Herson Tissert Pérez reads “Project DreamReal.”
The individual who greeted me in the building’s lobby didn’t much resemble the one pictured in the advertising leaflets. He seemed less physically imposing, and his smile, cordial and welcoming in the leaflets, now struck me as that of a man with some kind of secret to conceal. Nevertheless, my excitement was so great that I followed him unhesitatingly down a network of hallways and staircases until, twenty-five minutes later, we reached an office with glass doors.
I took a seat in a wicker chair that was rather comfortable. My host remained standing.
“I am Alfonso Ramírez,” he said, with a certain formality, “and I am the director of Project DreamReal—Proyecto Sueño Real. Please forgive me for not having introduced myself previously.”
We shook hands.
“I imagine you’d like to get started right away,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied. “I think that’s the best way to proceed.”
Ramirez finally sat down, in the kind of swivel chair typically used by executives. He turned toward the back wall of the office, an enormous screen materialized there, and the room went dark. I was dumbstruck. The office hadn’t seemed to be specially equipped in any way—everything there but the air conditioner and the glassed-in windows looked like the porch of a Caribbean plantation house—and I hadn’t seen him pressing any buttons.
The information projected on the screen revealed nothing new and only heightened my impatience. Project DreamReal offered its clients the opportunity to link in to any film in its catalog and interact directly with the actors. The maximum period of linkage was fifty-four minutes of a single film within any given twenty-four-hour period. Clients were required to sign a disclaimer exonerating the company of responsibility for any physical or emotional harm associated with its services. The catalog offered more than twelve thousand productions from twenty-three countries, including Westerns, classic dramas, police procedurals, experimental films, Hong Kong martial arts epics, sci-fi, remakes, documentaries, and shorts. If another client happened to link in to the same film during the same time period, any resulting complications were not the company’s responsibility.
“HAVE DINNER WITH CAMERON DĺAZ. GET CHASED BY A DINOSAUR. BUY YOURSELF AN ARMANI SUIT. FEEL THE EMOTIONS YOU’VE ALWAYS DREAMED OF.”
The sentences I’d gone over so often on the leaflet dissolved in an instant, the screen disappeared, and the lights came back on. The director was gazing into my eyes once again, his smile even broader than before.
“I’d like to clarify a few details,” he said. “Right now, we’re offering everything for a single low monthly rate, until we can further expand our catalog. We’ve recently added several TV series and all of Adele’s concerts.” He fell silent for ten seconds or so. “Do you have any questions or concerns?”
I had two concerns. The first had to do with the cumulative aspects of linking in. That is, if the time allotted for a session expired while I was in the middle of an important conversation, would I be able to pick up at the same place during the next session?
“Unfortunately not,” Ramirez rose elegantly to his feet. “Each session of DreamReal is independent. But the issue you raise is one we are well aware of and we’ll be working hard on adding that option, I guarantee. Your next question, please.”
“Can I really interact freely with the actors? Do anything at all?” I tried not to let my excitement show in my voice.
“You’re free to do as you wish, so long as the plot allows for it.” He lowered his voice and gave me a wink. “I should note that our catalog does not include pornography. Understand?”
“Of course, you can’t go asking for the impossible. For example, you can’t pull out a laser gun in the middle of a movie like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.”
He paused again briefly to give me a chance to admire his extensive knowledge of the cinema. In fact, the example he’d chosen was idiotic. What on earth would I want a laser gun for in a movie where the beauteous Scarlett Johansson is strolling through Tokyo in search of diversion?
Finally, after filling out some forms, I was given a small device, similar to a single wireless earphone, and another somewhat larger apparatus that looked like a cell phone, which was where you entered the code for the film you chose.
“Then,” Ramirez explained, “you put the receiver in your ear”—referring to the first device—“and count backward from ten to one. As if you were a patient going under anesthesia. Once the fifty-four minutes have elapsed, you’ll be automatically disconnected.”
The director fell back in his chair as if delivered of a great weight. For the first time there was no affectation at all in his posture.
“Just out of curiosity,” he asked, “what movie would you like to start with?”
There was no doubt whatsoever about that: Two Lovers by James Gray, from the year 2008.
At another time in my life I might have chosen a bigger box-office hit, a movie all audiences had loved, with action sequences and shoot-outs and luxury cars. But I was trying to make a positive change in my life and had sworn to limit myself to movies about lovely, well-dressed people who talk about lovely, pleasant things in lovely, bright spaces. Or, at least, movies with happy endings.
And there was this: I’d spent the past couple of months in the grip of an obsession with Vinessa Shaw. In Two Lovers, everyone’s Jewish, and Joaquin Phoenix is trying to choose between Vinessa, who plays the daughter of some friends of his parents, and Gwyneth Paltrow, a depressive wacko of a neighbor who lives in the apartment upstairs. After the flyer advertising DreamReal first came into my hands, I watched Two Lovers again and again until I knew it backward and forward. The rolling credits always found me gnawing my fingernails and muttering Vinessa’s name over and over. I especially liked a scene where she puts on her underwear (with Joaquin standing by indifferently, as if it were the most normal thing in the world). No one can fasten a bra with as much class as she does, and there’s no other back as beautiful as hers in the entire history of cinema. Not even Elisabeth Shue’s.
She had to be mine.
For a week I tried without success to break into the apartment of the indecisive boyfriend, where my love occasionally shows up. I also failed in an attempt to stimulate Miss Paltrow’s interest in my rival, which, I thought, might clear the way for me. But, alas, the nut-job neighbor wanted nothing but to drive herself crazy while simultaneously driving everyone around her crazy. Then I thought about helping Phoenix with his suicide attempt. The tricky part there was that I’d have to dive into water at night (he tries to drown himself) and I’ve never been a great swimmer. I dropped the idea.
Finally I decided to crash a party at my rival’s apartment, near the end of the movie. Easier said than done. On the first attempt, the doorman wouldn’t let me in. On the second, I got the timing wrong; everything suddenly went dark and the credits crashed into my forehead.
On the third try, I shared the elevator with a guy who seemed kind of strange. He radiated tension, breathing it in through his nose and back out through his mouth, hands shoved deep in his pockets and eyes riveted to the floor. I knew that face. I was sure we’d stood in line to buy bread at the same bakery or that he’d been a classmate of mine in elementary school.
“Mi hermano!” I exclaimed, with false effusion. “Imagine bumping into you here!”
“I know we’re both playing the same game,” he answered in relief. “I’m here for the skinny blonde on the top floor.”
He was chasing Gwyneth Paltrow? If that were the case, why wouldn’t he have chosen another movie? Iron Man or Shakespeare in Love? Well, it was no business of mine. I was just glad we weren’t both after the same girl. I took a deep breath.
“Oh, you are?” My indifference was also feigned. “I’m headed to the party at Joaquin’s apartment.”
“Good times there?”
“I don’t know. I’m giving it a try.”
We wished each other luck but I had none. Joaquin’s parents (it’s their apartment, their son moves back in at the beginning of the film to get over a bad breakup) were very welcoming and seemed to think I was some long-lost friend of their sweet little man-child. But Vinessa did not appear during the twenty minutes that remained to me.
On the plus side, I was able to try kosher food for the first time.
In disappointment over this latest failure, I took a three-day break. I thought a romantic comedy might be a good place to recuperate and chose the kind of classic that gets trotted back out every February 14. But I wasn’t kidding when I said I was obsessed. Any woman who wasn’t Vinessa did nothing for me. Even if she were Jennifer Garner with those two adorable dimples in her cheeks, Julia Roberts with that beauty mark and those luscious lips, or Jessica Biel, with her flair, her savoir faire, and her even more luscious lips.
I went back to Two Lovers with a new strategy. I had to get away from the usual locations. I would make contact with my objective somewhere else, even in the street, if it came to that.
One of the problems with going up to a woman in the United States is that you run the risk of being accused of harassment for anything at all, even if you just blow her a kiss, say something in a low voice, take one of her hands in yours, or stick your tongue out at her. I’d have to find another way. Arrange for an encounter in a public place with not many people around—a laundromat, say. Walk over to her discreetly, look at her even more discreetly, and smile, a little bashfully.
She smiles back.
ME: You come here much?
ME: I’ve heard that New York laundromats stay open very late. Por cierto, I’m not from around here, and I’ve been feeling kind of lonesome. Would you like to have dinner?
VINESSA: Of course I would! Let’s meet back here tomorrow at the same time. And don’t worry—I’ll pick up the check!
But now, seriously, Vinessa was walking about a-hundred-and-fifty yards ahead of me. I’d lain in wait for her near the lair of her dopey boyfriend and had already been following her for a good long while. It wasn’t hard. If a woman has long enough legs, walks with enough confidence, and wears the right clothes, you can recognize her at any distance. What’s more, New York is lovely. Contrary to what some people think, big cities are neither hostile nor cold. In a small town you feel welcome only if the people are hospitable. In a big city, it doesn’t matter what the people are like. Every advertisement, every park, every skyscraper, every stoplight welcomes you.
This particular area was especially easy to walk through. People weren’t in a hurry, no one was rushing to get to the subway or hail a taxi. I felt so comfortable I could have spent the rest of my life strolling around there.
The problem is that when you’re in a movie, movie scenarios are always going to be happening around you. So one of those cargo trucks with a giant face and a phone number painted on its rear doors blocked my way. The traffic screeched to a halt, drivers blared their horns, and when I’d managed to maneuver past these obstacles, Vinessa had disappeared. I ran two or three blocks and looked in all directions but that only increased my dismay and frustration. And as if that weren’t enough, everything around me had changed. Suddenly I was in a different part of the city and night had fallen in less than a minute, I swear.
Under those circumstances, any normal client would have disconnected immediately. But I had to take maximum advantage of my time (and money). So I walked into the kind of alleyway you wouldn’t think still existed in New York City. Precisely the kind of place where the protagonist always gets into trouble, despite the warnings we shout from the other side of the TV screen. Brick buildings on both sides, dumpsters, a bum stretched out on the ground, blanketed in newspapers. Rats. To one side, a classic dive bar, its sign missing some letters, its front door corroded with rust. Next to the door, a woman’s silhouette, enveloped in white smoke from a cigarette.
Up close, she looked like any misfit from any American high school. A skinny little thing, halfway between the Olsen twins and Kirsten Dunst, but with black hair and teenaged acne. Wearing too much eye makeup. A sensual, helpless look on her face. She was trouble, for sure.
Something in her eyes betrayed her. I wanted to tell her something but before the words formed in my head, I was thrown to the ground. There was an indescribable weight on my back and arms, the kind of pain you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and cold metal on my wrists.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Margaret Renwall, Elizabeth Renwall, and Marta Estévez,” a woman’s voice shouted. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, the state will provide you with one . . .”
One of the many inconveniences of this kind of situation is that when you’re only trying to make yourself less uncomfortable, the other person interprets it as an act of resistance. The more I moved around, the more that knee dug into my ribs and the more my head was ground into the pavement. Then I had a moment of clarity and shouted, “DreamReal! Sueño Real!”
The pressure on my back diminished but the handcuffs stayed on.
“It isn’t him,” said a voice, different from the first one.
“We might as well take him in anyway.”
“I’m sure. Let him go, please.”
Free at last, I was in for another surprise. My torturer was none other than Mariska Hargitay. Born in Santa Monica, California, on January 23, 1964. Actress and model. If Vinessa hadn’t existed, Mariska would have been a priority on my list. I’ve always liked that type, with a strong jaw, a bit manly. But none of that mattered now. What mattered was that Mariska Hargitay does not appear in Two Lovers, not even in a cameo. And everyone was calling her Detective Olivia Benson.
“This is bad,” I said, finally.
I was sitting on the edge of the sidewalk in front of the building where Ramírez had greeted me three weeks earlier. A huge padlock was on the door. Kenia, the girl with all the eye makeup, had just told me that she was only getting started as a lesbian and hadn’t talked about it with her parents yet. It was hard for her to connect to people and she had almost no friends. DreamReal gave her the chance she’d been looking for. A huge Law and Order fan, she’d linked in to four full episodes before finally convincing Mariska Hargitay (Detective Olivia Benson of the Special Victims Unit) that she was a Czech prostitute and that a serial killer who preyed on women was after her. At first her story was kind of vague and she was viewed with suspicion, but little by little she managed to create a plausible profile and set a trap for the killer. A killer who happened to look a lot like me. You know the rest. She’d been waiting for the right moment to get more personal with Mariska when I showed up in the alley and disrupted her plan.
“Now I have to start all over again,” she moaned.
As I listened to her, she seemed far more adult than I’d thought when I first met her. Nor did she seem to have any trouble at all communicating—on the contrary. Maybe we were experiencing the sudden intimacy that materializes between two people who have a problem in common, but I was beginning to find her rather attractive. Even in her little-girl voice, she managed to express the kind of confidence and strength I wasn’t finding in myself. And the fact that she was a lesbian definitely added points in her favor. As we all know, if you go to bed with a lesbian, sooner or later you’re going to end up sleeping with both her and her girlfriend.
Let’s face it: things weren’t turning out well for me. Vinessa kept getting away and I was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the people who told me “pearls aren’t for swine” every time I set my heart on some knockout femme fatale were right. That’s why DreamReal had been so appealing. It should have made everything easier, but I still hadn’t had any luck. And the lingering pain in my arms and back wasn’t improving matters.
“I’m sorry to have interrupted your night,” I said, and Kenia gave me a sad smile.
“That’s not what’s bothering me,” she said. “The problem is that I can’t make my next monthly payment.” She fell silent a moment and pensively squeezed a pimple on her face. “It also scares me a little,” she added. “If you crossed over from one movie to another, it could happen to me, too. God knows where I could end up.”
As we sat there without saying anything, I began contemplating my own budgetary constraints.
“This is bad,” I said, finally, and then stood up, because an individual dressed in a suit and tie had arrived at the entrance to the building, taken out a key, and opened the padlock.
His smile, suspiciously similar to Ramírez’s, stopped us cold.
“You’re both clients of DreamReal?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Kenia.
“Come in, please.”
The lobby was clean and in order. The man sat down behind the reception desk, opened one of the drawers, and began looking for something inside. Without lifting his head he asked for our names.
“Very well.” He found what he was looking for, a pair of sealed envelopes. “I must inform you that Señor Ramírez has gone out of business. However, he has left this explanation for you.” He handed us the letters, adjusted his tie, and began smiling again in a way that issued a veiled invitation for us to leave.
I read my letter aloud.
Estimado Señor Gutiérrez,
If this letter has reached you, then you’ve encountered problems with our service. We’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from the market for now in order to address some issues that have arisen. A disturbing number of jumps between movies has been reported and we’re also monitoring complaints about the quality of the images. We beg your forgiveness and assure you that your subscription fees will be reimbursed in full as soon as we go back on the market. In the meantime, you may enjoy three additional months of connection to DreamReal without charge—though, of course, at your own risk.
I wish you the best of luck and hope we’ll be back in touch soon.
Director, Project DreamReal / Proyecto Sueño Real
“Yours says the same thing?”
Kenia nodded. “What do we do now?” I asked.
“I want something to eat. Join me?”
“Is there a cafeteria nearby?”
“You think I’m going to eat something here?” She put special emphasis on the word aquí so I would know exactly what she meant. “I want some good McDonald’s or something. In any movie at all, I don’t care.”
“You’re going to link in? What if you end up in a war movie—or in Tornado?”
“Then I’ll see what happens. You coming or not?”
“Yes, of course. I’m not going to leave you all by yourself.”
She burst out laughing and grabbed my arm. We started walking.
“Don’t give up on Vinessa. You have to keep trying. You always have to keep trying. In three months, anything can happen. And if not her, try someone else. Isn’t there anyone else you like?”
The list was very long. I told her I liked Yenira Estenoz.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
“The best interviewer in Cuba.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Very. Can I ask you something?”
“Have you ever slept with a woman in real life?”
“What do you think?”
She didn’t say anything more the whole way there. We reached a park and sat down on a bench in a quiet corner. Before putting the receiver in my ear, I realized I didn’t have any money. Then I remembered: in American movies when you can’t pay for your meal the restaurant doesn’t call the police. They just make you wash dishes. It’s easier that way.
© Herson Tissert Pérez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Esther Allen. All rights reserved.