We both made Skype accounts and decided to video chat because you did not want me to forget what your face looked like. Talking on the phone and remembering your voice wasn’t enough; you were adamant that we needed to be able to see each other.
My mother tells me that she thinks technology has ruined human relationships. From her bed that she never leaves, she rambles about how, in her day, connections were made by meeting face to face. As I bring her dinner, she talks about how my father would send her postcards from every place he ever went to, and how they framed all the pictures they took together for them to sit on our coffee table, collecting dust, after he died.
And it’s funny, I guess, that we both studied computer science and exist to each other now only in pixels and soundbytes. When we first met, I showed you how Google Earth made it possible for us to take walks around the coast of Ireland and drive through the traffic of Delhi with ease. But, I remember your frustration as you tried to zoom in on the details of any given scene, how the picture would grow fuzzy and nonspecific, eventually not allowing us to zoom in any deeper.
I remember how avidly you would watch videos of which new phone had the most storage, and which one delivered the clearest picture. And I remember you talking about a “crisp image”, like the goal was to make the individual pixels melt into each other and deliver a fully believable and immersive world inside of a screen. As streaming in higher and higher resolutions became available, I watched you marvel at the clarity of of footage of a waterfall, saying it felt as though you could see any individual droplet as it tore away from the water.
Seeing your face move and speak on screen does not make for a crisp image; the stream glitches, the picture becomes distorted as reception in this dismal, rainy place is patchy at best. When you’re on screen in dim lighting, the picture can be difficult to make out, details indistinguishable. In bright light, your face and the entire image turns a blinding white and I cannot recognize you until you tap the screen a few times to focus the camera. Your teeth, when you smile, look less like teeth and more like one, smooth crescent beneath your top lip.
My mother refuses to make a Facebook, claiming that the people she cares about will always be there for her, in person, when she needs them. She has not bought a cell phone. I ask who I am supposed to call when her condition worsens, and who she wants to be by her side. She says that the people who matter most will be there, and I don’t know what this means. She remarks again on how frustrating it is that people my age cannot sustain relationships without their cell phones. I look out the window as her breathing deepens into a sleep.
I wait for the images you sent me to load on snapchat, and when I open them, they are fuzzy glimpses of a world through your eyes; a meal you ate, a place you drove to, a friend you saw. I hear a sliver of your voice in some of the videos. I replay them when I wake in the night and cannot fall back asleep. I save the images you send me of the clouds you’ve seen and I hold them up against the grey sky through my window.
I disagree that this grainy universe is somehow less immersive; I dream about living my whole life in it. I wake up, alone, and tend to my mother. I wash my hair in the shower, and watch the droplets streaming from the shower head tear themselves from one another as they hit my skin and the tub. I draw a bath, close my eyes, and sink into the water, but the warmth does not penetrate. I feel the wet grass under my feet when I walk outside, and the sour taste of the milk that I have let sit in the fridge for too long, but through a filter.
More and more, I feel myself making my tangible home out of the blocky pixels in the camera you can still see me through from time to time; I feel you watching me from afar. What makes us familiar?
I don’t know you at all anymore, but I don’t know anyone better. I love the face I see, pixelated on screen, but I can’t place it as yours. I love the voice I hear, patchy and distorted through the static of the phone, but I cannot remember it as you. I love the world that I download as a series of attachments and zoom in on until I can’t anymore.
When the WiFi caps out and the video of you glitches and eventually turns black for a moment, I feel myself completely immersed in the blank distance between us. All our love and messages are moving in the air above and around me, but none of it flutters in this dark, failed connection. I could crawl into it, on arms and legs, and live in its velvet forever, never seeing you or anyone again.
Tanvi Verma (she/her/hers) is from Boston, Massachusetts and has been working on what it means to be a creative while fostering a career.