Those of us who are old enough might remember the days of a kinder, simpler, and more organically intriguing internet; some of us even wish we could, say, open an aged laptop and return there—but is such a returnal even possible, even if we wanted it to be? Was such an online world ever “real” at all? Questions, perhaps, one might keep in mind while reading Joanne McNeil’s immaculately rendered speculation. Enjoy. -the eds.
I always fix a half cup of rice until the bag is half full. Then I switch to a quarter cup. That’s how I was raised; it feels like starving time. So the number looked unreal when I wrote a check for the first and last month’s rent and deposit. It was there in my savings account for a while, but I thought of the sum like a stray cat I sometimes fed. It was never really mine. The money was its own boss that rubbed against my hands just to tease, set to run into the night. I wrote those zeros with the last of the ink in a Bic with no cap and my dentist’s name on the side. It startled me, that this was what I had agreed to pay, but it was decided, and besides, the bag of rice to this is: I’ll never have to write a check that size again.
My apartment was the first thing I had that was actually mine. I guess that doesn’t make sense since I rent, but the solitude it provided me was all mine. The kitchen supplies and furniture came from my grandmother’s basement. Abby gave me an air mattress to use while I saved up for a real bed. Even my bike had been my brother’s. The night after I moved in, it snowed. The plows wouldn’t come for another hour and all traffic outside stopped. I stood at my window and listened to the silence of the city and clutched my hot chocolate in a big mug. It was the most peaceful I’d felt in my whole life.
I carried this sense of fulfillment with me to work and it lasted me three months. I knew that when my shift would end, I could go home, and that I had a home to go home to. The other girls at the store had roommates. They thought it was odd how much I paid for no company at all. It was warm in March, and after work, we rode our bikes to Regatta Point and fed the ducks with leftover oats from the store. Our days began at six. I knew the commuter rail schedule without looking at it by the packs of hurried customers that arrived in intervals on the hour. I liked this early crowd the best. They wore the nicest clothes and they had somewhere to be.
Tash studied nursing online. Destiny and Leia went to Quinsig. Abby wasn’t in school and neither was I. The application process always overwhelmed me. But when I got my apartment I knew it was time to try again. It seemed like something I would have to do to keep living in a place like I had.
My laptop did not agree with this plan. Just as I needed it, the screen filled with static. It had something to do with the wiring. I put a clothespin on the bezel like a Reddit thread suggested but it loosened after a week. I pinched the bezel with my middle finger and thumb where the clothespin had been but this made typing impossible. I could have lived without a laptop in other circumstances, but when I looked at the Quinsig website on my phone, I could see that applications were due the following month. I clicked on Craigslist and scrolled through the computers for sale.
The seller lived in an ordinary three-decker, blue and white, in a neighborhood I still don’t know too well. I locked my bike at the gate and looked up at the cloudy sky for a minute before I rang the doorbell. Sometimes I’m nervous before I meet people for the first time. He met me outside and handed me the laptop to test. It felt light and rubbery like a school-kit eraser. I sat on the porch and typed the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs on its clean keys. I typed Gmail in the browser. It connected fine. I noticed the Wi-Fi router had the name “LicketyspLit.” He led me to the side of the house and plugged the charger in a box outlet to show me that it worked.
“Is there a serial number? Or anything else I should know?”
“It’s a seventeen-year-old machine,” the seller said. “No one cares anymore.”
And it didn’t need a clothespin. I handed him three fives.
This exchange was over in minutes, but I remember, when I was typing, that I had the sense that someone else was there with us; that if I looked up, there would be someone on the porch like his father or his wife. I can’t remember the seller’s face now—I don’t think I noticed it—but I do remember that no one else was outside.
Dinner that night was snacks from the Mix: hummus and dried apricots, banana chips and lentil crackers that had smashed in the packaging that the manager said I could take. I set up my laptop to watch TV but when I got to the Netflix page, it looked unusual. There was an image of a white family eating popcorn on a sofa against a blood-red background. It looked, I don’t know, glinty—like the image was too dull and too sharp at the same time. The shadows on their faces were pixelated and crispy like cheap advertisements, while the screen image seemed to beam from underneath an opalescent filmy layer. I tapped the screen gently with my fingertips, half expecting a texture like wet cellophane, but it was dry and normal. Then I clicked on “Member Sign In” and entered my brother’s email. No dice. Each time I tried, I got the message: Not a registered member. Would you like to sign up for an account?
I thought about texting him to see if he canceled or changed his email, but I could log into his account on my phone. I watched my shows on the little screen propped up against the microwave and I forgot all about it.
Most of the morning customers came from the LOFTS down the street. It’s an old mill building, brick with industrial windows. The name is written in copper letters above a steel awning. I’ve never been inside. Abby knew them all because she worked behind the coffee bar and they’d chat with her while waiting for their drinks. I didn’t have regulars like that, with me, their interactions were thirty seconds at a time, if that, but sometimes I’d remember a face when I would ring up someone’s prepackaged salad and bottled water. Some people were hard to miss, like the blonde woman in the leopard-print jacket who stopped in almost every day. There was one guy I used to see about three times a week. He dressed casual and carried a nice laptop bag. I remembered him for his striking face and the name on his debit card that said “Zenobios.” It is a name that sounds like a place I’d like to visit.
“Zenobios,” Google told me on my new old laptop, is a “Greek masculine given name. Feminine form: Zenobia.” The Google logo had the same glinty effect of the Netflix page: sharp and dull, with a pixelated shadow muted by the sheen from the laptop screen. Maybe alarm bells should have gone off then. Maybe I should have worried about things like identity theft. But my computer worked fine, it connected to the internet. I noticed the page for Quinsigamond was completely different than what I had seen on my old, old laptop and my phone. There were photos of people who looked like they were from the 1980s and the typeface was very small. I couldn’t find the application portal. The website had instructions to download the application as a PDF and put the completed package in the mail. I figured there had to be a sensible explanation for the difference, that the underlying problem was something I’d never understand, like a data center malfunction or a server farm delay. I had to be witnessing a rendering error, a loading error, a batch error—something like that. I checked the Wi-Fi and instead of the random capital letters and numbers of the router for my building, I was connected to “LicketyspLit.” Yes, it was mysterious, but computers always are to me. What I knew was that my laptop worked, and what I assumed was if the network and connections were acting funny, well, that was a structural issue and not mine to fix.
Through this confusion, I still felt sometimes like I was being watched. I’d type on my computer for a little while and feel a chill and a sensation of eyes on me. Just eyes. When I’d look up, I’d see my apartment, as empty and perfect as it had always been, but in the microsecond before, I’d truly believed that someone was with me. Not an unkind person. Could have been Abby or Destiny, or my brother—anyone who dropped by without announcing themselves. Who was I to complain about feeling like I was not alone when I was?
I thought this might have been a normal part of adjusting to living alone; like, I had to make up company in my head to get used to occupying a room with no one else there, but when I mentioned this to other people, no one knew what I was talking about.
The laptop seemed to be melting a little. It left tracks on my grandmother’s table like candle wax and if I typed with it on my lap, the residue would stick to my jeans. I was rubbing some of the wax away when I googled “qcc admissions help” and I found a thread on a website with the name Worcester Post Online. Someone with the username “checkplease” said his wife went there nine years ago and it was a good deal. A few people commented that the transfer program was the best in the region. The guy with the wife posted again that if you go, you should make a point to meet with your “career advisor.” The users referred to each other as “woopers,” and while the name sounded like a newspaper, there wasn’t anything on the website but the forum. I read some of the other threads on things like taco places and good ponds for ice-skating. It makes no sense to say this, but I wondered if I’d run into Zenobios there. I wanted a context for him, besides some guy who bought things at the store where I worked. While I was reading the other threads, someone started a new one with the subject “Why don’t people leave.” I clicked on it.
emsnick: It is weird that people from Worcester never leave. Why don’t people move to other places? I count myself as one of them by the way
greatskates: I grew up in Worcester, went to school in Boston, and moved back here and so did all my friends. So maybe there are people who leave but you have decided to discount their experience for some reason.
People stay because it is nice, most of the commenters seemed to agree. No one expressly called the other a loser, but as the thread expanded, the discussion grew heated.
I set up an account under “nebula”—the word just came to me—and posted a question to the QCC thread. I asked if anyone had experience filling out the FAFSA independent of their parents. It was then that I looked at the timestamps on the comments. No one had posted since 2007.
I brushed more of the waxy residue from my laptop off my jeans and reread my own post.
The timestamp for it was “16-Mar-07 08.13.37.000000 PM.” The clock time was right but the year was way off. I didn’t think much of it. It’s a mistake that a computer would make.
I pressed refresh and there were even more replies to the thread “Why don’t people leave.” All were timestamped 2007, but had only posted to the forum just then. The first guy argued with the premise and said it was no different here than anywhere else in the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. And if anything, Worcester is a highly transient city because of its student population. Everyone ignored him. Most people said it was a statewide thing.
emsnick: True. But how come they never move from the town where they grew up? Massachusetts is such a small state.
Salukidad: nowhere has felt more like home to me (i moved around a bit). I dont plan to leave again because all my friends live here.
Aht78: I grew up in the city (born on Pleasant St in the Blizzard of 78) and have family that trace back to the 17th century. I guess I don’t understand the question. Anywhere you live is what you make of it.
Under nebula, I wrote a comment that people who move here don’t accept the culture of the city and then they leave, so it seems like they never lived here at all. I didn’t know why I typed these things, but after I pressed post, I realized I was thinking of the morning customers.
The WPO website didn’t work on my phone. I wasn’t supposed to look at it behind the register anyway. But I’d think about the people and the conversations on it throughout my shifts. They seemed more real to me than the dozens of customers I’d have flashes of interactions with throughout my day. Tash got engaged and that’s all the girls wanted to talk about. I stopped joining them after work. “What’s come over you?” Abby hissed, as she walked to the door for a cigarette break. “If you keep slacking and ringing up shit wrong, they’re going to let you go.”
Salukidad posted that night that Bella, his saluki, had passed. We all wrote notes of condolences. Some people talked about dogs they had that they still miss. I didn’t write that much about my own life but I always read about everyone else. I came to love these people, without really knowing them, and I loved that I could get to know them from my safe new home.
When a new thread appeared: “Wooper Meet-up,” I knew I had to join Salukidad, emsnick, checkplease, greatskates, and all the rest. They scheduled it at a pizza parlor that Thursday. Someone said the restaurant had been around since 1926 but I’d never heard of it. I was there at six on the dot, but by the time I made it, even the pizza was gone. The restaurant is a dispensary now. I entered the WPO website on my phone and for the thousandth time I saw a page of spam advertisements and Japanese characters where the forum should have been.
I spent the evening on my bike riding past the Canal District and over the hills in a ring around the city. Some of the laptop residue had made its way to my handlebars and I tried to rub it off while I was riding. When I got home I read all the WPO posts about what a good time everyone had. All those places I saw on my ride don’t exist on their timeline. The LOFTS don’t exist, the Mix doesn’t exist. If I said “Canal District” on WPO, no one would have known what I was talking about.
This could have been where I lost it, but I never doubted that the problem was my own lack of technical skills. It also didn’t strike me as much of a problem. The content I was reading was entertaining to me. I couldn’t afford another laptop, but I could fill out the QCC application at the library. I could feed the stray cat in my savings account for a while and finally sleep on a real bed soon enough. And I’d go to college, finally. That’s what I was thinking about when I noticed the name “Zenobios” on the debit card in front of me.
I looked up at the person, whose face was as strange and familiar as it ever was; it had been a couple weeks since he had stopped in the Mix. I had wondered if he got a new job or moved away. It was later than I’d normally see him, but enough time to catch the 10:50 a.m. commuter rail.
“Zenobios,” I blurted out, as I handed him the receipt. He looked up at me and I relaxed with this tacit sign of affirmation that yes, it was his name; yes, I pronounced it correctly. “Are you in IT? Like, informations?”
He nodded. I told him what I suspected, that I had bought some kind of mock-up demo laptop that was stuck chronologically. I did not tell him that I was communicating with people who lived in 2007, but I did say the word “broken” again and again. If he didn’t believe me, he didn’t show it.
“I do not understand,” he said, with a hint of an accent I couldn’t place. “Tell you what,” he said, writing his phone number on the back of the receipt I’d just handed him. “We’ll find a time. You’ll show me this laptop.”
It snowed that night in the last storm of the season. For dinner, I had a quarter cup of rice and curry from the store. The pot was soaking in the sink. I left my new old laptop on the kitchen table. There was a buildup of wax, by this point, in layers of drips. I would have had to scrape the table clean. Instead I prepared to go to bed.
Out the window was a blinking beam in the night sky that looked like an unstable aircraft. The light grew nearer and it enveloped my whole apartment. It shot out like dark purple light, the color of night, still I felt blinded by its brightness. I looked at the snow outside my window. Instead of white puffs, the streets were violet underneath the powerful rays. It felt like I had been visited by a star. I felt small and physical compared to this majestic atmosphere.
The purple light turned to a sparkling cloud, all was glinty, and then it evaporated. The pot was still in my sink, but the kitchen table was bare—no wax, perfectly clean. The laptop was gone; back in the night and out of my hands. It had been theirs all along.