The Camera’s Eye – Annie Cooperstone
August 24, 2023
This is in the winter or the fall. A cast of twenty-somethings have been selected to be on a reality television show. They sit inside the glass veranda of the old Seattle mansion that will be their home for the coming weeks. The wet garden along the house path is so provincial one could, with effort, forget the panoptical eye of the video camera perched here, and another just there. There are eight of them sharing the house and its rich maroon oriental carpets.
The first episode airs. Housemate Maxim, the producer’s son, has bleached hair. He wears a purple Patagonia patterned with shapes that suggest samsara. He elaborates on the commercialization of his ex-favorite band, Pixies.
—They’re a supermarket band, Housemate Maxim says, cheating out toward the camera.
—Blasphemy, Hunter says.
Hunter, whose favorite band is still Pixies. Twenty-two, trying his best not to stare at Cecily, nineteen. Admittedly she is a matter of taste in her parqueted parka and platformed shoes, her blue denim culottes and parched white shirt. To Hunter, she’s a bullseye. He thinks, so this is why billboards are so fond of women.
Before coming to Seattle, Hunter worked at a record store in Ann Arbor. He moved there to live with his grandparents when he was seven, after his parents ran away to Manchester, England and killed themselves in a suicide pact. Hunter signed up to be on the show because he thought he might be inspired enough by the Pacific Northwest to finally learn guitar.
—Michigan Heartthrob, a viewer in Boston says, nodding toward the screen.
—Let’s see if he deserves it, her mother says after a contemplative moment of silence.
One of the themes the producers want to communicate to viewers: companionship in the face of climate change. Another, magical realism. Who knows what the viewers will see in the group romp through the Washington fauna, one boy using a broken branch as a cane, a solemn girl tending to a bunny maimed by an abandoned bear-trap? The house is a mansion of grey stone and oddly placed windows. Firs, pines, the lawn overgrown, thin yellow weeds whipping in the wind. The stone steps so entrenched in the green it is as if they were grown there.
—This would be a good place to plant some tomatoes, Housemate Mona remarks.
They get to know each other, housemates and viewers. Housemates Tottem and Mona compare body piercings. Housemate Bailey tells a story about her estranged father and his middling career as a keyboardist. Housemate Ben reveals he has had four concussions.
Hunter and Cecily sneak away. He walks her down through the gardens into the woods where they can hear the rush of the big river. Leaning against the ridged bark of a western hemlock, moss like carpet, dregs of laughter from the house filtering down the knoll like a dated score, hidden from the cameras (or so they think) in the cool mist, they kiss.
Some viewers try and parse what they are being shown and what really happened out there at the mansion. They take a magnifying glass to their television. The cameras’ angles are so naturalistic and total that the people in the mansion seem to the viewers almost real. The viewers think, that could’ve been me. They start to get itchy with how much that could have been me. It keeps them up at night, the thrill of its call. And when they can’t stand it any longer on this side of the tv, they’ll stay up one night on amphetamines and make an audition tape. Afterward—the sweaty egomaniacs—they’ll flop down on the couch, wired but spent. They’ll rewatch their patchy video in the remedial light of dawn. Their faces will take a slow dramatic fall as they understand that they are not as beautiful nor talented as they once thought. The ache of bastions impenetrable: talent, beauty. Things to be had only by those who have them.
Cecily has talent. Cecily has beauty. An amateur sculptor from the atomizing and holy Garden State. She has a cute laugh that sounds first like a whistle and then like a bell. Perfect breasts. Wisps of hair sparking static like miniature soldering tools. To Hunter, the Tri State Area seems a place to pass through. That Cecily could have shot forth from its bowels with her dark batting lashes and downy thighs! To him, she’s a marvel.
The camera loves her. It finds her on the back patio sipping coffee from her ceramic mug. It zooms in on her bare toes excavating worms from mulch. It captures the skeptical look on her face when Housemate Mona cuts herself bangs after a night of imbibing. It captures her heel against the pedal of the potter’s wheel as the outside edges of her pinkies beckon bottlenecks from clay. Hunter wants to be, like Cecily, effortless on camera. A shoe-in fan favorite. He is, instead, clumsy with his words and at times unreliable. He is a coward, and she is The One.
The producers push their romance. They forget about climate change and forge forth with relationships between damaged people and the eroticism of the before. Bathroom trysts, sloppily rolled joints. The sky grey and lifeless, the teeming wood beside it, two silhouettes ambling down the hill.
—You like to show off, that’s why you’re always singing, Cecily says in one episode with her mouth full.
—You’re saying there’s something to show off about? Hunter replies, chuffed.
They stroll through town. They capture newts between their palms. They cover their mics and whisper indictments of their housemates. Everyone thinks—and them two, especially—I want to know so badly what’s going to happen.
The viewers are divided on the couple.
—What a joke he is, a California viewer says. She could do much better.
—I don’t know, says the viewer’s girlfriend. Maybe she’ll make a man out of him.
The city is wet with dew. Pellucid moonlight in the front yard gazebo by the spore speckled stone wall. The house goes to dive bars and argues about the probability of the autonomous zone swallowing their neighborhood. Housemate Mona makes out with the busboy. They insist on walking the two miles home.
Of course it’s for the camera—how could it not be, with the producers running between them, mediating, hyperbolizing, and paraphrasing? But there is also something true there, sterling even, that gives the couple, on the television, that extra cinematic shine. Their housemates are jealous, or suspicious. A love story wasn’t the point of this. It was supposed to be about eco-friendly friendship. It was supposed to be about radical interstitial transparency. Convenient, that they have on camera chemistry. Convenient, that they just happened to fall in love.
Hunter wants only Cecily, wants her in the early mornings before the camera operators knock on their door, before a producer confiscates the towel they threw over the mounted lens in the bedroom. He can’t stand the other cast members, so un-self-aware and didactic in their confessionals, all of them talking about their “close friends from home,” no memory for where they put their keys or cigarettes, the impression they give off that they think sex altogether silly. Terrycloth robes, under which the soft orbs of their asses cast shadows on their achilles. Housemate Bailey confronts Hunter and Cecily. She says that they’re compromising the harmony of the house with their potential demise.
—Who’s the one destroying the peace right now? Hunter says.
Housemate Stuart claps his hands like he can’t wait for a fight. Cecily rises from her chair.
—We’re all adults here, she says before exiting the kitchen.
The scent of her flesh is so particular and dear to him that he imagines he can smell it from across the house. He learns four new chords on his electric guitar.
—Why don’t we quit, Hunter whispers to Cecily off camera. Just leave and be together.
She looks at him uneasily.
—We can’t quit, she says. We haven’t done anything yet.
Parties in the house kitchen send once obscure music into living rooms across America. Hunter pets Cecily’s octane temper into submission. They stay up all night comparing favorites. They listen to Pavement and Weezer, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, Hole. “Our Time,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The first time he comes inside her, he feels so close to God he nearly cries. Is this really all happening inside the square of the tv? In the earliest hours of morning, moisture crystallizing atop blades of grass, Hunter ventures past the dilapidated greenhouse and sits against the dogwood, shivers in the chill of its shade, so fresh in the untried present. He imagines the show never existed and Cecily was a stranger who came into the record store. Maybe Interpol is playing, or maybe Sublime. He might’ve written his number on the slip cover of the Suicide record. They might’ve made love on the floor of his studio apartment, the stereo so loud that their pulses turn to bass.
Cecily is moving to New York once filming wraps. She’s going to sell her sculptures at artists’ fairs and things like that, she says. Hunter finds he suddenly hates New York, a place he has never been, hates the eponymous street names she uses to explain where she’ll be living, hates the models and deadbeats and bankers that would without shame do their best to replace him. Most of all he hates himself. What could he offer her that they couldn’t? He longs to be in a rock band, sexy and uncaring and absurd. Then he would have something to show for himself that Cecily could grab on to.
Some viewers are sure they’ll make it, the way some reality stars do. Pam and Judd from the Real World: San Francisco. Boston Rob and Amber with one million dollars and a family. Cecily is affectionate but reserved, cognizant of the camera. Sometimes she wiggles out of his arms, casting a meaningful glance toward one of the eyes. But if she’s been drinking, she climbs onto his shoulders while he sits on the couch and he carries her to the high shelves she otherwise cannot reach. He doesn’t care if she’s hot and cold. There’s only a few weeks left of filming. What would they do once it was over? He has a pit in his stomach. The open space of the future should be a relief. Instead it feels like a sentence.
They are always searching for places to be alone. They huddle in the rain because they think the cameras won’t risk it, but the operators have ponchos and plastic tents for their gear. They go inside the pantry because there’s poor lighting, forgetting the eyes have infrared. Once, they try and run, gasping with laughter, dodging through trees and flipping off the crew. But a camera operator who used to tackle streakers at Yankee stadium—he never once lets them out of sight. They can never be just the two of them, not really, and it weighs on Hunter like a strait jacket.
Here it is, the way out together, if only they could take it: in bed one night, Cecily tells Hunter he doesn’t have to stay in Ann Arbor. The modal verb: it releases him from obligation with no alternative; in it, he hears a lack. He waits for her to deliver the rest of the sentence that would fill this hole. He holds her, grips the small of her back so hard she bruises. The injunction he hopes for—to move with her to New York—does not materialize. He is not brave enough to suggest it himself, and she is too wedded to a certain image of herself to suggest it, either; or is it that she hears it in the silence, and sees no need to enunciate? The viewers are struck, not for the first or last time, how imprecise is the burgeoning language of love. Hunter and Cecily stay up until the the cheep-twee-tweets sneak in through the cracked window and they are bathed in purple light. They’ve said everything they could, and that everything amounts to nothing. Hunter is so in love he feels insane.
The viewers at home understand that if it were not for the production crew tip-toeing in the background, blowing with their mouths to make curtains rustle on a windless day, there would be no Hunter and Cecily. Yet the house steeped in mist, the secret looks, the music, the music, the music! Everyone is always fighting for control of the stereo and Cecily always wins. Hunter hears her sing along unembarrassed and his cheeks go numb. He kisses the stick and poke tattoo on her knuckle and could nearly die. It’s funny and romantic, the viewers start to think, the way Hunter maims his ego again and again in his small gestures of devotion. Ratings spike and polls are answered. There, he’s done it: he is a fan favorite, and he has Cecily to thank.
In the years after airing, Hunter would start a post-grunge-dance band, like if Kurt Cobain had grown up listening to LCD Soundsystem. He would be credited by many ex-radio jockeys for reviving rock (never mind the revivals that came before and would come shortly after), for at least a time he would be prince of the scene, he would writhe with supreme ecstasy in the mouths of models, his stint on reality television would be a trivia fact passed between new fans, he would tour Europe and do lines of ketamine off of the US consulate’s daughter’s naval in Berlin, would watch the orange ball of the sun arrive over the horizon in Barcelona, Porto, and Cannes. The pungent smell of his own spunk would seem to prelude whichever encounter inspired it, his new tattoos would scab as he slipped his body around a microphone stand. The viewers in the mosh pit who cheer him on like an old friend would allow themselves to imagine Cecily was just off stage, watching, awed.
One night on tour, his bandmate would lock himself in the hotel bathroom with a baggie of mescaline, and Hunter would inexplicably think of Cecily and how they never had sex on top of the covers, that his image of her body is dim and bent and contorted to fit inside the protective dome of the duvet. Trying to coax his bandmate from the bathroom, Hunter would recall the pleasant torture of being watched in the remote damp of the Seattle mansion.
Their last week in Seattle, they go to the Museum of Pop Culture with Housemates Ben and Tottem. A tease of a day in early March, the sun glinting off the metallic facade of the museum, teenagers with skateboards crowding the ticket booth to see the Nirvana exhibit. Inside, Cecily slips on a freshly waxed floor and twists her ankle. Hunter carries her back outside and places her on the steps. They smoke a joint for her pain while a security guard in the parking lot eyes the cameras wearily. Hunter wraps unmelted snow in his flannel and presses it to her swelling foot, anxiously chewing his lip and searching her face for any hurt she might be keeping close.
—What a good boy, a Seattle viewer says from the other side of town.
—I hope they stay together, says their roommate from the kitchen where they shine glasses clean.
They hobble her back to the car and she cries out when, climbing into the backseat, her ankle grazes the open door. She lies from end to end of the Prius and he lies next to her, his hands stroking her in places the camera cannot see. She asks why she feels the throbbing of her ankle at the bass of her skull. He thinks, you melodramatic swollen perfect thing.
—We shouldn’t have come to a museum that’s cursed, he says.
—I wish we could do more things together, she says. He hears it as, I want to do everything with you.
It’s almost over. He closes his eyes and pretends the others will never return.
Wasn’t there any place they could sneak off to, any one producer who would take pity on them and award them some few quiet moments out from under the camera’s eye, squirrel them away into one of the mansion’s out-of-bounds rooms or a rickety treehouse deep in the forest? The structure will support their entwined bodies and the wood will not splinter, sag, or bulge. Thick blankets, candlelight. They’ll recite limericks from grade school that never left them. The first stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” A children’s made-for-television movie musical about the characters inside a coloring book. They will undress slowly and they will not drop their gaze. They will memorize every freckle, every callous, every dimple in cheek and thigh. They will have time to study the shape their bodies take; geometricians; exceedingly regular.
But no producer ever did. This is American television, in the twenty first century. Not one private moment to hide in.
She cries when they say it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later. Of course this Pavement song is playing, see myself come running back. He puts her suitcase in the trunk and closes the van door behind her. Gravel cracking under tires. He tries to reach after her, stop the life he wants from driving away, but he has forgotten how to move.
The reunion is three months after they move out, at a sound stage in LA. Outside, the glare of the sun is hellacious. Inside, a prominent television host peppers them with questions. Cecily and Hunter have trouble meeting each other’s eye. It is the first time Hunter puts product in his hair and it changes the way he looks at himself in the mirror. The host asks Hunter what he thinks of Housemates Maxim and Tottem’s new relationship, and if he had suspected there was something happening between them while they taped.
—I wasn’t paying attention to what anyone else was doing, Hunter says.
Hunter cannot stand to look at Housemates Maxim and Tottem, his underdeveloped arm tossed over her pointy shoulders. They are together in a way Hunter and Cecily never were, they make love out in the open air of their new apartment, they appear in tabloids and take pictures with adoring fans.
Cecily wears black stockings and a locket around her throat. She has a new haircut. She drums her fingers against her wrist like she is keeping time. Hunter sulks on the other side of the couch, fantasizing how it might feel to impregnate her, to run his hand over the hard knot of her belly button knowing his child was inside.
—Why didn’t you move to Ann Arbor to be with Hunter? An audience member asks.
—He didn’t ask me to, Cecily says.
—Oooooooo, goes the audience in unison.
At the afterparty, they are served Negronis and croquettes. Executives hover in the corners. The housemates offer each other crucial yet boring updates on their lives. Are they being taped, they wonder? They try so hard to seem like they got what they wanted, but they twitch like traumatized rats every time a bright light flashes. Eventually the suits leave and the housemates return to some version of themselves. Cecily puts Nine Inch Nails on the surround sound. Hunter tries to sublimate his longing for her into fire dance moves.
Later, they sit together on the overstuffed leather couch. He doesn’t want to hear about the launch party for the zine her roommate started. He doesn’t care on which corner of Washington Square Park she sells her sculptures. Who recognized her from the show and made overtures of love in the middle of the bar. He is suffering. Where is his Cecily, the one who fashioned a miniature of his long nose out of clay? Now, she’s been to Fanelli’s and the Palladium and has seen bands new and old play at Mercury Lounge. This Cecily is a different person entirely. He comforts himself by thinking about how when he goes home, he will revisit old episodes of their time in Seattle, like a grieving widow staring at old photographs. There, in front of the tv, he can spend time with the person he so direly remembers.
They go to a bar down the street. They cross four lanes of cars to get there. Cecily says in a small shoddy booth that her feelings were real, they still are, but unless he would move to New York there’s no hope for their future, she wants someone who can be there with her now.
—Is this you asking me to move to New York? Hunter says.
—I wouldn’t ask that of you, Cecily replies.
He brings his fist down hard on the plastic table top. She squeezes his fist with her steady hand.
They go back to the hotel. The network cut corners and there are stains on the sheets. The room is full of the sort of silence they can feel in their eardrums. It is the first time they are in a bedroom with no cameras. He asks with his heart in his throat if she’s been with anyone else since Seattle. She shakes her head no and he knows it’s a lie. She unzips his trousers and the sight of her bending to her knees ends it all before it even begins. They collapse in slow motion to the musty carpet. He holds her, rigid with veneration and fear. She kisses his neck and as he regains his footing, so turned on by the contour of her hips, Housemate Tottem bursts through the door in a bucket of tears. She does not even apologize or seem to notice they are naked. Cecily dresses with impressive speed. Hunter stands, unhelpful and slack jawed, wondering if she is secretly relieved. There is no time to acknowledge the unjust irony of being interrupted, here, again, when they are finally alone.
—Should I come with you? He says, pulling on his boxers, tripping after Cecily into the hallway where she puts on her shoes.
—I don’t think that’s such a good idea, she says. She takes off toward Tottem’s room two doors down.
—Will you sleep with me tonight? Hunter asks, the effort it takes to do so like wrenching a sword from a stone.
—Will that make it easier on either of us? Cecily says.
The door closes quietly between them. Housemate Tottem’s sobs echo in the hallway. He wishes someone would tell him what to do. Is it wrong that in that moment, he wishes there were cameras?
At the hotel bar, Housemate Maxim’s eyes are at half-mast. Hunter orders a whiskey sour and reads in its suds his crumpled conceit. He contemplates going to Manchester. By the time he stumbles back to his room, guests in business suits are headed toward the breakfast buffet. The sheets, cold and cast in blue light, are uninviting. He is barely asleep when Cecily opens his door and sneaks into his bed to say goodbye. He wants to preserve this moment so badly that he skips it entirely. It becomes a memory at the instant of impact.
—We can visit each other, she says, wrapping herself in his heavy arms. We can make it work, I don’t want anyone else, Michigan isn’t that far.
The freckles at the tip of her nose like breadcrumbs tossed to ducks on the bank of the reservoir. He would follow her instruction manual into a river.
—How do we afford the plane tickets? He says. I love you, I love you, but I have no money.
She turns to face him, her eyes like two silver discs.
—You’re right, she says. It was stupid to suggest, I don’t have money either.
He tries to reverse. The way the sheets are scratching at his toenails reminds him of a chalkboard. He doesn’t make shit at the record store.
—Who says money can’t buy happiness? He jokes weakly.
—Uh huh, Cecily says.
She closes her eyes and it’s like a screen going dark.
—NO! The viewers would have screamed.
—NO, don’t you get it, you fool, that was IT! Tomatoes at the small screen.
They would have told him to figure out the money later, to sell his organs on the black market or at least the 1969 Led Zeppelin, “Led Zeppelin” 12-inch he keeps saran wrapped in his freezer. His future wasted again in an instant! What is the point of being a rockstar if there is no Cecily just off stage, watching, awed? The viewers would have saved them, they would have had to. They would have arrived in droves to the hotel parking lot and crowded below the window, thrown rocks and bottles and one thankfully defective molotov cocktail until Hunter and Cecily stuck their heads out the window like two royal knobs. They would have shouted, do not give this up for anything! There is nothing standing in between you and your One Great Love besides poor communication! They would have mediated the lovers’ measured discussion no matter how long it took. They would have set up a hot dog stand and sold lemonade. They would have laughed together, cried together, embraced one another in moments of pain. They would have formed long and lasting friendships with the other viewers, kept in touch on the internet, invited each other to their weddings. And when Hunter and Cecily finally figured it out, how to be in love and also happy, hugging each other so tightly with relief, the viewers would slink away from that parking lot with hushed voices and shielded eyes, respectful and protective of their privacy.
But the viewers are gone, it’s just them in that room, the 405 outside their window thrumming. When Hunter wakes up, he is alone.
There is a story of them years later, buried in the tabloids, told to the rag by a “source close to both parties.” Some viewers never see it, some read it in the supermarket checkout line while eating unwashed grapes from the bag. They don’t know whether or not it’s true, most of them don’t care either way, not when they didn’t know what was true to begin with.
Hunter graced hundreds of stages and faded into musical obscurity. After his career plateaued he fell in love with a roadie and they ran the old record store together in Ann Arbor. He hid his band’s vinyls in the storage room but she set them back out on his smoke breaks. They lived near all the professors in a two-story victorian with a rose garden out front. There was a tv in every room. His friends who worked at the university did not care that he was once a famous-rock-reality star. The relief of this fact was immense, and astounding.
One day he got a call about a rare record in Seattle. The owner wouldn’t ship it and so Hunter agreed to pick it up. He rented a car at the airport and went by that old mansion which had been repossessed by the state. The sight of it gave him the strange sensation of having lived two parallel lives. He parked in the driveway and decided to do that old walk into town. The roads were empty and he saw starlings, chickadees, finches flitting between trees. He entered the diner the housemates used to eat late night. He ordered the same thing he always did. The bell of the door tinkled and she walked in. They saw each other—both hearts skipped—and she walked straight to his table as if they had planned to meet. She looked the exact same except for a new small scar at the corner of her chin.
She didn’t live far, only about a mile away with her husband and two dogs. Why had she gone back to Seattle? Maybe she didn’t sell enough of her art to keep living in New York and thought it would be too depressing to go the opposite way through the Holland Tunnel. Maybe she picked Seattle because that was the last time her future seemed like something that belonged to her. The magazine didn’t say. It only said they went back to visit the old house, to visit the broken down greenhouse which had at some point been remodeled and refitted with rows of lettuce, to visit the tomato garden, the gazebo.
Everything was muted inside the greenhouse, the leaves rustling above them in absolute silence. Hunter felt unspeakably tender toward the past, and them in it.
While they were wandering through the old maze of the mansion, he stopped her on the stairs. She was backlit by the arched window in the landing between flights. He brought his palm to her breast and they both undid their pants. He believed suddenly that all roads lead to splendor. She took him to their old bedroom and climbed atop the bare mattress. He could see her in such glorious detail. They never once closed their eyes.
Quietly, the bric-a-brac of his personhood resettled in the shape of her. He did not confuse this reorganization for clarity.
They left the house for the last time. He still had to pick up that record. The source told the tabloid they did not speak of anything of note, not the new landscape of media nor Housemate Maxim’s overdose, that they were mum regarding what went wrong at the reunion and after.
He drove her to her minivan in the parking lot of the diner. They held hands atop the gearshift. They thought, this is what it would’ve been like, what it would’ve been like, what it would’ve been like, what it would’ve been like. They did not kiss goodbye. He watched and waited as she got in her car and set off again into another life.