Whitney in the Real World
Whitney went to Marin's office with that jack-o-lantern feeling in her gut: scoured out by something sharp to let the false light through, rot accumulating slowly on the inside walls. She'd put on weight, letting the scale tip wineward, despite advice from a tired Dr. Kelsey, who'd shown her pictures of a cirrhotic liver, pictures she couldn't align with her own internal mysteries. The ramifications hammered her down. Into the miserably expensive chair, the settling weight of her body burdening its white leather. Blue light from the river cast its mute judgment through the glass; buildings outside swayed at their top stories, bright figures dotting the rooftop bars and gardens. Sunlight stopped where the tinted glass began. In here was Marin's special calculated glow, pure and even as a cleanser. Marin was looking at her through those big smart glasses. A little chip existed at the intersection of screw and right temple, a chip that flashed text across the lenses. Messages like: skin problems, beer belly, sloppily waxed legs.
Messages that affected raises and bonuses and benefits. Messages you didn't want to be plastered over your real-time self as Marin appraised you through her two layers: green contacts concealing the muddy eyes her skin tone suggested she'd been born with, and then the other layer, the one that stripped you down to parts and offered dispassionate, damning judgments.
"Whitney," said Marin, her bleached left eyetooth flashing a brand-new inlaid emerald.
"Hi," said Whitney, aware of her skirt, unflatteringly tight, riding up and revealing the corners of her unshaved kneecaps. She crossed her legs, peeling thin sweat away from the white leather. They discussed Whitney's current happiness level. Whitney was, these days, and she said so. This was a good job. She went home to a bed gleefully empty and dressed in gray linen, and an apartment which she paid for with nobody's help.
"Because if you wanted a different one," Marin said, "like one without so much screentime, one more behind the scenes, maybe we could do that."
The Reality department. Slipping clumsily into the ranks of the girls who brought clients to the discreet suites on the sixtieth floor, into rooms with monolithic black glass walls at which sound and sight stopped. To become one of the girls whose cervical mucus was monitored by Corporate, whose contracts included a clause called Penetration Preferences, who regularly raked in two-hundred-percent tips but also requested psychiatric assistance at an abnormal rate. "Marin," said Whitney, with a measured confidence she did not feel, "I love my current position. I know I'm maybe not in the best shape right now for the shoot next month." She swallowed her unsaid but. Marin looked at her long enough to coax the silence louder. Pushed her glasses up, finally, and it was like watching someone unscrew a prosthetic limb. Her eyes were those of a frog Whitney had seen on the internet, green and staring, the entire process so unbearably intimate Whitney had to look away. Marin's hands were blinged out in slim golden rings, so many it was impossible to know if any one of them signified anything: marriage, possession, promises. No fingers were naked. Her nails were glowing: microstudding. Some of the Reality girls got it done. They put gems or liquid metals under the top layer of clear gloss.
"If you can get yourself there," said Marin, "I think we'd both be really happy. It's best to avoid the Fitness Center if you can get it under control on your own. Their regimens, though effective, can be very demoralizing to some of the girls." Her slow, expensive shrug indicated her view on these fragile psyches. "It would be great if you could take this one on yourself."
Relief-dizzy, Whitney stood up, meal-planning in her head: she would do the horrible liquid stuff, she would take the supplement pills, she would avoid and avoid and avoid all the things she turned to for a slight jolt of pointless happiness. Marin gave her Dr. Matsumara's number. She visited him the next day. They spoke for six minutes and she left with a prescription for something she was supposed to take with a full glass of water and supplement with guided meditation and auto-acupuncture. "You can drink," said Matsumara, though she hadn't asked. "But make it one or two, once a week. Glasses, not bottles," he said, laughing, and she laughed with him, as though they both shared this secret joke, laughing at the ridiculousness of even having to say such a thing, sitting together on their moral mountaintop where nobody would ever consider housing a bottle or two of chardonnay to herself one night in front of old episodes of Jeopardy. In her car, she pre-mourned her evening martinis, swimming with their olivey reek.
To her surprise, the pills worked beautifully. She no longer woke up flat with the yearning to return to sleep. Drinks were now not necessities but luxuries—chardonnay sliding around her brain, layering itself right below her skin, soft and golden and protective; a vodka soda with a bright wedge of lime brightening her neurons momentarily. She went to the bar on Fridays. Makeup or no makeup; wide trousers or the kind of tight dress that spanned decades in its appeal. It never mattered. She glew—it wasn't the right word for the past tense of glow, but it was how she felt. She felt as though she glew. Then she went back home and sought sleep the natural way. Tossing, turning, brain wired tight as a motherboard. But in control. Come morning she'd slug a fat pill down with a full glass of water, then sit, for thirty minutes, eyes closed, headphones in, before a screen that in singsong reminded her to breathe.
Lightbulbs hanging naked above the bar, blitzing their glare onto exposed skin and stemless glassware. More women than men, and Charlie didn't like it. It made him feel off-kilter—the fact that they were all real people, and here he was, also real but never feeling less so. Like a servant entering a harem with downcast eyes, bearing, on a silver tray, liqueurs and lubes. What a shitty metaphor. In a harem, the girls were obligated to be there; he could have exchanged something for their attention, gold or turmeric or dromedaries. Although there were more women than men, there were still men, and they all looked at ease in their uniforms, the geometry of shirt and jacket squaring away the chest, the sharp crease of khaki, the radiating cool of denim. Charlie used to know what to wear in this world, the one that still existed around the Internet. It was the first time in months he'd had to devise an outfit, rather than throwing on whatever to walk to the Vietnamese place in the lobby of his building, with the horrific lighting and the radiant, corpse-reviving lemongrass soup. When he went there it didn't matter what he wore, flannel or yellowing white tank top or marinara-stained cords or what, because everyone there was like him: alone with their peanut sauce, their daikon, their banh mi with carrot shreds flaking out the corners.
But now. His ponyhair jacket, which had seemed so badass in the past; his corduroys, tight and creaseworn, which now felt like he'd pulled them, half-rotting, from a crypt. It had been a minute since he'd done the thing: pushed back the curtains, entered the great blinding expanse that was Other People. None of the men looked like him. None of them were wearing anything he had in his closet. He felt suddenly, keenly aware of the snake tattoo wrapping his wrist; felt its outline as sharply as though it were still red-rimmed and wrapped in plastic. And oh, these girls: they seemed as close to CGI as it was possible for humans to get; their faces all smooth planes dotted with sculpture gardens, everything locked down, refined, exacerbated. They all had heartbreaking eyebrows. He hated them.
Easy laughter sparked behind him and he started. Low, slinking, paranoid: he did not know why he was here. Maybe it was like the Playboy Mansion. Right. Like being some weird landscaper at the Playboy Mansion, fielding derisive looks and hand-cupped laughter from girls on their way to the pool. He'd read some things—exposés and memoirs, excerpted online. He'd read them to see if they had pictures, but, when they hadn't, read on anyway, in a fugue of displaced hatred. All the stories seemed fake: tossed out by some disgruntled bunnies who hadn't loved the way the old guy had to take pills to get his equipment working. Girls who couldn't accept that someone, even an octogenarian, wouldn't get it up for them—so they wrote revenge pieces alleging abuse, gaslighting, a whole host of stuff you'd have just figured, no matter how dumb, they'd have to be at least be smart enough to anticipate.
He wondered if the women here could sense how much he hated them: their long browned legs, their stark collarbones. How much he hated their lipstick, their hair, their dangling diamonds and the visible smalls of their backs, their jutting butts and treadmilled calves, their feet strapped into complicated shoes. One of them looked at him. He smiled inadvertently. She didn't look appalled, but shifted her smile to some over-shoulder ghost. There was, he thought, something to be said for harems, or houses with hired hot girls: those situations were transactional. There were terms. He understood how those might work. It was basically acting.
Acting, if not exactly loving, at least undisgusted. But this? This was real life, boy, he thought now, inexplicably face to face with it. Real life, and he blurred through it timid and miserable, relying on apps to provide him with tenderness. And if he occasionally brushed up against the other type of person, the ones who weaponized their bodies and peacocked in cowl-draped backless satin—well, he was only human. He longed for beauty to touch him; longed for its languid needle to slip into his skin, to pulse something generous and warm into that mysterious bundle of bloodwires that hummed constantly inside like a low-grade subcutaneous fever.
There were times he'd felt close to beauty. Times when the downward sweep of lashes in candlelight cast rushing shadows over his forearm and he felt a hitch in his heart. Times when lips opened near enough his ear to prickle all his neckhairs awake. Times when he looked down at crushed-closed eyelids and counted the creases where the eyeshadow collected, its brown or gold shimmer escaping, for a moment, the confines of perfection; sometimes, afterwards, he imagined finding it on his pillow.
He ordered his usual: a beer from Wisconsin named after an ancient saint. The payment stymied him momentarily, but he remembered, like a whisper from a long time ago, the process: you tapped the back of your watch on the reader, and if you had enough money in your account, it hummed from red to green. Money was not one of his problems. The beer seemed sweeter poured into a glass, its effect maybe a little stronger, here under the strange, loud halos. He drank from it, held it up to the warm light, studied it, conscious as a cinematographer of how deliberate he must look. Not that anyone was looking. It was dark gold; a thin foam sat at its top; the sips he'd taken pooled themselves with incredible swiftness in his blood and he felt almost drunk. But that was impossible. The beer had the same alcohol per volume as it did at home, when he slit the weekly delivery box open with one of the knives he'd never used for any other purpose, when he cracked the bottles with the back of a vintage corkscrew.
If anything, he figured (now leaning with an uneasy elbow against the slick bar, hoping that the bar was just slick with some faddish new polymer and his ponyhair jacket wasn't collecting beer-grease and whiskey-spit) he was feeling so unsteady already—what with being in this place, this strange and miserably bright place—that the beer was just hitting him harder in his mind. A lot of things were psychological like that. It was one of the reasons he tried not to leave the house. In the house, he knew how everything worked. He finished the beer without tasting it. He felt better: loose, quasi-conversational. He looked around, toying with a smile that threatened to rise to his lips, swallowing down some strange new optimism that leapt unbidden to his throat. And, like some unseen directing deity had just kicked her from the wings, he saw her—star of his playback fantasies, woman he loved. At first she was hard to make out, just one of the burnished, slippery clientele: tossed-hair, white-teethed, every eyebrow hair brushed individually and coated in something that made light stop at their borders like black holes. Then: a quick half-turn in something back-cupping and black, her icy hair catching the light that spilled from one of the buckets; a flash of eyes that bored into him like a sonic boom, like the metal mesh that warped the gun to the guy's hand in Videodrome. And he saw her, in that second, and recognized her face, and it wasn't like a movie. It was nothing like a movie. He was gutpunched, sideswiped, bruised along the map of his vitals. There were no exits now.
Whitney had never been approached by a user before. There were still such things as manners, and discretion, and at first she wanted to laugh at the intrusion. His physical presence put her teeth on edge. He stood and moved as though a slightly larger human were inside his skinny frame, hunching him and bulging his eyes and making his fingers twitch; like everything inside him was trying to claw its way out. In a still photo, he might have looked normal, even attractive, but the reality of his body was one of barely concealed turmoil. The way he angled himself over her: it was abnormal, unsettling, as though he wanted to shield her from the rest of the bar, but not in a protective way. She felt invisible and alone and hated herself for it, reminded herself of the button in her jacket pocket, the fact that she was free, at any moment, to say words to his face like No and Leave, the fact that she didn't even owe him words and could simply turn her back. Although there were ways to do this that didn't engender conflict. Conflict had fatigued her enough. So, although she spat coward at herself in the gauntlet of her mind, she stayed, and thought.
It had started out okay, if unwanted. "Charlie," he had said, with an eagerness so palpable she could have bitten through it and spat out the center like a lump of fat in a steak. Immediate wrongness, was her thought, the way he was staring down at her, the way his eyes seemed to open and then open, impossibly, again. It was a deep, primordial dread: something like smelling smoke a block from your house, and then, with the logic of a nightmare, finding yourself trailing firetrucks home. And then, as if to confirm her fears: "I'm a big fan of yours." To feel naked on camera was one thing. To feel naked in public when you were fully clothed: that was something else, a sensation laced with enough gall to give her that spirally nauseous feeling, hauntingly fresh, of being punched in the face.
The stuttery mouth, spit-wet and with white teeth inside, was open and words were still coming out, but she wasn't listening; all her efforts were focused on edging away, so surreptitiously he might not notice, until she was out from his sinister sphere and could execute a graceful half-turn back to the bar, back to the safety of the known world. Much later, after this night had been consigned to the pile of nights that had already happened to her, and that would keep happening to her, she would wonder why she'd suddenly decided the world was any safer than the man in front of her. Why she'd longed to turn back to the bar, leaning on wine-wet elbows on the glossy black surface, stretching her left leg out behind her with her shoe toe-grounded so her calf muscles popped. Why she'd thought any of that was safe.
Rather than listen to anything he said, she found herself picturing herself as he must have seen her. Bent over a couch in thong and garter belt and thigh-highs. Standing, with one pensive hand on the windowshade, naked from the waist down; a soft white sweater lapping at her shoulders, stilettos improbably hitched to her pale feet. She'd never actually entered the program to watch her own scenes—although she knew girls did, so they could self-castigate, so they could critique. Whitney, post-filming, had always tried to blank out these memories as fast as possible. It wasn't like she was ashamed of her job. It had been, she told herself at the beginning, almost a philanthropic choice; there were so many people, nowadays, like the paraplegic and the bedridden and the cripplingly socially anxious, that had no other outlet. It seemed benign and humane, warm as a candy-striper. And the money wasn't bad at all. Though she did still try to forget it. She blocked out the way she was told to arch her back, the way she was directed to wet her lips with a lazy tongue. She blocked out the legs spreading and the heavy-lidded glances and the slow unbuttoning of lacy bodysuits. Because living with that other person in her head, the one the rest of the world could meet whenever they wanted, had proven very difficult.
She only knew herself. Whoever that other girl was, the one digitized and locked-in and accessible by several tiers of payment platforms: she wasn't Whitney. She was like a well-paying Whitney costume, one that, at the end of every shoot, the real Whitney could unzip, step out of, breathe. Have a well-deserved, doctor-allotted drink. But the memories remained, and now, caught between this man in an ugly ponyhair jacket and the bar, she rewatched them against her will, spitting fast from her internal projector. A thin scream banged its way up her esophagus. She swallowed some water and fought it back down, where she imagined the acids in her stomach seizing it with neon green hands and tearing it to bits.
Wasn't she lovely. Wasn't that a song, a song from long ago, one of those ballads the crooners dished out to sighing divorcees in old movies? Isn't she lovely. Isn't she wonderful. Those were the only words he knew. They'd have to do. It seemed to be going well. She was looking up at him, her face tipped to catch the light, and a perfect storm of joy seized him as he saw, for real, the shadow of those eyelashes; the shadow he'd memorialized, in the darkness of his room, when he'd entered the program and found her in his bed. Because she always ended up in his bed, when he went inside the program. He sometimes tried out other girls; sometimes even brought them home. This girl was different. Her character name was Chandra. He had not yet figured out her real name. But he knew her with the same deep certainty with which he knew the timing of the flight paths that boiled over his house, the specificity with which he could time the weekly deliveries of his beer and toilet paper. He'd known her for a long time now. Two or three nights a week, he strapped on his goggles, lay down carefully in bed, and entered the program.
Within a few minutes he always found her. It was like a fate-delivered faceslap, how easy it was: he always picked the right staircase, opened the correct door, to see Chandra: reclining on a bed, in something diaphanous and golden, right where he wanted her.
He was telling her about the work he was doing with Ionic when he saw it. A girl at the other end of the bar, her red curls dripping down her shoulderblades, sharp-toned shoulders beckoning in tight chambray. She looked at him. She looked at him more. A smile curved her purple lips, one that seemed aimed not over his shoulder but directly to him. He sent her over a who, me? back. She beckoned, the tip of an index finger curling twice quickly back towards her body. He looked down at the girl crouched—crouched against the bar. Saucer-eyed, empty, bristling with the wary, prowling nerves of a cobra ready to spread its hood. There was nothing in this girl that reminded him of Chandra. Chandra was vital, sexy, condescending, sweet: whatever you wanted her to be. She read your moods; she attuned herself to them. You could hold her down over the back of a chair and take her like a brute—or you could lower her into your soft bed, unstrap her camisole with your teeth, and she would hold your head and brush your ears with whispers alternately sugary and graphic. This—this was a hologram, some nothing he'd mistaken for his love. He turned his back on her and went to find the redhead.
When the man backed away, Whitney's lungs unlatched. The air steadied around her, and she pushed through the golden furor of the bar, into the night with its pure and threatening emptiness. She had done nothing, had said nothing, and had somehow won. Although maybe it was not so much a victory as a standoff; maybe it was not about winning so much as it was about trying as hard as she could not to lose. She walked home by herself that night in the mellow air, the prescribed two drinks melting quick and silent in her blood, and did not worry, although she kept her finger on the button in her jacket pocket. The encounter at the bar already felt like a dream: technicolor, and fast dissolving.
How strange it was, the way her mind went to work disintegrating these instances. Last December, outside Brimley's, being backed into the corner between the dumpster and the wall, stared at by a man exactly as tall as she was in her four-inch platforms, a man whose eyes she'd met time and again and convinced herself she'd read love there—shortly before jetting whiskey-spit aslant, he called her a succubus and grinned like a face behind a window in a horror movie. Then he left. By now, she was far past the point of thinking she could read things in eyes, but if she'd still subscribed to that old false poetry, she would have said his eyes had something of the animal in them, something not hate so much as lizard-brained rage.
This April. Shifting sideways through the brimming crowd at a Ray Damien retrospective, her ass was grabbed by someone she was too trapped to turn around and identify—shaking herself away with a delayed reaction, bile boiling up her throat—and the whole rest of the night she'd found herself glaring at people she knew, wondering whether one of them had done it. In the car home the driver, whose profile said he was from Georgia-the-country-not-the-state, offered to slow down when he saw she was putting in her eyedrops. She'd said thanks but that it didn't matter. He'd watched as she walked to the door and didn't drive away until she was inside the vestibule, an act which she'd decided to interpret as a kindness.