15 Minutes of Simulated Oblivion

Could I have done this? Could I have said this?
Laurie Anderson’s opening at Guild Hall on Saturday was a melding of Buddhist philosophy and alternative reality for members who experienced Ms. Anderson’s VR piece “Chalkroom.” Iris Smyles

According to Buddhism, death both follows and precedes life. After or before what we think of as our own, we are ushered through the Bardo, an intermediate state between bodies. This Bardo is the subject of Laurie Anderson’s new virtual reality, film, drawing, and sculpture exhibition at Guild Hall, and also what it feels like driving from one Hamptons party to another. Who are we before we’ve checked in at a members-only art opening or found our name printed with corresponding table number on a benefit place card, Laurie Anderson forces us to ask.

My +1 discovered he was Count Salamander Achoo (pronounced like a sneeze). When R.S.V.P.ing for Guild Hall’s reception, I was asked to fill in my guest’s name and, not knowing yet who would be joining me (physically and metaphysically), I made one up.

I had never experienced virtual reality before and loved my 15 minutes of simulated oblivion. Flying through a black ether of letters, words, and sounds, and eventually the hallways of a giant edifice made of them, I fastened onto the fleeting “life, find, but, you,” while a fragmented voice that sounded like my thoughts were Anderson to speak them, whispered, “Could I have done this? Could I have said this? Once you wore that. . . . Once you did that. . . .”

It was a little after noon on Saturday when I removed the headset and returned to my body. I’d come early to sample the VR with plans to return with Count Achoo later that night. 

Outside, under a hot blue sky that would never change, I headed west toward Southampton. A few beachgoers were hoofing it on Gin Lane when I arrived at the Thomas Halsey Homestead and checked into the Southampton Historical Museum’s annual tour of Southampton homes: An Insider’s View, sponsored by Hamptons Cottages and Gardens, I learned from the nifty tote bag I was handed upon check-in, which contained my map.

Gravel underfoot as I approached the first house on First Neck Lane, and in my ear, Anderson’s voice narrating my thoughts: “I wore this. . . .” Blue and white checked wrap shirt with plaid palazzo pants and silver loafers that lacked arch support. “I did this. . . .” Put paper booties over my loafers to wander with dozens of strangers around a house that was not our own. 

In the kitchen with a view to Lake Agawam, I passed a barefoot man in shorts next to the fridge, eating from a plastic container. “Do you live here?” I asked. “Or are you just helping yourself?” I hadn’t had breakfast and was hoping he’d offer me a nosh. 

He looked up as if caught. “Live here,” he mumbled through a full mouth before scuttling back into the walls.

I wandered through great rooms. What am I here for? I asked myself. To see how the sun smiles through the bedroom skylight of someone else’s son? To marvel at the boy’s bed built into an actual rowboat? To survey the framed certificates of graduate degrees, the family photos with Tom Wolfe decorating the numerous mantels, the bookcase featuring not one of my novels but “I’m Okay, You’re My Parents”?

The featured homes go by the most charming names. Driving away from the mansion at Gray Gables, I wondered what to name my summer rental, before settling on One Bed One Bath.

Just beyond the hedge at a cheerful house on Halsey Neck Lane, the sky had grown dark, suggesting apocalypse or rain. I held out my hand for drops and looked across the lawn for zombies. The appeal of a zombie scourge, depicted in so many movies of late, is how it might level things, giving us each a chance to start over. A pizza boy might be a hero, a child free from homework, the prince can become a pauper, and readers of HCG might finally own waterfront. 

A threatening sky was the backdrop to the Southampton Historical Museum's house tour on Saturday.

I was in the study at a house on Ox Pasture, casing the bookshelves again for the spines of my novels, when I heard my name. The artist and real estate agent Rima Mardoyan was sitting in the window with Anke Friedrich, the house’s owner. I’d never met Rima in real life and knew her only from her Instagram posts, which I both “liked” and liked. 

“It’s always strange to meet a person in person,” we agreed, before she pointed to an end table supporting one of her paintings: “It’s made of cement and beeswax.” 

“Aren’t we all?” asked I, in the voice of Laurie Anderson.

I saw three more houses along with St. Andrew’s Dune Church before heading to the party at the Southampton Historical Museum, whose programming regularly draws me to its shores. Last fall: whaler wives who went to sea with their husbands, and on Wednesday, a talk about women spies of World War II.

Not recognizing anyone on the lawn I hit the bar and knocked back a glass of temperance champagne (bubbly water). I was about to order a second when I caught sight of my favorite true crime reporter, Keith Morrison of “Dateline NBC,” standing in the weeds.

“He was a quiet, family man, loved by his community. Could he have murdered his wife?” I said a la Keith Morrison, before offering my hand. 

It turned out not to be Keith Morrison but a math teacher from Connecticut called Ed.

I asked Ed (Mr. Donovan) why we were here, what we were looking for in the homes of wealthy strangers. Ed said “power and money. We’re here to mingle. Network,” he enunciated. 

“Did you mingle today?”

“Constantly. Though that stuff doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m past the mingling age.”

“What’s the cutoff?” 

“Whatever age you are when you’re finally comfortable with the amount of money or lack of power you have.”

After “mingling” with Sandra Walser, a museum docent and former accessories director at Neiman Marcus (I’d spotted her splendid earrings across the room), the charming Mike and Wendy Niceberg, who’ve just moved here, and the designer and pet portrait artist Kimberly McSparran, who showed me the toile bag she’d made featuring local golf clubs like the Maidstone, I hit the Bardo (Route 27).

Guild Hall was full by the time I arrived. Everyone was there. It would be easier to say who wasn’t there (Stacy Keach) than to try to list who was, but among the notables was Carlos Lama, husband of Guild Hall’s executive director, Andrea Grover, and lead singer of Cracked Actor.

“You cut your hair!” 

“I cut it in half,” he said, motioning to his shoulder-length curls. “And I plan to keep cutting it in half!” 

I performed a circle to investigate the back before facing him: “According to Zeno’s paradox, if you keep cutting it in half, you will never have cut it completely.”

Beside the cheese plate, I chatted with Guild Hall’s former director Ruth Appelhof, whom I hadn’t seen since our dinner last June at the American Academy in Rome, where she was installed for two months to write her book about Lee Krasner. Having come to East Hampton to write her master’s thesis, Ruth lived with Krasner during the summer of 1974.

Just then Count Achoo, a.k.a. the novelist Frederic Tuten, walked in, his fluorescent green Lucite cane catching the light. Two kisses later, we were talking to the artist Audrey Flack, honored this winter at Guild Hall’s Academy dinner at the Rainbow Room, congratulating A.M. Homes on the publication of her latest book, “Days of Awe,” and watching the photographer Michael Halsband enter and flee with his girlfriend and her son — “He’s afraid of dogs!” he said on his way out, referring to the giant 10-foot-by-10-foot dog drawings comprising “Lolabelle in the Bardo.” 

I got to meet Ms. Anderson herself, clad in all white and surrounded by admirers, but could not hear her over the din and heard instead her voice in my head: “Could I have done this? Could I have said this?” 

Just in time for dinner at the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center’s annual barn dance at Kilmore Farm, I fell in with a crowd of first names. Will, Josh, Mary . . . the under-35 set introduce themselves thus and look at you suspiciously if you offer a second handle. Despite my two-name gaff, Will invited me to sit. 

I confessed he and his friends looked familiar. “Were any of you on ‘Summer House’?” 

“We’re aspiring reality TV stars,” Will joked, sipping from a can of Montauk beer. “We go around behaving badly in hopes of being discovered.” 

Leeza Seelbach, Meghan Schimmelpfennig, Kerrie Mccaffrey and Matias Whitmore (petting Scout the pony) at the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center’s barn dance at Kilmore Farm in Wainscott on Saturday.

Politely, Will served me salad and told me his group, who’d all gone to East Hampton High School together (go Bonackers!), had come along with John — waving at the next table — whose family owns Wainscott Farms.

I was still trying to place them (perhaps it was only youth I was remembering), when a voice called the nearly 250 guests to the dance floor for line-dancing lessons. “I tore my Achilles tendon,” Will answered before I asked. I looked around and watched every other unlined face in the barn apologize while rubbing a strained knee or ankle. 

With Will’s blessing, I headed toward the dance floor alone, and joined the large group of two-named over-35s who also thought it would be fun to two-step.

Amy Sultan is making a documentary about Audrey Flack, right.
Jim Cass, Edsel Williams, and Alexander Heinrici.
Frederic Tuten and A.M. Homes.