Self-Portrait in a Flat Screen

 

      I. 

In the myth of Narcissus, the boy returns to his room late at night. He has had a few drinks and is alone. At the party, a silent man followed him around and wouldn’t shake. Narcissus wonders what his famous face looks like tonight, through the sweat and smoke of the party. He opens his laptop, still logged into PhotoBooth. The webcam’s green light shocks back on. His face fills the display. It is as if the screen remembered him.

      II. 

Late one afternoon in January, a boy sat in my dorm room loading a movie he had brought with him. Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses flickered full-screen on my laptop.

“There’s only one good scene,” he said, like it was the best swing at the playground. Fastforward: Truffaut’s character Antoine Doinel is standing in a bathrobe in front of his mirror. He is looking at himself in the glass and spitting out the names of his two lovers and then his own name, over and over.

“Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel. Antoine Doinel...”

“My film TF told me about this movie,” the boy said, pausing it. Antoine Doinel’s lips froze, pursed on the open vowel, as if he were about to kiss his mother, or his own mirrored face.

“I think I’m going to write my paper on it,” he said. “Talk about Lacan, throw in a little Rorty, mention Picasso’s “Girl before a Mirror” in a footnote, and call it a day. Even has a title already—‘The Mirrored Stage.’ Get it?”

“Nice,” I said, looking at his hands, curled on the keyboard.

“I actually made my own version of this bit last night,” he laughed. “I don’t think I’m going to upload it to my YouTube account or anything, but you want to see?”

“Sure.”

He double-clicked on a file on his desktop. His background was a picture of him swimming in a lake, probably near his home in Connecticut. QuickTime opened, and the video began to play.

In the video, the boy stood shirtless in front of his computer. He looked startled at the sight of his own chest. He moved in close to the display—he must have been using PhotoBooth—and his face glowed pale. Very quickly, in a bad French accent, he began to chant “Antoine Doinel.” His eyes were very still, looking straight back out at me as he looked into the webcam. After about fifteen seconds, he backed away and began to say his own name instead.

The space where I was sitting reappeared. I imagined him saying: “Julian Gewirtz. Julian Gewirtz. Julian Gewirtz. Julian Gewirtz. Julian Gewirtz. Julian Gewirtz...”

A minute in, the image froze where the playback ended. His face became a million pixels suspended mid-moment, lips pursed on the open vowel, as if he were about to kiss—anyone. I was not sure that he ever had before. The back of my neck was slick with cold sweat. He put his real hand to it, and my real skin. We did not turn our faces from the screen.

      III.

At age thirteen, I made a Xanga, then a LiveJournal. I wrote my heart out and shelved the contents online: my secret book of lowercase i’s and emoticons, my pitiable self-pity. Sometimes I even made up cool-kid tales about my digital alter ego, “julian gewirtz,” who faced problems I’d heard about on the radio or in books. No one could tell the difference. My friends commented, droll as robots. The more vivid, the better—and I admired the most exciting diarists among them, like my friend Aviva, who was in the year above me in school. 

Years later, on the second day of 2009, I moved to Beijing to study Chinese. I knew no one there and was terrified to be going. Aviva was the last person I said goodbye to. After we hugged, she called back from her car, “Skype me!”

At the end of my second week in China, I was as friendless and forlorn as I’d worried I would be. Aviva and I exchanged emails about finding a time to talk. After dinner in China, just after Aviva woke up in New York, I climbed into bed with my computer and logged onto Skype. A bubble popped up on my display: Aviva’s call.I hadn’t used Skype much before. When videochatting on Skype, a large box takes up most of the screen—let’s call it the thou-box—showing the person you’ve called. A smaller box, the Ibox, shows you your own image. In this way, you can see what the other person sees in his thoubox, and your faces appear together, as if you’re in the same room. My friends had been on Skype long before I’d even heard of it.

Aviva’s voice came through sounding like a present packed with tissue-paper. “Let’s try the video?” she asked.The thou-box holding her face sputtered onto my screen. As I searched for the button to turn my webcam on, my I-box was still dark. Aviva’s face froze, and her voice went out.

“What’s going on?” she typed in the chat box.

“No clue,” I responded. 

“Oy. What should we do?”

“Want to try again?”

We did. No luck.

“Another time, then?”

“Too bad. Sure. Just let me know.”

“Alright.”

“All right.”

“I thought either one was fine.”

“Maybe.”

“Bye!”

“Bye.”

I stopped typing and closed the chat box. My laptop hummed hot against my thighs. Inside the machine, its binary heart whirring, could the home I missed be processed? Oh, one—

       IV.

Last month, E. was sick at home and thought up an experiment. 

She set her laptop and her brother’s side by side. She opened Skype on both computers and called her brother on Skype from her computer. From his computer, she picked up. She accepted her request to video chat. Both screens glowed more brightly. In the I-box, she saw herself. In the thou-box, she saw herself. Then she turned the screens toward each other and lowered her face between them. In each I-box, a small thoubox appeared, and a smaller I-box within, and a smaller thou-box within again.

You can get lost between the screens, if you let yourself.

      V.

On one Friday morning, I had a very clear story in my head when I woke up. I’m still not sure about it.

It was a Friday night, the last time we were together. The hallway at 21 South Street was very dark. No lights were turned on in the office. We sat in old wood chairs and were not speaking. My computer rested on the desk beside him, its pale plastic logo undulating. Upstairs, a few people were dancing to The Supremes. “Reflections” came on. In the mirror of my mind, I see reflections of you and me, reflections of the way life used to be, reflections of the love you took from me. It’s all in the voice.

I wondered which room was darker, down here or up there. I wondered whether having more people in a room added any light, or took any away. There were three feet of room between us, three feet of silence, and then he stood up and walked out the front door. 

I didn’t move to follow. The only thing I could think to do was open my laptop. The room became much brighter. I went to Facebook, typed in his name, and looked at pictures of his face. I could not get through to it. I don’t remember what song the people upstairs danced to next.

Since that night, I have searched online for his last name so many times that those letters are working their order into my fingers. Have the small muscles in my right hand actually reorganized, rearranged to spell it out? 

I have been trying to get him back from the screen, and the screen has gotten back at me.

      VI.

I took my first computer class in third grade. The teacher, Mr. Peters, was about sixty, as old as Hewlett-Packard. He was deeply tanned, with a crew cut that sat unnaturally on his big head, like a too-tight silver helmet. In class, he held speed-typing competitions and showed us how to use the internet. My parents were delighted that I was getting a true twenty-first century education even in 1999.

One morning, Mr. Peters was explaining to the class the way that computer processors worked. I was bored. My gaze wandered to the bulky monitor, which we hadn’t been allowed to turn on yet, though below the desk the processor was already on. I saw my face reflected in the monitor’s dark, convex glass.

A few weeks before, Mr. Peters had given us an old computer to “dissect.” The machine was on a table in the middle of the room: the girls held back, but the boys swarmed it. We clawed at the box, ripping off the hard black plastic, tearing through the wires, pushing our fingers hard against the sharp metal shapes of the motherboard. The other boys in my class—one would not exactly call them my friends—pushed me to the side with an accidental elbow to my ribcage. I spent the rest of the period watching the action. I didn’t know what to do with myself. There was no blood.

Mr. Peters was still talking. Suddenly he was pointing triumphantly in my direction. “Just like how your brain works!”

I began to blush, but the head-rush didn’t stop with my cheeks. I felt a hundred wires—red, yellow, blue—quivering inside my skull. Copper plates, cool to the touch, pressed against bone. My eyes widened, screens opening onto a world of glimmers and beautyless bits. The classroom around me, the students at their desks, even Mr. Peters, were all flickering furiously. I was surrounded by holograms. 

And then it stopped. No one had noticed. My chair was hard beneath me. The monitor was still dark. I do not have a computer in my head.

      VII.

When I boarded my flight to Paris, I checked my email on my phone. Rachel, one of my oldest friends, had sent me a picture she’d taken of herself, a “selfie,” with a tray of fresh-made croissants:  Self-Portrait with Baked Goods. She was living in Paris, studying patisserie on a lark before starting at Yale. She wrote, “I’ll keep them warm until you get here!”

It was the November after we’d graduated from high school, the November of our gap year, and we were going to travel together. When I got off the Metro by Rachel’s apartment in the 4th, the sun had just crept over the horizon. A pinkish light filled the city’s bare trees, as if they were loaded with cherry blossoms. I felt tired and dirty. Few people were up yet. I noticed a woman walk past me. She was wearing a blue cotton dress and white wedges, but I couldn’t see her face. She paused quickly to fix her hair in the screen of her smartphone, then hurried on.

I dropped my bags at Rachel’s. She gave me a cold chocolate croissant and bad coffee and ran off to class. The croissant was delicious. 

I spent the day around the Marais. I went to a well-lit parfumerie and dabbed a half-dozen scents on my arms. I became a waft of lemongrass, vervier, clove, drifting through the city. I ate an omelette at Café Beaubourg, next to the Pompidou. I sat out in the Place Igor Stravinsky staring at strangers—cruising or people-watching, the difference is hard to remember—but didn’t meet anyone new.

The next day, Rachel was still busy with school. I went out to Versailles for the afternoon. The sky was one white cloud. I dawdled through the perfect gardens and the empty palace. I walked through the Hall of Mirrors. It must have been more impressive when Louis XIV built it, back when mirrors were rare and marvelous, like a wall of man-made diamonds. But now? The room was very chilly, and the pale sunlight glaring on the polished floor startled my eyelids closed. Shielding my face, I walked up to one of the mirrors and gave myself a looking-over. I noticed that the skin on my left forearm was red and raised. It didn’t look good.

I hurried back to Paris. Maybe I’d been allergic to one of the colognes, had contracted a horrible skin infection in transit, had an STD, had scarlet fever. What I didn’t have in Paris was a doctor, and Rachel was at school until the evening.

I got on my laptop and searched the Internet for pictures of something that looked like whatever was breaking out on my arm. I didn’t find anything that matched, so I decided to crowdsource. I pulled out my iPhone, took a picture, and uploaded it to an online medical message board. The caption on the photograph: “Does anyone know what this is?”

The next morning, I woke up early to re-pack. Rachel and I were heading off to Vienna. I was happy to notice that the rash had disappeared. I never checked to see if my post had gotten any replies.

In Vienna, Rachel and I went to the opera and the museums. She brought her sketchbook to the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum. I left her in a room of statues. 

The first time I read John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” too early in high school, I wasn’t sure whether the painting that the poem reflects on really existed. “The portrait / Is the reflection once removed.” But there it was, Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, a small, dark circle framed on the museum’s wall. The sheen of the oil paints really did make its surface look like glass. I spent a few minutes watching it.

I don’t normally like to take tourist photographs, but—perhaps because I had been rereading Ashbery—I decided to take a selfie with the Parmigianino painting. All I had with me was my iPhone. I held it in front of me, my rash-free arm crooked so that I could position the painting in the frame. I saw my face in the screen, and Parmigianino’s behind. My thumb pressed a silver button, and the shutter clicked.The picture came out passably: not too blurry, with decent lighting for a smartphone photo. A piece of my hand holding the phone intruded at the bottom of the frame, bigger than my head—I’d kept it there too long after clicking the camera button. I looked a bit confused, but that was all right. I was a bit confused. I wandered back to find Rachel.And I deleted both the photos from my iPhone. I didn’t need to look at them again.