DAY 1. THE HAPPENING
When the great crash happened it was nothing like we feared. There was no panic. No tears. Mostly just slammed fists and swearing. The Internet was down, and hitting refresh didn’t work. “Ctrl, alt, delete” was also useless. No one had Internet. Anywhere.
And we didn’t know why. Electricity, running water, and even television were all unaffected. But Internet Explorer mocked us with an endless hourglass, and Firefox just kept suggesting an update that never came. Mac users were confident Safari would never fail them, but it did. Although, because the Internet was down, no one tweeted “UGH! Safari! FAIL!”
We went to sleep that night with no e-mails sent. No statuses updated. And millions of men all over the world checked that secret panel in their basement wall to see if their old Jenna Jameson DVDs were still there to play them to sleep. Tomorrow, we thought, would be a new day.
DAY 2. THE WAITING
Some woke at dawn. Not on purpose, but withdrawal can be a bitch. They were the first to see that nothing had changed. A few walked out bewildered into the rain. Others remembered that television still had things called weathermen, who advised them to take an umbrella on days like this. By 9:00 A.M., our mood was best characterized as one of bemused frustration with actual panic still an arm’s-length away. Many offices canceled work. It was like getting a technological snow day, and swapping the Internet for some time off seemed like a fair trade at the time.
Personally, I was in favor of anything that relieved me of my duties at the New York Workers’ Compensation Board. Seven years ago, I had overseen the turning of our department into a fully paperless office. The thought of coming back to a desk flooded with photocopies and interoffice memos delivered in scribble-scratched envelopes was too much to bear. Not just the work, but the return to a place that no longer showed any sign of my one accomplishment. My more recent (and last) attempt at greatness was met with less approval. I wrote a memo two years ago suggesting that the state could save millions in worker compensation payments if it delivered free and mandatory antidepressants to all its employees (including employees of the workers’ compensation offices) to prevent all the disability claims stemming from crippling workplace-induced depression and, of course, botched suicide attempts.
“You realize this is your job, right, Gladstone?” Noonan asked, curling my memo in his hands. “It’s not a place for your jokes, regardless of what you’ve got going on in your life.”
I studied the comb marks in his polished gray hair, not fully understanding.
“It wasn’t a joke,” I answered, but it hadn’t really been a question.
By then, no one asked me questions. Like when there had been a change in office policy about Internet use. An interoffice e-mail sent to all employees, but it might as well have been sent only to me with a cc to the others solely for shaming purposes. A reminder that the Internet was to be used only for work-based reasons. Certain websites I’d frequented had been blocked. Nothing wildly NSFW, but things that couldn’t be justified either. Noonan dropped my suggestion on my desk and walked away.
So I was happy to stay home, and did so with a clear conscience, knowing that not everything was broken. After all, my Scotch had yet to suffer any technical difficulties. I poured myself two fingers of The Macallan, pleased with my alcohol-based observation, and considered using it to update my Facebook status before remembering that would be impossible.
DAY 7. TAKING NOTES
One week now and I’m trying to keep this journal on more of a daily basis. As real-time as life will allow. I like the writing. Without work and the Internet, I need something to keep me busy. I focus on the pen scratching paper. It directs my mind and steadies my pulse. I can express any idea I want without some Twitter character limit or fear of a “TL;DR” comment following. Still, I miss the tiny dose of fame that comes from being heard online, where comments are tethered to content people are already reading, and statuses appear instantly on your friends’ screens. There’s a comfort that comes from knowing people are already staring at the pond when you cast your pebble. Knowing there are witnesses to the ripple before it expands out into nothing. So I play a little game and pretend others will read this. That I have a story worth telling. Otherwise, I might as well go to the gym or do crossword puzzles until the Web comes back.
I should go grocery shopping, but I keep thinking FreshDirect is going to be up and running again.
DAY 8. THE ELECTRONICALLY UNASSISTED ORGASM
Some parts of society are adapting better than others. Most offices are back in session, relying on faxes, phone calls, and the realization that 50 percent of all e-mails never need to be sent. But while Corporate America is finding any way possible to crawl toward profitable quarters, social circles are still floundering. People are trying to remember how they got their essentials before the Internet. Specifically, sex. No more eHarmony or Match.com. No more Facebook creeping. You can’t even flash your junk on Chatroulette if you want to. How are we to get our groove on in this new world?
I say “we” because it’s easier to talk like that. To pretend this is a history. A contemporaneously recorded log valuable to sociologists researching the moment when the world went offline. But my perceptions come from news reports, not field research, and mostly I only assume the world is wondering about sex because I am. Dr. Gracchus said it was time to move on. To get out more. But after nearly ten years of marriage, I didn’t know where to begin. So I stared at the nicotine stains on his fingers and nodded the way you nod to psychologists. They need the reassurance. But now, completely unplugged, I’m somehow even more unsure of what comes next than when I first tried to live alone.
Without a computer to put my options before me, I searched my memory, finding only movies from childhood in its place. Where would Val Kilmer or Tom Cruise go to get laid? Bars! And it turns out it’s true. You can find women there. But unlike the Internet, these women are three dimensional (sort of) and when they laugh, strange noises come out in spasms instead of “LOL.”
Last time I checked, there was still a bar a few blocks from my apartment. I remember the loud drunken frat boys and wannabe gangstas stumbling outside years ago, looking for their cars at two in the morning. Romaya and I, already in the full-blown nesting mode of an early marriage, would awaken and crawl from our futon toward the window in darkness. Sometimes we’d wing pennies at their heads. Other times we’d just shout “DUH!” and fall back to bed while they looked for the invisible source of abuse. I guess it was childish. Like Internet tough guys shaking their fists in anonymity, but we thought it was funny. Besides, I liked to pretend that in their drunken stupors they believed it was the universe itself rejecting their bad behavior. Maybe that’s why it helped me sleep. Also, it made Romaya laugh when moments earlier she’d been angry. I was her hero.
I stood in front of my bedroom closet trying to figure out what to wear. Over time, my wardrobe had apparently devolved into an uncomfortable association of business casual and ’90s grunge. I was doubting my ability to score in Doc Martens and flannel when I considered my old corduroy sports jacket currently hanging in the hall closet. I bought it at a college-town thrift store and wore it incessantly through senior year and the years that followed.
“People think you’re a colossal douche for wearing that,” Romaya had said one day, while we pretended to read books that mattered under an arts quad tree.
I had been running my fingers through her thick brown hair sprawling across my lap, and had asked, “Do you agree?”
“Yes, but I like when everyone thinks you’re a douche,” she’d said. “It means I get you all to myself.”
I decided to go for a button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, jeans, and some brown Kenneth Coles Romaya had bought me several years ago when I guess she got tired of having me all to herself. I was pretty much dressing for invisibility.
There was nothing on the other side of the peephole, and I opened my apartment door, suddenly aware of its weight. Building codes required a steel door as a fire precaution. I rode the elevator alone down to the dull silent echo of the lobby. The mailboxes lined the wall, waiting in their polished brass, but the super had brought me my mail only this morning. I had a bad habit of forgetting about it until my little slot was filled, so many of my bills and communications happening online.
The air between the foyer’s set of glass doors was motionless and dead, but I stopped and took a breath anyway before heading out into Brooklyn. Everything was just as I’d left it.
It was too early on a Thursday night for the Crazy Monk Saloon to be packed. I was greeted by several anonymous faces that didn’t look too different from those I’d abandoned a decade earlier. But they were different. They belonged to people who were too young to have moved into the successes and failures of their lives. My face had seen both, and there was no comfort in coming home.
I cut directly for the bar, securing a Yuengling before carrying it to my private stool at a high-top table for two. The bar continued to fill and I found comfort in the wall as I took stock of my surroundings, looking for journal fodder. Reality was troubling and new. Not just to me, but to my fellow patrons who struggled to look attractive in real life.
There was an energy I hadn’t felt for a long time in my fingers and forearms, and not a good one. It made a tapping I didn’t want to make, and movements were quicker than intended. I checked my watch and threw glances at the door, pretending I was waiting for someone. After a few minutes, something brushed against my leg. I looked down and saw a quite attractive, but somewhat overweight, woman. Her makeup was flawless, her chin and jawline were perfectly defined, and her ample cleavage was lovingly showcased as I looked down at her and she up at me.
She had lost a contact, but I kind of felt she lingered on the floor longer than needed in order to re-create a flattering Myspace or Facebook perspective: the extreme downward angle accentuating breasts while forcing a slimming perspective. It worked surprisingly well.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked, thinking people must still do that.
“Um, sure. Okay,” she said, and settled into the perched stool. “My name’s Donna.”
“Nice to meet you, Donna,” I said, noticing her agitation. “Is something wrong?”
“No, um, it’s just this stool,” she said, feeling around and hoping to adjust its height like an office chair.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Why don’t you settle in and I’ll get you … a beer?”
“Michelob Ultra, please,” she said, resting her chin on the table.
I returned to the bar fully aware I’d have to order something masculine to balance out the embarrassment of the Ultra. I scanned the Scotches and whiskeys along the top shelf, looking for a cost-effective option, and that’s when I noticed the reflection of a muscular man in a ridiculously tight shirt. He was using his phone to snap pics in the bar mirror while flexing. I ordered my Jameson and Ultra while he tapped the woman next to him.
“Check it out,” he said, showing her the phone. “When the Internet comes back, I’m gonna make this my profile pic.”
“Cool,” she said, or appeared to. It was hard to hear her clearly through her pursed duck lips.
I headed back to Donna, a drink in each hand, but as soon as I turned, I was confronted by a startlingly beautiful eye. I’m sure there was a body connected to it, but all I could see was a vibrant blue iris speckled with green. Perfectly maintained lashes framed the brilliance, and the colors radiated out along the curling black lines. I pulled back to adjust my perspective, allowing the second eye to come into view, and when I took a further step I saw those brilliant eyes belonged to a face that contained no other attributes nearly as appealing. Not unattractive, but clearly she was accentuating the positive. Of course, I can’t really be sure because just at the moment I got enough distance to let the lines of her face form a picture, she darted up to me again—lids ablazin’—going eyeball to eyeball.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Samantha,” and took another step until my back was firmly against the bar.
“I’d shake your hand, Sam,” I said, “but mine are a little full.”
She was too close for me to drink comfortably, which was too bad because, if my memory of early ’90s beer-goggling t-shirts and baseball hats was correct, it would have really helped her chances.
“Well, it was a pleasure, Samantha, but I have a friend waiting for me,” I said, holding up the Ultra, and heading back to Donna who, I noticed, had swapped out her height-appropriate stool for a chair that barely put her head above the table.
“Um, you sure you want to sit in that chair?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s much more comfortable,” Donna said. “Thank you.”
“Well, maybe I could join you and sit in—”
“No!” she barked before recovering. “I mean, please, just sit down. I didn’t get your name.”
After years online, I’d gotten used to not giving strangers my real name. Even my Facebook profile had been created under just my last name to avoid the spying eyes of nosey employers. And without even thinking, I gave that as my identity.
“Gladstone,” I said.
“Oh … is that your first name or last name?”
“What’s your first?”
“I’ll tell you when I know you better,” I said. “After all, maybe you’re just some frustrated spammer running a phishing scheme in bars.”
She laughed. Then she didn’t. And then there was nothing.
“So … pretty crazy with the Internet, huh?” I offered.
We attended to our drinks. Occasionally, she’d adjust her breasts and look up at me in a still way.
“I hope it comes back, I have so many pics to upload. Wanna see?” she asked, offering her phone.
I flipped through about a dozen pics, all with her face at three-quarters and shot from above. She had it down to such a science that if you printed them out and put them in a flip book, it would create only the illusion of a pretty-faced, moderately overweight woman standing still.
“So, did you come here alone?” she asked.
I thought of Tobey. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone a week without speaking to him, and I missed his stupid IMs. What started as a mutual admiration over five years ago had blossomed into a beautiful friendship, or at least a beautiful acquaintanceship that lasted years while my real-life friends seemed to fall away over time. I was a faithful reader of his horribly inappropriate celebrity news blog, and he was a big fan of those three lists I once wrote for McSweeney’s. We messaged nearly daily, but had almost never spoken, even on the phone. Still, I was confident he’d be a good wingman and wished he were here instead of L.A.
“My friend’s meeting me,” I said. “He’s late.”
I continued to scan the bar. Some people were fine, but we weren’t the only ones having trouble talking. I noticed what appeared to be a couple at the bar. Or at least a man and woman standing somewhat near each other in silence. After some deliberation, he leaned over and overtly “poked” her. To my surprise, she blushed for a moment, giggled something to her girlfriend, and then firmly pressed one outstretched finger into his shoulder. They stared at each other for a moment, and then left the bar in unison. Whether it was to have sex or just say dirty things to each other from across the room while mutually masturbating is difficult to say.
“So, how ya doin’ on that drink?” I asked. “Can I get you another?” Her beer had hardly been touched, but I noticed I’d apparently killed my Jameson.
“No, I’m okay,” she said, “but if you need another … what was that you were drinking?”
“Oh, I guess it was Scotch.”
“Really,” she said. “Seemed like Jameson.”
“But that’s Irish whiskey.”
But this wasn’t the Internet. Her eyes required more of an explanation than an empty chat box.
“I guess I call it Scotch,” I said, “because that’s what I want it to be. Sure I can’t get you another beer?”
She just shook her head without speaking.
“Okay. BRB. I mean, be right back, heh.”
I got up and headed to the bar, hoping more alcohol would lubricate my way through this awkward dance, but as I got farther from our table I realized I was also getter closer to the door. Two more steps and I would be through it, and then I’d be headed home where the Scotch was already paid for, and I didn’t have to remember to smile for fear the natural curve of my mouth would be mistaken for anger.
I made it through and kept walking at a steady clip. I felt bad for Donna, but I wasn’t worried about running into her again. That was my last time at the Crazy Monk Saloon. Nothing about the night felt right, and even the streets were strange to me. Like one of the rusty wires in a bundle of threads holding Brooklyn together had given way, adding an unseen tension to the rest. More fractures were coming. I needed to get back inside before it reached critical mass and snapped with the fury of a dragon’s tail, knocking down buildings and severing limbs with its flailing.
I kept my gaze fixed on the front entrance of my building and walked as fast as I could. And even though my focus was directed home, I couldn’t help noticing something wrong about the way a group of guys were forming a circle around something across the street. I shut the lobby door behind me, almost silencing the sounds of a cat being made to do things it didn’t want to do.
Copyright © 2014 by Wayne Gladstone