monologue for one
That summer, all I wanted to do was hide. Everyone who had money was selling their stocks, going liquid, they said. Liquid. I’d tried to sell my place; no one wanted it. I felt as if we were all being carried by a wave big enough for everyone, a big smooth dark grey-brown wave that grew as it accelerated. A wave that was going to crash over us and drown us all.
I went to Paris to interview a designer about his new apartment. I had dinner with my two best friends, Marie and Gilles. I hadn’t seen them for two years. They’d been married a long time. She was unchanged, he was not. The contours his face seemed unclear, as if drawn by a shaky hand. He couldn’t be old—he was still so tall, so plump.
In the middle of dinner, he had a moment of absence, as if he’d been taken away and returned to us. They were about to go to Corsica on holiday.
The next day, the designer took me to examine his new apartment. He always described his previous taste as an error: what he did last week was an error, what he wanted last month was an error, last year was all wrong, now he sees it, he’s improved. Brown velvet? Pfft! Gone. Now he felt Steel and White. He felt Polished Concrete Floors.
He said: “I love the concept of a second life.”
I came home to New York and wrote the story.
I quoted him: “‘I love the concept of second life,’ he says, between shining new walls.”
Then I sat at my desk, afraid of something.
The phone rang. It was Marie, in Corsica.
“Gilles drowned,” she said.
She was calling from the morgue. She was alone. Her daughters were on the plane from Paris.
“I’m going to bury him here,” she said.
The air around me turned to stone.
I was still sitting at the desk when the fact checker called to ask:
“Did he mean the concept of ‘having a second life,’ or Second Life?”
“How is that different?” I asked.
“You know,” she said, “the website—Second Life.”
I didn’t know the website Second Life.
That night, I went into Second Life. It was 3 a.m. in Corsica. Marie was with her daughters. Gilles was over on the mineral side, in a box. The loft was high and cool, but the old farm table was hot. I sat barefoot facing the air conditioner, but a good twenty feet away, to avoid the gale. A plate of sliced fennel was next to me; it was 9:15. I signed up.
Second Life. It asks me to choose an avatar, a body, a being. I choose a female, with a pony tail. I fill in the forms. I take on a name, Xenia, because it means traveler. Before I can concoct a last name, a menu drops down with Second Life’s family names. Whoever is running this website is making families. No matter how lonely you are when you enter Second Life, here you will be in a family.
What Second Life didn’t tell me was that I would see myself from a place about three feet above and three feet behind my head. See myself as the dead are said to see themselves, from behind and above the body, the place, maybe, where the soul resides. What Second Life didn’t tell me was that I would be young.
I come to, I am born, in the center of a sort of temple ringed by pillars, with a terrace overlooking a small body of water over which hangs a weeping willow, and in the distance are mountains against a sunset sky. The pillars, the atrium, the mountains, and the sky are all in tones of brown, rust, and purple. My colors. I feel at home. Which me feels at home? The person I am looking at from behind and slightly above—a young girl, perhaps 17, perhaps younger, a young girl with two perfect buns for a bottom, a pony tail, and the straight shoulders of ballet posture and tough little legs in flat shoes.
I can only see her bottom and the back of her head.
She’s wearing a pink dress with white polka dots. A tag follows her around, hovering over her head with her name in a box. I will always know I am Xenia Robertson.
So will everyone I meet.
And if they click on the name tag, as I am doing, they can find out about me. My favorite places. My picks. I don’t have any favorite places yet. I don’t have any picks.
I don’t yet walk well.
I can propel myself forward with a click, another click. I am looking down at me, trotting ahead, and the watching me pulled along like a balloon behind her.
I walk jerkily, a little like a sleepwalking monster, but the landscape—God it’s detailed—goes by on either side of me, and it’s a real world. The light is changing a little. There’s a breeze in the trees, there are clouds in the sky, there is a life inside this computer on my table, a life that I do not feel here in the loft. That I do not feel in my own life.
I’m young and I’m sexy.
She’s cuter than I was at eighteen. She’s really cute.
I walk oddly too, in real life.
But she’d know that, wouldn’t she?
My young, innocent self is walking over a bridge. I’m hypnotized by my little bottom.
There’s no script. There’s no map, no instructions, no rules, no demands.
This is total freedom. But I am completely alone.
In the chair in the loft, my body is drawn taut into the new world. I haven’t been this excited in years. I can feel a perfect temperature and a slight breeze, like a warm day when I’m eight, running up Groom Place across the cobblestones and I pull my skirt up over my underpants and run and run and run. I feel the breeze on the front of my thighs, my bare thighs. I don’t feel my body in the chair at all.
I can make the avatar run—jerkily—across the bridge and into the landscape that keeps unfolding, river into trees, meadow into river into mountain into bay into sea. I see the button that says “Fly” and I click on that, I am rising through the air, because it is air, I am rising with my arms held out just the way I used to, when I still flew in dreams.
How do the people who made this place know? How do they know that when you fly, you start—not high, about three feet up—at the approximate height of the back of a sofa, and you hold your arms out like a bird, and then you rise and rise, and then you fly. It must be the same for them. The way I fly in my dreams is the way millions of strangers fly in their own dreams. Maybe we all really are one.
I swoop over a lake, rise, lean a little to the left and turn, and then swerve around to the right. I’m headed straight for a tree. I try to change direction and I can’t, I brace for impact, but as I fly into the branches, they part to let me through.
The tree paid attention to me.
I figure out how to turn, and below, I see what I have left behind—the atrium surrounded by pillars, the willows and maple trees at each corner. I click the Stop Flying button and fall to earth with a thud. My knees buckle and I put a hand down to help myself up, give a little shake.
I see human shapes in the atrium, a man and a woman. Their outlines are sharp, they sway slightly, and they are clearly in cahoots. It’s as if I could read in cahoots under their feet as clearly as I can read the nametags hovering above them.
I don’t like them. This is my space, one. And two. I am very aware of one rising demand, one interest I have here above all other things.
I am brand new, I want sex. Now. I want, more than anything, to find someone to have sex with. It doesn’t matter who. Just not those two in my atrium.
I find the search box and start typing in words: Sex. Orgy. Jism. Cum. Slut.
I love typing those words. It’s as if were 14, typing in words you should not say. Or 17, and these are the words I want to know everything about.
Names of places come up on the screen. Cum Slut Dungeon, Sex Motor City. I click on Sex Dance Hangar and I’m instantly teleported there. I hear a cartoon “whoosh,” there’s a black screen interval, then I’m there.
And it looks just like . . . an airplane hangar. I’m surrounded by big awkward male avatars, too many of them, shaped like Frankenstein. They dance, some ably, some not, and several proposition me, the young girl in the stupid polka dot dress.
A man with yellow hair takes me down to a basement movie house where other avatars are watching a porn film on a screen. The cartoon me in the polka dot dress in a basement porn house and the flesh and blood me in the bathrobe at the desk are both riveted by a video of flesh and blood strangers projected on a wall in a cartoon universe.
I watch the real inside the fake, from the real.
The blond avatar becomes a boyfriend because he sends messages to me a few hours later—I’m still online—which proves a consistency of purpose that could lead to a further relationship. I’m mad for his tall, sculpted body. He takes me to something called Orgy Emerald Forest. There are many people. Dozens of nametags hang in the air like swarms of gnats. On a stage, strippers make pretzel shapes on chairs, couples do other things on designated carpets on pretty convincing grass.
He leads me to a set of balls on a carpet and types “Click on the pink one.”
I don’t feel like clicking just then, so I don’t click.
I just want to have sex.
I type “LET’S HAVE SEX.” I’m bold. It’s all in capital letters.
“Click on the pink ball,” he types, again. Click on the Pink Ball?
I don’t want to click on the pink ball.
I want to have sex.
He wanders off. After he leaves, I click on the ball, just to see what all that was about, and suddenly my sweet little 17-year-old body is kneeling legs apart on the rug on the grass of the Orgy Emerald Forest and my sweet little 17-year-old hips are moving back and forth and my sweet little 17-year-old avatar me is offered to all. A couple comes to the rug; he stretches out his arm to the blue ball, she does the same to the pink, and suddenly they are rutting. Sucking. Fucking. They clicked into the universal rut.
When I was young, my lust sat on my shoulders and I just wanted to be held. Now I know where lust belongs, but I am lonely in the bathrobe on the chair in the big room on an August night, and this young creature on the screen is me, and she has no shame. And there is no doubting the trance, there is no awkwardness in this universe full of people with fake names and cartoon bodies, without smells, without hair, without shame, all fucking.
They’re real. Their hunger is real. My hunger is real. In case there is no one to help it pass, there are all these extra things to use, chairs to diddle you and seats to spread you wide, dilators to open you, vibrators to buzz you, machines to pleasure you. It’s wonderfully dirty and anonymous.
I’m clicking pink balls everywhere now, lying under tattooed muscle men and long-haired wrestlers and monster mountain men with shiny posts through their dicks.
I’m on the far side of that state when you’re so aroused that you would do it with anyone anywhere anytime any way.
And they’re as aroused, as crazy hungry as I am, as both of me are, as we are.
There is just one problem. I have learned how to remove my polka dot dress, but under it, this craving hungry body of mine has black underwear painted on it. Xenia, the gorgeous 17-year-old, lacks any sexual characteristics.
I understand the lust of eunuchs, that it’s possible to crave sex, without anything to give it with or anywhere to receive it with.
It is possible to crave sex without a body.
I go shopping to soothe myself with what I’d buy in real life. I find a store for nice hair, really nice hair that moves as you walk, stores for dresses. I have clicked on signs that said “freebies” and have collected a stash of Brazilian tranny outfits, multiple variations on yellow shorts and halter tops. I click them on to my body. I do the same with the free shoes, which are high-heeled sandals with bling on them that send shards of light out into the rooms where I go dancing. These beams are beautifully rendered, but I learn fast that here in Second Life, beams are vulgar. Newbies wear bling, Newbies are the newborns of Second Life, ambulatory but utterly ignorant. They like the way those shards of light cut up the darkness.
Stores as big as hangars sell sex beds, and avatars try out the different functions of the balls, in public, during store hours—which are 24, 25, 26 hours a day, because this is a global website. And because it’s a global website, it’s always also four a.m., middle of the night lonely here.
I think I had sex—well, call it frottage of cartoons—with five or six more men avatars and one furry animal called a Neko before I decided to branch out and look up “dyke.” I’d never done it with a woman. I found a French resort for women only, with Japanese massage rooms and sheer curtains suggestively wafting in the breeze as a pink sun dipped into a golden sea. But there was not one lesbian to be found.
Disconsolate in my stupid polka dot dress, I wandered across realistic tatami mats to cherry blossom gardens with chirping birds and met another woman. Her name was Gloria Nelson, but she was French.
I stared at her and she stared at me. Now this was odd. Two cartoon versions of human beings could tell at once that the other was not what they were looking for.
“I’m here to get laid,” she said, “but I’m not having any luck.”
“That’s just what I’m trying to do,” I answered.
“Let’s go hunting together,” she said.
Her tastes run to chiseled men; polka-dot-pony-tail-me will try anything.
Which is how I end up at the Orgy Emerald Forest with an avatar who was a man when I met him, but has now taken on the shape of a red horse, although his name tag remains the same. He must be young, because he chose “Dork” as his first name. Dork and Xenia. I have become the possessor of a whip. Gloria, who liked it rough, took me to a place she knew that specialized in arranged gang rapes, and the whips were free.
So there I am with the horse among the fucking couples. I’m in a cave where couples are doing it on a billiard table, in a running shower, on the ground, and I’m whipping the horse and he’s whinnying and suddenly French Gloria is at my side, and she types a private message to me that no one else can see: “I have met the man of your dreams.”
Well, that’s not what she says. She’s practical. She’s French. She says, “I’ve just had the best fuck I have had in my whole life, and you have to try him too.”
I don’t stop to ask which of her two lives she is referring to.
I’ve been living in Second Life inside the computer for six whole days now, and the Me that’s here, young Xenia, is the only Me. The woman in the loft is just my temporary host, my necessary flesh vehicle. I am something bigger than this limited mortal soon to be sixty. I am a wandering universal spirit, I am disembodied hunger and, I have to admit, powerful charm, sheathed in this gorgeously drawn doll.
I am the soul freed from the body.
Gloria gives me his name. Randolph Crist.
I abandon the horse boy and run to look for the nametag that says Randolph Crist. He is lying on a carpet under the trees. He’s next to a pink ball, he’s waiting for me.
By now I know just what to do. I click on the pink ball and slide in under him.
Gloria was right. The man’s a genius at sex. He types all the right words. What he says proves he’s there with me:
“Your nipple shivers” he types, “I may have to kiss it.”
I am moved, I am so moved. An electric charge goes through me. I think I have just short circuited. What I type back at him goes “Aaaaaaaaaaaah” and “OMG,” many times omg omg omg omg and “oooooooooooooh”—
But it’s what he says afterwards: “So good to hold you tight against me.”
I feel him holding me tight—“holding your body against mine,” he goes on, “I can feel it, your heart racing, your sweat-glistening body against mine, run my hand down the contours, ribs, waist, hips, kneecaps.”
“I can feel your hair in my face”, he says, “feel your heart softly purring.”
I look at him closely, run my virtual hands over his cartoon body. Unlike most of the avatars lying on the rug around us, he has no tattoos. A small diamond, though, sends sharp beams from his left ear. He has it in real life, he says. He got it when he turned 18. I’m too smitten to tell him that bling is for Newbies. I’m not here to give style lessons. He likes it, it’s him, that’s fine.
In one corner of the screen, I can see the horse boy is still lurking, watching. He must have seen plenty. The horse boy is a kid, and I know that Randolph Crist is an adult. I just know. There’s something beautifully broken and luminous and hidden about him, because he’s made me short circuit. He has some kind of secret to my wiring. My human wiring. The adult me is just innocent and hopeful enough that I think I have found the man of my dreams.
Our avatars on the screen are entranced with one another, we can’t stop touching and holding, we’re in that sweat dream after sex that condenses time, stretches time.
On screen, my aqua eyes blink. His hand runs along my shoulder, his full color 3D-drawn hand along the full color drawing of my shoulder.
“Shift my weight just a little, so you nestle in more,” he types.
I nestle into his shoulder just a little more. I believe it. I believe we are in a private universe of love carved out on a rug populated by strangers, in a forest made for orgies.
“My forearms just shivered a little,” I say.
“It’s the breeze,” he answers.
He understands. He understands it all.
“We’re just dolls,” he says, “But dolls tell you a lot about their owners.”
His doll hugs my doll.
He types: “W00t!”
W 0 0 t is the Second Life way of saying “Hurrah.”
I have found love in Second Life, a man who hugs and cherishes me.
I know that he is not a child. I can tell he’s suffered.
I fall into his sadness, and there, I fall in love.
I need two things: primary sexual characteristics and a home. I find a place by the beach in Anguilla—a house on stilts, down where the palm trees sway. There are square plates of fruit set out on the granite counter—well, it looks like a granite counter—and the bed is angled between two windows and the pink and blue balls have all kinds of new, and more intimate, positions.
I invite Randolph Crist to join me. We hug on the bed and we click on the pink ball and the blue ball.
He tells me he likes me. I am so, so happy.
I explain that this is where I like to be, on this bed, when I leave Second Life, when I click Quit. Because if this is where I was when I left, this is where I’ll be when I come back into life Second Life. I’ll awaken on this bed in this lovely house on stilts on a well-rendered Second Life version of the island of Anguilla, where the sunsets are spectacular and occur every six hours. And if one sunset isn’t enough, I can click an option in the world menu that makes it dawn, noon, sunset, or night, and I can watch another sunset right now.
Randolph asks me if I have rented the place. Rented? I ask. Oh My God, or in local parlance, OMG, this is a place someone pays for! It’s not mine to use as I wish?
Do I want to invest 1200 Lindens a week in living here? Is that a good use of the Linden dollars I will have to transfer into this other life, via Pay Pal?
I let him know I live alone in Real Life.
And I am a woman in love. I log on when I think he’ll be on. I linger in the places I know he goes—Orgy Emerald Forest, principally—and because I do not yet know how to navigate, I sometimes get stuck between flat panels of advertising around the greensward where people fuck on the rugs.
Sometimes we meet at my borrowed Anguilla house on stilts; once he teleports me to where he is, and it’s an apple farm where we sit on faded porch steps. All the wood is painted red, there are huge daisies, and I can see horses out in the paddock. He says he feels comfortable here, and he hugs me.
I feel as if he took me home to meet the folks.
But I am still, technically, an undifferentiated drawing of a virgin in black underpants wearing a black bra. I can amend my body, increase the size of my butt and my breasts, make myself grow as tall as Alice after she drank the bottle labeled “Drink me.” But no matter how large I make my breasts, all I will have is a big black bra until I buy myself a decent pair of nipples.
There are stores here just for that. One place is called Xcite!, spelled X, C, I, T, E—with an exclamation mark. Xcite! sells penises and nipples and vaginas. Vaginas run about 500 Lindens, which is about two dollars. Penises are more, I think. Nipples are cheaper. They are animated to do things: gape and foam and shoot milk and bleed and piss, yes, piss. Everything Xcite! sells has a warranty and subscriptions to upgrades. You can upgrade your nipples, your penis, your vagina. I have not yet bought anything, because I don’t want to upgrade something I wish I hadn’t bought.
I don’t know which one to choose.
It’s a ceremonial thing. I want to be sure of my man before I commit.
For that, I need some proof of love from him.
I tell Randolph Crist that I am going to stay with friends by the sea. In my fairy tale, enforced separation will stoke his ardor. I will not come online the whole time I am away, I say. I will not try to access Second Life in my friend’s house. I cannot have emotions that strong in a guest room by the sea.
I am gone for five days during which I feel so electric and alive that I flirt with white-haired wasps and tanned valet parking attendants and Mexican busboys, and a teenager. I am in the afterglow of Randolph Crist in Second Life, I feel invincible in First Life.
But I can’t wait to get home.
By the time I have sat down at the farm table in the loft and opened up my laptop, Randolph Crist has gone out of reach.
At first, I think it’s my fault. He isn’t where he is supposed to be. Maybe I’m not where he expects to find me. I wait for two days on the bed in the borrowed house in Anguilla. I send him messages—I’m here, where are you? Suddenly he rezzes in front of me. He types in the number 8 and two left parentheses that imitate a downturned mouth, he explains how much work he has, how he’s slammed. I am patient. We, Xenia and I, are patient and understanding. I try to be adult, and then I try to be less adult and have a little tantrum because I am 17, and that’s what you do at 17.
I decide it’s because I wasn’t a real woman to him. I put some money in an account that can feed Xenia’s account in Second Life, and I go to Xcite! to buy some primary female sexual characteristics. The vagina has a function called spray.
The problem is, now I can’t find Randolph at all—not in the orgy places, not at the apple farm, not at the movie palace.
I find him at last, after days of looking, on the boardwalk at Sex Beach.
He’s with a woman, a blowsy blonde with long, long hair.
“Randolph!!!” I type, “Randolph!!!” I want to tell him that I am at last fully loaded for pleasure, at last I have nipples now, a vagina, a clit.
“I’m busy,” he types back, “Sorry, with friends.”
I’m devastated. So devastated that something electronic short-circuits my avatar. Little Xenia jerks out of control, her arms and her legs spin like the arms on windmills and her face becomes long as if someone had rubbed a thumb in putty and pulled. I can’t control her. She’s all windmill there on the boardwalk.
“Xenia! Stop that!” Randolph types.
The blonde behind him doesn’t move.
Xenia can’t stop moving.
And then Randolph exercises the Second Life prerogative. He poofs, he vanishes, he is gone. And so is his lady friend. But I have seen her name. Rose McCutcheon.
My real life has faded fast, anyway. I can’t focus on three-dimensional objects in physical space any more. I don’t know how to see things close up without a zooming camera function. In the streets, strangers appear to be visitors from Second Life: men and women with blank faces and the slightly staccato walks of avatars whose owners have not yet purchased the Animation Override functions that will allow them to glide and sway and pose in contrapposto, like Michelangelo’s David. In the everyday streets of New York City, I see girls with immense, improbable platform shoes, and men with hair so shiny I know they clicked “extra shine” in the texture menu. Everything appears hyper-lit, so distinct that I could swear there are black outlines around each human shape as it walks by me. The bricks on the walls are held together by white lines, not mortar, and the trees growing from little prison manhole covers are sketchy and unfinished, just like the merchandise in the second-tier garden stores of Second Life.
In the mirror, my eyes are flat.
And now I have a brand-new vagina but no one I love to use it on. No one to use it with.
Encouraged by my French friend with the English name Gloria, I have an encounter in a sauna with her boyfriend, a pole named Voytech. I suspect he’s not really a Pole. I am in love with Randolph, and Randolph is hiding, and Randolph is with another woman.
I cry about this.
I cry so much that Gloria becomes alarmed. She convinces me to get help. I type in “therapy” and find a support group.
A Second Life support group where avatars gather to discuss their problems.
Xenia sits on a sofa in a Second Life cottage by a garden.
There are gorgeous men and women here, also a leprechaun and two animals—a bear and a tiger. But the talk, typed back and forth, is all about real life—“my house,” “my garden,” “my cat,” “my husband,”—and what they did the day before, and eating and walking down the street—all about the everydayness of being. It’s sweet longing and nostalgia. It’s the way the dead talk about being alive in “Our Town.” These avatars who can do anything, go anywhere, who are eternally young and flawless, are nostalgic for the lives they are escaping by being here.
Disembodied souls gossiping about the incarnated life.
This longing for real life gives me courage. I will not be defeated. I will make my love come to life.
I click on Randolph’s profile and see that among his favorites is something called “Swoon Villas.”
It’s easy to find Swoon Villas, and to teleport there.
I find myself in a development around a marina full of fairly realistic sailing boats. For a better look, I fly up into the air and around the development—which even in Second Life rendering is very stucco-on-sheetrock—looking for the telltale name tags. And there they are, Randolph Crist and Rose Mc Cutcheon, lying in bed by a big window in a waterfront condo. I fly by too fast for them to see me, but my heart is beating hard. I’ll have to avoid detection.
I’ll have to . . . make another avatar.
I start all over again.
I log off, I log on as a newcomer.
I must be the opposite of the bold, scattered Xenia Robertson who didn’t know you have to pay rent in Second Life.
Someone composed and careful. Someone bland.
I make myself into a tiny banker girl.
My name is Ashley, and they give me my last name. Primless. Ashley Primless. I amend the new avatar’s appearance to show how repressed she is, flatten her chest, give her Prince Valiant chin-length hair, which is actually an attachment meant for a male avatar.
I want to male her up a bit, to protect her. She seems more fragile than Xenia, as if she had less life force behind her. If avatars are dolls that say a lot about their creators, this doll will have to lie a lot about her creator.
I make a backstory to create her creator.
Ashley, I know at once, is made by a young woman who works in finance. She doesn’t need a name, though I call her Monica. Monica is a shy young thing from Queens, because Brooklyn is too hip. I don’t think she’s even left home. She’s close to her family. I give her a job, the last job on earth I’d do—assistant to a Wall Street guy. I know nothing good about bankers, but I have a vague idea of some big, two-story office on Wall Street where men with few ethics wonder how long they’ll stay lucky. It’s early September 2008, I know the subprime edifice is about to collapse, Monica knows her boss has done sketchy things.
So she made Ashley.
Ashley Primless has one mission: to track down Randolph Crist.
She wants to rent a condo like the one her relatives—that is, Monica’s relatives—have in Florida. She contacts the rental agent for Swoon Villas.
She, I, She, Ashley.
The rental agent, maybe he’s the owner, is someone who’s gone to great pains to make his avatar look like a swarthy middle-aged man, which, given the endless sexy possibilities of Second Life, is painfully ethical. He is interested in this young woman.
Ashley, the avatar of an avatar sent in to track down an avatar.
Little Ashley Primless moves into an 800 Linden-a-week rented house a few houses away from the larger house that my beloved shares with the long-haired blonde called Rose McCutcheon.
I believe this fully.
I am excited.
Moving in means clicking a few times to pay the landlord and choosing the window shades I want. I want: Ashley wants. Monica wants Ashley to want.
Their taste in window shades is not my taste.
Monica’s 22, she works in finance, and she’s just a little gaudy—brand names and brocade, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Chanel. But she is also inhibited, cautious, and wily.
She’s not going to fly by the condo where Randolph and Rose have their love nest; that’s for Xenia, the sex-mad superwoman.
Ashley is thorough, methodical, she fully digests each new piece of information before she moves on to the next. She takes in that not many houses are rented in this development, which means it’s either brand-new or just not that popular. When Ashley starts to wonder who put up the money to build it, I know that my little avatar here has integrated her back story, and it’s safe to send her on the perimeter walk that will bring her to the love nest.
Ashley is training to be a banker. She is not going to fly. Ashley wants to measure, to gauge and evaluate.
She wears a baby-blue sweatshirt dress and bright white sneakers. She uses !!! exclamation marks, like Monica does when she’s texting her college girlfriends about where they are going to meet after work—on the East Side, near the 7 train, which is 42nd street, what a pain, but the food court is cute. She uses Cute a lot. And Awesome.
Ashley walks along the shore through stands of bamboo that part like magic, past one house, another, a third, and then she sees him.
Randolph Crist lying in a hammock, strumming a banjo, his ear bling sending out shards of light across the sea. He looks happy. His black hair shining, his eyes half closed.
Ashley thinks that bling on his left ear is really cute.
“I’m Ashley, I’m your neighbor” I say, says Ashley, “I’m doing my perimeter walk.”
“Hi Ashley,” he types. Laconically. You can just tell.
I’m holding my breath. It takes my breath away to be so close to him. I look at those husky brown arms and I feel the sting of the bling as it hits my eyes, and I want to embrace him with my entire body, I want to love him. I am not going to tell him I am me, Xenia. He’s fleeing Xenia. I’m new.
And I am new.
When I look at Ashley—from behind and slightly above—I’m not thinking ME in as full a way as when I look at Xenia. There’s some SHE there. She works for me. She works for us, for me and Xenia, she’s our undercover detective.
And she is going to seduce Randolph Crist for us.
Which Ashley does by lingering at the hammock without a word, and then skittering away as fast as she can, a young woman of mystery.
It’s lonely work sitting in the little house in the development. Ashley logs on and waits for the invitation which is going to come. It’s going to come. But she’s surprised by her visitor.
Rose McCutcheon appears at her door, her blonde hair wafting around her, so big it fills the room. She says she’s just dropped by for a visit.
Ashley knows that Rose McCutcheon is here to check her out.
Ashley is prepared. She’s filled out her back story, she’s collected destinations—Copenhagen, Tibet, Paris, Antarctica, Rome—and special boutiques to put in her box of favorite Picks. At a store called Yak and Yeti, she bought yoga cushions called Zafus and a tea set that comes complete with animations for pour, stir, and drink. In the “About” section of her profile, she’s put “I love Iceland.”
None of that Caribbean stuff that Xenia likes. We are two different people. Four different people.
Ashley knows Rose McCutcheon is reading her profile and her picks, so she reads Rose McCutcheon’s profile.
Which says “I love babies and horses. And all the Brontës and Emily Dickinson.” She’s kind of literary, Ashley realizes.
The woman Randolph Crist has left me for can read.
I am almost pleased that my opponent is more worthy than I’d thought.
Rose McCutcheon is wearing a see-through shortie baby-doll nightgown over her gigantic pink boobs, and pale pink stilettos with pink puffs on the instep that presumably represent swan’s down. She sits cross-legged on my cushion in my little living room as I pour the tea with a perfect little set of gestures that are set off by touching the teapot, the same way sex is set off by touching a pink ball.
“You’re new in Second Life,” Rose types at Ashley, “Why did you move in here so fast?”
Ashley types back, “I looked to rent in anything called Villas, because I have relatives who live in a lovely condo in Florida called Rose Villas, and that’s why.”
“Rose! Just like my name!” Rose types.
“I know,” I type, “Awesome, right?”
“Second Life can be lonely,” I add, “so I wanted a base. There’s all this bad financial stuff coming down soon. But I can’t talk about it.”
Rose isn’t interested in Ashley’s predictions.
The next day I go back into Second Life as myself, as Xenia. I buy something called a radar. It gives you the names of every avatar near you, and tells you how far away they are.
I easily find Randolph Crist in the Orgy Emerald Forest, staring at a stripper.
Well, at least he’s not faithful to his Rose McCutcheon.
He does that thing at me with the figure 8 that stands for glasses and the open parenthesis sign that stands for the downturned mouth and he tells me he’s trying to edit a film to qualify for a festival, he’s just so slammed.
“Poor you,” I say.
A film, I think, he’s one of us.
I say I’m an actress. I don’t tell him I interview celebrities for a living. I like the fiction I’m making about myself. I wonder who he is, this filmmaker here in Second Life. He tells me he’s an animator.
In Swoon Villas a few days later, Rose McCutcheon and Randolph Crist invite Ashley Primless over for tea. Rose now has the same tea set I used when she visited me. That’s how you learn in Second Life, you click on the stuff other people have to find out where they bought it. She also has a whole lot of toys she bought for Randolph: a fireworks launcher, a toy boat, water skis, a floating raft, flippers, a fire pit. The tiny beach outside their house—which is nicer than mine—is cluttered with his toys. He has his banjo in his hands. He doesn’t say a word about being slammed at work.
I want him so badly I’d do his girlfriend as well if I had to.
Which is exactly what happens on the next visit, when she invites me to go swimming with them in the shallow water outside their house.
I’m Ashley, the cautious one, and I’ve taken the precaution of buying some discreet but quite present sexual characteristics, so that when I shed my baby-blue sweatshirt dress and walk into the water with them, I’m not presenting black underwear.
And then we are treading water outside the condo as the sun goes down, and it’s not what they do but what they say that changes the tune.
No, I have to be honest. I initiate it. Me, the shy little trainee banker Ashley initiates it, by telling them both how gorgeous they are and how thrilled I am to be here in the water with them and how it’s a little embarrassing to all be naked together, so I need to get over that right? How can I get over it? OMG, Rose, your hair is so gorgeous and how it fans out around that beautiful body of yours is just so magnificent. Awesome! Randolph, isn’t she gorgeous? You are so lucky! You are both so lucky! I wish I could be so lucky! Awesome . . . thank you. They’re small but I like them that way. No one in my family is stacked . . . not like you, Rose, you are so gorgeous, can I touch them?
And so on.
I flatter them into touching me, I flatter them into telling me what they are taking turns doing to me, and it is very, very exciting, so that I type out “Awesome” many times.
I don’t type out OMG or OOOOOOOH or even oh oh oh.
Those are Xenia’s expressions, and I don’t want our characters to be mistaken one for the other.
Because Xenia is distinct from Ashley.
And right now, Ashley is the winner in the game of Second Life.
Our typed threesome takes a good half hour.
The words tickle and tease until we all sigh with joy. I, Ashley Primless, walk back to my Condo along the shore and log off and into real life where it is 4 a.m. I fall into a deep and happy sleep. Troubled, only at waking, by some confusion as to who had sex with Randolph: Me? Ashley? Xenia?
And now I have made myself so insecure that I barrel back into Second Life, this time as myself, by which I mean Xenia. I need to see Randolph Crist to make sure he still loves me, even though I know he doesn’t love me, because he is with Rose and now, of course, he’s just sort of done it with Ashley Primless.
Randolph Crist is nowhere to be found. He is probably offline, sleeping off the stunning shallow-water sex he has just shared with his girlfriend and Ashley the second me, no, the third me, Ashley the alternative avatar of my alter ego avatar Xenia.
I am jealous of the shadow of my shadow.
The fall proceeds. I buy—as Ashley, I buy a bed with sex balls for the condo and a collection of exotic objects, a tent, buddhas, an angel, and a dream-catcher, as well as the mandatory Second Life Hot Tub, which I decorate with a dragon I found in a store called Eastern Dreams.
Ashley waits for Randolph to remember the exquisite shivers of delight that their sex typing caused.
He seems forgetful.
Then Ashley has a triumph. The financial disaster she was hinting at comes to pass, and the stock market crashes. Ashley Primless goes to tell her friends Rose and Randolph that she saw it coming. They’re not impressed.
Ashley thinks they could take the news with more awe. Ashley wants everyone to know how she saw it coming, but she has no other friends in Second Life. She contacts the landlord to tell him. He comes over and tries to have sex with her. She rebuffs him, but she can’t move out. She wants to be near Randolph, out here in the netherworld of cartoons.
One Second Life day, while Ashley is standing by the new sex bed, Randolph sends her a private message. He wants to get together. She writes back a delighted “Hi” with a lot of !!!!!!!!. Very quickly, they are describing what they would do if they were together by that bed, on that bed.
“Come see me,” she asks. I’m holding my breath. If I can get him to my house, I have won.
“I can’t,” he answers, “I promised Rose I wouldn’t see you without her.”
And then he stops typing. Ashley waits and waits.
Finally, he writes: “She needs me now, I have to go.”
Ashley doesn’t know if she’s caused trouble between them, or if she’s a nothing speck on their sea of sex.
To make up for how weak Ashley is becoming, how passive, Xenia pursues bold adventures.
Xenia’s the real me.
She becomes a dragon that loves to slam into crowds of dancers, she gambols with elves, leaps from the top of a cathedral, flies through the sky aided by a feather to boost her altitude, hunting for secret retreats and sex dungeons in the air. She joins a Native American tribe populated only by role-playing Germans who don’t understand the words she types. She joins a sex club; then another.
She does everything that the laws of physics and good taste have kept me from doing all my life. I believe everything I do. Everything she does.
Which pretty soon gives me the courage to do something really brave.
It’s the night before my birthday.
I log on as Xenia, dress her in a sari with a long veil on top of her head, which has hair as long and heavy as a metal curtain. I’ve bought an animation that makes clothing sway in the breeze like Greek statue draperies.
I perch an animated raccoon on her left shoulder, and now that I am both alluring and adorable, I head to the Orgy Emerald Forest. There he is. At the crowded spot where avatars land when they click on the name of the Orgy Emerald Forest.
I look magnificent, the sari swaying, the raccoon riding my shoulder.
“Xenia” he types, “Hi!”
I didn’t have to make the first move. I can answer with dignity: “It’s my birthday tomorrow. I have to tell you that I love you.”
And to stop him from just vanishing in front of my eyes, or teleporting back to the love nest that he thinks I don’t know about, up the shore from the other Me’s condo, I add a shameless incentive—
“It’s so wonderful to fall in love without all that biography to clutter up the story, just you, just me, no gossip, no preconceptions, no PRs, no press cuttings, no googling, just two souls here on the other side.”
I’m saying, “I am a star in Real Life, and you don’t know who I am, and I’m not going to tell you.”
I let it sink in.
“You don’t have to do anything about it” I add, “I know you have someone else, she was with you that day on the boardwalk.”
I am beautiful and generous standing there with my shoulder raccoon and my swaying draperies.
He types an 8 and the diagonal slash.
“No, no, no, please do not apologize,” I say. “I love you anyway. I love you because we are free from the expectations of society here, I don’t know who you are and you don’t know who I am. We are pure beings. As pure beings, we can just be friends. It will be the purest friendship I’ve had in years.”
Because, I have let it be understood, I am so famous that I can only connect in deepest secrecy. It works.
Randolph Crist becomes my friend.
And now it gets complicated.
As Ashley the little neighbor, I’m trying for a replay of the threesome with Randolph and Rose at Swoon Villas by the sea.
As Xenia the good friend, I meet Randolph in public places and pay attention when he tells me how much he loves “Rose.” He tells me she’s Swedish and lives in Denmark. I suspect she’s Canadian and lives in Winnipeg.
He tells me that his life is about to change because she is coming to be with him in Florida.
I am enraged.
I type “How great!”
I don’t ask if he has an eager little young neighbor.
I’ve rented a house to call my own, amended it, built onto it and decorated it. It looks pretty amazing, if I say so myself. I’ve learned to manipulate the basic building units of Second Life, I’ve mastered tension, gravity, radius, texture. I invite him over to admire the roof tiles I created from scratch. The lacquered walls I invented. It’s a sophisticated home I’ve made, urban, grown-up.
On his visits, I encourage him to talk about himself and about Rose, to talk on and on. He is completely open with me, with Xenia, and Xenia is wise, understanding, a little detached.
Ashley is trustful, naïve, and needy.
I’m keeping them separate.
I believe everything that happens to me in Second Life when I am Xenia. What happens to Ashley doesn’t happen to me, she is not me; frankly, she’s pitiful. A little stick in-the-mud who never leaves her house in case a man remembers her and suddenly wanders up to her door. I have done too much of that. I don’t want any avatar of mine to have to go through it.
But. I am jealous of Ashley, my second avatar. My little messenger girl who grabbed him for herself, but look how she’s punished now, she can’t even get him back for a replay.
I’m competing with a sad version of myself. And we’re both losing.
I don’t want to be her any more. I send Ashley Primless to formally bid goodbye to Randolph Crist and Rose McCutcheon.
Randolph isn’t around, but Rose is.
“Things are too rough in Real Life for me to stay here.” Ashley says. I say.
Rose types back: “I’m moving in with Randolph next month. This is it. We’re going to be together forever in Real Life.”
Ashley types: “Wow!!! That is so cool!! That’s so great!!! W00t!”
I already knew that, of course. Xenia already knew that, of course.
Ashley is crushed at the news.
Information is like water falling on the ground.
Different layers of personality absorb it at different rates.
Xenia is like ground cover; everything she receives she absorbs, she uses.
She’s quick, restless, agile.
Ashley is a part of me that’s denser and slower than the top layers.
She’s glassy black rock. She’s volcano lava gone cold.
I set up a Yahoo chat address in the name of Xenia Robertson.
Randolph messages me that Rose failed to arrive in Florida. He is crushed. As Xenia, I empathize. It happens again. I empathize again.
I am exchanging messages with Randolph Crist almost every night now, he’s my friend, my special friend. Except that I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know mine.
Randolph Crist and I type descriptions of our days at each other when we get home in the evenings. I tell him about parties in New York; he is—very—funny about these computers he has to work with. He quotes poetry. I am dazzled by how much poetry he knows.
Within a few months, he is the center of my life. It’s him I rush home to talk to. The talk is typed, but it’s honest. I tell him about everything: the stuff that hurts, the stuff I want to be reassured about, and, to keep alive the awareness that I’m not just anybody, some details about the high life in New York City. The nameless man I didn’t kiss after his birthday party, the way I felt at the premiere, how lonely I am. He tells me everything: the wife he separated from, the girlfriend he’s waiting for, that would be Rose, the work he does for money, the books he’d like to be writing. He gives me advice about acting; I give him advice about this woman who never arrives.
I’ve become a bit more like Xenia in real life.
The third time “Rose” fails to arrive, I’m pitiless. “Find something else to tell me about,” I type, and log off.
After six weeks, he messages me, contrite. She failed to show again. He’s through with her. We’re so close that we can, at last, exchange real names.
It goes on like this for eighteen months.
Late at night, I text him all my secrets. Except one.
How can I explain that I’m also Ashley Primless? In a text?
And it’s nothing to do with what’s happening now. We’re just friends.
He’s sad doing his animations down there in Florida. He’s cut off.
I want to make things better for him.
A friend of mine at a museum launches an animation collection. There’s going to be an opening. The opening is a reason to invite him to New York.
As a friend, nothing more.
Wouldn’t he like to see a museum collection devoted to his art, his craft?
He can sleep on the guest bed at the far end of the loft, the loft where I sat motionless in a bathrobe at the farm table for twenty hours at a time, the human mothership for Xenia and Ashley when they both yearned for him.
A month before he comes to New York we speak on the phone for the first time.
His voice is higher than I want it to be. It sounds uncertain, childlike. I ascribe that to a poor connection.
His name is Ken. He’s ten years younger than I am.
He books his ticket; he packs; I am happy my friend is coming to stay.
I know I can’t presume to be the gorgeous 17-year-old babe Xenia, who will fuck anything and is sometimes a dragon; the night of his arrival, I wonder, for the first time, if he is a murderer. I tell myself he can’t be a murderer. I’m the one who pursued him.
This man is true. This man loved the real me, the one who came without the wrappings. Who came without the wrappings I made up later.
The one who is 17 years old.
I check. His plane is delayed. Three hours.
17 and 17 is 34, and 17 is 51, Christ, I am more than three times 17—I don’t look too bad in the mirror. My hair to my shoulders, my makeup subtle yet intense, my robe—it’s lunatic to greet him in a robe, but it’s one a.m., and would I really be lying around in a dress waiting for my houseguest? At more than 3 times 17.
Now he’s coming up.
I stand outside the front door, but not all the way around the corner in the corridor because I have no idea how I’d walk with him back towards my door—in front of him? Behind him?
He comes around the corner.
Will he have short arms?
His arms are the right length. He’s tall.
He’s a little bent over because he’s pulling a wheelie, and his hair is startlingly pale, is that white or blond?
He’s a forty-nine-year-old man with an unsure smile and uneven teeth. Mine too used to be uneven. There, on his left ear, is a tiny diamond. The bling. It was real.
It’s two in the morning. We sit and talk over tea in the kitchen for hours.
The very fact he has a body startles and intimidates me.
I’m smoking. He coughs just a little. I show him his bed at his end of the loft, and retire to my bedroom.
Wondering if I want him. If he wants me.
The next day we go out to buy a plant. To bring nature into the cold loft.
Before we even get to the opening of the special animation collection that my friend runs at the museum, we sit on the couch and he holds me.
And we retire together to my bedroom, each of us expecting nothing.
We hold one another all night long. In the dark.
He is so wounded; he loves me.
I am so wary; I love him.
It is a fairy tale come true, these two people who met on the other side before they met in real life.
I’m scared I might look old to him. I keep the lights off.
We make love. “It feels truer than it did in Second Life,” he says, “but we only did it a few times over there.”
Pour your heart out to me, he says in the dark, I want to bathe inside your heart.
His face is open, young with love. Don’t keep anything back, he says the next day. as we drink coffee out of big mugs with initials on them.
It’s luck, or instinct, that one of those mugs has a big K on it. K for Ken. Even before I knew his name.
We’re at the kitchen table. I want to give him everything.
I have to confess. He has to know there were two of me over there, on the other side.
My heart is beating as hard as it did in Second Life.
I ask if he remembers a young woman with Prince Valiant black hair, his neighbor at Swoon Villas. Ashley Primless.
The bling in his ear catches the light. Nothing shows on his face.
That was me, I say. That was the other me.
He says nothing.
I can’t read his opaque flesh. I can’t see anything behind his eyes.
This is a real person in real life, and I have no way in.