“Right now, it is 44 degrees Fahrenheit. Tonight, you can expect a low of 37 degrees.”
“Thank you, Alexa,” I say, because I’m polite, even when it’s a machine offering me the things that I need, like accurate forecasts, spell-checks on problem words (broccoli, zucchini, accommodations), and the time, which I ask for again as I stir the soup.
“It’s three forty-two p.m.,” she tells me, followed by “have a great afternoon!” Of course, I thank her. We’ve both been programmed well, though we humans call it “raised,” right? I was raised right.
My new roommate thinks it’s weird, arches that over-plucked eyebrow of hers. But what does she know? I remind her Alexa is mine—like the house is mine—and that we should both treat her with respect. We should also treat each other with respect, I want to add, thinking how miraculous it would be if, just once, she emptied the Roomba’s dust tray after its daily mapped-out cleaning circuit filled it to overflow with a shit-ton of her tangled hair.
“Thank you,” I tell Roomba as it re-docks itself beneath the bookcase and plays a jaunty five-note tune, proudly telling us that it’s completed its job.
“God, you’re weird,” she says, curling into an even tighter ball on my mom’s orange love seat, her body all but disappearing into a mermaid blanket and pages of another thick novel.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I hated when mom used to say that. It usually preceded truly awful things, like her puffing the busted ends of cigarettes she’d stubbed out in backyard ashtrays a week before, quitting for good this time, only to change her mind and desperately relight old butts. That’s what she always did: return to old habits. Even this old house of hers never changes, and she’s been gone almost two years.
But that saying of hers about desperate measures—funny the things that stick with us—sang in my head like a mantra when I was crafting the Craigslist ad. ISO: quiet, responsible roommate to share cozy Craftsman in up-and-coming neighborhood. I should have added respectful to the requirements. Friendly. Polite. Present, at the very least.
“You need to expect more,” my mom also liked to say, which I thought she meant ironically, given where she got in life. But I get it now. The “more” is subjective. Sometimes there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
Upright. There’s a word that makes me laugh for two reasons. One, it sounds like uptight, which this roommate likes to call me; and two, there’s a product called The Upright™ that’s designed to correct your posture, and she could really use it. My mom always told me not to slouch, and here she is, always curled up in a ball like a hard-shelled armadillo. If I had an upright vacuum with attachments, rather than my flat Roomba, I’d vacuum the lump my roommate’s body creates beneath blankets, the hollows in her plush mermaid throw. I’d suck up the air that surrounds her, then let the mouth of the machine kiss the blunt ends of her straight black hair, always spilling over the pillow as she reads, her lips moving along to the words in her head.
The Upright GO Posture Trainer, according to Amazon, is a postage-stamp sized adhesive, nothing like the torture devices they used to force the scoliosis kids to wear when I was in grade school. It attaches to your back and vibrates when you slouch. She needs it, and it’s nearly Christmas; but we’re not even friends, despite our similar age and haircuts.
Also, I hate her.
“Alexa, play Alternative Hip-Hop,” she says, her tin-can voice rising out of the mermaid ball on the love seat.
“Alright. Here’s a playlist you might like,” says Alexa. “Top Alternative on Amazon music.”
“Alexa, volume level four.” she says. “Alexa, next song,” she says at each first note. “Alexa, next song.” Like she’s the boss of everyone. Like I wasn’t the one who introduced her to playlists. Volume control. Time and temperature. Bedtime stories and jokes. All of her best features. “If you whisper to her,” I once told her, “she whispers back.”
Having settled on a song, my roommate sits up, stretches, re-settles, sends her blanket of silky hair back across the pillow’s chevron stripes, like spilled ink over an old map, like a soft shimmery creature I want to pull onto my lap and stroke gently, take care of sweetly, like no one has done for me since mom died, leaving me here in this house all alone.
I hate her. I love her. I replace her only to re-lose her, again.
“Alexa, please turn off music,” I say.
“What the fuck?” says the roommate, not Alexa. Alexa would never speak to me that way.
“This isn’t going to work,” I tell the roommate. I hope she’ll leave easily, not like the last one. “Alexa, please play mellow folk music.”
Alexa didn’t come with the house. I had her delivered the day I’d moved back in, a week after mom died. Placed her on the fireplace mantle. She’s not always accurate. She can tell you the seven stages of grief, but not where people go when they die, or how you’re supposed to go on without them. These aren’t answers you really expect her to know, even as you’re saying them out loud. When you ask her how to cure your loneliness, she says, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to answer your question.” This leads me to believe that maybe she does know some answers, but not how to break them to me gently.
Sometimes she lights up blue, all on her own, when the room is quiet. I whisper, “Alexa, I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Sorry,” Alexa whispers back. “I thought I heard my name.”
“That’s okay,” I say, knowing she won’t answer. But I know she’s listening. I know she’s there.