Ming paces the store floor, careful to avoid eye contact with any shoppers. He rustles through his too-tight jean pockets for his vape pen. Minutes go by, until a whole hour has passed. He moves to check his Android smartwatch for what must be the hundredth time, but thinks better of it and checks his phone instead, in case the radio silence he’s experiencing is due to his messages not syncing.
The very last message he sent Avery was: will u go out with me? He had been cute about it, sending her a cheesy meme attached to it, which was also a backup plan of sorts: if things went wrong, he could say it had all been a joke.
But this silence is too much. Ming reorganizes the sock drawer for a fifth time. He wishes he could flip over his sales associate name tag and just pretend to be a regular customer, but he can sense the manager’s eyes on him.
“Hey Ming, my man, that’s enough with the socks,” the manager calls to him. “Help me greet the customers at the front.”
This momentarily distracts Ming — now he has to grit his teeth and smile rather than think about his unsolvable plight.
His mind, deprived of stimuli from being away from his MMORPG for ten hours, runs through all the possible scenarios:
- She died within the hour since she last replied
- She’s been leading me on
- She’s got no idea what to say
The last possibility suggests to Ming that Avery isn’t interested and that he has no chance with her. Alarmed at the direction his thoughts are turning, he scurries away from that train of thought and instead debates whether he should message her again.
Avery has opened up a Word Doc. She usually reserves writing software for school essays, and she’s already graduated, but today, she’s making an exception, writing a long note in the only to delete it every few minutes to start over.
She considers the many ways of communicating her feelings before finally settling on text over video or speech. Text is neutral. You could not read into it much more than what was on the page, she believes. Words could be binding.
She’s chosen to write in Word rather than typing directly into Discord, so that Ming won’t see miserygal is typing… over and over, an endless, indecisive tease. Instead, she prefers it to look like she’s simply suddenly offline for the time being. She’s also got her game opened up in the background, where her avatar’s off mining plants in a remote world nobody ever visits. She knows Ming is still on his shift in the real world, and though he’s also got his game open and checks in on it regularly through TeamViewer, he won’t be able to spot her easily. On a tiny screen, the game they play together is reduced to bits, none of which are particularly enlightening.
Her cursor flits between sentences, and she begins to settle on one particular phrase — “Do you think you know me?” It’s a thoroughly loaded question that Avery herself isn’t sure of the answer to. But she wants to know what Ming sees when he clicks on her avatar and messages her, and what he’s thinking when he whispers into her headset late at night. She convinces herself it’s barely real.
When she Snapchats him, it’s of her meals before she’s even taken a bite. She captures the steam rolling off hot plates of chicken wings and dumplings, looking absolutely delicious and nothing like the messy, chewed up bones that remain when she’s done. When she Instagrams selfies, she employs two filtering apps, with the effects toned down to be as subtle as possible.
In this process of manufacturing her online persona, how can anything that comes out of it be real? How can it be anything more than a beautiful fiction?
Avery remembers her first love on the web, Sabrina. They bonded over an adorable, single-player indie adventure that happened to be free one week in the App Store. Avery told Sabrina that even though they couldn’t share the game together, they could talk to one another through all the levels, taking care not to spoil the delightful puzzles and mysteries beyond each corridor if one of them got too far ahead. Her girlfriend had always been the faster, better, and more mechanically-gifted gamer. Sabrina would wait, level after level, as Avery attempted to catch up to her, fumbling and swearing at each complex math problem, mistaking an important clue for scenery art. Sabrina would laugh and find it cute.
Their relationship began to unravel as they explored different destinations in the expansive galaxy within the indie game. Avery was always inspired by the exotic locales to pester Sabrina to take her out, to promise a date when they could fly to see each other and bridge the enormous gap between California, where Avery lived, and Sabrina’s Toronto. The time difference and the lack of physical touch were endurable now, as Sabrina was a late riser, and Avery often felt content to just talk to her, but she felt the future imposing itself. Sabrina would soon likely get a 9 to 5 job and need to go to bed earlier. And Avery struggled to see how their relationship could last outside of games and voice calls.
Sabrina pushed back with excuses every time Avery asked when they would meet in the real world. “Isn’t this enough?!” she’d cry out, exasperated, directly in Avery’s ear, before Avery could tweak the headset’s volume to be lower. Then Avery would suck back a sigh and say, “Yes…”
One night, three months later, Avery demanded that Sabrina commit to at least a future date they’d be able to see each other. Sabrina abruptly left the call, the Discord sound effect mocking Avery as she sat in her chair in stunned silence. She messaged Sabrina on and off in the following days, but didn’t hear back for a week.
im traveling to afghainstan then north korea. no internet there, idk when i’m returning Sabrina’s message came through Discord. She had misspelled Afghanistan too.
Avery knew instinctively it was a bald-faced lie. But it continued to sit with her, as she felt quiet tears start to drip into her mouse-pad and keys. She didn’t know how she’d make it to philosophy class the next day. She called in sick in the morning and ordered tubs of chocolate frozen yogurt that she stuffed into her dorm room’s small mini fridge, taking up all the freezer space. She shared the fridge and the space with her two roommates, who had pretty much taken her to be a non-entity. In the first four months of her freshman year in college, Avery had spent most waking moments absorbed in her games and in Sabrina.
It took months for that wound to close for Avery. She referred to those times, and even to that adorable indie game, as a dark, black hole in her life that she had blotted out. She switched to battle royale games, and dated grubby men who played alongside her. Life morphed into a series of repetitive shoot-outs and heartbreak.
Ming had been sweet to her when other guys were salty. He was helpful and sympathetic when she told him of her struggles with loot box gambling and her anger when her boss passed her over for promotion, even though her salary at a marketing firm was definitely more than Ming’s. While she raged and cursed up a storm in multiplayer battle arena games, he consoled her. And at her darkest moments, they could discuss the meaning of life and what the hell was everyone even doing here.
She appreciates how real he is — and that he’s nearby in Irvine where she lives, so a relationship with him as friends or something more can be grounded beyond just messages on screens. They can meet up. This is important to her.
Avery stands up from her desk and does a long stretch. She takes a deep breath and presses send on an incredibly long note to Ming. Discord’s warning pops up, telling her the message is too long. Scoffing, she tries again.
Beep-boop. With bated breath and an anxious pang in his heart, Ming taps into the Discord app and sees the beginnings of a message that’s clearly been cut off. It’s also strangely absent of chatspeak, which sends his heart racing. Messages written in perfect grammar are usually a sign that you’re a cop, he believes. But he’ll give Avery the benefit of the doubt.
Ming, do you think you know me? Because I *think* I know you. You’re a jeans salesman by day, a Viking-like warrior with incredible prowess who pummels enemies by night, a misanthropist who can commiserate with me about the worst parts of living, and I believe a sweet and caring boyfriend to whoever you’d have as your lover.
The text went on with various roles that Ming serves. A moment later, Ming gets a second message.
Sorry! Cut off there. Friggin’ Discord and its word count limits. Some of us have speeches to give, y’know? As I was saying, yes, I will go out with you. Ming, will you do me the honor of having dinner with me on Saturday at 6PM in front of the Irvine Museum?
Ming glances up at the clock — it’s 11PM and his shift’s over. He begins to make his way over to the lockers, already undoing his uniform partially as he prepares to rush home for an entire evening’s worth of narrative-based gaming and to spend time with his new girlfriend. But not before quickly typing out a hasty reply, which he hopes won’t be too much of a let-down to Avery after that long speech: ya sounds gucci. i’ll pick you up in my chevy at 5