You’re done with your classes for the day, and your roommate Melissa asks if you want to join her on a walk with some of your shared friends to the other side of campus. It’s warm for March, and everyone is soaking it up while they can. Snow will surely return. But you decline. You say you have homework. It isn’t entirely a lie. There’s a philosophy paper due soon, and you haven’t done your Spanish reading for tomorrow yet. Melissa’s plans sound fun, but they also mean you could have a few hours to yourself in the dorm room. A few hours you can spend in your other life online.
It’s not that you don’t like your irl friends. It’s just. Different. Your internet friends know another version of you, a version you prefer. You’ve never touched these friends, but you carry them inside you. You all speak the same language, the one that wouldn’t make sense to Melissa or anyone else irl. Your keysmashed, syntactically deranged language. Eventually, it’ll slip away from you, the way languages sometimes do when they go too long unspoken.
Alone in your dorm room, you can’t wait to slip into your second skin. The room smells like laundry detergent and wet wool and tea that has been sitting out all day. Magazine clippings spangle the walls on your side, photoshoots of famous women with bodies unlike yours. Your sheets are a cartoonish lime green, and your only pillow is large and black with plush arms that cost $19.99 at Target. A husband pillow, your mother told you with a wink, and you imagined her eyeballs falling out.
You kick off your brown boots and hop into bed, settle into the pillow’s arms. Open your laptop. Type one letter, and the rest autofills like a ritual. Here you are—home.
Notifications. Some likes and reblogs on that black-and-white fake-retro Iron Man poster you made. A message in your inbox, too, and that’s the most exciting kind of notification. It’s intimate. Your heart flutters as you wonder who it could be from. You’ve been trying to get closer with a girl in Belgium who’s more popular than you in some of your shared fandoms and who likes the band Sleigh Bells and erasure poetry. You sent a poem to her inbox last night. Not your own—don’t be ridiculous. Those are just for you. The one you sent is a poem Melissa showed you, one that makes you feel an ache. The girl in Belgium said she likes sad shit, so you think it’s probably perfect, and you typed it out letter by letter, copying and pasting the full block unicode character to create a blackout effect. But she hasn’t answered yet. You hope it’s just the time difference.
You open your inbox. The message isn’t from the girl in Belgium or any of your friends. It’s from an anonymous user. It reads: You’re an ugly dyke.
The words blur, become meaningless. You need them to be meaningless.
You switch into autopilot. You screenshot the message and create a new photo post, writing: Do you think this anon has a crush on me? You add a few tags: #anon #trolls in the dungeon #welp
You hit post.
It only takes seconds for your far-flung friends to see it. Heather in Atlanta and Lena in San Francisco like it instantly. Jessie in Virginia Beach says: Fuck this idiot. Ur gorgeous. And then everyone’s lifting you up.
leslieknopeloveswaffles said <3 <3
greendalehumanbean said love you b
thevampirediarist said I’LL FIGHT THIS DUMASS ANON
gleekingqueen said WTF you are hot
Eli in Los Angeles—known widely in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom by her url, faithhopetrick—is one of your best friends on here, and she immediately texts you a bunch of hearts. She also whips up a graphic of some of your favorite fictional characters—Katherine from The Vampire Diaries and Annie from Community and Joan from Mad Men—overlaid with text that says QUEEN YOURUSERNAME. This is another thing that probably wouldn’t make sense to your irl friends but makes perfect sense to you. It says nothing, and it says everything. Just some silly art that somehow becomes an offering, another untouchable thing to hold inside you.
Eli’s graphic gives you an idea. You toggle over to Photoshop, perpetually open on your laptop because some genius told you if you never close out of the free trial, it’ll just keep running. Usually a strict rule-follower, you’ve justified this little bit of theft. You obviously need Photoshop, even though your graphic design skills are atrocious. It doesn’t matter. Bad internet art is part of the language.
You spend fifteen minutes making a collage with the original screenshot of the anon’s message and a series of photos of Kristen Stewart holding up her middle finger. You post the collage with the caption: thx for inspiring some new art anon xoxoxo. this belongs in the louvre.
It feels good to joke about your troll. You don’t wonder if they’ll message again. You don’t wonder if the message was sent by someone you know. You don’t think too hard about the word dyke at all, because it’s a word you’ve never said out loud. It’s easy to ignore it when you don’t know how it feels in your throat, don’t know its shape. You’ve stripped the anon’s words of their actual meaning, remember? That was an important step. You had to flatten the message into something you could control and twist into something new.
And now, look at you. You’re riding high on the support and love from your friends. This is why you live this second life; it’s like you’re all part of the same body, moving together. Inside jokes swirl and mutate. Someone, for example, keeps calling the anon a chip n dip, and you can’t remember exactly how the term came about. Origins don’t matter here. It feels like you’re always moving toward something, the flat screen of your laptop like an ingress to another dimension.
As per usual, you’ve got about fifteen different conversations going on at the same time. Hours pass and you barely notice. Melissa still isn’t home. You briefly wonder how her afternoon has unfolded, what you might be missing in your other life. Sitting cross-legged on your bed with your laptop cooking your thighs, your left foot falls asleep, so you readjust to lie on your stomach. The tingle in your foot fades.
Btw: Your KStew collage is not a coming out announcement. To be fair, the world doesn’t know Kristen Stewart is gay yet. To be fair, the world doesn’t know you’re gay yet. Not even you, especially not you. You don’t see it as a coming out when you reblog photos of Maggie Q and tag them #DYING. You don’t see it as a coming out when you repeatedly use the tag #doing heterosexuality wrong since 2kEVR. You don’t see it as a coming out when you become wildly codependent with other girls on here. They do so many things to your heart. Platonically, of course. Online, you can say what you want and not have to worry about what it means.
When Melissa finally gets home, you shut your laptop, exit that dimension and return to another you. Together, you go to the dining hall for dinner, and she tells you about her day, and you don’t tell her about yours, because there’s that language barrier, there’s that separation.
“You shoulda come,” she says.
“You all right?”
You thought you were acting pretty normal, so the question takes you off guard. You pull at the hair tie on your wrist, snap it against skin, an old habit. “Yeah, fine.”
“Okay,” Melissa says. “You just seem, I don’t know, never mind.”
You pause. You could say something that actually means something. But instead you just say, “Okay, poet.”
Melissa is in the art school. She’s a dancer and a mixed-media artist and a poet, and it doesn’t seem fair that she should get to be all three, but you’re not jealous of her talents so much as mesmerized by them. You feel embarrassed all the time, and Melissa is the kind of girl who seems like she has never been embarrassed a day in her life. She’s self-possessed in a way you can’t imagine and proximity to her feels powerful. It feels like protection.
You have a lot of interests, too. Writing short stories and literature and history and philosophy and film theory and journalism. But it’s less like you’re a jack-of-all-trades and more like you’re trying on as many costumes as possible, looking for something that fits. You haven’t found an art or a passion that feels anything like logging on. You long for that kind of connection, that kind of community in your irl life.
Not much time passes at all, but it’s like the anonymous message never happened. Your friend group moves on. You kind of move on, too. A few more notes trickle in for the Kristen Stewart collage, but you stop checking. Your feed is full of Mad Men screencaps. You wonder what it would be like to be Don Draper, to say whatever the hell you wanted to women, to be bad but still beloved.
You’re a rule-follower, remember? You can’t be bad.
The girl in Belgium finally writes you back. She likes the poem. She sends one in return, and it’s full of strange and visceral body horror—branches growing out of a woman’s gut, her neck twisting round and round and becoming a braided vine. Belgium Girl says she hopes you don’t find it too gory. You don’t; you love it. You ask how her day has been and what the temperature is in Belgium, and she pokes fun at you for asking about the weather, and you tell her the most boring fun fact about yourself is that you genuinely love to know weather forecasts in places you don’t live. Communicating between inboxes is cumbersome—they’re not built for private conversations, really. So you offer her your phone number, and you start texting each other at odd hours of the day, your phone screen like candlelight late at night while Melissa dreams just a few feet away in her bed.
More days pass. You go to class. You eat meals with Melissa in the dining hall. You meet some of her dancer friends. You turn in a short story for workshop in your creative writing class, and you eat pizza with a side of cereal for dinner.
In between it all, you log on and post and reblog and tag and message and edit screencaps and make graphics and take requests and follow back and reach through the screen, wishing you could literally push your body parts through it to the other side. None of this feels monotonous. It feels like you’re really making something. It feels like you’re building a life.
You decide to do a new intro post, because you have forty-two new followers since you last did one. You open Photobooth on your MacBook and take a series of photos using the sepia filter, slightly altering your face in each of them. You click through the results and select the best one. In it, you’re scowling a little, and your head is tilted to the left as you make eye contact with yourself. Your curls swoop in front of your shoulders, and you’re wearing a black turtleneck. You think you look hot as fuck. Like a serious-ass writer in a serious-ass movie. You upload the photo and write the introduction post:
hallo hallo new followers. my name is maya, and I thought I’d share some fun facts:
– John Slattery is my lover
– I’m an English major and a bit of a ~nerd~
– my blog crushes are thevampirediarist and faithhopetrick
– I’m obsessed with languages
– COFFEE FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!
– when I hit 1k I’m gonna do a picspam of all my favorite movies
You post it and scroll through your feed. You reblog a prompt asking for inbox questions about your favorite TV show characters. For fifteen whole minutes, no one asks you anything. Then Eli asks who your favorite Buffy character is, even though she already knows the answer is Cordelia.
Something is off. Something is missing. You log off. Maybe more questions will come in if you step away for a bit. Or they won’t, and you can move on to the next thing. You ask Melissa if she wants to walk to the library.
More days pass. Your feed refreshes. You reblog and post and ask. You gain seven new followers and lose two. Something is still missing. You miss the rush you felt on the day your friends defended your honor against the trolling anon. You open your inbox, and the anonymous message is still sitting there, unanswered and undeleted. Like the automatic way you took the screenshot on that day, you find your fingers moving as if they’re a few steps ahead of your brain. You open your own ask page and type: I agree with that anon. You think you’re soooooo cool but you’re just an ugly loser. You toggle the anon option. You send it.
This time, you answer. You answer yourself. You type: Stay mad, chip n dips.
Your friends believe this to be another hater, another common enemy. They come to your defense again, and you have unlocked something. A feeling better than a couple dozen notes on an intro post or ten new followers or even a hundred new followers.
You start bullying yourself. Nothing too harsh at first. Nothing even as harsh as the original message from an actual anon.
You, as an anon: Your friends are losers, too.
You, as you: JEALOUS MUCH? My friends are the coolest bitches in all the land.
You, as an anon: This blog is such a joke.
You, as you: Thanks, I know I’m hilarious.
You, as an anon: God you’re annoying. Who do you think you are?
You, as you: I am Iron Man.
Your friends are delighted by your replies. But they also warn you against feeding the trolls. Eli texts to ask if you’re okay. She says she’s worried about what these messages are doing to your brain, and even though she doesn’t explicitly mention it, you know she’s probably thinking about what you told her. About middle school. About the year you were tormented so much by a group of girls you faked being sick every other week so you could stay home from school. Eli gently suggests that maybe things will die down if you stop answering. You do stop answering, because you stop leaving yourself anonymous hate messages. You worry that doing it too much will get you caught.
That night, Melissa smuggles a bottle of cheap red wine that smells like nail polish into your dorm room, and you both drink it out of mugs while watching Six Feet Under DVDs she picked up at the media library. You’ve wedged yourselves into her bed with her navy blue sheets and lavender quilt and giant pillows. She braids a section of your hair while you watch her laptop screen. You’re wearing matching wool socks Melissa’s grandmother knitted for both of you.
Three mugfuls of tangy wine and two episodes later, you take the four footsteps to your own bed to retrieve your laptop. Melissa thankfully doesn’t mind when you double-screen.
You open your inbox and type: Nobody likes you lesbian.
You screenshot this one and post it along with a gif of Roxy Richter declaring prepare to die, obviously in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This has the intended effect. Your friends assemble again. Melissa refills your mug. Someone online reblogs and adds another Roxy quote: I’m a little bi-furious. You feel flushed from the wine, and you peel off your wool socks.
You open your inbox again. It’s time to be someone else. You say to yourself: Sry abt all the anons bb 🙁 but I was just wondering… ARE you gay?
You let the question linger. You sip your wine.
The next morning, the question is still there. You delete it. You ask the same question without the apology: Are you gay? You delete it. You try again: It’s shocking ur heterosexual.
This one you post, writing underneath it: hashtag about me.
For a few days, you even put “shockingly heterosexual – anonymous” in your bio. But you start to worry that your friends are suspicious of how many anons you’ve had in your inbox lately. You google:
tracking anonymous questions blog inbox
ip address lookup
how to trace anonymous accounts
The results are inconclusive. You think you’re probably safe, but you decide you should walk it back a bit. You stop bullying yourself online. You stop asking yourself questions. You don’t have any answers anyway.
One of Melissa’s dance friends is throwing a party. He lives off-campus, on the street known for the wildest house parties. You’ve been to a few, and you always end up puking, sometimes in the snow, sometimes on your own boots. This party’s theme is, simply, the color red. Melissa loans you a red sweater dress, and when you slide it on over a pair of tights, the static electricity sends little shocks down your skin. It looks good on you, just like Melissa said it would, and you take a selfie to post later. Melissa does your makeup, paints your lips cherry to match hers and uses a brick-colored liner on your eyes. She smells like dryer sheets.
“Whoops, dammit,” she says. “Uneven.” She licks her thumb and swipes spit against your eyelid. She begins again. She tells you to stop blinking so much.
You walk to the party arm-in-arm, but when you get there, she has so many people to hug you end up standing alone. You wish you had your laptop with you. You wish you and Melissa had pre-gamed more. You feel too sober for all the smells and bodies around you. You drink two cups of orange liquid that tastes like Tang left in the sun. You promise yourself you won’t barf this time.
When you find her, Melissa is still, somehow, hugging people. She knows so many people. She says I love you to everyone. She tugs on the sleeve of your dress and asks if you want to dance.
“At a party full of dancers? No way,” you say.
Melissa laughs and rolls her eyes. “We’re dancing,” she says, and grabs you by the elbow, leading you to a different room in this maze of a house. In this room, the dancers are dancing. Their bodies quiver and quake, and you can’t stop staring. Everyone’s all mashed together, their movements mesmerizing. You thought the red theme was stupid, but it has a dreamy effect on the dance floor. So many shades of red pulsating.
Melissa shares her drink with you, and when she hands you the cup you see the left-behind smear of her lipstick, the same shade you’re wearing. You place your lips on the outline of hers and gulp. Melissa’s hands twist in front of her like snake heads. She tells you to loosen up, but she says it in that perfectly Melissa way where she’s teasing but not unkind. She places her hands on your hips and with her guidance, you do loosen up. You dance with her for a while like that, pressed close and ribboning around each other. She leans into your neck like she’s about to tell you a secret. Then she says she has to piss.
“I’ll get more drinks,” you shout at her.
But then she’s gone, and you’re not sure how to get back to the kitchen. So you stay in the dance room and settle for a random handle of vodka in a corner, even though this goes against all safety lectures you’ve heard about college partying. You fill Melissa’s drained cup with the clear liquid and scavenge for a chaser. While you hunt, something catches your eye. Two of the quaking dancer bodies pressed close to each other like you’d been with Melissa. But closer. They look like one being, long limbs entwined, two manes of hair threaded. You realize it’s two women making out, and you have simultaneous urges to stare and look away, settling for the middle ground of gazing at their feet, which are moving with incredible lightness despite their clunky boots. You take a sip of vodka and use your free hand to snap the hair tie on your wrist three times.
Melissa comes back and tells you the bathroom is disgusting. You snap the hair tie once more. “I might head home,” you say, surprising yourself. Melissa doesn’t hear. The music’s loud. You pull her in by the arm and say it again in her ear.
“Boooooo.” Melissa pouts.
“I’m tired,” you lie.
“I just need to say bye to some people.” You realize she wants to walk with you. She’s having fun, but she’ll leave if you’re leaving. She cares so much about you. But you don’t want to spoil her night, and you want to be alone.
“No no, stay. I’m fine,” you say. “Not even drunk.” Another lie.
She looks at you, searching. You don’t know how to tell her to stop worrying about you. Maybe you don’t want her to stop.
“I won’t be home late,” Melissa says. She grabs the cup out of your hand and takes a sip, and you watch her lips press against the same spot you both keep drinking from, the lipstick layers accumulating.
“That’s right. Home before curfew, little missy,” you tease, and Melissa’s laugh is loud, even against the music. She blows you a kiss, and you pretend to catch it and slide it into your dress pocket. She laughs again, and you leave her there, swallowed up in a sea of red.
Back in your dorm, you lurch for your laptop. With wild hands, you find your inbox. This time, you type: If you were gay, I’d totally date you. Too bad 🙂 – secret admirer
You answer: omggggg totally blushing. I’ll still date you, anon :p
Just like that, you birth a new fake person to talk to on the internet. Instead of your troll, she is your crush. Irl, you haven’t done much flirting at all. So you imagine what Melissa might say, because Melissa’s always flirting with everyone. Once, you heard her tell a tall, muscular painter with floppy hair that he was a puzzle she’d like to solve. Minutes later, she had her hands in that floppy hair, and he had his mouth on her neck.
Ur a puzzle I’d like to solve
Call me a rubik’s cube, bayyyyyybEE!
If ur a rubik’s cube then I get to put my hands all over you
Ooo i like that
I like YOU
You forget your previous paranoia about your friends finding out you’re your own anons, and you blow up your inbox with an ongoing conversation between yourself playing your secret admirer and your actual self. It’s 2 a.m., but you know your friends are still seeing all of this play out on their feeds. None of you ever sleep.
You flirt with yourself, tease yourself, hide from yourself:
where should we go on our first date?
mmmm Central Park
okay let’s reenact When Harry Met Sally
are you harry or sally
oh I’m totally a sally. Super control freak XD
well I’m just a freak. 😉 😉
ur my dreamfreak
if I’m ur dreamfreak then howbout u reveal yrself
You’re too drunk from mango-flavored vodka to come up with a clever reply.
The girl in Belgium replies to one of your posts of you and you: I ship it.
You keep your secret admirer alive for nearly a month. Your friends all speculate on who it could be. She does seem kind of perfect, Eli texts you one night. The paranoia blooms again. You think there’s something to decode. You wonder if she’s asking you something else. If she’s asking you if you would really date a woman. Or worse, if she’s asking you if your secret admirer is really too good to be true, because really, she knows she’s you.
Too bad I’m “shockingly heterosexual,” you answer her.
Lol, she says.
You want to change the subject, so you ask Eli about some other drama that’s happening on some other corner of the internet. Someone accused someone else of plagiarizing her Glee vampire AU fic. Factions had formed. You think both parties are a little obnoxious, and you say so. The pivot works, and you relax a little.
Between the fake bully and the fake lover, you’re surprised how easy it is to become someone else. You expected to get bored of it, to become exhausted by the performance. It’s different than writing fiction. It’s just words on the internet, and yet you feel like you’ve given more to these imagined people. You’ve given them bodies. You’ve given them yours.
Past midnight, the messages always get hornier, stopping just short of becoming actual sexts.
One night, you write to yourself: is it weird i wanna know what ur spit tastes like????
i like thinking about ur hands.
well right now i’m using them to talk to you
i can think of other things you can do with them
You know it’s odd to post these come-ons publicly, but you want everyone to see how badly you’re wanted, even if it isn’t real.
You imagine confessing the truth to your internet friends. They would call you demented. They would shun you. Virtual silent treatments. Gossip whispered over video chats and typed out and screenshot and sent to others. But if you never tell them, they’ll never find out. You think of all the things you hide from Melissa. A whole life. There are too many things that feel impossible to explain. You’d rather flatten them into a gif. This is how you become self-possessed. By literally possessing yourself.
Melissa knows something is up. How does she always know? She keeps asking if you’re crushing on someone. She says you’ve been giddy and secretive. You’re staying up even later than usual, face screen-lit all night. She tells you over and over that she doesn’t mind. She sleeps like the dead, which you know because you’ve been the one to try to get her up for class when she forgets to set her alarm. She always says she doesn’t know what she’d do without you, and you feel the same way.
But she thinks something’s up. She thinks there’s a reason you’re online even more than usual. She asks if you have an “e-crush”—that’s the actual word she uses, and you laugh and say she sounds like she’s a hundred years old. She never minds when you make fun of her.
You say no. At first.
Later, you say yes.
But you aren’t ready to tell her. You don’t want Melissa to think you’re delusional. You wish someone could understand what you’re doing. You wish you could understand what you’re doing.
So you say yes, and you don’t give too many details, but you do say there’s someone you’ve been talking to online who you might be into. You tell her there are two crushes, one online and one real. Melissa is sitting across from you in the dining hall, shaking black pepper onto her salad, something you’ve started doing as well, ever since she made you try it. You’re eating chicken salad on a bagel with sharp cheddar, and the two of you take bites of each other’s lunch without asking.
“Who?” she asks, and you probably should have seen that one coming. You need to become a better liar if you’re going to pull any of this off. Throw the rule-follower version of yourself away. It’s time to become someone else, someone bad.
“Jackson,” you say, the first name that comes to mind. You glance over Melissa’s shoulder and realize just how limited your imagination is. Jackson’s right there, sitting two tables away and eating three bowls of different cereals for lunch.
“Jackson,” Melissa says. “I knew it.”
“He’s like the only guy you ever talk to.”
This is true. You do like Jackson, though not in the way you’re pretending. He has nice, thick hair and a soft face, and you did kiss him once at a party, but his lips were too wet. It felt like kissing a used dish rag. And he didn’t even touch you at all, just kept his hands stiff at his sides like a toy soldier. Ever since, you feel there has been an unspoken agreement between the two of you to never try that again.
“I have an idea,” Melissa says. She pulls a blank sheet of paper from her messenger bag. She tears it into four pieces. On one, she writes J. On another, she writes O. “For online,” she explains. She leaves the third piece blank and holds the fourth up to you and instructs: “Kiss.” With no idea what she’s up to, you follow her orders and press your lips against the paper, a thin shield between your face and her fingers. You wonder what this looks like to anyone else in the dining hall. When Melissa peels the piece of paper off your lips, there’s a thin, oily outline of your lips.
She gathers the pieces of paper in one hand, squeezes, and throws them up into the air. You watch as they swoop and swirl back down to the table.
“Interesting,” Melissa says.
She points to the scrap of paper you kissed. It touches the blank scrap.
“It must be someone else,” Melissa says. “See, the kiss fell on this one. Blank means mystery person. You’re in love with someone else.”
You look at the fallen pieces, still not totally sure what any of it means. Melissa slaps the table and scoops up the paper.
“You look so serious!” she says. “Just a game. Stupid one. I think some girl made it up at a sleepover I went to in middle school.”
You smile, but she might as well have thrown your internal organs in the air the way you feel all scrambled now. Just a game, you tell yourself. You remember another one, one you played at a middle school sleepover of your own. A girl from your gym class instructed you to spit in your hand, so you did. She used her index finger to swirl your spit around your open palm, as if she were painting something. Then she pointed to one of the lines on your palm, slicked with spit. Weird, she said. The way this line splits into two. You asked her what it meant, and she said it meant you’re a lesbian. You laughed, because she did. You were always mirroring her movements. You wondered what the fuck spit had to do with anything, and then you felt a pit in your stomach as you wondered if she was going to tell people at school that you’d spit in your own hand just because she told you to do it.
Melissa isn’t cruel like that girl from middle school. She doesn’t mean anything by this game. But it feels the same. It feels like someone getting too close. You can’t let anyone get too close.
When you get back to your dorm room, you know what you have to do. You have to kill your fake crush, your fake love. The same way you killed your fake troll. You have to delete this part of you. No one will miss her. She was never real.
You’ve always felt cleaved in two. Like that line in your palm. There’s the you Melissa knows; there’s the you the internet knows. You can’t let them touch. You have to stay severed.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde.