The stranger’s arms slice the air as he does the robot. This is a date. The dark bar shines and our pints glow gold, and there is a strong musky perfume in the air, not mine, like we are in the bathroom of a beautiful woman. People don’t know how to greet Tony, and sometimes they dance the robot. I can’t blame them. They are like aliens on Tony’s Earth, trying to speak his language.
Tony stands behind my bar stool, waiting in the off position. When I first built him he did not insist on coming everywhere with me, but now he feels it’s best, for my protection. He doesn’t trust men. Alone at home, while Tony is giving me my injections, swabbing my stomach or my leg, he is as gentle as a lover. My friends are amazed at the softness of his touch. I tell them, with pride, that I built him that way.
The morning Mark left me was an injection morning. He was polite in the doorway with his packed bag, the way people are always polite to the sick, like we are cobwebs that might break if we are blown on. After the door closed behind him I went to the refrigerator and calmly took out the needle. I had watched Mark inject me for two years, bending his head close to my abdomen and easing the needle into the fleshiest piece, his ear so close to my navel that he could be listening, if ours were that kind of love. I knew the flaky part in his hair by heart. In my own hand, though, the needle felt strangely light, like there could not possibly be enough matter in there to change the course of a human body.
In the end, the metal tip cold against my skin, I couldn’t do it, even though all it would take was a breath and a plunge. I called my sister to come over on her lunch break. She had never injected me either, and was sloppy and hard about it in her work suit on her nyloned knees in my kitchen, one-two-three-jab, her lips pursed tight like this was a noble science and she was an expert.
That was the day I began building Tony. At first I only had some scrap metal and an old computer, but over time I found I didn’t need my camera, my laptop, my alarm clock as much as I needed Tony, and I took those things apart and used their wires and bolts to complete him. As I eased my toaster oven into his back and turned him on for the first time, his glowing red eyes met mine, and I knew that what I’d done was right. I found I was able to wake up by myself, and there was nothing that needed photographing anymore, now that Mark was gone.
After he finishes his dance, the date makes kind conversation but keeps peeking at Tony over my shoulder, as at a sentry while planning escape.
“Let’s go outside,” he says finally, downing his drink in one swallow. “It’s a waste of the day in here, with the weather so nice.” The sun is almost down and we make our way through the residential neighborhoods, uphill to the park. The date glances at his watch and speeds up. “Four minutes to sunset,” he says. “We can make it if we hustle.” Tony trails us at a stiff slant, his gears whirring. As we hit gravel I hear the tiny stones ricocheting off his gear wells.
The date settles on a bench at the top of the hill and places an arm over the back. I slip inside the crook of his elbow. Tony parks beside us and swivels his neck toward the bay stretching out far, over to the hazy lines of the city.
“Where does he sleep at night?” the date asks, eyeing Tony sidelong.
“My room,” I say, “but he has his own bed.” The date nods seriously, taking this in.
“So you’re a scientist?” he asks.
I tell him no, I’m just a girl.
That night in my bedroom the date takes off his socks and shoes, then folds his pants and his briefs, his UCLA T-shirt and gray pullover, on top of my dresser. For a moment he stands there neatening the sides, so that the tower’s edges align. His buttocks, firmer than Mark’s and whiter, are like twin bowling balls. They clench and unclench, oversized fists. I wonder if he is flexing for me. The date climbs into bed and turns to me. Tony is directly by my side, motionless.
“Couldn’t you ask him…?” the date pleads. “I won’t be able to, if you don’t.”
I look Tony in the eye; he is impassive. I lean in very close.
“Listen,” I tell Tony, brushing his cold, flat head with the back of my hand, “you’ll be more comfortable in your own bed. If I need you, I’ll call for you, I promise.” But Tony will not budge, his red plasticine eyes gleaming. He has backed himself up against the empty drawer where Mark and I kept our condoms.
“I’m sorry,” I tell the date. “Once we turn out the light, he’ll go to bed. He’s just not used to guests.” I switch off the lamp and the date’s body covers mine like a warm, heavy sock. As we roll I catch the glint of Tony’s eyes in the darkness, watching us closely. Go to bed, I mouth, but he will not, just surveys the date’s smooth hairless chest pressing against mine.
The date is bolder than I thought he would be, and soon his hands are over my hips and up my nightgown. When they reach my stomach I flinch because they are so warm. I am used to Tony’s metal hands there, the nodes of his fingers sharp and easy over my skin, the cool antiseptic wipe, the prick of the pin.
“Are you okay?” the date asks. His hand stills on the place where Tony injected me this morning. There is a deep stinging there, a soreness below the surface. Tony has affixed a bandage. “What happened to you?”
I would like to tell him what happened. Imagine a series of boats made out of origami, I want to say, and each quick fold in each of those boats is your stomach. Imagine a fleet of sharks yawning their jaws all at once, and every razored tooth you see is a point in your chest. Imagine yourself on a podium alone in front of your peers, and each of their heads is a light bulb that quietly goes dark until you are alone in the room, the world black except for the oily shine of your own feces like a life raft beneath you. Imagine Mark in the hospital saying he will marry me anyway, every pore in his face closing one by one, tight like doors, with my “yes” breaking the air like a kite in gust, a “yes” that can’t mean what it says. Imagine a building, a city, cells multiplying and bursting like stars, a celebration, and these things are the false instincts my body has developed to protect me from myself. It is a city built to keep others out with their warm hands and their perfect bodies.
Tony is up against the bed now, his wheels spinning. He would like to come up here but does not have knees that bend; I didn’t build him that way.
The date’s perfect, taut buttocks are just the right size for my palms, and I hold them hard to give him a feeling he’ll enjoy. I look him in the eye when I tell him,
“Nothing happened. Everything’s great. I’m all yours.”