Automated Response

Five forty-five and the feet hit the floor, sleepy and groggy but ready to go. A kiss and at that, his eyelids lift up; he finds security in her body, which starts to rise off the bed. His arms dart out and curl around her waist, fingertips inching their way toward her navel, and she falls back onto the bed as he envelops her in his arms. Skin meets where her shirt falls up and his is already bunched in the middle of his chest; the warmth consumes them both and what little resolve she had is now gone. I'm going to be late, she says. Their breath is stale, that pre-minty-fresh state that would ordinarily be offensive but they both find it comforting. They know the scent.

Good morning, good morning. The silence is warm in these early hours. Toes wiggle and sleepy giggles escape; they are shielded by the safety of this intimate hour.

Six and the moment's over; she slips out of his arms and her clothes and into the shower. Razor glides over the legs, licking off the stubble; soap suds slide down the skin stretched over the spine. Faucet off, towel on - terry fibers soak up the water droplets that stuck to her calves, her hip bones, her collarbone - clothes soon cover everything but her face, neck and forearms.

Six-eighteen and he's woken up now, rolled out of bed and sat at his computer. He's still in his t-shirt and boxers, the ones that are beginning to develop small holes in the collar and waistband. He needs new ones. When they move, they'll stop by Costco and get him some.

Six-twenty and they trade places, him in the shower and her with her laptop open on the bathroom counter, one hand on the toothbrush in her mouth and the other at the keyboard. The toothbrush hums at a frequency discordant with the song playing on the laptop, so she chooses another song, and then another when that one clashes, too. He can't hear the difference. The water's too loud, anyway, even if he could.

Six-twenty-eight and she's dressed, wet hair creating its usual darkened splotch on the back of her shirt. He's toweling off, his own hair already half-dried even though the towel hasn't touched it yet. The quiet has faded, the day comes to, the world's awake.

She's got some time so she heads downstairs, the second step from the top greeting her with its customary squeak. Computer in tow, free hand on the finished wood railing, toes delight in the stained carpet's softness. The tile at the end of the staircase isn't as friendly, but it's cool and the day will be hot. The kitchen's just around the corner; food is imminent. She has time for breakfast today.

It's this frozen veggie sausage patty sizzling on the almost-useless pan that she calls nourishment, enough to get her through the first four hours of the work day. A cup of Irish black tea, not coffee, and a bit of honey mixed in with a chopstick, and it's six-fifty-nine and she's going to be late.

The next few minutes are lost in the panic that settles in as she blows a kiss up the stairs and tries to conquer traffic. She never presses the 'accept' button on the GPS screen that will show her the time. As long as she doesn't hit the button, it's still seven-oh-one and the twenty-five minutes it takes her to get to the office is static, subject to some abstract time-warping blip in nature that will magically appear for the sole purpose of allowing her to park in a calm fashion before rushing in the building. But 7:32 reads the machine on the wall when she clocks in; the only blips that greet her are those of her computer powering on and the six programs that she keeps forgetting to tell not to automatically start up.

She stares at the screen as she processes the jarring shift from bed to office chair. There will be emails, maybe about thirty to start off the day; a variety of impossible expectations to fulfill for clients and bosses alike; more phone calls than necessary. The computer breathes, no soft rise-and-fall but a steady whirring exhaling from a patch of holey plastic.

She has messages from Mr Boeing, Mrs Roddham, Dr Cleaver, that lady from Kelp Industries, three spam bots. She responds to all the human ones, typing away at a furious pace so that she can get their orders placed by her first break. They all respond within a couple of minutes. It's an endless process: outgoing email. Outgoing. Outgoing. Incoming response from the first email. Incoming. Outgoing. Incoming. Response to the first response. Incoming. Response. Response. Incoming. Response. Incoming.

The phone calls won't come until the afternoon; her mouth remains closed. Her lips are chapped, breath now fresh with the hint of peppermints that sit in an aluminium container next in the corner of the cubicle behind the monitor. The radio plays in the background, the same station it is every day, providing noise aside from the symphony of mouse clicks and keyboard clacking. Incoming. Response. Response. Response.

At nine-thirty-two, she announces her break.

Her head still swims with pixels and Dear-insert-name-heres and Helvetica. It doesn't go away even through the polite chit-chat she makes with her co-workers. How's your son doing, Mary? Great, thanks for asking. How's the husband? Oh, just fine.

She smiles, placing her lips to the paper cup. She considers calling him, but he'll be busy now, dealing with his own monitors and emails and telephones. Instead, she drums her fingers on the side of the cup. The ten minutes is over.

Nine-forty-two.

She's at her desk again and the day seems to last forever. The first orders are in, but now there are more. There are more after the half-hour she has for lunch and even more after her second break. Fingers fly, calls pour in; she licks her lips and around three-fifteen they split. She tastes a tiny bit of blood; it stings.

Three-eighteen.

The lip balm is in the drawer. She uncaps it and runs it over her lips, soothing the cracks and closing her eyes, just for a moment. It's waxy, unlike his tongue, which is soft and textured and wet. She prefers his tongue; she smiles as she remembers it from the morning. The balm tastes like vanilla; his tongue tastes like bacteria.

The day is so close to being over; the remainder of the client communications are a blur and she keeps one eye on the clock on the corner of her screen. Three-twenty, three-forty. Four. Four-oh-six, four-fifteen, four-twenty. Four-twenty-one. Four-twenty-two.

The emails won't get finished today. There will be work for tomorrow morning. She prepares for it, marking the emails for the next day as unread and placing them in a separate folder. Four-twenty-six. The computer whirrs. Four-twenty-seven. The phone rings.

Hi, Doctor Cleaver. Yes, we're almost done processing your order. You'll get it by Wednesday, don't worry. Yeah, you can come pick it up. Something changed? You mean like- oh, I see. Well, I can't change it now, my hands are tied, it's already on the press- no, I can't cancel it. I'm sorry, but it's a custom order and we can't give you a refund for it unless we messed up on the processing. Because we can't use it, sir. I know you can't, either. I'm sorry to hear that.

It's automatic. She watches the clock: four-twenty-eight. Dr Cleaver continues to talk, and the minutes pass. Four-twenty-nine. Four-thirty. Four-thirty-one.

Four-thirty-two and a yes-yes-thank-you, whatever it takes to get him to hang up. She can deal with him in the morning. The processing is gladly out of her hands.

Goodbye, have a good night, see you tomorrow. The machine on the wall reads 4:33 as she clocks out. For the next fifteen hours, she is free.

Supposedly. She sits in the traffic, congestion building like a bad cold, and she considers offering the freeway a tissue. But she's in the middle of it, shiny cars smogging up the Orange County air. Sixty-five miles an hour, forty miles an hour, ten, then six. She lets go of the gas pedal and lets it roll, but eventually she has to hit the brake and come to a stop. Stop and go, stop and go, no more than two miles an hour, four-forty-five. Four-fifty. Four-fifty-seven. Five-oh-three.

She sings with the radio, putting herself in Taylor Swift's first-person and him in her second-person. Our-song-is-the-slam-of-screen-doors,-sneakin'-out-late-tappin'-on-your-window,-when-we're-on-the-phone-and-you-talk-real-slow-'cause-it's-late-and-your-mama-don't-know. She belts it, windows down; doesn't mind the staring from neighboring cars, most of whom are probably playing a soft electronica or the latest in obscure indie rock. She tries not to glance at the clock. Our-song-is-the-way-he-laughs,-the-first-date-man-I-didn't-kiss-her-and-I-should-have.

Five-oh-five, five-oh-six, five-oh-seven.

Five-eleven and the traffic starts to pick up; she rolls the windows back up in an effort to try to save gas. She gains speed again, sings with the radio, no more peppermint on her tongue. Five-twelve and she's hit seventy again, and soon she's reached her exit and turns right, then left, then right again and finally she's home, tires rolling gently over concrete and the garage door welcoming her into its protective mouth.

Hi, she hollers. Hey, the response from the kitchen. The honey and chopstick are right where she left them. He's cleaned the pan, apparently, because fish is cooking in it, nearly done. How was your day? They exchange the customary greetings, both too exhausted to say anything beneath surface-level how-do-you-dos. She enjoys the smell of the fish; they go through the pattern. Her day, then his day, then they head upstairs to the bed, where they turn on the TV and watch a show on DVD as they eat, three consecutive episodes even though they finished eating twenty minutes into the first one.

The plates have been disregarded, set on a nightstand. They'll wash them later. For now, they cuddle up, eyes trained on the screen and her arm draped over his stomach. She knows where the clock is - on the bookshelf against the wall behind her - but her head stays where it is, against his chest. She barely notices how it feels to be there, but knows she's comfortable and it won't last for long.

Their feet touch, but they don't register it. Their chests rise and fall with the peace of the evening and the exhaustion of the day.

In the morning, their breath will be stale.