Virtual Dancing with Simulated Martinis in Bardolando, Florida



28° N, 81° W

Spartan Conroy looks more like a gin-blossomed, pot-bellied, self-published science-fiction author who works out of a trailer than he looks the part of a salsa instructor; and for good reason: Spartan Conroy’s day job is writing intergalactic space-smut out of his double-wide. Nevertheless, by night the author can be found teaching salsa dancing in the ballroom of the nearly derelict, 99% vacant, decadently decayed Galaxy Star Hotel, a sun-burnt concrete lodge which has stood for decades one wrong turn too many off of International Drive in Central Florida’s theme park district. It is here in the Cypress Lake ballroom dancing novices and misplaced adventurers learn how to salsa dance via Spartan Conroy’s virtual reality software program, FootSpace.

“Where else, my man?” The salesman waves at the ballroom where his product is showcased to individuals donning V.R. gear in walled-off partitions. His hands wave at the confines of the Galaxy Star Hotel, but the here of his where else comment is a reference to this particular piece of Central Florida, the theme park Mecca of Earth where captive orca belly-flop on command minutes away from re-enactments of Christ’s Crucifixion, the region Spartan Conroy refers to “Bardolando” (“bardo” being a Buddhist term for in between realities and “lando” being the last five letters of the closest metropolis). “Where else would I be, but Bardolando? I mean, if Orwell had foreseen Hollywood movie studios creating hyper-reality theme parks in Southern California and Central Florida, he would have included them in 1984 alongside the proles’ daily allotment of gin.”

On the subject of gin, Spartan mixes cocktails for those entering into his cubicles of simulated reality. Tonight, he is serving mojitos, but he has run out of mint and white rum, making his concoctions instead with parsley and dark rum. The product resembles a cup full of ditch water in sight and taste. I have had two by the time I am fitted with the virtual reality headset. My host warns me of possible discombobulation. Once within the virtual world, Spartan Conroy sez, I will not see my body if I look down, only placeholders where my feet and hands are. When I do enter into his salsa laboratory, I understand his warning. Gone is my body; cartoonish mittens are where my hands should be and tissue boxes represent my feet in this virtual world. I can already hear the music: the crooning, the drumming and the trumpets of salsa. Before me is a mirror and at least here I can identify my chosen avatar. The simulated reflection smiling back is a perverse, over-caffeinated, slightly psychotic, caricature of your narrator, Vic Neverman. Nevertheless, I am comforted to find limbs in this virtual world. To conceal my identity, I draw a goatee and alter my voice to include a Midwestern lisp.

Entering through the portal into this room, it is clearly a lavatory complete with complimentary mints and urinal cakes. Other characters are beside me; either computer simulations or other project avatars of “real people” who occupy a cubicle somewhere back in the “meat space” of the hotel ballroom alongside my fleshy vessel. Not all of these characters are brushing their mustache in the mirror as I, most are queued-up to do cocaine off the thigh of a cigarette girl. It is not certain whether the girl selling cigarettes off her tray is a fellow avatar with a human conscious or a simulation. As an impromptu Turing Test, I inquire of the cigarette girl the vintage of the white product lining her thigh. Her faraway gaze looks through me as she says, “Después de un gustazo, un trancazo”. I look for subtitles and finding none, I wash my mitten hands and leave the bathroom.

Outside the lavatory portal back to “meat space”, there are no mirrors reflecting my avatar’s image and I make the mistake of looking down to find myself without a torso. Discombobulation ensues and I spit up one of the mojitos. Even more disconcerting: as I eject the sick, I cannot see it in this virtual world. It is a ghost-puke and my tongue is left haunted my acidic parsley flavors. God speaks to me in the North Florida country-boy accent of Spartan Conroy, “Play through it, my man. You will adjust. Your avatar still looks immaculate.”

I continue through the nausea to find the dance floor of the club, Estrella del Sur. The music overwhelms as salsa pulsates through my skull via V.R. headgear. On the simulated dance floor before me are the gyrating “hosts” who can be hired as dance instructors. There are various shades of gender and flesh and persuasion and each are given a halo of green (available and within my price range) or red (more expensive than my 2,000 credits can afford). The only dancers with green halos I can find are a gaucho with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a donkey back-kicking in tune to the music. Fortunately for me, Spartan Conroy provided me with a cheat code. I find a backdoor out of Estrella del Sur where I could bet on La Charada with street hustlers playing ping-pong in the alley. I gamble my 1,800 credits (after drinking 200 bits worth of simulated martini with my cartoon mitts) and win, returning to the club with nearly 400,000 credits in the bank. Every dancer on the floor now possesses a green halo and each is aware of my fat billfold of credits. Men and women wink and blow kisses, hey Papi, luring me towards them. I select a singular beauty, angelic in the hierarchy of the simulated hosts. I am nervous asking her to dance, but she is smiling at my 400,000 credits and beckons me to the floor. Her name is Pilar and as far as computer generated vixens go, she is irresistible. Her legs are of unquantifiable length, her hips defied physics and she does volunteer work at a dog shelter. They way Pilar danced, you assumed someone was filming a music video. With one hand she held her wavy hair above her shoulders to cool her heated neck. I haven’t desired an animated character this much since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Pilar instructs me on my footwork. Forward left, right, back left. I cannot help but notice the glaring of a suspicious character sipping simulated martinis from the bar. Is it me he’s sweating over or is it Pilar? Back right, left, forward right. Scrutinizing the strange dude, I cannot decipher if he is a simulation or the projection of a human consciousness, but it is clear he is wearing a toupee and is popping antacids to fend off a guilty conscience. Step left, right, enchufla… Perhaps the suspicious dude might be an ICE agent infiltrating this virtual universe in search of undocumented immigrants. Step back right, left, right.

Pilar, mi amor, I warn my dance instructor, there is an immigration agent in the building. Yo se, güero, Pilar responds with cavalier indifference. Concerned for her, I ask if she is a citizen of the United States. She says, no ‘ombre, but she isn’t concerned about the immigration goon sniffing martinis through his ICE-issued mustache. Porque, I ask. Ay güey, porque soy una simulacion de computadora! Fair enough. How is my dancing, I ask. She sez I dance like un borracho blanco, a drunken white boy, at an Indigo Girls concert. She then informs me she requires another 200,000 bits to keep dancing.

Broken-hearted and empty-pocketed, I bid adieu to Pilar and return to the bathroom of Estrella del Sur. I enter the portal and return to meat space where I can finally remove the virtual reality mask to find Spartan Conroy standing there with a few moist toilettes. I clean-up quick; eager to get the hell out of the hyper-reality of Bardolando. Outside the Galaxy Star Hotel, the valet returns my car. I get behind the wheel in search of International Drive and Interstate 4 beyond.

It is minutes before it occurs to me I am steering the wheel with cartoonish mittens and I cannot see my forearms. In the rear-view mirror I see a set of psychotic over-caffeinated cartoon eyes. I pull over onto the side of the road and purge myself of the second mojito.

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