Since you’ll inevitably end up reading this at some point, let me situate you. I’m in self-imposed exile at my cabin, two hours up the coast, and I have specifically stated that there are to be no visitors. That would be because I’m supposed to be writing a novel here. It’s my fourth, and it’s about the internet. I pitched it and received approval for it via the internet.
There is a woman in this porno that looks exactly like my wife. Seriously, I’d know those legs anywhere. Now, I haven’t had carnal knowledge of Lena – or any human for that matter – for months, but that’s beside the point. It’s her, about ten years younger, back when her tits were still perky, her hair was still that lustrous brown and she acted like she enjoyed it. My right hand is on the mouse and what’s left of my erection is slowly shrinking in my left. If you were wondering, I would definitely rank this situation in the top five worst things for my writer’s block.
Don’t say it; I know I look tragic. It’s not as warm as it used to be up here this time of year, and I’m shivering in this old baby blue dressing gown that I refuse to give up because I superstitiously believe it improves my writing. To round out the picture, throw in my cheap slippers with caricatures of Freud sticking out of them and of course, my penis, which has now receded to the size of a button. In case you can’t tell, I’m trying hard to ignore what’s on the screen in front of me, and failing miserably.
This erection was a feat that was a good fifteen minutes in the making, I’ll have you know. Thanks to my hurried slap of the space bar, the screen has illuminated my not-wife frozen in the not-smile that all professional sex actors wear right before they are about to perform a particularly uncomfortable act of fellatio. I know this look because I have witnessed it five times this morning. Call me a connoisseur, of sorts.
I have written three goddamn lines in two weeks. I have, however, gone through my body weight in tissues.
Am I ashamed? Of course not. Sex, as they say, is a natural part of life, and people have spent the last ten years paying good money for me to make some sort of sense of said lives. That’s the novelist’s role – the only one, really. My predilection for porn makes me just like you.
I am annoyed, though. Given the situation, I’m going to have to kill this tab and start my search all over again. It’s a process I enjoy, this quest for stimulation, but it also requires lots of mental grunt work. Narrowing down categories, recalling which scenes of actors I’ve seen before, that sort of thing. Research. It’s enough to drive a sane man up the wall. And I’m a writer for Chrissakes.
The pop-up window scares the bejesus out of me. They’re usually there only when I first load up a video, but this one is one those talking ones, and it’s hidden deep within the mess of nested windows I have open. Having someone address you while you watch intense sex on a personal screen is almost as bad having them walking in on you do it in real life.
I get the impression occasionally – as I do now when I hunt fruitlessly through 79 cued up snippets of extreme intercourse – that these diversions are in fact a message from someone who is somewhere beyond an ad server. That there might actually be some guy, in an office somewhere, sitting and looking at an identical screen and thinking ‘Alright that’s enough for one day.’ I get that message delivered to me in the form of an 8-bit American accent telling me I can put it anywhere I like for only $4.99 per ten minutes.
Normally, I wouldn’t dwell on this. But when you combine it with the fact that I’ve just seen an apparition of my spouse being pleasured in a way that I will never be able to achieve in this lifetime, you can’t blame me for being a bit paranoid. So yes, I get up and close the shutters that I helped the owner install way back in the ‘80s, when we still bought porn from the newsagent. And yes, I delete my history, wipe my bookmark-treasure-trove clean and close the lid.
I’m not worried, just so you know. I’m busy. I’m writing a novel about the internet. There are three hundred and three empty pages in the blue moleskine that I use for every first draft that I need to fill. That’s where the real magic happens; offline. When I really want to write, I have to actually write. The computer? It’s just for research.
Besides, this laptop belongs to my son.
I watched Alex play Zelda for about ten months before he even knew I existed. To this day, I can’t remember how I stumbled onto Twitch. I mean, I hate video games. When we were growing up, Alan had this Nintendo and every night I’d fall asleep hearing him scream ‘Die!’ from the other room, even if he was playing a game where nobody got killed.
The thing is, you don’t ever end a game any other way. I realised that after seeing Alex meet his bitter end at least seven times an hour until three in the morning for most of Year 11. The only way forward is to keep winning and the only way out is to die. I was the kind of teenager who found this sort of idea very romantic. It’s not that I believed that every time he didn’t quite grab that vine, or wasn’t quick enough to dodge a laser beam, Alex was falling on his sword for me. But I knew that he knew I was watching, even if he said after that he couldn’t have, so the possibility was always there.
Because he always talked his way through whichever obscure 1990s thing he’d decided to play that night after work, I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on what Alex was all about. I’d visit him for a brief window each night, and keep him locked away in my mind for the rest of the day. Our relationship reminded me of a book we were reading at school, The Collector. Except he was Miranda and I was Fred, the total freak who captured her. I loved him from afar, even though I hadn’t met him, and all I ever wanted was for him to like me back.
Mum and Dad had started to keep close watch on me after the first six months, understandably. Late-blooming puberty and four hours of sleep a night does not a docile lady make, and they were convinced that I was either severely anxious or gay. I withdrew into myself regularly, and snapped at everyone without any hesitation, particularly Alan. As the only other boy in my life, albeit a 12 year old, he bore the weight of my frustration and unspent desire. It was coming up to summer, and I was turning 16. Other girls were arriving at birthday parties with hickeys on their necks, or getting fingered in the parking lot behind Caltex, or texting their ex-boyfriend’s best friends to come and pick them up and take them for an iced coffee. I drank Red Bull and got rims around my eyelids and sometimes teased my own nipples, because nobody else was going to. It was a great time to be alive.
Only the channel owner can talk on Twitch, but any registered user can communicate with them via chat. It took me a while to understand this, and even longer to drum up the courage to sign in properly as heycay8888 for the first time. I didn’t know any of the in-jokes or the weird language that all the other gamers used, but Alex didn’t have that many followers. Often, around one or two in the morning, it was just him and me in there. So I would write to him – what else was I going to do, he could see I had logged on – and he would speak back to me. As he jumped between falling platforms and blasted fireballs at the enemy, he told me about his job (marketing), where he lived (the other side of the bridge), what kind of music he liked (indie rock). I adored his voice. He sounded like an Australian Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
It’s possible I fell in love with him because I had nothing else going for me. There was a good chance that nobody else was going to date me, especially given that my entire family had already decided I was a lesbian. Alan started calling me ‘dyke’, which he couldn’t have possibly known the meaning of at his age, and then Liz would chime in because that’s what kids do. Dad would turn around and glare at them from the front seat on the way to school, saying something about how our choice of lovers was not something to be made fun of. I’d then ask him what the fuck he was on about and the others would start up again ‘dyke, dyke, what the fuck!’ I’d be messaging Alex before I’d even made it to the first period.
When we started ‘taking it offline’, finally, that December, I was petrified. I had my license but no wheels, so I was going to have to take the bus for nearly an hour. He said he would meet me there. The litany of lies I had to tell to get myself there was impressive, even by my standards.
The night before, I logged back onto Twitch even though Alex and I had long since switched to phones and email. He was playing Astroboy; I’d seen him do it before. But there were eight people on the channel at midnight, the most I’d ever seen. It weirded me out. I’d long since gotten used to the idea that this was a private world for the two of us. I disconnected without saying anything and spent the night staring at the back of my eyelids.
I expected it to be awkward, because honestly that would have been the most normal thing. During the last few weeks before we met for the first time, he’d started putting on his laptop camera so that I could see his reactions as he flew through space and stabbed ninjas. He told me later that this was what most Twitchers did, and that there were quite a few girls on there who used their looks to make money from a huge group of lonely dudes. I hadn’t told him that I’d never gone poking about anywhere else but his channel, or that our entire relationship was down to dumb luck. I never had time to. When I came off the bottom step of the bus, he was holding a bunch of daisies and he kissed me right there in the street before I ever said my name.
What happened after that is harder to put down in words, I'll try...
I wish it were porn.
Porn. I wish he was just watching porn, like all the other kids. Isn’t it fantastic, this world we live in, where violent sex on a computer screen is the least of my worries?
Well, Mrs Fergusson, I—
I’m not paying you to talk.
With respect Mrs Fergusson, you’re not paying me at all. This is a preliminary phone consultation, and I wasn’t aware you were also seeking psychological help.
Fuck off. It was a joke...I’m sorry. I’m very tense right now. I think I have lightning between my temples. You know that sensation? Anyway, let’s start again.
…OK then. So, your son…
Yes, Alan. He’s fourteen?
Barely. And he looks about eleven. We had to take him to a pediatrician in January to see if he was ever going to grow at all.
And you’re worried about him.
That’s an understatement.
What is it about his behaviour that you believe is cause for alarm?
I don’t know where Alan goes at night, and I don’t know what he does.
On weekends, or—
All the time. Somehow he manages to slip out so early in the morning or late in the evening, when I can’t stay awake anymore. But he’s always disappearing.
That is concerning. Have you tried talking to him about it?
Have you tried talking to a f14-year-old boy about anything?
I’m an adolescent psychologist, Mrs Fergusson...Do you have any of his keychains?
They’re a string of characters that will allow me to remotely access your son’s computer. Technology has changed, Mrs Fergusson. We can profile your son quite extensively without him ever setting foot in my office.
I turn 50 next year. This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
Do you think Alan might be hiding something?
Daniel and I were meant to sell the house and buy an apartment. We were going to eat breakfast in bed and watch the sunrise and fuck between the dirty dishes.
So, no keychains?
I can’t remember the last time we had sex. He’s never around.
Mrs Fergusson, please. Can you focus on the task at hand?
I’m pretty sure he uses the same password we gave him for his first email address.
Alright, go into his room and try it out.
That’s where the computer is, isn’t it?
Call me back.
Hello? Ok it worked.
Why are you panting?
I’m nervous. I mean, I monitor his call records because I pay his phone bill and I go through his garbage before I take it outside, but this is different.
On the contrary, Ms Fergusson, I’d say this is the least offensive violation of privacy you’ve committed so far. Now, is he online ?
OK, go to the ‘Users’ folder’ and open the document that says ‘Identities’. Read me the password on the screen and I’ll log in remotely.
Uh, it’s…DBG15…63-FRA3. Is this really wrong?
That depends. Are you really worried?
I just feel like I’m snooping through his diary. If my mother had done that...
We’re not reading anything, we’re scraping. I’m only looking for metadata. Do you understand what that is?
You’re going to tell me anyway.
Hmmm. That’s unusual. It’s clean.
Metadata is clean?
No, Alan’s profile. It’s spotless. Not a scrap of personal information or logs anywhere.
Do you even have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, Mrs Fergusson?
No. But that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to an opinion...I wish it was porn.
Well I’ve been through all his records, and it almost certainly isn’t.
Maybe I should have had the sex talk with him by now. We never had it with Cayley and that sure came back to bite us in the arse.
Lena. I have a patient coming in ten minutes. Let’s talk options.
I want him doped up to his eyeballs. I want him so whacked out that he can’t even open his mouth wide enough to protest against the next dose.
Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen, Lena.
But why not? You said yourself that there’s something strange about all this.
Lena, if I took every anxious mother or strange boy at their word, I’d have put half of teenage Australia on mood stabilisers by now.
Maybe that’s what they need.
These kids. They’re so far gone they don’t even realise when dinner is on the table that their mother has been slaving away at all day. They forget to take their little sister to the art gallery like they said they would.
Here’s what I think—
Why not give them some pills to keep them on the straight and narrow?
If you’re at all curious anymore—
Do boys on mood stabilisers watch porn? Probably...Hello?
This is the story of the blue book and me, by Liz Fergusson, Class 4A.
I saw it in the shop one day and I knew that I wanted it.
Mummy said I couldn’t have it, which isn’t fair. I’d been so good. I got full marks in my end of term maths quiz and the other night I ate salad at dinner even though it had tomatoes in it and I hate tomatoes because they are icky and squishy.
None of the other girls in my class ate tomatoes. I checked.
Anyway, it’s not like I was being annoying about it. Not at first, anyway. I just saw it in the window when Dad was picking up his important meetings suit. It was beautiful. Not Zac Efron, but still. I must have looked silly, staring at it from outside because soon Daddy was pulling me away from the glass, saying ‘Elizabeth’ like I’d done something naughty.
This is not part of the story but when I was three I decided that I was a Liz. Now I am eight and four months. Nobody ever calls me the other thing anymore, except my parents when I am in trouble.
Some day I’m going to be a famous artist. Everyone always says how good I was at drawing, so that’s how I know. Last week, I saw a video on the computer and it was all about the famous painters who live in Paris. I do not use paint yet because Mummy says it will stain my uniform, but I wish I did. Mrs Hart said that Paris is the centre of France. I think this is where they made the movie Ratatouille.
In the YouTube, they each had their own book. It was a book just for drawing. They went out to the river or sit on a hill under a tree and they took the book with them so that they could draw ideas for paintings outside of the house. Sometimes I have a really great idea of something I want to draw in the car or at the playground but I don’t have anything to do it on. I get so worried that I might lose it that I think about pulling out my pink pencil called Gwen and writing on the wall. It is just an idea, ok.
The book I wanted was the best I’d ever seen ever. Better than anything I saw in the video. I wanted to touch it so much that I got off the bus early on the way home and went to the same shop. The lady said would I like to look at the book in the window and I told her yes thank you because I have good manners.
It was this pretty blue I haven’t seen before. I call it halfway blue because it is also close to purple, which is my second favourite colour. The front and back were soft, kind of like chocolate sponge cake, and there is a word I don’t know cut into the middle. It felt funny when I followed it with my thumb, like you could fill it up with water. The pages had no lines, which was exactly what I wanted. They were thick and smelled like butter. There was also a shiny halfway-blue ribbon.
We learned a new word in school today: obviously. It sounds funny, like someone evil in a cartoon show. Obviously means that everyone should know something. The grass is green. Obviously. One Direction is the best. Obviously. I should have that book, obviously.
Nobody ever asked, but if they do, I borrowed it, like you do from the library. It’s my favourite thing in the whole world, and I like looking at it so much that I sometimes think I’ll never draw anything in it at all. I hid it under my mattress for a long time after I took it from the shop. I was scared the nice lady would be upset, and she would come and find Mum and tell her what had happened.
When Alan caught me, he was nice and didn’t tell on me. He said he used to have one just like it.
It’s called a hard reset. You hold down the two buttons together tightly, as if in an embrace, for a number of seconds. You will feel it hum, then vibrate, and then nothing.
A hard reset is not a complicated operation, but I was the only one in the family who knew how to do it. They didn’t realise that until afterwards, but by then I’d left again.
(I was always leaving, my mother said.)
She was wrong. This was the longest I’d stayed in one place for some time. I’d been living with her and the cleaner since it happened. He’d died suddenly, but I’d been preparing for it for what seemed like the longest time. All of the funeral arrangements had been taken care of, assets disseminated, awkward tears choked out from distant relatives.
For me, Dad died about fifteen years ago, when we’d had our first fight over the computer. These proceedings were a formality, primarily for my mother and sisters – at least the one who decided to show up. Liz was on a shoot on the West Coast. She’d dialled in her condolences.
I’m not the eldest, but I’m the firstborn son. That means the Information is mine. The company that came up with this concept, the same one that now regulates the temperature in my house and silently checks my blood pressure each morning, was obviously obsessed with religious folklore. It’s stupid; if we were in Ancient Egypt, nobody would consider being the beneficiary of this kind of thing a blessing.
Dad’s life was laid out flat if you turned on that thing. His secrets, desires, dreams, fears and delusions: the lot. It is a gift, they said on the accompanying pamphlet, to have this data by which to permanently remember your loved ones. There was then a suggestion to curate and upload the best bits. Perhaps to the cloud, so Dad could run into it.
A hard reset is different to a factory restore or an update. It’s the digital equivalent of giving someone enough electric-shock therapy that they no longer remember that they’re a person. But it’s painless, and beautiful, in all the ways that death isn’t. The device starts anew, a blank slate for someone else to write his or her history on. Reincarnation in ones and zeros.
What I chose to do wasn’t as reprehensible when you think about how it could have gone. Everyone in my family had been watching one another in some capacity since we learned to use a touchpad. It’s just that I only one who could access the camera on the screen remotely, or flush data out through a back exit without anyone knowing.
I’m not a hacker, I’m just intuitive.
There’s a terrible joke they used to drop on us in high school, which feels sort of apt. ‘This is on a need-to-know basis,’ it goes, ‘and you don’t need to know.’ The greatest gift to a narcissist is to let his secrets and lies live on after he leaves this planet. It lets him cheat death and become immortal. I wasn’t about to enable my Dad one last time.
Cayley had asked about it, right as I was leaving for the airport to never come back. ‘Oh, the data thing?’ I said. ‘I hear it usually takes a few days. Make sure you check with the delivery guys if it doesn’t arrive by the end of the week.’
A hard reset doesn’t always come off as planned. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, you can lobotomise the device without properly wiping it. But I knew, and I held on tight. There was a hum, then a pulse and then nothing.
And here we are, back at the beginning.