ended up making love, just the two of us, with a tenderness we hadn’t shown one other in years. Jeanine stayed in her own room. Afterward, something was different between us. An adjustment of degrees, like an oiled hinge or a squeeze of lemon in the soup. As if we’d realigned. His daytime dalliances with Jeanine, his episodes of obtuse rationality, somehow none of it abraded as it had, counterbalanced by moments of consideration, offerings of attention. Jeanine had helped him, I realize now. She’d asked me why I was upset, and I’d explained. She must have found a way to translate it so he could understand.
I badly want to find him resting in her arms now. But the bed is empty and unmade—untouched from this morning. This is puzzling, too. By now Jeanine should have learned her duties and begun them. I go looking for Lawrence.
He lets me into the cottage cautiously, then takes me in his arms and holds me.
“I feel awful,” he says. “Sick. Do you feel sick?”
I nod into his chest. “Where’s Jeanine?”
“I don’t know. I went to see her at lunch time, but she doesn’t remember me.”
The same words come to me as before: we’re in too deep. “Of course she doesn’t remember you. It’s the first day. Give it time.”
“I should have been there when she woke.”
“Why weren’t you?” I feel a pinch of panic, remembering the consternation on Jeanine’s face when she saw my face hovering over hers. Maybe if he’d been there, Jeanine wouldn’t be acting so aloof.
Lawrence exhales into my hair. “It was too hard. The waiting. I went to look in Troxler’s files.”
I pull away from him. The curiosity I feel is different from his. I don’t want to know how the machine has made Jeanine and how it remakes her. I want to know how we are made and how Jeanine has remade us. I want to know what love is. I’m worried that it’s just chemistry and that the machine has found the formula.
“I need to get back to the house,” I say. “The kids are by themselves.”
Lawrence rubs his face. He’s still in shorts and socks, a faded Mets T-shirt. He smells damp and unwashed. “I’ll come too,” he says.
We find her in her room, sitting in the shadows. She is watching the video—again, or still, I’m not sure which. On the screen, Jeanine is talking in a low voice. “Every machine in the house has a manual that explains how it works,” she is saying. “If you have a question, read the manual.”
Jeanine startles when I come in and clicks off the video. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I had to watch it again—there’s so much to learn. I’ll go make dinner.”
Lawrence follows her into the kitchen, making gentle small talk. I remain standing in the darkened room. The glimpse of the Jeanine in the video makes me feel as if my heart has been ripped out of my body. That Jeanine loved me—simply, unconditionally, passionately. How did it happen? What did I do? How do I do it again?
The powder she drank before last night’s renewal sent Jeanine into a grinning stupor. The other times, both she and Laura had gone into the machine before it took effect, but this time we’d encouraged her to linger, unwilling to say goodbye. She had to lean on Lawrence as we walked across the garden. Walking behind them, I thought irritably about the men who designed the machine, how cumbersome the monthly renewals were, how long the eight-hour wait would be. And even as I was thinking this, I was feeling myself splinter into pieces, the shards of my thoughts reflecting one another so that I saw who I was, what I was, what I was capable of, endless refractions of that moment, walking behind my lover and my husband as they pitched across the moonlit garden, our children asleep, the night blooming its swell of frog chirp and cricket lull, the machine luminous in the moonlight. They stopped in front of it. I stepped around them and ran my fingers over the keypad, then touched the button to open the lid. Lawrence helped Jeanine climb inside and lie down in the machine’s metal cradle.
“Good night,” he whispered and kissed her slackening lips. “Sleep well. We’ll see you in the morning.”
After we closed the lid, we stood and watched the machine. It croaked once or twice, then clicked and began a muffled shirring. Water sluicing over her, I imagined. Washing away the fingerprints we’d left on her skin, the sense memories. Lawrence squatted down and put his hands on the domed lid, and then rested his cheek on his hands. He began to sob. I put my hands on his back, the way Jeanine might have done. He was shaking. The machine was shaking. I felt his warmth through the cloth of his shirt, the ridges of bowed muscle.
“It doesn’t hurt her,” I said. I had no idea if this was true.
Lawrence stood and used the collar of his shirt to wipe his eyes. He took my hand.
We walked back across the garden and Lawrence sat down at the stone table under the quince tree. I got us each a glass of wine. We didn’t speak, just stayed there, listening to the sound of the machine. After a while, I went to bed and sat on top of the covers with my knees tucked against my chest while he kept vigil in the garden. I didn’t want to think about what was happening inside the machine, and so I thought instead about Jeanine returning to us, about the weeks that still remained.
When I woke, Jeanine was there beside me, still wrapped in white insulating blankets.
Jeanine shakes her head. She doesn’t seem angry. If I didn’t know that she’d just been renewed, I would have said she seemed tired.
It rains after dinner, but it’s a light rain, without thunder or lightning. Still, Jeanine is drawn outside. She stands and tilts her head back to watch the endless identical raindrops and then reaches her hands overhead to touch them with her fingertips. Then she feels my eyes on her and glances back to the doorway where I stand. Her face is slick with rain and she licks her lips and grins.
“Come out of the rain,” I say and she takes a deep breath, inhaling the sweet ozone and the wet grass. Then she comes and stands beside me, waiting politely for me to make room for her to pass.
“Jeanine, come play Sorry!” Artie says. They have been playing it for weeks, but now Jeanine has to learn the rules all over again.
Lawrence and I are sitting on the couch, feeling uncomfortably like Mom and Dad. We should have joined the game, I realize. I could be sitting next to her. I could teach her strategy. Instead I watch her concentrate, watch the moment when she has to decide whether to knock one of Caramia’s pieces back to the start. She doesn’t yet know that Caramia will cry if she does—or does she? She looks at Caramia. She looks at Artie, who is only thinking about his own journey around the board. She looks at me. She smiles a little uncertainly. I am watching her hair fall around her face, the rain making her curls more buoyant. I am watching her breath traveling through her nostrils and down her throat to her chest. I am watching her mouth.
“Am I doing this right, Mara?” she asks.
She knocks Caramia’s pawn back to the start.
Lawrence sleeps spooned around me, his arm wrapped around my waist. I have been lying awake for almost two hours. I am thinking of Jeanine in her room, of her not knowing that she could come to us. Not knowing what it’s like to sleep in someone’s arms. I am thinking of how she ate her dinner tonight, tasting it with such concentration and pleasure, and of the first time we made love. Is it all the same to her—the pleasure of the grilled lamb, the pleasure of the breeze through the window, the pleasure of winning the game of Sorry!, the pleasure of my mouth making its way across her belly? Is it only when you’re used to life that you would trade all the other pleasures for that single one?
And then I hear the click of her door opening, the sound of her bare feet brushing against the floor. I wait for our door to swing open.
Instead, the footsteps grow fainter. I listen, my ears hollowing. The house is an empty din of non-noises, a whoosh of silence. Then I hear the door to the garden slide open. I slither out of Lawrence’s embrace and go after her.
I think she might be going to Lawrence’s cottage again, but instead she goes into the garden. I follow her. The ground is wet from the rain, and cold on my bare feet. I’m just in a T-shirt and panties and I find myself hunching against the faint breeze that washes over the garden. Everything is damp and cool and fragrant and ordinary. Jeanine touches leaves and branches as she walks, sending speckles of droplets behind her. Her feet splash across the flagstones. She passes the pool and stops to look at it, lit up from below, a blue glow in the darkness. She stoops down and touches her fingertips to
the water, grazing them over the surface and then plunging them in. We used to swim together at night, back in July. I wonder if I went in now, if I simply ran and dove, if she would come to me and we could begin again. But she gets up, shakes off her hand, and continues, around the corner behind the potting shed, to the machine.
I slow, because I want to know what she has in mind. I want her to have some kind of special knowledge, a way to break the machine open and spill out everything that’s gone in.
“What happened to the one in the video?” she asks as I come around the corner. “The other Jeanine.”
“That’s you,” I say. “You’re Jeanine.”
She shifts her head to look at me out of the corner of her eye.
“I spent all day watching,” she says. “She isn’t me.”
I cannot fathom how she knows this. “She’s the same as you,” I say. “Jeanine. She is you. She went in. You came out.”
Jeanine shakes her head. She doesn’t seem angry. If I didn’t know that she’d just been renewed, I would have said she seemed tired. But there’s still all that energy in her body, its thrumming youth, its impatience. She’s wearing the dress she put on this morning, a simple white cotton one. She bends down and presses the keys that open the lid to the machine.
“How does it work?” she asks as it opens.
I look at the machine’s metal cradle. A latticework of nozzles and spigots is perched over an enclosed square framework that contains the more intricate workings of the machine. There is a drain at the bottom of the chamber.
“Why are you thinking about this now?” I am pleading with her. “You have weeks still.”
The white shape floats closer to me. I can see her dark eyes, the cloud of her hair.
“She had questions,” she says. “She left them for me in a video.”
I think of Jeanine sliding her leg against mine. I can’t tell you or it wouldn’t be a secret.
“I want to read the manual,” she continues. “Where is it?”
“I’m not sure there is a manual,” I say.
“Every machine has a manual,” Jeanine says with school-girl certainty. She shivers and draws her hands up to rub her own shoulders. “Am I exactly the same as the other Jeanine?”
I want her to be. She was supposed to be. But something went wrong. This Jeanine is too brittle, too cold.
“Of course you are,” I say. “You are Jeanine. Come back to the house and I’ll look for the manual.”
She comes toward me and for a moment I think she will take me in her arms and everything will be all right. But then she passes me, a white moth in the darkness, and walks past the pool toward the house. My heart collapses in my chest. I watch her turn the corner. Then I bend down and press the buttons that initiate the next renewal.
It’s wrong, all of it, but I have all night to set things right. When I join her in the kitchen, I will warm a mug of milk and sweeten it with honey, then mix in the powder we keep in the cabinet above the fridge. I’ll stay with her as she grows dopey, and when she’s ready, I’ll lead her back through the garden to the metal cradle where she’ll sleep. It won’t take long to delete Jeanine’s video and search her room for secrets. When morning comes, I’ll be waiting by the Hot House. This time, I won’t waste my chance. This time, we’ll swim naked in the pool.