By Sorrah ET
“And those ads. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? But you know the clip they always play with it, the two people passing on a bridge? It always makes me think of, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”
To stop herself from saying more, Sal took another sip of her smoothie. Its plastic straw was this place’s gimmick.
Nicole spent less than of a quarter of the time sipping on her drink thinking of something to say that could be rehearsed — on-topic but generic enough that it would still work no matter what had just been said — and then rehearsing it until it didn’t sound rehearsed. She was already responding.
“There was a whole legal battle over that couldn’t fail line. The concern was that people would think Dez is calculating all the possible outcomes and giving you The One Best Thing, when really it’s just based on these factors, we’re confident this has a high chance of going well for you.”
“But Dez never shows more than one option.”
Sal had meant it as a half-question, but Nicole nodded like she’d said something clever. “The bridge thing, I always saw it as, like, a hostage exchange.”
When Pastor Marcus had asked earlier, “Now this Nicole. Tell me about her,” Sal had blurted out, “She likes old spy movies.”
Now, in this moment, Nicole was leaning forward. “With the friends jumping off thing, it’s like, do you really want to be the one person left standing on that bridge, or do you want to trust that maybe, just maybe, there might be a reason they’re all jumping? Like, maybe the bridge is on fire.”
Sal could have brought up how little experience she had with peer pressure here, but she’d been feeling like the only thing she talked about with Nicole lately was how weird her childhood had been. She could tell from the way Nicole drew out the “maybe” that the right response was to laugh, so she did that instead.
What Sal had wanted to say, while they were still talking about bridges, was how nice their date to Triple Crossing had been. It was a park downtown, at a junction where three old railroad tracks passed over and under each other, though the James had risen, so the lowest one was underwater now. She’d taken the top line, a viaduct that once ran coal to the sea, while Nicole walked along the one beneath her, and they’d stopped at the part where hers had a see-through bottom and talked on the phone while watching one another through the glass at her feet, like prisoners in one of Nicole’s old movies.
Nicole had been the one to pick the spot out. Not Dez — that was their rule, that when they spent time together, all their decisions would be analog. They’d found this juice bar only because one of Nicole’s friends had been last week.
“If you saw her post on your feed, though, is that really that different from getting it from Dez?” Sal had tried to joke.
“But that’s something I can control.” Nicole had said it extra slowly, like someone trying to cross a river, stepping carefully onto each stone.
It had taken a little while for Sal to recognize that was how Nicole talked when she was offended. She’d mistaken it as how Nicole explained things, and maybe that’s what it had been in the beginning. Sal would make a mistake, and Nicole would be nice enough to assume it was because she didn’t understand how these things worked, because of how she’d been raised with no screens and all.
One of the first things Nicole had tried to show her was how to curate her feed. Sal had put in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, because she liked the sound of the title, even though she’d had fallen asleep that time they’d tried to watch it together. Nicole had launched into a lengthy explanation of how the algorithm already took her social networks into account, and she should optimize it for herself and nobody else. She never said, “You don’t have to pretend to like the same movies I do,” but Sal still got the memo. If I want her to like me, I have to find my own things to like.
So Sal wasn’t about to ruin things now by asking Nicole how she’d come up with the Triple Crossing idea. Never mind that it was supposed to be a part of why they’d gone analog, getting to explain to the other why they’d picked a particular place. After all, Sal had been slacking in her own selections. Her last few dates had been focused on local history, since at least she could do her research and bring that to the table. They’d gone to see the cross that Christopher Newport placed at the Fall of the James — Sal really was a sucker for poetic-sounding titles. He’d been trying to claim the site for England, but it was a spot where the river got particularly torrential, dropping from the rolling hills to the coastal plain. This was where they lived, right along that old fault line. Next week, she planned on taking them to Shockoe Slip. She’d tell Nicole about how “slip” referred to this narrow passageway that had led to the canal, though it wasn’t like there was anything there for them to walk through anymore.
“It’s too random,” Sal had tried to explain to Pastor Marcus, during one of their many talks. “And I feel like a fraud suggesting it, I mean, sure, I could call myself a history buff. But people aren’t experts on just history in general. They pick a specific era, and they zero in on it.”
“Well, I start my sermons out with names and their origins all the time. Speaking of, you know how they landed on Dez?” Pastor Marcus’s eyes twinkled as he flipped his ancient laptop open, ready to explain it. Sal knew him and these little talks of theirs well enough by now to take the way out he was offering.
“Luck had been the internal codename for it; the developer team got a kick out of wishing each other it whenever others were around. But they knew the wider public would need something less fickle, more meaningful. They even turned to religion for a while.” Sal, who’d been doodling four-leaf clovers, knew to sit up at this point. She’d look up the alternate name choices later when she got home. They’d toyed with kismet. Sal thought she almost could’ve fallen for it, if they’d gone with serendipity. But they went with Dez. Because they could be coy about whether it was short for destiny or destination, Pastor Marcus pointed out. “If the Calvinists were in charge, they would have called it pre-Dez,” he’d added. He glanced up, hoping to catch a chuckle from Sal, and was met only with her lost expression.
The whole point of all this had been to try out everything, so she could know what she’d been missing and decide whether she wanted it. But when it had come time for her to activate Dez and find out who her romantic partner should be — the main reason anyone used a device at all — she chickened out.
Even so, Sal and Nicole had managed to meet through Dez. Nicole, having found an unlock code for her device, had been playing around in the backend, and on a whim, she’d adjusted its Encounters setting to search for people nearby who also had it turned off. She’d come up to Sal holding her device out and grinning ear to ear, and Sal had been worried for a split second that maybe she had somehow accidentally activated Dez after all. She had no idea what was supposed to happen next. But even in that moment of panic, she was noticing how pretty Nicole was and thinking maybe the app wasn’t so bad. Then Nicole started talking about how she’d never expected it to work, and Sal realized the smile wasn’t 100% about her. Still, Sal decided, Nicole’s “look how smart I am” face was cute, not annoying.
And when Sal started opening up to her about what it meant to be trying all of this for the first time, Nicole really did get it, how it wasn’t nearly as simple as newfound freedom, and that the app came with some complications. Nicole gave her history and, with it, new weapons: “They promised to correct the glitches, but the deeper issue is they never designed with people of color in mind. Ironically, I think they actually called it a blind spot — a microaggression against yet another group their app designers never had in mind. If you try to make something that will work for everyone, whatever you’re making, it’s not going to work for minorities.” Watching her talk, Sal had known Nicole and her dad would get along, and was already thinking ahead to the day she’d introduce Nicole to him and how well it would go. So this is falling for someone, she found herself thinking idly, bemusedly, but once she’d thought it, she couldn’t unthink it.
When she did introduce Nicole to her parents, Sal still found something to worry about. Nicole had opted for an anti-grav hair mod earlier in the week, on a whim. The thought that maybe she should wait until after that Sunday’s meal at Sal’s parents’ place probably never even crossed her mind.
But fortunately, that week Pastor Marcus’s sermon was on Samson and Delilah. Sal remembered the story as standard “horror curiosity-with-consequences fare.” You had it coming, if you went and did the one thing Bluebeard or the girl with the ribbon choker or the gods who gave you a box told you not to do. Or if it hadn’t been curiosity, Delilah was just fed up with him looking so unkempt, not even adjusting his split ends. She’d forgotten the part of the story where it was no secret where his power came from. Delilah had purposefully wanted to weaken Samson. Pastor Marcus had talked about what it meant to mark yourself as different, even if it was something as simple as growing your hair too long — though, he’d tossed out, no one under any circumstances should take him to mean that it was okay for white people to wear dreadlocks. Her parents had come home happy, talking about what good a job they’d done choosing their church, and they hadn’t looked twice at Nicole’s hair.
The meetings with Pastor Marcus had been her parents’ condition for their blessing for her to move out and get her device. She’d been nervous that first time, waiting in the armchair out in the church’s front lobby. She’d never spent so long in the place, not when it was so empty of people, at least. Sal hadn’t wanted to get here late, and now that she was here early, she didn’t want to take her device out because she was sure the moment she did Pastor Marcus would come out, and that would be his first impression of her, a bored twenty-something who couldn’t put their device down. So instead, she read all the flyers on the bulletin board — even the ones that had nothing to do with her, like the Unlearning Toxic Masculinity support group.
She was reaching for a pamphlet on alcoholism when he walked up. She’d thought he’d be different one-on-one, but his smile was just as wide. “Come on in.”
Sal had already decided she was going to tell him everything, even though she hadn’t been sure how he’d receive it. Sal somehow had thought you could either be one or the other, a good speaker or a good listener. And he was a good speaker, even if it sometimes seemed like his sermons were trying to hold too much at once.
By now, when he prompted, “You said the rule about not using Dez to decide where to go on dates seemed like it was helping,” Sal felt safe enough to start, “When people get married…”
But not secure enough to get through the rest. And Pastor Marcus did the right thing. He didn’t steeple his fingers or go, “When people get married?” He just sat there, waiting.
So Sal said, “You know,” though she didn’t expect Pastor Marcus to know. How could he? Nicole said that people over thirty were far less likely to use Dez. “They’re less likely to use any new technology,” Sal had said, having something to add to the argument for once. But Nicole insisted that for Dez in particular, it had something to do with regrets.
Sal hadn’t told Nicole she was still seeing him. She’d talked about the first session, curious about what Nicole would think about her parents making her go, and Nicole had just said, “They’re worried about you,” in the right tone, followed with a big grin.
Pastor Marcus was jotting something down. That first session, he’d misread her look as concern when he took out his notebook. “It’s not about you per se,” he’d said. “I’m pretty good at remembering things people tell me. I’ve had a lot of practice, plus a philosophy that if I forget about it, maybe it wasn’t that important. What I’m not good at capturing, what I need to take notes on, is the ways people inspire me, the lines I want to follow up on later. They won’t always be something that’s relevant to you in turn, though I’ll share what I can of what emerges for me, when it seems like it might be useful.” The way he hastily flipped through the pages for her, she understood there were things in there he was still wrestling with.
It had been reassuring — a reminder that he was doing this in a professional capacity, not as a favor to her parents. And it made Sal remember why she still went to services, besides the fact that it made her parents happy. There was something quaint about it in the best way, listening to something only one human had worked on and only for a week, unfolding with no interruptions, that you couldn’t select or reject or really revisit based on its contents because here it was, it and only it, happening right now.
So she wasn’t ready for it to hurt so much when next Sunday he talked about the prodigal son, and there was no way for her to fast forward past the part where he laid out whatever conclusions her parents had come to about her choices. She could only flee. Her parents had only stipulated that she meet with him once, so when she scheduled another session, it was just so she could tell him face-to-face how he should be more careful with the next person.
He’d sat quietly for a long time. “Sal, if I want to tell you something? I can just tell you something.”
She’d ventured, “Well, you should tell me the gist. Of what you’ve decided to write down.”
Pastor Marcus had told her he’d have to think about that one, but instead of asking her to come back later, he’d just dropped his head down onto his desk between his folded arms. When he resurfaced, he said yes.
So now, he told her, “I’m writing about how rituals shift in response to social norms. You might be too young to remember, people used to have these gender-reveal parties. It was a reaction to — a pushback against — trans rights. What I think you’re talking about with marriage ceremonies-”
“The thing where you ask them to release the data on why the algorithm matched the two of you, and you review it together,” Sal said. She needed to be the one to say it aloud.
Pastor Marcus hadn’t looked up from his notebook. “I think there’s a certain kind of person. Well, I don’t think, I know. I’ve met them and married them, and marriage counseled them and single counseled them. Not always in that order, of course. Someone who looks for signs, who craves justification for their decisions. Love-at-first-sight types.”
“You don’t think God sends people signs?”
He reached for his Bible, a familiar gesture to her by now. He normally kept it on the edge of the desk, but he’d handed it to her earlier to look at that classic 1 Corinthians passage. When his hand hit the empty space where it was supposed to be, he tensed then smiled. “With signs I think of Sarah laughing when she learned she was going to bear a child. I think sometimes the best things are the ones that feel barely believable. But then, story-telling’s such a human thing, too.” She passed the Bible back to him, and he hefted the book up. “It’s natural to look for evidence. Especially to justify something you already want. Maybe it’s a way of consulting your subconscious to confirm what it was you wanted all along.”
“But now we have something more sophisticated,” Sal said. “We have Dez.”
He put his pen down. “I feel somewhat obligated to say that not every happy couple met through Dez. And not every couple who met through Dez is happy.”
Sal drew out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “That’s what Nicole says. There’s no longitudinal data, a lot of generalizations and assumptions -”
“I’d love to meet Nicole sometime.”
Well, this has nothing to do with you, Sal found herself thinking. She knew that there was a time, not too long ago, when she and Nicole wouldn’t have been allowed to marry, but when she thought about obstacles, the one that mattered more to her was that the ceremony didn’t have to be in a church or done by a priest. She took comfort in the fact that she didn’t need his approval. It didn’t mean she wanted to get married. She always told herself that what she wanted was just something between now and forever. It didn’t mean she didn’t think he’d approve. It was just nice to know she had options.
“Do you think we’re a good match?” Sal found herself asking.
“You know what atheists say about creationism?” Pastor Marcus said, eyeing her. “They say it’s like a puddle looking at itself and deciding, wow, this hollow I’m in here, it perfectly matches my contours. It must have been designed for me.”
This time Sal didn’t want a way out. “I didn’t realize how much it would matter, until it did,” she said softly.
“Not having the data on how compatible you two are?”
“Not just that. Not knowing what a match feels like. I know how I feel with Nicole, but I have nothing to compare it to.”
“Well, the algorithm’s constantly changing. So Nicole can say what it was like for her before, but not how it would be now.” The notebook came out again. “Can’t step in the same river twice.”
“Okay, but you look for rapids, you wade in instead of diving, you test the water for algae, you check the floodwall to see how high it got before.”
“Or you take your savior’s hand, and you walk, taking care not to look too closely at the waves.” He showed her the page. “Savior-with-a-capital S, I mean.”
“Okay, but that’s another one of those gotcha stories,” Sal said, raising an eyebrow. “Does he really sink just because he lets fear slip in? Or, is he afraid because he feels himself sinking?”
“Faith isn’t the opposite of doubt,” Pastor Marcus had said gently. When Sal heard the line in that week’s sermon, she wanted to joke with him that maybe this meant she had graduated.
“Imagine you had a friend who made such a big impact on you,” Pastor Marcus was saying now, “that after he died, all anyone in your group wanted to do was get together and talk about, “Remember that time that wedding ran out of wine and he said ‘step back, guys, I got this’?” They didn’t know — couldn’t know — for sure Jesus was the Messiah. But they knew how he had made them all feel, and they clung to that and to each other when he wasn’t around anymore to reassure them that, yes, he had been the real deal.”
Maybe when Ruth interviewed her after this service, she could talk about how that line had come from a conversation she’d had with him about how people relied on Dez to confirm things they should have already known. But maybe Ruth would get suspicious that the whole thing had been orchestrated instead of being impressed. Maybe Pastor Marcus had orchestrated it, to give her a confidence boost before the interview.
Before the line got her attention, Sal had been scanning the pews, the backs of people’s heads, and the large hats some of the church ladies still wore, trying to figure out if any of them were Ruth. Of course, her parents preferred sitting around the middle, and Ruth would probably be in the back. So Sal had to wait until Ruth came up to her after the service. Curly red hair and honest-to-God freckles, though she was good enough at her job that when she held the camera up to her face and started shooting Sal — “Quick, let’s get you in the light from that window before the sun moves” — she disappeared, even surrounded by congregation members who wanted to make sure anyone who came felt welcome and would hopefully come back.
Sal was nervous. She wanted to point the stained glass out to Ruth, how the top part was much thinner than the bottom. Pastor Marcus had told everyone you saw that sort of sagging in old buildings because glass was actually a liquid that dripped down very slowly over time. But Sal had pointed out to him that some of the windows were actually fatter up top. It was an imperfection from the way they used to blow glass, and it appeared at the bottom, top, or side based on the way the builders happened to put the panes in, but of course people only noticed it when it was on the bottom.
“When I first reached out to Pastor Marcus, he said I really should come early enough to catch the service. I’m glad I did,” Ruth began, lowering herself all the way to her stomach on the floor to line up a shot.
It gave her memory of the service a nice tint, to think that Ruth had been listening to the same thing she’d heard and resonating with it. Sal’s smile turned genuine. “I’m glad he told you to talk to me, too.”
Ruth frowned, and at first, Sal thought maybe she was having trouble getting shots. Maybe she didn’t like the way her hair looked, even though she’d gotten it done just yesterday in preparation for this. “It was Dez, actually. Ironic as fuck, I know.”
“I thought I had it turned off!” Sal patted her pocket for her device, but she’d left it at home today. “Or did you adjust the setting?”
Ruth stood up and fingered the hem of her skirt — Sal had told her she didn’t have to wear one unless she wanted to, but maybe Ruth hadn’t believed her. “I’m sorry — I should have been up-front. I wasn’t even thinking about the privacy angle. I think Dez just knows what I’m writing about and how that means I might be interested in talking to folks who have turned it off.”
And it knows you’re good at defusing awkward situations, at talking to people who didn’t necessarily want to talk to you, Sal found herself thinking.
Ruth’s camera was fully lowered now. “When I asked him about it, Pastor Marcus told me temptation is the wrong way to think about it. But I want to hear what you have to say. What’s the main danger, with Dez?”
Sal liked that she’d told her his answer, though she didn’t like the question. “It’s exactly the opposite of dangerous. You know from the start that whoever you meet is someone you’ll get along with.”
Ruth was chewing her cheek and fumbling with a recorder. Sal waited for her to look up again before she continued, “When someone you don’t know well — someone you haven’t built up trust with — when they do something irritating or even just unexpected, when do you hold it against them and when do you let it go?”
Ruth’s eyes sparkled. “You’re right — if the app led me to them, I’d maybe be less judgmental. Kind of always judgmental. Journalistic instinct. But I’d try to turn it off.”
Sal settled into a pew, and Ruth took a spot beside her, stowing the recorder and whipping out a notebook and pen instead. “But doesn’t that make it easier to take more risks? Greater vulnerability and intimacy, earlier on?”
It was the notebook that sold her. “Well, if you’d like to do a follow-up story, that’s something I’ve been thinking about. Intimacy.”
Ruth could have simply requested and downloaded the compatibility data without them having to actually visit the office in-person. “But going there will make for a better story.”
And one of Dez’s selling points was that they had an office location in “most major cities.” Their Richmond branch was in the tallest downtown skyscraper. “Naturally,” Sal could picture Nicole saying. “Gotta stay Panopticon-esque.”
Sal had pictured a room full of monitors and switches, like something out of a movie, but their tour guide, a woman with a high ponytail named Stephanie, took them up to the roof. “Let me show you our garden.”
“They’ve got a rule against taking non-employees back into workspaces,” Ruth explained.
On the wall by the elevator bank was an art installation: running water, with the latest Dez recommendations from around the world projected onto it.
“A literal stream!” Ruth laughed, grabbing Sal’s hand before Stephanie could usher them into an elevator. “That’s going to be the best place to take a photo.”
Stephanie waited until they were looking out over the city before saying, “A piece of advice? This isn’t the kind of thing you want to look at alone.”
Ruth reached over and squeezed her hand.
“I mean, this is information you should be looking over with…Nick, was it?”
“Nicole,” Sal said.
“Right,” Stephanie continued. “What’s she think about all this?”
“You said we didn’t have to get consent, legally,” Ruth said, stepping away from the railing.
“You don’t,” Stephanie said, looking between the two of them. “But if you want my opinion, for the piece you’re writing, about the ethics of this — ”
Ruth grabbed Sal’s hand again. “Not interested.”
“You were all the way up there?” Nicole asked, making a show of shading her eyes as she peered up towards the top of the Dez Tower.
You should have been there; I should have brought you, Sal almost said. Instead, she peered at the tower herself, trying to firm up her sense of where they were. When she’d suggested they meet up and just walk, with no destination, she hadn’t known how hard the vagueness would feel.
Nicole stopped in front of a window. “Sal, I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“I should have told you.” Sal didn’t know whether to say it to their reflection or to her.
Nicole was biting her lip. “No, I mean, that’s the thing. I didn’t know. Something big like that, I feel like I should have been able to pick up on.”
Exactly, Sal wanted to say. There would have been nothing wrong, except I decided there had to be something wrong and that you had to know about it. Nicole was walking again. She saw the two of them reflected again, upside down this time, as they stepped over a puddle. Her puddle-self reached out and grabbed puddle-Nicole’s hand.
“I shouldn’t have felt that way.”
Nicole was shaking her head. “You can’t change the way you feel.” But Sal felt a breeze blowing down the alleyway they were standing in front of. You could turn, or you could keep going. Somehow, that basic fact was easier to grasp when the buildings were just a little closer together, even though it applied everywhere.
Nicole was shutting her eyes — that was what she did, when she didn’t want to cry — and Sal stared at her closed lids, thinking suddenly of the times in church where she’d open her eyes and glance around instead of keeping her head bent at prayers. The magic security of it: no one could catch her, not unless they were peeking themselves.
“I know it brought me here. And I don’t want to be here. Next best thing to Dez, Nicole? Hindsight.”
And it must have been the right thing to say, because Nicole was laughing. And soon Sal was placing her own hands over Nicole’s eyes, and steering Nicole down the street, to the place where she knew a statue had once stood before people decided it had to come down. They’d dug up a time capsule of Confederate artifacts and replaced it with a modern one filled with Pride flags and an expired vial of covid vaccine.
Later, much later, they’d be at a table in a coffee shop. Nicole would heave out a dramatic sigh as she flicked through some notifications and say, “Dez, I don’t need to know about up-and-coming restaurants on the other side of town and which bus lines to take there. Just tell me if there’s a new apartment opening up in the building next door.”
Their official reason for why they weren’t living together was that housing was ridiculous. Sal kept it to herself, but she thought Dez probably didn’t recommend apartments to Nicole because Nicole didn’t want to move in with her. And Nicole probably thought Sal wasn’t trying harder with her analog skills to make it happen because she had some religious hang-up about sharing a bed before marriage.
Sal’s parents had given a thousand little reasons why it was for her own good to grow up without a device. Like forcing her to pay more attention to her surroundings and actually construct a mental map. That one she was grateful for. When she and Nicole finally broke up she would know before rounding a corner when she was about to pass a place that had meant something to the two of them. Probably Dez had a function for logging that sort of thing too, yet looking at it on a screen would be different from being able to stand on a sidewalk, close your eyes to picture what’s just beyond the buildings in front of you, and try to settle on a route that won’t hurt too much, to minimize the amount you’re following in some past self’s footsteps.
Yet that was the future. At this moment, the marks on the map were just memories yet to happen. They wouldn’t become a list of locations to avoid for a long time. Maybe one day further in the future, they’d simply feel like historical sites.
For now, Sal and Nicole settled at the statue’s old base, limbs entangled in one another’s, like a pair of gargoyles, like they had always been part of this stone and this spot, always attached to one another because they’d been carved that way. Up in the tower, down in the river, water kept falling.