Jack Bilander and I have a parasocial relationship.
I stalk him on the internet like a cast-off lover seeking any possible shred of information about who he’s romancing.
I suffer from bouts of borderline personality disorder, speculating about his thoughts and yearnings. Time and again, I look at a particular photo of him, and think back on the brief period that I knew him personally. He was incomprehensible then, like the many other adult treasures in that period of my life.
Jack was a flirt. People who’ve sold me his etchings and who knew him from the neighborhood describe his charm. I witnessed this truth in the coy twinkle of my grandmother’s eyes as she talked to him. She herself was a grand flirt, which is a handy skill to wield on unsuspecting waiters when you need a distraction to cover stuffing your purse with pink Sweet ‘n’ Low packets beneath the table.
A parasocial relationship is a fictional one; it’s the kooky one-way relationship a soap opera fan has with the characters or the actors who play them. Today, the veil separating actors from their fans is hardly more than gossamer, and we’re all Hollywood insiders. Today, parasocial relationships are unremarkable.
Yes, I know Jack.
Someone with expertise in art could identify Bilander’s work and discuss his perspective, motive, implication. For me, it’s different and personal. Around him, I can smell the unique scent of Chelsea in the 70s and the cigarette-smoky humanity of the distant Washington Square Park. I can feel the rough-iron fences cordoning the manicured parks scattered through Penn South and hear the honk and screech of yellow cabs as they head toward Madison Square Garden. I can envision what his ink-stained hands must have looked like as they gestured their way through Jewish-accented New York chatter. In the here and now, Bilander’s ouvre is a recognizable, artistic whole: The blocky mid-century pictures of Mexico; the watery colors of the Hudson River; the weary, gray New Yorkers etched on subway seats. Relationally, I project onto these images the political and social landscape of my home and heart in aquatint lines.
It’s special, this thing we have, the two of us together. Our one-way relationship, mediated through art and absence, through melancholy and connotation, is purely parasocial. I do not exist to him. Back then, I was nothing more than the apple of a friend’s eye, a flouncy little girl with a pudgy face and a fondness for candy. Interpersonal relationships are defined by their intimacy, by the degree to which the people involved see each other as unique and irreplaceable. Jack is these things to me.