Flashes of the Future

Drew Pisarra

The world reveals itself to us over time, albeit somewhat coyly. We get glimpses of what’s real not on a daily basis but periodically, in flashes, as if the days were a series of playing cards flipped over in quick succession and we were simply awaiting the appearance of the Queen. Any Queen. The rest is just a lot of numbers in red and black interrupted by the occasional feint of a Jack, Ace or King. If we miss the Queen of our desires on the first time around, then we simply have to wait until She comes up again. Or settle for a different Queen. And so the cycle repeats itself over and over until we perhaps put together a winning hand or at least see a pattern unfold or we fold ourselves and die having never witnessed the big reveal. One small, not entirely inconsequential thing I’ve learned so far. Not every deck comes stacked with a Joker.

I don’t think I first realized that I wasn’t just gay or “perverted by longing” (as my pastor once put it) until right after my senior year in high school. That was the summer, my friend Patti and I went down to New Orleans for our last adolescent vacation. We christened it our Bon Voyage to Adulthood. I don’t think either of us had any grand scheme attached to the theme. We certainly weren’t looking to lose our virginity. Patti had given hers away years ago to a now live-in boyfriend and mine was discarded in the back of a van in the parking lot of a diner just outside the Beltway. How we scraped together the money for this trip, I don’t completely recall. I suspect I stole some of it from the cash register at the bagel factory where I worked. Maybe Patti’s dad chipped in. That seems likely. What I do know, most definitely, is that we stayed at a Marriott since my dad was a chef at a sister hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. Because of that, he was able to snag us a deal. Not free but pretty close. I also remember that once we got off the air-conditioned Greyhound bus, the terminal was inhumanely hot, even though it was 8pm. One question though: Can you call a parking lot a terminal?

Anyway, no one had bothered to tell us that the lower, off-season rates for New Orleans were because no one in their right mind would travel there willingly at this time of year. August in N’awlins – as the locals pronounced it – was the thermal equivalent of a medically induced coma. We realized immediately that our week away was probably going to be a lot less adventurous than expected but even so, the night we arrived, we trundled off to our hotel, tossed our bags on our beds, then hurried down to Bourbon Street where our NARAL and ACT UP T-shirts were instantaneously patterned with sweat as we sipped from supersized souvenir cups aslosh with Hurricanes, the toxic local fruit punch. Our eventual choice to go into an unmarked club called Tina’s – tucked away on a side street, Dauphine perhaps? – instead of one of the main drag’s touristy, open-air jazz clubs wasn’t curiosity so much as a desire to escape the humidity. Nothing sounded as inviting as air conditioning and the windowless Tina’s had a line of rickety AC units built right into its cobblestone wall. We entered without a second thought.

What we found inside was a quasi-respectable nightclub looking like a low-budget tribute to GoodFellas. Small tables for two were topped by semi-white tablecloths; a chipped disco ball with shards missing revolved over the audience, conferring a glittery if fractured benediction. As to the crowd itself, it was small but immaculate: a dozen or so patrons who looked as though they’d paired off with makeup artists in the powder rooms before heading over to an in-house dry cleaner that handed out fresh-pressed suits, linen every one of them. Everyone was wearing a blazer except Patti and me. And this included the waitstaff, who favored tuxedo jackets, although sometimes without pants. Spider web fishnets were in that year, if memory serves me right. Feeling somewhat underdressed on top and overdressed below, we soon found ourselves seated at a table far from the center, further from the front. We’d been ushered to a railed-off, elevated semi-balcony that was a literal step up and a metaphorical step down. There were some advantages to the vantage point. Mainly, we could see almost everything.

Onstage was a cabaret act that seemed pretty Vegas. Or at least Reno. Impossibly tall women runway-strutted in slinky gowns, slit up the side, often to the hip. Since the loudspeakers were directly behind us, it took me awhile to figure out that the headliners weren’t actually singing but were merely mouthing the words or some facsimile thereof. (I’ve heard “peanut butter watermelon” is a good go-to if you forget the words while lip syncing since the phrase incorporates a wide variety of consonants.) The disconnect hardly diminished the impact of the show. To the contrary, I was shaken to my core thanks to the speakers right behind me. If sound can simulate a nervous breakdown then this was like cracking up in stereo. These seats came with a case of the musical jitters and I was trembling but just too tired to move. Heat exhaustion makes everything tolerable, even an over-amped bass.

On the main floor, the audience below looked somewhat stupefied. I knew New Orleans had a reputation for being the South’s Sin City but there was nothing to indicate excess or extremes here. Strategically exhaled cigarette smoke created miasmic veils in front of genderless faces that appeared almost entranced, possibly stoned. Disoriented and dehydrated, we ordered ginger ales. Our waiter either disapproved or misheard since we ended up being served a pair of potent grave diggers. At most the drinks contained a splash of soda.

I still get the order of events somewhat confused after that but rather than get into a detailed timeline that’s undoubtedly wrong, let me skip ahead closer to the end when our not-exactly-friendly server started to leave with one of the customers. The revue – although not the music – stopped with the suddenness of someone slamming on the brakes. Quickly awakening from our stupor, we watched as the lead showgirl pointed at either the patron or her co-worker while yelling something we couldn’t hear. I’m pretty good at reading lips though so I’m pretty sure what was shouted was “That one’s mine.” What “that one” referred to was infinitely less clear. The patron? The staff? Regardless, the six-foot tall singer leapt from the stage in her four-inch heels and chased the newly minted couple who’d exited only seconds ago. Faintly heard screaming ensued offstage by which I mean the lobby. What followed next I’m less sure. That trio was out of sight and out of mind once the DJ turned up “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” God, I love Whitney Houston. Plus Tina had stepped onstage.

She was a severe change from what had preceded. Short, not svelte. Wrinkled, not young. You could say that what she lacked in beauty she made up for in assurance. Which was doubly remarkable given that she was stinking drunk. It’s like the whole scent of the space changed with her arrival. I only know who she was because she told us so. She told the whole room: “I’m Tina, goddamnit. This is my place. My house. You don’t like it, you can leave.” One person definitely got the message and filed out as if on cue. The show continued. A spotlight narrowed our focus. The vamp of a burlesque tune came on. A laugh punctured its arrival. Was it Patti? I don’t think it was me. If Tina heard it, she didn’t show it. She peeled off a single fuchsia elbow glove then stopped. The music followed suit. Tina stood there in silence as if suddenly depressed. “I want to tell you a story,” she slurred. Like a jazz singer waiting for the band to jump in, she began to recite the opening section of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. It just seemed like a very strange story. If you don’t know it either, that song’s intro is done a capella so the initial lack of a background track was pretty organic, all said. “I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire…” Tina murmured as if she were telling Patti and me a mean-spirited secret. Hers was a whisper with an edge. It was that quiet. That ominous. As she forged on, whoever was manning the sound booth quietly slid the carnivalesque piano underneath so that when the recitative ended and the verse began, it was all of a piece. Tina went back to stripping in a perfunctory way, although she’d clearly forgotten to remove the second glove.

The rest of the clothes came off as if she were getting ready for bedtime, starting with a hair clip that landed on the stage with a clunk. She tried to unclasp the pearl necklace only to give up and jerk it off so the beads spilled around her like mercury. The lyrics got fuzzy. “And then I fell in love with the most wonderful son of a bitch who gazed into a river until I pushed him in when he tried to get away.” I could follow Tina’s logic here even as I wondered where this might go. Removing the dress was easy for Tina because it was basically a spangled sack with a zipper up the side that she yanked down in a single movement before stepping out of it like a magician’s assistant exiting some treacherous box.

What was revealed was confusing. I looked to Patti for help but she’d fallen asleep with her head resting on her arms like a swan-hippy hybrid. Tina was a mix of things too with a strangled midsection held in place by silver-gray duct tape that commanded her body into an hourglass figure by pushing the fat up and below. But that was about to change as Tina unraveled the strip of tape like a molting mummy. Unfortunately, before she’d made it halfway down her torso, she got stuck. The tape wouldn’t give. She let out a short cry as it tore at the flesh. Suddenly, she had a gash below one nipple on a chest that no longer wanted to play breast. Even so, the music continued. That Peggy Lee song is long.

Tina bent over for a bit so that I assumed she was trying to find the other end of the tape with her teeth so that she could resume her unpeeling from the bottom up. I got scared that a big reveal fraught with disaster lay ahead. Up until then, Tina’s privates were tucked or shrunken, maybe removed, maybe painfully small. I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t looked closely. I couldn’t. I was in the back, remember? Plus, I was inebriated. Intoxicated but alert. But whatever it was that Tina had been doing bent over was now complete. She rose, the lower tape untouched, her mouth like a slit, her eyes like price-scanners. With her right, still-gloved hand, she pulled off her wig. There was something sad about the sweaty half-bald head she’d uncovered. Yet that was nothing when compared to what she held in her left fleshy fat fist, which she opened to reveal a small pink and white dental plate. What followed were a gummy smile and the final refrain. It was the most vulnerable thing I’d ever seen anyone do and because of that, strangely beautiful.

That moment has stayed with me for a long time, even though Patti has been known to insist it never happened. She acknowledges we saw a bald performance artist decked out in industrial tape, a postpunk superbaby who spun around in the darkness under a broken disco ball to an empty hall. But it was so much more than that. Even that part. Because after the lights in the house flickered on and off, Tina appeared committed to giving the two of us a show until the very end. Slowly, she began to spin in place, just like the ball overhead, and in this half-light I could make out a loose piece of black tape swinging around as if she’d somehow acquired a thin useless tail. A misplaced umbilical cord. An electric cord. As if she were more than human. As if she were an oversized toy whirling and twirling for the public’s amusement. Or a robot finally free of the outlet, no longer plug-dependent. I felt as though I’d seen the future so I stood. It was a gesture of respect. But I vomited because I stood too quickly. Only then, were we asked to leave.

Neither of us ever went back to New Orleans. That last big hurricane felt as though it had wiped away the magical city we’d visited forever. But New Orleans wasn’t the only thing that had irrevocably changed. The iPhone had arrived. So had YouTube. So had trans rights, karaoke culture, air-conditioned outdoor spaces, sippy cups at Broadway shows, and Chaka Khan’s frankly amazing cover of that Peggy Lee song on her underrated ClassiKhan album. (Check it out if you get a chance.) Patti and I drifted apart. She’s got two kids, a second husband, and a chip on her shoulder now. None of which were there before. I ended up in NYC, living in a shoebox apartment where I could touch the ceiling without stretching my toes. Tight as the space was, my friend Kitty stayed with me there for three months. Needless to say, we slept in the same twin bed, took turns sitting in the one chair to eat at the desk/table/countertop, then sat together on the stoop outside and smoked. Those stairs were my living room.

Kitty was a lighting designer who’d just returned from Maine where she’d done a residency which simply meant she ate for free and slept on a friend-of-a-friend’s couch in another state so she could add a self-important line to her burgeoning resume. It was she who’d recommended I check out Eye I Aye, an experimental performance installation at a small, oddly well-funded interdisciplinary lab in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan. Her description of the experience, although confusing, was intriguing. She raved about the show because there weren’t any actors. She said, it proved Gordon Craig’s theory that the live performer had become obsolete. I had no idea what she meant by that since she insisted there weren’t robots or puppets in their place but I went down to someplace not far from the Bowling Green subway stop and entered what looked to be a dentist’s office where, appropriately enough, I was asked to sign a few forms, even before I’d paid my admission fee which was cheap. I’m guessing there were fifteen of us in attendance, max. We were all excited, adventurous individuals – strange to each other and perhaps to society. We’d each heard about the production from a friend. No one shared their names. And no one asked. If you’d bugged our conversation, it would’ve sounded as though we were in line for some new recreational drug or black-market gadget. Potentially dangerous. Likely not.

After a short wait, the second, interior door to the actual performance space opened. A long knotted rope was uncoiled at our feet. We were instructed to lift the rope to waist level then make our way into the room, hand over hand, until we were engulfed by a fog so dense that we all lost sight of the world as we knew it. I vividly recall that my hands had vanished. As had the rope. I saw nothing, a nothing of whiteness, which is quite distinct from a nothing of blackness, which always suggests something unseen but still there. Absolute whiteness presents nothing in a very different way. We were told to keep silent. A few people giggled when the door clicked shut behind the last of us. But nothing here was funny. No one had come for a laugh.

Soon, we had all retreated into some form of inner silence. Without a single additional word of direction, I continued to follow the rope, like a hiker going on a treacherous path that was irrationally horizontal. It’s weird how unsettling walking can be when you can’t see your feet or the path ahead. I was surprised how long I was able to move forward without reaching some sort of end. Was this the point?

We had been told that once we were comfortable, we should let go of the rope and move into the open area. I worried that I’d bump into someone but I never did. Evidently the space was big. Or we all let go and fell into some weird cocoon of self-imposed paralysis. The experience was very interior. I stood somewhere. Alone. That I know. There may have been a chandelier overhead or snakes below. Since I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t tell. But I wasn’t thinking such things. Not then. The sound of trance music could be faintly discerned. It struck me as ominous, and frankly a bit corny. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be an audio experience,” which struck me as a total cop-out. But as the trippy soundscape quietly built in volume, some colored lights came into play. At first, it was fairly unimpressive. Nothingness got a tint. Nothing was pink. Nothing was baby blue. Imagine absence in orange or yellow. Strange but hardly earth-shattering. But then the strobes were activated and that triggered a very different result.

How to explain this? Sudden honeycomb patterns emerged. If they were rhythmic in nature, it was to a count I couldn’t deduce easily. Yet some form of logic seemed to underlie their behavior. These were strange gridlike strings of shapes that had emerged -- hexagonal webs, monochromatic, contiguous but refusing to adhere to a set size. They seemed to be building upon themselves then just as quickly breaking down to smaller blocks as if relaying a non-verbal message related to a hive-like mind. Is it weird to say that they seemed to be living? I suppose the ambient sound added a layer of meaning. Maybe not. Perhaps the sound didn’t matter. Reality as I knew it was gone. I felt the third dimension disappear. For real.

The world had gone flat. These hexagonal patterns or beings didn’t exist in the space-time continuum I understood and presently missed. It became hard to breathe. Although there were no atmospheric alterations or gravitational trickery at work, I felt compressed, as if I were being asked to flatten out myself. This was claustrophobia at its most extreme. It became hard to expand my lungs. I lifted my hand in front of my eyes for reassurance then tried to psychically ohm through my anxiety. I knew it was all in my head. And as I got inside my own head, I realized, suddenly, that the whole idea of life on other planets or even this planet wasn’t a matter of green-skinned aliens and man-eating blobs. Such visions were completely beside the point. The other existences need not be restricted to a particular dimension with all its dimensional limitations. We could be surrounded by such creatures, such things right now. It wasn’t like ghosts who are basically humanoid echoes in a minor key. This was a whole other tonal scale. And it wasn’t expansive. It was flat.

My new world was now flatter than a photograph and proposed a reality where 3-D simply didn’t exist. The reality I walk through was being obliterated before my very eyes. It was terrifying, liberating, lovely in a way that I didn’t want to watch. It made me uneasy, as if it were showing me that our universe had cracks, fissures, not black holes to swallow you or crush you but hairline fractures that, when hit the wrong way, might result in a damage beyond repair. This was the edge of chaos. It was razor thin and cut just a nastily.

For years after that, I cringed whenever I saw a strobe light, a cop’s flashers, the warning stage of a blinking hand at a crosswalk, a turn signal on the back of a car that wasn’t turning quickly enough. All of it made me wary, as if these secretly coded visuals were inviting me back to this other realm, which abided by its own rules and didn’t like the ostentatiousness that came with three dimensions. Life itself seemed to be a performance that was constantly unfolding in front of this hidden audience that couldn’t see, think, sense, or care. It blinked. It knew. And I knew too. There was the moment and nothing more.

Funnily enough, shortly after this event, I landed a job in television. Why funny? Well, because TV is so clearly a translation of 3-D into 2-D that I was completely comfortable with. Although my role had nothing to do with the on-air creative aspects of the medium, I nevertheless had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that I would never mention the shows with which I had worked after I left the network for a period of three years. So you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the shows were big. I only left the job a year ago.

Without giving away any details, I can tell you that a lot of my job involved going to the Cons. Name a convention with even a peripheral relationship to television and I’ve probably attended it: Comic-Con, Dragon Con, Flame Con, Gen Con, Wonder Con, Pax East, Pax West, and GoPlay. I’ve been to them all. Inevitably, one year, I attended CYST, a less consumer-friendly but still important electronics/technology convention that showcased cutting edge technological advancements and games generally targeting non-entertainment industries. Like many of these low-on-celeb cons, this last one took place in Vegas and I confess that despite my many travels, I never got that familiar with the original Sin City so I ended up getting lost. And so, somehow, I ended up in the older part of town. The old strip, some people call it. Attempting to find my way back without my phone, because sometimes I like to try to pretend I’m not tech-dependent, I stumbled upon the BAE/SExpo -- Best Adult Entertainment Sex Exposition -- which by that time had become the largest pornographic convention in the world.

Attendees were almost all male, almost all white, almost all middle-aged, almost all unattractive. There were long lines to see a surgically-enhanced woman named Tuna. And I heard two men fawning over an autograph coupled by a kiss made by sitting down. Strange as it may seem given these particulars, I’d actually been hoping to attend BAE for years because everyone knew that the big technological leaps in terms of interactivity were happening in this field. But good luck trying to get sign-off on that from your Human Resources department. The long and the short of it is that getting lost suddenly didn’t seem so bad anymore. I started looking for virtual reality simulators for while I appreciated the potential you might be able to extrapolate from Puss the Sexbot or a pair of Clamgloves, my whole reason for making this trip was to find something with marketable potential for a TV show. Virtual reality was all about exploring environs right now. I wanted to see if porn had a different spin.

It did. And it wasn’t simply that the headgear I put on was covered in pink fur or that the fourteen electrodes they taped to my body resembled nipples. Those were all just titillating gimmicks. For what the SwapMeat promised was not a new world but instead a new you. When you put on the helmet, the ‘trodes allowed the system to scan your body and then put together the most beautiful version of you imaginable in the opposite sex.

It was incredibly disorienting standing at a mirror in this alt world. Not simply because I was now a different gender but because I was so unnervingly hot. I recognized myself: the eyes, the one (now only barely) discolored tooth, the birthmark on the neck (now without any irregular texture and less raised from the surface). And yet it creeped me out. It wasn’t funny or arousing to see myself re-gendered. It was shocking. The system asked if I wanted to make any adjustments – perhaps blonde hair instead of brunette, blue eyes instead of green, a waspier waist. That sort of thing. But all the adjustments I wanted to make were refused.

I wanted to stay bald on top. The system permitted a crew cut but nothing further. I wanted a bigger stomach, which the system kept misinterpreting as wider hips or a shift in the placement of my navel. With each rejected request, a voice that sounded suspiciously like mine but higher and softer said, “You don’t really want to do that now, do you?” And then she/we/it laughed. The bottom line was the program didn’t allow ugly. It was pretty or nothing. Take it or leave it.

I looked down at my body, this body, her body, our body, and I saw the woman I’d never become. I could see the curve of my breasts (too large) but I couldn’t feel the curve, not really, even as I slid my sensory-enhanced fingertips against my relatively flat chest. I remember distinctly, making a hmm sound but the sound was wrong. Or it wasn’t mine. Or it was me but it wasn’t me. I took the helmet off. I didn’t even look in the game’s closet with its naughty nurse and sexy witch outfits.

The busty attendant had a smirk on her face. “Enjoy yourself,” she asked when she knew damn well I had not. “It’s not as easy as it looks,” she added coquettishly but I wasn’t sure how to interpret this “it. ” Did she mean navigating the game? being a woman? being beautiful? redefining yourself? WHERE IS THE VIRTUE IN VIRTUAL REALITY read a banner directly behind her. I was more interested in the smaller sign just to the left of it. It had the reassurance of the familiar. EXIT it simply said.

Afterwards I found myself in a hall that was empty except for a payphone and a slot machine. It seemed such a strange pairing of objects – both of them asking for a quarter that might bring deliverance and might not. I opted for the latter device, dug the proper coin out of my pocket and slipped it in the slot. It landed with a clank as if it were all alone. I pulled the lever of the one-armed bandit and listened as the symbols whirled round and round. I could barely make out the shapes. Lemon, cherry, BAR, 7, a horseshoe with all its luck running out. What did I want to come up. Some sort of match. Did it matter which one? Were the odds in my favor? And what could I possibly win? Life seemed like such a sad gamble with only the slimmest chance at one final surprise. And yet I was willing to play. Whatever the prize.

Drew Pisarra is one half of the poetry activation duo Saint Flashlight. (The other half is Molly Gross.) His first book of poetry, Infinity Standing Up, was published by Capturing Fire Press earlier this year.