Paulina Borsook - "Virtual Romance"

I was at a conference with the usual assortment of tech-weenies, dweebs, programmer geeks, wireheads, and brainy-type science guys. There were lots of academics and Grand Old Men of computing and foreigners that could be spotted immediately because they were too well-dressed. There were a few Internet wizards that could be identified by their combination of hair and ageing: some had sloppy Pigpen hair on receding hairlines, some had grey-haired ponytails.

Anyway, I was on line at the dinner buffet, for once having decided to forego room service. The allure of being one of the few women in a male-dominated setting, the promise of easy pickings, had long since worn off but here, at least, there weren't any industry touts to be run away from, no flacks, no managers of marketing communications who would score points with their bosses if they lassoed me into having dinner with them. Why not try to be sociable for a change, momentarily forget my raving misanthropy, and cultivate industry contacts as my boss kept hinting that he was paying my salary for me to do.

As I was standing holding a plate, and knife and fork rolled up in a napkin, I glanced up at this guy who had just butted into line. What's that, I thought. He was tall, he had a good haircut, he wore his suit well, he was consciously groomed the way only European men can be, his wing tips were shined. His name tag said "Dirk Van Hooeven, Salomon Brothers." What was he doing here.

Dirk introduced himself to me and the two or three other men around me. We all sat together; Dirk piled lots of sweets on his dessert plate, which seemed out of character with his general correctness as bond analyst. Dirk suggested that we all go to a nearby jazz club. I hate jazz, but I was too curious about him to let on; besides, this crowd of innocent nerds would be puzzled by my explanation of why I hate jazz, how I had tried to like it by listening to it a lot, that I'd even had a jazz bass-player boyfriend, that I knew it was a lapse in taste like liking George Winston or not liking Robert Rauschenberg. The poor darlings would be scared and confused by such talk, and if Dirk liked jazz, as a lot of Europeans do in their infatuation with all things exotically American, I didn't want to scare him off.

So we went off to the jazz club, a product manager from DEC, a QA engineer from Wang, an MIS director from an army base near Sacramento that I'd never heard of, Dirk the Wall Street quant, and me. Everyone was scrupulously polite. The married ones brought out pictures of their kids. The music wasn't intrusive at all. I noticed Dirk's nails were very short, very pink, perfectly manicured.

He offered to walk me back to my hotel. Oh goody, I thought. He escorted me to my elevator and said goodnight. Dammit. When I got back to my room I watched the 1 AM showing of Top Gun on the in-room pay-per-view TV channel. That was the great thing about business travel: I lived better on the road than I did at home, got my fix on popular culture in my favorite way - randomly, passively -, and never had to pay for any of it.

The next morning while checking in to get copies of the conference proceedings, I saw an information packet with the initials "DVH" lying on the table. I took out one of my business cards and scribbled "hi, I couldn't resist leaving you a note when I saw your stuff here," and stuck it beneath the rubber band that had been stretched around the packet.

I sat down on a folding chair along the edge of the conference room. This morning's panel discussion had promised to be the most heated because it had sprung from a Birds-of-a-Feather session the night before. While Dirk and I had been exchanging pleasantries at the Holiday Inn's Cherries lounge, TCP/IP gurus had been plotting the migration to OSI standards. Because the technical session was ad-hoc, there might be shouting.

I always enjoyed the religious wars in the scientific community, though I almost never understood what they were about without taking aside a native informant and having him explain what the two warring factions believed in. The partisans of connectionless transport squaring off against the partisans of connection-oriented: it didn't matter that what they said made no sense, because the invective was great. "Brain-dead," "trivial," "obvious." Such language.

I turned on the new mini-cassette tape recorder that a vendor had given my boss. It was no longer the fashion to give out such expensive freebies, but this was from a startup in Florida that was kind of out of it anyway, judging by the parity-product nature of their initial offering, which might turn out to be vaporware anyway. It figured that they didn't know what they were doing, because all those guys down there were spinoffs from aerospace or Harris or any of those other companies that had specialized in military junk, and they just didn't understand how things were different now. Silicon Valley spent its marketing money differently.

My boss had enough electronic toys as it was (in fact, we had a five-dollar bet going on how soon I was going to buy a VCR, easy money for one of us because he was a classic early adapter, I was the classic Luddite) so he offered it to me, half as a joke, if I'd get their matrix switch into the book. I didn't mind; while I didn't much care about the new information technologies, much less want to think about how I should spend my money on them, I didn't mind being given a piece of them for free.

Dirk sat down beside me. He asked me what I was working on. I said I didn't know yet, that I wouldn't know until I got back to my office what was worth writing about. He asked me what magazines I thought he should read. He industriously wrote down all the titles I listed, but I knew he would never look at them. He might as well have been asking me about my hobbies, my pets, what I did with my spare time. His point was to keep me talking about things I could seem to be expert in. Then I noticed my tape recorder had stopped running.

I asked him if he could figure out what was wrong with it. I had long since given up being worried about appearing to be a woman who is useless with machines: I was, and there was real power in self-acceptance.

Dirk picked it up from where it had been lying on the seat between us. The way he flipped the hand-sized device on its back, the knowledge in his finger tips as he poked and prodded at the buttons, the knowing what to do with what he had been presented with, broadcast erotic competence. He was the dream of sensorimotor intelligence married to expensive after-shave.

Dirk told me the problem was that the machine was in voice-activated mode, and because we were sitting so far away from the speakers, and our whisperings had been so quiet, the tape-recorder was stopping and starting. I proposed that we leave the session anyway, because neither of us was paying any attention to it.

He agreed, and we decided to take a walk along Cannery Row. I took secret glee in having this gleaming whippersnapper with his peculiar animal radiance tagging along beside me in view of the blue Pacific. It was my personal revenge on the cosmos. For all the times I had been obliged to listen to spiels on V.22 bis and packet-switching and why this year was going to be the year of the LAN. For having been forced to dine with all the company drones who might well have been Disney Audioanimatronics dolls, except that they had crusty skin. For all strange-looking, well-intentioned, maladroit men I had been forced to occupy common space-time coordinates with for professional reasons. Whereas with Dirk, the most banal of his comments on the weather held charm.

Dirk said he was going to be in San Francisco the next day talking to the operations manager in Salomon Brothers' offices in the Bank of America building. He asked me if I wanted to have lunch.


I had just bought a laptop computer, which I was fooling around with, trying to use it in addition to the IBM PC my company had provided for me. I was on the phone to New York to a systems-analyst friend of mine, having him talk me through a DOS installation-problem, when call-waiting beeped. I put my friend who grovels at computers on hold and took the call. The receptionist said Mr. Van Hooeven was there to see me, and she complimented me on figuring out how to use the new phone system so soon. I told her that it was OK to buzz him in. I hung up on my friend, but by then Dirk was standing outside my office.

He looked down at the laptop. He was too polite to ask if I were having problems, and I intuited there were limits to the attractiveness of my female learned-helplessness. I was sure Dirk knew women investment bankers, whizzes with spreadsheets if not rocket scientists themselves, so he probably would not look kindly on incompetence. I didn't mind being Exotic Other: I just didn't want to look stupid.

He said that he had sold computers the summer between his sophomore and junior year of college, and had gotten pretty good at tech support on both Macs and PCs. He asked me if he could play with my Toshiba. I said sure, and it was a treat, thrilling almost, watching the knowing way he flipped the laptop's screen to adjust for the way the light struck the LCD display, the deft couple of keystrokes he used to generate a screen-dump to activate my printer. He had never seen a portable printer like mine before.

We went to Ciao for lunch, a yupscale place around the corner, because it was yet-another-expense-account-place I hadn't tried near my office. I was methodically working my way through all of them within a ten-block radius, and so far had no favorites. He ordered pasta with three cheeses. He insisted on picking up the tab, though he could have just as easily been listed on my T+E as an "industry consultant" or "user" as I was going to be listed on his as "media contact." I pointed out that since he didn't know the Bay Area and was going to be there for the weekend, I could play tour guide.


When I called his room from the house phone at Campton Place, I told him that he should bring along a bathing suit, because I was going to take him to the Platonic Ideal of a Marin County hot-tub place. That is, if he wanted to go. He agreed that might be a good idea and said he would be right down. But he didn't invite me up.

As soon as we got into my car, he started twiddling with the controls on the radio. I was stunned by how large his hands were, how thick and blunt his fingers. I had to stop myself from staring or saying anything about them. He asked me if I were thinking about getting a cellular phone; I said no, because I wasn't a stockbroker or selling real estate.

By the time we had driven through the redwoods in Samuel P. Taylor state park, and he had seen the West Marin cows grazing on clover, he was reminiscing about when he lived in England. There had been cows there, but none on hills so steep. He didn't remember the cows of his native Holland very well; he had been six when his family had left. There had been poppies in England, too, but none so saturated in color as the California golden poppy.

I took him to McClure's beach, which is about as far west on the continent as you can go at Point Reyes National Seashore. The San Andreas fault runs out to sea there, and you pretty much feel you can't go much farther, that things are about as extreme as you could want them to get. I had him climb up with me on my favorite set of rocks, where we stared out to Taiwan; when we started climbing back down, he commented that at grammar school in England he had been taught that a man should always precede a woman up a staircase, because otherwise he might be able to look up her skirt. He was such a gentleman that he wouldn't have mentioned it until we were no longer replicating those potentially scandalous postures.

On the way back to the car, he stopped to pick up an undistinguished sea-rounded rock. He said he was going to take it back to keep on his desk in New York because he was the sentimental type. I said nothing, because I could not deal with the statement. I couldn't have made his declaration of strong liking, of letting me know that he was recording our scrabbling on top of cliffs as This Was A Romantic Moment To Be Remembered, for I was a scaredy-cat. The silence as I drove was companionable, even more unsettling than the sexual tension.

Floating World, the hot-tub place in Sausalito, was just around the corner from Whole Earth headquarters and a couple of yachting supply places. It was also about half a mile away from where I'd had my first technical writing job at a small Microdata and Honeywell software shop that wrote Pick-based vertical accounting packages for construction firms.

When you walked in the front door of Floating World, you immediately got a Twilight Zone feeling of Moonie mind control; there was watery New Age music playing, the staff all wore pastels and were horribly relaxed, there were expensive and exotic brands of skin-care products for sale at the counter, and the interior overall evoked a resort in Bermuda.

Dirk and I went off to the men's and women's bathrooms to change into our bathing suits. I wanted him too much not to be worried about seeing him half-naked; no clothes at all would have been even scarier. He was waiting patiently for me by the door of our suite. I was grateful that he was wearing standard department-store issue baggies: some perfectly nice men show alarming lapses in taste when it comes to bathing suits. After I closed the door behind us, I showed him which knobs governed the volume of the piped-in music, which buttons determined the degree and kind of bubbliness of the water jets, which switch turned on the light in the sauna. The suite had a clerestory window which did not that night frame the moon; I pointed out the wind chimes hung in front of a small air vent, which would be jangled gently by a gust of air five minutes before our time was up.

I told him what I normally do is turn off all lights except the ones that illuminated the bottom of the redwood tub. I explained as we got into the water how Floating World used an oxygen-filtration system pioneered by NASA for the astronauts instead of conventional swimming-pool chlorination - much healthier. I thought this would interest him because he had been a chemistry major at Dartmouth. I pointed out the Japanese-influenced joinery in the woodworking, very typical of Northern California wood-butcher style. I hoped he found my pedantry entertaining. I wanted to make sure I seemed no more than friendly and helpful. We were careful not to let our knees touch underwater.

For dinner, he said we ought to go back to Campton Place, because they were famous for their food. He asked me if I minded room service; that way we wouldn't have to change out of our jeans for the dining room downstairs. I said sure.

In his room, we used the excuse of being flushed and wet-headed from Floating World to change into matching and ugly white terry-cloth robes provided by the hotel.

He noticed that the red message-light on his phone was blinking, so he called down to the desk before he placed our food orders. He also called his answering machine in Brooklyn Heights, using a hand-held beeper to punch in the touch-tones of his remote code. He told me who the messages were from (his college roommate, a co-worker) as he listened, a good sign, Ithought.

We had green-lipped New Zealand mussels, which made Dirk nervous. In spite of being Dutch, he turned out not to be a fan of bivalves. We drank far more than we ate.

I was sitting in an armchair next to the bed as he stood with the cable program guide in his hand, pulled from the top shelf of the armoire that held the TV and the in-room bar and stocked refrigerator. When I said there was nothing in particular that I felt like watching, he walked over to me and sat on the edge of the bed. I asked him what we were doing here. He leaned over, lifted the hair off the back of my neck, and kissed me there.

When he stopped, I kissed him full on the mouth, cupping his face with both of my hands. I knocked him back onto the bed. When we came up for air, I asked him how old he was. He said he was twenty-three. Dirk was only two years older than my oldest nephew. I shrieked, laughed, and crawled under the covers, pulling the sheet over my head.

Dirk looked worried. How old are you, he said. I said I was thirty-three. He said that in August he would be twenty-four, the way a kindergartner says he will be five and a half next month, every little increment of age counting. I said yes, but in September I would be thirty-four.

I became a little hesitant, and he moved too quickly and roughly at first. But when I whispered easy, easy, we became miraculously in-sync. I had never run into his mix of strength and sweetness before. He was so powerful, but anything I tried made him tremble.

There was a purity to him, a psychosexual gentility, that humbled me. In his immaculateness, no matter how intense things got, he had no smell, except for the faint remains of his cologne.

How could anything that huge and passionate be so minutely sensitive: beautiful living contradiction. You don't expect fine instruments to be as responsive in the high notes as well as in the low ones, piano and forte, but he was, he was. I had never known that masculine strength could be so inspirational. As he lifted and moved me down from where I had been driven up against the headboard of the bed, the tenderness in his massive, Nautilused-out upper torso was almost unbearable.

We were in that divine state of telepathy that I had even forgotten existed, and he blew me away. He was oxen-hearted, and exquisite. It was sacramental, all right.

We stayed up all night. He was impressed that I carried rubbers with me. Not sleeping didn't matter that much because he had to be in the office by 5:30 AM that morning anyway in time for the market's opening back east. Salomon Brothers kept a black middle-aged woman, a former employee of a once-famous Pacific Heights hostess, as a cook for the morning staff, so Dirk knew he could stay awake once he got there, primed by coffee and sugar and the good grease of a traditional breakfast.

Dirk said he would call me at lunch, and that we would spend the next night together before he had to fly back to New York.

He dressed in a suit; I had only my jeans to get back into. We agreed that we should walk out at different times, to not advertise to the desk crew What We Had Been Up To. I walked out about five minutes after Dirk did, attempting to look impassive and cool, scowling even. The night-clerk behind the desk smiled at me with the same smile a stewardess had given me when I and my exhusband had ducked out of the bathroom on our honeymoon redeye flight to Jamaica. Service personnel pretty rapidly get familiarized with the little wings that appear an inch and a half above the ankles after mad love-making.

I dashed home, changed into standard business attire, and came back to work. I was loathe to go out for lunch, waiting for Dirk's call. I was too nervous to eat anything anyway, so I stayed in. He didn't call. I took out the tapes I'd made at the conference. Sure enough, there was one where Dirk and I could be heard to be talking and giggling, with someone droning on in the background about network management. It was a tape of him fixing my tape recorder, and I was stunned by how flirtatious we both were, even then. We might as well have been fucking on the floor of the Doubletree Inn lobby. Hearing him was painful, so I did not finish the tapeout.

By four o'clock when Dirk finally called, I was in despair. He had been called into meeting after meeting; instead of staying the night in San Francisco, he had had to take an evening flight to O'Hare to do fire-fighting having to do with some kludgy graphics workstations in the Chicago office.

I got squeaky. I found myself slipping into the worst sort of clinginess, asking Dirk when I was going to see him again. I realized I didn't have his office phone number, his home address or phone number. He spelled them all out, said he could be out in San Francisco for a weekend in a month, and that he would call me when he got back to New York.

Two days later, there was a pink telephone message slip from Mr. Van Hooeven of Salomon Brothers waiting for me when I walked in to work. My chin was stilled chapped from having kissed him so much. I called him back immediately.

After telling each other how much we missed each other, and how tired we both were, Dirk asked me what my facsimile number was, because he wanted to send me something that described how he felt when he got back to New York after two days of getting no sleep and getting hard-ons from thinking about me as he sat in on meetings where the competitive advantages of different kinds of twisted-pair cabling were being discussed.

I put Dirk on hold. I had to ask my secretary for the facsimile number. No one had ever asked me for that before. We kept on talking, and soon there was a knock on my door. The fax had arrived, a "Far Side" cartoon of a fellow in free-flight, who had a grand piano and an anchor at the ends of his parachute lines instead of the hoped-for parachute.

It amused me that Dirk had so officially filled out the facsimile cover sheet (TO: J. Mergner, FROM: D. Van Hooeven), down to a chargeback number in the upper left-hand corner. As if there were anything official or business-like about what he had transmitted.

Dirk and I agreed to call each other daily. I said I had been writing him a letter; he wanted to know what I said in it. I said that would be cheating, and besides, I was much too shy to read out loud what I had written. He said he didn't want to wait for me to mail it, and asked if I could fax it to him. I said I had never sent a fax before, and besides, there were things in my letter I wouldn't want anyone else to read. Dirk tried to coax me on, assuring me he would stand right by the machine to pick up the letter as soon as it arrived so no one else could see it.

I caved in. I had my secretary transfer his call to the phone on her desk, so Dirk could coach me through the steps I needed to take. He patiently talked me through the numbers I had to punch in, the buttons I had to push. I giggled throughout, feeling scared and excited and on an adventure and doubting the whole thing would work. Then I heard the answer-tone of the receiving facsimile machine, and saw my facsimile machine print out "SALOMON BROS - WATERSIDE PLAZA - 212-555-6097" on its display.

The whole exercise made me giddy. I was able to talk on the phone with Dirk simultaneous with him guiding me through this set of moves that would get my letter to him in realtime. I marvelled at how he just knew what to do without ever having seen my facsimile machine. The power of his knowingness gave me the shivers.

I asked Dirk if it had come through OK. He assured me it had, and I could hear his snorts of amused pleasure through the phone as he read what I had written.

I had my secretary transfer his call back to my office, where I could close the door.

So our pattern began. We called each other several times a day, courtesy of our employers. We left messages on each other's answering machines, sometimes calling midday when neither of us could possibly have been at home just to hear the sound of each other's voice. He used the Salomon Brothers mailroom to Federal Express me a favorite kind of cookie he had heard me mention I could only get in New York. I started hoarding the pink message slips where the space that said "M" was filled in by D. Van Hooeven, "company" by Salomon Brothers and where the two boxes "called" and "please call back" were checked. I prized the one where in the space for "number," my secretary had written "u-no." It was a signal to me, and to my office, and to the world, that we were an item.

Every time he called, as soon as I heard his voice I would flush and stammer. I would close the door to my office and hunch over the phone. Every time after we finished talking, I would look as though I had just had sex, because my eyes were shiny and my hair was mussed from my nervously running my fingers through it as we talked. I would walk around afterwards with a secret smile for about half an hour. Very soon we had spent more time on the phone than we ever had in person. And none of this would have been possible if our companies hadn't negotiated corporate bloc-discounts with interexchange carriers, letting us run amuck with ATT and MCI. We were treating long-distance as if it were a basic human right like heat or potable water: life was grand in the wake of the breakup of the monopoly of the Bell System.

I could date when I officially fell in love with him to a particular phone call. We had been arguing about GOSIP timetables. Dirk maintained that the OSI standard was going to become mandatory for all government procurements; I said that my sources indicated that grassroots protocol stacks could still be bought and used, as long as the OSI products were in there in the RFP too. I went out to lunch; there was a message from Dirk marked URGENT when I got back. He had called one of the vendors that he had a privileged non-disclosure relationship with in order to corroborate his position in our argument. Dirk gave me the phone number of his contact, the head of the company's development team, so I could hear first-hand from someone else the reasons for Dirk's contrary position. I didn't want to get myself into some sort of pre-announcement embargo, which my company policies forbade, but I promised Dirk I would call. Dirk said he was concerned that I would admit an error into my story. I thanked him, and hung up. Not only did he think I was the best lover he had ever had, he did not want me to look bad inprint.

After about a week of this, of my living on ice water and take-out fruit salad and wandering around the Embarcadero with my hands in my pockets, autistically and repetitively whistling the dippy top-forty love song from Top Gun, Dirk escalated our relationship.

Since I was writing letters on my computer anyway, Dirk suggested that I upload my letter to him at work, so he could read it right away. I was skeptical about systems like that: I hate machines, they hate me, and there was always some damned thing that would come up, or wouldn't work as it was supposed to, or made no sense. But he was sure he could make the setup function; he had all of his experience giving people help over the phone with their computers.

Dirk had told me he needed to know what my data-line phone number was, so I had to drag the office manager into the PBX closet and have her help me paw through yards of spaghetti cabling, checking ports against the wiring chart.

I called Dirk back with the number. Before he configured his computer to receive a file transfer from mine, he walked me through the command sequence so that my computer would be slaved to his as soon as he dialed in. Keeping me on the telephone, Dirk initiated the connection. As I was talking to him, I saw

hi. can you read this?

appearing across my display, the characters coming into light as he was typing them back in New York. I squealed, told him that I could. He brought out my getting-to-be-the-girl, o, take me James. Or Dirk, in this case. He then asked me the filename I had given to the letter. I told him "Dirk7," and watched as the letter streamed across the screen, paragraphing lost in one continuous flow of ASCII. His sureness was reminiscent of when he had stuck his hand in exactly the right place between my shoulder blades. It was unsettling and strange and exciting to watch him enter and work my computer that way.

After I had acquiesced in the file upload, he proposed that we start sending each other electronic mail. I freaked out. I was beginning to feel corrupted.

No, no, no, I said. That's what those weird people do who get into computer dating and marry people they've never met and have no social skills and have those weird pear-shaped flabby DP bodies from too many hours sitting and staring at computer terminals.

Dirk disagreed. He had met one of his college girlfriends through electronic mail. He used to run the Arpanet node at the Dartmouth computer center and got into a CHAT with a woman who was a Berkeley graduate student one night. Their conversation turned into a nightly flirtation after Dirk found a picture of her in an old Dartmouth yearbook: she had gone there as an undergraduate, which had been one of their initial points of tangency. They met after speed-rapping and making goo-goo eyes at each other online for several months. Dirk said it had been weird to make her actual, physical, and not virtual, acquaintance. But that it wasn't as weird as I might have thought, and that he and she carried on a nice summer romance after they met, and besides, he and I had already met and knew we liked each other.

I protested. BBSes are weird, I said, people who hang out on them are weird.

Dirk said that there were all kinds of people on the Internet and that there were conferences on everything from politics to cooking to the Grateful Dead - in fact, Dirk's immediate vice-president was a Deadhead, and had been grateful when Dirk downloaded the most current postings on the Dead SIG.

I said I liked writing real letters. That virtual communities were to real communities as catsup is to a vegetable.

Dirk kept on. He said that this way, our letters could get to each other right away. That we could be reading and writing to each other from work when it would look like we were doing other things. That the three-hour time difference between us wouldn't matter as much, because he could write me in the morning before I came into work, and I could write him after he had gone to sleep.

I said I had never had any ambitions to be a hacker and I had never wanted to be a ham radio operator either.

He persisted. He said that if I started sending him electronic mail, we wouldn't be playing as much telephone tag. And when we were both on the road, it would be even easier to stay in touch, because anywhere either of us stayed, we would be able to log on through the phone jacks in our hotel rooms. Assuming they had RJ11 connectors.

I relented, because being an ageing hippy made me want to try anything once. Besides, I didn't want to keep acting so un-with-it. Also, if it was just another way of sending and receiving love letters, only faster, then I was all for it. I didn't want to appear more hung-up than any of his past girlfriends.

I told Dirk I'd figure out a way to get to him electronically.

I asked my boss if he would pay for me to subscribe to an electronic mail service. He was reluctant, but I said it would better my contacts around the country, help with research. He said OK, but to keep the monthly expenditure under $25, the amount where the bean-counters automatically started asking questions and demanding receipts.

After I asked around, it seemed like the only way I would be able to hook up to Dirk was through the Well. The Well stood for Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, and was connected to Whole Earth magazine. The people who ran it were also ageing hippies - escapees from intentional communities, they were civil libertarians and communications junkies. If I could stomach this email stuff at all, it would be through them.

Once I decided to commit the crime of going electronic, I was impatient with how long the administrative tasks took. If I were going to participate in folie deux, I wanted to get on with it, get it over with


While I waited, I was reduced to going to the men's fragrance counter at Macy's where I sprayed Xerxyus on my forearm. I had spotted Dirk's canister of it on the ledge of the sherbet-colored fake-marble sink at Campton Place; but on me the stuff only smelt insipid and metallic. I tried other means to make Dirk real. On my office bulletin board, I tacked up articles on Salomon Brothers, or Holland, and even a soft feature from The Wall Street Journal on a church in Cornwall called St. Dirk's-in-the-Field. These were the best I could do.

It took the Well a couple of days to enter my name, address, and Mastercard number in their records. Then I had to wait until their manual arrived in the mail. The manual was like most manuals in that you already had to know how things worked in order to use it, you couldn't find anything in the table of contents or index, and it relied on a knowledge of Unix and data communications that I just didn't have. What was a parity bit, and how was I supposed to find out how many I was supposed to have? Did I want to be full-duplex? Have the echo on? And what the hell did "mark" mean here? It was as tedious as when I used to try to read articles on building your own grey-water recycling system for the home in my brother's issues of Popular Mechanics. Why would anyone voluntarily do this to themselves.

I had to come up with a login/user ID. It had to be something that I didn't think anyone else on the Well would have, and that I could remember easily. I chose "potto," a favorite furtive woodland creature. And for my password, "redux," somehow having to do with the self-referential, worm-ourobouros, infinitely recursive quality of it all. I knew better than to choose something like the name of my cat, or my birthday, or anything that someone could easily link to me. Basic network-security hygiene dictated obscurity of password.

I kept on trying to log on until the day when I got the sequence

This is the Well.

Dynix (R) V3.0.14 (well)
Type your user name or "newuser" to register
login: potto
last login: Tue Apr 7 1987 14:35:37 on ttyxa
Copyright 1984 Sequent Computer Systems, Inc.
Picospan T3.3 designed by Marcus Watts
licensed by Unicon Inc.
You have reached the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link).
Material posted on the WELL is the sole property of its
author. Reproduction in any medium without the express
permission of the individual author is strictly
Welcome to the Entry Conference !
The following commands can all be given at the
"OK (? for help):" prompt. All commands on the WELL are
followed by a carriage return:
Type: welltour .. to read The WELL's
Guided Tour.
Type: manual .. for instructions on how to read
The WELL's online User Manual
(intermediate level).
Type: support .. for instructions on getting
online help.
Type: b .. to browse the list of topics
in this conference.
Type: tips .. to see a list of lively
discussions on The WELL.
Type: access ..
for information
on long-distance
4 newresponse topics and 22 brandnew topics.
First topic 1, last 72

The password didn't show up on the screen as I typed. I immediately called Dirk, even though he told me he was going to be at a meeting where secret strategic plans for FDDI and IRIS workstations and more he wouldn't tell me about were going to be discussed.

While waiting for him to call me back, I called what the Well called voice support to ask them what my Internet email address was. I had no idea. The person who took my call had no idea either, but said she would find someone who knew and would call me back. Out of edginess, I logged back onto the Well again, just to prowl around. There were things called conferences, where people who didn't know each other would yammer on about designated topics. There were conferences on different kinds of computers (natch), but also on true confessions where people got publicly and mentally undressed, on singles and parenting and the media and health. The idea of carrying on conversations with people I had never met, and probably wouldn't like if I ever did meet them, was repellent. Here these people were, making like they were each other's best friends, flirting with each other and often making silly, sci-fi-inflected jokes like Cal Tech undergraduates make to each other. It seemed like the worst of the 60s rap groups, only carried on by people who were addicted to keyboarding.

Dirk got back to me before the Well did, and gave me an address of his for me to try in electronic mail syntax:


So I typed that in, and got a prompt for "subject." Being shy, I typed in

first try

Not knowing what to put in the message itself, I wrote

let's see if this works

We hung up. The Well then called me back, and tried to come up with an addressing syntax that would route mail through the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory node onto the Internet. They were uncertain that it would work. I sent two messages, the first using the syntax that had originated with Dirk and the second using what the Well had cobbled together for me.

My first message never got to him. It bounced back hours later; something was wrong with the addressing:

9 Apr 87 15:18:58 PST
Date: Thu, 9 Apr 87 15:18:58 PST
From: Mail Delivery Subsystem <lll-lcc!MAILER-DAEMON>
Subject: Returned mail: Host unknown
Message-ID: <8704212318.AA1521@ll-lcc.ARPA>
To: well!potto
Status: RO
-------Transcript of session follows------
550 Host unknown
550 Host unknown
------Unsent message follows------
Received: Thu, 9 Apr 87 15:18:58 PST by lll-lcc.ARPA
id AA15209; Thu, 9 Apr 87 15:18:58 PST
Received: by well.UUCP (4.12/4.7)
id AA29107; Thu, 9 Apr 14:46:43 pst
Date: Thur, 9 Apr 87 14:46:43 pst
From: well!potto (Justine Mergner)
Message-ID: <8704212256.AA29107@well.UUCP
Subject: first try
let's see if this works

Somehow it was humiliating to see my message back in my face. I never liked seeing my mailed letters at friends' houses either; my letters always reminded me of used Kleenex. Here, my ignorance was being indicted, too. This was Fate intervening between two lovers as surely as war or moving to another high school would have done. And though I knew DAEMON was a name for a Unix utility, it looked too much like demon, and I felt I had been condemned to Hell. For trying this unnatural medium against my will. For worse, failing at it. You made me play by your rules and I didn't even win.

I called Dirk back when the mail bounced. He asked me to read the message back to him. He decided that I needed to better identify his host gateway, and that he would try sending me a test message of his own to see if at least, he could get to me. He came up with a new address to try, adding a host number to the host name:


We talked some more, about what he was going to do that night and what I was going to do that night and how both of our jobs were going. He had just seen the movie Something Wild and said it reminded him of us. He made a few affectionate double entendres in that patented chesty rumble of his that always made me feel like the RCA dog listening to His Master's Voice. They were particularly ticklish because I knew he did not have his own office; how could he say stuff like that with someone within earshot? Or possibly within earshot? He was a risk-taker, that was for sure.

When I got to work the next morning, there was a message waiting for me on the Well; he had gotten the second message using the Well's addressing scheme.

From lll-lcc!!salomon Fri Apr 10 6:21:08
Date: 10 Apr 87 08:43:00 EDT
From: "DIRK VAN HOOEVEN" <ll-lcc!!salomon>
Subject: your mail...only took 12 minutes
I really don't know what the panic was all about. From
when you sent it to your mailer on the Well (15:26 to
when it was forwarded 15:37 to when it was received by
me 18:38, it only took 12 minutes... not bad, huh?
Your message came through L. Livermore Labs and I think
the Well is on Usenet.

I called Dirk immediately and told him that the system at last seemed to be working, because the second message had gotten through. He had also gotten my third message, which had addressed him by a numbered host. I was being initiated into a new level of vice.

I felt like a French girl who by falling in love with a handsome and sweet German soldier, had become a collaborationist. Dirk was on the side of greenmail and arbitrageurs and program-trading, employed by the running dogs of Yankee capitalism, an accessory to the ruin of traditional American industries and neighborhoods. He was a technocrat, a digitizer, an ambassador of the future that preferred, nay, expected the engineered and the simulated and their MTV. This naive, post-literate Reaganite was actively participating in the downfall of the West, because he was contributing to the creation of ever-more-tricky financial instruments instead of working on a cure for cancer with his training as a scientist. He would have had no idea what the personal being political meant, or how I would have argued for the unmediated and the authentic. I was fraternizing with the enemy and I didn't care. My embrace of this emissary of everything that was politically incorrect was total.

Dirk and I still talked as much as ever, whether at work or using our business credit cards when we were anyplace else. But email entered the cycle, in that often after hanging up from talking with him, I would compulsively dash off a note on something left unsaid. He would receive it an hour or two or three later, and call me back with a response. Or immediately dash off one of his own. I would log on after lunch, in the middle of working on something else, or almost hourly, just to see if there were something there from him. We were linking up in every virtual way we could. The prompt line at the bottom of my communications software said

Dialing --- waiting for connection

while it was making the call across the Bay to Sausalito. I'll say. As soon as I saw the

You have mail.

message, I would let the message scroll down my screen. Then I would turn my printer on, reprint the message onto paper, turn the printer off, store the message in my Well mailbox, and log off. If it was a short message, I would read it as it appeared, but if it was longer than the twenty-five lines that comprised a screenful of data, I wouldn't even try and would let the printer handle it. All that great mush would be going by too fast for me to read it. I never could figure out how to stop and then restart the scrolling of the message.

I would then rip the message off my printer, and one time out of two, laugh out loud. I was sure my officemates thought I was insane, for I would be sitting in my office, clearly with no one else there, I was audibly not on the phone, but I was laughing, nonetheless. The printouts I kept in a file folder labeled with Dirk's name, hanging in the top drawer of my file cabinets.

I wasn't with this man nor was I sharing his bed, as I was dying to. But I could share the phatic act of sending him email: the fact that I would have sent him something, I kind of figured, was the point, and that he and I would consider that our link was virtually instantaneous. That it took twenty minutes, or three hours, or however long it would take to make the hops through network gateways from Sausalito to Manhattan, was immaterial. I guessed to Dirk that the communication itself created intimacy.

I thought that was perverse, but it seemed no more major a concession than wearing a perfume or garments to bed you knew a guy liked. It seemed an acceptable deformation of character for such a hunk. There was no pain, and a minimal amount of hardware. And I got to participate in the communications revolution of our time.

I was also shocked at how bald his email was. He was willing to write and transmit messages that were extremely personal, yet I had always been told that you shouldn't ever put into electronic mail anything that you wouldn't want read by others. Privacy cannot be guaranteed over a network. But Dirk did it anyway, and joked about how maybe some of the Internet types that he knew well and that I had met at our sainted conference of memory in Monterey might be reading our mail at points along the way because it was so hot. We might be giving thrills to late-night network operators in Omaha, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia as our mail went charging back and forth between the Coasts at 56 kilobits per second.

You have proposed an entire weekend of sexual
activities, taking recesses only to eat and bathe.
Now you can imagine how enticing and appealing that
sounds...I'm at the office, and just as I am saying
to you that I would be VERY happy with that
scenario, my VP asked me into his office. Now you
must realize that talking about this made the front
of my pants look like Mt. Fuji, not exactly a way
to go into a conference with your manager.
Ever caring, Dirk

So I went along, tentative, anxious, goofily grinning. I felt that Dirk was challenging me to break taboos. In terms of heterosexual behavior, I thought I had done all that as a teenager, found doing so for its own sake boring, and had gone back to being conventional. I hadn't thought it would have been possible for there to be any new taboos I had not yet considered as worthy of being broken.

Dirk would tell me his sexual fantasies. He liked playing guessing games, and having me give him hints daily about things I thought we ought to try when we next got together:

As for your hint of the day, smaller than a
breadbox, huh?
1. sensory deprivation (I'd be interested in this
even if it's not what you're hinting at :-)
2. it could be some kind of oil for massage, but
that's a guess, and since you said it's smaller
than a breadbox, I can't imagine that oil would
How about if you include prices ranges for these
I'll be looking forward to the next hint!
Speak with you soon...
EOM - 19 lines

I had to be told that ":-)" was the online glyph for a smiley face. It signified a joke.

The fantasy I found most puzzling was one he had of making love blindfolded. I had never done this, nor wanted to, but if that's what he wanted, I could be a sport. But something happened with the message I sent in reply to his talk of silk scarves. I had to call the Well tech support to help me figure out what had happened, to retrieve the misfired mail. The woman helping me out with the errant email had to actually go into the text of files, searching for mine in order to figure out what happened. Certain of my words would have jumped out at anyone. My Well helper was too polite to say anything, but I felt as if I were standing on top of my desk, naked, so anyone passing by could remark on my figure flaws.

I had never been involved with a workaholic before; to me it was part of his appeal:

My worry is that should I get too caught up, or
personally attached (as in I can't stop thinking
about you), I might louse up the work opportunities
that arise. Now I know that seems very nerd-like,
but nevertheless it really matters to me that I
succeed here. When I have more staff working for
me so I can exert a little Human Resources
Management (read: whip and slavedrive), the
situation could change.

Dirk had to fly to London and Frankfurt to check up on the installations there. He borrowed some kind of a Trash-80 clone from work. He sent me a message just before he took off for the airport. What a great guy:

I'm logging on from my workslate, and i can read
your two messaegs at 300 baud. I can't really
write a very long response on tis little keyboard,
but I wanted you to know I had read it. I managed
to get the morning flight on Sunday, so I'll be off
bright and early, and off to the Marlborough Arms
Sunday night and flying to Frankfurt on Monday
night, and staying at some little hotle sorry hotel
called the Hilton neat our office there.
In case you haven't noticed, I dont have a working
backspace, since I can't figure out how to make
this ting create a true DEL character.

I tried to imagine if the notebook-sized computer had an internal modem, or if Dirk had gone to the effort for me of using an acoustic coupler.

He called me from his London hotel room and drove me wild by putting on a fruity British public-school accent. We both wished I was there with him. We arranged that I should call him in Frankfurt, because the German PTT slapped on a massive surcharge on outgoing FX calls: why give the hopelessly old-fashioned Deutsche Bundespost any more money than we had to. We talked about when he was going to be coming out to San Francisco for a clothing-optional weekend. As soon as he got back from Europe, we decided. All he had to do was cash in some of his frequent-flyer miles using overnight mail, have the tickets Fedexed to him at Salomon Brothers, and I'd see him on Friday. I was going to take that afternoon off.

He showed up at my office straight from the airport with his garment bag. I blushed when I saw him again for the first time in six weeks; seeing the object that had inspired all that hot-and-botheredness made me bashful, because of course I didn't know him: he was a stranger, though one I was really delighted to see.

We drove to my house and with barely suppressed impatience, fell into bed. It was ecstatic, celestial, angelic, transcendental. When we were done, Dirk said he couldn't do this with me anymore. I said what? Cradling my shoulders in the crook of his arm, with his other hand he took out from his wallet that he had laid on the bedside table his American Airlines AAdvantage card. It listed the toll-free reservations numbers for major cities in the United States. Including San Francisco.

I asked him what he was doing. He said he was looking for the next flight out. I said I wasn't going to argue with him, but I thought he was crazy for walking away from what we had. He said that the sooner we disengaged, the sooner we could each find someone at home, him in New York, me in San Francisco.

He made a reservation for a flight out the next morning. We stayed in bed, got up to make dinner when the sun was going down. He complimented me on how I looked in my bathrobe, calling it a gown in the British fashion.

I would not beg him to stay; with my pride I could not throw my arms around his knees in a fit of female weakness. I have a kind of tramp-dignity: if you were offering me lunch because you took pity on my hunger, homelessness, and joblessness, I would still insist on raking the leaves in your backyard first. And I never wanted to talk anyone into anything.

As I was stuffing the remains of the food I could not eat down the garbage disposal, Dirk came up from behind and hugged me. He pulled me away from what he saw was a dangerous task, the best little boy in the world and former Medevac volunteer horrified by what he saw as a dismemberment in the making. I swung around and slightly out of his embrace and thrust my splayed fingers out in front of me, dancing them in his face. Three decades! Ten fingers! All there! I said. He pulled me to him and said, you drive me crazy. It put me in mind of the scene in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were photographing lobsters on the kitchen floor. Once Dirk grabbed me, he carried me off to bed up the stairs Rhett-Butler style. More incandescence.

I watched him sleep, because I could not. With Dirk, I had lost my immunity. Every moment with him had been a found one, all sixty hours of them. When he woke up that morning and came downstairs, he found me in a rocking chair. He asked me what I was thinking. I said I was thinking about how much he pleased me. He looked stunned at my reply.

When I dropped him off at the airport the next morning, he said he thought we should cool things for awhile. I drove back to my office, leaving him a message on his answering machine, just to hear his voice one last time. I logged on and sent him a note I hoped was neither too anguished nor too drippy.

When I got back to work on Monday, I kept logging on hourly to see if there was anything from him. There wasn't, but the habit had grown too strong to break. With no positive reinforcement after a week or so, it dropped down to once a day. After a week or two of that, it dropped further down to once a week. One time I logged onto the Well with the intention of capturing to disk all the messages he and I had sent each other, cleaning out my Well mailbox. While I couldn't stand the idea of all that heavy breathing and pent-up yearning just sitting there in binary in my mbox, I found I couldn't stand even more removing the record of what we had been to each other.

It was about then that I got my first Well bill: it was less than $40 for hours of virtual lovemaking. After a month had gone by, I regained enough composure to have a friend return the scarves to Saks and credit them to her account. She then gave me back the cash. I couldn't go through the transaction myself.

I had to go to Seattle to attend an IEEE conference and interview the Marconi Award-winning muckymuck from Bell Labs who had invented adaptive equalization. I brought my laptop with me because I decided I had to write to Dirk as we had planned, from a hotel room. But I mailed the letter to him at work in the ordinary way, with stamps, There was no answer.

All that summer, as I had that spring from the time Dirk had said we would have to part, I walked around with a virtual spear in my chest. I logged onto the Well once a month, but there was never anything there.

The fall came and there were massive layoffs at Salomon Brothers followed immediately by the October stock-market crash. I decided I would contact Dirk to see if he were OK. Also, we had spoken of meeting at the fall Comdex back in the spring, and if he were going to be there, I wanted to be prepared. To avoid him or drag him back into bed. I did not want to be caught by surprise.

About a week after I sent him the message through the Well, I got this back:

Hi. I haven't been reading my mail for a while, so
I just got your note.
I won't be coming out to Vegas, unfortunately. My
new boss went to Comdex a few years ago, and thought
it was the biggest excuse for a party he'd ever
seen. I will be making a Silicon Valley trip, but
on a date to be determined. I'll let you know here.


But he never did.

About a year later, when I logged onto the Well because some other friends had joined, I decided enough time had elapsed that I could bear to look again at what Dirk had sent me, but I couldn't find any of it. By then I had learned to compose offline and save myself money; even without Dirk's expertise I had learned how to use Crosstalk Xmodem with Xywrite. I sent an email message to the Well system administrator asking him what he thought had happened. After several messages back and forth, we both decided that Dirk had been lost in one of the Well's many disk crashes. The sysop couldn't help me.