:: Article

doppelgänger

By Rhian Sasseen.

7.

That voice you hear every day—that voice that haunts you, that voice that follows you, that voice that reassures and coos—Ladies and gentlemen, says the voice. Clipped, confident, cool. Ladies and gentlemen, please stand away from the platform edge. You’d recognize that voice anywhere, wouldn’t you—and in fact you do, you do recognize that voice, there’s no escaping it. That same voice appears in cities around the country, cities across the world…Chicago, New York, Paris. That same voice. It’s always the same.

Years ago I heard an interview on the radio with that voice. It’s one woman, it turns out—it’s the same woman who always warns us. Every time. I was driving somewhere when I heard her, I can’t remember where. The sky outside was growing dark. Back roads. Rural. They had her repeat those announcements, and it felt so funny to hear her say them when I was in a car, when I wasn’t in a city, it didn’t feel natural or right. “Ladies and gentlemen,” they had her repeat. I turned the volume up. Indeed, it was one and the same. And did you know that she’s never actually ridden the subway? Well, only once—“A long time ago,” she said in the interview. “1957.” Only once.

Her voice was different when she wasn’t announcing the trains. More fragile. She lives somewhere in the woods of Maine. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, I couldn’t believe it when I heard. Her voice. Her voice! Husky, as though she’s spent a lifetime smoking; slightly sultry, like she’s got the corners of her mouth constantly turned down. But fighting back a smile. It’s everywhere, that voice. Please stand away from the platform edge…

Her voice. Her voice. Her voice is what I keep returning to, even now. Years later. I live in a city. It’s ghostly, disembodied. Her voice. I hear it everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.

And yet: “We’ve always taken cabs.”

 

9.

I received a strange email a few days ago. Written in the body, it read, Alas, I lacked the will to be born…

There was no subject line. I didn’t know what it meant. There wasn’t even really a sender—just a string of numbers @ another string of numbers dot com. Spam, I thought, and moved to trash it, but something made me pause. “The will to be born”—it was such an awkward phrase! What did it even mean?

I searched online. Nothing much came up. A few medical articles translated from the Italian; a few sermons; some greyscale photos of empty, abandoned rooms. “Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia, and LSD,” read one headline. But the site was essentially nonsense: “There is no doubt in my mind,” read its feverish copy, “that the will to be born as to vortex is entered, so can be transformed…”

I mentioned all this to my husband later that week, over dinner. He dismissed it as no cause for alarm.

“It’s probably some kind of anti-abortion campaign,” he told me. “They’re always sending crap.”

“I don’t know about that.” Carefully, I cut the meat on my plate. Red meat. Its juices were pinkish; leaked blood.

“Well, what do you think it could be?”

“Maybe it’s some kind of clue.”

“But a clue for what?”

“Maybe I’m going viral.” I chewed and swallowed. “Or maybe I’ve got a stalker.”

“Finally!” he joked, before taking another serving. “Took you long enough.”

We laughed. But it was a bad joke—there was truth in it. Everybody knows that it’s difficult to take an actress seriously if she’s incapable of inspiring obsession. What else does she have to offer, after all, beyond a sense of desire, of mystery? I had no words, no thoughts of my own. And I was a bad actress, too. I could memorize my lines and regurgitate them once I was on set, but I never felt much…No emotions really coursed through me. I was pretty enough, I was thin enough, and I was blonde enough, but when combined, none of these qualities were enough. I lacked a spark, a certain something, that je ne sais quoi.

I spent my days playing an intrepid and ponytailed young reporter on a weekly police procedural that had, over the years, become something of a New York institution. It had been on the air for twenty years before I joined, and it would be on the air long after I left. It was that rare chance at stability for people in this industry—people spent their entire careers working on this show. People put their kids through college using the salaries they earned on this show. I should have been more grateful, I know. But mostly I was bored. I liked to pepper my sentences with the newsroom lingo I picked up from the scripts: “tk,” “graf,” “subhead.” The words made me feel hyper-competent. All those technicalities! It was like I knew what I was doing, like I was actually learning something. They really rolled off the tongue.

But I was aging rapidly, barely hanging on to that ingénue identity with my life. I needed to diversify. I knew that, my agent knew that, my husband knew that. But no one was transfixed by me, not even my husband. Not even my agent. Not even me. No one was writing odes to my cheekbones, poems to my eyes. I had no philosophers slumming it in newspapers writing columns about my face. No auteurs rustling up scripts devoted entirely to my thighs. The problem was that I had no inner meaning, no interiority to speak of. Or at least that’s what it looked from the outside. To keep myself from going crazy, I had to distract myself with something. And so I had turned to an activity both lucrative and centered entirely on that shallow quality, my one redeeming feature. I had started to run #ads.

When a woman looks a certain way and sounds a certain way and puts real effort into imbuing herself with a certain kind of easy-breezy open-mouthed effortless laughing with salad sort of appeal, the brands will flock to her inbox like flies. Publicists emailed me all day, all night, always trying to convince me to make an Instagram post featuring this certain type of feminine hygiene product, that specific purse, this kind of puffy-sleeved daffy milkmaid-inspired blouse. All I had to do was take some flattering pictures that included whatever product I was hocking placed prominently within my everyday—but not too everyday, we still wanted this to be aspirational—life. I barely even had to write anything; the publicists always had a pretty good idea of how they wanted the caption to sound. And besides—my followers weren’t exactly concerned with the words that I was selling. Just the image.

My follower count was going up rapidly. My skincare routine had recently been featured on a women’s beauty blog. But I was a victim of my own success; I was an influencer now, not an actress, despite what my bio might say. I was gifted free eyeshadow palettes but I’d never win an Oscar. I thought about this some more after dinner, as I patted different acids and emollients onto my face. Was the email some kind of mysterious marketing plot, maybe for some kind of streetwear drop or hidden concert? If it was just a piece of advertising, then it was an absolute failure, because I had no idea what was being advertised. But maybe it was a piece of fan mail! I had never received one before.

I slid into bed, freshly lotioned, and soon began to dream. Hashtag influence. Hashtag sponcon. Hashtag ad.

 

11.

In late autumn, a British woman told a reporter that she had slept with over twenty ghosts. “It started as an energy, and then became physical,” she explained. “There was pressure on my thighs and breath on my neck…You can feel it. It’s difficult to explain.”

Online, everyone laughed at her, but I knew what she meant. When we were younger—before I met my husband, before I fell in love—A. took the two-hour train ride from Connecticut to Brooklyn almost every weekend to visit me. Each time, it felt as though I had been visited by a ghost. Plates I couldn’t remember using stacked up high on my kitchen counter; strange noises emitted from my bedroom. We’d stay up until three or four in the morning, drinking prosecco and talking and talking and then making love. The next day, we’d sleep until noon, and then we’d wake up and fuck and do it all over again, a second time, a third time, sometimes even a fourth. A tense, erotic energy manifested itself between us whenever we were in public together. We’d repeat the process ad nauseum until suddenly it was Sunday evening, and it was time for him to go.

It was difficult to explain to friends the precise hold he had on me. Clearly it was sexual, and yet there was also something more. I felt as though he had infected my brain. “He looks like a snake,” said a friend who disliked him, sucking in her cheeks, and yes, he was one, too; tears and rough words and lies were exchanged between us. But still: I couldn’t get enough. Together, it was as though we existed on a different temporal plane, one that resisted the world’s usual strictures. Like every set of lovers, we had constructed a kingdom entirely of our own making, a kingdom in which only our rules applied. When the weekend invariably ended, when it was time to drag ourselves back into the day-to-day reality of our lives, it was though a dream had ended, a spell had been lifted—or a curse. Groggy, we’d part, and I’d lie in bed for hours, dwelling on what had just happened and masturbating fitfully. He’d text me from the train station—a thought, a farewell, once simply a kissy-face emoji—and I’d drift back, smiling, into my real life, my working life, my life of the week ahead.

It didn’t last, of course. These sorts of affairs never do. He had graduate school to contend with; I was waitressing and working menial jobs and going to auditions, pretending that my career was just about to take off. When it ended, I felt a kind of relief. I had never felt quite like myself around him. Even when he was away, it was as though he was watching me—I acted differently. I was more self-conscious. Less free. Time passed and I met my future husband. Things changed. I started landing parts, and then I was married and then I was on TV. But still—A. was still inside my head. At the height of the affair, a nosy coworker at the restaurant where I worked asked me if I was seeing someone. “Yes,” I told her, smiling a contented smile. “In a way.” I could see him, after all—literally—I could see him, even when it felt like no one else could. It was a different path. These things end. He was always inside my head. A kind of haunting: He was my apparition. My phantom. My ghost.

 

13.

May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please…

Please step away from the platform edge

Please mind the gap between the train and the platform

Please finish entering and exiting, the doors are closing

The doors are closing

The doors are closing…

 

23.

Soon, filming would begin again. For now, though, my time was still my own, my days were still my own, I still had my freedom. Of a sort. And what I wanted to do with my freedom was destroy it; all I wanted was to spend, spend, spend.

As I waited for the F train, I weighed my shopping bags in my hands. They were pleasantly heavy, filled with just enough new purchases to lend a real heft to their interiors. I hadn’t bought much, just enough to feel mildly high while purchasing and mildly disappointed in myself after. Lime green culottes, a polka-dotted blouse. Violently purple one-inch heels. I was in my neon period, I joked to my husband. Clothes the color of ripe fruits. Clothes the color of money.

The train was late. Below ground, there were no breezes to blow us, no breezes to lend relief. I was sweating. The trains were always running late, the city was constantly apologizing on their Twitter feed and nothing was ever being done. They hadn’t even recorded a new announcement apologizing for the delays.

It’s an entire job these days, apologizing. Someone has to man that Twitter feed, though statistically it’s probably a woman. Someone has to be the face, the voice, and yet it’s always anonymous. I have no idea who types in these delay announcements on the MTA feed, if it’s one person or a small army. The train itself gets a voice, at least. Some small bit of humanity.

Finally, it arrived. Where had it been all this time? —But there was no use in dwelling on it, there was never any real answer. Shaking my head, I got on. Even though it was so late—I had been waiting for close to half an hour—it was unusually empty. I sat down next to a window, and placed my head momentarily against the cool of the glass. The doors are closing… The train began to whir forward, though from the direction that my seat faced, it felt as though we were going backwards. It was dark out there in those underground tunnels. Dark and mysterious. I imagined rats scurrying through those underground tunnels, a small army of rats, scurrilous, scabby. An entire parallel universe out there in those tunnels. An entire other world—and how did they, themselves, regard us?

I leaned back in my seat. I like that halfway feeling that you can experience in a train, that liminal space, like you’re straddling the border between different worlds, different selves. Whoever I would be when I stepped off at Jay Street would be entirely different to who I was now. So much could change even in the span of twenty minutes. And on the converse, it felt good to not be much of anyone right now—to not be my self. Just a body on a train. Just a body, suspended in space.

I like the way time passes on the subway. It’s linear, yes—you will, theoretically, move forward—but it’s also a pause. I even like the delays, once I’m on the train—it gives me an excuse to just be. And time was delayed on this train, time was always delayed on the subway that season. That halfway space. The train conductor mumbled out some half-assed apology over the broken loudspeakers when the train paused. None of us could really hear him. We would be forced to wait, though, that much was clear: Train traffic ahead…I never understood what that could mean. The entire point of the subway system was to avoid traffic jams, wasn’t it? I settled in, preparing to wait, and stared out the window of my train into the impenetrable darkness of the tunnels outside.

Minutes passed. The conductor apologized again, half-heartedly, his voice like the womp womp womp of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Minutes and minutes, many minutes, and then another train wedged itself beside us, slowed and stopped. I always get a kick out of this, when trains pass each other underground. I like to peer inside, to peek at these other lives. It’s also its own kind of parallel universe. And so when this train stopped, I wasn’t shy. I turned. I focused my eyes, I looked over.

And there—there she was.

I blinked. It was me—or rather, a woman who looked like me. But like an exact copy. Same blonde hair, same brown eyes, same thin nose and freckles. A small mole on the chin. She was wearing the same rings that I do—the silver ones, the large abstract ones, the engagement and the wedding ones—and she had her face tucked into her hand like I did, a red scarf tied around her head like I did. At first, I assumed it was a reflection. It had to be—I leaned in, looking closer.

At this, she stirred and caught my eye. Quickly, confidently, she raised her chin in greeting—hello, she seemed to say, fancy seeing you here—and gave a quick kind of smile. One brow raised. And a jaunty little wave.

It couldn’t have been me. But it had to have been me. We looked exactly alike. But I was sitting here, and she was sitting there…But it was me. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I knew it in my bones.

“We apologize for any inconvenience,” the conductor’s voice boomed out suddenly, the intercom finally starting to work, like a camera lens coming into focus. We would be moving forward shortly—I glanced again towards the woman who looked like me, who was giggling. She looked like she knew something that I didn’t, but what? Our trains were moving forward—no, no, stop, I wanted to shout—I had to know who she was. But it was too late—my twin gave me a little salute. Good luck out there, she seemed to imply. And then our trains moved forward without each other, our paths diverged, and then—though I didn’t want it to happen—then, she was gone.

When we made dinner that night, I told my husband what happened. What I saw.

“A doppelgänger,” he announced.

“Excuse me?”

“A doppelgänger,” he repeated. “You know—the superstition. It’s a ghost story. You’ve never heard it before?”

I stopped drying the lettuce in our salad spinner. I hadn’t been prepared for him to take me seriously. “No,” I told him. “What is it?”

“Well, it’s supposed to be your copy. Your twin, your other half. Your double. You both exist. You both go about your days. But if you ever cross paths, you have to be really careful—that’s when the trouble could start.” He raised his knife up from the steak he was slicing, and waved it around playfully. “Whichever one of you isn’t the real one—whichever one of you is the copy, because there’s only one original—well.” He drew a finger across his throat as though pretending to slice it. “Hiya! One of you dies.”

“Don’t say that.” My voice surprised me; it was colder than I had anticipated. My hands were shaking. “Don’t say that. That’s a horrible thing to believe.”

“It’s not real!” He stared at me, perplexed. “It’s just a ghost story, it’s just a stupid legend. Darling, it’s not real.” He set his knife down and moved to hug me; I let him. “Don’t worry.” He buried his head in my neck and breathed. “I know that you’re not real.”

“Oh, shut up.” I pushed him away and tried to laugh. We finished preparing our dinner and then ate. Time proceeded normally. I lotioned myself and climbed into bed. But no matter how much my husband reassured me, I still dwelled on it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was, somehow, all true. I had seen my other half. I had lived to tell the tale. But it was early—I was still uneasy. Which one of us was real?

 

16.

Every few months, I clear out my schedule and hire a freelance photographer to spend a few days taking photos of me, open-mouthed and pigeon-toed, wearing a variety of outfits around the city. These days are always excruciatingly long—practically sunrise to sunset. We need the best light, and I have mountains of outfits to get through. But they always pay off: At the end of this extended shoot, I’ll have enough photos I can post on my Instagram for the next season.

I always use the same photographer. I’ve known her for years—we met through A., and I never was quite sure if he was sleeping with her or not. Or maybe they had before—before I came into the picture. In those days, the salad days, the boyfriend days, she always acted slightly aloof, slightly confused by my presence. She only ever wanted to talk to A. But now, years have passed and A. has left both of our lives. She is a talented photographer, and relatively cheap. And it gets her clients, too, when they see her handle credited below.

“Do you want to try standing near that tree?” Sue asked me. We were in a public park this time, taking shot after shot as I posed in a lavender slip dress and sandals with marabou fur. I moved over and posed. Pout, pout, smile, smile. Occasionally, passerby would roll their eyes, which annoyed me—what I was doing was relatively harmless. And working on the police procedural, which constantly clogged up the sidewalks of Manhattan with its trailers and its craft stations and its staff, had taught me that this was, actually, people came to this city expecting to see. In a way, I was kind of a public good. So there was really no need for them to sigh.

At first, I had forced my husband to take my photos, but he wasn’t very good at it. He was still my last resort whenever we were on vacation, or attendees at a particularly fun-looking industry party or opening, one in which I needed more than just a selfie, but the Internet is filled with mediocre shots of pretty girls taken by their Instagram boyfriends. I needed to up my game—and so I found Sue. She understood what I was doing. She had a fairly popular feed herself, though it catered more to an art school crowd. Still, it behooved all of us to use each other. Sometimes, my followers would migrate to her feed, and start leaving the kinds of comments they left me: “living the life, girl,” they’d type. “omg i am SO jealous.” They’d tag their friends and type things like “goals.” Or even just, “#goals.” As though we were people they desired to be.

It was intoxicating. The brands soon followed. Suddenly, representatives from luxury department stores were beginning to email me, asking if they could gift me a designer purse in exchange for one measly little mention. Of course I said yes—what kind of idiot would have refused? It was a digital gold rush. More and more accounts were popping up, more and more women, because now you didn’t even need a blog or any kind of website to weigh you down. Now, you existed on platforms that belonged entirely to other people. It was all id, when you boiled it down. Pure id, dressed up with illusion.

“I saw A. the other night,” Sue mentioned off-handedly.

I stopped, trying not to show any emotion. “Oh? I didn’t realize he was in town.”

“Just for the week,” she said. “We grabbed dinner. He seems fine. You haven’t heard from him?”

I ignored the question. “I thought he hated New York.”

“Oh, he still does. Just was in town for a conference or whatever.” Sue adjusted the lens of her camera. “How many outfits did you bring?”

“I have seventeen for today, and twenty-three for tomorrow.”

“I love it,” she said absent-mindedly. “Spend, baby, spend.”

 

5.

A. looked well. He had filled out in the years since we had been together, and though he was still tall, still willowy, he no longer appeared quite so anemic. As we sat there in that diner, eating breakfast, the thought crossed my mind—what if?

“I saw you the other day,” he announced. “On the television. I was home sick, and flipping through the channels. There’s a lot of garbage on during the daytime, it’s excruciating. But then suddenly, there you were.”

“There I was.” I took another bite of my disgusting egg-white omelet. “What was I doing?”

“Oh, you know, solving crimes.” He waved his hand airily. “Whatever it is your character does. She’s a journalist, right?”

“Correct.”

“It looked like you were practically the star of the show!”

“Not really.” If only he knew how low I was on the totem pole. “My character is completely ancillary. Filler, more or less.” I had been a cast member for around six months now, and I spoke ill of myself both because I was embarrassed by the role—it was a far cry from all of the plotless, experimental stuff I had been enamored with when he and I had dated—and also because I wanted him to take the bait, to reassure me that I was more important than I thought. But he didn’t, of course. He never did. He never had behaved like I expected him to during the course of our relationship. If you could even call it that—he hadn’t.

Did I miss him? I sipped my coffee. He still looked good to me—he was a winsome young lawyer now, tackling deep questions about injustice every day. And he lived in California—the good California, the Bay Area California, not the L.A. one. Though now both were pretty bad, according to him and the other people that lived there—the tech scene was destroying everything. But at least avocados were still cheap.

Did I miss him? Unlike me, he wasn’t paid to pretend to believe in something, he really did. I could try and convince myself that what I was doing was important, that I was fighting for some kind of gender parity in my portrayal of a “difficult female character,” which was certainly something that a few feminist blogs had argued about my character, but the reality was that it was a show about cops and about women being raped, and people watched it because it was a kind of comfort food, seeing women hurt and bleeding on their screens. No systems were being changed, but my bank account was expanding. The steadiness of the gig, plus my recent marriage to a man who worked in corporate finance and who came from money, meant that I could now indulge myself more often than when A. and I had been together. And with that indulging came a kind of comfort, a belief born out of money, that my preoccupation with myself—the photos, the clothes, the skincare routine that I Instagram-lived and called “self-care”—was one based entirely on politics, not narcissism. As though there was something inherently empowering about attempting to preserve myself for a man.

“You look good,” I told him.

“So do you,” he told me. “Very pretty.”

I basked beneath the compliment.

“Very…ah…fashionable.”

It was an insult disguised as a compliment. He always knew how to do that.

I wanted him to fuck me.

Instead, I told him about an unusual scene I had come across in the train station some weeks before. I had been waiting for the F, I told him; it was always running late. All of a sudden, people were yelling. There was a commotion. As it turned out, someone had tried to jump in front of a train.

Somebody saved her. A hero! Ambulances and reporters—real reporters, with the local news station—were brought on to the scene. The trains would be delayed, and for that, people cursed her, but I felt relieved. From my position on the sidelines, I wanted to see her—I wanted to see what the victim looked like. The would-be suicide. Bodies pressed around m. Bodies left and right. “Alright, alright,” somebody called in a thick Brooklyn accent, “lay off, let the professionals in here…” It was like something out of a movie. It was like something out of the television show I was in!

Because I am thin, I was able to get close. I was able to see her—and there she was. There was the almost-victim, pinned to the ground, with an oxygen mask being strapped to her face. She was coughing and looked exhausted. A relatively young-looking woman—her hair was the color of a wedding ring. She coughed and coughed, again and again, gagging as the air penetrated her throat and lungs. I was afraid she was going to vomit. The very thought made me heave.

Everyone in the station stared at her. Just moments before, our afternoons has been proceeding as usual—babysitters waited with their charges, tourists stood with their fellow tourists. A few straggling commuters checked the time on their phones impatiently. And then there were a few drifters, like me—it was before I was full-time on the show, and so I had a lot of empty days, a lot of hours that I needed to fill. Hence the shopping bags on my arm, hence the time I had just spent shopping amidst the various boutiques of the Lower East Side. I was always good at pretending I had a purpose, even if my purpose was just to shop. I had money now, or at least access to it—it was okay. I slipped through my days superfluously, though from what I posted online, it looked like I had a goal. No one needed to know.

But she had changed all this. Hurtling her body. She had destroyed it, this air of normality. Of us going about our days. The second her body started to fall—wretched, wrenched, twisting at an unnatural angle—we knew. Everything was changing. This experience would scar some of the children watching; for years, they’d wonder what would have happened if the train had come. If she had succeeded. If she had died. I’d wonder that, too—I was still wondering. It seemed so easy. So easy and so hard.

Because that’s real bravery, isn’t it? A.’s face was smooth as I said this. That’s real bravery, to take a long hard look at your life and decide, in some way, that it needs to change. Her decision was more extreme than most. But we had intervened—all of us, I implicated myself, too. It was her right to decide to destroy her body—my voice was rising now. Our waitress skipped our table, not wanting to interrupt. Her face—dirt-smeared, scared, and yet so oddly hopeful, peaceful, like a saint—her face was seared onto my brain. She had taken a stand. Or, at the very least, she had made a serious decision. She chose to refuse regret, to refuse to backtrack. There was a kind of fury to her eyes, I remembered, in contrast to the rest of her face, which seemed scared. Her jaw was slack. Snot streamed out of her nose; tears ran down her cheeks. She had taken a stand, but we, the collective we—we had refused her.

“Do you really think that?” A. asked, after I was done.

I ignored his question. “She looked a little like me, you know. If you need a visualization.”

A. looked troubled by that. He finished his coffee and changed the subject. He paid for breakfast, even though I offered. “It’s the least I can do,” he told me. Kissed me on the cheek. That familiar feeling. When we hugged goodbye, I could feel him dissolving. There was a church down the street, some kind of Catholic cathedral. People clad in black and speaking Spanish clustered outside. A funeral. A. and I walked by it, towards the train. “Here we are,” he said. I knew I’d never hold him again. Another pathway. Another possibility. He got on a Citibike and I got on the train. I didn’t tell him what else had happened, between the girl and me. How I had caught her eye. Gave a little wink. Solidarity. Her eyes widened in recognition. And then I was gone, vanished, I walked away and then I was free.

 

1.

Carefully, I propped my phone up against a flower pot that sat on my desk. I had shoved a few books underneath it, too, so I wouldn’t get a double chin while looking down at the phone’s flat front face. I really needed to buy a tripod. I don’t know why I hadn’t. I needed to upgrade. I needed to diversify. My husband’s voice echoed through my head.

For now, this was enough. I opened up Instagram, but just before clicking “live,” I hesitated. How exactly was I going to explain the bruising on my arm? The bruising that I had carefully concealed with makeup—none of this gifted crap, but the expensive theater stuff left over from my student days. The bandage on my wrist. But then I switched my camera to selfie mode and I saw that I had nothing to worry about, that my arms weren’t even visible in the shot.

Just enough time had passed that I realized that I needed to be worried about my revenue streams. An audition was coming up—an unexpectedly big one, a steady one, a gig on a television show that had already been airing for twenty years. I wanted it. I wanted stability, I wanted to prove to my husband that I, too, could provide. My Instagram feed was okay, my outfits probably weren’t that exciting, but I posted frequently and that seemed to be enough. I had neglected to mention my little vacation to any of the brands that I worked with, and because we communicated purely through the smokescreen that is email, they had no idea what I had been up to. Why I had, unexpectedly, entered this little hiatus. “Personal matters,” I told them, which seemed to be enough. But now I was back, now I had to get serious, now I had really work hard at getting all that money back. People have a short memory online. I needed to engage with my fans.

I went live. “Hey, fam,” I began, my voice shaky. Comments began to stream in. Emoji reactions burst over the video like so many flower petals blossoming. “omg you looks so GOOOD,” one account commented. “soooo skinny!” “we miiisssseeedddd youuuuu,” another person said. Some just sent me half-a-dozen heart emojis in a row.

They were probably sincere, but they had no idea. They had no idea where I had been, what I had done, and so these were empty gestures, empty words. I watched myself on the screen as I sputtered out inanities. There was my face, my blank face. My lips. My eyes. I needed to keep talking. Any silences would cause them to stop watching me. And so I just lied, said some niceties that were as expressionless as my face. Unmemorable, I was unmemorable. Incapable of inspiring passion. All I could do was buy.

There I was. I watched myself. I couldn’t bring myself to cry. All I did was stare. Itself a kind of death. There was my face. My face. My echo. A stain. An open gaping eye.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhian Sasseen lives in New York. Her writing has appeared in Aeon, Burning House Press, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. Twitter: @RhianSasseen

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 12th, 2020.