I run the latest batch of unit tests on Visual Studio Code. When the red cross next to the test name changes to a green mark, a speech bubble pops up in the swirly tar of my mind, and it says, “Well done!” Some organic contraption in my body tasked with synthesizing drugs supplies the promised dopamine hit. My brain is convinced that I have stepped forward towards fulfilling my purpose as a living creature, but the wrinkly mass of soft tissue and blood vessels that contains my self won’t remain deceived for long. Soon enough, another speech bubble will pop up inside my head, this one saying, “Leire, you are wasting your time. You have the chance to do something worthwhile in your life, why do you let it slip through your fingers?”
Thankfully, some programming maestros figured out that if you systematize software development into a growing pyramid of unit tests, you can chase a reliable sequence of dopamine hits and still end up with a functioning product. If I didn’t spend my workdays zooming through this reward course of intellectual orgasms, I’d get mired in self-destructive thoughts regarding my inability to become an acceptable member of my species. It takes a regular pounding of dopamine hits on my soggy brain to shield me from the background radiation of reality; only when I am under the influence do I manage to forget the vast swath of shit that I’ve been dragging around: the pains of inhabiting a rotting body, the knowledge that we were born to grow old and die, the humiliation of wasting at least eight hours working, five days a week, so the government can steal part of my paycheck to fund the destruction of our society.
Yet, these dopamine hits are a pale shadow of the main reward that life built into us so we would remain slaves to its bidding: orgasms. I wish I could catalyze each orgasm from the previous one, in a consecutive chain that would barely allow me to breathe; that’s how I could aspire to enjoy my existence instead of tolerating it for a few minutes at a time. I’d love to see my brain turned into a bonobo jungle. I want to become a selfish, self-obsessed idiot whose only goal is to indulge her appetites without any regard for her fellow human beings or the planet she’s inhabiting. I want to stay in a bath for hours, lazing and masturbating. I want to eat a whole damn vat of ice cream even though you can only hold so much before you feel ill. But I suspect that life must have developed some regulatory programs into our brains or into some hormone-secreting lump of tissue, and if those biological algorithms detected that we dared to enjoy ourselves too much, even orgasming would start to feel dull and pointless. If due to excessive self-diddling I ended up locking my finite-state machine into such an anhedonia, I’d have no choice but to grab the nearest sharp tool and lacerate my carotid arteries. Then I’d jab the tool’s pointy end into each of my eyeballs, because I wouldn’t want to witness a second longer of this worthless world. I better take a break every now and then from masturbating, lest I become permanently brain-damaged.
I once read an article about a woman, a Floridian I believe, who due to a medical condition was blessed with constant, uncontrollable orgasms. She had so many that she didn’t know what to do with them. She could have bought a jet ski, a houseboat, a miniature zoo, and an island in the Bahamas so she could party with her friends and family. She could have invested in several casinos, started a line of vibrators, founded a private school where rich kids would be taught by tutors how to be filthy rich and even filthier in bed. She could have built a huge robot, crammed all the most important men in the world inside, and fucked them all in every orifice she had. Instead, such bliss impeded her ability to function as a human, so she chose to escape her life through the emergency door. She swallowed a bottle of pills, or perhaps she slit her wrists. In any case, I wish I had stood in front of this woman during her final moments as she cursed the purest pleasure that nature made available to us, claiming that even the ultimate reward wasn’t worth suffering through the terror of being alive.
“It seems we are both in the zone, senpai,” Jordi says. “We are going to finish this contract two or three days ahead of time.”
Our intern’s fingers dash across the keyboard as his gaze darts over the screen in precise jumps. When I first met him, Jordi seemed frail and timid, but these days he comes off as an unyielding machine, so concentrated at times that I could sneak away with one of his kidneys. While I distracted myself suffering mental breakdowns and wishing to die, my twenty-three-year-old coworker absorbed new programming techniques. I dread the day that he’ll choose to keep treating me deferentially as a legacy issue.
“I’m in the zone alright,” I say in a croaky voice. “I keep coming and coming.”
Jordi snorts, then he pushes the glasses up his nose as his dark eyes snap into focus on me.
“Both of you have been on an exhibitionist streak recently. I’m feeling out of my element.”
“Leire, you can’t be that frank with the kids these days. They force them to grow up in padded rooms, the poor things.”
Jacqueline, seated to my right, is wearing a purple-magenta crossover blouse with puff sleeves that show off her toned arms, which she strengthens regularly by imitating the grueling exercise routines of American YouTuber despots. The way the crossing pieces of fabric struggle over Jacqueline’s majestic tits makes me want to grasp the blouse in a fist, rip it off, and latch on to either of my girlfriend’s nipples for an hour-long session of sucking and nibbling. It would white out the myriad of anxious scribbles that have marred the surface of my mind lately.
I swallow the excess saliva building in my throat.
“Jordi is forced to share a desk with the most curvesome temptress, whom he’ll never get to touch, so his subconscious must be bubbling with sexual frustration on a daily basis.”
“You know that I usually have my mind on other things,” Jordi says as he continues typing.
I may have intended to turn Jordi’s pale, freckled cheeks into hot fudge sundae of molten desire, but I missed my target. This kid seems as detached from sex as if he had been chemically castrated.
“I was only… what’s the word that humans use? Teasing. You may need to see a neurologist, though. At your age you should be awkwardly trying to hide your erections under the desk.”
Jordi stops typing and turns his head towards me to gift me a gentle smile.
“Senpai, I wouldn’t pursue a taken woman.”
“My, aren’t you a gentleman,” Jacqueline says in a mellow voice.
“Besides, I believe that flat is justice.”
Jacqueline gasps, then she stares open-mouthed at our intern as if he insulted her ancestors. Jordi has returned his fingers to the keyboard and his gaze to the screen, but the kid is pursing his lips to restrain a silly grin.
I’m amused despite my instinct to experience every instant of living as a nerve-racking nightmare. I grab my bottle of water, and when I lean back in the chair to take a sip of the tepid liquid, I find myself staring at a sentence in bold letters glued across the row of frost-white cabinets as if it were a sticker. The sentence reads: YOU’VE GOT MAIL.
A chill runs down my spine. I shudder. Although Jacqueline’s heavenly voice is flowing around my head on its way to our intern, it sounds remote as if I were sinking underwater. I must have blinked; the sentence, a message to me, has vanished. I once saw a sentence like that written across the dashboard of my car, didn’t I? That one told me that we were fucked. It had shouted silently at me until I tried to peel it off, then it blinked out of existence.
I scoot closer to the desk. My hands coordinate themselves to move the mouse and type on the keyboard so Gmail opens in a new tab. I’ve received a new email from someone named Alberto Portuondo. The subject reads: KNOCK KNOCK.
I’ve heard of plenty of Albertos, but if I ever met one, it must have been at school. Back then I had no choice but to interact unwillingly with thirty or so other students in my classroom, in addition to the rest of the developing humans whose lives collided with me over those grueling years. I couldn’t tell you the name of most of the boys who spent their time staring at the back of some girl’s head, who made eyes at anyone with a pussy so they could get a girl’s attention, who whispered words into some girl’s ear as they moved their hands under her skirt. I remain only distantly aware of the adults who were in a position to take care of me, but I doubt that any of them were looking out for my best interests. My own father, a dark shape in a forest of faces, would pull me up into his lap, stroke my head, and tell me to be brave. I thought that being brave meant suffering more to earn their love, so I acted as brave as I could.
The email body contains a single sentence: Now check your phone, you silly bitch.
I slide my gaze to the mobile phone lying close to my mouse, and as soon as the first photons that bounced off the phone hit my retinas, the device buzzes. An ice cube of dread is melting in my stomach. After I grab the phone, a notification leads me to a new message. Someone who chooses to represent himself as the Linux penguin has sent me a video locked behind a black thumbnail. A down arrow symbol offers me the choice to download its seven point seven megabytes of content.
“No thanks,” I mumble, then I press the download button.
While a loading wheel spins, my heart thumps faster and faster. About ten seconds later, a video fills the phone screen showing an isometric view of a seated woman, filmed as if the camera was mounted on the ceiling behind her right shoulder. The woman is sitting on the same chair that is holding my body, near the desk that supports the workstation that justifies my existence. She’s wearing a dark mauve hoodie with white, frayed drawcords and long sleeves that hide half of her hands, as well as rifle-green cargo pants that look like a hand-me-down from a drug-dealing older brother. I refuse to focus on the woman’s face, but why would I need to, when that stranger has presented herself as me for my entire life as I remain trapped inside her human frame? She’s a cuckoo in a nest of fluffy eggs, a worker drone for the horse-human empire.
The creature in the video is squeezing her thighs together, spellbound by the territory of the desk that Jacqueline claimed for herself, which she embellished with a photo collage, a plastic rose bouquet, a silver pen holder and a leather blotter. The line of four puncture wounds on my past self’s neck, from when I stuck a fork in my flesh, must have scabbed over a couple of days before this video was shot. As the woman breathes deeply, her right hand keeps fiddling with the fabric of her pants next to the fly. She resembles some trailer park loner who’s peeping through a hole in a wooden fence at a sunbathing babe.
The woman on-screen rolls her chair closer to Jacqueline’s domain. She runs her fingertips over a half-empty water bottle that belongs to her coworker, and when she stares at the pineapple-yellow tube of lip balm, a shiver of recognition makes me stop the video and flip my phone. I know against which part of her greasy body my past self was going to rub that cosmetic product.
I feel like a deer who has stumbled into the middle of the road in front of a speeding truck. When I rise to my feet, my legs are trembling. A maniacal laugh rings through my head, like the high-pitched screeching of a murderous harpy.
“You’ve gotten so pale all of a sudden,” Jacqueline says as she looks up at me.
“With all due respects, my queen: have I ever not looked pale as death? It’s safe to assume that I will look sickly for the rest of my life. Anyway, I’ve received a sexual video on my phone, so I’m going to lock myself in a stall and enjoy it in private.”
Jacqueline chuckles, then she twists her lips in a silly smile.
“Alright, baby doll. Have fun.”
Jordi clears his throat.
“And remember to wash your hands afterwards.”
I stride towards the front door of our office while I clutch the mobile phone. When I close the door behind me, I dash down the hallway to the bathroom. Both stalls are vacant. I lock myself in one and I plop down on the toilet seat. Hunched over, I resume the video. The recorded sounds of ragged breaths fill the enclosed space as my past self plants kisses on the surface of Jacqueline’s lip balm. She slides it cap-first into her drooling mouth, and after she closes her eyes, the ruminant motion of her jaw suggests that she’s licking the cap of the tube. I vaguely recall that I imagined myself suckling on any of Jacqueline’s nipples, but instead it looks like I was giving a blowjob to a micropenis.
The woman on-screen shivers. She unbuckles her belt and pulls down her pants, revealing her downy thighs.
I feel a wave of embarrassment and anger at my own crotch. I stop the video, then shove the phone in a pocket. My head spins with dizziness. Why would I want to witness the proof that I violated that innocent lip balm? And I already knew that someone had recorded me as I diddled myself at work, didn’t I? My mind must have blocked it out the same way it allows me to forget, at least for a couple of hours at a time, that I have an expiration date. Why would any random Alberto want to record me masturbating at work? Does he intend to extort money from me?
I stick my head between my knees, I dig my fingers into my scalp, I force air deep into my nostrils. I’m tasting bile. My chest feels like a barrel of toxic waste that’s been dragged through mud and filled with acid.
As my fingers knead my temples, I yearn for the shadow of the goddess of lust to spread over my mind and take up residence inside my cranium. I would feel her thighs squeezing me into a quivering pulp as she mounted the back of my mind. I need to close my eyes and enjoy the delights of an orgasm-by-numbers, a mechanical act. My crotch would clench, my breasts heave, my nipples throb and my toes curl. I would hold my breath and pretend to be a dolphin. Then I’d relax and sink into the sticky pool of orgasmic sensations until I fell asleep.
If any justice remained on this shell-shocked planet, in any of the millions of videos distributed of me pleasuring myself, I’d resemble a creature of myth and legend. Instead of skin I’d be covered in scales, which would be painted red as a raging fire. I’d have pointed ears, gills on my neck and a tail that flicked behind me. I’d inhale the smoke of smoldering wood and breathe out flames. Instead of a bra I’d wear a spiderweb that hung from my breasts. Instead of a heart I’d have a pulsating jellyfish inside my chest that was drowning in a sea of my own blood. My inner thighs would be slick with sweat and shimmering with a shiny sheen. Two pink and dainty protuberances would stick out from my cheeks, ready to satisfy simultaneously two women who would be squirming on their knees, desperate to lick the viscous secretions from my dripping face-cocks. I’d hear the sounds of my flesh sloughing off my bones and into the void as I climbed up cliff walls and fucked every hole and crevice like some monstrous woodpecker. I would be hideous as a blackened sun, and worshipped by a mass of sex-crazed creatures who’d want nothing more than to adore my cold and crackling scales.
My stomach churns, my chest heaves in and out. I retch, but I can’t throw up. The acid that burns my tongue is me, that’s my very flesh roasting from within. A razor-sharp claw stuck in my guts is scratching and scratching, trying to break free by gouging out my entrails.
I can always escape into daydreams. I light up the theater of my mind, where I materialize an octogonal mahogany table, an Edwardian antique that would make a great prop for a murder mystery. I conjure up some velvet curtains that billow gently when the room gets a breath of air. I add a gilt-framed mirror, a chandelier, two thronelike chairs, and a sculpted lamp with ornate shades that look like they were made from King Louis XIV’s ceremonial wigs.
On the tabletop I set up a session of one of my imaginary games, which I named ‘The Game of the Gods: the Tower’. It’s the first and arguably best entry in a trilogy that was continued by ‘The Game of the Gods: the Agony’ and ‘The Game of the Gods: the Fall’. The game’s black box is adorned with a relief that shows three women making love under a crown of roses. The gameboard is made of thick grey board, but regarding the pawns I invested in premium replacements, which are made of jade, green jasper and blood-red agate, all carved from mythical gemstones by a master jeweler. Several sculptures represent the traps that must be arranged on the board, including a heart-shaped maze of thorns, a secluded hideaway guarded by a phoenix that spews fire, a boudoir full of handcuffs, and a cavernous vagina in the shape of a satyr’s penis. The game’s main piece is a figurine of Minerva, the Roman goddess of civilization, strategy, poetry, the crafts and twenty or so other subjects, whose bejeweled crown and rich robes represent wisdom and power. Minerva’s finely carved, white-faced beauty is backed by a silver shield and a shining gold spear.
I place my player pieces on the board. My avatar, an elf queen, wears a metallic lace dress and stands on a mountaintop. Her elaborately braided hair hangs down past her hips, trailing in the wind like a golden mantle. She’s surrounded by a court of warrior princesses, dwarves, a charioteer, a cat-headed lady who’s carrying a pomegranate, and a few stags who sport crowns of oak leaves.
In the solo version, the player decides between fighting to protect their civilization and starting a war of extermination against their enemies, which are controlled by Automa decks. In the multiplayer version, each player must keep taking sips of poisoned wine and wear a mask made of human skin. The masks get glued to their faces, so if they tear them off, they’ll expose the skulls underneath. In the solo game, any player who reveals all of the opponents’ cards triumphs, but in the multiplayer game, if even one player removes their mask, that’s the end of civilization.
I have played this board game a couple hundred times, and I’ve developed a simple, if obtuse strategy for victory: I try not to lose. I play the same strategy for life, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
Author’s note: shout-out to the YouTube channel named Nemo’s Dreamscapes due to videos like this one, that allow me to remain sane during the many, many hours that takes me to produce any of these chapters. I must also thank the anonymous sentient creatures that upload hours of genuine storm and rain sounds, which I use to shut out the outside world during my train rides and in bed as I’m trying to sleep. I have no clue what I’d do without you.
I’ve also been on a Jackson C. Frank binge recently. I came across this recording from back in 1968, when he hosted a BBC Radio program. He plays fantastic live versions of beloved songs, and even speaks to the audience. I wish that cursed bastard had gotten to do more with his life.