It’s Lovely to See You
by David M. Sheridan

While not accessible to us in any direct sense, we know that it exists: a humanless era during which a blank screen displays the words WAITING FOR HOST TO BEGIN MEETING. We know that — if only as a particular configuration of electrons in a heartland server farm — the Participants button registers 0.

We know that the professor himself is the first to log in, because he is already there when we arrive. At some moment in the afternoon, the words Theodore P. Anders appear on the screen and, at some subsequent moment, this is replaced by a video feed of Professor Anders himself. For these online gatherings, turtleneck sweaters substitute for his usual navy or herringbone blazer. His ample gray beard now seems more grandfatherly than scholarly. We picture him stroking it once, using his video feed as a mirror. The Participants button registers 1.

We begin to arrive at about twenty minutes before class starts, each one of us represented by a white name within a black rectangle: Summer P. Millington, Maggie L’Etudineau, Janice Winner (not to be confused with Janet Winter, who is also in the class but hasn’t been seen since mid-February).

As each new rectangle emerges, the others hasten to accommodate it, shrinking as necessary to free up real estate. New rows are created; new adjacencies form. The meeting adds Corey Wentworth, Paul Sweet, Gina Lawrence. Soon the Participants button registers 11.

At 3:20, Summer P. Millington’s name is replaced by a video feed of Summer herself, sitting in what appears to be a home office. A plastic tray holds papers atop a file cabinet. A whiteboard occupies the top right quadrant of Summer’s rectangle. We can just make out a pie chart drawn with brightly colored dry-erase markers.

As if following Summer’s lead, video feeds begin to replace the names in other rectangles. We see fragments of dens, basements, bedrooms — a confluence of American domesticity. There are now four rows of four rectangles each, and though there are more invitees, we hope no one else joins our meeting. A symmetry of this magnitude is worth preserving.

Janice is sitting on a neatly made bed. Corey is wearing a black muscle shirt, arm and chest hair on full display. Gina is wrapped in a fuzzy blue blanket.

Professor Anders stares into the space just below his camera with a look of frustrated concentration, as if he is hunting for an allergen amidst the tiny print on the side of a cereal box. We wait expectantly.

A new rectangle materializes: Sissy Thomas. Her name is immediately replaced by a mugshot in which she wears a permanent scowl, her lips lined in purple-black lipstick. The other rectangles scurry into a new arrangement, with Sissy as the sole occupant of the bottom row.

There is a discernible change in the light reflected in Professor Anders’s over-sized eyeglasses. We infer that he has switched from some other application to our Zoom meeting — a conclusion confirmed by a transformation of his facial expression. His open-mouthed attentiveness turns into a sheepish half-smile, as if he is surprised to find a group of strangers camped out in his living room. “Greetings,” he says.

“Hi Professor Anders!” someone says. We know the speaker is Summer P. Millington, and not just because the border of her rectangle lights up yellow when her voice is detected. Early in the semester, when we were still meeting IRL, Summer had established herself as our unofficial spokesperson. Whenever Professor Anders looked over the rims of his glasses to ask, after a particularly arcane explanation, “Everybody with me?,” Summer would immediately shout “Yes!” from the front row. We were all grateful for her forthcomingness.

“I hope you are all staying safe and sane during this strange time,” Professor Anders says, in his reassuring baritone. “Thanks,” Summer says. The rest of us stare blankly.

Paul Sweet turns his attention to some event occurring off camera. His face betrays a sense of alarm, and he quickly exits the frame, leaving behind what appears to be a massive neon green beanbag. It glows in the frame, like an artist’s rendering of a newly discovered exoplanet.

A new rectangle — labeled Ray Ansel — appears next to Sissy’s in the bottom row. We wait for the name to be replaced by Ray’s feed, but the name persists.

Professor Anders announces that he would like to return to a topic that had emerged earlier in the semester. We were used to returning to earlier topics. Indeed, these returns helped to reinforce the expanse of knowledge we had traversed: we had come so far that nostalgia tours back to previous locales were now entirely appropriate.

One row down, in the rightmost column, a gray kitten leaps onto Franny Wagonelle’s lap, as if eager to learn which previous topic we are revisiting. It becomes entranced by the content of her screen — by us — perhaps sensing that it has just walked on stage during a live performance. It approaches the camera, acquiring a menacing quality as it fills the frame. We can tell by the way its eyes narrow that it objects to our presence, to the way we’ve intruded into its home. As if in disgust, it hurls itself out of the frame. We hope a floor is there to accept its landing.

“You’ll recall,” Professor Anders continues, “that the Problem of Duality has proven to be rather stubborn.” A pair of yellow hands performing the gesture of clapping appears in Summer’s rectangle. Summer applauds Duality’s stubbornness. 

In the chat window on the right side of the screen:
Alex Peterman: duality needs to get a life
Katherine Louise Kandelo: [Laughing-to-Tears emoji]

“Proven to be rather intractable,” Professor Anders says. “Some of the best minds have devoted their careers to this matter, with surprisingly little progress to show for it.”

We can tell that Shane is streaming via his phone because his feed is a narrow band in the center of his rectangle. He appears to be laying down, and his face is very close to the camera, as if he has propped his phone against his own nose. His brown eyes acquire a massive quality due to their proximity to the lens. We experience this as an expression of intimacy: as if the director has called for a tight shot to signify a bodily immediacy appropriate for close friends and lovers.

Paul Sweet returns to the green beanbag and unmutes his microphone. “Sorry!” he barks, looking directly into the camera. “Pardon?” Professor Anders says, lifting his eyebrows. To dramatize the act of listening, Professor Anders turns the side of his head to the camera, leaning in so that we can see the tunnel of his left ear. “Sorry,” Paul repeats. “My housemate was having a crisis.” 

“I trust the outcome was fortuitous,” Professor Anders says, reestablishing eye contact. “He’s dead,” Paul says flatly, causing a look of horror to wash over the professor’s face. Paul conveys that he’s only kidding with a slight, you’re-too-easy chuckle, which spreads across the grid of video feeds. We are grateful that the awkwardness of this meeting has been shattered for a moment. A series of emojis appear in the chat: several laughing emojis, one clown emoji, one instance of the emoji who wears an upside-down smile above his eyes.

“Well,” Anders says, good naturedly, “This is just like old times.” We know what he means, having come to expect these random, mildly inappropriate disruptions from Paul.

At this point, in the frame directly to the right of Paul’s, Shane appears to reach for something. In the process, he accidentally bumps his phone. The camera shifts violently, creating streaks of color in his feed. We seem to be looking at Shane’s plaid boxers for a moment, then we are back on the close-up of his face, still horizontal, and now vaguely weepy.

Corey Wentworth changes his background to an image of the solar system as viewed from just past the orbit of Saturn. The Crab Nebula appears a few lightyears above his left shoulder.

“When we consider the Problem of Duality, it is clear that the trouble emerges from the tension between a kind of pressure, on the one hand, and a mysterious kind of vacuity on the other. Presence pressing against absence. We would expect a system characterized by this kind of asymmetry to resolve itself quickly. And yet . . .”

Chat Feed
Alex Peterman: i srsly doubt ‘vacuity’ is a word

A middle-aged woman in a pink bathrobe walks behind Gina Lawrence, across what appears to be a suburban kitchen with stainless steel appliances and faux granite countertops. She casts a frown in Gina’s direction and says something we can’t hear. Gina turns to the woman. The back of Gina’s head vibrates with laughter or rage. Gina rotates back to the camera, eyes opened wide, as if to indicate I’m as shocked as you are. The woman in the pink bathrobe slowly exits the frame.

Ray’s rectangle continues to display his name. Sissy’s scowl is unwavering. Summer has introduced the icon of a blue hand into her frame, signaling that she wishes to speak.

Professor Anders experiences a network disturbance, causing his voice to sound demonic as he stresses the implications of the mysterious failure of equilibrium to assert itself. This is unsettling, and we begin to wonder if we have been too dismissive of the professor’s ramblings over the past several weeks. Could it be that what had at first seemed like idle book learning was actually an urgent spiritual warning?

Corey replaces the celestial background of his video feed with the scene of a Caribbean beach. In a seamless visual loop, waves roll through turquoise waters and then collapse against the sand with an explosion of white foam. Our respective imaginations provide a barely detectable shush as each wave breaks.

The woman in the pink bathrobe is back, hovering over Gina’s left shoulder. Gina performs the ritual again: turn, vibrate, return. This time she grabs her head between her hands and moves very close to the camera, as if trying to block out whatever is happening behind her. Her cheeks fill with air, and then release, causing a layer of fog to form over the lens. She appears to float in a dreamy mist — an effect that recalls the visual language used by daytime soap operas when a character has been transported to a painful memory from her deep past.

“Now, you might be thinking that this refusal to resolve is the result of a special case of Mannean rippling. However . . .”

Chat Feed
Alex Peterman: Funny, I *was* just thinking that.
Summer P. Millington: @AlexPeterman: U know yr messaging everyone, right? 
Alex Peterman: [Surprise emoji][Yikes emoji][Diabolical emoji].

Paul disappears for a second. When he returns, he is holding a shockingly fat pug, whose flattened, wrinkled muzzle glistens with slobber. Paul shows the creature to the camera, as if it is the answer to someone’s pleading question. The pug’s downturned eyes and resolute frown communicate a conspicuous lack of amusement, casting a note of skepticism over the professor’s ruminations.

Chat Feed
Katherine Louise Kandelo: OMG! So cute!
Gina Lawrence: [Smiling Face with Hearts emoji] [Smiling Face with Hearts emoji] [Smiling Face with Hearts emoji]!!!!!

Summer turns off the blue hand. Then turns it back on. Off. On. Off. On.

Katherine replaces the background of her video feed with the Aurora Borealis, but something is wrong with the way the computer processes the image. She seems to be wearing a curtain of green-blue light. Every time she moves, there is a strobing effect as the computer struggles to reconstitute the image.

A hand reaches into the frame of the professor’s rectangle and leaves a cup of tea next to him. The hand squeezes the professor’s left shoulder. The professor smiles in the direction from which the tea came. The hand disappears.

The professor takes a sip of the tea, and, as if fortified by this sustenance, resumes his oration with fresh energy: “Now that we have read Nolans and Betemeyer and especially Chanefluer, I think we might be ready, not so much to solve the Problem of Duality, but to understand its true significance.”

Shane Peterson, still horizontal, displays the thumbs-up icon in his rectangle.

The woman in the bathrobe leans back into the frame behind Gina, as if to better position herself to receive the next bit of wisdom from Professor Anders. Gina’s video feed is consumed by a gargantuan thumb, its swirl of friction ridges briefly visible. Then her rectangle goes dark.

Katherine shifts her position, causing her face to shimmer. Her eyes are replaced with the iridescence of the Northern Lights, giving her the look of a character in a genre film who is experiencing a vision or summoning a magical power.

The professor experiences another network glitch as he enunciates the word “importantly.” He sounds like a criminal whose voice has been disguised to protect his identity. Then his audio cuts out completely for what appear to be several full sentences. We intuit from his facial expression that he has just articulated the key point. His wrinkled brow telegraphs that this is the summit we have been working toward the whole time. He pauses. His audio kicks back in, and he says, in his regular, gentle voice, “Everyone with me?”

Chat Feed
Alex Peterman: Always.
Summer P. Millington: Professor Anders, you cut out for a second. Could you please repeat the last few sentences?
Katherine Louise Kandelo: [Ear emoji][Shrug emoji]

Gina removes her thumb from the camera lens to reveal that she has moved to a different room. A closed door is visible behind her, adorned with the album cover for Blonde on Blonde. Sissy Thomas’ scowl now contends with that of the young Dylan.

“Well, my friends, I have to confess that, as wondrous as these meetings are, they leave me intellectually drained. I fear that my ancient brain is not fully able to adjust to the marvels of video conferencing. It’s like trying to complete a crossword puzzle while watching a dozen TV shows at once. Anyone have any additional thoughts to share?”

Summer sees her chance, but she forgets to unmute herself as she launches into the comment or question that had been brewing within her rectangle these long moments. The yellow border fails to signal. Professor Anders fails to notice the beseeching blur of Summer’s mouth as she gives expression to her niggling thoughts.

“Okay my friends. It’s been lovely to see you. I look forward to our next chat.”

Professor Anders’ image freezes momentarily, and then his rectangle disappears. We experience his abrupt departure as an uncharacteristic lapse of civility.

One by one, we follow the professor, our rectangles collapsing like bubbles popped with a pin. Finally, only three rectangles remain: Ray Ansel (still present in name only); Sissy Thomas (her scowl undisturbed); and Summer P. Millington, whose border finally lights up yellow as she discovers her mistake. “You’re kidding me,” Summer says, disgusted. And then her rectangle blinks off as well.

The rectangles of Ray and Sissy move to the center of the screen and expand to fill the vacated space. Our collectivity has been distilled to two. Suddenly, Sissy’s video feed comes to life. She has blue hair and a bright blue smile, bracketed by pronounced dimples. The scowl was not permanent after all. She is sitting on the right side of a green love seat, wearing a pink crop top over what looks like a black leotard.

“Well, Mr. Ansel, what are your thoughts about the stubborn problem of duality,” Sissy says, directing her glance at stage left. She pauses. “Mr. Ansel? You better not be playing solitaire over there if you know what’s good for you.”

Ray’s video feed zaps on. He is sitting on the left half of a green loveseat. A black T-shirt hangs on his skinny frame, letting the fragment of a tattoo (possibly Picasso’s peace dove) show on his upper right arm. His skin is pale, and his hair is nearly as dark as his shirt. “Thank you for asking, Professor Sissy. The Problem of Duality has been eating at me for years, but not until this very moment have I felt that I fully understood the complexities of this surprisingly intractable confoundment.”

Maintaining eye contact with her camera, Sissy pushes her left hand outside the left border of her frame. A hand enters from the right side of Ray’s frame and grabs his nose. He sounds like the adult voices of the Peanuts cartoons when he relates that he has always been bothered by the way pressure can build up right next to vacuity without ever caving into equilibrium.

The hand releases the nose and retreats back to Sissy’s frame. Sissy bounces once on the loveseat and flings herself entirely through the left border of her rectangle into the right side of Ray’s rectangle, where she lands on Ray’s lap. Ray sticks out his tongue and widens his eyes, like a turtle that has been stepped on.

Sissy places her nose an inch from Ray’s forehead. “I don’t think I like your answer,” She says, adopting the voice of a 1920s mobster.

“Listen here, my blue-haired broad. I don’t care if you like it or if you want to grind it up in a blender and feed it to Chanefluer with a heaping side of lima beans. Me and Duality grew up together on Spaulding Street, and I aint rattin him out for nothing.”

“Oh yeah? Well, I guess I’m just gonna have to go back to my own video feed and leave you here all alone. You may be interested to learn that when Anders left the meeting, I became the host. And I have a good mind to mute you and take away your chat privileges.”

Sissy exits through the right side of Ray’s frame and drops heavily in her own, regaining the side of the loveseat that she had abandoned a moment ago. We hear a clicking sound and the icon of a microphone in the bottom left corner of Ray’s rectangle acquires a diagonal red line.

Ray adopts an injured look and stares straight into the camera, blinking several times as if trying to clear his vision of various hallucinations. Sissy pretends to work, avoiding eye contact with her camera.

Ray introduces the blue hand into his rectangle, but Sissy refuses to call on him. He turns it on and off several times. Finally, he begins to mock shout into his camera, bringing his mouth so close to the lens that the frame is filled with his shiny pink uvula.

“Is there something you would like to tell us, Mr. Ansel?” Sissy says to her camera. We hear a clicking sound from Sissy’s feed and the line disappears from Ray’s microphone.

Ray drops back against the green loveseat, once again the image of a model student. “Yes, Professor Sissy, I do have something I would like to share with the class. I think the Problem of Duality is inextricably linked to the Problem of Duplicity. In fact, I think it’s inextricably bound up with the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. Moreover, I think it’s fundamentally connected to the Problem of Professor Sissy’s Butt. Would you agree?”

Sissy pretends to ignore Ray, but as she continues to type on her notebook, her figure in the video feed becomes oddly distorted. Her neck seems to twist 45 degrees, so that she now appears nearly horizontal, leaning in from the left side of her frame. In a moment, a blue-jeaned butt arrives on the right side of Ray’s video feed and begins to crowd in on his face.

Ray opens his mouth and moves in to bite this invader, but his eyes remain steadfastly trained on his camera. Sissy giggles. Ray clasps the butt and pulls it closer to him. Sissy’s face exits the left side of her frame. A belated hand flies in, swipes downward. We hear a click, and Sissy’s rectangle disappears.

Ray’s rectangle now owns the entire screen. Sissy and Ray stare directly into the same camera, like two people sitting in a photo booth. As if performing an exercise meant to test hand-eye coordination in a mirror, Sissy begins to trace Ray’s lips with her left index finger, never breaking connection with her camera.

Ray pulls his lips over his teeth in the universal gesture meant to signify toothlessness. He gums wildly at Sissy’s finger.

Ray leans in toward the camera. A clicking sound is heard, and his rectangle disappears. The meeting pane is now completely blank. The Participants button at the bottom of the screen registers 0. The words WAITING FOR HOST TO BEGIN MEETING appear in the darkness.

David M. Sheridan teaches writing and design in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University.  He holds an MFA from Western Michigan University.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the The Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other places.  He is working on a collection of poetry entitled 52 Missing Poems, in which every poem is cut out of a black 3″X5″ card.