“For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn’t Enough” By Ytasha L. Womack

For Digital Girls


By 2050 humans will successfully merge with machines–at least that’s what the blog I read on transhumanism said.

Funny, I thought. What if we already have?

I already feel one with my tablet and I have a hard time organizing my thoughts without a flashing screen in my face. Writing notes on paper now seems like a waste of time and yet documenting my thoughts in digital requires me to file everything, a problem I didn’t have when my notes were relegated to color coded notebooks. My tweets are now my thoughts. Sporadic, linear, messy, I don’t need a theme to contribute to the synergy of cyber talk. My android is my eyes and ears to the awkward world abroad, to the few friends I truly have; even their voices and FB photos ring truer than our kinetic conversations over green smoothies.

I have accepted that I am a walking billboard, whose fashion, footwear and smiles are forever ready for Instagram. I’ve been caught in tagged photos wearing the same outfit twice and nearly freaked, like a zippidee doodah starlet exposed for her multiple wearables in TMZ. So I embrace my life in a digital tabloid reader called Social Media USA, just as a reality star on the rise claims her PR blitz. I’m amused despite the blurred realities this digital life sometimes ferrets out like a bird on a worm hunt. And memory just doesn’t compare to the thrill of a digital photo, say 200 of them, to remind me of how fun it is to do the most mundane things in life . . . eating, strolling down the street, star gazing. I look at photos of myself at parties and the post recap via video is more exciting than the event itself.

Ah, the digital life.

And I love taking pictures. I have on file, literally, 100,000 pictures. Part of my private investigation into this thing we call life. And I love Prince.

And I love purple rain, which I did see once while driving through a long one road stretch in South Dakota. It was the night my astronomy podcast alerted me that Saturn was in view. I pulled over on the lonely road. The sun had just set and I scanned the horizon for the brightest thing in the sky. It was a silent light, a holy night. But in a lamp-less road in South Dakota, everything in the sky is bright. Just when I spotted the brilliant disc in the distance, the sky split in two and I was pelted with water droplets . . . not just any water droplets. These wet kisses were purple. . .purple rain.

My battery was dead so I missed the moment.

Maybe in the future we’ll be able to take pictures with a blink. Or am I already doing that with memory?

The redundancy of the tech craze, giving us tools to do what we’re already doing.

I would hate for some love struck admirer to tell me he only wanted to see me in the purple rain because I’ve only witnessed the royal colored water falling once.

In an homage to dear old Saturn, who as far as I’m concerned birthed the phenomenon of purple rain, I will, on a good day, sport metallic leggings. To be honest, there’s no interplanetary connection there, I just love metallic leggings. I love all things shiny. I love platinum. I love grills. I love Diddy circa 99. Don’t stop the shine. I love wearing metallic leggings, which I’m wearing today with my pink ballet slippers, an Eartha Kitt T shirt with a self-made iron-on with wear-it-wet hair that’s almost too big to get through a door.

And today, I’m on the town.

On occasion, I frequent a sports bar somewhere between the South Loop and Bronzeville, one adored by guys weary from a day of uber entrepreneurship and real estate deals who just want to watch the game, any game, without the fuss of squeezing themselves into hipster fashion, their taut legs too big for the skinny jeans of the day. Their faces too round to look flattering in oversized glasses. If a sports stat is disputed, no one goes to their smartphone and Googles anything. Discussing the what-if is more fun here than tossing around facts.

It’s probably one of the few spots where intrusive technology is subtly banned. With the exception of a few texters, the only technology in this watering hole is the flat screens and the deejay’s digital turntable. During commercial breaks, we have the joy of watching remixed music videos timed with the scratch and pulse of the deejay’s ratchet choice of the moment. And I can’t live without Wi-Fi. How many ways can you reach me? Let’s count.

But no one would dare bring a tablet in here for work. This place serves no coffee and if you’re looking for a quick snack, forget about it. This is a hall for drinkers. If we were in Beowulf, I’d yell for someone to pass the mead. This place is all red light bulbs, shadows, flashing balls on screens and intoxicating electrically charged house beats. I’m a sparkling disco ball in a place like this. But everyone’s so chill. They’re such a been there, done that kind of crowd that my arrival is an afterthought.

So I pull up to the bar, order tonic water, and the regulars shake their heads. Being diet conscious is a no go at this calorie laden spot, but I’ve earned the privilege of ordering an occasional nonalcoholic beverage and as a result I’m not tossed out of my seat with VIP.

And I worked hard for this privilege.

Just as I was guzzling my tonic, between cheering for the March Madness star of the hour, a figure pulled up beside me and slid another tonic my way.

“Pour toi,” he said.

His name was Andrew, he said. A tall, attractive lanky brown man with a blond buzz cut and black rimmed glasses, he rocked red skinny jeans and a matching jacket with silver buttons, high top black All Star kicks and a vintage Harold Washington button on his red blazer.

Andrew said he was a newcomer, an Iowa state grad who moved to Chicago to launch his start- up dreams. He didn’t follow basketball much. But he was a tonic water drinker too, he said, and felt that the two of us should bond over fizz and bubbles. I’ve talked to men who like fizz and bubbles, but I’ve never talked to a man who didn’t follow basketball. Hmmm.

“What’s your start up?” I asked.

“It’s a little complicated,” he whiffed, shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth from the trough they serve in the back.

“Try me,” I said.

“It’s a brain trust,” he said matter-of-factly, like it was some kind of insider trading terminology that stockbrokers use.

“Like a think tank,” I said, thinking of the DC policy wonks and their political foibles.

“Not quite,” he said, sniffing. “We upload neural data for safe keeping.”

“You file research?” I added, not quite sure what he meant, but still trying to eye the screen and keep pace with the too cute frenetic players on screen. Swish. But my halfhearted attention wasn’t doing it for Andrew, who swiveled on the swivel-less bar stool to devote his full energy to the explanation.

“Imagine,” he said, “a loved one has critical information for you. An answer to a question, a key to a lock, and directions to something lost, but they never had an opportunity to share it with you. They passed on and the information is gone.

“Um hmm,” I said.

“Gone,” he repeated, emphasizing the “g” like some frat boy dance stomp at the end of a step show phrase. “What if you could retrieve that information?” he said, his eyes twinkling.

What if you could? I thought. I looked to the flat screen for comfort, but the players running up and down the court couldn’t outrace my uneasiness at Andrew’s speculations.

“Modern man has walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “And with each new generation, we gain as much information as we lose. You can’t tell me that no one in human history ever had the cure to cancer or the true map of the pyramids. Libraries have burned. Cities have disintegrated. Files and discs destroyed. With death, we lose data and each generation is forced to chug along building from what’s left. There’s got to be a better way.”

“So you want to stop death?” I said, my voice hovering just above a whisper. We were interrupted by cheers from the revelers. Someone dunked, but I was no longer paying attention to the screen. Andrew had me captivated. He leaned into my ear.

“I wish,” he said. “My company has acquired a technology that encodes messages and memories, like uploading your brain onto a database.”

“No way,” I shouted. The VIPers looked my way. They were suspicious of the tall stranger and perked up just in case. And like good protective men, they should be.

“We’re past the testing phase,” Andrew continued. “Several hundred people have already gone through the process. They’re mostly seniors who want their families to have access to family history. But it’s just the beginning, and we’re growing . . . fast.”

One of the VIPers, the former athlete who doubles as bar big brother tapped my shoulder. I nodded, indicating that I was safe and he returned his gaze to the racing dribblers on the screen.

What Andrew was talking about was pure madness, but something about his work and easy going demeanor kept me glued. Was he a government agent? Was he a specialized scientist who’d seen the unseen?

I felt like I was getting classified information and tried to remain as calm as possible, as if this was the most normal conversation in the world. And maybe in today’s world it was. “How many people you looking to upload?” I asked.

“I would like a nice global sampling to start off with,” he said. “But eventually, we’ll have everyone.”

“Everyone? That’s ambitious,” I said. Oh well, so much for playing it cool.

“You gotta dream big,” he said, leaning back and balancing on one bar stool leg before recovering with a smile.

“How are you going to safeguard the information, flyboy? The security alone could put your business under.”

“We’ve got locks and fail safes, “he said. “Encoded passwords, firewalls, but eventually we’ll just make it equal access for everyone, like a library. The information is for the people,” he added.

“What about privacy?” I asked. “Aren’t some of the participants concerned about that?”

“If you’re no longer here, does it really matter? At the end of the day, people like writing themselves into history and there’s no better way to do that than to upload your brain. Our biggest problem is this issue of memory. How people remember things and what the eye actually records doesn’t always match up. Like the guy who remembers himself as the swag stud in college, but was really a jerkoff. We’re having some serious issues lining the difference between fiction and fact, but we’re working on it,” he said.

I downed my tonic water. I was as intrigued as I was terrified. Good intentions aside, the probability of power mongers abusing the system just seemed incredibly high. What if uploaded memories were tampered with? What if private information was used for ill gains? What devices were they using? I wondered who was backing Andrew’s efforts, but I decided not to ask. But most importantly, I wondered how and why he was speaking to me. I grabbed a scoop of popcorn from a courtesy cup and shoved it in my mouth.

“Well,” he said. “What do you think?”

I finished chewing as he looked on.

“I’m just trying to keep my operating systems current,” I joked, wiping my mouth. “Trying to stick with the latest phone upgrades.”

He chuckled.

“So you’re keeping your cards close to the vest,” he said. “I get it. It’s not the easiest pill to swallow, but it’s the future, love. Remember, you heard it from me first.”

I looked around the bar. The coach had called a time out and the DJ was blasting vintage house. The pulsating beats had some of the bar goers wiggling, but I didn’t feel like dancing.

“We’re looking for younger recruits,” Andrew said. “I was hoping you’d want to be our next subject,” he said.

“Me?”

“You lead a busy life. Might be kind of cool to see how your thought patterns change from season to season. It might give you some handy insights, and for us, we get to adjust our recording techniques.”

“How do you know I lead a busy life?” I asked.

“We’re FB friends,” he chimed. And suddenly, I remembered Andrew’s profile pic, a cartoon character of himself with a teddy bear in the frame. He’s a foodie and always posts about his ice cream flavor of the week.

“This week you had choco moco Italian ice, right?” I asked.

“You got it,” he said with a smile and leaned in closer. Odd what you can remember about a person you’ve never met. “Hey, reading your thoughts like a novel is a better high than posting pics,” he said. His lips were so close to my ear, I thought he was going to kiss me.

“Really?” I said.

“Nothing like it,” he said. “You have no idea how majestic you are until your every idea is mapped out in front of you. Every image you’ve seen played out like a 3D movie at the IMAX. You’re walking art and you don’t even know it. None of us knows it. And to share that with the world through bleeding edge technology . . . gets me hot just thinking about it.”

I wondered if he could dig up my memory of purple rain.

The images from that have to be awesome – and in 3D IMAX style, too. I’d be vindicated. I’d be walking art.

“Hmm,” I said.

“It’s a lifelong commitment, but we pay. Who couldn’t use a little pocket change?” he said.

It sounded tempting, although I didn’t get why Andrew wanted to make the sale here and now.

“Do you do it?” I asked.

“But of course,” he said, serenity spilling off his lips.

“And how do you upload?” I asked. “You plug wires into my head?

“You watch too many alien movies.” His gaze returned to the screen briefly. “I apologize,” he said, returning his attention to me. “Here you are just trying to watch the game. I need to learn to relax a bit,” he said. “I never relax.”

I flagged down the bartender. “Give him whatever he wants, on me,” I said.

“Tonic and lime,” Andrew piped. The bartender looked from Andrew to me and shook his head. He poured the drink and slid it to Andrew.

“How’d you get into this brain trust business?” I asked Andrew.

“It’s a family business of sorts.”

What kind of family is in the brain trust business? I thought. I didn’t know whether Andrew was pulling my leg or not, but he was truly engaging.

“Can I be real with you?” Andrew asked, his pensive brown eyes softening. Under the fuzzy old light bulbs they almost looked purple.

“Sure,” I replied, not knowing where this was leading. This handsome stranger was taking me on a verbal tech ride, one that ran deeper than the reoccurring house track that the deejay returned to with every commercial break. And yet he could be the one to bring me back to purple rain.

“I need a woman I can talk to about this. A woman who isn’t afraid of the future. A woman who’s willing to take this journey with me.”

“You mean a woman who doesn’t think you’re weird,” I said with a grin.

“Putting it bluntly, yes everyone can’t understand this sort of thing, and I need a partner who understands me. You have the capacity to wrestle with big visions. I Googled you.”

“You must follow me on Twitter, too,” I said, recalling that I tweeted my game day habits two weeks ago. What a trickster.

“That, too. This is a very intimate process. I need someone who’s down for the long haul. But I’ll settle for ice cream first.”

“Choco moco Italian Ice?”

“Your pick.”

Usually, I would think a guy like this, an uber cool techie with a laser probe and investigative skills was on to me. But my intuition was telling me otherwise. Was he sincere? It’s one of those human traits that surfaces at the most unusual times. Most people tend to say what they don’t mean and mean what they don’t say. Mastering the nuances is a monster of an ordeal.

“Why didn’t you just ask me out at first?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to ask you out on Twitter. Call me old school, but that feels so uncomfortable.”

And downloading brains doesn’t? He must be a comedian, too.

“Besides, you demonstrated a unique interest in my project. I had to oblige.”

“You’re different,” I said, knowing full well that he wasn’t different for any of the reasons he thought I thought he was.

“Does that scare you?”

“I like different,” I said. “I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame , . .”

“. . .burned by the fire,” he said, finishing the Janet Jackson lyric. We both laughed.

He sighed. “Good. This is a good start.”

“Better than a match-making service?” I asked.

“Definitely,” he said. “And believe me, I’ve tried those, too.”

Funny boy. Too bad we won’t start with the brain upload. I’m sure even flyboy would be confused by my memories. Growing up on a spaceship is really hard to explain, but I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about that. Not every man can get an alien woman to let down her guard. The VIPers nodded my way and I returned the gesture. My earthly protectors seemed to approve of flyboy Andrew. He needed a friend and I wanted to open up too. I yearned for someone on my journey. Would he be down for a ride on the Mothership, I wondered? Not a drug-induced high or musical teleporting, but a real deal ride on the ribbon of life . . . a sky trip? My ship is rather small, but Andrew could fit comfortably. It’s not the size of the gargantuous one that landed on Soldiers Field, but goodness, it’s not as small as those retired cramp-your-style Earth-to-moon rockets either. Maybe Andrew could help me find a good storage unit for my ship, one with cheaper monthly fees.

I am an alien, by earth standards, but I am as human as they come. And I really can’t stand this illegal alien notion, as if I can’t adopt Earth ways and be from another planet. We’re all intelligent life, with the same blood and the same source. Check the DNA. Besides, we all need love, even if we’re born beyond the stratosphere.

The bartender refilled our glasses to the brim with tonic water. I lifted my glass with Andrew’s for a toast.

“To purple rain,” I said, smiling with my eyes the way Tyra Banks taught her top models to do. I don’t think flyboy Andrew could think of a Purple Rain lyric fast enough to meet me. He seemed a bit puzzled actually, but he grinned and sipped. And I, for the first time in a long time felt happy, so much so that I leaned over and pecked Andrew on the cheek.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said.

Wait till he hears about my family business. I sighed, on the inside of course. Under the echo of the dribbling basketballs and frantic announcer shouts, somewhere beneath the bar chatter and noise of the city streets, I think I heard a dove cry.

Where’s my camera? Oh, yes, I remember now.

Just blink.


Ytasha L. Womack (@ytashawomack) is an author and filmmaker. Her work includes the book Afrofuturism: Black Sci Fi and Fantasy Culture, Post Black and the sci fi series Rayla 2212. She resides in Chicago.