I was nine when the year turned to 2000, but even I rolled my eyes at the Y2K proselytizers, the news programs that told us to stock up on canned food in case everything glitched and reset. One local news segment played a tutorial on using garbage bags and duct tape to turn your bathroom into an airtight bunker. People still didn’t trust their computers—weren’t sure how vital to our lives they actually were. Would computers losing it mean the buses wouldn’t run on time? Worldwide famine? Biological warfare?
Having broken four laptop computers now (three my own), I can say that the worst of what happens is in our heads. When I dropped my first Macbook straight onto the kitchen floor and broke the hard drive, I discovered I’d lost not only all the writing I’d ever done, but also my ability to write. It was as though I’d uploaded my brain onto it—I had no scaffolding to build from. At the repair shop, I was embarrassed to give the technician the password (a recently FDA-banned weight-loss drug), but unabashedly told him to save, above all, the contents of the Trash, where I stored nudes of myself and others, bad first drafts, and makeupless face shots from the most unflattering angles I could find.
This is one of the things that so attracts me to my laptop: it appeals beautifully to my fear of impermanence, which I imagine might otherwise be paralyzing. When college friends moved away or studied in other countries, I could hardly feel a shift in their presence. Everyone in my life, it seemed, remained there as long as I wanted them to. I began to imagine social networking was designed for people like me, those with the mad desire to lock up everyone they love in a room together and never let them go.
But the Internet is such a failure of love, and it even fails at this simple duty, the temporary stay against temporality. When my best friend Connor deleted her Facebook in a fit of voyeur-paranoia and then moved back to her hometown, we fell out of touch; I sent her a drunken text this February, after more than a year of no contact, and learned that her father—this brilliant man whose philosophy of sadness I’d been preaching recently—committed suicide last October. October? And my computer, with all its intuition and shiny sci-fi robotics, didn’t find a way to inform me of this?
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Here’s the most I’m willing to admit: I touch my computer more than I touch any person. And this: I am tethered to it in the way I am tethered to my mattress or the bathtub, in that it is a tiny home I can never stray far from. But it’s so much colder, and always falling apart, like a sad toothless stepchild. For hoarding pieces of myself, it’s fine, except when, say, it’s with me in bed and I look up to catch a single cat paw slide out a hole in the screen of the open bedroom window: I jump up, sure the cat’s escaping, and knock Laptop #2 into my nightstand. (In this way, it’s like most things I know: they do fine for me until I break them.) I have no idea how ordinary or how pathological my hoarding is, but I know that when I dig through the pieces, it feels just like peeling off the top layer of the scab on my ankle and then covering it up with a new bandage.
I know that this digging contributes to my hyperactive anxiety, what I would call, if psychological disorders could be amalgamated, “attention-deficit stress disorder,” the perpetual anxiety of what else, what’s lost, my response to the trauma of constant access to virtually limitless information, and my bobbing around in this information. It is work to find knowledge that sticks to me. Most of what doesn’t is stored here, in the laptop. And then my bad memory (even of my own life) doesn’t have to embarrass me, and if I succumb to the intense desire to relive all the humiliations of being 18, 19, 20, here it is, at the click of a button, a flat silver time capsule, a reverse-nostalgia pill! Take with caution!
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I know, too, that the laptop has contributed to my fear of The Eye, the same eye Connor feared when she dropped off the internet, the eye Nora hides from with a tear of Post-it taped over her webcam.
The sense is that of being watched all the time. There’s irony also, because we live in, according to credible witnesses, The Age of Apathy, and so when I complain of all my shames to Nora, she says: No one cares. You’re really only hurting yourself by not getting over it. And I believe her: I believe both that everyone is watching me very closely, and that no one cares. So I perform life with the flair of an exhibitionist—just not a very good one.
What we suffer from may be a mild, even metaphorical, version of the Truman Show delusion: a mental disorder unique to our times, a persecutory delusion identified in 2008, defined by patients’ belief that their lives are reality shows being filmed and viewed secretly, without their consent. This particular belief is not grounded in reality—after all, it would be difficult to keep a popular TV show from the eyes of its own cast given the easy downloadability of almost any imaginable media—but there is a logic to it. It’s reasonable to imagine the rest of the world as an audience of invaders, a new sort of inverted narcissism, seeing oneself as the reluctant star of the whole show.
My stepsister’s boyfriend was watching a movie on his iPad in the bathtub when he heard laughter outside. The laughter faded into chatter, and the chatter seemed to be about him—a choral narration of his own movements: He has some shampoo on his face. Look at how he’s putting his mouth under the water. Gross. Oh, I think he’s standing up and looking out the window! The story has the very appearance of paranoid delusion, the kind of fear that only comes true in pants-down nightmares, but when he found the culprits—his neighbors, sitting in the shared courtyard below his window—he learned they’d exploited some security loophole in Apple’s sharing features, and they really were narrating him, watching him from below through his own camera. The police said they’d been doing this for weeks. Who could care about a stranger putting his mouth underwater in the bathtub? And yet, they watched so closely.
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This was a ritual I performed in my freshman year of college: put on clothes, then take pictures on Photo Booth. Not so unusual—lots of girls posted to Lookbook back then—but I didn’t show these pictures to anyone. The point was to ascertain an objective image of myself, which I was convinced was the only honest way to address my burgeoning body sadness, since mirrors appalled and people lied. I’d face away from the computer during the three-second countdown and then sit behind it and ask myself, What would I think of this girl if she was walking in front of me on the street? Then more angles and more questions. Does this look like someone I want to know? Does this look like a joke? Is this skirt too short for these legs? What about the width of the ankle? The bulk of the stockinged knee?
The ritual was not a comforting one. I had to take closeups of my face in profile and stare at the features until they broke down. The fact that these photos still exist somewhere on my computer is a relic of the compulsion, and a warning that it could resurface at any moment, this angular girl who hobbles after me with heels like deer hooves and long hair dragging behind her.
The climax of that compulsion was a visit to a plastic surgeon downtown who gave me a rhinoplasty consult, sending me home with pockets of upsold Botox in my eyelids and three pairs of new photos: old nose and future nose head-on, old and future nose at an oblique angle, old and future nose in profile. I scanned the photos into my computer and spent hours with them, knowing I could never afford the surgery, wondering if I could will the nose to gnarl itself into the improved version. I was obsessed by this version of myself despite that the rough Photoshop placed me firmly in the Uncanny Valley—bridge a little too narrow, curve of wing a little too concave, like a cartoon nose for a dainty white child.
When I take photos now, I put on makeup or imagine I’m someone else. Here is a face with undereye bags bigger than the eyes themselves. Here are lumps under the lips. Here is a nose too triangular, a scar below the brow, a blemish on the cheek. It’s irrelevant whether the face belongs to me—the photos do, and there are enough angles and expressions for any impartial observer to calculate a total identity.
Our brains are so good at this—seeing cars in clouds or a rabbit on the surface of the moon—or seeing eyelids and cheekbones and a curl of hair and saying, There. That is a person. If I was asleep and thought I was in an underwater forest or an airplane, dumber and more disconnected than a motherboard, I’d still be identifiable. So why can’t I point to the laptop, with its eyelids and cheekbones and masses of hair, and millions of words truer than anything I have ever said, and say There I am? I would be so much flatter and easier to swallow.
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This was a ritual I performed in my sophomore year: meeting with a small group of close friends on the back porch of Solstice Cafe, where we’d set up our laptops on thick oak tables and stand on benches to plug the cords into roof-level outlets, then sit together for several hours and type and blow smoke into the screens. This ritual was comforting and also profoundly embarrassing, like curling yourself into someone else’s body and then asking them not to touch you. The embarrassment doesn’t come from hiding your face behind the screen, which is as innocuous as wearing sunglasses, but from finally looking up and seeing the silver, white, and black rectangles where faces should be. It’s a pity to be so tidy.
But then: my house has long, dark windows at night, and when I work on my computer, I position it so it keeps the outside out of view. I’m grateful for its opacity. I’m grateful that when I need to write by hand, I can fold it shut, and it is the hardest surface I own. For the square of plastic in the power cord, which gets so hot I can use it to soothe my menstrual cramps if I’m in too much pain to stand up and microwave a bag of rice.
Connor’s dad’s philosophy of sadness went like this: Don’t push your sadness away. Love your sadness. Hold it close to your heart. Let it keep you warm. So it’s this trembling monster you need to protect—rock it, sing to it, and above all, you must pet it and pet it. It will retract its claws and rub its horns away.
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The third computer I broke was also the first I saved. I learned how to gut it, using a quarter to turn the screws in the base and take the bottom panel off, and I rescued the working hard drive from the faulty battery, transplanting it into the old Macbook case. The instructions online mandated “gentleness,” but meant “tenderness.” It was very like a game of Operation—the screwdriver had to go in just so, enough to loosen the metal strips holding it all together, but without digging into the iridescent entrails.
Now I let my laptop sleep in bed with me every night, because it plays me music or rainfall or voices while I fall asleep and caws like a rooster when I need to wake up. It falls asleep fifteen minutes after I do. It keeps perfect track of when to wake up.
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Two weeks ago, wasted at 5 a.m., I begged my friend to stay over and gave her a narrated slideshow of the Trash. Here is my favorite bruise. This bruise looked like a nebula and I don’t remember how I got it. Here I am naked in my mother’s bathroom. Here is a drawing I made for my first boyfriend. Here is the cartoon version of the nose I wanted. Look at me. Here are the five-inch heels my father bought me. Here is the girl who loved me. Here is the inside of my right thigh, five times over a year. Here is the ID Connor gave me when I was 18. Tell me I look like her. She was very beautiful. Here are my clavicles. Would you look at them?
Here is a sickness not content to implode the body. It demands to launch spores and penetrate, to infect as a means of dissolving. Here is its vessel.
Emily Dhatt is a poetry MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. She is from Seattle, where she studied linguistics and creative writing as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot and Crab Creek Review, and she was the winner of the 2012 Joan Grayston Poetry Prize and the 2015 Academy of American Poets/Poetry Society of Virginia Prize.