Going to California

“Shall we play a game?” — 2

Previously, on “Going to California”

I’d never even heard of a girl hacker. “What are you?” I sputtered. “Some kind of crasher?” I had no idea what I was saying.

“I only wanted to get your attention. I’m bored.” She explained, as she would countless times in the months to come, how she had to go straight home from school, and how she wasn’t allowed to leave her house or have anyone come over outside of a couple of girlfriends. And that was all she got to do, ever.

“Why?” I asked, more than one time.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get in trouble. Look, I can’t talk long. My brother’s going to be back in here in a minute. He lets me use his computer when he wants me to leave him alone for a while.” She snorted. “He’s an ass.”

“Who’s your brother?” She told me his handle, the name he went by on the board. He was one of the mid-tier hackers, in the game enough that he was fun and a little dangerous — and probably the source of her crash codes — but not so in the game that he had his own board. A cool enough guy, all things considered.

“Huh,” I said. “I thought he was okay.”

“He’s not okay. I mean, I guess he is. I don’t know. Are you gonna validate my account or what?”

“I guess.” I logged into the system and checked the new user list. “You’re . . . Shadow Lord?”

“Are you gonna validate me or not?”

“What’s your real name?”

There was a decent pause. “Wendy,” she said.

“Okay, Wendy. I get a lot of people signing up who don’t call back. Are you gonna call back?”

“Yes! Yes, I’ll call back. I’ll ring the bell and interrupt you making out with models or whatever.”

I’d not by that point, at fifteen years old, ever kissed a girl in my house, much less in my bedroom.

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“My brother said you were a model or something.”

I didn’t remember telling him that, though my basic patter about how I got my computer involved the money I made from modeling. I didn’t want anyone thinking my family was rich, which we weren’t, or that I could afford to lose my computer, which I couldn’t. It was a gift of fate, and I didn’t want to set myself up as a target for anybody.

“I do modeling,” I said. Which was true, though I hadn’t had a real job in months. That had been a Diet Dr. Pepper commercial. It sucked.

“How are you a model?” she asked. I started telling her the story, and she interrupted. “I believe you, I believe you. I gotta go.”

“Sure,” I said.

She said, “You really are a cool guy, Patrick.”

But I wasn’t. I mean, I knew I was cool to myself. I often took time after lunch to hack the phone outside my high school’s cafeteria so I could connect with other computer-obsessives in other area codes — even if I was only popping in and out, just to say hello to people, anything to stay far enough in the loop to make it more likely that once a decent new underground board came up I’d be likely to hear about it, or even better to get an account on it early on before it got shut down. Five minutes at a time, about the most I’d let myself stay on an open conference line when I was making a long-distance call without paying for it, I got a trickle of information that sometimes, occasionally, in rare bursts, let me do things that were about as cool as you got, as a teenager growing up in suburban Texas in the later half of the Twentieth Century.

The other kids at school, though, they didn’t know that I was cool, and I didn’t help my case. Even as late as my senior year in high school, I remember wrangling to volunteer alongside a girl on whom I’d developed a serious crush. I don’t remember where we volunteered — it was off-campus somewhere, which was exciting.

Now this girl, she was drippingly cool. Our first day, we were told to sit in a room for half-an-hour and wait for someone to tell us what to do. I was thrilled. I got her talking about spring break, which we’d all just come back from. She and some friends had ended up at Padre Island, aka party central.

“Oh,” she said, “and there was this guy, in these shorts — you know those late-‘70s jogging shorts, white with the blue piping or whatever?”

“Oh, yeah!” I said. “Sure, I got a pair like that.” Her expression fell visibly. “For sleeping in,” I quickly added, which was true. “Just, you know, not for going out in or anything.”

“He, uh, he was in a phone booth, trying to make a call, and he had on these shorts.” She looked me up and down, suddenly and visibly off-put. “They look terrible.”

“I know. That’s why—”

“We made fun of that guy for days.” She crinkled her nose, as if she were about to sneeze. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” she said, her finger pointing down where shorts would be if I’d been wearing them, “about that.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said, and she turned her attention to a stack of magazines in the waiting room. There was four-month-old news to catch up on. She had no idea how cool I was, and I had no idea how to tell her.

Wendy, though, she thought I was cool. I fed her little hacker tricks that her brother didn’t know. She said it pissed him off, which — even though I thought he was an okay guy — I admit I found pretty funny. And there were other things, too. Like, I never asked her how old she was. Instead, I asked her how old her brother was.

“Fifteen,” she said, “almost sixteen.” So just a few months older than me. “And he’s my big brother, but not by much. I’m fourteen. You never asked, which means you either don’t care, or it doesn’t matter, or you really badly wanted to know but you didn’t want to come right out and ask because you knew I’d think you were uncool.”

“I’m fifteen,” I said.

“Well, la-dee-dah.”

“I’ve got a little sister, but she’s four years younger than I am.”

“So, am I just a little sister?”

“No,” I blurted. “You’re a really cool girl, did you know that?”

“We should hang out,” was what she said. It was both what I wanted to hear and what I was afraid of hearing. I was afraid that when we met I’d find her unattractive. You see, a few months earlier some people had moved into a house down the street, and I’d heard there was a girl my age in the family. I probably dropped by five times over the course of a month, and never got to meet her. All I knew was her name was Chris. I knew an unfeasibly hot girl named Chris, so because I was stupid and shallow I kept dropping by, because who knows? When we finally met, she turned out to be horrible — not because she was very overweight, which she was, or because she had terrible skin and hair and even smelled a little bit, which she did, but because most of the time I spent trying to talk to her she just sat there, swollen arms pulled tightly to her body, welling up with hate for her very existence. I spent maybe ten minutes trying to get her to say something interesting then I left. I never dropped by again. They moved away less than a year later.

All this to say that I liked the idea of an impressively cute-sounding crash girl who liked to call me, which happened about once a week in a narrow window of time after school, while her brother was busy with something else, but before her parents got home — yet I didn’t want my illusions shattered.

“That sounds cool,” I said, “but what about the no-people-over thing?”

“Well,” she said, “that is a problem. Gotta go.” It was common for her to hang up suddenly — often just as things were getting interesting. A few weeks later, she asked me if I’d ever had phone sex.

“No,” I said, though I was anxious to know more.

“It’s when you take the phone away from your ear,” she said, “and you put it up your butt.” She laughed. “And then you sorta . . . spin it around.” She hung up.

Okay, I thought, she’s not actually cool. That’s actually weird. Oh man, I thought — what if she’s twelve or something? I thought about my own sister. I thought I was only talking to a girl who was one year younger than me, but I was very protective of my sister, and any closer to her age was too close for comfort. I got unnerved about Wendy several times, but she’d always call back, and I only wanted to talk to her more.

One time, I didn’t hear from her for some months. Then she called. I knew it was her because we had this signal worked out: she’d call and let it ring one time, then she’d hang up, then she’d call back. So if I heard the phone ring once and then nothing, if it rang again seconds later I’d pick it up before the computer answered.

“What are doing?” I asked.

“Just waiting for my friend, Jenny. She’s coming over, so Mark let me use the phone.” That was her brother.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Mostly with Jenny, though I got into a little trouble that way.”

“How’s that?”

Jenny had met a couple of guys out somewhere — older guys, nineteen or twenty — and late one night the three of them talked her into sneaking out of her house. They’d walked, in the night, two blocks over to explore some unfinished North Arlington homes in the new subdivision under construction. That told me where she lived, within about four blocks. They got separated from each other, she and Jenny, and she and one of the guys got caught by cops while Jenny and the other guy escaped somehow.

“Why’d you get separated?” I asked.

“Well,” she said quietly, “you know, sometimes you don’t always want to fool around with your best friend right there. Sometimes you want a little privacy, but I guess the cops don’t understand that when they come at you, all flashlights and questions and ‘Do your parents know where you are’ and everything.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. And that was basically our relationship. I let her talk, and I listened, and I gave her advice, and she told me I was cool. A lot of times, she let me talk about my life, too. Talking to her was the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes we were typing but most of the time I actually spoke to her, through a handset. When I felt the stutter coming on, I’d start singing David Bowie songs or whatever came to mind.

A few months later, that summer, she idly asked me what I was doing.

“Getting ready to go to an audition,” I told her, which was true. I’d been asked to show up at a cattle call for a Frito-Lay print ad. Nothing magical, but $175 still sounded like a lot of money to me. “Then tomorrow I’m going to Wet ’n Wild with a friend of mine.”

“Really? Hey, no kidding: my friend Jenny is going to Wet ’n Wild tomorrow.” It was the local water park, with slides and an enormous wave pool and all that crap. “We should meet up some time, you and me. But I think I’d like her to meet you first. Tell you what: do you know when you’re going to be there?”

We arranged that I’d meet Jenny a little after 3 PM, in the fake creek that circled most of the park, around its northwest entrance. I remember actively pushing the thought of her out of my mind as my mom drove me to the audition — really more of a “walk in here and let us take a look at you” sort of call. Then the next day I went to the water park, and I kept my eye on the time. It was a nightmarishly hot day, and all I could do was think about making it to the mid-afternoon. About a quarter ’till three, I ditched my friend for a bit and began circumnavigating the creek, timing it to arrive at the right position at nearly the right time.

I’d spent many, many years around strikingly pretty girls, models and dancers and actresses. I always had a lot of female friends because I found them super-easy to talk to, and because if they didn’t hit me over the head with a baseball bat to tell me that they liked me then I presumed they were so far out of my league that I wasn’t losing anything simply by being friendly. It also meant that I had a decently high bar for what made a beautiful girl, in no small part because I knew that the head of a beautiful girl had no reason to hold a mind that was any more secure or interesting than that of a less-beautiful girl.

Jenny and I recognized each other immediately. She was an irredeemably gorgeous blond in a mostly white bikini, thin stripes of pink and blue shining through. She had a look about her that held me in place like a butterfly pinned to velvet. It wasn’t just that she was hot, which she was. She was, I realized by the way she looked me up and down, very familiar with sex. She was has-sex hot.

And as a fifteen-year-old, nearly sixteen, has-sex hot was the hottest kind of hot there was. She was all the more hot for so obviously liking what she saw in me.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “I think we can work with this. I’ll let Wendy know. You’ll hear from us.”

I liked the way she said that. I said something like, “Sure,” and strode out of the creek, away from her, knowing when my interview was over, not wanting to flub any improvised lines.

An hour or so later, when my mom picked us up from the park, she was delighted.

“You got the job!” she said, then in the rear-view mirror I could see her face fall. “Oh, dear, I think you might have gotten a little sunburned.”

“Really?” I said, touching my shoulders. They didn’t look that bad. I’d lived in Texas more than ten years, and I’d almost never had a problem.

“Your face,” she said. I touched my nose, and suddenly it was on fire. We called my agent, who stayed very calm but explained that after an audition, before finding out whether or not I got the part, the plan was supposed to be to lay low and not to do anything stupid. They passed the news along to the crew, who told me to show up anyway.

I did. It was a disaster.

“We’d heard you were sunburned,” said the director, taking a step back and tilting his head to one side. “We didn’t know you were like this.” The skin was bubbling up off my cheeks and my nose. Skin had begun peeling off my back in long strips earlier that morning. I was a mess.

“Tell you what,” he said, pointing behind me at the set. We were in a Dallas high school classroom, empty for the summer session. There were maybe eight kids, all intended to depict a different archetype of school life in a kind of pop-culture tableau. “You were gonna be one of the popular kids, but tell you what: let’s see if the make-up people can work with what you’ve got. How about you’ll be the nerdy kid in the back, looking up from a beaker that’s exploded into your face?” He motioned over a make-up lady, and she got to work.

“Ooch,” she said, daubing foundation on with a sponge. “I hope this doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m fine,” I said, wincing.

“So you’re the nerd then?” she asked.

I nodded. I knew my part well. It was the last call I ever got, and the end of my modeling career.

I didn’t hear from Wendy the next day, or the day after that. I called the number I had for her, and it was disconnected. I spent the rest of the summer feeling hollow inside. She hadn’t crashed my board — she’d crashed me.

Then a few months later the phone rang one time, paused, then it rang again. Before my computer could pick up, I answered it.

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