a short story by Christian Holt
ON HER LAPTOP, your girlfriend shows you the pictures of the Korean beauty pageant contestants. The screen displays girls with spotless faces, chins you could rest on your thumb, and the same shy smile. Each face would be beautiful, but as a group, they are intimidating in their uniform perfection. They remind you of the anonymous enemies you’ve exploded into pixels in mall arcade games—the sameness made their destruction more acceptable. But you do not tell her this. Instead, you admit to her that these girls look similar and hope that the comment will sweep the conversation under the rug.
“No, Jim, they’re the same,” she says, “They all got the same surgeries.”
“The things people do for beauty, I guess,” you say, not willing to dip your toes into a conversation you aren’t ready for. You scroll through your Xbox Live account, resettle on the couch.
“Well in Korea, it’s a big thing,” she says.
You always grow a bit nervous when she talks about Korea. You have to watch your language, not exoticize her culture but also treat it with reverence. But this mode of thinking doesn’t take into account what context-appropriate reactions she is seeking. Here, you know you’ve clearly missed. She wants you to share in her disgust, to be in on the joke while othering these pristine, manufactured women.
“I don’t really see the reason,” you admit. You’ve been taught, growing up in your Pittsburgh suburb, that beauty is a societal construct, that kindness, intelligence, and hard work are what matter. “Why can’t people just be happy with themselves?”
She withdraws her mouth to a small point, moving her lips further from you by fractions of millimeters, aggregate atoms of distance. “You know, I’ve had surgery,” she says.
“What?” you ask.
“When I was seventeen…no, eighteen,” she says. “I went back to visit family after high school.” Seeing your face, she speeds up her words as if they need to escape the room as soon as possible. She swerves her eyes back to her laptop’s screen. “It’s a pretty typical gift in certain parts of the country. My aunt bought it for me.”
You’ve been waking up to see her smiling face for over a year but now you can’t help but wonder if there is something new to it. “What did you have done?” you ask. You think it will be like one of those magic eye photos, where suddenly the hidden image becomes clear. But no.
“It’s not important,” she says, and closes the laptop, and later that night, when you touch her cheek, kiss her lips, rub a thumb over her eyebrows, you realize that you are trying to find the bumps, the feel of metal or plastic. Is she part artificial? you wonder. Would that be okay? What does it matter?
She moves around the room. You’ve left for the day, but your mattress warmth lingers like an afterimage from a camera flash. These things you don’t know are true, but you imagine them that way.
She eats, looks at herself in the mirror, combs her pixie cut, frowns, and then sits down at the desk in your shared living room. She is very beautiful, but there are times she doesn’t believe it. She turns on the camera stream, boots up her computer. The world sees her in a monitor’s frame. Already, her social media feed buzzes with comments.
You look sleepy.
Where ya been?
O hai gurl.
She types a hello and then starts up a new game. It’s a sci-fi strategy one involving tanks and aliens. With rapid mouse clicks, she moves her team to take the enemy objective. Her mother, a nationally renowned chess player, once bested Rhoni Khadilkar—or so family lore claims. So she has always had the ability to read the parameters of a world, to understand the systems in place and the rules for each piece. It made computer science an easy choice for a major in college. You saw her there in the dorm lounge, and she was the first girl you met who talked about Miyamoto and Kojima as if they were Shakespeare and Faulkner; she seemed at a young age to have been grabbed by the same unseen hand that drew you to these fantastical worlds where things finally made sense.
“He’s going to play his artillery over this hill,” she says to the camera and thousands of her subscribers. She hovers her cursor over a piece of map.
“Bad move there. Flank was exposed,” she confesses, reading a question from her feed. Aside from you and a couple Skype calls in the afternoon to her unsupportive parents, this is her usual method of socializing, her substitution for chatting by the watercooler at the office.
After a few moves, her tank blows up the opponent’s headquarters. Her feed erupts with praise, her ranking in an online ladder moves up, and the video stream continues.
Though she only told you this once—drunkenly, when you first started dating and found yourself on that Fishtown rooftop, the fringe of her dress wetted by the rain—she knows that she could get more subscribers by taking off her shirt or wearing a more revealing blouse. She has this power, if she wanted it. It is like a gun kept in a safe. This power to make more money, pay off her student loans quicker. You are aware of it, just like you are aware of the camera that is on her nearly eight hours a day. People can see what she’s wearing, what she’s eating, the layout of your shared apartment with the wood block cutouts of Zelda and Mario on the walls. Can they see her scars? Do they know the imperfection that you somehow have missed?
She has not mentioned her wardrobe since that night. Using her body in such a way would hurt you, she knows. You’re not sure if it would hurt her. When she goes to video game conventions, she’s greeted by total strangers that know the brand of cereal you buy and her morning routine. On a daily basis, she has to sift through the explicit comments, the Internet catcalls that make up 9/10s of her feed. Judging by many of the comments, people already think of her as less than real—a manufactured personality on their computer screen they can ridicule or fetishize how they choose. You don’t know what would be worse for her—ugly comments or no comments at all.
When you are in the office the next morning, the only screen in the conference room is the projector that displays a quarterly report. To distract yourself, you lapse into a childhood daydream: you imagine the presentation to actually be a game screen. The charts are like Tetris blocks—just the same simple, mundane shape. This familiar fantasy sates you.
It’s moments like these that you think of her at home: her legs under her, sitting on the office chair, playing a video game. Most men would be jealous of this. But no, not you. You’re proud of her. She’s one of the most popular female video game streamers on YouTube and her salary, while not as big as yours as a project manager at a financial firm, can cover the rent in the Graduate Hospital apartment you share.
“My girlfriend plays video games for a living,” you say at drinks after work. There are some new interns in the office, and the team is out at a local brew pub.
The interns, boys fresh from the Ivies, all lean in and ask how it is: what it’s like to live the dream? What it’s like to not have to pretend to be interested in your partner’s work? To have this glistening embodiment of every nerd’s fantasy: a cool girlfriend? Every night?
You try to be polite and not boastful. We work on things, you explain to them. We communicate. Sometimes we fight over who gets to be Yoshi in Mario Kart. They laugh. Every relationship has its challenges. But this comment doesn’t register with them. It’s a crowded bar and the low lighting makes reading your face harder, or so you figure. “It’s awesome,” you finally admit. Everyone looks very relieved.
She asked once if your parents are disappointed that you are not dating someone who is white. You said no, that unless she was a Cleveland Browns fan, she was fine in their eyes. But you also know not to ask if it would be okay with her parents for her to date you. You know that it could go several ways: they could be against it because they’d prefer her to date someone like themselves, to give them grandchildren that they resemble. Then there’s the thought, more likely, from what she’s revealed in quiet moments at dinner: her parents are enthusiastically supportive of your relationship. Her parents don’t understand her job; her eldest brother is a dentist and her other brother is an attorney. But they understand yours in finance, and when you were promoted last year, they stopped pressuring her to get a “real job.” You would take care of her, they said, or you thought they said.
The conversation brought with it entire perceptions about wealth and Western privilege that makes your stomach turn. You already feel guilty walking the streets with her. Another white boy with an Asian girlfriend. When her parents can’t pronounce your last name, but try, she laughs harder than you do.
When you come home from work, she has her headphones on and her legs curled underneath her. Her eyes impassive as they watch the screen. You see the game, see the obvious move to make—but hesitate. She hates it when you “backseat game.” The click of the mouse is the only sound in the apartment. You make dinner.
She lets you cook, knowing that you want to do this for her, that such a reversal of gender stereotypes salves some wound that would otherwise bother you. Tonight is stir fry. At seven, she disconnects the stream for an hour, turns off the camera, and stretches her wishbone arms. You like to watch the little stones of her spine as she moves her arms over her head.
You eat. You tell her office gossip. You trade stories about what you read on the internet. A new expansion is coming to your favorite MMORPG. She read some more details about the failed development of a flight simulator. You smile because you know you’re not just a little lucky to be able to talk about this with a partner. When she has to work at night, you stand in the kitchen, out of sight of the camera. But tonight isn’t one of those nights, just another gray early spring evening.
“You ever realize there are no women who are 6’s in video games?” she says, chewing with her mouth open. That would never fly where you’re from, but you’ve long ago stopped chiding her.
“Huh?” you ask.
“Name a woman who isn’t hot or villainously ugly in a game. Someone just average looking,” she says. There’s an edge to her voice. Sometimes, incredibly, after playing video games for an entire day, she’s exhausted. As a child, you thought it was a Saturday well spent.
You think of your favorite games, the ones you poured hours of your life into. The joy of unwrapping a game and first entering a new, fantastical world. You didn’t notice the depiction of women because they were just pixelated fun. What did politics have to do with it? What did it matter if the evil dragon was female as long as it was fun to finally slay it?
When you stumble over answering quickly, she continues: “Male protagonists can be whatever. Fat plumbers or earthworms or toads. But women? Good or bad, they’re always judged on appearance.”
You concede she has a point. Validate her. You can see the white teeth between her lips, and the energy in the room equalizes, like you’ve just dodged a lava pit. But then, seeing her teeth, it’s like a glitch: you begin to wonder if they’ve always been so white.
You’re a nice boy. That’s what her mother said. You know her parents like you. You went to the right schools, have a job that they understand—unlike hers—and are very polite on the phone. You’ve even tried learning some Korean, practicing with them over Skype, and they laugh at your accent or your effort—you aren’t sure which. But there are times when her smile doesn’t bounce back when you tell her not to worry about the comments, the daily harassment she receives. There are times when you wonder if she thinks you’re nice or just humoring her and that patience will eventually deplete, like running out of extra lives.
A few weeks later, you go to catch up with a couple you knew from college. It has been four years since you lived with them in the rickety Queen Anne Victorian by the park. The couple, now living together in Old Town, have a quaint brick apartment with green shutters and flower boxes. Inside, people mill about, sipping wine and artisan cocktails that your friend serves up, fresh from bartending school. Upon seeing the two of you enter, he beckons you over and asks what you are up to.
You tell him that you work in finance, do project management. But there are a couple gaming developers in Los Angeles that are looking hard at you, and you may make the move in the next year. You’re lying, but you don’t know why. Your friend asks if your girlfriend’s job will mind the move, and because you don’t think she’s listening, you say that she can work anywhere.
The LA move is something you’d talked about before, mostly when you are hot-boxing the room, staring at cartoons with the volume low. She’s very encouraging, says you’d be great at game development. But there are no offers, not even second round interviews. You excuse the lie to her, later. You apologize by saying it’s a machismo thing, a good front to put on for your friend. You and your old friend were competitive when you were on the school newspaper together. Each tried to one-up the other. She knows you were bullied as a kid, that you had an orange jacket that earned you the nickname “pumpkin” throughout middle school. What she doesn’t know is that since you got in shape, a raw, haggard voice whispers to you the worth of every male in the room against your own. She has quieted this voice for years, but it has never gone away.
You don’t notice when the other half of the couple emerges from the kitchen; you talk with your old friend about your collegial Halo battles while your girlfriend is stuck talking to his girlfriend, the hostess, about decorating. When your girlfriend can’t muster even passing interest, they touch on which dorms they lived in during college before the hostess, mercifully, breaks the conversation to greet some other guests arriving. You see your girlfriend from across the room, one arm holding the other, looking bored and waiting to be rescued.
You’re confused later when you try to kiss her in the cab but she claims she’s tired, looks out the window to the people milling around downtown. You smile at them and someone on the sidewalk turns their head to see the two of you in the cab, and you wonder what her face is telling them.
It’s a Saturday, and she is warm from the after effects of a good dream. When you ask, she doesn’t remember what it was. She moves her hand over to your chest. You stir. She goes lower, feeling morningwood.
“Good morning,” she says. “Come on. Then we’ll go to brunch.”
You let her start, only taking off your shirt and bringing her to your mouth when you feel her hair prickle sweat. You roll over on top and begin to follow the contours of her body, kissing and groggily trying to be gentle. But the rhythm is off.
When you lay on top of each other, exploring bodies, you feel the embrace of her hands on your limbs, your chest. But this begins to fade as you fall back into the competing arms of sleep. When you wake, later, you’ll be alone in bed and she’ll be back in front of the camera, in the next room, making conversation with people you’ve never met.
You wish she hadn’t told you about the surgery. You blame her, but hope she doesn’t notice. Sometimes, you wonder if she can tell in your foreplay when your mind strays, when it switches to a searching mode—when your lips’ playfulness turns from affection to curiosity, like sweeping a beach for mines. You wonder what you will do when you are no longer curious.
It happens unexpectedly. You’ve hoarded the time before she wakes up in the morning, waking up and walking around the apartment earlier and earlier.
When you wake one morning, you try not to shake the bed too much. The February cold has snuck into the floorboards during the night. You nearly trip over a game controller. The pain runs to every bone in your foot as you hobble into the bathroom. The faucet runs lightly. You don’t want to wake her. Though she has never showed them to you, you imagine that she keeps photo albums from her childhood. Surely, a photo has been slipped inside a book cover or was misplaced on a shelf. You pace the apartment, searching through the dusty shelves, between the blinds, even in the kitchen cabinets and search for what is off, as if it was a missing thing so easily found.
She catches you going through the bookshelves, finally finding an errant photo in an old notebook.
“What do you have there?” she asks sleepily.
“Just an old photo?” you say. “It fell out of the notebook.”
She crosses her arms, narrows her eyes. “Wait, were you…looking for it?”
“No,” you lie. “Well, sorta. I was looking for—” and you have no idea how to finish the sentence. Later, you’ll come up with a thousand ways to finish it and you’ll repeat them to yourself in the shower like an enchantment that can reverse time.
“Jesus Christ, is this about the surgery?” she asks.
“I just wanted to know,” you say.
“It was my nose, Jim,” she says pointing to it but it’s her eyes that make you look away. You pretend to need to put away the books you’ve taken out. “I got really bad sinus infections as a kid and they wanted to correct it and then my aunt’s like, ‘Might as well kill two birds with one stone.’”
You look at the old photo of her. The nose seems a bit wider. You feel cheated, like a magic trick has been revealed to you that was so simple that a child could have done it.
“Hope you’re happy,” she says and leaves the room.
Weeks pass. You send off more and more résumés to game companies in Los Angeles. She helps you edit the cover letters. When you ask, she tells you that she doesn’t regret that you have had to cancel several of your evening plans so you can apply to jobs. Over the last month, something has shifted in you, an itch added to your limbs. The little irritations from bad meetings or the long commute now leave you drained. On the bus, seeing an advertisement for a local dentist, displaying couples with their perfect smiling teeth, causes you to clench up. It’s as if they are squeezing you with their impossibly bright futures.
At a bar the previous week, you listened to one of your fellow project managers complain about having to go to salsa dancing with his girlfriend.
“How was it?” you asked, surprised at your own curiosity.
The man shrugged, pulled back on his beer. “It was whatever. If you’re into that sort of thing.”
You consider that you have never gone dancing, and wonder if your girlfriend would. Then you think about how she is likely very gifted at it— just another one of those skills she seemed to acquire naturally, but not really have a passion for.
When you get home and apologize for being out late, she doesn’t seem upset. You ask if this is what she wants, this move. She says that she can work anywhere. She never planned on staying in Philadelphia. But these answers don’t satisfy you. Like her reassurances in the first few months of the relationship about your bedroom prowess, you feel her comments are rote, hidden behind a pristine mask that never falters.
You have not initiated in weeks, and when she rubs your shoulder or flashes an eyebrow, you intentionally misread it, grabbing her hand in yours as if wanting to linger in these safer moments. She hasn’t said anything, just blinked a few extra times, her mind a processor cranking through a particularly tough problem.
One night, she turns to you, begins to rub her hand underneath your shirt. You silently pull it out, put it at your side. You keep your eyes shut, not wanting to see her large lashes, the maze of her face and its many mysteries that you have spent too long trying to solve.
It’s Thursday night. The season’s last snow is falling outside, and you’ve given up on cooking, conceding to her offer of takeout. You eat and sit in front of the television.
“What’s the plan tonight?” you ask.
She names a game. It’s your favorite, a martial arts title that used to earn you curses and slaps on the back during college. It was in this situation, crouched over a television screen in the house lounge, that you first met her. You had offered her a controller, had shouted down one of their housemates when he made a remark about losing to a girl.
But she hadn’t beaten you that night. That wasn’t what impressed her, she told you later. It was that you were a complete nerd and didn’t apologize for it. Unlike so many self-identified geeks, gamers, and eccentrics, you seemed to want to share it with her. The obscure worlds you loved were big enough for both to define the contours of—a cave where you and her had the ability to find its depths, push your hands at its edges together.
You curl up on the couch and take up the controllers.
. . .
“You beat me,” you say. The screen indicates it hadn’t been close. Your character lays on the floor of the game screen, unconscious. Hers is smiling and giving a thumbs up in a braggart motion that seems to get more awful with each repetition. Her character’s exuberance is the opposite of her expression: robotic, with imperceptible breathing out of her perfect, small nose. You realize she never looks like she enjoys it when she wins. Or even when plays. She could be doing anything.
The game asks if you want a rematch.
She bites her lower lip, knowing that she has made a mistake. “Well, I got lucky.”
“No, you didn’t,” you say quietly.
“I mean, I do this all day,” she says.
“Yeah, but, this was my game.” You realize that this sounds childish but in a flash, you remember the hot, shouting uproar of when you bested your friends. Respect was given in punches to your arm. You hold the arm now, wanting to feel the phantom pain.
“And you’re really good at it,” she says, trying to sound bright and casual. But that is not her usual voice, and the artifice makes her blush. “Maybe we can play another round?”
“No, I don’t think so,” you say and begin to pick up the remains of the takeout. The brown broth slips from the carton onto the table. Neither of you moves to clean it up.
She pushes a button and declines the rematch. For a second the screen floods with a dozen faces of characters, people you could be and she could be and there has to be a combination where your selection is better than hers. But before you say anything, she clicks the remote off. “No, I guess not,” she says. The screen is black.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” you say, your voice suddenly sharp.
“It’s just that you don’t seem to want to accept that I can be better than you at this.”
“No, like you said, you do this all day,” you say. But you aren’t looking at her. You focus on gathering the cartons with such speed that suggests the garbagemen are downstairs waiting.
You can see that she is thinking back to the cocktail party at your old friend’s house, months ago. Your tone is different now, but the implication is the same: what she does is mere performance, a sideshow attraction.
“I do this all day because I’m really good at this. This isn’t just a hobby for me. It’s my job.”
It’s the demeaning tone that sets you off, you tell yourself later. It’s not the implication that she can do this while you can’t. “You don’t understand,” you say. “When I was a kid, I got bullied for being overweight. I wasn’t popular in high school. All I had was this,” you say, pointing at the dark screen. “It was like they were made for people like me.” The waxy takeout box is now a wand that you strike the air with.
“I know the feeling.”
“Do you?” You finally throw the box into the trash. Shut the lid. “You were plenty popular in high school. Valedictorian, right? And captain of your lacrosse team?” Your voice becomes less sincere. “And then what, you went to Korea to become more beautiful? How is that the same?”
She means, you realize later, that she knows what it’s like to feel connected to games. To feel the entire world made better sense in pixels. The controller didn’t care if she was the youngest daughter of Korean immigrants, didn’t care that she was a girl, didn’t mind that after she studied so hard for her SATs that she at one point dreamed in scantron, that when she talked to boys about games she’d always be considered less knowledgeable.
But instead of speaking, she turns her face towards the desk and the still muzzled camera. You don’t know if she can hear you as you shut the door and forget your coat.
Christian Holt’s writing has appeared or is upcoming in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Bold Italic, 7X7, Gargoyle Magazine and Rose Red Review, among others. A graduate of Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin- Madison’s MFA program, he lives in San Francisco, California.