Headlights of a passing car bruised the ceiling, shook Lane out of his reverie. Cecilia's eyes were open but she hadn't moved in a while. Her breathing was very regular as well. Lane was a little unsettled.
“Cecilia, are you awake?” he whispered.
“Of course I am.” She rolled toward him on the tiny bed, her chin pressed against his side and dug into his ribs. “What's up? You want to go again?”
“Not yet. I was wondering if I could ask you more about the, you know.”
“My implants? Of course you can.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “You can ask me anything you like.”
“What does it feel like?”
“That's a hard thing to explain. It doesn't feel like anything you've ever felt. There isn't even any way I could explain it with words that you'd understand. There's just no analogy or anything similar that I can compare it to. You can go your whole life without it and not miss it, but every time I turn it off, there's a void. How would you describe smelling a flower to someone who has never smelled anything before? If I ever think of a way, you'll be the first person I tell.”
“Oh. I hadn't thought about it that way.” They were both silent for a while, Lane looked at the ceiling and Cecilia watched him. Most human communication takes place non-verbally, between the words. While our conscious minds grasp desperately at the meanings of the things we say to each other the oldest parts of our brains exchange information across the void even when we say nothing.
“What else is there, Jared?”
“I was wondering, we haven't talked about this, but we'd seen each other before we spoke, you were kind of stalking me. I'm over the fact that it happened, but I wanted to know, why me? There's nothing about me that I can think of that you would be especially interested in. I'm a normal guy, I have a normal job, wear normal clothes, everything's normal. Why me?
“It's your magnetic field, Jared. Everything has one, even the human body. It's very faint, but all of your cells have a magnetic charge, and your veins are coursing with iron. It's not something you can detect easily, but when your body is full of magnets you can feel the pull and shape of every person you walk by. I don't know why, or how, but yours is different.”
“Different? What do you mean?”
“I don't even know, Jared. I have no idea, and that's why I started following you.” She laid down next to him in the bed again. “And the more I saw of you, the more I got to know you and the person that you are. You're not a normal person, Jared, you're more than just another face in the crowd. I got to like you.” She pressed her face into his neck, so her lips were next to his ear and he could feel her breath on his face. “No matter what happens, we're locked in our bodies, alone from the rest of the world. Nothing can really touch us in that one place that we all need to be, and long to be, touched. So much of our time is spent fighting against this horrible solitude with creature comfort, and acquaintances, and sensations, and drugs, but none of it breaks that solid wall of consciousness, the barrier of water that keeps us from joining the rest of the world. We're all so goddamned alone that I cry sometimes when no one else can hear me.
“When I press my ear to the wall, I want to hear you breathing on the other side.”
Lane dove into the cool water. He closed his eyes and let it wrap around hims arms and chest, kicking languidly until he came up to the surface. He liked this gym because it was so private. Far from being exclusive, it was old and sporadically maintained in a less savory neighborhood. It just wasn't very popular, most people preferring the nicer health clubs, or the chains where you had a few options on where to exercise. That wasn't what Jared was after, though. He could get exercise here just as well, and sometimes he got something more. Solitude. In the city it's hard to find those golden moments of solitude where you're really and completely alone, where no one can hear you cough or smell you fart, where you can't hear someone else's mewling children or clipped domestic arguments. Lane's club wasn't always this empty, but he treasured the times when it was. Before really striking out and swimming laps he laid on his back, sculling gently with his hands and feet to stay afloat, listening to the hum of the furnace and the gurgle of the plumbing, and quietly reveling in the peace.
One thing he found floating there in the pool that he hadn't expected was how lonely he was. Before the solitude had felt like a warm, familiar blanket that he wrapped around himself to recharge his capacity to deal with the world, but now he actually felt like something was missing. This bothered him a little, that a perfect lonely night of swimming didn't feel like it had the last time. When had the last time been? He thought back and realized that, since he'd spoken with Cecilia in the record shop, less than three weeks ago, he had not been completely alone like this. He'd been alone at home, but anyone who's lived in a cheap, crumbling apartment with a room mate will tell you that you never feel alone, like you're the last person on Earth. This was the first night they didn't have plans, that Lane had entirely to himself. He'd grabbed a sandwich after work and lucked out, finding the solitude he thought he craved in one of his favorite hiding places, but now he just felt lonely. This wasn't what he'd come here looking for.
Lane pushed back the discomfort and swam a few laps. His heart wasn't in it, but there was no sense in going straight home for a little malaise. He hadn't been to the gym at all in a while though, he got tired and sore more quickly than he was used to. The hot tub called out to him as he made his way back past the showers. Lane was sure that a soak would set his mind straight. He sloughed his towel into the chair and climbed in.
The hot water gripped his feet, legs, crotch, back in turn as it worked its way up to his shoulders, the heat hurting at first, but giving way to relief. When it wrapped itself around his shoulders and arms, where most of his tension lay, he closed his eyes to let the heat work its way through him. He let his mind wander. Lane had never been one for meditation, he preferred to keep his mind as active as possible. He didn't understand the appeal of letting his thoughts slip away into the void and dwelling there for any time. Sometimes, though, when he was very tired, he would just let his mind wander. Tonight it wandered back to Cecilia.
He wondered when he'd see her next. Maybe he'd drop by after he left the gym. Maybe he'd call her instead, and she would go over to his place. Or, he could call and they would meet somewhere else entirely. Just the thought of seeing her swished around in his mind, comforted him. Maybe he could call her right now, and she'd be waiting for him when he got home. She might let herself into his room, she'd be in bed already when he got there, her old clothes rumpled on the floor and a book open on her lap. She'd look up at him and smile when he came in, put the book aside and get up to kiss him. Jared sighed deeply and thought of how her skin would feel, the smell of her breath. If she weren't busy and he got up to call her right now, she might even be able to meet him at the gym. If she were here it wouldn't be any bother to slip past the bored attendant, into the men's locker room. There was no one there either, no one to see her steal past the sauna and the toilets, no one to see the ratty clothes strewn in damp piles on the wet floor. He could feel the water move as she slipped into the tub, feel the sinewy movement of her arms and legs. He felt the electric tingle of wet skin and her hot, insistent lips. Her fingers raked his chest as her hand made its way down, down.
Lane's eyes snapped open and he sat up. It was time he went home.
“I've got a surprise for you, Jared.” She'd been busy after the gym, but they'd talked for a while. Today, though, Cecilia was already there when Lane got home from work. She was sitting in the living room with James. James was used to her being around, but he looked a little annoyed at the unplanned company all the same; he was studiously ignoring her, focusing his attention on his game. “Get ready, we have to leave right away.”
“What is it?” Lane set down his bag.
“It's an enigma.” Cecilia winked mysteriously at him and started toward the door.
“I've already got one of those and I'm really tired. Maybe we can do this tomorrow?”
“I made an appointment, Jared. We have to do this.” She held up a drawing, a small, simple mandala made out of feathers, pineapples and broken circuit boards.
Lane paused and looked at it. “That's nice.” It reminded him of something. A reference, maybe to some architecture, or some other piece of art that he couldn't quite bring to mind. “Alright, I'm intrigued. Just let me change my shirt. What is that thing?”
“It's a drawing, silly. Hurry up.”
It was only a few blocks to the tattoo parlor. The Bleeding Edge. The neon sign hissed and buzzed in the foggy evening. They detached themselves from the indifferent trickle of passers by and went in. Like Cecilia had said, they were expected. The inside was cramped, but everything smelled clean, like disinfectant.
“Cecilia, right?” The only person in the shop, a neat little tattoo artist, stood to shake their hands. Lane didn't have any tattoos, but he supposed that clean was a good way for this sort of a place to smell. Likewise if the amount of ink on the tattooist's arms were any indication of practice, it inspired confidence in Lane. “You have the artwork?”
“You're getting a new tattoo tonight?” Lane asked.
“Something like that.” She handed the drawing she'd shown Lane, and another one, to the tattooist who moved off to the back.
“These will work great,” he called from behind the computer. “I can see you've had some work done, but is this his first one?”
“My first what?” Lane was caught off guard.
“Your first tattoo. Relax, Jared. I thought that this was something we could do together, and it would give you the first taste of what it's like to make your body into something that it wasn't before.” Lane could already feel himself losing any attempts at arguing. “It'll show you the first little bit about what it's like to be a Johnny.”
“I don't know about that,” the tattooist chimed in, “but from my perspective, these are pretty nice tattoos, and she drew them. Gives you something permanent and real between you, and it's not something ugly or stupid that you're going to regret. I never recommend inking someone else's name. But this isn't like that, it's tasteful, means something. It's good. The only question is, where do you want it?”
Lane went first, laid still while the needles etched his skin, scraped over him like thorns, a lover's fingernails. The anticipation had been bigger than the actual event, but he was more than satisfied with the result, Cecilia's design marked high on his shoulder. The tattoo artist was quick and accurate, so before long he'd moved on to Cecilia and left Lane to admire his skin, shaven and branded, reddening around the edges, in the mirror. It really wasn't anything at all, marking yourself, but he felt strangely changed at the same time. The rest of him looked a little different too, a little more sallow, like he'd been sick recently. He probably just needed to get to the gym more.
“Cecilia, what are we doing next?”
“Already, tiger?” The tattooist laughed. “I'm tired, you're going to have to come back another night if you want another.”
“Hah,” Jared responded, “I mean, have you got more plans tonight, Cec'?”
“No, I didn't have anything else. Why? Are you hungry or something?”
“I don't know if you can arrange this, but I want to meet your surgeon. I want to see where you get your implants done.”
Cecilia considered this for a moment. “Well, I don't know. My usual guy is out of town for a few weeks.”
The tattooist stopped what he was doing for a moment to chime in. “Who's that? Grady? He's out of town, yeah. If you just want to see an operating studio, though, I know a guy, Song, he might be willing to let you look around, answer any questions you've got.”
“That would be great!” Cecilia brightened. “I'm always looking for new surgeons anyway.”
“Sounds good to me too.”
“I'll make the call when we're finished.”