Part 1: The Death of Ivan

This is an excerpt from my novel, Girlfriend in a Box

I had a very special relationship with my father, Ivan. The memories of him in my mind are still strong, especially the times when he took me out fishing. There was a small pond about a fifteen minute drive from our house. Being wide and relatively shallow it harbored few fishes, and our catches usually consisted of pieces of garbage, and if we were lucky we would catch some tiny catfish so foul-smelling that no sane person will try to eat. Nonetheless I enjoyed the placid quietude of the lake and the surrounding environment. We spent much time lazily laying about on the shores watching cyclists rolling in front of the wooded landscape that provides a backdrop to this picture postcard scene.

Few people fished that lake, it may have to do with the fact that the wildlife and gaming department had closed it for that purpose. But since my dad knows the police and game warden well and was a renowned person in our community, nobody cared that we fished there. Of course we never took home anything we captured, dad used it as an exercise to expose me to the outdoors, and consequently I always had beautifully tanned arms almost year-round.

Every time after we finished fishing, except for those deathly cold months in the heart of winter, my dad would take me out for ice cream. My favorite flavor, the one I almost invariably chose, was vanilla, the most cliché flavor in the world. (You might think I would enjoy more exciting flavors, however the story of my life is not a novel, so every minuscule detail doesn’t have to hold the reader in rapt attention.) After finishing licking my ice cream cone, the melted streams of white fluid would trickle down the corners of my mouth, which somehow always brings a smile to my dad’s face. He said that I look cute that way.

Unfortunately, as time passed my father and I grew apart. From about the time of my middle school all the way through university I decided to focus more on studying and less attention on him. To be honest I was growing aloof from everybody, not just him. When I find myself amidst a crowd of strangers, such as in a classroom, I usually my head down hoping nobody would be paying attention to my business. What kept me from completely lapsing into despondency was the love of nature my dad instilled in me. When I was indoors doing homework and studying for exams I still enjoy looking outside the windows at the trees, grass and birds, they have such an ability to calm my nerves.

My father died a few years ago and now all that is left of him are those pleasant memories he left behind in my mind. I can’t remember precisely which day it was, probably some time in September since the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn color, and walking to my class the air was saturated with dust kicked up by the leaf-blower. After entering the lecture hall I found John sitting at his usual spot and decided to join him. John is the only friend I made since attending college, and we had grown close enough that we took the same courses just to be in each other’s company. It also helps that he happened to be the same major as me.

When the lecture started the professor had begun speaking about artificial neural networks. 10 minutes into his lecture I heard a beep from my cell phone notifying me of a new text message. I felt embarrassed because I thought everyone else heard the notification too, but then realized no one else could hear these sounds because they were coming directly from my neural implants.

Using the electrodes implanted into my brain I entered the password into my phone without moving a muscle. It was a very clumsy experience because I was not used to this completely new interface, but after a few tries I succeeded. I saw a message from my mother in the overwhelmingly large screen that appeared in my field of vision. It was one of the strangest messages she ever sent because all the letters are capitalized, “PLEASE COME HOME IMMEDIATELY” followed by a URL. I followed the link, which lead to an article on a university website, title reading: “Ivan Walska, robotics pioneer, dies at age 47 from a heart attack.”

When I first read the article I thought it must be some kind of a joke. First, people don’t usually drop dead at at this age, and second, the last time I saw him he was still healthy, perhaps out of shape but who wouldn’t be at this age unless they were taking steroids? I immediately checked to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s day, then started to read the details. I still remembered that false death announcements are sometimes issued by mistake, but the further I read into the article the more details emerged that made it seem genuine. For example, it listed the exact date (yesterday) and cause of death, which would be details that would be missed if it were an accidental “leaking” of a prefabricated obituary. He wasn’t nearly famous enough to have had a prefabricated obituary, but I considered all possibilities at this point since announcement of his death was such a surprise. Being so engrossed reading the article I paid no attention to the lecture.

As the realization that my father had died sank in into my mind my body slowly slumped into my chair as a feeling of helplessness overtook me. I pressed my hand on my chest to ease a feeling of numbness where my heart used to be. My eyes were affixed to the article announcing my father’s death, it seemed like the only thing my mind could respond to. But at some deep level my mind was not able to accept this new fact, I almost expected to be awaken at any moment and discover that it had just been a nightmare. I started to cry but was worried I might attract attention from John who was sitting beside me, so I walked out of the lecture hall. Nobody, except for John, noticed me walking out of the room. He stared at me with eyes that looked like headlights as he followed me out of the exit.

I wanted to find a place where I can cry alone, fortunately there’s one building on campus almost completely devoid of people, the library. Ever since all books and documents became digital they became a superfluous institution that are only kept around for nostalgic reasons. I walked past a small garden to the entrance of the building, and upon entering the emptiness of the library was strikingly eerie. It was as if the place had been struck by that mythical weapon known as a “neutron bomb,” a device designed to kill humans but leave buildings intact. I began walking deep into the vast shelves of books endlessly aligned like rows of corn in a field to find a small corner where John could not possibly find me so I could cry properly.

Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder, I jumped in surprised, then turned around and realized it was John. He looked even more startled than I was, and clutching onto his chest as though having a heart attack he said in a very apologetic voice, “Sorry, sorry that I sneaked up on you without warning.”

“It’s okay,” I said in a tranquil voice, then lowered my head to avoid eye contact with him.

He put his hand on my chin and lifted my head so he could look into my eyes, then asked, “Have you been crying? Your eyeliner look smudged.”

“No, it was just something in my eyes,” I said, shaking my head vigorously in order to persuasively convince John of my denial, but I can tell by the expression on his face he didn’t believe me.

“Both of your eyes?” he asked incredulously.

“Why not? There’s a lot of dirt blowing around since the wildfires last week,”

I was about to leave John when he grabbed me by my left arm, peered into my eyes with a stern look, and said, “I know something is wrong with you because you have never stormed out of a lecture like that. I can tell that something is bothering you because you look unusually sad, but I don’t know what. Please tell me so I can stop worrying.”

John’s forcefulness was making me withdraw into myself, but I knew he would not be satisfied until I confessed, so I said while evasively looking away from his face, “Oh nothing, my father has died, that’s all.”

A gloomy expression suddenly came over his face, he immediately switched toward an apologetic mood and said, “Oh my god, sorry that I didn’t understand. Will you be alright?”

I shrugged my shoulders, but did not give a verbal response.

“I’m worried about you because you never express your emotions openly. Looking at you from the outside it’s impossible to tell how you feel, as far as I know you might be suicidal. I don’t want to find you unconscious lying on the floor overdosing on painkillers like last time…” As soon as he mentioned my last suicide attempt memories of the knife slashing the back of my hand started flashing in my mind and I immediately broke into a stream of tears, sobbing uncontrollably. John panicked thinking that he has made the situation worse, and immediately pressed his chest against my face, allowing me to use his shirt as a handkerchief.

“It’s alright, it’s alright, everything will be alright,” he said, almost chanting the phrase like a mantra as he stroked my long hair in an attempt to comfort me. After I became more emotionally stable he wiped my face of tears and excessive makeup, then said, “Sorry that I’m so demanding on you but it’s because I am concerned about you. You seem unfazed by your father’s death and yet cry at the drop of a hat when I mentioned your past suicide attempt. I suspect you are hurting deep on the inside but are unwilling to express it, yet you wouldn’t be honest with me about this. I just don’t want you to…you know, make a bad decision that will cause harm to you.”

“You mean kill myself?” I asked.

He appeared puzzled, then said, “You see, you did it again! You concealed your true emotions underneath this artificial nonchalance. I wish you can be honest with me about your feelings so I don’t have to worry so much.” He took a deep breath to calm himself down, then said, “I don’t mean to be overbearing on you, I’m just very concerned. Would you mind if I take you back to our apartment?” I nodded, he held my hand as we left the library together.

John was relieved when we returned to our apartment, that way he could keep an eye over me to make sure I was doing well. When I returned to my room I simply laid in my bed with my face planted on the pillow in a torpor, occasionally checking the phone to make sure that my father was still dead. Even as the sun began setting, casting its amber glow in my room I did not turn on the light as it didn’t seem worth the effort. Finally the phone rang, I waited until about the second ring to answer, and my mother on the line.

“Darling, did you get the news about dad’s death?”

I began rising from the bed, my hair disheveled and eyes drooping, my spirit still weighing me down. But I had to present a stoic face in front of my mother so gathering my torrents of emotions and put them away while talking to her.

“Mom, why did you text me about dad’s death instead of calling me?”

“Sorry,” mom answered, her voice sounding rushed, “force of habit, I supposed. Listen, we just have planned the funeral, it will be on Saturday because that’s when I can organize everyone to be there. Well, not everyone, Uncle Theo couldn’t be there because he is arguing an important case in court, but everyone who we want to invite, as well as a few important people, will be there. You better reserve your plane ticket now, or otherwise there might not be any left by the time you show up at the airport.”

“Okay, do you have anything else to say?”

“Not right now, I’ll be too busy organizing the funeral over the next few days to talk to you. I hope you’re doing well, you’re taking the news well, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said resolutely.

“Then, bye,” mom said before cutting off the phone call without hesitation. As soon as the call ended I sank back into bed, my will to live plunged right back down and did not go back up even as I drifted off into sleep.

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