(A writing-workshop story from the nineties, when AOL was in its heyday.)
Warm June evening on the Boulevard; every café has its street side opened up to the sidewalk and the outside tables are full. The pedestrian throng passes in and out of the orange glow of corner street lamps, moving shadows against the multi-colored neon of shop windows. Mating rituals are in full swing: hetero, male on male, female on female; ménage a trois. Couples gaze into each other’s eyes across tiny tables, others prank and prance down the pavements. In attire, they run the gamut from haute couture to extras in the street scenes from Blade Runner.
I sit with my back to a sturdy brick column in front of the coffee shop, my hands on this keyboard.
I could be working on proprietary business data, or composing limpid prose here. But I’m not. I’m online, though, given the wireless connection offered by this establishment to its patrons, “line” is an anachronistic term.
My heart is sore; that is the only way I know to describe it. Physically and emotionally sore. The nitro capsules lie beside this keyboard, just in case. I hate those things: instant migraine! And I have battled migraines far longer in my life than a stumbling heart.
— You are quiet tonight.
The words appear on my screen in a “window” identified by a screen-name. My heart jumps. My sweet D. has found me once again. The magic of the computer age: intimate contact across a continent, or ocean. Swift rapport, almost telepathic in its intensity. No risk of disease, no messy exchange of body fluids, no risk at all. Except heartbreak.
My fingers flicker. — Yes. Quiet.
— Tired? Sad? Heartsick?
— Some of each, I type.
— Then let me take you to our special place, and heal you.
My fingers hesitate. Then, — I’m not sure I can be healed.
— Come, my precious love…
The screen changes. As through an actual window, I look into the fantasy flat she and I have decorated across the months. The Empire writing desk she purchased for me on Quai d’Orsay. The floral-patterned wicker couch where first we consummated our virtual love.
Beyond the couch, the glass doors give onto the balcony. I can see the reflected glow of Paris, and remember the time I took her from the rear, her breasts scraping the cold brick as she bit her lip to keep from crying out. In real life, Paris is over six thousand miles from my sidewalk chair, and she lives somewhere in the urban sprawl along the old Post Road between Boston and Manhattan.
— There’s huge thunderstorms going on here….you know that makes me happy.
Me: Threat to your machine?
D: Who cares? It’s fabulous!
Me: My stormy darling.
D: Are you all right, sweet? You seem…not yourself.
Me: Kind of tired…
D: All right…you walk in the door…exhausted after a long day… I can see the weariness in your eyes….
D: Take off your jacket and follow me into the bath…I have a surprise. Only now do you realize the scent wafting through our apartment is fresh cut flowers…
Me: <Tiredly> Mmmm.
D: I bought some at a stand near the entrance to the Metro today. They were so bright and beautiful I HAD to have them. I have candles lit around the bath, also freesia scented. Very invigorating, yet soothing. A scent which awakens you….
Me: Oh D, this is what I need.
I have spun so many virtual dreams across the years for online lovers. They called me their dream-spinner. But only D. seems able to sense when my yarn is spent, and then she takes the lead.
— Let me take your clothes off…your shirt…hold you close a moment …kiss you. Then I undo your trousers…and you step out of them, shoes and socks kicked off now. Step inside the tub…the water is warm and soothing. The perfect temperature. Lay back and close your eyes while I bathe you…just breathe…dream. Feel good?
And it does. I am sitting in jeans and a polo shirt, watching the passing pedestrians in a soft warm night. D. is a continent away, her apartment windows rattling in a thunderstorm. But despite my melancholy I am transported to our Paris flat by the old sweet magic.
D: I have a soft washcloth…start at your neck, gently scrubbing, cleansing…the water feels so good. I have a robe…silk…very loose at the bodice. It hides nothing. I lean over, to get closer to you…you reach for my breasts, very visible. Mmmmm — so exciting. My nipples harden immediately.
There was a time when my pulse would have raced madly in response to this scene my faraway lover builds for me. She is financially well-off, happily married, far younger than I, and bursting with barely restrained eroticism. I am an aging writer, stone-broke again. My mind is the only organ left in my body that quivers to erotic overtures. If you don’t count my stumbling heart.
D. and I have never seen each other. Never touched. Never will. We have agreed to forego the modern camera software that would permit us to see each other in living motion, full sound and color, right down to erections and sexual flushes of the flesh. We don’t even actually achieve orgasm, as many do in here. Well, I don’t, and she says she never does.
We share a simple love of language and the evocative magic of words. In another age, we might have been pen pals, waiting impatiently for the mail ship or the Pony Express rider. Some exquisite erotic correspondences survive from the era of the quill pen and hot wax seal. Our lives connect only here, tenuously, and yet with a strange power. It truly is modern magic.
And this magic has its price.
I open a separate search window — a slightly illegal hacker’s program — and find her online. That is, I find other features of the online software in which she is engaged at this moment.
This software is downloadable from offshore these days, for a fee. Official regulators have pretty much given up attempts to monitor this medium. It’s all about surveillance now — electronic eavesdropping by the powers-that-be. More than once I have envisioned bored voyeurs in their National Security Agency bunkers, taking time out from snooping for terrorists to get a prurient fix from conversations such as ours: a little perk for civil servants with high security clearances.
D. is connected to one of her private domination fantasy rooms simultaneously to me. Perhaps wielding a virtual whip across the buttocks of one of her other lovers, chained to a dungeon wall. Or romping in a virtual ménage, wildly orgasmic, her imagination stuffed with male flesh. My fingers hover, ready to key the “back door” that will let me look inside her fantasy unobserved. Instead, I free my hands from the keys and sip my coffee, feeling the old pain rise again.
She says she loves me.
And I have vowed the same to her. Once I made this avowal while I simultaneously seduced an on-line virgin in an adjacent window. I doubted by then there was such a thing as an on-line virgin, and even wondered if my new conquest was truly female. But the idea of seduction — while vowing love to D. — was so powerfully erotic I could not resist. The answer to both my questions about the virgin proved to be yes, eventually. My heart grew even heavier when this latest conquest — decorous third wife of a Mormon elder — began to write me erotic love poems. D. found it exciting when I finally told her…
D: I stand up…undo the sash on the robe…it drops to the floor, around my feet. I step out of it.
She and I used to make jokes about simultaneous cyberplay. Multi-tasking, we called it, in the cynical jargon of cyberia. In an unguarded moment, she confided she could keep four separate erotic scenes in play at once. Which made her so horny and aroused that her poor husband never had a chance when he got home from the stock exchange. Lately she has been teasing him about their mutual friend across the hall, a voluptuous blonde. She is considering involving him in a real life ménage a trois. His reward, she says coyly, for being her virtual cuckold.
She tells me these things, expecting my approval. Yet she says she loves me. And how can I deny her? My tattered old heart leaped when she found me. I long since have stopped multi-tasking when I am with her. A secret act of fealty. I yearn to tell her, and ask for her reciprocation — but fear she will vanish off my screen forever if I do. Her life mate’s possessiveness of her is the only thing about him she despises. In bitter irony, I feel a kind of brotherhood with him. She still is in her private orgy. But at the same time —
D: I place one foot in the tub, by your right hip. Now the other, by your left. I slowly lower myself into the tub…into the water. ONTO you. Your hands are on my hips. I lean forward…my breasts against your chest. My head on your shoulder…
Me: Your nipples are so hard, my love.
D: Mmmm, yes…because of you. So nice here. Just relax my love…the day is gone and we’re together now. This is all the world we need now. I feel your hardness. Can we be any closer?
Me: Only if…
D: Tell me.
Me: Put your hands on me and guide me into you.
D: Feel my warmth engulf you. You are so very hard now. Hard and deep. My love, let down my hair…
Me: Fingers trembling. But I manage…
D: As I shake my head to let it all drop. You manage well at many things, darling. Kiss me hard. Hard on the mouth.
Me: While you impale yourself on me…
D: Oh yes! Mmmm. My head goes back and your mouth finds my breasts.
D: Oooh. <Gasping> YES. Biting my lip for some semblance of control. Oh god, my love…
Me: Teeth sinking into your rigid flesh. Hands kneading you. My hips thrusting up to you.
D: Deeper! Yes! Oh — OH! Tell me what you want…what you need from me.
Me: I want you to come — hard — over and over…
D: I am yours. Oh god. oh — god! My breasts heaving for air; holding you. YES! YES, YES. As I ride you so hard! The water splashes everywhere. We don’t care! Candles sizzle from the splashes. Oh my lover — DO me! Fuck me! Oh, god, holding you so close. Oh god! I’m going to —
Me: Yes , love. Yes. Now!
D: I’m going to come. Yes! Yes!
Me: Holding there — holding DEEP.
D: Oh god! I’m whimpering. Again…again. Again!!! Oh, CHRIST! Come for me…come in me!
Me: Now! Hard and hot and splashing…
D: Let me feel you! I’ m going crazy! You’re making me CRAZY.
Me: Exploding. BURSTING…
D: Oh god! I can feel you…inside me…I feel you letting go! So real, so real. Breathing slower…easier now…
Me: Come down here and let me hold you
D: Heart is pounding so hard. Mmmm, yes — hold me. Ohhhhhh…the best arms. The safest and warmest love…
Me: I know, love. Sighhhh. In this universe, all things are possible. Even that you love an old guy like me…
D: Old guys like you…but especially you…turn me on big time.
Me: Moving to the top of your dance card?
D: You are at the top! Go and get some sleep, love, and dream of me a little….
And she is gone from my screen, back to her other private fantasy. D. never has bothered to create a separate screen name for her dalliances. She sometimes teases me gently about my cyber harem: when am I going to invite one of them to join us for a threesome? Will I join her with one of her trusted male admirers for a different sensation? For some reason, I draw the line there, even in this fantasy land. You don’t have to, she quickly tells me — sensing my hurt — you are all I need, or really want.
I become aware of the street scene again. A lithe woman, with grey at her blonde temples and jaded eyes, catches my glance. She quirks a somehow sardonic eyebrow. Every passerby must have known what I was doing. My face is hot and flushed, and I can feel sweat on my forehead. There’s a damp spot on my jeans. The nose-pierced male waiter replenishes my coffee. Even he gives me the once-over. I must be leaking pheromones into the night air. A false signal. There is moisture, but no tumescence, in my nether regions.
Behind my ribs, my heart gives a keen squeeze. The glowing screen seems to darken. The passing parade fades into a flicker of phantoms. I breathe cautiously, needing air, but afraid to suck it deep. Afraid a deep inhale will trigger — something final. I hold the pill bottle in my hand. I’d almost rather die that trigger another migraine.
I check my search program again. D. still is happily ensconced. My fevered imagination conjures strings of depraved words. My sweet D., debased and debasing. Green jealousy flashes through me like fire — all the hotter because I am guilty as she. Perhaps guiltier. For in this medium of the mind, I am a sweet and tender lover. I used to pretend I was doing research to learn how to write love scenes. But the only creative writing I ever seem to do any more is for my unconfessed-to cyber harem, each of whom is in love with me, each of whom — except D. — thinks I am her only dalliance.
How on earth did I come to this?
If little Sharon just hadn’t kissed me full on the mouth in the third grade, startling alive a hot rush of feeling. If that other Sharon, my last year of high school, hadn’t coldly stood me up on our first date. If my mother hadn’t tried to turn me into a mama’s boy, warning me that every girl would tease and tempt me until I lost control, and then yell rape. If, if, if…
My breathing steadies. My melancholy settles more closely around me. My first real-time lover was gentle and erotic, and awakened me to the full magic of the flesh. It was an intoxicating discovery that I immediately yearned to share with every woman I met. But the first woman with whom I fell in love confessed in my arms that she found my preoccupation with sex vaguely disgusting, that she had only gone along to please me. She left me for a steady man, a good provider, low on sex drive. She would have liked me a lot for the next few months, for her tearful declaration cut my potency out of me like a dull knife. It stayed gone for a bad long time…
I eventually married, and stayed faithful to my one and only wife — because her passion matched my own and she loved me hotly and sweetly — for seven good years. A pathetic Hollywood joke, that seven-year-itch. But when I got the itch, and then confessed my infidelity, it gouged unsealable cracks in our relationship, though we stayed together another decade. Then I was alone again, with no idea how to approach women any more, and little desire to try.
Online services, in the early days, were outrageously expensive, difficult to keep a connection — and addictive. I didn’t stop at one online affair, or two, or ten. More than one of my lovers — for I somehow always seemed to find bright, intuitive women — believed that I was just in love with love. The same thing D. has said to me. But my heart could not — and cannot — seem to tell the difference.
I had always joked in my youth, while learning to write, that I wanted a typewriter that talked back. Now I have a keyboard that not only talks back, but makes love to me.
I made all the mistakes now so well-chronicled in the literature of on-line relationships. I proceeded to telephone sex, then to a real-time rendezvous. Fell in love with this woman that my typing had summoned into real-life as magically as some sorcerer’s spell — and had my heart broken. She wanted me to turn off the computer, turn my back on my online affairs. Before I could manage to do that, she left me, her own heart torn to pieces. I mourned her loss — and returned to the net. Became a dream-spinner for so many lonely ladies. I flinched inwardly when they fell in love with me, and cringed when my own battered heart squeezed out a new eternal vow.
A cooling wind sweeps down the Boulevard. I notice abruptly that D. has signed off. Replete for the night. Or, more likely, aroused sufficiently to attack her unsuspecting husband once more. Of all her men, he is the one for whom I hold no jealousy. She gives her actual physical love to him alone — she swears it — and I cling to that one last vow doggedly, in some final act of faith.
My heart speaks to me again beneath my ribs. Not in the romantic language of love, but the flesh reality of impending mortality. The medics say I really have nothing to worry about: sound genetic stock, a solid exercise program, proper diet. I should last a long time.
But my heart and I know better. It is sore from too much giving, too much taking. The sword outwears the sheath and the heart outwears the breast…I can’t remember the rest of that poem. Francois Villon? Maybe. He would have been one hell of an on-line rake.
The mating rituals on the Boulevard swirl by in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. I always have been too painfully shy in person to join these preening dances. Every woman who has known me in real life had to initiate the contact. Now, as I watch them in the parade — the ones as young as lusty as my D., the older, jaded ones — I wonder about their secret lives when they are alone with their computer screen. Do any of my on-line loves pass before me, unknowing?
My screen chimes. Words appear, as if by magic.
— I was hoping you would be here. I can’t think of anything but you. Just seeing your screen-name on line makes me go all wet and yearning…
My old heart lurches painfully. — Hello, my darling A. How’s your weather there?
— Cold and snowing. It’s winter down in the Southern Hemisphere, you know. I am sitting by the fireplace. In our special cabin in the mountains. The fire is so cozy, all I have on is this old T-shirt you snail-mailed me last year. You know how easily that comes off…
The pedestrians parade by. The hour is growing late. My coffee is cold. I close my eyes and see A. there, a world away, where the water allegedly runs anti-clockwise down the drains. Her breasts fill my old Mariners shirt, her eyes glow in the firelight. When I open my eyes, new words have appeared on the screen.
— You seem quiet tonight, my precious dream-spinner. Are you okay?
I squeeze my eyes shut again. I can’t do this anymore. But my fingers move in their practiced rituals, almost independent of me.
— Just lonesome. For you.
— Then come into my arms, and I will warm you.
My fickle heart suddenly is quiet, as if listening. I signal for more coffee, and begin to type.