Going to California

Making Magic — 7.4

The point at which things began to go less well came when it was my turn. Of the three of us, I went second, after Andy’s girl quickly got her belly button pierced. So I guess it went bad pretty early. We’d met at Andy’s place — I was glad that I liked his fiancé — and had a few of shots of tequila before walking the couple of long blocks to the place that sold sex toys, drug paraphernalia, and also had a room in the back where tattoos and now piercings were being done. I wasn’t nervous. I’d been looking forward to it.

“Okay,” said the guy, the piercer. “Sit down here in this chair. Now, which side of your nose did you want it on?”

I pointed, rather than get into a “my left/right or your left/right” conversation.

He frowned.

“What?” I said.

“You know that’s the fag side, right? HA! I’m only kidding. It doesn’t matter. Hang on.” I shot Andy a look, and he came back with a thumbs-up.

The piercer had a thick piece of tapered rubber. “We’re going to put this inside your nostril to catch the needle. It’s a small needle, really, you’ll hardly feel it. It’ll stick into the rubber, and then I’ll loop in a ring, then you’re basically done. We cool?”

“Cool,” I said.

“Okay. Just keep looking straight forward and hold your breath while I’m doing this, okay?” He readied the needle, just on the edge of my peripheral vision.

“Okay,” I said, and before I’d gotten out the whole word I felt a pressure against my nostril, then some fiddling, and it was done.

The guy looked at me, dabbed the spot with a tissue, and then began to explain to me about how to care for it over the first week or so. “Don’t take it out for any reason. You’d be surprised how quickly it’ll close up. Like, ten minutes. I’m not kidding. If you’re afraid of infection or you just wanna speed up the healing, take some zinc pills or something.”

I nodded, and stood up. The piercer’s face took on a curious expression, though a serious one.

Slowly, he said, “Why don’t you sit back down?” The world around me disappeared into a tunnel, and the last thing I saw was his face, receding from me at high speed, then all was darkness.

As I woke up, I had to go down a short list to figure out where I was. I wasn’t at home, because I wasn’t under covers or anything. Plus, there were bright lights. Was I in a hospital? Opening my eyes, I saw Andy’s worried face looking down at me.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I tried to catch your head.”

After the piercing, I’d forgotten to start breathing again and passed out. Unfortunately, that was not the worst decision I made that week.

Two days later, Cookie called.

“You got your nose pierced?” she said.

“Uh, huh,” I said.

“Can I come over? I got some new boots I want to show you.”

“What?” I checked the time. It was getting late. “Now?” I rolled over on the couch where I’d spent most of the day sprawled out. How the hell she’d heard about the piercing already, I had no idea. “I’ve been taking zinc to help with the healing, but I don’t know if I took too much or what but I don’t feel that great right now.”

“I’ll be right over,” she said, and she was, and she’d never looked better: freshly bobbed haircut and red dye-job, a new lacy good-girl dress, all white, and nearly knee-high black ass-kicking thick-soled lace-up boots. All the best hyphenations in one package of crazy.

She walked in, paced back and forth in front of me a couple of times, then she pounced, straddling me.

“I really don’t feel well,” I said. “I’m not kidding.”

“I don’t care,” she said. I’d never been able to pass up a chance to kiss her, which I know was sending mixed messages, but after a couple of minutes I had to push her off of me and run to the bathroom in my bedroom, where I threw up for maybe a good five minutes. That turned out to be long enough for her to get her boots unlaced.

When I stumbled out of the bathroom, wiping the bile from my chin, my body aching from the effort, she was kneeling on my bed.

“Come here,” she said.

There was no reason for it to be the worst sex we’d ever had, and it probably wasn’t actually the worst — there were so many contenders for the title — though over the years it was the one that rose up out of my mind the most often.

I took a break from kissing her to say, “I really feel bad.”

She nodded. “But you feel good enough to…”

In the moment, I only felt so nauseated.

She nodded again. Good. “Oh, I’m not on the pill anymore,” she added, a little late. “I use — ah, I mean, we should use a condom. Do you have one?”

I didn’t have a condom. I was struck by a terrible vision of my life going forward in a reality where I got her pregnant, and that was it. Fuck-me boots or not, I was through with her.

“I’m not calling you again,” she said, shaking her balled-up dress at me.

I clutched my belly. It turns out I’d taken too much zinc, and my body was simply rejecting the rest of it. I think my body knew more than I did, though. I suspect it wasn’t simply the zinc that it was rejecting.

The next morning, I’d have wondered if it wasn’t all a dream if it hadn’t been for the panties I found wrapped around one of my feet.

She was wrong, though. She did call me again, about six weeks later, to tell me that she needed my help. I stopped breathing again.

“On Sunday,” she said, “I’m loading up. I’m moving to Seattle.”

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 7.3

At a barbecue over at Mentor’s place, I’d run into a woman I’d known in high school, someone for whom I’d once nursed a pretty hard crush. She’d begun dating someone who’d gone to high school with Mentor, which made for a nice symmetry.

“Derek?” she said, walking up to me through the party, head-cocked and finger outstretched.

She and Mentor’s old friend were having a proper dramatic relationship, but she introduced me at one point to her roommate, a sharp woman with dark, thickly curly hair and a very femme punk look about her. She was the first girl I’d felt attracted to who had a nose ring; hers hung from the outside of one nostril. Even in counterculture Austin, piercings were only just becoming popular. It felt new, and it helped that she was hot.

Christine’s roommate needed a computer with Internet access to write a paper that was due the next day. She’d called me the night before — got my number from her roommate; we’d passed each other briefly at a party — to ask if I’d be around Sunday night, that she’d heard I had a computer on the Internet at my house, and that since it didn’t cost me anything to be online maybe I wouldn’t care how late she stayed up using it. This was just before when most people didn’t have computers. I’d said sure.

So with my car back, I was even able to pick her up. Actually, I’d planned to hang out a bit with Christine — we hadn’t spent any time one-on-one since high school, so maybe she wanted to check if she still had a good feeling about me before letting her roommate enter my lair — with the idea that we would meet up with her roommate later, presumably if I passed whatever test she had in mind.

I passed. Giving Christine a ride over to campus and swapping her for her roommate, she pointed back at the car and said, “Don’t keep her up too late, Derek, okay? She’s still gotta write that paper.”

Back home, it turned out she’d already eaten, so I set her up with the computer, and she got to it. I know the all-nighter deal, so I set out a blanket and a pillow. My sectional couch would more than accommodate her. To the clickity-clackity of my laptop, a rare creature in that age, I turned in for the night.

Maybe five hours later, I’m awakened by my bedroom door opening. She waves hesitantly, to make sure she’d gotten my attention. Half of her face was lit in dim stripes of blue, moonlight by mini-blinds, and the rest was darkness, with a glint of nose ring to one side.

“Hey,” she said. “Um, do you have a t-shirt I could borrow?”

“Sure,” I said, pointing to my open closet. The top shelf was just stacks and stacks of t-shirts. She grabbed a black one that must’ve looked good to her, holding it out to confirm it was appropriately baggy and long enough. Taking off her shirt and her bra, she slipped the t-shirt over her head before unbuttoning her pants. Still, I hadn’t been expecting her to walk towards me and slide into bed.

“Hello,” I said. We kissed for maybe ten minutes.

“This has got to be the first time that a girl has ever hooked up with a guy simply because he had a computer that was online.”

“I’m not sure that’s strictly true,” I told her. We kissed for a much longer time.

I played with her necklace. She took off the t-shirt. I traced her shoulders, I kissed the crook of her elbow, the tips of her fingers. One finger bore a highly polished ring made from a speckled stone that could have been greenish.

“Nice ring,” I said.

“It’s from my boyfriend,” she said. “I think he wants to get married someday, but I think that’s bullshit — don’t you?”

I didn’t stop kissing her, but when she said the word “boyfriend,” her level of attractiveness fell through the floor. Huh, I thought to myself, that’s a first.

I’d begun dating Cookie while living with another girl, who I began seeing when her boyfriend had gone away for a month as part of a medical testing experiment. That’s a long story. And then my previous girlfriend, Suzanne, the only really serious one in my book, had broken up with me after she’d been seeing someone else for quite a while.

I began to wonder how cool it would be, how much I could accomplish, if only I was coupled up with a girl I could trust.

We woke up with each other, though we didn’t end up sleeping together. She’d put her t-shirt back on. I gave her a floppy disk with her paper on it and dropped her off on campus.

“I’m surprised your professor won’t let you email it to him,” I said.

“Why would someone do that? They want something they can lay their hands on and mark up.”

I shrugged. As we pulled up to her building, she looked at me squarely and said, very seriously, “I like you.”

“I like you, too,” I said.

“Let’s hang out again,” she said.

“You’ve got my number.”

At work, over lunch, Andy was talking about getting one of his nipples pierced with a small ring.

“Hey,” I said, “that’s funny, I was thinking about a nose ring.” I could start many sentences with “Hey” because of the outward rushing air of the H-sound. It started the air moving out of my lungs which was generally key to falling into a rhythm of speech in which I’d be less likely to stutter noticeably. “That’s funny” was another phrase that was pretty easy to say and which would often lead better into sentences less suited to be started with, “Motherfucker.”

We agreed that we would go together — three of us: me and him and his fiancé, who wanted her belly done — and get pierced. It went well, up to a point.

 

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 5

I put the phone to my head.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Cookie said. I could hear traffic in the background.

“Where are you?”

“I’m out,” she said. “I was running an errand for work, when I realized: it’s over. I can’t go on this way.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“Please,” she said, “just give me this.”

“Why?” I asked, like I didn’t know.

“You have trouble finishing things,” she said. “And even when you do finish something, there’s always the next thing and the next thing. There’s always going to be something else.”

“I always want to be working on something.”

“And you never finish anything, you never do.” She stopped herself before she got too emotional. “Just to be clear,” she said, “the story I’m telling our friends is that I’m the one that broke up with you, and that it was your fault.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I give you that?”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t get to say that. You never gave me anything.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just give me this,” she said again.

“Sure,” I said again. “You’re sure?”

“I’m very, very sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You know, I always loved you,” I added.

“And I love you,” she said with singsongy emptiness. “I just never really cared for all your, you know, all your ideas and everything.” She sighed. “I really only ever thought about how it felt walking down the street with you on my arm.”

That would echo in my head for years to come.

“Goodbye, then,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Did I catch her by surprise? “Oh,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then she hung up.

I sat on the floor of my apartment cradling the phone for a few minutes, unwilling to move from that position. I called Mentor.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. There was a long pause. “You should come over,” he said. “Andy’s coming by.”
I nodded, as though he could see me. “Later,” I said, hanging up.

As I pulled myself upright, I became aware of how every step took me further away from the place where I’d still been in my relationship with Cookie. I stood on the balcony as the evening leeched away the heat of the day. Staring at my hands, I felt no connection to anything that had happened more than ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

Next thing I remember I was over at Mentor’s. Jeff was there, and Andy, and three or four other people, everyone subdued. I delivered the news, but they already knew — it must’ve been clear by how my shoulders were hung as I walked up to the door.

I didn’t stay long, I thought. I had no interest in getting hammered, and though I appreciated the company, I generally did feel better when I was alone. After a round of “Sorry, man,” I left.

On the way to the car, tripping lightly in the dark — when did it get so dark? How long had I been there? — the strangest thing happened to me.

I know I’m a little crazy, but I also know exactly how crazy I am. Yet, this next thing happened.

A voice spoke to me, as plain as could be — two voices, actually, a man and a woman’s voice at the same time said three simple words: “Don’t be afraid.”

It sounded somehow like the most true thing I’d heard in years. And it sounded like an order.

It really did not seem to have come from inside my head. It seemed to come from just behind me, from my right and slightly above me. I kept walking down the slight incline of Mentor’s front yard, though I slowed, tilting my head back slightly just to check. No one was there.

As I walked around my car, got in, buckled up, I played back my memory of the voice.

It hadn’t sounded like someone trying to sooth me. It hadn’t sounded like someone feeding me a platitude about how everything would be okay. It sounded like what someone would say after they’ve strapped you into the experimental rocket sled of your own unintentional devising, explained to you what you have done, and then walked away to press the ignition when they felt like it. It was the most frightening way you could possibly tell someone not to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid,” I told myself, starting the car, but I was, suddenly I was, I was very afraid.

Three days later, I walked out to my car — which I was still paying for, would be paying on for three more years — to drive in to work to find on the sidewalk two black, triangular pieces of canvas where my car used to be. They’d been cut from the vehicle’s convertible roof. The car had been stolen.

I called my insurance company first. They had cancelled my insurance the day before, because I’d missed two payments. It’s not like I didn’t have the money. I simply hadn’t done it. I’d been too worried about the book.

Two days later, Steve called me into his office.

“We’re not shipping this,” he said, pointing at a printout of the book I’d been working on for the past year. “It’s simply…not good. Take the weekend, and see how much of it you can rewrite. Rewrite the whole thing, if you need to.” He pulled out big chunks of it — the introduction, the fiction that I’d written, the game mechanics that I’d invented myself — and set it all out apart from the rest of it. There wasn’t much remaining.

“I understand,” I said. I stayed late at work. Jeff gave me a lift home. Every time we passed a little red convertible that looked like mine, I’d crane around to get a look at the license plate. They all looked like mine, but they never were.

“That all really sucks, man,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The next morning when I woke up, I found my roommate asleep, half-naked, in the living room, a small stove-pot of macaroni and cheese that he’d cooked himself for dinner the night still resting loosely in his hand, tipped over onto its side, the macaroni so firmly gelled together that none of it had spilled out onto the floor, wooden stirring spoon sticking out at a nearly perfect 45° angle.

The phone rang again. Another grandparent — my dad’s mom — had a stroke. I couldn’t even drive to Weatherford to see her.

So I called Jeff, to see if he could pick me up. When he answered the phone, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I pushed, I got, “Juh-juh-juh-juh—”

Oh, no. I bit my lower lip, hard.

“Derek?” he said.

Breathing out very slowly, I said, “Yes,” and then, “Hey.”

“I’m not coming in for a while — maybe an hour? Can I call you then?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said. I could hum just fine.

After hanging up the phone, I reached into my head for the places where I’d hoped that voice — those voices, any voice — might have come from. I’d just spent a year writing about angels, gothic and flashy. The voices I’d heard for that briefest of moments that night, and which I never heard again, had been some other thing entirely, and I couldn’t see how I could hack my way back the feeling of certainty I’d held when it or they had spoken to me. I’d even lost control of my own voice.

I remember thinking: I’d better be learning something.

Standard
Going to California

Making Magic — 3

Since I’d learned to focus on classes, and work, most everything else in my life had taken a backseat. Still, I had other things going on when I wasn’t working or on the ’net — or driving; good lord, I spent countless hours just driving — other threads being sewn into my life that I haven’t talked a lot about yet.

Some of these other threads, a lot of them, need to find a home in a different place, in a different story, but it’s safe to say that girls were involved.

Late in the Spring, talking about girls with Andy over Mexican food, was probably the last possible moment I had to avoid the big crash.

“How’re things with Cookie?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said. “Great.” I thought about it. “Not good,” I added.

“What’s up?”

I sighed. “She thinks I’m crazy,” I said. “And I don’t trust her.”

“Why does she think you’re crazy?”

I breathed in tightly through my teeth.

I’m kind of a weird guy, I know that, always have been. Some people have accused me of trying to be weird on purpose, but I don’t think I have been. I’d be fairly happy relating to people the way everybody else does, but I don’t, and I know that.

So many things were clearer when I was younger — like my sense of numbers, which stretched far beyond their base values. To me, for example, the number 1 was white, of course, pure and voiceless, like the sun in the sky. The number 2 was blue, but a light blue, simple and curious as a child. All even numbers have a little bit of 2 in them, which was why they play together so easily. The 3 is a desaturated yellow, round and soft, just a little smarter than 2. The 4 is a blue darker than 2 and also the first distinctly girly-girl among the numbers — she wears her hair in a bob — while 5 is a boy, a richer yellow than 3, a brave young daredevil who doesn’t mind tumbling a bit. And on and on.

The characters and colors in numbers seemed self-evident as far back as I could remember — for the first 10 digits, at least. Larger numbers are simply the combinations of these characters in myriad different ways. My memorization of the multiplication tables became the charting of interactions — marriages, divorces, unhappy children, and mysteries — of these main characters. It’s like I was wired, nearly from the start, to tell stories.

In third grade, I failed math because I didn’t do the homework. I didn’t think I had to. I already knew all the stories; I knew how things played out. I’d drift away in class, hyperventilating with joy over the truly infinite complexity of the stories I saw unfolding in the dancing numbers before me. How beautiful it was that 6, a mistake-prone young man who couldn’t wear his baseball cap straight, and 7, who was 6’s older sister, both come together to make 42 — which, seen as two numbers, the more innocent characters of 4 and 2, make something like a youthful reflection of the more mature and troubled 6 and 7, as if by sticking together they’d preserve each other’s innocence.

A few times, as a child, I’d insist that some number was obviously a specific color, or some combination of colors. I was always surprised when other people didn’t immediately intuit which colors the numbers were supposed to be, though I learned early on not to bring it up.

I rambled on in this vein for a bit before stopping, looking at Andy for some sign.

He shrugged: Yes, guys like us are always going to come off as at least a little crazy.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I think she thinks I’m actually crazy.”

He raised his eyebrows: For example?

For example, I’ve always loved license plates, and an immature little boy inside of me loves it when a license plate spells out something that sounds funny. Hackers were well known for swapping numbers for letters — 4 looks like an A, 5 looks like an S — so it wasn’t hard for me to find pronounceable plates here and there. Sometimes I’d read them out loud: PZB-84C was “pizz-bak,” or MMP-501 was “imp-sol,” or GOU-108 was “goo-lob.”

After we’d been dating for nearly two years, she and I had been driving back from dinner, winding up a tree-lined road. I loved driving, more than nearly anything else, and I must’ve been doing it that night, reading license plates out loud to myself.

“Oh my God,” Cookie said, a dainty hand covering her mouth. “License plates.”

“What?”

She pointed at the car in front of us. “You were reading the license plate,” she said. Her voice wavered.

“Yes,” I said.

“This whole time,” she said, “you’ve been reading license plates?!”

“What do you — wait: so, this whole time, did you think I was just making weird noises because I was crazy?”

She checked the rear-view mirror on her side, brushing a stray lock of reddish hair back behind one ear. We didn’t talk about it any further.

“That’s not cool,” he said, scratching his goatee. “What was it like with previous girlfriends?”

“Well, there was Suzanne — there were others, but she was the main one. But when we broke up, it was because she was dating somebody else, and I think I had a hard time trusting girls after that.”

Andy stared at me. “Wait,” he said. “This is Suzanne — crazy hot receptionist at work, Suzanne,” he said.

I nodded; it was. We’d needed a receptionist, and she’d been working a crappy job at the time, so there you go.

Andy looked for a moment like he had a lot of questions, then he said, “But things were good at first, with Cookie?” he asked.

“Things’re always good at first.” I thought about it. “Exciting, at least, with her.”

“Exciting how?”

“I had a bad crush on her for, like, a year and a half before she asked me out.” I looked at my hands. “It was messy.”

“Messy can be good.”

“She was engaged, and I was living with someone else at the time, so it was pretty messy.”

“Huh,” he said. “I can’t believe I thought you were gay when we first met.”

“I just thought she really understood me, as a designer — she’s a great designer, world-class. But….”

“Now I think you’re gay again.”

“I feel like I let her down at some point, like I let myself down.”

“How?”

“Oh, well — you know I tried to leave SJ Games a couple of times?”

“Sure,” he said. Hardly anybody worked there very long. Next to our shipping manager, who was living in an old wooden house on the back lot, Mentor had been there the longest. He’d hired most of us. Even before he left, people often talked about what their next step might be. He was generally starting the conversation. “What happened?” Andy asked.

I smiled.

“She’s always been concerned about me wasting my talent at a game company, versus doing real design in the real world. It comes up a lot — how much more money I would make in the real world. I’d be making real numbers.”

“Understood,” said Andy. “So?”

Twice in two years, I’d had good interviews with real design studios in town. Both times, Cookie had also heard, or was told, about the opening. Both times she’d interviewed as well, and gotten the job, and both times they made her tell me the news. It had never occurred to me to mention it to my friends.

“Holy shit, man,” Andy said, shaking his head, hands on tabletop. “How did you feel about that?”

“Not good,” I said, “but what are you supposed to do about it? You can see, though, how she could think I should be doing real design work—”

“Dude,” he laughed, smacking one palm flat on the table. “You are doing real design work, man! I mean: You started a magazine. You did—” He waved at the air. “—all this stuff.”

“But it’s not anything I can turn in to a design contest, you know? The American Institute of Graphic Arts doesn’t give a shit what I’m up to. It’s nothing I can be proud of.”

Andy shook his head. “I don’t know, man.”

I went on. “It’s like, there’s nothing worse than a mediocre relationship. If it’s good, if it’s bad — you know what to do. But mediocre is the worst.”

“How’s the….” Sex. He meant, How’s the sex.

“Not great. Since she got herpes last year in a way that has yet to be adequately explained, I haven’t really been up for it very much.”

Andy — who at that point in my life had told me some of the most viscerally horrible stories about women that I’ve ever heard in my life — nearly flushed his sinuses with spicy ground beef. “And you don’t have—”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

“No shit,” he said.

I nodded. No shit. “For about a year, now, it’s been unsatisfying for both of us. I feel like I’m being a jerk about it on purpose, at this point.”

“So, where do things sit between you and Cookie now?”

“They’re not good,” I said. “I feel like we’ve been together for, like, two years, and either she doesn’t have much of an interior life —”

Andy laughed. “I guarantee you, a squeaky clean little girl like that has a rich interior life in this dirty, dirty world.”

“— or she just doesn’t want to let me in.”

“Break up with her.”

I slumped into my hands. “I probably should,” I said, “but….”

“But she’s hot,” he finished for me. I nodded. “Of course she’s hot! I mean, don’t get me wrong, she is really, really, really cute. Really cute. I mean, I’d fuck her.” He looked away into the near distance. “She’s the kind of cute and smart and pretty that you just wanna, like, drop her in the mud and roll her around a bit.” He held his hands up. “And believe me, I know that girls like that are not innocent, almost never.”

“She’s not. And not like ‘No one’s innocent,’ but seriously not innocent.”

“Are we talking ‘blood on her hands’?”

I laughed. There’s a whole story there, just perfect for a sidebar.

“She’s perfectly adorable,” I said. “She’s sweet, and vulnerable—”

“This is what I’m saying,” Andy said. “She’s the perfect mix of everything you seem to find attractive in a girl.” I had to swallow hard because he was right, and I’d never before thought of it as being a problem. “She’s the cookie-cutter girl of your dreams,” he said. “She’s a Derek-shaped trap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew, I knew what he meant. I’d always felt so strongly about me and Cookie being together, that this was how the story of my life was supposed to go, that I couldn’t see how broken we were together. I knew she wanted to get married, but if didn’t trust her. I had no perspective on how I’d forced my moral algebra to arrive not at the correct answer, but at the most alluring one. The fix was in, the numbers were wrong, and I’d been living the wrong story.

For a moment, I realized it. It cast a light shadow over me from high, high above — then before it could make too great of an impression on my conscious mind, I pushed it out of my head. I had bigger problems, I thought, and I did.

Andy was quiet. “I don’t think I care about her any more,” I eventually said.

“So break up.”

I stared at the table. Quietly, I said, “I have other shit going on.”

Standard
Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 10

About a year earlier, Timothy Leary collaborated somehow with rock star Billy Idol on his Cyberpunk album, and the month before this event in Austin he’d starred in a tedious documentary, also called Cyberpunk. Clearly, his snappy patter would be predictable.  I’ve already searched the Internet and came up empty. If someone were to find a video of the event it might be a little bit different from what I remember, but:

I divide the event into three stages.

The show began with Timothy Leary and his wife or girlfriend, or whatever she was, coming out to thank people for attending. Then Leary raised his arms and slowly intoned a deep sentiment about computers and cyberspace and the future of human consciousness. I thought he seemed a bit shaky, impaired, though clearly the crowd was loving his cyberpunk talk. He could hardly find a more receptive audience outside of the U.S. West Coast than in hippy-speckled Austin. Then we watched a trippy video, projected larger-than-life over the stage. This was at a time when video projection was still a new thing, and the crowd seemed to go with it.

Leary came back and stumbled through an introduction of the video of his arrest. Then he played the video.

Leary came back again after that and tried to win people back to his cause. It didn’t go well.

Here’s how the AP newswire service reported his arrest. You can unpack what no one liked about the story from the newswire article, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow.

He stressed in his introduction for the video of his arrest that he was striking back against the political-correctness that had developed a stranglehold on all of our minds, put there by the authorities to control our actions. That kind of thing. So were were expecting something serious.

His videographer traveled with him to Austin, and began recording, or at least we began seeing what they were recording, as they were stepping out of the old Austin airport, the one that had been in north Austin (again, now central Austin; the place has mushroomed in 20 years). They step into the heat of our early Summer and decide that they’re going to step back inside to have a smoke, having just gotten off the plane but apparently not wanting to arrive at wherever they were to be ensconced in Austin to have a cigarette in a not-stupidly hot environment. But someone waves Leary off: smoking had been banned inside the airport.

Leary throws a bit of a fit, waving his arms and cursing about how he should be able to do whatever he wants to do. He seems seriously impaired. He marches over to the closest person in a uniform with a badge. He’s a security guard, though, not an officer of the law. Leary tears into him about the insanity of this culture of political correctness, waving an unlit cigarette.

They guy looks extremely embarrassed and basically says, “I’d really, really rather you not do that. Can’t you please step outside?” Leary refuses, and asks for trouble. The guard explains that Leary would need to find an actual police officer for that. I recall him both wincing slightly over being asked to point out where a real cop might be while also intently looking for a way to get out of the conversation.

Then a suited person appears — I remember Leary calling out from the overall baggage claim area that he wanted to speak with someone in charge — and I forget if she worked for an airline or for the airport but she has her lips pursed and her eyes locked on Leary. She is listening to exactly what he is saying. And she nods, and she leads him to an actual, uniformed police officer. After asking for and receiving an explanation of the actual law, Leary belligerates the cop, and at the climax of his rant he lights his cigarette and begins smoking. The cop gives him a momentarily resentful look — like, “And you’re really going to make me do this” — before gently handcuffing him. I forget how much more the tape showed; not enough that I remembered. Maybe, like a lot of other people, I’d stopped paying attention. They’d taken him downtown and given him a ticket, basically. He didn’t get booked; he didn’t have to put up bail. He just got a lift from the airport to downtown, then the event organizers picked him up there. And he basically got a ticket for being a dick. And then he showed us the evidence.

Six months after this event, in his book Chaos and Cyber Culture, he wrote that he was “1,000 percent against the thoughtless use of ((drugs)), whether caffeine or LSD. And drugs are not central to my life.” Knowing how publishing works, that text was likely edited and ready to go many months before that event in Austin. I think he saw the cigarette smoking issue as a human rights matter rather than a form of drug use. Maybe it would be easier to whittle down from our culture — I’m against tobacco, personally — if we called it what it is: drug use.

Some months after that event, his home state of California would ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces, including restaurants (though not bars; that would take three more years). It would take Austin ten years to gain a similar smoking ban, though it wasn’t because the people in Austin were jerks. I’m not defending Austin — we weren’t suffering a jerk drought — but it’s more because people in Texas in general and Austin in particular, against what I’ve discovered the global media would have you believe, are extremely polite. No kidding, Canadians would wish they were Texans if it weren’t for all the gun violence and the infrastructure problems and the poverty. I can’t say there’ve ever been official reports about people being niced to dead, but it wouldn’t shock me. “An armed society is a polite society,” I used to hear. People were genuinely very polite, and part of being polite is to not figuratively or literally blow smoke in people’s faces. There was, again, no drought of young jerks who would sometimes do it on purpose because it was funny, or older jerks who simply couldn’t be troubled caring about other people’s opinions of something that hardly even registered anymore to them, with their severely dulled senses of taste and smell. But for the most part smokers were circumspect and wouldn’t smoke where it wouldn’t be cool. After all, being cool was the only reason they started smoking, anyway.

The sense in the crowd, as we watched the scene play out, was confusion, at first. Did he really do that? Is this a joke? Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing?

After coming back, he looked a little confused as to why he was losing the room. He fell back onto the old standbys, like how cyberspace is the psychedelic of the future, and how we will only be free when we free ourselves, but the crowd had already begun thinning, and it became more difficult to hear his amplified voice over the people in the corridors muttering to one another — and while I’m sure he’d respect that a lot of what was going on were drug deals, he no longer seemed to be having fun.

I hoped he was at least learning something. It turns out he already knew he had cancer. Two years and two weeks later, his consciousness passed out of this world. His body was cremated and sent up into space on the same launch that took Gene Roddenberry’s mortal remains, a final trek to the stars for them both.

Cookie and I shared a glance: It was time to go. We skipped out, hand in hand, past the throngs of skate punks out front, falling down again and again trying to hop the curb on a board. Oak trees shrouded our exit into the near dark. We slid into my car — my little red convertible, my other little love.

“I think that went well,” she said.

I placed my hand on her leg. “Oh, my,” she said, and laughed. I punched the gas and we tore out of there, towards home.
Standing as we had been, sometimes on opposite sides of the incoming throng, sometimes side by side, we felt very warm, very close to one another. We were giddy, feeling like we had just done a great thing. What I’ve failed to mention about Cookie is that in addition to being a stellar graphic designer, she was unfeasibly and almost impractically beautiful, coupled with a pure shyness that was two innocent steps to the right of being coy, but just two. There was a nearly unbearable frisson that came from seeing hundreds of people respond so positively to what we had to tell so many of them individually. They responded well in part, I think, because she was unreasonably hot, but the positive sense from it was boosted ten-fold for it being clear that she was with me. I liked that.

The next couple of weeks, as a growingly great mob of people signed up for the service, were great. The month afterwards, though, went as badly as any one month has ever gone in my entire life. I didn’t believe it at the time, I won’t be surprised if you don’t.

With a full-time staff on io.com, they didn’t need me or Jeff hammering out crappy Web pages anymore — which was good, because back on the game-company side of things, we had big problems. Getting out of the hole we’d unwittingly dug ourselves into would take nothing short of actual, honest-to-God magic.

Hang on tight.

NEXT: Making Magic — part 1

Standard
Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 9

The day of the event felt like the most exciting in months or years — no one was even sure what was going to happen; would there be music, or what? The Leary people had leaked through their many post-arrest media conversations that a thorough recording of the event had been made, and that we would have a chance to see it for ourselves at the event. Really, you couldn’t ask for more attention than that.

I remember it being an unexpectedly bright day, four of us Illuminati Online people doing product promotion in black t-shirts, arms full of flyers that would serve as most people’s first introduction to an affordable, local Internet service. Cookie and I got there around 3:30 PM to scope out how we’d do it. I also wanted to get good parking in case the fact that Austin was not just a big hippy town but also a big tech town got us a decent turn-out of tech hippies. We could not have been more right. We were mobbed.

The show was sold out — I think it was more than sold out. I think someone probably could’ve been arrested over that one. It wasn’t a huge joint: big, open concrete, rectangular room; long corridors running along two sides; high-school brown, metal, double doors; the whole place encased in brick on the outside, with a cement flatness that passed for a milling-about area in front of it all. At least, that’s how I remember it; I don’t recall the name of the venue, and I would only go there once more, a few months later, just days before Cookie broke up with me. We would go to see a popular flash-in-the-pan band, and maybe a third as many people turned up as did to see Timothy Leary detail the sudden continuance of his fight against The Man.

The central concrete area filled up fairly quickly. I could run up to the back of the crowd, before it got too thick to move without brushing up against people, but I’d still only barely have squeezed inside the open concert area itself. A T-shaped stage had been set, with the long limb of the T stretching out into the audience. A microphone stand sat mid-stage, ready.

The two main corridors bustled with people, flanked by folks huddled on either side in long, low rows. The cement staging area out front was only half as dense with people as the hallways inside, mostly with those who couldn’t afford to get in, or people waiting on other people to get in, or people who didn’t want to get it in but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what was going on, or random skateboarders.

“What was up with that girl?” Cookie asked.

“Oh,” I said, “ah, you know. Boy trouble.”

“Go on. I find it interesting. How old is she again?”

“Eighteen,” I said.

“That’s pretty young,” she said. We were twenty-four.

In the couple of hours leading up to the show, Cookie and I stood on either side of the brown double doors, smiling hugely and handing out Illuminati Online flyers just as quickly as we could, to people who were more than receptive. I began to notice that I wasn’t seeing very many of the fliers on the ground, unlike some of the other give-away cards, which was nice given that if the audience wasn’t receptive, I was going to have to look at them getting stomped on for a couple of hours. Nearly an hour before the show, the place was full and we were running out of flyers.

“It is pretty young,” I said. “And the guy she likes is nineteen, maybe twenty now, but he’s married.”

“Oh, my.”

“Yeah. And they just the other week met up at his place for lunch when, surprise, his wife decided to come home for lunch that day as well. She had to lay there, naked, in his bed —”

“In her bed,” she said, meaning the wife.

“— listening to him talk his wife into going out for lunch, and not going in the bedroom.”

“That sounds like an awkward couple of minutes.”

“Twenty. She said she thought it was something like twenty.”

She winced, her face softening toward the girl she did not know. “That’s a long time.”

Some people, after glancing at the flyer, stopped in their tracks and said, “What?!” Some people came back to ask for details. Some people who didn’t even have tickets came up to us and asked meekly if they could have a flyer, even though they weren’t going to the show.

We gave out all the flyers we had, and we’d brought a lot. I don’t remember how many. Hundreds, many hundreds, certainly. I recall there being at least four of us frantically doing the handing, but I don’t remember today who all else had been there. Me and Cookie, sure, then I want to place Jim and Patch as being there, as well. That might be unlikely, though, given how soon after he started that we had to let Patch go.

Patch had one most crucial responsibility: before leaving for the weekend, put a new backup tape in the drive. Let’s not lose data like those yahoos. But Patch kept forgetting, and one time he forgot to do it and one of the machines hiccuped and some data ended up getting lost. I saw him shortly after and I was happy to see he was fine with it.

“I didn’t put in the tape,” he said, shrugging and grinning with great exaggeration, winning my respect. He went on to do a ton of good work at a ton of great tech companies, no surprise. You own your mistakes. You learn.

The hippies and the techies and the tech-hippies were starting to get a little unruly by showtime. There was some kind of opening act, some dim music-something that people were happy to suffer through while we waited for Leary to take the stage. Murmuring in the back corridors began to grow until we could hardly hear the cue to begin clapping for the end of the opener. Once the clapping got going it only built, until the whole place was a din of hooting and calling and yelling and stamping as the lights grew dim and a few people in white walked up on stage.

I recall it going something like this.

Standard
Going to California

“Shall We Make A Game?” — 8

Timothy Leary was only one of the personalities I brushed up against as we launched Illuminati Online. He was the most famous, for sure, even if he wasn’t the most interesting or the most long-lasting in my life.

First, no one was interested in spending tens of thousands of dollars to set up our own business simply because we figured we had to be able to do it better than a bunch of yahoos across town, only to find out that we were yahoos, too. At a local tech conference — about the ramifications of useful encryption being widely available; I designed the t-shirts — Doug had met a clever security-minded unix geek named Jim McCoy, who became Illuminati Online’s employee number one. Jim first shocked me as being only the third person, after Steve and Doug, who worked longer hours at the office than I did. He was a fixture around the office by the time we launched the ISP: trench-coated, hunched slightly in thought, hairline receding into a long, thin, pale pony tail.

Jim and Doug became fast friends, and the things they plotted to do over 2 AM sessions at Austin’s only decent all-night deli will come back into our story later on. Most importantly, one or the other or the combination of the two did turn out not to be yahoos. The service stayed up, and we moved Metaverse over to its own server — which was bad-ass at the time, but which would be mortally embarrassed by the power and the storage of the phone I had in my pocket six years ago. Looking back, though, I’m still amazed by what they were able to throw together from mail-order parts and a few heavy weeks of manual labor.

To celebrate, Mentor threw a party at his house, a block up the hill from the office. More than half of the people I’d met in the Metaverse actually lived in Austin, so it was likely to be a good crowd. I didn’t expect to see too many people whom I hadn’t already met in person, though there were a few. Like my high-school pirate meet-ups, sometimes it surprised me to realize that I’d come to know some of these people so well that I could have sworn we had already met, only to be wholly surprised by what they looked like in the real world. Not that they were especially pretty or ugly — just normal people, mostly, and normal people all look different from each other in their own unique ways.

Patch was a nineteen-year-old boy who, when grinning, looked like a twelve-year-old boy, if that. He grinned a lot, and he knew more about Unix systems than anyone else I’d met under 21. He’d dropped out of college after his first year and was looking for something to do. Weeks later, he would become employee number two, but when we first met he was sitting on a tall stool in Mentor’s living room, a girl only slightly younger than him perched on his lap, who introduced herself as Felicity, one of the only people in the Metaverse who I genuinely believed was truly female. Even though I had a girlfriend with whom I was very happy, I was as glad to discover that she was a girl as I was disappointed to find her both attached to Patch and quite young, six years younger than I was. She was starting her freshman year at the university, in computer science.

“Can you believe she and I only just met in person for the first time?” Patch asked me, when Felicity’s attention drifted for a moment to a question from someone off to one side. A decent number of people had shown up, enough that you had to speak up to be heard by those sitting next to you.

“You two really only just met?” I asked. He nodded, grinning again. She glanced back over toward me for a moment, stopping herself before she got all the way, instead turning her attention to a far corner of the ceiling.

“It’s great,” he said, squeezing her hand. She smiled, looking down and squeezing back.
“And she’s really a girl,” Patch added. And Felicity undoubtably was a girl, unreasonably thin and unfeasibly intelligent, enormous anime eyes like spotlights in reverse, drawing everything in.

“Not like Bambi,” she added.

I had seen this person called Bambi. She ran around acting like a young, female deer, like the Disney cartoon character. Hardly ever said a word, actually, just flitted about and munched grass. I’m not kidding.

Before I could turn on my “Be Cool” filter, I asked Felicity, “Bambi’s not a girl?” In the Metaverse, you could set the gender of your character, which would automatically make it then use the corresponding pronoun when referring to your character, and in the Metaverse, Bambi was “she.”

Felicity frowned. “Nope. Guy. Nerdy guy, really weird — I’d mention that I was thinking about getting into something, like databases, and a few days later I’d get a package at my door with a five-hundred-dollar database program inside. Lots of documentation.”

“You’re kidding me!” I said.

“Ah, no.” She wrinkled her face. “I keep telling him not to, but it keeps happening.”

“A five-hundred-dollar database package?” In seconds, I’d gone from being lightly jealous of Patch to being a little jealous of her. “Guys really just send you high-end software because they get a crush on you?”

“Yeah,” she said with a laugh. “But Bambi’s really been the only one with the software, so far. He’s a tiny little guy — hates being social, so I didn’t expect him to turn up here — but he’s some high-end programmer or something, so he can afford to do that kind of stuff without thinking about it.” Then suddenly I found myself more than a little envious of a small, nerdy, reclusive man who had the power to make high-end software show up at the drop of a hat.

As I was reeling, Patch asked Felicity what she was doing that weekend. They’d go on to have a brief affair before it came out that, yes, even though he was only nineteen years old he was both already married and already wishing he weren’t. This came up after his first month at work with us, when he had to go back to the college town in the middle of nowhere from whence he’d come and move his wife out to Austin. And the funny thing was that he never talked crap about her, to his credit, not one time. However, when talk of her came up, he’d lose about an inch in height, his shoulders bowing down and towards each other, as though an enormous, fleshy palm were pressing down from above and behind him. The arrival of Patch’s wife distracted Felicity from her affair with him, at least for a while.

Still, it was Felicity who would find herself in my apartment when Timothy Leary came into the picture.

Timothy Leary was a psychedelic subculture guru in the 1960s, among other things. After being jailed several times in the 1970s, he’d lost some of his revolutionary edge, though he was still more than capable of being provocative when it felt good. I’d run into him in January of 1993, in San Francisco, at a high-tech gathering, part robotics demonstration and part self-congratulatory futurist high-five-ing. (After writing this I discovered that my future wife, whom I would not meet for ten years, was at the same show.)

Leary seemed happy to have found a connection to the growing computer subculture, describing our growing sense of life in a networked world as being the closest thing to the hallucinatory drug experiences he had promoted thirty years earlier. For example, while he was giddy to tell the assembled forty or so of us his stories about palling around with William Gibson, author of *Neuromancer*, they always ended with him coming out on top.

“So it’s the middle of the night, and we don’t know anyone else in Prague — and we’d been, you know, drinking.” He winked at the audience to chuckles all around. “And there’s this car coming by, and it’s cold, and we need a lift. So Bill, he says, ‘I got this,’ and he steps out in front of the car and he waves his gangly arms in the air — he’s a tall man, you know — and he says, ‘Stop! I’m William Gibson!’ And the driver nearly runs him down, speeding off into the night.” We laugh uncomfortably. Where was this going? “So the next car that comes by, I hold my arms up and I say, ‘Stop! I’m Timothy Leary!'” He smiled. “And they stopped.”

He was a colorful character. Besides strongly promoting the idea that people should quit their jobs and take a lot of drugs — which, let’s be serious, people never seem to have failed to have come up with that idea on their own — he’d escaped prison, later being dragged back to spend several long periods in solitary confinement — between six months and two-and-a-half years, depending on whom you believe. It was longer than I’d want to spend by myself, in any case.

“Through it all,” he told the people gathered around him, “through everything that I’d done in my life up to that time, I’d always held to two things: I had to either be having fun, or learning something.”

The crowd murmured their appreciation.

“As the doors opened,” he said, “and they began walking me down the hallway to the cell where I would spend years of my life in solitary confinement, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’d better be learning something.'”

Though a lot of what he said was contrived and self-serving, that one was a powerful a life lesson. I wish it would’ve prepared me more for what was going to happen when he came to Austin, and in the weeks and months after.

The lady organizing the spoken-word event that Leary would be headlining was my roommate’s girlfriend, and coincidentally lived in the apartment directly below us. Days before his arrival, she changed the plan so that he would no longer be staying with me. Instead, the people in the apartment beside us could actually clear out for a few days so Leary and his wife or girlfriend or whatever she was could have their own clean space. We lived in a nice set of apartments in downtown Austin, very modern, and the more-empty pad would better serve as a reception area for media and other visitors. I was promised that I’d be one of the five or six core group of people who’d be in and around more often than not, and I had come home early from work to meet him.

This was back in the days when I used to have the television on all the time, as background noise if for no other reason. That day, though, I wasn’t alone. Felicity and I had talked about getting together a couple of times, so she had come by that afternoon to kill some time while we waited for Timothy Leary’s arrival. I was poking at something on the computer in the loft while she sprawled out on the sectional couch, smoking in front of the television.

“Uh, Derek,” she called up. “Is this your guy?” Even though I’d heard the TV announcer at the same time that she had, I hadn’t responded. I imagined a word-balloon stretching out of my mouth, reading, “Does not compute.” I scrambled down the black, spiral staircase, my mouth open, staring at the screen.

My girlfriend Cookie walked in. She and Felicity sized each other up, but before either of them could open their mouths, I said, “Timothy Leary was just arrested at the Austin airport. They’re holding him at the police station—” I pointed out the door, behind my girlfriend. “—about two blocks away.”

Cookie both relaxed and looked irritated at the same time. I thought she was irritated because she’d gotten dressed up for a party that now almost certainly wasn’t going to happen, and not because she’d found a beautiful, meek young girl in a dark purple crushed velvet dress lounging about in my apartment.

“Why?” Cookie asked.

“We don’t—” Felicity started. Cookie began to look at her, but then turned her gaze so strongly toward me that Felicity shut up.

“We don’t know,” I said, still completely oblivious to so many things. My roommate’s girlfriend came in.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Did you hear?”

I pointed at the television. “A woman in Atlanta just told me through a nation-wide broadcast what happened a couple of blocks from here about an hour ago.”

Cookie wrinkled up her nose. “Okay,” she said. “That is weird.”

“It’s a disaster,” said my roommate’s girlfriend. “They arrested him!”

“What for?” I asked.

“Smoking,” she said.

“What?! He brought drugs on the flight?”

“No,” my roommate’s girlfriend said. “Just tobacco. Cigarettes.”

“Um,” I said, raising my hand. “How is that illegal?”

She winced. “It was a no-smoking area.”

“Why didn’t he just go outside?” Felicity asked.

Cookie stared at me, her lips pursed.

Felicity zipped up her backpack. “I should go,” she said.

When the cops let Leary go, he went somewhere else other than our salmon-colored, too-modern downtown apartments. We wouldn’t have an opportunity to ask what had actually happened until the next day, at the show — and boy, would we find out more than we would ever want to have known about how it had all gone down.

Standard