Lola was not the first woman to make this mistake. Terrence was not the first man to be the object of said mistake, although he did present an unusual case. She had stared too deeply into his eyes, for too long, on too many occasions. She had left behind time and let her body sink into his arms as she stared. He would stare back, as long as he liked, then he would look away and give her a tight squeeze. She’d keep staring.
She didn’t blame him for not staring back. It allowed her more angles from which to peer into those eyes. It made no difference to her that they were made of silicone and glass and fiber-optic cables. His soul was in those eyes. She knew it. He’d had them his whole life, or at least he’d always had the latest TruSight model.
Maybe his soul had seeped into them over time. Maybe it was there from the day they were installed. Either way, she was grateful for the prosthetics. Truly, she was. Terrence would’ve been blind without them. How would a blind Terrence have spotted her across the room, at that party, biting her lip before she bumped into the drink table and spilled cheap beer all over herself? Those eyes were a miracle of science.
No, the eyes weren’t the problem. There wouldn’t even be a problem if she’d learned how to stop staring. Sometimes she’d think back and try to remember the first time she’d seen the faint, orange-purple glow that hovered across Terrence’s synthetic corneas.
It couldn’t have been during a sunset. Maybe it had been in a movie theater, during the fade to black. Or maybe it had been at night during a long drive home. Whenever she first saw it, she couldn’t unsee it now.
At first, she thought it was permanent, but then one day, she watched him try to read a sign that was catching the glare of the sun. The glow turned off. She asked him how.
“It’s the Ease Filter. It brings out the color in everything. Makes the world look more alive.”
“Oh, so that’s why you still say I’m pretty when I’m sick.”
Terrence laughed. “That’s because you are still pretty.”
“Doesn’t it make things feel fake?”
“To me, this is what the world looks like,” Terrence said, shrugging. “Things just look wrong without it. That’s why I leave it on.”
Lola wasn’t sure she bought that. Sure, she’d hung out with enough Philosophy majors like him to know that nobody really sees reality. Everyone has filters, digital or otherwise. But wasn’t the whole point to remove the filters and get closer to the truth?
Still, it had been such a wonderful day. Why spoil it now? Why quibble with the man she loved? Who made her the expert on reality anyway? She certainly had a plank or two in her own eye. Why criticize the glow in his? So Lola didn’t mention it again.
Not for a year.
They were lounging in a coffee shop the next time it came up. He looked so perfect with his loosely rolled sleeves and his hand pushing his copper curls up out of his face. Lola tried to picture him looking even more handsome and she couldn’t.
She glanced over at herself in the mirror at the back of the coffee shop. She had always been happy enough with her appearance. She supposed she could be a little taller, a little thinner, with a little more bounce in her black hair and a little more glow in her tawny skin. But she looked great—especially in her blue romper. She turned to Terrence. “What do I look like?”
Terrence blinked. “Um, beautiful, as always? Kind of a weird question.”
“Through the filter, I mean. Show me.”
“Oh, got it,” said Terrence. “I can do a side-by-side. Check this out.”
Even before the pictures popped up on her cell, Lola knew the left one would be unfiltered. She’d watched that eye lose its orange-purple glow for just a moment. She checked her phone.
The Lola on the right was a bit prettier, but not by much. She smiled and turned the screen to Terrence.
“So, is the one on the right double beautiful?”
Terrence got that smirk that made her want to pinch his cheeks right off his face. “Can’t double infinity, babe.”
That bought him a groan. And a big kiss.
And six more months without any mention of the Ease Filter. Besides, there was plenty more to talk about instead. Graduation. Moving in together. Adulting. Lola’s friends parting ways with their significant others. For whatever reason, it seemed like Lola’s friends kept leaving the men behind. Too many unwashed dishes, too little ambition—or too many games that belonged strictly to the world of college.
Terrence had no such faults. If he had disappointed her, or even broken her heart, she could’ve stopped staring into those eyes. Instead, he became the star of his office.
When he got his first raise, he took Lola out to a fabulous dinner and talked about their future. She bit her lip, mentally begging him to stop because she didn’t want to mess up her mascara before they got a decent selfie together.
Later, as they rolled half-undressed on the bed, she pulled away from him and stood up on her knees. She knocked him onto his back, unclipped her bra, and used one arm to keep it pressed against her chest. She pointed at his eyes with her free hand.
“No filter tonight! If you want to see these, you’ve got to really see them. As they are.”
She watched the orange-purple glow disappear from his eyes before she flung her bra aside and pounced on him.
Fifteen minutes later, he was still apologizing, no matter how many times she told him not to.
“It’s not you,” he said again, turning the Ease Filter back on. “It’s just that, it’s everything. The room looks dirtier. My own hands—I don’t know, unfiltered just doesn’t work for me.”
She scooted him over to the side of the bed, then stood up in front of him.
“Turn the filter off,” she said. “Come on.”
Again, the orange-purple glow disappeared. She pointed to her face.
“See the bags under my eyes?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Are they hideous?”
Terrence laughed. “No. Seriously, no. You’re beautiful.”
“Got it,” she said, then turned around and pointed to the stretch marks on her butt. “Are these stretch marks disgusting?”
“No,” said Terrence. “I can see those even with the filter. I think they’re kind of cool. Like tiger stripes.”
She turned back around and planted her hands on her hips. She leaned forward to inspect him, knowing this made folds in her belly. “Do I still turn you on?”
Terrence only smiled. “Can’t you see for yourself?”
“I can. So how come earlier you kept looking at stuff that turns you off—stuff that’s not me?”
“Because . . .” Terrence sighed and put his face in his hands.
“The Ease Filter, it’s not—I mean, it doesn’t fake anything. Really, I think it brings out the true shape of things. The TruSight visual database is constantly collecting data from us. Then the Ease Filter uses machine learning to match the patterns in the database. That way, it models the perfect version—the Platonic ideal—of every single thing we see. From whatever is in front of us, it gently teases out that ideal, or something closer to it. It’s subtle—you saw for yourself—but I get to watch the world become a little more beautiful every day.
“Sometimes, I wish you had the Ease Filter too.”
Lola didn’t need the Ease Filter to watch something become more beautiful every day. She was watching that already, and the filter was complicating things. To her, Terrence’s soul shone with a light beyond color and it grew brighter as their love deepened. The filter flattened its luminosity, stained it orange-purple.
Why couldn’t Lola open her mouth and tell him so?
What she felt for Terrence had a way of cinching her throat shut, especially when she had something important to say. She looked away.
Terrence put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, I’ve had the Ease Filter my whole life. Seeing normal doesn’t just feel wrong . . . it feels like being robbed of something.”
Though she knew he didn’t mean to accuse her, she felt like he was. The rest of the conversation played out in her mind. She would say she wasn’t trying to rob him of anything. Then they would fight. Apologize. Play tug-of-war with the blame, and then finish with a glorious, conciliatory romp.
“If that’s the sacrifice you need me to make, I’ll do it,” he said. “No matter how many times it takes.”
Lola turned, threw her arms around him, and hid her wet face behind his head. “No, baby. Keep it on next time. Let’s go to bed.”
And that was the last mention of it—until the night after next, when they tried with the filter off again.
It didn’t work.
On the third night, Lola let him keep it on.
On the fourth, they tried with it off—still nothing.
They kept on like this for a few more weeks, until Lola stopped asking, Terrence stopped offering, and they assumed the filter would just stay on.
Which was fine.
It had worked well for so long. Why change it now?
Lola noticed that Terrence didn’t look at her as often as he used to. Not just in the bedroom, everywhere—at breakfast, out on the town, while grocery shopping. He wasn’t looking at other women; he was just looking at other things. Or nothing.
Terrence still held her, and if she pressed herself into him, his arms would contract into that wonderful, tight squeeze she remembered.
Several people older and wiser than herself told Lola that passion doesn’t last, that true love includes many other things besides passion, like trust, kindness, and commitment.
Lola and Terrence obviously had those in abundance. Her friends often pulled her aside and asked what their secret was. What did they and their partners need to do to be like Lola and Terrence? They were the dream couple.
Lola knew she had to watch herself. Sometimes her mind said things that weren’t true, like she and Terrence were just strangers sharing a bed or that she could be swapped for another woman, and Terrence would never notice.
But those were lies! They knew each other better than they knew anyone else. They told each other everything and had no secrets. They loved each other.
If they were lies, then why did Lola find herself lying awake at night feeling hungry in her heart? Why did she creep out of bed, go into the bathroom, close the door, flick on the lights, and stare at herself in the mirror?
Lola wanted to be seen exactly as she was. She could give herself that gift, at least. She wasn’t dependent.
But she ached for the man she loved to see her. To love her. Even if the filtered Lola was ninety-nine percent the same as the real one, that wasn’t enough. If she could get Terrence to see that last one percent, finally, she would have . . . well, she couldn’t say what she’d have, because she’d never had it. But it would be better. She was sure of that.
She was so sure that she considered, for the first time in years, how it might feel to be seen through other eyes. At first it felt terrible, like she’d gotten a cybernetic heart her body was rejecting. Lola clutched her chest. For a moment, there was no pulse, no flutter, nothing.
But then her heartbeat returned with a vengeance. It thundered through her and lit up her fingers and toes. It hurt. It stung. She gasped for air, and each breath burned with furious life. It didn’t feel good. She wanted it to stop.
Not the breathing, of course. Just the pain.
She’d spent every waking moment fighting to avoid this. Now that it was here, she understood why. It was worse than any other pain she’d ever felt. She felt hollow. Ready to collapse. Like a wildfire was burning up her insides and leaving nothing but ash. She sobbed, cupping her hands over her mouth.
Why did it have to be like this? It seemed so cruel and unfair. But no amount of why was going to change things.
Before going to bed, Lola texted a friend. Together, they created a strategy and agreed to meet the next day. She lay awake until the sun poked its fingers through the blinds and Terrence rolled out of bed.
Despite her lack of sleep, Lola moved like a lioness. Fast. Strong. Unwavering. She had to get this done and it had to be done right. She and Terrence both deserved nothing less.
It took only six hours, giving Lola plenty of time to get dressed and make it look like she’d just come from work, as if today was just like any other day.
When she heard Terrence’s car pull up, she put on a cooking show and sprawled herself on the couch. Terrence opened the front door, and she bounced over and kissed him like she had so many times before. They cooked dinner together, enjoying a glass of wine while the Brussels sprouts sizzled in the pan and the scent of the garlic, roasting with the chicken, wafted through the kitchen. When everything was ready, they ate together at the table, talking and reminiscing.
Terrence stood. “I’m going to change,” he said, reaching out for his plate. Lola grabbed his hand and tugged him back.
Terrence sat back down. “What’s up?”
“You know I want to keep you forever, right?” Lola smiled as if the sheer force of her cheek muscles could hold back the tears a little longer.
Terrence’s eyebrows went up. He smiled and cocked his head. “That’s the plan. I want to keep you forever too.”
“Good. Remember that, okay?”
As Terrence’s face screwed up in confusion, Lola led him to the bedroom. Without entering, she pushed the door open. Half the room was filled with cardboard moving boxes. Terrence let out a nervous laugh.
“Babe . . . what is this?”
Lola gripped his hand tighter. “The important thing to know is that it isn’t your fault.”
Terrence’s face fell. He looked at her with wide, orange-purple tinted eyes.
“You and I see the world in different ways,” Lola said. “I mean, literally, but even beyond that. I don’t think it’s fair to say either of us are wrong, but when you see two different worlds, it’s kind of hard to live in the same one.”
“You mean the filter? I know I’ve been keeping it on but—”
“Terrence, please.” Lola’s heart did a slow, painful somersault. “We tried. And I know you tried. That’s not what this is about.”
“Then tell me what I need to fix! Seriously, I’m all ears.”
Lola pressed herself against him and those arms gave her the same tight squeeze as always. She planted her hands on Terrence’s chest and stared into his eyes, past the filter and at the scared little boy behind it. “Sometimes the things we want aren’t good for us,” she whispered. “Even if they’re comfortable. Even if they’re wonderful. Even if they match all our patterns and they’re ninety-nine percent like the real thing.” She swallowed hard and found her voice before continuing. “I love you, Terrence. I don’t regret a moment I’ve spent with you. It’s been like a fairytale come true.”
“Then why end it?”
“Because fairytales do end. Usually when someone realizes they’ve been chasing the wrong thing.”
“So that’s it? You’re just done with me?”
“No.” She nodded towards the bed. “We can have one last night together. Filter or no filter. If you’re up for it, so am I.”
Terrence stared at the bed, and Lola watched as the orange-purple glow disappeared.
They stripped, and Terrence turned off the lights. At first, he only held her, like any other night. With nothing but darkness and the sound of his breathing to distract her, Lola’s mind raced. She could still take it all back, couldn’t she?
And she could die again tonight, the same way she had so many nights before. She could die in his arms, rotting there, bit by bit, every day. She could bring him to the wedding altar and die before the eyes of God and all their loved ones. She could die in childbirth, and die raising their kids, and die trying to explain to those kids what true love is like, piecing together a plausible explanation from her own limited data. She wished Terrence could understand this for his own sake, but she knew it wasn’t up to her. She’d opened the door for him. Only he could walk through it.
Just then, Terrence got up and turned on the lights. When he came back, he took her in with eyes as clear as water.
Then, he gave her everything.
She closed her eyes. She didn’t need them. She had his heat. His heartbeat. And they moved in a way they had never moved before—not as two very close things, but as one thing. She gasped, sobbed, laughed. Tears burned and streaked down her face like tiny comets.
He was there.
All of him. A burning light, bright beyond color, vast beyond shape.
It was more than she could have ever wished for . . . but it wasn’t enough.
The next morning, as Terrence helped her load up the car, Lola tried to imagine the previous night under different circumstances. She couldn’t. For her and Terrence at least, knowing that it was their last time together was the only way to break through the filters separating them.
Lola smiled, glad to have removed one particular filter for good.