For in and out, above, about, below,
’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
— Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat
They sit with us…They tell us about the great big terrible things they’ve done and the great big wonderful things they’re going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar….
— Mary Chase, Harvey
Chapter 49: My summer of (virtual) love
My first day at the writing seminar was full of signs and portents. Class barely started when the tables began to shift and shuffle. The young newsman to my left and I exchanged a startled glance. He said: “Earthquake!” Across the boulevard, foreign students playing soccer struggled to keep their feet as the field rolled in waves like the sea. The college trembled gently, then settled. The soccer field lay inert again but empty, players scattering. Class continued while excited voices rang in corridors outside.
After class I wasn’t in my dorm room ten minutes before the fire alarm went. Still nervy from the earth’s rumba, we all clattered down the steps in a hurry. It was a false alarm. When the elevators worked again I went back to my room and got online. And met the North Carolina wife in a “chat room” called Married and Flirting.
The double-scare of earthquake and fire had me feeling reckless. Her admission she used different screen names for different seductions inspired me to follow her lead. From then on I spent hours online with lonesome women all over the country, unconstrained by long-distance fees.
Hours of sexual wordplay. Hours of virtual pillow talk about their secret sins and longings too combustible to share with people they knew. Behind the screen I was like the giant invisible rabbit Harvey in the eponymous play. No woman brought small loves or hates, or regrets or fears, into what amounted to a nationwide virtual bar.
When the raw emotion overloaded my empathy, I looked into outlier chat rooms where people cybered with no allusion to intimacy; virtual sleaze. One woman took me into private chat with another guy and challenged me to take charge. What the hell, it was only words. I told her to fellate him while I fucked her. He didn’t last long and fled once he got off. She said she’d love being my virtual slut, handed to random online men in groups while I told her what to do. Jesus H. Christ. A nurse who wanted “spanking” with a virtual ping pong paddle said she climaxed explosively when I wrote of using the handle for a dildo. You know how to take control. Tell me when you come to my town? Not a chance. I had few illusions left, but I would not take the kinky real.
There was a frankly horny babe delighted I knew the thin sensitive membrane between cunt and ass. She said she’d meet me any time, anywhere. Another talked me into a four-way with her friend and a guy her friend liked. They were sweet together, but mine said my writing was far sexier and urged her friend to give me a whirl when the other guy left. There seemed no end to horny females, or their kinks. Exploring the depths of virtual depravity until bored, I returned with something like relief to emotionally charged exchanges.
One intriguing woman invented a chat room called“train bound for nowhere,” inviting virtual passengers. Then opened a private “instant-message” box for me: a virtual compartment easy to imagine after my continental train trip. The intimacy was real as the sex was not, though she alleged repeated climaxes. Later she wrote she waited in vain for me the whole next night. Her pain at separation was real as our intimacy, and she couldn’t take it. Her screen name vanished.
There was a lovely Midwesterner who dreamed of running away to join the circus but said our sweet virtual affair was close as she would ever get to running away. An Ohio woman made fun of my dalliances, said she’d politely wait her turn — then grew moody as a jealous girlfriend.
Others with whom intimacy was as intense as the lady on the virtual train not only did not vanish but sought me daily. The danger of real emotional attachment was the crux of adverse criticism of the medium. Maybe we all were so emotionally parched in real life that intimate words from an utter stranger were “usquebaugh,” our water of life. If so, my Florida blonde’s perception was acute: I was a dipsomaniac loose in a distillery.
Of “all the girls I loved before” as the song goes, I never saw or touched one of them that Cyberian summer. But our keyboarded words entwined and steamed and created something like love. A word used too loosely in Cyberia. If the brain was the largest sex organ, as some women half-humorously said, the heart remained a lonely hunter. My melancholy conclusion was that Carson McCullers had it right long before computer chat rooms:“maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.”
One of my virtual loves was a Manhattan sophisticate who created a virtual pied-a-terre in Paris that inspired my best seminar short story:
— You are quiet tonight. The words appear on my screen in a “window” identified by a screen-name. My heart jumps. My sweet J. has found me again. The magic of the computer age: intimate contact across a continent…rapport almost telepathic in its intensity. No risk of disease, no messy exchange of body fluids, no risk at all. Except heartbreak.
She types: — Tired? Sad? Heartsick?
— Some of each, I type.
— Then let me take you to our special place, and heal you…
As through an actual window, I envision the Empire writing desk she purchased for me on Quai d’Orsay. The floral-patterned cushions on the wicker couch where we consummated our virtual love. In real life she lives in the urban sprawl along the old Post Road between Boston and Manhattan. Our lives connect only here, tenuously, and yet with a strange power. It truly is modern magic….
When I work-shopped the story, fellow students were surprised an old guy had such romance in him. They found the actual cybering banal, but were affected by the protagonist’s heartache.
He knew that while gentle and loving with him, she was addicted to fantasy domination rooms. Perhaps wielding a virtual whip across the buttocks of one of her other lovers chained to a dungeon wall. Or romping in a virtual menage, wildly orgasmic, her imagination stuffed with male flesh…
I left out of my story that she cuckolded her clueless husband with a real-life Dom. A guy who made her wear a battery-powered dildo in public, never knowing when he would press the remote until she shuddered in orgasm. Who took her roughly in dirty alleys amid night-crawling human detritus of the Big Apple. She tried to explain her fetish for “exchange of power” with a Dom as irrelevant to love for her spouse. I never got it. But I believed her love for her husband — and in an odd way, for me.
A high-priced Colorado executive liked to imagine me as a down-at-heels Philip Marlowe, herself a jaded chanteuse. She had been my first, even before the Florida blonde, but just stopped typing and went poof. Finding me online at school, she explained she experienced actual orgasm that night and just…fled. But she had been around the virtual block a few times since, was always disappointed, and I was what she needed.
She teased me about my “online harem” and laughed when I said not a harem, a practice. She called me Mr. Radio Voice when we went to phone sex. Married, when I mentioned my failed job hunt she said she’d find me work in her city. You could commute home to see your wife. I’d have my kept man here during the week. Perfect. Another who vowed eternal love, another I sort of believed. But no job ever materialized.
A thing I noted in Cyberia was temporal distortion. A week or two made emotional connections deep as months of real-time relationships. The Cyberian version of post-coital murmurs left the sense you’d known someone “forever.” Women said there was room in their heart to love two or more at the same time, especially in Cyberia. Who was I to disagree? Virtual time distortion and real emotion blended in a super-heated, intoxicating way. The Colorado woman and another I came to call Cynara, who affected me most of all, demanded I stroke myself to their words as they did to mine. They wanted proof it wasn’t just writing practice for me. Their need overcame my resistance to embarrassing-to-admit self-pleasuring.