The events of this narrative took place on a computer screen and in the Theater of the Mind.
Before I got a computer, I had no life. I can forgive myself for not knowing the basics of human interaction. When I was past forty I got a second hand black and white Toshiba laptop. I went from email to message boards to chat rooms. I found people who spoke my native tongue, the language in which I am most fluent, at which I excel: text. The written word. And then one day years later I had scaled the high learning curve of the virtual world. I am talking about a 3D modeled landscape, where players create cartoon avatars to represent themselves. Lets call it a computer game, a pixel universe. Textures on wireframe. A fantasy exited by logging out and shutting down.
A favorite pastime in the virtual world, enjoyed by males and females, is playing Barbie Doll. Participants purchase themselves gorgeous avatars with pouty lips, hollow cheeks, shapely legs and cleavage. Not me. I created an appearance that mirrored my authentic, true self. Shabby bib overalls, no hairdo. Old fashioned glasses. A fat ass. I wanted unbiased, natural reactions. Strangers told me “you are so ugly”. I would forget they were talking to my avatar, not the real me. Sometimes they would send me flying, as if to say, “Stay away from me you freak”. The virtual world resembled the playground of my childhood, and I was still the kid nobody wants to sit by on the bus. The last chosen for teams, if at all. In the virtual world, I was griefed, booted and bullied. Some avatars insisted that in reality I must be a cross-dressing female impersonator. The nicer ones offered to help me fix my image. I always said, “No, this is what I look like in real life”. One male told me, “You must be a man. No real woman messes up this bad”.
My virtual world was bleak. Lonely. Wild with silence. Few approached me for friendly conversation. The metaverse is created by its users and I created a world I thought I deserved.
I met an avatar I will call Johnny. He treated me like he knew I was female. A new experience for me. I saw his profile picture. Dark hair and eyes and a worldly-wise smile. He outclassed me in the looks department. But it was a virtual world, and the ordinary expectations do not apply. He was the popular kid on the playground. He became my guide and mentor. He had hundreds of friends inworld to my handful. Even so, when he saw my avatar hanging at the edge of a gathering, he welcomed me warmly to be one of them. It was one of the few times in my life, either real or imaginary, that I felt included, without hesitation. Along with scores of his groupies I followed him around the imaginary terrain. I tried to be discreet. We hung out, exploring our alternative existence. A few people noticed and remarked on our odd couple friendship. Then we talked on my landline phone, and then we used Voice Over Internet Protocol.
My friendship with Johnny brought me comfort and security. I felt buttoned up into a mohair sweater. As I clicked my way across the bright colored screen, I had somebody to hang with. I was safe. I was not alone.
The world depended on real life people with tech skills. Manipulators of pixels and animations. Coders, scripters, builders. Artistic opportunities abounded in yet undiscovered disciplines. Behind the avatar called Johnny was a real person who held a job in the virtual world, but needed more income. Ad hoc groups formed to explore new expressions of art. Film, video, and movies were discussed with fury and high interest. One evening, I noticed the green dots on the map that show avatars clustered at one spot. I hurried over. The discussion was about making a documentary. Movie making had always been my goal and passion. I wanted to be a part of this. I was grateful to be included, even though I had dared to wander in uninvited.
A petite, stylish female avatar with a cultured voice and a “down under” Australian accent, said she worked in real life broadcast in many capacities, as a writer, presenter, and freelance reporter. Her avatar name was Maxie. There was an abundance of talent and enthusiasm about, and the alternate world was an exciting place to work and play.
I found a game based on Scrabble. Words, and the written word, were my focus in life so I tried it. But the sun shone in my eyes and I did not do so well, so I looked forward to trying again sometime when I had switched off the lights in the computer room.
To wander around in the virtual world is to engage in chaotic, random activity. There are Avatars to chat with. Some of them have crazy names, like Beelzebub. Or maybe Beelzebubba. In a landscape of viking ships, jazz combos, hobo towers, cowboy line dancing and so on, I was busy, entertained and amused. And still looking for creative opportunities.
The savvy player who understands the interface can set permissions for others to locate them on the map. Or not. Most of the time Johnny made his whereabouts known to me. He said that he allowed a majority of avatars to follow him unless he was busy. Then he would shut off permissions except to a critical handful. I hoped I had graduated into that group. But one day I realized Johnny was no longer responding to my communications. Nor did I encounter him in world. It happened all of a sudden. One day we were exploring dungeons and back alleys and he was taking quirky snapshots of my avatar. Then nothing.
I searched for Johnny everywhere. With my avatar parked on a mattress in the village where we both were used to hanging out, I waited and waited. I wondered if he might come looking for me. He did not. I wandered here and there, trying on clothes, collecting free items, attempting to make new friends. I made a note of my unhappiness in my public profile.
I shut off the computer and tried to go back to real life.
A day later I logged on and Johnny and I met by chance. With characteristic courtesy he said, “How are you doing” and I replied, “Fine”. No inquiry followed. I waited for one of his signature roguish remarks.
Perplexed, I considered what to offer to get our friendship back to the way it was. My options were narrow, as it is when interaction is limited to prims and text. I wondered if I should write him a poem. I did such things as a child. I wrote poems and stories and dreamed of the day my words would attract people and I would have friends. It had not worked. In my mind I could see myself on the playground of my childhood, running to catch up with the others, falling behind, giving up. Instead of writing a poem, I painted Johnny’s portrait. I scanned the painting, made it into a jpeg, imported it into the virtual world and sent it to him.
He sent me a two-word message. He said, “thank you”.
Just one day later I saw his avatar sitting in a chair, where he and I and others had held many conversations. I thought to myself, “Oh, he just forgot to reset his permissions”. I sat beside him. I assumed we would chat as usual. He jumped up and ran off. I followed him over a rough, terraformed landscape. Stuck again, I had to ask for his help. I said, “I thought we were friends”. And he replied, “Why would you think we are not friends”. With those words my teary, blurred view went back into focus and I felt a starburst of joy.
Then it was night time. I was seated at my computer in that dark room. For whatever reason, Johnny had restored my permission to find him in the virtual world.
I found him on a platform in the sky, seated by a gaming table with a female avatar. It was Maxie, the gal from “down under”. I asked him in text, “Are you playing scrabble”
He said, “No. Backgammon”.
I replied, “I wanted to play a game but nobody invited me”. At that point I thought somebody might. Invite me, that is. After all, I was good at words. I wanted to be a player but I just did not know how to get in on the game.
Johnny said, “We have company”, and Maxie said, “Lets stay in private voice chat. I don’t want to share our conversation with HER. I’m not exactly saying that woman is retarded or impaired, but when a group of us played Scrabble the other day, she was so slow it was painful”. And Johnny said, “Your mike is open. She has heard what you said” And Maxie answered, “Oh”.
What I heard in her voice only another woman would recognize. The tonality of tumescence. A timbre of the intense stimulation of nerve endings. She was giddy with the anticipation of release. An attraction had developed during my lonely hours, the time I spent searching, waiting, teleporting from one sim to another. That was why I had not seen anything of Johnny. I was back in the schoolyard, and my best friend had found a different playmate.
He typed, “I’m sure she did not mean it in a bad way. People just do not think sometimes”.
“Yes, they DO think”, I typed back. I was an annoyance, and in the way. A slug, easy to sweep off the sidewalk. Just exclude me and I would vanish.
“I’m not sure how to answer”, he replied.
“I am sure she wishes I would go away, which I have no intention of doing”. I was shaking.
“Private voice chat my eye”, I typed.
“You do know I like you” he typed.
I typed, “If you want me to leave I will. But somehow this has become a contest and I do not intend to lose”.
There was a silence, a blank spot. I suspected I had already lost. I typed, “Why is there no conversation”
“There is. I am in voice with Maxie”
I could not believe what I was reading. I typed, “That is rude and unconscionable”.
He typed, “I’m talking to her about me taking off her panties”.
The dice rolled and the game pieces clicked. I was reeling. Stunned. Maxie won the round of backgammon. Johnnys avatar bent over. I saw a female wielding a whip and using it on a submissive male. It was happening in my presence, before my eyes. I kept forgetting, this is a game. Its all pixels and a computer screen. Its not real.
Then they flew over to the other side of the platform. I searched for the camera controls. I did not know how to use them. As a kid, I was not good at using the playground equipment. Somehow I limped my way over there. I waited. That night in the virtual world, I asked myself, “Should I click the Quit button and forget these people. Should I put this silly virtual world in my past”. I waited and wavered. I had my finger on the mouse. I was ready to disappear for good. They were biding their time. So was I. They must have assumed, I would give up and log off. But I stayed. My lifes experiences had not taught me the grace of disappearing when I was no longer wanted.
I heard Johnnys voice. “Its about a job”, he explained. “Maxie works for companies that may need my services”. I was still shaken but I knew what to do. I assured him he should pursue any business opportunities and not let our friendship, his and mine, stand in the way. Out of pride I had to pretend it was her insults that had wounded me, not the other, obvious situation. He found her sexy and desirable. They went off into the dark of the virtual night so that she could teach him about his new job. I was too tired to cry.
Maxie stayed in the world for several months. She tried out for a piece of episodic theater to be performed inworld. She was snapped up at once. It was the Vagina Monologues. I did not even try. I had zero confidence in myself. I so wanted to be a part of that play, but I lacked the skills of line delivery like someone would who worked in broadcasting. I bought a dozen renditions of Frankie and Johnny from iTunes and listened to them repeatedly, especially the line about “and he done her wrong”. Maybe it was silly to think I had been done wrong in the cartoon world, but that was how it felt.
One day Johnny presented a slide show in the village, snapshots of his cartoon adventures in the region devoted to a police procedural television show. The inworld episode made network television. That was a big moment in pop culture. I google it now and then. On a day I could not locate him, he and friends including Maxie made a video in the forensics lab. Watching that video, I am once again reminded of the playground where I felt so excluded. I have wondered, if I had sent Johnny a private message would he have invited me along? By the time I went to the police procedural region, it was gone. It is not there and never will be built again.
I doubt Maxie found Johnny any employment. She lost interest in him when I didn’t retreat.
Johnny told me he had to talk man-to-man with Maxies real life boyfriend. He had a need to explain and apologize for coming between the two of them. Johnny reflected, “I was attracted to that woman. I had the hots for her. And she let me know she wanted to get into my pants. I wanted to have her any way I could.” Those words punched me in the gut. I cried for a year. He had said it was about a job. I flushed thinking of the remark I made about not letting our friendship, Johnnys and mine, interfere with business. If Maxie had not shot off her mouth with her mike open, the story might have had a different outcome. Clingy and pathetic worked for me. Second choice but I won. Maxie made an error using the interface. Johnny returned to hanging with me out of decency. He had no such obligation.
“For your information lady, people have always told me I’m smart and I’m a damn good writer”. I will say those words if I ever run into her again. She dissipated into the ether years ago. She vanished without leaving a single electronic breadcrumb. I have searched. The only clue I have found is someone with her unlikely handle buying and selling pretentious uppity junk on Australian eBay. I did not breathe easy until she had been offline a year or more. The moment it occurred to me she was gone for good was like recovery from stomach flu.
I wondered when, and if, the flirtatious and fascinating Maxie would swoop back in and I would be left roaming the garish landscape, lonely again. Like a kid wandering the playground, hoping somebody would come along and want to play. I made the arbitrary, hair-trigger decision to stay on that platform in the sky instead of logging off and deleting my account. It was a righteous decision. The fractured friendship between Johnny and me got pasted back together. That healed crack makes it imperfect and makes it precious. It’s called wabi-sabi, the beauty in a flaw, pottery repaired with gold.
I would still like to learn backgammon. The game Johnny and Maxie were playing on that platform with me as an observer in despair. aware of the attraction between them and in tears. The games of tables, the oldest board game in the world. Ten years ago they shared an intense, erotically charged moment, the observation of which sent a sonar impulse through my cartoon world and hurt my very real and human heart. But I crashed their scene that day in paratrooper boots and stomped all over their budding relationship. I could just as well title this narrative “Step off, bitch, I stole your man”. We who are pathetic sometimes prevail because the other person has a conscience. Johnny could have blocked, banned, muted or deleted me. Instead, he snapped more quirky pics of my avatar, beginning with a shot of me wearing reindeer antlers. What did I do right?