“It's the eyes. Something in the eyes…Light. Yes, but like halogen light–white and cool.” Denny wheezes out a cloud of pale smoke. “Too binary and digital.”
“I'm trying to concentrate.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. You know what I'm saying though, right? The eyes–there's a dullness, a vacancy.”
Today, Denny discovered thispersondoesnotexist.com, a website where machine learning creates artificial human faces that are almost indistinguishable from authentic images. I say almost because Denny is not convinced. He is browsing the site on his phone, and every time he refreshes the page a new face emerges. Seemingly infinite numbers of these unreal people have been created, and Denny is apparently determined to critique every last one.
“They're not looking at you,” Denny explains. “That's the problem. See, this one here–it's like she's looking through me at some faraway thing. Like she's staring at a boat on an ocean.”
“You recording? I'll try to be quiet.”
In my periphery, the dark smudge of Denny's immensity rests on my sofa. Every sound he makes seems amplified–the thin whistle of air through his nose as he breathes, the boiling-pot burble of the bong when he inhales. I swear I can almost hear the blood circulating through his body. I will accomplish nothing while he is here. I yawn in stage-play fashion, loudly and dramatically, hoping that he will take the hint.
“I should probably go,” Denny mumbles.
It takes him a couple of false starts before he can free his 300-pound bulk from the sofa. His pace is glacial, and he pauses at the threshold of the door and stares out the window.
“Huh,” he says as though he has noticed something for the first time. “You ever go to that bar on the corner?”
“You're kidding, right?”
“We should go sometime. We're never going to find new girlfriends just hanging out at your apartment.”
New girlfriends? I almost laugh. There are no old girlfriends. I haven't had a “girlfriend” since before the accident.
Christie Lee. Sixth grade. She sent her giggling friends as envoys to deliver little notes–notes in which all of the i's and j's were dotted with tiny hearts. That year plays back in my mind like a scratched DVD, skipping from one scene to the next with large, unknowable breaks in between. I remember that we held hands, but only in the company of her friends, and when they left, Christie's hand always returned to her side. She didn't like holding hands because her palms were always sweaty. They felt damp and cool, and I sometimes imagined that I was grasping a fish instead of a hand. Christie told me that her older sister had suffered the same affliction and had gone for an operation. The doctor had made a couple small incisions under her armpits and…Ta-da! No more sweaty palms.
“She said it didn't even hurt,” Christie explained. “They say there are possible side effects, so I have to try everything else first, but I’m sure one day I'll have the surgery too.” She talked about the procedure wistfully, the way she might have rhapsodized about getting a pony a few years earlier.
If Christie had not liked holding hands, she had enjoyed kissing even less. Our kisses were perfunctory pecks. Her lips were always pursed and her jaw so firmly set that it felt like kissing a fist. I would know–I had spent the days leading up to our first kiss practicing on my hand.
After the accident, Christie would visit me in the hospital. I'd open my eyes and she'd appear as a watery mirage. Her mouth would move, but in my opiate-addled haze, I heard the stretched and garbled sounds of an old, warped cassette tape. I imagined that she was professing her love and promising to wait for me forever, but later I would learn that she had only been asking if I knew where her sister's ring was.
Denny returns the following evening with a dozen Cheesy Roll-Ups from Taco Bell. He is a firm believer in synchronously expanding his consciousness and his waistline, which usually means episodes of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, greasy Chinese takeout, and a bowl of pot.
“No Chinese tonight?”
“The problem with Chinese food is that I’m hungry again an hour later.”
“Is that the Chinese food or the pot?”
Denny lowers himself onto the sofa. “I heard this amazing thing today. So, some physicists now think that during the Big Bang a mirror universe was created. Matter and antimatter should exist in equal quantities, but we live in a universe made up almost entirely of matter. A parallel universe would explain where all the antimatter ended up. And get this–they think that in this mirror universe time runs backward.”
“So, in that world you’re hungry, and then an hour later you’re eating Chinese food?”
Denny frowns. “I think it’s a world just like this one. Except in reverse–like a tape running backward.” He cocks his head at my dormant rig. “You taking a break from the speedrun?”
“I have a repetitive strain injury–Nintendo thumb.”
“Sorry,” Denny pants, unable to conceal his excitement. “We should do something. When was the last time you left the apartment?”
“Actually, I was thinking of checking out some runs on YouTube.”
“Really?” The word leaks from Denny’s mouth like the final flat note of a sad trombone. “Here’s the thing…” Denny tips forward on the sofa–a boat with too much ballast–and snatches a Cheesy Roll-Up from the table. “This whole speedrun thing? I don’t…well…I think it’s not healthy.” He slurps the end of the Cheesy Roll-Up into his mouth. “All these games, all the time. No interaction in the real world–”
“You know the gamers who speedrun Super Mario Bros? They can do it blindfolded. By listening to the music, they know when to jump, when to run, and when to stop. They can complete the entire game in less than three minutes in complete darkness by trusting their skill and the ordered constancy of the game world.”
Denny shrugs and turns on the TV. There is no cable–just the handful of stations I pick up on the flat, square antenna stuck on the wall like a giant band-aid. Denny flicks through the channels and finally settles on some classic black-and-white noir thing. He looks utterly miserable in the blue light of the TV.
It was part of a project for the arts “camp” at the community center, one of those programs designed to afford parents a little summertime sanity. We had been tasked with rendering a “found object” as realistically as possible in graphite pencils and then incorporating the drawings and the object into a larger “art installation.” We were allowed to work in pairs, so naturally Christie and I had chosen each other, but we were having a difficult time deciding on a subject. Finally, she snapped her sweaty little fingers. “My sister's ring!” She spoke so effusively about it that I didn't have the heart to tell her, No, I don't want to draw your sister's ring. I would rather draw a baseball mitt or a potted plant or anything other than a ring. The following day, my heart sank even further when she produced the object. I had expected something substantial and dazzling–not this thin silver band with its pitiful yellow stone.
“It's a diamond!” Christie beamed. “Isn't it beautiful?”
“Is it,” I began cautiously, not wanting to offend her, “a found object though?”
“Of course it is. I found it on my sister's dresser.”
Christie placed the ring in the center of the dining room table, and we hunched over our papers and began to sketch. I clearly recall the look of concentration on Christie's face, her tongue nestled in the corner of her mouth like Charlie Brown's when he builds a kite.
“My sister told me that it was the ancient Egyptians who first gave each other rings. They thought the ring was a magical thing because it didn't have a beginning or an end.”
“Not really. All those Egyptians are in hell now because they believed in magic instead of Jesus.”
Huh? I pitied those poor ancient Egyptians, sentenced to damnation for failing to believe in someone who had not yet been born. “Will they ever get out? Like, for good behavior?”
Christie was not amused. “If you are sent to hell or heaven, you are there forever. For eternity.” Christie pointed at the ring. “See the diamond?”
I wondered for a moment, as the gem was so puny and inconsequential, but I nodded.
“Well, imagine a mountain of diamond two miles wide and two miles high. Now every thousand years, a little bird comes to sharpen its beak on the mountain. When the mountain is worn away, that will be one second of eternity. That's what my pastor told me.”
“Phew!” Christie's joints cracked as she stretched her arms and walked over to my side of the table. “What is that?”
“It's the…you know…”–I pointed at the object in the center of the table–“the ring.”
“That. Does. Not. Look like the ring,” Christie said breathlessly. “Did you even try?”
“Yes, I tried. Maybe if the ring was bigger…”
Christie looked at me the way a startled infant would the instant before it decides whether to burst into laughter or tears. “There is nothing wrong with the ring! The ring is perfect. If this is the sort of effort you're going to put into our relationship, then I'll have to decide if it's worth it.”
I looked down at my rendering of the ring and then up at her. I crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the trash.
Christie trembled with fury but said nothing. She stuffed her belongings into her book bag swiftly and deliberately and left. That was why she wasn't with me at the fair that night, why she wasn't in the accident.
In the kitchen I pick up two tumbler glasses, a tray of ice, and the bottle of Jack Daniel’s that I’ve been saving for when I complete my successful speedrun. I wave the bottle of Jack in front of Denny, but he doesn’t react at all. God, he’s become a bastard. There was a time when he was happy to simply sit on my sofa and smoke his pot. He would take great enjoyment from my company, such as it is. I wouldn’t even have to talk to him; mere proximity to another human being, one who regarded him with neither judgment nor ridicule, was enough. He used to talk about the universe and time and theoretical things that could be felt but never touched. Not anymore. Now he talks about that little dive bar on the corner. He talks about girlfriends and getting a tattoo, about “having fun.”
I twist the cap off the bottle of Jack. Nothing. I crack some ice cubes into the glasses. Denny remains stoic. I pour the whiskey into one tumbler and then the other. The ice pops and crunches seductively as the golden-brown liquid settles. I can smell the whiskey. I know that Denny can smell it too.
“Alright,” he says finally as he picks up the tumbler and slurps down the drink. I refill his glass, and this time he drinks slowly, savoring every sip.
“See,” I suggest cheerfully, “we can make our own fun.”
“How’s the thing going? The speedrun.”
“You’re already so good.”
“You can’t just be good. You have to be perfect.”
Denny gestures toward an object on the table. “Is that the mask you use when you livestream?”
“It’s the uh…Japanese god of war, right?”
“The Japanese god of war is Hachiman. This is the mask of Kuebiko, the scarecrow god.”
“What’s so great about Kuebiko?”
“He’s the god of knowledge. He is rooted in his cornfield, but he has knowledge of all things.”
“You know…” Denny begins tentatively, “you’re not this Kuebiko guy. You don’t have to stay rooted in here. I mean…you’re not like that Wolf-In-White-Van guy either.”
I lost my teeth at the county fair on a ride called “The Rotor.” It was a great, hulking iron drum that spun around and around until you were pinned to the wall and then the floor retracted beneath you. You would be fastened in space to that wall, like a sock in a washing machine. The magic of centrifugal force, which, to a twelve-year-old boy at least, felt almost like real magic. At the end, riders would emerge from The Rotor one by one, like rabbits from a magician's hat. The ride was not supposed to wobble on its axis; you were not supposed to be thrown from the wall and smash face-first into the rusted rail that circled the center of the ride.
Twelve years of twice-daily brushings, twice-yearly dental visits, and semi-occasional flossing lay scattered in the industrial iron of The Rotor. I might have braced myself for the impact, stretched out my arms as the other riders had…if my hands hadn't been in my pockets searching for that damned ring. I had been curious to see what would happen if I held it out and then let go of it during the ride–would it hang in the air like a will-o'-the-wisp, would it fall straight down, or would it be thrust against the wall like the rest of us?
After the accident, my guilt-ridden parents bought me a Nintendo 64. Mario 64 was a revelation. The games I had played before that were simple platformers in which players were constrained to the x- and y-axes. With Mario 64, I could finally move in. In…to a world that seemed magical and unbounded. I remember the first time I entered the castle and discovered those paintings on the wall, paintings I could leap into to reach other realms, paintings that rippled like pools of water as they swallowed me up. I spent countless hours trying to discover every secret and explore every corner.
As I played more of these games, I realized that what I had imagined were limitless worlds were really just carefully constructed polygonal prisons. When I tried to explore beyond the borders of these worlds, I might become pinned to a boundary, or worse, I might pass through the entire construct, falling endlessly into space. I wanted to see what was behind the curtain. I found areas with flat, textureless planes and black skies, where discarded enemies that had never been fully coded repeated the same attack move over and over or remained completely immobile. I challenged myself to finish the games as quickly as possible by exploiting these glitchy zones and bypassing certain areas or bosses. Through the beep-boing-hiss of dial-up Internet, I discovered that other people were doing this too. They called it a “speedrun.”
I can hear the sound of Denny's bong bubbling away like a fish tank as I start to drift off. The afterimages from the video game sprites track and ghost their way across my eyelids like comet tails. This is what happens when I speedrun for too many days.
When I finally fall asleep, I dream of teeth. Most people have teeth dreams–those awful nightmares in which your teeth fall out of your mouth or crumble away into nothing. My dreams are different; rather than vanishing, my teeth emerge. They press up through the wet flesh of my gums as flawless pieces of polished enamel, but they are always accompanied by the endless ropes of bloody saliva that dribbled out of my mouth after the accident and the feeling that I have swallowed gallons of my own spit. It tastes like old pennies, like the roots of trees. This bitter taste is in my mouth when I wake up, and I roll my tongue around, exploring the fleshy furrows where my teeth used to be.
Denny is gone, but I can see his shape imprinted on the sofa like a Hiroshima shadow.
Christie stopped coming by the hospital after a few visits. Maybe she was afraid of seeing what was beneath the bandages, or maybe she had just given up on getting a straight answer from me about the ring. Her family moved away sometime that summer, and I never saw her again. I often wonder whether she ever had that operation. I imagine her walking hand in hand with some flawless guy down a sunny promenade. Maybe she thinks about me occasionally–as something remembered from a fairy tale. A greasy toad or impish trickster. The boy with the broken face who stole her sister's ring. Something hideous, something best forgotten.
There is a modest but continuous drip of money into my bank account from the structured settlement that was reached when my parents sued the county fair. It has allowed me to pay rent, order food, and remain holed up in my apartment without ever having to leave. I do, though–occasionally–to remind myself that there is a tangible, physical world out there and that I can still be part of it if I choose. This is the first time I’ve gone out since I began working on my speedrun.
It's cold when I step outside. I prefer it this way; there are fewer people, and I can wrap a scarf around my neck and jaw. The air is bracing after the climate-controlled cocoon of my apartment. I tighten my scarf and look down as I pass an old woman on the sidewalk. I cross at an intersection and imagine a car barreling into me at high speed and my body being thrown over the hood and crashing to the ground. Someone would try to perform CPR, and they'd have to unwrap the scarf as if they were unfurling an Egyptian mummy. As grotesque and revolting as I regard myself, I know that they would not discover a sunken, disfigured face but that of an ordinary person with a scar above his mouth–like a harelip–and teeth a little too large and too perfect to be his own.
I head through the park; the sun is dipping toward the horizon, its golden rays glancing off of shards of glass in the weeds. At the pharmacy, I pick up my prescription of Acetazolamide. Another gift from the accident, the trauma to my brain caused me to suffer from “absence seizures.” Sometimes I become like those glitchy, half-finished enemies I discovered long ago, rigid as a statue or repeating the same motion over and over again. I haven't taken the drug for months because it makes me drowsy, slows my reflexes, and would have destroyed my chance at a decent speedrun. I picture infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters as the pharmacist taps at her computer and hands me my pills.
I cross back through the park. It's a beautiful evening; the sun is hanging on, and the sky is empty except for drawn and dissipating contrails from absent airplanes.
He is sitting on a bench with a dark shape at his feet.
“I always wanted a dog.” I run a hand down the soft black curls of the animal.
“You…you can't pet Wilson–he's a service animal.”
“I'm sorry. He's not wearing a vest or anything.”
“He is one, though,” Denny insists. “They don’t have to wear a vest.” He stubs at the ground with his foot. “I watched your speedrun online. You were good. You were perfect.”
“You can come ’round again, now that I'm done.”
Denny shakes his head. “I have a lot going on. I have Wilson and…I have–”
“I probably wasn't a very nice person to be around.”
“It's not that…” Denny sighs. “Do you remember that website thispersondoesnotexist? It was like you had become one of those people–those artificial people. I would talk to you, and you would just stare right through me as if I wasn't there at all.”
“I just started to feel like I wasn't worth anything. And the longer I stayed away, the better I felt. You did something important, but so did I.”
“I'm sorry. I hope we can still be friends.”
Denny grins. “We'll always be friends.” He turns and waddles off in his wind-up bird way with his black dog creeping behind him like a silent shadow.
Despite his words, it feels like the end, like a final cut scene. But perhaps in one of Denny's mirror universes, our story is just beginning. In that world, the sun is un-setting and Wilson is leading Denny backward to the park bench. In that world, all my work on the speedrun will be undone; all those hours that I traded for fractions of seconds will be returned. Years from now, my unbroken body will rise from the floor of a ride with a palindromic name. Something lost will be discovered. A crumpled sheet of paper will leap into my hand. Then, in the course of one inverted hour, a drawing will disappear line-by-line until all that is left is an empty page.