I look up online inventory for a record shop three minutes from my front door, a bar and Bad Religion. I look up a dog rescue, even though I have a dog and don’t want another. The definition of dismay and 90s daisy trim deadstock. A Bart Simpson catchphrase, a taxidermist, hickory trees, lake salt, Jane Birkin bangs, my car insurance company’s roadside assistance offerings, a locked groove. I look up tree disputes. Other words for digital. The distance from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree and paperbark maples. Sephora, turmeric facemasks, Under the Silver Lake. I look up The Virgin Spring, watercolors, X-rays, yam versus sweet potato gnocchi.
Cashiering at a grocery store, I saw a customer grimace as I brought an item to the scanner, the red beam glaring out to scan the barcode. “Oh no,” she said, “the waves.”
I tap a screen, click “update.” A dim version of an icon brightens incrementally in pie pieces.
I post a photo showing a ring of trees against the sky, the branches filled with more leaves on one side of the half circle. A friend pulls a tick from me—not fully embedded, but attached enough to fleck a red dot on my neck. Is the hour I’ve been at the park long enough to contract an illness? Is Lyme the worst? What kind of tick is it? How many ticks have I had on me without knowing they were there? In the grill aisle at the home-improvement store on another patriotic holiday, I looked at igniter cubes, tongs, and protective mitts. I reached for a wire grill brush. Someone staring at the same display cautioned me. He’d read an article online, a bristle loosened from the brush and lodged in a chicken breast. Someone swallowed it.
Scrolling results, blue underlined page titles and green links, like feeling along a hallway’s dark walls for a door or, better still, an entry I can fall into.
Craft projects, cake decorating, hair dyed brilliant shades. The videos satisfy like home-shopping channels. Disembodied hands gently lift products and point manicured nails at appealing features. I watch for the satisfaction of after: a flower cookie glistening with pastel icing, curls cascading down a back. I love the progression: a hairdresser’s station with color bowls lined up on a tray, a pink blowdryer GIF dancing beside perfect tresses. The hair won’t look the same after the client washes and styles it. But for one day someone has that perfect hair. I fill with longing, the possibility that I could have that hair, that day, that life. The rosette-topped cakes, macarons piped with cat faces, homemade Poptarts and Twinkies. I could make all this. I could eat all this. How come I don’t like the sound of other people eating? The internet knew but I forget what it told me.
I’m only a little lonely from the syndrome of feeling alone at the party, the case for extraordinary loneliness amidst infinite connections. I am much lonelier thinking each day is a challenge to compete with myself. This day is the hardest. This experience was the best. This love is the biggest. This loss is the most soul-shattering. This is the most important job I’ll ever have. Polarization dims what’s average, so ordinary experiences feel meaningless.
I assemble outfits and plan skincare overhauls. I redecorate my house and estimate new flooring costs for the city where I live. I research if antiperspirant causes breast cancer or Alzheimer’s. I lift my arms to inspect my armpits. I look up new ways to style my hair. The women in the first two tutorials have hair shorter than mine; I assume the look will not translate and watch a third. I look up whether my cat can get skin cancer from sitting in a sunbeam, perched on the windowsill. I look up “lumps on my pet” and pet acupuncture. I ask how much water my cats should drink, how much water I should drink. I look up water bottles with colorful rubber bands. Each time the drinker empties the bottle, they slide a band to the other side of the bottle. The goal is to slide all the bands by the end of each day to mark adequate water consumption. I plan transatlantic vacations, road trips to New Orleans, a trek from Ithaca to California with additional stops along the West Coast so I can see Joshua Tree, take a mirror selfie in a Madonna Inn bathroom, and pose before Salvation Mountain while my husband photographs me—my back to the camera and a caption: Say Jesus I’m a sinner.
I want to shave the bar of soap with a box cutter, mold slime between my fingers, whisper into spongy microphone foam. I want to know if touching the slime feels as good as watching. Does saying the words feel as tingly as listening. Is it more satisfying being the person flaking the soap to fragments?
A boy on YouTube says, “Watch me whip. Watch me nae nae.” His parents argue in the background. He sounds out of breath. I can’t tell if he’s exhausted from dancing or listening to fighting. As the clip nears its conclusion, the boy’s breathlessness sounds more like he’s holding back tears.
I try not to touch paper right after I shower. I don’t like its feel to freshly washed skin, the raw sensation in my fingers.
Is my phone warm in my hand from my body temperature or is that the battery? Does my palm sweat from the heat, the rubber sleeve that steadies my phone on smooth surfaces, or the emotions the device inspires.
Why do I like burnt food? Why do museums use timed entry? When will winter end? How do I avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms? Why do I look ugly in photos? Why does water ripple? How common is it to update a house when you buy it?
We say “mid-century modern” with such confidence. We make it sound like ours is the first century, lonely. What if all this time we have been confusing the middles of centuries? My husband and I can’t agree on furniture. To him, spindly legs seem fragile, sleek bright sofas look loud and uncomfortable, buttery wood is placeless. He wants dark secretive wood, plush sinkable sofas. I want to walk into an internet.
I put my phone on a bookshelf, in a drawer. I leave it in rooms where I am not. The undoing of the doing fascinates me, but unplugging is only as meaningful as what I do instead.
My phone wants to fix my problems. My phone wants me happy and smart, calm and beautiful, productive and healthy.
My devices know my skin, the spots that rise. I research toner and moisturizer, when to use heat or cold. I order from a site selling cruelty-free, gentle-ingredient skin care. The company archives brands for comparing. An app slips ads into my feed, pillowcases with silver spun through the fabric to reduce acne-causing bacteria. Sidebars show new lines from my chosen skincare brand and items by companies I haven’t heard of but an algorithm thinks I may like.
A click hole sounds almost cute, like a cold space void kissing a nebula. The eerie vastness muted because the screen burns in my hand, something like promise and possibility. How could I be lonely in all this blue light?
I look up Archers of Loaf at the Trocadero in Philly. A Best Western and a burger joint in Texas. I look up crayfish and corner TV stands, Erica Weiner jewelry. The stages of the reproductive cycle and how to make fried mozzarella. I look up Iron Maiden and J. Crew Factory, how to code a line break, the difference between Monroe and Madonna lip piercings. I look up NYSEG, oven-roasted broccoli, and if omelets are dinner food. A pole dancing studio, Riverdale, and collagen powder. I look up the weather and the Zodiac killer.
Is a signal the same thing as a wave? Does loneliness have an algorithm yet? Let loneliness stand for ambivalent feelings I am too lazy to unravel. Let loneliness stand for pain I feel too tender to source.
I don’t know how to connect my phone to my car stereo, so I drive around with my little phone radio turned all the way up: “This century is killing me,/this century lied./I hope that we do better next time.”
I could buy a blanket with thin weights sewn between the layers. The heaviness produces a secure feeling and reduces anxiety. The blankets come in different colors, textures, fabrics, and weights. Does the degree of anxiety determine how heavy a blanket someone should order? Does anyone own multiple blankets in varied weights, textures, and colors? Who might this person be and would we be friends and is it possible we already know each other.
I am easily distracted; I just need to check something. An ongoing stream reminds me of lives I have lived and lives I could live, instead of the one I am living. All my passwords blur together—nonsense numbers, letters, and punctuation.
The lyrics toward the end of the essay are from Les Savy Fav’s song “Hide Me From Next February,” on Emor: Rome Upside Down, released in 2000.