Generally, I tend to disregard news about it, seeking instead information on the weather in Spain, statistics of Italian soccer matches, sales at online shops: cardigan sweaters, kitchen gadgets, scarves. I skim the vaguest of fetishes. The Internet doesn’t inspire me, doesn’t goad me to novel modes of intimacy or extra duplicitous lengths, as it has done for my friend Benigno, his multiple personas showcasing his useless grasp of lovely languages — Dutch, Bahasa, Sanskrit. He has a hispanicist’s lisp in one and is a bullying Asianist in another, erudite, stern, and boorish in that code-switching, querulous way of the expert; he floats a number of wistful parodies of desire, not excluding the intact mantra of his physical etheric double: his rather fat, fanciful and slouching self. Thus, he successfully exploits the technology.
No, I tend to surf only occasionally, or use it strictly with an eye on product, avoiding its fantastic possibilities. I haven’t bought anything yet. I avoid being marked by the web, by its potential incursions on my solitude, the way it could turn me into an adulterous dominatrix Creole-Anglo-Saxon with a cunnilingual symbol on my forearm, some scary floral hybrid metonymizing for the clitoris, or a dreamy lad in New Hampshire, expert with goats or, more exotically, llamas, and susceptible to spam.
But the idea fascinates me, the simplicity of it. The mechanical rendition of the typographical cliché, “reality,” pardon the quotation marks: the inarticulate fact of our slippery selves, for which we do not need any academic texts or French theorists to neologize. We know it because of this discomfort, our scratchy connection with the world. Or at least I do. It fascinates me because this subversive sense, this lifelong split that abrades against me like a pinched nerve on a bad back, chronic, resonant and ignored, is, as expressed on the Internet, a banal fact. It’s amazing. And it turns me off.
So until that morning, I tended to ignore even ordinary avenues of self-expression, such as finding out exactly at that hour, 8:17 a.m. on my machine, what the weather might be over there. You might say I even forgot the place existed. I’d forgotten many things. For some reason, anything that might matter to me in more vital ways I have avoided on the web — as if I might learn something dangerous, acquire an elliptical wound, by knowing exactly how the sun might have felt in Manila at 8:17 in the morning. No Philippine news service is bookmarked on my machine, I’m on no one’s listserve. So when I received the message, I had no warning. I just opened it.
Well, I can’t say it with that word: “just.” When I saw the subject, I can’t say I didn’t act with dispassion, how could you. It was a provocative address even in isolation, but in my biographical context, given my recent “difficulties,” finding ways to “move on,” as they say, I can’t be blamed for that rush in my blood, my immediate though brief fall into reverie, grief, anger, regret, my doubts about opening and my will to ignore, my instant indecision and yet the instinctive gesture toward the keys, all of which are folded in that short moment before I clicked return.
The resulting disaster everyone knows: how the computer crashed just as everyone else’s did; at the IBM offices in Minnesota, the airline systems on United, European trading houses, stock markets in Singapore, households in Detroit. I was not the only loser, mistaking a prank for a message of love. I read about the man who believed it was a birthday greeting from his sleeping wife, coffee cup in his hand, a glow of pleasure already percolating in him. Chagrin on his part, but easy to surmount, especially since he’d been up early enough to get a response from the servers.
I can’t say I fell at that point into a depression, or found at the heart of it, a few days later, comfort in metaphysics, a theme of technological alienation and its just, and rather corny, ironies. I went on with my life, got the machine back on its legs (it was easy to get the technician, by the way, and all she did was walk me through it, no problem, she was too tired even for jokes, thank God), and I think I mentioned at the office, when asked, yes, I got the virus, and some horror and commiseration were in order, and promptly served, I might add, by well-meaning colleagues and equally harried friends, then we all dropped it.
Did I say that it jolted my sense of who I was, my permissive, permeable image, whom I had stamped into this collected entity — pedantic, boring, and long-winded, logical but not overbearing, alert to irony and yet capable of empathy, not so good on the phone, bad at e-mail, but certainly willing to have coffee? I don’t think so. I did have that moment of mute embarrassment, as I was talking to the technician, I think, during which it occurred to me, as I clicked on one icon and another, that I was not just a fool, but I was one among a million fools. The thought was not comforting, but it passed.
No, I didn’t recognize in painful increments an implosion of my carefully created self. I was too busy, and the fact is, certain aspects of my existence had made many things inconsequential, or at least not so horrifying when expressed in words. Birthday greetings, a misplaced file, the computer crashing, the sun shining, the slow unmasking of a fetish — all were equal, and thus trivialized, when I could put them in words. Or maybe what I am saying is this: words have ceased to have an effect. And I could understand and experience things only in words, really: “implosion,” “self,” “hypallage.” Words were all I relied on, and maybe because of that they did not now instigate horror. In fact, they obscured it.
I don’t mean this as a trite, old riff on cold collegiate theory—I’m just saying. But one thing did disturb me. As I said at the start, I tend to disregard unsettling news, any suggestion of my old world, and then I began to get all this news, even in the business section of the Times. Benigno started it, sending me the clip about initial findings on the virus investigation. Then it was on NPR. Then the New York Times began covering it in earnest. And so on and so forth. And so I was forced to confront it, all these findings — the origins of the virus, the ironies of that. It came from there. Maybe even from the computer school around the corner from which we had lived, eons ago, a gray building decked in diesel smoke, now impossibly precise in my memory. Then I began to think of the meaning of the attack upon me. The particular message itself, because of where it came from. It makes sense to me now that I would be upset. It makes sense that any reference of that nature would be traumatic. Like a message from the grave. But my descent into this raw grip of pain, which I had avoided for so long, with some measure of bravery, if I might say so myself, still strikes me now with surprise, with a sense of shocked betrayal, that it should come from the place I least expected.
Some things still have the power to hurt. And they’re limited in number, I must say, they do not span the entire web. But because they occur randomly, not in alphabetical order, and not even in any kind of Boolean logic, you can see that I am always vulnerable and thus should know better. And you may have noted how reasonably I’ve managed it, not by complete avoidance, but by making ordinary incursions into enemy territory, looking up soccer teams, finding out the price of standing bedside lamps. I don’t avoid the world. Some people, in fact, have marveled about how I’ve managed to live in it so comfortably, going on with my job, making money, keeping friends, having dinner every so often in the city. It’s just so marvelous, they say, and though they may not mean it, and though they would be the first to swear they do not think so at all, I always think about how there is a measure of accusation somehow in the message, as if they were also saying: how could you? How could you survive—. Okay, I will say it, I will complete the sentence, because that is another way in which I have existed: I have tried to put things into words.
His — absence. There. At this point, that’s as far as I can go. That is what they are saying. (And note how I managed not to separate the phrase into its own significant, isolated paragraph, though I feel strongly that the notion, the fact behind the words, has its own force field and light source, a pulsating nervous globe around it — and it should, in all editorial honesty, be in a paragraph of its own, surrounded by blank, white space.) How could you survive it, quote, unquote, said, unsaid.
I smile and give a sound of nervous scorn. Sometimes I get a tear in my eye. You’re so brave, I couldn’t go on if it happened to me, et cetera, et cetera: the vulgarity of a stranger’s thoughtless compassion. Then they go on to other subjects, the election cycle, gas hikes, how an authentic Italian restaurant in the theater district turns out to be run completely by Ethiopians. And that’s the beauty of it, I think, that’s the beauty of this world. Every second of humiliation and unhappiness, random consequences of horror, plows on anyhow into this random muck, the surprising discovery of Ethiopian restaurants side by side this fact: his absence. You can choose to take comfort in that, if you so wished; the idea of quotidian solace, anyhow, is not new, but sometimes it serves.
And of course you know I’m not just referring to those who are insensitive. The response to both good, kind people and verbose, stupid ones is the same — this brief and twisted pain. There’s no remedy for it. All references, when they occur, have equal opportunity. None of this, none of it, can matter much at all once you’ve learned that it is not something to surmount, as on a sit-on kayak on the ocean, but something to lay awash in. Go with the wave. Sounds like a bad, new-age idea, but it’s the best I can do. And so I have, I believed, gone with the wave. I sink and float and crash, then I come up again.
Then I got that message. What a horrible power: what a terrible thing to unleash. I should be amused to think they used it to play a nasty trick on multinational corporations, their hearts are in the right place, after all. But it seems such a low trick, in my point of view. Lowhanded and mean.
I’m sure many who clicked return had no emotional response in the first place, deleting it without second thought as junk. And of the thousands who did think it had any personal relevance, vanity is so easily mollified, really. I should have done the same, gone to Bergdorf Goodman, or Starbucks, taken it off my chest with a chai and a madeleine. And as I said, initially I carried on and even returned online, to look up the scores of Serie A—Juventus versus Sampdoria. As I said, while I continued to wade in the web, I still — quite deftly, if I say so myself—eluded those basic, vital things, closest to home, and so I moved on.
In my defense, I think it was that conjunction—between the message and the origin of the virus — that threw me off. I kept hearing about the country I had left. The country in which we had been happy. He had loved it, my country.
I kept seeing its vagaries, odd incidents and tragic characters, come up on the radio and in the paper. Too bad for me, a flash flood in one of its provinces devastated people somewhere, then a group of hostages in the South became news, then this evangelical parachutist tried to hijack a plane — what else could happen in that accursed land that wouldn’t get play in this otherwise utterly indifferent city? I stopped reading the paper, tuned out NPR. But still, at work one day, a Monday or Tuesday, I was doing paperwork then and not scheduled yet to go on field, a mental image flashed back—or is that a good word for it, “mental,” when it encompasses so many other things, arteries, bloodflow, this throbbing in my wrist (and then of course the adjective has unintentional associations) — but I guess the word can stand for now, this mental image. A beach scene, something. Or, to be more accurate, an image not even as coherent or precisely located as that, vague but material at the same time, you know how it is: you have memory. But I’d forgotten it, I’d forgetten this response. I thought I had tamed it. Then I had those crying jags again, then I began sleeping at three o’clock in the morning and waking up at six. Then I almost killed someone while driving on Route 9. Signs of stupor and grief, the usual. I kept weeping into my downward dog while doing yoga. It is okay because no one at New York Sports Club ever notices. To fall again into this mess, this abyss. I started to type these notes (one more way to provide distraction, as you might guess: words are all one relies on, words can domesticate, can tame, can squash and leash) — how horrifying: to come to this, because of corny copy in a viral message that should have made me laugh.
But just as I write that down, that last bit of weak wit, I feel again: something. I try to recall. What is it? Something did happen that moment — 8:17 am on my machine that day — the moment I had hit return. I must admit it is now 4:33 in the morning, two weeks after, and I have a presentation to do in midtown at 9:15 tomorrow, and I should have been asleep by 9:00 p.m., seven and a half hours ago, if I wanted to be of any use at all, so all this now is part of my residual brain, my R.E.M. memory — the one with which I’m not on so good terms. What was it? I am wide awake in front of my computer. Absently, I hit return. There it is. It’s a loud sound in the night, that click of the keys; as if it were a knock, an urgent call. That’s it. That’s what I remember: a sense of something calling out to me on my machine. Something had reached out for me. And I feel now what I had felt then: that the message was meant for me.
I hit return again, then again, idly, but in the silence it sounded as if I were demanding a reply. At this point, the browser icon opened. The whirring twirl of the spinning disc took control of the room, like a bat testing its wings. For some reason, the machine asked for my password. It had stopped doing that, but sometimes these glitches happened, I don’t fully understand my machine, why it does one thing and not another. I had to think of the word, I had stopped using it for so long.
I typed in my password. It is his name. Yes, I know, I should have changed it a long time ago, but I was distraught and sentimental and grossly unhappy at the time, and I used knuckleheaded ways of holding on: this was one of them. It opened to My Yahoo, a practically prehistoric site. As you can guess, it has no features. Everything is still in default, no bookmarks, weather watch, favorite news services. It’s Anyone’s Yahoo, Nobody’s Yahoo, Ghost Town Yahoo. Perdido eden Yahoo. No one lives there. And yet, if I scrolled a little bit, tinkered with some keys, I could easily configure it, make it identifiable, coherent in its way, provide all the signifiers that point to a life. Almost without thinking, that’s what I do. It’s easy, piece of cake, because all of it lies latent in me, I’m awash in it—his boyhood stories, medical history, languages spoken, places visited, dream vacations, relevant historical periods studied, useful listserves, news programs, feature films, sports shows, hygiene products, eye treatments, vague longings, secret thrills, and especially his final nightmare—I know a lot (many of it presumptuous, of course, but that cannot be helped: one has to start somewhere). And I always thought—in the early days, when I mistakenly believed metaphor had uses and fantasies might help—if I could only reconsititute him in some way, the way in the old Greek myth the sons of Chronus came back to life, or Pallas Athena was conjured from a headache, or Orpheus at least had the chance to rescue Eurydice. In my case, the gods had offered no opportunity, not even to look back, to watch a ghost wave farewell. It’s unfair, to say the least.
I kept having fantasies of his return, looking at my bookcase, walking through the hallway examining new pictures, putting on his shoes. I’d always wake up, it was a dream, of course: but I always woke up happy. And I type in his shoe size, 9 medium. I type in a hierarchy of literary preferences, Italian poets first, then the French, especially Jacques Prevert, who is not my particular favorite, then the Russians. Then I second guess myself, because any specificity after all might, when read on another day, signify a failure of my memory. I delete many suggestions for online stores, because he hated shopping. Slowly his page is becoming cogent, and any sophisticated hacker might note the vitality of his interests, the breadth of his experiences, the dazzling scope of his intelligence, and applaud. For twelve days in the South of France, the beach nights full of the Swiss and the Swedes and the Spaniards, he had not been able to sleep because he understood every word the passing travelers were saying. On the other hand I had slept like a baby. I should have wondered at his insomnia, instead of joking with him that he knew too many languages. I should have wondered at a lot of things.
He was a Renaissance man, a wistful boy and scholar-athlete, a hybrid of a male, a husband, a lover, and a comrade in arms, with an irreducible mind, a complex life. Like all of us, a distillation of desire. A Fetish is a particularly appropriate construction in sites like My Yahoo because the sheer, vertiginous nature of consumer choices brings up with a haunting critical mass that reflexive question of identity: I am = I desire.
Thus, he was becoming whole. I know that he would question the main argument behind the consumer indices constituting himself on Yahoo, because at heart he was, after all, an ascetic, and he did not like buying things for himself, not even an extra pair of soccer shoes, if he knew he didn’t need it. But that’s his problem, not mine. I’m in charge of his page. Later that day, of course, the office tried to get through, because the client from midtown had called in, a bit puzzled, not yet irate, and then the man in Singapore needed my contact numbers, then two days later the manager of the shirt factory in New Hampshire also reported missing my arrival, and so on and so forth. But I was online. No one could reach me.
After creating him in Yahoo, I began to find him in other places. Somehow, he had become independent of me. By 10:25 a.m., he was ordering books on Alibris. At 10:54 he was on a chatline about Homer’s intentions re: Nausicaa, putting forth the following cryptic opinion: “laundry obfuscates intention.” At 12 sharp, he was bookmarking the Italian-language edition of Soccerage.com, particularly the fall schedule for A.C. Milan. By dusk, he was still obsessively scrolling through all references to Franco Baresi, legendary but still living stopper for the Azzurri, 1986-1997, as if in a desperate attempt to will him back on the field. In the next few days, he kept badgering graduate students and hacker professors on a James Joyce website over the identity of the man in the brown mackintosh, “the lanky-looking galoot” in the Hades chapter of Ulysses, until the editors had to start blocking him out. He didn’t look at a single sweater on Jcrew.com. He became such a rampant presence on various sites I began almost to lose track, from the U.N. server on Sierra Leone (he trashed De Beers with eloquence, though he did add — a bit oddly — an irrelevant aside on the old geography of Antwerp), to a hasty retreat from a lesbian page mainly extolling dorsal nudity. I must say, he did recidivate on the latter, but in an extremely sneaky, as if indifferent way.
He began multiplying, creating pseudonyms, even a new address on hotmail. He kept calling himself “lankylooking_galoot.” He was, in fact, like Joyce’s man in the brown mackintosh, popping up all over the web in nameless, strange sightings. It began to be this other adventure, finding him out. I sought him with a new alertness. I noticed that he was—how can I say this — beginning to change. Subtle details, you know, vagrant keys, almost as if they were clicked accidentally. He looked at the auction lists, for instance, on Sotheby’s. He bid on a ticket to Beijing on Priceline.com, caution thrown to the winds, saying he would spend one hundred dollars! Then I found him trolling through sunglasses at KennethCole; in the old days, he refused to wear goggles even when he skied: sunglasses made his head ache, he said. Finally, but not really to my surprise, I saw him on LLBean, clicking repeatedly on a Gore-Tex winter parka, fleece-lined, not on sale. Size: M. Color: Hunter. He would never have bought himself that coat. Until the end, he was still going around in the faded jacket with the fake seventies fur that he wore when he was seventeen. He told me he would get a new one when the winter was over, when he could get it on sale, but I never believed him. I bookmarked it, showing him other color options. Meanwhile, he had kept looking like a refugee from Springsteen’s America, tight-jeaned in the out-of-style ruffed Burlington jacket, and I kept wishing he would buy a new coat. Now he looked at the parka, magnified it, then he looked at it in Navy. Then he returned to Hunter. And as I waited for him to hit Shopping Cart, I don’t know what happened. I blacked out. I found the machine going gray, or maybe it was my eyes. I began trembling, the way I used to do in the beginning, with an uncontrolled heave in my chest. I was shaking and sobbing, as if it would never stop.
When I came to, the computer was still clicking, with that restless monotone of desire. I knew I should have stopped him then, but these slight — almost unnoticeable, if you didn’t know him so well — changes tantalized me. He was getting himself suited on a new site called Divisoria, a foreign brown-curled figure in ghostly Philippine cloth. Then in an e-mail message he intimated that he was beginning a new novel, suggesting an idea about an Irish New Yorker, Joseph Walsh, a swashbuckling muckraker of the 1800s, a figure far removed from his own Italian genealogy. He had once begun researching Joe Wlsh but had abandoned the idea for another scenario, too close to home for his own good. It was almost as if, in hindsight, he had seen the error of his ways, that he was wrong, that dying was the question, not the answer, and now he hoped to write with greater emotional distance, thus, more productively. Safe from harm. In a magazine salon, he began pontificating on the vocation of writing, quoting an interview of the late television writer, the British genius Dennis Potter (author of Singing Detective, et al). This detail in itself was puzzling, because he had never seen the interview; Potter had given it months after my husband had gone. It was as if, in a mild, rather offhand shattering of our usual rhetoric about the afterlife, he had insisted on keeping up with his hobbies and amusements, perhaps keeping a journal of useful quotes, which he used to do in his meticulous way, footnotes to his passions close by his side, in a notebook on his bedside table, next to a soccer ball with blue and red shapes. And so he kept unraveling on my machine, a living, subtly mutating, and even surprising individual, fanciful, earnest and impetuous. He was vibrant and outlandish in cyberspace, just as he had been in life. It took all of my energy to keep track. I took some breaks for coffee and very little time for lunch. I’d sit there marveling at minor declensions from his usual style, for instnce his rather touching change into a more elegant persona (I was glad to see him more attached to the world); observing with fondness his familiar, obstreperous way with opinion, so that he overcommitted himself as usual (as when he insisted, on rete.com, that it would take Italy at least three generations of spoiled, longhaired soccer stars before it could survive the retirement in June 1997 of Franco Baresi, touching off a fierce debate on the future of the defensive style, the catenaccio, in Italian football); and even finding, with that sting of regret — that quick but deathless stab—that occurs too often among survivors, some aspects of his person that I had failed to note when he was alive: the secretive boy who could not say to the world exactly what he wished for, inarticulate, moody, and unwise, as if secrets had no existence as long as he refused to give them words, or were they too valuable to put into mere language — who knows? — his movements on the machine giving off only faint, haunting clues. I stopped going to sleep.
It was in this state that they found me, when they finally came knocking on my door, after having tried telephone, e-mail, and several demands by registered post. My clients were abandoning me, my supervisor was in a desperate position, my hair was a mess, my eyes were bloodshot, I had coffee breath and a sour, awful stench in general, I was a freak in daylight, I looked haunted. They understood my predicament, they said (I mean Mr. Harrow and Ms. Cleave, my supervisors, kind persons at heart, only they sent this harsh, fussy representative), they understood the extent of my tragedy—but enough was enough. We were losing factory inspections in Southeast Asia, even in Delaware! It had been three years already, or was it five, it was time to move on!
But they didn’t understand, they couldn’t understand at all. I had been so disciplined, so stoic in my progress. But the idea was all wrong. When they ask you to move on, where do they think you can go? My bosses were good people, really. They gave me an ultimatum. See a therapist or look for another job. Rules for mental health are all code for dismissal anyhow. They warned me that I needed rest.
They send me e-mail messages occasionally, asking how I am doing; but I ignore them all. I keep marking his tracks. Now he is chatting with a reader of his own book, the one he did not see in print: affecting modesty in the face of posthumous praise. A weird situation, even I must admit. The keys, as if pausing to take in the novelty of this experience, lie still. I can tell he is touched by the reader’s attention, though I must say the reader goes on to a slightly condescending question (the way some readers always seem to be workshopping) — and my own blood curdles: I’m annoyed. Then he types, a mad flurry of explication. He is self-deprecating, intense, he quotes a minor Italian poet, a propos of nothing. O carro vuoto sul binario morto. Clemente Rebora, of the turn of the century in Milan. There’s no stopping him now, he is on a roll. Soon I know he will invoke the name of Franz Beckenbauer, then inevitably Francesco Baresi, and his spelling will become slightly disoriented by his passion. Any other reader might be puzzled by his furious concentration. The machine flickers, as if dizzy. The keys are silent: they are frozen. But now that I have found him, I am not letting go. I don’t panic, I know what to do.
I hit return.
I wait for him to come back.