Fiction and Drama
Months of sex, years in the gathering.
Excerpted from Private Citizens, forthcoming from William Morrow.
Machines take me by surprise with great frequency.
I. STROKE OF GENIUS
Vanya knew about the porn. She had to. Right? Certainly she knew of it; that Will dabbled, fleetingly and without remorse. A few months ago she’d asked (maybe a bit too casually): Baby, have you watched much porn? He’d said yeah, and that was the end of it. But thank god she hadn’t asked exactly how much he’d watched, because the honest answer would’ve been most of it. So far as Will knew, to Vanya it was a normal guy thing. A quirk . . . though quirks were usually effects and not causes of one’s personality, and by that standard, Will’s porn watching was no quirk — it was pure trait.
And though he hadn’t watched it since he’d met Vanya a year ago, it was still a huge part of who he was, of what he’d consumed, and it was here now, and Vanya was not. What did she expect? He’d never delete it — it was too important, indisputably rare and beautiful. Never mind the man-hours it’d taken to download it; to create file tags and XML-formatted scene markers; to regularize the file names and formats; to fill gaps in photo sets and find hi-res scans of DVD cases, front and back; to complete the back catalogs of particular performers (since in porn, the juvenilia was often the masterpiece); to build his seed ratio on invite-only Torrent forums; to decipher thousands of CAPTCHAs to prove that he was human; or to assemble the storage solutions to house its gigascale, then terascale, then petascale volumes — he’d only watched about a third of it, so it remained in many ways a mystery even to him.
Over the years he’d cultivated an eye for composition, an ear for rhythm, and impeccable connoisseurship. That one-and-done you wanted to ID all these years? Aline Batistel, and she did a scene as Paula Becker for Brazilian Hustler too. That flawless blonde, whom only the collapse of the Soviet Union could produce? Alena Hemcova — or Alissa Romei, Lenka Gaborova, Katerina Strougalova . . . but drill deeper into the file hierarchy, past the MF and FFM and MMF and MMMMMF, beyond the Zenra and Private, the Woodman and Steele and ZONE-sama, the doujinshi and lemon fic, into the farlights of eros, where there was no niche he couldn’t cache: eco-friendly BBWs bukkaked while cemented into sidewalks, flexi Juggalo stepdads cuckolded by butterflies, cum tributes to horses torn in half, spray-painted soup men donkey-punching intersexed RealDolls. He’d also watched gay porn in a state-of-the-union capacity — you would think the redundancy of male equipment would limit the palette, but wow, no.
Since he’d been seeing Vanya, months of sex, years in the gathering, had just sat there like regretted kitchen appliances. What to do with our useless virtuosity? His collection belonged in the Smithsonian, though that’d never happen. But why? If the objection was that porn was tasteless, profane, distorting, or exploitative, then porn was just really honest TV. And now there were canonical sex acts — the sex tape as heroic fucklore in an era of democratized you-porn. Porn was obviously art; it just had weak criticism. People driveled about its politics, culture, commerce, morality. But who was defining it? Just because porn didn’t have to be good didn’t mean it shouldn’t be. Will had been troubled by the rise of livestreaming, which was like replacing cinema with improv; and on the other hand, an encroachment of self-aware, camp irreverence: Bangbros, Cum Fiesta, Big Sausage Pizza. You couldn’t find a convincing cheerleader anymore, there were only porn cheerleaders, with pigtails and lollipops, hosed down with hand lotion by yard-long prop cocks to the accompaniment of thrash metal. It catered to an audience so porn-saturated that they needed to be reassured they weren’t taking it too seriously. Thus irony had finally kicked in the garden walls of the orgasm, sincerity’s last refuge.
The real question was whether masturbating to porn was an art form: not as “erotica” or performance art, but as solitary pursuit of the sublime. Someone must have done it seriously, subtly, with literacy and flair, a masturbauteur — maybe it was Will. One time he’d discovered he could play the same clip in two windows side by side and cross his eyes to stereoscope the image into 3D, so long as he took Dramamine first. Another time he’d erotically hypnotized himself with a recording of his own voice, a little squicky but more or less effective.
Now he sat half-recumbent with his undershirt bunched under his chin and twelve videos tiled across three monitors. Revisiting porn after many months refreshed all the marvelous warps in the glaze of pornic fiction. Like how it never rained. Or the beguiling divot in Nadia Nyce’s forehead, which looked like Bree Olson’s, who was otherwise indistinguishable from Ashlynn Brooke. That subgenre of guys offering “real” girls money to fuck on camera, thus synchronizing the fantasy with reality. The moment at the beginning of a gonzo scene where the actress switched her focus from the camera to the other actors, and audience became voyeur.
Every hour or so he wristed the sweat from his upper lip and coughed with the sudden awareness of how dry his throat and eyes were. He used to wonder at his fondness for porn actors, since he categorically resented people for whom sex came easy, but porn wasn’t easy; everyone knew it was a clearinghouse of coercion and addiction, which cut down on smugness. Will preferred not the smirking glamoristas, not the Tori Blacks and Delta Whites, but the Sasha Greys and Anastasia Blues, those who brought their sordid biographies before the lens, the ones you couldn’t watch without thinking, My god, this girl is going to die someday . . . Occasionally they were dead already, making it especially clear that when they were on your level or lower, degradation-wise, guilt increased but shame usefully decreased. All this disqualified him as a good person and a feminist, but he wasn’t antifeminist either, more of a solipsist — and if solipsism was theory, then masturbation was practice.
Maybe Will liked porn for not insulting him by pretending it had anything to do with the reality of sex, or with him. How could he relate, when there were no Asian men in porn? They weren’t any more underrepresented in porn than anywhere else, but still it bothered him sometimes to manage his desires by watching white people fucking, or white-on-Asian, or black-on-white, or sometimes white-on-black or black-on-black. Well, there was some AMWF (god bless that Lexi Belle), but it was so depressing to see the low user ratings and comments it always got. Porn from Asia was another obvious exception, but with its ludicrous censorship, even Asians denied the Asian cock, burst it into a cloud of pixels, and Will’s attempts to demosaic it yielded only ghostly approximations. But there was definitely no AM-disabled-WF — Will and Vanya were unimaginable even to porn.
On day three of his binge, Will was getting impatient with the tedious editing of a POV FFFM CFNM A2M DTD BJ scene. He launched his video-editing software, and after checking on his bid for the anodized-aluminum skillet he was buying for his mother, he tried trimming the clip down — too jumpy, and the cuts disjointed the sound; he fixed it with subtle cross-fades and clip stretching. He normalized the dynamic range so it didn’t get all loud when the cameraman was talking. He discovered that speeding up a blowjob was hilarious, and slowing it down produced an appealingly bestial lunar-gravity effect. This was great: he could pan, crop, and zoom exactly like he . . . huh.
A pulse of red static scorched through Will’s brain. Inspiration.
He abandoned watching in favor of editing. He sought better tools and raw files. He found an image stabilizer for handheld POV scenes, and audio filters to muffle the sucking-through-clenched-molars sound the actors made. Render times were a bottleneck in the workflow, so he hauled his old desktops out of the garage, popped in some spare RAM, and fashioned an HPC cluster to distribute the processing. After two days he was performing macro-assisted edits practically in real time, with three fingers on his trackball and his other hand striking hotkeys, occasionally leaving no free hand to jerk with yet maintaining jet-hot arousal throughout, while his overclocked towers ran double digits over operating temp, their rushing fans overwhelming the solemn allegro patter of his percussions.
At random intervals, icy glitches of repetitive strain relayed up from his middle and ring fingers to his elbows. Both wrists, Velcroed into pantyhose-colored braces, bore seamy scars from carpal-tunnel surgeries. His left-handed death grip triggered fat flares of pain, masked by the crackle of his limbic system. But Will outdid himself now by managing to climax hands-free, and that was better anyhow, haunted as he was by the likelihood of developing some grave asymmetry between his hands.
Admiring the clever cutaways in a Claire Bandit scene, Will began to reassess form. He stopped stroking his cock and stroked his chin instead. The usefulness of looping, skipping, pausing, the fact that porn wasn’t watched so much as intensely skimmed, was proof in itself of the shortcomings of linear sex in real time. If sex was raw data, and indeed it was, it should be semantic and context-aware. A reminder to pay the water bill popped up on-screen and Will paid it, then bought some eye drops. Maybe he could try a picture-in-picture inset. Or try lifting assets from one film into another?
Lumbago pinched in his back like a bedded nail. He pirated DAZ Studio and used Vanya’s hi-res photos to skin the models, just because he had so many of them. With some filtering, some relighting, a few hours of figure rigging and keyframe, he could composite her into other films, controlling each joint and gyration. Well, there was one way to get Asian men into porn: in postproduction.
He screened his works. Porn that didn’t require people. What was porn, after all? A set of expectations. The frontiers were wide-open: machinima, teledildonics, sexual death matches. Using game engines, performances could happen in real time with human agents conducting virtual surrogates in constructed environments, and it’d be trivial to mod the physics, script behaviors, add or subtract orifices and phalli, random-generate genders. One man could be ten men, ten men one woman. Will realized he’d poured the foundations for the homebrew online collaborative erotic composite performative found-footage remix. The world’s first, as far as he knew, and he would know. Dozens of cameramen, lighting and motion techs, and audio engineers could collaborate over team chat in the authentically realized fantasy, in the shadow of which ordinary copulation was merely tediously possible. Better than having sex, you could make sex. People would only need to watch. Love would be free at last.
All of which might be nice to daydream about, but Vanya would be coming back eventually. His stroke of genius was just a tributary obsession after all, and maybe it was for the best that whatever the aesthetic pleasures, the actual physiological release felt unsatisfyingly forced, like a pepper sneeze. He resisted the shame he was supposed to feel; a life of rejection had funneled him to this meager consolation, the one kindness he could render himself, and he was supposed to feel bad? Fuck that. He would allow some self-pity, however, and some primal reluctance to be seen for a while. It was good that porn didn’t watch you back.
He passed the week’s final climax like a drain clog, and with the barrening of lust came the crushing return of perspective: that sexual release imperfectly eclipsed dread, and the vertiginous awareness of disrobing in front of your computer to watch other people fuck along with millions of other people worldwide seemed like some decisive failure of the human experiment.
With fatigue and eyestrain and simulator sickness besetting him like a flu, all enthusiasm erased, Will looked down and saw his hand, the desk, and his undershirt streaked in blood. He panicked. He searched “blood in semen”: surprisingly, it was OK. Will cleaned up and lurched into the shower more for spiritual than hygienic purposes. When he returned, his room had a heavy smell of skin. And there was nothing to do but sit at his computer again.
He’d accidentally killed a week and didn’t know what to do with its corpse. How to overwrite feelings and ideas, the necropolis of streaming teens and throbbing integers and data rubbing against data. The silent tyrannized horde of his memory.
Will smoked rapidly as he walked, as if to form a personal nimbus in which to travel undetected. He resented each step up the boutique length of 24th Street, in weather that someone else might call lovely. But nothing was lovely when you were inconvenienced.
He’d obviated most errands when he’d started ordering everything online — small-batch-bourbon subscriptions, Virginia-stamped cigarettes, crates of produce each Wednesday. But he now found himself suffering the outrageous indignity of mailing a letter: an invoice to a client who hadn’t adopted e-billing yet. He was trudging to a metal mailbox four blocks away to deposit a piece of paper inside another piece of paper for a metal truck to trundle to some brick building and the piece of paper to be hauled in turn from one tract of earth to another, all to do what some excited electrons could do in a thousandth of the time it took to have this thought. Understanding that this was a problem of extreme privilege only made his irritation itself irritating.
The same enraged wind that had overturned the curbside recycling bins earlier in the day was now whirling bits of dried leaf into Will’s eyes. He reached the mailbox, clankingly thrust in the envelope, and spat in after it. Then realized he’d forgotten the stamp. He didn’t even own stamps. Fuck the paycheck.
He killed his cigarette and dropped it under his next footfall, lighting another and wondering whether there was a service that mailed his mail to the mailbox. Reality took forever — the underwater way people walked and sent their voices wobbling through the air, how printed words lay inert like bugsplat, all manifesting the basic duh of the physical plane. By the time he decided to go anywhere he wondered why he wasn’t there already. As soon as he sent an email he felt he should already have the reply. And learning any fact, he was annoyed not to have known it already, because whenever anything happened, the conversation around it had already trended and backlashed and been reexamined and swallowed and shat and reswallowed and reshat in a thousand places online, until all thinking felt redundant. We needed brain-to-brain; only then would we catch up to real time. Right now everything progressed so slowly that by the time we arrived at the future it was the present again. Everything would be annoying until the senses were surmounted and all media fell to the liberated message.
Will checked the time. It was now, as usual. Last week Cory had called asking for computer help, and though Will was sick of being anyone’s Asian tech support, he hadn’t seen Cory or the sky in a while, so he’d agreed. But Cory refused to go from her place in SoMa to Will’s in Noe Valley. She liked drawing ugly contrasts: in SoMa, she’d say, men in track pants scooted backward across the street in wheelchairs; in Noe Valley, women in yoga pants spanned the sidewalk with four-axle strollers. SoMa had panhandlers, Noe had accordion buskers. In Noe people stooped to pick up dog shit off the sidewalk; in SoMa people living on sidewalks stooped to shit on stoops. In the land of Have Not, even the tallest streetlights were smashed; in the land of Have, the garage lights came on when you walked by. Et cetera.
Will arrived at the half-empty Revolution Café and was not surprised that Cory hadn’t shown up yet — like most Californians, she considered punctuality anal and passive-aggressive, and had groomed him to expect tardiness since college, when they’d lived together. That was around the time Will had returned from his suspension for his stupid physical altercation to find that Linda had turned his and Henrik’s room into a sexual eruv. In spite of the bedsheet curtain Linda tacked up next to the bed, Will’s sleep was ruined by their cooing and humping night after night, and the floor was gritty with cigarette ash and hybrid hair bunnies. Will decided he was completely over it after they appropriated the whole box of condoms he’d bought freshman year out of tragically misguided optimism.
So he’d arranged to switch rooms indefinitely with Linda and live with Cory, even though he’d previously known her only as the girl who did hunger strikes, chanting loudly by her red tent in the Main Quad. And in fact they had nothing in common except the peevish indignation of having both been friend-orphaned — but at the time, that sufficed. Together they observed Henrik and Linda’s mating ritual with disinterest, agreed that couples were inherently selfish, encouraging vicarious egotism and demoting friends to second-rate conveniences. They joked about how Henrik was like Linda’s kid brother, always conforming and deferring, never contesting her, not even for laughs, no matter how much she humiliated him. “He’s, like, a fearminist,” Cory would say, releasing a billow of pot smoke. It went without saying that Will and Cory had no attraction to each other, and they ignored the subtle pressure to pair off; besides, they had a solidarity in solitude that Will felt was purer, more uncompromised, less manipulative than love. It was important to have a friend he could complain about his friends to. Even though she was often late.
Will bought a coffee and took an alfresco table beneath the open wall’s white canopies, soiled with a smear of mustard and blobby water rings from recently cleared glasses. Lighting a cigarette and balancing it at a secant on the rim of his mug, he checked his phone until Cory coasted along on her white bike, swinging in dismount. “¿Qué pasa?”
Hugging with double backslaps, Will noted she’d lost some gravity in her jawline — how clearly you could see the passage of time in your friend’s weight swings. Her hair Venned interestingly between morning neglect and political statement, and a pair of white sunglasses sat askew on her head. She wore jeans, even though she’d once said her thighs were the natural predator of pant crotches.
He kicked out a chair for her, and she dropped her bag with a tired uff, sending out a whiff of sweat and lotion. From her bag, she produced her monstrous laptop, navy blue and scuffed, quite as large as the lap it sat on. “Should we move inside?” she asked. “I’m worried it’ll get swiped.”
“This thing? This bread machine? If anyone steals this, I’ll buy you a new one.”
Cory ran her power cord into the café; her computer booted with the roar of a turboprop. She put her sunglasses on because screens gave her a faceache.
“Click there,” Will said.
She looked down at the buttons and the flat little rink of touchable plastic. A mangled alphabet, a 4 under a $, an 8 under a *. Twelve kinds of F. Cory blinked hard. Beside her, Will reached over and poked the largest button. “When you press this, it’s called clicking.”
“Dude, I know. I’m just trying to care.”
Cory belonged to that final muddy rump generation of college grads who could squeak by techlessly. She wouldn’t take any class that required computers, and her thesis adviser, a kindred tech hater, had lauded her clean typewritten drafts (“Not like these jagoffs who rip half their citations off Wikipedia. Fuck computers, man! At college I had a record player, bookshelf, and bong — now there’s a fuckin’ video arcade on every desk . . .”). Taren had been cool with it, since Cory’s work was mostly outdoors.
Will thought it was bizarre how Cory lost all faith and perceptiveness whenever confronted with buttons. She typed like she was using a Ouija board. She couldn’t distinguish a zero from an O (“They’re right next to each other”) or maintain any conceptual separation between the Shift, Cmd, Ctrl, Alt, and Fn keys (“They’re right next to each other!”). Her effort came across as both naive and senile.
“I only want to learn basics. Do email and maybe look at websites.”
“All right, what’s your email account info?”
Cory retrieved a leaflet from her messenger bag. “My office manager gave me this. Are these passwords? Do I need a password? . . . Don’t give me that fucking look.”
“Yeah, this’s fine. I’ll set it up through Gmail, which is a — ”
“Ew, isn’t that Google?”
“Yeah,” Will said. “Unfortunately for you, Google is capitalism at its finest. If they wanted to enslave the world they’d have done it by now.”
“They have done it. I don’t want them attached to my name. Ulgh, those creepy black buses. All those start-up douches. The rents. It’s cliché to say, but tech companies have ruined the Mission. No offense.”
“Gold rushes have always been ‘ruining’ San Francisco. Ruining it with money and jobs. It beats earthquakes.”
“The way tech companies turn services into verbs and products into nouns. Doesn’t it depress you that Googling is called Googling? That they’re privatizing language? They even took the letters I and E.”
“Don’t forget ‘You.’”
“And this doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, they’re counting on your blasé fatalism.”
A passing bird briefly interrupted the sun. Will produced a cigarette from nowhere and leaned back. “How can you dismiss something you don’t even understand on a basic level?”
“Oh, you condescending butthole. ‘You don’t like it because you don’t get it, sweetie.’ Pat me on the fucking head while you’re at it.”
“You’re disenfranchising yourself by being ignorant about the tools everyone uses.”
“By ‘everyone,’ you mean young, affluent, computer-trained — ”
“It’ll get cheaper and more widespread. Technologies like electricity and transport and birth control don’t fall under your rubric because you’re looking at the finger and — ”
“The middle finger pointing at poor people?”
“ — and not where the — OK, whatever. Does it bother you that your phone calls go through big telecom companies?”
“Uh, yeah! I hate it all. I hate that I have to know what an iPhone is. I hate that Steve Jobs gave our commencement address. I hate that everyone knows technology and textiles are made by slaves and they still don’t care. I at least want people to stop caring whether I care.”
Will had those glasses that darkened in the light; the sunlight was bright enough that Cory couldn’t see what he was thinking. He sat with his cigarette arm relaxed over the back of his chair, blowing smoke from the edge of his mouth in a diagonal jet that widened out like a speech bubble, which he filled with these words: “You know the Luddites weren’t successful, right?”
“Actually, they were executed for breaking a law that made machine-smashing a capital offense. That moment when machines officially outranked human life.”
“They achieved zilch and got fucked by history. You’re the one who wants everyone engaged in community. Now it’s online.”
“The internet is a vile, omnivorous privatization machine. A technological vector of capitalist domination. Heidegger.”
“Yo, you don’t win arguments by saying ‘Heidegger.’”
Cory dug donuts into her temples. Will’s argument was: If she stood for progress, why not technological progress? Because social benefit wasn’t consumable — people wanted hoverboards and phone cases, not infrastructure, green energy, shit, not even food production. The tech ethos was to do less with more, the false empowerments of consumerism, inventing conveniences for the vanishing middle class, the Marcusian identification with property . . . plus, as technology became more complex, it got harder to regulate and appropriate, so technological progress was regress to mysticism. Ah, and it kept getting thinner. “I’m saying that building communities on private infrastructure is bad. The way I understand it — ”
“You don’t, but go on.”
“ — the internet’s a shopping mall. A global corporate holding pen masquerading as public commons. The public doesn’t work if nobody’s in it. You can’t protest online; there’s no space. The overlords who turned the world into property are now making property proprietary and virtual. Molding and standardizing human relationships to function as components in the assembly line. And don’t forget, it was all developed with taxpayer money for the military and thrives on government subsidies, like all supposedly bootstrapped free-market horseshit.”
Fuckin’ Cory — she thought she could tar him as some crypto-conservative just because he wasn’t an activist. Sure, technology was awful; just less awful than most things, and much less than she thought. “People want shopping malls,” Will said, “and they’ll make them, because convenience trumps freedom every time. Don’t blame tech for that. Dismissing the internet is like dismissing buildings.”
“You can’t live in a website.”
“The walking counterargument begs to differ. Are we doing this email thing or what?”
Cory relented. She felt mentally arthritic as he said “window focus” and “right-click context menu” as if those were real things. Would we even have email in five years? Would we have people? “Listen,” Cory interrupted, “all I want is a list of steps.”
“You won’t need one if you take a minute to learn basics.”
“Will, why do you insist — ”
A pebble fell from somewhere and bounced painlessly off Will’s skull. Cory laughed.
“OK, break time,” Will said. “You want a snack? It’s on me.”
Cory declined and Will went inside. Accepting Will’s gifts felt like enabling some pathology his money had created. Somehow his ethics of consumption were cavalier and generous and cynical all at once: he kept loose singles in his pocket for panhandlers and flashed his membership card at ACLU canvassers, but only to shut them up. Couldn’t he at least feel bad? She remembered once in Palo Alto he’d made Cory wait while he ducked into an Apple Store to replace a $300 gizmo he’d accidentally swallowed (“Don’t ask”). He threw out the receipt and bag and the brick of packaging, scratched his initials into the casing with his car key, and slid it into his coin pocket while walking straight past a homeless guy. He was a great object lesson in how money could make even charity frigid.
Will returned with a clear glass mug of linden tea. “Drink it.”
Mezzing out for a moment, Cory stared at the shadow cast on the table by the steam, undulating like a sheer curtain. She stirred the fat dollop of honey in the bottom up into a slender cyclone and it vanished. “Let’s get this over with. No abstractions, or I walk.”
Will stepped Cory through the click-here, click-there to get to her email. Reviewing her notes, she rolled her tongue and said, “I guess that’s easy enough.”
She had more than a thousand unread messages, with subjects like “following up (again)” and “Calling the office NOW” and “ATTN: CORDELIA ROSEN, MESSAGE FROM A HOT WIFE.” At the top was Barr’s email. Cory clicked on the message as if disarming it:
Subject: Datum Daddi
October 6, 2007 1:13 AM
profitable proprietorship! Provided in the proceeding: a pamphlet (printable PDF) of proper preparatory preliminary punctilio. Your proud pater is pals with prominent professionals who’ve proffered prodigious patronage: you’re pardoned from paying a penny.
BAN ERRORS; don’t be SCARED LOONIER -Pa
“The fuck is that?” Will asked. “Ban errors?” Cory teed her chin on her palm. “My dad’s anagram thing.” Indeed, Barr had once bragged that he’d chosen Cory’s name for its vowel/consonant mix. CORDELIA ROSEN: ODOR LARCENIES, DROOL INCREASE — or with her middle name, A RELIANCE ON DRONES. He’d probably spent all evening on this email. She’d stupidly hoped he might offer actual help. “Can you open the pamphlet for me?”
Will crab-danced his hand across the keyboard. “Oh, Handshake,” he said, reading the file. “Vanya went there. Public speaking, networking, all that biz-dev happy horseshit. Self-satisfaction guaranteed.”
“Should I go? I’m clearly too stupid and young to run a company.”
“Bullshit. This is the valley of preteen CEOs. Vanya’s younger than you and she’s starting a company now.”
“Oh right, Vanya. How’s she? Is she still, um, hot?”
Cory lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her face. “Well, thanks, dude. For the help. Want to take a walk?”
“Nowhere. It’s nice out.”
“Ulgh. Can we at least walk toward my house?”
Cory tossed a crushed napkin at Will, which bounced off his chin and onto his plate. “You’re such an agoraphobe.”
“Don’t you ever want to get out into nature?”
“Only if I couldn’t.”
“Just appreciate it,” Cory said. “We just stared at a screen for an hour, you can’t do five minutes of sunset?”
They bussed their table and strolled west to Noe Valley. “You know,” Cory said, “the inability to enjoy nature without dominating it is a major cause of conflict.”
“You’re a major cause of conflict.”
The air was so warm and clean, Cory couldn’t feel it entering or leaving her nose. The evening light seemed injected with a vitreous dye as the sun sank in a hurry. Ah, stay! Enjoy your own colors! Nature was so indifferent to its own majesty. “Look” — pointing skyward — “so orange! And those horsetail clouds. It’s like a piece of salmon!”
“Or lines of coke on an old bruise.”
“Will. Don’t ruin the sky for me.”
Will walked beside Cory. If you preferred the indoors, everyone assumed you were scared of life or emotionally stunted. That wasn’t it. It was just ugly outdoors. Sidewalks with their stubble beards of filth; scabby trees pregnant with vermin, weeping sap, stewing in dog piss. Sure, it was nice to have some fresh air while he smoked. But he was myopic, hard of hearing, congested — reality was lo-fi, slow and obstructing, too cold or too bright, filled with scrapes, sirens, hidden charges, long distances, pollen, and assholes.
“This weather! I die!” Cory said as they hiked the steep anti-runaway sidewalk on 25th. At the top, she leaned on her bike with her head thrown back and mouth open like she was catching rain. “My headache is poof, gone!”
She took off her sunglasses and shook her hair out in the quiet orange breeze. Will suspected she was hyped on low blood sugar and due for a crash. He felt sad that he had to police his tendency to ruin things, and sad again that there was so little in the world he could enjoy nonvicariously. “Call me if you have more dumb questions.”
Cory hugged Will and pecked him. “Remember how you used to wipe off your cheek? Like a widdle baybay.”
“Never say that again.”
Will left, and when he glanced back from a block ahead, Cory was still on the corner facing east down the hill, where the sinking light was flushing the low properties of the Mission royal purple.
III. First Exposure
Will looked at the calendar on his phone and counted days on fingers in his head. Vanya was gone until January, and the question was how to make her less gone, how to make the distance less long. Will had killed plenty of time; now he would kill space.
He fought noon traffic to the Best Buy downtown, turned left across a double yellow line to cut into the parking lot’s inlet. Among the retail shelves was some problem decomposition to bring Vanya to him; he prowled them, looking for solutions in the conjunction of dongles. He emerged with two bags of boxes and the feeling of mild letdown that followed shopping.
That afternoon he littered his apartment with burst packaging and the sprayed sweetness of freshly opened electronics. The webcam was zip-tied to a plastic mount and clamshelled, encased in Styrofoam braces under a cardboard partition and a Baggie of manuals, within the support cardboard, within the taped-up product box, shrink-wrapped and bagged. Tearing through it, he realized he’d bought the wrong converter — as usual, a male-to-female compatibility problem. He went back to the store and hated everything all over again.
Before his scheduled 9 PM video chat with Vanya, Will kicked aside the mess in range of his webcam, made sure his tie lined up with the buttons of his red cardigan, and pulled a licked comb through his hair. The call came in. Vanya’s bun was impaled by a pencil, and she bobbed as she did curls with her pink six-pound dumbbells. “Hey, baby! What’d you want to show me?”
“I’ve figured everything out.”
He demoed the webcams, one for the living room and one for the bedroom, autoswitching the feed to whichever had more movement in it. Hook them and an omnidirectional mic to one of his porn towers, then connect that to his wall-mounted flat-screen with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter and voilà: a persistent telepresence window.
Vanya set down her weights and applauded. “Baby, that’s so cool! How much did it cost?”
“Not much.” It had cost about $400: not much. “You can set one up at your place,” he said.
“Here? I can’t be chatting all day.”
“You can disable it whenever. And soon you’re going to be on camera all the time anyway, right?” A polite lobe of Will’s brain questioned whether this invaded Vanya’s privacy; Will’s swaggering majority lobe fired back, IT’S A RELATIONSHIP, BRO! And a relationship was nothing but a profound invasion of privacy: invasion, followed by occupation. Pissing while the other flossed, farts under shared sheets. And what was less private than sex? “It’s ambient,” Will continued. “Easy to hook up. I’ll ship all the equipment to you, preconfigured.”
Vanya screen-kissed. “OK, I’ll do it. You’re nice, mister.” Vanya decided things quickly and without cumbersome afterthought. “Anything else to show me?”
The engagement ring still sat in his jacket pocket. He recalled those online videos of failed wedding proposals — men rejected onstage with maximum pomp on live television, stammeringly repeating their proposals as if their girlfriends’ silence were a mere issue of latency. Will shook his head, and after another cool LED kiss they disconnected. He overnighted the telepresence equipment to Vanya.
For the next two months, they lived on each other’s flat-screens in the evening; Vanya called hers the Baby Monitor. The setup was more passive than he’d expected — her webcam was mounted like a security camera, so she rarely faced him, and she muted his audio while she worked. But at least Will could verify that she was in her apartment and not auditioning his replacement. Occasionally she waved to him, and on his end he cranked the volume loud enough to hear the airy roar of traffic outside her Crown Heights sublet, and he liked being able to bless her whenever a sneeze detonated from his subwoofer.
The camera was curbing his masturbation, which was probably good. Instead he fed himself on the cookie crumbs of Vanya’s web presence. He got push notifications on her social-networking activity, search alerts on her name, an RSS feed on her blog. It was as preoccupying as porn, but with no finish.
During the final weeks of December, while Vanya toured Europe with her parents — instead of spending time with him like she’d promised — Will evicted his downstairs tenant, visited Linda in the hospital, hired a cleaning service, jogged, and smoked.
Waiting for Vanya at baggage claim in January, Will was so anxious to see her face that he almost didn’t want to. She was easy to spot leaving the elevator with her large carry-on bag in her lap, wheeling a straight path through the crowd, some giving her berth, others aggressively tailgating. She looked like an ad for herself, the new 2008 model, with fresh highlights under a Maserati-red plastic headband and the parabolas of her chest agonizing a lace-collar blouse. Taking Vanya’s bag from her lap, he gave her an airport-appropriate but nonetheless French kiss.
“The TSA practically disassembled my wheelchair,” Vanya whispered. “They think I’m a terrorist? Kind of ridiculous.”
Her face was somehow altered; some finessing of angles, its bevel or cant, ratios ineffably more golden. Her smoky eye, bangs sliced to the brow — still the same. What was different? Her ears, her teeth? No, it all looked same and good except . . . her nose? Had it been rescaled, narrowed, planed? Had she gotten work done in New York?
“Did you get work done in New York?”
Vanya yawned largely. “Work’s never done.”
Their sexual reunion made for a gory spectacle, as Will temporarily became a carrion beetle — he lapped and nibbled, slurped and squeezed in from every angle. In his precious minute of sanity following orgasm, Vanya made him an offer over the pillow. She’d been talking him up to the executive board in New York, and they were impressed by his cheap telepresence setup and portfolio; how would he like to be Sable’s chief technical officer?
“Not just a CTO,” Vanya said. “You’ll be on the lifecast anyway, so you might as well cohost, right?”
Weighing the unseemliness of becoming his girlfriend’s employee, Will inquired about duties. Vanya took her laptop from the bedstand and opened her notes, hair still plastered to her forehead with fuck sweat. “You’d oversee operations and throw together cheap, stable livecasting solutions. I just sent you our current setup, take a peek?”
Will opened the attachment on his phone. Too many cords and converters, weak battery. He met Vanya with a lordly smile. “I could do this way better.”
“Do it! Do it!”
“Sure. Yeah, why not. Is this interview over?”
Will started kissing her but she nudged him back. “Actually, there’s more to discuss regarding your presentation.”
“I have to do a presentation?”
“I mean, your image. You’ll need some media orientation — camera etiquette, style reboot, that kinda thing. Reworking the optics. You gotta get back on social media, obviously. And I was thinking maybe, like, tweak your name.”
“What? My name?”
“It’s impossible,” Vanya said. “Will N — — — — — — . It’s chowder.”
“We’d just change it on the website.” Vanya rubbed Will’s shoulder. “To make it SEO friendly. It’s standard showbiz practice. Look” — Vanya splattered keystrokes across her laptop — “like how Freddie Mercury was Farrokh Bulsara or Jon Stewart was Jonathan Liebowitz.”
“What about Beyoncé? Or Björk?”
“Short and catchy. Yours is neither. Baby, it’s just for the show, it’s not even legal.”
“So I’ll be what? Will Williams? Will Smith?”
Vanya smacked Will on the arm, pretty hard, he thought. Her Texan accent was becoming faintly unsuppressed. “Don’t pretend I’m trying to whitewash you. Didn’t your family change its name when they immigrated to Thailand? Because of that law?”
She was referring to the law that required all Thai families to have unique surnames, so they got longer and longer over time, with the consequence that now Will carried around a bulging diaper of syllables. At least his first name was unremarkable and not one of those octogenarian names Asian guys got, Albert, Arthur, Bernard, Chester, Eugene, Joseph, Harold, Howard, Norman, Victor, Vincent, Walter . . . though even those were better than some of Will’s relatives’ names: Phuk and Klit, Bing and Thong, Ing, Eh, Aah, the Wannatits, the Kissaporns. (This cut both ways, as any tourist named Jim or Dawson learned.)
“Visitors need to instantly grok you,” Vanya continued. “You need to be conspicuous and memorable. You’re a young, attractive Asian man, and if people could say your name, then they just might. What about shortening it to ‘Will N — — ’? It’s catchy, and still quote-unquote Asian-sounding.”
He had no reasonable response to this. But he did have an unreasonable one: “No way. I don’t owe stupid white people any courtesies.”
“Oh my god, this again!” Vanya said. “I’m white, so I can’t have an opinion? Choosing your own name is empowering. Maybe you’d be less annoyed if people didn’t always trip over it.”
“I’m annoyed? Remember that cashier last week who sighed at my credit card? I annoy them. They butcher it and then giggle and say all this dumb face-saving bullshit. ‘Boy, that’s a mouthful!’ ‘What a beautiful name!’ ‘Where’s that from?’ ‘What are you?’ It’s all part of — ”
“Let me guess, racism.”
“ — well, yeah! How people are OK with racism against Asians because they’re outside the black-white binary. I’m not even talking about all the slant-eyes and konichiwas. Like, you can still say chink on TV, and when there’s any outrage, people think Asians are being humorless. Trannies, midgets, fatties, geezers, chinks, all fair game. You can outlaw hate crimes, but you can’t force anyone to respect or desire you. So no one thinks we’re oppressed.”
Vanya loosed a spray of uppercase Fs and Ps. “Because you’re not! Get over yourself! It’s pure Nineties PC self-pity. You’re acting like I’ve never experienced discrimination, when I’m a disabled woman in tech. I’m sorry, but you’ve got it so easy. You’re exempt from both white guilt and racial profiling, Stanford-educated, rich, young, male — and, hello, able-bodied! And dating a totally cute white girl! Asian privilege is the bomb!”
“So being marginalized and ridiculed isn’t oppression?”
“Sure it is. And I’m saying you’re not. You just like pretending you’re oppressed because it lets you avoid responsibility. You’re ballooning this tiny first-exposure branding issue into a race war.”
“Interesting choice of words! World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the tsunami, nothing unites America better than gooks dying by the millions! Shit, let’s just fucking nuke North Korea and China right now! Everyone wants to anyway!” Will touched his stupid forehead. “Sorry, sorry. I’m just saying my name’s a trivial detail.”
“Um, yeah, it’s totally trivial, which is why I’m surprised that — ” Vanya closed her laptop and rested her palms on it, grimacing at the bumpy little curb their feet formed beneath the blanket. “Why do I get so drained whenever I tell you my plans? Maybe because you naysay every idea I have?”
“I’m — ” He almost said, I’m not a naysayer. “I totally support your show. But I’d like some say over how I’m presented, since it’ll be so popular.”
“Baby, don’t patronize me. This show is my life now, and if you’re going to be on it, you have to accept some tiny concessions. You know, married women have had to change their names forever. Not saying it’s fair, I’m saying they compromised with the culture.”
Will kicked aside the sheets to air out. Vanya would never take his name; hers was too saturated with brand equity. It’d be absurd to hyphenate or even adjoin them: N — — dreeva, Andr — — — . At least marriage was on her mind. The engagement ring, that circle of high value, was still in Will’s jacket pocket.
“You’re right,” Will said, though really he felt he was right, and much more mature for not saying so.
“So we’re settling on N — — ?”
“Perfect. I’ll handle everything.” Vanya tapped at her laptop; an action item had been consummated. “Baby, long names don’t put people off. Long arguments do.”
Yes they did — and what put off people put off Vanya. Vanya sided with People, Will with Will. But the less considered re: that the better.
His name must have released some kind of stimulant from its severed end, because over the following week, Will ate more shit faster than ever, hunting bargains, researching components, drawing schematics. After six days he arrived at Vanya’s place with a tangle of hardware in his shaking arms. Vanya buzzed him in. “I figured it out,” he said.
Here was Vanya’s sousveillance rig, a six-megapixel wearable webcam with an integrated mic. The primary webcam was a black prism the size of a cigarette lighter, with a blue LED and a lapel clip; a second HD webcam jutted upward from a flexible stand on the wheelchair’s armrest to capture Vanya’s face. Through a zip-tied fascicle of cords, both cameras were hooked to auxiliary batteries and three 128 GB SSDs in a single enclosure, and drew high-speed wireless from redundant EV-DO connections on two cell networks. Raw footage was automatically encoded, image-stabilized, HDR-filtered, and fed out live to the site. Vanya could type and video chat with viewers on her netbook. She was delighted that everything weighed only twenty-five pounds and stowed under her wheelchair. “An able-bodied person would get sciatica hauling this stuff around! I’m sure things’ll get even lighter, but for now, my wheelchair’s an asset. You’re a genius! And I’ve been busy too. Want to see the beta client?”
Vanya logged in with her fourteen-character password, which Will made a mental note to crack later. The loud stomps of her typing made Will’s wrists sympathy-tingle. The blue LED on her lapel camera flickered awake. Her screen displayed the side of Will’s head, dithered and stuttering. He waved; his image remained still. “Why’s it all laggy?”
“There’s a six-second delay for filtering content, like on live TV. In case people try to mess with us.”
Will’s on-screen image waved, then turned to the screen and said in a nasal recorded voice, Why’s it all laggy? Vanya laughed and repeated her reply in sync with her on-screen image. It repeated again in chorus, and Vanya and Will joined in with it until the air glimmered with screechy feedback and Vanya muted the speakers.
“Isn’t it great?” she said. “We’re feeding out to our live staging site, so technically anyone could see us right now. Baby, say something to the world.”
Will looked at the blue light on Vanya’s chest. Vanya was facing the screen. He looked at the screen, where he was looking at himself six seconds earlier looking at Vanya, i.e., the camera. “Hello, world,” he said, and waited for his reply.