(Prompts: My friend Katrina sent me writing prompts every weekday in October, and I wrote a lot of stuff, some of it great and some of it not. But I thought I’d share a few of them with my sweet readers. This prompt was “The Cobweb.”)
I used to chat in an AOL chat room for writers, but you couldn’t tell based on the screen names. I don’t know what I was expecting. A Proust or two? SusanSontag777? KerouacLives? No, I was surrounded by chatters who had names with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” and “Princess” in them.
My own chat name was gender neutral and non-informative. It wasn’t chosen to attract male attention, or any attention for that matter. I went to that chatroom to banter. I was a bored single mother of three young kids who worked from home, and most of my friends had moved out of state or evaporated with my divorce. My ex never took the kids and I desperately needed a social outlet.
Chat let me trade barbs and quips with other intelligent chatters. It was like going to a bar without leaving my home (or drinking, because I don’t drink much). Harmless, right?
I remember a chatter with a Russian screen name—something like Anastasia—who would sit in the room and talk about her life, which involved seven children and a husband. You’d think a woman who’d given birth to seven living children would be of strong and hardy stock, but noooo. Nothing about her could be considered hardy.
How did I know? Because she went on about it. When Anastasia wasn’t describing the extreme lengths she went to in preparing elaborate European meals for her children and making them historically correct Halloween costumes based on medieval royalty, she spoke of her own extreme fragility.
She sounded like The Princess and the Pea. “I bruise so easily,” she said. “My husband has to be gentle with me.” After seven children? Really? Her feet were extraordinarily narrow, and her shoes had to be special-ordered, perhaps from a fairy cobbler, I don’t know. Her ring size? Three, but threatening to slip off her twig-like fingers.
Her hair was bountiful, but she couldn’t wash it too often because her natural ringlets were so fine and breakable. “I have to just let it fall free,” she said, because to restrain this massive cascade of curls might cause it to, I don’t know, shatter? Does hair do that?
She would bat her virtual eyelashes and the men would swoon, especially when they heard that her delicacy extended to her undergarments. She announced in chat, “My panties are like cobwebs. I couldn’t bear to wear anything else.”
I had several women friends in that chat room, and we all were amused by this extraordinarily dainty mother of seven. We wondered just how her slender frame had tolerated the conception of that many infants, let alone their delivery. But the cobweb underwear was the last straw.
My friends and I began to make pronouncements in the room about how we couldn’t take a step without shattering an ankle due to extreme delicacy, how one of us cracked her pelvis by sitting down on a park bench, how breathing itself exhausted us and left us with blue lips and racing pulse. We thought we were hilarious, but we were written off as “just jealous.”
I mean, many of my chat friends were conducting their own online flirtations. Maybe they resented the successful wiles of this fecund but gossamer creature. She might have been cutting in on their action. Or maybe I was envious. I’m almost offensively sturdy. Nothing about me seems particularly fragile. I could have assumed a gauzy, misty online self, but what would be the fun in that? It was more fun to be a wiseass.
My goal was to disturb the balance in that room with my frankness. My joke was, “I’m crafting an exotic online persona in which I’m a broke single mother of three who drives a minivan.” When asked what I looked like, I’d say, “Kind of like Boy George.”
(Side note: This was true. I was at a party once and this incredibly attractive lesbian said, “Karen, I mean this as a compliment. You kind of look like Boy George.”
And I told her thank you. Because look at him! Don’t you dare say anything mean about George).
Of course, I was frank about what was going on in that AOL chatroom. I’d point out that any female-seeming screen name with “69” in it was actually a man (absolute truth). I’d type that anyone with “Vixen,” “Gypsy,” “Diva,” or “Princess” in her screen name was fat (again, this was absolutely true). I maintained that the room was full of soothsaying convenience store clerks and mystical daycare operators.
Of course, you’d be wrong if you said that. I bought in. I can’t pretend otherwise. I want to make it clear that most encounters were fun, not romantic, and have resulted in friendships that last to this day.
And then, there were the not-so-fun encounters. I crossed paths with hoarders and psychopaths and con artists. I was even fed into the wood chipper! (that’s figurative, not literal language there). I realized that the chatroom was full of people who were typing from a very different place than I was, both physically and mentally. People had problems. And I’m not here to mock them for it.
I’ll leave it at this: There were many adventures, meetups, and debacles, some of which I allude to in this book, SHOPPING AT THE USED MAN STORE, but most will go unspoken for all time. No, seriously, I do have limits as far as what I’ll reveal, even if it seems like I don’t.
My visits to the chat tapered off after 2003, when I got my very own stalker, which was hideous but chat was a habit, so I’d still check in occasionally. But you know, the less I went, the less I wanted to. It was a chatroom. A chatroom is an optional space. You don’t have to go there, even if you’re used to it, even if you like it. You have the option of disappearing.
I stopped chatting on AOL in 2006, after my house fire. I didn’t miss it until 2020. I was bored out of my mind during the COVID-19 shut down, so I tried Livewire’s chat. My options were fairly grim. I didn’t want to chat in any of the rooms, but I finally settled on an over-fifty chat. I soon realized that over fifty meant like over seventy. Well, okay, I have interesting friends in their seventies and eighties. I was willing to give it a shot.
I watched hopefully. Everyone on there had been on AOL chat at one point or another, but no one seemed familiar to me, so they weren’t my old gang. Someone claimed to remember my chat name from the olden days but he seemed a little drunk so I wasn’t sure.
There was a definite whiff of MAGA in the air. And, BRB, gotta put the laundry in the dryer kind of updates. Descriptions of what was in the crockpot. Enquiries after the health of pets. I was waiting for banter, that back and forth, the crackle, the spark. I didn’t see any.
I’d throw out a gambit now and then, and get some lols, but really, no one could dish it back. Not in a way that inspired me to stay. These chatters didn’t have the quick wits and astonishing minds of my old chat friends. They weren’t writers, or readers. But one thing hadn’t changed.
These aged chatters were on the chat make, angling for attention with the old :::chat gambits:::. Only now those people were in their seventies and eighties and…nineties. Ninety year old people flinging out their :::batting eyelashes::: and @—->— a rose for you, and so on.
I watched for a while, horrified but reassured that at least one part of chat had never changed. And then I wondered if Anastasia was still wafting around the chat rooms in her cobweb underthings, beguiling the men, her tiny bird bones made ever so much more fragile by advancing osteoporosis.