“Promise you won’t call it Virtual Grave,” Vica said as they turned onto Vadik’s street. “The name’s a downer.”
“Well, the entire idea is about death. And death happens to be a downer,” Sergey said.
They had been discussing this the whole time in the car, all the way from their home in Staten Island to Vadik’s new apartment in Morningside Heights, and Vica was getting tired.
“You’re not getting it, are you?” Vica asked. “Death is a downer. But your app is about fighting death. That’s why you should be talking about immortality, not death.”
Sergey groaned and squeezed the steering wheel tighter.
He’d been steadily losing his looks for the last year or two. He used to be one of the handsomest guys in their school. Everybody said that he looked like a French movie star. Now, his angular features became unsteady and incomplete as if worn down by constant disappointment, even his wiry frame became kind of unwired and clouded with fat. Vica had been watching the demise of his former splendor with mixed feelings. There were times when she felt sorry for him. There were times when she gloated. But mostly she felt cheated.
“How about calling it No to Death or No, Death, No?” she asked.
“No, Death, what?”
Sergey started to laugh. His laugh was throaty and coarse and sounded a lot like a cough, like a very bad cough. And it seemed to sputter resigned disapproval, as if he was trying to say that he found her disgusting and stupid, but he was used to her and almost okay with it.
Vica hated his laugh so much that she wanted to kick him, but instead she proceeded with her instructions.
“Make sure it doesn’t sound like a pitch, okay? Because if Bob catches even a whiff of a pitch he will shut you out. You have to be subtle and stealthy. We’re coming to see Vadik’s apartment, and we’ll talk about his apartment, and then when Bob is happy and drunk, you’ll just mention it, okay? Not to Bob, but to everybody. And don’t wait until Bob gets so drunk that he misses your pitch. Okay?”
“Why don’t I just shout: ‘Nodeathno!’ Would that be subtle enough?” Sergey asked and burst out laughing.
This time Vica did kick him.
They parked too close to the curb. The right front wheel was on the pavement, but Sergey shot Vica such a look that she decided to keep silent.
Vadik’s street was a narrow one, with crooked five-story houses clinging together. Bare trees. Piles of garbage bags gleaming under the street-lamps.
The building looked dark, empty and new, seemingly out of place, as if it was built there by mistake.
“It has a terrace! I love it!” he had told them.
“I’ll give him two months to start hating it,” Sergey said to Vica.
Vadik had moved to New York only eight years ago, but this was his sixth housewarming party.
The problem wasn’t that Vadik couldn’t find a suitable place to live, but that he couldn’t figure out what kind of place would be suitable. For most people, the choice of place would be determined by their financial situation, social status, and personality. For immigrants, it was more challenging. They couldn’t figure out what their social status was, their financial future was murky, and relying on one’s personality seemed too frivolous. Most immigrants just picked a ready-made “house in suburbs/ski trip every year” lifestyle. That was exactly what Vica and Sergey did. Not Vadik, though. He decided to let his personality guide him, which turned out to be problematic. “Vadik shed his old personality when he left Russia, and the new one didn’t grow yet,” Sergey said after Vadik’s fourth housewarming. “What he has now is a set of borrowed personalities that he changes on a whim.”
“Oh, you’re just jealous,” she replied.
But this wasn’t true. It was Vica who was jealous of Vadik. Jealous of Regina, too.
They went to the same school in Russia. All four of them: Sergey and Vadik, and Vica and Regina. It was an old famous school. They were about equally smart—with Sergey being the most imaginative, Vadik the most flexible, Regina the most reflective, and Vica the most diligent. The amount of work they put in wasn’t equal, but they got the same grades. They all wanted to leave the country. And after the graduation they all applied to several business schools in the US. Sergey was the only one who got accepted. Free ride and all. He and Vica had just gotten married, and they were going to America! Such amazing luck!
The idea was that Vica would support them while Sergey was in school—and then after he found a good job, she would go to school to work on her master’s. For a while it was working out as planned. Vica received her license as an ultrasound technician, found a job. Sergey studied hard, got high grades, graduated with honors. Who would’ve thought that he’d turn out to be such a loser at finding—and especially keeping—jobs? By the time Vadik finally made it to the US (invited to work as a computer programmer for a very prestigious company), Sergey had been fired from yet another job, and Vica had realized that there was no chance that she would ever go back to school. Especially since they now had a child to support. Two children. “I have two children,” Vica loved to say, meaning both her son and her husband.
About a year ago, Sergey had stopped looking for a job. He now spent his time in his favorite part of their Staten Island home—the dark moldy basement—scouting the internet, hoping to come up with an app idea that would make him successful. Just like Bob, Regina’s husband who founded a company called DigiSly. Just like Vadik who was now employed by DigiSly. The app that made Bob rich was called LoveDirect and was designed to help grandmothers deal with their electronic picture frames. With LoveDirect, children and grandchildren sent photos from their phones directly to their grandmothers’ frames. The new images popped up automatically as soon as they were sent. All Bob’s ideas were like that—simple, practical, and banal. But it was the banal apps that sold. If only Sergey could think of something like that, instead of coming up with his stupid existential shit. He had the mind of a scholar, not a businessman. It was genetic. Both his parents, and three of his grandparents, were college professors. Five years ago, Sergey asked her if he could possibly go back to school to work on his Ph.D. She’d been supporting him all those years, and now he wanted to spend more time studying? She wanted to smack him on the head, but all she said was, “Excuse me?” And he said, “Forget it.” Now, she kind of regretted it.
“You’re here! You’re here! You’re here! The boy genius and our perpetually angry little lynx!”
Vadik squeezed both of them in a hug. He wore an apron over skinny jeans and new expensive cologne. He was too tall and burly for an apron, and too Russian-looking for skinny jeans. And he shouldn’t have shaved his clumpy beard! He had that beard on and off. When he had it, Vica would pull on it and complain how ugly it looked. But when he shaved it, she found herself missing it. She thought if he still had that beard, “the angry lynx” would have sounded nicer and funnier.
“Come in, don’t just stand there!” Vadik said and prodded Vica on the back.
The entire apartment was dominated by an open kitchen. A huge marble counter with the stove in the middle that jutted right into the room. There was very little other furniture. No dinner table, no chairs. Just a coffee table next to a skinny leather couch, and a large flat screen clipped to an empty wall.
“Nice! It has a futuristic-lab vibe,” Sergey said.
“Two bedrooms?” Vica asked.
“One,” Vadik said, “but enormous. There are two bathrooms—one right off the kitchen. And wait till you see the terrace!”
“Where is Sejun?” Vica asked.
“She’s back at Stanford, studying for her orals. I don’t know. I like her. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“We all are,” Sergey said, and Vica kicked him a little. They all secretly joked about the fact that Vadik couldn’t keep a girlfriend for more than two months. But perhaps this had to do with his quest to find a fitting personality. Once he found it, he would know what kind of girl he was looking for.
That was another thing that made Vica jealous of Vadik. He was free to make bad choices. He could do something and immediately undo it. She was stuck with what she had. Forever. The word forever made her head spin with horror.
“How’s Eric?” Vadik asked.
“Good, fine,” Vica answered, “stuck with Sergey’s mom.”
She was always surprised when Vadik inquired about their son. Most of the time he seemed to forget about Eric’s existence. He had a daughter somewhere in Russia—she must have been at least nine. He never talked about her.
“What’s that about?” Sergey asked, tugging on Vadik’s apron.
“Exploring gourmet cuisine,” Vadik said.
“Uh-huh,” Sergey said.
“I bought an immersion cooker and this amazing new app to go with it. It’s called KitchenDude. It tells me what to do. And after I put the food on the stove, I get texts that inform me about the progress. Like, right now I have osso buco in there, and I’ll get a text when it’s ready.”
Vica sighed. Another maddeningly banal app.
“What did you call it? Bossa Nova?” Sergey asked.
“Osso buco!” Vica corrected him. “I can’t believe you don’t know this dish. It’s mentioned in every TV series.”
Something buzzed with an alarming intensity.
“The Bossa Nova ringing you?” Sergey asked.
“Osso buco!” Vica hissed.
“No, our friends are ringing me,” Vadik said and rushed to open the door.
Regina raised both her arms to hug Vadik, a frosted bottle of champagne in each hand. When Regina was younger, people often commented that she was a dead ringer for Julia Roberts. Vica had always found it ridiculous. Regina did have a long nose and a big mouth—that was true, but she had never been pretty. She had always been clumsy and unkempt and not very hygienic. Now that she was a rich man’s wife, she did manage to clean up a bit, but she seemed to wear her newfound wealth as a thin layer over her former subpar self. Her monstrously crooked toes showed through her Manolo sandals, and her long Nicole Miller dress clung to her deeply flawed body. Bob was different. Bob was so neatly packed into his clothes that they appeared to be drawn on him. He had a solid frame of a former football star and a shaved head that gleamed under Vadik’s fluorescent lights. His face was impenetrable like a marble egg. Regina said that he wasn’t “really” rich. Not like dot-com billionaires. Not at all. What he had was a moderate success, and he would never become a billionaire. He was too old—the field belonged to the young guys. In fact, Bob would’ve laughed if he knew that Vica considered him rich. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Vica thought.
She watched how Bob inched past them and planted himself on the couch. She couldn’t read his expression. Vica had lived in this country for fifteen years, but she still couldn’t understand Americans. Especially American men. She had a vague understanding of women, because she’d watched every season of Sex and the City three times over. A man like Bob—what made him tick?
“Death makes him tick,” Regina told her once. “He’s scared of death.”
“Isn’t this true for everybody?” Vica asked.
“No. When we think of death, we just get depressed. But Bob’s been gearing up to fight it.”
Vica made a mental note to remember that.
“Vica!” Regina cooed, reaching to hug her but not quite making it. Regina’s eyes had recently developed a strange glazed look as if she had trouble focusing. People thought that Regina was perpetually stoned, but Vica knew that glaze came from watching old TV shows on Netflix for eight to twelve hours a day. She didn’t have children and she didn’t have to work for a living. Her degree in linguistics combined with her halting English didn’t leave her many options to fill her time in a more meaningful way. She would wake up in her enormous Tribeca loft, make herself a pot of coffee, and spend the day on the couch watching Frasier and Seinfeld and Cheers. The loft had one of the best views in the city, but Regina preferred to keep the blinds closed to avoid the glare on her TV screen. “When I think what it does to my brain,” Regina said to Vica, “I imagine a melting ice cream cone, all gooey and dripping.”
Vica wondered if Regina remembered that she owed her good fortune to Vica. Regina met Bob when she came to spend a week with Vica and Sergey. Vica designed a very tight cultural program for them, but then one evening, when they were going to see a Broadway show, both Sergey and Eric came down with flu, so Vica had to stay. She made Regina go alone. “Make sure you sell the extra ticket!” she told her again and again. Regina sold the extra ticket to Bob. Six months later he asked her to marry him. Asked Regina! Regina, with her toes and her ill-fitting jeans. Some people were just lucky like that.
Sergey sat down next to Bob.
“So, Bob,” he said. “How’s it going with your company?”
“Can’t complain. What about you?”
“Funny you should ask. I’ve been working on something really amazing.”
Vica tensed and frowned at Sergey. Now was not the time! Sergey had no idea how to be subtle. Every time they saw Bob, Sergey would just pitch him head-on. Last year at Regina’s birthday, Sergey cornered Bob in the kitchen and started whispering in his shaky drunken English, spitting into Bob’s ear and into the bowl with Regina’s homemade gazpacho that Bob was holding in his hands. “Bob, listen. Listen, Bob. We need an app that would provide immediate physical contact to people who need it. Like a touch or hug. Real touch. The opposite of virtual! Like when you’re feeling lonely, and you’re, let’s say, in Starbucks or at the mall, and you press a button and find somebody in the vicinity—in the same Starbucks, or in the same fucking Macy’s—who wouldn’t mind holding your hand, or patting you on the shoulder. Do you get it, Bob? Bob?” And Bob winced, and shrugged, and tried to squeeze past him or at least to move the bowl away from Sergey’s face. Finally, he shook his head and said: “You people think of apps as this new gold rush.”
“Yes, we do,” Sergey said. “What is so wrong about that?”
“Oh, my poor friend,” Bob smirked.
The mere memory made Vica shudder. She grabbed Sergey by a sleeve and dragged him away from Bob.
They drank champagne on the terrace.
The door to the terrace was in the bedroom, so they had to walk along the long hall and then through the bedroom past Vadik’s unmade bed. Vica found his crumpled mismatched sheets stirringly indecent.
Outside, they crowded together with their glasses, sipping champagne, leaning over the railing. Regina’s dress and Vadik’s apron billowed in the wind. It was too bad that none of them had long hair. The view wasn’t that great. All they could see in the waning light was patches of yellowed sky blocked by uneven rows of taller buildings. Yet, everybody found one or another way to express delight. Regina pressed her hands to her chest. Bob whistled. Sergey sighed. Vica choked on her champagne.
Vadik pounded her on the back.
“Better?” he asked. She nodded.
His expensive cologne had worn off, and he now had his dear familiar smell of briny pickles. She remembered that smell ever since they spent two hours on Vadik’s couch. It was three weeks before her wedding. They were both so clumsy that she scratched her right cheek against the buckle of his belt. She even drew a little blood. Vadik acted as if he had long forgotten those two hours. One hour and forty minutes to be exact. He was right. It was wiser to forget.
“That’s good champagne!” Sergey said.
Bob grinned: “I bought it using my new app.”
He reached into his pocket and took out his phone. Everybody gathered around him to look. Bob tapped on the surface. A picture of a tuxedoed man with a wine glass in his hands appeared on the screen.
“We call it DrinkingGent. It’s really simple. All you do is scan the label with your phone, and look what happens.”
He scanned the label of the empty champagne bottle, and the tuxedoed man nodded at him with approval.
“He shakes his head if he hates the wine, and he shrugs if the wine is not in our database.”
“My Bobik is a genius!” Regina said and licked him behind the ear, which was a weird way to show affection. Bobik was a number-one dog name in Russia. Vica wondered if Bob knew that. But how could he know that? His only knowledge of Russia came from the words of his beautiful wife who told him that she came from a famous and very cultured Russian family. Her grandparents were persecuted under Stalin, her father was a renowned artist, her mother used to date Brodsky. All of that was true to a certain degree, but also mostly untrue. Vica once told Sergey that she knew why Bob married Regina. It was really simple. After he had gotten rich, he developed an old-fashioned American desire to invest in some old-country culture and a philanthropic cause. Regina seemed to provide him with both.
“You’re so mean!” Sergey said.
They were still admiring DrinkingGent, taking turns tapping on the screen to make him come out like some animal or a fairy-tale creature.
“Cool app,” Sergey said, “but you know what else would be cool?”
No! Vica thought. You can’t bring up death right after that stupid drinking gent, and Bob wasn’t nearly drunk enough for a pitch. She shook her head at Sergey. He bit his lip and looked away.
A shrill persistent ringing came from the vicinity of Vadik’s crotch.
“Bossa Nova?” Sergey asked.
“Osso buco!” Vica corrected.
“Sejun!” Vadik said and rushed to answer. His face immediately broke into a bright idiotic smile. He whispered something into the phone, then pressed it to his ear, then whispered something again.
“Guys, say hi to Sejun,” he said and turned the phone toward them.
A fuzzy woman whose face took up an entire screen said, “Hi.” She sounded rather indifferent.
They all greeted her.
“Sejun,” Vadik asked, “can you see us well?”
She sighed again. “No, I can only see your legs. I like your sandals.”
She meant Regina. In Russia, Vica was the best-dressed one. Here, nobody ever complimented her on her shoes or clothes.
“Sejun, move away from the screen so we can see you!”
“I don’t want to.”
Vadik took the phone, turned away from them, and whispered something to the screen. Sejun whispered something back. They kept whispering until the tones of their voices changed from intimate to mildly annoyed to angry. Their whispering turned into hissing.
“I’m switching to the iPad,” Vadik said, “better connection there.”
He dropped the phone onto the bed, picked up the iPad, and dialed.
A larger, fuzzier Sejun appeared on the iPad screen.
“What now?” she asked.
Vadik headed toward the bathroom.
“Hey, where are you carrying me?” she protested. “I don’t like it, when you’re carrying me places.”
“I have to show you my new shower curtain!”
Vadik carried Sejun into the bathroom and closed the door behind them.
“He didn’t show us the curtain,” Regina said, yawning.
“I’m pretty sure he’s gonna show her something else,” Sergey said.
Regina didn’t get it, but Bob started to laugh like crazy. Disgusting, Vica thought.
Something buzzed again. The sound came from the phone on Vadik’s bed. Sergey rushed toward the bedroom.
“Don’t answer it,” Vica said, “it’s private!”
“What if it’s a text from Osso Bosso?” Sergey said, checking the number.
“The caller ID says ‘Kitchen Dude.’ What do I do?”
“Just open it!” Vica said.
“Okay. It says: ‘Your food is ready, dude.’”
“Did it say ‘dude’?” Bob asked.
“It did! It said ‘dude’!”
Vica snatched the phone from him and headed toward the bathroom.
“Hey, don’t!” Sergey said. “Don’t disturb them!”
But Vica was already pounding on the bathroom door.
“What?” Vadik asked.
“What do we do about the osso buco?”
“Take care of it!”
Vadik’s kitchen did have a futuristic-lab feel. Worse than that—it looked positively scary. There were all kinds of gadgets, all of them high tech, gleaming, and enormous.
The stove was empty, as was the pressure cooker, as was a strange machine to the right of the pressure cooker. The only thing that seemed alive and working was a square plastic box that looked like as an oversized microwave with a cockpit panel on it. Was that the immersion cooker? The red light was blinking on top of the thing.
Vica wanted to open it and to check what was inside, but she couldn’t find any part that would open or detach from the rest.
“I can’t open it!” she yelled.
“Easy,” Bob said.
He was standing in the doorway with a full glass of champagne in his hand. He handed it to Vica. The glass had imprints of Bob’s fingers on it. Vica took it and sipped.
“Drink up,” Bob said.
She did. There was something about Bob that made her listen to him. She wondered how old he was. He had to be ten to fifteen years older than Regina. Which made him what? Fifty?
His eyes were blue. Very small. Very bright. Slightly bloodshot. He was standing too close to Vica. She could feel the heat emanating off his body through his expensive shirt.
“You’re a very delicate woman, Vica. Very delicate. Very unusual. You’re a very special woman, Vica. I want you to know that.”
Vica felt dizzy. Nobody had ever called her delicate. Nobody saw that in her. Why the fuck couldn’t they see it? She was delicate!
Bob moved closer. If he continued moving forward, he would crush her against Vadik’s counter.
She was suddenly overcome with an intense smell of meat. She couldn’t understand if it was coming from the immersion cooker or from Bob.
She was about to faint when she heard voices coming from the living room. Sergey and Regina must have come back from the terrace.
“Osso buco,” Vica said. “What do we do about the osso buco, Bob?”
“Don’t worry about osso buco,” he said and let her go. “I’ll take care of it.”
Vica walked away from Bob and went into the guest bathroom. It was tiny and dark, not nearly as nice as the bathroom adjacent to the bedroom. The memories of Bob’s smell, Bob’s heat, and Bob’s desire for her were so intense that she had trouble peeing. How strange that they had met so many times before and he never seemed to notice her. Well, he noticed her now. Would he want to have an affair with her? He must! They would meet in posh hotels that had bathrobes and slippers and little pillows on the bed. They would have dinners in the best restaurants that served butter in little silver dishes. She would finally try foie gras and chocolate soufflé, and maybe even one of those omakaze meals at the Japanese place. And he would buy that La Perla slip she saw in the window of the shop on West Broadway. And then Bob would leave Regina and marry her. She deserved somebody like Bob so much more than Regina! She could pretend to be cultural just as well. She could even invent a grandfather who perished under Stalin’s regime, and a grandmother who dated Stravinsky or Balanchine. Bob was getting tired of Regina anyway. But what about Eric? Oh, Eric would be fine. Bob would pay for a private school and take him skiing in the Italian Alps. They usually skied in the Poconos, and Eric complained how icy and crowded the slopes were. He would like the Italian Alps so much better. Would it be too much to ask Bob to pay for her graduate school? What about Sergey, though? She imagined him all alone in their moldy basement littered with Eric’s old toys and discarded household items. Sitting in his favorite chair, in the dark, his face wet, his shoulders trembling. A sudden rush of affection for Sergey cut through her like a sharp pain. The odd thing was that she had never wanted to leave him. Vica washed her hands, splashed some water onto her neck, and went out of the bathroom.
It’d gotten darker outside, and the living roomwas now bathed in a soft light coming from Vadik’s floor lamp. Vadik wasn’t there yet, and Bob must have still been busy with the osso buco. Sergey and Regina were alone in the room. Taking the dishes out of the cupboard, setting them on the coffee table. Talking. The coziness of the scene made Vica so sick that she considered going back to the bathroom.
Sergey and Regina used to date back in college, and their friendship had always made Vica uncomfortable. Sergey had actually dumped Regina to be with Vica, and for years Vica had expected Regina to get back at her, harm her in some way. If Vica was in her place, she wouldn’t have accepted defeat with such calm. “But she is not like you,” Sergey would tell her. “Regina is not like you at all.”
In the light of Vadik’s lamp, Regina did look like Julia Roberts a little bit. Except, of course, for the toes. But then who knew what kind of toes Julia Roberts had?
“I also enjoy Frasier,” Sergey was saying, “it’s kind, you know? Kind show about kind people. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want. A little bit of kindness.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It’s soothing.”
Vica wiped her damp forehead with her sleeve.
“Excuse me!” Bob said, squeezing past her with a huge plate in his hands.
“The osso buco is here. Now where is our host?”
They had dinner balancing the heavy plates on their knees. There wasn’t any place for the wine glasses either, so they kept them on the floor by their feet. They had opened two more bottles of wine to the great delight of the DrinkingGent.
“Great osso buco. Chewy, just like I love it,” Regina said.
Vadik insisted that Sejun would be present during the meal and propped the iPad in the middle of the coffee table right next to the plate with the osso buco.
“I have a lot of work, you know,” Sejun said.
“That’s okay. You can do whatever you want, you can even switch to mute, just be there with us.”
And so she did. Most of the time, she sat away from her computer on the couch, reading. From time to time though, she would leave the room. One time, they heard distant flushing and then the sound of running water. Another time, she returned with a plastic box from a sushi place and brought it close to the computer camera.
“I’m going eat with you, guys.”
“Cool!” Vadik said. “Really cool, Sejun. Do you like my osso buco?”
“Here,” Vadik said, pointing to the plate.
“Oh. All I see is this gray pixelated mess.”
“It’s absolutely delicious!” Regina said.
“What are you eating?” Vica asked Sejun.
“Oh, just some leftover dragon rolls. I found them in the back of the fridge. They taste kind of funny—might’ve gone bad.”
“Don’t eat them!” Vadik pleaded.
Sejun retreated back to her couch and put a roll into her mouth.
“She is nice,” Regina said, “a little fuzzy-looking, but nice.”
“She can hear you!” Vica said.
Sejun made a thumbs-up from her couch.
Vica kept throwing glances in Bob’s direction, but he behaved as if he had forgotten all about their encounter. Oh well, she thought, fuck you, Bob. His face acquired a tranquil pinkish hue, which signified that he might be just drunk enough and ready for the pitch. Vica shot a look at Sergey, but all his attention was apparently focused on the piece of meat on his plate.
“Where is Sejun?” Bob asked. “I don’t see her.”
He tapped on the screen and called for her as if she was hiding. Sejun stood up from the couch and walked up to her desk. Bob took the iPad off the table and brought it very close to his face.
“You’re so delicate, Sejun,” Bob said. “You’re a very special woman, I want you to know that.”
Oh, really, Bob, really? Vica thought.
Sejun sighed with a little too much exasperation and said that she was going to the library.
“It’s 10 p.m.!” Vadik protested.
“It’s seven here,” Sejun said. “And I’m kind of tired of watching you eat.”
“Sejun!” Vadik said, but she walked out of the room.
Vadik put the iPad back on the table. He was visibly upset.
They all chewed in silence for a while, with great diligence, making occasional gulps of wine.
“I love your apartment, Vadik!” Regina said all of a sudden. “It’s a little strange, you know, but maybe that’s why it fits you so well.”
Bob nodded in agreement, then drained yet another glass. One more drink and he would become unpitchable. Vica wanted to tap Sergey on the shoulder, but she couldn’t get to him because of Regina, who sat between them.
“She’s right, man,” Sergey said, turning to Vadik. “Really cool apartment. It’s not that big, but you can actually breathe here. It’s the suburbs that make you suffocate.”
“Thank you, guys,” Vadik said. “You get to a point in your life when you get sick of making wrong choices. I mean, there are so many options. How do you pick the right one?”
“We need an app for that,” Sergey said.
Bob nodded in agreement: “We do.”
Vadik stared into his glass for a long time, then sighed.
“Did you know that I tried to kill myself when I lived in Jersey?”
No, not the bike story again, Vica thought. She had heard it three or four times before. As had Sergey. As had Regina. But they all looked at Vadik attentively. Even Bob did.
“Yeah, that’s right. I tried to kill myself. It happened eight years ago. I lived in Carteret first, then in Avenel. Avenel had Mom’s Diner. Carteret had a view of the Staten Island dump. In Avenel, I rented a two-bedroom apartment. I had just come from Russia, I had a two-bedroom there, so I thought that that was what I wanted. But in Russia, I had furniture, and here there were three enormous rooms, perfectly empty. I put a bed in the master bedroom. I put a TV in the living room, but there was nothing left for the second bedroom. The emptiness scared me. I tried to avoid it, but I kept wandering in. Then one day as I was walking home after work I saw this nice exercise bike in the dumpster. Outdated, slightly worn, but still good. I hauled it home, down the dark street, up the stairs. It was heavy as hell. I put it in the middle of the second bedroom. It looked small in all that empty space. I mounted it and started pushing pedals. I was pushing and pushing, but then I caught my reflection in one of the windows. I was perched on that bike, pushing pedals, inside of the huge white box. I looked like a lab rat strapped to some piece of lab equipment. I got off the bike, went to the bathroom, and downed the entire bottle of Tazepam. Then I got scared and made myself throw up. The next morning I packed up my things—a suitcase, a computer bag, and two boxes with books—and escaped to the city.”
Regina started sniffling, as she always did at the end of the story.
“What’s Tazepam?” Bob asked.
“Russian tranquilizer,” Sergey explained.
“Can you get it here?”
“I don’t know. It’s kind of like Xanax, but deadlier.”
“Apparently not deadly enough,” Vadik said. “I wish there was an app that helped you to commit the suicide. Just, you know, help you find the easiest and the most rational way to do it.”
“Suicide Buddy?” Sergey asked.
Now, now was the perfect moment to bring up Sergey’s idea! But Sergey being Sergey, he wasn’t getting it.
Vica reached over Regina’s back and prodded Sergey with her fork. He didn’t budge. She prodded him harder. Sergey glared at her. She knew exactly what he thought. He thought that she was a coldhearted bitch to try to pitch right after the suicide story. She didn’t care what he thought!
“Bob,” she said.
Bob raised his eyes at her. His eyes were now the same color as his face. Red. Forget their encounter in the kitchen, he looked as if he had trouble remembering who she was. She hoped he wasn’t past the lucid stage.
“Speaking of death.”
“Sergey has the most amazing idea for an app.”
They all stared at her as if she was drunk. She was tipsy, but she didn’t care. She didn’t care about being subtle either. She would just pitch head-on. And she would pitch right to Bob.
“This new app, Bob. It would allow you to cheat death.”
Bob stretched and screwed up his face while making an honest effort to understand.
“To cheat death?” he asked.
Sergey cleared his throat. They all turned to look at him.
“Well, not exactly, but it would allow you to control your online presence after you die,” Sergey said, “to act from your grave in a way.”
Sergey started listing the features of his app. He was gaining confidence as he spoke. He had such a beautiful voice—slightly scratchy, but deep and commanding. Vica had forgotten how much she always loved his voice. Even his English improved. He still had a strong accent, but it was an accent of a confident man.
Archiving. Terminating. Predefined audience. Virtual will.
All those words Vica had heard so many times in the recent weeks now sounded different. More poetic, more powerful.
“My son is only eight,” Sergey said at the end, “but he’s the closest person in the whole world to me. I want to be able to wish him a happy birthday even after I die. Every year, on the day of his birthday, I want him to receive a text or e-mail from me. ‘Hang in there, bro.’”
Vica imagined Eric getting that text and felt a lump in her throat. She had to make a huge effort to fight back tears. Regina was on the verge of crying as well. Even Vadik seemed moved. Bob was the only one whose expression she couldn’t read. He sat there staring at Sergey as if frozen. Then he jumped off Vadik’s couch and started pacing across the room.
“Oh, the sweetness, the sweetness—” Bob moaned. “I could arrange that for my ex-wife. She would get a text from me. Every year for her birthday. ‘You’re a psycho bitch.’ Every single year.”
“Every year?” Vadik asked. “What if you change your mind?”
“Change my mind? I’ll be dead, dude!”
Bob walked up to Sergey and punched him on the shoulder.
“I love your idea, man! Love it. Love it. Love it. It makes me sick that the whole app business is in the hands of those young kids. What do they know about life? What can they possibly want from life, if they don’t know shit? It’s only natural that they come up with dumb toys.”
Bob went back and plopped onto the couch that bent obediently to his shape. “Oh, the sweetness …” he moaned again.
Vica reclined in her seat and closed her eyes. It was done. Bob was hooked. She could hear her heart thump in drunken excitement. The image of a bright, bright future branched out in her mind and kept growing, kept growing past those omakaze meals, and five-star resorts in the Italian Alps, and a Tribeca loft, and a really good graduate school, and her newfound happiness with the wonderful, talented, and oh-so-successful Sergey, until she heard that annoying squeaky voice and opened her eyes.
“Guys! Hey, guys! Hello?”
A tiny, tiny voice. Barely distinguishable in all the excitement. They looked around, trying to determine where the voice came from. It seemed to come from under the coffee table.
“Sejun!” Vadik said.
The iPad screen had long gone black, and Vica had completely forgotten about her.
“Sejun, I thought you’d left,” Vadik said and tapped on the screen.
A glowing pixelated shape of Sejun’s face emerged from the darkness.
“I just wanted to tell you, guys. But don’t be upset. Promise you won’t be upset! Seriously. You have to promise not to be upset.”
“Upset about what, Sejun?”
“It’s a really cool idea. Really cool, but, you know, app people here at Stanford are working on something very similar.”
“How similar?” Sergey asked.
“Like insanely similar. They call it VirtualWill and they’re planning to release it at the end of the year.”
“Fuckety fuck!” Bob said. “The one idea I really liked …” He sighed and reached under the table for another bottle.
“You’re not upset, are you?” Sejun asked.
“They’ll live,” Vadik said.
What did he mean “They’ll live?” Did they mean it was over? Vica thought. Over? Just like that? No, it couldn’t be over!
“No!” she screamed, “their app can’t be the same! What about our physical services? Sergey, tell Bob about physical services. They couldn’t have thought of that. Remember, how you thought it could be linked to physical services? Like sending flowers, cleaning the grave. I don’t remember what else. There was something else. I don’t remember. Sergey knows. Sergey, tell Bob! Tell Bob! Tell him!”
She jerked her foot and hit Regina’s wineglass on the floor. The wine spilled all over Vadik’s newly waxed floor. They threw their napkins over the puddle, and Vadik stomped on the bunch of napkins with his foot as if trying to extinguish a fire. They all seemed to avoid looking at her. Sergey too. Especially Sergey.
“Sergey!” she screamed.
“You know what app would be really cool?” he asked, without looking at anybody in particular.
“The app where you could press a button and turn somebody’s volume down. Like you do with TV, only with a real live person. Imagine a dinner party, and everybody’s talking, but there is this one person that you need to quiet. So point your device to that person—you can do it under the table discretely—and lower her volume. Everybody else can hear her fine, and you can hear everybody else but her. Now, wouldn’t that be a dream?”
They all started to laugh. Not at the same time though. Vadik was the first with his series of chuckles. Then Bob with his hoarse hooting. Then Regina joined in. With her it was not 100 percent clear if she was laughing or crying. But Sejun was definitely laughing, and her laugh was the happiest. “I’m sorry,” she kept saying, “it’s just so funny. Too funny. I want that app.”
Even Sergey was laughing in that same awful coughing laugh.
Vica hated their laughter right away, she recognized it as disgusting, but it took her a moment to realize that they were all looking at her, and laughing at her.
She turned away from them, stepped over the bunch of napkins, and walked toward Vadik’s bedroom.
“No, no, don’t,” she heard Sergey say, “she’ll be fine. She needs to be alone right now.”
Do I? she wondered, walking onto the terrace.
Do I need to be alone?
The air had become significantly colder than before. Vica felt the cold as the persistent ache enveloping her whole body that grew stronger and stronger by the minute. She didn’t really mind. She was holding on to the last remnants of her drunkenness to keep herself warmer and less sad. She looked out at the roofs of other buildings. They boasted tangled wires and broken tarp. Some had water towers, perched on their clumsy legs. Others had chimneys clustered together yet bending away from each other like dysfunctional families. It was the sight of the chimneys that made her cry.
She cried thinking how it was a bad choice to marry Sergey, and how it was a worse choice to come to the US with him. But could she possibly know that at the time? She thought that most of their problems were caused by the sheer quantity of choices they were facing. There was an infinite variety of choices, the vast majority of them bad. How could you possibly make the right one? You’d have to sort all the bad choices first and reject them one by one. But how could you sort through all of them, when there were so many? Vadik was right. They needed an app for that. But would such an app be impossible? It was a rather simple algorithm with a really large number of computations. Wasn’t that what computers were for—to perform large numbers of computations? Her app would have to sort through all the choices a person could make in all the possible situations, and do what? Well, it could buzz angrily every time the choice was bad. Or even shock you. Like those dog collars she saw on SkyMall that shocked your dog if it wanted to venture outside of the safe area. But how would the app know if the choice was bad or not?