times I wonder if hes even real. If he could possibly be the man
I believe him to be.
On a good day, Joseph is My Man. It's us against the rest of the crummy
On a bad day, I'm a loopy grown woman with an imaginary boyfriend.
But since Joseph hints that he might be with me in the real world once
he gets published, I'm going to hang in there. Being with him is something
I think about a lot.
It's not as if he doesn't try for publication. Every week, he sends out
another short story with a painfully clever cover letter that doesnt
quite conceal his pleading and desperation.
I heard from Writer's Forum today, he told me yesterday.
This you will not believe. It was a form rejection. But scribbled on it
are the words "fairly close". Fairly close! What the hell does
that mean? Am I supposed to be heartened by this news?
It isn't as if he lacks talent. His stories touch me deep in my soul with
their melancholy settings and dark, disturbed characters. The women wear
powder blue cardigans and tidy white blouses, his men are named Percy
and James and Edmund. They are tales of unlikely relationships and broken
hearts--totally devoid of raw sex and blood and guts, but always with
the bittersweet taste of unfulfilled dreams. They are stories of another
He usually rejoices when the rejections are not mere form letters, when
they contain an editor's hastily scrawled note. When Joseph first scans
these scribbled blurbs, he goes so blind from hope that he sometimes reads
them wrong and thinks he will be published after all. He sheepishly admits
this to me, and I want to take him in my arms and comfort him and tell
him everything will be all right. But much to my increasing despair, it
doesn't quite work out that way with us.
There are times I wonder if hes even real. If he could possibly
be the man I believe him to be.
I think about thatI obsess over it--as my hands play over the computer
keyboard. Ive been sitting here for several minutes, staring at
the screen. My patience is finally rewarded. Joseph signs on and immediately
sends me a message.
Hello dearest one, he types.
Dearest one. I practically swoon. Who in the world talks like that anymore?
Morning*, I type back, the * being a cyber version of a kiss.
I give a dreamy half smile and Im so lost in the moment that I dont
hear my husband walk into the room.
"I hate that freaking computer, Linda" he growls.
I look up, surprised and guilty.
"I said good morning to you twice and you didnt even answer
me, youre so busy with that damn thing," he says.
I immediately sign off and rise from my chair , crossing the room to his
side. I lean into him and give him a full wet kiss on the lips.
"Hi, Eddie. Good morning. How come youre dressed?"
"Morning, Linda," he replies gruffly, giving me a quick peck
back. He has a pissed off look on his face and I feel a pang of remorse.
I wonder how much he knows.
"You going out?" I ask hopefully. Its a Saturday morningI
thought he was still asleep.
"Yeah, I need to go into work."
Eddie sells sporting equipment, wholesale. He does his paperwork at the
office on the weekend sometimes.
"How long will you be?" Oh please, say youll be gone all
"Just a couple of hours. I trust you wont be sitting at the
computer the whole time?"
"No, no, of course not," I lie. "I have lots of stuff to
do around here."
"Okay then. See you in a few," he says. He grabs his keys and
heads out the door without saying another word.
Eddie, Eddie. Why do I feel like youre a total stranger? Why do
I feel like we have nothing to say to each other at all? How can we make
it better - can we even make it better?
Eddie is a recovering alcoholic; he's been sober for over ten years now.
Bottoming out from drinking and embracing the Twelve Steps has made him
a wiser, less volatile man, but the cloud of what he was before, the reoccurring
nightmare that he may pick up a drink some time again, leaves me shaky
and always watching what I say and do. His alcoholism, even in recoverymaybe
more so because of the recovery-has made me an emotional prisoner.
We married when we were way too young. Our families should have tried
to stop us, but they had problems of their own. We came from noisy, unhappy
homes and took refuge in each others arms. The physical attraction
was intense, and at that age, sex was all that mattered.
Back then, I had dreams about being a professional artist, but I stopped
painting when the kids were born. Before he got sober, I used to worry
that Eddie would drink my turpentine when I hid his booze.
I wait until I hear his car take off before I run back to the computer
and sign on again. Joseph is already gone and I let out a sigh of frustration.
It doesnt seem possible to me that Joseph and I met on line and
have been carrying on this clandestine relationship for over a year now.
It just seems so corny, this cyber love. We can hardly bring ourselves
to talk about it because it embarrasses us both so much. But Im
the one who wants to take it out into the real world. Its a major
bone of contention with me that we havent moved beyond the parameters
of online chat.
This is a very seductive medium. Its a goddamn alternate reality.
At first, as we slowly realized we were soul matesas we began baring
our inner selves to each other on a daily basis and were stunned by both
our common interests and neuroseslove of the arts, a general disdain
for our fellow man, a penchant for overeating and using food as comfortand
even more importantly, that we were two unhappy people in a mid-life crisis
over unfulfilled dreams--we used to talk frequently about meeting in real
life. Im in another city but Josephs office, where he writes
for a trade magazine, is only a little more than an hour away via train.
At first, I brought it up constantly and he humored me, but lately he
always responds Not now or Some day or In time. Ive spent a better
part of this year trying to get him to change his mind, but he continues
to put me off.
What scares me is that I almost understand his sentiments. He doesnt
want to disrupt the perfection of our online relationship. Hidden behind
our computer screens, we can be brutally honest, we can be shamefully
lustful, we can be the model citizen or the depraved pervert, all while
sitting in tattered pajamas oblivious to our respective families loudly
clamoring somewhere in the background.
My family is the reason I dont leave Eddie. We have two children,
who, in spite of having us as parents, are unusually well adjusted. They
adore their father and theyd be devastated if we were to separate.
Can I really say to them: Im leaving your father because I am a
voracious reader and he hasnt picked up a book in twenty years?
Im leaving him because he yells and cheers and heckles at sporting
events while I slouch down in my seat next to him utterly humiliated?
Because I love fine restaurants and luxurious things and he likes fast
food and discount centers? Because he loves me more than I love him?
When things are really bad here at home, when Eddie is in a foul mood
and I feel like we are total strangers or maybe when the kids are fighting
with each other--when I feel trapped and miserable and helpless and hopeless--I
think about being in bed with Joseph. I fantasize about how it will be
the first timegently, tentatively exploring each others bodies
in the beginning and then slamming ourselves together in white hot passion
until we are sweat soaked and spent. Ill lock myself in my room
and touch myself as I have these thoughts, thrashing around in the bed
like a wild woman until I gasp in relief. Oh Joseph, I moan. Please save
me. Get me out of here.
Joseph lives in a very grand suburban house, or at least thats how
he has portrayed it to me. When he sets out down his driveway to check
his mailbox in hopes of hearing something positive from an editor, hes
gone for twenty minutes. According to what he tells me, it will take six
painters four weeks to touch up the exterior trim on what I tease him
is his compound. When he once remarked to me that he had a huge marble
Jacuzzi, I felt a vicious stab of jealousy until he added that he and
his wife never use it. His spouse is a doctor. Theyve been married
fifteen years and he says hes never been unfaithful, he has fidelity
issues. He tells me they have no sex life but other than that he loves
Eddie and I live in the city, residing in a modest one hundred year-old
brownstone that needs so many repairs we just throw up our hands in defeat.
I hang eclectic paintings on the wall, done by others, alas, to make myself
feel better. Neither one of us has the passion left to do anything else
and we dont have the money like Joseph and his wife to hire contractors.
I never tell Joseph these things; I don't want him to know.
There are times I wonder just how honest he and I are with each other.
We say I love you, but how can we be in love when weve never even
met face to face?
Ive been faithful throughout my marriage, too. I married so young
Ive never even been with another man.
I tap my foot impatiently. Where the hell is Joseph right now? Ive
been sitting here for almost two hours. Why doesnt he sign back
The waiting is making me crazy. I have all kinds of unhappy thoughts.
Im wasting a beautiful Saturday morning mooning over a computer;
Joseph is never going to be anything more to me than an online confidant,
a glorified pen pal. If he loves me so much as he professes, why the hell
doesnt he want to meet me in person? My anger grows by the minute;
my impatience and frustration make me irrational.
I watch the clock with a fuming stare. My children are not awake yet and
Eddie is still at work, but that could change at any time. I wont
be able to stay here at the computer much longer. Im working myself
into an insane frenzy.
So when he finally does sign on almost another hour later, I am furious,
I am out of my mind, I want to abandon this thing forever. I dont
want to do this to Eddie anymore; I dont want to humiliate myself
by going after a unhappily married man who has no interest in ever moving
beyond fantasy world. Jesus Christ, hes been putting off meeting
me for almost a year and a half. Smell the toast burning, Linda.
Hi there* he types, giving me another one of those meaningless cyber kisses.
Oh hello, I type back. This is not my typical response; there is no kiss
back. Hell know somethings wrong right away.
Whats the matter? I imagine the panic he feels already.
Nothing, I reply. Not a goddamn thing.
Oh, one of those days, he types back. Whats wrong?
I hate my life, and I hate that youre there and Im here and
you dont want to be with me.
Oh great, he says. Youre in one of those moods.
Yes. I am. Youre right. Everything just seems kind of pointless
to me. I realize you have no intention of ever meeting meyou want
me here, in cyberlandwhere you can cry on my shoulder every day
about not being published and your wife not having sex with you. All you
want from me is sympathy and a place to escape each day. Youve made
a fool of me for over a year. I just want to sign off forever and leave
this computer crap to the kids.
You cant leave me, he types back. I need you. And you know what
youre saying isnt true. I love you, Linda. Ive told
you that before. Its just not the right time. You want a published
author, dont you? You dont want a depressed loser.
What are you talking about? Id love you if you were a garbage collector.
No, you wouldnt. You say that, but we both know thats not
Hes right. I am lying. I love him in good part because of how he
writesbecause hes an artist, though whether hes published
or not doesnt matter at all. At least I dont think so. I sit
back and think about this for several moments, and he must interpret the
silence as a prelude to something ominous, because the following words
appear on the screen:
Linda. What the hell. Lets do it. Lets have lunch on Monday.
My eyes widen in shock. Ive been waiting well over a year for this,
but instead of feeling relief and exhilaration I am overcome with panic.
I wasnt expecting this. Not now, anyway. My god, I ate almost an
entire pint of ice cream the other nightI must be ten pounds overweight.
Monday? Thats two days away. Can I possibly lose the weight, get
a haircut, manicure, and facelift in that little bit of time? Arghhh as
they say in cyberland.
Oh, now Ive gone and done it. I cant back out now; Ive
been campaigning for this for months. But the very thought of meeting
this man in the fleshthis man to whom Ive told things Ive
never told anyone, things that are simply humiliating and horribly personalsuddenly
terrifies me. Damn it to hell, Im trapped like a rat.
Okay. Cool. Lets do it. Listen, Eddies home. I gotta fly.
Ill talk to you later* I type. Then I quickly sign off before one
of us chickens out.
Somehow, I get through the rest of the weekend. No time for a haircut
or facelift or major diet, but I do polish my nails and my cheeks get
a rosy glow because I am literally flushed with excitement.
We decide to meet at a restaurant. I, of course, am the one who travels
to see him rather than he making the trip to see me. In his mind, I suspect,
this somehow makes him an innocent party. I board the train all sweaty
and scared. It isnt the peril of meeting a stranger, ending up in
a body bag, and having to be identified by my dental records that bothers
me. We are far past that. No, I worry instead that the humidity will cause
my curly hair to frizz, or that I should have gotten dressed up instead
of wearing my usual jeans and tee-shirt, which suddenly feels inappropriate
for a woman of forty years. It is just so bizarre, this blind date with
this man to whom I've bared my soul but never seen in the flesh.
Naturally, we'd exchanged pictures beforehand. But digital photographs
over the computer are surreal. Mine makes me look block-headed and out
of proportion. Joseph's photo just makes him look fat, though this doesn't
matter much to me. My own husband is rail thin, and his bony hips jut
into me when we have sex. I long to grab on to Joseph's fleshiness and
blow kisses into his soft belly, a fantasy Ive had many times while
laying next to a snoring Eddie at night. But approaching the restaurant,
I suddenly worry that maybe the picture he e-mailed to me is years old;
maybe he's five hundred pounds by now, so grotesque that people will stare
at us, revolted, totally losing their appetites. Oh god, maybe hell
even require special seating like three chairs pushed together or
something. Then I remember that Im the one who's probably ten pounds
overweight, and he's the one who will be repulsed. A fresh wave of terror
washes over me; Im dizzy with the fear of disappointing him.
I hail a cab outside the train station and give the driver the restaurants
address. He tells me its a fifteen-minute ride, if we dont
get stuck in traffic. The heat is stifling, its the middle of summer,
and his air conditioner isnt working. My heart is palpitating. I
feel like I cant breathe. If I knew the city better, Id get
out and walk. Always the prisoner, I ruefully think to myself.
Its the longest goddamned ride Ive ever taken anywhere, but
at last we arrive, and I exit the cab as if Im heading toward my
The restaurant hes chosen is very posh and has a lounge area. I
recognize him instantly when he rises from an overstuffed chair and I
see right away that he isn't fat at all, but really quite handsome in
a scholarly sort of way. Shaggy dark hair and the beginning of five oclock
shadow, heavy lidded dark eyes with thick lashes. We hug stiffly because
I worry that Im damp with perspiration. But I am not an unattractive
woman; his approving glance confirms this. In spite of my age, I know
I am youthful looking. My hair is dark and long, my breasts are still
perky, and I have light green eyes and full lips. We stare at each other
in delighted relief. I would sleep with him at this very moment but he
does have those fidelity issues.
"Hey, you," he grins, using one of our cyber greetings.
"Hey, yourself," I reply in this simply horrible, raspy voice.
Oh god, where did that come from? Im afraid to say another word.
Can I clear my throat without making a scene? Oh god oh god oh god.
He takes my arm and we approach the maitre de. Hes made a reservation
and our table is ready for us. He pulls my chair out for me, and I pray
I dont do anything stupid, like miss the seat and end up on the
floor. As it is, the chair makes a terrible scraping noise when I try
to push it closer to the table.
"Soºyou made the trip okay?" he asks, and I relax a little,
because its such an obviously nervous question on his part.
"Yeah, yeah, it was fine. We really should have done this sooner,"
I chide him with a little smile. Ugh, my voice still sounds unnatural
and I cant think of an interesting thing to say to this man to whom
I speak volumes every day.
"Yes, I think this is going quite well so far," he says. "Would
you care for some wine?"
Would I care for some wine? How about three bottles!
"Yes, please," is all I respond.
"A glass or a bottle?"
"A glass will be fine." Oh hell, whats the matter with
me? I need to loosen up, to stop feeling like Im made of concrete
I pick up the menu and pretend to study it but I can hardly focus my eyes.
I realize Im not hungry at all. If anything, Im vaguely nauseous.
I've never been this anxious in my life. The things Ive told this
man! The things hes told me! Its almost impossible for me
to believe that whats happening here is in any way related to our
intimate alternate reality on line. But I tell my brain to be quiet, and
I try to concentrate on what he is saying instead, which is mostly a rehash
of everything hes told me by computer.
A busboy brings us some bread and we both lunge for it at once.
"Ah, theres that food thing we have in common," he smiles.
"Yup," I reply with a mouthful of sourdough.
I can hear myself chewing and Im appalled by the smacking noises
I seem to be making.
The waiter arrives with our wine. I grab the fancy crystal goblet and
begin gulping like its tap water. He takes our order, and I blurt
out that Ill have the salmon filet because its the first thing
I see on the menu and I really cant read on any further. My brain
feels totally unfocused. When the waiter walks away, I feel like Ive
been abandoned. Now Joseph and I have to talk to each other some morethe
food probably wont be here for several minutes.
"So," I say, and then I realize I have absolutely nothing to
follow that up with.
"So," he replies. "Here we are."
There is an uncomfortable silence, and then he starts telling me a story
he has definitely told me before on line, and I struggle to pay attention
and at least appear interested. Instead, I am looking into his coal black
eyes, and studying the planes of his face. I see a small scar near his
right eye that I want to softly touch, but Im too scared to make
"Thats a pretty ring," he blurts, looking down at my hand.
And suddenly, I get bold. Maybe the wine is beginning to work. I use his
comment as an opportunity to take his hand, and attempt seductively, I
hope, to weave my fingers through his. At first, he responds and even
reciprocates, but suddenly he pulls away as if he's been burned. Theres
a fleeting glance of pure misery on his face that I cant comprehend.
I don't try to touch him again. He starts talking rapidly about some movie
he saw. I do a lot of nodding.
The waiter finally brings our food. The salmon I'd ordered keeps feeling
like its getting stuck somewhere in my esophagus. I wonder if Im
going to projectile-vomit. I drain my glass of wine and thankfully, Joseph
is quick to order some more. I try to take deep breaths without calling
too much attention to myself until finally the alcohol kicks in and at
last we both lighten up a little. The worst is over. We make pleasant
small talk about our families and the music we like and the books weve
read and we end up actually enjoying each others company in an easygoing
way much different than Id imagined when Id fantasized like
a dog in heat about our getting together in the real world.
Lunch lasts over two hours. I would have liked to take a walk with him
or see his office, but its getting late now and I have to catch
the train to be home in time for dinner with my family. We leave the restaurant
not touching, and we see a cab that he quickly hails for me. Its
ending too fast, this long awaited meeting, and I feel strangely let down.
Theres just enough time for him to give me another hug and a quick
peck and then Im in the taxi and on my way. Im unable to think
straightI just want to get to the station on time, hop the train
and crash for the hour it takes to get home. I barely make it because
of traffic, and Im out of breath by the time I take my seat. I lean
back and try to unwind.
Im about half way home when it occurs to me that Joseph is not going
to be the one to save me after all.
I wonder, fearfully, if this is the end. If weve now taken this
as far as it can go. Theres no more element of surprise or the unknown.
We both belong to others; we have separate and completely different lives.
Neither one of us is going to do anything drastic, in spite of being so-called
soul mates. I experience a moment of total despairI want to cry
out in pain. My eyes fill with wine-induced tears.
But then I think of my life without him. A life of just Eddie and the
kids; a life without that secret place in which to escape. I dont
want to have these thoughts, I make myself think about Joseph instead.
I conjure his image up in front of me and remember how we briefly held
hands at lunch, and how I wish he hadnt pulled away. I realize now
its the guilt over his wife that made him do that and it endears
him to me even further. I wonder how those hands would feel, touching
my face, my throat, my breasts.
I do believe I love this man, I really do. At least I think so.
I smile to myself when I imagine again about how it will be the first
timegently, tentatively exploring each others bodies in the
beginning and then slamming ourselves together in white hot passion until
we are sweat soaked and spent.
Hey, theres always that chance. Anything can happen, right? Therefore
Somebody, anybody. Please publish him soon.
© Robin Slick June 2002
Robin Slick resides in downtown Philadelphia with her semi-dysfunctional
family, which includes two young teenaged musical prodigies who were just
featured in the May, 2002 issue of Spin Magazine. She has had two short
stories published--one in the now defunct Thin Ice and the other in Temple
Journal, which would normally have been a respected magazine out of Temple
University had it not also included television listings and been given
out free in bars. She is a former member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group,
in which she workshopped several stories with notables such as Diane Whetstone
McKinney, author of Tumbling
SHORT FICTION IN DREAMSCAPES
< Reply to this Article