Alexander Weinstein’s “Openness” was the winner of our 2nd annual Hamlin Garland Award in 2016. Contest judge Nickolas Butler, author of Shotgun Lovesongs and Little Faith, had this to say about the winner:
“Openness” is a heartbreaking short story, rooted in today’s growing reliance on our electronic personal devices and social media; an imagining of a future where our very humanity has been lost as we communicate more and more in oblique and superficial ways. The characters in “Openness” are so disconnected by technology (even as their devices and social media make the world ever more linked, ever more visible) that true intimacy is frightening to them. Spoken words come haltingly. Romantic physical contact is more awkward than fleeting, meaningless intercourse. Analog entertainment, such as board games are arcane. “Openness” reads like a cautionary tale of the future we’re barreling towards. A world where we are hardly human; just a network of cowards, insulated from reality, and utterly detached from Nature. What a great short story.
Before I decided to finally give up on New York, I subbed classes at a junior high in Brooklyn. A sixth grade math teacher suffering from downloading anxiety was out for the year, and jobs being what they were, I took any opportunity I could. Subbing math was hardly my dream job; I had a degree in visual art, for which I’d be in debt for the rest of my life. All I had to show for it was my senior collection, a series of paintings of abandoned playgrounds, stored in a U-Pack shed in Ohio. There was a time when I’d imagined I’d become famous, give guest lectures at colleges, and have retrospectives at MOMA. Instead, I found myself standing in front of a class of apathetic tweens, trying to teach them how to do long division without accessing their browsers. I handed out pen and paper, so that for once in their lives they’d have a tactile experience, and watched as they texted, their eyes glazed from blinking off message after message. They spent most of the class killing vampires and orcs inside their heads and humoring me by lazily filling out my photocopies.
The city overwhelmed me. Every day I’d walk by hundreds of strangers, compete for space in crowded coffee shops, and stand shoulder to shoulder on packed subway cars. I’d scan profiles, learning that the woman waiting for the N enjoyed thrash-hop, and the barista at my local coffee shop loved salted caramel. I’d had a couple fleeting relationships, but mostly I’d spend weekends going to bars and sleeping with people who knew little more than my username. It all made me want to turn off my layers, go back to the old days, and stay disconnected. But you do that and you become another old guy buried in an e-reader, complaining about how no one sends emails anymore.
So I stayed open, shared the most superficial info of my outer layer with the world, and filtered through everyone I passed, hoping to find some connection. Here was citycat5, jersygirl13, m3love. And then, one morning, there was Katie, sitting across from me on the N. She was lakegirl03, and her hair fell from under her knit cap. The only other info I could access was her hometown and that she was single.
“Hi,” I winked, and when I realized she had her tunes on, I sent off an invite. She raised her eyes.
“Hi,” she winked back.
“You’re from Maine? I’m planning a trip there this summer. Any suggestions?”
She leaned forward and warmth spread across my chest from being allowed into her second layer. “I’m Katie,” she winked. “You should visit Bar Harbor, I grew up there.” She gave me access to an image of a lake house with tall silvery pines rising high above the shingled roof. “Wish I could help more, but this is my stop.” As she stood waiting for the doors to open, I winked a last message. Can I invite you for a drink? The train hissed, the doors opened, and she looked back at me and smiled before disappearing into the mass of early morning commuters. It was as the train sped toward work that her contact info appeared in my mind, along with a photo of her swimming in a lake at dusk.
It turned out that Katie had been in the city for a couple years before she’d found a steady job. She taught senior citizens how to successfully navigate their layers. She’d helped a retired doctor upload images of his grandchildren so strangers could congratulate him, and assisted a ninety-three-year-old widow in sharing her mourning with the world. Her main challenge, she said, was getting older folks to understand the value of their layers.
“Every class they ask me why we can’t just talk instead,” she shared as we lay in bed. Though Katie and I occasionally spoke, it was always accompanied by layers. It was tiring to labor through the sentences needed to explain how you ran into a friend; much easier to share the memory, the friend’s name and photo appearing organically.
“At least they still want to speak. My class won’t even say hello.”
“You remember what it was like before?” she asked. I tried to think back to high school, but it was fuzzy. I was sure we used to talk more, but it seemed like we doled out personal details in hushed tones.
“Not really,” I said. “Do you?”
“Sure. My family’s cabin is completely out of range. Whenever I go back we can only talk.”
“What’s that like?”
She shared a photo of walking in the woods with her father, the earth covered in snow, and I felt the sharp edge of jealousy. Back where I grew up, there hadn’t been any pristine forests to walk through, just abandoned mini-marts, a highway, and trucks heading past our town, which was more a pit stop than a community. The only woods were behind the high school, a small dangerous place where older kids might drag you if you didn’t run fast enough. And my parents sure didn’t talk. My mother was a clinical depressive who’d spent my childhood either behind the closed door of her bedroom or at the kitchen table, doing crossword puzzles and telling me to be quiet whenever I asked her something. My father had hit me so hard that twice I’d blacked out. My history wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to unlock for anyone, and since leaving Ohio I’d done my best to bury those memories within my layers.
So I spent our first months sharing little of myself. Katie showed me the memories of her best friends and family while I showed her the mundane details of substitute teaching and my favorite bands. I knew Katie could feel the contours of my hidden memories, like stones beneath a bedsheet, but for a while she let me keep the private pain of my unlocked layers.
That summer, Katie invited me to spend the weekend with her dad at their cabin. We rented a car and drove up the coast to Maine. We listened to our favorite songs, made pit stops, and finally left I-95 for the local roads. It was late in the afternoon, our car completely shaded by the pines, when our reception started getting spotty. I could feel my connection with Katie going in and out.
“Guess we might as well log off,” Katie said. She closed her eyes for a moment, and all of a sudden I felt a chasm open between us. There was a woman sitting next to me whom I had no access to. “It’s okay, babe,” she said, and reached out for my hand. “I’m still me.” I pressed my palm to hers, closed my eyes, and logged off, too.
Her father, Ben, was a big man who wore a puffy green vest that made him appear even larger. “And you’re Andy,” he said, burying my hand in his. “Let me get those bags for you.” He hefted both our suitcases from the trunk, leaving me feeling useless. I followed him into the house, experiencing the quiet Katie had told me about. There were no messages coming from anyone, no buzz-posts to read, just the three of us in the cabin and the hum of an ancient refrigerator.
The last time a girlfriend had introduced me to her parents we’d sat at Applebee’s making small talk from outer layer info, but with Ben, there were no layers to access. All I knew were the details Katie had shared with me. I knew that her mom had died when she was fourteen, and that her father had spent a year at the cabin grieving, but that didn’t seem like anything to bring up. So I stood there, looking out the living room window, trying to remember how people used to talk back in the days when we knew nothing about each other.
“Katie says you’ve never been to Maine.”
“I haven’t,” I said, the words feeling strange against my tongue.
He walked over to the living room window. The afternoon sun shimmered on the pond, making it look silvery and alive, and the sky was wide and blue, pierced only by the spires of red pines. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. The fridge hummed and from the other room I could hear Katie opening drawers and unpacking. I wasn’t sure what else to add. I remembered a detail she had unlocked for me on one of our early dates. “I heard you’ve caught a lot of fish out there.”
“You like fishing?” he asked, placing his hand on my shoulder. “Here, I’ll show you something.”
Ben retrieved an old tablet from the closet, and showed me photos on the screen. There he was with Katie and a string of fish; him scaling a trout in the kitchen sink. We scrolled through the two-dimensional images one by one as people did when I was a kid. Katie came to my rescue. “Come on, I want to show you the lake,” she said. “Dad can wow you with his antique technology later.”
“One day you’ll be happy I kept this,” he said. “Katie’s baby photos are all on here.” He shut down the device and put it back in its case. “Have fun out there. Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
Outside, Katie led me on the trails I’d only ever seen in her layers. Here was the gnarled cedar that she’d built a fort beneath, and over there were the rocks she’d chipped mica flakes from in second grade. We climbed down the banks of the trail, holding on to roots that jutted from the earth and arrived on a stretch of beach speckled with empty clam shells, mussels, and snails that clung to the wet stones. Far down the shore, a rock outcropping rose from the water. A single heron stood on a peak that broke the shoreline.
There was something beautiful about sharing things in the old way—the two of us walking by the shore, the smell of the pine sap, the summer air cooling the late afternoon—and for the first time in years, I wished I had a sketch pad with me. As Katie spoke, her hands moved in ways I hadn’t seen people do since childhood, gesturing toward the lake or me when she got excited. I tried to focus on each sentence, sensing my brain’s inability to turn her words into pictures. She was talking about the cabin in autumn, logs burning in the fireplace, the smell of smoke, leaves crunching underfoot.
“Are you even listening?” she asked when I didn’t respond.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m trying to. It’s just that without the ding it’s hard to know when you’re sending … I mean saying something… .” I stopped talking, hating the clunkiness of words, and took a deep breath. “I guess I’m just rusty.”
Katie softened. “I know. Sometimes when I’m in the city, I can’t remember what it looks like up here without accessing my photos. It’s kinda messed up, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “I guess it is.” The heron hunched down and then lifted off, its wide wings flapping as it headed across the lake, away from us.
That night her father fried up the perch he’d caught earlier that day. The herbs and butter filled the small cabin with their scent, and we drank the wine we’d brought. After dinner, Ben brought out a blue cardboard box, and the three of us sat in the living room and played an actual game. I hadn’t seen one in over a decade.
“You don’t know how to play Boggle?” Katie asked, surprised. The point, she explained, was to make words from the lettered dice and to write them down with pen and paper without accessing other players’ thoughts. I sat there trying to figure out what Katie was feeling as she covered her paper with her hand.
“What do you think?” Katie asked after the first round.
“It’s fun,” I admitted.
“You bet it is,” Ben said, and made the dice rattle again.
Afterwards, when Katie and I were in bed, I listened to the crickets outside the screened windows. It’d been a long time since I heard the drone of them, each one singing within the chorus.
“So, what do you think of it here?”
“It’s beautiful. But I can’t imagine growing up without connection.”
“You don’t like the feeling?”
“Not really,” I said. Being offline reminded me of my life back home before layers existed, when I’d lived with my parents in Ohio, a miserable time that technology had helped to bury. “Do you?”
“Totally. I could live like this forever.” I looked at her in the dark and tried to scan her eyes, but it was just her looking back at me, familiar yet completely different. “What about my dad?”
“I like him,” I said, though it was only part of the truth. I was really thinking how different he was from my own father. We’d never sat and ate dinner together or played board games. I’d heat up frozen pizza and eat it in the kitchen while Dad would lie on the couch watching whatever game was on. Eventually he’d get up, clink the bottles into the bin, and that was the sign to shut off the TV. Thinking about it made me feel like Katie and her father were playing a joke on me. There was no way people actually lived like this—without yelling, without fighting.
I felt the warmth of Katie’s hand against my chest. “What’s the matter?”
“You can tell me,” she said. “I love you.”
It was the first time she’d actually said the words. At home it was just something we knew. We understood it from the moments we’d stand brushing our teeth together and the feeling would flash through her layers. And sometimes, late at night, right before we’d both fall asleep, we’d reach out and touch each other’s hands and feel it.
“I love you, too,” I managed to get out, and the weight of the words made something shift inside me. I felt the sentences forming in my head, the words lining up as though waiting to be released. Without my layers, there was nothing to keep them from spilling out. “Katie,” I said into the darkness. “I want to tell you about my family.”
She put her hands around me. “Okay.”
And there, in the cabin, feeling Katie’s body against mine, I began to speak. I didn’t stop myself, but leaned into my voice and the comfort of hearing my words disappearing into the air with only Katie and the crickets as witnesses.
It was that night in the cabin that helped us grow closer. Shortly after we returned, I unlocked more layers for her and showed her the pictures of my father and mother—the few I’d kept. There was my high school graduation: my mother’s sunken eyes staring at the camera, my father with his hands in his pockets, and me in between, none of us happy. I showed her the dirty vinyl-sided house and the denuded lawn, blasted by cold winters and the perpetual dripping oil from my father’s truck. And she showed me her own hidden layers: her mother’s funeral in a small church in Maine, her father escaping to the cabin afterwards, learning to cook dinner for herself. Having unlocked the bad memories, I also uncovered the few good ones I’d hidden: a snowy day, my father, in a moment of tenderness, pulling me on a sled through the town; my mother emerging from her room shortly before she died to give me a hug as I left for school.
Feeling the closeness that sharing our layers brought, Katie suggested we give total openness a shot. It meant offering our most painful wounds as a gift to one another, a testament that there was no corner of the soul so ugly as to remain unshared. It’d become increasingly common to see the couples in Brooklyn, a simple O tattooed around their fingers announcing the radical honesty of their relationship to the world. They went to Open House parties, held in abandoned meatpacking plants, where partiers let down all their layers and displayed the infinite gradations of pain and joy to strangers while DJs played Breaknoise directly into their heads. I resented the couples, imagining them to be suburban hipsters who’d grown up with loving parents, regular allowances, and easy histories to share.
Total openness seemed premature, I told Katie, not just for us but for everyone. Our culture was still figuring out the technology. A decade after linking in, I’d find drinking episodes that had migrated to my work layer or, worse yet, porn clips that I had to flush back down into the darkness of my hidden layers.
“I’m not going to judge you,” she promised as we lay in bed. She put her leg over mine. “You do realize how hot it’ll be to know each other’s fantasies, right?” There were dozens of buzz-posts about it—the benefits of total intimacy, how there were no more fumbling mistakes, no guessing, just a personal database of kinks that could be accessed by your partner.
“What about the darker layers?”
“We need to uncover those, too,” Katie said. “That’s what love is: seeing all the horrible stuff and still loving one another.”
I thought I understood it then, and though my heart was in my throat, my terror so palpable that my body had gone cold, I was willing to believe that total openness wasn’t the opposite of safety but the only true guarantee of finding it. So late that summer evening, Katie and I sat on the bed, gazing into one another’s eyes, and gave each other total access.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong, whether total openness was to blame or not. Some days I think it was; that there’s no way to share the totality of yourself and still be loved, that secrets are the glue that holds relationships together. Other times, I think Katie and I weren’t meant to be a couple for the long haul; total openness just helped us find the end more quickly. Maybe it was nothing more than the limits of the software. We were the first generation to grow up with layers, a group of kids who’d produced thousands of tutorials on blocking unwanted users but not a single one on empathy.
There were certainly good things that came from openness. Like how, after finding my paintings, Katie surprised me with a sketch pad and a set of drawing pencils. Or the nights when I’d come home from a frustrating day of substitute teaching and she’d have accessed my mood long before I saw her. She’d lay me down on the bed and give me a massage without us even winking one another. But all too often, it was the things we didn’t need to share that pierced our love: sexual histories that left Katie stewing for weeks; fleeting attractions to waiters and waitresses when we’d go out to dinner; momentary annoyances that would have been best left unshared. Letting someone into every secret gave access to our dark corners, and rather than feeling sympathy for each other’s failings, we blamed one another for nearsightedness, and soon layers of resentment were dredged up. There was a night at the bar when I watched Katie struggling to speak loudly enough for the bartender to hear, and I suddenly realized his face resembled the schoolyard bully of her childhood. “You have to get over that already,” I blinked angrily. Soon after, while watching a film I wasn’t enjoying, she tapped into layers I hadn’t yet registered. “He’s just a fictional character, not your father.”
And then there was the final New Year’s party at her friend’s place out in Bay Ridge. The party was Y2K-themed, and guests were expected to actually speak to one another. A bunch of partygoers were sporting Bluetooth headsets into which they yelled loudly. We listened to Jamiroquai on a boom box and watched Teletubbies on a salvaged flat-screen. Katie was enjoying herself. She danced to the songs and barely winked anyone, happy to be talking again. I tried to be sociable, but I was shut down, giving access to only my most superficial layers as everyone got drunk and sloppy with theirs.
We stood talking to a guy wearing an ironic trucker’s cap as he pretended we were in 1999. “So you think the computers are going to blow up at midnight?” he asked us.
“No,” I said.
“Come on,” Katie blinked. “Loosen up.”
“I’m not into the kitsch,” I blinked back.
“Mostly I’m just excited about faxing things,” the guy in the trucker’s cap joked and Katie laughed again.
“You know faxing was the early nineties right?” I said, and then blinked to Katie, “Are you flirting with this guy?”
“All I’m saying is check out this Bluetooth. Can you believe folks wore these?”
“I know, that’s crazy,” Katie said. “No, I’m not flirting. I’m talking. How about you try it for a change?”
“I told you, I don’t like talking.”
“Great, so you’re never going to want to talk then?”
“Did you guys make any New Year’s resolutions?” the guy asked us.
“Yeah,” Katie said, looking at me, “to talk more.” In her annoyance an image from a deeper layer flashed into clear resolution. It was a glimpse of a future she’d imagined for herself, and I saw us canoeing in Maine, singing songs with our kids. Even though we’d discussed how I never wanted children, there they were, and while I’d never sung aloud since grade school, there was a projection of me singing. Only then did I see the other incongruities. My eyes were blue not brown, my voice buoyant, my physique way more buff than I ever planned to become. And though I shared similarities with the man in the canoe, as if Katie had tried to fit me into his mold, the differences were clear. There in the canoe, was the family Katie wanted, and the man with her wasn’t me.
“What the fuck?” I said aloud.
“It’s just a question,” the guy said. “If it’s personal, you don’t have to share. I’m giving up gluten.”
“Excuse us for a minute,” I said, and I blinked for Katie to follow me. We found a quiet spot by the side of the flat-screen TV.
“Who the hell is that in your future?” I whispered.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, looking at me. “I do love you.”
“But I’m not the guy you want to spend your life with?”
“Ten … nine … eight,” the partiers around us counted as they streamed the feed from Times Square.
“That’s not true,” Katie said. “You’re almost everything I want.”
There was no conscious choice about what happened next, just an instinctive recoiling of our bodies, the goose bumps rising against my skin as our layers closed to one another. I couldn’t access the lake house anymore or the photos of her father; her childhood dog was gone, followed by the first boyfriend and her college years, until all that was left were my own private memories, trapped deep within my layers, and the pale tint of her skin in the television’s light. We were strangers again, and we stood there, looking at one another, while all around us the party counted down the last seconds of the old year.
I logged off for long periods after we broke up. I gave up on trying to convince my students to have real-life experiences. When they complained that reading the “I Have a Dream” speech was too boring, I let them stream a thrash-hop version instead, and I sat looking out the window thinking about Katie. I walked to my station alone every day and sat on the train with my sketch pad, drawing the details I remembered from our trip to Maine: the shoreline with its broken shells and sunlight, the heron before it took flight, Katie’s face in the summer darkness. It’s the intangible details that I remember the clearest, the ones that there’s no way to draw. The taste of the perch as we sat around the table; how a cricket had slipped through the screened windows and jumped around our bed that night; how, after we’d gotten it out, the coolness of the lake made us draw the blankets around us; and how Katie, her father, and I had sat together in the warm light of the living room and played a game, the lettered dice clattering as her father shook the plastic container.
“All right, Andy, you ready?” he’d asked me, holding his hand over the lid.
And I’d thought I was.