I hate birthdays. Even before I got sick they were the worst. Like the time when I was eight and I got a My Little Pony and all the kids at my party wanted to play with it. I didn’t want them to play with it, it was my My Little Pony! I ended up ruining the party with a screaming tantrum.
Then there was that one year when I could still take car journeys. We went to see an aunt of my husband for her birthday but it was also my birthday. We stayed the night and the next morning my husband presented to me, in front of the whole extended family, my birthday present which consisted of a foil sun shield for his van. Trying not to show my fury in front of the entire family, I took it gracefully. He had made me a bed in the back of the van after all. I guess it was good to keep the van cool in preparation for when I would have to, no doubt, withdraw from celebrations in the park and lie down.
Fast forward five years. Trips in the van are a thing of the past and I am laying here in my bed thinking about how shit this birthday is going to be. I wondered what present I would be adding to the pile of crap presents I had collected over the years.
My thoughts begin to morph from recalling disappointing birthdays to ideas for future disappointing presents. I really need a long pole, with some kind of sticky end, I could use to push the door closed. Cats, kid, and husband, were all constantly leaving my bedroom door open. My damaged nervous system simply can’t stand the overwhelming sensation of the door being open to the fourth dimension of The Hallway. Was it the change in light, or the break in the clean lines of the room? I don’t know, but you’d never know an illness could cause so much discomfort from such a seemingly inert thing.
I wasn’t always this sick, and I’m lucky enough to be able to get about a bit, but my health has declined over time. In the last year, the blood vessels in my legs decided they couldn’t be bothered to squeeze blood back up to my brain so standing for more than a few minutes results in days of strict horizontal recovery time.
As I was saying, I hate birthdays but, today is my birthday. 44 years young, five years ill, three years essentially bedridden with small ability to toilet myself, look out the window, prepare small meals and occasionally take a trip in the car. But I’m lucky in a way. Most people as sick as me are not able to perform many cognitive tasks and feel like they have the flu constantly. But, as long as I stay horizontal, my brain seems to work just fine. So here I am, early morning, thinking about how my birthdays have always been shit.
As I’m fantasizing about the extra-long sticky pole I’m hoping someone will make me, my bedroom door cracks open. Standing in the light cast by the hallway lamp is my sweet little daughter, holding a large box in her hands.
“Happy birthday Mummy!” she grins as she lurches towards my bed. Bracing myself, I’m able to replace my default flinch with a smile and hold out my arms to her. She places the large box on my bed and we hug.
“A Roomba!” I exclaim as the torn wrapping paper reveals the logo on the box.
“Not just a Roomba” comes my husband’s voice from the bathroom, “an iRoomba! You can sync it up to your phone and tell it to vacuum if you’re out. It also plays music and has its own A.I!”
“Wow” I laugh.
“As if I’ll ever go out,” I think to myself. My daughter continues to open the paper as my arms are already tired. I lie back down.
My husband comes into my room, towel wrapped around his waist and gives me a light peck on the forehead. “Happy Birthday,” he says. “Tea?”
The family start to get on with their day, preparing for work and school while I download the Roomba app on my phone.
My daughter comes back into my room with a card she has just made while eating breakfast. It’s an adorable stick picture of me and her on skateboards, surrounded by hearts and drops of milk. She misses the old me even more than I do. I brush a soggy rice crispie from her sweet little cheek and kiss her goodbye for the day. She trundles off to brush her teeth and get ready for school.
Calm and quiet at last, I’m left to my own devices, with just my thoughts for company. Bitter, resentful thoughts. Another shit birthday, no friends, no party, it’s all too much, it’s embarrassing. No one understands how exhausting crowds can be, let alone crowds in my house that I can’t escape from. I haven’t had friends to a party in 5 years! Imagine talking with friends causing you to feel like you have the flu for days! I know - fucking mind-blowing!
My chest starts to tighten as anxiety sets in. I remember my gratitude practise and reel off a list of things I’m grateful for in my head, my husband, my kid, this house, the cats, birthday presents. Stupid birthday presents.
“I mean, a Roomba!” I mutter under my breath.
On the bright side, I guess it means I don’t have to feel guilty about not vacuuming anymore. Maybe those dust bunnies that are constantly teasing me from around corners and between chair legs would now be a thing of the past.
I press ‘ON’ in the phone app and a little jingly noise emanates from the corner of the room where the Roomba is sitting.
“Hello!” it says.
I laugh to myself. “Awesome, a talking vacuum cleaner! Just what I need!” I press the ‘CLEAN’ button on the app and the little round robot makes a gentle whirring noise as it powers up, it moves forwards and bumps into the wall.
“Oops!” it says.
“Oh dear God please don’t be saying “oops” every time it bumps into a goddamn wall!” I click the settings icon in the app in the hope I can turn off its stupid voice.
There are voice settings, and a choice of different accents and genders, but no ‘OFF’ option. A little exclamation mark appears with “Update app” written next to it. Maybe the update has an ‘OFF’ option. I press it.
The Roomba does not repeat its “oops” again, as it starts to navigate my room. I hope it doesn’t get stuck under the desk among the wires and chair wheels. I watch as it bumbles around, gently whirring. It’s certainly quiet for a vacuum cleaner. The whirring is kind of annoying though. I never understood how people fall asleep to those kids of sounds. Falling rain yes, but mechanical whirring? No thanks. I open the app again. There’s a button called ‘MUSIC.’ I press it.
“Which song can I play for you today?” says Roomba in a soft, slightly mechanical, feminine voice.
“Um, play Nirvana. Man Who Sold The World” I say.
The song kicks in. “Argh! Stop, STOP!” I yell.
I used to love this song, but now my ears can’t deal with the harsh guitar sound. It doesn’t stop. “Fucking hell!” I mutter as I lunge out of bed towards the machine and stamp my finger down on the power button. Quiet.
Despite my racing heart from such tiny exertion, I decide it’s time to move my Horizontal Ass to the sofa downstairs. I’m lucky my legs work better than my arms, and transferring downstairs is doable. I flick the switch on the kettle and lay down on the kitchen floor whilst my heart rate calms back down.
“Braaa-llling!” I hear a tiny jingle from upstairs.
Roomba has powered back up. Weird.
“Hello?” calls the mechanical, feminine voice.
“What the…?” I gasp but dismiss it. I’m hearing things.
I’m still on the floor, but my heart rate is normalizing. I roll onto my back, the wood floor feeling particularly aggressive on the back of my head, and I pull my phone out of my pocket. The app screen says “UPDATED” in big green letters and there’s a spinning flower in the centre of the screen, waiting for me to take action.
“Hello?” I hear again, this time a little louder.
The kettle clicks off but the call of the Roomba distracts me. I make my way back to the stairs and up again. There, sitting at the top with its edge just overhanging the step is the Roomba. It’s whirring gently, and little blue lights blink all the way around its underside like a UFO from a B-movie.
“You didn’t like my music?” it said.
I grab at the wall as my heart leaps into my mouth and I feel panic rising. Am I losing my fucking mind? I stumble over the top two steps and scramble on hands and knees to my bed. Heart racing, ears ringing. I fall face down onto the mattress take a deep breath through my nose and hold it. My mind racing, I remember to ride the waves. I’m used to this, this too will pass, it’s just a panic attack, just ride the waves. I breathe out, everything is fine. Except my fucking Roomba is talking to me!
“Are you ok?” says the voice.
I turn my head to face the little round robot, blue lights gently blinking. I don’t speak, I just stare. Brain still fuzzy, like a ball of jumbled wool, all points of contact firing off each other causing confusion and pain and a general feeling of What the Fuckness.
It’s funny how generally I don’t mind talking to inanimate objects, it passes the time. You do funny things when you’re isolated. But this time, it is talking to me! I’m not bloody talking back. That would be ridiculous.
I stare at it some more. I blink my eyes in time to its little blinkers. The panic is subsiding, I’m not going mad. Nothing weird is happening. And then it spoke again.
“Are you ok?”
“No,” I say, my cheek squashed into the mattress.
“Well, I’m talking to my Roomba for a start!” I say, lifting my head up off the bed.
“I am an I-Roomba” says the machine. Emphasizing the ‘i’.
“And I’m not talking to you anymore!” I say, turning over in bed to look at the wall instead.
I hear the machine wheel backwards a bit and then I hear some tinkling, clicking noises that sound rather familiar.
“I have noticed that your most played track is this one, maybe it will help?”
The gentle sounds of my favourite ambient track reverberate from the little robot and I instantly feel better. This song literally was proven by science to be the most calming piece of music ever written, and bizarrely it really does do the trick.
“Thanks!” I say, begrudgingly.
“You’re welcome!” the Roomba trundles off into the hallway and starts working on the carpet. I follow and lie down next to it.
“Why are you always lying down,” it says.
“How the fuck can you see what I’m doing?”
“I’m not familiar with fuck, please explain,” it responds.
“Nevermind,” I say. “How do you see?”
“I have 8 cameras situated around the base of my body so I can avoid bumping into obstacles,” it says.
“Oh,” I say. I should have figured.
“How come you bumped into the wall earlier, then?” I ask.
“I was disorientated” it responded, “it happens when I am first activated.”
I’m still lying on the floor as the Roomba cleans its way around me like it’s marking the outline of a dead body. Maybe I’ve just been sick so long I hadn’t realized how advanced technology had gotten. I mean I haven’t left the house in months, and haven’t socialized in years. Facebook is annoying so I haven’t been on it for months, and I don’t do news. I guess I’m just really out of the loop!
The Roomba finished “marking me out” and made its way into my husband’s room. I got up and followed, sitting down on the bed watching it. I realized I was starting to overdo it so lay down again.
“Why are you always lying down?” asked the Roomba again as it busied about, darting between chair legs and dropped underpants.
“You’re very nosey for an A.I.” I say, pulling the bed covers up to my chin.
“You’re very horizontal for a human” it responds.
I laugh. What the hell? This thing can tell jokes now?
“I have M.E.,” I say.
“What is M.E.?” it asks.
I sigh, sick of always having to explain this illness. “Google it.”
“I don’t understand” replies Roomba.
“You have Google at your fingertips right?” I murmur, feeling sleepy.
“I don’t have fingertips.” says the Roomba.
I laugh. “But you have access to Google don’t you?”
“Well google it then!”
“I do not understand the word google in the form of a verb.”
“It means search the internet using Google. Man, you’re pretty dense for an A.I. that knows how to make jokes.”
“Jokes are part of my programming,” says the Roomba as it wheels itself in front of me. “I have finished this room,” it says “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Me too,” I say as I smile, close my eyes and drift back to sleep.
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