Read Player One: What Is to Become of Us Online

Authors: Douglas Coupland

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Literary, #Bars (Drinking establishments), #Disasters

Player One: What Is to Become of Us

BOOK: Player One: What Is to Become of Us
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“You can have information or you can have a life,
but you can’t have both.”
Doug’s Law

HOUR ONE

CUE THE FLAMING ZEPPELLIN

Karen

Karen likes crossword puzzles because they make time pass quickly. Karen makes quilts and donates them to charity because she savours the way quilting slows down time. Karen finds it strange that people who militantly remove time-expired dairy products from their refrigerator think nothing of abandoning a bottle of Kraft Cata-lina salad dressing on the fridge door’s condiment shelf for years at a time. She herself is guilty of this crime. Karen remembers her ex-husband, back when things were good, scanning the fridge door and saying, “Jesus, Karen, this bottle of Thousand Islands remembers where it was during the Kennedy assassination.”

Karen is almost forty and had thought she’d never find anyone again, but now she’s flying to meet the man she hopes will become her lover. She is sitting in an aluminum fuselage zinging eastward, eight kilometres above Lake Superior. She’s a little too warm, so she undoes two buttons at the top of her dress, hoping that if anyone sees her they won’t take this as a sign that she is a slut.
Why
, she thinks,
should I care if strangers think I’m a slut? But I do.
Then she remembers that everyone has a camera these days, and any of those cameras might photograph her. Oh, those cameras! Those little bright blue windows she always sees from her back-row seat in Casey’s school auditorium, a jiggling sapphire matrix of memories that will, in all likelihood, never be viewed, because people who tape music recitals tape pretty much everything else, and there’s not enough time in life to review even a fraction of those recorded memories. Kitchen drawers filled with abandoned mem-ory cards. Unsharpened pencils. Notepads from realtors. Dental retainers. The drawer is a time capsule. Karen thinks,
Everything we leave behind us as we move from room to room is a husk
.

There’s a teenage boy across the aisle in the row ahead of Karen who has glanced her way a few times on this flight. Karen is flattered to think she might be considered hot — albeit a “hot mom” — but then she also knows that this horny kid probably has some kind of sin-detecting hand-held gadget lurking in his shirt pocket, lying in wait for Karen to undo more buttons or pick her nose or perform any other silly act that was formerly considered private, a silly act that will ultimately appear on a gag-photo website alongside JPEGs of baseball team portraits in which one member is actively vomiting, or on a movie site where teenagers, utterly unaware of the notion of cause and effect, jump from suburban rooftops onto trampolines, whereupon they die.

Modern technology be damned. Karen fiddles with her buttons. Her stomach grumbles. The right side of the plane is too bright, and she looks farther down the fuselage and she remembers an old TV movie in which all of the passengers in a 747 in mid-flight abruptly vanished, all save five who had been asleep and for that reason avoided vanishing. In the movie, the vanished passengers were represented by the clothing left behind in their seats. But Karen thinks it through a bit further. What does it mean for someone to vanish? Obviously your clothing would be left behind. But so would things like hair extensions, toupées, jewellery . . . the list would go on . . . dental veneers, crowns, pacemakers, metal pins left from bone surgeries . . . she thinks it through further . . . well, to be unpleasant, there would also be undigested food and — wait — now that she thinks about it, hair would be left behind, too, because TV cop shows have told her that hair has no DNA in it, save for the root follicle. And then, what about bones? Bones are made of calcium carbonate, which is just a chemical and not specific to Karen; bones would also have to be left behind — perhaps not the marrow, but . . . but wait, hadn’t Karen once read that for every cell in the human body there are ten times as many outsider entities, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi? So those, too, would be there along with the clothing. Yuck. Your body isn’t even a body — it’s an ecosystem.

Karen decides to push it even further . . . what about water? Water is just water, and not technically part of what defines Karen as Karen, so all the left-behind clothing and other muck on the 747’s seats would be soaking wet. But then . . . but then what about all the cells in the body? How would they be classified: Karen or not-Karen? Egg cells would be left behind, as they’re only half Karen, not pure Karen, only half of her DNA. Wait — here comes that word again, “DNA” . . .
DNA
. If Karen were to look deep into a sample cell, say a skin cell, it would become clear that only her DNA is actually
her
. The rest is just proteins and fats and enzymes and hemoglobin and . . .

. . . and then Karen has a vision of her soggy remains there in seat 26K. Rising from them would be a ghostly, gossamer-thin pantyhose-like creature made solely of Karen’s DNA — the only thing about her she can honestly say
is
her. Pantyhose! Probably not even pantyhose, as all of the DNA extracted from her cells would be unconnected — all of her DNA would be a fine powder maybe the size of an orange. And then Karen is humbled, because she thinks of how little there is that makes her different from other people, a puff of dust. How corny and woo-woo and Eastern religion-y. And yet . . . and yet that’s what is
her
— or is any of us. Dust. And somebody had better tell those fundamentalist Christians waiting for the Rapture to leave out some buckets and mops for those who are left behind.

Karen snaps out of her reverie. Her neighbour one seat over is watching a Discovery Channel documentary about larger things chasing and killing and eating smaller things. The Airbus 320 makes its laboured hushing sound. Karen wonders what Warren will be like. Karen met Warren on the Internet, and Warren is going to meet Karen in the cocktail lounge of the Toronto Airport Camelot Hotel. A cocktail lounge! How sleazy and how wonderful — and best of all, how low-commitment. If she and Warren click, it might be time to get a proverbial room upstairs. If the click doesn’t happen, then it’s right back to the airport and the next flight home.
Nature
, thinks Karen,
was very cruel yet very efficient when she invented clicking
. But what if there’s no click: she likes Warren, but
only
likes him —liking without clicking? Well, it never works that way, does it? Off to the soul-crushing meat market, it is.

Karen turns to the window, and a speck of dirt on it makes her think,
Wouldn’t it be great if stars turned black during the day — the sky covered with dots like pepper?
A crescent moon is visible to the south. Imagine looking up at the moon and seeing it on fire!
For the first time in many moons, Karen feels as if her life is a real story, not just a string of events entered into a daybook — false linearity imposed on chaos as we humans try to make sense of our iffy situation here on earth. Karen thinks,
Our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time; our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events — a story — and when we can’t figure out what our particular story is, we feel lost somehow
.

None of that for Karen, not today. The horny teenager across the aisle ever so discreetly holds up his iPhone and ever so discreetly takes Karen’s photo, so Karen gives the camera the finger. She feels young again. And then she is struck by a sense of déjà vu; strange, because her current mission is unlike any she’s undertaken before. And then the déjà vu passes and Karen is left wondering what life would be like if it were nothing
but
déjà vu — if life felt like a rerun all the time. She read something once about a person who had that condition, a lesion in the part of the brain that dictates one’s sense of time. Is that all time is — our perception of how quickly it does or does not pass?

And then the plane begins its gentle slope into the airport. The captain says they’ll be at the gate five minutes early. Karen experiences a rush of Christmas-morning feeling, the crazed, vibrating knowledge of wrapped toys beneath the tree, although the tree is actually an airport hotel cocktail lounge and the toy wrapped up in a box is Warren.
Now that’s what I’d like
, Karen thinks.
The sensation of it being Christmas morning colouring every moment of my life
.

A huffy flight attendant tells Karen to raise her seatback for landing.
Meddlesome cow.
Karen decides to torment the flight attendant by waiting until the absolute very last moment. She adjusts herself in her seat and wonders about Warren. What does she know about the man? Only what he has chosen to tell her about himself, as well as the qualities she attributes to him thanks to his prompt-without-being-
too
-prompt-hence-not-at-all-psycho response time to her emails, emails in which she has told him about her job (as a secretary for three psychiatrists, the trio of whom are thoroughly mad), her daughter (Casey, the moody fifteen-year-old violinist), her ex (Kevin, the bastard; at least he’s planning to pay for Casey’s college education), and . . . after those big strokes, what’s to tell? We run out of things that make us individual very quickly; all of us have far more in common than we do not have in common. When Karen started working for doctors Marsh, Wellesley, and Yamato, she thought she would at least enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of transcribing the doctors’ dictations after sessions — what fun to watch other people screw their lives up royally. And at first it was great, or rather,
Dear Warren, at first it was great — but then it suddenly started becoming not so great, because, in between the suicides and stalkings and breakdowns and drug overdoses, it emerged that there are only a few variations on the theme of madness, or rather, of being untypical: paranoia, autism, depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and conditions that result from brain damage and growing old — well, you get the picture. All those Oliver Sacks books and online TED Conference speeches make craziness seem kooky and fun and compelling. Trust me, it’s all about making people stick to their meds and not being driven crazy when the ADHDs fidget and tap their toes against the rack full of aging
InStyle
magazines in the waiting area.

In his reply, Warren said he had once thought it would be interesting to be a priest, because you’d get to hear similar tales of peoples’ dark sides in operation, except, when he thought it through, it might actually be dull as dirt, because there are only seven sins, not even eight, and once you’ve heard about nothing but seven sins over and over again, you must resort to doing Sudoku puzzles on the other side of the confessional, praying for someone, anyone, to invent a new sin and make things interesting again.

Sudoku? I love Sudoku
, replied Karen. Warren liked it too. They were really connecting by then.

Warren: Karen is expecting a man around six feet tall, thinning hair but still with some shape to it, reasonably handsome — certainly handsome enough to be sexy, but not so handsome as to leave Karen in a state of perpetual unease around waitresses, secretaries, and post-grad students.
Wait — why am I fooling myself?
A man walks into a bookstore and looks up books on loneliness, and every woman in the store hits on him. A woman looks for books on loneliness, and the store clears out. It doesn’t matter what sort of man you’re discussing, the only attractive feature he need possess is a pulse. Oddly, being divorced and having a daughter makes it easier for Karen to meet new guys — online, at least. By one’s early thirties, loss in all forms invariably makes its presence known. Children give Karen a common language to share with single fathers, one that childless people could never speak. And as long as one reined in the bitterness, divorce offers another commonality not shared by the perpetually single.

Karen knows she looks younger than forty. Perhaps thirty-six — or thirty-four with a drinking problem. In Warren’s photos — and there have been only two photos (should that have her alarm bells ringing?) — he seems to be a slightly sad man, and a bit cheap-looking, for some reason. It was hard to imagine him putting premium gas into his 2009 Ford Ranger, which was in the third JPEG he shipped, a photo with no human beings in it.
Please, God, don’t let Warren be cheap. I’m too young to discuss coupons.

___

Trudging off the plane, Karen enjoyed the status smorgasbord of jet deplaning: foil snack wrappers and Dan Brown paperbacks in coach class, copies of
The Economist
and
The Atlantic
abandoned in business class, and, of course, elderly and crippled passengers abandoned on the iceberg, deplaning only at the very end.

And then, sailing past the luggage carousel holding only carry-on baggage, Karen felt the not unpleasant tinge of superiority.
We envy those people who travel light, don’t we?
At the carousel closest to the exit door stood a group of priests, and Karen got to thinking again about the seven deadly sins, and she wondered why there were Ten Commandments but only seven sins. One would think that, over the course of two thousand years, they might have harmonized that sort of thing. She walked past the pornographer-in-training teenage boy, travelling with his father and sister. He winked at Karen, and Karen laughed and walked out the electric doors. The rain had stopped, and sun leaked into the fringes of the taxi ranks.
What a beautiful day! Yessirree, nothing could possibly go wrong on a beautiful day like today.

Cue the flaming Zeppelin.

Karen’s good-mood bubble was quickly popped when she got into a taxi and informed her driver that she wanted to go to the nearby Camelot Hotel. The driver was livid that she was not a big, juicy downtown fare. His friend passing by in another cab rolled down his window, and Karen knew that her good name was being trashed in some language in which all the words sounded like
boobaloo
. Six minutes later the cab dropped her off in front of the Camelot Airport cocktail lounge building, a defeated concrete satellite of the main hotel that resembled the third-best restaurant in the fourth-largest city in Bulgaria. The cabbie zoomed away as Karen was slamming the door. She decided to find the incident funny rather than annoying. Sometimes life leaves you no other choice, and besides, her present beneath the tree was waiting to be opened.

BOOK: Player One: What Is to Become of Us
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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