The stillness of this early Saturday morning was broken only by the faint hum of the computer's fan. Poised on the monitor's off-white screen was the blinking cursor, never yielding, never tiring, as it prompted him for a response. On the screen, ready to transmit, was his response to the question:
Why are you feeling down today, RainMan?
He re-read the passage he'd typed in. In a flash the screen scrolled and a new line appeared before his eyes: Are you still there?
Again that accusatory finger of light blinked, goading him to press enter. Mark bit absentmindly into his lower lip as he held his finger above the enter key. On the screen was the phrase he'd typed:
It’s complicated, but I’ve lost my reason for living. He looked away from the computer and keyboard, into the darkness of the surrounding room and pressed enter. The message traveled out over the phone lines almost instantly appearing on the computers of six other people that participated in this weekly Mental Health Forum.
In Venice, California, Melissa, who used the name CA_GIRL while she was on line, read RainMan's words. Melissa used her desktop computer to reach out to others to help fill the empty hours of her life. She had many friends on InterNet ranging from people she shared common interests with to those she'd given her love to. RainMan, was the person she'd bared her soul to. She lowered her head under the weight of his words, and a tear slowly traveled down the familiar course of her face.
She met RainMan seven months earlier, when hoping to find the cure for an abusive online affair, she sent a plea out over the net Several people responded, but she found in RainMan’s response an apparent honesty and genuine concern that was unlike any a man had ever shown her. They became each other's confidants, friends distanced by an entire country, but who were closer to each other than they were to their own families. Recently, RainMan had written that he was planning on meeting his on line romantic interest, and judging from his apparent state of mind, it hadn’t gone well, but she couldn't fathom the depth of his depression or what he might do.
While the others looked on, CA_GIRL began typing: RainMan, your meeting with Carol Ann didn’t go well?
How could you tell? No, it didn’t go well, CA_GIRL.
At her home in Chicago, overlooking the lake, Dr. Roberta Michaels, Dr. Rob as she was known on line, had been participating in this group of distressed night owls for the past few weeks. Her divorce was final. Her husband also a prominent Chicago psychiatrist had traded her in for a newer model. The presence of her graying hair, cellulose, and varicose veins made her reluctant to start dating. She knew they were also the reasons her husband left her. So she sought the comfort and anonymity of socializing on line. Like everyone that used the net, she first had come to know these acquaintances by their online names and profiles, but these were often misleading.
RainMan’s change in personality was apparent and curious to her. In earlier conversations, he had always appeared bright, outspoken, and a little cold.
She began, RainMan would you like to share what happened with us.
It’s hard for me.
She continued, We’re all your friends and willing to help you just as you’ve helped us?
DeeDee pressed her size nine finger onto the enter key. Her message left her home in Baton Rouge at the same time that Tom & Sue's message arrived from Tennessee. Both messages asked the same question, Who is Carol Ann?
DeeDee, never one to mind her own business, jumped in, Rainman, we've all shared our skeletons; now it's time for you to pay-up!
RainMan began composing his response; Several months ago I met this woman online. We found we shared a certain kismet. She was witty and wonderful, interesting and imaginative. We created fantasies and touched each other's souls. We finally made arrangements to meet. That was last weekend. It didn't go well.
From their small town home in Tennesse, Sue spoke to Tom who was brushing his teeth, getting ready for bed, "It seems like it's RainMan's evening tonight." Tom mumbled something. "You know I can't hear you over the water. RainMan has a life after all, he apparently met an on line romance. Another thing he hasn't mentioned to us. And she must have dumped him."
Tom walked over to the computer and tenderly kissed Sue on the back of neck, "Not everyone will be as lucky as we were."
Roberta, dug deeper, Yes RainMan, again you disguised your emotions in your pro's, it's more than that isn't it? You can't dismiss it that easily can you?
Mark bit down harder on his lip, We had an affair, of the CyberSex variety. It went on for a couple of months. She was everything I ever wanted. I learned about her family, her passions, her interests. I wanted it to become real, to hold her, to smell her perfume, to look deep into her eyes and see what she saw. I was ready to lay down my life for her, sight unseen. She was equally as interested in getting together. We met along the shores of the Charles River in Boston. She was as beautiful physically as she was spiritually. I was immediately self-conscious, I'm plain at best. In just minutes though, she had placed me at ease with a kiss. I remember how she said, with a hint of sarcasm in her voice, "Now that wasn't as great as you thought it would be?" She was right, that first one wasn't, but we kissed some more and I started to feel a passion and love that I had never felt before. We spent the weekend together.
Go on RainMan, what happened? Roberta keyed.
Mark responded, She boarded the plan and flew away. She said, we were just friends.
Dr. Rob typed, RainMan, everyone has to learn to deal with loss. It's a normal part of life. In time the pain of her memory will vanish and you'll find happiness with another.
RainMan jumped in, Oh Dr. Rob, that's what I keep telling myself. But her face is everywhere I turn. Her laughter is in the darkness around my bed. Her eyes haunt my dreams. She was everything I wanted, everything I ever dreamed of.
RainMan, Dr. Rob began. Perhaps that's the key. She was your dream, a fantasy, dreams are better left in our sleep. We awaken trouble when we try to make them our reality. Just give it time. Look everyone I've got to sign off--busy day tomorrow. That is if you're doing all right RainMan?
Mark was shaking like a wet kitten, as much from the fear in confiding in these people as the kitten would be from the cold. Sure, Good Night. It's late here on the East Coast, RainMan said. He quickly left Internet. The modem clicked off and he was alone again, cut off from world. He returned to his journal. On the screen was the following passage:
I hear her sweet voice once again echoing through my memory, "Mark, I do have feelings for you, but not now." She said she had things to resolve in her own life. At the airport she kissed me good-bye. That kiss could have been from my sister kissing me good night, for all the passion she mustered. I remember telling her that I couldn't help but feel that was the last kiss we'd ever have. She looked at me, forced a smile, and said, "We'll be friends and I'll always remember you."
He added one more sentence, In the abscense of light, there is only darkness.... He quickly hit the power switch, killing the modem and burying the trail of words on the screen. The powerless screen glowed momentarily than faded, the room grew black.
Melissa was eager for the session, she sent several messages to RainMan but he hadn't responded. That was unlike him. She signed onto the net an hour early and joined a role playing game for a time before she entered the Mental Health Forum. She was the first to sign in. She waited for the others to join her. One by one the members logged in.
Hi DeeDee, how are you and the kids? , Melissa asked.
Kids! is that what they are. I sometimes wish my husband had been awarded them. They're still doing poorly in school and my oldest was caught with cocaine. He spent a night in juvenile hall. I'm glad he's still a minor.
Melissa watched as Tom & Sue joined the group, Hi guys whose driving the computer tonight?
You've got us both, but it's Tom at the helm and Sue is lying next to me in a very tantalizing pose. The description of that is better left in some of the more adult rooms... .What's our topic tonight?
Dr. Rob greeted each of them. Then asked where RainMan was. She explained that he'd sent her a rather cryptic message . Melissa wrote, I wrote him several times; he didn't respond. I don't mind saying I'm a little concerned. This just isn't like him.
CA_Girl, Tom began, maybe he's just on vacation. Last week he sounded down I'm sure everything is fine.
Melissa wrote, He didn't go into the detail with you that he did with me regarding his romance. He really went overboard with this woman. It was sort of fairy tale for him. He was planning to live the rest of his life with her. I suggested he was just fantasizing about her, and he should start more slowly, but he wouldn't hear of it. He's such a nice guy. I feel sorry it didn't work out for him. What was in his message to you Dr. Rob?
Let me send it to you. A few moments later Melissa's computer beeped signaling she had a new EMail. She read her it:
You just don't seem to understand. You're not the first woman I've had trouble communicating with....This is something I wrote for her a few months ago. It will show you what she means to me.
If every person has one wish in life, I would not waste mine on wealth or fame.
I would honestly wish to spend my life with you. I just made that wish.
Silently the epitaph reads...
In wisdom we are poor.
In turmoil we are rich.
In death we are silent.
Roberta continued to write, Look does anyone know who he really is. I'd like to call him. How about you CA_GIRL?
Although most of the participants had letters from him he hadn't divulged his true identity to anyone. That wasn't uncommon for people on the Net who distanced themselves from their lives by putting on the mask of a new personae. As characters in an 18th century masquerade ball they were then able to move about the affair, unencumbered by connections, safe in their own anonymity. The masks, they chose to wear, were their on line names. The costumes, the colorful words they used to communicate. In the morning, they were again themselves, the excitement of the night before just a memory.
Melissa finished reading her mail. With her concern fueled she wrote, I don't know his name either. Maybe we could check with the administrator of his FreeNet.
DeeDee broke in, Let me do that. I'm a hacker anyway. I know my way around InterNet.
They decided to reconvene the following Night. CA_GIRL, took it upon herself to write to RainMan again informing him of their concern.
DeeDee, a teacher in Baton Rouge, began composing her request for information. Before she went to bed she placed it on the System Operator's bulletin board. She had third period off and from the terminal in the teacher's lounge she logged into InterNet to look for the response. She was instantly engrossed by the computer, it commanded all of her attention. So she missed the cruel comments by the teacher's aid's. In this world of bits and bytes she could be as young and petit as her imagination allowed. Online she was queen, measured not by her girth but by her wit and knowledge of the InterNet.
Royality or not the SysOps are Gods, the response read, It is against policy to provide the information you requested.
That evening the group met. Of the Tom & Sue duo, Tom was at the keyboard. He smiled at Sue who was perched like a fragile hummingbird on his lap. Then turned back to the glow and continued to type, So DeeDee what did you find out?
I found out that all men are assholes, except you Tom. The SysOp wasn't any help.
You all probably remember that I'm a former police officer. I can probably pull some strings and get more information.
DeeDee reflected for a moment, Yes Tom please do that. And by-the-way how are you doing, with the memory of that boy and that other baggage?
Oh fine, DeeDee. Thank you for asking.
Tom fought back the tremors and glanced at the unopened bottle of scotch on his bookshelf. Sue craddled him in her arms and listened again because the police psychiatrist had insisted that it was good for him to open up.
"It's been three years and I can still vividly remember that night.", his voice quivered. "The sky was orange from the halogen street lights and their hum was deafening. I looked up and felt the cold drizzle on my face. The rain sizzled on the gun barrel and this steam rose and mixed with my breath. At my feet, was this boy and so much blood. He was just kid with a toy gun and a bottle stolen from the package store down the street. I remember how the only movement from him was the steam rising from him came from his chest cavity." In a determined voice Tom said, "I still have that damn memory, but at least I don't need that crutch anymore."
He clung to Sue and she pressed herself against him.
Sue whispered in his ear, "Let's go to bed.". She let her nightgown slip to the floor. Tom quickly said good night to the group. In the moonlight, Sue moved to the bed and climbed in pulling the sheets back inviting Tom in.
A second weekly session began, and still no word from RainMan. Melissa tapped on the table. Tom reported that his friends had convinced the administrator of the urgency of their questioning. It turned out that the information RainMan had filed with the FreeNet was bogus. Their sleuthing had turned out be a dead end.
DeeDee typed, I don't know where we can go from here. If we knew more about him.
Tom wrote, Maybe we could find him through someone else on the Internet, maybe from the woman who dumped him. Does anyone know someone else he communicates with?
Melissa typed, Everyone I'm going to check something that RainMan sent me several months ago.
I'll be back shortly. She viewed the documents stored under RainMan. After a few minutes she found what she was looking for. It was dated several months earlier and it was his first love poem to Carol Ann. He had sent it Melissa because he wanted her advice on whether it was appropriate.
What do you think about this CA_GIRL, she's into gardening so I wrote her poem about my feelings for her using a rose metaphor.
The rose is singular, lovely, and unique. To flower it must be properly tended. The rewards of care and concern are the joys of watching this rose bloom. To enjoy a rose breathe its scent deeply, carefully study each pedal, and feel the cool dampness of its leaves. Before you can fathom a rose gently touch its thorns, observe their sharpness, understand their points, and then the rose may be carefully held without pricking a careless finger. The rose is so fragile, yet its beauty surpasses all others. There can never be too much tending when caring for a rose.
Melissa returned to the group, She's into gardening, maybe we can search gardening groups and make posting on gardening bulletin boards. I'm not really that good on InterNet, but maybe together we could track her down.
DeeDee instructions were succinct on how each of them would conduct their own search. She instructed Melissa to enter forums and how she might located Carol Ann. Tom & Sue and Dr Rob would post bulletins on any appropriate bulletin board. While DeeDee would search the various FreeNets. FreeNets grouped users together into common directories, and served as the address for EMail. She didn't hold out much hope that they would find Carol Ann through a FreeNet; because they're millions of computers on InterNet, and DeeDee knew only too well that most of the users gain access through universities or corporations which didn't publish user lists. This was worse than a needle in the haystack. In this case the needle was invisible and the haystack was potentially the whole world.
Melissa liked the assignment, satisfied that something was being done. Her task involved logging into channels involved in gardening. She was an assistant editor for a cult blog "Solitude", which was a women's blog geared to women, for woman, and about women with women. Her interest in lesbian affairs surpassed the professional. She kept this part of life secret to most of her on screen friends and family. After two weeks of searching it seemed that everyone was losing interest, but Melissa still took the time. She owed it to RainMan. He had commiserated with her about her last love. Unlike most her family, he didn't question her bisexuality or seem uncomfortable writing her. He was honest when it was appropriate; He skirted delicate subjects when they’d do harm. She wanted him back.
It was Tuesday, hot and dry, typical of southern California. Melissa's newest friend couldn't stay the night. Her husband was back in town. Boy she needed to talk to RainMan about this one. She sat in front of the open window the lace curtains delicately fluttered in the breeze. Her chest was bare and she looked at the sheen of perspiration between her breasts. God she was hot. She been skirting different forums for hours. Finally, she entered one called, Victory Garden.
The conversation was dull. Too much nitrogen can actually stunt the growth of tubers.
Her mind began to wander. She looked out the window of her darkened room at the kids on the corner and smelled the pungent aroma of pot drifting up to her. She felt some rap tune's heavy base through the floor. She was starting to feel quite bored and tired, when she noticed that someone named Carol Ann had joined the conversation. Melissa's heart skipped a beat like she just swerved her car to avoid a dog. She couldn't believe her eyes. There in the darkness was Carol Ann thanking everyone for the discussion but also bidding everyone a good night.
Melissa would have to hurry. She needed to know who this woman was and was she the right woman, before she signed off.
Dn't go Carol Ann!!!, she typed quickly. She didn't even have time to fix the typo. Please don't go. I need to talk to you.
She didn't want to mention RainMan at first. She didn't want to scare her away since this was a public forum and who knows who might be looking over her screen.
Hello CA_GIRL, have we talked before?, Carol Ann wrote. She was a little surprised about the seeming urgency.
Wow Carol Ann thanks for not going. We may share a common friend. Is this a good time to talk. Melissa was still searching, she couldn't certain if this was the right Carol Ann. I'd like to go private if that's all right.
Carol Ann began. Well I usually don't go private on the first date but since we have a mutual friend. They set up a private channel. This gave Melissa the freedom to discuss RainMan.
Okay Carol Ann, Do you know someone named RainMain?
Carol Ann looked at her screen. Her eyes dropped from the screen and her eyes moistened. She would play it carefully. Yes, I know RainMan, she began. How is he doing?
Melissa typed, We were hoping you could tell us. He's sort of missing. It's been several weeks since he's written to any of his friends on line. We've been...concerned.
Why are you concerned CA_GIRL?
Melissa was reluctant to explain in more detail. She went on, We just wanted to call him. And I thought you might have his number.
Who is 'We' and how did you get my name? What did he tell you?
Melissa, now protective of RainMan and reading the belligerence in that last line was careful to suppress her own anger not wanting Carol Ann to end the conversation:
He mentioned he was an on line friend of yours. We are a group of his friends that get together Friday nights on the Cleveland Freenet in the Mental Health Forum. We talk about life issues. He's been rather depressed and I just wanted to cheer him up. Since he's not responding to his EMail I thought a call might be appropriate.
Talking about life issues!, Carol Ann wrote. Look CA_GIRL, if he's such a good friend of yours why don't you have his phone number. I've got to go. Good night!!!.
Wait...., CA_GIRL typed. In the darkness of her California home she watched the blinking cursor and that pale white screen. She was overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness, failure. She knew their last link to RainMan was gone.
Across the country, in her splendid sea-side home. Carol Ann fought back the tears that had been building. The light from the computer cast shadows against the far wall, these shadows were her friends. They didn't demand anything from her. They didn't cause her any pain. They were unlike Mark, who demanded so much, he demanded love. She struggled with an EMail to him:
The weekend in Boston was perfect, you're perfect. I want to explain better what happened. I fell in love with you, and that is what I'm afraid of. I've loved before and was hurt very badly. I'm just too afraid to love again--to be hurt again. Mark, I'm so sorry, but now is not the right time.
She looked at the message on her screen, her vision blurred by tears. She nodded her head from side to side. Then reached for the power switch and turned the computer off. The message was lost.
On the following Friday, Carol Ann decided to find the group. She was not particularly skilled on Internet. It took her quite a while to find her way there. It was 12:30 A.M. and the group had been in session since 11:00 P.M. She watched the banter. She noticed that CA_GIRL was talking heavily with someone named DeeDee. There was apparently an issue of sex discrimination at the school where DeeDee taught. She thought this might be a good topic for her to jump in on. She had first hand experience.
She began to type, I know just how you feel, DeeDee" She was reluctant to press enter. She wasn't sure what kind of reception she'd receive. Some of these channels became hostile when others entered them uninvited. Other's simply grew uncomfortably quiet. She hit the enter key. The message traveled out over the net. Moments later various greetings flooded in.
Tom jumped in, Hi Carol Ann, we weren't holding out any hope for you. But Glad you could make it.
CA_GIRL's greeting read, I'm delighted you found your way here.
Dr. Rob, described the nature of their concern for RainMan and asked for RainMan's phone number. In a matter of moments it was decided that CA_GIRL (Melissa), should call Mark. She dialed the number. It was almost 1:00 A.M. on Saturday morning in Portland Maine when the phone rang. The answering machine answered on the fifth ring. Melissa heard for the first time Mark's deep masculine voice, he sounded like a radio personality..
She spoke, "Hi Mark, sorry to call so late. This is CA_GIRL, my name is really Melissa, we're all interested in hearing what's going on with you please come join us again. She left her number and told him to call anytime." She hung up the phone and reported back to the group.
Tom interrupted, Well it's a good sign that his answering machine is still active. I doubt that his family or the authorities would want a dead man's voice answering the phone.
The group was ready to break up for the evening when RainMan entered the forum with his particular flair. Scrolling down on everyone's screen came another of RainMan's poems.
Ships At Sea
Warm breezes rustled the locks of children,
On those long summer days of youth.
When each day born a brilliant orb,
That moved through a sea of blue .
The children's cheerful voices rang-out,
Above the din of day-to-day.
Each time a cloud resembled a ship,
That sailed by on its way.
Those clouds, like ships, steered no special course,
As they winded their way through the blue.
The days grew shorter, The ships steered straighter,
Not long til they sailed out of sight.
Summer's brilliance waned, the wind, just a memory
Of ships at sail at sea.
Those ships from this shore are seen no more.
But on a distant shore they may....
As the other's welcomed RainMan back, Roberta looked over the text of the poem.
She wrote, Feeling better RainMan?
Ah! Dr. Rob and Carol Ann too, I suspect Doctor, that your the master mind behind this conspiracy, Mark quipped.
Let's just say we all had a part. You had us a little nervous.
Oh ya, that's me. Let's just say I've been a little self-indulgent. Now my feet are once again firmly under me. Hey Carol Ann, how's tricks?
Mark said good night to the group in general, promising to return next week. He took a moment and care to say one last farewell. Thanks Carol Ann, take care my love and look out for yourself. With his usual flair he sent one last message, When love is opened it must be consumed without reservation or it will sour like milk.
He watched the others say good night. His computer beeped signaling a new personal message. He was surprised to see it was from CA_GIRL.
We still haven't been formally introduced, I'm Melissa. I'm 5'4" tall, a petite blond, with blue eyes, "Very Sexy". Would you like to get to know me better?
Mark smiled a bit and decided he'd have to sleep on this invitation. He'd reply tomorrow. He switched the power off and that blinking cursor disappeared. He slept well.