He no longer dreaded waking up in the morning.
He no longer kept his shutters closed all day long either, and as he slowly got up to open them, his movements stiff and sluggish, his eyes still heavy from sleep, his consciousness on the threshold, he could hear birds chirping and cars roaring by in the distance. The bright early morning sun inundated the room, warming his face, blinding him momentarily. He lingered in front of the window, taking notice of his next-door neighbor taking out her trash, of the busty woman jogging briskly across the street, of the mutt emptying its bladder on his lawn.
Six months ago, his first morning reflex would have been to turn on his computer, sit on his ergonomic chair, and lose himself in the virtual world until he could no longer keep his head and his eyelids from drooping. He would then drag himself across his tiny studio, collapse onto his unmade bed, and fall into a deep, dreamless slumber. 10 to 12 hours later, he’d make the short trip back to his computer, turn it on, sit on his ergonomic chair, lose himself in the virtual world, and wait for time to pass, slowly, inexorably, until his bed beckoned once again. Sleep, eat, stare at a computer screen, repeat.
Now, he could no longer see his computer. It was buried under mounds of his clothes, collecting dust and serving as a reminder of a not-so-distant past. The thing was practically useless anyway, Internet services having been completely taken out six months ago. He had made plans to get rid of it, but something deep down in the pit of his stomach told him to wait, to hold on to it for a little while longer. Something about old habits. He had once likened it to keeping fat pants after a drastic weight loss, “just in case.” Coincidentally, he still had a pair of size 26 jeans hanging in the back of his closet.
He headed for the bathroom and proceeded to brush his teeth, filling the cramped, windowless space with all types of squirting, whooshing, and gurgling sounds. Followed more squirting as he applied a handful of day creams he hoped, at the tender age of 24, would prove dilatory to the early onslaught of wrinkles.
In his previous life, he would only shave and shower every other week. Had it not been for his occasional trips to the grocery store or his reluctant interactions with the pizza delivery boy, he wouldn’t have bothered. But he had to keep some semblance of sanity, if only for the sake of appearances. He had made an effort not to lose his grip entirely, driven by some kind of misplaced hope and a vague sense of untapped potential.
Breakfast was next on the agenda. But first, he headed for his mailbox, opening it with barely contained glee to retrieve the small, leather-bound script he would spend the next hour studying.
The change had come abruptly, six months ago, with the official decree.
He was born in 2014, smack dab in the middle of the Internet era. He’d been part of an entire generation weaned on video games and social networks, afflicted with back and vision problems from sitting hunched in front of computers or smart phones, staring at screens for hours on end. As a teenager, he’d been viciously tormented by a couple of classmates for reasons, 10 years later, he still couldn’t fathom. He had been a shy kid, smart, quiet. He’d had no idea how to ward off his bullies, so instead he had learned to walk with his head down, tuning out the laughter and the insults that gravitated around him like black flies circling a big pile of excrement.
The only place where he found solace was online. Online, he was confident, he was funny, he was loud. He was who he truly wanted to be.
He was 22 and fresh out of college when the OASIS was created, rendering all other social media obsolete. The OASIS was a free, giant networked playground that was part dating site, part social network, part video arcade, where you could choose customized avatars, play games, watch movies, role-play with other users. A place made up of ten thousand fictional planets where you could be anything you wanted to be, where you could live and play and fall in love. The inventor, a Harvard drop-out, had become a billionaire almost overnight. The media-dubbed “boy genius” was obese, gruff, and described by most of his acquaintances as a recluse with very little sympathy for other people and no social skills whatsoever. Yet he had been Time Magazine’s Person of the year 2036, and his chubby, expressionless, bespectacled face had graced the cover of several other magazines with similar sensationalist tendencies.
In the months following the creation of the OASIS, streets started to empty out, as more and more people connected online and disconnected from the real world. The number of marriages dwindled, restaurants, shops, grocery stores were deserted. Between the real world, its grim realities and social decay, its disappointments, its disillusions, its pain, and the sprawling virtual utopia that the OASIS offered, it looked like people had made their choice.
In the face of an impending breakdown of social services worldwide, the world’s most powerful governments formed a coalition, known today as the I8. And a decree was issued: the Internet would be taken down, “for the sake of mankind” (a direct quote from the official communiqué released online). An alternative was found, to avoid mass suicides. People would be given the chance to script out their days in advance.
Everyday interactions had become the bane of masses of people. Everything was too sudden and wit had to be summoned or tapped into on the spot, a terrifying prospect for an entire generation of socially awkward “introverts” used to the time of thought that online conversations so conveniently offered.
So writers from every country around the world were recruited. OASIS profiles were made public and readily available to this legion of failed playwrights. Their mission: script out people’s lives.
Reactions were mixed. The so-called “Internet kids,” no longer capable of real-live interactions, were elated. They needed the assistance, faced with the dispiriting prospect of having to venture back out into the real world. The others, those who had managed to stay in touch with reality throughout the OASIS episode, were outraged with the over-generalization.
All the same, everyone was pressured into following suit with what came to be known as “The Decree.” People had proven to be completely irresponsible when left to decide how to live their lives. The powers that be had been given no other choice but to enforce a new set of rules, by hook or by crook. Repercussions for those who did not comply were unequivocal: deviate from your script and you were guaranteed a trip to one of the many jails made available for the experiment. You’d be left to cool off there until The Decree ran out. The I8 had pledged to only keep in effect for a year. People would then slowly be weaned off it, and made to take control of their lives once again.
Joe settled at the breakfast table, his script in hand, and checked his watch. 6:55, almost an hour before the show was set to start. He had enough time to memorize his lines.
Joe wasn’t his real name. But to make scriptwriters’ lives a little easier, all male characters were renamed Joe and their female counterparts Jane, stage names neutral enough to accommodate different cultures around the world. Spelling and pronunciation, of course, differed from region to region.
Joe had majored in political science and journalism in college. Scriptwriters had seen fit to give him a job working as an editor for the local newspaper. He spent the better part of his days editing press releases about the effects of The Decree. Being part of that huge corporate machine suited him just fine. If it hadn’t been for The Decree, he’d still be wasting his life away in his small studio, avoiding people and waiting for the sweet release of death. Now he had a job, friends, a relationship. He exercised, volunteered at a local shelter, and took part in a book club every other Sunday. Joe had come out of his shell, and he knew he could never have done it on his own. For that, he was thankful.
8:00. Showtime. Joe left the breakfast table, put on his coat, and ventured out into the crisp autumn day. He was set to walk to work today. According to the script, he had no interactions scheduled on his way over. Thank goodness, he thought. That would give coffee some time to kick in. He walked with his head held up high, unafraid to meet people’s gazes, smiling to some of them from time to time. He knew no one would assault him with a friendly hello, or a quip about the weather. That was enough to put him at ease.
Once he entered the lobby of the building where he worked, he braced for his first conversation of the day. He still had the jitters, sometimes breaking into cold sweats, when it was time for him to speak to another human being. Stage fright, he thought. His phone had begun to ring. He knew it was his girlfriend, calling to simply say hello and wish him a pleasant day. He figured scriptwriters had programmed these daily morning conversations to keep the relationship going. He’d once read somewhere that relationships were like plants: if you did not water them, they’d wilt away. Joe cleared his throat, and picked up the phone.
“Hey!” he heard the familiar voice say.
“Hey, babe,” he replied right on cue.
Exactly 2 minutes later, he hung up. They’d made plans to meet at his studio at 6:00.
He knew Jane had been paired up with him based on the similarities in their OASIS profiles. They’d both mentioned their love of slasher movies, Japanese mangas, dystopian literature. And they’d both immersed themselves completely in the OASIS for the nearly 2 years it had been online. This could mean only one thing: they were both equally rusty when it came to real-live interactions. They both needed all the pointers they could get.
Joe sat at his typewriter, in his tiny little cubicle. Typewriters, regular mail, post offices, landline phones… these antiquated objects and concepts, and many more like them, had made a necessary comeback. Humanity was not ready to let go of technology, as long as it did not require an Internet connection. Joe leafed through the day’s press releases: there was something about the recrudescence of marriages and statistics about the expected baby boom. Another one detailed the recent booming in book sales and included interviews with publishers talking about how well print was doing. Joe started writing his headline: “The Upturn of a Death Foretold.” As a stage 5, he was given some liberty with his writing. Scriptwriters only provided him with the press releases, and he was free to do with them what he wanted, as long as he complied with the protocol. The guidelines were printed in the back of every issued script, and Joe could recite them verbatim.
Joe checked his watch. 11:00. His second conversation of the day was approaching fast. His boss, a short woman with fiery red hair and a forgettable face, was making her way to his desk. “How’s that article coming along?” she said, not unkindly. “Just great,” Joe replied, clearing his throat. “I’ll have it on your desk in half an hour, an hour tops.” There was brief pause. “Hey, how’s your husband doing?” he added. “Recovered from that flu yet?” Jane smiled a wan smile. “He’s doing just dandy now, you’re a sweetheart for asking.” Then she sauntered away.
Writing. Lunch break. More writing. Joe had no other interactions scheduled for the afternoon. Sometimes, he’d find himself yearning for them. After years of reclusion, he felt an ineffable pull toward conformity, that desire to connect with others. But he had no idea where to start. Thankfully, these matters were no longer in his hands.
5:00. His meeting with Jane was imminent. Butterflies in his stomach, once again. He took the bus home. Scriptwriters often made people take public transport wherever it was available, a way to stimulate the economy and “help preserve the environment,” he’d once read in a press release. He didn’t buy it. He knew scriptwriters liked to use every opportunity they could to get throngs of people gathered in the same place. And what better than a bus or train packed with people from all walks of life to get a big, sweaty dose of society.
Jane was waiting for him outside his apartment complex. She looked tired, and barely acknowledged his presence when he put his arms around her. They headed for the elevator in silence. They both knew what was coming after they’d penetrate inside the small apartment. Joe would go for the kiss, and start fumbling with her clothes while she took off his vest, his tie, his shirt. They’d move over to the bed, and he would lie on top of her. No words would be exchanged, barely any sounds would be made. It would be automatic, mechanical. The scriptwriters had sex scheduled three times a week. Joe looked forward to these moments, to Jane’s warm touch, to her kiss. He often wondered if she felt the same, but their conversations were terse and rudimentary. Scriptwriters did not allow feelings to get in the way, for reasons Joe couldn’t fully comprehend. Shame, he often thought. He was eager to learn more about them.
Jane left right on schedule at 7:00. Joe had dinner, read for an hour, took a shower, and started getting ready for bed. This was the time of day he was most anxious about. All alone in his small studio, he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering. During these moments, he would try to remember what it was like before. Before the OASIS, before his wretched college years, during which he would only leave his dorm room to go to classes and spend most of his weekends watching old SNL reruns on his computer. He would try to remember what it was like before the bullying, the tormenting, the social isolation he put himself through. He tried to remember just how he had envisioned his future, what he’d dreamt of becoming, the contributions he’d hoped he would one day make to the world. Lost in the mindlessness of his routine, condemned to a life of drudgery, he’d realize he was miserable. He would also try to picture the “after,” six months from now, when The Decree would be retracted and he’d have to fend for himself again, left alone to figure out how to live his life. This terrified him beyond words.
He would then fall into a dreamless sleep, knowing that when he woke up, it would start all over again. But he took comfort in knowing that, for at least another 24 hours, he wouldn’t have to think about these things again.