An Old-Fashioned Romance
by Jill Hand
Eleanor entered the lunchroom and stepped onto the metal grid, activating LunchLady. There was a faint whirr of gears and an electronic hum as a broad smile spread across LunchLady’s motherly face, causing twin dimples to appear in her rosy cheeks. “Hey, hon! Howya doin’? What didja bring to eat today? Something good, I hope!”
LunchLady’s chummy way of talking had been programmed in an effort to imitate the archaic speech of the early twenty-first century. People were nostalgic about that long-ago era, which they imagined (quite incorrectly, but isn’t that always the way with nostalgia?) to have been much nicer than their own. It was lunchtime at CorpCorp, LLC on the planet Earth in the year 2112.
Eleanor removed the lid from her bento box and held up her lunch for inspection. With a whirr of gears, LunchLady bent down to assess it. Like the lunch ladies of old, she wore a hairnet and a cotton-print bib apron. The ladle she held in one hand was there just for show, since she didn’t actually serve lunch: she monitored the employees’ lunches to make sure they contained the proper nutrition.
Straightening up with a whirr, she said, “Gosh, that looks yummy!”
It didn’t look even remotely appetizing. Eleanor’s lunch consisted of a limp piece of steamed whitefish on a bed of spinach, with a beige-colored soy biscuit for dessert. It was the sort of thing people were supposed to eat for lunch in 2112, unless they wanted a visit from a Health Officer.
LunchLady’s eyes flashed bright green as she ran an analysis on the contents of the bento box. Then she intoned, in a staccato monotone, “Calories totaling 167. Four grams of fat. Three grams of carbs. Result: satisfactory. Recommendation for optimum physical fitness: one-half mile brisk walk or fifteen minutes on the stationary bicycle, whichever the employee prefers.”
Analysis completed, her eyes resumed their former benign appearance. She told Eleanor, “Enjoy your lunch, hon, and have a nice afternoon.”
Eleanor sat down at an empty table by the glass wall overlooking a courtyard paved in black gravel. It contained a pond bordered in smooth rocks in which koi swam, and some white cement benches. The lunchroom’s décor was devoid of excess ornamentation, furnished with tables and chairs in bright primary colors. Its walls of unpainted brick displayed artwork of swirling, amorphous shapes that might have been cells growing in Petri dishes, or perhaps some kind of seed pods. CorpCorp was proud of its stylish lunchroom and courtyard. It considered the design to be cutting edge when in fact, except for the clothes everyone wore and the fact that no one was smoking, it could have been lifted straight out of the nineteen-fifties.
A man approached the table where Eleanor sat, carrying a bento box in which there was a heap of steamed greens, a soy biscuit and a hard-boiled egg. He indicated the empty chair across from her. “Mind if I sit here?”
Eleanor said she didn’t mind.
“I’m Trey Andrews. I work in accounting. You work in product development, right?”
Eleanor said that was right. “I’m Eleanor,” she told him. “Eleanor Mitchell.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “You want to see a picture of my virtual girlfriend?”
That was the standard opening conversational gambit upon meeting someone new: you showed them a picture of your virtual girlfriend or boyfriend, or your virtual kids or pets. If you really wanted to impress somebody you might show them a picture of your virtual vacation home.
He took out his comm screen and thumbed it on to reveal a stunningly beautiful woman wearing a figure-hugging red satin gown. The virtual girlfriend made the supermodels of the twenty-first century look like sacks of potatoes. She smiled brilliantly and spun around, waggling her butt provocatively. Then she looked over her shoulder, winked and blew a kiss.
“Wow!” Eleanor said. “She’s very pretty.”
“I know, right?” said Trey proudly. “Want to see my virtual kids?”
The virtual kids – a boy and a girl – were produced and duly admired.
“I’m a lucky guy to have such a beautiful virtual family,” Trey said, putting away the comm screen. “How about you? Do you have a virtual boyfriend or girlfriend?”
Eleanor poked at her whitefish with an ecoplast fork before replying. “I used to have a virtual boyfriend but it got kind of boring. It didn’t feel…”
She tried to think of the right word to describe how she felt about Ash, her former virtual boyfriend. He said all the right things, how he adored her and how good she made him feel, but there was something missing. When he sent her flowers on her birthday (virtual flowers) or presented her with a love poem for Valentine’s Day, it just made her feel sort of blah.
As if he’d read her mind, Trey said, “I know what you mean. It didn’t feel real.”
She looked at him in surprise. Was he blushing? He was!
“Um, listen, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. I haven’t been stalking you or anything, because that’s very inappropriate behavior …” He looked around solemnly at the banks of cameras that recorded everything that went on in the lunchroom before continuing. “I simply mean to say that I’ve noticed you around the building and you seem like a nice person so thought maybe we could see a show together, or have dinner sometime.”
Now Eleanor was blushing. “I’d like that,” she said.
“It’s called a date,” Trey said, proud to know the archaic term for the kind of evening he was proposing. “We’d do something fun together, talk and get to know each other, and then I’d escort you home.”
Eleanor recalled seeing that sort of thing happen in old vids. “And then I’d tell you that I had a wonderful time, and you’d say you did too, and you hope we can see each other again soon.”
“Exactly,” Trey replied. “I would be gallant and dashing, just like in the olden times.” He had a thought. “Maybe I’d kiss you, but only if you wanted me to, and just once, gently and respectfully. And then I’d doff my hat…is that the word for when you go like this?” He made a hat-tipping gesture in the air next to his forehead.
Eleanor said she thought it sounded right. “Anyway, I’d doff my hat and say good night,” Trey told her, looking pleased by the romantic picture he’d created.
The food in their bento boxes grew cold, but they were too busy smiling shyly at each other to notice.
◊ ◊ ◊
Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella from Kellan Publishing based on a true story. It contains no zombies, moody teenage vampires, or young people forced to fight to the death in a post apocalyptic future. It does, however, contain humor and some lively historical facts.
3 thoughts on “An Old-Fashioned Romance”
I think the most unsettling and thought-provoking dystopian stories are those, like this one, that don’t warn of high-tech dictatorships, but instead force us to think about a safe and dull existence where every material need is provided, leaving the spirit to die of neglect. Good job.
Thanks, Mike. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine a future like this one. Not evil, just highly supervised. We put so much emphasis now on “being safe,” that we’re starting to lose all sense of adventure.
A pleasant tale, well told, that left me wondering it “the good old Mayberry days” aren’t as much of a virtual reality as those provided by CorpCorp. Maybe that irony could be stoked up a bit. AGB