I’ve seen so many of you fuck on camera and then disappear into The New Normal. When the world promised to end, you cast aside your shame and dipped your toes into the cesspool of digital hedonism. You logged on and never logged off — but it’s Monday now, so at least change your username before the boss sees. The Zoom call starts in five minutes, so hide your empties off-screen and clear your ashtray. Wipe the day-old mascara from your eyes and pretend your ears aren’t ringing from standing too close to the club’s speakers on Saturday. Have they always been this loud? It’s been years since you danced anywhere but online, so it’s hard to remember. You adjust the sound on your laptop out of habit and feel a tickle in your throat. You didn’t wear a mask this weekend, but I’m sure it’s fine. It’s not like you can dance on Zoom anymore — you had to go out. You had to sweat and scream and spit and breathe the dance floor’s air. You cough and wait for the meeting host to let you in.
Now connecting …
It started with one closed door. One masked face. The word “quarantine” entering your vernacular through clumsy, chapped lips and eyes that refused to meet. You stopped trusting your neighbors and choked down celebrity kumbaya. You got stoned. And drunk. And bored. And you stayed inside with your computer, where it’s safe. You mourned empty dancefloors and sold-out shows and wept for an inessential industry that once kept you from blowing your fucking brains out the back of your skull. But before you could pull the trigger and end the apocalypse, something caught your eye:
Queer bodies plastered across your computer screen, grinding against nothing but the spaces between us.
The Wi-Fi drops and dancers lag in and out of time. So you check your bandwidth, then your webcam: Your makeup looks perfect in 360p with every movement reflected back at you. You scan the gallery and find yourself raving in a Berlin basement and sniffing poppers in a Brooklyn bathroom. It’s the closest you’ve been to anyone in weeks, but your anxiety is high, so you sip scotch off-camera until you’re puking your guts out into the garbage can beside your bed. The last thing you remember is your body filling the monitor’s display. All of a sudden hundreds of people are watching you and there’s nothing you can do about it. You wanted community, right? Well here they are, clamoring for attention on your bedside table. So you shake your hips, and then slam your laptop closed.
What was that? You can’t shake the feeling of the entire world staring you down. It’s intoxicating to be seen by the very people you’ve been told to avoid. If you meet them on the dancefloor you’ll choke to death on stale air, so says the people in power. So of course you stay in. You’re predispositioned to be terrified of life, but death is even worse. Still, your curiosity grows restless in an empty home. And as the days pass, your stomach begins to settle. Until a week later, you’re back online.
You punch in the 10-digit code and enter The Room. There is no password and few people, but in an hour you will have dozens of faces to scroll past. In no time at all, you become a Regular. With the world at its end, what else is there to do but dance? And so you do. You meet go-go boys and queer farmers and couples looking for a third. And you hear an endless cycle of the cuntiest pop hits known to man. You come to dance, and leave devoted. Soon you’ll be acting out small-time government and taking virtual yoga classes at a religious woman’s AirBnb in the middle of nowhere, Illinois. You’ll fall in love at one of the afterparties, and spend years chasing strangers from the Internet. But first you’ll witness the soft apocalypse.
It’s tucked behind the tiniest G-string and sits just out of frame. So many viewers sit waist up while you deliver a show from the neck down. You become a piece of meat marinated in red wine and white Monster and an ounce of your father’s homegrown weed. And when you dance, people eat it up until it becomes routine. You put on a show for avatars that shimmy in silence until the sun comes up. And when you fall asleep with a face full of makeup, no one sees. All they know is the person you pretend to be until it’s the only version of yourself you trust.
Each night you drift off to a thousand faces and wake up alone. You peel off fishnets and sweat-soaked leather and post half-naked collages that emphasize your lips, your waist, your thighs. You exist through the lens of an iPhone 6 that forgives your flaws in the bathroom mirror. You receive messages from strange men who saw you dancing online and think they deserve more. You like the attention, but refuse to give in (except for the times that you do). And you become enamored with the end of the world, because as long as you maintain your distance, no one is stopping you from creating yourself.
But you still have panic attacks when you go grocery shopping, or when you’re forced to breathe another’s air. Your phone keeps notifying you that things are getting worse, so you smoke a joint and watch the sun go down until the first mosquito bites. Can the virus be transferred through blood? Or just the breath of people you’re no longer allowed to love? You ash your joint and decide you’re not ready to find out. With the front door bolted closed, you put on a face of watered down glitter and expired eyeshadow. You cut your bangs over the bathroom sink and glue the leftovers to your upper lip. It’s a lewk; and your only option if you want to survive.
Wine glass in-hand, you re-enter The Room.
You’re greeted with a leather harness and a fat bong rip. Britney’s playing or maybe Charli, but all you see is the chat overflowing with your screen name. It’s barely been a month since you first stumbled across the afterparty, but now you’re making appearances every other day. You wave and smile at the people you will never meet and do another shot. Everyone’s here: Hot Dog Boys swivel in their desk chairs while Good Girls take off their clothes. Someone’s K-holing to Kim Petras while you lip sync every word. Even your virtual father figure’s here — but you can call him “Daddy.” This is paradise lost and found on the World Wide Web.
It’s no wonder they only let you out at night. As the air grows warmer and the end of the world is delayed another day, you start to shed your skin. You dance barefoot in a bikini and fill your room with smoke. Through the haze you see the outlines of unobtainable lovers dancing naked at the gates of Hell. You peer inside and watch as pixelated bodies press against the confines of your screen. They want out. In the absence of company, fingers travel between legs arousing muted moans. This is a “cameras on” party, so as to dissuade the perverts from message boards looking for a free show. You recognize each face from parties past, now skewed with exhibitionist pleasure. But you came to dance, so you silently sway while they do the same.
For months, you watch your friends fuck online and think nothing of it. Most nights start and end with dancing, and that’s it. But every few days the atmosphere grows thick with digital pheromones trapped behind polarized glass. Still, you need this place. So you keep your guard up and your clothes on, ready for it to shatter. Soon you find the corporate queers growing weary of the afterparty’s impending PR disaster. The mainstream URL clubs want nothing to do with you. They’re trying to land an endorsement deal with Zoom and book Lady Gaga, not promote a bunch of weirdos who masturbate to Brooke Candy songs. As communities splinter and mainstream parties become fewer and fewer, The Room starts operating 24/7.
They fall asleep and wake up in front of their computers. Webcams are almost always on, even if no one’s there to see what’s being broadcast. They eat breakfast and do yoga and listen to jazz during the day, and at night it’s business as usual: the virtual dance floor filled with newcomers who never see the daytime lifestyles of the devoted. With the sun shining, you drop in a few times to do laundry or embroider or simply to chat. It’s been months since you’ve seen anyone other than your roommate or the long line of patrons outside the liquor store. All that’s left is a room full of strangers with nowhere else to go.
When you travel from Gatineau to Chicago, you take your laptop with you. You are meeting a boy who you’ve only ever seen online. He happened across the afterparty one night and watched you command The Room in a skintight dress. Now you’re boarding a flight wearing chemist’s goggles and wreaking of hand sanitizer, simply hoping that he’s real. Members of The Room are cheering you on from within your DMs. On the second day, you turn on your camera and show him off. You breathe his air and refuse to choke. But still, you find yourself logging on and checking out.
We missed you. They weep across keyboards scattered through the Americas. You missed them, too. Even in the arms of your lover, you find yourself dancing with the devoted. But the second you felt his skin was the second you knew that something had changed. He was never a Regular, just a passerby who was bold enough to break the spell. You spend more and more time away from your screen, but you can’t stay forever. So you cross international border lines and crash land in your own bed. Two days later, you’re back online.
And that’s when they start to leave. One Regular disappears from the group chat without a word. Then another. A meeting is called mid-day (there is a party that night, after all) and the allegations are brought to light: sexual misconduct and a lack of consent. There is little to no moderation in a space made for the end times. Besides, getting naked is as routine as Slayyyter or Rico Nasty or 100 gecs making the playlist. And it wouldn’t do to kick every rando who joins in on the fun. The Room is built on random encounters and sexual electricty. But most of all, it’s built on a lack of consequence brought on by the calamity of a new decade.
Everyone at the meeting has been living in The Room day in and day out — everyone except you. Still, you participate in the newly formed democracy. For months it was your job to bring the energy, recruit the willing, and seduce them into staying. Your vote counts just as much as anyone else’s. So you collaborate with the de facto leaders and come to a conclusion: things need to change. But by then it’s too late. Even with a code of conduct in place, you can’t undo what’s been done. You suddenly remember all the times you’ve been told to take off your top, to enter a private room, to dance just for them. But these messages came from newcomers, not Regulars, right? … Right?
All you can do is keep dancing.
But when will it end? The apocalypse just keeps coming. Wave after wave of guesswork timelines and patchwork protocols flood your newsfeed. So you stop checking the numbers; you lose track of the days. And the only consistency is a sunset joint and screen-lit rave. But what once was daily has become weekly, then monthly, then barely at all. You dance online for a full year and a half before sneaking back across the border to dance masked in clubs once more. You’re terrified. You always have been. But this is what you wanted, right?
The New Normal looms on the horizon, promising a modified version of life “after the pandemic.” Suddenly you don’t have time to dance every other night — not that Zoom clubs even really exist anymore. You still find the occasional flier on Instagram for a one-off URL show, but it’s not the same. You Uber to the club and taste sweat from a hundred people’s pores while missing your bedroom. You compensate with six shots of whiskey and a homemade edible. You wash it down with an energy drink and a joint you’re no longer allowed to share. You expect to get sick every time your shoes stick to the dance floor. And when the virus finally reaches your lungs, it’s been almost exactly two years since the world first watched you onscreen.
Lying in bed, unable to move, you watch a notification pop up on your phone. It’s Friday, and the group chat is starting to stir. When the world opened up, they stayed inside, holding onto something that could only exist when the world shut down. Once a week, ex-residents of The Room trickle onto a virtual dance floor that was once their place of worship. You tap the notification and the chat opens up: “Canceled tonight. Apologies for any inconvenience.” You place your phone on the bedside table and try to clear the phlegm from your throat. Your headache’s getting worse. All you want is to smoke and make it all go away. The empty beer cans on your windowsill mock you from the weekend before. How foolish of you to think they would help you now. In four month’s time, you’ll be sober. But until then, you take one last look at your bedroom’s dance floor and watch your phone screen go dark.