the tennis tutor

My husband Noel and I, as everyone knew, were natural competitors.

Rivalry was implied from the start: Noel and I repaired Attendroids© in the same division of the same company, working on the same projects and earning the same salary, using the same bio-engineering degree from the same university.

Most of our rivalries were harmless. Here are two instances:

I was a born whistler, while Noel had never figured out how to produce the sound. While I tootled away Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Noel groaned as if I had his thumbs in screws.

Meanwhile, Noel had mastered lucid dreaming. When each morning I woke from dumb blackness, Noel would gloat: “I dreamed about my twelfth-grade calculus tutor. We French kissed.” I could’ve barfed.

But we were a young, attractive couple: him, and his long body animated with cat-like movements; me, sinuous as a braid in water. We were successful; we were utterly in love.

What, then, could’ve gone so wrong with us?

One night, before we went to sleep, Noel said: “I have to ask you something.” He sat up, an indigo silhouette against the glittering skyline beyond our window; I can see it, still—a charmed memory intact despite all the ugliness to come.

“Violet,” he said, “Could you still love me if I was a worse technician than you? If my hands were less dexterous than yours, my calculations less precise? Could you still respect me?”

I remember watching the moon-glow pool in rippling quicksilver at the hollow of Noel’s throat. I admitted: “No, I couldn’t.”

“Good.” He lay back. “I couldn’t live with you if you were any lesser than me.” He coughed. “Or better.”

You would think I had said to myself: There must be something really wrong with us!

But instead I said to myself: Hmm, if we were a same-sex couple— would we compare our measurements?   

My therapist said I focused on all the wrong things.

Noel and I shared a dinner table at the Company clubhouse with our manager Francis—a droid task designer, one step above a repairperson—and Francis’ wife, Bee. Over the course of a long, insufferable year under Francis’ management, we watched him and his wife sustain their marriage in one-upmanships of romantic jealousy: Francis bragged about the extra attention he received from his perky tennis tutor; Bee made a show of chortling at inside jokes her intern texted during off-hours.

The pathetic part was that Bee’s machine sent funnier memes than any Noel had ever sent me. …No, I’m kidding—force of habit.

The pathetic part was that the Company had programmed both droids to serve with that magic formula of obedience and cheek; it’s what sold the machines, after all. So Francis’ and Bee’s flirtationships were pre-orchestrated, from the start.


It was one year into our marriage—our coworking at the Company—when the promotion finally arose.

No one could have predicted that Francis’ tennis tutor would malfunction so violently. Then again, that occasional murderous glitch was known to happen. The tiny print in the upkeep manuals urged owners to keep technicians (like Noel and I) on speed dial. You know—preventative measures. We told Francis’ poor widow: If only the tennis tutor was on our maintenance docket, we might have prevented this tragedy.

This was at Francis’ funeral. Bee snuffled into her gloves and said, leakily: “This is why your roles as repairpersons are so important. I pray no other wife should ever have to learn—” sniff—  “that some droid has grabbed her husband by the hair—” gurgle—  “and flung him skull-first against a net post.”

Well actually, in the dead of night before that terrible event, Noel and I had reprogrammed the tennis tutor to do exactly that.

In the Company laboratory where we repaired droids, Noel and I enacted our plan: First we lugged the tennis tutor’s inert little body all the way up from its charger at the clubhouse courts; we hoisted it on a metal table, and, bowing over it, we agreed: “Wow, she really is cute.” Then we prised off her thinking cap and rewrote the narrative of tennis instruction she followed each day. In place of toss and block volleys, we scripted homicidal lunges. As repairpersons, it was more creative work than Noel or I was used to, but it was also great practice for the task designer job we both coveted, so there you go.

The next day, well—you know what happened.

Did I think, once it was announced that Noel and I would be assessed for Francis’ vacant position, that these would be the last days of our marriage? Of course I did. But in those final days leading up to our assessment, I found my husband more irresistible than ever.

As Noel and I completed the week’s last docket of usual repairs, bent over the same laboratory table where we’d reprogrammed the tennis tutor for her vicious task—I couldn’t extricate my eyes from his quick, hooded gaze that seemed to say: Take me, Violet. Climb over me and crush me like a worm.

It turned me on. I couldn’t get enough of him. At home in our skyline apartment, when we got into bed, I pinched his chin; bit him on the mouth; grabbed him by the hair the way the tennis tutor had grabbed Francis—I thought: Oh, god, is this sadism? Do these compulsions fall under BDSM? Where, in an acronym, would you place the urge to grind your husband’s cute, clever nose into the dirt?

Who knows what he was thinking of me at this time. I wish I could ask him now.

The night before the assessment, I woke up and found our bedroom washed in the pearlescent, bewitching murk of pre-dawn. I glanced over at Noel, and not for the first time, I wondered: What would life be like if I never grew up under my generation’s neurosis of hyper-achievement? If I was born in a different time—say, as a simple milk maid?  My therapist said I got too philosophic when I couldn’t sleep. These were questions I should save for my new therapist: the upgraded model the Company would provide as part of the insurance package that came with the promotion.

In the morning, Noel proclaimed he’d lucid dreamed we had a threesome with the tennis tutor. Typical. I cooked us assessment-day omelets, and we went to the laboratory.

When came next happened quickly and efficiently. I wish I’d planned it.

A freckly, gelatinous woman named Rollins met us at the laboratory entrance and took us to another building. “He’ll go first,” Rollins said, and took Noel into a separate room. Then she came back out and led me into another room; this one looked through a glass into a dreary, windowless space, where Noel sat at a metal table. When he didn’t look up at me, I thought: This is a one-way mirror, isn’t it? Maybe it’s only part of an experimental psychological assessment…

Rollins entered the other room. “The tennis tutor gave up everything,” she announced. “You might as well tell the truth.”

My armpits began to itch.

Noel glanced quickly at the mirror—he understood, now. His eye wasn’t so hooded anymore; desperate, instead—unflattering. Without hesitation, he said: “It was Violet’s plan. All I did was watch. She said if I was a witness, I would go down too.”

“So you’re saying—”

“What else could I do but cooperate? Do you see how she abuses me?” Noel yanked his collar, revealing a purple hickey. “She’s so cunning, so calculating! God help me, I was terrified!”

He’d begun to whine. Rollins looked uncomfortable. She said: “Alright, Noel, I’ve heard enough. I’ll deal with your wife now.”

Rollins re-entered the room behind the mirror. I watched Noel tear frantically at his cuticles. I was rank and slimy with sweat.

Rollins said: “Was that true?”

My therapist said I angled for glory at all the worst times.

I couldn’t help it; I’d come too far.

“Yes,” I said, “It was all my planning. Noel only watched, like he said.”

Rollins fingered a chin hair for a minute. “Senselessly brutal as your crime was,” she finally said, “It demonstrated impressive task design. So we won’t arrest you. In fact—” With this, Rollins beamed— “the promotion is yours.” 

I gaped.

“However,” Rollins went on, “the Company has no use for an accessory to murder. That role shows little imagination or skill, does it?”

I watched the bruise flutter weakly over the pulse in Noel’s throat. I’d never respected him less. I admitted: “No, not really.”

Then they hauled Noel away to jail. He cried.

After the paperwork was finished, I made one request:

I asked that the Company let me program my new therapist into the the tennis tutor’s compact little shell. I was fond of her forthrightness, after all—a shining trait in a therapist.

She was cute, too.

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