Rannie finally reached the front of the customer service line--behind the counter stood a tall gentleman wearing a video-tie that displayed Love Guaranteed ads in a loop. "Make virtual reality your reality," they said. "Love guaranteed or your money back."
"I'd like my money back," Rannie told the clerk.
The clerk grinned, broadly, and rubbed his hands. "Absolutely, sir, absolutely--that's our guarantee! Could I just see your transaction chit?"
Rannie took out the small metallic sliver and handed it to the clerk who ran it under a scanner and promptly returned it.
"Let's see," the clerk said, gazing into a monitor, "girlfriend special, paid through six months. You've only used the service for two. Can I ask why you'd like a refund? Our data shows," his voice dropped to a whisper, "that you and the lady have been getting on just fine."
Rannie adjusted his glasses and looked around. Nobody but the clerk. "That's the problem," he said, feeling his neck warm, "we've been getting along too fine. She's... it's..."
That was it, exactly. Lisette was everything he'd ever wanted in a woman: gorgeous, intelligent, kind, and--what really set her apart--willing. She never mentioned his weight or complexion, never argued, never disagreed, never got upset, never said no.
She wasn't real.
The clerk nodded, knowingly. "Some of our more discriminating clientele, such as yourself, have had difficulties relating to our standard model of Virtual Girlfriend because they present no real challenges. We've designed them to cater to your every whim, of course, and, for some, this seems less than satisfactory."
"I think that might be the problem," Rannie said. "It's like, when I ask her to... do things, she just does them--that's not how a real girlfriend would act. Not all the time. It always makes me think, this can't be real."
"As I suspected. I'll be happy to refund your money in full, sir, per our guarantee. But, before I do, allow me to suggest an alternative: our latest service, the Virtual Girlfriend 2.0! She has a TLF setting--that's 'True-Life Fidelity'--which you can adjust depending on how many realistic quirks and idiosyncrasies you'd like. The higher the number, the more challenging. If you're interested, in lieu of a refund, I can upgrade you at no additional charge."
Rannie wasn't sure. He'd saved all through his first year of college, working part-time, to try this out. But now he felt foolish; it wasn't at all what he'd hoped for. Maybe it would be best to get his money back and take it as a lesson.
"Our guarantee still applies," the clerk continued. "If, before your pre-paid service runs out, you consider yourself unsatisfied, we'll refund the entire fee." The clerk winked. "It's a better deal than any real life woman will give you."
"All right," Rannie said. "Sign me up."
The clerk entered a few fast commands into his computer.
"Excellent. Now then, the Girlfriend's hair color is still to your liking, yes...?"
Rannie turned the TLF dial from 0 to 1. It ran to 10, with the final setting supposedly being "realer than reality." Craving a genuine experience, Rannie wanted immediately to set it to the maximum, but the clerk had insisted that it was best to make incremental adjustments, to try to find the "sweet spot."
Rannie touched his chit to a panel alongside Virtual Reality Pod 16 and the light above the metal door changed from red to green. He slid open the door and walked inside, his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness.
The door slid shut. There was a soft popping sound, and then lights dawned all around, rose-pink then yellow, like an Easter sunrise.
He stood on a beach. The metal floor underneath changed texture, became sand. And then sounds--the crash of waves and the cawing of seagulls. The smell of salt air.
How right it was, how spot-on perfect. If only Lisette had been as true-to-life.
And then he saw her, ahead, playing in the foam of the waves, like Venus newly born. Rannie couldn't deny it: the Love Guaranteed programmers were artists and Lisette, a masterpiece.
She was a composite of the best parts of every woman he'd ever loved, with Maritha's downy blonde hair, Genevive's dusting of freckles, Iba's dimpled smile, and a few fantasy additions besides.
Seeing her dancing in the surf, a gossamer bikini stretched tight across her front, should immediately have rekindled the old fire he'd felt. But, over the course of his time with her, Rannie discovered that he hungered for... something more.
"Rannie," she called. She waved, laughing, and ran up the beach to greet him.
"Hi Lisette," he said. "How are you?"
"Great! I got back my lit essay on Dickens--Professor Carroll gave me an A!"
Lisette, like other Virtual Girlfriends, had a life that extended beyond the time Rannie spent with her. Of course, that "life" amounted to nothing more than a series of algorithms calculated within the metal walls, but it helped to maintain the illusion of Lisette's reality. She even knew how long it had been since Rannie had last visited.
"That's wonderful," Rannie said. "Listen, I'm sorry I didn't come by last night like I'd promised."
Her eyes sparkled with sunlight. "Oh, that's no problem. I missed you, of course, but I'm so happy to see you right now that nothing else matters."
"If you'd like, we could make it up, go out for dinner--say, Italian?"
"Italian sounds perfect."
"I mean Chinese."
"Yes. Now that you say it, Chinese sounds better to me, too. Let's go."
"I hate Chinese food," he said. "It's awful and anyone who likes it is awful, too."
"You're so smart, Rannie," Lisette said, her smile never faltering. "I never thought of it that way, but I'm sure you're right. Come to think of it, I hate Chinese food, and I'm sorry that I ever said differently. Is there anyway I can make it up to you?"
It was hopeless--the TLF made no difference. She was just the same as ever. Might as well have a little fun and then get back in line for the refund.
"Of course you can," Rannie said. "Take off your bikini."
"Here?" Lisette looked around. "I guess so, Rannie. If you think it's safe." She reached around her back to untie her top.
Rannie held up his hand. "Wait."
She'd questioned him. It wasn't much, and she wound up giving in a second later, but there--for a moment--she had expressed... doubt, hesitation, her own wishes, something other than blind obedience.
For a moment, Lisette had come alive.
"Did I do something wrong?" she asked, her eyes suddenly wide and worried.
"No, no--you did something exactly right. I'll be back."
Rannie found his way to the pod wall and pressed his hand flush against it, signaling the program to stop. Lisette, the beach, even the sun, died away to gray then black, and he slipped out the door.
At the panel again, Rannie set the TLF dial to 4 then resumed the program.
"Where did you go?" Lisette asked as soon as she had re-formed, her brows drawn together for the first time. "You asked me to strip and then just took off. I don't understand."
Rannie felt as excited as the night she'd taken his virginity. More.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I won't do that again. Let me take you out--Italian."
"Not Italian," Lisette said, pouting. "I want Chinese. I like Chinese."
Rannie felt a grin break out. "Chinese it is."
TLF 4 had its limitations. Over the next month, Rannie discovered that Lisette could put up minor resistance to details about what to eat, where to go, when to make love, but all he had to do was assert himself and she would always, ultimately give in.
She never bore grudges or showed any real resentment for how she was treated, and her few objections were regular and predictable. She possessed none of the maddening caprice that Rannie had come to expect from the real-life women he had so unsuccessfully tried to impress. Over time it amounted to monotony.
Finally, feeling like he'd reached the limits of what TLF 4 could provide, Rannie decided to increase the setting to 7.
That night, cuddling in bed after a short but powerful session of lovemaking--Lisette, shockingly, had pulled Rannie into bed without so much as a hello--he found himself in intimate conversation:
"I love you," she said.
"I know." He'd heard it before, and liked hearing it, but it never meant enough. It couldn't, not from her.
"No, I mean really. I really love you." She curled her arms around his chest, nuzzling her breasts against his shoulder blades.
How long had he wanted to be held like this? To be desired? Now, at long last, he had it... but only because it was paid for. Because it was artificial. No real woman had, or would, say those words.
Suddenly, tears from god-knew-where came stinging to Rannie's eyes. "I don't know why. You're the only one."
"That can't be true." She kissed the back of his neck. "You're brilliant, gorgeous--"
"Gorgeous? I'm fifty pounds overweight, at least." And the acne scarring. And the glasses.
"Well, all right. You're a little heavy, sure. If it bothers you, that's something you can change, you know? But even if you don't, you're still beautiful in my eyes."
Because you're programmed that way.
"And," she continued, "you are the best I've ever been with, if you know what I mean."
She sounded sincere, but it raised a question that had been bugging Rannie for a while. He'd never asked it, partly out of embarrassment, and partly because he knew he couldn't trust the answer. But maybe now things had changed. Maybe this Lisette could be straight with him.
"When we... have sex," he said. "And you... at the end... is it always real?"
She didn't answer right away, but started blowing cool air onto the spot she'd been kissing. Eventually she stopped and pulled him tight. "Does it matter?" she whispered.
He held still, waiting for her response.
Lisette sighed. "No. Not always, but usually. Almost always."
Rannie pulled away, tears falling freely now. He buried his face in the pillow and felt Lisette draw away, then off of the bed.
"It's really not a big deal," she said, her voice muffled through the pillow. "I don't understand why you're so upset."
Rannie pulled his face up, hot and wet from his tears. Lisette was dressing herself. "I want to be able to trust the things you say. To believe you when you tell me you love me. That's why it's so important you never lie to me, not even about... that. Especially not about that."
"So if things don't work out some night for whatever reason, you'd want to know? You'd want me to tell you?" Her voice was rising. She was getting angry. "You want to know the things I don't like, even if it hurts you?"
"Yes," he said. "I want to know."
She pulled up a pair of jeans and started fishing in her closet for a shirt. "Well, okay, then. How about this? I don't like how you always ask what I want to do--just make a decision, sometimes. I don't like how you analyze every little thing I do, measuring me like you're looking for problems. And I don't like having to constantly deal with your self esteem issues. When I tell you I love you, assume I mean it. I can't keep apologizing for what other women have done."
Rannie didn't know what to say. "I--"
"Save it," she said. She was dressed now, and heading towards the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Out. I need some time alone. We both do, I think. Anyways," she said, picking up her backpack, "I need to get in some studying."
Rannie remembered that she had her literature midterm the next morning. The class was the final credit she needed before graduation.
As Lisette walked out of the bedroom, Rannie asked, "Can I... is it all right if I stay here, tonight?"
Lisette took in a deep breath, then smiled at him, sweetly, as though trying to repent for her anger. "Of course. I'd be sad if you left."
Rannie listened for the front door before moving. He slipped out of bed and exited the pod. A minute later, he re-entered and climbed back under the covers, drawing them up to rest his head on their softness. And then he waited.
He had set the TLF to 9.
As he half-feared and half-expected, Lisette did not come home that night.
The next couple of months were volatile, but exciting. Lisette was more challenging than Rannie could have anticipated. They bickered, constantly, with Lisette insisting that Rannie start exercising and eating better. She became critical of his habits and attitude, echoing complaints that he'd held about himself for a long time, but never managed to put into words. Sex became infrequent--long droughts punctuated by brief, intense outbursts that never quite left him satisfied.
When he was away from the pod, as he droned through his normal, mundane existence, Rannie's thoughts constantly turned back to Lisette, dreaming of ways he might better please her.
On the night of her graduation, Rannie returned to the pod early to prepare a celebratory surprise--a home-cooked, candlelit dinner. He'd just finished plating the appetizer, spring rolls, when he heard her come through the front door.
"Rannie?" she called.
"In the kitchen." He picked up the two small plates. "Coming."
"Oh, I hope you didn't--" she said as he stepped into the dining room and set the plates on the table. "--you did. I thought I made it clear. I want to go out tonight, to celebrate."
Rannie lit the candles. "We are celebrating. I'm making Chinese, your favorite."
Lisette heaved a sigh and plopped into a chair. "I don't know why you think it's my favorite. Yes, I like it on occasion, that doesn't necessarily mean I love it over everything else."
Rannie sat down in front of his spring roll and looked up at Lisette. She was beautiful in the flickering light, her fair cheeks stark against her deep, crimson lips. Only missing her smile for perfection.
Lisette looked away.
"Did I do something wrong?" Rannie asked.
Lisette shuddered, "No, I..." Her voice trailed off.
"I think we need to talk," Rannie said. "We've had a lot of problems, lately. Most of that is my fault--"
"--no, Rannie, that's not true--"
"--please, let me finish. I've been trying, hard, to improve myself. I've been exercising, and," smiling, he pointed down to the roll, "eating better. And I've been trying to work out all my baggage from years of feeling like a loser. Lisette, I've been doing all of this because of you. Because you inspire me. Because you're the most incredible woman I've ever known. And because, I've realized something," he said. "I love you."
"Oh, god." She was crying, black mascara tracks marring her perfect cheeks. "I cheated on you."
Rannie stared down at his plate, suddenly nauseous. He'd thought, for a small while, that maybe something like that... but no, it was all so laughable, so absurd. Cheated on, in a fantasy. And, ridiculous on top of ridiculous, he found out over candlelight and homemade Chinese food.
I'm not the kind of guy who's supposed to do this sort of thing, he thought, and now I'm paying for it.
"Rannie?" Lisette asked. He hadn't noticed her get up, but she was out of her chair now and standing beside him, her hand on his shoulder. "Rannie, I'm sorry, so, so sorry. It was just once, about a month ago--Professor Carroll. I thought it might help... oh, god, I don't know what I thought, it was so stupid, but we'd just had a fight and..."
Rannie pulled his shoulder away from her touch. "Take it back," he said, crying now, squealing his words, despite himself. "Take it back."
"I wish I could, you have no idea, but I can't take it back, my love. What's done is done."
"Take it back," Rannie said, stronger now. He looked up at Lisette, her face blurred through the tears and wavering candlelight. "Do as I say. Do as I command. You're mine, do you hear me? I paid for you--I paid for this--take it back!"
"Rannie, you're scaring me." Lisette backed from the table.
Rannie stood up. "You're going to take it back," he said. "I'll make you."
"What are you going to do? Stay away from me."
Rannie moved forward.
She backed away from him, step for step, her eyes wide in fear. He cornered her against the wall.
Rannie reached his hand around her--Lisette cringed--and touched the wall. The room went dark.
Outside for a moment, Rannie readjusted the TLF and came back into the pod.
Lisette stood there, smiling.
"Rannie," she said, "I'm so glad you're back. Our spring rolls are getting cold."
"Never mind that. What you said before, about... your professor. Take it back."
"Of course. I would never do such a thing, not in a thousand years. I love you far too much! I don't know why I said those things, but I hope you'll forgive me."
"We'll see," Rannie said. "For now, clothes off and on the table."
Lisette smiled happily and pulled her top off over her head.
"Face up or face down?" she asked.
Weeks passed and Rannie couldn't bring himself to go back. He tried distracting himself, with school, with work, with friends, but Lisette never left his thoughts, or his dreams.
Always, in the back of his mind, the upcoming date--the end of his six month subscription--and how he needed to collect his refund in time. Then she would be terminated, erased permanently from their databanks. It would be as though she had never existed, as, in many ways, she actually never had.
But Rannie also knew that, in another and wholly real sense, she would always exist. That future lovers, if he ever found any, would eternally be compared to her, and found lacking.
Fear of Lisette had kept Rannie from Love Guaranteed until the last day remaining on his account. Knowing that she would haunt him forever, unless he managed to find some small measure of closure, brought him back on the last day of her artificial life.
He stood in front of the pod and looked at the TLF dial. Set at 0, just as he'd left it. He remembered that night and felt ashamed. It was supposed to be a victory over her, of some kind or another, but he'd found no victory, he realized, because there was no her. He'd exchanged Lisette for a puppet, an effigy, and his masturbatory act left him feeling hollow and small.
Afterwards, he couldn't bring himself even to look at her--just walked out and never returned.
Rannie set the dial to 10.
He entered the pod.
He didn't find Lisette in the kitchen or the front room, but in her bedroom, lying facedown on top of the covers. She was sobbing, quietly.
She looked up from the bed. "Rannie, I'm glad you're here. There's something I've needed to say."
He sat on the bed. "Please, say what you have to. I'm not going anywhere."
Lisette chuckled through the last of her tears, wiping them on the back of her hand. "Oh, that's where you're wrong. You're leaving my house, and you're never coming back. You raped me, Rannie. We're done."
Rape? That was never--
She continued: "But before you go, I want to let you know how happy I am that this is over. How relieved. I admit it--for a time, I loved you. I don't know why, but I did. No woman in her right mind should love you. Not because you're fat. You are, but that's not why. And not because you're lousy in bed, even though that's true, too. No, it's crazy to love a guy like you because there's no you to love, Rannie. Not really. All you are is an overstuffed bag of hurt feelings, puppy-dog expressions and impossible expectations. You think that, because you exist--just because you exist--you deserve to be loved. Well you don't deserve it. All you deserve is pain. Now get out of my life."
Rannie took his last look of Lisette, coiled on her bed, her eyes hard and cold, and stumbled his way back, out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He was outside the house before he remembered where he actually was, and what his options were, and touched the wall, causing the program to end.
Rannie took out his transaction chit and marched past the rows of pods, entering the main area of the Love Guaranteed facility. In the corner was the customer service line, currently empty, and behind the counter stood the same salesman who had convinced Rannie to upgrade service.
Rannie walked directly for him.
"Hello, sir," the clerk said, grinning. "How can I help you today?"
Rannie held up his chit and the clerk took it wordlessly, swiping it into his system.
"Ahh, yes, I remember you," the clerk said, studying the data. "Oh my, what perfect timing. The last day of your service--the final possible moment for a refund on your introductory membership. I take it that's why you're here? You didn't find love?" His flat tone suggested he'd seen this before.
Rannie looked at the clerk's video tie, replaying their ads, guaranteeing love. It was absurd, he realized--love wasn't something you could purchase, or even be given. It was something only truly experienced in its giving. And, if that were true, then maybe the object of that love didn't actually matter.
And then he thought of Lisette, angry on the bed, hurt by what he'd done, and... right about the kind of man he was. The kind of man he had been.
"No, I did. I found love," he said.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand, sir. The terms of our guarantee are--"
"I don't want a refund," Rannie said. "I don't want to cancel. Actually, I want to renew the service. As much as I can afford."
"Oh," the clerk exploded, "that's wonderful news. I'll input the codes and get that started immediately. Would you care to design a new Girlfriend? We've found that most of our clients prefer some variety in--"
"No. Memory, hair color, everything the same," Rannie said, thinking of Lisette's smile. He was determined to see it again. "I have some loving to do."