Los Angeles is a city that emanates from many centers, but today, its center is here. Perhaps, he thinks, at this precise point in time this is the center of the world too. Why not? Where else should it be? Some geographical nowhere, a mathematically calculated no man’s land? What use does that serve anyone but astronomers and navigators. Some grand landmark then, the pyramids of Giza or Stonehenge? Old rocks all of them. No, he decides, this is it, for the next two hours, this is the center of the world.
This conclusion had its roots in his flight in, pressing his face up against the window, eager to see LA for the first time. He had first watched the desert, marked by the graphic circles of industrial work unknown to him. They had become mountains, snaked through by bright dusty roads. At last the city had begun, block by block, emerging out of inhospitable nature with an absurd geometry, unnatural and illogical. Only the diagonal freeways and their cursive junctions broke this refrain. To him it looked distended, unable to be conceived as a single city, a single network. To his eyes it had no fixed center, just the flow of human activity, running like data streams through its structures. From the air it was not hard to imagine LA as a slab of silicon, a monstrous circuit board.
A stream of feedback sounds from the speakers, the whole audience squinting together. He looks around at the center, taking in every detail. He wants to remember this moment, to inscribe it forever in his mind’s eye. Its a space he’s seen many times on screens of all sizes and kinds, from the cathode ray tubes of his childhood, to the LED panel that sits quietly thrumming in his flat, a red standby light glowing on its frame. Now he is seeing it through a screen once more, as he raises his smartphone in front of his face, aiming the reticule at the far-off stage. He taps the screen, snapping a shot. He swipes and inspects the result, fingers pulling apart on the glass until the digital noise that speckles the image can be seen. He glances up at the hall in front of him and then back at the screen. The image is soft and washed out, with the banks of high powered lights flaring in muddy spectrums. A grimace of dissatisfaction passes across his face. He taps back to the camera and glides through a few rudimentary settings, he fiddles with the white balance, watching as the image pulses alternately warm and cold. He quickly locks the phone and jams it into his jeans.
As he looks up his eyes are slow to refocus. The double of the smartphone’s screen dances across his vision and he tries to blink it away. A voice distorts out of the speakers, giving a ten minute call, ten minutes. He leans forward in excitement and stares at the stage. The huge screens that back it pulse with wireframe waves, lapping at a clean-edged logo. The caffeine and sugar in his blood make his thoughts flicker and his heart rate increases, his finger drumming nervously at the arm rest. Not long now he thinks, not long now. He glances around at those sat next to him, most of them absorbed in smartphones and tablets, their faces lit an unnervingly crisp white by the displays. He reflexively pulls his phone from his pocket and unlocks it: a single motion. Without looking he pulls his thumb back and forth across the screen. Scroll, scroll, scroll. He stares at the stage. Scroll, scroll, scroll. He stops and sits very still, his eyes unfocused.
His first taxi journey through LA had been a disappointing one. Maybe it was the silent driver, who failed to live up to the image of an outspoken Californian he had half-expected, half-hoped for. He tried to pull some excitement from the icons that crowded the car, but every building and street corner he passed seemed like a forgery, recognizable but somehow missing something essential. He took many pictures with his phone, but the sheen of dirt on the taxi’s window fogged each of them, so he resigned himself to watching it all streak by. He saw a city of signs, blocky buildings holding their identities aloft, warehouses emblazoned with huge Korean lettering, even churches identified only by their towering labels. Each building had its double in its sign, an image that outlived the bricks and concrete. He wondered when the signs would come to be replaced with shimmering holograms, realizing the promise of the future LA he had witnessed as often as this one.
A music change wakes him; he looks down at his phone. It shows the picture of the hall, flowering with digital artifacts. Directly next to his thumb something catches his eye. A face he recognises. His heart rate strobes. His toes curl and uncurl beneath the worn canvas of his shoes. He places his thumb and forefinger on the screen and pulls apart, pulls apart, pulls apart. The face fills the screen, a blur of shapes and shadows. He recognizes it, he definitely recognizes it. He looks up, trying to locate the face, staring across the hall. His hand goes up to shield his eyes from the lights and he squints. Onstage a five-minute countdown begins. He stands, he slides out from his row to the stairs. His feet sound against the loose metal guards on each step. Clack, clack, clack, clack. He reaches the handrail of the balcony. Beneath him people rush to their seats, pulling laptops from bags. He scans the rows: nothing. He looks back up the stairs at his empty seat and runs his hands through his hair, then he turns and walks along the balcony, heading for the main stairs.
As he reaches the lower floor he sees her immediately. She has her back to him, but as he stares she glances behind her at someone and smiles. He begins to walk down the aisle, not taking his eyes off her. She is standing in front of her seat, she is laughing, she is smiling at a friend next to her. She mimes a little wave to someone on the balcony. He notices the cotton straps on her summer dress, their texture so sharp, so real. He looks at her face, recognizing imperfections even from this distance, delicate and familiar blemishes. A grain of mascara sits on her cheek. A red patch of irritated skin flowers at the nape of her neck. A moving light roves across her face, whiting out her features for a moment. He squints, confused by the sudden change. Is that her he thinks, am I looking at her? He takes the phone out, unlocks and looks, he compares the image and the face, glancing between the two. He squints again, confused. He looks away at the stage, the timer ticking slowly down. He looks at the numbers but doesn’t read them.
When he had imagined this trip, she had not been part of the image. The night before, lying on his cloying hotel bed, she had passed through his thoughts, but that was all. In the morning he had woken with no thoughts of her, ready to walk to the center. This journey by foot set the city in even greater detail, the frayed edges of colourful paint, the papers revolving in empty lots, the scale of straight roads that led to the horizon. The sheer humanity of it all troubled him, but the feeling of being a pioneer quickly dispelled any troubles. Being carried forward by his own feet, towards the center of the world was a feeling unlike any other. He watched an old Mexican pass by, dragging behind him a cart of stinking hot dogs and unwelcome images flashed across his vision for a moment, until he fixed his eyes on a revolving sign of a cartoon cat.
Someone pushes past him, and he apologises. The counter reads 2:51, 2:50, 2:49, he looks away. She is sat down now, only a few meters away and he crosses them quickly. He’s there, stood almost next to her, just one person away. The person looks up and she does too. He feels her eyes on him and his forehead begins to burn, his chest feels tight. He clicks his tongue in his dry mouth, an odd gesture. He follows her eyes as she looks down. He realises he still has his phone in his hand, the blurred image of her face on the screen. He wonders if she recognizes herself. Is it even a picture of her? He looks down at it, just a bundle of pixels, less than a single byte of data, blurry and distorted. An abstraction of her face, a face he recognises. She looks back up at him and smiles. A wide and crisp smile, a surface smile. It is perfectly flat, perfectly opaque. It’s a smile he wants to bypass, to go beyond the front he is being offered. The twinge of desire makes him grind his teeth a little. Nothing can be done, there is no recognition in her eyes. He thinks of saying something, reminding her, but what to say? He raises the phone to his eyes, arranges the smile in the reticule and taps. The image blurs in and out in a warm focus light, the the flash strobes, accompanied a lackluster imitation of a shutter click. She turns back to her friend. As he walks back up the stairs he looks at the picture. The flash has blanched her features white, only the ghost of her smile remains, imposed across a bone white face. Yet still, beneath the image he thinks he sees something, sees someone.
The moment he returns to his seat, he curses himself. Why hadn’t he spoken to her? He considers standing up again, walking back down the stairs, crossing the balcony, and finding his way to her row. He doesn’t move. He unlocks his phone and looks at the picture he has just taken. He goes to delete it, stops, locks the phone and puts it away. His hand remains in his pocket, holding his phone as he taps his foot. A thought strikes him, perhaps he could return to her row, and in the dark of the presentation, take more pictures, one from each angle. From this he could build a complete image of her, he could invent her.
A one minute call goes out around the center, one minute, get ready. He is back in his seat, elbows on his knees and hands on his chin; leaning in. The moving lights are now sweeping the seating and all around the logo from the stage scrolls on huge LED display strips. The screens on the stage still display the same waves, lapping in and out, in and out, in and out. The caffeine is giving him a headache, either that or the lights, or the brightness of his smartphone screen. He tries to drum up a bit of excitement, taking a deep breath. You’ve waited for this your whole life, and now you are here, at the center. He forces the thought. He tries to recall all those times he had not been here, all those times he had been networked in, watching alongside millions of others, squinting at the flickering live stream. Screens on screens on screens. This center had been split all across the world, replicated endlessly and without distinction. He remembered watching it on computers at his school, ugly beige things with dial up connections that turned the stream into a slideshow. The nostalgia buoyed him up a little. What would I think to see myself now, then. To see myself through the stream, sat there in the audience. What would I think of myself? He is watching her. Even from this distance she is easily recognizable, her movements distinct in the frenzy. Now that he knows she is here, he cannot stop his eyes drifting to that point. He is annoyed at this distraction, at his own desire. She should not be the center in this image, she is not, he thinks. Again he forces the thought: Remember what you have achieved, you have made it, flying halfway across the world on a ticket you bought yourself. The thought pleases him. Getting access through a two-bit blog he had started with a friend. A fully paid up member of the press. He glances down at the ID that hangs proudly around his neck. What a moment he thinks. The moment. The center. The ten second countdown begins all around and he joins in. He is trembling now, wild eyed and nervous, imagining all those livestreamers watching this room, letting their energy flow into it. He breathes it in and calls out: 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
In the sudden darkness a memory comes to meet him: The memory of their first meeting, their first touch, and her warm smile in the busy press junket.
A thump of bass like a hammer runs through him. He is already on his feet cheering, drowning out the announcer, cheering in the sudden black that descends, cheering himself hoarse. The screens burst into life, bright and sharp like nothing he’s seen before. The screens. The center. He is in his seat now, eyes wide, grinning wide. The bright white fades to a landscape rushing by beneath the camera. Reddening scrub blooms over yellow desert sands and here and there are the rusting hulks of abandoned cars. The scrub snakes through them, grows on them, breaks through the cracked blacktop that begins to appear. The scrub lessens, becoming green-golden weeds pushing through the road, through the pavement. Grids of houses, overgrown and shattered, flash past. The camera begins to angle up as the houses increase in number, the cars with them. A low sun sends sharp and distorted shadows out behind as the road becomes a freeway, the houses become a city. The camera swings up and a saw-toothed horizon appears. A cheer rises among the audience, the skyline is instantly recognizable, even to him: Los Angeles, baked by the sun and burning bright, fills the borderless screens. Alongside its shattered towers rise huge plumes of black petrol smoke, and its urban sprawl lies in ruins, but it is unmistakable. He trembles at the convergence of images, of centers, the Los Angeles on screen superimposed over the one in which he sits. The camera drifts lazily over this landscape, eager to show off the fidelity of the simulation, the detail of the trash-filled streets and overgrown buildings. He thinks of his flight in, the regulated grid of the city stretched out beneath him, almost without beginning or end, almost without a center. Before he realizes where the camera is going, its destination is visible. The roof is torn half-off, and the light streams around its sawtooth edge. The camera descends through this gap, carefully, another roar going up from the crowd as the room comes into focus. The banks of seats may be scattered across the floor, and the balcony sagging heavily, but it is clearly the very room in which he is now sitting. In which he is now standing, now cheering, as the camera slowly descends.
In a patch of yellowing sunlight, a single cloaked figure stands on the stage. The camera begins to draw closer. He is trembling, stunned by the detail, the torn edges of seat covers giving off motes of wooly stuffing. The figure has its back to the camera, staring deep into the black space that lies beyond the stage. The camera draws up to its shoulder, not quite showing the side of the face, teasingly slow. It crawls into place and stops. A single beat. The figure turns back towards the camera, something catching her eye. His heart leaps in his chest. A face he recognises. The texturing is perfect. You can see the individual pores of her skin as the sunlight slides across them. You can see the room reflected in her eye, hyper-realized, perfectly contained like a fly in amber. You can see her muscles move as her lips part, the edges of her teeth sharp white like razor edges. She blinks in a perfectly defined animation. No, better than perfect, realer than that. Some kind of tessellation technology means that her cheeks are round and edgeless. A couple of artfully placed specks of dirt offset her crystalline eyes. He unlocks and locks his phone, unlocks and locks, unlocks and locks. He looks down at the blurred half face staring up at him. Swipe. He looks at the bleached white of the smiling head, ghostly with a crown of spectrums. He swipes to the camera and lifts the phone to his eyes. He points it at the screen and taps. But the image moves, she moves, stepping forward into the dark space that lies beyond the stage.
He flinches. Something isn’t right. He looks down at his phone, a streaky image of her face sitting there. He scrolls back through the series. He looks at the big screen on stage. He looks around at the people sat in rows, all fixated on the screen in front of them. All with their eyes towards the center. He imagines all of those staring at other screens, the classroom CRTs, the home computers, the flat-screen TVs, all replicating this one image. He flinches.
This is not the center, he thinks. He stands up. Behind him a few members of the crowd call out; sit down you idiot. He moves along the row, sidling past the complaining spectators. He steps out into the aisle and turns back. Thousands of grateful faces turned upwards, bathed in a flickering light. They cheer and laugh as one, he is transfixed for a moment. They all look expectantly forward, waiting to be thrilled, waiting to be amazed.
This is not the center. He is not at the center. He smiles a little. He looks back at the screen, not at the image, but at the screen. It towers above the stage, strung on steel cables, its display pin-sharp. So many eyes looking in, so much desire directed at that barrier. He must follow the line of that desire: The center is behind, beneath, beyond. Like the signs revolving above LA’s buildings, it cannot be seen from the air, cannot be plotted on maps. He walks down the staircase to the balcony edge, the clacking of his feet no longer audible beneath the roaring bass. At the barrier he turns, cutting across the front row, inciting another wave of shouts. He doesn’t listen, he just walks, possessed by his new direction.
He stands at the top of the main staircase, the screen filling his vision, her face filling the screen. He takes his phone from his pocket, unlocks it and drops it to the floor. It bounces down a few steps and then lies still. He follows it down the stairs, step by step by step by step. When he reaches the bottom, he looks up at the screen, then with steady steps he walks down the center aisle towards it. When he passes her she turns to look at him, her bright eyes glittering in the light of her own image, her eyes a mirror turned on itself, an endless reflection leading deep behind the glassy surface. Yet he does not look at her, instead he remains still, looking up the stage, at the screen. On it she emerges from a dark passage into the vast expanse of a possible Los Angeles, her direction unclear but her movement certain, carrying her irresistibly towards the ever-receding center of this new world.