Objects Inside Are Not Real
A man died in virtual reality, so they put a warning label on it. His partner found the body in the driveway—a clump, twisted and busted, with an Inseyed strapped to his head. The press videographed him heavily, as you might expect. Police removed the Inseyed to reveal a flat, fried sneer, two skinny raisins for eyes. With his eyelids caught in a doom gaze, I thought he’d seen a ghost. Maybe he got so scared he froze. His soul, if he had one to start, ran for the hills, waving sayonara and kissing off the gawking fools it left behind.
I could not shake the image; it haunted me at the oddest times. His reflection emerged in mirrors, screens, doorways, trees, and strangers. I began to look at things twice or not at all. At dinner one evening I spilled a glass of water. My friend Trent leapt from the table to clean the spill, his face twisted with worry. I stared in awe but did not budge.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “What did he see?” Trent seemed puzzled, so I went on, “how do you die from something fake?”
Trent dabbed the water with a towel, returned to his seat, and set both palms squarely on the table. He took his time to reset my glass and silverware while gathering his thoughts. I had not known Trent for too long, but we were friends in every sense imaginable.
If you pointed at something in the sky, everyone except Trent would look. When most people’s mouths were moving, his was closed. He spoke softly, infrequently. He said maybe and I think and you might be right, and when someone bumped into him, he apologized. When opening doors, he held them even if no one followed. I never saw him get angry.
“Well, obviously then, Rob,” he said, taking a minute to trace a small, dancing woman embroidered on the tablecloth. His gaze leveled with mine. “It was real.”
The Inseyed headgear was designed to integrate all senses into one virtual media experience. I thought it looked like an ugly motorcycle helmet. I remember its only advertisement well, and anyone alive does too. In the distance, racing toward the viewer, a black-clad motorcyclist rips down the road. We see the engine. We hear its roar and chuckle. Then, the driver tightens his gloves, wheels tear into asphalt—sparks, sexual moans. The commercial restarts, only this time, we cut to a sallow and tiny teenager pretending to ride a motorcycle, the Inseyed headgear strapped to his head. Instead of wheel and road, we hear the exaggerated sound of a fish tank’s cleaner, the buzz and glow of fluorescent lighting, the hum of air-conditioning. The teen careens, turns, squeals and wobbles over a slow fade to white, while text creeps onto the screen: Get Real.
NOTHING BEATS THE MOVIE INSIDE
Nearly everyone at work owned an Inseyed, so it didn’t surprise me when they scoffed at the news, particularly Eric, our team leader. I worked as a sound effects engineer in a gray three-story condo facing the boardwalk, in Venice. I matched lip movements with their corresponding audio. It was called synchronization, and when done right, no one could tell the characters onscreen weren’t actually producing sound. Trent worked there too, albeit on foreign films, since he knew Ebonics and Mandarin. We called it reifying, making real; without synchronization, the illusion of realness is lost and no one will watch the film. But people are easily fooled.
Eric was a tall, imposing man. He leaned over you, into you, but would kindly remind you to please back up if you did the same to him. He had a deep, rumbling laugh, and when he used it, someone else frowned. I had seen his clothes and jewelry sold in vendors who imported from Mumbai and Nepal, but when asked from where, or how much, he doesn’t remember and it isn’t important. He had been trying to quit smoking for several months, and would sit cross-legged on the rooftop, his head buried in his Inseyed,in a pose suggesting deep contemplation and relaxation. Half-an hour later, he would emerge.
“Of course it’s real,” he said, after he tugged his head from the device. His face was sweaty and hot, and he dried it with a towel. He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket, sighed and reclined on a chaise longue. “What if I don’t really want a cigarette?”
He asked the question more to himself than me, with squinted eyes that pinned the cigarette into submission. He ran his finger across a Shiva locket around his neck, his other hand toying with the cigarette. He grinned at it, then me.
“That man had a weak mind is all.” He cleared his throat and nestled the cigarette behind his ear. “Weak people are invisible.” He paused in the way we all do when we see something beautiful. “So it makes sense that they die invisibly.”
“Well, they found his body,” I said.
“I’m kidding, Robert,” he said, and stood up. “You take everything so seriously.”
I watched Eric walk downstairs. I waited for a long time on the rooftop, listening to the white noise of beach water caressing sand and sighing release.
Trent was good at hiding. I first met him in an unused conference room where I worked sometimes. It was quiet, and no one would bother me. The door swung open, and this broomstick of a man swept himself inside and shut the door. His rapid breathing slowed, but, noticing me he looked startled all over again. He apologized while trying to catch his breath.
“I don’t think anyone here likes me,” he said. “It’s easier to avoid them.”
“I wish I could do that,” I said. He smiled at me, introduced himself, and left. I thought nothing more of it.
A few days later, I heard some of the engineers whispering about the new person—weird because, as far as I knew, we were all men, and in the past we referred to new hires as the new guy. I was on my way to get a snack from the kitchen when I heard laughter and walked in its direction.
Two surfers with short blonde hair and Sanskrit tattoos on their ankles had surrounded Trent as he sat at a dining table. He tried to ignore their pestering and laughter.
“Hey, I asked you a question,” one said, pushing him. “Are you a dude or a chick?”
“A she-male,” the other laughed. Trent stared straight ahead with a firm jaw.
I hurried downstairs, intent on stopping them, but Eric approached the two guys first and slapped both on the back. Trent looked up and noticed me.
“Trent, these are my friends,” Eric said. “They don’t even work here, they’re—” he laughed and rolled his eyes, “they’re just joking around.” He paused and inhaled, set a cigarette to his lips and lit it. The scent of grass and earth filled the room as he exhaled and narrowed his eyes. “I sort of see where they’re coming from though, right?” He inhaled again. “I mean it is a little difficult to tell—”
“Because it’s so easy to tell with you, Eric?” I said. The surfers turned red as tomatoes and cackled. Eric’s eyes met mine and he smiled, exhaling smoke. But it was the kind of smile fast food employees give you before they spit in your meal.
I assumed this was the reason Trent took a liking to me, though he never said so. Eric’s not a bad person,Trent would say. I’d grunt and say, well he’s not a nice one and Trent would say, you might be right. Neither of us owned an Inseyed, so on Fridays we ate pizza and watched poorly dubbed Chinese movies. We’d mute them and find amusement in the wordless, moving lips. “Reality check,” he’d say. We’d make fun of how silly people look when they talk.
“Everyone thinks they have something important to say,” I told Trent.
“Maybe,” he said.
We silently watched a meaningless series of images—the colors, the tailspinning figures—dumb but pretty.
Trent would tell me he felt trapped, and when I could think of nothing to say because I didn’t know how that felt, that face with its death gaze appeared, sneaking up behind me. It straddled my shoulder and caused a fear that paralyzed not only my tongue but my body just the same. In those moments I wished someone could synchronize me, get me to say what I should, but these things don’t work like that.
Eric’s birthday was quickly approaching, so I bought him a kala wristband, a red one that the woman said symbolized friendship and peace.
“Very good for starting over,” she said.
The day of Eric’s birthday, my underarms were sweating as soon as I entered the office. The whole condo had a stifling, greenhouse feeling to it. Not of heat, but of stillness. Everyone huddled at a circular conference table and wore an Inseyed. The machines purred, and the sound roamed throughout the office until it was all I could hear. I waited until Eric finally removed the headgear. I had learned not to bother someone using an Inseyed. You could shake them, slap them, punch them, but it wasn’t just that they couldn’t hear you, they couldn’t feel you. You didn’t exist.
“Oh, hey Robert,” Eric said. He wiped sweat from his face. “We’re having an amazing party inside,” he said and lifted the Inseyed to show what he meant. “Come join us?” I reminded him I didn’t own one. He furrowed his brows, flattened his lips, and his eyes issued a tut-tut.
“Anyway, here,” I said and handed him the wristband. “Happy birthday.”
Eric examined the wristband as one examines jewelry for defects. “Oh, you know, Robert, I actually don’t really wear jewelry,” he said.
“I’ve seen you wear necklaces before,” I said. He shrugged. “Look, the woman said it was supposed to symbolize friendship.”
“Robert, that is so sweet. Yeah, it’s just that, I mean those were gifts from people who were close to me? I just hate how money driven gifts are. I really didn’t want you to spend anything on me. I’m the team leader. That has to be so awkward, right?”
“It was nothing, really. It hardly cost anything.”
“Robert, that is so sweet,” Eric said. “You really should get an Inseyed. Nothing’s better than the movie inside, right?” Then he set his head into the Inseyed, which was a new way of saying you were done talking to someone.
I walked down to the boardwalk and shuffled through packs of tourists, their motorcycle-helmet heads waddling past knick-knack shops selling miniature replicas of celebrities. Stunningly real! read the sign above the kiosk. When my feet touched the sand I tugged at the wristband until it snapped in two. I felt good as the wind carried the frayed fabric off somewhere.
Several homeless men slept on the boardwalk. One wore an Inseyed with a cardboard sign hung around his neck: ‘nO monEy neEd help’. Someone had taped a piece of legal paper to the Inseyed: keep dreaming.
Around the time Trent started calling me Rob instead of Robert, he invited me to a friend’s house for a Godzilla marathon. It was his favorite, an old Japanese movie about a dinosaur scaling a building or something.
“We watch until it feels real,” Lily, Trent’s friend from University and the host, told me. “Who needs an Inseyed?” she asked of her guests, and they all cheered an emphatic not us.
She hugged me when I offered my hand to shake, and apologized she didn’t have more food—though I couldn’t see the table beneath all the hors d’oeuvres. She was small and round, but seemed to take pride in looking up at people. At work, we whispered, if we spoke at all, so it surprised me that with Lily, Trent talked loudly in the way of people who have nothing to hide. Because they finished each other’s sentences, I assumed everyone had been acquainted for a very long time. They exchanged touches with one another almost as much as they breathed. I flinched when Lily hugged me, and she shook her head. “Girl, what I’m gonna do to you?”
Trent had picked me up in his car. The drive was quiet and smooth, but a hot and wet pressure permeated the air. In the shadows and darkness, I could barely pick out his face. It wasn’t until we arrived at Lily’s that I could really see him. His manicured nails sparkled in the yellow street lamp. He wore a black pleated skirt, halter-top, high heels, and a mane of long blonde hair. He smiled at me. When the door opened, Lily exclaimed, “Hey girl!” and they began to speak Ebonics with such quickness and hunger my head spun. No one referred to each other as he, but as she, not him,but her, and when I later confessed to Trent that I did not like sci-fi, he told me, “Girl, do you,” which made me laugh and want to watch the movie anyway.
I’d driven to work that day. The 405 wheezed and stalled, rolled its eyes, set its chin on its hand, and strummed fingers on leather. My car still had a radio. I turned it on. A man and his partner in the car next to mine sat in their seats, their spines erect and long, and their heads buried in an Inseyed. Cars moved themselves forward and slowed simultaneously, until you got to a manual car like mine, which often caused delays in traffic other drivers were eager to honk at if they were paying attention.
Eric had received a promotion, so the whole office was congratulating him when I arrived. They bought him a cake, which he enjoyed by staring at it. When he saw me, he waved me down and approached, his face glowing.
“Heard the news?” he asked. I nodded and said that I had. Eric sipped his coffee and eyed me from over its lid. “Listen, we’re all going to have a party, like an actual party, at this club downtown.” He toyed with the Shiva locket around his neck. “You should come. This weekend?”
Before I could answer he gripped my shoulder so tightly I could think of nothing to say.
When I looked up, his back had already turned to me. As he walked away, I heard the dangle and jingle of his jewelry.
“Just bring him, Robert. I’m not a bad person.”
I visited my father now and then when we had something to talk about.
His kitchen smelled of cloves, artificial meat, cumin, and curry. He chopped zucchini and garlic and chewed his lip. He was old. I called him so whenever I wanted to feel young, and because it was true. He wore a thick beard and had one large eyebrow, an emotive one that didn’t understand jokes and always saw an ulterior motive behind compliments.
I watched him boil potatoes and stab knives through their bellies to test if they were done. He asked me if I’d eat the simulation meat he bought, and when I reminded him that I did not eat that stuff, he shook his head.
“Robbie,” he admonished. “It’s fake. Nothing got hurt.” I nodded and told him he might be right, which confused him more. He wiped his hands on his waist and sipped a glass of wine.
“We are starting to see more patients with virtual disorders,” he said over dinner, with a grumble. “All of them are real, but…” He shrugged and stirred the lentils and potatoes on his plate. “There’s no real danger anymore, I guess.”
We watched Godzilla twice, then I taught everyone the game Trent and I played where we muted the movie and substituted our own dialogue. Trent said Gozira! Gozira! And Lily exclaimed, followed by an uproar of laughs, oh no dis bitch did not when I called the monster a dinosaur, and she told me that it actually meant “gorilla whale.” Trent explained that Godzilla was a metaphor for war.
“A long time ago, people used to drop bombs on each other,” he said. “Then they made movies about dropping bombs on each other.”
After we’d seen the movie too many times to stay awake, we helped Lily clean up. Before we left, Lily hugged me again, but I still flinched. “Girl, what you need to do is get out more,” she told me. “You be in that head too much.” Trent laughed, kissed her on the cheek, and said goodbye.
I told Trent about Eric’s party as he drove me home, and that Eric had made it clear Trent was invited.
He said, “See, Rob? I told you.”
But it was so hot outside that I didn’t care. I rolled the window down and watched my hand dip and rise in the air.
I told my father the man they found dead in his driveway had crawled there. He had used the Inseyed for so long his body atrophied. His skin slithered backward as if preparing for some metamorphosis that would never come. I told him police said, had the man survived, he would have been a vegetable for the rest of his life.
“He wouldn’t have been able to feed himself, or bathe, or any of that,” I said. “That’s not real?”
My father dabbed the side of his lips with a napkin and coughed while looking down, which was his way of saying he didn’t know what to say.
I don’t remember much of Eric’s party at the club. As soon as Trent and I arrived, a girl named Edna appeared with Inseyed visors. These were smaller versions of the headgear which could only augment reality. The sensation it provided was like drinking too much alcohol, although I’m only guessing—no one really does that anymore.
“Hi, I’m Edna,” she said and slipped the visor over my head.
I protest and she whispers relax, and suddenly I am dizzy and the room is awash in music and popping blues, electrocuted greens, zags and delays of neon yellow, virtual stripes, and the go-go dancers shake and gyrate in costumes with heavy, dark lines. And Trent has disappeared but Edna kisses me and her eyes have no pupils and she tastes like candy. She teaches me the choreography to an old music video. We mimic the motions awkwardly and mockingly, and I enjoy thinking about how long ago it was that people used to dance like this, and how wonderful it is that we no longer do so.
When I ask her if she likes the music playing, she snickers and says no even though I catch her humming every lyric. She says she is very tuned into other people’s emotions, that she’s great at reading them. She knows people. She snickers before she says anything. Her clothes are manly and quiet, and she stands deliberately, aware of her best angles. Everything she says sounds calculated and rehearsed. I’d ordinarily avoid a girl like Edna, but maybe Lily was right; maybe I did need to get out more.
A girl with stringy platinum hair and a big, yellow dress attracts a crowd by imitating how people used to speak. Edna and I watch her with squinty eyes and smirky lips. The girl adjusts her hair and intones her voice.
“Jimmy, would you like to go online?” She runs a satisfied hand through her hair. “Would you like to chat?” Everyone giggles when she says online and chat. She says the word over and over again until it sounds frightening. “Jimmy, do you love me? Come chat with me. Don’t you want to chat?” Edna laughs until her sides hurt.
I helped my father clean up; the sound of running water ate the leftover quiet. Knives and forks clanged together and soap suds gathered on my fingers. The hot water stung my hands, turned the skin red and made it itch. I rubbed my knuckles until I couldn’t feel them anymore.
“Are you okay Robbie?” my dad asked. I didn’t reply. “Have you ever tried using an Inseyed?” I told him no. He stroked his beard and walked toward his library, a collection of books with words in the titles like turmoil, simulated emotion, artificial, and cognitive healing. “We think the Inseyed might help the mind reprocess trauma,” he said, searching for a particular book, his eyebrow serious. “It could be a tool of great healing.”
“You haven’t been listening to me.”
“On the contrary,” he said and snapped his fingers. He pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to me. “I’ve been listening to what you’re not saying.”
I notice Eric talking to Trent across the club. Trent wipes his brow and looks like he wants to leave and Eric keeps raising his hands and pointing at his phone. Trent looks disgusted and Eric puts his hands together as if praying and Trent sighs and looks down at his feet. Edna turns my face to hers and leans in.
“Your mind can bend your reality,” my father said as I took the book reluctantly.
I search for Trent like I search in dreams—lazy, awkward, incorrect. Edna pins me against the wall and kisses me again and Trent finds us and the three of us begin to dance, our hands stretched above our heads. None of us knows how to dance, but I imagine we are doing something tribal and meaningful, like how people used to pray to the air. I sweat too much and order water at the bar. We all end up in a small room where I finally get the chance to talk to Trent.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
“I can’t remember anything you ever said—” he sings back to me, the Inseyed visor on his head. I reach over to take it off and he keeps singing, pushing my hand back. “—you don’t hold a candle to the movies in my head—”
“What did Eric say to you?”
“Why?—I can’t remember any life I might have led—”
“What did he say?” I ask again and reach over to remove the visor. This time he pushes me back harder and with a strength I didn’t know he had. He laughs when I look stunned.
Edna sways and sings along with Trent. I pull my visor off, but the room is so drab that my head aches, and I put it back on.
“Can you believe people used to go suicide?” He asks when he’s tired of singing. He runs a thin hand through his wispy hair. “There’s another place to go that’s just as good.” He says it with an unsettling laugh. I tell him enough is enough and that I should take him home, and he shakes his head no and looks like he might vomit before he says, “Fuck you, ROBert. I don’t need your help or your pity. Fuck you.” When Edna sees the look of shock on my face, she says that maybe it’s time to take his visor off, but he pushes her away too and says, “You don’t fool me,” which seems to upset her. She tells me to ignore him, and that people say awful things when they are unhappy.
The three of us sit on the curb outside of the club. The early morning air is crisp and dirty. I pick at the cement as if it were mattress lint I could tear and mold. Trent smokes a cigarette, and a fat cop stops in front of him but leaves when he smells the grass scent. Underneath the visors, the sunrise looks alive and fiery. We stare at it for a long time before Edna says, “We shouldn’t stare at the sun.” We keep at it anyway. I slip the visor off at some point and the sun becomes soft and gooey, a boring disc of pizza dough, and I wonder what’s so special about it.
Once Trent had driven me home from Lily’s, I got out of the car and told him I’d see him at work. He honked his horn as I walked away. I turned around. He slid to the passenger side and poked his head out of the window.
“In the original Japanese films, Godzilla is referred to as it,” he said. “But in the English dubbing, they call him male. They call him the King of all Monsters.”
I laughed and I nodded my head, said okay, but obviously didn’t follow.
“But then, there was a remake of the movie where Godzilla laid eggs.” He waited for me to put two and two together, but it never happened. “Only a female monster would lay eggs.”
I nodded and stood, confused.
He laughed, smiled, pressed a button on his car, and waved. “Thanks Rob. Tonight was fun.”
I often caught my father reading books with his name on the cover, staring at the same page for hours, mesmerized by three hundred or some letters and a period. He stood in his study, his head leaning deeper, glasses slipping off his nose, until I or something else woke him.
The cover of the book he gave me had his name on it too. I flipped through the pages. Words like virtual therapy, reprocess,and de-traumatization glared back. I stared at it as you might a gift you intend to throw away, and he must have noticed, because he set his hands on both my shoulders and calmed his voice.
“Look, I’ll buy you one,” he said. “Give it a try. You might be surprised.”
Maybe he was right. I had seen the doctors in television ads—crossing their arms, their white gowns sighing across pressed khakis. Some smiled, others leered—they gazed through and outside of the screen, into me and at me. They told me it was okay. They told me to give it a try. I might be surprised.
Could there be real danger in ubiquity?
I’ll buy you one.
When my Inseyed arrived, I unwrapped the box, tossed the popcorn and silicon, and removed the black cantaloupe of a helmet from its coffin. A long time ago books used to be as heavy as babies, and this was heavier than that, so no wonder people never read back then. People said the Inseyed couldn’t be broken because it was made of material from Mars or something. I had no intention of using it. I situated the headgear in different places in my apartment, hoping it might make interesting art. But like all truly ugly things, the helmet didn’t fit anywhere, so I took it to work. Eric saw me with it and set his hand on my back. He leaned into me until his locket fell across my shoulder.
“Finally got with the program, huh?” he said in my ear. “I’ll see you inside, then, yeah?” When I told him I hadn’t even used it, he offered to come over and “set me up,” and when I declined, he shook his head and said he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
For the rest of the day, everyone talked about versions and updates, charge times and load times; they talked about verisimilitude, about simulations, and about the past. What did people do when they couldn’t live out their fantasies? They wanted to know. They wanted to know whom I would be inside.
They called it going inside.
“Been inside yet?”
“Inside, you can actually go to Mars. Can you believe that? Mars. The Inseyed rocks.”
“I love painting inside. You’ll have to come see my work.”
“But none of it’s real,” I said. “Right?” Eric exchanged knowing glances with a couple of the guys and then looked at me.
“Well, I’m not smoking anymore,” he said. “That’s pretty real to me.” It was true. I hadn’t seen Eric smoke in weeks, not since the incident with Trent at least, and he wore a cigarette behind his ear like a trophy. I wanted to show Trent the Inseyed so that we could make fun of how ugly it was, but when I walked to his workstation he wasn’t there. All of his things were gone.
It took forever to reach him. He agreed to meet me at the Fred Segal Museum in Santa Monica. I found him in the women’s denim exhibit wearing a hoodie pulled tight over his head, large sunglasses hiding his eyes. “How come you weren’t at work today?” I asked.
We dawdled through the exhibit, marveling. He paused frequently to catch his breath, and when I asked him if he wanted to sit down he ignored me. “How come you weren’t at work today?” I asked again.
“I quit,” he said. I stopped walking but he kept on. He coughed into his hoodie sleeve and stopped in front of the restrooms. I set both hands on my head and asked him why he’d quit, and when he didn’t answer I decided not to ask again. I told him my father bought me an Inseyed. He stared at the walls, his hands tracing them like he’d never seen one before. He remained quiet.
“I got with the program, I guess,” I said.
“There’s always a program to get with.” He continued to investigate the wall.
“Trent, what did Eric say to you?”
“You won’t be seeing much more of me.”
My heart sank. “What did Eric say to you?”
“Actually, you won’t be seeing me at all.”
His hand must have found what he’d been looking for, because he removed his sunglasses and stared at the FEMALE sign, an image of a woman in the shape of a dress. I saw his body begin to shake. When he looked close to crumbling, I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and helped him up.
“I hate here,” he said. And when I asked where, he seethed, “here.”
We walked down to the pier, his body using mine as a crutch. The sky and ocean were gray, dirtier than the sand, and the wind was cool and empty. It smelled like must and plastic. The beach was loud, but the people sat mute with their heads in their Inseyeds. He smiled at me. We watched the ocean water zip and unzip until it was too dark to enjoy.
Eric came over twenty minutes after he said he’d be there. When I opened the door, he rushed into my apartment and flopped down on the couch, talking about a grocery employee who couldn’t tell him where anything was because she didn’t speak English.
“One day we’re all going to point at pictures to talk,” he said. “And that way, we won’t have to deal with people who don’t speak English.” He laughed, but when I didn’t, he sighed. “Right? Since we’re all pointing at…”
My face was wan and my expression blasé. I watched him scan my apartment and twirl his locket between his fingers. I asked Eric if he would like to take off his jacket and he said no, that was okay. I offered him something to drink but no, thanks just the same. I couldn’t think of anything else and so I finally sat down in front of him.
“Eric,” I said, and his eyebrows lit up at the sound of his name. My mouth was dry, and it was difficult to speak. I was deliberate with each word. “What. Did. You say. To Trent?” His eyes traveled to the ceiling. He shrugged and shook his head. “You said something to him that night at the club. You don’t remember?”
He pivoted his head and thought, but it looked like a catalogue pose. He picked something off his jeans.
“I mean, Robert, I don’t really—” He laughed. “I don’t remember, that was a few nights ago now.”
I couldn’t tell if he was lying. I shut my eyes and shook my head. “It’s fine.” He rubbed the prayer beads he wore. “It’s just that he quit, and I saw him today, and he didn’t look very good.”
He smiled. “That is so sweet, Robert,” he said. “You are so sweet.”
Where was he going? There’s another place to go that’s just as good. Eric cleared his throat and stood up. I could feel his eyes on me. You won’t be seeing me at all, actually.
“I know what you need, Robert,” he said. “Where’s your Inseyed? You’ll feel much better after this.” I pointed to the headgear without looking. He followed my finger and brought it back to me. He offered me the cigarette on his ear and when I declined he smirked. “Alright, come here.”
He pointed to a series of images in the helmet’s HUD. He rubbed the prayer beads and pointed to bodies in limbo, bodies in flex, arms raised, legs spread, holes, hair going this way, fingernails doing that, poses, suggestions, sensations, snippets of illicit time.
“It’s just like real sex, except you can make your body however you like,” Eric said. “Your partner’s body too. Any fantasy. Any taboo.” He shrugged and handed me the Inseyed, and I felt a pang of anxiety. “It’s just better, Robert. And easier.” Before he left my apartment, he knocked on the door frame and said, “You’ll see.”
As soon as Eric left, I strapped my head into the Inseyed, but nothing happened. I took it off and checked the instruction manual. It was nothing but a thank you note from the manufacturer in three hundred and twenty different languages. The Inseyed was heavy, like having two heads. It made me sweat, turned my face cherry-red, and squeezed my eyes—sucked at them like a vacuum. It made a ghost howl, a long and seductive nothing sound, that machine purr I remembered from the office on so many hot and boring days. I snatched it off. I got hungry, and tired of waiting for something to happen.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The ugly thing was gawking at me from my dresser so I tried it again.
This time when I slide my head inside I am awash in white. I lose sense of time, but am aware of losing it. The rush and loss is ecstatic. I do not remember why I could not sleep, and I forget about Trent. The sensations are all at once and all over and all the time. The bed sleeps. The air conditioner burps. The couch yawns.
Whenever Edna went somewhere, she took me along. She refused to be seen alone, so there were always many of us. Their clothes were daffodil, not yellow, and cyan, not green or blue. She told me I was handsome and that’s all she needed in a man. She called me love. When we had sex, one of us daydreamed. I told her it will be okay when she got upset, and she told me baby don’t be like that when it was my turn. She told me, “I don’t believe in love” while fondling her mink coat. She seemed happiest when talking. She often told me, “we will be together forever” while brushing her hair in the mirror.
Her friends were important and large in every sense imaginable. They winked at you instead of saying hello. They were usually unavailable, and tended to cancel plans mere hours before they were expected. One, a documentarian and polyglot, cured our ennui by saying any word we chose in any language we wanted—her favorite being Ebonics because she said, “it’s just so real.” But she didn’t know it like Lily or Trent, and hearing it made me feel nostalgic. She talked about representation, subjectivity, and objectivity. She said she didn’t own any mirrors.
One night a passerby said her films were terrible, just awful, and she waited until he left before saying, “I am so bored of people and their conventional taste.” Her name was Teresa, and when I asked about her films, she became eager. She said I don’t know if it’s your thing and a lot of people aren’t into it and asked do you know who I mean? after naming someone. After an hour of talking she apologized. “Enough though, about me, what about you?” she asked. We continued talking about her films.
Another, a music producer named Smith, wore headphones over his ears, so you had to tap his shoulder to get his attention. He danced to beats no one else could hear. When I pointed this out, he said, “There is rhythm in everything, but I guess you can’t hear it.” Everything he heard was instantly good or bad. He told me, “Robert, open your eyes, man,” with his closed, bobbing to a song playing through his headphones.
I found them tedious and wanton, silly and without, and I wanted to tell them so, but Edna said I needed to warm up to them. “Just be yourself,” she said, although I thought the advice was aimed in the wrong direction. I’d tell her that, and she’d say, “Baby, don’t be like that.”
I use the Inseyed for cybersex more often than I sleep with Edna, because there is a calm and ease to it—no expectation, no demand, and the women are exotic and dreamt up—made—and I control them. I lose sense of time and place—hours pass inside, but the sensations are never-ending and I can’t tell the difference, I just can’t, so I couldn’t care less.
I saw Trent in the grocery—it’d been weeks since we stood on the pier. He shuffled down the skinny juice aisle. His white t-shirt hugged a carcass of leftover skin and bone. His face looked gone as he stared at the orange juice, his mouth ajar, perhaps scanning for deeper meaning. I called out to him. He started at the sound of his name and dropped the container. When he saw me, his eyes widened. He retreated backward, his eyes settled on me, teeth chattering like cartoon dentures. I remembered reaching out for him, but either he wasn’t there or I wasn’t there because I couldn’t, and then he was gone.
I shook until I got home and went inside.
Hours later, I’m out. I draw in a breath and exhale. My face is sweaty, soaked and wet. I am blank and calm.
I received a friend request from Trent on my Inseyed. He doesn’t mention the grocery store. He tells me he’s given up on his physical life and that he’d appreciate it if I refer to him by his virtual name, Tonya.
“Trent is dead,” Tonya says in a v-message.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
When the Internet first came out, people had to connect to it and disconnect from it, like a switch you’d turn on and off. Then, overnight, they were always connected, first in some places, then everywhere. No one now remembers how it must have felt to be disconnected from something, and we all look back and marvel at how frightening it surely was to be alive back then.
Inside, there is no reason—and no way—for Tonya to hide. We are everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“Restrooms are desegregated here,” she says with a smile. She adds, to be clear, “But I could use the woman’s restroom if I wanted.”
She says they call her Ms. in here and that pleases her to no end. “Everyone here is like me.”
But how can I be sure it’s Trent? Is Tonya actually Trent?
“What’s your favorite movie?” She says Godzilla. I say okay. “And what would you say if I told you I didn’t like it?”
“Girl, do you,” she says, and I laugh.
“Would you like to play a game?”
Tonya tells me that it used to be called role-play, but “It’s so real that now everyone calls it play.” You play by going somewhere, wherever you want, and she demonstrates this by taking us to the beach, where two surfers with Sanskrit tattoos emerge from the water. “So the goal is to blend,” she says. She runs a hand through her mane of long blonde hair and adjusts her black bikini, and the two surfers jog up beside her. One whistles at her and murmurs, “Damn girl,” while the other bites his lip and then whispers something to his friend. Out of the side of her mouth, like a practiced ventriloquist, Tonya says to me, “Not to do anything but blend, and make the scene real.” She gathers some sand and tosses it at the surfers. They look playfully angry and begin to chase her as she runs away.
I take us to a boxing match where everyone in the audience knows each other. We watch the boxers throw jabs and duck and dodge. We cheer them on and I feel a soft sensation in my stomach. A man in the audience stares at Tonya and she gestures toward the fight, suggesting he watch that instead. We go to the grocery and buy broccoli, imitating how people talk to one another in stores.
“Thank you, ma’am,” the cashier says to Tonya.
Tonya holds up a finger as if to ready herself, then she tousles her hair and asks, “Jimmy, do you love me? Do you want to chat?” We laugh. I think of the movies we used to watch. Here, we don’t need to mute or sync. We create our own movies. We are the actors, and we speak our own lines. We shape our lips into funny faces. Neither of us feels the need to be cynical or ironic. It’s a relaxed sensation, this game, with no expectation or equivocation.
“I don’t want to stop playing,” I say.
“You have to eventually.” She glances at her painted toenails.
When I was a kid, my father told me to make believe. “Pretend you are on Mars,” he’d say, and spread his arms wide, looking down at me. “Or the Moon.” So we’d go to the Moon, and he’d say, “Now, you can’t walk like that, because on the Moon there’s no gravity.”
“How do you know?” I said, and then I bounced around, because I figured that’s what happened with no gravity.
“There just isn’t.”
“Stop lying, dad. That’s not real.”
“Yeah, and if you don’t hold onto something you float away.” So I held onto his leg and let him do all the walking.
I fell asleep during the screening of Teresa’s documentary. The room was cool and dark, the voices in the film soft and soothing. The drive over was long and Edna talked the entire time. I dreamed of the Moon—I dreamed of playing. I longed to use the Inseyed. There’s another place to go that’s just as good. ;-).
When the lights in the room turned back on, a roaring applause echoed, startling me. Eric’s body lounged and smothered the small chair next to mine. His lips came dangerously close to my ear, and he murmured, as if sharing a dark secret, “You didn’t miss anything.” I suggested we find Edna and leave, but he was already standing.
Eric and I watched Teresa shake hands and glide between semi-circles of distinguished lines, proud squares, serious rectangles. Her hands caressed each and every guest as though they were family. Thank you, she said, and truly, I appreciate that and I do hope so, I do hope so. She hugged me and asked if we liked the movie, and I said it was okay, and she said, “I guess it’s not your thing,” and Eric smiled at her and said that it was very, very good.
“Thank you,” she said. “Truly, I appreciate that.”
Tonya tells me that playing liberates. She says the world wants to be played with, but humans never had the right toys to do so, and that is why we turned inside. “Because we want to play with the world, sculpt it in our image.” After food, water, and shelter, one of our basic needs is play.
We visit Czechoslovakia and speak fluent Czech, curling our tongues and accenting our vowels. In France we eat baguettes on spindly chairs and smoke Gauloises, and many men flirt with her. She blends. “Play is never bad, only good,” she says. In Mumbai we sit in padmãsana on floating lotus flowers and sip sweet gulabi chai.
Teresa took us to a sushi bar after the screening, and I learned Edna and Eric shared a language. They knew code words, and threw them at one another like confetti. Edna said, “I just don’t know if I believe in love,” and Eric said, “What’s to believe?” Edna said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m all alone,” and Eric said, “Don’t be like that,” and she laughed. Eric slipped his arm around her and retracted it when the waiter brought a round of appetizers and miso soups.
The menu was all artificial meat, and when I refused to order, Smith said, “It’s all fake, man. Nothing got hurt.” I smelled Szechuan and beef, oil and perfume. My contacts itched and I wanted to tear my eyes out. I rubbed at them until the room blurred. Teresa was teaching Smith how to use chopsticks by holding his hands in hers and scooping rice. He kept laughing, spilling it on the floor and making a mess on the table. Pots clanged and Edna giggled and Eric slipped his arm back around her. An old Chinese man on TV said, why don’t you go bounce on the Moon? My fingers rubbed against my chopsticks until I’d nearly ground the tip of one to a nub.
“Man, you use ‘em like this,” Smith said. He showed me what Teresa just taught him.
“I know how to use chopsticks,” I said. “I’m not an idiot.”
Another bad dream. The man and his raisin eyes, his doom gaze, he looks at me and says fuck you ROBert.
I got up from the table and stumbled into the bathroom. My eyes stung from the fog of incense smoke. I gathered a pool of water in my palms and dunked my face. Neatly folded monogrammed towels sat next to a fat, fist-sized porcelain Buddha, and because of the way it smiled at me I wanted to crush it. I removed my contacts and set them in a clean receptacle near the faucet. The door creaked, and I looked up to find Eric’s reflection, hazy and hovering in the doorway. In my blurred vision, I couldn’t make out his face. His fingertips drew an imaginary line up and down the door’s wooden inlay, and his other hand cradled the Shiva locket dangling from his neck. He rubbed the locket between his fingers, flipped it, caressed it.
“Edna told me you would be upset,” he said. “I mean, she said the two of you were growing apart, right?” His voice was mechanical and practiced. He picked up the receptacle with my contacts and stared at it. “I thought so.”
I snatched the receptacle from Eric.
“I just—” A woman came into the bathroom. Eric leaned on the counter and nodded politely to her. She approached the mirror and stared at her reflection for a long time. She cleared her throat and pulled out a compact, tapped her face with powder, dabbed her fingers in a white cream, and smoothed it beneath her eyes. Eric stared at her until she sighed and returned the compact to her purse. As she walked out he smiled at the floor. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. With everything. It would be better for all of us.”
Wide-eyed, I set a contact on my fingertip. It felt slimy and gross in my eye. He came closer; I must’ve looked like I needed consoling. I didn’t feel it, but I looked it, my body slumped and sullen, my eyes red and tired. It was real to him. Was this the spit in my food I’d been waiting for? I realized then that this was all a role-play. All I needed to do was blend.
I looked at Eric in surprise, and he grinned like I was about to shatter. I laughed. The laugh was angry, and then genuine. My sides hurt, and I wiped my eyes as I turned red. Eric laughed too, but uneasily—defensive—and he stopped laughing when I wiped my eyes of tears.
“That’s sweet, Eric.” My vision slowly returned. The room was the same, but Eric’s smile melted into a blank gaze. “Really sweet.”
He tugged at his blazer and cleared his throat. He sorted out a kink in his neck and bit his lower lip before narrowing his eyes. His long penetrating gaze pinned me to the mirror.
“I told him to get real,” he said. No. There was the spit. I panicked, knew instantly what he meant. His smile was gone, replaced with a sinister tightness, a mouth of teeth and lips and oh by the way. “I mean, I told him, ‘get real, no one is ever going to think you’re a woman.’ ” My palms were cold and my underarms hot. My breath came short and quick. He grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “I told him to disappear.”
He watched me, a spider he’d just trampled. “And it sounds like he actually did,” he said. He rubbed the cigarette behind his ear. “How pathetic. So weak.”
I covered my mouth, afraid I’d vomit.
He turned to face me after speaking to the mirror. “Am I still sweet?”
My muscles tightened and I looked around the bathroom for something, anything. I saw the porcelain Buddha.
Eric’s hands rose to stop me, but I smashed it against his head. He stumbled into the wall, groaned and slid down onto the floor. He stared up at me, dazed, before using the sink to help himself up. He wiped blood from his head, wobbled, adjusted his blazer, and left the bathroom without looking at me, his hand trailing the wall. I heard gasps outside.
The doctors say Trent was inside for so long that he’ll never walk or feed himself again—he cannot see or hear, and he certainly can’t talk, but go ahead and try anyway, what could it hurt? His mother and father bring cards, balloons, and flowers, and she cries while he paces. Every time I visit Trent I have nothing to say, except once after a few weeks when I say, out of nowhere, “I don’t know if you know this, but Godzilla is actually a metaphor for peace.”
The doctors monitor Trent’s meals when he begins to eat again, surprised when he can pick up a spoon and fork. They want to know what he eats for breakfast, how much fruit, does he have toast, how much butter, and I see them documenting all of this in digital charts and graphs. When he can speak again, he tells me he has gained fifty pounds since being here, and I believe him—the hollowness in his face is gone, but his legs still look as little and useless as butter knives. He talks a lot about yoga and healing—and he is too weak to do so with pride, double meaning, vanity, or pretense, so I listen without judgment and with intense interest.
Now that he can talk with the nurses, he says they call him Mr. in here, and that bothers him to no end, so I call him her and girl, which seems to give her peace of mind.
She tells me she sees a physical therapist that teaches her padmãsana and virãsana, and after another month, she can stand and walk, albeit with a crutch. It takes her a very long time to think of something to say. She draws a lot because it calms her nerves.
We watch TV, and I mute the program and fill the silence with whatever I can think of, but Trent gives me a puzzled expression, so I stop. This happens every visit. I don’t think she remembers much before going inside.
When she learns to read again, she quotes the Bhagavad Gita. She tells me, “Among the wise, some say all action should be renounced as evil.” I tell her that book is old. “We should not renounce all action,” she says. “Self-sacrifice, giving, and self-discipline should be performed without desire for selfish rewards.” I say okay.
We talk about Eric once.
“He’s not a bad person,” she says.
I shake my head. “Girl, you wrong.” That gets her to laugh.
“You might be right,” she says.
The doctors ask about her diet less and less, and she has been given more freedom in the facility. She can dress herself, read, sing, stand, walk, and bathe. She teaches me how to fold my feet and sit in padmãsana, and we do so under an oak tree in the park. We sit in one another’s silence with our palms facing the sky.
“I’m going back in,” she says. “When I get out of here, I’m going back inside.”
The tree is old and big, the leaves rustle and sparkle. The wind ruffles our clothes and hair.
“I’m not,” I say. We both sit beneath the tree and reflect on what this means.
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” she says as the doctors prepare her things for departure.
When I have read and learned the Bhagavad Gita as much as she has, I say, “Pleasure from the senses seems like nectar, but is bitter as poison in the end.” This causes her to pause.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
OBJECTS INSIDE ARE NOT REAL
I find my father sitting in his library smoking a cigarette in the dark. I take one of his pens and begin to doodle my name on the face of a book. I start with R and then O, but my fingers can’t remember the right motions to make for E and definitely not B, forget B, and when I lift the pen to see what I’ve written, each letter is zig-zaggy and zany, sloppy and lazy, and I’ve spelled R-O-D-R-T. I set the pen down. The smell of smoke relaxes me, and I sit next to him while he wipes dust off his books. He stares at his name on the spines of the books and flips through the pages without reading anything. He squints and coughs before realizing I’m sitting next to him. He murmurs a hello, shoves his head into one of the books, and rolls his eyes at something he sees.
“Dad, can you be happy in a delusion?” I ask. He keeps thumbing the pages and murmurs to himself, setting the cigarette on his lip and grabbing a different book.
“Uh, sure,” he says. He coughs and exhales a cloud of smoke. “Well, one person’s delusion is another’s reality.” He rubs his head and scratches his beard. The marijuana smoke curls around him. He sighs and tosses the book to the other side of the room. “All these books I’ve written and not a goddamn interesting thing in one,” he says. He laughs, offers me the cigarette. I grin and shake my head no.
Last I used the Inseyed, I noticed its warning label. How had I not seen it before? The white screen pops up and says, in big text, WARNING: OBJECTS INSIDE ARE NOT REAL. Long ago, people used mirrors to distort time and space. They would look in the mirrors and think they were fat or thin, and the clothing stores loved it because the mirrors sold clothes. At some point, warning labels were installed on those; they said, WARNING: OBJECTS ARE DIFFERENT THAN THEY APPEAR, but I bet no one paid attention to that either.
I still have the urge to use it. During those times, I fill my sink with cold water and plunge my head inside. I wait until the water soaks my nose and eyes, until a prickling sensation stabs my face and a burning feeling coats my lungs. When my vision erodes and I see spots, I make believe I am on Mars, or the Moon, and I bounce into space and wave goodbye to Earth below, and the atmosphere is bleeding me, making me deteriorate from the inside out. I hear give simply because it is right to give and nothing is better than the movie inside. In Czechoslovakia they say get real, man when I visit them, and the supreme self is deathless because they are very spiritual and Krishna visited them last year. In boxing matches, I cheer louder than the rest and I tell the man on my right there’s another place to go that’s just as good. I go anywhere, and I go everywhere, and when I pull my head out, I am left soaked and wet, blank and calm.
Brandon Webb was born in Portsmouth, Virginia and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University in 2008. His fiction borrows elements of sci-fi and magical realism to explore the grotesque, the sinister, and the darker aspects of human relationships. His previous work entitled “Translation” appeared in Brink Magazine in 2009. His favorite author is Flannery O’Connor. As of this writing, he lives in San Diego, California.