November 24th 2016: Overheard
Heart Monitor
, by Angela Boswell

Tyler took a slice of can-shaped cranberry gelatin and passed the plate to his nephew.

“Mmm,” Aiden said. “Can-berry sauce!”

“That’s a good one,” Tyler said. “We just used to call those things beef-cakes. I have no idea why.”

“It does sort of look like a roast,” his sister Deanna said, “the way Mom puts it on its side with the parsley all around it.”

“That’s kale,” Mom corrected. “And you should try some. It’s got lots of antioxidants and good stuff baby number three would like.”

Deanna rolled her eyes. “I take my vitamins, Mom,” she said. Deanna would probably roll her eyes at her grandkids.

Tyler’s brother, Jim, waved a fork at the fancifully-presented cranberry product. “Greens are okay, but you need like a ton of protein. Sarah went all paleo when she was expecting Jacob, and he’s going to state for wrestling!” Jim put a fist up for his son to bump, but Jacob just continued eating like he hadn’t heard anything. Jim slowly moved the fist towards Jacob’s head, until Jacob swatted it away, still without looking up. Sarah elbowed Jim and gave him a look, which he ignored.

“So, Deanna,” Mom said, “where’s the baby-daddy? Couldn’t be bothered?”

“Don’t call him that,” she snapped.

“Well I can’t call him your husband.”

“You could call him Mark,” Deanna said, long-expired teenage sass slipping into her voice.

“He’s in jail,” Aiden volunteered.

“Aiden!”

“What?” the boy asked, mystified.

Tyler kept his head down over his plate. If he stayed quiet, the drama would flow around him and he’d stay dry. So far, nobody had started The Questions.

Deanna was looking just about ready to get up and leave, but Dad was trying to diffuse the situation. “If he hasn’t gone to trial yet,” he said, “let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, shall we?”

“I have my doubts, all right,” Mom said.

“Hey, now. It’s innocent until proven guilty in this country.”

“Due process, right.” Then Mom turned to Tyler. “How’s work going, honey? You still saving everybody’s skins?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s going great. The skin-saving continues.” He nodded, wondering if he was in denial about the fact that this was a sufficient answer.

He was. “What have you been doing lately? You’re the webmaster, what have you been mastering?”

“It’s user interface. I don’t work on the website. I’ve been—”

“A website is an interface, isn’t it?”

“No, well, yes, I mean—”

“Then you’re working on the website.”

Tyler had certain things he wanted to say at this point, but he did not say them. Instead, he launched into a very technical explanation of a problem he’d been trying to solve, and watched his mom’s face go blank.

“You know,” Jim cut in, “you are a genius. I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you need to pass me the turkey so I don’t fall asleep.”

“Turkey is supposed to make you sleepy,” Deanna said, passing it to him herself.

“I’ve heard that’s not necessarily true,” Dad said. “It’s got some tryptophan in it, but you’d need something like five whole turkeys before you’d get enough of it to actually make you sleepy.”

“Tryptophan?” Jim asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Deanna said. “Just drink your beer—works better anyway.”

“Any new hires at the office?” Mom continued as though there had been no interruption. “Any girls?”

Tyler felt like he’d been punched. And here, finally, came The Questions. His first defense was humor.

“Well, yeah, there’s one lady, but you wouldn’t like her. She’s married.”

Mom didn’t laugh. “You aren’t getting any younger, Tyler.”

“Heck,” Deanna said, “kids age you so much he’s younger than me now. And what do you think he is, some kind of medieval bride gonna be a spinster at seventeen? Let the poor guy be.”

“I’m not asking you. But seriously, Tyler, do you know anybody who’s female, single, and under sixty-five?”

“Just Deanna,” Jim said.

“I’m not single. I have someone. Just because I’m not building a family the way the dominant culture does—”

“Dominant culture? I saw a news story that said most kids are born out of wedlock these days.”

Tyler tried to keep his eyes down and no expression on his face. He willed his mother’s attention to stay on his brother and sister, who were now shouting at each other. Then his dad raised his voice.

“Everybody, just be quiet! We are not here to put anybody on trial about their—”

“She’d know a thing about trials!” Jim smirked.

“Jim, do I have to send you to your room? Because you’re acting like a twelve-year-old.”

“Hey,” Jim said, “this is what you do at Thanksgiving! You talk about which family members are sluts and which are lonely virgins.”

“Jim,” Mom said in a warning tone.

“Would it be better if we talked about Tyler’s love life?”

“That would certainly keep us quiet,” Dad mumbled, just loud enough that Tyler heard it.

“Ty,” Jim said, slapping him on the back, “what you need is a nice Russian mail-order bride.”

“Actually,” Dad said, “a more productive approach might be online dating. It’s better than waiting for the right woman to get hired by your company, and office romances are probably not the best idea anyway.”

“I’ve researched a few of them,” Mom said. “There was an article about the ones most likely to find you a spouse.”

“Oh, I heard about a different kind of thing,” Sarah said, leaning around her husband to talk to Tyler. There’s this thing you wear on your arm, and it reads your vitals, and it senses if you look at someone and they spike. If they have it too, they can set it to notify them of people nearby who are spiking, and if they look at you and you both get a spike, it means there’s an attraction.”

“Get a spike?” Jim asked. “That sounds a bit too risque for Tyler.”

“I don’t know if that sounds like a good idea,” Deanna said. You’re just looking at strangers to see if they find your looks exciting at first glance? I mean, not to be rude or anything, but I’ve read that girls are much less likely to find ginger dudes attractive.”

“I’m not a ginger,” Tyler said.

“You’re close enough.”

“You’re more red-haired than I am.”

“But red-haired women are considered exotic. Red-haired men are considered effeminate.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

Jim cut in. “Now that is just racist. Or sexist.”

“On a dating site,” Mom said, “you could look for other redheads. You can tell it just what you’re looking for, and it’ll screen out everyone who doesn’t match your criteria.”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “You get all programmy and variables and stuff. You’d love it.”

“It really does help,” Mom said. “I’ve read that it’s got a higher success rate than meeting in a bar.”

Deanna turned her head in the opposite direction from Mom and rolled her eyes. Aiden followed her gaze to the ceiling and looked around for whatever she was fixated on.

“So, Tyler,” Dad said, “are you going to try online dating?”

“Um…I don’t know.”

“You’re living too safe. You’ve gotta take some chances. I took a chance when I asked your mother out.” He looked at her and smiled. “I never thought she’d say yes. She was way out of my league.”

“I was not,” Mom said, but she was blushing.

Deanna turned to Tyler. “You just gotta go for what you want, be spontaneous. You do the same thing every day of your life, you’re gonna get the same results every day. Don’t do what they say you should do, just do what you want.”

“I want a cookie!” said Aiden.

“Not if you don’t finish your dinner.”

“Does Uncle Tyler get a cookie?”

“Sure, if he finishes his dinner.”

“We don’t have any cookies,” Mom said, “but we do have pie. You like pumpkin pie, don’t you?”

“I like cookies,” Aiden said sullenly.

 

On his way to work Monday, Tyler tried to look at the people he passed walking down the sidewalk or in the cars stopped at lights. He scanned the faces waiting at the train station and then stole nervous glances at his fellow passengers. He wondered if, out there somewhere, there actually was somebody for him.

Maybe he just wasn’t cut out to fall in love. He saw people every day walking down the street holding hands, or giving each other a quick hug and kiss before one of them got on the train. It was strange, how something so prevalent could completely elude him.

Then he noticed he’d missed his stop. How had that happened? Was his family getting to him that much? No, he must have stayed up too late watching Netflix. He really needed to budget his time better.

Tyler got off at the next stop. As he made his way along the slushy sidewalk, he wondered what his coworkers would think of his family. Amy (who was married) would say they were totally normal, and Ted would say they needed their own reality show. Ted would also make up some stupid name for them, like he had for the store Tyler was approaching.

Ted called this place the Macbucks store, because it looked like an Apple store with a Starbucks in back, though he hadn’t added anything to describe the weird Anthropologie-like installation art that sat in the front window. Tyler had never thought selling coffee and computers in the same place sounded like a good idea, but they probably sold a lot of computers when people spilled coffee on them.

Kind of like what Ted said about Anthropologie. Who, he’d wanted to know, was actually going to buy a necklace made of chewed-up pencils? Nobody. They ran their business strictly on a you-break-it-you-buy-it model.

Tyler stopped in front of Macbucks. The installation art was currently a forest of Christmas trees made of hanging boots. They weren’t Santa boots, or even winter boots, really. There were galoshes, hiking boots, weird fashion boots with pointy toes. But apparently that’s what got people in to buy tech and java. Tyler checked his phone. Nobody really cared if you came in late, though they might ask what happened if it was him.

Inside, Tyler poked at the boots in the hanging installation, and a store employee with a Mohawk rushed over to stop him.

“That’s for looking, not for touching,” she said, sounding like she was probably better suited to working in a preschool than a tech outlet.

“Can I buy it?” he asked. He thought about setting a boot tree up in his parents’ living room. Deanna would probably like it, while Jim would just stare like it was about to come to life and stomp on him.

“Um, yeah, I guess so. I mean, I can contact the artist if you want.”

“Yeah, could you just give me their phone number or email or something? I’m actually kinda short on time, but I wanted to know if you had any of those things…”

The employee checked her phone while Tyler tried to figure out how to describe the thing his sister-in-law had talked about.

“Here’s the website,” the employee said, showing Tyler her phone with a picture of a pile of cigarette butts beneath the artist’s name. He copied it down. “What were you looking for, though?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah, the thing I was looking for. Well, I don’t know what it’s called. Someone was telling me about it, but they didn’t give the brand name.”

“What’s it do?”

“It’s the thing that…reads your heart rate and stuff, and it’s supposed to be some kind of dating app?” He felt so stupid saying it.

The employee’s face lit up with recognition. “Oh, you mean the Heart Monitor. Yeah, we have that.” She led him over to the counter that ran along the side of the store.

“This would be what you’re looking for,” she said, picking up a little white box with a heart below the words, “Heart on Your Sleeve.”

“Is it a different brand?” Tyler asked.

“No. People don’t like to call it ‘Heart on Your Sleeve’ because it’s too long, I guess.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, I’d like to buy one.”

“All right. Could I interest you in–”

“No, that’s okay. I’m running late. I have to get to work.”

She nodded as if to agree that he clearly needed something like this. He took the box and she followed him to the checkout.

At work, he was distracted. Was he sure he wanted to use the thing? What would he say if someone asked about it when he was back home for Christmas? Well, he didn’t have to tell them. Sure, he was awkward and everyone knew it, but this kind of solidified it, this was kind of like just getting up and actually vocalizing it.

But no one would know he had it, right? Contrary to the name, it was worn under your sleeve and wouldn’t be visible. The only people who would know about it would be other users, the ones he spiked with. If there were any.

Well, there was only one way to find out. That’s what it always boiled down to, just get out there and do whatever it was. But he didn’t like getting out there and doing whatever. Because he usually failed, and he usually failed spectacularly.

During lunch, in his cubicle, he took out the box and looked it over. He read the instructions and pulled out all the components. It consisted of a little device you put in your pocket, the heart shape you stuck to your arm, and a couple of accelerometers you stuck behind your ears, the better to tell where you were looking.

Well, whatever. He put it away, taking it out again just before work was over. In the bathroom, he stuck the components on. When he inspected himself in the mirror, he couldn’t see any of them, but he felt stupid and conspicuous nonetheless.

Outside, he looked at faces. A few turned to meet his eyes, but then looked away. He wondered if the thing would even work right. After all, his heart rate had to be pretty high already.

But still, nothing happened. He walked to the station, rode the train and walked to his apartment, looking around like someone returning from a murder scene. But still, none of the faces he looked into looked back with any sort of recognition, any sort of desire.

Not that he really should have expected something to happen. You didn’t just put on a device and meet your soul mate within half an hour. But still, when he got home, Tyler stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked at himself. Was there anything to see? Just some guy. Pretty nondescript, middle of the road, blended in with all the other thirty-something white guys staring at screens all day and going home to stare at different ones for fun.

He wished he had some unusual feature, like icy blue eyes, or maybe one with a splotch of another color in it; maybe a gray streak in his hair or even a well-placed, not-too-big scar. Heck, he’d even settle for the red hair he’d had as a child. He could always use dye or contacts, but that would just feel weird. He might as well be cosplaying.

Well, he’d keep trying. He’d just wear the Heart Monitor when he was out in the city, and hope for the best. Turning off the light on his unremarkable reflection, he went to watch some more Zombies are the New Black.

 

For the next couple of weeks, Tyler wore the little heart under his sleeve and looked, every time with less and less hope, at all the women he passed. Some of them looked back, the human instinct to make eye contact being what it is, and a couple of them even smiled a little, but the device never registered a connection.

As he walked, he would try to picture what all this must look like to the computers controlling it. Did they see gossamer threads coming down from the global positioning satellites and pointing out each user as they moved around the city? He imagined it would look something like a cross between the northern lights and a laser show.

But still, nothing. Tyler searched online for testimonials, statistics, even finding the current stock price for the company that made it. Some people gave it glowing reviews. Others decried it as a sham. And as it turned out, although the pool of users was considerable, the device had mostly struck a chord with Gen-Y lesbians and the retired Baby-Boomer crowd. So unless he wanted a woman the same age as his mother–though bringing one home to meet her would definitely get an amusing reaction–his chances appeared to have been slim right out of the gate.

Nevertheless, and telling himself that he was certainly not yet desperate, he continued to wear the Heart Monitor whenever he was out. And so he was wearing it when he volunteered to pick up a box of donuts for the office. That was when it happened.

Waiting at a light, he turned to see a woman across the intersection looking right at him. She was beautiful, with dark eyes and curly hair peeking out from the fur-trimmed hood of her red coat. The sensors behind his ears emitted a tone, something like a doorbell, to tell him that she was looking at him in the same way.

Only she was not looking at him that way. She was staring, startled, and then turned away, hurrying down the street in the opposite direction.

Tyler watched her retreat, trying to keep the red coat in view. The light changed and the people around him moved forward, taking him with them across the street, following the woman.

What had that meant? Why hadn’t she gone up to him, if they had both registered a reaction as close as logic and science could come to love at first sight? Why was she running away? Was she just shy? Or had she reconsidered, realizing he was not who her first instincts had told her he was, but just some loser not worth her time?

He had to find out, he had to find her. Tyler hurried down the street, through the crowd. She was up ahead, turning around the corner. But when he got up to the corner, he didn’t see her. There was another person wearing a red stocking cap; maybe he’d followed them by mistake. He looked around the milling crowds, but didn’t see her. Maybe she’d gotten into a car or onto a bus? A quick scan of the street told him nothing. He didn’t even see any buses. Most people had darker colors on, though he did see the occasional red jacket, hat, or scarf. But he did not see her. After circling around the same few blocks several times, he gave up. If she didn’t want to be found, there was nothing he could do about it.

Tyler started to go back to the office, then remembered he was supposed to pick up the donuts. He got back to the office late, and when Tom asked him whether they’d given the donuts away to someone else and had to bake some more, he just made up a lame story about meeting an old acquaintance who didn’t know how to stop talking. Tom shrugged and stuffed a donut in his mouth.

 

Tyler thought about the woman in the red coat a lot over the next few weeks. He thought about mentioning her when he was home for Christmas, but decided against it. Lying on the couch in his apartment on New Year’s Eve, he wondered if the woman he’d seen ever thought about him, if she ever regretted running away. Was she lonely now? Or was she simply in the arms of someone else? Maybe she was one of the Gen-Y lesbians the thing was so popular with, and she’d been startled to find herself attracted to a man. Who knew? It could be anything, the reason she was out there somewhere and not with him.

He’d continued to wear the Heart Monitor, but it had not connected him with anyone else, and it certainly hadn’t helped him to find her. Throughout January, he went on long, aimless walks, and tried to find any excuse to be out of the office in the middle of the morning, hoping to cross paths with her at the same time and place as before. But she was nowhere to be found.

Tyler felt like garbage. Here he was, some loser who’d tried to use technology to get a woman, and nothing was different from when he’d failed in that pursuit without it. But failing with the aid of technology just made it all the more shameful when he went home alone at night.

If he couldn’t find someone with the latest gadgets and nonsense, what was the hope that he’d ever find someone on his own? He made several profiles on dating sites (his mother had sent him the listing she’d found of the most successful ones) but ended up deleting them soon after. He just read them over and thought, who would want this person? If he lied, he’d just be found out. If he represented himself as he was, no one would be interested.

As the winter faded away and the slush on the streets thinned out, so did his hopes of finding the girl in red again. Finally, he threw the Heart Monitor away.

 

In the spring, Tyler accompanied several coworkers to a trade show, where he helped to set up the company’s booth. While he was putting little stress squeezies on the table, he saw a woman walk by. She was not wearing the coat, but he could have sworn it was her. He followed her with his eyes, feeling simultaneously like a stalker and some kind of fairytale hero. Could it be her? He wasn’t sure, after all this time, that he’d be able to recognize her. After all, he’d only seen her for a moment, though it had felt like longer. But the way she glanced in his direction and then studiously looked away made him reconsider.

Leaving the booth without any explanation, he followed her, at a bit of a distance, to see if she’d turn around again and he could get a better look at her face. But it had to be her. After all this time, after he’d given up looking for her, there she was. And he was not going to lose her this time. He was going to talk to her, ask her why she’d turned away, ask her if there was anything they could salvage from this…whatever it was. Maybe he was crazy, and maybe she would have no interest in him and just think he was a creep. But whatever happened, it couldn’t be worse than just letting her go by without saying anything.

Tyler followed her out of the conference center. She went to stand at the bus stop, and he was halfway there when the bus pulled up. She got on, and he broke into a run. He jumped up onto the steps just as the doors began to close and got a dirty look from the driver. Panting, he put some change in the box and stumbled back into the bus. She was sitting towards the back, looking at her phone. It had to be her.

Well, it was now or never.

Tyler walked over to her, feeling like he wasn’t properly anchored to his body. His self seemed to sway in and out of the space it was supposed to occupy, and he felt like he might collapse. She looked up at him, a worried expression on her face. Then she looked away.

Sitting down across from her, he said, “Hello. I, uh…I’m Tyler.”

She coughed, then giggled nervously. “I’m–Sonja,” she said, looking up. “I–I didn’t think you’d recognize me.”

“How could I forget you?” he asked, immediately wishing he’d said something else. “I mean, you, I mean…dangit, I don’t know what I mean.” He hung his head, at a loss.

For a long moment, they were both silent. Then she said, “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”

“Did you…did you not want to see me again?”

“Well, I was really embarrassed…” she said, certainly looking and sounding the part.

“What’s wrong? Am I…embarrassing?”

“No, no, nothing like that. I’m the one who’s embarrassing.” She laughed again, this time a bit more easily.

“What?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s okay, you know. If you were using the Heart Monitor thing. It’s not like I wasn’t. It’s not like I’m going to judge you for it or anything.”

“No, no, it’s not that, it’s…”

“What is it?”

Sonja was quiet. The bus stopped and passengers sifted in and out. After they started moving again, she said, “It’s just that it wasn’t the way it was supposed to work. And I was so embarrassed.”

“Not the way it was supposed to work? I thought it did work. But what I don’t get is, why did you run away? I mean, that’s kind of been haunting me since last year, you know?”

Sonja smiled and looked down. “It’s not that. Well, there’s kind of a story about it. See, I was supposed to be at work, but I called in sick to hang out with a friend who was in town. When I saw you, I thought you were my boss–you had the exact same jacket, and you were looking away and I thought, oh, crap, he’s going to see me. Then you looked at me and the thing registered, but it registered for me because I was freaking out about being found out for skipping work, and not because of anything romantic. But you looked at me like…well, the way you did.” She put a hand over her face. “I was so embarrassed.”

“You thought I was your boss?” Tyler asked, crestfallen. That would definitely explain her reaction. This was not what he’d hoped for—whatever that had been.

“Yeah, I felt so dumb I ran off. I told my friend about it and she thought it was funny and that I should find you again and that it made a great story. I didn’t think so. I mean,” she said, looking up, that same worried expression on her face, “I didn’t mean it would be bad, like, to see you, but…I just felt so stupid.” She was starting to blush, and she looked down again, her hair falling in front of her face.

“No, it’s okay, I mean, it would have been okay. It’s still okay.” Tyler wanted to brush the hair back from her face, but stopped himself. Was it really okay? Would it have been? He looked at her, trying to draw her eyes back up to his, but she kept her gaze steadily on the floor.

“I didn’t want to ruin it,” she mumbled. “Have I ruined it?”

“No! You didn’t ruin anything. I still…well, I’m okay with it. Is it sillier to meet using a piece of wearable tech or to meet over a misunderstanding? That is, if you…”

She looked up at him finally, and smiled. “You’re blushing,” she said. “I guess I didn’t think boys blushed. Guys. I thought you had some kind of…better control over it or something.”

“Yeah, well…” Tyler had put his hand to his temple, as though he could cover the color in his face. He wasn’t sure what to say. “But, uh, since I’m already blushing or whatever…you want to go out for coffee or something?”

Sonja giggled. “Like, right now?”

“Well, I should probably go back to the trade show. I’m supposed to be there, but I kind of took off without saying anything. They’re probably wondering what’s wrong with me.”

“So you like to play hooky, too.” Sonja grinned. “I’m kind of supposed to be there as well. Shall we go back to our booths and meet up at lunch?”

“Yeah,” Tyler said. “I’d like that.”

*

Angela lives in northern Illinois, where she works as a reference librarian, writes, and turns everything into art.


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