How can we invent reality and tell it as a story to ourselves in an age when the digital sphere misleads us, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary? The loneliness of Anna, the protagonist of this story, is symptomatic of her age and these times. She finds it hard to fit into a world that no longer offers clearly defined paths and seeks refuge in the awkward spaces that lie between artificiality, phoniness and imitation. However, the reader does not find her ridiculous, but rather identifies with her, acknowledging the familiar pitfalls that these spaces hold, which are both funny, touching and poignant. Rachel Glaser had good reason for situating her story in the art scene, where boundaries are broken more than anywhere else. The JPEG file, which gives its name to the story, raises a disturbing question that is at the heart of contemporary existence – how can you really distinguish Anna’s actual work of art from the JPEG file that is showcased in the virtual gallery?
At the end of the third week of April, Anna looked to her calendar and felt nothing for the retriever who’d started off the month with such vivacity. It had excessive hair, as usual, billowing in the wind, but the dog’s smile felt forced. Anna flipped the page and stabbed May to the wall with a thumbtack. Oh! The May dog was beautiful! Sniffing at a handful of flowers, eyes wet with life; Anna would have given a month’s rent to be that dog, jobless and loved by everyone.
Mid May, the weather became brilliant. Walking around South Philly with her ex-boyfriend, Anna noticed that the homeless people looked happier. One of them had a mattress set up under an overhang, and was playing music from a boom box. Anna’s cell phone started shaking in her pocket. It was a Rhode Island number. She quickly imagined a post-graduate award she could have won. She accepted the call.
“Hi, Anna, my name is Janine! I’m a sophomore at Rhode Island School of Design. How are you today?”
“That’s great. I was wondering if you had a few minutes while I explain some new additions to the school you might be unfamiliar with?”
“Actually, I don’t really.” Anna rolled her eyes at her ex-boyfriend.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. I don’t have any money to give either, unfortunately.” Even art schools sounded so corporate over the phone. If anyone ever donated money, it probably went toward a new panini press.
“Well, can I at least check that we have your correct address?” Three laughing Hispanic boys rode by on bikes. Anna felt sure that they were laughing at her. She checked her fly and hung up the phone. Her ex-boyfriend looked at her, amused. She desperately wanted to sleep with him, but he left her at his door. He said he was busy, and he’d had fun, and maybe they could hang out again sometime. Anna opened her phone as if someone had called, and then stared at the screen as if it held a long, intimate message. Her ex-boyfriend closed the door.
Their relationship had been a constant swap of power. Early on, Anna held the power. She forwarded his flirtatious emails to her friends, criticizing his overwritten prose style. Eventually, he wore her down and she fell in love, but by then he was sleeping with her friend. Later, Anna won him back, but a few months later he broke up with her, and she crumpled. She sat opposite the school’s terrible, but free, psychologist.
Anna was an unsuccessful glass artist. She worked part-time at a glassblowing studio, making giant, insanely colorful marbles that were then sold in old-lady stores. In June, she got one of her glass sculptures into a show, but it wasn’t the usual kind of show; it was a show in an online world, for an online community. It wasn’t her actual piece, just a JPEG of the piece.
Anna had to sign up for the online community to see the JPEG displayed in the show. She gave them all her info, but unchecked the box allowing them to send her weekly updates. She felt sly unchecking the box. Then she had to design herself. It was fun, but Anna pretended that it was a drag. Pretended to no one. She made herself have a unicorn horn and crazy green hair. Then she regretted it, but there was no Back button, so she continued.
In the online world, she teleported to the gallery. There were other JPEGs hung around her — paintings and drawings, nothing that impressed Anna. She glanced at them quickly, as she would have done in a real gallery, and then she saw another online person. Excuse me, she typed, How do I walk? The online woman told her to use her arrow keys. Anna tried to write back, but her character was walking very quickly away.
Anna searched for her JPEG, but her character kept walking into walls. The computer’s view would switch, so that it would seem like she was inside the wall. Then she would bust out and try to walk up the stairs to the gallery’s other floor, but she didn’t know how to make herself use the staircase. She tried pressing the up arrow, and her character began to fly. She flew through the roof and into the air. Anna pressed no button. On and on her character soared. Farther and farther away from the JPEG. Arrow keys did not control her. Below her, the online world was beautiful and small.
The people who had been her friends in college had a potluck, but Anna didn’t make anything. Instead she brought paper plates and put them anonymously on top of a stack of real plates. When Anna spotted her ex-boyfriend, it felt like all her breaths were being held in a small box in her chest. She had to remember to take each one out and breathe. When she breathed, another breath would be put into the box.
Most of the people at the party worked in the warehouse of an egotistical male art star. All day the girls painted photorealist versions of paintings that he had designed in Photoshop. For lunch, the girls ate in a massive cafeteria Anna had heard about many times. It made her sick to keep track of who was who. Of who had what personality. She took a breath from the box. She stood there in her fog.
While her ex-boyfriend talked to a pretty girl, Anna took out her phone and deleted his number. There, he’s dead, she thought. He’s vanished, over, irretrievable. Anna positioned herself next to female acquaintances. The girls were beautiful if she looked at them long enough. If only she could kiss them!
“It’s hard with an ex-boyfriend,” said a tall, stunning one whose name Anna couldn’t remember. “You always want to jump in the time machine.”
“Yeah,” said Anna. “Wait, what?”
“You want to go back in time to how you felt about him and how you felt about yourself. You want to be younger even if it’s only a few months younger.”
“Yeah,” said Anna. The party was missing some magic party ingredient. Anna met a girl who couldn’t find any cute guys. “Spring has sprung and my blossoming pussy needs to be deflowered,” the girl said. “It’s like all the bees are gone and I’m eager to bloom but nothing will pollinate me.” Anna agreed with this girl. What if there weren’t any more good relationships? What if glass art became really popular after she died?
“Yo, Party People!” A boy whom Anna had never seen before announced himself, and the party resumed. He wore crazy tie-dyed sweatpants and a telephone cord tied around his forehead. Her ex-boyfriend was now flirting easily with the blooming-pussy girl. Anna scanned her phone for a text message to save herself. She texted a co-worker on a whim, then aggressively dug her coat out from a pile of other coats. Anna didn’t know whether she was supposed to take the leftover paper plates home. She didn’t know what was polite. As she hovered over them, uncertain, her ex-boyfriend approached her.
When Anna had first fallen in love with him, she’d felt that his face had been designed exclusively to get her attention. His cheeks had a little red to them, the way Anna imagined the cheeks of a Russian nobleman. His jaw was firm, and disregarding. She’d thought it was fate that drew her to him, and him to her, and kept her writing diary entries in her Google drafts; now, she was less romantic and knew she was just addicted to his face. After a person memorizes someone’s face, they can become enslaved to that face. To feel comfortable, they need to witness the face. But the face wanders; the face dates other faces. They stared at each other and her breasts ached. She wanted to slap him, but she wanted the slap to make his clothes fall off. “You should call me tomorrow,” he said offhandedly. “We could hang out.”
The next day, Anna went to call her ex-boyfriend but his number was gone. She sent him an email and waited. She ignored a call from her co-worker. She decided to join a lot of free dating sites. All morning she filled out forms. For each site she chose a different user name: glass_animal, ghost_world24, bright_ fires. Her identity felt like a slender, shifting thing.
Her ex-boyfriend texted her to come over and she rejoiced. She did the enthusiastic bathing of someone who hopes to be slept with. After fussing with gel and bobby pins, she used cover-up to conceal her blemishes. She smiled in the mirror at this better version of herself. She felt like a witch, but a harmless and kind witch.
At her ex-boyfriend’s, they talked and ate cold pizza. They watched some old Arrested Development reruns on his laptop. “You’re like a rerun,” she said to him. “But like a rerun I really like. Like I want to watch you.” She wanted to kiss him, but if he had wanted to kiss her he would have done it by now, right? Or maybe he wanted her to make the first move? She stared at a Fight Club poster she had never noticed before. “I should go, right?” she asked him.
“Okay. Fine.” Anna frantically tied her shoes. She got her coat and dropped her keys, then picked up her keys and went to the door. Just get out, she told herself; once you’re outside you’ll feel better. The air will soothe you. Her ex-boyfriend looked at her in the doorway and she felt a slow wave of anxiety collide with a fast wave of anxiety. “What?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said. Get out, she thought. Just get out. Anna’s brain hurt. She took a big breath. She would always feel like this! If she left the house she would feel even worse! The ex-boyfriend offered her a hug. Sex would clear all this up. Sex could make people relaxed and happy. It was the best thing to do. It was a creative way to express yourself. Anna turned back. The ex-boyfriend sighed and the sigh sent bolts of hatred and desire through Anna. Her phone vibrated and she answered without looking.
“Hi, Anna, my name is Janine, I’m a sophomore at Rhode Island School of Design, how are you today?” Anna looked at the ex-boyfriend and pretended she was talking to someone interesting. “I’m okay. How are you?”
“Good! I was wondering if you had a few minutes to hear about some new additions to the school you might be unfamiliar with?” Anna gave her ex-boyfriend a casual wave. She tried to look feminine.
“Sure,” she said into her phone, and walked out the door.
“Well, the new library is almost complete, along with a new cafeteria in the new dorm building.”
“Oh, cool. The building downtown?” The night air hit Anna in a very accepting way.
“That’s right. And the library is just one of many new elements. However, RISD needs more help. Would you like to donate a small sum? There would be a plaque with your name on the library wall.”
Anna reached her house, but saw that no one was home to distract her.
“What major are you, Janine?”
“I’m Illustration, but switching to Printmaking.”
“Good. Printmaking is much better. Plus the boys are more socialized.”
Anna went to her room and relaxed on her bed like a real person. Just talking to a friend, she thought to herself. She refocused on Janine.
“Got any cool weekend plans?”
“Not so much. But Sonic Youth played last night.”
“No, Lupo’s is over.”
“Oh. I love Sonic Youth. In high school I didn’t like them because I thought they were too noisy. But now I like them.”
“I’ve always liked them,” said Janine. Anna played with her hair and put it on her face. She hummed a made-up tune into the phone.
“You know, it’s really crazy when you graduate. Like, crazy in the most boring way possible.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to freak out about it now,” Janine said.
“Well.” Anna blew the hair off her face. She stared up at her ceiling fan. “You should maybe move to New York City. You’ll need something exciting to make up for post-college depression.” There was a noise like Janine was eating something, or talking to someone else. Anna continued anyway. “Yeah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of boys in New York, a lot of art. You can probably live with your old college roommates if you like them. The degree won’t get you that far, but maybe you have connections.”
“I have no connections,” Janine said.
“Maybe you could use your friends’ connections.” Anna shifted her weight. “The bars won’t be as fun as the house parties in Providence.”
“I just hope I make enough money to get a studio, or else I’ll just be working in my room.”
“Yeah. It’s good to do something like music, too, to open up other parts of your brain. Like read some history. A lot of the bands you liked in high school will sound different to you. Same with movies. It might have been long enough to re-watch most of them.”
“I might move to London or somewhere.”
“Well, if you don’t, then see if New York works for you. Or try and understand why it doesn’t work.” Again there was the noise, like Janine was talking to someone. Anna pictured Janine, hanging out with the Printmaking boys while they took naked-punk pictures of each other.
“You’ll be tempted to get back with your ex-boyfriend,” she said, “but try not to bend to that temptation. Life has to be lived in order.” There was a long pause on the other end.
“I hear it’s like impossible to get anyone to look at your work,” Janine said.
“Take a look at me. I have a sculpture in a show.”
“Just a small one in Philly. You probably haven’t heard of it.” Anna unfocused her eyes, looking at her wallpaper.
“Do they have a website?”
Janine was quiet. Then she said, “All right, I’m going to make my other calls now.”
“Hey, great talking to you,” Anna said. “Good luck in your life!” She listened as Janine hung up the phone. Poor Janine. She would come out of college clueless. She would get startled during her job search and end up working at Kinko’s.
At an opening for the egotistical male art-star, Anna wore a funny sweatshirt she had of horses running through lightning. “That is intense!” the blossoming-pussy girl said to Anna. “I am intense!” Anna said back. They had smoked weed in the gallery’s bathroom and Anna felt amazed and correct. “I am basically a digital god,” Anna told Blossoming Pussy. “There are digital copies of me on the internet!” Blossoming Pussy laughed uncontrollably. Anna’s ex-boyfriend walked up and Anna flashed him a radiant smile. “It’s you, the fifth love of my life and not my last!” she said. The photorealist-painter girls laughed.
Anna’s ex-boyfriend took her over to the corner. “You are totally high!” he told her.
“You’re just saying that because I’m saying incredible things,” she said distractedly. He steered her over to a painting of flowers, paper clips, and cats.
“What do you think?” he said. Anna laughed flirtatiously. Laughing is like showing everyone what your orgasm sounds like, thought Anna. She looked for Blossoming Pussy, but the other girls had reclaimed her. Anna saw the egotistical artist; he looked handsome and rich. She wanted a job from him, too, but a better one. A job where she sat on a cushion and made up jokes.
Her ex-boyfriend took her to another opening, one with dull adults. The art was minimalist and there was no food. Anna looked at her ex-boyfriend and they were young together. “I wish I had met you through a dating site,” Anna said, “so I could rate you in front of the world.” Her ex-boyfriend laughed. It was like he had taken his personality out of a jar and it was trailing a sweet cloud behind it.
The night left Anna sucking his dick with feigned interest. During the most boring parts, Anna felt as though she was completing a farm chore. She laughed to herself and her ex-boyfriend got self-conscious. Afterward they lay in her skinny bed and he quickly fell asleep. She watched him, and he bored her.
She took her cell phone from beside the bed and down-clicked through her entire address book. She imagined all her friends and family members and bosses and landlords standing in a line like that, in alphabetical order. She could walk down the line, greeting everyone. She would stop, puzzled, in front of a stranger, and then he would explain that he was the pharmacist at CVS. And he’d be standing next to her best friend!
There would be a strange-looking woman somewhere in the middle. “Who are you?” Anna would ask.
“Leslie Futon,” the woman would say quietly, and Anna would finally meet the woman with the online futon. “The futon is no longer available,” Leslie would say.
“I got a different one,” Anna would say.
Then she would see Jessica Therapist. She would run past Jessica Therapist!
Jason, her ex-boyfriend from high school, would be making out with her cousin Jackie, but only because they were next to each other. Anna strolled down the line disgusted, fascinated. She came across another stranger. “I’m Anna,” Anna said. “Who are you?”
“I live in your grandfather’s old apartment,” the woman said. “I guess you haven’t deleted his number yet.”
Anna snuck past an old boss who had fired her for no reason. With horror, she saw her mother talking animatedly to Anna’s college friend Molly, who was completely drunk. She searched for someone she actually wanted to talk to. A good number of people were busy on their own phones. There were a lot of people she would avoid if she saw them on the street.
Her sister was next to her gynecologist. They looked indifferently at one another. Anna deleted a boring old friend she’d been guilted into being friends with. And a troubled, flirtatious boy who’d once told her she had “animal eyes”. She deleted a number of doctors who had deceived her and worsened her health. Beyond them were many interesting-seeming people she had hit it off with, but never become close to. Anna deleted more and more of them. She watched the line jerk forward until her list was short and pure.
*Featured image: Patrick Seymour via Cargo