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An Alternate Reality
Robin Slick
There are times I wonder if he’s 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 universe.
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 doesn’t 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 era.
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 he’s even real. If he could possibly be the man I believe him to be.

I think about that—I obsess over it--as my hands play over the computer keyboard. I’ve 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 I’m so lost in the moment that I don’t 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 didn’t even answer me, you’re 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 you’re 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. It’s a Saturday morning—I 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 you’ll be gone all morning.
"Just a couple of hours. I trust you won’t 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 you’re 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 recovery–maybe 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 other’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’m the one who wants to take it out into the real world. It’s a major bone of contention with me that we haven’t moved beyond the parameters of online chat.
This is a very seductive medium. It’s a goddamn alternate reality.

At first, as we slowly realized we were soul mates—as we began baring our inner selves to each other on a daily basis and were stunned by both our common interests and neuroses—love of the arts, a general disdain for our fellow man, a penchant for overeating and using food as comfort—and 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. I’m in another city but Joseph’s 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 don’t leave Eddie. We have two children, who, in spite of having us as parents, are unusually well adjusted. They adore their father and they’d be devastated if we were to separate. Can I really say to them: I’m leaving your father because I am a voracious reader and he hasn’t picked up a book in twenty years? I’m 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 time—gently, tentatively exploring each other’s bodies in the beginning and then slamming ourselves together in white hot passion until we are sweat soaked and spent. I’ll 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 that’s 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, he’s 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. They’ve been married fifteen years and he says he’s never been unfaithful, he has fidelity issues. He tells me they have no sex life but other than that he loves her.

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 don’t 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 we’ve never even met face to face?
I’ve been faithful throughout my marriage, too. I married so young I’ve never even been with another man.
I tap my foot impatiently. Where the hell is Joseph right now? I’ve been sitting here for almost two hours. Why doesn’t he sign back on?
The waiting is making me crazy. I have all kinds of unhappy thoughts. I’m 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 doesn’t 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 won’t be able to stay here at the computer much longer. I’m 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 don’t want to do this to Eddie anymore; I don’t want to humiliate myself by going after a unhappily married man who has no interest in ever moving beyond fantasy world. Jesus Christ, he’s 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. He’ll know something’s wrong right away.
What’s the matter? I imagine the panic he feels already.
Nothing, I reply. Not a goddamn thing.
Oh, one of those days, he types back. What’s wrong?
I hate my life, and I hate that you’re there and I’m here and you don’t want to be with me.
Oh great, he says. You’re in one of those moods.
Yes. I am. You’re right. Everything just seems kind of pointless to me. I realize you have no intention of ever meeting me—you want me here, in cyberland—where 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. You’ve 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 can’t leave me, he types back. I need you. And you know what you’re saying isn’t true. I love you, Linda. I’ve told you that before. It’s just not the right time. You want a published author, don’t you? You don’t want a depressed loser.
What are you talking about? I’d love you if you were a garbage collector.
No, you wouldn’t. You say that, but we both know that’s not true.
He’s right. I am lying. I love him in good part because of how he writes—because he’s an artist, though whether he’s published or not doesn’t matter at all. At least I don’t 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. Let’s do it. Let’s have lunch on Monday.
My eyes widen in shock. I’ve been waiting well over a year for this, but instead of feeling relief and exhilaration I am overcome with panic. I wasn’t expecting this. Not now, anyway. My god, I ate almost an entire pint of ice cream the other night—I must be ten pounds overweight. Monday? That’s 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 I’ve gone and done it. I can’t back out now; I’ve been campaigning for this for months. But the very thought of meeting this man in the flesh—this man to whom I’ve told things I’ve never told anyone, things that are simply humiliating and horribly personal—suddenly terrifies me. Damn it to hell, I’m trapped like a rat.
Okay. Cool. Let’s do it. Listen, Eddie’s home. I gotta fly. I’ll 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 isn’t 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 I’ve 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 he’ll even require special seating –like three chairs pushed together or something. Then I remember that I’m 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; I’m dizzy with the fear of disappointing him.
I hail a cab outside the train station and give the driver the restaurant’s address. He tells me it’s a fifteen-minute ride, if we don’t get stuck in traffic. The heat is stifling, it’s the middle of summer, and his air conditioner isn’t working. My heart is palpitating. I feel like I can’t breathe. If I knew the city better, I’d get out and walk. Always the prisoner, I ruefully think to myself.
It’s the longest goddamned ride I’ve ever taken anywhere, but at last we arrive, and I exit the cab as if I’m heading toward my execution.

The restaurant he’s 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 o’clock shadow, heavy lidded dark eyes with thick lashes. We hug stiffly because I worry that I’m 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? I’m 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. He’s made a reservation and our table is ready for us. He pulls my chair out for me, and I pray I don’t 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 it’s 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 can’t 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, what’s the matter with me? I need to loosen up, to stop feeling like I’m made of concrete sitting here.

I pick up the menu and pretend to study it but I can hardly focus my eyes. I realize I’m not hungry at all. If anything, I’m vaguely nauseous. I've never been this anxious in my life. The things I’ve told this man! The things he’s told me! It’s almost impossible for me to believe that what’s 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 he’s told me by computer.

A busboy brings us some bread and we both lunge for it at once.

"Ah, there’s that food thing we have in common," he smiles.

"Yup," I reply with a mouthful of sourdough.

I can hear myself chewing and I’m 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 it’s tap water. He takes our order, and I blurt out that I’ll have the salmon filet because it’s the first thing I see on the menu and I really can’t read on any further. My brain feels totally unfocused. When the waiter walks away, I feel like I’ve been abandoned. Now Joseph and I have to talk to each other some more—the food probably won’t 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 I’m too scared to make a move.
"That’s 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. There’s a fleeting glance of pure misery on his face that I can’t 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 it’s getting stuck somewhere in my esophagus. I wonder if I’m 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 we’ve read and we end up actually enjoying each other’s company in an easygoing way much different than I’d imagined when I’d 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 it’s 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. It’s ending too fast, this long awaited meeting, and I feel strangely let down. There’s just enough time for him to give me another hug and a quick peck and then I’m in the taxi and on my way. I’m unable to think straight—I 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 I’m out of breath by the time I take my seat. I lean back and try to unwind.
I’m 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 we’ve now taken this as far as it can go. There’s 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 despair—I 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 don’t 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 hadn’t pulled away. I realize now it’s 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 time—gently, tentatively exploring each other’s bodies in the beginning and then slamming ourselves together in white hot passion until we are sweat soaked and spent.
Hey, there’s 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


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