Party Talk 

Note: the following character images have been created using Artbreeder: a machine-learning based website that allows users to create art through the StyleGAN and BigGAN models. In the case of this particular project, I have used Artbreeder to generate and modify character images. Also, none of the chapters below are finished. They are simply drafts of portions of the first two chapters. 

River

Honestly, everyone’s pretty bummed out about the pandemic. In-person human interaction has been super limited. We’ve been conducting school through Klase for about a month now. And don’t get me wrong, Klase seems a lot better than what they used to have way back in the day. I can’t imagine having to just stare at live streams of everyone for hours on end. That sounds like hell. I’m not in “class” class, but I can still walk through the semblance of a school hall and sit in a visual classroom and interact with my peers as though they’re right next to me. But it’s not the same as being in person. Granted, I kind of hate school regardless of how it’s done. 

Honestly, my favorite part of the whole pandemic has to have been the first three weeks we got off school once it started. Being able to lock myself in my room, read a book, tune out to music, and not socially interact with other people was amazing. I feel like I really got to know myself over those few weeks. I wasn’t really interacting with anyone since Mom’s always at work, and my brother, Stone, is somewhere in Manhattan doing his virtual concerts from his studio apartment there. When I do see Mom, she’s usually complaining about something or other, so I just tune her out. Lately she’s been going off about how Stone’s turning into a replica of our “stupid deadbeat dad”: running around different cities, trying to make it in the virtual music world, barely holding down his rent. 

Honestly? I don’t really care what Stone turns into or where on earth Dad is. I just wish Mom would stop treating me like her therapist. It’s not like she can’t get one. They definitely provide them for healthcare workers now. 

I don’t know, though. Maybe she just feels comfortable talking to me cuz I’m her only daughter. Or maybe she talks to me for the same reason everybody seems to want to dump their problems on me: I just shut up and listen. Honestly? It’s because I don’t really care.  I feel like people see me as some kind of vessel that they can inject their problems into. It’s not like I’m great at giving advice or anything. I just kind of listen. Do I want to listen? I don’t know. I don’t really care. 

It does get annoying sometimes, though. I remember, back when we were in person, this one girl, Alisha, kept on talking to me about how she just can’t stop being jealous of this other girl in our class: Kaia. Pretty much every single day it’s like: 

“Ugh, can you believe Kaia fucked up the curve again? I don’t get how she does so well in academics, is a nationally ranked athlete, has her own non-profit organization, and literally seems to do every fucking thing in the world so perfectly! I literally hate people like her.” 

To which I usually think to myself, Yeah, I mean that’s on you that you resent her. I’m sure she really works for what she has

“Oh and don’t even get me started on her perfect fucking family and the fact that she lives in a house in Valley Heights. I’d kill for that kind of money honestly!” 

Like what do you even say to that? Oh yeah, sorry that you don’t have that! That really sucks. And it’s not like I like Kaia or anything, but her life definitely isn’t perfect. Her little sister has been battling leukemia for years and I only know this because she’s been treated at the hospital where my mom works. But I feel like Alisha is the type of person where, if she found out, she’d be like “Oh, well, see: that bitch even has a great fucking sob story for her college essay!”

I don’t really know who hurt Alisha or why she wants to be perfect so badly, but I barely talk to her about myself and it’s not like we’re friends or anything. I never really understood why people feel the need to tell their whole life story to others. Are they lonely? Are they lost? Are they looking for validation? 

Personally, I find spending time with other people to be insanely exhausting. Which is, again, partly why I’ve loved this pandemic so much. 

The only drawback, though, is that I’ve been growing unexpectedly bored lately. Normally, I can spend all the time in the world with myself doing my own thing and I’m fine. Granted, time spent with myself is usually balanced out with the normal going to school and interacting socially with the rest of the world. 

I don’t think I miss the social interaction itself, though. This sounds weird, but I feel like more than anything I miss the people watching. Now, there’s a big difference between people watching and people talking. Observing the mannerisms and social interactions between people is entertaining because it’s like watching a story or a movie or a play outside yourself, but it’s all happening in real time in the real world. Talking to people, however, is like breaking the fourth wall in that scenario. And I never really like it when creatives choose to break that barrier in their work. 

I want to perceive others, but I don’t really feel like being perceived. 

Because I can normally get enough social interaction from school and what not, I almost never find myself at parties. True, it’s easy to blend into the crowd and just observe, but it’s also an insanely distracting environment to be in. I can barely ever hear a word of anyone’s conversations, everyone is usually drunk or high out of their mind, and the whole scene just bleeds perpetual chaos. Sometimes it’s fun to watch it all unfold. But it’s also hard to get out of it once you’re sucked in. It’s so many people all at once and they’re all suddenly so friendly that they’re talking to you left and right. 

Which is why, I think I’m going to go to this party. It’s happening on one of the virtual space platforms (Pantheon, I think?) and not in person, so I’m not fully sure what it’s going to be like. I can’t imagine it being as overwhelming as an in-person party, though. It’s probably going to be much easier to leave and have a solid excuse for why you left. “Oh, the wifi at my house is down, sorry!” “Oh, my mom needs me to do something for her, gotta go!” 

I do wonder what perception will be like in Pantheon. I feel like, on face value, it seems like how people choose to present themselves on the platform wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Someone could be broke, have a little chub, frizzy dark hair, and brown eyes in the real world, they could alter their physical features in Pantheon, and then they could show up to the Pantheon party with red hair, blue eyes, and a flashy Prada dress. A Pantheon Prada dress is certainly less expensive than a real-world Prada dress (though still ridiculously overpriced). But, then again, there’s always the opportunity to find a hacked version of a Prada dress. Unless someone was totally scrutinizing everyone’s outfits, maybe nobody would notice. 

So yeah, it’s not totally abnormal to present yourself in the virtual world as better than you actually are in real life. But what makes Pantheon kind of weird, and what I have tons of questions about, is the degree to which you can manipulate your appearance on the platform. I could potentially show up to this party donning a “child character trait” and I might not even be let in for legal reasons—even though the party hosts would be able to see my actual age in my profile. Hell, I could show up to this party looking exactly like one of my teachers. But that would be kind of weird and, unless it was some kind of group inside joke thing, I feel like everyone would just be like “Yo wtf…?”

For example, if I show up with a child character trait, would I even be let into the party—even though they’d be able to see my actual age in my profile? If I show up with enough character traits to look exactly like one of my professors…how would people react? 

Obviously, I wouldn’t actually do any of these things. That would draw too much attention to me and I’d hate that. But, despite all of my complaining about having to listen to everyone’s tea 24/7, I gotta say: I do love it when other people stir the pot just enough for me to enjoy the drama. 

As long as I’m not part of any of it. 

 

Alisha

I’m not a stalker. 

Okay saying that makes me sound exactly like a stalker. But I’m not, okay? I shouldn’t have even started with that. I should have just started with something else. If I’d started out with something academic-sounding like, “the pandemic has truly highlighted humanity’s internal existential crisis surrounding death,” then I might be a somewhat more likable person. Or just pretentious, I don’t know. Or maybe I could have started out by saying something like, “despite the hardships of the pandemic, I can’t help but feel grateful for everything I have.” Yeah okay maybe that would have worked. That’s probably something Kaia would say, to be honest. But she wouldn’t say it in the kind of Pollyanna-syndrome way that would make you hate her for saying it. It would be more of a genuinely wise thought that she’d say with some kind of a wistful smile. 

God, I fucking hate her. 

Well if you hate her so much then why are you so obsessed with her? 

Bro – legitimately I don’t know. Like I don’t fucking know. But I also do fucking know because who wouldn’t be obsessed with hating someone who was so similar to them but almost like a better version of themselves? Miss. Perfection-to-a-T, Kaia, is a published author, does research at Stanford, is on her way to becoming an olympic athlete, has performed twice at Carnegie hall, and has started a non-profit organization that helps low-income kids thrive academically. On top of that, she’s drop dead gorgeous (she’s got the whole blue eyes, dark hair thing going on). AND ON TOP OF THAT SHE’S IN FUCKING HIGH SCHOOL. We’re both in fucking high school. Like how the actual fuck? I’m over here barely tryna make it to valedictorian, which she’s probably going to get anyway, and she’s out here about to win a damn nobel prize for something by the time we’re both in college. 

Also, it’s like where on earth does she get all this damn time from? I’m out here being president of 2 major campus clubs (the debate team and the business club), getting in my volunteer service hours, working on our campus newspaper, and trying to preserve my mental health while my family slowly eats away at my brain. And I’m barely getting 7 hours of sleep a night.

When the fuck does this girl sleep? 

Okay and even if I wasn’t super jealous of her, although I’d honestly rather not admit it to myself, and even if I wasn’t stalking her online presence (Bro–how that fuck does she have 250,000 followers??) I would still have to hear people talk nonsense about her all the damn time.  

I often wonder what my life and high school experience would have been like without her existence. For starters, maybe I’d actually have a shot with anyone I’ve ever been interested in. Every damn time I’ve had a crush on someone it’s always “Kaia this” or “Kaia that.” It’s so annoying how everyone is so obsessed with her. Back in August, I met a guy freshman year who was really hot – like Timothee Chalamet hot, but before he got all old and crusty looking back in the 2060’s. Anyhow, so this guy was like super funny and really charming in a Patrick Verona from “10 Things I Hate About You” kind of way. 

Yeah okay, I know, I watch a lot of vintage movies and shit, but I dunno I just miss the 21st century. Like I wasn’t even born then, but it seems like things were much easier and cuter back before we had this much advanced technology. Like imagine having to use AirPods to listen to music while working out instead of using a Neuralink which just plays the music directly to your ear and brain. Sure, the Neuralink is convenient, but I don’t have a boba-themed case for my Neuralink because it’s in my brain. Airpods, on the other hand, got decorated in these cute little silicon cases in adorable shapes like ramen and boba and kitty cats. I would literally kill to get my hands on one of those vintage Airpods cases, but they’re so freakin’ expensive now. 

Okay, ADHD moment,  but yes going back to the whole cute guy thing: basically, I meet him, he’s cute, I want him, he seems to sort of like me, and it’s all good. Or so it seems. A few weeks later, he meets Kaia in his neuroscience class and suddenly that’s all he can talk about. “Oh my god I didn’t even know Indian girls could have blue eyes!” Like bitch yeah some of us do, but like clearly not all of us are the chosen ones because my eyes are the color of post-Taco Bell shit.  But also why does that even matter? Is it because it makes us closer to whiteness? Are you being racist right now? Huh? 

Ugh, fuck it. I wish I had blue eyes. 

Anyhow, so he’s all head over heels into her and I’m like “okay, so maybe guys don’t play for my team and would rather play for hers. But maybe I have a better shot with girls?” 

 In January, I come across a girl at one of my club events who is also stunningly gorgeous and has an incredible personality. She likes 90’s anime (who besides me even does that, like what?) and she’s got the whole 2002 Keira Knightley Bend it Like Beckham look going on for her, you know? Okay, maybe you don’t know because maybe you don’t watch vintage 21st century movies like I do. Whatever. It’s fine. 

Anyhow, one fine Monday we’re at debate practice and this girl is over here killing it with her arguments. Girl is sexy af like okay, go you Ms. Cross Examination Queen. I’m over here like “sheesh she’s fine as hell. I really should ask her out soon.” And then, a few minutes after practice,  I overhear someone ask her if she has a crush on anyone and she immediately starts gushing about Kaia and how beautiful and talented she is and “Oh my god she should totally try out for the debate team! I bet she’d win nationals in like a year!”  

Like um…okay. I guess Kaia can just have everyone then. She could be class president of her own fucking campus harem then. And honestly, she’d probably just add that to her college application and get into Harvard on the basis that having being president of a high school harem somehow makes her “open-minded” and “niche” and “unique” and “distinguishes her application”. 

Like literally. Fuck everything. Fuck this shit. 

And, to be honest, I don’t know if I get the hype. Yeah she’s pretty. She’s got a nice blend of multi-racial features, bright eyes that are heavy in the blues and greens, a thin and elongated face with sharp cheekbones, and plump lips. Her body is practically perfect by today’s standards of attractiveness: athletic enough that her abs are defined, but feminine enough that her body still preserves an hourglass shape. 

I mean I guess she does have everything. And she’s super kind to everyone and oh my god all the teachers and students just love her. 

But that doesn’t make for a personality. I mean I’ve barely talked to her, but I did overhear a rumor once where somebody mentioned that they thought she was kind of boring. I guess people can’t be entirely perfect. What’s the point of going gaga over somebody if, at the core, they’re just super boring at the end of the day. I mean is she human or an AI? The only thing that preserves our humanity is the parts of us that make us unique and genuinely interesting. But I don’t even know if people care about those parts anymore. Everything is about being as perfect as an AI without being too robotic. I guess Kaia does a good enough job of balancing the two. Good enough that most people don’t seem to notice how boring she probably actually is. 

There’s this girl in one of my classes—River—and every now and then I’ll talk to her about the whole Kaia situation. I remember one time she suggested I just ask Kaia out to coffee or something. 

“Who knows, maybe you guys will wind up becoming friends? Then you won’t hate her so much.” 

“I don’t hate her,” I responded under my breath. 

And I don’t hate her. I just feel like it would be super insufferable to have the kind of friend where you can’t even have anything of your own because she’ll take everything the world can offer. And it’s not like she does it on purpose. I just mean like…

Imagine that Kaia and I walk into a coffee shop and there’s a cute barista serving us. Before I muster up the courage to have a conversation with him, maybe even flirt a little, he turns to Kaia and goes, “Oh my goodness, I just have to tell you, you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in my life,” because who wouldn’t say that to her? She has those thick, long black lashes framing her perfectly round, almond eyes and the central heterochromia in them makes it so that it’s like looking at the horizon of a lake. And she has long, dark hair and lightly tanned skin which makes her eyes stand out even more. I swear I hear all the fucking time “Oh my god, Kaia, are your eyes real? Are those contacts?” 

So sue me if I don’t want to be around that all the time. And imagine that she and I are “friends” and we get all dressed up to go out to some party. A few steps in through the door and I’m shoved between people who are just running up to say hi to her. “Oh my god, Kaia is here!” 

It’s already hard enough to grow up in a household where nothing is ever good enough and I don’t feel like I’ll ever be perfect enough for my parents. I can’t even begin to imagine bringing someone like Kaia home as a friend. All I’ll ever hear once she leaves is “Why can’t you be more like Kaia? Why can’t you start a non-profit organization? Why didn’t you start prepping for the Olympics when we enrolled you in youth gymnastics?” 

I can only hope that, in a Pantheon party, there will be some way where I can completely avoid Kaia. Not see her at all, not hear about her at all: nothing. Maybe I can input a search term ban and tell the program that I want nothing to do with Kaia.

Maybe that would be a party that would actually be worth going to.