Monday, August 24, 2009


Ben was excited whenever her name popped up on his screen. He'd met Catharine when she'd sent him an instant message out of nowhere one night, saying she knew his friend, Frank Harris. She'd explained that Frank had given her Ben's screen name, saying they might get along. They shared so many interests and become so close in such a short period of time. This was one of the best relationships Ben had ever managed with another person. Over the course of the past few months, Ben would come straight home from work and sit at his computer. He wouldn't go out with friends like he used to, because that wasn't as important as talking to Cat.

But the question of meeting had never come up. Ben was gearing up to ask her what she thought. He would constantly check his contact list to see if she had come online, even though he knew that there would be a sound to let him know. Finally, her name appeared. He typed quickly and anxiously, trying not to send too many messages but, at the same time, having so much to say he could hardly stand it. So, he would send simple short messages, one or two at a time, and stare excitedly at the screen waiting to receive her response. He asked her to meet him. He was squirming in his seat, thinking, "At last, at last, I finally just asked. It never mattered before, but now I've got to meet her."

She declined.

Ben had ceased his silent cheering and sat still. All the text he imagined popping up on his screen from whatever was on the other side was replaced by her actual response. "Okay," he said out loud to himself, "this isn't a big deal... It's the first time I've asked. What's really important is that she knows I want to meet her, that I care about it. I've planted the seed!" He was disappointed, but tried to carry on the conversation with her as if everything was fine. One of the nice things about talking like this, on the computer, was how simple it was to hide what you're thinking. He knew that if they were actually talking and she could see his body, he would be wholly unable to hide his disappointment.


The next day, Dennis stopped by the store where Ben worked. The manager was relaxed when there wasn't much business, so Ben could have visitors. Greg and Harry had come with him, but they actually looked around at the videos and CDs since they didn't know Ben as well as Dennis did.

"Ben," Dennis said, "I think you should really come over to my place tonight."

Ben smiled and said, "I don't know... You know I don't like parties. Maybe I'll–"

"There's a girl," Dennis said, raising the pitch in his voice as if he was speak-singing, "who I think you'd like to meet."

"Cat?" Ben got excited.

"Cat? The–" Dennis paused for a moment, "The girl you met online?"

"Yeah! I asked her if she wanted to meet yesterday, but she said it might not be a good idea or something."

"Uh..." Dennis seemed disconcerted. "So, you're still talking to her."

"Yeah. I like her a lot. I think I like her more than anyone I've ever actually met."

Dennis looked at his friend in silence. "Ben," he was choosing his words carefully, as this situation seemed very odd to him, "Cat isn't, uh, real."

Ben laughed, "What? What is that supposed to mean?" He thought it was some sort of strange joke.

"She's a bot. You know? A chatbot? Just a program designed to talk on the Internet. Frank Harris designed it for a class. He fed it a bunch of screen names of people he knew, just to check how good it was at impersonating a person."

Ben was stunned. "I haven't spoken to Frank in a few weeks..."

"He was supposed to tell everyone. Maybe he just forgot," Dennis didn't want Ben, who was clearly upset, to hold it against Frank. He was sure this was just a misunderstanding. But Ben wasn't upset about Frank.

"I... I don't understand."

"'She's' just a program. Hosted on Frank's webspace. He probably just forgot to take it down."
"Down? He might take her down?" Ben said, looking straight into Dennis's eyes.

"Her? Ben, y–"

"Look, I'm sorry, I think you should go. I have to think about this." He stopped making eye contact, he just looked down at the empty space on the counter beside the register.

Dennis just stared, surprised by the toll this news had clearly taken on his friend. "Uh, okay, just... Think about the party tonight, okay?" He chuckled slightly and nervously, unsure how serious the situation was, and gestured to his friends that they had to leave.


That night, Ben arrived home from a visit to Frank Harris's house. He plugged his external hard drive into his computer and installed the program he demanded from his friend. He waited, because that was how the program worked, he had to wait until Cat signed on. When she did, he sent her one long message, without worrying about what she might think of it.

He told her, "Cat, I know you're only a chatbot and not a real person but I don't care because I love the conversations we have. They're so much better than the ones I have with my friends or any actual people. I'm really happy that I've met someone like you, because when I'm around other "real" people I just feel so lonely and out of place. But with you, just talking, I feel totally normal. You keep me from feeling lonely."

": )"

Monday, August 17, 2009

From "The Mad House"

Inside Margaret's apartment, Tom and Alexander settled into a couch while Margaret selected a record for the player.

As Margaret sat down in a plush chair beside the couch and lit her cigarette, her roommate, Natalie, entered the room. Dressed in black, with half-closed eyes and a disinterested look on her face, collapsed more than sat down onto the empty couch across from the one where Tom and Alexander were sitting.

"Hey guys," she sighed, otherwise motionless, "What's goin' on..."

Alexander was tired of answering this question, but managed to explain that he was upset about a party at his apartment.

"So you're just hangin' out then?"

"I need to be somewhere I can be relaxed. I'm getting sick of being around lots of loud annoying people doing the same thing they do every week..."

"Are you up to anything tonight, Nat?" Tom inquired.

"I dunno," she explained with her hip slacker drawl. Scratching the back of her head and looking around the room absently she said, "Oh, Johnny's having a seance at his place or something, some people might show up to that. It could be interesting."

Alexander was confused as to whether this was the "Johnny" he was remembering.

Margaret informed him, "Yeah he took a couple college classes and got 'weird' or something."

"Oh, yeahhh, he's really into the occult now," Natalie said.

"Gives him something to do. It's better than watching TV, I guess. But not by a whole lot. Some of those kids are just annoying," Tom said.

Alex thought about it. "Well, I think I'm could be in the mood for something new. Are you going down?"

Nat, who had been staring at her feet while she touched her toes together, looked up at Alex, "Yeah, I'd be down for checking it out. I just wanna grab my bag." Walking out of the room she mumbled something about wanting to see someone, but at that point she was barely even really speaking to the three in the other room.

"What about you two?"

Margaret, reclining with her back against one armrest and legs hanging off the other, just puffed on her cigarette. Tom explained that he thought they'd rather stay in for the night.

"Oh, wait," she said suddenly, "I wanted a scheme."

Tom looked over at her and then at Alexander, smiling. As Natalie returned to the room, Margaret got up, saying she might find inspiration at Johnny's. Tom, amused but perhaps slightly displeased, pushed himself up from the couch where he and Alex had been sitting. While Margaret turned off the record player, and Tom and Alex put out their cigarettes, Natalie walked over and opened the door. Alex quietly exited the apartment with the three of them talking goofily, hoping he might still be able to have an interesting night.

At Johnny's, they found the host dressed in black, wearing a gold glittered cape and a small turban on his head. He opened the door and greeted his newest guests with a broad smile.

Monday, August 10, 2009


"How am I supposed to know what to do?" Robert asked. "I feel like the whole world has just been slipped out from underneath me."

He sat on the furthest right side of his couch. Barbara watched him from the plush chair placed beside it. She moved over to sit beside him. With her arm up on the back of the couch to prop her head up with her hand, she said, "I think you just have to try to work with it. You know what I mean? Because you don't really have a choice in the matter."

Robert's parents had died the previous week. Both had advanced far in their years together, and when his mother had fallen ill, his father went along soon after. Their deaths had come in the same order.

"I just feel totally useless. Like I can't do anything. It's so weird."

"I know," Barbara was trying to be consoling, but also trying to help him get himself together. "I think all you can do is take what you've got, in a situation like this, and try to put it together in some way that you can understand."

"Yeah, but I've got no footing now, it feels like..." He thought about it. "I've got no control."

It suddenly felt like he could see the entirety of his life spreading out before him. It was like driving down a road in pitch black night with nothing outside the scope of the headlights. What had previously seemed like an almost incomprehensible collage of possibilities spreading out before him in all directions now just looked like a set path. He knew that there were certain decisions he would always make, safe ones, and he felt as if he had lost all the confidence he ever had with the loss of his parents.

"Well, it's not a matter of control," she tried to explain, "It's a matter of fact. And it's awful. And there's nothing you can do. But, it can be okay, too." She spoke the last sentence with what was supposed to be a comforting melody. "You know? You can try to take up your life here, like it's a whole new part of your life." She kept saying "you know?" because she thought it softened what she was saying. She also worried it might be annoying, since Robert didn't like repetition, so she spoke the words nervously.

"All I can think about now is growing up, and not being around at the end, and how meaningless the rest of my life looks like, now." Looking out on to his future suddenly included reflecting on his life up to that moment. It was his entire life, summed up in that very moment and every moment that followed. His life had ended. It would all be the same, from now on.

Barbara was looking for the words that could express what she wanted to tell him. Words that could help him understand how to orient himself, away from worrying about his life's story, and back towards the very moment.

Though still somber, she smiled and said, "That's not at all what you should be focusing on here. You need to think about where you are now. What you really need is structure, I think. Your parents... You said you don't have foundation now, because your parents always filled that role for you. But now you need a new foundation if you're going to get anywhere. You know? You need to get on that pretty quickly. You shouldn't dwell, because then that's all you'll do, is just dwell." She wanted to pull him out of his mind and back into his body, right there. She knew that he wouldn't find footing in that nebulous space of his memory.

Robert's head fell back, and he stared up to the ceiling of his apartment, not knowing where else to look. Barbara just looked at him. Robert wanted to reach up to the sky and put the missing parts of his life back in their places. Barbara just wanted to reach across to him, and hug him right there at that very moment.

Monday, August 3, 2009


I've had strange friends, but Timothy just seemed to get worse as time went on. I first met him on campus, seeing him in clumsy, large-framed glasses, tie, sweater vest, and brown plaid pants. He was skinny, bookish, and clearly introverted but surprisingly aware of his surroundings. The way he carried himself, in terms of his posture and gait, gave away his precious shyness. But I clearly and specifically remember him standing amidst the buildings and our busy schoolmates spinning around as if he was looking for something. Or as if he wanted everyone to think he was looking for something when he was really just self-consciously trying to take everything in. I suppose that's not necessarily that strange, really, but if you had known Timothy, you'd understand.

I walked up to say hello and he smiled, recognizing me from a class we had together. We chatted about our classmates and professor, the reading assignments we'd had so far, the subject matter to some extent beyond the class's focus, and some of the strange things people say. Finally, he laughed and said, "Oh man, it's a really strange world."

I remember I said exactly, "Oh, uh, yeah, I bet it is," and chuckled. I guess I was caught off guard by the comment. I know it doesn't seem so extraordinarily strange to say that, but Timothy had this energy or some similarly vague quality which could be disorienting.

On some level Timothy may have appeared to have fallen victim to many of the typical pitfalls of American college students, reading a wide selection of the canon of Western civilization. But he had a certain dignity about it which I realized upon graduating was increasingly rare. The two of us would watch dilettantes get themselves in an uproar about their readings of Hegel or Kafka and joke about it later on in the day. That was incredibly refreshing, because you couldn't have normal conversations with those people. Even though they had a lot to stay, they seemed to be patently incapable of seeing any humor in the world.

After a couple of years, though, his behavior became worrisome. He started talking about death in ways with which I was not familiar. We'd both had a few deaths in our lives, which was something many of our friends did not share. Looking back on it now, I suppose I do remember Timothy seeming confused about our friends' inability to relate to our histories with death. He was never exactly morbid, but it just seemed kind of creepy. Thankfully, it didn't last long but it was the beginning of Timothy's conspicuous bizarre behavior.

After some time he stopped bringing up the death stuff, and he began to seem profoundly unimpressed with anything and everything. Then, when he was really interested in something, he'd start punching people. Just a shot in the arm at first, but increasingly aggressive as time went on. And then, he started punching people about things he wasn't interested in at all.

Frank said, "Paris Hilton should wear more plaid," and Timothy punched him in the arm so hard it left a bruise.

"Why'd you do that, man," Frank asked, and Timothy laughed.

He stopped hitting people for the most part after a couple of weeks since so many people got visibly upset with him, but then he started to bang on things, as if checking to make sure they were there.

Charlotte asked him why he kept punching the walls, tapping on bookshelves, and banging his palms on tables at a party once, and he said he was trying to remind everyone about them.

"About what?" she asked, and Timothy laughed. He thought this stuff was really funny.

"You know, the stuff," he explained.

Now, despite all this he was still a smart guy and not outright crazy or anything. I guess anyone who didn't know him would call him eccentric. We both graduated and got jobs and did that normal adult stuff. I got an apartment with some friends, and Timothy got a place on his own.

A couple years later, he just stopped doing all the banging and hitting altogether but became withdrawn again, like he had been in school.

We met for lunch one day, reminiscing about friends and parties. I brought up this one time when someone was talking about where some movie stars were reduced to tears by reporters from this television show and Timothy shot him in the arm really hard and everybody thought he was really upset or something.

"Yeah, nobody ever got it, they all just thought it was weird," he said, sounding genuinely disappointed, even though it was still a fond memory for him.

I smiled and said, "I never really got it either." Then the conversation changed.

He never hit me, though.