“I have no idea,” I say with a jolt of shock, realizing that of course I don’t know. The image of Ben I carry around in my head is just that, an image in my head. He could look like anything at all. He could be one of the bearded guys at the table. I stare at them in horror.
“Like some welcome drinks?” Xena, Warrior Princess, is standing at our elbows, holding two red plastic cups. She frowns at me and Lisle. “You are eighteen, right?”
“Yep,” Lisle agrees cheerfully. I wonder if anyone’s going to tell Xena, Warrior Princess, that the legal drinking age in the U.S. is twenty-one, not eighteen. But no one says anything. I take one of the cups and stare down at the murky brown mixture.
“It’s vodka and diet chocolate soda,” explains Xena. “Sorry I don’t have any real soda—I’m on Atkins. But I sent some of the guys out to get mixers, so we should have them soon.”
I nod and drink some of the brown mixture. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
Xena claps her hands together. “Okay, everybody! Roll call. Faith and Catherine, everyone. Everyone, Catherine and Faith.” In quick succession we are introduced to Sherlock Holmes, Neo and Trinity from The Matrix, Luke Skywalker, G’Kar, Starbuck (the boy), Starbuck (the girl), Edward Elric, Dracula, Lana Lang, Kenshin, Modesty Blaise, and Hazel, who is apparently a rabbit from Watership Down. I breathe a little sigh of relief—no Heathcliff yet.
The two girls on the couch introduce themselves to us belatedly as Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountain, which makes Lisle snort. I remember their torrid journal posts and passionate online protestations of love. They don’t look so torrid now—they’re sitting as far as they can get from each other on the couch, wearing identical panicked expressions.
The doorbell rings and Xena goes to answer it. When she returns, she’s trailed by two teenage boys carrying grocery bags. Both are about the same height, both have dark hair.
But I know Ben immediately. When we were first getting acquainted online, we sent flirty photos of ourselves to each other—I’d take a picture of my elbow and send it to him, and he’d respond with a photo of just his left eye, or the curve of his ear. I couldn’t have put a picture of his face together in my mind, but I knew he had a scar on his right thumb, and a spray of freckles across one cheek, light as powder dust. Looking at him now, I know him by the curling hair at his temples, like ivy curling up at the corners, just like in the photos he sent me. I recognize the shape of his hands, the blue of his eyes. Now that the rest of him is filled in around the edges I am amazed—he looks just like I thought he would.
I barely notice the boy who’s with him. He has dark hair, too, and glasses, and is skinnier than Ben, more what I imagine a nerdy online role-player to look like. He hoists his bag. “Snacks and mixers,” he says. “Where should we put them?”
Ben starts to look over in my direction. And that’s it—I’m out of the room, my feet carrying me down the hallway, so fast that I’m practically running. Running from what? I have no idea. I duck into a bathroom, almost slamming the door behind me. I turn the sink on and grab handfuls of icy water, splashing them up over my burning face. The bathroom is gross, too—the floor is sticky, and powder from burned incense covers the counter, though the air still smells like mold.
“Jane? Jane!” Lisle bangs on the door, her voice filled with anxiety. “Jane, are you okay?”
I suppose I should appreciate that she’s come to find me, but instead I just feel more humiliated than ever. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting on the sticky, wet linoleum, and put my face in my hands.
I should take this moment to point out that me playing Catherine Earnshaw in a massive online multiplayer game was Lisle’s idea in the first place. It would never have occurred to me, mostly because I don’t use the computer that much—or at least, I didn’t. It was Lisle who was crazy about the Game. Lisle and I had been friends for so many years that I’d forgotten when we’d met. She lived next door to me and was just always there, like a sister more than a friend. She annoyed me like a sister might, too. Especially since she’d become completely addicted to her online journal. She had a fair number of people logging on to read the rambling thoughts and massive multi-chaptered Buffy fanfiction she posted on her site, Pretty When You Blog. To be totally honest, Lisle isn’t that great a writer. She never seems to be able to streamline her thoughts into any sort of logical shape, and she doesn’t care about spelling or capitalization either. But she has a really cute icon of herself in a black corset top up on the page, which on the Internet is better than being able to spell.
It was because of her other blogger friends that she wound up being in the Game. There are lots of role-playing games online, but the Game is the most famous because it’s so huge. The idea behind the Game is that every player picks a character from a book, TV show, movie, video game—anything, as long as it’s a character a fair number of people can be expected to recognize. Every character gets a journal, and the ability to message other characters. The idea is that everyone in the Game is trapped in a huge castle together, where they live and eat and sleep and interact with each other. In theory, they’re trying to get out of the castle, but nobody pays much attention to that part of the Game. Mostly they flirt and fight. And you’re not supposed to interact exclusively with people from your own fictional “universe,” which is why you get Alice in Wonderland hanging out with Indiana Jones and Lolita hooking up with Conan the Barbarian.
“It’s a total mindfuck,” Lisle explained when she first joined it. She was into the Game fairly early and got to pick the character she wanted—Faith, in her case. She’d been obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer since we were about ten years old and first watched it together and she’d declared that she was Buffy. Later she decided she was Faith, because Faith had the dark hair. Lisle had been a crazed fan of a lot of things since, but nothing else seemed to have the staying power of Buffy.
Lisle quickly struck up an online love triangle with the brothers from Supernatural. (Lisle likes it when boys fight over her.) She never seemed to take it too seriously, but she was online constantly, messaging them, exchanging photos, and giggling. She got caught up in all the backstage dramas of the Game, always telling me who’d deleted their journal recently in a fit of pique, who was trolling who, and who had hooked up with who behind who’s back.
It drove me crazy. For years, every day after school and on the weekends I’d gone by Lisle’s house and hung out with her in her bedroom. We used to sprawl on the floor and watch movies together. (Lisle wanted to watch Legend and Alien and I wanted to watch black-and-white classics. We compromised on Merchant Ivory costume dramas, because she liked the boys with the English accents.) Once the Game started, all I did was lie on Lisle’s bed and watch while she typed on her computer. She could sit there for hours, literally, without ever looking up. Every few seconds I’d hear that “pong” noise that meant someone was sending her an online message. After a while I felt like every time I heard it was another punch in the face.
Finally, I cracked. I joined the Game because it was either that or move and find a new best friend. Lisle was so excited that I was going to play in the Game with her, she practically cried. “I’ll play if I can be Catherine Earnshaw,” I told her, thinking of my favorite fictional character in my favorite book of all time, WutheringHeights. I didn’t think I’d get her—Cathy is such a great character, and her love story with Heathcliff is so intense, someone was sure to be playing her already.
But no one was. Lisle was practically dancing while she set up my journal for me and showed me how to message other players within the game interface. But there was one big problem: no one was playing Heathcliff, and a Cathy with no Heathcliff is like a bike with no wheels. I made a few journal entries about how life on the moors was dull and how I wished something exciting would happen and about how the heather was growing plentifully this season. I figured I must have the most boring Game journal ever.
Sometimes other characters would come into my journal and try to interact with me. Lisle bopped by occasionally and pinged me with messages; Draco Malfoy tried to start up a chat, and when I wasn’t responsive, left some nasty comments in my journal and departed. Sherlock Holmes pinged to ask if I’d seen an enormous dog on the moors, and since I do love The Hound of the Baskervilles I considered e-mailing him back, but wound up being too shy. Lisle was disgusted with me and declared me a failure at the Game—and, it was strongly implied, at life.
And then there was Ben. He didn’t tell me his real name at first, of course. I logged into my Game account one day and there it was: a note that I’d been added by a new character: Heathcliff. And a message in my inbox. I opened it, expecting it to be of the “What up UR kewl and Kute!” variety, but it wasn’t. It was a love letter from Heathcliff to Cathy. And it was beautiful.
Even though it was addressed to Cathy, and not to me, and was from someone I’d never met, it made me cry. I sat there crying while I read it and feeling stupid but sort of not caring that I felt stupid. It was a letter about that sort of amazing, total love you always hope someone will feel for you someday, that obliterating passion that makes everything else in the world not matter. It didn’t use any of the words from the book, but it still sounded like the Heathcliff who said about Cathy: I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul. The letter talked about how his soul would wander the dark moors forever, in purgatory until I—or Cathy, really—came down to speak with him once again.
I wrote back. How could I not write back to that? It felt like someone had reached right into my chest and zapped it with forty-thousand volts. When he messaged me, I stayed up all night, fingers flying over the keyboard. When I was messaging Ben, I was Cathy. He was Heathcliff. I could smell the air out on the moors, feel the cold, the loneliness, the excitement.
It was weeks before Ben even told me his real name, and then I was sort of shocked, a little bit, that he had one and that it was so ordinary. I felt a sort of terror—what if he was just completely ordinary in every way? But then, no one ordinary could write those letters, those messages. I asked him for a photo of himself, and he sent me elliptical pictures he took with his phone camera, just a piece of himself at a time: an eye here, a hand there, the side of his chin. I sent the same sort of pictures back, standing in the quad at school taking pictures of my painted toes in sandals. And the weird thing is that I felt like Cathy when I was doing it, even though Cathy lived hundreds of years before cell phones and text messaging. But I felt wild and flirty and free, just like her.