They both entered the space aware of what was to be expected. Aware that this was not to be accepted as “real life” (whatever that could truly mean anymore), but, at the same time, to be gone along with in a surrender Dorothy fashion. Capitulate to the illusion, the so-called pleasure. For Alistair, this was no issue. He spent his days working at a gaming company where virtual reality was more normal than fraternizing with that which was tangible. Which is precisely why he made far more money than Caroline. Sweet Caroline, as he called her, despite having never heard the Neil Diamond song requisitely played at baseball games (or so the movies had taught Caroline).
The event was put on by Salazon Rind, a multibillion dollar organization that dabbled in everything from paper towels to TV production. It was the latter that they were funneling their money into tonight in promotion of a series called The Wondrous Ms. Wertheim. Set in the late 50s, Salazon Rind saw fit to pull out all the stops in promoting the upcoming second season of a series that more people than expected had taken a shine to in that, well, Salazon Rind just didn’t know if audiences could quite glom onto Annie Furman-Amino’s long-winded writing style. Would they have the attention span? executives worried, though not really as they paid other people to worry for them, people they would end up firing for all their anxiety over something they really oughtn’t to care so much about for as much as they were going to “get back” in the long run.
As usual, however, the average businessman underestimated the starvation many viewers still have for quality. The lust for dialogue that isn’t so parsimonious that it makes you question whether or not Big Brother wrote the entire script in Newspeak. Which, for all we know (not that any of us seem to desire to know anything), he could have.
Alistair and Caroline were just such viewers (though there were a few strays who had waited in line to get in solely as a result of the rumor that was getting around about the free food–no matter that it was the momentary resuscitation of Carnegie Deli–without having ever seen the show). And the duo had the sort of male-female friendship that Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead would have relished being able to enjoy had she be born to a different time–for there was never a worry or concern about things between them devolving (for devolving would be the only word to describe carnal desire) into something sexual. It just wasn’t “who they were.” Alistair, constant gamer that he had to be for his profession, was, in fact, probably asexual. His libido beaten into submission by roughly sixteen hours a day spent attached to a screen. For Caroline, it was more complex than that. Sure, she had to be welded to a computer or phone in order to conduct her business just as much as the next twenty-first century person, but this was not why she felt as though her sex drive was nil. No, it had more to do with her resignation to never being emotionally or physically satisfied by any one man. That she had to cull something from each of them made her give up on the notion of true attraction altogether. On love as it was so well-presented in the cinematic landscape. Or even the TV one. As was the case with Wanda Wertheim, the eponymous heroine of The Wondrous Ms. Wertheim, who always seemed to be attracting scores of men even in spite of her all her vitriol and contempt for them–but who could blame her? She was left at the altar by her two-timing, no good would-be husband. And after all those quality dates spent at the Carnegie Deli, too. The ones where they would cuddle together in the photo booth and cement the memories they had been subliminally building. The very fake photo booth that Alistair and Caroline were ushered into before being seated by the fake waitress paid to talk in a Jewish lilt and get all up in arms over her fakakta working conditions. Chewing gum and spitting sarcasm. It was difficult to gauge, in fact, if some of the fellow “patrons” a.k.a. “fans” of the show who just wanted their gratis pastrami sandwich and black and white cookie weren’t perhaps themselves there on the Salazon Rind payroll. That’s the impression Caroline was getting as she and Alistair were forced to sit across from two strangers who had been cobbled together to form a group in a booth seating four, the “host” outside screaming at the line, “Is anyone here single? Is anyone here on their own?” as though to publicly shame any woman that might come forward the way Carrie Bradshaw had been forced to when seated at the lunch counter near the Guggenheim (quote unquote) next to a lithium-loving old lady. But no, only two men announced themselves, one somewhere in his early fifties who did not even have access to Salazon Rind’s interface to watch any of its original programming, and one who had been an extra on the show–this in itself appearing to be somehow part of the simulation.
A fake owner of the deli, holding an unlit cigar and sporting a tie with stains that he broke character for to admit it probably was from 1958–truly shattering the carefully curated illusion as a waiter himself deliberately shattered some plates on the ground as he did a feigned fall–persisted in chatting up Alistair, who mumbled inarticulately through the awkwardness as he ate his sandwich, dubbed the Wertheim. Michael, the one who had been an extra on the show, proceeded to chat up Caroline, telling her that he had only decided to participate on the project during a lull in his current “career”–the nature of which he didn’t mention. He said he kept coming back to the extra thing during his interim period because there was something almost Jewish mothery about Salazon Rind, they who were so interested in roundaboutly funding his lifestyle by feeding and clothing him, in addition to providing him with free weekly haircuts. So why not? Himself Jewish, how could he resist the inclination to be nurtured? He certainly didn’t appear to be getting any such nurturing from a woman, being there by himself with another fellow loner, a vision of his own future perhaps if he kept at his neuroses.
Between the barrage of forced conversation, “ribbing” repartee among the waitress and the other loner–whose name no one caught–and watching Michael shovel bites of the oversized cheesecake (Alistair and Caroline were the only ones who opted for the more classic in its Jewishness black and white cookie) into his maw, Caroline was going into a tailspin. A sensation of extreme fear washing over her as she grappled with the phoniness of the entire scenario. The one everyone was lapping up because it was documentable. Useful to the false portrayal of a life. Which Caroline had been falsely portraying long enough in her obsession with chronicling everything she did as though it might be able to stop the hands of time from moving. If she could just capture everything, then maybe she could seek to embody these moments forever, thereby avoid ever truly becoming old. This was what was at the core of her need to catalog it all. But as she looked around at the people in the simulation, it was clear to her that, for them, this all pertained to vanity. And it did not bother or unsettle them in the least that it was completely manufactured to appeal to that vanity by Salazon Rind.
It was enough to make her visibly shudder as she excused herself from the booth, taking her coat without explaining her headspace to Alistair, who was all too contented to smack on his free food without “overthinking it”–overthinking that they were like rats in a lab, being studied for their reactions to a synthetic experience. She practically sprinted to the nearest “real place,” which happened to be an off the beaten path dive bar (maybe one of the last in New York). After all, they had to set up the simulation in an oversized empty building ostensibly designed for these very sorts of purposes that wasn’t too close to anything else unless you walked a bit.
As she sat down on the barstool with a tormented expression on her face, the plump, bearded bartender announced, “Well hello there! I’ll be playing your bartender tonight,” using a choice of words that unsettled Caroline to the very fiber of her being, as though she hadn’t really left the simulation. Or maybe, she reasoned, that’s just it: the simulation is life, as we all perform our way through it whether we’re paid to or not.