I was right about the “always on” thing. Once you add someone to your buddy list, that’s it. You establish a permanent, two-way connection. I tried removing Ernie (not that I’m already wanting to drop him or anything) and discovered there are absolutely no options for deletion.
I let the idea sink in as I try to do my homework. From the corner of my eye I watch Ernie devour cookies and candy with some fat girl he’s just met. One thumbnail over, Jan grunts and groans through his weight-lifting routine; beside him, in its own window, Eva’s empty chair stares back at me (she must be at practice). I know everyone can see me seeing them. We’re all spying on each other, a little cautious, maybe a little prurient. I look at Ernie again and wonder how he can be so careless. 213 friends! Isn’t he concerned that at any moment any one of those “friends” could come waltzing right into his bedroom? It’s making me jealous, to be honest, the way he’s carrying on so nonchalantly. I wish I could be that carefree. Well, maybe I don’t—there’d be too many consequences to deal with afterward, wouldn’t there?
Ugh. I can’t concentrate. Jan’s annoying me. I mean, look at him there with his sweaty muscles bulging all over the place. He just happened to wear a tank top tonight—he’s doing it on purpose, hoping Eva (or whoever else he’s added to his buddy list) will spot him and swoon. Last night’s meet-up must have proved quite inspirational. She was all over him, spying on him, sneaking into his room. The jockette stalking the jock. It makes sense, I guess. He’s taller than me, and better looking, and these are things I never would have cared about six months ago, and now—
—I have to keep my brain on task.
But I can’t.
Geometry is the most boring thing in the world right now.
I close my textbook, get real comfy in my chair, with the keyboard on my lap and the mouse poised on my knee. I just need to make one friend. Then I can call it a night.
I start browsing SMN users; I see kids from my middle school, boys who are too cool, girls who are too cute. I consider a dozen profiles, but I can’t bring myself to add a single person to my buddy list. They won’t be interested, I think. They won’t have time for me—they’ll think I’m wasting their time. What if he wants to roughhouse? What if she wants to cyber? Except it wouldn’t be cybering, would it? We’d both be in the same room, in our pseudo-bodies, yeah, but, like…together.
I’m being ridiculous. I’m feeling like I did when I first got the Internet. I was so excited about being connected to the world, to other people—but I’ve never actually made any friends online. I’ve kept in touch with people I know in real life, but it’s never worked the other way around. Why? Because people who don’t already know you don’t want to know you. You can send them friendly e-mails or post comments on their MySpace pages, but they’ll never reply after that initial, “Thanks for the add!”
It’s kind of like that now, though I admit it’s mostly self-imposed. Maybe I could work up the courage to make some new friends, but I already know what the response (or lack thereof) is going to be. So I dodge the “Add” buttons, pretending I’m too busy looking for someone or something else. I build an imaginary wall around myself, creating isolation in the process of seeking people out. It’s my way. I tend to get flustered a lot. No wonder my palms are starting to sweat with each failed solicitation, no wonder my mom takes me to see Mr. Chandelier once a week.
I’m sure the evening will end in tears—then I stumble upon a chat room called “The Semantic Web.”
That’s it! I think, gleeful, relieved. Geeks! Byte brothers! Troubadours of tech! I won’t have to worry about my social abilities because it’s supposed to be about the code.
I download into the room. According to the description, all programmers are welcome. The place is small, a bit cluttered; there are tables and chairs spread throughout, a big-screen display and sofa at one end—it’s a converted lounge at someone’s apartment complex, I realize, and it’s packed with people, desktop computers, laptops.
And I’m the youngest person here.
“Virgin!” someone shouts, and immediately two guys step up to me. One of them is holding a Cheetos bag.
He says, “Sorry, but this isn’t a Wii Meetup.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s a Web programmers’ room, right?”
“So, I’m here to talk a little code.”
The Cheetos dude looks at his friend and smirks. “Hmf. You think you’re worthy because you know how to update your PlayStation firmware?”
“Actually,” I say, “I design Web pages for paying clients.” Which I do. I rattle off a well-memorized list of skills.
“Okay. You’re a Web Monkey,” says the Cheetos dude.
“Let’s see you do a trick,” says his friend. He pulls a small notepad from his shirt pocket, makes a quick sketch, shows it to me:
“Table or list?” he asks.
I look at the sketch. It’s a grid of thumbnail images. Though a table could be used, I’m guessing by the chat room name that around here tables are taboo, used strictly for tabular data—and even then only when DIVs are totally and completely out of the question.
“List,” I answer, “with the list items set as block elements and floated left. Image margins can be adjusted according to thumbnail size, and a DIV wrapper with the appropriate width can have its right and left margins set to ‘auto’ for a centering effect.”
The Cheetos dude nods, smacks his bright orange lips. “Internet Explorer or Firefox?”
“Opera,” I answer. Opera rocks.
“Okay. You’re worthy. But what about your parents?”
“What about them?”
“Where are they?”
“Are they cool with you hanging around a bunch of strangers?”
Of course they’re cool with it—because they don’t know. “Yeah. I’m not really here. None of us are. These are just our online bodies.” Though I’m thinking I should have taken a closer look at the SMN skin feature, maybe grown myself up by about ten years.
Someone calls out to the Cheetos dude. Something about his drop-down menu problem being solved. “Fuck it. You can stay—but no crying or wetting your pants, okay? This isn’t a nursery.”
I nod, and my greeters leave me standing here feeling like a lost Kindergartner at a grocery store. I’d been accepted as a programmer, but as a person…I’m still just a twelve-year-old boy, the equivalent of someone’s younger brother. Background noise.
I make my way over to one of the tables, where a woolly-looking quartet have set up their laptops.
“Hey,” I say, waving. “Working on some PHP?”
I get some looks, one nod.
I move on, to the sofa. There’s room between the chat room’s sole female and a guy who looks like he just wandered in from two weeks on a desert island. Seating myself, it becomes obvious just how wide the rift is between me and everyone else. My face is baby-smooth, my feet don’t even touch the floor; I feel like I’m slipping between the cushions. I listen for a chance to join the conversation, but it&rsq
uo;s all gibberish. Adult stuff. Money, medication—tax laws.
Eventually I return home, and I sit staring at my computer screen for a good long while. My buddy list still contains only three people: Ernie, Jan, and Eva. I feel younger than I’ve ever felt before. Younger and stupider. Here I have this awesome socializing tool at my disposal and I don’t know how to use it.
Ernie appears in my room around one in the morning, when I’m winding down, finishing my homework before grabbing a couple hours of sleep. He doesn’t seem to have a clue what time it is.
“You boned any hot chicks yet?” he asks, pounding a Red Bull like it’s nothing.
“No,” I reply. Everyone’s too interested in their own business. “I had chores today—and homework.”
“I have a girlfriend.”
“Is that who you invited over?”
“Yep. She’s from California, and she loves my beanie.” He pats his head.
“Go home,” I say, scowling. “I have work to do.”
Ernie pats my shoulder. “You’re only young once. Live it up while you can still get it up.”
“Okay, fine, when I have the time—but right now I need to focus on what I’m doing.” I shoo him away, and he shrugs, tells me to lighten up. I upload him out of my room before he knows what’s happening. Then, alone with my disillusions, I once again hunch over my textbook.
Someone clears his throat behind me.
“Ernie,” I begin, swiveling around—and stopping.
That’s not Ernie standing in front of me. This is someone—something—else, someone with a pale, translucent body that’s so featureless I can’t tell if he’s naked or clothed.
“Who are you?” I ask incredulously.
The visitor looks thoughtful for a moment. “Beta.”