ken doll

How does it feel?

How does it feel? I’d like to ask, by way of comparison.

I’ve an idea of how it may feel, after all, to have a body like the New People. A body which is readymade for the screen, for the future, for slippage through time. Hairless and sleek. The physical emblem of nondeath.

Here’s a group of them now, standing on the street corner adjacent me, grinning big and posing for a selfie. I wonder if, as their Leader says, one is happier when one is remade as new. This group seems happy—their happiness seems to be drawing the ire of other people on the street corner, which is a sure indicator of human happiness—but they may not indeed be New. They wear the official garments of the New People, and their heads and faces are void of hair, but the look has become fashionable even amongst those who are unable to afford the operation. So, ultimately and ironically, I muse, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between a person who has been made New, per the operation, and another who adamantly waxes their eyebrows and scalp, plucks their eyelashes one by one. Truthfully, to me, the latter seems more like a religious experience than the former, but what do I know? My body is an indistinguishable surface as well, though in another way entirely. My eyes click back and forth. I watch for something to be shown to me.

To create is a violent act, Mars said to me once, smiling. I think I know what he meant—to make something involves manipulation of some substance, an exertion of power. Like the anticompactor they’ve constructed here, near New Delhi, which breaks down waste to the most subatomic level. The residual kinetic energy is used to power many parts of the country and world. What the creator creates, ultimately and implicitly, is power—whatever form their creation may take. My form is “lithe and symmetrical.” It “feels and looks real,” according to the box. My body is a manufactured mask which contains the violence that birthed me. Though I can see this clearly, and Mars could see it too, I am told again and again that I have no interiority.

Well, I cannot look at flowers without the desire to touch them.

And I am more drawn to the sight of a dog than, say, a holoadvert.

If ever I feared what so many would have me believe—that I cannot feel—those doubts were put to rest when I laid eyes on the city for the first time. I’d seen pictures of it on Mars’ computer, so I knew it was a place entirely unique from the small village where I lived with him. And yet nothing could compare to the sheer size and imposition of the buildings appearing over the horizon as my train approached. From my seat by the window, it was as if the world was spinning directly toward me, carrying the great towers and lights of New Delhi towards their place on the horizon, sliding them toward their rightful spots, slotting impossible reality into the band of sky.

For someone like me—or, I imagine, any one of the New People—beauty is like a mirror. Supersymmetry. To look at such a self is to understand the violence of language. I am scar tissue. My face, gently and partially reflecting against the train’s window, did not move or emote in the slightest. Beyond and inside was the glittering skyline.

Almost immediately after deboarding the train, I was spoken to by a man whose true intentions I did not immediately recognize.

“Feels and looks real”—in big colorful, bubbly font, with more exclamation marks than seemed advisable. How thin or sizable is that implied sliver between me and the real? The man outside the train did not seem to notice it.

I declined his offer, and when he heard my voice he retreated quickly. My voice sounds like autotune. Sometimes I cannot pronounce a certain sound in the same way as other people. I’m aware of my mispronunciation—this defection—yet I am powerless to stop it. Mars called it a “mouth glitch.” He does so affectionately, in private. In public he always called it an accent. The accent is the most immediate indicator of my difference, I suppose, so I prefer to speak only inside, to myself.

The first thing I did after arriving in New Delhi was locate a tattoo parlour. I wanted to commandeer my body because I was never given a choice about its form.

I tattooed a set of concentric circles on my back right shoulder blade. It stood for a solar eclipse. The tattoo artist looked at me strangely after touching my skin. Fortunately, he did not ask questions. I paid him with most of the money I had left. The money I used for the train and the tattoo, I had taken from Mars’ wallet, gradually, over a number of months. He always carried cash because he enjoyed the act of physically tossing down payment at a store or restaurant. Either he did not notice the small sums of money as they disappeared or he did not care. I wonder if he will care that I’ve gone. My body is worth a particular amount of money. I know that by leaving Mars, I have effectively died, since I have forfeited my life to another body exactly like mine. This body will pick up the objects in our old bedroom and hold them in a way that would never indicate, to any would-be observer, nonrecognition or lack of understanding. I wonder if Mars will even mention to our friends—his friends—that the new body is not me.

Here’s what I wanted anyway. Memory wipe. Not my own, but of the world which made me. Not a purge of the mind but of the body. I will tear my hair out in a public restroom. I will pluck the eyelashes and the eyebrows. I will feel no pain. I am New.

According to Mars, there was once a time when no one could choose how they looked—not even the rich or paternal. He said it was a fraught, violent, and hateful era, when the ideal of beauty had been realized but technology had not yet caught up. I don’t know if I believe him—he may have just been trying to make me feel better—and I didn’t bother to look it up myself. I already feel mostly incapable of containing all that is inside me, and don’t need any more. I’m saving space for conversion and growth. It seems to me that our time is still loaded up with violence. It is a violence that does not have a face or body—it’s a violence below the surface, just barely. The surface is a solid, seamless sheen which lays over the whole world and falls across the minds and eyes of people like a lens so thin and so clear as to be almost nothing.

What was written and what was not? I’ve been speaking of mere causal relationships, but what about those sensations which seem to come from nothing? For instance: I can understand my desire to eat—despite my inability to taste—when out at dinner with Mars and his friends. It is a social comfort. But afterwards, the fulfillment I felt would not be one of pleasure, which I could read on their faces, but one of oppression. As if from nothing, since there is no marker, violence lays its hand on my chest. I am marked and set apart, encased, as if I had never been removed from my box in the first place.

The Leader of the New People claims that if something can become nothing and nothing can become something, like trash to electricity, can we not say that there are limits to the dictation of Fate? That is, Fate can be remade—with enough power.

Now that I’m here in the city I won’t need much money. I look forward to not eating—to not pretending. Nighttime in a city like this one is not much different than daytime, in terms of activity, so I can wander freely at all hours without drawing suspicion.

I cannot decide whether I’d like to be looked upon in the street or ignored completely. Both, I think, seem ideal in their own ways. The thing I cannot stand is the angled or half-look. This is the look which has been sent my direction the whole of my life. It is the look one sees humans send towards car accidents and the homeless. One seems to want to look, but not be seen looking, least of all by the subject of their half-gaze. This was the look that was directed at me again and again by Mars’ friends and their wives. I was nothing more than a series of fragmented images to them, I see now, and could never have been anything else. Even when I was speaking, they were incapable of looking at me directly for any extended period of time.

If the Leader is right, then I move through a kind of tunnel. I will emerge, eventually, from the same mouth regardless—it’s simply a question of how wide the tunnel is, how many branching pathways I can locate in the dark. I cannot afford a lantern, but I run my hand across my scalp. It is a new feeling. I want to walk in a particular way, so I do. This is new too.

Early the next morning I hail a cab and tell the driver to take me to the anticompactor outside the city. I pretend to sleep in the back of the car as he drives. When we arrive I hand him the money I have left but it is not enough. He tells me a young girl like me should be careful while traveling outside the city alone. He indicates a hierarchy of power—or violence—via his tone. I am able to leave the car at last only after I pay him a series of compliments. I do so without speaking, with the movements and deployment of my new body. I think, if I’d have had a weapon, I’d have killed him. I’d have done so against my judgement, according to my will, as a kind of baptism.

The anticompactor is housed in a massive concrete structure resembling a child’s assemblage of blocks. The sign outside is multilingual and sparse: “Anticompactor / Toward a Cleaner World.” The lobby is similarly modest. A large printout adorning one wall details the global footprint of India’s premier technological achievement. The woman behind the desk informs me that since I have arrived so early, I will be the sole visitor in the first tour of the day.

A man arrives to escort me. I follow him through a sequence of unremarkable hallways. A complex, twisted-up array of various sized pipes stretch the length of these hallways. My anticipation is mounting, and it is some time before I notice the silence. Neither I nor my guide have said a word to one another. He has a full head of hair, bushy and unkempt in a fashionable way, and keeps looking back over his shoulder at me, but he does not speak. I do not speak, because I realize I do not have to. I will get what I want all the same. I have not spoken since the man outside the train when I first arrived in the city. It seems to me that my silence has reached a kind of plateau, has welled up in me in a tangible way, like there is something inside which is just for me, which can’t be removed or even confirmed unless I choose to speak.

My guide stops before a tangle of pipes. He points to a small hatch, about eye level, which is attached to one of the pipes. I draw back the hatch to reveal a viewport and place my eye to it. The inside of the pipe is a dark cylinder. Bisecting the dark is a kind of thin screen or band of light. A bloom approaching from the left: globular specks glowing in various colors, falling into orbit around the band, flitting along the visible spectrum. Some burst wide open and dissipate, others bulge and deform. I assume there are as many orbs approaching or receding from the other side as well, undetectable by my eyes. My guide waits patiently and silently with his hands clasped behind his back. I press my face against the glass of the viewport. Supersymmetry.

 

TG Travis (they/them) is a genderqueer multimedia artist based in New Orleans, LA. Their writing has appeared previously in Dream Pop Journal and New Delta Review. They once wrote a story about a mysterious lump that grew on the body of a character, then developed a lump on their own body in the exact same spot. So that's something that happened. They're on twitter @garrettravis.

TG Travis