I awaken to computer or phone screens with emails beckoning. Mostly junk, links to New Yorker articles, reminders of delinquent dues on this card or that. CONTACT US IMMEDIATELY, black words growl on a sterile background.
I pay bills on phone screens, apps with cold black numbers breaking down how much I’ve spent on groceries, badly needed Cabernet, and too many short-story collections. I shrink the screen, I expand the screen, and it balloons, the surface-level truths still there. But Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates demand to be read and there’s a certain dark thrill in reading about runaway parents, emotionally damaged youths in elegant script, on crinkling pages.
And I’m submerged in Microsoft screens with litanies of options. Track changes, show comment, paragraph, color, font. I edit manuscripts and spar with authors with oversized egos in freight-train length group emails. They insist on historical inaccuracies, claim no one will notice, Nicholas II being executed in 1917 instead of 1918, and having six children, instead of five. They defend choices of words like mélange, obsequious, phlegmatic, and lugubrious, their words taking on a more ominous, precise quality in Courier font. An arrogance in Garamond.
My sister even loves me through texts with small, outlined emojis, hugging emojis, heart emojis. Nicknames are squeezed into bubbles, screens within screens. But you can’t smell lavender perfume or onions, feel arms welcoming, playful, rough, tender.
I close the computer. Hide the phone. Ask Nan to visit. To call. She promises all of the above with more emojis and laconic lines. Talk soon, I’ll come soon Nicksie. Don’t fret, little bro. Watch some Netflix, it’ll cheer you up. Or crank up your Spotify playlist. I know you like Tchaikovsky, my nerdy little Nicksie.
Sometimes, we talk through Zoom, but the connection’s fuzzy and Nan becomes a silhouette and not the chestnut-haired sister, five-feet, eight-inches whose presence is a commanding and wonderful. Instead smiles fizzle into electronic purgatory.
I can’t watch movies on screens either. Especially on iPhones. The Crown is even more depressing. Dysfunction squeezed into tight vertical spaces and constricted square ones, as if Buckingham Palace isn’t tight enough. The same with Curb Your Enthusiasm, which Nan loves, conventions taking on a new visibility in schmaltzy rooms and sidewalks. Bring gifts to birthday parties, don’t whistle Wagner because you’re Jewish, don’t sit in the back seat when no one’s in the front. Go shotgun.
The worst thing is you can start and stop shows, but the screens still wait, wait for an action, a decision. When one screen dies, another is born. White screen, black and red screen, blue screen, a manic kaleidoscope. A screen asks if I need help navigating my options, I brush it away, it returns, hovering in electronic skies.
I even bury the phone. Fail to charge it. Let the computer battery die. But the world tugs. What if I don’t check this screen at this minute? What if the world’s about to offer me a better position, a promotion, a project that’ll change things? Blackness accuses and wait for my inevitable surrender. They know I hate what-ifs.
There’s something elegant in letters. At least you have layers to rip open, a moment’s pause before you confront some inevitability. You have the weight of things. But a screen offers everything, stark naked, to digest. Bad news come in short bursts, good news in long streaming paragraphs.
At night, I shut my eyes as tight as possible. Sleep on my left side, facing my closet and not the computer or phone. I try to think of Nan’s laugh like tinkling glasses, play it over and over. I think of the moon and stars. But what’s the sky if not another screen, festooned with semblances of beauty? My eyes won’t close, screens still slithering through walls, walls that break, break, break no matter how I try to hold them up.
Image – Pixabay.com