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Wi-Fi glistens in the basin on my balcony.
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My phone is dry, gills caked with old messages. I really need to talk to you so the itching can stop. Oxytocin withdrawal started six hours after the bus swallowed you into the distance-obliterating hyperspace of the metal creatures that knit the continent together and allow humans to survive the vast tracts of dead space populated by security cameras and asphalt. Insanity distances.
I need to find out if I’m still real.
I go out on the balcony. The Wi-Fi is shallow, a miracle drizzle that broke the heat wave blockade. They say in 10 years the internet will never flow here again.
I pour the basin of Wi-Fi into my router-humidifier. Vapor clouds the room and my phone inhales it.
We talk for a few minutes until my knuckles are red and oozing from the moisture. I ask if we can cam. Phone gets me anxious; I want to be connected through trackpad, keyboard, headphones, monitor, my janky external cyborg components that I mash against my body until I disappear. Your icon throbs, waiting for me to accept.
You smile. Jaggies fill your eye socket like an eruption of blisters, your face distorted by the smog.
I forget who says it first. It doesn't matter.
"Are we still dating?”
For five months I’ve been scared to find out, ever since I noticed the novelty fading, leaving me horribly aware of myself. Without your spirit in the aether, I’m just walking through random buildings in this concrete desert. Cycling matter in and out, a tube pumping air, aware in that modern way of all the possible configurations the earth can dream a body into, but just as trapped as any dumb human ever was.
“I don’t know … it’s complicated.”
It doesn't matter who says that either.
The problem isn’t that we might not like each other anymore, it’s that we both don't have anything better, and that means we can linger like this forever, kept at the minimum of emotional survival by the nutrition drip of the net.
“You remember that girl Garmine? At your old place? What an idiot …”
We get distracted, like we always do, find easier things to talk about, and the question goes unanswered.
I compulsively click to a video I watch when I'm feeling anxious, by a woman who made a career off her kind, gentle voice and her delicate hands. ASMR Xeno Eggs Hatching [lots of crackling]. My favorite video. The last one she ever made.
Rumor 1: She was eaten by what came out of the eggs.
Rumor 2: She was raided for possession of off-world lifeforms.
I know the truth, or at least, I believe what you told me. She dumped some asshole and moved in with another woman who made ASMR vids. I was so happy. It was the happiest thing I heard for a long time. It seemed like the purest signal that there is a world worth preserving.
I fantasize about them doing ASMR to each other, how impossibly tender that would be, crinkling and rustling and whispering as they wriggle in Gemini paroxysms of tingles. They wouldn’t even need to touch each other. It would be like the last scene in Scanners, except really nice and gentle.
Gradually, I become aware of the you in the other half of the screen. Your voice has changed. It can’t be annoyance—my laptop is typing whatever I usually type.
Your sound quality is distorted, a mild case of demonic possession. I fullscreen you. Your lips are cascading. Purple lipstick waterfall. When you show your teeth it’s like sun glinting on the falls. This happens when Wi-Fi is contaminated. It's not like I can order $100 bottles of mineral Wi-Fi to my apartment.
Your voice disappears and your lips keep moving. The only sound is the whining in my throat. I lay next to the router-humidifier, press my phone against it. The spray coats my face until my eyeliner runs and stings me.
My bars spasm. You answer the phone, voice soaring flawlessly. I crawl back to my laptop and try to knit your phone voice to your screen face.
When we were 21 and 22, we met via my mother’s dial-up modem, huge like a water heater, fat hose pumping gallon-bits of internet to the family desktop, draining the rancid slurry of our grainy webcam nudity into a tube throat-fucking the toilet.
I tried to look hot for you as the cat flopped around rubbing her hair all over my cheap lingerie. You thought it was hilarious, but we ended up jacking off together anyway as I pushed the cat’s head away from my dick every ten seconds. Dumb animals blindly tunneling toward affection.
When we were 24 and 25, we talked through Digital Splash Line. This was a clear plastic desk fountain that glowed connection health through traffic light LED colors. I logged on at 3 AM while my family was asleep, to catch you in the hour our time zone difference and full-time jobs permitted.
One morning I woke up and the cat was dead. Drank forum posts from the plastic drainage bowl under the desk. We chatted about our Steam backlogs as she stiffened by my feet.
Then it was Water-Integrated Fidelity, carried by the air itself, in rain and sleet and humidity. I janitored at a ski resort one winter, melting shovelfuls of snow to scry you, avoiding the gray water of influencers running down the slope.
I mindlessly click through my tabs like fingering a rosary. I stop on a fucknet vid I was halfway through. Twin sluts take a six-quart used Wi-Fi enema until they’re drunk on fermented validation and parasocial projection. Intellectually I support this idea, but in practice my underwear hasn’t budged. An aesthetic blog (procedurally generated capsule toys mined from blockchains) glistens one tab over. Your video self is squeezed into the corner. Fractions of infidelity.
I hope you’ll say something thoughtless to me so I can feel better about my own thoughtlessness. I hope your thoughtlessness exceeds mine. What a great feeling that would be.
A little taste of blood. I’m chewing my lip because I can’t think of anything to say—typing would be safer. I can type anything into this little box, and you’ll receive it stripped of all context, like my twitchy face, or my inability to make eye contact. But still, my body pantomimes the torture of conversation, my permanent jittery cringe.
One summer, I got a job picking up Amazon drones that got lost in a desert between cities. People were riding around in trucks shooting them down. A wrist bracelet tracked my steps and docked pay if I slowed down too much. I had to drink my Gatorade while I was running and get cramped to shit.
The air was too dry to carry a single post, so I thought about you with, like, my brain, and masturbated in the prefab shed outside the dorm full of people too tired to talk.
Seeing you by cam when we jerk off together feels about the same. You’re the ghost while you’re still alive.
We talk about global catastrophe. About the tiny islands being swallowed by inches of clickbait. About the Great Pacific Meme Gyre’s relentless growth. About the warming of websites, discourse warping in transmission, ideologies with no human hand in them. The lost kids trying to force their souls through the sieves of heat-damaged websites, through endless tech industry experiments in stripping context from language, hoping for safety, a future, something, anything, because the closest thing they have to parents is the global mental illness reservoir we’re all soaking in like a hot tub.
You were with me during the flood in Sandpiper Heights, in my tiny room, always a tiny room. The street was surging with smoggy gallons of think pieces and callout posts and ghosted messages. The fumes rose to our windows, made us shut them, even though it was lobster boiling hot. We lay naked on the mattress, too tired to fuck, or cuddle, or even refresh our feeds. We thought we could outpace the damage, but it was always inside us, and we weren’t young enough to run anymore. That crispy smell of burning always in the other room. Our youth was like being tossed in the air and thinking you’re flying.
You had to get on a flight the next day so you could pay rent back at your own tiny apartment. I took a Xanax and lay on the soaked carpet face down in lists of top 30 activists under 30, Kickstarter campaigns for 200-dollar fantasy boardgames with seagull-choking miniatures, culture bloggers fighting for centimeters of rhetorical space.
The flood left all kinds of moldy shit in the cracks of everything. Hives, red eyes, sore throat. The clinic doctor said, I can’t do much about your living situation, but I can prescribe an antihistamine. I was grateful to not be able to tell when I was being poisoned.
I wonder if our short mindless phrases will allow us to talk indefinitely, like the perfectly interlocking teeth of an ouroboros zipper. I don’t know if your phrases are mindless because I haven’t been listening. I assume only a completely broken person would be talking to me. In which case what we do to each other doesn’t matter.
I’m so busy thinking about how bad I feel for not paying attention to you that I fail to pay attention to you.
Something wet falls on my forehead. I look up and see a dark stain on the ceiling. Old news drips onto my carpet—a body dragged out of a drainage ditch, face blue and bloated with Buzzfeed. Used Wi-Fi leaking from the upstairs apartment.
I look around for something to bang the ceiling with. My alertness brings other feelings with it.
I’m hungry. I’ve been hungry for a long time. I leave the laptop on auto-type.
Before I exit my apartment, I look at the toothpaste-flecked bathroom mirror to know what others will see when they look at me.
Mascara crumbled in the corner of my eyes, bags carrying coal. Has it been that long since I washed my face? A brick of pimples and acne scars, Adam’s apple like a chestburster took a wrong turn. Not tics of light or stutters of machine language, easily amended. Grease and rocks. A high-res monster.
The hallway smells like other people’s funny router names. Mine is still the default. Once something works, I don’t touch it again. The minimum effort required to power my environment. Starvation mode.
There is another person in the hall. This is a disaster.
I hate offscreen faces. When I see another face clearly, I know it can see me clearly. I wish my face was low-res. I wish when you tried to make eye contact, it said image not available.
We walk past each other like ownerless shadows.
The vending machine used to be a fancy health food dispenser with salads restocked daily, packed tight in a clear plastic cup. You could see all the individual ingredients. A relic of the tech boom, when they earned more in a week than I earned in a year.
Then the startup failed, and the salads rotted in the machines. It was great. It took six months for someone to trash them. The machine was a display case for glorious formations of avant-garde mold, a terrarium of alien life.
The young professionals and rich students moved out long before that. The marketing aesthetic around the complex changed like the fading of one season into another. Healthy sustainable green turning to compulsive salty red.
I'm nervous. My breasts are nervous. I know how it will go. We’ll keep trying to recapture the high of those first late night cam chats, with my shitty present-day connection, Wi-Fi thick as sludge clogging the router until we’re just grotesque, teleconferencing gargoyles. It’s going to be agony.
I grab an energy drink so I can stare at the screen long enough to achieve some unknown, desirable state with you.
I look at random chat logs, taste the terroir of last June. I’m trying to remember how to talk to you, which conversations succeeded and which ones failed.
I eat a microwave pizza that cost 49 cents. The paper plate with its Rorschach grease stain goes to the void space behind screens where shit piles up.
I can tell you’re watching something else. The flickering light on your face.
I ask what you’re up to. You screen-share the movie you’re watching. In this movie, the camera lingers on a screen door with a white handle. The white handle is about the size of a mouse cursor. I feel cursor dysphoria at seeing this cursor-like thing I do not control.
I ask if you want to masturbate. You smile and your teeth are torn paper burning with green fire. You go offscreen and come back with a Tupperware container full of fluid. Wi-Fi spatters your breasts, distorting them into fractals of Google image searches for “boobs.” You stick your tongue out. This wastefulness is so hot. My cock stretches my panties out.
We masturbate staring at each other’s screens, that glassy look that could be looking at each other, or porn, or kids’ cartoons, or just scrolling down our feed, which is like looking at nothing at all.
I feel like a really good girlfriend, looking at your face, your actual face, as it blisters and pops with Wi-Fi corruption. You have such a hot fucking face. It’s so easy to love you because your face is so hot. You’re almost as good as porn. I wish I knew what shitty things you thought about me so I could feel less guilty.
The low-res feelings are suddenly itching all over, I feel huge and bony and repulsive. I scrape the router-humidifier filter for some coagulated Wi-Fi and heat it over the stove on a butter knife and inhale the fumes. I cough hot specks of saliva and shake my head like a wet dog. Every screen in the apartment glows like angel aquariums, nothing is buffering, everything is now. Pure content. I don’t need to click anything. My heart is clicking itself.
Your voice comes out of my shitty speakers:
Can I see the inside of your mouth?
Can you open it wider?
Can I see your asshole?
I get on my back and spread my ass. The short beige bristles of the carpet have a sour prickle against my coccyx, grinding into the skin stretched over the bone. I open my chapped, cold-sored, pizza-flecked mouth. I hope the quality on your end is really bad. Bad enough for me to look like some kind of blow-up doll. No pores or hairs or pimples, just clean smooth shapes.
I trance out while you stare at me. I know this is going to get repetitive. For the first minute or two you try to make it attractive and porny for me, feeling yourself up and making faces and enunciating your breaths, but it always devolves to pure heavy-lidded jerking.
This is all we have. Our masturbating dolls in the mirror world. With the net our relationship can die on a heat death scale.
I wish we were an ASMR power couple. I wish we could sustain ourselves on the revenue of our whispers and go somewhere that looks like the label of a water bottle. I want to taste the rich artisanal Wi-Fi springs bubbling up from the volcanic rock, cool refreshing mineral bandwidth. Every day we pour it on our naked bodies and feel it activate our wearables like sleeping critters clinging to our limbs, all the cartoon animals and aliens and anime of our childhoods holding us tight and never leaving us again. Every day we swim in the crystalline waters, diving to the sandy floor where we come face to face with radiant screens and bring them to the surface to fight the sun, glowing reaction GIFs reacting to nothing, social networks where we are every account. Staring into each other’s HD eyes with perfect latency, unafraid of anything we might find.