Trompe L’oeil

By: Kyle Dunn

           I was paid to watch. So I watched. I watched, a little dreary-eyed, while the light from the television covered the room in a relentlessly pale glow.

           I felt that it was important to keep this much in mind: the stranger was a soul, the apotheosis of a countless number of events, a product of space and time. When he smiled, lines surfaced across his forehead like rivers in a cave painting. He was sixty-five, maybe seventy, electric-thin, and wall-eyed. The veins on his hands formed a landscape of peaks and valleys. He had big ears. His teeth were bad.

 

           I’d never met the man before. When I received the first email, the stranger didn’t specify how he knew me, or what unique quality I exhibited, only the details of the employment, as well as the money involved. The directions were terse, but comprehensive. He would pay me for every hour that I watched him live. Each room had its own webcam. Each webcam had its own URL. In order to track my viewing habits, I was required to set up my own live feed. The point being that the operation was up and running rather quickly. I disclosed my credit card information, and an hour later, eight dollars appeared in my bank account, like a small miracle.

           What purpose did I serve? Was I a kind of security guard, an agent of safety? Was I like an obituary, a funeral? Did I somehow confirm his life after the fact? I didn’t voice these sorts of questions because I didn’t expect any answers. I tried to accept the job like any other. Watching his life was not my life. It didn’t define me by any means. It was simply something I did.

           In memory, those first couple weeks amount to a fragmented blur of passing glances. Watching was endlessly mundane. The footage, bereft of color and sound, was simply a series of black and white images. The only noise I could hear while I watched was the static hum of the computer. I often found myself drifting in and out of sleep. The stranger never acknowledged the cameras. Most of the time, he sat in a chair in the living room, facing the bare white wall, as if transfixed by something on the other side. When he wasn’t doing this, he was either sleeping, or doing some quotidian task, or walking in and out of rooms, a little hunched-over, his skin etiolated from too much electric light.

           In order to follow him seamlessly from room to room, I kept seven tabs open at all times. His apartment was small. A kitchen with a gas stove. A narrow hallway that led to the bedroom, the bathroom. A living room furnished with a couch, a coffee table dappled with loose change. His apartment, in a way, looked just like mine.

           Sometimes I peeked into the empty rooms in order to pass the time. I liked seeing the way in which the spaces became still, silent, entirely free of human-motion. The sensation was not unlike that of wandering into an abandoned house. The air appeared untouched; the furniture looked dusty beyond repair. Likewise, there was something pure and fallow about the unoccupied rooms and something altogether haunted about the stranger himself.  

           I began to structure my days around his. Every day was mostly the same. I woke at eight, and while eating a bowl of cereal, watched him rise out of bed. He would then shuffle into the kitchen in order to fix his own breakfast. He ate standing up, bringing the spoon to his mouth approximately thirty-seven times before rinsing the bowl in the sink and placing it back in the cupboard. I would then follow him into the bathroom until he started to undress, at which time I would grant him some privacy, and take a shower myself.

           His showers lasted, on average, seven and a half minutes, a span of time that was gradually wired into my own internal clock, so that I was able to reemerge—hair dripping wet, towel wrapped around my waist—to find him standing in front of the mirror, dabbing a line of Crest onto his red toothbrush. I watched as he moved the brush in a slow, circular motion. He brushed for about three minutes in the morning, three and a half minutes after lunch, and four and a half minutes before he went to sleep.

 

           The stranger wore three piece suits, which he washed very carefully and frequently. He fiddled with the tap of the kitchen sink until the water was just right—warm enough to soak into the fibers of the fabric (to remove stains, wrinkles, odors) but not so hot as to burn the skin. He poured the powder into the water and watched it turn to soap. He ran a hand towel over the clothes. He let the load sit. He sat down in a chair beside the sink and listened to whatever static played in his antique brain. He drained the dirty water and repeated the process. This could go on for hours.

           Every night I tried to forget. I tried, above all, to forget about why the stranger was doing this, why he wanted me to watch him day in and day out. The stranger was a two-dimensional question mark, a walking paradox. Perhaps he wanted me to see him within a realm that was free of language, free of everything that had previously defined him. Maybe he was simply lonely, or afraid that he might disappear if nobody could see him. Whatever the case, things slowly began to change. I’d like to think that it wasn’t curiosity, or the money, that made me start watching all the time. It was the fact that everything else around me began to look unreal. I began to see the stranger as a kind of martyr, someone who sacrificed his privacy in order to show me that everything outside of him operated at surface-level.      

           This came to me while I was at the movies. I used to go to the movies all the time. I used to watch the same flick three, maybe four times a day, but I can’t remember a single title at this point. It’s because I don’t sleep. Sleep is forever connected to memory.

           The last film I saw had something to do with superheroes. I was only then beginning to grasp the gravity of my situation. While I watched the scenes in full color, listening to the ocean of tremendous noise, I couldn’t wait to get back to watching the stranger. There was an honesty to his life that wasn’t present in the film. The gestures of the actors looked so contrived. Every movement fulfilled an agenda; the present always referenced the future. But the stranger was an ongoing moment. He accepted his life for what it was. I didn’t have to put up with any kind of tension while I watched the stranger, any kind of conflict. There was a sanctity to the practice, a distance that bordered on sincerity: watching the stranger was watching for watching’s sake.

           After the film ended, I rushed back to my apartment. It felt like such a waste of money and time, going to the movies. When I typed in the living room URL, I found the stranger sitting in his chair, staring at the wall. He looked like a real person, just sitting there. Anyhow, staring at the wall seemed like a real thing to do. I wanted to be real like the stranger. I didn’t want to be affected by anything.

           Watching the man became a routine, a vessel that carried me from day to day. He only left the house about once every two weeks in order to buy groceries. He was someone I could rely on. I had a few friends back then, but I didn’t show them the footage. I didn’t even tell them about the stranger. One facetious shrug, a single wave of attitude, and the entire enterprise would crumble before my eyes. There was something intimate about watching him, something pure which I wanted to hold onto. So the footage became a secret about a secret, an anonymous love letter, and because the camera remembered everything, it was also a dream, both sidereal and jostled, decorated at the corners with a touch of dark heat.

 

           He played the violin. I could see where the wood was stained with rosin. He played left-handed. He played for hours at a time. When he played, his mouth twisted into a shape that was halfway between a grimace and a grin. He bowed fluidly, as if playing a slow waltz. Sometimes he sat down. He sat down and crossed his legs, leaning forward. He sat down and closed his eyes, with his neck bent. I could only sit there and imagine what he was playing, so the music sounded that much more lonesome in my head. It sounded like the loneliest thing I’d ever heard.    

           He was playing the violin one night. He played and then he stopped playing. He put the violin back in the case. He laid the case beside the fireplace. I followed him down the hallway, into the bathroom, where he brushed his teeth. I followed him down the hallway, into the bedroom, where he slowly undressed. I loved to watch the stranger sleep, the way he drifted into oblivion whenever his eyes closed, the way his mind slackened and his body became a lump of flesh, something insignificant even to himself. He always slept on his back, facing the camera, and the lower half of his body was always shrouded in twisted sheets.

           I only slept for a few hours that night. When I awoke, the white carpet was stained with sunshot question marks. My neck was sore from sleeping with my head on the desk. I looked at the computer screen. The stranger was still asleep. I went into the kitchen and made a cup of instant coffee. I wasn’t hungry. I carried the coffee into the computer room. That’s when I realized that it was almost night again. I looked at the stranger, lying there stock-still, his body rigid, his mouth hanging slightly open. I looked at the digital clock at the corner of the screen. I looked at the stranger again. His face was so caved and his body was so bolted to the bed. His shadow lay beside him like a thin layer of dust. That isn’t sleeping, I thought.

 

           I still watch. I see fulgurations of gray light on the screen sometimes, smoke-like forms that hover and disappear. I sit with my fingers trained on the keyboard, hoping to capture the stranger’s spirit. Whenever the apparitions appear, they look so real, the way the shapeless clouds surface into two dull eyes, a grin that is halfway-human. But upon further inspection, the images begin to look more like electrical ghosts, glitches that my mind bends to fit the familiar. The longer I stare at the screenshots, the more empty and meaningless and unreal the apparitions become.    

           Money is still being transferred into my account, so I keep watching. The stranger is still just lying there. Everyday his body becomes a little more pale, a little more rigid. Everyday I watch, waiting for something to happen.