I needed to make a new AIM screenname. Stooping under the slanted ceiling, I paced back and forth across my bedroom, clenching my fists at intervals. The kettle had finally boiled over. I’d
My bedroom occupied about a third of my parents’ attic. Due to the mounds of clutter on my floor, there was only a small deer trail of exposed carpet to pace, which only allowed about a step and
a half in each direction. I was a dog pacing a kennel. A very quiet dog, with a tension headache and a ginger afro from Rochester’s summer humidity.
This was a life-schism, a phoenix-fire rebirth. I’d already made the vow, now I just needed to seal it in blood. I already had two AIM screennames, but this one would be the be-all,
end-all. But for now, I had to keep pacing. At least until my outmoded Windows 98 box finished booting up.
With my waiting time, I was surprised how quickly an idea came to me. The trouble was, the common spelling would already be taken. It was only a single word, one word that said it all. A
four-letter word. I would have to do some monkeying with spelling, substitute numbers for letters or something. I’ve never been the kind of schmuck to just use the same name as someone else, but
just tack some numbers onto the end.
My computer finally finished booting up and I sat down. The June heat made me sweat, even when stationary. I was fat enough that I had boy-boobs, though, and didn’t ever go shirtless. Not even
alone in my bedroom in the height of summer.
For my office chair, I had a broken armchair, which I’d salvaged from the side of the road and hauled up the two flights of stairs myself. It wobbled unevenly, the threadbare floral upholstery
was a loud, chintzy orange that somehow had not faded even though the chair was probably old enough to be my legal guardian. I loved it.
I typed in my password as sunlight streamed in through the skylight, which didn’t help my mood. Summer was deceptive. Sure, there was no school. But it was so hot I had to sleep on couch cushions
moved to the floor of my dad’s office, which was air conditioned to protect his computers. And it took forever for the sun to go down. Plus, the two months when school was out reminded me how
many friends I had.
Through the base of the chair, I felt vibrations. They’re moving from upstairs. I decided to turn on the TV. A Comedy Central Presents was on, Jackie Kashian again, a welcome distraction.
The attic had become my refuge since I’d moved up there several years ago. My parents had no reason to come up, so I could be a floor, or maybe two, removed from their interactions. I could turn
up the volume of Linkin Park and Diablo II until the only signs of them at all were the occasional shakings of them stomping around the poorly-maintained ninety-year-old house.
But now was not the time for music and video games. This was serious. I opened Mozilla and went to the web portal for AOL Instant Messenger. No, the fun and games would need to wait at least five
or ten minutes. Although, this would require serious deliberation. Maybe twenty minutes.
Both Linkin Park and Diablo II were infections I had contracted from my friend Gustavo. I’d never played video games at all until I met him in sixth grade. I always just assumed my computer was
too shitty for any good games, and I was too broke to buy any game systems. And I certainly didn’t have the force of will or dogged determination to try and convince my penny-pinching dad to buy
a game system for me.
Music, I’d always gotten through other people. In my entire life up through knowing Gustavo, I hadn’t figured out how to find music for myself. All my music had come via my dad or my sister.
Before Gustavo, my music consisted solely of Jimmy Buffet, Britney Spears, greatest hits albums from The Beach Boys and Dire Straits, and a Christmas album of John Denver and the Muppets.
Meteora had come out the previous year, and when I told Gustavo that I’d bought it, and he said had just gotten it too, I had this weird thought of I wonder if this is how rich kids feel all the
time? ‘I just bought this’—’me too!’ Or maybe that’s just normal kids? Or kids who know music? Anyway, I felt like not-my-usual-self. It was pretty cool.
In fact, I decided to turn off Jackie Kashian and put on Meteora. I knew her routines verbatim anyway, and Meteora was thematic, as the idea for my new screenname had ultimately come from the
last track on that CD.
And then, the spelling crept into my mind, bringing along a smile to stick on my face. I typed it into the availability checker, and it was free. Nobody else had thought of it yet, so I felt
clever, too. And I hadn’t just tacked some goddamn numbers on the end of a well-used word.
It’d started earlier that afternoon in my parents’ forest green Plymouth Voyager. And by that, I mean it’d started a few months ago during the oneg after the friday night Shabbat service at
temple. And by that I mean it’d started when my family moved back to Rochester from Albuquerque and And by that I mean it’d started in my grandma’s apartment in December of 1985. By the way, this
June was the one that took place in 2004. And I was fifteen.
The Voyager was round on both ends, slightly more angular in the front, like a gelcap pill someone was pinching in their fingers. My two favorite things about it were that it was the first car my
folks had bought showroom-new, and also that it had A/C. My attic bedroom had no air conditioning, only one window on each end and two skylights that only opened a few inches and let in all the
goddamn sunlight. Skylights are supposed to feel freeing, airy. To me, they just increased my long-standing hatred of the sun. No, at home, to enjoy A/C, I had to descend into their realm.
My dad always drove. We were heading down Winton, home from temple. Two parents, one boy child, one girl child. We were the all-American, white, middle-class Jewish family, pretty as a Christmas
“All I wanted was two goddamn seconds of your help!” My mom shrieked, turning toward my dad to emphasize her point, looking toward him but not at him, her eyes deflected off center. As soon as
she finished the sentence, though, she shifted back to stare out the passenger window. Her left elbow leaned against the window frame so her hand could compulsively pick at something on her
“You’re a fucking liar, Laura.” My dad said. He kept his eyes on the road. Where my mom’s voice was as shrill as a pane of plate glass when she was upset, my dad’s became a square, heavy, maroon
brick. They went together perfectly.
Claire and I sat in the bucket seats, her behind my dad and me behind my mom, as always. My sister, two years older than me, was eerily placid, staring out the window, disconnecting.
She told me every now and again that she sometimes forgot I was her younger brother. I agreed. I’d been taller than her for some time, and it always felt a little weird when she called me her
little brother. Though I would never say it, I’ve literally never felt like she was my “big sister.” More like something between “kid sister” and “pet goldfish.”
If I’d taken a moment to focus on Claire’s silence, it probably would’ve unnerved me how distant she seemed from the drama in the car.
Especially because I was crying like a teething toddler.
To be honest, I don’t really know why I was crying, or so hard. I hadn’t cried in a bit. And it’s not like it was the first time they’d fought like this. It wasn’t even the first time they’d
fought about this. The particular argument was about the logistics of getting Claire some new hearing aid molds. And it was also about defrosting yesterday’s chicken. And also about laundry. And
also about something one of the parents had said to my mom’s supervisor at the daycare where she worked. And also about how my dad just wanted a few hours to himself on the weekend. And about all
the other things they always fought about, too.
Ever the innovator, I’d decided to try something new today.
Each time one of my parents flung another javelin at the other, I tried to increase the volume of my crying. Perhaps, I reasoned, they might take notice, and realize that the toxic way they
treated each other was harmful to the entire family dynamic. Maybe—just maybe—if I could link their actions to my anguish, they would come to some new plateau of understanding about rearing
children in a hostile environment. Call it an experiment.
My dad noticed.
“Kevin, if you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!”
No epiphanies today.
I clammed up.
As soon as I got home, I slinked upstairs as quietly as my rage would allow. Which, given my lifelong fear and avoidance of conflict, was pretty damn quiet.
Fifteen years old and I’m still crying like I’m a third this age.
Everybody on AIM had 2 screennames. The first, you gave out to everyone. The second, you gave out to almost everyone. That way, you could be online to some people, but exclude a couple of folks.
Some people had three or four, maybe one for chatrooms with strangers, one to swap nude pics with perverts or one to admit to your emo side. They were like paper airplanes, you could just make
I created the new screenname, linked it to my account, then I edited both profiles of my existing screennames. I wanted everybody to know this one. This would be my new primary screenname.
My old primary had been FogOfTwilight, inspired by .hack//sign. My inner cloister name was cigaMdekciW, that one being a sort of nod to another band Gustavo had gotten me into, Insane Clown
Just a few weeks ago, in fact, thanks to Gustavo’s example, my dad had called up the stairs to me.
“Kevin, your music sounds so angry.”
My biting retort was “yup.”
The truth is that I never got angry. That was all my parents, and my sister when she wasn’t getting her way. I was the jester (which I learned later is archetypal) or the recluse. So why, I’m
sure my dad had to wonder, was my music so angry?
And if I was actually angry, why didn’t I join in with the rest of the family? Claire had no problem shrieking and my mom to get out of her room, or for me to put the channel back. And the
foundation of my parents’ relationship was the vitriolic tete-a-tete. But me? I got along with everyone. Well, not everyone. I could be found putting a plastic snake in Claire’s bed with some
regularity. Or drawing a stick figure in sidewalk chalk with a butt for a face with Claire’s name. (Pro-tip kids, don’t mock your sibling in sidewalk chalk. The evidence is right there.)
But I was never actually angry, was I? Just listened to angry music is all. It must’ve been quite perplexing to my dad.
At the top of both of my old AIM profiles, I wrote:
*‘`+~-,._,+’` add my new sn---> N U IVI I3 ‘`+, _.,-~+`’*
I logged onto Diablo II, and Gustavo wasn’t online. I switched to Starcraft, and found him embroiled in a 1v1. He was on a Starcraft team, and even held some ranking with some league or whatever.
I’m terrible at real-time strategy games, and didn’t even bother trying to qualify for his tournaments. But I had fun killing time with ‘defense’ games, which were nothing more than building up
stationary defenses to slaughter wave after wave of enemies as they tried to pass through. Sweet, digital heroin.
I waited in Gustavo’s team channel for him to own or get owned, while also minimizing the game every few minutes to see if anyone had added my new screenname yet.
When he was done with his game, I messaged.
<you whisper to chekyosikz> hey man add my new sn on aim
<you whisper to chekyosikz> its nuivii3, but I wrote it like N U IVI I3
<chekyosikz whispered to you> kewl
<chekyosikz whispered to you> wanna 2v2?
He didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of my paradigm shift, and I didn’t want to ruin my triumphant mood. And Gustavo only invited me to 2v2’s because we were friends and could communicate quickly
over TeamSpeak. He knew I sucked, and usually coached me through what to do when we 2v2’d. I declined.
Instead, I played Turret Defense and Cannon Defense and Path Defense and Spore Defense and Toad’s Defense all the rest.
My dad came and said goodnight and turned off my light from the switch located at the base of the stairs. Apparently, at some point during my hours of playing, their argument had stopped. Or at
least gone into remission.
“Goodnight, I’m going to bed right now,” I called down to him.
I turned off the TV, switched the game’s audio to headphones and kept playing. Around two AM, when I finally logged off, I saw that a few people had added my new screenname. Then I jacked off to
some porn. As I fought to fall asleep, I played Meteora on my clock-radio CD player.
That weekend, I spent Friday night at Gustavo’s house. I liked going to his house more than I liked him coming to mine, partly because he had a Nintendo 64, but mostly because it wasn’t my house.
Plus, his mom liked me better than him. She even kept a toothbrush there for me.
The weather Friday was no better, still sunny, still muggy. While Gustavo didn’t have air conditioning either, his bedroom and the computer room were both on the first floor, and seemed to have
slightly better ventilation than my “heat-rises” bedroom.
The awkward part about getting together with Gustavo was that we couldn’t play computer games at the same time. We took turns. He played Starcraft and I played Diablo II. He cursed me for
bringing bad luck, because despite his considerable skill, he kept losing on his turns.
“I swear I’m never this bad when you’re not here,” he said. “You’re ruining my record!”
“Uh-huh, right, it’s my fault,” I said with a grin. “Performance anxiety?” It pleased me to see him lose, as he could be something of an egomaniac. He even recorded his games, and showed me his
favorite tournament wins—whether I wanted to see them or not. Part of the problem, I suppose, was that I always told him I wanted to see them, whether I wanted to or not.
While I was there, Gustavo had to call and say goodnight to his new girlfriend Christa. I was taking my turn on the computer in the meantime, and all of a sudden, Gustavo called me into his
bedroom just across the hall. Apparently, Christa wanted to say hi to me. She knew of me, but we’d never met or spoken before.
“Hi, this is Gustavo’s friend Kevin?” I said.
“How big are you?” Two voices on the other end of the phone started giggling insanely as I let out a long ‘uhhhhhhh’ in response. The cordless phone receiver pressed to the side of my head felt
like it’d just sprouted venomous spikes.
Apart from childhood crushes, Christa was the first girlfriend Gustavo had ever had. I wasn’t envious.
Apparently, Christa had a friend sleeping over with her while I was sleeping over at Gustavo’s. Clearly, they were having the more fun.
I’ve tried to block out most of the rest of that conversation. After handing me the phone, Gustavo went back to the computer room. I wasted no time in chasing after him, trying to signal him to
take back the phone. He was distracted by some conversation in the in-game chat, and left me floundering in awkwardness with the two gibing girls. Until he took back the receiver, I just did the
best I could laughing off whatever they said. It’s a natural talent, laughing everything off.
He did take the phone eventually and went back into his bedroom. I did not follow. Somehow, even though I’d been laughing, I couldn’t help feeling that their laughter was not “with me.”
Gustavo had explained earlier that he and she said goodnight on the phone every night, and she’d asked him to call that night before bed to not break routine. I said I understood. Although, when
he’d told me about the call, I’d expected that I would sit and play on the computer while he went into the other room and did cutesy-talk or whatever. I felt deceived.
They’d started dating at the end of the last school year. He’d met her because she was friends with his cousin Prudence. Freshman year had just ended for Gustavo and I, but Christa was a year
older, making her that much more of a catch, by high school rules at least. I wasn’t sure what he saw in her, but I’d also never had a real girlfriend myself. So I just watched. Not in a creepy
“Sorry for Christa,” said Gustavo, joining me back in the computer room after their call ended in a back-and-forth of pet names and I-love-you’s that was more structured and scripted than the
mating rituals of most birds-of-paradise. “She’s a little crazy,” Gustavo smiled, and gave a shrug like ‘what can you do?’ Like she was an end table on which I’d stubbed my toe. Just gotta watch
your feet, man. “Wanna play Super Smash Bros?”
Over the short time they’d been together, I wasn’t sure if he was enjoying himself or torturing himself. It wasn’t that they fought per se. It was just that Gustavo seemed constantly exasperated
with things she was doing or saying. I could imagine how she might throw someone off-kilter.
But she also played video games. This, it could be said, was one of Gustavo’s turn-ons. Gustavo had gotten her into Diablo II, and she got both him and I into MapleStory. Christa wore
uncomfortably corseted black dresses, even in summer. I saw her direct influence when Gustavo started spiking his hair up with kelly green styling gel.
It turned out Christa was much more tame online than she had been while giddy and trying to impress her friend on the phone. Later that month, at Gustavo’s mom’s wedding, when I met her in person
for the first time, she was downright shy.
Gustavo wasn’t thrilled about his new step-dad, but I didn’t know what to say. How could I relate to him living through his parents’ divorce, his mom remarrying? I had a perfectly intact,
The marriage was in a church, which unnerved me. Being Jewish, and not very reverent, anytime I had occasion to go into a Jesus church, I was always terrified someone will notice that I ‘look
Jewish’ or perhaps might notice smoke rising from under the collar of my shirt. The ceremony was blessedly short.
I liked the reception much more, which was held in the backyard of Gustavo’s aunt, Prudence’s mother. It was hamburgers-and-hotdogs casual, which was much more my speed. As usual, Gustavo was
working hard to maintain a sugar rush, and as usual, I was stuffing soda cans and individual bags of Cheetos into my hoodie pocket to take home for later. Other than Gustavo’s sister, mom, and
new stepfather Dale, I didn’t know anyone. I’d met a few of them here and there when Gustavo had snuck me in to family functions, but I couldn’t even keep track of my own sprawling, white trash
family, let alone someone else’s.
We sat on camp chairs at card tables, which felt familiar, comfortable. If somebody’s chair had gone lopsided from sinking into the mud, it would’ve been perfect.
Being that Gustavo was the son of the bride and I was his best friend, our seats were a high-traffic area. I shook hands and forgot names and stared into my baked beans to avoid eye contact until
the meal was eaten and we could remove ourselves from the buzzing table.
Up by the mouth of the driveway, we had room to toss a Nerf football back and forth.
Christa and Prudence came over, and Gustavo introduced me. Unfortunately, immediately after they did, his grandma summoned him away for some pictures or something. The three of us became as quiet
as that moment of silence from the wedding ceremony. Neither Christa nor I knew what to say. Obviously, the big questions had already been covered.
Prudence stood in the middle of us like a mediator. She wore a hoodie with a stylized tiger on it that was baggy enough to shoplift a microwave. Despite her closed posture, hands in the pocket
and the deep hood up, Prudence broke the ice.
“How long have you known Gustavo?”
“Sixth grade,” I stared down, kicking at the gravel driveway. I hated being put on the spot, but at least this was an easier question to field than the first one ever asked to me by Christa.
“That was back when he lived in the city, right?” Gustavo was my only friendship that’d ever survived a move or a school change, which is how I knew we were best friends. After sixth grade, his
mom and Dale moved them out from the city to the suburb of Chili. “Did you go to 45 School with him?”
“No, we went to Douglass,” I hate having to give ‘no’ answers. So I used the gravel-kicking action of swinging my leg to turn away. Now my posture was even more closed than hers. We needed
Gustavo. He was the extrovert, and he knew everybody. Prudence turned to Christa and they had a little conversation. It didn’t seem to be about how ridiculously awkward I was, so I tuned it out
and waited for Gustavo to come back.
August twenty-fourth was less than two weeks before school started, and it was evening unlike any other. I was playing video games. Gustavo wasn’t online. I was on Diablo II, in the middle of
making a new paladin, a charger, designed for low-level duels, mostly against Gustavo.
I heard the chime of a new AIM message, but I couldn’t minimize just yet. I’d gotten some random guy to rush me, and I didn’t want to waste his time by being AFK.
That being said, I was happy to hear the sound. Even though it was probably just Avi asking if I’d done the English summer work and if he could copy. It was annoying, he copied homework almost as
much as I did. But I was still excited. I love when people want to talk to me, preferably when I can edit my replies before hitting ‘send.’
Being able to self-edit was easily my favorite thing about AIM. Although the chat program did have its pitfalls. Like Lila, the girl I only knew on AIM. She was a friend of a friend, and told me
that she was thirteen, and that her boyfriend totally raped and beat her. Unfortunately, by the time our mutual friend told me that Lila was a pathological liar and had never had a boyfriend
before, I had already valiantly offered to come over with a baseball bat. I was glad it turned out to be a lie. I don’t know what I would’ve done if Lila had called my bluff.
Fortunately, my paladin’s rush was almost done. I just had Act IV and Act V left. I didn’t mind not getting to the message right away, because sometimes it’s good to make them wait a little, make
it seem like you aren’t sitting there by the keyboard just waiting for someone to message. And it’s not like that’s what I was doing anyway. I was playing games. Plus, after all my
attention-grabbing a month ago with making the new screenname and all, I was fine to play it cool.
Unfortunately, my rusher skipped out early on me, leaving immediately after taking his payment of the item drops of the Act IV Soul Forge quest.
So my rush was done after all. I minimized.
It was Dax, a friend from school. The IM was just a link. I always had to be careful with Dax’s links. Sometimes they went to websites of geriatric Asian men having orgies, or a gif of a
well-endowed fellow helicoptering his semi-hard dick. Dax was responsible for sneaking a link onto the desktop of our Social Studies teacher’s computer that opened to a photoshopped picture of
someone holding open their impossibly gaping anus. Fortunately, the URL was one I recognized, ninjamarketplace.com.
Over the summer, Dax and I had discovered a mutual interest. We liked browsing the internet for swords and knives we were going to buy someday. His link took me to a Westernized tanto in black,
galvanized steel, full tang, with a handle wrapped in nylon cord.
N U IVI I3: sweeeeet
N U IVI I3: looks ready 2 use. i hate that ornamental shit that cant hold an edge
99Hayabusa: they have a fullsize katana 2
99Hayabusa: no wakizashi tho
I started clicking around myself, poking through the throwing knives. I sent him a set of three throwing knives with hollow sections in the handle that I figured would help with aerodynamics, and
they certainly looked like they were probably well-balanced, too.
Back and forth we went. Honestly, I was too broke to afford anything, and didn’t even have a debit card or a paypal to buy something online if I did. But it was fun. I was surprised to have even
made a friend at all since starting high school the previous year. In fact I had several. None of them had invited me over, and I sure as hell hadn’t invited them to my crappy house. But people
voluntarily IM-ing me was novel.
Then I got a message from Christa. Voluntarily. She had no reason to ever IM me, other than to maybe ask me about Gustavo, or if I wanted to play MapleStory with them.
At least this time, if she threw any awkward questions at me, I could hide my stuttering, and feign AFK until I thought of a good comeback.
The question she asked was certainly awkward. Easily the most awkward question I’d ever been asked in my life, bar-none. Way more so than the first question she’d ever asked me. This, like that
first question, seemed like a trick, perhaps a trap. But this question was in a whole different league. It’s impossible to tell tone of voice over IM. At least over the phone, I could tell she
was pulling my leg, even if it didn’t help my reaction. But tonight I had no idea. All I could do was take the question at face value.
FaerieWings93: do u want a girlfriend?
Blunt as always.
N U IVI I3: i guess so