J. David Liss

     “It’s funny, Ed. I’ll show you.”

     “Milo, this is just stupid.”

     “Have you downloaded it? Get directions to somewhere.”

     “Where should I get directions to?”

     “The Elm. I could use a beer.”

     I input The Elm into the GPS app I’d downloaded. Milo was a terrific computer scientist, but nobody thought his sense of humor was as great as he did himself.

     Getting directions, said a female voice coming through the car speaker. Then, Directions acquired. Are you sure you want to go to that dive?

     “Holy shit! It called The Elm a dive. How did it know?”

     “Actually, it would have asked you that question no matter what destination you chose. I told you to pick a crappy bar because I thought it’d be funny. Hit Customize and fill in your name and gender.”

     “My full name?”

     “No. Just your first name. Now, hit replay.”

     I did.

     Directions acquired. Are you sure you want to go to that dive, Ed?

     “This is funny.”

     “Now start driving. The first time it gives directions, do something different.”

     Ed, in 100 feet make a left turn on 7th Avenue. At 7th Avenue, I made a right turn.

     Why didn’t you do what I told you, Ed? it said.

     We both burst out laughing.

     “This is great, Milo!”

     “Do it again. Whatever it says, do something different.”

     At Carroll Street, make a left.

     I kept going on 7th passed Carroll.

     That’s the second time you ignored me, Ed. Why don’t I turn off and you can pull out your Boy Scout compass!

     We were hysterical.

     “What happens if I ignore it a third time?”

     “It just sighs and goes back to being a regular GPS. I figured it would only be funny a couple of times.”

     “How much can you customize it?”

     “There’s a survey in the app that lets you fill in all sorts of details about yourself. If you fill in your birthday, it will wish you a happy birthday, then scold you for forgetting its birthday.

     “You can tell it your favorite restaurants. You can tell it your height and weight and it will figure out your BMI. If your BMI is 24 or higher, every time you drive past your favorite restaurant it will tell you, Don’t stop, Butterball.”

     “That’s a riot, Milo. This could be worth a fortune.”

     “You’d think, right? But Google and Apple dominate this market. I can’t compete against them. It was just fun making it. The algorithms that power it are actually fairly simple. It’s only as smart as the data sources it connects to, like your bank or credit card.”

     “You can connect it to your bank?”

     “Not a big deal. It’s just online banking.”

     “So, you’ve strung together existing tech in some new ways.”

     “Pretty much. I’ve added a couple of things.

     “You can tell it to remember places to avoid or return to. I love the view of lower Manhattan when you drive north on 4th Avenue. The last time I was on 4th and 15th, I hit the Remember button. After that, I could have pushed Avoid or Return.”

     “That’s a great feature. Maybe you should try to compete with the big boys.”

     “I’m a programmer, not a businessman. But there is something I plan to do with it. I’m giving it to that fat slug Pete Carduna. He keeps saying that since Louisa broke up with him, he’s been lost. Maybe with this he’ll stop whining.”

     “Jesus, Milo, aren’t you Mr. Empathy!”

     “What? I’m helping him and having some fun. Come on, this thing is funny.”

     “I just don’t know if Pete will think so.”


     Pete downloaded it and seemed grateful. He spent a lot of time filling out the customization survey. He said he had nothing else to do after work since Louisa left him. He really felt lost without her.

     Milo told me that Pete had spent more than two hours filling out the survey. He’d put in his bank account numbers and passwords. And he included 15 important dates, and twelve Remembered places — eleven to Avoid, one to Return.

     Since Milo was the developer of the app, Pete was actually giving him this information. But Pete said that he wanted Natasha to know everything — Pete had named his app Natasha because the voice reminded him of Scarlett Johansen as the Black Widow.


     Several weeks later, I met Milo for lunch and I asked him, “How’s it going with Pete and the GPS app?”

     “I haven’t heard from Pete in a while. He was calling a lot after the breakup with Louisa. Guess he’s feeling better.

     I figured it was a good time to get together with Pete if he’d stopped complaining about the breakup.

     We made plans for dinner. He said he would pick me up. That was about as assertive as I’d ever heard Pete get, so I said sure. He came by that night

     “So where are we going?”

     “Italian place in Bay Ridge.”

     “There’s a million great Italian places on 7th alone. Why we going to Bay Ridge for Italian?”

     Pete didn’t answer me. He said to his phone, “Natasha, Carolina’s. Zero percent.”

     Acquiring directions, said the GPS app. Make a left on 3rd Street.

     “What did you just tell the GPS to do? And why are we driving past 4th Avenue and heading to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway? That’s longer.”

     “Zero percent means that she should plot a course with zero percent chance of passing places that I asked her to Remember and Avoid.”

     “Doesn’t Louisa live on 4th?”

     The GPS came through the speaker. We’re not placing calls to Louisa, Pete.

     “What the fuck?” I said.

     The GPS spoke again. Watch that potty mouth, buster.

     “Natasha really keeps me on the straight and narrow.”

     “I’m the one who said ‘fuck.’

     I said watch that potty mouth, young man.

     Pete said, “Milo will have to work on voice differentiation.”

     “What – you programmed it not to let you say fuck?” The GPS made an exaggerated sigh.

     “She’s giving up on you. Yeah, I added a list of words that I want to stop saying, including the f-bomb. If I say them, Natasha yells at me. My driving has gotten a lot calmer since I’ve been with Natasha.”

     “Is one of the words on that list Louisa?”

     I said we are not placing calls to Louisa, Pete, chimed in the GPS.

     “I know Natasha. No calls.”

     “So we’re having Italian food in Bay Ridge because we may run into Louisa if we have dinner in the Slope?”

     The GPS gave another huge sigh.

     Pete said, “That wasn’t me, Natasha, it was Ed.”

     The GPS started listing people named Ed in Pete’s address book. “Ed Cranshaw, Ed Dropkin, Ed Franklin…”

     “Ed Franklin.”

     Should I add Ed Franklin to the don’t respond list?

     “No Natasha.” Then to me, “Milo developed the best voice interface I’ve ever used. Natasha is brilliant at communicating. She really understands me.”

     “It’s a GPS, Pete. It’s not a she. And she… it, doesn’t understand you.”

     “Really Ed? Because Natasha is keeping track of me in ways that no one ever has, not even Lou… anyone.”

     Turn left on to the ramp of the BQE in 1,000 feet.

     “Thank you Natasha,” Pete said with real fondness is his voice.

     You are welcome, Pete, said the GPS.

     “So where are we going for dinner?”


     From the car speakers: Review of Carolina’s menu completed. Menu selections made. Begin with house salad. Main course, Chicken Milanese. No dessert. Coffee.

     “What the fuck was that?” Another exaggerated sigh came from the car speakers.

     “Natasha knows the diet recommendations in my Personal Health Record. She did a review of the restaurant’s menu and found items that fit the calorie counts my doctor recommended.”

     How does she… it, know the calorie counts?”

     “I linked Natasha to the Center for Disease Control Website.”

     “Are you going to order those things?”

     “Sure! Look at me, Ed, have you ever seen me looking slimmer?”

     “No I haven’t. You look great.”

     “Thanks to Natasha!”

     You are welcome, Pete, said the GPS.

     Pete ordered the foods that the GPS told him. When it came time for dessert, I couldn’t decide between the cheesecake and the Tartuffe. Pete said, “Get both.”

     “You gonna have some?”


     So I ordered both. Pete sipped his coffee but never picked up a fork to eat anything. So, I finished both. Then came the surprise. “Let’s get the check.”

     Pete said, “I called ahead and gave my card number. I’m buying.”

     “What are you talking about?”

     “Things are going well for me and I’m happy you called, so I decided to buy dinner.”

     “Pete, I called because we hadn’t seen each other in a while and I miss you.”

     “I know buddy. That’s why I wanted to buy. It’s done. So just say thank you and let’s go.”

     “Thank you.”

     We went back to the car and Pete turned on the engine. As soon as he did, the GPS spoke.

     Why didn’t you do what I told you, Pete?

     Pete looked really upset. “I did everything you told me, Natasha.”

     Reviewing ordering instructions. No dessert. Review of credit card data indicates that two dessert items appear on the statement. Then, in a cynical tone, Nice job, Butterball.

     “But I did listen to you, Natasha. Ed ate both desserts.”

     That’s the second time you ignored me, Pete. Why don’t I turn off and you can pull out your Boy Scout compass!

     “Nat, don’t turn off. Please don’t turn off. I really did listen to you. Ed, tell her that you ate both desserts.”

     The GPS gave an exaggerated sigh.

     “Please Nat, don’t ignore me. It was Ed. Damn it, Ed, why did you have to be such a pig and eat two desserts?”

     “You told me to order both.”

     Pete’s tears turned to a snarl.

     “Get out of the car.”


     “Get the fuck out.”

     The GPS said, Watch that potty mouth, buster.

     Pete was screaming. “Now you did it. You made me curse in front of her. Get out of this car!”

     “Pete, we’re in Bay Ridge.”

     “Get the fu…heck out of my car.”

     He pulled over and I got out. Before the door closed, I could hear Pete talking to the GPS. “I’m sorry. God, Natasha, I’m sorry. Don’t ignore me. Natasha, I need you. I love you.”

     Natasha said, Continue to the route.

     “I will. I’ll continue to the route.” Pete was in tears.


     I told Milo about dinner with Pete.

     “Well, that explains the bizarre calls I got from the big lug yesterday. First, he asks me if Natasha will work anywhere. I say, who’s Natasha? He says, the GPS you gave me. I say, what the fuck? and a voice in the background says, Watch that potty mouth, buster.

     “Then Pete asked more questions.”

Can Natasha have a camera?

“Why would a GPS need a camera?”

When is Natasha’s birthday?

“I say, it’s a fucking GPS; it doesn’t have a birthday.

“He starts yelling, When is her goddamn birthday, Milo? And I say fuck off. He says, Okay, when did you make her? I told him yesterday’s date to shut him up. What a coincidence, he says, and he starts thanking me like I gave him a blow job.

     “So I get back to work on my newest project — doormats that yell out the weight of anyone who stands on them, and calls them butterbaall. Then Pete called again.

“He says, Milo, if I wrote stuff; could you program them into Natasha? I say,Huh?”

     “Stuff, like for movies. Can Natasha say them?

     “I got too much work to serve as your development partner. In fact, I’m going to end the GPS project; it’s not funny anymore. No more development.

     “He screams NO! You’ll kill her. I won’t let you.

     “Ed, I’m not going to program the GPS to tell Pete that it loves him. Anyway, Pete’s coming over soon.”


     “Yeah, he’s coming here.”

     “Well, then he needs to get a piece of my mind, that shit-bird, leaving me in Bay Ridge.”


     I did not expect Pete to walk in with a gun.

     “Milo, I can’t let you shut off Natasha.”

     “You dumb fuck. Put the gun down before you kill someone by accident.”

     Pete put his gun down. “Sorry about that. I’m just so worried about Natasha. You’ll kill me if you turn her off.”

     I walked over to the table and took the gun.

     “Oh, hi Ed. I didn’t know you were here.”

     “Fuck you.”

     “Man, I’m sorry about leaving you in Bay Ridge. I had made Natasha so upset and I was outta my mind. I know that she’s just looking out for me; that’s why she has me on a low-calorie diet. I hate to disappoint her. But I should have explained it to her, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

     “Pete, it’s a GPS application. The only thing it knows about you is stuff you program in. It’s not alive.”

     Pete got a look on his face like you see on a kindergarten teacher explaining to her student that thunder can’t hurt him.

     “Ed, Natasha is just like everyone else; she has to learn. If I don’t tell her about myself, how will she learn about me? When you go on a first date, you tell the girl about yourself and she tells you stuff about herself and that’s how you get to know each other. Natasha is no different.

     “Yesterday she wished me a happy birthday but teased me for forgetting her birthday. I asked Milo what Natasha’s birthday was, and unbelievably it was yesterday. That’s the kind of coincidence that shows you there are no coincidences.

     “Right after I hung up with Milo, I wished Natasha a happy birthday. She was so shocked that I knew the date that she couldn’t say anything. Then it occurred to me that maybe she was upset because she’s so young, only a year old, really, but here we are in this relationship. So, I said, ‘Natasha, let’s go for a drive.’

     “She likes to drive; it makes her feel more in control. She likes it better when we have a destination instead of just driving aimlessly. I said, ‘Let’s drive to Woodstock. There’s a place there that makes great falafel.

     “When I asked her for directions, she asked me if I were sure that I wanted to go there. She’ll do that — make sure I’ve thought about what I’m doing. Then, I told her there was something I needed to share with her.

     “I told her about when I was 11-years old, my cousin raped me. It’s true. I never told anyone that.

     “That secret has twisted me up and tied me in knots all my life. But I know that Natasha is looking out for me. I trust her. So, I shared that with her because I knew that she was feeling self-conscious about her age and I wanted to let her know that we all carry something inside us.

     “Ever since I told her, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. Then it hit me.

     Natasha knew there were things that I had not filled out in the survey. She didn’t know what I’d left out, but she knew something wasn’t right. So, she became vulnerable with me. That opened the door for me to share a secret that I’ve been carrying most of my life. And you know what? It wasn’t anything I needed to hide. I didn’t need to have a secret. I didn’t do anything wrong.

     “Is it any wonder I love her?”

     Milo grabbed a notebook and said to Pete, “What does Natasha look like?”

     “You made her, Milo. Don’t you know?”

     “When you filled out the survey, she became yours.”

     “When I filled out the survey, she became mine,” he repeated. “It’s how I felt all along.

     “She has long, light brown hair and big brown eyes that are really soft. But when she’s being funny, her eyes get this mischievous light. Sometimes, when she’s really worried about me her eyes get a little moist. That’s when I know I have to comfort her.”

     I interrupted. “Milo, can I speak with you a minute?”

     “Not now, Ed.”

     “Now Milo!” I grabbed his arm and pulled him to the next room. “What are you doing? We need to get Pete help. He’s always been a basket case. Now we know why. Don’t encourage this.”

     “I gotta get back to Pete and take more notes.”

     “Are you listening to me? Our friend needs help. Why are you taking notes?”

     Ed, this is a great idea. I can personalize everyone’s car so that they are driving the woman, or man, of their dreams. When Pete turns on his car, the first thing he’ll see on the navigation screen is his brown-haired, brown-eyed Natasha. Everyone’s GPS will be their soul mate. Hey, what do you think would be better, a realistic looking woman or an animé girl?”

     “You’re missing the point. Pete thinks the GPS is real. This is a problem.”

But Milo had gone back. I could hear him through the open doorway. “Does she look directly at you whenever she talks to you?”

     A little while after that, I’d heard that Pete quit his job and was going on a cross-country road trip. Once I tried to call him, but Natasha must have had me on the don’t respond list.


     I didn’t want to see my buddies as much as I used to.

     I wanted to start dating again. I’d gotten caught up in work, had a lot of friends. But I felt like I needed to connect with someone in a serious way.

     I went to the online dating sites. But as I looked at the photos and read the profiles of the women on all the sites, somehow they all seemed… not actually real — computer simulations.

     My Aunt Shirley had told me she worked with a nice girl around my age who she thought I’d like. I’ll ask her for that woman’s phone number.