Blake Planty

Looking-For-Group

 

This was not as fun as the boys thought.

 

Sam had set up the monitors with the delicate attention of a mother, ensuring his teammates that tonight’s Electrodez match would go smoothly.

 

“No technical hiccups like last time,” he told them. I sip my energy drink quietly as Sam tries his best  rousing everybody up. Little did the others realize I knew what Sam looks like naked. He sauntered over to me in his khakis tight around his ass, and I tactfully divert my eyes like a good team-player. No need for me to be drawing attention to myself this early in the morning.

 

“What about our set-up?” Michael asks. I don’t really know Michael. No one talks about Michael.

 

“Same as always,” Sam answers, “Perfectly optimized for our inevitable victory.”

 

Inevitable, I thought. Now that was optimistic for a sore Libra like Sam. I fixate on his blistered lip, hoping it would pop open like a flower bud in the dead of winter. Sam crosses his arms, and cocks his hip to the side, completely unaware of the world outside his perfect bubble of fellow pro-gamers. For a white boy who grew up up comfortably middle-class, that was the norm. He clearly didn’t have any doubts about his masculinity, I thought as the buzz of caffeine hit me like a semi-truck. I bounce my leg like an anxious dog waiting for this meeting to end so we could get straight into our practice matches.

 

A pretty row of computer-console gaming controllers sit in front of us. These are the best controllers on the market for Electrodez. If anything, they’re better than the sub-optimal alternatives for those without the dime. Electrodez wasn’t a necessarily complicated game, but it developed a fairly wide audience in a short span of time. With a diverse cast of characters with various shooting styles, it quickly dominated the scene for its colorful art direction and dedicated development staff. This was, in any other case, a gamer’s game with how rabid the fanbase grew with each competitive cycle.

 

Our team is on the small side. Michael, Sam, and I make up the core. Occasionally, we swap out players for friends or guests, but otherwise it consistently stays the same. No sport does involuntary homogeneity better than professional-e-sports.

 

“Steady your hands,” Michael scolds me. He twists up in his chair like a pretzel. I hold my breath, watching his fingers rapidly attack the button as his cowboy-cyborg avatar shoots my ninja-cyborg guy.

 

“Yes sir,” I tease. I whistle a short tune as I re-spawn at the starting area, a simple warehouse where I re-equip my ninja-cyborg’s hyper-laser radar-elimination power-katana.

 

“Knock it off,” Sam whines. “You’re throwing my concentration off.”

 

“What? You mean talking?” Michael asks.

 

“No one’s chatting it up in Korea, if you haven’t noticed yet.”

 

“No one’s got the time to watch vids anyways. I didn’t sign up to waste away on the internet.”

 

“Depends on who’s commentating,” I add. “I like Egg Lord when he doesn’t go ranting off.”

 

“Focus,” Sam snaps. “I’ve already taken back the payload. Get your shiny cyborg asses over here, you two.”

 

Michael and I shut our mouths. Sam’s need for silence seems secondary to his need for people listening to him. It wouldn’t be the last time I made that observation.

 

*

 

Our manager has taken a liking to me as of late. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m starting to believe it has nothing to do with my talents as an Electrodez player. He’s adamant, insisting that I’m a valuable member of the team, but I can’t remember the last time he made a specific comment about my play-style.

 

In fact, it’s beginning to dawn on me that he doesn’t know much about games at all.

 

“People love you,” he tells me in a meeting. Sam and Michael are in the other room refreshing their social media pages every twenty seconds. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. You bring valuable diversity to our make-up. The show wouldn’t be running without your presence,” he explains.

 

I understand I’m having my mere presence explained to me. This man furrows his brows, eyes scanning up and down my body, trying to break it apart like a 3D-jigsaw puzzle.

 

“The problem is,” he elaborated, “your likeness isn’t working well with the fanbase.”

 

“My likeness.” I question whether or not he actually means my complexion, or just the fact that I’m living, breathing right here in this space. Taking up space.

 

“The queers aren’t too happy about you being so tight-lipped,” he continues to coax me. “They rather you – speak up more about your experience. Being, well,” he waves vaguely around me. “You. Your body. Talk about your body.

 

“I’m pretty sure being a fucking transsexual has nothing to do with e-sports,” I announce.

 

“You’d be surprised how much of a selling-point it’s become for us lately,” my manager tells me.

“There’s plenty of top-ten listicles about the Most Diverse Sponsored Teams To Watch This Electrodez League Season. It’s an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. You give people empathy.”

 

I begin leaving seat. My manager breaks out into a cold sweat, insisting I stay, at least give him a blurb or two for the official team blog.

 

“I shit you not,” I say. “It’s like beating a dead horse at this point. You’re not saying anything special.”

“That’s perfect,” he cries. “Just more like that.”

 

I hear a loud thump outside the conference room. From the sound it, Michael and Sam are back at practicing, while I sit here in a dimly-lit closet, bitching about my feelings to a man I barely know.

 

*

Our first sponsorship photo-shoot of the season is today. We gather around the set in black and white cotton shirts with our team logo on it. On the back of the shirts are columns of sponsors that our manager rounded up for our cause – being the best at sedentary e-sports. I feign a grin as best as I can, wrapping my arms around Sam as the camera points a laser-focus at our faces. The heat of the lighting bounces off my skin, and I swear I can feel sweat pool under my armpits as we re-position ourselves for another round of photos.

 

These pictures will go on online for millions of people to see. This is will be the slimmest of reminder that we are human beings behind our digital avatar in an imaginary world of first-person-shooting disaster. It’s surreal that this is the body of a celebrity, one whose only skill is repetition. Muscle-memory over matter.

 

When the shoot is over, the image will infect all of our social media pages like a virus. It’ll be printed on to posters and banners to be displayed during the actual competition. And if we’re lucky enough, a handful of gamers will look up to see our massive faces stretched on canvas like personified logo brands.

 

I hold my breath as the cameramen tell us to pose again. My arm over Sam is slipping. When the flash hits, I close my eyes and know I’ve ruined the shot.

 

For the sake of building camaraderie, our manager organized a live-in dorm with our equipment. The season begins in only two weeks, so the metaphorical pressure-valve controlling our collective-angst is squealing. After practice, Sam sneaks into my room and sprawls himself out on the bed, his shirt meticulously pulled over his belly-button. A cute happy-trail slides down into the abyss that is between his legs.

 

“—he said that to you?” he asks.

 

I tell him about the likeness conversation with our manager, whether or not I was going to be good representation of a particular community during our event.

 

“To me, it sounds like a marketing pitch,” I tell him. “It was about as subtle as a bat to the face.”

 

Sam winces, baring his teeth at me, all perfectly white and even. I remember when he used to have braces, his face scattered with awkward teenage acne. It was a real discussion whether or not to add me to the team. When I started transitioning, I started empathizing with Sam’s awkwardness a lot more. Puberty hit both of us like a truck, and neither of us really were sure what to do about it. Whether or not it should affect who were as professionals, whether or not the personal tantrum of identity mattered when you were just a disembodied pair of hands behind a dual-shock controller.

 

Sam yawns. I roll my eyes and swivel back into my chair, knees pressed against my chest. A red and white biohazard needle box sits on my deck, a perpetual reminder of everything I’m aspiring to become. Something as artificial and fake as a video-game, a determined effort to strangle my body and reshape it like my own Electrodez avatar.

 

“You’re becoming popular,” Sam said. “People are really starting to look up to you.”

 

Visibility’s great when you close your eyes and cross the street, hoping a car doesn’t hit you.

 

“I’m thinking about leaving,” I tell him. “I’m not feeling the game anymore.”

 

“Why—you’re not bad at all.”

 

I see that Sam’s visibly distressed, pulling himself up from his relaxed position on the bunk. But I can’t stand to keep quiet, either. I seriously consider keeping it entirely confidential, but in the end that just wasn’t going to happen.

 

“You need to stay hush about it, okay?” I roll around in my chair, for the first time that night staring Sam straight in the face. “Not until the season’s over, at least. It’s not going to be pretty otherwise.”

“Don’t read the blog comments then.”

 

“No one in the right mind ever reads the comments.”

 

He sucks in his breath. I see the sweat on his forehead. I uneasily slip back into the chair and pull my knees in tighter. I don’t think about sweaty palms on my tits or the way I’ve been called a good boy. I curse those thoughts away like flies slamming against my skull, hoping they piss off and die forever. The lizard brain inside me is begging to be let free, roam the halls and scream at the top of my lungs, but I’m too shy and horrible of a person to act on impulses.

 

“I’m sure no one cares,” Sam assures me. “People aren’t as bad as you think they are.”

 

“Give them a few buttons,” I tell him, “and let them press them. See what happens.”

 

*

 

The conference starts off in a humid bath of pasty-white skin and black graphic tee-shirts. Our team is meeting outside just before the doors open for competitors. We’re designated to the very back of the building for Electrodez, which has the second-largest venue of the year. Thankfully, the adrenaline pumping through my veins is enough to keep me running on fumes while our manager hands out our name-tags and badges. I check and double-check mine for the appropriate name. I refuse to believe that anything as bad as last year will happen again.

 

“It’s weird seeing it in person,” Michael says as we entered. “I’ve stared at pictures for hours online, but it’s like—the image wasn’t in my brain. Like, I don’t even know what exactly this place is supposed to look like from the outside.”

 

“It figures,” I tell him, “you don’t have a bird’s eye view of the place. What’s worse, we’re gonna have our noses pressed up against those monitors all night.”

 

“Shoot, you make it sounds awful,” Sam laughs.

 

“It’s a beautiful day outside for video games.”

 

“One of us is going to get hella carpal tunnel,” Michael whines. “Just you wait.”

 

*

 

When I’m in the zone, my whole body disappears. The catharsis of smashing buttons and watching my digital body clash against stranger’s digital bodies is unmatched. The gesture is almost poetic, in my every changing scope of space: in one moment I’m standing in place, and in another, I’m standing atop a roof with my ninja-cyborg rifle. The crowd in front of us, behind our world-class gaming computers, goes absolutely wild. My chest swells up with pride for myself and my teammates—victory is in our hands, within our sweaty, calloused fingers. Heart in my throat, I slam down on my controller and watch my avatar sprint across the map, firing cartoonish bullets at the other team’s avatars, hitting every bulls-eye. I congratulate myself, feel my muscles tighten in excitement, full of happy chemicals.

 

It’s our win tonight. We take back the payload within a matter of minutes. The other team practically never stood a chance. All those months of practice seemingly pay off within a span of a few button presses. The others, Michael and Sam, are just as giddy as I am when we take off our humid headsets. The spotlights nearly blind me—I cover half my face and bite my lip, star-struck. The lights makes it hard to tell how massive the crowd is, but I figure it’s well over a few thousand. It’s a big event. We’re living in celebrity, bigger than life, and I genuinely feel real for once in my life. We’re winners. We’re the best in the world.

 

*

 

The banner with our faces outside the area stands still. A few hours after our win, we’re allowed to leave the convention center, with our manager carefully by our side. We can’t hold the trophy until the press team gives us permission, something about confidentiality and rights. However, when we finally make it outside, everything else seems to sink and hit the floor.

 

The post-game glow vanishes up into the air—for once, all I could think about was my controller, whether or not the buttons I hit each second were the right one. For a moment, only the game mattered, and I floated up above everything else just to become it, embody our strategies in the best way possible. I’m pure utility, a peerless machine.

 

We step past the banner, at first noticing nothing. But as I come closer, I see that a streak of color tearing right through our photographed heads. Our faces are perfectly untouched, save for a single blemish.

 

In bold red spray paint:

Faggots.

 

*

 

To: captainM@teamaspire.org

From: management@teamaspire.org

Subject Line: Tomorrow’s Practice

 

Hey buddy –

 

I know it’s rough. Not everyone can be our fans. It sucks. But I don’t blame you either for being reluctant. It’s important to keep up a strong face. That’s what makes you an athlete. That’s what makes you rough.

 

You’re like the other guys. Just like the other guys. You’re just as good as them. Hell, maybe even better. You’re tough shit. You’re just a little soft around the edges. But I think stuff like this will toughen you up. Make you stronger. A manlier man. Haha! Please don’t take it too hard. That’s just how gamers are. You’ll learn. There’s a lot of people like that. Just be a good sport! I believe in you.

 

*

 

To: captainM@teamaspire.org

From: management@teamaspire.org

Subject Line: Re: Tomorrow’s Practice

 

Hey pal –

 

You didn’t show up. That’s concerning. Is something wrong? Hell, I know we all have bad days sometimes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try putting your best foot forward, right? It’s not a good enough excuse to be down on yourself. Maybe you need some motivation. Maybe seeing your teammates kick ass in Electrodez will do the trick for you.

 

Anyways, we only have the practice space for a few more days. I’d really appreciate it if you tried making it this time. I’m not quite sure what’ll happen if you don’t. I think the sponsors want to see our practice match scores soon. It’s not gonna be funny explaining why you’re a bunch of zeroes lately.

 

 

*

 

To: captainM@teamaspire.org

From: management@teamaspire.org

Subject Line: Re: Re: Tomorrow’s Practice

 

Hey dude –

 

Why aren’t you coming to practice? We really appreciate you. The social media page is going bonkers. We found out who sprayed painted our banner, by the way. Not the opposite team. Not that I’m saying they’re sore losers. You’re better dude than them. We really consider you like, our brother in all this business. Michael and Sam are worried. Have they written you? They really should’ve written you. I told them to write you. I’ll make them say something if you really think this entire case is getting outta hand. I don’t think...personally...it’s gotten outta hands. But I do think it’s gotta be in someone’s hands, you get me! Haha!

 

It’s very important that you show up tomorrow, though. It’s our last day at our space. I’m not sure where we’re gonna be next if you don’t start pulling your weight.

 

 

*

 

I pour Sam a cup of coffee. He gratefully accepts it and cradles it in his arms like a child. My posture is stiff—my arms are crossed, and I hyper-fixate on my untied shoelaces. There isn’t much distracting me from Sam's insistence I watch him balance his phone between his arm and chin. The flash goes off and in a blinding light glow, our tired faces are captured and indefinitely stored on his memory card. I laugh and snort—for once it feels right being away from the headsets and desk chairs.

 

I loved the game, but I knew the community wouldn't love me back. I took a break from the team and realized my time was creeping up anyways. In one moment, we were champions, and then the sorry victims of a dumb prank for the internet to laugh at. I couldn't function under this perfect storm of circumstances—my body wasn't impervious to anonymous comments. I realized I didn't have superpowers, couldn't deflect and dodge bullets like my in-game avatar.

 

I reached for my phone. I put my phone back in my pocket. My hand twitches. I didn’t need that world. Sam tells me to get over it, but he never thought to tell me to man up. As if that had anything to do with it.

 

Instead, he helps pull me away from the blue glare of the monitor for the park outside his apartment, frozen over on account of winter. I felt nothing but gratitude for his gesture, but I can’t help but long for the protection of another self, another body not my own. It feels strange constantly being on the outside. The sun’s hot on my skin. I hope it welcomes me.

Blake Planty is a trans-masculine person who loves crawling the web at the witching hour. He's currently writing a novella about gay fighting cyborgs. He has a Bachelor’s in Literary Arts from Brown University. 

 

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