I will write myself for you the way I used to on nights when I was particularly lonely. There were many of these; I was a well-developed character. I will write my own red-hair and all the freckles on my nose. You will be gullible and lonely like I am, and these will be the reasons why you’ll believe me. You’ll believe the most ridiculous things: that I’m a drug-dealing dark wizard from Bulgaria, or a 19-year-old philosophy major at NYU, even after we go to lunch in Chinatown and you see a middle-schooler slurping soup dumplings across from you.
As for me, I will believe, for the longest time, that I can be separated: that I can leave one self at home while another reinvents herself on the Internet. I will fail to understand the way my body keeps me whole. I will pretend that this is an experiment with writing when really I am just a compulsive liar. I will I will convince myself that this is the Truth, that I am being Honest in the only way I know how.
For our purposes, you begin in September 2005, when you get sick of your top bunk and move into the playroom. Your bed is nestled right up against your Windows XP, a huge black desktop equipped with pinball and solitaire, and, although you don’t know it yet, the vast majority of your sex education.
We can blame the beginning on Leo Golub. You are in math class when he tells you about a cool new website. A cool new website? Porner.com.
It is the lies you are ashamed of now, but it was the bodies you were ashamed of then. As your babysitter does homework in the living room, you kneel on your chair so that your skinny, four-foot frame will block the screen from view, where two young women are tangled in desperate kisses. It is as if all the convexities of the blonde girl fit into all the concavities of the brunette. Neither of them is beautiful on her own, and this eludes you, the way that their bodies together are such an entirely new thing.
You tell Abby, a girl on the school bus, about the cool new website. Abby tells her mother and her mother calls your mother, and your mother confronts you.
“It was an accident,” you say. You’re forgiven easily.
This is the first time that I remember getting caught. It is the beginning of two fascinations: one with the human body, and the other with having a private life, hidden from my parents, my friends, and the better part of my nine-year-old self.
2006 we can blame on Alex Hayes. Your mother does not think that she is a good influence, which already, at age 10, seems like a good reason to spend a lot of time with her.
Alex is allowed to do everything that you’re not. She can walk home from school by herself, and order pizza, and lock her bedroom door. Her parents hate each other. All the food in her refrigerator is diet (her mom’s house) or rotting (her dad’s) and everything is matted with cat hair, and her sister leaves her lacy pink thongs all over the place, and nobody really gives a shit that Alex spends every waking moment on her computer. Nobody has any idea that the two of you are playing Sim Dating Games all those sunny afternoons in her apartment.
Hina Sim Date lets you get with all eight girls in a virtual hotel. You play it over and over—seduce the crazy blonde with gifts of watermelons, spear-fight with Makoto, drink sake with Mutisu until the screen blacks out and you get a screenshot of her passed-out naked body. Paco Sim Date is the romantic quest of a redhead to save his longtime girlfriend from a rapist. In Sim Girl, you build a time machine and bid the most in an auction for the prettiest girl’s underpants.
And then, there are the evenings of sleeping over at her house, the part about Alex Hayes that hits like hot breath. You are on the floor of her room wrapped in blankets and each other. You have taken off your shirts: you don’t remember when or how or who first. You are rubbing your chests together and not talking and her hot breath is so loud, and you are sure you will pee your pants, that is how badly you have to go, but you don’t say anything, and she reaches her hands down to the elastic part of your underwear, and you can smell her, and she doesn’t smell good, she smells like something you are ashamed of but you don’t know why.
You don’t talk about it in the morning, or at school that week, or as you take the virtual Ariane to a virtual nightclub and writhe around on Alex’s bedroom floor the following weekend. You never tell anybody.
The friendship is short-lived. A few months later it’s over, something about which I have few regrets. I refuse to tell my mother what happened between us because I do not want to prove her right. Still, I hate Alex Hayes. I can’t help it.
Those play-dates with Alex had been a dirty addiction, so in 2007, Star Fever Agency becomes a nicotine patch. It’s like a breakup: you want to simultaneously be reminded and not be reminded of her. Strictly speaking, Star Fever Agency has nothing to do with Alex, and nothing to do with sex. You create an agent, you manage actors and actresses, try to land them roles, get them in the tabloids. You go to one of the chic virtual restaurants downtown and seat your agent at a four-person table and chat with the other players online.
One day, you sit down with two enticingly vulgar agents. They tell you to leave but you pretend you’re not at your computer, and they decide to ignore you. They’re telling each other what they would do to each other. They’re imagining a scene in which they meet, in one of their bedrooms, maybe, and suddenly they’re ripping off each other’s shirts and they’re calling each other’s privates “dick” and “pussy,” typing things like “mmm” and “oh shit.”
You eventually move to another table where a lanky, purple-haired agent is sipping his virtual coke. His name is Luke67. You ask him how old he is and he says he’s seventeen; he asks you how old you are and you say you’re sixteen. He sends you a winky face. You’re eleven.
You talk for a while. You flirt the way people flirt in chapter books for teenage girls. This is your first courtship and he is very charming. You feel the way you will feel years later on a date with a beautiful boy who is a good kisser but not a good person. You feel this way with Luke67 without knowing what way you feel, which makes it all the more exciting. He seduces you; this is your first seduction. He tells you what he would do to you. You tell him what you would do to him. He asks you if you’re touching yourself. You say you aren’t. You have never touched yourself before. He tells you what to do. You do it.
Here is the year 2008: the recession started; I first got my period; Obama was elected; I wrote a novel; Fidel Castro stepped down; I saw a boy jump out a window; Flo Rida came out with “Low”; I fell in love for the first time. Jason Blint was half man, half figment of my imagination. He was, momentarily, an island, a rock, a something to be moored to. I never kissed him: he was 28 and my sixth grade English teacher. But Jason Blint was the first man I did not want to lie to. I loved him, something that I did not understand until I turned 16 and fell in love again, this time with a boy, this time doing all the regular things like holding hands and waking up together and breaking up. But I am getting ahead of myself.
2009 comes in January, the way you expect it to. You switch schools in September to somewhere where boys notice you for the first time. You start wearing liquid eyeliner and vintage vests and patterned tights and staring down unsuspecting men across coffee shops. You begin to hate your mother—I mean, a small part of you begins to hate your mother. I cannot explain this. You love your mother and your mother loves you. But you are 13 and hormonal and lonely and a part of you hates her: perhaps because she sees you, or perhaps because she will always forgive you, or perhaps because you cannot see that she is suffering. You are ashamed of this now, but you were 13, and that is an almost-good-enough excuse.
2009 is also the year that you join a Harry Potter role-playing forum. You’re a Harry Potter nerd who can imagine nothing better than frolicking around the grounds of Hogwarts with your marauding friends. You’re a little late to the party, so all the good characters are taken. You settle for Gellert Grindelwald, fallen dark wizard of the former generation. You fly broomsticks in the Quidditch pitch and watch the giant squid in the lake and practice spells in the transfiguration classroom. But wands don’t stay wands for long. Soon you are naked with Regulus Black on the floor of the Slytherin Common Room. The forum—like the bar tables in Star Fever Agency, or like the one train at rush hour—is just another excuse for people to touch each other.
Grindelwald’s relationship with Regulus Black is just the beginning. Gellert is a hot commodity, and you revel in his popularity. In a nutshell, your Grindelwald is a gay, abusive, drug-dealing young man, four concepts about which you know next to nothing. You get away with it, somehow. You Google narcotics. You read the scenes written by wizards before you. You acquire forum-wide fame as a master of this art form, terrific at everything from making drama to giving head.
Most surprisingly, though, you make friends. In a comment thread called “Real Life” you follow suit of the college-aged commenters before you and say you’re 19 years old. You’re 13. You join the Skype chat, which is pretty much always active. You talk to them. These people are not like your people. They’re from the middle of the country; they have babies at 20; they’re not going to college. They make you laugh; you make them laugh. You are ultra-cool. You are a philosophy student at NYU. You read up on this too: Descartes and Camus. You are a redhead. Everyone around you is talking about how they can finally be who they really are in this chat, on this forum, with these people. You convince yourself that you feel the same way. You let Prabha, the girl who plays Regulus, introduce you to Nine Inch Nails, agreeing with her that their lead singer is the sexiest-man-on-earth. You tell them stories about your love affair with your English teacher, Jason. You tell yourself that this self you are creating is only an experiment as a writer.
The trouble comes when Prabha says she wants to meet up. This is not a viable option for obvious reasons. She lives in New Jersey and she wants to come into the city this weekend. Busy. Next weekend? Busy. I’m busy every day of my whole life, you want to say, but this is implausible, so you agree to two weekends from now. I don’t know what convinces you to do it. It’s either a plea to get caught or you’re just being stupid. You are nothing like who you say you are, down to your tan, unfreckled complexion. Your story will never hold together—except, somehow, it does. You meet Prabha at Penn Station, and then the two of you head down to Chinatown for lunch.
“I know, I look so young,” you say, laughing in self-defense.
“You don’t look that young,” Prabha says. “You look, like, sixteen.”
I have no explanation for how she believed you except that people see what they want to see. You spend another afternoon with Prabha, maybe a month later, except this time you take the New Jersey Transit to meet her, and she picks you up, with her baby daughter Freya in the backseat.
You are overtaken by panic on the drive back to the station. You are speeding past strip malls and oil refineries and fast food restaurants and you are sure, all of a sudden, that you will get into a car crash. I don’t know what happens to the three of you, but imagine, so you can leave your body, that you’re dying. You are dreaming in daylight; it is a dream about your mother. Your father picks up the phone, and it’s the police, and your father yells to your mother, whose face turns chalk white, and you see her running down a flight of stairs that you don’t have in your apartment. She runs down the stairs again and again and again. Your mother is sure she does not know anyone in this car crash: not Prabha, your virtual lover, not her baby girl Freya, and not this 19-year-old Rachel, this compulsive liar, this philosophy student at NYU. But your mother knows you. Your mother learns you. You see your mother on the staircase. You cannot bear what you have done to her.
Imagine this: you and the boy who you love are in your kitchen, eating banana bread in your pajamas. You aren’t dying after all. You have told him all of these things that I have just told you. This should be excruciating but it isn’t. The radio is on. Outside it is snowing but inside it is so soft and yellow you don’t even need to think about warmth. He doesn’t make you want to be mysterious, this boy. I love you, he is saying. You think your heart is pumping blood for the first time and your fingers are freezing cold and your stomach is full of guilt, and you do not know what to do because you are afraid you will lie to him, you are afraid that you will write him the way you wrote Jason Blint and the way you used to write yourself, and he is looking at you very anxiously, like a child looks at his mother when he is asking permission to do something he isn’t allowed to do, and you tell him you love him, and he relaxes, and he smiles at you, and I lied again. You love him, but you don’t know how to tell him you love him. You don’t have words for this.
And now, it is not the boy but your mother, and you are in a terrible fight, because you are sixteen years old and it is two years after you have stopped lying but you have told your mother a stupid lie. You deny it, the way you denied watching porn as a nine year old, but now with seven years of history between you. And your mother is grabbing you from behind and hitting you four times across the face and at this moment, your mother knows you; your mother learns you. And now she is padding into your bedroom at 2am (and she is saying), I don’t want to fight (and you are saying), I don’t want to fight either, (and), I love you, (and she is saying) I love you too, (and you are saying), No matter what, (and she is almost laughing because this is so obvious, and she is saying), Of course no matter what, and you know that somehow, your mother forgives you.
You are sitting at the kitchen counter with that computer that used to be your secret life. You are unwriting yourself: it is like getting undressed in broad daylight.
I’m lying again. It is me at the kitchen counter, and unwriting myself is like peeling off bandages. I am being honest in the only way I know how.