Austin Gross

Open Ends


Illustration by Tom Tian

An observation about the sign-character of waving: for all present, save the person being waved to, the wave refers to that person. In public, a cascade of people turns very slightly towards her, each an unwitting index that doubles the original reference. The person being waved good-bye, by contrast, signals back at the one waving. Except for that exceptional recipient, puzzled or cautious, pointing to herself, mouthing, “Me?” Or that third case, of the famous cat who, as the monk waved her good-bye, looked at the moon.

Someone wiggles a hand at someone who can see it but not hold it. Wave back, please, share how I miss you. Show me your willingness to humor my demand that you show me your loss. But someone who waves good-bye also wiggles a hand at someone who will shortly become unable to see it. Someone draws someone into a clipped gesture.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which waves were not terminated at the horizon of sight. They would end occasionally. We have to get on with things. But the loss and its needy collaborative ostentation could always be revisited, asynchronously between two people for the rest of their lives, as they remembered each other and the wave was passed back and forth. After years they might always pick it up, appending another line to a thousand-page register. You are imagining the world that text messages are dreaming about.

In the famous “poop back and forth” scene from Me and You and Everyone We Know, the little boy Robby generates a fantasy for his brother’s IM adventuring. What’s striking is the way Robby’s fantasy resembles the medium of IM. Indeed, the words and symbols from Robby’s fantasy get passed back to him verbatim the next time he signs in. And when he replies, he himself not only echoes Nancy’s, his chat partner’s, overtures, but literally copies and pastes her text back to her. It really is “the same poop.”

Robby describes the fantasy twice, once spontaneously, and again a little impatiently so that his brother can type it in right. The second time he adds a word: “And we will keep doing it. Back and forth. With the same poop. Forever.” Just moments earlier he’d asked his brother what he thought their mother was doing. He can’t see what she’s doing. But Nancy’s first text to them describes what she’s wearing. It doesn’t matter where she is. In his fantasy of eternal asynchronous presence, Robby cashes out the discovery of a new technology of being-with. The “back and forth” of IM allows him rehabilitate absence, even his mother’s: Robby thinks his mother is “buying them presents,” that is, that her absence contains an inherent momentum towards them, which is not devalued by the fact that it must be experienced asynchronously.

This fantasy is diagrammed in its industry standard representation: speech bubbles back and forth in an unbroken, undifferentiated “thread,” from the first to the last text ever dispatched between two people. This mixed metaphor underlines the ambiguity of this kind of presence: a thread of bubbles? Threads are already ambivalent, an image of both eternity and mortality. But how can a thread of bubbles be cut? A knife or even a barge could pass unnoticed through the gaps of these intimacies. Hence the gratuitousness and even futility of good-byes in this medium.

When people in a text-message conversation die, they either die together or they die apart. Between these two there is no compromise that would correctly represent the way people with cell phones are there for one another. Dying apart doesn’t do justice to their history, which never ended. Dying together is just a coda that adds without culminating anything. Still, it is understandable that the interminable romance of Jeux d'enfants would end in a double-suicide. Likewise the thought of dying alone, full of regrets, is satisfying in its own way. In these fantasies, death tests and violently clarifies the lovers’ ambiguous togetherness. Such clarifications are spurious because they submit one kind of presence to the tests of another.

The hunger for more presence has signed a pact with ruinousness. But the violence of this testing is partly what people need from love. To Robby, then, another figure of open-endedness could be opposed.

* * *

Sweet thing, I watch you
Burn so fast it scares me
My game, don't lose me
Come so far, don't lose me
It matters where you are
    — Slowdive, “When the Sun Hits”

Why do vampires fascinate writers of youth? Partly as an opportunity to play pranks on age and to indulge, as if it were the fruit of many years, a sententiousness they can’t take help taking seriously. Partly for their hungry, evil, deep histrionic resources, as in the Strokes’ “Heart in a Cage”: “It’s three in the morning / and you’re eating alone.” Partly, too, because being eternal makes vampires closer to loss, and not just because they will outlive any human lover. More germane is the fact that they will outlive even romances with their kind—but only by outliving them into open-endedness. And in this case, eternality also burdens them with a presence to which they can do no lasting damage. More time will always undo the work of their anger. So they are bound to loss doubly, by impermanence and by frustrated ruinousness. They must suffer absence but cannot escape presence. Back and forth. Forever.

It is lust for devastation that opens Slowdive’s vampire song, “When the Sun Hits.” “Sweet thing, I watch you / burn so fast it scares me.” The guitars’ murkily flanged and washed-out brightness is easily read representationally, as the Leitmotif of the sun passing the horizon, and, especially, of the burning body of the vampire girlfriend. The other watches like it’s porn, as his open-endedness is destructively clarified. He sings like he’s on a beach.

But the whole scene goes on, in full whiteness, in some kind of stasis, with only two stanzas repeating. He’s still singing, “Sweet thing I watch you,” as the song fades out. The attempt to end open-endedness just becomes another interminable wave. “When the sun hits, she’ll [still] be waiting.”

Some kind of whirlpool arrests his violence, and the verse ends with a bewilderingly minimal confession, which is also the most memorable line of the song: “It matters where you are.” It is asserted the way something is asserted when it is arguable. Today this fragility seems prescient. But perhaps in a song that explodes waiting at its last instant, what is significant is the statement’s tense.

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