Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:
There’s a buzzing in Simon’s head. Like a dying fluorescent light.
“It’s three in the morning.” Gene’s voice is muffled by the pillow he has crushed over his face. “We have lab lecture in five hours.”
Simon sits at his desk, re-transcribing his Bio lecture notes with color-coding and diagrams. He doesn’t bother to answer.
“Just go to the library. Or anywhere else. Please.”
The library isn’t open anymore. If it were open 24/7, Simon would go there all the time, but it isn’t practical to set up a study space in a building that will eventually kick him out while he’s trying to be productive.
And really, Gene should be awake and studying for Bio too if the question he asked their professor yesterday (“Do we have to know it to that extent for the exam?”) is anything to go by.
Their next Bio exam is next Tuesday, at 3:00 p.m. Eight days from now. Simon has an essay for his freshman writing seminar due in three days, as well as a problem set for Chem due in four. He knows not to waste any of his time.
The desk light isn’t even that bright. Gene should be able to sleep with it on.
Gene lets out a frustrated growl as he shifts around in his bed, savagely hitting his pillow against the wall. He rearranges his blankets, muttering various spiteful-sounding things in Japanese. The only word Simon can pick out is “robotto.”
Simon thinks being a robot would make everything so much easier. Streamlined data retrieval, able to recharge whilst remaining operational. Not needing sleep would be a wonderful reallocation of time.
“So,” his father says, his voice like a crackle and a hiss through the phone. “Have you picked an extracurricular yet?”
Simon says, “Not yet.”
He went to the club fair at the beginning of the semester and couldn’t process anything as he was yelled at from all sides by what felt like hundreds of people. He ended up signing up for at least a dozen email lists.
“I’m still trying to decide.”
His inbox has been inundated with emails for various activities and club meetings. The amount of time it takes him to sort them into categories and properly label all of them is less than ideal.
“Well, it’s getting late into the semester. You should decide soon,” his father says. “You’ll need more than a grounding in the sciences to be attractive to med schools in order to stand out. They want their applicants to be well-rounded. Student EMT services would be a good place to start. Or maybe something cultural to balance out your application.”
Simon finds himself nodding out of habit. The phone feels warm and uncomfortable, pressed up against his face.
Between Molecular Biology and General Chemistry and each of their corresponding lab sections, the mandatory freshman writing seminar course, and the introductory Psychology course (which he is taking solely because the subject is now included on the MCAT), he doesn’t have time to do any of that. He won’t have time during the semesters to come either.
He’s been able to figure out that, between the general university requirements and the premed track, he needs to take about four and a half credits every semester, and labs only counting as half-credit isn’t an accurate reflection of how much work they require.
He has already spent ten hours on this essay that is due in two days. He hasn’t started the problem set that is due the day after. The Bio exam is in exactly a week.
He thinks that he might want to start screaming. But that would be impractical.
“You’re right,” he says. “I’ll choose something soon.”
“Well,” his father says. “Keep me updated. My flight will be boarding shortly. I’ll talk to you later.”
He hangs up.
A robot would be fine because robots do not have feelings, needs, or preferences. They do what is required of them without any problems at all.
His pulse is a monotone, repeating blip.
He is going to be a doctor.
The four years ahead of him look excruciatingly long. And there are at least seven more after that, for med school and residency training.
At the fifteen-hour mark of work spent on his essay, Simon opens up his email. Instead of reading through his unread messages (six of them), he starts typing.
He deletes the line and starts over.
It’s been a while. How have you been lately?
He stares blankly at the screen for ten minutes, struggling for something to say.
I have been doing well
Mom and Dad miss you
Do you think you’re ever coming back?
He deletes the whole email.
Seven days until the next Bio exam. But he supposes technically it’s down to six now, since it’s 3:42 a.m.
Simon remembers the shouting.
He doesn’t remember the words — he’d been covering his ears — or maybe he just decided to forget what his mother and father had said that night. Instead, he remembers how footsteps came pounding down the hall to his room, Sun-Hee standing there, hands clutching the strap of her duffel bag.
Her eyes were wet.
He took his hands away from his ears, but Sun-Hee didn’t say anything. She just stood there. Simon still doesn’t know what that look on her face meant. He wishes he had asked her.
Instead, she turned away and walked down the hall, down the stairs, and out the door.
His computer is not working.
He presses the power button. He checks the AC adapter, disconnecting and reconnecting the power brick. He checks the wall outlet. He disconnects the AC adapter and removes the battery. He waits for two minutes. He reconnects the AC adapter, reinserts the battery, and presses the power button. The display screen remains a black void.
This essay is due tomorrow. He doesn’t have time for this.
The woman working at the tech help desk in the library smiles at him and tells him that his laptop’s battery is burnt out and can no longer hold a charge.
She says that this is just a thing that happens over time and tries to explain something about proper power cycling to extend the lifespan of a battery but he isn’t listening. He’s fixated on the word “dead.”
“Is there any way to get it repaired?” he asks.
She smiles again, in that patient way.
“No, you’re going to need a replacement. Honestly, you might be better off replacing the whole laptop at this point. It looks like you’ve got some other hardware issues that—”
He stands up.
“That’s fine thank you I have it under control,” he says.
After Sun-Hee graduated from college, she decided that she didn’t want to go to med school after all.
She said, “I don’t want to be a doctor.”
Their parents asked her, “Then what do you want to be?”
She said, “I want to be a musician.”
They said that they wouldn’t help her pay for any more schooling that wasn’t med school. They said that she couldn’t live in their house if she wasn’t going to honor her commitment to become a doctor. They said if she was really serious about this, she better pack her bags and find somewhere else to live.
So, she packed her things and left.
That was when their parents turned to Simon, and it was like they said, “Well, now it’s up to you,” as if they had always intended for him to be the “backup plan,” the potential replacement that would take on everything that Sun-Hee shrugged off and left behind.
He doesn’t need a new laptop. His computer works fine the way it is. Even if it is rundown and its processing speed is barely adequate. It can run the applications he needs it to. It still gets the work done. It doesn’t need to be replaced yet.
He turns in his essay after spending nineteen hours on it. He is positive that it is structured exactly according to the rubric and guidelines the professor assigned. It is 1:57 p.m. He has twenty-one hours and three minutes before his problem set for Chem is due. He has slept four hours in the last forty-eight. The Bio exam is in five days.
He doesn’t want to be a doctor either. But unlike Sun-Hee, he can never say that. Because if he did, they would just say, “Then what do you want to be?”
And he wouldn’t have an answer. There isn’t anything he wants to be. It all looks the same to him. He has no argument to make, so he might as well go along with what they want.
Not wanting to do something is not a legitimate reason to not do it. He can do it, and that’s all that matters. This is how the world functions.
Life isn’t about doing or getting what you want.
It’s Sunday night. The Bio exam is in two days.
Gene is hunched over his desk, reviewing with a desperate fervor, muttering aloud. “So if it’s two times the number of cycles, then the amount of DNA is…”
Simon tilts his head to one side, listening. Gene is getting it wrong. PCR gives exponential growth to DNA. The number of strands you end up with is two to the power of however many cycles you’ve done. 2^N, not 2N.
But Simon doesn’t say anything.
They’re in the same class. It would be better for Gene to be one of the lower values on the grading curve.
Simon has overheard some of the other students in passing, as they chatter in the hallways leading to class. They complain about how, “All the Asian students are fucking up the curve!” and “They’re making it hell for the rest of us,” even though there are people like Gene. Just like how they talk about how, “All the Korean students are always in the library,” as if that was a bad thing. Simon never goes to the library, but what does that matter.
It doesn’t matter if people think he doesn’t deserve his GPA, as if he hasn’t killed himself for every fraction of a point. All that matters is that his score numbers stay as high as they need to and his performance evaluations are favorable.
It’s Monday. The Bio exam is tomorrow.
He is holding his first essay from the mandatory freshman writing seminar, graded and with comments.
On the very last page, in red ink, is an A that has been crossed out. Underneath it is a B+.
Simon doesn’t understand.
He goes up to the English professor at the end of class and says, “I don’t understand.”
“Oh yeah, it’s really a shame,” the professor says. “It was a good essay. I just saw that you didn’t have a title, so I had to zap you.”
Just breathe. There is no point in not breathing. It will not solve anything. Not breathing is impractical.
“Now you’ll know to always title your papers,” the professor says. “Better luck next time.”
Simon sits at his desk, holding the paper that has the very first B+ he has ever received in his life scrawled at the top. He can’t even make out what the professor’s written comments are. The handwriting is illegible.
His head is going to crack like an egg. He presses his hands against either side of it, as if he might hold it together with just his hands. He breathes in through his nose, jaw clenched, teeth grinding together inside his mouth. He breathes out.
“Hey, are you okay?” Gene asks from somewhere behind him.
Simon doesn’t say anything. He just keeps breathing.
He has to think about it practically. There is nothing he can do about this B+ now. He can still finish the class with an A if he gets perfect grades on the rest of the assignments. That’s the practical approach. Just move on from the “B+.” He can deal with this problem. Everything is fine. The Bio exam is tomorrow. He still needs to review his notes.
It’s like something in his head has jammed.
Computational neuroscientists have estimated that the data storage capacity of the human brain to be anywhere from 1 terabyte to 2.5 petabytes. Even 1 terabyte should be enough to handle this amount of studying. That’s 1,000 gigabytes. That would be the equivalent to about 2,400 1.33-hour long lecture video recordings. 3,200 hours of class material.
But all he’s physically capable of right now is sitting in his desk chair and staring blankly ahead.
Broken things get thrown away. So he can’t break. He has to keep working. He can’t afford to not be working. He needs to prove that he can still do this. There are more exams to study for. More written assignments to complete. He has to perform well in classes to earn the approval of the professors so he can get involved with a good research lab as soon as possible.
There’s a disconnect between his brain, his conscious mind, and his physical body. All outgoing and incoming neural signals have slowed to a crawl. Thought processes lag, stutter to a halt, and drop away, yielding no productive results.
He reminds himself of his computer, with its increasingly sluggish processing speed. He’s been relying on things like disk defragmentation and hard drive cleaning programs to try to re-optimize the computer, to make it still useable.
But he doesn’t have a hard drive or an operating system. He’s just a disgusting rotting flesh carcass of a human.
He slams his forehead into his desk. He lifts his head back up and slams it down again. And again.
A hand grabs him by the shoulder, pulling him back in his chair. He looks up to see Gene staring at him, wide-eyed.
“Um,” Gene says. He lets go of Simon’s shoulder but his hand is still hovering a little, as if preparing to grab Simon again. “Don’t do that.”
“Why?” Simon asks.
“Because brain damage is bad?”
Of course. It’s impractical. He’ll need to use his brain tomorrow during the exam. He needs to use his brain now.
“Okay.” Simon turns back to his desk and returns to not-reading his textbook.
In the textbook for his Introduction to Psychology class, there is a chapter on the humanistic approach to psychology. One of the major humanist psychologists, Carl Rogers, talks about something called “unconditional positive regard.”
Simon thought the concept sounded nice, when he read it. But he knew that it couldn’t possibly be a real thing. Everything is conditional. He watched as Sun-Hee learned that the hard way.
The conditions of their parents’ love have been made clear to him. The result of not meeting these conditions also has been made clear to him through demonstration. He knows what will happen if he makes the same mistakes.
If he isn’t careful, there will be no one in the world that loves him.
It is 4:00 a.m. The Bio exam is in eleven hours.
Why did you leave me here alone with them?
It’s because of you I have to do all this.
I feel like I’m dying.
I can’t breathe.
You’re the one that should have to be doing this, not me. I hate you.
I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you
He keeps repeating that last line, typing those three words over and over, rapidly punching the same keys, until his fingers get tangled together like the keys of an old-fashioned typewriter and he becomes incapable of spelling the words correctly.
He deletes the message.
He remembers how he was standing there, that night, watching her turn her back on him and walk away, down the hall, out of sight. Her footsteps faded until the door slammed shut behind her.
He remembers wanting to run after her.
He wanted to beg her to stay, just as much as he wanted her to take him with her. It all got locked up in his throat. The words suffocated inside him, trapped behind the prison of his gritted teeth.
He wanted to scream, “Come back, come back, come back!” at the door that closed behind her, but he couldn’t even manage a whisper.
There just wasn’t enough fight left in him.
It’s morning. He’s still lying in bed. The clock reads 8:47 a.m. Bio lab lecture is in thirteen minutes. The Bio exam is in six hours and thirteen minutes. Gene has already started walking over. But Simon hasn’t moved.
He has to get up. He’s supposed to get up. So he tries.
He really, really tries.
But either it’s too hard or he’s just not trying hard enough. So he lies there.
He watches 3:00 p.m. come and go on his clock.
And lies there. And lies there.
At 7:05 p.m., it sinks in.
He lurches upright in bed and it’s like every sinew and ligament in his body is carrying all of the energy that would have sent him rocketing out of the room and out to the classroom to his exam four hours ago.
Now it just stays trapped inside of him and it has nowhere to go.
He carries it in his back and he hunches his shoulders, wraps his arms around his knees. Not enough. He lashes out one hand, slamming his elbow into the wall behind him. Pain lances through, from the point of his elbow to the tips of his fingers. His arm falls to his side. He thinks that he might try screaming, just this once, because fuck being practical. He just got a zero on an exam because he couldn’t be bothered to fucking show up.
He needs to find an out because he cannot carry this mistake inside him — his body is physically rejecting it, violently and all at once.
He has often wondered about what his parents will do if he fails. His parents don’t have another child to replace him with.
Maybe they’ll just get an actual robot.
A robot would be able to do everything that they wanted without any of these nonsensical difficulties.
A robot would just follow its programming and not waste time thinking about screaming at the top of its lungs and never stopping, because it wouldn’t have lungs and it probably wouldn’t even have a voice.
He has an email open, addressed to his Biology professor.
It begins with:
Dear Professor Katz,
And then it is blank.
He has nothing to say for himself.
It would be nice if there were something really wrong with him. A real excuse for not making it to the exam.
He wants to laugh at himself for thinking that, but he doesn’t have it in him. It’s pathetic. There’s nothing “wrong.” He’s just making excuses for himself now.
He could have overcome all of this if he’d just tried hard enough. He’s always been able to make himself tackle his work with everything he has; maximum energy output, holding nothing back.
There was no reason for him to not have done that this time.
If he’d been hit by a car — broken legs, ruptured femoral artery, severe head trauma — then he’d be able to say “I couldn’t make it.” And he could prove it with x-rays and sutures.
But he doesn’t have any of that.
He can’t throw himself in front of a car now and say that he was in an accident on Tuesday retroactively.
He starts a new email.
I messed up and now I don’t know what to do. I got a B+ on an essay and then I got a 0 on an exam. I don’t know what to do. Please help m
The door opens.
He can hear the rustling and jingling noises of Gene moving around, closing the door behind him, pocketing his keys, and then he hears him go completely still.
He turns and sees Gene just standing there in the doorway, looking at him.
“Hey,” Gene says. “I—” He stops for a moment, as if he’s thinking very hard about what he’s going to say. “I didn’t see you at the exam today.”
Simon feels his fingers twitch.
“Are you… okay?”
Simon opens his mouth to form a reply but all that comes out is a distorted sobbing noise.
He wishes that Gene hadn’t asked him that. He’s always okay, as long as no one actually asks him.
He tries to cover his face with his hands, but the overflow won’t stop.
Total systems failure.
Gene has taken on a look of unadulterated panic, which is understandable since all he did was ask a simple question, and now Simon is wailing like a child that’s been abandoned in a parking lot.
For a moment, he thinks that Gene is going to leave. To just turn right back around and walk out the door and not deal with any of this.
Instead, Gene sits down at the foot of his bed, facing away from him, hands braced on his knees. His shoulders are hunched.
But he doesn’t leave.
Simon’s whole body aches and shudders. He doesn’t really know what’s happening right now. He’s not even that upset. He tries to tell Gene that, but he isn’t sure it’s coming out very well. He’s having trouble managing the inhale-exhale process of breathing while also trying to form words. He wraps his arms around himself and squeezes as hard as he can.
This lasts for five minutes.
And then it just… ends.
Respiratory processes are back online. Stuttering gasps even out into a gentle inhale-exhale and the unbearable trembling in his bones drains away. His whole body goes quiet again.
“Um,” Gene’s voice sounds coarse in the quiet. “Are you…?” but he trails off.
Simon feels like a dull battery. He blinks, but the haze in his eyes doesn’t go away.
Then Gene says, “You hungry?”
Simon looks at Gene, trying to get the usual whirr and click of his brain to take effect and engage with the new information. Nothing happens.
Gene seems to take this as a response.
“Come on,” he says. He leans over, catching the edge of Simon’s sleeve and tugging at it gently. “I know you haven’t eaten anything for at least a day and half.”
Simon is still trying to figure out what to say, even as his body complies with the direction and gets up off the bed. His feet shuffle awkwardly as he follows Gene, led by the hand like a child.
Eventually his brain catches up and he mumbles, “I thought you hated me.”
Gene makes a muffled noise, his hand tightens its grip on Simon’s sleeve.
“Um,” Gene says. He clears his throat. “No, I really don’t,” he says.
Later that night, instead of typing, “Dear Sunny,” for the umpteenth time, Simon pulls out his phone and calls her.
As he waits, the dial tone singing out and the ringing going on and on, he thinks about what he’ll say. It’s been so long. Are you happy where you are right now? What was the last thing that made you laugh? Tell me about every little thing.
The ringing stops.
“Hello?” she says from the other end of the line. “This is Sun-Hee.”
He takes a deep breath.