By Catherine Evleshin
“Deliver by Friday, or forfeit your contract,” growls the CEO of Rent-a-Bot. “And don’t tell me again that the programs for the lead salsabots are ten times more complex than for the follow bots.”
“More like fifty.”
“By the end of the week, Jason.” His face disappears from the screen. Six months of work in jeopardy, and Rico, my research assistant, hasn’t seen a dime in weeks. From my inbox, I open a final eviction notice sent by Building Management and a message from my wife to call before we lose Internet service.
The three alluring follow bots that I delivered four months ago are so popular that they have been requested weeks ahead. My advance long spent, the contract stipulates no further payment until I produce at least one dashing male partner to squire women desiring companionship and a surrogate willing to take orders like a pet poodle. Even in these times, it seems that women remain squeamish about paid human escorts.
I look over at Max standing by the door of my office — suave, dark-eyed, and not a living cell in his body. “Let’s give it another try,” he says in his sultry, computer-generated voice.
I rely on a human prototype to model Latino dances. Ten minutes on the phone to convince fast-talking Rico, my soon-to-be-unemployed assistant, to blow off his job search and grab the subway to my ninth-floor lab on 57th Street. “I’ve hit a wall,” I tell him. “And I won’t send out Max until our ladies show more enthusiasm for him.”
I’d soon discovered that, unlike male test subjects who never mentioned their follow bot’s body temperature, the women are hypersensitive to Max’s setting. Deviate more than a degree and they complain that he feels like a feverish child or cold as a corpse.
But for the chance to practice with one of the best flesh-and-blood salseros in Manhattan, a dozen female trial subjects endure grueling sessions with Max imitating Rico’s style. Afterward, we interpret their feedback.
Last month’s complaints — “the lead’s too soft” or “the lead’s too hard” — made it sound like I was designing sexbots, until Rico slipped his arm around my waist, muttered “Soft,” and tried to move me with limp fingers. Then, without warning, he gripped my hand in a turn that threw me a good meter. “Hard.” It took me a week to resolve that issue.
The women often find it difficult to articulate their discontent. They groused that he didn’t smell like a man until pheromones were added. I had to tease out of them that Max’s breathing simulator failed to signal mounting excitement. Nonetheless, after I had programmed him to ease his hand to the small of his partner’s back and pull her close, one subject quit the trials and took up Zumba.
Rico sweeps through the office door, the bot’s identical twin except for a faint sheen of sweat below his hairline, and a scar on his forehead that hints at menace. He points down to the street level. “Some dude’s hangin’ around the door asking about you. I know a bill collector when I see one. Told him I’d never heard of you.”
Rico helps himself to the last slice of congealed pizza that Max fetched two hours earlier for my lunch, then sits on the corner of my desk and props his loafered foot on the empty box. “Jason, I been thinkin’. The ladies beef that Max is too predictable, even when he nails my best moves.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I tune in on my partners more than I realize, you know, give and take.” He arches his neck like a fighting cock. “True, I’m the one callin’ the shots. But my job is to make us both look good, to be on top of what she’s gonna do, even when she’s about to screw up.”
His foot plunks onto the floor. “I change my movements as I go along — adapt, as you’d say. Like musicians jammin’ away and find themselves headin’ for a train wreck. How they save their asses just might turn out to be the best part.”
“Can’t the dancers, like musicians, find their way back on track?”
Rico’s manicured hand carves a flourish with the pizza crust. “Change one thing, and the whole dance can go off in a different direction.”
Something clicks in my brain. Dynamic determinism, like a squirrel escaping up an unfamiliar tree. He will reach safety, but makes a choice at each forked branch, so the path and destination are variable. “My friend, you have just given me an elegant example of chaos theory.”
The scar on Rico’s forehead turns magenta. “This ain’t no chaos, man. That’s a no-dancin’ fool trying to dominate the floor, or a couple fumbling with steps they learned in class.” A lightning shimmy passes through his shoulders. “Salsa unfolds moment to moment, with seamless invention. When I’m on, my body feels it. That’s when it comes alive.”
“Kudos to you, Rico, not just for your unparalleled skill, but also for your intellect.”
Rico looks like he might ask if kudos are something like back pay. “I don’t know about all that. If I’m thinkin’ anything, it’s how to get someone into bed before the night’s over.”
I see with blinding clarity that Max, who has been digesting all this from his corner, may never be a compelling escort for Rent-a-Bot clients. Adequate, perhaps. I’ll refine the bot’s programs like a meteorologist plots algorithms to predict a hurricane.
I show Rico the eviction notice. “I’ll need at least three weeks to complete the modifications. If we don’t make this chunk of plastic more desirable by the weekend, we’ll all be out on the street.” Max bleeps, and I hurry to apologize. We have an understanding that I won’t insult him.
Rico looks at me long. In a spot-on imitation of the bot’s measured speech, he says, “I could fill in for Max, until you figure out how to make him more of a man.”
My armpits ooze while I contemplate what my wife would say about this scheme. One slipup, and there goes my reputation as the first engineer to design a successful salsabot. And perhaps my marriage. With luck, I’ll get Max up to task before Rico forgets and sips a drink or escapes to the restroom while on assignment.
I glance at Max, but he offers no opinion, and I warn Rico, “You know how the women might treat a bot.”
“You think I never had to bite my tongue ’cause someone was payin’ me?”
“I hope you’re not referring to me.”
“You ain’t paid me this month, boss, so you don’t qualify.”
I call Rent-a-Bot and leave a message to expect one lead dancer by Friday. Three nail-biting weeks lie ahead, and then my lab will fall empty and silent. No Rico, unpredictable as a stallion, no steadfast Max, and no women who can’t decide what they really want in a man.
Wall Street Insider: Rent-a-Bot (RABT), the startup that went public last month, gained fifteen percent today on the NASDAQ trading desks. The significant price move reflects market confidence in RABT’s line of dancing robots. Customer demand for Max, the lead salsabot, soared in the first two weeks of its release six months ago. Four replicas have been dispatched to ease the waiting list, with another hundred scheduled to arrive in major cities in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Breathtaking in its lifelike appearance and behavior, the first Max out of the gate displayed a pronounced forehead defect. After its repair, female clients remarked that the flaw had rendered the bot more intriguing. Each iteration of Max now comes with this distinct facial scar.
Isabel Molino, popular Brooklyn dance instructor, reports that she rents one of the salsabots to serve as her teaching assistant. To test Max’s competence, she feigned inappropriate moves and discovered that the bot could lead her back to the correct form without missing a step. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she claims. “He, or should I say ‘it,’ is as good as the best salseros in the borough.”
With scores of women eager to meet Max’s human model, Federico Suárez now offers private lessons on 57th Street in the lab where Max learned to dance. Software designer Jason Phillips is unavailable for comment, rumored to be on vacation in the Caribbean with his wife.
Catherine Evleshin is a professor of dance and Caribbean culture. Her writing appears in WordsApart Magazine, Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review, and Caribbean and African Diaspora Dance: Igniting Citizenship by Yvonne Daniel.