Love is not free; the price is 99 cents

By

Rudolph Kerkhoven

 

 

The

First

Half

The Prologue

Like any mathematical concept, Xavier Dekker knew that love seems mysterious only to those unfamiliar with the underlying principles. Without this foundation, love becomes enigmatic, magical. Love seems tangent to all emotions at once—a nebulous cloud of rational and irrational thought, impossible to pin down, impossible to generalize. To most people it was something that could be described, yes, but never to exhaustion. It was best parlayed in poetry or fanciful (if not pretentious) prose. It was the domain of the artist. It could be maddening and confusing, but not something with a solution. And this was what vexed Xavier for years: of course there was a problem, which meant that there must be a solution. Chaos isn’t entirely random. Randomness can be contained through probability. Probability can be constrained through conditions. Conditions demand data… and these days, there was a lot of data to be mined. It was all a matter of organization, differentiation, correlation, induction—skills to be sought from a scientist as opposed to an artist. It wasn’t a matter of if someone might demystify the peculiarities of love, but when.

 

Xavier was still an undervalued programmer at a large and sprawling video game company that specialized in major league sports titles when he began developing independent mobile phone applications in his spare time. Not only was working for such a large technology company comparable to being an indentured servant—80 hour work weeks (no overtime) were the norm in the autumn lead-up to the splashy pre-Christmas releases—but Xavier didn’t care about video games anymore. Something was lost now that everything was geared towards adults, and more specifically, their disposable income. He felt like a farmer, every year repeating the same cycle, updating the previous year’s title with the newest players, current statistics, and tweaked graphics. An army of software engineers would flutter around the hallways of campus in the hours before some seven-foot NBA player flew in for motion-capture. But Xavier didn’t know who any of these athletes were, aside from their avatars. He actually thought they looked better as a composition of three-dimensional polygons than in person. These people were freaks of nature, overgrown pumpkins the size of tractors. One man that he shook hands with had fingers like root vegetables. Xavier even made a point of taking this into account with the title’s update—look closely, and that particular player’s fingers are identical in shape to carrots, complete with pointy, scraggily tips. But no one would ever notice these details and Xavier would never be bothered by it. His interests were not in finger design. His interests lay in statistics, and he felt that the rest of humanity would benefit from a little more statistical appreciation, as well. They just needed to be exposed to its power.

 

His first attempt at publishing a mobile phone application was a fittingly free app called Don’t Buy It, a program that informed consumers about the monetary reward of avoiding impulse purchases thanks to rational logic and compounding mathematics. Had your eye on a new watch? Keep that money in a long-term investment and you could buy four watches when you’re 60. Thinking of purchasing a new car? Don’t do it. New vehicles are about as terrible an investment as a person can make. Be prudent with those tens of thousands of dollars and you could retire 6.4 months earlier after taking in account your age and income. There was also a feature targeting those superfluous daily purchases. Partake in an opulent five-dollar coffee every day instead of brewing a cup at home? Keep that up until you’re an old man and not only will you lose out on being able to afford several exotic holidays in the coming decades (although this same app would attempt to persuade people away from long distance vacations; such excursions were appalling uses of money), but after ingesting so much coffee you’ll have such brittle bones that you’ll surely be wheelchair bound in your not-so-golden years. Just don’t drink coffee, the app would inform you. Green or white teas are superior.

 

More successful was When You Will Die, an appropriately titled program that would attempt to predict—with supposed 93.97% accuracy—a person’s life expectancy. Hidden beneath the bland and distinctly unfriendly user interface were complex statistical algorithms that took into account personal data of all sorts, from the clearly pertinent (weight, diet, level of activity, drug use) to seemingly irrelevant (hair color, family history of baldness, shoe size). Should a user have the patience to answer more than one hundred questions about herself (and most users did not possess such fortitude), she would be rewarded with the exact date—Xavier was so bold as to pinpoint it to the day—on which she would die. 93.97% accurate? That was a lie, of course. And it wasn’t that the average consumer believed it. The average consumer didn’t want to spend money, not even 99 cents, to be callously informed of their expiration date. But it was a claim that gained exposure for his humble project and would eventually lead to it being purchased by a major insurance company; without any formal actuarial training, he’d devised a unique and accurate method of predicting life expectancy. And as such, Xavier Dekker no longer needed to spend his days rendering graphics of herculean men. Contrary to the will of his wife, Gwen—who lacked Xavier’s confidence that he would be able to comfortably support a family of three while working from home—he quit his job. Now he could devote his energies more appropriately.

 

Remember, the clock was ticking.

 

Next was Poll Que, a free application that allowed users to anonymously poll a mammoth pool of people about anything they wished. Do you think the name Madison is overused? Do you believe in God? Would you buy a used sofa? Do you like the name of my new band, Mute Point? Would you cheat on your partner if you knew that he/she would never find out? In exchange for answering a minimum of two questions from other users, you could see the results of your own query. My boyfriend has yet to propose to me after two years of direct pressuring. Do you think I should cut my losses and move on? In less than twelve hours, over a thousand people would have replied to your inquiry. 44% say, “Move on.” 29% say, “Give him more time,” and 27% say, “Give him one more year.” Although simple and seemingly trivial, Poll Que became a success. Nearly all users (87%) answered far more than the required two questions. Over half (61%) answered dozens of them, usually trivial, often sexual in nature (although Xavier programmed filters that automatically blocked anything too risqué), and occasionally personal. Unbeknownst to anyone was that the results were faked—or as Xavier would put it, they were extrapolated. Ten thousand people didn’t actually respond to your question about your new independently published e-book title. After surveying a couple dozen people, Poll Que determined what was the most likely (and desired) result and then posted that result. The guise that people were receiving near-instant feedback from thousands and then hundreds of thousands of strangers encouraged more to log in, to ask more questions—and more importantly, to answer more queries, including ones that Xavier would plant. After a few months, so many people believed the lie that Poll Que no longer had to lie—thousands of people from all over the world really were responding to questions in a matter of hours.

 

Like all gimmicky apps, people’s interest in Poll Que dwindled as quickly as it soared, but in the course of a year Xavier had amassed a colossal pool of data about hundreds of thousands of people, data that no one else on Earth had access to. Hundreds of gigabytes of questions and answers readily linked, categorized, sorted, and correlated. Every point of data was just that—a point, a nearly infinitesimally small one—but put enough points together, put tens of millions of points together, and something will emerge. Not necessarily something coherent, but something. Now Xavier Dekker just had to figure out what it was. He knew he was one of the few people in this world intelligent enough to do so.

 

The First Chapter

David Dekker was bored. He peered above his laptop and to the window at the rain dragging those sopping amber leaves to the pavement. It was the first big storm of the season. He didn’t find it ugly or brutal. It was just something that was happening—rain grooming the weary autumn trees—and at that moment he found it far more interesting to stare out the window than attend to his computer’s display. He then looked over to Tegan and decided to express his thoughts: “I’m bored.”

 

Tegan didn’t even look at him.

 

“Do you get bored?” David asked but Tegan continued to ignore him. “Probably not yet.” He glanced back to the laptop. “Lucky you.” He figured it was time to get back to work.

 

Telecommuting. David greatly enjoyed the sound of this. He telecommuted to work. It seemed to imply teleportation. He figured that whoever coined that term must have had a dreadfully boring job and yearned for a polysyllabic word to obfuscate the fact that he worked in underwear and stained T-shirts. When a Boston-based firm purchased the local start-up he’d worked for, the prospect of him telecommuting sounded perfect. No more hassles with Vancouver traffic. No more purchasing clothes for work. Conference calls in his underwear and stained T-shirts. Of course David knew the obvious drawbacks: that he would become disconnected from the world, that he would miss that social realm of work. But these were manageable problems. He wasn’t concerned. He’d just have to make a point of getting out of the house. He could take his laptop to a cafe if he wanted contact with the rest of humanity. Not that he ever did this. But it was always an option, and that was all that mattered—for David accepted that freedom is often just a matter of perception. As long as you feel liberated, you’re not concerned by the constraints.

 

For the last three years David Dekker lived three time zones ahead of everyone else around him, having to log in at five in the morning and sign off by two in the afternoon. Nights out inevitably involved frequent yawning and subsequent apologizes for making everyone else tired. By eleven he would be checking the time every couple of minutes, hoping that it wouldn’t seem rude to leave before anyone else. Staying up until midnight felt like pulling an all-nighter. On weekends, David would awaken at six while Lily could remain in a blissful slumber until noon. His eyelids were like flower petals in the sun; this was not a matter of free will. He started doing things on Saturday mornings that he would have never imagined back in his twenties. He would go for a jog. He would watch the weekend edition of the local morning news and learn how to prepare a perfect poached egg. He then would drive to the supermarket while the roads were vacant to purchase eggs (and vinegar). He figured this was what growing up felt like—realizing only after the fact that you now enjoy these routines that you never before had the patience for.

 

When his phone rang at ten in the morning, David knew that it was Lily before looking at the display. She always called between 9:45 and 10:15. “How is she doing?” were her first words and David wasn’t bothered by the lack of a greeting.

 

“She’s good.”

 

“What is she doing right now?”

 

“She’s sucking on her fist.”

 

“Take a picture and send it to me.”

 

“I will.”

 

“Were you sleeping?”

 

“No.“

 

“How are you doing?”

 

“I think I might take her out for a little walk soon.”

 

Lily waited to reply. David wasn’t sure if she heard him.

 

She then asked, “Isn’t it pissing out?”

 

David looked out the window. The black asphalt popped like sizzling bacon. “It’s not too bad.”

 

“I can see it through my window.”

 

“I thought some fresh air might be good for her.”

 

“Is the air in our house somehow not fresh?”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“Please don’t take her out in this weather.”

 

“Okay, okay.” David relented.

 

“Send me a picture of her.”

 

“Will do.”

 

“She better not be wet.”

 

“She won’t be.”

 

“Love you.”

 

“Love you, too.”

 

David hung up and took the required picture. Before sending it, however, he scanned the array of photographs stored in his phone from Lily’s previous morning requests. Would she notice if he sent her a photo from two weeks ago? He decided to find out. He then looked over to Tegan. “Ready for that walk now, Teegs?” She looked up at him and cooed. “Good girl.”

 

It was one in the morning when David awoke to Lily returning to bed. Although asleep when she left, he knew that she’d been gone too long. This wasn’t another one of her semi-hourly visits to the washroom. Even in the darkness he could tell that her eyes were wide open. She didn’t need to say it. David sat up and asked if she’d had a contraction. It was really happening. This was different from all the other times, she said, although David could see it in her face, even with his eyes struggling to regain focus. These ones fucking hurt. She told him that she was going to lie down on the couch. He said he’d come with her but Lily assured him that he should stay. There was nothing for him to do right now. The last few contractions were more than ten minutes apart. She told him that he might as well get some sleep and he abided without struggle. She didn’t give David a kiss as she left the room. The old wooden stairs strained beneath her steps. He looked up to the ceiling and realized that in a matter of hours he was going to have a daughter. He knew there was no point in trying to get back to sleep. And then he slept—until eight in the morning. He hadn’t woken up that late in years. His body knew to get rest while it still could. Lily was on the couch watching television and David felt ashamed.

 

That was the morning of Saturday, April the 23rd. That was the last time that David felt rested. Sleep is fragile enough for anyone with a newborn, but for a man living three time zones ahead of his family, David was now out of orbit. When Tegan cried at two in the morning he wouldn’t get back to sleep—not until seven in the morning, that is, while hunched over his laptop in the constrained office adjacent to the living room. He’d catch his head in free fall and sit up, hoping that Lily didn’t notice—she didn’t take kindly to the idea of David locking himself up in a room to ‘work,’ only to be found passed-out in his chair. “Maybe we can swap roles,” Lily would say. “I’ll take the nap—I mean work—and you take Tegan. Sound like a deal?” By the afternoon he was having his second wind. He could do this all day. By the early evening he craved nothing more than slumber. He would help with dinner while yearning for bed at six in the evening. How wonderful it would feel to just lie in bed for hours. But no. The evenings were the witching hours. This was when Tegan really learned to wield those bleating lungs of hers. Lily: “Take her for a bit, I’ve had her all day. But you have to walk with her. She’ll just keep crying if you sit down.” David would pace the living room, vibrating his daughter in his arms, patting her back, shushing obnoxiously loud. That dream of resting in bed for hours—how fantastical. Like winning the lottery. No point in craving the unattainable. By the time Tegan would settle, it was eleven at night. David would look at the red matchstick digits on the alarm clock and wrestle back a sigh; he could not be vocal. Lily took offence to David moaning about his lack of sleep. He would look at the clock… and nod. Nodding had become David Dekker’s sigh. It was quiet, didn’t rouse questions, and implied approval. Win-win-win. In three hours, the sleep-deprived cycle would start all over again.

 

David clipped Tegan into the stroller and covered her in a crumpled transparent bubble. “You good?” he asked. His daughter was encased in ice, secure from the elements. “Good.” He looked back out the window. It was the kind of rain you only see in films shot in Los Angeles. The kind of rain staged by people who live in a desert… and hence base it all on what they’ve seen on television. But he was only going to take Tegan three blocks to get a coffee and something for lunch. He would appreciate the fresh air. He would enjoy getting out of the house, if for no other reason than to prove to the rest of the inattentive world that David Dekker was still alive.

 

He had just pushed the stroller’s fat hind wheels through the lip of the front door when Margaret strode up the walkway, lowering a striped green and white golf umbrella. Margaret’s resemblance to his wife was immediate, should Lily have been made of wax and left out in the summer sun for days upon end. Margaret’s flaccid hair hung down to each eyebrow like a drape, and David could tell that she’d just dyed it a perfect black. Compared to her pale skin, he thought it looked ridiculous. No one has hair that color; she might as well color it blue. “Where are you going?” she asked as if he was lost.

 

“I was just going to get a coffee,” David replied with a nod. A hearty, heavy nod. This is the price, he thought. “I thought I was watching Tegan today?”

 

Margaret was already forcing the stroller back into the house. “Oh, no, I’m not staying long. Just popping by. I’ll be in and out in no time.” She carried a green reusable grocery bag in one hand, the pointed corners of a box nuzzling out from within. “But you have coffee, don’t you? I could swear you have a full bag of it.”

 

“Yes, but I thought I might also pick up something for lunch.”

 

“Oh, no,” Margaret was aghast. “Let me get it for you. You can’t be taking Tegan out in weather like this.”

 

“I figured it’s only a few blocks.”

 

“Oh, no. Look at her. She’s freezing already.”

 

David looked at Tegan, unsure how Margaret could ascertain her granddaughter’s internal temperature with immediate certainty. Inside her bubble, Tegan’s expression would have made a suitable passport portrait. “It’ll just be quick.”

 

“Don’t be silly, David. I’ll go get you something. You should stay in with her. What would you like?”

 

David nodded again. This was the price. This was the price for being able to ‘afford’ a one-hundred-year-old house in the west side of Vancouver. This was the price for having an address that demands envy from friends. In any other city it would be considered a house. A house with character. But in the most overvalued real estate market in Canada, if not North America, David’s home was a palace. A house with old-growth beams so solid they refused nails from a hammer. A house dwarfed by the boulevard trees that had grown patiently over a century, absorbing the rain that falls for so much of each of those many years. This was the price he had to pay for free daycare. This was the price that he had to pay—and the price was not having to pay the price. The price was a deal so great that Lily and David would have been fools to pass it up. Lily’s parents sold their family home, a property that had increased in value tenfold over forty years, and downsized into a condo just a few blocks away. Three and a half blocks, to be exact. That was the deal. If David or Lily ever wanted a chance to live in this part of Vancouver, then they would have to accept the conditions. Margaret and Bob would pay for half of the house. The title would be in David and Lily’s name. David and Lily only had to agree on one stipulation: their home would be within a ten-minute walk from the condo. Margaret didn’t want Lily relocating to some distant land. Like the east side of the city. Or anything that might require driving. Margaret wanted Lily, her only child, to have the opportunity to raise a family in the same neighborhood that she grew up in. And this was the only way. “It’s the least we can do,” Margaret said at the time. And so this was the price: Margaret might come by at any time and without notice, regardless of when she was meant to take care of Tegan. Sometimes Margaret would bring groceries for dinner. Sometimes she would come bearing gifts—like a set of seasonally themed coasters. Sometimes she would drop off gallon jugs of juice or kilogram boxes of granola bars that she’d picked up at (the) Costco. And sometimes she would stroll by and remind David that there was no need to take Tegan outside in such inclement weather. She would pick up lunch for him. “I was just going to get a sandwich,” David said.

 

“Okay, then let me pick it up. I’ll get you a sandwich, but I’m pretty sure you won’t need coffee. I dropped off a big bag just last week from the Costco.”

 

“Yeah, I remember that now.”

 

“And, here.” She withdrew a cardboard box large enough for any assortment of useless household items. Perhaps pumpkin shaped plates perfect for Halloween? The holiday was just around the corner. “Bob found these at Simpson Sears the other day. I think you two will be able to use them.”

 

“Oh, thanks.” David knew that Bob had nothing to do with this purchase. Margaret only put the onus on her husband when she figured that it was something masculine. “What is it?”

 

“It’s a fondue set.”

 

“Oh.” David didn’t see that one coming. “Yeah. Fondue.”

 

“Bob remembered how much you like a fondue. Or is it like to fondue? Either way, it was such a great price and Bob figured you’d get good use out of it. Your old fondue set must be really old.”

 

“I don’t think we have a fondue set.”

 

“You used to. Well, this will be perfect then.”

 

“Thanks.” And he remembered. Before Lily was pregnant, when he and some friends partook in a ravenous, marijuana-induced rampage of his kitchen, David came to the conclusion that deep-frying hot dogs would be delicious (it was). Margaret visited the following morning and noticed a pot of cold oil and charred barbeque skewers in the kitchen sink, her eyes drawn to mess like a moth to light. She asked David if he and his friends had a fondue the night before. He said yes. That was it. David was an aficionado.

 

Margaret said, “Okay, well keep Tegan warm and dry inside here and I’ll be back in just a few minutes. You should probably put some socks on her. And maybe a sweater. Her arms are freezing. I’ll be back with the sandwich.”

 

“Sure. Thanks again, Margaret.”

 

“Oh, don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do.” She closed the door behind her, leaving David standing in the narrow hallway between the living room and office. Tegan moaned from inside her wrinkled bubble. Now he could let out a hearty sigh. And then he chuckled. Knowing his luck, Margaret would return with a hoagie from 7-11.

 

She did.

 

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