20190207

scenes from a cyberpunk road story, pt. ii

It's just cold by the time we get to New York, the kind of cold where the air burns your lungs even as the sun shines down on you with false promises of warmth. This is the kind of cold that kills.

I do not own a heavy enough jacket for this.

Still, even though Morgan says her sister has taken care of the surveillance to make sure nobody notices that we're here, it's a good opportunity to slip into town unnoticed. There are ways to identify someone who's bundled up for winter, but they don't use that sort of tech for casual surveillance, and I don't think anyone's looking for us here just yet.

Morgan's driving, because this is her town, even if she hates it. But she navigates like she knows it, and pulls into the parking lot of some building I instinctively think is too nice. These places aren't for people like us--well, people like me.

The woman waiting for us looks like Morgan if she were a little taller and a little thinner and a lot more interested in fashion. Morgan's parka is a dingy black thing, warm and functional and street-stylish. This woman's navy blue coat dress is the sort of designer brand that only even sells to corporate royalty. Somehow simultaneously understated and ostentatious.

"I like your jacket," she tells me. "I'm Elizabeth. I'm sorry that my sister has forgotten her manners."

"Nora," I say. "Thank you." Then, because I feel like she's expecting something more, "It's not the best jacket for winter. It doesn't get that cold where I grew up."

"I'll find something for you," she says cheerfully. "You two are popular right now, did you know?"

***

We've been reported as missing, as it turns out, which only means someone wants to find us and doesn't want to have to deal with cops. But whoever put out the bulletin had enough influence to make sure our faces were on every news report in the New England Commerce Zone and a good number of them in New York, which was . . . troublesome.

"It would be much easier to make that disappear if it were an arrest warrant," Elizabeth tells us as she pours us wine that costs more than I spend on food in a month. "Bribes are easy. Making this disappear is going to be hard."

"There's contact info, right?" asks Morgan. "I assume that's a dead end?"

Elizabeth nods her head. "They covered their tracks well."

"But you have a plan."

"But I have a plan." She claps her hands--an affectation, I imagine, both to draw attention to her state-of-the-art cyberhands and to disguise that she is simply sending a command to the drone that walks in, holding aloft a sleeveless dress in black and white. "There's no shortage of high society functions in winter--all the better to stave off madness, I imagine. Stay here for a while, make some appearances. Make it look like you're here to stay. Whoever's looking for you will know you're here, but Morgan the scruffy drifter is a much easier target than Morgan the corporate heiress. If they do make their move, we'll be ready."

I can tell Morgan doesn't like this plan, but I can also tell she's going to say yes. But I'm not sure how I fit in yet. "What about me?"

"What about you? We take your measurements, get you a wardrobe. So long as it's clear you're with us, no one will dare question whether you belong." And then she smiles brightly. "It'll be fun, I promise. And you'll be out of here before you know it and back to your glamorous vagabond lifestyle or whatever it is you two are doing." Her smile takes on a slight edge. "Which M will have to tell me about sometime."

Morgan sighs. "Yeah. Soon, I promise. Not yet." A long pause. "All right. I know you're only doing this because you miss having a tag team partner at these insufferable parties, but all right. But if we're staying still for a week you're doing more than helping us find dresses."

"Of course. And Nora?"

I shrug. "If Morgan's in, I'm in."

"Excellent." She beams at me. "I promise you will not be disappointed."

Maybe we've been on the road too long, maybe Elizabeth's enthusiasm is infectious, but for now, at least, I'm starting to feel pretty good.

20190108

scenes from a cyberpunk road story, pt. i

In no order.

It's harder than I thought it would be, leaving New York behind again. It's so easy to feel like home is this awful place when you're not there, to say you hate who you were there, you hate all your friends there. But I miss it. I miss when El and I were an unstoppable team.

Which means she was right, of course. She's always fucking right. I miss that, too.

Nora's driving again, because she likes it and she's better at it, but she keeps glancing at me. There's a question there, an unspoken "Are you okay?"--unspoken because Nora never says anything when she doesn't have to, and she knows I know.

"Home is like a glimpse into another timeline. A life where I never . . ." Here I sort of gesture with my cybernetic hand, because in many ways when I lost that I lost everything. "I spend so much time convincing myself I'm happier where life ended up taking me, but that's a fucking lie. You know? I loved it. And not just because my sister's still there."

She nods. "Would you go back, if you could?"

I hesitate, partly because I'm not sure I know the answer, partly because of the other reason leaving is so hard: because that's not such a hypothetical now. "Only if you can come with me," I tell her, and I'm not sure if it's just idle flattery or if I really mean it.

She nods again. Maybe she's not sure, either. Or maybe she's just processing. Either way, we ride together in silence for a while before she says, "You hungry?"

***

The food at these roadside diners is starting to taste like home, and I'm starting to realize that home is complicated. Home is the shitty apartment in Boston we abandoned when we skipped town just after Christmas. Home is scheming with El at New York high society functions, rubbing elbows with some of the worst people imaginable. And now, maybe, it's the road, all the greasy food and the shitty small towns and all the small town people sneering at the two girls from out of town.

Maybe home is just what happens when you finally get used to not fitting in.

"It's funny," I say, while Nora picks away at what's left of her fries. "When we got to New York I was sick to death of diner food. We spend a few days eating, you know, real food, objectively good food, rich people food, and after that suddenly this is fucking amazing."

"It tastes like adventure," she says. She sounds thoughtful. "Back when--when I was young, and we'd go on these long trips to nowhere because the eastern CCZ is nothing but nowhere, miles and miles and miles of it. We'd stop in at the truck stop outside town or some other diner or burger place and drink too much coffee and eat too many fries and then just drive, and it was wonderful. It was the only good thing about that place, and I miss it so much." She offers me something of a sheepish smile, then falls back to her customary silence.

"You can never quite leave home behind," I say. "No matter where you go it will follow you there."

She nods again.

"So. Do we keep driving or try to find a place here?"

20190101

what a fucking year

What a fucking year.

There wasn't a lot of room 2018 for hope or optimism or on some days enough energy to do anything besides get out of bed and go to work. But we made it. The calendar changed a digit, and people complain about how insignificant that is, but it's not. Every time you live to see that digit change it means you've lived another year, no matter how hard it gets. And sometimes that's something to be proud of.

I can't say with conviction that 2019 is going to be any better. But for me, at least, the new year has always been a time to regroup, to gather my strength, because whether you're ready or not, another year is coming. Sometimes you have to fight to stay afloat, and other times everything seems so perfect you wonder if you're dreaming.

I hope 2019 is the latter for you, but if not, just remember: none of us are alone out here, even if it feels like it. And remember that it's okay to be tired and it's okay to feel like it's hopeless. Just hang in there and we'll survive this together.

20181231

scenes from a cyberpunk road story, new year's edition

Happy New Year. Here's something.

I'm fading fast in the passenger seat, watching the snow quietly bury the New England countryside, when Morgan pulls the car to the side of the road. We're somewhere in the middle of nowhere and I have no idea why we've stopped, but the change in momentum has me awake for once.

"Hey, Nora," she says. "You awake?"

"Yeah."

"It's almost midnight."

It takes me a minute to realize that's supposed to mean something. It's almost midnight on the thirty-first day of December. We've finally made it to next year.

"I didn't want to just . . . be driving," she says. "You know?" She opens the door. "I'm going to step outside, walk around. If you want to join me . . . ?"

I unfasten my seat belt and step out of the car as well. We're miles away from the nearest town, and nobody else is crazy enough to be out driving in this weather. But here we are, alone together in the woods. Once we're both outside it seems like the only light is coming from the snow, like it's glowing. Other than that it's perfectly dark, the only sound the wind blowing through the trees.

"We made it," she says. "I did not expect to survive this year."

"Yeah," I tell her.

"That's what I like about the new year. You know? It's like a finish line. All you have to do is make it to the end of December and you're done. You survived. And that's . . . sometimes that's a lot. For me, anyway. But I survived. I'm here with you. We made it."

"We made it," I tell her.

The snow keeps falling around us, and she's staring up into it like maybe she'll be able to see the moon or the stars through the clouds--or maybe she's staring at something else, something only she can see. All the ghosts and regrets from the past year.I hand her the thermos I filled at the last rest area, full of shitty coffee, and she gives me something like a smile. "I'm glad you're here," she tells me.

"Me, too," I tell her.

We pass the coffee back and forth for a while. There's something magical about drinking something hot when it's cold out, when the snow is gathering on your jacket and melting on your nose and the wind cuts right through your clothes. The new year is supposed to be cold. The cold reminds you that you're alive, that sometimes you have to keep moving to survive even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts.

Then she quietly counts us down to midnight, because it's hard to break the stillness by raising your voice, and we whisper "happy new year" to each other, and after a moment she sings Auld Lang Syne, softly at first and then louder, more confident. And then when she's done the silence reclaims this desolate stretch of road and, with conviction, she says, "We should do this again next year.'

"You're on," I tell her.

Eventually we get back in the car--without saying anything we both agree I'll take over driving again and let her get some rest. The snow isn't letting up any time soon but it doesn't matter. Even if it takes a while, even if we can't take the direct route there, we're getting closer to where we're going, mile after weary mile.

20181223

courage

The Spire sits at the heart of what, I am told, was the greatest achievement that mankind has ever achieved, a geomantic network which harnessed the power of the very earth to make everyone's lives better, so long as they lived close enough to one of our nodes. When it still worked properly, they said, it made the crops more bountiful, it calmed the earth and the sky--and those were, I'm told, just incidental benefits.


It doesn't do that anymore.

You can make it work. It takes time and work and dedication and it doesn't usher in the promised utopia, but it does mean you'll probably have enough food to survive the winter, and the monsters seem to stay away.

Oh right. Did I mention there are monsters? There are monsters. And the nodes that, I am told, once made us so great, seem to corrupt the land rather than blessing it, blighting crops and calling storms on a good year. Sometimes it kills: a slow plague sometimes, a sudden poisoning others. And sometimes it seems to work its way into the mind of someone who lives too close and it just . . . makes them their worse self. And everywhere, throughout the world, this is happening, because once, forever ago, we thought we could get away with it.

I've been studying it for a while now, since every time we talk about it, every time it comes up that this is our fault, that people are dying, that the earth is dying because of us, they deflect. "There's nothing we can do but try to improve things now," they say, every time. And, sure, we help a village here or there. But the blight is spreading faster than that.

And there is something else we can do.

I've been talking to this stranger who seems to know more about the system than the sages who still tend to it--or, perhaps, the sages hope nobody figures out the truth. Because all we have to do is rip the stone from the heartroom of the Spire, and the system will collapse, well and truly. The corruption will stop because it's the Spire that is corrupting everything. The city will be destroyed, of course, but the world will be free at last.

The princess tried to convince her father that we needed to do this, and he refused. She's been locked up in the palace, and they won't even let me visit. They're worried she might somehow convince me to do what we had already decided I'd do if her plan failed.

I'm in the heartroom now, along with the stranger. (I begged the stranger to leave but they wouldn't. They said this was what they had lived their entire lives for. Which seemed odd, but I'm not here to argue.) The sages were nowhere to be found, almost as if they knew what was coming, so together, the stranger's hand on top of mine, we wrest the stone from its socket.

And the world is swallowed in light.

20181221

wisdom

The omens say the destroyer is nigh, that I am the one who will save us from ruin, but the omens, they tell me, have said that dozens of times in the past and no destroyer has come. The people have started to see them as omens of an era of peace and prosperity, and I suppose to them I'm a symbol of that. They love me, because they know that with me as their princess they will want for nothing. Which is to say: it's not me they love at all.


The empire I am due to inherit spans the entire continent, and is build on the backs of hundreds of nations, nations who starve so that my people will never know hunger. The songs I have learned that will save this empire from disaster were written because once we were a beacon of hope, a shelter against the darkness. Now we are a symbol of decadence and of oppression and of needless cruelty, and those songs . . . these people had no love for heroes, and anyone who saved them would not be a hero.

When I first met the destroyer, I knew them immediately, the same way that you know your father immediately. But they did not come with an army, and they did not come with the intent to destroy us, and when we became friends at first I doubted that they were the destroyer at all. Then, one day, at the top of my tower, I said to them, "The world would be a better place if this empire fell."

And then I knew. The destroyer, the person I was born to oppose, had come to help me. Had come to make the world a better place.

All empires fall, they explained, but the songs, for as long as other princesses before me have learned them, have kept mine alive and festering, an engine of ceaseless suffering. All I had to do is flee, abandon this people, and it would all finally fall apart.

*** 

The world burned slowly. It was not the great cataclysm from the prophecies, not the cleansing collapse that I had hoped for, but as the years went by the destroyer was clearly right about one thing, at least: all empires fall. Some die quickly. Some, like mine, bleed out slowly, painfully. I found a village in the mountains to wait out an end that seemed both inevitable and impossibly distant. It was peaceful, in its own way, to simply live, not as the embodiment of peace or hope or decadent, but just as a person.

The people hate me, of course, as much as they used to love me. But here in the valley the tax collectors haven't come, and the commissars haven't conscripted any new young people into the empire's armies. Maybe that's enough.

20181219

power

I don't know how many lives I've spent fighting her: her, her armies, her champion. Because every time I wake up and find myself in this world again, occupying another mind and another body for another lifetime, I am filled with this single purpose. She is my enemy, and her city must be destroyed.

She doesn't remember the countless lives we've fought, but she always knows me, somehow. Sometimes they know I am coming, from reading the signs and portents, others she seems to simply know at a glance that I am her foe, but no matter how cunning I am, she's ready. And however close I come, she prevails in the end. Her legend grows, and my defeat becomes just another song for her people to sing.

It's the same city every time, but the lands and the people are different. Sometimes even the languages change. And though I remember a hundred lives fighting--a thousand--ten thousand--I over the time the specifics fade. Only the defeat, the sting of the hero's blade, the burn of her magic. Those I will always carry with me.

I've arrived in her city and it is thriving, and for a moment the old feeling comes back: this is what I was made for. This city must burn. But this time something else has arrived with that feeling: the weariness of it all. After how many lifetimes fighting her, is it worth spending one more, only to fall in the end? Can I honestly convince myself that this is the time I finally win?

(A memory: one time I find her city but she isn't there. Or her heroes. The city burns so bright and beautiful, the smoke painting the sky in such beautiful shades at twilight, and even then an assassin's knife finds my back. Perhaps I set her back some, but even unopposed I still fail.)

I've been around for so long. I could be so much more than the would-be conqueror who fails time and time again. I could impart some of the wisdom of the ages to these people. If this city will stand anyway, I could make it a city worth standing.

***

Years pass. My wisdom draws her attention at long last, and she invites me to the palace, with her champion at her side, and she asks me if I would join her council. "The seers tell me that the destroyer's return is nigh," she says. "And if they do return, I will need your wisdom to fight them."

Some small part of me whispers, "This is our chance. We can betray her. We can destroy her. We can crush her champion. We can burn this city to ash." But it is so small, so quiet, I can almost not hear it over the stirring of pride in my heart. There is so much more we can do.

There is a chamber in the heart of the palace which will not suffer any of evil intent to enter, and she takes me there--the final initiation for all of her advisers. And though I am afraid, I am willing to take this risk--either I will be discovered, and I will die and return in another lifetime, or I will not, and I will be able to help her build.

Nothing happens when I enter. A priest anoints me with holy water and I become the princess's adviser.

***

We are both very old, now. The destroyer is past due now, they say. "Perhaps they are not coming," I suggest.

"Perhaps," she agrees. We have done so much together. Her city has become the shining heart of an empire, the most prosperous that ever existed.

"If the destroyer saw this city," I say, "even they would not wish it destroyed. It is too beautiful."

"Surely that would be a reason to wish it destroyed?"

"Perhaps," I tell her. "But I think it is so beautiful, so perfect, that no being, good or ill, could wish it harm. We have done the impossible."

The fear of the destroyer--the fear of me--inspired her to such great heights. And that legacy, I am certain, will continue for years. For centuries. This empire will never fall, certainly not to the likes of me. Not while its princess is so motivated.

And suddenly I understand what I must do to destroy her, and her kingdom.

I try to put the thought from my mind, but it refuses to leave. It stays until I am on my deathbed, and even then my last thoughts, after all I have built, are of the city burning, and how beautiful that will be.

20181207

cracks

I hadn't thought of you for years when I started having these dreams, like little glimpses into a timeline where I hadn't disappeared, where I'd go to parties and meet your friends and laugh and have a good time and when I finally went home I didn't feel exhausted or anxious or broken. I just felt alive. Like a person. Every morning I wake up and feel so much worse than I can describe, because that's not me. But the person in the dreams--it wasn't watching someone else, like so many of my dreams. It was me.

I didn't realize they were about you at first. Of course on some level you've always been there, haven't you? But as the dreams kept coming, and I'd wake with that strangely empty wistfulness, I could just make out your shape as my mind tried to piece together what had happened (and what hadn't). And then, finally, last night, you were there in the flesh. So to speak.

This one was different. It had been years, just like the real world, but you called. You were in town, you wanted to meet. So we met at a place which could have been anywhere, and I cannot tell you how happy I was. I should never have run away.

Then time passed, as it does in dreams, and I started to see the cracks. There were reasons I disappeared, reasons you never looked for me. We can forgive, perhaps, but neither of us were ever very good at forgetting.

When the morning came I was unsure if I wanted to wake up or stay asleep. Fortunately, I suppose, the real world rarely offers us a choice, and even rarer still offers us a chance to do things over again.

I hope you're well. I've lost so much since we last spoke.

20181113

had we but world enough

Winter's settling in and it's making me think of that time I took a bus out to New York one January because some band I liked was playing there and I had a friend or two who were also going to be visiting that weekend for some other thing so I figured, hey, might as well make a weekend of it. It was fucking cold out.

I used to just let my feet and my inability to say "no" to anything carry me wherever the night willed, so that night I ended up at some diner with a woman I think one of my friends might have known, because I needed to catch the bus home in a few hours and it was late and I didn't have a place to crash anyway. We drank coffee, we ate disappointing pancakes, and we just fucking talked for hours like we knew each other. Like her presence didn't slowly exhaust me. (Do you have any idea how rare that is?)

Anyway, it was maybe an hour before I needed to catch that bus and I was worried maybe the waitstaff was tired of listening to us so I said I should probably head off. It was probably thirty minutes of walking in the cold to the bus stop (much less by subway but I was young and needed to kill time, what did I care?) so I figured this was the end, but no. She walked with me. We were shivering by the time we got to Penn Station and she sat with me until the bus finally let me on board. We hugged goodbye, did the whole promise to stay in touch thing, and I rode the night bus home deliriously happy.

Sometimes we interact on social media now, but not often. (I think she, like most people, thinks I'm a little much.) I was afraid, I think, that anything else would ruin the magic. That there was something perfect about that night, but that that perfection was something singular: that it could never happen again, that it should always just remain as a perfect memory.

20180904

or just the one

If you insist on reducing everything to a life-changing moment, denying all of the countless events that made it so that one radical change was not just possible, but ultimately inevitable, then the moment I realized I was too nice happened when I got hit by a car and nobody did so much as stop by to see if I needed anything. I didn't even like these people, they weren't about to do me any favors, so why did I spend so much energy helping them? I always told myself it's just what any decent person would do, and maybe that's true, but if it is, none of them were decent people.

(We're ignoring all the other times people let me down when I tried to lean on them. The truth, of course, is that being everyone's doormat was not sustainable. But we can pretend for now.)

Practicing saying "no, I don't want to" is easy enough, but it's another thing entirely when someone's right there demanding emotional support. But the anger that I'd built up over the years of giving and giving and giving without so much as a word of thanks flowed through me then. So yeah, when the kid who said he couldn't pick me up from the hospital because he had nebulous plans to "hang out" with his new girlfriend came by the house and started complaining the relationship wasn't going well, I told him I didn't actually care about his sad white boy problems.

(Watching him go from "I need your support" to "fuck you, you stupid bitch" was priceless.)

Being casually but deliberately cruel, in case you're curious, is a good way to alienate your friends, but the only person who ever seemed to think of me as more than a walking source of favors was gone, so what did I care? I was done being nice. A few people, possibly to their credit, asked if I was okay, said this wasn't like me, and I just laughed. "Never fucking better," I said.

This lasted for, oh, a month or two. Then I spent all evening just staring at the wall, unable to move or think or do anything but wonder what the fuck I was doing to myself, and then when the sun came up I gave notice to my work and landlord, packed everything up, and skipped town.

At least it was good practice, I guess.

20180902

so many people

I've been thinking about this friend I had back in high school, a million years ago, who was just the nicest person you'd ever meet. She'd drop everything if you asked her, and I definitely asked a couple times. I'd have done anything for her because I had the biggest crush on her but I don't think she ever asked me for anything.

Like, one early September about ten years back I got way too drunk with her, and by "with her" I think she maybe had three beers, and the only part about the evening I remember is telling her I loved her, which . . . fuck, maybe I did, who even knows? I was young and upset about a boy whose name I don't even remember and I was very, very drunk. And you know, anyone besides her would have maybe talked to me about my little drunken confession, or acted a little different, but she was just too nice. Let me pretend it never happened.

Here's the thing though: girl was a goddamn doormat.

So about a year later--November, around her birthday--we're drinking again, right? She doesn't like big gatherings but she's invited, you know, half a dozen people, give or take. Two people show up. Me and her big brother. She doesn't say anything but there's this look in her eye, like something's snapped. She's not okay. But I ask, her brother asks, and she just says "I'm fine, I'm sure they're just busy," and starts drinking.

She's wasted by the time her brother takes off, and I get the check because it's her birthday and I walk her home, hold her hair back while she pukes, you know. The things you do for your friend who got too drunk on her birthday. The friend you might be in love with but you've been dutifully ignoring those feelings because thinking about them is . . . complicated.

I leave her some water and some ibuprofen and I crash on the couch in case she needs something in the morning (and also it's a long walk home and I'm broke). Over breakfast the next morning (if you can call 1 in the afternoon 'morning') she says thanks. Says she's glad that, just for once, someone is helping her with her problems. And for the rest of the day she talks to me about her life. Because of course she has problems, she just doesn't tell anyone about them. Until that day.

I moved out of town a few months later--it's a long story, filled with sighs--and we fell out of touch. These things happen. But like I said, I've been thinking about her lately. I hope she's found friends who will try to put her first sometimes--God knows I never did. And I hope she was at least a little pissed at me for that when she figured it out, that even her best friend, the one who loved her, walked on her just like everyone else.

We're all so many people throughout our lives. I hope she's become one of the people who realizes she's too good for fuck-ups like me.

20180823

panopticon, iii

As much as the constant stress drove me mad, I miss the days when I was always on the go--a party tonight, a show in Brooklyn the next, and then back home for 2 am coffee with whoever I was dating at the time--you were one of the longer ones, you know. (It was two weeks, not three. I remember. I remember things like that.) I miss feeling you up while you tried to wax philosophical, but more than that I miss those constant fleeting connections.

Fleeting isn't the word. Private? Personal? We do all our interactions in public, or public-adjacent now. Nobody stays up until the sun goes up chatting on instant messenger anymore, and that was, like, my jam. Entire relationships rose and fell on IM under my watchful eye. And yeah, people text or use Facebook or whatever, but the whole paradigm is different. No, now when we interact we interact in public, with the world to watch us.

(God, how did we ever think that the constant connection to everyone at all times would make us anything but lonely?)

I mean, I was an asshole back then, and part of me feels guilty for missing those days, but back then everything wasn't a performance. Which isn't to say I didn't spend all day every day performing for others, but there was a line between public and private then. You could take the mask off.

I even miss you. You were pretentious and it's a miracle we ever thought we liked each other, but we had some good times despite all that. Even in public you never seemed like you were performing, and I admired that. I still do, I guess, but it's a bit late for that now. 

But yeah. I'm doing interesting.

20180618

panopticon, ii

Are you still watching me? Do you still care?

I've been talking to that guy we both used to hang out with again--you know, the beating heart of our little social circle, the one who convinced me I was adventurous? Back when I was interesting and unhappy instead of just unhappy. He's just as much of a recluse as me, now. And he's got me thinking of the old days.

I never cared who was watching then, but everything I did became a story. (Why else do you think we dated for, what, three weeks? That story--I could tell that story a thousand times and it would never get old.) And you know me well enough to know that "story" is more than just a collection of words with some characters and a plot if you're lucky. It's social media, it's conversation. You can tell a story with a shrug if you do it right. But the real, the important thing, is that story is art, and art is truth.

I'm getting off track again. He put it like this: back then we didn't really think about who was watching. So we documented everything about our lives because the performance of it, the theater of it, was an art form (or, yes, a truth form). "We tried to be interesting and adventurous because those were the stories I wanted to tell. Needed to tell." And that's true. I crept into the subway tunnels after hours with you because I wanted to tell that story. I stood there huddled up against you in those little cut-outs as that maintenance train went by because I needed to be that person.

That probably makes it sound disingenuous. I can already imagine the face you're making. Listen, the whole point of living, the whole reason we both loved this fucker so much, is that performance is real, that art is truth. So we explored those tunnels and made out in that grate under . . . fuck, was it Copley? . . . we did that because we're the sort of people who did that. Because it was exciting. And we told people about it because that's how we thought we made things real.

I guess in a sense we always invited the world to watch us. The difference now is I know who's watching, and I'm not sure I want to perform that life for them. I started caring. That's the point, of course, of panopticon. It's not about catching you doing something wrong, it's about stopping you from ever doing them. It's about encouraging "correct" behavior.

I remember once, when we were both a little drunk and you were kissing my neck or fondling my tits or something and I was just talking about all this bullshit, and I said something like "I think the best plays are the ones no one ever sees," and you probably just nodded or made a kind of grunting noise because neither of us was interested in what the other was selling. "I think there's beauty in obscurity. Beauty and freedom." The idea was that everything would be better if no one was watching (and that I'm somehow even more pretentious when I'm drunk).

And here's the thing. The reason I bring this all up again. I miss it. I miss the adventure, I miss trying to be interesting. (I don't miss pretending sex was fun but sometimes I miss telling stories of sloppy kisses and dorks like you feeling me up like you're twelve.) But I was wrong then: we don't need to be obscure to be free. We just need to stop caring.

See, people think it's cops or threat of force that keeps society from going nuts, but really it's society that does that. We're all each other's jailers. And the only thing hiding does for us is it lets them win--and "they" is everyone. We weren't just kids trying to be cool back then. That's what I finally figured out. We were rebels against some power structure so deeply entrenched most of us don't even know it's there.

I'd say I hope you're doing well but we both know that's not really true. I'd have been in touch long ago if that were the case. But I do hope you're doing interesting.

20180603

panopticon

I remember back when Twitter was new and exciting, how much I loved shouting into that void. How it felt like it was part of something bigger and better than anything before, how you could just be connected to everyone all the time--with nothing more than your shitty Nokia brick phone, no less. It saw use in the protests in Iran in 2009, and elsewhere, when the stakes were far lower, it helped me, broke as hell and stranded at the airport, feel slightly less alone as some stranger in San Francisco talked to me and tried to get me a ride home. (Are you reading this, stranger? I still think of you sometimes.)


I don't have much to say anymore. (I didn't then, either, but back then I said it anyway, to anyone who would listen, to borrow a phrase.) It's no longer remarkable that anyone could talk to anyone at any time from anywhere--it is, indeed, remarkable when that can't happen. Did I ever tell you about the time we booked what we thought was a bed and breakfast out in the middle of nowhere? And we drove for what seemed like forever down some sketchy back road and ended up someplace with no cell phone service, and no food, and not even the bottle of cider they promised would come with it? It was a rough fucking night for a lot of reasons, made so much worse by the fact that we couldn't even tell anyone about it.

It's part of our lives now: we can access anybody and anything at any time. And anyone else can access us, too. Hell, I can still remember a time that the only reason to apologize for sending someone a message late at night is because you were incoherent due to alcohol or sleep deprivation. Now it might wake someone up. We take it with us into our fucking dreams. Some part of us knows that it's a mistake. That everything we do is logged and sold, that privacy is an illusion, that when a service is free it means that we're the product, not the customer. But we let it in anyway. And we did it on purpose, because the ability to make a stranger feel less alone from 3000 miles away feels like it's worth it.

Maybe it is. But the longer I hold out on getting a smartphone, the deeper I sink into my self-imposed isolation, the more I wonder if it's not just another lie we're telling ourselves, another example of the mechanisms of surveillance trying to perpetuate themselves by selling us on all their benefits. I'm at my happiest when it's all out of my reach, when the world can't find me and there's no more void to shout into.

20180430

which i do not

Back where I used to live--I almost wrote 'back home', which says a lot I guess--they still tell stories about me. I haven't had the nerve to ask what about so it's a mystery to me, but when I say my name people get this look and say "Oh, YOU'RE Ellie?" like meeting me is an exciting point in their lives, or at least like it answers some questions.

This version of me lives on even when I'm not there, and everyone there fucking loves her. It's nice, really, to have all the first impressions taken care of, to have everyone treat you like an old friend even when you've just met them, but it's uncomfortable, too. I don't know who this version of me is, whether she's anything like me. I'm afraid that if I stay there long enough the version everyone loves will die, and I'll have a lot of ruined expectations to deal with.

It's a thing I've been obsessed with for as long as I've been obsessed with stories, really: that each of us are two people. There's the real us, and there's the stories everyone tells about us, and they aren't the same thing, and sometimes, if you're either very lucky or very unlucky, they're not even very similar, and the stories take on a life of their own.

And then at some point I realized that maybe there's a third person, which are the stories we tell ourselves. And I think the real thing that frightens me, at the end of the day, is that just maybe it's this third self who isn't anything like the real me. That maybe, if I spend too much time with these people who love me, that I'll find out I'm not who I thought I was after all.

20180419

resembling a type

He's dressed in shabby street chic that could be authentic, if authentic still means anything these days. It probably doesn't matter. He's still got the smile of a predator. She sees his type everywhere these days, because subversive is cool. Sometimes they're legit poor-ass punk rock trash like her, sometimes they're corporate kids slumming it. In the end it doesn't really matter if the predator's from your social strata or not.

The fact that the corporate kids are infiltrating is a problem on its own, but it's hard enough to get out of bed in the morning when the shower smells like sulfur and the furnace smells like burnt rubber and there's scars on her hands she doesn't recognize and a twinge in her elbow she can't explain. When her friends have finally stopped pretending they like her and all she wants is a moment of fucking peace and now--

"I don't think I've seen you here before."

"Fuck off," she says, and he keeps on smiling.

"I see how it is," he says, and then he flags down the bartender. "Her tab's on me."

She leaves over his protests. It's raining and windy and cold even though it's fucking April and she didn't bring a raincoat because it was sunny and windy this morning and she thought--well, never mind what she thought. Her jacket's not up to the task and she's freezing for it and she's worrying about her arm and she doesn't want to call a car or ride the bus or walk because all of those are places where some other asshole might try to chat her up. She doesn't want to bike because her arm hurts and what if that makes it worse?

She rides anyway. The electricity's out when she gets home so she can't even make tea, so she just lies there in the dark in her wet clothes and tries to work up the will to change into something dry. Later, her asshole roommate will probably yell at her for getting the couch wet, and then he'll yell at her for not contributing anything to the household. Fuck him. And when she gets back online her friends will yell at her for having opinions she doesn't have. And maybe if she were a better person they wouldn't think she's so shitty, even if they're wrong about the particulars. Or if she were a person at all.

(A memory: her roommate--the asshole one--is shouting at her again and the roommate who moved out last month is telling him to leave her alone. He doesn't, of course, but people don't stick up for her very often, so she remembers it, and she appreciates it, even if she doesn't know how to say it because she's not enough of a person to express these thoughts. It's a weirdly positive memory, despite everything.)

She changes into something dry before the asshole comes home and spreads her wet clothes out on the floor of her room in the hopes they'll dry faster. She's not sure it helps. It probably doesn't when it's this cold. But, well, it can't hurt, right?

So she tries to sleep, which lately means lying in bed with her eyes closed (or sometimes open, staring at the shadows and the ceiling, as if maybe there's some truth to be found in the patterns) trying to ignore her racing thoughts until she exhausts herself and morning comes. She's never sure if she gets any sleep on those nights, but it seems to help.

If she had any friends left she might talk to them, but she doesn't, and anyway the power's out and she doesn't have a smartphone. So instead she lies awake and thinks of predators who disguise themselves as one of her own and wonders what it's like to be a real person, and dreams that everything's gone wrong and it's all her fault and she should have known better and everyone everyone everyone knows. Or maybe that's not a dream at all.

And even though her dreams are mostly nightmares and her thoughts are mostly self-destructive, it still takes all her will to drag herself out of bed.

20180323

an extra in some background

I dreamt I was helping a friend with her movie by playing one of the supporting characters. All of which was fine, but when the filming started, my consciousness started and stopped with each scene. Presumably I still existed when the camera wasn't on, but once it started rolling all I remembered was being on set. I didn't know my lines, or which scene we were doing, or what I was supposed to be doing. And everything seemed so perfectly seamless: I couldn't tell when one scene started or ended. Things just kept shifting and I was doing my best to hide that I didn't know what was happening.


Which is impossible when your every move is supposed to be choreographed, of course. Eventually I became aware of the quiet conversations happening around scene change, as they grew increasingly frustrated that I was fucking everything up. 

Eventually my friend came up to me and said "Are you okay?" in that tone of voice used primarily by people who are trying very hard to be nice when they would like to slap you. I muttered something incoherent in response, and she took me by the arm and led me off, and then, for the rest of the night, I was conscious of nothing at all.

20180122

carry

I always liked the idea of being prepared for anything, so when I was younger I used to carry everything with me in a little black messenger bag. Some lockpicks. Some tools I thought might come in handy, a multitool that actually did occasionally. A notebook or two, some pens to go with it. A camera (I still haven't gotten a smartphone and I certainly hadn't back then). A knife, a paracord bracelet, a compass, a flashlight. Sunglasses. Chapstick. My wallet. A medkit. I kept my keys on a carabiner on my belt and they had a bottle opener and another multitool.

There's a rule of thumb for backpacking in order to get your kit lighter: make a list of everything you bring, put a tick next to it if you use it. If you don't use it, don't bring it next time. And every time I hear someone say that I'm thinking: but what if you need it? I may not use the compass every time I go out, but what if I get lost? Or the medkit--that's something you hope never to have to use but if you don't have it you're fucked, right?

But slowly, over the years, I started cutting down on these things. The tools were the first to go. I always envisioned using them to explore abandoned buildings or something, but that never happened. I never took pictures so I stopped carrying the camera. And lockpicks--look, I like picking locks as much as the next gal but it's weird as hell to carry them around everywhere. Then I ditched the paracord and the compass and I lost the flashlight at a music festival and just never bothered getting a new one.

I used to think you could tell everything about someone by the things they carried, you know? Like, everyone carried some thing that if you looked through all their stuff you could have an "ah-ha" moment. And, you know, maybe that's still true. But I'm looking at all the things that are still left in my little black bag, and wondering: is this really who I am? Am I a sensible notebook, a collection of nice pens stolen from offices, and a cheap pocket knife that's in dire need of sharpening? Am I the bottle opener on my carabiner, or either of the multitools I still carry around? Or maybe that's not the question. Maybe the question is what will people see if they look through my things. Maybe all of that sends a signal I don't even understand.

20180115

thanks, i guess

So there's a story I haven't really told anyone. Not properly, anyway. Which isn't that remarkable--if you buy into the lie that a human life is really just a collection of stories, like I do, everyone has stories they don't tell. It's not like it's shameful or anything, I just hadn't figured out how to tell it.

This was back when I was still in Boston, back when I was younger and prettier, and the bones of it, well. I was walking to the T station from a friend's place and decided to try to catch the bus because I was tired and probably a little hungover. Smartphone bus-tracking apps didn't exist back then, so catching the bus was a bit of a gamble. It could cut a thirty minute walk down into ten to fifteen minutes of travel time if you time it right. If you time it wrong, that thirty minute walk starts looking pretty good.

Today it was one of the days where the timing was right--I saw the bus coming down the street, moved closer to the curb, and, naturally, it just drove right on by.

I ran after it for a bit and then stopped and shrugged and resigned myself to walking, having successfully wasted five minutes or so waiting for the bus. Then a cab pulled up, and the driver said, "Did that bus just blow past you?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Here, get in, I'll give you a ride."

"Sorry, I'm flat broke, man," I told him. Which was true.

"No, no, it's fine, get in."

And that was that. He drove me to the T station, I thanked him and apologized for being broke, and then I got out and went about my day. And I never told this story properly because it felt too clean. It became a quick throwaway anecdote because I was uncomfortable with telling a story with such an obvious moral as "sometimes people are nice." It's off-brand, you know?

I forgot that the whole time I was wondering if I'd really said I was broke, or if I just said something like "I don't have any cash," or something like that. That when I left I had this nagging fear that I'd somehow wronged this man, that I had cheated him out of payment, that I should have just said "it's fine, I'll walk." I didn't remember making the decision to get in the cab. I remember muttering the destination, still not quite sure what was going on. Was I about to find out how much money I really had?

And that's the real story, the real moral, the version that's on brand. The world we live in makes someone doing a nice deed for someone seem suspect at best. That in my mind, surely somewhere down the line there had been a miscommunication. And some part of my mind clearly knew that this was all nonsense, that what had happened was exactly what it looked like, so whenever I wanted to tell the story, it's the clean version. The version where I'm not a neurotic mess.

Or--and this is the part that gets me--maybe I'm imagining all that. Maybe I have such a hard time picturing something good happening to me, when I recalled the memory, I added in all those bits, all the uncertainty and anxiety and obsessing about the possibility of miscommunication.

Still, after all that, years removed from the event, my mind has finally allowed me to accept that surface interpretation. That sometimes, despite all of my bullshit, good things still happen.

20180113

risk, reward

For a while I was obsessed with payoff matrices, those little boxes you see in game theory which tell you who wins and loses. The concept itself is unremarkable, but once I learned about it it was like I could see these numbers floating around every decision. I'd see people going through their day picking fights and getting angry and I wanted to just grab them and pull them aside and point at the numbers. They're losing out here. This isn't a good strategic move. You can do so much better.

I finally asked a friend who'd just finished a heated argument, and he said that it's not about winning, it's about being right. It doesn't matter if you convince the other person, you have to let them know they're wrong. "You should try it sometime," he told me. "It'll do you some good."

"Okay," I said, and decided to take his advice right there. "You weren't right in that argument. I think you just think that being angry is the same thing as being right. Most people do."

"Man, fuck you," he told me.

Neither of us, the numbers told me, were better off for this exchange. And that's the real problem with game theory is it always assumes we're rational actors. That our behavior is always calculated to maximize our payoff. Risks are only taken if they come with great reward. Poor strategic decisions are never made, because they are poor decisions.

Eventually the numbers went away. They were largely useless anyway--of course I knew that humans are self-destructive creatures at heart. But now I'm starting to wonder if perhaps the numbers were wrong.