3-D Printing: A Love Story

Molly Reid


We printed cups with dust-gray filament. They came out eerily round. When you drank from them, you had to use both hands—not because they were heavy, because they were suspicious.

Next we tried figurines: a basic algorithm for noses and eyes, plastic right angles of hair. Charlie sat the dolls around a table, and I poured them invisible tea from a dull square pot.

Then jewelry and bike helmets and the foam you stab knives into to stop them from cutting. 

"What about a car?" Charlie asked. "Take us on the road." I laughed and poured him more invisible tea. But he did it, or something like it: a rectangular bucket, each wheel's diameter the exact difference in our height.

I met Charlie in Introduction to Computer Animation. I was taking it for kicks but Charlie applied himself. He wanted to make films. He wanted to invite the viewer into an immersive experience. The first day he leaned over and, coolly brushing the dreadlocks from his forehead, suggested that for complex polygon faces, I try the paint selection tool. You can use a brush to paint over the faces you want without selecting the obscured ones behind them, he said. I didn't know what he meant exactly, but I knew it was flirting.

We had to make a film in that class. Mine was 30 seconds long: a stick figure falling in love with another stick figure. Stick figure #1 had dropped something on the sidewalk that stick figure #2 picked up, and the something, revealed at the end of the film, turned out to be her heart, not anatomically to size and drawn like a child's valentine, but straightforward in its sentiment. Charlie's film was a 3-D apocalypse adventure, a ten-minute romp through a scorched Grand Canyon. At its center was a ravishing Charlie, rattlesnake for a cohort, battling the demons at the end of the world.

My mother didn't approve of the relationship. She said Charlie was too creative, that I needed someone with both feet on the ground. She never understood progress, how life is an opportunity.

Next Charlie got into confections. He programmed candy snowflakes. Chocolate orbits. We ate until our giddy turned to sick, those perfect shapes dissolved inside us like hot, terrible whispers.

We started to print things we didn't quite recognize. Instruments we didn't know how to play. Tubas with missing tubes, harmonicas without harmony. Stairs that led nowhere. The printer was reading our dreams. We'd fall asleep to its careful repetitions like a squeaky bed, the smell of melting plastic, and wake to Nixon masks and trick snakes. One morning I found the dog I had as a child, Singapore, curled up half his original size and lime green at my feet.

We couldn't walk around the house anymore. We tried putting some of it out on the lawn, but the neighbors didn't want it either. They sensed something was different. These things were not manufactured through the proper channels. They looked through a blank kaleidoscope, lifted a mute seashell to their ears.            

My mother came over and we printed a box for her to get inside. The dimensions were so exact we stared at it for a long while afterward, the dolls staring at us.            

We began printing containers to put the other things inside. At first they were simply functional, just larger boxes with a door cut into the center, then windows, then pipes. We experimented: perfectly round yurts, rhombus bungalows, and trapezoidal Colonials. We filled the street with them, then the city. After housing all our stuff, we opened them up to anyone who wanted to live there.

The homeless vanished. Everyone did, actually. There was more inside than outside, and the printer kept on printing. The printer printed other printers that kept on printing.

Charlie and I went from room to room, not sure anymore which rooms belonged to whom, if they belonged to anyone at all. Each one seemed like the one before but not like any rooms we were used to: rubber and plastic and too many walls. We made up a story for each new room. We were a Hollywood power couple making things happen, a bohemian artist and his muse living off paper apples and peanut butter. Sometimes there were already people in these rooms, and so we incorporated them in our play: Stick 'em up, I shouted, pointing a plastic semi-automatic with plastic bullets. Sometimes accidents happened, and we'd have to crawl through basements like bandits.

When I found a dozen pinkies one morning, I looked at Charlie.

"Don't look at me," he said.

Charlie was missing the little finger on his right hand. He was just born that way. He doesn't ever talk about it, but I think it's always bothered him. Sometimes I'll notice him staring at it, at the knob of knuckle that ends in nothing, as if trying to imagine a finger there, or maybe he's thinking something else entirely, about the luck of four-leaf clovers—it's almost impossible to guess what goes through a lover's mind.            

"What are we supposed to do with these?" I asked. On further inspection, they may have been just small fingers. It was hard to tell without other fingers to compare them to—or an attached palm—but they certainly seemed to be made from skin, real human skin, or something that felt a lot like it.

"I don't know, but I think we're in trouble," he said.

"Whatever you do," I said, "try not to think. Try to empty your mind."

He was trying, I know he was, I could see the attempt at blankness in his eyes, in the concentrated rise and fall of his chest.

"Kiss me," I said. He opened his mouth and a dozen sailboats, white and perfect, tumbled out like jacks.

"I never knew you dreamed of sailing," I said.

"Neither did I," he replied, though his mouth was now so full of tiny paper hearts I couldn't be sure those were his exact words.