Computing Across America, Chapter 8
by Steven K. Roberts
October 14, 1983
Electronic hugs do nothing for me, unless they’re from someone I don’t know.
— Comment heard online
The escape from Cincinnati was a frantic and dangerous plunge through rush-hour traffic in the rain — a desperate competition with angry commuters racing the corporate clock. As I battled along the slippery pavement, it occurred to me that I must be manifesting some kind of latent death wish. Perhaps, given the circumstances of my departure, I was.
In an emotional fog and meteorological downpour, I fought my way out of town, banished from the limited-access Reed Hartman Highway by a cop and dumped in the mud by a little old lady. Yes, dumped in the mud: as I neared the suburb of Sharonville in heavy construction traffic I had my first wreck.
The once-white Buick loomed heavy and terrifying in my helmet mirror. There would be no escape… as I watched in slow-motion disbelief and hollered a futile “Hey!” the bent old woman piloted the whale into my space, crowding me against the slippery curb. With a curse I slid face-first into a sea of sticky mud, soiling the new rain suit, bending the steering linkage, and demolishing all notions of invincibility that my wondrous electronic bicycle may once have offered. She never even noticed.
Unhurt but furious, I pressed on. I remember nothing of the land, nothing of the culture — only loneliness and numb sodden feet. I vaguely recall arriving at the Caesar Creek youth hostel, dragging my muddy machine onto their porch and conjuring a confused patchwork dinner of anything, anything at all.
What was this all about, really? Huddled beneath musty army blankets in the men’s bunkroom, I shivered in Ohio pre-winter gloom and tried to recall the passion that had inspired six months of frenzied preparation, the giddy rationalizations that had answered everyone’s questions about what the hell I was up to. So far the trip had been a 682-mile marathon of confused urgency.
Madness, all of it.
By late afternoon of the next day, I was cruising toward Columbus on a brisk tailwind — the static falling away from familiar FM stations, the landmarks once again suburban, the shakedown cruise now history. Arriving in Dublin was an odd mix of passing through and coming home; exuberant, victorious, and excited about seeing Elisse again, I headed for the nearest pay phone.
“I just got back from the shakedown — 762.4 miles! I’m at the Dublin Plaza — “
“Well, you feel like getting together?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
A chill passed through me, the same feeling that comes from blue lights in the mirror, IRS envelopes in the mail, and 3 a.m. phone calls. “What? Honey, I miss you.”
“I don’t want to go through it all again, Steve.”
I sighed. Now I felt like an outsider here, too. Suddenly homeless and disoriented, I appealed to her. “Elisse… look, it’s gonna be a grim week. My house is probably half-vacant by now, I have no phone, and there’s a huge list of things to do. I saw Amy. I — I need warmth. I need you.”
“You had me.”
“I need you now.”
“You need me for this week.”
“More than that.”
“You’re never coming back to Columbus, are you?”
“I’ll visit periodically. I don’t know.”
She was silent.
“Elisse… I’d like to stay with you this week.”
“Oh Steve, why do I let you do this to me? Alright, alright. Just don’t make any promises you won’t keep, OK?”
“OK. Thank you. I mean it. I’ll be there in an hour or so — I want to stop by the house.”
With something barely audible, she hung up the phone. Had she openly accused me of using her, I would have had to admit it. But there was a need, damn it, a strong one, and it had a lot more to do with hearth than fire.
Heavily, I climbed back on the bike and rode down Dublin Road. The house looked the same outside, tall grass matted from rain, bags of advertising litter hanging mildewed from the doorknob. A mushy Dublin Villager contained a gushy story about my trip, and I stood on the porch reading and wincing in embarrassment. “Only the sands of time record Steve Roberts’ journey and whether it was a success or failure.” Hmm. With a wave to a passing neighbor I let myself in.
Though I had lived in that house for four years and been gone but three weeks, it was stuffy, cluttered, alien — and no longer home. My desk was gone, a pile of random clutter lying in its place. Books were in disarray, flies buzzed around, and something in the kitchen had died, come to life, or both. I poked around halfheartedly. It was mine but not-mine; possessions once treasured were now just stuff. It could have been a warehouse or somebody else’s house or anything but my house, and there was no reason for me to stay another minute.
With a sadness that I couldn’t quite articulate, I closed the door and took myself to Elisse.
We fell easily into the pattern we had practiced for months, at least on the surface. The bike in her kitchen and the mountains of touring gear, the lists of things to do and the constant rhapsodizing about travel — it all contributed to a careful layer of protection. But our habits were well-established, and the time together was comfortable and relaxing.
One night, after a routine pizza excursion, we sat on her couch. I studied the map and my list of contacts; she read Newsweek. Restless, I reached for the computer in my briefcase.
With a soft click, I attached her phone line; with a few quick commands I told the machine to find CompuServe’s local number, dial it, then tell the system my User ID and Password. As the automatic log-on took place, Elisse looked up from the magazine. “Checking the mail again?”
“Yep. And I thought I’d drop by a couple of the SIGs to see what’s happening.” I had running conversations going with friends in two Special Interest Groups — one for writers of Online Today Magazine and the other for users of Model 100 computers. I also wanted to drop into CB for a little network socializing.
She shook her head and returned to her reading. Meanwhile, on the screen, I saw:
CompuServe Information Service 20:51 EST Tuesday 18-Oct-83 P OK
Had there been any mail, the system would have told me, so I typed GO CB.
Request Recorded, One Moment, Please CB Simulator Ver 3(62) What's your handle?
The system was asking me for the name by which I would be identified to others in this electronic pub. The handle becomes one’s persona on the network, and it can convey a surprising amount of information. People who live in the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons might show up as “Dragonslayer” or “Level 9 Harpy,” while crude males hunting women online sometimes use handles like “Hot Tongue” or “21 and Horny (M).” Handles can be whimsical (Conan the Librarian), professional (Psydoc), sexy (Sweet Thighs), gay (tight surfer boy), technical (UNIX_HACKER), inexplicable (Cow Exploder), geographic (Tacoma Tigress), graphic (…[A]…), automotive (’68 COUGAR), or just plain (Bob). Some people change their handles all the time and drive everyone crazy; others, like LooLoo and Cupcake, become known so well by their handles that their true names fade into obscurity. And some people even pretend to be other people.
I typed Wordy and hit the return key.
(Channel) users tuned in (1)12, (3)2, (19)5, (30)2, (33)3 Which channel:
Since the main action was obviously on channel 1, with twelve people, I chose that. It was like picking the crowded kitchen when arriving at a party in a house of thirty-six rooms, most empty. There were five folks on 19, two on a couple of other channels, and three gays. Those figures didn’t include people who were off in private one-to-one conversations known simply as “/talk.”
For a while I sat and watched, then I told the system to let me know who was currently signed on. A long list scrolled by, revealing the handles, User IDs, job numbers, and “nodes” (cities) of the people there, as well as the channel where each happened to be at the moment and whether or not they were /talking with anyone. There were many familiar names: my friend Farquor in Syracuse, Logger in Seattle, Beach Bum in Florida, and others. Then I saw Stephanie and there was an instantaneous tightening in my chest.
With a surreptitious glance at Elisse, I aborted the status display and hopped over to channel 19 to find Stephanie — my electronic lover. We had met on the system months before and had grown seriously attached, our network charges skyrocketing as we fell into a twice-weekly routine of meeting online. We would spend hours in /talk, exchanging detailed descriptions of what we were, in our fantasies, doing to each other, and we often followed these frustrating sessions with long breathless phone calls in the middle of the night. We had never met face-to-face.
I hadn’t seen her for weeks. Arriving on 19, I cried out my greeting. To everyone there, the message looked like this:
(Wordy) Stephanie!!!!!! Hi, lover!
I waited, actually sweating and nervous, for her reply. Elisse sat beside me suspecting nothing, and I raised my right knee slightly to tilt the screen away from her.
(TI KID) STEPHANIE JUST WENT /TALK WITH ALLEGRO (Texas Tornado) Hi Wordy (PaRtY) Hey Word! You just missed her! (Wordy) Damn it. Hi all.
My breathing was tight and uncomfortable. Allegro, eh? I had seen the sonofabitch in /talk with her before. He was in Detroit and she was in Philly — and she had said something recently about going to Detroit to visit her sister. Suuure. She may have only appeared as words on a screen, but she was real and I was jealous. I sat, tight-lipped, ending my “Hi all” message with a sharp slap to the return key. Elisse looked over with one eyebrow raised.
“Oh, no, I just missed seeing a friend.”
“Oh.” She took a sip of 7-Up and went back to the magazine. I half-heartedly chatted with the folks on channel 19, then moved back over to 1. As usual, people came and went in a confusion of hellos and goodbyes. It all makes sense while it’s going on, with the conversations shuffled like playing cards but strangely coherent.
(Wordy) Hello out there. (NEON) HIYA WORDY (Doctor X) Star => U M OR F ??? (Wordy) Hi Neon. Anybody seen Farquor around? (-zing-) I hate Tymnet. (Stargazer) Male, Doctor. (-zing-) I really hate Tymnet. (NEON) WORDY DID YOU START YOUR TRIP YET? (Doctor X) Wordy, Farq left. Star, U astronomer? (Wordy) Neon -- yep, just got back from 762-mile shakedown. (-zing-) what trip Wordy? (Stargazer) Hey Word, you that guy with the bike? (SEATTLE SLEUTHING) ARRIVING (NEON) HI SEATTLE. CALIF HERE. (Wordy) zing - I'm traveling the US on a computerized bicycle (Wordy) Star - yep, that's me. (Stargazer) Doc, just amateur (-zing-) I hate Tymnet. Very Poor Quality. (Wordy) Star -- VPQNET? (SEATTLE SLEUTHING) SLEUTH-STAT (Stargazer) WORDY- HAHAHAHAHAHA (Doctor X) Wordy, saw U in TODAY mag. Congrats! (-zing-) Wordy: what? (NEON) HI SLEUTH (Superstud) Any hot women here? (NEON) HI SUPER (-zing-) Wordy, what's VPQNET? (Superstud) Hi neon, m or f? (SEATTLE SLEUTHING) SO WHERE IS EVERYONE? (Virginia Venus) Hi all! (Wordy) Doctor - thanks. (Wordy) Zing ~ Very Poor Quality Net. (Neon) SS I'M MALE! (SEATTLE SLEUTHING) HEY VENUS WANNA TALK? (Stargazer) Bye all, gotta go. (Superstud) Virginia » I give good talk, job 47 (Virginia Venus) no thanks, guys. (Doctor X) bye star (Wordy) Seattle - Columbus, but not much longer
And so on. The electronic faces gradually changed, Superstud found an unwitting female to drag off into /talk, and it was more or less a routine evening on CB. None of my close friends were there, and I participated only halfheartedly.
But suddenly the computer beeped and a message appeared on the screen:
Please /TALK with Job 32 [79404,211] Virginia Venus
Oh? What’s this? Women are a minority on the system and are usually pursued so actively that they have no need to issue invitations to strangers. Maybe she had read about my trip… I smiled and typed the /talk command.
/talk 32 Virginia Venus is now in contact (Use ^p to break contact)
(Note: the conversation has been reformatted for easier reading. I am W; she is T.)
W: Hello there. T: Hi. I hope you don't mind my interrupting you like that out of the blue. I was just curious and couldn't help myself. W: I don't mind at all! T: I heard about your trip and saw ur pix in the magazine. What an experience! W: thanks! I finished the test run and leave in 3—4 days for the biggie. T: Where you headed? W: East to DC, then down the coast to Florida, then west. I'll work out the details as I go. T: Hey, maybe you can visit me! I'm in Richmond. My real name is Tina. You're Steven, right? W: Yes... Call me Steve. T: OK Steve. W: What do you do, mysterious Tina of Richmond? T: Consulting small businesses on how to computerize their operations... picking a system, setting up spreadsheets, etcetera. It's fun. W: No kidding! I just wrote a book on that! Ever heard of *The Complete Guide to Microsystem Management*???? T: Yes!!! God, I don't believe this! That's YOU? W: Indeed - I'm impressed too. So (heh-heh) are you single? T: Sure am. (wicked grin) So (heh-heh) are you really coming to Richmond???
We went on teasing like that for a while, slowly getting to know each other. Tina was witty, literate, intelligent — and she sounded very sexy. “Pert nose, blonde, blue eyes, five foot nine, and slender” was how she described herself, and I gave my own description with a bit of extra attention to my cycling-tuned legs.
T: You sound nice. W: So do you . Isn't this a surprising medium at times? We're both grinning in sweet embarrassment. T: True!!!!!! W: T: Mmmmm, you *are* tall, aren't you? W: Ah, a soft shudder just passed through me. You are warm... and that breath under my ear drives me crazy! T: Yes, that's one of my best qualities... and I like your tallness and what I perceive as a "nice ass"... I have a weakness for that, you know. W: You do, eh? Ooohhhhh. T: Ahhhhh. W: The feeling is tangible and, er, visible... I'm wearing nylon shorts. T: I noticed. I am "agitated" as well. Oh, this is frustrating! My hands are clammy! W: Mine too, but I bet it would quickly change to delicious warmth if we were together... when the gentle probing kisses start... T: The warmth that we feel deep inside... W: and the delicate touching and caressing, the little whimpers deep in our throats, the subtle pelvic pressure. T: Oh yes! The feeling that comes from the center outward. I would explore your body with small kisses... W: Ohhhh, and yours! Savoring every gasp... your body quivering... T: Rolling together on the floor and feeling the fit of our bodies against each other... ready for you, but teasing denial... W: And—oh, Tina, the *taste* of you! The throbs- I can't stand it! Why aren't you here?
It was becoming intense, visibly so. My hands were shaking as I typed; my breath came fast and shallow; my whole body danced to the ancient rhythm of desire. I glanced nervously over at Elisse and found her staring at me in disbelief.
“Why Steve, I had no idea computers could be so exciting. What have I been missing all these years?”
“Oh — hehe.” I probably blushed. “Sometimes these conversations can be a little stimulating.”
“So I see. Mind if I watch?” Her voice was a little teasing, a little cool, a little curious.
“Well, I was sort of seduced,” I explained weakly. “She interrupted me with a /talk request.”
“Mmm.” Elisse bent over to ponder the screen. She frowned slightly as Tina wrote:
T: Oh, the feel of your bearded face exploring my body. Flickering tongue, throbbing energy... Oh Steve!
I casually covered the screen with my hands and chuckled. “Lovely,” Elisse said. “Just lovely. I hope you two have a nice time on my couch.” She stood, not smiling, and went upstairs to bed.
Tina was waiting for me. I had lost a bit of steam and felt like a real cad, but had to press on:
W: Oh, Tina... I am going crazy here. T: Oooooohhhh! W: I want to be with you, Magic Lady Behind the Screen. T: And my entire body wants to meet you. W: I twitch, almost painfully, urging, wanting, wanting T: Oh yes, yes! Oh Steve, I need you now! W: I want to make long, langurous love, with every texture from the delicacy of a whispering hair to the deep power of animal lust. T: Yes... the finely muscled legs, the tender caresses, the intuitive communication... W: Oh Tina, your words, your sweet muskiness... T: I am sitting, quivering in my seat, wishing I were ALONE WITH YOU! W: Yes. I want you. T: And I want you.
And so, electronically, we had each other. With less and less coherence, we kept typing until we collapsed at our respective keyboards in a panting heap. We complimented and congratulated each other. We joked about having found the perfect contraceptive and thoroughly exhausted the possibilities of sexual computer puns (baudy conversations, etc.)
But I was obviously feeling acute discomfort about Elisse’s reaction to all this, so I began steering the conversation to a close. Here’s how it went:
W: Oh, sweet compu-lover, I better go. I still have some writing to do tonight before bed. T: Do you think the hackers out there missed us? W: Maybe they saw us in /talk and have been snickering behind our backs — T: Steve, it's been beautiful. W: Indeed. But wait! Let's make plans for a visit! I should be pedaling through Richmond in about a month. T: Well, we can stay in touch about it. W: OK... what's your phone number? I'll call you. T: Why not just EMAIL me? W: I'd love to hear your voice and see if we do as well with audio. What, is something wrong? T: Ohhh. You're going to hate me. W: Awww, nothing could do that. Do you need to edit your comments about physical attributes? That's OK!!! T: Steve, it's worse than that. I don't think you'll want to meet me. W: But... why? T: Well, I'm doing a sort of sociological experiment. W: What do you mean? T: My real name is Dave.
I said a rather hasty goodbye, considering all that we had been through together, and logged numbly off the system.
With a long sigh I started up the stairs to Elisse, but then thought better of it and returned to sleep alone on the couch. It just would have been too hard to explain.