Before the Internet: On Bangkok, Time Machines, and Richard Linklater’s Famous Trilogy

 

THESE DAYS I’M trapped in a Bangkok high-rise, watching the city hurtle beneath me, reckless and neon. It’s too hot in my room without the AC, but the air feels sharp and dead within moments of flicking the switch on. My boyfriend of eight years, practically husband, is back in California, our home, living what is normally my life. We’ve made the enlightened adult decision to be allowed, in theory, to see other people since I’ll be away for so long—a decision I alternatingly, like with the air conditioner, relish and regret. I check my computer again and again and again as though it has some in-between magic to offer, as if it will make him and the rest of life feel closer. Sometimes I picture chucking the machine over the edge of my pathetic little balcony and listening for its shattering. But it would be hard to hear above the clamor of Bangkok. And then how would I Skype Ben, or scan the rest of the world’s goings-on in order to feel less alone?

I’ve chosen to come here intent on another adventure, an ejector seat from what has become business as usual. Being allowed to see other people is an attempt to keep this same business as usual at bay so that it doesn’t end up crushing us in the end. We love each other, we just bought a house, we might have a baby soon; these reclaimed adventures are like trying to catch the winged creatures of time and youth in a jar. But time in Bangkok is elastic and electric, always threatening to short out and knock me into a radioactive sluice of regret.

“Years shall run like rabbits,” says Jesse Wallace in Before Sunrise, the 1995 Richard Linklater film, the morning after his chanced escapade through Vienna with the French girl, Celine. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a wide-eyed, quintessential ’90s-era American seeker, impersonating Dylan Thomas’s impersonation of W.H. Auden while Celine (Julie Delpy) lies reclined on his lap in the Vienna dawn. “Oh, let not time deceive you, you cannot conquer time.”

Maybe time is always elastic and electric. It’s the central obstacle of Before Sunrise, and the two films that follow (Before Sunset and, most recently, Before Midnight). In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine, strangers in their early twenties, impulsively agree to off-board their train in Vienna and pass the night there together before he hops his plane back to Texas, while she gets a train home to Paris. Their night in Vienna is a secret hatch into a place where time doesn’t exist—the perfect fantasy of people their age (a fantasy that I, even just a decade their senior, have mostly given up on). But of course tomorrow will come, as it always does. So as not to replicate the tired trope of long-distance romances that die in a slow, sad fizzle, these two young people—who are trying to define their lives against the blandness and mistakes of those who came before them—decide: no exchanging contact information. Tonight will be their only night.

But in their final moment, they cave. On the train tracks, the whistle sounding for Celine’s train, they rescind their pact: instead, they will meet here, on this very platform, exactly six months from now. Still no addresses or phone numbers—no need. Celine boards the train, and the film ends with shots of the emptied places they’d been and their overturned wine glasses in the park where, in the light of morning, an elderly woman hobbles by.

Elastic, electric. I think that early-twenties timelessness was what I was trying to recapture when I came to Thailand: that suspended animation of life, of love, the paradox of endless possibility within the span of mere moments. The faith that by fuzzing the edges of these moments, we erase their limitations.

As an adolescent, that limitlessness was also something I yearned for. Before Sunrise was released around the same time that my neighbor heartthrob, Phil Meeker, became my first boyfriend. For several months—a course of time that felt like quivering years—Phil Meeker would pick me up at my house on foot and we would walk his pug, Violet, together through the fogged-over streets of San Francisco, making out on the dead ends of 16th and 17th Avenues, where the Presidio’s cypresses cast us in their quiet play of lamp-lit shadows. Is this what love is? I wondered, smash-faced Violet snorting at our heels while Phil Meeker’s tongue lunged into my mouth and around my teeth and gums. Back home, I would sit down on the couch and turn on Before Sunrise again and feel the almost-ness of my own life. “That’s what love is really like,” I’d think, watching Jesse and Celine onscreen.

I had a teacher at the time who would regale us with stories of the wild adventures of his youth: bumming penniless through Europe with his girlfriend, sneaking into hotel pools and picking up odd jobs—like smashing grapes with their feet and getting drunk each day off the fumes. I remember thinking: I want to live these kinds of stories. I wanted to speed out of my almost-life.

I can see now that my teacher was recounting these stories to relive his own lost past. Now shackled to a job and kids, he must have felt his wanderlust stamped out on the sidewalk less like wine grapes and more like a cigarette drawn down to its nub. He and I wanted somewhat of the same thing: he wanted his past as his present, I wanted it as my future. Throughout my early adolescence looped my teacher’s wistful stories and Jesse and Celine’s goodbye, her train rolling away, their overturned wine glasses collecting dew on the grass.

*

Now it’s like I have too many stories, too much to store up and keep track of. I can’t possibly write it all down, or remember. That’s what the Internet is for, maybe—not just to replicate closeness, as so many have said, but also to do the hard, sad work of memory.

Before Sunrise was released in 1995, back when my family had just gotten a satellite TV so I could watch Before Sunrise on repeat, and two phone lines so I could talk to Phil Meeker all night long and love him and wish he and I were other people in the great landscape of a future, unbound. This was also back when people just started getting the Internet in their homes, setting up AOL accounts with cheeky screen names, and audibly dialing into what we then termed, out of awe, the world wide web.

This is all to say that Jesse and Celine say goodbye at the exact moment that I was craving their kind of future, which I can only now name as freedom, and also at the exact moment that the nature of time and space changed for all of us, and forever.   

The year 1995 was well before much of the world (at least anyone who had the means and privilege to travel Europe by rail) had the online trail that is now so unavoidable: Facebook, alumni bulletins, workplace bios, LinkedIn. Back then, to make their pact not to exchange contact information was knowingly parting into the void with the recognition that a chance encounter wouldn’t happen twice. But today, this kind of pact is a matter only of willpower. Who hasn’t met someone they fancied and then found out everything about them that the Internet has to tell—including how to contact them? You can’t make a movie—or not an interesting one, anyway—with the premise of “boy and girl meet, forced by circumstance to part ways, find each other next day on the Internet.” Before Sunrise is a movie whose essential storyline simply would not up hold today—and maybe that’s why it has such a cult following, and why I love it so much: it’s not just a portrait of a wide-eyed romance, but also a romantic portrayal of the way the world used to be bigger and maybe, because of that, the rest of us somehow more brave.

In 2000, five years after Before Sunrise was released, I met Lenny, a college student, in a trashy, late-night tourist strip in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was sixteen and on spring break with my best friend, Theresa, and her parents. We were juniors in high school; Phil Meeker was long gone and that preteen itch for freedom was now like a full body rash. Theresa’s parents would let us stay out for a few hours after dinner, where we would buy margaritas and cloying shooters from the rowdy shot ladies donning short, frilly skirts, sombreros, and neon bottles holstered to their belts like guns. I envied them and their blithe rebellion (though now I can’t help but picture them slogging home, peeling off their sticky clothes, and dreaming of some other life while water poured over them in the shower). Theresa and I had grown up together in San Francisco and now attended the same stuffy boarding school in Connecticut. Together we took up chain smoking and J. Crew catalogue shopping as a dual elixir for both fitting in and giving our new home the finger. In Mexico we could drink and talk to boys (men!) and stay out late. Touristy Mexico, with its infinite cigarettes and nonexistent drinking age, was the diametric opposite of where we spent nine months out of the year stewed in centuries of northeastern tradition and good manners.

As we sucked cigarettes on a bench trying to look tough and old and uncaring, Lenny sidled up to us, asking for a drag. He was twenty-two and about to graduate from Penn. Within minutes, he and I were making out in a bar across the street, Theresa waiting patiently for us to load the cab back to the hotel. We made plans to meet the next night, and the next. The last night, I snuck him back to our fancy beachside hotel, where we talked for hours on the night-cooled sand. The next morning I woke up to a phone call.  “We’ll see each other again,” he said through the phone.

“I know,” I said. He hung up and went to the airport.

We did see each other again two weeks later, when I was scheduled to board a plane from JFK to a study abroad program in France. We wandered around Manhattan lugging my bag, making out and pondering the world and our age difference, savoring the time before he had to hop a train back to Philly and me a plane to Paris. It was hard not to think about Before Sunrise.

“We’ll see each other again,” he said once more as he stepped into the taxi.

But in France, where I was lonely and the weather was rainy and cold, he stopped picking up my calls and answering my emails. Nothing—he was gone. By the end of May, I knew he would have graduated already—at which point his email, and thus my prospects of finding him, were done for. This was early enough in the age of the Internet that people were not infinitely findable. I’d go to college within a year—my high school email, too, would vanish. Short of hiring a PI, Lenny would be impossible to track down. I’d probably never see him again.

But then, over a year later, I got an email. “Hi…” he wrote. “Not sure if this is still your address…. Saw someone who looked just like you the other day ….Hope you’re doing great.”

The next weekend I was back in New York for a friend’s birthday, and slithered out of her mother’s apartment to meet Lenny up in Harlem. We confirmed that the person he’d seen out the window of his bus that day had, in fact, been me—the right day and time and location. Romantic notions of fate twisted through me like smoke.

And yet, like Jesse and Celine’s worst fear, the magic had worn off, the luster of this other person now tarnished, this cosmic convergence only temporary. By the end of the evening, I knew that Lenny was not someone fate was pushing me toward forever.  I went off to college, to life, with Lenny a tatter darned comfortably shut.

Then just a couple months ago, a little icon appeared on my Facebook page. “Lenny has sent you a friend request.” All he’d had to do was search my name. Just like that, unmiraculously, Lenny and I were once again back in touch.

*

In 2004, nine years after Before Sunrise in both real time and movie time, came Linklater’s sequel, Before Sunset. Here, Jesse and Celine have both moved on with their lives; he’s a published author and married with a child, she’s a successful environmental activist in a serious relationship. They’ve given up all rational hope of finding each other, until Celine sees an announcement for an author talk at her favorite bookstore—Jesse’s last stop on his book tour, it turns out, promoting a fictional account of their night together nine years before.

It’s worth saying that Celine finds Jesse through an announcement about his book in the paper, not on some listserv or Internet stalk search guiltily performed late at night with a drink in hand. In 2004, that analog world of hard-copy newspapers was making its way out the door. Facebook had just begun to set its hooks into the world, and Google was in the early phase of becoming a reliable means to track someone down. Just when enough time had passed that Celine and Jesse had given up on coming across one another by accident, it had become possible to find one another on purpose. They met before the world had changed forever, and re-met fatefully just before doing so had become a permanent impossibility.

We learn early on that Celine and Jesse missed their connection that December in Vienna—Celine hadn’t made it that day through a series of unfortunate events, and never knew if Jesse had been there waiting for her. Jesse had in fact trekked to Vienna, and had never known why she hadn’t been there. When the two meet again in Sunset, they are outwardly accomplished and happy, but inwardly hardened and wistful, feeling the tap of possibility beginning to run dry. Jesse laments: Why weren’t you there in Vienna? It’s a statement, not a question. He tells her how, even on his wedding day, he thought he saw her coming out of a bodega on 12th and Broadway. “Isn’t that fucked up?” he says. Celine says she used to live right by there—it could have, in fact, been her.

In Before Sunset, time is the protagonists’ foe yet again. But nine years earlier, when they were young and fancy-free, they hardly spoke it. In Sunset, the two are older and time is a constant worry, in their daily lives and as they walk through the city together: how much longer do they have, will he be able to find his taxi driver, isn’t it time for him to go, won’t he miss his plane? If in film number one they are escaping time, in film number two Jesse and Celine are racing it.

*

I too used to be a time watcher, and now, the same age as the couple in Sunset, I’m a time racer. The world changes and old things become impossible. These films are always ten years ahead of me—perhaps that’s why I watch them in awe, now jammed in the middle world: looking back, looking forward, perplexed by the speed of both departure and approach.

Ben and I met in our early twenties in a bar, where both of us had ended up, begrudgingly and by accident. The first time I saw him staring at me through the crowd was like one of those photos where only the exact center point is in sharp focus: the rest of the bar was blurred. For the next five days, without cease, we moved together through the streets of San Francisco like our heels were hovercrafts, encased in the eucalyptus fog of the city and of falling in love. Time was irrelevant, a thing we didn’t need to fuss over.

Now, eight years later, we’re in the Sunset stage. Me, in particular. Ben points out how I am constantly harried now, racing time at every turn.

“You prioritize most things before me,” he tells me, and he’s right. Fleeing to Bangkok, of course, being one of them.

Ben can’t come visit me in Bangkok, for a series of reasons I find suspect. Mostly, there’s just no good chunk of time to make such a long trip worthwhile.

It’s easy to romanticize the far-away from either side of it. Like Bangkok, like Ben. “The Before series embraces what we’d rather forget,” writes Nathan Heller in a recent New Yorker profile of Linklater, one that I read greedily in my high rise while wishing I was 20, in Vienna, in Paris, in Greece, with Ben and with nowhere else to be. “Every true love story is a story of bad timing.”

“Baby,” says Celine, impersonating Nina Simone, as Before Sunset comes to a close, “you’re gonna miss that plane.”

“I know,” he says. Once again the film ends with both a question and a pang in the heart.

*

“You’re in Bangkok?” writes a friend on my Facebook wall. We are no longer anonymous, we are no longer unfindable. Moments of chance—those moments that seem to hover between fate and accident, causing us to wonder which—make the world feel small and strange and miraculous, whereas the Internet just makes the world feel small and strange.

In Before Midnight, the most recent (and, I hope, not final) installment of the Before series, Jesse and Celine are still together, navigating the world of life partnership and parenthood and career and the fact of becoming less and less young. In essence, their lives are in complete opposition to the circumstances under which they fell in love and then fell in love again. They are now partnered, with twin eight-year-olds, juggling important careers and cross-continental families. No more time for wandering and musing.

In the Before Midnight dinner scene—the first scene of all three films in which the two are outside their set-apart world—we meet the young, full-of-life-and-lust couple that’s the obvious foil for today’s Jesse and Celine, who are now strapped with their pedestrian concerns of career and child rearing. The young beach-kissed couple talk about their long-distance romance between France and Greece. How do they do it? the adults at the table want to know. Skype, of course—they even fall asleep with a laptop positioned next to them on the bed. Distance has become nearly obsolete. Not only can we locate each other, this scene suggests, but we can nearly hold each other close through a screen. Pas de probleme! (Though Jesse’s struggle to stay connected to his son in the U.S. suggests a limit to this kind of simulated closeness.)

Jesse and Celine reluctantly saunter off from dinner to a romantic night at a Peloponnese hotel—a gift from friends—and we’re back to familiar territory: just the two of them, walking together through a landscape riddled with history. They marvel at the calm of being alone; they haven’t been together, just them, for years.

Life hardens, as it does, and the second half of the movie is one long argument, as if in the slowed-down time all their grievances have finally caught up to them. They shout and come together again, then shout some more, and we feel like we might be watching something unravel for good. When Jesse begins taking off Celine’s clothes, they are interrupted by her phone. Later, Jesse clicks it off, trying to rid them of the interruptions, trying to take them out of time again. But she turns it back on. We all know that timelessness doesn’t work anymore, she seems to be saying, and I found myself forlornly agreeing with her as I watched on. She storms out of the room and doesn’t come back.

But Jesse makes a final overture, dopey and lovely; he pretends to be a time traveller, reading her a letter from her future self. These will be the best years of her life, he tells her; none of these things she now worries over will matter at all from the other side. But Celine is not amused.

It seems like the whole Before franchise might be done for when, after a few moments, she says, “So, this time machine of yours? How does it work?” And they’re back again, maybe just for tonight, maybe forever. We won’t know unless they make another film (though we’ll all make guesses that say something about who and where we are in life—and how many things we’ve given up on).

“This must have been a hell of a night we’re about to have,” says Celine, closing the film as the camera pans out over the couple and the sea. No more ignoring time, no more racing time: time is here and it is gone and it is coming.

*

Making it through this moment with awareness is my greatest challenge—and all any of us can really hope for. But then there’s memory, that wicked time machine. Lust for the future, grasping for the past. The time-wrecked faces in Before Midnight, and among so many people I know, is what I’m worried I have to look forward to. This is what made me pull the cord, jolting upward and riding the winds to Thailand because, well, I’m still at a stage in my life when I can just up and leave—so shouldn’t I? But Bangkok is a city of perpetual animation, the wild flicker of lights and traffic and street hawkers and elevated walkways. And for the first time in a very long time, I feel frozen still. Maybe the reason I feel so crippled by Bangkok is because of what it reflects back to me: this wild speed to which I’ve become native, this perpetually unsated state of rush and hunger.

“You can always come home,” Ben says.

But what good would that do? Maybe better to board a time machine. Surely there’s got to be one in Bangkok, the city where everything’s for sale. I think about time machines as I click through Facebook—hundreds of friends from the past, people alongside whom I fancy-footed the world, ex-boyfriends, ex-classmates, ex-love interests (even Lenny!). Ben went to dinner with a group of people I don’t know, I notice, and wonder.

These days, between the Internet and the guy down the street peddling pirated movies, you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. So I set up a Before marathon for myself, watching eighteen years of stiffening hearts and minds unfold onscreen, remembering those eighteen years of my own life, at some point during which time became my adversary—and I do all this in the course of the six real-time hours it takes to watch all three of the films. If in Before Sunrise they (and we with them) were pretending time didn’t exist, and in Before Sunset they were racing time, in Before Midnight Jesse and Celine are observing time like weary spectators. “Still there. Still there. Still there. Still there. Gone,” says Celine as the shimmering sun drops behind the horizon. Both of their faces fall slack for an extended, heartbreaking moment.

When my Before marathon is over I watch the actual, real-life sun set, fuzzy through the Bangkok smog, and think again of chucking my computer off the edge. I know what’s in store, but I’ll do my best, anyway. What if we could just hover for a spell above the international date line, that zero time zone? “But let not time deceive you, you cannot conquer time.” One day I’ll look back on this period in Bangkok with wistfulness, I’m sure. I’ll think of the hours I spent feeling sorry for myself on this balcony, unable to remember—or no longer caring about—whatever it was I was yearning for.

And that time machine? We’re already on it, fully strapped in.

bangkok


 

About Lauren Markham

Lauren Markham is a writer and reporter based in Northern California. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker.com, The New Republic, This American Life, Orion Magazine, Guernica, Vice Magazine, VQR and other outlets. In addition to writing, Lauren works at a high school for immigrant youth in Oakland, California.
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