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Love Over the Wires

Wired's first short story is a modern romance via email.

By Paulina Borsook

I knew all was lost when Robbie put his arm around me at the lookout castle-ette on the cliffs above the Columbia River Gorge. He whispered into my ear that I was a woman of incredible light and shadows, and I had that sick feeling of knowing I would be going to bed with him as soon as we could manage it; that once we managed it we would be formally in love, and there was the whiff of disaster about it all. Love was never other than mutual self-deception.

I wasn't really supposed to have been at the Third Annual Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. Groupware has nothing to do with computational linguistics, and most theorists get pretty sniffy about the lack of formal rigor involved in doing research on topics like What-I-See- Is-What-You-See. But I'd always been pretty good about getting unrestricted grants, and I was dying to get out of Amherst in the middle of January and spend some time on the Pacific Rim. I needed to be somewhere for a bit where if I had to, I could drive in a couple of hours to see the sun set, as opposed to rise, over the ocean.

It was never entirely clear what Robbie was doing at the CSCW conference either, except maybe that he wanted a break from writing his book, or to have an excuse to take a trip without Margaret. The secrets of artificial life were not going to be revealed by a bunch of social scientist wannabes making runs at computer technology nobody would have any interest in using anyway.

My first thoughts on seeing Robbie at the cocktail reception on the opening night were that anyone that good-looking had to be a son of a bitch, that he was the best I'd ever seen at giving people what they wanted to hear, and in spite of all his manifest trickiness, he was what I had always known I deserved if I had tried very hard, been a good girl, and really done my homework.

I went up and introduced myself, something I don't normally do unless I have to. There was no professional gain compelling me, but I had to, nonetheless. What then began was us circling each other for the next two days, making sure we were always seated at the same tables though not next to each other at meals, and keeping in each other's line of sight when each of us was talking to other conference participants at breaks. I could tell he would be watching me when I was being hit on, for I was doing the same with him. While I appreciated that he was a compulsive flirt, I knew he only meant it with me. I heard him use the dread coupled-off pronoun "we" when he was talking with a woman from Xerox PARC, although he wasn't wearing a wedding ring. I always checked.

We finally sat together at lunch on the final full day of the conference. I suggested we forego the afternoon's scheduled pleasures of listening to papers on enabling technologies and synchronous communications and play hooky. Robbie was something of an endorphin-junkie and sought out all the high-risk physical activities he could, so he suggested we get out of Portland and make a pilgrimage to the Columbia River Gorge, a windsurfer world-heritage Holy Place. I was secretly glad it was too cold that time of year for him to suggest that I get suited up to play with him; messing around with equipment was not my idea of an ideal First Date.

I decided to let Robbie do the driving even though I usually prefer to exhibit as much autonomy as possible. I'd found out by then that not only did he fly planes, he built them. And not only did he build them, he designed them. I saw no reason not to leave our transportation in the hands of a professional.

When we got out of the car to head out onto the WPA-built observation deck, I wondered if this had been a good idea. He had spent most of the drive out to the river talking about Margaret, and asking me about my research and about Carter. Although I was new to the notion of adultery, this didn't seem like good form or an auspicious beginning. So we stood, hands in our coat pockets, me covertly coveting the crows' feet surrounding his amber- colored eyes and the grey in his hair and the weary patches under his almost Athabaskan-looking cheekbones. The mustardy brick crenelations of the lookout-tower didn't fit the landscape; the lack of feng-shui contributed to my ill-ease. And then Robbie made his move, and I leaned into it. The effect was violent, physicochemical, neurophysiological, ineluctable, inarguable.

Virtual Romance, another story by San Francisco-based writer Paulina Borsook (loris@well.sf.ca.us), is available through the Internet's Online Bookstore (obs@tic.com).

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