I once had a friend who could write as fast as she could read, a real meaty persister type with extreme intellectual clout. She dressed like she was ready for a knife fight, moved around like an extra in a Madonna music video.
One day I showed up at her apartment late afternoon, walked in through the front door without knocking. She’d been working on an essay about unabridged anarchy in the arts versus the control and surveillance implicated in subsidies. It’s possible that this essay related to the fact she’d killed lots of animals — something about Hobbes, about medieval serfdom, maybe.
‘Jesus, I’m totally zombified,’ she said. ‘I’ve been hacking away at this all day, and yesterday.’
Hawk like. She fondled her iWatch, gyrating a low green buzz. Wrist sex toy, miniature police man. Hack, I repeated. Hack, hack, hack.
She appeared exhausted, beat like a tired waiter, or maybe I was the waiter there, trying to serve. An experience, or a meal? It was her politic not to accept anything wet. Nothing that needed to be watered, not strawberries.
‘You should wrap it up for the evening,’ I said. ‘I brought you a beer and some strawberries, which we could eat now.’
‘Okay,’ she said.
‘I’ve already had a few and they’re not bad. Or we could take a walk?’ I motioned in a style that said sporting chum.
Goose egg silence. I waited another beat, watched as something uploaded on her laptop screen, or was it downloading? Never found out because it was soon obscured by a pop-up pay-per-view ad. Strawberry acid fruit peel facial, rids you of white worm riddled pores.
She waved me to the couch, where I flopped despondently. Synthetic leather, obscenely skin-like. It’s possible it was skin. Could dust mites live in faux leather? If I squinted I could see the abdomen of a tiny beetle, imbricated in the cushion. I flicked and it appeared to spread.
I waited for her to join me on the couch.
I was the foal, the favourite, the only one able to coax her out of her zone. I would show up to distract her, often arrive toting a limp paw or a paper cut, or else in a freakishly good mood: a spikey ball of drives, there to beat the living daylights out of her with bravura. Sometimes I would take on a tragicomic role, tickling her ears, pretending to call the police, slipping on banana skins, falling to my death. I survived these self-defacements with vegetal neutrality, knew that when the two of us got together we typecast ourselves for the pure pleasure of juxtaposition. Only at my most corporeal could I tear her away from her perfectly tuned-up brain and convince her to walk down to the reservoir with me, where we’d sit in a sour clover patch before heading to the gas station.
Today she was particularly engrossed and I was provoked by her mechanic negligence. I felt tragically ignored, started to fume a little. She required something particularly flashy out of me that day.
In a desperate bid to derail her, I formed a plan: I would feign a heart-attack, shock her back into somatic time, supercharge the situation with my body, drag her to a place where meaning collapsed in my favour, the psychosexual primitive.
I hit the floor, fish-gasping and boat-shaped. Lots of theatre. She turned in her chair and pulled a face that said your drama is boring but I stayed down there on the floor. My thighs jack-knifed. I saw the expression on her face changing. My body made her giddy — she was the rich guy who pays his dominatrix big bucks to blow cigarette smoke into his face and tell him his band is shit.
She knelt down, a sly smile on her face. Congratulations, you’ve stuck a wrench in my production line, it said. You can stop faking it.
Time to show her the fire-eating bit, I thought. She was easy prey and I loved the attention.
My legs were still wiggling, when one of my feet kicked the coffee table, a heady thwack that left a moon-shaped yellow kidney on my ankle. A heavy iron cube, a paper weight with bullet holes in it, potentially a piece of art, made contact with my face. Bifurcating needle pain — I felt myself enter demi-knockout zone, with swimmy eyes and the wind vacuumed from my belly. She stooped over me, her face enormous.
‘Oh my god, you’re bleeding,’ she said. ‘You’re actually injured, and I feel so bad, I can’t believe it, you’ve taken a hunk out of your forehead. Let me dab that for you.”
Tiny rotating heart-shaped rosaries in her retinas.
This had happened before, or something vaguely similar had. Once at the squash court we met a young man with bleached hair, who sat down near us and started telling us about his asbestos problem. I said something that offended him, about how I bet he had a tongue ring, hah hah hah. He responded by punching me in the face, right there in the park, bang into one of my soft spots.
She’d taken me home and explored the injury with her long fingers, sat with me in the bathroom for a good two hours applying ointments and creams. Then she’d set me up under a strange black heat screen, some environmental sanitiser she’d said would remove bacteria from the wound.
This time, she sat me up on a double-jointed cot, a death-bed. I imagined bits of my face blowing around the room and fusing with the beetles in the couch.
When I woke up, the deep evening was purple. She was still at her desk, her back digitally rigid. She looked metallic in the low-lit room. My ankle and head hurt. This is what happened when you looked at anything for too long or too closely these days, I thought: life tabulated into zeros and ones, units threatening to break up into ever tinier sub-units.
Before digital images invaded our psyches, life was probably pure Gestalt, I thought. Not billions of sampling units but something smoother, an abstract swathe.
I looked around the room.
There were photos of her all over the apartment, small photos and large photos, each one a testament to her greatness and beauty and style. Photos of her next to silver cars, next to sharks, tiptoeing on the zeniths of towering cosmoplast ruins, tasteful pornographic cum shots, fine because she works in the artworld, hangs with fashion people, transgression, deep web trawling, anthropology. They looked military-grade in their industrial HD greyscale, deep black settings. I had heard her refer to them before as her gallery of radical narcissism.
It was dark and I had a bashed head, so maybe it was my eyes malfunctioning, but something was sour about the images. Her face looked much too much the same in each image, like the grotesque symmetry of half an image flipped over an axis, administered to a brain expecting something else.
She turned, noticed me looking.
‘All screen grabs,’ she said.
She nodded. Deep fake videos she’d made of herself in the past year. A human image synthesis technique used to create photos and film-captures of things that never actually occurred in reality. Not animation.
‘So you’ve never made a porn video,’ I said.
The images weren’t photo-shopped, she explained. Something about their fabrication process meant they really were footage. Only they weren’t capturing the past or the future — more like producing the past for the future. The present like a small black bead, a nearly negative space.
‘Appropriation in the art world is a power struggle,’ she said, the promise of something declarative in her voice. ‘Artists recycle things, people, ideas, try to make them theirs.’
‘Yeah?’ I said.
‘Yeah’ she said. ‘But generally the original referent gets the upper hand and the artists who are doing the appropriating disappear entirely — that’s why most art is so bad.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. But my head hurt and I didn’t know which portion of her edict I was disagreeing with.
‘I like appropriating experiences I’ve never had, making them mine, planting them so firmly in me that they dissolve like medicine and become part of my body.’
‘It’s a power struggle but the loser, ironically, becomes immortalised — fantastic.’
‘That is fantastic.’
Encouraged, she continued in a pitched-up key. I could see her white gums, and I suppose I learned a great deal all at once. Vague talk about using other people’s data to improve her own. She kept using the word harness.
She recommended cherry vape smoke. Pomodoro method for reduced heart palpitations during work time. Ultra-high fat was important. Plastic neutral personal care. Food intelligence. A positive spin on genetic engineering. Luxury cannabis, saline drip, micro-strategies, metrics. Every other night without REM sleep, she explained. Then days with minimal sensory input.
Stop dishing out this insider knowledge, stop revealing the mechanism, I wanted to say. I want you, my perfect slick and sexy friend, to wow me in unknowability. My Madonna.
Over the next few weeks my visits became more frequent. She began calling me at unconventional hours, demanding I come to her. I would make my way: laptop, book, shirt. I could be a careerist if I wanted to, I’d told my parents recently, and they’d said, you’re so beautiful, you’ll do just fine.
She had an impressive book deal and was busy, irritated if I was needy at the wrong time. But it was clear she liked me in her house, flitting around like a bird flown in through an open window. She liked it best when I relaxed in her peripheral vision. I was a phantom limb for her streamlined body. Yogurt for me, lots of speed and coke for the lady. There were a few more head injuries, largely self-inflicted, but it was better than doing it alone, at my dad’s house, or wherever it was I had been living before I cuckooed up in her yellow lodgings.
If I wanted something from her, anything really, I knew what I had to do to get it. Throw my body in her way like a hunger pang, seduce her, rattle her digital cage. I was her surrogate pregnancy, her labour. Only more deviant. I was her meat machine, her outsourced organ, propped up on pillows eating strawberries and drinking milk, an external hard drive for all her physical requirements. It struck me that she seemed to be vicariously experiencing extreme depression, via my body, a sort of offshore loophole. She was siphoning it all into me like the anorexic cake baker, the flaccid cuckold. Biopolitical voyeurism. Why was I the willing recipient? Because I was born in flesh, trapped in flesh, ain’t that the cruelest truth.
I began to sleep deep, a couch cadaver, leaves growing out of my ears and organic remains piling up around my designated bedsit.
My sister called one morning, wanting to know what was wrong, where I’d been, what the heck was happening? My language felt thick. I had been picking up extra work, I explained. I described how an amphibian-like moisture had settled into the creases of my nail beds. I could hear her breathing at the other end of the line. I imagined her sitting at her desk in a big purple office in the city centre with a mandate to replace marketing with something else. Higher return on investment being the operative goal. What was her field? Aerospace? Cosmetics? When I looked in the mirror I saw something sculptural staring back at me. It used to be that when I encountered my reflection I would see myself, but my reflection had become a baroque and twisted thing. There was a curvature to my jaw I had never noticed before. My tongue was an orange rag, ordinary cloth wrapped around my neck that used to be a shirt was now all blurs and grains and microtones.
That afternoon we drove me to the beach.
My right arm dangled out of the window of the car. We passed some soil farms, some roadkill, a seagull or maybe two. A vortex of wind swirled above them, and as we drove, a feather flew up and stuck to my arm. I tried to tug it off, but it inserted itself into a pore. So sexy. I was reminded of the time I thrust my hand into a pot of pansies to stroke the decaying flora, softer than any flower I had ever felt.
With enough labour we’ll reach the point of infinite leisure, she pointed out. Then talked about childbirth, which we both agreed passé.
The beach was rocky and the rocks looked like little black shields. The water was fractal, like green noise on a television screen after being treated with a particularly strong magnet. Mud rose up from the depths, primordial backwash; I could make out the lapis heads of a school of ghostly fish playing sardine gunners just below the waves.
She led me into the surf and gave me a little push. I was okay with that, ready to have a vacation from her too, truth be told.
Black soap bubbles embalmed me in dark blue vegetable life: fungi, rush and weeds. A chaotic pattern folded me in and my back arched into a mobius strip. My trunk and torso cast adrift, the sensation was womb-like, bonne-bouche like ambrosial taffy.
Bits of plastic and an old antler swirled past me. Compostable genesis, bio-photonic decay.
Utterly pampered, I passed gas in the waves like a sleeping dog and she drove away, a driverless car, unburdened by the living body.
Hannah Nussbaum is an American writer and researcher based in London.