Going to California

Author’s Update

You know all those little slices of time between arriving at an airport and being told to turn off all electrical devices because voodoo might turn out to be real and it was giving people a bad vibe so please just go with it? Those little slices of time are great for tap-tap-tapping out some little stories on a phone — for me, anyway. Back home, without all those little in-between slices of time, and having to work a serious normal day at work, and having jet lag, is not contributing to my writing.

So I’m only promising two updates this week, to wrap up the Dancing thread, before moving on to another chunk of very interesting story that has not a whole lot to do with me.

Expect posts on Wednesday and Friday. Have a good week.

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Going to California

Dancing — 2

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“I just wanted to tell stories,” I told her.

It started at Photon, the running-and-shooting dark warehouse game center. That place was awesome. I loved it. I can close my eyes, and I can still imagine how heavy all that equipment was — and I was only 28 inches around, so it felt heavy enough to me — and how that fog smelled in the darkness of the playing field.

All the players have lights on their chest as well as around the front of their helmet. Your pistol is tethered with a thick, black cable coming down from the base of its grip to the rest of your rig. Your helmet and your chest plate were both tethered to each other and to the giant battery pack around your waist.

It’s a terrific experience, in a large part because even though it was as simple as “run, try to shoot people, don’t get shot,” it was not uncomplicated. But it was complex in a way that rewards exploring its details. The more you knew about it, the more control you had over it.

Here’s how it worked. Get your gun aimed at the lights of someone on the opposing team and pull the trigger. Then the system adjusts the scores, and disables the rig of the person you’ve shot — their lights flash yellow for some small number of seconds, during which they can’t fire their weapon. I don’t think you can be shot while you’re recovering, but it gives your enemies plenty of time to line up a good shot at the exact moment that your own gun becomes active again, so they’re likely to register a shot on you before you could get them. It was a real drag getting stuck in that cycle, but the more times you get shot before getting a successful shot in yourself, the less time you spend recovering, which was a nice touch. Good experience.

But basically, after being shot it’s best to run. The game took place in a dimly lit, vaguely science-fictional two-level warehouse. Nearly half of it was open area, and the rest of the place was a series of twisty-winding maze-like runs. Sometimes you could look down on the second level — or up from the first — but most of the time you couldn’t.

Ever since I’d heard that Photon was run on some kind of Apple II, I’d been fascinated to know exactly how. Not surprisingly, I only felt like I’d started to get good at it once I’d heard how it really worked.

You didn’t shoot people. Rather, your gun didn’t shoot anything — the actual mechanism of the game worked in the exact opposite from that. The lights coming off your equipment signaled your number. Someone from the other team could aim a tube at you, which happened to look like a gun, and in the back end of the tube was a sensor. If the other guy’s sensor has your number captured while he pulled the tube’s trigger, then his rig radios both its own number and the captured number to the computer. The computer signals the rig associated with the captured number to become disabled and adjusts people’s scores accordingly.

Photon was awesome because not much more than ten years earlier, it would literally have been science fiction — as in, unless NASA chose to consider it an interesting side-business, it would not have been possible. And I know that by saying this I’m simply inviting someone to create a steampunk Photon that Lady Ada could have constructed, and I’m willing to accept being wrong so long as whoever creates it also lets me play it.

The point is that even at the time, while you could accept Photon’s existence by saying, “Oh, cheap computers and electronics and radios and small batteries,” very few people understood exactly how it all worked, and exactly how cool that was, and almost no one had begun thinking about how to use that same tech for other purposes.

The idea that you were emitting the code of your own destruction, and that the point of the game was to capture other people’s codes, sent me down a long line of thought that ended in a bit of a strange place.

Take Photon. Let’s say you don’t need a gun, and you don’t need all the complicated electronics for managing the state change and signalling the computer over radios — let’s say you wanted to be shot, that you wanted your signal to be captured. You could wear a more modest battery belt, supporting a not-at-all heavy rig. You have a cluster of lights on your chest, another on your back, another around the front of a short-brimmed cap, and a pair on the back of each hand.

Let’s say each cluster of lights was emitting a different code — as though you’d taken all your teammates and cannibalized their equipment, with what would have been one person’s signal coming from your chest, two others out of each hand, and so on.

Then off-stage — you’re not in a dim warehouse but on a dim stage — are the guns, the signal detectors. Those are cabled directly to the computer, no radios needed, some low and some high.

The computer has been stuffed, like a turkey, with memory upgrades. Using this memory as a gigantic, super-fast drive, load up a ton of images.

Take a television projector and it hook up to the computer. In front of the dancer on stage — you’re not playing a game, now, you’re dancing — is a kind of screen. When lightly lit from behind, it’s mostly transparent, so the audience can see you. But the computer projects onto the screen, in front of the dancer, cycling through images so quickly that it creates the illusion of being video.

As you move, the different signals you’re emitting are detected by different “guns” off-stage, which changes how the computer cycles through the images — forward or backward, faster or more slowly, or between one run of images and another.

If you have the images project the appearance of a partner, a digital ghost, then you could puppet them in real-time by doing nothing more than dancing. You’re dancing with the computer. With several people on stage, wearing several rigs and several computers, something cool would happen, I was certain.

I thought you might be able to tell some really interesting stories that way, reaching out for a new abstraction, a new way to get at the same feelings that art has tried to access in people ever since singing and storytelling first began.

“So that was the plan,” Lizard said. “That was your idea.”

I nodded. “I figured I’d already come up with the image flipping solution with my Max Headroom project — fast computer video, responsive to changes, which was the actual insane part. Everything else was just pieces that everyone already knew about, pulled together a new way.”

“That’s…amazing,” she said. “What did they say when you told people about it?”

“They kinda said I was crazy. Well, they didn’t just kinda say it. I was ordered to a psychiatric health counselor.”

“What?!”

I called the number my professor had recommended and I talked to the guy. Once in his office, he kept trying to get at why I’d been sent there, and I honestly didn’t have much of an idea. We talked for an hour, and what he heard didn’t leave him thinking it was worth setting up a second appointment. The next week, my dance professor only wanted to know if I’d gone or not. She didn’t want to talk about it otherwise, and she made it clear that she didn’t want to hear anything out of me about computers or sensors or anything else like that.

Lizard narrowed her eyes at me.

“And was that the end of it?”

“No,” I told her.

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Going to California

Dancing

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At the end of the school year, on the evening before the day the dorms closed for the summer, nearly everyone had cleared out of their rooms already and gone home. Our 100-person dormitory floor was almost completely empty, which was how Lizard and I ended up passing the night together in my room, listening to music and talking and laughing for hours and hours.

I guess I loved her, even if I didn’t trust her. It wasn’t anything personal, outside of her rather elaborate deception at the start of the school year. It was more that I didn’t trust anybody — no exaggeration. No one. It was a problem, of course, and pathological, though naturally I didn’t see that at the time. I just thought I was one of those rare people who cared to look beneath the artiface that most people presented to one another, given that people were basically unreliable at best and more often actively malicious.

I came by my paranoia honestly, at least. About exactly 12 years to that final day that I sat in my dorm room with Lizard, I would drive the four hours to my 92-year-old grandfather’s house out in the country to take him to a crucial medical appointment. After arriving, I needed to go back out to my car for a few things, and I couldn’t believe how the drive must have eroded my mind that I could not open a simple door. Then I realized that dad’s dad had installed two handles, one on top of the other. You had to turn both at the same time in order to open the door. You also had to undo the deadbolt, of course, and — the last piece of the puzzle — you then had to kick aside the wooden two-by-four board that granddad kept flat against the floor between the base of the door and the baseboard of the first inner wall. This was like wearing a belt and suspenders with a pair of overalls. I loved my granddad, but it was clear that he’d never properly developed his risk-assessment skills. Or, maybe more likely, he’d let increasingly false thoughts affect his threat model.

Also, as someone who grew up with a terrible speech impediment, I had grown used to people messing with me all the time. I expected it. I don’t rememeber talking much at all in the second grade, for example, and the severity of the problem waxed and waned fairly regularly for no reason I was ever able to make out. After coping with it for that long, it wasn’t paranoid to think that people weren’t willing to give me a chance. It was experience.

Having seen how my granddad lived the end of his life, I was glad to have shed that illness well before my nineties. I’d pruned it down to nearly nothing by the time I was thirty. But sitting on my bed with Lizard on the last day at the university before I’d be asked to leave it, my terribly calculating fears still felt like my only defenses in a dangerous and malicious world.

It seemed obvious to me that a dark shadow hung over my life. I never turned around to face the edifice of lies I’d told myself, so tall that it blocked out the sun, until that night with Lizard.

Only four or five days before, after coming out of a final exam that I knew I had failed, did I begin telling people that I was going to be suspended for a semester. I wasn’t being expelled, it wasn’t that bad, but I’d have to take a break for one semester. I was frustrated, and ashamed. The near-universal reaction from everyone was to smile and say, “You’ll be okay.” I’m not sure what reaction I expected, but that one only made me more frustrated: No, you’re going to be okay, because you’ll be back in the fall. I’m not going to be okay. I have no idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. For the first time in my life, I had no clear path before me. When I told Lizard the news, she said exactly the same thing, that I’d be okay, and I told her that was a very frustrating thing to hear. She stared at me cooly, and then asked how I’d thought things were supposed to have gone.

“What was it with the computer science and modern dance?”

“I had a plan,” I told her.

“What was the plan?” she asked.

I’d just two days earlier talked about the plan with one my dance professors, and he’d openly laughed in my face.

“You don’t get to not tell me,” she added.

So I took a deep breath, and I told her the plan.

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Going to California

Confusion — 6

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I’d been staring off into space, an old practice to which I’d returned as my standard pastime, when the elevator bell rang and doors opened revealing three seriously drunk guys who’d gotten an early start on their day’s partying.

“Hey, Patrick!” one of them yelled, pointing at me. I turned to look for my roommate behind me. The guy in the elevator laughed. “No, no — Patrick, it’s me! It’s Hulk!”

I wonder how widely my eyes opened, given that I’d never pulled the eye-widening lever in my head that hard before.

Hulk grinned sloppily, swatting the elevator door open as it optimistically tried to close. One of the other guys slapped his chest. “Dude,” said a voice. “Let’s go.”

I couldn’t believe it. Hulk was — not surprisingly, I guess — a wiry little Jewish-looking guy, nearly a head shorter than me, pale face framed in tight, black, curly hair. But this was in an age before digital cameras, and we had never met. How did he know who I was? What I’d previously thought of as my healthy paranoia turned very dark, very quickly.

I tried to ask him a question, but I couldn’t. My stutter used to manifest most often as a complete inability to begin talking at all. This could be frustrating. Only after the doors closed was I able to ask, “How?!” How did he know it was me? How did he know what I looked like?

I bolted for the end of our long hall — and good lord, do not look into John’s room as you pass, it’s none of your business — and ran down the stairs. Still I wasn’t able to catch the elevator before they all got off.

As far as I know, Hulk and I never saw each other again. Months later, though, after the holiday break, I ran into one of my old pirate friends on campus. It had been long enough by then, and enough else had happened, that I was glad to see him. He’s been a peripheral member of my circle, though I had always liked him.

Hulk, he told me, had gotten pulled out of school by his rich parents before the semester had fully come to a close. Something about drugs — I never heard which — and a grade-point average low enough that it was a mathematic impossibility that he’d have been able to have brought it up enough the following semester to avoid suspension in the spring. So why wait for the inevitable, I guess they figured.

That was something Hulk and I ended up sharing, it turned out: we were both asked to leave the university that year. Don’t worry, I came back and had great-enough grades to make the Dean’s List, graduating well. But those were dark times, then. Even before the hammer fell on me, I heard it falling, which was probably worse than the eventual blow itself.

I don’t remember anything else my pirate pal told me. We wished each other well, and we never saw one another again, either.

If this is you out there reading this, my old friend, I’m sorry I stepped away instead of stepping up.

But that autumn, back when the possibility of being asked to leave school had never occurred to me as an option, after losing Hulk and his friends in the elevator, I returned to my own floor, and here is what I did.

First I got the disk — the last, best double-sided disk: my warez, my philes, my pirate plunder, my booty; everybody’s username and real name and street address and contact number, carefully collected and verified over years. Then I got a magnet, and I ran it over the disk in clean wiping strokes, beginning at the top and progressing down, like a boy mowing a lawn. As I erased the disk, I firmly pushed the entirety of an underground world out of my mind. I imagined a richly patterned sea of ones and zeroes smoothing over into a solitary plane, monstrous in its desolation.

My plan, the one I’d hardly shared with anyone, seemed only more clear to me then, with newly recovered head space into which it could grow further. I knew what I had to do.

I had to code, and I had to dance. Everything else was distraction, and confusion.

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Going to California

Confusion — 5

This Jen could not be the girl I’d met at the water park in Arlington, Wendy’s friend. There was no way.

“So where’re you from?” I asked.

“Just outside of Arlington,” she said.

“I’m from Arlington.” Her eyes rose in hope. “But I went to school in Fort Worth,” I added, “and ended up spending most of my time there.” When I wasn’t exploring or distributing unusual lists of numbers on a computer, or writing an online role-playing game.

“Maybe we might’ve gone to school together, otherwise,” she said.

“Then we wouldn’t be meeting now,” I told her. Sitting across from me on the bed, she laughed, her knee finding mine. She began to talk, and I gave in to being happy.

We talked for three hours before we began kissing. I don’t remember what we talked about, though I do remember the kisses, like full drops of rain sprinkling from a cloudless sky.

We kissed for ten minutes before my roommate walked in.

“We need a system or something,” said Pat, understandably flummoxed.

“If you were girls, you’d have already worked one out,” she told me.

A few days later we met in her room. It was exactly the same as before, only we got around to kissing much more quickly. Also, her roommate didn’t have to walk in on us because she was there already, studying. Jen made the universal sign-language gesture for Go Away. The other girl closed her book, unsuccessfully suppressing a scowl, and began fishing for her keys.

“I should go,” I said.

She smirked beautifully. “Mind if I call you?”

“I’d like that,” I said.

I tried so hard not to think about her that the thought of her swelled to fully fill the front of my mind. Then I ran into John.

At the end of our leg of the dorm-room hallway, headed away from the elevators, a dead end save for our rarely used twelfth-floor stairwell, lived a guy named John. He was a serious party guy, though he had achieved a terrific balance of being grating and ingratiating which always got him invited to more parties, regardless of how many of them he’d already been kicked out of. The number of girls who passed through his room that year was truly staggering.

A sizable group of us were heading down to eat as he shouted at me over several heads.

“D!” he said. “I heard you had Hefty in your room this weekend!” He double thumbs-upped himself. “That’s awesome! Me, too!”

“What?”

“Hefty! You, know — blonde chick?”

Suddenly, I could not process. “You mean…Jen?” Why “hefty”? It means large, and it’s also a brand of garbage bag, so I was confused. I began to stutter. “She’s not big.”

“Naw,” he said, “but you better wrap yourself in a big, black Hefty bag from the waist down if you’re going into that, know what I’m saying? I mean, you knew that, right?”

I did not know what he was saying. My breath was shallow. I flexed my fingers, curling them tightly.

Some days later, I stopped by her room. There was a new name on the door, replacing hers. The door was open, as people often left them, and Jen’s roommate was sitting in the same place as I saw her before, reading the same book.

“Sorry,” the roommate said, shaking her head. “She’s gone. She had a nervous…thing. They had to….” The girl smiled. “She’s gone away,” she finished simply.

“Where?”

“They didn’t tell me,” she said, and began to swing the dorm room door closed. She must’ve seen something in my face that made her stop, and sigh.

“You, though,” she said. “She really liked you. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”

I walked for a long while through campus, in the deep dark. Summer seemed gone — when had that happened? — and leaves were collecting along the paths.

I walked up the twelve flights of stairs, a terrific effort even with the legs of a serious dancer. It felt warm and stuffy, so much sweat running down my face, wiping drops from my cheeks, gripping the handrail to control my shuddering.

Coming out of the stairwell, the air-conditioning enveloped me as I rubbed my stinging eyes. I stood, and breathed, and became calm.

Across from me, John’s door was open. He and Lizard were asleep together in his bed.

One foot at a time, wondering if my strange sense of screaming calmness was what people meant when they talked about finally snapping, I made it back to my room.

I didn’t truly snap until a few days later, in a mid-afternoon break between classes, waiting for an elevator. I looked up at the opening doors, and the most remarkable thing happened.

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Going to California

Confusion — 4

My first week at the university, in many ways, was no different from that of any other freshmen learning how to navigate the campus – which was huge; I’d never had to do so much walking before – and stumbling my way toward exploring college life. For myself, this included a girl on the same floor of my dorm, a drama major who was shallow enough to target me rather aggressively for romance, and who just as ruthlessly cut me loose a few days later once her eye had settled elsewhere. This was confusing, as she had only so chastely fallen asleep next to me while monologuing at length about how she wanted to me to be “her first” — everyone reserves the right to change their mind about nearly anything at nearly anytime, as difficult to understand as it might be, though you’d think if there was anything I should have understood in the world by that point it would be actresses.

On the bright side, I found her roommate to be much more pretty, and sharply witty. As luck would have it, the roommate asked me out a few days after I’d been given the cold shoulder. Her name was Elizabeth, though people called her Lizard, and while she was not cold-blooded she was in fact walking cool. Also, she was one of the few people on our floor who had a car, so I jumped at the chance to run out with her when she asked me out for a drive to dinner and a show at a comedy club. We had a terrific time, talking and laughing. My hands tingled with the warm sense of being cool, and of being with a girl who seemed to know it.

Back at the dorm, as I began walking her back to her room I felt her mood turn, not warm and not cold — more like immaterial, as if she was hoping to will herself out of existence. It fired an alarm in my hindbrain.

“I don’t mean anything by this,” I told her. “I had a great time going out, I’m just walking you back.” Still, I had hoped to kiss her when we got to the door. She shook her head in a very tiny way, sending a clear signal while still also clearly masking something else. But I kept walking, and she walked along with me.

A red tie was hung around her dorm room’s door handle, a signal I’d learned from the actress to mean that she had a guy in the room, and that the two of them probably didn’t have their clothes on. The protocol that the two girls had established was for the arriving lady to knock lightly, as her way to say that she’s gotten home and needs to get to sleep. The arriving girl was then supposed to take a ten-minute walk, to give the lovers a chance to cool off and get decent.

I knocked, if that’s a strong enough word for what I did — I knocked hard enough to crack something deep in the meat of my hand. Lizard jumped half a meter to one side. I didn’t wait for a response, turning on my heel and fuming down the hall. Lizard followed about twenty seconds behind me.

“She’s pissed,” Lizard said, eyes narrow.

“Good,” I said.

“I have to live with her.”

It’s frustrating how quickly I can come to see other people’s perspectives. It robs me of any chance of being angry for long. I guess it’s a good thing for everyone, ultimately, even if it robs me of any joy in being blindly self-righteous.

“I am sorry,” I said. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

She calmed down surprisingly fast herself.

“I should’ve just told you,” she said. “It was her idea. She didn’t want you accidentally dropping by, was all.” She crossed her arms, red-faced and red-haired in her oversized men’s sports coat.

She was adorable. I had to look away.

“I had a good time,” I said.

“Me, too. But for the record, so you know, I don’t have it in me to go out with anyone on the floor. All right? I need space to do my own thing. And not around here.”

“Sure,” I said quietly, rubbing the tiny broken thing in my hand, wondering exactly what had just happened, other than a truly great girl leading me on for a full evening so that I’d be less likely to disturb her roommate, who had dumped me a few days earlier, while she lost her virginity to some other guy she’d just met. Except for all that, I wasn’t sure what to think.

I took a breath. Seriously, this was more interaction with non-dancer girls than I’d had in a severely long time. “I didn’t mean to bang so hard on the door like that,” I said. “Sorry if I startled you.”

Lizard seemed to relax a bit, and shrugged. “She gets what she deserved. I wasn’t happy to do all this.”

“Oh. I hope I wasn’t too much trouble—”

“That’s not what I meant.” She forced a prim smile until, over a few moments, her face slowly relaxed into the fullness of a real grin. I realized I was smiling, too. “Look,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”

I kept to myself for most of the rest of the week. Already, I could tell I’d made some poor decisions. The whole “modern dancer computer programmer” thing was throwing people for larger and larger loops. The other dancers thought I was a tourist, a programmer who’d found a great way to pick up on girls, and did not trust me at all. The computer people presumed I wasn’t serious. I didn’t dare risk sharing my plan until I’d made more progress on it. I knew I sounded crazy, but surely I could prove that there was a method to my madness. I’d done it before.

By the end of my first week in class I’d been handily redirected out of both social circles, it seemed. Plus, I had basically no money. That’s why the first Saturday night of the school year saw me sitting at my roommate’s drafting table, trying my sore hand at drawing a comic book.

“Hello?” came a voice at the door, with a light, one-knuckle knock.

“Hey,” I said, looking up, rubbing my eyes. “Come in.” I’d left the door open, as people seemed to do.

“I just saw you there,” she said, “and wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” I said, wrinkling up my face. “I think I’ve seen you around, haven’t I?”

“Yeah,” she said, beaming a marvelous smile. “I was gonna ask you about that, but I figured one of us had to use that line first. I saw you downstairs with everyone in the cafeteria yesterday. Even so, seriously, you do look familiar.”

I used to get that a lot. I still do. Maybe once a month, maybe every six weeks, a total stranger will walk up assuming they know me. I’m told this doesn’t happen to everyone. I must have one of those faces. However, I had a good memory for faces. Why did I feel the same way?

“It says Patrick on the door,” she pointed out. “Would that happen to be you?” Everyone had their name on their door those first couple of weeks. In one of those terrible cosmic coincidences, my randomly assigned roommate’s name was Patrick.

“I’m the other guy,” I said, getting up from behind the drafting table to touch hands with her as she made herself comfortable on my narrow, dorm-room mini bed. She was unlike any other gorgeous, petite blonde girl I’d ever met. At the same time, she struck a deep, familiar chord in me.

“Derek,” I said slowly, after a long enough pause that I was sure I would not stutter.

“Jen,” she said, eyeing me through long lashes. “My friends call me Jen.”

At first, I froze. Then warm goosebumps spread over my skin, like a sunburn.

 

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Going to California

Confusion — 3

“It was thrilling,” she said. “The minute after we got off the phone, someone from the phone company called me. They asked me who you were and I said I didn’t know, you were just some guy I’d met at work. They asked if you worked with me and I said no, because you quit, but they didn’t ask me that.” She laughed. “Although I was already lying, so I don’t know why I didn’t keep going.”

“What did they actually say?”

“They said they were looking for you. They wanted to know your name. I told them I didn’t know.”

“They said they were looking for me.”

“That’s what they said. It all sounded very serious!”

My chest hurt. “Sure,” I said, and rather than stay at the house with the girl whose parents were gone for the day and who had been tanning topless in her backyard before I’d arrived, instead I made up an excuse to leave and I never saw her again.

Six or so weeks later when my family made the three-hour drive with me to Austin to check in to the dorms on the earliest possible day that you could check in, it came out that you needed a photo ID to complete your check-in. I’d lost my driver’s license to a guy who’d graduated high school with me, who’d told me he could get it doctored to say that I was 21. Like the early phone system, ID cards at the time had very little security baked into them. Pretty soon it was clear he’d been lying, stringing me along. He just wanted to disappear with my $20, which was a lot of money to me at the time and would still be for a while.

After he’d dodged all my phone calls and my insistences that I didn’t care about the money, that I just needed my ID back, I drove to the apartment near my house where I knew he’d turned to living with the family of some other friend of his. A ratty-haired older woman answered the door and told me in simple monotones that the guy I was looking for was not there. I explained my situation, presuming that as an adult she might feel responsible to help me out.

She nodded dully. “This card,” she slurred, “it seems to be some sort of…key to something for you, you could say.”

“It’s my ID,” I said, still confused. What else did I have to say? Her eyes unfocused and then it hit me: this is exactly the kind of drug scene I worked hard to avoid on my adventures through the computer underground. I wiped tears from my eyes as I scrambled down the concrete apartment-building stairs. That guy probably made more money selling my ID than I’d given him originally, once I thought about it.

So I only had a paper replacement license when I drove down to check into the dorms. My mom stared, open-mouthed, at my complete lack of preparation. I hadn’t told her that I’d lost my license, even though I knew full well that we’d need it right then, right there. What kind of dummy was her son? What were we going to do?

Then I remembered. Before packing for college, I had stripped away from my personal belongings anything I thought was childish or nerdy or otherwise immature — from my notebooks, my clothing, my wallet — but the one thing I couldn’t let go, the one talisman that still held serious power for me, was my old Photon access card. Its picture of me was nearly three years old, ensuring that I looked even more like a lost little boy than I did in person as someone who was supposed to be a college freshman, but I showed it to the dorm lady and she was happy to let me off the hook. I moved my things into the dorm and my family drove home and I was only as alone in my head as I had ever been.

It’s not a matter of “straight-and-narrow,” I told myself. It’s a matter of being uncomplicated. The truth was so simple and deception was only ever complicated, and I was more lucky than I deserved to be where I was, starting college, with such a bright future ahead. As long as I never talked to any of those people again, I’d be fine.

Of course it would not be that simple. I would have two more serious complications before I came to understand my real problem.

 

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Going to California

Confusion — 2

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My first year at college was different than most, I think. Living in a dorm with a cafeteria attached meant that I was not going to die on a budget of $20 each week, though it severely limited my options, especially since part of that $20 had to cover Sunday dinner, the only break in service taken by the cafeteria. I’m sure this was good in terms of drinking and what-not, though I happily had never been a drinker, and college was unlikely to make me one. I think I drank four times my freshman year, and one time I got so hammered that I threw up, a first-time for me with alcohol, which put me off drinking entirely for many years.

Of the 20,000 or so college students at my university, only seven incoming freshmen went to my high school, and none of them had been close friends. I was always a friendly person, though I also always seemed to have a hard time making good friends. The kids on the guys’ side of my floor in the dorm — in our enormous, fourteen-story co-ed dorm — were good enough guys, though a lot of them were already pretty tight with each other from high school, and I’m not sure they knew what to do with a dancer programmer.

This would not be an uncommon reaction.

But before I could begin dorm life, I had to actually enter the dorms. This presented some unexpected challenges, largely because I hadn’t yet let a perfectly rational resistance to doing something stupid get in the way of trying to prove to myself that I was cool.

For example, it had been more than a year since I’d personally engaged in the dark art of not paying for long-distance phone calls. Today I live in world where a phone call to a record store in my town — to one of the few record stores still in business, I know — costs the same as a call to a record store in another state or on another coast. But back then, and until pretty recently, most calls outside your phone’s area code were charged per-minute for the service, and a dollar per minute was not always outrageous. International calls were always outrageous.

Even worse, the phone system was changing faster than the hackers were able to find new loopholes. The old forms of Cap’n Crunch-style whistling and other hacks relying on tone-generation were made obsolete once modern digital trunks made their way into the updated phone system. Even on the old analog systems, the rumor was spreading that they were monitoring for exactly the sort of play we used to enjoy. It was the end of an era. You were no longer gracefully exploiting the architecture of the system to explore and have fun. If you wanted to make long-distance calls without paying for them, you had to bill them to someone else’s account. When you billed calls to someone else’s account, you were making someone pay for something that they never offered to cover for you. You were stealing a service, and someone else was paying for it.

Only a special deal from the phone company would let you call another area code without it being charged as long distance. For example, Dallas was one area code, and Fort Worth was another area code, and if you were sandwiched in a suburb between the two then it was more the luck of the draw which area code you called your home, so for something like an extra $7 a month you could make your phone a “metro line,” able to call 817 and 214 without paying for individual calls.

One day, late in my senior year of high school, my mom came to me with a phone bill and some questions. My throat tightened, but looking at the bill it seemed to have nothing to do with me. They were all calls from one 817 number, in Fort Worth, to a 214 number, in Dallas, that someone else had charged to our account. I called the Ft. Worth number, which sounded familiar, only to find that it was the home number for a buddy of mine from junior high, who I sadly hadn’t kept in touch with.

“I’m sorry,” he kept saying, “I’m so sorry.” He’d called the operator and asked that his long-distance call be billed to my family’s home number, which he remembered being a metro line. He thought it would give him free calls to Dallas, but instead of leveraging the “metro”-edness of the line the phone company instead dutifully billed the call to us.

“Who were you calling?” I asked.

“A girl, you know. A girl. I’m really sorry, man — I did not know that was going to happen.”

“Don’t worry about it, really,” I said. “Believe me, I understand. If I tell my parents it was a mistake and that it won’t happen again, they won’t care. If they push hard, I’ll tell them what happened. They love you, they’ll understand.”

“Oh, please don’t tell them! Aw, man. I really liked your mom, I’d hate for her to be disappointed in me. I guess you have to tell her, really. Look, man, let me pay for it: you have to let me pay for it.”

He was really sorry, and I don’t remember it being a lot of money so we really didn’t care, but his embarrassment was great enough that we never spoke again. I do remember getting a letter in the mail from him: check, no note.

For my own part, I’d thrown away any remaining long distance codes I still had once I’d turned seventeen, nearly a year earlier. Seventeen seemed close enough to eighteen that I didn’t think I could realistically say I was just a kid playing around, anymore. Having someone else’s long distance billed to my account was a reminder that I was supposed to act mature, even if I knew I wasn’t.

At the same time, seventeen is still old enough to harbor resentments against big, wasteful businesses, and at the time the phone company felt like about the biggest and most wasteful business I could imagine. I had a limited imagination, I know. That summer, I went down to Austin for Freshman orientation, a three-day preview of dorm life. I had spent the previous month working a terrible job at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park, and I was extremely relieved to have quit it, even though it meant I had to go out of my way to see the cute girl who’d been flirting with me instead of seeing her every day at work. Since I wasn’t seeing her at work anymore, and I knew exactly what kind of sharks my former co-workers were, I knew I’d have to keep in pretty good touch before some other guy made a better impression.

The dorm did not have working telephones in their rooms over the summer, and you couldn’t make long-distance calls anyway, not without a private service. The thought of cops busting into my dorm room because I’d been stealing long distance did not sit well with me. And the dorm-room phones would take incoming calls, though not like a normal, stand-alone phone line — in fact, the way that they answered would prevent my computer from answering the phone, even if I could’ve convinced my roommate to let me take over our line to run my bulletin-board system out of our room. So that dream was definitely dead.

But the dorm had pay phones. Sadly, I had almost no money. So I did something with one of the pay phones that let me make a long-distance call from Austin back to that girl, who was happy that I’d called and excited to hear I was exploiting a loophole in the system to call her.

I don’t remember what I did, but I wasn’t billing the call to a stranger through a long-distance service. It must have been a straight hack of the phone system, based on what happened next.

We talked for maybe half an hour, and set a date for when we would see each other after I returned. Not half-a-minute after hanging up, as I was walking off to check out the campus, the pay phone began to ring behind me. I made a quick and quiet dance step sideways, out of the main hall and into a side-nook. The phone rang a few more times before a passer-by picked it up.

“Uh, hello? Mmm, no, not me. No, I don’t see anyone else here. Why would I do that? Hey, I was just walking by and the phone was ringing.” Then a click of a handset being slammed int. The guy who’d picked up the phone snorted and strolled back toward the elevators.

Oh, hell. I spent the rest of orientation keeping to myself. A few days later, when I got home and had my date with that girl, I got the other half of the story.

 

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Going to California

Confusion

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When I wasn’t working on the board or playing Photon — or school; I always forgot about school — I did a lot of dancing.

Dance was just as much an escape as typing at strangers through a computer, or running around in a foggy dimness shooting science-fiction strangers for imaginary points. The thing they all had in common was that they were highly interactive, but required no talking. Perfect. Dancing was the best of the three for that because it wasn’t that it strictly required no talking. More like it was an entirely different kind of communication, subtle and raw.

In my kindergarten, they offered basic ballet classes to anyone who wanted them. I knew enough at the time, of course, to understand that what they meant when they said “anybody” was “any girl”. One boy signed up, but they made him wear a leotard and tights and little pink shoes, and it looked like the most horrible thing I could ever imagine. This is coming from me, who as a kid never one time ever worked to create or defend any illusion of being macho.

I arrived at dancing honestly, at least. I had a much older cousin who had first encouraged me to audition for plays and musicals — and, later, for print ads, television shows, and national commercial campaigns. After she got a job at my high school teaching drama and dance, she convinced me that it was possible for boys to be boys and still be dancers, even good ones. I had spent years worth of long afternoons watching my younger sister attend tap and ballet classes in her early years, as was common for girls in Fort Worth and Dallas at the time, though I’d never one time seen a boy at any of those classes. Again, this was Texas in the last decade of the Cold War, when for one dark moment there was a best-selling book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Even as a kid who didn’t like quiche, this whole movement sounded asinine to me.

(It has been pointed out to me that this was meant to be a satirical book. Yes, I saw a lot of men chuckling along as they read over how silly it was, but the truth is that it was funny because it was in fact true.)

But I liked acting, even if by the time I was fifteen no one was willing to risk my speech impediment by casting me any longer, and dance seemed like the closest thing to it: jazz and tap and ballet and Texas waltz and whatever else our teacher could get us to do. Two years into it, our small group of dancers weren’t half bad. At our height, we opened for Roy Orbison in Fort Worth. So we were at least okay. I was definitely still a boy. Three other guys had joined me, to my terrific relief.

Back in the digital world, buying a hard drive let me play with the RAM drive in new and interesting ways. Sure, I still ran the core of the board off of it, keeping everything on there that had to be super-fast, but I was interested in what else I could do with something that was crazy quick.

My favorite TV show at the time, even though it was also often crap, and even though I only ever saw maybe six of the small number of episodes they made in the first place, was Max Headroom. I thought it was fiendishly brilliant, the best that science-fiction had to offer in those dark days. Based on what I saw there, I insisted that soon, two people could have a phone conversation completely wirelessly and across great distances. They would even be able to send live video to one another. One person could look up directions on a computer — there’d be detailed maps of everywhere, on computers! — with which they could then direct another person. You could even have video, on a computer! It didn’t seem that far away, and this is all super commonplace today, though I was called crazy for talking about it at length back then.

“Crazy” wasn’t really the right word for me, that one time. “Nerdy” was probably the right word. A geek is someone who is super into something, whether it’s Star Wars or sports, and nerds are geeks who don’t know when to stop talking about the thing that they’re into.

After having downloading a bunch of Max Headroom images from a couple of systems that had been sharing them — what we today would find to be the most laughable of crudely down-sampled images — I wondered what would happen if I loaded up my RAM card with those images, and then wrote a program to cycle through them as quickly as possible. The results genuinely freaked me out: it didn’t look like a video game or like computer animation, it looked like actual video. I dropped a couple of images that were too great a jump from the others, but it was astonishing to see something on my screen moving with that fluidity. Adding some simple key controls would toggle the direction of the animated display, making it interactive in a perfectly stuttering Max Headroom style. Most people I showed it to freaked out, too. One of my parents’ friends hauled his video camera into our house to tape it.

The most interesting thing was watching how people reacted who’d had zero experience with computers up to that point. They took it as granted that, well, the computer is doing that so it must be possible. They’d never stopped to think that the Max Headroom character that they saw on TV was not computer-generated — computers were nowhere close to being able to produce those kinds of images, as near-impossible as that might be to imagine today. The Max Headroom character was originally made by sitting an actor in a chair for hours worth of make-up, and then painstakingly producing frame after frame of hand-painted cells. I was doing this live, on a computer, and that was cool — it was more than cool: it was magic.

I was beginning to dream much larger dreams for my system. I’d begun partnering with several other decent pirates and hackers, and began to wonder what might happen if I did something like what that chat board had done, to allow several users to interact all at once, but instead of many phone lines and one Apple, prices had been dropping on Apple II-type machines so I figured I could get as many as four computers and dedicated phone lines, since I’d discovered a way to chain them together through the hard drive that Frank had kindly sold to me. Expand the game to let users interact with each other in my crude, text-based fantasy world, and I bet that enough people would be willing to pay $10 a month that I could stay stocked in Coke and Tostitos until I could figure out what I should actually do for real with my life. I bought a second hard drive, to begin the chaining.  (Thirteen years later, Sony’s fantastically popular Everquest launched at this same price point.)

Through all of this, though — driving to Dallas to play Photon, hammering away on my system code, dancing — I failed to pay attention in high school, even though I was startled in the final days of my Senior year to be called out as one of seven students who were awarded a certificate for having never once in four years ever missed a single day of school. I walked up to the podium in front of the entire school in a state of shock. How did that happen? I was furthest from a good student, which was made the most clear to me when I nearly failed a crucial class, which would’ve kept me from graduating.

The class was Religion — I was at a Catholic school — and I’d simply stopped turning in the homework or the reading assignments months before. I’d read the textbook countless times, since I had to do something with all those otherwise wasted hours in that classroom, so it’s not like I hadn’t absorbed everything they’d wanted us to take from it. I simply hated the class.

Still, I’d gotten an unsettling sense that things weren’t going to end up sitting well in the class, and in an impromptu chat with the instructor I used my reading-upside-down skills to see that, yes, I was going to get a D in the class, which would have kept me from graduating with my class. Two other students seemed to be in the same boat. I told my teacher that I’d developed a sense that I wasn’t doing well, and asked if there was anything I could do to make it up to her, anything at all. She seemed to enjoy having me on the sharp end of the stick, instead of blowing her off as I had apparently and immaturely spent a year doing, and she quickly set about burdening me with a series of assignments that might have taken a normal student half a day. I hunkered down with the textbook and some paper, answering all the essay questions on the pages she’d noted, and was out of there in less than 90 minutes.

We ran into each other in the hallway later that afternoon. She smiled like someone in shock. “Aren’t you working on something?” she asked.

“I was,” I confessed. “It’s all done.”

Her smile grew. “Okay,” she said, implying that it had better all be done, and done well.

“It wasn’t hard,” I added. “I knew the material.” I simply didn’t care. Though I saw one of the other troubled students in the hall and told her what to do.

Less than a week later, the new hard drive died. Then the older drive died, and the money it would have taken to get a larger system started was further and further out of reach. I knew that an interactive system where people could play fantasy games with one another would be a hit. But I didn’t have the cash to get it started, and going off to college seemed much more important. I spent a long time staring off into space, wondering what I was going to do next. Something had to give. I turned the board off and I never looked back, though I’d struggle for some time with what to do with my life.

My dad was especially concerned about me going to college for computer science. One time, he left a magazine article chart clipping which showed average salaries for computer programmers as being only marginally above that of school teachers. My mom was a school teacher, and she knew how hard it was to live that way. This was in an age where if you had a computer on your desk, you were nobody. If you could not get an underling to use a computer for you, it was because you were the lowest-level person in your chain of command. But I refused any interest in business proper, and I wasn’t going to get a degree in English or History or something like that, as my parents didn’t have enough money and I didn’t have enough scholarships to wait that long before getting a real job. Even if all I could do was teach crude forms of ballet and tap and jazz to the next generation of pre-teen girls in a Dallas suburb, my father reasoned, at least it wouldn’t be a computer job and I could make decent money somewhere down the line. And what the heck, maybe I’d even be an okay dancer.

The only solution was to double-major. I made myself happy by signing up for a normal computer science curriculum, but I gave my parents hope for my future for formally registering with the university’s College of Fine Arts and all the classes that required.

And that’s how a young hacker kid went to college to major in modern dance.

What no one knew was that I had a plan — and what I didn’t know was how awful a plan it really was, or how far and for how long my failure and confusion would set me back.

Here’s what happened.

 

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Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 4

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Days later I was chatting — typing — with one of the guys, War Wager. I had maybe 40 friends in my extended series of underground circles, out of several hundred in and around the greater group at any time, but there were only maybe ten or twelve who I’d met in person. Maybe two of them knew my real name. War Wager was not one of them, though I’d met him, and I liked him.

“How was the party the other day?” I typed.

“Can you talk?” he asked. We got on the phone.

“Crazy,” he said. “It was crazy. Hulk’s sister, man, you wouldn’t believe it. You really should’ve been there.” Wendy’s brother, Mark, called himself Hulk.

“What happened? Was she horrible?”

“Kinda.”

“So…is she really big?” I thought back to the girl down the street. “Or—”

“No, no, no, not that kind of bad. Just…almost gross. She was all over X-Man, and I know you haven’t met him but he’s thin, nerdy, nothing special. I mean, I’m basically just some dude, and if it was me she was hanging on to I wouldn’t have complained, but all this guy’s got going for him—”

“What are you talking about?”

“Dude. Listen to me. She was hot, dude. Like, fifteen with a whisper, and crazy, crazy hot — she could’ve said she was nineteen and I’d have believed it. And not slutty hot, even with how she was acting. Just crazy hot. That smile, man — I ain’t seen nothing like it. Her parents keep her under lock and key, but she seems to find a way, man.”

“You must be kidding me. X-Man?!” I had no respect for the guy because of his handle. He always said it had nothing to do with The X-Men, the comic book, but they’d been putting them out for twenty years at that point, so come on. If he’d used the name of one of the characters — like Wolverine or Cyclops — then fine, it’s uncreative, though we were pirating software and not filing for trademarks. But there was never even an X-Man in The X-Men. It made him sound like an idiot.

“He’s 21, you know, right?” he said.

“Oh, shit, of course.” That was the new drinking age in Texas at the time. I didn’t like the idea of drinking, so it never figured into my equations, even though Frank had offered to buy me beer on numerous occasions, to the point of being disappointed when I didn’t take him up on it. One time, we stopped by the grocery store and I had him buy me some wine coolers. He seriously questioned whether I knew what I was doing, and I explained that I’d be seeing some girls that night and that as an older guy maybe he didn’t know that girls dug wine coolers. His eyes got wide and he nodded, slowly, understanding. I drank one that evening and tossed the rest.

“So he gets a pitcher of beer — Avatar was there, too; he’s also 21 — and we sat in the back where they show movies and stuff, and everybody gets all chatty. X-Man especially cannot stop talking about how cool his car is, so after we finish the pitcher we go check it out.” He laughed. “Dude fires up his car, and it dies right there: the radiator empties out into the parking lot, and something about a belt, I don’t know car stuff, and we had to help him push his piece of crap car around the corner and wait with him for a tow truck. Hulk was really unhappy about how his sister was saying all kinds of sexy shit to X-Man. It was nuts.” He lowered his voice. “There’s something really hot about that girl, man, I’m serious.”

I knew what it was. She was has-sex hot. I opted not to tell him that, which was fine because it turned out he knew already.

“So Hulk was unhappy, but everybody finally went home, right?”

“Mmm, yeah, yeah.”

“What’re you not telling me?”

He made a sound like a balloon being inflated near its breaking point. Then he said, “Okay. But you can’t tell anybody.” To my credit, I didn’t say a word about it to anyone for almost thirty years, until writing this right now. I’m even mixing up names and handles a bit, just in case.

“Sure,” I said. “I can keep a secret.”

“You gotta swear, okay? Okay. Yesterday, X-Man calls, asks me for a lift. I say sure. We stop on a street with a bunch of houses. He tells me to wait. I’m like, okay, shit, I should have known, but fine, I wasn’t doing anything anyway.”

He squeezes back a laugh. “I’m parked on the street; all I know is he was doing something. I’m high, I don’t care.” He paused, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have said that last part. “Twenty minutes later, X-Man is scrambling out of Hulk’s sister’s bathroom window, with Hulk chasing after his ass! I didn’t even know where Hulk lived! Dude jumps in the car and he’s like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So I punched it. Totally Blues Brothers. X-Man’s talking non-stop about, well, you know what he’s talking about.”

“Sure,” I said, heart crashing. “And this was just yesterday?”

“Yep. After school, before dinner.” I didn’t offer that I might have been on the phone with her, right before the Great Escape. “X-Man is in so much trouble,” he said. “Hulk is gonna kill him.”

“Hulk smash,” I agreed.

Wendy never called me again, and I hardly ever thought of her after that — maybe once or twice, here and there. When I did think of her, all I could see was dorky-assed X-Man squeezing his pitiable way out a  bathroom window, and how she was no longer some random, irredeemably hot hacker girl, she was someone’s little sister. After that, I only went out with girls who were older than me or who were older sisters, with one big, ill-fated and hard exception.

I had moved on. I was dancing.

Literally, actually. Between running the system and playing Photon — and school; I always forgot about school — I had become a dancer. I know it sounds strange, but trust me: this is the only way to explain what happened next.

 

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