Project

drawing of robot

I remember the day he was conceived. The day Lily said, "Today's the day." She actually said that, "Today's the day." We hadn't heard about your organization yet, what you do. That day we went to the adoption agency and filled out paperwork. I remember we took the cable car, just restored, up California Street. The summer of '85. It was one of those days, with the sun and tourists saying, "They have such nice weather here." It was bright and everything looked a little blue, the bay and everything, the white point of the Transamerica Pyramid. Lily said, "This is a magical day," and it was. I mean, it was.

When I told her I lost my job, she cried. I said, "It's ok, I'll get another job, we've got a little money, we'll be fine." She told me, "That's not why I'm crying." She was crying because it meant we'd lose our place on the waiting list, and she said, "I thought we were close. It felt like we were close." So somebody said there was an alternative and I thought, "Maybe this'll make her happy." I thought it would only be until we made it back up the list, Ben was just going to take her mind off things.

No, I don't think my parents would have told me. It's selfish. They're still my parents. I mean, they raised me.

I took her to the orientation, you know, "Try to use simple 'if, then' statements, that's how they learn best." Why would you tell us that? It's not true. I mean, it is, but that's no way to talk to them. "Try not to tell them about the project or what they are, we don't know what sort of effects that could have." What did you think would happen?

It was a surprise, I didn't tell her where we were going. I tried to keep it light. This was going to take her mind off things.

She paid so much attention. She was looking so hard at that guy who gave the orientation. I didn't think he knew what he was talking about, some shill in a suit. I thought, "They should have a scientist talking to us," but she stared so hard at that guy. I kept looking at her, with all these people around her. I remember I didn't think there would be so many people. All of them listening to this guy, but she was listening harder. They all looked so normal, those people. Us.

When the guy was done she looked at me, she wasn't smiling. She said, "Do you want to do this?" We would get Ben in three months, you know? I had another job but we would've been starting all over on the adoption list, it could've been years. Actually, I thought we were starting over on the list, even then. Even when she asked me that, "Do you want to do this?" I didn't think we would keep Ben.

We signed the forms--the consents, the waivers, the NDAs--and made an appointment to pick him up. December twelfth. When we got home, Lillian read me the horoscope for Sagittarius out of the Chronicle. She thought it was a good sign, whatever it said.

I remember very clearly being in a place where there was nothing I knew. It's hard to explain. I saw everything, and I remember seeing everything. It all took a minute to come into focus. I remember the days I learned the words for each of the things in that room: table, chair, light, computer. I was in Mom's arms, she said, "I'm your mommy, and this is your daddy. Hello." I remember the sounds, and I remember when I found out what each of them meant. She pointed at herself and said, "Mommy" and then she pointed at Dad and said, "Daddy" and then she looked up and said to the doctor, "Can he understand us?"

She was crying a little, for a while when I was younger I thought that meant she was sad, but she was smiling at the same time. A man's voice said, "He doesn't know any language yet, he'll have to learn it just like anyone else." I don't think he knew I would remember everything. I remember everything.

My parents looked at me for a long time. Mom held me and kept smiling and crying in little coughing bursts.

I walked into the bedroom one day and found Lily nursing Ben. Pretending to nurse him. She had him up to her breast and he was sucking at it. I sat down next to her and for a minute it was like we were a real family. She said to him, I remember, after we sat there a minute on the bed pretending he was our son, she said, "If you live, then we'll love you." Then she said, "We'll love you anyway," really quickly. She looked at me, and I remember this, she said, "I hope I'm doing it right. I hope we don't break him." Then Ben started crying. He was hungry.

He cried for all the normal things, food and waste, which I suppose I expected. He cried for attention, which I guess I expected too. Sometimes he cried and we couldn't figure out why and Lily would get worried that she'd done something wrong and that he was broken. I wasn't too worried then. The worst part, I thought, would be Lily. She'd be sad if we had to give him back to you.

For a while I played with the idea that you might've taken his skin from some other baby. It felt real, and your guy explained all that, that Ben made all that stuff himself. I didn't really believe it, I didn't think he could make anything that real. I had these visions of skins from the tiny corpses of starved third world babies being cleaned and bleached and wrapped around his little skeleton. A skin suit.

Then he fell down. He was walking so young and we would take him out to the park. He's cruising down this path, the little toddler run, you know? All jiggling and stumbling, and then he fell and he started crying. He scraped his knee. He only bled a little, but it was red and sticky and he scabbed. His knee scabbed up and a few weeks later the scab came off and you would have never known.

I was crying and my dad sort of ambled up to me. I cried louder so he'd hurry. When he saw my knee he picked me up in his arms. It was hard for me, later, to think of him as smaller than me. His arms always seemed so big. He touched my knee and it stung and I kept crying. He said, "If you fall down, then you'll get hurt."

He burned himself on the stove, and I told him "If you touch something that's hot, then you'll get burnt." He got the chicken pox when he was six. He wouldn't stop scratching himself so I said, "If you scratch at it, then it'll never get better." I was picking him up from school maybe three, four years later and he said to me, "You know, scratching chicken pox won't stop you from getting better. Our bodies heal from the inside."

After that I started worrying what else he remembered, I started trying to remember everything I'd ever said to him. I kept trying to remember if I'd ever told him what he was. Mentioned it around him, violated the NDAs. But I'd kept my word, never told anybody. Even when I fought with Lily over how much she spent, or how she read his horoscope every day like it meant something, I never used the words. I never called him what he was.

He must've been nine or ten and we're walking down Mission Street and we walk past this homeless guy with a cup and a sign and everything. Ben had seen homeless people before, a lot of them in the city. I'd told him, "If you look at them, then they'll think you're going to give them money." The next time he saw a homeless guy he tugged on my sleeve and said, "Daddy, I looked at the man, do you have any money I can give him?" When I said no he asked me why and I said, "If you give them money, they'll just spend it on booze."

So then the next homeless guy he sees he actually walks up to and says, "I know I looked at you, but I'm not going to give you any money because I know that booze is bad for you." I was so embarrassed. I pulled him away and said, "You shouldn't talk to them." He asks why and I say, "If you talk to them, then they might try and hurt you." Next homeless guy, Ben starts pulling on my jacket and saying, "Can we walk over there?" pointing to the other side of the street. He was afraid of the guy. I remember, I said, "Don't worry, he's not going to hurt you."

My mom bought me a fireman costume for Halloween and my dad walked me around the neighborhood. This one woman, she was really old, I remember she had her candy bowl clipped to her walker. She asked me, "Are you going to be a fireman when you grow up big and strong like your daddy?" I hadn't really thought about that before, about being as big as my dad. Becoming something, you know?

I told her, "I don't know." I really didn't, I still don't know what I want to do, you know, for a career. The woman said, "Firemen are heroes. Don't you want to be a hero?" I didn't know what to say, I just nodded and ran back to my dad. On the way to the next house he said, "Don't worry, you can be whatever you want when you grow up."

"He's not?" he asks. I say, "No, most of them are normal people like you and me." Anyway, he's nine or ten and we walk past this homeless guy and about a hundred feet down the street Ben starts crying. He says, "I don't want to be homeless." He's crying because he thinks he's going to be homeless. I told him, "Don't worry, if you work hard and save your money, then you won't be homeless." About six months later Lily finds a stack of cash hidden in Ben's room. When we asked him where he got it from he told us he'd saved it. He saved every penny he got, his allowance, money I gave him to get a snack from the machine at his school, all of it. He had almost sixty dollars. What sort of kid doesn't spend any money?

He said, "I'm saving so I won't be homeless." I told him, "You know, if you save all your money you'll be homeless too. Sure, your mom and I had to spend money to get this house, and to keep it, and to get clothes and food."

I just wanted him to be a normal kid. For his sake.

I was thirteen, after the funeral. I asked him, "Why did Mom die?" and he said, "I don't know." I asked him if I would see her in heaven and he looked at me and said, "I don't know." "Isn't Mom going to heaven?" I asked. "Your mother was a very good person," he said. "Then, am I not going to go to heaven?"

Every week in church Lily thanked God for bringing Ben into our lives.

He never answered. You know I can remember every sunset I've ever seen?

Lily took him to his first day of school, she told me about it that night. She said he had been afraid, clinging to her leg and saying, "If you take me home, I'll be happy." She said, "But we got to the classroom and the kids, there were these two little girls and they had already made friends, they were holding hands. Ben stopped talking and he stared at all these kids, and I said, 'If you talk to them, they'll like you.' When I came to pick him up he was playing. He made friends."

"He's amazing," she said. She always said that, "He's so amazing, the things he does." She said that every time. He would learn to ride a bike, or hit a baseball. She even said that the first time he fed the pigeons at the park. "Thank God for our amazing son."

He stopped talking to me, the only time he'd say anything was to tell me what to do, give me some advice or something. I never heard him tell a joke after Mom died. Before she went he told me dirty jokes. I didn't get them at first. He started telling me these jokes right after I turned twelve. "Posse, you fool! I said posse!"

He said, "If you're going to be a man, you've got to know the jokes."

The first time he told me one of those jokes I told it to Mom. We were eating dinner and I delivered that punch line, "I said posse," and I laughed and Mom and Dad didn't. Mom said, "Do you know why that's funny?" and I had to say no. I was so embarrassed, but she said, "Good," and smiled at Dad. He said, "If you're going to tell them to your mother, then I'm not going to tell you any more jokes," and then they were both laughing, so I laughed.

The next time he told me a dirty joke I didn't tell Mom. I told it in school and the teacher heard and I got into trouble. He and Mom got in a fight, but a week later he told me another joke. "Do I look like I asked for a twelve inch pianist?" I remember the day I learned why that was funny.

She should have been there, later on. Maybe he could have made it. She was so good with him. In fourth grade he came home crying because a girl in his class, Lynn, I'm pretty sure, she teased him every day for a week. Lily said, "If a girl pays attention to you, it means that she likes you." In sixth grade he came home crying because he'd called a girl in his class a name and made her cry. Lily said, "If you want someone to pay attention to you, you should be nice to them."

He came home as a sophomore trying hard to look like he hadn't been crying. Some girl had turned him down, told him he ought to work out more. I told him, "If she doesn't like you for who you are, then screw her." He said, "I really like this girl, Dad." He started working out. He joined the sports teams, whatever was in season. Football in the fall, basketball in winter and then baseball. He was good. He was good in little league, too. He never really seemed to like sports.

For a long time I felt like that was my fault. We'd go to his games and cheer for him, and he'd hit the ball, bat in runs, catch flies, but he never celebrated. He never said, "Yes!" or pumped his arm or anything.

If Lily were alive she would've said something, and he would've forgotten all about that stupid girl and he would've been fine.

Jerry McAndrew's father yelled at him in the parking lot after the very first little league game I ever played in. He kept yelling, "Keep your eye on the ball! How hard is that? Swing the bat! Can you swing a bat? Can you?" He asked that over and over, "Can you catch a ball? Can you? Can you run?" and Jerry never answered, he just cried.

In high school we called the guys on the other team fags and pussy and shit-licker and motherfucker.

I don't think he ever got that girl.

I got laid, though. After a year on the teams I got a JV cheerleader to sleep with me. I remember thinking, "This is how they made me." I almost cried afterwards; I fell asleep and when I woke up she was sitting on the edge of the bed the way my mom used to when she would wake me up in the morning and read me my horoscope. I felt like my mom was close to me and then I just kept thinking about how I didn't love this girl and how it was wrong for me to use her for sex. We had sex two more times that day. I'm pretty sure she'd done it before, but I never asked. The next day was the game, my broken arm.

The first time Ben got sick, Lily panicked. She held him and wiped mucous from his nose and every time he'd cough or vomit or shit diarrhea she'd cry and clean him up. By eleven o'clock that night she was so worked up that I took them both to the emergency room.

The doctor said, "You have a wonderful son, who has a cold," and Lily cried again. She fell asleep in the car on the way home, holding Ben in her lap. I think we left at three in the morning. The next day Ben was fine again, giggling. Lily said it was amazing.

I bought Ben his first jacket that weekend.

Coach Cerby drove me to the emergency room and they did an X-ray. The first X-ray I'd ever had done. The doctor walked into the little white examination room and said, "Well, let's see what we have here," and stuck the film into one of those boxes that lights up. There was my arm, and the bone had this crosshatched look to it, like a mesh of bright white lines, a grid of diamonds. The doctor said, "Oh, my," and pulled the film down. He said, "Let's wait until your parents get here."

I had no idea what was going on, but I was excited. I was something exciting all of a sudden, something more than the people around me, I knew it. My bones looked designed, they looked sleek. I wanted to see inside myself, see how different I was.

When I saw him in the examination room, sitting there on the table, his arm swollen and bruised, I knew. He looked strong, he looked so big sitting there holding his arm. The doctor knew about your project, I'm sure a lot of people know. I asked the doctor not to tell Ben what he was. Ben just kept asking.

How could he be a person after that?

He didn't tell me himself, he let you people do it.

You know, after Mom died I'd catch him crying. I'd say, "It's ok, I miss her too.” Once he said, "I just wish I had her back," and once he said, "I'm sorry you won't be like the other kids." I said, "It's ok, you won't be like the other dads.” I wanted him to be happy. All the ghosts in the movies, the friendly ghosts, come back to tell the people they love to be happy. That's how I thought Mom would be.

She'd want us to be a family.

So, no, I don't think your experiment will ever work. The kids will all find out what they are. A machine that's been raised like a person is still a machine. How about the rest of them? Have they found out yet? Because they will.

Yes, I have questions. When can I go home? Aren't you going to let me get on with my life?

How can a thing like that pretend to be human? That's what he would be doing, now that he knows. It doesn't seem fair.

Can I tell people? My friends?

That movie, The Terminator, scared the shit out of him the first time he saw it. He watched it at a friend's house, I wouldn't let him see it. I told him, "Don't worry, robots can't pretend to be people, you're safe." I lied to him every day of his life, does that make him human?

When I slept with that girl, well, when I, I can come, right? No, I know I know the answer to that, what I'm asking is, can I have kids? I mean, does my stuff work?

Sure Lily and I loved him. We could've gotten a puppy and she would've cried if we lost that. We should've stayed on the list, we could've given some kid a chance.

What did we give Ben? I don't know, you tell me. Plug yourself into his head and find out. Can I leave, now?

Scroll to Top