“Suits and Hammers” by Michael Ben Silva III
The first time I saw a haptic suit up close was in the Museum of Science and Industry, on my first day in Chicago, on my first trip to the States. The city and the states were bigger than I was ready for, but it is still that museum, with the grandest name for a museum I have ever heard, that dominates every file of my memory. The words “haptic suit” weren’t even used in the little placard beside the glass-covered cabinet that showed off the electrical shirt and its exhibit-mate, “Social Networking: The Next Big Thing.” These simple ones were supposed to transfer the feeling of a hug from one shirt to the other. The exhibit said something about long-distance relationships.
But I knew them from the sorts of stories where people spend their time in virtual reality, wearing sophisticated suits stitched with sensors and servos to give weight to the online world, so they could feel and be felt by things that weren’t in the room before they plugged in. It was physical interaction without all the fear of awkward mistiming: handshakes with an off-switch.
The first time I put one on, I felt it. That thing people talk about. Not just touch, but wanting it.
I was too young for surgery when I first went to study abroad, but I’d been allowed to take medication that would delay my physiological progression through puberty until I could legally transition. Since I was leaving for six months for the barbarous south, my doctor had prescribed me a pharmacy of new drugs to counteract any growing insistence on my body’s part. I had also made the decision to live as myself while traveling, which made my parents consider canceling the trip entirely.
My mother sat on my bed across from me, her hands placed on the suitcase that I had been packing and repacking for weeks. “Sweetheart, you simply can’t go out for the first time so far from home, where we won’t be able to help you. Your father and I thought we’d agreed you would wait until next year, once you started at your new high school.”
My father leaned against the wall beside the doorway. When she mentioned him, he cleared his throat in a way that managed to both affirm my mother’s statement and distance himself from the decision-making.
“It’s not that we don’t think you’re ready,” she continued. “Your father and I, we just, we feel you would be more comfortable transitioning with a, with a safety net.”
My father gave me a thumbs-up and said, “We’re here to catch you if you fall, kiddo.”
I smiled something like a reassuring grimace. “Mom, this is about feeling comfortable. I’m not going to get the chance to be around people who don’t know me any other way for a long while. If ever.”
“Now that’s not true, dear. You meet new people all the time! There’s the nice boy who bags groceries at the Fairway. He just moved into the Roth’s spare room.”
“That’s Jeremy Martin, Mom. We’ve gone to school together since we were eight. His parents work for an oil company and are letting him stay with the Roths while they’re opening a refinery in the Baltic Sea this summer.”
“And how could you know all that? You certainly didn’t act like you knew each other.”
“Well, what about out-of-towners? We’ve backpackers and birders coming in droves these days.”
My father chuckled, and my mother threw a pillow at him. “Don’t you laugh! We’ve an up-and-coming tourism industry.”
In the end, they relented, and both came to wave their daughter off at the St. Johns’ bus depot. My mother held both her hands to her lips and tried not to cry, while my father wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He was hugging me by way of her, I knew. My father’s hands would outlast the rest of him whenever we hoisted him onto the grand Viking funeral pyre he routinely made us swear he would receive. He was calloused from being quick to hug, carry, twirl, but he had also picked up on his only child’s involuntary tensing. He was so happy when I came out. I think he secretly hoped his daughter would return his affection more readily than his son had, but he soon learned that I was the same child he had known. So he loved me as I let him, and waved and grinned at me through his unconcealed tears. It wasn’t the first time I had left home, but then again, I suppose it was.
Nearly two days later, after taking a ferry and two trains from the coast of Newfoundland halfway across the country, I prepared to cross the border on a second bus. I opened my suitcase to look for my passport and found the dress, folded neatly on top of the clothes I had packed myself. Its fabric was crisp, but I could feel the threads. They vibrated beneath the ridges of my probing fingertips. It was the same dark green as the ocean near my home. I found a note folded into my passport, which had itself been placed in the dress’s folded embrace. In a clumsy attempt to match my mother’s tiny handwriting, it said, “For A Special Occasion. (I’m sorry if it doesn’t fit.) Love, Dad.”
Beneath the dress, there was a claw hammer, with its own note, scripted in the original, perfect coils of my mother’s hand. It said, “In Case You Need It. Love, Mom.”
I don’t know how often border patrol agents have to stamp the passports of crying teenage girls with Sex: M printed under their names, but the woman behind the counter gave me no sign that I was anything out of the ordinary.
Rosie and her brother had been arguing in the hallway. It had taken a few months, but I was finally acclimating to their bickering. She was brandishing one of his brown dress shoes. “Don’t you lecture me about why this isn’t working. You were the one who let one of your tramps borrow my tool kit.”
“Whoa! They are not tramps.”
Rosie bonked him on the forehead with the heel of the shoe. “Not one of them hasn’t been a couch-surfer or a train-jumper, you ass.”
I passed by with my towel wrapped around my ribcage. They had grown quiet as I stepped out of the shower, and parted to give me space. Since our first day at the museum, I hadn’t found anything I could talk about with them, and something about Rosie made me feel like I was outgrowing my skin. But as I noticed the frame on the floor I made myself stop and turn, and felt the kind of attention they were giving me change. They looked at me expectantly. “I can help with that,” I said. “Just, just hold on a sec.”
When I returned, safely armoured in a flannel housecoat, I nodded gravely at Rosie and her brother, picked one of the less bent nails and a hook, eyeballed the right spot, and hammered it firmly into the wall using my mother’s present. Rosie hefted the picture for me and I felt around the back, running my fingers along the hanging wire to balance it on the hook. I stepped back to admire my work, my hands proudly akimbo on my hips.
“Not bad, kid,” said the brother.
“Why do you have a hammer?” Rosie asked.
“In case I need it.” I grinned.
“Oh. Is that a… Newfie thing?”
“Nope! It’s a my mom thing.” For the first time since our trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, I felt comfortable around her, and she around me, I think. Her eyes danced down my face and I suddenly felt the chill of slowly drying water on my exposed leg and around my open collar, as my robe had slipped just enough while I was hammering to make me turn and sprint back to my room.
On my last day in the city, we went back to the museum, but I was obligated to walk through some of the other exhibits with some friends Rosie had tried introducing me to before I could excuse myself to the inventions gallery. Someone wanted to see the replica mine, which had an elevator that took you deep down into the dark, artificial ground. As we waited in the queue and stepped nearer the entrance I was buffeted by the sharp contrast of the heat rolling off of Rosie’s friends and the cold air from the tunnel. I had to turn away from them and press myself against the railing, choosing to face down into the mine rather than be near them, bumped by their bare arms and clumsy hips. Rosie touched my shoulder and I jumped, but managed to suppress a shriek by biting my tongue.
“I let the others go on ahead. I thought you might prefer to have more room on the elevator, with just me.”
I nodded and as the platform returned empty after dropping off the group somewhere in the building beneath us, stepped on after her. I willed my eyes not to adjust to the light, but with regret I eventually could see the fake earth moving up around us. I turned and could just make out Rosie staring at me, leaning against the opposite railing. She stepped into the middle of the empty elevator. “I’m sorry you’re leaving.”
“So am I.”
She took another step forward, and now I could feel the edge of the warmth of her breath, as she said, “I wish…” Another step closer and we were too close, much too close. I held my hands up to hold her back, but I froze before reaching her, afraid of what I might touch. “I wish we had more time.”
Coming out to my parents had taken me years of uncertainty followed by a full year of deliberate planning. I went over the conversation in my head until I found chatbots and spambots talking to each other in abandoned Rooms and started talking to them every night. I came out to thirty or forty different cyber-approximations of psychologists, brand enthusiasts, and pre-teen girls, trying to prepare myself for all the horrible turns my parents could take that the perplexed bots couldn’t express through emoticons.
It took all that and the reassurance of their personalities to tell who I was to the two people I absolutely knew cared for me. But after just a few months with Rosie, surrounded by darkness and the last hours before I left – maybe because her nose was brushing mine, and her mouth was so close, and if she got any closer she might have figured it out on her own – I stopped her with, “I’m trans.”
She pulled away. I could see the surprise on her face, but as she said, “But I don’t–” I was spared any more by the elevator reaching the bottom of the fake mine. I kept my distance from her for the rest of the trip, waiting to board the bus and rid myself of the wreckage of my first outing on the other side of transitioning, but as I set my suitcase inside the luggage compartment on the bus, I was suddenly blocked in by Rosie and her brother. Her brother bumped my fist and said, “Bye, kid. Keep that hammer close, okay?”
And before I could stop her, Rosie wrapped me in a hug and said, “There’s two thousand miles of cables set up to connect my place to yours, and like a thousand kilometers or something of that is underwater. I looked it up. If Canada’s gone to all the trouble to have a thousand kilometers of submarine communication cables for us, we better use them, okay?” Then she kissed me on the cheek, just beneath my cheekbone. It was my first kiss, chaste as it was. As I rode home, I pressed the spot against the cooling window, remembering the pressure. I forgot to notice the absence of discomfort I found in her unexpected embrace. By the time I was back home, once my parents had been assured I was whole, Rosie and I were friends again, but nothing more.
Sometime in the autumn a year or two after I came back from the States, the same autumn I ordered and received my first haptic suit, Rosie sent me a package. I opened it carefully, because she’d painted a picture on the top of the box and I didn’t want to ruin it. It was a map of the world – our part of it anyway – and across the view of the globe that just barely fit both of our hometowns she had drawn a hopping line to mark all the places the package would have to stop and be handled by different mail-carriers before it found its way to me. Inside the box – wrapped carefully in the comics and editorials sections of a newspaper and engulfed in the crumpled balls of sports, arts and personals – was a heavy white object covered in a layer of smooth clear glass, shaped like a flower, or a flame. I dug around in the paper and found a note.
“If you need me, I’ll be right next door, just on the other side of the world.” I flipped the card over and read, “So when you touch it, I will know. You naughty thing.”
I crouched beside my bed to plug in the cord that dangled from the sculpture, but it didn’t respond and I couldn’t find a switch, so I set it down to see if I’d missed some instructions. When I took my hand away from the glass, the white interior began to glow yellow. A moment later, the light dimmed. I touched it, and the light went out. I brushed the glass with my fingertips and the lamp began to glow again, but this time it shined immediately with the brighter light. It flickered from bright to soft on its own, twice, before I heard a chime from my computer, telling me I had a friend online, looking to chat.
“You got it!” Rosie squealed.
“I did,” I said. “It’s very pretty. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome! Oh my gosh, I’m so glad it got to you. I was really, really worried that the dude at the post office miscalculated the shipping. I kept thinking it would end up getting tossed out a zeppelin somewhere way before it got to you. Harrison Ford in a mailman’s uniform shrugging and saying, ‘No ticket,’ you know?”
We were using voice chat, but I typed “haha” into the text chat window.
Rosie snorted static into the microphone and said, “Dude. That’s supposed to mean you actually laughed.”
“Haha,” I mimicked aloud. “Sorry, it’s just that it’s super late here, and I didn’t want to wake anybody.”
“How many cat videos have you watched?” Rosie guessed.
“Only ten. But I watched the one you sent me with the kitten wearing the pilot’s cap and goggles fly the remote-control plane at least thirty times, trying to see if it was fake.”
“Don’t do that! That much adorable must not be questioned. You lack faith, my child. Oh! I already forgot to tell you about the light!”
“Right, the light. I think maybe mine’s shorted out? Maybe my outlet is messing up the voltage or wattage or something? I’m really sorry you went to so much trouble,” I said.
“No! That’s the best part!” Rosie laughed. “When you plug it in, it automatically connects to the nearest network and hooks up with its sister lamp, which I’ve got with me in my apartment. Then when you turn your lamp on, if mine is off, it’ll only produce a soft light, but if both of ours are on at the same time, they both produce a bright light! I’ve been keeping mine on waiting for you to get yours, so when mine turned bright, I started flicking mine off and on to let you know I was here. Isn’t that great? Now we can read together, or surf cat videos or whatever it is you do all night.”
I put my hand out to the light, but didn’t touch the glass. “That’s really cool, Rosie.”
“Yeah, I was thinking that we should learn Morse code so we can send each other utterly covert messages.”
“Is, um, is chatting so unsafe?” I asked.
“If you don’t want to learn the code with me, I could always just teach myself and start flashing you dirty messages you won’t understand.”
That time I did laugh, a small one, the end of which caught in the back of my nose.
In the chat window, Rosie typed, “Haha.” And my lamp flickered dim and bright, dim and bright.
I logged onto the school library’s computer, plugged my clothes into the network, and dropped the opacity of my mask to black. Our little library could only handle a basic hook-up, and worse I had to sign-in to the basic guest account, which only came in the flavors of blue generic humanoid and pink generic humanoid. I rolled my eyes and went with blue.
I knew it was common to change your avatar to something completely foreign to you – some parents argued it was actually safer – but I had spent so long trying to find my own body, I couldn’t convince myself to abandon it. So when I was online at home, I was me, except that I was perfect.
As I walked around the Library, suddenly surrounded by supermodels, gladiators, and all sorts of animal-human hybrids – avatars of people visiting libraries around the globe – I breathed a sigh of relief. I let my hands drift out from my sides and let my knuckles bump into strangers, feeling the vibrations of a metal plated skirt as I passed a half-naked Amazon warrior, followed by the soft warmth of an upright fox, who wagged his tail and growled playfully at me as I passed. A message popped up in my inbox, inviting me to a private Room with Houndbait68. The fox was lolling his tongue at me when I looked over, and I declined the invite. Thankfully, the Library is a sex-free zone. I certainly don’t have anything against furries, but the first time I tried it, my suit registered grinding fur as tickling feathers and I ended up falling off my bed in hysterics.
I waved at him a quick, “No, thank you,” and trailed off into the stacks, letting my fingertips drum across the spines of the books. “Stuck-up bitch,” I heard someone say.
I turned around and found Houndbait the fox staring down at me. He’d hacked his height since I walked away, and I felt tiny in my average pre-sets. “Excuse me?” I said, without any of the usual menace I enjoyed wearing my own avatar. The suit had first become my skin, but now it seemed to have expanded out to my digital self. For the first time since putting on the suit, I felt I was wearing too many layers.
The fox grinned, revealing his sharp teeth, and turned and flicked his arm-length furry tail to chuck me fuzzily under the chin. “You come in here wearing a Generic Male, and you try to tell me you’re not looking to hook up?”
“I just came in here for…”
He leaned in, and sniffed me. “What, are you some kind of girl?” he goaded. “Oh? Yeah, I can practically smell it on you, girlie.” His tail flipped around towards me again and he batted it lazily up and down with his paw. “So, since when’s a girl logged on as a Gen-Male not on the hunt?”
I snapped together. He hadn’t poured ice water over my head, but I was awake in the way that made me realize I had been dozing. I put my hand up to his snout, my fingers pressed against his cold nose. “Hold on. You’re accusing me of being a girl, pretending to be a guy?”
“Of course! All you girls just want to mess with–” he stopped talking when I wrapped my poorly rendered hand all the way around his muzzle.
He started to whine, but I shushed him and smiled my sweetest smile, hoping he would be able to see it through the Gen-Male’s face.
“Thank you,” I said. I grabbed a book off the shelf, opened it, and held it up for Houndbait to see. “I’d like you to read this,” I said.
He furrowed his brow, focused on the book, and as the Library was too busy uploading and downloading the text between our accounts to monitor the sudden violent stimulus, I kicked him hard, right between his furry legs. I unplugged before he started crying, but not until after he had hit the ground and I’d received a hearty pat or two on the back from fellow Library patrons. I wanted to leave him some dignity intact. I guess I thought I owed it to him.
I was tired. I yawned and saw someone across the Room in Ghana yawn in response. I lifted my mask and pinched the bridge of my nose.
Rosie’s lamp was flickering beside me. How long had it been doing that? I checked, but didn’t see her online. I read the light for a full minute, counting flashes, and then it sat dim. All I caught before it stopped blinking was R-O-O-M and a short number, a Virtual Location code I guessed. I pulled on the mask and dialed in the block of private Rooms where the lamp wanted me to go.
I was running through a sparse hallway, rocketing past doors etched with numbers and names for the more permanent residents. The hallway stopped at the VL coded Room and I burst through the door, nearly out of breath despite having spent the whole accelerated run in my bed. My body slipped so easily now into the comfort of suspended disbelief.
The Room was a museum gallery, with white walls and wood floors beneath skylights revealing a sunny day. The art on the walls itched my memory, but I couldn’t place them until I saw the picture I had hung for Rosie and her brother, and then, in a case a few pieces down, that first haptic hug suit. I turned a corner into the next gallery just in time to see a young woman check the time and stand up from the bench. Her shoulders were slumped, and the way she lifted herself with the heels of her hands made her seem even more resigned. She was leaving. I had taken too long to log-on. But what could I say, surrounded by the paraphernalia of our friendship, separated by two countries, a Great Lake, and the Gulf of St Lawrence.
“Rosie.” I didn’t say it. I coughed it.
She whirled around, and there she was, rendered exactly as I remembered her. A bit older, but only enough to make me realize she would be thinking the same thing about me. She was grinning, and I felt better about my own little tweaks when I saw that she had also downloaded the White Teeth patch. Her hair was a bit buggy. It whipped out and fell in a dark cascade around her face when she turned, but when she stood still strands of it jumped out at random, overly sensitive to her movements.
“Newfie,” she said. “You’re late.”
“I didn’t see the lamp until you had almost stopped.” That didn’t seem to be the response she was looking for. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
She gestured to the gallery. “This,” she said, “is all ours. It can be anyplace. A museum filled with our favorite things, the beach beside either of our hometowns, anything we want.” Either she didn’t know how to hide her involuntary responses or she had deliberately decided to be open with me, because I could see she was starting to blush.
“It’s a private Room. A, um, dedicated server in my apartment, actually. No one can ever bother us here. All we have to do is say what we want, and we could be in a park, or, or in a bedroom somewhere.” The blush ran across her cheeks up over her ears.
Fragments of the city where we met hung as sculptures in the air around us. In a far corner, there waited the small elevator from the museum mine where I had ruined something I hadn’t yet understood. I still don’t know if what I did then was an act of knowing, or wanting, or some spark of newfound instinct.
As I stepped onto the elevator platform, I thought I could feel the thousands of kilometers of deep-sea cables and trans-continental wiring entangling us, binding us. I held my hand out to her, and when she joined me, I pressed the button, and we embraced the fall.
About the Author
Michael Ben Silva III currently lives in Chicago, where he is happy to share an apartment with his lovely editor, who promises to extract 70% of all his future profits. He has three brilliant younger sisters, and his home is wherever they are. He is trying to outpace the next twist in the zombie-vampire trends by working on a novel about mummies and ghosts, which he hopes will be out before he becomes one himself. “Suits and Hammers” is his first published story.
You may decrease the percentage of spam he receives by writing to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on the common social networks at thirdmike.