I tell my daughter I’m taking her to the new museum for her birthday present.
“But what if I don’t want to go?” she asks. “What if I want another Bot Buddy for my birthday present?”
“You’ll like it,” I say. “And you don’t need another Bot Buddy.”
Of course, I’m not sure she’ll like it. It might be too soon to go; the museum is so new, the crowds are still terrible, there are still kinks to work out. The average TripAdvisor rating is only three stars. It’s expensive. Also, maybe Jane is too young: she just turned eleven. The museum is intended for older audiences—but not too old. You have to sign a waiver promising not to sue if you have a heart attack or suffer from “emotional distress.”
“All the cool kids are going,” I say. “The high school kids.”
This is true. You see them around town in their MTM T-shirts, which feature a big bloodshot eyeball and the slogan I’m Not Telling.
Jane is going through a difficult stage, spending too much time in her room with her VR animals and her Bot Buddy, Naomi—she works on a virtual ranch she designed when she was seven with her VR father before the Glitch. She stays up late feeding tigers and roaming the camp with her rifle, stalking a shadowy bandit that steals eggs and sets fires. Her teachers report that she’s intelligent but unmotivated. Instead of thought-waving with other kids she just watches movies on her finger screen. She made Naomi punch another kid’s Bot Buddy and then denied it, even when there were goggles everywhere recording it.
I tried to tell her stories of my own childhood, the things I’d endured, my own loneliness. And look, I turned out fine! But we don’t seem to share the same language. I told her how I used to carry a phone device in my pocket or in my purse, how I had to send text messages to people to know what they were doing. And her grandmother—wow, she had to wait by the phone for a boy to call her. It was a plastic machine, I told Jane, and it hung on the wall with a long curly cord, and it rang when someone wanted to talk to you.
She said, “I have no idea what any of that means,” then clamped her VR set on and went off to hunt the bandit.
The line begins a block away. A cold rain is spitting down, and we shiver in our coats. I’m glad I made Jane wear her boots. We haven’t been to the city in almost a year, not since we last visited her VR father in his midtown loft. I designed him myself. He played the piano and the trumpet. He told jokes. He said, Atta girl. I gave him a face like a friendly lion and hair like a twentieth-century rock star. He wore skinny ties and chinos and had big yellow paws. He was perfect, and Jane loved spending time with him, but when the Glitch happened, he was deactivated and I never got around to reformatting him.
“Are you nervous?” I ask Jane, as we shuffle toward the entrance.
“A little,” she says. The other people in line are in their thirties, forties, and older; a few give us disapproving glances, and one woman says, “This is no place for a child.” But the scanner beeps green as Jane and I enter, and I feel vindicated—especially when I see the scoldy woman beep red and be taken aside by Nurse Bots for extra Health and Wellness scanning.
You have to deactivate all of your screens, and Bot Buddies aren’t allowed past the cloak room.
The marble hallway opens to a set of eight rooms, and the crowds stream into them, disappearing into more and more rooms. There are no Bot Docents; there is no map.
“I guess just start anywhere,” I say.
“I wish Naomi was here,” Jane mumbles as we follow a line of people into a brightly lit room. “What is that?”
“It’s a bench,” I say. “And an old man.”
Because that’s what it is. A green wooden bench, the kind you used to see in parks. And a white-haired man in black trousers, a tattered blue windbreaker. His face is both gray and yellow. He’s hunched, staring into space.
“What’s he doing?”
“Ohhh, he’s a Povvy.”
I forgot that she even knew about Povvies. They were pretty much swept out of the country a decade ago.
We watch as a young woman in blue jeans and a turtleneck sweater walks into the exhibit. She has long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.
“Hey,” the man calls. “Pretty lady.”
“Oh no,” says Jane.
There’s some shoving behind us, and a man whispers, “God, I hated Povvies.”
“You got any change?” the Povvy shouts, but the woman ignores him, walking past, looking straight ahead. “So I can buy a meal? I just want a meal.”
“No,” the woman says, and then another glass door swings open and she walks up to a window that says ice cream and hands a piece of paper to a man in a paper hat.
“That’s money,” I tell Jane.
“I know that.”
The old man is walking toward the woman with the ice cream. “I saw you,” he says. “I see you. You said you didn’t have any money, but you did. You too good to talk to me?”
“Let’s move on,” Jane says, so we follow a stream of people into the next room, where three suitcases churn around on a conveyer belt while a woman and her tiny son stand next to it, gripping each other’s hands. All the suitcases are marked not yours.
“They don’t have their stuff,” I explain to Jane. “And there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“Huh,” says Jane.
We make our way through more rooms. There’s a teenage boy sitting on a single bed, staring at a phone—“See, it’s one those old ones,” I tell Jane—picking up the handset, putting it back down again. Picking it up.
In another room: a dining room table with six people eating silently, not making eye contact. Two sputtering red candles on the table, a turkey carcass.
“Who are those people?” Jane whispers, and I say, “I think it’s a family.”
I’m starting to think it’s all getting through to her: the ways the world used to work, all the opportunities for missed connections and miscommunication and misunderstandings and helplessness. We hurry past blue flashing lights, past small children holding out candy bars. A man with a clipboard, calling, “Just a moment of your time.”
A woman sits by herself at a restaurant table and stares at her wristwatch, a concept I once tried to explain to Jane. Then she takes out a phone device and starts pushing its buttons.
“She can’t use thought-wavers to find out where her friend is,” I say. “She has to try to find her with that phone, using words. But her friend isn’t answering.”
“Is her friend dead?” Jane asks, her eyes wide.
“Maybe. But the woman won’t know it until later.”
“Ohhh,” says Jane.
“Do you see how easy it is for you?” I tell her. “You have it so easy.”
She doesn’t say anything.
We enter a room strung with crepe streamers, a disco ball twirling from the ceiling. A girl Jane’s age sits by herself in a chair while a group of boys stands nearby, laughing. One of the boys keeps looking at the girl. When he looks away, she looks at him. There’s a window behind them, rain slanting in bright shards through the night sky.
“It’s a middle school mixer,” I explain. “He wants to dance with her and she wants to dance with him, but they don’t have thought-wavers or finger screens.”
“I can’t stand this,” Jane says. “It’s awful.”
I watch the boy drift over to the girl. “It’s beautiful,” I murmur, but Jane has already turned away. She’s staring at her fingers even though the screens are deactivated.
“This isn’t even a real museum,” Jane says, loud enough that several people stop and look. “I want Naomi and my animals. I want to catch the bandit before he burns down another fence.”
I watch the boy and girl staring at each other, their faces flushed and terrified. The last time I felt this way was when Jane was still a baby, before the screens and the lion-father, when my heart was like that glittering ball twisting just out of reach, suspended and cracked open. Maybe now is the time to tell Jane that the bandit is me, that I’m keeping an eye on her, tiptoeing through her animal kingdom and setting small, harmless fires. I open the traps and let the wild rats roam free. Sometimes I’m a snake slithering just out of sight.
I turn to tell her how proud I am of her, that I’ll buy her whatever she wants in the gift shop. “This wasn’t so bad, was it?” I say.
But she’s gone.
Maybe she’ll come back, or maybe she’ll find her way to the exit, and the doors, and the world beyond it. In a moment, I will look for her, calling her name, stopping strangers and asking, “Have you seen my daughter?” They will think I’m just another exhibit, and maybe I am.
Through the big window, the rain has turned to snow, swirling past the silver buildings. We don’t have snow anymore; I don’t think Jane has ever seen it.