La lešon de musique
(The Music Lesson) by Henri Matisse
I run a souped-up Pentium with worlds of RAM and the mother of all hard drives, and I can be on line in less time than it takes to tell you how I do it. My screen is crayon blue, the cursor a sly grey wink: Come on, it beckons. Say more. Tell your story....
"I love you," Barbara says, but I'm on-line with the weather queens tonight: heatwaves in Seattle, heat-as-usual in Tucson and Tuscaloosa, humidity in New Orleans, London and Helsinki. sorry to tell you this, I type, but it's been nice here in oakland. no smog; i can see two bridges from my front window.
"I'm going to bed," she says after a moment. "It's late. Kiss me before you fall asleep.
Ann-from-Ann Arbor, whose partner is an incest survivor, writes about the times when memories surface and her lover can't bear to be touched, even by another woman. Others on the list respond: I too was abused by my father, by an uncle, by the woman next door.
On a lighter note, Anne-from-Melbourne has just learned that a longed-for job transfer has come through. Messages of congratulation pour in.
This is DOLL, an e-mail list for lesbians over 40. The acronym stands for Dykes of Lascivious Longevity, let me assure you, not Dear Old Lady Lesbians. Topics are raised by the list members, and generate threads--a series of responses, and responses to responses, relayed simultaneously to all. Some threads entertain us and are gone in an evening or two. Others--on relationships, aging parents, menopause--go from simmer to boil and back, as it were, but never leave the stove. The process is slower than real-time, but not by a great deal. It reminds me of sitting in the back of the classroom in seventh grade, passing notes to my friends.
Are these my friends, these strangers? They certainly feel like friends, and when I'm writing to them I feel a connectedness that goes beyond what I can easily express. I'm a skilled touch-typist and sometimes close my eyes, not needing, not wanting to see my words. The keyboard under my fingertips is as familiar as my lover's face.
Weather, abuse and relocation are not the only threads tonight. Nicole has met someone. go, grrrl!!! I type, and add a smiley that I know the others will recognize for the irony it is: #:-)
I'm on the skids side of 50, a college professor. I don't say things like Go, grrrl! -- at least in public. I don't really have a magenta mohawk, tats, much body jewelry or a motorcycle. "sandy mac," my virtual self (no capitals; a stylistic quirk), is both like and unlike Sandra McAllister, whose corporeal self sits at the keyboard. Call them two drafts or perhaps two parallel versions. Both versions are in love with the same woman. That much they agree upon. Almost the same woman, anyway.
sandy mac's lover, "babs," rarely leaves her side. She's always attentive, always available. "Come see what I'm writing," I sometimes say. When I speak as sandy mac, babs is there in an instant. Sometimes she gives suggestions, but she never criticizes.
Barbara is more independent. She's a dance therapist, with clients in three counties. Like babs, she reads over my shoulder. Unlike babs, she rarely offers suggestions, though she's alert for misrepresentations. "Poetic licence, bullshit!" she said once. "Colorize your own truth if you want, Teddie Turner, but leave mine in plain old black and white." All the same, she's flattered when I write about how happy we are, how well we communicate; about the magic of our love.
"Why don't you write those nice things for me?" she wants to know. "I do," I always say. "I've saved to disk, I'll print it all out, just ask."
"That's not for me," she says. "That's my copy of something you wrote for someone else; for people you wouldn't even recognize on the street. It's not the same."
"Would you prefer that I wrote for people I would recognize?"
She wraps her arms around my neck. Her breasts are so soft. We've been together for almost five years, but before her, my lovers were always thin, androgynous. The softness of breasts is still a major astonishment, every time. She says, "I'd prefer that you wrote them for me."
"Listen," Barbara says. She hasn't gone to bed yet after all, and stands behind me as I sit in my swivel chair, staring at the screen. "I understand that you find it fascinating," she says. "I find it fascinating too. In principle. Vicariously." She has her own laptop and a modem for it; she has spreadsheet software that budgets our money and helps oversee the running of her parents' household down in L.A., now that they've gotten so frail. Once in a while she'll explore a B-board or two, but she's not on the Net and doesn't think she wants to be. I see how it pulls you," she says. "But let me pull you a little bit, for a change." Her breath spreads warm on my neck; she gives my shoulders a shake. "Let me pull you away from all this!"
She shakes me again, a little harder. "The energy you put into those virtual friendships," she says, "that's energy taken away from us, from me. Not to mention what it's doing to your work."
She doesn't mean my day job at the college. I'm a novelist, and I have a book in progress. I have never mentioned this sideline (as I've almost come to think of it) to the DOLLs. Not the manuscript reproaching me from the farthest corner of my desk, and not the three novels on the shelf beneath my window, published ten, twelve and fifteen years ago. Perhaps I'm afraid the women might edit or even censor their posts if they knew.
The thought that I might ever lose their trust makes me testy. "How much of me do you want?" I mutter, although Barbara has left the room. "How much of my time, how much of my attention?
The other night, responding to a post on libido loss, sandy mac mentioned that about a year earlier she and babs had noticed a change. not that we love each other less, she wrote. but maybe there *is* something a little more matter-of-fact now. not that that's necessarily bad. i mean, you gotta get out of bed occasionally, right?
babs says it's to be expected, wrote sandy mac. She says it's just that we're at the end of our honeymoon.
Whereupon Barbara, who had come in from a class, flung her dance bag onto my reading chair and snorted, "You remember what happened a year ago, don't you? That's when you got on the Net!"
"Jealous?" I asked.
"Not in the way you mean. But I think I'd see more of you, I think we'd actually talk more, communicate more, if I were just another subscriber to the list."
"You've got a modem," I pointed out. "You've got software ... are we having a fight?"
It wasn't a fight, exactly, but the air in my study went staticky with tension. Head cocked, hands on hips, she looked at me for a long half-minute before she hoisted her dance bag again and left me alone, scowling down at the keyboard while she fed the cats, showered, walked slowly past my study to the bedroom, softly closed the door. You gotta earn a living, I said to myself. And you need to spend time with your friends.
* * *
"I feel like a character in one of your novels," Barbara says sometimes. Then she says no, that isn't it exactly. "I wouldn't mind being a character in a novel. What I mind is being a topic of conversation. I don't like being discussed."
"You're not being discussed. I'm extolling your virtues."
"Extol them to me," she says into my neck. She slips a hand up under my shirt, cops a little feel. "Come to bed and let's extol each other for a while. You'll be too tired to gossip over the fence."
Best offer I've had. I cover her hand with my own, tilt back in my chair to kiss her. The "mail has arrived" message flashes.
"You use my real name," she says. Arms folded, toe tapping. It's eleven p.m.; I've just logged on. She's wearing a white cotton nightie; her curly hair hangs loose past her shoulders. In this light you can't see the gray, and she looks like a little girl.
"I don't either. sandy mac calls you babs."
"That's close enough. You talk about our sex life."
"Never anything specific. I just say I love you, that we're magical together. If I ever put in anything specific, it's something I made up."
"Like the zucchini?"
That only happened once, I point out. "You know how often I tell them...."
"Say it to me. To me!" Her eyes are bright with tears and I'm confused. I do say these things to her, these things and more; things I'd never let sandy mac write to the DOLLs ... no matter how much she might want to.
Barbara looks away, fingering the sash of her nightgown. "Intimacy is two. For me, it's two, you know that."
Intimacy is two for me as well. Qualification: real intimacy, intimacy in the flesh or on the hoof or between the sheets, that's two. Writing to the DOLLs, I tell Barbara, is more like keeping a journal.
"No one reads your journal," she counters. "I mean, no one read your journal when you used to keep a real one."
"That was different. That was intimacy." She gives me a little Q.E.D. sniff and stalks out of the room. "That was intimacy," she flings over her shoulder as the door bangs shut behind her, "and I miss it!"
* * *
"You know, I barely recognize that person," Barbara told me not long ago. It was mid-afternoon, mid-week; I was at my desk with the computer turned on, but I wasn't on line. The screen-saver bloomed with cunty Rorschach shapes that writhed and spread, writhed and collapsed, blue then purple then red. Untidy piles of books and journals surrounded me; I was working on my Fall syllabus. For a minute I had no idea who she was talking about. She stood in the doorway, wearing a black silk shirt and a red vest I'd never seen before. Wearing make-up and gypsy earrings, an overnight case over one shoulder and her laptop over the other. On her way to the airport, her mother's blood pressure dangerously high. "I don't know that babs person, and I don't like her either. She's just too sweet to be true. I read what you say about her and I want to go eat a pickle."
"That's easy to fix," I told her. "I'll make something up." I was trying to remember if she always got so dressed up to fly south. "Hey," I said. "Come here. You look delicious."
She shook her head. "You're going to have to do better than that, Sandra. And I've got to catch a plane."
That night when I logged on I was still thinking about what she had said. I wanted babs to be someone she liked, someone who represented the fantasy side of her, the way sandy mac did for me. Perhaps I could create a dark side for her, if that was what Barbara wanted.
hey DOLLs, I could imagine sandy mac writing. i just found out that when my honey goes south she's not really visiting her parents. she's got a hot young babe in WeHo, and they .... And they what? It made me nervous to realize that I had no idea what babs did when sandy mac wasn't looking.
A few nights later, Ana writes that her lover Margo complains that she -- Ana -- spends too much time on the Net. She'd sue the DOLLs for alienation of affection but I don't think you can do that in this state.
Margo and babs should get together, sandy mac suggests. form their own club -- call it "net widows" or something.
By the next night more women have picked up the thread. My partner too, Gerda says. Both my girlfriends, says Beth; my SO and our kids, adds Mary Lou.
those women need to get a life, writes sandy mac. Barbara is annoyed. "I've got a life!" she snaps. "You've got a screen!"
Little red patches glow on her cheeks -- a dangerous sign -- and her eyes shoot sparks. She looks tired, too. Her mother has been sick again; Barbara has been up and down between Oakland and L.A. five times in the last two months. "Of course you've got a life," I say. "And we have a life. This isn't you we're talking about, it's babs." I reach for her hand but she's fiddling with a paper clip. "Mad?" I ask.
She gives the matter some serious thought, then shakes her head. "Not yet."
maybe all our s.o.'s ought to get together, suggests sandy mac the next night. maybe they ought to start up the net-widows' travelling potluck and poker game! they can have their own list -- Lovers of Net-addicts Anonymous: LONA!
To my surprise, Barbara declares herself delighted with the idea. "Let's call it A-LONA," she says. "Alienated Lovers of blah-blah. Tell them babs says go for it, grrrls!"
Ana's lover too approves of the idea. She'll bring dessert, and lets it be known that wildcards are for wimps. Gerda's partner will make potato salad and wants to know if she should bring her dice cup. Others soon join in. The virtual potluck and poker thread dominates the list for weeks; it takes on a life of its own, rising Lazarus-like each time it seems to have died for good. sandy mac writes: hey, all -- babs says you gotta get tee shirts. Soon a post from Sue appears: what should the message say?
Barbara, leaning over my shoulder, mutters, "Nocturnal omissions."
Toward the end of August, Barbara leaves for another weekend in L.A. Her mother is better, but now there is a problem with the housekeeper. I always miss her when she's gone, yet her absence allows for indulgence in all sorts of guilty pleasures. Before I quit drinking I used to get drunk one night each time she was gone. Now, though I tell myself and her I'll use the time to work on my novel or to prepare lectures for class, when push comes to shove I know I'll surf the Net for hours and end up passing notes. I don't want her to know how much time this really amounts to. I'm not sure I want my Sandra-self to give it much thought, either. Sandra is the one who worries because she hasn't published a book in ten years, who worries that she's lost it, maybe never really had it in the first place or pissed it away during her decades as a low-level-but-steady abuser of the usual chemicals.
The Net is a time-sink. Sandra gophers into libraries in Helsinki and Rome, runs Archie searches on keywords she makes up from Scrabble tiles. She reads her Usenet newsgroups, connects with some local B-boards, even chats a while in real-time but doesn't really like it. With the DOLLs she can read and reflect; she edits and shapes her replies with as much care as if they were headed for a publisher.
The hours before Barbara's return on Sunday night are always anxious. Often I haven't touched my novel for an entire weekend. I find myself looking for an excuse, a reason, anything other than the truth: I didn't work. I played with the DOLLs.
This time it's going to be the same. Though it's still only Saturday, I recognize the pattern. There sits my novel and there sit I, at the keyboard, banging the Send command, watching sandy mac's white text vanish into cyberspace.
It's been a foggy, cold weekend on the California coast, sweltering across much of the rest of North America, raining all over in Europe and Japan. Perhaps that explains the unusual number of posts to all the lists I read today. There must be ten DOLLs on-line. Messages fly. Inconsequential stuff, mostly: what we did all day, what we watched on the tube earlier tonight.
Then out of the blue Gerda writes: hey DOLLs. did you know a bunch of our GFs actually do get together online? about 6 of them, about half the california crowd, are probably in a CalWeb BBS chat room right now, gossiping their little heads off about us.
My stomach sinks. Of course. That's what babs does when sandy mac's not around. I lean my head on the keyboard, setting off a chorus of annoyed peeps from the computer. Bad command. Use ESC to continue, snaps white text on my screen.
i caught jill red-handed, Gerda continues. my brother surfs the b-boards looking for people to talk Model-T Fords with. I was visiting him tonite & he was showing me around the different boards, & one of the areas on CalWeb was called ALONA. so i told him to try to get in, i never thought they'd let him even if
That was all there was to her post. No telling what e-gremlin on her end or mine caused the problem. These things happen. I wait. Five minutes pass. And then without warning the system goes down. Goes down and stays down. I dial my service repeatedly; it rings but doesn't connect. Finally it occurs to me that I don't need Net access to call into a B-board. All I need is software, a functioning modem, and a phone number for CalWeb. The first two are in place; the third is as close as my month-old copy of Computer Currents.
The CalWeb B-board is as Gerda described. I have to subscribe -- a formality -- answer "no" to questions having to do with my intent to commit crimes or overthrow the government, and pick an alias. I conflate sandy and mac into femmie little "mandy." After that I'm on my own. Eventually I discover a directory of chat areas, and sure enough, one of them is called ALONA-west.
With a few keystrokes I create a split-screen chat format, and then type #j as the instructions tell me, asking to join. There is a long pause while I'm ID'd. Then the computer beeps and a message flashes: Private list. Access denied.
There's no way to argue. No door to bang on, no window to throw a rock through, no chimney to santa-claus down. #j I type again. #j. I feel like I'm storming the walls. Again and again I type the command, asking, then demanding, then pleading, or so it feels, to be allowed into the group; allowed in where babs could be saying who knows what about me. #j i type once more. #j.
Again and again the cold white message replies: Private list. Access denied.
"babs!" My voice shakes. "Please! Let me in!"
Private list. Access denied. Even with eyes closed I can read it: white text on the blue screen of my eyelids.
Even with eyes closed I know the keyboard's pattern. Touch-typing; I can write in the dark: Let me in. Let me touch you. Let me hold you.
"DOLLs" originally appeared in ZYZZYVA, Winter, 1994
Sara McAulay is a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at California State University, Hayward. She is also the author of three novels (Catch Rides, In Search of the Petroglyph, Chance) and numerous short stories, essays, and works of creative nonfiction.
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