Retail | Therapy

“Retail | Therapy” is Episode One of the serialized story “Miranda Tree.” After reading this, be sure to read Episode Two, “Sharp | Distance.”

Waiting rooms were neither here nor there, she thought.

Miranda had sat in this room dozens of times. She was used to the cramped couch and the white noise machine. And that dusty potpourri smell that has inhabited every therapist’s waiting room she’s visited since she was a kid.

Despite the familiarity of this territory, it was never a comfortable place. It was not a room for staying, for doing, for sleeping, for eating. It was a room for waiting — waiting for the session with Dr. Puddle, waiting to feel better, waiting to be happy.

A neat little pile of colorful packages nuzzled up against the wall beside the door. Miranda wondered if Dr. Puddle’s gifts were always perfect. Probably. He was so clearheaded and centered. She imagined that his diaries and emails and metrics painted a perfect picture. His Personalia Rating was pegged, no doubt. Clearly, his beautiful shirts and just-so office knickknacks knew just who they were shopping for. I bet he’s never opened up a bright box and frowned at an off-gift, she mused — a gift that thought he was someone else. Or knew who he really was: someone he didn’t want to be.

Like Miranda.

Dr. Puddle opened his door and leaned into the waiting room, spying the stack of glowing boxes by the door. He tried to suppress a happy smile. “Ms. Suarez! Do come in.”

It started at the end of her last failed romance. Roy was such a great guy. Younger than her, he was carefree and open-ended. This was new for her. Normally, Miranda likes squarer pegs — business casual Data Assemblers like herself. But Roy swept her off her feet. Leave it to a professional Rewilder to go completely off grid and pursue someone who, according to Personalia, was not his type. “Fuck the machine,” he would say. “There’s something in your eyes the algorithm and ‘tailers can’t see.”

Maybe he was right, she thought. Maybe he could rewild her just like he did in Detroit and Tacoma, returning vast abandoned urban tracts to wild corridors of berries, birds, and briars. This is what she wanted. Really. Nonetheless, Roy encountered resistance. She was not transitioning to that creature he saw in her eyes, not fast enough. And how could she? The gifts she kept receiving — “city shoes” (as Roy called them), drab data assembler workaday office jumpsuits, and books like Personalia Dashboards — indicated otherwise. All the secret wants in the world won’t change your Gift Flow.

The Flow responds to the whole you: your heartbeat and gaze, your mail and your diary, your body language and captured audio. “Personalia is Bigger than the Person!” as the Whole You Company jingle went. Gifts were always shopping for receivers, rapid-sorting through volumes of indexed facts and suggestions, the myriad whispers that conspire to make up everyone’s Personalia Scheme. Each gift is striving to find its perfect receiver, to not be sent back out into the Shipping Stream to search for a home.

Gifts don’t lie. You get what you want. Well, she hadn’t wanted this.

“Tell me, Miranda, how was your week?”

Accustomed to this ritual, she opened up immediately, accessing her anger. “Not great, doc. I still miss Roy. I hate that my Feed Lag pushed him away.”

That was her theory. She was trying to change — being with Roy was itself evidence of this. But she wasn’t dedicated enough for this desire to reach the gifts on their journeys. Her Personalia was mostly blind to her desire. She didn’t speak it enough. Her heart didn’t quicken when she read the books Roy gave her. Her chats and emails didn’t reflect it. Her diary was hesitant. And besides, diaries are only a fraction of the Scheme.

“Maybe,” Dr. Puddle offered, “the gifts are telling you something. There shouldn’t be a lag if you really want to change, Miranda. It would show up. In my experience people don’t really change, not that much. The Scheme teaches us that. Have you ever heard of a Data Assembler recareering as a Rewilder? No. It may be healthier for you to lean into the gifts, listen to them. They know who you are. You do like them, don’t you? Your Scheme indicates very few returns.”

She eyed the recorder in the corner of the office. She knew that all their sessions were recorded, the audio made available to Personalia as well as to her employers and their insurance company. It was a condition of her lucrative employment — the assembly company had the right to protect their investment. They were therefore granted access to all kinds of Personalia ingredients, including “health related indices” like these sessions.

“Listen doc. Those little boxes don’t know anything. They’re just rats sniffing for cheese, crawling through the Shipping Stream, leaping from FedEx trucks and sneaking into our homes.”

Now Dr. Puddle sneaked a nervous peek at the recorder. It didn’t work that way and she knew it, he thought. Talk like this could cost you a job, at least. If she kept it up, she would alienate gifts altogether. No job and no gifts, now that was a real problem.

Miranda sat up straight, raising her voice. “Fuck the boxes. They cost me Roy, and they’re costing me my sanity.” Turning to the recorder, she shouted, “I don’t give a shit about dashboards, you little bird brains. I don’t care that I went to college for Data Parametrics. I’m sick of teal jumpsuits and work slippers! I want to leave you on the truck, I want to truck myself to the edges, to the places where the sidewalk stops and the buildings crack. I want to swim in lakes and find Roy and fall in love and NOT TELL YOU!”

She was sweating, chest heaving, wild-eyed on the edge of the chair. “Well.” Dr. Puddle was cleaning his perfect spectacles. “Feel better?” He sneaked another glance at the recorder.

“Yes,” she breathed. “I do.”

“When you come back next week, we can explore these feelings some more. Perhaps in a more…constructive way.”

Miranda left his office and sat in the waiting room for a moment, gathering herself. The white noise machine calmed her, prepared her for going back out there. She stood and opened the door.

There at her feet was a small green box, her name brightly displayed on the orange ribbon. She swept up the gift and peeled off the lid. It was a glass compass and an old-fashioned map of county hiking trails.

Miranda smiled.