The chat room was alive with tension. I stared at the narrative scrolling down the screen of my laptop. Strangers said things to strangers that they would never dream of saying on the street or in a bar unless half drunk. And even then, it would be unlikely that the participants would express themselves so freely. The relative anonymity of the Internet, the ability to create a fictional self in one’s Internet Profile and do it all within the impersonal, safe context of typing words upon a screen; words which could then be spun out into the world seemingly without consequence, created an atmosphere of freedom.
“how’s it going?”
“great. read your profile. what kind of things do you write?”
I was engaged in a chat with a woman (I presumed she was a woman since nothing on the Internet is real or verifiable) from Canada in a “writer’s chat” room. I hadn’t read her profile to see who or what she claimed to be. I only knew her tone of voice (if the written word across a computer screen conveyed by telephone cable can be said to carry “a tone of voice”) was intriguing.
Though the title of the room, “Writer’s Chat Forum”, gave the impression that the serious business of creative writing was the impetus for the room’s existence, the actual content of the discussion was universally more personal, more sensual, than the location’s moniker suggested.
“i’ve written a few short stories. nothing published as yet. i’ve also tried a novel. no luck there either.”
“what’s the novel about?”
“it’s a murder mystery set in the black hills, where I’m from.”
My profile revealed that I lived “in the Midwest”. I realized that I’d just inadvertently narrowed my location down considerably.
Other dialogue cluttered the screen bypassing our conversation. I was new to the chat game. I’d only been online for a few months and didn’t know the ins and outs, the etiquette—the tricks of the trade so to speak. Sting29’s name became lost in the blur of conversation between other participants in the room. The clock struck. It was near midnight. My wife Beth, newly the mother of our second daughter, was sound asleep in our bed. I recognized that I should be by her side, comforting her after a long day of failed breast-feeding and attempts to subdue a colicky child. Guilt slid across me like a storm cloud but carried with it an edge of anticipated excitement.
“tax35, are you still there?”
She broke through the idle chatter of the other participants and found me.
“yep. :).” (The “smiley face” was one of the only chat tricks that I knew).
“i thought you deserted me. :(,” she responded.
“nope. just got lost in the shuffle.”
“did you mean scuffle? lol.”
The woman, if that’s what she was, had a sense of humor. Captivated, I pulled up her profile:
Age: Somewhere between 20 and 40
Occupation: Professional something or other
Married: Yes, but that doesn’t stop me from flirting.
Computer: Some old thing the cat dragged in.
Interests: Poetry, writing, love and religion (I’m Jewish but always interested in other forms of monotheism) and being a mom to my kid.
Quote: “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light…” (If you don’t know the song, don’t bother).
“what did you like about it?”
“seems fresh and honest.”
“:). that’s me.”
I knew that the ring of chimes meant something. I just didn’t know what.
“i just heard something like chimes.”
“YOU DOLT! that was me trying to talk to you privately by instant message.”
“you don’t have to shout! i’m new at this stuff-you need to go easy on me. tell me how i access it.”
“there should be an icon at the top of your screen for im. click on it and you’ll see what I wrote.”
It took a few moments to figure out how to get to her missive.
“i’m waiting,” she wrote across the chat room screen.
I pulled up her instant message.
“hi. i’m rox? what’s your real name?”
My profile simply said I was male, thirty-five and married, along with some boring stuff about me being a would-be, wanna-be writer.
I hesitated. Who was this person? Should I remain my normal, cautious self when dealing with women other than my spouse? Maybe this person translating her thoughts into computer blips was a crazed man or woman out to do my family harm. Or someone just out to mess with my mind.
My heart was palpitating in ways that it hadn’t since I began dating Beth. The excitement of the chase, of the moment, captured reason and beat my psyche into compliance.
I found the function key and turned the chimes off. I sent an Instant Message back to Roxanne with-no-last name.
“my name’s michael. my friends call me mike.”
“pleased to meet you mike. what do you do when you’re not writing stories?”
Another question that alarmed my sense of privacy. As if she read my mind, she interjected and revealed something about herself, something not in her profile.
“i’m a lawyer in ontario, canada.”
A lawyer. Female lawyers aren’t by and large crazy, I reasoned. She must be legit, I thought. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
“i’m an accountant. pretty boring stuff.”
“what kind of accountant?”
“a good one.”
“lol. i had that coming. i mean, what kind of clients?
Hmmm. Getting a little personal here, I thought. Oh what the hell.
In the quiet of my living room, I sat considering a response. The grandfather clock in the foyer chimed. It was 12:30 am. I had to work at 7:00.
“i audit hospitals and medical clinics.”
“so we have something in common. i represent hospitals that get sued and you make sure i don’t give away their money.”
“lol. yep. i’m the bastard that checks to make sure all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.”
There was a pause in our discussion. I had maximized the Instant Message screen, obliterating all of the other conversations in the chat room. I rubbed my eyes. The length of the day was beginning to overcome the excitement of the encounter.
“what kind of music do you like?”
“mostly rock, though i also like blues,” I responded.
“what about sting?”
“he’s all right. i like ‘every breath you take’. that’s a classic. and of course, i’m partial to ‘roxanne’.”
It was a bold move, a calculated play, made perhaps too early in the game. But I was near the end of my endurance. Even the adrenaline of the moment could not sustain me much longer.
“how about you?” I asked.
“same, though more into folk. some of that blues stuff gets too pretentious.”
She was working her way deeper into my mind. I tried to imagine what she looked like. Was she tall, thin, and metropolitan like I imagined? Darkly Jewish and uninhibited? Dangerous in a certain way, a forbidden woman for a Gentile man? Did she smoke? What did she like to drink?
She was married. Why was she up, late at night, later still because of the time difference, talking to someone in another country when she should be asleep next to the man she loved, just like I should be asleep next to the mother of my children?
Elizabeth was up. I listened quietly, subdued by nervous shame, as the bathroom door closed behind her.
“i need to go to bed.”
“me too. too bad you’re so far away.”
A direct pitch I hadn’t seen coming.
“i meant i have to get up early tomorrow. i’m tired, need to sleep.”
“oh. i must be boring you.”
I couldn’t tell if she was teasing or seriously hurt.
“that’s not it. i really do have to get up for work in less than six hours. you’re great,” I wrote.
“great…that’s an interesting choice of words for someone who calls himself a writer.”
“pretty lame, i agree. how about intoxicating, intriguing, and sensual?”
I knew I was putting myself on the line, opening my privacy up to more than I could likely deal with. I felt the urgency of connection, the ancient rush of sexuality driving my fingers across the keyboard.
“those i’ll accept. <puts her arms around the stranger and gives him a deep, romantic first kiss>. sigh.”
“can we talk again sometime?”
“sure. i’m free next Tuesday, after 10:00pm your time. how about you?”
I thought for a moment about canceling, about removing myself from the seemingly sorry fantasy I was about to engage in but the mystery of the woman on the other end of the telephone line was irrepressible. It wasn’t like I was without a choice. I couldn’t claim that. And it wasn’t like I was unable to weigh the consequences. I simply couldn’t resist.
“ok. i’ll look for you around 11:00pm your time in this chat area. i’ll bring the wine.”
“hmmm. wine. make sure it’s red and expensive. i’ve got just the dress for red wine.”
“what’s it look like?”
“you’ll have to wait. trust me. it’ll be worth it. just make sure the wine has a cork.”
“you mean no boone’s farm or ripple?”
“not if you want to impress this sophisticated lady from thunder bay.”
“so noted. i’ll make sure the bottle comes with a cork. what should i wear?”
“surprise me. just don’t come dressed as an accountant.”
“that hurt. don’t you like the conservative type?”
“no and i can tell from our conversation that isn’t the real you.”
“you’re pretty sure of yourself, ms. roxanne.”
I was entranced. I knew I could sit by the dim light of my computer screen all night and type away fictitious conversation with my non-existent mistress. The toilet flushed. I heard my wife’s weary steps retreat across the hardwood towards our bedroom.
“Mike? Are you still up? It’s nearly one,” Elizabeth called out in a soft voice.
“I’m coming right up.”
“gotta go. next tuesday it is. <he returns the kiss with intensity and begins walking towards the shadows.>”
“goodbye, michael <she says, watching him leave through a light rain, asking herself what she’s getting into.>”
The bedroom was cold as I undressed. I removed my loose fitting Levi 501’s and my T-shirt, trying to be quiet in the exercise, hoping that my wife had gone back to sleep. Slipping on a pair of cotton gym shorts, I found my place under the quilt and sheets on my side of the bed. The chill of winter touched my naked chest as the cold fabric of the bed linens passed over my skin.
“What were you doing up so late?”
There was a hint of suspicion, of mistrust in Beth’s voice as her words found my exhausted ears.
“Just researching some material for a story,” I replied.
“Uh huh. Got carried away. I’ll be fine.”
But as I tried to sort out what had taken place over the past hour, I began to realize that my last statement was a lie.