Geballe Prize Winner 2020 | Creative Prose, Ananya Nrusimha

StanfordArtMuseums

Ananya Nrusimha

Class of 2020

Creative Prose

pygmalion.exe

Inspired by Surf Sequence # 4 by Ansel Adams. This photograph is part of the temporary

exhibition Surf Sequence, which is being shown in the Rowland K. Rebele Gallery at the Cantor

Arts Center. Surf Sequence #4 can also be viewed on the Cantor Art Center’s website at the

webpage describing the Surf Sequence exhibition.

This short story is a work of science fiction. Thank you for your time and consideration.


In the other world—Ben hated calling it the ‘real’ world, no matter how true it

was—this place was a beach.

Well, technically it was a photograph of a beach that someone had uploaded to a

California server. Someone famous in the other world had taken it. Their name was at the

tip of Ben’s tongue, but he couldn’t remember it. He was sure the photograph was lovely.

The gargantuan wave Ben walked on would look magnificent from shore. The sand below

seemed to have a pleasing slickness. Ben wasn’t sure why this famous person had decided

to shoot in black and white. When he had visited other pictures of beaches, he was struck

by the vibrant green of palm trees and the blinding almost-white of their sand. Even the

stones that pricked his feet, gleaming black shot through with pale grey, were beautiful.

Ben would have loved to meet the photographer, because even by the standards of

the World Wide Web this place defied logic. He couldn’t tell if it abhorred color or craved it.

It devoured any trace of color that entered, bleaching Ben’s blonde hair and the pink of his

fingernails. It also seemed to have forgotten that it was meant to be a beach. The frozen

wave, forever poised to crash upon unsuspecting sand, was as smooth and as jagged as

volcanic obsidian. Ben had to be careful whenever he walked by the spot where a second

wave merged with this one, lest the suspended spray slice his ankles and wrists.

For all the wave’s perils, it was at least survivable. Ben wished he could say the same

of the sand. It was slimy, gelatinous—on Ben’s first and only attempt to traverse it, it had

sunk under his weight and tried to swallow him whole. He didn’t dare touch it now.

Coupled with a sun that could only bestow a faint chill, the place was unsettling to most.

Ben didn’t mind it. Compared to the boxy pre-rendered city he called home it was peaceful,

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and the scenery was breathtaking. Whenever he got sick of bickering with his brothers, he

came here and basked in the rays of the lint-colored sun.

He would have liked to bring Angie here. It was impossible, of course—she was from

the other world—but it would have been nice. Maybe they could have had their

honeymoon here, her at the beach where the famous person had taken this photo and him

sunbathing on this wave. She probably would have been surrounded by people if she had

gone to the other world’s beach. Beaches were popular places, after all, and Ben could

easily imagine people running around in the sand like hapless ants. Angie would have liked

that. She had grown up on a farm with little company besides her family, and was

fascinated by people as a result. Ben had loved taking her to the mall on dates. She would

crack jokes about the strange behaviors of other couples in the food court, leaving Ben

doubled over cackling. Her virtual reality goggles had gleamed as she watched him laugh.

He had always wanted to take them off and finally see her eyes, but without them she

wouldn’t be able to see him.

He glanced at the surfboard half-submerged in the wave’s belly. Proof that someone

had come to this beach in the other world, besides the famous photographer.

Poor surfer. Hopefully they had made it to shore alive.

Ben looked at the box he had brought with him. It had been the pink of rosebuds in

his apartment, but here it was a solid, discomfiting slate. He tugged on the box’s black

ribbon, unfurling the bow tied on top. He reached into it and pulled out a pile of fluffy white

fabric. Ben unfolded it and laid it on the wave. It was a floor-length dress, with a

voluminous tulle skirt and a beaded bodice. He disentangled a translucent veil from the

dress and tucked it into the breast pocket of his tuxedo jacket.

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“Pretty.”

He turned around. Lawson, his younger brother, stood behind him.

Ben stiffened. He should never have told Lawson about this place.

“Who picked it out?”

“You know she did.”

Angie had been over the moon that day. It was the only unlockable outfit left in the

store. She had saved for months to get it.

“How much did it cost?”

Ben shrugged and looked away.

“You don’t remember, do you?”

Of course he didn’t. The price of the dress was irrelevant, so he had never acquired

that information. All he needed to know was that it was important to her.

Lawson cocked his head. His hair, dark and messy in a way that would have

required copious amounts of hair gel in the other world (here, it only needed an

adjustment to the physics engine) flopped over his face. It obscured one violet eye, but the

other one was still fixed on him.

“You’re like this every time. Why bother?”

Ben stared at him.

“These theatrics are pointless,” Lawson said, nodding at the dress. “She’s gone.”

“She was my fiancée.”

“You’ll have another one in a week.” Lawson grinned. “Or will I? What do you think?”

He examined his nails, which were painted black—he was meant to appeal to ‘alternative

women.’ “I haven’t been picked in a while. I think I’m due.”

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Ben scowled.

“Don’t look at me like that. You know how this works.” Lawson sat down, careful to

avoid the wave’s sharp edges. “There’s no point in getting sad about it.”

Ben didn’t know how to explain how wrong he was. Each person who chose to

connect with him was extraordinary. In the flush of first contact he forgot them every time,

his mind scrubbed so that his love for the new woman was authentic. There was no need. In

the limbo between women, when he remembered everything, he loved them all.

Each time someone left him, a part of him that worked as intended analyzed all of

his interactions with women. It whirred in the back of his mind, trying to optimize his

desirability with each passing encounter. As a consequence, the part of him that had giggled

at Angie’s jokes regained access to his memories. When Lawson went through the same

process, his memories felt like anecdotes from someone else’s life. Once a woman left him,

his attachment left with them. Ben’s other brothers were the same.

To Ben, emotions did not fade. He could remember the tenderness he felt when

Angie nodded off on his shoulder halfway through his favorite horror movie, and the wave

of affection that engulfed him whenever she attacked pizza with a knife and fork. He could

not understand how this made him defective.

“I know there’s no point,” he said, “but we were made to love them. We’re happy

when they’re with us. Can’t we be sad when they leave?”

Lawson snorted. “If they want a crybaby, they can settle for someone real.”

“We are real, Lawson.”

“Stop saying that,” Lawson said. He crossed his legs, stretching the holes of his black

jeans and exposing the pale skin of his knees. “Mother will be disappointed.”

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“Don’t call her that,” Ben said.

“She made us, Benjamin. That’s how it works with humans.”

“Not always.” Claire, his fiancée before Angie, had been adopted. One night over

dinner she had told him about how wonderful her parents were. Ben had been struck by

the depth of feeling that had suffused her voice.

“That’s how it works most of the time. Besides, does it matter what we call her?”

“Of course it matters!” Ben picked the dress up and took the veil out of his jacket

pocket. His fist clenched around it, distorting the fabric. “We’re supposed to be boyfriends.

Husbands, even. In the other world boyfriends and husbands come with mothers and

breakups and first loves. We don’t come with anything. We just give them our love and they

leave.”

“This is a game to them,” Lawson said. “Half of the women you’ve dated probably

have husbands in the real world. Don’t you ever think about that?”

Ben glared at Lawson. “Leave me alone.”

“Stop performing this bizarre ritual every time one of your women deletes the app

and I will.”

“You don’t get to tell me how to grieve,” Ben said.

“What’s there to grieve? She’s alive.” Lawson stood up and laid a hand on Ben’s

shoulder. His nail polish was as dark as Ben’s bowtie. “Let’s go home,” he said.

“No.” Ben shrugged his shoulder off. “She’s as good as dead to me. Let me mourn

her.”

He tossed the dress and the veil into the air. They fluttered in the cloud-colored sky,

and Ben recalled all the things he’d loved about her: her easy smile, the bite of her wit, her

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gracefulness when they danced together. He remembered the bliss that each of their dates

had brought him, and let himself experience the fullness of his sorrow.

The dress and veil alighted onto the sand. Ben and Lawson watched them sink into

its slimy depths, no doubt joining the other dresses Ben had flung over the wave while

mourning. The sand reformed around it with a resounding schlorp, and Ben felt his grief

ease a little at the sight.

Ben could feel tears trickling down his cheeks, their heat a shock against this place’s

frigid air. He turned around, picked up his suit jacket, and left without a word.

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