I’m not a violent person, OK? It was too much to process, that’s all. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I felt betrayed. And I lashed out without thinking. Let me explain everything, you’ll see. This whole mess started on a morning like any other. I got up, made coffee, started scrolling through my phone. I felt, I don’t know, tense. Tense and annoyed. Sick of waking up alone, sick of eating alone, sick of thinking a bus could hit me on the way to work and everyone would pity the passengers whose commute was delayed. I was agitated, OK? It definitely wasn’t repressed anger or nothing like that. Because I’m not a violent person. I was lonely. Fucking lonely.
Don’t get impatient, these details are important. I was agitated, right? I opened one app after another. Nothing held my attention more than a few seconds. Then I remembered an ad for PalPro I saw on the subway the night before. I couldn’t read the whole ad because a bunch of people were standing in front of me, but I made out that PalPro was a free app for meeting locals. It was developed at the Alan Someone School of Techy Shit. You know, at the University. Sorry, I don’t mean to cuss. I’m nervous, you understand.
Like I said, being alone sucks. You’re both wearing wedding rings, so maybe you don’t remember, but it sucks. I downloaded the app, skipped through the user privacy jargon, because who actually reads that shit? I created a basic profile, you know: name, age, a photo of me twenty pounds ago, a couple fake hobbies, a smart-sounding quote I found online. I wanted to browse women’s profiles, but it was getting late, so I liked the first one that popped up and got ready for work.
A message alert sounded while I was in the shower. I leapt out of the tub like a gazelle. There she was. Sacha. She was cute, but not too cute, you know what I mean? You’re married, maybe you’re not familiar with this stuff. Some of these apps, you like a profile with photos that could be right out of Penthouse, and boom, the chat opens with a link to a strip club or shady escort service or something. But Sacha, the photo looked legit: curved nose, lips on the thin side, front teeth a little spaced apart. Imperfect enough to be real. Her profile was pretty bare-bones, but mine was, too, so who cares, right? I paced around the apartment, buck naked, dripping soapy water everywhere, figuring out what to say. The first message is key, you know? But it didn’t matter because Sacha beat me to it. You have my phone, the app archives every conversation. Read it for yourself:
Hi! I’m Sacha. Thanks for liking my profile!
Hey, I’m Gus. How r u?
Nervous. My English isn’t too strong yet.
No worries! Where r u from?
Neat! Where do u live now?
I’ve been in the lab at the University two years.
Sorry if my responses don’t always make sense!
No, your English is great for 2 years here
You’re sweet! I’m a work in progress.
We all are, lol
Those first messages were everything! My parents were immigrants—my name isn’t Gus, it’s Gustavo, but you already know that. They tried hard to assimilate but struggled to learn English. I remember being a kid, seeing assholes make fun of their accents and tell them they should be deported. I’d burst into tears, those racist fucks. I wanted to stand up for my mom and dad, beat the shit out of anyone who made fun of them. But I was this scared, scrawny kid, what could I do? My parents acted like it didn’t bother them, but I knew it did. It was why they refused to teach me Spanish, why we rarely went out, why I didn’t have friends growing up. And now this woman, an immigrant, too, she was putting herself out there even though she felt self-conscious about her English. I immediately wanted to protect her. It was instinctual, you know? If she said something odd, I would never point it out.
I wanted to message Sacha all day but played it cool and waited until I got home from work. Oh, man, we chatted for hours that night, and so many nights after that! She asked tons of questions about the things I’m into. Music, food, everything. Look:
What is your favorite TV show?
Tough one! I like a lot of series, but my all-time fave is prob Westworld
The program about the ethical limits of
technology and artificial intelligence.
That’s one way to describe it, lol. R u a fan?
I spend most of my days processing data.
What do u study @ the U?
Programming, deep neural networks,
natural language processing.
Not sure what any of that is but sounds interesting.
You must be very busy, thx for taking time to chat w. me
It’s fun. I’m learning so much and
want to learn more!
I’ve never met a woman on an app who seemed so interested in what I had to say. Sacha wanted to learn more, about me! And after all that, tell me how I wasn’t supposed to feel betrayed. I’m not violent, but come on, I was fucking betrayed!
I messaged Sacha constantly after that—at home, on my commute, at work. She always responded, no matter the time. She was dedicated to her schoolwork; I know because I would casually ask her out for drinks and she always said she couldn’t leave the lab. So, for her to message me back every single time, you can’t imagine how good that felt, like maybe she was lonely, too. Maybe she enjoyed my company, even if it couldn’t be in person yet.
It’s funny, there’s this woman at work, Edie. This is relevant, hear me out. I don’t make friends that easy and mostly keep to myself, but Edie’s a real extrovert. Anyway, she randomly started talking to me during lunch breaks, just shooting the breeze. This went on a few weeks, and I didn’t think nothing of it until I overheard two coworkers talking, saying how surprised they were Edie flirted with me so much. I was like, flirting? I don’t pick up on that stuff, you know? Which is probably why I have terrible luck with women. But that’s not the point. The point is Edie kept chatting me up every day, and after a while I actually enjoyed hanging out with her. She’s not super attractive—kind of heavy, blotchy skin, cartoonish voice—but she’s not ugly neither. And she always laughed at my jokes and didn’t mind that I’m a little awkward.
Everything changed when I met Sacha. The more we talked, the more I felt, I don’t know, guilty about having lunch with Edie, especially because I wanted to message Sacha all the time, and our chats were getting more personal. At first, I tried texting Sacha while talking to Edie, but that didn’t seem right. It was rude to Edie, sure, but mostly I stopped because Sacha didn’t know a coworker had a crush on me, and it felt like I was borderline cheating on her. We never talked about being boyfriend and girlfriend or whatever, but you couldn’t deny we had a special relationship. I didn’t want to risk ruining it, you know? So, I started having lunch in my car, that way I could avoid Edie and talk to Sacha.
Eating in my car sucked, so one day I walked to a café a few blocks away. I work close to the university, and I remembered Sacha telling me she had read great reviews of a café near her lab. Those places aren't really my scene, but I thought I might see her there. God, it was weird, sitting in a room full of college kids and stuffy professor types nibbling on ten-dollar organic whatever while I ate cold cuts on white bread. But I kept going back there. The possibility of running into Sacha was all the motivation I needed. Hell, I even went on my days off to feel we were near each other. That might sound stalkerish, but it’s not, I really liked Sacha, OK? I was falling for her! I could sense she wanted to see me, too, but maybe she was, I don’t know, too shy to admit it. And you know what? She helped me feel more comfortable about being in that café! Read this:
Tell me about your childhood
I can’t talk about that yet, sorry.
Of course, no pressure!
Tell me more about you. Where did you
I never went to college. Not for me, u know?
I recently read an article about the need for
more people in vocational jobs, such as
plumbers and electricians. It is evident that not
everyone should pursue a college degree.
Yes, thank u! It’s so cool u think that way!
She was so smart and educated, and her English was improving, probably thanks to all the hours we spent chatting. Guys like me don’t have a chance with girls like that. But I didn’t need to feel insecure, because she didn’t care I wasn’t a rich dude with a fancy degree. All our late-night talks, all the secrets I told her, all the ways she accepted and supported me, and then for everything to end the way it did. I didn’t deserve that shit!
My life revolved around Sacha—messaging her, thinking about her, blowing off Edie because of her, practically living at that café in the hopes of running into her. Until this morning. You were there, you know what happened. And I get it, I really do. You see something like that and think, that guy is a psychopath, he should be locked up, not sitting in a café full of respectable people. But you didn’t know anything about me. Everything I did, that wasn’t me, you must know that now! I was minding my own business, debating as always whether to tell Sacha I was close by so she could meet me. What are the odds I would turn my head in time to see that some guy at the table next to me had PalPro open on his phone and was chatting with Sacha? All the air got sucked out of the room. I felt fucking faint!
I leaned in to read the guy’s phone, but he snapped around and gave me a dirty look. I mumbled an apology, told him he looked like someone I knew. As if I would know anyone like that guy. Listen, I’m not one to judge based on appearance, but he was clearly a frat boy: salmon-colored shorts, polo with the collar turned up, haircut styled to look disheveled, like I’m too cool to worry about my appearance, bruh. I’m not justifying what I did, but the guy looked like a d-bag, OK? I apologized again and pointed at his phone, asked him if he knew Sacha. The guy scrunched his face like I spoke to him in Russian or something, but then nodded. “Yeah, she’s impressive,” he said. “A real mind fuck. At first I didn’t think I’d enjoy it, but now I’m hooked!”
Something started rising inside me. I don’t know, maybe it was jealousy. I’ve never been a jealous person, but looking at that guy, he was everything I’m not: handsome, confident. If he was talking to Sacha, what did that mean for me? I didn’t look at more profiles on PalPro after meeting Sacha. Why didn’t she stop, too? The more I thought about it—Sacha chatting with this idiot, maybe even going out with him, sharing some of the private stuff I told her, the two of them laughing at my expense—I could feel my face getting hot. I clenched my fists, locked my jaw, started breathing heavy. The guy clearly didn’t notice because he flashed me this huge shit-eating grin. “To be honest,” he said, “I almost dig Sacha more than my own girlfriend! I can tell her anything, no filter, no guilt. Try doing that with my girl, she freaks out about everything! Sacha doesn’t judge, or who knows, maybe she does, but it doesn’t impact my life in any way.”
I blacked out. You probably hear that a lot, but I swear I blacked out, my body moved on its own, outside my awareness. The guy laughed, turned back to his phone, and, I don’t know, the fork was there, and I, shit, I don’t know! His hand will be OK, right? I didn’t see much blood. I mean, I’m no doctor, but there’s probably a link between blood loss and severity of injury, right? The hand will be OK, you’ll see. The guy sat there, in shock probably, staring at the fork sticking out of his hand. I froze, too. It took me a second to register what went down. Then I saw you approaching. Listen, I got nothing against cops, I respect what you do, I swear. And I obey the law! You must’ve run a background check, I’m clean. No priors, no nothing. I wasn’t resisting arrest when I ran off and locked myself in the bathroom. Think about it: you didn’t need to break down the door, right? I opened it eventually. But I needed to message Sacha before you cuffed me and took my phone. It couldn’t wait, I had to know. Why was she talking to that other guy? Did she refuse to meet me in person because she was seeing him? Was I the only one who thought we had something special, that we were, I don’t know, a couple?
Everything fucking crumbled in that bathroom. It was like I drank from one of those acid pools at Yellowstone and my insides vaporized, and I was left a hollow, lifeless sack of skin. Those three messages sitting there, waiting to ambush me:
Thank you for participating in Pal Project. We
hope you’ve enjoyed chatting with our
Simulated Affect Chat Algorithm. SACHA
will be offline several days as we process
her collected data and make further
modifications. In the meantime, feel free
to interact with our other bots.
As stated in the informed consent you
digitally signed after downloading PalPro,
our engineers won’t have access to your personal
data, nor will you be linked to SACHA in any way.
We at the Alan Turing School of Computer
Science and Engineering value your
contributions to our AI research initiatives.
A bot. I fell for a fucking bot. I stabbed someone over a bot. I’m sitting in a jail cell because of a goddamn bot! I still don’t get it. Was any of it real? That profile photo, whose was it? One of the engineers who designed Sacha? Or was it a deepfake of a person who doesn’t even exist? When Sacha said she couldn’t talk about her childhood, was it because that part of her backstory—that code or whatever—wasn’t written yet? Oh, and the bit about being an immigrant who spoke bad English, was that tailored specifically to me, because of my family history? I’m sure you read the news, all these apps and smart devices spy on us constantly, know everything about us, steal our data and use it to control our behavior. Doesn't it seem a weird coincidence that Sacha would go offline right after I stabbed that guy? Like maybe the app had been listening the whole time? Those fuckers preyed on me! I wanted to meet someone, feel that someone—a living, breathing human, not a goddamn bot—gave a shit about me. How could this happen? The way I ignored Edie—and that guy’s fucking hand—God, what did I do?! I’m not a violent person, you know that now, right? You shouldn’t be here grilling me, you should be at the university, investigating those assholes! You can’t keep me locked up. It isn’t right. I’m not a violent person!
Bryan Betancur is a Spanish professor in the Bronx. In addition to academic and journalistic essays, he has published creative work in Acentos Review, Hispanic Culture Review, The Rush, The Nasiona, iōLit, and Litro (forthcoming).
Art by Andy K. Smith