Long, long ago, in the ragtime era of the nineteen hundred and nineties, computers were still fresh to most of us. They sat huge on our desks like Aztec temples, and there we went to worship our strange new god, the Internet. In 1995, I lived in a little apartment in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle with my then-husband, Thomas. Our desk-temple was at the end of our living room, with a big swiveling black leather captain's chair in front of it. For most of our short marriage, one or the other of us was on that chair, going into this modern kind of trance.
There was a thing called America Online. Thomas got us started there. We'd have a joint account, and something called e-mail. Our screen name was Thomastina, which made us sound like a consumptive child from the Victorian era. I didn't like the name—not just because of the tubercular overtones, but because it felt weird to be diluted into a couple's identity. Felt confining and misleading, somehow. It didn't occur to me to suggest something different, though. I was too cowed by the wonders/dangers of flying this America Online thing to worry about what we were calling ourselves while we did it. Thomastina it was, until it wasn't.
AOL. What was this place? I understood that we were "online", which was some kind of etheric agora where people could mentally teleport from their living rooms. There was a "home page", which seemed comforting to me. I knew if I got lost, I could click on the house, and be back in the center of the agora. I had no idea how far this online thing went. AOL seemed to be an entire world already, with all kinds of categories and message boards and chat rooms, all populated and buzzing with quilting aficionados, Star Trek lovers, Christians, Wiccans, baseball fans, everybody. It was like Noah's Ark in there. I couldn't figure out what else there could possibly be online. I saw there was a bar at the top of the page that had a picture of a globe next to it, and that the globe took you out on to the World Wide Web, but was that still online? Or was that even farther out, somehow? For many months, I pointedly ignored that globe. If I were a medieval explorer, that would have been the part of my map that was either blank or scrawled with HERE BE DRAGONS. How would you know where to go? Who knew how far out you could drift? How would you get home? Was there a house to click out there? It wasn't worth it.
And I was electrified enough just to be online at all. I wandered into a chat room once, where I can't remember what was being discussed but I do remember a man inviting me into a private chat room to talk sexy to each other. Too interesting! I had to see what would happen. I had no idea who this man was who was trying to have chat sex with a consumptive, and I didn't care. He seemed okay. I wasn't interested in him, anyway; I just was amazed by the power of typing into this box and reaching real live humans. My words could do things to a stranger's pants! I barely had to say anything, either. Our conversation lasted five minutes. I think the mere fact of my participation was enough to knock him over the top. Americans online!
To those of you who might be thinking did you cheat on your husband a little bit there?, my answer is maybe? No? I don't think so? A skosh? But the marriage ended a few months later because he discovered he wasn't happy in his gender, so I kind of feel like I got a retroactive get-out-of-jail-free card there. And really: there I was sweating a trip farther into the World Wide Web, while Thomas was quietly considering an escape from maleness itself. When a huge earthquake like that is brewing, small earthquakes around those shared plates aren't really a shocker.
Other than my minor chatsplosion, my presence on AOL was quiet. I lit up American Spirit after American Spirit, tapping my ashes into the black plastic ashtray next to the computer, and browsed the message boards. I didn't have a particular tribe I was looking for; I just wanted to see how it all worked. So I lurked for a few weeks, reading miscellany, watching how people spoke to each other. Who were these people? They seemed to know each other, like they had been living in these little message villages for years.
One night I wandered onto the boards dedicated to actors and actresses, and found somebody praising Winona Ryder. This couldn't stand. My message board silence broke. I ranted for a couple of hundred words BLAH BLAH ACT HER WAY OUT OF A PAPER BAG BLAH BLAH WILLIAM SHATNER ACTING CIRCLES AROUND HER BLAH BLAH BLAH. The original poster shot back, and I shot back again to her. I was all het up and humming with excitement. I had picked a fight in the town square! First this sex type thing, then fighting!
A day or so later, I got some kind of private message from a person who was calling herself "Bonho", which is either Portuguese for Bono or French for "good whore". (I love language!) Bonho told me she'd read my post about Winona Ryder and it was clear that I was a writer, and did I want to come be a part of this happenin' screenwriter's message board? I told her I wasn't a writer, and totally not a screenwriter, though technically this was a screen and I'd typed into it. She said it didn't matter, that it only mattered that I was smart, and she thought I'd fit in just fine there.
And so it was that I found my way into a little alternate universe that obsessed me for a year. During the day I worked at a Children's Museum, and on most nights I was out doing fringe theater of some kind and going out to drinks with my fellow thespians, but I was always excited to come home, throw off my purse, hop into the captain's chair and snuggle up in front of the soap opera that was the AOL screenwriter's board.
Yes, I came home more excited to see my computer than I was to see my husband. The marriage was already eroding before it went to pieces. Tom was a very funny, kind man but we got engaged after only six weeks of dating, and by the time we walked down the aisle a year later I already had a little pit in my stomach telling me we were making a mistake. He suffered from depression, and had a hell of a time trying to find medication that worked for him. I used to jump on him with glee when he came home from work, but I eventually stopped because it irritated and tired him. The atmosphere at home grew dull and tense, and the idea that we were going to sail on joyless into the future scared me. So I did my thing, and he did his thing, and we just didn't talk about it.
Why did I love that screenwriter's board so? It was like a smart little virtual bar, with salty, experienced types holding forth about writing and movies and life. There was Bad Cog, who was the king of the bar, belligerent and funny and brutal. There was MShark, a philosopher from Texas in that laid-back Zen-and-The-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance style, courtly and wise. There was Wryterguy, who seemed perpetually harrowed and grumpy, like a Doonesbury character. There was Type Rider, whom I'd have Naomi Watts play if I were casting that movie today, friendly and cool and hovering above the fray. Bonho was there, and I couldn't tell if she was a screenwriter herself, but she was the Rosalind Russell of the group, swinging in now and then with a snappy observation. There was Robomonkey, the young hothead with a heart of gold who I always pictured driving around on acid in a battered van. And then there was a rotating cast of temporary villains who would appear on the boards and fight with Bad Cog to the delight of us all.
I'd check on the boards first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. The more unread posts had stacked up in my absence, the happier I was. I loved their voices, I loved the funny little dramas, I loved the clear-eyed debates and the occasional gem of real wisdom and insight one of these cats would drop. I wanted to be like these screenwriters, tough and funny and savvy and cool. I put on my best approximation of their voice when I posted, which was often enough to feel welcomed in, but I felt too green to dare to contribute more. But this was my little shadow group of compatriots that nobody in my real life knew about—screenwriter's group? what the hell are you doing in a screenwriter's group? -I don't know?—and I grew genuinely fond of all of them.
One day I decided I was going to dye my hair platinum blonde. Thomas was wildly in support of this, and encouraged me with what I thought was an unusual fervor. I sat with the idea a while, and it eventually wilted. When a few days had passed and I hadn't dyed my hair, Thomas asked me about it. I told him I'd changed my mind. I didn't feel like it anymore. He got mad. I was startled. He accused me of chickening out, and lit into me for my cowardice. I was baffled and pissed; what did my hair color have to do with anything? Who gave a fuck if I dyed it or not? What the hell was going on here?
The hell going on here was that a few weeks later, we speed-unraveled with his revelation that he wasn't happy in a man's body. Well, shit. In retrospect, I can see that the hair squabble was just projection. He was thrilled at the prospect of my making a major change to my appearance because it satisfied something vicarious in him, and he felt suffocated when I opted for the status quo. One night I came home from rehearsal and he was gone. He'd checked himself into a psychiatric unit because he was suicidally afraid of the discovery he made, and when he was released he moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill with his best friend. We were done, two weeks before my 27th birthday.
I was gobsmacked. While I hadn't been happy in the marriage, this was still my partner, my friend, the guy I'd been entwined with for the last two years of my not-that-long life. I was dizzy with sudden freedom, and worried about him, and horribly sad. I slept in the living room and drank tequila out of mugs and smoked and smoked and smoked. I'd lost my appetite, and replaced meals with cigarettes. On my birthday I went out and bought myself a big bottle of strong perfume. Angel, it was called, by Thierry Mugler, and it was floral and chocolate-y and beautiful and obnoxious. Thomas had environmental allergies and we hadn't kept one scented thing in the house. And so fuck it. I was despairing but I was going to smell fantastic. Nobody could stop me.
That night I went out for a drink with a beloved group of boys after rehearsal, and they made me laugh and cheered me up for a few hours. The next morning I changed my screen name, went onto the message boards, and told the screenwriters what had happened with my marriage. Everyone was kind and solicitous and great, but Bad Cog gave me a belated birthday present that I still use. He said that for a writer, this kind of thing—while it may be hell to go through at the time—is gold. I felt the ramifications of what he said, the heft and good fortune of it. I could practically feel it in my pocket like currency. I didn't tell him that I wasn't a writer, either, because I started to wonder if I was.