In the spring, I swore off liquor, gaming, and Massachusetts and moved into a four-floor boarding house in the city. My early days in that heap were uneventful: twelve-hour shifts as a copywriter in the downtown Brooklyn grid, the haunted moon phases of online dating, wine rooftop-shared in holy defiance at the deep-night skyline, the cross-river lights we felt destined to rule. I felt literary, wrote little, stayed offline. Some people still wore masks those days.
One of my housemates worked PR for tech startups and for a time paid me to type up press releases in exchange for that good, throwaway kind of money. When summer arrived, a moist heat lurked in the streets. Ivies conquered our neglected backyard. Kittens matured and fucked their siblings in the weeds. Everyone’s phones ran hot and there was no quiet anywhere.
Halfway through July, the housemate invited me to a “metaverse media party” in Greenpoint. Something about the “collision” of finance and virtual life. It sounded like the kind of place where one could confuse locusts for people. But I went. Maybe I thought I’d find a full-time job or kill some time before a date. Or maybe I wanted to ramble at strangers about how they’d merged religion and gaming, adding a new, godless tithe for this late digital age.
The event organizers had converted a co-working space into a product promenade. Booths and tables adorned with insipid swag. Light beer glittered in small plastic cups as the light from the broad windows hit them. People moved in galactic arms and all the chatter was about whether something in the room could be the next big thing.
I didn’t see my housemate so I stood at the back of a crowd for a product called SynapseDrive. It looked similar to all the other VR headsets I’d seen around town, on trains, in parks. The demonstrator gestured like a neo-Baptist and said the light guided everything. I sipped my beer and thought about the exit. The gathered few stood by the demo table and tried on the headset while the demonstrator manipulated a tablet computer connected by a rainbow of wires. I noticed how everyone who tried the headset rubbed their temples a few moments after activation.
Wanna try? the demonstrator asked me as the crowd dissipated.
Sure, I said.
We’re calling it pay-to-jump. Like you’re a walking internet cafe. There’s also a free model with ads. But nothing too intrusive.
Okay. So I need to pay?
No, you can try out the free one. Unless you want to give the premium version a try.
The free one sounds fine, I said.
The headset was heavy and its dull vibrations echoed through my body. Its design felt invasive as if a thousand tiny fingers searched for ways into my skull. The visor plate washed the world violet.
Ready? the demonstrator asked.
Whenever you are.
The headset hummed. All at once, reality white-holed exuberant color across every surface. Portals opened all around me, search engines at my fingertips. My lungs drew in the information and I tasted copper and static. My body swelled like my spirit was ready to burst through my skin, become all-digital, free of my organs, inhibitions, dark things I whispered in moments of piteous fear. I gripped the table beside me to remember the feel of what was true. My temples felt angry, and I reached to soothe them. I needed to massage my brain, to remind it that we were still in control.
I started to say I don’t know and then discomfort bloomed, sharpened to pain, morphed to outright agony. My jaw swung, fled north, tried to tear itself from my face. I tore the headset away. It clattered at my feet and the demonstrator swooped to seize it.
What the hell? they demanded.
The world blazed. Surfaces and people flashed cell-shaded then back to normal. I looked at my hands and watched ones and zeroes pulse through the veins in my fingers.
Fix this, I stammered. Fix this.
Uhm. Okay, let me, I’m the only one here right now. Hold on. Let me, actually, I’m gonna text somebody.
Every breath an anvil-press, I managed to stay upright. The demonstrator’s body blinked as if their signal were about to die. Ads for NFT sales and tech conferences sprouted from their clothes like mushrooms. I saw inside their mouth a maw of capitalism, a tongue in the shape of a coin, razor-sharp check-out kiosks, the unholy song of the dollar. The event swirled, attendees chirruping, eyes aflame, souls linked, blind from the constant flow of input, the immediate, the absolute now.
We can try running you through again, the demonstrator said as they helped me stand. But I think you’ll need to pay this time.
The first log-in is $200.
No, I said. No. No. No.
Frightened that I couldn’t stop saying the word, I staggered to the exit. The demonstrator shouted something as I hit the doors and shoved through. The late-day sunlight speared me. Group texts in bouncing bulbous letters followed passerby like Greek choirs. My panicked ramblings sought meaning in chat bubbles before my eyes. I thrashed at the air and tried to scatter the words. They twisted back like angry wasps and clung to me, fonts flick-shifted, dug into my skin. I scraped them off, fled south, kept my eyes down, tried to believe they weren’t in pursuit.
I was supposed to meet my date in Clinton Hill, somewhere small and near the trains. They waited for me at the bar. The lighting inside was low, the interior walnut and scratched brass, and something about the scene seemed to banish the reverberations of the world and the pain in my head. My date turned as I entered and as best I could I mimicked the ritualistic smile of recognition expected of an online first date.
Tough time finding the place? they asked.
You have no idea.
We discussed our mutual love of sour beers, ordered a pair. Indistinct music from a corner speaker fell on me like a weighted blanket. My date told me about the fintech startup they worked for, something about the seamless exchange of cash. I chewed ice, really listened, fell in love.
But it’s all, you know, blah, they said. I need out of this city.
It’s all too connected, right? People need distance from some things. Some space in between.
Like rural life?
I don’t know. Maybe. Hard to know unless you’re there.
Someone fired up a pinball machine in the back of the bar. The schizo-chime noises rattled me, flared my senses. I gripped the countertop to keep myself from falling off the stool.
You all right? my date asked.
Yeah. Yes. It’s like you said. Everything is so, you know, connected. It’s all a little much at times.
Oh my God, right? Right as you say that I get a text from my boss. Unreal.
They took their phone from their pocket. I covered my eyes as its screen roared, lost my grip on the counter, tumbled to the floor. Static-shock questions about objectives and deadlines swarmed and pierced me. As if they’d struck the spirit from my skin, spiraled like an oil-rush geyser. My date helped me to my feet but I knew it was over. I rambled something like You’re really great, It’s bad timing, Isn’t that always the thing, Let’s text later, before charging for the door.
Night awaited. My skin still crawled with the words from my date’s phone. I tried to swat them away, but they’d dug in. Brooklyn was alive. It was Saturday night. Peak connection, relentless attention, the data deific.
I crashed through crowds, turned corners, sought silence between sleeping storefronts. I entered a triangular park where the air seemed calmer and I could fall and grope the grass and beg the earth for a moment of soft soil but then a nearby subway entrance spewed the next mad crowd. The eruption carved its own weather and buried me in word-drifts, image-fog, light-rage. The partiers cackled, sobbed, all the in-between. I lost sight of the one steady thing, the wide-eyed starlight above.
My phone chattered in my pocket, monkey-mad. Pings, rings, sonics meant to mimic the tones of yesterday. I staggered to the curb and tossed it into traffic, desperate for one last testament of quiet.
The gnash of a double-length electric bus crushed the phone to pieces. Its echo waves crashed against the sidewalk and tossed me. The bus snarled a pothole and kept rolling.
I crawled to a bench, pulled myself up, hugged my arms beneath my shirt to check if my heart still lived. The buildings around me loomed like they wanted the answer. Like they were prepared to beat it out of me. A red strobe clocktower spun nearby like a hypocrite.
I felt around in my pockets. No keys to get me home, no money to guide the path. No means to awaken. I wept a luminescence that rivered down my body and pooled at my feet. It was beautiful, accursed, the compounding confounding everything, information everywhere, information nowhere.
— Michael McSweeney is the author of HEROMAN, forthcoming from Expat Press. He lives online at @mpmcsweeney.