We all have a tendency to imagine the worst, especially if the anxiety in our lives is heightened. I do this often, usually around how I’d feel if my wife exited my life for whatever reason.
What strikes me about these worries are the things around our house that would most remind me of her. We leave such strong impacts on the world just by interacting with it, and our relationships are no different. Aside from the obvious–the pictures from our wedding that hang out our walls, the clothes in her closet, the pages I’ve written about her–there are more subtle ways we leave breadcrumbs of ourselves in each others lives.
That’s the genesis of this piece. I wanted to capture the routines that break when something changes or ends within a relationship. A favorite book that might lay out on a coffee table. A forgotten dirty glass. The small things that remind us that, holy shit, we’re inextricably tied to someone else.
If my wife were to suddenly disappear from my life, I think those are the things I’d have the hardest time with. The things she does every day that impact me in almost imperceptible ways. And it’s because those nuances of her personality are the reason I love her to begin with. Their absence would be a devastating reminder of what I lost.
A few years ago I stumbled on a browser-based game called Every day the same dream. It’s a short game–should only take you 15 minutes to play the entire thing, should you wish to do that now–but impactful. It’s about a white-collar worker stuck in a rut. The premise of the game is simple: Every day you follow simple clues that lead you to experience one new thing, that breaks your routine a bit, until the ultimate routine-breaking act.
Considering the game was made in six days, it’s expertly crafted. It wraps up a lot of the existential dread (or boredom, more accurately) I, and I think many others, feel day-to-day while providing a sense of catharsis. I wanted to pay tribute to that. Use the game as a way to verbalize my thoughts about being white-collar, living comfortably but perhaps passionless. But I wanted to do it in a more optimistic way than the game.
That’s where the idea sprung from. A combination of my own thoughts and feelings about my life, made digital by this game. Where I changed course from the game is in my approach to the message. Life often feels like its not in your control, and in many ways it may not be, but there are certain things we can do to engage with the world around us. Change our routine a little bit. Eat healthier. Find new perspectives on the things we interact with every day, like leaving from the back door of your house instead of the front. Taking a second to notice a cardinal building a nest. All of it is meaningful if you choose to search for that meaning.
I hope the story isn’t too navel-gazing. It’s a privilege to be who I am, with the job I have, and the existential panic I sometimes deal with makes that easy to forget. Taking control of the small things, inserting minor changes in the day-to-day, can help to keep that in perspective.
The story behind this vignette is pretty straightforward: my wife had a dream I thought would make a fun story. She does that on occasion. We’ll wake up in the morning and she’ll tell me about a dream she had and I’ll think one of two things: 1) that would be a great story or 2) dream Craig is an asshole. Dream Craig is always doing something shady in my wife’s dreams, cheating or telling her he doesn’t love her and all sorts of other untoward things Real Craig would never do.
Normally when she tells me about her dreams it’s because of the latter. In the case of Nightmare / Dream, Dream / Nightmare it was the former.
So that’s where the idea came from. But the events of her dream gave me the idea to experiment with the form a little bit. I have a small obsession with how different people view the same events in different ways. I’ve explored this concept in a lot of my stories, particularly in my novel The Inhabitors. Dreams, though, were something new. What if there were a shared dream space? And what if, in that space, one person’s dream might be another’s nightmare and vice versa? What if that all happened within the space of the same dream? With that, it felt natural to write the story from each perspective side-by-side.
I think it’s a fun story (despite its dark subject matter) and may be something I explore in more detail in the future.
When done right, I find that seeing the most important moments of a character’s existence can be just as powerful as experiencing them in media res. But there is a trick to doing that right, I think. What that trick is, I don’t know. This story is my attempt at figuring that out.
What I wanted to show was the long arc of a relationship that society doesn’t approve of. There are lots of stories about forbidden relationships, whether because of race, status, family feuds, or something else. Even human-synthetic relationships aren’t new ground. Identifying those moments that were most important to a long-term relationship between man and machine was my spin, and what I was most interested in.
The challenge was choosing the right moments to summarize the pain, internal and external, of their relationship. When they met, how they fell in love, the trials they both faced in continuing forward despite all logic, the inevitabilities, and the denouement.
From a purely writing perspective, I needed to keep forward momentum and active language to hopefully make the reader forget they’re reading what is essentially a summary of a full arc.
I like the story. I think it’s an interesting snapshot of a unique relationship. It touches on themes of discrimination, language, biology, and the weird habit people have of ascribing feelings and emotions to inanimate things.
Behind the Photo
This was a really difficult image to conceive and photograph. How do you visualize an android that’s indistinguishable from a person, let alone the love that android has with a human? Searching Creative Commons and WikiMedia didn’t turn up anything I really liked, so I knew I’d have to create the image myself.
First, I considered doing a close-up of hands, with the android hand made up to look like a wire was beneath the skin. Unfortunately, I’ve never once used makeup to do anything, let alone a complicated blend. Then, with inspiration from the American remake of HUMANS (specifically this key art), I decided to photograph my wife. She agreed to help (I’ll write about this eventually, but being a creative would be impossible without her support) and do her own makeup. I told her how I thought she should look and what to wear, and she went off to remake herself while I set-up the shot.
We don’t have any professional lighting (or even a professional camera–I take all photos featured on this site with a Google Pixel 3 XL), so I knew I’d have to keep it as simple as possible. I figured we’d shoot a close-up against a black background, with some sort of key light reflecting in her pupils to mimic an internal light source (think TERMINATOR, but not red).
Once I started setting up the shoot, though, I realized that doesn’t hit the domestic themes that are the centerpiece of the actual story. Instead, the shoot would have to be more complicated. Pulling in lights from other rooms, tearing up shirts and cutting cardboard to make diffusers and flags, I had to get creative in order to create the look I wanted.
From there, it was a matter of taking the right photo. We took several, with my inexperience directing and my wife’s perfectionism causing us to try different angles and set-ups. For example, to add contrast behind my wife’s robotic-ness, we thought having one of our cats in the photo would be fun. Of course, cats aren’t the most professional models.
In the end, I chose to use the very first photo we took. It’s not perfect, but every time I came back to it I liked it more. I think the framing is right, the lighting is good, my wife’s expression appropriate for the character, and the overall tone of the photo what I had hoped to capture.
While the shoot was actually somewhat stressful, it was also a lot of fun. I think it’s inspired us to experiment a bit more and upgrade some of our equipment. We both love photography and this blog is a great excuse to invest in it.
If you haven’t yet, I recommend reading the vignette before continuing:
I’m fascinated by relative distance. You and I have a specific perspective based on our size. To every person, a pebble is small and a mountain is almost unfathomably big. But to a mite (that may or may not live in your eyelashes), the pebble is unfathomably big and the mountain is beyond comprehension.
Because of our size relative to them, we can’t even see mites. And to them, we’re an entire world on which to live, explore, and die.
It’s these types of thoughts that inspired Distance. I wanted to write something that explored this theme. What better way to illustrate that than by setting it on a spacecraft traveling at 1/10th the speed of light? The universe to us is like a mountain to a mite: beyond comprehension.
Still, there is no story without a human element. To deepen the theme, I also wanted to explore emotional distance. Someone who misses someone else enough to try to close the very real distance between them with science that they know can never be good enough to be authentic.
The first line illustrates this. Starting at the microscopic, where the atoms that make up one persons skin have the same amount of space between them as there is between stars, questions whether we can ever really be touching one another. Slowly the story pulls out until the we understand the distance between our protagonist and his lost love, Amara–1,900,800 miles everyday.
I hoped to accomplish all this in as few words as possible. Let me know how you think I did.
Future Soldier in the Word Wars
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.