BY CHRIS CAMPANIONI
In my first few years of elementary school, I had a habit of stealing from the lost and found. I would look through the closet, knowing I hadn’t lost anything, knowing, too, that I wanted to enter into the lives of the lost, the lives of the found: these strangers, now confidantes, whose memories were attached to their discarded or missing artifacts of experience. As if, when I held this grass plaid scarf, I could feel the neck enwrapped by it.
Today as we make our way north, I marvel at each sign promising or proposing a rest stop, which I sometimes imagine would offer me the hospitable pause to lay my own consciousness, finally and completely, to a temporary repose. If I couldn’t just amputate my mind, then, for half the day. And what I wouldn’t do with all the rest. Bedazzled by the local water treatment plant, as we pass another billboard cutting across the mirage of barren trees, I remember the story a student had told me about the VR headset that can kill its user. I like my games like I like my everyday fantasies on the street, needing everything to be as real as possible, minus something unimaginable, so that it won’t be real.
To make my memories correspond with facts, I search VR headset that can kill its user and thus complete the cycle of turning the anecdotal past into clickbait news. The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me, says Palmer Luckey, the American entrepreneur and founder of Oculus VR, whose NerveGear device uses explosive charge modules designed to detect when the gamer has lost. You instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it.
At the urinals, I like to stand and watch the other players from the mirror as I wash my hands. I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle themselves in moments of public abjection. The kind of stance they assume. Whether they place their left palm or their right palm on the tiled walls as they empty themselves, the sounds the body emits—a grunt or sigh? et cetera. I could convince myself that this, too, was part of my project, part of my research. That as I linger (leaning my weight on my right hip) at the open faucet and shake my palms until the flesh is as dry and worn as my jeans, I am infiltrating a zone of imaginative trespass. I wanted to know what went on inside of him. Inside of her. Isn’t that how I became a reader? Isn’t that how I remade my body into a tape deck, my eyes into a camera lens? I stand here, looking at the glossy surface specked with dust and bits of chemically enhanced animal meat, as if my reflected counterpart could return myself to another time, another body, as if looking itself were a kind of transport, remembering, as I looked, the chicken man of Philadelphia who said, as he continued to eat an entire rotisserie chicken each day for forty days, that he came to believe he could feel the pulse of the heart in my stomach.
I avoid meeting eyes with myself at the barber, as I am shaving my beard or while brushing my teeth. When it happens, and it seems so often to happen without my body’s knowledge of its own mechanical movements, I feel disgusted.
There is an antique wooden dove perched near the narrow entrance of Geist im Glas, so perfectly does it fit inside the isthmus created by the cephalopod coat rack and the bar’s curving countertop that I couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else but here. Behind the bar, and the bartender’s own face, is my own, caught once again unaware. Ghost in the glass. I close my eyes, hoping that when I re-open them, I’ll have vanished, escaping with the understanding that I’ll keep this spectral portrait in spite of my desire to drain and be drained, lodged between a shelf of nondescript liquor and six flowing taps, the way I keep everything, an image rimming a nearby patron’s conversation about whether trees dream about their former lives as seeds, or miss the places from which their indigenous features derive.
I myself keep a detailed inventory of all the bodies I have read, and what
a confusing sensation it brings confusion sensation brings. The little deaths do add up.
So in this scenario, I arrive at the lobby and walk out onto the Kurfürstendamm, watching, as I walk, the television tower visible from almost every block in the East as in the West, despite the body’s relative distance from Alexanderplatz. I’ve done this every day for the three and a half weeks since I checked into my room on the fourth floor of the Hollywood Media Hotel, because I wanted to produce a memory, an image to be stuck in my mind when I would think of Berlin, forgetting for a moment what the image of the television tower would replace.
He was holding his penis like a cigarette. But no, that’s not right. Many people hold their cigarettes in many different ways. And I don’t even smoke. He was holding his penis, then, like a pool club. Gradients of fuchsia and magenta dominate every image that streams through my mind when I am like this; so up against the thrill of radical dislocation, unbroken immersion, that my eyes begin to flutter involuntary and a smile, maybe, solidifies across my thick lips, the same satisfaction you get when you look back at your car after parking it.
I blink and I’m in Berlin again, picking up a local accent since the one I came here with is already impure. The week after new sex calls for another week of contemplation, and so it is, too, whenever I enter my notebook, the back of my head propped against this cheap cosmetic pillow for support, vintage static vibrating from a television I hadn’t realized was on until now. In the interval (the shock of recognition), I receive an invitation to the Kumite, an illegal martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. Days later, after my Army superiors refuse to let me go, I will be “absent without leave”; I will say good-bye to my beloved sensei; I will leave for the Fragrant Harbour with its sparkling night-lights on the eastern Pearl River Delta. Unbeknownst to me, two Criminal Investigation Command agents (let’s call them “Helmer” and “Rawlins”) will be assigned to track me down and return me, energetically, to my proper place, whether their quarry is willing or unwilling. I click the remote and the screen turns dark. I could go back out and stroll the sprawling avenue of Western consumerism in the capital of the twentieth century; I could venture a visit to any of the numberless Nazi bunkers turned sex clubs turned private art galleries turned penthouses for their obscenely rich gallerists; I could browse a Reddit thread on the biggest debris hills in the world as I wait in line at Berghain; I could climb to the very top of the biggest debris hill in the world, and look down at the city undulating like a snake as I support my heaving body on the ruins of a CIA listening station, hoping, in my unfocused gaze, to make out my spotty form, laying there (laying here) with the window open in my unassuming room on the fourth floor of a Hollywood themed hotel in Charlottenburg consoling themselves with such thoughts; I could second-hand shop (my lesser-known passion) at the German thrift chain I will later learn is an international criminal organization; I could draft an itinerary of things I would have liked to do this morning—when I write down where I have to go, what I have to do when I get to these places, I see so many things and people I would have never seen if it weren’t for the list and the activities therein—I could flex my right thigh as I cross it over my left and absolve myself of any appointments but careless absorption in my notebook—have I ever really left?—I could investigate the DDR Museum, and survey all the photographs I’ve already seen before, looking at them until the schoolchildren’s faces begin to resemble my mother’s; I could do nothing but wait, nothing but nothing, until you install your apparition in the lobby; until the hotel manager rings at your avatar’s request; until you sacrifice your body, too, for the calm belief in the warm and the familiar. Weren’t we just making our way north? Weren’t we just cataloging the variations of green in the Tiergarten’s Rosengarten, its decorative gated entrance providing me with the fiction that this moment of prefab Hellenistic bliss was mine and mine alone? In a week, I’ll be
somewhere else someone else. The words drop in the midst of a muscle’s murmur, just like that, a void that penetrates the body from within. And when I was in the men’s room of this rest stop in the lower Hudson Valley, I wanted to be in Copenhagen, fondling the cool fins of the rusted bronze mermaid in a photograph. And when I was in Copenhagen, I wanted to be in Damascus, in London, in Kraków, in Siracusa, in Otranto, where I could convince myself that I had reached, on foot, the easternmost point in all of Italy. In Berlin, I ran my hand along every wall that remained, and prayed for the soundtrack of an afternoon storm. I awaited my big death scene.