FICTION: ENDLESS PARADISE
16 months post-submersion
I’m stuck in a continuous loop. My mind has now run out of fresh activity. Bliss overwhelms each day until it becomes a burden, suffocating. Not that I can measure days, or make sense of time anymore – if I had to guess I would say I have been replaying this particular memory loop for about a month.
The memory is quite a simple one: the first time anyone ever called me ‘fat’. The word itself slipped from the mouth of my Dad, quite carelessly, during the car journey to the last family holiday we all went on together.
I’m in the back seat of the Jeep. Mum is driving. It’s a hot day and I’m wearing a sundress that is sticking to the backs of my thighs. Alex is beside me, no older than three, clutching a grubby stuffed rabbit in his hands as he gurgles at the window. We are passing yellow fields and the sky is blinding as the midday sunlight peaks.
My breasts have just begun to swell into womanhood and Mum and I went shopping for a new bikini for me the week before to replace the ragged swimsuit of my prepubescent years. I picked one with purple flowers and pretty straps.
Dad’s already been drinking and is fumbling around for a lighter in the passenger seat. Mum is wearing a tight smile. Alex smacks his pudgy hand to the window, still gurgling, as Mum says brightly: “So, Fi! Are you looking forward to wearing your new gear at the pool?”
She was the only person to ever call me Fi. I’m about to answer when Dad grumbles: “New gear?”
“Yes…I treated Fi to some new swimwear. She picked out a lovely bikini.”
“Bikini?” He snorts.
“William, don’t snort. Here, look, your lighter is under the seat.”
“Don’t you think she’s a bit fat for a bikini?”
The crippling, self-esteem shattering pain I felt at the delivery of this word is gone now, because there is only bliss in my present moment. I cannot remember the feeling of pain, cannot recall it even in the context of a painful memory; but that doesn’t stop the memory from playing out, over and over. There is nothing I can do to stop my mind transporting me into the back seat of the Jeep to hear my Dad spit those words, over and over. It’s become my new reality. I haven’t worked out how the memories are chosen, what the pattern is. There have been others that have come and gone, replayed and replayed until worn out like old shoes.
There is nothing I can do to escape.
3 days pre-submersion
Fiona is the fat girl on the train. It’s been a balmy sort of morning, and there is no air conditioning inside this particular train carriage, and pools of sweat are gathering in between Fiona’s many folds causing large expanses of her skin to break out in ugly patches of mottled pink. She picks out a couple of pages from the dossier of official documents spread across the fold-out table in front of her arranges them carefully so that they form a fan.
Her loud breathing, wheezy and wet-sounding like an overheated dog’s pant, is attracting repulsed stares from the passengers seated nearby. Even the train attendant does little to suppress her disgust as she moves along the central aisle from one end of the carriage to the other, visibly sucking in her breath as she passes Fiona’s row in anticipation of the smell. A patch of vapour is forming on the window pane where Fiona’s hot arm is leaning and the attendant makes a mental note to thoroughly sanitize the pane of glass once Fiona has departed the train.
For the first time in her life, probably, Fiona is indifferent to the reactions she is being met with inside the carriage. The anxiety which would normally be building as a result of their stares, the feeling of cement setting in her stomach, has vanished. She continues to waft the air around her with the makeshift fan and finds herself humming the theme tune to some morning cartoon she once watched as a child. She grins at her wide white reflection merging with the countryside rolling past in the window frame.
The anxiety is gone because Fiona is comfortable in the knowledge that she will soon be free of this bloated prison she calls her body. She is bidding farewell to her physicality. In just a few days she will plunge herself into a purely digital existence, to live as a mind without matter, free and formless at last.
She rifles again through the assorted paperwork in the dossier: several leaflets; a letter thanking her for her final payment and wishing her well for the next step; an itinerary for the following days. She removes the leaflet and opens it to about halfway, to a spread explaining the process of ‘Permanent Submersion’ using rudimentary diagrams and arrows and little boxes of text. She lifts the open leaflet to her face, closes her eyes and breathes in the smell of the paper.
By the time the crackled P.A system announces that arrival at Fiona’s destination is imminent, she is charged with a nervous energy, that special mix that accumulates during a holiday’s preceding weeks: simultaneously imagining all the things that could go wrong and jittery with excitement at the thought of being there. She gathers her belongings, the dossier and a small suitcase, and heaves herself up and along the central aisle towards the exit. A middle-aged woman with a pinched face makes a show of leaning to one side to make it easier for Fiona to get through the gap between the seats, a silly exaggerated slanting of her upper body and widening of her eyes. The man sat beside her lets out a snigger as Fiona is swallowed by the doors.
Outside the day is building to stifling warmth, and Fiona shuffles along the platform towards the steps which lead directly onto the country road. She stops for a moment as the smell of her surroundings – cow dung and cut grass – overwhelms her, sends her dizzy. It is the first time she has been outside – and this, she thinks, is as outside as you can possibly get – in three and a half months. Her aversion to summer has kept her indoors, sprawled on the sofa with an army of electric fans whirring obediently around her, accompanied only by her shows and the glow of her smart phone’s screen. Now, she feels like an astronaut exploring new terrain, taking first steps, her heartbeat thundering right down into her fingertips. Her whole face drips with sweat. Her hair hangs limply and clings to her neck.
She’s looking out for her driver as she finally wheezes to the bottom of the steps, suitcase clunking behind her on the concrete. It’s standard courtesy for the company to send a car to pick up their clients and take them to its rural headquarters, and those who are entering into the Programme on a permanent basis are especially looked after. Lifetime participants are given V.I.P treatment during their final days of physicality, and are encouraged to savour simple Earthly pleasures such as the smell of paper or a morning stretch.
Fiona’s driver is already there, parked to the side of the country road on a grassy mound and leaning against the hot metal of the car’s bonnet with a look of contentment on his face. He’s young-looking, smartly dressed, reading a newspaper which is folded in half lengthways.
Fiona makes her way slowly towards him, her suitcase rolling noisily behind her on the road’s uneven surface, a welcome breeze cooling her momentarily as she lifts an arm reluctantly in the air to communicate her presence to him. He looks up from his newspaper and she waits for the grimace, the expression of disgust quickly suppressed – but all he does is smile, a smile that is warm and authentic-seeming as if he is actually happy to see her. He immediately straightens his position, drops the newspaper onto the car bonnet and swoops toward her, apologetic for waiting more than three seconds to help her with her suitcase.
“Thank you,” she smiles back at him shyly once he has opened the rear door for her and squeezes into the back of the car, still clutching the dossier tightly under one arm. She can feel herself turning red (redder) as she always does when any man looks at her without squirming. She can feel a crush on him developing, obviously. How predictable.
1 day pre-submersion
“Soy glazed beef cheek, charred onion, violet artichoke, pear kimchi. White chocolate mousse, black bean miso parfait, passionfruit jus. All served with a course-specific selection of wine and followed by an assortment of fine cheeses and organic fresh-roasted Honduran espresso.”
The menu is printed on ivory-coloured card that feels like linen against Fiona’s fingertips as she reads from it aloud. In the days since she got here she’s consumed some of the fanciest food that she has ever encountered; most of it barely even pronounceable. She’s sitting on the end of her silk-adorned four poster bed, a bed so large that even two of her couldn’t fill it, and is clad in her matching blue silk robe and sheepskin slippers. The crushed velvet curtains are pulled, the lighting is soft, and the whole room smells faintly of vanilla. Calm-inducing music pumps softly from unseen speakers.
By the time the food arrives Fiona is starved. Two back-to-back sessions of Mind Acclimation have left her with a strange feeling, melancholy mixed with hunger, and the sense that her surroundings could dissolve away at any moment. The company dubs it ‘post-P.E.P sadness’ and informs all participants that it is completely normal. “When making the transition from the Programme of Endless Paradise back into the normal world,” Fiona’s Digitist had advised earlier that day, “a kind of hangover happens to the body as it tries to reconnect with the mind. Your brain has been on a holiday, to a place of unfathomable bliss, and your body is trying to make sense of the realisation that it was left behind. It’s the lonely dog at the window, waiting for its owner to return.”
Helen, the Digitist assigned to Fiona to escort her through the transition, is a brisk and unfriendly woman whom Fiona has privately nicknamed Nurse Ratched. Unbeknownst to Fiona, though, all of the company’s Digitists are trained to coach clients in Helen’s coldly disassociated style. In the company’s view, forming close attachments to other beings in the days and weeks leading up to Permanent Submersion is unhealthy, increasing the possibility of a client getting ‘cold feet’ and reversing their decision. Human connection is, by a long way, the company’s number one risk factor, responsible for the highest number of participant drop-outs and subsequent refunding of fees. The forming of new connections is strongly discouraged once the client reaches the facility, which is why Fiona has been cut off from seeing anyone other than Helen since she got here. It’s known in the Digitist’s circle as the ‘decompression chamber’ stage, preparing clients for an eternity of blissful isolation by purging them of companionship.
In many ways Fiona is pre-prepared for the purging, making her the ideal candidate for Permanent Submersion. She has no family left, few friendships, and has not been involved in an intimate relationship in over five years. She is not attached to the things she owns, her life situation, or her body. When asked about possible reservations she may have during her session with Helen the previous day, Fiona had responded: “any time I have second thoughts about going through with this, I just look in the mirror, and think about the relief I’ll feel when I’m formless.”
She consumes one final mouthful of food and places the fork back on the tray, which is gold-gilded and patterned with hand-painted flowers, then carries the tray over to an open hatch in the wall on the far side of the room. She places the tray inside, slides the hatch door shut and pushes a little button with a picture of a knife and fork on it, to alert whoever’s attending the room that the tray is ready to be exchanged for coffee.
On the adjacent wall to the hatch is a full-length, gold-framed mirror in which Fiona catches sight of herself as she passes by. She pulls at the silk belt so that the robe drops to the floor and observes her naked body’s reflection, something she has only properly been able to do since signing up for the Programme. It is wide enough to fill the mirror, and wildly misshapen; the acres of pale flesh puckered by cellulite; the unevenly bulging breasts sagging shamefully towards the floor; the wiry black thicket of pubic hair poking from her thighs’ fleshy crevice. Even her feet are swollen and monstrous like the feet of some wild beast. The stretched-out splodge of a faded tattoo on her upper right thigh is the stamp of her teenage self, vaguely rebellious.
The rush of hatred she is accustomed to feeling when regarding her reflection has abated. Already she is beginning to feel detached from her form, as though she is watching a stranger through a window. Numbly indifferent. Perhaps this is the ‘hangover’ Helen described. The hatch in the wall alights and a voice announcing ‘coffee’ startles Fiona as she clutches at the robe on the floor.
“I want you to focus on the circle of blue light that you can see in the ceiling, please, Fiona. Just relax. Flood your body with consciousness, just as we practiced. Do not speak. As we go on the circle will get brighter and you will begin to feel very, very relaxed. When I tell you to, you will begin to count backwards from 300. When you do this, the circle will begin to slowly grow. Its blueness will fill your visual perimeters.
OK, Fiona, start from 300. 299. 298. 297. Slowly, calmly. 296. Carry on for me. Your body is filled with calm as you focus only on the circle. It is beginning to grow, brighten. You are entering the blue circle, Fiona. Merging with it. The room is fading, ceasing to exist. There is now only blue light, and it is beautiful. It is filling you, becoming you, replacing your cells. Let go of all other thought, let go of time, allow my voice to fade along with the room into nothingness. You are travelling into the blue, there is nothing more, you are entering into endless…”