Robb couldn’t recall a time in his pre-pandemic life when he’d known the specifics of the menstrual cycle of a potential partner before their first meeting. Partner, he corrected himself. There was nothing ‘potential’ about Sarah, the twenty-five-year-old brunette who would move into his apartment that evening.
For the seventh time that day, Robb opened the wardrobe in the guest bedroom and ran his fingers over the soft fabric of Sarah’s clothes delivered that morning by the representatives from the Department of Population Management. He laid out one of the dresses, a black knee-length halter-neck dress, on the bed and tried to picture the woman who would fit into it. Sarah was definitely slender, Robb could tell. And tall, maybe 5’9’’. He brought the dress to his face, trying to catch a whiff of Sarah even though he knew the dresses were brand new — at the time of each Placement, a woman was given a new set of clothes — and returned it to the wardrobe.
Robb spent the day ensuring everything was perfect for the evening — the house was spotless and smelled like flowers, the red roses and the candles were placed strategically on the table in the spacious balcony along with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolate cake, all items delivered in the morning. With his evening coffee in hand, Robb poured over Sarah’s details on his laptop, the single page Word document that included her date of birth, ethnicity, hair colour, a health report showing her reproductive health as 5/5, details of her menstrual cycle with her fertile days over the next six months highlighted in green and her previous Placement details. Sarah had lived with two men over the past three years, both of whom had rated her 10 out of 10. Robb wondered what he’d done to deserve a woman with such a high rating. He was sure that his last live-in partner, Jasmine, had rated him poorly.
Jasmine was every man’s nightmare. She hated sex as much as she hated household chores, bathed on alternate days, watched TV all day, never shaved her legs and could only talk in a loud, high-pitched voice that made Robb’s eardrums cringe. All the desire that Rob — as a young, hot-blooded heterosexual man deprived of sex for over a year — felt towards Jasmine had faded in two days. Through a shouting match that lasted five days but resulted in an agreement based solely on mutual loathing, Robb and Jasmine had decided to stay out of each other’s way for the remaining period of the six-month Placement. Of course, they hadn’t missed updating the daily tracker showing they had intercourse several times a day when actually the only intercourse they had was giving each other the middle finger.
At five o’clock in the evening, Rob closed his laptop and jumped into the shower, conscious and wary of his high expectations. He knew that the partners were selected based on physical factors only. Even if Sarah looked like a Goddess, she could still be a nutcase and drive him crazy. Could he survive another six-month period trapped in an apartment with a gorgeous woman he loathed? And at the end of the six-month period, if he still could not impregnate her, what would that do to his virility rating? With two failed Placements on his record, Robb knew he was running out of time. He’d seen how swiftly the men who couldn’t reproduce were reclassified as Agriculturists. Living with a bunch of dudes on a farm and working all day without female companionship was not how Rob wanted to live the rest of his life. He’d rather contract the virus and die.
Actually, no, Robb corrected himself. Any fate was better than contracting the virus that had wiped out 99.9% of the world’s population over the past five years. A highly contagious virus, the H-Virus as it was commonly known, attacked the immune and the respiratory systems, causing internal bleeding, very high fever and death within five days. At the peak of the virus outbreak, Robb was climbing the Alps with two of his best friends. Like the other survivors, all three of them had been flown to a safe quarantine facility, where they lived for two years until the worst phase of the virus outbreak passed. In the past three years, Robb had seen his friends only twice — thanks to the Department of Social Distancing that managed social meetings. The Department also scheduled each individual’s morning jogs and grocery shopping in such a way that no two persons came within each other’s proximity. Socializing was not a priority when survival was at stake.
Not wanting his hands to smell like the rosemary roast chicken he’d prepared for dinner, Robb was washing his hands with hand sanitiser when the doorbell rang.
“Fuck!” he muttered under his breath, drying his hands hastily on the kitchen towel.
Robb reached the door breathlessly and opened it.
The bespectacled woman who had brought the last two partners to his apartment stood staring at the clipboard in her hand.
“Robb? Hi!” said Ms. Smith, smiling her pencil-thin smile.
“Hi, please come in,” said Robb, looking around. By the window overlooking the swimming pool stood the woman with the most exquisite profile he’d ever seen. The sun’s rays illuminated her face, bringing colour to her cheeks. For a moment, Robb had the feeling of staring at a majestic statue, every detail of her face and body sculpted with perfection.
Sarah turned to face Robb, her brown eyes lighting up with her smile. As she shook his hand and entered the house, Robb realized she was almost as tall as him in her three-inch black heels.
Sarah took a seat on the grey sofa, her large brown eyes taking in her surroundings. Next to her, Ms. Smith opened her briefcase on her lap, looking for some papers.
“So, Robb and Sarah,” said Ms. Smith, having found the relevant papers. “Twenty-six and twenty-five. Healthy. Your biological compatibility is 98.6%. Do you know what that means?”
“Very high probability of making babies,” said Robb without looking at Sarah.
“Yes. Your latest health checkups show you’re highly virile and fertile and yet, two failed Placements each. I’m surprised. You do realize this could be the last chance for both of you, right?” she said, looking from Robb to Sarah.
Robb’s gaze met Sarah’s and as she smiled at him conspiratorially, Robb felt the same thrilling drop in the pit of his stomach he felt while paragliding in the pre-pandemic days.
On realizing that Ms. Smith was still waiting for an answer, Robb opened his mouth to say something, but Sarah cut him off.
“We’ll do our best,” she said, keeping a straight face.
“The Department wants a baby from the two of you. Well more than one baby in the long term, but let’s talk about one for now,” said Ms. Smith, closing her briefcase. “Once your pregnancy is confirmed, you can have a wedding at a destination of your choice. After the baby, of course you’ll move to one of the Family Neighbourhoods, either Kensington or Chelsea. You can take your pick. The Department realizes that children need to socialize and we allow it — in a safe and controlled environment, of course.”
As Robb closed the door behind Ms. Smith, the irony of being able to choose one’s residence, wedding destination and even the brand of toilet paper but having no say in one’s life partner struck him and he wondered if this was how an arranged marriage felt like.
When he turned around, Sarah was tying her long hair into a messy-looking bun. “Want to show me your house?” she said, removing her high heels.
As Sarah followed him barefoot from one room to the other, Robb talked mechanically about the three-bedroom apartment all the while being distracted by being in proximity to the most attractive woman he’d met in his entire life and who he knew was brought to his home for the sole purpose of... Well, he couldn’t think of that and carry on a conversation.
Over the course of the evening, Robb was pleasantly surprised on realizing how comfortable he felt talking to Sarah. A feeling of familiarity and goodwill permeated their conversations about family and childhood, shared interests and favourite vacation spots, the music and books they loved and their hopes and dreams. The thing Robb loved best about her was that she never interrupted him with a “this is what I think about this” comment but listened attentively and asked questions that showed she was genuinely interested in knowing his thoughts and understanding his motivations. She laughed without inhibitions, throwing her head back and slapping her hand on her thigh over her satin pyjamas. When they parted at midnight — a long goodbye involving a whole lot of giggling and touching (champagne-induced) — Robb thought about putting his fingers into her hair, pulling her close to him and kissing her but decided to wait. This was too good to fuck up.
Robb couldn’t tell when he fell in love with Sarah. Was it when he kissed her for the first time? A kiss that was meant to be a peck on her cheek while she was stirring the mushroom soup on the stove in the kitchen (he thought she was adorable in that moment), but she turned her face to look at him right when he leaned in to kiss her. He loved that she was surprised. He panicked when she drew away from him. But then she smiled the loveliest smile and slowly closed the distance between them.
Was it when they made love for the first time that he fell in love with her? It was three weeks after she’d moved in. On a cold night when rain lashed angrily at the windows, Robb and Sarah sat cuddled up on the living room sofa, their fingers entwined, talking about their previous Placements and the reasons they failed. They talked about the pain of losing their families to the virus, of Robb’s childhood struggles with stammering and of Sarah overcoming her eating disorder. That night and every night thereafter, sleeping in the same bed felt like the most natural thing in the world.
For Robb, the sex was mind-blowing. Not only was Sarah the woman of his dreams, but she also matched his energy and enthusiasm. But more than that, he loved the intimacy of their relationship. He loved falling asleep and waking up next to Sarah. He loved taking a walk in the park while holding her hand. Robb realized Sarah was the woman he wanted forever.
On a couple of occasions in their relationship, Robb thought Sarah behaved unreasonably, but he attributed it to being confined to an apartment in each other’s company with, as Sarah put it, “nothing to do, no one else to talk to and no real purpose in life.”
Robb rebelled against the idea. Couldn’t she see they were fortunate to have survived the pandemic that wiped out most of humanity? Didn’t she realize they were lucky to have found each other and given the opportunity to build a life together? What could be more meaningful than creating a beautiful family? What better purpose in life than raising a son or a daughter?
After a while, Robb found Sarah’s interest in sex flagging. On too many occasions, thought Robb, Sarah closed her room’s door on his face citing a headache or fatigue. He would watch the light in her room stay on for a long time before she switched it off at her usual bedtime. She was deliberately avoiding having sex.
This was a problem. If they couldn’t get pregnant in the remaining three months, it would be the end of the Placement and he would lose her forever. Robb discussed his concerns with Sarah, but she remained unperturbed.
“If it’s meant to happen, it will. Let’s not worry too much about it,” she’d say flippantly before turning back to whatever it was she found more interesting than Robb in that moment.
With only two months left to go, Robb was becoming increasingly anxious every day with the lack of results and with Sarah not sharing his concerns. When did she turn into this cold-hearted person who preferred solving Sudoku puzzles to spending time with him? He could report her, of course. But what would that achieve except Sarah being taken away from his home before the Placement was over?
She could be sent to the Purple House, said a voice in his head. Robb cursed himself before shaking his head in disbelief. How could he even think about it? He loved Sarah more than he had ever loved anyone in his life. The time he spent with her had been the best time of his life and he wanted nothing more than to make her happy.
One morning in August, as Robb stood in the kitchen making pancakes for breakfast, he heard Sarah’s scream. He rushed to her room and found it empty.
“Are you okay?” he said, knocking on the bathroom door.
“I’m hurt,” she cried.
“Can you open the door?”
She groaned in pain. “I... I can’t move.”
Robb broke down the door and found Sarah on the floor. He lifted her gently in his arms and carried her to the bed. He then dialled Ms. Smith, his only contact in the government, and she promised to send someone from the Department of Health.
Robb brought Sarah an ice pack and a heating pad to apply alternately on her aching back. He spent the next few days next to her in her bed, holding her hand and taking care of her while she recovered. Robb loved smelling Sarah’s hair as she rested her head on his shoulder and fell asleep in his arms. He loved bringing her meals to her bed and offering his arm for her to hold onto as she walked slowly to the bathroom.
Over the next few days, Robb frantically made calls to Ms. Smith seeking an extension on the Placement because they had missed the last fertile period due to Sarah’s injury, but the request was denied by the Department.
On their last night together, Robb buried his head in Sarah’s chest and clung to her like a baby. He couldn’t let her go.
“Let’s run away,” he said suddenly.
Sarah frowned. “What?”
Robb’s eyes watered. “I can’t... I can’t live without you. Let’s just go someplace they can’t find us.”
“Where would we live? What would we eat?”
In the back of his head, Robb knew Sarah was right, but he couldn’t help feeling resentful towards her for her utter lack of emotion. Wasn’t she the least bit bothered that it was their last night together?
Robb held her face in his hands, looking into her lovely brown eyes. “I love you. Don’t you love me?”
Sarah answered his question with a kiss. They made love all night long and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
After Sarah left, Robb stayed in bed for three days, staring at the ceiling or out of the window. He couldn’t believe she was gone. How could he live the rest of his life with the thorn that was now lodged in his heart? He stayed up every night thinking about Sarah and wishing she were with him. Each morning, his pillow was wet with tears that invariably came at the peak of grief and exhaustion.
On the fourth day, Robb pulled himself out of bed to fill in Sarah’s feedback form that Ms. Smith was coming over to collect that day. He looked everywhere for a pen, but couldn’t find it. Finally, he stooped low to check under the bed and something shiny caught his eye. It wasn’t there before. He had thoroughly cleaned the apartment before Sarah came to live with him.
He unfolded the silver foil and read the label.
It was a birth control pill. Sarah was on the pill?
The realization hit him like a speeding lorry. Sarah was on the pill. She never wanted to have a baby with him. She never loved him. It was all a lie. She even faked her injury so that she didn’t have to sleep with him.
Robb raged at everything in his vicinity, turning the room upside down and breaking everything that was breakable, including his hand on the window glass.
“Why?” he asked the empty room, crumpling on the floor.
He felt... he couldn’t be mistaken... he was sure she had loved him. She loved him. But what made her stop loving him? What made her decide she didn’t want to be with him in the long term? If she had a problem with something, why didn’t she say anything? He would’ve done anything, anything to make things okay between them, to have her in his life forever.
Anger was still storming inside his head, making him want to hand over the evidence to Ms. Smith. That would surely send Sarah to the Purple House, an underground prostitution establishment in London. Maybe she’d like that, he thought bitterly.
The contents of his stomach shot up through his mouth and he dashed to the bathroom. After a moment’s pause and with tears streaming down his face, Robb flushed down the tablets along with his vomit. He wiped his face on the towel and returned to his bedroom to fill out Sarah’s feedback form, deciding that 10 was the appropriate rating for the woman who broke his heart.